Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
September 20, 2023

Joe Hanrahan, Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company


The Midnight Company’s work at the Blue Strawberry Theatre & Lounge is continuing with another concert-with-a-story, Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival. Written by Midnight’s artistic director Joe Hanrahan and starring Hanrahan and Kelly Howe, the show has a bit more of a story this time, featuring two strong leading performances and Howe’s impressive vocals on a variety of classic hits. The show also benefits from a strong sense of theme. 

The setting is a world in which an unspecified cataclysmic event has happened, and our two leads, Professor Sunshine (Hanrahan) and singer Cheyenne (Howe) apparently spend their days traveling to sparsely populated towns and performing concerts. At first, Cheyenne appears weary and reluctant, complaining about the Professor’s late arrival and controlling ways, and beginning the concert set with the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”, which apparently the “boss” doesn’t like her to sing. Soon, the Professor shows up, and a dialogue of sorts ensues amidst the collection of classic rock hits, mostly from the 60s and 70s, but ranging into the 80’s with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. The relationship between these two is at turns prickly and familiar, working out into a sort of odd friendship, as they explore regrets and reflections of life on the road in a post-apocalyptic world. 

Mostly, though, the production is showcase for Howe’s versatile vocals. While for her last collaboration with Hanrahan at the Blue Strawberry, Just One Look, Howe was playing Linda Ronstadt and had to sing (wonderfully) in Ronstadt’s style for the whole show, here she has more freedom to cut loose on songs from The Animals, Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin, Roy Orbison, and more, showing off the power and control of her excellent voice. Howe’s voice is the musical highlight here, but Hanrahan gets his chance to exhibit his own “talk-singing” on “Rocky Raccoon” and “A Song For You” with admirable style and character. The interplay between Howe and Hanrahan and the script full of humorous rock ‘n roll references adds much to the entertainment value here, as does the excellent band made up of music director Curt Landes on piano, Tom Maloney on guitar and bass, and Mark Rogers on percussion and backing vocals. Liz Henning’s costumes add a great deal of flair, as well, helping to further define the characters and tone of the production. 

Overall, this is an enjoyable show that celebrates classic rock music and a supremely talented lead vocalist, with an intriguing, if somewhat vague, story to tie the show together. It all fits very well into the setting of the Blue Strawberry, as well. There’s one more performance scheduled, and it’s worth checking out, especially if you’re into classic rock.

The Midnight Company is presenting Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival at the Blue Strawberry Showroom & Lounge until September 23, 2023

by Anne V. McGravie
Directed by Trish Brown
PRISM Theatre Company
September 15, 2023

Avery Lux, Ashley Bauman, Sarah Naumann, Sadie Harvey, Jade Cash
Photo by Julie Merkle
PRISM Theatre Company

Probably the strongest aspect of PRISM Theatre Company’s new production of Wrens is how deliberately and authentically it sets its scene, time, place, and era. Inspired by the playwrights experiences during World War II, the play features well-defined characters, and a strong sense of setting. It also features some memorable performances by a cast of local performers. 

Playwright Anne V. McGravie’s story is based on her first-hand experiences as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, or “Wrens”. This particular story focuses on a group of Wrens at a base in Scotland at the very end of the war. The seven characters represent various regions of the United Kingdom, including the Welsh, Scottish, and English women of different ages and stages of life. Some, like Jenny (Avery Lux) and Gwyneth (Ashley Bauman), are married to men who are serving in the war, and others are single. There’s also a variety of attitudes toward work, life, and the war–the  orderly Cynthia (Sadie Harvey) objects to the others’ flouting of rules; the aloof Chelsea (Camryn Ruhl) is looked at as a snooty outsider by the rest in the barracks, and young Dawn (Sam Hayes) is dealing with a personal issue that she’s reluctant to share with her colleagues. As the end of the war in Europe is rumored to happen any day, the Wrens also reflect on how the war and their service have changed their lives, and the attitudes towards women in the workforce and in general. There are moments of humor as well as intense drama, as the end of their service looms and various revelations come to light.

