Archive for October, 2017

The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
Adapted by Frank Gabrielson with music of the MGM motion pictures score by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, background music by Herbert Stothart
Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter
Variety Children’s Theatre
October 19, 2017

The Wizard of Oz is a classic tale about dreams, home, and family. Adaptations–and especially those based on the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland–have been staged in various places around the world for decades. It’s a very popular show, especially for family audiences. It’s an ideal selection for Variety Children’s Theatre, with its huge casts of adults and children, featuring director and choreographer Lara Teeter’s inventive staging and excellent opportunities for the child performers especially, making for an entertaining and vibrant show that’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.

Variety Children’s Theatre is now in its ninth year, producing shows in association with Variety the Children’s Charity, which works with children with special needs. The shows allow the Variety kids the opportunity to participate in a full-scale production either on stage or behind the scenes, along with more local children and professional actors and crew. The Wizard of Oz is the first Variety show I’ve seen, although I had heard great things about their productions in the past. Overall, this is an impressive production, utilizing the space at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center with a great deal of energy and creativity.

It’s the Wizard of Oz. It’s so well known that I don’t think I really need to summarize the plot. It’s a beloved classic, but it’s one that’s been done so many times that it can get to the point where it doesn’t seem like anything new can be done with it. This production proves that the show can be performed as written, but with still finding new and fresh approaches to the staging and characterization. I’m usually impressed when a production casts a Dorothy who doesn’t try to sound like Judy Garland, and this production does that well with the excellent Elizabeth Teeter, but it goes even further, with a characterization of the Wicked Witch of the West (Allison Newman) that is truly novel, as far as I’ve seen. The rest of the familiar characters are all here–Aunt Em (Laurie McConnell), Uncle Henry (Rich Pisarkiewicz), the Scarecrow (Drew Humphrey), Tin Man (Martin Fox), and Cowardly Lion (Patrick Blindauer), as well as Glinda (Julie Tabash Kelsheimer), the Wizard himself (Alan Knoll) and, of course, Toto (Nessa). The story is the usual story, but what’s most notable here is the inventive staging, including excellent flying effects and the excellent utilization of the adult and children’s ensembles.

The production values are excellent, from Dunsi Dai’s colorful, versatile set that relies a lot on movable set pieces, to John Wylie’s dazzling lighting, to the well-suited costumes by Robert Fletcher and Kansas City Costume. The flying effects, from Flying by Foy, are among the most impressive I’ve seen in a St. Louis production, as various characters and set pieces “fly” with seeming effortlessness. The staging is especially strong as well, particularly in the ensemble numbers which provide excellent moments for the child performers, especially in Munchkinland, and for the adult ensemble in the Emerald City sequences and in the Witch’s castle. Teeter’s energetic choreography is also a highlight, from the various solos for the Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, to the spectacular “Jitterbug” sequence. Teeter is especially adept at incorporating all the cast members into the production numbers in inventive ways.

There’s a great cast here, from the earnest, strong-voiced Elizabeth Teeter as Dorothy to Newman’s truly hilarious,  interpretation of the Wicked Witch. She’s younger, and kind of whiny, spoiled and entitled. I’ve never seen the Witch played that way before, but here it works, and Newman does a good job of being funny and menacing at turns. There are also winning performances from the scene-stealing Blindauer as the Lion and as Kansas farmhand Zeke; the flexible Humphrey as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk; and from Fox as the amiable Tin Man and farmhand Hickory. Pisarkiewicz is also impressive as Uncle Henry and especially as the Emerald City guard, and McConnell turns in a solid performance as Aunt Em. Knoll, as the Wizard and as Professor Marvel in the Kansas scenes, is also in good form, and there’s an excellent canine performance from Nessa as Toto. The children’s ensemble is excellent, as well, with notable performances from Nick George as the Mayor of Munchkinland and Charlie Mathis as the Munchkin Coroner. The adult ensemble features excellent performances from all, and especially Will Bonfiglio, Nathaniel Hirst, Mitchell Holsclaw, and Caleb Long as the Apple Trees. Everyone does a great job, though, from the Munchkins to the Winkies to the Flying Monkeys and more.

