Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April, 2014

Always… Patsy Cline

by Ted Swindley

Directed by Michael Hamilton

STAGES St. Louis

April 26, 2014

 

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Patsy Cline is a legend of country music. She’s one of those performers whose work has transcended its genre, as she was able to successfully cross over into pop music and create a lasting impression during her relatively short career.  Even now, over 50 years after her tragic early death, she is fondly remembered by fans of all ages, and many of her songs are now regarded as timeless classics. With such a well-regarded catalog of great songs, if anyone is a fitting subject for a “jukebox musical”, it’s Cline, and playwright Ted Swindley has provided a good one in Always… Patsy Cline. In an encore run of their highly successful and critically acclaimed production from last year, STAGES St. Louis has presented an entertaining and ideally cast tribute to this legendary performer and her great music.

As a musical that is primarily focused on showcasing Cline’s music, there really isn’t much of a plot.  Telling the simple, true story of an unlikely friendship that forms between Patsy (Jacqueline Petroccia) and one of her biggest fans, a Texas divorcee and mother of two named Louise Seger (Zoe Vonder Haar), the show relies on the music, the charismatic performances of its leads, and Petroccia’s powerful vocals to carry the show. The show is set in Louise’s kitchen many years after her first meeting with Patsy, and she looks back fondly on her memories of their relationship.  The enthusiastic, personable Louise is an excellent narrator for the action, as she relates her first time hearing Patsy sing on TV and then details her growing appreciation of the singer and, eventually, their meeting and quickly building friendship, as Patsy performs a concert in Louise’s hometown of Houston and the two end up spending the evening together, and Louise convinces Patsy to stay over at her house and then make an impromptu trip to a local radio station for an interview in the morning before flying out to her next gig.  As Louise recounts the eventful meeting, the action is punctuated by Patsy’s songs, sometimes performed in the context of concert or radio appearances and sometimes in Louise’s kitchen.  It’s an interesting little story and the characters are amiable, but the biggest star of the show is the music, very well-sung by Petroccia in Patsy Cline’s distinctive style and expertly played by the excellent band.

This isn’t simply a staged concert, though.  Petroccia does an excellent job sounding enough like Patsy Cline to be convincing, but she’s not simply a mimic.  She brings a great deal of energy and heart to the performance, especially in songs like “Crazy” and “Faded Love”, and more upbeat numbers such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “San Antonio Rose”, and her obvious instant bond with Vonder Haar’s Louise is clear. Vonder Haar, for her part, is a delight, bringing a great deal of folksy charm to the outgoing and extremely likable Louise.  Vonder Haar also has many great moments interacting with the audience, and she even manages to convince a man to dance with her onstage. It’s a role that requires a great deal of improvisational ability, and Vonder Haar displays that with style.  She even gets to sing along with with Petroccia on a few songs, and they sound great together and seem to be having a great deal of fun playing these characters. That fun is contagious, too, with the audience clapping and (when invited to) singing along with great enthusiasm. It’s also fun to see how the great-sounding band is brought into the story from time to time, as they interact with both Patsy and Louise in a few humorous moments.

Visually, the detailed set by James Wolk and the colorful and period-specific costumes by Lou Bird add to the atmosphere and overall celebratory spirit of the production. There are some clever little touches like a stove that transforms into a jukebox, and the lighting (designed by Matthew McCarthy) helps to set the mood, as well.  All of the technical aspects of the show are very well-done and contribute to the early 1960s flavor of the production.

