Archive for October, 2015

Matilda, the Musical
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Choreographed by Peter Darling
The Fox Theatre
October 22, 2015

Mabel Tyler, Jennifer Blood Photo by Joan Marcus Matilda National Tour

Mabel Tyler, Jennifer Blood
Photo by Joan Marcus
Matilda National Tour

I love Matilda the Musical. I was immediately impressed with this remarkable, cleverly staged and incredibly well-written show when I saw it in London three years ago. I was looking forward to getting to see the National Tour at the Fox, and I’m glad I got to see it again. I’m pleased to say that the show is as wonderful, mysterious, and magical as ever.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular book, Matilda tells the story of an unusual young girl who grows up neglected by parents who are too self-absorbed to appreciate her. Young Matilda Wormwood (Mabel Tyler) can already read novels before she starts school, but her parents are embarrassed by her as her mother (Cassie Silva) is preoccupied with preparing for ballroom dance contests and her father (Quinn Mattfeld) is making questionable business deals and watching television with his near-catatonic son, Michael (Danny Tieger). Matilda is left to spend the days at the library, telling stories to the appreciative and supportive librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Ora Jones). Soon, however, Matilda has to go to school, where she makes some new friends and meets a sympathetic but socially awkward teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), and all the students live in fear of the domineering, gleefully menacing headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Bryce Ryness). As Matilda’s stories begin to oddly echo reality, and as her world becomes more complex and challenging, Matilda is eventually compelled to take action and discover talents she didn’t even know she had.

As a show, I can’t say enough good things about Matilda. I already gushed enthusiastically in my review of the London production, and although the tour does make some necessary technical changes, the show is still as wondrous, compelling, clever, suspenseful, and magical as ever. The scaling down for the tour did take out some great effects, such as the desks rising out of the stage (they now slide in from the wings), but the dynamic staging,  choreography (by Peter Darling), striking color scheme and costumes (by Rob Howell, who also designed the set), are all recreated from the London and Broadway productions.  It’s a distinctive looking show, and sharply written as well, with a distinctly British sensibility that thankfully hasn’t been lost in the transfer across the pond. Dennis Kelly’s book is at turns witty, poignant, and occasionally chilling, with the joys, hopes, dreams, challenges, and fears of childhood on display in this remarkably rich story. Tim Minchin’s score, with memorable songs like “Naughty”, “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and “Revolting Children”, is top-notch, as well, and deserves all the praise it has received.

The cast here is excellent, as well. There are three young actresses (Mabel Tyler, Gabby Gutierrez, and Mia Sinclair Jenness) who alternate in the central role of Matilda. Tyler, the Matilda I saw, gives an excellent, gutsy performance, with just the right blend of toughness and vulnerability, as well as a good sense of comic timing a a strong singing voice that she employs well on her solos “Naughty” and “Quiet”.  Her classmates are well-played by a memorable ensemble including children and a few adult cast members dressed as children. Blood, as Miss Honey, is convincing, and her struggles to stand up for Matilda are sensitively played. Jones is also excellent as the other sympathetic adult in Matilda’s life, Mrs. Phelps. The unsympathetic adults are played in a much more cartoonish and over-the-top manner, as is fitting for a Dahl story. Silva and Mattfeld are both hilariously boorish as the Wormwoods, with Silva’s hilarious dance number “Loud” and Mattfeld’s ode of the joys of “Telly” standing out as comic highlights of the production. As the unrepentantly villainous Trunchbull, Ryness shines, managing to make a character with really no redeeming values incredibly entertaining to watch. His presence in the role is unmistakable, and he draws the audience’s eyes whenever he steps foot on stage. There were also memorable performances by Ian Michael Stuart and Natalie Wisdom as the subjects of Matilda’s recurring stories, the Escape Artist and the Acrobat. There’s a strong ensemble as well, lending support and maintaining the show’s level of energy and overall atmosphere throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, Matilda is one of the best new musicals of the past 20 years. After first witnessing its theatrical magic in London, I’ve been glad to see it gain success on Broadway and now on its first national tour. I’m pleased to see that the spirit of the show shines through on the tour, for the most part. I hope many St. Louisans take advantage of the opportunity to discover this remarkable show.

Bryce Ryness, Mabel Tyler, and the cast of Matilda Photo by Joan Marcus Matilda National Tour

Bryce Ryness, Mabel Tyler, and the cast of Matilda
Photo by Joan Marcus
Matilda National Tour

 The First National Tour of Matilda the Musical is running at the Fox Theatre until November 1, 2015.

