Forget Me Not
Co-Written and Co-Directed by Kyle Marlett and Gunnar Sizemore
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2022

Kyle Marlett
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ studio is presenting a unique show this month, which isn’t exactly a play. A one-man show starring professional magician Kyle Marlett, Forget Me Not comes across more like performance art, although there apparently is a script, co-written by Marlett and Gunnar Sizemore.  Featuring some audience participation that, to my mind, borders on the intrusive, the show explores Marlett’s life experiences and relationship with his chosen profession, as well as exploring the ideas of memory, secrets, and honesty. 

Marlett comes across as a personable guy, and this show starts out with him introducing himself and what he does. He demonstrates some basic magic tricks, and then starts telling his story, almost as if he’s making up the show as it goes along, although the staging essentially requires a script, as certain lines trigger things that happen in the show–especially when a series of boxes suspended above the stage drop at various times throughout the performance. Marlett tells stories of his life and his family relationships–especially with his older brother and his father–performing feats of illusion along the way. The story gets highly personal, and so does the magic show, as Marlett invites audiences members up onstage to participate, and it increasingly comes across as awkward and more than a little intrusive. I’m sure there are people who like this kind of thing, but I usually find this way of putting strangers on the spot uncomfortable. I’m fairly sure the audience members weren’t “plants”, either.

Still, some of the magic tricks are truly amazing, and the technical effects and coordination of those effects are impressive. It’s an entertaining show in terms of spectacle. Patrick Huber’s lighting design and Marlett’s sound design, featuring highly effective use of music, are excellent. I also find the setup striking, with Marlett alone onstage with only a table and two chairs as furniture, and an array of boxes surrounding him as walls, along with the ones that hang from the ceiling.

As Marlett tells a compelling and, at times, intensely emotional series of stories, the magic tricks and special effects help him tell that story, presenting thought-provoking concepts exploring the ideas of lies vs. honesty, as well as the weight of secrets. It’s certainly a memorable show, true to it’s title, and for attendees who are cool with the more awkward and challenging aspects of it, this will be the most effective. Marlett is a gifted magician, and the blend of theatre and magic is inventive. If you go in knowing what to expect, it’s probably easier to enjoy. 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Forget Me Not at the Gaslight Theater until December 18, 2022

Ride the Cyclone
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
December 2, 2022

Riley Dunn, Grace Langford, Eileen Engel, Mike Hodges, Dawn Schmid, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

When Stray Dog Theatre originally announced this season a while back, I was unfamiliar with Ride the Cyclone. Since then, over the past year, I’ve seen it mentioned quite a bit in theatre fan spaces online. Although it’s never had a Broadway run (yet), this quirky Canadian musical has developed a fairly large cult following, so I read more about it and was looking forward to seeing SDT’s production to see what all the enthusiasm was about. After seeing the show, I’m pleased to say that for the most part, it lives up to the hype. With the great cast that SDT has assembled, along with excellent production values, it’s a little show with a memorable score and a compelling story.

Ride the Cyclone has a fairly familiar general setup, in a broad sense, that has been used in several other musicals, such as Cats and another recent SDT show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Several characters tell their stories, with one of them selected to win a “prize” of some sort at the end.  Here, the characters are teenagers from a Canadian high school choir who recently were killed in a roller coaster accident at a traveling carnival, and they are “competing” for a second chance at life. The host for the event is The Amazing Karnak (billed “As Himself” in the program), a carnival fortune telling machine that has the mysterious ability to predict the exact day of a person’s death, including his own. Karnak has assembled the five choir members and a mysterious sixth teen only known as “Jane Doe” (Dawn Schmid) to plead their cases and then vote for which one should be brought back to life. The characters are a varied collection of personalities, from chronic overachiever Ocean (Eileen Engel) to her professed BFF and “nicest girl in school” Constance (Grace Langford), to the theatrical Noel (Mike Hodges), who laments being seemingly the only gay teen in his small town. We also meet Misha (Riley Dunn), an aspiring rapper who is originally from the Ukraine and who pines for his online fiancée; and Ricky (Stephen Henley), who was somewhat isolated due to a degenerative illness and constructed an elaborate imaginary adventure for himself in his head. These five–along with Jane Doe, who was unidentified after the crash and doesn’t remember her life–each get their solo moments to state their cases, or for the most part, simply to tell everyone else who they were. Most of the “campaigning” comes from Ocean, who sees herself as the obvious candidate for a second chance. The interactions between the characters are the center of the story, along with their strikingly staged musical moments–ranging from the more straightforward (Ocean’s “What the World Needs) to the elaborate (“Noel’s Lament” and Ricky’s “Space Age Bachelor Man” to the more melancholy and/or haunting numbers like Misha’s ode to his far-away fiancée “Talia” and the memorable “Ballad of Jane Doe”, to Constance’s cathartic “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud”.  

