Archive for December, 2014

A Christmas Story, The Musical
Book by Joseph Robinette, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Matt Lenz
Originally Directed on Broadway by John Rando
Choreographed by Jason Sparks, Based on Broadway Choreography by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
December 17, 2014

Colton Maurer and Cast Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Colton Maurer (Center) and Cast
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

A Christmas Story, the film, quickly became a holiday classic, to the point where some people make it a tradition to watch it every year, and cable channels show marathons of it in the holiday season.  In light of the trend of making movies into stage musicals, A Christmas Story seems an obvious choice, and the resulting show was nominated for the Tony for Best Musical in 2013. The US National Tour, currently running at the Fox Theatre, is a fun, well-cast production that celebrates the highlights of the movie and manages to find new angles to the story, as well.

The musical covers all the familiar ground of the film, based on the stories of author Jean Shepherd.  Shepherd is a faceless narrator of the action in the film, but here he appears (played by Chris Carsten) hosting his New York radio show and telling the story as a reflection of Christmases past.  Shepherd doesn’t simply narrate, either. He appears throughout the story commenting on the action and occasionally interacting with the characters.  The focus of Shepherd’s story is Ralphie Parker, who is played at alternating performances by Evan Gray and (at the performance I saw) Colton Maurer.  He lives in a small town in Indiana in 1940 with his mother (Susannah Jones), his “Old Man” (Christopher Swan) and younger brother Randy (Cal Alexander), and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun.  The story echoes the film for the most part, following Ralphie’s quest to convince the adults in his life–such as his parents and his teacher, Miss Shields (Avital Asaleen)–that the coveted air rifle would be the ideal gift for him.

Many of the famous situations from the film are here, from the flagpole incident involving Ralphie’s friends Flick (Christian Dell’Edera) and Schwartz (Johnny Marx), to the bullying by Scut Farkus (Brandon Szep) and Grover Dill (Seth Judice), to the visit to the department store Santa (Andrew Berlin) and more.  The Santa scene gets a production number, “Up On Santa’s Lap” and a chorus of elves. It’s more comic than terrifying (as the film scene was), but it works for the stage.  Other incidents that get clever musical treatment include the arrival of the infamous leg lamp, which becomes “Major Award”, hilariously choreographed and danced by Swan and the lamp-toting ensemble, including the lamps in their kick line.  The fantasy sequences are handled well, too, with “Ralphie to the Rescue” casting Ralphie as an old time Western hero, saving his teacher and classmates from the bad guys with his trusty Red Ryder air rifle. There’s also a fun dance sequence in Act 2 with the jazzy “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”,  taking Miss Shields and Ralphie’s classmates to an imaginary Speakeasy, and featuring spectacular tap dancing by Asaleen and featured tapper Judice, leading the energetic ensemble of kids.  The show’s score is strong, for the most part, with the recurring theme of “It All Comes Down to Christmas” a hummable highlight, and a few songs that showcase Ralphie’s mother, like “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That”. In fact, the parents seem to be a bigger presence in this show than in the film, although Ralphie is still the main focus.

Since this is Ralphie’s story as told by Jean Shepherd, the casting of those two characters is critical for the success of this show, and this production gets it right. Carsten is amiable and enthusiastic as Shepherd, with a strong presence and some good moments throughout the show, and young Maurer is impressive as the determined, single-minded Ralphie.  He’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist, and even though he stumbles a little on the words to “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”, he demonstrates a strong voice and great energy.  As Ralphie’s parents, Swan and Jones are also excellent, with Swan delightfully hamming it up in his big dance number, and Jones in excellent voice on her more gentle ballads.  Asaleen gets a great showcase as Miss Shields in the aforementioned “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the kids’ ensemble is also very strong.

The look of the show is classic and Christmassy, evoking the film but also stylizing it a bit. Walt Spangler’s original design has been adapted for the tour by Michael Carnahan, with its snow globe-like backdrop and snowy-roofed multi-level house for the Parkers.  The scenery is also cleverly adapted in some of the fantasy sequences, such as when Miss Shields’ desk acquires wheels and becomes a covered wagon.  The costumes, adapted by Lisa Zinni from Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s original designs, are colorful and evocative, as is the striking atmospheric lighting originally designed by Howell Binkley and adapted by Charlie Morrison.

Overall, this show accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s an entertaining holiday show that celebrates the famous film without strictly copying it.  Personally, I’ve only seen the film in its entirety once (in addition to numerous clips), but my impression is that this show seems to capture much of the spirit of the film while expanding the story a bit, especially the focus on the parents.  With a strong, likable cast and a fun visual theme, it’s a sweet, funny and nostalgic story for all ages.

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

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by Lea Romeo
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
HotCity Theatre
December 13, 2014

Ben Nordstrom, Maggie Conroy, Tyler Vickers Photo HotCity Theatre

Ben Nordstrom, Maggie Conroy, Tyler Vickers
Photo by Kyra Bishop
HotCity Theatre

Scene: a beautiful tropical island. An elegantly dressed man and woman stand on the beach, while the man gives a halting speech declaring his love for the woman. He proposes, and she accepts with great enthusiasm.  He puts the ring on her finger, and they embrace. Cut!  That’s a wrap!  That may seem like the end of a story, but it’s just the beginning in Reality, a new comedy by Lia Romeo that examines life after the cameras stop rolling for the contestants of a Bachelor-like reality dating show.  It’s an incisive, witty swansong for HotCity Theatre, a long-time fixture in the St. Louis theatre scene that will be closing its doors following this production.