The story itself is intriguing and informative, and the characters are well-defined, if sometimes not quite as fleshed-out as they could be. The dialogue is also odd in places, with some of the speech patterns seeming somewhat awkward. Still, it’s a fascinating show, for the most part, and the cast is strong across the board, led by Lux as the protective Jenny, Hayes as the evasive Dawn, and Bauman as the strong-willed Gwyneth, along with Sarah Naumann as the Wrens’ resident writer, Doris. Jade Cash is also memorable as the fun-loving youngest Wren, Meg. Harvey as the stickler Cynthia, and Ruhl as the detached Chelsea also make a strong impression, even if their roles aren’t as prominent. The ensemble chemistry is what especially makes this show work, as it lends much credibility to this story. These characters and their interactions are relatable and highly convincing as a group who has lived and worked together for a while. The various UK accents represented are also impressively done, for the most part.

The technical presentation also makes a memorable impression. The set by Caleb D. Long is meticulously detailed, and the costumes by Sam Hayes are well-suited to the characters and the era. There’s also excellent use of period music, and strong sound design by Jacob Baxley, as well as superb lighting by Catherine Adams.

Wrens does feature some difficult subject matter, as mentioned in the program, and its best recommended for older teen to adult audiences. World War II has been a frequent subject for dramatization, and Wrens offers its own look at an aspect of life during the war that might not be as well-known, especially for American audiences. It’s a compelling drama, taking the audience to a specific time and place with energy and impressive authenticity.

Cast of Wrens
Photo by Julie Merkle
PRISM Theatre Company

PRISM Theatre Company is presenting Wrens at the Kranzberg Arts Center until September 24, 2023

The Game’s Afoot
based on William Shakespeare’s Henriad
Written by Benjamin Hochman
Directed by Adam Flores
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Streets
September 14, 2023

Jailyn Genese, Keating, Summer Baer, Jack Kalon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare in the Streets has returned, but it was a little different this year. For the latest installment of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s annual melding of Shakespeare and St. Louis neighborhoods, the focus is more on a citywide sports tradition than any specific area of the city.  The Game’s Afoot, written by Benjamin Hochman, directed by Adam Flores, and based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, took a loving and whimsical look at the city’s long love affair with soccer, and how the sport has shaped the city’s culture and facilitated both rivalry and unity among players and fans alike.

The setting for this show was part of its appeal, in addition to the informative story and great cast. The stage was set up on a side street adjoining the parking lot of Schlafly Taproom, with the looming, stylish presence of CityPark clearly visible in the background. Scott Neale’s clever, multilevel set included a representation of a soccer field and provides an appropriate setting for the wide-ranging story that spans several neighborhoods and decades of St. Louis soccer history. There was also a smattering of local humor (including the manner of time travel) that added to the very St. Louis character of the story. Some eye-catching costumes by Shevaré, striking lighting design by M. Bryant Powell, and mood-setting percussion provided by one of the local soccer supporting squads, Fleur De Noise also contributed to the overall atmosphere and lively spirit of the show.

As for the story, it mostly followed Hal (Jack Kalan), a young soccer prodigy coming of age in the 1970s, who initially would rather hang out in bars with his hard-partying friends Falstaff (Keating), Pistol (Jailyn Genyse) and Nym (Victor Mendez) than seriously apply himself to becoming St. Louis’s next “Soccer King”. Instead, cocky upstart and rival Hotspur (Thomas Patrick Riley) challenged Hal for the crown, and the media attention. There story also featured a time-traveling Scout (Lynn Berg) assembling the soccer greats from various eras, and lots of mentions of the various major soccer events over the years, such as the 1950 US team that featured several St. Louis players, and the highlights and stars of various professional and school teams over the past few decades.

It’s a streamlined story both in terms of soccer history and the Shakespearean source material, so the show was probably easier to enjoy for audience members familiar with one or both of these subjects. Still, I had a lot of fun, and the performances were strong across the board, led by Kalan and Riley as the rivaling local soccer heroes, and Keating as the fun-loving Falstaff, along with great turns by Summer Baer as a local supporter who grows from enthusiastic young fan to equally enthusiastic “soccer mom”, Genyse, Mendez, and Tara Bopp in various roles, and Berg as the time-traveling scout. There were also some fun surprises with appearance by some local soccer personalities.