The tone of the show is darkly comic, for the most part, with some poignant moments of drama thrown in. There’s an overall eerie quality set by Jane’s haunting “Dream of Life” from the very beginning, and that mood shapes much of the proceedings even at their most comic. I see why this has such a following, especially among teens and young adults, since there’s a lot here with which to relate in terms of growing up and figuring out one’s purpose in life, even here where we are already told most of the characters won’t be continuing in the land of the living. There’s a sense of “what could have been” that lingers in the air, adding weight to the stakes, as well as providing cause for personal reflection for the audience. 

All of the performers are ideally cast, giving top-notch performances with excellent characterization and vocals. The ensemble chemistry is essential in a show like this, and that’s on display here in a big way. It’s hard to single anyone out, because everyone fits their roles so well. Still, for me the biggest standouts are Schmid with her strong vocals and otherworldly and melancholy portrayal; and Langford as the “nice girl” Constance who is keeping a secret, and eventually and dramatically reveals it. Everyone is great though, and the staging is also memorable with some fun choreography by Hodges and some hilarious production numbers–most notably from Henley and Hodges in their characters’ big moments. 

The production values are truly spectacular, especially from a smaller theatre company without an enormous budget. SDT pulls out all the stops, with a mood-setting, detailed set by Josh Smith, spectacular costumes by Engel, dazzling lighting by Tyler Duenow, and superb projections by director Justin Been that contribute to some of the shows more intensely poignant moments. There’s also a great on-stage band led by music director Leah Schultz, providing strong musical accompaniment to the story and the singers.

Ride the Cyclone might be a show that has flown under your radar, but I would highly recommend checking out this production. It’s a thought-provoking story with a memorable score and some striking visuals, as well as providing a showcase for a truly excellent cast. Especially if you’re into more quirky, off-beat shows with a bit of an edge, this is one not to be missed. 

Grace Langford, Riley Dunn, Mike Hodges, Dawn Schmid, Eileen Engel, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ride the Cyclone at Tower Grove Abbey until December 17, 2022

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
by Ginna Hoben
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
Westport Playhouse
November 30, 2022

Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo: Westport Playhouse

The Twelve Dates of Christmas isn’t a typical “feel-good” holiday show. It’s an off-beat comedy with moments of drama, showcasing a strong performance from the always excellent local performer Jennifer Theby-Quinn. In the small space at Westport Playhouse, the show is a fun, occasionally poignant look at one woman’s year following a breakup and her adventures and misadventures in dating. 

This isn’t a “family show”, considering its language and mature themes, but family figures in the story in a major way, as Mary (Theby-Quinn) finds out about her fiancé’s betrayal in a surprisingly public way, while spending time in her Ohio hometown with family for Thanksgiving.  Over the course of the performance, we hear about Mary’s parents, her exercise-loving sister, and her meddling aunt who is determined to find the “perfect man” for Mary. Over the course of the year, Mary goes through a series of dates and acting jobs in New York City, marking the various men she dates with ornaments on a large projected Christmas tree. Over the course of a little over a year, she meets a variety of men, from the “too good to be true” to the obviously wrong guys, to one or two guys with real possibilities. Mary, who is pursuing an acting career, also recounts some of her acting jobs, as well as a day job as a barista in a coffee shop. Over the year and the series of eventful and uneventful dates, Mary also makes a few new friends, including the jilted ex of one of her dates, and a five-year-old boy who plays Tiny Tim in a production of A Christmas Carol in which Mary is cast. It’s essentially a series of narrated vignettes, as Mary deals with single life in the modern world, and with difficult relatives who she cares about even though she doesn’t appreciate their meddling. 

