Posts Tagged ‘muny’


Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins, Book by David Henry Hwang

Directed by John Tartaglia

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny

June 25, 2014

Michael James Reed, Kate   Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page Photo : The Muny

Michael James Reed, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page
Photo : The Muny

I have to admit I was not expecting much from this production of Disney’s Tarzan at the Muny. I had heard mixed comments about the stage show, and although I like the Disney movie on which it is based, I didn’t know how well the film would translate to the stage. Well, after seeing it this week, I’ve decided that the Muny really has its act together this year.  While the show itself does have its flaws, the Muny’s production is surprisingly entertaining, with an impressive cast and pleasing but not too flashy production values, all working together to present an engaging rendition of the classic story.

Tarzan, based on the Disney animated film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s well-known tale, tells the story of the son of shipwrecked travelers (Max Clayton, Emma Gassett) who is orphaned when his parents are killed by a leopard.  The infant is then adopted by the gorilla Kala (Katie Thompson), whose own young son has recently been killed by the same leopard.  Despite the doubtful discouragement from her mate, Kerchak (Quentin Earl Darrington), Kala raises the child, whom she names Tarzan, to become a determined young boy (Spencer Jones) who wishes to prove himself as valuable to the family group. He befriends a mischievous young gorilla named Terk (Nathaniel Mahone), and strives to be accepted by the increasingly distrustful Kerchak. As Tarzan (Nicholas Rodriguez) and Terk (Gregory Haney) grow into adulthood, Tarzan continually wonders about his place in the world, as a human raised by gorillas.  The arrival of English explorers Jane (Kate Rockwell) and her father Professor Porter (Ken Page) further exacerbates Tarzan’s dilemma when Tarzan and Jane become increasingly attracted to one another and Tarzan begins to learn more of what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, while the Porters are eager to study the gorillas and learn how they live, their greedy guide Clayton (Michael James Reed) only views the gorillas and Tarzan himself as a means for his own profit.

On paper, this musical has a lot going for it, with a score by well-known rock/pop musician Phil Collins and a book by celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang. Structurally, though, it has its problems, with the story not really starting to move forward until Tarzan is an adult, despite the fine performance of Jones as the earnest young Tarzan.  The songs are hit-or-miss, as well, with memorable songs from the film such as “Two Worlds, One Family” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” getting good renditions here, although other songs suffer from not being particularly melodic or memorable.  There are also some slight changes to the ending that I don’t think work as well, and the role of Clayton is minimized so much that it doesn’t give the talented Reed very much to do.  The show also seems to have a lot more energy and momentum in the second act.

All that said, however, it’s the casting and overall production that make this show work, ultimately.  Rodriquez is excellent as Tarzan, with a lot of personality and stage presence.  He and Rockwell display wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together are a real highlight of the show. I especially enjoyed their Act 2 songs “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and “Strangers Like Me”.  Thompson is also extremely effective as the loving and fiercely protective Kala, and Darrington brings a great deal of strength to the role of the stubborn, proud Kerchak.  Thompson and Rodriquez have a great moment late in Act 2 with the reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart”, and Thompson leads the energetic “Son of Man” production number, in which Tarzan grows from a child to an adult, with authority. Haney displays good comic timing and a great deal of energy as Terk, as well, as he leads a fun dance number with the gorillas at the beginning of Act 2 called “Trashin’ the Camp”. Muny favorite Page is charming as Professor Porter, and there’s a very strong ensemble, as well, contributing to the overall energy and drama of the show.

The staging and choreography work well with Timothy R. Mackabee’s striking unit set, which is basically a “jungle gym” type structure that represents the trees in which the various apes and animals climb, and Tarzan swings and slides up and down on ladders and poles rather than swinging on vines.  There are a few flying moments in which Tarzan swings over the audience, such as Rodriguez’s initial entrance as the adult Tarzan in the “Son of Man” number.  For the most part, though, the acrobatics are confined to the small-ish set, which is clever and colorful even though it sometimes seems a bit too small for the giant Muny stage.  The costumes by Leon Dobkowski are clever, especially for the gorillas, who are more stylized than literal in appearance.  Jane’s first costume looks a little cartoonish, although the other outfits are well-suited to the characters.  The overall jungle atmosphere is well-realized here, adding to the mood of the show and the energy of the performances.

While the show itself has its structural problems, the Muny has done their best with it, and the result is a very entertaining show, if not a brilliant one.  This is another impressive production from the Muny, and it’ still early in the season. It bodes well for the rest of the shows, as I’ve been somewhat doubtful about some of the productions chosen this year. With its themes of self-discovery, communication and familial love and acceptance, this is an excellent show for all ages as well. This goes to show, in keeping with the show’s message, that preconceived expectations can often be wrong, and that every show is worth a chance. Tarzan at the Muny is definitely a production worth checking out.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas  Rodriguez Photo: The Muny

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas Rodriguez
Photo: The Muny

Read Full Post »

Mary Poppins

Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Book by Julian Fellowes

New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny

July 25, 2013


Whenever anyone asked me when I was younger (college age) what my favorite movie was, I would have two answers—Citizen Kane and Mary Poppins.  I answered this way mostly because it was true, but also because I loved the reaction I got.  Still, even though I now have quite a few more movies on my favorites list (it’s too difficult to choose just one), the Disney film of Mary Poppins is one of my all-time favorites going back to when I first saw it on TV as a child.  I loved the sense of whimsy about the whole film, and the memorable songs and characters.  In 2006, on my first trip to London with my family, we saw the stage production at the Prince Edward theatre and I loved that as well, even though in many ways it’s different than the film. Now, the Muny has brought the show to the enormous stage in Forest Park, in a production that is at once colorful, charming, funny, mysterious and completely enchanting.

