Archive for March, 2015

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 20, 2015

Elizabeth Hess, John Feltch, Suzanne Grodner Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of  St. Louis

Elizabeth Hess, John Feltch, Suzanne Grodner
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis


The Rep is on a roll. Having just opened the marvelously hilarious Buyer & Cellar in their Studio space, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has now opened another brilliant production on their main stage. The Tony-winning comedy by Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike closes out the Rep’s 2014-2015 season with style, substance, humor and lots of heart.  It’s a dream of a production that brings together an intelligent, witty and hilarious play along with marvelous production values and a glorious cast. If I sound like I’m gushing, that’s because I am. This show truly is that good.

A modern story with echoes and elements of Chekhov, the play starts out by introducing us to Vanya (John Feltch) and his sister Sonia (Suzanne Grodner), whose literary and theatre loving parents have named them and their movie star sister Masha (Elizabeth Hess) after characters from Chekhov’s plays.  Sonia, who is adopted, has always felt somewhat out of place and unwanted, but although she and Vanya have something of a bickering relationship, it soon becomes obvious that they have a bond, as well. Having spent years caring for their ailing parents who are now deceased, while Masha was off making movies and paying the bills, the middle-aged siblings are left wondering if life has left them behind. When Masha comes home with little notice bringing her young, vain boyfriend Spike (Jefferson McDonald) along, Vanya and Sonia begin to worry even more about their security. A costume party, a young neighbor and aspiring actress named Nina (Gracyn Mix) and the possibly psychic, aptly named housekeeper Cassandra (Shinnerie Jackson) add to the complications as the three siblings are eventually forced to make decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I went to see this play, but it wasn’t this. In a day when dark and cynical stories are common, I suppose that was what I was expecting. This show is possibly the reverse of “dark and cynical”, in that that’s essentially where it starts, but that’s not where it ends up.  It’s an exploration of various timely themes such as age vs. youth, substance vs. style, and the importance of family. It also contains several allusions to Chekhov’s works, although the audience need not be familiar with those works to enjoy this play. The characters are well-drawn and complex, with the possible exception of Spike, whose superficiality is actually a major plot point. Other characters, such as the seemingly naive Nina and self-centered Masha, prove to me more complex than they first appear. There’s also Cassandra, who displays some depth of character after first appearing as something of a cliched wanna-be pyschic. Vanya and Sonia are at the heart of the story, and the play takes them on a trip of self-discovery that is at turns humorous and heartwarming.  This is one of those plays that has so many levels of connection, from the literary references to pop culture, and from generational conflicts to sibling rivalry and the universal longing to be known and understood. All that said, though, this is also a hilarious play, finding its laughs in situations and in Durang’s witty dialogue.

The six-member cast here is nothing short of wonderful, across the board.  This is highly demanding show both physically and emotionally, and ensemble interaction and chemistry is crucial. That chemistry and the energy that the cast members create and share are among the real highlights of this production. Leading the way are Feltch as the sensitive but initially guarded Vanya, who portrays his character’s loneliness, concern and artistic fervor with charm and sincerity. His extended, explosive monologue about the “good old days” in Act 2 is unforgettable. Matching him moment for moment is the delightful Grodner as Sonia, another lonely soul who just wants a chance to express herself and perhaps get a small chance to actually live a life of her own for a change. Her growth as a character and breakout moment as she emerges in a glittery gown for a pivotal costume party are highlights, as is her alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming telephone monologue in Act 2.  Hess is also excellent as Masha, so used to being the “belle of the ball”, who faces something of a rude awakening and handles it in a surprisingly sympathetic way.  There are also strong performances from Jackson as the confrontational Cassandra, Mix as the initially naive but surprisingly complex and compassionate Nina, and by McDonald as the vain, energetic exhibitionist Spike.

