By Lynn Venhaus

On stage, “Dear Evan Hansen” was a deeply personal and profoundly emotional experience, which the movie attempts to achieve through pared-down scenes that opt for intimacy.

When they ‘open up’ musical numbers just to expand the landscape, that’s when it becomes less effective. Those who connected with the musical because it struck a chord about belonging and understanding in a chaotic and often cruel social media age will find this a worthy adaptation.

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) has a severe social anxiety disorder, and his therapist wants him to write a daily affirmation letter. Because the anti-social and angry young man Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) snatched the letter, it is found in his possession after he commits suicide. His grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) mistake it as one their troubled son wrote to his only friend and invite Evan to dinner. Instead of telling the truth and wanting to please, he keeps up the charade, which quickly spirals out of control. Suddenly, classmates who ignored him make him an internet star.

One drawback is that Evan’s self-deprecating humor, which worked so well on stage making the nerdy high school senior relatable, is missing.

The score, by golden boys Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, still resonates in a timely way, particularly after 18 months of dealing with a public health crisis that created even more distance between people.

While nothing can duplicate the live theater ‘feels,’ this adaptation has been thoughtfully crafted to tug at your heartstrings. I mean, how cynical do you have to be to resist sharing in the desire to matter?

The musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2016, won six of the nine Tony Awards it was nominated for in 2017, including Best Musical.

When I saw the national tour in November 2019 at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, I was a puddle, crying through most of it. I figured that the movie would provoke the ugly cry reprise, so I brought plenty of tissues along, and while I teared up through key moments, it wasn’t the waterworks that happened while discovering the stage musical. Perhaps I am now too familiar with the songs, but when Heidi (Julianne Moore) sings “So Big/So Small” (Everybody in the Fox audience could be heard sniffling through it) it’s heart-breaking, and Ben Platt’s voice just prompts eyes to tear up during the ballads.

Of course, when you first hear that everything is based on a lie, it’s a ‘wait – what?’ reaction, but because people are comforted by the tall tales, leading Evan on a journey of self-discovery, most do not get all judgy—instead, investing in the story.

There are those who think exploiting a tragedy for personal gain is abhorrent, but I can see how and why it went south – all those insecurities, the desperation driving the falsehoods/fantasy, that awareness of being an outcast. There are so many gray areas of life that can’t be sorted into black and white, and this is one of them.

Director Steven Chbosky, who knows how to genuinely portray adolescents after helming “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder,” taps into those socially awkward misfit feelings many people share but think they’re alone.

Pasek and Paul’s heartfelt and aching songs have won Tonys, an Oscar (for “La La Land”), Grammys and Emmys, and still pack an emotional wallop – even if they are stripped down renditions. “You Will Be Found” is the signature song that never wears out its welcome, offering a beacon of light in uncertain times.

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky.

Much has been written criticizing casting 27-year-old Ben Platt as the geeky isolated teenager. After all, he originated the role on Broadway, winning a Tony Award and much acclaim. This role is in his DNA, and he captures the emotional roller-coaster nature of the part. No one can convey the vulnerability, anxiety and yearning for acceptance better than he can.

Like Robert Preston as Harold Hill and Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, Platt will be defined by Evan Hansen for the rest of his life, no matter how many TV shows, movies and stage productions he does.

And if we’re talking age disparities, then one must mention John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing as high school students in “Grease,” and we could make a long list of examples.

I did not find him a weak link, and honestly had been worried about how he would look and fit the part on screen. Except for a bad curly hair choice, the de-aging process does not distract. I thought he was fine, and his touching interpretations of “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever” and “Words Fail” remain the gold standard.

Colton Ryan, who was an understudy for Connor on Broadway, is strong as the black-clad hostile jerk who lashes out like a caged animal. His suicide leads to the school body creating “The Connor Project” in his honor, a benefit to re-open the Autumn Smile Apple Orchard and rename it for him.

The movie comes out during Suicide Prevention Month, and any awareness of mental health and the prevalence of young people taking their own lives is a good thing. The “if only” and “Woulda, shoulda, coulda” second-guessing is relentless after a tragedy – so the pro-active efforts of this film are appreciated.

The film was adapted by Steven Levenson, who won the Tony Award for the musical’s book, and he has altered the ending to make Evan more accountable for the mess he has created – but also shows him making amends.

Not sure why they switched the original dad character to a stepfather in Larry’s case, but Danny Pino fits as the work-and-success-obsessed guy married to Amy Adams’ Cynthia, who has provided a good life for his family but has become increasingly distant over the years.

Adams, whose experience singing includes the Disney film “Enchanted” and her breakthrough Oscar-nominated performance in “Junebug,” is earnest as a grieving mother who clings to any memento and memory of her fallen son. Evan has provided her with a lifeline, and in turn, he feels accepted.

Julianne Moore, another versatile actress, is a natural as Heidi Hansen, a hard-working single mom who tries her best to support her son’s therapy and his needs.

Kaitlyn Dever is a bright spot as Connor’s sister Zoe, Evan’s crush, who admits to not knowing her brother very well. Her song with Evan, “Only Us,” is handled well as a romance blossoms.

Other noteworthy supporting turns include Nik Dodani as tech whiz and Evan’s confidante Jared and Amandla Stenberg as the cheerful over-achiever and environmental activist Alana who spearheads The Connor Project..

Stenberg collaborated with Pasek and Paul on a new song for the film, “The Anonymous Ones,” which is an outstanding addition.

