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The Spitfire Grill
Music and Book by James Valco, Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley
Based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
August 23, 2014

Janet Wells, Troy Turnipseed, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Janet Wells, Troy Turnipseed, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s latest musical offering is a charming little musical called The Spitfire Grill, which is somewhat loosely based on the 1996 film of the same name. It’s an inspiring story of second chances, reconciliation and redemption, with engaging characters and an engaging story. It’s a small,somewhat quirky show, and for the most part, Insight has presented it in an entertaining way, emphasizing its memorable characters.

Set in the rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin, The Spitfire Grill follows Percy Talbott (Sam Auch), a young woman from West Virginia who has just been released from prison and who comes to Gilead to start a new life.  Her parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter (Pete Winfrey) helps her get a job as a waitress at the town’s only restaurant, after which the show is named. Along the way, we meet such characters as the grill’s widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah, and her embittered nephew Caleb (Troy Turnipseed), who feels unappreciated by his family. There’s also Shelby (Jenni Ryan), Caleb’s neglected wife who finds a new sense of purpose working at the grill; as well as the earnest town sheriff Joe (Pete Winfrey), who finds himself attracted to Percy;  Effy (Amy Loui), the town’s postmistress and chief busybody; and a mysterious Visitor (played at this performance by Paul Balfe), whom Percy befriends. The grill has been put up for sale by its widowed and disillusioned owner, Hannah (Janet Wells), who hasn’t been able to find a buyer in ten years, but when Percy suggests a raffle/essay contest with the prize being the grill, a sense of renewed hope begins to build, many long-kept secrets are revealed, and various relationships are challenged.

This is a show that’s about its characters more than anything else, this production has cast them well. Auch gives a strong, sympathetic and vulnerable performance as Percy, displaying a strong, clear voice with a country-style twang on her songs, such as he wistful “A Ring Around the Moon” and the hopeful “Shine”.  She also harmonizes well with Ryan on perhaps the show’s best number “The Colors of Paradise”. Auch, Ryan and Wells’ gruff but kindhearted Hannah form the backbone of this show, displaying a convincing bond as their characters’ friendship grows. Winfrey gives an amiable performance as Joe, and Turnipseed manages to infuse the difficult Caleb with some sympathy.  There’s also a strong comic performance from Loui as the meddlesome Effy, and Balfe shows a strong, gentle presence in his silent role as the Visitor.  Even though the story takes a little while to get moving, the cast manages to find their energy and make these characters and this story interesting and intriguing, with some memorable moments including the Act Two opening number “Come Alive Again”, various character-establishing songs and a stirring finale.

I find the show somewhat strangely structured, in that the first act is mostly sung-through while the second act has more spoken dialogue, and the plot doesn’t really get moving until about the middle of Act One.  Also, some songs are more memorable than others. Still the cast performs well and the story gets more and more involving as the show goes along.  The technical aspects are handled well, too, for the most part. Aside from the issues with volume (especially in the singing) that have been apparent at every Insight show I’ve seen, the look and atmosphere of the show is portrayed well. Kyra Bishop’s set and Jeff Behm’s lighting, along with Tracy Newcome’s costumes, work together well to set the tone of the piece. There’s also an excellent band led by Catherine Kopff, making the most of show’s score even though they do occasionally overpower the voices of the singers.

I didn’t know much about this show beyond its basic premise before seeing this production at Insight.  I think director Maggie Ryan and her cast and crew have done a commendable job in bringing out the most important aspect of this show–the humanity of its characters. It’s not a big, flashy show. It’s a simple story simply told, with an inspiring message of hope and redemption for these quirky and complex characters. It’s a story with warmth, music, a lot of personality, and most of all, heart.

Pete Winfrey, Sam Auch Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Pete Winfrey, Sam Auch
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Mary Shelley Monster Show

by Nick Otten

Based on a Concept by Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts

Directed by Kelley Weber

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

August 20, 2014

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye (in silhouette), Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) is closing out its year-long “Season of the Monster” with a brand new show that revolves, partly, around one of the most iconic monster stories ever.  Mary Shelley Monster Show even opens with a montage of projections of various versions of the infamous monster that’s at the heart of Shelley’s most famous work, Frankenstein. This story, though, is about much more than Frankenstein. In this innovative, technically stunning  production, SATE brings Mary Shelley and her world to life in an entertaining and thoroughly riveting manner.

