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The Drowsy Chaperone
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2016

David Schmittou Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Drowsy Chaperone is apparently one of the most popular shows that STAGES St. Louis has produced. I didn’t see their last production, in 2009, nor had I seen any production of the show prior to this latest staging, although now I certainly can see the appeal. This is a tribute not only to “classic” 1920’s musicals, but to the whole concept of musical theatre in general. At STAGES, it’s a well-cast, richly produced, energetic and fun production that’s sure to entertain.

The show is a twist on the concept of the “play within a play”, as a protagonist and musical theatre aficionado identified only as Man in Chair (David Schmittou) introduces the audience to one of his favorite (fictional) musicals from 1928, called The Drowsy Chaperone. Man in Chair is a veritable fountain of information about this show, including anecdotes about the production and biographical information about the original cast members. As he plays the record, the show comes to life in his apartment, and what we see is broad, satirized representation of a typical 1920’s musical, complete with broad humor, a relatively thin plot, stereotyped characterizations, and lots of big, glitzy production numbers. The story follows the wedding plans of Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaff (Laura E. Taylor) to a man she only recently met, Robert Martin (Andrew Fitch). Her boss, Feldzieg (Steve Isom) wants to keep her from getting married so she won’t leave his show, and ditzy chorus girl Kitty (Dana Winkle) hopes he will consider her as a replacement. There’s also the title character, the Chaperone (Corinne Melancthon), who is “drowsy” because she is constantly drinking, although she tries her best to offer sage advice to Janet. Other characters include would-be Latin lover Aldopho (Edward Juvier), who’s hired by Feldzeig to seduce Janet; the enthusiastic and slightly silly party host Mrs. Tottendale (Kari Ely) and her faithful butler and assistant known only as Underling (John Flack); and the optimistic Best Man, George (Con O’Shea-Creal), for whom tap dancing is the best solution to any problem.  It’s a big cast and a convoluted, extremely self-aware plot, as Man in Chair gets involved in the proceedings and expounds on his own philosophy of life and the purpose and importance of musical theatre.

This is an extremely clever show that both criticizes and celebrates old-style musical theatre, as well as presenting a sympathetic narrator in the person of Man in Chair, who is expertly and wittily portrayed by the superb David Schmittou. His winning performance is the centerpiece of this show as he becomes the point of interaction between the audience and the characters in the play-within-a-play. The rest of the cast is extremely strong as well, with standouts being Melancon as the hilariously “drowsy” Chaperone, Taylor as the glamorously goofy Janet, and Ely and Flack as the hilarious team of Mrs. Tottendale and Underling. Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs are also a lot of fun as a pair of comically overplayed gangsters. Juvier as Aldopho gives a winning comic performance as well, and Fitch and O’Shea-Creal show off their impressive tap dancing skills as Robert and George. The entire cast is excellent and full of energy as well, highlighting stand-out production numbers like “Fancy Dress”, “Show Off”, “Toledo Surprise”, and “I Do I Do In the Sky”, which also features a strong vocal performance by Kendra Lynn Lucas as Trix the Aviatrix.

The technical aspects of this production are stunning, as well. James Wolk’s set is marvelously versatile, transforming from Man in Chair’s modest apartment to various locations in the play-within-a-play with seamless precision. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also helps to maintain the whimsical tone of the show, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are sensational. From Man in Chair’s comfy sweater vest to the more colorful period dresses and suits, and the glitzy glamour of the ensemble in the production numbers, the costumes are a real highlight of the show. The whole tone of 1920’s-meets-present-day is wonderfully achieved in this expertly crafted production.

I’m glad this production at STAGES has served as my introduction to The Drowsy Chaperone. Such a cleverly written, funny and heartwarming musical deserves a first-rate production like this one. It’s truly spectacular, with a fantastic finale. It’s a highlight of the summer theatre season in St. Louis.

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Drowsy Chaperone
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 21, 2016.

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It Shoulda Been You
Book and Lyrics by Brian Hargrove, Music and Lyrics by Barbara Anselmi
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
April 8, 2016

Claire Manship Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Claire Manship
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES has invited its audience to a wedding. In the first regional production of the recent Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You, theatregoers will witness a happy event that’s filled with music, humor, drama, and plenty of surprises. At STAGES, it’s an entertaining, energetic production highlighted by an extremely strong cast, and particularly in the leading role.

