Archive for September, 2016

Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 23, 2016

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Sophia Brown, Jan Meyer, Amy Loui
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee is unquestionably one of the greatest playwrights of the last 100 years. That St. Louis Actors’ Studio opened its long-planned production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women one week after the playwright’s death was a coincidence. Still, such an excellent, superbly cast production of this intensely personal play couldn’t be a more fitting tribute to this celebrated artist.

Three Tall Women is the title of this play that takes much of its inspiration from Albee’s own life, and especially that of his mother, and despite the title it’s essentially about one woman. The three women of title are only identified as A (Jan Meyer), B (Amy Loui), and C (Sophia Brown), although the central figure is A. The construction of this play is difficult to describe without some degree of spoiling, so let that be a warning. Essentially, this is an examination of one woman’s life at different ages, looking back in retrospective in the first act as elderly A is cared for by her middle-aged caretaker B, and visited by C, a young representative from her lawyer who has trouble dealing with A’s difficult personality. This is all somewhat straightforward until Act 2, when everything changes dramatically and the play suddenly enters the realm of fantasy and A, B, and C all become representatives of the same woman at different ages, all looking at life from their limited perspectives and informing one another of what happens in “their” life. There’s also the somewhat shadowy figure of “The Boy” (Michael Perkins), who appears onstage but doesn’t say anything, although A, B, and C comment on his presence and his relationship to “them”, his elderly mother.  It’s a very talky, philosophical play that delves deeply into the motivations of this woman and her relationships with her son and with her late husband, as well as looking at the different generations of women and how they relate to one another and how they reconcile their own life decisions within themselves.

The casting here is excellent. Meyer, as A, is able to project a simultaneous sense of stubbornness and vulnerability. A is not a particularly likable character, but Meyer embodies her humanity. Loui, as B, portrays the patient caretaker in Act 1 and the middle-aged version of A in Act 2 with assured strength, as well, and Brown plays the suspicious C in Act 1 and the cautiously optimistic C (young A) in Act 2 with convincing conviction. The interplay between these three characters is the essence of the play, from the literal generation gap in Act 1 to the more figurative one in Act 2, and it’s fascinating to watch these three top-notch performers as they spar and confide and conceal and reveal. Perkins is fine as The Boy, doing the somewhat daunting job of sitting there on stage as a focal point for the discussion that his character isn’t really able to hear. The key to the play, though, is the performances of Meyer, Loui, and Brown, and they are all entirely convincing.

Patrick Huber’s static set is meticulously appointed, suggesting the upper class New York apartment of the wealthy, aging central character. Carla Landis Evans’s costumes are ideally appropriate, as well, from the accurate early 1990’s attire of Act 1 to the differently colored and styled glamorous evening gowns of Act 2. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and clear sound by director Wayne Salomon. The fantastical aspects of the play are more achieved by the overall staging and tone than by any special effects, however. The excellent technical aspects simply provide the setting for Albee’s well-crafted words, Salomon’s lucid staging, and the first-rate performances of the leads.

Albee’s look at aging, marriage, and family relationships is crisp and cynical, although there is a glimpse of some kind of positive message toward the end. Ultimately, this is a character study, and a richly drawn one at that. The unusual construction only serves to further illuminate Albee’s difficult, complex central character, who is apparently based on his own mother. At STLAS, the play has been impeccably cast and staged. It’s an ideal tribute to a legendary American playwright.

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Amy Loui, Jan Meyer, Sophia Brown
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Three Tall Women is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until October 9, 2016.

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“Remember Me”
by Nancy Bell
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Shakespeare In the Streets–Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
September 17, 2016

Cast of "Remember Me" Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of “Remember Me”
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

I love Shakespeare in the Streets. Every year, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and playwright Nancy Bell create a new play that takes Shakespeare into the neighborhoods of St. Louis in a unique, personal way, and it’s always excellent. This year’s offering “Remember Me” was just staged last weekend in Maplewood, and it was a marvel. It was a visually stunning, thought-provoking evocation of the Bard exploring the challenging history of one of the St. Louis region’s quirkier areas.