I’m glad I was able to see this performance. It’s a huge production, with a huge cast, and as is fitting for The Wizard of Oz, a lot of heart, brains, and courage. This is a thoroughly entertaining show, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Variety Children’s Theatre will present in the future.

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Muny Magic at the Sheldon: Our Leading Men

Conceived by Megan Larche Dominick and Michael Horsley, Book by Michael Fling
October 18, 2017

This is my first year attending the Muny’s regular concert event, Muny Magic at the Sheldon. They’ve been doing this for three years now and this is the fifth edition, featuring celebrated Muny performers and highlighting the history of the Forest Park institution. This year, going into the much talked about 100th anniversary season, the Muny’s producers have assembled a collection of classic songs saluting and remembering the leading men of the Muny, sung by four excellent leading men who have appeared in recent productions–Ben Davis, Davis Gaines, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Mykal Kilgore. Overall, I would say it’s an entertaining, worthy tribute to these excellent performers and the legendary composers and  leading men that have performed at the Muny over the years.

The stage is simply set, with stools for the singers and a small but excellent musical ensemble, directed by music director Michael Horsley. There’s also a large video screen, on which is projected the pictures and credits of a host of well-known leading men who have performed at the Muny including Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Ben Vereen, Jerry Orbach, and Muny favorite Ken Page, who was in the audience and received a standing ovation when his presence was acknowledged from the stage by Kilgore before Kilgore launched into an energetic, vocally dynamic rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”.

The format is that of a scripted concert, with jokes and witty rapport among the foursome as they took turns singing songs associated with the Muny’s long history, as well as highlighting the upcoming 100th season with selections from each of the scheduled shows, including comic moments such as the men singing “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from Annie, as well as an upbeat performance of “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) from Jersey Boys, Johnson’s spirited rendition of “All I Need Is the Girl” from Gypsy, Davis’s joyful “Singin’ In the Rain”, and Kilgore’s powerful “Home” from The Wiz, as well as Gaines leading the audience in a sing-along of “Meet Me In St. Louis”.  Other highlights included some spectacular vocal showcase moments including Davis’s “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific and (accompanying himself on guitar) “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, as well as Johnson’s “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and “If I Loved You” from Carousel. Gaines singing a medley from Man of La Mancha and the classic “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat, and Kilgore’s soaring, emotive “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin. All four men are stunning vocalists, and this show gave them many opportunities to display their talents, both as individuals and as a group on songs like “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and “Fugue For Tinhorns” form Guys and Dolls.

The evening was a an excellent showcase for these superb leading men, and a fitting tribute to the Muny’s past as well as a celebration of its present, and its future. It’s a great concert, with an enthusiastic and highly appreciative audience as well.  I’m glad I was there to see and hear it.


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Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Maggie Ryan
October 14, 2017

John O’Hagan, Gwen Wotawa, Elliot Auch, Kent Coffel
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is closing out their latest season with a comic mystery that’s familiar in more ways than one.  Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is another telling of a well-known story about a well-known literary detective, but its style is also somewhat familiar, calling to mind another popular theatrical comedy thriller. At Insight, this story benefits from an impressive cast and some clever staging.

The first thing that came to my mind when reading about the structure of this show wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but another popular mystery story that’s been given the comic theatrical treatment, The 39 Steps. Like that popular and often-staged play, Baskerville is staged with a small cast, and with some of the cast members playing a wide variety of characters. It also has some similar staging conventions and pacing. Still, it stands well on its own without appearing merely derivative. The story is based on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more well known Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The characters of Holmes (John O’Hagan) and Dr. Watson (Kent Coffel) are central, especially Watson in this staging. All the other characters are played by three performers, billed as Actor 1 (Elliot Auch), Actor 2 (Ed Reggi), and Actress 1 (Gwen Wotawa). The story follows Holmes and Watson as they investigate a strange case involving a murder on a moor bordering a country estate and an old family legend of a gigantic killer hound. The estate’s heir is transplanted Texan Sir Henry Baskerville (Reggi), who gets a note warning him to stay away from the moor. Watson then goes with him to his newly inherited estate to try to figure out what’s going on. Much intrigue, scheming, and hilarity follows, as the various characters and would-be suspects are introduced, and as the plot is further complicated by an unexpected romantic entanglement.

