Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie
Adapted by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 24, 2023

Armando Durán
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s shows have long been known to have high production values, but with their latest show, I think they’ve outdone themselves. In this production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the technical  aspects are so impressive, they threaten to upstage the also superb cast. It’s a vibrant, thrilling, dramatic, and often humorous staging where every note rings true, and the technical aspects lend a cinematic flair that makes this show a true must-see.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s better-known stories, and it’s been filmed several times over the years for the big and small screens. Here, as adapted by Ken Ludwig, the cast has been pared down a little and the story streamlined slightly, but the tone is classic Christie, and Hana Sharif’s brisk direction keeps the story moving along in a well-timed, almost filmlike way, as the legendary Christie detective Hercule Poirot (Armando Durán) tells the story after a brief filmed introduction that has the feel of classic Hollywood cinema. The action begins in a hotel, as Poirot prepares to embark on the storied Orient Express train. He fortuitously runs into his old friend Monsieur Bouc (Jamil A. C. Mangan), who runs the train line and helps Poirot secure a ticket for what he hopes will be a relaxing journey. Soon, however, the detective finds himself surrounded by intrigue, as a collection of disparate characters converge on the train, and of course, there’s a murder. Of course, Poirot has to solve the case, but it’s not easy when everyone around him seems to be hiding something, and the train itself becomes caught in a snowstorm. I won’t give away the conclusion, but it’s one of Christie’s more inventive ones, and it’s made especially believable here by means of staging and the excellent cast.

The memorable characters are cast especially well, with Durán leading the way as the determined, clever Poirot. Mangan, as Bouc, is also strong, showing a lot of charm and energy as he assists Poirot and tries to maintain order on the train. Standouts also include the marvelous Ellen Harvey as the strong-willed, much-married American Helen Hubbard; Gayton Scott as exiled Russian Princess Dragomiroff; Fatima Wardak as the devout, nervous missionary Greta Ohlsson; and Christopher Hickey and Aria Maholchic (the understudy, filling in for principal Margaret Ivy) as the secretive lovers Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham. Cameron Jamarr Davis is also memorable as Hector MacQueen, private secretary to Joel Moses’s shady, boorish Samuel Ratchet; and Michael Thanh Tran lends strong support as dutiful train conductor Michel. This cast is supported by a small ensemble of Webster University students (Luka Cruz, Kyleigh Grimsbo, Colby Willis, and usually Maholchic), lending to the overall filled-out, movie-like feel of the production. 

Also contributing to that cinematic flair is the truly spectacular set by Tim Mackabee, which meticulously recreates a series of locales, including several train cars, and utilizes the stage’s turntable to magnificent effect, with scene changes meticulously timed to go along with the richly produced, filmlike score by composers and sound designers Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts. There are also dazzling projections by Michael Salvatore Commendatore and marvelous lighting by Jason Lynch, contributing to the overall 1930s atmosphere and thrilling tone of the story. There are also excellent period costumes by Fabio Toblini that contribute to the overall atmosphere of the show.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a riveting, thrilling, cinematic marvel that captures the essence of classic Christie tales while also maintaining an “Old Hollywood” sense of glamor and style. It’s an expertly choreographed, technically dazzling show that holds the audience’s attention from the very first moment. The cast is excellent, but the set is so spectacular that the train itself becomes a character in the show as well. It’s a wonderful old-fashioned whodunit with style, energy, moments of well-timed humor and credible drama. It’s a remarkable feat for the Rep.

Cast of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express until April 9, 2023

Grand Horizons
by Bess Wohl
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
March 17, 2023

Sarah Burke, Joneal Joplin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

What happens when a long-married couple suddenly declare that they’re planning to divorce? That’s essentially the premise of Moonstone Theatre Company’s latest production, Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, directed by Sharon Hunter. This well-cast, characterful comedy-drama explores the effects of such an announcement on a couple’s family, as well as revealing difficult truths about their relationship with one another, and also with their adult children and how years of unspoken issues influence the lives of those around them.