The technical aspects of this play work together to create a colorful, vibrant world for these characters to spend their energy and emotion. With richly detailed, colorful costumes including whimsical Snow White and dwarf outfits, a glittery ball gown for Sonia, and Nina’s modernized hippie-ish look, costume designer Anne Kennedy has done a wonderful job. Adding to the atmosphere as well are the excellent lighting by James Sale, sound by Rusty Wandall, and meticulously appointed, atmospheric set designed by Paul Shortt.  The setting of a semi-secluded lake house is well-realized and serves as an ideal backdrop for the dynamic events of the play.

This is a play that I had known only a little about before I saw it, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly mult-layered character study as well as an outrageous and still heartwarming comedy. This is, hands down, the best production I have ever seen at the Rep, and that’s saying something considering their reputation. It’s a funny, warm, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining show, and it really should not be missed.  Its a weird, whimsical, wonderful treat.

John Feltch, Gracyn Mix Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

John Feltch, Gracyn Mix
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis




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Buyer & Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Wendy Dann
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 18, 2015

Jeremy Webb Photo by Jerry Naunheim, jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeremy Webb
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Apparently, Barbra Streisand’s basement isn’t just a basement. It’s a shopping mall. She even wrote a whole book about it, called My Passion For Design. That much is true. The rest of the story, as presented in playwright Jonathan Tolins’s one-man play Buyer & Cellar, is a hilarious, frantic fantasy.  Currently being presented at the Rep’s Studio, this unforgettable production is a brilliant showcase for its star, actor Jeremy Webb. It’s also surprisingly successful at being both a celebration and a critique of Streisand herself, with no dull moments in its roughly 90 minute running time.

After a short, comical disclaimer in which Webb, as himself, explains that the story we are about to see is fictional and he’s not exactly going to be doing a Streisand impression, the story gets going, and what a story it is! It tells the tale of Alex More, an out of work actor who has just been fired from Disneyland after a somewhat questionable incident in Toon Town. While looking for a new gig, he’s told of an unusual job at a palatial estate in Malibu, which he eventually finds out is owned by Barbra Streisand. The job is to serve as the sole employee of her elaborate basement mall, maintaining the merchandise and being there to cater to its sole customer, Streisand herself, whenever she deigns to make an appearance. Eventually, of course, she does, and an unlikely relationship develops between the young, initially somewhat clueless actor and the vain but charming Streisand. Through the course of the story, Webb plays a few other characters as well, including Streisand’s husband James Brolin, her somewhat haughty assistant Sharon–who is the one who hires Alex–and Alex’s movie buff boyfriend Barry, who knows a lot more about Streisand than Alex does at first, but then grows jealous of the gradually increasing bond between Alex and the superstar.

The story explores a lot of issues, from the nature of celebrity to Streisand’s status as a gay cultural icon, to celebrity hero-worship and indulgence, to the difference between authenticity and artificiality. It’s all done in a seemingly free-flowing way that ultimately follows a fairly well-structured arc. Set on a fairly neutral but vaguely 60’s-influenced backdrop designed by Steve Teneyck, who also designed the striking lighting, the centerpiece of this production is the dynamic performance of its sole actor. Webb is full of energy as he jumps, hops, skips, runs and near-flies from role to role. His Alex is a charismatic bundle of energy and charm, and he accomplishes the amazing feat of building a realistic relationship twice over, as represented in his portrayals of Streisand and of Alex’s boyfriend Barry.  Webb’s Streisand is, as he had announced, not an imitation but rather a re-imagining that brings to mind Martin Short more than Babs herself. It works surprisingly well, because the audience is able to get past the distraction of judging the authenticity of an impersonation, instead being enabled to actually view Streisand as a character in the story rather than merely an impression.  With Barry, Webb portrays a cynical fan who also clearly loves Alex, and he manages to achieve the strange feat of actually displaying romantic chemistry between two characters both played by himself. Webb is a marvel of controlled hyperactivity and surprising sympathy in the same performance. It’s a wonder to behold, as well as uproariously funny.

