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Gypsy
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

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Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
by James M. Barrie, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sammy Cahn,
Moose Charlap, Betty Comden, Larry Gelbart, Morton Gould, Adolph Green,
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Carolyn Leigh,
Stephen Longstreet, Hugh Martin, Jerome Robbins, Richard Rodgers,
Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Jule Styne
Directed by Cynthia Onrubia
Additional Choreography by Harrison Beal, Dan Knechtges, Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 11, 2018

Cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 100th season is finally here, and it’s opening in grand style with a show that’s really several shows in one. The 1989 Tony Winner for Best Musical, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway pays tribute to a prolific director-choreographer from the Golden Age of Broadway in a production that, even though it has “Broadway” in the title, seems almost tailor-made for the Muny.

The Muny has traditionally been about big, large-cast musicals with spectacle and style, and that’s here in abundance with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It’s the first regional production of the show ever, apparently, and although it’s not exactly the same as the 1989 version, most of the songs are here, highlighting Robbins’ illustrious career and featuring some iconic numbers from classic shows, as well as some numbers from lesser-known shows. From On the Town, HIgh Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby to West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler On the Roof, this show has a little bit of everything, dance-wise, from dramatic, ballet-influenced numbers, to jazz, to slapstick comedy, and more, staged with the usual big, bold, high-energy stage-filling style of the Muny.

There isn’t really a story here. It’s a revue, essentially, with Rob McClure as “The Setter” introducing the scenes. McClure, a Muny veteran and favorite performer, also plays several memorable roles in the production, including two roles from HIgh Button Shoes and the role of Tevye alongside Maggie Lakis as Golde in the excellent Fiddler sequence that features “Tradition”, “Tevye’s Dream”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, and the always thrilling wedding dance. There are many excellent moments here. In fact, there are so many highlights, it’s not easy to name them all. Among the standout routines is a thrilling rendition of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan starring Sarah Marie Jenkins as a vibrant Peter Pan, along with Elizabeth Teeter as Wendy, Gabriel Cytron as Michael, and Cole Joyce as John. This sequence is particularly dazzling, with excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. and great use of the Muny’s electronic scenery wall. The ensemble is the star here, really, with energetic dancing from the more dramatic West Side Story moments to the high comedy of the “On a Sunday By the Sea” number from High Button Shoes. Another memorable sequence is the truly stunning dance number “Mr. Monotony” featuring powerful vocals from Muny veteran Jenny Powers and astounding dancing from Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr, and Garen Scribner, who also all turn in strong performances in the West Side Story sequence as Bernardo, Maria, and Tony respectively, alongside the equally excellent Davis Wayne as Riff and Tanairi Vazquez as Anita, along with an athletic, energetic ensemble of Jets and Sharks. There is so much here to see and enjoy, with Robbins’ routines recreated with an authentic look and feel, to the point where it seems for some moments as if the audience has traveled in time.

The production values here are also first-rate, with a stylish, colorful and versatile set by Paige Hathaway and remarkably authentic costume design by Robin L. McGee. There’s also excellent lighting design from John Lasiter, lending atmosphere and changing tones and moods to the various production numbers. There’s also great video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wonderful music from the always excellent Muny Orchestra.

This is an old-school musical revue with lots of energy and a big cast to fill out the enormous Muny stage. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a collection of numbers that serves as an ideal first show for the Muny’s 100th season. It’s a retrospective, but also a celebration of musical theatre’s past as the Muny prepares to move into the future. It’s a dazzling start to a long-awaited season in Forest Park.

West Side Story Dancers
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in Forest Park until June 17, 2018.

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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
The Muny
July 5, 2017

John Tartaglia, Mark Linn-Baker, Jeffrey Shecter
Photo: The Muny

 

According to the notes in the program, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in its original pre-Broadway run was saved by a last-minute song change, as composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim added “Comedy Tonight” as the opening number and the show became a hit. Well, another last-minute change has occurred for the Muny’s latest production, as billed star Peter Scolari unfortunately had to drop out due to illness, and Jeffrey Schecter, who winningly portrayed Scuttle in the Muny’s last production, The Little Mermaid, was called in four days before opening to take over the role of Pseudolus. Executive producer Mike Isaacason made an appearance before the opening night show to announce the change, and to let the audience know that Schecter would be performing with script in hand.  Still, despite the short rehearsal time, Schecter’s performance is a resounding success, anchoring a production that’s full of wit, energy, and old-school humor.

Based on several comedies by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, Forum is framed as a theatrical repertory performance, introduced by Prologus (Schecter), who will play Pseudolus in tonight’s comedy. Pseudolus is a slave in the house of the wealthy Roman Senex (Mark Linn-Baker), who is about to go out of town with his overbearing wife Domina (E. Faye Butler), leaving his son Hero (Marrick Smith) in the charge of Pseudolus and chief slave Hysterium (John Tartaglia), who aren’t yet aware that the wide-eyed young man has fallen in love with a young woman he’s only seen but never met. This young woman is Philia (Ali Ewoldt), a new arrival at the house of Lycus (Jason Kravits), who keeps courtesans and has sold the virginal Philia sight unseen to a vainglorious military captain, Miles Gloriosus (Nathaniel Hackmann), who is due to arrive any day to claim his bride. There’s also Erronius (Whit Reichert), another neighbor, who is still searching for his long lost children, who were abducted years previously by pirates. Meanwhile Pseudolus seeks to obtain his freedom by helping Hero, but as this is a farce, nothing runs smoothly, with many comic mishaps and misunderstandings happening along the way to the show’s promised “happy ending”.