Set at an upscale New York hotel, It Shoulda Been You introduces us first of all to Jenny Steinberg (Claire Manship), who is preparing to serve as co-Maid of Honor in the wedding of her sister Rebecca (Stacie Bono) to Brian Howard (Jeff Sears). Jenny is the “dependable daughter”, always supportive and helpful but being constantly compared to the younger, slimmer, more popular Rebecca, especially by their mother Judy (Zoe Vonder Haar), who frequently expresses her concern that Jenny will never marry. Jenny is also caught in the middle of the drama that ensues when Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend Marty (Zal Owen) arrives presumably to stop the wedding. There are also parental objections concerning the Jewish Rebecca’s marrying Brian, who is Catholic, and tensions between Judy and husband Murray (Michael Marotta) and Brian’s somewhat stuffy parents George (David Schmittou) and Georgette (Kari Ely). Add the Best Man Greg (Eric Keiser), the other co-Maid of Honor Annie (Jessie Hooker), the crazy relatives including the man-hunting Aunt Sheila (Morgan Amiel Faulkner) and confused Uncle Morty (John Flack) to the mix, and much humor and drama will ensue. The proceedings are presided over by an extremely organized, near-psychic wedding planner, Albert (Edward Junger) and his assistants Walt (Steve Isom) and Mimsy (Michele Burdette Elmore), as the wedding day’s events just get more and more convoluted.

There’s not much I can say in detail about the plot without spoiling too much, since much of the drama depends on the element of surprise.  A general theme, however, is one of identity and self-acceptance, as Jenny wrestles with family expectations and body image issues, and other characters deal with their own secrets and concerns about acceptance from those around them. Several of the plots do become fairly predictable as the story goes on, but the entertainment value is still there even if you can guess where the story is going. The music is pleasant, with a few memorable songs, especially the hilarious “Albert’s Turn”, the show-stopping “Jenny’s Blues” (which is a tour-de-force for Manship), and the sweet “Whatever”.

The cast is ideally chosen, led by Manship in a winning performance as the kind but underappreciated Jenny. She and Vonder Haar’s loving but critical Judy are the stand-outs in this strong ensemble, along with Juvier in a masterful comic performance as the hyper-competent Albert. There are also strong performances from Owen as the charming Marty, Ely and Schmittou as the Howards, Marotta as the loving father Murray, and Bono as the conflicted Rebecca, Keiser as the talkative Greg, and Faulkner as the gleefully gosssipy Aunt Sheila. Everyone makes the most of their roles, as well, in this cast with no weak links and excellent ensemble staging.

The staging and choreography by Stephen Boureuf are lively and energetic, and James Wolk’s set is sumptuously well-appointed. The hotel setting is well-realized, with occasional set pieces brought in when needed as the story takes its cast to the hotel’s hair salon, ladies room, and more. Gareth Dunbar’s costumes are richly detailed and colorful, suitably suggesting the festive upscale wedding style. There’s also excellent lighting by Sean M. Savoie to set and maintain the mood of the show.

Overall, though, It Shoulda Been You is an outstanding showcase for Manship. She makes the most of her starring role, bringing lots of energy and a great voice, and it’s Jenny’s story that is the most convincing even when there are some unbelievable elements. Overall, this is a sweet, funny and heartwarming show about love and acceptance, with a somewhat predicable script but with a great cast. It’s a memorable opening production for STAGES’ new season.

Cast of It Shoulda Been You Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of It Shoulda Been You
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of It Shoulda Been You is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 3, 2016.

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The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 9, 2015

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty is the closing production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2015 season. I had never seen this show before, or the film on which it is based. For the most part, I find it a pleasant surprise.  Everyone knows it as that show about male strippers, but even more than that it’s a celebration of friendship, family, and determination. With a strong, likable cast and the impressive production values that STAGES is known for, this proves to be an entertaining, worthwhile production.

