Archive for June, 2014


Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins, Book by David Henry Hwang

Directed by John Tartaglia

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny

June 25, 2014

Michael James Reed, Kate   Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page Photo : The Muny

Michael James Reed, Kate Rockwell, Nicholas Rodriguez, Ken Page
Photo : The Muny

I have to admit I was not expecting much from this production of Disney’s Tarzan at the Muny. I had heard mixed comments about the stage show, and although I like the Disney movie on which it is based, I didn’t know how well the film would translate to the stage. Well, after seeing it this week, I’ve decided that the Muny really has its act together this year.  While the show itself does have its flaws, the Muny’s production is surprisingly entertaining, with an impressive cast and pleasing but not too flashy production values, all working together to present an engaging rendition of the classic story.

Tarzan, based on the Disney animated film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s well-known tale, tells the story of the son of shipwrecked travelers (Max Clayton, Emma Gassett) who is orphaned when his parents are killed by a leopard.  The infant is then adopted by the gorilla Kala (Katie Thompson), whose own young son has recently been killed by the same leopard.  Despite the doubtful discouragement from her mate, Kerchak (Quentin Earl Darrington), Kala raises the child, whom she names Tarzan, to become a determined young boy (Spencer Jones) who wishes to prove himself as valuable to the family group. He befriends a mischievous young gorilla named Terk (Nathaniel Mahone), and strives to be accepted by the increasingly distrustful Kerchak. As Tarzan (Nicholas Rodriguez) and Terk (Gregory Haney) grow into adulthood, Tarzan continually wonders about his place in the world, as a human raised by gorillas.  The arrival of English explorers Jane (Kate Rockwell) and her father Professor Porter (Ken Page) further exacerbates Tarzan’s dilemma when Tarzan and Jane become increasingly attracted to one another and Tarzan begins to learn more of what it means to be human.  Meanwhile, while the Porters are eager to study the gorillas and learn how they live, their greedy guide Clayton (Michael James Reed) only views the gorillas and Tarzan himself as a means for his own profit.

On paper, this musical has a lot going for it, with a score by well-known rock/pop musician Phil Collins and a book by celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang. Structurally, though, it has its problems, with the story not really starting to move forward until Tarzan is an adult, despite the fine performance of Jones as the earnest young Tarzan.  The songs are hit-or-miss, as well, with memorable songs from the film such as “Two Worlds, One Family” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” getting good renditions here, although other songs suffer from not being particularly melodic or memorable.  There are also some slight changes to the ending that I don’t think work as well, and the role of Clayton is minimized so much that it doesn’t give the talented Reed very much to do.  The show also seems to have a lot more energy and momentum in the second act.

All that said, however, it’s the casting and overall production that make this show work, ultimately.  Rodriquez is excellent as Tarzan, with a lot of personality and stage presence.  He and Rockwell display wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together are a real highlight of the show. I especially enjoyed their Act 2 songs “Like No Man I’ve Seen” and “Strangers Like Me”.  Thompson is also extremely effective as the loving and fiercely protective Kala, and Darrington brings a great deal of strength to the role of the stubborn, proud Kerchak.  Thompson and Rodriquez have a great moment late in Act 2 with the reprise of “You’ll Be In My Heart”, and Thompson leads the energetic “Son of Man” production number, in which Tarzan grows from a child to an adult, with authority. Haney displays good comic timing and a great deal of energy as Terk, as well, as he leads a fun dance number with the gorillas at the beginning of Act 2 called “Trashin’ the Camp”. Muny favorite Page is charming as Professor Porter, and there’s a very strong ensemble, as well, contributing to the overall energy and drama of the show.

The staging and choreography work well with Timothy R. Mackabee’s striking unit set, which is basically a “jungle gym” type structure that represents the trees in which the various apes and animals climb, and Tarzan swings and slides up and down on ladders and poles rather than swinging on vines.  There are a few flying moments in which Tarzan swings over the audience, such as Rodriguez’s initial entrance as the adult Tarzan in the “Son of Man” number.  For the most part, though, the acrobatics are confined to the small-ish set, which is clever and colorful even though it sometimes seems a bit too small for the giant Muny stage.  The costumes by Leon Dobkowski are clever, especially for the gorillas, who are more stylized than literal in appearance.  Jane’s first costume looks a little cartoonish, although the other outfits are well-suited to the characters.  The overall jungle atmosphere is well-realized here, adding to the mood of the show and the energy of the performances.

While the show itself has its structural problems, the Muny has done their best with it, and the result is a very entertaining show, if not a brilliant one.  This is another impressive production from the Muny, and it’ still early in the season. It bodes well for the rest of the shows, as I’ve been somewhat doubtful about some of the productions chosen this year. With its themes of self-discovery, communication and familial love and acceptance, this is an excellent show for all ages as well. This goes to show, in keeping with the show’s message, that preconceived expectations can often be wrong, and that every show is worth a chance. Tarzan at the Muny is definitely a production worth checking out.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas  Rodriguez Photo: The Muny

Quentin Earl Darrington, Katie Thompson, Nicholas Rodriguez
Photo: The Muny

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St. Lou Fringe 2014

St. Lou Fringe 2014

Welcome to Part 2 of my “Notes From the Fringe”! Before I continue in reviewing the shows I saw at this year’s St. Lou Fringe, I want to add a few comments about the general atmosphere of the festival.  The “Street Fringe” in Strauss Park was a great idea. With various acts performing on the stage in the middle of the park near the Fringe Box Office, it provided a great “home base” for the festival, and a good place for patrons to spend time between shows. The Fringe Family events on Saturday and Sunday were a great way to encourage participation from patrons of all ages.  There was such a great overall atmosphere of artistic expression and mutual appreciation at the final party, as well, and I’m glad I was able to see even more shows this year.  The shows ranged from rough experiements to “works in progress” to polished, professional presentations, and while I enjoyed some shows more than others, that variety is really the essence of what makes a Fringe festival unique. It’s a celebration of the arts and of creativity in general.  I have high hopes for next year, and for the future of the arts in this great city.

Now, on to the rest of my reviews!

Core Project Chicago
Saturday, June 21st, 2:00pm

I have to give credit to this production for reading my mind, at least partially. I had never reviewed a purely dance production, so about halfway through the first segment of this show, in which the five primary dancers (Megan Beseth, Patti Garvey, Christine Hands, Kate O’Hanlon and Tiffany Philpott) danced an expressive routine with a classical music background, I had been feeling somewhat inadequate and wondering how I would review it. Then, after this piece, the words flashed onto the screen behind them to the effect of “Now, you’re probably wondering–oh shit, this is just another modern dance show!” I laughed, as did the rest of the audience. What followed was definitely not “just another modern dance show”, as the dancers presented very personal works while their pictures and stories were projected on the screen behind them.

Directed by Erin Rehberg and choreographed by Rehberg, Beseth, Hands and Matthew Frasier-Smith, this presentation impressed me as an ingenious combination of acting, dancing, and multi-media storytelling. The various routines ranged from the humorous (an ode to housecleaning, a celebration of individuality and quirkiness, a segment in which two dancers talk about their lives as they get ready to dance) to the more serious (a segment called “Dividing Line”, in which dancers jockey for position as they stretch before a routine, and another segment that highlights feelings of coldness and isolation). There was even a fun interlude in which the venue’s house manager was brought into the act. This struck me as a very personal, very current production that very cleverly integrated the dances with other forms of storytelling to create a very 21st Century presentation.

Foster and Fortitude
Cranky Yellow
Sunday, June 22nd, 2:00pm

This is quite possibly the strangest show I have ever seen. It’s a struggle to even think about how to describe it in written form, since this was such a completely immersive production–even more so than any of the others I saw at Fringe, or really anywhere else. It’s a play, but it’s also a concert, an art show and a rummage sale. Yes, a rummage sale. They actually stop the show in the middle so that the audience will have the opportunity to purchase the various knickknacks that decorate the stage, as jazz-influenced music plays and David Wolk (as Fortitude) wanders the space with a hand puppet, encouraging patrons to get up out of their seats and shop. I’m not sure what to think about this aspect of the show, although the overall “anything goes” attitude of this production is certainly impressive. This is is the kind of show in which a group of enthusiastic artists just keep throwing out more and more outrageous ideas, hoping that the audience will go along with their enthusiasm. In this case, for the most part, the audience did go along for the journey.

