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Archive for March, 2016

Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing
by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan
Directed by Ricardo Khan
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 18, 2016

satchelpaige2

Robert Karma Robinson Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, the playwriting team behind the excellent Fly that was presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2013, have returned to the Rep with their newest work, Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing. Taking a look at the famous baseball pitcher’s life, as well as the times in which he lived and the events that surrounded the integration of Major League Baseball in the 1940’s, the play certainly addresses a fascinating subject. Still, despite the excellent cast and some clever staging, the result is somewhat unfocused, although still entertaining and educational.

A legendary pitcher who is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever, Satchel Paige (Robert Karma Robinson) spent most of his prime playing days in the Negro Leagues, having been barred from playing in the Major Leagues because he was black, along with many other great black players who either never got to play in the Majors, or who didn’t get to play until late in their careers. The injustice of a system of banning players simply due to the color of their skin is a major theme of this play, which centers on Paige and some of his teammates and white Major League players in 1947 and 1948, shortly after Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the Majors. While baseball is the setting for this play, and a prominent, charismatic pitcher is at its center, this play is about more than just baseball. The story follows Paige and two of his teammates on a barnstorming Negro League All-Star team, veteran Buck O’Neil (Michael Chenevert) and promising newcomer Art Young (Peterson Townsend) on a stop in Kansas City along with a team of white Major Leaguers led by star Cleveland Indians Pitcher Bob Feller (Kohler McKenzie). Feller and young Detroit Tigers rookie Franky Palmieri (Sam Wolf) join Paige and his teammates at a local boarding house run by Paige’s old friend and sometime romantic interest, Mrs. Hopkins (Vanessa A. Jones), whose aspiring jazz singer daughter Moira (Tsilala Brock) attracts the romantic attentions of both Young and Palmieri.  The action is narrated by Jazzman (Eric Person), a saxophone-playing philosopher who comments on the events of the day and of the play.

This play tries to cover a great many issues regarding the integration of baseball, what it was like to live in a society where segregation was the rule, the obvious sense of privilege that benefited the white players no matter how well-meaning they may have been, and the overall injustice of a racist system. Paige is a compelling, fascinating figure, with charm, talent, and a great deal of wit, all portrayed with marvelous energy and style by Robinson. The play’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to be sure whether it wants to be primarily about Paige or about his friends and associates. Most of the play’s action takes place at the boarding house and revolves around the borderline soapy triangle between the ambitious Young and the cocky, somewhat smarmy and entitled Palmieri. Wolf and Townsend are fine in their roles, as is Brock as the naive Moira, but their story seems to be a distraction much of the time. Jones, as Mrs. Hopkins, and Chenevert, as O’Neil, give standout performances as key figures in Paige’s life, and as voices of wisdom, hope, and occasionally regret. McKenzie is as good as can be in the underwritten role of Feller, and Person is a strong presence with his virtuoso saxophone playing in various jazz styles as Jazzman. Paige should probably be the central figure here, and the play starts and ends by focusing on him, but despite the important and challenging issues that are presented, the play is mostly a lot of talking and the story gets a little muddled in the middle. Still, it’s a well-acted and well-cast production.

The staging in the baseball scenes is clever, and scenic designer John Ezell has provided a suitable backdrop for the action, along with excellent lighting by Victor En Yu Tan and memorable projections by Rocco DiSanti. Lauren T. Roark’s costumes are also superb, with excellent attention to detail in the baseball uniforms as well as the contemporary styles of the 1940’s.  The staging is dynamic in the baseball scenes, although everything is more static at the boarding house.

Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing introduces its audience to an important and legendary figure in the history of baseball and of America itself. Although the sense of time and place is well-realized and the performances are strong, I still found myself wishing the story was a little more cohesive, and that the focus on Paige was maintained more clearly.  It seems more like a work in progress than a finished play, in contrast to the truly astounding Fly by the same creative team. Still, the excellent performances and strong production values, along with its important subject matter, make this a play worth seeing.

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Kohler McKenzie, Vanessa A. Jones, Peterson Townsend, Michael Chenevert, Robert Karma Robinson Photo Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until April 10, 2016. 

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Old Wicked Songs
by Jon Marans
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
March 17, 2016

 

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Old Wicked Songs is a story of a teacher and a student who are ostensibly here to study music, but who learn much more than that as their relationship progresses. It’s a play I hadn’t seen before, but am very glad now to have been given that opportunity by means of the current production from New Jewish Theatre.  It’s a superbly cast production, and it’s not to be missed.

