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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Moramarco and Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 18, 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. It’s also one that seems to lend itself particularly well to modern-dress variations. It’s been done in various historical and contemporary settings with relative seamlessness. St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production is set in the late 1940s, and the consistence of theming is this version’s greatest strength.

In this version of Shakespeare’s classic “battle of wits” tale, the action takes place at an Italian villa circa 1948. Army officer Pedro (Stefan Ruprecht) and his comrades-in-arms Benedick (Phil Leveling) and Claudio (Michael Pierce), along with his disgruntled brother John (Wininger) are decked out in World War II-era uniforms.  Beatrice (Ariel Roukaerts), Hero (Ashley Bauman) and their friends at the villa speak with light Italian accents here, as do  the bumbling policeman Dogberry (James Enstall) and his assistant Verges (Nathaniel Carlson).  This production borrows a page from the Joss Whedon film in making one of John’s cronies, Conrade (Angela Bubash), female and romantically involved with the scheming John, who wants nothing more than to frustrate the plans of his brother and his companions. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick conduct their “merry war” while Pedro and friends hatch a plan to trick the quarreling pair into falling in love, and Claudio woos Hero with some interference from the scheming John.  It’s the usual mixture of romantic comedy with moments of drama, all with a backdrop of  1940’s-era music.

This is a production not without faults, but what it does well, it does very well.  The sense of time and place is well realized with the Big Band soundtrack, the simple set by Kyra Bishop, and especially Felia Davenport’s great era-specific costumes, from the Army uniforms to the colorful 40’s style dresses. There were some noticeable problems with the lighting on the night I saw the show, especially with a relatively long blackout in the middle of a scene that the actors admirably kept talking through.  There was another shorter blackout near the end of the show, and I’m assuming these issues will be worked out as the run continues.  Even with these little glitches, though, the technical elements of the show and overall atmosphere are among the highlights of this production.

In terms of the cast, this production deserves credit for great casting of the show’s most difficult role, John.  Wininger, with his strong stage presence and weaselly voice and mannerisms, commands the stage and controls the action every time he appears.   It’s an impressive performance in a mostly engaging but somewhat uneven cast. Leveling is a more laid-back Benedick than I’ve seen before, with Roukaerts a fiery Beatrice, and their scenes together are never boring, although their romantic chemistry is more “cute” than electric. Pierce is engaging as Claudio, although he is more convincing in his scenes of strong emotion–especially anger–than in his earlier scenes.. Bauman is fine as Hero, and Bubash comes across very well in her small-ish role as Conrade.  Enstall and Carlson have some funny moments  in their roles as the bumbling Dogberry and Verges, with their scenes providing some of the comic highlights of the show. There’s a lack of energy from some of the other cast members, although overall, this is a competent cast with a few real standouts.

The story of Much Ado About Nothing is full of romance, charm, and comedy with a few moments of drama and darkness, and different versions highlight different aspects of the story.  This production has a bit more of a relaxed tone than I’ve seen before, and although there are some obvious flaws, it’s worth seeing. Especially with the 1940’s style and atmosphere, along with some amiable leading performances and a top-notch villain, St. Louis Shakespeare has crafted a well-themed, entertaining production.

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 17, 2014

Jeffrey Omura, Gracyn Mix, Caroline Amos, Andy Rindlisbach Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeffrey Omura, Gracyn Mix, Caroline Amos, Andy Rindlisbach
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the most whimsical of Shakespeare’s works, as well as among the more accessible to those less familiar with Shakespeare. I sometimes think of it as “entry level Shakespeare” as a reflection of its accessibility.  It’s frequently performed at all levels–from schools to community theatres to professional companies–all around the world. Strong production values can add a lot of sumptuous detail to this play, and in the latest production at the Rep, the technical details are the forefront in a bright, well-choreographed presentation that emphasizes physical comedy and a lighthearted spirit.

