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Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014

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The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

 

Purlie

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell

Music by Gary Geld, Lyrics by Peter Udell

Based on the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis

Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Heather Beal

The Black Rep

September 14, 2014

purlie1

I love being able to discover “new” shows that aren’t really new. Purlie first opened on Broadway in 1970 and won several awards, and although I had heard of it before and saw a clip of an old Tony Awards performance on YouTube, I didn’t know much else about the show. Now, thanks the the delightful new production at the Black Rep, it’s almost like I’ve stumbled across a brand new musical.  With a tuneful score, vibrant staging and a strong cast, Purlie is a sure crowd-pleaser with a memorable story and an important message.

The story, that seems to be set sometime in the early 1960s, follows Purlie Victorious Judson (Kelvin Ralston, Jr.), a preacher who returns from Alabama to his Georgia home on a mission: he’s going to buy back Big Bethel Church for the community by means of a $500 inheritance that’s owed by the tyrannical plantation owner Ol Cap’n Cotchipee (Jim Anthony) to Purlie’s cousin.  Purlie has brought home Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Alicia Reve’), who bears a resemblance to the long-lost Cousin Bea, in order to fool the Ol’ Cap’n into paying out the inheritance.  With the assistance of Purlie’s brother Gitlow (J. Samuel Davis) and Gitlow’s wife Missy (Kimmie Kidd), Purlie hopes to  revive the church and give hope to the African-American cotton pickers  (including Gitlow) on Cotchipee’s plantation who have been kept in debt and oppressed by the Ol’ Cap’n for years. Cotchipee’s hippie-ish son, Charlie (Greg Matzker) stands against his father’s racist policies and only wants to sing folk music and try to change the world, or at least his part of it. Meanwhile, confirmed bachelor Purlie is faced with the decision of what to do about his relationship with Lutiebelle, who is in love with him.  The story is told in flashback, so we know how it ends before it begins, but that actually helps add to the suspense, making us wonder exactly how the story arrives at its inevitable and celebratory conclusion.

The score for this show, by Gary Geld and Peter Udell, is simply wonderful, with memorable songs like the Gospel-styled “Walk Him Up the Stais”, upbeat numbers like “New Fangled Preacher Man”, “The Harder They Fall”, and Lutiebelle’s energetic “I Got Love”. With dynamic choreography by Heather Beal and great singing all around, this production makes the most of the excellent score, although the otherwise great-sounding band is a little bit too loud, drowning out some of the singers especially earlier in the show.  With one or two slower songs like the lovely “He Can Do It”, it’s mostly an upbeat score that has the sound of its time (the early 1970’s), although is a lot less dated that some other scores from that era, and very well presented here.  There’s also a colorful, multi-unit movable set designed by Dunsi Dai that sets the scene of the crumbling old Southern plantation and surrounding buildings, and colorful costumes by Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek.

Casting-wise, director Ron Himes has assembled a strong group of performers, with the standouts being the vivacious Reve’ as Lutiebelle and the comically gifted Davis as Gitlow. Both of these performers have such strong stage presence, commanding every scene they are in, Reve’ with youthful energy and Davis with mischievous charm.  In the central role of Purlie, Roston is also excellent, especially in his scenes with Reve’ and in a hilarious monologue late in the show in which he spins a somewhat fantastical tale.  There are also great performances from Kidd as the tough but supportive Missy–who has a fun little dance moment with Lutiebelle during the song “Purlie” in the first act–and Linda Kennedy as Idella, the elderly maid who practically raised Charlie.  Anthony is an effective villain, giving the character a veneer of Southern politeness that doesn’t the least bit conceal his self-centered, racist attitudes.  As for Charlie, Matzker does an amiable job with some good comic moments,  and he sings well on the upbeat, folky “The World Is Coming to a Start”, although he comes across as quite a bit older than the character is meant to be, which is something of a distraction from the otherwise highly entertaining show.

