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Archive for January, 2015

Emily C. Johnson Photo courtesy of Emily C. Johnson

Emily C. Johnson
Photo courtesy of Emily C. Johnson

Here’s a brief note about a musical cabaret show I attended last Saturday at The Chapel arts venue. “The New Girl In Town” was local performer Emily C. Johnson’s ode to her experiences as a small town Missouri native transitioning to city life in St. Louis.  Featuring Johnson and a host of other up-and-coming performers, it proved to be an entertaining evening of song, dance and comedy.

The personable Johnson is a good storyteller, with a lot of wit and energy as she recounted stories of her life as a newcomer to St. Louis, tying them into the messages of the songs she and her co-stars performed. Accompanied by the proficient Maggie McCarthy on piano, Johnson and cast (Eileen Engel, Lillian Johnson, Rachel Kuenzi, Kendra Moore, Kelvin Urday and Sara Rae Womack) presented an entertaining evening of music that ranged from old standards to musical theatre classics to more current works of musical theatre and pop music.  Johnson is lively and witty, with a particularly expressive face. Her energy and enthusiasm was reflected in songs such as Jeanine Tesori’s “The Girl From 14G” and Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s “Taylor the Latte Boy”.  Other highlights included Engel’s solo performance of Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s “How ‘Bout a Dance” from Bonnie & Clyde, Moore’s rendition of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “A Trip to the Library” from She Loves Me, and Urday’s emotional rendition of a re-arranged musical theatre-style cover of The Killers’ Mr. Brightside.

Johnson closed out the performance with a rendition of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s ubiquitous “Let It Go” from Frozen, delivering a controlled, somewhat restrained rendition that highlighted her vocal expression rather than sheer power.  Johnson and company certainly pleased the extremely enthusiastic audience. Overall, it was enjoyable evening highlighting the talents of some young, promising local performers.

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stlcircleawards1

Mark your calendars for Monday, March 23, 2015.  That’s the day of the third annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, which will be presented in a gala ceremony at COCA in University City, and broadcast on television locally on HEC-TV and streamed live on their website. The awards are voted on and presented by the St. Louis Theater Circle, the organization of local theatre writers and critics, of which I am honored to be a member. I attended the ceremony last year as spectator, shortly before officially joining the Circle, and this year I am a voting member and will be presenting awards along with my colleagues.  I’m looking forward to it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and recognize the remarkable contributions to the vibrant St. Louis theatre scene by a variety of talented artists and companies.

Congratulations to all nominees!  For more information, you can follow the St. Louis Theater Circle page on Facebook. Here’s the full list:

Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy

All in the Timing, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Noises Off, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One Man, Two Guvnors, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy

Caroline Amos, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Lewis, Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Ruth Pferdehirt, Noises Off, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jamie Pitt, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Donna Weinsting, Chancers, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy

Paul Cereghino, The Little Dog Laughed, Stray Dog Theatre

Joneal Joplin, Noises Off, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Michael James Reed, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Ben Ritchie, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Evan Zes, One Man, Two Guvnors, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy

Sarajane Alverson, The Little Dog Laughed, Stray Dog Theatre

Nicole Angeli, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Nancy Bell, Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Teresa Doggett, Shirley Valentine, Dramatic License Productions

Dale Hodges, Noises Off, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy

Ted Gregory, Quills, Max & Louie Productions

Raymond McAnally, One Man, Two Guvnors, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Ben Nordstrom, Reality, HotCity Theatre

Michael James Reed, Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Jared Sanz-Agero, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Outstanding Director of a Comedy

Paul Mason Barnes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Elizabeth Helman, All in the Timing, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Bobby Miller, Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Suki Peters, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Edward Stern, Noises Off, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Production of a Comedy

All in the Timing, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One Man, Two Guvnors, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama

Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Eat Your Heart Out, R-S Theatrics

The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

The Price, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama

Katie Donnelly, Eat Your Heart Out, R-S Theatrics

Amy Loui, The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Susan Pellegrino, A Kid Like Jake, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Susie Wall, Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

