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Archive for January, 2017

Constellations
by Nick Payne
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio

January 20, 2017

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a two person play with fairly simple production values, and with a clever concept. Constellations, the latest production at the Rep Studio is not a long show, but it’s a fascinating one. This inventive, emotional, witty play finds its strength in its cast and in its concept, as well as in its s strong script.

This isn’t a long play, running at about 75 minutes with no intermission, but there’s a lot of story in that 75 minutes. In fact, there are a lot of stories in one. It’s a “what-if” sort of situation, focusing on a would-be couple in England, Marianne (Ellen Adair) and Roland (Eric Gilde), playing multiple variations of the same scene over and over to show many possible scenarios. The idea of multiverses is brought up by Marianne in-story, as  examining the theory is part of her line of work. Roland is a beekeeper who incorporates his work into his everyday life in some humorous ways, particularly in one scene–or set of scenes–that I won’t spoil here but it involves reciting a sweetly geeky prepared speech. As the story unfolds, the various possibilities of this pairing unfold, from false-starts, to betrayals, to break-ups and re-uniting, to health scares and potential tragedy. The structure, is mostly linear, also there are some moments that keep being revisited seemingly out of turn, but playwright Nick Payne deftly arranges the script so it’s not confusing. In fact, it’s fascinating.

Steven Woolf’s clear direction and the winning performances of the leads also contribute massively to the appeal of this play.  Gilde’s charming and sometimes socially awkward Roland, and Adair’s unconventional and sometimes brash Marianne make an excellent team, with strong chemistry and a great deal of energy. Adair is especially adept at changing the tone of a scene at the drop of a hat, joking one moment and crying real tears the next. The emotional arc of this piece depends greatly on the chemistry of these two, and they carry the story well.

Technically, this is a simply staged piece with a simple set. Designed by Bill Clarke, the set consists of a triangular “stage” backed by a glowing, crinkly backdrop that suggests clouds or possibly even brainwaves. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting design ably illuminates the action and the backdrop in a variety of colors, and Lou Bird’s costumes are well-suited to the characters. Rusty Wandall’s sound is also clear and strong. It’s a somewhat whimsical set-up that serves the story well.

Constellations certainly isn’t the first dramatic work to explore the idea of alternate timelines, but its strong script and intimate focus on just two characters makes it compelling. The two leads definitely make the most of their roles, and it’s a story that’s prone to provoke some interesting thoughts and conversations. There’s every possibility that you will enjoy it!

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Eric Gilde, Ellen Adair
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Constellations in the Studio Theatre until February 5, 2017.

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An American in Paris
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
The Fox Theatre
January 18, 2017

Garen Scribner, Sara Esty Photo by Matthew Murphy An American in Paris North American Tour

Garen Scribner, Sara Esty
Photo by Matthew Murphy
An American in Paris North American Tour

I have to admit that although I saw the classic film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, when I was a small child, what I most remember about it is being somewhat confused and bored by the iconic dance sequence that ends the movie. I guess I was too young to appreciate it. Now, the tour of the stage version with the classic Gershwin score and a revised book is on stage at the Fox, and viewing the story and its dazzling dance sequences as an adult, I’m anything but bored and confused. Although the story has been modified somewhat from the film, this production is visually stunning, emotionally stirring and musically sensational.

The setting, as the title suggests, is Paris. The time is just after the end of World War II. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) is a young US Army vet and aspiring painter who finds himself intrigued with the City of Light and with a mysterious young woman that he meets but whose name he doesn’t learn at first. He decides to stay in Paris and wanders into a cafe where he meets fellow American veteran Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), who plays the piano and writes music, hoping to become a successful composer. He also meets Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), the son of wealthy French manufacturers, who harbors the secret dream of becoming a song-and-dance man in America. Eventually, they cross paths with Jerry’s mystery woman, the gifted young ballerina Lise Dassin (Sara Esty), whose mother had been a famous dancer. Lise herself has a secret that ties her to Henri, although both Jerry and Adam find themselves drawn to her and she herself feels drawn to Jerry.  There’s also wealthy heiress and arts patron Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), who forms an attachment to Jerry as well. All the complicated love polygons are only part of the plot, as the ghosts of the past and the spirit of the future battle within the various characters who strive to make something of their lives, and the world, after the war. It’s a well-constructed plot that revises and fleshes out some of the stories from the film, adding extra Gershwin songs in a celebration of life, art, and ultimately hope.