The story here is relatively simple at first, but things quickly get more convoluted. As Athenian Duke Theseus (Alvin Keith) prepares to marry Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Rebecca Watson), nobleman Egeus (Jerry Vogel) is trying to marry off his daughter Hermia (Caroline Amos) to the devoted Demetreus (Andy Rindlisbach), although Hermia doesn’t  love him and would rather marry Lysander (Jeffery Omura). Hermia’s friend Helena (Gracyn Mix) loves Demetrius, but he only has eyes for Hermia.  Meanwhile, a troupe of craftsmen get together to stage a play, led by carpenter Peter Quince (Bob Walton) and weaver Nick Bottom (Michael James Reed). These groups of would-be lovers and would-be actors who wander into the forest and unwittingly get mixed up in the schemes of the woodland fairies who inhabit it, led by King Oberon (also Keith), who has a grudge against Queen Titania (also Watson). Oberon enlists the sprightly Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck (Jim Poulous) to play tricks on Titania and the unsuspecting mortals.  These schemes lead to a host of complications including bizarre transformations, misplaced affections, and much confusion as the many plots intersect and work toward their conclusion.

Although there is some doubling of roles, this is one of the largest casts I’ve seen at the Rep. Led by the strong performances of local talents like Reed, who is delightful in a somewhat rare comic role as Bottom, and Webster University student Amos, who brings a fiercely determined quality to Hermia, this is an excellent ensemble. Other standouts include Mix as the self-conscious Helena, Poulos as the engagingly mischievous Puck, Keith and Watson as the sparring Oberon and Titania, Omura and Rindlisbach as the bewildered suitors Lysander and Demetrius, and Walton as the charmingly dedicated leader of the acting troupe, Quince.  There’s some great work from the rest of the ensemble as well, particularly in executing the clever choreography by Matt Williams.

The atmosphere here is of colorful frivolity, with dynamic staging and hilarious physical comedy sequences. As good as the cast is, however, the most prominent successes of this production are in the sheer brilliance of its technical elements. With a glittery, colorful, almost cartoonish set designed by James Kronzer, and distinctive, 19th Century-influenced costumes by Susan Branch Towne, this production brings Shakespeare whimsy to life with style. And that’s just the visuals.  The sound and music, designed and composed by Barry G. Funderburg, is seamlessly integrated into the production is a wonderfully synchronized way.  When Oberon, Puck, or any of the other “fairy” characters exercises “magic powers”, the accompanying sounds and movements are thoroughly convincing.  It’s a dynamic blend of sight, sound, and movement that adds to the overall energy and entertainment value of this fun production.

I don’t want to overuse the word “whimsical”, although it really is the best word I can think of to describe this play, and especially this particular production.  The Rep’s has brought us A Midsummer Night’s Dream  that is at once organized and flighty, energetic and visually gorgeous. It’s Shakespeare for people who might think they don’t like Shakespeare, as well as for well-established fans of the Bard. Most of all, it’s just plain fun, and that’s wonderful.

Alvin Keith, Jim Poulos Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Alvin Keith, Jim Poulos
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Legendary Campfire Story

The K of D: An Urban Legend
by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by Tom Martin
Blue Rose Stage Collective
October 16, 2014

Em Piro Photo by Todd Heilman Blue Rose Stage Collective

Em Piro
Photo by Todd Heilman
Blue Rose Stage Collective

“Who has a ghost story?’  Director Tom Martin asked audience members to share their own spooky stories while gathered around a campfire before the beginning of Blue Rose Stage Collective’s latest production, a one-woman show called The K of D: An Urban Legend. Staged in an environment that lends very well to the story at hand and featuring a very welcome return to the stage by Em Piro, this is a successful slice-of-life story with a slightly creepy edge that serves as an excellent lead-in to the Halloween season.

After a few minutes of audience-contributed stories, Piro chimes in with “I got one”, and then jumps right into the performance, which tells a fascinating tale that’s part horror show, part coming-of-age dramedy.  The story follows young Charlotte and her gang of friends in semi-rural Ohio.  All sorts of strange events occur after Charlotte’s twin brother, Jamie, is killed by a car driven by local bully Johnny Whistler.  Just before he dies, Jamie gives Charlotte a kiss, which leads to her developing an unusual power.  Thus ensues “The Summer of the Death”, as the gang’s would-be ring leader, Quisp, calls it, and what unfolds is a mixture of episodes and anecdotes in the lives of Charlotte, her parents, and her friends as they deal with Jamie’s death, new neighbor Johnny’s intimidation, and strange events happening around the lake where the kids like to hang out. Is that new heron that flies around near the lake just a bird, or is it something more? And what about the animals that keep turning up dead? The answers to these questions lie in the richly-scripted story brought to life in Piro’s animated performance.