The play is essentially a showcase for its leading performer, and Theby-Quinn is ideally cast. Adept at comedy, drama, and singing, Theby-Quinn shines as Mary, who experiences the ups-and-downs of the seasons, and the dating scene, aided by some familiar holiday music and a series of clever video projections designed by Margery and Peter Spack, and edited by Lenny Mink and Kurtis Gibbs. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Daniel MacLaughlin and sound designer Jacob Baxley. This is a fun show for this space, as well, providing some offbeat holiday-themed entertainment and a compelling, if somewhat predictable, story. 

Even though there’s nothing especially innovative about this show, it isn’t trying to be anything but an offbeat exploration of one woman’s journey back from a bad breakup, with a holiday theme and soundtrack. Theby-Quinn proves again that she is a consummate performer, and this is a good showcase for her talents.  If you’re looking for an entertaining, funny, occasionally poignant, occasionally crass holiday show, The Twelve Dates of Christmas is worth a look. 

Westport Playhouse is presenting The Twelve Dates of Christmas until December 23, 2022

Bernice’s 70th Birthday
by Nancy Gall-Clayton
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2022

Tanya Bardgley, Deb Dennert
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre has a commendable mission to showcase new plays by regional playwrights. Their latest production, Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton has much going for it, with a well-staged production and good cast. There’s a compelling story here, although perhaps a little too much for one play in terms of subject matter, and not enough in terms of action. 

This is essentially a character study, focusing on the active, upbeat Bernice (Deb Dennert), who is celebrating her 70th birthday, although she balks at being called a “senior”. Bernice is fun-loving a likes to think outside the “box” society seems to want to put her in. She clashes with her middle-aged daughter, Carol (Tanya Badgley) about her life goals and plans for her house and living arrangements. Carol, who has issues of her own with workaholic tendencies and a struggling marriage, encourages Bernice to look into moving into a condo in a retirement community, while Bernice tries to help Carol “loosen up” a bit. Bernice offers marriage advice, but also has her own issues coming to terms with her late husband’s long-ago death and its impact on her family, including estranged son Evan (Tyson Cole), who is much younger than Carol and was a child when his father died. He’s also gay, which Bernice has trouble accepting, and when he turns up after eight years asking lots of personal questions, Bernice is forced to confront several issues in her life that she has previously avoided. The dynamic between Carol and Evan–who have stayed in touch but don’t seem to have much in common–is also explored, as a series of meetings and conversations and meetings on Bernice’s back porch challenge the characters to examine their relationships, decisions, and attitudes toward each other, their loved ones, and their attitudes toward life.

There are a lot of ideas in this play, and many of them have been explored before elsewhere. The structure is fairly laid-back, but the conversations can get intense, to the point at times where it just comes across as a lot of yelling. Also, there might be a little too much here in terms of subject matter for one play, and the characters’ story arcs (especially Carol’s) can seem a little simplistic. There isn’t a lot of action here, and while there have been some great plays that consist mostly of a series of conversations, this one could use a little more focus on what it’s trying to say. Also, I often found myself wishing to see some of the characters who are just talked about–such as Carol’s husband, Evan’s partner, and Bernice’s “yoga friends”. 

The fine cast does a good job making the characters compelling, with Dennert’s Bernice leading the way. Dennert does an excellent job of portraying Bernice’s strengths as well as her flaws, and her attitudes toward both of her children are complex and credible. Cole is also strong as Evan, who longs for answers and a better relationship with his mother, and Badgley does a creditable job with the difficult role of Carol. The scenes between Badgley and Cole are especially well-done, and all three make a believable, if strained, family unit.

The production values are fairly basic, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, fine lighting by Nathan Schroeder and suitable costumes by Tracey Newcomb, working well in the black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center. The play itself could use some editing, but what First Run has presented here portrays this script in a compelling light. It’s not the most lively of birthday celebrations, but it’s a credible family dynamic with a good cast, and there’s a lot to think about here. 

Deb Dennert, Tyson Cole
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Bernice’s 70th Birthday at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 4, 2022

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 25, 2022

Paul Aguirre, Guiesseppe Jones
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s holiday tradition is continuing with their lively production of Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. The same adaptation by Michael Wilson that was staged to acclaim last season is back this year, and it seems to have found a new energy the second time around. With much of the same cast and the same stunning production values, the show carries an enduring message and a spirit that only seems more moving this year.

