Posts Tagged ‘tari Kelly’

Nunsense, Muny Style

Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin

Directed by Matt Lenz

Choreographed by Teri Gibson

The Muny, St. Louis

July 1, 2013


The Little Sisters of Hoboken have taken the stage in St. Louis.  A low-budget off-Broadway show that turned into a franchise, Nunsense has finally arrived at the Muny in a full-scale production that, despite its sheer size, celebrates its humble origins and brings loads of laughs and a great deal of heart. It also features one of the strongest and most enthusiastic casts I have ever seen at the Muny.

For this production,supervised by creator Dan Goggin, the  show, which originally had a cast of five, has been expanded to fit the Muny stage with elements added just for the Muny, as well as a large ensemble of nuns and Catholic school kids for the dance numbers, and a few characters from the Nunsense sequels, such as Father Virgil (Lara Teeter) and Sister Mary Wilhelm (Ken Page).  Also, the  inept convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has been brought into the show as an onstage character, played by St. Louis native and supporting player from NBC TV’s The Office, Phyllis Smith.  The five leading nuns are still front and center, though–Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Dee Hoty), Mistress of Novices Sister Mary Hubert (Terri White), convent driver Sister Robert Anne (Beth Leavel), novice nun and aspiring ballerina Sister Mary Leo (Sarah Meahl) and the mysterious and forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Tari Kelly).  The premise is the same as the original–the nuns have taken to the stage in a benefit to raise money to bury the four remaining victims of Sister Julia’s deadly vichyssoise soup, which killed 52 of the sisters in a mass bout of food poisoning. The show, which is essentially a revue with a plot, allows the various characters to tell their own stories and show off their individual talents while celebrating their lives as nuns.  It also provides an ideal showcase for the Muny’s first-rate cast.

As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, Hoty has just the right blend of authority and wackiness, with impeccable comic timing and a strong voice, and she leads a cast without a weak link. White, as  Sister Hubert, has a booming voice and great presence, and works especially well alongside Hoty in the song “Just a Coupl’a Sisters”, as well as leading the company in the powerhouse Gospel-influenced “Holier Than Thou”.  Meahl is also excellent as Sister Leo, displaying strong dance and comic abilities.  If I had to pick stand-outs from this cast, though, it would have to be Leavel as the fame-seeking Sister Robert Anne and Kelly as the endearingly befuddled Sister Amnesia.   These two in turn have two of the show’s most memorable numbers in Leavel’s “I Just Want to Be a Star” and Kelly’s “So You Want to Be a Nun”, which is simply astounding in showcasing Kelly’s ability to sing in two completely different vocal styles (operatic soprano and brassy Broadway belting) in the same song as she essentially sings a duet with herself operating the nun puppet Sister Mary Annette.  There are also great turns in the smaller roles by Muny regulars Teeter and Page, as well as a funny performance by Smith as the defensive Sister Julia.

The show emphasizes the limited budget of the nuns in recycling the sets from last week’s production of Shrek as well as making off-stage characters of the spotlight operator (Sister Mary Myopia) and the orchestra leader (Father Michael), adding to the charm of the production.  This edition also adds many nods to St. Louis, from jokes about the Muny and the free seats to including a school uniform fashion show featuring students from the area’s Catholic girls’ high schools (with some funny narration provided by Teeter and Page).  There are also some thoroughly entertaining dance numbers featuring the expanded ensemble, including the rousing Act 1 closing tap-dance extravaganza, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step”.  I would imagine that the show might even be more appealing and relatable to Catholics, especially those who attended Catholic school and were taught by nuns, but its humor is broad and inclusive enough for anyone to enjoy, and it actively avoids stereotyping nuns as overly authoritarian and serious.

I had previously mentioned that season opener Spamalot was possibly the funniest show I had ever seen at the Muny, but Nunsense is a definite contender for that honor now.  I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a single scene in a show than I did at the  Reverend Mother’s monologue at the end of Act One, and there were many other side-splitting moments as well.  I think one of the charms of this show and what makes it appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike  is that it encourages the audience to laugh with the nuns rather than laughing at them.  Everyone on stage seems to be having such a great time as well, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  With this production, the Muny has proven that it can take a little show and make it bigger without losing any of its charm or humor.  I would say that Nunsense, Muny Style is an unqualified success.

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When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, my Mom would occasionally take the family to a show at a local dinner theatre. I still remember the one time when our waiter informed us that he would be playing Curly in that evening’s performance of Oklahoma! Actors doubled as waiters at this particular dinner theatre. Our waiter, whose name was Kevin, was not the principal Curly—he was the understudy. Kevin was young, possibly only a year or two out of college.  He was good-looking and very personable, and we hadn’t heard of the actor who was supposed to play Curly anyway, so we had no objections whatsoever. When the show started, my family was cheering for Kevin, and he turned out to be a wonderful Curly. His youth actually added to the characterization, and I was happy to see this young actor get a chance to show what he could do. I wasn’t disappointed in the least that I hadn’t seen the main actor. Now, of course this was a dinner theatre and not Broadway or the West End, but that experience stayed with me over the years to the point where I have come to truly respect and appreciate understudies, and I have seen some great ones since that I have never regretted seeing instead of the billed actors.