It will be sad to see HotCity go, but they’re certainly not going without humor. Reality is a new play that explores its subject matter with a clever premise, a well-structured plot, and well-drawn characters.  It’s also inventively presented to look like the shooting of a television show. When Matt (Tyler Vickers) proposes to Annie (Maggie Conroy) while filming the last episode of the TV show Looking For Love, their “journey” isn’t over.  As show producer Josh (Ben Nordstrom) informs them, they now have to keep their relationship quiet until the final episode airs.  This is a complicated situation, as Matt and Annie are set up in a “safe house” away from prying eyes on the weekends so they can spend time together, although Annie quickly finds that Matt isn’t the kind of guy she thought he was, and Matt isn’t sure what he thinks of the relationship, Annie, or himself.  Annie, who has dreamed of finding an ideal mate, is surprised to learn from runner-up contestant Krissandra (Julie Layton) that many of the show’s contestants were there for Hollywood exposure rather than to find love. While the relationship between Matt and Annie is tested, Josh is there as a confidant for Annie and becomes another complication, but is Josh being sincere or is he more concerned about the show?

This is an intriguing show in its concept, which is very well realized by Director Annamaria Pileggi and the strong cast and crew.  With a set designed by Kyra Bishop to resemble the set of a TV show, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting and Jane Sullivan’s costumes adding to the reality TV-style atmosphere, this play makes an impression with its consistent sense of theme. Even the scene changes are structured like those of a TV show, and when the actors leave the set, they are often visible getting ready for the next scene. Everything is out in the open here, unlike the situation for Annie, who is often in the dark as to what is happening around her.  Conroy gives a convincing performance as the somewhat naive Annie, who is gradually learning that reality isn’t exactly what it seems.  Vickers, as the amiable but somewhat clueless Matt, displays a convincingly awkward chemistry with Conroy. There’s also excellent work from Nordstrom as the sometimes charming, always scheming Josh, and by Layton as the brash Krissandra, who is probably the most honest character in the show.  Her scenes with Conroy as the two drink wine and swap stories about what happened during filming are among the comic highlights of the production.  The relationship dynamics are constantly shifting in this play, and the cast handles all the changes and surprises with energy and excellent timing.

If you have watched any reality dating shows, the format of the fictional Looking For Love will be familiar. As extreme as the situations can get in this play, it’s not that difficult to imagine a similar situation happening behind the scenes of a TV show like this in real life.  That sense of only slightly heightened reality adds to the entertainment value of this memorable comedy.  It’s another strong production from HotCity, a St. Louis theatre company that has will be missed very much.

Julie Layton, Maggie Conroy Photo by Kyra Bishop HotCity Theatre

Julie Layton, Maggie Conroy
Photo by Kyra Bishop
HotCity Theatre

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Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
December 12, 2014

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Stephanie Styles, Dan DeLuca
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

Over the weekend, I took a road trip to Chicago to see the US National Tour of Disney’s Newsies. Based on the film of the same name that flopped at the box office but then developed a sizable cult following,  the stage show ran for two years on Broadway and has now embarked on an ambitious tour that is unfortunately not scheduled to play in St. Louis in the near future. The good news is that it’s going to be running in Chicago for almost a month, so there’s plenty of time for St. Louisans to make the journey to see this upbeat, wonderfully cast and impressively produced show.

I approached this production as something of a Newsies newbie. I’ve never seen the film and had only heard a few songs and seen a few performance clips from the stage show.  I knew the basic plot, but that’s about all, although I’ve found that this tour is an excellent introduction to the show. The story, loosely based on an actual event, follows a group of newsboys working for the New York World newspaper in 1899.  Most of the boys are orphans, like the charismatic, artistically talented Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), his friend Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and others. Even those who aren’t orphans are poor, relying on their income from selling papers to support themselves and their families, like rookie “newsie” Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his younger brother, Les (Vincent Crocilla alternating with Anthony Rosenthal). When the paper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the price of the papers, it affects the newsies because they have to pay for the papers they sell, and having to pay more up front means they will earn less. With Jack as the leader and Davey as the “brains”, the newsies form a union and begin a strike, but not without major complications and clashes with the authorites.  Meanwhile, a young reporter, Katherine (Stephanie Styles), who seeks to advance her career and help the newsies by writing about their cause, finds herself attracted to Jack, although a secret she’s keeping from him threatens their burgeoning relationship.

This is a very Disney spin on the story, with the emphasis on the energy and drive of the youthful characters, who are much more well-rounded than most of the adults, with the exception of burlesque entertainer Medda Larkin (Angela Grovey), for whom Jack paints backdrops, and who allows the newsies to use her theatre for rallies. Pulitzer is something of a mustache-twirling villain for most of the show, although that’s a minor quibble considering the real focus here is on the teenagers and their quest for better working conditions not just for themselves, but for other young workers throughout the city.  There are a few most-likely deliberate echoes in the staging of another show that features a group of idealistic young men rebelling against authority, Les Miserables, only this one is a lot more upbeat.  Even though this is a show for all ages, its primary audience seems to be teenagers, who are likely to be inspired by the determination and drive of this group of likable tough guys trying to make a difference, discovering their own strengths and talents in the process.