This is a funny, funny show, with a lot of wild, bawdy, and slapstick humor, and yes, some dated elements and some predictable plot points, but it’s a lot of fun, especially here with this energetic, enthusiastic cast. Schecter has had a difficult job filling in at the last minute in such a prominent role, but he shines, with excellent comic timing, smooth dance skills, and winning stage presence. He even manages to incorporate the script into a few jokes and visual gags. He also manages great chemistry with his co-stars with such little rehearsal time, which is remarkable, and his song-and-dance number “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” with the equally excellent Tartaglia, Linn-Baker, and Kravits is a comic highlight.  Tartaglia especially seems to be reveling in his part as the excitable Hysterium, giving a stand-out performance. There are also strong turns from Hackmann as the haughty, full-of-himself Miles Gloriosus, who has come to claim his bride but would probably marry himself if he could; and by Reichert as the determined, goofily earnest Erronius. As the thwarted young lovers Hero and Philia, Smith and Ewoldt are excellent, as well, with Ewoldt especially funny and in great voice. There’s also a trio of Proteans–Marcus Choi, Justin Keyes, and Tommy Scrivens–who play a number of roles throughout the production and bring a lot of laughs in the process; and six elaborately costumed courtesans (Khori Michelle Petinaud, Katelyn Prominksi, Emily Hsu, Lainie Sakakura, Justina Aveyard, and Molly Callinan) who also contribute to the humor and energy of the show.

This isn’t as big a cast as is usually seen at the Muny, but they fill the stage well, as does the colorful, evocative set by Tim Mackabee, representing the three prominent houses and providing an ideal setting for the action. There are also vibrant costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, wigs by John Metzner, and lighting by Rob Denton,  contributing to the Roman atmosphere as well as the slapstick tone. The staging is brisk and sprightly, with some energetic choreography by Alex Sanchez adding to the overall madcap atmosphere.

This is a funny show. The title doesn’t lie. It’s a kind of show that brings in a lot of old-style comic elements, with some memorable Sondheim songs and a great cast. Kudos again to Jeffrey Schecter for giving such a strong, assured performance on such short notice. I’m sure his portrayal will get even stronger as the show goes on. It’s another excellent production from the Muny.

Cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum in Forest Park until July 11, 2017.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From and Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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Follies
Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 9, 2016

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

With the Repertory of St. Louis Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, nostalgia is sure to abound. It’s especially fitting now for the Rep to open its new season with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, a musical that explores both good and bad aspects of nostalgia, and reflects on hopes, dreams, regrets, and the power of memory. It’s also a pastiche of old Broadway themes and styles, and on stage at the Rep, it looks and sounds positively stunning.

The stage at the Rep is constantly changing in this production, thanks to Luke Cantarella’s vividly realized set design that makes excellent use of a turntable. The space represents an old, dilapidated Broadway theatre that is due to be demolished, and it’s haunted by the “ghosts” or memories of the elaborately dressed showgirls who used to perform there. The theatre becomes the scene for a reunion of many performers, mostly women, who participated in the “Weismann Follies” between the World Wars.  They have been invited there by Follies producer Dimitri Weismann (Joneal Joplin) so that they can reconnect, remember, reflect, and say goodbye to the old theatre that was such an important part of their lives in the past. Among the various Follies alumni are former roommates Sally Durant Plummer (Christiane Noll) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Emily Skinner), who are now middle-aged and married to the former “stage door Johnnies” who used to court them at the theatre. Sally’s husband Buddy (Adam Heller) is a salesman who loves Sally but has been worn out by years of feeling rejected by her. Sally still carries a torch for Ben Stone (Bradley Dean), who was involved briefly with Sally when they were younger but chose to marry Phyllis instead. Phyllis, stuck for years in an unhappy marriage to the well-connected, well-known politician Ben, is forced to confront her own choice to marry and stay with him, as well as trying to reconcile the idealistic but unrefined young woman she used to be with her more sophisticated but jaded present-day existence. All four have younger counterparts (Sarah Quinn Taylor as Young Sally, Kathryn Boswell as Young Phyllis, Michael Williams as Young Ben, and Cody Williams as Young Buddy) who interact with their present-day selves in a series of flashbacks, vestiges of memories. Meanwhile, the other Follies performers relive their glory days by performing their signature numbers and reflecting on their own lives in show business and elsewhere. And then there’s the stylized “Loveland” sequence in the second half of Act 2. This is a complex, multi-faceted show that provides an excellent showcase for most of the members of its large cast.

