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Archive for January, 2016

Georama
Book by West Hyler and Matt Schatz
Music and Lyrics by Matt Schatz
Directed by West Hyler
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 23, 2016

Jillian Louis, P.J. Griffith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jillian Louis, P.J. Griffith
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Once upon a time, before photography was common or practical, and way before movies, the best way to see parts of the world you couldn’t visit was through paintings. Many of those huge panoramic paintings, and their painters, are now largely lost to history, but the Rep Studio’s latest World Premiere production, the musical Georama, is shining the spotlight back on one such painter, John Banvard, whose subject matter was the colossal, rolling Mississippi River. Taking the audience back in time to the 1840’s through song, story, and an impressively painted scrolling backdrop, Georama is a delight.

The story is framed as something of a folk tale, with Banvard (P.J. Griffith) as its hero, who according to the prologue is “the most famous man that you ain’t never heard of”. Two traveling musicians (Emily Mikesell, Jacob Yates) narrate the tale at various points and provide the musical accompaniment. It’s a folksy, Americana-ish score, with styles reminiscent of 19th century popular songs and more modern folk/country music to set the mood. As Banvard starts his career, he’s an itinerant portrait painter, until he’s discovered by aspiring showman and entrepeneur Taylor (Randy Blair) and goes to work painting backdrops on a showboat run by William Chapman (Dan Sharkey). The idea of a scrolling panorama is eventually born, and after some disagreements about promotion, Banvard strikes out on his own to explore the river and do more painting. He then meets up with Elizabeth (Jillian Louis), a pastor’s daughter and aspiring musician who has the idea of adding music to Banvard’s presentations. She joins him in his travels, and the operation grows in scope and renown, eventually ending up in London, while they eventually re-encounter Taylor, who has made his success under a slightly different form of his name, which I won’t spoil here but will be instantly recognized. As Banvard’s fame grows, however, so do his conflicts, as he and Elizabeth deal with differing priorities and the very nature and purpose of art, family, and home.

The form here works very well for this piece. The Rep’s studio space has been changed around to create an old-fashioned stage setup, with a magnificent scrolling panorama that serves as Banvard’s “Georama” and also as incidental backgrounds at various moments in the show. Set designer Scott C. Neale and scenic artists Emily Frei and Ryan Marshall have created a wondrous atmosphere with a richly detailed painting that, when scrolling, creates the sense of movement across the wide American countryside along the great Mississippi river, as well as showcasing other locations like London and New York. The costumes, designed by Margaret Weedon, are also impressively detailed. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute to the overall effect. The music is also expertly performed by Mikesell and Yates, as well as Louis on the piano and harmonium.

As Banvard, Griffith brings just the right blend of qualities for a likable if conflicted hero. He’s got lots of charm, and a strong singing voice, as well as good comic ability when needed. His chemistry with Louis’s determined, feisty Elizabeth is excellent as well. Louis has a particularly impressive singing voice on ballads and more upbeat songs alike. Blair is appropriately ingratiating and scheming as the ambitious Taylor, and Sharkey is a standout in various roles, including the initially imposing but ultimately sympathetic Chapman. Sharkey also has a delightful scene-stealing moment as Queen Victoria, delivering top-notch comic relief when the show arrives in London, with the hilarious and ever-so-slightly risque song “Just a Little”. Mikesell and Yates make engaging narrators, as well.

The show does have a few minor issues, such as occasional clunky lyrics and awkward rhymes, as well as a story structure that moves a little too quickly in the second act.  Still, it’s a remarkable achievement and a thoroughly entertaining presentation telling the story of a once-celebrated artist who has mostly faded from the history books. Georama takes its audience on a tour of the Mississippi River and 19th Century America and beyond with heart, energy, a tuneful score, and a great cast. And that painting is a wonder in itself.

Randy Blair Photo by P.J. Griffith Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Randy Blair
Photo by P.J. Griffith
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Georama runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre until February 7th, 2016

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Newsies
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Jack Feldman, Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jeff Calhoun
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli
The Fox Theatre
January 19, 2016

Joey Barreiro (center) and Cast Photo by Deen van Meer Newsies North American Tour

Joey Barreiro (center) and Cast
Photo by Deen van Meer
Newsies North American Tour

Newsies is a big, bold, energetic musical based on a cult-classic Disney movie of the same name. It’s on the second leg of its North American tour now, and it’s finally making a stop in St. Louis.  I saw the tour in Chicago in late 2014 and enjoyed it. This year, the cast is mostly new but it’s the same entertaining show.

Newsies is Disney’s retelling of the 1899 newsboys’ strike in New York, given the family-show treatment and lots of energy and optimism. It follows a group of “Newsies” led by the enterprising orphan Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), along with his friends Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) and “new kids”, brothers Davey (Stephen Michael Langton)–who becomes essentially Jack’s deputy–and feisty 10-year-old Les (John Michael Pitera, alternating with Ethan Steiner). Upset when New York World newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the prices that the newsies have to pay for their papers, Jack gathers his buddies to launch a strike against the paper, and eventually other New York papers as well. Into the midst of this situation comes Katherine (Morgan Keene), a young woman reporter who writes about the strike and is attracted to Jack, who likes her back even though there’s one important fact about her that he doesn’t know.