I’m writing this post as a direct reaction to a conversation I saw on Twitter yesterday. Tam Mutu (@tammutu), a wonderful actor and singer who is currently playing Javert in Les Miserables in the West End, asked a series of questions about theatregoers’ opinions of understudies and received a variety of responses. I did respond to one of his questions, but because it was Twitter and limited to 140 characters, I think my response was inadequate. I also looked at a lot of the responses and saw the whole dialogue that developed, and I thought this would be a subject worth writing about. I’m not going to go over all the Twitter responses, but I’m going to respond to some of Mr. Mutu’s questions individually and also try to explore the whole idea of understudies and why I think they are so worthy of respect.

Tam Mutu’s first question was (to paraphrase) “would you rather see a show with an ill principal actor or a healthy understudy?” To this question, my answer is easy—a healthy understudy. This is for the sake of both the principal and the understudy, because if a performer is ill, he or she should be resting. Singing through a cold can damage the vocal cords, and it’s much better if a performer sits out a few performances rather than hurting his or her voice in the long run. Also, understudies are trained performers who work hard and are just as dedicated as the principals. Some understudies have even been given their big breaks because they went on for the scheduled star on particular night, and a producer happened to be in the audience to see that understudy give an amazing performance. Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game on Broadway is a famous example.

Now, the word “star” brings up another issue for me. I often wonder if the reason a lot of people get disappointed when the understudy is on is that there is a perception that they are somehow getting “second best” because the understudy isn’t as well-known. I don’t think in terms of “stars” when I see shows generally, unless it’s a legend like Bernadette Peters or Michael Crawford, but the fact is that even legendary veterans like these are human beings and they can get ill. It’s much better for them if they take a little bit of time off and get healthy, and in the meantime, the audience potentially gets a real treat, like when I saw Anything Goes on Broadway and both “star” performers—Sutton Foster and Joel Grey—were off. That allowed me to discover two wonderful performers in Tari Kelly and Robert Creighton, and I did not for one minute feel like I was getting “second best”. In fact, when Tari Kelly came to St. Louis to star in the Muny’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was excited because I had already seen her on Broadway and knew what a great performer she was.

This also brings me to another question Tam Mutu asked on Twitter, which was about what a person would do if they went to see their favorite performer in a show and they were off. That’s about the only time when I would possibly be tempted to exchange my tickets, especially if I had traveled a very long way to see a particular performer (as I have done a few times). I might postpone a special trip if it involves flying, but if that’s not possible or if I were already there I would most likely see the show. I have never exchanged my tickets because an understudy was on and probably wouldn’t in that case either, because I would want to see the show and the rest of the cast, but I can’t say the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I do think that after seeing the show with the understudy, if it’s possible I would try to see it again later in the week (depending on how long I was in that city) if the favored performer was back in. I don’t blame other people for exchanging their tickets, though, especially if they can’t afford to see the show twice. It’s not about seeing “the star” in that case. It’s about seeing someone you really admire as a performer (whether they’re famous or not) and made an extra effort to see, and it’s understandably a letdown if you get there and find out the understudy is on, no matter how great the understudy is. Even though I probably would still see the show, my response to Mr. Mutu when he asked if people would change their tickets if they knew in advance that a performer would be off was basically “it depends on who it is”, and that is why. There is no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the very hardworking understudies or the performers who take time off for much-needed recovery from illness.

In addition to favorite performers, sometimes there’s just a performance that is so talked-about that you really want to see it, and so when there’s an understudy on, the disappointment is understandable. I wouldn’t change my tickets in that case either, though, because that has happened to me. When the Next to Normal tour came to St. Louis, starring the Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Diana, I have to admit I was disappointed when I looked at the cast board upon arriving at the theatre and saw that Ripley was off. Once I sat down and watched the show I was very glad I got the chance to see her standby, Pearl Sun, give an outstanding performance. I did get an opportunity for discount tickets to see the show again, so I bought them in hopes of seeing Ripley, and when I did I was glad I had seen both performers because they each brought something different to the role. I also saw Jason Watson, the standby for the role of Dan, the first time I saw the show, and thought he was wonderful as well. It was a great experience to get to see the show twice with different leads each time. I understand that some people won’t be able to do that, but I was happy that I did.

I guess the point of all of this is to say that talented performers are everywhere, and just because someone isn’t a “star” or a household name doesn’t mean they’re not a fantastic performer and possibly (like Shirley MacLaine and others) a future star. Also, when you get to a show and find that the understudy is on, while I do understand being disappointed if the principal was someone you really wanted to see, please try not to think you’re getting “second best”.  The understudy just may surprise you. Also, it helps to remember that actors are not super-human and that they do get ill occasionally.  It’s understandable to be disappointed, but please don’t blame them when they need to take a few days off. Thanks to Tam Mutu for asking such thought-provoking questions and I really look forward to seeing him as Javert when I see the show in October. If unfortunately he is off, though, I’m sure his understudy will be great as well. Thanks also to all the wonderful understudies I have seen over the years, starting with Kevin at that dinner theatre years ago. Great talent is great talent, whether the performer is a “star” or not, and these unsung heroes have proven that year after year.