The producers have assembled a top-notch cast for this tour, led by the dynamic DeLuca, who will best be remembered by St. Louis audiences as Lucas in The Addams Family at the Muny in July.  DeLuca brings considerable charm, strong dance skills and a powerful singing voice to the role of the sensitive but guarded young Jack. He’s a more than capable leader for this group of loveable misfits, bringing emotion to numbers like “Santa Fe” and gutsy zeal to energetic group numbers like “Seize the Day” and “Once and For All”.  His scenes with the equally charming Sayle as Crutchie and Kemp as Davey are strong points of this production, and he displays great chemistry with Styles as the plucky Katherine.  Styles and Kemp, for their parts, are also standout performers, with Styles bringing a great blend of sympathy and excellent comic timing to her solo number “Watch What Happens”, and Kemp showing a lot of heart as the initially mild-mannered and somewhat nervous Davey, who gains confidence as the story develops.  There are also memorable performances from Grovey as Medda, whose big voice gets a great showcase on “That’s Rich”, and Crocilla as the enthusiastic youngest newsie, Les.  Blanchard also turns in a fine performance as the self-centered, villainous Pulitzer. As for the rest of the newsies, there are too many to mention them all by name, although they form a cohesive and eminently likable ensemble with a great deal of heart, strong voices and athletic dancing on songs like “Carrying the Banner”, “Seize the Day” and the showstopping tap-dance number “King of New York”.  This is an ensemble filled with youth and boundless, infectious energy, making for a very fun show.

Visually, this show is simply a wonder, with some of the most impressive sets I’ve seen, especially for a touring production. Designed by Tobin Ernst, the set is constructed of several multi-level units that fit together in various ways as the plot demands. Surrounded by ladders and metal piping, these units effectively evoke the network of fire escapes that are such a ubiquitous feature of the New York City landscape. The units can also be arranged together in a kind of grid, emphasizing the athleticism of the staging as the cast climbs up and down all those stairs with seemingly endless verve.  The use of projections, originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted for the tour by Daniel Brodie, is particularly ingenious as Jack draws and we see what he’s drawing, or Katherine types and we see the result immediately over her head.  The overall color scheme in blues, grays and browns and reds is reflected in the set and in Jess Goldstein’s period-specific costumes and Jeff Croiter’s striking lighting design.  From these top-notch technical elements to Christopher Gattelli’s dizzyingly dynamic choreography with all its jumping, leaping, kicking and spinning, this show is a treat for the eyes and ears.

Disney’s Newsies on tour is a memorable high-quality show that is well worth a trip to Chicago to see.  It’s a shame it’s not coming to St. Louis anytime soon, but if you’re planning a holiday trip to the Windy City, why not “seize the day” and see this show? You don’t have to just “read all about it” when you can see it. Chicago is only a few hours away, and this show is well worth the trip.

Cast of Newsies Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies the Musical

Cast of Newsies
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies the Musical

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Book by Roger O. Hirson, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography by Chet Walker, in the style of Bob Fosse
Circus Creation by Gypsy Snider
Peabody Opera House
December 10, 2014

Kyle Dean Massey Photo by Joan Marcus Pippin National Tour

Kyle Dean Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
Pippin National Tour

The current Broadway revival of Pippin is something I’ve wanted to see since I first heard about it. Since trips to New York are few and far between for me, I was thrilled when I found out that the US National Tour, based on the Broadway production, would be coming to St. Louis. The whole concept of turning this show into a circus struck me as ideal for this show, the clips I’ve seen of the Broadway cast have been great, and now the tour has given those of us who were unable to see it in New York the opportunity to see this brilliant new re-imagining of this classic show. The touring production, which opened last night at the Peabody Opera House, definitely does not disappoint. With all the color, style, and spectacle of the circus, as well as an extremely talented cast, this show has “Magic to Do” and it succeeds in casting its spell on the St. Louis audience.

I had seen Pippin before, both live and on video (the 1981 recording with Ben Vereen and William Katt), but this new version is notable in that while it gives the production a total makeover, it seems just as true to the vision of the script as the original staging, albeit with a new ending.  The circus setting, with all its art and artifice, is an ideal backdrop for this story of a young prince (Kyle Dean Massey) on a quest for an extraordinary life.  The Leading Player is played by a woman this time (Lisa Karlin on opening night, covering for principal Sasha Allen), and in fitting with the circus theme, she’s the ringmaster. She introduces and orchestrates the action of the show in an increasingly controlling manner that grows more and more sinister as the show continues.  Pippin’s story takes him on many adventures, and the Leading Player is there to make sure events turn out as she has planned.  It’s actually kind of a play within a play, with the conceit that this is a troupe of traveling performers putting on a show, although it all seems real for Pippin. His adventures involve conflicts with his father Charles, or Charlemagne (John Rubenstein), stepmother Fastrada (Sabrina Harper) and her son, the dim-witted, war-obsessed Lewis (Callan Bergmann).  As Pippin tries everything from war to hedonism, to art to prayer, he eventually ends up finding a degree of happiness in an “ordinary” life on a farm with the widowed Catherine (Kristine Reese) and her son Theo (Zachary Mackiewicz, Lucas Schultz alternating), but is it enough?  What does the Leading Player have to say, and what about the promised Grand Finale that we’ll remember for “the rest of our lives”?  You’ll have to watch to see how that turns out.

