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Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 9, 2018

Nicolas Dromard, Keith Hines, Mark Ballas, Bobby Conte Thornton Photo: The Muny

The Muny has, over the course of its storied 100 year history, hosted several memorable concerts in addition to its traditional lineup of musical theatre and (originally) operetta. It’s been a while since the venue has hosted a rock concert, but its latest musical production, Jersey Boys, has the feel of a concert much of the time. Still, although it’s a “jukebox” show, it also has a strong book, telling the true story of a well-known American band with great production values and a stellar cast.

The story focuses on the legendary pop-rock group The Four Seasons. It’s a well-structured plot, narrated at turns by all four original members of the group: guitarist Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard), keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bobby Conte Thornton), bassist Nick Massi (Keith Hines), and lead vocalist Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas). As the title suggests, the story begins in a close-knit neighborhood in New Jersey, as a group of young, ambitious guys form friendships and a band, sometimes get in trouble with the law, navigate family struggles and romantic entanglements and eventually work their way up to the top of the charts as a world-famous band. The approach here doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story or the people involved, the personality conflicts, trials and tribulations as well as some of the more problematic aspects of the times. The tag-team narrative approach serves the story well, as each “Season” gets to have his say, using the group’s impressive repertoire of classic hits to help advance the story as well as entertain in concert-style, complete with a thoroughly appreciative, enthusiastic audience. Iconic songs like “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December 1963 (Oh, What a NIght)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and “Working My Way Back to You” are represented well, with top-notch production values and a great, enthusiastic cast.

The Muny stage is great setting for this show. I’d seen the Broadway staging before on tour at the Fox, and that was great, but here, in the show’s regional world premiere, the staging and styling have been created specifically for the Muny. With a versatile multi-level platform set by Paul Tate dePoo III, the concert style is served well, as are the storytelling moments. There’s also dynamic lighting by Rob Denton and striking, effective video design by Matthew Young, along with some dazzling, colorful period-specific costumes by Andrea Lauer. The staging is energetic and well-paced, with great dance moves choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, and those great, memorable songs well-played by the excellent Muny orchestra led by music director Rick Bertone.

The Four Seasons are ideally cast here, with Dromard, Hines, Thornton, and Ballas recreating that distinctive sound credibly and impressively. They all sound great, with Ballas particularly standing out vocally, displaying Valli’s remarkable range and stage presence well. Dromard’s cocky, controlling DeVito is a standout as well, as are Hines’s quirky, enigmatic Massi and Thornton’s more quiet but ambitious and determined Gaudio. The relationships and group chemistry are believable, as well, and there are some especially great musical moments as the group develops their signature sound. There are also standout performances from Nicholas Rodriguez as music producer Bob Crewe, and Ben Nordstrom in various roles. There’s a strong, energetic ensemble, as well, each playing various roles and supporting the group in enthusiastic dance numbers. The look, sound, and style of the Four Seasons and their era–particularly in the 1960s–is well-represented in this excellent production.

Jersey Boys is grittier at times than what may be thought of as the “usual” Muny show. It has a sharp, well-structured book that makes it one of the best “jukebox” musicals that’s been produced, and of course, there are all those memorable hit songs. This is a big, flashy show with a good deal of substance along with the glitz, and the Muny has produced it about as well as I could imagine. It’s an excellent, complex and fascinating musical tribute.

Cast of Jersey Boys Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jersey Boys in Forest Park until July 16, 2018

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Peter and the Starcatcher
by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Blake Robison
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 4th, 2015

Spencer Davis Milford, Betsy Hogg (Center) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Spencer Davis Milford, Betsy Hogg (Center) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Peter and the Starcatcher is such a clever, whimsical, witty and enchanting play. I loved it when I saw the National Tour a few years ago at the Peabody, and now it’s being staged in a new production at the Rep, and I’ve been more than happy to revisit this marvelous show. The rep’s production, if anything, is even more cleverly staged than the tour, and with its charming cast and top-notch production values, it’s a real treat.

