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Archive for December, 2015

Sublime Intimacy
by Ken Page
Directed by Ken Page
Max & Louie Productions
December 11, 2015

J. Samuel Davis, Bethany Barr, Alfredo Solivan Photo by Patrick Huber Max & Louie Productions

J. Samuel Davis, Bethany Barr, Alfredo Solivan
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Ken Page is something of a living legend in St. Louis theatre. A veteran Broadway actor and singer, Page has become a fixture at the Muny and in the local theatre community, especially since moving back here to his hometown a few years ago. Page has now taken much of his own memory and life experience, as well as the stories of friends, and portrayed them in a new play, Sublime Intimacy, which is currently being presented in an impressive, ambitious staging by Max & Louie Productions.

Page, who also directed this play, explains in his directors’ note in the program that he was inspired by the stories of friends over the years who have relayed their stories of searching for, and occasionally achieving, a level of connection and intimacy that goes beyond the sexual into a more spiritual and emotional level. That’s the “sublime intimacy” of the play’s title, and Page’s stories revolve largely around dance. Using one dancer (Alfredo Solivan) to portray several different characters representing the “muse” or “ultimate love” or “unattainable ideal” of various figures in the play, Page relates the stories as narrated by his obvious fictionalized representation, Tim Pace (J. Samuel Davis).  He takes us into the world of actors and artists in early 1970s St. Louis, 1970s and ’80s New York, Los Angeles in the 1940’s and 1990’s, along with a brief trip to Paris in 1980 and a return to St. Louis in the early 2000’s. He follows a group of gay men including the initially troubled young artist Gene Donovan (Michael Cassidy Flynn) and his intellectual friends Don Taylor (John Flack) and Bill Ross (Reginald Pierre), as well as other friends also played by Flack and Pierre at various moments in time. There’s also Katharine Reilly (Bethany Hart), a theatre teacher and actress who seems to find herself frequently falling in love with gay men, including her childhood friend Michael, represented by Solivan who also portrays Gene’s artistic “muse’–a Washington University dancer named Steve, as well as important figures in stories told by Don and later Tim.

Perhaps this play’s greatest strength is its extremely vivid sense of time and place. Page deftly transports his audience back to the St. Louis academic community in 1972, as well as to its other times and cities with vivid description and characterization. Especially powerful are the experiences of Gene, a young gay man learning to accept his sexuality, as well as Don, an older gay man remembering what it was like to be a Hollywood movie extra in the 1940’s with a strong attraction to a dancer from a movie filming at the same studio. Katharine’s stories, that interweave with those of Gene and Tim, are also memorable, as is Tim’s brief interaction with a dancer he meets in Paris. The dance sequences are beautifully danced by Solivan, who makes a believable representation of the various objects of affection, desire, and inspiration for the characters. Sometimes the play tends to get a little talky, but for the most part it’s a fascinating trip through time, place, and imagination, anchored by some excellent performances–especially by Davis, Barr, and Flack, who has perhaps the most memorable and sensitively portrayed moments in the play recounting his Hollywood story.

Technically, the production is imaginative and cleverly staged, with a striking, versatile set by Dunsi Dai. There are also marvelously evocative period costumes by Teresa Doggett, and a truly excellent use of music, consisting of some popular music of the 1970’s and atmospheric original music by Henry Palkes. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also impressive, contributing a somewhat ethereal atmosphere to the production and helping to maintain the overall lyrical tone.

It’s obvious from seeing Sublime Intimacy that Ken Page’s memory is vivid, as are his imagination and his artistic sensibility. This isn’t a flawless work–there are some moments that seemed slow at times–but for the most part it’s highly emotional, excellently acted, and fascinating to watch. It’s a strong original effort by Page and company, and it’s well worth seeing and experiencing.

Alfredo Solivan, John Flack Photo by Dunsi Dai Max & Louie Productions

Alfredo Solivan, John Flack
Photo by Dunsi Dai
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions, in association with Ken Page, presents Sublime Intimacy at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until December 20, 2015.

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Wicked
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Winnie Holzman

Based on the Novel by Gregory McGuire
Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento
Directed by Joe Mantello
The Fox Theatre
December 10, 2015

Cast of Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus Wicked US National Tour

Cast of Wicked
Photo by Joan Marcus
Wicked North American Tour

It seems like Wicked has become something more of a phenomenon than simply a musical. It’s one of those shows that’s so beloved and that has such a devoted following that it has essentially become “critic-proof”. No matter what I or other reviewers say about the current touring production at the Fox, positive or negative, people will see it and love it. Still, it’s my job to write what I think, and I think the current production is, for the most part, excellent.