The show has been re-imagined, and the circus theme works very well to drive the story and add even more substance to the simple but alternately humorous and poignant story. Performers and trained acrobats perform acts on the flying trapeze, as well as tricks with hula hoops, exercise balls and more. Elements of magic and puppetry are also used. The choreography, by Chet Walker in the style of original 1972 Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, is dynamic and creative, with elements such as a gender-switched (1 woman, 2 men instead of 1 man, 2 women) version of the famous “Manson Trio” dance break in the middle of the song “Glory” recreated and featuring the Leading Player and backing dancers Matthew DeGuzman and Borris York.  There’s lots of Fosse-style flash blended with the circus elements on songs such as the spectacular opening number “Magic to Do”, and elaborately choreographed production numbers like “Glory”, “Morning Glow”, “Extraordinary” and more. It’s a vibrant show with a dark edge that’s made all the darker by the revamped ending.  It’s full of style, charm, suspense and astounding feats of acrobatics and illusion.  The color scheme is full of vibrant purples, blues and reds, and the circus tent-styled scenery by Scott Pask and the ingenious costumes by Dominique Lemieux establish a consistent and memorable look the the production.

The cast here is extremely impressive. Karlin anchors the production as the stylish, dictatorial and occasionally menacing Leading Player. With her top-notch dance skills, great voice and loads of stage presence, one would never know she’s the understudy if the program didn’t say it.  Massey, who was a wonderful Tony in West Side Story at the Muny in 2013, is full of charm, magnetism and sympathy as Pippin, with a strong, clear voice and an open, youthful countenance. His earnest, plaintive “Corner of the Sky” is a musical highlight of the show. There’s excellent supporting work from Rubenstein (who played Pippin in the original 1972 production) as a particularly vainglorious Charles, as well as Harper in a gleefully vampish performance as Fastrada, Reese as an engaging and slightly goofy Catherine, and Lucie Arnaz in a show-stopping turn as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe, performing “No Time At All” with immense energy and wit.  The ensemble of dancers and circus performers is in excellent form, as well, performing some truly astounding stunts with confidence and apparent ease.  It’s high-quality cast for a top-level touring production.

This tour is so good, it makes up for not being able to see the show on Broadway.  It’s full of charm, humor, drama, and all the things promised in the opening song, with a few twists–some thrilling, some terrifying–along the way. This is Pippin re-invented and re-invigorated, and it’s glorious.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Pippin National Tour Cast Photo by Terry Shapiro

Pippin National Tour Cast
Photo by Terry Shapiro

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Eat Your Heart Out
by Courtney Baron
Directed by William Whitaker
R-S Theatrics
December 7, 2014

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

A nervous man and woman who are meeting for the first time after connecting via a computer dating site share an awkward first date at an art museum.  Elsewhere, another nervous man and woman–a married couple–are preparing their home for a visit from a social worker, whose report will help determine their suitability to adopt a baby from overseas.  At the same time, a teenage girl and her male best friend discuss her frustration about being bullied at school because of her weight.  This is only the beginning of R-S Theatrics’ fascinating new production, Courtney Baron’s Eat Your Heart Out.  How these seemingly unrelated stories fit together is part of the drama of this piece, and the very strong performances and inventive staging make it riveting to watch.

Aside from the brief description of its premise, it’s very difficult to talk about this play without spoiling the suspense. Discovering how the plot lines fit together is part of this show’s appeal, although there’s much more to it than that mystery.  The key connecting figure is the woman on the first computer date, Nance (Ann Marie Mohr).who is a social worker and the mother of Evie (Katie Donnelly), the distraught teenager.  Nance is also the one visiting the nervous married couple Alice (Michelle Hand) and Gabe (Eric Dean White), revealing a little bit too much about her own personal life in the process.  There are more surprises I won’t spoil, but the real drama here comes from the relationships, and what the various interactions reveal about Nance and her relationships with those around her. She starts out likable enough, but the way she deals with the home visit and with her daughter reveals a selfish streak, and complex reasons behind her actions.  The writing is dynamic and believable, with a good balance of drama and humor. Many issues are dealt with, leading to an ending that asks more questions than it answers.

All of the characters here have more depth than is initially apparent, and the excellent cast here convincingly brings out all those layers of complexity. The most compelling story is Evie’s. As an overweight teenager who desperately yearns to be loved and accepted not only by her peers, but especially by her mother, Donnelly gives a strong, emotionally rich performance. Her thinly veiled crush on her friend Colin (Casey Boland) is also thoroughly believable, and it is easy to sympathize with her in conflicts with her mother. Hand and White are also convincing as the overly eager Alice and Gabe. They both manage to communicate desperation and concern at the same time. Mohr has the most difficult role, as Nance, as the character starts out likable but gets less so as we learn more about her, and especially how she relates to her daughter. Mohr handles the role well, managing to find some sympathy. Boland is charming as Colin, Evie’s friend who is new in town but still hung up on his girlfriend from back home, and Stephen Peirick is good as Nance’s lonely but optimistic date, Tom.    The relationships here are key, and the players work together well, particularly in the emotionally charged scenes between Evie and Nance, between Alice, Gabe and Nance, and between Evie and Colin.

The strong cast is given support by the excellent, clever staging. This show is performed at The Chapel, which has a very flexible performance space. The way the show is set up has the action taking place in three performance areas on the main floor of the space, with the audience set up in chairs on three sides (including on the stage) surrounding the performers. This gives a level of depth to the staging that heightens the drama. The three story “threads’ are based in different areas of the performance space, with occasional overlap and rearranging. The set is cleverly designed by Kyra Bishop, with a fairly minimal approach that works very well for the tone of the show.  There’s also excellent lighting work by Nathan Schroeder that enhances the mood of the production.