While Cline’s death is dealt with briefly and very respectfully, for the most part this show is a celebration of her life and her music, so the overall atmosphere is upbeat and positive.  This is an unabashed love letter to Patsy Cline and her songs, excellently cast, staged and sung.  This isn’t an in-depth biography or character study, but it isn’t trying to be. Both casual and hardcore fans of Cline and her music will surely find much to love about this production, and I think many of those who aren’t as familiar with her music will enjoy it as well. It’s a tribute to a legendary performer, and as such it succeeds very well.  STAGES has done very well bringing it back by popular demand.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Jacqueline Petroccia
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

 

Read Full Post »

Windmill Baby
by David Milroy
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
April 25, 2014

Linda Kennedy Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Linda Kennedy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

Live theatre is a wonderful thing.  It can take so many different forms, and can educate as well as entertain. In my short tenure as a reviewer, I’ve been impressed with the great variety of live theatre in St. Louis, and I’ve enjoyed discovering all the great local theatre companies.  This production of Windmill Baby is the first production I’ve seen at Upstream Theatre, and it’s an excellent example of a production that is both informative and highly emotionally engaging, anchored by the remarkably versatile performance of its leading (and only) performer.

This play takes us into the world of an Australian cattle station and the Aboriginal workers who spent their lives working there. When the aging Maymay Starr (Linda Kennedy) returns to the station on which she had spent much of her early life, she introduces the audience to a cast of characters out of her own memories. It’s a story that starts out with a collection of random lighthearted memories and then gradually builds to portray both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of Maymay’s life on the station, and the mistreatment she and her fellow workers faced at the hands of their white boss, as well as their struggle in the midst of the general expectations of white Australian society.  She fondly remembers long-gone friends and family members, and shares some amusing stories of goings-on at the station, as ever so surely the tone shifts to one of tragedy and regret, centering around a the story of the “windmill baby” of the title and her friend’s doomed–and socially unacceptable–love affair.

The story and the action are all related with vivid energy by Kennedy, who portrays Maymay as well as the entire cast of friends, family members, allies and antagonists who populate the stories she tells.  It’s a wonderful performance, as Kennedy fully inhabits each and every character, from the vivacious but regretful Maymay, to her gruff and loving stockman husband Malvern, to the cruel Boss and his weary wife, called the Missus, to the determined and romantic disabled gardner Wunman, who is in many ways the heart of Maymay’s story and the chief subject of her recollections.  All of these characters are completely and engagingly realized by Kennedy, and the transformations between characters are clearly apparent. Kennedy displays impressive skill at changing both her voice and physical mannerisms as she portrays the different people and even, humorously, a dog.  It’s a captivating performance from start to finish, as Kennedy brings the audience into Maymay’s story and not only tells but shows the memorable incidents and people in her eventful life.  There’s even one great moment in which Kennedy drafts a volunteer from the audience and sits her down in front of everyone to relate the engaging parable of a pumpkin and a potato.

In addition to Kennedy’s wonderful performance, the technical aspects of this show are also extremely strong. The set by Patrick Huber is detailed and evocative, with the base of a windmill tower as its centerpiece. The lighting (designed by Tony Anselmo) is also impressive, especially in the effect of projecting the silhouette of the rotating windmill blade against a wall.  The sights, sounds and atmosphere of an old abandoned cattle station are proficiently recreated here, along with some stunning atmospheric music played on various instruments by Farshid Soltanshahi, with whom Maymay interacts memorably at occasional moments in the play.

This is a rich, detailed world with which I would imagine few in the audience would be familiar, but the storytelling and in particular Kennedy’s winning performance help us to see both the joys and immense difficulties of Maymay’s life, as well humanity’s capacity for beauty on the one hand and great cruelty on the other.  It’s quite an intense play, especially toward the powerfully emotional conclusion. This is a testimony to one woman’s remarkable perseverance and a thoroughly realized evocation of time, place and atmosphere, as well as a prime example of the kind of excellence that St. Louis theatre has to offer.