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Thoroughly Modern Millie

New Music by Jeanine Tesori, New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan

Book by  Richard Henry Morris and Dick Scanlan

Directed by Marc Bruni

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny, St. Louis

June 18, 2012

It’s funny how you often don’t notice how broken something is until you see it repaired, like your beloved old house that has lots of charm and character but has seen better days.  Then, with a little bit of fresh paint and new furniture, it’s suddenly like a new place. With the Muny, it wasn’t exactly “broken” but it was starting to show its age.   I enjoyed most of the past Muny productions I saw and the performers were often top-level, but I did always keep in mind that this was the Muny and not Broadway or the West End, especially in the technical aspects like costumes and sets. This production, the first of their 2012 season under new Executive Director Mike Isaacson, didn’t need that qualification. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a top-quality production in every way, and it seems to signify a new era of quality,  innovation  and energy for this 93-year-old venue.

Millie Dillmount’s (Tari Kelly) journey from small-town Kansas to New York City is almost Oz-like in its setup, except that Millie isn’t trying to go back home.  She wants to make it big in the city, with the aim of finding a job as a stenographer with a rich boss to marry.  Her journey takes her to the Priscilla Hotel, a boarding house for aspiring actresses, jealously watched over by the villainous Mrs. Meers (Beth Leavel), a washed-up former actress and criminal who puts on an obviously fake Chinese disguise in an attempt to hide from authorities.  From there, she encounters many unusual characters and exciting places as she discovers more about the Big Apple and about herself.  The plot is somewhat contrived but the way the show is written, as a playful homage to the 1920’s, makes that not matter as much.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining show from start to finish, and the wonderful cast makes it even more so.

I was happy when I found out that the role of Millie would be played by Tari Kelly in this production.  I had previously seen Kelly as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on Broadway, as Sutton Foster was out that day and Kelly was her understudy.  Kelly was sensational in that show and gave a true star performance, and she does the same here in Millie.  She sings, dances and acts with total proficiency, giving a funny, warm and convincing performance as the Kansas girl trying to make it in the big city.  It’s another Sutton Foster role (Foster originated the role on Broadway), and I hope that Kelly doesn’t spend much more of her career replacing Foster because she certainly deserves to be recognized as an outstanding performer in her own right.  She starts out the show alone on that enormous Muny stage, and holds the audience riveted from her first note.

The rest of the performers are excellent as well.  Andrew Samonsky has an easy charm and a strong, smooth voice as Jimmy, the man Millie meets and reluctantly falls for, and he and Kelly have great chemistry in their scenes together. Megan McGinniss makes an appropriately naïve and spoiled Miss Dorothy Brown, Millie’s new-found best friend who is eagerly looking to discover “How The Other Half Lives”. Leslie Uggams oozes sophistication, class and wit as wealthy singer and socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere (the role she played on Broadway), and Beth Leavel is an excellent comic villain as Mrs. Meers. She has previously played Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Muny, and this is a similar role in many ways.  Leavel makes the most of her time on stage, hamming it up and putting on a ridiculously overdone caricature of a Chinese accent.  Also putting in fine performances are Francis Jue and Darren Lee as Mrs. Meers’ increasingly fed up henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Foo, who speak mostly in Chinese that is cleverly subtitled in a little box on the backdrop of the hotel corridor.  Jue in particular as the lovesick (for Miss Dorothy) Ching Ho is a delight.  Stephen R. Buntrock as Millie’s droll boss Trevor Graydon and Tory Rose as his head secretary Miss Flannery are also standouts in an all around superb cast.

The show is full of great, well-executed musical moments, from the charming (Jimmy’s “What Do I Need With Love”), to the hilarious (“The Speed Test” with Millie and Mr. Graydon), to the sophisticated (Muzzy’s “Only In New York”) to the cute and cleverly chorographed (“I Turned the Corner”, which is sung and danced on a skyscraper window ledge by Millie and Jimmy).  There are also stage-filling production numbers like the opening combo of “Not For the Life of Me” and the title song.  Mrs. Meers’s ode to jealousy and revenge “They Don’t Know” is a comic highlight as well.

As for the technical aspects of the show, the Muny has really pulled out all the stops this year, adding an impressive LED “scenery wall” that serves as a backdrop in the city scenes and is used to fun comic effect as Millie and Miss Dorothy are tap dancing in the elevator early in the first act.  The costumes aren’t rented this year, and they are meticulously designed, along with the fun set pieces of movable skyscrapers, jail cells that look like birdcages, and the elaborate balcony set of Muzzy’s swanky apartment.  The choreography is sharp, fun and appropriate to the time period, and the large dance ensemble does a great job.  All of these aspects work together to create a suitably authentic 1920’s atmosphere, and a slick (but not too slick), glossy world-class production.

With the possible exception of the stunning production of Les Miserables in 2007, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the best production I have ever seen at the Muny. It represents more than a fresh coat of paint. It’s a complete revitalization of this age-old St. Louis institution that I hope continues throughout the season and for many seasons to come.

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