The essential story, inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, presents a story of an artist’s journey to find his lost creativity. Foster (the more subdued Jake Adams) and Fortitude (the outrageously energetic Wolk) are separated early in the story, and the initially reluctant Foster is eventually encouraged to chase after Fortitude in a quest that takes him under the sea, and through his own doubts and lost confidence. The audience is brought into the action as they are encouraged to hold hands and shout at Foster to awaken him, and the story continues through elements of musical theatre, jazz performance, guided visualization (and a funny song about a weasel) and finally, a chaotic celebration. It’s colorful, it’s ambitious, and the cast is extremely, infectiously enthusiastic. It’s more than a little confusing at times, but for the most part, it works. A Fringe Festival is the ideal setting for a highly experimental, hit-or-miss show like this, and I’m very glad for the experience of it.

Creepy Basement Players
Sunday, June 22nd, 3:30pm

Creepy Basement Players Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Creepy Basement Players
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

The Creepy Basement Players, a local improv troupe, were everywhere at this year’s St. Lou Fringe. Featured in various presentations at the Street Fringe in Strauss Park, including a hilarious turn representing each of the acts that were unable to appear at the Fringe Tease presentation at the Fringe Kick-Off Party, this troupe also got their own dedicated show. Players Alex Carnes, Melissa Darch, Steven Harowitz, Colin Katrenak, Ben Lyons, and Petey Papavlasopoulos performed various routines with prompting from the audience, both in a long-form alternating scene format and in a more short-form, improv-games format.

Improv acts can be very uneven, but the Creepy Basement Players are very consistent. I was especially impressed by their energy and focus, and some of their funnier ideas in their long-form sketch, which consisted of a series of unrelated scenes that cycled throughout the performance. The “literary gangs” skit, in which street gangs based on classic authors like John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and Louisa May Alcott, threaten to engage in a gang war, was especially well done. The audience-participation aspect was handled very well, too, as they allowed audience members to choose settings for their scenes, and contribute variables for such games as “Home Shopping Network”. All the players did a great job of keeping up the energy and timing, holding the audience’s attention throughout and generating many laughs. They managed to carry the whole hour they were allotted, with no real lulls in the performance, which is an impressive feat. This show was the comic highlight of the festival.

John Clark
Sunday, June 22nd, 5:00pm

This production, by local writer John Clark, was the shortest production I saw at Fringe, although I think it used its time very well. Running at about 20 minutes, Olivia is a play told in interview format, as various friends and acquaintances of a bright, artistic young college student, Olivia Jordan, recount their experiences with her upon learning of her tragic suicide. This is a concise, well-written, intense production with some excellent performances and a strong story with a great deal of emotion that, commendably, doesn’t veer over the edge into melodrama. It also deals with some very timely issues in a clear, poignant and challenging way.

Clark casts himself in perhaps the play’s most difficult role, that of Olivia’s narcissistic, entitled, abusive boyfriend, Riley, who refuses to take the blame for his own heinous actions that very likely contributed to Olivia’s suicide. Clark does a great job of being so thoroughly unlikable but still a believably human villain and not an unrealistic, cardboard ogre. Other standout performances include Alicen Moser in a sympathetic turn as Olivia’s best friend from high school, and Sarah Griffith as Olivia’s self-doubting college roommate. This is a show that intrigued me a lot, in that I didn’t know much about it before seeing it, and I found it extremely affecting. It was a very simple production, staged with the cast members sitting in chairs and recounting their interconnected stories. I was also impressed in that the unseen Olivia was such a fully realized character, even though she only “appears” in the descriptions of the other characters. Although it did have the air of a student performance, I found it to be a believable and well performed production, and the biggest surprise of the festival in my opinion. Clark is a promising young playwright and actor, and he has assembled a strong cast in support of his play.  This whole production was very well done.

The Apotheosis of Big Jim
Tesseract Theatre Company
Sunday, June 22nd 6:00pm

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Chris Williams, Jessica Alvarado, Jamie Fritz
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

This is another production that epitomizes the concept of “experimental theatre”. Written by Tesseract member Taylor Gruenloh, it’s more of a straightforward presentation than something like Foster and Fortitude, although it still plays around with the traditional theatrical form. Overall, I think this was a well-cast, well executed production even though the format was not always easy to understand. It’s supposed to make audiences think, though, and it certainly does that.

Presented initially as a play about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and its members’ unexpected common connection with a recently deceased local apartment complex owner named Big Jim, the show starts off as a traditional play and then changes course into a more absurd direction. The meeting starts with its members (Jessica Alvarado, Brittanie Boado, Jamie Fritz, Taylor Gruenloh, Alexander L. Hylton, Chris Williams) sharing their stories and eventually get into an argument when one character, Sarah (Boado), gets angry and challenges them, but just when it looks like she’s going to tell her story, Boado breaks character and addresses the audience, and then other performers follow, as the the story then shifts between the “serious” plot and the more existential quest of its performers, as they act out various sketches involving clown noses, audience interaction (with Laurell Stevenson and Jarris Williams lending support as “clowns” in the audience), which eventually leads to a staged rebellion against the very concept of linear drama and the roles they are forced to play.It all ends in an abrupt and somewhat jarring manner. It’s a well-cast and crisply staged exercise in dramatic experimentation that comes across as two very different plays transposed together. It’s a clever idea, and the cast performed with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, although I did find myself wonder what exactly it was trying to communicate. It’s certainly thought-provoking, though, and perhaps that was the real point.

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro and Fringe artists in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

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St. Lou Fringe 2014 was a wild, weird and wonderful weekend of daring, experimental and sometimes off-the-wall artistic activity.  This is my second year attending the festival, and while the event is still not as big and as well-attended as I wish it were, it’s getting there.  The sheer enthusiasm demonstrated by Executive Director Em Piro and the entire Fringe staff is impressive, as is the passion and artistry displayed by the various participants, from right here in St. Louis and from around the country.  I was honored to be included as a member of the Reviewers’ Panel at this year’s festival.  I managed to see 10 shows this year, as well as attending the Closing Extravaganza party at Fubar in Midtown, where I got to share my thoughts about the shows I saw and vote for my own favorite (noted below).  It was a great experience, and I have high hopes that next year’s Fringe will be even bigger, bolder and better.  Here are my thoughts on the first five shows I saw:

A Goofball Rock Recital Grand High Productions Thursday, June 19th at 6:00pm

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Ben Mankus, Joey Puricelli
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Joey Puricelli certainly has a lot of enthusiasm. I saw his show, Total Nonsense, at last year’s Fringe, and my impression was that it had some good ideas and some funny moments, but came across as unpolished and a little confusing. This year seems to be in the same vein, but in concert form. In A Goofball Rock Recital, Puricelli takes the stage by himself for two performances, and with special musical guests for two more. The performance I saw featured Ben Mankus on guitar and vocals, with Puricelli singing lead vocals and playing a variety of instruments including jaw harp, harmonica, and tambourine (with his foot). As with last year’s performance, there are some good ideas here, and some truly funny moments, especially with Puricelli’s parodies of pop songs featuring various subjects with geek-appeal, like “The Legend of Zelda” video games (“The Fresh Princess of Hyrule”), The Hobbit (“Precious Confusions”, a parody of Alanis Morrissette’s “Hand In My Pocket”) and Homestar Runner (“The Cheat’s Exploding Head”, a parody of Katy Perry’s “Firework”). There’s even a lyrically clever literary parody with “Poe Folks”, singing about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado to the tune of The Eagles’s “Desperado”.

