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Meet Me In St. Louis
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Revised Book by Gordon Greenberg, Additional Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
August 4, 2018

Emily Walton (center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

In the closing show of the Muny’s 100th season, two famous slogans coincide. Now “Meet me at the Muny” meets “Meet Me In St. Louis“, as the stage version of the classic film has been brought to the Muny again with a revised book and a nostalgic tone, as well as a hopeful message. It’s a classic, but it’s also new, looking back on a celebrated era in the city’s past but also encouraging a spirit of family, connection, and optimism.

This show has been done several times at the Muny over the years. Now, it’s back with a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and some additional songs, including one that was written for the original film but cut from the final version, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Based on Sally Benson’s stories of her family’s life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the focus here is on the Smith family, and especially the character played by Judy Garland in the film, second daughter Esther (Emily Walton), who pines after the “Boy Next Door”, John Truitt (Dan DeLuca), before she even meets him. They eventually do meet, adding to the romantic entanglements of the rest of the Smith family, including oldest sister Rose (Liana Hunt) whose boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Michael Burrell) transfers to Washington University to be closer to Rose, and brother Lon (Jonathan Burke), who brings the trendy New Yorker Lucille Ballard (Madison Johnson) home to meet his family. The rest of the family’s drama also involves New York, as father Alonzo Smith (Stephen R. Buntrock) informs his wife Anna (Erin Dilly) that his lawfirm has given him a promotion and a job in the New York office. The plans are overheard by the family’s Irish-American maid Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald), and the three try to delay telling the rest of the family for as long as possible, because only Alonzo seems happy about the idea and they know their family, including younger daughters Agnes (Elle Wesley) and Tootie (Elena Adams) and Anna’s father, retired physician Grandpa Prophater (Ken Page), won’t take the news well. The story is something of a love letter to St. Louis in that era, with memorable characters and some iconic songs, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in addition to some classics from the time, such as the iconic title tune that’s sung by the family here as they and the whole city anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a relatively light show, and it’s a lot of fun, showcasing the various characters at different times and, with this new version, throwing in some subtle nods to the Muny, such as when Esther and John have lunch in Forest Park as the fairgrounds are constructed and talk about the future, pointing out the young oak trees around them and imagining them growing into tall shade trees, like the ones that now surround the very stage on which they are having this conversation. It’s a fun little moment in the show, which is full of funny, nostalgic and poignant moments leading up to a rather spectacular finale.

The plot can get a little convoluted at times, but the characters and the various set pieces featuring the changing seasons in St. Louis are the highlight here. It’s not a deep show, but it’s fun, and the classic songs are given excellent treatment here, along with the requisite “Muny Magic”, as with the real trolley onstage for “The Trolley Song”, the grand set designed by Michael Schweikardt, the colorful costumes by Tristan Raines, and the spectacular production values, including lighting by Rob Denton, sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and excellent video design by Matthew Young, along with the glorious Muny orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman. This is a big, bright, warm and funny family show, staged with obvious love for the city and park in which it is set and in which it is being staged.

The cast is first-rate, as well, with Walton as an amiable Esther, doing justice to the classic songs and lending credibility to Esther’s crush on next-door-neighbor John, who is played with sweetly awkward charm by DeLuca. They make a believable couple, as do real-life married couple Dilly and Buntrock as the Smith parents. The whole Smith family is surperbly cast, with standout performances especially from Wesley and Adams as the mischievous younger daughters, Agnes and Tootie. Muny stalwart Page is also excellent as the kind Grandpa, Fitzgerald is pleasantly spunky as Katie, and the large Muny ensemble lends strong support, with lots of dynamic energy and enthusiasm in the big production numbers. It’s a big, entertaining show and fills out the huge Muny stage with style and spirit.

When my family first moved to St. Louis, it was 2004, 100 years after the famous fair, and as I remember, the city celebrated that centennial with various activities throughout the year to commemorate the fair. One of those events was the first show of the Muny season that year–Meet Me In St. Louis. It was also the first show I ever saw at the Muny. We sat in the free seats, and I remember enjoying the show. Seeing this new, spectacular production to close out the Muny’s 100th season reminds me of how much has changed since then, not just for me but for the Muny and for the city as a whole. It also reminds me of the timelessness of this show, and of the Muny itself. This production celebrates the city and the milestones in families’ lives, as well as an iconic moment in history, with a clarity and charm that is timeless and transcendant. It’s a magnificent way to close out a historic season.