Apparently, this show was originally performed in a more traditional stage setting, although the way it’s performed here seems simply ideal.  Pairing the performance with a informal, nostalgic campfire setting is a stroke of genius from director Tom Martin and Piro.  In a backyard setting of an unassuming house called “The Revisionist Inn” on Cherokee Street, audience members are invited to enjoy hot cider, cheap beer, roasted marshmallows and homemade cherry cobbler as they gather in folding chairs around the fire.  The play takes place on a rough wooden stage with a deceptively simple setup including a wind machine, shadow box and simple but striking lighting by Mark Wilson, and an atmospheric soundtrack by Billy Croghan, performed by Croghan and Gavin Duffy. All these elements work together well to provide a fully immersive theatrical experience. Audience members don’t just show up and watch a play.  They are brought into the action through the excellent use of location and atmosphere, and also through Piro’s dynamic performance.

Piro is better known these days as the mastermind behind St. Lou Fringe, but this performance is a reminder of how great an actress she is.  It’s been 3 years since she took to the stage, and it’s been too long. She’s a wonderful performer, taking on multiple roles with seemingly boundless energy, clearly defining the different characters with instant changes in voice and posture. Through Piro’s skilled portrayals, we get to meet shy young Charlotte, brash Quisp, snarky Steffi, protective Trent and talkative Brett, Charlotte’s parents, menacing Johnny, and more.  With a skilled sense of timing, Piro manages to hold the stage for about two hours while maintaining her energy and pacing. The show is never boring, the story moves very quickly, and the quick shifts in character are never confusing.  I’m notoriously squeamish when it comes to horror stories, but this turned out to be the kind I like–more story than horror, and Piro has proven to be a consummate storyteller in bringing to life Laura Schellhardt’s excellent script.

The K of D strikes me as a perfect project for Piro, actually, since it has the feel of a full-length Fringe production.  She, Martin, and the rest of their crew have managed to bring a very experimental, home-grown air to this production that works incredibly well.  It’s sure to bring back memories of childhood, local legends and campfire stories, with just the right mixture of realism and ghostly creepiness that makes the best urban legends so fascinating.  It’s a supreme blend of material and presentation with only one weekend left in its run.  Go ahead, grab some cider and roast some marshmallows, pull up a chair and allow yourself to be transported. It’s a real treat.

Em Piro Photo by Todd Heilman Blue Rose Stage Collective

Em Piro
Photo by Todd Heilman
Blue Rose Stage Collective

The Diary of Anne Frank
by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
October 12, 2014

Samantha Moyer, Bobby Miller Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Samantha Moyer, Bobby Miller
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

It’s easy to think of history with a degree of detachment. World War II was a long time ago, and to many people nowadays, it’s mostly represented by names and dates in books.  As important as the lessons of history can be, especially with events as world-changing and horrific as what transpired in Nazi Germany and its occupied areas, the study of such events can easily become simply academic or philosophical.  New Jewish Theatre, in opening its new season with a profoundly affecting production of The Diary of Anne Frank, has brought history to life in an immediate, intensely compelling way that serves to remind us that these people are not just names in a book. They were real, and what happened to them is not only important to remember–it’s essential.