The stage show takes inspiration from the popular Disney film as well as P.L. Travers’s original book series, adding elements from the books and rearranging some of the scenes and songs from the movie, with a few songs added by songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  The story, as in the film, follows the Banks family—parents George (Stephen Buntrock) and Winifred (Erin Dilly), and their free-spirited but neglected children Jane (Elizabeth Teeter) and Michael (Aidan Gemme), who have made it their mission to drive out all the nannies their parents have hired.  Their mischievous efforts are thwarted by the arrival of Mary Poppins (Jenny Powers), a nanny like no other, whose unorthodox methods and stern-but-caring demeanor changes the lives of all of the members of the Banks family for the better. The story is narrated all the while by Bert (Rob McClure) a charming, itinerant Jack-of-all-trades who accompanies Mary and the children on their various adventures.

For the most part, I like the changes. The film will always be in a class of its own and it will always be there to watch and enjoy, but in order to turn a film into a stage show some adaptations, adjustments, additions and subtractions are necessary, and I think the team behind Mary Poppins has made the adaptation very well.  My only real criticism on that point is that the parents (and especially Mrs. Banks) are made much less quirky in the stage show and can come across as bland even with excellent actors in the roles. Some of the subplots from the film have been removed and some songs (such as “Jolly Holliday”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and—most spectactularly—“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) have been re-set in a way that makes more sense on stage.

The Muny’s production is big and colorful, fitting for the gigantic stage, and with an excellent cast. The British accents ranged from pretty good to practically non-existent, but otherwise I thought the performers were strong and appealing.  Powers took a bit of time to get the right level of energy for Mary Poppins, seeming a bit too staid at first, but by the second act she had it right—with just the right balance of toughness and concern, with a truly wonderful singing voice and great rapport with the children and especially with McClure as Bert, who as far as I’m concerned was the real star of this show with all of the charm, presence and likeability required for the role as well as excellent dancing ability.  Teeter and Gemme as the children also put in winning performances, and real-life married couple Buntrock and Dilly were appealing as their parents.  The cast was rounded out by some very impressive performers in the smaller roles, most notably Rebecca Finnegan in multiple roles (especially as Mr. Banks’ nightmarish former nanny Miss Andrew) and Laura Ackermann as the Bird Woman.  The ensemble of dancers was extremely strong as well, showing of their abilities to delightful effect in the big production numbers like “Jolly Holiday” and “Step In Time”.

The larger production numbers are where this production really shone. Mr. Banks often expresses his desire for “Precision and Order” (that’s a song, as well) in his household, which often descends into chaos before a balance is eventually found with the timely intervention of Mary Poppins, but here that bears out in the production as well.  In songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (the hands-down best scene in the show) and “Step In Time”, the precision of the choreography makes order out of the seeming chaos of the situation. There is real suspense, for instance, in “Supercali…” when the huge ensemble with their letter placards assemble to spell the word, until it all gloriously comes together at the last possible second.  It’s amazingly timed, making full use of the huge Muny stage, and to marvelous effect.  “Step In Time”, “Jolly Holiday” and new song “Anything Can Happen” are also extremely well performed and add to the sense of whimsy, adventure and wonder of the show.

The technical aspects of the production contributed very well to the atmosphere as well, with the brightly colored modular set, colorful costumes and well-executed lighting effects.  The flying was interesting.  It worked very well especially at the end  when Mary Poppins flew out over the audience (a Muny first, apparently), but seemed clunky at other times in the show, with no attempt to disguise cables and harnesses, even though oddly the clunkiness often added to the charm of the production.

Mary Poppins is ultimately about finding order in chaos and helping parents to understand their children (and vice versa), and about finding adventure and wonder in the everyday tasks of life.  It’s a great show for families to see together, as it’s a show that successfully appeals to all ages.  My personal fondness for the film has remained strong over the years, and I think the stage adaptation stands well on its own.   I was glad to b able to see it again in such a delightful setting. The Muny’s production brought out all the wonder and charm of the piece, and the overall result was magical.

Read Full Post »

 Les Miserables

Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg

Lyrics by Alain Boublil (French) and Herbert Kretzmer (English)

Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo

Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander

The Muny

July 15, 2013


It’s no secret that I love Les Miserables. It’s been one of my favorite musicals since I was in high school in the 1980s, but for various reasons I had never seen the show live until the Muny produced it for the first time in 2007. That production was excellent, and it was great to finally see this all-time classic live onstage (I have since seen it twice in London as well).  Now, six years later, the Muny is producing this wonderful show again, in a production that emphasizes the youth, energy and revolutionary spirit of the piece.  The outdoor setting is ideal and adds to the overall ambience of this remarkable production.

I know the story by heart by now, of paroled convict Jean Valjean, who served 19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape, who is shown kindness by a bishop and turns his life around, breaks his parole and is pursued by the determined Inspector Javert.  Valjean takes in Cosette, the daughter of the ill-fated factory worker-turned prostitute Fantine, and flees to Paris, where years later they find themselves in the middle of a student rebellion. It’s a story that explores themes, among others, of perseverence, loyalty, legalism vs. mercy, idealism vs. injustice, and fatalism vs. optimism and hope in the midst of tragic circumstances. It’s a timeless tale that has been adapted many times, but the musical has become the most recognizable for it’s compelling portrayal of these themes and characters, and its truly spectacular score, played here with verve and fervor by the wonderful Muny orchestra.