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Meet Me in St. Louis in Forest Park until August 12, 2018.

 

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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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Annie
Book by Thomas Meehan, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2018

Cast of Annie Photo: The Muny

It’s strange to think that, considering my personal history, I had never actually seen Annie onstage until the Muny’s latest production. I had seen two of the three filmed versions and almost wore out my LP of the Original Broadway Cast recording when I was a little girl, before any of the movies had been made. Like countless kids then and since, I would sing along with the album and imagine playing Annie someday. Still, despite the proliferation of productions around the country and the world since the original production opened, including several at the Muny (and two since I moved here in 2004), I had never actually gotten around to seeing a stage production of the show. Now, in the Muny’s 100th season, they’ve brought this classic to the stage in a vibrant production that’s got a lot going for it, especially an excellent cast.

Annie is a familiar story to many, following the adventures of the tough but vulnerable title character (Peyton Ella), an 11-year-old girl who has grown up in an orphanage run by the domineering Miss Hannigan (Jennifer Simard), whose imperious, harsh treatment of Annie and her friends drives the orphans to frustration and near-despair. Annie, who still dreams of being reunited with her parents, refuses to give up hope. Meanwhile, wealthy industrialist Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Sieber) tasks his assistant, Grace Farrell (Britney Coleman), with finding an orphan to invite to spend two weeks in luxury at his mansion over the Christmas season. The bitter, jealous Miss Hannigan schemes with her shady brother, Rooster (Jon Rua) and Rooster’s ditzy girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Holly Ann Butler) to get back at Annie and swindle Warbucks out of thousands of dollars. Also, it’s the 1930s, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (John Scherer) is trying to figure out what to do about that. The shows mixture of realism, comedy, and optimism in the midst of uncertainy is a large part of its enduring appeal. It’s got some moments that could be seen as cheesy, but it’s core is sincerity and heart.

This is the Muny, so it’s fairly easy to assume that there’s going to be a large cast to fill up that great big stage. This production has excellent leads, backed by a strong ensemble, even if there are somewhat jarring moments, such as when Annie and the six “main” orphans (Ana Mc Alister as Molly, Samantha Iken as Pepper, Trenay LaBelle as Duffy, Amanda Willingham as July, Madeline Domain as Tessie, and Ella Grace Roberts as Kate) are about to sing “Hard Knock Life”, only to be suddenly joined by about 30 more orphans who just seem to appear instantly from the wings. The energy takes a while to build in the first act, but by the time Annie arrives at Warbucks’ mansion, the show has found its groove and the momentum only builds from there, highlighted by sparkling production numbers such as “NYC” and the truly delightful “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”. Peyton Ella, as Annie, has an impressive voice and great stage presence, delivering the iconic “Tomorrow” with power, and she has great chemistry with the other orphans and with Sieber, who is in excellent form as Warbucks. There are also strong performances by Coleman as the kind Grace, Rua as the scheming Rooster, Simard as the delightfully hammy Miss Hannigan, and a memorable moment for Abigail Isom in the featured solo as the “Star-to-Be” in the “NYC” number. Scherer as FDR is memorable, as well, along with a large ensemble of adults and kids. There are also a few scene-stealing moments from Sunny, the adorable terrier who plays Sandy, a stray dog that Annie befriends and then makes various appearances throughout the production.

In terms of production values, the show looks great, for the most part. There is some issue with wigs–Annie’s is somewhat distracting at times, and Warbucks’ skull cap is obvious. Still, those are minor issues when the rest of the production works so well, from Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, to Leon Dobkowski’s colorful period-specific costumes, to Nathan W. Scheuer’s striking lighting, to Rob Denton’s vibrant video design. The Muny Orchestra is in excellent form as well, performing that classic score with style.

So, whether this would be the first time you’ve ever seen Annie or the fiftieth, or any number in between, the Muny’s production is likely to please. It’s a big, vibrant produciton that communicates the enduring spirit of a show that’s become such a legendary classic over the past 40 years. When I recently re-discovered that old LP of the cast album, my son noted the tagline–“A New Musical”, thinking that sounded strange for a show that premiered more than 20 years before he was born. Still, even though it’s not exactly new anymore, the show’s vibrancy and hopeful spirit remain timeless, and the Muny’s production is fresh and full of energy. It’s a fun show, and I’m glad I’ve finally had the chance to see it. It’s definitely worth checking out, no matter how old or young you may be.

