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Archive for April, 2014

Cabaret

Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Justin Been

Chorographed by Zachary Stefaniak

Stray Dog Theatre

April 3, 2014

 

Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean  Photo by  Stray Dog Theatre

Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Surely nobody in the audience at  Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Cabaret on opening night had visited a cabaret in 1930’s Berlin.  That era is so  far removed from the present time and place that it’s easy to gloss it all over as stories in a dusty history book.  What Stray Dog has done, however, is take its audience on a journey and immerse us in the very atmosphere of a dark and seedy nightclub in the waning years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. It’s gritty, it’s raunchy, and the issues get increasingly uncomfortable as the plot unfolds.  It’s a bold take on an oft-performed musical, and what we are left with is a truly unforgettable experience.

This production is a lot more atmospheric and downright gritty than the excellent but overly polished production I saw at the Rep last Fall.  Here, Stray Dog Theatre has transformed their performance space at Tower Grove Abbey into the dark, sultry Kit Kat Club, with the ensemble members even roaming around before the show in character as music from the era plays over the sound system, and also serving drinks and  desserts at tables in the front row during the show. This production uses the whole performance space to full advantage, presided over by Lavonne Byers as the ever-present Emcee, who serves as a commentator on the action as well as the presenter of the various club performances that are interspersed with the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Paul Cereghino) and Kit Kat Club singer Sally Bowles (Paul Stoff Dean) and their lives and relationships amid the growing political turmoil and the rise of the Nazi party and its effects on German culture.  Throughout the story, it’s clear that the world is changing and the club serves as one way to escape that reality, and although Sally is perhaps the most self-deluded, she’s not the only one faced with the dilemma of what to do when life doesn’t turn out as wished, and the over-the-top bawdy acts at the club increasingly evolve into more and more stark echoes of the increasingly frightening reality of what Germany is becoming.

Byers, the first female Emcee I’ve seen, is the driving force behind this production and she brings a boldness and ferocity to the role as well as a strong wit and clear, richly-toned singing voice.  From the rousing “Wilkommen” to the  raunchy and ironic “Two Ladies” (with Byers as the “only man” and one of the “ladies played by a male dancer (Mike Hodges) in drag), to the cutting “If You Could See Her” and the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much”, Byers commands the stage and serves as an ideal host for the show’s increasingly chaotic proceedings.  Having a female in this role brings a different meaning to some of the songs, although Byers plays up the androgyny in several of the numbers as well.  She also achieves the commendable feat of emphasizing the character’s humanity in the midst of the increasing absurdity.  Dean’s Sally is at once dynamic and tragic, and she manages to find sympathy in a character who can be difficult to understand at times.  Cereghino’s Cliff is charmingly infatuated with both the Berlin society and with Sally, although I’m less convinced by his attitude later in the play where he occasionally comes across as more callous and bossy than concerned.   Still, Dean and Cereghino complement each other well in most of their scenes together, and particularly in their initial duet “Perfectly Marvelous”. Ken Haller also puts in an excellent performance as the Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz, whose relationship with the conflicted Freulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff who is especially fine in her scenes with Haller) provides some poignant and sweet moments as well as some heartbreaking drama.  With great work by Michael Brightman as scheming Nazi Ernst Ludwig and Deborah Sharn as the lascivious and calculating Freulein Kost, as well as a top-notch ensemble of Kit Kat Boys and Girls, this production boasts a cast that ideally showcases the classic and oft-produced material.

The raw edginess and contrasting absurdity and realism of this production is also very well served in its technical aspects.  Rebert J. Lippert’s striking two-level set and Aleandra Scibetta Quigley’s colorful and detailed costumes help set and maintain just the right mood, as does Zachary Stefaniak’s outstanding choreography and director Justin Been’s excellent staging.  This is a production that brings the audience along on a ride, from its promising opening to its startling conclusion with many daring twists and turns along the way.   Although this production has obviously taken inspiration from the 1998 Broadway revival, it’s not a carbon copy.  It’s very clearly and boldly realized in its concept. It’s difficult to single out particular songs and scenes because everything is so well done, from the outrageously challenging (“Don’t Tell Mama”, “Mein Herr”, “Two Ladies”) to the sharply satirical (“The Money Song”, “If You Could See Her”) to the hopeful (“Maybe This Time”) to the devastatingly tragic (“Cabaret”).  With songs from the film integrated with those from the original production, expertly performed by the cast and the very high caliber band led by Chris Petersen, this show is musically as well as visually stunning. It’s not an easy show to do, and this team does it as well as I’ve ever seen, tackling the lighthearted scenes as well as the increasingly brutal subjects with remarkable skill. I also would like to commend the company for their great professionalism in the midst of the very strange weather on opening night, in being able to start, stop, and re-start the show with remarkable efficiency as the result of a tornado warning.

Short of inventing time travel, I can’t think of many ways to communicate the atmosphere of 1930’s Berlin as vividly as this production.  It’s a tour-de-force all around, from the director to the creative team to the leads and the extremely strong ensemble.  Stray Dog’s Cabaret gives us a good look at life in this very specific time and place in a production that’s at turns wildly entertaining, grippingly suspenseful, intensely tragic and even downright frightening.  Although this is a show that is often produced and re-imagined, this production succeeds in being truly and profoundly memorable.  It’s an outstanding example of live theatre at its challenging, thought-provoking best.

