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Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 17, 2019

James Patterson, Patrick John Moran (center) and cast of Man of La Mancha
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

With the closing production of its 2019 season, STAGES St. Louis has brought a classic to the stage with a great deal of energy and heart. Man of La Mancha may be a much-staged musical from the 1960s, but in this remarkable production, the energy and strength of the casting makes it seem brand new. That, and a particularly striking set.

Man of La Mancha, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes classic 17th Century novel Don Quixote, is one of those shows that I had heard the music to many times, but I had never actually seen it onstage before. I wore out my cassette tape of the cast album when I was a teenager, and I even read the script, but I never managed to catch a production, until now. I can’t think of a better full-scale introduction to the show than this one. It’s ideal, in many ways, considering the aspirational tone of it, encouraging the challenging of norms and pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals, and overall a sense of basic human dignity that is celebrated, while also showing the dehumanizing effects of forced conformity and rigid societal expectations. The story also has has a play-within-a-play structure that works especially well in introducing and reiterating its themes. It follows the story of writer/actor Cervantes (James Patterson), who is sent to a holding cell, joining many others, awaiting an audience with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, he is put on “trial” by his fellow inmates, led by the stern but fair “Governor” (Steve Isom) and the more cynical Duke (Ryan Jesse). In his own defense, Cervantes and his manservant (Patrick John Moran) begin a theatrical telling of the work-in-progress story of Don Quixote, employing theatrical makeup and props to help tell the story as Cervantes “becomes” Quixote and the manservant becomes Quixote’s devoted squire, Sancho Panza. The cellmates are then incorporated into the story, with the Governor becoming a kind but weary innkeeper, the Duke becoming the skeptical Dr Carrasco, who is engaged to Antonia (Julie Hanson), the niece of the ailing old man, Alonso Quijano, who sees himself as Quixote. The seemingly impossibly idealistic Quixote sees the world very differently than those around him–a small country inn is a castle, its Innkeeper is the Lord of the castle. Scullery wench Aldonza (Amanda Robles) is seen as a noble lady, Dulcinea, much to her own consternation and to the ridicule of a group of surly and eventually abusive Muleteers. A barber’s shaving basin, which the barber (Ryan Cooper) wears on his head as he travels, is seen as the coveted “Golden Helmet of Mambrino”, and Quixote is determined to prove himself worthy and attain a formal knighthood. He is seen as foolish and even dangerous by many around him, including his own family who try to bring him back to his senses, as well as the Muleteers who belittle him and, at first, Aldonza who finds herself gradually fascinated with this odd stranger who treats her like a lady when seemingly everyone else in her life has treated her as a commodity.  The overall message of the show seems to be mostly about dreams, and the effects of seeing people as who they can be versus what society expects and/or forces them to be. Quixote is an intriguing figure, who can be seen as either a hero or a fool, or as both at once. Also, there’s an overall theme of challenging convention that rings true with the show’s 60s origins, and the tone of the piece, while gritty at times, is ultimately about hope and potential, with the oft-recorded song “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” as its theme. The score features many other memorable songs as well, from the stirring title song to the ballad “Dulcinea” to various comical songs to the blistering “Aldonza”. It’s a show that runs the gamut of emotions, with a tone that’s alternately comic and dark, with some harrowing depictions of violence, and abuse as well as stark representations of poverty and authoritarian oppression. It’s seen as a classic musical with an uplifting score, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and this production shows that with credible skill and a first-rate cast.

Patterson leads the cast with authority, charm, and a powerful voice in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, bringing the audience along on his idealistic journey as well the occasional sharp reminders of the reality in which he lives. He’s got a great rapport with the truly excellent Moran as the devoted, supportive Sancho, as well. Moran’s performance is a notable highlight, as well. Also strong is Robles as the mistreated, increasingly conflicted Aldonza, who struggles between wanting to believe what the world has always told her about herself vs. the enticing words of the kindly but seemingly foolish Quixote. Other standouts include Isom in contrasting roles as the authoritative Governor and the well-meaning Innkeeper; Jesse as the challenging Duke and determined Dr Carrasco; and Sean Jones as the brutal leader of the Muleteers, Pedro. It’s a strong cast all-around, with much energy and musical ability, along with some remarkable dancing expertly choreographed by Dana Lewis.

Technically, this is the most impressive production I’ve ever seen at STAGES, with its remarkably detailed, stunningly evocative set by James Wolk and fantastic lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There’s a strong sense of theatricality about this production, and Brad Musgrove’s detailed costumes lend to that atmosphere especially well, along with the well-paced staging, especially notable in the thrilling transition as Cervantes puts on his makeup and becomes Don Quixote before our eyes. The overall musicality is plainly evident as well, with musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and strong voices all around.