Overall, Purlie is an uplifting, memorable musical with an impressive score and an encouraging message of hope and reconciliation.  The Black Rep has brought together an extremely talented cast and a vibrantly presented production that should appeal to all ages.  I don’t want to sound too cliched, but I really was humming the score on the way out of the theatre. Even despite a few minor flaws, this production is a real delight.

The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
HotCity Theatre
September 13, 2014

Reginald Pierre, John Flack Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Reginald Pierre, John Flack
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

The Normal Heart is an intense play about an intense and important subject.   Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play about the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City is a highly emotional work that is going to seem like a history lesson to a lot of modern theatregoers. To Kramer, who first produced this play in 1985, this was immediate reality.  HotCIty theatre has brought that sense of immediacy and urgency to their production of this intense, highly personal play that serves as a reminder that life is lot more fragile and precious than we sometimes realize, and that all human beings are worthy of respect and dignity. It’s also a needed reminder that the epidemic isn’t over, and much work still needs to be done.

For 2014 audiences, and especially those under 30, it may be difficult to imagine the world before the AIDS epidemic, and especially the early years of discovery and heartbreaking loss.  The Normal Heart takes us into that world firsthand, as Kramer recounts a fictionalized version of his own activist efforts in the early years of the crisis, before AIDS and HIV had names.  The story follows writer Ned Weeks (John Flack) and a small group of gay men in New York City who are increasingly troubled by the spreading of a mysterious disease that is killing many of their friends and being largely ignored by the mainstream media. It also follows Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers), a compassionate doctor and paraplegic polio survivor who is diagnosing case after case of the strange illness and seeing her patients die, leading her on a quest for answers.  Spurred on by Emma’s concern and by the increasing death toll among his circle of friends, Ned encourages his friends Bruce (Reginald Pierre) and Mickey (Tim Schall) to help him start an organization to help raise awareness about the disease and collect money for research. Ned is a firebrand, with a confrontational style and a zeal that often clashes not only with apathetic government officials and the media, but with his friends’ more cautious approach, spurring debates about methods to prevent the spread of the disease that lead into issues of identity and the focus and methods of activism within the gay community.  Meanwhile, Ned also deals with his relationship with his straight, lawyer brother Ben (Greg Johnston), from whom he seeks acceptance and support.  In the midst of all these conflicts, the abrasive Ned is also discovering new love in his developing romance with New York Times fashion reporter Felix (Eric Dean White), who eventually finds himself diagnosed with the disease. As time goes by, the sense of urgency continues to grow as more and more people are affected and Ned finds himself at odds with not only the media and the government, but his own friends.

The structure of this play is more informational in the first act, and more monologue-heavy in the second, as there is a lot to say and many viewpoints to share, and it’s an excellent showcase for actors.  The characters here are fully realized–even those who oppose Ned’s views are given their say with depth and clarity, and Ned’s clear concern for his friends still shines through even in conflict.  Even with its richly drawn supporting characters, Ned is the focal point, so his casting is crucial, and Flack is ideal in the role. He does an excellent job of making Ned believable and sympathetic.  His frustration, zeal and rage are very real, and it’s easy to see how he can be at odds with his friends because of his methods, but his very real sense of mission and purpose is there, too, as is his heart and overwhelming need to do something about the growing crisis.  It’s a remarkable performance, and even more admirable in that Flack is on stage for the vast majority of the play, maintaining his intense energy throughout.  He is well-matched by White as the more mild-mannered, thoughful Felix, who helps to temper Ned’s rage and who finds himself fighting for his own life.  His scenes with Flack are powerful and poignant.  Byers is also outstanding as the tough, determined, but also compassionate and vulnerable Emma. Her slow, quiet breakdown while diagnosing Felix is intensely affecting, as is her appeal for research funding before  an NIH doctor (Stephen Peirick, who plays multiple roles).  Everyone here is excellent, from Pierre as the charismatic but closeted banker Brucee; Schall as the conflicted Mickey, who has a powerful venting monologue in the second act; Johnston as Ben, who struggles to love and fully accept his brother; and Watts as the genial Southerner Tommy, who often plays mediator between Ned, Mickey and Bruce. Peirick and Paul Cereghino also give fine performances in multiple roles as friends, government officials, doctors and hospital orderlies.