The play is short but extremely contemplative, and it’s never boring.  As Mary (Rachel Tibbetts) poses for her most well-known portrait by painter Richard Rothwell (the offstage voice of Carl Overly, Jr.), she recalls the important moments of her life and the people-both real and imaginary–that inhabited it.  These characters, from the monster himself to such real-life figures as Mary’s poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her father William Godwin, the illustrious poet Lord Byron and others, are all played by Ellie Schwetye. Through Mary’s recollections, reenactments, and an abundance of projections, we are given a glimpse into Mary’s mind as she recalls historic moments in her life, and her various relationships with those who have been most important to her.  We also see her relationship with her work, represented by her various philosophical discussions with the shadowy figure of the monster, who gradually evolves throughout the course of the show and challenges Mary to think about her relationship, as a writer, with her creation. It’s an exploration of one woman’s life and also the lives of famous literary figures and of one work in particular and how that work has survived its creator and even eclipsed her in notoriety, reflected in the play as Mary tells the monster–who questions his reality–that a creation often becomes more “real” than its creator.

What’s real here is the sheer wonder of this production, both technically and in its performances. Tibbetts gives a reflective, confident performance as Mary, portraying her various stages of life and conflicting emotions with veracity and depth.  From her regrets over the deaths of loved ones, to her deep love and near-worship of her dynamic husband, to her verbal sparring with the charismatic Byron, Tibbetts is thoroughly affecting.  Schwetye also impresses in at least nine different roles, portraying this wide range of characters clearly with, for the most part, only minimal changes in costume.  She is particularly effective as the self-confident Byron, as the reassuring ghostly figure of Mary’s late mother, as Mary’s emotional step-sister “Claire”, and especially as the increasingly confrontational monster.  Schwetye makes the transitions between the various characters seem effortless, and the chemistry between her (in her various incarnations) and Tibbetts is excellent.  Lending support to these two dynamic actresses is Overly, who never actually appears onstage but manages to make an impression with his voice, as the painter who serves as something of a catalyst and sounding board for Mary’s reflections.

Technically, this show is nothing short of marvelous. With a striking set by David Blake, along with Bess Moynihan’s atmospheric lighting, Michael B. Perkins’s abundant and colorful projections, Elizabeth Henning’s costumes and Schwetye’s sound design, this production strikes and maintains just the right mood.  It’s haunting, reflective and educational all at the same time. This team has managed to use the somewhat limited space in the small Chapel venue to its best advantage, taking the audience on a trip into Mary Shelley’s world and into her very thoughts.  This is  great example of a show in which the technical elements add to the drama of the production rather than dominating or distracting from it. It’s  a highly commendable effort from all involved.

This is a unique and fascinating play that educates as it entertains, as well as providing a basis for thoughtful discussions on the nature of writing and of an artist’s relationship to her craft. It’s another triumph for the collective creative talents of SATE. Over the past few years, this small, unpretentious theatre company has consistently turned out some of the most exciting,intriguing productions in St. Louis. I’m constantly impressed at how much the team at SATE continues to grow and stretch their limits as a company, continually trying to challenge expectations and then rising to the challenge. It’s companies like this that help make the St. Louis theatre scene great. Mary Shelley Monster Show is the latest, and quite possibly the greatest, of SATE’s many successes.  I look forward to seeing what their next season brings.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

The Liar

by David Ives, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille

Directed by Suki Peters

St. Louis Shakespeare

August 15th, 2014

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

I cannot tell a lie–I couldn’t stop laughing at The Liar. The recent adaptation by David Ives of the 17th Century French comedy by Pierre Corneille is the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare, and it’s a fast-paced, witty, outrageous delight.  With some very clever writing and excellent casting and direction, this is a St. Louis area premiere that’s sure to cause a lot of honest-to-goodness laughter.

