Pretty Woman: The Musical
Book by Garry Marshall & J.F. Lawton, Music by Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance
Based on the Touchstone Motion Picture Written by J.F. Lawton
Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
The Fox Theatre
November 16, 2021

Olivia Valli and Cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical  US Tour

Pretty Woman is a well-known movie from 1990, and now it’s a musical, on tour across the country after a run on Broadway. Now it’s at the Fox, representing a return to touring shows for the venue after a fairly long hiatus. It’s a welcome return, and Pretty Woman: The Musical is more entertaining than I expected it to be, considering that this is one of those “film to stage” shows that makes me wonder why it was necessary in the first place. Still, it’s a crowd-pleaser, and despite a few issues with the show itself, it does provide an excellent showcase for its lead star, and several memorable supporting players.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the plot. Little has been changed here, except for the addition of a “narrator” character, Happy Man (Kyle Taylor Parker), who appears in various roles throughout the production, most notably a seller of “Maps to the Stars” on Hollywood Boulevard, and Mr. Thompson, the manager of the ritzy Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where much of the story takes place. After an intro from Happy Man and the cast, we get to meet Vivian Ward (Olivia Valli) and her friend Kit De Luca (Jessica Crouch), a pair of “working girls” on the Boulevard. Relatively new at her trade, Vivian wonders how she got where she is, and wishes for something different. A change arrives in the form of Edward Lewis (Adam Pascal), a rich, jaded businessman who spends the evening and night with Vivian, and is intrigued enough by her quirky personality that he hires her to be his date for the week. He’s in town for a big business deal, in which he hopes to buy out a struggling company so he can sell off its assets for a profit, which is essentially all that his company does. Of course, the week’s worth of swanky parties requires a makeover for Vivian, for which Edward foots the bill, but she has a lot of surprises in store for him, as well.

As mentioned, it’s essentially the exact same plot as the film with a few tweaks, and of course, the songs, which are hit-or-miss, and some seem kind of forced into place. Still, there are memorable moments, such as when Edward takes Vivian to the opera and the song “You and I” sung by Edward and Vivian is blended with scenes from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which provides for the most memorable moment in the show, featuring the showstopping vocals of Amma Osei as Violetta. There are also some fun comedy moments provided by Crouch as the tough-talking Kit, Parker in his various guises as Happy Man, and especially Matthew Vincent Taylor as the hotel’s enthusiastic bellboy, Giulio. There are some fun dance moments, as well, featuring Parker and Taylor. As for the two romantic leads, Pascal is good in a fairly dull role as Edward, showing off his strong, rock-influenced vocals and displaying good-enough chemistry with Valli, who is the real standout here in an energetic, quirky performance as Vivian. It’s her energy that drives the show much of the time, even at times managing to make up for the deficiencies of the somewhat lackluster book. The choreography by director Jerry Mitchell is strong, too, and the production numbers are especially entertaining, featuring a strong, enthusiastic ensemble. 

One especially striking aspect of this production is the set, by David Rockwell and how dynamic it is, coordinating with the choreography of the scenes much of the time. The various set piece are “flown” in and out with impressive efficiency, creating the 1980’s look of the show with vibrant style. There are also fun, colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes that highlight the era and setting, which is helped by Josh Marquette’s hair design and Fiona Mifsud’s makeup. Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting also adds sparkle and style to the proceedings, and the band led by Daniel Klintwork does well with the show’s score.

The 1980’s setting also provides for some fun little prop moments that add to the entertainment value of the show, and ultimately it is entertaining, even if it’s not a brilliant show, and I still wonder why Pretty Woman needed to be a musical. Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially in the performances and setting, and there’s a fun curtain call moment featuring the well-known song from which the movie and musical got their title, “Oh Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. If you like the film, you’ll probably enjoy the musical as well. It’s also nice to be able to see musical at the Fox again, at long last.

Amma Osei, Olivia Valli, Adam Pascal, and cast of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Pretty Woman: The Musical US Tour

The US Tour of Pretty Woman: The Musical is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 28, 2021

Jake’s Women
by Neil Simon
Directed by Edward M. Coffield
Moonstone Theatre Company
November 4, 2021

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Jeff Cummings
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre company is currently staging their first production in the studio theatre space at the new Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. Moonstone is a new theatre company, although it seems like they have been around for a while, considering artistic director-producer Sharon Hunter and company have managed to maintain a visible online presence (via Facebook, their website, and a podcast) over the past two years while waiting for the chance to finally stage a live production. Well, that production is here now, and it’s excellent. Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women features a first-rate cast and strong production values, making a strong impression on the St. Louis theatre scene.