Visually, this production is striking in a minimalist fashion.  The scenic design by Sean Savoie is stark and simple, with a monochromatic backdrop and just a few required set pieces, aided by Savoie’s strong lighting and Patrick Burks’s memorable projections. The costumes by JC Krajicek are more timeless than specific, and the motorized wheelchair that Emma uses is a modern one, but that doesn’t really matter. The minimalistic approach with the emphasis on sharp lighting and visual contrast puts the focus on the acting and the story being told, which is the most important thing. Although the show doesn’t look as typically 80’s as it could, the projections and use of period music between scenes helps set the appropriate mood.  The simplicity of the set and staging also helps emphasize the intensity of the drama, and I find it very effective.

This show is going to be seen by people from various generations and walks of life–some more familiar with the early days of the AIDS epidemic than others, but the point is that it’s important to remember, and to know that there’s still work to be done. This issue is not primarily about numbers and political posturing–it’s about life and death, and most importantly, it’s about real people all around the world.   This play takes us back to where it all began in an intense, challenging, and strikingly memorable way.  It’s an important story well-told.

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean
Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With Songs by Grant Olding
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 12, 2014

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One Man, Two Guvnors is funny, plain and simple.  The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has chosen this play to start off their new season, and it has certainly made an impression.  This update of the commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters was an award-winning hit in London and on Broadway, and it’s making its St. Louis debut at the Rep in a bold, colorful, downright hilarious production that’s sure to have audiences laughing out loud.

Taking the basic plot of its earlier source and updating the setting to early 1960’s Brighton, England, One Man, Two Guvnors features a great deal of physical comedy and a convoluted plot that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense if you think about it, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not supposed to be logical–it’s supposed to be funny, and that it certainly is.   With scenes punctuated by a Skiffle band called “The WoolfPak” (Jake Heberlie, Timothy Moore, Matthew Rudolf, Jacob Stergos), the play tells the story of Francis Henshall (Raymond McAnally), an amiable and seemingly always hungry “minder” for small-time gangster Roscoe Crabbe, who has recently died, although Francis doesn’t know that. The “Roscoe” that Francis is working for is really Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel (Keira Keeley), who has disguised herself as her brother in order to avoid detection by the police, since she was a witness to her brother’s accidental killing by her boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Jack Fellowes).  Now Stanley is also on the run in Brighton, unbeknownst to Rachel. Rachel also doesn’t know that Stanley has also hired Francis to work for him while he is in Brighton. She’s also tangled up in a convenience marriage arrangement between her late brother and Pauline Clench (Karis Danish), the ditzy daughter of local gangster Charlie “The Duck” (Anthony Cochrane).  The increasingly complicated plot also involves Pauline’s true love, wannabe actor Alan (Luke Smith); and Charlie’s bookkeeper Dolly (Ruth Pferdehirt), who engages in a flirtation with Francis.  Throw in some comic situations involving trunks, doors, food and a comically bumbling elderly waiter (Evan Zes), and what you get is a non-stop laugh riot that isn’t quite as confusing as it sounds but is always very, very funny.