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Angel Street (Gaslight)
by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 16, 2015

Clark Scott Carmichael, Janie Brookshire Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Clark Scott Carmichael, Janie Brookshire
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Angel Street, also known as Gaslight, is a show that’s possibly more well-known for its title than for its story, as “gaslight” has become a common term for a certain type of psychological manipulation.  It also inspired a celebrated 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and a young Angela Lansbury.  At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the classic thriller has been brought to life in a a remarkably impressive production, with a strong cast, impressive staging and truly stunning production values.

This play, a suspenseful psychological drama, takes place in London in the 1880’s, in a well-appointed house on Angel Street. Bella Manningham (Janie Brookshire) has recently moved here with her domineering husband, Jack (Clark Scott Carmichael), who from the beginning appears to already be playing mind games with his impressionable wife. She’s constantly confused when household items like pictures on the wall and grocery bills go missing, and she worries that she will go the way of her own mother and end up committed to a mental asylum. There’s nobody else in the house but the household staff, represented by two maids of distinctly different dispositions–the older, more kindhearted Elizabeth (Amelia White), and the young, impertinent Nancy (Rachel Kenney), so Bella is especially startled when a mysterious police inspector, Rough (Geoffrey Wade) shows up unexpectedly while her husband is away, espousing an unsettling theory concerning Jack. As the evidence unfolds, including mysterious sounds in the forbidden attic and lowering light in the gas lamps, Bella is enlightened as to what type of man she married, although she’s not entirely sure what to believe, and there isn’t a lot of time for Rough to prove his theory before Jack returns.

The show has the flavor of an old-fashioned mystery-thriller, with a touch of humor thrown in for relief from the gradually building suspense. Staged cleverly by director Jenn Thompson, the play maintains the sense of mystery and tension throughout the production, as the earnest but bewildered Bella is driven further into confusion and her husband Jack’s air of sheer menace intensifies. The acting here is impressive, with Brookshire portraying many levels of character as Bella, who at first appears to be a something of a stereotypical naive Victorian wife, but descends further into confusion and fear as the story unfolds. Carmichael plays the self-absorbed, increasingly creepy and menacing Jack convincingly, as he deftly manipulates his initially impressionable wife. As the aptly named Rough, Wade is amiable, with an unrefined, somewhat bumbling air at first, initially confusing Bella about as much as Jack does, although Wade makes it clear that Rough knows what he’s doing despite his disorganized appearance. There are also strong performances from White as the loyal Elizabeth and Kenney as the flirty, ambitious Nancy, who clearly isn’t fond of Bella and may be too fond of Jack.

As great as the performances are, however, the real star of this production is its remarkable set. Designed by Wilson Chin, the set is as responsible for adding to the suspenseful atmosphere of the play as any of the actors. It’s deceptive at first, appearing to be a basic, well-appointed Victorian drawing room set, but as the story develops, the true genius of the design is revealed, as walls become transparent to reveal other rooms and floors in the house. This effect is aided well by the excellent lighting, designed by Peter E. Sargent, and Rusty Wandall’s excellent sound design. The precise timing of the staging, along with the set, light and sound effects, contributes to the increasingly tense atmosphere of the play.  There are also some very detailed, richly appointed period specific costumes by David Toser that lend a further air of authenticity to the production.

Although I had seen the Gaslight film many years ago when I was a teenager, I didn’t remember it particularly well and I had never seen the play. This production at the Rep is an ideal re-introduction to the story. Although there are elements of well-pitched humor here and there, the overall atmosphere of this production is one of chilling, impeccably timed suspense.  It’s a fitting play for the Halloween season. If you’re looking to be scared as well as entertained, Angel Street at the Rep is not to be missed.

Geoffrey Wade, Janie Brookshire Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Geoffrey Wade, Janie Brookshire
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s production of Angel Street (Gaslight) runs until November 8th. 

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The Sunshine Boys
by Neil Simon
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
October 15, 2015

Peter Mayer, John Contini Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Peter Mayer, John Contini
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Vaudeville is a matter of history for most people nowadays, remembered mostly for its influence on the development of entertainment and comedy performance. Once upon a time, though, Vaudeville was at the heart of the entertainment industry, and its performers were well-known stars, many of whom later found success in movies and television. But as big as it was in its heyday, Vaudeville’s popularity eventually died out, its performers grew older, and audiences’ memories faded. For the two aging vaudevillians at the center of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, the memories of their more successful days are bittersweet. Now being presented in a well-cast production at New Jewish Theatre, The Sunshine Boys is a sometimes overly long, but still insightful look at the life of two performers who may not like each other very much, but with whom, for better or for worse, they will always be associated.