Jake’s Women is one of celebrated playwright Simon’s later plays, having been originally staged in 1992, and like most of his works, it’s a comedy, although there are elements of drama as are characteristic of many of Simon’s later works. It’s early 90s origin is apparent in some of the jokes that don’t quite seem to “land” as well as they would have almost 30 years ago, but otherwise, it holds up well, speaking to universal issues of relationships, mental health, and the challenges of being a writer. Jake (Jeff Cummings) is a celebrated novelist currently dealing with writer’s block, as well as a variety of issues in his relationships with various women in his life, who appear mostly in Jake’s mind. These women include his current wife Maggie (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), his sister Karen (Hunter), his psychoanalyst Edith (Jennie Brick), his daughter Molly at age 12 (Amelie Lock) and at 21 (Carly Uding), and his late, beloved first wife Julie (Marisa Puller). All of these characters except Maggie only appear as Jake’s imagined/remembered versions who appear at first only as Jake “summons” them, although later they begin showing up on their own. Maggie, who is dealing with a strained marriage to Jake, appears both in Jake’s mind-visions and in “real life”, showing the contrast between how she really is and how Jake can imagine her. There’s also another character, Sheila (Mindy Shaw), who mostly appears in “real life”, as a new woman in Jake’s life who isn’t so sure what to think of him. As Jake debates, argues, and discusses with these figures in his life (in the real and imaginary versions), he seeks to work out his own struggles with fear of intimacy, grief over his loss of his first wife, his dependence on women, his fear of losing touch with reality, and more. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced picture of a complex character and a struggling marriage, as the relationship between Jake and Maggie is at the center.

As a Neil Simon play, this show is full of fast-paced, quick witted and self-deprecating humor, as well as memorable characters. In this production, all the characters are cast with impeccable precision. As Jake, Cummings is full of angsty energy, managing to be both obtuse and vulnerable at the same time, maintaining sympathy even when he can be stubbornly difficult. Theby-Quinn is an excellent match for Cummings as the conflicted Maggie, managing to convey a genuine love for Jake as well as exasperation with him, and a desire to discover more about herself. These two work especially well together, forming the emotional heart of this production. There are also strong performances from the rest of the cast, with Hunter as the ever-helpful but increasingly frustrated Karen, Brick as the acerbic Edith, Puller as the idealized but determined Julie, and Lock and Uding as two different versions of Molly all providing excellent support. Shaw, as Sheila, makes a strong impression in a small-ish role, as well, mostly reacting to Jake’s increasingly unusual behavior as he deals with the apparitions that she is unable to see. It’s a cohesive ensemble, bringing Simon’s quickly paced, talky script to life with emotion and verve.

The space at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center is ideal for this production, emphasizing the intimacy of the setting and working well with the style and theme of the play. Dunsi Dai’s relatively minimal set is also ideal, with both realistic and more abstract elements blending together with Michael Sullivan’s evocative lighting to highlight the more imaginative aspects of the play, as well as its very real humor and emotion. The costumes by Michele Siler and sound by Amanda Werre also contribute well to the overall tone and theme of the production, and director Edward M. Coffield’s staging is dynamic and energetically paced.

Overall, this is an impressive debut for a promising new theatre company. Jake’s Women provides a strong cast an excellent opportunity to bring this thoughtful, witty play to life. Moonstone Theatre Company is a welcome addition to the St. Louis theatre scene, and I’m looking forward to seeing more productions from them in the future. 

Cast of Jake’s Women
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Jake’s Women at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until November 21, 2021

It Is Magic
by Mickle Maher
Directed by Suki Peters
The Midnight Company
October 21, 2021

Michelle Hand, Chrissie Watkins, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

There is magic in the theatre, but there can also be stagnation, monotony, rejection, competing egos, and jaded artistic directors with ulterior motives.  These ideas are some of what you can draw from The Midnight Company’s latest production, although there are many more thoughts and ideas you can also derive from this darkly comic, outrageously unpredictable, and ultimately riveting production that just opened at the Kranzberg Arts Center.  The production is called It Is Magic, and as directed by Suki Peters and featuring a stellar cast, it actually is quite magical. 

