Archive for March, 2014

Ghost the Musical
Book and Lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Music and Lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Based on the on Paramount Pictures Film Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

Original Broadway Production Directed by Matthew Warchus

Choreographed by Ashley Wallen

Peabody Opera House

March 25, 2014

Steven Grant Douglas Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost the Musical Tour

Steven Grant Douglas
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost the Musical Tour

When I first heard that the well-known 1990 film Ghost had been turned into a musical that played in London’s West End and then on Broadway, I have to admit I was skeptical. I’m a little weary of the recent trend of musicalizing popular films, and I wasn’t sure if Ghost needed to be a musical. After seeing the current Troika national tour–based on the Broadway production–at the Peabody Opera House, I’m still not sure this adaptation was entirely necessary, although I did find it entertaining, full of flashy and stunning visuals and some good performances.

This musical, like the movie it’s based on, tells the story of Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), a successful young banker with a life that seems too good to be true. He has a job he loves, a great loft in Brooklyn, and a loving girlfriend in artist Molly (played at this performance by understudy Andrea Rouch).  As Sam and Molly look forward to a happy life together, Sam is suddenly and brutally murdered in what appears to be a mugging gone wrong. Instead of moving on into the afterlife, however, Sam finds himself stranded on Earth as a ghost. After meeting a few other ghosts who give him a few pointers (in the song “You Gotta Let Go”), Sam follows Molly and soon finds out more about his murder and the involvement of his co-worker and former best friend Carl (Robby Haltiwanger). Upon a chance meeting with self-proclaimed psychic and con artist Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), Sam finds that he can communicate with Oda Mae and sets out to get a message to Molly before anything bad can happen to her.

The plot follows the film fairly closely, including the famous song “Unchained Melody” that was so prominently featured in the movie. The rest of the songs are original, though, and most aren’t particularly memorable.  The songs that do make a positive impression include Oda Mae’s introduction song, the gospel and disco influenced “Are You a Believer?”, Molly’s poignant solo “With You”, the Act Two opener “Rain/Hold On” and Oda Mae’s Act Two showstopper “I’m Outta Here”.  Aside from these songs, though, I find it difficult to remember much of the score, although it’s mostly well-sung by the youthful cast (many of whom are recent college graduates).  It’s a smoothly-told story but the young cast (especially the ensemble) doesn’t always bring the energy, and live theatre is about energy ultimately. I do think the show got better as it went along, though, and the finale was particularly moving and well-done.

Still, this is an engaging show for the most part, with some strong performances by the lead performers, particularly Stewart as the feisty Oda Mae and understudy Rouch as the at first hopeful and then grieving Molly. Douglas looks and sounds good as Sam, but is somewhat lacking in stage presence in this pivotal role, especially at the beginning of the show.  He does gain strength as he goes along, and he does well in his scenes with Rouch and Stewart. Haltiwanger is fine as Carl, but like a lot of this cast, I wish he had more energy and presence.  Brandon Curry makes a memorable impression as a surly Subway Ghost who becomes Sam’s reluctant mentor.

The biggest strength of this production is in its physical look and special effects, re-created from the Broadway production.  It’s a very flashy show set-wise, making use of many projections including city scenes and images of people, as well as moving images to represent the subway cars and an elevator.  The special effects, such as those used to make objects fly around the stage, and people “rise up” out of their bodies when they become ghosts or are carried into the afterlife (surrounded by an ethereal silvery white light for good guys, and angry red lights for bad guys).   Kudos to the whole team that designed and/or re-created the lighting (Hugh Vanstone, Joel Shier), video projections (Jon Driscoll) and Illusions (Paul Kieve).  It’s a stunning technical production with a sleek, updated look set in the present day rather than in the movie’s era of the early 1990’s.  The effects and visuals help keep the story moving, and some of the special effects even drew applause from the audience.

Ghost is an ambitious production that manages to entertain despite its drawbacks. I’m glad I was able to see this show, although I do think that it will be frequently compared to the film, and it doesn’t quite live up to that comparison.  For what it is, though, it works well enough, and I was able to follow the story of Sam, Molly, Oda Mae and the rest of the cast with interest and some emotion, especially at the end.  I do think that with a little more energy, this show could be even better.  It was worth seeing, however, and I think anyone who enjoys a good simple love story with a lot of flashy special effects should enjoy it.

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost The Musical US Tour

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost The Musical US Tour



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Noises Off
by Michael Frayn
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 23, 2014

The Cast of Noises Off Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Cast of Noises Off
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a play, or heard so much laughter in the audience around me. Although I had never seen Noises Off before, I had heard much about it, mostly from people saying it was one of the funniest plays ever written, or at least in that last 50 years or so. It’s one of those plays I had always been meaning to see but never had the opportunity, and I’m glad that the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has provided that opportunity by choosing it to close out their 2013-2014 season.  As presented in this highly entertaining and precisely directed production at the Rep, this truly hilarious play has lived up to its reputation and then some.

