Archive for April, 2017

Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Directed by Gabe Taylor
April 22, 2017

The Cast of Twelfth Period
Photo: ERA

ERA is known for some excellent experimental theatre, including its mash-ups of Shakespeare with other elements of culture. Their latest show blends the Bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night with high school films from the 1990’s. Music from that time period abounds in this intriguing tone-shifted production that actually brings elements of tragedy into the comedy. There’s a strong cast and some great ideas, and a truly excellent use of the show’s performance space, and it’s an entertaining and challenging story, although not everything they try works as well as it could.

Twelfth Period takes the basic plot and characters of Twelfth Night and takes them to high school in the 1990s, but with a few notable twists beyond the setting change. Here, some of the major comic elements from the original have been taken out, and some characters are more emphasized, such as the Malvolio figure, here called Mallory “Mal” Olio (Katy Keating), who is a socially awkward girl with a crush on popular girl Olivia Davenport (Erin Renee Roberts), who is grieving the recent loss of both her father and her brother. Olivia is being courted by Dude Orsino (Jonah Walker), who enlists the help of new kid Sebastian Horowitz (Amanda Wales), who in turn has a crush on the Dude. The mistaken identity/identical twins plot is shaken up a little here, and the prank played on Mal by party-boy jock Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman), his girlfriend Maria Smith (Francesca Ferrari), and new quarterback Andrew “Andy” Aguecheek (Tyson Cole) is given a much more sinister twist than in the source material. Situations and quotes from various 90s films are incorporated into the script along with the Shakespeare, as the story takes a much darker turn than is first implied as it leads to a prom night that none of the students will ever forget. The story also features a student videographer, Valentine (Erik Kuhn) who doesn’t figure much into the story until he turns up later as a different character, and  Mrs. Feste (Anna Skidis Vargas), the well-meaning but somewhat clueless principal and English teacher.

The structure of this play is intriguing in that it varies depending on the schedule audience members are handed at the beginning of the show. I was in the “junior class” and followed the schedule given, which took our group to several different floors and rooms in the building. The use of space is a major strength of this production, as it really helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of being in high school. The characters also interacted with the audience at various moments in the play, most notably in the “cutting class” segment, where Toby hands out beers and cans of water to his fellow class-cutting “students” and jokes around as he goofs off on the building’s balcony, waiting for his friends Maria and Andy so he can plan the prank on Mal.  Kuhlman is believable as the boisterous, hard-partying prankster Toby, and Ferrari as Maria is a suitable accomplice. Cole is convincing as the awkward, conflicted Andy as well. Keating, as Mal, is a standout in her complex, sympathetic portrayal of a character whose story verges quite a lot from the original story. Wales is fine as well as Sebastian–who as in the orginal is really Viola, but there’s more to the story this time. Walker and Roberts also do well with what they are given, but they aren’t given much. The same goes for Kuhn, who plays two characters but isn’t seen a lot.  Skidis Vargas gets to be the comic relief much of the time as the teacher and sometimes gym coach, and she also gets a good dramatic moment in the prom scene. It’s a good cast, and they have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The look of the production is generally consistent, and as mentioned the use of space is excellent. There are some funny moments, some awkward-funny moments (like Sex-Ed class especially), some intense moments (Mal in the dark room especially), and a lot of moments that are just very “high school” whether it’s the 90’s or not. Still, while this is an excellent effort and a clever idea, the somewhat sudden shift to a darker tone doesn’t work quite as well as it could, and ends up seeming somewhat contrived. The characters sometimes get lost in the concept, as well, in a sense that it seems a lot of time like the theme is dictating the plot in ways that aren’t entirely consistent.

For the most part, Twelfth Period is a successful experiment, although it could use a little bit of refining.  The performances of the cast, especially Keating, Kuhlman, and Skidis Vargas, are strong, and it’s always fascinating to see what ERA can do with Shakespeare. This isn’t quite as stunning as previous efforts like last year’s remarkable Trash Macbeth, but for the most part, it’s a memorable trip to a 1990’s high school, with messages about individuality, peer pressure, the dangers of bullying, and more. In keeping with its academic setting, this play gets a B from me.

