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Meet Me In St. Louis
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Revised Book by Gordon Greenberg, Additional Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
August 4, 2018

Emily Walton (center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

In the closing show of the Muny’s 100th season, two famous slogans coincide. Now “Meet me at the Muny” meets “Meet Me In St. Louis“, as the stage version of the classic film has been brought to the Muny again with a revised book and a nostalgic tone, as well as a hopeful message. It’s a classic, but it’s also new, looking back on a celebrated era in the city’s past but also encouraging a spirit of family, connection, and optimism.

This show has been done several times at the Muny over the years. Now, it’s back with a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and some additional songs, including one that was written for the original film but cut from the final version, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Based on Sally Benson’s stories of her family’s life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the focus here is on the Smith family, and especially the character played by Judy Garland in the film, second daughter Esther (Emily Walton), who pines after the “Boy Next Door”, John Truitt (Dan DeLuca), before she even meets him. They eventually do meet, adding to the romantic entanglements of the rest of the Smith family, including oldest sister Rose (Liana Hunt) whose boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Michael Burrell) transfers to Washington University to be closer to Rose, and brother Lon (Jonathan Burke), who brings the trendy New Yorker Lucille Ballard (Madison Johnson) home to meet his family. The rest of the family’s drama also involves New York, as father Alonzo Smith (Stephen R. Buntrock) informs his wife Anna (Erin Dilly) that his lawfirm has given him a promotion and a job in the New York office. The plans are overheard by the family’s Irish-American maid Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald), and the three try to delay telling the rest of the family for as long as possible, because only Alonzo seems happy about the idea and they know their family, including younger daughters Agnes (Elle Wesley) and Tootie (Elena Adams) and Anna’s father, retired physician Grandpa Prophater (Ken Page), won’t take the news well. The story is something of a love letter to St. Louis in that era, with memorable characters and some iconic songs, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in addition to some classics from the time, such as the iconic title tune that’s sung by the family here as they and the whole city anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a relatively light show, and it’s a lot of fun, showcasing the various characters at different times and, with this new version, throwing in some subtle nods to the Muny, such as when Esther and John have lunch in Forest Park as the fairgrounds are constructed and talk about the future, pointing out the young oak trees around them and imagining them growing into tall shade trees, like the ones that now surround the very stage on which they are having this conversation. It’s a fun little moment in the show, which is full of funny, nostalgic and poignant moments leading up to a rather spectacular finale.

The plot can get a little convoluted at times, but the characters and the various set pieces featuring the changing seasons in St. Louis are the highlight here. It’s not a deep show, but it’s fun, and the classic songs are given excellent treatment here, along with the requisite “Muny Magic”, as with the real trolley onstage for “The Trolley Song”, the grand set designed by Michael Schweikardt, the colorful costumes by Tristan Raines, and the spectacular production values, including lighting by Rob Denton, sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and excellent video design by Matthew Young, along with the glorious Muny orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman. This is a big, bright, warm and funny family show, staged with obvious love for the city and park in which it is set and in which it is being staged.

The cast is first-rate, as well, with Walton as an amiable Esther, doing justice to the classic songs and lending credibility to Esther’s crush on next-door-neighbor John, who is played with sweetly awkward charm by DeLuca. They make a believable couple, as do real-life married couple Dilly and Buntrock as the Smith parents. The whole Smith family is surperbly cast, with standout performances especially from Wesley and Adams as the mischievous younger daughters, Agnes and Tootie. Muny stalwart Page is also excellent as the kind Grandpa, Fitzgerald is pleasantly spunky as Katie, and the large Muny ensemble lends strong support, with lots of dynamic energy and enthusiasm in the big production numbers. It’s a big, entertaining show and fills out the huge Muny stage with style and spirit.

When my family first moved to St. Louis, it was 2004, 100 years after the famous fair, and as I remember, the city celebrated that centennial with various activities throughout the year to commemorate the fair. One of those events was the first show of the Muny season that year–Meet Me In St. Louis. It was also the first show I ever saw at the Muny. We sat in the free seats, and I remember enjoying the show. Seeing this new, spectacular production to close out the Muny’s 100th season reminds me of how much has changed since then, not just for me but for the Muny and for the city as a whole. It also reminds me of the timelessness of this show, and of the Muny itself. This production celebrates the city and the milestones in families’ lives, as well as an iconic moment in history, with a clarity and charm that is timeless and transcendant. It’s a magnificent way to close out a historic season.

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Meet Me in St. Louis in Forest Park until August 12, 2018.

 

The Robber Bridegroom
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman
Adapted From the Novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 2, 2018

Phil Leveling (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest musical production is a reflection of the sense of theatrical excellence that has come to characterize this company. The Robber Bridegroom is an offbeat, folktale-style musical with a bluegrass score, larger-than-life characters and a great bluegrass score.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1975, has a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and excellent, bluegrass-style music by Robert Waldman, played here by a top-notch band conducted by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The band members dress in costume and process in with the rest of the cast at the beginning of the show, remaining onstage throughout the performance and adding an old-fashioned, energetic spirit to the production, along with the superb cast, who are all in excellent form. The story is told in “storyteller” style and opens with a square dance, as the various characters introduce themselves and the premise is set up. In 18th Century Mississippi, Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling), while traveling, saves the rich planter Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey M Wright) from a murder attempt by notorious robber Little Harp (Logan Willmore)–whose “partner in crime” is the head of his brother, Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), that Little Harp carries around in a trunk. The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie to visit him at his plantation, with the aim of setting Lockhart up with his daughter Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), who is mistreated by her greedy, ambitious stepmother Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). The lonely Rosamund wanders in the woods and meets the notorius Bandit of the Woods, she doesn’t know is Jamie in disguise, and Salome enlists the not-too-bright Goat (Bryce Miller) to get rid of Rosamund, although that proves to be more difficult than Salome had imagined.

This is a show with which I hadn’t been familiar before, and I had only heard one of the songs out of context. Reading the plot synopsis, and the fairly dark nature of some of the plot points, made me go into this expecting it to be much more in the vein of something like Sweeney Todd. The approach here, though, is much different. For the most part, this is an upbeat musical, full of broad, sketch-like comedy, a rousing score, and no real “cautionary” lessons. It just presents the characters and situations in all their over-the-top, sometimes ridiculous glory and lets the audience, and the cast, enjoy the ride. It’s told in the form of a folk legend, or “tall tale”, with even the more implausible aspects of the plot (a disembodied head that talks, for instance) told in a straightforward, humorous manner. The bluegrass score adds to the overall “folk tale” atmosphere, and there are some memorable songs here, from the fast-moving “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”  and “Two Heads” to the haunting “Deeper in the Wood” to the lullabye-like “Sleepy Man” and more.

The general tone is upbeat and energetic, with broad characterizations that provide excellent opportunities for the excellent cast to shine. The larger-than-life characters are well-represented here, with Dowling’s angry, vengeful Salome, Willmore’s eagerly villainous Little Harp and O’Brien’s equally villainous but restrained (in a box) Big Harp, and Miller’s gleeful, physically agile but easily duped Goat as major standouts. Leveling as the charismatic but duplicitous Jamie, and especially Schmid in a superb comic turn as the determined, slightly goofy Rosamund lead the show well, displaying lively chemistry in their scenes together. The entire ensemble is excellent, as well, with lots of energy keeping the fast-paced show running smoothly and with much hilarity. The singing is also great, from the leads as well as the ensemble, with some strong harmonies in the group numbers.

The staging here is paced well, with a kind of exaggerated, not-too-serious tone that’s appropriate for this type of “tall tale”. Director Justin Been has also designed the versatile set, consisting of a tent-like backdrop, the main stage area decorated by period-era accessories such as crates and barrels, and a set of raised platforms to add visual interest. There’s also excellent lighting from Tyler Duenow, as well as colorful, detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and bright, energetic choreography by Mike Hodges.

This show is so much more fun than I had expected. It’s silly, that’s for sure, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its silliness, which makes it even more entertaining. The Robber Bridegroom isn’t a show I had known much about before, but now I’m glad Stray Dog has introduced me to it. It’s a real treat.

Dawn Schmid (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Robber Bridegroom at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 18, 2018.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Catherine Hopkins
The Black Mirror Theatre Company
July 28, 2018

Don McLendon
Photo: Black Mirror Theatre Company

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is the third production I’ve seen from The Black Mirror Theatre Company, and it’s a St. Louis premiere. Like their previous works, this is a smaller production with relatively simple staging, but that staging brings a striking effect to the material. This play, a blend of gritty realism, fantasy, and metaphysical speculation, is a challenging work of theatre that is sure to provoke much thought and discussion.

What strikes me first about this production is it’s direct but simple staging, and it’s effective evocation of a war-torn area in such a basic but effective way. The set, designed by Gwen Wolffson, transforms the small black box space at the Kranzberg Arts Center into Baghdad in early 2000s, draped by sheets of fabric spray painted with Arabic graffiti, and with the use of small set pieces as needed to suggest various areas, such as a hospital room, a leper colony, a garden, and of course, the Baghdad Zoo.  There, a Tiger (Don McLendon) is being watched by two American soldiers, Tom (Erik Kuhn), and Kev (Kalen Riley), who are stationed at the ravaged zoo. After the soldiers go too far in their taunting, the Tiger strikes back and faces their retribution, which leads to further ramifications for the soldiers and the Tiger, who goes on a journey of sorts throughout the streets of Baghdad, pondering the meaning of life, death, and the nature of war, among other subjects. Meanwhile, an Iraqui translator, Musa (Brian J. Rolf), works with the soldiers and is reminded of tragic events in his past, involving his sister (Hailey Medrano) and Saddam Hussein’s late son, Uday (Charles Winning), who had been killed along with his brother in a raid on his palace that Tom had been a part of, and a gold-plated gun and toilet seat that Tom had looted from that palace figure prominently in the story as all the characters are faced with decisions, dilemmas, memories, and reminders of the brutalities of war and the struggle for life and humanity in the midst of war. It’s a highly reflective piece with fantastical elements that seems to serve more as a means of raising and exploring this personal and philosphical questions than trying to be an accurate account of specific events.

The characters and their reactions are the most important element here, and there’s an excellent cast here, led by McClendon as the Tiger, whose presence dominates the production. McLendon doesn’t dress like a tiger or try to imititate a tiger. He’s outfitted in a loose-fitting dark blue shirt and white pants, and sandals. There’s no orange or tiger stripes anywhere, but still, he’s a Tiger. The sometimes harsh, sometimes snarky, sometimes introspective, but overal philosophical and reflective character is the key figure here, and McLendon holds the audience’s attention with his bold, intelligent portrayal. There’s also excellent work from Kuhn as the single-minded, greedy Tom, Riley as the confrontational and increasingly emotionally unstable Kev, Winning as the menacing Uday, and Medrano in three different roles including Musa’s sister, Hadia. Rolf, as Musa, gives a standout performance as the haunted, conflicted gardener-turned-translator. Director Catherine Hopkins has paced the show well, with moments of chilling urgency as well as some more subdued moments emphasizing the overall drama. Michelle Zielinski’s lighting and Hopkins’s sound design also contribute to the devastatingly effective impact of the events here.

Hopkins, in her introduction speech before the performance, and also in the Director’s Note in the program, emphasized the efforts to portray the characters and situations, and particularly the Arabic language and Iraqi culture, with respect, and I think that comes across clearly in this production.  The dialect and language coach, who has chosen to remain anonymous, deserves a mention here for contributing an air of authenticity to the production. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is an intense, challenging, and often provocative play, examining important timely and timeless issues, and I think it’s been sensitively and memorably staged here.

Erik Kuhn, Hailey Medrano
Photo: Black Mirror Theatre Company

The Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Kranzberg Arts Center until August 4, 2018.

Gypsy
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

The Realistic Joneses
by Will Eno
Directed by Edward M. Coffield

Rebel and Misfits Productions
July 26, 2018

Alan Knoll, Isaiah DiLorenzo, Kelly Hummert, Laurie McConnell
Photo:
Rebel and Misfits Productions

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is a fascinating play, in terms of characterization, language, and insight. It’s one of those plays I’m tempted to write essays about, rather than simply a review. Its use of language makes me want to buy, read, and re-read the script. Still, a play is about more than the script. It’s about the whole production–acting, staging, production values, etc., and the new production by Rebel and Misfits Productions is the real deal. It’s a challenging, thoughtful, impeccably cast production of this intriguing, insightful play.

The story is something of an unfolding mystery, and part of its brilliance is that almost as much is communicated by what is not said as by what is said. The “Joneses” of the title are two married couples who at first seem to share little in common besides their last name. Appearances can deceive, however, and not all is how it first appears. The story unfolds in a series of scenes, starting as Bob (Alan Knoll) and Jennifer Jones (Laurie McConnell) sit at a table in their backyard, awkwardly attempting to converse. They are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of their new neighbors, the younger couple John (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Pony Jones (Kelly Hummert). This first meeting is soon followed by a series of more meetings of various combinations of the characters, as the new neighbors get to know more about each other, and the audience learns that there’s more to this story than originally presented. The relationships grow more and more complex, and life situations more serious as issues of life and death, love and meaning, are discussed and played out. The process of discovery is a big part of the story, so I won’t reveal too much, but I have to say that Eno’s script is so well crafted, and this production is so insightfully staged, that clues to what is really going on become apparent in subtle but powerful ways.

This is a show that relies a lot on subtext, and that’s handled extremely well in this production, and by the truly excellent cast. The language is also particularly idiosyncratic, with each character having a specific way of speaking. All four performers here carry off the text and the subtext with impressive clarity, with excellent ensemble chemistry and couple chemistry. There’s real credibility in the relationships between the bickering Bob and Jennifer–played by real-life married couple Knoll and McConnell–and between the quirkier Pony and John, played by Hummert and DiLorenzo with presence, humor, and poignancy. The characters are all relatable in different ways, and enigmatic in other ways–with Knoll and DiLorenzo particularly adept in portraying their characters’ particular types of evasion, McConnell’s wariness through her weariness, and Hummert’s clear communication of the outwardly flighty Pony’s inward depth and dawning realization of what is happening. It’s an ideal cast for this challenging, highly character-driven play.

The neighborhood setting is well-realized through Peter and Margery Spack’s detailed set. Sitting on either side of the performance space, the feeling is of being in these characters’ backyard. There’s also excellent sound design by Ellie Schwetye, and lighting by Jon Ontiveros that helps set the mood and sense of passage of time throughout the play.

The Realistic Joneses is one of those plays that makes me really think about language, to the point where it had me thinking about speech patterns in real life even after the play was over. It’s a highly character-focused play that presents characters that one might see every day, but also emphasizes communication, of emotions, of ideas, and of the changing realites of life. It’s a play I’d read about but had never actually seen, and now I’m glad this remarkable production has given me the opportunity to see it.  There’s still some time to see it, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Laurie McConnell, Alan Knoll
Photo: Rebel and MIsfits Productions

Rebel and Misfits Productions is presenting The Realistic Joneses at the JCC New Jewish Theatre Black Box until August 12, 2018

Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson, Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 25, 2018

Dan’yelle Williamson, Corinne Melançon, Dana Winkle
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

When someone says the phrase “jukebox musical”, the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people is Mamma Mia! Featuring the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA, a large cast of characters, and a sunny, summery setting, this isn’t a deep show but it’s still a lot of fun. Now STAGES St. Louis is staging a production that emhpasizes the “fun”, and the infectious score, with a light, summery atmosphere that works well in the middle of July in St. Louis.

The story of Mamma Mia! is only a small part of its appeal. It’s actually kind of a goofy story, but the show doesn’t claim to be anything deep or challenging. It’s just a celebration of family, friendship, and most of all, ABBA music. The classic hits are all here, from the energetic title tune to iconic disco-era hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me”, and many more. The story follows young Sophie Sheridan (Summerisa Bell Stevens) as she prepares for her wedding at a small Greek Island resort owned by her mother, former singer Donna (Corinne Melançon). Neither Donna nor Sophie’s fiance Sky (David Sajewich) know that Sophie has found Donna’s diary from years ago that reveals the identities of three men who could possibly be Sophie’s biological father. Now, Sophie has invited all three of them–American architect Sam (Gregg Goodbroad), British banker Harry (David Schmittou), and Australian writer Bill (Steve Isom)–to her wedding. Also in town for the festivities are Donna’s longtime friends and former bandmates Tanya (Dana Winkle) and Rosie (Dan’yelle Williamson), who reminisce about their days as Donna and the Dynamos and get involved in the pre-wedding shenanigans that ensue when all three men turn up to Donna’s surprise, and dismay.  The plot is kind of thin, but it provides a suitable backdrop for the obvious centerpiece of the show, which is the music and the big, cleverly and sometimes hilariously staged production numbers. It’s a sweet show with a message of love and family acceptance, with some amusing character moments, but the real star of the show is ABBA.

The casting here is strong, for the most part. Everyone is obviously having a great time, and the energy is fun and infectious. Melançon and Stevens display a strong, believable mother-daughter relationship as Donna and Sophie, and they sing well, although some of the songs don’t seem to naturally fit Melançon’s voice. She’s at her best in the slower songs, with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the emotional “The Winner Takes It All” as highlights. Stevens also has strong chemistry with Sajewich’s devoted Sky and with all three potential “dads”, who are all strong as well. Other standouts include Winkle and Williamson, who display great stage presence, excellent comic timing, and powerful vocals. There’s also a strong ensemble that brings a lot of energy to the bigger musical numbers as well, performing Tony Gonzalez’s whimsical, inventive choreography with style.

Visually, the show looks great. James Wolk’s mult-level set adapts the island resort setting well for STAGES’s space. There are also excellent, colorful costumes by Brad Musgrove that help to capture the spirit of the show, including the glitzy disco-inspired jumpsuits and more. There’s also great atmospheric lighting by Sean M. Savoie.

Overall, this production of Mamma Mia! is a fun, spirited staging that definitely pleased the enthusiastic opening night audience. It’s one of those shows that’s essentially about enjoying the music and performances and not thinking too much about the plot. At STAGES, there’s a good cast, great production values, and above all, a whole lot of fun.

Corinne Melançon, Summerisa Bell Stevens
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Mamma Mia! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 19, 2018

 

Labute New Theater Festival 2018
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2018

The Labute New Theater Festival is back with Set Two, and it’s a stronger set altogether. St. Louis Actors’ Studio is continuing its festival with another set of plays that feature thought-provoking concepts, strong acting and staging, providing for an all-around impressive production at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. In addition to the continued run of the festival’s namesake playwright Labute’s “The Fourth Reich” in which Eric Dean White’s performance is even more insidiously creepy than it was the first time around, the bill includes a strong group of three intriguing plays:

“The Gettier Problem”

by Michael Long

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first of the new plays is an intriguing work that challenges the audience’s perception and raises some interesting questions. The “Gettier” of the title here is Edie Gettier (Colleen Backer), a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward who is awaiting a surgical procedure and is attended by a stern, wary nurse (Erin Brewer) and an assistant (Spencer Sickmann) with whom Gettier seems to be enamored, referrring to him as her “boyfriend” and insisting he stay with her after the nurse leaves. Then, she spins a story that he finds difficult to believe at first and calls to question everything we’ve seen up until this point. It’s an interesting premise, although the short play format makes the ideas raised somewhat difficult to explore. It would be interesting to see what a longer version of this play could look like. The performances are universally strong, especially from Backer who presents an enigmatic character with impressive credibility. Sickmann and Brewer provide strong support, as well.

“The Process”

by Peter McDonough

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is a puzzle of sorts–an unfolding mystery that becomes increasingly riveting as the story unfolds, although there is a degree of predictability to it. That doesn’t take away from the poignancy, though, in this tale of an interview that at first appears to be a therapy session of some kind, with a “client” who is soon revealed to be a soon-to-be-married elementary school teacher (Carly Rosenbaum). She’s meeting with someone who initially seems to be a counselor (Erin Brewer) who is helping her “client” recover memories that she seems to have blocked out. What is happening becomes more apparent as the details are gradually revealed, although I did guess the “twist” fairly early in the story. The weight of the drama is still here, though, even if you can guess where this is going. With great, sympthetical and emotional performances from both Rosenbaum and Brewer, this is a stunningly effective play and story.

“Unabridged”

by Sean Abley

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Zak Farmer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This, the last and most inventive production of the evening, is an impressive exercise in world-building, with well-realized characters and an intriguing setting for a short play. It’s something of a venture into fantasy that could easily have been an episode of The Twilight Zone–an imagined “what if” situation in which words have become a valued commodity. Here, in what appears to have once been a library or bookstore in an unspecified but vaguely post-apocolyptic setting, a shopkeeper (Zak Farmer) hosts a frequent customer (Spencer Sickmann) whose passion for new words is almost akin to a drug habit. He’s desperate, intense, jittery, and hanging on every word he can find, both from Farmer and from an unseen competitor who seems to be feeding Sickmann faulty definitions for some inexplicable reason, leading to some humorous moments as well as some poignant ones. It’s a clever script, tackling some intriguing ideas and touching on some timely topics and some challenging philosophical concepts. It’s another play that I wish could be longer, because it would be interesting to see these ideas elaborated further. Farmer, Sickmann, and Eric Dean White (as another of Farmer’s customers) perform their parts well, with Sickmann especially memorable. This is probably my favorite of this year’s festival plays. It’s a highlight of a particularly strong week of plays that is well worth catching while this year’s festival heads into its final weekend.

Set Two of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 29, 2018