Theatre Review “Mean Girls” @ Dr. Phillips Center – Orlando, FL

“Mean Girls” is a musical based on the 2004 movie that was written by Tina Fey. The musical premiered in Washington, D.C. in October 2017 and opened on Broadway in April 2018. If you are thinking “Seriously they made a musical for Mean Girls?”, this show has no shortage of talent from the award-winning creative team, including Tina Fey (30 Rock), composer Jeff Richmond (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) and director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon). This show is packed with energy and devilish humor that will leave you howling.

From upbeat anthems like “Apex Predator” and “I See Stars” to the songs that show the difficult side of being a female like “What’s Wrong With Me,” the music never stopped. The female leads in the show, especially Mary Kate Morrissey (Janis), Danielle Wade (Cady), and Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George), all had unique singing voices that were nothing short of impressive. In addition, the show decided to use digital screens for quick set changes which led to seamless transitions when changing from classroom to classroom and location to location in the middle of a song. The comedic timing in the show, especially by Karen – played by Jonalyn Saxer, kept you laughing throughout the entire show. There was even a scene with the Lion mascot that had the audience laughing so hard some were in tears. Overall, the show captured the life of a teenage girl in a way that had you sympathizing, laughing, and swaying along to the amazing music.

Official Premise: Cady Heron may have grown up on an African savanna, but nothing prepared her for the vicious ways of her strange new home: suburban Illinois. Soon, this naïve newbie falls prey to a trio of lionized frenemies led by the charming but ruthless Regina George. But when Cady devises a plan to end Regina’s reign, she learns the hard way that you can’t cross a Queen Bee without getting stung.

The show is playing at the Walt Disney theater from February 25–March 1, 2020. If you are able to get tickets, this is a show that is not to be missed. Overall this musical is just plain fun. You find yourself smiling and laughing till it hurts. Due to the success of the musical production it was recently announced that a film adaptation of the musical was being produced. So expect more of “Mean Girls” in the coming years!

Theatre Review “Disney’s Aladdin” @ Dr. Phillips Center – Orlando, FL

“Disney’s Aladdin” is one of my favorite movies and it is also one of the only Disney plays that I haven’t seen on Broadway. It opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on March 20, 2014 and since then has become the 11th highest-grossing Broadway production of all time (as of May 2019), grossing over $400 million…and still going strong. The show is currently running from January 22nd through February 9th at the Dr. Phillips Center and it is a MUST SEE for the whole family.

Official Premise: From the producer of The Lion King comes the timeless story of Aladdin, a thrilling new production filled with unforgettable beauty, magic, comedy and breathtaking spectacle. It’s an extraordinary theatrical event where one lamp and three wishes make the possibilities infinite. Aladdin features all your favorite songs from the film as well as new music written by Tony® and Academy Award® winner Alan Menken (Newsies) with lyrics penned by the legendary Howard Ashman (Beauty and the Beast), Tony Award winner Tim Rice (The Lion KingAida), and book writer Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer). Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw (The Book of MormonSomething Rotten!), this “Fabulous” and “Extravagant” (The New York Times) new musical boasts an incomparable design team, with sets, costumes and lighting from Tony Award winners Bob Crowley (Mary Poppins), Gregg Barnes (Kinky Boots), and Natasha Katz (An American in Paris).

Orlando native, Michael James Scott, played the role of the Genie and easily stole the show. Michael isn’t new to playing this role after though after being apart of the original Australian Cast (2016-2017), as well as taking on the U.S. National Tour (Jan-Aug 2018), took over the West End (Aug 2018-Feb 2019), and Broadway (Feb-Sept 2019). So as far as I am concerned Michael James Scott is the Genie. I literally loved every second he was on the stage. Such energy and such love for his craft.

Speaking of returning cast Jonathan Weir, who played Jafar in the original US tour cast as well taking over the reigns on Broadway. There was no shortage of talent on this stage. Jonathan was a riot with his companion Iago, played by Reggie De Leon. Together they both commanded the stage. Jonah Ho’Okano, who plays Aladdin, is also fresh off the boat from playing the lead in the Disney Cruise Line version of “Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular”. So he is also no stranger to the character.

The costumes are outstanding. There are so many quick changes that will leave you amazed as to how it is done. The colors are just so vibrant from the costumes to the set, which are also super elaborate – especially the Cave of Wonders. I absolutely loved the Cave of Wonders set. It was stunning and so well put together. Also “Whole New World” song was super impressive with the flying carpet, which I have no idea how it was done. This was a really beautiful moment of the evening.