Ultimately, this was a fun celebration of soccer in St. Louis and and enthusiasm for the sport and the city alike, even despite various challenges and hardships over the years. St. Louis Shakespeare is a clever, unique tradition, and this latest entry in the series is more entertaining evidence that St. Louis and Shakespeare go together well. 

Cast of The Game’s Afoot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

This review was originally published at

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux
Directed and Choreographed by Keith Andrews
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2023

Jeremy Sevelovitz, Brady Wease, Edward La Cardo, Scott Moreau
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their season with a rousing tribute to good old fashioned Rock ‘n Roll, and some of the iconic musicians who helped popularize it in the 1950’s. Using a true event as the basis for a fictionalized story, Million Dollar Quartet–directed by Keith Andrews–also provides an excellent showcase for its cast and a collection of memorable songs. It’s the musicality and presence of the cast, as well as the simple but effective production values, that make this show a delightful, energetic, crowd-pleasing production that celebrates not only the celebrities represented, but the music itself. 

The story is based on a gathering at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in December, 1956, in which Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all met at the now-legendary studio and recorded some songs together for studio owner and producer Sam Phillips. The iconic “jam session” has become the stuff of legend, but book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have played up the “legendary” aspect of the story even more, taking the opportunity to add some biographical details on the performers and Phillips, as well as including many of the performers’ most recognizable hits. The setup involves Philips trying to surprise Cash with a contract renewal, and RCA trying to court Phillips to sell Sun Records and move to New York to work with Elvis again. Also, Elvis did apparently have a girlfriend with him that day, but she wasn’t a singer, so the writers have created the character of Dyanne, an aspiring chanteuse who joins in on the jam session singing lead on some popular hits and harmonizing with the guys on other songs.

The performances are nothing short of stellar, and the casting of the singers and musicians is ideal, with Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins on vocals and guitar, and Chuck Zayas as Carl’s brother Jay Perkins on bass being the standouts in terms of pure musicianship. Everyone is in excellent voice, with Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash managing to capture Cash’s deep vocal sound with impressive accuracy, and Edward La Cardo as Elvis has the necessary moves, vocals, and sheer charisma of the young King of Rock ‘n Roll. Brady Wease is a scene-stealer as the showboating Lewis, as well, with great vocals and impressive piano playing. Shelby Ringdahl as Dyanne also adds a likable personality and strong vocals to the mix, and music director David Sonneborn accompanies the group with style as drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland. The production’s emotional anchor is the excellent, personable Jeff Cummings as Phillips, who provides much of the dramatic weight of the production and makes the somewhat thin plot work smoothly. 

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that makes this show work, and the sheer musicianship and atmosphere, which is ably supported by means Adam Koch’s detailed set, Brad Musgrove’s excellent period costumes, Sean M. Savoie’s vibrant lighting, and the cohesive sound design by Beef Gratz. 

Million Dollar Quartet is both a history lesson and a celebration of the true joy of music, especially old-school rock ‘n roll and pop, traditional country, and some old-time gospel hymns. It’s a marvelous tribute to these iconic performers, as well as their seemingly boundless talent and musicality. 

Cast of Million Dollar Quartet
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Million Dollar Quartet at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 8, 2023

This review was originally published at

The Lehman Trilogy
by Stefano Massini, Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Carey Perloff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 8, 2023

Firdous Bamji, Scott Wentworth, Joshua David Robinson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening their new season with a much talked-about, award-winning play that’s really three plays in one, as its title suggests. The Lehman Trilogy examines the lives and history of three immigrant brothers and the company they founded, as well as the legacy they left behind, along with a critique of American corporate greed and its impact on society over the years. It also provides an ideal platform for a trio of memorable acting performances and some truly stunning production values that highlight the work of an impressive crew and creative team. 