The original songs are, for the most part, cleverly written and have some fun ideas, but the vocals are uneven and although Puricelli is a likable guy, he doesn’t have a lot of presence as a performer. He also spends a lot of time reading the lyrics off of his computer. He comes across better when bantering with Mankus between songs, and the spoken/rapped numbers are more successful than those that are sung. He and Mankus work well together on some of the more interesting covers, such as a mashup of the Beatles “Hey Jude” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya” which is basically the lyrics of the former spoken/chanted to the rhythm of the latter. An obscure song from YouTube artist Lemon Demon, “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny”, also has its fun moments. Although the overall quality of this performance is uneven and unpolished, there are some genuinely good ideas here, and I think Puricelli’s best skill is as a lyricist who would probably be more successful writing for other artists. He and Mankus seemed to be having a great time, although the overall effect was more of two friends practicing songs at home rather than as a complete performance.

Nine/Sketch Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble with Leverage Dance Theatre Thursday, June 19th at 7:30pm

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

An encore presentation of a show that was originally performed last year at the beginning of SATE’s current season, Nine/Sketch is a truly fascinating piece of theatre. Blending two separate works into a seamless presentation, each focuses on two women and their relation to one another. The first segment, Sketch (devised by Hannah Fischer) has dancers Keli Hermes and Erin Lane in various short situations emphasizing emotions, from quick poses punctuated by blackouts to longer sequences of movement. There is no music so the mood is set by the dancers and the lighting. This is an expression of relationship and emotion, with the fluid movements of the dancers and their expressions communicating a range of feelings from sadness to confusion to pain to concern and compassion. This presentation leads directly into the next segment, which features two women in what only can be described as a bleak situation.

In SATE’s production of Jane Shepard’s Nine, Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye begin the performance sprawled on the floor, each confined inside a chalk circle which is drawn on the floor, and each wearing a long, heavy chain around her neck. They are apparently prisoners of some nameless, unseen captors, who are made to seem all the scarier because we don’t know much about them. Of the prisoners, Tibbetts is initially the more confident one–the veteran who has been here longer, and Schwetye is the newcomer who has just arrived back from what seems to be a grueling torture session. The two remain on the floor throughout the play,talking to one another in sometimes taunting, sometimes insulting, and sometimes concerned tones, making up little stories and remembering old sayings to keep their minds off the brutality of their situation. With intense, fully committed performances from the two leads, this is a powerful and riveting performance that’s more than a little disturbing. Just thinking about the horrors these two prisoners are facing is unsettling, and both actresses convey the brutality of the situation as well as their ever-present humanity in the midst of the horror. It’s terrifying, nerve-wracking,and completely compelling to watch. I didn’t get to see this show when it was first performed, and I’m glad Fringe has given me the opportunity to see it. This is an unforgettable performance.

Nine/Sketch is my Critic’s Pick for Best of St. Lou Fringe 2014

Landslide First Time Puppet Theatre Thursday, June 19th, 9:30pm

Through a combination of puppeteering, voiceovers, music and projection, the First Time Puppet Theatre presents the story of Amelia, a 40-year-old woman with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a highly emotional performance, focusing on images, sounds and feelings and although it can sometimes be difficult to follow, for the most part it’s an effective, moving story. It follows Amelia–portrayed by a puppet controlled by three puppeteers–as she emerges, birth-like, from a pile of clothes at the beginning of the performance, throughout her journey through the difficulties of losing her ability to care for herself, and as she rummages through old pictures and clothes, attempting to hold on to precious personal memories. Throughout the performance, images are projected on a screen along with short videos on a small TV inside a replica of a Victorian style house. This is all very stylized, mostly in a very serious tone, and again not always easy to follow, although that may be the point as Amelia herself is struggling with holding onto her memories and self-awareness.

This is a striking, unusual performance with probably the most expressive puppet I’ve ever seen. Even though her facial expression is fixed and incapable of actually changing, the careful manipulation of the puppeteers combined with the music and overall mood of the piece makes it appear as if the puppet’s face does change. Credit goes to the puppeteers and the puppet designer (Kim Wilson) for creating and operating such a fully realized character. It’s a unique, very emotionally affecting, even poetic multi-media performance.

The Next Dog King Jim Julien Friday, June 20th, 6:00pm

Jim Julien with "Saffron" Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

Jim Julien with “Saffron” in Strauss Park
Photo: Kimberly N. Photography

In the history of humans’ relationship with dogs, who is really in charge, and what do the dogs really think about their human companions? These questions are among those explored by Asheville, NC artist Jim Julien in his mixed-media presentation that features Julien playing several human roles in addition to providing the voices for the three puppets representing the dogs. In one of the funnier sequences in the show, Julien starts off portraying the death of Grendel, King of the Dogs, through the use of an articulated cut-out “acting” against a white board representing grass. Grendel then sprouts wings and ascends to heaven, precipitating the need for another dog to take over as King. What follows is a somewhat disjointed presentation in which Julien, portraying a professor or lecturer of some kind, talks from an academic perspective about humans’ relationship with dogs. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the dogs prepare to choose a new King, with the prime candidates being Bolan, a young mixed-breed dog who loves his human companion, and Yuan Shao, a purebred dog who is proud of his lineage and has a great distrust of humans. Both of these dogs vie for the attentions of Saffron, who was essentially Grendel’s Queen (“his bitch”, in her words), and who presumably will be the new King’s mate as well. Julien also portrays Bolan’s owner, who shows a mixture of affection and confusion in relation to his dog.

Overall, this was an entertaining production, if a little uneven and confusing at times, with an over-emphasis on the lecture aspect and not as much focus on the dogs, whose story was the most compelling aspect of the piece. I think there could have been more backstory about why the dogs have a King and what the King does, and why it has to be a King and not a Queen, as well. Julien’s donning of a hat that reads “DOGBRAIN” whenever he’s speaking for the dogs is a clever device, and he does a good job of providing distinct voices for the dogs. The story drags on a little long, though–especially in the lecture sections, and the transitions between scenes were a little choppy and confusing. Overall, though, I think it’s a good idea and I hope Julien continues to develop it and polish the presentation.

Trial By Jury Act Two Theatre Friday, June 20th, 8:00pm

This is basically “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Divorce Court”. Adapted from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s more obscure operettas, with additional music and arrangements by David Phillips and additional book and lyrics by Phillips and Sean Green, this production updates the setting of the original to modern day reality TV. For the most part, it’s a clever and often hilarious production with a great deal of audience participation, broad characterizations, and excellent singing. Portraying a trial for “breach of contract of marriage”, the show depicts an overly involved Bailiff (Harry Pickup), a moody jury and an Elvis-like Judge (Robert Michael Hansen), along with the much-vilified Defendant, the romantically conflicted charmer Eddie (Omega D. Jones), and the adored Plaintiff, the pageant queen-like Angelina (Brittany Kohl Hester), who is being wooed by both the Judge and the Bailiff in the midst of the trial. There are many pop-culture references and a very energetic ensemble, as well.

The stand-out performances here were from Hanson as the egotistical Judge, Pickup as the deep-voiced, overzealous Bailiff, and Jones as the smarmy Eddie, displaying an extremely strong tenor voice. Kohl Hester as Angelina and Shannon Slavik as the Jury Foreman also gave strong performances, with impressive voices and good comic timing. Kevin Hester as the Plaintiff’s Counsel gave a fine acting performance, although his singing wasn’t as strong. This performance, aside from the singing, is most notable for the very strong use of the audience participation elements, including in the amusing finale. The Judge even gave me a scarf as I was sitting in the front row.  The staging was kind of chaotic at times, but the overall performance was mostly a lot of fun.