Since this show running for a few weeks at Dr. Phillips Center, there are still plenty of time to get great seats for upcoming shows and Media Mikes had the tips for you to experience this amazing show. There are still great seats available for the following shows on Wednesday January 29th-Friday January 31st and from February 4th through Saturday February 8th. If you can make any of those shows, I cannot recommend any more to not miss this show. I had a smile on my face from the moment it started until the moment it ended. Definitely some magic happened at Walt Disney Theater.

Kansas City Stage Review: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the Musical

  • “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  • The Kauffman Center – Kansas City, Missouri
  • January 21, 2020 

Oh, how sweet it is! Filled with colorful costumes, magical set designs, and wonderful songs that will put a smile on your face, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now performing at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City, Missouri, is a terrific musical the whole family can enjoy. Based upon the 1964 children’s novel of the same name by British novelist Roald Dahl (1916-90), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was first adapted for the silver screen in 1971 and then again in 2005 before premiering as a musical in 2013 in London.

 The musical version takes us to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where, after being shut up for 40 years, the legendary chocolatier (Cody Garcia) decides to venture out into the real world to find an heir. Disguised as a chocolate shop owner, Willy ends up befriending, in a small way, a local boy named Charlie Bucket (Ryan Umbarila). Charlie lives an impoverished life just down the block with two sets of grandparents, who never leave their bed, and his widowed, overworked mother. 

Charlie is a dreamer to the tenth degree and so, it’s only natural that he becomes enamored with the idea of getting a Wonka chocolate bar in order to get a golden ticket. The five lucky recipients of which will get to go on a tour of Willy’s factory with the chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Of course, the whimsical and quirky Willy has other plans. Charlie ultimately proves himself to be a good-hearted lad, especially when compared to the other four children who reveal themselves to be brats, each meeting their own unique, laughable fate during the tour. 

The first half of the show contained a couple of heartfelt moments between Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Steve McCoy) that pulled at the heartstrings. Umbarila had an overall nice stage presence but was overshadowed a bit by McCoy’s charismatic delivery of his comedic lines. Despite Charlie’s underdog nature, the most fascinating character remained Wonka himself. However, his portrayal during the first act was a little flat, which was accompanied by a sluggish pace even with a few entertaining dance sequences. 

The true highlight of the night’s show was the second act. It was fun, lively, colorful and thoroughly entertaining. Garcia delivered a superb performance down the stretch run with a portrayal that was reminiscent of a blend between Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. Supported by a solid orchestral performance, the musical’s second act was punctuated by well-choreographed Oompa Loompas who generated the biggest laughs of the night. 

In the end, don’t wait for a golden ticket in a candy bar to see “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” because it will be gone before you know it. 

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” runs in Kansas City at the beautiful Kauffman Center through January 26th. For tickets in KC or for the rest of the tour, click HERE.

Theatre Review “Escape to Margaritaville – The Jimmy Buffett Musical” @ Walt Disney Theatre – Orlando, FL

Escape to Margaritaville is a musical that was first performed in 2017 in New Orleans and premiered on Broadway in 2018. The show features music and lyrics by legendary singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and is based on a book of the same name by Emmy Award® winner Greg Garcia (My Name is Earl, Raising Hope) and Emmy Award® nominee Mike O’Malley (Survivors Remorse, Shameless). The show features both original songs and Jimmy Buffett classics, including “Fins,” “Volcano,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and many more.

The show focuses on Tully Mars, who works as a singer at run down hotel on a small island in the Caribbean called Margaritaville. He is always meeting new girls but never has any intention of keeping relationships after the tourists leave…that is until he meets Rachel. She comes onto the island with her friend for a Bachelorette party and a mind focused on her career. With the help of Tully, Rachel lands on island time and the two fall in love…but what happens after her trip comes to an end. Can the couple stay together or is it just another week long fling?

FAIRWINDS Broadway in Orlando Presents Escape to Margaritaville – The Jimmy Buffett Musical is playing at the Walt Disney Theatre at the Dr. Phillips Center from November 12-17, 2019. This is a show that I have been waiting to see since it first premiered in New Orleans in 2017…and I was not disappointed. I consider myself a Parrothead and I have seen Jimmy Buffett live as often as I can. There were a few of us “crazies” in the audience tonight, I caught eye of a lady dressed in a cheeseburger costume. This is not your typical play audience. The songs screams to be sang along to and the the music makes you move around in your seats. It should not be taken seriously. It is cheesy, dumb and self aware of how silly it is in certain parts. I had a lot of fun with this show and it is definitely a fun time to be had.