The casting in a show like this is very important, because it requires performers with excellent timing and strong physical comedy skills, and the Rep has assembled an ideal collection of actors. McAnally and Zes especially stand out with their outrageous slapstick moments, with McAnally at turns tripping over a chair, struggling to lift a large trunk, getting into a fist fight with himself, and more, displaying a great deal of charm and wit along the way. The equally appealing Zes, in comically exaggerated old-age makeup, engages in a series of hilarious pratfalls, especially in a food serving scene in Act 1 that’s the the highlight of this production.  With the doors, the plates, and some fish, this scene is somewhat reminiscent of Noises Off, which the Rep presented in grand fashion earlier this year. Other strong performers include Pfirdehirt as the feisty, snarky Dolly; Danish as the delightfully dim Pauline; Smith as the grandiose Alan; and Keeley and Fellows as the mixed-up lovers Rachel and Stanley. There’s also good supporting work from Cochrane as Charlie, Mel Johnson, Jr. as Charlie’s friend Lloyd, and Aaron Orion Baker in a dual role as a taxi driver and as waiter Gareth.  There’s also some audience participation and some seemingly spontaneous moments of comedy (some improvised, and some only appearing to be improvised).

In addition to the non-stop, outrageous comedy, one thing that this play gets very right is its setting. With a very 60’s-styled set by Scott C. Neale, groovy lighting effects by Kirk Bookman, and appropriately period-specific costumes by David Kay Mickelsen, this show takes the audience to England in the 1960’s with a very authentic-seeming vibe.  The Skiffle band with original 60’s-styled songs is a nice touch, as well, and more moments of comedy are added when, at various times throughout the performance, various characters take turns playing an array of instruments with the band.  The band even starts off the show with a mini-concert that’s made to look like a period TV appearance. All of this atmosphere provides a great backdrop to the increasingly hilarious antics of the characters.

One Man, Two Guvnors may not be the funniest play I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the ballpark.   The audience on opening night was certainly appreciative, but I was surprised that there were a few empty seats, even though it was a good crowd.  A show as inventive and sidesplittingly funny as this deserves to play for packed houses. If you’re wondering whether or not you should see it, take my word for it: you should! It’s a very fun show, and it provides a great start for the Rep’s 2014-2015 season.

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Wayne Loui
Insight Theatre Company
September 11, 2014

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Death of a Salesman is one of the most celebrated works in the history of American theatre. Originally produced in 1949, it has been produced many times over the years and made into several film versions.  Strangely enough, even though I had read the play in high school and watched the 1985 TV movie starring Dustin Hoffman, I had never actually seen the play on stage before seeing this new production at Insight Theatre Company. Even though the production is set in the era in which it was written, it’s a surprisingly timely play with many themes that still resonate as strongly today as they must have 65 years ago.  This production, the closing entry in Insight’s 2014 season, is more than a fitting introduction to this masterpiece of a play. It’s a masterpiece in itself, with stirring performances and a very strong sense of time, place, and message.

Here, John Contini takes on the much-coveted role of Willy Loman, a life-worn traveling salesman at the end of his career.  Although he’s in his 60s and not as physically able as he used to be, Willy insists he’s still on the top of his game, clinging to unrealistic dreams for both himself and his disillusioned son Biff (Matthew Linhart).  Willy also has a devoted, long-suffering wife, Linda (Susie Wall) and a younger son, Happy (Jason Contini) who are concerned for him, but Willy’s hopes and dreams are tied up mostly with Biff, and with grandiose thoughts from his younger life represented by visions of his much older and long gone adventurer brother Ben (Joneal Joplin), who represents opportunity and success for Willy. Exhausted, disillusioned, but still holding onto his unrealistic dreams, Willy has taken to talking to himself and reliving his past, especially his family life in better times with his hero-worshiping sons, not understanding why Biff doesn’t look up to him the way he used to, or why Biff never lived up to the high ideals Willy had for him.  Willy’s family, in turn, worries about him and wonders what to do about Willy’s increasingly self-destructive behavior, while Biff searches to discover his own identity, Happy copes with being mostly ignored by his father, and Linda desperately hopes for peace between her husband and their sons.  Also in the mix are Willy’s successful neighbor Charley (Tom Murray) and his son Bernard (Michael Pierce), who serve as a contrast to Willy as well as an object of jealousy for him, as he wonders why they seem to have a much more fulfilling life.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and it makes a theatre geek and writer like me extremely tempted to write a long, academic essay, but that’s not what reviews are for.  There’s so much here, though, and much of it is still relevant to today, with the ideals of the elusive “American Dream” and the eternal struggle to define “success” and fulfillment in life.  It also deals with common and powerful themes of parental expectations, family responsibilities and personal integrity vs. the urge to get ahead in life.  It’s a great American tragedy, although there are glimmers of hope as well, and much to think about and discuss.  It’s not a philosophical work, though–it’s a consummately structured play, with strong, gripping and memorable dialogue and an expertly crafted plot that builds to a powerful conclusion.  It’s a heavy play, but not without moments of humor, and Insight’s production handles the pacing particularly well.

