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Grease

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Directed and Choregraphed by Denis Jones

The Muny

July 31, 2014

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

“Grease is the word,” or so the song tells us. The big issue with Grease the musical, though, is that you can’t be sure which word you’re getting, depending on the production. From the grittier original Broadway production to the highly nostalgic 1978 film to the more over-the-top stylized approach of some of the revivals, this show can appeal to many different audiences depending on the director’s vision. The latest production at the Muny mostly takes a straightforward nostalgic approach, and considering the Muny’s large, varied audience, that’s probably the best for this venue. A crowd-pleasing production with a youthful, energetic cast and some creative staging, this Grease is a journey back to the 50’s that, for the most part, is worth the trip.

This is a production that is even more informed by the film than others I have seen, even though pretty much all versions include songs from the movie now.  Some of the show’s original songs have been completely replaced by film songs in this staging.  Where “You’re The One That I Want” replacing “All Choked Up” is basically the standard now, this version also replaces “It’s Raining On Prom Night” with “Hopelessly Devoted to You” instead of just adding the latter song in another scene, and Danny sings “Sandy” at the drive-in instead of “Alone At a Drive-in Movie”.  This staging also censors some of the songs’ lyrics, especially in “Greased Lightning”.  Still, the version here is probably the best film-influenced adaptation of this show I’ve seen, because the way it’s put together, along with the enthusiasm of the cast and some clever staging, makes the story work, for the most part.  The show is not overly stylized (except in the fantasy sequences, where stylization is most appropriate), and the 50’s-era atmosphere is detailed and consistent, with excellent adaptable sets by Timothy R. Mackabee and costumes by Andrea Lauer, along with a clever use of 1950’s ads and images in the video projections designed by Matthew Young. Although there were a few problems with the set on Opening Night, for the most part it’s a very effective and stylish evocation of the era.

The story has become a very familiar one–of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies at Rydell High School and their clash with the traditional establishment and cultural expectations. When wholesome good-girl Sandy Dumbrowski (Taylor Louderman) transfers to Rydell and re-unites with her summer love, T-Bird Danny Zuko (Brandon Espinoza), other peoples’ expectations battle with their own feelings for each other, as both try to figure out how to balance image with identity to see if their relationship will survive.  Meanwhile, Danny’s friend Kenickie (Drew Foster) aims to fix up his car into a stylish hot rod to help him impress girls, as well as dealing with a complicated relationship with Betty Rizzo (Arianda Fernandez), the tough leader of the Pink Ladies whose bravado masks a sense of vulnerability that eventually is made clear late in the show. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies also battle with the more conventional elements at Rydell, represented by cheerleader Patty Simcox (Rhiannon Hansen) and imperious teacher Miss Lynch (Phyllis Smith). Mostly though, in this version of the story, this is a journey through the various elements of 1950’s culture with songs, dances and situations that celebrate youth culture and counter-culture alike.

The Muny has done well to cast most of these roles with young, engaging personalities, especially with the two leads and several of the supporting players.  Louderman brings a real sense of girl-next-door sweetness to Sandy, and her voice on songs like “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is big and powerful.  She and the good-looking, charming Espinoza have good chemistry together as well, and while “You’re The One That I Want” still sounds more 70’s than 50’s, these two make it work.  Foster is an appropriately swaggering Kenickie, and Fernandez displays a strong voice and snarky attitude as Rizzo, and the rest of of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies are particularly well cast.  The real standouts are Natalie Kaye Clater as Marty, who brings a lot of spunk and stage presence to her solo “Freddy My Love”; Larry Owns as Roger and Amelia Jo Parrish as Jan, whose song “Mooning” is a lot of fun; and Tyler Bradley Indyck as wanna-be rocker Doody, whose capably leads the brilliantly staged “Those Magic Changes” production number.  The adult characters are well-played as well, with Smith (most famous from TV’s The Office) getting an ideal role for her talents, including some fun dancing moments, as Miss Lynch, and Matthew Saldivar as smarmy radio DJ Vince Fontaine.  The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is in fine form here as well, bringing style and energy to the big dance numbers like “Born to Hand Jive” and the show’s biggest applause-getter, the stage-filling gospel and R&B influenced arrangement of the “Beauty School Dropout” number, anchored by a stellar performance from Teressa Kindle as the Teen Angel. Although this song has more of a mid-60’s Aretha Franklin-esque vibe than the rest of the show, it works because of the strong performance and staging, and also because it’s a fantasy sequence, so the Teen Angel could very well be seen as a time traveler.  The rest of the show is very much tied to the 50’s, but this scene provides a glimpse of what is ahead musically, and it’s extremely memorable.

For the most part, I would say this production communicates the nostalgia angle with just the right balance of humor, style and spectacle, while still maintaining a more realistic tone than other productions of the show I’ve seen (like the extremely stylized early 90’s Broadway revival). Grease, in its most commonly staged form, is one of those shows that provides nostalgia for two generations–the Baby Boomers who actually experienced the 50’s, and Gen Xers like me, who most remember the film. This production at the Muny favors the 50’s approach with a little bit of 60’s and 70’s flavor, although it’s staged cleverly enough that it brings the 1950’s to a 2014 audience in a charming and stylish way that’s sure to appeal to audience members from all generations.

Cast of Grease Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Grease
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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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

munynunsense

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.

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