Posts Tagged ‘stephen sondheim’

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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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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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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