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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

Bloomsday
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
September 16, 2021

John Moore, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild has joined the numerous other St. Louis theatre companies in returning to the stage for its first live production since early in 2020. Their production of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday was originally planned for that earlier season, and its staging now is especially welcome, being a pleasant, intriguing romantic comedy that plays with the convention of time, featuring an engaging cast and a simple but especially effective set that evokes its Dublin location in an elegant manner.

Of all the “time travel” type stories I’ve seen (and there are many), this one seems to be less “sci-fi” focused than most, in that the time-twisting is treated as a given, and can also be seen more as a metaphor than as literal, for the most part. The setup has Robert (Jeff Lovell), an American college professor, narrating the story as Caithleen (Megan Wiegert), a young Irish tour guide, begins the introduction to her tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin”, which is focused on Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. At first, it appears as if Robert is narrating a memory from 35 years previous, but then as he starts actually talking to Caithleen and seeming to know things that, from her perspective, he shouldn’t know, the story turns into something different. Later, we meet Robbie (John Moore)–a young American tourist who goes on Caithleen’s tour–and Cait (Colleen Heneghan)–an older, world-weary woman who knows a lot about Caithleen’s past, present, and future. Caithleen, for her part, soon realizes what is happening, as it reminds her of something that happened to her mother–although Robbie remains clueless. Overall, the story plays out as a character study and a meditation of the nature of regret, and how sometimes simple, brief events can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a warm, thoughtful tone to much of the story, and a light humor that is punctuated with moments of poignancy that adds impact to the play, and for me, it works a lot better than another Dietz play, This Random World, that was also staged at WEPG a few years ago. Where that play often seemed like it was toying with the audience for the sake of being clever, this one speaks more to a universal condition to which I think a lot of viewers can relate, and that’s the idea of “what if?” Or more precisely, “what would my life be like if I had done this one thing differently?” That idea has been explored in different ways in other works in more elaborate ways–like in the musical If/Then, for instance, but here the emphasis isn’t as much on the structure or the concept but on the characters themselves, and their interactions. 

It’s the characters that make this play more than the concept, and the performances here breath credible life into those characters. The chemistry in their interactions is also strong and palpable, whether its between the older Robert and Cait, the younger Robbie and Caithleen, or any combination of the four. Lovell as Robert manages to combine cynicism and a reflection of youthful idealism especially well, and Wiegert’s strong-willed but wary Caithleen is also excellent, as are Moore as the captivated and increasingly confused Robbie, and Heneghan as the regretful but still energetic and hopeful Cait. There are many excellent moments between all four of these characters, and these make the show especially memorable. A little bit of knowledge about Dublin and Joyce helps, as well, but the play provides enough information to enjoy it no matter what your level of experience with those subjects may be.

Another factor that adds to the overall atmosphere of this production is the simple but vivid set painting by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith. There isn’t a lot of set; it’s mostly only furniture that’s moved around as needed, with the setting provided by an excellent, seemingly three-dimensional backdrop painting that evokes the Dublin setting remarkably well. Played out against this backdrop, the Irish setting comes to life with style. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, in outfitting the characters to reflect their personalities. Jacob Winslow’s lighting, Ted Drury’s sound design, and Jackie Aumer’s props also contribute well to the overall effect of the play.

Overall, Bloomsday is a welcome return for West End Players Guild. Whether you have been to Dublin, read Ulysses or not, it’s an especially relatable trip through time, space, and memory, examining how events can effect people in ways that won’t leave them even years after the fact. Here played out by an excellent cast against a vivid backdrop, it’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

John Moore, Colleen Heneghan, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Bloomsday at Union Avenue Christian Church until September 26, 2021

Sweat
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 11, 2021

Poster Image: The Black Rep

The Black Rep has returned to live performance with the thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage.  It’s a dynamic return for a theatre company that has been known for its excellence. The Black Rep maintains that reputation with a well-cast, impeccably paced production that focuses on issues of economic, class and racial tensions that were relevant in the time period in which the play is set, and that still resonate today. 

