The Golden Record
Adapted and Curated by Courtney Bailey
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
January 26, 2023

Eric Satterfield, Summer Baer, LaWanda Jackson
Photo by Ray Bay Creates
Prison Performing Arts

Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company is putting on a unique, intriguing show at The Chapel. Taking inspiration from a NASA program, the company and playwright/performer Courtney Bailey have presented a highly personal work that provides insight into the work of PPA and the people who have been involved with it over the past several years. It’s a thoughtful ride through time, space, and memory, with a ukulele playing chicken along for the ride. 

This is essentially a retrospective, and audience members who are more familiar with PPA and its past works will probably understand it more than others, but there are a lot of intriguing, insightful moments here which provide a look into the lives of the PPA participants and their experiences. As this is a charity that works in prisons, the participants are able to share their experiences of being incarcerated, as well as readjusting to society after prison. It also serves as remembrance and tribute to several PPA members (listed in the program) who have passed away. It’s a time capsule-like document, curated and arranged by Bailey and featuring the work of several PPA participants and past productions including Antigone and First Impressions, starring a mixture of PPA alumni and professional actors. 

The story here, inspired by a pair of “Golden Records” included by NASA in the Voyager space probes in the 1970s, follows two Travelers (Eric Satterfield and LaWanda Jackson), accompanied by a cheerful chicken named Filberta (Summer Baer), who are traveling from their planet to an unknown destination. Through the course of the story, the Travelers listen to recordings and watch videos as reminders of life on their old planet, and the people they’ve left behind. They also participate in a series of repeating rituals, such as a recited “catechism” and a visit from a rogue satellite from the planet Antigone (operated by Bailey, voiced by Autumn Hales). There’s also a succession of New Year’s celebrations that seem to get closer and closer together as the Travelers lose track of time and the past becomes more and more of a distant memory. The rest of the cast appears throughout in a series of vignettes as the “transmissions” are played, and the Travelers get further and further away from their old home try to hold on to the hope of reaching their intended destination. 

The whole company is memorable, led by Satterfield and Jackson in emotional and relatable performances as the Travelers, and Baer as the devoted Filberta. The entire cast contributes memorable moments, ranging from humorous situations to poignant and heartfelt reflections. The cohesive ensemble–some appearing onstage, some on film, and others as recorded voices–includes David Nonemaker, Larry Butler, Bailey, Katie Leemon, Tyler White, Julie Antonic, Scott Brown (understudied by Bailey on opening night), Hazel McIntire, Autumn Hales, Sandra Dallas, Patty Prewitt, Dylan Staudie, and Tessa Van Vlerah. 

The simple but effective set and atmospheric lighting by Erik Kuhn contribute much to the science fiction-like mood of the show, as do Liz Henning’s costumes. There’s also highly effective use of projections designed by Michael Musgrave-Perkins, and video editing by Satterfield. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contributes to the overall dreamlike atmosphere of the production. 

Overall, I would say The Golden Record works well as a retrospective, especially for those who are familiar to some degree with the work of PPA. It’s an inventive reflection on identity, the passage of time, relationships, processing grief, a sense of uncertainty blended with hope for the future, and more. It’s a whimsical flight of fancy, a melancholy reflection, and an archive of past performances rolled into one imaginative package. 

Courtney Bailey, Eric Satterfield
Photo by Ray Bay Creates
Prison Performing Arts

Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company is presenting The Golden Record at The Chapel until January 29, 2023

Six: the Musical
by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
Choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
The Fox Theatre
January 24, 2023

Cast of Six: The Musical
Photo by Joan Marcus
Six: The Musical North American Tour

Royalty is in the house at the Fox. Originating in the UK, Six: The Musical is an energetic, clever, witty, and surprisingly educational show that looks at the stories of the six wives of King Henry VIII through a decidedly 21st Century lens, with a contemporary look and score. I first saw this show three years ago in London, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the touring show, based on the hit Broadway production, at the Fox. As an unabashed Anglophile and British history buff, this show had an immediate appeal to me, but even if you don’t know a lot about these six queens and their history, or British history in general, there’s a lot to learn here, about the past as well as subjects that transcend one historical moment, while being greatly entertained at the same time.