That “for better or worse” phrasing calls to mind a marriage, and in a way former stage partners Willie Clark (John Contini) and Al Lewis (Peter Mayer) act like an acrimonious divorced couple. They are linked by a shared past and common public association, but they also harbor years of bitter resentment. It’s a wonder that these two actually managed to work together for over 40 years. The story centers mostly on Willie, who lives in a shabby old hotel room (reduced from what once was a suite), and spends his days watching TV, complaining about various issues to the management, reading Variety and hoping to get jobs acting in commercials. When his longsuffering nephew, Ben (Jared Sanz-Agero), who is also Willie’s agent, brings a network TV job to Willie’s attention, that’s when the volatile action really begins. The job requires a reunion with Al, whom Willie hasn’t seen in years, and a revival of one of their best known acts, a sketch about a a doctor. A somewhat disastrous rehearsal in Willie’s apartment doesn’t bode well for this collaboration, but the TV appearance continues as planned until an unexpected crisis disrupts Willie’s life even further.

The play is surprisingly slow-moving for a Neil Simon comedy, and it takes a while for the story to really start moving. The first act is mostly Willie complaining to Ben about his life, and after Al shows up, it’s almost nonstop bickering. There are some great comic moments, and a good look at a largely forgotten area of the showbiz world, but it’s a little difficult to sympathize considering Willie is just so insufferable for much of the play. Veteran actor Contini, who took over this role on very short notice, does an admirable job of bringing out a degree of charm in the cantankerous old comedian, which is a feat considering the script makes him so difficult to like. The show’s best moments are when Contini is sharing the stage with Sanz-Agero, who is an effective “every man” figure as Ben, and with Mayer as the curmudgeonly but less caustic Al, who serves as a good foil for the more combative Willie. The recreation of the comic sketch is funny, as well, and there’s great support from the ensemble including Leo B Ramsey as a TV production assistant, Bob Harvey as a patient and Julie Crump as a patient and nurse in the doctor sketch, and Fannie Belle-Lebby as a real home health nurse who appears late in the play.

Technically, the show lives up to New Jewish Theatre’s already excellent reputation. Margery and Peter Spack’s incredibly detailed set appropriately suggests the rundown, cluttered hotel room where Willie spends his life. There’s also a good recreation of an early 1970’s TV set, with excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan and sound by Robin Weatherall. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and props by Margery Spack help to vividly illustrate this world of an aging vaudevillian, with Willie’s old costume trunk as a key element in the story.

Overall, while the script does drag in places and takes a while to get going, The Sunshine Boys is a funny and occasionally poignant portrayal of aging comedians struggling to restore a relationship that they’re not sure they want to restore. The importance of family and friendship ties is also emphasized in this classic comedy by one of America’s best-known playwrights. As staged at NJT with its excellent production values and strong cast, The Sunshine Boys is well worth seeing.

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewis Theatre

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewis Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Sunshine Boys at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until November 1, 2015.

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De Kus/The Kiss
by Ger Thijs
Translated by Paul Evans
Directed by Kenn McLaughlin
Upstream Theater
October 9, 2015

Eric Dean White, Lisa Tejero Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Eric Dean White, Lisa Tejero
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

It’s autumn in St. Louis. The leaves are changing color and falling from the trees, the days are getting shorter, and there’s a chill in the air. At Upstream Theater, it’s autumn in the Netherlands, as the company presents the atmospheric, philosophical Dutch play that has a lot to say about seasons of life. Staged with the excellence for which Upstream is known, De Kus/The Kiss is a bittersweet, intense play that lets the audience get to know two fascinating characters by showing us their compelling interactions.

The set, designed by Michael Heil with scenic art by Christie Johnston pulls the audience into the setting immediately. The park bench, thin tree trunks, park bench and sign post set up in such an intimate theatrical setting creates an immersive experience for the viewer, who is put right into the action and the season. The wooden platform on which the players perform is decorated with engravings representing the Catholic tradition of the Stations of the Cross, which helps to set the tone of the play. This is a pilgrimage, albeit a very private one, as a woman (Lisa Tejero) takes a journey through a wooded area to a nearby town so she can receive the potential scary results of some recent medical tests. Along the way, she encounters a man (Eric Dean White) with a somewhat mysterious story of his own. Through the course of the play, we learn more about these two disparate characters as they interact, alternately challenging, comforting, entertaining, and disturbing one another as they journey to their intended destination.