Hugh Panaro is an excellent Valjean, emphasizing the character’s great strength, displaying an excellent voice especially in his upper range,  delivering a beautiful rendition of the prayerful “Bring Him Home”.  He plays the transition from convict to respected citizen to secretive fugitive well, and his scenes with Norm Lewis as Javert are particularly strong.  Lewis, who has previously played the role on Broadway and in the televised 25th Anniversary Concert, makes an ideal Javert—rigid, unyielding and yet displaying a passion for his ideals. “Stars” is a highlight in an evening of many strong moments for him, and he was one of the three real stars of this production for me.

The other two star performances, as far as I’m concerned, come from Michael McCormick and Tiffany Green as the villainous innkeeper-turned-thief Thenardier and his wife.  I loved the physical contrast between them—the smaller, oily, sneaky McCormick and the statuesque Green, who towers over him and displays a strong, booming voice and lots of attitude. Every moment they are onstage  is a highlight, from the show-stopping  “Master of the House” to their swansong “Beggars at the Feast” and everything in between.

For the younger roles, director Richard Jay-Alexander has cast a collection of promising young performers–many of whom are college and university students–including Charlotte Maltby as the tragic Fantine, Alex Prakken and Katie Travis as the young lovers Marius and Cosette, Lindsey Mader as the the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine, and Bobby Conte Thornton as the charismatic revolutionary leader Enjolras. Maltby in particular is a standout–with a gut-wrenching interpretation of “I Dreamed a Dream” and a poignant death scene.  Her visceral anger at Valjean when he first tries to help her is strikingly powerful.  Prakken and Travis are wonderful as well, displaying excellent chemistry in all their scenes together. They were particularly strong in their first song together, “A Heart Full of Love”, portraying all the excitement and awkwardness of that first real meeting and making this love story more compelling than in some previous interpretations. Thornton as Enjolras shows off a strong voice and a whole lot of charisma, leading stirring renditions of “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and igniting an infectious fervor for the students’ cause.  Rounding out the younger adult principals is Mader in a fine performance as Eponine, portraying the character as gutsy, melancholy and waifish and with a strong voice. Young Jimmy Coogan as the urchin Gavroche also gives an extremely strong, scene-stealing performance, and his last scene is heartbreakingly compelling.

This is a very large show with a large cast, but the production values made the proceedings seem more immediate and intimate than in the previous Muny production.   The ensemble, portaying factory workers, urchins, students, city dwellers and more, is top-notch and in excellent voice, and the production is impeccably staged.  The set, by Rob Mark Morgan, is simply magnificent—minimal but perfectly suited, with towering shutter-like setpieces that are moved into position to set the various scenes, and a few other simple pieces like the gates for Valjean’s house in Paris as well as the towering, stage-filling barricade that is the center of much of the action in the second act. The electronic scenery wall is also put to good use, providing backdrops of city streets that are sometimes reminiscent of the Les Mis film.  The lighting, emphasizing shadows and contrasts, set the mood and added depth and interest to the already compelling story. The production also made excellent use of the Muny’s large  turntable for very smooth, fluid scene changes and keeping up the pace of the epic plot.

This was, overall, an even better production of the show than last time at the Muny.  Rather than emphasizing the sheer size of the show, this production seemed more intimate, and that made for a powerful presentation of this timeless tale.  For all the tragedy of this show, the final message (in the magnificent finale) is one of hope for the future.  With this production, the Muny has taken its audience on a memorable journey, and I’m glad I went along.  This self-confessed “Les Mis geek” is thoroughly impressed!

Read Full Post »

South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreographed by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

July 8, 2013


It’s a tropical atmosphere at the Muny this week, and that’s not just because of the weather.  South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical about an island Naval base in World War II, is being produced this year by the same team that produced The King and I last year, including director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and leading lady Laura Michelle Kelly. Like The King and I, this show addresses issues of cross-cultural relationships and overcoming prejudice, but South Pacific is more of an overt romance that also deals with various situations of military life on a tropical island and the looming specter of war.  All of these themes are very well represented here, in a production that is both true to its classic origins and accessible to present-day audiences at the same time.

This is a story that centers around Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kelly), a Navy nurse who finds herself falling in love with the charming French planter Emile  de Becque (Ben Davis), who is harboring personal secrets that force Nellie to confront some rather unsavory attitudes within herself. Nellie’s story also coincides with that of Lt. Joe Cable (Josh Young), a young officer on a dangerous mission who also has to deal with his own inner conflict as he struggles with his feelings for Liat, the daughter of  the enterprising Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre).  It also deals with the lives of Navy Seabees, exemplified by Luther Billis (Tally Sessions) and his cronies, as they deal with their forced exile on the island away from the comforts of home and–for the most part–the company of women.  There are many classic songs that range from comic (“Honey Bun”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”) to romantic (“Some Enchanted Evening”), to joyous (“I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy”) to caustic (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”) to heartbreakingly regretful (“This Nearly Was Mine”).  It’s an oft-performed classic that’s been given new energy and immediacy in this production by use of simple but ideally suited design elements and with a no less than superb cast.

