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Hairspray
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges and Jessica Hartman
The Muny
June 23, 2015

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Bryan Batt, Ryann Redmond, CHarlotte Maltby
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Welcome to Tracy Turnblad’s Baltimore! Hairspray, the second production in the Muny’s 2015 summer season, has been brought to life with style and humor on stage in Forest Park. With a strong cast and stylish, evocative production values, this is a fun show with an important message and lots of heart.

Based on John Waters’ original 1988 film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy (Ryann Redmond), a perky teenager in 1962 Baltimore. Tracy’s immediate ambition is to dance on a local hit TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which she watches every day after school with her geeky best friend Penny Pingleton (Charlotte Maltby)  She lives with her loving goofball father Wilbur (Lara Teeter), who runs a joke shop, and her reclusive seamstress mother, Edna (Bryan Batt) who, like Tracy, is overweight but lacks Tracy’s self-confidence. When Tracy gets a chance to audition for the show, her ambition is initially thwarted by the show’s villainous producer, Velma Von Tussle (Heather Ayers), whose aim to to further the celebrity chances of her selfish daughter Amber (Taylor Louderman), who’s popular on the show but isn’t a great dancer. Tracy is also attracted to the show’s teen heartthrob, Link Larkin (John Battagliese), who is ostensibly dating Amber.  When Tracy is sent to detention at school, however, she gains a new reason for getting on the show. She meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Gerald Caesar), a talented African-American dancer who features once a month on the show’s “Negro Day”, which is hosted by his mother,  Motormoth Maybelle (Liz Mikel), who owns a local record store. After befriending Seaweed and his family and friends, Tracy makes it her goal to integrate the Corny Collins Show so all the dancers, black and white, can dance together. Meanwhile, her mother Edna is brought along on her own journey to regain her sense of self-worth, supporting her daughter’s cause. Along the way, romantic entanglements, trouble with the law, and the schemes of the self-serving Von Tussles complicate the proceedings.

I haven’t seen the original film, but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to enjoy this immensely entertaining show. Tracy is an extremely likable character, as are her family and friends. The villains are a bit cartoonish, but that’s kind of the style of this show. It’s a show that sheds light on some of the more unsavory aspects of this country’s history, with a message that is still relevant today, but the overall emphasis is on hope, as Tracy and her friends fight for the cause of integrating the show and don’t back down. Everything is big, bright and full of energy, and although the story and its ultimate conclusion are fairly predictable, the show communicates its message of acceptance with heart, infectious energy, and the great 60’s styled songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with modern musical theatre classics such as “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome to the 60s”, “I Can Hear the Bells” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.

The Muny’s production has assembled an excellent cast to tell this story. Redmond, as Tracy, has just the right amount of bubbly energy and charm, along with a strong singing voice and good dance ability. She’s thoroughly believable as a dreamer who goes after her dreams, bringing her family and friends along on her mission. Equally engaging is Batt, best known from TV’s Mad Men, as Tracy’s mother, Edna. He admirably doesn’t overplay the role, but brings verve, substance and heart to Edna and displaying excellent on stage chemistry with both Redmond as Tracy and Teeter as the sweetly goofy Wilbur. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet highlight of the show. There’s also excellent support from Maltby, a scene-stealer as the quirky Penny, and Caesar as the charming Seaweed, who is a terrific dancer. Mikel as Motormouth Maybelle also turns in a memorable performance, particularly in the second act delivering the powerful song “I Know Where I’ve Been”, and young Kennedy Holmes is delightful as Seaweed’s little sister and fellow dancer, Little Inez. Battagliese gives an amiable performance as Link, as well,  the show’s villains, Ayers and Louderman, are appropriately villainous, and Christopher J. Hanke is suitably suave as TV host Collins.

 Visually, this show is a nostalgic treat. With a vibrant color scheme of bright pinks, bold greens, oranges, and blues, costume designer Leon Dobkowski (basing his designs on the orginals by William Ivey Long) has brought an appealing 60s atmosphere to the show, featuring some eye-catching outfits for the dancers, Tracy and Edna particularly. Robert Mark Morgan’s set is whimsical and evocative, featuring a giant TV set as the centerpiece, and live video (designed by Matthew Young) during the Collins Show segments. It’s a stylish, visually pleasing production that reflects the energy of the show itself.