This show is almost deceptively clever. It packages its story in modern trappings and musical styles, in a manner that helps convey its story and themes to today’s audiences in a way that a “period piece” may not as much. The whole show is presented as a pop concert on a simple but dazzling set by Emma Bailey, featuring songs reminiscent of hits from the 90s and 2000s, with its six Queens dressed in an eye-catching blend of modern and historical fashion elements, superbly designed by Gabriella Slade. There’s also an excellent on-stage band of “Ladies in Waiting” led by conductor Katie Coleman on keyboards, and visually striking lighting by Tim Deiling that helps set the scene and underscore the plot points as the Queens tell their stories in song.

The stories are based in historical fact, but the way they are told, and the way the characters are presented, is given a modern twist, with elements of “today” like cell phones, contemporary slang, and mentions of social media. The Queens, who introduce themselves in the catchy opening song “Ex-Wives” by the well-known mnemonic “divorced, beheaded, died–divorced, beheaded, survived”, are presented as at once accessible and larger than life. After the somewhat extended intro presenting the premise–a contest for who has the “best” story–the Queens take turns at center stage. Catherine of Aragon (Cecilia Snow at the performance I saw), Anne Boleyn (Zan Berube), Jane Seymour (Amina Faye), Anna of Cleves (Terica Marie), Katherine Howard (Aline Mayagoitia), and Catherine Parr (Sydney Parra) each get their moments to tell their emotional, often harrowing tales in song, as well as exchange witty and occasionally caustic banter as the performance continues, leading up to a memorable conclusion that re-casts their tales–and the historical approach toward their stories–in a new light. 

The dynamic staging helps keep the show moving, the excellent score gives it an energetic beat, and the visuals never fail to dazzle, but the heart and soul of this show is, as to be expected, its Queens. The performers in this iteration of the show are excellent, with excellent interplay between the cast members, energetic dance, and great voices all around. Standouts for me include Zan Berube’s perky take on Anne Boleyn, Terica Marie’s powerfully-voiced Anna of Cleves, and Amina Faye’s memorable, moving solo on “Heart of Stone”. All of the cast members are strong, though, with each song cleverly crafted to make a point about the historical treatment of women that is driven home especially well here by these fully realized, character-rich performances. 

There’s a whole lot happening in Six, and its slick, glitzy packaging is only the beginning. There’s an educational historical message here, as well as themes of women’s roles in society, difficult and sometimes brutal treatment, and the importance of agency and making voices heard. It may look like it’s designed to appeal to younger audiences, and it probably is, but there’s a lot here for us “older” theatregoers, as well. I was curious to see how the show would translate from the UK to the USA, and it has done so remarkably well, because even though this is a story based in British history, many of its themes are timeless and universal. It’s an entertaining evening of theatre, that’s for sure, but it’s a whole lot more than that. 

Cast of Six: The Musical
Photo by Joan Marcus
Six: The Musical North American Tour

The North American Tour of Six: The Musical is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 5, 2023

 

Broadway Bound
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
January 19, 2023

Bob Harvey, Spencer Kruse, Jenni Ryan, Jacob Flekier
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The latest production from the New Jewish Theatre is something of a family reunion. Broadway Bound is Neil’s Simon’s well-known conclusion to his acclaimed semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy”. NJT produced the first of the series, Brighton Beach Memoirs, in 2019, and has brought back the director, Alan Knoll, three key cast members, and some of the design team for the continuation of the story of Simon’s fictional avatar, Eugene Jerome, and his family. As with the first production, this one showcases its impressive cast in a remarkable way as Simon’s memorable blend of humor and poignancy takes the stage.

Where Brighton Beach focused on Eugene as a young teenager and emerging writer, Broadway Bound features the character as a young adult trying to break into the new and exciting world of television comedy in the late 1940s. Jacob Flekier returns to the role as a likable narrator and focus character, as Eugene and his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse, also returning) strive to make their dreams come true as they work on sketches and try to get a job as writers at CBS, and Eugene is caught up in the excitement of a new relationship with a young woman he hopes to marry. The play also updates the story of Eugene’s parents, and especially his mother, Kate (Jenni Ryan), who finds herself in a difficult situation as her marriage to her husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley once again) appears to be in trouble, and her aging father, Ben (Bob Harvey) resists pleas from Kate and her now-wealthy sister Blanche (Christina Rios) to join their mother in moving to Florida for the sake of his health. The story deals with changing relationships, family expectations, hopes and dreams for the future, memories and regrets from the past, and more, with a tone that ranges from character-focused comedy to poignant drama. It’s a rich, fascinating portrayal of a family at a pivotal moment in their lives, and one of Simon’s more celebrated later works. 