Linda Kennedy Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Linda Kennedy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

Read Full Post »

Make Hamlet
a version of Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
April 23, 2014

Mitch Eagles, Ethan H. Jones, Julia Crump, Nick Henderson, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, WIll Bonfiglio  Photo by Katrin Hackenberg Equally Represented Arts

Mitch Eagles, Ethan H. Jones, Julia Crump, Nick Henderson, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, WIll Bonfiglio
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

 

When I say HamletI would imagine most people would know what I’m talking about. It’s one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and it has been subject to volumes of literary and theatrical criticism and enjoyed numerous productions over the past few hundred years. There have been so many conflicting interpretations, although most of the ones I’ve seen are still basically the same story with a few differing style and/or characterization elements.  With this new production, called Make Hamlet and produced at The Chapel arts venue by Equally Represented Arts, director/adapter Lucy Cashion and her cast are presenting a take on the classic show like I’ve never seen it before. In this audacious re-imagining of the material, the ERA company challenges the audience to re-examine what we think about this much-performed and studied work, as well as reflect on the art and craft that goes into making and presenting a play.

This is a somewhat condensed, re-arranged, visually striking production that uses all of its technical resources to the fullest, and takes the cast members everywhere throughout the performance space, from the stage to the back of the performance space, to the audience and even perched on the pews that line one side of the venue. The space is adorned with various implements of gardening and sewing (a watering can, a window basket of flowers, a sewing machine, sewing patterns, etc.), suggesting a motif of creation and growing, and we see this process as the “backstage” is onstage, and characters change costumes and adjust the set in full view of the audience.  The six member ensemble presents their characters with distinctive interpretations, as well–confrontational, larger-than-life Hamlet (Nick Henderson), earnest and determined Horatio (Mitch Eagles), fast-talking and detached Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), aloof socialite Gertrude (Julia Crump), moody and conflicted Ophelia (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), and relatively mild-mannered Laertes (Will Bonfiglio).  The other characters in the action are mostly referred to but not seen, with two notable exceptions–the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, which is rendered by a actors manipulating an intensely-backlit dressmaker’s dummy; and Polonius, who is “played” in most scenes by a colorful clown costume on a hanger, except in the memorable and somewhat disturbing take on the scene in which Polonius offers Laertes advice before Laertes returns to school and then warns Ophelia concerning Hamlet’s romantic attentions. I say “disturbing” because it’s not entirely clear if Henderson is supposed to simply be Polonius in these scenes, or if he is portraying Hamlet-as-Polonius. The reactions of Bonfoglio and Theby-Quinn certainly suggest that something isn’t exactly right.  And then there are the scenes where famous speeches are delivered several times by different characters, or when the characters break into song, such as Gertrude absently singing The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and Ophelia’s darkly jarring rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” at a key moment.

This is a take on Hamlet that recasts the story as more of a dark farce than a straightforward tragedy, and it works surprisingly well, with the staging and characterizations in keeping with that style, and it’s also all very 2014. Claudius’s “crown” is golf club. Hamlet wields a large, shiny pair of sewing scissors as a sword in one scene, and he and Laertes duel with garden clippers in another. Hamlet and Ophelia share a ballet-inspired dance as Ophelia chats with her father on a cell phone. Bright LED flashlights, sounds of sewing machines, rain, and ominous music help set the scene and the mood, and in a particularly intriguing conceit, character deaths are portrayed by having them remove their costumes, leaving their “shed skin” behind.  Hamlet and Horatio play out something of a volatile “bromance”,with the rich-voiced Henderson portraying a Hamlet who is alternately sympathetic and downright menacing, and Eagles–who physically reminds me of Harry Potter–in an endearing performance as a noble, hipsterish Horatio. Theby-Quinn, in an excellent turn as a particularly intense Ophelia, swings wildly from coquettish to annoyed to fiercely unhinged, pelting the other characters with spools of thread that represent herbs in the most violent rendition I’ve seen of her well-known “madness” scene. These three are the real stand-outs in this cast as far as I’m concerned, and I was especially surprised at how much emphasis this production focuses on Horatio specifically.  All six players put in good work, however, and the ensemble scenes are well-staged and convincingly played, concluding in a truly riveting finale.

