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1776
Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards, Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Enrique Brown
The Muny
June 27, 2019

Keith Hines, Adam Heller, Robert Petkoff
Photo: The Muny

The third show of the Muny’s 101st season, and the last before a brief break for 4th of July weekend, is, appropriately enough, the classic musical 1776. That seems like ideal timing for this show whose events lead up to the “original” 4th of July–the one the holiday commemorates. It’s a challenging show to do, considering how “talky” it is for a musical as well as the sheer strength of its book. For the most part, the Muny rises to that challenge. Although there were a few opening night “rough edges” to be smoothed out, this is a well-staged production with an excellent cast and superb, deceptively simple staging.

This musical is 50 years old this year, and it still seems as relevant as ever. It’s a unique show, being as book-focused as it is, and although it’s now often compared to the more recent Hamilton, 1776 is a show that stands on its own merits. In its own way, it set a precedent for a musical about the Founding Fathers that treats them not as saintly figures, but as flawed humans who had to make some serious compromises to achieve their goals. It shows how messy politics can be, highlighting hypocrisy in songs like “Molasses to Rum” as well as the devastating effects of war in the still stunning “Momma, Look Sharp”. Yes, there’s some levity here as well, but there’s also real gravity, and seeing it again, I’m surprised at how well it holds up. The story’s focus is on John Adams (Robert Petkoff), but features several figures, both prominent and not as well-known. Thomas Jefferson (Keith Hines) and Benjamin Franklin (Adam Heller) are key figures, as the bombastic Richard Henry Lee (Ryan Andes), the determined conservative John Dickinson (Ben Davis), the calculating South Carolinian Edward Rutledge (Bobby Conte Thornton), and more. It’s a mostly male cast, with only two women–Abigail Adams (Jenny Powers), who appears onstage in a representation of letters that she and her husband John write to one another; and Martha Jefferson (Ali Ewoldt), who appears briefly to visit her distracted husband and sing the memorable “He Plays the Violin”. Otherwise, there are a lot of men–from the members of the Continental Congress to congressional staff workers like secretary Charles Thomson (Gary Glasgow) and custodian Andrew McNair (Harry Bouvy), as well as a courier (Alex Prakken) who brings a series of ominous dispatches from the unseen General George Washington. Of course, we all know how the events turn out, but the suspense is there anyway, courtesy of book writer Peter Stone who has structured the show remarkably well.

In terms of casting, this production is impressive, with strong, energetic performances from the excellent cast that features a large number of local performers and Muny veterans. Petkoff as Adams strikes just the right notes of authority and belligerent determination, with a strong voice on songs like “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” and the stirring “Is Anybody There?”  His chemistry with Powers’s excellent, smoothly sung Abigail, as well as with Hines and Heller as main allies Jefferson and Franklin is superb. There are also standout performances from Davis as the determined Dickinson, Heller as a delightfully witty Franklin, and George Abud in the small-ish but profoundly important role of Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson. Glasgow as Thomson, Thornton as Rutledge, Joneal Joplin as Rhode Island’s rum-loving Stephen Hopkins, and Patrick Blindauer as Maryland’s Samuel Chase were also memorable. There are far too many cast members to mention them all, but despite a few inconsistent accents (mostly from those playing Southern characters) and occasional missed lines, this is an especially strong cast that I imagine will only get better as the show continues to run. Also, the show picks up steam about halfway through Act One and then maintains its momentum and energy until the end.

Technically, this production shines in its simplicity. Considering the significant improvements to the Muny’s stage and technical facilities for this season, I was a little concerned going in that there might be a temptation for this production the get too flashy or elaborate, and I’m glad to see that isn’t the case.  In fact, this production has used its new capabilities in a commendable way to present a straightforward staging while still showing off a marvelously detailed, elegant set by Luke Cantarella that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, as well as featuring memorable video design by Greg Emetaz. There are also detailed, colorful period costumes by Alejo Vietti, as well as effective lighting by John Lasiter. The Muny Orchestra led by music director James Moore is also impressive, even though there are occasional moments where the music overpowers the singers.