The problem with telling the story of this play is that so much of the action depends on surprise, and how the story ultimately relates to the classic story of Peter Pan. I’ll just say that it involves a sea voyage on two different sailing vessels, as well as pirates, orphans, mermaids, a tropical island, and a mysterious substance known as “Star Stuff”. The central figures are young Molly Aster (Betsy Hogg) and an initially unnamed orphan Boy (Spencer Davis Milford), who meet on board the ship Neverland while Molly is on a mission to support her father, Lord Aster (Clinton Brandhagen), who is sailing to the same destination on a different ship in order to deliver a dangerous cargo. The story also features the grand villainy of the ambitious Black Stache (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), who along with his henchman Smee (Jose Restrepo) and their gang of pirates, aims to disrupt Asters’ mission and claim the supposed treasure for themselves.  Much hilarity and adventure ensues in the process, with strong storytelling and inventive staging helping to advance the somewhat complicated but still entirely engaging plot.

The technical qualities of this production are nothing short of superb. With a strikingly minimalist set designed by James Kronzer and consisting mostly of a ladder and a series of trapdoors, the story is brought to vibrant life. There’s excellent lighting by Kenton Yeager, and the costumes by David Kay Mickelson are marvelously versatile and meticulously detailed. The music is also put to good use, including a fun, fanciful number that begins Act 2 and has most of the cast dressed as mermaids. It’s a fast-moving, intricately staged production where timing is essential, and every move is executed with the utmost precision.

The cast is a delight, across the board. Milford as the Boy and Hogg as Molly command the stage with their winning performances and strong chemistry. Hawkins is a comic treat as Black Stache, as well, providing many of the show’s comic highlights and supported with equal energy by Retrepo as Smee.  There are also standout performances by Andy Paterson as Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, Nick Vannoy as the smitten sailor Alf, and Andrew Carlyle and Sean Mellott as the Boy’s friends and fellow orphans, Ted and Prentiss. There’s so much energy, charm, and wit in this cast, and every player contributes to the sheer madcap joy of the production.

It’s fun to see how all the elements of the story are introduced and then brought together at the end to form a cohesive prologue to the more familiar Peter Pan story, but to say to much would take away from the pure wonder of this show. Peter and the Starcatcher is, simply put, a marvelous show. The Rep’s production is a treat from start to finish, and an adventure well worth taking.

Jose Restrepo, Jeffrey C. Hawkins Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jose Restrepo, Jeffrey C. Hawkins
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Peter and the Starcatcher is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until December 27, 2015.

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The Addams Family
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
September 14, 2014

Cast of The Addams Family Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of The Addams Family
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny

One of the things I always loved about The Addams Family in all its incarnations is how much fun the characters always seemed to have as a family. From Charles Addams’s classic comic panels to the 1960’s TV series, to the feature films in the 1990’s, this was a family that, while noticeably unconventional,  offbeat and decidedly macabre, sincerely loved one another and made the most out of life.  I used to look forward to watching reruns of the show after school when I was younger, and I enjoyed the movies as well, but I have to admit I was skeptical about the musical. I had heard of the mixed reviews on Broadway, and the adjustments to the show that were made for the tour, and I just didn’t know what to expect. The cast, led by Muny veterans Rob McClure, Jenny Powers and Jennifer Cody, looked extremely promising, and I sat in my seat on opening night with high hopes.  I was not disappointed. In true Addams tradition, this is a show about love, lunacy and a great deal of laughs.  It’s a very fun show that blends elements of the cartoons, the TV show and the movies along with a new twist to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre works surprisingly well on the giant Muny stage.

This version of the story, which seems to take some inspiration from theatrical classics like You Can’t Take It With You and La Cage aux Folles, takes the familiar characters and introduces new ones to tell a story of unlikely love, culture clashes, and parents’ dealing with their children’s growing up. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is full of witty jokes, plot twists and revelations, and there are some memorable songs by Andrew Lippa as well as an echo of the iconic TV theme song in the overture (with the audience enthusiastically clapping and snapping along). After we are re-introduced to the famous family including Gomez (McClure), Morticia (Powers), Pugsley(Michael Harp), Grandma (Cody) and Lurch the butler (William Ryall) in an energetic, colorful production number called “When You’re an Addams”, the storytelling duties are then taken over by Uncle Fester (Steve Rosen), who serves as something of a Master of Ceremonies and tour guide through the ensuing story, which Fester reminds us is ultimately about love. Gomez and Morticia have to deal with the fact that their daughter Wednesday (Sara Kapner) is growing up. In fact, she’s met a nice, respectable young man, Lucas Beineke (Dan DeLuca), and they want to get married, which is part of the problem. Lucas’s parents, Mal (John Scherer) and Alice (Hollis Resnick) have been invited to dinner at the Addams mansion, and both Wednesday and Lucas are afraid of being embarrassed by their parents.  Meanwhile, Wednesday has confided a secret to Gomez, which she has made him promise not to tell Morticia, from whom Gomez never keeps secrets.  Gomez’s dilemma, along with the various culture conflicts and what happens when even more secrets threaten to be revealed, becomes the basis for a hilarious and heartwarming tale of love and unconventionality told only as an Addams could tell it.