I feel so much at a loss to adequately describe everything that goes on with this production. I could overuse adjectives like “bold”, “daring”, “dark”, “witty”, “audacious”, etc. This production certainly is all those things, and it takes the Hamlet story and the characters in directions that I’d never thought of before. I’m sure it will be the catalyst for some excellent conversations about this play, its characters, and what it all means.  As wonderful as the cast is, much of the credit for the success of this production goes to Cashion, who not only adapted and directed it, but also designed the set and the wonderful sound effects.  It’s such a fully realized, consistent vision, played out expertly by this great cast and crew.

 There’s a lot of Shakespeare happening in St. Louis this week, with the celebration of the Bard’s 450th birthday and Shake 38 taking the Bard’s works to various neighborhoods and venues throughout the area.  Even the midst of all those works, however, this one is a must-see. As a truly challenging, entertaining and engaging new presentation of an oft-performed show, ERA’s Make Hamlet is a winner.  It’s a Hamlet for the 21st century, and it’s not to be missed.

Will Bonfligio, Nick Henderson Photo by Katrin Hackenberg Equally Represented Arts

Will Bonfligio, Nick Henderson
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
Equally Represented Arts

Read Full Post »

Falling
by Deanna Jent
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 12th, 2014

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
 Mustard Seed Theatre

Falling has become quite the success story in terms of St. Louis theatre on a national stage.  Since Mustard Seed’s first production in 2011, the play has enjoyed productions in New York (Off-Broadway) and Los Angeles with critical acclaim. Now, the production has come full circle, being re-staged at Mustard Seed with most of its original cast.  Although I didn’t see the show the first time around, I can see now why this show has enjoyed so much success. It’s a powerful, riveting and extremely well-written  drama that tells the story of one family’s very specific struggles, but also manages to speak to universal human themes in the process.  This may be Mustard Seed’s second time producing this show, but everything from the cast to the staging to the overall effect can only be described as first-rate.

Inspired by playwright/director Deanna Jent’s personal experience as the mother of an adult child with autism, this play tells the story of the fictional Martin family by first introducing us to 18-year-old Josh (Daniel Lanier) as he wakes up and goes about his usual morning routine of wandering through the living room setting things in order (such as arranging stacks of videotapes) and enjoying one of his favorite rituals involving tipping over a box of feathers that fall onto his head as he joyfully dances underneath.  We then meet the rest of his family–mom Tami (Michelle Hand), dad Bill (Greg Johnston) , and teenage sister Lisa (Katie Donnelly), as the family prepares breakfast and gets Josh ready to go to school.  Although the challenges with Josh’s situation are apparent early on (it’s a struggle to prepare him for school),  it’s when Bill’s mom Sue (Carmel Russell) arrives later for a visit from out of town that the situation becomes even more tense eventually bringing out a wide range of emotions and issues as this family deals with the ever-increasing  conundrums concerning the family’s relationships and the increasingly uncontrollable (and occasionally aggressive) Josh’s future. Tami especially is confronted with the dilemma of how best to help Josh while trying to maintain some level of harmony within the rest of her family as a series of increasingly confrontational and explosive events forces her to come to terms with her own hopes and fears concerning Josh, her family and herself.

One of things I find particularly impressive about this production is that it presents such a fully-realized world, through the combination of the carefully crafted script, a fully committed cast and meticulously appointed set (designed by John Stark) and strikingly atmospheric lighting effects (designed by Michael Sullivan).  This show becomes something of a window into this family’s life, and the proceedings are more powerful in that they are all so achingly real, from Tami’s struggles to stay optimistic, keep  order in her family and love her son despite his increasingly uncontrollable and occasionally dangerous behavior, to Bill’s frustration in maintaining his bond with his wife, to Lisa’s anger and resentment of her brother and his necessary hold on his parents’ attention, to the devoutly Christian Sue’s struggle to reconcile the concepts of her faith with her desire to be a help to her family.  All of these characters and their situations are fully realized without being cookie-cutter characters, and the play presents the issues and challenges of dealing with a family member with special needs in a way that is simultaneously specific and universal. Not everyone watching this play will have the same or similar experience to the Martin family, but there’s something about the human condition and the continual struggle to find hope in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that all humans will be able to relate to in one way or another.  It deals with issues of family love, parents’ sense of inadequacy, sibling resentment, faith and doubt, and other common human situations, confronting a range of possible solutions to these problems but with no easy answers, as is often the case in life.

