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Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder, Music Arranged by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2020

Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Alyssa Wolf, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre continues its tradition of offbeat hits with its latest production of Head Over Heels. Essentially a “jukebox musical” featuring music by pop group The Go-Go’s, this show show incorporates its musical catalog in a clever, crowd-pleasing way that’s more about telling a whimsical story inspired by classic literature and an ancient Greek setting than being a simple tribute to its musical source. It also provides a great opportunity for an excellent cast to showcase their talents as well as a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The plot can get convoluted at times, as a lot is going on here, but it’s a lot of fun, and the occasional confusion is part of the enjoyment. At first, in the kingdom of Arcadia, there are a lot of conflicting goals and motives. The King, Basilius (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Queen, Gynecia (Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer) have two daughters with romantic dilemmas. Younger daughter Philoclea (Melissa Felps) is in love with a rustic shepherd, Musidorus (Clayton Humburg), of whom her father does not approve. Meanwhile, the King is doubling his efforts to find an acceptable suitor for his elder daughter Pamela (Grace Langford), who isn’t interested in any of the men presented, and initially seems to be more in love with herself than anyone else. When the King and his attendant Dametas (Aaron Allen) go to visit the mysterious Oracle Pythio (Tiélere Cheatem), the oracle tells them of a four-fold prophecy which will lead to Arcadia’s losing its “Beat”. The king, determined to foil the prophecy, takes his people on a seemingly aimless journey, where eventually truths are revealed, lies are exposed, and there are a lot of whimsical twists and turns involving the King, Queen, Princesses, the Oracle, Dametas and his daughter, Pamela’s handmaid Mopsa (Jaclyn Amber), and more. 

Don’t think you have to be a fan of the Go-Go’s to enjoy this show. The group has always been more on the periphery of my musical interests, and I wasn’t extremely familiar with their songs beyond their bigger radio hits. Still, this show uses the songs well, and in a setting that might not seem an obvious one for these tunes. Everything from the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat” to other hits such as “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is used in an inventive way that contributes to the story. Especially notable is the fun, cleverly staged “Mad About You”, sung by Musidorus and a chorus of puppet sheep, staged in a hilarious, energetic way that makes it a highlight of the production. There is a message here, of accepting and encouraging change and not being bound to tradition simply for tradition’s sake, as well as some perspectives on challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes, and everything is integrated into the story so that it fits the characters and situations well. Most of all, though, it’s a fun show with a lot of broad comedy and catchy, well-utilized pop tunes that serve the setting surprisingly well, even with the dialogue that’s more Elizabethan-sounding for the most part.

As is to be expected at New Line, the casting is strong, and the singing is especially impressive. Everyone from the leads to the ensemble puts in a winning, energetic performance, with standouts being Langford and Felps as the sisters who are at once different and not-so-different;  Humburg as the lovesick Musidorus, who through the course of the story has to change his appearance in a way that drives a lot of the plot; and Amber as the loyal, determined Mopsa, who both challenges and inspires Pamela. Farmer and Priesmeyer are excellent as the King and Queen, as well, as is Cheatem in a dynamic performance as the oracle Pythio. The chemistry among all the couples is strong, as well, as is the spirit and enthusiasm of the ensemble. There’s some especially clever staging here by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, along with a great band led by music director Nicolas Valdez.

The presentation here is colorful and whimsical, with Rob Lippert’s classically inspired set serving as an ideal backdrop for the action. There are also bright, striking costumes by Courtney Gibson and Sarah Porter that add to the overall tone of the show nicely. Also lending to the overall atmosphere is Kenneth Zinkl’s dazzling lighting. Overall, the look and feel of this production is in keeping with the catchy, bright pop score and the general comic tone that blends the classical and the modern in a cleverly inventive way.

Head Over Heels is another example of one of those shows that seems to fit better in a smaller setting like New Line than on Broadway. Staged at New Line’s home base, the Marcelle Theatre, this show makes the most of the space and the closeness to the audience, who are seated on either side of the performance area here. It’s a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre.