Wicked is basically a revisionist take on The Wizard of Oz, focusing on the “good witch” Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper) and the “Wicked Witch of the West”, or as she is called here, Elphaba (Mary Kate Morrissey, standing in for principal Emily Koch). This story takes everything you think you know about the Oz story and turns it around, where the witches are given backstories and the villains aren’t who you might think they are. In fact, both Elphaba and Glinda, although each has flaws, are portrayed as sympathetic college roommates, with Elphaba being the more misunderstood outcast (because she’s green) and Glinda the more outgoing personality who is well-loved by her fellow students. After initial animosity demonstrated in the production number “What Is This Feeling?” an unlikely friendship is eventually formed, but the story doesn’t end there. Presenting a unique twist on various Oz characters, we meet the cast of varying characters such as Elphaba’s despondent sister Nessarose (Megan Masako Haley), who is obsessed with the Munchkin Boq (Sam Seferian), who is in turn infatuated with Glinda. There’s also the self-absorbed prince Fiyero (Jake Boyd) who becomes involved with both Glinda and Elphaba. The story also involves something of a politcal plot that involves the illustrious Wizard himself (Stuart Zagnit) and the university’s scheming headmistress, Madame Morrible (Wendy Worthington). Needless to say, there’s a lot of plot, although the emphasis throughout is on the development of the Elphaba and Glinda characters and their growing and changing relationship.

I have to admit that, when it comes to this show, I’m in the “like it but don’t love it” camp. It’s an entertaining enough show, with some memorable music including the signature power ballads for Elphaba, “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity” as well as the perky “Popular” for Glinda and some memorable production numbers like “What Is This Feeling” and “One Short Day”. The best thing about the show is the developing friendship between the two main characters, and the way each character grows and changes. Still, there are some clunky lyrics and the dramatic tone changes a little too quickly once the characters get to the Emerald City, and the ending… Well, I won’t spoil it, but I think it’s not a little contrived. Wicked is a good show, but I don’t think it’s a great one, and I know some fans will passionately disagree with me about that.

Despite my personal opinion about the show itself, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser that resonates profoundly with its fans, and it can be extremely entertaining with some genuinely moving moments. As presented on tour, the production values are top-notch, with vibrant settings by Eugene Lee, colorful costumes by Susan Hilferty, spectacular lighting by Kenneth Posner and special effects by Chic Silber (including the spellbinding “Defying Gravity” sequence). It’s all kind of Steampunk-ish with gears everywhere and mechanical devices like a giant dragon that surmounts the stage and the “bubble” in which Glinda arrives to start the show. It’s all very stylish and extremely well-executed, except for the sound, which was so choppy at times that it was difficult to understand the words to the songs, especially in the production numbers in the first act. If I didn’t already know the songs, I probably would have been at a loss. Otherwise, it’s a well-presented show, with strong, dynamic staging that moves the story along well.

The cast is excellent as well. Cooper as Glinda was a standout for me, making her tour debut in St.Louis and doing an excellent job, portraying the character’s bubbly energy well, but especially coming alive in the second act as her character matures and is called upon to display more leadership qualities. Morrissey, the stand-by for Elaphaba, is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a great voice for those big songs. Her chemistry with Cooper is excellent, as is that with the amiable Boyd in the somewhat underwritten role of Fiyero. There are also extremely strong performances from Zagnit as the conflicted Wizard and Worthington as the conniving Madame Morrible. There are fine performances all around, in fact, and an energetic ensemble that performs well in the show’s production numbers.

Wicked is Wicked, simply stated. It’s an entertaining show that offers an alternative take on the familiar Oz tale, and it’s staged with energy and flair. As presented by the current North American touring company at the Fabulous Fox, this Wicked is a big, stylish, thoroughly enjoyable production.

Cast of Wicked Photo by Joan Marcus Wicked North American Tour

Cast of Wicked
Photo by Joan Marcus
Wicked North American Tour

 The North American touring production of Wicked runs at the Fox Theatre until January 3, 2016.