Man of La Mancha as a show is what I expected it to be, and more. This production at STAGES is so finely staged that I was able to get the 60s tone of it while also seeing it as enduringly timeless. There’s more darkness here than you may expect, but the overall theme is one of perseverance and hope. It’s an “Impossible Dream”, perhaps, but STAGES has brought out the possibilities of this show with clarity and emotion. This one is not to be missed.

Patrick John Moran, James Patterson, Amanda Robles, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Man of La Mancha at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 6, 2019

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Grease
Book, Music, and Lyrics Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Additonal Songs by Barry Alan Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, Scott Simon
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 24, 2019

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Grease is an unusual show, especially for one so popular. A perennial crowd-pleaser, the show has been altered a lot since its Broadway debut in 1972 and subsequent mega-hit film version in 1978. In fact, it’s the film’s ubiquitous hit status that has affected this show the most, with most major productions and big-scale revivals including songs from the movie and sometimes even changing the plot and order of scenes/songs to more reflect the film. I’ve seen the show on stage several times, and it’s never been the same show. Now the show is featured as the second entry in the 2019 season at STAGES St. Louis, and as is usual for this musical, the crowd loves it. It’s an entertaining show, with an enthusiastic cast and the familiar songs that basically everyone recognizes now. Here, although the version being staged greater highlights the differences between the original play and the film, and how awkward blending them can be, the cast and creative team have worked together to present a show where the music, 50s style theme, and especially the dancing are at the forefront, making for a fun show overall.

Grease is so well-known that a detailed plot summary isn’t that necessary, except in terms of how the stage version differs from the film. It’s still the story of “bad boy” greaser Danny Zuko (Sam Harvey) and “good-girl” new girl in school Sandy Dumbrowski (Summerisa Bell Stevens), who have to deal with the pressures from various groups around them after they unexpectedly reunite at Rydell High School after an idyllic summer romance at the beach. The T-Birds, led by Danny and his best buddy Kenickie (Jesse Corbin) are here as an influence on Danny, and the Pink Ladies, led by tough-talking Betty Rizzo (Morgan Cowling) awkwardly bring Sandy into their group after she’s befriended by wanna-be beautician Pink Lady Frenchy (Lucy Moon).  Those basic plots are the same in the film and the original stage show, but the songlist is different and some of the scenes have been changed around, as well as the tone and message being generally harsher, grittier, and more crass in the stage show, although most revivals have “smoothed out” the grittiness. This one tries to keep it for the most part, although the mix is somewhat odd because the movie songs (especially “You’re The One That I Want” instead of “All Choked Up”) don’t exactly fit, and the context doesn’t always work as well. Also, whether you see the ultimate message as problematic or empowering (I’ve seen both arguments), it seems more abrupt and somewhat muddled in this version. Also, the sanitized versions of the songs (especially “Greased Lightning”) are used here, which doesn’t mix as well with the grittier tone of the stage script.

Still, this production entertains, even with the awkwardness of the mix between sources. The emphasis this time is on the styling, musical performances, and 50s-style choreography by Tony Gonzalez, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm from a strong ensemble. The leads are good, particularly Harvey’s charmingly goofy Danny, but the real standouts are the “supporting” T-Birds and Pink Ladies, especially Brooke Shapiro as Jan and Collin O’Connor as Roger, who make a fun couple and whose “Mooning” number is a highlight, as well as Julia Johanos as the more worldly Marty, and Patrick Mobley as Doody, who brings a youthful energy to his role as the rock-star wannabe T-Bird. The chemistry between the various cast members is also strong, bringing joyful style to songs like “We Go Together”, as well. Also excellent is Kenora Lynn Lucas in a dual role as a big-voiced Teen Angel in the show-stopping “Beauty School Dropout” number and as strict teacher/principal Miss Lynch, hilariously delivering the pre-show announcements in character to the start off the show on a fun note.

Technically, this production is excellent, with a fun, colorful set by James Wolk featuring a backdrop resembling an old-style jukebox, and vibrant lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also memorable, colorful and true to the period. This is a great looking show visually, and the energetic choreography gives it an upbeat tone overall.

While no two versions of Grease are the same in my experience, this is a show that can draw an audience on its name alone. At STAGES, the emphasis is on style, dancing, and ensemble energy. Even with some of the odd mixture between versions, this is a fun show, sure to entertain.