The cast here is top-notch, bringing this family to life with realism and power.  As Josh, the play’s focal point and the catalyst for its action, Lanier is astounding. He’s at once endearing and physically imposing, bringing energy and warmth as well as a capacity for both gentleness and violence, and his interactions with his family are full of both highly-charged emotion and great sympathy.   Hand, as Tami, demonstrates a tremendous emotional range as the initially optimistic and upbeat Tami, who is trying to make the most of difficult situation but is finding that increasingly difficult.  Her character’s ever-increasing weariness, as well as her great love for all of her family,  is readily apparent in Hand’s remarkable performance.  While Hand and Lanier portray the play’s central relationship, the rest of the cast is equally excellent in support, with Johnston strong as the loving but increasingly exasperated Bill, Donnelly in an extremely true-to-life portrayal of the teenage girl who just wants her life to be more “normal” and struggles with her own resentment, and Russell in a refreshingly sincere, non-caricatured performance as the well-meaning but somewhat out of touch grandmother.  Across the board, this cast provides a very rich and believable portrayal of a family  I could easily imagine meeting in real life.

One frustrating aspect of being relatively new to reviewing plays in such a vibrant theatre scene is that there will always be particularly acclaimed productions I wish I had gotten the chance to see, and short of time travel there’s no way to be able see those shows. With this encore production of Falling, It feels like I’m actually getting to realize one of those missed chances, and that’s a real blessing with a production as profoundly moving as this one. For anyone who missed this last time, I would strongly suggest you catch it this time.  It’s more than worth the effort.  

Michelle Hand, Daniel Lanier Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Michelle Hand, Daniel Lanier
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Read Full Post »

The Trials of Brother Jero
by Wole Soyinka
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 11, 2014

Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The last play of the Black Rep’s 2013-2014 season is also the first play I’ve seen from this well known and much acclaimed St. Louis theatre company. This production of Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian Playwright Wole Soyinka’s satirical comedy (originally produced in 1960) has made me wish even more that I had been able to see some of their previous plays.  It’s a visually striking and well-presented representation of Soyinka’s satire of life in his home country, well-realized by strong direction and a good cast.

Telling the story of an itinerant self-proclaimed prophet, The Trials of Brother Jero depicts a day in the life of Jero (Ron Himes) and showing his influence on life in his small fishing village and his manipulation of people and situations around him.  Jero is an opportunist who freely (and proudly) admits manipulating his followers for personal gain.  On this particularly eventful day, Jero narrates his trials and tribulations after his disgruntled former mentor (Phillip Dixon) pronounces a curse on Jero, proclaiming that Jero’s downfall will be brought about by women, or “daughters of Eve”.  Jero then sets about trying to disprove this pronouncement while displaying his simultaneous attraction and disdain for women, as well as his dominance over his most devout follower, a frustrated government-employed messenger named Chume (A. C. Smith), whose strong-willed merchant wife Amope (Velma Austin) camps outside Jero’s house to demand payment for a cape she sold him months before. Chume, however, has no idea that the man Amope is angry with is Jero. This situation and others provide for quite an eventful day for Jero, as his own attitudes and actions and those of his followers serve as the focus of a broadly humorous look at aspects of Nigerian society in the time the play was written.