Sharisa Whatley, A Raisin in the Sun, The Black Rep

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama

Jason Contini, Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

Gregory Fenner, The Whipping Man, New Jewish Theatre

Bobby Miller, The Price, New Jewish Theatre

Tim Schall, The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

Eric Dean White, The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Drama

Andrea Frye, A Raisin in the Sun, The Black Rep

Linda Kennedy, Windmill Baby, Upstream Theater

Kate Levy, The Other Place, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Samantha Moyer, The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Em Piro, The K of D: An Urban Legend, Blue Rose Stage Collective

Outstanding Actor in a Drama

Jim Butz, Henry V, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

John Contini, Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

John Flack, The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

Bobby Miller, The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Forget Me Not, Upstream Theater

Outstanding Director of a Drama

Fred Abrahamse, Stairs to the Roof, Sudden View Productions

Gary Wayne Barker, The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Bruce Longworth, Henry V, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Wayne Loui, Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

Marty Stanberry, The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

Outstanding Production of a Drama

Death of a Salesman, Insight Theatre Company

The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Eat Your Heart Out, R-S Theatrics

The Normal Heart, HotCity Theatre

The Price, New Jewish Theatre

 Outstanding Set Design in a Play

Jim Burwinkel, The Diary of Anne Frank, New Jewish Theatre

Michael Ganio, Other Desert Cities, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Rob Lippert, And Then There Were None, Stray Dog Theatre

Marcel Meyer, Stairs to the Roof, Sudden View Productions

Mark WIlson, The Price, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design in a Play

Eileen Engel, And Then There Were None, Stray Dog Theatre

Jennifer “JC” Krajicek, The Liar, St. Louis Shakespeare

Marcel Meyer, Stairs to the Roof, Sudden View Productions

Michele Friedman Siler, Blithe Spirit, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Susan Branch Towne, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play

Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Patrick Huber, Stairs to the Roof, Sudden View Productions

John Lasiter, The Other Place, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Bess Moynihan, Mary Shelley Monster Show, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

John Wylie, Henry V, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Sound Design in a Play

Justin Been, And Then There Were None, Stray Dog Theatre

Barry G. Funderburg, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Fitz Patton, The Other Place, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Rusty Wandall, Henry V, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Rusty Wandall, Opus, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Set Design in a Musical

Rob Lippert, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Robert Mark Morgan, Seussical, The Muny

Michael Schweikardt, The Addams Family, The Muny

James Wolk, Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

James Wolk, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical

Amy Clark, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Leon Dobkowski, Seussical, The Muny

Andrea Lauer, The Addams Family, The Muny

Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical

Rob Denton, Seussical, The Muny

Tyler Duenow, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Rob Lippert, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Matthew McCarthy, Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

Matthew McCarthy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Musical Director

Jeffrey Richard Carter, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Valerie Gebert, Seussical, The Muny

James Moore, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Chris Petersen, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Justin Smolik, Rent, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Choreographer

Stephen Bourneuf, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Denis Jones, Grease, The Muny

Gary John LaRosa, Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

Ralph Perkins, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Zachary Stefaniak, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical

Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

Hands on a Hardbody, New Line Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Seussical, The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical

Rachel Hanks, First Lady Suite, R-S Theatrics

Sara Kapner, The Addams Family, The Muny

Teressa Kindle, Grease, The Muny

Mamie Parris, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Sarah Porter, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical

Patrick Kelly, Assassins, November Theater Company

Rob McClure, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Joseph Medeiros, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Whit Reichert, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Luke Steingruby, Rent, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Actress in a Musical

Lavonne Byers, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Kari Ely, Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

Abigail Isom, Seussical, The Muny

Beth Leavel, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Larissa White, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Outstanding Actor in a Musical

Rob McClure, The Addams Family, The Muny

Ben Nordstrom, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Matt Pentecost, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Bruce Sabath, Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis

John Tartaglia, Seussical, The Muny

Outstanding Director of a Musical

Justin Been, Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Hamilton, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, Hands on a Hardbody, New Line Theatre

Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Rob Ruggiero, Hello, Dolly!, The Muny

Outstanding Production of a Musical

Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre

Cabaret, Stray Dog Theatre

Hands on a Hardbody, New Line Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Stages St. Louis

Seussical, The Muny

Outstanding New Play

Jennifer Blackmer, Human Terrain, Mustard Seed Theatre

Rebecca Gilman, Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nick Otten, Mary Shelley Monster Show, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Stephen Peirick, Four Sugars, Stray Dog Theatre

