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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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Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane
Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Fox Theatre
January 20, 2015

Paige Faure, Andy Jones Photo: Carol Rossgg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure, Andy Jones
Photo by Carol Rossgg
Cinderella National Tour

The current touring production at the Fox Theatre is billed as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, although this is a version Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves never saw. Based on the Broadway production with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, this touring show is a fairly major expansion of the show that was televised three times in 1957, 1965, and (slightly revised) in 1996, starring Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy respectively. With new characters and a new twist that makes this more than just the story of a girl who wants to go to a ball and meet a prince, it’s an intriguing production with some stunning special effects and sumptuous production values that are really the main attraction here.  It’s a show designed to entertain, and that it does, even despite a somewhat convoluted script and good but somewhat uneven cast.

The story is the familiar one with a French setting, with many of the characters having French names, and Beane’s new plot twists. Here, Cinderella (Paige Faure) is still a young women who is treated essentially as a servant by her haughty stepmother, Madame (Beth Glover). She dreams of more than just marrying a handsome prince, though, and only one of her stepsisters, the self-centered, brassy Charlotte (Aymee Garcia) is mean to her. The other stepsister, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) is sweet but timid, and secretly in love with would-be revolutionary Jean-Michel (David Andino), who wants to talk to the Prince about how he runs the kingdom, and particularly the oppression of the poor.  The problem is that Prince Christopher Rupert, etc., known as Topher (Andy Jones) is fairly clueless about what has been going on in his kingdom, which has been run by his shady adviser Sebastian (Blake Hammond) while the prince has been away at university.  Upon his return, Topher is looking for his purpose in the world and preparing for his coronation. To keep him from asking too many questions, Sebastian suggests he get married, and host a ball so he can meet eligible women and choose one to be his queen. Meanwhile, the kind but mistreated Cinderella sticks up for the mistreated local eccentric, Marie (Kecia Lewis), not realizing that Marie is the fairy godmother who will be able to help Cinderella get to the ball.  All of these plots intertwine and play out slightly differently than the traditional Cinderella story, with the added political angle and an a somewhat contrived ending.

All the well-known songs are here, like “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and “Impossible”, with some additional songs added to support the new script. It’s an admirable attempt to expand the Cinderella story, although there seem to be too many subplots and too neat of a resolution at the end.  The performances are hit-or-miss, as well, but mostly hits.  The strongest impression is made by Faure as the kind but tenacious Cinderella, with her strong stage presence and clear, expressive voice.  She’s paired with the likable Jones as Prince Topher, who has a personable manner and good chemistry with Faure, but lacks a little in stage presence and  noticeably struggles on the higher notes in his songs.  Both stepsisters are standouts as well, with Davidson demonstrating shy sweetness with just the right amount of boldness, working well especially in her scenes with Faure and with Andino’s amiably earnest Jean-Michel. Garcia, for her part, gets a scene-stealing moment with her hilarious song “Stepsister’s Lament” early in Act 2.  There’s also strong work from Antoine L. Smith as royal herald Lord Pinkleton, and Lewis as the eccentric fairy godmother, Marie.   As Sebastian, Hammond is fine although the character is mostly one-dimensional. The weakest link here is Glover as Madame, who underplays the role to the point where most of the character’s best comic moments fall flat.  The leading performers are supported ably by a strong ensemble, in good voice and with a great deal of energy in the dance numbers, executing Josh Rhode’s inventive choreography especially at the ball.

The look and production values of this production are its real strengths.  Anna Louizos’s set takes us into a fairy tale world with an abundance of magic and vibrant color. William Ivey Long’s costumes add to the magical atmosphere as well, in addition to some truly astounding special effects involving characters’ wardrobe transformations, The sometimes whimsical, sometimes romantic mood is set well by Kenneth Posner’s striking lighting, as well. This is a very tech-heavy show, and all the elements blend together seamlessly, making for an enchantingly stylish look and atmosphere.