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Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John
Directed by Steven Minning
The Muny
June 16, 2014

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner Photo: The Muny

Tade Biesinger, Emily Skinner
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is off to a great start this year.  Having had such a spectacular season last year with probably the three best shows I’ve ever seen at the Muny (West Side Story, Les Miserables, and South Pacific), Executive Producer Mike Isaacson and his team have a lot of live up to. So far, so good, I would say, with tthe first show of the Muny’s 2014 summer season. With a truly remarkable performance by its young lead and with great ensemble support and fantastic dancing, Billy Elliot, makes a winning impression.

A newer musical based on the popular film, Billy Elliot has the creative reputation of composer and pop music icon Elton John on hand, as well as an extremely impressive cast of young performers.  It’s an ideal show for Isaccson’s “New Muny”, in that it contains a lot of crowd-pleasing dance numbers and some great performances, but with a more modern approach and slightly grittier atmosphere. Set against the backdrop of a miners’ strike in a Northern town in England in 1984, resulting from then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to privatize the mining industry, this musical tells a story of an unlikely young hero.  Miner’s son Billy (Tade Biesinger) reluctantly takes boxing lessons while his father (Daniel Oreskes) and older brother Tony (Ben Nordsrom) work in the mines and then man the picket lines after the strike is declared.  Billy takes boxing lessons after school but doesn’t enjoy them, although after one session he finds himself in the middle of a ballet class taught by the gruff but kind Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner), who sees Billy’s potential as a dancer and encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School.  From there, the story unfolds with much drama and creative choreography as the events of the miners strike are shown in parallel with Billy’s dance training, and eventually Billy’s dream is threatened by expectations from his family, financial concerns, and the pressure to conform to societal norms in which a miner’s son isn’t expected to become a ballet dancer.

The dancing is at the forefront in this production, as it should be, and young Biesinger displays incredible ability in a variety of dance styles including ballet and tap.  Biesinger is also a fine actor with excellent stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice.  He’s an ideal fit to carry a show that’s named after his character, and every scene he is in is a winner, especially in the dancing scenes including a riveting fantasy sequence in which he dances a section of Swan Lake with an older version of himself (Maximilien Baud).  This scene is s technical wonder as well, with great flying effects.  Biesinger is supported by the excellent work of his co-stars, including Skinner who excels in fun numbers like “Shine” (in which Billy is introduced to the dance class) and “Born to Boogie”.  Michael Harp is also wonderful as Billy’s sweet best friend Michael, who likes to wear women’s clothes and shows off spectacularly in the charming “Expressing Yourself”, also shining in the dance department and tapping alongside Biesinger in a show-stopping production number.  Oreskes is also a strong as Billy’s Dad, who begins to display a real warmth and vulnerability despite his initially cold exterior.  His voice is a little rough-sounding on songs like the poignant “Deep Into the Ground”, but it fits the character so it works for me.  Patti Perkins, in a featured role as Billy’s Grandma, also has a great musical moment with “We’d Go Dancing” along with the excellent Men’s Ensemble.  Nordstrom is fine as the determined, resentful Tony as well, although his character isn’t given a lot to do and he disappears for long sections of the story.  The whole ensemble is very strong here, with excellent dancing especially, and strong singing and presence on group songs like the darkly comic “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the wistful “Once We Were Kings”.

The choreography, originally by Peter Darling and re-created for the Muny by Alison Levenberg, is another star of this show.  With a fusion of various styles from modern dance to tap and, of course, ballet, the dance numbers are among the most memorable I’ve seen in any production and not just at the Muny.  The clever staging of numbers like “Solidarity”, in which Billy’s dance training is juxtaposed with the miners’ protests at the mine, is a real highlight.  Visually, the color palette is one of darker tones like charcoal grays and browns, with occasional accents of orange and yellow in the the period-specific costumes designed by Nicky Gillibrand and coordinated by Tracy Christensen.  The set, by Robert Mark Morgan, is also in these more muted tones, with a split backdrop of row houses to represent the town, and various movable set pieces to suggest the Elliots’ house, the town hall, and the mine.  Video footage and still images from the era are put to excellent use in establishing the overall mood as well.  It’s a very cohesive look and atmosphere that successfully evokes a very specific time and place. I should also note here that the Northern English accents are, for the most part, excellently articulated by the cast.

This is a show with several messages–of the importance of acceptance, of family ties and responsibilities, of daring to be different and pursuing one’s dreams on one hand, while having to deal with the disappointed hopes and crushed dreams of a whole town on the other hand.  The relationships are very well-played here, with surprisingly little sentimentality and melodrama.  I’m also impressed by the effective use of fantasy sequences such as the aforementioned Swan Lake scene, and Billy’s occasional conversations with his late mother (Molly Garner), especially in the very moving song “Dear Billy” and its later reprise.

This show strikes me as a shining example of everything that’s good about the “New Muny” under Isaacson’s tenure. It’s a top-notch quality show with elements of what the Muny loves (dance, big production numbers, flashy technical elements, a very large ensemble), but in a slightly more modern and sometimes grittier form than some of the more classic musicals that the Muny has been known for, even though  I’m sure the Muny will still be producing the classics as well. Superb productions like this one help to emphasize the Muny’s return to a world-class level of performance, and I hope the trend continues throughout this summer season.


The Cast of Billy Elliot Photo: The Muny

The Cast of Billy Elliot
Photo: The Muny





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Love! Valour! Compassion!
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 14, 2014

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre


Love! Valour! Compassion! is a play I’d never had the chance to see before attending the production currently being presented at Stray Dog Theatre.  I knew the basic premise and that there was at least some amount of nudity, but otherwise basically what  I knew was that Terrence McNally is an accomplished, award-winning playwright, this play was critically acclaimed and won several awards in its initial Broadway run (with Nathan Lane in the cast), and Stray Dog has never ceased to impress me with the quality of their shows.  After seeing the show, I can say that as far as I’m concerned, Stray Dog still has a perfect track record.  This show may put some people off with its mature subject matter and yes, the nudity, but really it’s about people, with richly drawn characters and relationships, portrayed by a truly wonderful cast.

Set at an idyllic, secluded lakeside cabin in upstate New York, the story is presented in a stylized, overtly theatrical, occasionally poetic manner, as each of the characters breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, alternately narrating the happenings over three successive holiday weekends and reflecting on matters of life, art, belonging, fear and humanity. Eight gay men, most of whom are longtime friends, spend the weekends talking, laughing, singing, boating and sometimes skinny dipping in the lake.  Relationships are built, renewed, challenged and sometimes broken, and hopes, fears and insecurities are shared.  This is 1994, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Two of the characters–the bubbly, musical-obsessed Buzz (Patrick Kelly), and the gentle, sweet, British James (David Wassilak)–are dealing with the disease while the group plans a dance performance for a benefit concert, and others deal with survivors’ guilt and the prospect of losing more dear friends to the epidemic. Mortality is at the forefront in other ways, as well, as celebrated choreographer and dancer Gregory (Zachary Stefaniak), who owns the cabin, deals with the reality that his body is aging and that he won’t be able to dance at the same level much longer, as well as the insecurities of his relationship with his much younger boyfriend Bobby (Zach Wachter), who is blind. There’s also long-term couple Perry (Stephen Peirick) and Arthur (Jonathan Hey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary and dealing with issues of stagnancy and temptation. Also in the group are the acerbic and manipulative John (also Wassilak), twin brother and polar opposite of James, and Ramon (Chris Tipp), a good-looking, brash 22-year-old dancer with an eye for Bobby, and who poses a threat to Gregory both as a romantic rival and as a symbol of youth and potential in his dance career.

