Archive for November, 2015

Animals Out of Paper
by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Todd Schaefer
R-S Theatrics
November 21, 2015

Teresa Doggett, Andrew Kuhlman Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Teresa Doggett, Andrew Kuhlman
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

A play about origami may sound strange, because the art of paper folding doesn’t seem particularly “big” enough to stand out on stage, but R-S Theatrics’ fascinating new production proves that the art can be the basis of riveting drama. Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper uses origami as the connecting point between three characters, and R-S’s production brings those characters and their stories to life with remarkable sensitivity.

The story centers on three people who share a love of origami but also have their share of individual problems. Ilana (Teresa Doggett), a known expert and lecturer on the art, is dealing with a recent failed marriage and the loss of her beloved dog. Andy (Andrew Kuhlmann), a sweet but socially awkward math teacher, has had a difficult life but tries to focus on the positive, chronicling his optimism in a notebook in which he literally counts his blessings. When Andy, who looks up to Ilana as an artist and also harbors a crush on her, approaches her with a request for her to mentor a brilliant but troubled student, Suresh (Ethan Isaac), the lives of the three become entangled in increasingly complicated ways. All the while, the importance of origami as both an art and a form of self-expression is illustrated in various compelling ways.

If you don’t know a lot about origami before seeing this play, you will learn a lot. There’s very little actual folding that occurs on stage, but the results are everywhere, from small animal models to a large, bright red hawk, to various simple and complex geometric shapes. Origami as a vessel for healing is also stressed, both physically and emotionally, since Ilana is working on a project that will put her origami skills to medical use in cardiac surgery. The discipline also allows for bonding between the characters, in addition to the conflict. Subjects of love, loneliness, acceptance and rejection, and dealing with various forms of grief are all dealt with with origami as a backdrop and uniting force.  It’s an intriguing subject matter, with some potentially problematic, awkward and even disturbing consequences, although ultimately it’s about the power of relationships, among people and between individuals and the hobbies and interests that most speak to them.

The relationships here are key, as is the casting. The tension and drama of the production is driven by the characters and their interactions, and there’s excellent chemistry between all three leads. Doggett portrays the initially sad, jaded Ilana convincingly enough for the audience to believe her love of origami and her connection with both Andy and Suresh. It’s easy to believe that she once found joy in life, but has lost that joy. Kuhlmann is charming as Andy, the ever-hopeful, persistent nice guy who pursues Ilana as friend, colleague, and potential helper for his favorite student. The relationship that develops between Ilana and Andy seems improbable at first, but it’s thoroughly convincing as depicted by these excellent performers. Isaac, as the defensive but bright and amiable Suresh is excellent as well, portraying a real sense of vulnerability underneath his outwardly cocky attitude. The developments of the plot are well-written, but made all the more convincing by this strong cast.

Visually, the set is simple, designed by Keller Ryan and representing Ilana’s small, cluttered city apartment.  The props, by Heather Tucker, are well-managed and the influence of origami is everywhere, with the bits of colored paper and small models that show up throughout the story. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Nathan Schroder, and well-suited costumes by Ruth Schmalenberger.

Animals Out of Paper is an intense, highly emotionally charged play with a unique subject matter. It’s about origami, but it’s also about the need for connection among people in today’s society, and in fact in any society. With its excellent cast and intriguing story, this is definitely one to see.

Ethan Isaac, Teresa Doggett Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Ethan Isaac, Teresa Doggett
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

Animals Out of Paper is being presented by R-S Theatrics at the Chapel until December 6, 2015.

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Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner
The Fox Theatre
November 17, 2015

Cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas Photo by Kevin White White Christmas National Tour

Cast of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Photo by Kevin White
White Christmas National Tour

Are you dreaming of a fun, colorful holiday musical that’s high on style and full of familiar, classic songs? Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, currently playing at the Fox as part of this year’s national tour, fits that bill. Based on a well-known holiday film with a new book and additional songs, it’s not the most substantial of shows, but with a strong cast and especially memorable dancing, it’s sure to entertain.

