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.

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.

The Revival of American Theater

It’s not just television that is currently experiencing a golden age in American culture. The theater too is riding a dramatic upswing, both in terms of creative output and commercial success, attracting younger audiences to plays and musicals alike.

There are probably a variety of reasons for this happy situation. Theater is a medium of immediacy which provides a visceral thrill that can’t be streamed, downloaded or enjoyed later. In theater the action is always happening right now, and you have to be in the audience on the night to experience it.

For decades, theater suffered because it couldn’t win the competition with younger mediums like film and TV. The mistake was to fight these mediums on their own terms. Theater is now winning because it is concentrating on what it does best: thought-provoking live performances. It’s ironic that this great revival of the stage has come at a time when movies and television are also better and more popular than ever.

Breaking new ground

Back in the 1990s the theatrical resurgence began with staged adaptations of popular movie properties like Beauty And The Beast, Mary Poppins and The Lion King. This move succeeded in drawing in a new, younger audience. The likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, Frozen, Mean Girls and Wicked are still going strong, continuing to break their own box office records.

At the same time however, Tony Kushner’s ground-breaking play, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes (1992) ushered in a new era of American drama that reflects a heightened awareness of identity and intersectional themes of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class.

Changing times

Brooklyn-born playwright Lynn Nottage is perhaps the best example of those currently working in this tradition. Nottage is the only playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize for two separate plays. In 2009 she was awarded this coveted accolade for Ruined, which looked unflinchingly at the plight of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2017 she won it again for Sweat, produced by Louise Gund initially at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then off-Broadway in 2016 and finally on Broadway in 2017.

Sweat looked at changing economic and industrial patterns, plus familiar themes of race and identity, in one of the poorest cities in the US, Reading, Pennsylvania. The play was seen by many as an explanation for Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 and as such was deemed “The first theatrical landmark of the Trump era” by the New Yorker.

Challenging sensibilities

As well as Nottage, the prolific, inventive and innovative Suzan Lori-Parks has also won many accolades for plays like Topdog/Underdog (2001) and Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 + 3 (2014), both of which look at racial identity and how it intersects with American history. An Octoroon was Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ radical re-appropriation of an 1859 melodrama about race and slavery which won the Obie Award for Best New Play in 2014, while Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2010) viscerally challenged the sensibilities and assumptions of its predominantly white liberal audience.

Younger audiences

Meanwhile the big shows on Broadway continue to break records. In January, Hamilton: An American Musical became the first Broadway show to gross over $4m in one week, while in the same month To Kill a Mockingbird took the highest single-week gross of any non-musical American stage production ever. Both were outdone however by Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, which had the highest single-week gross of any play in Broadway history.

Hamilton is credited with bringing a younger audience to the theater with its rap score and discussion of contemporary issues like race, gender and freedom, despite being set during the American Revolution. It debuted in 2015 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. Many have credited it with the 1.8m increase in attendance at Broadway musicals from 2013 to 2016, and the record-breaking attendances since.

A golden age

The 21st Century is proving to be a golden age for American theater, with writers addressing the urgent topics of today as well as finding new ways to address age-old themes. Meanwhile audiences are flocking to the stage in a commercial revival that few expected, but which contrasts remarkably with the struggles of film, television, print and the music industry to adapt to a digital age where audiences expect entertainment on demand and, more worryingly, free of charge.

Live theater can’t be streamed or bootlegged and at its best offers an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. Right now we are seeing American theater at its best. Those who only get their culture and entertainment mediated via a screen are definitely missing out.       

 

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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.

Theater Review: “Chicago” – Kansas City

CHICAGO
September 14, 2018
Starlight Theater – Kansas City, Missouri
When the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago” opened on Broadway in 1975, it caused a sensation.  The show, directed and choreographed by the great Bob Fosse,  played for three years and earned an impressive (11) Tony Award nominations.  Sadly, it didn’t win any, running into the juggernaut that was “A Chorus Line.”
In 1996, the show was revived on Broadway and that version fared much better at the Tonys, taking home (6) of the (8) awards it was nominated for, including the award for Best Revival of a Musical.  What’s even more impressive is that, since November 14, 1996, “Chicago” has never left Broadway, earning the right to call itself the longest running American musical in theater history!    This weekend, the touring production made its way to Kansas City and, despite some technical difficulties, greatly entertained.
We meet Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright) as she entertains her nightclub audience with the show’s signature number, “All That Jazz.”  We follow this with a quick peek into the bedroom of Roxie Hart (Angel Reda) to discover her in an argument with her lover.  Moments later, Roxie shoots him dead. When the police arrive, Roxie’s husband, Amos (Paul Vogt) takes the blame for the shooting, but quickly recants when he learns the truth.  Roxie is taken to jail, where she will await trial for murder.  But not before a little singing and a lot of dancing!
There are a million reasons to see this show at Starlight.  First off, it’s one of the best outdoor venues in the country.  The shows are usually excellent or, if not, entertaining.  “Chicago” boasts an amazing cast and a top-notch orchestra.  Both Ms. Wright and Ms. Reda (who is from nearby Overland Park, Kansas) are strong dancers with great vocal chops.  My quibble above regarding technical difficulties comes from the fact that, for the first hour of the show, there was an obvious problem with Ms. Wright’s body microphone.  The fact that I could hear her in my seats stems from the fact that she can belt out a song.  Once the problem was fixed both actresses were at the top of their game.
The rest of the cast is equally strong.  As publicity loving attorney Billy Flynn, Peter Lockyer is as smooth as silk.  Jennifer Fouche’ steals her scenes as Matron “Mother” Morton and Mr. Vogt puts an ache in your heart as he sings “Mr. Cellophane.”   The choreography (by the amazing Ann Reinking, and based on Fosse’s original work) is spectacular, delivering in spades the moves that are so associated with the late choreographer.
If you’re looking for some fun under the stars this weekend, I’d highly recommend a trip to “Chicago!”