ERA is presenting Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night, at the Centene Center for the Arts until May 2, 2017.

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Oedipus Apparatus
by Lucy Cashion
from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
Directed by Lucy Cashion
West End Players’ Guild
April 21, 2017

Will Bonfliglio, Mitch Eagles
Photo by John Lamb

West End Players Guild

There’s a lot of plot, and plotting, in Oedipus Apparatus. There’s also a king, a queen, a precocious 10-year-old, goddesses and Oracles who host a talk show, and lots of talk of physics, prophecy, psychology, and plagues. This is a Lucy Cashion classic adaption, and it’s just as strange and as fascinating as her takes on Shakespeare she’s done with ERA. Here, at West End Players’ guild, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been turned into a fascinating experiment, and it makes for a production like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Here, the classic tale of Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) is told, and re-told, and deconstructed, and re-tooled, and fused with all sorts of different influences from various times in human history, and particularly the 20th and 21st centuries. In a show that runs just short of two hours and keeps a brisk, steady pace with lots and lots of talking, framing and reframing of scenes, this is sure to keep the viewers’ brains engaged. The experience begins before the play even officially starts, as audience members are ushered down the stairs to Thebes by Antigone (Alicen Moser), Oedipus’s daughter, who is working on a project for history class. That project–a family tree–forms much of the framing device for this play, although what we first hear is a long, guided meditation on the concept of death, and fear of death. When the story begins, the main story focuses on the king, Oedipus, and his efforts to appease the angry god Apollo (Joe Taylor, who also plays music throughout the production) and end a plague in his city. He’s sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to visit the Oracle at Delphi and is informed that he needs to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, in order to stop the plague. Well, anyone who’s read the original play knows where this is going, at least to a degree, but since this is a Lucy Cashion creation, that means there will be additional–and fascinating–complications. The scene plays, and then it’s reset several times with elements of physics and geometry included in the dialogue, while there are frequent breaks from the linear story as Antigone carries out her history project and the Oracles–Athena (Rachel Tibbetts), Artemis (Cara Barresi), the Sphinx (Ellie Schwetye), Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Cassidy Flynn) hold a televised talk show. Meanwhile, Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (Maggie Conroy), lounges on a couch on one side of the set, seemingly out of the action, until she ultimately joins in.  As the story goes on, and plays and replays, Antigone and several of the cast members arrange props, readjust the set, and start, stop, and speed up the action as directed by Apollo.  As the story is told and retold, the tension keeps building and the situation gets more and more urgent and chaotic as the plot moves to its eventual devastating conclusion.

This isn’t a play that’s particularly easy to describe. There’s so much going on here, and it’s really important to pay attention, and it keeps a steady, increasingly tense pace. There’s tragedy here, but there’s also humor, philosophy, and a lot of math and physics. The blending of story elements from different eras adds a lot of interest here, with Greek goddesses and oracles hanging out with Dr. Freud, and Jocasta serenading the audience with a pop standard. The ideas of fate and the inevitability of death are built into the story as the story builds the machine. The characters here are memorably characterized and expertly played, from Moser’s persistent, enthusiastic Antigone to Eagles’s stubborn, proud Oedipus, to Conroy’s wild-eyed, bewildered Jocasta, to Bonfiglio’s insistent Creon. The pantheon of god, goddesses, and prophets is also strongly represented, from Overly’s belligerent Tiresius, to Flynn’s philosophical Freud, as well as Tibbetts, Schwetye, and Barresi giving strong support along with Taylor’s monotonous, relentless Apollo. It’s a very strong cast, and they’re given a lot to do, even when they’re not speaking, as their actions work to build a machine as the story continues and replays, again and again until just the right moment.