The divorce announcement is not a spoiler. It’s the inciting incident of the play, with the idea introduced in the very first scene, as Bill, played by Joneal Joplin and Nancy, played by Sarah Burke, sit down to dinner what appears to be a familiar, mostly wordless ritual. Lack of communication becomes a major theme in this story, as the couple’s adult sons, Jared Joplin as Ben and Cassidy Flynn as Brian, along with Ben’s pregnant wife Jess, played by Bridgette Bassa, react to the news in a somewhat explosive manner. Obviously, the “kids” aren’t happy, and the brothers determine to stick around until they can convince their parents to change their minds, or at least explain themselves, which they don’t seem ready to do at first, even to each other. What ensues is a series of difficult revelations and not a few surprises, some more shocking than others, as the truth of the long-standing strain in the marriage is revealed, along with its effect on their sons, including Ben’s relationship with Jess, who has her own frustrations with her husband’s apparent lack of sensitivity. Brian, meanwhile, deals with the fact that he doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by his family, and deals with commitment issues of his own while he deals with the revelations about his parents and his role as “the emotional one” compared to his more “practical” older brother.  

The play also deals with issues of aging, changing views of gender roles in marriage over the decade–especially in expectations for women–the concepts of parental influence on children, and parental roles in the lives of their children as they grow up start their own independent lives and relationships. The characterizations are strong, the story is well-structured, and the pacing is timed with precision, with just enough time given to the more important revelations, the various surprises having a suitably strong impact.

The cast here is excellent, led by long-time St. Louis actor Joneal Joplin as wannabe stand-up comedian Bill, and Burke as the initially reserved Nancy. The interplay between these two provides much of the drama, as well as a good deal of the humor, and both performers adeptly reveal layers of their characters’ personalities as needed. There are also strong performances from Jared Joplin–Joneal’s real-life son–as the more emotionally reserved, practically minded older son Ben, and Flynn as the conflicted, more expressive younger son, Brian. Bassa, as Ben’s wife Jess, a family therapist, is a strong presence as well, trying to help her husband’s family deal with their new situation while also dealing with tensions in her own marriage and expectations for the upcoming birth of her child. There’s also excellent support from Carmen Garcia as Carla, a rival for Bill’s affections, and William Humphrey in a brief but memorable scene as Tommy, a man Brian brings home for an intended romantic liaison.  The ensemble chemistry is dynamic and credible, contributing much to the overall dramatic and comedic impact of the show.

The production values are superb, with a detailed set by Dunsi Dai that believably recreates a unit in a retirement community. The costumes by Renee Garcia suit the characters well, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting contributes much to the mood of the production. There’s also impressive sound design by Amanda Werre, and effective use of music when needed, especially in the last moments of the show, in which the chosen song couldn’t be more perfectly selected.

Grand Horizons is another strong showing from the relatively new Moonstone Theatre Company. It’s an insightful, sometimes whimsical look at marriage, family, and most of all, the importance of communication and true intimacy in relationships. It’s a great turn from a stellar cast and technical crew.

Jared Joplin, Bridgette Bassa, Sarah Burke, Casssidy Flynn, Joneal Joplin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Grand Horizons at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until April 2, 2023

This review was originally published at

Every Brilliant Thing
by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
New Jewish Theatre
March 16, 2023

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

Every Brilliant Thing is a popular show. The latest staging, from the New Jewish Theatre, is the third production of this show I’ve seen in St. Louis since it debuted here with another theatre company in 2018. I think it’s popularity stems from a few factors–its simple production values which don’t require a large budget, its relatable subject matter, and its ability to showcase a strong, personable central performer. While this current production, directed by Ellie Schwetye and starring the always excellent Will Bonfiglio, is certainly the most polished production I’ve seen from a technical standpoint, it still maintains that inherent simplicity, audience interaction, and focus on its lead character that makes it such a memorable–and, considering its sometimes heavy subject matter–an ultimately hopeful show. 

The setup here in NJT’s versatile space at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre is simply but elegantly appointed, designed by Bess Moynihan with a flair for setting an approachable, warm and inviting initial mood–and this atmosphere helps to provide balance in the show’s darker moments. Moynihan’s lighting is also especially effective, as Bonfiglio, suitably outfitted by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler in jeans, a casual button-down shirt and comfy sneakers, tells the story as a version of himself, as is the norm for this play. There’s a soft rug and a raised platform on one end of the stage where there’s a chair, and old-fashioned record player, and a box of records, which play into the story that is well-punctuated by various songs in the moments that call for them. Also, dangling from the ceiling is a collection of notecards suspended by wires, featuring various “brilliant” things about life, whether they be objects, people, experiences, etc. The audience members are given notecards, as well, and called upon to read items from Bonfiglio’s list as he calls their numbers.

