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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 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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The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based Upon the Novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli, Based on the Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins
The Fox Theatre
November 28, 2017

Jose Llana, Laura Michelle Kelly
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The King and I National Tour

My first reaction when the curtain opened on the national touring production of The King and I, currently playing at the Fox Theatre, was “wow!” Another example of director Bartlett Sher’s celebrated revivals of Broadway classics, this one is immediately impressive from a visual standpoint, even by marvelous coincidence looking like it was designed for the Fox. The visuals are certainly impressive, but what’s even more impressive is the strong cast and cohesive, thoughtful direction for which Sher is well-known.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sher’s revivals is that they are at once faithful to the source material and also updated, to a degree, in terms of focus. Sher seems to try his best at not re-inventing classics, but rather presenting them in ways that make them more immediate and accessible for modern audiences, which makes sense since a lot of these well-known shows have become somewhat (or sometimes very) dated in terms of their perspective. In the revivals, though, the source material has been updated more in terms of subtext and characterization than in the actual script. That’s the case with The King and I, particularly. The story is the familiar one–of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly), who travels to Bangkok in the 1860s to teach the many children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). The relationship of Anna and the King is a complex one, starting with suspicion and even animosity and then growing into a respectful friendship with hints of something more, but not a romance in the conventional sense. There are also poignant subplots involving secret lovers Tuptim (Q Lim) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), who want to be together but can’t because she’s been given as a “present” to the King; and also the struggles of Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) to learn about the responsibilities and burdens of leadership as he prepares to someday become King. The story is all here, as are the familiar classic songs such as “Getting to Know You”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “We Kiss in a Shadow”, and “Shall We Dance”. The script is the same, as well, but under Sher’s direction, the focus has been shifted somewhat, making the show appear more critical of the concept of colonialism and “westernization” than previous productions. The central figure is Anna, as always, and her sparring with the King is a highlight of the production, but this production also draws a lot more focus on the King’s court, particularly his head wife Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and his chief official Kralahome (Brian Rivera) than previous productions I have seen. It’s an intriguing, compelling, and thoroughly cohesive production that brings a lot of insight to the source material that may not have been as apparent in earlier productions.

Casting-wise, as far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve seen the same performers play the same roles in two entirely different productions of the same show. Both Kelly and Almedilla played these roles in the Muny’s excellent production in 2012, but now under Sher’s direction, both excel in this newer vision of the show. In fact, I would say these two are the stand-out performers here, from Kelly’s sure, steely but almost understated determination and strong vocals as Anna to Almedilla’s brilliantly measured, authoritative and also beautifully sung turn as Lady Thiang. Llana is also excellent as the King, coming across as more youthful than other performances of this role that I have seen, and displaying a strong presence and combative, affectionate chemistry with Kelly’s Anna. Lim is also impressive, especially vocally, as Tuptim, and Chan is especially convincing in his portrayal of Prince Chulalongkorn, as is Rivera as Kralahome. It’s a strong cast all-around, with an especially impressive ensemble and strong dancing in various moments, especially in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet sequence.

Visually, the show is stunning, and it fits very well into the ornate Fox Theatre. Even before the curtain opens, the color scheme and design elements look almost like they were designed for this venue. Then, the curtain does open, and the audience is transported to 19th Century Bangkok, vividly realized by Michael Yeargan’s detailed sets and Donald Holders truly dazzling, emotive lighting. There are also superb period-specific costumes by Catherine Zuber and wig and hair designs by Tom Watson, helping to further transport the audience to a different time and place. The staging is at once “big” and “small” in the sense that it’s expansive but also presented at an accessible scale, bringing the audience into the story with a degree of somewhat stylized realism.

The King and I at the Fox is a memorable presentation of the celebrated Lincoln Center revival directed by one of Broadway’s most lauded directors. Although there are still some dated elements, this production is presented with a sense of immediacy and even cultural critique that I hadn’t seen before in performances of this show. It’s a truly memorable production, with a great cast. It’s worth checking out while it’s in town.

Joan Almedilla
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The King and I National Tour

The national tour of The King and I is running at the Fox Theatre until December 10, 2017.

 

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South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2017

Leah Berry, Michael Halling
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is an undisputed musical theatre classic. It’s been performed at all levels, from Broadway to regional theatre to community theatre, many times since it first debuted in 1949. I know it fairly well, as I’ve seen several different productions and filmed versions. Now, STAGES St. Louis is closing out its 2017 season with this historic show, bringing it to the stage with a fine cast and striking production values that keep the story fresh and timely even though it’s inextricably tied to a specific time and place.