Noises Off is a play within a play, cleverly structured so that we are presented with the same basic scene in three different views. The first act is a fairly straightforward presentation as a troupe of actors is in dress rehearsal for a UK tour of the fictional farce Nothing On.  When the show begins and the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett enters to answer the phone, we’re led to believe this is the play until the disembodied voice of director Lloyd Dallas (Fletcher McTaggart) begins speaking to the actress, Dotty Otley (Dale Hodges) as she goes about her business onstage.  She’s soon joined by the rest of the cast and the first act of their play proceeds mostly as normal, with a few interruptions in which bits of information are revealed about the various cast members and their relationships with one another.  It’s a fast-moving farce with a lot of physical comedy and much door-slamming, miscommunication, mistaken identities and general mayhem in an English country house. It gets funnier and funnier as the act continues, but that’s only the beginning.  In the first scene of the second act, the set turns around to show us another performance later in the tour’s run, this time shown from the perspective of backstage, as the actors’ and stagehands’ interpersonal intrigues interfere with their performances with ridiculous results. Finally, in the second scene of Act Two, we’re shown the onstage view again on closing night of the tour, as basically the whole performance surely and spectacularly descends into chaos, with nonstop slapstick comedy that makes it difficult for me to breathe from all the laughing.

As crazy as the action gets, a play like this demands much precision in order for all the jokes to land.  Kudos to director Edward Stern and the energetic cast for keeping the timing right. Everything is so fast-moving it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of what’s going on, but it doesn’t really matter because if you miss one joke, you’ll catch another one because they’re flying a mile-a-minute, and that’s literal flying in some cases, with baskets of flowers, liquor bottles and plates of sardines being tossed around left and right. There’s also some very particular choreography involving a prop pole axe that incites much riotous laughter.  This play is also something of a treat for anyone who’s been involved in the production of a play, with jokes about actors and theatre–one character needs the director to explain his motivation for seemingly every minute piece of business; another character is incapable of ad-libbing, so she just recites her lines on cue no matter what goes wrong onstage; the stage managers keep getting their calls mixed up, etc. And then there are the jokes about the personal lives of the actors, with outsized egos, romantic triangles, jealousy and more.  It’s all very involved and I wouldn’t want to describe it too much and spoil all the fun.  It’s best to just show up, sit down and enjoy the ride.

The ensemble for this production is more than game for all the non-stop silliness, with great energy and timing, with most of them playing dual roles except for McTaggart as vain and amorous director Lloyd, Rebeca Miller as the timid and mousy assistant stage manager (and all-purpose understudy) Poppy, and Kevin Sebastian as overworked Stage Manager Tim.  All of the performers were suitably hilarious in their roles, with standouts being Joneal Joplin as Selsdon, a hard-drinking veteran actor who plays a burglar in the play-within-a-play and who is constantly hiding liquor bottles around the stage, Hodges as both the overtaxed housekeeper Mrs. Clackett and the increasingly angry and evasive Dotty, John Scherer as Dotty’s egotistical paramour and co-star Garry Lejeune, and Victoria Adams-Zischke as the most level-headed of the performers, actress Belinda Blair.  The whole ensemble works together with well-practiced precision, as well, bringing verve and gusto to the increasingly chaotic proceedings.

Technically, the set by James Wolk is cleverly designed to look both like a fairly cheap touring set and, when turned around, like the backstage area behind the set, and the costumes by Elizabeth Covey are fittingly bright and colorful. All the technical elements, including Peter E. Sargent’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound, are smoothly executed and lend well to the overall atmosphere of a relatively low-budget English touring company.

A play like this that fairly light on story and heavy on the jokes may seem easier to perform, but in fact it’s extremely difficult because everything that goes on must be kept running at the perfect pace. With a great cast and crew such as this production boasts, though, all the chaos can be managed to make the staging look easy. Noises Off is a fitting way to finish off the Rep’s season with a bang, and I highly recommend it. I would only add this warning: you may want to bring tissues when you see this play because you just might end up crying with laughter. It really is that funny.

Fletcher McTaggart, Rebeca Miller Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Fletcher McTaggart, Rebeca Miller
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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The Price
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bruce Longworth
New Jewish Theatre
March 22, 2014


Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, or so the old saying goes.  In Arthur Miller’s 1968 play The Price, a middle-aged police officer is forced to confront not only the physical artifacts of his past, but his relationships as well, and a great deal of thought and conversation goes into the process of separating the trash from the treasure and determining what really matters, both materially and fundamentally.  As presented by the New Jewish Theatre, this classic play brings to life these questions of value and stability in a richly detailed, beautifully acted production.

