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Singin’ In the Rain
Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Directed by Marc Bruni
Choreographed by Rommy Sandhu
The Muny
June 27, 2018

Corbin Bleu Photo: The Muny

Singin’ In the Rain is a well-known, iconic musical made for the silver screen, and about the silver screen and the world of Hollywood at the advent of the “talkie” era in the 1920s. It’s been adapted for the stage and performed in many venues around the world, including five times at the Muny. Now, as part of their 100th season, the Muny has brought this show back to the stage in a spectacular, marvelously staged production that features a strong cast and, of course, wonderful dancing.

Corbin Bleu, known to many fans from his roles in films on the Disney Channel, and especially High School Musical, has since established a successful career on Broadway, most recently taking on the role orginated by Fred Astaire in the stage adaptation of the movie Holiday Inn. Here at the Muny, Bleu follows in the dance steps of another legendary Hollywood hoofer, Gene Kelly, in the leading role of movie star Don Lockwood. He’s joined by Muny veterans Jeffrey Schecter as Lockwood’s longtime friend, pianist and dancer Cosmo Brown, and Berklea Going–who has essentially grown up performing at the Muny–as the aspiring actress and singer Kathy Selden. The story follows these three as they navigate the transition from silent movies to sound films, and particularly movie musicals. The trouble for Don, along with movie producer R.F. Simpson (Jeff McCarthy) and director Roscoe Dexter (George Merrick), is that Don’s longtime co-star, Lina Lamont (Megan Sikora), is not only selfish and limited in acting talent, she also can’t sing and has a shrill speaking voice that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Meanwhile, Kathy and Don meet and fall in love, but the possessive Lina–who has been romantically linked to Don in the press, but not in reality– tries everything she can to keep them apart. Though slight and not particularly deep, the story is a lot of fun, with an old-Hollywood charm and several stylized dance numbers with a lot of energy and flair.

Technically, this show is nothing short of spectacular, with excellent production values remarkably re-creating the look and atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood. Paul Tate dePoo III’s colorful, versatile set and Tristan Raines’s stylish, dazzling costumes are augmented by Greg Emetaz’s striking video design and Nathan W. Scheuer’s impressive atmospheric lighting. The Hollywood glitz and glamor are here in style, accompanied by the excellent Muny orchestra with music direction by Ben Whiteley.

There’s a great cast here, as well. Bleu, as Lockwood, is charming, with excellent dance skills and smooth, classic-style vocals. He’s an ideal choice as the much-loved movie star. Schecter, who was so memorable last year in The Little Mermaid and, especially A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is a delight here as Cosmo Brown, singing and dancing with energy and style, and displaying excellent comic timing. Going, as Kathy, also shows off a strong voice and dances skills, as well as good chemistry with Bleu’s Lockwood. Also standing out is Sikora in a brilliant comic performance as the diva-ish Lina. There are also memorable turns from McCarthy and Merrick, as well as local performer Debby Lennon as Hollywood entertainment reporter Dora Bailey. The ensemble is particularly strong as well, playing a variety of roles as needed and contributing to the truly stunning dance numbers, based on the film numbers originally choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and choregraphed for the Muny by Rommy Sandhu.

This isn’t a particularly deep show, and the ending is somewhat abrupt as staged, but overall it’s a spectacular evening of song, dance, and comedy. It’s a tribute to classic Hollywood with the style, energy, and performers of today. Fortunately, after a rain delay on Opening Night of last week’s show, The Wiz, this show opened on a clear night, despite its title–although it does really “rain” during the show’s splashy signature song. Singin’ In the Rain on stage at the Muny is a whole lot of fun.

Corbin Bleu, Berklea Going, Jeffrey Schecter Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Singin’ In the Rain in Forest Park until July 3, 2018.

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Mike Isaacson

The Muny revealed the lineup for their historic 100th season today, and I was honored to be invited to attend the press conference making the announcement. It looks like the Muny has a lot of exciting events in store to celebrate this milestone year, and as I sat there listening to the announcements, I found I was listening not just as a “member of the press”, but as a fan for whom St. Louis is my adopted hometown. I’ve been seeing shows at the Muny since my family and I first moved here in 2004, and in a fun coincidence, the first show I saw there is one that will also be part of the Muny’s 100th season.

The are many great shows and events planned for next year, as announced by the Muny’s Marketing and Communications director Kwofe Coleman and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, following introductory remarks by the Muny’s President and CEO, Dennis Reagan. In addition to the lineup of seven musicals, there will be parties, an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and a documentary on HCTV as well as Judith Newmark’s continued “Muny history” article series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more information, see the Muny 100 page on their official website.  Now, on to the list!