That superb cast is led by the extraordinary performances of this production’s Sally and Phyllis, Noll and Skinner. Noll brings a childlike quality to Sally that is ideal for the role of the middle-aged regretful starlet-turned-housewife who continues to delude herself by living in the past. Her rendition of Sondheim’s classic “Losing My Mind” is achingly real. Skinner, as the seemingly tougher, caustic Phyllis, allows the audience to see the vulnerability that lies beneath her outward steeliness. She delivers a devastating interpretation of “Would I Leave You?” and an energetic, clear performance of her song that outlines her inner conflict between who she was, who she is now, and how she wishes she could be in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. Heller brings a great deal of sympathy to the disillusioned, weary Buddy, who pines for a real relationship with Sally and lives in the shadow of her memories of Ben. For his own part, Dean plays Ben with just the right mixture of charm, regret, and confusion, bringing a lot of raw emotion to his big number in the “Loveland” sequence, “Live, Laugh, Love”. Taylor, Boswel, Michael Williams and Cody Williams are also excellent as the leads’ younger selves, and the rest of the cast is simply stellar. There are top-notch turns from Nancy Opel as former Follies girl turned TV star Carlotta, whose ode to a life in showbiz, “I’m Still Here” is a highlight. There’s also the terrific Zoe Vonder Haar singing the classic “Broadway Baby” with strength and style, an excellent haunting version of “One More Kiss” by Carol Skarimbas as the oldest of the alums, the gloriously voiced Heidi Schiller, in duet with the also great Julie Hanson and her younger self. And perhaps best of all is E. Fay Butler as Stella Deems leading the rest of her follow Follies alums in a spectacularly choreographed tap number, “Who’s That Woman?” that stops the show.

Visually, this show is simply a treat as well, with that spectacular, constantly morphing set and Amy Clark’s marvelous, colorful costumes that help bring the Follies atmosphere to life. The atmosphere of the early 1970s and the various preceding eras is ideally realized. There’s also wonderful lighting work by John Lasiter that helps set the mood particularly in the flashback and fantasy sequences, and top-notch sound design by Randy Hanson.

I had been looking forward to this production, being a Sondheim fan and having seen the excellent 2011 revival on Broadway. At the Rep, the show is just as spectacular as anything on Broadway. It’s a poignant reflection on how the past informs the present, as well as a glorious celebration of classic musical styles from the first half of the 20th Century. It’s at turns thrilling, funny, dramatic and heartbreaking. Follies is a spectacular way for the Rep to start off its historic 50th season. Go see it while you can. It’s not to be missed.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Follies is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until October 2, 2016. 

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Company
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Insight Theatre Company
June 17, 2016

Cast of Company Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Cast of Company
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company has begun its 2016 season with the classic Stephen Sondheim “concept musical”, Company. A look at marriage and singleness in New York, the show has been staged in various venues around the world since its Broadway debut in 1970. Now, at Insight, the show has been given an ambitious production that, for the most part, is an intriguing and thought-provoking character study, although the script is starting to seem a bit dated.

In this production, Martin Fox plays Robert, or “Bobby” to most of his friends. As his 35th birthday approaches, the perpetually single Bobby is challenged by his married friends to examine his choices and consider the idea of marriage. The married friends range in ages and degrees of happiness and compatibility, and through a series of vignettes we get a glimpse into their lives, as well as Bobby’s life as he interacts with the couples and goes on dates with three different women.  Through the means of Sondheim’s insightful songs and George Furth’s witty script, we are shown the merits and challenges of romance and marriage in modern day New York City.

Actually, “modern day” is one of the problems with this show as it is currently staged. Although Insight’s production is clearly set in the present with its meticulously detailed modern loft set by Peter and Margery Spack, and costumes in a varied range of current styles designed by Laura Hanson, the script and situations seem more closely tied to the early 1970s than to today. With 1970’s slang still intact, and with a picture of marriage as something of a social compulsion more so than it is generally viewed in much of today’s culture, the 2016 setting of this show ends up being somewhat jarring. Conventions such as Bobby’s listening to his answering machine messages have been portrayed as voicemails on his smart phone, although they still seem more appropriate to the earlier setting. Although the show still has timeless truths and concepts with universal appeal, I still wonder if this show would be best if staged as a period piece rather than trying to update the setting.

Still, the show is still a strong piece, with excellent songs like the iconic “Being Alive”, which is given a dynamic performance by Fox, and the acerbic “The Ladies Who Lunch”, which is sung here by Laurie McConnell as the snarky Joanne, in a strong interpretation emphasizing its sadness more than its ferocity.  There are also some excellent production numbers that superbly feature the whole cast, such as the excellent Act 2 opening song-and-dance “Side by Side by Side”. Other songs suffer from the difficult acoustics in the venue, such as the title song that opens the show, and Samantha Irene’s (as Marta) more lackluster rendition of the show’s normally dynamic ode to New York, “Another Hundred People”.

The cast here ranges from ideal to OK, but for the most part does an excellent job. The standouts are Fox in a charming performance as the conflicted Bobby, McConnell as Joanne, and Stephanie Long as the anxious Amy, who delivers a superb rendition of “Getting Today” supported by the ensemble. Matt Pentecost as her intended, Paul, gives a convincing and amiable performance as well. There are also memorable performances from Bailey Reeves as one of Bobby’s girlfriends, somewhat ditzy flight attendent April, and Jonathan Hey and Cherlynn Alvarez as David and Jenny, who spend an awkwardly funny evening smoking pot and sharing uncomfortable truths with Bobby. Generally, it’s a strong cast, although due to the aforementioned sound problems it’s sometimes difficult to understand what people are singing, especially in the more wordy group songs.

Company is a well-respected classic show that was a game-changer in the musical theatre world in its day. Despite some dated language and concepts, it’s still a strong show, with a top-notch score by one of the all-time great composers and lyricists in musical theatre. Although Insight’s staging isn’t perfect, it hits a lot more than it misses. It’s a worthwhile opener for their new season.

