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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 7, 2017

Jeff Sears (Center), Kirsten Scott (Center Right) and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an intriguing show, simply in terms of how versatile it is. It’s one of those shows that can be done on almost any scale or budget and still work. It’s not the deepest or most profound of shows. It’s really just a lot of fun, but what has become most interesting to me is the range of ways that a theatre company can produce this show. It can be big and flashy or more toned-down. Its look can change drastically depending on the production values and directors’ vision. It’s a show I’ve seen several times now, but I think this latest version from STAGES St. Louis is my favorite yet because of the cohesiveness of design, the sheer personality and energy of the cast, and the emphasis on a more human scale for this story rather than over-the-top flashiness, although it’s certainly a great looking production as well.

The story of this show is fairly straightforward–it’s a retelling of the Bible story of Joseph (Jeff Sears), son of Jacob (Steve Isom), and of Joseph’s journey from shepherd’s son to essentially prime minister of Egypt. It follows Joseph from his early days tending sheep with his eleven brothers, and boasting of his dreams that predict that he will someday rule over the rest of his family.  The story is presented by the Narrator (Kirsten Scott), who interacts with the characters at various times in the process of telling the story. As the story unfolds, a variety of different song styles is employed in whimsical fashion, from the country-western “One More Angel in Heaven” to the 1920’s styled “Potiphar” as Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, serves in the house of Potiphar (Brent Michael DiRoma) and is tempted and accused by Mrs. Potiphar (Molly Tynes), and then sent to jail. Joseph’s skill at interpreting dreams eventually brings him to the attention of Pharoah, who is–as in all productions of this show–presented as an Elvis-like figure (also played by DiRoma). It’s a fun show that blends the Bible story with various modern elements and and the variety of musical styles that also includes pop and rock influences.

While I’ve seen bigger and flashier productions of this show, I’m especially impressed by this production’s emphasis more on character and a stylish but not cartoonish look to the production. It’s a very human Joseph, with a strong cast led by the excellent Sears as a Joseph whose emotional journey is given more resonance here than in some other productions I’ve seen, bringing depth to songs like “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do”. Scott is also superb as the Narrator–a role I’ve generally considered to be the best part in the show–and her vocal range is impressive on numbers like the “Prologue”, “Poor, Poor Joseph”, and “Pharaoh Story”.  Scott brings a good deal of humor to the role of the Narrator as well, and her rapport with Sears as Joseph is a highlight. In fact, this is the first production I’ve seen in which there seems to be a hint of attraction between Joseph and the Narrator. There are also memorable performances from Isom as the proud and then sad patriarch, Jacob, by Tynes as the would-be seductress Mrs. Potiphar, and by all of the actors playing the brothers, and particularly Brad Frenette as Levi, Jeremiah Ginn as Reuben, Jason Eno as Judah, and Kyle Ivey as Benjamin. DiRoma is also a stand-out in two roles, as the rich but lonely Potiphar and especially as Pharaoh, where he exudes a lot of charm and comes across as more of the “young Elvis” as opposed to the older “Las Vegas Elvis”, even though he does get to wear the glittery, sequined jumpsuit. There’s also a strong ensemble to back up the leading performers, displaying a lot of vocal and physical energy on various production numbers that have been dynamically choreographed by director/choreographer Stephen Bourneuf.

Visually, the show is colorful and whimsical without being overly flashy or cartoonish. It’s a great look for this show, in keeping with the overall tone of this production. James Wolk’s versatile set frames the action well, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are vivid, detailed, and fun. The excellent lighting effects by Sean M. Savoie also adjusts well to the various scene and tone changes throughout the production.

This is a fun show, and the cast and creative team obviously enjoy presenting it. From the starry opening to the bright, energetic “Megamix” conclusion, this is a Joseph with heart and humanity. It’s an excellent, highly entertaining production, and a great start to STAGES’ 2017 season.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat presented by STAGES St. Louis at Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, Missouri on June 1, 2017.