This show is essentially a character study. It’s about how gay men relate to one another and to the world around them. It’s also about the human condition, and the nakedness here goes beyond the merely physical.  In fact, the actual nudity is dealt with in such a way that it becomes basically incidental, with more importance being given to the baring of emotions.  The cast here is nothing short of superb, across the board. Each character is fully realized and ideally cast.  The most memorable performances for me were those of Kelly as the endearingly enthusiastic Buzz, with his list of obscure musical theatre facts and his (not always successful) determination to stay positive in the midst of his illness, and of Wassilak in the extremely challenging dual role of a pair of identical twins with anything but identical personalities.  The distinction between the characters is immediately obvious due to Wassilak’s mannerisms, even in one poignant and memorable scene in which he portrays a conversation between both characters, shifting between the characterizations with apparent ease. Kelly and Wassilak (as James) share some of the play’s more poignant scenes, as well. Stefaniak is also impressive as the compassionate and proud Gregory, and Wachter is charming as the alternately optimistic and bewildered Bobby. Hey and Peirick display excellent chemistry as Arthur and Perry, and Tipp is full of bravado and attitude as the confrontational Ramon.  There are many great scenes, but what is most impressive is the overall cohesive energy of this group of actors.

The dialogue here is sharp and witty in moments, and occasionally sentimental.  It’s a very obviously theatrical script, with the words and rhythms of speech emphasizing the heightened emotions.  There’s quite a bit of humor as well as more intense drama over the course of an approximately three-and-a-half hour running time (with two intermissions). It’s all very well paced by director Gary F. Bell, who also designed the very character-appropriate costumes.  The world of the cabin by the lake is also fully realized by Rob Lippert’s evocative set, and a backdrop by Lippert and Gary Karasek that gives the suggestion of an Impressionist painting.  There’s also great lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been that helps add to the overall rustic atmosphere.

I think one of the most important aspects of theeatre is its capacity for communication and education.  Situations can be different, and people are different, but no matter how different we are, we are all human and we can learn so much from one another if we will just take the time to listen.  Love! Valour! Compassion! will raise a lot of questions and give audience members a lot to think and talk about after the show is over. Stray Dog’s production is even more impressive than I had expected. It’s a memorable and profound production.

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Em Piro at the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Press Preview

Em Piro at the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Press Preview

The 2014 St. Lou Fringe Festival opens this week after much planning and visionary thinking by Executive Director Em Piro and her team. Piro, who is originally from Seattle, is a St. Louis University graduate and veteran performer and director with various local theatre companies, including New Jewish Theatre, Upstream Theatre, and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. With an energetic personality and love for the performing arts in many various forms, Piro is both a visionary and an entrepreneur, having founded the Fringe Festival and then  managing  its growth and momentum over the past three years. I met with her at a cafe in Grand Center a few weeks ago to talk all things Fringe, focusing mostly on her thoughts about artistic development and the Fringe’s role in the revitalization of the city of St. Louis and its various neighborhoods. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

Michelle–How did the Fringe develop?

Em–[My friend and fellow former SATE member] Dianna Thomas and I had been producing a small theatre company together, GlassMonsters, a very almost anarchist, DIY, grassroots, interactive [project]. We just wanted to do this kind of more guerrilla style theatre. But then she and I had talked a lot about, what if we do this festival thing? We need some kind of setting where these artists can collaborate together. Theatre companies can produce together in this critical mass of activity, with tons of shows going on, and then patrons could easily find them. Then patrons will meet these artists, or meet these theatre companies at this event and then go and see them throughout the year. Well, there’s a lot of infrastructure that goes along with that, which is one of things I’ve learned. And the other thing that I’ve learned is the potential that this holds for having a really tangible impact on building the cultural identity of our whole city.

M–So, you found a lot of people quickly that wanted to do this with you? You seem to have a pretty good team.

E–Yeah. I kind of just roped people in. And there’s definitely a constant influx of people who are kind of fascinated by this work,. It’s hard because it’s still all volunteer. So, there’s only so much that people can do with only so many resources, and so much time in the day and so much experience themselves. It’s a very complicated network to work within, and there are just different ins and outs and personalities and ways that neighborhoods work that you kind of need to understand. You can have a wonderful thing happening, but if no one knows about it, it’s pointless. And then if the people who are involved aren’t really clear on what they’re doing, it’s pointless. So there’s so many intricacies and, this is why things like this don’t happen all the time.

M–The one thing that I found myself wishing last year was that it were bigger, and that you took over this whole neighborhood and there were people everywhere.

E–I know. And that’s what we want to see happen. It’s remarkably difficult. And it’s funny because, we’re tied in with all the Fringes from around the country, and we bring up this question all the time about marketing, and for a lot of other Fringes, it’s kind of a non-issue. I really think this is a St. Louis thing. There is not a culture of patronage here the same way that there is in other cities. There’s not really an impulsiveness about going to events. People don’t tend to go to new things that they haven’t heard of before unless a hundred of their friends are going. And we’ve had an incredible amount of publicity. There’s still not a central course of information. Even though this word is starting to percolate, there’s still a real challenge to get people from thinking “that sounds interesting” to “I can’t miss this”. But that’s the story of the game for every theatre company in town. There are so many shows that happen that should be sold out, and they’re not.

M–I’ve been to plays where there were only about six people in the audience.

E–Yeah. I’ve seen stunningly beautiful pieces of theatre where there’s only six people in the audience. There are things with just the overall communications structure for our city. It still is a very segregated city, and people are so afraid of feeling out of place. And so for some people, even if they want to go to a show, it’s like, well, will I fit in there? For some people, they make that first step of “I want to go see a play. You know it’s a little bit outside of my norm.” Because, you know, when people go to theatre here, when they’re growing up with it, they typically go to the Fox or the Muny. Maybe the Rep.


E–And so this whole world of mid- or small-sized theatre companies is outside of their paradigm. They don’t even know about it. So, let’s say they do make the decision, like “Oh, yeah, I do kind of want to see a show.” Where do they go then? And if you’re in the network, you can say oh, you can go to KDHX, or you can go to ArtsZipper, or you can go to this, but if you’re the average patron who’s not already networked into that world… I’m in the world, and it can be hard to find what’s going on. I do think there is a need for centralizing a cultured patronage, and I think that our Fringe will grow. I think it really will get to be that point where the whole neighborhood is full all weekend, and every show is sold out.

There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done to build that patronage, and just let people know that they can come here. This area [Grand Center] still carries a stigma, so we always have to fight that. Something we’ve learned too is that “if you build it, they will come” is a false notion.. Our first year we booked all these street performers, and we had all these activities going on in the streets, and there just weren’t audiences there to take it in. And then the performers feel insecure. If you’re a performer performing for no audience, it’s not the same. And it’s not what people are performers for.

M–That’s how I feel when I’m at a play and there are only 5 or 6 people in the audience. I wonder what the actors think.

E–Yeah. I mean, for me, even an audience of one is a valuable audience, but an audience of none is kind of tough. So it’s been a balancing act for us.

M–So did you have to scale back some for the second year?

E–We did. Well, we just were smarter about it. We’ve streamlined it. So for example, instead of trying to fill up our whole grounds, we’re doing more programming at key foot traffic times in Strauss Park.

When people go to the Fox, they valet or they park in the garage, they walk in and they walk out. It’s just not in people’s vocabulary [to stay]. It’s nothing wrong, but it’s going to take a lot of education to train people, and teach them, you can duck into a new place. You can check out something new and different. You don’t have to just come [to a show] and leave. Even five years ago in this neighborhood, there wasn’t as much going on as there is now, so you can’t blame people. It used to be there was nothing to do, and so that’s why that behavior developed. But people are slow to change, so teaching them that you can wander the neighborhood, you can bring a lunch, you can stay in the park, you can stay with friends and things like that, is going to take a lot of patience and education.

M–What goes into organizing everything?

E–(Laughs) How much time do we have? (More laughing) It’s a huge effort.

M–Does it basically take the whole year to plan for the next one?

E–Yeah. Just take the festival itself. On the production end of things, there’s recruitment, there’s applications, there’s processing applications, there’s communicating with all of the people who apply to make sure that they have the right expectations of what they’re going to be presented with when we come to the festival. There’s building production teams. There’s contracting with six venues. There’s staffing those venues. There’s building schedules, seeing how many shows you can accommodate with how many performances. Then with those shows, collecting technical information, and assessing all the technical information for all 35 shows, to see which venue they’re going to be the strongest fit in. After that, making sure the performers have the skills they need to be successful. So coordinating a professional development series is something we’ve introduced. Raising money is also a huge part of it. It costs about $100,000 to produce the festival. It’s a pretty massive endeavor. There’s just gaining trust from the community, and with other arts organizations and theatre companies, and building trust and friendships.