In a first for this concept, Bell hasn’t based this production on one of Shakespeare’s plays but several. “Remember Me” has the basic framework of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with characters and concepts from Hamlet and Macbeth, as well as a play-within-a-play representation of Midsummer’s “Pyramus and Thisby” play recast as Romeo and Juliet (and yes, there is still a lion).  The story starts, as Midsummer does, with the engagement of Theseus (Aaron Orion Baker) and Hippolyta (Jeanitta Perkins). He’s the Mayor of Maplewood, and she’s from Clayton and not as familiar with Maplewood ways and history. As they plan their wedding, a group of Maplewood residents and high school students led by Hamlet (Joanna Cole Battles), Horatio (Rachel Tibbetts), Francisco (Stephen Vito Tronicek), and Bernardo (Reginald Pierre) are haunted by several ghosts from Maplewood’s past represented by giant puppets, including the tragic early figure of Clara Clamorgan (voiced by Perkins), who was a victim of racial injustice in 1910’s Maplewood. Clara and the other ghosts beg to be remembered, and so Hamlet’s group decides to put on a play to be performed at the wedding as a way of honoring the ghosts so that they can know they are remembered and rest.  The show is an inventive mixture of comedy, drama, and fantasy, with excellent use of puppets and stunning effects from lighting designer Mark Wilson, who also designed the versatile set.

I love how these shows adapt so well to the neighborhoods they inhabit. Here, Maplewood’s quirky, hipster-y personality shines through with plots about a New Age bookstore and jokes about beard oil, as well as the clear evidence that Bell and the SFSTL team did their research into Maplewood’s complex and sometimes troubling history. The haunting nature of the show is there personified by the ghosts, but there’s also a lot of humor here, especially in the rehearsing and performing of the mini-Romeo and Juliet play. The performances are strong, as well, led by Tibbetts as the earnest Horatio, Battles as the determined Hamlet, Phyllis Thorpe as high school drama teacher Ms. Bottom, Pierre and Tronicek working together well as Francisco and Bernardo, and Baker and Perkins as the enthusiastic Theseus and skeptical Hippolyta. There’s a large ensemble as well, and everyone contributes with energy and conviction.

I’m especially impressed by the way Bell has blended all the stories together into this unique reflection of Shakespeare and Maplewood. The Shakespeare in the Streets shows are always great, but this one is particularly impressive with its form and its striking use of puppets, music led by composer and music director Joe Taylor, and the sheer level of integration of the neighborhood into the story. It’s another great success for Shakespeare In the Streets. I look forward to seeing where this innovative program goes in the future.

Cast of "Remember Me" Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Cast of “Remember Me”
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2016

The Cast of Sister Act Photo by Peter Wochniak, STAGES St. Louis

The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Peter Wochniak,
STAGES St. Louis

I think everyone immediately thinks of Whoopi Goldberg when they hear the title Sister Act.  The 1992 film was a big hit, followed by a 1993 sequel and a subsequent musical adaptation in London and on Broadway, co-produced by Goldberg. The musical, however, has been substantially re-tooled to have a different setting and musical style than the film, and as the final production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2016 season, it’s not quite as memorable as the movie, but it’s still an entertaining show.

The writers were wise to re-tool the show, in sense. The story is so associated with Goldberg and her unique talents that adapting the show basically required making the central character Deloris Van Cartier (played here by Dan’yelle Williamson) more distinct from Goldberg’s characterization. The show has also been re-imagined and re-set so it now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, casting Deloris as an aspiring disco diva instead of a Motown-inspired Reno lounge performer as in the film. The classic hits used in the film aren’t here either, replaced with new songs by Alan Menken (of Disney fame) and Glenn Slater. The style is a blend of disco and traditional musical theatre songs, with occasional elements of Gospel. The story is also made a little more personal, giving Deloris a backstory of having gone to high school with police officer Eddie Souther (Curtis Wiley), who arranges for Deloris to go into hiding at Queen of Angels convent after having witnessed her nightclub-promoter/crime boss boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Kent Overshown) committing a murder.  The story then follows a similar pattern to the movie, as the newly christened “Sister Mary Clarence” struggles to adapt to her new environment at the convent, much to the consternation of the strict but caring Mother Superior (Corinne Melançon), and to the fascination of the other nuns who just want to make friends, including the ever-cheerful Sister Mary Patrick (Sarah Michelle Cuc), the shy novice Sister Mary Robert (Leah Berry), and the feisty Sister Mary Lazarus (Michele Burdette Elmore).  Together, Deloris and the sisters embark on a journey that takes them, their choir, and the convent, to new levels of understanding and notoriety. The basic story of the film is followed, with some changes in the tone and a slightly modified conclusion.

The 1970’s setting works reasonably well, and the disco songs are catchy, particularly the group songs with the nuns such as “Raise Your Voice”, the reprise of Deloris’s original disco anthem “Take Me to Heaven”, and especially the joyous “Sunday Morning Fever”.  For the most part, however, I preferred the songs in the film.  The comedy elements of the show work well enough, with some of the jokes falling flat but most of them working. Curtis Jackson’s three henchmen, T.J. (Kevin Curtis), Pablo (Keith Boyer), and Joey (Myles McHale) are funny but a little overly silly, and Curtis is more of a one-dimensional villain, although Overshown makes the most of the role. Still, it’s a fun show, and Wiley’s Eddie is believably sympathetic and has good chemistry with Williamson’s Deloris. The real stars of the show, though, are of course Deloris and the nuns, and this production has cast them all extremely well.

Williamson brings a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability to the role of Deloris, and she has a great voice and strong stage presence. She carries off the songs very well, and her developing rapport with the sisters is affectingly believable. Melançon, as the Mother Superior, has just the right blend of authority and compassion, as well, and she has some excellent musical moments with “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer”. The main supporting nuns are all standouts, as well, with Cuc’s bubbly enthusiasm,  Berry’s earnest sincerity, and Elmore’s snarky energy all contributing to the overall sense of camaraderie of the nuns, and the infectious energy of the show.  Steve Isom is also memorable as the benevolent Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the Deloris and her “new” choir. The lead performers are also backed by a strong ensemble, filling out the bigger musical numbers with appropriate style and attitude.

The staging is strong, as well, with vibrant choreography by Stephen Bourneuf. James Wolk’s set is colorful and versatile, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes appropriately evoke the disco era, with just the right over-the-top glitter and glitz when it’s needed. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting also contributes to the overall disco mood of the piece, and the sense of fun is well achieved and maintained.

Ultimately, there really isn’t a whole lot of depth to this Sister Act. The story is a little contrived, but what’s there is a lot of fun.  A show like this is more about the characters than the story, and the characters are cast well, led by the excellent Williamson and Melançon. It’s a big, bold, glittery disco tale of sisterhood in various forms, and it’s a fine conclusion to the season at STAGES.

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan'yelle Williamson Photo by Peter Wochniak, STAGES St. Louis

Steve Isom, Corinne Melançon , Dan’yelle Williamson
Photo by Peter Wochniak,
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis’s production of Sister Act is running at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 9, 2016.

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A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
The Fox Theatre
September 13, 2016

John Rapson, Kevin Massey Photo by Joan Marcus A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder National Tour

John Rapson, Kevin Massey
Photo by Joan Marcus
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder National Tour

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is an apt title for 2014’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical, based on a early 20th Century novel by Roy Horniman that also served as the inspiration for the 1949 English film Kind Hearts and Coronets. The musical is now on tour and stopping in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre, where the ornate decor and style suit the piece well. A gleeful tale of one man’s rise to a position of nobility through less than noble means, this show is certainly full of laughs and very cleverly written and produced, even though its message is ultimately somewhat disturbing.

We first meet Montague “Monty”  Navarro (Kevin Massey) in his prison cell as he writes a diary of how he came to be so incarcerated. It seems that Monty grew up in humble circumstances, but shortly after the death of his mother, her childhood nanny, Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) appears and informs him that his mother was a member of the famous D’Ysquith family, who disinherited her when she married Monty’s late father, a musician from Spain. Monty also finds out that he’s ninth in line for the Earldom of Highhurst, and goes about first trying to be accepted as a member of the family. When the family still refuses to acknowledge his mother, Monty goes about ingratiating himself to the various family heirs and, one by one, helping them to an early demise. Meanwhile, Monty’s girlfriend Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), doesn’t initially believe his family story and marries another man for the money, but that doesn’t stop her from still being involved with Monty on the side. Monty, meanwhile, also meets and enters into a flirtation with his cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Adrienne Eller), who isn’t in the way in the line of succession so he views her an ideal marriage possibility, which prompts jealousy from Sibella. The story follows Monty as he navigates his way through the succession and his increasingly complicated romantic entanglements. Also, in a clever casting conceit, most of the D’Ysquiths are played by the same actor (John Rapson). It’s a fast-paced, quick witted show that chronicles Monty’s amoral machinations in a tuneful, humorous manner.

The casting here is uniformly excellent, with special kudos to Rapson for playing so many D’Ysquiths (both male and female) with such energy and flair. Massey is equally good as the charming, scheming Monty, working well opposite Rapson as his various relatives and potential victims, and opposite both of his love interests. Williams is superb as the materialistic, jealous Sibella and Eller is especially excellent as the eager, devoted Phoebe. The best moment in the show is the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You”, in which Phoebe shows up at Monty’s apartment not knowing Sibella is there, and Monty is desperately torn between them. It’s a hilarious, impeccably staged moment. There are also strong performances from VanArsdel as the unpredictable Miss Shingle and Kristen Mengelkoch as the present Earl’s wife, the haughty, combative Lady Eugenia. The main cast members are supported well by a cohesive, energetic ensemble, making the lively songs and various stylized production numbers from the opening “A Warning to the Audience” to the summarizing “Finale” crackle with energy, wit, and morbid humor.

This is an extremely good looking production, filling out the Fox stage well and fitting ideally into that venue. The ingenious set by Alexander Dodge recreates an old fashioned music hall stage that conveniently adapts and adjusts to the various changes of setting. The costumes by Linda Cho are richly and gloriously detailed as well, suggesting both the period and the show’s whimsical tone perfectly. There’s also adept use of lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, stylish and whimsical wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe, and spectacular use of projections by Aaron Rhyne. The whole look and feel of this piece is of a stylized, over-the-top early 20th Century music hall production.

This is an impressive show, with a great score and strong performances, although the story does have a calculated coldness about it that makes it more than a little unsettling at times. That tone is probably intentional, although it does come across at times as being a little too self-consciously pretentious. Still, the cast members are clearly enjoying themselves, and their energy is infectious and effective. It’s a clever show, and a visual and auditory treat. It’s definitely worth checking out while it’s in town.

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey, Adrienne Eller Photo by Joan Marcus A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder National Tour

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey, Adrienne Eller
Photo by Joan Marcus
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder National Tour

The national tour of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is playing at the Fox Theatre until September 25, 2016. 

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Miss Julie, Clarissa and John
By Mark Clayton Southers
Directed by Andrea Frye
The Black Rep
September 10, 2016

Alicia Reve' Like, Laurie McConnell Photo by Philip Hamer The Black Rep

Alicia Reve’ Like, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Black Rep

Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is the opener for the newest season at the Black Rep. It’s playwright Mark Clayton Southers’s re-imagining of August Strindberg’s classic play Miss Julie, changing the setting to the Southern United States during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. As portrayed in this intense, extremely well-cast production at the Black Rep, tensions are high between servants at a plantation and the owner’s daughter. It’s a sharp, richly characterized portrayal of racial and class tensions as well as personal dynamics between the characters.

On a large Virginia plantation in the 1880s, Clarissa (Alicia Reve’ Like) is a cook for the plantation’s owner. She lives with her fiance’, fellow servant and former slave John (Eric J. Conners). They have an uneasy relationship with the owner’s daughter, Miss Julie (Laurie McConnell), who has lived an entitled existence but struggles to live up to the expectations of her family and society. That uneasiness doesn’t stop her from exerting her considerable influence on John, with whom she engages in a manipulative flirtation. In the midst of this stands Clarissa, who is haunted by her own traumatic upbringing and the disappearance of her beloved mother, who had been a slave at the plantation as well. The mystery of what happened to Clarissa’s mother and the connection between this situation and Miss Julie herself is a key element of the plot, leading to much of the intense drama that builds gradually throughout the play and then explodes in Act 2.

The casting here is key, and all three players are excellent. Like, as Clarissa, is a particular standout as she portrays all the aspects of the character’s emotional journey with raw and intense honesty. Her search for answers regarding her mother, and her wariness of Miss Julie and real but reserved affection for John are all clearly on display here in Like’s richly complex performance. McConnell, as Miss Julie, tackles the difficult role with a great deal of depth, as well. As someone who has learned to exploit her position to get ahead, she could easily be a cardboard villain, but although she’s not particularly sympathetic most of the time, McConnell does an excellent job of conveying Miss Julie’s own complicated history and struggle with emotions of jealousy and the conflicting issues of powerlessness and need to exert power over both Clarissa and John in different ways. As John, Conners ably portrays his attachment and loyalty to Clarissa as well as his combined suspicion of and fascination with Miss Julie. The interactions between all three performers are intensely charged.

The time, place, and tone are well realized in Jim Burwinkel’s authentically detailed set and Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek’s meticulously detailed costumes. The lighting, designed by Kathy Perkins, effectively augments the drama as well. The Edison Theatre can be a difficult venue in terms of sound, but this production is very clear and audible, and the staging is crisp and energetic.

There are a lot of issues in this play, some overarching and most highly personal. With all three characters having their own particular struggles, as well as the struggle to live in the highly restrictive and oppressive society in which they were born, Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a highly emotional, at times disturbingly intense production that is sure to make audiences think. It’s an excellent showcase for this superb cast, and a memorable start to what promises to be an exciting season at the Black Rep.

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve' Like Photo by Phillip Hamer The Black Rep

Eric J Conners, Alicia Reve’ Like
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2016.

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Book by James Goldman, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 9, 2016

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Emily Skinner, Christiane Noll
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

With the Repertory of St. Louis Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, nostalgia is sure to abound. It’s especially fitting now for the Rep to open its new season with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, a musical that explores both good and bad aspects of nostalgia, and reflects on hopes, dreams, regrets, and the power of memory. It’s also a pastiche of old Broadway themes and styles, and on stage at the Rep, it looks and sounds positively stunning.

The stage at the Rep is constantly changing in this production, thanks to Luke Cantarella’s vividly realized set design that makes excellent use of a turntable. The space represents an old, dilapidated Broadway theatre that is due to be demolished, and it’s haunted by the “ghosts” or memories of the elaborately dressed showgirls who used to perform there. The theatre becomes the scene for a reunion of many performers, mostly women, who participated in the “Weismann Follies” between the World Wars.  They have been invited there by Follies producer Dimitri Weismann (Joneal Joplin) so that they can reconnect, remember, reflect, and say goodbye to the old theatre that was such an important part of their lives in the past. Among the various Follies alumni are former roommates Sally Durant Plummer (Christiane Noll) and Phyllis Rogers Stone (Emily Skinner), who are now middle-aged and married to the former “stage door Johnnies” who used to court them at the theatre. Sally’s husband Buddy (Adam Heller) is a salesman who loves Sally but has been worn out by years of feeling rejected by her. Sally still carries a torch for Ben Stone (Bradley Dean), who was involved briefly with Sally when they were younger but chose to marry Phyllis instead. Phyllis, stuck for years in an unhappy marriage to the well-connected, well-known politician Ben, is forced to confront her own choice to marry and stay with him, as well as trying to reconcile the idealistic but unrefined young woman she used to be with her more sophisticated but jaded present-day existence. All four have younger counterparts (Sarah Quinn Taylor as Young Sally, Kathryn Boswell as Young Phyllis, Michael Williams as Young Ben, and Cody Williams as Young Buddy) who interact with their present-day selves in a series of flashbacks, vestiges of memories. Meanwhile, the other Follies performers relive their glory days by performing their signature numbers and reflecting on their own lives in show business and elsewhere. And then there’s the stylized “Loveland” sequence in the second half of Act 2. This is a complex, multi-faceted show that provides an excellent showcase for most of the members of its large cast.

That superb cast is led by the extraordinary performances of this production’s Sally and Phyllis, Noll and Skinner. Noll brings a childlike quality to Sally that is ideal for the role of the middle-aged regretful starlet-turned-housewife who continues to delude herself by living in the past. Her rendition of Sondheim’s classic “Losing My Mind” is achingly real. Skinner, as the seemingly tougher, caustic Phyllis, allows the audience to see the vulnerability that lies beneath her outward steeliness. She delivers a devastating interpretation of “Would I Leave You?” and an energetic, clear performance of her song that outlines her inner conflict between who she was, who she is now, and how she wishes she could be in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”. Heller brings a great deal of sympathy to the disillusioned, weary Buddy, who pines for a real relationship with Sally and lives in the shadow of her memories of Ben. For his own part, Dean plays Ben with just the right mixture of charm, regret, and confusion, bringing a lot of raw emotion to his big number in the “Loveland” sequence, “Live, Laugh, Love”. Taylor, Boswel, Michael Williams and Cody Williams are also excellent as the leads’ younger selves, and the rest of the cast is simply stellar. There are top-notch turns from Nancy Opel as former Follies girl turned TV star Carlotta, whose ode to a life in showbiz, “I’m Still Here” is a highlight. There’s also the terrific Zoe Vonder Haar singing the classic “Broadway Baby” with strength and style, an excellent haunting version of “One More Kiss” by Carol Skarimbas as the oldest of the alums, the gloriously voiced Heidi Schiller, in duet with the also great Julie Hanson and her younger self. And perhaps best of all is E. Fay Butler as Stella Deems leading the rest of her follow Follies alums in a spectacularly choreographed tap number, “Who’s That Woman?” that stops the show.

Visually, this show is simply a treat as well, with that spectacular, constantly morphing set and Amy Clark’s marvelous, colorful costumes that help bring the Follies atmosphere to life. The atmosphere of the early 1970s and the various preceding eras is ideally realized. There’s also wonderful lighting work by John Lasiter that helps set the mood particularly in the flashback and fantasy sequences, and top-notch sound design by Randy Hanson.

I had been looking forward to this production, being a Sondheim fan and having seen the excellent 2011 revival on Broadway. At the Rep, the show is just as spectacular as anything on Broadway. It’s a poignant reflection on how the past informs the present, as well as a glorious celebration of classic musical styles from the first half of the 20th Century. It’s at turns thrilling, funny, dramatic and heartbreaking. Follies is a spectacular way for the Rep to start off its historic 50th season. Go see it while you can. It’s not to be missed.

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Zoe Vonder Haar, Dorothy Stanley, Christiane Noll, E. Faye Butler, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Amra-Faye Wright
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Follies is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until October 2, 2016. 

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Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 1, 2016

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Eileen Engel, Lindsay Gingrich
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics starts out it new season at Westport Playhouse this year, tackling the subject of (possibly) unrequited love. Billed as “Love?Actually”, their latest show is really two one-act shows and a cabaret, featuring a talented cast of actors and singers. Everything is simply staged, but that helps to highlight the excellent performances.

The first part of the evening was an inventive cabaret segment called “Out of a Bowl”, titled as such because of its format. Audience members were brought on stage to pull slips of paper from a bowl, determining which performers would sing and in what order. There were two solos, two duets, and a group number, along with a hilarious sketch by Colleen Backer featuring a Mount Rushmore tour guide on her last day of work, and her ingenious way of getting revenge on her boss, who is also her ex-lover. The songs were a mixture of musical theatre and pop, well-performed by the excellent cast members, including Lindsay Gingrich with a hilarious rendition of “Gooch’s Song” from Mame, Kelvin Urday with an emotional rearrangement of “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, and Omega Jones and Eileen Engel with a gloriously over-the-top performance of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot. Everyone is excellent here, and the selection of singers and songs is likely to change every performance, so the audience is in for a pleasant surprise.

Act 2 was a performance of Steven Serpa’s short opera “Thyrsis and Amaranth”, in which a pair of bridesmaids at a wedding sing about their feelings of love. Thyrsis (Lindsay Gingrich) and Amaranth (Eileen Engel) are close friends who grew up together. Thyrsis is clearly in love with Amaranth and allows herself to hope that her feelings are returned, as Amaranth sings of feelings for the initially unnamed object of her affections. As she agonizes over how to express her love, the bride, groom, wedding guests and workers pass by in the background, playing out their own silent little stories that serve as a backdrop to the main plot. Both lead performers sing superbly, and the real sense of affection is obvious and apparent between both characters. Gingrich is particularly affecting as the lovestruck, melancholy Thyrsis, and Engel is also convincing as the more cheerful Amaranth.

Next up in the evening’s performances is “21 Chump Street” a one-act musical by one of Broadway’s most talked-about composer-performers, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  The hip-hop and pop-based score is characteristic of Miranda’s style, and the subject matter is engaging and thought-provoking. Set in a Florida high school, the show starts out as a seemingly routine story of a promising young student, Justin (Kelvin Urday) developing a crush on a new student, Naomi (Natasha Toro). What Justin doesn’t know, however, is that “Naomi” is actually a 25-year-old undercover police officer who has been planted at the school to find and arrest drug dealers, and the unwitting, infatuated Justin is caught in her trap. This is an excellent, extremely provocative show, exploring various issues such as abuse of authority, teenage drug use and whether or not marijuana should even be illegal in the first place. All of the performers are excellent, especially Urday as the devoted Justin, Toro as the determined officer, and Sarajane Alverson as the narrator/teacher/interviewer. They are supported by a strong, energetic ensemble (Kevin J. Corpuz, Omega Jones, and Phil Leveling) as Justin’s classmates.  There’s a lot here in this very short piece–humor, drama, conflict, and controversy, and it’s performed with utmost excellence.

The acting and singing is well supported by the technical aspects, with effective set design by Keller Ryan, strong lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and well-suited costumes by Amy Harrison. The production fits well into the small space at the Westport Playhouse, as well. It’s an ideal showcase for R-S Theatrics’ talented ensemble, exploring the complexities and confusions of love that isn’t necessarily requited.

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

“Love?Actually” is being presented by R-S Theatrics at the Westport Playhouse until September 18, 2016.

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