The story is told in flashback, starting out in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Don McClendon) is taking turns to interview two young men who have just been released after serving several years in prison. Jason (Franklin Killian) and Chris (Brian McKinley) both allude to something “bad” that they did that led to their conviction, but they are vague. It’s also clear that the two used to be close friends, but they are awkward now about having accidentally run into one another in town. The setting then shifts to eight years earlier, in early 2000, at a bar in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, frequented by workers from a local factory. Three friends and factory co-workers, Cynthia (Velma Austin), Tracey (Amy Loui), and Jessie (Kelly Howe), celebrate Tracey’s birthday and banter with the bartender, Stan (Blake Anthony Edwards), and in a series of subsequent scenes we get to know the characters and their situations, including the younger Jason and Chris, who also work  at the factory.  Gradually and deliberately, a story emerges from these vignettes, as the factory management looks for ways to cut costs, the workers feel the stress of wondering about job security, and Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position at the factory.

We see the expected worker-management suspicion, as well as racial tensions come to the surface threatening the friendships among the characters. Tracey and Jessie, as well as Tracey’s son Jason, are white, along with Stan, who tries to be the mediator and peacemaker in the various situations. Cynthia and her  estranged husband Brucie (A.C. Smith), along with their son Chris, are Black, and are starting to see some resentment from their longtime friends, and especially Tracey. There’s also Oscar (Gregory Almanza), the Colombian-American bar assistant who shows Tracey a Spanish-language job poster from the factory looking to hire workers at a lower rate, which had been posted at the Latin Community Center and leads to further tensions among the characters, as hostility rises against Oscar, who has  been seen as an outsider even though he was born and raised in the area, as well. We also see some of the effects of the management’s treatment of its workers, as well as that of other factories with similar issues, on its workers, as both Brucie and Jessie deal with addiction in their own ways, and others indulge in dreams of “getting out” while some try to hold onto past family traditions and the way things had been for many years. In the midst of this, we see the foreshadowing and increasing buildup to the incident that Jason and Chris allude to in the introductory scenes–and when the moment arrives, it’s shocking in both its brutality and its sheer sense of realism. 

The play is well-constructed, as is expected for playwright Nottage, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking plays are duly celebrated. There’s also a good use of period newscasts and topical references to help set the events in their time as well as suggest a climate of tension across the country that’s not only being felt in this one town. The staging is dynamic and well-paced by director Ron Himes, and the atmosphere is well-maintained with a detailed, realistic set by Tim Jones, evocative lighting by John D. Alexander, clear sound by Kareem Deanes, and excellent costume design by Hali Liles. This setting seems like a real bar that anyone could just walk into and order a drink, and these characters and situations are immediate and believable.

The credibility of the characters is due to the combination of the strong script and the superb performances of the well-chosen cast at the Black Rep. As central figures Cynthia and Tracey, both Austin and Loui convey the complexity of their characters especially well, with a strong sense of history between the characters, and Loui especially manages to keep Tracey interesting even as her character becomes more difficult to like. There’s also a strong, anchoring performance from Edwards as the affable, world-weary bartender Stan. Killian and McKinley are also outstanding playing Jason and Chris as both their younger, more idealistic characters and the characters they become later. Almanza is effective as the determined Oscar, as well, as are Smith as the needy Brucie, Howe as the occasionally snarky Jessie, and McClendon in a small but memorable role as parole officer Evan. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry that helps to drive the drama and relatability of the play. 

Sweat is a play that succeeds on many levels, as is fitting for a Pulitzer Prize winner. At the Black Rep, the company has staged a profoundly provocative show that is sure to make audiences think, which is important in a world in which issues such as these are increasingly timely. It’s a first-rate, remarkable production. 

The Black Rep is presenting SWEAT at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 26, 2021

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 30, 2021

J. Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s 103rd season in Forest Park is closing out in style with a bold, brassy production of the modern classic musical Chicago. Initially appearing on Broadway in 1975 and eventually spawning an enormously popular 1990’s revival and an Oscar-winning movie in 2003, the show is an incisive satire of the 1920s and “celebrity culture” in America in general. Here, with excellent casting, intelligent staging, and vibrant choreography, the show is nothing short of fantastic. 