1776 has been a favorite of mine since I discovered it as a teenager from seeing the film and then reading the script and listening to the Broadway cast album. This is the third production of the show I’ve seen on stage, and for the most part, it’s an excellent rendition. It’s another strong production for the Muny’s historic 101st season.

Cast of 1776
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting 1776 in Forest Park until July 3, 2019

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Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Gustavo Zajac
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 7, 2018

Sean MacLaughlin, Michelle Aravena
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has opened its newest season with a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita. This is a show that I had heard much of the music to, but had never actually seen. I’m glad the Rep’s production is the first one I’ve been able to see, since it’s stunning, with an especially strong cast and fabulous production values.

Evita is a well-known collaboraton from the celebrated team of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, and after seeing this production, I think it’s Lloyd Webber’s strongest score. With memorable songs like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, “Buenos Aires” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, this is a vibrant score with elements of tango, rock, and operatic styles, sung through and structured like an opera. It tells the story of the celebrated First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 50s, Eva Perón (Michelle Aravena), who starts out as Eva Duarte, rising from obscurity in rural Argentina, moving to the big city of Buenos Aires to become an actress, later meeting and marrying influential Colonel Juan Perón (Sean McLaughlin), and using her influence and popularity with the people to help him win the Presidency. The show, is narrated in a critical manner by Ché (Pepe Nufrio), who represents the common people of Argentina as Eva grows in power, influence and affluence and gains many admirers, who adore her as “Evita”. It’s a well-structured show with many strong musical moments, and a prime opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its lead. Told essentially as flashback starting and ending with Eva’s funeral–accompanied in this production by actual footage projected on a screen above the stag–the story unfolds at a steady pace, examining Eva’s character and influence on her husband’s rise to power, as well as her influence on the general population of Argentina and her eventual inconic status.

I don’t know enough about the real Eva Perón to know exactly how historically accurate it is, but it’s a convincingly told story and a fascinating show, given an impressive staging at the Rep, with those glorious production values that the Rep is known for, including a fabulous unit set and projections by Luke Cantarella, dazzling period costumes by Alejo Vietti, and stunning lighting by John Lasiter. The staging is dynamic, using the turntable to excellent effect, whether it’s comic as in “Goodnight and Thank You” as Eva meets and moves on from a succession of lovers in Buenos Aires, or dramatic as in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, poignantly sung by Perón’s rejected young Mistress (Shea Gomez) after Eva moves in. There’s also energetic choreography with a strong tango influence by Gustavo Zajac, and a first-rate band led by music director Charlie Alterman.

In terms of the cast, since this is Evita, it’s essential to cast that central character well, and the Rep has done that with the outstanding Aravena, who delivers a strong, powerful, and vulnerable performance as Eva. Vocally she is impressive despite a little bit of straining on the higher notes, and her dancing is particularly strong, as is her portrayal of Eva’s emotional journey from ambitious teenager to complicated national icon. She is well-matched by Nufrio, who displays excellent stage presence and a great voice as the challenging, confrontational Che. Her chemistry with MacLaughlin’s equally strong Perón is convincing, as well. There are also memorable performances from Gomez as Perón’s Mistress, and by the smooth-voiced Nicolas Dávila as singer Augustin Magaldi, who first brings Eva to Buenos Aires. There’s also a versatile and energetic ensemble ably supporting the leads in various roles, bringing spark and power to the production numbers such as the Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina”.

Evita is one of the more famous shows that I hadn’t actually seen before, and when I heard the Rep would be producing it I was looking forward to it. I’m happy to say the production has lived up to its promise. It’s a big, visually and vocally impressive show with a stellar cast that does justice to its celebrated score. It’s a great way to start a new season at the Rep.