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 2, 2017

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2016

The Cast of Sister Act Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

I think everyone immediately thinks of Whoopi Goldberg when they hear the title Sister Act.  The 1992 film was a big hit, followed by a 1993 sequel and a subsequent musical adaptation in London and on Broadway, co-produced by Goldberg. The musical, however, has been substantially re-tooled to have a different setting and musical style than the film, and as the final production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2016 season, it’s not quite as memorable as the movie, but it’s still an entertaining show.

The writers were wise to re-tool the show, in sense. The story is so associated with Goldberg and her unique talents that adapting the show basically required making the central character Deloris Van Cartier (played here by Dan’yelle Williamson) more distinct from Goldberg’s characterization. The show has also been re-imagined and re-set so it now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, casting Deloris as an aspiring disco diva instead of a Motown-inspired Reno lounge performer as in the film. The classic hits used in the film aren’t here either, replaced with new songs by Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Glenn Slater. The style is a blend of disco and traditional musical theatre songs, with occasional elements of Gospel. The story is also made a little more personal, giving Deloris a backstory of having gone to high school with police officer Eddie Souther (Curtis Wiley), who arranges for Deloris to go into hiding at Queen of Angels convent after having witnessed her nightclub-promoter/crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kent Overshown) committing a murder.  The story then follows a similar pattern to the movie, as the newly christened “Sister Mary Clarence” struggles to adapt to her new environment at the convent, much to the consternation of the strict but caring Mother Superior (Corinne Melançon), and to the fascination of the other nuns who just want to make friends, including the ever-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Michelle Cuc), the shy novice Sister Mary Robert (Leah Berry), and the feisty Sister Mary Lazarus (Michele Burdette Elmore).  Together, Deloris and the sisters embark on a journey that takes them, their choir, and the convent, to new levels of understanding and notoriety. The basic story of the film is followed, with some changes in the tone and a slightly modified conclusion.

The 1970’s setting works reasonably well, and the disco songs are catchy, particularly the group songs with the nuns such as “Raise Your Voice”, the reprise of Deloris’s original disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven”, and especially the joyous “Sunday Morning Fever”.  For the most part, however, I preferred the songs in the film.  The comedy elements of the show work well enough, with some of the jokes falling flat but most of them working. Curtis Jackson’s three henchmen, T.J. (Kevin Curtis), Pablo (Keith Boyer), and Joey (Myles McHale) are funny but a little overly silly, and Curtis is more of a one-dimensional villain, although Overshown makes the most of the role. Still, it’s a fun show, and Wiley’s Eddie is believably sympathetic and has good chemistry with Williamson’s Deloris. The real stars of the show, though, are of course Deloris and the nuns, and this production has cast them all extremely well.

Williamson brings a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Deloris, and she has a great voice and strong stage presence. She carries off the songs very well, and her developing rapport with the sisters is affectingly believable. Melançon, as the Mother Superior, has just the right blend of authority and compassion, as well, and she has some excellent musical moments with “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”. The main supporting nuns are all standouts, as well, with Cuc’s bubbly enthusiasm,  Berry’s earnest sincerity, and Elmore’s snarky energy all contributing to the overall sense of camaraderie of the nuns, and the infectious energy of the show.  Steve Isom is also memorable as the benevolent Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Deloris and her “new” choir. The lead performers are also backed by a strong ensemble, filling out the bigger musical numbers with appropriate style and attitude.

The staging is strong, as well, with vibrant choreography by Stephen Bourneuf. James Wolk’s set is colorful and versatile, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes appropriately evoke the disco era, with just the right over-the-top glitter and glitz when it’s needed. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also contributes to the overall disco mood of the piece, and the sense of fun is well achieved and maintained.

Ultimately, there really isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Sister Act. The story is a little contrived, but what’s there is a lot of fun.  A show like this is more about the characters than the story, and the characters are cast well, led by the excellent Williamson and Melançon. It’s a big, bold, glittery disco tale of sisterhood in various forms, and it’s a fine conclusion to the season at STAGES.

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan'yelle Williamson Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com STAGES St. Louis

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan’yelle Williamson
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Sister Act is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 9, 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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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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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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