Although this is billed as a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s actually Watson who seems to get the most stage time, and Coffel plays his role with charm and energy. O’Hagan is also excellent as the brilliant but evasive Holmes. The other three players, each playing a number of roles, are excellent as well, with Auch displaying a variety of accents in various roles ranging from Baskerville neighbor Dr. Mortimer, to mysterious and butterfly-obsessed Jack Stapleton to a young informant helping Holmes. Reggi plays the friendly but bewildered Baskerville and a number of other roles, including the gruff Inspector Lestrade, among others. There’s some particularly clever staging involving an extremely quick character change by Reggi that provokes a big laugh from the audience. Wotawa rounds out the cast in a variety of roles ranging from various women involved in the case–particularly Beryl, who becomes involved with Sir Henry–as well as a young boy who helps Holmes gather information in London. The staging involves a lot of quick costume changes, as well as some self-referential humor, and it’s all performed with a lot of enthusiasm by this energetic ensemble.

The set, designed by Matt Stuckel, is versatile and works well for the quickly moving nature of this play. With movable set pieces and a prominent video screen, the locations can be set easily and moved around with speed. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Connor Meers and strong sound design by Robin Weatherall, providing the various affects needed for the situations, from comic to spooky. All the technical elements work together well to help tell this story and facilitate the high-energy, always moving style of the show, as well as the traditional “Sherlock Holmes” look.

Baskerville is a lot of fun.  It’s a well-timed and cleverly staged production that provides a lot of opportunities for versatility among the cast members. It’s Sherlock Holmes, but not like you may expect. It’s a memorable way for Insight to close a successful season.

Ed Reggi, Kent Coffel, Elliot Auch
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the .Zack Theatre until October 29, 2017



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by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 13, 2017

Ross Cowan, Jim Poulos, Stephen Hu
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play. It’s certainly oft-studied and oft-performed. Still, in its 51 years of existence in St. Louis, the Rep had never actually staged it, until now. And now, the Hamlet they’re staging is not exactly what you may expect. Produced by much of the team behind the Rep’s excellent A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a few years ago, this Hamlet is fresh, immediate, and characterized by a dynamic, highly physical performance from its leading actor.

Story-wise, this is Hamlet. It’s Shakespeare’s tale of the titular Danish prince (Jim Poulos), who is visited by the ghost of his late father, the previous King of Denmark, and urged to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, Claudius (Michael James Reed), who has not only taken over as king but has also married the queen, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Robynn Rodriguez). As Hamlet undertakes his effort at revenge, he confides his plans to his friend Horatio (Christopher Gerson), but his actions start to perplex those around him, including the members of the king’s court, Hamlet’s sometime love interest Ophelia (Kim Wong), her father Polonius (Larry Paulsen), Gertrude, and the increasingly suspicious Claudius, who enlists the help of Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Ross Cowan) and Guildenstern (Stephen Hu) and eventually Opehelia’s brother Laertes (Carl Howell) in foiling Hamlet’s plans. The results of all this plotting, planning, and revenge-seeking is famously tragic, with consequences affecting essentially everyone to one degree or another.

That’s the basic plot description, but this play–as with all of Shakespeare’s plays–can be staged in many different ways. The approach taken by director Paul Mason Barnes for this production is decidedly fast-paced and physical, particularly in the casting of Hamlet himself. Having previously played Puck so memorably in the Rep’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Poulos brings us a particularly puckish portrayal of the Melancholy Dane. His Hamlet is thoughtful, but he’s also confrontational, witty, and full of dynamic energy, challenging baffling Claudius and crew with his actions and body language as much as, if not more than, his words. It’s a brilliantly visceral performance. There are also impressive turns by Gerson as the sympathetic Horatio, Reed as the scheming, guilt-addled Claudius, Wong as the caring, manipulated, and increasingly unstable Ophelia, Paulsen as her busybody father Polonius, and Howell as a particularly earnest Laertes. Rodriguez as Gertrude is a standout as well, making her confusion and growing concern for Hamlet palpable and her famous “closet scene” devastatingly effective. Jonathan Gillard Daly and Tarah Flanagan are also excellent in dual roles as the Player King and Queen and as the gravediggers. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry and excellent support from the entire ensemble.