Adapted from the popular British film, the musical version of The Full Monty moves the setting from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York in the late 1990’s. The story follows Jerry Lukowski (Brent Michael Diroma) and his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Todd A. Horman), who have lost their jobs when a local steel mill shut down. Jerry, a divorced father of 14-year-old Nathan (Cole Hoefferle), needs a job so he can keep up child support payments and maintain joint custody of his son. Dave has self-image issues based on being out of a job and being overweight, causing him to neglect his loving wife Georgie (Lindsie Vanwinkle). After noticing the popularity of a local “women only” strip club, Jerry gets the idea to form a group to perform a one-night-only act in order to make the money he needs. Along the way, they meet other down-on-their-luck guys, like the fastidious Harold (James Ludwig), who takes dance classes with his materialistic but loving wife Vicki (Julie Cardia) and agrees to become their choreographer. There’s also Noah “Horse” Simmons (Milton Craig Neal), who is older and has a bad hip, but is a great dancer, although he struggles with public perceptions demonstrated in his song “Big Black Man.” Rounding out the group are the shy young Malcolm (Erik Keiser), who lives with his elderly mother and struggles to find a purpose in life, and the amiable and charming but not too bright Ethan (Adam Shonkwiler), who forms a close bond with Malcolm. A lot happens through the course of this show, with the grand finale strip performance being the ultimate goal, although what’s really important is the relationships–friendships and romances–that are formed and rebuilt.

For the most part, this is a highly entertaining show. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of “empowerment through stripping”, but that’s not all this show is about. It’s about friends and family, and honesty and integrity. It’s populated with likable characters, although there are some stereotypes that can be uncomfortable, and most of the songs are not particularly memorable, with some truly clunky lyrics. The closing number “Let It Go” (no, not that one) is catchy enough, though, and there’s a memorable moment for Keiser and Shonkwiler in “You Walk With Me”, although none of these songs is likely to become a classic. Still, there’s great dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf, and some truly poignant moments as well some excellent comedy.

The heart of this show is its characters, and the actors are well-cast.  Diroma makes a convincing down-on-his-luck Jerry, although at times he seems a little too clean-cut for the role. He’s got a strong voice and good stage presence, though, and great chemistry with the rest of the group of guys, especially Horman’s glum but sweet Dave.  The real standouts in the cast for me, though, are Ludwig and Cardia as Harold and Vicki, a loving couple who have to deal with a secret that threatens their relationship. The energy and affection between these two is heartwarming. There’s also local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as the group’s feisty, no-nonsense self-appointed pianist, Jeanette. Neal as Horse shows off great dance and comic ability, and Keiser is particularly winning as the initially depressed Malcolm. Shonkwiler as Ethan gives a strong performance as well, particularly in his scenes with Keiser.

In terms of production values, this show delivers what STAGES is known for–excellence and professionalism. The set, by James Wolk, is appropriately evocative of a working class Buffalo environment. The costumes, by Garth Dunbar, are suitably late 90’s styled, colorful, and character-appropriate. There’s also outstanding lighting, designed by Matthew McCarthy, that lends gritty realism to some scenes and showbiz glitz to the strip club scenes.

Although I have some issues with the writing of this show, for the most part it does what it intends to do: entertain. With a very strong cast of characters and top-notch production values, The Full Monty is a crowd pleasing closer to STAGES’ season. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart.

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty from STAGES St. Louis runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 4, 2015

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Anything Goes
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton, and Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 22, 2015

Cast of Anything Goes Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Anything Goes
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

In a way, Anything Goes could well be called one of the orginal “jukebox musicals”. It’s been performed in various versions for decades, with many lyric, song, and book changes, and the plot, while entertaining, is fairly slight. The show exists, essentially, to be a showcase for the songs of celebrated 20th Century composer and lyricist Cole Porter. It’s a lively show with lots of silly comedy and spectacular dancing, and it’s currently being performed in top-notch fashion at STAGES St. Louis.

The story is somewhat silly, but entertaining nonetheless. It follows nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Julie Cardia) and friends on an ocean liner traveling between New York and London in the 1930s. Reno’s got something of a crush on her old friend, the handsome stockbroker Billy Crocker (Brent Michael DiRoma), but Billy’s newly smitten with young debutante Hope Harcourt (Heidi Giberson), who is sailing on the cruise with her mother (Kari Ely) with the aim of marrying rich English nobleman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Dan Fenaughty). Meanwhile, gangster Moonface Martin (Bob Amaral), “Public Enemy #13”, is on the run from the law, and boards the ship in preacher’s disguise, bringing his friend Erma (Laura E. Taylor) along.  What ensues is a comedy of love triangles and quadrangles, as well as mistaken identity, gambling, singing and a whole lot of dancing.

The plot isn’t really one that bears a lot of scrutiny. It’s really just a platform for the songs and some some hilariously goofy comedy. Despite the various script updates over the years, the show does still come across as slightly dated, and there are some unfortunate stereotypes that are played for laughs. Still, for the most part it’s a fun show, and the real focus is on those lovely Cole Porter songs and Stephen Bourneuf’s spectacular choreography and excellent ensemble dancing.