This being a sequel, the production at NJT is especially effective if you saw the earlier production Brighton Beach Memoirs as well, since several elements of that production are revisited here, starting with an excellent re-creation of the meticulously realistic set by Margery and Peter Spack, which is identical to the earlier set, except for a few differences in decoration reflecting the 12-year time difference between the stories. Michele Friedman Siler also returns as costume designer, outfitting the characters in detailed, suitably evocative period attire. Lighting designer Kimberly Klearman Petersen has based the design for this production on that of previous designer Micahel Sullivan, with credible atmospheric effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer Kareem Deanes (new for this production) and choreographer Ellen Isom, adding to the mood of the show’s most memorable scene, which is also superbly acted by Ryan and Flekier. 

The casting is first-rate, from the returning players as well as the newcomers. Flekier, as before, makes an engaging, relatable Eugene, and his relationships with all of the other cast members are excellent and believable. Kruse is also strong as the ambitious, nervously energetic Stanley. There are also strong turns from Rios as the caring, well-off but insecure Blanche, Harvey as the crusty, politically-minded Ben, and Brinkley in a difficult role as the disillusioned, secretive Jack, whose scenes with Ryan’s Kate are an emotionally-charged highlight. As for Ryan, she’s giving perhaps the best performance I’ve seen from her as the conflicted, devoted Kate, whose scenes with Flekier’s Eugene are especially convincing and moving. 

Broadway Bound is a thoughtful, memorably staged production that revisits both characters and performers from the earlier production with a few new twists and additions. It’s a welcome reunion and revisitation, with an especially strong cast, and a technical production that’s both impressive and realistic. It’s one of Simon’s more “serious” stories, but with a good dose of humor and hope. Even if you didn’t catch Brighton Beach Memoirs, this is a show that’s well worth seeing. 

Jenni Ryan, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Jon Gitchofff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Broadway Bound at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until February 5, 2023

Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
The Black Rep
January 13, 2023

Christian Kitchens, Ron Himes, Chauncy Thomas
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The second entry in the Black Rep’s latest  season is a well-known classic of the American theatre. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one of those plays that’s become so ingrained in theatrical history that it’s been revived many times, as well as having been adapted for both the big and small screens multiple times, as well as being a frequent subject of study in high school and college literature and drama curricula. Its central figure, the world-weary salesman Willy Loman, has become a much-coveted role played by many a celebrated actor over the years, and many well-known directors have offered their takes on the story. At the Black Rep, director Jacqueline Thompson and cast look at this familiar story with a new perspective that adds a new layer to this already deep, tragic story, providing a strong showcase for a first-rate cast. 

The “color conscious” casting approach to this show that the Black Rep employs is not unique, as an acclaimed production with a similar concept recently played on Broadway (having originated in London a few years ago). Still, even though this isn’t the first production to take this approach, it proves the concept to be especially powerful, in providing new depth to the story and reinforcing the Black Rep’s tradition of theatrical excellence, in acting and in the technical aspects of the play. Here, the Loman family is Black–led by Willy (Ron Himes) and his longsuffering wife, Linda (Velma Austin). Their two sons, former high school football star Biff (Chauncy Thomas), and the more upbeat but somewhat ignored younger son Happy (Christian Kitchens) are frequent subjects of the increasingly reflective and delusional Willy’s memories, as is his much older brother Ben (Kevin Brown), who only appears in flashbacks and represents the adventurous, successful life for Willy. Other figures in Willy’s world are still cast as white, such as his boss Howard (Franklin Killian), neighbor Charley (Jim Read), and Charley’s studious and eventually successful lawyer-son Bernard (Jacob Cange). This casting brings a different tone to the already tragic story, as Willy fights against expectations and holds on to his dreams for himself and his sons (especially Biff), even when those dreams are increasingly shown to conflict with reality. 

The staging here is thoughtful and precise, bringing out aspects of the characters I haven’t noticed as much before. One notable difference is the prominence of Linda, played in a particularly emotional and insightful performance by Austin. I don’t think the script has been altered, but both in terms of direction and performance, I found myself noticing Linda more in this production, and her importance to the story is given more emphasis. Himes is also superb as Willy, in a sensitive and multi-layered performance that brings much sympathy to Willy’s plight, even when he isn’t entirely likable as a character. There are also strong turns from Thomas as the disillusioned Biff, and Kitchens as Happy, who tries to project a more carefree lifestyle but who is also clearly affected by his father’s situation and having lived in the shadow of his brother. There are also excellent supporting performances from Read and Cange as Charley and Bernard, as well as the rest of the cast. It’s a strong ensemble, with every scene crackling with energy and meaning. 