This is a long show, running at about three-and-a-half hours, and the cast of three (Firdous Bamji, Joshua David Robinson, and Scott Wentworth) plus one onstage musician (Joe LaRocca) get quite the workout with so much stage time, character changes, and quick pacing. The story begins with the three German Jewish immigrant Lehman brothers, Henry (Wentworth), Emanuel (Robinson), and Mayer (Bamji), who start off selling fabric and suits, and then farming equipment before becoming cotton brokers and finally bankers, eventually moving their business from Montgomery, Alabama to New York City. We see the brothers’ entrepreneurial spirit develop, as well as their differing talents and roles in the company as it grows, and eventually, passes along to their descendants, including Emanuel’s assertive son Philip (Wentworth), Mayer’s inquisitive son Herbert (Robinson), and later, Philip’s worldly son Robert (Bamji). The third act moves the company into the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, as its fortunes rise and fall with the stock market, and trends of the times. It’s all told in a brisk but occasionally poetic manner, and is driven by the dynamic staging and eye-catching production values.

What especially holds interest, though, is the wonderfully versatile cast. The three actors play a variety of roles between them, with clever staging and brisk transitions adding to the energy. All three players are strong, with Bamji especially notable in highly contrasting roles as the mild-mannered Mayer and the enterprising Robert. Robinson is also excellent in balancing comedic moments with drama, and is especially adept as playing Herbert’s transition from childhood to adulthood. Wentworth also puts in a strong performance, playing the more commanding characters with particular strength. All three hold the audience’s attention for the duration, with able, melodic support from LaRocca on clarinet and a series of other instruments. 

The other stars of this production are its design and designers. Sara Brown’s set is marvelously kinetic, adapting to the various eras of the time and reflecting the changing eras as the background shifts from packing crates and boxes in the 19th century, to smoother lines and neon in more recent times. The dazzling projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew add a lot of energy to the visuals, as does Robert Wierzel’s dazzling lighting. There’s also excellent sound design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes, and memorable original music by Bennett that reflects traditional and increasingly modern styles as the story progresses. 

Although the story tends to lose a little bit of steam and focus towards the end, the actors and crew keep up the energy all the way through. In terms of energy, acting, and staging, this show is a remarkable feat. Especially in terms of quality of performance, it’s a stunning work of theatre. 

Joshua David Robinson, Scott Wentworth, Firdous Bamji
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Lehman Trilogy until September 24, 2023

Suddenly Last Summer
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
September 7, 2023

Bradley Tejeda, Lisa Tejero
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Suddenly Last Summer is perhaps one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known works, or at least, it’s not one of those shows that comes immediately to mind for most when the playwright’s name is mentioned, like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s still a show that’s been written about a fair amount; studied and contemplated, as well as adapted into a well-regarded 1959 film. At this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival STL, this play takes center stage featuring a strong cast, especially in the three main leads, even though it can be talky at times, and the deliberate pacing requires a good deal of concentration until the disturbing but riveting conclusion.

An intriguing aspect of this play is the fact that much of the story revolves around a character who never appears onstage. The enigmatic, well-traveled poet Sebastian Venable was revered and idealized by his mother, Violet (Lisa Tejero), loved by his cousin Catherine Holly (Naima Randolph)–who was with Sebastian when he died–and mourned by both in their own ways since his death the previous summer under disputed circumstances. Violet, in fact, is so disturbed by Catherine’s story of what happened, that she has gone to great lengths to silence her niece, including having her committed to an asylum and enlisting the young Doctor Cucrowicz (Bradley Tejeda)–or “Dr. Sugar” as he is called–to give Catherine a lobotomy. The doctor insists on interviewing Catherine first, despite the ailing but ever determined Violet’s insistence that the procedure be done. Catherine’s financially struggling mother (Rengin Altay) and brother, George (Harrison Farmer), are there to encourage Catherine to change her story, worried that Violet will deny them an inheritance from Sebastian, but the doctor seems determined to hear the truth. And after a lot of evasion, threatening, and attempt to delay the inevitable, the story comes out in an explosive, highly emotional manner. I won’t say what the story is, but I will say this is an intense, highly symbolic story that takes a while to get where it’s going while it builds an atmosphere of fear, doubt, and encroaching terror, revealing the personalities and intentions of various characters while exploring the concepts of societal expectations, self-delusion, and the depths of human cruelty. 