This isn’t the minimalist, concert-style revival version that has been playing on Broadway since 1996. This is a fully staged, sumptuously appointed and precisely choreographed production that tells its story in a Vaudeville format, which is fitting for the subject matter, and time period (the 1920’s), as some enterprising women look for fame and fortune in a society where if they are famous enough, they can get away with murder. That is what Roxie Hart (Sarah Bowden) and Velma Kelly (J. Harrison Ghee), aspire to do, with the help of smooth-talking celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (James T. Lane). As the story gets started, Roxie kills her lover in cold blood and initially convinces her neglected but devoted husband Amos (Adam Heller) to take the blame. When that doesn’t work, she confesses and is taken to jail, where she meets Velma and the two become rivals for the attention of the public and the press. The events unfold in the style of an old-fashioned Vaudeville show, with each number given an introduction in that vein. 

The score is well-known, with memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Razzle Dazzle”, and “Nowadays”. The Muny’s well-chosen cast performs those numbers and more with the appropriate style and energy. And it’s a truly remarkable cast, led by the fantastic duo of Bowden and Ghee.  Bowden, as the fame-hungry Roxie, has a great voice, excellent comic timing, and impressive dance skills, also imbuing Roxie with a palpable sense of needy ambition, excelling in the show’s darker moments as well as its more humorous aspects. Ghee–who was last seen at the Muny in a marvelous performance as Lola in Kinky Boots–is also superb as show-biz veteran Velma, who has killed her husband and sister in a crime of passion. Ghee’s Velma, physically towering over the rest of the cast (complete with stiletto heels), exudes stage presence and style, lighting up the stage from the first moments of “All That Jazz”. These two performers are the stars of the show, but the supporting cast also shines brightly, with Lane exuding showmanship as the attention-loving Billy; Heller in a poignant performance as the often overlooked Amos; Ali Ewoldt in an impressively sung performance as radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Also notable is the terrific Emily Skinner, who brings a lot of energy and character to the role of prison matron “Mama” Morton, pairing especially well with Ghee in several moments. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, livening up the stage especially in the Charleston-inspired dance numbers and the electrifying “Cell Block Tango”, skillfully choreographed by director Denis Jones. 

This is a great-looking show, as well, with a jaw-droppingly vivid set by Tim Mackabee that makes excellent use of the Muny’s newly rebuilt stage and all its technical resources. An old-fashioned stage setup is featured, flanked by the leaning Chicago skyline and a a versatile set that changes as needed from nightclub to prison cell to courtroom, The Muny’s video screens are put to good use, with eye-catching video design by Shawn Duan that provides “curtains” for the Vaudeville stage, as well as fitting backdrops for many of the production numbers. There’s also dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and impeccable and colorful period costumes by Emily Rebholz. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Charlie Alterman, plays the bold, jazzy score with exuberant energy.

Chicago isn’t just a flashy show full of memorable music. It’s a sharp satire, with some genuine darkness amidst the glitz, and this production brings all the essential elements of the show into sharp focus, with perfectly pitched direction and an ideal cast. It may be set in the 1920’s, but it has a lot to say about today’s America, as well. It’s a “grown up” show for a grown up audience, and its as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. This is a brilliant production, showing that the Muny, after a memorable season, has saved its best for last. 

Cast and set of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until September 5, 2021

You Lied to Me About Centralia
by John Guare
Directed by Rayme Cornell
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 22, 2021

In the same weekend that the Tennessee Williams Festival has premiered it’s excellent, site-focused outdoor production of The Glass Menagerie, they’ve also staged a much shorter companion piece featuring one of the characters featured in Williams’s classic play. You Lied to Me About Centralia is a short play–running about 20 minutes–and the tone is much more wryly comic than the headlining show–but celebrated playwright John Guare’s examination of these characters and their situation adds much to think about concerning Williams’s work as well as the ways individuals allow themselves to be influenced by others.

