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