One of the many highlights of this show is the construction of it, and its sheer sense of thrill-ride unpredictability. It starts out as one thing, then morphs into something else, and then still into another thing, with a steady and relentless pace as it tells its story with dark, twisted abandon. Overall, it’s about theatre, and there’s a lot of biting satire here, but there’s also a sense of subversion about it that doesn’t seem apparent at the start. As the play opens, we’re in the basement of the Mortier Civic Playhouse, where the determined Deb Chandler (Michelle Hand) is conducting auditions for her new adaptation of “The Three Little Pigs” for adult audiences. As the good-natured perennial bit-player Tim Padley (Carl Overly, Jr.) auditions for the lead role of the Wolf, Deb’s glum sister Sandy (Nicole Angeli), who also wants the part, looks on. After Deb has stopped the audition several times with some somewhat overzealous “notes” and the audience might start to think this play is something along the lines of the modern classic film Waiting For Guffman,  pontificating artistic director Ken Mason (Joe Hanrahan) arrives from upstairs, where he’s directing a production of “The Scottish Play” (Macbeth) on the Playhouse’s Main Stage. Ken is looking for Tim, who is supposed to go onstage as the Second Murderer very soon, even though Deb keeps detaining him because, even though she’s determined that Tim should get the part of the Wolf, something’s not quite right. That’s just the beginning of the story as things start to get more unusual, and then even more so, as eventually Elizabeth (Chrissie Watkins) shows up to the audition claiming to know Deb and Sandy, although they don’t seem to remember her. From there, the surprises keep coming as the show veers from straight-up comedy, to flirtations with melodrama, and then crashes back into comedy with a decidedly dark tone, and all the while there are building elements of mystery and, yes, magic. 

That’s about as far as I want to go with the plot synopsis, because the unfolding mystery and unpredictable, perpetual surprise element of the story is the real driving force of this production. On the way, though, there is a fair amount of skewering of theatre tropes, like the audition process, self-important artists, the cult of personality, and more. There’s also a fun blend of the fairy tale elements with themes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and aspects of fantasy and even horror. Underneath all the jokes, plot developments, surprises, and revelations, though, is an exploration of the purpose of theatre and its importance, and the tension between the desire to create and to challenge, and the temptation to slide into a sense of the mundane and mediocre.  

The black box theatre at the Kranzberg is the ideal place for a show like this. The minimal set by Kevin Bowman, and the lighting, also by Bowman, provide an all-too realistic setting for this depiction of a small community theatre audition and rehearsal space. The characters are also outfitted ideally in Liz Henning’s striking costumes, and director Peters–who is especially adept with comedy–has paced the show with a precise sense of timing, bringing the absolute best out of her excellent cast.

And that cast is truly marvelous. Everyone is ideally cast. Hand, as the self-doubting, all-too-earnest Deb projects a sense of both mounting desperation and hopeful determination, along with a somewhat unsettling hero-worship of Ken, who is played by Hanrahan with an outward wit and charm that still doesn’t disguise his underlying condescension and controlling nature. There’s also impressive work from Angeli, who gives a multilayered performance, bringing out a sense of melancholy, bitterness, determination, and an ember of hope to the ever-rejected Sandy, who is eager for a chance to finally get a part in a play, but also has some other surprising motives. Overly, as the good-natured but increasingly exasperated Tim, is also strong, with some surprises of his own; and Watkins brings a fierce intensity to her game-changing role as Elizabeth. All of the players work well together, with much of the comedy, tension, and energy coming from their various interactions.

I wish I could write more about exactly what this play is about, but really, this is the kind of show that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s also a show that should raise some challenging questions concerning the purpose and nature of theatre itself. it’s a fascinating, riveting and genuinely hilarious play to watch. It’s an impressive show from The Midnight Company, that usually (but not always) produces one-person shows, especially considering the fact that the ensemble chemistry makes this production all the more compelling. And absolutely, like the title says, It Is Magic.