 Although I had seen the 2007 filmed version of the musical, I had never seen Hairspray on stage before. I think the Muny’s production is an ideal introduction to the show. Tracy Turnblad is a young girl with a dream and with aspirations to change the world, starting with Baltimore. The Muny has brought us into Tracy’s world with humor, drama, music and style.

 

 

Cast of Hairspray Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Hairspray
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny 

 Hairspray runs at the Muny until June 30th, 2015.

My Fair Lady
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Muny
June 15, 2015

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Anthony Andrews, Peggy Billo, Alexandra Silber, Paxton Whitehead
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady is an iconic musical. It’s often considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, and as such has been revived many times since its Broadway debut in 1956. The problem that comes with a show as well-known as this one, though, is that it’s been performed so many times that it’s easy for productions to appear dated or just to lose that sense of “newness” and energy that’s important in any production. Fortunately, the Muny’s 2015 season debut production does not suffer from that problem. In fact, the Muny has brought to the stage a My Fair Lady that has all the verve and vibrancy of a new production while still honoring the classic spirit of this timeless musical.

The story is familiar–a less cynical, musical take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in which curmudgeonly linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Anthony Andrews) encounters Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Alexandra Silber) and bets his new friend, fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead) that he can turn Eliza into a well-spoken lady and pass her off as such at an upcoming grand ball.  Along the way, Eliza learns how to assert her own independence as she deals with Higgins, Pickering, her opportunistic father Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael McCormick) and some of the upper class people she meets, such as Higgins’s mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) and an eager and somewhat silly new suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Matthew Scott).  All the familiar songs are here, as well, from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “On the Street Where You Live”, “Get Me to the Church On Time”, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and more.

The battle of wits between Higgins and Eliza is, as usual, the main attraction in this production, and it is impeccably played out by the marvelous Andrews and Silber. Andrews plays a Higgins who’s stubbornness is apparent, although there is just enough vulnerability and charm to make his story believable, and by the time he gets to the perfectly played  “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” it’s clear that, although he’s still the same guy, he’s been changed just a little bit for the better. Silber plays a tough, gutsy Eliza whose transformation from flower girl to lady is thoroughly convincing. Unlike some other Elizas I’ve seen, the transformation is played more as an empowerment, and it’s very clear that, although her speech and manners are altered, she’s still recognizably the same person by the end of the play–just wiser and more mature. She also has a strong, clear soprano and strong presence especially on “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Show Me” and “Without You”.  These two are a formidable duo, with convincing combative chemistry, and their notable confrontation scenes in Act 2 (in Higgins’s parlor and later, at his mother’s house) are ideally played.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, as well. Whitehead is an ideal Pickering, with an amiable personality and excellent comic timing. McCormick, in a role that’s easy to overplay as Doolittle, strikes just the right balance between reality and caricature, bringing spark and life to “A Little Bit of Luck”, “Get Me to the Church on Time” and his scenes with Eliza.  Scott is a find as Freddy–probably the best Freddy I’ve ever seen, in being able to effectively portray a slightly foolish lovestruck young man with just the right amount of charm that doesn’t go over the top to cloying or annoying. His “On the Street Where You Live” is a soaring highlight of the show. There are also strong performances from Peggy Billo as Higgins’s no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as Higgins’s strong-willed but fair-minded mother. There’s also a very strong ensemble, supporting the main cast well and displaying much energy and skill in production numbers like the magnificent “Ascot Gavotte” and the delightfully choreographed (by Chris Bailey) “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Vocally, everyone’s in good form, achieving a sound that’s recognizably 50’s influenced but also suitably fresh and vibrant.