While the darker, more overtly spooky atmosphere of the cartoons and the films is present as well, the general tone of the musical seems to be more in the vein of the TV show (albeit a little more risqué at times), with its broad comedy, sight gags and joke-a-minute humor.  The comedy is in excellent hands, as well, with Rosen as a Vaudevillian-styled Fester and Cody as the outspoken Grandma delivering many of the best jokes in scene-stealing performances. The “Full Disclosure” number that ends Act 1 is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen at the Muny, with so much raucous humor that it’s difficult to pause and take a breath. Just when I thought I was laughing as much as I could, another joke would come along to make me laugh even more.  There are also some great moments for Kapner and Harp with the delightfully unhinged song “Pulled”, and for Resnick as the outwardly happy, frequently rhyming Alice, who gets to reveal her own dark secrets in a cathartic moment at the end of Act 1. She and Scherer as the bewildered Mal, along with a well-matched Kapner and DeLuca, also have an excellent moment in Act 2 with “Crazier Than You”. In fact, all the principals here are ideally cast, and everyone gets a moment to shine, including Fester with his sweet ode to his secret crush “The Moon and Me” (along with some excellent visuals on the scenery wall), and Ryall as Lurch, whose confusion about how to act when he meets the Beinekes is endearingly hilarious.  There are some great “breaking the fourth wall” moments as well, with Rosen’s little stand-up routine at the beginning of Act 2–featuring some Muny-specific jokes–being a real highlight.

As great as the supporting cast is, however, this being The Addams Family means the stars of the show have to be Gomez and Morticia, and the Muny has cast these celebrated characters very well indeed. Both McClure and Powers are at their best here, and that’s saying something, considering the excellent performances I’ve seen from them in past Muny shows. Something about these characters just seems to energize these two, and they work together with crackling chemistry and a great deal of charm. Powers is in great voice on songs like “Secrets” and her big production number “Just Around the Corner”. She displays just the right balance between elegance and enthusiasm, as well. McClure is a joy as Gomez, as well, bringing charisma, wit, emotion, comic timing and boundless energy.  He’s able to command the stage in a dynamic fencing routine, express his dilemma humorously in “Trapped”, and also share a poignant moment with Kapner’s Wednesday on the wonderful “Happy/Sad” in Act 2.  He and Powers are well-matched in their electric, expertly choreographed “Tango de Amor” as well. These two consummate professionals fill their roles with humor and style, leading a strong principal cast and equally excellent ensemble of undead ancestors, skeletons and such.

Visually, the set by Michael Schweikart fills the vast stage with just he right air of whimsical creepiness, with a detailed graveyard set and the house,which revolves to show different rooms such as the main hall and the dungeon. The costumes, designed by Andrea Lauer, are influenced by the earlier incarnations of the characters but are appropriately updated for this setting. I especially liked the individual styling of the various Addams ancestors.  There were some obvious issues with the sound on opening night, with a few lines being lost due to microphone problems, although I’m sure those will be sorted out as the show continues its run. Overall, this production a strong technical achievement, with elements fitting the overall darkly madcap atmosphere very well.

The Addams Family is, as Fester says, ultimately a story about love. It’s about trust, acceptance, and unconventionality, but its all tied together by love. While I think the original TV show will always be my favorite version of these characters, the musical is a surprising delight as well, especially in this larger-than-life production at the Muny.  It’s creepy, it’s kooky and it’s contagiously fun. This is a family that’s well worth getting to know, and the Muny provides an excellent–and outrageously funny–introduction.

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny

 

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Peter and the Starcatcher
by Rick Elice
Based on the Novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Peabody Opera House
March 7, 2014

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern Photo by Jenny Anderson Peter and The Starcatcher National Tour

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern
Photo by Jenny Anderson
Peter and The Starcatcher 

Peter and the Starcatcher is one crazy play, and that’s a wonderful thing.  I had heard of this production before seeing it, and even did my research like a good little theatre critic, reading about the background and basic plot and style of the play.  Still, none of that adequately prepared me for what I just saw at the Peabody Opera House.  The national tour based on the original Broadway production of Rick Elice’s stage adaptation of this prequel to the classic Peter Pan story is a wild ride from start to finish, and I’m somewhat at a loss to describe it, but since that’s what I’m here to do, I will try my best.