Guare’s one-act is based more directly on Williams’s short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, which was a predecessor of The Glass Menagerie. Still, the story is similar enough, and the character of Jim O’Connor (Chauncy Thomas) is essentially the same, especially at TWFSTL considering that he’s played by the same actor in both productions. Thomas is joined here by Julia Crump as Jim’s fiancee, Betty, who was mentioned by name but does not appear in The Glass Menagerie. In that play, Jim mentioned that he had to pick Betty up at the train depot after her trip to visit a sick aunt in Centralia. This play–which gets its title from its first line of dialogue–imagines that meeting, and Guare’s depiction of events suggests aspects of Jim’s character–and especially Betty’s–that Williams hadn’t portrayed. 

Here. Betty hadn’t been visiting an ailing aunt–she’d been to see a rich uncle in Granite City instead, with the idea of trying to get “Uncle Clyde” to give her money to buy a house. Jim is initially upset by the deception, but his affable personality allows him to gloss it over, although we also get to see how Betty’s influence–and that of their more “socially acceptable” friends–affects how Jim tells the story of his dinner date with the Wingfields. Betty’s own prejudices also surface when we hear her account of finally meeting her uncle, who had given a different impression of himself in his letters; and her comparisons of her uncle to Tom Wingfield reveal aspects of her character that lie beneath her well put-together, seemingly bubbly surface. The relationship dynamics here are fascinating to watch, and although the tone is largely comic, there’s a tragic aspect here, as we see how Jim responds to her teasing by telling her what she wants to hear. The play serves as not only a character study, but as an examination of social norms at the time, and of the concept of socially enforced conformity. 

The performances are strong, with Thomas getting to show a different side to this character he has already played in a different context, and Crump displaying a strong sense of presence and influence. Both performers work well together, displaying good comic timing and chemistry. The staging is simple and also excellent, as the action plays out on a minimal set (just a bench) on the same stage as The Glass Menagerie, which serves as an intriguing echo since we are now getting to see another look at one of that play’s memorable characters. It’s another memorable moment from the still relatively new, but always excellent, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. 

 

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
August 21, 2021

Omar Lopez-Cepero, Arianna Rosario
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

On Your Feet! at the Muny is what you may expect in some respects. It’s high energy, crowd-pleasing, and full of hit songs from Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, and Miami Sound Machine. It’s big, bright, and lots of fun, but it’s also a celebration not only of music or an artist or a band, but of love, determination, and devotion.

Emilio and Gloria Estefan are well-known now, but everyone has a history, and this musical is theirs, with the emphasis, for the most part, on Gloria (Arianna Rosario). That makes sense since Gloria has been the one in the spotlight for the most part, first as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a solo recording artist. Really, though, she and husband and producer Emilio (Omar Lopez-Cepero) have been partners in music since they first started working together. This show goes back further than their meeting, though, as Little Gloria (Isabella Ianelli) sends tapes of her singing to her father José Fajardo (Martín Solá) while he is serving in Vietnam. The story then follows Gloria and her family as Gloria gets older, including her mother, Gloria Fajardo (Natascia Diaz), her younger sister Rebecca (Cristina Sastre), and her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo). It’s Consuelo who is convinced that the young Gloria should pursue a career in music, and encourages her to audition for Emilio’s band. She does, and the band grows from a popular local act focusing on Latin music to an international pop music sensation.

Throughout the story, we see continued demonstrations of determination and devotion–of Gloria’s parents and grandparents as they flee Cuba to settle in Miami; of Gloria to her family as her father falls ill with multiple sclerosis; of Consuelo, who never gives up on encouraging Gloria in her musical ambitions; of Emilio to Gloria and their mutual drive for innovation and success. It’s a heartwarming story, told with a fair amount of flashback as stories unfold and challenges arise and are overcome, culminating in Gloria’s famous 1991 performance on the American Music Awards. 

