Kansas City Theater Review: “Motown the Musical”

Starlight Theater, Kansas City, MO
August 22, 2017

It is truly part of the soundtrack of my life. In fact, I would bet cash money that if you’re over the age of 16 you’ve heard the sound of Motown. From Smokey Robinson to the Four Tops. Diana Ross to the Jackson 5. Rick James to Rockwell. For almost 60 years we have grooved to the music delivered to us by the great Berry Gordy. If you’ve seen “Dreamgirls” you kind of had an idea of what went on behind the scenes. With “Motown” you know the truth.

The show opens during the famed “Motown” 25 television special, which was put together to honor the label and it’s artists but it mostly remembered for being the show where Michael Jackson introduced the Moonwalk! While current and former Motown artists (the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Junior Walker) perform for the audience, we see an assistant trying to persuade Motown founder Gordy (Chester Gregory) to attend the event. Gordy is upset, having lost many of his founding musicians to bigger record labels with bigger budgets. It wasn’t always like this, he notes.

A step back into one of the most important parts of musical history, “Motown” is an amazing homage to the music most of us grew up listening to. But it’s more then just a “greatest hits” variety show. It takes a look inside the famous walls of Hitsville U.S.A. and the struggles that were endured, both musically and personally. Among the main parts of the story line are the budding romance between the married Gordy and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes). Gordy has chosen to mentor Ross to be the best she can and this mentoring has slowly grown into love. In fighting among the groups, choices of songs and the rights of artists to do what they feel is important. Gaye fights to record an album of socially conscious songs and though Gordy resists at first, he relents and the world is given “What’s Going On,” followed by “Mercy, Mercy Me.” You needn’t wonder if the music is timeless, as both of those songs should be mandatory listening today.

As the story progresses into the 1970s, we meet the Jackson 5 (this group was easily the most anticipated of the evening, earning the loudest applause). The 70s slow down until the company faces the prospects of having to sell. But the late 70s and early 80s, with groups like the Commodores and singers like Rick James (btch) keep the company going. All in all you will hear a virtual jukebox of over 50 great songs, all performed by an amazing cast, led by Mr. Gregory, Ms. Semmes and Jarran Muse, who brings the soul and the spirit of the late Marvin Gaye to life. If you love music and the power it has over us, this is the show for you!

“Motown: The Musical” continues in Kansas City through August 27th. Here is the show’s touring schedule through the end of October:

Chicago, IL: Oct. 3 – Oct. 8, 2017 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre
Huntsville, AL: Oct. 10 – Oct. 15, 2017 at the Broadway Theatre League
Peoria, IL: Oct. 17 – Oct. 19, 2017 at the Peoria Civic Center
Lincoln, NE: Oct. 21 – Oct. 22, 2017 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts
Mason City, IA: Oct. 25 – Oct. 26, 2017 at the North Iowa Community Auditorium
Sioux Falls, SD: Oct. 27 – Oct. 29, 2017 at the Washington Pavilion

Kansas City Theater Review: “An American in Paris”

Starlight Theater
Kansas City, Missouri
July 11, 2017

It’s one of the most beloved film musicals of all time, winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was often referred to by its star, the great Gene Kelly, as his favorite of his films. I’m talking, of course, about 1951’s “An American in Paris,” which introduced a new generation to the music of George and Ira Gershwin.

Paris. World War II has just ended and American G.I. Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), an aspiring painter, has decided to stay in the City of Lights in hopes of gaining new inspirations to put brush to canvas. He meets fellow soldier Adam (Etai Benson), who delivers the story to the audience. He also meets Henri (Nick Spangler), an aspiring performer. The three men are anxious to remove all memories of the war and begin whatever great adventure life has planned for them. Things go well until they meet the beautiful Lise (Sara Esty), a young ballet dancer. While Adam’s relationship with LIse is professional, both Jerry and Henri fall in love with her, with complications aplenty.

First off my sincere thanks for the marvelous performance turned in by the entire cast on a night where, as the curtain rose, the temperature was near 90 degrees. Thankfully there was a nice breeze all night because the night went by swiftly. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has embraced the ballet aspect of the story, with much of the on-stage movement based on that form of dance. The graceful movements of those involved were perfect accompaniments with the musical score. No wonder Mr. Wheeldon was nominated for the Tony Award for both his directing and choreography, winning the award for the latter.

The four leads were in fine voice, breathing fresh life into such well known standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “‘S Wonderful.” The costumes were bright and colorful and the set design, though a little dark, evoked Paris in the late 1940’s.