The story is well-known, following the classic Dickens tale with a few modifications, as the miserly, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by a series of ghosts and forced to come to terms with who he was and what he has become, with the chance of reformation.  The casting is mostly the same as last year, and the players are more effective than ever–with Guiesseppe Jones at the center as Scrooge. Jones is joined again by Armando McClain as Scrooge’s longsuffering but optimistic clerk Bob Cratchit; Michael James Reed in a dual role as Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber and the persistent ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley; Laakan McHardy, Paul Aguirre, and Eric Dean White as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as “real-world” merchants in debt to Scrooge; and a host of others repeating their roles from last year, joined by a few newcomers like Peterson Townsend as Scrooge’s cheerful nephew, Fred, as well as the younger adult version of Scrooge himself. There’s also a vibrant youth ensemble in the child and teen roles, split into two groups performing on alternating nights–I saw the “Green” ensemble.

It’s a strong cast all around, with Jones, Reed, and all three Spirits as the standouts once again, along with McClain’s eminently likable Cratchit, and Townsend making a strong impression as Fred. The Rep is also collaborating with local organizations COCA and Big Muddy Dance Company, along with Webster Conservatory, adding cohesive energy to the ensemble.

The production values are as stunning as ever, with the set design by Tim Mackabee, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Seth Reiser, and projections by Hana Kim all contributing to the alternately dramatic, funny, and truly thrilling tone of the production. There’s also excellent work from composers and sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes as well as music director Tre’von Griffith. The music is a surprisingly effective blend of traditional European folk music, familiar carols, and hip-hop influences including a rap sequence and eye-catching dancing, inventively choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. 

There have been so many versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, and the material has proven to hold up well in various forms, because the classic themes of generosity, kindness, and redemption endure throughout the generations. With the Rep’s intention of making this show an annual event, I thought it might seem stale doing the same adaptation again, but I was mistaken. In fact, this year’s version is even better than last time. It might be nice to see them change up the  adaptations at some point, but this one works so well with all the performance and technical elements pitched just right. It’s an ideal theatrical start to the holiday season in St. Louis.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 30, 2022

Ordinary Days
by Adam Gwon
Directed by Elisabeth Wurm
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 18, 2022

Jacob Schmidt, Lauren Tenenbaum
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Ordinary Days isn’t a big musical, but its staging is a big step for Tesseract Theatre Company. The show, a sweet-natured relationship story from writer/composer Adam Gwon, is Tesseract’s first venture into the world of musical theatre, after focusing primarily on new and lesser-known plays. As a first foray into a new creative direction, with more musicals planned for next year, I would say this production gets the company off to a promising new start.

The show revolves around four characters–or five, since New York City itself is essentially a co-star in this story. Four young New Yorkers navigate the city, relationships both romantic and platonic, and their life goals in the first decade of the 21st Century. The play is tied to its time for at least one important reason that is made apparent as the story unfolds, but it’s also just as tied to its location, with New York City representing both ordinary day-to-day life struggles as well as the “Big Picture” goals as emphasized in one of the show’s more prominent songs. The characters interact primarily in pairs. There’s Micheal Lowe as Jason, a hopeful young man who has optimistic dreams for his relationship with his girlfriend Claire, played by Brittani O’Connell. The two are embarking on a new stage of their relationship, having just moved in together, but Claire struggles with making a lasting commitment due to issues from her past that she hasn’t revealed to Jason. Meanwhile, ambitious graduate student Deb, played by Lauren Tenenbaum, is frustrated when she misplaces her notebook containing her thesis, and is thrust into a halting friendship with the ever-cheerful Warren, a would-be artist played by Jacob Schmidt. Deb first views Warren, who finds her notebook, with suspicion, but their interactions eventually help her to see beauty in the “little picture” of everyday life in addition to the bigger picture of the lofty goals she pursues. There’s nothing flashy about this story, but it’s simple and full of heart, humor, and moments of poignant drama, focusing on the characters and their relationships as they live their lives in the Big Apple.

The staging is simple but effective, with a deliberate pace dictated mainly by the songs, as the show is mostly sung-through. Even though the odd acoustics of the .ZACK Theatre sometimes make the show difficult to hear, Director Elisabeth Wurm has assembled a strong cast, with excellent ensemble chemistry and credible interaction between the pairs of performers. Lowe is an amiable, believably optimistic Jason, with a strong voice although he tends to sound a bit shouty in some of the more intense moments. He’s well-matched by O’Connell, who is appropriately mysterious as the reticent Claire, and also in good voice except for a few occasional cracks. The best singer in the production is Schmidt, who has a strong tenor voice that works well with his songs and his sometimes overly cheerful character, who Schmidt infuses with an affable spirit that makes him likable even when his cheeriness threatens to go over the top. Tenenbaum also turns in a strong performance as the ambitious, anxious Deb, delivering her songs with energy and conviction, and working especially well with Schmidt as their characters’ unlikely friendship grows. The show also looks good, with the simple staging augmented by Taylor Gruenloh’s memorable projections, Brittanie Gunn’s evocative lighting, and Zach Neumann’s proficient piano accompaniment. 

