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Archive for June, 2017

Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Edward Coffield
Insight Theatre Company
June 9, 2017

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John Flack, Debby Lennon, Spencer Davis Milford Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is opening its 10th season in a new venue, and starting off with a highly regarded, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Next to Normal. This small-cast show is an ideal fit for the .Zack in Grand Center. It’s a challenging, highly emotional show with a demanding score, and Insight has assembled an excellent cast, presenting the show in a somewhat different manner than I have seen before, and it works very well.

When I first heard of the casting for this production, I was expecting it to be good, especially since the lead role of Diana Goodman would be played by last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical, Debby Lennon. And Lennon isn’t the only seasoned performer in this excellent cast. John Flack as Diana’s husband Dan, Ryan Scott Foizey as the doctors, and Spencer Davis Milford, as the Goodmans’ son Gabe have all done some excellent work in St. Louis theatre. They are joined by extremely promising newcomers Libby Jasper as the Goodmans’ conflicted teenage daughter Natalie, and Max Bahneman as Natalie’s on-again/off-again boyfriend Henry. It’s a story that focuses largely on Diana’s experiences with trying to manage her mental illness and her complicated family relationships, and also on Natalie’s struggle to deal with her own issues involving her family and her future plans. There isn’t a whole lot else I can say without spoiling too much, because this is a show that depends a lot on twists and revelations, although the central family relationships are at its core, with a strong musical score that ranges from more upbeat rock-based numbers to slower, emotional ballads. It’s a challenging work, and when staged well as it is here, it’s riveting.

This production is a little different than others I’ve seen, in terms of staging and vocals. Staging-wise, the pacing is a little slower than previous productions, with some of the line-deliveries being a little more subdued. The plot build-up seems to be more gradual as a result, and despite a slow-ish start on “Just Another Day”, the performances are excellent and well-timed. The set, designed by Robbie Ashurst, and the lighting by Charlotte Webster are more colorful as well, with an emphasis on a series of windows of varied hues hanging in the background, and aside from one slightly raised platform, most of the action takes place at stage level, also contrary to other performances I’ve seen. The costumes by Laura Hanson are appropriate and well-suited to the characters, and there’s also excellent musical direction by Ron McGowan, with a slightly different sound reflective of Lennon’s more operatic voice.

The cast is excellent, led by Lennon in a sympathetic, emotional performance as Diana, with powerful vocals on songs like “I Missed the Mountains”, “I Dreamed a Dance”, and “You Don’t Know”. Flack is also excellent as Diana’s supportive but increasingly exasperated husband, Dan. His scenes with Lennon carry a lot of power, and he brings a great deal of emotional energy to his songs, especially “I’ve Been” late in Act 1. There are also strong performances from the rich-voiced Jasper as the determined but conflicted Natalie, and by Bahneman as her sweet, persistent stoner boyfriend Henry. Milford is outstanding and full of energy as the dynamic, influential and mysterious Gabe as well, excelling especially on Gabe’s most well-known number “I’m Alive”. There’s also excellent work from Foizey as the two doctors, particularly the “rock star” Doctor Madden, although he does sound a little strained at times.

Next to Normal is a powerful, challenging show. It’s a character study as well as a story of relationships, and strong casting and musicality are essential. Those aspects are well represented in this memorable production from Insight Theatre. Although it takes a few minutes to really get going, once it does it’s engaging, fascinating, and highly affecting. It gets Insight’s new season in its new home off to an excellent start.

Ryan Scott Foizey, Spencer Davis Milford, Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Next to Normal at the .Zack Theatre until June 25, 2017.

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Monsters
by Stephen Peirick
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2017

Kevin O’Brien, Jeremy Goldmeier, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

The latest production in Stray Dog Theatre’s 2016-2017 season is a new play by local playwright and actor Stephen Peirick. Monsters is billed as a “comedy thriller”, and it certainly provides elements of both of those genres even though the “comedy” element is more prominent, at least for most of the play. With a talented, enthusiastic cast and some sharp humor and good pacing, this is a promising show, even though it does have a few issues that could be addressed.