There are many surprises in this densely-plotted story, and it will be spoiling to say too much.  The basic plot, however, revolves around a mission to deliver a trunk containing a mysterious treasure to the remote kingdom of Rundoon. Two identical trunks–one genuine and one a decoy–are brought aboard two separate ships and watched over by Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner) on the Wasp and his teenage daughter Molly (Megan Stern) on the Neverland.  In the course of their journey, we are introduced to a wide variety of characters with agendas of their own, including the pirate and would-be great villain Black Stache (John Sanders) and his henchman Smee (Luke Smith), and a nameless orphan Boy (Joey deBettencourt) who, along with fellow orphans Prentiss (Carl Howell) and Ted (Edward Tournier), crosses paths with Molly and Black Stache and finds himself on an adventure he couldn’t have imagined.  It’s a complex and involved plot that gets going very quickly and rarely slows down, revealing surprises at every turn and bringing out some genuine sympathy and emotion along with the broad comedy. There are many memorable scenes, including the Act Two opener that involves mermaids, some great jokes about theatrical conventions, some whimsical flights of fancy involving magic and flying, and a memorable conclusion that helps tie this story into the Peter Pan legend.

This is one of the more inventive pieces of theatre I’ve seen, presented in a style that I can only call “spectacular minimalism”. The designs for the lighting (by Jeff Croiter), sound (by Darron L. West) and costumes (by Paloma Young) are excellent, and there’s also some wonderful music by Wayne Barker, but it’s all just enough to set the mood, as the troupe of actors presents the play in a bare-bones style that leaves a lot to the audience’s collective imagination.  The first act takes places primarily on the decks of the two sailing ships, and the second act mostly takes place on a tropical island, although there is very little in the way of a set, except for a few pieces (a staircase, some netting, the two wooden trunks, etc.) to help suggest the scenes, and a lot of creatively used props like ropes that become doors, rubber gloves that are flapped to become birds, and so on.  Much of the “set” is also suggested by the way the actors behave, such as when the ships rock back and forth and the suggestion of the movement is provided by a simple creaking sound effect and the movements of the cast.  In fact, some of the production’s funniest moments arrive in the form of jokes about the inadequacy of the set and the fact that this is a play and we have to imagine that it’s real. The story is told in a broad, tightly directed and fast-paced style,  and the actors deserve kudos for their remarkable precision and timing. 

I love the energy of this ensemble. Every member is completely in the moment, and the whole cast works together seamlessly to bring this story to vivid life.  Chemistry is there in abundance, as well, with believable interactions between all the characters.  In particular, Stern’s Molly and deBettencourt’s Boy present a convincing relationship, demonstrating a mixture of trepidation, challenge and obvious attraction as neither quite knows how to relate to the other at first.  Sanders, as the hilariously foppish and braggadocious Black Stache, and Smith as his bumbling sidekick Smee also show excellent comic chemistry.  Other great teams in this production include Howell as the ambitious Prentiss and Tournier as the food-obsessed Ted, and the hilarious combination of Benjamin Schrader (in men’s clothes except for an apron and hair bow) as Molly’s nanny Mrs. Bumbrake and Harter Clingman as Alf, a sailor who is smitten with her.  Stern and Hosner are also given some great father-daughter moments.  Much of the humor and sentiment of this production comes from the overall ensemble chemistry, and there isn’t a weak link in this cast. The individual performances are excellent, as well, with the standouts for me being deBettencourt as the curious and courageous Boy, Stern as the kind and determined Molly, and Sanders as the delightfully and ambitiously inept Black Stache, who gets the play’s longest laugh in the second act with a ridiculously long joke that’s better seen (and heard) than described.

Based on what I had read, I expected to like this show, although I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it and how bowled over I am at the sheer inventiveness of it, and the richness of the plot in addition to the laugh-a-minute hilarity.  The story provides a suitably gripping background to the Peter Pan story without being too obvious, and it explores the themes of loyalty, family, and identity in a clear and compelling way.  The only negative I can think of is that the run here in St. Louis is so short. There are only two days and four more performances left to see it, so I highly recommend catching this “star” before it moves on.

Luke Smith, John Sanders Photo by Jenny Anderson

Luke Smith, John Sanders
Photo by Jenny Anderson

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