In a technical sense, this production also shines, with a detailed period set by Dunsi Dai and meticulous costumes by Daryl Harris that help set and maintain the mid-20th Century look and tone of the story. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Jasmine Williams that adds to the intensity when needed and also helps achieve an ethereal tone in the flashback scenes. The only small issue I have with this production is in the acoustics at the Edison Theatre, which I’ve also noticed in previous productions. Especially from the seats further back in the auditorium, it can be harder to hear in some of the quieter moments. Still, the powerful drama takes the lead for the most part, and even with a few small sound issues, the story is clearly told. 

Death of a Salesman is already a great play–a well-structured American tragedy that still communicates its message with power decades after it was written. The current production at the Black Rep has managed to find even more depth and nuance to this story, with profoundly affecting performances and incisive direction. It’s another dramatic triumph for this excellent St. Louis theatre company. 

Velma Austin, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Death of a Salesman at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 29, 2023

It’s a Marvelous Life
by Rob McLemore and Jaysen Cryer
Directed by Donna Northcott
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
December 9, 2022

Cast of It’s a Marvelous Life
Photo by John Lamb
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre is St. Louis Shakespeare’s more mischievous sibling, best known for performing un-polished but hilarious parodies of well-known pop culture properties. Their latest, the cleverly titled It’s a Marvelous Life, was two spoofs in one, with a holiday theme and lots of laughs, a slapstick style, and an energetic cast performing a variety of roles. The show just finished up a two-weekend run on December 10. It was a short show, running approximately one hour, but that was plenty of time to provide loads of clever, fast-paced humor, likely to appeal most to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life

The story was inventively constructed, following all the major points of It’s a Wonderful Life while also essentially telling the story of the four “official” Avengers films. Each Marvel character had a role to fill in the source story–with Steve “Captain America” Rogers in the George Bailey role–here played by co-writer Rob McLemore in a spot-on Jimmy Stewart impression. The events were being viewed by Uatu, the Watcher (James X. Randolph) and Dr. Strange (Riley Stevenson), who took the “Clarence the Angel” role, with his reward for helping Steve being his own movie franchise instead of wings.  The story played out, hitting all the main story points of both It’s a Wonderful Life and the Avengers saga, with a good deal of inventive shoehorning to make everything fit. Mr. Potter was Thanos, Tony Stark/Iron Man was Mary Bailey (sort of), and–perhaps most hilariously–George’s Uncle Billy was the Hulk. Many Avengers showed up, too, as well as other heroes from Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and more, with the story moving at a lightning pace and several actors frequently switching roles. There were many in-jokes and meta nods along the way, with references to actors and creators providing some of the funnier jokes.

It was a great time to be had for anyone, but I thought it would especially appeal to Marvel and classic film fans. The cast was excellent, with everyone seeming to have a great time. Standouts included McLemore as the very Stewart-like Steve Rogers; Tori Stukins as a swaggering Tony Stark, Stevenson as a delightfully goofy Dr. Strange; John Fisher in a variety of roles including Kevin Feige, Red Skull, and Black Widow’s stunt double; Kim Byrnes as the villainous Thanos/Potter and Bucky Barnes; and John Waller as the smash-happy Hulk. It was a great cast all around, portraying an array of Marvel characters with madcap energy and flair.

The staging was brisk, with some jokes landing better than others, but since there were so many jokes, there were more than enough laughs to go around. The set by Ethan Dudenhoeffer was simple, colorfully painted by Brian Wasserman. The elaborate and whimsical costumes by Tracey Newcomb were a lot of fun, as well. There was also effective lighting and sound by John “JT” Taylor. 

Overall, It’s a Marvelous Life provided a simply marvelous good time. With superheroes, magic tricks, puppets, and more, there was a lot to like here. It has been another entertaining exercise in creative silliness from Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. 

This review was originally published at KDHX.

The Fever
by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company
December 7, 2022

Kelly Ballard
Photo by Jessica Koenig
Black Mirror Theatre Company

The Fever, as currently being produced by Black Mirror Theatre Company, is an intriguing production. The play, which is written as essentially a one-person monologue, originally performed by playwright Wallace Shawn, has been expanded in an inventive way. Featuring a cast of six, the story uses it’s clever staging to drive home its unsettling, personal and political message. 