This is such a dance-heavy show that I have to mention that director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderful, lyrical work here. The strong influences of ballet, jazz, and occasionally tap are here in evidence, expertly, energetically, and emotionally danced by the top-notch ensemble and perfectly cast leads. The cast is ably led by Scribner as the outgoing, charming Jerry and Esty as the somewhat mysterious, conflicted Lise.  Their chemistry is outstanding, and their dancing is simply wondrous, especially in the dazzling “An American in Paris” ballet near the end of the show. There are also strong performances from Benson as the sweetly snarky Adam and Ferranti in a witty, sympathetic performance as Milo. Spangler as Henri is also excellent, making the most of a spectacular showcase production number in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. The whole cast here is incredibly strong, showing of incredible dancing skills on such Gershwin classics as “I Got Rhythm”, “S’Wonderful”, and more.

Technically, this show is just plain beautiful. Bob Crowley’s glorious set design is remarkable in its simplicity and its elegance, relying largely on movable set pieces that flow onstage as if they are part of the dance, augmented by truly stunning projections by 59 Productions. Crowley also designed the gorgeous, stylish costumes that add much to the 1940’s air of the production. There’s also spectacular, atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz that enhances every scene and production number.

This is such a wonderful show. It’s poetic, balletic, and dramatic with just the right amount of humor to move the story along. The characters are well portrayed and their stories are convincing, but what is mostly evident about this production is its celebration of life, art, and music in a visual, auditory, and emotional sense. It’s a screen-to-stage adaptation that honors its source material and manages to expand it in a richly compelling way, and it fills the Fox stage superbly.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed. Now, I need to see the movie again.

Cast of An American in Paris Photo by Matthew Murphy An American in Paris North American Tour

Cast of An American in Paris
Photo by Matthew Murphy
An American in Paris North American Tour

The North American tour of An American In Paris runs at the Fox Theatre until January 29, 2017.

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Closer
by Patrick Marber
Directed by Tom Martin
Theatre Lab
January 14, 2017

Larissa White Photo by Justin Foizey Theatre Lab

Larissa White
Photo by Justin Foizey
Theatre Lab

Closer isn’t exactly a pleasant play. Essentially a character study of four interconnected lives in modern London, Patrick Marber’s play doesn’t exactly present easy situations or easy to like characters. It’s a gritty world of single Londoners looking for love, sex, validation, identity, and more. As the newest production from Theatre Lab, Closer can be fascinating, with some strong performances and clever staging. It’s an ambitious production that is certainly thought-provoking, but it’s not without flaws.

The story follows four Londoners and their increasingly messy intertwined relationships. We first meet the young, iconoclastic Alice (Larissa White) in a hospital emergency room after she’s been hit by a car after trying to cross the street without looking. She’s been “rescued” by Dan (Brock Russell), an aspiring author who writes obituaries for a newspaper, and the two begin a relationship that continues on and off throughout the course of the play. There’s also Larry (Andrew Michael Neiman), an unsuspecting doctor who happens to be there on the same day Alice and Dan meet, although it’s not until later that he’s brought into something of a bizarre love square when the manipulative Dan tricks him by way of an internet sex chat room into meeting photographer Anna (Gabrielle Greer), who likes Larry but shares something of an addictive attraction with Dan, despite the fact that Dan is still in a relationship with Alice. In the midst of all the romantic entanglements, the characters pursue their career goals and dreams, experiencing success, failure, and the challenges of compromise of ideals and struggles with ego and entitlement. The first act comes across more as a catalog of selfishness, as the character pursue their romantic, sexual and career goals with little thought of the others involved. This is the kind of play that might make you hate it if you only watch the first act, but the second act explores the characters and their situations with more depth, essentially deconstructing the situations and characters to challenge their own senses of who they are and their purpose in life.

It’s a fascinating character study, and to make this play work, casting and chemistry are essential. This production is cast well in terms of the individual performances, but its biggest flaw is a lack of chemistry in one of the key relationships, that between Dan and Anna. Greer is excellent as the conflicted and mostly well-meaning Anna, and Russell is convincing as the manipulative, needy Dan, but I just didn’t believe the intense connection and electric attraction the two are supposed to share. Both have much better chemistry with the other cast members. I believe Greer’s connection with Neimain’s earnest but hapless Larry, and Russell’s with White’s yearning, damaged Alice, but the Dan/Anna match made little sense to me as played out here. Still, it’s a compelling work of theatre, and the performances are strong in every other area, with White being the particular standout for her sometimes fierce, sometimes fragile portrayal of a complex, enigmatic character. All of the performers also exhibit credible if not perfect English accents, as well.

Technically, the show is more on the minimalist side, being staged on a mostly bare stage. Scenic designer Mark Wilson’s set relies largely on some movable furniture and on highly evocative projections. Wilson’s lighting is also striking and memorable, and the players are outfitted by costume designer Marcy Weigert in suitable attire ranging from Dan’s more preppy looks to Alice’s colorful, outrageous ensembles.