This is a very ensemble-dependent show, considering all the stylish dance-numbers and intricately performed choreography. The ensemble sparkles on on numbers like the tap-dance heavy “Anything Goes” and the truly showstopping “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” led by the big-voiced Cardia as Reno.  Cardia also displays a strong sense of comedy, working well opposite both the charming DiRoma as Billy, the hilariously shady Amaral as Mooonface, and the delightfully goofy and thoroughly winning Fenaughty as Lord Evelyn.  All of these performers show great comedy skills and excellent voices, especially DiRoma, who also shares delightful chemistry with Giberson, who is also in excellent voice as Hope.  There are also fun comic performances from the always excellent Reichert as Billy’s nearsighted boss Elisha Whitney, and Kari Ely as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt.  Flack as the Captain, Brennan Caldwell as the Ship’s Purser, and Taylor as Erma also give memorable performances. It’s a very strong cast, from the leads to the ensemble, working together to bring life to the classic Porter score and a great deal of laughs to the audience.

The set, designed by James Wolk, is striking, colorful and versatile, creating a vibrant 1930’s atmosphere. There are also some marvelously detailed and stylish costumes by Brad Musgrove. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is effective and atmospheric, as well.

Ultimately, the point of Anything Goes is to entertain, and the production at STAGES does that well.  It’s a big, bold, stylish and energetic production that splendidly showcases the marvelous score and choreography. It’s also hilariously funny, with a decidedly silly sense of humor.  Despite a few drawbacks in the script, this is about as ideal a production of this show as I can imagine.

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Lousi

Brent Michael DiRoma, Heidi Giberson , and Ensemble
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Lousi

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Anything Goes is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 16th, 2015.

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Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 3, 2015

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

There’s no denying that Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the opening production of STAGES’s 2015 season, is a crowd pleaser. It contains some great classic songs that are performed well, with some colorful costumes and polished production values, and the audience on opening night was appreciative. What is confusing, though, is exactly what else it is. It’s not a musical, and it would even be generous to call it a revue.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a staged concert. It’s a well-done staged concert, though, and it’s certainly entertaining.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is essentially a showcase for the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who wrote many popular hits of the 50s, 60s and 70s,  including “On Broadway’, “I’m a Woman”, “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  The nine performers (Josh A. Dawson, Kent Overshown, J. Nycole Ralph, Richard Crandle, Keisha Gilles, Emily Afton, Bronwyn Tarboton, Brent Michael Diroma, and Jason Samuel) sing the songs in various settings, taking turns with featured solos. The set, designed by James Wolk, is colorful but fairly basic, changing around a little bit to suggest a neighborhood street, a cafe, etc. There are also extremely colorful, well-appointed costumes by Brad Musgrove that augment the various song settings and add to the overall atmosphere of the show.

I have to admit I don’t “get” shows like this, really. This strikes me as something of an extended theme park show, no matter how well-produced it is, and at STAGES, it is well-produced, with a very good cast. The songs are great, of course, but there’s no story or even really much of a theme. The performers are given names for their characters, but that doesn’t really matter because they’re never mentioned in the show and there’s no plot. It’s just song after song without much of a connection between them, and the settings of the individual songs are fairly arbitrary. Some settings are clever–like the end of Act 1 and the combination of “D.W. Washburn” and “Saved”, which is the absolute highlight of the show, with a fun comic performance from Crandle and the soaring voice and energetic presence of Gilles, who has my vote for MVP of this production. Many of the other settings, however, are fairly interchangeable, and some of the performances can be lackluster (such on the distinctly underwhelming “Jailhouse Rock” sequence that borrows from the film but lacks its energy). Overall, though, the cast does a fine job singing and dancing the songs well.

I realize that not all shows have to be deep or profound, but something like this barely qualifies as theatre. It’s a concert, plain and simple, no matter how well done. STAGES has done an excellent job with the material, but with their resources, I think they could be spending them on better shows. For an evening of light entertainment, though, I suppose Smokey Joe’s Cafe works.