Martin Fox (center) and Cast Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Martin Fox (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Company is being presented by Insight Theatre Company at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 3, 2016.

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Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Muny
July 21, 2015

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly Photo by Phillip Hamer  The Muny

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals since I was a teenage drama geek listening to the Original Broadway Cast album on cassette tape on my Walkman. It’s the show that, after Carousel (which the Muny hasn’t staged since 1988), had been the musical I’d most wanted to see at the Muny, since the outdoor setting and wider appeal (compared to other Sondheim shows) made it an ideal choice.  Finally, in its 2015 season, the Muny has brought this modern classic to Forest Park, and it has done so in glorious fashion. With its wonderful production values and a top-notch cast, this production is a celebration of the magic of theatre.

The story is well-known now, since this play is so popular with regional, community, and school theatre companies. It’s basically a blend of various well-known fairy tales along with some original elements, as a childless Baker (Rob McClure) and his Wife (Erin Dilly) are sent on a journey to break a family curse by a mysterious Witch (Heather Headley) with secret motives of her own. Also on their own quests are Cinderella (Elena Shaddow), who wishes to escape her unhappy  home life with her cruel Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and self-centered Stepsisters (Jennifer Diamond as Florinda, April Strelinger as Lucinda) and her weak-willed Father (Michael McCormick). She wants to attend the King’s festival , but soon finds herself being pursued by a persistent Prince (Andrew Samonsky). Meanwhile, the young lad Jack (Jason Gotay) is sent to the woods by his Mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) to sell his beloved cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Sara Kapner) meets a Wolf (also Samonsky) on the way to Grandmother’s (Anna Blair) house, and the isolated Rapunzel (Samantha Massell) lives a lonely existence being stowed away in a tower by the overprotective Witch and pines for another handsome Prince (Ryan Silverman). All these stories weave together in a complicated but clever way, with many surprises in store as the characters learn the truth of the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

This is a story of archetypes and motivations, using fairy tales to present a complex morality tale with several important messages, especially that actions have consequences. The issue of parents as role models for their children is another major theme, as the show’s iconic closing number “Children Will Listen” exemplifies. It’s a multi-layered story, with some deceptively dark connotations, but also with a lot of fast-paced action and precisely timed comedy.  It’s one of those shows where timing is absolutely essential, and for the most part, this production gets it right. I did notice a few small issues with dropped lyrics and dialogue, although I’m sure all of that will be ironed out as the show continues its run. It’s impeccably staged, with the paramount sense of urgency maintained and the characterization compelling.

This is something of an all-star cast here, as well. Tony winner Heather Headley as the Witch is probably the most recognizable name, and she makes a profound impression, expertly conveying the Witch’s single-minded determination as well as her often creepy preoccupation with Rapunzel. Her takes on “Stay With Me” and “Witch’s Lament” are heartwrenching, and “Last Midnight” is powerfully effective, with Headley’s excellent vocals and imposing stage presence. McClure is ideally cast as the show’s Everyman figure, the Baker, bringing all the required conflict and sympathy to the role as well as a strong tenor voice. He works especially well in his scenes with McCormick as the “Mysterious Man” and with Dilly, in a winning performance as the determined, witty, and sometimes preoccupied Baker’s Wife.  Other standouts include Shaddow, who takes Cinderella on a believable emotional journey and delivers a great rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace.” Samonsky and Silverman are suitably handsome and self-absorbed as the Princes, with their duets on “Agony’ and its reprise among the comic highlights.  There’s also Kapner, displaying excellent comic timing as the snarky, confrontational Little Red and Gotay, who is amiable as the brave but not-too-bright Jack. Muny stalwart Ken Page is in excellent form and voice as the Narrator, and there are also strong turns by Vonder Haar as Jack’s Mother and Anna Blair as the ethereal figure of Cinderella’s Mother. Maggie Lakis operates a particularly expressive life-sized puppet as the cow Milk White, as well, and The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is put to clever use in various moments from the show’s storybook intro to its more somber, cautionary conclusion.

Visually, this production is a wish come true, exemplified by Michael Schweikart’s spectacular set. It’s giant storybooks in the intro give way to a more mysterious, versatile unit set that suggests a wooded setting and makes excellent use of the Muny’s giant turntable in portraying various areas in the dark and looming woods. The real trees framing the set are an added atmospheric bonus.  The costumes, by Andrea Lauer, are colorful and appropriate to the characters, with a variety of styles from the traditional to the more modern, giving the show a timeless effect.  There aren’t a lot of flashy special effects in this production, with the various transformations and magical entrances and exits mostly performed through staging or fairly simple lighting, but it all works well, with Rob Denton’s lighting being particularly striking.

Sondheim at the Muny is a wonderful thing. I wasn’t sure it would ever happen, and it has now with one of his more accessible shows. The Muny has done Into the Woods right, and I’m glad. It’s a journey of wonder, mystery, drama, comedy and tragedy, all well-paced and staged by a stellar cast.  It was worth the wait, and it’s worth the journey into the “woods” of Forest Park to witness the magic.

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods is running at the Muny in Forest Park until July 27th, 2015.