Monsters doesn’t feature any literal monsters. The title is more metaphorical, examining the idea that seemingly good human beings can be capable of monstrous acts and attitudes. The situation is essentially a version of the “bumbling unlikely criminals” idea, with “manchild” brothers Jeremy (Kevin O’Brien) and Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier) planning a scheme for personal reasons that they won’t initially share with Davis’s wife, Andi (Sarajane Alverson), who happens across Jeremy in her basement accompanied by a strange man, who Jeremy introduces as Carl (Michael A. Wells), whom Jeremy has put in a difficult situation. The story of what exactly is happening takes a while to be told, as the nervous Jeremy is hesitant to disclose his secret. But Andi has secrets of her own that she’s trying to hide from Jeremy and, especially Davis. Another unexpected event is the arrival of Andi’s brash younger sister, Piper (Eileen Engel), who unbeknownst to Jeremy and Davis, has a habit of coming to the house on Tuesdays to do her laundry–a revelation that the jealous Jeremy, who has no such privileges, highly resents. I can’t say much more about the plot because the revelations of the various “secrets” and the motivations behind them are the centerpiece of the show. I’ll just say that some things are exactly as they seem, and other definitely are not.

The dialogue and characterization are the strongest elements of this show, along with the excellent performances. Alverson as the confrontational, sarcastic and secretive Andi, and O’Brien as the earnest, excitable and bumbling Jeremy are standouts in an impressive, cohesive cast. Engel plays against type well as the opportunistic, self-absorbed Piper, and Goldmeier is also good as the not-so-masterful “mastermind” of the “secret plan”, Davis, and Wells gives a funny, sympathetic performance as a man who spends the majority of the production being pushed around by the other characters. The characters are interesting, alternating between being sympathetic and not as likable, and generally this is a gripping, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking production, although it does have a few issues, most notably in the “comedy-thriller” designation, since the “thriller” aspect of the production–and particularly the revelation of one character’s seemingly sudden decision–that are less credible and not given sufficient build-up.  The comedy aspect is well done, however, and there are some interesting explorations of the ideas of personal responsibility, opportunism, truth and secret keeping, as well as the idea that not everything or everyone is how they may first appear.

The play does a good job of maintaining the audience’s interest, and the visual presentation is excellent, as well, with a set by Justin Been that is a realistic representation of the unfinished basement in which the action takes place. The characters are all outfitted appropriately by costume designer (and director) Gary F. Bell, as well, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting contributes to the overall atmosphere well.

Overall, this is an impressive, promising new production. While I do think there are some story and character elements that can be improved, it’s a funny and provocative play with well-drawn and well-portrayed characters. It’s definitely worth seeing, and it’s great to see a local theatre company developing such an intriguing new theatrical work by a talented local playwright.

Eileen Engel, Jeremy Goldmeier, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Monsters at Tower Grove Abbey until June 24, 2017.

 

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 7, 2017

Jeff Sears (Center), Kirsten Scott (Center Right) and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an intriguing show, simply in terms of how versatile it is. It’s one of those shows that can be done on almost any scale or budget and still work. It’s not the deepest or most profound of shows. It’s really just a lot of fun, but what has become most interesting to me is the range of ways that a theatre company can produce this show. It can be big and flashy or more toned-down. Its look can change drastically depending on the production values and directors’ vision. It’s a show I’ve seen several times now, but I think this latest version from STAGES St. Louis is my favorite yet because of the cohesiveness of design, the sheer personality and energy of the cast, and the emphasis on a more human scale for this story rather than over-the-top flashiness, although it’s certainly a great looking production as well.