Visually, this production is notable for its stark, imposing minimalist set designed by Michael Ganio. Consisting of some scaffolding, an ominous leaning wall, and a series of plain square pedestals all arranged around a large looming column, the set serves well in facilitating the often urgent staging of this play. The fantastic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcarez, the sumptuously detailed 19th Century-influenced costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, and the superb sound design and atmospheric original music by Barry G. Funderberg all contribute to the overall immediate, intense atmosphere.

It could be easy to ask why it’s taken so long for the Rep to produce Hamlet, but it’s also easy to say now that I can’t imagine how they could have done it better. Particularly in its casting and fast-paced staging, this is a Hamlet that is confrontational and majoring on emotion, with a truly remarkable title performance at its heart. It’s a theatrical triumph for the Rep.

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Hamlet until November 5, 2017

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Sweet Revenge
by Aleksander Fredro
Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 12, 2017

Whit Reichert, John Contini
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is bringing a Polish comedy classic to the stage with style. Aleksander Fredro’s Zemsta (or “Revenge”) may not be as well known in the United States, but it’s extremely famous in Poland, and Upstream’s director Philip Boehm has now brought it to the stage in St. Louis, with the added bonus of paying tribute to a Polish-American theatrical troupe that was active here in the mid-2oth Century. It’s a fun show, with excellent staging and a great cast.

Sweet Revenge, as Boehm has titled his translation, is given the framing device of being a 1933 performance by the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society, which is a real company with which cast member John Bratkowski and several of his family members were involved. In the opening scene, the cast members sing a Polish song and an audience member (Eric Conners) sings along, whereupon he is noticed by the cast and invited to join them in performing the play, since they are apparently one actor short for their play. From there, until the very last scene that revisits the framing device, the play proceeds in a straightforward manner. The story follows feuding neighbors Czesnik (Whit Reichert) and Milczek (John Contini), who already hate each other but then dispute over the repair of a wall that separates their property. To further complicate the story, several people are vying for the hand of Czesnik’s ward, Klara (Caitlin Mickey), including Czesnik’s friend Papkin (Bratkowski), Czesnik himself (at first), and Milczek’s son, Waclaw (Pete Winfrey), who Klara actually loves. There’s also the widow Hanna (Jane Paradise), who Papkin pursuades Czesnik to woo but who has an agenda of her own that involves Waclaw. In the midst of all this romantic scheming, Czesnik and Milczek are both intent on doing whatever it takes to get “sweet revenge” and emerge victorious in their years-long feud.

The play is inventively staged, with a traditional proscenium set-up as would be fitting for a performance in the 1930s. The set by Patrick Huber is colorful and appropriately whimsical, with excellent work by scenic artists Erica Ahl, Mary Hopkins, and Cristie Johnston to help set the scene. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Steve Carmichael, prop designer A. S. Freeman, and costume designer Laura Hanson, helping to present the play in a way that is both true to its comic style and to the way it might have been presented in 1933 St. Louis. The framing device, while not strictly necessary and not really having much bearing on the actual plot of the play, still works well enough to call attention to the importance of this play in Polish culture, as well as communicating a message of diversity and reconciliation that is timely now as it would have been in 1933.

As for the play itself, it’s hilarious, with crisp staging and broadly drawn characters, and a rhyming verse structure that is handled extremely well by translator and director Philip Boehm and the cast. The cast is extremely strong, as well, led by Reichert and Contini in excellent form as the stubbornly feuding neighbors, and by Bratkowski as the hapless, self-serving Papkin. It’s a great cast all around, as well, with excellent comic timing by all, and good chemistry between Mickey and Winfrey as the young lovers caught in the midst of all the scheming. Paradise, as Hanna, and Conners as the audience member and in three different roles in the play, are also impressive. This is a very funny play, especially as the plot gets even more complicated as it goes on, and the whole cast rises to the challenge presented by such a broad, physical type of comedy.

Ultimately, Sweet Revenge works well as both a comedy and a bit of a history lesson, as a present-day St. Louis theatre company pays tribute to one from the city’s past, and to an important Polish theatrical work. As is usual with Upstream, it’s an impeccably cast production, as well. It’s well worth seeing.