There’s no definitive conclusion to this play, and there’s really not much plot. It’s mostly about character study and the various concepts that are brought up–mortality, marriage and family, mid-life reflections and recriminations, and recurring themes of pilgrimage, penance, suffering and redemption.  The effectiveness of the story depends on the characters and their portrayal, and this production is ideally cast. White, as the more outgoing, snarky, and witty character, is full of charm as well as a necessary air of mystery. Tejero, as the more obviously reserved woman, goes through a convincing emotional journey, as she opens up gradually and reveals more about her life, hopes, regrets, and fears. The interplay and chemistry between these two performers is fascinating and entirely believable, as their relationship develops from initial distrust, to a sense of camaraderie, to more suspicion, to flirtation, and more. This is a small play in terms of focus, but big in terms of concepts, and the performers do an admirable job of personalizing the story and making the audience care about their characters.

Aside from the wonderful set, the other technical aspects of the play are equally excellent. The sound, by Philip Boehm and Michael B. Perkins, and Tony Anselmo’s atmospheric lighting all add to the overall drama of this impeccably staged production. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are also ideally suited to the characters, contributing to the overall realism of the piece.

The Kiss is a contemplative, challenging, and poetic play. It’s an excellent October play, with changes of seasons both literal and metaphorical, a key theme. It’s a pilgrimage for these characters, and they take the audience along on their journey of discovery. It’s a play that’s at once personal and conceptual, brought to life by two remarkable performances. It’s well worth seeing.

Lisa Tejero, Eric Dean White Photo by Peter Wochniak Uptream Theater

Lisa Tejero, Eric Dean White
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Uptream Theater

 De Kus/The Kiss, presented by Upstream Theater, runs at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 25, 2015

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Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan
Based on the Warner Bros. Film and Screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 8, 2015

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is getting the chance to see great new plays I haven’t seen before. Dogfight, currently being presented by Stray Dog Theatre, is one of those fortunate discoveries. With an intriguing story, strong characters, a great score, and excellent casting, this is one of the surprise hits of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

Based on a somewhat obscure 1991 film, the story follows a group of Marines in 1963 San Francisco. They’re about to be shipped off to Vietnam and they are determined to enjoy their last night in the States. Eddie Birdlace (Brendan Ochs) and his buddies Boland (Luke Steingruby) and Bernstein (Kevin O’Brien)–who refer to themselves proudly as the “Three Bees”–are among the Marines attending a dance that will feature the unfair and objectifying contest referred to as a “dogfight” in which each man competes to find the most unattractive date, with the “winner” taking home the pot of prize money. While the Marines are out looking for their dates, Eddie wanders into a diner where he meets Rose (Shannon Cothran), a sweet but socially awkward young waitress, and invites her to the dance. What he doesn’t bargain for, however, is that he’ll find himself genuinely drawn to the idealistic Rose, or that his friend Boland will skirt the rules of the dance and hire an opportunistic date, Marcy (Sara Rae Womack), who has her own agenda. The dance isn’t the whole story, though. In fact, it’s just the beginning, as the play explores various relationships and attitudes among the Marines and the civilians they encounter, as well as challenging the casual sexism of the Marines in the story, and exploring the concepts of war, mortality, and the permanence of friendships.

It’s an exceptionally well-written show with a strong, memorable score that manages to be modern and evocative of the era at the same time. Especially effective are Rose’s songs such as “Give Way”, “Before It’s Over”, and her duet with Eddie, “First Date, Last Night”. The story is told in flashback, as Eddie takes a bus ride back to San Francisco a few years after the main action of the play, and the treatment of a Vietnam vet’s homecoming is poignantly portrayed. The show also does a good job of portraying well-rounded characters, managing to make the Marines interesting and sympathetic characters despite some of their more unsavory attitudes. The actors deserve a lot of credit for this sympathy, as well, with Steingruby’s shady Boland and O’Brien’s eager Bernstein being brought to life convincingly.

The centerpiece of the show, acting-wise, is the duo of Cothran’s Rose and Ochs’s Eddie. Cothran, returning to the stage after a long absense, is a discovery as the wide-eyed, gawky but sweet Rose. Her sense of self-confidence visibly grows as the story goes along, and she has a strong, expressive voice. She also accompanies herself ably on guitar in several songs. Her chemistry with Ochs is palpable, and Ochs matches her performance with a charm and poignancy of his own. Every moment these two are on stage together is a highlight. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, notably from Womack as the enterprising Marcy, Jenni Ryan as Rose’s mother, and Jason Meyers in several roles including a Marine sergeant and a lounge singer.  There’s a strong ensemble in excellent voice, as well, and the staging is dynamic and well thought-out.