I want to point out that the sound at the Dr. Phillips Center was on point and the music was perfectly balanced. I remember seeing shows on the Bob Carr Theater and if you were too far back it was very hard to hear. The sets were simple but definitely delivered the vibe of Jimmy Buffett and his lifestyle. The bar set was my favorite. I loved the new originals songs as well. They blended well with the classics. If you are a Jimmy Buffett fan, this is a must see for any Parrothead. But don’t worry even if you are never heard half these songs before, like my fiance, you could still enjoy the show. My fiance is new to the music of Jimmy Buffett music and she still enjoyed the show just as much as I did. So if you can don’t miss this show. Grab a margarita and kick back and relax!

Act I
“License to Chill”
“Fins”
“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
“Ragtop Day”
“It’s My Job”
“Why Don’t We Get Drunk”
“Three Chords”
“We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About/The Natives Are Restless”
“Son of a Son of a Sailor”
“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus”
“Medley: Coconut Telegraph/Last Mango in Paris/Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”
“Margaritaville”

Act II
“Volcano”
“Grapefruit—Juicy Fruit”
“He Went to Paris”
“Cheeseburger in Paradise”
“Tin Cup Chalice”
“Love and Luck”
“Come Monday”
“A Pirate Looks at Forty”
“One Particular Harbor”

Theater Review: “The Simon & Garfunkle Story”

  • THE SIMON & GARFUNKLE STORY
  • The Kauffman Center – Kansas City, Missouri
  • October 22, 2019

For the curious, the best selling album of 1967 was “More of the Monkees.” I’ve got it. In 1969 it was Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Got that one too. AND I’ve got the best selling album of 1970, as well as 1971 and 1972. That album is Simon & Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and it is one of the almost 30 songs showcased in the new show “The Simon & Garfunkle Story.”

As the show opens we meet Paul Simon (George Clements) and Art Garfunkle (Andrew Wade), two school chums who enjoy singing together. They open the show with “The Sound of Silence,” the first of their many successful hit singles. Paul and Artie take turns telling their story, going back to when they recorded the song “Hey, Schoolgirl” under the name Tom and Jerry (a bit of trivia I already knew). As the stories are told, they are highlighted with a video display of the various time and era being recalled.

Both actors were outstanding. Mr. Clements was not only in great voice, pretty much nailing Simon’s sound, he also showed himself to be an excellent guitar player. Mr. Wade appears to be channeling Art Garfunkle, seemingly being able to mimic his stances and cadence with ease. He also has the unenviable task of trying to pay tribute to one of the greatest voices in music history, a task he undertakes, and completes, perfectly.

Andrew Wade (l) and George Clements bring the music of Simon & Garfunkle to life. (photo credit: Lance Peters)

The first act concentrates on their earlier music (“I Am a Rock,” “Homeward Bound”) while the second act take the audience through their greatest period, from “The Graduate” to the end. While it was great hearing all of the songs featured (both hits and album cuts), the highlight for me was when Mr. Wade brought the house down with an amazing rendition of one of the greatest songs ever written, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The two stars are backed up by an amazing group of musicians who each contribute a highlight or two to the show.

Artie and Paul the way I remember them. (photo credit: Lance Peters)

I’ve been lucky enough to have caught Paul Simon in concert a few times. Sadly, I never got to see him live with Art Garfunkle. Until tonight.

“The Simon & Garfunkle Story” is currently on tour. For information on where you can catch it, click HERE.

SET LIST: The Sound of Silence, He Was My Brother, Hey, Schoolgirl, Bleecker Street, Kathy’s Song, I Am a Rock, Richard Cory,, Somewhere They Can’t Find Me, The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine, Patterns, For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, Homeward Bound, Scarborough Fair, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin Groovy), Mrs. Robinson, A Hazy Shade of Winter, Voices of Old People, Old Friends, Punky’s Dilemma, America, Fakin’ It, Cecilia, Keep the Customer Satisfied, The Only Living Boy in New York, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover/You Can Call Me Al/Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Late in the Evening, Baby Driver, Bye, Bye Love. ENCORE: Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer.

Theater Review: “Dear Evan Hansen”

  • “Dear Evan Hansen”
  • The Music Hall – Kansas City, Missouri
  • October 15, 2019

I’m going to borrow Anna Kendrick’s introduction of “Dear Evan Hansen” at the 2017 Tony Awards to describe the show best: “A letter never meant to be read that tells a lie never meant to be told.” Exactly.

Evan Hansen (an AMAZING Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a young man about to start his senior year in high school. We meet him sitting in his room, his arm in a cast from a tree-climbing accident, working on a letter…to himself. Evan has had some issues in his life and part of his therapy is to write himself a positive letter each day. But he’s not feeling positive. Evan is shy and quiet and friendless. He lives with his hard working mother – when she’s not working she attends classes to be a paralegal – and feels all alone in the world. He writes his letter, but it’s not positive. And when it’s finally read, it changes Evan’s life in ways he never intended.

