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Archive for May, 2012

Burn This
By Lanford Wilson
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
Black Cat Theatre, Maplewood MO
May 12, 2012

I came home from this show Saturday night thinking “how am I supposed to write a review of this play?” Seriously. I had just spent an evening with my eyes riveted to the stage as four actors took all their emotions and talents and laid them bare, leaving me with a sense of wonder and awe at the pure visceral beauty of live theatre, and then I came home and struggled to come up with something coherent to write because I was simply bowled over with the energy of it all.  Really, I loved the show.  I just had to take some time to process what I saw—no, experienced.  It was raw, it was powerful, it was funny—it was just plain real.

This is the story of four lives disrupted by tragedy, and there is a real sense of grief and the weariness that it brings, from the beginning of the play.  As the action begins, dancer Anna (Ellie Schwetye) and her ad man housemate Larry (Jared Sanz Agero) are still reeling from the death of their friend and housemate Robbie, who was killed along with his boyfriend in a tragic boating accident.  Also on the scene is Anna’s boyfriend Burton (Reginald Pierre), a successful screenwriter, with whom Anna has a comfortable if somewhat emotionally distant relationship.  As these three try to pick up the pieces of their lives following Robbie’s funeral, Robbie’s volatile brother Pale (Adam Flores) enters the scene and disrupts their lives even more as he and Anna are inexorably drawn together.

This play is about many things. It’s about four different people affected by the life and death of a fifth.  It’s also about family, both biological and friendship-based, and the difficulty and rewards of relationships with other people. It’s also about secrets and denial, such as in Robbie’s family who refused to accept that he was gay and had never seen him dance.  There are also issues of art vs. commercialism exemplified in Burton’s screenplays, Anna’s dances, and Larry’s work in advertising (his story of the “inoffensive Christmas card” is hilarious and very believable). In addition, the play deals with safety vs. risk in relationships, and pursuing one’s own dreams vs. trying to meet the expectations of others, as well as the unpredictability of love as portrayed in the dynamic relationship between Anna and Pale. It’s a very well-constructed play with a strong, even musical sense of language, and there is an excellent sense of symmetry as well, especially in the parallels between Anna’s and Pale’s first scene together and the play’s final scene.

The performances are universally excellent, with a strong sense of chemistry among the ensemble and especially between Anna and Pale.  Schwetye gives a thoroughly convincing performance as the emotionally guarded Anna, and Flores is a revelation as the volatile, grief-stricken Pale.  There is so much palpable energy in Flores’s performance that it is evident even when he is standing still.  Agero also gives an affecting performance as Larry, who is at turns warm, funny, snarky and sad, as well as an effective sounding board and occasional foil for the other players.  As Burton, Pierre gives off a strong sense of entitlement and privilege, and is a stark contrast to the fiery Pale.  Their fight scene, well choreographed by Bob Mitchell, is an emotionally-charged and thoroughly believable moment.

This production is very visually interesting in terms of the set and the casting, with four very different physical types (Anna, long and lean; Larry, bigger and loosely moving; Burton, tall, athletic and somewhat stiff; Pale, small and wiry with loads of nervous energy) complementing each other perfectly. Thom Schwetye’s set, a simple depiction of an open and sparsely furnished Manhattan loft, makes a great canvas for the portrait that is painted of these people. The dances–a vital part of Anna’s life and a legacy of Robbie’s–are easily imagined even though they are not seen, and Robbie is a fully-drawn character even though he never appears onstage.  The original folk/rock/blues music by I Love You, I Know very appropriately sets the mood of the production as well.

I’ve been familiar with SATE for a few years, having seen several of their previous productions, and I’ve always been impressed with what I’ve seen.  I’ve enjoyed their unique approach to movement and expression that comes from their Viewpoints and Suzuki-based training methods, and this production is in that same vein, using the stage as a canvas to paint a picture with physical and emotional energy.  This show was about stillness and distance as much as it was about physicality and movement, and the result is spellbinding.

Anna (Ellie Schwetye) and Pale (Adam Flores). Photography by Jason Walz

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It’s almost that time again! Summer is rapidly approaching, and that means Muny season. This year introduces a big change for the Muny—a new Executive Director, Mike Isaacson. It looks like Isaacson’s first season will be eventful, as well, with fewer 5-6 year repeat shows and more shows making their Muny debuts. Before sharing my thoughts on the new season, though, I thought I’d address some criticisms I’ve heard and answer the general question of “why should I care about the Muny?”