The technical elements of the show add to the overall atmosphere and drama of the performance. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is versatile and vivid–suggesting the Golden Gate bridge and other San Francisco sites, as well as the Marine base, the dance hall, the diner, and more. There are also nicely detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and evocative lighting by Tyler Duenow.

I had heard of this play before seeing it, but only knew the very basic premise, and I’m glad I got to see it. Stray Dog Theatre’s Dogfight is a surprising, poignant, and memorable show with a great score and standout performances. This is one of the best musicals I’ve seen all year. It’s definitely one that shouldn’t be missed.

Cast of Dogfight Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of Dogfight
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Dogfight runs at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 24, 2015.

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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 3, 201512039250_10206184703591047_5710833879887949041_n

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.

This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke),  and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate.  And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.

With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy.  Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well.  There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio.  The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.

Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look.  The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.

Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.

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Book, Music, and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy
Based on the Film by Daniel Waters
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2015

Grace Seidel, Evan Forachon, Anna Skidis Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Grace Seidel, Evan Fornachon, Anna Skidis
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I have a confession to make. I went to high school in the 1980’s and I’ve never seen the movie Heathers in its entirety. There’s no particular reason for this omission in my cinematic track record. I just never got around to seeing it beyond about 20 minutes of it on TV sometime in the 1990’s, even though it was always on my list of “movies I have to watch someday”. Still, even though I still haven’t seen most of it, the movie’s influence has not been lost to me, having heard it quoted and referenced in various places over the past two and a half decades. Still, as New Line Theatre’s excellent new production proves, one doesn’t have to have seen the movie to enjoy the musical adaptation, which has been brought to tuneful, colorful life by New Line’s top-notch cast and crew at the company’s shiny new venue, The Marcelle Theatre.

Essentially a dark, satirical look at “high school” films of the 80s, Heathers the musical definitely shows off the darker side of teenage life, although there is a glimmer of hope as well. It starts out, with the song “Beautiful”, setting the stage at Westerberg High School and introducing most of the main characters and cliques. We’re introduced to protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Anna Skidis), an amiable, ambitious high schooler who is relatively low on the social pecking order until she manages to get into the good graces of the school’s ruling set–three uber-popular girls of varying degrees of bitchiness who all happen to be named Heather. There’s group leader Heather Chandler (Sicily Mathenia) and her devoted cronies Heather Duke (Cameisha Cotton) and Heather McNamara (Larissa White). The Heathers and their football player pals Ram Sweeney (Omega Jones) and Kurt Kelly (Clayton Humburg) rule the school and basically dictate the social order. One problem for Veronica is that her newfound popularity has put her at odds with her longtime best friend, the sweet, nerdy and constantly bullied Martha Dunnstock (Grace Seidel). There’s also outsider and loner J.D. (Evan Fornachon), who appears on the scene to shake up the status quo and challenge Veronica to decide where her true loyalties lie. Unfortunately, J.D.’s methods are problematic to say the least. It’s basically a battle for Veronica’s soul, and J.D.’s as well, to a degree, as well as a challenge to the idea of high school cliques and labels, and what those say about a person’s true identity and potential.

The tone of the play starts out somewhat upbeat but gets darker as the plot moves forward, and especially in the second act.  There’s a lot of raunchy and somewhat twisted humor, as well, fitting the darkly ironic tone of most of the story.  But there are some poignant moments amid the comedy, as well, again especially in the second act, with Veronica’s challenge to J.D. in “Seventeen”, Heather McNamara’s revelatory “Lifeboat”, and especially Martha’s heart-wrenching solo “Kindergarten Boyfriend”. In fact, the tone shifts early in the second act to get more and more ominous, as Veronica is confronted even more with J.D.’s dark ideas and nature, as well as the idea that people do not have to be forever bound by the labels they’re forced into by high school culture.

The cast here is first-rate, including a few New Line veterans like the terrific Skidis as Veronica and Fornachon as the charming but dangerous J.D. These two display a fiery, intense chemistry, excellent stage presence and great voices. There’s also the impressive White in a vulnerable performance as the least bitchy Heather, McNamara. Many of the other performers are New Line newcomers, including Mathenia and Cotton who give virtuoso “mean girl” performances as Heathers Chandler and Duke; and Jones and Humburg, who are ideally cast as the superficial, sex-crazed jocks Ram and Kurt.  The most obvious “find” of this production, though, is Seidel, who gives a wonderfully nuanced, sensitive performance as the beleaguered Martha. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, mostly made up of actors who are making their New Line debuts. The top-notch singing that I’ve come to expect in every New Line show is on full display here as well, as well as strong choreography by Robin Michelle Berger.