Anne Frank’s story is a familiar one, with this play having won a Pulitzer Prize and having been filmed several times for both the big and small screens.  This version, a revision of the orginal play that includes more of Anne’s writings, was performed on Broadway in 1997. This is the first time New Jewish Theatre has produced this play, and this remarkable production is definitely worth the wait. Focusing on young Jewish teenager Anne (Samantha Moyer) and her family–father Otto (Bobby Miller), mother Edith (Amy Loui), and older sister Margot (Taylor Steward)–as they hide from oppressive authorities in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, the play details the struggles of the family as they spend two years living in close quarters in a secret section of Otto Frank’s office building, being aided by sympathetic employees Miep (Stefanie Kluba) and Mr. Kraler (Eric Dean White).  The Franks share their very small space with another family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Jason Grubbe and Margeau Steinau) and their teenage son, Peter (Leo B. Ramsey), as well as a local dentist, Mr. Dussel (Terry Meddows).  Personality conflicts and a shortage of supplies add to the already tense situation, as everybody waits, hopes and prays for the war to end and the Nazi government to fall so that the Franks and their friends won’t have to hide anymore.

Anyone who knows this story knows how it ends, but the power of this production is in the fact that the suspense is still there.  Even with the inevitability of the conclusion looming, we are left hoping against hope.  The characterizations are so vivid and real, and the staging is immediate and personal, with very little detachment between the audience and the performers.  The incredibly detailed set by Jim Burwinkel creates a believable environment and extends it with little separation from the seating area, allowing us in the audience to feel as if we are in this confined space with the cast, and their sense of confinement is made even more real as a result.  The costumes, designed by Michele Friedman Siler, are also meticulously detailed and period-specific, lending more authenticity to the production along with excellent lighting design by Maureen Berry, sound design by Zoe Sullivan, and properties design by Jenny Smith.  Technically, this is an impressive and immersive production, which adds to the overall drama of the play.

The performances here are very strong all around, with SLU student Samantha Moyer as the bubbly, energetic Anne and veteran performer Bobby Miller as her beloved father Otto forming the emotional center of this production. Their bond is very real and affecting, and their scenes together are among the dramatic highlights. Miller’s last scene is simply devastating.  Loui, as Anne’s concerned mother Edith, and Steward as the more quiet, reflective Margot are also excellent, as are Steinau and Grubbe as the Van Daans.  Meddows brings a lot of sympathy to the nervous Mr. Dussel, and Ramsey is charming as the reserved young Peter, who gradually develops an attraction to Anne. He and Moyer have some very sweet moments together, displaying good chemistry as the smitten young teens.  Kluba and White lend strong support as allies Miep and Mr. Kraler, as well.  This is a top-notch cast, portraying the characters as eminently relatable, bringing an immediate sense of reality and poignancy to the proceedings. We hope the best for these characters as they struggle to stay alive and cling to their hopes and their memories, and as they huddle around the radio listening to news and hoping for freedom. Getting to know these people adds to the inevitable sense of tragedy.

Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer notes in the program that we will soon be in a time in which the Holocaust will no longer be in living memory, as the last survivors are currently in advanced age.  Soon, nobody will remember this story first-hand, and it falls to books and plays like this to remind us of the horrific reality of the Holocaust and the millions of real people who were affected by it.  Kudos to all involved in this outstanding production for reminding us that these are not just names on a page. Anne Frank, her family and friends were real people facing a real tragedy that needs to be remembered.  This production effectively emphasizes the real human lives involved, and the remarkable young girl at the center at it all who had the heart, courage and wisdom to write down her experiences for generations to remember.  It’s an important production, impressively staged and remarkably realized.

Cast of The Diary of Anne Frank Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Cast of The Diary of Anne Frank
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

 

Antigone
by Sophocles
In a New Translation by David R. Slavitt
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 10, 2014

Maggie Conroy Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theatre

Maggie Conroy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theatre

“What would you be willing to die for? What would you be willing to kill for?”  These questions are asked on the program cover for Upstream Theater’s new production of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone. These questions have been asked in many varied ways throughout the generations, and Upstream brings them to the stage with its simply staged, powerfully acted presentation that strikes a relevant chord in today’s world, and particularly in St. Louis.