M–It seems like it helps to have this outgoing personality that you have.

E–(Laughs) I don’t think it hurts. And one of the biggest challenges is just having the name “Fringe”, which is advantageous because we have an international network, and so they know exactly what that means. But it’s a new term for our community. There’s a lot of just following up with people, and talking to them and explaining the bigger significance of [it], like, yes this is a theatre festival. It’s fun, it’s quirky, it’s exciting, but it also has the potential to have a tangible impact on the quality of life for people in St. Louis. And I want to see this wonderful, beautiful, historic city be healthy, and to break down some of those socially perceived barriers, and some of those economic barriers, and some of those artistic barriers, and all of that.

M–Going back to your background for a minute, you’re talking about the city and you grew up in Seattle, but you’ve always had a St. Louis connection. How did you end up in St. Louis?

E–I ended up going to school here [at SLU] and I’m so grateful for it. I grew up in a city that very kind of naturally is conducive to the arts, and to the point that it can be pretentious, and St. Louis is a city that has survived such incredible strife, and continues to battle that. And it’s a city of many different viewpoints, and many different personalities. It gave me such a broad perspective of humanity. And I think if I had gone to some little swanky liberal arts school, or stayed on the West Coast or anything like that, I can’t even imagine who I would be.

M–Or if you’d gone to New York or something.

E–Yeah. And there’s things that are very exciting and attractive about communities like that, but there is a modesty that I have been faced with and had to learn being here, that I feel like has made me a better person.

M–What struck me about St. Louis when I moved here, coming from the East Coast [the Washington, DC area], where everybody is rushing everywhere and everything’s a lot more guarded, is that everything is a lot more laid-back here. And not as polished.

E–Exactly. And there’s something that’s very exciting to me about that. It’s a city of opportunity. It’s a city where you can really be yourself. And to me, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. You can be in a city like New York or Chicago or Seattle that already has this strong arts community, and St. Louis has that strong community–it is all potential. All of the pieces are there. All of the puzzle pieces are there. They’re just not in the right order. And so all it takes is a few people to really be like “you talk to this person” and “what do you think about doing this?’ And people, I think, are so grateful to see healing happen. It’s a good city with good people.

M–This seems like something that seems to be geared a lot towards appealing to the younger generation. I’ve noticed that some theatre companies, like the Rep, in St. Louis seem to draw older audiences and others draw younger audiences. Are you trying to bridge the different elements of the theatrical community?

E–I think that we actually draw an incredible spectrum. I mean, this year in the festival, we’re going to have a super left-wing political theatre piece and a super right-wing political theatre piece.


E–Yeah. And I can’t speak to the quality of either of those. I haven’t seen them. I don’t know them, but I think the fact that they can be in the same setting, each with their own voice, is a really incredible thing. You know, we have companies that formed to do the Fringe Festival, and we’ve had companies that have had a hundred seasons under their belt. We had a company last year that was a septuagenarian producing a show about the Civil War. And our audiences, they’re not as mature I’ll say as the Rep and things like that, but it’s not just a bunch of twenty-somethings. I think the Fringe is becoming what we really want it to be, which is a central watering hole for people who love culture, whether they’re 20 or whether they’re 80. I think that the thing that is unifying is because it’s vibrant, and it’s passion-fueled. And I think people of all ages and backgrounds appreciate that and are grateful for it. And we had people from the city, we had people from the county. We had people from pretty much every age bracket. It’s incredible how many more people every year just kind of come out of the woodwork. You know, people you never would have known were theatregoers.

M–You basically have a range of people and ages and backgrounds and income levels.

E–Exactly. We try to keep things accessible, so we hope that some of the folks that have capacity appreciate the low ticket prices and the accessibility, and will choose to support the festival, because it is an expensive venture, but it’s important to us to be a unifying center that remains accessible.

M–So, what’s new this year? Are you doing anything different, or is it just the same but bigger?

E–We’re actually doing a couple things. I think there’s four big things. Our box office is going to be outdoors this year. It will be in Strauss Park, so hopefully… Because the last couple of years, like you said you wouldn’t see a lot of activity on the streets, but there could be hundreds of people on the grounds. They would just all be in venues, or in restaurants. At most Fringes, it’s like a film festival. At most film festivals, there’s not like people flooding the street. There’s people in venues and in shows, and when you’re out on the street you see maybe like a hint of it here and there. But we have found that people want that kind of vibrancy, so we’re focusing more of our outdoor programming into Strauss Park, which is a little bit more of a manageable footprint for us. It will be like a central place where everybody knows to go, to then tentacle out to wherever else they want to go. And then once they’re done with that, they can come back.

M–It can kind of be like a combination box office and sort of gathering spot.

E–Yeah. And we’ve tried to do that in the past, but people haven’t identified with it that way. It’s been in a vacant storefront, so I think people were like “Oh, am I supposed to stay here, or am I not?” This will be designed with performers and things like that, so people will know, “oh OK, I can stay”. There’s patio furniture and everything. So that’s one big thing.  And we’re doing a partnership with the Gateway Burners, so they’re going to be building structures and stuff on the grounds as well, in that park.

M–What is the Gateway Burners?

E–It’s like the local chapter of Burning Man. They do big beautiful installations. They all kind of like just pop up and come down, you know, they’re not permanent. So, that’s going to be sweet.

M–So is that going to be in that same area?

E–Yeah. It will be at points along all of our grounds, mostly in Strauss Park but then maybe you’ll see a pocket here and a pocket there,just trying to create this kind of magical world. We’re adding a new venue this year, so that’s big news.

M–And where is that?


M–And that’s right by where all the stuff is going to be happening in the middle anyway.

E–Exactly. It’s a perfect location. We love KDHX. They’re so aligned with us in terms of mission, and it meant that we were able to add five additional shows this year. We’ve added five local companies, so instead of 30, we have 35 companies this year. And then the third is that a big part of our festival is community building. Our tagline is “Brave Artists and Bold Audiences”. We want those artists to connect with each other. We want the audiences to connect with each other. We want the audiences and artists to connect. And so, we’ve had After Parties every night for the last two years, and the people have been like “well, maybe I’ll go and maybe I won’t”. We really want people to go, because people who play together work together well. It’s part of building a community and making new friends. It’s really important. And we want to create an accessible walking environment for that. So, we are really trying to focus on meeting people’s needs and what they want from the special events and the After Parties and things like that. We have parties Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Also, in the past we were Thursday to Monday, because Monday is the traditional dark night, so we were like “oh, we’ll have this big closing party on Monday”. But then everyone was, what we say, “Fringe fried”, so they didn’t really want to come on Monday. So we’re actually moving it so we’re going to have the big opening kick-off on Wednesday. There are no shows on Wednesday, but we’ll have a big party in Strauss Park, and then people can plan their whole festival weekend at that party. And then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day we’ll have shows and then Sunday evening we’ll have a closing ceremony. So we’re learning as the years go on, and trying to build the festival in way that will complement everything and do everything it needs to do. I’m excited about all those things.

M–Yeah. What about future plans? Do you have any thoughts of where this is going in the future?

E–What I really want to see happen starting next year.. we’re still building our capacity, and we would love to be able to support a staff person to be able to do this year-round. We’d love to be able to support two staff people to do this year round. Because you can just do so much more when you have someone who can really dedicate their attention to it.

M–How big is your team?