However, they have removed four songs from the original score, including the two moms’ duet on parenting, “Anybody Have a Map,” and that is a shame. However, listen closely to the marching band during the pep rally and you will hear that and “Good for You.” “Disappear” and “To Break in a Glove” were also cut.

“Dear Evan Hansen” remains a moving experience, a timeless message for today and a hard-fought journey on acceptance and healing.

Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical drama directed by Steven Chbosky and starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan and Amandla Stenberg. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference. The runtime is 2 hours, 17 minutes. It is out in theaters on Sept. 24. Lynn’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus

A tragic day that we will never forget in America inspired our Far North neighbors, the Canadian town of Gander in Newfoundland, to provide overwhelming needs over the course of five days for 7,000 world travelers, the “come from aways,” stranded on 38 international planes diverted to the airport there.

That raw reminder of our shared humanity has been turned into an unforgettable work of art, the award-winning, big-hearted, crowd-pleasing musical “Come From Away.”

If ever we needed to be uplifted and reminded of people’s capacity for empathy, it is now.

What an enduring and fitting tribute to 9-11 that a recording of the staged musical will be released on the eve of the 20th anniversary.

In the aftermath, the FAA had closed the airspace in the U.S. and those passengers had nowhere to go.

This Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein tells what transpired in the week that followed when the Gander residents sprung into action and provided clothing, food and housing for 7,000, which doubled the town’s population — and there were 19 animals in cargo too. This is the true story of some of the real people who were caregivers and passengers then.

It premiered on Broadway in March 2017 and this remarkable example of the kindness and generosity of strangers in the face of great adversity struck a chord. The musical is a celebration of how resourceful and resilient we can be when we all come together. A community stepped up when they were called upon to do so.

Even in the darkest of times, people experienced beacons of light. Some of them even formed lifelong friendships and would return 10 years later to Gander for a reunion.

Looking back, the mayor said: “Tonight we honour what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.”

It was filmed, with multiple cameras, before a live audience – some were 9-11 survivors and frontline workers — in May at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City, where it had become the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history.

Originally planned as a feature film adaptation on location in Newfoundland, the coronavirus pandemic impact shifted it to a live recording in the theatre.

Full of memorable characters, a script brimming with humor, and a tuneful score using folk, country and pop to bring on lumps in the throat, the filmed recording retains the vitality of this one-act musical that had been playing to sold-out audiences until the pandemic forced its shutdown in March 2020.

The musical returns to Broadway on Sept. 21, and will resume its national tour in October, which began in the fall of 2018.

When it played at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis in May 2019, I was prepared for its emotional wallop, but I didn’t realize how much these characters would touch my soul.

The film reminded me of all the good the play had spotlighted. It truly is one of the best musicals of the past five years, destined to be a classic, and grabs one immediately with the rousing “Welcome to the Rock” opening number. I still get goosebumps every time I hear their big voices, and their passion and pride about their community.

The cast also brought out the bridging of various cultures, and the memories of how we all felt that day was put back into focus. The ensemble is a mix of the original and current Broadway casts.

The original cast starring in this work include Petrina Bromley as Bonnie Harris, Jenn Colella as pilot Beverley Bass, Joel Hatch as the mayor Claude Elliott, Caesar Samayoa as Kevin Jung and Ali, W. Smith as Hannah O’Rourke, Astrid Van Wieren as Beulah Davis and Sharon Wheatley as Diane Gray.

New are De’Lon Grant as Bob, Tony LePage as Garth and Kevin T., Emily Walton as Janice Mosher, Jim Walton as Nick Marson and Doug, and Paul Whitty as Oz Fudge. Everyone plays multiple roles. Dressed like ordinary people and displaying various personality types, the cast is relatable and familiar.

The execution of all the elements to make it a vibrant live theater experience is another reason it stands out. Besides a committed cast who honors every real person or composite character that they are asked to play, we have innovative, fluid staging by director Christopher Ashley and vivacious choreography by Kelly Devine.

The singers showcase exceptional harmonies in these emotionally wrought songs by Sankoff and Hein that provide context and advance the action.

A Celtic-influenced band stays on stage and entertains the crowd after the show has ended with an instrumental “Screech Out.” Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Ashley, who oversaw the filming, won the Tony Award for directing in 2017, when the seven-times nominated show had lost mostly to the juggernaut that is “Dear Evan Hansen.” including Best Musical. His staging is clever and conveys intimacy and connection – from the plane’s close quarters to the cozy town settings.

As we were transfixed to television sets watching the horror unfold that beautiful fall day in 2001, we did not think about the passengers that were stranded by the shutdown of flights, and the challenges they faced trying to get home. What a compelling story!

The composers met the people affected in Gander in 2011, at the 10-year reunion, and they shared their stories. We, in turn, get to know Claude the mayor, Oz the police constable, Beulah the teacher and Bonnie the SPCA worker.

The passengers were kept on the planes for hours – 14 becomes 28 – and in the dark about what happened in New York City, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Penn. Once permitted to leave the planes, they watched the news – as stunned as we were. Frightened, they try to reach their families, including the mother of a New York firefighter who is unable to locate her son.

The fear and tensions ease somewhat as the townsfolk make them welcome and comfortable, and in the company of these quirky islanders, they bond. Some let their hair down at a local bar, and even participate in an initiation rite involving kissing a codfish.

The gravity of the situation is never far from people’s minds – and they eventually are allowed to leave, but the world is different, and so are they. One couple develops a romance while another breaks up under the stress. A Muslim chef faces growing prejudice and is forced to endure a humiliating search before boarding for home.