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Grease at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 18, 2019

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The Boy From Oz
Music and Lyrics by Peter Allen
Book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
June 5, 2019

David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

If you didn’t know a lot about Peter Allen before, The Boy From Oz at STAGES St. Louis will educate you. A singer/songwriter and entertainer known for his songs, his flashy stage show, and his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli, Allen becomes the larger-than-life focus of this star-vehicle of a musical. It starred Hugh Jackman on Broadway, but the STAGES production has a dazzling star of its own who, along with an excellent supporting cast, makes this a lively, dazzling spectacular of a show.

The story, narrated by Allen (David Elder), follows the entertainer from his childhood days in Australia. Young Peter Woolnough (Ben Iken, alternating with Simon Desilets) takes up dancing at an early age, encouraged by his mother Marion (Corrine Melançon) and largely ignored by his violent, alcoholic father Dick (Steve Isom) who dies when Peter is still young. As Peter ages into his teens, he teams up with another singer and musician, Chris Bell (Erik Nelson) to form an act known as “The Allen Brothers”, gaining notoriety in their home country and, eventually, overseas. Peter is eventually noticed by the legendary Judy Garland (Michele Ragusa), and the “brothers” become her opening act for her concerts. He also meets and quickly forms a bond with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli (Caitlyn Caughell). The two marry, but eventually separate when Peter comes out as gay. The second act follows Peter through the 1970s and 80s, as he finds new love with partner Greg Connell (Zach Trimmer) and a new manager in Dee Anthony (also Isom), and he develops the flashy, glittery performance style for which he became known. It also follows Peter’s relationship with his mother over the years, and features many of the well-known songs that he wrote or co-wrote, including “I Honestly Love You”, “Everything Old Is New Again”, and the bouncy “I Go To Rio”. It’s a tuneful, energetic show that follows Peter Allen’s life with all its highs, lows, triumphs, and tragedies.

Like the better “jukebox” musicals, The Boy From Oz has a solid book and a compelling story, but this one works especially well as a vehicle for whoever plays Peter. Here, that role is filled by Elder, who is absolutely the star of the show–no question. As Peter, Elder radiates charm, charisma, and energy as he sings and dances his way through the story, even taking some moments to interact with the audience along the way. This is a role for a showman, and Elder is definitely that. He has excellent chemistry with his co-stars, as well. The supporting cast is also strong, with the standouts being Melançon in one of her best roles at STAGES in a poignant turn as Peter’s mother, and Caughell as a vibrant Liza Minnelli. Keiser and Trimmer are also excellent in their small-ish roles as Peter’s first performing partner and his most enduring romantic partner, and Isom is good as usual in his dual role as Peter’s father and, later, as his manager. Ragusa gives a fine performance as Garland, as well, for the most part, although she does seem to be trying so hard to “act” like Garland that it comes across as more of an impression than an authentic performance. There’s a great ensemble of singers and dancers to back up Elder and the supporting cast, as well, with the big, flashy production numbers being a major highlight of the show.

Production-wise, the show looks as great as it sounds, with a colorful set by James Wolk, dazzling costumes by Brad Musgrove, and splashy lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The changing eras from the 1930s through the 1990s are vividly portrayed here, with the changing times reflected in the changing life of its central figure.  It’s dynamically staged, as well, with energetic choreography by Dana Lewis and musical staging by director Michael Hamilton.

The Boy From Oz is a show I didn’t know much about before seeing this production, aside from who starred in the Broadway production. STAGES has brought the show to St. Louis now, with a star who may not have the name recognition of Hugh Jackman, but who has all the presence and star quality that anyone could ask for in the leading role. David Elder is the star here, and he and the rest of the excellent cast are definitely worth seeing. This is a terrific way to start a new season for STAGES.

Corinne Melançon, David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting The Boy From Oz at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 30, 2019

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson, Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 25, 2018

Dan’yelle Williamson, Corinne Melançon, Dana Winkle
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

When someone says the phrase “jukebox musical”, the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people is Mamma Mia! Featuring the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA, a large cast of characters, and a sunny, summery setting, this isn’t a deep show but it’s still a lot of fun. Now STAGES St. Louis is staging a production that emhpasizes the “fun”, and the infectious score, with a light, summery atmosphere that works well in the middle of July in St. Louis.