Winner of 6 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a show that will make you examine your life and the choices you made in it. Taking place on an almost bare stage with an abundance of video screens, “Dear Evan Hansen” shows the impact a simple misunderstanding can make in a world dominated by social media.

The cast is superb. Mr. Anthony repeatedly brought the audience to tears with his portrayal of a boy who wants desperately to be loved and accepted. The supporting cast is equally strong. As Evan’s mother, Jessica E. Sherman portrays a woman who only wants the best for her son but can’t find the way to tell him. Her love is obvious to everyone but Evan and you can feel the pain she feels by not being able to communicate with Evan. Take away the music and this show would have won a Tony for Best Play.

But the music is there and it is amazing. With so many Broadway shows using either popular tunes or adapting from films, it’s a treat to see an original show with an original idea. If you want to see Broadway at it’s best, you can’t go wrong with dropping “Dear Evan Hansen” a line!

“Dear Evan Hansen” runs in Kansas City through October 20th. For information on the show and other upcoming tour dates, click HERE.

Kansas City Theater Review: “Hello, Dolly!”

  • HELLO, DOLLY
  • Starlight Theatre – Kansas City, Missouri
  • September 26, 2019

This has been one of the best seasons I’ve ever attended at Starlight and their final production of the season was no exception.  It gave audiences a chance to revisit one of the most popular shows off all time, “Hello, Dolly.”

The show revolves around the life of Dolly Levi, played brilliantly by multiple Tony-award nominee Carolee Carmello, a widowed master-of-all-trades whose main endeavor is match making.  She is currently meddling in the relationship between Ambrose kemper (Colin LeMoine) and his beloved Ermergarde (Laura Sky Herman).  The young ladies uncle, the very rich Horace Vandelgerder (and equally excellent John Bolton) does not feel Ambrose is a suitable suitor.  But when Dolly sets her mind to things…

A fun show with some spectacular dancing, “Hello, Dolly” is just coming off a recent Broadway engagement, with the dynamic Bette Midler, that won 4 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.  The original production, which debuted 55 years ago, took home 10 Tony Awards.

The fun in the show is infectious, thanks to the amazing cast.  When I  mentioned that I was seeing this production, I was asked if Betty Buckley was playing Dolly.  She wasn’t.  And, as much as I love Betty Buckley (I saw her on Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard”) I’m so glad I was able to see Ms. Carmello in the role.  Armed with a beautiful voice and great comic timing, she had the audience in the palm of her hand from her first appearance on stage.  Mr. Bolton, who I saw on Broadway two decades ago in the musical “Titanic” has just the right amount of bluster to make Vandergelder lovable.  The chemistry between the two is very visible.  Supporting cast members, including Kansas City native Daniel Beeman (Cornelius) and Analisa Leaming (Mrs. Malloy), also give strong performances.  And the “background” performers – townspeople, etc – are among the best dance ensembles I’ve ever seen.

“Hello, Dolly” runs at Starlight through September 29.  If you don’t get to see it there, I urge you to see it when it hits your town.  For tour information, please click HERE

Kansas City Theater Review: “CATS”

  • CATS
  • Starlight Theater, Kansas City, Missouri
  • July 9, 2017

Back in the early 80s, when I was still trying to make a living as an actor, I spent many a day going on auditions. Any time I saw a casting call for a musical production, it always included four words: “Bring music. NO “MEMORY.” Which was kind of upsetting because, even today, I can sing the hell out of that song!

Opening on Broadway in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “CATS” won 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. And rightly so. Based on T. S. Elliot’s book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the show tells the story of a group of felines who meet once a year at the Jellicle Ball. One by one they tell their story, each one more fantastic then the previous.

The production at Starlight was fantastic. As the curtain rose, a bright moon hung over original production designer John Napier’s iconic junkyard set. Character after character took to the stage (and wandered among the audience), some of whom you know by name. My favorite “cat” has always been Rum Tum Tugger and, as portrayed by Mcgee Maddox, he was truly the cat of the walk. Other stand outs in the cast included Timothy Gulan, who plays three characters, including Gus the theater cat, TionGaston as Mistoffolee and Caitlin Bond as Victoria. Ms. Bond has the most stage time in the show and proves herself to be an amazing dancer. And of course, you can’t ignore Keri Rene Fuller, who has the role of Grizabella. It is she who sings “Memory” and her rendition, especially in Act II, brought tears to my eyes, rivaling previous renditions by two theater legends, Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley.

