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Archive for March, 2017

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by by Hunter Foster
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 17, 2017

Sky Seals, Dominique Scott, John Michael Presney, Ryah Nixon, Ari McKay Wilford
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Million Dollar Quartet is certainly a crowd-pleaser.  With a catalog of classic music from the early days of rock n’ roll, played and sung live on stage and with a great deal of energy and respect for the material, a show like this is sure to please. The closing show of the Rep’s 50th season, this slightly plotted, music-heavy show is, for the most part, an entertaining success, even though it does have its problems, especially in casting.

The show is inspired by an actual event–a historic day in 1956 when four musical legends–Elvis Presley (Ari McKay Wilford), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Carl Perkins (John Michael Presney), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott) all gathered for an impromptu jam session at the Sun Records studios in Memphis. The events here are largely embellished, creating a fictional girlfriend for Elvis named Dyanne (Ryah Nixon) who is a singer and can join in on the music, and focusing a lot of its attention on Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips (James Ludwig), who is facing a dilemma when he’s offered a chance to sell his company and join Elvis at his new record company, RCA. There’s a big element of “history lesson” to this show as well, telling us a lot about the backgrounds about the various artists. It’s also a lesson in competing egos, as the talented musicians jockey for favor and boast about their success. This gives us a look at future legends still fairly early in their careers, and in the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, at the very beginning of his. For the most part, though, it’s more jam session than story, with the performers playing various hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes”, “I Walk the Line”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and more. There’s even a nod to the late, great Chuck Berry with a performance of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”, as well as a foray into Gospel music with “Down By the Riverside”, “I Shall Not Be Moved”, and “Peace In the Valley.”

The music here is really the star, with all the musicians playing their own instruments and performing the songs well. There are some excellent musical moments and some stand-out performances, especially from the energetic, charismatic Scott as Lewis, and by Presney as Perkins, who displays an impressive talent on the guitar. There are also strong performances from Ludwig as Sam Phillips and Nixon as Dyanne, who has strong singing moments with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin'”. There’s also strong musical support from Eric Scott Anthony, as Carl Perkins’ brother Jay, on bass, and by Zach Cossman as drummer Fluke. The problematic casting comes in the form of Seals and McKay. Try as he might, the pleasant-voiced Wilford just doesn’t quite convince as Elvis, lacking  in the sheer sense of charisma and magnetism, and although Seals gives a strong acting performance as Cash, his voice isn’t low enough or strong enough to carry off Cash’s classic songs, especially “I Walk the Line” in which Seals noticeably strains to the degree that it affects his overall credibility. Still, everyone seems to be having a great time here, and the group singing sessions are particularly strong.

Technically, the show is simply and effectively staged. There isn’t a need for an elaborate set, as it all takes place in the Sun Records studio, although that studio is vividly realized by set designer Adam Koch, whose two-level set provides the ideal backdrop for the performances. Costume designer Lauren T. Roark has outfitted the performers well, in colorful period-specific costumes that suit the various performers well. There’s also excellent lighting by Kirk Boookman and sound by Bart Fasbender, highlighting the clarity, energy, and sheer musicality of the performance.

This is a fun show, and even though it isn’t perfect, it entertains. Toward the end of the production, a photo and recording of the real legendary performers is shown, and it does serve as something of an extra reminder that what we’re seeing on stage is only an imperfect re-creation. Still, Million Dollar Quartet is full of great music and serves as a fitting tribute to its subjects. Even though the casting isn’t always ideal and it often comes across as more of a concert than a play, it’s a lively, well-played presentation featuring a lot of great music that is worth hearing, remembering, and celebrating.

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Million Dollar Quartet until April 9, 2017.

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Never the Sinner
by John Logan
Directed by Rick Dildine
New Jewish Theatre
March 16, 2017

Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Never the Sinner is a highly disturbing play. It’s also extremely fascinating. On stage now in a riveting production from New Jewish Theatre, John Logan’s play about the infamous crime duo of Leopold and Loeb is one of those shows that isn’t easy to forget. It will certainly get audiences talking, and thinking.

A well-known “thrill kill” murder case of the 1920s, the murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks at the hands of young, rich, and intelligent college students Nathan Leopold (Jack Zanger) and Richard Loeb (Pete Winfrey) shocked Chicago and the entire nation.  The play follows their story particularly focusing on their relationship. The director’s note calls it a “love story”, and I guess you can think of it that way, but this is one twisted sort of love story. The relationship as portrayed here appears more as a fascination, a mutual enthrallment, a mixture of admiration, self-satisfaction, and encouragement of the most dangerous impulses in service of that enthrallment. These two bask in the glow of their own perceived prowess as Nietzsche-inspired “supermen” who are aren’t bound by the rules of society. The play cuts back and forth between the trial itself and various moments in the development of Leopold and Loeb’s relationship, including the planning and carrying out of their grisly crime. Also featured in the story is the duo’s defense attorney, the world-renowned Clarence Darrow (John Flack), who looms as a non-speaking presence through most of the first act before becoming a major figure in Act Two. There’s also the determined Robert Crowe (Eric Dean White), the State’s Attorney who is prosecuting the case, who argues for the death penalty for the pair while Darrow argues against it. Also featured are Will Bonfiglio, Maggie Conroy, and John Reidy in a variety of roles, most prominently as a trio of reporters who recite headlines about the case and other events of the day, as well as interviewing the major players in the trial. The structure is mostly non-linear, but there’s a definite structure and purpose that takes shape as the play progresses.

