Archive for August, 2015

Wild Oats
by James McLure
Directed by Shaun Sheley
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 22, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

There’s a lot more Shakespeare in Wild Oats than you may initially think. While not written by the Bard himself, the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare relies a great deal on quotes from his work. An uproarious, silly Wild West comic melodrama, this is a show that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s kind of the point.

There’s a lot of story here. Updated and adapted from John O’Keeffe’s 18th Century comedy, Wild Oats takes the action out West, with a large cast, larger-than-life characters and mile-a-minute laughs.  It’s a story of mistaken identity, unexpected love, long-lost relatives, and of course the cartoonish villains.  The wildly convoluted story is somewhat difficult to describe without spoiling the fun. The main characters include the blustering Colonel Thunder (John Foughty), whose son Harry (Michael Pierce) has gone back East, failed out of West Point and become an actor and somewhat of a dandy.  He’s made friends with fellow itinerant actor Jack Rover (Erik Kuhn), who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. When Harry and Jack go their separate ways, they both end up in the same town, along with Harry’s estranged father and feisty cousin Kate (Nicole Angeli), whom the Colonel is hoping Harry will marry. There’s also the Colonel’s trusty “Indian guide”, Crow (John Wolbers), who has red braids and speaks with an Irish accent, who seems to know more about the Colonel’s long-lost love, Amelia (Jamie Eros), than he lets on. The plot also includes the requisite bad guys, such as the scheming Ephraim (Christopher LaBanca), a would-be minister who operates his own exclusive sect, and who lusts after Jane (Ashley Bauman), daughter of the show’s other villain, the unscrupulous landlord Ike Gammon (Anthony Wininger). There are more characters here than can be easily named, but I’ll just say that things get weirder and weirder as the story goes on, with the expected implausible conclusions that go with the territory in an outrageous farce such as this.

The point of a show like this is comedy, and comedy requires timing and precision. That’s all here in this very well-staged and directed production. It’s one of those shows that throws so many jokes at the audience with the idea that they’re bound to laugh at some of them. It’s at turns silly and clever, with melodrama conventions such as the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks, mustache-twirling villains, and more.  There’s also the fun convention of having the stagehands hold up signs instructing the audience to cheer, boo, and more at various times throughout the show. It’s all put together with a strong sense of fun, and period flavor provided by Jason Townes’s colorful versatile set and Tayor Donham’s detailed, character-specific costumes.

The cast is energetic and amiable, and very enthusiastic.  The overall upbeat atmosphere of the show is augmented by the performances, with Kuhn and Angeli making an excellent team as the unlikely love interests, Jack and Kate. The rough-around-the-edges Kate tries and fails to act the refined lady, and Angeli portrays this dilemma with excellent comic timing, especially in a fun scene in which she and Kuhn try to rehearse a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Kuhn makes an ideal melodramatic hero, also working well with Pierce as the hilariously dandified Harry, and Foughty, who’s a joy as the perpetually confused Colonel. Other standouts including Wininger and LaBanca at their oily best as villains Ike and Ephraim, Bauman as the spunky Jane, and Wolbers in several roles including the scheming Crow, and one half of pair of delightfully ridiculous theatrical impresarios, Kliege (Brian Rolf) and Lieko (Wolbers).  The whole ensemble seems to be having a great deal of fun in this play, and that fun is certainly infectious.

Wild Oats is a silly play in the best sense of the word. It’s supposed to be goofy, over-the-top, and full of ridiculous coincidences, to highly comedic effect. The cast and crew at St. Louis Shakespeare have put together an immensely entertaining, fast-moving show that’s sure to bring lots of laughs.

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare presents Wild Oats at the Ivory Theatre until August 30th, 2015

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One Flea Spare
by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
August 19, 2015

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell

I’m continually amazed at how much a small theatre company is able to create with limited resources and a whole lot of energy and creativity. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has been one of the more impressive smaller theatre companies in St. Louis, and I’ve never seen a sub-par production from them. In their latest production, the historical drama One Flea Spare, the SATE team uses their usual performance space at The Chapel to its fullest potential, presenting an intense, disturbing and remarkable production that’s sure to keep audiences thinking.