The setting is France in the 1600’s with a bit of a 1980s twist, with a few more modern touches like smart phones thrown in for good measure. It’s something of a hodgepodge, but it works surprisingly well.  The story follows bon vivant and pathological liar Dorante (Jared Sanz-Agero), who has just arrived in Paris full of wild, grandiose stories of his exploits that he uses to impress anyone he meets, particularly the truthful-to-a-fault Cliton (Ben Ritchie), whom Dorante hires as his servant; and Clarice (Nicole Angeli), a flighty and somewhat snarky young woman who is catches Dorante’s eye even though she is practically engaged to his old friend Alcippe (John Foughty).  Complications ensue when Dorante gets Clarice’s name mixed up with that of her more soft-spoken friend Lucrece (Maggie Murphy) and much confusion results, including unwelcome intervention from Dorante’s father Geronte (Robert Ashton), and more mistaken identity involving the identical twins Isabelle and Sabine (both played by Jamie Pitt), who are the servants of Lucrece and Clarice, respecitvely.

Since I’m unfamiliar with the original play, I’m not sure exactly how faithful Ives’s adaptation is, but it has obviously been embellished with some ingenious, quick-witted rhymes and contemporary use of language.  It’s full of broad characterizations, contrasting the outrageous vanity and materialism of some characters with the cluelessness of others, with hilarious encounters including an imaginary duel, a twisted Cyrano-like wooing scene, and many quick entrances and exits by characters.  The scene changes are even funny, with two costumed stage hands moving the set pieces to a soundtrack of 1980’s hits by Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, Robert Palmer and others. It’s all very precisely staged with impeccable timing by director Suki Peters, and the actors do an admirable job of keeping up the pace and making the rhyming dialogue sound natural.  Visually and technically, it’s all consistently realized, with the 17th Century French costumes augmented with a 1980’s aesthetic of bright, fluorescent colors, with puffy skirts and corsets for the women and ruffled shirts and brightly-hued jackets for most of the men, and a rainbow of wigs for all.  Costume designer JC Kajicek, set designer Michael Dombek and the entire technical crew are to commended for this very boldly realized production that manages to be both classical and edgy at the same time.

The actors here are all in top form.  As Dorante, Sanz-Agero is commanding and grandiose, and well-paired with Ritchie as the constantly bewildered Cliton.  These two have some great scenes together, particularly one in which Dorante tries to teach Cliton his techniques for deception, and Ritchie tries to copy Sanz-Agero’s broad gestures as well as his speech, to uproarious effect.  Foughty is also a delight as the theatrically suspicious Alcippe, with his “duel” with Sanz-Agero’s Dorante being another comic highlight. Angeli and Murphy make a great team as the best friends, the more caustic, manipulative Clarice and the more reserved but increasingly confused Lucrece.  There are also great performances by Ashton as the meddling Geronte, John Wolbers as Alcippe’s foppish friend Philiste, and especially Pitt as the two very different sisters–the flirtatious Isabelle and the more severe, bossy Sabine.  The players all work together extremely well, carrying off the sharp, witty dialogue and physical comedy with striking success.

While I enjoy seeing favorite familiar plays, there’s a particular joy in discovering something I haven’t seen before, and especially something like this that’s been given such an inventive approach and vibrant staging.  This play explores the different perils that can come from lying as well as from telling the truth, as well as being a witty exploration of the complications of romantic pursuits.  It may be set in 17th Century Paris, but it’s infused with many modern sensibilities and it’s sure to provide many a laugh for today’s audiences.