The story, told as if it happened to Bonfiglio himself, recounts his childhood growing up with a chronically depressed mother, and the list of brilliant things starts out as his way to try to cheer her up. Over the years, as he grows up, the list gets longer and takes on new meanings, as Bonfiglio tells of his relationship with both of his parents, as well as meeting a romantic partner in college, and his on-and-off writing of the list as he struggles to deal with his own emotions and reactions to his mother’s condition as well as relating to the world around him. Bonfiglio gently calls on various audience members to participate in his story, playing a school teacher/counselor, his dad, a college professor, and his love interest, among others. Bonfiglio handles this aspect of the role especially well, and at least two of the “guest performers” I saw were notable local actors, which suggests that at least in some cases, Bonfiglio was choosing people he already knew to some degree, although I don’t think this was the case with everyone he chose. 

One of the most appealing aspects of this show is that it’s so easily tailored to the particular performer who stars, and with Bonfiglio, it works especially well. Director Schwetye, who has worked with Bonfiglio before with great success at NJT with Fully Committed in 2019, has paced this show ideally, allowing Bonfiglio’s warm, engaging and occasionally unpredictable personality to shine forth in moments of humor, sadness, reflection, and ultimately hope. Bonfiglio is especially adept as holding the audience’s attention, and encouraging participation while not seeming too pressuring. The arc of the story, while familiar to anyone who has seen other versions of this show, gains a degree of immediacy with Bonfiglio in the lead.

I have seen this show three times now, and each time I’ve seen something new and challenging, but the emphasis has always been on hope. At NJT, Bonfiglio, Schwetye, and the creative team have constructed an elegantly staged, dare I say brilliant production. It does contain difficult subject matter, including depression and suicide, but it is handled with great sensitivity and poignancy. It’s a superb showcase for an excellent and beloved local performer. It’s a brilliant thing, indeed. 

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Every Brilliant Thing at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until April 2, 2023

The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Suki Peters
Albion Theatre
March 10, 2023

Teresa Doggett, Ted Drury, Nick Freed
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

The latest production from Albion Theatre is a well-known classic of British theatre. The Birthday Party, by celebrated playwright Harold Pinter, is intriguing, memorable, challenging, and deliberately unsettling and disturbing. At Albion, director Suki Peters has staged a thoughtful, impeccably cast production that speaks to its own time as well our own, and is sure to get audiences thinking. 

The play is often mentioned as a prime example of the mid-20th Century Theatre of the Absurd genre, as well as being labeled a “Comedy of Menace”. Both of these descriptors are apt, in that there is a message here, but it’s often not a strictly “coherent” one, and fear, uncertainty, and menace are major features in the play, setting a sort of questioning tone and not providing much in the way of answers. The way it’s staged at Albion focuses much on the building tension and sense of nebulous dread, as well as the mannerisms and particularities of the characters, who are at once unique individuals and recognizable “types”. 

The setup is fairly simple, as older English couple Petey (Robert Ashton) and Meg (Teresa Doggett) have breakfast together in their simple house in a small seaside town. They engage  in a rote, mostly empty discussion of the meal, the day, and their boarder Stanley (Ted Drury), an out-of work pianist who lives out his purposeless days bickering, and occasionally flirting, with Meg, and avoiding people in the outside world. It also may or may not be his birthday, and Meg prepares to celebrate, as neighbor Lulu (Summer Baer) delivers an odd present, and Stanley appears to be unsettled by the news that two men from out of town have asked Petey for a room for the night, because the place may or may not be a boarding house. Soon, the strangers arrive, and they appear to be on a mission involving Stanley, who seems to recognize Goldberg (Chuck Winning), who appears to be in charge, and clearly has unpleasant plans for Stanley, even though we’re never told exactly what those plans are, or what Stanley has done to precipitate the interrogation and menacing that ensues. Goldberg is accompanied a stoic, matter-of-fact Irish assistant, McCann (Nick Freed), and the two proceed to terrorize Stanley while acceding to Meg’s wish to celebrate his “birthday”, insisting on attending the party, which is eventful, to say the least, and not a little disturbing.