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, presented by STAGES St. Louis, runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 28, 2015

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Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Stages St. Louis
September 10, 2014

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

Fiddler on the Roof is a much-performed musical theatre classic. In fact, it’s been performed so many times at so many levels (amateur, regional, school, etc.) that it’s the one show I’ve seen the most productions of. And then there’s the film, which I’ve seen several times, and the Original Broadway Cast recording, which I grew up listening to.  Seeing a show that many times is great if you like the show (and I do), but it’s also easy to get complacent and just think “oh, it’s Fiddler” and have to make an extra effort to pay attention during performances unless there’s something great or distinctive enough  to make it stand out. Fortunately, the season closing production at Stages St. Louis is one of those presentations that makes watching an age-old much-seen favorite seem fresh and vibrant enough that I can easily watch it not out of effort or obligation, but out of sheer joy.

The story of this show is well known, recounting the trials, tribulations and traditions of Tevye (Bruce Sabath), a poor Jewish milkman in a small village in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century.  With political tensions rising in the world around his village, and with new customs and ideas gradually entering their previously isolated society, Tevye is forced to consider his own ways and the reasons behind them.  The opening number “Tradition” sets the scene, although gradually and surely, things happen that make Tevye think about his own ideals and what it means to reconcile the old ways and the newer ways.  Primarily, these changes are presented in the courtship stories of Tevye’s daughters. While Tevye and his wife Golde (Kari Ely) have five daughters, the three oldest are of marriageable age, and Yente the matchmaker (Rechel Coloff) is determined to find them husbands, although the daughters have their own ideas that are increasingly challenging to the old system.  First there’s Tzeitel (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who would rather marry her childhood sweetheart Motel the tailor (Nick Orfanella) than the older, wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (Christopher Limber).  Mostly, the stories unfold one at a time, with daughters Hodel (Julie Hanson) and Chava (Carissa Massaro) presenting Tevye with their own, increasingly challenging choices of suitors, and while Tevye deals with what those marriages mean to his own life and his own relationships with his family, his village and his faith, the turmoil in the outside world and the tensions between the Jewish and non-Jewish villagers in his own town gradually simmer and threaten to ultimately boil over.

This is a production that is full of life in all its aspects, portrayed with a great deal of energy and a degree of realism in the performances that sets it apart from some previous productions I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that with this show, there is a tendency among some of the actors to overplay their roles just a little bit, and sometimes a lot in the case of some characters, but it’s refreshing to see that nobody does that it this production.  The characters are all very believable and not over-the-top, led by Sabath as a particularly charming, down-to-earth Tevye.  With a strong stage presence, clear voice, and witty line delivery, his Tevye is a distinctly compassionate, thoughtful man, and his concern for his daughters is very relatable. He works very well with Ely as the dutiful, constantly concerned Golde, who also manages to bring an earthy realism to her role. They are a well-matched pair, bringing energy to their banter throughout the show and real warmth and heart to their sweet duet “Do You Love Me” in the second act.  The daughters and their suitors are also very well-cast, especially Mason as the more practical older daughter, Tzeitel, and the lanky Orfanella as the earnest, sweetly awkward Motel. “Miracle of Miracles” is a delight, as is their wedding, which is also a standout moment for the entire cast.  Especially in the after-wedding dancing–first the famous and still captivating “Bottle Dance”, and then the increasingly palpable joy and energy as the townspeople join in dancing together. For the first time in seeing this show, I felt like I was at a real wedding, and that’s wonderful. It also made the drama to follow all the more poignant.  Other strong performances include those of Coloff as the gossipy Yente and Limber as the butcher Lazar Wolf.  It’s a very strong ensemble, with great dancing all around, especially in the aforementioned wedding and in “To Life”. It’s a smaller ensemble than I’ve seen before in Fiddler, although for the most part, that only serves to make this production more accessible and less obviously “showy”, except for the opening “Tradition” number, which does seem a bit cluttered.

The technical aspects of this show are top-notch, as well, starting with the richly detailed set by James Wolk that evokes the work of painter Marc Chagall–whose painting, “The Fiddler”, inspired the show’s title.  The costumes by Lou Bird are also extremely detailed and appropriate, if possibly a little too “clean” looking for some characters (like the neighborhood beggar).  With strong, atmospheric lighting by Matthew McCarthy and the vibrant Jerome Robbins choreography re-created by Gary John Larosa, this show is as appealing visually as it is dramatically. It’s all unmistakably Fiddler, but given an air of immediacy by director Michael Hamilton and this great cast, with a few new approaches to characterization and staging that give it a distinctive character that allows it to stand out from the crowd of previous productions of this show that I have seen.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show that, when produced well, can be timeless as well as timely. Its themes of family, faith and tradition vs. change are both specific and universal, and it also provides a fascinating perspective on an earlier time and place in history. This production is to be especially commended for its vibrancy and approachability in addition to its excellent production values. It’s a fitting and memorable closer to Stages’s excellent 2014 season.