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
August 11, 2014

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Hello Dolly! and the Muny are a match made in Theatre Heaven. As is fitting for a show about a matchmaker, the two parties in this particular relationship are most ideally suited. Hello Dolly! when staged well, is a big, colorful, flashy show with lots of energy and heart, and the Muny has built its reputation around just this type of show.  After an especially impressive season that started with a wonderful production of a newer show, Billy Elliot, the Muny is closing out their 2014 schedule with this big, brassy charmer of a Broadway classic, scaled just right to fit the colossal stage and delight the eyes, ears and hearts  of the vast Muny audience.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this show over the years, including the last (also excellent) Muny production in 2007 that featured a more subdued portrayal of the title character. This time, though, Dolly Gallagher Levi, as played by Beth Leavel, is back to her larger-than-life ways, and is the real center of this production.  Leavel’s Dolly is such a presence that even when she’s off stage, her influence is obvious. With a big personality, a strong voice and lots of quirky style, Leavel commands the stage.  She is well-matched with John O’Hurley as the curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, on whom the widowed Dolly sets her sights. Telling the story of Dolly’s various matchmaking efforts and their effects on Horace and those around him, this production has all the elements this show requires and then some, with big, flashy production numbers, strong choreography by Ralph Perkins, colorful period-specific costumes by Amy Clark, and a simple but striking set designed by Michael Schweikart that features some wonderfully detailed backdrops.  It’s a valentine to late 19th Century New York, with infectious energy and memorable production numbers from the iconic title song to the big, stage-filling “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, and more.

In addition to the ideal casting of Leavel and O’Hurley, the supporting players also turn in excellent work. Muny veteran Rob McClure, so memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family and Bert in Mary Poppins, is in fine form here as Horace’s sheltered chief clerk Cornelius Hackl, who is eager to get at least one small break from his humdrum Yonkers existence and experience adventure in the big city. McClure is able to be charming, bumbling, a nimble dancer, and a hopeless romantic all at once, with great renditions of the rousing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and the heartwarming “It Only Takes a Moment”.  He’s paired well with Mamie Parris as the widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy, who displays strong chemistry with McClure and an impressive voice on her showcase song, “Ribbons Down My Back”.  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker, and Eloise Kropp as Irene’s shop assistant Minnie Fay deliver memorable comic performances, as well, as do Daniel Berryman as artist and would-be dancer Ambrose Kemper and Berklea Going as the object of his affection, Horace’s weepy neice, Ermengarde.  This production can also boast of a very impressive ensemble, especially the men who get to show off their athletic dancing skills in the wildly energetic “Waiters’ Gallop” number.

Although there were a few issues with the sound on opening night, as well as one noticeable (but well-covered) line flub, this production is otherwise staged with remarkable precision and timing.  The famous staircase scene is timed just right, and Leavel is adept at interacting with both the ensemble and the audience, generating waves of enthusiastic applause.  The Act One ending “Before the Parade Passes By” also puts the giant Muny stage to excellent use, featuring a memorable appearance by the O”Fallon Township High School marching band.  And speaking of bands, the Muny’s own wonderful orchestra–conducted by Musical Director James Moore–is in top form here as well, keeping up the energy and pacing of this classic Jerry Herman score.

This rendition  of Hello Dolly! is the latest piece of evidence that the Muny–under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson–is back on form as befits its illustrious reputation.  This has been another entertaining season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer next summer.  Echoing this show’s title song, I’ll say another enthusiastic hello to the new, improved Muny–it’s nice to have it back where it belongs, at the top of its game. Long may this revitalized tradition continue!

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Quills
by Doug Wright
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
August 2, 2014

Ted Gregory Photo by John Lamb Max and Louie Productions

Ted Gregory
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

It may seem strange, at first thought, that when looking to make a statement about artistic expression vs. censorship, playwright Doug Wright chose as his subject one of the most incendiary figures in the history of world literature.  French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Sade lived and wrote in a manner that sparked much controversy, and the literary value of his prurient writings is still debated to this day.  Wright could easily have written a more modern story about censorship, avoiding the association with the controversial Sade.  Still, after seeing Max & Louie Productions’ impeccably staged production of Wright’s Quills, it becomes more clear why Wright chose to convey his message in this manner. It’s a story of extremes–of how the extreme desire to suppress the extreme ideas of another person can often bring out the most extreme and unsavory aspects of one’s own human nature. Expertly acted and presented, this production conveys its ideas clearly and memorably.