There’s a lot here to think about, and the characters are well-drawn, especially Violet and Catherine, who are the main adversaries here; and Dr. Sugar serves as a strong sounding board for both, as he challenges Violet’s insistent assumptions and works with determined focus to hear the whole truth from Catherine. The cast is excellent–especially in the three leading roles, with Tejero giving an intense and complex portrayal of the difficult, smothering Violet, and Randolph matching her intensity as the troubled but determined Catherine, who especially commands the stage in the play’s riveting final moments. Tejeda is also convincing and engaging as the doctor, working well with both Tejero and Randolph. There’s also strong support from Altay and Farmer as Catherine’s mother and brother, as well as Ieshah Edwards as Catherine’s chaperone from the asylum, Sister Felicity, and Bethany Barr as Miss Foxhill, Violet’s frequently exasperated assistant and caregiver. 

Technically, the play does a good job of maintaining the look and atmosphere of the old, fading New Orleans Garden District estate of its setting, with a fairly simple set design by James Wolk, and especially striking lighting by Matthew McCarthy. The sound by Phillip Evans and original music by Henry Palkes also serve the story well, as do the period costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis. 

Suddenly Last Summer is another memorable mainstage entry from TWFSTL. Even though the story takes a while to really get going, it packs a strong emotional punch when Catherine’s story is finally allowed to be told. It’s not an easy story to take, but the telling is the highlight of the drama, and the sheer terror that has been building throughout. It’s an intense show, and not for all ages, but it’s well worth seeing especially for the truly stellar leading performances. 

Rengin Altay, Bradley Tejada, Naima Randolph, Lisa Tejero, Ieshah Edwards
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting Suddenly Last Summer at COCA’s Berges Theatre until September 17, 2023

Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Choreographed by Maggie Nold
Tesseract Theatre Company
August 20, 2023

Tiélere Cheatem, Kaitlin Gant, Kent Coffel, Kelvin Urday, and Cast of Kinky Boots
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is a relatively small company, but they are pulling out all the stops for their biggest, most ambitious production yet. The glittery musical Kinky Boots, currently being staged at the Grandel Theatre, is more elaborate than anything this company has staged, and it’s a resounding success. Featuring a terrific cast and stylish production values, this show takes Tesseract to the next level and brings dazzling, enthusiastic entertainment to its audience. 

When I first heard Tesseract was doing this show, I was surprised and intrigued. The company has been venturing into musicals lately, but so far, they had been smaller shows like Ordinary Days and The Last Five Years. Kinky Boots has to be big, and the stage at the Grandel Theatre gives this production the room it needs to shine. It also features an ideal cast in the lead roles, particularly Tiélere Cheatem as London-based drag queen-turned-designer Lola, whose chance meeting with struggling factory heir Charlie Price (Kelvin Urday), from Northampton, sets the plot into motion. Over the course of the story, both characters deal with their pasts–and particularly the expectations of their fathers–and work toward creating a new future, as Charlie’s factory takes on a new venture designing sturdy but stylish boots for drag performers.  Charlie also has to face his factory workers, several of whom are skeptical of the new venture, and of Lola. There’s also Charlie’s upwardly mobile fiancée, Nicola (Chelsie Johnston), who wants Charlie to join her in her new life in London; as well as Lauren (Kaitlin Gant), a factory worker who supports the new business idea and who finds herself drawn to Charlie. While the factory gets ready to debut the new boots at a prestigious Milan fashion show, all the tensions build and decisions must be made that will impact the lives of Charlie, Lola, and everyone at the factory. 

