Archive for February, 2016

Beautiful, the Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath
Words and Music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Fox Theatre
February 23, 2016

Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller, Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig Photo by Joan Marcus Beautiful National Tour

Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller, Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig
Photo by Joan Marcus
Beautiful North American Tour

Carole King is a living legend. First as a songwriter and then as a  singer-songwriter, she made a name for herself in the music industry with many memorable hits. Even today, many people who don’t recognize her name will know her songs. Beautiful, The Carole King Musical tells the story of how she came to fame, as well as giving us a picture of the developing music scene in the 60s and 70s. The show was a big hit and is still running on Broadway, and now the North American Tour has brought this vibrant show to St. Louis, with an excellent cast and a whole lot of energy.

Although I’m generally skeptical of “jukebox” musicals, I had heard great things about this one, as well as comparisons to one of the best of this type of show, Jersey Boys.  Beautiful has a lot in common with Jersey Boys, actually, in terms of its having a strong book telling the story of several important figures in the history of music. The tone is even more upbeat and optimistic, however, although it does cover some difficult times in King’s life as well. King (Abbey Mueller) is obviously the central figure, but this isn’t only her story. Her life entwines closely with that of her college sweetheart, songwriting partner, and eventual husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), as well as those of songwriting colleagues, friends, and friendly rivals Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser).  The story follows King from when she was still a teenager living with her mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner), to her early days as a songwriter for publisher Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), to her heyday as part of a songwriting duo with Goffin, to marital struggles and changes in the country’s musical tastes, and finally to her rise in fame as a singer, culminating in the release of her most famous album, Tapestry.

The story is told in generally linear format, after a small prologue scene set during King’s Carnegie Hall concert that also ends the show. The story is punctuated with Goffin/King songs and Mann/Weil songs as well as a few other popular songs of the era. Groups like the Drifters, the Shirelles, and the Righteous Brothers are represented here as well, telling the story of King’s career and rocky partnership with the charming but unpredictable Goffin. There’s also a story of the developing relationship of Mann and Weil as a contrast to King and Goffin’s tumultuous marriage. The song performances are a highlight, with famous hits such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day” given dramatic settings that serve to advance the plot as well as celebrate that period in music history. It’s fascinating to watch as the songs are developed, and especially as King introduces some of her more well-known solo hits later in the show, such as “It’s Too Late”, “Beautiful”, and an especially endearing staging of “You’ve Got a Friend”.

The casting of King is essential, and Abby Mueller is an ideal choice for the role. With a voice remiscent of King’s without sounding like an impression, and an engaging personality, warmth and energy, Mueller plays King’s growth from a naive young aspiring songwriter to a more seasoned artist and performer extremely well. She carries the emotional weight of her personal story with admirable truth, as well. She’s well-matched with Tobin as the charismatic, increasingly troubled Goffin. Gulsvig as Weil is a standout, with a strong voice and spunky personality, and Fankhouser is in excellent voice as Mann. There are also winning performances from Bouril as the supportive music publisher Kirshner, and Grodner as King’s stubbornly devoted mother. There’s a strong ensemble as well, playing a variety of roles from famous musical acts to session players and more.

The time and place, as well as the transition between the various periods of King’s life, is evoked well by means of Derek McLane’s versatile set, with set pieces that slide on and off stage as needed to represent King’s various homes, the music publishing office, Carnegie Hall and beyond. There are also colorful, detailed costumes by Alejo Vietti, ranging from every day 50’s, 60’s and 70’s fashions to the more glamorous, glitzy costumes of the various performers. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski effectively sets the mood and scene, as well.

The formative years of popular music are well-represented in this energetic, well-constructed and impressively staged musical. It’s about Carole King, and much of the show’s appeal centers on Mueller’s outstanding portrayal, but there’s a lot more here as well. It’s a story not only of music makers, but of the music itself, and the music is gloriously performed and presented. It’s a brilliant celebration of the life and work of a well-known, much-lauded singer and songwriter.

Abby Mueller Photo by Joan Marcus Beautiful North American Tour

Abby Mueller
Photo by Joan Marcus
Beautiful North American Tour

 The North American Tour of Beautiful, the Carole King Musical runs at the Fox Theatre until March 6, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Educating Rita
by Willy Russell
Directed by Jan Meyer
West End Players Guild
February 18, 2016

Maggie Wininger Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Maggie Wininger
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

I was told many years ago, when I was in college, that I had to see Educating Rita. My friend and fellow English major was referring to the 1983 film, which I still haven’t seen. I kept meaning to see it, but for some reason I never got around to it. West End Players Guild is currently presenting Willy Russell’s play, and I’ve had a chance to see it. Now, I don’t know why I waited so long.