Lia Romeo, Reality, HotCity Theatre

Special Awards

Donna Northcott, St. Louis Shakespeare

Agnes Wilcox, Prison Performing Arts

 

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Safe House
by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Melissa Maxwell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 23, 2015

Will Cobbs, Kelly Taffe, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Michael Sean McGuinness Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Will Cobbs, Kelly Taffe, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Michael Sean McGuinness
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

History is being brought to life with vibrancy and much emotion and meaning in the Rep Studio’s current production of Safe House. Recounting injustices, hardships, and racial tensions in 1840’s Kentucky, this impeccably staged and cast production highlights issues that are historical but still relevant today. It’s an emotional, thoughtful and challenging exploration of the hopes and dreams of one family and of the very concept of freedom itself.

The story follows the Pedigrew family, free people of color living in a small Kentucky town 20 years before the Civil War.  While they live in a slave state, the Pedigrews have been free born for generations, and they have the certificates to prove it, which they must carry with them at all times.  The central figures are two very different brothers–Addison (Daniel Morgan Shelley), an itinerant cobbler who dreams of having his own shoe shop; and Frank (Will Cobbs), who bristles against his brother’s conciliatory ways and the restrictions imposed upon their family as a result of helping runaway slaves escape two years earlier.  As a punishment, the brothers and their Aunt Dorcas (Kelly Taffe) are forced to follow a curfew, stay out of the local creek (in which Frank likes to swim), and keep all the doors of their cabin open at all times.  These regulations are enforced by local deputy Bracken (Michael Sean McGuinness), a white man who grew up with Dorcas and the brothers’ parents, and seems conflicted as to where his loyalties lie. The upwardly mobile Addison, who has dreams of making shoes for the governor and gaining security for his family as a result of working for wealthy white customers, will stop at nothing to achieve his dream, while Dorcas and Frank still secretly desire to keep helping the escaped slaves get out of Kentrucky and, eventually, out of the country to settle in Liberia.  Addison also has designs on marrying his neighbor Clarissa (Raina Houston), apparently whether she likes it or not, since she actually prefers Frank.  With the two year period of punishment almost over, Addison relishes his plans for the shoe shop and prepares to visit the sheriff and ask for restoration of the family’s privileges, while a new runaway slave, Roxie (Cassia Thompson) arrives and presents the family with the dilemma of whether or not to help her or turn her in and stay in the good graces of the sheriff.

There are many more complications in the story throughout the rest of the play, with the major themes being freedom and loyalty.  Even though the family is technically free born, their rights are restricted in that they need to keep their papers with them and they are basically at the mercy of the sheriff.  For Addison, the answer to this problem is to give the authorities what they want, stay out of trouble and build his business. For Frank, freedom means not having to be told what to do. Dorcas holds to the ideals of freedom detailed in the letters from her relatives who’ve settled in Liberia, which becomes the symbol for her of a place of ultimate freedom. There’s also Clarissa, whose sense of freedom is restricted by expectations of when and who she will marry; and Roxie, who is fiercely determined to escape any and all forms of bondage. Addison’s dilemma, which forces him to choose between his own dreams and those of his brother, forms the central conflict of the play, which asks the question of whether a person is really free if his “freedom” depends on staying in the good graces of those in power. It also poses the dilemma of exactly how high a price a person would be willing to pay to attain their own personal goals, and asks whether or not that price is worth paying.

The play takes these concepts and brings them to life with richly drawn characters and strong performances. It’s a top-notch cast all around, with a great deal of emotion, energy and ensemble chemistry. As Addison, Shelley is full of ambition and bravado, with a single-minded focus on his goals. He brings depth and dimension to a somewhat difficult character. As the restless, increasingly determined Frank, Cobbs is dynamic and sympathetic.  His scenes with Shelley are full of intense conflict and complex emotion. As Dorcas, Taffe is a picture of wearied strength, wisdom, and hope against hope.  There are also strong performances from McGuinness as the initially easygoing but inwardly tormented Bracken, Houston as the conflicted Clarissa, and Thompson as the confrontational, fiercely determined Roxie. There are no weak links here, and every cast member contributes to the overall growing emotion and drama of the production as the intensity and suspense builds toward the story’s conclusion.