Kelly, as Nellie Forbush, shines with all the optimism, energy and stage presence needed for the role as exemplified especially in “Cockeyed Optimist” and “Wonderful Guy”, as well as an excellent voice. Despite a slightly uneven Southern accent, she expertly handles both the comic and dramatic aspects of the role, displaying both youthful exuberance and, when necessary, mature reflection such as in the moving reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening”, and her chemistry with Davis is wonderful.  Davis portrays the noble, haunted Emile with considerable charm and magnetism, and his voice on songs like “This Nearly Was Mine” is stunning.  He makes it very easy for the audience to believe why Nellie can fall in love with him in a matter of weeks.  Young, as the conflicted Marine Lt. Cable, displays warmth and cynicism equally well, and his scenes with Liat (Sumi Maida) are intense and compelling.  Ables Sayre, who played Bloody Mary in the celebrated Lincoln Center revival, brings her remarkable performance to the Muny stage, taking a character who could be played as one-dimensional and giving her a fully-realized portrayal–at turns comic, witty, sarcastic and scheming while demonstrating real concern for her daughter.  She brings life to songs like the dreamy “Bali Ha’i” and a surprising desperation to the seemingly upbeat “Happy Talk”.  Also giving a winning performance is Sessions as the endearingly conniving Seabee Luther Billis, and his performance of “Honey Bun” with Kelly is one of the comic highlights of the show.  There is also an excellent ensemble playing the various Navy men, Marines and nurses, with strong voices and a boatload of exuberant energy in the big production numbers.

Adding to the overall atmosphere of this production was the simple but ideally suited set, designed by Michael Schweikardt, consisting primarily of a single revolving set piece with additional elements brought in for various scenes such as the Commanding Officer’s office, the stage for the unit’s Thankgiving revue and the Bali Ha’i set. All of these set pieces worked especially well in the outdoor setting of the Muny, with the real trees flanking the stage augmented by palm trees to suit the tropical location.  There were a few issues with sound, such as microphones cutting out and some crackling that I’ve heard in previous productions this season, but overall, the production achieved the desired effect of transporting the audience to another time and place, and enchantngly so.

This production seems to have been influenced a lot by the Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival, with its simple but elegant set and emphasis on some of the darker aspects of the show as well as the fully realized portrayal of the romance and de-cartoonization of some of the more comic characters (most notably Billis and Bloody Mary).  Overall, this production was a thoroughly engaging presentation that brought a much-honored classic to modern audiences in a thoroughly winning and accessible way.  It’s a demonstration of all that the Muny is capable of and a truly stunning evening of theatre.

Read Full Post »

Nunsense, Muny Style

Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin

Directed by Matt Lenz

Choreographed by Teri Gibson

The Muny, St. Louis

July 1, 2013


The Little Sisters of Hoboken have taken the stage in St. Louis.  A low-budget off-Broadway show that turned into a franchise, Nunsense has finally arrived at the Muny in a full-scale production that, despite its sheer size, celebrates its humble origins and brings loads of laughs and a great deal of heart. It also features one of the strongest and most enthusiastic casts I have ever seen at the Muny.

For this production,supervised by creator Dan Goggin, the  show, which originally had a cast of five, has been expanded to fit the Muny stage with elements added just for the Muny, as well as a large ensemble of nuns and Catholic school kids for the dance numbers, and a few characters from the Nunsense sequels, such as Father Virgil (Lara Teeter) and Sister Mary Wilhelm (Ken Page).  Also, the  inept convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has been brought into the show as an onstage character, played by St. Louis native and supporting player from NBC TV’s The Office, Phyllis Smith.  The five leading nuns are still front and center, though–Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Dee Hoty), Mistress of Novices Sister Mary Hubert (Terri White), convent driver Sister Robert Anne (Beth Leavel), novice nun and aspiring ballerina Sister Mary Leo (Sarah Meahl) and the mysterious and forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Tari Kelly).  The premise is the same as the original–the nuns have taken to the stage in a benefit to raise money to bury the four remaining victims of Sister Julia’s deadly vichyssoise soup, which killed 52 of the sisters in a mass bout of food poisoning. The show, which is essentially a revue with a plot, allows the various characters to tell their own stories and show off their individual talents while celebrating their lives as nuns.  It also provides an ideal showcase for the Muny’s first-rate cast.

As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, Hoty has just the right blend of authority and wackiness, with impeccable comic timing and a strong voice, and she leads a cast without a weak link. White, as  Sister Hubert, has a booming voice and great presence, and works especially well alongside Hoty in the song “Just a Coupl’a Sisters”, as well as leading the company in the powerhouse Gospel-influenced “Holier Than Thou”.  Meahl is also excellent as Sister Leo, displaying strong dance and comic abilities.  If I had to pick stand-outs from this cast, though, it would have to be Leavel as the fame-seeking Sister Robert Anne and Kelly as the endearingly befuddled Sister Amnesia.   These two in turn have two of the show’s most memorable numbers in Leavel’s “I Just Want to Be a Star” and Kelly’s “So You Want to Be a Nun”, which is simply astounding in showcasing Kelly’s ability to sing in two completely different vocal styles (operatic soprano and brassy Broadway belting) in the same song as she essentially sings a duet with herself operating the nun puppet Sister Mary Annette.  There are also great turns in the smaller roles by Muny regulars Teeter and Page, as well as a funny performance by Smith as the defensive Sister Julia.

The show emphasizes the limited budget of the nuns in recycling the sets from last week’s production of Shrek as well as making off-stage characters of the spotlight operator (Sister Mary Myopia) and the orchestra leader (Father Michael), adding to the charm of the production.  This edition also adds many nods to St. Louis, from jokes about the Muny and the free seats to including a school uniform fashion show featuring students from the area’s Catholic girls’ high schools (with some funny narration provided by Teeter and Page).  There are also some thoroughly entertaining dance numbers featuring the expanded ensemble, including the rousing Act 1 closing tap-dance extravaganza, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step”.  I would imagine that the show might even be more appealing and relatable to Catholics, especially those who attended Catholic school and were taught by nuns, but its humor is broad and inclusive enough for anyone to enjoy, and it actively avoids stereotyping nuns as overly authoritarian and serious.