The plot here is slight and somewhat contrived, bearing a strong resemblance to that of an earlier film that also features Berlin songs and has been given a modern stage treatment, Holiday Inn, which was most recently staged at the Muny this past summer. This show also involves a song-and-dance team of two men and a New England inn with holiday performances. Here, the guys are Army buddies Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton), who performed for the troops in World War II and later became stage and TV stars. The story takes place in 1954, as the guys follow a pair of singing sisters, Betty (Kerry Conte) and Judy (Kelly Sheehan) to Vermont and an inn that happens to be owned by the guys’ former commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (Conrad John Schuck), who was apparently a great general but not the best innkeeper, as the bills have piled up and his manager, feisty former performer Martha (Pamela Myers) has had to hide them from him. Add a troupe of singers and dancers and their crew, the General’s precocious granddaughter (Elizabeth Crawford), and a somewhat thin plot involving a misunderstood telephone call and a denied attraction between Betty and Bob, along with lots and lots of singing, dancing and a boatload of Irving Berlin classics, and that’s basically the show.

The purpose of this show is to be a fun holiday entertainment, and it certainly is that. With colorful sets by Anna Louizos and adapted by Kenneth Foy, as well as bright, colorful 1950s costumes by Carrie Robbins, this show sets the scene well. Of course the classic title song is there, along with other hits like “Blue Skies”, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”, and “I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm”. There’s also director Randy Skinner’s energetic choreography and grand dance numbers like the showstopping “I Love a Piano”, danced by the excellent ensemble. There are some fun special effects as well, to add to the atmosphere especially at the end of the show.

The lead performers are strong, as well, led by the charming crooner Montgomery and magnetic dancer Benton. They’re well-matched by Conte, in the more serious role and Sheehan as the more bubbly, comic sister. There are also standout supporting performances from Schuck as the stubborn but goodhearted general, and Myers as the spunky, big-voiced Martha, with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” number being a real highlight of the production. This number is given a fun reprise by young Crawford as Susan, as well. The whole cast performs well, with energy, big voices and strong dancing.

This isn’t a deep or intricately plotted show, but that’s not really the point of a show like this. It’s about the music, the dancing and the bright, vibrant set pieces. If it’s a fun holiday show you’re looking to take your family to see, then Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is an excellent option.

Cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas Photo by Kevin White

Cast of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Photo by Kevin White

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is running at the Fox Theatre until November 22, 2015.

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Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Stephen Peirick
West End Players Guild

November 14, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Elizabeth Van Pelt, Mara Bollini, Donna Weinsting Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Nicole Angeli, Elizabeth Van Pelt, Mara Bollini, Donna Weinsting
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

You know a play is going to raise eyebrows when it contains phrases such as “Phyllis Schlafly was right.” There’s more to that sentence than you might, think, though, as espoused by the characters in Gina Gionfreddo’s Pultizer Prize nominated play Rapture, Blister, Burn.  A confrontational and thought-provoking look at various schools of thought in the history of feminism, as well as how those ideas play out in modern culture, this fascinating comedy is currently being presented in an entertaining, well-cast production by West End Players Guild.

The story follows two former grad school roommates and their widely diverging lives in the years since graduation. Catherine (Nicole Angeli) is now a celebrated academic and feminist writer who has published books and appeared on talk shows. While Catherine is successful in her career but has never married, her friend Gwen (Mara Bollini) took the opposite route–she married Catherine’s ex-boyfriend, college dean Don (Jeff Kargus), and became a stay-at-home mom. Now, years later, Catherine has moved close by to look after her mother Alice (Donna Weinsting), who is recovering from a recent heart attack, and old issues between Catherine, Gwen, and Don are brought back up, with Catherine and Gwen each observing the other’s life and wondering if maybe she should have taken a different route. Meanwhile, Catherine is teaching a seminar at her house conveniently attended by Gwen (who’s trying to finish her graduate degree) and Gwen’s recently fired babysitter, the younger and more confrontational Avery (Elizabeth Van Pelt). In between discussions of such disparate thinkers as Betty Friedan, the aforementioned Schlafly, and Dr. Phil, the issues of what it means to be a woman relating to men in today’s society are played out in various increasingly complicated ways.