Peyton Ella, Jennifer Simard, Britney Coleman Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Annie in Forest Park until July 25, 2018

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Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 9, 2018

Nicolas Dromard, Keith Hines, Mark Ballas, Bobby Conte Thornton Photo: The Muny

The Muny has, over the course of its storied 100 year history, hosted several memorable concerts in addition to its traditional lineup of musical theatre and (originally) operetta. It’s been a while since the venue has hosted a rock concert, but its latest musical production, Jersey Boys, has the feel of a concert much of the time. Still, although it’s a “jukebox” show, it also has a strong book, telling the true story of a well-known American band with great production values and a stellar cast.

The story focuses on the legendary pop-rock group The Four Seasons. It’s a well-structured plot, narrated at turns by all four original members of the group: guitarist Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard), keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bobby Conte Thornton), bassist Nick Massi (Keith Hines), and lead vocalist Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas). As the title suggests, the story begins in a close-knit neighborhood in New Jersey, as a group of young, ambitious guys form friendships and a band, sometimes get in trouble with the law, navigate family struggles and romantic entanglements and eventually work their way up to the top of the charts as a world-famous band. The approach here doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story or the people involved, the personality conflicts, trials and tribulations as well as some of the more problematic aspects of the times. The tag-team narrative approach serves the story well, as each “Season” gets to have his say, using the group’s impressive repertoire of classic hits to help advance the story as well as entertain in concert-style, complete with a thoroughly appreciative, enthusiastic audience. Iconic songs like “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December 1963 (Oh, What a NIght)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and “Working My Way Back to You” are represented well, with top-notch production values and a great, enthusiastic cast.

The Muny stage is great setting for this show. I’d seen the Broadway staging before on tour at the Fox, and that was great, but here, in the show’s regional world premiere, the staging and styling have been created specifically for the Muny. With a versatile multi-level platform set by Paul Tate dePoo III, the concert style is served well, as are the storytelling moments. There’s also dynamic lighting by Rob Denton and striking, effective video design by Matthew Young, along with some dazzling, colorful period-specific costumes by Andrea Lauer. The staging is energetic and well-paced, with great dance moves choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, and those great, memorable songs well-played by the excellent Muny orchestra led by music director Rick Bertone.

The Four Seasons are ideally cast here, with Dromard, Hines, Thornton, and Ballas recreating that distinctive sound credibly and impressively. They all sound great, with Ballas particularly standing out vocally, displaying Valli’s remarkable range and stage presence well. Dromard’s cocky, controlling DeVito is a standout as well, as are Hines’s quirky, enigmatic Massi and Thornton’s more quiet but ambitious and determined Gaudio. The relationships and group chemistry are believable, as well, and there are some especially great musical moments as the group develops their signature sound. There are also standout performances from Nicholas Rodriguez as music producer Bob Crewe, and Ben Nordstrom in various roles. There’s a strong, energetic ensemble, as well, each playing various roles and supporting the group in enthusiastic dance numbers. The look, sound, and style of the Four Seasons and their era–particularly in the 1960s–is well-represented in this excellent production.

Jersey Boys is grittier at times than what may be thought of as the “usual” Muny show. It has a sharp, well-structured book that makes it one of the best “jukebox” musicals that’s been produced, and of course, there are all those memorable hit songs. This is a big, flashy show with a good deal of substance along with the glitz, and the Muny has produced it about as well as I could imagine. It’s an excellent, complex and fascinating musical tribute.

Cast of Jersey Boys Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jersey Boys in Forest Park until July 16, 2018

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Singin’ In the Rain
Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Directed by Marc Bruni
Choreographed by Rommy Sandhu
The Muny
June 27, 2018

Corbin Bleu Photo: The Muny

Singin’ In the Rain is a well-known, iconic musical made for the silver screen, and about the silver screen and the world of Hollywood at the advent of the “talkie” era in the 1920s. It’s been adapted for the stage and performed in many venues around the world, including five times at the Muny. Now, as part of their 100th season, the Muny has brought this show back to the stage in a spectacular, marvelously staged production that features a strong cast and, of course, wonderful dancing.