The set by Margery and Peter Spack effectively recreates an 1800’s wooden cabin, with a subdued color scheme and period details such as a cast-iron stove and a cluttered, barrel-filled shed. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes are meticulously authentic, setting the tone of the 1840’s in clear detail. The period-styled music by Scott O’Brien also contributes to the overall 1800’s Southern setting.

This is a show about freedom and what it means, and the lengths people will go to achieve it.  It’s also a reminder of this country’s less-than-savory past and a reminder that many of these issues are still being dealt with today.  With a dynamic cast and a sense of immediacy that brings this historical tale to the present with strong impact, Safe House is a production not to be missed.

Will Cobbs, Daniel Morgan Shelley Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Will Cobbs, Daniel Morgan Shelley
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

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Imagining Madoff
by Deb Margolin
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
New Jewish Theatre
January 22, 2015

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

When a person commits a high-profile crime, one of the most common questions asked is, why?  Bernard Madoff, probably the most famous fraudster in recent memory, is the subject of that question in Deb Margolin’s thoughtful three-character drama Imagining Madoff, currently being presented at New Jewish Theatre.  While the answer isn’t easy to discern, Margolin’s exploration of the concepts of morality, greed, and human nature provides an opportunity for thought, reflection, and extremely strong performances, including those of two of St. Louis’s most prominent actors.

This play doesn’t give easy answers.  In fact, it’s more of an exploration of Madoff’s motives than an accurate recounting of his story, and the “moral” seems to be along the lines of the familiar tale of “The Scorpion and the Frog”. Exploring the relationship between Madoff (Bobby Miller) with fictional poet, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin (Jerry Vogel), the play examines Jewish tradition and belief, as well as the concepts of trust and faith. Meanwhile, a parallel story tells of Madoff’s trial, as his longtime secretary ((Julie Layton) recounts the history of his crimes from her perspective.  It’s a long play for there only being one act, and the action drags from time to time, especially in the beginning, but there are some truly fascinating concepts explored as Margolin explores what makes Madoff tick.

This is something of a stylized show in terms of setting, with an excellent, extremely detailed set by Kyra Bishop. It features areas representing the courtroom, Galkin’s study and Madoff’s jail cell, and the action shifts between these three locations as Madoff wanders the stage sharing his own reflections on life, people, faith and philosphy, and money. The ideally suited costumes by Michele Friedman Siler add to the authentic feel of the play. The technical aspects of this show are top-notch as is usual for New Jewish Theatre, with the exception of some distracting and occasionally irrelevant projections that are shown during various moments. For the most part, these do little more than add a “gimmick” aspect to the show that it doesn’t need.

As is expected from exceptional talents like Vogel and Miller, the acting is the strongest aspect of this production. As Madoff, Miller is at turns witty, caustic, self-confident and self-doubting, portraying a mixture of disbelief and wonder during his encounter with the virtuous Galkin. Vogel, for his part, is the picture of erudite nobility as the devout, caring and possibly too-trusting Galkin.  It’s a multi-dimensional performance with a great deal of gravity, making the prospect of Madoff’s betrayal seem all the more monstrous in comparison. Layton is also impressive as the secretary who tries to maintain her sense of professionalism in the midst of her growing sense of anger and betrayal as she recounts her working relationship with Madoff.

Imagining Madoff is a little hard to follow at times, although at its best moments, it’s riveting. It’s a compelling exploration of history, ethics, honor, and a pathological scammer’s need to scam no matter who is hurt in the process, including himself.  Featuring some of the finest talent St. Louis theatre has to offer, New Jewish Theatre has presented an intriguing look at an infamous figure in recent history. It’s a production that’s sure to provoke much thought and discussion.

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane
Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Fox Theatre
January 20, 2015

Paige Faure, Andy Jones Photo: Carol Rossgg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure, Andy Jones
Photo by Carol Rossgg
Cinderella National Tour

The current touring production at the Fox Theatre is billed as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, although this is a version Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves never saw. Based on the Broadway production with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, this touring show is a fairly major expansion of the show that was televised three times in 1957, 1965, and (slightly revised) in 1996, starring Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy respectively. With new characters and a new twist that makes this more than just the story of a girl who wants to go to a ball and meet a prince, it’s an intriguing production with some stunning special effects and sumptuous production values that are really the main attraction here.  It’s a show designed to entertain, and that it does, even despite a somewhat convoluted script and good but somewhat uneven cast.