This is one of the most bizarre plays I’ve seen, and it’s a joy.  I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I walked into the Rep Studio the evening I saw this, and what I got was a pure treat.  It’s a performance that is full of wit, style and substance, and it’s never, ever boring.  Even if, like Alex at first, you don’t know a whole lot about Barbra Streisand, this is worth seeing. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll probably laugh even more.  It’s a must-see, and must-laugh, production.

Jeremy Webb Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeremy Webb
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Paul Robeson
by Phillip Hayes Dean
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 15, 2015

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance Man. A star athlete, a scholar, a lawyer, an activist, he was probably most well-known as a world-class singer and actor in stage and films.  His life and career spanned two-thirds of the 20th century, so perhaps it’s fitting that a play about him should have a three hour running time.  Throughout those three hours, only two men are on stage in the Black Rep’s latest production, and they hold the attention of the audience well. A vivid and thorough depiction of a famous and sometimes controversial figure, Paul Robeson especially serves well as a showcase for its headlining actor.

The play is essentially a one-man show with a piano player. While Charles Creath, as Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown, is on stage for the whole show, and does at one point late in the play come out from behind the piano to appear as another character in the drama, most of the attention in this show is focused on Robeson himself, played with a great deal of charisma and boundless energy by Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. The story follows Robeson from his early days growing up in New Jersey to his education at Rutgers and his All-American football career, then to law school and Harlem in the 1920s, where he was discovered as a singer and actor. From there, Robeson’s career took him across the country touring, and eventually overseas, where he starred in the London premiere of Show Boat. The show goes on to depict Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, his travels to the Soviet Union and his general opposition to fascism, and his subsequent interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It’s all staged as a kind of recital in which Robeson tells his stories while Brown plays the piano, and Robeson occasionally sings in his deep, rich voice, from classic traditional songs to iconic theatrical standards like “Ol’ Man River”.

Without much of a set (it’s a piano and a few chairs), the whole show here is mostly McNichols’ dynamic performance, with able support by Creath as Brown and, briefly, as the HUAC questioner. The show is about Robeson, though, and it’s a very demanding role to which McNichols more than does justice. He manages to hold the stage for the show’s entire running time while maintaining his vitality and strong stage presence throughout. With a rich, deep,resonating voice, he also ably delivers the  musical selections in the production, conveying the sense of Robeson’s remarkable talent.  McNichol’s also ably portrays Robeson’s growth of maturity and worldliness as he grows up, goes to college, graduates, becomes involved in show business and politics, and sees more and more of the world. Important figures in his life, such as his father, brothers and wife, are represented as well in McNichols’s vividly recounted stories. It’s a very strong, tour-de-force type of performance.

Although this is a very long play, it’s a fascinating portrayal of an important figure in recent history–as an artist, and activist, and a complex and intriguing man. Robeson is perhaps not as well-known now as he used to be, which is a shame because he’s well worth remembering. Anchored by McNichols’s memorable and engaging performance, this play is a fitting tribute to this multi-talented and memorable cultural icon.

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

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Sight Unseen
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Bobby Miller
New Jewish Theatre
March 12, 2015

Aaron Orion Baker, Emily Baker Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Aaron Orion Baker, Emily Baker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s current production may be called Sight Unseen, but it would be a shame to miss this show. An intense, highly personal look at relationships between people, as well as between artists and their art, the show boasts a top-notch cast and excellent production values. It’s a show that equally engages the emotions and the mind, and New Jewish theatre has presented it in a supremely excellent way.

The story is told in non-linear fashion, showing key moments in the lives of painter Jonathan Waxman (Aaron Orion Baker) and his ex-lover, Patricia (Emily Baker).  As the play opens, the now-famous Jonathan has come to visit Patricia and her English husband, Nick (David Wassilak) at their farmhouse in Norfolk while Jonathan is preparing to open a show at a museum in London.  The show then jumps between the farm house just before and just after the opening scene, and also a few days later at the museum, where Jonathan is being interviewed by young German reporter Grete (Em Piro) concerning the subject matter and content of his art.  There are also two earlier flashbacks, to a pivotal moment in Jonathan’s relationship with Patricia 13 years earlier, and also to a day two years before that, shortly after they met, as Jonathan works on a painting that Patricia posed for.  Through the course of the play, issues are explored such as Jonathan’s identity as an artist, and as a Jewish American, and also his relationship not just with Patricia and his unseen wife and deceased parents, but also with fame and the expectations of his benefactors.  Patricia has her own problems to deal with as well, and Nick has to sit by and watch his wife still struggle with residual feelings for her former lover, as well as the constant reminder of those feelings in the form of the painting Jonathan painted of her when they were still students.