Technically, this production makes the most of New Line’s new black box theatre, the Marcelle. The space is smaller than New Line’s last space, but it seems incredibly versatile, and it will be interesting to see how it’s used in future productions. Here, Rob Lippert’s set is sufficiently colorful with its bright color scheme and versatile modular design, and Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is appropriately atmospheric. The costumes, designed by Sarah Porter, are just right for the characters and the overall late 1980’s theme of the show.

Heathers is a memorable show, with a message that seems to be about how high school is not the end, and how people aren’t free to decide someone else’s future and what they will become. High school roles are often superficial and not set in stone. The song “Seventeen” is a reminder that while the teenage years don’t last forever, they can be enjoyed and savored in the little moments of life. It’s a dark, sometimes brutal show, but with a surprisingly hopeful ending, and it takes the “high school movie” genre and examines it in intriguing ways.  It’s a spectacular production, highlighting the always excellent singing that New Line is known for, as well as some strong characterization and a great use of New Line’s new theatre space. Heathers the musical is a hit whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Now, however, I think I’ll make a point of seeing the film.

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Heathers is running at the Marcelle Theatre in Midtown until October 24th, 2015.

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Venus In Fur
by David Ives
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
September 25, 2015

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The theme for West End Players Guild’s newest season is “Battle of the Sexes”. This idea is well reflected in the season’s first offering, David Ives’s dark comedy Venus In Fur. With sharp dialogue, dynamic staging, and extremely strong performances by the two leads, this is a mysterious, intriguing, alternately funny and disturbing play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and conversation.

The play has a theatrical conceit with occasional mysterious and possibly even supernatural elements. The set-up is that an ambitious playwright and director, Thomas (Chris Jones), is conducting auditions for the role of a character called Vanda in his adaptation of a provocative 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher Masoch (from whose name the word “masochism” is derived). Thomas is exasperated because all of the actresses he’s seen are unsuitable in various ways, particularly in being either too modern or too immature, or both. He’s about to pack up for the day when a quirky character also called Vanda (Paula Stoff Dean) shows up and wants to audition. This Vanda is crass, forgetful, confrontational, and seemingly just as unsuitable as the previous auditionees, until she persuades Thomas to let her read for part and proves herself surprising in more ways than one. As the audition continues, it becomes clear that Vanda isn’t exactly who she had claimed to be, as she challenges Thomas concerning his very reasons for writing and staging this play, and their conversations grow more personal and the lines between the actors and characters become increasingly less clear.

This is an intense play, with an interesting tonal shift from basically wacky comedy at the beginning to a much darker tone as the story progresses. The characters are the story, really, with their continued challenges and questioning of each other adding to the mystery. The ending is somewhat confusing and ambiguous, but that’s likely deliberate. It’s all about the interaction between the two leads, as they shift in and out of character while reading the play, and it’s all so dynamically staged that even though the play runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, the story never gets boring.

The casting is absolutely essential in a play like this, as is the chemistry between the performers. This production gets both of those elements right. As the mysterious, initially flighty but also very much in control Vanda, Dean gives the best performance I’ve seen from her.  This is a role that requires a strong stage presence, excellent comic and dramatic skills, and the ability to transition between different characters at the drop of a hat. Dean accomplishes all those tasks with supreme proficiency, and Jones is an excellent match for her as the conflicted but driven Thomas. He proves an able sparring partner for Dean’s Vanda, and their chemistry is positively electric, as well.

The technical elements of this production are fairly basic, but well done. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting, Chuck Lavazzi’s sound, and especially Tracy Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are all excellent. The only major technical problem had to do with the air conditioner in West End’s performance space, which was loud and was an occasional distraction. Otherwise, this is a well-realized production, effectively recreating the backstage atmosphere required for the play.

Venus in Fur is a provocative, sharply written, thought-provoking two-person play. It’s definitely on the odd and mysterious side, plot wise, but it’s an especially strong showcase for actors.  I’d never seen this show before, and West End’s production strikes me as an excellent introduction. It’s intense, funny, bizarre, and extremely well cast. There are only two performances left, and it’s well worth checking out.

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s Venus in Fur runs at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 4th, 2015.

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