The story of Mamma Mia! is only a small part of its appeal. It’s actually kind of a goofy story, but the show doesn’t claim to be anything deep or challenging. It’s just a celebration of family, friendship, and most of all, ABBA music. The classic hits are all here, from the energetic title tune to iconic disco-era hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me”, and many more. The story follows young Sophie Sheridan (Summerisa Bell Stevens) as she prepares for her wedding at a small Greek Island resort owned by her mother, former singer Donna (Corinne Melançon). Neither Donna nor Sophie’s fiance Sky (David Sajewich) know that Sophie has found Donna’s diary from years ago that reveals the identities of three men who could possibly be Sophie’s biological father. Now, Sophie has invited all three of them–American architect Sam (Gregg Goodbroad), British banker Harry (David Schmittou), and Australian writer Bill (Steve Isom)–to her wedding. Also in town for the festivities are Donna’s longtime friends and former bandmates Tanya (Dana Winkle) and Rosie (Dan’yelle Williamson), who reminisce about their days as Donna and the Dynamos and get involved in the pre-wedding shenanigans that ensue when all three men turn up to Donna’s surprise, and dismay.  The plot is kind of thin, but it provides a suitable backdrop for the obvious centerpiece of the show, which is the music and the big, cleverly and sometimes hilariously staged production numbers. It’s a sweet show with a message of love and family acceptance, with some amusing character moments, but the real star of the show is ABBA.

The casting here is strong, for the most part. Everyone is obviously having a great time, and the energy is fun and infectious. Melançon and Stevens display a strong, believable mother-daughter relationship as Donna and Sophie, and they sing well, although some of the songs don’t seem to naturally fit Melançon’s voice. She’s at her best in the slower songs, with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the emotional “The Winner Takes It All” as highlights. Stevens also has strong chemistry with Sajewich’s devoted Sky and with all three potential “dads”, who are all strong as well. Other standouts include Winkle and Williamson, who display great stage presence, excellent comic timing, and powerful vocals. There’s also a strong ensemble that brings a lot of energy to the bigger musical numbers as well, performing Tony Gonzalez’s whimsical, inventive choreography with style.

Visually, the show looks great. James Wolk’s mult-level set adapts the island resort setting well for STAGES’s space. There are also excellent, colorful costumes by Brad Musgrove that help to capture the spirit of the show, including the glitzy disco-inspired jumpsuits and more. There’s also great atmospheric lighting by Sean M. Savoie.

Overall, this production of Mamma Mia! is a fun, spirited staging that definitely pleased the enthusiastic opening night audience. It’s one of those shows that’s essentially about enjoying the music and performances and not thinking too much about the plot. At STAGES, there’s a good cast, great production values, and above all, a whole lot of fun.

Corinne Melançon, Summerisa Bell Stevens
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Mamma Mia! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 19, 2018

 

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I Do! I Do!
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
June 6 and 7, 2018

Corrine Melançon, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is kicking off their new season with one production that’s also, in a way, two. A classic two-person musical tracing the history of a marriage, I DO! I DO! is doing something slightly different this year, in that it has not one cast, but two. On alternating days, audiences can see the “Purple Cast” or the “Red Cast”. The show itself is entertaining with a slight, somehwhat problematic book and a strong, memorable score, ultimately serving as an excellent showcase for the performers in both casts, each bringing their unique talents and chemistry to this production.

The story is essentially “marriage in a nutshell”–a look at a 50 year marriage that tries to do a little too much and is somewhat dated in its portrayal (even as a period piece), although it has its strong moments, particularly in the songs. Following the story of Agnes and Michael from their wedding day until the day they move out their house, the story touches on a lot of familiar marriage tropes–the honeymoon stage, new parenthood, disillusionment, temptations to infidelity, midlife crises, growing old together, and more. It’s a fun show, for the most part, with catchy songs and some insightful moments and a genuinely touching finale, but the show also tries to cover too many issues sometimes, to the point where they are only given cursory and/or stereotypical treatment, and conflicts get brought up and resolved much too easily, especially at the end of Act 1. Still, the second act works a lot better, although it’s also filled with its share of cliches. For the most part, though, this is just a fun show, here as a showase for its performers and to highlight some memorable songs from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Essentially, the biggest strength of a show like this is in casting, and this production boasts not one, but two excellent pairs in the leads. Both casts feature one local performer and one New York-based performer, and both casts bring different strengths and insights into the material. The “Purple Cast”–Corrine Melançon as Agnes and Steve Isom as Michael–and the “Red Cast”–Kari Ely and David Schmittou–are excellent in their own ways, with some moments standing out more with one cast, and some with the other. Both Michaels, Isom and Schmittou, have excellent stage presence and carry off the “song-and-dance” aspects of the role well, with Schmittou displaying especially strong chemistry with Ely in the “older” scenes in Act 2, and Isom standing out more in the “gleefully self-important” and smarmy moments for the character, such as Act 1’s “A Well-Known Fact”.  The biggest contrast is in the portrayers of Agnes, with Melançon the more polished singer and dancer, shining in moments like Act 1’s “Flaming Agnes”, and Ely bringing a more reflective portrayal, making Agnes’s journey through midlife self-doubt in Act 2–embodied in the song “What Is a Woman” and the scenes that follow–especially convincing. Both couples portray convincing chemistry, portraying the aging of the characters through the years well, and both do the best they can to make the somewhat clunky resolution to Act 1 work, with the “Purple Cast” doing a slightly more convincing job, but really, that scene is the script’s problem and no matter how great the performers are, it’s still kind of hard to believe. The strength here in general is in the connection between Agnes and Michael as a couple, and both pairs portray that well in their own unique ways.