The story takes place at the studio of music professor Josef Mashkan (Jerry Vogel) in Vienna, Austria in 1986. A young American piano student, Stephen Hoffman (Will Bonfiglio) has just arrived in the country with the intention of studying to become an accompanist. Stephen isn’t happy when he finds out that Mashkan isn’t the piano professor, but a singing teacher, and Stephen must study singing for three months before he can begin his piano instruction with the professor from whom he had wished to learn. The initially defensive, guarded Stephen is suspicious of the more demanding Mashkan at first, and this first meeting begins a series of instruction sessions and a relationship that will eventually change the lives of both men, who both have secrets they wish to hide.  They’re studying Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, with lyrics by the poet Heinrich Heine. Through the course of playing, singing, and discussing the songs and their meanings, as well as events in their own lives and the history of Vienna, Austria, and neighboring Germany, the two men learn more about each other and learn that there is more to both of them than they had initially thought. This all takes place against a backdrop of political controversy in Austria as Kurt Waldheim, whose military service in the German army during World War II was being called into question internationally.  Austria’s attitudes toward its own history involving the Nazi regime, as well as the memory of the Holocaust and its effect on those who have survived as well as the generations born after the war, become major issues in the play, as both Stephen and Mashkan’s personal stories eventually reveal.

This is an intensely personal play, and the love of music and poetry pervades it. The relationship between music and emotion, as well as joy and sadness, is emphasized by Mashkan, and both his life and Stephen’s directly illustrate that relationship as the story unfolds. The two actors here are perfectly cast. Vogel portrays the joy and the sadness of Mashkan’s life, as well as his deep love of music, with vivid clarity in a sensitive, engaging and at times heartbreaking performance. Bonfiglio is equally brilliant as Stephen, whose emotional journey throughout the play is clearly portrayed on Bonfiglio’s expressive face. Both actors display strong voices, as well, singing the songs with energy and passion, in English as well as German as the story’s progression necessitates.

As usual for New Jewish Theatre, the technical aspects of this production are also excellent. The set by Dunsi Dai is richly detailed, bringing a sense of authenticity to this representation of a music professor’s studio in an aging building. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well, and Stephen’s clothes in particular serve to reflect his character’s growth throughout the course of the play. There’s also strong, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry and excellent sound design by Robin Wetherall.

This is a play about a student and a teacher, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about a love of music and song, and also about joy, regret, secrets and the importance of communication, as well as a person’s relationship with culture and history. It’s an expertly crafted play that presents characters with well-realized life stories that are memorably portrayed by two excellent actors at their finest. It’s the best production I’ve seen in St. Louis so far this year.

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Old Wicked Songs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 3, 2016.

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If/Then
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
The Fox Theatre
March 15, 2016

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

I think most people have “what if” moments in their lives. Maybe it’s that class in college that you wish you had taken, or that person whose invitation you wish you had accepted. How would your life have been different if you had made one simple choice differently? The musical If/Then, currently on stage at the Fox Theatre, takes questions like that and makes a story out of them–or more precisely, two stories running concurrently.  It’s an intriguing concept that’s been given an inventive production, based on the Broadway staging. It’s not always easy to follow, but it’s an impressive production, and extremely entertaining.

If/Then‘s central figure is Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who is seen wondering about a particular day in New York City’s Central Park. Having just returned to the city to start over after a failed marriage and 12 years out West, Elizabeth is presented with a dilemma–two friends, and which one to follow. Does she stay in the park with her new neighbor Kate (Tamyra Gray), or does she leave to join her former college boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in a protest he’s organizing? The show presents both scenarios side-by-side, with Elizabeth going by the nickname “Liz” when she stays with Kate, and by “Beth” when she goes with Lucas. The name difference actually helps the audience to follow the plot, as Elizabeth’s life verges in potentially confusing directions, and the two timelines both feature some of the same characters but also others who are unique to one particular path. Most importantly in the “Liz” plot is Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a doctor just returned from a military tour overseas, who becomes her love interest in that plot while in the “Beth” plot, she accepts a high-powered city planning job and becomes involved in more complicated personal relationships. There isn’t much else I can say about the story that won’t spoil it, but I will say that the fates of Elizabeth’s friends are also affected by the divergence in her own paths, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

This isn’t an entirely original idea. There have been a few movies and stories with similar concepts, but this one has the team responsible for one of my favorite modern musicals, Next to Normal, behind it, and that definitely got my attention. Still, the music here isn’t as memorable as it is in Next to Normal, and the story can be hard to follow at times. I can’t even name many of the songs after seeing the show without having to consult the program. The show also seems to be suggesting a “moral” that is somewhat problematic, although explaining that in too much detail would spoil the ending. I’ll just say that one of the endings seems happier based on whether love or career is put first in Elizabeth’s life.