Joe Hanrahan, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting It Is Magic at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 6, 2021

by Joe Penhall
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 14, 2021

Jason Meyers, Ben Ritchie, William Humphrey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s second production of it’s latest season is also their first indoors. Playing to a limited capacity audience, the three-person show is a good fit for the situation. Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall is a play that approaches its subject matter from a British perspective, although many of the issues are more universal. SDT’s production brings this challenging, character-focused play to a St. Louis audience with energetic staging and outstanding performances from an excellent cast.

Blue/Orange is urgent in its pacing, and this urgency is well maintained by director Justin Been and the cast of three impressive local actors. The setting is a psychiatric hospital in London early in the first decade of the 21st Century, and the action takes place over a 24-hour period, as patient Christopher (William Humphrey) is getting ready to be released after 28 days. His doctor, Bruce Flaherty (Jason Meyers) has doubts about Christopher’s diagnosis and seemingly too-early release, and has called in his supervisor, Dr. Robert Smith (Ben Ritchie), to confirm Bruce’s doubts. To Bruce’s surprise, though, Robert not only disagrees with Bruce’s concerns–he challenges Bruce’s motives and competency, bringing up various issues including attitudes toward race, as Bruce and Robert are white and Christopher is Black. The subject of money also comes up, as the hospital doesn’t have the funds it needs to keep many patients for longer than 28 days. There’s a power struggle here between the doctors, as well, as Robert is exerting his authority as the higher-ranking and more experienced doctor, and as the more insecure Bruce worries about his opportunity for advancement, also pointing out that Robert has a book he’s hoping to publish, and is hoping to use Christopher as a subject in a study. Christopher, who has trouble trusting either doctor while also seeming to be subject to their manipulation, becomes both a catalyst and a pawn in the midst of this power struggle, as the two doctors continue to spar and challenge one another, seeming increasingly to care more about scoring points against the other than about their patient. 

This is a heavy, intense play. It’s also loud at times, as the power struggles and interactions between doctors and patient often escalate to shouting and strong language. The issues here are timely and intriguing, from UK-specific issues like the structure of their health system to various areas of London, to more universal matters like the issues of race, racism, and privilege, as well as the monetization of health care and career ambitions potentially undermining patient care. It’s all framed with a very British eye, as well, and there don’t seem to have been a lot of productions of this show in the USA, or at least, I haven’t been able to find many in searching online. It’s very popular in the UK, though, which makes sense considering how UK and London-centric it is. This is why I question the decision for the actors to not use British accents in this production, although it may make the play easier to understand for American audiences, and consistency in British accents is often difficult for American actors. 

The accent issue, though, is the only real “negative” I can say about the staging of this production, as everything else is excellent, from Been’s minimal but effective set, to Gary F. Bell’s well-suited costumes, to Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting, to the profoundly excellent performances from all three cast members. The acting here is simply superb. All three actors are at their best–from Meyers’s initially well-meaning, somewhat awkward and insecure Bruce; to Ritchie’s haughty, controlling, ambitious academic Robert; to Humphrey’s unpredictable, energetic, alternately confrontational and withdrawn Christopher. All three work together especially well, with their interplay providing much of the dramatic tension of the play. A full range of emotion is on display here, with a dynamic, riveting result. 

There’s a lot to think about in Blue/Orange. This is definitely not a play you want to see for light entertainment. With its well-drawn characters and challenging subject matter, this is the kind of play that should have audience members thinking, and talking about afterwards. As a production, it’s an acting tour-de-force and a memorable theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Blue/Orange at Tower Grove Abbey until October 23, 2021

by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Sarah Lynne Holt
R-S Theatrics
October 9, 2021

Julie Amuedo, Jodi Stockton
Photo by Mike Young
R-S Theatrics

Stories are powerful. They can be personal, shared between friends and family, told to the wider world, or passed down from generation to generation. The newest production from R-S Theatrics, Breadcrumbs, explores all those aspects of storytelling along with a fascinating unfolding tale of a developing relationship, along with memories of a formative one. It’s also a showcase for two first-rate performances, and some especially inventive staging that helps to tell the story with utmost clarity. 