Cinderella is a much-beloved story that’s been told in many forms over the years, and this latest one has much to recommend it, even though it does have its issues.  What really works more than anything else, though, is its style and spectacle.  Magic is in abundance, and the music is marvelous.  It’s a story that has much appeal for all ages, even with its limitations, it’s an entertaining tale of magic, romance and wonder.

Paige Faure (center) and cast Photo by Carol Rosegg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure (center) and cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Cinderella National Tour

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As anyone who read my last blog entry would know, I was eagerly anticipating NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music, which finally aired last night after months of hype, and it seems like everyone was talking about it online. It was on Twitter, Facebook, the BroadwayWorld message boards, and many other places online, and I can’t remember the last time (if ever) I have seen so much buzz for a theatre-related event among the general public. The show also apparently drew huge ratings for the night, and today, people are still talking about it (good and bad). As for my own thoughts, I think this was overall a positive night for theatre and the production itself was entertaining if not perfect.

This biggest reason for all the hype surrounding this event was the casting of Carrie Underwood as Maria. She was the undisputed main draw of this production, and I defended her casting in my last article when I had only heard clips of her singing and hadn’t seen her act the role, so I was particularly curious to see how she would perform in the show. I think the best way to describe her performance is “un-polished, but earnest”. Underwood was obviously trying her best, emphasizing Maria’s youth and naivete, but her lack of acting experience was apparent.  Early in the performance, she appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by nerves and simply seemed to be reciting lines, except when she sang and she was more in her element. Then, about halfway through the first act, after a particularly rousing and charming rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd” with the well-cast group of Von Trapp children, Underwood started to loosen up, and had some genuinely convincing moments, such as her confrontation of Captain Von Trapp (Stephen Moyer) about his neglect of his children, her reactions to The Mother Abbess’s (Audra McDonald) glorious “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain”, and a nice little moment with McDonald before the Captain and Maria’s wedding, where Underwood seemed to finally let go of any residual nervousness and displayed a warm, genuine smile. Underwood has an inherent likability about her that, I think, made her deficiencies as an actress a little easier to bear, and her voice was strong in the musical numbers. Overall, she came across as a singer and not an actress.  She did seem to have some flashes of acting talent there, though, and I would be curious to see her try more roles in the future, with some training (but starting with smaller projects than this one).

As for the rest of the cast, the Broadway veterans were, to my mind, the real stars of this show. Every moment Audra McDonald was onscreen, she got my attention with her strong, authoritative but warm characterization and that glorious voice of hers, which was best highlighted in the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.   She also seemed to help make Underwood’s performance stronger in all of their scenes together. Laura Benanti was the best Elsa Schraeder I’ve ever seen, bringing all the wit and sophistication, as well as much more sympathy  to the character than usual, and her scenes with Christian Borle as the enterprising Max Detweiler were particularly well done. Borle brought intelligence and charm to his performance, as well, and I was also impressed by the strong performances of Kristine Nielsen as the Von Trapps’ housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Sean Cullen as butler Franz. The children, led by the winning performances of Ariane Rinehart as Liesl, Sophia Caruso as Brigitta and Joe West as Kurt, were well-cast and engaging, performing their scenes with energy and a good sense of familial rapport, and in great voice on numbers like “The Lonely Goatherd” and “The Sound of Music”.

Some of the casting was more problematic, however. Michael Campayno as Rolf the delivery boy is nice-looking and had a good voice, but seemed too old for the much more youthful-looking Rinehart as Liesl, and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had some charm but ultimately lacked believability. Moyer as Captain Von Trapp was more of a one-note characterization, and his chemistry with Underwood seemed more friendly than romantic, but he did have a bit of a nice moment with “Edelweiss” late in the production.