I had previously mentioned that season opener Spamalot was possibly the funniest show I had ever seen at the Muny, but Nunsense is a definite contender for that honor now.  I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a single scene in a show than I did at the  Reverend Mother’s monologue at the end of Act One, and there were many other side-splitting moments as well.  I think one of the charms of this show and what makes it appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike  is that it encourages the audience to laugh with the nuns rather than laughing at them.  Everyone on stage seems to be having such a great time as well, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  With this production, the Muny has proven that it can take a little show and make it bigger without losing any of its charm or humor.  I would say that Nunsense, Muny Style is an unqualified success.

Read Full Post »

Shrek the Musical
Book and Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny, St. Louis
June 24, 2013

Shrek Muny

The Muny’s 2013 season got off to a promising start with last week’s rousing, hilarious production of Monty Python’s Spamalot. This week’s production of this adaptation of the popular Dreamworks film Shrek, however, was more of a mixed bag. Although I had been expecting a little more from the newly revitalized Muny, overall, I thought this production provided for an entertaining evening of theatre

The story here follows the plot of the film fairly closely, as Shrek the Ogre goes on an unlikely quest to rescue a princess and discover his true sense of worth, with a few extra elements (such as more backstory for Shrek and Princess Fiona) added to expand the story. I found the film pleasantly surprising and endearingly complex, but the musical kind of flattens the story out and has something of a “by-the-numbers” feel, and seems at least 20 minutes too long. Still, there were some great moments and some very good songs.

First, I will say that this production had a lot of good things going for it, most notably the fine cast. Stephen Wallem brings a lot of warmth to Shrek, and seems better with the serious moments of the show (such as the songs “When Words Fail” and “Build a Wall) than the comedic ones, although his comic skills are fine as well. He plays particularly well against Michael James Scott as Shrek’s unwelcome (at first) traveling companion Donkey, and Julia Murney as the disillusioned but stubbornly optimistic Princess Fiona. Scott in particular gives an impressive comic performance. The real stand-outs in this cast, however, are Rob McClure as the diminutive villain Lord Farquaad, who steals every scene he is in and impresses with the sheer physicality of his performance, and Natalie Venetia Belcon as the voice of the Dragon, displaying a powerful voice and lots of infectious attitude in the song “Forever” with Scott and a group of captured knights. This, to my mind, is the best scene in the whole show, with lots of spectacle and impressive performances all around.

Other highlights of this production included all the ensemble numbers in Farquaad’s Castle (“What’s Up, Duloc” is a gem), and the “dare to be different” anthem “Freak Flag”, sung by the outcast Fairy Tale characters. Murney as Fiona had some good moments with “I Know It’s Today” (sung as a trio with Maria Knasel and Allsion Broadhurst as two younger versions of the Princess) and “Morning Person”. The finale and curtain call performance of “I’m a Believer” were also a lot of fun.

Technically, I found the production to be uneven. There were quite a few noticeable issues with the sound, with audible crackling of microphones and inadequate amplification in places. The costumes were very basic and had an amateurish feel, especially in terms of Shrek (his headpiece even came off at one point in the show) and the Fairy Tale characters. I thought Lord Farquaad’s costume was well done, though, and the colorful larger-than-life Dragon puppet was very impressive. The sets, designed by Steve Giliam, filled out the large Muny stage well, and I thought the electronic scenery wall was put to excellent use in setting the atmosphere, particularly in Shrek’s swamp and on his journey with Donkey and Fiona back to Farquaad’s castle.

I have one issue in regard to the audience and I realize this will be a bit of a rant, but it’s a very big deal to me. I think it is extremely rude to the actors onstage and the rest of the audience when large groups of people get up to leave during the finale. OK, so some people may have to drive a long way to get home, but if you come to a show, is it really too much of a hardship to stay for the whole performance? Do people even realize that the actors can see them? I don’t see this at the Muny every performance, but I’ve seen it a few times before and it always bothers me. I would advise people to think about whether they are able to stay for the whole performance and if they can’t, maybe they should just stay home. There is a page about “Theatre Etiquette” in every Muny program, but I wonder how many people actually read it.

OK, rant over. For the most part, I would say Shrek at the Muny is an entertaining performance of a somewhat underwhelming show that doesn’t quite live up to its source material. It’s an enjoyable evening with some excellent moments and good performances, but knowing what the Muny is capable of, I do find myself wishing it had been better.

Read Full Post »

Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle, New Music by John du Prez and Eric Idle
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny, St. Louis

June 17, 2013


It’s June, and in St. Louis that means it’s Muny time again. A time-honored tradition in St. Louis, the Muny has become a highlight of the summer for me and my family, as well as many others around the area. Despite the early evening thunderstorms that delayed the opening night performance of Spamalot, the show went on, and proved to be a harbinger of what looks like it will be another excellent Muny season.

The musical, which according to the program has been “lovingly ripped-off” from the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, follows the story of King Arthur and his Knights on the quest for the legendary cup. Many of the well-known elements from the film are here—such as the Knights Who Say “Ni” (cleverly interpreted here by the Muny Youth Ensemble), the Black Knight, the Killer Rabbit, and more, but the adaptation doesn’t stop there. The script, written by Python alum Eric Idle, also incorporates elements from other Monty Python films and many satirical jabs at pop culture in general and the medium of musical theatre in particular. The music is a combination of songs from Python films as well as new songs in various styles—from folk to traditional musical theatre to pop ballads to lounge to disco. It’s not a “deep” show by any means. It’s an unabashed farce which makes no claims to be anything else, and it’s an absolute laugh riot from start to finish.