Jenn Colella, Tony-nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, is impressive as the first woman pilot for American Airlines. She beautifully sings “Me and the Sky” about how her love of aviation drove her career aspirations, but now her workspace has been weaponized.

Ten years later, the crew and passengers reunited to celebrate these friendships forged during the worst of times, a forever band of brothers. We experience these people at their best. Their makeshift hospitality at an unspeakably grim, fearful and anxious time will make you cry, laugh and marvel at how kindness can be a tonic.

Cast from “Come from Away”

Like the documentary on Mister Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, this heartwarming tale makes you want to become a better person.

“Come From Away” is a musical recorded as a live theatrical production on a Broadway stage, directed by Christopher Ashley. The cast includes original and current cast members. It is rated TV-MA and runs 1 hour, 46 minutes. It is streaming on Apple TV + beginning Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus
Inspired by an adored golden-age movie musical 67 years ago, the stage version of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” has been updated to rework some of the more problematic portions of the plot for contemporary audiences.

While the Muny’s latest production tries mightily to breathe new life into one of the more neanderthal mid-century musicals, selling the macho characters is a pesky issue to overcome – even with a cast deep with exceptionally skilled dancers and singers.

Head of an all-male household in the mountains, Adam’s caveman way of thinking has influenced his uncultured backwoods brothers. However, they have their ‘teachable’ moments in the revamped book.

The focus on the uncouth siblings becoming more civilized around women – as they have zero experience with the opposite sex – is part of the show’s enduring charm.

They are tutored by their new sister-in-law, the dissatisfied yet determined townswoman Milly (Kendra Kassebaum). Though strong-willed, she is coerced into marrying Adam (Edward Watts) in a weak moment when he comes to town on a woman-hunt.

We can look it this as a ‘glass half full’ or a ‘glass half-empty’ experience.

After all, that is the period. The time is 1850, during the great migration to the Pacific Northwest on The Oregon Trail, when men still acted like women were property, and society felt marriage was in part a financial transaction.

In so many words, people didn’t discuss gender politics. Times, as they tend to do, have changed. But we are still evolving as a society, and theater must address the modern sensibilities to stay relevant. Musical theater, by virtue of its history, is forced to mirror those changes, and this discussion will be ongoing.

As we are painfully aware, during this 21st century, particularly in the last five years, with the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements, the old-fashioned sexist attitudes on display in the old chestnuts are hard to get beyond. (Think of the abused women in “Carousel” and “Oliver!”). In the upcoming “Chicago,” we hear another side from fed-up females in “Cell Block Tango.”

Thankfully, among the improvements to “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” they have removed Adam’s song, “A Woman Ought to Know Her Place,” and Milly’s “One Man.”

Edward Watts and Kendra Kassebaum as Adam and Milly. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

They have added a feisty “I Married Seven Brothers” for a peeved Milly – a highlight for Kassebaum — and “Where Were You?” as a vehicle for Adam to vent his anger from his perspective.

Nevertheless, a musical that is based on a Stephen Vincent Benet short story, “The Sobbin’ Women,” which was shaped by an ancient Roman legend called “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” that’s just hard to spin – and swallow — these days. And the plot hinges on the other six brothers encouraged to kidnap women they took a shine to in town, so that is a controversial hurdle.

And despite a Herculean effort from the Muny’s creative team to focus on a battle of the sexes and bring out the personality and humor, the aggressive song “Sobbin’ Women” and some of the remaining dialogue are wince-inducing, even like nails on a chalkboard.

I know, I know – people generally go to musical theater to be entertained, to escape the realities of daily life and usually aren’t seeking enlightenment while enjoying song and dance. They are just fine taking a respite, blissfully unaware of the real world. They enjoy a bouncy, tuneful musical and take it all in stride.

That’s not me. So, this review is from my perspective. As a friend said, “Every musical is someone’s favorite.” I had to keep reminding myself: “Context.”

It’s like my inexplicable fondness for “Mamma Mia!” Everything screams silly, but I love it, and have seen it at least six times — reminds me of “Gidget” movies when I was growing up, comfort food for the soul.

Under a magnifying glass, many musicals can’t hold up to current scrutiny, but that debate will keep on keeping on.

Peruse a list of musicals from the 1940s through 1970s, and so many female characters are underwritten – typically waiting for a man to rescue her or change her life, which should be annoying to current generations.

Modern musical theater has hopefully moved beyond that. Maybe someday our princes will come, but none of that royal superiority, he’ll be on equal footing, and in the meantime, we’re following paths trailblazed by women who clamored to be heard.

Next week’s “On Your Feet!” will show a true partnership between a husband and a wife, Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” isn’t the first musical to deal with deception – for starters, the list includes “Light in the Piazza,” “The Most Happy Fella,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (and ‘go!’), among others.

And bull-headed Adam and assertive Milly work on trust issues to advance the plot.

People really do have affection for the 1954 movie. It was nominated for Best Picture, losing the Oscar to “On the Waterfront,” but won Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. In 2006, the American Film Institute named it one of the best American musicals ever made, and in 2004, the Library of Congress’ U.S. National Film Registry selected it for preservation because of it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Many fans enjoy the nostalgia, the appealing leads – brawny Howard Keel as Adam and sweet girl-next-door Jane Powell as Milly, plus the gymnastic Russ Tamblyn as youngest brother Gideon, and foremost, those rousing dance numbers.