The set here is like a character in the drama, and the whole space has been transformed in service to the set. Kudos to designers Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis for the intricately constructed set, which is essentially a puzzle with all its pieces to be assembled as the story plays out. Meredith LaBounty’s colorful, whimsical costumes also contribute to this extremely well-realized creation of a timely and also timeless representation of ancient Thebes with a mix of modern sensibilities like cameras and video screens.

This is an immensely clever and  insightful work. There’s a whole lot going on, but there are a lot of strong moments, and fascinating ones like when Freud and Oedipus talk about Hamlet. Yes, that happens. Oedipus Apparatus isn’t what you would expect, and then sometimes it is.  It’s an exciting new experiment and an excellent season closer for West End Players Guild.

Carl Overly Jr., Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Oedipus Apparatus at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 30, 2017.

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Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
Directed by Gary Barker
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 15, 2017

Michelle Hand, Amy Loui, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Leslie Wobbe, Kelley Weber
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “memory play” Dancing at Lughnasa, as staged currently at Mustard Seed Theatre, is almost like a prose poem on stage. With its strong sense of time and place, and its conceit of having the narrator both interacting with the story and also reflecting upon it, the show takes on a lyrical tone that works well. With a cast of some of St. Louis’s finest performers and top-notch production values, this is a profoundly affecting theatrical experience.

The story is told by the adult Michael Evans (Jim Butz), reflecting back on an important time in his life, the summer of 1936 when he was a 7-year-old child growing up in the small Irish village of Ballybeg. The key figures in the story are the five Mundy sisters, including Michael’s mother, the youngest sister Christina or “Chris” (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). The five sisters live together in a small cottage, including the eldest, prim schoolteacher Kate (Amy Loui), as well as the boisterous Maggie (Kelley Weber), the melancholy Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), and developmentally challenged Rose (Michelle Hand). The sisters seem to cooperate in the raising of Michael, who doesn’t appear on stage as a child–rather the adult Michael “plays” the young Michael in occasional conversations with his mother and aunts. Amid the local celebrations of the pagan holiday Lughnasa, the sisters are celebrating the return of their older brother, Father Jack (Gary Glasgow), who has recently returned from many years of missionary work in Africa, and who isn’t quite the same as his sisters remember. There’s also Gerry Evans (Richard Strelinger), Michael’s Welsh father, who never married Chris but who stops by occasionally in the midst of his travels to visit Michael and Chris. While in the past, Gerry’s visits have been the cause for much consternation, this latest visit starts out that way but grows more hopeful, at least for a while. The story that follows is a vivid picture of a time and place, as well as these richly portrayed characters and their conflicting attitudes toward the world around them and the great changes that are starting to take place. The conflict between Catholicism and the ancient local beliefs and customs, as well as changing economic realities and the roles of women in society, are among the issues that are brought up here. There’s a lot of warmth and humor here, as well as music and exuberant dancing in addition to regret and even tragedy, structured in a way that makes the story all the more poignant in that older Michael often explains future events before we actually see them play out in the story.

The cast here is excellent, led by Butz’s engaging, reflective Michael, who serves as an effective narrator but also is believable in his moments as “young Michael” interacting with the rest of the cast. All five sisters are strongly portrayed, with Weber’s upbeat Maggie, Wobbe’s wistful Agnes, and Theby-Quinn’s conflicted and sometimes moody Chris as the biggest standouts. All five actresses are strong, though, and their bond as sisters is clearly evident. Also memorable is Glasgow, in the best performance I’ve seen from him, as the weary but well-meaning Father Jack, whose personal crisis of faith becomes evident as the story progresses. Strelinger rounds out the cast in an amiable performance as the charming, always-wandering Gerry, who has some particularly effective scenes with Theby-Quinn and with Wobbe. The Irish accents are consistent throughout, as well, with the exception of Strelinger, who affects a believable English accent although his character is Welsh.