This is a fun show, with a great deal of humor balanced with credible drama, and strong characterizations, especially when well-cast. And this show is especially well-cast, led by the truly dynamic Cheatem, who has the voice, the moves, and the attitude just right. Urday is also excellent as the conflicted Charlie, and these two form the heart of the story. There are also strong performances by Gant as Lauren; Kent Coffel in a dual role as Charlie’s father and as his assistant, George; and Marshall Jennings as Don, a particularly belligerent factory worker who  taunts Lola. Lola’s backing group of drag queens, the Angels, are also fantastic, played by Mike Hodges, Todd Garten, Dylan Stanley, Ronnie Wingbermuehle, Jordan Woods, and Nick Zobrist. The ensemble of factory workers and others is also strong, with lots of energy and enthusiasm. The production numbers are especially impressive, with vibrant choreography by Maggie Nold and lively performances by the cast.

The production looks great, with an effective set by director Taylor Gruenloh that works well in the various setting changes. There are also fabulous costumes by Zachary Phelps that suit all the characters well. Max Demski’s lighting and Phillip Evans’s sound also contribute much to the overall look and feel of the production. I do have a small issue with the use of pre-recorded music tracks instead of a live band, but considering how much bigger this show is than anything Tesseract has done in the past, it works well enough, and doesn’t take anything away from the sheer entertainment value of this show.

Kinky Boots is an ultimately hopeful show that deals with many issues–including definitions of masculinity and gender roles, parental expectations and obligations, found family, and balancing ties to tradition with ambition for the future. At Tesseract, this show is given an effective staging with a great cast and loads of energy and style. It’s a great “next step” for Tesseract Theatre Company.

Tiélere Cheatem (center) and Angels
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre company is presenting Kinky Boots at the Grandel Theatre until August 27, 2023

Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Shaun Patrick Tubbs
Choreographed by Leah Tubbs
Union Avenue Opera
August 18, 2023

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera’s relatively new tradition of staging compelling musical theatre productions continues with their 2023 season closing show, Ragtime. This is a big show, with a large cast that, as is fitting for an opera company, especially highlights the superb vocals of its well-chosen cast. It’s also a detailed, well-produced show in a technical sense.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel, Ragtime tells the intersecting stories of three distinct groups of people and the times in which they live, featuring actual events and celebrities of the time interacting with Doctorow’s original characters. The focal characters include the white residents of affluent New York City suburb New Rochelle, represented by obtuse, world-traveling Father Eric J. McConnell, and pampered Mother (Debby Lennon), along with their son Edgar (Gavin Nobbe), Mother’s aimless Younger Brother (James Stevens), and the curmudgeonly Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi). Meanwhile, in Harlem, Black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nyghél J. Byrd) entertains and develops a following, but he has grand plans involving a young woman, Sarah (Jazmine Olwalia), with whom he has had a relationship and wants to renew the connection after Sarah has fled to New Rochelle and is taken in by Mother, along with her newborn son. Meanwhile, Tateh (Marc Shapman), and his daughter, the Little Girl (Nora Sprowls) are newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Latvia, and Tateh struggles to provide a safe, prosperous life for his daughter in the midst of poverty and discrimination. When Coalhouse, who has recently bought a shiny new Model-T car, starts spending many days in New Rochelle courting Sarah, he rouses the ire of racist fire chief Willie Conklin (Philip Touchette) and his cronies, who vandalize Coalhouse’s car and set into motion a series of events that eventually lead to profound tragedy and upheaval, as the 20th Century begins on a dramatic note and the various characters pursue their hopes and dreams in the midst of conflict and turmoil.  

There’s a lot happening in this story, and the writers do well in blending all the plotlines in, with historical events and figures being seamlessly inserted into the overarching story, as some of these characters–especially anarchist and activist Emma Goldman (Liya Khaimova)–serving as occasional narrators and commentators. Other figures like performer Evelyn Nesbit (Gina Malone), illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini (Joel Rogier), and educator Booker T. Washington (Miles Brenton) play more prominent roles in the story along with the main characters, including Mother, Tateh, and Coalhouse and Sarah. It’s a sweeping story, and Union Avenue Opera has brought together a large cast and a more elaborate set than I’ve seen before at this venue, with the result being a compelling, emotional, and thought-provoking work that highlights a truly remarkable score.

