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Archive for September, 2014

Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Stages St. Louis
September 10, 2014

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Paul Sabala
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

Fiddler on the Roof is a much-performed musical theatre classic. In fact, it’s been performed so many times at so many levels (amateur, regional, school, etc.) that it’s the one show I’ve seen the most productions of. And then there’s the film, which I’ve seen several times, and the Original Broadway Cast recording, which I grew up listening to.  Seeing a show that many times is great if you like the show (and I do), but it’s also easy to get complacent and just think “oh, it’s Fiddler” and have to make an extra effort to pay attention during performances unless there’s something great or distinctive enough  to make it stand out. Fortunately, the season closing production at Stages St. Louis is one of those presentations that makes watching an age-old much-seen favorite seem fresh and vibrant enough that I can easily watch it not out of effort or obligation, but out of sheer joy.

The story of this show is well known, recounting the trials, tribulations and traditions of Tevye (Bruce Sabath), a poor Jewish milkman in a small village in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century.  With political tensions rising in the world around his village, and with new customs and ideas gradually entering their previously isolated society, Tevye is forced to consider his own ways and the reasons behind them.  The opening number “Tradition” sets the scene, although gradually and surely, things happen that make Tevye think about his own ideals and what it means to reconcile the old ways and the newer ways.  Primarily, these changes are presented in the courtship stories of Tevye’s daughters. While Tevye and his wife Golde (Kari Ely) have five daughters, the three oldest are of marriageable age, and Yente the matchmaker (Rechel Coloff) is determined to find them husbands, although the daughters have their own ideas that are increasingly challenging to the old system.  First there’s Tzeitel (Stephanie Lynne Mason), who would rather marry her childhood sweetheart Motel the tailor (Nick Orfanella) than the older, wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (Christopher Limber).  Mostly, the stories unfold one at a time, with daughters Hodel (Julie Hanson) and Chava (Carissa Massaro) presenting Tevye with their own, increasingly challenging choices of suitors, and while Tevye deals with what those marriages mean to his own life and his own relationships with his family, his village and his faith, the turmoil in the outside world and the tensions between the Jewish and non-Jewish villagers in his own town gradually simmer and threaten to ultimately boil over.

This is a production that is full of life in all its aspects, portrayed with a great deal of energy and a degree of realism in the performances that sets it apart from some previous productions I’ve seen. I’ve noticed that with this show, there is a tendency among some of the actors to overplay their roles just a little bit, and sometimes a lot in the case of some characters, but it’s refreshing to see that nobody does that it this production.  The characters are all very believable and not over-the-top, led by Sabath as a particularly charming, down-to-earth Tevye.  With a strong stage presence, clear voice, and witty line delivery, his Tevye is a distinctly compassionate, thoughtful man, and his concern for his daughters is very relatable. He works very well with Ely as the dutiful, constantly concerned Golde, who also manages to bring an earthy realism to her role. They are a well-matched pair, bringing energy to their banter throughout the show and real warmth and heart to their sweet duet “Do You Love Me” in the second act.  The daughters and their suitors are also very well-cast, especially Mason as the more practical older daughter, Tzeitel, and the lanky Orfanella as the earnest, sweetly awkward Motel. “Miracle of Miracles” is a delight, as is their wedding, which is also a standout moment for the entire cast.  Especially in the after-wedding dancing–first the famous and still captivating “Bottle Dance”, and then the increasingly palpable joy and energy as the townspeople join in dancing together. For the first time in seeing this show, I felt like I was at a real wedding, and that’s wonderful. It also made the drama to follow all the more poignant.  Other strong performances include those of Coloff as the gossipy Yente and Limber as the butcher Lazar Wolf.  It’s a very strong ensemble, with great dancing all around, especially in the aforementioned wedding and in “To Life”. It’s a smaller ensemble than I’ve seen before in Fiddler, although for the most part, that only serves to make this production more accessible and less obviously “showy”, except for the opening “Tradition” number, which does seem a bit cluttered.