The story is the familiar one with a French setting, with many of the characters having French names, and Beane’s new plot twists. Here, Cinderella (Paige Faure) is still a young women who is treated essentially as a servant by her haughty stepmother, Madame (Beth Glover). She dreams of more than just marrying a handsome prince, though, and only one of her stepsisters, the self-centered, brassy Charlotte (Aymee Garcia) is mean to her. The other stepsister, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) is sweet but timid, and secretly in love with would-be revolutionary Jean-Michel (David Andino), who wants to talk to the Prince about how he runs the kingdom, and particularly the oppression of the poor.  The problem is that Prince Christopher Rupert, etc., known as Topher (Andy Jones) is fairly clueless about what has been going on in his kingdom, which has been run by his shady adviser Sebastian (Blake Hammond) while the prince has been away at university.  Upon his return, Topher is looking for his purpose in the world and preparing for his coronation. To keep him from asking too many questions, Sebastian suggests he get married, and host a ball so he can meet eligible women and choose one to be his queen. Meanwhile, the kind but mistreated Cinderella sticks up for the mistreated local eccentric, Marie (Kecia Lewis), not realizing that Marie is the fairy godmother who will be able to help Cinderella get to the ball.  All of these plots intertwine and play out slightly differently than the traditional Cinderella story, with the added political angle and an a somewhat contrived ending.

All the well-known songs are here, like “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and “Impossible”, with some additional songs added to support the new script. It’s an admirable attempt to expand the Cinderella story, although there seem to be too many subplots and too neat of a resolution at the end.  The performances are hit-or-miss, as well, but mostly hits.  The strongest impression is made by Faure as the kind but tenacious Cinderella, with her strong stage presence and clear, expressive voice.  She’s paired with the likable Jones as Prince Topher, who has a personable manner and good chemistry with Faure, but lacks a little in stage presence and  noticeably struggles on the higher notes in his songs.  Both stepsisters are standouts as well, with Davidson demonstrating shy sweetness with just the right amount of boldness, working well especially in her scenes with Faure and with Andino’s amiably earnest Jean-Michel. Garcia, for her part, gets a scene-stealing moment with her hilarious song “Stepsister’s Lament” early in Act 2.  There’s also strong work from Antoine L. Smith as royal herald Lord Pinkleton, and Lewis as the eccentric fairy godmother, Marie.   As Sebastian, Hammond is fine although the character is mostly one-dimensional. The weakest link here is Glover as Madame, who underplays the role to the point where most of the character’s best comic moments fall flat.  The leading performers are supported ably by a strong ensemble, in good voice and with a great deal of energy in the dance numbers, executing Josh Rhode’s inventive choreography especially at the ball.

The look and production values of this production are its real strengths.  Anna Louizos’s set takes us into a fairy tale world with an abundance of magic and vibrant color. William Ivey Long’s costumes add to the magical atmosphere as well, in addition to some truly astounding special effects involving characters’ wardrobe transformations, The sometimes whimsical, sometimes romantic mood is set well by Kenneth Posner’s striking lighting, as well. This is a very tech-heavy show, and all the elements blend together seamlessly, making for an enchantingly stylish look and atmosphere.

Cinderella is a much-beloved story that’s been told in many forms over the years, and this latest one has much to recommend it, even though it does have its issues.  What really works more than anything else, though, is its style and spectacle.  Magic is in abundance, and the music is marvelous.  It’s a story that has much appeal for all ages, even with its limitations, it’s an entertaining tale of magic, romance and wonder.