Visually, the huge Muny stage is used to excellent effect. As with the performances, noting is over or underdone. The design elements–from Timothy R. Mackabee’s simple but stylish set to Amy Clark’s wonderfully colorful and detailed costumes–strike just the right balance of grandiosity and realism. There’s also excellent lighting work from designer John Lasiter. The only real issue on opening night was sound, with some mics not working properly and a few lines being missed, although I expect that will be dealt with as the show continues its run.

My Fair Lady is an excellent celebration of tradition as well as a prime example of the excellence brought to the company by Executive Director Mike Isaacson.  With energy, style and ideal casting, this show presents the best of what the Muny has to offer. It’s a grand introduction to the 2015 season, and I look forward to seeing what else the Muny has in store this summer.

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Michael McCormick (center) and the cast of My Fair Lady
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

My Fair Lady runs at the Muny in Forest Park until June 21, 2015.

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
June 4, 2015

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird Photo John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird
Photo John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

I’ll start out with my own fairly obvious confession–I am a Peanuts geek. My online nickname “Snoop” (and hence, the title of this blog) comes from Snoopy. I’ve been a fan of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip for as long as I’ve been able to read. Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme is the ringtone on my phone. I love this comic strip, and the TV specials and movies based on it. Going to see Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, I already knew that what I was going to see was not an authorized work. Still, although I sort of knew what to expect (I had read a synopsis of the play), I wasn’t prepared for the jumbled mess of a play that I actually saw. Although Stray Dog’s production values are good and the cast members perform their parts well, this show ultimately comes across as confused at best, and mean-spirited at worst.

Imagining the comic strip characters as teenagers, the story opens as CB (Michael Baird), the Charlie Brown figure, is writing a letter to his pen pal about the recent death of his dog, who apparently got rabies and killed his friend, the little yellow bird. Yes. it looks like Snoopy went rabid and ate Woodstock. After this unpromising, shock-value start, the play does actually get more interesting when CB’s Sister (Sierra Buffum) arrives for the makeshift backyard funeral and they start to talk about life, their identities and their departed dog.  Apparently none of their friends want to come mourn with them, even though CB is now inexplicably one of the “popular kids”, along with Matt (Brendan Ochs)–a selfish, germaphobic jock who hates when anyone calls him “Pigpen”. There’s also Van (Ryan Wiechmann), a sex-obsessed stoner who apparently is supposed to be Linus, and the play’s Peppermint Patty and Marcie stand-ins, Tricia (Sara Rae Womack) and Marcy (Eileen Engel), who have been transformed over the years into a pair of vacuous mean girls.  Everyone’s ostracized their former friend Beethoven (Chris Tipp), based on Schroeder–a sensitive musician who’s constantly bullied for being gay. And what of Lucy, you may ask? She’s here, too, in something of a cameo appearance in the form of Van’s Sister (Maria Bartolotta), who’s got her own unique and shocking reason for not being around all the time. The story covers a lot of ground, from identity and mortality issues to sexuality to teenage angst to fumbling romances to self-expression and more. It starts out with some promising and sometimes excellent moments before descending into confusion and cliche.

I’m not someone who will simply dismiss something out of hand just because it’s a parody of something I love. There are affectionate parodies, sarcastic parodies, and scathing critiques, and all of these can be done well. There are also  parodies of popular works that succeed extremely well in which family friendly source material is used as inspiration for something considerably un-family friendly (like the excellent and hilarious musical Avenue Q, for instance). This show’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to know what kind of parody it wants to be. Sometimes it seems to want to be affectionate, but most of the time it relies on shock value to tell its story. Also, very few of the characters make any logical sense as teenage versions of the kids they supposedly used to be. The only major exception to this is CB’s Sister, a philosophical, ever-exploring artsy kid who seems to have a new identity every week in what is a near-perfect realization of an older Sally. Beethoven, the Schroeder character, is the next most believable, although the playwright has given him a tragic backstory that’s dealt with in a superficial way that makes it seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought for added shock value. Otherwise, I have a lot of trouble imagining any of these characters as who they are purported to be. It’s as if playwright Bert V. Royal had in mind the kind of story he wanted to tell and the character types he wanted to populate it with, and then shoehorned the Peanuts characters into that vision. There are some funny moments, and one brilliant one in which the outstanding Buffum (the star of the show, in my opinion) performs a monologue about a platypus.  Otherwise, it’s just a collection of teen movie stock themes that have been handled much better elsewhere, knit together into something vaguely resembling the Peanuts format, only shallowly dealing with some potentially weighty issues and leading up to an overblown conclusion that’s supposed to be poignant but ultimately comes across as artificial.