The technical aspects of this show are top-notch, as well, starting with the richly detailed set by James Wolk that evokes the work of painter Marc Chagall–whose painting, “The Fiddler”, inspired the show’s title.  The costumes by Lou Bird are also extremely detailed and appropriate, if possibly a little too “clean” looking for some characters (like the neighborhood beggar).  With strong, atmospheric lighting by Matthew McCarthy and the vibrant Jerome Robbins choreography re-created by Gary John Larosa, this show is as appealing visually as it is dramatically. It’s all unmistakably Fiddler, but given an air of immediacy by director Michael Hamilton and this great cast, with a few new approaches to characterization and staging that give it a distinctive character that allows it to stand out from the crowd of previous productions of this show that I have seen.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show that, when produced well, can be timeless as well as timely. Its themes of family, faith and tradition vs. change are both specific and universal, and it also provides a fascinating perspective on an earlier time and place in history. This production is to be especially commended for its vibrancy and approachability in addition to its excellent production values. It’s a fitting and memorable closer to Stages’s excellent 2014 season.

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely  Photo by Peter Wochniak Stages St. Louis

Bruce Sabath, Kari Ely
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis

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The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls
Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
September 6th, 2014

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Welcome to Armadillo Acres!  In their latest offering at their location in Chesterfield Mall, Dramatic License is hosting this over-the-top tribute to life in a Florida trailer park, complete with all the characters one might expect, and few real surprises. Still, while this show may not be for all tastes, it certainly draws a large, enthusiastic audience.  With a great, highly energetic cast and strong production values, this show manages to entertain despite any shortcomings in the script.

The story takes us to Stark, Florida, where the Armadillo Acres trailer park is populated by a range of colorful, if somewhat stereotypical, characters. There’s a Greek Chorus of sorts, consisting of the park’s owner Betty (Kim Furlow); perky teenager Pickles (Stephanie Benware), who may or may not be pregnant; and the brash Linoleum (Stephanie Merritt), whose convict husband is on Florida’s Death Row.  These three serve as our tour guides throughout the play, directly addressing the audience and occasionally playing a variety of other characters as the scenes require.  The main plot revolves around the troubled marriage of the agoraphobic Jeannie (Jamie Lynn Eros), and her husband Norbert (Jeffrey Pruett), a toll collector who is increasingly frustrated at Jeannie’s inability to leave the trailer (she’s been in there for 20 years).  When feisty stripper Pippi (Leah Stewart) moves into town, a smitten Norbert is torn between his sweet but anxious wife and the available new neighbor. But wait–maybe Pippi isn’t so available after all, as her enraged, glue and marker-sniffing ex-boyfriend Duke (Luke Steingruby) is determined to win her back or else. In the course of the plot, loyalties are tested, secrets are revealed and many, many jokes are told.

I have to admit this is not really my type of show, but in the hands of the excellent cast members who all seem to be having a wonderful time, I often found myself laughing along with the packed audience. There are certainly problems with the script, some of the jokes go just a little too far in their outrageousness, and it’s not always clear whether this parody is affectionate or belittling. The plot is also fairly predictable, and one very big revelation toward the end of the play is telegraphed in the first few minutes.  The music is very energetic, though, with a great little band and the strong voices of the talented cast, and some clever lyrics (such as “make like a nail an press on”).  Most of the music is country-styled, but there is one hilarious foray into disco at the end of Act One that is among the highlights of this production, as well as showing off the great costuming by Lisa Hazelhorst, energetic choreography by Zachary Stefaniak, and Max Parrilla’s wonderful lighting effects.  There’s also a very colorful, atmospheric set designed by Kyra Bishop that enhances the overall energy of the production.

The real highlight of this show is its wonderful cast.  Most of the characters here are very broadly portrayed and don’t seem to have much depth, although the performers seem to be having a lot of fun, and manage to bring some substance when there isn’t much in the script.  Furlow, Benware and Merritt make excellent guides through the proceedings, with lots of charm and energy, and there’s also a fun comic performance by Steingruby as the deranged and determined Duke.  Pruett has a difficult role as the vacillating Norbert, although he manages to find some sympathy for the character, and he has good chemistry with his two rival leading ladies.  The real standouts here, though, are Eros as the anxious but earnest Jeannie, and Leah Stewart as the new neighbor, Pippi. Eros gives a thoroughly winning performance, displaying a lot of guts and a strong voice, making the audience cheer her on in her efforts to overcome her agoraphobia and sympathize with her as she deals with the challenges to her marriage. While Jeannie is definitely the character with the most depth in this show, Stewart manages to find a lot of substance to her role as the conflicted “other woman”, and she also has a great big voice that she shows off to great effect throughout the show. There’s also a very strong finale in which all of the cast members get to show off their voices as all of the plot’s loose ends are tied up in various hilariously improbable ways.