In terms of the production as a whole, which was directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller, I thought it had the look of a daytime soap opera in terms of filming, but the sets by Derek McLane were stunning, from the forested hills to the grandeur of the Abbey and the opulence of the Von Trapp villa.  I also thought the changes between scenes were clever and well-executed, especially the transition from the Von Trapps’ mansion to the music festival towards the end of the show. There were some strange camera angles, though, and too many shots of the backs of people’s heads, and the costuming mostly ranged from good enough (for most of the performers) to unflattering (most of Underwood’s outfits in the second act). The sound was muddled, with an odd background humming during the dialogue scenes. The mixture of the pre-recorded orchestral tracks with the live vocals seemed disjointed, especially in the Abbey scenes with the nuns and at the end when McDonald’s reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was drowned out by the music. Some of the pacing also suffered because of the lack of a live audience, and I hope that if NBC ever does this again with another musical, they will include an audience. I think some of the audience feedback may have helped less-confident actors like Underwood find their energy, and it might have helped with the flow of the production as well.

Despite the production’s flaws, this is an amazing event in terms of exposure for musical theatre to the general public. The net was alive with the buzz surrounding this production last night, and I hope NBC capitalizes on that by producing more live broadcasts of musicals. Perhaps they could find a star performer with a little more confidence in the acting department and have even more success the second time around. Still, even with its limitations, I view The Sound of Music Live as a success, and I’m glad I was able to see it and engage in some great discussions with friends and acquaintances online.  I hope this leads to bigger and better developments for musical theatre on TV in the future.

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There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which airs tomorrow night on NBC and stars country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (from HBO’s True Blood) as Captain Von Trapp. I’m looking forward to this production because I think live theatre on television is a great thing. It harks back to the days of other live musical events such as Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. If this broadcast is successful, I could imagine it leading to more live musical broadcasts in the future, and I hope so. I still keep seeing a lot of skepticism about this production online, though, either because of the casting of Underwood or because people seem to think of this as a remake of the film (which it is not), so I thought I would offer just a little bit of information about this production and what it is, and what it is not.

I know many viewers will be familiar with the movie and not the play, but to quote that great philosopher Yoda—“you must unlearn what you have learned”.   This is The Sound of Music, but in a way you may have never seen before. It’s the same basic story, and there will still be a whole lot of singing, dancing and yodeling, but this is the play, not the film. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind as you watch The Sound of Music Live:

1. “Where’s That Song?” The film adds two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote on his own specifically for that adaptation: “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (Oscar Hammerstein II had died before the film was made). Several stage revivals have added these songs as well, but this production will apparently only be using “Something Good”, which was written to replace the original stage show’s beyond bland love duet, “An Ordinary Couple”, a song Rodgers himself apparently wasn’t happy with. Basically, what you will be seeing here, with one exception, are the songs from the 1959 original Broadway production in their original order and context.

2. “New Songs?” Not so New The original stage play contains two very witty numbers for Max and Elsa—“No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” that are sorely missed (by me, anyway) in the film. I look forward especially to seeing these great songs being performed by celebrated Broadway stars Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, and bringing an air of sharp, sophisticated humor to the show that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

3. The Same, But Different Several of the songs in the show are in different places in the stage play than they are in the film, such as “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd” (there’s no puppet show), and “Do Re Mi” (same general idea, but it’s earlier in the play). Also, “Edelweiss” is in the play, but only in one of the scenes it appears in on film. The plot is the same as the film, but many of the individual scenes and plot developments are different. While I personally think the film script, for the most part, is superior to the stage script, the stage script when performed well is highly engaging and entertaining. It’s all slightly different, but it’s still The Sound of Music, and if this production lives up to its promise, it should be well worth watching.

4. Carrie Underwood as Maria? Why Not? I was dismayed to read that Underwood has received “hate tweets” because she dared take on a role that has been played in such an iconic fashion by Julie Andrews in the film. Underwood, however, has never claimed to be trying to usurp or imitate Andrews, and in fact, nobody “owns” a role. Andrews (who has had nothing but good things to say about Underwood) was not even the first Maria in The Sound of Music, nor was she the last. There have been many excellent and acclaimed stage Marias, starting with Mary Martin on Broadway in 1959 and including Petula Clark (1981 London Revival), Rebecca Luker (1998 Broadway Revival), Connie Fisher (2006 London Revival), and this production’s Elsa Schraeder, Laura Benanti, who (at age 19) replaced Luker in the ’98 revival. The role has been played by countless actresses of varying levels of notoriety in regional and touring productions, as well.