Dates and exact order will be announced at a later date, but the full line-up of shows is as follows:

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

The Wiz

Singin’ In the Rain

Annie

Gypsy 

Jersey Boys

Meet Me in St. Louis

I have a lot of thoughts about this list, but for the most part, I think it’s a great lineup. In Isaacson’s introductions of the shows, he repeatedly talked about the Muny’s legacy and its historical reputation, as well as the idea of musical theatre as an American innovation. These are all American shows, with some having a long history at the Muny. There are two shows here, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Jersey Boys, that will be regional theatre premieres. There are also time-honored classics and more modern classics. There’s also, as I mentioned above, the first show I ever saw at the Muny, Meet Me In St. Louis, which is an obvious choice considering what this show means for the history of this city.  It’s a lineup that is sure to appeal to a wide audience, as the Muny generally seeks to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Isaacson’s Muny will do with them. Also, while I’m familiar with all of these shows and have seen the movies and/or televised versions of six of them, I’ve only seen three of them live on stage before, so this will be a particularly interesting season for me to cover.  I’m looking forward to it, and to all of the various celebrations the Muny has in store for their 100th season.

 

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I love London! As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best theatre city on earth.  I’ve written that before, but having been to New York relatively recently, on my most recent trip to London (late last month) I was able to more directly compare. London is still the winner in my eyes.  New York has a lot going for it and I would love the chance to go there again, but London is where my heart is.  It’s a big city with a lot of English charm and international appeal as well as great beer and the best curry I’ve ever tasted, and shows as good as any you can see on Broadway. Also, the theatre scene seems more accessible than Broadway–it doesn’t seem as heavily commercialized and it’s definitely a more leisurely experience.  There’s no lining up outside the theatre and then being herded in and out like what happens at Broadway shows.  You can show up relatively early, get a drink in the bar and chat with your friends with less of a rush, and then get settled into your seat for a great show.

I want to further explore the “London vs. Broadway” topic in a future blog, but now it’s time to focus on London.  The shows, of course, are world-class, and I was fortunately able to see six of them when I was there.  This time, instead of reviewing them all in one blog entry, I’m going to publish my report in three parts with two shows in each installment.  Here are the first two:

Singin’ In the Rain

Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Choreographed by Andrew Wright

Directed by Jonathan Church

Palace Theatre, London

October 24, 2012

I made a last-minute decision to see this show when I couldn’t get return tickets for Matilda (although I did manage to later–more on that in Part 3).  The front of the theatre (above) was so eye-catching that I thought, why not?  I had also heard good things about this production, so I bought a matinee ticket and hoped this would be better than the last time I saw this show on stage (the Muny two years ago, which I liked but didn’t love).  I was very curious to see if the classic Gene Kelly musical could be staged without looking like a museum piece, and I was very happy to see that it could.  This production is fresh, energetic and full of life and undeniable charm.  It was a fitting tribute to the film without being a direct copy or pale imitation.

This production takes us back to the Hollywood of the late 1920s, as the industry is shifting from silent films to talkies, and the movie stars have varying degrees of success making the transition.  The atmosphere is set well from the beginning, as the lights come up on a studio back lot and we see the various performers, directors and crew preparing for filming, and then later as we witness the premiere of the latest hit motion picture featuring the popular romantic duo of Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) and Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley).  We soon learn, however, that this seemingly blissful pair is anything but, and the story unfolds as Lockwood meets aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Scarlett Strallen) and encounters the difficulties of nurturing a new relationship in the midst of the Hollywood limelight and a clingy, controlling would-be fiancee with plans of her own.

The cast is great all around.  The three main leads are perfectly cast. Adam Cooper as movie star Lockwood has the look of a classic matinee idol–tall, broad-shouldered and handsome–with the charm and dancing ability to match. He’s very well-paired with Scarlett Strallen who makes a convincing and slightly quirky Kathy Selden.  Her singing and dancing are both wonderful as well, and the chemistry between her and Cooper is electric.  The central trio is nicely balanced out by Daniel Crossley as Lockwood’s longtime friend, the witty writer-composer Cosmo Brown.  His portrayal is both funny and charming, and his acrobatic dancing is a real delight.  Katherine Kingsley also makes a fun comic turn as Lina Lamont, Lockwood’s frequent co-star who possesses a voice and attitude that makes the transition to talking films problematic to say the least.  She invests a vindictive energy to the role and proves an effective foil to Lockwood and Selden.  I was also surprised to see Robert Powell (who I remember as Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazereth miniseries) in a fun, solid performance as producer R.F. Simpson.  The well-cast ensemble rounds out the cast with a great deal of energy and remarkable dancing ability.