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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Suki Peters
The November Theater Company
September 26, 2014

Cast of Assassins Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Cast of Assassins
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

Presidential assassins seem like strange subjects for a musical, as individuals or as a group, but Stephen Sondheim is known for his unusual concepts. Sondheim’s darkly satiric Assassins is a bold choice for the brand new November Theater Company as their first entry into the St. Louis theatre scene, and it’s proven to have been a successful one.  With a strong cast full of local talent, strong direction and a consistent visual theme, this production makes for a memorable debut performance from this new company.

Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have chosen to handle their subject matter in a starkly satirical manner. The satire is broad and dark, with a rougues’ gallery of Presidential assassins and attempted assassins presented as patrons of an old-fashioned carnival, where the Proprieter (Jon Hey) is handing out guns and issuing a challenge–who wants to kill a President?  A wide range of infamous historical figures take up the challenge and enter the “shooting gallery”, with successful attempts being greeted with a large graphic that reads “Winner!”  We are introduced to a range of characters, from household names to historical footnotes, as each gets their story told with varying degrees of embellishment. There is a whole lot of dramatic license here, as characters who never could have met are portrayed as interacting and, in one case–that of would-be Gerald Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Jessica Townes) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jennifer Theby Quinn)–shown as actually working together when in fact their attempts were unrelated. All the historical license is done in the name of satire, and for the most part, it works. There’s also the Balladeer (Charlie Barron), who provides additional commentary on the lives of some of the characters and narrates some of the action, directly challenging the motives of John Wilkes Boooth (Mike Amoroso) and others. With all the characters being rather broadly portrayed, the musical gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of these people and the circumstances that drove them individually to choose such a drastic and terrible act.

Overall, I would say this show is an examination and a satire, but it is in no way a glorification of the assassins or the acts portrayed here.  The assassins are displayed with their most obvious flaws on clear display–from egotism to varying degrees of fanaticism and delusion–although there is also some thought-provoking commentary about the ever-elusive “American Dream”.  The dreadful impact of these acts on the general public is shown with much clarity especially in the show’s penultimate number–the deeply effective “Something Just Broke”, in which various ensemble members recount stories of everyday people and how they were effected by the Kennedy assassination and others.

The cast here is large and, for the most part, ideal, with strong singing and acting. Actually, although there are some great musical moments, some of the most memorable scenes are the non-singing ones, such as attempted Nixon assassin Sam Byck’s (Patrick Blindauer) bitterly comic monologues in which he recounts his disillusionment with life in tape-recorded letters to luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself.  Blindauer is a strong presence as the embittered, Santa suit-clad Byck, with excellent comic timing and a great deal of attitude.  Also strong are the scenes between Townes as the scatterbrained Moore and Theby Quinn as enthralled Charles Manson devotee Fromme, with very strong comic performances from both. Theby Quinn also has a memorable moment in her duet with Nate Cummings as a particularly nerdy, simpering Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley. Both performers shine singing Sondheim’s jarringly ironic “Unworthy of Your Love”–a beautifully melodic tune with disturbing lyrics about romantic obsession and the extreme lengths it drives some people to.  Other strong performances come from Barron, with his strong tenor voice, as the Balladeer; Nick Kelly as the the disillusioned and disturbed McKinley assassin Leon Czoglosz; Patrick Kelly as the gleefully fanatical and vainglorious Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau;  Amoroso as the theatrical, egotistical Booth, who becomes something of a ringleader for the assassins; and Hey, bringing attitude and presence to the role of Proprietor.

Visually, this production is consistent and striking, with Jason Townes’ multilevel set, Bob Singleton’s projections, Russell waning’s lighting design setting the mood, along with the excellent character-specific costumes by Meredith LaBounty.  There were some noticeable issues with sound on opening night, though, from failed microphones to feedback, although these were relatively minor and I’m sure they will be dealt with as the production continues.  Overall, the old-time carnival atmosphere is maintained with admirable detail, with a memorable shift in mood and focus in the climactic scene late in Act 2, achieved with a very simple scene adjustment.

As both a major Sondheim fan and a Presidential history buff, I was particularly interested in seeing this production. Although I had heard the original cast recording, I had never actually seen Assassins on stage before, and I’m glad that I got to see such a strong production. The tone of this show ranges from the ridiculously comic to the frighteningly disturbing, and director Suki Peters and her top-notch cast have presented the material in a memorable and proficient way.  It’s compelling, challenging theatre from an extremely promising new company.

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

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West Side Story

Based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny, August 5, 2013

westsidestory

Wow! I’m stunned. Speechless. I’m sitting here writing after seeing West Side Story at the Muny and I’m not sure what I can say that would be adequate to describe what I saw.  As much as I have come to appreciate the Muny and the entertaining productions there, I never expected a production as glorious and wonderful as this. It’s a truly stunning production, world-class in all respects, and it represents the absolute best of what the Muny can produce.

West Side Story is a dramatic musical in the best sense. An update of the classic Romeo and Juliet story, set in the midst of a conflict between rival youth gangs in 1950s New York City (one made up of first-generation Puerto Rican migrants to NYC, the other of the American-born children and grandchildren of European immigrants), it presents the familiar star-crossed lovers theme along with other timeless issues including what it means to be an American, cultural conflicts, the generation gap, and struggles for understanding and finding one’s place in the world.  It lets us witness both the best and worst of humanity, as love and optimism share the stage with intolerance and violence and, ultimately, tragedy. The glorious Bernstein/Sondheim songs and Arthur Laurents’ poetic and sharp book set all these themes ideally, but it takes a great cast and all the right technical elements to present this material with the freshness and immediacy that it deserves, and the Muny’s production delivers on all counts.