In an author’s note included in the digital program, playwright Shawn explains that this work was written to be able to be performed by anyone in various contexts, including in people’s living rooms. In this production, director Brian J. Rolf’s setup resembles a cocktail party, featuring a well-stocked bar cart, and ashtrays with cigarettes. The unnamed central figure, played by Kelly Ballard, tells the story of staying in a hotel room in a war-torn country, where she reflects on the state of society around her, and suffers from a mysterious illness. She is surrounded by the “cocktail party”, its participants (Hannah de Oliveira, Uche Ijei, Victor Mendez, Kyra Pearson, and Michael Wagner) seemingly unaware of Ballard’s existence as they banter, opine, and tell stories about their lives, focusing on the great disparity between the privileged and the poor, and reflecting on revolutionary movements and the promises of politicians regarding “gradual change”. The points are made in various ways, as the ailing protagonist is suffering a “fever dream” of sorts, and the elite partygoers range in their approaches from the smug to the fearful to the downright cruel. The “plot” is fairly basic, and the main point of this show is the message, which is deliberately designed to make audience members uncomfortable, faced with unsettling realities of the disparity of living situations around the world.

This is an intense, political and personal message, made all the more visceral in this production’s presentation. The transformation of the script from monologue to multi-character story is seamless, to the point where if I didn’t know it was written for just one actor, I wouldn’t have guessed. The “dialogue” seems natural, and the give-and-take of the conversations illustrates the message in a powerful way. All the players are excellent, as well, with Ballard giving a strong, emotional performance as the central figure battling physical illness as well as an intellectual, emotional, and mental crisis. The rest of the cast is also strong, and the flow of the conversation ranges from the arch to the smug to the intensely emotional. The pacing is deliberate, and the language is precise to the point where paying attention requires effort at times, but the presentation is duly challenging and pointed. The setup is simple and effective, with the production staged in the round, and the performance area sparsely furnished, with appropriately stark lighting by Michelle Zielinski that helps maintain the overall challenging mood of the production. 

Overall, The Fever is an effective, highly challenging production that’s sure to provoke thought and self-examination. It’s an intelligent production with impressive staging and a strong cast. It’s only running this week, so there are only a few days left to see it. It’s certainly worth checking out. 

Hannah De Olivera, Kyra Pearson, Kelly Ballard, Michael Wagner, Victor Mendez, Uche Ijei
Photo by Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting The Fever at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until December 10, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

The Christians
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
December 4, 2022

Rachel Hanks, Joel Moses, Joseph Garner, Michael Byrd, Chrissie Watkins
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The West End Players Guild has the ideal venue for their latest play. While their productions are usually presented in the basement of the Union Avenue Christian Church, their latest production is using the sanctuary. This is fitting, since Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is about a church, and the overall effect of this location creates something of an immersive experience for the audience, with the director, Ellie Schwetye acting as a greeter before the show, and taking “prayer requests” from attendees as they arrive. There’s also church music playing over the speakers before the show. It feels so much like a church service, in fact, that I accidentally referred to it as “the service” instead of “the play” to my husband after the show. The immersive quality adds a lot to he presentation, but the show itself–and especially this production with it’s excellent cast and direction–is compelling enough to stand on its own even without the extra “churchy” elements added by venue. 

The story begins in what appears to be a typical Sunday service at an unnamed non-denominational Evangelical megachurch. Pastor Paul (Joel Moses) is preaching a sermon that, at first, seems to mostly be about the history of the church and how much the congregation has grown over the past twenty years, and how the church has recently paid off the loan they took to build their current building. He then drops a bombshell, telling his congregation of a recent radical change in his theology, informing them that he no longer believes in the existence of hell, or that people with other religious beliefs can’t go to heaven. This causes something of an uproar in his congregation, first putting Paul at odds with Associate Pastor Joshua (Joseph Garner), and eventually with others in the church, represented by supportive but concerned Elder Jay (Michael Byrd), conflicted church member Jenny (Chrissie Watkins), and his own wife, Elizabeth (Rachel Hanks), who was surprised by the announcement and finds herself in a dilemma of her own as a result. 