This is a fun show, plain and simple. It’s not particularly deep or reflective, but there’s some good music and some especially extraordinary dancing, choreographed by Christopher Gatelli. It’s the kind of high energy, athletic, jumping and tapping and leaping and cartwheeling kind of dancing that gives this show its real spark. In fact, I would say that the real stars of this edition of the tour are the newsies themselves. With their considerable dance skills, charm, and ensemble chemistry, these guys carry the show in enemble numbers like “Carrying the Banner”, “Seize the Day”, and “King of New York”. The rest of the cast is fine, with the standouts being Sayle as the amiable Crutchie, Langton as the earnest Davey, and Pitera as his spunky little brother Les. Aisha De Haas is also excellent as the newsies’ main adult ally, singer Medda Larkin. Blanchard, who along with Sayle has been with the tour from the beginning, is good in this portrayal of Pulitzer as somewhat of a cartoonish villain. Barreiro is fine as Jack, displaying a lot of energy, although he’s not quite convincing as a teenager, and his chemistry with Keene’s more lackluster Katherine is not particularly convincing. Still, this is a show that’s sure to entertain especially because of that top-notch ensemble.

The set, designed by Tobin Ernst, is still spectacular, with its movable beams and grids, and wonderful use of projections, originally designed by Sven Ortel and adapted by Daniel Brodie. The costumes, by Jess Goldstein, are colorful and period appropriate, and they suit the characters well. For once, the sound, designed by Ken Travis–works well at the Fox, too. I’ve noticed sound problems in several touring shows that have played here, but Newsies does well, and every word of dialogue and the lyrics of every song are clearly audible. The show presents something of a stylized version of late 19th-Century New York, in keeping with the upbeat, more family-focused theme, but it’s a well-realized vision that contributes to the vibrancy of the production.

Newsies at the Fox might not be quite as stellar as it was in Chicago, but it’s still lots of fun. Ultimately, a show like this is about telling its story and doing so in an entertaining fashion. Newsies does that, with a delightful ensemble and a memorable score. I’m glad St. Louis audiences now have the chance to see it.

Cast of Newsies Photo by Deen Van Meer Newsies North American Tour

Cast of Newsies
Photo by Deen Van Meer
Newsies North American Tour

The North American tour of Newsies runs at the Fox Theatre until January 31, 2016.

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Sunset Baby
by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 15, 2016

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Which comes first, your family or the cause? That dilemma and the consequences of it are a major focus of Dominique Morriseau’s Sunset Baby. It’s a drama of relationships, dreams, and ideals, currently being given a sensitive and well-cast production at the Black Rep.

Kenyatta Shakur (Ron Himes) is the famous leader of a 1980’s black revolutionary movement, who has spent a lot of time in jail as a result of his activism. He has an adult daughter, Nina (Erin Renee Roberts), who didn’t see much of her father when she was growing up, instead being raised by her mother, another famous activist who has recently died after a long battle with drug addiction. When Kenyatta shows up at Nina’s Brooklyn apartment after many years of estrangement, he’s looking for some letters that Nina’s mother had written to him but never mailed. Nina, however, is suspicious of her father’s motives, since various others are also interested in the letters and are willing to spend a great deal of money for them. Forced to drop out of college due to money and having to take care of her mother, she’s now living in a run-down apartment and making a living as a hustler along with her boyfriend, Damon (Lawd Gabe), a drug dealer who also has a child of his own from a previous relationship. Nina, who was named after the famous singer Nina Simone, often spends time listening to Simone’s music and hoping for a future outside of New York, a dream that is fueled by watching travel shows on TV. In the midst of this situation comes her father, who also is shown making a series of videos for Nina. He’s looking to reconnect with his daughter as well as reading the letters, but Nina doesn’t know who to trust. The contrast between Kenyatta and Damon is a major element of the story, as is Kenyatta’s desire to let Nina know how much she and her mother mean to him, as well as the continuing importance of the cause.

This is a small-cast, character-driven play and the actors fit their characters well. Himes projects a combined sense of weariness, regret, concern, and hope as Kenyatta. He doesn’t particularly look like a famous revolutionary, but that’s part of the point, I think. He’s a man and a father who went through some very real struggles for his cause and for the people involved, including his family. That shows in Himes’ performance, and his scenes with Roberts are particularly affecting. Roberts admirably portrays a range of qualities as well, from anger, resentment, and suspicion, to aspiration and hope. Gabe, as Damon, is alternately charming, crafty, and dejected, and he has some strong scenes with both Roberts and Himes. The heart of the drama, though, is the relationship between Kenyatta, Nina, and Nina’s late mother, who never appears except in one projected still image and in a painted silhouette that hangs on Nina’s wall. She’s just as a much a character in the play as the rest. She’s not there, but she’s there, and the production does a good job of creating that sense of familial presence between her and the living, on stage characters of the man she loved and their daughter.

The staging is simple but inventive, with a set by Jim Burkwinkel that consists of two distinct areas–Nina’s apartment and Kenyatta’s room, where he sits to record the videos for his daughter. There’s also excellent use of projections by Mark Wilson. The costumes designed by Daryl Harris are excellent as well, particularly in Nina’s range of distinctive outfits and wigs. There’s good use of lighting as well, designed by Sean Savoie and appropriately setting the mood for the scenes set at various times of day.

Although sometimes I wish there would have been more to this script in terms of background and motivations for the characters (especially Damon, who is the most underwritten), this production is staged well with a strong sense of drama and relationship. It’s an intriguing play that also deals with extremely timely issues of how civil rights activists are treated (and mistreated) by authorities, while more overtly it’s about the father-daughter relationship. It’s a memorable piece of theatre that raises many important questions, and it’s well worth checking out.

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Erin Renee Roberts, Lawd Gabe
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Sunset Baby is being presented by The Black Rep at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 31, 2016.

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The Lion In Winter
by James Goldman
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 8, 2016

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Ryan Ward, Carol Schultz, Wilson Bridges, Kurt Hellerich, Jeffrey King
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Who wants to be the King of England? The race for succession is something of a free-for-all in James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter, the first play of 2016 for the Rep. It’s an intrigue-filled, witty and dynamic historical dramatization that positively crackles with energy on stage.

The Lion In Winter is perhaps best remembered for the marvelous 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and a young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. I had seen the movie years ago and remembered the strength of the performances, but it was so long ago that I had forgotten a lot of the details. This play, based somewhat loosely on the history of England’s King Henry II (Jeffrey King), is full of sharp dialogue, drama, and lots and lots of humor. That last part is what surprised me the most, actually.  It’s a very sharply written script with extremely well-developed characters including Henry’s estranged wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Carol Schultz), and the latest object of his affections, Alais (Angela Janas), who grew up in Henry’s court and was betrothed to his son Richard (Grayson DeJesus) at an early age, although she is now Henry’s mistress and is being used as something of a bargaining tool in the constant machinations concerning who is actually going to inherit the throne.  There’s Richard, the eldest surviving son and the obvious candidate, as he’s a skilled soldier and charismatic leader. He’s also Eleanor’s choice to be the next king. Henry’s choice, for whatever reason, is his petulant and immature youngest son, John (Kurt Hellerich), who Henry also wants to marry Alais in Richard’s place, despite the objections of her brother Philip (Ryan Ward), the King of France, who is currently in attendance at Henry’s palace for his Christmas court. In between these two candidates stands the crafty, well-educated and duplicitous middle son, Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges), who doesn’t initially seem to want to be King very much, but as the plot develops, so do his and everyone else’s ambitions. The center of the play is the combative, contentious, and oddly still affectionate relationship between Henry and Eleanor, who despite having been imprisoned by him for years, still loves him in her way.

It’s the relationships, the incisive dialogue laced with cutting humor, and the strongly developed characterizations that make this play so intensely fascinating, and it’s a brilliant showcase for the Rep’s excellent cast. It’s easy to see in King’s boisterous, confrontational, and charming performance how his three very different sons all take after him in their own ways. Richard’s bravado, Geoffrey’s scheming wit, and John’s almost childlike sense of entitlement are all reflected in King’s vibrant portrayal. Schultz, as the proud Eleanor, matches King scene for scene, and it’s their chemistry that drives the show. Schultz also does an excellent job of portraying Eleanor’s underlying sense of loneliness and rejection without losing that stubborn determination that keeps her going. As the sons, DeJesus is memorable as the soldierly but conflicted Richard, Bridges is deliciously snide as Geoffrey, and Hellerich is convincing as the snippy, bratty youngest son John. There’s also good work from Ward as the still fairly young King of France, Philip, who harbors a secret past with Richard and strives to be taken seriously as a monarch by Henry. Janas, as Alais, is also fine as a young woman who genuinely loves Henry, but is growing increasingly weary of being used as a pawn in his schemes.

Visually, the production has an authentic look with something of a modern twist. Mathew J. Lebebvre’s costumes are appropriately detailed, with rich, regal colors and textures, while Joseph P. Tilford’s set is more suggestive than deliberately realistic. Flanked by giant statues enclosed in glass-covered pillars, the stage has somewhat of the feel of a medieval exhibit at a museum. The furniture and set pieces give the production the right historical atmosphere with a degree of artifice that works well for the tone of the play. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Thomas C. Hase and sound by Rusty Wandall, with an excellent use of scene-setting music.

This is a much funnier play than I had been expecting. Perhaps I need to see the movie again, but I didn’t remember that tone from the film. As directed at the Rep by Edward Stern, the top-notch cast makes the most of every line of dialogue and every tense moment. Although it might not be entirely historically accurate, it’s a bold, fascinating dramatization that’s riveting from start to finish. It’s an intelligent, highly energetic, first-rate production.

lioninwinter2

Grayson DeJesus, Carol Schultz Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Lion in Winter runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until January 31, 2016.

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