The “Romeo” and “Juliet” of this story are the Polish-American Tony (Kyle Dean Massey), a former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Ali Ewoldt), who has newly arrived from Puerto Rico to join her parents and her brother Bernardo (Manuel Herrera), the leader of the Sharks, in New York. Both are idealistic and looking for something new out of life, and after meeting at a community dance, fall instantly in love.   The wonder and fascination of first love is portrayed very well by both Massey and Ewoldt, whose chemistry is electric in the dance scene and subsequent meeting on Maria’s fire escape, singing “Tonight” with strong voices full of passion and excitement.  It’s a relationship that can be difficult to believe without the right kind of chemistry, and Massey and Ewoldt have it, from their first scene together through all the dramatic conflicts of the show.  Tony in particular is a difficult role to cast, since he has to come across as a believable former gang leader as well as an optimistic romantic lead, and Massey is ideal in both respects, with a strong voice to compliment his strong acting and considerable charm.  His clear, expressive tenor sounds great on songs like the energetic “Something’s Coming” and the romantic ballad “Maria”.  Ewoldt, with her gentle-but-feisty persona and strong soprano voice, is an excellent match for Massey, and all their scenes together are wonderful.  Ewoldt also has many excellent scenes with Natalie Cortez as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita.  “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is one of the best female duets in all of musical theatre, and with the strong voices and presence of Ewoldt and Cortez, it’s a particular highlight here.  Cortez brings all the strength and fiery energy that Anita should have, with a strong voice, wonderful stage presence and strong dancing ability as demonstrated in her best-known song, “America”, and she has sparkling chemistry with Herrera in their scenes together.

Another stand-out in this production is Curtis Holbrook as Riff, the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend. In fact, when I heard that the Muny would be producing this show, Holbrook was who I hoped they would cast in this role, since I had remembered his outstanding past performances in shows like Kiss Me, Kate and Singin’ In the Rain. Holbrook plays Riff as strong, cocky and defiant, with all the requisite charm and cool confidence.  He leads the Jets with style on “Jet Song” and “Cool”.  All the gang members, Jets and Sharks alike, are well-cast, with particular kudos to Drew Foster as the high-strung Action, Brandon Hudson as the naive Baby John, Kaitlin Mesh as the gutsy Anybodys, a girl who wants to join the Jets, and to Jon Rua as Chino, the soft-spoken Shark who is intended to marry Maria but whose own life takes surprising turn as the tragic events escalate.   Muny veteran Ken Page also contributes a particularly strong dramatic performance as Tony’s boss, the drugstore owner Doc, who tries to be a voice of reason to the impulsive young Jets.

The conflict is particularly well portrayed in any scenes with the Jets and Sharks together, from the dynamic opening sequence to the jazzy and vibrant dance at the gym, in which their contentious dancing serves as a kind of precursor to the much talked-about rumble that occurs at the end of Act 1.  All the tension builds and continues to escalate, leading that rumble and vocalized in the stirringly staged “Tonight Quintet”, in which the Jets, Sharks, Tony, Maria and Anita all sing of their hopes and goals for the evening.  Alas, nothing goes as planned, and the consequences are tragic.  The rumble is impeccably staged and brings about the first of two extremely rare moments of total audience silence at the Muny.  It’s an intense, gut-wrenching moment punctuated by chiming bells and the chirping crickets in Forest Park. Nothing else can be heard, and the audience members were glued to their seats. The entire show never misses a beat, with all the scenes hitting just the right notes, from the gentle moments of romance in “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”, to the tension building among the Jets and Sharks, to the comic and angry “Gee Officer Krupke” (a real standout performance), to the truly stunning, impeccably staged finale, which is the most heart-wrenching scene I have ever witnessed at the Muny and is greeted again by that rapt silence and total attention from the audience.   This is a show of both great energy, strong passion, and profound tragedy, and all are fully realized by this superb cast and production.

The action is complemented by Robert Mark Morgan’s meticulously detailed multi-level set, which vividly suggests New York City in the 1950s with its ubiquitous windows, fire escapes, neon and chain link fences.  The costumes are also perfectly suited, and the scene is set with stark lighting and the wonderful Bernstein score, beautifully played by the Muny orchestra.  All aspects of this show work together seamlessly to present this truly memorable, nearly-flawless production.

Even though the Muny has stepped up its game over the past two seasons under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, this is something beyond what I expected to see there. The Muny is well-known for its big, flashy shows and sometimes some good-natured cheesiness, but there is nothing cheesy or over the top about this production. It’s just plain brilliant.  It’s a classic show presented in a way that even the word “timeless” doesn’t seem to appropriately describe, because it’s not just timeless–it’s immediate. It’s here and now. It’s as if this show is being performed for the first time, with all the passion, energy and beauty that this piece demands. This is why I love theatre so much.  It’s full of amazing surprises like this. I’m very glad I was able to witness this Muny miracle in all its glory. This is, without a doubt, the best production I have ever seen at the Muny, and it serves as a more than fitting closer to a truly great season. 