I’ve seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox Theatre. Here, there’s some continuity with that production, as Alma Cuervo, who plays Consuelo, also played the same role on that tour (as well as in the original Broadway cast), and as she was on tour, she is excellent here, providing a lot of the “heart” in this story. Also strong are Diaz as Gloria Fajardo, who is determined and devoted for her own part, although she harbors some regrets. There are also strong performances from Solá as José, Sastre in the somewhat small role of Rebecca, and especially young Iannelli, who lights up the stage with much energy and an excellent voice as Little Gloria. At the center of this show, of course, are Rosario and Lopez-Cepero as Gloria and Emilio. These two, who are also married in real life, display a great deal of chemistry, and their scenes together are a highlight. They also give winning individual performances, with Rosario bringing all the stage presence, vocal quality, and energy necessary for her role, and Lopez-Cepero displaying the strength and determination, as well as a clear sense of love for his family, that characterizes Emilio in this story. There’s also an excellent ensemble, doing a terrific job with all those high-energy dance numbers choreographed by William Carolos Angulo.

Visually, the show fills the large Muny stage with vibrant style, with a vivid, versatile set by Tim Mackabee, dazzling costumes by Leon Dobkowski, great lighting by Rob Denton and memorable video design by Kate Ducey. There’s also a great band (brought onstage for much of the second act) led by music director Lon Hoyt. There were quite a few issues with the microphones on opening night, with some dialogue being difficult to hear, and the otherwise excellent “Reach” number suffering from not being able to fully hear some of the ensemble solos. I hope this improves as the show continues its run. 

Still, for the most part, this is big, fun, enthusiastically performed and heartwarming show. The well-known songs like “Get On Your Feet”, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, and “Conga” are here, and the audience clearly appreciates it, right up to the “Megamix” medley of hits at the end.  What I find especially memorable about this show in addition to the music, however, is the portrayal of strong and enduring relationships. On stage at the Muny for the first time, On Your Feet! brings a lot of heart along with the familiar tunes. 

Arianna Rosario (Center) and Cast of On Your Feet!
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting On Your Feet! in Forest Park until August 27, 2021

Con College
by Sam Rozier
Directed by Jordan Block
St. Lou Fringe Festival
August 20, 2021

Spencer Davis Milford, Sam Rozier
Photo: River Rat Productions
St. Lou Fringe Festival

This year, St. Lou Fringe is back to in-person live performances, running over one weekend after a slate of digital offerings the previous weekend. The show I’ve been able to see this year is a promising new work by a troupe of mostly St. Louis based artists, by a local playwright-actor who has set the show in St. Louis. Con College, which boasts a strong cast, seems to fit best in the “R-rated dark comedy” genre, although it has dramatic moments and doesn’t always seem to know how dark it wants to be. For the most part, however, it’s a promising new work with an intriguing premise and interesting characters.

As the story starts, we meet Davey (Spencer Davis Milford), who is seemingly content in his life as a brainy and somewhat smug Wash U student who spends much of his time partying with friends, smoking pot, and making money writing papers for fellow students. A phone call with his mom suggests there’s been some family drama in the past, as he refers to himself as “the good son”. Soon we find out more about Davey’s older brother, Jake (Sam Rozier) when Detective James (Alison Kertz) and Officer Rob (Jordan Bollwerk) arrive to inform Davey that Jake–who has been in prison for five years after robbing a jewelry store–has escaped. There’s more to the story, involving white supremacist gangs, the witness protection program, and Jake’s former girlfriend, Jessica (Caroline Amos), who has kept in touch with Davey and has been trying to move on with her life and free herself from Jake’s destructive influence. Soon, of course, Jake shows up and the plot gets even more complicated and we learn more about some of the relationship dynamics between Jake and Davey, as well as their relationships with Jessica, and Jake’s explanation for why he does what he does.

As the story develops, the comedy gets more and more physical and dark, somewhat reminiscent of the plays of Martin McDonagh, although not quite as dark or gory–although there are moments where it looks like the proceedings may go in that direction. Here, though, there is a strong dramatic vein that could stand to be emphasized a little more, leading up to a somewhat abrupt ending that maybe could use a little more build-up. For the most part, though, this is an intriguing story with some well-drawn characters who seem a lot more credible and less caricatured than in some broader dark comedies I’ve seen. The St. Louis references are nice, as well, if a little superficial.