Corbin Bleu, known to many fans from his roles in films on the Disney Channel, and especially High School Musical, has since established a successful career on Broadway, most recently taking on the role orginated by Fred Astaire in the stage adaptation of the movie Holiday Inn. Here at the Muny, Bleu follows in the dance steps of another legendary Hollywood hoofer, Gene Kelly, in the leading role of movie star Don Lockwood. He’s joined by Muny veterans Jeffrey Schecter as Lockwood’s longtime friend, pianist and dancer Cosmo Brown, and Berklea Going–who has essentially grown up performing at the Muny–as the aspiring actress and singer Kathy Selden. The story follows these three as they navigate the transition from silent movies to sound films, and particularly movie musicals. The trouble for Don, along with movie producer R.F. Simpson (Jeff McCarthy) and director Roscoe Dexter (George Merrick), is that Don’s longtime co-star, Lina Lamont (Megan Sikora), is not only selfish and limited in acting talent, she also can’t sing and has a shrill speaking voice that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Meanwhile, Kathy and Don meet and fall in love, but the possessive Lina–who has been romantically linked to Don in the press, but not in reality– tries everything she can to keep them apart. Though slight and not particularly deep, the story is a lot of fun, with an old-Hollywood charm and several stylized dance numbers with a lot of energy and flair.

Technically, this show is nothing short of spectacular, with excellent production values remarkably re-creating the look and atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood. Paul Tate dePoo III’s colorful, versatile set and Tristan Raines’s stylish, dazzling costumes are augmented by Greg Emetaz’s striking video design and Nathan W. Scheuer’s impressive atmospheric lighting. The Hollywood glitz and glamor are here in style, accompanied by the excellent Muny orchestra with music direction by Ben Whiteley.

There’s a great cast here, as well. Bleu, as Lockwood, is charming, with excellent dance skills and smooth, classic-style vocals. He’s an ideal choice as the much-loved movie star. Schecter, who was so memorable last year in The Little Mermaid and, especially A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is a delight here as Cosmo Brown, singing and dancing with energy and style, and displaying excellent comic timing. Going, as Kathy, also shows off a strong voice and dances skills, as well as good chemistry with Bleu’s Lockwood. Also standing out is Sikora in a brilliant comic performance as the diva-ish Lina. There are also memorable turns from McCarthy and Merrick, as well as local performer Debby Lennon as Hollywood entertainment reporter Dora Bailey. The ensemble is particularly strong as well, playing a variety of roles as needed and contributing to the truly stunning dance numbers, based on the film numbers originally choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and choregraphed for the Muny by Rommy Sandhu.

This isn’t a particularly deep show, and the ending is somewhat abrupt as staged, but overall it’s a spectacular evening of song, dance, and comedy. It’s a tribute to classic Hollywood with the style, energy, and performers of today. Fortunately, after a rain delay on Opening Night of last week’s show, The Wiz, this show opened on a clear night, despite its title–although it does really “rain” during the show’s splashy signature song. Singin’ In the Rain on stage at the Muny is a whole lot of fun.

Corbin Bleu, Berklea Going, Jeffrey Schecter Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Singin’ In the Rain in Forest Park until July 3, 2018.

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The Wiz
Adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown with addtional material by Tina Tippit
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Additional Material for The Muny production by Amber Ruffin
Directed by Denis Jones
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
The Muny

June 19, 2018

Darius de Haas, Nathan Lee Graham, Danyel Fulton, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane
Photo: The Muny

As part of their 100th season, the Muny is presenting a show they haven’t produced since 1982: The Wiz. The well-known adaptation of the Wizard of Oz story by African-American writers and featuring an all black cast, The Wiz at the Muny has been updated and given a lavish, stylish, superbly cast production that–in reflection of its story–brings a great deal of brains, heart, and courage to the Muny stage.

Based more on the original book, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz than the popular and perhaps even more well-known 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, this production of The Wiz contains elements taken more from the book while also occasionally acknowledging both the 1939 Wizard of Oz film and the 1978 film version of The Wiz. With a score influenced by R&B, soul, gospel, disco and pop, the show tells this story in its own unique, distinctive way. The stage version debuted on Broadway in 1975, with a look and sound that was innovative and contemporary for its time. For the Muny’s version, acclaimed television writer Amber Ruffin worked with the original writers to update the script for a 2018 audience, along with excellent new orchestrations by music director Darryl Archibald and vibrant, energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown. The result is a production of The Wiz that honors and celebrates the orginal while also reflecting a more contemporary setting for today.