This is a strange play to watch, because it’s about a horrific crime and two unapologetic perpetrators who alternate between glorying in their own self-importance, obsessing about their relationship, and occasionally second-guessing their own actions and even threatening to turn against one another. It’s an odd situation to be in as a member of the audience, being thoroughly disgusted with the events that take place, but oddly fascinated with these characters and their unusual relationship. It’s disturbing but also interesting, with dynamic staging and some truly impressive performances by Winfrey, Zanger, Flack, and White. Winfrey, as the outgoing, gregarious Loeb, and Zanger, as the more intense, less social Leopold, command the stage whenever they are on it, and their chemistry is strong. The spell these two hold one another under is clear and obvious in all of their scenes together, and they are compelling to watch. Flack as Darrow walks with hunch and shuffles with determination, bringing a strong presence to the part of the firebrand lawyer, his eloquent and challenging closing speech being a highlight of the play, and his sparring with the excellent White as the single-minded Crowe is  excellent, as well. Bonfiglio, Conroy, and Reidy also do well in a succession of roles, with Conroy’s turn as one of Loeb’s girlfriends and Reidy’s role as the judge in the trial among their most memorable appearances. It’s a strong cast all around, being driven by director Rick Dildine’s fast-paced direction and conveying the sharp, memorable language of Logan’s script with energy and clarity.

The action takes place on a stylized set by Peter and Margery Spack that has the audience seated on either side of the performance space and surrounded by pictures of birds on the walls. The stage is divided into three basic areas with the middle showcasing much of the action, with the courtroom on one side and an office/study area on the other side, with moveable set pieces and furniture that are arranged by the actors as needed. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and meticulously detailed and period specific, reflecting Leopold and Loeb’s privileged backgrounds, Darrow’s careworn attire, and more. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Maureen Berry, props master Margery Spack, and sound designer Michael Perkins. The world of the play, Chicago in the 1920’s is well-realized, setting the proper background for the action.

There’s so much going on in this play, in the interplay between Leopold and Loeb, the wrangling of their lawyers, the representations of the times, and more. Playwright John Logan has made a highly personal story out of an infamous murder case, and a fascinating and occasionally frightening character study as well as a study of the era itself. It’s a challenging, intensely dramatic production and a showcase for some incredible performances. It can be intensely disturbing, but also intensely thought-provoking. It’s a strange play to categorize–a crime/thriller/courtroom/psychological/love story, and it’s sure to leave its audience thinking.

John Flack, Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger, Eric Dean White
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Never the Sinner at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 2, 2017.

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The Royale
by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Stuart Carden
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio
March 10. 2107

Bernard Gilbert, Lance Baker, Akron Lanier Watson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Royale is an ambitious concept. It’s a story inspired by history, told in manner that resonates well for today’s audiences. The latest production at the Rep Studio, this is a dynamic, fascinating play that features fine production values and a fantastic cast. Telling a tale that’s in a way as timely today as it would have been 110 years ago, it’s a challenging and vibrantly staged piece of theatre.

The story of The Royale takes place at “some point between 1905 and 1910”, according to the program. It’s a tale inspired by the real-life story of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. It’s a story that’s been told before on stage and on screen in the form of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Here, though, the format is different and much more stylized. The lead character here is called Jay “The Sport” Jefferson (Akron Lanier Watson), and the story follows him as he engages in a series of matches with other black fighters across the country, although his real aim is for a chance at the world Heavyweight title, held by the retired (and unseen) white boxer Bernard Bixby. As Jay wrangles with his promoter Max (Lance Baker) and befriends a talented opponent, Fish (Bernard Gilbert)–who becomes Jay’s sparring partner–the potential of a match with Bixby looms, along with all the implications of such a fight, especially if Jay wins. The impact of the match on the highly segregated society of the time is shown especially in the form of Jay’s relationship with his sister Nina (Bria Walker), who is proud of her brother but has serious reservations about the title fight. The story is told in a unique format, with the boxing matches often staged side-by-side instead of head-to-head, and with carefully staged movement and use of rhythmic body percussion choreographed by Stephanie Paul.  It’s an inventive construction that helps to keep the story moving with a great deal of dynamic energy.

This play depends a lot on its cast, and that’s its biggest strength. Watson brings a real sense of charisma and presence that is essential for the dynamic, iconoclastic Jay. His boasting and bravado, as well as his athletic prowess, are on clear display, and when the situation gets more challenging, his sense of conflict is clear. His scenes with Walker’s determined Nina are a highlight of the show, as are his scenes with the excellent Gilbert as the determined, ambitious Fish. There are also strong performances from Baker as Max and by Samuel Ray Gates as Jay’s trainer and friend, Wynton.  Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the excellent ensemble of this well-choreographed, briskly staged play.