The structure of this play, while it jumps around in time and place, makes a lot of sense in the context of the drama, and the clever set by Dunsi Dai makes use of the stage to the utmost dramatic effect. The main performance area is the farmhouse setup, ideally rustic and warm, and when the museum setting is needed, more modern, artsy-type furniture is brought in.  There’s also another performance space in the corner of the space opposite the main stage, which serves as Jonathan’s bedroom in one of the flashback sequences. The costumes, designed by Michele Friedman Siler, are equally detailed and evocative, from Grete’s funky Euro-sophisticate look to Nick’s more laid-back attire, and Jonathan’s increasingly rich wardrobe as the years pass. The technical elements of this production work together with the excellent staging and acting to create a vivid world that the characters inhabit and in which issues of relationship and identity are played out and explored.

The four person cast is in excellent form.   Aaron Orion Baker and Emily Baker, who are married in real life, display very strong chemistry as Jonathan and Patricia. The awkwardness and latent animosity is clear (especially on her part), but so is an obvious undercurrent of unfinished, wistful affection.  Mr. Baker plays Jonathan as jaded and self-absorbed in the “present day” scenes, while maintaining the sense that he was once a more idealistic and dedicated young artist, which we are shown in the earliest flashbacks. Mrs. Baker, as Patricia, shows and convincing outward display of inner conflict as she’s torn between her past and her present, as well as between the man she still wants and the man who is probably much better for her.  Wassilak is engagingly sympathetic as the initially reserved but devoted Nick, providing a contrast to the more polished Jonathan. Piro rounds out the cast with a memorable performance as the persistent German reporter who challenges Jonathan with some very difficult questions.

Although I had never heard of this play before, I’m impressed by its intensity and drama.  This is a production that manages to explore issues with depth and clarity while maintain a very realistic and human sense of drama.  It’s one of the more memorable productions I’ve seen this year. It’s an incisive portrayal of strained relationships and one man’s relationship with his art and with fame, and how this affects everyone else around him. Sight Unseen is truly a must-see.

Emily Baker, David Wassilak Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Emily Baker, David Wassilak
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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Jerry Springer the Opera
Music by Richard Thomas, Book and Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2015

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Jerry Springer Show and its infamous host are well known for shocking subject matter, outrageous guests, and sensationalist topics to turn the talk show format into a kind of voyeuristic entertainment.  New Line’s latest production, Jerry Springer the Opera, is in the same vein. It seems to want to be about something, although in the end it comes across much like its subject–a celebration of sensationalism that is entertaining at times, but has little sense of direction. Still, it’s got some intriguing ideas, and New Line’s cast has done about as well with the material as I could imagine.

This show is kind of frustrating, because it has quite an interesting concept, although it doesn’t seem to really want to go anywhere meaningful with it. The first act is basically a musicalized re-creation of a typical Springer show, with some slightly extreme representations of Springers’ usual types of guests.  There’s an enthusiastic audience, a warm-up man (Matt Pentecost) with a mind of his own, and Springer himself (Keith Thompson), who is the only character who never sings.  He’s a talk-show host, and his job is to talk, I suppose. His guests for this particular program include Dwight (Zachary Allen Farmer), who is cheating on his fiancee Peaches (Taylor Pietz) with both her best friend Zandra (Lindsey Jones) and drag queen Tremont (Luke Steingruby). There’s also Montel (Marshall Jennings), whose secret he’s kept from his own fiancee Andrea (Christina Rios) is that he wants to be a grown-up baby and wear diapers. He’s also got a paramour of his own, the equally child-like and crass Baby Jane (also Pietz).  A third story involves would-be pole dancer Shawntel (Anna Skidis) and her controlling boyfriend Chucky (Ryan Foizey).  The usual amount of shocking revelations, audience cheering and jeering, and violence that has to be broken up by security man Steve (Matt Hill) ensues, with Jerry increasingly at odds with the warm-up guy, who seems to want to encourage the audience’s rowdiness. That’s only Act One. The second and third acts inject a supernatural, fantastical element, as Jerry descends into hell and has to host a version of his show at the behest of Satan himself (also Pentecost), involving confrontations with Adam and Eve (Foizey and Skidis), Jesus (Jennings), Mary (Jones) and eventually God (Farmer).