The story of this show is fairly straightforward–it’s a retelling of the Bible story of Joseph (Jeff Sears), son of Jacob (Steve Isom), and of Joseph’s journey from shepherd’s son to essentially prime minister of Egypt. It follows Joseph from his early days tending sheep with his eleven brothers, and boasting of his dreams that predict that he will someday rule over the rest of his family.  The story is presented by the Narrator (Kirsten Scott), who interacts with the characters at various times in the process of telling the story. As the story unfolds, a variety of different song styles is employed in whimsical fashion, from the country-western “One More Angel in Heaven” to the 1920’s styled “Potiphar” as Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, serves in the house of Potiphar (Brent Michael DiRoma) and is tempted and accused by Mrs. Potiphar (Molly Tynes), and then sent to jail. Joseph’s skill at interpreting dreams eventually brings him to the attention of Pharoah, who is–as in all productions of this show–presented as an Elvis-like figure (also played by DiRoma). It’s a fun show that blends the Bible story with various modern elements and and the variety of musical styles that also includes pop and rock influences.

While I’ve seen bigger and flashier productions of this show, I’m especially impressed by this production’s emphasis more on character and a stylish but not cartoonish look to the production. It’s a very human Joseph, with a strong cast led by the excellent Sears as a Joseph whose emotional journey is given more resonance here than in some other productions I’ve seen, bringing depth to songs like “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do”. Scott is also superb as the Narrator–a role I’ve generally considered to be the best part in the show–and her vocal range is impressive on numbers like the “Prologue”, “Poor, Poor Joseph”, and “Pharaoh Story”.  Scott brings a good deal of humor to the role of the Narrator as well, and her rapport with Sears as Joseph is a highlight. In fact, this is the first production I’ve seen in which there seems to be a hint of attraction between Joseph and the Narrator. There are also memorable performances from Isom as the proud and then sad patriarch, Jacob, by Tynes as the would-be seductress Mrs. Potiphar, and by all of the actors playing the brothers, and particularly Brad Frenette as Levi, Jeremiah Ginn as Reuben, Jason Eno as Judah, and Kyle Ivey as Benjamin. DiRoma is also a stand-out in two roles, as the rich but lonely Potiphar and especially as Pharaoh, where he exudes a lot of charm and comes across as more of the “young Elvis” as opposed to the older “Las Vegas Elvis”, even though he does get to wear the glittery, sequined jumpsuit. There’s also a strong ensemble to back up the leading performers, displaying a lot of vocal and physical energy on various production numbers that have been dynamically choreographed by director/choreographer Stephen Bourneuf.

Visually, the show is colorful and whimsical without being overly flashy or cartoonish. It’s a great look for this show, in keeping with the overall tone of this production. James Wolk’s versatile set frames the action well, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are vivid, detailed, and fun. The excellent lighting effects by Sean M. Savoie also adjusts well to the various scene and tone changes throughout the production.

This is a fun show, and the cast and creative team obviously enjoy presenting it. From the starry opening to the bright, energetic “Megamix” conclusion, this is a Joseph with heart and humanity. It’s an excellent, highly entertaining production, and a great start to STAGES’ 2017 season.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat presented by STAGES St. Louis at Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, Missouri on June 1, 2017.

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 2, 2017

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Sweet Smell of Success
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 3, 2017

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a somewhat obscure musical that had a short run on Broadway, won a few awards and received a mixed critical reception, and it’s based on a movie that’s well-regarded by critics but isn’t exactly a household name. I hadn’t seen the film before seeing New Line’s newest production of Sweet Smell of Success, although I had heard of the film and the musical. Oddly, I don’t think familiarity with the source material matters much in terms of enjoying this show, even though its subject matter revolves heavily around the concept of success, notoriety, and the sheer level of power that can come from being a household name. This is the kind of show that New Line does especially well–a show that might have been too “small” in a sense for Broadway. It’s the kind of show where an intimate presentation in a venue like New Line’s Marcelle Theatre can be ideal, to scale this story down to its most important elements–the characters, the raw emotions, and the key concepts at play in this seedy, sultry, and sometimes downright scary morality tale that focuses on the down side of the quest for fame.