There’s a lot to talk and think about in this show, and some of the issues are ones that can get very emotional. Anyone who has dealt with issues of weight and body image should find something to relate to here, especially. There are also some valuable questions raised about parenting, relationships and perfectionism.  It’s a thoroughly engaging drama, compellingly staged.  It’s the first time this play has been performed in St. Louis, and it’s a worthwhile debut.

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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Becoming Dr. Ruth
by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Jerry McAdams
New Jewish Theatre
December 7, 2015

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a person who is known in popular culture mostly for two things–her name and her frank and enthusiastic talk about sex.  Few people know much about her other than her job, I would imagine.  Mark St. Germain’s one-woman play, Becoming Dr. Ruth seeks to tell us more about the woman behind the name, and New Jewish Theatre’s production starring Susie Wall is an engaging, informatative anchored by a very strong leading performance.

Personally, my impressions of Dr. Ruth before seeing this play came more from parodies of her on old 80’s episodes of Saturday Night Live than from the woman herself, so it’s somewhat surprising to me to learn of her eventful and sometimes adventurous life.  St. Germain’s script is fairly pedestrian, setting Dr. Ruth in her apartment preparing for a move, whereupon she suddenly notices she has an audience and begins telling stories. As she travels around the room picking up items to pack, she’s prompted to remember her childhood in Germany, and her beloved parents and grandmother. She tells how she was sent to Switzerland as a child to avoid the Holocaust, and how she still wonders exactly what happened to her parents. We learn of her children, both of whom she talks to on the phone during the play, and of her three marriages–most notably her third and happiest, to Manfred “Fred” Westheimer. We learn of her involvement in the early years of the nation of Israel, and of her coming to America, getting her advanced degrees and eventually becoming a sex therapist, radio show host and pop culture figure.  She’s presented as a personable, resilient woman, who has survived great tragedy and hardship and found meaning and made a name for herself in her chosen profession.  It’s an interesting and occasionally fascinating story, but the real strength in this production is in the performance rather than the script.

Susie Wall is obviously taller than the real Dr. Ruth, and the red outfit she wears (provided by costumer designer Teresa Doggett) and hairstyle call to mind Nancy Reagan as much as the famous sex therapist, although Wall brings so much vibrancy and personality to the role that it’s easy to forget she doesn’t really look like the real person. Wall is a delightful mixture of charm, audacity, and empathy as this surprisingly complex woman who has become an unlikely cultural icon.  We see the tragedy of losing her parents and her whole childhood way of life through her eyes, and we see how her childhood experiences have informed the woman she has become. Although the script is predictable, Wall brings a sense of spontaneity and energy to it, and she’s a joy to watch.  As she moves around throughout Cristie Johnston’s well-appointed and sufficiently cluttered apartment set, we get to know Dr. Ruth as a person because of Wall’s fully invested performance. The technical elements-as is always the case at NJT–are also top-notch and add to the overall experience. In addition to the set and costumes, Michael B. Perkins’s projections are also notable, and contribute to illustrating Dr. Ruth’s reflections.

Dr. Ruth has led a long and extremely full life, and this show manages to let us get to know her not just as a cultural figure, but as a survivor.  Her persistence and warmth of personality are clearly evident, and Wall’s portrayal of her is the most important part of this show.  Even if you don’t know much about Dr. Ruth, this show is worth seeing for Wall’s excellent performance.

Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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Blithe Spirit
by Noel Coward
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 6, 2014

Nancy Bell Michael James Reed, Lee Anne Matthews Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nancy Bell Michael James Reed, Lee Anne Matthews
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis, and I’ve seen more shows than ever. I haven’t loved all the shows I’ve seen, but I’m glad to say I at least liked most of them. Still, even as good as many of the shows have been, I can tell when a show has gone from the “like” to the “love” column for me. That’s when I get home from seeing a show and I can’t stop talking about it, and I want to tell everyone I see about it. Blithe Spirit at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is one of those productions. In fact, it’s probably the most well-staged, consistently funny comedy I’ve seen all year, with a top-notch cast of actors all performing at their best, and with excellent, dynamic direction and some of the most impressive production values I’ve seen on such a small stage.

Blithe Spirit is a classic Noel Coward comedy that has been produced many times at all levels since its first production in 1941. I had never actually seen it before, and I’m glad I was able to see such a well-crafted production. It’s full of Coward’s legendary English wit as well as some uproarious moments of physical comedy. It’s basically a drawing room comedy with ghosts.  When the play opens, novelist Charles Condomine (Michael James Reed) and his second wife, Ruth (Lee Anne Mathews) are preparing for an unusual gathering.  They’ve invited a famous medium, Madame Arcati (Nancy Lewis) to conduct a seance in their living room without telling her that it’s because Charles is researching for his next book and wants to know how mediums operate. Both Charles and Ruth, along with their other invited guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Steve Isom and Andra Harkins) display differing levels of skepticism about the evening. although none of them are expecting what actually does happen. That is, the seance works, calling up the spirit of Charles’s deceased first wife Elvira (Nancy Bell), who isn’t exactly pleased that Charles has married again. While Charles and Ruth try to keep Elvira’s existence a secret and attempt to figure out a way to send her back to the Great Beyond, Ruth becomes suspicious that Elvira’s attempts to reconnect with Charles may have a more sinister motive.  Much more happens from there, but to say anything else would spoil the fun of this witty, intricately plotted story.