Still, this is a play that has a lot going for it, with the relationship between the brothers–and of both brothers with Jessica–being the highlights. The cast here is strong, as well, led by the Milford as Davey, who brings a relatable likability to the role that is essential for this play to work. He’s contrasted by the also strong Rozier as Jake. Even though he doesn’t have quite the swagger and presence that the role seems to demand, Rozier brings a sense of boyish charm to the the otherwise destructive character that makes both Davey’s and Jessica’s devotion to him more believable. Amos as the conflicted Jessica is excellent, as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Milford and Rozier, and allowing the audience to sympathize with her plight. There’s also good supporting work from Kertz in the small but important role of Detective James, and Bollwerk in a dual role as Officer Rob and another important character who shows up later and is the catalyst for a lot of the darker moments of the show. This dual-casting is a bit confusing at first and it may help the play in future productions if these roles are not played by the same actor, but Bollwerk does a good job in both roles nonetheless. 

This is a fast-paced show with no dull moments, a strong cast, and a script that brings up some thought-provoking moral dilemmas in the midst of the increasing mayhem. Con College is a show that I’d be curious to see again after it’s had a little more development. As it is now, it’s a memorable show that works well in its somewhat rough setting, staged in a tent at St. Lou Fringe. I’m glad I was able to see it.

 

The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Brian Hohlfeld
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 19, 2021

Brenda Currin, Bradley James Tejeda
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Glass Menagerie calls itself a “memory play”, and much of it is not-so-subtly based on the life of its playwright, Tennessee Williams. For their headline production this year, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has taken the “memory” aspect even further than usual. By incorporating a Central West End apartment building in which Williams once lived, and staging the play outside, director Brian Hohlfeld and the creative team, along with an excellent cast, are able to take advantage of the historic location to help set the tone and period atmosphere.

The overall tone is affected greatly by the setting, with Dunsi Dai’s superbly realized set providing the ideal backdrop for this haunting, emotional and evocative production. The lighting by Catherine Adams and sound by Kareem Deanes, along with detailed period-specific costumes by Michele Siler, are also exactly on-point, lending much to the storytelling. Every expression and word of dialogue is clear, as is the feeling of the St. Louis of days gone by. Atmospheric music that’s supposed to be emanating from records on the Victrola or wafting in from the (in-story) dance hall across the alley helps to maintain the overall heightened sense of longing and hoping for something better for this family consisting of faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Brenda Currin) and her adult children, the shy, socially awkward and physically challenged Laura (Elizabeth Teeter), and the restless writer Tom (Bradley James Tejeda), who wishes to focus more on his writing and explore the world beyond St. Louis and the drudgery of his job at a shoe factory. The story, which leads up to a fateful dinner with a much-anticipated “Gentleman Caller” named Jim (Chauncy Thomas), is told as a set of memories recounted by an older Tom, as he reflects on his family’s situation and everyone’s dealing with events of the past as well as hopes and fears for the future. 

The staging is adapted to the set especially well, with the outdoor setting and especially the real fire escapes working ideally for the story, and the performances are remarkable. Tejeda’s Tom is a constant presence even when he’s not on stage, and his perspective paints a vivid picture of the sense of growing longing and desperation among the various characters. The overall family dynamic is on clear display, from anger and resentment, to some genuinely affectionate moments, as Tom truly cares for the well-being of his sister and, occasionally, his mother. The family scenes are especially memorable, with outstanding performances from Currin as the regretful, sometimes overbearing Amanda, and Teeter as the wistful, painfully shy Laura, who struggles with her own insecurities and everyone else’s expectations for her. Thomas is also strong as the personable, cheerful Jim, who forms a believable connection with Teeter’s Laura in some of the most captivating scenes in the play. This is a highly emotional play, and all of the performers convey those emotions truthfully and with power. 

This play, when done well, is one of those shows that can stay with a person for a while after they’ve seen it, like a vivid, lingering memory. And this production at TFSTL is done remarkably well. Sitting out in the open space behind the Tennessee apartment building in the CWE, the audience is put into the world of The Glass Menagerie, and with this cast and that stunning set and production values, it’s a world well worth visiting.