The technical aspects here are simple but well-done, although with at least one confusing costume choice. Michael Hamilton’s direction and choreography are energetic and well-paced, and James Wolk’s set–which is essentially just a few furniture pieces and a bed that slides on and offstage as needed–is simple and effective, and Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is also excellent. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are, for the most part, meticulously detailed and period-accurate covering the first 50 years of the 20th century, although Agnes’s costume and wig in the first part of Act 2 look more like something out of the 1970s than the 1920s. Still, for the most part the production values are strong, as is usual for STAGES. I also like the idea–apparently used in all productions of this show–of the performers’ applying their own age makeup on stage to prepare for the show’s conclusion.

I DO! I DO! is a fun musical comedy look at a marriage. It’s not particularly deep or profound, although it has some poignant moments, but mostly, it’s just fun, and an excellent showcase for its stars. At STAGES, there are four stars being showcased, and I’m glad to have seen both casts. It’s an entertaining show no matter which cast you see.

Kari Ely, David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting I DO! I DO! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 1, 2018

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South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2017

Leah Berry, Michael Halling
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is an undisputed musical theatre classic. It’s been performed at all levels, from Broadway to regional theatre to community theatre, many times since it first debuted in 1949. I know it fairly well, as I’ve seen several different productions and filmed versions. Now, STAGES St. Louis is closing out its 2017 season with this historic show, bringing it to the stage with a fine cast and striking production values that keep the story fresh and timely even though it’s inextricably tied to a specific time and place.

This is a World War II story, set on a tropical island where a US Navy unit is stationed. Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) is a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has found herself falling in love with the older, sophisticated French planter Emile DeBecque (Michael Halling), who has lived on the island for many years but harbors some secrets from his past. As Nellie finds out more about Emile, she is forced to confront her own ingrained prejudices. There’s also Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Hydzik), newly assigned to the island on a secret mission that involves Emile. Lt. Cable becomes fascinated with the nearby island of Bali Ha’i following the suggestions of Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), who introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat (Sydney Jones) with hopes that he will marry her. Meanwhile, the Seabees led by Luther Billis (Mark DiConzo) try to make the most of their time on the island and yearn for the company of women. There’s romance, intrigue, comedy, and heartrending drama, as well as the important underlying message of confronting personal and systemic racism and prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s memorable score features classics such as the upbeat “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, and “Honey Bun”, as well as the romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” and the pointed “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

The roles here are played well. Berry’s Nellie is appropriately perky and likable, and her chemistry with Halling’s suave Emile is strong. She is generally better with the lighter moments than the more serious ones, though. Halling is charming and especially strong acting-wise, although his voice isn’t quite as powerful as other Emiles I’ve seen, particularly on his key number “This Nearly Was Mine”. Hydzik is fine as the conflicted cable, with a strong voice and good chemistry with the excellent Jones as Liat. Javien is a particularly strong Bloody Mary, as well. DiConzo as Billis is also memorable, and there’s a strong ensemble for support, particularly in the form of the male chorus of Seabees. The group numbers such as “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” are especially strong here.

The overall 1940’s World War II atmosphere is well maintained in this production, with striking visuals provided by set designer James Wolk and lighting designer Sean M. Savoie. Garth Dunbar’s costumes are also excellent, lending an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a smaller-scale production compared to the last one I saw (at the Muny), and that helps to provide a more intimate atmosphere to the show’s more serious moments as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie to the Thanksgiving concert sequence in Act 2.

STAGES has done well by this celebrated musical. With a good cast and energetic staging, as well as that classic score, and a message that resonates today as much as it did years ago, this is a production that’s well worth seeing. It’s a good way to close out an excellent season at STAGES.

Joanne Javien, Matthew Hydzik and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting South Pacific at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 8, 2017.

 

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