 

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Kansas City Theater Review: “Hairspray – the Musical”

“Hairspray – the Musical”

Starlight Theater – Kansas City, Missouri

July 27, 2018

 

I spent 13 years living in Baltimore.  As a movie theatre manager I was very fortunate to manage the theatre of choice of local filmmaker John Waters.  He was a frequent guest and, when I asked, would stop by the office for a few minutes after his film just to talk about what he had coming up.  Of course, I was glad to play the original film “Hairspray,” and am proud to be friends with some of the local talent used in the film.  Years later, Mr. Waters took the film to Broadway, where, 15 years ago, the musical version earned 13 Tony Award nominations, winning 8, including Best Musical.   This week, the fun and energy you can only find in Charm City is on display at the Starlight Theater as “Hairspray – the Musical” arrives.

Baltimore 1962.  Like many cities in America, civil rights are on the front burner.  We meet Tracy Turnblad (an outstanding Jessica Alcorn) as she greets the day, and the audience, with the bouncy “Good morning, Baltimore.”  Tracy is a fan of the Corny Collins afternoon dance program on television and secretly dreams to not only be a dancer on the show, but to end up in the arms of the show’s best male dancer, Link Larkin (Eric Geil).  Tracy lives at home with her parents.  Mother Edna (Brad Oscar) takes in washing and hasn’t been outside the apartment in years.  Her father, Wilbur (Bruce Roach), runs a joke shop called the Har-Har Hut.  Tracy has a friend named Penny, who encourages her to follow her dream.  And so she does.

First off, I must comment on the energy the entire cast brought to the show.  It’s always a plus when you can sense that the cast and crew WANT to be there.  The musical numbers were infectious.  If you knew the words (guilty) you quietly sang along.  If you didn’t, you were dancing in your seats.  As Tracy, Ms. Alcorn soars.  She is the heart and spirit of the show and she shines in a role that a lesser actress could easily dilute spirit-wise.  Supporting roles played by Katie Karel (Penny), Cathy Barnett (Velma Van Tussle) and Erin Riley (Amber) stand out here, as does Regina Levert whose Motormouth Maybelle steals the scenes she is in.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Kansas City audiences are having the rare treat of seeing a true Broadway legend in Brad Oscar.  Ever since Harvey Fierstein first originated the character, Edna has been played with dignity.  Mr. Oscar continues that tradition here.

“Hairspray – the Musical” plays at Starlight through August 2nd.  For tickets to those shows click HERE.

Theater Review: “On Your Feet” – Kansas City

 

“On You Feet”

May 22, 2018

Starlight Theater – Kansas City

REVIEW BY JUANITA SMITH

 

They were one of the most popular bands of the 1980s, selling over 100 million albums worldwide.   But before the Miami Sound Machine started, what was the story that brought Emilio and Gloria Estefan together?

With set pieces set in Cuba and Miami, “On Your Feet” is a highly entertaining tale about two people destined to meet and create some of the most popular music of the last century.  It is also a story of the power of love, which comes into play after tragedy strikes and music is the furthest thing.

The show rides along on the mighty shoulders (and voices) of Mauricio Martinez and Christie Prades who, as Emilio and Gloria, share the majority of the vocal duties.  Both are well cast and their chemistry is evident.

The supporting cast is equally strong.  The choreography is top notch and the direction keeps the show flowing easily.  And then there are the songs!

If you’re looking for an entertaining night at the theater, you can’t go wrong with “On Your Feet.”

The show plays in Kansas City through May 27th.  For upcoming show information and tickets, click HERE

 

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Theater Review: “The Lion King” in Kansas City

Disney’s “The Lion King”

Music Hall – Kansas City, Missouri

May 10, 2018

 

AMAZING!  That is the first word that popped into my head as “The Lion King” began.  While being mesmerized by the animated and musical Rafiki (Makelisiwe Goga), we were treated by a parade of animals down the aisle, from the rear of the theater to the stage.  Birds.  Gazelles.  Elephants.  They strode past in their proud majesty and filled the stage.  And for the next two and half hours, the excitement never died.