E–It’s all volunteers. When people are available, they help. But one of the things that we want to get into in the next season is off-season producing. There’s a lot of logistics there that we don’t have yet, that we need to work out. But I think it’s the natural next step. It’s like we have this festival that’s a big smorgasbord of activity, that’s open access and everybody can come and do whatever they want, and then from that we can curate people who we think demonstrate particular artistic integrity, particular professionalism, who we think are good reflections of the cultural voice of the city that we want to see more of.

M–OK, that leads to my last topic. You’ve actually answered this a little bit here and there, but what are your overall thoughts on the St. Louis theatre and arts scene?

E–I think it’s an incredible and vibrant and passionate community. I think the community is at an 8, which is great. I think it can be at a 12. I think a lot of that is just giving people permission.  I think there needs to be a lot of support of people’s creative ventures, and there’s some. I think there could be more, especially when it comes to risk-taking. To me, if the art doesn’t take a risk, it’s boring. For me. That’s just one person’s opinion. But for me as a patron and an artist, that’s something I want, so it’s something I try to support with my words, actions, resources, money, whatever. I also think, as we talked earlier about, we could have a much more centralized access point for patrons. So if you have someone who says on a Thursday night, or a Friday or Saturday or whatever, “you know, I want to go see a show tonight”, that we have a way for them to do that, and just go. I think that’s how you build new audiences and patronage. Of course the Muny, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and the Fox, they grow every year because they’re household names.

M–Yes. And it’s not like a city like London or New York where there are over 30 different shows playing every day and you can just go pick one.

E–Right. We were talking about New York, and there’s a central ticket kiosk where it’s like “I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I’m going to come here, and that looks like a good thing, I’ll see that.” It’s like a menu. We don’t have that. It doesn’t exist. So I think that is a huge next step that we need to take as a community–figuring out how to share those audiences, how to have that open conversation with audiences, how to work with the media, and how to work with the infrastructure, the neighborhoods, to build that culture and community for everyone.


 For more information about the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Festival, including a schedule of programming, check out the St. Lou Fringe website

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Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Directed by Edward M. Coffield

Choreographed by James Compton and Libby Salvia

Insight Theatre Company

June 6, 2014

Ronan Ryan, Spencer Davis Milford Insight Theatre Company

Ronan Ryan, Spencer Davis Milford
Insight Theatre Company

Oliver! is the classic musical, based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, that tells the story of an earnest young orphan who escapes life in a workhouse to explore life in 19th century London, eventually falling in with a gang of child pickpockets led by the devious and charming old scoundrel Fagin.  Featuring memorable characters like the Artful Dodger, Nancy and the villainous Bill Sikes, Oliver! has been produced many times over the years on Broadway, in London’s West End, and in various regional and school productions over the past few decades, in addition to its adaptation into the very well known and much-beloved Oscar-winning film. I had been looking forward to seeing Insight Theatre Company’s current production, because I had heard and read wonderful things about this theatre company, and this is a show I know fairly well. This is a company that often features some of the best of St. Louis theatrical talent, and I do wish to see more productions from Insight in the future. Still, it’s unfortunate to have to write that I was disappointed, but that’s what I have to do. While this production looks great and has several good points, for the most part I find it to be problematic at best.

To start with the good, I must say that from a purely visual perspective, this production looks stunning.  With a richly detailed unit set by Margery and Peter Spack, delightful costumes by Laura Hanson, and excellent atmospheric lighting designed by Seth Jackson, this show is a treat for the eyes. There’s also some excellent, energetic choreography by James Compton and Libby Salvia, and it’s in several of the ensemble numbers such as “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom Pa Pa” and the second half of “Consider Yourself” that this production is at its best.  There are also some standout performances by Spencer Davis Milford as a particularly energetic and likable Artful Dodger (even if he does seem a bit old for the role) and, especially, Jennifer Theby-Quinn in a scene-stealing performance as opportunistic workhouse matron Mrs. Corney.  Ryan gives a generally appealing performance as Oliver, especially in his scenes with Dodger and Fagin’s gang. There’s also a very convincing bond between Dodger and Nancy (Cherlynn Alvarez), which lends a degree of poignancy to some moments.

Even with this production’s strengths, I think they are overshadowed by its problems. First of all, the sound quality is very muddled.  It’s difficult to understand what many of the performers are saying or, in the solo musical numbers, singing.  Also, several of the leading performances strike me as confusing and oddly unfinished, coming across as more of a first run-through kind of characterization rather than a complete performance. Alvarez shows a lot of potential as Nancy, with a great voice and a very good rapport with the kids in the scenes in Fagin’s lair, as well as a very strong performance of “Oom Pah Pah” with the adult ensemble. Her most famous number, “As Long As He Needs Me” is mostly very good if lacking in volume.  Her stage presence, however, is hit-or-miss, and her later scenes are oddly paced and lack dramatic weight. Amoroso comes across more as an ineffectual bully than a truly menacing Sikes, as well, and Marc Strathman as the workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble lacks energy and presence, as do several of the other cast members. The most problematic performance, though, comes from Knoll as Fagin.  He performs the role with two very different voices, for one thing–a higher, reedy-sounding voice in some moments of the songs, and a somewhat lower voice for his speaking and some singing moments. This ends up sounding disjointed since he just jumps between the two sounds with very little attempt to blend them. His best moments are with his gang of pickpockets. “Be Back Soon” has its moments, especially, but his big solo “Reviewing the Situation” is just strange. The pacing is off and he even changes the melody and rhythm of parts of it, which is jarring and distracting.  He seems like an actor playing Fagin rather than simply the character.

I also find the overall pacing of the show to be uneven.  The first act ends abruptly and without the sense of suspense that the scene calls for, and all of the scenes between Nancy and Bill Sikes come across as rushed and unconvincing.  The climactic scene also seems cluttered and confusing, and two major character exits end up losing their dramatic impact as a result.  At other times, such as in the scenes with Mr. Brownlow (Troy Turnipseed), the pacing seems to drag.  The usually delightful “Who Will Buy” is a bit of a mess, as well.

While this production has its good moments and great visual appeal, overall I find it mostly unfulfilling, especially in the direction, pacing, and overall lack of energy among most of the leading performers.  Browsing through the production photos on the company’s Facebook page, I’m again struck by how vibrant this production looks. Unfortunately, that vibrancy is only superficial, and while there are some bright spots in this production, the overall impression is, sadly, one of style over substance.

Cherlynn Alvarez (center) and children's ensemble Insight Theatre Company

Cherlynn Alvarez (center) and children’s ensemble
Insight Theatre Company

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They’re Playing Our Song
Music by Marvin Harmlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Book by Neil Simon
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 4, 2014

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Maria Couch, Seth Rettberg
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

My earliest memories of They’re Playing Our Song involve the ubiquitous television commercials for the national tour in the early 1980’s. First produced on Broadway in 1979, this show was a very popular and much-hyped touring staple. Nowadays, although the show has been revived a few times, it is very much tied to its time. In its music, situations and sensibilities, it’s a 1970’s show through and through. STAGES St. Louis, in the first main stage production of their 2014 season, has wisely chosen not to try updating the show’s setting, presenting what is, for the most part,  a sweet and very period-specific romantic comedy with an appealing cast and a clear sense of time and place.

Inspired by the real-life romantic and professional relationship of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song presents a series of  significant moments in the lives of an Oscar-winning composer, the professionally competent but romantically unlucky Vernon Gersch (Seth Rettberg) and his new lyricist Sonia Walsk (Maria Couch), an offbeat and chronically late free spirit who likes to wear recycled theatrical costumes and has a somewhat unhealthy attachment to her unseen but much talked about slacker ex-boyfriend Leon. The more conventional Vernon and the unpredictable Sonia soon forge an uneasy bond, learning to work together and trying to manage a burgeoning romantic connection in the midst of various personality conflicts and situational difficulties.  There are a lot of jokes about analysts, New York life, show business, sex and the male vs. female expectations in relationships as the two navigate their on-again, off-again relationship.