From seeing this production and how very, very right everything is, it appears to be an easy play to get wrong. There are a lot of one-on-one dialogue scenes, especially at the beginning, that could drag if not timed right or played with the right level of energy, and the special effects could come across as hokey.  None of that happens in this brilliant production, fortunately.  The cast is full of great St. Louis performers, and they are all in top form, with strong and dynamic staging by director Bobby Miller.  Reed veers from somehwat smug at the beginning of the play to hilariously befuddled as the situation with his wives gets more complicated, and he’s well-paired with both actresses who play his wives. Their relationships are clearly very different, with each woman influencing Charles’s behavior in different ways. He’s more even-keeled with Mathews’s worldly but suspicious Ruth, and more childlike and defensive with Bell’s dictatorial and ethereal Elvira.  Bell especially displays such a strong stage presence from the moment she first appears, that she noticeably energizes the already excellent Reed in their first scene together. The way she glides around on stage is hilarious, as well.  Lewis brings a dotty, droll energy to the increasingly enthusiastic Madame Arcati as well, and whenever she’s on stage, it’s obvious that hilarity is about to ensue.  There’s also very strong work from Isom and Harkins as the Bradmans, who provide something of a foil for all the silliness around them, and Jennifer Theby-Quinn threatens to steal the scenes she’s in with her goofy walk and facial expressions in a small but key role as the the batty maid, Edith. This is a show where timing and cast interaction is absolutely crucial, and every member of this cast contributes with gusto and charm. Also, a minor quibble I often have with shows is inconsistency when Americans have to perform with British accents and that’s not an issue here. The accents are strong, consistent and thoroughly believable, so that’s another plus for this quality production.

The look of this production is striking, as well. I’m impressed by the quality of the sets STLAS is able to produce in such a small space, and this one, by Patrick Huber, is the company’s strongest yet.  It’s a precisely detailed recreation of the living room of an English country house, complete with fireplace and well-appointed bookshelves. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are also first-rate, from Charles’s suitably stuffy upper-class look to Madame Arcati’s more whimsical outfits, to Elvira’s shimmery, glittery gown. The wigs, by Christie Sifford, are notable as well, especially when completing the stylish ghostly look. There’s also some inventive special effects work designed by Mark Wilson, and excellent atmospheric lighting designed by Patrick Huber. The lighting in the ghostly appearance scenes is particularly memorable, adding just the right blend of whimsical and creepy.

I can’t talk enough about how much I enjoy this production. It’s truly a highlight of the theatre season in St. Louis. The laughter from the audience is very well-earned, and there’s a lot of it.  This show is smart, silly, crazy and extremely well-timed, with a brilliantly cohesive ensemble.  It’s transcendently funny.

Andra Harkins, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Andra Harkins, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Conceived by William Meade
Orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby
Adapted from the Broadway Production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 5, 2014

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes, Derek Keeling Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes, Derek Keeling
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s difficult to categorize the Rep’s latest production. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash isn’t a play, and although it’s full of music, it’s not exactly a musical or even a revue. It’s not even, strictly speaking, a concert, even though that’s what it most resembles.  It’s basically an acted concert with commentary, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything very much like it before.  It’s not what I was expecting, although it’s definitely entertaining.  An energetic cast of performers and especially musicians makes for a tuneful, enjoyable evening.

This strikes me as the type of show that would most ideally be performed in residence. at a Johnny Cash or country music museum. It’s not strictly a biography, although it certainly has elements of that, with the show’s two “Johnnys”, Jason Edwards and Derek Keeling, taking turns with the narrative and describing memorable incidents in the singer’s life.  Much of the biographical focus centers on Cash’s relationship with his second wife, singer and musician June Carter, and this production also has two “Junes”: Allsion Briner and Trenna Barnes, with Briner mostly being paired with Edwards’s older Johnny, and Barnes with Keeling’s younger Cash.  Briner also has some memorable moments as Johnny’s mother early in the first act.  In addition to biographical material, the show is also an exploration of themes in Cash’s music, such as faith, suffering, country life, traveling, humor, and romance. There’s also a memorable sequence in the second act focusing on Cash’s songs about prisoners and prison life, such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Orleans Parish Prison”.  It’s a celebration of the singer’s musical legacy, with as many songs as the show’s compilers could fit into its two acts, ranging from his radio hits (“I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, etc.) to traditional songs like “In the Sweet By and By”.  Fans of traditional Country music, and of Cash in particular, are sure to find many songs they recognize well represented here.

The format is somewhat chronological, starting with Cash’s recounting his ancestry and early life, and ending with his death, accompanied by a photo memorial projected on a screen.  The four principals are energetic and engaging, with each having stand-out moments. Edwards, while not sounding very much like Cash, still has a strong presence, and especially makes an impression with “Man In Black” in the second act.  Keeling, as the younger Johnny, has more of a Cash-like voice, and  has some very strong moments with “Sunday Morning’s Coming Down” and “A Boy Named Sue”. Barnes and Briner also display strong voices and a great deal of energy in their roles, with Barnes giving a fun performance of the humorous “Flushed From the Bathroom of My Heart” and Briner excelling on the old hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. Both also demonstrate good chemistry with their “Johnnys”, trading verses on “If I Were A Carpenter” and other love duets.  The four leads are also backed by an excellent group of musicians who occasionally play small roles in the dramatizations, and occasionally join in the singing. The standouts here are John W. Marshall in a virtuoso performance on the upright bass, and the charming, wiry Brantley Kearns on fiddle and in various singing and speaking roles, most notably in a memorable comic performance of “Delia’s Gone” in Act 2. It’s a very cohesive musical ensemble, bringing life and energy to this great catalog of songs.