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Bad Jews
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 6, 2015

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Bad Jews is a provocative title in and of itself. Joshua Harmon’s darkly comic play, currently playing at the New Jewish Theatre, is certainly thought-provoking. Exploring the issues of Jewish identity, family relationships, and personal grief, this play takes a broadly confrontational approach that’s sure to be the impetus for much thought and conversation among viewers.

The story follows three cousins after the death of their beloved grandfather, Poppy, who was a respected community leader and Holocaust survivor. The contrast between the cousins couldn’t be greater. All three are Jewish, but their views about Judaism and how it relates to them personally couldn’t be more different. Daphna Feygenbaum (Em Piro) is the ostentatiously devout cousin, for whom Judaism means following and studying the religious teachings and constantly holding her cousins accountable for not being as observant as she is. She gets along reasonably well with her mild-mannered younger cousin Jonah (Pete Winfrey), who keeps a lot of his own personal views to himself and mostly tries to keep from being caught in the middle between cousin Daphna and his older brother Liam (Antonio Rodriguez), a grad student and self-described “Bad Jew” who identifies as an atheist and is constantly at odds with Daphna, who he insists on referring to not by her chosen name but by her given name, Diana. Also brought into the midst of all the acrimony is Melody (Taylor Steward), Liam’s somewhat flighty, non-Jewish girlfriend who becomes a further point of contention between Liam and Daphna. The real struggle, though, is over what to do about a cherished family heirloom–Poppy’s “chai” necklace. “Chai” means “life” in Hebrew, and the necklace was a valued personal treasure of Poppy’s that he kept with him throughout his time in a concentration camp during World War II. For the cousins, and especially for Daphna and Liam, this valued item holds different meanings–a personal connection to Poppy, but also different aspects of his story that resonate differently with them.

The characters, like the play, are a study in extremes with one exception, which presents the play’s biggest problem. The Jonah character simply isn’t defined enough to hold up between the two extremes of his brother and cousin. Melody is also an extreme in a way, but not as sharply defined as the increasingly caustic Liam and Daphna. The actors do an excellent job of making the characters believable, though, especially the likeable Winfrey as the more moderate Jonah. Steward plays the somewhat vacuous Melody with about as much depth as the character could display. Piro, as Daphna, is full of zeal and talks a mile a minute, making her character’s implacable determination somewhat bearable for a time. The same goes for Rodriguez, who gives an energetic performance as Liam, who is preoccupied in a way both by his hatred of his cousin and his love of Melody.

Daphna and Liam both make points worth thinking about, although this play seems to be designed to raise issues for thinking about rather than offering concrete resolutions. A lot of important issues are raised considering personal identity, the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism, and also generally how adult cousins can relate to one another. In fact, one of the play’s highlights is when the cousins are able to put their differences aside for just a few minutes as they share a personal story of a shared memory of Poppy. One of the best successes of this play is that Poppy, who necessarily doesn’t appear on stage, is such a well-realized character. 

The set, designed by Dunsi Dai, is an authentically realized representation of a high-end New York apartment, appropriately cluttered because it’s been serving basically as a temporary residence for the cousins. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes represent the characters well, from the upwardly mobile Liam and Melody, to the more casual attire of Daphna and Jonah.  There’s also fine work from lighting designer Kimberly Klearman, props designer Kyra Bishop, and sound designer Zoe Sullivan, providing a suitable atmosphere for the situations of the play.

Bad Jews is a play that raises a lot of important, relevant issues for today’s world. Sometimes, I think the tone can get in the way of the issues, and I do wish the Jonah character had been better developed especially. Still for the most part this is an intense, well thought-out play that explores a modern family dealing with some important and sometimes polarizing issues.

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Bad Jews at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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The Gin Game
by Donald Coburn
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 5, 2015

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis is a great theatre town, and we have a host of first-rate theatre companies with some top-notch talent. St. Louis Actors’ studio is one of those fine companies. The latest entry in their current season, The Gin Game, highlights the talents of two of St. Louis’s more renowned and remarkable performers.

The story takes place at the Bentley Home for Seniors, and revolves around the relationship between two of its residents, Weller Martin (Peter Mayer) and Fonsia Dorsey (Linda Kennedy) as the two get to know one another over a series of games of gin rummy. It’s a fairly simple premise, but there’s a lot more to this story than two people playing cards. Charles Coburn’s excellently crafted script uses the card games as an opportunity to reveal important aspects of the characters, as well as to make some subtle and not-so-subtle statements about society’s attitudes toward the elderly. The relationship dynamic is extremely well developed, as well, as the initially good-natured games develop a combative quality that tells us a lot about these two people and how they relate to each other, themselves, the other residents of the home, their families, and the world around them. It’s generally comedic in tone, but the mood gets more and more serious as the play progresses, expressing elements of regret and bitterness that lend drama to the characters’ witty exchanges.