Breadcrumbs, directed by R-S Theatrics’ new artistic director, Sarah Lynne Holt, is two stories told in parallel, with elements of iconic fairy tales woven in. It’s essentially the story of a writer, Alida (Jodi Stockton), who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and her relationships with two important figures in her life, past and present. Both of these important characters are played by the same person, as their similarities become keys to discovery. In the present day story, Alida meets Beth (Julie Amuedo), a nurse’s aide, at a clinic where she is being evaluated in a effort to make a diagnosis. In this meeting, Beth and Alida both tell their stories in essentially a fairy-tale form, and as their relationship develops and we learn more about both of these characters, the parallel story plays out, as Alida remembers her childhood and her mother(also Amuedo), who would move the two of them around a lot in pursuit of the mother’s various boyfriends, finally settling into a situation that leads to even more mystery. In the present, Beth’s story parallels that of Alida’s mother, and as Beth makes herself more indispensable in Alida’s life, the exploration of Alida’s childhood mystery grows; and as both women in the present day learn to navigate their own issues of trust and dependency, an initially tentative bond between them develops.

The play’s structure is clever, but it can also be tricky, in that it could easily become confusing as the two parallel tales–linked by Alida–are told in a way that the past and present accounts often switch back and forth abruptly. The staging, however, is especially clever in making the distinctions clear, with effective lighting by Karen Pierce that not only sets the mood and fairy tale-like atmosphere especially well, but also changes to distinctly different hues to distinguish the different timelines. The staging is also expertly paced, heightening the tension as Alida’s memory difficulties increase, and as the her trust in Beth is repeatedly called into question. The performances also aid in the clarity, as both performers excel in portraying this mysteriously unfolding story, with Stockton’s manner changing between older adult and little girl effectively, and Amuedo’s changes between the two similar but also very different characters also made strikingly apparent. Both performers are excellent, and their relationships are poignant and remarkably believable. lending much to the overall poignancy of the story. Director Holt’s set also lends an air of simultaneous elusiveness and realism to the proceedings, which also feature fine costumes from Amanda Brasher and sound by Ted Drury.

Breadcrumbs is a fascinating story, from beginning to end, and its use of parallels in the structure as well as the story is impressive. At R-S Theatrics, the story resonates with poignancy and truth, and although it uses the theme of fairy tales, there are issues dealt with here that are for mature audiences (featuring issues like domestic abuse and neglect as well as health issues cognitive decline). As staged by an excellent cast and creative team, this is a tale well told. 


Julie Amuedo, Jodi Stockton
Photo by Mike Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting Breadcrumbs at the .Zack Theatre until October 24, 2021

The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

The Story of My Life
Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
October 1,, 2021

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

In a season in which many local theatres are returning to live performance, it’s now New Line’s turn. For its new season opener, director Scott Miller has chosen a show that’s not “big” in the sense of being elaborate or flashy, or having a large cast, but it ends up being big in another, important way. While it may only have two cast members and a piano accompaniment, The Story of My Life is “big” in that it’s meaningful, and relatable to the audience in an especially memorable sense. 

This is simple story in its essence. Bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Jeffrey M. Wright) is trying to write the eulogy for his recently deceased childhood friend, Alvin Kelby (Chris Kernan), who “helps” Tom come to terms with his thoughts about what to write, as well as Tom’s memories and regrets concerning his relationship with Alvin, from when they first became friends in first grade, up until their last meeting shortly before Alvin’s death. Tom has a lot to think about, and Alvin appears as something of a representative of his conscience, reminding him to dig deeper into his memories and the mountain of thoughts and stories to not only remember the good times and the bad, but to discover the profound influence Alvin has had on Tom and his writing over the years. It’s a detailed reflection of an influential friendship, with memorable songs that fit into the story and help develop the characters, as we hear tales of their meeting, of Alvin’s unique personality and attachment to his family’s bookstore, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the tradition of making snow angels on Christmas day, and more, as the two boys grow up and go in different directions and even drift apart, although Tom can’t forget Alvin, and is reminded of the importance of their friendship.

One of the great things about this show is how “writer-y” it is. As a writer myself, I look at this show and see a lot of how it is constructed, even being able to predict some plot points simply based on how the story is building. While “predictable” is often seen as a bad thing, in this show it works, because the very structure of it is a reflection of the character of Tom, in whose brain the story is essentially taking place. Here, on Rob Lippert’s brilliantly realized set, Tom sits at his writer’s desk trying to compose the eulogy, but he’s constantly distracted by thoughts and memories of Albert. The piles of books and papers that cover the stage are representative of Tom’s thoughts and how he organizes them, as stories. The story builds in recognizable beats, but there is much that isn’t predictable as well, such as the unique quirks of Albert that Tom remembers, and their unique story as friends. It’s a story full of humor and heartbreak, joy and tragedy, and a testimony to the importance and influence of a good friend on a person’s life even after that friend is gone. 