This is a story that anyone who has studied English literature needs to see, and there’s a lot to like for general audiences, as well. It’s a well-constructed play with two strongly defined characters who both learn valuable lessons as a result of their interactions. The setting is a university in Northern England, where Frank (Tom Kopp) is a professor. He’s middle-aged, tired, not a little jaded, and fond of booze. He’s started tutoring as part of the school’s Open University program not because he really wants to, but because he needs the money. His first student is a bright, brassy 26-year-old hairdresser who calls herself Rita (Maggie Wininger)–after author Rita Mae Brown–although her given name is Susan. Rita isn’t the kind of student Frank was expecting. She doesn’t just want to get by. She wants to learn, and she wants to learn everything she can. Through the course of the play, we see Rita’s progression from a determined beginner to a more accomplished student, and we see Frank’s struggle to be a real teacher again, and to encourage Rita to find her own voice and make her own choices rather than being a crowd-follower, either in the working-class circles in which she initially runs, or with the more “cultured” academics to whom she is increasingly drawn.

The play presents a realistic journey of discovery and identity for both Rita and Frank. Rita’s desire to learn and to pass her exams and write the way she’s expected to write competes with Frank’s increasing fascination with her, and his desire for her to not lose her own distinctive voice in the effort to improve herself. The actors both do a wonderful job portraying these richly drawn characters. Wininger’s Rita is bold, clearly intelligent even though she lacks in formal education, and deeply determined to succeed. Wininger portrays Rita’s outgoing personality as well as her sense of self-doubt and shame about her background with convincing energy. Kopp’s Frank gains energy from his interactions with Wininger, and their tutoring sessions sparkle with wit and a real sense of affection. One thing that I especially liked about this play was that the relationship between Frank and Rita isn’t romantic. Although Frank is clearly attracted to Rita, their relationship is more complex precisely because it remains platonic. These are two characters who are at turns likable and difficult, although the sense of hope is what prevails throughout. Both Wininger and Kopp manage reasonably convincing English accents that aren’t flawless, but are consistent enough as to not be distracting. It’s their genuine sense of affection that shines through, especially.

All the literary references from authors ranging from E.M. Forster, to Shakespeare, to William Blake and more help to make the play’s academic setting convincing. The conflicts present in this play–and particularly the quest to really learn and not just parrot ideas–are real for many at various levels of academia, from those who `only took a few classes to those who hold a bachelor’s degree, master’s, or PhD. Rita’s joy of learning, and Frank’s conflict between apathy and a desire to really teach are what give this play its impact. Russell’s script is funny, smart, and engaging, and its well staged on West End’s little stage in the basement at Union Avenue Christian Church.

It’s rare that a WEPG only uses the stage, and not also the floor in front of the stage. That choice works well here, as Destiny Graham’s marvelously detailed set convincingly re-creates a university professor’s bookshelf-lined office. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave designed the costumes that not only suit the characters well, but actually help to tell the story. Rita’s transition from hairdresser to academic is reflected in her progressively more sophisticated–and less bold–style of dress. Renee Sevier-Monsey’s lighting, Mary Beth Winslow’s sound design, and Anna Blair’s props also contribute to the convincing academic atmosphere of the play.

Educating Rita is an education in itself. This thoroughly engrossing and entertaining play teaches valuable lessons about life as well as academia. At West End Players Guild, these lessons are taught with charm and clarity. I’m glad I finally got to see this play.

Tom Kopp, Maggie Wininger Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Tom Kopp, Maggie Wininger
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Educating Rita, presented by West Players Guild, runs until February 21, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Gidion’s Knot
by Johnna Adams

Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 13, 2016

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Laurie McConnell Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Laurie McConnell, Elizabeth Ann Townsend
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Gidion’s Knot is a short play. Its running time is only a little over an hour, but it says a lot in that deceptively brief period. At St. Louis Actors’ Studio, this complex character study is portrayed with intense emotion and power by its two perfectly cast leads. It’s not an easy play to watch at times, but it’s well-written, sharply staged, and excellently acted.