Although the “plot”, for what it is, is fairly basic, it’s the characterization and the tone that make this show, with moments of comedy–sometimes broad, sometimes cynical–are interspersed with a more threatening atmosphere. The players here are all well-chosen, and although the accents are mixed bag–ranging from essentially flawless (Ashton and Doggett, who are both originally from the UK, and Freed, who sounds authentically Irish), to “good enough” (Drury and Baer), to “barely there” (Winning)–the characterizations are consistent and excellent. Drury makes a credible, sullen Stanley, adding to the tension and mood with his body language as well as his speaking moments, and he plays especially well in scenes with the superb Doggett as the well-meaning and over-intrusive Meg. Doggett’s comic timing is especially strong, as is Winning’s. Winning and Freed make a suitably threatening pair, and Freed manages to bring layers of depth to his fairly simply presented character. Ashton and Baer are also memorable, making the most of their fairly limited stage time. It’s a strong, cohesive ensemble, handling the overall tone and pacing well. 

The technical aspects of the production are also excellent. The simple unit set by Brad Slavik, along with the costumes by Tracey Newcomb and props by Gwynneth Rausch, establishes the time and place with suitable accuracy while also project a drab “ordinariness” that works especially well for this show. Anthony Anselmo’s lighting is used to striking effect throughout, especially in the birthday party sequences, and the sound by Michael Musgrave-Perkins is also effective. Ryan Lawson-Maeske’s fight-chorography lends to the menacing tone of the play with credible results, as well. 

The Birthday Party, as with other works by Pinter, is a play that is open to interpretation in various ways, and there have been a few differing theories about what is really happening here. Regardless of what it “really” means, though, it’s the feeling of uncertainty and looming threat that dominates, along with a cynical sense of purposelessness and meaningless mundanity in everyday life. These are themes that still resonate now, and this staging highlights them with clarity and intensity. It’s a remarkable, highly memorable production. 

Robert Ashton, Chuck Winning, Nick Freed, Ted Drury
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

Albion Theatre is presenting The Birthday Party at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 26, 2023

Book by Arthur Kopit, Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Based on the Film 8 1/2 Written by Federico Fellini
Adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti
Directed by Scott Miller and Chris Kernan
Choreographed by Chris Kernan
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2023

Cast of Nine
Photo by Gerry Love
New Line Theatre

Nine is a show I’d heard about, and heard songs from, but had never seen. From what I had seen and heard, I wanted to see it, but I just hadn’t had the opportunity, because it doesn’t seem to be performed a lot, at least in St. Louis. Yes, there’s a movie, but I had heard highly mixed reports about it, and I prefer to see shows on stage first if at all possible. I also hadn’t seen the original Fellini movie, 8 1/2, on which Nine is based–although now, I want to. Thankfully, New Line Theatre has now given me and others the chance to see this unusual, fascinating show, which is ideal for this theatre company, known for its bold choices and excellent production quality, and especially great singing. 

The story focuses on self-absorbed movie director Guido Contini (Cole Gutman) and the multitudes of women in his life, from his longsuffering wife, Luisa (Lisa Karpowicz) to his eager mistress Carla (Sarah Wilkinson), to his determined producer, Liliane LeFleur (Kimmie Kidd-Booker), and his elusive favorite film star Claudia (Ann Hier Brown) to various other figures in his life, such as his mother (Stephanie Merritt) and a host of muses, exes, critics, and more. The creative, conflicted Guido is struggling to come up with a script for his next picture, which is due to be filmed imminently. This story has a fantastical element, in that most (if not all) of the action is taking place in Guido’s mind, as he struggles not only with his present dilemma while staying at a spa in Venice, but also deals with the influences of his past, and the continued theme of his relationships with–and attitudes toward–women.

There’s a lot going on here, and I won’t go into too much detail since the journey of discovery is important to see firsthand. It’s Guido’s journey, and although the show explores his relationships with many women, his marriage with Luisa is the most prominent, and the staging reflects her importance, with Luisa often seeming to be a spectator to some of the more elaborate fantasy sequences, so we can see her reactions not only to his attitudes and interactions, but toward Guido himself, and the kind of man he is. There’s obviously love here, but there is also intense conflict, and other figures in Guido’s life also loom large, with impressive performances all around, and some of the best, most intricate ensemble singing I have heard at New Line, and with this company, that’s saying something.