The cast here is first rate. John Contini makes a strikingly real, unquestionably self-centered but still sympathetic Willy.  His very walk shows his weariness–a shuffling, slightly limping gait that becomes more confident and energetic in the flashbacks to earlier days.  His voice can be whiny or hopeful, and his face lights up noticeably with an almost childlike glee when he’s reflecting on his dreams, and his better times with Biff, making his complete deflation in later scenes all the more poignant.  As Biff, Linhart has the right look of a former promising athlete along with a palpable weariness, confusion, and simmering anger that comes to the surface in a memorable confrontation with Willy in the second act. Jason Contini (son of John) brings a strong combination of ingratiating ambition and underlying disappointment as the more upbeat but ignored son, Happy, and Wall is devastatingly effective as the ever-devoted Linda, standing by her man and showing growing concern as he slowly but surely comes unglued.  Her last speech in the play is astonishingly effective.  There’s also strong work from Joplin as the confident, idealized Ben, Murray as the weary but supportive Charley, Pierce as the studious and eventually successful but compassionate businessman Bernard, and by Taylor Pietz as a woman Willy meets in his travels to Boston.  The entire ensemble is well-cast and on form, adding to the overall mood of of this dynamic  production.

Also adding to the overall drama of this show is its remarkable production values.  The marvelously detailed,  multi-level set, designed by Kim Wilson, caught my attention immediately, and there’s so much depth to it that each time you look, there seems to be more to see. The 1940’s atmosphere is maintained very well through the use of this incredible, richly appointed set with a muted color palette, period furniture and excellent costumes by Tracy Newcomb.  Mark Wilson’s very precise lighting adds much depth to many of the scenes, as well, and a the sparing use of atmospheric music helps set and maintain just the right mood throughout the production.

Even after all the shows I’ve seen, I still feel so privileged to witness such a consummate, immediately affecting production of a much-honored classic of theatre.  This is the kind of show that doesn’t leave me when I leave the theatre. It sits in my brain and makes me ponder and remember the sheer depth of emotion presented on stage. Director Wayne Loui and his cast and crew have done such a remarkable job of bringing a real sense of urgency to this time-honored show.  It’s the undisputed highlight of Insight’s season–a brilliant and memorable piece of theatre not to be missed.

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Stages St. Louis
September 10, 2014

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

Fiddler on the Roof is a much-performed musical theatre classic. In fact, it’s been performed so many times at so many levels (amateur, regional, school, etc.) that it’s the one show I’ve seen the most productions of. And then there’s the film, which I’ve seen several times, and the Original Broadway Cast recording, which I grew up listening to.  Seeing a show that many times is great if you like the show (and I do), but it’s also easy to get complacent and just think “oh, it’s Fiddler” and have to make an extra effort to pay attention during performances unless there’s something great or distinctive enough  to make it stand out. Fortunately, the season closing production at Stages St. Louis is one of those presentations that makes watching an age-old much-seen favorite seem fresh and vibrant enough that I can easily watch it not out of effort or obligation, but out of sheer joy.