If this sounds like a Neil Simon plot, that’s because it is.  Simon wrote the script, and it plays out like a fairly typical offbeat 197o’s romantic comedy.  The characters are neurotic and quirky, and the  jokes are witty and fast-moving, although some of them don’t land quite as well as they probably did once upon a time.    Although the show involves the  interesting conceit of employing a sort “Greek Chorus” of alter egos for Sonia (Brittany Rose Hammond, Sarah Rolleston, Bronwyn Taboton) and Vernon (Craig Blake, Nic Thompson, Aaron Umsted), the real weight of this production rests on the shoulders of its two leads.  Rettberg and Couch bring a lot of enthusiasm to the stage, and Rettberg especially is able to infuse the somewhat stuffy Vernon with a lot of deadpan wit and goofy charm.  His voice is strong, especially on “Fallin'” at the beginning of the show, and “Fill In the Words” at the end.  Couch does a fine job as Sonia as well, especially in opening scene where all her eccentricities are made known, and in the later scenes where she starts to show some substance behind all the over-the-top quirkiness.  Her best musical moments are the plaintive “Just For Tonight” and her duets with Vernon, such as the upbeat disco-driven “Working It Out” and “They’re Playing Our Song”. Both performers excel in the delightfully cheesy dancing scenes, as well, and their chemistry is good if not exactly electric.  There’s some great support from the alter-egos, as well, and their entrances from basically everywhere (from inside wardrobe, behind curtains,from behind walls, etc.) are hilarious,  even though their role often comes across as more of a running gag than as a truly relevant plot device.

The 70’s atmosphere of this production is very well realized, even if sometimes I wish they had hammed it up even more. Director/Choreographer Stephen Bourneuf’s fun, disco-influenced dance numbers are a real highlight.  The set, by James Wolk, is colorful and clever, with a stage surrounded by a giant piano keyboard and individual sets (especially Sonia’s rummage-sale special of an apartment) that add to the whimsical nature of the show, and Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design adds to the mood as well with some great effects, especially in illuminating the giant piano keys and in the disco-style lighting of the night club scene.  Lou Bird’s costumes are another real strength of this production, particularly in Sonia’s outfits that range from thrift-store chic to “best of the 7o’s” fashion (a striped wrap-around top, an orange turtleneck, a shimmery red disco dress).  Vernon’s well-coordinated suits accurately reflect his character, as well. This was a very colorful period in American fashion and culture, and that is reflected very well in the overall look and feel of this production.

They’re Playing Our Song is musical that definitely shows its age, although there is much to like in STAGES’ production.  Ultimately, I would say that this is a production that majors on charm and energy, with a sweetly cheesy 70s vibe. Although I do wonder how it will be received by audience members who don’t remember this time period, for the most part I think it’s a time trip worth taking.

Cast of They're Playing Our Song Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of They’re Playing Our Song
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

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Hands on a Hardbody

Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green

Lyric by Amanda Green, Book by Doug Wright

Directed by Scott Miller

New Line Theatre May 27, 2014

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a musical about a truck.  That’s essentially all I knew before seeing New Line’s new production of Hands On a Hardbody.  I had heard one or two of the songs, and I knew the basic premise and had read good comments about it online, but unlike a lot of musicals I see, I didn’t know much else.  It’s nice to go into a show like this relatively unspoiled, because then I can be surprised. New Line’s production is a very pleasant surprise, indeed. One important thing I realized upon seeing it is that this is not just a show about a truck.  It’s about people and their hopes, dreams, disappointments and aspirations, and a richly detailed evocation of small-town Texas life in the wake of the recent economic recession.  With some catchy songs, a strong cast and excellent staging, New Line brings this show to life in vibrant, life-affirming style.

Based on a 1997 documentary about a real contest, Hands on Hardbody takes place in Longview, Texas, as a of group of characters of different ages and backgrounds gather at the Floyd King Nissan dealership to compete in an endurance competition, with the prize being a much-coveted icon of Texas life, a shiny red pickup truck. The rules are simple–keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, outside in the summer heat, with no leaning or squatting, without the aid of chemical stimulants, and with only a 15 minute break every six hours.  Over the course of five days, the contestants battle fatigue, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure as they each try to outlast the others, with the last one standing getting to go home with the prize.  Throughout the competition, we get to meet the different contestants and hear their stories, why they entered the contest, and what they plan to do if they win.  Among the hopefuls are a cocky previous champion, Benny (Jeffrey M. Wright), the bubbly and devoutly Christian working mother, Norma (Anna Skidis), the battle-scarred young Marine, Chris (Luke Steingruby), and the middle-aged and world-weary JD (Todd Schaefer), who is recovering from a severe leg injury and feels coddled by his concerned wife Virginia (Alison Helmer), who is watching on the sidelines.  Another supportive spouse is Don (Keith Thompson), who is enthusiastically cheering on his wife Janis (Cindy Duggan).  There are also young contestants Greg (Ryan Foizey) and Kelli (Marcy Weigert), who connect over their mutual dream to experience life outside of small town Texas, as well as Jesus (Reynaldo Aceno), who wants to raise money to pay for college.  Along with the upbeat Ron (Marshall Jennings) and the determined and conflicted Heather (Taylor Pietz), these very different people express their hopes and their frustrations, make friendships, form alliances and endure conflicts on the way to the inevitable and suspenseful conclusion. There can only be one winner, although there is much to learn all around, as expressed in the uplifting epilogue “Keep Your Hands On It” as the winner and “losers” sing about what they learned and what happened in their lives after the contest.  It’s a stirring story of friendship, love, faith, disillusionment, fear, economic hardship, and the ever-enduring sense of hope that there’s something better down the road.

Musically, the style is mostly country-flavored, with influences of gospel, Latin music and southern rock.  As usual with New Line, the singing is excellent across the board, with Jennings, Foizey, Pietz , Wiegert and Zachary Allen Farmer (as local radio DJ Frank Nugent, who is broadcasting the event) especially standing out with their strong, clear voices.  While there is no real choreography to speak of, this show presents a particular challenge in the area of staging, since so much time is spent with the various characters standing in the same place. Director Scott Miller has risen to that challenge admirably, and the show never gets boring or static, as the players move around the truck in time to the music in some moments, while in others, the truck is used for percussion accompaniment such as on the rousing “Joy of the Lord” number led by Skidis.

In terms of acting, there are many memorable performances, with the standouts being Schaefer as the ailing but stubbornly determined JD, Wright as the alternately villainous and sympathetic Benny, and Skidis as the infectiously devout Norma. There’s great comic work from Thompson, Duggan and Jennings. Mike Dowdy and Margeau Baue Steinau also provide excellent support as the bickering managers of the dealership, and Foizey and Wiegert display excellent chemistry as two young people developing a quick bond, as do Wright and Helmer as a couple who obviously love each other despite their differences.  There are nice little moments with all of the characters, however, and there isn’t a weak link in this whole cast.  The writing helps, but the actors really flesh out these characters and make them seem like real people rather than just a collection of stereotypes.

Visually, although there isn’t much of a demand for a set beyond a desk, a big banner, some lawn chairs and that ever-important red truck, all of these elements are well-realized by scenic designer Rob Lippert and crew. Costumers Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert are to be commended for finding just the right outfits for all the individual characters and adding to the very small-town Texas vibe of the show.  Aside from a few minor sound issues (microphone crackling, mostly), this show is as seamless technically as it is dramatically and musically.

This show only ran on Broadway for a short time, although it garnered some excellent reviews and a lot of award nominations. I’m sure it was great on Broadway, although I didn’t get to see it there. Still, I think a smaller scale regional theatre setting probably works better for a show like this, especially in the very capable hands of Miller and his extremely impressive cast and crew.  It’s a vibrant, energetic, and deeply compelling production with characters just as full of vibrant color as the truck they are all vying for.  Although that truck can ultimately only go to one person, everyone is a winner in the long run, and that includes the audience of this big, shiny, colorful prize of  a show.

Set for Hands on a Hardbody Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Set for Hands on a Hardbody
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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