The Irish village setting is vividly realized in Kyra Bishop’s beautifully detailed set, Jane Sullivan’s well-appointed costumes, and Laura Skroska’s props. The vintage radio, called “Marconi”, essentially becomes a character in its own right. There’s also excellent sound design by Zoe Sulliven and striking lighting by Michael Sullivan. All of these technical aspects work together well, along with the strong direction and performances, to transport the audience to 1930’s Ireland.

Although I had heard of Dancing at Lughnasa before, I had never actually seen it on stage until this production. Mustard Seed’s production is lovingly, poetically told and beautifully portrayed by its strong, cohesive cast. It’s an excellent conclusion to this company’s 2016-2017 season.

Gary Glasgow, Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe, Richard Strelinger
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Dancing at Lughnasa at Fontbonne University until April 30, 2017.

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August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 14, 2017

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

August:Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio runs about three and a half hours and serves up some intense and even brutal situations in the life of an Oklahoma family. It may seem like a difficult play to watch, and in ways it is, but with the superb,Pulitzer Prize-wining script, excellent direction and stellar cast, it’s a fascinating, riveting experience that’s sure to hold the audience’s attention from start to stunning finish.

This is a large-cast play, filling STLAS’s small stage at the Gaslight Theatre and bringing out all the sharpness, drama and caustic wit of Tracy Letts’s script. The action centers around Violet Weston (Kari Ely), the sharp-tongued, drug-addicted matriarch, whose poet husband, Beverly (Larry Dell) disappears, bringing the family together and revealing the dynamics and relationships between the various members, including the Westons’ three daughters–Barbara (Meghan Baker), the “responsible” eldest; Ivy (Emily Baker), who still lives nearby and is berated by her mother for not being able to find a lasting romantic relations; and Karen (Rachel Fenton), the youngest who has spent a lot of time in Florida out of touch with the family, only to return at a crisis point with smarmy fiance’ Steve (Drew Battles) in tow. It’s a complicated family, including Violet’s cheerful but pushy sister Mattie Fae (Kim Furlow), her affable husband Charlie (William Roth), and socially awkward son Little Charles (Stephen Peirick), as well as Barbara’s seemingly “perfect” husband, Bill (David Wassilak) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Bridgette Bassa). There’s also Johnna (Wendy Renee Farmer), a young Cheyenne woman who has been hired by Bev against Violet’s wishes to be a housekeeper and caretaker for the family, and who Violet frequently badmouths and berates. The family and interpersonal dynamic is the source of much of the drama and biting humor here, with various revelations and ensuing emotional outbursts as part of the territory. It’s a richly portrayed portrait of a family of “big” personalities that don’t come across as caricatures and, while the situations and characters may be extreme at times, there’s something about the various family dynamics that provides much with which viewers can relate. Even if we don’t have relatives exactly like this, there are things here that most families will be able to recognize to one degree or another.

The language, rhythm and pace of this script is expertly represented here in director Wayne Salomon’s “master class” level of a production. The cast is positively stellar, led by the remarkably complex and multi-layered performance of Ely as Violet. While Violet is not a likable character, Ely does an admirable job of making her fascinating, and even sympathetic at times. Her mood swings, her deep-seated resentment of the life she has led and even the members of her own family, and a dual sense of desperation and resignation are brought to the stage in this incredible portrayal. Ely’s is well-matched by the rest of the cast, as well, especially by Meghan Baker as the “responsible” Barbara whose own life isn’t what it seems and shows her own degree of desperation as life continues to spin out of control; and also by Emily Baker as the sometimes neglected, sometimes bullied middle child Ivy, whose quest for personal happiness and fulfillment takes on its own level of desperation. There are also strong performances from Fenton as the seemingly clueless Karen, Bassa as the conflicted and rebellious Jean, Peirick as the much-maligned (by his own mother) Little Charles, and Roth as Charlie, who is even-keeled until his wife–the also excellent Furlow–reveals his breaking point. Farmer is also memorable as Johnna, who admirably manages to help mitigate the chaos around her. Battles, as the outgoing and decidedly creepy Steve, and Dell as the well-meaning but overwhelmed Bev also turn in excellent performances. This is an excellent ensemble, giving well-pitched performances that do justice to the challenging and sometimes explosive script.