The first few minutes of the play belong completely to Victor Franz (Michael James Reed), a New York City police officer on verge of retirement, as he peruses the dusty contents of the soon-to-be-demolished building where he grew up, along with his now-deceased parents and his brother Walter (Jerry Vogel), a successful surgeon with whom Victor hasn’t spoken in years.  As Victor wanders idly around and sorts through the mountains of furniture and knicknacks, he’s eventually joined by his wife Esther (Kelley Weber) and the enigmatic and endearing Gregory Solomon (Bobby Miller), an elderly semi-retired Russian-Jewish used furniture dealer with a colorful history who is here to appraise the contents of the attic and, Victor hopes, buy it and take it off Victor’s hands. This is more than just a collection of junk, however. Much of the furniture has sentimental value, but Victor doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with that, even though the cantankerous Solomon is taking his sweet time deciding on a price. When Walter eventually does show up unannounced, the brothers are forced to confront all their unspoken issues, and all the characters are presented with varying choices concerning what things, people and relationships really matter to them, as well as facing the cost of their own personal decisions and their effects on those around them.

This is a intense and highly atmospheric drama, well-punctuated by the glorious production values and strong staging.  Designed by Mark Wilson and appointed with painstaking detail, this attic set looks, feels, and sounds like a real place, reflecting both the late-1960’s era of the play’s setting as well as calling back to earlier times, most specifically the family’s affluent heyday in the 1920’s and the later drearier, gloomier reality of the Depression in the 1930’s.  Along with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design, Zoe Sullivan’s sound, and Jenny Smith’s props, this production takes us into the present and the past of this family as their story unfolds, and director Bruce Longworth’s staging and the strong acting of the superb cast brings this family’s world to life, as some of the furniture items–specifically a worn chair and an ornate, non-functioning harp–are almost given personalities as they are made to represent, respectively, the brothers’ jaded and detached father and their elegant and disappointed mother. Authentic 1920’s-era music, such as a musical “laughing record” and a routine by Vaudeville comedians Gallagher and Shean, is also used to great effect in achieving the feel of that bygone era and representing both nostalgia and regret.

The cast here is nothing short of priceless.  Longworth has assembled an immensely talented group of celebrated local actors, as fits this extremely well-written, highly detailed story.  As Victor, Reed exudes strength, weariness and, above all, an underlying sense of decency that motivates his reactions and revelations. He’s a man of missed chances, having given up a promising college career to join the police force and take care of his father, and Reed poignantly portrays his every regret, along with the remembrance of more hopeful times.  Vogel is an excellent contrast to Reed, portraying Walter with a real sense of regret but also a degree of smugness–he wants a relationship with his brother but he wants it on his own terms.  I was also particularly struck by the difficulty of Esther’s role, in that her motivations aren’t entirely clear at first, although Weber clearly portrays all of her complexity, in struggling between her deep sense of loyalty to her husband on one hand, to her near-idolization of Walter on the other hand, as well as the overarching sense of regret and yearning for a better life for herself and Victor.  The real catalyst for the action, however, and the most memorable performance in this incredibly strong cast, is Miller’s as the wise and world-weary Solomon, who provides a degree of moral direction and grounding to the other characters, especially Victor. Miller’s spot-on characterization, authentic-sounding accent, and sheer presence is apparent from his first appearance and throughout the course of the action, even when he’s bellowing at the other characters from offstage.  Even though we only get to hear a little bit about Solomon’s eventful personal history, that history is clearly embodied in Miller’s endearing performance.  There’s also a great sense of ensemble chemistry in this cast, as all of the players contribute to the energy of their cast-mates’ portrayals and the overall intensity of the the production.

Ultimately, as Arthur Miller asserts in this play, everything in life has a cost, whether monetary, emotional, relational, or a combination of these elements. The Price presents a story that seems to hang mostly on whether it’s more worth it to spend one’s life looking after others or to spend it looking after oneself, and the challenges that come from trying to figure out the balance. The play also challenges the audience to think about the emotional and nostalgic value of personal possessions and what they represent.  Although this show is set in a specific era and location, these are questions that transcend time and place. They’re questions we will all have to deal with at some point in our lives, for which this play serves as a stirring representation.  As for this remarkable production by the New Jewish Theatre, I would say it’s more than worth the ticket price and is makes for a thought and discussion-provoking evening well-spent.

Kelley Weber, Michael James reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Kelley Weber, Michael James Reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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Cast of The Awakening Photo by  St. Louis Actors' Studio

Cast of The Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin
Adapted for the Stage by Henry I. Schvey
Directed by Milt Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio, Missouri History Museum
March 15, 2014

I’m constantly amazed at the seemingly boundless possibilities of stagecraft.  Even without the benefits of an elaborate set, a good director , cast, and creative team can make a world come alive onstage and let the members of the audience fill  in the details with their imaginations. It’s exciting to see what the enterprising minds of the creators can produce. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s stage adaptation of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is an excellent example of such a fully realized, although minimalist, production. Even though the story is quite long and there’s more talk than action, it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of theatre that provides a window into life among society’s elite in the late 19th Century South.