The striking set by John Iacovelli features an authentic-seeming country house with a front porch, where the musicians assemble in an extended jam session, and a prominent screen with evocative projections by Joe Payne. Pictures from Cash’s life, as well as various thematic images add to the overall atmosphere and tone of the production. There are also some excellent, colorful costumes by Lou Bird, ranging from classy black suits for the Johnnys to brightly hued dresses for the Junes, and various costumes such as prison garb and farmers’ work clothes for the thematic segments.

As the subtitle states, this show is all about the music of Johnny Cash.  It’s more about the music than the man, to a degree, although it can certainly be said that you can’t really separate this man from his music.  The music is well represented here, from the poignant to the plaintive to the upbeat and whimsical.  Overall, though, the tone is a more contemplative homage to the Man in Black. His fans especially should appreciate this show.

Brantley Kearns Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Brantley Kearns
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls, Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2014

Kevin O'Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Kevin O’Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s Christmas time, and Stray Dog Theatre is taking us back to Armadillo Acres to celebrate the season.  Having performed the original Great American Trailer Park Musical in 2012, Stray Dog is now re-visiting the trailer park for a second helping of countrified humor, and it turns out that there’s more genuine charm in the sequel than in the original.  With a better, more engaging script and some hilarious and heartwarming moments, the excellent cast at SDT brings holiday cheer to brighten the Scroogiest hearts and tickle funny bones with outrageous humor and tuneful songs.

I didn’t see Stray Dog’s production of the first Trailer Park Musical. The production I saw was at Dramatic License earlier this year, and while I liked the cast, I remember having some issues with the show itself.  In terms of the plot and script, the Christmas edition manages to correct a lot of the problems I had with the first installment.  It still veers wildly from the crass to the sentimental, and the characters are still broadly drawn, but there’s a lot more genuine emotion in this edition, and the humor seems more affectionate than mocking toward the characters.  The only characters in common with both shows are the enthusiastic narrators: trailer park manager Betty (Laura Kyro), the now-widowed Linoleum or “Lin” (Kay Love), and young single mother “Pickles” (Jessica Tilghman).  Just like in the first one, these three serve as our “tour guides” to the goings-on at Armadillo Acres, occasionally stepping in to play other roles as the story requires. Among the new additions to the story is Rufus Jeter (Kevin O’Brien), who works several jobs and loves to help decorate the trailer park for Christmas.  There’s also Darlene Seward (Paula Stoff Dean), a Scroogelike trailer park dweller who hates Christmas and lives to antagonize Rufus and the rest of the Christmas-loving residents.  When Darlene gets an electrical shock in the midst of a tirade, she’s struck with a comically convenient case of amnesia that not only makes her forget who she is, but basically changes her whole personality. Suddenly the mean, Christmas-hating Darlene becomes a wide-eyed enthusiast who is eager to join in the decorating, all the while struggling to regain her memories and finding herself strangely attracted to formal rival Rufus.  All of this is unbeknownst to Darlene’s boyfriend Jackie (Gerry Love)–the money-hungry, egotistical owner of a small chain of pancake houses called Stacks, which are described as a “combination of IHOP and Hooters”.  With a few funny subplots and several not-so-subtle nods to A Christmas Carol, the story unfolds with a few surprises and revelations along  with the requisite trailer park humor.

I think this version works better because the plot is more streamlined, and the holiday theme gives it more of a focus.  It’s still not exactly a masterpiece of musical theatre, but it’s a lot of fun, and the cast is obviously having a great time, shining on such upbeat group numbers as “Christmas In My Mobile Home” and the hilariously crass “…It’s Christmas”.  The cast is led by the strong performances of Kyro, Tighlman and Kay Love as the three narrators as well as additional characters, most notably Kyro’s hilarious turn as a tough but kind biker named Hank, who plays a key role in Darlene’s back story.  All three are in great voice and display strong comic timing. Dean, as Darlene, does an excellent job of portraying both the “mean” and “nice” versions of her character, as well as bringing some depth to her identity crisis and bringing real sympathy to her character.  She and O’Brien’s sweet, goofy Rufus have some cute moments together. Gerry Love makes a suitably scheming villain as Jackie, as well.  All six members of the cast work well together, bringing a great deal of energy to the sweet but still somewhat silly plot that involves the aforementioned amnesia as well as a Christmas curse, a much talked-about photo shoot with Mobile Homes and Gardens magazine, and a crazy finale that involves a few supernatural surprises.

The look and atmosphere of the show is achieved with much detail and whimsy by scenic designer Rob Lippert, costume designer Eileen Engel, and lighting designer Tyler Dubenow, with some spirited choreography by Jamie Lynn Eros.  All of the characters are suitably outfitted, and the set fills the stage with an explosion of colors and kitsch.  It’s amazing just how many tacky Christmas decorations have been assembled for this show.  It all adds to the over-the-top outlandishness of the show, which is basically the point of it all.