Pivoting their focus to (mostly) musicals is a bold decision for Tesseract, but Ordinary Days shows that it’s a good call. This show also had the biggest audience I’ve ever seen at a production from this company, so theatregoers seem to like the decision, as well. It’s an auspicious beginning for Tesseract’s next act, represented by a little show with a big heart and a strong cast. 

Micheal Lowe, Brittani O’Connell
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Ordinary Days at the .ZACK Theatre until November 27, 2022

The Good Ship St. Louis
by Philip Boehm
Original Music by Anthony Barilla
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
November 6, 2022

Upstream Theater’s latest production is a World Premiere original, with intriguing subject matter and a strong cast. Based on true events, this show explores the issue of how refugees are treated in times of political upheaval, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s a highly ambitious project, and it’s a compelling story with simple but strong production values and a particularly effective ending, although there are a few bumps along the artistic voyage. 

The story is presented with a modern-day framing device, and a few looks at the refugee experience from various times in modern history, focusing much on St. Louis. The main story follows the passengers and crew of the M.S. St. Louis, a German vessel that was carrying many Jewish passengers to Havana, Cuba, in 1939. The ship sparked much controversy and international headlines, and after several countries (including the United States) refused to receive the ship and its passengers, it was eventually sent back to Europe, finally being allowed to dock in Antwerp, Belgium. The story of the ship is interspersed with the modern-day story of Susan (Kari Ely), who upon the death of both of her parents, finds a trove of boxes, documents, pictures, and various items in her attic relating the story of a married couple–the German-born Herbert (Jeff Cummings) and the Polish-born Rosa (Nancy Bell), who were passengers on the ship. The connection between Susan–whose parents were both raised in Irish-American families–and this couple becomes apparent eventually, leading up to a truly poignant conclusion and ending sequence.

In the meantime, we also get to see the stories of other passengers and crew, including sympathetic Captain Schröder; the captain’s steward Leo Jockl (Eric J. Conners), who harbors a secret; and Nazi group leader and second class steward Schiendick (Christopher Hickey), who is a secret spy; and several of the Jewish passengers including Recha (Sarah Burke), and her ailing professor husband Moritz (Tom Wethington), as well as Charlotte (Kathleen Sitzer), who was raised in a well-to-do family. We also get to hear the stories of a few people affected by different conflicts over the years, including Bosnian refugee Jasmin (Conners), who settles in St. Louis; Leyla (Sitzer), a Syrian refugee who settles in Lebanon; and Ukrainian Latin teacher Lidia (Burke), who finds her knowledge of Latin useful as she travels between various countries. There’s also a series of vignettes featuring three characters with similar names in similar situations, reacting to the news of the day in various times and places–Federico/Freddie/Frederick/Fred (Hickey), and Benito/ Benny/Benedict/Ben (Wethington), who discuss the news of the world and sports; and Maria/Marie/Mary/Marisa (Mariand Jagels Felix), who waits tables (or who could, considering the circumstances). It’s a compelling story with perhaps a few too many plots and characters, although the connection to the refugee experience and attitudes toward refugees over the years is an important idea. The structure can get a little muddled and drag at times, although the main story of the M.S. St. Louis remains compelling despite the occasionally clunky presentation, involving projections and titles describing what’s happening at various moments in the story.

I guess the best way to characterize this play in terms of genre is to call it a “sort of musical”. I say “sort of” in that it doesn’t present itself as a musical initially, so the first time characters start singing, it comes across as somewhat jarring, and the songs aren’t as pervasive as they are in most musicals. I guess you could call it a “play with music”, but the songs do drive the plot when they appear, but they are not as strong an influence as they could be. The music is a mixture of original songs by Anthony Barilla and a few traditional songs and popular songs of the era. It’s well-performed by music director Henry Palkes on piano and cellists Coco Wicks and Ethan Edwards, and the actual singing is good, with varying degrees of vocal quality among the cast, although regardless of vocal power, everyone brings a commendable degree of emotion to their songs. 