The Muny drew 6,907 patrons on opening night. This is the sixth time the Muny has produced the show. Taking a cue from a reworked version by the Goodspeed Opera House in 2005, brought in David Landay, an original co-writer of the stage play, to do some rewrites and editing. A female contribution may have been helpful too.

The script feels like whiplash. One minute, the women are acting empowered, and the next minute the guys seem in “Me, Tarzan, you Jane” mode. It’s like when people attempt to update Shakespeare by a couple hundred years, but don’t commit to a wholly new vision.

Oh well. Baby steps. Growth is good.

In recent years, the Muny has resurrected some of the creakier shows and presented versions with freshened books – most notably “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Paint Your Wagon,” both of which I enjoyed.

I was hoping this would be similar. Several members of the “Paint Your Wagon” production team have returned for this reboot, including director-choreographer Josh Rhodes and associate director-choreographer Lee Wilkins, along with music supervisor Sinai Tabak.

The music direction by Valerie Gebert is crisp. Additional arrangements and orchestrations are by Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland. That’s quite a collaboration.

The Muny was one of the first theaters in America to present the stage adaptation of the movie, back in 1978 during a pre-Broadway tryout. The new stage show didn’t make it to Broadway until 1982; its last year at the Muny was 2011.

The music retained from the movie, written by Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, includes “Bless Your Beautiful Hide,” “Wonderful Wonderful Day,” “Lonesome Polecat” and “Goin’ Courtin’.”

Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn wrote “Love Never Goes Away,” “We Gotta Make It Through the Winter,” and “Glad That You Were Born” for the stage show.

The maidens in The Quilt Dance. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The show has always been considered a major dance vehicle, and five-time Tony Award winning choreographer Michael Kidd cemented his reputation through his robust barn-raising dance and his movements based on reality.

Kidd’s unpretentious style earned him Tony Awards in “Guys and Dolls,” “Can-Can,” “Lil Abner,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Destry Rides Again,” and lasting Hollywood admiration (check out Danny Kaye in “Knock on Wood.”)

His uncommon approach transformed frontier chores into rollicking dance numbers. He once said if he had made slobs in the woods break out in ballet, people would have ridiculed it.

And the Muny has assembled an outstanding dozen triple threats to portray the men and women going courting – the Pontipee brothers show off their muscular moves in “The Challenge Dance” at the church social while the maids-in-waiting demonstrate a graceful, sophisticated elegance in “The Quilting Dance.” The finale, “The Wedding Dance,” wraps everything up on an enthusiastic, happy note as a long winter has turned into spring.

Rhodes has emphasized the ensemble’s energy and spotlighted the athletic and acrobatic dances. He helmed an exhilarating “Newsies” in 2017 and has finessed these pieces with vigor.

Kassebaum, who grew up in St. Louis, was impressive as lovable and comical showgirl Adelaide in the 2019 “Guys and Dolls” (and won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for that performance). She is an emphatic Milly, strong in voice and spirit.

Edward Watts, saddled with a distracting shaggy hairstyle, struggled with the push-pull of that stubborn barbaric character, but is assured in his commanding vocal numbers and a sturdy physical presence as the dominant hero.

The brothers, nowhere near as educated as the snotty East Coast-bred smart-alecks running the town, show plenty of spirit and ‘street smarts’ when they are struck by love and try to impress the town maidens.

Raised to think marriage is the end-all for their young lives learning how to cook, sew and clean, the women must play the stereotype common to the era. But here, they have a tad more gumption, individually attracted to the guys, no matter what their dads say.

Harris Milgrim is a standout as second-oldest brother Benjamin, and lithe Carly Blake Sebouhian’s beautiful movements and ballet-training are noticeable as Martha.

The seven brothers. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The limber Pontipee lads include Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Caleb, Ryan Steele as Daniel, Garett Hawe as Ephraim, 4-time Muny vet Kyle Coffman as the tempestuous Frank, and Brandon L. Whitmore as Gideon.

The supple refined city girls are Leslie Donna Flesner as Dorcas, Shonica Gooden as Sarah, Sarah Meahl as Ruth, Mikayla Renfrow as Alice and Kristin Yancy as Liza.  

Michael Schweikardt has provided majestic mountains to convey the grand open spaces and dense forests for the topography while video designer Caite Hevner’s striking work on the changing seasons and the Echo Pass avalanche are spectacular. Schweikardt’s multi-floor log farmhouse is masterful in levels and details.

While some shows like the culturally inappropriate “Flower Drum Song” have unofficially been ‘retired,’ the jury is obviously still out on this show. The passionate performers carry this one here over the threshold

A look back can be a step forward in some instances. The Muny has put a tremendous amount of effort in making this production palatable for its multi-generational audience. Yet, the outdated debate will continue.

As Thursday’s opening night rainout indicated, patience is a virtue. Not to be a Debbie Downer, this isn’t a step backwards, but some of us are ready to move on.

The company of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is at 8:15 p.m. through Wednesday, Aug. 18, at the Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park.

The shows remaining are Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Aug. 12 – 18), On Your Feet! (Aug. 21 – 27) and Chicago (Aug. 30 – Sept. 5). For more information, visit muny.org. 

Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 534-1111.

To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Muny Photos by Phillip Hamer.

By Lynn Venhaus

Simple yet profound, “The Band’s Visit” is a disarming, charming experience.

It may take a little bit to win you over, but it certainly does – with an invigorating elegance and its big heart, a great example of effective less-is-more on stage.