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely  Photo by Peter Wochniak Stages St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

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How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
July 23, 2014

Ben Nordstrom and cast Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom and cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a classic satire of corporate culture that debuted on Broadway in 1961 and has enjoyed two successful major revivals, most recently in 2011 starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. It’s one of those shows that, even with its well-known songs and celebrated reputation, needs just the right cast, pacing and direction to work well. STAGES St. Louis in their impeccably cast production has achieved just the right balance of sharp satire, comic timing and colorful staging to make for a wildly entertaining and truly memorable evening of theatre.

Since this is a show that is very much tied to the era in which it was written, this production wisely keeps the period setting intact.  This is a world in which big business is dominated by ambitious men, with young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Ben Nordstrom) being perhaps the most ambitious of all. Armed with a seemingly omniscient “how-to” manual (narrated authoritatively by George Spelvin), Finch embarks on his quest to rise in the corporate ranks at the World Wide Wicket corporation.  Along the way up the executive ladder, Finch meets a variety of business-world characters such as the bumbling boss J.B. Biggley (Whit Reichart), the boss’s outrageously scheming nephew Bud Frump (Joseph Medeiros), the archetypal ditzy blonde secretary (and Biggley’s mistress) Hedy LaRue (Heather Ayers), and a host of others ranging from ambitious backbiting executives to world-weary secretaries to unambitious worker bees, in a large, dehumanizing company setting. Finch also meets Rosemary Pilkington (Betsy DeLellio), a young secretary whose ambitious are more personal than corporate, and who is continually frustrated by Finch’s single-minded aspirations despite her own stated life’s goal to be a neglected executive’s wife.  Finch’s successes are not without their complications, although he always seems to find a way to turn situations to his advantage, with hilarious results.

While some of the situations portrayed in this show are still relevant today, others (such as the very strictly defined gender roles) are very specific to the show’s era, so an early 1960’s look and sensibility are required for this production, as is a very sharp sense of pacing.  The jokes are fast-moving and the humor is witty and sharp, with a large ensemble and many stage-filling production numbers that require precise choreography. Fortunately, this production strikes just the right tone, and the pacing is crisp and vibrant, as evidenced by such fantastic ensemble numbers as “Coffee Break”, “The Company Way” and the show-stopping “Brotherhood of Man”.  The dancing is very strong and cohesive, and every ensemble member is in excellent form, performing with energy, enthusiasm and style.  The physical look of the production is striking as well, with a great atmospheric set by James Wolk and colorful lighting effects designed by Matthew McCarthy. The costumes, designed by Jeff Shearer and Lou Bird, are well-suited to the characters and, for the most part, evocative of the period. Chairman of the Board Wally Womper (Bill Bateman) looks more like he belongs in 1978 than 1961, and a few of the secretaries’ outfits appear more 1980’s than 1960’s, but for the most part, the look is distinctly appropriate, especially with Finch’s increasingly colorful suits and Biggley’s outrageous argyle golf ensemble.

This production’s strongest point is its universally wonderful cast, led by the appropriately charismatic Nordstrom as Finch. This is a difficult role because Finch is so boldly ambitious, it takes just the right combination of charm and audacity to make the audience cheer for him despite some of his clearly unscrupulous actions. Nordstrom has a winning smile, a strong voice, and great “buddy” chemistry with Reichart as Biggley, as evidenced in the outstanding “Old Ivy” number in the first act. Nordstrom also displays a strong romantic spark with the equally excellent DeLellio as the perky Rosemary, especially in their truly wonderful, sweetly goofy duet, titled “Rosemary” at the end of Act 1. Also notable is the delightfully oily performance of Medeiros as the spiteful, simpering Bud Frump. Medeiros is a master of physical comedy, bringing a gleeful energy to his every move and expression, and he threatens to steal every scene he’s in.  Also giving memorable performances are Claire Neumann as Rosemary’s friend, the secretary Smitty; Ayers, slightly channeling  Judy Holliday as Hedy LaRue; Bateman, hilarious in a dual role as Womper and as the determinedly un-ambitious mail room chief Twimble; and Johmaalya Adelekan as Biggley’s no-nonsense secretary Miss Jones, displaying a strong voice in the 1995 revival’s arrangement of “Brotherhood of Man” which includes jazz scatting and gospel influences. This is an impressive cast of strong character performances as well as charming leads who bring out all the satirical elements of the clever script while remaining eminently watchable and making every scene a comic delight.

This is a deceptively difficult show to produce. All the right elements need to be there–a dynamic and likable Finch, a strong supporting cast, spot-on comic timing and the right balance of satire and heart. This production has all those elements in abundance, as well as that extra undefinable “something special” that distinguishes a truly great production from simply a good one. How To Succeed… at STAGES is distinctively entertaining and uproariously funny from start to finish.  If the goal, like that of the protagonist Finch, is success, this production achieves that goal with flying colors.  It’s well worth the journey to Kirkwood to see this fantastic show.

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom  Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Betsy DiLellio, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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They’re Playing Our Song
Music by Marvin Harmlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Book by Neil Simon
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 4, 2014

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

My earliest memories of They’re Playing Our Song involve the ubiquitous television commercials for the national tour in the early 1980’s. First produced on Broadway in 1979, this show was a very popular and much-hyped touring staple. Nowadays, although the show has been revived a few times, it is very much tied to its time. In its music, situations and sensibilities, it’s a 1970’s show through and through. STAGES St. Louis, in the first main stage production of their 2014 season, has wisely chosen not to try updating the show’s setting, presenting what is, for the most part,  a sweet and very period-specific romantic comedy with an appealing cast and a clear sense of time and place.

Inspired by the real-life romantic and professional relationship of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song presents a series of  significant moments in the lives of an Oscar-winning composer, the professionally competent but romantically unlucky Vernon Gersch (Seth Rettberg) and his new lyricist Sonia Walsk (Maria Couch), an offbeat and chronically late free spirit who likes to wear recycled theatrical costumes and has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to her unseen but much talked about slacker ex-boyfriend Leon. The more conventional Vernon and the unpredictable Sonia soon forge an uneasy bond, learning to work together and trying to manage a burgeoning romantic connection in the midst of various personality conflicts and situational difficulties.  There are a lot of jokes about analysts, New York life, show business, sex and the male vs. female expectations in relationships as the two navigate their on-again, off-again relationship.

If this sounds like a Neil Simon plot, that’s because it is.  Simon wrote the script, and it plays out like a fairly typical offbeat 197o’s romantic comedy.  The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the  jokes are witty and fast-moving, although some of them don’t land quite as well as they probably did once upon a time.    Although the show involves the  interesting conceit of employing a sort “Greek Chorus” of alter egos for Sonia (Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston, Bronwyn Taboton) and Vernon (Craig Blake, Nic Thompson, Aaron Umsted), the real weight of this production rests on the shoulders of its two leads.  Rettberg and Couch bring a lot of enthusiasm to the stage, and Rettberg especially is able to infuse the somewhat stuffy Vernon with a lot of deadpan wit and goofy charm.  His voice is strong, especially on “Fallin'” at the beginning of the show, and “Fill In the Words” at the end.  Couch does a fine job as Sonia as well, especially in opening scene where all her eccentricities are made known, and in the later scenes where she starts to show some substance behind all the over-the-top quirkiness.  Her best musical moments are the plaintive “Just For Tonight” and her duets with Vernon, such as the upbeat disco-driven “Working It Out” and “They’re Playing Our Song”. Both performers excel in the delightfully cheesy dancing scenes, as well, and their chemistry is good if not exactly electric.  There’s some great support from the alter-egos, as well, and their entrances from basically everywhere (from inside wardrobe, behind curtains,from behind walls, etc.) are hilarious,  even though their role often comes across as more of a running gag than as a truly relevant plot device.

The 70’s atmosphere of this production is very well realized, even if sometimes I wish they had hammed it up even more. Director/Choreographer Stephen Bourneuf’s fun, disco-influenced dance numbers are a real highlight.  The set, by James Wolk, is colorful and clever, with a stage surrounded by a giant piano keyboard and individual sets (especially Sonia’s rummage-sale special of an apartment) that add to the whimsical nature of the show, and Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design adds to the mood as well with some great effects, especially in illuminating the giant piano keys and in the disco-style lighting of the night club scene.  Lou Bird’s costumes are another real strength of this production, particularly in Sonia’s outfits that range from thrift-store chic to “best of the 7o’s” fashion (a striped wrap-around top, an orange turtleneck, a shimmery red disco dress).  Vernon’s well-coordinated suits accurately reflect his character, as well. This was a very colorful period in American fashion and culture, and that is reflected very well in the overall look and feel of this production.