The more contemporary structure of the play actually works well in portraying the spirit and tone of the early 20th Century setting of the play. There’s also an excellent set by Brian Sidney Bembridge that basically puts the audience in the ring with the fighters, as well as strong atmospheric lighting also by Bembridge. Christine Pascual’s costumes are richly detailed and appropriate for the time and characters, from the boxing attire to Jay’s and Max’s stylish suits and Nina’s dress and hat. The only real misstep in terms of period accuracy is an odd anachronism I’m surprised hasn’t been caught already, in terms of radio. The characters keep talking about listening to events on the radio, when commercial broadcast radio didn’t exist until the 1920’s. Otherwise, the time, place and spirit of the production are well maintained, and the sense of drama is well-built in the structure, and especially in the thrilling climactic bout.

The Royale is a memorable production, and a fascinatingly inventive theatrical event. Theatre is a good venue for a sport like boxing, that can be theatrical in itself. Boxing also works as a fitting allegory for the struggle that Jay, his sister, and their contemporaries endured every day in a highly segregated and often brutal society. It’s a show with a message that still resonates now, because although times have changed,  events in the news show us that there’s still a lot of change needed. This is a strong production from the Rep Studio, closing out a first-rate season.

Akron Lanier Watson, Bria Walker
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Royale in its Studio Theatre until March 26, 2017.

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Fat
by Shannon Geier
Directed by Andrea Standby
because why not? theatre company
March 4, 2017

Alicen Moser, Talessha Caturah
Photo by Adam Shaw
because why not? theatre company

There’s a new theatre company putting on an original show at The Chapel. The company is called because why not? theatre company and the show is called Fat, written by the company’s Artistic Director, Shannon Geier. This play covers a subject that many in the audience, including myself, will have personal experience with–the subject of weight issues and what it means to live a life as an overweight person, as well as the general subjects of weight, body image, and society’s relationship with food. It’s a challenging subject because there are so many different opinions, but for the most part, Fat deals with its subject well, using a combination of light humor, sharp sarcasm, and poignant drama, with a strong cast and energetic direction.

The show talks about weight issues from a personal standpoint as well as a general one. Amid some funny, satirical presentations of commercials, news broadcasts, and testimonials depicting society’s view of obesity and overweight people, Fat tells the story of Amy (Taleesha Caturah), an intelligent professional woman who has her own struggles with weight, food and dieting and this personal struggle affects her family and friends, especially her husband Joel (Jeff Kargus), and daughter Tara (Alicen Moser).  Amy has a group of friends that she regularly joins for “Girls’ Nights”, in which they all share their own thoughts and struggles with weight issues of their own. There are a variety of characters and approaches, from the confrontational Vanessa (Patricia Duffin), to the unlucky-in-love Diana (Rhonda Cropp), to the ever-planning Kelly (Laura Singleton), to the self-conscious Marlene (Helen Pancella).  The story follows Amy’s journey navigating the often hostile world of fat-shaming and guilt-tripping, as well conflicting methods of motivation and encouragement. We also see in devastating detail the effects Amy’s struggles and society’s opinions have on her daughter Tara, who becomes the main focus of the play’s second act.

Weight and body image are difficult issues to handle, along with the conflicting messages society communicates about food.  There are a lot of topics here, and a lot of opinions, and most of them are given a fair and reasonable treatment. Some of the satirical elements are particularly memorable, with extremely strong comedic performances from Parvuna Sulaiman as “Thin Girl” and Darrious Varner as “Thin Guy” and a variety of other characters. The central figures of Amy and Tara are also well cast, with Caturah’s extremely relateable performance serving as the anchor for this production, and Moser’s devastatingly intense portrayal of Tara as the highlight of the play’s especially emotional second act. There are also strong performances from Kargus as the well-meaning but shallow Joel, Duffin as the brash activist Vanessa, Christa Williams as Amy’s conflicted sister Heather, Olivia Pilon as Tara’s bullied classmate Jessa, and the rest of the well-chosen cast.  Everyone’s story here is believable even when the subject matter can be harsh and some characters unlikable. Even though not everyone is going to relate to every opinion or topic, for anyone who has ever struggled with issues of weight and/or body image, there will be something here with which to relate.

The set design, by Elaine Laws, is simple and effective, taking advantage of the Chapel’s floor space to present a variety of places and situations.  Director Andrea Standby has used the space well, and the production is well-paced. The lighting and sound by Kevin Bowman also contributes well to the overall cohesiveness of the production.

Fat is a challenging play. It approaches its subject matter in a variety of ways, from the highly personal to the broadly satirical, and for the most part, this varying approach works well.  There’s a lot to think and talk about here, to ponder and to agree or disagree. For people–and particularly women–who have ever dealt with any of theses issues first-hand, this is going to bring up a lot of memories, but also some new ideas and experiences as well. It’s an ambitious new work, and a strong debut for this bold new theatre company.

Jeff Kargus, Alicen Moser
Photo by Adam Shaw
because why not? theatre company

because why not? theatre company is presenting Fat at The Chapel until March 11, 2017.

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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

zorba1

Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

zorba2

Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2107.

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