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Archive for September, 2013

Free Shakespeare is always a wonderful thing as far as I’m concerned, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis provides this in so many great ways. After seeing the wonderful Shakespeare in the Streets production, Old Hearts Fresh, over the weekend and then hearing the exciting news about their main stage production(s) for next year.  Their latest announcement is very ambitious, to say the least.

Next summer, SFSTL will be presenting a first for them–rather than one play, the Festival will be presenting three!  Over the course of two nights, SFSTL will present Shakespeare’s histories Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.  The plays will be presented in two nights with the same cast and set, repeating throughout the season in Forest Park.  This is amazing news!  These plays are so connected that it makes sense to perform them together, and the idea of being able spend two evenings enjoying free Shakespeare in the park sounds wonderful. It looks like it’s going to be an exciting season.

Now,  let me tell you about the excellent show I saw last weekend:

Old Hearts Fresh

by Nancy Bell

based on The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alex Wild

September 21, 2013

oldheartsfresh1

Shakespeare in the Streets in the Grove neighborhood was a resounding success. My only concern is that I wish the audiences could have been bigger. It was a good turnout, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in folding chairs on the asphalt of the closed-off Manchester Avenue, but I wish more had been able to witness the fun, clever and thought-provoking fusion of classic Shakespeare and modern St. Louis in such a unique presentation.

Old Hearts Fresh only ran for about an hour, but playwright Nancy Bell was able to condense and update the material with surprising thoroughness—not just name-dropping places and events from the neighborhood (although there is plenty of that), but delving into the neighborhood’s history and psychology, all the while telling the story of The Winter’s Tale (with elements of Pericles) in an updated fashion with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.

The story is The Winter’s Tale condensed, with Leontes’ (Drew Battles) irrational jealousy and false accusation of his wife Hermione’s (Jacqueline Thompson) supposed infidelity with his childhood friend Polixenes (Antonio Rodriguez), who is gay in this production, which makes Leontes’ jealousy even more irrational. This jealousy leads to tragedy and regret, and leaves a lost daughter Perdita (played as a teenager by Wendy Greenwood) to be raised by a stranger (Don McClendon as Old Shepherd), and cause Leontes’ the dwell in sorrow and regret for sixteen years, only for events to finally resolve in a fantastical manner at the end. In the midst of all of this interaction is the character of Paulina (Marty Casey), a long-time Grove resident and friend of Leontes’ who helps to tell the tale and bring about its uplifting conclusion.

Time and change are big themes here, with Time represented as a larger-than-life character wonderfully played by local drag performer Michael Shreves in character as “Michelle McCausland”. In an array of colorful outfits and with an attitude and presence as big and colorful as the neighborhood itself, Shreves puts in a winning performance and narrates the action of the show that portrays themes of forgiveness, racial and familial reconicilation, and communication as the three main characters represent that passage of time. Paulina represents the neighborhood’s past, Leontes represents the present, and Perdita (along with the rest of the children and teens) represents its future, and all three of these characters are portrayed wonderfully by their actors. I was especially struck by Battles’ ability to make Leontes sympathetic despite some of his highly questionable actions, as well as Casey’s solidly grounding performance as the voice of reason, and Greenwood’s hopeful optimism. The entire cast, including several Grove residents with little to no acting experience, was excellent, and the ensemble chemistry and enthusiasm was readily apparent.

I loved the atmosphere of this show, as well, and the live music directed by Nathan Hershey added to the mood of the piece, as did the use of projections of photos of the neighbhorhood’s past, and the spectacular mural by local artist Grace McCammond.  It was all very distinctly Shakespeare, but also very St. Louis at the same time.  It was an impressive production and I found myself hoping Shakespeare in the Streets will come to my own neighborhood in the near future.

oldheartsfresh2

For more information about SFSTL’s 2014 season, check out their website in the sidebar of this blog

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Wendy Greenwood, Marty Casey, Michael Shreves, Drew Battles and cast Photo by Michelle Kenyon

Wendy Greenwood, Marty Casey, Michael Shreves, Drew Battles and cast
Photo by Michelle Kenyon

On a Wednesday night at an elementary school in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis, a group of enthusiastic performers has assembled to rehearse. Tonight, they’re working on incorporating music into their show, provided by members of the Funky Butt Brass Band.  The action is a kind of organized chaos, depicting a crucial scene in the upcoming production, in which local teenage muralist Perdita (or “Perdy” as most people refer to her) is preparing to unveil a large mural she has painted on the side of a building in the community.  There is much dancing and energy by a cast of all ages, as the group chants “Go Perdy! Go Perdy!” The scene, which also includes a pivotal moment for Leontes, Perdy’s long-lost father, is rehearsed several times this evening, in preparation for this week’s debut of the production as Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s second annual Shakespeare In the Streets presentation.