Closer is well-staged piece, although the passage of time is sometimes not as clear as it could be. The sense of tension builds well, especially in the emotionally charged second act. It’s a challenging, sometimes difficult play examining the relationships of characters that aren’t always likable, but as portrayed at Theatre Lab, they still manage to be fascinating, especially in their relationships even though one isn’t particularly convincing. Like the story itself and its characters, this production is worth getting to know even with its imperfections.

Andrew Michael Neiman, Gabrielle Greer Photo by Justin Foizey Theatre Lab

Andrew Michael Neiman, Gabrielle Greer
Photo by Justin Foizey
Theatre Lab

 Theatre Lab is presenting Closer at the .ZACK in Grand Center until January 22, 2017.

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All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Patrick Ball, John Woodson, Mairin Lee Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Patrick Ball, John Woodson, Mairin Lee
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s next entry in their 50th anniversary season is an American classic by one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th Century, Arthur Miller. Although I had seen and read several of Miller’s plays before, for some reason All My Sons had evaded me until now. I’m glad that it’s this production that serves as my introduction. It’s a period specific story that can’t really be updated, as tied to World War II and mid-20th Century American ideals as it is. It would be easy to approach this play as something of a history lesson or artifact. Director Seth Gordon and his first-rate cast and crew, however, will not let us do that. This production celebrates Miller’s brilliant text by bringing it to vibrant, emotional, challenging life.

This is a time-specific story definitely, but many of its themes are timeless. The hard working father and factory owner Joe Keller (John Woodson) has spent his life building a business and taking care of his family’s material needs, and he hopes to leave a legacy that will be continued by his son Chris (Patrick Ball). Chris is a World War II vet whose unseen older brother Larry, presumed to be killed years earlier in the war, is still remembered and revered by his parents, especially his mother Kate (Margaret Daly), who insists that Larry will return to his family some day. The idealistic Chris sees a future not necessarily in business but with Ann (Mairin Lee), who had been engaged to Larry. Ann and her brother George (Zac Hoogendyk) grew up next door to the Kellers but moved away after their father, an assistant of Joe’s at the factory, had gone to prison for approving the delivery of faulty airplane cylinder heads and ultimately causing the death of 21 pilots during the war. Joe had also been to prison but had been exonerated, and he tries to maintain his own high standing in the community. The neighbors love Joe. Chris idolizes Joe, but Joe is hiding something that could be devastating to him, his family, and everyone close to him.

This is a moral dilemma story but also a rich, detailed portrait and critique of its time. Miller’s sharp, incisive and natural-sounding dialogue makes these characters and their world live and breathe, and there’s humor but also palpable tension. There’s a vivid picture of a family dealing with loss, some wanting to move on and others not able to. There are the highly influential Kellers and their neighbors who live in their shadow, including men with dreams they can’t fulfill, like neighbor and doctor Jim Bayliss (Jim Ireland), and women whose lives are tied to the social and financial stability of their husbands, like Jim’s resentful wife Sue (Amy Hohn) and George’s former sweetheart Lydia (Emily Kunkel), who has settled down with the dependable but unexciting Frank (Grant Fletcher Prewett). It’s a world where financial status and social standing can take precedence over ideals and genuine care. It’s a world where people who have had their lives damaged by war desperately try to find new hope and build lives that mean something.

This is a modern tragedy centered on the likable but obviously flawed character of Joe, who is remarkably played by Woodson, who conveys Joe’s affability as well as the increasing desperation of his situation. Daly is just as effective as Kate, so devoted to her son’s memory and living in determined, devoted denial. Ball as Chris is excellent as the handsome, charming, idealistic son who is devoted to his family but wants more from life than what his father can give him. He has strong chemistry with Lee, who gives a strong but somewhat affected performance as Ann. There’s also strong support from Ireland who conveys an underlying sadness to the character of Jim, Hohn as the somewhat spiteful Sue, Kunkel as the good-natured Lydia, and Hoogendyk as the determined but conflicted George. It’s a strong ensemble, serving Miller’s brilliant script well, with Seth Gordon’s direction perfectly pitched, as the sense of tension builds in intensity and leaves a profound, lasting impact.

Technically, the production is extremely impressive, with a set by Michael Ganio that is so well-realized, realistic and somewhat fantastical at the same time, as the superb lighting by Peter E. Sargent highlights an important aspect of the set at just the right moments in the play to help reveal an important underlying theme. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall and remarkably detailed, just-right period costumes by Myrna Colley-Lee, helping to augment the authenticity of the time and place.

All My Sons is a classic for good reason. It’s a story of post-war America, but its themes are just as powerful today as they were seventy years ago. As presented at the Rep, this play’s power and urgency are made all the more effective by the remarkable performances and staging. It’s a truly stunning production.

Margaret Daly, Mairin Lee Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Margaret Daly, Mairin Lee
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting All My Sons until January 29th, 2017. 

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