Whether you’re familiar with church services or not, this show provides a lot to think about beyond the basic presentation, and the playwright has admirably presented the various “sides” with a reasonable degree of fairness. The dilemmas presented are real ones, and they are treated with due seriousness here. I had been half-expecting a parody, but that’s not at all what this is. It’s a straightforward drama that presents fully realized characters that all have their flaws and virtues–there are no caricatures here, which is refreshing. The issues presented could be talked about in a much longer essay, but I will focus on the production itself for the sake of brevity. Still, no matter what you believe about God, Christianity, or the concept of hell, this story is compelling, and sure to provoke much thought and discussion. Also, beyond the theological issues, there are issues of ethics raised by various situations, such as Paul’s decision to surprise his congregation, his staff, his elder board, and even his family with his change in belief. It’s a multi-layered, fascinating play, and it would take too long to cover all the issues it raises, although one importance aspect of theatre is to make audiences think, and this play certainly does that.

It’s a well-paced, impeccably cast play, with no weak links in the cast. All the performers turn in memorable, nuanced performances, led by Moses as Pastor Paul, ably portraying the character’s personal charisma along with a degree of self-focus and smugness, as well as an obvious concern for his congregation, and for his wife. Garner as Joshua is also memorable, delivering an emotional performance that is intense but not over-the-top.  Hanks has little to do but sit and react for the first half of the play or so, but when she finally does have a conversation with Paul, it packs a credible emotional punch. There are also strong performances from Watkins as the conflicted Jenny and Byrd as the increasingly concerned Elder Jay.

Technically, there isn’t an elaborate production because of the venue, with the use of a real church sanctuary negating the need for a constructed set. This sanctuary is equipped with theatrical seats and lighting, though, since it’s also the home of Union Avenue Opera. The lighting by Catherine Adams, and sound and projection design by director Schwetye contribute well to the overall mood and tone of the production. 

This is a play that, overall, seems designed to get people thinking, and talking–and this production is ideally staged to do just that. The issues brought up here are timely and relevant, and the performances grounded and credible. It’s an impressive, semi-immersive production.

Chrissie Watkins, Rachel Hanks, Joel Moses
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Christians at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 11, 2022

Jerry’s Girls
Featuring the Music and Lyrics of Jerry Herman
Directed and Choreographed by Ellen Isom
New Jewish Theatre
December 1, 2022

Kelsey Bearman, Lisa Rosenstock, Greta Rosenstock, Molly Burris, Christina Rios
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

If you love classic musical theatre, you’ve probably heard of Jerry Herman, or at least you’ll have heard of at least one of his shows. The New Jewish Theatre is closing out their 2022 season with a lively revue celebrating the music and lyrics of this musical theatre legend. Jerry’s Girls features a small cast, but it’s full of style and energy, and a worthy tribute. 

Jerry Herman’s best known shows are probably Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles, all of which are represented here along with some of his other works like Mack and Mabel, Dear World, and more. There’s no story to this show, which was produced on tour and on Broadway in the mid-1980s and featured Herman himself along with stars of the day including Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams, Chita Rivera, and Andrea McArdle. Here, it’s just five performers and one musician, presenting some of Herman’s most timeless hits along with some lesser-known gems. There are group numbers and solos, showcasing the excellent cast well, and featuring some fun settings to a few of the songs, including a hilarious version of “Hello, Dolly!” that closes the first act.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Kelsey Bearman, Molly Burris, Christina Rios, Greta Rosenstock, and Lisa Rosenstock shine in the group numbers, and all have memorable solos, as well–including Rios with “Before the Parade Passes By”, Lisa Rosenstock with “Time Heals Everything”, Greta Rosenstock with “Wherever He Ain’t”, Bearman with “It Only Takes a Moment”, and Burris with “I Won’t Send Roses”. These are only some of the solo highlights, as there are several. The performers are accompanied by music director Cullen Curth on piano and accordion, and the rapport between performers and accompanist is another highlight of the show, as is the simple but elegant staging by director Ellen Isom. Isom’s choreography also provides some memorable moments, like a fun tap number for Bearman, Burris, and Greta Rosenstock on “Tap Your Troubles Away”.

The show looks great, as well, with a stylish set by Cameron Tesson, and well-suited costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, featuring the cast members all clad in red. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer David La Rose and sound designer Amanda Werre, helping maintain an understated glamor to the proceedings. 

This is a show that should appeal especially to fans of classic musicals, and the work of Jerry Herman in particular. Jerry’s Girls has humor, emotion, and style, along with a great cast and a strong sense of musicality and ensemble chemistry. It’s an entertaining tribute to a prolific and celebrated artist and his work. 

Kelsey Bearman, Lisa Rosenstock, Greta Rosenstock, Molly Burris, Christina Rios
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Jerry’s Girls at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until December 18, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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

Kyle Marlett
Photo by Patrick Huber
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