As Guido, Gutmann is charismatic, enigmatic, and dynamic,  conveying all the difficult qualities of Guido’s personality credibly, but also maintaining a strong presence and a degree of sympathy when needed. His voice is strong and versatile, and he has great chemistry with his co-stars. Karpowicz is also excellent in a somewhat subdued performance as Luisa, managing to convey her frustration and her affection for Guido even when in moments when she is mostly reacting to what is happening around her. Karpowicz also has a strong voice on songs like “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own”. There are also strong performances from Wilkinson as the amorous Carla, Brown as the conflicted Claudia, Merritt as Guido’s Mother, and Kay Love as a sort of narrator figure known as Our Lady of the Spa. There are also especially memorable, dynamic performances from Sarah Lueken as Saraghina–and influential figure from Guido’s school days–who leads the memorable “Be Italian”; and especially Kidd-Booker as the brassy, bold, and theatrical LeFleur, with her showstopping “Folies Bergères” number commanding the stage with humor, presence, and style. The rest of the ensemble is also strong, contributing to the first-rate vocals and the overall tone of the story.

This staging is based on the 2003 Broadway revival version, as opposed to the 1982 original. The scaled-down production is ideal for New Line, and the look is strikingly simple, with a black-and-white color scheme predominating, from Rob Lippert’s white- tiled unit set to the stylish black costumes by Sarah Porter. Matt Stuckel’s lighting adds much in the way of mood and atmosphere to the proceedings, as well, including flickering film-like effects at the beginning–and the great New Line band led by music director Dr. Jenna Lee Moore lends power to the memorable Maury Yeston score.

Nine, being essentially an extended fantasy sequence that deals with a lot of deeply personal issues for Guido. Luisa, and the rest of the characters, can be a little hard to follow at times, but it’s staged and sung so well as to make audiences want to pay attention, and to ponder the issues being dealt with here. There’s drama, occasionally raunchy humor, intensity, and reflection. As is frequent for New Line, it’s a production that is simultaneously simple and complex, bringing out the truth of the material through authentic, credible performances and thoughtful staging. It’s a fantastic production.

Cast of Nine
Photo by Gerry Love
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Nine at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2023

Just One Look
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
March 1, 2023

Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company

Linda Ronstadt is a musical legend. That’s no question, considering all the accolades she’s received over the years, including several Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now, she’s become the subject of The Midnight Company’s latest production, written and directed by Joe Hanrahan and starring Kelly Howe as Ronstadt. On stage in a cabaret-like setting at the Blue Strawberry & Lounge, the show is an entertaining and informative look at Ronstadt’s life and career, and especially her music. 

The show is presented in an interview format, with Hanrahan as a music journalist named Lenny Anderson, who doesn’t even attempt to hide his affection for his subject. Howe, as Ronstadt, answers Lenny’s questions about her life, career, and attitude toward music, relationships, politics, and more–but mostly, she sings. If you’re a fan of Ronstadt’s, as I am, you’ll know most if not all of the songs, from Ronstadt’s first hit with The Stone Poneys, “Different Drum”, through her country-pop-folk-rock years of arena tours with songs like “Long, Long Time”, “You’re No Good”, “When Will I Be Loved?” and more, to her later years trying out radically different genres such as jazz-pop classics, operetta, and Mexican music in honor of her father. Howe sings the songs well, showing off an impressive vocal range and versatility, reminiscent of Ronstadt herself. She doesn’t sound exactly like Ronstadt, but I wasn’t expecting that. There’s only one Linda Ronstadt, but Howe does an excellent job of singing in Ronstadt’s style, and her mannerisms are similar to Ronstadt’s, as well, from what I’ve seen in interviews and the excellent documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which I highly recommend if you’re a fan. 

Hanrahan, for his part, does a fine job conducting the interview, even though his character can come across as intrusive at times, and he seems to be trying to do a British accent, but it’s not consistent at all, and disappears entirely for most of the show. There’s also an excellent band backing Howe as Ronstadt, led by music director Curt Landes on piano, and featuring Tom Maloney on guitar and bass, and Mark Rogers on percussion and backing vocals. 