This is a wordy play, occasionally coming across more as an academic discussion than a show. Although the conceit of the seminar is there, it seems slightly contrived that the only two students would be Gwen and Avery, with occasional commentary by Alice, who supplies the martinis and adds to the dialogue with her tales of marriage and motherhood in an earlier generation. As funny as it is, with sharp comedy and well-drawn characters, it’s also an extremely dense play that brings up some serious issues for thought and discussion. Its conclusions may be controversial as well, and the fact that the only man in the play is the occasionally charming but admittedly aimless Don makes one wonder what the playwright is really saying about men. Although it does try to provide some answers, this play raises a lot more questions, and that’s probably the point. With all the conflicting messages, what’s a modern woman to do? Is it better to have a career or a family, or can a woman have both successfully? Is that even a realistic or desired goal to pursue? Issues of career ambition, sexual politics, and societal stereotypes and expectations are explored and illustrated, with some topics getting more weight than others.

The cast here is excellent, and a key factor in conveying the messages of this play without having it seem like a lecture. Angeli is engagingly sympathetic as the conflicted Catherine, who projects an air of knowledge but is soon shown to have more questions than answers. She works well against the equally excellent Bollini as the weary “super mom”, Gwen, who comes across as somewhat stuffy and controlling at first but who also portrays a believable journey of self-discovery. Both actresses portray convincing chemistry with Kargus’s amiable but unambitious Don. The best comic moments in the play are delivered by Weinsting as the loving but opinionated Alice, and especially the hilarious Van Pelt as the young, outgoing and outspoken Avery. I especially was convinced by the bond that develops between Avery and Catherine.

The production is well-staged by director Stephen Peirick, who also designed the detailed, two-level set that represents Gwen and Don’s house (on the floor in front of the stage), and Alice’s place (on stage). There are also character appropriate costumes by Tracey Newcomb and proficient lighting by Amy Ruprecht and sound by Mary Beth Winslow. The technical aspects along with the staging work to establish the realistic atmosphere of the production, putting us into these characters’ world in a convincing way.

Whether or not you agree with all the conclusions in Rapture, Blister, Burn, there’s a lot to think about here. It’s all presented in an entertaining and challenging tone by West End Players Guild’s excellent cast. A variety of viewpoints are examined frankly and vividly here, and it’s sure to be the starter of some fascinating conversations.

Mara Bollini, Jeff Kargus, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb West End Players' Guild

Mara Bollini, Jeff Kargus, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players’ Guild

Rapture, Blister, Burn is being presented by West End Players Guild at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 22, 2015.

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan, from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Kirsten Wylder
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
November 7, 2015


Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left) Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Pete Winfrey, Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Carl Overly Jr. (clockwise from top left)
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps is the most famous of several filmed adaptations of John Buchan’s 1915 novel. Patrick Barlow’s stage adaption takes both versions, condenses the story, streamlines the cast, and ramps up the comedy in an inventively staged piece that has been performed in London, on Broadway, and in various regional theatres before being taken on by the always adventurous Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Performing in a cleverly arranged production at the Chapel, SATE’s production is characterized by the sense of enthusiasm and excellence for which this company is known.

Telling the story of Richard Hannay (Pete Winfrey), a Londoner who becomes a reluctant participant in an espionage plot. When a mysterious woman (Rachel Tibbetts) who claims to be a secret agent is unexpectedly murdered, Hannay finds himself accused and goes on the run to not only clear his name, but also to stop a nefarious plot that threatens national security. His journey takes him to rural Scotland, where he encounters a variety of characters, including a woman named Pamela (also Tibbetts) who is unwillingly drawn into the adventure, with a lot of twists, turns, and surprises along the way.