Cast of Sweet Revenge
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Sweet Revenge at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 22, 2017.

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Mike Isaacson

The Muny revealed the lineup for their historic 100th season today, and I was honored to be invited to attend the press conference making the announcement. It looks like the Muny has a lot of exciting events in store to celebrate this milestone year, and as I sat there listening to the announcements, I found I was listening not just as a “member of the press”, but as a fan for whom St. Louis is my adopted hometown. I’ve been seeing shows at the Muny since my family and I first moved here in 2004, and in a fun coincidence, the first show I saw there is one that will also be part of the Muny’s 100th season.

The are many great shows and events planned for next year, as announced by the Muny’s Marketing and Communications director Kwofe Coleman and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, following introductory remarks by the Muny’s President and CEO, Dennis Reagan. In addition to the lineup of seven musicals, there will be parties, an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and a documentary on HCTV as well as Judith Newmark’s continued “Muny history” article series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more information, see the Muny 100 page on their official website.  Now, on to the list!

Dates and exact order will be announced at a later date, but the full line-up of shows is as follows:

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

The Wiz

Singin’ In the Rain



Jersey Boys

Meet Me in St. Louis

I have a lot of thoughts about this list, but for the most part, I think it’s a great lineup. In Isaacson’s introductions of the shows, he repeatedly talked about the Muny’s legacy and its historical reputation, as well as the idea of musical theatre as an American innovation. These are all American shows, with some having a long history at the Muny. There are two shows here, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Jersey Boys, that will be regional theatre premieres. There are also time-honored classics and more modern classics. There’s also, as I mentioned above, the first show I ever saw at the Muny, Meet Me In St. Louis, which is an obvious choice considering what this show means for the history of this city.  It’s a lineup that is sure to appeal to a wide audience, as the Muny generally seeks to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Isaacson’s Muny will do with them. Also, while I’m familiar with all of these shows and have seen the movies and/or televised versions of six of them, I’ve only seen three of them live on stage before, so this will be a particularly interesting season for me to cover.  I’m looking forward to it, and to all of the various celebrations the Muny has in store for their 100th season.


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by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Re-Imagined by Gregory Doran
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 7, 2017

Erik Kuhn and Cast
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

Cardenio at St. Louis Shakespeare is something of an exercise in discovery. Well, the “discovery” is from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran, who sought to reconstruct a famous “lost” play credited to Shakespeare and John Fletcher, but whose script doesn’t exist anymore.  Examining various sources from Shakespeare to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Doran put together this play as something of a Shakespearean re-creation. Now, St. Louis Shakespeare has staged the play, and it’s a fascinating experiment, featuring an excellent cast.

The structure of this play is reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, although there are dramatic elements as well. The title character, Cardenio (Erik Kuhn) is in love with Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin), but they are having difficulty getting their parents to agree to let them marry. When Cardenio is about to ask his mother, Dona Camilla (Larisa Alexander) to make an offer to Luscinda’s father, Don Bernardo (Colin Nichols) for Luscinda’s hand, Cardenio doesn’t get a chance to speak before he is summoned to court, where he meets and befriends Fernando (Jason J. Little), the younger son of the Duke Ricardo of Aguilar (Jeff Lovell). While the Duke’s older son, Pedro (Kevin O’Brien) is mature and responsible, Fernando is more of a rogue, who has been involved with a farmer’s daughter, Dorotea (Lexie Baker) but then rejects her, although she doesn’t give up so easily. Then, when Fernando decides to take Cardenio back to his hometown to buy some horses, he sees Luscinda and in a moment decides to pursue her despite his friendship with Cardenio. Luscinda still loves Cardenio, however, and even though her father prefers the match with Fernando, Luscinda isn’t easily persuaded. This leads to a botched wedding, a confused and jealous Cardenio, and a series of events that involves Luscinda taking refuge at a nunnery, Cardenio wandering in the wilderness, and Dorotea disguising herself as a boy and working for a shepherd out in the same area where Cardenio has fled. Of course, this is essentially a comedy, so the various threads are eventually tied together, but it takes a lot of twists and turns of the plot to find that resolution.