John O’Hurley, who has played the role on Broadway, is ideally cast as King Arthur. He brings just the right balance of authority, charm and incredulity as well as displaying a strong singing voice, excellent stage presence and comic ability, and great chemistry with his fellow performers, most notably the equally winning David Hibbard as Arthur’s long-suffering servant, Patsy (their duet on “I’m All Alone” is a treat), and Michele Ragusa as the Lady of the Lake. Ragusa, who has given very strong performances in the past at the Muny in Titanic and Singin’ In the Rain, is in great form here as well, displaying a strong, versatile voice on songs like the hilarious “The Song That Goes Like This” and it’s lounge-y reprise, as well as “Find Your Grail” and the comic tour-de-force “Diva’s Lament”. Other standout performances include Kevin Cahoon in various roles, displaying a gorgeous singing voice especially as the young, misunderstood Prince Herbert, who plays a role in helping Sir Lancelot (Chris Hoch) discover his own destiny. All four main Knights of the Round Table (Hoch, John Scherer as Sir Robin, Ben Davis as Sir Dennis Galahad, and Tally Sessions as Sir Bedivere) also work together well to form a cohesive, hilarious ensemble. All four of these actors turn up in other roles throughout the show as well, showing off their versatility and adding to the side-splitting hilarity of the production.

I thoroughly enjoyed the full-scale comic production numbers such as “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” (with the modified lyrics first used on the UK tour), an uproarious ode to celebrity stunt-casting in musicals, and the power-pop anthem “Find Your Grail”, which manages to be both uplifting and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time, and with a fun snow-capped mountain set piece to go with it. The finale, which is a reprise of “Find Your Grail” highlighting the various knights’ fates, is also a delight. There are too many great moments for me to be able to mention them all, but this production does a great job of capturing the spirit of the original film while adding enough musical theatre elements to make it its own unique entity.

Visually, the production made good use of the vast Muny stage, with a colorful set by Steve Gillam, including several clever movable set pieces like the aforementioned mountain, giant slot machines for the Vegas-style “Camelot” sequence, several castles and more. The new (as of last year) electonic scenery wall served as a great backdrop for the action and Monty Python’s trademark animations. Even though there was a small glitch with the wall the night I saw the show (sections of it were not functioning), it didn’t get in the way of the overall performance. Apparently, the cast and crew had no time for a final tech rehearsal due to the inclement weather, but that minor issue with the wall was the only noticeable issue. The rest of the production ran very smoothly with all the technical elements including the sets, lighting and sound.

This is (with the possible exception of last year’s Pirates!) the funniest show I have ever seen at the Muny. No punches are pulled and every possible joke is milked for all its worth, and there are some fun little nods to St. Louis and the Muny thrown into the show for good measure. The surprise appearance by Eric Idle after the curtain call, leading the audience in a sing-along, was an added bonus. This production was a true joy to experience, and it makes for an ideal introduction to another promising season at the Muny.

Read Full Post »

The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

August 6, 2012

The King and I is the classic musical loosely based on the  true story of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly),  a widowed English schoolteacher who  was hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Kevin Gray) in the 1860s.   As the story is presented here, the King wants to “modernize” his country’s ways so as to have better diplomatic relations with Western countries and not get taken over by the British Empire, but he and Anna clash over cultural differences and issues like polygamy, use of authority and roles of women in society.  Over the course of the show, both Anna and the King learn to appreciate and respect one another in a gradually developing bond of real affection.  It’s a show that has been produced many times around the world, and the Muny delivers a thoroughly believable, strong production to finish off their truly wonderful 2012 season.

Personally, as a follower of the London theatre scene, it was great for me to hear that a bona fide West End star, Laura Michelle Kelly, was going to be playing Anna in this production. I had only seen some (excellent) promotional clips of her as Mary Poppins, but many of my UK friends spoke highly of her, so I was looking forward to seeing her in this production. I can happily say now that she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly is wonderful in this role. She possesses a strong, clear, powerful voice and plays Anna as strong and compassionate, and her stubbornness is a match to the King’s. Kelly is younger than the usual casting for this role but, at 31, is roughly the same age as the real Anna when she first came to Siam, and she brings a youthful energy to the role that is balanced by just the right amount of authority.  She shines in songs like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” in which she indulges in an imaginary rant towards the King, as well as in gentler, moments like “Hello, Young Lovers” and especially its more melancholy reprise in the second act.  “Getting to Know You” is also a highlight, as Kelly is able to display a great sense of rapport with the children in her charge.

Kevin Gray as the King has a commanding presence. From his very first appearance onstage, just from the way he is standing, it’s obvious that he is King even though the emphasis of his portrayal is on his self- doubt as exemplified in his excellent song “Is a Puzzlement”.   Gray is at his best in his scenes with Kelly, where their mutual stubbornness comes into the forefront and the energy is palpable.  I like how the affection that builds between Anna and the King is not portrayed as a straightforward romance, as playing it as a romance would make this delightfully complex relationship too simple.  The truth is that these two, in this situation, would never have been able to have a true romance so rather than dwelling on what might have been, we are treated to what is actually there, which is a growing sense of mutual admiration with a hint of attraction that shows up in moments like the delightful “Shall We Dance”.  This is many-faceted relationship, also exemplified by the verbal sparring in “Song of the King”, and it is well-played by both Kelly and Gray.