This is a World War II story, set on a tropical island where a US Navy unit is stationed. Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) is a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has found herself falling in love with the older, sophisticated French planter Emile DeBecque (Michael Halling), who has lived on the island for many years but harbors some secrets from his past. As Nellie finds out more about Emile, she is forced to confront her own ingrained prejudices. There’s also Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Hydzik), newly assigned to the island on a secret mission that involves Emile. Lt. Cable becomes fascinated with the nearby island of Bali Ha’i following the suggestions of Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), who introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat (Sydney Jones) with hopes that he will marry her. Meanwhile, the Seabees led by Luther Billis (Mark DiConzo) try to make the most of their time on the island and yearn for the company of women. There’s romance, intrigue, comedy, and heartrending drama, as well as the important underlying message of confronting personal and systemic racism and prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s memorable score features classics such as the upbeat “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, and “Honey Bun”, as well as the romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” and the pointed “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

The roles here are played well. Berry’s Nellie is appropriately perky and likable, and her chemistry with Halling’s suave Emile is strong. She is generally better with the lighter moments than the more serious ones, though. Halling is charming and especially strong acting-wise, although his voice isn’t quite as powerful as other Emiles I’ve seen, particularly on his key number “This Nearly Was Mine”. Hydzik is fine as the conflicted cable, with a strong voice and good chemistry with the excellent Jones as Liat. Javien is a particularly strong Bloody Mary, as well. DiConzo as Billis is also memorable, and there’s a strong ensemble for support, particularly in the form of the male chorus of Seabees. The group numbers such as “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” are especially strong here.

The overall 1940’s World War II atmosphere is well maintained in this production, with striking visuals provided by set designer James Wolk and lighting designer Sean M. Savoie. Garth Dunbar’s costumes are also excellent, lending an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a smaller-scale production compared to the last one I saw (at the Muny), and that helps to provide a more intimate atmosphere to the show’s more serious moments as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie to the Thanksgiving concert sequence in Act 2.

STAGES has done well by this celebrated musical. With a good cast and energetic staging, as well as that classic score, and a message that resonates today as much as it did years ago, this is a production that’s well worth seeing. It’s a good way to close out an excellent season at STAGES.

Joanne Javien, Matthew Hydzik and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting South Pacific at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 8, 2017.

 

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Carousel
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Ken Page
Choreographed by Yvonne Meyer Hare
Union Avenue Opera
July 28, 2017

Cast of Carousel
Photo: Union Avenue Opera

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is often considered one of the best musicals of the 20th Century. It’s also a show that I love, even though I had never seen it live before. Now, a somewhat unlikely company has produced it here in STL. I had never seen a show at Union Avenue Opera before either, but now they have ventured into the area of musicals and I’m glad they have, because this production is excellent, especially in the area in which one would expect an opera company to excel–the singing.

Carousel tells the story of the unexpected romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Wes Mason) and textile mill worker Julie Jordan (Maria Lindsey) in a small Maine fishing town. Julie’s friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Christine Amon) takes up with upwardly mobile fisherman Enoch Snow (Anthony Webb), but Julie and the aimless Billy struggle in their new marriage, and when Julie announces she’s expecting a child, Billy is driven to desperation in order to provide, teaming up with disreputable sailor Jigger Craigin (Andrew Wannigman) for a nefarious, risky scheme. When Billy’s plans don’t go as expected, he gets a chance to redeem himself somewhat, in trying to help his confused teenage daughter Louise (Caylee McGlasson, danced by Emma Gassett).  This is a dramatic story with some romantic elements and glimmers of hope, but also with a dark edge and some controversial subject matter along with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s striking, melodic score.

The production here is well-cast, especially in terms of vocals. Mason and Lindsey make a convincing pair as Billy and Julie, with powerful voices and excellent chemistry especially in their celebrated duet “If I Loved You”. Mason does a good job with the difficult role of Billy, whose choices are problematic to say the least, and Lindsey makes a somewhat aloof Julie, which works for the character, especially in the later scenes after the time jump in Act 2. There are also some glorious vocals from Merry Keller as Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler, who sings the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the boistrous “June Is Busting Out All Over” with convincing power. Acting-wise, the standouts are Amon as the loyal and occasionally giddy Carrie, and Webb as her enterprising but sometimes emotionally clueless beau Mr Snow. These two have excellent voices, and marvelous chemistry as well. There are also strong turns from Wannigman as the menacing Jigger, Debby Lennon as Billy’s jealous, possessive employer Mrs. Mullin, and Robert McNichols, Jr. in  three pivotal roles. There’s also some excellent dancing expertly choreographed by Yvonne Meyer Hare, particularly in the ballet sequence danced beautifully by Gasset as “Dance Louise” and the excellent ensemble. There is also, as to be expected, beautiful ensemble singing and a superb orchestra conducted by Scott Schoonover.  It’s a score that tends to the operatic in many instances, and this opera company does it justice.