Presented at the Missouri History Museum and based on the most famous work of the celebrated writer and St. Louis native Kate Chopin, The Awakening takes its audience to the genteel and highly regulated upper class society of late 19th Century Louisiana, with its elegant balls and gatherings, leisurely afternoon strolls, and rigidly defined gender roles.  In the midst of the summer season at the beach resort on Grand Isle, we are introduced to Edna Pontellier (Emily Baker), the wife of wealthy businessman Leonce (Terry Meddows) and mother of two sons.  Edna at first appears detached and melancholy in contrast to her more vivacious friend Adele Ratignolle (Maggie Murphy), who seems much more content in her society-dictated role than Edna does.  The initially nervous and reserved Edna is soon shaken out of her resigned existence through an intense reaction to a musical performance by the renowned and eccentric pianist Mademoiselle Reisz (Christie Mitchell) and a growing attraction to a longtime family friend, the earnest and seemingly aimless young Robert Lebrun (Antionio Rodriguez).  Edna’s reaction to these new found emotional responses is a quest for self-discovery that takes her to the edges of polite society and, in the play’s second act, into the more Bohemian fringes of New Orleans life.  As Edna struggles with her image of herself in contrast with society’s expectations, and her personal relationships and perceptions of her husband, children and friends old and new, she is forced to confront the realities of life in such a strictly defined world and decide how, and whether, she fits into that world.

I’m still somewhat in awe of the visual design of this production. Here, removed from STLAS’s usual space at the Gaslight Theatre and brought onto the somewhat stark setting of the History Museum stage, the designers have worked a visual wonder.  The set (designed by Patrick Huber) consists mostly of a table and four chairs, which are artfully arranged on a pillar in the middle of the stage and taken down and brought into the scenes as needed, and two video screens.  The rest of the setting is provided by Teresa Doggett’s beautifully detailed costumes, Michael B. Perkins’s excellent mood-setting projections, Patrick Huber’s atmospheric lighting, and Robin Weatherall’s sound. All these elements together set the tone for this production and provide for some intensely striking moments such as a particularly dramatic scene in the second act that takes place behind a screen, lit so that the actors are seen only as larger-than-life shadows.  That’s only one example, however. From start to finish, all these technical elements work together with the strong performances of the cast to present this thought-provoking and intellectually challenging story.  Even though the pacing is a bit slow at times, and the show is a little over long, the performances and stunning technical elements keep the audience engaged.

As for performances, the central figure in this play is Baker’s enigmatic Edna. With a remarkably expressive voice and facial expressions that provide an ideal window to the character’s thoughts, Baker carries the show well, portraying a fully believable journey from the reticent, emotionally evasive Edna of the beginning, to the her growing sense of wonder and thirst for experience, to her confusion and conflicted affections and devastating final scene.  Edna is easy to understand in some respects (her feeling of suffocation in her expected role in society, in which she had very little choice), but the way she goes about her discovery sometimes comes across as selfish, although Baker manages to keep the character sympathetic.  There’s a great scene in the second act where Edna tells a story to her children involving a tiger escaping from its cage that is clearing meant to be a metaphor for Edna herself, and Baker’s energetic and hopeful in her delivery.  I also particuarly enjoyed her scenes with Rodriguez’s passionate and conflicted Robert, and Mitchell’s larger than life and richly characterized eccentric musician Mademoiselle Reisz.  Rodriguez portrays Robert’s struggle between nobility and desire convincingly, and Mitchell presents a memorable and thoroughly credible portrayal of a Victorian-era Bohemian artist. Murphy, as Adele, gives a warm and effervescent performance that grows in depth as the story progresses. Meddows infuses the difficult role of Leonce with a intriguing contrast of capriciousness and humanity. He’s a man of his time, caught up in his billiard games and dinners at his club while content to foist most of the child-rearing duties on his wife. It’s an ill-suited match, although Meddows manages to make me believe that, in his way, Leonce does love Edna despite not being able to understand her. There’s also a nice turn by Nathan Bush as the suave womanizer Alcee Arobin, who crosses paths with Edna in New Orleans.