This show is an ideal fit for its venue, as well. The Blue Strawberry is known primarily for hosting cabaret shows, and it provides a lively atmosphere for this production. I had never seen a show at this venue before, and I enjoyed it a lot. I look forward to seeing more productions there. 

Overall, Just One Look is a memorable, entertaining musical tribute to one of pop/rock music’s most celebrated voices. It’s also an excellent showcase for Howe, who has an impressive voice of her own and plays Linda Ronstadt convincingly. Especially if you are a fan of Ronstadt’s, this is a production well worth checking out. 

Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The MIdnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Just One Look at The Blue Strawberry Showroom & Lounge on Wednesday evenings until March 15

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Bartlett Sher
The Fox Theatre
February 28, 2023

Justin Mark, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore, Steven Lee Johnson
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour

The latest adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the works of two celebrated writers–Haper Lee, who wrote the classic novel, and playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who created the script for this new stage version. Directed by Bartlett Sher, this production shifts the focus slightly while still emphasizing the timeless themes of the novel. The touring production, currently on stage at the Fox, also boasts a strong, memorable cast and a remarkable technical presentation, along with fast-paced, dynamic staging to tell this classic story in a truly memorable way.

The novel is such a classic that it’s been assigned in school for generations, and many Americans have read it or at least seen the celebrated 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, or one of the many productions of the previous stage version by Christopher Sergel. It’s a story many are familiar with, so a new adaptation was always going to be a challenge, even for the award-winning Sorkin. The resulting script is fast-moving and dynamic, changing the focus slightly to center in more on lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) than his daughter, Scout (Melanie Moore), who is the protagonist of the novel, although Scout still has a prominent role here, narrating the show along with her brother, Jem (Justin Mark), and new friend, Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). The story is told in semi-linear fashion, alternating between the trial of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch)–a Black man who Atticus defends against a false rape charge–and events in the lives of the Finch family and the townspeople as the trial further exposes the ingrained racist system and culture of the old South, and Atticus himself is challenged by the family’s housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams). 

Calpurnia and Robinson are given a bit more focus here, as well, with Welch getting some compelling moments in the trial, and Williams making a strong impression in scenes with Atticus and the children. The children are played by adults here, which may seem like a strange choice, but it works, and all three performers are convincing, from the gutsy Moore as Scout; to the confrontational Mark as Jem; to the impulsive and verbose Johnson as Dill. There’s also strong support from David Manns as the sympathetic Judge Taylor, and a chilling turn from Joey Collins as the threatening, racist Bob Ewell, father of Robinson’s accuser, Mayella, who is played with a credible blend of fear, evasiveness, and anger by Arianna Gayle Stucki. Also notable are Jeff Still as the “town drunk”, and Robinson’s employer, Link Deas, and Mary Badham, who so memorably played Scout as a child in the film, who now has a brief but memorable role as Mrs. Henry Dubose, who is essentially the opposite of Scout–a cranky, critical, racist old woman who has a few confrontational run-ins with Scout and Jem. Thomas, as Atticus, is excellent, and believable as the noble lawyer as well as a man who is forced to confront his own flaws. It’s a very human portrayal, and his scenes with Moore, Mark, Johnson, and Williams are especially effective. There’s a fairly large ensemble here for a touring play, and everyone is strong, adding a cohesive energy to the production and its evocation of a specific place and historical era.

Technically, the show also impresses, with Miriam Buether’s versatile set moving smoothly between the Finch’s house and the courtroom, among other areas as needed. Ann Roth’s costumes are equally impressive, meticulously crafted with period detail and suiting the characters well and in keeping with the era, as is the hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates. There’s also memorable, atmospheric lighting by Jennifer Tipton and proficient sound by Scott Lehrer.

Although there are needed moments of humor that are well-placed, To Kill a Mockingbird is an intense play, with important, serious subject matter dealing with issues of racism, along with abuse, bullying, and parental neglect. It also features some strong language, including frequent use of racial slurs, and suggestions and descriptions of abuse and assault. It’s a well-crafted drama featuring some truly remarkable performances, and to my mind, much more effective than the previous adaptation I have seen. Its a very human drama, speaking as much to today as it does to the time in which it is set. Like every adaptation of this book I’ve seen, it does streamline the story and leave some things out, but it does so with precision and insight. It makes me want to read the book again. It’s a remarkable adaptation, and a production that needs to be seen. 