The voices are magnificent, led by Byrd and Olwalia, who both give excellent performances and fill the sanctuary at Union Avenue Christian Church with their stellar vocals and convincing performances. These two are the heart of this production, but the rest of the cast is also strong, from the always excellent Lennon as Mother, to Stevens as the gradually more determined Younger Brother, to Schapman as the dedicated and creative Tateh. There’s a strong ensemble all around, and the group numbers especially shine, from the Act 1 ending “Till We Reach That Day” to the stirring finale. It can be a little difficult to hear the spoken dialogue from the balcony, but the supertitles (designed by Touchette) are especially helpful in this regard. The singing, and the marvelous orchestra led by conductor Scott Schoonover, were especially evident. 

Technically, this production is more than impressive. It’s stunning, especially in terms of the set by Patrick Huber and the meticulously crafted costumes by Teresa Doggett. There’s also excellent lighting by Huber that helps set and maintain the tone of the story as it unfolds. 

Ragtime is another strong production from Union Avenue Opera. As a musical with the scope of an opera and a challenging vocal score, this is an especially appropriate choice for an opera company to produce. It works well as a showcase for a strong cast of excellent singers, and it’s worth seeing–and hearing–for yourself. 

Nyghél J. Byrd, Jazmine Olwalia
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting Ragtime at Union Avenue Christian Church until August 26, 2023

This Palpable Gross Play
A Kind-Of Midsummer Night’s Dream
Adapted from Shakespeare by Ellie Schwetye, with Lucy Cashion and Jimmy Bernatowicz
Directed by Lucy Cashion
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 17, 2023

Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

In considering the latest new production from SATE, the old adage “you write what you know” comes to mind, considering both the source material and the adaptation. It’s clear that this is a very “theatre-y” production, by theatre people, about theatre people, and probably best appreciated by theatre people. Still, even if you’re not an actor, director, or other theatre maker, this is a fun deconstruction that showcases its fine cast and is sure to provide much laughter and pondering. 

This show is more whimsical remixing from creatives who are known for this kind of thing, and they do it extremely well. Primary adaptor Ellie Schwetye and director Lucy Cashion (who also contributed to the adaptation) have both been involved with several productions that take established works and either re-examine them or turn them completely on their heads, and usually both. This one does both with an emphasis on the “turning on its head” element. Here, the characters and basic plot is taken from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s not a straightforward telling of that story. Here, the story focuses mostly on Puck (Ross Rubright) and the “Mechanicals” (Kristen Strom, Andre Eslamian, Kayla Ailee Bush, Joshua Mayfield, and Anthony Kramer Moser)–the group of artisans and amateur actors who put on a play for a royal wedding. In this show, though, the play isn’t about Pyramus and Thisbe, but about the mixed-up lovers from the source play–Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena.  Puck is involved here as “Robin Starveling”, growing more and more frustrated with the various attempts at “acting” from the group–from the overzealous and opinionated Bottom (Eslamian), to the unenthusiastic Flute (Bush), to the self-doubting newcomer Snug (Kramer Moser), to overwhelmed director Peter Quince (Strom). Puck has ideas about what to do about this problem, though, that somehow involve a sleeping drug commercial from a few years ago. Meanwhile, Puck also has his fun with an ongoing feud between fairy Queen Titania (Victoria Thomas) and King Oberon (Spencer Lawton), with the anticipated  result being switched up in clever and hilarious manner. 

My description of the show seems woefully inadequate, since I would spoil too much if I went into too much detail. Let me just say that a lot goes on here, from “actor-y” in-jokes to clever staging, and hilarious “behind-the-scenes” moments, as the play rehearsal happens on one plane on the stage, with the Titania/Oberon/Puck hijinks happening mostly in the background. The cast is marvelous, as well, led by Rubright in a self-assured performance as the charming and somewhat smug Puck. Everyone is excellent though, so it’s difficult to single anyone else out. The ensemble chemistry is brilliant, and the staging is precise and well-timed. It looks great, too, with a fantastic set by Schwetye and Cashion, delightful costumes by Liz Henning and props by Rachel Tibbetts, and strikingly atmospheric lighting design by Erik Kuhn. There’s also a memorable music score and sound design by Joe Taylor. 