This is a somewhat difficult play, in that I think I know what it’s trying to say and I agree with a lot of it, but some of Edna’s actions aren’t easy to understand.  Not having read the book, I only have this play’s representation of the character and her story.  She seems to care for few people other than herself and doesn’t seem to think a lot about the effects her actions will have on others, but considering the world in which she was raised, I can more easily sympathize with her.  It’s easy to romanticize the Victorian era with its beautiful clothes, richly appointed furnishings and style, but thinking about the strictly controlled societal conventions makes it seem a lot less pleasant.  The men are free to do whatever they want, but the women are given little choice but to marry a (she hopes) nice gentleman, raise their children and do whatever her husband wants her to do, often living a pampered, childlike existence where the man makes all the “important” decisions often without consulting his wife. In today’s world where a woman has a lot more choices about how to live her life, a world like Edna’s can be hard to imagine, but it was a reality for so many women in 19th Century society.  This production presents the dilemma of that existence clearly, even though it’s at an extremely leisurely pace most of the time.  Still, with its excellent cast and truly astounding technical production, The Awakeningis well worth watching, and is sure to provide a lot to think and talk about after the show.

Emily Baker, Antonio Rodriguez Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Emily Baker, Antonio Rodriguez
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 14, 2014

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Walking into the Rep Studio on opening night of Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976 made me suddenly feel like I was six years old again. The fully realized set is what first put me in that mindset, but the entire production kept me there.  A new play that has been developed through the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival, Soups, Stews and Casseroles is not only well-designed. With an excellent cast and authentic period atmosphere, the play provides a valuable look into small-town life in the mid 1970’s as well as displaying some thought-provoking parallels with the present day.

The title refers to an annual cookbook that’s being compiled by housewife and part-time journalist Kat (Nancy Bell) and her septuagenarian neighbor, Joanne (Susan Greenhill).  They’re typing up the recipes in the kitchen of Kat’s home, which is the center of the action in this play and in this family’s lives.  Kat’s family is a seemingly typical working-class family in small town Wisconsin. Her husband Kim (Vincent Tenninty) has worked on the production line of the same cheese factory for 17 years, and their teenage daughter Kelly (Emma Wisniewski) is working on a big debate project for high school while both her parents express their hopes for her future college education.  Life is as usual for them until Kim’s co-worker and union president, Joanne’s nephew Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), breaks the unsettling news that the cheese factory has been bought out by a large corporation, which starts a chain of events that leads the family into uncharted territory, introducing them to their new, more worldly and sophisticated neighbor, the new factory manager’s wife Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), and presenting various temptations and learning opportunities, as well as challenges to their assumptions and their relationships as their comfortable small-town existence prepares to change significantly.

Gilman’s script is chock-full of 1970’s and small town detail, dealing with issues of the day from the humorous (dressing up for a local historical pageant, descriptions of prominent local characters) to the more serious (labor vs. management, corporate greed, the death penalty, career aspirations for women, etc.), and and setting the immediate local issue (the factory buyout and workers’ concerns) against the backdrop of the 1976 Presidential Election. We can laugh as Elaine introduces Kat to chardonnay and the pop-psychology of the day, but also sympathize as the less sophisticated but intelligent Kat learns to assert herself and set goals beyond writing minutes for society club meetings and typing up cookbooks, and the good-natured but somewhat unfulfilled Kim is presented with opportunities for advancement at work and is forced to decide what his real priorities are. Meanwhile, Kelly and Kyle are there to represent the idealistic voices of youth and progress, and Joanne is there as a reminder of the importance of friendship and continuity.  It’s a very well-constructed play that covers many issues that still happen today, all with a quintessentially 70’s backdrop.

The cast here is impressive, embodying the well-drawn characters with energy and vitality.  As the earnest and dependable Kat, who is the center of the story, Bell portrays her character’s growth throughout the production with conviction, humor and sympathy. She and Teninty are convincing as the sweet, good-natured couple who obviously love each other even within the conflicts that the play presents.  Teninty does a great job of embodying Kim’s conflicted situation while keeping the character consistently likable. Elaine is somewhat of a challenging character in that she serves as both a mentor and an antagonist and representative of temptation in various forms, but Sandoval brings a bold, brash quality as well as a mixture of wit and a little sadness to the role that works very well. Greenhill is a real joy as Joanne, bringing a sharp, biting wit as well as an endearing quality that serves the play well and spurs on the rest of the cast.  Wisniewski’s spunky and infectiously idealistic Kelly and Gwiazdowki’s determined and charismatic Kyle also contribute great work to this excellent ensemble.

Visually, to describe it in cookbook terms, this show is quite a feast.  The wonderfully detailed set by Kevin Depinet is so richly detailed that I had to take some extra time just to look at it as I was walking out of the theatre. It’s a real nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the 70’s firsthand.  It really is as if the audience has stepped back in time to 1976, with cool little details like the rotary-dialed wall phone, the round braided rug, the gold refrigerator and avocado green stove, and all the little era-specific knicknacks in the kitchen along with books on the shelves, clothes hanging on hooks in the entryway, the 70’s-era typewriter and much more.  It provides such an ideal backdrop to this very period-specific show, and the costumes by Lou Bird also contribute well to the atmosphere.