Even though the play itself isn’t great, the production is good. Rob Lippert’s set is colorful and appropriately evocative of a slightly twisted version of the Peanuts world, and Eileen Engel’s costumes suggest the characters with their color schemes without exactly recreating the iconic costumes (until a key moment late in the play). There’s also good lighting work by Tyler Duenow, and the staging is interesting, for the most part.

This production’s biggest strength, though, is its cast, and particularly the marvelous Buffum in a scene-stealing performance as CB’s Sister, and Tipp, who brings a likeable, neurotic energy to the long-suffering Beethoven.  He has some good, intriguing scenes with Baird’s CB, although Baird’s performance ranges from sympathetic to over-the-top (at the end). Engel and Womack make an amusing team as Tricia and Marcy, and Bartolotta is memorable in her key scene as Van’s Sister.  Wiechmann is reasonably personable as Van, but he isn’t given a lot to do beyond smoking pot and leering at CB’s Sister, and Ochs does a decent job with a rather generic bully role as Matt.

Peanuts is a work that’s often regarded as simple and innocent, although there are layers of depth that are rather profound, and it says a great deal about the world around us. Even though its characters are children, Schulz was brilliant at telling stories that adults could relate to as well as kids, if not more so. The biggest problem with Dog Sees God is that it doesn’t either skewer the source material or honor it very well. All it does is come across as a shallow mockery. I know it’s a very popular play lately and it’s won several awards, but I have a great deal of trouble seeing why. Although Stray Dog’s production is very well staged and performed, the show itself leaves me cold. To borrow an expression from Good Ol’ Charlie Brown–AAUGH!

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until June 20, 2015

Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 3, 2015

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

There’s no denying that Smokey Joe’s Cafe, the opening production of STAGES’s 2015 season, is a crowd pleaser. It contains some great classic songs that are performed well, with some colorful costumes and polished production values, and the audience on opening night was appreciative. What is confusing, though, is exactly what else it is. It’s not a musical, and it would even be generous to call it a revue.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a staged concert. It’s a well-done staged concert, though, and it’s certainly entertaining.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe is essentially a showcase for the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, who wrote many popular hits of the 50s, 60s and 70s,  including “On Broadway’, “I’m a Woman”, “Stand By Me” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  The nine performers (Josh A. Dawson, Kent Overshown, J. Nycole Ralph, Richard Crandle, Keisha Gilles, Emily Afton, Bronwyn Tarboton, Brent Michael Diroma, and Jason Samuel) sing the songs in various settings, taking turns with featured solos. The set, designed by James Wolk, is colorful but fairly basic, changing around a little bit to suggest a neighborhood street, a cafe, etc. There are also extremely colorful, well-appointed costumes by Brad Musgrove that augment the various song settings and add to the overall atmosphere of the show.

I have to admit I don’t “get” shows like this, really. This strikes me as something of an extended theme park show, no matter how well-produced it is, and at STAGES, it is well-produced, with a very good cast. The songs are great, of course, but there’s no story or even really much of a theme. The performers are given names for their characters, but that doesn’t really matter because they’re never mentioned in the show and there’s no plot. It’s just song after song without much of a connection between them, and the settings of the individual songs are fairly arbitrary. Some settings are clever–like the end of Act 1 and the combination of “D.W. Washburn” and “Saved”, which is the absolute highlight of the show, with a fun comic performance from Crandle and the soaring voice and energetic presence of Gilles, who has my vote for MVP of this production. Many of the other settings, however, are fairly interchangeable, and some of the performances can be lackluster (such on the distinctly underwhelming “Jailhouse Rock” sequence that borrows from the film but lacks its energy). Overall, though, the cast does a fine job singing and dancing the songs well.