Civil disobedience is at the forefront of this story, but it’s not the only issue dealt with. In fact, Antigone herself (Maggie Conroy) isn’t the main focus of the play. While the story begins with Antigone, the action centers mostly on Creon (Peter Mayer), the king of Thebes who issues a controversial order and has to deal with its consequences on himself and his family.  In the wake of a recent war, Creon decides to give an honorable burial to one of his nephews who defended the city, while allowing the other nephew–who fought for the other side–to be left to the elements as food for vultures.  It’s never a serious question for Creon’s niece, Antigone, that she will defy her uncle’s order and bury her brother, even though the penalty for doing so is death. She is resolute, even when her devoted sister Ismene (Wendy Renee Greenwood) refuses to join her in her efforts.  The real dilemma presented is for Creon, who is confronted with his own power-consciousness and must make a decision between revenge and mercy, pitting him against public opinion and his own son Haemon (Andrew Michael Neiman), who is engaged to Antigone. As Creon is forced to deal with tragic consequences of his own ruthlessness, the ever-present Greek chorus (Dennis Lebby, Norman McGowan, and Patrick Siler) is there to both react and comment on the situation.

This is one of those plays that a lot of people read in high school but then mostly forget.  I have to admit I was surprised at how little Antigone herself is in the story.  The play’s named after her, but she is more the catalyst for the action than the protagonist.  In fact, the earlier scenes between Conroy as Antigone and Mayer as Creon have an almost clinical sensibility to them. I was expecting more emotion, but that doesn’t come until later in this production. Conroy is excellent as the matter-of-fact Antigone. She’s not histrionic or conflicted. She knows exactly what she’s going to do, and she communicates that well.  Mayer, for his part, portrays Creon with a detached coldness at first, which makes his descent into near-madness in the second act all the more affecting.  There are also good performances from Greenwood in a dual role as Ismene and as Creon’s wife Eurydice, and Neiman as the conflicted Haemon.  Lebby, McGowan and Siler bring character and gravity to their roles as the chorus members, who are wary and sometimes fearful of Creon, and John Bratkowski is memorable in two roles–as Creon’s guard and as the blind soothsayer Teresias. Nancy Lewis makes the most of a small role as a messenger, bringing much weight and empathy to her characterization.

The overall tone of this production is simple and timeless, giving an appropriately mythical quality to the production while highlighting its immediacy.  The set, designed by Michael Heil, is minimal, emphasizing giant Greek-style paintings by James Van Well that line the back wall. The costumes, by LaLonnie Lehman, are ancient Greek influenced but also surprisingly modern, especially in Creon’s outfit, which is simple but more contemporary.  The lighting, designed by Steve Carmichael, is strikingly effective, particularly in the near pitch-dark blackouts between scenes, which highlight the increasing bleakness of the situations.

For a show that’s set in the misty past, this Antigone is striking a modern chord, even with the overall timelessness of the its atmosphere. Especially in St. Louis, where the issues of abuse of authority and reactions of civil disobedience are making news daily, this is a surprisingly relevant play. Upstream’s excellent cast and crew have brought us this play with simplicity and profound clarity.  It’s a play from yesterday, but very much for today.

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

And Then There Were None
by Agatha Christie
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
October 9, 2014

Cast of And Then There Were None Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of And Then There Were None
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 

Agatha Christie shows can be difficult to write about for fear of spoiling the plot, and And Then There Were None is particularly difficult considering the intricacies of its plot.  Stray Dog Theatre has chosen this well-known show as its season opener, and it’s no spoiler to say that I think it’s one of their stronger productions.  With fine casting and especially impressive technical details, this play manages to maintain the anticipation and mystery throughout.

The most common question I get when I tell people I’m going to see a Christie show is “is it Marple or Poirot?”  This one, notably, is neither. Even though it’s one of Christie’s more well-known works, her two most famous detective characters are absent, and the sleuthing duties are divided up between various characters at different times.  It tells the story of a group of strangers all invited to a mysterious island retreat by a host none of them seem to know.  On prominent display in the house is a set of ten ceramic soldier figures, lined up on the fireplace mantel with a framed plaque above it featuring a rhyme about “Ten Little Soldier Boys” and how, one by one, they are eliminated in various ways.  This seems like a simple decoration to the guests until the murders start happening, curiously in ways that parallel the rhyme.  There’s also an eerie recorded welcome message that greets them, accusing each one of a different particular crime, which prompts confessions, suspicion, and accusations from the guests.  Just how many murders are there, and does anyone actually figure out who did it before there’s nobody left to find out?  You will just have to watch and see.