While Andrews’s name and voice will always be associated with the role for many people, and she was certainly wonderful in the film, this is a classic and much-played role, and Carrie Underwood is in excellent company. Whether she is able to convincingly act the part remains to be seen, but judging from the clips I’ve heard of the newly-released Cast Recording, she’s more than up for the task vocally. She has obviously worked hard to learn to adapt her voice from singing country-pop to singing musical theatre, and all that work has paid off. She sounds great, and I hope she’ll be able make a positive impression with her acting as well.

5. All-Star Cast (and they mean it!) Personally, I would be tuning into this production no matter who played Maria, simply because of the extremely talented supporting cast. Apart from Underwood, Moyer, and the children, this show is full of big-name Broadway veterans. Benanti, Borle and the glorious-voiced Audra McDonald (who plays the Mother Abbess) are all Tony winners, and even the nuns’ chorus is chock full of high-caliber Broadway performers, and even leading ladies like Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). There are more Broadway performers in this ensemble than I can easily highlight. This is a theatre geek’s dream, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but even non-Broadway fans should know the depth of talent in this production, and that so many of the cast members from the major supporting players to the ensemble are top-quality performers with years of stage experience.

To sum up my advice—if you don’t know anything but the film, please try to put your pre-conceived notions aside and see this production for what it is. Judge it on its own merits—and it seems to have a lot of them. This is promising to be a truly remarkable television event, and I hope it lives up to that promise.

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Hello readers,

I’m introducing a new feature–Snoop’s Soapbox. I’m not sure how regular this series will be, but whenever there is a theatre-related issue that I feel strong enough about that I just have to write a blog post, this is the heading I will use.  So, here goes:

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while (years, actually), and I finally felt compelled to write about it, partially because I just saw the excellent Muny production of South Pacific and it made me wonder even more why the Muny has continually passed up the opportunity to produce one of the all-time classics of musical theatre and a show that many critics consider to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best, Carousel.  Here are two interesting facts to consider from the back of the Muny program (where they list all the shows they’ve produced and in what years):

1. The last time the Muny put on a production of Carousel was in 1988.  That’s 25 years ago!

2. In those 25 years, the Muny has produced the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows Oklahoma! three times, South Pacific and The Sound of Music four times each, and The King and I five times.

What is the deal, Muny? Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are obviously very popular, but what escapes me is why the Muny would avoid producing one of the team’s best-loved shows in favor of putting on the same four over and over. I’m sure there have been some great productions of those four shows in those 25 years (I’ve seen some of them), but with such a catalog of shows to choose from, why not pick the one show that hasn’t been performed over and over again?  Why not give the audience something “new” for a change?

Also, as I’ve mentioned, Carousel is a celebrated classic of musical theatre. Time magazine rated it the best musical of the 20th century, and Entertainment Weekly included it on its list of the 10 best musicals of all time.  It has been produced many times on Broadway and around the world, and has a brilliant score that contains some beloved classic songs, such as “If I Loved You”, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.  It’s a show that portrays a full spectrum of human emotion, from love, hope and faith to fear, jealousy and anger, from joy and humor to sadness and regret.  It portrays the optimism and occasional foolishness of youth as well as the wisdom and occasional cynicism of age.  It’s a challenge for any director and has some great parts for a variety of actors.  It does feature some intense moments and deals with some controversial issues, but it is ultimately a celebration of life, hope, mercy, redemption and the power of love. It shows the full range of humanity, both good and bad. It’s a truly beautiful musical and I’m sad that the Muny has neglected this show for so long.

Come on, Muny. It’s been 25 years!  Why not give Carousel another spin?