This is simply a fun show.  I love all the old-school Hollywood references and the dancing is strong and energetic.  All the classic songs from the film are here and delightfully performed–from “Make ‘Em Laugh” to “Good Morning” to the famous title song complete with sprinklers overhead to provide the rain, which puddles up on stage as Cooper dances, playfully kicking water into the first few rows of seats to the delighted and shocked gasps of the audience.

The entire production is a joy from start to finish, from the action on stage during the overture to the singing, dancing and raining curtain call (with more water kicked into the audience).  I’m so glad I decided to see this show.  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience.

Loserville

Book, Music and Lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne

Choreographed by Nick Winston

Directed by Steven Dexter

Garrick Theatre, London

October 26, 2012

I was very pleased to get a chance to see this brand new original musical at the Garrick Theatre. Loserville is the brainchild of James Bourne, formerly of British bands Busted and Son of Dork, and veteran musical writer Elliot Davis. As an American, I was unfamiliar with Bourne’s musical career, but the British friends I was with told me that some of the music sounded a lot like Busted. For me, this was all new material, although I recognized the bright, crunchy sounds of the pop-punk genre. That might sound like a strange style of music for a show set in 1971, but it works. This isn’t a show that’s trying for meticulous period accuracy—in fact, the costumes and setting often look more 1981 than 1971, and there are a lot of elements that seem more from the 2000’s as well, but that really doesn’t matter because the bottom line is that this show is simply a whole lot of fun.

It’s a fairly simple American high school story with elements that have appeared in many a show and film–geeks vs. jocks, appearance vs. intelligence and young people exploring their purpose in life and pursuing their dreams.  The central figure here is the aptly-named Michael Dork (Aaron Sidwell), a self-described “geek in a garage” whose dream is to discover the secret of communication between computers and send the world’s first e-mail message.  His gang of fellow-geeks have their own dreams as well.  Marvin (Daniel Buckley) and Francis (Li’l Chris), sci-fi enthusiasts who have memorized the scripts of every episode of Star Trek, aim to build a winning starship for a contest at an upcoming science fiction convention. Meanwhile, Michael’s best friend Lucas (Richard Lowe) has dreams to write his own sci-fi epic that sounds suspiciously like Star Wars.  Both Michael and Lucas are attracted to Holly (Eliza Hope Bennett), a brainy new girl with secrets of her own, and all of the geeks are terrorized by big man on campus Eddie (Stewart Clarke), a rich kid and jock who seeks to steal Michael’s ideas.  There is also Eddie’s girlfriend Leia (Charlotte Harwood), who just wants the status quo to stay as it is, and an ensemble of jocks, nerds and popular girls to round out the young, energetic cast.

The players here are very well-cast, led by Sidwell as the endearingly earnest Michael and Bennett as the smart and determined Holly.  These two work very well together and have convincing chemistry.  Also, Clarke is an effective and occasionally sympathetic villain as Eddie, and Lowe is particularly strong and funny as Lucas. The plot about his book provides some of the show’s funniest jokes, and the science fiction convention plot is a lot of fun as well, providing some great moments for Buckley and Li’l Chris as Marvin and Francis. It’s difficult to single out too many actors, though, because it’s a very strong cast all around, and the American high school atmosphere is convincingly portrayed by all. The American accents are excellent as well, for the most part.

The look and sound of this show is bright, whimsical and fun. The set is very inventive.  It’s a lot of metal and plastic framework and lots of cartoony elements, such as brightly colored backdrops held up by cast members in several scenes.   There are also placards with the names of cast members that get held up for the “opening credits” at the beginning and the “end credits” at the curtain call, providing the look and feel of a classic sitcom.  The music is upbeat and fun, with stand-out songs like “We Are Not Alone”, “Ticket Out of Loserville”, “Holly, I’m the One” and “Living In the Future Now”.

It’s very fitting that the logo for this show includes a letter “v” that looks like a heart, because the driving force of this show is its heart.  There is so much enthusiasm here by a talented young cast that really believes in this show. The belief and enthusiasm are contagious, and even though the book isn’t perfect, that really doesn’t matter in the end in a show like this. These are likeable characters with a cause that’s easy to believe in.  The overall message seems to be that the world can be changed through hard work, determination and lots and lots of heart.  It’s fun to think of these high school students pursuing their dreams and realizing that they are played by a talented cast made up largely of recent drama school graduates, all of whom have very promising futures ahead of them.  I expect to hear a lot more from many of these performers in the future.  There was also a lot of enthusiasm from the audience the night I was there.  This is a real crowd-pleaser of a show, with a young cast and aimed at a young audience.  I don’t think I’m in its target demographic, but I enjoyed it very much anyway.