Based on a 2007 film, “The Band’s Visit” is not your average flashy big-budget spectacle, and that’s one reason it’s so refreshing and relatable. The story is about ordinary people, their hopes and desires to belong. They just happen to be considered “enemies” because of where they live – Arabs and Jews – but are they really that different?

Through a bus station-cultural language miscommunication, a traveling Egyptian Police Band winds up stranded in a small town in the Negev desert — Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah. They are supposed to perform at an Arab cultural center, but another bus is not available until the next day, so, residents take them in overnight. They share shelter, meals, music and conversation over the course of one day.

The winner of 10 Tony Awards – and nominated for 11 – in 2018, this musical, now playing at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis until March 8, conveys what made the off-Broadway show and its move to Broadway such sensations. It is one of only four musicals in Broadway history to ever win “The Big Six” – musical, director, composer, book, actor and actress – at The Tonys.

The staging is innovative, and turntables are used effectively, especially during a roller-rink date scene. Humor is key too, as in the park having one bench.

Besides endearing performances from its first-rate cast, the music and lyrics by David Yazbek are unforgettable. The dynamic, poetic world-music score, with jazz influences, features an assortment of memorable songs – starting with the humorous “Waiting” and “Middle of Nowhere,” and wrapping up with the haunting “Answer Me.”

Make sure you stay after the curtain call for the band’s upbeat finale, their ‘concert’ performance.

The cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album in 2019, and they won a Daytime Emmy Award for a performance of “Answer Me” on The Today Show.

The Fox Theatre is one of the 32-city stops on the first national tour, which began June 25, 2019. “The Band’s Visit” played off-Broadway for a little more than a year, beginning Dec. 8, 2016, and moved to Broadway Oct. 7, 2017. After 589 performances and 36 previews, it closed April 7, 2018.

Combined with book writer Itamar Moses’s witty script, “The Band’s Visit” emphasizes connection between people and different cultures – if we all listen to each other.

While the townsfolk desperately want to find meaning in their lives, we are moved by those universal themes of longing, loss and loneliness that everyone relates to – and how music is the thread that unites us all.

And what simple kind-hearted gestures and compassion can mean in times of need. This humanistic approach is how it captivates the audience. After all, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, Barbra Streisand once sang to Omar Sharif in “Funny Girl,” — and a song is named after the Egyptian-born 1960s movie star here.

The ensemble features 14 people, and the tight-knit company is adept at conveying bonding and breaking barriers. Janet Dacal is terrific as a lively Dina, a lonely café owner whose tough and feisty demeanor masks a heart of gold. She befriends the band’s conductor, Tewfiq Zakaria, played by Sasson Gabay, who replaced Tony winner Tony Shalhoub on Broadway and originated the role in the 2007 movie.

As he becomes more comfortable, he shares a personal tragedy with her. Their relationship throughout the show is a high point.

Also noteworthy are Joe Joseph as the likable trumpet player Haled, who loves American jazz musician Chet Baker; Danny Burgos as the timid café worker Papi, who Haled helps out on a date; and Pomme Koch as the other café worker Itzik, who brings clarinet player Simon home to dine with his family and they deal with his crying baby.

Known only as the “Telephone Guy,” Mike Cefalo is funny in a quirky role, and then shows off a beautiful voice when he starts off “Answer Me.”

The highly skilled band musicians must be mentioned too, because they add such a vitality to the show: Adrian Ries, conductor/keyboard; Adam McDonald, associate conductor/keyboard; Tony Bird, violin; George Crotty, cello; Evan Francis, clarinet, saxophone, flute; Roger Kashou, darbouka/riq; Ronnie Malley, oud/guitar; Shai Wetzer, drums/Arabic percussion; and Alex Farha, musician swing.

In small and subtle moments, this pleasant interlude speaks volumes. And that poignancy in a tidy 90-minutes is a life-affirming way to exit the theater and enter a wary world.

The Fox Theatre presents “The Band’s Visit” Feb. 25 through March 8 at the Fabulous Fox, 527 N. Grand. For tickets, visit www.metrotix.com or call 618-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer

In the beginning was New Jersey, which begat Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, which in various incarnations begat pop record sales of more than 175 million, which begat the jukebox musical Jersey Boys, which begat four Tony Awards that included Best Musical and a trunk-load of other accolades, which begat a film directed and produced by none other than “Dirty” Harry Callahan (okay, Clint Eastwood), which begat a return engagement of the ensemble musical at The Fabulous Fox Theatre on January 30-Febrary 2.

According to the press kit for Jersey Boys, this musical is not recommended for children under 12 due in part because it is peppered with “authentic Jersey language,” But, bada bing bada boom, other than the youngsters, Jersey Boys could just as well be known as the Authentic Jersey Musical, not to mention an authentically satisfying experience. And the show has been to St. Louis so many times that may have earned the nickname “St. Louis Boys.”

Nothing succeeds like success, and such is the case with Jersey Boys, which wouldn’t keep pounding the boards at venues like the Fox and The Muny if it weren’t so darned enjoyable. Jersey Boys is a show that entices men to come for the swagger and women to stay for the swoon – a winning combination not shared by many of musicals. Directed by two-time Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff and written by Academy Award-winner Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, it reliably fills seats.