Yaegel T. Welch, Stephen Elrod, Jacqueline Williams, Richard Thomas
Photo Julieta Cervantes
To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour

The national tour of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is running at the Fox Theatre until March 12. 2023

The Last Five Years
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
February 19, 2023

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre company is staging its second musical, Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical two-hander The Last Five Years, at the .ZACK Theatre. It’s a mostly sung-through show that’s known as a showcase for excellent singers, and director Taylor Gruenloh has chosen the leads well, in prolific local performers who have the voices, the presence, and the chemistry to carry this emotional roller-coaster of a show. There are also some inventive directorial choices that add to the drama and characterizations. 

Some of the drama of this show is provided by its structure, as its tale of a failed relationship is told in two directions at once. Cathy, an aspiring musical theatre performer played by Grace Langford, starts at the end of the relationship and progresses backwards. Jamie, a successful young novelist played by Kevin Corpuz, begins at the beginning, shortly after he and Cathy have met, and moves forward in the story. Their narratives catch up in the middle, at their wedding, and then move further apart.  

It’s an intriguing structure, and in most productions–like the last one I saw, twelve years ago–Jamie and Cathy spend most of their moments apart from one another, trading songs and stories but only interacting in the middle, when their narratives meet. Here, director Gruenloh has staged it differently, so both characters are frequently onstage together, as Jamie will be there reacting to Cathy’s songs, and Cathy reacts to Jamie’s. They are able to respond to one another more directly, which adds to the drama and adds a degree of depth to the relationship. I still find myself sympathizing with Cathy more, as Jamie often comes across as an a self-centered jerk, although this production seems to bring out Jamie’s charm a little more, especially in the first half of the show, and we also get to see more nuance in Cathy’s perspective. 

The casting is excellent. I already knew Langford and Corpuz had great voices and strong acting skills from seeing them in a variety of previous productions. Here, it’s just the two of them together, and they are matched well, with strong chemistry and excellent voices. Jason Robert Brown’s music is memorable and challenging, and both of these two performers rise to the challenge. Josie Schnelten is also strong in a brief, wordless appearance later in the show. 

The staging is fairly simple in terms of set, since the action takes place on a mostly empty stage, with evocative lighting by Gruenloh and Brittanie Gunn, along with projections by Gruenloh that help the audience keep track of what year it is in each scene. Both performers are simply dressed, as well, with Langford in red and Corpuz in black and grey. The band, led by music director Leah Schultz, is onstage above and behind the actors, and they sound great, although the acoustics of the venue make it so the band can sometimes drown out the performers as they sing, making it difficult to understand the lyrics at times.

For the most part, though, this is a highly effective, moving production that benefits greatly from the inventive direction and the dynamic performances of the two leads. The Last Five Years runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, and there are no dull moments here. It’s another impressive musical production from Tesseract. 

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Last Five Years at the .ZACK Theatre until February 26, 2023

Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Neil LaBute
Directed By Annamaria Pileggi

John Pierson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is currently staging a production of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya, in an adaptation by Neil LaBute. This play is famous for a reason, considering its timeless themes and memorable characters. On stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater, the play is given a remarkably measured, expertly acted staging that brings out the play’s poignancy and emotion.

The story, set in late 19th Century Russia, follows a group of characters whose lives aren’t where they would want them to be. Vanya (John Pierson) and his niece Sonya (Bryn McLaughlin) manage a country estate that belonged to Sonya’s late mother. Her father, the retired professor Serebryakov (Greg Johnston) has been staying there recently along with his young second wife Yelena (Jennelle Gilreath Owens). While the ailing professor bemoans his lost youth, Yelena has attracted the attentions of both Vanya and local doctor Astrov (Michael James Reed). The story that ensues involves unrequited love, regrets of lost potential, flirtations, resentments, and crushing loneliness, as almost everyone seems to want something they can’t have. 

