Archive for September, 2018

“Oklahoma!” Sweeps Into Stages-St. Louis Finale With Style and Panache

September 14, 2018
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Blake Price as Curly tries to soften up Sarah Ellis as Laurey in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

When you load a musical with actors who are triple threats, you’ve got yourself a winner. Add them to a beloved show like “Oklahoma!” and you’ve outdone yourself. This sums up the finale to the 2018 season for Stages-St. Louis with all of the flawless production values we’re used to from this long running and beloved company.

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Blake Price as Curly, Sarah Ellis as Laurey and Zoe Vonder Haar as Aunt Eller imagine the “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

This was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who  had already had success with other partners in musicals. They created, in “Oklahoma!”, a turning point in the American musical where the songs actually drove the action instead of just providing a “break” to the story. It also started a history of musical comedy with dark overtones. The death of a major character had never been seen before and with subsequent shows they introduced weighty and thoughtful subjects along with standard musical comedy flair. With all of that going for it, “Oklahoma!” has stood the test of time and has been performed thousands of times since 1943 and most companies, like Stages, have produced the show multiple times.

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Lucy Moon as Ado Annie tells Sarah Ellis as Laurey why she “Cain’t Say No” during “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

It’s hard to imagine a cast better than this one. Blake Price as Curly and Sarah Ellis as Laurey not only have great chemistry but they both have terrific singing voices and can act- not only in dialogue but with expressive singing showing pathos, humor and drama with every note. Ms. Ellis even danced as “dream Laurey” during the ballet at the end of the first act. Nicholas De La Vega took over the role of “dream Curly.” They pretend to feud throughout when you know they really belong together so the pretend spats during “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and the coy “People Will Say We’re In Love” work to perfection.

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Con O’Shea-Creal as Will Parker and the male chorus dazzle with the “Kansas City” number in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

As the second comic leads in the show, Con O’Shea-Creal and Lucy Moon made a terrific pair as Will Parker and Ado Annie. Also wonderful actors and singers, his Will Parker dazzles in the “Kansas City” number and she simply charms during the “I Cain’t Say No” specialty number while they both delight in the “All Er Nuthin'” competition song in the second act. Her indecision between Will and her new found fascination with Ali Hakim is a treat to watch.

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Blake Price as Curly and David Sajewich as Jud Fry discussing Jud’s funeral during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Always a solid performer in both leads and character roles, Zoe Vonder Haar rules the roost as Aunt Eller doling out wisdom and singing and dancing with abandon. Also fitting comfortably in a minor role is the scintillating Leah Berry as the obnoxious Gertie Cummings who tries to steal Curly away from Laurey. Her double-barreled silly laugh garners laughs throughout the show.

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Matthew Curiano as Ali Hakim discusses his intentions with Con O’Shea-Creal as Will and Lucy Moon as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Rounding out the major cast is a strong performance from David Sajewich as the scary Jud Fry who has his heart set on Laurey and the outrageously funny Matthew Curiano as the peddler Ali Hakim. Jud is a stern and malevolent personality who tries to disrupt the picnic basket raffle and, in contrast, Mr. Curiano displays a comic flair as he “snake oils” his way in and out of situations to his advantage. Other Stages’ vets shine with John Flack as an irascible Andrew Carnes and Steve Isom as Cord Elam while relative newcomer Christopher DeProphetis is Ike Skidmore.

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The wedding near the finale of “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The ensemble gives their usual 100 per cent either with speaking roles or as the various ranch hands and their girls twirling and singing their way through this amazing musical score. The technical aspects are particularly impressive in “Oklahoma!” led by the incredible set design of James Wolk, Sean M. Savoie’s savvy lighting design and the exquisite costumes rendered by Brad Musgrove.

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Sarah Ellis as Laurey explains her philosophy during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Michael Hamilton’s direction and staging is spot on- even including the often cut but always entertaining number for Ali Hakim and the boys, “It’s A Scandal! It’s An Outrage!” The choreography of Dana Lewis is powerfully effective and Lisa Campbell Albert provides the musical direction featuring the orchestral design of Stuart M. Elmore.