Cast of Evita
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Evita until September 30, 2018

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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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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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The Music Man
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson, Story by Franklin Lacey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Chris Bailey
The Muny
July 5th, 2016

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster Photo: The Muny

Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, Adam Halpin, Hunter Foster
Photo: The Muny

The Music Man, ideally staged, is a great big, delightfuly corny slice of old-fashioned Americana. It’s been performed at the Muny many times, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. This year, although it’s still a bright, colorful, energetic show with some great technical elements and truly wonderful choreography, it’s somewhat marred by some awkward casting and some bizarre directorial choices.

The story is a familiar one to many theatregoers. Professor Harold Hill (Hunter Foster) is a traveling salesman and smooth-talking con artist who arrives in River City, Iowa with the aim of swindling the townspeople with grand dreams of a boys’ band, and then running off with their money. What Harold doesn’t count on, though, is that this time he will get attached, particularly to earnest young librarian Marian Paroo (Elena Shaddow) and her family, including her feisty Irish mother (Liz McCarthy) and shy little brother Winthrop (Owen Hanford), who is self-conscious because he speaks with a lisp. The town is full of larger-than-life characters, such as the self-absorbed, bumbling Mayor Shinn (Mark Linn-Baker) and his gossipy wife Eulalie (Nancy Anderson). There’s also Harold’s old friend and somewhat reformed accomplice, Marcellus Washburn (Todd Buonopane), and the bickering school board members (Joseph Torello, J.D. Daw, Ben Nordstrom, and Adam Halpin), who through Harold’s influence become a frequently singing barbershop quartet. What Harold doesn’t know is that rival salesman Charlie Cowell (Michael James Reed) is out to expose Harold’s scheme, although what Charlie doesn’t know is that Harold isn’t so sure he wants to go through with the scam anymore.

This is a show that basically demands ideal casting for its title role, and unfortunately the Muny’s production doesn’t get that. Foster, who was outstanding a few years ago as the Pirate King in Pirates! or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d, is miscast as the fast-talking Hill. He noticeably struggles with the rhythm on iconic songs like “Trouble” and “76 Trombones” and stumbles over the lyrics in “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” and “Marian the Librarian”. He also doesn’t quite project that sheer spellbinding energy that is essential for Harold Hill, although his performance does improve in Act 2. Shaddow, as Marian, gives a fine if somewhat laid-back performance as Marian, and she has a great voice, although the chemistry between her and Foster is lacking. The supporting players fare better, with truly excellent comic performances from the amiable Buonopane as Marcellus, and from Linn-Baker and Anderson as the Shinns. The real stand-outs, though, are Torello, Daw, Nordstrom, and Halpin who are truly marvelous as the school board-turned-quartet. There’s also an outstanding ensemble and first-rate dancing on production numbers like “76 Trombones”, “Marian the Libriarian”, and “Shipoopi”.

Visually, the show looks great. There’s a wonderful nostalgic set by Michael Schweikardt that takes full advantage of the Muny stage’s turntable, providing an excellent effect in “76 Trombones” as the ensemble appears to march throughout the town. There are also excellent, colorful period costumes by Amy Clark, superb lighting by John Lasiter, and strong video design by Rob Denton.

This is a wonderful looking show, with some great comic performances and a great ensemble, although some of the alterations to the script are puzzling. For instance, changing the timeline so that Harold arrives the week of Flag Day instead of the 4th of July is not adequately explained. It seems to have been done for no reason other than that the show is being performed during 4th of July week so that the Act 2 “Ice Cream Sociable” can be the “4th of July Sociable”. There’s no apparent “story” reason for the change, and it just comes across as awkward. Still, if you’re looking for a big, bright, musical show with a great old-fashioned score and some incredible dancing, then the Music Man is sure to entertain. It’s not an ideal production, but it does have its moments.

Cast of The Music Man Photo: The Muny

Cast of The Music Man
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Music Man in Forest Park until July 11, 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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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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