The most effective story  line is that of the M. S. St. Louis itself, and especially that of Rosa and Herbert, who are played with strong chemistry and poignancy by Bell and Cummings. Ely also makes the most of her somewhat underwritten role as Susan, although she and Bell probably have the single strongest moment in the show, toward the end. There are also memorable performances from Mayer as the conflicted Captain, and Burke and Conners in a variety of roles each, as well as Hickey and Wethington, also in a variety of roles. Everyone gives their all, and the performances are the highlight of the production.

The show also boasts a strong sense of time and place, well-maintained through the means of Laura Fine Hawkes’s well-realized unit set that suggests the deck of the ship, aided by Barilla’s atmospheric music and sound design, as well as Steve Carmichael’s excellent lighting and Laura Hanson’s detailed costumes. Brian McLelland and Mona Sabau provide memorable projections, as well, even though the use of these projections sometimes lends a “classroom instruction” type of air to the proceedings, as the show occasionally errs in the way of telling rather than showing the plight of its characters. 

Even though I do have some quibbles with the structure and presentation of the story, for the most part I find it poignant, thought-provoking, and effective. Especially considering the strong cast and compelling subject matter, this is a promising new play from Upstream Theater. The Good Ship St. Louis may have a bit of a rough journey at times from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s very much a worthwhile one to see. 

Upstream Theater is presenting The Good Ship St. Louis at the Marcelle Theatre until November 20, 2022

Frozen
Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Book by Jennifer Lee
Directed by Michael Grandage
Choreographed by Rob Ashford
The Fox Theatre
November 3, 2022

Caroline Bowman, Lauren Nicole Chapman, and cast of Frozen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

Frozen has become a household name these days, starting with the hit Disney film, which spawned a sequel, and a Broadway musical that’s enjoyed a popular North American tour. The modern classic tale of magic, the love of family (both biological and found), and overcoming fear has now landed at the Fox, in a production that’s technically stunning to the point that I haven’t seen in a touring production, as well as boasting a strong cast and a memorable score. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the plot, although there are a few additions and expansions to the story for the stage version. Still, it’s a fairly faithful translation from screen to stage, centering on a pair of royal sisters. Elsa (Caroline Bowman), the heir to the throne of the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, has magical ice-creation powers that she’s hidden since childhood when she (played as a child by Sydney Elise Russell at the performance I saw) accidentally lost control of her power and injured her younger, non-magical sister, Anna (Aria Kane as a child at my performance, Lauren Nicole Chapman as an adult). The princesses’ parents, King Agnarr (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen Iduna (Belinda Allyn), are concerned, and after summoning the “hidden folk” led by Pabbie (Tyler Jimenez) to heal Anna and remove her memories of Elsa’s magic, they swear Elsa to secrecy and encourage her to hide her power. Upon their parents’ unexpected death in a shipwreck, the princesses live a reclusive life in the palace until the day arrives for Elsa’s coronation as Queen. The fearful Elsa, who has shunned her sister to protect her, welcomes the public to the palace for the first time in years, which leads to a series of events that changes everyone’s lives and threatens the survival of the kingdom. Along the way, Elsa has to learn what to do with her great power, and she and Anna learn about the power of love–familial for the sisters, but also of the romantic variety for Anna, as she falls quickly for the newly arrived Prince Hans (Will Savarese), while later finding herself drawn to mountain-dwelling ice-seller Kristoff (Dominic Dorset), who helps her look for Elsa after a catastrophic mishap sends the Queen fleeing to the mountains. 

This is a fairly well-structured show, although perhaps a little too much time is given to the prologue, and the finale seems a little bit rushed. Still, it’s a thrilling adventure for the most part, and sure to please fans of the movie. All the well-known characters are here, from the sisters to the mysterious Prince Hans, to the brave and loyal Kristoff and his reindeer friend, Sven (Collin Baja at the performance I saw, aided by a magnificent costume/puppet), and the lovable snowman Olaf (Jeremy Davis, operating a well-realized puppet). The music is familiar as well, with favorites like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the iconic “Let It Go” joined by a few new songs for the stage. 