Ultimately, a show like this is about entertainment. Even though it does have its issues plot and script-wise, it certainly does succeed in being entertaining. Some people will like it more than others, but I’d be surprised if anyone would be able to see this show and not laugh at least a little. Thanks to the great cast that Dramatic License and director Alan Knoll have assembled, this show manages to succeed in eliciting an uproarious response from its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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First Lady Suite
by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook
R-S Theatrics
September 5th, 2014

Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I was looking forward to seeing this production of First Lady Suite from R-S Theatrics. Their production of Parade last year is still one of my favorite musical productions that I’ve seen in St. Louis. Presented again at the grand Ivory Theatre, this production held a lot of promise for me, but I was ultimately disappointed, although that disappointment is more the result of the material than the production itself. R-S Theatrics has assembled a great cast, and the production values are good, but alas, First Lady Suite is not the exquisitely written, important piece of theatre that is Parade.  It gives me a lot of mixed feelings, since I think it’s an interesting idea, and R-S Theatrics has shown some daring in introducing this little-known show to the St. Louis audience.  Still, I wish this excellent cast would have been given better material to perform.

I have to say that I’m something of a Presidential trivia buff. I memorized the names of all the presidents in order when I was about 10 years old, and later I memorized their wives’ names as well. Presidential trivia books and biographies were “fun reading” for me growing up, so anything about presidents and their families piques my interest, at least at first.  The problem with LaChiusa’s work, though, is that there doesn’t seem to be any real purpose for it. Is he celebrating the First Ladies, or is he ridiculing them?  Is he saying this is an important historical role, or a trivial one that people make too much of?  Taking some of the more remembered First Ladies in recent history–Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt–and presenting them in such unexpected ways sounds like a good idea, but what LaChiusa has produced just seems muddled, confusing, and occasionally needlessly disrespectful. This is historical absurdity with no obvious point, with a score that is largely tuneless and unmemorable.  There are some interesting ideas here in terms of focusing on the supporting players behind the First Ladies, but the script leaves a lot to be desired and much to wonder about.

There are four stories here, with differing degrees of fantasy and absurdity.  “Over Texas” focuses on the Kennedy staff–the First Lady’s insecure secretary Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly), and the President’s somewhat infatuated secretary Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love)–as they make the fateful journey to Dallas in November, 1963. “Where’s Mamie?” takes Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt) on a fantastical odyssey from her White House bedroom to Little Rock, Arkansas and Algiers, with opera singer Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins) along for the ride. “Olio” features a short singing recital by First Daughter Margaret Truman (Christina Rios), presided over by a particularly boorish version of her mother, Bess (Nathan Robert Hinds). The last and longest segment is “Eleanor Sleeps Here”, in which a bizarrely vapid and capricious Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) is taken on an impromptu flight over Washington, DC by famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby), sparking the jealous ramblings of Eleanor’s close friend and confidant, former news reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok (Rachel Hanks).  Many historians believe the relationship between Hick and Eleanor was romantic, and that’s LaChiusa’s take, except the way this is written, it seems like the two have little in common and can barely stand each other. The oddest thing about these selections is that most of the First Ladies don’t come across very well–Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) is aloof and demanding, Lady Bird Johnson (Belinda Quimby) is a clueless airhead, Bess Truman  (Nathan Robert Hinds),  is portrayed as crass, boorish and insensitive; and Eleanor Roosevelt seems flighty and not particularly bright. The only First Lady who leaves a generally positive impression is Mamie Eisenhower, in a departure from the stingy and shrewish way she’s been portrayed. elsewhere. Here, she’s spunky and girlish, determined to change history and break out of the “rules” her husband (also Hinds) has set for her.  That segment is easily the most entertaining of the evening because of Van Pelt’s dynamic performance, although it’s not perfect either, since it oddly trivializes the desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Despite the difficult script and unmemorable score, however, the cast is very strong, and the production values are impressive. Especially notable technically are Amy Harrison’s richly detailed costumes.  The performers do their best with this material, as well. In addition to the production’s stand-out, Van Pelt, there are also strong performances from Donnelly as the self-doubting Gallagher,  Hinds as Dwight Eisenhower, Hanks as Hick, Quimby as Amelia Earhart, Rios as Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Truman, Perkins as Marian Anderson, and Love as Evelyn Lincoln and (making the most of an underwritten role) Eleanor Roosevelt.  The show opens with a promising ensemble number in which various First Ladies sing about the difficulty of the job, and it closes with a similar number, and these segments are probably the best parts of the show.