Paige Faure (center) and cast Photo by Carol Rosegg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure (center) and cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Cinderella National Tour

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
by Todd Kreidler
Based on the screenplay by William Rose
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 9, 2015

Richard Prioleau, Shannon Marie Sullivan Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Richard Prioleau, Shannon Marie Sullivan
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 2015 theatre season in St. Louis coincidentally started on my birthday this year, which is wonderful because I can’t think of a more appropriate present.  I’ve been continually impressed with the quality and variety of live theatre in St. Louis, with Rep at the forefront of that scene. The company’s latest production is the stage adaptation of the well-known 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which was a much talked-about film in 1967 that deals with issues that are still relevant today, albeit the situations have changed somewhat.  Although it does appear dated at times, this is still a vibrant production with a very strong cast and a strong sense of time and place.

The time is 1967 and the place is a large, luxuriously appointed San Francisco home.  Here, art dealer Christina Drayton (Margaret Daly) prepares for an important meeting with a client, while her semi-retired newspaper editor husband Matt (Anderson Matthews) takes phone calls from the paper and prepares for an afternoon on the golf course.  While both express concern about the whereabouts of their daughter Joanna, sometimes called “Joey” (Shannon Marie Sullivan), neither is prepared for when she turns up suddenly with a big surprise.  That surprise is her new fiance, Dr. John Prentice, Jr. (Richard Prioleau).  Not only is the engagement a surprise, but the Draytons, who are white, are also not prepared for the fact that their daughter’s intended is a black man.  The Draytons are then forced to confront their own prejudices as they find the reality harder to deal with than their liberal values would have suggested.  There’s also another surprise when Joanna invites John’s parents (Leo Finnie and Perri Gaffney) to dinner without consulting John, who hasn’t informed them that his fiancee is white. The drama here is not simply in the issues, but in the personal interactions and sometimes surprising reactions of the various characters–also including the Draytons’ maid and friend Tillie (Inga Ballard), Christina’s bigoted and haughty assistant Hilary (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), and affable priest Monsignor Ryan (Joneal Joplin), who calls Matt out on his increasingly obvious hypocrasy.

This is one of those plays that would be very easy to write an academic essay about, considering the way the issues are dealt with and how the adaptation is dealt with and how it plays to an audience. This is a theatre review, so I’ll spare too much academic detail, although it’s interesting to watch this show–originally written and still set in the late 1960’s–through a modern lens.  There are character treatments to take issue with, as well as the obvious character-as-plot-device examples of Hilary and (to a lesser degree) Monsignor Ryan.  There was also an odd degree of audience reaction on opening night, in terms of disproportionate and applause in certain moments.  The issues that the play raises are still extremely relevant today, but they are sometimes treated in a manner that comes across as obviously of its era, and the gender stereotypes (such as the men being driven by anger and reason, and the women by emotion and empathy) can be jarring.

The real highlight of this production is its performances.  In a story that hinges on a deeply expressed love between the young couple, the chemistry is crucial, and Prioleau and Sullivan are thoroughly convincing and charming in their scenes together.  Prioleau’s performance (when playing opposite everyone but Sullivan) comes across as a bit stilted at first, although that may be an acting choice since his character is nervous and trying to impress his girlfriend’s parents.  His later scenes, especially after his parents arrive, are much more convincing and powerful. Matthews and Daly, in roles originated by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are excellent in that they find their own characterizations and don’t try to copy their famous predecessors.  Matthews is especially strong as the conflicted Matt, portraying a convincing journey toward understanding.  Ballard, as Tillie is another standout, displaying a strong sense of caring and presence, and the always excellent Joplin makes a memorable impession as Monsignor Ryan.  There are also fine performances from Finnie and Gaffney as John’s bewildered parents, and by Townsend as the villainous Hilary.  Some of the strongest moments come toward the end of the play,when most of the characters are on stage together, reacting to one another with convincing energy and conviction.

The late ’60s atmosphere is also well effected by Kevin Depinet’s sumptuously detailed set, and Myra Colley-Lee’s colorful costumes.  The staging choices by directer Seth Gordon also add to the drama, using the large set to full effect.  It’s a convincing adaptation of a classic but somewhat simplistic film,  opening up the drama and making it a little more immediate and relatable to modern audiences.  It’s sure to provoke thought and conversation about how racial tensions were dealt with in the past compared to today, and of how far we still have to go as a society. It’s an intriguing start to the 2015 theatre season in St. Louis.

Anderson Matthews (center) and cast Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Anderson Matthews (center) and cast
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

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