The behind-the-scenes, bio-pic show, with music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, hits the high and low notes of the evolution and more-or-less dissolution of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in the years before, during and after the so-called British Invasion. This was an impressively long run of success for core bandmates – Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi  — that earned them a well-deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The musical version of their story is a straight shot through the band’s history, with each member given a portion of the story to tell. Unlike some jukebox musicals that rely on a contrived plot to underpin the hit songs, Jersey Boys leverages the compelling story of the band’s history. The story has become as ubiquitous as the sing of hits the band produced. Jersey Boys is an ensemble effort with Jon Hacker as Valli, Eric Chambliss as Gaudio, Corey Geenan as DeVito and Michael Milton at Massi. These actors individually and collectively delivered at solid performance in acting and singing. Although there were no stand-out performances, Chambliss and Hacker delivered with the most heart and pathos – thanks in no small part to the show’s script.

But let’s face it: You come for the music and you stay for the music. Jersey Boys delivers with plenty of music – 33 songs, including five number-ones. And even though it doesn’t include 19 of the band’s other hits, including four other top-10 hits, the show drops the needle on a well-paced, nostalgically steady steam of the music that is the heart and soul of this show.

The strength of the show really rested on the vocal shoulders of Hacker as Franki. Hacker’s performance was, like all other aspects of the production, solid. Hacker is no Valli hologram and his evocation of the style, personality and vocal style of Valli did justice to the spirit and talents of the man himself. Hacker’s voice and acting were up to the material, especially with the support of the rest of the cast.

Hacker as Frankie delivered one of the musical’s most poignant lines about the group: “Like that bunny on TV, it just keeps going and going and going. Chasing the music. Trying to find our way home.”

Jersey Boys certainly has a found a regular place to call home on St. Louis stages.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Jersey Boys” January 30-February 2.

Former Muny Executive Director Paul Blake and Associate Producer Mike Bosner Left St. Louis for New York and Have a Tony-winning Show still running on Broadway

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
After Paul Blake listed “Carole King Musical” on a Muny survey one summer and
it received only a few votes, he worried if the in-the-works “Beautiful” would draw
an audience. His fretting was all for naught, as the musical recently
celebrated its fifth anniversary on Broadway and is currently on its second
national tour.

The Tony and Grammy Award-winning “Beautiful – the Carole
King Musical” returns to the Fox Theatre for a limited engagement March 12-17.

Sarah Bockel stars as Carole King in national tour of “Beautiful” now playing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis “I am thrilled that ‘Beautiful’ continues to delight and entertain audiences around the globe, in England, Japan and Australia. We are entering our fourth amazing year of touring the U.S.,” Producer Paul Blake said. “We are so grateful that over five million audience members have been entertained by our celebration of Carole’s story and her timeless music.”

Being the head producer on “Beautiful” has been a dream-come-true experience, he said. Blake took a leap of faith when a record executive contacted him with the idea. And the rest, as they say, is history.

From their New York office, Blake and his co-producer Mike
Bosner, a St. Louis native, recently talked about the show’s success, their
producing partnership, and what they have in the works.

Blake was the executive director of The Muny for 22
seasons, stepping down in 2011. While at the Muny, he created two Broadway
musicals from popular movies, “White Christmas” and “Roman Holiday,” so setting
up shop in New York after his years here was a natural progress.

Bosner was an associate producer at the Muny for five
seasons. Before he graduated fom John Burroughs high school, Wayne Salomon, his
theater director, told him about a Saint Louis University internship at the
Muny in the production office. Working in the business world of theater was
where he wanted to be, and now, he’s an official Tony-nominated Broadway
producer.

They are two motivated guys.
“We really love what we do. When you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like
work,” Bosner said.

They are currently working on a couple of new shows, not at
liberty to say what, but will always have a special place in their heart for “Beautiful.”
“This was something special,” Bosner said.

“We are very lucky it has delighted audiences for over five
years – around the world,” Black said.

They work hard putting together shows – ‘So many things to
do!” Blake said, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s very fulfilling
what we’ve chosen to do.”

He credits the Muny experience for keeping them on their
toes.

“If I wouldn’t have done the Muny, I couldn’t get these shows together. It all comes together because we have that experience,” he said. “We learned how to put the best people together at the Muny.”

Since the tour’s launch in September 2015, “Beautiful” has
played 1,130 performances in 82 cities over 142 weeks to nearly 2.5 million
patrons.

Tony Winner Jessie Mueller as Carole King.Singer-songwriter Carole King’s true-life rise to stardom
is a tailor-made follow-your-dreams story. The chart-topping music legend grew
up in Brooklyn and then fought her way into the record business as a teenager.
By the time she was in her 20s, she was married to college classmate Gerry
Goffin and was flourishing as a songwriter in the fabled Brill Building,
churning out hits for the biggest rock ‘n roll acts.

It wasn’t until her personal life unraveled that she
finally managed to find her true voice, culminating in her landmark solo
“Tapestry” album in 1971, which won four Grammys – including Record, Song and
Album of the Year — and went on to be one of the greatest selling albums of
all-time.

One of the most successful acts in music history, Carole
wrote the soundtrack to a generation. The “Beautiful” music includes “I Feel the
Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “(You Make Me
Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “So Far Away,” the title
song and many more.

So, Blake was surprised when there wasn’t much love for it
on the end-of-season “What Shows Would You Like to See at the Muny?” survey.

“I was shocked. There was no recognition. I used to put on the
survey shows that didn’t exist, like “White Christmas” – it got six votes and “Roman
Holiday,” which got eight,” he said.