“Rafiki” in THE LION KING North American Tour. ©Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Based on the 1994 animated film of the same name, the story of “The Lion King” is much as it was in the film.  Some of the characters are fleshed out more and there are more songs, also written by Elton John and Tim Rice.  The characters are familiar and are portrayed in an amazing way.  While the majority of the lions just wear lion heads, other characters are portrayed by actors holding/wearing puppets.  The effect is jaw-dropping.  Even the lovable duo of Timon and Pumba are portrayed this way, a way that is not distracting in the least.

The original show, which is now the third longest running show in Broadway history, was nominated for an amazing eleven Tony Awards, winning six, including Best Musical.  I’ve been attending shows, both on Broadway and off, since 1980, and I would easily put “The Lion King” in my top 10 of best shows ever.

“The Lion King” runs in Kansas City at the Music Hall through May 27th.  For ticket information, or to see where the tour is heading next, click HERE.

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Theater Review – THE COLOR PURPLE – Kansas City

The Color Purple
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts – Kansas City, Missouri
January 16, 2018

 

Since it’s publication in 1983, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” has won many awards.  The Pulitzer.   A couple of Tonys.  Heck, if it wasn’t for some bizarre Steven Spielberg backlash the 1985 film version would have one a couple of Oscars.

 

The musical version of “The Color Purple” opened on Broadway in 2005, closing after running for over two years.  In 2016 the show returned to Broadway, where it won the Tony award for Best Revival of a Musical.  Now the show is on the road and it is definitely not one to miss.

 

The show begins in rural Georgia in 1909.  We meet sisters Nettie (N’jameh Camara) and Celie (Adrianna Hicks).  Nettie is smart and wants to be a teacher.  Celie has always been mistreated and is about to give birth to her second child – by her stepfather.  The baby is born and given away.  We meet Mister (an amazing Gavin Gregory), a widower looking to marry Nettie.  However, when told she is unavailable he settles for Celie, thinking of her not as a wife but as someone to raise his kids and clean his house.    Not exactly a honeymoon.

 

Powerfully told, “The Color Purple” is fairly faithful to the book and film many people will be familiar with.  Many of the familiar characters are here:  Sofia (Carrie Compere), Harpo (J. Daughtry), Squeak (Erica Durham) and, of course, the amazing Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart).  The story is presented on a minimalistic stage, which consists mostly of a set of risers and a set of wooden chairs.  But the show moves smoothly (though a little slow in the first act) and the cast is amazing.  Both Ms. Hicks and Ms. Stewart have the power to bring down the house with their vocals.  As Sofia, my favorite character in every incarnation of this story, Ms. Compere is both funny and heartbreaking. And I must make special mention of Mr. Gregory, who manages to make a character as dark and seemingly heartless as Mister sympathetic.

 

If you’re familiar with the story, you will genuinely enjoy this production.  If you’re not, you need to take this opportunity to make it’s acquaintance.

 

The show is playing at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City through January 21st.  For tickets and information on this show and future productions, click   HERE

4DX Theater Experience Review “Transformers: The Last Knight”

Directed by: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Hopkins
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Release date
Running time: 149 minutes

4DX Score: 4 out of 5 stars
Film Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Recently, I have been contacted to see if I wanted to review one of this Summer’s movies the brand new 4DX Theater Experience. This is not your typical movie going experience. Here is an example of the effects that you can expect going into a 4DX screening: water, air, bubbles, fog, scents, motion seats with vibration and ticklers as well as environmental effects like rain, storming, snow, wind and lightning. This seemed like the ONLY way to see a film like “Transformers”. Currently, I believe there are only a handful of these theaters across the United States, one of them luckily being in Orlando FL at the Regal Pointe Orlando Stadium. If you are in the area or are lucky enough to have one local to you, I would highly recommend checking out this experience at least once.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” is the fifth installment in the Hasbro toy inspired franchise. Honestly, each film sort of blends together. The plots in the past films have been convoluted and confused and this film is no different. Is it entertaining…YES! Will I remember it and be able to distinguish between it and the previous four films….NOPE! Just pure popcorn Summer fun. If you dig explosions and robots, then it worth checking out then for a mindless two and half hours. But let me tell you one thing, seeing this film in 4DX definitely made it a better experience for sure and if you are thinking about seeing a 4DX film, “Transformers” is a great example to test it out with.

If you have ever visited Disney World parks and went on the attractions “Honey I Shrunk the Audience”, “Captain EO” or “Mickey’s PhilharMagic”, this 4DX Theater Experience reminded me of all of those combined together and more. I have to admit though, by the end of the two and a half hour movie of “Transformers”, I was exhausted. This is definitely not for those people that just want to kick their feet up and escape into a movie. This is a workout. You are almost constantly moving the whole time, some times subtle movement and sometimes huge motion jumps, twists and turns…I definitely saw a popcorn bag get tossed during my screening. Personally, I wouldn’t want to see every new film that comes out like this but I can definitely see it being an event to do every once in a while right the right film comes out. If you are curious though about this do not wait, definitely check it out because it is definitely an experience.