It’s an ensemble play, with most of the action revolving around Vanya, Sonya, Astrov, and Yelena, but also featuring supporting characters in the form of the professor, Vanya’s mother Maria (Jan Meyer), family nurse Marina (Eleanor Mullin), and family friend Telegin (Michael Musgrave-Perkins), who also lives on the estate. The acting is universally impressive, well-paced by director Pileggi so that every emotional moment is earned, and nobody goes over the top. Pierson is excellent as the regretful, lonely Vanya, and McLaughlin’s pining (after Astrov) but insistently hopeful Sonya is also a standout. There are also strong performances from Owens as the conflicted Yelena and Reed as the lovestruck Astrov. Everyone is strong, with excellent moments all around and cohesive ensemble chemistry that helps carry this long play and make every moment fascinating. 

Technically, this production is also remarkable, in using the Gaslight Theater stage in a way the emphasizes the confined, closed-in feeling of some of the characters. The  meticulously crafted set by Patrick Huber, who also designed the lighting, suits the mood and era appropriately, as do Teresa Doggett’s excellent costumes. There’s also good use of sound and music in the transitions, with impressive work by sound designer Pileggi. 

Uncle Vanya has stood the test of time for its relatable themes, characters, and situations, even though we may be over a century removed from its setting. Astrov has some lines that mention what people may think of them a hundred years in the future, and these moments made me think of how this play has endured through the years, being staged in many places and venues around the world. At St. Louis Actors’ Studio, this play is given a remarkable production more than worthy of the play’s reputation. 

Jennelle Gilreath Owens, Michael James Reed, Bryn McLaughlin
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Uncle Vanya at the Gaslight Theater until  March 5, 2023

by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Elizabeth Carter
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 17, 2023

Tatiana Williams, Tiffany Oglesby
Photo by Liz Lauren
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s latest production, from celebrated playwright Dominique Morisseau, is one of three regional premieres around the United States. Confederates is an inventively structured look at the lives of two Black women in different situations and historical eras, but who both struggle for freedom in their own ways. With stellar production values and a first-rate cast, this show makes a strong impression and is sure to provoke much thought and conversation. 

The stories play out in interspersed scenes, focusing on Sandra (Tatiana Williams), a professor at a prestigious university, and Sara (Tiffany Oglesby), an enslaved woman on a plantation during the Civil War. Sandra is dealing with various issues, both personal and professional, including a recent divorce, conflicting expectations from her students and colleagues, as well as trying to find out who placed a photoshopped image on the door of her office. Sara, who has grown up on the plantation, helps out her brother Abner (Xavier Scott Evans), who has run away to join the Union Army, and is faced with the unexpected return of Missy Sue (Tracey Greenwood), the daughter of the plantation’s owner, who has a plan for the conflicted Sara. Both central figures are forced by circumstances to reflect on their own positions and take action, dealing with systemic injustice and striving for freedom on their own terms, many times being forced to figure out who their true allies are, if any.

The leading performances are both excellent, with Williams and Oglesby both exuding strength, stage presence, and credible emotion as their characters endure a variety of challenging circumstances and relationships. The rest of the cast members each play two characters, and all are strong, with Celeste M. Cooper as Sandra’s academic colleague Jade and as the enslaved, conflicted Luanne a particular standout. There’s also excellent support from Evans as Abner and Sandra’s student Malik, and Greenwood as the entitled Missy Sue and Sandra’s student assistant Candice. The staging is dynamic and well-paced, with occasional moments of humor amid the increasingly intense drama.

The set design, by Nina Ball, is inventive and visually striking, with contrasting wood floors representing the divide between eras and locations most of the time, but also serving as an effective setting when the whole stage is required for some key moments in Sara’s story. There’s also effectively evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, and excellent use of projections by Micah Stieglitz. Ricky German’s costumes are excellent, as well, suiting the characters well as being versatile to provide for quick changes for the performers who play different characters. There’s also compelling use of sound and music from composer/designer T. Carlos Roberts. All of these technical elements work well to represent the two eras and locations as well as providing a thematic connection between the stories.  

Confederates is a compelling, story that provokes much reflection and thought. There are many important issues portrayed here, in the person of two memorable, vividly portrayed characters and their situations. It’s a must-see show that can be a catalyst for important and challenging conversations. It’s a remarkable production from the Rep.

Tatiana Williams, Celeste M. Cooper
Photo by Liz Lauren
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Confederates until March 5, 2023