The subject matter for this play is difficult, as it’s set in London during the height of the Black Plague in 1665.  A wealthy couple, William Snelgrave (Joe Hanrahan) and his wife, Darcy (Kelley Weber) are the only survivors of their household and are about to be released from a month-long quartantine when the arrival of two uninvited guests causes the local guard, Kabe (Andrew Kuhlman) to prolong their confinement.  The two new arrivals, the young, mysterious Morse (Hannah Ryan) and the destitute sailor Bunce (Charlie Barron) upset the balance in the household and force the Snelgraves to take a closer look at their own identities and actions, as well as those of their new companions in light of the horrific tragedy that is engulfing their city.

The set is stark and simple, designed by Bess Moynihan and director Ellie Schwetye. The basic wooden platform suggests the floor of the main room in the Snelgraves’ house. In the intimate atmosphere of the Chapel, this basic set is remarkably effective at bringing the audience into these characters’ world. The brilliantly striking lighting, also designed by Moynihan, adds to the atmosphere of play, and Elizabeth Henning’s extremely detailed period specific costumes help to further set the scene and mood. All of these technical aspects work together to augment the heightening drama of this memorable, expertly written and staged play.

The drama here is in the conflict between the characters, and also their relationship with the increasingly gruesome outside world, with the realities of the plague and the presence of death in every street made all the more horrifying because it’s not directly shown. Instead, we see the characters’ reaction to their situation, and to each other. We see the initially genteel Snelgrave reveal more of his true character, along with his increasingly emboldened wife, the suspicious and desperate but concerned Bunce, and the deceptively childlike Morse, who serves as the play’s primary viewpoint character and shows that she’s a lot more clever than she initially may seem. As these four disparate characters get to know one another, and clash and conspire in various ways, they’re watched over by the looming presence of Kabe, the guard who has been put in the situation of holding the power over people who would normally have been considered his superiors in that society. It’s a rich, fascinating and occasionally highly unsettling character study, revealing how dire situations and close quarters can bring out all aspects, including the very worst, of human nature.

The cast here is universally superb.  As the play’s central character, the young and resourceful Morse, high school junior Ryan is a real find.  She brings a determined, sympathetic and mysterious quality to the character, as well as demonstrating a fine singing voice in snippets of traditional folk songs that she sings at various moments. She presents a complex portrait of this character we get to know gradually throughout the production, in her compelling stories as well as in how she relates to the other characters. Kuhlman is also a standout at the superstitious, ubiquitous Kabe, displaying a strong stage presence and a thoroughly convincing Cockney accent. An unusual relationship develops between Bunce and the long-neglected Darcy Snelgrave, which is portrayed convincingly by Barron and Weber, conveying both characters’ regrets and losses with poignancy. As Snelgrave, Hanrahan does an excellent job of portraying the outwardly polite character–and his recurring mantra “I’m not a cruel man”–and the gradual revealing of his true character.  All of these characters are nuanced and flawed, and each of the cast members portrays all of these aspects with supreme authenticity.

This is a dark play, no question.  It delves into a much written-about subject in a particularly personal way, letting us see what happens when people of different backgrounds are thrown together, but also what happens to society when such a major upheaval as a coutnry-wide epidemic takes place. SATE has brought this play to the stage with incredible skill and sensitivity. It’s another dramatic triumph for this company.

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE presents One Flea Spare at The Chapel (Skinker Blvd. and Alexander Dr.) until August 29th, 2015

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Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreography by Susan Stroman, Restaged by Ginger Thatcher
The Muny
August 10 , 2015

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis Photo: The Muny

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! is one of the most important musicals in the history of the genre. In fact, it’s often credited as the first “modern musical”, and it caused a sensation when it was first staged on Broadway in 1943.  Since then, it’s become a staple of professional, amateur and school theatre to the point of almost becoming a cliche. A show like this needs a vibrant production to bring it out of the realm of “been there, seen that”. The Muny’s latest production, the final show of its 2015 summer season, has a strong production team and promising cast, and I had been looking forward to seeing it all season. Ultimately, though, while I find this production thoroughly entertaining, I was expecting “amazing” and what I see here is simply “very good”.