This is ‘whodunit” I’ve seen before, but since it was so long ago, I didn’t remember exactly how the story played out. It’s a credit to director Gary F. Bell and the excellent pacing to admit that I was kept guessing until the end, even though I had inklings of how it was going.  All the intricate twists and turns of the plot are played out very well, with the focus on those little figurines on the mantel getting more and more obvious as the plot unfolds, as the figures disappear in succession, as if by magic, as the murders occur. The style is typical Christie, with broadly defined characters and elements of dark comedy thrown in with the mystery. The production details here add to the suspense, including some atmospheric music that plays at key moments and a terrific set designed by Rob Lippert and some classy Mid-Century Modern furniture provided by The Future Antiques store.  Eileen Engel’s marvelously detailed costumes also add to the overall Christie-ish atmosphere.

The characters are memorable and well-played by an enthusiastic cast. It’s difficult as a critic here, though, because talking about the characters too much would potentially give away plot details, and there are some surprising twists in characterization that are essential to the play’s conclusion.  It’s a very strong 11-member cast, with standout performances from Stray Dog regulars Sara Jane Alverson as nervous secretary Vera Claythorne and Zachary Stefaniak as authoritarian judge Sir Lawrence John Wargrave. Other standouts in the cast are Judy E. Yordon as the haughty and sanctimonious Emily Caroline Brent, Jeff Kargus as in a Clark-Gable-esque performance as adventurer Philip Lombard, Mark Abels as the seemingly even-keeled Dr. Edward George Armstrong, Michael Juncal as confrontational police detective William Henry Blore, and David K. Gibbs as the fastidious General MacKenzie.  There is a minor issue with uneven British accents, but that doesn’t detract from the overall characterization, and the players do an excellent job of building and maintaining the suspense of the piece, as suspicions rise and emotions get increasingly tense as the play draws to its surprisingly unpredictable conclusion.

Keep an eye on those little figures.  I wasn’t ever able to notice one falling, but their gradual disappearance greatly adds to the drama, and I found myself looking back at them regularly. They’re almost like characters in the play themselves, supporting the performances of the strong ensemble of actors.  Christie shows aren’t particularly deep, but when done well, her mysteries are riveting and entertaining.  This is a strong, suspenseful, thoroughly entertaining season opener for Stray Dog Theatre.

 

Cast of And Then There Were None Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of And Then There Were None
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Bonnie & Clyde
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2014

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

A musical about infamous 1930’s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with music composed by the controversial Frank Wildhorn, sounds like it could either be very intriguing or extremely disappointing. The fact that it was a notable flop on Broadway added to my curiosity, as did the fact that it’s being staged by New Line Theatre, which seems to make a habit of bringing lesser-known musicals out of obscurity and giving them compelling productions.  Bonnie and Clyde is New Line’s latest project, and with  its excellent cast and dynamic, colorful staging, it proves to be a surprisingly resounding success.

In a somewhat streamlined version of the real story, this show focuses on its namesake characters’ quest for notoriety and their surprising rise to folk-hero status in the midst of the Great Depression. As the story begins, both sing about their desire for fame in the song “Picture Show”. While Bonnie (Larissa White) has ambitions to be a movie star like silver screen “It Girl” Clara Bow, Clyde (Matt Pentecost) is a small-time criminal with dreams of becoming a notorious outlaw like Billy the Kid.  He and his older brother and frequent partner-in-crime Buck (Brendan Ochs) are in and out of jail, to the dismay of Buck’s devoted wife, Blanche (Sarah Porter). who wants her husband to give up his life of crime and pursue a more quiet, peaceful life with her. When Clyde, having escaped from jail, meets Bonnie, they quickly fall in love, and Bonnie eventually encourages Clyde in his lawless ambitions, as their crime spree becomes well-publicized and, oddly enough, even some of their victims regard them with a mixture of awe and admiration, as the authorities–including Bonnie’s would-be suitor, Deputy Sherriff Ted Hinton (Reynaldo Arceno)–become more and more determined to track them down and bring them to justice, dead or alive.