They’re Playing Our Song is musical that definitely shows its age, although there is much to like in STAGES’ production.  Ultimately, I would say that this is a production that majors on charm and energy, with a sweetly cheesy 70s vibe. Although I do wonder how it will be received by audience members who don’t remember this time period, for the most part I think it’s a time trip worth taking.

Cast of They're Playing Our Song Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of They’re Playing Our Song
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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Always… Patsy Cline

by Ted Swindley

Directed by Michael Hamilton

STAGES St. Louis

April 26, 2014

 

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Patsy Cline is a legend of country music. She’s one of those performers whose work has transcended its genre, as she was able to successfully cross over into pop music and create a lasting impression during her relatively short career.  Even now, over 50 years after her tragic early death, she is fondly remembered by fans of all ages, and many of her songs are now regarded as timeless classics. With such a well-regarded catalog of great songs, if anyone is a fitting subject for a “jukebox musical”, it’s Cline, and playwright Ted Swindley has provided a good one in Always… Patsy Cline. In an encore run of their highly successful and critically acclaimed production from last year, STAGES St. Louis has presented an entertaining and ideally cast tribute to this legendary performer and her great music.

As a musical that is primarily focused on showcasing Cline’s music, there really isn’t much of a plot.  Telling the simple, true story of an unlikely friendship that forms between Patsy (Jacqueline Petroccia) and one of her biggest fans, a Texas divorcee and mother of two named Louise Seger (Zoe Vonder Haar), the show relies on the music, the charismatic performances of its leads, and Petroccia’s powerful vocals to carry the show. The show is set in Louise’s kitchen many years after her first meeting with Patsy, and she looks back fondly on her memories of their relationship.  The enthusiastic, personable Louise is an excellent narrator for the action, as she relates her first time hearing Patsy sing on TV and then details her growing appreciation of the singer and, eventually, their meeting and quickly building friendship, as Patsy performs a concert in Louise’s hometown of Houston and the two end up spending the evening together, and Louise convinces Patsy to stay over at her house and then make an impromptu trip to a local radio station for an interview in the morning before flying out to her next gig.  As Louise recounts the eventful meeting, the action is punctuated by Patsy’s songs, sometimes performed in the context of concert or radio appearances and sometimes in Louise’s kitchen.  It’s an interesting little story and the characters are amiable, but the biggest star of the show is the music, very well-sung by Petroccia in Patsy Cline’s distinctive style and expertly played by the excellent band.

This isn’t simply a staged concert, though.  Petroccia does an excellent job sounding enough like Patsy Cline to be convincing, but she’s not simply a mimic.  She brings a great deal of energy and heart to the performance, especially in songs like “Crazy” and “Faded Love”, and more upbeat numbers such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “San Antonio Rose”, and her obvious instant bond with Vonder Haar’s Louise is clear. Vonder Haar, for her part, is a delight, bringing a great deal of folksy charm to the outgoing and extremely likable Louise.  Vonder Haar also has many great moments interacting with the audience, and she even manages to convince a man to dance with her onstage. It’s a role that requires a great deal of improvisational ability, and Vonder Haar displays that with style.  She even gets to sing along with with Petroccia on a few songs, and they sound great together and seem to be having a great deal of fun playing these characters. That fun is contagious, too, with the audience clapping and (when invited to) singing along with great enthusiasm. It’s also fun to see how the great-sounding band is brought into the story from time to time, as they interact with both Patsy and Louise in a few humorous moments.

Visually, the detailed set by James Wolk and the colorful and period-specific costumes by Lou Bird add to the atmosphere and overall celebratory spirit of the production. There are some clever little touches like a stove that transforms into a jukebox, and the lighting (designed by Matthew McCarthy) helps to set the mood, as well.  All of the technical aspects of the show are very well-done and contribute to the early 1960s flavor of the production.

While Cline’s death is dealt with briefly and very respectfully, for the most part this show is a celebration of her life and her music, so the overall atmosphere is upbeat and positive.  This is an unabashed love letter to Patsy Cline and her songs, excellently cast, staged and sung.  This isn’t an in-depth biography or character study, but it isn’t trying to be. Both casual and hardcore fans of Cline and her music will surely find much to love about this production, and I think many of those who aren’t as familiar with her music will enjoy it as well. It’s a tribute to a legendary performer, and as such it succeeds very well.  STAGES has done very well bringing it back by popular demand.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

 

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