The acting here is as excellent as the script, doing justice to the top-notch writing. Mayer’s Weller is alternately charming and acerbic, with a temper that reveals itself more in the succession of gin games. Kennedy’s Fonsia is warm, friendly and seemingly shy at first, although she soon displays a strength and competitive quality that surprises both Weller and the audience. The chemistry between the two is superb, as a tentative friendship grows into a more sparring type relationship where each one is, in his or her own way, vying for control. Mayer and Kennedy portray this relationship with expert precision, displaying a strong sense of comedy and drama as the story requires. The final moments of the play are powerfully effective, leaving an impression that is likely to keep the viewer thinking for a while after the lights go up. It’s a commendable feat for both performers, portraying a broad range of emotions and maintaining the pace of the play and bringing the characters to vivid life.

The set, designed by Cristie Johnston, is appropriately detailed, representing the somewhat neglected porch of the retirement home and setting the mood and atmosphere of the play well, in addtion to Carla Landis Evans’s props, which also contribute to the overall “lived-in” atmosphere of the set. Evans’s costumes fit the characters well, and Dalton Robison’s lighting is equally evocative and excellent.  I’m continually impressed by the production values of STLAS shows, considering the small stage they have to work with. That space is put to excellent use here, providing the ideal showcase for this well-written play and masterful performances.

The Gin Game is a celebrated play that has been revived several times on Broadway, including a production that’s currently running. At STLAS, the performances of Mayer and Kennedy are worthy to be celebrated. A sharply written, Pulitzer Prize-winning script and those excellent performances make this production a truly memorable and not-to-be-missed theatrical event.

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Gin Game is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until December 20, 2015.

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Peter and the Starcatcher
by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Blake Robison
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 4th, 2015

Spencer Davis Milford, Betsy Hogg (Center) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Spencer Davis Milford, Betsy Hogg (Center) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Peter and the Starcatcher is such a clever, whimsical, witty and enchanting play. I loved it when I saw the National Tour a few years ago at the Peabody, and now it’s being staged in a new production at the Rep, and I’ve been more than happy to revisit this marvelous show. The rep’s production, if anything, is even more cleverly staged than the tour, and with its charming cast and top-notch production values, it’s a real treat.

The problem with telling the story of this play is that so much of the action depends on surprise, and how the story ultimately relates to the classic story of Peter Pan. I’ll just say that it involves a sea voyage on two different sailing vessels, as well as pirates, orphans, mermaids, a tropical island, and a mysterious substance known as “Star Stuff”. The central figures are young Molly Aster (Betsy Hogg) and an initially unnamed orphan Boy (Spencer Davis Milford), who meet on board the ship Neverland while Molly is on a mission to support her father, Lord Aster (Clinton Brandhagen), who is sailing to the same destination on a different ship in order to deliver a dangerous cargo. The story also features the grand villainy of the ambitious Black Stache (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), who along with his henchman Smee (Jose Restrepo) and their gang of pirates, aims to disrupt Asters’ mission and claim the supposed treasure for themselves.  Much hilarity and adventure ensues in the process, with strong storytelling and inventive staging helping to advance the somewhat complicated but still entirely engaging plot.

The technical qualities of this production are nothing short of superb. With a strikingly minimalist set designed by James Kronzer and consisting mostly of a ladder and a series of trapdoors, the story is brought to vibrant life. There’s excellent lighting by Kenton Yeager, and the costumes by David Kay Mickelson are marvelously versatile and meticulously detailed. The music is also put to good use, including a fun, fanciful number that begins Act 2 and has most of the cast dressed as mermaids. It’s a fast-moving, intricately staged production where timing is essential, and every move is executed with the utmost precision.

The cast is a delight, across the board. Milford as the Boy and Hogg as Molly command the stage with their winning performances and strong chemistry. Hawkins is a comic treat as Black Stache, as well, providing many of the show’s comic highlights and supported with equal energy by Retrepo as Smee.  There are also standout performances by Andy Paterson as Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, Nick Vannoy as the smitten sailor Alf, and Andrew Carlyle and Sean Mellott as the Boy’s friends and fellow orphans, Ted and Prentiss. There’s so much energy, charm, and wit in this cast, and every player contributes to the sheer madcap joy of the production.