The story of this show is well known, recounting the trials, tribulations and traditions of Tevye (Bruce Sabath), a poor Jewish milkman in a small village in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century.  With political tensions rising in the world around his village, and with new customs and ideas gradually entering their previously isolated society, Tevye is forced to consider his own ways and the reasons behind them.  The opening number “Tradition” sets the scene, although gradually and surely, things happen that make Tevye think about his own ideals and what it means to reconcile the old ways and the newer ways.  Primarily, these changes are presented in the courtship stories of Tevye’s daughters. While Tevye and his wife Golde (Kari Ely) have five daughters, the three oldest are of marriageable age, and Yente the matchmaker (Rechel Coloff) is determined to find them husbands, although the daughters have their own ideas that are increasingly challenging to the old system.  First there’s Tzeitel (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who would rather marry her childhood sweetheart Motel the tailor (Nick Orfanella) than the older, wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (Christopher Limber).  Mostly, the stories unfold one at a time, with daughters Hodel (Julie Hanson) and Chava (Carissa Massaro) presenting Tevye with their own, increasingly challenging choices of suitors, and while Tevye deals with what those marriages mean to his own life and his own relationships with his family, his village and his faith, the turmoil in the outside world and the tensions between the Jewish and non-Jewish villagers in his own town gradually simmer and threaten to ultimately boil over.

This is a production that is full of life in all its aspects, portrayed with a great deal of energy and a degree of realism in the performances that sets it apart from some previous productions I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that with this show, there is a tendency among some of the actors to overplay their roles just a little bit, and sometimes a lot in the case of some characters, but it’s refreshing to see that nobody does that it this production.  The characters are all very believable and not over-the-top, led by Sabath as a particularly charming, down-to-earth Tevye.  With a strong stage presence, clear voice, and witty line delivery, his Tevye is a distinctly compassionate, thoughtful man, and his concern for his daughters is very relatable. He works very well with Ely as the dutiful, constantly concerned Golde, who also manages to bring an earthy realism to her role. They are a well-matched pair, bringing energy to their banter throughout the show and real warmth and heart to their sweet duet “Do You Love Me” in the second act.  The daughters and their suitors are also very well-cast, especially Mason as the more practical older daughter, Tzeitel, and the lanky Orfanella as the earnest, sweetly awkward Motel. “Miracle of Miracles” is a delight, as is their wedding, which is also a standout moment for the entire cast.  Especially in the after-wedding dancing–first the famous and still captivating “Bottle Dance”, and then the increasingly palpable joy and energy as the townspeople join in dancing together. For the first time in seeing this show, I felt like I was at a real wedding, and that’s wonderful. It also made the drama to follow all the more poignant.  Other strong performances include those of Coloff as the gossipy Yente and Limber as the butcher Lazar Wolf.  It’s a very strong ensemble, with great dancing all around, especially in the aforementioned wedding and in “To Life”. It’s a smaller ensemble than I’ve seen before in Fiddler, although for the most part, that only serves to make this production more accessible and less obviously “showy”, except for the opening “Tradition” number, which does seem a bit cluttered.

The technical aspects of this show are top-notch, as well, starting with the richly detailed set by James Wolk that evokes the work of painter Marc Chagall–whose painting, “The Fiddler”, inspired the show’s title.  The costumes by Lou Bird are also extremely detailed and appropriate, if possibly a little too “clean” looking for some characters (like the neighborhood beggar).  With strong, atmospheric lighting by Matthew McCarthy and the vibrant Jerome Robbins choreography re-created by Gary John Larosa, this show is as appealing visually as it is dramatically. It’s all unmistakably Fiddler, but given an air of immediacy by director Michael Hamilton and this great cast, with a few new approaches to characterization and staging that give it a distinctive character that allows it to stand out from the crowd of previous productions of this show that I have seen.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show that, when produced well, can be timeless as well as timely. Its themes of family, faith and tradition vs. change are both specific and universal, and it also provides a fascinating perspective on an earlier time and place in history. This production is to be especially commended for its vibrancy and approachability in addition to its excellent production values. It’s a fitting and memorable closer to Stages’s excellent 2014 season.