It’s a frustrating experience as a reviewer and a theatre fan to see such a well-produced production of a show that I don’t particularly enjoy.  As weak and confusing as the script is, though, this cast and crew have made the most of it, making it worth seeing just for the sake of the strong performances. R-S Theatrics continues to take risks in their productions, and that’s a good thing even when the risks don’t always pay off.

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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Human Terrain
by Jennifer Blackmer
Directed by Lori Adams
Mustard Seed Theatre
August 29th, 2014

Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Gerth Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Gerth
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre’s new 2014-2015 season is filled with new plays, with the one exception being their upcoming encore performance of last year’s critically acclaimed All Is Calm. To start the season, the company brings us a story that turns out to be even more timely than the author may have planned. With top-notch casting and dynamic staging, this show presents the story of a cross-cultural friendship and all the issues that stem from it in a compelling way that is sure to make audiences think about the very real issues it presents.

Human Terrain is so-called after a real US Army program, although the story is fictional.  As Dr. Mabry Hoffman (Melissa Gerth) repeatedly states, she is not a soldier. She’s an anthropologist, embedded with a US Army unit in Fallujah and trying to learn as much as she can about the locals and how they think, in turn advising the Army about local concerns.  The play is framed in flashback, with Mabry detained by Federal authorities and being questioned in connection with a bombing in a public marketplace.  As Mabry is prodded by the initially detached agent, Kate (Dawn Campbell), the story of the events leading the the bombing unfolds, including Mabry’s relationships with the unit’s Captain (B. Weller) and the soldiers in his unit, including the thoughtful Detty (Taylor Campbell) and the more caustic, gung-ho Harrison (John Clark).  Situations get more complicated after Mabry meets a local woman, Adiliah (Wendy Greenwood) and forms a gradual friendship, as well as having to deal with the tense situations of attempted bombings and the questionable interrogation methods involving a local young man, Kemal (Antonio Moseley). As the events leading up to the bombing unfold, Mabry increasingly questions her situation and the challenged presented by conflicts of interest between her personal goals for her job and those of the military.  In the course of telling the story, cultural issues are also dealt with, particularly in the form of Mabry’s conversations with Adiliah, who challenges Mabry’s Western assumptions concerning her way of life.

As a new play, Human Terrain is mostly well-constructed, and the flashback structure works very well, althoug the play does have its issues, in that some of the situations are predictable, and some characters are presented as somewhat simplistic contrasts, such as “nice” solider Detty and “mean” soldier Harrison.  The character of Adiliah is also a bit overly idealized and given something of a mystical, almost superhuman aura, even though Greenwood gives a wonderful, affecting performance in the role.  She has a very strong presence, and her scenes with Gerth as Mabry are fascinating to watch.  The most compelling character is Mabry herself, portrayed with strength and compassion by Gerth, who presents the character’s increasing uneasiness in her job, as well as the dilemma of her growing friendships with both Adiliah and Detty in a thoroughly convincing way. The complex performances of Weller as the Captain and Dawn Campbell as Kate are also memorable, and Taylor Campbell is thoroughly sympathetic as Detty.  Clark, as the zealous Harrison and Moseley as the conflicted young Kemal give convincing performances as well.

The experience of this show is powerfully aided by the excellent staging and technical work.  John Stark’s meticulously detailed set is used to great effect, as the central “office/interrogation room” set piece slides back and forth into place as needed, adding to the dramatic effect.  There are also great costumes by Jane Sullivan and impressive lighting design by Michael Sullivan and sound design by Zoe Sullivan.  All of the technical elements of this production come together seamlessly to add to the increasingly tense atmosphere of the the production.

This is a show that’s going to give viewers a lot to think and talk about, especially in light of the ever-present tensions in Iraq and increasing issues of cross-cultural conflict in an increasingly global society.  It also poses some very important questions about the working relationships and conflicts of interest between civilians and military, especially in wartime situations. As presented in Mustard Seed’s impressive staging, Human Terrain is a memorable theatrical experience as well as a compelling call to thought and conversation in these increasingly complex times.

Melissa Gerth, B. Weller Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Melissa Gerth, B. Weller
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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