I know Wildhorn’s music has had a “love it or hate it” track record, although I hadn’t heard much of it before seeing this show, save for a few songs from Jekyll and Hyde and one song from The Scarlet Pimpernel, thanks to XM Radio’s Broadway channel, which repeats it frequently. I went into this musical not knowing much about the score, so I was determined to keep an open mind, and while I can’t speak for Wildhorn’s other works, this one is surprisingly impressive.  Several of the songs have a jazzy sound, as is fitting for a show set in the the 1930’s, and there’s a little bit of gospel as well, in the memorable church scene during the first act, with the glorious voice of Zachary Allen Farmer as the Preacher belting out “God’s Arms Are Always Open”.  There are memorable solos for Bonnie with How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dying’ Ain’t So Bad”, and Clyde with “Raise a Little Hell” and “Bonnie”, as well as a rousing duet for Clyde and Buck on “When I Drive”, and some good ballads and ensemble numbers.  The songs help create a believable Depression-era atmosphere and serve the story well, expertly played by New Line’s band, conducted by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The script has an occasional tendency to oversimplify events and characters, although book writer Ivan Menchell has done a good job of giving the characters believable rhythms of speech, and the four main characters are well-defined. There’s also a good sense of pacing especially in the second act, with the action picking up as Bonnie and Clyde embark on their famous crime spree and the tension gradually builds, along with a very real sense of escalating horror and impending doom.  Anyone who knows the story of Bonnie and Clyde knows how it ends, with them ironically achieving the infamy they most crave even more so after their violent end.  The show is also somewhat of an examination of American culture in the 1930’s and what led to the lionization of these two stylish but increasingly brutal outlaws.

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have assembled a first-rate cast, particularly in the four most prominent roles. As Clyde, Pentecost has the presence and charisma as well as that sense of audacious amorality as the unrepentant outlaw, Clyde. Ochs is an able counterpart in a charming, boyish characterization of Clyde’s conflicted but devoted brother, Buck.  Even more outstanding, though, are White and Porter, who both give stunningly affecting performances. Webster University student White is a real find in her New Line debut as Bonnie. Not only does she have a great voice, strong stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Pentecost; she also deftly navigates Bonnie’s evolution from wide-eyed neophyte to full-fledged partner in crime.  She’s a performer to watch.  As Blanche, Porter gives a richly nuanced portrayal of a church-going “good girl” who loves a “bad boy” and only wishes for a quiet, happy life with him, determined to encourage him to disassociate form his old ways and his dangerous brother. She serves as a stark contrast to  Bonnie, who supports the unapologetically destructive Clyde with worshipful devotion.  The two share a poignant, plaintively sung duet on “You Love Who You Love”. Porter also has great chemistry with Ochs, with great moments in the upbeat “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” and the reflective “Now That’s What You Call a Dream”.  There are also strong performances from Farmer as the Preacher, Arceno as the determined Ted, as well as Alison Helmer as Bonnie’s mother and Kimi Short and Joel Hackbarth as Clyde and Buck’s parents.  The ensemble is strong, as well, showing off the exceptional singing that New Line is known for.

The 1930’s are ably brought to life on stage through Rob Lippert’s meticulously detailed set with nice touches like an authentic-looking Ford car and a realistic vintage gas pump. Lippert’s lighting is also strikingly evocative, and costume designers Marcy Wiegert and Porter have done an excellent job recreating the period, with  a variety of outfits from high-end suits and dresses to overalls and work clothes that are all distinctly in-period. All of the technical aspects work together to provide a very sharp, striking representation of the period that’s in-keeping the with jazz-inflected score.

I’ve come to expect excellence from New Line, and my expectations have been met and exceeded by this impressive and memorable production.  I like being surprised by great performances, and there are quite a few in this show. Bonnie & Clyde is a show that’s compelling even as it’s unsettling and not a little disturbing, as two charismatic but unashamedly corrupt people rise to prominence quickly and then, even more quickly, fall.  It’s a truly memorable production.

Larissa White, Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Larissa White, Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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