Wednesday, August 26, 2015


“Spellbound! A Musical Fable” was originally conceived in 1994 by Stray Dog’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White. Recently taken off the shelf and given the once-over, Bell gave it a world premiere that closed out a strong Stray Dog season. Still in its workshop stage, "Spellbound!" draws on familiar fairy tales and lesser known folklore from Japan, India, Germany, Nigeria and England, and it’s an exciting show with enchanting potential.

An immediate mood greeted you walking into the Abbey’s space. Rob Lippert’s scenic design featured tall movable trees, multi-leveled tree-top platforms, and full-moon landscapes complemented by Tyler Duenow’s lights. The show’s opening number, “Spellbound”, sets you firmly into the jungles of Samaren, where Arabella, a “Cinderella-type” heroine, authentically played by a firm-voiced, sweet-faced Meadow Tien Nguy, is at the beck and call of her stepmother, an evil, black magic enchantress called Layla, diabolically portrayed by Deborah Sharn (her excellent wig is courtesy of Priscilla Case), who has her eye on ruling the land. Maria Bartolotta and Eileen Engel are wickedly funny as Arabella’s stepsisters, Muchaneta and Kokumo, and Patrick Kelly is Bangababo, Arabella’s dad -- a market vendor still vulnerable to Layla’s spells.

(l to r) Corey Fraine, Kevin Connelly, Kimberly Still,
Brendan Ochs, Paula Stoff Dean, Michael Baird, Abby Eisen,
Tyler Cheatem, and Stefanie Kluba.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Paula Stoff Dean is Inaambura, who checks in on the proceedings, magically harnessing natural elements, nicely marking her as a benevolent enchantress. Her romantic interest, Changamire, (Zachary Stefaniak, who also contributed the stylish choreography), decides to hold a carnival to lift spirits and perhaps find a mate to inspire Changamire’s son, Adama Princely, played with teen-idol swagger by Chris Tipp, to settle down. Tipp also plays the Bengal tiger, whom Ararbella meets in a quest she’s been sent on by Layla. An energetic coming-of-age reckoning is in the cards for Arabella and Adama, with side adventures along the way.

The show gets bogged down in some of these side trips, and while they introduce interesting characters, the central story derails.

Chris Tipp and Meadow Tien Nguy.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Christopher Thomas’s solid original orchestrations are flavored with Cha-cha, tango, blues and traditional Broadway fare, and under Chris Petersen’s music and vocal direction, “Spellbound,” “Wings of an Angel,” the act three opener, “Blue Water Stream,” and “A Perfect Fit” were standouts. Bell and Engel’s fairy tale inspired costume designs were great, and Justin Been’s sound design puts the "spell" in "Spellbound," giving weight to the power of certain characters and adding greatly to the mood of the show.

Bell directs his buoyant ensemble using Tower Grove Abbey’s aisles to great effect, and while the show’s strengths included a strong cast, excellent creative contributions, and memorable songs that propel the pacing, a bit of judicious trimming could let the jewels of this show really shine.

As embarrassingly late as this review is, I truly look forward to seeing a "post-workshop" version in the future -- because this version holds loads of promise.


(l to r) Tyler Cheatem, Eileen Engel,
Kimmie Kidd, Maria Bartolotta, Patrick Kelly, and Deborah Sharn.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Music/book/lyrics by Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White
Original Orchestrations by Christopher Thomas
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
Run complete | tickets: $10 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performances 8pm Wednesdays, August 12 and 19, and 2pm Saturday, August 22

Meadow Tien Nguy (Arabella), Melissa Harris (Castor/Chorus), Stefanie Kluba (Eurasia/Chorus), Paula Stoff Dean (Inaambura), Deborah Sharn (Layla), Maria Bartolotta (Munchie), Eileen Engel (Koko), Tyler Cheatem (Lovely/Gretel/Chorus), Patrick Kelly (Bangababo), Kimberly Still (Oswald/Goldie/Chorus), Abby Eisen (Cloud Burst), Kevin Connelly (Dew Drop), Michael Baird (Howler #1/Chorus), Brendan Ochs (Howler #2/Chorus), Chris Tipp (Adama/Bengal), Kimmie Kidd (Lady Bird/Chorus), Zachary Stefaniak (Changamire), Michael A. Wells (Amadeus/Butch/Chorus) and Corey Fraine (Rasputin/Chorus).

Meadow Tien Nguy, Deborah Sharn,
Patrick Kelly, and Maria Bartolotta.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Choreography/make up design by Zachary Stefaniak; costume design by Eileen Engel and Gary F. Bell; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; music/vocal director, Chris Petersen; scenic design by Rob Lippert; wig stylist, Priscilla Case; sound design/stage manager, Justin Been; assistant stage manager, Erin Goodenough; production manager, Jay V. Hall.

Violin, Steve Frisbee; cello, Michael Kuba; trumpet, A.J. Lane; percussion, Bob McMahon; trombone, Gabe Mueller; flute, Harrison Rich; guitar, Adam Rugo; bass, M. Joshua Ryan.

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