Two notes here for those seeing the show at Starlight. First, pay attention to the license plate nestled in the junkyard. The letters N A P are for set designer John Napier. The number 11A marks which show it’s from. 11A is modeled after set 11 with one big difference. It’s inflatable, making it easier for touring versions of the show to set it up. Second, this is one time where the video monitors on the top sides of the stage are useful, the close-ups provided allowing the audience to see the small and subtle facial expressions of the characters.

“CATS” was advertised as “now and forever” and, after running for 18 consecutive years (it is currently the 4th longest running show in Broadway history) that wasn’t far off. “CATS” runs at Starlight through July 14th. For tickets to this or later performances, please click HERE.

Theatre Review: “Flashdance: The Musical” @ Garden Theatre – Winter Garden, FL

“Flashdance the Musical” is a stage adaptation of the 1983 musical film “Flashdance”. The show features original music by Robbie Roth and lyrics by Roth and Robert Cary. It originally had its world premiere in 2008 as part of a ten-month UK tour, followed by a London West End run in 2010. It also had a US tour in 2012-2014, but never made it to Broadway.

“Flashdance: The Musical” premiered at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden, FL on July 5th and will continue there until the 28th. When I attend a show, I try and stick around and listen to everyone’s comments when they leave. I love hearing everyone’s thoughts, which also helps me properly form my thoughts as a critic. Some of the comments, I heard was “felt like a high school production” and “lead girl couldn’t even dance”. I enjoyed the show for the most part but did agree with some of what I heard.

From discussing with my date, we decided we agreed with some of the comments we overhead. I do not feel like the actress that played Alex Owens was the best choice. Her profile said she was dancing for 17 years but she was definitely not great in my humble opinion. The ensemble cast stole the show for me and had the best dancers by far. As far as the high school production comment, the Garden Theatre might not have scene changes like Dr. Phillips Center but it has charm and delivered a good set for “Flashdance: The Musical”.

Official Synopsis: Dance like you’ve never danced before! FLASHDANCE: THE MUSICAL tells the inspiring and unforgettable story of 18-year-old Alex, a welder by day and ‘flashdancer’ by night, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer. When a romance complicates her ambitions, she harnesses it to drive her dreams.

The show was jam packed with the classic pop hits from the movie including “Maniac,” “Gloria,” “I Love Rock & Roll” and everyone’s favorite by Irene Cara, “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” I wasn’t a huge fan of the original songs from the show but when these classics came on, I perked up and definitely wasn’t the only one. Overall, I enjoyed the show. Ensemble dancing and supporting cast definitely delivered another winner for the Garden Theatre. Look forward to their next performance.

Once again, “Flashdance: The Musical” will be playing at the Garden Theatre from July 5th-28th, 2019. Support local theatre and buy tickets here: https://www.gardentheatre.org/play/flashdance-the-musical/

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

  • BEAUTIFUL – THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL
  • Starlight Theater, Kansas City, Missouri
  • June 24, 2019

REVIEW BY J.R. DEETER

An amazing thing happened as I watched “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” this past Tuesday evening at Starlight.  I realized that the songs being played had been some of my favorites, starting from childhood.

  Opening at Carnegie Hall, circa 1971, King (played beautifully by Sarah Bockel) sings “So Far Away,” which takes us back to the beginning of the story of the rise of one of pop music’s icons.  It’s 1958 and 16-year old Carole has found her way to the offices of one “Donnie” Kirshner hoping to sell him a song she has written.  Kirshner likes what he hears and signs her up.  He teams her with an aspiring lyricist named Gerry Goffin and soon the hits begin to flow.  Songs like “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof” and “The Locomotion” are soon climbing the charts.  The partnership soon becomes much more and King and Goffin marry. 

But they weren’t the only ones toiling in the Brill Building.  We also meet Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who created such hits as “Walking in the Rain,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”   Eventually, Carole and Gerry’s love fades and, when she discovers Goffin is cheating on her, King and her children leave New York for California.  She begins writing new songs, using the highs and lows of her own life as inspiration.  History is made when King, now singing her own songs, releases the album “Tapestry,” still one of the biggest selling albums of all time.  

The performances across the board were excellent, with stand-out work delivered by Dylan S. Wallach (Goffin), Alison Whitehurst as Ms. Weil and Jacob Heimer as Barry Mann.  The musical ensemble was also quite entertaining, portraying such 60’s performers and groups like The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers.   “Beaufiul” runs at Starlight through Sunday, June 30th.  For information and tickets for these shows, or future performances, please click HERE.

