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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
August 11, 2014

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Hello Dolly! and the Muny are a match made in Theatre Heaven. As is fitting for a show about a matchmaker, the two parties in this particular relationship are most ideally suited. Hello Dolly! when staged well, is a big, colorful, flashy show with lots of energy and heart, and the Muny has built its reputation around just this type of show.  After an especially impressive season that started with a wonderful production of a newer show, Billy Elliot, the Muny is closing out their 2014 schedule with this big, brassy charmer of a Broadway classic, scaled just right to fit the colossal stage and delight the eyes, ears and hearts  of the vast Muny audience.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this show over the years, including the last (also excellent) Muny production in 2007 that featured a more subdued portrayal of the title character. This time, though, Dolly Gallagher Levi, as played by Beth Leavel, is back to her larger-than-life ways, and is the real center of this production.  Leavel’s Dolly is such a presence that even when she’s off stage, her influence is obvious. With a big personality, a strong voice and lots of quirky style, Leavel commands the stage.  She is well-matched with John O’Hurley as the curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, on whom the widowed Dolly sets her sights. Telling the story of Dolly’s various matchmaking efforts and their effects on Horace and those around him, this production has all the elements this show requires and then some, with big, flashy production numbers, strong choreography by Ralph Perkins, colorful period-specific costumes by Amy Clark, and a simple but striking set designed by Michael Schweikart that features some wonderfully detailed backdrops.  It’s a valentine to late 19th Century New York, with infectious energy and memorable production numbers from the iconic title song to the big, stage-filling “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, and more.

In addition to the ideal casting of Leavel and O’Hurley, the supporting players also turn in excellent work. Muny veteran Rob McClure, so memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family and Bert in Mary Poppins, is in fine form here as Horace’s sheltered chief clerk Cornelius Hackl, who is eager to get at least one small break from his humdrum Yonkers existence and experience adventure in the big city. McClure is able to be charming, bumbling, a nimble dancer, and a hopeless romantic all at once, with great renditions of the rousing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and the heartwarming “It Only Takes a Moment”.  He’s paired well with Mamie Parris as the widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy, who displays strong chemistry with McClure and an impressive voice on her showcase song, “Ribbons Down My Back”.  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker, and Eloise Kropp as Irene’s shop assistant Minnie Fay deliver memorable comic performances, as well, as do Daniel Berryman as artist and would-be dancer Ambrose Kemper and Berklea Going as the object of his affection, Horace’s weepy neice, Ermengarde.  This production can also boast of a very impressive ensemble, especially the men who get to show off their athletic dancing skills in the wildly energetic “Waiters’ Gallop” number.

Although there were a few issues with the sound on opening night, as well as one noticeable (but well-covered) line flub, this production is otherwise staged with remarkable precision and timing.  The famous staircase scene is timed just right, and Leavel is adept at interacting with both the ensemble and the audience, generating waves of enthusiastic applause.  The Act One ending “Before the Parade Passes By” also puts the giant Muny stage to excellent use, featuring a memorable appearance by the O”Fallon Township High School marching band.  And speaking of bands, the Muny’s own wonderful orchestra–conducted by Musical Director James Moore–is in top form here as well, keeping up the energy and pacing of this classic Jerry Herman score.

This rendition  of Hello Dolly! is the latest piece of evidence that the Muny–under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson–is back on form as befits its illustrious reputation.  This has been another entertaining season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer next summer.  Echoing this show’s title song, I’ll say another enthusiastic hello to the new, improved Muny–it’s nice to have it back where it belongs, at the top of its game. Long may this revitalized tradition continue!

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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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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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

marypoppins

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.

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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.

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