The brainchild of SFSTL Executive Director Rick Dildine, Shakespeare In the Streets is an annual project in which the Festival works with residents of a particular St. Louis neighborhood to construct a play based on a work of Shakespeare, adapted to fit the area, and then shuts down a street in that neighborhood for three nights to perform the resulting production.  Last year’s show on Cherokee Street was a big success, so this year, the project has been brought to another city neighborhood, the Grove, otherwise known as Forest Park Southeast.  This year’s play is called Old Hearts Fresh, a modern take on The Winter’s Tale by playwright Nancy Bell, who also wrote last year’s play. During the rehearsal, I was given the chance to speak to several cast members, including professional performers Wendy Greenwood (Perdita), Jacqueline Thompson (Hermione), Marty Casey (Paulina), Drew Battles (Leontes) and Antonio Rodriguez (Polixenes), as well as professional drag performer and Grove resident Michael Shreves (Time).  I also spoke with local residents and ensemble members Karla Boresi and Sara Figueroa, as well as the production’s director, Alec Wild.

The Winter’s Tale as Shakespeare wrote it tells the story of King Leontes, who becomes enraged with jealousy upon suspecting (falsely) that his faithful wife Hermione has been having an affair with his friend Polixenes, who is the king of another country.  His jealousy sets in motion a series of events that leads to the abandonment of his infant daughter Perdita, the death (or perceived death, depending on the production) of his wife and other broken relationships and unrest in his kingdom.  It’s all eventually resolved in a fantastical, Shakespearean way, but not until after sixteen years have passed and Perdita has grown into a young adult raised by a shepherd in another kingdom.  Old Hearts Fresh is an updated version of the story that has elements of other Shakespearean plays (most notably Pericles) and has been set in the Grove, with many elements of the neighborhood such as Grove Fest and local businesses. landmarks and stories incorporated into the tale, with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.  There’s also the mural, painted at 4226 Manchester by local artist Grace McCammond, which will serve as a lasting community souvenir from the production.

The characters have also been given a Grove-style makeover.  Leontes is now a community organizer, Hermione runs a charter school, and Polixenes owns a bar in the Grove.  Also, Leontes’ jealousy, which is already irrational in Shakespeare, is made even more ridiculous in this production.  According to Rodriguez, “In our production it makes it a little bit more absurd that he’s accusing me, because Polixenes is gay, so obviously that puts a little wrench in [Leontes’s] idea of cheating.”  Also, unlike the source material, there is no love interest for Perdita in this production.  She is portrayed as an optimistic young muralist who is curious about her background.  This version is “not about a [romantic] relationship for Perdita,” says Greenwood.  “It’s about reuniting with the family.  So that’s a big difference .”

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriquez,  Jacqueline Thompson  Photo by David Levy

Drew Battles, Antonio Rodriguez, Jacqueline Thompson
Photo by David Levy

At the rehearsal, most of the participants stress the uniqueness of this project. Many of them had never been involved in something like this before, and they were excited about its potential.  At the first rehearsal for this year’s production, Dildine gathered the cast members together and told them his vision: upon moving to St. Louis from Chicago, Dildine was struck by the amount of closed-off and barricaded streets in the city, which seemed to communication an air of exclusivity and exclusion.  According to Battles, Dildine wanted to put this concept to an inclusionary use.  He decided that “he wanted to do that [too]–shut down a street, [but] for the sake of the arts”.  Dildine had also pitched the idea to Wild when asking him to direct this year’s show.  “He said ‘look, we’ve got this interesting project where we go into a community for four months and meet people and make a story—are you interested?’” says Wild. “I think that was the side of it that really interested me.”

The idea to bring a show into a neighborhood and the neighborhood into the show was an exciting one for the participants, particularly Wild, who, along with playwright Bell and Production Designer Justin Barisonek, spent some time visiting the neighborhood, going to shops and businesses, and interviewing residents.  Many of those residents’ stories are used to some degree in the finished play.

