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Gypsy
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

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Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
by James M. Barrie, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sammy Cahn,
Moose Charlap, Betty Comden, Larry Gelbart, Morton Gould, Adolph Green,
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Carolyn Leigh,
Stephen Longstreet, Hugh Martin, Jerome Robbins, Richard Rodgers,
Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Jule Styne
Directed by Cynthia Onrubia
Additional Choreography by Harrison Beal, Dan Knechtges, Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 11, 2018

Cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 100th season is finally here, and it’s opening in grand style with a show that’s really several shows in one. The 1989 Tony Winner for Best Musical, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway pays tribute to a prolific director-choreographer from the Golden Age of Broadway in a production that, even though it has “Broadway” in the title, seems almost tailor-made for the Muny.

The Muny has traditionally been about big, large-cast musicals with spectacle and style, and that’s here in abundance with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It’s the first regional production of the show ever, apparently, and although it’s not exactly the same as the 1989 version, most of the songs are here, highlighting Robbins’ illustrious career and featuring some iconic numbers from classic shows, as well as some numbers from lesser-known shows. From On the Town, HIgh Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby to West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler On the Roof, this show has a little bit of everything, dance-wise, from dramatic, ballet-influenced numbers, to jazz, to slapstick comedy, and more, staged with the usual big, bold, high-energy stage-filling style of the Muny.

There isn’t really a story here. It’s a revue, essentially, with Rob McClure as “The Setter” introducing the scenes. McClure, a Muny veteran and favorite performer, also plays several memorable roles in the production, including two roles from HIgh Button Shoes and the role of Tevye alongside Maggie Lakis as Golde in the excellent Fiddler sequence that features “Tradition”, “Tevye’s Dream”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, and the always thrilling wedding dance. There are many excellent moments here. In fact, there are so many highlights, it’s not easy to name them all. Among the standout routines is a thrilling rendition of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan starring Sarah Marie Jenkins as a vibrant Peter Pan, along with Elizabeth Teeter as Wendy, Gabriel Cytron as Michael, and Cole Joyce as John. This sequence is particularly dazzling, with excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. and great use of the Muny’s electronic scenery wall. The ensemble is the star here, really, with energetic dancing from the more dramatic West Side Story moments to the high comedy of the “On a Sunday By the Sea” number from High Button Shoes. Another memorable sequence is the truly stunning dance number “Mr. Monotony” featuring powerful vocals from Muny veteran Jenny Powers and astounding dancing from Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr, and Garen Scribner, who also all turn in strong performances in the West Side Story sequence as Bernardo, Maria, and Tony respectively, alongside the equally excellent Davis Wayne as Riff and Tanairi Vazquez as Anita, along with an athletic, energetic ensemble of Jets and Sharks. There is so much here to see and enjoy, with Robbins’ routines recreated with an authentic look and feel, to the point where it seems for some moments as if the audience has traveled in time.

The production values here are also first-rate, with a stylish, colorful and versatile set by Paige Hathaway and remarkably authentic costume design by Robin L. McGee. There’s also excellent lighting design from John Lasiter, lending atmosphere and changing tones and moods to the various production numbers. There’s also great video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wonderful music from the always excellent Muny Orchestra.

This is an old-school musical revue with lots of energy and a big cast to fill out the enormous Muny stage. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a collection of numbers that serves as an ideal first show for the Muny’s 100th season. It’s a retrospective, but also a celebration of musical theatre’s past as the Muny prepares to move into the future. It’s a dazzling start to a long-awaited season in Forest Park.

West Side Story Dancers
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in Forest Park until June 17, 2018.

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Follies
Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 9, 2016

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

With the Repertory of St. Louis Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, nostalgia is sure to abound. It’s especially fitting now for the Rep to open its new season with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, a musical that explores both good and bad aspects of nostalgia, and reflects on hopes, dreams, regrets, and the power of memory. It’s also a pastiche of old Broadway themes and styles, and on stage at the Rep, it looks and sounds positively stunning.