This is a play with two characters in a seemingly everyday situation that proves to be anything but ordinary. In a well-kept, brightly decorated classroom impressively realized by set designer Cristie Johnston, we first see 5th grade teacher Heather (Laurie McConnell) seated at her desk looking somewhat preoccupied. Soon, she is joined by Corryn (Elizabeth Ann Townsend), the mother of one of Heather’s students, a boy named Gidion who had been suspended from school for reasons that haven’t been fully explained. Heather is at first reluctant to talk to Corryn for reasons that I can’t really describe as they would give too much away. Corryn is persistent and determined, though, and eventually draws Heather into a detailed discussion that reveals disturbing truths about both women, Gidion, and the events that preceded and followed Gidion’s suspension. There’s some provocative subject matter here, including some of Gidion’s writings that Heather reads and to which Corryn reacts. The tales are not easy to listen to, but they manage to present a vivid picture of this fully realized character who never actually appears on stage.

There’s so much here in so little time, but unfortunately I can’t talk about most of it since the slow reveal of information provides much of the drama in this expertly crafted play.  The central performances are unforgettable and profoundly real. I believe everything about them, from Heather’s reticence and background, to Corryn’s occupation and motivation, as well as her reactions to the information she learns about Gidion and Heather’s handling of the situation. Both McConnell and Townsend give extraordinary, intense and nuanced performances that drive the drama of this play. Some important and disturbing questions are raised, challenging both Heather’s responsibility as a teacher and Corryn’s as a parent, and the characters do a lot of that challenging of each other. Heather’s more passive, avoidant approach and Corryn’s directness are brought into clear contrast, and the performers interact brilliantly, driving the plot and revealing secrets with a stunning, sometimes brutal veracity. Although some of the revelations are predictable, they are conveyed so well through these excellent performances and Lee Anne Matthews’s dynamic direction. It’s something of a master class, acting wise.

In addition to Johnston’s excellent set, the other technical elements of this play are also top-notch. Carla Landis Evans’s costumes suit the characters perfectly, from the more reserved Heather who is outfitted more conservatively, to the confrontational Corryn, whose style of dress is bolder. There’s also excellent lighting by Dalton Robinson and props also by Evans.

The show runs in real time, and that adds to its power. There is challenge here, and reflection, and tragedy, all movingly portrayed on St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s small stage. It’s an ideal space for this intensely intimate production. It’s one of those plays that can leave a viewer so stunned that when it’s time for applause at the end, it’s almost necessary to pause first. I couldn’t clap right away, and not because I wasn’t impressed but because I was, profoundly. Gidion’s Knot is a must-see experience.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Laurie McConnell Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Laurie McConnell
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 Gidion’s Knot, presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre, runs until February 28, 2016.

Read Full Post »

by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 12, 2016

John Pasha, Leigh Williams Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

John Pasha, Leigh Williams
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Disgraced is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that couldn’t be more timely. Raising more questions than it answers, it addresses issues of Muslim identity in American society, as well as faith vs. secularism, and even faith vs. faith. There’s so much here that it can be difficult to process, but it’s a story that’s immediate, demanding, and continually challenging. As the latest production at the Rep, this play is profoundly challenging audiences nightly.

Amir Kapoor (John Pasha) is a Pakistani-born lawyer who enjoys a lavish, upper class existence in a beautifully decorated apartment in New York City. He was raised Muslim but doesn’t particularly identify with his family’s faith anymore. His white, non-Muslim artist wife, Emily (Leigh Williams), admires Muslim traditions much more than Amir does, incorporating them into her paintings and drawing the attention of fellow artist and gallery owner Isaac (Jonathan C. Kaplan). When his more devout nephew Abe (Fahim Hamid) comes to Amir for help in defending a beloved imam who has been jailed for questionable reasons, Amir is conflicted but eventually offers a degree of support, which starts a chain of events that changes the lives of Amir and everyone close to him.

Much of the action revolves around a dinner party that Amir and Emily host for Isaac and his wife, Jory (Rachel Christopher), a lawyer at Amir’s firm. The conflict between the couples, and the growing conflict between Amir and Emily, as well as the affect of Amir’s actions and beliefs on Abe, generates much of the drama. Isaac’s Jewish identity and exprience, and Jory’s as an African American woman factor into the discussions and conflicts, although Amir and his attitude toward his faith and himself is at the center of everything. His attitudes and actions are what drive the play for the most part, and it’s his reaction to a revelation about Emily that brings the play’s conflicts to a climax. There are no easy answers here, for Amir, for Abe (who changes perhaps the most throughout the play), or for anyone else.