Love it or hate it, the Muny is a St. Louis institution.  I understand the criticisms– some theatre critics want it to be less conventional and more imaginative, and some St. Louis-based performers wish the powers that be would cast more locals in leading roles.  I understand both of these criticisms and agree to a point, but for the most part I love the Muny.  It’s not Broadway or the West End, but there is often top-level talent involved, and the shows are usually enjoyable and often excellent. This is a company that puts together seven full-scale musical productions in three months with very little rehearsal time per show. There have been some uneven productions and odd casting, but there have also been some truly spectacular productions such as Les Miserables in 2007. In the eight years I’ve lived in St. Louis, I’ve come to regard the Muny as an essential summer activity. Despite its limitations, I enjoy the Muny and I take its productions seriously, and I look forward to each new season.

What the Muny does well is to bring musical theatre to audiences of thousands every summer, on a huge stage in a gigantic venue in the middle of one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country.  OK, I’m biased here, but Forest Park is wonderful, and so is the atmosphere of the Muny.  The whole experience of going to a show at the Muny is an important part of its draw, but the shows are what will keep bringing the audiences back.

Some would argue that the Muny stagnated over the past decade or so under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Paul Blake, and in a way I agree. It did seem like we saw a lot of the same shows and same people over and over, and it will be nice to see some changes.  Still, as big as it is, it is never going to be a cutting-edge venue.  It has to appeal to the masses, but the producers could stand to take a few risks.  It will be interesting to see how much energy Isaacson will be able to inject into the venerable institution in his first season at the helm. The selection of shows for the 2012 season certainly looks like a step in the right direction.  Here’s the list, with my thoughts following:

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Chicago

Aladdin

Dreamgirls

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)

The King and I

First off, I have to say I’m somewhat surprised that neither Chicago nor Dreamgirls had ever been produced at the Muny before. Both are well-known, much-loved shows with popular film versions, so the appeal to the massive Muny crowds is obvious.  It will be great to see both of of these shows on the enormous Muny stage.  Dreamgirls also has the added attraction of Jennifer Holliday, re-creating the role she originated on Broadway, Effie White.  It has been argued that Holliday is now too old for the role and realistically, at 51 she probably is, but  I’m not sure if that matters as much in the context of the Muny.   She’s still Jennifer Holliday, and if she performs well (and I’m sure she will), that’s what matters. We will see how it all plays out, and I’m intrigued.  I’m also wondering how Chicago will play on that enormous Muny stage.  I’m looking forward to finding out.

As for the rest of the schedule, it’s encouraging to see that there are only two shows that have played at the Muny before. One of my biggest criticisms has been the frequent recycling of shows, and it’s great to see that not happening as much this year.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Muny debut of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I’m very curious about Pirates! since it’s supposed to be a re-imagining of The Pirates of Penzance and I wonder exactly what that re-imagination will look like. There will also be some technical upgrades like the new LED “scenery wall” that promise to provide a new look to the productions.

In terms of casting, it looks like the Muny is changing the regular routine as well, going for more “star power” in names like Holliday in Dreamgirls, Leslie Uggams in Millie, and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini in Joseph.  There is more casting still to be announced, but I find myself wondering if we won’t see as many Muny “regulars” this season.  I hope we do see a few, because there are some perennial Muny performers that I would love to see on stage again, like Curtis Holbrook, Kate Baldwin, Joneal Joplin and Ken Page.  Based on the casting that has already been announced, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more big names will be part of the lineup.

So the bottom line is, I’m optimistic.  Because of a few summer commitments, I don’t think I will be able  to see all the shows this season, but I’m going to try to make most of them, and I am eager to see how this next chapter in the Muny’s history will unfold.  Maybe there is hope that we’ll finally get a Sondheim show in the near future. I think Into the Woods would be most likely in that vein, and as for the older but timeless classics,  I’m still holding out hope for Carousel. I do hope the Muny surveys stick around, and if they do I will be voting for both of those shows. That’s the future, though, but it does seem promising.  This season seems like a significant step in a new direction, and so far I’m liking it.

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