The story takes the audience to New York City in the 1950’s, to a world in which gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Zachary Allen Farmer) exerts his influence through his nationally syndicated and widely read newspaper column. As the ensemble asserts in the opening number, making it into “The Column” is essential for achieving that elusive measure of success for the small nightclubs that host celebrity sightings, the up-and-coming actors and musicians who are looking for their big breaks, and even the press agents who work tirelessly to get their clients mentioned by J.J. One of these press agents is Sidney (Matt Pentecost), who makes call after unheeded call to J. J.’s secretary Madge (Kimi Short) in hopes of getting his only client, the small but ambitious Club Voodoo, a mention. Sidney’s luck doesn’t improve until a chance meeting at the club with an aspiring young actress who turns out to be J.J.’s sister, Susan (Ann Hier), who is indulging in a secret romantic relationship with struggling jazz musician Dallas (Sean Michael). When J. J. himself walks into the club looking for Susan, Sydney tries to help her by pretending to be her friend, and ends up getting J.J.’s notice, which begins Sidney’s  ascent up the ladder to success, at the increasing expense of his own scruples. As J.J.’s true character is revealed, along with his creepy obsession with and sense of control over Susan, Sidney is caught between his desire for celebrity and influence under J.J.’s tutelage and his genuine fondness for Susan and desire to help her. The problem Sidney finds is essentially, how does a person hold onto his own soul after he sells it in the name of success? The consequences turn out to be messy for some, and tragic for others.

The setting and overall atmosphere of this production is masterfully achieved by virtue of strong production values and an ideal setting. As excellent as New Line’s shows have been since moving to the Marcelle, I think this production has been most successful at making the most of this venue.  The small, intimate atmosphere and the meticulously crafted set by Rob Lippert create the ideal mood for this jazzy, dark, and challenging piece of theatre. Lippert’s excellent lighting also contributes to the Noir-ish atmosphere, as do Sarah Porter’s stylish and detailed period costumes. The pacing is strong here, as well, with the mood being tense when it needs to be, and even downright brutal and bleak when necessary as well. There are also some much-needed moments of humor in the midst of the tension, though, and these are also handled well by way of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s astute direction and the extremely strong cast that the directors have assembled, as well as the excellent band led by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter, bringing the show’s jazz-influenced score to life with a bold attitude and style.

The focus of much of this play is on the figures of J.J. and Sidney, and both parts are cast well with veteran New Liners. Farmer brings a sense of self-assured determination and a steely resolve to the role of the domineering J.J., as well as a wry sense of humor and a strong voice. His status as the influential power player is unquestioned. Pentecost brings a sense of weary charm to Sidney that makes the viewer want to sympathize with him to a point. His scenes with Farmer and with Hier are particularly memorable. Hier, in the difficult role of the conflicted, dominated Susan, shines as well, bringing a quiet strength to the role that makes itself more clear as the show goes on. Michael, as Susan’s principled secret boyfriend Dallas, is also excellent, displaying a strong tenor voice on “I Cannot Hear the City” and “One Track Mind”. His chemistry with Hier is credible, as well. There’s also a standout performance from New Line veteran Sarah Porter, making an impression is the small but important role of Sidney’s girlfriend, waitress and aspiring actress Rita, who gets the show’s single best solo musical moment with “Rita’s Tune”. Kent Coffel as corrupt police Lt. Kello, Jason Blackburn as rival gossip columnist Otis Elwell, and Short as J.J.’s no-nonsense secretary Madge lend excellent support as well, as does the show’s cohesive ensemble, playing a range of New Yorkers and contributing to memorable musical numbers like the intro and the energetic, sharp and chilling “Dirt”.

This is a challenging, incisive story with an incisive message, richly drawn characters, and even more richly drawn settings. It’s an homage to Film Noir, tied to its time in one way, but surprisingly timeless in another, since the modes of communication and the names may change over the years, but human nature hasn’t changed, and neither have the temptations that come with the thirst for knowledge, influence, and especially power and control. Sweet Smell of Success isn’t always sweet, but at New Line and with this cast and creative team, it’s certainly a success.

Cast of Sweet Smell of Success
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Sweet Smell of Success at the Marcelle Theatre until June 24, 2017.