The characters are well-defined, and all are flawed in various ways. Pasha, as Amir, projects strength, charm, determination, fear, and anger at various moments in an enigmatic,  compelling performance. As Emily, Williams brings out a degree of sympathy for her character as well as a degree of astonishment and conflict. Her scenes with Pasha are often emotionally charged, and believably portrayed. Kaplan is also fine as the ambitious Isaac, and Christopher is a standout as perhaps the play’s most likable character, the equally ambitious Jory. As the young, increasingly troubled Abe, Hamid gives an emotional, riveting performance. He raises some excellent questions about the treatment of Muslims, and particularly young Muslim men, in American society, and his determination and frustration are readily apparent.

The setting here is, as usual for the Rep, stunningly realized. The lavishly decorated apartment is impeccably portrayed in Kevin Depinet’s masterful set. Dorothy Marshal Englis’s costumes outfit the characters well, with a decided air of upscale New York style that fits the tone established by the apartment. Abe, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt at first and then later in more traditional Muslim attire, stands out from the more self-consciously sophisticated style of everyone else. Attention is paid to Amir’s expensive shirts, and his high-priced lawyer look lives up to that description. There’s also excellent lighting by Ann G. Wrightson and consummate sound design from Rusty Wandall.

While for the most part this production is impeccably staged, I have to mention one extremely awkward moment late in the play. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I will say that what is supposed to be one of the play’s most shocking moments is unfortunately shocking for all the wrong reasons. The clumsy staging of this key moment is distracting and entirely unconvincing. I hope this staging is improved in subsequent performances because of its great importance to the play. Otherwise, the dramatic moments are timed right and the acting is impressive, and the power of the play’s conclusion is retained despite that one unbelievably staged moment.

Despite that one notable flaw, Disgraced at the Rep is profoundly provocative production. There’s much to think about, wonder about, and discuss here in Ayad Akhtar’s powerful script. The questions the play raises can be convicting and even disturbing. It’s a profoundly affecting experience.

Jonathan C. Kaplan, Rachel Christopher, Leigh Williams, John Pasha Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jonathan C. Kaplan, Rachel Christopher, Leigh Williams, John Pasha
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Disgraced is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until March 6, 2016.

Read Full Post »

by Lee Blessing
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 6, 2016

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Eleemosynary is an exploration of the unconventional in the story of three generations, a non-linear story that’s a study in emotions and relationships. It’s a fascinating play, now on stage at Mustard Seed Theatre. Lee Blessing’s story of family, estrangement, eccentricity and love of language and life is presented with spirit by a first-rate cast.

It’s a fairly straightforward premise, but then the story veers on flights of fancy through various times in the lives of young spelling bee champion Echo (Austen Danielle Bohmer), her mother Artemis or “Artie” (Kelley Weber), and grandmother Dorothea (Nancy Lewis), with whom Echo has lived for most of her life. At the play’s outset, we learn that Dorothea has had a stroke and has been hospitalized, necessitating Artie’s return. The story jumps around, recounting tales of Dorothea’s chosen life of eccentricity and its effect on the sensitive, increasingly distant Artie, who has difficulties relating to her mother and her daughter.  Although the story is by no means linear, it’s not confusing, either. It’s structured in a way that highlights the eccentricity of its characters as well as majoring on the emotional connections between the characters.

With such an emotional story and complex characters, casting is essential in a play like this. Mustard Seed and director Doug Finlayson have assembled a talented, fully invested cast to tell this story. As the word-obsessed Echo, Bohmer adeptly portrays the character’s intelligence as well as her sensitivity and underlying sense of determination and hope. Lewis is also memorable as the willfully unconventional Dorothea, allowing the audience to see her stubbornness as well as her optimism. Weber, as Artie, gives a masterful performance, displaying the sensitivity and fear that lead to her estrangement from her family but also displaying a real sense of caring and desire for connection, despite the fear.  All three performers work together well, showing a believable family relationship that is the heart of this production.