The cast is excellent across the board, with memorable performances and an excellent sisterly bond from Bowman as the conflicted, secretive Elsa and Chapman as the energetic, adventurous Anna. While Elsa is prominent in the show, and Bowman shines in her scenes, showing off her powerful vocals on “Let It Go”, in the stage version especially, this comes across more as Anna’s story primarily, and Chapman does a commendable job holding the audience’s attention with her excellent vocals, comic timing, dramatic ability, and dance skills. The young Russell and Kane are also strong as the sisters in the prologue scenes. There are also standout performances from the engaging Dorset as Kristoff, whose scenes with Chapman are a highlight; and Savarese, whose Hans is suitably charming upon his introduction. Davis as Olaf is also a delight, providing comic relief as well as some heartwarming moments without ever going over-the-top. The puppetry, designed by Michael Curry, is stunning here, as well, also lending realism and wonder to the role of Sven, who is acted beautifully by Baja in a fully articulated reindeer outfit. Michael Milkanen also has a notable moment here as shopkeeper Oaken, who leads the bright and hilarious Act 2 opening number “Hygge”. There’s great work from all the players here, and striking, energetic choreography by Rob Ashford that helps move the story along well. 

As good as the cast is, however, the biggest star in this production is the technical wizardry that provides many “ooh” and “ahh” moments in the show. The glorious set and costumes by Christopher Oram and the special effects by Jeremy Chernick are probably the most elaborate and impressive that I have seen in a touring production of any show. Along with the dazzling lighting by Natasha Katz and video design by Finn Ross, these technical elements truly draw the audience into the world of Arendelle, first in the richly appointed castle and then into the awe-inspiring, wintery mountain landscape. It’s a magnificent technical achievement that serves the story well and inspired applause in at least one notable moment later in the show.

Frozen is certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s also a heartfelt, occasionally thrilling story with a clear message about overcoming fear and the importance of love–not just romantic, but also (and especially) love of family. It’s appealing for all ages, as well.  It’s been a while since I had seen the movie, but the stage version strikes me as an especially fine, successful adaptation. 

Dominic Dorset, Colln Baja
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

The North American Tour of Frozen is running at the Fox Theatre until November 13, 2022

Barefoot in the Park
by Neil Simon
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
October 27, 2022

Luis Aguilar, Rhiannon Creighton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Barefoot in the Park is one of celebrated playwright Neil Simon’s earlier works, first having been staged on Broadway in 1963, starring a young Robert Redford, who later starred in the 1967 film adaptation opposite Jane Fonda. Moonstone Theatre Company has chosen to set their season opening production in 1966, perhaps to take advantage of the late 1960s style trends, and this production certainly achieves an eye-catching aesthetic. It also features some winning performances and well-paced direction by Sharon Hunter, highlighting the more timeless elements of the play’s appeal, although the age of this script does show through in places.

This is one of those shows that, while contemporary in its time, only works as a period piece today. The 1960s setting is one of the highlights of this production, but it also highlights the changing times, including views of marriage, relationships, and perceptions of age and gender roles. The story focuses around young newlyweds Corie (Rhiannion Creighton) and Paul (Luis Aguilar), who have just come from their honeymoon to settle into a small, fifth-floor walkup apartment in New York City. Although they are still in the flush of “young love”, these two are very different in terms of personality. Corie is impulsive, vivacious, and upbeat, always looking for a new adventure in life. Young lawyer Paul, on the other hand, is more conventional, and wary of Corie’s more outgoing, quirky ways. Still, they’re obviously in love, and excited about beginning their life together, until a series of interactions calls both to question whether or not they should even be together. This is a Neil Simon comedy, so the complications tend toward the madcap rather than the introspective, and hilarious characters and situations are the focus. First, there’s Corie’s mother, Ethel (Jilane Klaus), who personality-wise seems to have more in common with her new son-in-law than her daughter. Ethel, who voices her support for the new couple, is also obviously concerned and has the tendency to want to meddle. She’s also lonely, set in her ways, and (*gasp*) 50(!), so Corie is determined to inject some excitement into her mother’s life by introducing her to their worldly, eccentric upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco (TJ Lancaster), who proves to be charming and affably wacky. Naturally, hijinks ensue, leading to the young couple’s questioning their own relationship and their attitudes toward one another and life in general. 