Lavonne Byers (center)  and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs) Photo by Dan Donovan Stray Dog Theatre Photo by

Lavonne Byers (center) and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs)
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
March 28, 2014

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is, with the possible exception of Hamletprobably Shakespeare’s best-known play.  Most adults will remember it mostly from having to study it in English class in high school, or perhaps from one or both of the most popular movie versions (either Franco Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrmann’s).  This familiarity presents something of a challenge to theatre companies when they produce it. Since everyone already thinks they know what it’s about, the challenge is whether to try to live up to the general expectations (more like the Zefferelli film) or try something more bold and outside-the-box (more like the Luhrmann film).  In this latest production, presented at the Hunter Theatre at DeSmet Jesuit High School, St. Louis Shakespeare has gone the more straightforward route.  With a production built around the strong performances of its young lead performers, the company has produced a thoughtful, striking and, for the most part, well-paced production of a classic play that is more complex than it may appear.

One of the strengths of this production is that the tone is just right. This is something of a strange play in that it essentially starts out as a comedy. Yes, there are the feuding families–Montagues and Capulets–but the overall tone throughout the first half is lighthearted.  Director Suki Peters gets the pacing just right, as we are introduced to Romeo (Leo Ramsey) and his friends Benvolio (Brian Kappler) and Mercutio (Charlie Barron) as they prepare to attend a party hosted by Lord and Lady Capulet (Brian J. Rolf and Christi Mitchel), are taunted by brash Capulet kinsman Tybalt (Roger Erb), and listen to Romeo’s speeches concerning his infatuation with the unseen Rosaline, who he promptly forgets upon meeting the Capulets’ daughter Juliet (Emily Jackoway) at the party.  Juliet is young and curious about the world, with a doting Nurse (Jamie Eros) and parents who are eager to arrange her marriage to the well-connected Paris (Paul Edwards).  Upon meeting, Romeo and Juliet are suddenly struck by the giddiness and impulsiveness of young love.  They secretly marry and are all full of hope for the reconciliation of their families.  Then,the belligerent Tybalt, angry at Romeo for sneaking into the party, goes looking for him and things get serious.  Mercutio accepts Tybalt’s challenge when Romeo refuses, and an initially light-hearted sparring session quickly turns ugly. Everything goes downhill from there, as anyone who is familiar with the story knows.  The second half of the show is all tragedy, and the actors handle the transition extremely well as the play drives to its bleak and inevitable conclusion, in which the star-crossed lovers meet their fate.

The casting is key in this production, and the young leads make a convincing pair. It’s refreshing to see the teenage Romeo and Juliet played by actors who appear to be close to the right age. The youthful energy and impulsiveness is there, and both Jackoway and Ramsey do an excellent job of switching from the more upbeat earlier scenes to the more tragic later events.  Ramsey is all earnest and effusive, and Jackoway is full of wide-eyed wonder in their first scenes together, and the classic balcony scene is sweetly romantic and engaging, with genuine chemistry that makes their love scenes all the more convincing, and their parting after the tragedy begins to enfold is both truthful and heartbreaking, as are their tragic last moments. These two are the real emotional anchors of this production, ideally suited for their roles and bringing all the range of emotions from breathless joy to haunting sorrow with honesty and strength.  They are well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Eros as the earthy, sympathetic Nurse, Paul Devine as the wise but somewhat bumbling Friar Lawrence, Barron as the witty and brash Mercuitio, and Erb as the menacing Tybalt.  Mitchel also has a great moment as Lady Capulet mourns for Tybalt. There were a few supporting players who are less convincing, such as Maxwell Knocke as a particularly surly and shouty Prince Escalus, and Edwards as a basically bland Paris, although for the most part this is a strong cast, demonstrating excellent comic and dramatic abilities as the atmosphere of the play shifts.

The look of this production is very traditional, with well-suited costumes by Beth Ashby and an evocative set by Chuck Winning complete that effectively achieves the Old World marble-and-stone look, with some nice touches like a working fountain. Despite  a minor issue with the sound in that I sometimes had trouble hearing what was being said, it’s a solid effort technically. I was especially impressed by Brian Peters’ dynamic fight choreography, particularly the highly suspenseful sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt and the subsequent battle between Romeo and Tybalt.  In keeping with the tone change of the play, the first fight starts out playfully and then swiftly escalates in brutality. It’s an excellent showcase for the actors as well, and Ramsey’s moment of realization after his confrontation with Tybalt is one of the most memorable moments in the show.  It’s a very physical production, with a raw emotional energy that builds with startling realism.

This production is sure to spark all the usual debates about whether Romeo and Juliet were really in love, or what would have happened if the families didn’t let their own prejudices cloud their judgment, and whether or not the blend of comedy and tragedy works. In this production, I would say that blend is what works best of all.  With two charismatic and youthful leads, and a well-realized vision and excellent pacing, this story unfolds with engaging, shocking, jarring and ultimately gut-wrenching effectiveness.  It’s a classic story well-told.

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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