This is an enjoyable play, very much like Shakespeare in style, although it takes a while for the plot to really get moving. The first act drags somewhat, but after the intermission is when the story really starts to get going. The characterizations are broad and distinctive, with the noble Cardenio and Luscinda and the wronged Dorotea emerging as the “heroes”, and the caddish Fernando needing to learn a lesson in how to treat basically everyone. There are some good comic moments here and some intrigue especially in the second part of the show. The casting is strong, as well, with Kuhn as the earnest Cardenio, Lampkin as the devoted Luscinda, and Baker as the determined Dorotea being standouts. The chemistry between Kuhn and Lampkin is particularly strong. There are also memorable performances from Karl Hawkins as Fernando’s exasperated servant Gerardo, Alexander as Cardenio’s stubborn mother Dona Camilla, O’Brien as Pedro, and Little as the roguish Fernando. It’s a strong cast all around, and there are some fun ensemble moments such as during the wilderness sequence when most of the cast members play sheep, costumed in nothing more than “regular” clothes. There’s also a clever use of the ensemble members as essentially props in various scenes.

The set, by Matthew Stuckel, is suitably detailed and serves well as various locations through the course of the story. There are some excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler as well, outfitting the players as everything from Spanish nobles to rustic shepherds to nuns and more. Madeline Schneider’s lighting and Robin Weatherall’s sound design also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical production.

Overall, I think Cardenio is a worthwhile exercise in re-imagining a play from Shakespearean catalog that nobody today would otherwise be able to see. It’s like the “Shakespeare that may have been”, really. Technically, it’s not really Shakespeare, but it’s a fascinating facsimile, and St. Louis Shakespeare has done an admirable job of bringing it to St. Louis audiences.

Cast of Cardenio
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Cardenio at the Ivory Theatre until October 15, 2017.

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Spring Awakening
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the Play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 6, 2017

Allison Arana, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spring Awakening is that edgy musical from 2006 based on an even edgier (for its day) German play from 100 years earlier. The musical has become quite popular with regional theatres over the last decade or so, and this is actually the second time Stray Dog Theatre is producing it. Their first production was five years ago, though, and although I’ve heard good things about it, I didn’t see it. Actually, I hadn’t seen the show at all before this latest SDT presentation, although I had heard some of the music. Still, having read about the show and listening to the music doesn’t entirely prepare someone for seeing it live. On stage at SDT now, Spring Awakening is daring, shocking, extremely well-cast, and overall just plain excellent.

The story here is essentially an object lesson for adults in “how not to teach (or not teach) your kids about the facts of life”. It’s not all about sex, but that’s an important focus of the plot. It takes place in Germany in the 19th Century, in a rigid society where there are expectations for proper behavior, and for proper education, and that’s different for boys and for girls. The girls, like Wendla (Allison Arana), are expected to be “good” and eventually grow up and be a good wife and mother, although they’re not expected to know exactly where the babies come from. Wendla’s mother (Jan Niehoff, who plays all the adult women) isn’t much help, and so her daughter is dangerously naive when she eventually finds herself in a growing flirtation with young student Melchior (Riley Dunn). The other girls gossip and swoon over the boys and wonder about their futures, while the boys are in school learning how to be upstanding members of society. They’re drilled in Latin, math, and other subjects by their strict schoolmaster (Ben Ritchie, who plays all the adult male characters), and they are not expected to question authority. The boys are stressed out about their classes and expectations, but they’re also discovering their sexuality as well, which especially confuses Melchior’s friend Moritz (Stephen Henley), who is so distracted by certain thoughts that he can’t study, and the teachers determine he’s just not fit for school. As the play goes on, Wendla, Melchior, Moritz, and their friends deal with the strictness and evasion of the adults and society in different ways, with distressing and even tragic results. There are also other stories involving Wendla’s friend Martha (Brigid Buckley), who doesn’t want to share the full story about how badly her father treats her, and also Ilse (Dawn Schmidt), who ran away from a similar situation to live a more free-spirited life as a model at an artists’ colony, although she’s still gossiped about by her childhood friends. There are also Hanschen (Luke Steingruby) and Ernst (Jackson Buhr), who discover an attraction to one another. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things turn out better for some and worse for others, but generally, the rigid rules and strict expectations of this society don’t mesh well with the passions and desires of youth.  There’s little effort for actual communication–just dictation and evasion from the adults and confusion and impulsive reactions with sometimes devastating consequences for the youthful characters.