Blake made his debut as a Broadway producer with “Irving
Berlin’s White Christmas,” which opened in 2009. The musical adaptation of the
holiday movie classic had premiered at the Muny in 2000. The show had a second
Broadway run, and has turned into a popular seasonal show at theaters around
the country.

“It endures because it’s terrifically entertaining,” he
said. “It’s one of the most requested musicals.”

“Paramount Pictures had hired me to create musicals from
their film catalogue. I picked two – White Christmas and Roman Holiday,” Blake
said.

He and Bosner have re-worked “Roman Holiday,” which will be
coming to Broadway. It had a successful tryout in San Francisco last year. But
before that, it was at the Muny about 12 years ago.

“These things don’t happen overnight,” Blake said. “We feel
we have it right now – it needed some work. It has songs by Cole Porter. We
have always thought it felt like a stage musical,” he said.

“Roman Holiday” is an Oscar-winning movie starring Audrey
Hepburn as a Princess who escapes her confines and explores Rome with
journalist Gregory Peck. Hepburn won Best Actress, Dalton Trumbo won Best Story
and Edith Head won Best Costumes.

It’s on to the next project, but Blake recalls all the
effort that went into making “Beautiful” sparkle.

Bosner said they began working on it in 2009.

“It took five years of talking and trying to get the
contracts settled,” Blake said.

“So, after it got 6 votes, I wondered if there was an
audience for it, but when making ‘Beautiful,’ everyone seemed to know how to do
it. Let’s hope it works, I thought,” Blake said.

“At our very first reading, I asked Disney Theatrical Group
president Thomas Schumacher to come and give us his thoughts. He told me: ‘You
have made a ‘Jersey Boys’ for women.’”

Carole King and Gerry GoffinCarole King was reluctant to see her life played out
publicly, but she gave permission.

“She saw what we were trying to do. She said, ‘I trust you,’
I see where you’re going,’ but she did not want to be involved. She went away.
It was hard for her,” Blake said.

“Four months after we opened, we heard from her. We had
sent her the script. Carole is all about the truth. She went to see the show.
She was stunned. She’s been great.  She
let us know she supports us totally and fully,” Blake said.

“She performed at The Tonys. She came to New York City for
the fifth anniversary (Jan. 12). No one knew she was going to be there. They
were filming for CBS and we wanted to have the surprise moment be on camera, so
we didn’t tell the cast. It was sensational,” Blake said.

Carole KingIt wouldn’t be the only time he’s heard that. For women of
a certain age, the music is a walk down memory lane that has them on their feet
at the curtain call, singing loudly to “I Feel the Earth Move.”

First and foremost was the music – beloved songs written by
the husband-and-wife hit machine teams of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

“It had a bunch of great songs, catchy pop tunes,” Blake
said. “We got the rights, and then Douglas McGrath (a Tony and Academy Award
nominee) put the Brill Building in the book, and that makes it a story. Doug’s
book is so under-appreciated. It is a great book.”

Director Marc Bruni, who has directed at the Muny eight
times, “Singin’ in the Rain,” “My Fair Lady,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The
Music Man” and “The Sound of Music,” made his Broadway debut with “Beautiful.” He
has since helmed the new production of ‘Roman Holiday.”

The show opened Jan. 12, 2014, on Broadway at the Stephen
Sondheim Theatre, 125 West 43 Street, where it is still playing. It broke all
box office records there and recently became the theatre’s highest grossing
production in its history.

“Beautiful” was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2014,
including Best Musical, and won two – for Best Lead Actress in a Musical
(Jessie Mueller) and Best Sound Design.

“We were so proud of the show as is, so the nominations
were the icing on the cake,” Bosner said.
The Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical”
(Ghostlight Records) won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album
and is available on CD, digitally, and on vinyl. 

“When asked about the show, nobody says they like it.
Everyone says they love it. There’s a lot of love there, and that’s powerful,”
Blake had said after the Tony nominations.

In addition to the current Broadway and North American
Touring productions, “Beautiful” is also playing internationally, with
productions in Japan, Australia and touring the UK.  An award-winning production recently
concluded its run in London’s West End after opening on Feb. 25, 2015.

“We saw it in Japan. It was wonderful,” Blake said.

The producers are now working on a movie version of the
musical.

“It’s in pre-production, might be one and half, two years.
We have a draft of a screenplay. The contract is drying as we speak,” Blake
said.

The cast of the Sony/ATV Music Publishing-sponsored North
American tour includes Sarah Bockel as Carole King, Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry
Goffin, Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia Weil, Jacob Heimer as Barry Mann, Muny
alum James Clow as Don Kirshner and Suzanne Grodner as Genie Klein.

The ensemble includes Ben Biggers, Darius Delk, John
Michael Dias, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Kaylee Harwood, Willie Hill, Alia Hodge,
James Michael Lambert, Harper Miles, Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Ashley Morgan, Deon
Releford-Lee, Nathan Andrew Riley, Paul Scanlan, DeAnne Stewart, Danielle J.
Summons, Alexis Tidwell and Elise Vannerson.

The creative team includes Derek McLane (Set Design), Alejo
Vietti (Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design), Brian Ronan
(Sound Design), Charles G. LaPointe (Wig and Hair Design), Steve Sidwell
(Orchestrations and Music Arrangements), Jason Howland (Music Supervision) and
John Miller (Music Coordination). Vietti’s credits include The Repertory
Theatre of St. Louis – “Evita” and

Besides Blake, Bosner and Sony, producers included Jeffrey
A. Sine, Richard A. Smith, Mike Bosner, Harriet N. Leve/Elaine Krauss, Terry
Schnuck, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker/Good Productions, Roger Faxon, Larry Magid, Kit
Seidel, Lawrence S. Toppall, Fakston Productions/Mary Solomon, William Court
Cohen, John Gore, BarLor Productions, Matthew C. Blank, Tim Hogue, Joel Hyatt,
Marianne Mills, Michael J. Moritz, Jr., StylesFour Productions,
Brunish/Trinchero and Jeremiah J. Harris.