Several Grove residents were eager to be involved in the project, and Shreves, who performs as “Michelle McCausland” at Meyer’s Grove in the neighborhood every weekend, was recruited for the production. “The director came to my show” he tells me, “and he said ‘you would be perfect for this part!” The character of Time, which Shreves will perform as the Michelle McCausland character, serves as the show’s narrator. It’s Shreves’s first Shakesepearean performance after many years performing in various musical theatre roles.  Boresi, an Adminstrative Law Judge and Zumba instructor, hasn’t performed in a show since high school, but loves theatre and volunteered “for neighborhood reasons, for theatre reasons, and to kind of check something off my bucket list”. Figueroa, who works as a Disaster Response Coodinator for the city, is excited about the show as a potential unifying force for the neighborhood. “There’s a big disconnect in the neighborhood between the strip on Manchester—it’s kind of the bar, nightclub scene, and then there’s the residents who live here”, she says. “There’s a big disconnect and I think this is going to be a really cool way to kind of bring those [together].”

Figueroa knows a lot about the history of the neighborhood, and she likes that some of that history has been incorporated into the show as a result of the various personal stories collected by the project’s creative team.  The character of Paulina is the show’s embodiment of a lot of those stories.  Paulina is portrayed in this production as a long-time Grove resident who grew up in the neighborhood and witnessed many of its ups and downs.  Casey has gained more of a personal connection to the neighborhood through playing this character. “I’ve learned a lot about the Tower Grove area just being in this show and working with everyone, and I just love it!” she says. “And the experience that Paulina goes through just really shows how we’ve evolved as a people. I love the fact that I’m bringing that element to the show.”

All of the players are excited about the mixture of professional actors and community residents in this production.  According to Rodriguez, “it has created a nice sense of community within the show. So it’s been really stress-free. This has been one of the easiest [rehearsal] processes I’ve ever had”. Battles describes the experience as “awesome” and adds that he thinks “some of the community people are doing better work than we are—the professionals–because they’re so real. And this neighborhood means so much to them. For them to do a play about their neighborhood, in their neighborhood—it’s really great. “

The production also includes several local children and teens, who play various roles and have been universally praised by their adult co-stars. Both Battles and Rodriguez think the children will “steal the show”, and praise their talent and work ethic.  Thompson refers to the children as “phenomenal”.  This is a production where people of all ages, and from all walks of life, have come together to celebrate the arts, the city and a city neighborhood.

Overall, this cast and this production is full of energy, optimism and community spirit.  This promises to be an entertaining production, and after speaking with the cast, I’m looking forward to seeing it even more than I already was.  It’s Shakespeare for the community, in a uniquely St. Louis way.

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush (Camillo), Drew Battles Photo by David Levy

Antonio Rodriquez, Marty Casey, Nathan Bush (Camillo), Drew Battles
Photo by David Levy

Shakespeare In the Streets, Old Hearts Fresh, will run from Thursday, September 19th through Saturday, September 21st, at 8pm at 4225 Manchester Avenue in the Grove.  For more information, see SFSTL’s website (linked in the sidebar of this blog).

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Cabaret

Book by Joe Masteroff

Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood

Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

September 13, 2013

Nathan Lee Graham Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nathan Lee Graham
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a new season at the Rep, and they’ve gotten off to a good start with their production of the classic musical Cabaret.  As I took my seat, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had seen the film and listened to some of the revival cast recordings but had never seen the show live.  I found the Rep’s production to be well-crafted and an excellent introduction to the live show.

Cabaret is a show that makes me think.  That’s the point, really—the juxtaposition of the carefree hedonism of Berlin in the late 1920s-early 1930s with the dawning reality of growing Nazi influence and control in Germany, and the parallels between the performances at a local seedy night club, the lives of some of the performers and regulars of that club and their friends.  Cliff Bradshaw (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka) is an American author caught up in the midst of all the turmoil as he becomes involved with self-destructive nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Liz Pearce), and the world around them is reflected in the performances on stage, led by the enigmatic and ubiquitous Emcee (Nathan Lee Graham), who introduces the show as a performer at the club but then becomes something of a commentator on the situations in the play, as Cliff, Sally and their circle deal (or try not to deal) with the increasingly volatile political situation.

As Cliff, who serves as both a player in the proceedings and a bewildered and increasingly horrified observer, Herdlicka is ideally cast.  It’s a role that could easily be ignored among all the more colorful characters in the show, but Herdlicka makes Cliff at once likeable and interesting, and his reactions to what is going on around him are compellingly portrayed.  His chemistry with Pearce as Sally is one of the highlights of this production.  Sally’s increasing denial of reality is well-portrayed by Pearce, as is her fun-loving spirit.  I also found the subplot involving Cliff’s landlady, Frau Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and the sweet older Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Michael Marotta) to be particularly engaging.  Both Murray and Marotta deliver wonderful performances, and every scene they have together is compelling, from their sweet duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More” to the hopeful “Married”.   Murray’s solo “What Would You Do?” is particularly poignant, as well.  Their plot is kind of the “heart” of this show, and the resolution adds emotional resonance to the increasingly unpleasant reality of the changing life of Germany and the growing sense of hopelessness and denial.

With all the fine performances in this show, the standout is definitely Nathan Lee Graham as the Emcee.  Sporting an array of elaborate outfits from the requisite top-hat and tails to more outrageous ensembles that range from skimpy lederhosen, to Wagnerian opera diva, to a ingeniously-designed half-suit/half evening gown combination. Graham is a wonder and a enigma, as a character who serves as both a literal and figurative host for the evening’s proceedings and appearing anywhere and everywhere on stage, above the stage and even in the audience throughout the performance.  He is at once chameleon-like and cartoonish, and a little unsettling at times.  Graham has a great voice, moves nimbly, and has amazing stage presence and whenever he is on stage, he is the center of attention.  From the strangely inviting “Wilkommen” and throughout all of his songs, from the raunchy “Two Ladies” to the broadly satirical “Sitting Pretty/The Money Song” to the haunting, “I Don’t Care Much”, Graham is a force to be reckoned with, leading the cast with authority, pizzazz, and an almost otherworldly magnetism.

In doing my research about this show, I’ve discovered that the Rep’s version of Cabaret seems to be unique in terms of structure and songs used.  It doesn’t exactly mirror any of the famous stage productions or the Oscar-winning film, but rather seems to be a combination of elements from several of these productions.  I especially liked how the film song “Maybe This Time” was integrated with Cliff’s song “Don’t Go” to give Sally and Cliff a parallel moment that speaks volumes for their situation.  It’s one of my favorite scenes in this production, and I particularly liked the chemistry between Herdlicka and Pearce.  The futility of their situation is made all the more heartbreaking watching these two try to make things work.  Also, “Sitting Pretty” and its film replacement “The Money Song” are both used here, with great spectacle by Graham and the club dancers, presenting a tableau of excess and materialism with several elaborate costumes and much energy.

All of the musical numbers are presented well by a well-cast ensemble, from the bold intro, all of the outrageous production numbers, to the eerily zealous “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, to Sally’s devastatingly real rendition of the title song late in the proceedings.  Even though I did find myself, at times, wishing things would be a little seedier and more extreme, the excellent cast performs their parts well and brings the audience into the atmosphere of 1920s Germany, and the cacophonous finale is both jarring and powerfully thought-provoking.

From a visual standpoint, this production is spectacular, with a meticulously detailed set designed by Michael Schweikardt, complete with flashing neon sign (seen from behind, with one letter burnt out—a nice effect), a small stage and tables to represent the club, and set pieces brought in to represent Cliff and Sally’s apartment and other locations.  It’s the Kit Kat Club that dominates the proceedings, though, and all the details from the multi-level stage to the small club tables complete with old-fashioned telephones set the mood exactly right.  The choreography is also very well-done, with energetic dance numbers and slick production numbers, even if at times they are a little too slick, although the proceedings did get noticeably more chaotic as the action progressed, which I think is fitting.

For the most part, I would say this Cabaret is a success–a feast for the eyes and ears, as well as the brain.  It’s an engaging depiction of a tumultuous time in world history, with superb visuals and an expert cast.  It makes a compelling start to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s 47th season, and makes me want to come back and see what else the Rep has in store this year.

Cast of Cabaret Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of Cabaret
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Parade
Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 5, 2013

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn Photo by Michael Young

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Michael Young

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis. Of all the shows I have seen in 2013, only one has rated less than “very good” to me, but still there are those few truly transcendent productions that stand out even from a great crop of contenders. R-S Theatrics’ ambitious production of Parade is one of those stand-out productions. This is the first production from this company that I have seen, and to say I’m impressed is an understatement. I was bowled over by the level of talent, intensity and sheer drama of this production of a show that is certainly not a “feel good” musical. It’s raw, intense and stunningly real presentation of subject matter that can be difficult to watch and process, but needs to be told and is done so is a truly involving and compelling way.

This is not a happy musical, to put it mildly. Parade is the story of the famous case of Leo Frank, a New York-raised Jewish factory manager in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, who was accused and convicted of the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan, even though he was almost certainly innocent (and was eventually pardoned in 1986). It’s the story of a Southern town unable to forget (and, in fact, celebrating) its Confederate past with all its problems and inequities all wrapped in a rosy idealistic formula, as most of the town turns out—miniature battle flags in hand and waved enthusiastically–for the annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. Meanwhile, Leo (Pete Winfrey) feels his detachment not only from the town and a culture that romanticizes the Old South, but also from his own wife, Lucille (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who is also Jewish but grew up in Georgia and views herself as a part of Southern society. In this setting, the murder of the well-liked young Mary (Beth Wickenhauser) brings all the doubts and distrust of the “outsider” Frank to the boiling point and bringing the whole town into the spotlight and all the ugliness of racism and antisemitism to the surface, as well as some other unsavory elements such as the thirst for revenge at all costs–represented notably by Mary’s friend Frankie Epps (Zach Wachter), and the self-serving desire for political advancement at all costs, demonstrated primarily by District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ken Haller).

The players in this production are excellent, with particular stand-outs being Haller as the charismatic but corrupt Dorsey, Wachter as the grieving and increasingly vengeful Epps as well as an idealistic young Confederate soldier at the start of the show, and Marshall Jennings as the smooth-talking factory janitor Jim Conley (who most historians believe was the real murderer). Jennings grabs the stage–and the audience’s attention–and won’t let go in his chillingly energetic numbers “That’s What He Said” (at Frank’s trial) and “Blues: Feel the Rain” (in Act 2). Kevin Hester is sympathetic as the conflicted governor Jack Slaton, to whom Lucille Frank appeals for help, and Shawn Bowers (as night watchman and original suspect Newt Lee), Alexis Coleman (as the Franks’ house maid Minnie McKnight), Kay Love (in a dual role as Mrs. Phagan and Mrs. Slaton) and Wickenhauser as Mary deliver strong performances as well, with Bowers and Coleman delivering one of the show’s strongest musical moments at the beginning of Act 2 in “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin'”. This is a show full of powerful musical moments from the very beginning (the haunting “Old Red Hills of Home”), to the sweetly comic (Frankie and Mary’s “The Picture Show”), to the disturbing (most of the trial), to the heartbreaking (Mary’s funeral) and the hopeful (the Franks’ “This Is Not Over Yet”). This is a cast of fine voices, and the ensemble carries the mood of the show convincingly as well.

In the midst of all this tension and injustice is a tragically beautiful love story, anchored by the truly brilliant performances of the two leads. As Leo and Lucille Frank deal with trying to prove Leo’s innocence, the initially emotionally distant couple find not just answers, but each other, and this relationship is portrayed compellingly and with much warmth and honesty by Winfrey and Theby-Quinn. Individually, their performances are the centerpiece of this production–Winfrey’s initially cold and nervous and increasingly vulnerable Leo, and Theby-Quinn’s gentle and polite but ultimately fiery and determined Lucille. What’s more, all of their scenes together are outstanding, with the devastatingly intense “All the Wasted Time” being perhaps the best single scene I’ve seen on stage all year. Their chemistry is more than believable—it’s electric, and their efforts to say all the things they had left unsaid is almost unbearably honest, but so deeply compelling it’s impossible to look away. It’s all the more tragic seeing their relationship develop and watching all the tenderness and intensity of this scene, all the while knowing what is going to happen ultimately. It’s one of those moments where I find myself wishing I could just freeze the show right at that point, so these two can have their moment and nothing bad will happen, but this isn’t that kind of show. The genius of this show, and this production, is that it can make the audience wish for a happy ending even when it’s not possible. We want it to be possible, but it’s not to be, and the final scene, displaying the aftermath of the tragedy, is gut-wrenchingly effective.

The time and place are effectively suggested by a minimal set–a darkly painted stage, starkly lit, with a a few set pieces and furniture brought in as needed to suggest the factory, the courtroom, a jail cell, and more. It all plays particularly well in the ornate, red-curtained Ivory Theatre, with period music playing before the show to set the mood, and the excellent musical ensemble playing Jason Robert Brown’s excellent score.

I don’t cry easily at shows, but this production had me near tears on at least three occasions. Even though this is based on a true case and the exact circumstances have changed since 1913-15, the issues of prejudice, pressure for conformity, and the dangers of mob mentalities and vengeance, as well the overarching message of reconciliation as personified by the Franks themselves, are still relevant today. Stories like this need to be told, and R-S Theatrics has told this story with clarity and truth. It’s a remarkable piece of theatre.

Parade Ensemble Photo by Michael Young

Parade Ensemble
Photo by Michael Young

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