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The stirring finale of “Oklahoma!” during the production at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

One can’t ask for more than a stellar and polished production of a steady warhorse like “Oklahoma!” and Stages-St. Louis serves it up to the delight of their faithful audience. Even if you’ve seen it a dozen times (and believe me, I have) it’s a show that never gets old- especially when it’s done as well as this one. “Oklahoma!” delivers through October 7th at Stages-St. Louis. Call them at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

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“Evita” Dazzles And Casts Its Magic Spell At The Opening Of Season 52 At The Rep

September 9, 2018
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The iconic balcony scene as Eva encourages her following, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Having seen “Evita” probably at least eight or nine times, I was looking forward to what the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis would do to impress a crowd that has also probably seen the show multiple times. They do not disappoint. The whirlwind that was the life of Eva Peron travels at break neck speed with dazzling performances, costumes and set design all sweeping across the Rep stage in the capable hands of director Rob Ruggiero.

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Michelle Aravena as Eva Duarte finally reaches her first goal in “Buenos Aries” in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michelle Aravena brings a strong performance to the First Lady of Argentina as she dances, sings and brings the proper devious flirtation to Eva Duarte Peron. The one quibble I had was with her diction in certain numbers. This is a very difficult role as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have given the lady some tight, compact lyrics and a lot of the numbers are almost shouted rather than sung. Ms. Aravena, however brings the proper pathos (even if it’s insincere on the part of the character) to the show’s biggest number, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

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Sean MacLaughlin as Peron and Michelle Aravena as Eva in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You” in the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As her eventual husband, Juan Peron, Sean MacLaughlin is a real powerhouse bringing weariness to the role and you get the feeling that, without Eva, he wouldn’t have reached the heights he did- because she wanted to reach even higher. Although I’ve seen the “hand to hand” combat in several productions during the effective “Art Of The Possible” number, I miss the original choreography of the rocking chair version of musical chairs. But choreographer Gustavo Zajac has added a nice Latin twist with the Argentine Tango flick kicks added to the grapple for power.

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Pepe Nufrio in a powerful performance as Che in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The most charismatic performer in “Evita” is always the character of Che. Though he’s an anachronistic character- out of place in the time of Eva Peron- he shows the disdain so many people felt for both Juan and especially Eva at the time. Pepe Nufrio is an outstanding Che as he serves as narrator and travels in and out of the action as Eva becomes Santa Evita. His powerful singing voice and his ability to pop up everywhere (even in the audience) makes him a delightful character to watch and listen to. Although not as angry as the original- Mandy Patinkin (who is EVER as angry as Mandy?)- costumer Alejo Vietti has chosen to even do away with the traditional Army greens and tone him down even further with a more casual- almost preppy- wear for Che. It works.

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Nicolas Davila as the hapless Magaldi during the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Rounding out the major cast are Nicolas Davila as the tacky Magaldi who becomes the first person to be seduced by Eva’s predatory ways. He’s a fine singer and handles the jilted lover properly. Also, a fine job by Peron’s jilted lover, Shea Gomez. Her rendition of “Evita’s” most haunting number, “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” is stunning. A real treat is the heavy Latino cast in this production of “Evita,” both in major roles and in the ensemble.

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Sean MacLaughlin as Peron and Michelle Aravena as Eva as the two are headed for Argentinian autocracy in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As I said, the brilliant choreography of Gustavo Zajac makes for an exciting look for this production. The large chorus whirls around the Rep stage with the exciting music of the show as a backdrop. Music direction is by Charlie Alterman with a great sound from the true orchestra pit and a nod to Mariana Parma as the tango consultant which is put to good use in several numbers. And Rob Ruggiero has directed with perfection- powering through the story and keeping the action moving.

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Pepe Nufrio backed up by soldiers and the elite above him on the balcony during the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Luke Cantarella has provided another marvelous set design along with the added projections which always are an important part of this show. The patina-like backdrop of Eva’s bust, as if it is in the middle of an Argentinian boulevard, dominates with the overhead balconies that often come into play and then the effective use of the turntable on the stage all combine for a dynamic look. Already mentioned is the wonderful work of costume designer Alejo Vietti which provides a colorful splash throughout the production and John Lasiter’s lights enhance the overall effect.

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Another iconic moment in the Rep’s “Evita” is the Act I finale, “A New Argentina.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Evita” just whizzes by with a few cuts but nothing drastic and leaves us with a great feeling that we’ve seen yet another solid production of this popular Lloyd Webber show. Believe me, I’ve seen a few less than stellar productions. Visit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis during the final season under the Artistic Direction of the brilliant Steve Woolf. “Evita” runs through September 30th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.