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The Muny is not without its quirks.  It’s a beloved St. Louis institution, and while there are plenty of other outdoor theatres in America and around the world, the Muny is a unique entity.  It is often a study in contrasts, as I experienced in attending their two most recent productions.  It’s interesting how a theatre as famous for its huge stage and large-cast, flashy productions can sometimes be so successful with a smaller-scale show and (at least somewhat) miss the mark on a bigger, flashier show.  Here are my short reviews:

Singin’ In the Rain

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Directed by Rick Conant

July 18, 2011

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So, here we have come to that time at the Muny.  I knew it would happen, because it seems to most seasons, except last year because I only saw three shows.  The deal is, most years at the Muny there is a production (or two or three) that I mostly enjoy, but the rest of the audience seems to absolutely love and I just don’t understand all the enthusiasm.   This season, that time came with Singin’ In the Rain.  It was not a bad production by any means, but it paled in comparison to the film on which it is based, and a few of the performers seemed to be just going through the motions, except in the spectacular dancing.  I did like the production, for the most part, but compared to the other shows I’ve seen at the Muny this season, this one was definitely not up to their level.

I guess my biggest problem was that the show never felt like it was real. The dancing was wonderful, and the perfomers tried their best–Tony Yazbeck and Shannon M. O’Brien were fine as movie star Don Lockwood and up-and-coming actress Kathy Selden, and Michele Ragusa as the show’s villain, screechy-voiced diva Lina Lamont, had some great moments even though she only truly seemed to “let loose” in her one solo song “What’s Wrong With Me”.  Curtis Holbrook as pianist Cosmo Brown was my favorite performer in the show, giving a truly charming performance with excellent comedy skills and spectacular acrobatic dancing as highlighted in “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Good Mornin'” and “Moses”.  James Anthony as studio boss R. F. Simpson and John Freimann as move director Roscoe Dexter  were also fun in their roles, but for a lot of the time it  all seemed like the actors were just going from place to place and saying their lines, trying as much as the could to evoke the spirit of the film, but it all felt somewhat artificial.  In the opening sequence, for example, we supposed to be witnessing a grand film premiere in the 1920s, attended by glittering silent screen stars and their adoring fans, but it just seemed like a costume party to me.   The only times I felt truly transported were during the dance segments, as exemplified by the fun title number (complete with “real” rain), and the “Broadway Melody” number in the second act.

The costumes and sets were adequate but not particularly striking, and the overall experience for me was of watching a not-entirely-successful attempt at recreating the look and feel of the film.  It was an enjoyable evening for the most part, but I found myself wishing the whole cast had more energy, particularly in the acting.  Allow me to mention again, though, how much I loved the dancing!

Little Shop of Horrors

Music by Alan Menken, Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman

Directed by John Miller-Stephany

July 25, 2011

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This show is about as different as you can get from Singin’ In the Rain, but I think the Muny’s production in this case was much more successful.  Based on a B-grade horror film from the early 1960’s, this story of a nerd who finds a strange plant that turns out to be a maneater is full of dark humor, real sympathy and strong performances.  It’s not the type of show that I would normally imagine for this venue, as it has a very small cast by Muny standards and the subject matter is darker than typical Muny offerings, but this was a very well-imagined, excellently performed production and I was amazed at how well it worked on the huge Muny stage.

The performances in this production were universally excellent, with special kudos to Michael Latini (manipulation) and Muny regular Ken Page (voice) for bringing the bloodthirsty plant Audrey II to menacing life.  Rob McClure, made a convincing Seymour both with the comedic and dramatic elements of the story, while Alli Mauzy as the object of his affections, flower shop clerk Audrey, was effectively ditzy and  sympathetic, and their duet “Suddenly Seymour” was a highlight.  They were capably supported by Clarke Thorell in several roles, most notably Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, Orin.  The cast was rounded out by the excellent “Greek Chorus” of 60’s style “girl group” singers, Crystal (Alicia Deslorieux), Chiffon (Brene’ Jackson) and Ronette (Jen Brissman), who commanded the stage well with their tight harmonies and sassy attitude.

This show was able to maintain a tone of dark comedy as well as increasingly menacing horror throughout the evening, and the ending was particularly effective.  I loved how much time was taken to do this show right. Nothing was rushed.  Every joke was earned, and the horror elements were suitably frightening. I particularly remember the protracted moment of silence following Audrey II’s first spoken lines that made the scene that much funnier simply because of the timing of it.  Kudos to McClure especially for his reactions to the plant. The whole cast worked so well together and the plant itself was a fully realized character.  The increasingly chilling atmosphere of the piece was handled perfectly, as well.

This was a smaller show than the Muny usually does, but the excellent cast filled the giant Muny stage well, and the sets effectively portrayed the rundown inner-city neighborhood of the story.  Everything–costumes, props, sets, actors, and the magnificent Audrey II puppets, contributed to telling a compelling, alternately hilarious and horrifying story.  It was a truly transporting experience.

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