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So, I recently got to go to New York for my brother’s wedding, and I took the opportunity to take in three Broadway shows while I was there.  It was so much fun to be able to walk around the Times Square area and just soak up the atmosphere.  I feel truly blessed to have been able to take in shows in the two greatest theatre cities on Earth (London and New York) in the same year, and it was fun to compare as well.  Overall, I think New York is bigger and flashier and London, while still big and flashy in its own way, is a little more relaxed.   I didn’t find myself wanting to move to New York when I always want to move to London, but I mostly chalk that up to the fact that I’m an unrepentant Anglophile and as far as I’m concerned (for the most part) things are just more fun when they’re British.  Still, this was New York City, and it definitely lived up to the hype.  I’d been there before, but not for over a decade and I had only seen two shows on Broadway before, so this time I took advantage of the chance to see as many shows as I could and just enjoy the Broadway atmosphere.  I hope I get a chance to go back many times in the future.  Here are reviews of the three shows I saw:

 Follies

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by James Goldman

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Marquis Theatre, New York, NY

October 12, 2011

The chance to see this show was kind of a dream come true for me, since I’ve been a fan of Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters since I was a teenager.  It was also great to be able to see London theatre legend Elaine Paige on stage as well, along with a top-notch cast of Broadway veterans.  This was  a classic Sondheim show with star-studded cast, and the production did not disappoint.

The mood is set the minute you walk in the door, as the relatively new Marquis Theatre has been transformed by set designer Derek McLane into a crumbling old variety house years past its prime and ready for demolition, with  a worn-out stage and black and gray sheets draped everywhere.  The “ghosts” of elaborately dressed showgirls haunt the space, wandering in and out of scenes and standing about on the various levels of scaffolding backing the stage.  It’s the story of a reunion of participants (mostly showgirls) from a Ziegfeld-like variety revue called the Weissmann Follies, which supposedly ran in this old theatre every year between the World Wars.  Here the former Follies girls update each other on how they have been and remember their glory days as young performers.  Some of the women seem to have few regrets and others have many, but for the central characters Sally (Peters) and Phyllis (Jan Maxwell), and their husbands Buddy (Danny Burstein) and Ben (Ron Raines), regret is still a major part of their lives, as played out in the events of the show as they revisit and recall their earlier selves, culminating in a Follies-styled “Loveland” fantasy sequence, where they portray the follies of their own lives, showbiz-style.

I don’t want to write a novel about this production, so I’ll have to condense my thoughts and just say it was wonderful.  The leads were universally well-cast, and the contrast between Peters’ depressed, delusional Sally and Maxwell’s bitter, sarcastic and cynical Phyllis was striking.  Both gave wonderful performances, but to my mind, Maxwell was the star of the show, giving a truly multi-layered performance. Her numbers “Could I Leave You?”, simmering with caustic wit, and “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”, in which she portrays her struggle between the younger and older versions of herself, were true highlights of the production.  She was also very well matched by Raines as the self-absorbed, self-destructing Ben.  Peters had a great moment with “Losing My Mind”, as well, perfectly portraying Sally’s obsessive love for another woman’s husband.  Peters is such a master of Sondheim’s material that all she has to do is stand onstage and sing, portraying the full emotional range of the song and holding the audience riveted.  Danny Burstein as the charming but conflicted Buddy also had some great moments, and together these four formed the center of the production.

Another strength to Follies, though, is that its structure gives many performers their moments to shine as the other former Follies girls tell their stories and remember their Follies performances.  Highlights from this production were Jane Houdyshell’s brassy “Broadway Baby” and Terri White leading the ensemble in a dance number with their younger counterparts in “Who’s That Woman”—a true show-stopping moment.  Paige’s gutsy ode to the ups-and-downs of a career in showbusiness, “I’m Still Here” was also a showstopper.  Also, veteran opera singer Rosalind Elias has a great, poignant duet with Leah Horowitz (as Elias’s younger self) on “One More Kiss”.  I could list more great moments, but I would just end up listing the entire song list, as the universally excellent cast delivered a strong production from start to finish.

The sets and costumes (costumes designed by Gregg Barnes) were elaborately done and helped to set the conflicting moods of showbiz energy and underlying darkness, and the “Loveland” sequence in the second act was a bright, fluffy (yes, fluffy) contrast to the dreary, dilapidated theatre setting of the rest of the show.  This production was truly marvelous from the performances to the look and and the feel for time and place.  I felt privileged to witness it.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser

Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

Directed and Choregraphed by Rob Ashford

Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York, NY

October 13, 2011

For a lot of people, this production is simply thought of as “that show with the guy from Harry Potter”, but it’s really a whole lot more than that.  Sure, Daniel Radcliffe is front-and-center in the advertising–and he’s great in a very un-Potterlike performance–but no one performer can carry a show with such a large ensemble by himself.  This show, the second Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 musical, is a full-scale, well-rounded production that looks great, sounds great and is a whole lot of fun.

This is a broadly satirical tale of a young window-washer, J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe), who takes the advice of a book (narrated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper) in how to rise to the upper levels of management at the World Wide Wicket Corporation.  Along the way, he meets Rosemary (Rose Hemingway), a young secretary with lofty goals of her own, as well as the boss’s nephew Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke) who becomes his professional nemesis, and a varied host of secretaries,  office workers and corporate executives. .  The boss, J.B. Biggley, is played with a kind of goofy charm by the show’s other well-known star, John Larroquette (best known from the classic sitcom Night Court), and his scenes with Radcliffe are a delight.  The tone of this piece is satire, with many jabs at corporate culture that are still relevant today, but also with a very palpable 60s vibe provided by the excellent costumes and sets.