It’s exciting to see local theatre companies like the Rep actively participating in the development of new plays, because as good as the classics are, new works will always be important to the future of theatre. Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 is a shining example the great success that these programs can produce.  It’s an intriguing new work–a funny, emotional and engaging trip back to an era many of us still remember, making for such a wonderfully immersive experience and an encouraging celebration of past, present and future. 

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Original Story Concept/Additional Lyrics by Billy Aronson

Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy

New Line Theatre

March 8, 2014

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of RENT Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of Rent
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

I was somewhat surprised when I read that New Line was going to be staging a production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent.  The surprise was not that New Line was doing the show.  It was that they had never done it before. Known for their offbeat and edgier productions of musicals, New Line seems like just the right venue for this show, even though it’s taken all these years for them to produce it.  Good things happen in their proper time, I guess, and it seems like that time is now, as New Line has proven with the visually striking and emotionally gripping version that is currently being presented on their stage.

Rent is the enormously popular and critically acclaimed examination of life in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1990’s, inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme and its source material, the novel Scenes de La Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger. Like the earlier works, this show revolves around the lives of struggling young artists, updated to reflect the times and issues of early 90s New York, including class struggles and the AIDS epidemic. The story centers on aspiring filmmaker Mark (Jeremy Hyatt) and his roommate, the melancholy, HIV-afflicted ex-junkie rock musician Roger (Evan Fornachon), and their diverse group of young Bohemian friends.  There’s Mark’s ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Sarah Porter) and her current girlfriend, Ivy-league educated lawyer Joanne (Cody LaShea), who experience a somewhat volatile relationship.  There’s also Mimi (Anna Skidis), a young dancer who struggles with drug addiction and HIV, and who is drawn to Roger, as well as sometime college professor Collins (Marshall Jennings), who develops a romance with the charismatic drag queen street performer Angel (Luke Steingruby).  In contrast to the young Bohemians is the newly wealthy Benny (Shawn Bowers), Mark and Roger’s former roommate who married a millionaire’s daughter and is now their landlord.  Throughout the story, the various romantic entanglements are woven throughout the story that also focuses on issues of artistic expression, integrity vs. commercialism, and the struggle against economic and social injustice in the city.

This is an intense show, with moments of sadness and angst, as well as moments of love, joy and hope, and that full range of emotion is well-represented in this vibrant production. I did notice in the performance I saw that it took a little bit of time for the show to really get moving, but once it did (with Hyatt and LaShea’s highly charged performance of “Tango; Maureen” ), it kept getting better and better. The show’s better-known songs like the raucous “La Vie Boheme” and the poignant “Seasons of Love” are well represented here along with the rest of the memorable score, sung by the glorious voices of New Line’s impeccable ensemble.

The leading cast is superb as well, especially Hyatt as a particularly energetic and sympathetic Mark, as well as Skidis’s vulnerable Mimi and Porter’s fiery and confrontational Maureen, bringing laughs and attitude to “Over the Moon”, and sharing the spotlight with the equally strong LaShea in their memorable duet “Take Me Or Leave Me”.  Steingruby brings a lot of charm and sweetness to Angel, particularly in his scenes with Jennings.  Fornachon, as the moody Roger, has a great rock singing voice and looks the part, working well in his scenes with Skidis and Hyatt, but I also find myself wishing he would hold his head up more and wouldn’t sing to the floor as much. Bowers is also convincing as the increasingly conflicted Benny.  I was particularly struck by the excellent voices of the entire company, but this shouldn’t have surprised me since the singing at New Line is always top-notch.

I loved all the attention to detail in this visually stunning production. Set and lighting designer Rob Lippert, costume designers Porter and Marcy Wiegert, props master Alsion Helmer and the entire design team have created a look that is unique to this production and that brings the audience into the world of this Bohemian New York neighborhood in the 1990’s, with characteristic elements such as a vintage pay phone, clunky cell phones, and Mark’s handheld movie camera, and painted with authentic-looking graffiti.  It’s a multilevel set with all the performance areas put to full use, including the perimeter areas and the audience.  The centerpiece is a giant round table/platform that is painted to resemble the moon, which makes it an ideal stage for Maureen’s “Over The Moon” performance, as well as serving as a large cafe table for “La Vie Boheme” and as a way to set off the ensemble in the “Life Support” group scene.  It’s a bold setting for a bold production, and it leaves a lasting impression.

Shockingly enough considering how popular and acclaimed this show is,  I had never seen it live before.  I had only previously watched the filmed version of the Broadway production that was released in 2009, in addition to having heard many of the songs on various occasions.  I enjoyed that DVD, but I’m also glad directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have chosen to follow their own vision for the show. New Line’s version is full of youth and energy.  It’s also staged with a sense of immediacy that brings a lot of life to the show. Although the passage of time has turned Rent into something of a period piece, New Line doesn’t treat it that way, and that’s as it should be.  It’s an iconic show made achingly real, with all the truth and energy brought along with its humanity.  It may have taken New Line many years to finally do this show, but this production is well worth that wait.

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

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Peter and the Starcatcher
by Rick Elice
Based on the Novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Peabody Opera House
March 7, 2014

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern Photo by Jenny Anderson Peter and The Starcatcher National Tour

Joey deBettencourt, Megan Stern
Photo by Jenny Anderson
Peter and The Starcatcher 

Peter and the Starcatcher is one crazy play, and that’s a wonderful thing.  I had heard of this production before seeing it, and even did my research like a good little theatre critic, reading about the background and basic plot and style of the play.  Still, none of that adequately prepared me for what I just saw at the Peabody Opera House.  The national tour based on the original Broadway production of Rick Elice’s stage adaptation of this prequel to the classic Peter Pan story is a wild ride from start to finish, and I’m somewhat at a loss to describe it, but since that’s what I’m here to do, I will try my best.

There are many surprises in this densely-plotted story, and it will be spoiling to say too much.  The basic plot, however, revolves around a mission to deliver a trunk containing a mysterious treasure to the remote kingdom of Rundoon. Two identical trunks–one genuine and one a decoy–are brought aboard two separate ships and watched over by Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner) on the Wasp and his teenage daughter Molly (Megan Stern) on the Neverland.  In the course of their journey, we are introduced to a wide variety of characters with agendas of their own, including the pirate and would-be great villain Black Stache (John Sanders) and his henchman Smee (Luke Smith), and a nameless orphan Boy (Joey deBettencourt) who, along with fellow orphans Prentiss (Carl Howell) and Ted (Edward Tournier), crosses paths with Molly and Black Stache and finds himself on an adventure he couldn’t have imagined.  It’s a complex and involved plot that gets going very quickly and rarely slows down, revealing surprises at every turn and bringing out some genuine sympathy and emotion along with the broad comedy. There are many memorable scenes, including the Act Two opener that involves mermaids, some great jokes about theatrical conventions, some whimsical flights of fancy involving magic and flying, and a memorable conclusion that helps tie this story into the Peter Pan legend.

This is one of the more inventive pieces of theatre I’ve seen, presented in a style that I can only call “spectacular minimalism”. The designs for the lighting (by Jeff Croiter), sound (by Darron L. West) and costumes (by Paloma Young) are excellent, and there’s also some wonderful music by Wayne Barker, but it’s all just enough to set the mood, as the troupe of actors presents the play in a bare-bones style that leaves a lot to the audience’s collective imagination.  The first act takes places primarily on the decks of the two sailing ships, and the second act mostly takes place on a tropical island, although there is very little in the way of a set, except for a few pieces (a staircase, some netting, the two wooden trunks, etc.) to help suggest the scenes, and a lot of creatively used props like ropes that become doors, rubber gloves that are flapped to become birds, and so on.  Much of the “set” is also suggested by the way the actors behave, such as when the ships rock back and forth and the suggestion of the movement is provided by a simple creaking sound effect and the movements of the cast.  In fact, some of the production’s funniest moments arrive in the form of jokes about the inadequacy of the set and the fact that this is a play and we have to imagine that it’s real. The story is told in a broad, tightly directed and fast-paced style,  and the actors deserve kudos for their remarkable precision and timing. 

I love the energy of this ensemble. Every member is completely in the moment, and the whole cast works together seamlessly to bring this story to vivid life.  Chemistry is there in abundance, as well, with believable interactions between all the characters.  In particular, Stern’s Molly and deBettencourt’s Boy present a convincing relationship, demonstrating a mixture of trepidation, challenge and obvious attraction as neither quite knows how to relate to the other at first.  Sanders, as the hilariously foppish and braggadocious Black Stache, and Smith as his bumbling sidekick Smee also show excellent comic chemistry.  Other great teams in this production include Howell as the ambitious Prentiss and Tournier as the food-obsessed Ted, and the hilarious combination of Benjamin Schrader (in men’s clothes except for an apron and hair bow) as Molly’s nanny Mrs. Bumbrake and Harter Clingman as Alf, a sailor who is smitten with her.  Stern and Hosner are also given some great father-daughter moments.  Much of the humor and sentiment of this production comes from the overall ensemble chemistry, and there isn’t a weak link in this cast. The individual performances are excellent, as well, with the standouts for me being deBettencourt as the curious and courageous Boy, Stern as the kind and determined Molly, and Sanders as the delightfully and ambitiously inept Black Stache, who gets the play’s longest laugh in the second act with a ridiculously long joke that’s better seen (and heard) than described.