Also impressive are the production values here. The multi-level set by Patrick Huber is something of a wonder, representing the large, well-appointed Weston house with remarkably vivid detail on the Gaslight Theatre’s small stage. Carla Landis Evans’s excellent costumes and props also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this play, as does Dalton Robinson’s effective lighting. The staging of such a large-cast play on such a small stage could easily seem cluttered, but here, everyone fits, and the small stage actually works well for helping to achieve a claustrophobic effect when that is needed, especially in the revelatory family scenes.

This is a wondrous production. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and it runs three and a half hours, but it is never, ever boring. This lucid, intense script is brought to life in such a challenging and stunning way. It’s a truly great production, not to be missed.

Emily Baker, Meghan Baker, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting August: Osage County at the Gaslight Theatre until April 30, 2017.

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The Lion King
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreographed by Garth Fagan
The Fox Theatre
April 20, 2017

Mukelisiwe Goba
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Lion King North American Tour

The Lion King has become a massive hit on stage since first opening on Broadway in 1998. An adaptation of the popular Disney film, the stage version caused something of a sensation with its innovating staging and use of puppetry. Believe it or not, I had never actually seen the stage show before. I had only seen the film, and that was a long time ago. Now on stage at the Fox, the latest national tour of this grand, stunningly staged musical is an impressive spectacle for all ages, whether you are familiar with the story or not.

The story, at least partially inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is one of parent-child bonds, difficult family ties, personal responsibility and more, with a cast of characters who are wild animals living in the African savanna. It centers around Simba, played as a child in the performance I saw by Jordan Williams and as an adult by Dashaun Young. Simba is the son and heir of the current king of the lions and various other animals, the wise and brave Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Mark Campbell) wants to be king instead, and orchestrates events so that  he can take over the kingdom.  The story then leads to young Simba’s growing up under the tutelage of fellow “outcast” animals, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), and eventually being reunited with childhood friend Nala the lioness (Nia Holloway as an adult, Meilani Cisneros as a child), and encouraged to return to Pride Rock and reclaim his rightful place as king. Presiding over all the action is Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), a wise, mystical mandrill who also encourages Simba on his quest to challenge Scar and his hyena cronies for leadership.

The staging is famously innovative with its use of puppetry and stylized costumes in the portrayal of its animal characters, and also for its stunning production numbers such as the spectacular “Circle of Life” opening number, which drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. The production values here are excellent, especially for a production that’s been touring for so long. Richard Hudson’s set design, Julie Taymor’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, and Taymor and Michael Curry’s mask and puppet design are all dazzlingly memorable. The choreography by Garth Fagan is energetic and well-executed by the strong ensemble here.

The lead performances are also strong, led by Goba (the understudy) as the wise, sometimes mischievous Rafiki, who in the stage production is essentially the star of the show, as far as I’m concerned. Goba brings a great deal of energy and personality to the role, spurring on Young’s earnest adult Simba. Young and the equally strong Holloway have good chemistry as Simba and Nala, and young Williams and Cisneros give fine performances as their younger counterparts as well. There are some fun comic performances from Codileone and Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, and also by Tony Freeman as Mufasa’s bird advisor Zazu. Ramsey carries a strong sense of authority and general goodness as Mufasa as well. Campbell is also memorable as the scheming Scar, with a leering tone and strong voice, and he’s ably supported by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the opportunistic hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed.  The dance ensemble is especially strong, as well, bringing a sense of fluidity and grace to the stage in the various dance numbers.