The film, and the book on which it is based, are more focused on the suspense and adventure elements, but this adaptation is more of an exaggerated comedy, staged with only four performers. Winfrey, as the hapless Hannay, is the only performer who plays one role throughout. Tibbetts plays three different women with significant roles in Hannay’s story–the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, the suspicious Pamela, and a young Scottish farmer’s wife named Margaret, who helps Hannay despite the objections of her much older, jealous husband. Carl Overly, Jr. and Ellie Schwetye, billed as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2” in the program, play all the other roles in the play, trying on a range of accents and mannerisms in service to the story. All four performers are excellent, with Winfrey and Tibbetts displaying strong chemistry, Tibbetts getting to show off three distinct accents from the exaggerated German (Annabella) and Scottish (Margaret) to Pamela’s upper-class English. Overly and Schwetye are commendably versatile and energetic as the clowns, showing excellent comic timing and strong characterization in several roles each, such as the aforementioned jealous husband, a small hotel owner, and a celebrated theatre performer with a remarkable memory for Overly; and a Scottish innkeeper’s wife and assistant, a villainous spy, and various other roles for Schwetye. These four gifted performers work well to maintain the energy, suspense, and most of all the comedy of this production, with entertaining results.

The staging makes excellent use of the Chapel performance space, setting up three primary performance areas including an old-fashioned Music Hall-styled stage as well as two smaller areas to represent various locations on Hannay’s journey.  The sense of movement is well-maintained, with trips in trains, cars, and on foot contributing to the fast-moving atmosphere of the production. The set, designed by Scott De Broux, is inventive and versatile, and the costumes by Elizabeth Henning range from the historically appropriate to the more whimsical, as is fitting with the overall tone of the production. Erik Kuhn’s lighting and Schwetye’s sound also contribute well to atmosphere of this well-staged production.

I saw this show a few years ago at the Rep, and I enjoyed it, but it’s great to see what an innovative smaller theatre company like SATE is able to do with a show like this. As is usual for this company, SATE delivers a well thought-out, superbly acted and highly entertaining production. It’s definitely one to see before it closes this weekend.

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cast and crew of The 39 Steps
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE’s production of The 39 Steps runs at the Chapel until November 14th, 2015.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
The Fox Theatre
November 6, 2015

Laura Michelle Hughes, Erin Fish, Sarah Smith Photo by Joan Marcus Mamma Mia! National Tour

Laura Michelle Hughes, Erin Fish, Sarah Smith
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mamma Mia! National Tour

Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical done right. I am often highly skeptical of the whole concept of jukebox shows, especially when they’re basically just story-less productions made as an excuse to sing a bunch of popular songs. Still, there are shows in this genre that transcend that expectation, and this one does a good job of that. It’s not a highly substantive show, really, but it’s got an interesting story and it’s fun. The current non-equity tour, playing at the Fox, is a small but well put together production that captures the spirit and fun of the show well.

The story here isn’t particularly deep or profound, but it’s compelling, and the songs from Swedish pop group ABBA are well-incorporated into the plot. It’s a mother and daughter story, really. The daughter, 20 year old Sophie (Kyra Belle Johnson) is about to get married. She’s grown up on a Greek Island resort run by her mother, Donna (Erin Fish), who used to be in a glitzy singing group back in the day, and has raised Sophie on her own. After Sophie discovers via her mother’s diary that there are three men who could possibly be her father, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna. The men are all nice guys but couldn’t be more different–there’s English banker Harry (Andrew Tebo), writer and adventurer Bill (Ryan M. Hunt), and architect Sam (Chad W. Fornwalt). Needless to say, drama ensues when Donna sees them all again, but this is largely an upbeat show, as is fitting with the ABBA music that punctuates the story. Donna’s former bandmates Rose (Sarah Smith) and Tanya (Laura Michelle Hughes) are also on hand to contribute to the comedic aspects of the show.

This is something of a low-budget tour, but smaller is not necessarily a bad thing. The show is vibrant enough that the scaled-down production values work well, with a moveable set and lots of colorful projections. The production is designed by Mark Johnson, with atmospheric lighting by Howard Harrison. The staging is lively and effective, highlighting the more high-energy ABBA songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance On Me”, and lending poignancy to the ballads like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All.”  There were a few issues with the sound in terms of being able to hear the singers over the music, but for the most part, the technical aspects of the show run smoothly.