This is SATE, so I was expecting clever, unique, and unusual, and that’s what This Palpable Gross Play provides, with a lot of enthusiasm and personality. It’s one of those shows that might benefit even more from repeated viewings, considering how much is going on in one place. It’s another fun, thoughtful show from this excellent local company. 


Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting This Palpable Gross Play at The Chapel until September 2, 2023

Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner
Additonal Book Material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 15, 2023

Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is ready to boogie! Audiences should be ready, as well, because the closing entry in their wonderful 2023 season is the joyful, disco-filled Sister Act, which fills that big stage with abundant energy, style, and fun. The cast is great, the production looks fabulous, and the audience seems to love every  minute. 

The stage version of this show essentially follows the plot of the popular 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, but with a few important differences. First, this version has a full musical score with songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, as opposed to the classic 1960s songs of the film. Also, the setting has been adjusted so that the story now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, where Deloris Van Cartier (Bryonha Marie) aspires to become a singing sensation, and her chosen genre is disco. When she unexpectedly witness a murder committed by her crime boss/nightclub owner boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Alan H. Greene), Deloris turns to the police, and former high school classmate, Officer Eddie Souther (James T. Lane), who arranges for Deloris to hide out in the convent at Queen of Angels Church, where she takes on the guise of “Sister Mary Clarence”.  Although the more traditionalist Mother Superior (Mamie Parris) is suspicious of this brash new addition to her ranks, Deloris soon builds a rapport with the other nuns, including the perky Sister Mary Patrick (Katy Geraghty) and the shy postulant Mary Robert (Meredith Aleigha Wells), along with the snarky Mary Lazarus (Madeleine Doherty). Before too long, Deloris has the nuns’ choir singing the rousing disco tunes that she loves, drawing an enthusiastic following in the once-struggling parish, while continuing to frustrate the Mother Superior and causing worry for her and  Eddie, who are concerned that the determined Curtis and his cronies TJ (Darron Hayes), Pablo (Brandon Espinoza), and Joey (Rob Colletti) will find her and put the whole convent in danger. 

At the Muny, as staged and choregraphed by Denis Jones, this is a fast-paced, tuneful, and ultimately heartfelt show that celebrates friendship and human connection, with the uplifting disco, pop, R&B, and gospel-influenced score providing a memorable soundtrack for the story. The cast is, in Deloris’s words “Fabulous, Baby”, led by Bryonha Marie as an engaging, determined but vulnerable Deloris, with a great voice and excellent comic abilities. Parris is also excellent as the initially stern but well-meaning Mother Superior, with an equally stunning voice. The supporting cast is also strong, with memorable turns by Wells as the shy young Mary Robert, who learns to assert herself and raise her strong, powerful voice; and Garaghty as the endearingly plucky Mary Patrick. Lane is also excellent as Eddie, whose chemistry with Deloris is strong; and Greene is suitably menacing as the sinister Curtis, with Hayes, Espinoza, and Colletti getting some funny moments as Curtis’s henchmen. There’s also a fun turn from Thom Sesma as Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes a surprisingly enthusiastic supporter of the choir as they spread the “Sunday Morning Fever” in their performances at the church. The leads are joined by fantastic ensemble, as well, including the Muny Kids and Teens, as the energetic production numbers fill the Muny stage with enthusiastic energy and tuneful, disco-infused joy.

The show also looks great, with a colorful, versatile set by Edward E. Haynes, Jr. that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, and dynamic video design by Kevan Loney. There are also eye-catching costumes Leon Dobkowski and memorable wig design by Kelley Jordan. The lighting by Shelley Loera is also spectacular, adding dazzle to the proceedings, and there’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley.

Sister Act is a glorious, energetic ending to a spectacular lineup of shows for the Muny. With a rousing, fittingly Muny-style finale that pulls out all the stops, and a fun, heartwarming story led by a supremely talented cast and crew, this production is a resounding success. I’ve been attending Muny shows since 2004, and as far as I’m concerned, this has been this best season yet. I’m looking forward to what they have in store for next year. 

Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Sister Act in Forest Park until August 20, 2023