I realize that not all shows have to be deep or profound, but something like this barely qualifies as theatre. It’s a concert, plain and simple, no matter how well done. STAGES has done an excellent job with the material, but with their resources, I think they could be spending them on better shows. For an evening of light entertainment, though, I suppose Smokey Joe’s Cafe works.

Cast of Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, presented by STAGES St. Louis, runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 28, 2015

The Pillowman
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Ryan Foizey
Theatre Lab
May 30, 2015

Eric Dean White, Darian Michael Garey, Jason C. Klefisch Photo by John Lamb Theatre Lab

Eric Dean White, Darian Michael Garey, Jason C. Klefisch
Photo by John Lamb
Theatre Lab

The Pillowman is a work that’s at once profoundly disturbing and intensely thought-provoking. It’s a challenging concept that’s constructed in a distinctive and at times fantastical style, with many ideas that are sure to provoke much thought and discussion. It’s also being presented in a thoroughly riveting production by Theatre Lab.

The story of the play is kind of fantastical but realistic. It’s set in an unnamed totalitarian state, although the detectives presented don’t seem a lot different from those seen on US television shows.  As the show opens, we are introduced to Katurian Katurian (Jason C. Klefisch), a writer whose day job is in a slaughterhouse because he’s only ever had one story published. He’s been brought in for questioning by two detectives–the seemingly level-headed Tupolski (Eric Dean White) and the more hot-tempered Ariel (Darian Michael Garey). After at first being vague about why Takurian has been brought in, the detectives eventually start drawing attention to Katarian’s short stories and their often violent and disturbing subject matter. The resemblance between a few of the stories and the circumstances surrounding some recent murders of children has caused the detectives to strongly suspect Katurian’s involvement, and also that of his mentally challenged older brother Michal (Nick Kelly), who is initially being held in a nearby room.  There isn’t much I can say beyond this point that isn’t a plot spoiler, but suffice it to say that things get complicated, and the characters aren’t always as they seem. We also get to hear and see some of Katurian’s stories through the use of projections and some striking illustrations by Aaron Allen.  It’s a show that explores many concepts, including parental responsibility, sibling relationships, a writer’s relationship to his own work and his responsibility to his audience, as well as issues of freedom of speech and the roles of police and controlling governments.

There’s a whole lot going on in this play, and the emotional stakes are very high. The tension builds at a rapid and masterful pace, through the use of the sharply written script that makes great use of repetition and recurring themes, as well as Ryan Foizey’s strong direction and the brilliantly simple set by Rob Lippert that suggests a building that was once whole, but has been neglected and has been taken over by decay. The whole atmosphere of this play is well maintained from the outset, and the creepy tone of the stories becomes more and more disturbing, although there is are occasional breaks in the bleakness in the tone of the least violent story, “The Little Green Pig”, that provides a measure of hope.  We are introduced gradually to the rather violent background of the Katurian brothers as well as the detectives who are questioning them, and we are left to think and wonder what kind of world this is that they live in, and how different, really, is that world from our own?

The acting is excellent all around, led by Klefisch in a fearless performance as Katurian. As a writer whose first and ultimate love is writing, he also displays a real responsibility and attachment to his brother–a looming, alternately menacing and sympathetic presence as played terrifically by Kelly. Klefisch is the dominating force of the play, however, with his quirky mannerisms and his determined devotion. There’s strong support from White as the initially even-keeled but increasingly threatening Tupolski, and Garey as the quick-tempered Ariel, about whom there is more than it initially appears.   There’s a strong dynamic between all of the players, with Klefisch and Kelly displaying strong chemistry as brothers, and the dynamics of the scenes with Klefisch and the detectives bringing much compelling and challenging drama.

This isn’t a happy play, but I wouldn’t say it’s entirely without hope.  It’s challenging to both the mind and the senses, and audience members may, as I did, find themselves wanting to go home and watch something more upbeat after the play is over.  Still, it’s more than worth the emotional energy spent, and I highly recommend taking a trip to the Gaslight Theatre to witness this dark, thougtful, unrelenting and thoroughly compelling drama.