The rest of the players in this production are excellent as well. Stephanie Park and Joshua Dela Cruz are convincing as the star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and their second act duet “I Have Dreamed” is a stand-out moment in the show. Park also excellently narrates the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and makes the parallels in that story with what is going on in her character’s own life readily apparent.  Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also puts in a strong performance as somewhat of an emotional anchor in the story, especially in her beautifully sung number “Something Wonderful”.  There is also a great children’s ensemble, and the young actors playing Anna’s son Louis (Matt Johnson) and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Nick Boivin) do a fine job as well.

In addition to the strong performances, this is a great looking show as well, with richly detailed period costumes, and sets that appropriately fill the large Muny stage and set the atmosphere for the show, such as the simple and elegant columned throne room of the King.  The dance numbers such as “Shall We Dance” and the visually striking ballet sequence are very well executed, and lend to the overall charm of the production.

This thoroughly entertaining production closes out a game-changing 2012 season for the Muny.  It’s  hands-down the best season I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been attending. This season also bodes well for future seasons of the Muny.  Past seasons have been more erratic, but this one was consistent and raised the level of performance at the venue.  I look forward to seeing what they do next season.

Read Full Post »

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter

The Muny, St. Louis

July 23, 2012

I almost skipped this production of Joseph.  The Muny just did a production of this show five years ago and I was planning on sitting this week out because I thought I wouldn’t need to see it again so soon. I was wrong.  I’m glad I caught a report on the local news talking about the “twist” of this production, because it made me curious to see it, and I’m very happy that I did.  With this production, the latest in the Muny’s so-far extremely impressive 94th season, veteran Muny performer Lara Teeter takes the reins as director and choreographer and, along with a strong cast and crew, presents a show that is wildly entertaining, extremely clever and uniquely St. Louis.

As usual, this is the Biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, with a twist—a pastiche of different musical styles melded together to tell the story.  What is not usual, though, is that this production is set in a strange amalgam of the ancient Middle East and Egypt, and modern-day St. Louis.  The show starts with a collection of people wandering aimlessly on stage as, one by one, a few recount how they have “lost their dream”.  Then the Narrator (Mamie Parris) appears to tell the story of Joseph (Justin Guarini), who enters wearing a Cardinals jersey, singing one of the show’s most well-known songs “Any Dream Will Do”.  From there, we are taken back to Bible times, sort of.  Everything has a St. Louis flavor and oddly enough, it works.  Jacob (Gary Glasgow) and his sons run a Schnucks-like supermarket (“Jacob and Sons”), go tailgating at Busch Stadium (“One More Angel In Heaven”) and later, when their fortune changes, are relegated to hawking frozen custard concretes at Ted Drewe’s (“Those Canaan Days”).  Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and goes to work for Potiphar (also Glasgow), who is an obvious Donald Trump-like character whose business empire is based in Downtown St. Louis.  Later Joseph meets the Pharaoh (Austin Miller), who is an Elvis-like figure as is usual in this show, but this time he is backed by an ensemble consisting of golden cat-people and 1950’s-styled teenage groupies.  The settings are hilariously random and specific at the same time, and St. Louisans in the audience are bound to recognize a lot of the references.  It’s also amazing that most of the change of setting is achieved by the sets, costumes and performances as opposed to changes in the script.  As far as I can tell, aside from the little addition to the prologue, the most drastic change to the show as written is an adaptation in the arrangement of one song– the usually titled “Benjamin Calypso” toward the end of the show has been turned into a gospel song, incorporating the full cast in a rousing,  energetic production number.  I’ve never heard of this being done before but in the context of this production, it works.  There are also some fun pop-culture references thrown into the “Megamix” at the end.

What is great about this production is that, while this very different approach could easily seem distracting or pretentious, it all goes together surprisingly well.  This is just the right kind of show to adapt in this manner, in that it’s not a deeply serious show to begin with, and it seems to work best when everyone involved just has fun with it.  All the elements of the show work together seamlessly. The set design is simple but effective—it’s basically just a bridge, with a few movable booths and platforms and familiar St. Louis scenes posted on the scenery wall in the background.  The costumes are also simple with a lot of bright colors and some St. Louis specific outfits like the Ted Drewe’s uniforms and Cardinals jersey.  The choreography is well-executed and energetic, reflecting the various styles of the songs. One of the best examples of the St. Louis specific staging is in the Ted Drewe’s sequence in “Those Canaan Days”, in which the booths are arranged into a reasonable suggestion of the custard stand, and the choreography even incorporates the signature “turning the concrete upside down” gesture in a way that is hilariously appropriate and adds to the humor of the song without seeming the least bit forced.

Aside from the setting, the best thing about this production is its cast.  Parris as the Narrator has a strong voice (occasionally reminiscent of original Broadway Narrator Laurie Beechman) and good stage presence, and Guarini, who was a pleasant surprise as Billy Flynn in the Muny’s Chicago a few weeks ago, is excellent again as Joseph.  He projects just the right air of charm and cockiness at the beginning of the show, and convincingly matures into the wise leader by the end, and his voice is very strong in songs like “Any Dream Will Do” and the moving “Close Every Door.”  Miller is obviously having a lot of fun as Pharaoh, and he shows a great rapport with both the cast and the audience.  His part is relatively small, but he makes the most of it, and the scene in which he describes his dreams to Joseph (“Poor Poor Pharaoh/ Song of the King”) is a real highlight.  Maurice Murphy as Joseph’s brother Judah leads the “Benjamin Gospel” number with a strong, clear voice and infectious enthusiasm as well, and Glasgow plays his dual roles of Jacob and Potiphar convincingly.  All of the the brothers work very well together and their group numbers are a treat as well.