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely  Photo by Peter Wochniak Stages St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls
Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
September 6th, 2014

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Welcome to Armadillo Acres!  In their latest offering at their location in Chesterfield Mall, Dramatic License is hosting this over-the-top tribute to life in a Florida trailer park, complete with all the characters one might expect, and few real surprises. Still, while this show may not be for all tastes, it certainly draws a large, enthusiastic audience.  With a great, highly energetic cast and strong production values, this show manages to entertain despite any shortcomings in the script.

The story takes us to Stark, Florida, where the Armadillo Acres trailer park is populated by a range of colorful, if somewhat stereotypical, characters. There’s a Greek Chorus of sorts, consisting of the park’s owner Betty (Kim Furlow); perky teenager Pickles (Stephanie Benware), who may or may not be pregnant; and the brash Linoleum (Stephanie Merritt), whose convict husband is on Florida’s Death Row.  These three serve as our tour guides throughout the play, directly addressing the audience and occasionally playing a variety of other characters as the scenes require.  The main plot revolves around the troubled marriage of the agoraphobic Jeannie (Jamie Lynn Eros), and her husband Norbert (Jeffrey Pruett), a toll collector who is increasingly frustrated at Jeannie’s inability to leave the trailer (she’s been in there for 20 years).  When feisty stripper Pippi (Leah Stewart) moves into town, a smitten Norbert is torn between his sweet but anxious wife and the available new neighbor. But wait–maybe Pippi isn’t so available after all, as her enraged, glue and marker-sniffing ex-boyfriend Duke (Luke Steingruby) is determined to win her back or else. In the course of the plot, loyalties are tested, secrets are revealed and many, many jokes are told.

I have to admit this is not really my type of show, but in the hands of the excellent cast members who all seem to be having a wonderful time, I often found myself laughing along with the packed audience. There are certainly problems with the script, some of the jokes go just a little too far in their outrageousness, and it’s not always clear whether this parody is affectionate or belittling. The plot is also fairly predictable, and one very big revelation toward the end of the play is telegraphed in the first few minutes.  The music is very energetic, though, with a great little band and the strong voices of the talented cast, and some clever lyrics (such as “make like a nail an press on”).  Most of the music is country-styled, but there is one hilarious foray into disco at the end of Act One that is among the highlights of this production, as well as showing off the great costuming by Lisa Hazelhorst, energetic choreography by Zachary Stefaniak, and Max Parrilla’s wonderful lighting effects.  There’s also a very colorful, atmospheric set designed by Kyra Bishop that enhances the overall energy of the production.

The real highlight of this show is its wonderful cast.  Most of the characters here are very broadly portrayed and don’t seem to have much depth, although the performers seem to be having a lot of fun, and manage to bring some substance when there isn’t much in the script.  Furlow, Benware and Merritt make excellent guides through the proceedings, with lots of charm and energy, and there’s also a fun comic performance by Steingruby as the deranged and determined Duke.  Pruett has a difficult role as the vacillating Norbert, although he manages to find some sympathy for the character, and he has good chemistry with his two rival leading ladies.  The real standouts here, though, are Eros as the anxious but earnest Jeannie, and Leah Stewart as the new neighbor, Pippi. Eros gives a thoroughly winning performance, displaying a lot of guts and a strong voice, making the audience cheer her on in her efforts to overcome her agoraphobia and sympathize with her as she deals with the challenges to her marriage. While Jeannie is definitely the character with the most depth in this show, Stewart manages to find a lot of substance to her role as the conflicted “other woman”, and she also has a great big voice that she shows off to great effect throughout the show. There’s also a very strong finale in which all of the cast members get to show off their voices as all of the plot’s loose ends are tied up in various hilariously improbable ways.

Ultimately, a show like this is about entertainment. Even though it does have its issues plot and script-wise, it certainly does succeed in being entertaining. Some people will like it more than others, but I’d be surprised if anyone would be able to see this show and not laugh at least a little. Thanks to the great cast that Dramatic License and director Alan Knoll have assembled, this show manages to succeed in eliciting an uproarious response from its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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