There’s a lot of story here, but it’s told well, and Ducan Sheik’s rock-influenced score augments the story especially well, with its frank and confrontational treatment of sexuality, among other subjects. The music works to tell the story well, from quieter, plaintive moments (“The Word of Your Body”) to full-on adolescent rage (“The Bitch of Living” and the riotous, spectacularly staged “Totally Fucked”). It’s a memorable score, and the staging here, with dynamic choreography and synchronized movement, adds much to the overall feeling of the production. The cast manages to get the whole performance area in Tower Grove Abbey shaking at one point. The casting is excellent as well, with Arana ideally cast as the innocent, bewildered Wendla well-matched with Dunn as the skeptical, would-be iconoclast Melchior. These two display strong, halting chemistry as well. There are also strong performances from Henley as the conflicted Moritz, and by Schmid, who displays a great deal of presence as the somewhat mysterious Ilse. Steingruby and Buhr, as Hanschen and Ernst, are also excellent, as are Ritchie and Niehoff in the adult roles, Buckley as the haunted Martha, and the entire ensemble (Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk).  It’s a confrontational show in a lot of ways, but it’s also a human show, and the wonderful cast does an excellent job of portraying the humanity of these teenagers with all their hopes, dreams, and flaws.

The stage is set minimally, with Robert M. Kepeller’s set consisting of a few wooden set pieces that frame the action more than establishing a concrete scene. The excellent band, led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, is right on stage with the actors, as well, blending the music into the environment in a thoroughly immersive way. There are also superb costumes by Eileen Engel and striking lighting by Tyler Duenow to help realize this richly portrayed world.

Spring Awakening is an important show in portraying the dangers of an overly rigid society and especially lack of true communication and essential education for growing teenagers to the point of stifling and even denying their basic humanity. It’s a timeless message despite the 19th century setting, and blend of the modern music with this setting helps to augment the universality of some of its themes. There’s some difficult and sometimes downright brutal subject matter here, but there is also hope, especially personified in the dazzling final scene and “The Song of Purple Summer”. As someone who hadn’t seen this musical before, I think  SDT has done the show about as well as I can imagine it being performed. It’s absolutely worth seeing while you have the chance.

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Spring Awakening at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 21, 2017.


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Tuesdays With Morrie
by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
New Jewish Theatre
October 5, 2017

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre


The first production of New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season is the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s popular book Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s a two-man show, bringing to the stage two excellent local actors, continuing NJT’s tradition of excellent casting. I hadn’t read the book or seen the play, and I’m glad this has been my introduction to it.

The story is autobiographical, depicting the friendship between author and sportswriter Mitch Albom (Andrew Michael Neiman) and his former university professor, Morrie Schwartz (James Anthony). Mitch narrates the story, starting with how he first met and got to know Morrie at Brandeis University in the 1970s, but then lost touch after Mitch graduated and he threw himself into his career. After 16 years of no contact, Mitch finally sees Morrie on TV, being interviewed on Nightline. It’s through this program that Mitch learns of Morrie’s diagnosis with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Mitch then calls Morrie, who actually remembers him, and the phone call eventually leads to a visit, which becomes a series of visits in which Mitch gets reacquainted with Morrie as Morrie’s illness progresses. Over the course of a few months, Mitch and Morrie become close again, and Mitch learns a lot from Morrie about what really matters in life. We also see the devastating effects of Morrie’s condition, as the once energetic professor finds himself unable to perform basic everyday tasks, and Mitch has to help him more and more during his visits. It’s a vivid depiction of two men and their remarkable friendship as both of them learn to deal with issues of life, mortality, and priorities in different but highly personal ways.

It’s a moving story already, but what really makes this production is the casting. Neiman and Anthony are both excellent in their roles, with Neiman convincingly portraying Mitch’s journey from a workaholic who buries his emotions in his job to being forced to care about Morrie and his situation and reconsider his own outlook on life. Anthony, especially, is superb as Morrie, an intelligent, witty, and vital man who has to come to terms with his own physical decline and his impending death. It’s a remarkable performance, achingly realistic as Morrie’s motor functions first falter, and then gradually fail, while Morrie still maintains his passion for life and his concern for Mitch and everyone else around him. The later scenes in the play may be difficult to watch, as Morrie’s decline is more and more evident, and as Neiman and Anthony portray the increasingly close friendship between these two men as the inevitable approaches.

The production values here, as usual, are first-rate, with a detailed and imaginative set by Cristie Johnston that focuses on a large, leaning bookcase, and also effectively utilizes a turntable at a key point in the production. The sense of movement and passage of time is effectively achieved through the staging, as well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, props master Sarah Azizo, and sound designer Amanda Werre, as all the technical elements work together to help bring the audience into Mitch and Morrie’s world.

Tuesdays With Morrie is an emotional play, portraying a full range of feelings and moods from humor to drama to heartrending sadness, to ever-persistent hope, as personified by Morrie and his relationship with and influence on Mitch. It’s an expertly staged and acted production that’s likely to bring laughter as well as tears. It’s a thoroughly believable portrayal of a genuinely affectionate friendship, as well as the depiction of terminal illness and the process of grief. It’s another memorable production from New Jewish Theatre.

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Tuesdays With Morrie at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 22, 2017

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The Bodyguard
Based on the Warner Bros. film Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Choreographed by Karen Bruce
The Fox Theatre
October 2, 2017

Deborah Cox and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

It’s a “jukebox musical” showcasing songs made famous by Whitney Houston, based on a popular film. That’s basically all there is to The Bodyguard, the musical that debuted in London and is now touring the USA, currently running in St. Louis at the Fox. For the most part, it’s entertaining, with some good performances and well-delivered hit songs that really are the main reason to see this show in the first place.

I hadn’t seen the film, but based on the synopses I’ve read, the show’s story has been modified slightly to work better on stage. The story is the same as the movie, though, as superstar singer Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) starts getting disturbing letters from a mysterious stalker (Jorge Paniagua) who breaks into her dressing room during a concert, taking one of her dresses without being noticed by her security team. As a result of this scare, Rachel is persuaded to hire a new bodyguard, the experienced but somewhat secretive Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), who makes fast friends with Rachel’s sister Nicki (Jasmin Richardson) and son Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Sebastian Maynard-Palmer), but who is initially distrusted by Rachel herself. Of course, if you know much about the film, you know where this is going, with a somewhat unlikely romance and more intrigue as Frank and the rest of Rachel’s security team zeroes in on the stalker. This all happens with soundtrack of songs from the film as well as other Houston hits, such as “I Have Nothing”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “One Moment In Time”, and of course “I Will Always Love You”, which is set up in a humorous way, first being sung awkwardly by Frank in a Karaoke bar before making its more iconic appearance later in the show.

This is a fairly by-the-numbers plot, and some of the scenes are disjointed–particularly the brief opening scene that isn’t particularly necessary. Still, it’s enjoyable enough, with some good performances–particularly from Cox as Rachel and Richardson as Nicki, who sing the Houston hits impressively. There’s also a strong performance from young Jones as Fletcher, and Mills is fine although a bit one-note as Frank. There’s an energetic ensemble, as well, and the group dance numbers featuring Karen Bruce’s choreography are among the highlights of the show.

Technically, the show has a cinematic look befitting an adaptation of a film. Tim Hatley’s set features many pieces that change out smoothly, representing Rachel’s well-appointed house, a rustic cabin, the karaoke bar, and various concert locations. Hatley’s costumes are also well-suited to the characters, and there’s effective lighting by Mark Henderson. The use of video, designed by Duncan McLean, is particularly impressive, as well.

Overall, I would say if you’re not expecting to be dazzled by the story, and if you want to have a reasonably enjoyable evening at the theatre and listen to some well-sung Whitney Houston hits, The Bodyguard won’t really disappoint. As “jukebox” musicals go, it’s not in the top tier, but it has its moments. The music is really the star here.

Deborah Cox, Judson Mills
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

The US Tour of The Bodyguard is running at the Fox Theatre until October 15, 2017.

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