This is a familiar story to many, as iconic as this show has become. The opening, as cowboy Curly (Ben Davis) starts singing the glorious “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” offstage before he appears to serenade Aunt Eller (Beth Leavel) is legendary. The story goes on to follow the awkward romance between Curly and Aunt Eller’s spunky niece, Laurey (Christine Cornish Smith), who is also being pursued by the intense, stalker-ish hired hand Jud Fry (Alexander Gemignani). Meanwhile, Laurey’s friend, the amorous Ado Annie (Jenni Barber) enjoys flirtations with various men but finds herself torn between her earnest suitor Will Parker (Clyde Alves) and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Nehal Joshi), who just wants a fling with Annie but her protective father (Shaver Tillitt) has other ideas. The classic songs are here, from the romantic “People Will Say We’re In Love” to the energetic “Kansas City” to the iconic title song. It’s a show with humor, drama, romance and a lot of energetic dancing, done very well in the Muny’s production.

The choreography here is recreated from Susan Stroman’s work for the celebrated 1998 London revival and its 2002 Broadway staging, and the dancing is the real highlight of this production. Notably, the “dream ballet” is danced by the performers playing Laurey and Curly, rather than by dance doubles as in the original production. I like this new convention, since it adds a sense of immediacy to the ballet that previous versions tended to lack.  Smith especially is an exceptional dancer, and she brings out the full range of Laurey’s emotions–from fear, to hope, to doubt, and more–in her dance.  The whole company does an excellent job all-around with the dancing, as well, from the vibrant “Kansas City” number led by the dynamic Alves as Will to the whimsical “Many a New Day” for Laurey and the female ensemble, to the raucus “The Farmer and the Cowmen” production number in Act 2. This is a wonderful show for dance, and the Muny does it right.

The casting, for the most part, is strong, although this production has made a choice that I’ve often regarded as a mistake–it’s cast a Curly who, despite his excellent voice, is too mature for the role.  Davis, who was wonderful as Emile DeBecque in the Muny’s South Pacific a few seasons agosings the songs beautifully, but isn’t entirely convincing as a lovestruck young cowboy. The dialogue for this show suggests that Curly isn’t that much older than Laurey. He isn’t Emile, or Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Those shows require an age difference between the romantic leads, but in this show, that doesn’t really work. Opposite Smith, Davis doesn’t convince. Their chemistry is awkward at best, although Smith gives an otherwise strong, gutsy performance as Laurey, and she has a great voice. Otherwise, it’s a good cast, with Leavel as the feisty Aunt Eller and Gemignani as the creepy Jud being the standouts. Alves and Barber make a sweet pair as Will and Ado Annie as well, although their Act 2 duet “All Or Nothing” lacked some of the comic spark that this song is supposed to have. Joshi as Ali Hakim gives a fun comic performance, as well, and the ensemble is first rate, especially in the dance numbers.

Another highlight of this production is its wonderful production values. Michael Schweikardt’s set is beautfully detailed, with a realistic farmhouse on the turntable that rotates to reveal Jud’s rundown smokehouse. In Act 2, the unfinished structure of the community’s schoolhouse makes a striking backdrop for the action of the show. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz with additional design by Amy Clark, are colorful and appropriately evocative of the period and characters. John Lasiter’s lighting is striking as well, lending a dreamy air to the the ballet sequence especially.  The outdoor setting is also especially kind to this show that mostly takes place outside on the broad plains of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma! is the very definition of a classic musical, and it’s a fitting show for the Muny, which is an icon in itself. I’ve come to expect a little more from the Muny lately, especially in the last few years, and this production is certainly entertaining. Although it’s not exactly the exceptional production I had been hoping for, it’s still a fine production, and a good show to close out the Muny’s 97th season.