Based on what I had read, I expected to like this show, although I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it and how bowled over I am at the sheer inventiveness of it, and the richness of the plot in addition to the laugh-a-minute hilarity.  The story provides a suitably gripping background to the Peter Pan story without being too obvious, and it explores the themes of loyalty, family, and identity in a clear and compelling way.  The only negative I can think of is that the run here in St. Louis is so short. There are only two days and four more performances left to see it, so I highly recommend catching this “star” before it moves on.

Luke Smith, John Sanders Photo by Jenny Anderson

Luke Smith, John Sanders
Photo by Jenny Anderson

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Shirley Valentine
by Willy Russell
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
Dramatic License Productions

February 28, 2014

Teresa Doggett Photo by John Lamb  Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett is Shirley Valentine.  In Dramatic License Productions’ current presentation of Willy Russell’s one-woman comedy-drama, Doggett is the undisputed star. She takes a role made famous in the 1980’s by Pauline Collins and makes it her own in a fully committed, confident performance that is the centerpiece of this engaging production.

Shirley Valentine Bradshaw (Doggett) is a working class housewife in 1980’s Liverpool, England.  Having married and had children at a young age, Shirley has spent much of her adult life at home raising her kids and looking after her demanding husband. Now, at 42, she is starting to wonder if life has passed her by.  When a friend invites her to join her on a vacation to Greece, Shirley is forced to confront her regrets and make a decision, and the results of that choice have profound effects on her life and her very perception of herself and those around her.  

Russell’s play is very much of its time, with a lot of the humor and drama revolving around the predicament of middle-aged women in England at the time.  Some of the material has dated to the point where it really can’t be updated and it needs to be treated as a period piece, but it works very well as such.  What the play absolutely demands, though, is a dynamic actress in the role of Shirley, and this production delivers that in Teresa Doggett.

Doggett brings Shirley to life with all her humor, warmth and complexity.  The wonder of this performance is that Shirley is such a multi-faceted character, and Doggett’s energy portrays all those facets to the fullest.  Shirley is an engaging personality, warmly greeting the audience (and the wall of her kitchen, which she frequently addresses) and seemingly cheerful about the day as we first meet her and she recounts stories of her kids and her reflections on changing attitudes in the world toward women, aging, sex and other issues.  She’s full of broad humor and an enthusiastic storyteller. As the performance continues, however, we begin to see Shirley’s dissatisfaction and regret, about her family’s, and  society’s, expectations of her in contrast to her own hopes and dreams from when she was a young, energetic teenager before her marriage.  She’s faced with an identity crisis between Shirley Bradshaw, the worn-out housewife, and Shirley Valentine–the young, free-spirited person that she used to be and wishes she can be again.

Doggett’s strengths are her great energy and engaging characterization as she brings the audience into Shirley’s world so completely, and takes us along on her journey of self-discovery. Her Liverpool accent, while not perfect, is consistent  and Shirley’s big personality is fully realized. Also, even though this is a one-woman show, it’s not exactly a one-character show, as Doggett portrays the various people in Shirley’s life as she describes them. That’s another great aspect of this performance, in that all these characters, from Shirley’s husband and kids to her various friends and people she meets on her trip to Greece, are fully realized. Doggett adjusts her voice and mannerisms accordingly as Shirley tells her story, and even though Shirley is the only character who actually appears on stage, we are allowed to really “meet” these other people, as well.  

This is a show very much of its era, and the time and place are set well by Doggett’s performance as well as her costumes and the sets by Matthew Stuckel.  We see the very realistic interior of Shirley’s kitchen in the first act, as well as the exotic Greek villa of the second act, and the 1980’s music that plays before the performance also helps to set the mood.   The only real misstep was a somewhat clumsily-executed scene change in the middle of act one that made many in the audience wonder if it was intermission. The performance recovered very well after that, though, and Doggett’s determined Shirley brought us back into the story very quickly.

had never seen this play before, but  I remember hearing about the celebrated performance of Pauline Collins in the London and Broadway productions  in the late 1980’s, and also in the subsequent film.  It also became something of a cultural touchstone for middle-aged women at the time. I was a teenager then, but now I’m closer to the protagonist’s age, and I think watching the show is probably a different experience now than it would have been when it was first produced. The perception of age and the roles of women in society have changed significantly in the last 25 years, to the point where Shirley’s situation seems like it would have happened to someone at least ten years older in today’s world.  Still, it’s a fascinating character study and a portrait of a time and place that’s valuable to look back on, and this production provides that and, in Teresa Doggett’s confident and remarkable performance, something to celebrate.

Teresa Doggett Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Teresa Doggett
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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