The excellent cast is in good form here. Fish and Johnson, as Donna and Sophie, are in excellent voice and portray a convincing mother-daughter relationship. They’re engaging and funny when they need to be as well, working well with the three would-be dads, amiably played by Tebo, Hunt, and Fornwalt. Hughes and Smith also lend excellent comic support as the somewhat stuffy Tanya and more adventurous Rosie. Stephen Eckelmann, as Sophie’s fiance, Sky, also gives a fine performance and has good chemistry with Johnson. There’s also an energetic, enthusiastic ensemble to back up the leads, lending vibrancy to the show’s bigger production numbers.

I had never seen Mamma Mia! on stage before, having only seen the film. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this tour, but I was rather pleasantly surprised. This is a well-cast, well staged production that captures the show’s sense of fun and musicality very well. If you like ABBA music especially, this is a worthwhile show to see.

Kyra Belle Johnson, Ryan M. Hunt, Andrew Tebo Photo by Joan Marcus Mamma Mia! National Tour

Kyra Belle Johnson, Ryan M. Hunt, Andrew Tebo
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mamma Mia! National Tour

The Mamma Mia! tour runs at the Fox Theatre until Sunday, November 7th, 2015

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I and You
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Jane Page
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 30, 2015

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

I and You is a surprising play, in more ways than one. Ostensibly a two-person show about a study session between two high school students, the show turns out to be a lot more than that. As presented at the Rep Studio, this is a riveting, challenging, superbly cast play that explores issues of life, death, personal identity, friendship, communication, and more.

The action has already started when the lights go up in this one-act drama, as high school senior Caroline (Danielle Carlacci) is suspiciously questioning Anthony (Reynaldo Piniella), a classmate who has turned up uninvited to her room so they can work on a project for English class. The subject is Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. Before they can work together, however, Anthony has to break through Caroline’s defenses. Chronically ill since early childhood, Caroline is housebound and has made her room into a combination fortress and art gallery, displaying her creative works of photography and keeping in touch with the outside world primarily through social media. When confronted with a person in her room–even if it is the personable, engaging Anthony–Caroline bristles. Soon, however, the poem works its magic and the two are confronting not only its language and Whitman’s worldview, but their own fears, hopes, dreams, and desires for connection.

This play is a character study, but it’s more than that. It’s structured in a believable way that makes the conversations and interactions seem completely natural for a pair of teenagers who apparently have just met. Both characters confront one another’s assumptions and expectations, and their wrestling with Whitman’s language and concepts is entirely compelling, as Caroline tries to save Anthony’s sub-par poster and Anthony challenges Caroline to let down her guard and confront her own mortality. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though. It’s definitely got some surprises in the mix, and the ending is a stunner that I didn’t predict at all, but still made complete sense in hindsight and didn’t come across as a trick or a gimmick.

The actors here are truly remarkable. Carlacci, as the diminutive but tough Caroline, is completly convincing as a teenager who has been so preoccupied by her health issues that she’s afraid to let herself hope for the future. Pinellia is charming as Anthony, an outgoing, friendly guy who is every bit as stubborn as Caroline, and is able to convincingly coax her out from behind her emotional wall. The staging is remarkable, as well, with the body language thoroughly authentic to how two teenagers who are just getting to know one another would act.

Technically, this show is as impressive as its story and its performances. The set is static for the most part. Designed by Eric Barker, it’s a detailed, accurate representation of a creative teenage girl’s room that has also become her sanctuary. The costumes by Marci Franklin are well-suited to the characters, and there is some striking lighting by John Wylie and memorable sound designed by Rusty Wandall. Just as there are a few dramatic surprises in this production, there are some technical surprises as well, and those are extremely effective.

I and You is the Rep Studio’s first production of the current season, and it’s a winner. I don’t want to say too much, because that would really spoil the drama of this excellent and unique work of theatrical excellence. All I can say is, go see this! It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, well thought-out, and profoundly effective.

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr. Repetory Theatre of St. Louis

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Repetory Theatre of St. Louis

I and You runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre until November 15, 2015

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