Technically, the production is a little different than most other modern musical stagings, especially in the area of sound. The individual performers are not mic’d, so sometimes the speaking lines can be difficult to hear, although most of the cast members project their voices well enough. There are also supertitles–designed by Philip Touchette– projected on the wall to help the audience to follow the dialogue and story. The set by Patrick Huber is appropriately detailed and evocative, as are Teresa Doggett’s costumes, although the style seems to suggest a combination of different 20th Century eras rather than the usual Turn of the Century setting. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Huber that helps to create and maintain a stylized, almost otherworldly tone to the proceedings.

Carousel is an ideal first venture into musical theatre for Union Avenue Opera, and I’m glad I was able to see it handled so well and in such a fine, musically stunning production. There’s also something of an air of  the “old-fashioned” here in terms of staging, and I mean that in a good way. It’s an especially strong production and well worth seeing, and hearing.

Christine Amon, Anthony Webb Photo: Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting Carousel until August 5, 2017.

 

 

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The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Jack O’Brien
The Fox Theatre
April 26, 2016

 

Kerstin Anderson Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Kerstin Anderson
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The Sound of Music is unquestionably a musical theatre classic.  Since its debut on Broadway in 1959, it has been performed in various productions around the world as well as two live television productions and, of course, the Oscar-Winning movie. I personally have seen so many productions of it that I’ve almost got the show memorized. Audiences generally know what to expect when they see this show. With the new touring production now on stage at the Fox, director Jack O’Brien has brought a good mixture of timelessness and immediacy to this time-honored show, as well as finding a promising young star to lead the cast.

Everyone knows the story, it seems. As Maria (Kerstin Anderson) finds it difficult to fit in at Nonnburg Abbey, the Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) decides the young would-be nun needs to see more of the world. So for that purpose, Maria is sent to be a governess to the seven children of lonely widower Captain Georg Von Trapp (Ben Davis), who since the death of his wife has become more of an authoritarian commander than a father to his children. Maria soon wins her way into the hearts of the children and, eventually, their father as well, despite the romantic efforts of the wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen), who also wants to marry the Captain. And then there’s the Captain’s enterprising friend Max (Merwin Foard), who hopes to recruit the children–whom Maria has taught to sing–to perform in a big music festival. And then comes the Nazi occupation of Austria, and the drama that follows.

Kerstin Anderson follows in the footsteps of many a Maria, including stage legend Mary Martin and the movie’s iconic Julie Andrews. Anderson, thankfully, doesn’t try to imitate her famous predecessors, although she has a quirkiness about her that is more comparable to Martin than to Andrews. She also has a youthful, energetic spirit and a great voice. As Maria navigates her road from the convent to the Von Trapps’ villa, Anderson visibly matures and acquires a sense of grace and poise. It’s an impressive performance, although she also occasionally tends to deliver her lines in an over-rehearsed, somewhat artificial manner. For the most part, however, she makes an excellent Maria, and she has great chemistry with Ben Davis’s charming, authoritative but increasingly boyish Von Trapp. Their love duet “Something Good” is very sweetly sung and their showcase dance charged with romantic tension. Davis also gets one of the show’s best moments when he leads his family in singing “Edelweiss” at the concert. There’s also a strong comedic performance by Foard as Max, and Betts as the Mother Abbess radiates kindness and strength, stopping the show with a soaring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Other standouts in the cast are Paige Silvester as a particularly rebellious eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, and Svea Elizabeth Johnson as the wise, observant daughter Brigitta. The children have a good rapport with Anderson’s Maria, and all the production numbers are well-done, including the energetic “Do Re Mi” and “The Lonely Goatherd”.

Visually, the production is impressive as well. Douglas W. Schmidt’s excellent set is notable for its period authenticity and colorful painted backdrops of beautiful mountain vistas, well-lit by lighting designer Natasha Katz. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are well-crafted and suited to the characters, from the nuns’ habits to Maria’s succession of dresses that range from the frumpy to the elegant. The children’s play costumes, supposedly made by Maria from the curtains in her bedroom, are appropriately whimsical. Maria’s hairstyles also go through a believable progression throughout the production, so kudos to hair designer Tom Watson for that effect.

Overall, the tone of this production strikes a good medium between the classic and the new. There’s a sense of energy and urgency brought to the proceedings, as well as an authentic-seeming 1930’s sensibility and an “old Broadway” style without seeming too dated. It’s not trying to to overly innovative or different. It’s just trying to tell the story and tell it well, and for the most part, this iteration of The Sound of Music achieves that goal. It’s a delightful show.

