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Grease
Book, Music, and Lyrics Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Additonal Songs by Barry Alan Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, Scott Simon
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 24, 2019

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Grease is an unusual show, especially for one so popular. A perennial crowd-pleaser, the show has been altered a lot since its Broadway debut in 1972 and subsequent mega-hit film version in 1978. In fact, it’s the film’s ubiquitous hit status that has affected this show the most, with most major productions and big-scale revivals including songs from the movie and sometimes even changing the plot and order of scenes/songs to more reflect the film. I’ve seen the show on stage several times, and it’s never been the same show. Now the show is featured as the second entry in the 2019 season at STAGES St. Louis, and as is usual for this musical, the crowd loves it. It’s an entertaining show, with an enthusiastic cast and the familiar songs that basically everyone recognizes now. Here, although the version being staged greater highlights the differences between the original play and the film, and how awkward blending them can be, the cast and creative team have worked together to present a show where the music, 50s style theme, and especially the dancing are at the forefront, making for a fun show overall.

Grease is so well-known that a detailed plot summary isn’t that necessary, except in terms of how the stage version differs from the film. It’s still the story of “bad boy” greaser Danny Zuko (Sam Harvey) and “good-girl” new girl in school Sandy Dumbrowski (Summerisa Bell Stevens), who have to deal with the pressures from various groups around them after they unexpectedly reunite at Rydell High School after an idyllic summer romance at the beach. The T-Birds, led by Danny and his best buddy Kenickie (Jesse Corbin) are here as an influence on Danny, and the Pink Ladies, led by tough-talking Betty Rizzo (Morgan Cowling) awkwardly bring Sandy into their group after she’s befriended by wanna-be beautician Pink Lady Frenchy (Lucy Moon).  Those basic plots are the same in the film and the original stage show, but the songlist is different and some of the scenes have been changed around, as well as the tone and message being generally harsher, grittier, and more crass in the stage show, although most revivals have “smoothed out” the grittiness. This one tries to keep it for the most part, although the mix is somewhat odd because the movie songs (especially “You’re The One That I Want” instead of “All Choked Up”) don’t exactly fit, and the context doesn’t always work as well. Also, whether you see the ultimate message as problematic or empowering (I’ve seen both arguments), it seems more abrupt and somewhat muddled in this version. Also, the sanitized versions of the songs (especially “Greased Lightning”) are used here, which doesn’t mix as well with the grittier tone of the stage script.

Still, this production entertains, even with the awkwardness of the mix between sources. The emphasis this time is on the styling, musical performances, and 50s-style choreography by Tony Gonzalez, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm from a strong ensemble. The leads are good, particularly Harvey’s charmingly goofy Danny, but the real standouts are the “supporting” T-Birds and Pink Ladies, especially Brooke Shapiro as Jan and Collin O’Connor as Roger, who make a fun couple and whose “Mooning” number is a highlight, as well as Julia Johanos as the more worldly Marty, and Patrick Mobley as Doody, who brings a youthful energy to his role as the rock-star wannabe T-Bird. The chemistry between the various cast members is also strong, bringing joyful style to songs like “We Go Together”, as well. Also excellent is Kenora Lynn Lucas in a dual role as a big-voiced Teen Angel in the show-stopping “Beauty School Dropout” number and as strict teacher/principal Miss Lynch, hilariously delivering the pre-show announcements in character to the start off the show on a fun note.

Technically, this production is excellent, with a fun, colorful set by James Wolk featuring a backdrop resembling an old-style jukebox, and vibrant lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also memorable, colorful and true to the period. This is a great looking show visually, and the energetic choreography gives it an upbeat tone overall.

While no two versions of Grease are the same in my experience, this is a show that can draw an audience on its name alone. At STAGES, the emphasis is on style, dancing, and ensemble energy. Even with some of the odd mixture between versions, this is a fun show, sure to entertain.

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Grease at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 18, 2019

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson, Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 25, 2018

Dan’yelle Williamson, Corinne Melançon, Dana Winkle
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

When someone says the phrase “jukebox musical”, the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people is Mamma Mia! Featuring the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA, a large cast of characters, and a sunny, summery setting, this isn’t a deep show but it’s still a lot of fun. Now STAGES St. Louis is staging a production that emhpasizes the “fun”, and the infectious score, with a light, summery atmosphere that works well in the middle of July in St. Louis.

The story of Mamma Mia! is only a small part of its appeal. It’s actually kind of a goofy story, but the show doesn’t claim to be anything deep or challenging. It’s just a celebration of family, friendship, and most of all, ABBA music. The classic hits are all here, from the energetic title tune to iconic disco-era hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me”, and many more. The story follows young Sophie Sheridan (Summerisa Bell Stevens) as she prepares for her wedding at a small Greek Island resort owned by her mother, former singer Donna (Corinne Melançon). Neither Donna nor Sophie’s fiance Sky (David Sajewich) know that Sophie has found Donna’s diary from years ago that reveals the identities of three men who could possibly be Sophie’s biological father. Now, Sophie has invited all three of them–American architect Sam (Gregg Goodbroad), British banker Harry (David Schmittou), and Australian writer Bill (Steve Isom)–to her wedding. Also in town for the festivities are Donna’s longtime friends and former bandmates Tanya (Dana Winkle) and Rosie (Dan’yelle Williamson), who reminisce about their days as Donna and the Dynamos and get involved in the pre-wedding shenanigans that ensue when all three men turn up to Donna’s surprise, and dismay.  The plot is kind of thin, but it provides a suitable backdrop for the obvious centerpiece of the show, which is the music and the big, cleverly and sometimes hilariously staged production numbers. It’s a sweet show with a message of love and family acceptance, with some amusing character moments, but the real star of the show is ABBA.

The casting here is strong, for the most part. Everyone is obviously having a great time, and the energy is fun and infectious. Melançon and Stevens display a strong, believable mother-daughter relationship as Donna and Sophie, and they sing well, although some of the songs don’t seem to naturally fit Melançon’s voice. She’s at her best in the slower songs, with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the emotional “The Winner Takes It All” as highlights. Stevens also has strong chemistry with Sajewich’s devoted Sky and with all three potential “dads”, who are all strong as well. Other standouts include Winkle and Williamson, who display great stage presence, excellent comic timing, and powerful vocals. There’s also a strong ensemble that brings a lot of energy to the bigger musical numbers as well, performing Tony Gonzalez’s whimsical, inventive choreography with style.

Visually, the show looks great. James Wolk’s mult-level set adapts the island resort setting well for STAGES’s space. There are also excellent, colorful costumes by Brad Musgrove that help to capture the spirit of the show, including the glitzy disco-inspired jumpsuits and more. There’s also great atmospheric lighting by Sean M. Savoie.

Overall, this production of Mamma Mia! is a fun, spirited staging that definitely pleased the enthusiastic opening night audience. It’s one of those shows that’s essentially about enjoying the music and performances and not thinking too much about the plot. At STAGES, there’s a good cast, great production values, and above all, a whole lot of fun.

Corinne Melançon, Summerisa Bell Stevens
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Mamma Mia! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 19, 2018

 

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