The casting is solid, with strong performances from the leads and the ensemble. Burns is a likable protagonist, with a strong, belty voice that’s occasionally too reminiscent of her Broadway and tour predecessor Idina Menzel. Still, Burns portrays both the “Liz” and “Beth” sides of Elizabeth’s story well, and her chemistry with Hydzik’s amiable, charming Josh is particularly convincing. Gray is full of energy and confidence as Kate, and she’s supported well by Janine DiVita as Kate’s girlfriend, Anne. Anthony Rapp, reprising his Broadway role as Lucas, is strong in both timelines, one of which gets him a kind doctor boyfriend named David (Marc Delacruz). Lucas, in fact, probably has the most significant change depending on the timeline, and Rapp portrays these differences well. There’s also a strong ensemble portraying various characters in support of both timelines.

Staging-wise, this show makes  strong visual impression, but also somewhat generic. The set, designed by Mark Wendland, is a modular collection of beams, bridges, and modular set pieces that move about as needed, with a great use of projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully, especially in the suggestion of moving Subway trains. The park setup is more “general park” than Central Park, really, and the costumes, by Emily Rebholz, are suitably New York-ish. It’s a somewhat generalized version of New York that works for the show, but isn’t particularly distinctive.

Overall, I would say If/Then is interesting and entertaining, although it tends to be a little confusing as well. It’s not as brilliant or memorable as Next to Normal, but it’s a good concept and generally well presented. Most of all, the great cast is what makes this show worth seeing. Your life probably won’t change radically if you choose not to see it, but it if you do, it would be a good choice.

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

The National Tour of If/Then runs at the Fox Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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Molly’s Hammer
by Tammy Ryan
Based on the book Hammer of Justice by Liane Ellison Norman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 11, 2016

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Cold War was tense time in American history, and it’s one I remember first-hand, at least to a degree. The threat of nuclear war and the generalized looming sense of dread it created is something I remember well from my childhood and teen years. Molly’s Hammer, a new play currently being presented at the Rep Studio, focuses on the anti-nuclear protest movement that developed as a result of this general threat of war to which the stockpiling of nuclear weapons contributed. Focusing on one key figure in this movement, the play seeks to present a personalized account of this movement and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Molly Rush (Nancy Bell) was a Pittsburgh area housewife who had been involved in various Catholic-led activist movements. This three-person play focuses on her increasing involvement in the opposition to nuclear weapons and her involvement with a protest action led by Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan (Kevin Orton, who plays many roles in this production), along with his brother and others. They formed a group known as the Plowshares Eight, and their protest action at a Pennsylvania General Electric plant in 1980 serves as the central focus of this production, including the events leading up to the action and its aftermath. The play also highlights the relationship between Rush and her husband Bill (Jose Osheroff), who loves Molly but isn’t sure what to think about her increasingly activist ways, especially when the threat of imprisonment and separation from him and their children becomes more and more likely.

This is an ambitious, inventively structured play, with two performers playing one role each and one performer (Orton) performing a variety of roles with no costume changes to indicate the variations of character. In fact, Orton’s performance is the most impressive simply because it depends so much on body language and line delivery. His portrayals of everyone from Daniel Berrigan to the Rushes’ various sons, daughters, and other family members as well as other activists, a judge, a female prison guard, and more are made convincing due to Orton’s clarity of performance. Bell turns in a fine performance as Molly, as well, portraying her determination and zeal for her cause in a thoughtful manner, and Osheroff is equally convincing as the conflicted but loving Bill, whose mission to convince Molly to temper her activist tendencies doesn’t go exactly as planned.

The structure of this play is at times confusing and also a little on the talky side. There’s a lot of talking about things that are about to happen, and a generally linear timeline that occasionally gets interrupted with a flashback, although there aren’t enough of these flashbacks to justify them, and they come across as interfering with the forward progress of the plot rather than augmenting it. Also, the staging can get cluttered with stagehands running on and off stage to change the scene, as Gianni Downs’ scene design mostly consists of a generalized backdrop with set pieces that are moved into place as needed, and sometimes these quick scene changes can come across as frantic and distracting. Aside from the set, there’s a good use of lighting and projections by Mark Wilson, and authentic looking early 1980’s costumes by Lou Bird.