The show is certainly funny, and the characters and situations are never dull, especially with the excellent performances and brisk staging. Still, there are some creaky elements to the script that make it obvious how much society has changed in the past six decades. First, although both Corie and Paul learn about compromise in relationships, the major “weight” of the self-reflection is given to Corie, with elements of the old “change to keep your man” theme. Also, the attitudes toward aging, and  how people age 50+ (especially women) are perceived and expected to behave, is especially jarring. Still, there is a lot to like here, as well, and a lot of the themes are still as relatable today as they were 60 years ago.

For this production, the vibrancy comes from the excellent, very period-focused atmosphere as well as the wonderful cast. Dunsi Dai’s colorful, detailed set is a mid-century marvel, as are Michele Siler’s character-appropriate costumes, Michael Sullivan’s atmospheric lighting and Amanda Werre’s excellent sound design. The period-specific music played before the show and during the two intermissions also highlights the 1960s mood. 

As for that wonderful cast, everyone is strong, with a cohesive ensemble chemistry and excellent comic timing. Creighton as the energetic Corie and Aguilar as the more reserved Paul make a memorable pair, making the somewhat rocky arc of their relationship believable. Klaus is also strong as Ethel, who undergoes a believable transformation of sorts aided by the hilarious Lancaster, who gives a charming, scene-stealing performance as Victor. There are also excellent featured performances from Chuck Brinkley as a telephone repairman and Bob Harvey as a delivery guy. 

Overall, Moonstone’s Barefoot in the Park is a brightly atmospheric trip into the 1960s, and a fun look at how contrasting personalities and outlooks on life can influence relationships. It does have its share of dated elements, but this production, featuring its great cast and memorable aesthetic, is ultimately fun, funny, and heartwarming. It’s an entertaining opening for Moonstone’s new season.  

TJ Lancaster, Jilanne Klaus, Luis Aguilar, Rhiannon Creighton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Barefoot in the Park at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until November 13, 2022

Roll With It!
by Katie Rodriguez Banister and Michelle Zielinski
Directed by J. Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
October 13, 2022

Kate Rodrigquez Banister, Hannah “Mo” Moellering
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company has returned to the stage with a world premiere production starring and co-authored by its subject. Roll With It! is a highly personal look at writer, speaker, and disability activist Katie Rodriguez Banister’s life and relationships with family, friends, the world, and herself. It’s an inventively staged production that tells a fascinating story, even if it could use a little bit of editing. 

The stars of this production are unquestionably Banister, who plays herself and co-wrote the script with Michelle Zielinski, and Hannah Geisz, who plays Katie Before the Accident, who sticks around with Katie while her life story plays out in the form of vignettes, flashbacks, and commentary. The car accident that changed Katie’s life and left her paralyzed from the chest down is the major inciting incident, but the main subject is Katie herself, as she learns to deal with her own issues not just stemming from the accident, but also relating to her relationship with her parents, her own self-image, and more. The play also recounts her recovery from the accident, her lawsuit of the company that made the car she was riding in on that fateful day, her involvement in theatre and in disability education and activism, and her meeting the man who would eventually become her husband–Steve Banister, played by Tyler Gotsis. Ultimately, though, the story is about Katie coming to terms with herself, and learning to accept the earlier version of herself along with who she becomes. This aspect is inventively portrayed through the device of having two “Katies” who not only act out events as they happened, but who also directly interact with one another, wrestling with their issues in a visual, visceral way that forms most of the compelling drama, and humor, in this production.

The two main performers are both excellent, portraying a full range of emotions and interacting with energy, intensity, and credible emotion. They are supported by an ensemble of supporting players (Kelly Ballard, Dennis Calvin, Gotsis, Kristen Hayes, Hannah “Mo” Moellering”, Claire Sackman, Luke Steffen, and Rob Tierney), who each play a variety of roles including friends, colleagues, family, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and more as Katie’s story plays out in a series of scenes. For the most part, the staging is compelling, although there are some uneven moments, and a few “backstory” moments that could be explained more clearly. Still, Banister’s story is fascinating and compelling, and this play reflects that reality well.

Technically, it’s a simply staged show with some memorable projections by director J. Michelle Rebollo, as well as excellent lighting by Ryan Luedloff and sound design by Banister and Rebollo. Overall, Roll With It! is a promising new work that features a pair of impressive performances and tells a remarkable and fascinating true life story. 

Hannah Geisz, Katie Rodriguez Banister, Tyler Gotsis
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting Roll With It! at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until October 23, 2022