Another season of Music Circus productions in the round (this one the organization’s sixty-fifth) is now complete, and while the memories are still relatively fresh, here’s our review of the season as a whole and of each of the productions individually. The parenthetical number following each show is our ranking of that particular production against the other 31 performances we’ve seen so far this year (through August 31). (All performances were at the Wells Fargo Pavilion.)
The season began in June with a largely disappointing production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” (22nd out of 31 on our current rankings). Paul Schoeffler and Glory Crampton played the lead roles well. Ms. Crampton’s mezzo carried most of her solos effectively. Mr. Schoeffler eschewed the Rex Harrison speak-sing technique for most of his and still managed to convey the sense of arrogance and immodesty the role requires.
But for the most part, the production, directed by Glenn Casale, lacked imagination and energy, which made the lack of any real chemistry between the two leads all the more glaring. In fact, on the night we attended, Stephen Berger, as Eliza’s father, drew the biggest applause for his two show-stopping solos: “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Roger Miller’s “Big River” (book by Michael Hauptman) was much more successful as the next production (15th on our current rankings). Bringing Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to the stage as a musical was a slightly risky proposition in 1985, but the show was a big success, and under the direction of Michael Heitzman, the Music Circus production also worked well.
Ben Fankhauser carried the difficult role of Huck (both the show’s narrator and its central character) effectively, but the production was strongest when Phillip Boykin (playing the runaway slave, Jim) was singing, as he did on “Free at Last,” “Worlds Apart,” and “Muddy Water.” Also enlivening the production was Jennifer Leigh Warren, reprising her role of Alice from the original Broadway cast.
“Bye Bye Birdie” (16th on our rankings) was a pleasurable piece of nostalgia, and probably more enjoyable in that vein than it might have been when originally staged as a sort of spoof on the teenage infatuation with Elvis Presley. (The story revolves around the hysteria that surrounded the fictional Presley’s induction into the Army.) The show features at least a half dozen catchy tunes that were sung well by the Music Circus cast under the direction of Glenn Casale.
The strongest performances in the large cast were by Nathaniel Hackmann as Birdie (the Presley character) and Stuart Marland as the father of the teen who wins the right to have a last dance with Birdie before he ships out to basic training in the Army. Among those songs that stood out were “Put on a Happy Face,” “One Boy,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”, and “Kids.”
“Peter Pan” (21st on our list) was brought back to Music Circus for the first time in almost 30 years in a strong production, directed by Glenn Casale. Mary Martin had made the musical her signature show in the 1950s, and it is still primarily a vehicle for the woman who plays Peter. Jenn Colella commanded the Music Circus production, aided by Shannon Stoeke (subbing for Paul Schoeffler on the night we attended) as the nasty Captain Hook.
This has always been a show for kids, both the young and older varieties, and it was played for that effect in this production. It contains the mishmash of characters (pirates, Indians, a mermaid, a dog who babysits, and a fairy who almost dies but is saved by children in the audience). Let’s just say that it is what it is, and staging it once every generation or so probably isn’t a bad idea.
The highlight of the season was a powerful production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story” (second on our current list), which featured the inspired staging by director Bob Richards and the terrific dance numbers from Jerome Robbins original creations (choreographed for Music Circus by Diane Laurenson).
The cast was stellar, with all five leads offering superb performances. Justin Matthew Sargent (Tony) and Carolann M. Sanita (Maria) played the ill-fated lovers; Desireé Davar was a dynamic Anita; Shane Rhodes (Riff) and German Alexander (Bernardo) also had highlight moments. Everything about this production was great, right down to the closing curtain calls and the silent exit from the theater by the deeply moved audience.
Another form of nostalgia ended the season with “Hair,” produced at Music Circus for only the second time (and 13th on our list). With Glenn Casale’s bold and energized direction, the Music Circus production effectively conveyed the anti-establishment, counter-culture spirit of idealism that the original Broadway production had so fully realized.
The thin plot is a problem, but the second act overcame that deficiency with memorable performances of several songs that still resonate. The strong ensemble cast was led by standout performances (most notably by Oliver Thornton, Peter Saide, Laura D’Andre, and Bryonha Marie Parham).
In sum, it was a very good Music Circus season, topped by the great production of “West Side Story.” Our vote would be to put “Peter Pan” back in mothballs for a couple of decades, but “Big River” was a pleasant surprise, and in “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Hair” different forms of nostalgia were welcome reminders of the way we once were.