The story is the familiar one, as young Dorothy (Danyel Fulton) lives on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em (Demetria McKinney), Uncle Henry (Rhaamell Burke-Missouri), and dog, Toto (Nessa). Dorothy feels misunderstood, though, and longs for something more, whereupon she is whisked away by a tornado (here represented in striking fashion by dancers) to the Land of Oz, where she is informed by the Munchkins that her house has fallen on–and killed–the Wicked Witch of the East. She then meets Addaperle (E. Faye Butler), the Good Witch of the North, who tells her about The Wiz, the powerful wizard who can perhaps help her get home. Dorothy also dons the magic silver slippers (silver as they were in Baum’s original book) and follows the Yellow Brick Road (represented here by four dancers–Chloé Davis, Karma Jenkins, Amber Barbee Pickens, and Allysa Shorte) to look for The Wiz in the Emerald City. Along the way, she meets and befriends Scarecrow (Jared Grimes), who wants a brain; Tinman (James T. Lane), who wants a heart; and Lion (Darius de Haas), who wants courage. All join Dorothy on her quest, hoping the Wiz will be able to grant their desires as well. When they finally meet The Wiz (Nathan Lee Graham), he tells them he’ll grant their wishes only if they are able to destroy the evil Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (also Butler), who runs a blue-jeans producing sweatshop and terrorizes the land, and who also has a grudge against Dorothy for killing her sister and taking the silver slippers, which Evillene covets for herself. In the end, all the main characters learn more about themselves and their own strengths, as well as what is important to them, and Glinda (also McKinney), the Good Witch of the South, helps Dorothy to think about what she has learned.

I’ve seen The Wiz in three versions–a high school production years ago, the film, and the live televised version on NBC in 2015. All of those versions were slightly different, and this one at the Muny is different still. It’s essentially the same, but the jokes have been updated, the dialogue has been changed here and there, and the look has been modified so that everything is a lot more “now” than 1975. The design is excellent, with Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s sets filling the Muny stage with big, vivid backdrops and presenting the various locations in clever ways, like the Poppy scene and its lip-shaped sofas, or the entrance to the Emerald City, which is like the entrance to an exclusive nightclub, and the Emerald City itself with its dance club atmosphere. The Muny’s scenery wall is put to excellent use as well with memorable video design by Greg Emetaz,  as the location changes from Kansas to Oz and takes Dorothy and her friends to various places around Oz, from Munchkinland to Evillene’s palace, to the Emerald City and beyond. The costumes, by Leon Dobkowski, are striking, whimsical, and distinctive, from Evillene’s light-up skirt to Dorothy’s shiny silver slippers, to the Wiz’s dazzling green outfits, and more. Rob Denton’s lighting also contributes to the overall spectacular effect of this marvelous show.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by Fulton in a stellar performance as the determined Dorothy. She’s got excellent stage presence, a strong, powerful voice, great dance skills, and superb chemistry with her co-stars. She’s the star of the show, but she also has some great co-stars, including Grimes, Lane, and de Haas who are ideally cast in their roles as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, with Grimes and Lane having some especially strong dance moments, and de Haas excelling in comic timing. There are also two great double performances by McKinney as both the motherly Aunt Em and the wise Glinda, and Butler who is equally excellent as the kindly Addaperle and the gleefully evil Evillene. Graham, as the Wiz, also puts in a memorable performance. There’s also a great ensemble, all playing multiple roles from Munchkins to Crows to Poppies and more. There are energetic, intricately choreographed production numbers, from the hit “Ease On Down the Road” to the joyful “Brand New Day”.

This is a truly wonderful production. Filling the big Muny stage and featuring a stellar cast, The Wiz is full of heart, soul, comedy, drama, some spectacular dancing, and a celebration of friendship, family, home, and hope. It’s a magnficent show.

Darius de Haas, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane, E. Faye Butler, Danyel Fulton
Photo: the Muny

The Muny is presenting The Wiz in Forest Park until June 25, 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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