This relatively short play is well-realized by the production team at the Black Rep, and is particularly successful in its visual presentation and the performances of its leading performers, as well as its strong sense of musicality.  The set and lighting, designed by Jim Burwinkel, and the colorful costumes by Marissa Perry effectively set the tone and atmosphere of the play. The lighting is particularly striking, and the relatively simple set provides the proper backdrop for the play’s action.  I was particularly impressed by the musical sequences in the introduction and the conclusion of the play, as well as in a particularly memorable scene depicting one of Jero’s prayer meetings. A combination of strong ensemble singing, Linda Kennedy’s choreography and Arthur Moore’s expertly played drums adds greatly to the overall style and mood of the piece.

As the scheming,  self-centered Jero, Himes (who also directed the play) is an ideal centerpiece to the production. Even despite the character’s obvious flaws, Himes makes him unquestionably entertaining, displaying great comic timing and a sense of over-the-top grandiosity that is fun to watch, particularly in his scenes with Smith (in an equally strong performance as the clueless and misogynistic Chume) and Matthew C. Galbreath as a particularly gullible government official with whom Jero crosses paths.  Austin, as the determined and outspoken Amope, also gives a strong performance, and her scenes with Smith are a comic highlight.  The rest of the ensemble lends good support to the leading players for the most part, although there were a few performers in some of the smaller roles who could have shown more energy and presence.  Overall, though, this is a mostly well-paced satirical farce that brings out the more ridiculous facets of its characters to outrageous comic effect.

I had been unfamiliar with the plays of Soyinka prior to seeing this play, and I’m grateful to the Black Rep for bringing this acclaimed playwright’s works to the  St. Louis audience. Although this play’s tone is broadly comic, Soyinka gives the audience a lot to think about in terms of what was going on in Nigerian culture at the time, and particularly the influence of religious charlatans, ineffectual government leaders and the roles of and attitudes toward women in that society.  It’s a strongly written play with broadly drawn characters and situations, shedding light on specific details of  a culture with which modern-day Americans may be unfamiliar.  It’s an educational, thought-provoking and, ultimately, very entertaining production from The Black Rep.

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Read Full Post »

Once
Book by Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Directed by John Tiffany
Fox Theatre
April 8th, 2014

Stuart Ward, Dani DeWaal Photo by  Once National Tour

Stuart Ward, Dani De Waal
Photo by Joan Marcus
Once National Tour

 

As simple a story and concept as it is, Once has become something of a phenomenon.  A small indie move from 2006 quickly developed a following, and the film’s haunting ballad “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for best song. Still, as surprisingly successful as it was, I doubt many people would have predicted it would become a stage musical, or that the musical would become a critically acclaimed hit that would win the Tony for Best Musical in 2012 and lead to a successful production in London’s West End and, now, a National Tour. It’s kind of like “The Little Show That Could”.  I think the reason for its success, as the excellent National Tour production currently running at the Fox Theatre exemplifies, is that it’s never tried to be anything more than it is–a simple, sweet, expertly crafted story with a basic concept that emphasizes the characters and the lovely music that they make.

The story here, based on the film starring songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is not flashy or overly produced. Against the simple backdrop of a bar in Dublin, Ireland, we are told the story of a nameless busker referred to in the credits as Guy (Stuart Ward)  who is ready to give up his dreams of a career in music until a fateful meeting with a young Czech bystander known only as Girl (Dani De Waal), who is impressed by Guy’s music and encourages him not to give up.  The whole story takes place over about a week, in which Girl helps Guy assemble a band from an unlikely mixture of characters–a belligerent music shop owner (Evan Harrington), a music-loving banker (Benjamin Magnuson), and two of Girl’s Czech housemates (Matt DeAngelis, Alex Nee). Girl meets Guy’s father (Raymond Bokhour) and Guy meets Girl’s mother (Donna Garner) and daughter (Kolette Tetlow).  A strong friendship and “will they or won’t they” mutual attraction grows (despite personal complications) as they work together to record a demo of Guy’s songs that they hope will be the key to a successful musical career.  Although it’s a fairly basic story and a lot of the elements are somewhat predictable, it’s still a mesmerizing story because of the extremely well thought-out concept and well-played characters.