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South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreographed by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

July 8, 2013

southpacific

It’s a tropical atmosphere at the Muny this week, and that’s not just because of the weather.  South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical about an island Naval base in World War II, is being produced this year by the same team that produced The King and I last year, including director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and leading lady Laura Michelle Kelly. Like The King and I, this show addresses issues of cross-cultural relationships and overcoming prejudice, but South Pacific is more of an overt romance that also deals with various situations of military life on a tropical island and the looming specter of war.  All of these themes are very well represented here, in a production that is both true to its classic origins and accessible to present-day audiences at the same time.

This is a story that centers around Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kelly), a Navy nurse who finds herself falling in love with the charming French planter Emile  de Becque (Ben Davis), who is harboring personal secrets that force Nellie to confront some rather unsavory attitudes within herself. Nellie’s story also coincides with that of Lt. Joe Cable (Josh Young), a young officer on a dangerous mission who also has to deal with his own inner conflict as he struggles with his feelings for Liat, the daughter of  the enterprising Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre).  It also deals with the lives of Navy Seabees, exemplified by Luther Billis (Tally Sessions) and his cronies, as they deal with their forced exile on the island away from the comforts of home and–for the most part–the company of women.  There are many classic songs that range from comic (“Honey Bun”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”) to romantic (“Some Enchanted Evening”), to joyous (“I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy”) to caustic (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”) to heartbreakingly regretful (“This Nearly Was Mine”).  It’s an oft-performed classic that’s been given new energy and immediacy in this production by use of simple but ideally suited design elements and with a no less than superb cast.

Kelly, as Nellie Forbush, shines with all the optimism, energy and stage presence needed for the role as exemplified especially in “Cockeyed Optimist” and “Wonderful Guy”, as well as an excellent voice. Despite a slightly uneven Southern accent, she expertly handles both the comic and dramatic aspects of the role, displaying both youthful exuberance and, when necessary, mature reflection such as in the moving reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening”, and her chemistry with Davis is wonderful.  Davis portrays the noble, haunted Emile with considerable charm and magnetism, and his voice on songs like “This Nearly Was Mine” is stunning.  He makes it very easy for the audience to believe why Nellie can fall in love with him in a matter of weeks.  Young, as the conflicted Marine Lt. Cable, displays warmth and cynicism equally well, and his scenes with Liat (Sumi Maida) are intense and compelling.  Ables Sayre, who played Bloody Mary in the celebrated Lincoln Center revival, brings her remarkable performance to the Muny stage, taking a character who could be played as one-dimensional and giving her a fully-realized portrayal–at turns comic, witty, sarcastic and scheming while demonstrating real concern for her daughter.  She brings life to songs like the dreamy “Bali Ha’i” and a surprising desperation to the seemingly upbeat “Happy Talk”.  Also giving a winning performance is Sessions as the endearingly conniving Seabee Luther Billis, and his performance of “Honey Bun” with Kelly is one of the comic highlights of the show.  There is also an excellent ensemble playing the various Navy men, Marines and nurses, with strong voices and a boatload of exuberant energy in the big production numbers.

Adding to the overall atmosphere of this production was the simple but ideally suited set, designed by Michael Schweikardt, consisting primarily of a single revolving set piece with additional elements brought in for various scenes such as the Commanding Officer’s office, the stage for the unit’s Thankgiving revue and the Bali Ha’i set. All of these set pieces worked especially well in the outdoor setting of the Muny, with the real trees flanking the stage augmented by palm trees to suit the tropical location.  There were a few issues with sound, such as microphones cutting out and some crackling that I’ve heard in previous productions this season, but overall, the production achieved the desired effect of transporting the audience to another time and place, and enchantngly so.

This production seems to have been influenced a lot by the Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival, with its simple but elegant set and emphasis on some of the darker aspects of the show as well as the fully realized portrayal of the romance and de-cartoonization of some of the more comic characters (most notably Billis and Bloody Mary).  Overall, this production was a thoroughly engaging presentation that brought a much-honored classic to modern audiences in a thoroughly winning and accessible way.  It’s a demonstration of all that the Muny is capable of and a truly stunning evening of theatre.

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