Cast of Oklahoma! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Oklahoma!
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 16th, 2015.

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Spellbound: A Musical Fable
Music. Lyrics, and Book by Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 8, 2015

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spellbound: A Musical Fable, an original musical based on a blend of fairy tales and folk legends, closes out Stray Dog Theatre’s 2014-2015 season. A work that’s apparently taken the better part of 20 years to produce, and co-written by Stray Dog’s Artistic director Gary F. Bell, Spellbound is definitely a treat for the eyes, with elaborate sets and colorful costumes and some inventive staging. Still, a show is about more than how it looks, and this one needs work. Although it boasts a strong cast and some interesting ideas, the show ultimately comes across as confusing and somewhat cluttered, and still needing a great deal of work.

Although director and co-author Bell provides a long list of folktale influences on the show in his director’s note in the program, Spellbound is essentially “Cinderella” meets “Little Red Riding Hood” by way of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic story is mostly “Cinderella”, though. The show gives us a young protagonist, Arabella (Meadow Tien Nguy), who has grown up being mistreated by her evil stepmother Layla (Deborah Sharn) and selfish stepsisters (Maria Bartolotta as Muchaneta, Eileen Engel as Kokumo). She has a father, the well-meaning but dominated Bangabobo (Patrick Kelly), but he’s being controlled by Layla through use of a magic “tea” that she forces him to drink. Layla, who practices black magic and wishes to rule the mythical land of Samera, has a plan that involves trying to marry one of her daughters to the newly-returned prince, Adama (Chris Tipp) and eventually overthrow his father, the land’s ruler Changamire (Zachary Stefaniak).  When Changamire, desperate to find a wife for his son, listens to the advice of fairy queen Inaambura (Paula Stoff Dean) and hosts a Carnivale at his castle, Layla sees her chance. This being a Cinderella story, of course Arabella wants to go, and of course she’s not allowed. The twist is that now Arabella is sent on a deceptive quest involving a Bengal Tiger (also Tipp). The story continues from there with a few twists and turns, but the outcome is fairly predictable to anyone who’s seen any version of the Cinderella story.

I find it difficult to describe this play as anything other than cluttered. It’s three acts and over three hours long, and contains many elements that are not essential to the story, and some of the fairy tale elements have been done before (and better) elsewhere, such as in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. There’s a prologue scene that doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the story, and the songs are mostly unmemorable.  There are some standout moments, though–especially the well-staged and entertaining “The Tiger’s Tango” sequence in Act 2. Nguy has an excellent voice and strong stage presence as Arabella, showing off her vocal prowess in the 80s style power-pop ballad “Wings of an Angel”, and displaying good chemistry with Tipp as both the Tiger and as the aimless Adama. It’s strange that this is billed as a journey of identity acceptance when Arabella seems to be the most confident person around, and the character who really changes the most is Adama.  Tipp gives a sympathetic performance, and his scenes with Nguy are the real highlights of the show. Otherwise, there are good performances from most of the overcrowded cast, with Kelly, Dean, Sharn and others giving fine performances, although there’s kind of an air of “dress rehearsal” about a lot of the performances and staging.

The real star of this show is its production values. The whimsical, colorful set by Rob Lippert and stylish, quirky costumes by Engel and Bell are the real highlights here, putting the audience into the magical world much more than the actual story does. There’s also some spectacular lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps maintain the mystical, ethereal atmosphere of a wondrous fairy tale.  This show is worth seeing simply for the spectacular visuals.

Overall, I would say that, while Spellbound has its moments and is generally entertaining, it’s a story with a little too much going on and with ideas that have been done better elsewhere. Bell did say in his pre-show speech that the show is still being worked on and changed throughout its run, and I hope those changes manage to make the story clearer and less cluttered. Still, it’s an impressive effort from the large cast, and especially the top-notch production design. This show’s real accomplishment is visual, creating a world with a stunning sense of style. I just wish there was a little more magic in the story.

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Spellbound: A Musical Fable runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until August 22, 2015.

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