This is a brilliant example of a “concept show” in which the concept doesn’t detract from the characterization.  In a big way, the characters are the concept, in that the structure of the show and the simple set and format allows for the main focus to be on the characters and their story.  Also, the staging contributes to the overall musical atmosphere to the point that the music becomes a character itself.  The songs are glorious, all accompanied onstage by the actors themselves on various instruments from piano to guiatars, drums, mandolin, violins, cello and more.  The music is such a big part of the show that it even begins before the show does, on the authentically-appointed bar set (designed by Bob Crowley, who also designed the great costumes). Several of the players are  onstage playing traditional folk tunes before the story officially starts and (in a nice interactive twist) the audience members have been invited onstage to buy drinks.   After a little while, when Guy first appears onstage to sing the anguished “Leave” it almost seems like it’s happening in “real life” (and the house lights don’t go down until halfway through the song).  Then he ends his song with Girl just standing there, having quietly entered from the audience, and the story gets going from there.  The staging is like that throughout–simple and with an entirely organic feel, with the actors moving the set pieces on and off with elegant, dance-like  moves, and simple sitting down at the sides of the stage to play their instruments during many of the musical numbers. Credit goes to original director John Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett for their creative use of staging and movement that contributes to the telling of the story.   I also found the clever use of Czech subtitles (projected on a screen above the bar) to indicate when characters were speaking Czech (although the actors are actually speaking in English), except for one very key scene in which an actors speaks Czech that is subtitled in English.  I’m truly amazed by the beauty and simplicity of it all.  Not one foot is put wrong in the concept and staging, and everything serves the story perfectly. It’s a great concept, and it’s all executed remarkably well.

Performance-wise, the show centers primarily on its two ideally suited leads. Both Ward and De Waal bring charm, stage presence and likability to their characters, and their chemistry together is wonderful.  The attraction between them is obvious, and they make the audience care about their relationship from the first time they meet.  Ward is able to communicate Guy’s disappointment, anguish and melancholy at the beginning of the show as well as convincingly portray his journey toward hope, spurred on by De Waal’s spunky, determined Girl.  They also harmonize beautifully on all their duets, and particularly on the show’s most well-known song, “Falling Slowly”.  Each is also given some great solo moments, with Ward’s strong, emotional delivery showcased well in “Leave” and “Sleeping” and De Waal shining with “If You Want Me” and “The Hill”.  The supporting players are exellent as well, most notably Harrington as the overbearing but still likable shopkeeper Billy, and Magnuson as the overly eager bank manager. It’s a very well-balanced cast all around, with no weak links, and everyone sounds great, both vocally and intrumentally.  I especially liked the ensemble work on the two very different arrangements of “Gold”–sung as a driving anthem in the first act and as a haunting a capella ballad in the second.

I can’t say enough how impressed I am by this show. I  had never seen the film before, although I had heard much about this musical and I had been eager to see it.  The anticipation was definitely worth it.  I find myself continually amazed at how well this very simple little story could be told with such big emotion, beautiful visual and rich musicality.  It’s a classic “boy meets girl” story with a few small twists along the way, with their real love story not only being with each other, but with their city, their friends and families and ultimately, their music. It’s a great show, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Cast of Once Photo by Joan Marcus Once National Tour

Cast of Once
Photo by Joan Marcus
Once National Tour

Read Full Post »

Rx
by Kate Fodor
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
March 4th, 2014

Laura Singleton, Jeff Kargus Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Laura Singleton, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

They say laughter is the best medicine, although the executives at the large drug company that is the center of Kate Fodor’s satirical comedy Rx may beg to differ.  A fast-moving, witty send-up of the pharmaceutical industry, West End Players Guild’s final production of its 2013-2014 season presents a world in which there’s a prescription for many a malady, whether real, imagined, or invented.  In this well cast and (for the most part) well-paced production, WEPG provides an entertaining prescription for anyone looking for a few well-earned laughs.