I found myself genuinely enjoying this new story more than the original, perhaps because while the show is still wild, crazy, and raunchy, this time it has more real sentiment, and although the situations are as implausible and exaggerated as ever, the central plot line is easier and more rewarding to follow.  It’s almost like an R-rated Hallmark Christmas Special at times, and I think that comparison is intended, as this show takes familiar Christmas story tropes and puts its own southern fried spin on them.  It’s a very fun show, with the cast seeming to have at least as much fun as the audience.  It’s a pleasant surprise–a shiny, gaudy, goofy holiday gift from Stray Dog to its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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A Raisin In the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
November 30, 2014

Ronald L. Conner, Thyais Walsh Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ronald L. Conner, Thyais Walsh
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

A Raisin In the Sun is a classic of the American stage. It’s so widely respected that it’s often assigned reading for high school and middle school English classes, which is why I brought my teenage son to the latest production at the Black Rep. He had read it in class last year, and it had been one of his favorite assignments. Sadly, I have to admit I’d never actually seen a production of the play before, so it was an introduction of sorts to me.  One of the frustrating things about being a theatre fan is that no matter how many great plays I see, there are always a few that I manage to miss for whatever reason, and I’m very glad I was able to finally see this remarkable play at the Black Rep. Not only is Lorraine Hansberry’s script still as vibrant and timely as ever; the excellent cast and direction in this production makes it a must-see for anyone who appreciates great theatre.

There is so much going on in this multi-layered story that it’s somewhat difficult to adequately describe. The story follows the Younger family–a working-class African American family who share cramped living quarters in a run-down Chicago apartment. The matriarch, Lena (Andrea Frye) is expecting an insurance payment from her late husband’s policy, and her son Walter Lee (Ronald L. Conner), who works as a chauffeur,  has high hopes for investing the money on a risky business venture, despite his mother’s wishes to the contrary.  Sharing the small living space with Walter and his mother are Walter’s wife Ruth (Thyais Walsh), their school-aged son Travis (Keshon Campbell) and Walter’s younger sister, college student Beneatha (Sharisa Whatley), who has hopes of attending medical school. While Walter bemoans his station in life and always seeks to find a get-rich-quick scheme, Ruth yearns for a better relationship with her increasingly neglectful husband, and Lena remembers the ideals of her late husband and hopes for a better life for her children. Meanwhile, Beneatha examines her own ideals and future hopes as she is courted by two very different men, the wealthy, complacent George Murchison (Nicolas G. Tyborn), and Nigerian student Joseph Asagai (L. A. Williams), who encourages Beneatha to embrace her cultural heritage and has idealistic hopes for change in his own country. There’s also Karl Lindner (Joe Hanrahan), a white “neighborhood representative” who presents a tempting but highly questionable proposal to the family upon their attempt to move into a bigger house in an all-white neighborhood.

Although society has changed in many ways since the play’s setting in the late 1950’s, unfortunately a lot of the issues dealt with in the play are still very present today.  Racial injustice, both personally and systemic, is still a very real issue in today’s world, and the current tensions in St. Louis and across the country are evidence of that. Lorraine Hansberry’s script is extremely well-structured and manages to achieve the feat of putting the focus on issues affecting people while keeping the people at the forefront. The people here are fully realized characters with very well-structured story arcs, and in the hands of director Ed Smith and the immensely strong cast, these characters are brought to vivid, achingly real life.  We sympathize, empathize and root for them. We want Lena’s hopes for her children to be realized.  We wish the world was a different place, and that the dilemma presented by Lindner’s character wasn’t a reality.  The play also manages to make fully realized characters out of two important people who never actually appear onstage–Walter’s scheming friend Willy Harris and his deceased but never forgotten father, “Big Walter”.  These figures have important roles in the action even though we don’t see them.

The cast here is ideal across the board, led by Frye’s indelible performance as Lena.  Exhibiting a strong sense of individual and family pride, dignity, and love, her Lena is the emotional center of this production.  Conner is equally memorable as Walter, convincingly bringing the character’s mixture of frustration and hope to the stage, and bringing real strength and energy to his ultimate confrontation with Lindner.  Walsh as Ruth is excellent as the concerned, and exhausted, wife and mother, especially in her scenes with Conner and Frye, and Whatley embodies the combination of idealism and exasperation with the state of society as Beneatha.  Her scenes with Williams, charming as Asagai, are a highlight of this production.  There are also strong performances from Tayborn as George, Campbell as young Travis, Philip Dixon in a small role as Walter’s friend Bobo, and Hanrahan in the difficult role of the outwardly polite but inwardly weaselly Lindner.  It’s a cast not only of great individual performances, but of excellent group chemistry as well, and there is never a dull moment as we spend over two hours with this family and share their hopes, disappointments and struggles.

The technical elements of this production are also of extremely high quality. The set, designed by Jim Burwinkel, is so meticulously crafted as to not only provide a suitable backdrop for the play’s action, but also to shed additional light on who these characters are as people. The apartment is small–clearly too small to adequately accommodate the five people who share it, and the plaster on the walls is obviously cracking, but this place has also just as obviously been as well-maintained as possible. With family photos one the walls, and the tiny kitchen space cramped but organized, the set is a witness particularly to Lena’s care, attention, and above all, love for her family.  Linda Kennedy’s costumes are fittingly styled to the period, and individually suited to each character, and Burwinkel’s lighting is focused and appropriately atmospheric.

As much as I regret never having seen this play before, I’m glad that it was this production that introduced me to it on stage.   It’s a powerful representation of one family’s struggles, but also a reflection of how far we still need to progress as a society.  In a world where racial tensions and inequities are still very much a reality, a play like this is as important as ever, and the Black Rep’s production is a stunning realization of this essential work of theatre. Whether you have seen or read this play before or not, this is a production not to be missed.

Ronald L. Conner, Andrea Frye Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ronald L. Conner, Andrea Frye
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep


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