Molly’s Hammer is an intriguing play about an important era of American History and a protest movement that generally isn’t talked about as much as others. Its a thought-provoking play led by an amiable cast, although the staging is sometimes muddled. Still, the performances and generally authentic evocation of the era make this show entertaining, educational, and worth seeing.

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Molly’s Hammer runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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American Idiot
Music by Green Day, Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
March 4, 2016

Cast of American Idiot Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cast of American Idiot
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

American Idiot was an album first, and then it was a musical. Now, it’s on stage at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center in a big, loud, angry, and extremely thoughtful production from New Line Theatre. With the first-rate singing that New Line is known for, as well as a stellar cast and striking physical production, American Idiot makes a strong impression with its story of displacement and confusion in post-9/11 America, underscored by the music of Green Day.

This is essentially the story of three young men and their quests for meaning and fulfillment amidst the disillusionment of their suburban existence. Johnny (Evan Fornachon), Tunny (Frederick Rice), and Will (Brendan Ochs) make a plan to escape to the city to seek adventure and a better life, but Will’s dream is immediately derailed when his girlfriend Heather (Larissa White) announces she’s pregnant, meaning Will stays home while his friends head off to New York. Once in the city, Johnny and Tunny take different paths. Johnny finds himself torn between the enticement of drugs personified by the charismatic St. Jimmy (Chris Kernan), and love with a girl he meets who is only referred to as Whatsername (Sarah Porter). Tunny catches onto a patriotic dream and joins the military, being sent overseas where he eventually finds that the reality of war doesn’t live up to its promise. Throughout the story, the loud, punk rock beats of Green Day drive the story of the contrasting lives of these three friends.

What’s particularly striking about this production is the staging, although it does have its drawbacks as well. The Marcelle’s black box theatre has been arranged so that the action takes place on a wide plane, with Rob Lippert’s vividly decorated set serving as a backdrop. Staging the action at various levels and in designated areas of the stage helps to distinguish the three main characters’ stories, but it’s also so spread out that it’s easy to miss events that happen on either end of the stage, depending upon where you’re sitting. I would advise sitting in the middle if at all possible. The costumes by Sarah Porter are excellent as well, suiting the characters well and ranging from the everyday clothes of the young protagonists to the more striking styling of characters like St. Jimmy. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is also effective in achieving the appropriate mood of the production especially in the more stylized fantasy sequences.  And directors Miller and Dowdy have staged the show well, with striking synchronized movement on songs like “Holiday”, “Before the Lobotomy”, and the more melancholy “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “21 Guns”.

This isn’t a perfect script, but the production makes the most of it. I’m mostly disappointed that this is such a male-centered story in which most of the female characters only seem to serve as figures in the men’s journeys, and except for Heather, they don’t even have real names. Still, the story is memorable and a strong realization of the anger, confusion, and occasional efforts at hope that characterize these characters’ lives in a world of competing images, promises, and propaganda. It’s the dynamic staging, the expertly played music by New Line’s excellent band conducted by Sue Goldford, and the as always stunning singing that give life to this highly emotional, affecting musical.

As usual, New Line has assembled a superb ensemble, and every cast member is in the moment every minute on stage. The three leads are well-cast, with Fornachon’s angry Johnny, Rice’s haunted Tunny and Ochs’s dejected and disenchanted Will serving as ideal representations of the themes portrayed here. All three have great rock voices as well, especially Rice. There’s also strong support from Kernan’s hypnotic St. Jimmy, Porter’s earnest Whatsername, White’s conflicted, strong-voiced Heather, Kevin Corpuz as the personification of military glory, the Favorite Son, and Sicily Mathenia as Tunny’s nurse and fantasy muse, the Extroardinary Girl.

American Idiot is a gritty, high powered, emotionally charged rock opera that presents a compelling picture of the lives of three young men on a journey for fulfillment in difficult times. It’s definitely not for kids, but for adults and older teens, this is a show that provides a lot to think about. It presents a striking auditory and visual tableau of life in early 2000’s America, with a soundtrack by a band that helped define the cultural atmosphere of that era.

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting American Idiot at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until March 26, 2016.

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