The story here is more symbolic than factual.  While the basic facts of Sade’s imprisonment at Charenton Asylum are true, the actual situation portrayed here is Wright’s invention. When Sade’s estranged wife Reenee Pelagie (Stacie Knock) is increasingly shunned by society because of her association with the notorious Marquis, she appeals to the asylum’s newly appointed director, Doctor Royer-Collard (David Wassilak) to stop her husband’s incessant and inflammatory writing, offering generous financial compensation as incentive.  The doctor, renowned for his commitment to traditional morality and his preference for more brutal methods of curbing the behavior of his patients, enlists the more benevolent Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez) in implementing his plans to silence the Marquis.  Meanwhile, Sade (Ted Gregory) has been enjoying relatively lenient treatment, indulging in his literary pursuits in his well-appointed cell, sipping wine and sharing his bawdy stories with the asylum’s kind-hearted seamstress, Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), for whom the Abbe harbors an attraction.  Through various inducements, the doctor uses the Abbe’s genuine concern about the well-being of the patients to induce him into more and more extreme methods of enforcing the ban on the Marquis’s writing, all the while Sade continues to seek to express his ideas with increasingly brutal consequences. There’s also a subplot about the doctor’s engaging an architect (Charlie Barron) to design a palatial home for his not quite virtuous wife (also Mickey), more as a way to keep her out of the public spotlight and save his own reputation than for her benefit.

There are several messages in this play, with the central one being that externally imposed censorship of art is not only bad–it doesn’t actually work in the long run, and the subject of the censorship often becomes much more well-known than he would have been (as echoed by Wright in the audience talk-back after the show). Also, even if the works are stopped, the thoughts behind them continue, and can only grow more and more insidious. Morality, for people like the doctor, becomes as Sade declares “a convenience”, and a means with which to exercise control. The Abbe becomes something of a surrogate for the audience, as his own struggles with maintaining his own principles in the face of pressure reflect the modern struggle to find balance between artistic expression, societal expectations and personal integrity.  Amid characters like the amoral Sade and the conflicted Abbe, the real villain here is the doctor, who seeks to further his own agenda while keeping his own hands “clean”, and more damage is done from the efforts to suppress the Marquis’s writings than had been done when he had been provided all the paper and quills he needed.

Wright’s script is masterfully written, with sharp dialogue, well drawn characters and even some fantastical elements thrown in for good measure, and director Brooke Wright’s production expresses the script as ideally as I can imagine.  With strong technical aspects such as Cyndi Lohrmann’s richly appointed costumes, Dunsi Dai’s appropriately atmospheric set, and Maureen Berry’s expert lighting design, the story comes to vivid life as the mood shifts from a more genteel, light start to a noticeably darker, more primal and horrific atmosphere as the play continues. The storytelling is enhanced especially in the remarkable performances of the uniformly excellent cast, with Gregory as Sade and Rodriguez as the Abbe being the standouts.  I’ve seen Rodriguez in many shows in around St. Louis, and he’s never been better than he is here, making the struggle between his compassion, the doctor’s directions, and his own personal issues readily apparent.  Gregory is all oily charm as Sade, and regardless about what one may think about his writings, as the efforts to stop his writing become more and more intense,  it’s difficult not to sympathize with him in his increasingly desperate situation. These two are the focal point of this play, although there is not a weak link in this cast. Wassilak is memorable as the steely, unflappable doctor, and Mickey and Barron both shine in dual roles–Mickey as the sweet young seamstress and as the doctor’s lascivious wife, and Barron as the dandified architect and as brutish asylum patient who participates in an ill-fated scheme of Sade’s.

This play isn’t always easy to watch, as situations grow more and more grave and extreme and the outcome is increasingly unsavory.  Still, it’s an intriguing study of the effects of censorship, hypocrisy and morality-as-control, as well as the power of artistic expression. It’s a worthy topic for thought and discussion, and regardless of what one thinks about Sade as a person or as a writer, the extremity of his situation makes for an ideal setting to explore the many angles of this topic. Kudos to Max & Louie Productions for bringing this fascinating play to the St. Louis audience, especially in such a well-crafted production.  In addition to entertaining, art can instruct, anger, provoke, inspire and inform; and this play manages to do all of those things in the course of an evening. While it’s  not for all audiences (leave the kids at home), it’s a remarkable theatrical achievement.