This is a good adaptation of the film, but with a few changes that actually make it work better on stage. It’s still The Lion King, though, and its memorable story and characters are on clear display here at the Fox. It’s an excellent show for audiences of all ages, and the audience I saw it with was definitely appreciative. It’s a story with humor, drama, and a strong message of redemption, responsibility, and hope. It’s well worth checking out.

Nia Holloway (Right) and Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Lion King North America Tour

The North American Tour of Disney’s The Lion King runs at the Fox Theatre until May 7, 2017.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Shaun Sheley
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 1, 2017

Michael Pierce, Chuck Winning, Zac McMillan, Shane Signorino
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

April Fool’s Day weekend was a great time to open St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production. The Comedy of Errors is basically like one big, elaborate, hilarious April Fool’s joke done extremely well. With sharp direction, a terrific cast, and lots of laughs, this is a treat of a production.

The Comedy of Errors is actually one of the few Shakespeare plays I had never actually read or seen, but it really doesn’t matter if an audience is familiar with the material with this production, as clearly and energetically presented as it is. It’s a fairly simple story of mistaken identity, challenging the audience to suspend disbelief but making that suspension entirely worthwhile. The story, set in Ephesus, involves a visitor from Syracuse, Egeon (Dan McGee) who is spared a death sentence for trespassing by the Duke (Erick Lindsey) and is searching for his long-lost family. Meanwhile, other visitors from Syracuse, Antipholus (Shane Signorino), and his servant Dromio (Zac McMillan) arrive and are immediately mistaken for their local doppelgangers Antipholus (Chuck Winning) and Dromio (Michael Pierce) of Ephesus. A somewhat complicated story ensues in which basically everyone is confused, as the Ephesus Antipholus’s wife, Adriana (Frankie Ferrari) and the local authorities also get involved, and Antipholus of Syracuse finds himself attracted to Adriana’s sister, Luciana (Jamie McKitrick). After a series of incidents in which the the wrong people are invited to dinner, the wrong people are locked out of the house, and people get arrested, escape, and just keep getting more and more people involved in the confusion, answers finally start to arrive, but not until after a great deal of hijinks and physical comedy. This play is the very definition of the phrase “hilarity ensues”.

The plot is not deep, but it is convoluted and complicated, and it seems quite challenging for a director and a cast to get all the timing right. Fortunately, St. Louis Shakespeare has found the right director and cast. The pacing is super fast, rarely slowing down, and everyone on stage keeps the energy going with style. The four principals are fantastic, and easy enough to tell apart but also making the confusion understandable. Pierce and McMillan, as the Dromios, carry the brunt of the physical comedy and do so with excellent comic flair. Winning and Signorino are also excellent as the determined and increasingly frustrated Antipholuses. There are also strong, funny performances from Ferrari as the surly Adriana, McKitrick as the bewildered Luciana, Patience Davis as a Courtesan who is caught up in the confusion, McGee as the unfortunate Egeon, Ben Ritchie in three roles including a Merchant and a Doctor, and Margeau Steinau as a local Abbess who gives shelter to one of the pairs, but turns out to be more than she seems. There’s a good-sized cast here, some playing more than one role, and all play their parts well and commendably maintain the breakneck comic pace of this fascinatingly ridiculous plot.

The direction is sharp and dynamically paced, staged on Scott McDonald’s colorful set that serves as a suitable backdrop for the play’s action. There are also well-matched, well-suited costumes by Annalise Webb, clear sound by Ted Drury, and excellent lighting by James Spurlock.

The Comedy of Errors is a short play, and this production is brisk, brief, and action-packed, running without an intermission. It’s a quick-witted, quick moving, laugh-fest of a story. Even though the plot itself is difficult to believe, the implausibility adds to the sheer fun of it all. This is a hilarious production from start to finish.


Frankie Ferrari, Jamie McKitrick Photo by Ron James St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Comedy of Errors at the Ivory Theatre until April 9, 2017.

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Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

Lakesha Glover, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Seven Guitars at Harris-Stowe University’s Emerson Performance Center until April 23, 2017.

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