Performances Tuesday, March 12, through Sunday, March 17,
are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m.
Sunday and 1 p.m. Thursday, March 14.

“Beautiful” is part of the U.S. Bank Broadway series.
Tickets are available through MetroTix.com, by calling 314-534-1111 or in
person at the Fabulous Fox Box Office. For more information, visit
www.FabulousFox.com

For more information and video, visit
www.BeautifulOnBroadway.com.

Paul Blake and Mike Bosner attend Beautiful – The Carole King Musical at The Aldwych Theatre, The Aldwych, London on Tuesday 24 February 2015 February 2015

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
It’s difficult to see Nora Helmer, protagonist of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, in a positive light, not because she left her controlling husband, Torvald, back in 1879, but that she abandoned her three young children in the process. At least there was a reason for it. Like Nora, the children belonged to Torvald, just as much as his house or his clothes. He has help too. Nora had a loving nanny, Anne Marie, in fact, the very one who had abandoned her own child to raise Nora, so she knew her kids were in good hands.
Considering, then, that Nora had to choose between freedom for herself or staying with her entire family, her choice to go away can be justified, at least to an extent. In Ibsen’s play, she believes that her husband is controlling and the eight years they’ve been together haven’t changed him. She even feels at times as if she’s losing her mind. Contemporaneous audiences and critics couldn’t summon up sympathy for this bird in a gilded cage, but to 21st century minds, her actions weren’t unforgivable. Then along comes Lucas Hnath with A Doll’s House, Part 2, with a fresh take on the character.

Hnath uses a modern idiom to demystify the antiquated language and make it easier for us to just sit back and appreciate the comedy and drama happening before us. The first character to appear is Anne Marie (Tina Johnson) when she hobbles out to answer the door, yes, THAT door, located prominently upstage center. She’s not entirely surprised to see Nora (Caralyn Koslowski) after 15 years because Nora let her know she’d be coming, but not when.
We learn that the years haven’t been kind to Anne Marie, at least not physically, but Nora looks and sounds terrific. She darts about the room, finally perching on an ottoman, to catch Anne Marie up on what’s happened. Apparently, she has found success writing about women like herself under a pseudonym, since authors are “supposed” to be male. The drab set has furniture piled in a corner with a few pieces still in place around the room. When a chair is wanted, someone, more often than not, Nora, fetches one from the pile. Anne Marie’s costume is as gray as her surroundings, but Nora is dressed in vivid blue and red. Her plumage is a vibrant contrast to once well-ordered house. We get the impression that the mess represents Torvald’s current faux bachelor life.
Michael James Reed as Torvald. Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.comNora’s constant motion does remind me of the terms of endearment Torvald used to use for her when they lived together, which she hated. These were references to pet birds mostly, that flit from place to place while having no practical use other than ornamentation. Nora has a long speech shortly after coming on the scene about her life as it is now. She intends to see Torvald (Michael James Reed) the following day, he shows up unexpectedly and is extremely startled, in a Victorian sort of way, to see his wife returned at last. Having learned she’s not his ex-wife, as she thought she’d be, she has come to ask him to file the divorce papers. Nora can’t legally dissolve their bond without difficulty, but he can. And if he doesn’t, then presenting herself as unmarried for purposes of work and love affairs may constitute fraud.
At last, we begin to hear Torvald’s side of the story, but he has to get back to work. He returns later to continue the conversation. Nora solicits Anne Marie’s help in figuring out what to do, and Anne Marie suggests Nora speak to her daughter, Emmy (Andrea Abello). The older woman believes if Emmy asks Torvald to divorce her mother, he will do it. Enter Emmy. Emmy is not what her mother expects her to be. The younger woman has entirely different ideas about what constitutes a proper and happy life, while Nora learns that you do reap what you sow.
Caralyn Koszlowski is Nora, Andrea Abello is Emmy Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.comTimothy Near directs her first show at the Rep in several years, and she shows why she keeps being asked back. She keeps the action moving at warp speed when Nora’s around, but Anne Marie, and even Torvald, provide a calmer counterpoint. I do have a problem with a choice she made near the very end, but otherwise, Near gives us lovely work. Scott C. Neale’s set is cleverly conceived, and facilitates a lot of the movement onstage. And, of course, there’s that door which we now know lets people out, but also back in. Lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson’s work enhances the overall look. Rusty Wandall’s sound design is fun, peppered with songs that assert women’s power like “It’s Too Late,” “You Don’t Own Me,” and most prescient, “The Woman in Your Life (is You).”
Re-imagining  a character such as Nora, far from the “Angel in the House” of her husband’s fantasies, but a woman who insists on being validated, judging her on her own merits and flaws, is illuminating. A Doll’s House, Part 2 provides a deeper examination of what’s going on with her, shows how her actions may have affected one of her children, and, at long last, lets us hear from Torvald. The play got a slew of awards and nominations; it deserves them.
‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Oct. 12 through Nov. 4. Visit www.repstl.org for more information.
Photos by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com