It’s an ambitious concept, and there are some clever conceits. The fact that everyone but Springer is singing full-out operatic arias is intriguing, as is the fact that they’re all playing this as seriously as possible. The songs range from mildly shocking to to unapologetically vulgar.  The style ranges from traditional opera to the soulful “It Ain’t Easy Being Me”, sung by God. The fact that one of the catchiest tunes is called “Mama Gimme Smack On the Asshole” is a testimony to how outrageous this show is trying to be. I say “trying” because I don’t think it succeeds in being much more than an exercise in shock value.  The whole “Springer in hell” sequence has a lot of promise as a concept, but it seems like a lot of the ideas were thrown in more for cheap humor than for any sort of substance.  I found myself wishing the show had pursued its subject further rather than just bringing up a concept and then just racing by to the next one for a joke.  It’s a show full of almost-interesting ideas, and I have no problem with raunchy humor if there’s substance to it. This show, however, seems to be all about being raunchy while only bringing a semblance of substance. It’s got a very interesting sense of style, though, and I’m sure for Springer fans (and I’m admittedly not one), it might have more appeal.

Still, even though the show itself disappoints me, the production team at New Line has put in an admirable effort.  The cast is strong, and the usually impressive New Line singing isn’t quite as operatic as one might expect, but the energy is there and there are quite a few memorable performances. Thompson is in good form as the somewhat incredulous Springer, who just wants to do his show without being bothered. Pentecost, as the warm-up man and a particularly determined Satan, is a real stand-out, with a strong voice and great deal of oily, smarmy energy. Pietz makes a memorable impression, especially as the naughty, childlike Baby Jane, and Farmer gets to show off his powerful vocals doubling as the duplicitous Dwight and a khaki-clad, ponytailed God.  There are also excellent performances from Jennings as Montel and Jesus, Steingruby as the brash Tremont, Rios as the somewhat mousy Andrea, and Skidis as the determined Shawntel and as Eve.  There’s also a solid performance Hill as the ever-faithful security man, Steve.  Adding to the main cast is an enthusiastic ensemble that brings energy to various roles, including Springer’s studio audience.

The technical arena is where this show achieves its most obvious success. With a fairly basic set by Rob Lippert that recreates the setup of Springer’s talk show, Lippert’s lighting adds dramatic effect especially after the whole scene descends into hell.  The costumes, by Sarah Porter, range from the gloriously gruesome (some creepy, ghoulish nurses) to the stylishly suave (Pentecost’s devilish garb), to the outrageously colorful range of outfits worn by the equally outrageously colorful guests.  All of these elements blend to creat a fantastical, occasionally macabre atmosphere that contributes an air of stylistic grandiosity to the production that I wish was equaled by the script.

Overall, I would say this is a show that tries for more than it accomplishes, although I have difficulty imagining a more enthusiastic production than this one. The strong cast and technical aspects make this show worth seeing, as long as you know what to expect. It’s a show that pushes the envelope of crass subject matter about as far as it can be pushed, although oddly it doesn’t seem to pursue its more serious ambitions far enough. It’s an admirable effort from New Line, and although it’s not for all audiences,  if The Jerry Springer Show is your cup of tea, this show probably will be, too.

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Thetre

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Thetre

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