Kansas City Theater Review: “HAMILTON”

“Hamilton”
Music Hall, Kansas City, Missouri
June 19, 2019

Sometimes when you get too excited about seeing a show, you leave the theater wondering what all of the hub-bub was about. I was very fortunate to see “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway right after it opened and I was blown away! On the other hand, my only memory of seeing “Starlight Express” was that I noticed (and intercepted) Andrew Lloyd Webber heading towards the men’s room and got him to autograph my Playbill. It’s been almost 4 years since HAMILTON opened on Broadway and you’ll have to have been on Mars to have not heard about it. So while I was looking forward to seeing it, I went in wondering whether or not my fondest memory would be spotting Lin-Manuel Miranda in the lobby. Happy to announce that I was NOT disappointed.

© Joan Marcus – 2018

If you’re familiar with the name Alexander Hamilton, it’s probably because he’s the face on the $10 bill. In reality, he was much more. As an orphan he traveled to the colonies and earned an education. In his adventures he meets Aaron Burr and their lives continue to intertwine literally to the end. In between he falls in love, fights for Independence and devises a treasury system that is still in use. And the stories and songs behind these achievements make learning as much fun as an old episode of “Schoolhouse Rock.”

Joseph Morales is Alexander Hamilton. © Joan Marcus – 2018

A few years ago, Jimmy Kimmel informed show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda that he was a national treasure. He may have been selling him short. HAMILTON is an amazing combination of sight and sound telling familiar stories in a new way. The cast on this tour is amazing. As Hamilton, Joseph Morales runs the emotional gambit of joy and sorrow. His Hamilton is at first naive, eager to learn but by the end jaded from all he has seen. Marcus Choi is first rate as George Washington, portrayed here not as an independent leader but one who needed help in becoming the Father of our Country. Kyle Scatliffe does double duty as both French General Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Act 2 begins with what is essentially a rap battle between Jefferson and Hamilton and Mr. Scatliffe caps his words with, quite possibly, the first mic drop in history. But to me the standout performance belongs to Nik Walker, who portrays Aaron Burr. Always seeming to be on the wrong side of major events, Burr holds the distinction of being the only Vice-President to kill a man while in office, sadly an honor that kept him off the ticket when Jefferson ran for reelection. In fact, this show could have easily been called “Burr.” Mr. Walker gives the show an extra burst of energy whenever he is on stage and his performance of the song “The Room Where It Happened” vaulted that song to my list of all-time favorite show tunes.

Nik Walker is Aaron Burr. © Joan Marcus -2018

HAMILTON plays in Kansas City through July 7. For ticket information on this stop of the tour and later cities, click HERE.

Kansas City Theater Review: “Rock of Ages”

ROCK OF AGES
Starlight Theater - Kansas City, Missouri
May 31, 2019

My first Broadway show was “42nd Street” in 1981. Yes, I’m old. But I’m also able to tell people that I saw Jerry Orbach on Broadway. And Julie Andrews. And Chita Rivera. But enough about me. I’ve seen plenty of shows in the past three-plus decades but I have never seen anything as fun and exciting as “Rock of Ages.”

Our story begins in the small town of Paola, Kansas. Yes, it’s a real town and, yes, it’s really small. My son’s baseball team used to play there every year and I remember the big hoopla when Walmart showed up! We meet Sherrie (Katie LaMark). She’s a small town girl…living in a lonely world. And her dream is to make it to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Despite her parent’s disapproval she heads west and ends up on the Sunset Strip. She is soon mugged and is rescued by Drew (Anthony Nuccio). Drew works at the Bourbon Club, famous for helping launch the careers of many a band. Drew gets Sherrie a job and soon….well, you’ll have to see the show.

Drew (Anthony Nuccio) and Sherrie (Katie LaMark) share a dream of stardom.

I’ve been seeing shows at Starlight for years, and this was, by far, the BEST one I’ve ever seen there. I had only seen the film so I wasn’t prepared for my evening at the Bourbon Club. The music is all classic 80s rock and metal hits. Pretty much every band you can remember is represented. Except, ironically, Def Leppard, whose hit song gives the show it’s name. We are told by the Narrator (an amazing John-Michael Breen) that there is no Leppard in the show because the band wouldn’t license their music. Ironic, isn’t it?