It’s fun to see how all the elements of the story are introduced and then brought together at the end to form a cohesive prologue to the more familiar Peter Pan story, but to say to much would take away from the pure wonder of this show. Peter and the Starcatcher is, simply put, a marvelous show. The Rep’s production is a treat from start to finish, and an adventure well worth taking.

Jose Restrepo, Jeffrey C. Hawkins Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jose Restrepo, Jeffrey C. Hawkins
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Peter and the Starcatcher is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until December 27, 2015.

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Devil Boys From Beyond
By Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliott
Original Score and Sound Design by Drew Fornarola
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 3, 2015

Sarajane Alverson, Jonathan Hey, Michael Juncal, Teryl Thurman Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Jonathan Hey, Michael Juncal, Teryl Thurman
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Devil Boys From Beyond is like a trip to a drive-in movie circa 1957, but with a decidedly 21st century twist and carloads of snark, irony, and raunchy humor. A broadly satirical send-up of old “B” grade sci-fi films, Devil Boys is the latest offering from Stray Dog Theatre. While this isn’t a particularly deep or profound play, that’s not the point. It’s got a strong cast of enthusiastic actors hamming it up for all the story’s worth.

Unusual things are happening in the small town of Lizard Lick, Florida, and acclaimed New York reporter Matilda “Mattie” Van Buren (Sarjane Alverson) is sent to investigate. Accompanied by her photographer ex-husband Gregory Graham (Stephen Peirick) and followed by her rival, the snarky Lucinda Marsh (Michael Baird), Mattie questions the need for such a sensationalist story despite the insistence of her editor, Gilbert Wiatt (Jonathan Hey). Upon arriving in Lizard Lick after a somewhat slow, talky start, the story gets moving as Mattie and Gregory meet some of the local residents–elderly women such as Florence Wexler (Michael Juncal) and Dotty Primrose (Teryl Thurman) who are minimizing the reported alien invasion and enjoying time with their husbands, who have apparently been transformed into young, scantily clad hunks (Ryan Wiechmann, Brandon Brendel).  Throw in the family secrets, Gregory’s struggle to quit drinking, Lucinda’s meddling, an “alien baby” in a jar, and quite a few surprising plot twists and the show makes for a broad, deliberately overwrought story that provokes not much thought, but a lot of laughs.

The story is presented in the old-school, overacted style of a bad sci-fi film, but ramped up to 11.  The acting is deliberately overdone, and hammed up marvelously by Alverson as the intrepid 50s reporter Mattie, Peirick as the conflicted Gregory, and especially Baird as the villainous Lucinda and Juncal as the enthusiastically obstructive Florence. Both actors play their female roles convincingly and with good, hilariously exaggerated comic flair. Wiechmann, as “Harry Wexler”, and Brendel as “Sheriff Jack Primrose” play their roles with energy and charm, as well, and Hey gives a fine performance as old-movie style hard-boiled newspaper editor Wiatt.

The technical aspects of the show are fine and in the satirical spirit of the story, as well. The set, by Justin Been, consists primarily of a giant vintage postcard-styled billboard for Lizard Lick, along with furniture as needed to set the scenes. There are also some fun props including the “alien baby”, and Eileen Engel’s costumes are colorful and appropriate for the period and tone of the show. A real highlight of the production is the original score and sound design, by Drew Fornarola. The score, including atmospheric melodramatic music and one torch-song musical number for Alverson, ideally sets and maintains the overall mood of the show and provides an excellent soundtrack for the action.

Overall, I would say Devil Boys From Beyond is a fun show, but that’s about it. The performances are all fine and funny, but there is a little bit of a sense of being so ironic and overdone that it’s somewhat difficult to get fully immersed in the experience of the play. It’s all artifice. It’s funny, enjoyable artifice, and with some fun gags and jokes, but there’s not much else beyond that. It also takes a while for the plot to really get moving. Still, with Stray Dog’s enthusiastic, energetic cast, this production makes for an enjoyable, somewhat nostalgic cinematic and theatrical experience.

Sarajne Alverson, Stephen Peirick, Michael Baird Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajne Alverson, Stephen Peirick, Michael Baird
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Devil Boys From Beyond is being presented by Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 19. 2015.

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