The performances are universally appealing.  The role of Finch demands an actor with loads of (seemingly) guileless charm, and Radcliffe delivers.  He does at times seem a little subdued in his acting, in contrast to the broadly comic tone of the show, but for the most part he is excellent, and his dancing skills are surprisingly adept.  Hemingway is perfectly cast as the secretary who pursues Finch romantically, and their chemistry together is sweet and believable.  Other stand-outs in the cast are Tammy Blanchard as ditzy bombshell secretary Hedy La Rue, with a look reminiscent of Joan from Mad Men and a voice reminiscent of Slappy Squirrel from Animaniacs, and the aforementioned Laroquette, who seems to be having an absolute ball in this part and owns the stage whenever he’s on.  Hanke as Frump makes for a effective bumbling “heel”, and  Mary Faber as Rosemary’s secretary friend Smitty and Ellen Harvey as Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones put in fine comic performances as well.

This is a dance-heavy show where the leads and the ensemble get quite a workout—there are dancing mail workers (“Company Way”), dancing secretaries (“Cinderella Darling”), dancing football players (“Grand Old Ivy”), dancing executives (“Brotherhood of Man”) and even dancing pirates (“Pirate Dance”), and all of the dancing is full of seemingly effortless energy.  “Brotherhood of Man” in particular stopped the show with its gradually building, stage-filling controlled chaos.  Radcliffe more than holds his own in this department, as does the fine ensemble.

I must also make special mention of the spectacular set.  Done in a colorful mid-century modern style with geometric patterns, shelves that slide out from the sides to serve as offices, and modules that are rearranged into various configurations as needed to suggest the corporate environment, the set serves very well to set the tone and mood of this production.  The color-shifting hexagon background  reminds me of a 60s game show, and there’s an authentic-looking, functional elevator as well.  Kudos to set designer Derek McLane for his excellent work here.

Overall, I had a great time at this show.  It’s much more than just Harry Potter on stage (in fact, it isn’t that at all).  It is a thoroughly entertaining, well-directed and choreographed satire of the business world, winningly performed by an appealing cast.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Anything Goes

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Original Book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and Howard Linday and Russel Crouse

New Book by Timothy Crouse and John Wideman

Directed and Choregraped by Kathleen Marshall

Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York, NY

October 16, 2011

This is the Tony Award-winning revival of the classic Cole Porter show, normally starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey.  At the performance I saw, however, the understudies were on–Tari Kelly for Foster as Reno Sweeney, and Robert Creighton for Grey as Moonface Martin.  I could hear some not-so-subtle grumbling from some audience members at the fact that the marquee names were not performing, but by the end of the first act most such complaints were silenced, as both Kelly and Creighton gave wonderful, star-worthy performances.

This is a show about the music, really.  It’s Cole Porter hit after Cole Porter hit, with a somewhat silly but still very entertaining plot to string the songs together.  Most of the action takes place on an ocean liner in the 1930s, where nightclub singer Reno Sweeney performs her church-inspired act and multiple subplots ensue involving her friends Billy Crocker (Colin Donnell), a stockbroker who is in love with a debutante (Erin Mackey), and Moonface Martin, a small-time gangster who is on the run from the law. There is much energetic singing and dancing along the way, all expertly done by the excellent ensemble.

Kelly and Creighton were really the heart of the production, with stage presence and energy galore.  Kelly commanded the stage with numbers like “Anything Goes” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, singing and dancing up a storm, and Creighton was delightful as Moonface, especially in his Act 2 number “Be Like the Bluebird”.  He did a wonderful job playing the “gangster with a heart of gold” with all the necessary charm and just the right hint of menace that made him believable as a gangster.  Also excellent were Donnell as the handsome, lovestruck Crocker and Mackey as his love interest Hope Harcourt, and the two had excellent chemistry and danced very well together in “It’s De-Lovely”.  John McMartin as Billy’s boss, the goofy old business tycoon Eli Whitney and Kelly Bishop as Hope’s mother, socialite Evangeline Harcourt provided some fun comic moments, and Adam Godley as Hope’s eccentric English fiancé Lord Evelyn Oakleigh was a sheer delight as well, putting a whole lot of energy into his number with Reno, “The Gypsy In Me”.

The dance numbers in this show were a real highlight, with energetic, tightly-executed routines, and the set (again by Derek McLane) was fun, as well.  The ship was constructed of various modules that could be rearranged and turned around to form the various set pieces, including the staterooms.  The meticulously detailed costumes by Martin Paklidinaz added to the 30s-era feel of the show as well.  Overall, I felt transported to the 1930s and had a great time joining the cast and crew on their voyage.

The moral of this story is, don’t be too disappointed when you see a show and find out the understudies are on.  You just might be pleasantly surprised, as I definitely was here.  Anything Goes was a complete joy of a show, and the understudy/leads more than held their own.  I would love to get a chance to see the regular players and compare, but as that option is unlikely, I will just be happy with what I did get, which was a wonderful performance from all.

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