Again, the video screens were a little distracting but I will give Starlight credit for using mostly wide-shots of the stage (“Mamma Mia” utilized a lot of close-ups, meaning those watching on the screens were missing a lot of the dancing), giving the audience a complete view of the award-winning choreography.

Theater Review: “Jersey Boys” – Kansas City

Jersey Boys
Starlight Theatre, Kansas City MO
June 27, 2017

Review By: J.R. Deeter

If you are of a certain age, you certainly know the musical history of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. From the early 1960’s with breakthrough hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man,” the hits just kept coming…..few bands consistently gave their fans hit after hit on the Billboard Pop Chart.

What most people may not have known, and do not realize, is the story of how four boys from Jersey came together, from lowly beginnings and backgrounds while dealing with constant band name changes (they finally settled on The Four Seasons, borrowed from a local bowling alley) to struggle and then soar to the highest levels of success, before falling completely apart. One member removed, one member walked away, with two left to try again….and succeed again. It really is a great American rags to riches story and two and a half hours of pure entertainment.

Starlight Theater is a beautiful outdoor venue in Kansas City and the theater can be a very enjoyable experience, when the weather is nice. For our performance it was “Oh What A Night”!

The cast did a fantastic job, both musically and in portraying their respective roles, picking up after what seemed like a few stumbled moments during the opening scenes. Aaron De Jesus shines as Frankie Castelluccio, soon to become Frankie Valli, with an “i”. His voice was the best part of the show by far leading and hitting the high falsetto notes Valli is most famous for.

Matthew Dailey as Tommy DeVito, Keith Hines as Nick Massi, and Cory Jeacoma as Bob Gaudio were also very entertaining, as each member gets to tell his version of the story. As the show moves through the hit songs and the personal experiences of the guys, you can get a feel for what it was like for them, although I do think there is just enough embellishment for entertainment value. The supporting cast held their own, the female members handling many different roles and pulling it off easily. The Jersey Boys Orchestra was top notch and the music was fresh and crisp.

Note to Starlight: While I can appreciate the offer of the large screens installed this season about mid level up on the left and right side of the stage for the benefit of the folks in the back, I did find myself drawn to keep looking away from the performance on the stage. I feel it is more appropriate for a concert event….let’s keep theater events theater.

Stage Review: “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” – Kansas City

“Beautiful – The Carole King Musical”
The Music Hall, Kansas City, Missouri
March 28, 2017

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

What can I tell you about Carole King that you probably don’t already know? Her 1971 album “Tapestry” has sold over 25 million copies, making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It earned four Grammy Awards, was the second highest selling album of 1971 (behind “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and spent an amazing 313 weeks on the Billboard charts, second only to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” But what was Carole King like before she became CAROLE KING?

When we meet Carole Klein (Julia Knitel) she is 16 and writing songs on the living room piano. Her mother wants her to be a teacher but she allows Carole to take her latest composition into New York City to try and sell. There she meets music publisher Don Kirshner (James Clow) who likes the song and buys it. Having skipped two grades in high school, Carole is a freshman in college and it is here that she meets Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), who dabbles in writing song lyrics. Soon the two are a couple, both personally and professionally. They compete with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil (Erika Olsen) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser). From the beginnings of rock and roll through the fabulous 60s they created some of the greatest music of all time, and “Beautiful” captures those songs perfectly.

You can have great music but if the cast is not up to snuff it doesn’t matter. If you don’t believe me, you should have been with me at a performance of “Les Miserables” where the little boy playing Gavroche was so bad that I actually applauded when he was shot. But this isn’t a problem here. Ms. Knitel is spot-on perfect as King. She plays her like the young, innocent woman she was, gradually growing more and more as her life takes various turns. Vocally she is amazing, belting out song after song with a voice that could easily hit the back row of the balcony without a microphone. Tobin and Fankhauser play Goffin and Mann with quiet vulnerabilities, especially when things do not seem to be going their way. Ms. Olsen is a firecracker on stage while James Clow does his best to keep things together, adding humor and emotion to a character many of us think we know but clearly don’t. (You can read my interview with Mr. Clow here)

Couple these performances with such classic songs as “So Far Away,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Up on the Roof,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and over 20 more and you have a genuine toe-tapping musical that the audience can – and does – sing along to.

“Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” continues in Kansas City through April 2. For tickets go here.

Additional stops on the tour:
April 4-9 in Omaha, Nebraska
April 12-16 in Schenactady, New York
April 18-23 in Syracuse, New York
April 21-30 in Richmond, Virginia