The bottom line here is that this production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun.  It’s goofy, it’s clever, and it’s so well put together that the company makes it appear as if this is the way the show was always supposed to be done.  It’s not a deep or overly serious show, and there is not one bit of pretension.  The way this production incorporates its setting is ingenious and a remarkable success. It’s a production with lots of humor, and to borrow a lyric from another show (Damn Yankees), “miles and miles and miles of heart”. It’s a great way to celebrate the time-honored St. Louis tradition of attending a show at the Muny. I was very pleasantly surprised by this production, and after this season is done, this is one that will definitely stand out in my memory as an ideal example of how some things that might not work anywhere else can work incredibly well at the Muny.  It’s a unique venue, and this was a fittingly unique and surprisingly successful production.

Read Full Post »


Music by Henry Krieger, Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler

Directed by Robert Clater

Choreography by Leisa Kaye

The Muny, St. Louis

July 16, 2012

Wow! The Muny is pulling out all the stops this season, and the “newer, bigger, better” trend continues in a clear way here in their production of Dreamgirls. The classic Broadway show is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and what better way to mark that occasion than to put on a first-class production with a top-notch cast and the show’s original star in the role that made her famous.  I had been looking forward to seeing this production because I had never seen the stage version and I remember seeing Jennifer Holliday performing on the Tony Awards when I was a kid.  There was a lot of  buzz around this show in the St. Louis media, and this show more than lives up to the expectations.  It’s a spectacular production and more than worth braving the scorching St. Louis heat to experience.

The story begins backstage at New York’s famous Apollo Theatre, as a young girl group from Chicago, the Dreamettes, enter a talent contest hoping for their big break.  There they meet an ambitious car salesman named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Christopher Jackson) who has big dreams and will do basically anything to achieve them, who becomes their manager.  The story follows the Dreamettes (later the Dreams) and their lead singers Effie White (Holliday) and Deena Jones (Demetria McKinney) on their road from obscurity to stardom, and (for Effie) back again. The story echoes the story of the Supremes and the Motown era and conveys a clear sense of time and place.  It’s an impressive production based on the original Broadway staging, with sets to suggest the stages (and backstage areas) of various venues on the Dreams’ rise to the top of the music charts in the 1960s.   The clever staging of the performances seems to have been an influence on later musicals such as Jersey Boys as well.  The music, dancing, costumes and sets all worked together to create an authentic-seeming atmosphere, and the songs, while not authentic Motown numbers, definitely have that feel.  Several of the songs are used as transitions between various eras in the Dreams’ history, giving the sense that they are taking the audience along with them on their journey to success (and heartache) in the music industry.

The main question most people are asking about this show is “how is Jennifer Holliday?” Well, all I can say is that she still has it.  She’s 30 years older than she was when she opened on Broadway in this role, but she doesn’t seem it. The only area in which her age is evident is in her movement, especially when dancing with the younger performers playing the Dreams, but that’s a minor issue as her overall performance is excellent.  She holds her own and commands the stage whenever she’s on, but this isn’t a “showcase” performance and she doesn’t play it that way, and she is very convincing especially in the more emotional moments.  Her singing is simply astounding. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the acknowledged showstopper of this show, and her performance more than lives up to its reputation.  At the end, she drew a reaction I’ve never seen at the Muny before—a partial standing ovation (about half of the audience stood) for one song.   She was just as excellent and compelling on the rest of her songs—the highlight for me being the stirring “I Am Changing”.  I especially liked her scenes with Deena and C.C. (Tommar Wilson) in Act Two, and her portrayal of Effie’s growth as a character.

Still, despite Holliday’s excellent performance, this isn’t the Jennifer Holliday Show.  Having seen all the hype leading up the this production, I was concerned that the show would basically just be a vehicle for Holliday with less attention paid to the other cast members, and that was not the case at all. It’s a very strong cast with no weak links.  The three actresses playing the Dreams especially were outstanding.  As Deena Jones, the “Diana Ross” figure who takes over from Effie as the Dreams’ lead singer, McKinney is thoroughly convincing in her portrayal of the character’s growth from a naive young dreamer into a more confident, sophisticated superstar.  As Lorell, the third original Dreams member, Jenelle Lynn Randall gave a sympathetic performance and displayed a very powerful singing voice, and Karla Mosley was equally effective as Michelle, who replaces Effie as the third member of the group.  All of the Dreams work well together as a group, with strong, smooth vocals and good, well-synchronized dancing.  Jackson is very effective in the somewhat challenging role of Curtis, the Dreams’ manager who often resorts to less-than-honorable methods to achieve his goals for the group.  Jackson is convincingly smooth and charming at the beginning, and increasingly manipulative and controlling as the show progresses.  Jackson does a good job of making the character believable and multi-dimensional.  Wilson as Effie’s brother C.C., the group’s songwriter, is excellent as well, and Milton Craig Nealy is dynamic and alternately humorous and sympathetic as singer James “Thunder” Early.  Also making an impression is the always excellent Muny veteran Ken Page as Early’s (and later Effie’s) manager, Marty.

I was very impressed by this production and felt honored to witness it.  It’s another excellent entry in this inaugural season of the “next generation” Muny. I highly recommend seeing it for the overall quality of the whole show.  You may want to see it for Jennifer Holliday, and she doesn’t disappoint, but the whole cast, crew and creative team deserve kudos for this fine, thoroughly entertaining production.  If you’re anywhere near St. Louis this week, I highly recommend checking it out.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »