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A Piece of My Heart
by Shirley Lauro
Directed by Dani Mann
West End Players Guild
December 11, 2021

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Vietnam War is something to learn about in history class for today’s young people, and many adults do not remember the war first-hand, either by participating, protesting, or watching and reading news reports. It’s a war that ended when I was a child, but is still in living memory for many people in the Baby Boomer generation and older. It’s been the subject of many stories, books, plays, tv shows, and movies, even if now its memory is seeming more distant as the years go by.  Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, the latest production from West End Players Guild, brings the war and its aftermath for those who participated–and specifically the women–into immediate, sharp, and stunning focus. It’s a profound lesson and theatrical experience, and an especially strong showcase for a first-rate cast.

One aspect of this play that I especially appreciate is that it covers a fairly “complete” experience of the war for its characters. The war itself only covers the first act, as six women describe their experiences of the war and what they did there. The second act covers their experiences after returning to the United States. The six women represent various backgrounds and levels of experience, and there is one actor (Shane Signorino) who plays the various male characters the women interact with over the years, from soldiers to doctors, fathers to boyfriends to talent agents, etc. As reflects reality, nurses comprise a significant portion of the cast. There’s Martha (Mara Bollini), who grew up in a military family and whose mother was also a Navy nurse; Sissy (Madison Jackson), who comes from a relatively sheltered background; and Leeann (Vicky Chen), who is of Chinese and Italian descent and was active in protests against the war. There’s also Red Cross volunteer Whitney (Annalise Webb), who comes from a wealthy background; career Army “WAC” Steele (Patience Davis), who has faced discrimination over her 18 years in the military before going to Vietnam because she’s Black and a woman; and MaryJo (Chelsie Johnston), a singer and guitar player who is recruited with her band to travel around entertaining the troops. Throughout the dramatic and sometimes harrowing events of the play, we see each woman’s experience of the war and what happens to them after they return home. The story culminates with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 1982, as the main characters are among the many vets who convened in the nation’s capital for the event.

The play itself is an especially poignant and at times intense experience, with descriptions of war-related violence, death, PTSD, assault, rape, and strong language including usage of racial and ethnic slurs. There’s a note in the program concerning this content, as well. It’s a heavy show, as it’s about a war and many difficult experiences related to that war. It also serves as something of an education concerning issues that the general public we made more aware of as a result of this war; especially concerning the mental and physical health effects on its participants. It’s a vivid, personalized portrayal, giving names and faces to the thousands of women who served during the war, and acknowledging their roles as essential, even when they weren’t always appreciated at the time. 

The staging is dynamically paced and visually memorable, with an excellent set by Zac Cary, vivid lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and strong sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also excellent music of the period played before the show and at intermission, as well as strong live singing and playing by Johnston as MaryJo, who provides a stirring soundtrack to the proceedings in several key moments. There’s also a uniformly outstanding cast,  as everyone plays a variety of characters in addition to their main roles. Everyone has memorable moments, with especially notable work from Chen as she recounts the story of her friendship with a soldier during the war; as well as Webb as Whitney struggles with coping with her experiences and using alcohol to mask the pain; Davis, as Steele deals with more distrust and discrimination as she works in intelligence; Jackson as Sissy recounts describes physical effects of the war on herself and her family; and in a profoundly affecting moment and perhaps the most intense emotional moment in the play, Bollini as Martha recounts her PTSD and overall homecoming experience in a support group. Signorino also does an excellent job portraying a range of men of different roles and personalities over the course of the story. The ensemble chemistry is also especially strong, contributing much to the overall affecting nature of this play.

A Piece of My Heart may not be an easy show to watch at times, but it’s more than worthwhile. With a vivid portrayal of the experience of war in general, as well as the specifics of the Vietnam war and the women who served there, this is a highly stirring, profound theatrical presentation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the true highlights of the St. Louis theatre season this year.

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting A Piece of My Heart at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 19, 2021

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 10, 2021

Giuesseppe Jones (center) and cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is a tale that has been adapted many times, showing the versatility of the source, the classic Charles Dickens novel. For more than a century and a half, the story has been adapted numerous times, for stage, radio, big screen and small. It’s been musicalized, condensed, expanded, and set in different times and places. Now, with plans of establishing an annual tradition, the Rep has brought it to the stage in a version that’s alternately comic and serious, with not a little bit of an ominous, even horror-like tone at times. Utilizing the impressive resources of the Rep, both in terms of technical abilities and the talents of of an excellent cast, crew, and creative team, this is a production that honors the timeless classic while at the same time making it immediate and relatable for modern audiences. 

Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I’ve seen quite a few adaptions of this story over the years, mostly on film and TV, but also including the last time the Rep staged a production five years ago. What I’ve noticed from seeing all these versions is that A Christmas Carol as a story is especially versatile in terms of how it can be adapted depending upon the time, circumstances, and medium. For this new Rep production, the focus seems to be on a more darkly comic interpretation of the material, blended with poignant drama at important moments, and an extensive use of music and striking visuals in telling the familiar story of the confrontation and redemption of miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge (Guiesseppe Jones). The casting of one performer, Michael James Reed, as two highly contrasting characters–Scrooge’s whimsical housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and an ominous, frightening version of the ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley–highlights the overall tone of the piece, going for broad comedy on occasion and shifting to near-horror when appropriate. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Laakan McHardy), Present (Paul Aguirre), and Future (Eric Dean White)–who also double as merchant characters who owe debts to Scrooge–reflect this duality of tone, as well. Also, as is usual for this story, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Armando McClain) and his family, especially his young, ailing son Tiny Tim (Rian Amerikal Page) are the focus for much of the poignancy and emotion.

The staging is energetic and briskly paced, with a lot of focus on music and technical effects, in support of the excellent cast. The use of music–mostly traditional English and European carols and folk songs with some original music and some more modern arrangements–is impressive, as well, with strong work from music director Tre’von Griffith, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and composers/sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. The music and dance–including a rap sequence–works well with the story and supports the action and emotion especially well.  Also contributing to overall technically stunning look and atmosphere of the piece are set designer Tim Mackabee with a vividly realized and versatile set, along with lighting designer Seth Reiser, projections designer Hana Kim, and costume designer Dede Ayite who provides meticulously detailed outfits for the characters ranging in style from traditional Victorian English to the more steampunk-ish look of the Ghost of Christmas Future and his living counterpart, a clockmaker and inventor. The overall design of this show, and the truly thrilling flying effects with Marley, provide for much of the visual impact of the show while supporting the emotional arc of the story.

As for the cast, it’s a fairly large ensemble and everyone is excellent, from Jones as an energetic, miserly and believably softening Scrooge, to McClain and Michelle Hand as the hardworking Cratchits, to Reed in impressively contrasting performances as Mrs. Dilber and Marley. There’s also impressive work from  McHardy, Aguirre, and White as the ghosts and their non-ghost counterparts. Also excellent are Raffael Sears in a dual role as Young Scrooge and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred; and Alegra Batara as both Young Scrooge’s onetime fiancée, Belle, and Fred’s wife. The entire ensemble is strong, as well, including a superb Youth Ensemble–I saw the “Green” group (there is also a “Blue” group that alternates with the Green group). 

A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic story that most people with recognize to some degree. Being a “ghost story” in essence, this tale always has its scarier scenes, but this version emphasizes a lot of the intense moments, so parents should consider that when deciding whether to bring small children. It’s a bit different staging-wise than other versions you may have seen, but this is such a versatile story and this version has a lot of appeal for today’s audiences, with a top-notch cast and truly stunning production values. It’s a timeless tale for the ages, and the Rep’s production tells this classic tale with truth and vibrancy.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 23, 2021

Who’s Holiday
by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2021

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Who’s Holiday is Stray Dog Theatre’s offering for the festive season, and it’s not exactly what one might expect for a “holiday” show, as director Gary F. Bell pointed out in his introduction before the performance. An “adult” parody of Dr Seuss’s well-known “Grinch” story, the show has jokes that sometimes land well, and sometimes don’t, and it does have some clever elements despite a tendency to emphasize the elements of shock.  The greatest element of this one-person show, though, is its star, as Sarah Polizzi takes center stage and turns in a vibrant, personable comic performance as Cindy Lou Who.

If you’re familiar with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you’ll know who Cindy Lou Who is. Here, though, she’s not a little kid anymore. She’s all grown up and she’s had something of a difficult life, as she explains in the show. I won’t go into detail, because the point of much of the comedy is the surprise, but I will say that it’s not “family friendly”, some story elements can be unsettling, and the end result of it can come across as essentially negating the whole point of the Grinch story. Still, there are a lot of references to that and other Seuss stories and characters, as many of them figure into Cindy Lou’s story or have sent their “regrets” in response to her invitations to the holiday party she’s preparing to host at her trailer. That’s essentially the whole set-up–Cindy Lou is hosting a party, and she talks to the audience as she anticipates her guests’ arrival, with various levels of audience interaction as she tells her sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes outright shocking story full of Dr. Seuss references and jokes that vary from the silly to the clever to the crass.

This show is certainly not for everyone, and there’s very little here in terms of subject matter that hasn’t been done in similar shows. It is enthusiastically staged, however, with fun production values and a colorful, whimsical set by Josh Smith, as well as colorful costume design by Megan Bates that includes a fun quick-change moment. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been also contribute to the overall bright and festive look and atmosphere.

The best part of this show is its leading performance, with Polizzi in excellent form as Cindy Lou, who tries to stay upbeat and positive for the most part, even as she recounts the hardships she has endured over the years. Polizzi is excellent at maintaining the rhythm of her mostly-rhyming lines, and displays great comic timing as well. She also shines in the occasional sadder moments, as well as displaying an impressive singing voice at times and good “comically bad singing” in another moment. It’s a performance that has to carry the show, because she’s the only cast member, and Polizzi does an excellent job here.

Who’s Holiday had an enthusiastic audience the night I saw it. It’s not your expected “holiday show” in one way, but in other ways it’s exactly what you may expect. While this may or may not be your cup of tea, what it does have is a bright, sparkly holiday performance from its one and only cast member.

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Who’s Holiday at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 18, 2021

Comfort
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2021

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest production isn’t just a St. Louis premiere–it’s a World Premiere, by playwright Neil LaBute, with whom the company has had an ongoing working relationship. They’ve produced several of his plays before, mostly as part of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival. The new play, Comfort, is a two-character drama examining a strained mother-son relationship, while exploring and challenging the character and choices of the mother in particular. It’s a superbly cast and acted play featuring two excellent local performers, and it works especially well as a showcase for their impressive talents.

The mother character, Iris (Kari Ely), is the main focus of the play, and the real catalyst for its action, even if what she did to set the play’s action in motion happened offstage and years before the events depicted in the play. Iris is a celebrated, multi-award-winning author who lives alone and cherishes the time she spends by herself, as well as the accolades she has received–and hopes to receive, as she has apparently recently been subject to some Nobel Prize buzz. Cal (Spencer Sickmann), her adult son, was primarily raised by his father–Iris’s recently deceased ex-husband–since the couple split up when Cal was 10 years old. The action begins when Cal breaks into Iris’s house while his mother is out, ostensibly to retrieve some photo albums that feature old family pictures from before the divorce, but we find out when Iris inevitably comes home and discovers him that Cal has an underlying motive that he doesn’t initially admit. What ensues is a series of scenes and events that work to challenge Iris’s choices as a writer, as a mother, and as a person, as well as reveal some of the reasons behind her estranged son’s resentment toward her.

As one who finds LaBute’s work somewhat hit-or-miss, I have been curious to see what this new work would be like. I have to say now that in my mind, this one is a lot more “hit” than “miss”, although it does contain some elements that I that I think need some editing or reworking, such as some repetitious situations and dialogue and some “revelations” that are too obvious, as well as some points that could be elaborated more. I also think the character of Cal isn’t as well-drawn as he could have been, although Sickmann does a commendable job of making him interesting. Both he and Ely make the most of their roles, and their dynamic interplay is the main sources of the drama here, as at first it’s not entirely clear what Cal wants, and the revelations throughout the play are introduced gradually. Iris is a complex character with many levels of depth, and Ely does a fantastic job of portraying all of these levels with clarity and, when needed, startling intensity. Iris is also not especially likable, although Ely’s performance makes her fascinating to watch as the story unfolds and her interactions with Sickmann’s Cal become more emotionally charged.

As for the staging, director Anamaria Pileggi makes the most of the small stage here, and Patrick Huber’s thoroughly detailed set. The mood is helped along through means of Huber’s excellent lighting as well, and costume designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters well. I’m continually impressed by how STLAS is able to use their relatively small venue to the best of its potential, and this show is no exception.

Overall, Comfort is a worthwhile theatrical experience. It’s not a perfect play, but it makes an excellent showcase for two superb performances. With its complex relationship dynamic dealing with academic, social, and personal issues, it’s an intense drama that’s sure to make audiences think.

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Comfort at the Gaslight Theater until December 3, 2021

Tinsel Town
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
The Midnight Company
December 2, 2021

Joe Hanrahan, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Los Angeles, California is like no other place on earth, both in its near-synonymous association with the entertainment business and with a specific form of quirkiness. The Midnight Company’s latest production, Tinsel Town, is a suite of interconnected short plays that highlight the unique aspects of this area and with entertainment culture in the age of the pandemic. Showcasing two excellent performers, the show is a fun, alternately hilarious, critical, and insightful look at showbiz personalities and the town in which they live, work, struggle and thrive.

The show is three plays in one, with its two performers, Joe Hanrahan and Ellie Schwetye, each playing a different role each time, although the stories are connected in that they are set in the same “world” representing a day in L.A. and various aspects of the entertainment industry, and through Schwetye’s three characters, who each mention the others and who are working on a film project together. Even with these connections, though, the plays vary sharply in tone, from the broad comedy of the first segment: “Late Lunch on Melrose 1:30pm”; to the more humor-tinged drama of the second segment: “Just Off Sunset 12:15am”; and finally to more lighthearted comedy with the third segment “Shoot in Santa Monica 12:40pm”. Each looks at “the business” from a different angle, highlighting both positive and negative aspects of the L.A. and showbiz life, particularly in the movie and music industries. The plays also all deal with artists experiencing various transitions in their careers, as Schwetye’s demanding movie star Beverly Montclair deals with maybe not being considered “A-list” anymore, and getting offered different roles than she’s used to by her longtime agent Bobby Daniels (Hanrahan) in the first segment; veteran singer Teenah Davis (Schwetye), who is trying to restart her career with a new band after some struggles, has a potentially fortuitous meeting with also struggling longtime session guitarist Hank Riley (Hanrahan) in an alley behind a club after a show in the second segment; and longtime British stage actor Richard Hoffman (Hanrahan) deals with nerves and cultural adjustment issues as he works on his first Hollywood film shoot–for a sci-fi epic featuring villainous “space vampires”–with aspiring director Susan Dmitri (Schwetye) in the third segment.

The performers here adjust impressively to the shifts in tone between the pieces, with both–and especially Schwetye–gleefully hamming it up in the hilariously over-the-top first act, as Hanrahan’s fun script cleverly skewers the stereotypical “Hollywood” atmosphere and demonstrating the versatility of the word “darling”. Both performers also find much poignancy in the melancholy but hopeful second segment, and then deftly return to a slightly more gentle brand of comedy in the third vignette, as Hanrahan’s examination of the L.A. life trends back to the goofy side, but still maintaining a sense of hope. It’s a fun show, overall, showing off the considerable talents of its two leads, as well as their versatility and sense of timing.

The L.A. atmosphere and “Hollywood” vibe are well-maintained throughout by use of excellent mood-setting music in the interludes between shows, and by Erik Kuhn’s excellent lighting and minimalist set, as well as top-notch video design by Michael Musgrave-Perkins. The costumes by Elizabeth Henning are also impressive, and suit the characters especially well. Overall, this is a well-paced, superbly cast, especially memorable look at a day in the life of one of the more celebrated–and parodied–cities in the United States, and in the world. 

Ellie Schwetye, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Tinsel Town at the .Zack Theatre until December 18, 2021

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

Blue/Orange
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

Breadcrumbs
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