Clayton Humburg and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Head Over Heels at the Marcelle Theatre until March 28, 2020

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Be More Chill
Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Scott Miller
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
June 1, 2019

Cast of Be More Chill
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I brought my son with me to see Be More Chill at New Line Theatre. It’s not the first show I’ve brought him to, or even the first New Line show, but this time, the reason was a little different. This is a show that I’ve seen highly polarizing reactions to, largely on generational lines, so I thought my 19-year-old son might offer a younger perspective that would be helpful. Watching the show together–and talking about it afterwards–was a valuable experience, although from both of our perspectives, the show wasn’t particularly polarizing since we were largely in agreement. For the most part, this is an entertaining show with the great cast, production values, and musicality that I’ve come to expect from New Line. It offers a fun take on old themes, although aside from the packaging there isn’t much “new” about it.

Be More Chill itself has been something of a sensation in its pre-Broadway incarnations, and its current Broadway run is a reflection of that popularity. It has obviously struck a chord with its audiences, and New Line’s production is about as well-presented as I could imagine, although as a show I see it as essentially derivative and–like a lot of the other popular “teen” stories–not particularly reflective of my high school experience (or my son’s 30 years later). There are definitely relatable aspects, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, and better. Still, it may not be revolutionary, but it’s a fun show, with some memorable songs and characters, including protagonist Jeremy (Jayde Mitchell), his longsuffering best friend Michael (Kevin Corpuz), bullying popular kid Rich (Evan Fornachon), and Jeremy’s crush, theatre geek Christine (Grace Langford), who develops an interest in Rich’s buddy Jake (Ian McCreary), who used to date popular girl Chloe (Laura Renfro). Everyone’s life is eventually affected when Rich tells Jeremy about a secret technological advance that can help him be “cool” and get whatever he wants, including Christine. The “Squip”–a microchip that is swallowed as a pill and activated by Mountain Dew–manifests itself to Jeremy in a form (played by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) that resembles Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix and grows more commanding and demanding as the story plays out.

This story is one that’s been told many times before in various forms. It’s a high school “outsider strives to be popular and learns the price of conformity” tale that represents high school in a way that hasn’t changed much since the teen comedy-dramas that were so popular when I was a teenager in the 1980s, except for changes in clothing and music styles and pop culture references. In fact, the themes go back even further than the 1980s, to the 1950s and possibly even earlier than that. One thing this show does well, though, is recognize its influences and celebrate them, from nods to Bye Bye Birdie and other pop culture phenomena through the ages, to those various teen movies that paint high school as a struggle between cliques and outsiders. It also features a Faustian angle and a sci-fi twist that calls to mind a gentler Little Shop of Horrors and directly references another iconic influence, The Matrix.

The staging at New Line is eye-catching, with a versatile, colorful set and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Lippert. Sarah Porter’s costumes are also memorable, reflecting the various personalities of the characters and sci-fi angle as well. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by keyboardist Marc Vincent and strong musical direction by Nicolas Valdez. The choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack is lively and energetic as well, reflecting the pop-rock based score well.

The performances here are the show’s strongest asset, with Mitchell and Corpuz making a believable team as Jeremy and Michael. Corpuz is especially notable for his sympathetic portrayal as Michael questions Jeremy’s treatment as Jeremy falls more and more under the influence of the Squip. Corpuz also gets the show’s most famous song, the catchy, angsty “Michael in the Bathroom” and he makes the most of it, with a dynamic, excellently sung performance. Dowdy-Windsor is also a standout as the stylish, demanding Squip, and Zachary Allen Farmer impresses in several roles, including an apathetic drama teacher and, especially, as Jeremy’s Dad, who has his musical moment with the show’s funniest song, “The Pants Song”. There are also memorable performances from Fornachon as the conflicted Rich, Langford as the earnest Christine, Renfro as “mean girl” Chloe and Melissa Felps as Chloe’s neglected friend Brooke, who develops an interest in Jeremy. It’s a strong, cohesive cast with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and, as is usual for New Line, especially strong singing.

Be More Chill may not be the best “teen” show I’ve seen, but as staged at New Line, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also a great show for people of different generations to watch together, and talk about. It became the catalyst for some meaningful conversations between me and my son. Also, since this is such a highly talked-about show, this production gives St. Louisans an ideal opportunity to see what so many people are talking about. Considering New Line’s size and scale, it may even be a better venue than Broadway for this particular show. It’s a memorable way to close another excellent season at New Line.

Special thanks to my son, John Kenyon, for thoughtful conversations that contributed to this review.