The set, by Kyra Bishop, is a colorful, whimsical multi-level unit that provides an ideal space for the many shifts in time and place that occur in the story. Michael Sullivan’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of the play. Jane Sullivan’s costumes perfectly suit the characters, from Echo’s bright-colored overalls to Dorothea’s more eclectic attire, to Artie’s more subdued, conventional fashion.

Eleemosynary is a richly told story that focuses on self-expression and multi-generational relationships. It’s a vivid portrayal of three fascinating characters, raising many thought-provoking questions. Mustard Seed has brought it to the stage with style, energy, and heart.

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

 Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Eleemosynary at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre until February 21, 2016.

Read Full Post »

As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Ellie Schwetye with Original Music by Jason Scroggins and Cast
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
February 5th, 2016

Cara Barresi, Katie Donnelly, Kevin Minor and cast Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cara Barresi, Katie Donnelly, Kevin Minor and cast
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

As You Like It is my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s funny, it’s romantic, it’s silly, it’s occasionally bawdy, and it’s extremely versatile. There’s so much that can be done with this show depending on the director’s vision. Now, one of St. Louis’s most inventive theatre companies, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, has taken the Bard’s work and given it a 1920’s Ozarks settting, a memorable bluegrass soundtrack, and an excellent, enthusiastic cast.

This is Shakespeare’s story, but it’s been a little bit streamlined and the setting updated and musicalized. Some traditionally male roles are played by women, and as women. The angry Duke Frederick and her kinder sibling Duke Senior are played as women (still called “Duke”) by one actress, Rachel Tibbetts, and the clown Touchstone (Tonya Darabcsek) and the surly forest wanderer Jaques (Rachel Hanks) are also women, among others. The story of Rosalind (Cara Barresi) and her cousin Celia’s (Katie Donnelly) flight to the forest of Arden, and Rosalind’s disguising herself as a man and entering into a teasing mock courtship with her beloved Orlando (Kevin Minor) is here, as is the story of the lovesick Silvius (Chris Ware) and the disdainful shepherdess Phebe (Mollie Amburgey). There’s also Orlando’s initially mean older brother Oliver (Will Bonfiglio), who follows his brother into the forest and a multitude of romances–both likely and unlikely–ensues.

The adaptation by director Ellie Schwetye and the musical score by Jason Scroggins, who also appears in the play as a forester and musician, is tuneful and fast-moving. In addition to the songs already included in the play, some of the more familiar spoken passages have been set to music, such as Jaques’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech and some of Orlando’s letters to Rosalind.  The actors get their moments to sing, and often play their own instruments as well. In fact, during the Arden sequences, the ensemble members often assemble in a circle onstage to play and sing.  It’s mostly bluegrass and folk styled music, including a few old standards such as “Froggy Went a’Courtin'” in addition to the Shakespearean material. And it’s all extremely well-sung, with Donnelly, Hanks, Barresi, Tibbetts, Bonfiglio and others all getting memorable solos.

The cast has been downsized, with a a few actors playing two roles, and there are strong performances all around. Barresi and Donnelly make an excellent team as cousins and best friends Rosalind and Celia. Barresi is an impulsive, lovestruck Rosalind who takes on a notable swagger in her disguise as Ganymede, and her banter with Minor’s earnest, charming Orlando is amusing.  Donnelly is a sweet but feisty, determined Celia, memorable in her scenes with Barresi and with Bonfiglio as a convincing Oliver. Bonfiglio also displays excellent comic skills in another role as shepherd Corin. Other standouts include Hanks as a particularly surly, hucksterish Jaques as well as the wrestler Charles; and Darabscek as the witty Touchstone, who engages in a sweetly goofy courtship with flighty forest-dweller Audrey (Alyssa Ward). Ware is also excellent as the besotted Silvius, playing songs on his guitar and pursuing Amburgey’s gleefully scornful Phebe with determination. Tibbetts in her dual role as both Dukes is convincingly authoritative, whether it’s in a dictatorial fashion as Frederick or as the more kindly Senior. It’s a cohesive cast that works together well, communicating the play’s sense of humor, whimsy and romance with style and tuneful flair.

The setting is established well in the technical elements of the show. The small stage at the Chapel is believably transformed in a 1920’s Ozarks Forest of Arden, with a simple but effective set by Schwetye and Bess Moynihan. Moynihan’s lighting also helps to maintain the generally festive mood, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are delightfully colorful and detailed, representing a variety of styles from the period and fitting the characters well.