In addition to the marvelous set, there’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that gives the space an ethereal quality that works especially well considering the elements of fantasy here, and the glow that surrounds Alvin in much of the show suggests a “guardian angel” quality to the character, kind of like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, who is often mentioned by Alvin. The costumes are credited to Kernan and Wright, and they have outfitted themselves ideally here, with Wright getting the “stereotypical intellectual” look with his button-down shirt and sweater vest; and Kernan clad all in white, again suggesting an angelic or ghostly quality that’s only augmented by the lighting. The staging is simple, with Lippert’s unit set and only a single piano accompaniment, by director and music director Miller. 

The performances are fantastic, as well, with the interplay between the two actors especially strong. Wright plays Tom with a somewhat stuffy quality from the beginning, and his journey as a character is evident as he interacts with Kernan’s quirky and offbeat but loving Alvin, who is there as a creature of Tom’s memory and conscience, but is embodied with much  warmth, energy and emotion by Kernan. Wright shows Tom’s growth throughout the course of the play with a great deal of credibility, and by the end it’s easy to believe the emotional journey he has taken, with the help of his memories of Alvin. Both performers are in great voice, as well, as is usual for New Line.

I think most people seeing this show will easily be able to relate to many of the issues brought up here, and specific friends and friendships. The Story of My Life is an apt title, since many of its themes are universal. At New Line, this simply staged show displays a great deal of complexity in its characters and their relationship, and even though it might not be “big” in the sense of size, it’s message is of profound importance. This is a very human show, with joy, with a very human heart. 

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Story of My Life at the Marcelle Theatre until October 23, 2021

Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 30, 2021

Jason Michael Evans, Brent Michael DiRoma, Christopher Kale Jones, Ryan Jesse
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their 2021 season, and first at their shiny new venue, with their first production of the popular “jukebox” musical Jersey Boys. This is a show that never seems to fail to please an audience, with its story following the legendary Frankie Valli and the Four Season, and its score chock full of nostalgic hit songs. It’s also a great showcase for its titular quartet, providing they have the vocals and the personality for the roles–and at STAGES, they definitely do, supported by the first-rate production values for which this company is known.

This show has one of the stronger books for this type of show–the jukebox bio-musical. The story follows the original members of the Four Seasons, who take turns narrating as the show goes on, showing their trials and tribulations as the band rises from obscurity in their working class New Jersey neighborhood to worldwide fame and fortune. We also see the flaws and foibles of the individual members, as well as their strengths, starting with ambitious, bossy guitarist Tommy DeVito (Brent Michael DiRoma), then moving on to more business-minded but initially more personally sheltered keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Ryan Jesse), to quirky bassist Nick Massi (Jason Michael Evans), and finally to probably the most well-known of the group, the gifted vocalist Frankie Valli (Christopher Kale Jones). As the band evolves from a three-man act looking for a fourth, to a world-famous quartet, to renowned lead singer and his backing band, we see the early struggles, the personal conflicts, the battling egos, the personal triumphs and tragedies, and the more and less pleasant aspects of the characters’ personalities. All along the way we hear the memorable soundtrack of hit after hit after hit, from “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ and “Working My Way Back to You”. For the most part, this is a look at four guys and their music, although some of the characters are more likable than others, but the music is legendary. 

The casting is essential in this show, especially in terms of the Four Seasons themselves, and STAGES gets it right, as all four roles are ideally cast. DiRoma, who has been in several shows at STAGES before, is in excellent form as the cocky, bossy DeVito, and Evans has some memorable moments as the more eccentric, more introverted Massi. Jesse is also a standout in an amiable performance as Gaudio, and Jones, who has played Franki Valli on tour, is simply fantastic, managing to sound a lot like the real Valli and also portray his maturing through the years in a convincing way. All four work well together, as well, with a strong vocal blend and superb ensemble chemistry. There’s also a strong ensemble to support them, led by STAGES regulars John Flack and Steve Isom, both playing various roles, as well as Edward Juvier as producer/songwriter Bob Crewe, and Jenna Coker-Jones, Sarah Ellis, and Donna Louden as various women in the Four Seasons’ lives. There’s a strong ensemble, providing support, vocals, and energetic dancing–choreographed by Dana Lewis–as well. 