Jayde Mitchell, Kevin Corpuz
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Be More Chill at the Marcelle Theatre until June 22, 2019

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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 2, 2018

Sarah Gene Dowling, Evan Fornachon, Aaron Allen
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Anything Goes is Anything Goes no matter who produces it, right? Well, maybe not. New Line Theatre, known for its productions of edgier and lesser known shows, has taken this classic, “fun” show and given it a presentation that’s in several ways different than what’s come to be expected as usual. There’s an emphasis on satire and less of an emphasis on dance than other productions I’ve seen, but still, it’s Anything Goes, and the overall effect is energetic, smart, and very very funny.

This is a version of the show I haven’t seen on stage before. Most more recent regional productions, and also the 2011 Broadway revival, have been based on the 1987 revival script of the show. For this production, directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor are using the 1962 script of the show, which has the same basic characters and plot as the later revival, but with some differences in specifics and in the songs featured, and also in the prominence of some characters. While evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Sarah Porter) is still a major focus, as is Billy Crocker (Evan Fornachon), the overworked stockbroker in love with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Eileen Engel), and “Public Enemy #13” Moonface Martin (Aaron Allen), but that focus is shifted a little, and through a combination of the different script and New Line’s intuitive directing, we get to see a somewhat different look at these characters, as well as others such as Hope’s seemingly stuffy English fiance, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Zachary Allen Farmer), and Moonface’s partner-in-crime, the brash, flirtatious Bonnie (Sarah Gene Dowling), who was renamed “Erma” in the 1987 version. The focus on dance isn’t quite a prominent here either, but what’s there is still spectacular, along with the ever-present broad, sketch-style comedy, which is perhaps even apparent so than in the other version. Here at New Line, what we get to see is a sharp, witty, tuneful, and well-cast production that’s a delight from start to finish.

New Line artistic director and Anything Goes co-director Scott Miller mentions in his director’s notes in the program the timeliness of this show. Many of the themes, he notes, are just as prominent today as they were in the 1930s, when this show was orginally written, and the time period in which it sill takes place. The show at New Line isn’t as big as other productions I’ve seen, but, especially in terms of costumes (designed by Colene Fornachon and Sarah Porter), it’s as glam and glitzy as anyone would expect. With the sumptuous evening gowns, dapper suits, and varous nautical and gangster attire, the spirit of the 1930s has been brought to the stage well. Rob Lippert’s excellent unit set, representing the luxury ocean liner on which the action takes place, is also on point, as is his equally effective lighting. There’s also great work from the excellent New Line band, doing justice to the marvelous Cole Porter score and outfitted in sailor hats in accordance with the theme of the show, ably led by Music Director and “captain” Nicolas Valdez.

The cast here is a treat, led by the always excellent Porter as the brassy, bold, and also surprisingly vulnerable Reno Sweeney, with standout moments such as the solo “I Get a Kick Out of You”, production numbers “Anything Goes” and “Bow, Gabriel, Blow”, and a fun bit of harmonizing with co-stars Fornachon and Allen in “Friendship”. Her scenes with the wonderful Farmer as the initially jaded, bewildered, and ultimately endearing Sir Evelyn are especially engaging. There’s also top-notch work from Dowling in a scene-stealing performance as Bonnie, and from Allen in an impressive comic term as Moonface, the small-time crook who wishes he were big-time. Fornachon and Engel make a good pair as Billy and Hope, as well, with great duets on “It’s De-Lovely” and “All Through the Night”. Reno is well-supported by her “Angels” Purity (Michelle Sauer), Chastity (Larissa White), Charity (Alyssa Wolf), and Virtue (Sara Rae Womack), and there are also hilarious supporting performances from Kimmie Kidd-Booker as Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt, and Jeffrey M. Wright as Billy’s on-again, off-again boss, Elisha J. Whitney. There’s also a strong ensemble in support. The usually excellent New Line singing is there, of course, joined by impressive, energetic dancing as well.

This is a slightly different Anything Goes than you may be used to, but that’s a good thing. It’s a fresh look at an older show, with a bright, memorable score of hits by a legendary composer, as well as delightful moments of broad comedy and some pointed satirical touches. And the cast is great, as well. It might not be the type of show one might expect from New Line, but the level of excellence is certainly on par with New Line’s best. It’s refreshing, bold, and lots of fun.

Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer, Eileen Engel
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Anything Goes at the Marcelle Theatre until March 24, 2018.

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