The stage at the Rep is constantly changing in this production, thanks to Luke Cantarella’s vividly realized set design that makes excellent use of a turntable. The space represents an old, dilapidated Broadway theatre that is due to be demolished, and it’s haunted by the “ghosts” or memories of the elaborately dressed showgirls who used to perform there. The theatre becomes the scene for a reunion of many performers, mostly women, who participated in the “Weismann Follies” between the World Wars.  They have been invited there by Follies producer Dimitri Weismann (Joneal Joplin) so that they can reconnect, remember, reflect, and say goodbye to the old theatre that was such an important part of their lives in the past. Among the various Follies alumni are former roommates Sally Durant Plummer (Christiane Noll) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Emily Skinner), who are now middle-aged and married to the former “stage door Johnnies” who used to court them at the theatre. Sally’s husband Buddy (Adam Heller) is a salesman who loves Sally but has been worn out by years of feeling rejected by her. Sally still carries a torch for Ben Stone (Bradley Dean), who was involved briefly with Sally when they were younger but chose to marry Phyllis instead. Phyllis, stuck for years in an unhappy marriage to the well-connected, well-known politician Ben, is forced to confront her own choice to marry and stay with him, as well as trying to reconcile the idealistic but unrefined young woman she used to be with her more sophisticated but jaded present-day existence. All four have younger counterparts (Sarah Quinn Taylor as Young Sally, Kathryn Boswell as Young Phyllis, Michael Williams as Young Ben, and Cody Williams as Young Buddy) who interact with their present-day selves in a series of flashbacks, vestiges of memories. Meanwhile, the other Follies performers relive their glory days by performing their signature numbers and reflecting on their own lives in show business and elsewhere. And then there’s the stylized “Loveland” sequence in the second half of Act 2. This is a complex, multi-faceted show that provides an excellent showcase for most of the members of its large cast.

That superb cast is led by the extraordinary performances of this production’s Sally and Phyllis, Noll and Skinner. Noll brings a childlike quality to Sally that is ideal for the role of the middle-aged regretful starlet-turned-housewife who continues to delude herself by living in the past. Her rendition of Sondheim’s classic “Losing My Mind” is achingly real. Skinner, as the seemingly tougher, caustic Phyllis, allows the audience to see the vulnerability that lies beneath her outward steeliness. She delivers a devastating interpretation of “Would I Leave You?” and an energetic, clear performance of her song that outlines her inner conflict between who she was, who she is now, and how she wishes she could be in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. Heller brings a great deal of sympathy to the disillusioned, weary Buddy, who pines for a real relationship with Sally and lives in the shadow of her memories of Ben. For his own part, Dean plays Ben with just the right mixture of charm, regret, and confusion, bringing a lot of raw emotion to his big number in the “Loveland” sequence, “Live, Laugh, Love”. Taylor, Boswel, Michael Williams and Cody Williams are also excellent as the leads’ younger selves, and the rest of the cast is simply stellar. There are top-notch turns from Nancy Opel as former Follies girl turned TV star Carlotta, whose ode to a life in showbiz, “I’m Still Here” is a highlight. There’s also the terrific Zoe Vonder Haar singing the classic “Broadway Baby” with strength and style, an excellent haunting version of “One More Kiss” by Carol Skarimbas as the oldest of the alums, the gloriously voiced Heidi Schiller, in duet with the also great Julie Hanson and her younger self. And perhaps best of all is E. Fay Butler as Stella Deems leading the rest of her follow Follies alums in a spectacularly choreographed tap number, “Who’s That Woman?” that stops the show.

Visually, this show is simply a treat as well, with that spectacular, constantly morphing set and Amy Clark’s marvelous, colorful costumes that help bring the Follies atmosphere to life. The atmosphere of the early 1970s and the various preceding eras is ideally realized. There’s also wonderful lighting work by John Lasiter that helps set the mood particularly in the flashback and fantasy sequences, and top-notch sound design by Randy Hanson.

I had been looking forward to this production, being a Sondheim fan and having seen the excellent 2011 revival on Broadway. At the Rep, the show is just as spectacular as anything on Broadway. It’s a poignant reflection on how the past informs the present, as well as a glorious celebration of classic musical styles from the first half of the 20th Century. It’s at turns thrilling, funny, dramatic and heartbreaking. Follies is a spectacular way for the Rep to start off its historic 50th season. Go see it while you can. It’s not to be missed.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Follies is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until October 2, 2016. 

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