Jason C. Klefisch, Nick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Theatre Lab

Jason C. Klefisch, Nick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb
Theatre Lab

Theatre Lab is presenting The Pillowman at the Gaslight Theatre until June 7, 2015

The Threepenny Opera
Music by Kurt Weill, Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
English Adaptation by Marc Blitzstein
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
May 29, 2015

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is a contradiction in several ways. It’s simultaneously comedic and bleak, energetic and gloomy. It’s a story without any real heroes, but where some villains are more villainous than others. It’s a classic that I’d never seen before, and New Line’s latest production has proven to be a memorable introduction.

This is a show that has elements of both broad comedy and tragedy, and although the characters are often larger than life, there are no real “good guys” or “bad guys”.  Basically, everyone is a “bad guy” in one way or another, and that’s essentially the point.  Set in Victorian London, the story follows a cast of unscrupulous characters who spend the show trying to outwit, dominate or enthrall other characters.  In the show’s intro–and by far its most famous song–we are introduced to the notorious criminal Macheath (Todd Schaefer), also known as “Mack the Knife.” He’s a notorious bandit, but he basically owns London, including the police commissioner, Tiger Brown (Christopher “Zany” Clark), who worships Macheath with a kind of puppy-like devotion. And then there’s Mr. Peachum (Zachary Allen Farmer), who operates something of an employment agency for beggars, and his scheming wife Mrs. Peachum (Sarah Porter).  Their latest problem is that their daughter Polly (Cherlynn Alvarez) has become romantically attached to Macheath and is set to marry him, despite the badly kept secret that he’s involved with many other women all over town, including Tiger Brown’s daughter, Lucy (Christina Rios), and local madam Jenny Diver (Nikki Glenn). That’s just part of the story, though, as subplots unfold involving the Queen’s coronation and a plot to have Macheath caught and hanged for his crimes. It’s a social critique and a dark comedy, with a memorable jazz-influenced score and a well-established sense of time and place.

Speaking of time and place, there is one aspect of New Line’s production that is worth noting. Although the story is set in London, the entire cast performs in American accents as, director Miller has informed me, was the intention of the original off-Broadway production for which this translation was produced. Otherwise, the setting is suitably in period, with Rob Lippert’s evocatively detailed set and Sarah Porter’s meticulously appointed costumes that add flair to each character.  There’s also striking use of lighting by Kenneth Zinkl, and as usual, an excellent band led by Music Director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The cast here is excellent, for the most part. The unquestioned stars of the show, from my perspective, are Farmer and Porter as the Peachums. Both ooze an oily villainy with enough presence to make them fascinating despite their complete amorality, and both are in strong voice. Farmer is especially memorable in his introduction “Morning Anthem” and his numbers with Porter and with Alvarez as their daughter Polly. Porter’s “Ballad of Dependency” is another highlight. These two completely command the stage whenever they appear. As Macheath, Schaefer is suitably menacing when he needs to be, although he can be a little overly laid-back at times. Alvarez has a strong voice as Polly, and is particularly adept at screaming when she needs to.  Other memorable performances come from Glenn as a particularly surly Jenny, and Rios as the jealous Lucy. She shows off a strong voice in her solo on “Barbara Song” and her “Jealousy Duet” with Alvarez. Brian Claussen, Kent Coffel, Todd Micali and Luke Steingruby are effectively comical as Macheath’s gang, as well. There’s also good presence and attitude from Kimi Short, Margeau Steineau and Larissa White as the girls at Jenny’s establishment. Jeremy Hyatt is also funny in a small but memorable role as would-be professional beggar Charles Filch. As usual for New Line, the ensemble singing is very strong, and there’s a great deal of energy and cohesiveness throughout.

The Threepenny Opera is a classic piece of theatre from a celebrated playwright and with a renowned score. It’s influenced a great many other works, as noted by director Scott Miller in the program.  It’s easy to see that influence in New Line’s production, which brings the show to the St. Louis audience in a vivid and highly accessible way.  It presents a message that’s particularly dark when you think about it, about how an unregulated capitalist system can bring about pervasive corruption, and it’s all presented in an entertaining and largely upbeat manner. It can be jarring to think about, but you just might find yourself humming “Mack the Knife” as you ponder.