The staging by director Michael Hamilton is well-paced, and the smaller venue of STAGES works especially well for the more intimate nature of the scenes in which we see the group’s “personality” developing, as well as moments in the studio and in concert. The new venue works well here, as well as providing a space for a terrific on-stage band led by musical director Jeremy Jacobs. I hope STAGES continues to feature live music in its shows now that its venue allows for it. James Wolk’s two level set, along with Brad Musgrove’s colorful period-specific costumes, and Sean M. Savoie’s striking lighting, provide just the right tone and mood for the show, as the times move forward from the 1950s to several decades following. 

Even if you’re not overly familiar with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, their story and especially their songs are memorable. In fact, the songs just might be playing in your head for a few days after seeing this crowd-pleasing production at STAGES. It’s an ideally cast, well-presented look at an important group in the history of Rock ‘n Roll. 

Cast of Jersey Boys
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Jersey Boys at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 24, 2021

by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield
Directed by Christopher Limber
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
September 24, 2021

Cast of Elsinore
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

Hamlet, as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, has been the subject for many treatments by other playwrights over the years. There have been parodies, sequels, re-imaginings, and more. The latest production by Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company is a prequel, called Elsinore and imagining what Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and company were doing in the years leading up to the famous tragedy. Seeing it staged in an engaging production at the Chapel over the weekend, I’m left with the thought that this is an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential if developed a little more. 

The play, written by company members David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, features many of the well-known characters from Hamlet, with a few notable additions. The two-act structure features the characters at different times in their history–with the first act taking place 15 years before the events of Hamlet, and the second act taking place in the year leading up to the start of the more famous play. In Act One, the young Prince Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) is a rebellious teenager who resents his authoritarian father, the King (John Wolbers), and prefers goofing off with his buddies Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File) or hanging out at the home of his uncle Claudius (Satterfield), who is happily married to Collette (Julie Antonic), who is expecting a child. King Hamlet is bothered that the young prince seems to favor his uncle, as well as being generally immature and not taking his role as heir to the throne seriously. Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) is also frustrated, but more at her domineering husband than at her son, who she suggests might benefit from being sent to study in Wittenberg. We also see the burgeoning romance between young Hamlet and Ophelia (Summer Baer), who has returned from an unhappy time at the royal court in France, and envies Hamlet’s opportunity to study. As the story progresses to Act 2, we get to see what all this education has done for Hamlet, as well as increasing the focus on Claudius, and his growing ambition as he serves a temporary term as regent while his brother is ill. Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows where the story is going, but the mystery concerns how events develop to that point, as tensions increase and scenes begin to parallel and foreshadow events in Shakespeare’s story. 

For the most part, playwrights Nonemaker (who also plays Polonius here) and Satterfield have constructed a compelling backstory for Hamlet, Claudius and company, with some clever nods to its inspiration as well as intriguing developments of the characters. There are a few things that could be worked on, though, as the second act is a bit long, and there’s a little too much “quoting” of the “parent play”. Also, the King Hamlet character comes across as one-dimensional much of the time, despite a strong effort from the consistently excellent Wolbers. The cast, made up of a mixture of Prison Performing Arts program alumni, professional and student actors, is strong, for the most part, as well. Satterfield as Claudius has perhaps the largest part, and his journey as a character increases in power as the story goes on. There are standout performances from File in a dual role as Guildenstern and as “Young Claudius” (son of the elder Claudius), Lawson-Maeske as Rosencrantz and Horatio, and Antonic as the sweet-natured  Collette; with fine performances across the board from the rest of the cast. The biggest standouts, though, are Bacus as the initially wild but gradually maturing young Hamlet and Baer as a witty, sort of feminist Ophelia. The scenes between these two are the true highlight of this production, and their chemistry is electric. Every moment they are onstage together is a delight. There were times I wished the whole play was about them, although knowing where their story is going to lead adds poignancy to these scenes, and the developing story of how Claudius becomes who he is in Hamlet is also intriguing. 