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb Max  & Louie Productions

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll
by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
The Midnight Company
August 1, 2014

joe Hanrahan Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan The Midnight Company

joe Hanrahan
Photo Courtesy of Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan is one of those actors with a particular talent for playing multiple characters in the same play, and one-man shows are a great vehicle for this. Unlike the Midnight Company’s last production, Solemn Mockeries, which told a cohesive story, Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll is more of a collection of monologues with related themes, providing an ideal showcase for Hanrahan’s skills and allowing for an evening of outrageous and sometimes dark humor that’s sure to make the audience think as well as laugh.

The show is mostly an examination of consumerism and selfishness in modern society. The happiest guy in the show is the homeless bottle collector in the opening sequence, who’s content with his bottles (“or cans–no difference” he says)–which he recycles to make a little bit of money–and the occasional egg salad sandwich. Most of the other characters in the play are selfish, greedy, culturally ignorant and sometimes downright hostile.  Self-help philosophies get parodied in two segments, and misguided charity in another. All the elements of the title are there, as well as a cynical take on religious belief and musings on the purpose and importance of art and creativity.  It’s gritty, irreverent, and unquestionably funny, with jokes ranging from lighthearted to sarcastic to outrageously dark.  It’s an ideal vehicle for a versatile actor like Hanrahan, and he makes the most of every opportunity.

Hanrahan does a great job with the various characters represented here. He’s great with comedy and some of the darker moments, with a good range of voices and accents (with help from dialect coach Pamela Reckamp), from the aging British rocker staging a benefit concert, to the Southern motivational speaker trying to help his audiences get in touch with their “inner baby”.  With energy and charisma, Hanrahan manages to hold the audience’s attention through the course of the play even when portraying some of the more unsavory aspects of his characters.

Hanrahan and director Rachel Tibbetts have done an excellent job of presenting this show in just the right context. The basement room at  Herbie’s Restaurant in the Central West End is an excellent venue for this play, with the small performance space giving the show more of an interactive vibe. and the use of props and various quick-change costume elements is excellent as well. The play, written over 20 years ago, has been updated here and there with a few references to current events and St.Louis settings, thrown in to add to the overall atmosphere and accessibility of the piece. It’s all very timely,with the focus on self-actualization and self-help (which can be useful or misused), as well as conspicuous consumption in today’s consumer-driven society. It’s a relatively short play, running just over an hour, although that’s plenty of time to be introduced to this wide-ranging cast of characters all played by the same guy. Some of the characters are appealing and some are scoundrels, but as presented by Joe Hanrahan, they’re all worth listening to even if it’s  just to make us think.

Grease

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Directed and Choregraphed by Denis Jones

The Muny

July 31, 2014

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

“Grease is the word,” or so the song tells us. The big issue with Grease the musical, though, is that you can’t be sure which word you’re getting, depending on the production. From the grittier original Broadway production to the highly nostalgic 1978 film to the more over-the-top stylized approach of some of the revivals, this show can appeal to many different audiences depending on the director’s vision. The latest production at the Muny mostly takes a straightforward nostalgic approach, and considering the Muny’s large, varied audience, that’s probably the best for this venue. A crowd-pleasing production with a youthful, energetic cast and some creative staging, this Grease is a journey back to the 50’s that, for the most part, is worth the trip.