This is Shakespeare in the Ozarks with music, and it’s marvelous. A strong cast, a great score, and lots of energy and heart highlight this joyful, witty production. It’s As You Like It as you’ve probably never heard it before, and it’s a real treat.

Cast of As You LIke It Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Cast of As You LIke It
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE’s production of As You Like it is running at the Chapel until February 13, 2016.

Read Full Post »

I’ll Be Back Before Midnight!
by Peter Colley
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
February 4th, 2016

Angela Bubash, Jeff Kargus Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Angela Bubash, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production, Ill Be Back Before Midnight! presents something of an enigma. It’s presented as a mystery/thriller, but it often comes across as something of a parody.  SDT has assembled an excellent cast, and the production values are good as always, but it’s something of a puzzling story.

The play’s central character is Jan (Angela Bubash), who has just been released from the hospital after an extended stay following a mental breakdown. Her husband Greg (Jeff Kargus) has brought her to a somewhat rundown country house with the idea that the remote location will help Jan to recover and help the two to strengthen their strained relationship.  There’s a friendly neighbor, George (Mark Abels) who helps to make the uneasy Jan feel more welcome, but the imminent arrival of Greg’s overbearing sister Laura (Sarajane Alverson) isn’t a pleasant thought for Jan, to put it mildly. This premise, wrapped up with some local ghost stories and Jan’s growing suspicions of the people around her, leads to a traumatic event at the end of the first act that ultimately leads to an initially suspenseful but surprisingly contrived and anticlimactic conclusion.

I don’t get what this play is trying to do, to put it bluntly. It’s got some comedy elements early on that help relieve some of the building suspense, and the events of the first act and most of the second are sufficiently chilling. The ending, however, is a disappointment, almost coming across as a parody. The actors do a good job of making the characters interesting, with Bubash’s sensitive and increasingly suspicious Jan as the standout. Bubash makes a likable and convincing protagonist, drawing sympathy as the story builds and her fear grows. Kargus is fine as Greg, especially earlier in the play, and he does the best he can with the bizarre last scene. Abels is amiable and a little bit mysterious as neighbor George, and Alverson is sufficiently imperious as the domineering Laura.

 The technical aspects of this show are impressive as usual. Set designer Rob Lippert has provided an appropriately dilapidated country cabin, with cracking plaster, an old wood stove, and more. Eileen Engel’s costumes are well-suited to the characters, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting effectively achieves the eerie atmosphere and heightened suspense required for the production.

Overall, this is a show worth seeing for its performances. It’s a strong cast, and and interesting story although the ending falls flat, and that’s the fault of the playwright more than the production.  Still, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight! is well-staged and, for the most part, a suspenseful, intriguing story.

Sarajane Alverson, Jeff Kargus, Mark Abels Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Jeff Kargus, Mark Abels
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production of I’ll Be Back Before Midnight! is running at the Tower Grove Abbey until February 20, 2016.

Read Full Post »

Shining City
by Conor McPherson
Directed by Toni Dorfman
Upstream Theater
January 29, 2016

Jerry Vogel, Christopher Harris Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jerry Vogel, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

What is a ghost? Some people believe in literal ghosts, but a ghost can also be figurative or imaginary. In Conor McPherson’s Shining City,  currently being produced by Upstream Theater, the question of ghosts is only the beginning in a story that deals with two men and their different but strangely similar dilemmas.  As presented by Upstream, the show is somewhat slow moving but contains some memorable performances and raises some interesting questions.

Ian (Christopher Harris) is a former Catholic priest who has just set up shop as a therapist in Dublin, Ireland. He’s got a girlfriend, Neasa (Em Piro) and a new baby, but he’s not particularly happy.  The play is set up as series of sessions between Ian and his patient, John (Jerry Vogel) who suffers from regret regarding the recent death of his wife. He claims to have seen her ghost, but both he and Ian suspect it’s more a manifestation of his guilt regarding his feelings for his wife and how he treated her before she died. Through the course of the play, we learn the details of John’s situation as well as learning more about Ian, whose has his own struggles with guilt concerning his relationship with his girlfriend and his own personal desires.  There’s not much else I can say without spoiling the plot, but it deals with many subjects, including personal identity, one’s relationship with others and with God, and the very purpose of life. In fact, two of the books prominently displayed in Ian’s office are titled God and Life Itself.