In a story that plays out as more of a broadly satirical romantic comedy than the sharp indictment I had been expecting, Rx tells the story of a big pharmaceutical company, Schmidt Pharma, and the lengths to which they will go in order to market their newest product.  The plot follows Meena Pierotti (Laura Singleton), a managing editor at a trade magazine for the livestock industry who hates her job and feels increasingly hopeless and aimless, often fleeing to a nearby department store so she can hide in the ladies’ underwear department and cry.  She is admitted to the clinical trial for Schmidt Pharma’s new “workplace depression” medication where she meets Dr. Phil Gray (Jeff Kargus), who at first doesn’t seem very happy in his own job. Meanwhile, Phil is enlisted to consult in the marketing of the drug by single-minded executive Allison Hardy (Beth Davis), who doesn’t personally understand “workplace depression” because she loves her job., and Meena develops a friendship with Frances (Suzanne Greenwald), and elderly widow she meets at the department store.   As Phil’s initially awkward relationship with Meena turns romantic and Allison’s determination to develop a winning ad campaign for the drug shifts into high gear, that’s when the complications really start.  Meena’s job satisfaction starts to increase and Phil begins to wonder if this is really a good thing, Allison’s anxiety builds as legal issues threaten the drug’s marketing launch, and Frances finds a new enthusiasm for life as a result of her interactions with Meena, only to discover a health crisis of her own.

This play is very fast-moving and episodic, almost seeming more like a series of interconnected sketches than one continuing story. The pacing a a show like this is a challenge, and the great cast tries their best to rise to the challenge despite some technical issues that threaten to slow down the production.  Everything seems to be a little too frantic, with many scene changes and costume changes and the cast (especially Singleton) running around in order to make their cues and sometimes appearing hurried and breathless. The need for quick changes also seem to be a reason for a few of the ill-fitting costumes for Singleton.  The set (designed by Ethan Dudenhoeffer) is simple but spread out, and the act noticeably have to hurry to get into their positions for the various scenes. I found the use of props (organized by Rebecca Davis) to be particularly effective, though, from all the various medical equipment to the bags and bags of pills the eccentric research doctor Ed (John Lampe) keeps in his desk, and the sound (designed by Chuck Lavazzi) was put to excellent use as well, adding to the comedy especially with the use of a modified Dolly Parton song played on a recording by one of the company’s marketing guys (also played by Lampe).

This is a quickly paced, madcap kind of show, and although sometimes the technical elements struggle to keep up, the cast does an excellent job nonetheless. Kargus in particular is endearingly earnest as the nerdy Phil, who struggles to find purpose in his own life and finds it in surprising ways, mostly through his interactions with Meena, played amiably by Singleton. As a pair, these two share a charming chemistry, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show.  Singleton also has some great scenes with Greenwald as the sweetly engaging Frances, who gets some great comic lines and whose journey of self-discovery (or re-discovery) seems to parallel Meena’s.  Most of the comic weight of this production is carried by Davis as the fiercely determined Allison, especially when things start to look iffy for the drug’s trial process.  Davis’s Allison puts just as much comic energy into her disappointment as she initially invests in her drive for success, and her implosion is hilarious to watch. Lampe is also a joy in a dual role as a hilariously over-invested advertising executive and an Einstein-idolizing “mad scientist” pharmaceutical research doctor. It’s an excellent cast that provides the real focus of this production despite any technical missteps.

Simply put, in spite of its drawbacks, this show is just a whole lot of fun.  I had been expecting it to be more of a brutal satire instead of the more lighthearted romp with a few cutting moments that this turned out to be.  It does manage to be a little challenging and provides some good food for thought about the pharmaceutical industry and its marketing practices, but in a somewhat lighter vein.  The real strength of this production, though, is its excellent, engaging cast.  In the end, it’s an entertaining production full of energy, humor, and ultimately, heart.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »