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Archive for December, 2016

Finding Neverland
Book by James Graham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Mia Michaels
The Fox Theatre
December 6, 2016

Cast of Finding Neverland Photo by Carol Rosegg Finding Neverland National Tour

Cast of Finding Neverland
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Finding Neverland National Tour

Finding Neverland the musical didn’t last long on Broadway, but now it’s on tour, stopping here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. It’s a big, bold and sparkly kind of musical with dazzling special effects and an interesting if somewhat cheesy story. Well cast and spectacularly staged, it’s overall impression is an enchanting one.

Inspired by the film of the same name, Finding Neverland tells the story of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern), who is most famous nowadays for having written the classic Peter Pan. This musical is a condensed, partially fictionalized portrayal of Barrie’s relationship with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her sons Peter (played on opening night by Ben Krieger), George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Mitchell Wray), and Michael (Jordan Cole).  As the show portrays the situation, producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt) has been insisting that the discouraged Barrie write a new play for his company to produce as soon as possible, and Barrie’s newfound friendship with Sylvia and the boys eventually inspires him to write Peter Pan.  The process of writing and producing the play is juxtaposed with Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia and her sons, especially Peter, who Barrie encourages to write his own stories.  While the “love story” element here is somewhat overblown, it’s a fun show. The exploration of the creative process is interesting, and the character of Captain Hook (also Hewitt) serving as something of an antagonistic “muse” for Barrie is cleverly portrayed.  The score is pretty but not always particularly memorable.

What is memorable is the staging and the dazzling effects that enhance the story and add to the wondrous, magical atmosphere, especially in fantasy sequences. Scott Pask’s set is detailed and versatlie, transporting the audience to Turn of the 20th Century London as well as to Neverland itself. There are also terrific costumes from the authentic to the whimsical designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab, spectacular lighting by Kenneth Posner, projections by Jon Driscoll, illusions by Paul Kleve and fantastic flying effects by Production Resource Group. Barrie’s world–both real and imaginary–is incredibly well realized here. There’s also some great, inventive choreography by Mia Michaels, especially in the ensemble numbers.

The ensemble is particularly strong here, playing London townspeople, actors in the play, and more as the story requires. It’s a large cast, filling the stage at the Fox well. The leads are top-notch as well, particularly Kern as the imaginative, determined Barrie, Dwyer in great voice as Sylvia, and Hewitt in an amusing dual role as the persistent producer Charles and as the wily Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination. The child performers are also very well cast, with Krieger a particular stand-out as the initially disillusioned but increasingly inquisitive and imaginative Peter. There’s also good supporting work by Joanna Glushak as Sylvia’s mother, Mrs. Du Maurier, Crystal Kellogg as Barrie’s wife Mary, and Corey Rives as the energetic butler, Albert.  The whole cast is excellent, elevating the occasionally cliched script with a real sense of wonder and enchantment. The Peter Pan rehearsal and performance sections are particularly impressive.

This isn’t a perfect musical. The “love story” seemed contrived, and there are a few good songs but a few too many reprises. Still, it’s an extremely well-cast, great looking production that should appeal to audiences of all ages. It’s a flight of fancy that, for the most part, succeeds.

Kevin Kern, Tom Hewitt Photo by Carol Rosegg Finding Neverland National Tour

Kevin Kern, Tom Hewitt
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Finding Neverland National Tour

The National Tour of Finding Neverland is playing at the Fox Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 4 2016

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that has become so well-known for its film version that it may become difficult to abandoned preconceived notions when going to see the stage version.  I personally had never seen the play before seeing the current production at New Jewish Theatre, although I had seen the film several times.  I know that a good production can easily make one set aside other versions if you give it a chance, and NJT’s production is an excellent production. It’s a story of a 25-year relationship and a specific time and place, challenging assumptions and more preconceived notions, and the casting is ideal.

The familiar story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s own family history, centers around widowed retired schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (J. Samuel Davis), who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Eric Dean White) after Daisy crashes her car and becomes too much of an insurance risk to drive. The proud Daisy insists she doesn’t need a driver at first, but Hoke is persistent and their initially rocky relationship grows closer over the years. The relationship dynamic is the centerpiece of this show, but the context is also extremely important, and although it’s not primarily a play about social commentary, it can be challenging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  The rich, Jewish Daisy insists that she isn’t rich and that she isn’t prejudiced against African-Americans, although the way she treats Hoke, especially at first, often belies that declaration. Even the seemingly easygoing Boolie is too afraid for his reputation to attend a dinner in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been invited to speak. The effort here is more to portray a specific relationship as it unfolds in the time and place–Atlanta, Georgia from 1948 until 1973–within the context of the highly restrictive and often volatile culture of the time. The relationship is the  centerpiece, however. The characters are well-drawn and the play tells a compelling, believable story in its roughly 90 minute running time.

Uhry’s play is well-structured and serves as an excellent showcase for its actors, led by NJT’s Artistic Director Sitzer in a rare acting role as Daisy.  Sitzer is excellent in portraying the complex character of Daisy, who is proud, stubborn, and set in her ways, but whose stubbornness masks an underlying vulnerability.  Davis is also excellent as Hoke, convincingly portraying the character’s developing relationship with Daisy and displaying a great deal of personal strength and determination. Both performers excel in the witty banter as well as the more dramatic moments of the piece, and the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to affectionate is convincing, as is their characters’ aging over the years as presented in the story. White also gives a strong performance as the personable, conciliatory Boolie.

The set, as is usual for productions at NJT, is impressive. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a believable, elegantly appointed house fronted by a representation of a car in which Hoke and Daisy make their various excursions. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are detailed and appropriately evocative of time and place, as well as the changing styles over the years. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Mark Wilson that helps to evoke the changing of time and season, and strong sound design by Zoe Sullivan. Music from the times is effectively used to help set the scene in various moments, as well.

This is a well-known play that I think is more complex than is often perceived. It can be sharp, challenging, and convicting as well as funny and heartwarming in moments.  Mostly, it’s a portrayal of particular distinctive characters and their growing, complex relationship.  New Jewish Theatre’s production is an excellent presentation of this memorable story.

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Driving Miss Daisy at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 18, 2016.

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American Buffalo
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2016

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Desperation is on display in David Mamet’s modern classic play American Buffalo, and it’s not Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” either. In fact, the characters in this highly charged three-person play can get rather loud. With a powerful script and equally powerful acting, this production is a highlight of the year in St. Louis theatre.

The setting is a resale shop in Chicago in the 1970’s. Donny Dubrow (Peter Mayer), the owner of the shop, talks with his young protege, Bobby (Leo Ramsey) about an initially unnamed project they’re working on. Soon after the arrival of their friend, Walter “Teach” Cole (William Roth) we find out exactly what’s being planned. Donny had apparently sold a valuable “Buffalo” nickel to a customer for much less than it was worth, and he wants to get the nickel back by any means necessary, or more specifically, to steal it back. Teach, however, has strong opinions about Bobby’s being involved in this job, and is determined to take Bobby’s place. That’s really the basic plot. Of course more happens and there are some rather devastating developments, but what is front and center here is the world Mamet has created, and these intricately flawed characters and their complicated relationships, with each other and with a few associates they constantly talk about but are never shown, as well as with the world around them.  The language is thoroughly believable and effective. Each character has distinct rhythms of speech. The strong language for which Mamet is known is not as shocking today as it may have been when the play was written, but it’s still effective and perfectly suited to the characters who inhabit this story.

The real “show” here isn’t the plot, really. It’s the characters, and they are exquisitely well-drawn and, in this production, just as exquisitely portrayed. The relationships are also clearly defined. The wary friendship between Donny and Teach, the father/son-like dynamic between Donny and Bobby, and the not-so-thinly veiled suspicion between Bobby and Teach, are all clearly on display here in this lucidly directed production. Mayer is able to find a glimmer of desperate hope behind the defeated world-weariness of Donny, and his protectiveness of Bobby is readily apparent.  Ramsey portrays a real sense of determination and affection for Donny in his portrayal of the somewhat naive but determined Bobby. Roth, for his part, emphasizes the underlying rage in the part of the swaggering, confrontational Teach. All three actors interact with a believable sense of relationship and personal history, and the energy in their confrontations is palpable.  It’s a remarkable feat of acting from all three.

Another intensely impressive aspect of this production is the creation of the characters’ physical world. Set designer Cristie Johnson and props designer Carla Landis Evans have brought Donny’s junk shop to such vivid life that every time I walked past it on the way in and out of the theatre, I just wanted to stop and stare at the sheer level of detail, as every item in the well-stocked shop seemed to have a story of its own. The authenticity is complete down the the display cases, the realistic shop windows, and the well-worn linoleum on the floor. Evans’ costumes also perfectly outfit the characters and anchoring them into the play’s established time and place.  There’s also stellar lighting work from Dalton Robinson and excellent sound design from director John Contini.  The Gaslight Theatre is small, but STLAS continues to impress me with how much they can do with the stage area, creating a space that’s so meticulously detailed and entirely believable as the setting for such a fully realized production.

American Buffalo is a well-crafted work from one of America’s most celebrated modern playwrights. It’s volatile, raw, revealing, and not particularly hopeful, but it gives us a world and characters that are achingly authentic. At St. Louis Actors’ studio, such a work has become something of a master class for top-notch acting directing, and design. That description might make this sound clinical, but it’s not. This play is real, and on clear, emotional display. It’s intense, it’s devastating, and it’s not to be missed.

William Roth, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting American Buffalo at the Gaslight Theatre until December 18, 2016.

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A Christmas Carol
Adapted by David H. Bell
From the Novella by Charles Dickens
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 2, 2016

Jerry Vogel, John Rensenhouse Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jerry Vogel, John Rensenhouse
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

‘Tis the season for holiday-themed shows in the St. Louis theatre scene, and this year, the Rep has brought back a show that used to be staged annually decades ago. A Christmas Carol is the classic Dickens tale that has been adapted many times over the years by various playwrights, in musical and non-musical form. The Rep’s latest production, adapted by David H. Bell and performed previously by several other theatre companies, isn’t really a musical although seasonal carols abound.  It’s a technically stunning, well-cast production that keeps true to the spirit of Dickens.

As most viewers will already know, A Christmas Carol centers around the crusty, miserly money lender Ebenezer Scrooge, played here by John Rensenhouse.  After Scrooge spends Christmas Eve being his usual Christmas-hating, bah humbugging self, he gets a rude awakening when he’s suddenly visited by the spirit of his old, long-dead business partner Jacob Marley (Joneal Joplin) and warned that three more spirits will be visiting before dawn breaks on Christmas Day.  Through the visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past (Jacqueline Thompson), Present (Jerry Vogel), and Future (Landon Tate Boyle), Scrooge is reminded of what he has lost and what he could still have if he only is able to change his ways. We meet the familiar characters of Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Michael James Reed), Cratchit’s wife (Amy Loui) and seven children including the optimistic but ailing Tiny Tim (Owen Hanford), as well as Scrooge’s persistent nephew Fred (Ben Nordstrom), and faces from his past including his former boss Mr. Fezziwig (also Vogel) and his one-time fiancee, Belle (Lana Dvorak).  The end of the story is well-known enough, but what’s important here is how the story is told, with humor, drama, music, and a lot of dazzling effects.

The cast here is excellent, led by the impressive Rensenhouse, who makes Scrooge’s journey and ultimate reformation thoroughly convincing. There’s also strong work by Joplin as a particularly creepy ghost of Jacob Marley,  Vogel in a dual role as the bouncy Fezziwig and a Ghost of Christmas Present who resembles a cross between Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, and Thompson as an ominous Ghost of Christmas Past. There are also strong performances from Nordstrom as the kindly but disappointed (in Scrooge) Fred, Reed as the earnest Bob Cratchit, Loui as Mrs. Cratchit, young Hanford as the lovable Tiny Tim, and Kaley Bender, Justin Leigh Duhon, Kennedy Holmes, Phoenix Lawson, Nathaniel Mahone, and Kara Overlein as the rest of the Cratchit children.  Susie Wall is also excellent in a dual role as Scrooge’s feisty housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and as Mrs. Fezziwig. There’s a strong ensemble as well, playing various characters and augmenting the story with a variety of well-sung Christmas carols, contributing to the overall Victorian holiday atmosphere of the piece.

Technically, this production is particularly impressive, featuring a spectacular multi-level set by Robert Mark Morgan that serves as an ideally versatile background for the action of the play. Dorothy Marshal Englis’s costumes are also superb, ranging from the authentic Victorian-era costumes of most of the ensemble to the more fantastical costumes worn by the various ghosts, including a truly chilling Ghost of Christmas Future. Rob Denton’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute wonderfully to the sometimes haunting, sometimes festive atmosphere of the production, and there are also some excellent flying effects by On the FLY Productions LLC.

Although I have seen quite a few of the filmed versions of this story, I had never actually seen a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol before. The Rep’s production certainly captures the spirit of this well-known story. It’s at turns whimsical, frightening, compassionate, challenging, and wondrous, with a strong cast taking the audience on this journey that’s at once familiar and new at the same time. It’s a worthwhile show for the holiday season.

Cast of A Christmas Carol Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until December 24, 2016.

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Buyer & Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 1, 2016

Will Bonfiglio Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s fun when you can see a new production of a show you’ve seen before and feel like you’re seeing it for the very first time. I loved Buyer & Seller when I saw last year’s production by another local theatre company. This year, though, Stray Dog is presenting the quirky one-person show featuring the delightfully talented Will Bonfiglio, and it seems like a new experience. In fact, I think I like it even more this time.

The story is a crazy one–a fictionalized tale of out-of-work California actor Alex More (Bonfiglio), who is hired to work as the only employee in an old fashioned shopping mall in superstar Barbra Streisand’s basement. The house is real, as is the basement mall, and Streisand’s book, My Passion For Design, that describes and pictures the real house and mall. What’s not real, however, is the rest of the story, which springs from the vivid imagination of playwright Jonathan Tolins and serves as an excellent showcase for a talented actor with lots of energy, and the personable Bonfiglio is perfectly cast.  With seemingly boundless reserves of bouncy, bright and approachable verve, Bonfiglio makes an ideal central figure and story teller.  He takes us throught Alex’s journey with warmth and clarity, also ably portraying various other characters in Alex’s story, including Alex’s screenwriter boyfriend Barry, various Streisand associates and relatives, and of course, Barbra herself.  His portrayal, as Bonfiglio clearly outlines at the beginning of the play, is not a direct impression of Streisand, but it’s vividly effective, portraying an underlying toughness as well as vulnerability in the superstar.  Most of the time, though, Bonfiglio is Alex, and as he tells his story and acts it out, the sense of alternating wonder, suspense, surprise, awe, and disappointment is readily apparent. It’s a superb and extremely approachable performance.

The technical elements of this play also integrate seamlessly into the telling of Alex’s story. Scenic designer Rob Lippert has created a “blank canvas” type set, all in white, on which Bonfiglio can paint the portrait of his experience. Through excellent use of projections, Tyler Duenow’s colorful lighting, and sound designer Justin Been’s evocative sound effects, the humor and drama of the story is wonderfully augmented. Director Gary F. Bell also designed the costumes, outfitting Bonfiglio in a comfortable, versatile ensemble that suits his character well.

This play is an excellent showcase for Bonfiglio as well as an insightful portrayal of the plight of an actor who wants to work, as well as the perks and insecurities of being a world-famous superstar like Streisand. Although this is not a true story, there’s a lot of truth in it nonetheless. That truth is on vibrant, hilarious display currently in this remarkable production at Stray Dog Theatre.

straydogbuyercellarcd17e

Will Bonfiglio Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Buyer & Cellar is being presented by Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 17, 2016.

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