This is a production that is even more informed by the film than others I have seen, even though pretty much all versions include songs from the movie now.  Some of the show’s original songs have been completely replaced by film songs in this staging.  Where “You’re The One That I Want” replacing “All Choked Up” is basically the standard now, this version also replaces “It’s Raining On Prom Night” with “Hopelessly Devoted to You” instead of just adding the latter song in another scene, and Danny sings “Sandy” at the drive-in instead of “Alone At a Drive-in Movie”.  This staging also censors some of the songs’ lyrics, especially in “Greased Lightning”.  Still, the version here is probably the best film-influenced adaptation of this show I’ve seen, because the way it’s put together, along with the enthusiasm of the cast and some clever staging, makes the story work, for the most part.  The show is not overly stylized (except in the fantasy sequences, where stylization is most appropriate), and the 50’s-era atmosphere is detailed and consistent, with excellent adaptable sets by Timothy R. Mackabee and costumes by Andrea Lauer, along with a clever use of 1950’s ads and images in the video projections designed by Matthew Young. Although there were a few problems with the set on Opening Night, for the most part it’s a very effective and stylish evocation of the era.

The story has become a very familiar one–of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies at Rydell High School and their clash with the traditional establishment and cultural expectations. When wholesome good-girl Sandy Dumbrowski (Taylor Louderman) transfers to Rydell and re-unites with her summer love, T-Bird Danny Zuko (Brandon Espinoza), other peoples’ expectations battle with their own feelings for each other, as both try to figure out how to balance image with identity to see if their relationship will survive.  Meanwhile, Danny’s friend Kenickie (Drew Foster) aims to fix up his car into a stylish hot rod to help him impress girls, as well as dealing with a complicated relationship with Betty Rizzo (Arianda Fernandez), the tough leader of the Pink Ladies whose bravado masks a sense of vulnerability that eventually is made clear late in the show. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies also battle with the more conventional elements at Rydell, represented by cheerleader Patty Simcox (Rhiannon Hansen) and imperious teacher Miss Lynch (Phyllis Smith). Mostly though, in this version of the story, this is a journey through the various elements of 1950’s culture with songs, dances and situations that celebrate youth culture and counter-culture alike.

The Muny has done well to cast most of these roles with young, engaging personalities, especially with the two leads and several of the supporting players.  Louderman brings a real sense of girl-next-door sweetness to Sandy, and her voice on songs like “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is big and powerful.  She and the good-looking, charming Espinoza have good chemistry together as well, and while “You’re The One That I Want” still sounds more 70’s than 50’s, these two make it work.  Foster is an appropriately swaggering Kenickie, and Fernandez displays a strong voice and snarky attitude as Rizzo, and the rest of of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies are particularly well cast.  The real standouts are Natalie Kaye Clater as Marty, who brings a lot of spunk and stage presence to her solo “Freddy My Love”; Larry Owns as Roger and Amelia Jo Parrish as Jan, whose song “Mooning” is a lot of fun; and Tyler Bradley Indyck as wanna-be rocker Doody, whose capably leads the brilliantly staged “Those Magic Changes” production number.  The adult characters are well-played as well, with Smith (most famous from TV’s The Office) getting an ideal role for her talents, including some fun dancing moments, as Miss Lynch, and Matthew Saldivar as smarmy radio DJ Vince Fontaine.  The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is in fine form here as well, bringing style and energy to the big dance numbers like “Born to Hand Jive” and the show’s biggest applause-getter, the stage-filling gospel and R&B influenced arrangement of the “Beauty School Dropout” number, anchored by a stellar performance from Teressa Kindle as the Teen Angel. Although this song has more of a mid-60’s Aretha Franklin-esque vibe than the rest of the show, it works because of the strong performance and staging, and also because it’s a fantasy sequence, so the Teen Angel could very well be seen as a time traveler.  The rest of the show is very much tied to the 50’s, but this scene provides a glimpse of what is ahead musically, and it’s extremely memorable.

For the most part, I would say this production communicates the nostalgia angle with just the right balance of humor, style and spectacle, while still maintaining a more realistic tone than other productions of the show I’ve seen (like the extremely stylized early 90’s Broadway revival). Grease, in its most commonly staged form, is one of those shows that provides nostalgia for two generations–the Baby Boomers who actually experienced the 50’s, and Gen Xers like me, who most remember the film. This production at the Muny favors the 50’s approach with a little bit of 60’s and 70’s flavor, although it’s staged cleverly enough that it brings the 1950’s to a 2014 audience in a charming and stylish way that’s sure to appeal to audience members from all generations.

Cast of Grease Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Grease
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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