The staging is fairly simple, with a static set that consists of two thrones backed by flags. Erik Kuhn’s lighting helps set the mood, especially as the sense of mystery grows in the second act. There are also excellent, detailed costumes by Liz Henning and crisp, clear sound by Ellie Schwetye, with the technical elements working together well to help this production maintain a consistent look and tone.

Overall, Elsinore strikes me as a promising play that, with a little more development, could potentially be produced by other companies, as suggested by director Christopher Limber in his notes in the program. As produced at the Chapel by the PPA Alumni Theatre Company, it’s a thought-provoking production with an energetic cast. It’s a compelling look at what could have happened before the tragic events of one of the world’s most well-known works of theatre. 

John Wolbers, Oliver Bacus
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts


The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee and
The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2021

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are two of the most celebrated playwrights of the of the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Their work is often performed and reviewed, and has influenced many great playwrights that have followed. Now at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, two of the writers’ more influential early works, both two character plays, are being featured with the same two actors in both plays. Albee’s The Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are both important plays in the history of theatre, and as shown at STLAS, they are both still powerful, thought-provoking works that serve as excellent showcases for actors. 

Presenting these plays in this manner makes for an excellent way to challenge the actors in their versatility, as William Roth and Joel Moses each play contrasting roles in the two different plays. In The Zoo Story, Roth is Peter, a mild-mannered family man who is enjoying a quiet afternoon reading on a bench in Central Park, when he is suddenly approached by Jerry (Moses), a much more confrontational character who does most of the talking, as he announces he has been to the zoo and then takes a roundabout way of telling the story of why, revealing much about his character and background in the process, as he openly challenges Peter’s more “status quo” lifestyle. Here, Jerry is essentially in control for most of the proceedings, and the play is a challenge for both actors in different ways, as Jerry is very active and loud, while Peter doesn’t speak through much of the story, and Roth is forced to sit there and react to this increasingly uncomfortable invasion of his personal space. Both actors do an excellent job here, with Moses bringing much emotion and humanity to the confrontational Jerry, and Roth giving something of a master class in “reaction acting”, as both characters display a strong sense of increasingly combative chemistry. It’s a challenging play–not out of the ordinary for modern audiences, but especially controversial in its day, as director Wayne Salomon points out in his note in the program. 

The director’s comment also applies to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is from the same era as The Zoo Story, but has a British setting, and this time the two actors take markedly different roles, as two hit men who are waiting in a windowless basement room for a call about their next assignment. Here, Moses plays Gus, the younger, more reticent hit man, while Roth is the more commanding “senior partner”, Ben. Like The Zoo Story, this play also focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters, with one seeming to be more in control than the other. Here, though, the location is also a “character”, in a way, as the titular dumbwaiter seems to have a mind of its own, serving as the instrument for communication (along with a snake-like “speaking tube”) between the main characters and some unseen “others” who keep sending food orders like they are in a restaurant. The dumbwaiter is also prone to opening and–startlingly–slamming shut at unannounced moments, providing a strong source of tension in the play. The performances here are first-rate, as well, with Moses impressive as the more naive, nervous Gus and Roth excellent as the gruff, more businesslike Ben, who is in for some surprises of his own as the play leads to a somewhat surprising, abrupt end.

To echo Salomon’s comments in the director’s note, neither of these plays should be unusually “shocking” for a modern audience, as this sort of grittiness has become much more commonplace in theatre. Still, the sense of character and storytelling is sharp in both, and each is memorable and thought-provoking in its own right. The productions here are well-paced and dynamic, with a strong sense of ensemble chemistry between the two actors, and good technical elements, as well, including especially impressive work from set designer Patrick Huber in producing two very different settings for the plays–as backdrops and a bench provide the park setting for The Zoo Story, and these later give way to the stark, grimy basement setting of The Dumb Waiter. Huber’s lighting design is also effective, as  are Teresa Doggett’s meticulous costumes. 

It’s intriguing to see these two one act plays by different, important playwrights presented this way. Using the same actors in both plays allows both to show more of their range, and allowing the audience to see both plays together allows for comparing and contrasting and getting a direct display of the early foundations of modern theatre. These are plays you may have heard about, or read, or seen in separate productions, but here STLAS is providing an ideal opportunity to see them together. It’s an impressive return to the stage for this local company.


Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter at the Gaslight Theater until October 3, 2021