The performances were also outstanding. As Sherrie and Drew, LaMark and Nuccio have a strong chemistry and an underlying sweetness that has you rooting for them. Both also have great voices. During “Oh, Sherrie” Mr. Nuccio held one note for an amazing 33 seconds, which brought the already enthusiastic audience to near euphoria. I would love to see him tackle the lead in “Jekyll and Hyde.” And extra credit to Ms. LaMark for dealing with a major technical glitch (her face mic was not working at the beginning of Act II and, with her character having to remain on stage for some time, delivered a strong performance using a hand-held microphone. Also credit to the tech crew because, in the few seconds she was able to go off-stage, the problem was corrected. Fine performances were also delivered by the supporting cast, with many in the audience falling under the spell of Sam Harvey, who plays quintessential (and problem child) front man Stacee Jaxx – which is possibly the coolest rock star name ever. And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the kick-ass band that provides the music.

John-Michael Breen

I’m saving this paragraph for the highlight of the show – John-Michael Breen. He not only narrates the show but appears as the Bourbon Club’s sound guy, Lonny. Lonny loves three things. Rock and Roll and his Fogmaster 5000 fog machine are two of them. Mr. Breen gives the show the majority of it’s laughs and both the cast and the audience feed off of his enthusiasm. I will definitely keep an eye on his career and hope to catch him on stage in the future.

As I said in the beginning, I’ve seen some great Broadway shows, from “Phantom” to “Les Miz” – from “Cats” to “Spamalot – and “Rock of Ages” has definitely jumped onto my all-time favorites list.

Curtain Call

“Rock of Ages” is only in Kansas City through Sunday, June 2nd. For information on upcoming tour dates, click HERE.

Kansas City Theater Review: “RENT”

RENT

Music Hall – Kansas City, Missouri

April 29, 2019

The Broadway (and off-Broadway) stage has often been the place where a generation can speak without rebuke.  The 1990’s saw the production of two very important shows that shed light on the, at the time, the little discussed subject of AIDS.  The first show was Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America.”  The other?  Jonathan Larson’s “RENT.” 

Opening off-Broadway on January 25, 1996, “RENT” tells the story of a group of struggling artists (filmmaker, musician, performance art) living in the SoHo area of New York City.  Their goal is to present their art to the world without compromising – to not “give into” the man.  This week, the 20th Anniversary Tour is in Kansas City, with moderate success.

To me, the evening, like the show, was in two acts.  The first act, in this writer’s opinion, was slow, which is a word I normally would not apply to a musical where the cast moves non-stop while performing dozens of songs.  I’m not sure if it was opening night jitters, or bus-lag, but several of the characters just didn’t seem to be “into it” during the first act.  The performances were fine…it’s just that many seemed to be a beat behind.

Musically, the show is magnificent.  I’m sure everyone has heard “Seasons of Love” at least once in their life, and this song, which opens Act II, is performed with heart to spare.  Other favorites were “Santa Fe,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “La Vie Boheme.”  Highlights in the cast were Lyndie Moe as Maureen and Devinre Adams as Collins, who is my favorite character in the show. 

 Sadly, Jonathan Larson never saw “RENT” performed before a live audience.  On the morning of January 25, 1996, Larson died after two different hospitals mis-diagnosed a heart condition.  With his parent’s consent, the show went on that night.  For his work, Larson posthumously won 3 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. 

“RENT’ continues it’s run in Kansas City through Sunday, May 5th

Kansas City Theater Review: “Anastasia”

REVIEW by DAN LYBARGER

ANASTASIA Music Hall, Kansas City, MO March 12, 2019

If The Lion King and Aladdin work as stage plays because they remind audiences the joy they experienced watching the original animated movies, the makers of Anastasia succeed because the original 1997 cartoon, while enjoyable, isn’t a classic.

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s animated film has some gorgeous 2D animation, but their reworking of the legend of Anna Anderson, who falsely claimed to be Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter had a problematic story.

For example, the chief villain was an undead version of Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), who had difficulty keeping his rotting body in one piece. Despite the G-rating the film had, it disturbed some of the children and even adults who watched it.

For those with stronger memories, the cartoon also incorporated some ideas from Anatole Litvak’s 1956 movie, with served as a powerful comeback for Ingrid Bergman, after her affair with Roberto Rossellini almost ended her career.


The new musical adaptation, which debuted on March 12 at the Music Hall in Kansas City, keeps some of the characters from the original tale but reworks the plot extensively. Thanks to playwright Terrence McNally (Love! Valor! Compassion!Master Class), Rasputin is gone, and a more credible antagonist has taken his place. This time around, the Bolsheviks are eager to stamp out rumors that the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the chaotic mass execution that took place in 1918.

Nearly a decade later, a Party operative named Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) is trying to remove all traces of the royal family, but a pair of con artists named Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) are hoping to capitalize on whatever is left of the dynasty.