Chauncy Thomas, Elizabeth Teeter
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Glass Menagerie at The Tennessee until August 29, 2021

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Gene de Paul
New Songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2021

Edward Watts, Kendra Kassebaum
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s latest show is both a repeat and a debut at once. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a well-known show that the Muny has staged several times before, and it’s based on a classic film. The version presented at the Muny this season, though, features a few script revisions and a new framing device to help make the story, which has been seen by many (including myself) as problematic, more palatable for modern audiences. The basic story is intact, though, as are the memorable score and spectacular dancing that this musical is famous for, performed by an excellent, enthusiastic cast headed up by an especially impressive leading lady.

The familiar story is here, with a few thoughtful twists. The show is now framed by a series of scenes that set the main story as a flashback; a tale told by an older Milly (Kendra Kassebaum) to her grandchildren. This framing device serves to not only allow Milly to share thoughts to the audience about the whole situation, but it also works as one of several elements that help to bring the focus more on the women of the story. The main story follows mostly the same way as before, as the rough mountain man Adam Pontipee (Edward Watts) arrives in town looking for a wife, and quickly woos the young, strong-willed Milly. What he neglects to tell her, though, is that he has six younger brothers (Harris Milgrim, Waldemar Quinones-Villaneuva, Ryan Steele, Garrett Hawe, Kyle Coffman, and Brandon L. Whitmore) who all live with him at his remote mountain cabin. Milly is initially (and understandably) upset, but she then becomes determined to teach the brothers manners, eventually taking them to a social in town, where they meet and become mutually smitten by local young women (Leslie Donna Flesner, Sarah Meahl, Kristin Yancy, Carly Blake Sabouhian, Shonica Gooden, and Mikayla Renfrow). Adam, meanwhile, becomes upset about Milly’s turning his brothers into “mama’s boys” and eventually leads his lovesick siblings on a mission to town to abduct the objects of their affects, inspired by a story in Plutarch’s Lives. This situation has been revised a bit, as well, which fortunately ends up making the brothers look better, except for Adam, although the change also raises the stakes and increases the tensions in Adam’s relationship with Milly.

I won’t give everything away, but for me, the result of the “script tweaking” is a story that makes a little more sense. It still features those memorable songs like “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”, and “Goin’ Courtin'”, along with plenty of energetic, athletic dancing ably choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, but the new recasting of this as telling the story through Milly’s eyes and the (slight) fleshing-out of the “brides” characters works to make the whole show easier to take, even with some of the more cringe-worthy moments still intact or, in some cases, amplified.

The staging at the Muny is dazzling, with a universally excellent cast and that dynamic choreography, all play out on Michael Schweikardt’s stunning set that brings the mountain setting to life backed by Caite Hevner’s excellent video design and making excellent use of the Muny’s turntable. Another aspect of this production that I appreciate is that, unlike previous stage productions I’ve seen, it’s not a carbon copy of the film. Amy Clark’s costumes are colorful and period-appropriate, but they don’t seem to be based on those in film. There’s also excellent lighting by Jason Lyons and sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and the wonderful Muny band and music direction by Valerie Gebert. 

The cast, as previously mentioned, is impressive, led by remarkable performance by Kassebaum, who gets to showcase her excellent voice, but also gives us a strong, relatable Milly who goes on a believable emotional journey throughout the production. She’s the heart of this version of the show, with a truly vibrant portrayal. Shaw, as the charming but pigheaded Adam, is also strong, with a bold baritone voice that’s evident from his first note on “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”. His chemistry with Kassebaum is strong as well. The rest of the cast is strong in support, with all the Brides and Brothers making good pairs, and Whitmore and Renfrow especially standing out as youngest brother Gideon and his love, Alice. There’s also energetic support from the adult and youth ensembles, bringing the 18th century mountain town to life in a mostly upbeat, believable way.

Another notable aspect of this production is that this wasn’t the originally planned opening night, with the August 12th performance having been postponed due to thunderstorms. Even though this was a “raincheck” performance, I don’t think anybody who didn’t know that would have been able to tell.  Kudos to the cast and crew for an exuberant, memorable production. It’s a crowd-pleasing show made even more so by the revisions and, especially, it’s superb cast and production values. 

Cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Forest Park until August 18, 2021