 

 

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The Winter’s Tale
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 2, 2017

Chauncy Thomas, Cherie Corinne Rice (Left), Charles Pasternak (Right) and cast of The Winter’s Tale
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

It’s time to return to Forest Park again, for the latest production from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the show is The Winter’s Tale,  the Bard’s somewhat mysterious tragedy/comedy/mystery/romance, and it’s in good hands, with veteran director Bruce Longworth, a strong cast, and stunning production values which contribute to a fascinating dramatic journey in SFSTL’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is an unusual play, and one of Shakespeare’s more controversial considering the major tone shift that happens in the middle, and the inexplicable actions of some of the characters. It’s a fascinating story especially when staged well, and it is here. The Winter’s Tale starts out somewhat light-heartedly but then plunges quickly into the drama, and then into tragedy, before transforming itself again into more of a comic romance with a somewhat mysterious ending. The “tale” follows Leontes (Charles Pasternak), the king of Sicilia, who is happily married to Hermione (Cherie Corinne Rice), who is expecting their second child. When their friend, Polixenes King of Bohemia (Chauncy Thomas) wants to cut short his visit and Hermione convinces him to stay, Leontes’ is suddenly plagued by irrational, raging jealousy, convinced that his wife has betrayed him and that her unborn child was fathered by his friend. This leads to a chain of events that involves murder plots, self-exile, accusations, and death. Then there’s the intermission, and we come back to a pastoral romantic comedy sixteen years later as Leontes’ exiled daughter Perdita (Cassia Thompson), who has been raised by a bumbling Shepherd (Whit Reichert) and his even more bumbling son (Antonio Rodriguez), is romanced by Polixenes’s son Florizel (Pete Winfrey), who hasn’t told Perdita who he is, nor has he told his father who he’s romancing.  At first, it isn’t entirely clear how the two sections of the play will be tied together, but eventually they are, in a grand, fantastical fashion orchestrated by Hermione’s wise, protective gentlewoman Paulina (Rachel Christopher).

This is a fascinating play, and the tone-shift is part of what makes it so interesting. The blend of tragedy, comedy, and romance is somewhat jarring, but this production makes the most of it. The music by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle contributes a great deal to the mood, with a more classical chamber-music type vibe in Sicilia and more folky, rustic air in Bohemia. The look of production is striking, as well, with richly detailed costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis that seem to be in a late-18th, early-19th Century style. Scott C. Neale’s versatile unit set shifts well from setting to setting, and there are some excellent effects from lighting designer John Wylie and sound designer Rusty Wandall. The overall pacing is brisk without being too hurried, and all the right tonal notes are met, from the poignant to the jarring to the whimsical.

The casting here, as usual for SFSTL, is strong, and features some welcome returning players, including the excellent Pasternak as the jealous Leontes, whose journey from irrational rage to contrition is made credible. Rice is also strong as the wronged Hermione, and there is excellent work from all of the key players, including Winfrey and Thompson, who display a sweet chemistry as the lovers Florizel and Perdita. There’s good comic work from Reichert and Rodriguez as the Shepherd and his son, and a wonderful comic turn by Gary Glasgow as the scheming, opportunistic con artist, Autolycus. Thompson as Polixenes and Anderson Matthews as the loyal courtier Camillo also give strong performances, as does Michael James Reed as the earnest Antigonus, Paulina’s husband and the unfortunate victim of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction (“Exit, pursued by a bear”). Christopher, as Paulina, is a real standout in a strong, powerful performance as the protective, somewhat mysterious Paulina. There’s also a strong ensemble lending excellent support to the principal cast.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is one of the highlights of June in St. Louis. Free Shakespeare done with such expertise and style is always a treat, and The Winter’s Tale is another prime example of this company’s excellence. It’s a thoughtful, engaging, superbly staged and performed production, and I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to next year in the Glen as well, when SFSTL will present the Bard’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

 

Pete Winfrey, Whit Reichert, Cassia Thompson
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting The Winter’s Tale in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 25, 2017

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