With the Soviet economy unable to deliver the prosperity the Revolution promised, the two hope that if they can find a suitable impostor to pose as Anastasia, they can collect a finder’s fee that will set them up for life in Paris. While streetwalkers of Leningrad can’t pass themselves as royalty the way Vlad can, a street sweeper named Anya (Lila Coogan) might.

She’s in Leningrad after having been discharged from a hospital in Odessa. She’s got no memory of her life before the Revolution, so it’s easier for Dmitry and Vlad to teach her how mingle at what’s left of the Russian court in Paris, and the amnesia conveniently explains why she hasn’t bothered to claim what’s left of the Romanov fortune.

Now, all the three of them must do is escape the draconian Leningrad authorities and convince the bereaved and highly skeptical Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) that Anya is the Grand Duchess.

Neither is a simple task.

The chief selling point of Bluth and Goldman’s cartoon was its gorgeous visuals, and the current production features several delicious bits of eye candy.

Thanks to sliding panels and rear projection, Anastasia leaps from the Tsar’s palace to an intimidating Bolshevik office to a moving train to the elegant streets of 1920s Paris. While Anastasia might have been enjoyable with the cast simply wailing and hoofing, the lightning fast scene changes and bits of action, keep the play moving briskly.

The play gains momentum in the second act as Vlad uses his old contact Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) to help him set up a meeting with the Dowager Empress. Now that the long exposition is over, the story becomes more engaging. It doesn’t hurt that Coogan can play both a princess and a waif with equal finesse and belts out Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns’ songs effortlessly.

She may be small, but she can easily dominate the stage.

The cast handle Flaherty’s demanding score well, although it’s hard to imagine any of the tunes catching on outside of the play, although “Once Upon a December” is certainly haunting, especially with images of ghosts projected behind the actors.

As a lifelong obsessive over the fall of the Romanovs, I often have to remind myself to let movies and plays about them play on their own terms. Anna Anderson, who was the best-known impostor to pretend to be the ill-fated Grand Duchess, had some believers, but DNA tests in the 1990s proved she had no claim on the lost throne. Her dark and twisted odyssey would make a great movie or play, but it wouldn’t make much of a family musical.

That said, the story of an amnesiac princess is inherently engrossing because we all wonder if there is something more to our lives than our memories let on.

There is no mystery to whether any royalty emerged from the massacre alive, but there is a deep well of stories about the end of the dynasty. It’s seemingly inexhaustible.

Stage Review – “The Sound of Music” – Kansas City

THE SOUND OF MUSIC

The Kauffman Center, Kansas City, MO

January 15, 2019

The Band’s Visit, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Kinky Boots, Once, The Book of Mormon, Memphis, Billy Elliot the Musical, In the Heights. 

The above shows are the ten most recent winners of Broadway’s prestigious Tony Award for Best Musical.  All well deserving of the accolade, but I ask you, how many of them will still be packing the theaters six decades from now?  My guess is Two (Book of Mormon and Hamilton).  I raise this question because there is a show running now that is as fresh and popular as it was when it debuted on Broadway in 1959.  That show is The Sound of Music. 

The show tells the story of nun-to-be Maria Rainer (Jill-Christine Wiley), a young woman who enjoys life and art too much to fully commit to taking her vows.  Knowing her doubts, the Mother Abbess (Lauren Kidwell) sends her to the home of Captain Georg von Trapp (Mike McLean), where she will serve as the governess for the widower Captain’s seven children.  Maria is stunned to see that the Captain runs his household like it was the military, with each child programmed to respond to whistle calls and where their only playtime consists of marching.  Despite his protests she begins to introduce music and fun to their young lives.  Yet this is not always a fun time to be in late 1930s Austria.  A power is rising that deeply offends Captain von Trapp, one that threatens he and his family. 

What can you say about a show that has received every possible honor – 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical (where it tied with Fiorello!.  Another nominated show that year – Gypsy.  Curiously, both Gypsy and The Sound of Music have enjoyed several revivals.  The 1962 revival of Fiorello! ran 16 shows and has not seen the lights of Broadway since.)  It is truly one of the greatest musicals ever conceived. 

The touring company is quite impressive.  Ms. Wiley gives Maria a sweetness that does not belie the toughness she needs to deal with the Captain.  Her voice is clear and she doesn’t miss a note.  Mr. McLean is equally strong as a man whose grief has taken away his love of the music he once embraced.  The cast of children making up the Family von Trapp are fun and not precocious.  But the showstopper here is Ms. Kidwell, whose powerful rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” brought this critic to tears. The Sound of Music runs through Sunday, January 20th in Kansas City and continues through the US and Canada through May.  For tickets and locations click HERE.     

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