Ben Davis and cast Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Ben Davis and cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The national tour of The Sound of Music is running at the Fox Theatre until May 8, 2016.

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreography by Susan Stroman, Restaged by Ginger Thatcher
The Muny
August 10 , 2015

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis Photo: The Muny

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! is one of the most important musicals in the history of the genre. In fact, it’s often credited as the first “modern musical”, and it caused a sensation when it was first staged on Broadway in 1943.  Since then, it’s become a staple of professional, amateur and school theatre to the point of almost becoming a cliche. A show like this needs a vibrant production to bring it out of the realm of “been there, seen that”. The Muny’s latest production, the final show of its 2015 summer season, has a strong production team and promising cast, and I had been looking forward to seeing it all season. Ultimately, though, while I find this production thoroughly entertaining, I was expecting “amazing” and what I see here is simply “very good”.

This is a familiar story to many, as iconic as this show has become. The opening, as cowboy Curly (Ben Davis) starts singing the glorious “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” offstage before he appears to serenade Aunt Eller (Beth Leavel) is legendary. The story goes on to follow the awkward romance between Curly and Aunt Eller’s spunky niece, Laurey (Christine Cornish Smith), who is also being pursued by the intense, stalker-ish hired hand Jud Fry (Alexander Gemignani). Meanwhile, Laurey’s friend, the amorous Ado Annie (Jenni Barber) enjoys flirtations with various men but finds herself torn between her earnest suitor Will Parker (Clyde Alves) and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Nehal Joshi), who just wants a fling with Annie but her protective father (Shaver Tillitt) has other ideas. The classic songs are here, from the romantic “People Will Say We’re In Love” to the energetic “Kansas City” to the iconic title song. It’s a show with humor, drama, romance and a lot of energetic dancing, done very well in the Muny’s production.

The choreography here is recreated from Susan Stroman’s work for the celebrated 1998 London revival and its 2002 Broadway staging, and the dancing is the real highlight of this production. Notably, the “dream ballet” is danced by the performers playing Laurey and Curly, rather than by dance doubles as in the original production. I like this new convention, since it adds a sense of immediacy to the ballet that previous versions tended to lack.  Smith especially is an exceptional dancer, and she brings out the full range of Laurey’s emotions–from fear, to hope, to doubt, and more–in her dance.  The whole company does an excellent job all-around with the dancing, as well, from the vibrant “Kansas City” number led by the dynamic Alves as Will to the whimsical “Many a New Day” for Laurey and the female ensemble, to the raucus “The Farmer and the Cowmen” production number in Act 2. This is a wonderful show for dance, and the Muny does it right.

The casting, for the most part, is strong, although this production has made a choice that I’ve often regarded as a mistake–it’s cast a Curly who, despite his excellent voice, is too mature for the role.  Davis, who was wonderful as Emile DeBecque in the Muny’s South Pacific a few seasons agosings the songs beautifully, but isn’t entirely convincing as a lovestruck young cowboy. The dialogue for this show suggests that Curly isn’t that much older than Laurey. He isn’t Emile, or Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Those shows require an age difference between the romantic leads, but in this show, that doesn’t really work. Opposite Smith, Davis doesn’t convince. Their chemistry is awkward at best, although Smith gives an otherwise strong, gutsy performance as Laurey, and she has a great voice. Otherwise, it’s a good cast, with Leavel as the feisty Aunt Eller and Gemignani as the creepy Jud being the standouts. Alves and Barber make a sweet pair as Will and Ado Annie as well, although their Act 2 duet “All Or Nothing” lacked some of the comic spark that this song is supposed to have. Joshi as Ali Hakim gives a fun comic performance, as well, and the ensemble is first rate, especially in the dance numbers.

Another highlight of this production is its wonderful production values. Michael Schweikardt’s set is beautfully detailed, with a realistic farmhouse on the turntable that rotates to reveal Jud’s rundown smokehouse. In Act 2, the unfinished structure of the community’s schoolhouse makes a striking backdrop for the action of the show. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz with additional design by Amy Clark, are colorful and appropriately evocative of the period and characters. John Lasiter’s lighting is striking as well, lending a dreamy air to the the ballet sequence especially.  The outdoor setting is also especially kind to this show that mostly takes place outside on the broad plains of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma! is the very definition of a classic musical, and it’s a fitting show for the Muny, which is an icon in itself. I’ve come to expect a little more from the Muny lately, especially in the last few years, and this production is certainly entertaining. Although it’s not exactly the exceptional production I had been hoping for, it’s still a fine production, and a good show to close out the Muny’s 97th season.

Cast of Oklahoma! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Oklahoma!
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 16th, 2015.

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