The play is rather slow moving especially in the first act, focusing on conversation a lot more than action. It’s not until the second act that it becomes clear where the story is going, in fact. There are several philosophical questions dealt with as the parallels between John’s situation and Ian’s become more apparent, and it’s the actors who really make the story. Harris is elusive and enigmatic as the conflicted Ian, providing a listening ear for the more dynamic Vogel as John, whose accounts of his actions are compelling if not entirely sympathetic. There are also good performances by Piro in a smaller role as Ian’s attention-starved girlfriend, and by Pete Winfrey as a man Ian meets and has a revealing conversation with in his office. The central roles, though, are those of Harris and Vogel, and it is  their interactions that are the highlight of the production.

Technically the show is presented in a visually stunning manner. With Steve Carmichael’s striking lighting that emphasis shadows and variations of light, and Michael Heil’s well-appointed set, the somewhat tense atmosphere is maintained well. Bonnie Kruger’s costumes, Claudia Horn’s props, and Cristi Johnston’s scenic art also add much to the tone and style of the play.  There is also an excellent, atmospheric musical score provided by Farshid Soltanshahi.

This is a play about ghosts in various forms, and two men whose lives are more similar than they may first appear. It’s a well-realized production that revolves mostly around the vivid portrayals of the actors as well as the authentically presented setting. While it does seem confusing and over-long at times, for the most part this is a memorable, thought-provoking play with a strong sense of time and place.

Set for Shining City Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Set for Shining City
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Shining City is being presented by Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 14, 2016

Read Full Post »

Underneath the Lintel
by Glen Berger
Directed by Lana Pepper
New Jewish Theatre
January 28, 2016

Glynis Bell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Glynis Bell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

A 113 year old travel guide is the impetus for an unfolding mystery and a journey of self-discovery in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel.  This is a show that’s been done in St. Louis before, at the 2013 St. Lou Fringe Festival, but now, New Jewish Theatre has brought it back in a well-acted, energetic production. It’s an emotional, educational, and entertaining show featuring a remarkable performance by its star, Glynis Bell.

Since the discovery process is an important part of this story, I won’t give too much away about what happens. Basically, it’s the story of an eccentric, somewhat sheltered Dutch librarian (Bell) who becomes consumed with the task of finding the person who dropped a book in the night deposit slot at her library. This isn’t just any book, either. It’s a travel guide that’s 113 years overdue.  The story is told in flashback, as Bell gives a presentation in a somewhat dingy old lecture hall, introducing her various “exhibits” and showing slides as she recounts her journey to learn the identity of this mysterious figure who seems to have turned up at various places around the world at various times in history. In the process, the librarian herself gets an education about herself and about the world. She says she’s seeking to “prove one life and justify another”, all the while revealing a story involving an ancient apocryphal legend that touches on issues of Christian theology, Jewish identity, and the very nature and existence of God.

This is a one-woman show, so the casting is important. Actually, when I saw this at Fringe, the Librarian was played by a man. It’s just as effective performed by Bell, who is full of energy and enthusiasm as she recounts her tale. Her sense of excitement and wonder is apparent as she discovers each piece of the puzzle, as well as recounting her trip around the world accompanied by slides and atmospheric tunes provided by musician Will Soll on the mandolin. Bell is the embodiment of the story, as her search for information becomes one for self-fulfillment as well. The stories of how she visits various cities and then finds herself exploring and enjoying their cultural offerings such as plays, opera, and concerts are fascinating and convincingly portrayed.  Bell’s librarian is awkward, but enthusiastic and extremely likable, portrayed with just the right amount of an accent, as well.

The space is set up with a stark sense of realism. The old, dated lecture hall with its linoleum floors and wood-paneled walls is well-realized by set designer Kyra Bishop. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler has outfitted Bell’s librarian with an appropriately worn-out suit, and lighting designer Michael Sullivan achieves the appropriate atmosphere with institutional type lighting at first, with adjustments at various times to suit the story.

Overall, this is an entertaining production and a compelling story. It’s well-structured, and Bell tells the tale with urgency and wonder. It’s sure to raise questions concerning identity and the very purpose of life. Centered around this excellent performance, Underneath the Lintel is a worthwhile tour of time and place.

Glynis Bell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Glynis Bell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Underneath the Lintel at New Jewish Theatre runs until February 13, 2016.

Read Full Post »