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is being presented by New Line Theatre at the Washington University South Campus Theatre until June 20, 2015.

Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Donahue
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 22, 2015

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis 

It’s one of my favorite times of the year in St. Louis again.  That’s the time for free Shakespeare in Forest Park, where top-notch local and national performers and technicians put on a production in front of thousands in the green fields of Shakespeare Glen, brought to us by the excellent team behind Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the set looks like an abstract art piece, the costumes are richly detailed, the the performances strong and memorable as the the Festival takes on the Bard’s historical tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

I had read  Antony and Cleopatra back in college and had seen the old BBC filmed version of it, but it had been a long time since I last saw this play. It’s somewhat surprising seeing it after all this time, as the story plays out as a bit of a melodrama, and, at least in this production, the leads come across as a pair of self-obsessed, hyper-hormonal teenagers.  They’re both obviously older than that, but this has an air of “high school” about it, as Marc Antony (Jay Stratton) petulantly defies his fellow Roman leaders Octavius (Charles Pasternak) and Lepidus (Gary Glasgow) so he can hang out in Egypt with his paramour Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Cleopatra then gets jealous when Antony’s wife dies and he has to go back to Rome and make a political marriage with Octavius’s sister, Octavia (Raina K. Houston). Cleopatra is entertained at her own court by her handmaidens Charmian (Kari Ely) and Ira (also Houston), and the droll eunuch Mardian (Alan Knoll), while Antony gets involved in a sea battle that Cleopatra’s navy runs (or sails) away from. Then Antony gets mad at Cleopatra, but they kiss and make up.  Then there’s more intrigue involving Antony’s various followers and another failed sea battle, whereupon the tragedy happens, involving botched suicide attempts, swords and the infamous poisonous snakes and one of my favorite Shakespearean stage directions (Cleopatra “applies an asp”).

This show plays out as much lighter than I had remembered, with a few strong dramatic elements to keep it grounded.  The cast here, made up of some excellent out-of-town and local performers, is mostly first-rate.  Babb–as the vain  and impetuous Cleopatra–and Pasternak–as the more mature, imperially commanding Octavius–are the biggest standouts.  Both possess the regal bearing, strong stage presence and rich, resonant voices required for their roles, and they play them with style and substance.  Babb’s best moments are with Ely and Houston as her handmaidens, and her chemistry with Stratton’s indecisive Antony is good.  Pasternak, who was so dynamic as Hotspur in last year’s Henry IV, makes a memorable return here as the very much in control Octavius. There are also memorable performances from Ely as the loyal Charmian, Conan McCarty as Antony’s conflicted follower Enobarbus, Houston as both Iras and Octavia, and Knoll as Mardian. It’s a well-cast ensemble all around, with a great deal of energy and command of Shakespeare’s language.

Technically, this show is top-notch as well. The set, designed by Scott C. Neale,  is more modern in style, with an abstract suggestion of ancient classical columns coated in shiny, iridescent gold foil. The richly appointed costumes by Dottie Marshall Inglis are more literally classical, with some modern touches like trousers and boots for Cleopatra in her war scenes. The colors–rich reds, purples and blues, along with the ubiquitous gold trim–are vibrant and fittingly regal. There’s also striking lighting from John Wylie and Rusty Wandall’s crisp, clear sound design that helps to make the play approachable in its outdoor setting. The play also features an excellent use of atmospheric music by composer Greg Mackender, and some memorable special effects involving water cannons that drew applause from the audience.

One of the many great things about Shakespeare is that his plays can be easily set in all sorts of different ways, both classical and modern. With this production of Antony and Cleopatra, SFSTL has brought St. Louis audiences the best of both of those worlds.  It’s a classical drama with some modern sensibilities and and strong sense of style. It’s educational and thoroughly entertaining.

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Antony and Cleopatra is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park until June 14, 2015.

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