Archive for October, 2017

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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A Walk In the Woods
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 30, 2017

Tom Moore, Tim Naegelin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is starting their 2017-2018 season with Lee Blessing’s 1988 A Walk In The Woods, a celebrated Pulitzer Prize nominee that’s very much of its era when looking at it today. At WEPG, it comes across as an earnest, if subdued, look at a particular time and place in world history.

Probably the most striking thing about this particular production is its set, designed by Jacob Winslow, who also designed the excellent lighting. Here, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been transformed into a wooded area somewhere in Geneva, Switzerland, with real mulch, logs, leaves and branches spread around to achieve an authentic effect. A simple wooden bench is the only furniture, and the audience is seated in sections surrounding the performance area on three sides. It’s an effective staging conceit, basically bringing the audience into the woods with the play’s characters, who are two arms negotiators. The Soviet Andrey Bottnvinnik (Tom Moore) is older, avuncular, personable but wearied by years in this job. The American John Honeyman (Tim Naegelin) is new on the job, and he’s more of the by-the-book kind of guy, but also full of idealism and hope that a real agreement on nuclear arms reduction can be achieved. Over the course of the play, the two talk and develop a relationship, and that is essentially the story. The personalities of the characters, and their back-and-forth discussion on matters as serious as world peace and as seemingly mundane as country music, are the centerpiece to this story which seems to depend a lot on archetypes as much as specific characters, although those archetypes are examined and challenged as well. At first it appears that we’re seeing the “older, wiser vs. the young upstart” but over the course of the show we see that there’s more to these characters than the initial impressions.

Although this play was timely when it was first written, now it plays as a Cold War time capsule of sorts, although it still has its moments of relevance to today’s issues, and the general idea of diplomacy as a difficult but essential pursuit. Blessing’s script is insightful at times, but it’s also deliberate sometimes to the point of being a little too deliberate. This strikes me as the type of play that particularly benefits from strong casting. All plays benefit from good performances, but here that seems most essential. The performances here are strong, although not as dynamic as they possibly could be. Moore is particularly engaging as the charming but deceptively cynical Bottvinnik. His Russian accent is convincing, as well. Naegelin as Honeyman is also convincing, and both actors display convincing chemistry as their relationship builds and grows throughout the play.

For the most part, A Walk In the Woods is a compelling character study and a window into a time in world history that is still in living memory for many in the audience. Its look at the process of diplomacy and the struggle for communication in the midst of cynicism is one that is still relevant today, as well. It’s an intriguing opening for WEPG’s season.

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Music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lyrics and original concept by Steven Cheslik-deMeyere and Tim Maner
Book and Additional Music by Tim Maner
Additional Lyrics and Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewett
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 29, 2017

Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Lizzie Borden murder case is still infamous even 125 years after the event. It’s been the frequent subject of books, documentaries, and dramatizations on stage and screen. This year, New Line Theatre is opening their new season with another look at this infamous story, with a highly personal approach and a bold new soundtrack. Lizzie is a musical that takes the story “out of time” in a sense, with it’s high-powered rock score and minimal staging at once appealing to modern audiences and adding a new dimension to the legend that has developed around the actual event.  With New Line’s excellent cast and production values, this show makes an intense impression.

This story isn’t new, but this approach certainly is, although the premise is somewhat similar to other dramatizations in presenting the idea of why Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas) would actually commit the murders of her father and stepmother, for which she was tried and acquitted. The show is presented in almost a concert format, with minimal staging and the characters outfitted in Sarah Porter’s colorful, stylized, modern punk-rock inspired costumes. The story is both told in-time and taken out of time by means of this format, with the result of making it a focused, highly personal drama. Lizzie is joined on stage by her older sister Emma (Marcy Wiegert), the family’s maid Bridget Sullivan (Kimi Short), and next-door neighbor Alice Russell (Larissa White), as they sing of their troubled lives in the “House of Borden”, with imperious father Andrew and highly disliked stepmother Abby. What emerges is a picture of a troubled family, and a lonely Lizzie who isn’t given a lot of options in life. The restrictive roles of women at the time are also presented as a factor, which makes the rebel-rock approach all the more effectively jarring. The show has its loud moments and quiet interludes, humanizing these characters that have been almost flattened by history and showing poignancy in the relationships between Lizzie and Emma, and also a particular attachment between Lizzie and Alice, as well as showing alienation from various characters–the sisters from their parents, and Bridget’s from the family for whom she works and who don’t even call her by the right name (calling her “Maggie” instead–the name of a previous maid).

What’s given here is a concert of relationships, finely crafted, shockingly portrayed, and effectively humanized, played with energy, grit, and magnetism by the first-rate New Line cast, led by Vargas as the alternately fragile and fierce Lizzie. She’s in great voice, as well, as are the rest of the performers here, and there are some strong musical moments from the opening “Forty Whacks” to ominous “The House of Borden” to the driving “Sweet Little Sister”, to the poignant, hymnlike “Watchmen for the Morning”, which features the particularly affecting harmonies of Vargas and Wiegert. Wiegert as the bold, protective Emma, White as the more gentle, longing Alice, and Short as the overworked, weary but strong-willed Bridget are all excellent, with strong voices and excellent chemistry. It’s a strong showing for all of them, and they sell this story for all its complex, emotional worth.

There are strong production values here, as well, from Porter’s aforementioned costumes to Rob Lippert’s starkly minimal set and stunning, concert-like lighting. There’s also a top-notch band conducted by music director Sarah Nelson. All these elements work together in achieving a consistent look, sound and vision for this unconventional presentation of a reasonably well-known story.

This is one of those shows that takes the audience by surprise in a way. You think you know what you’re getting–the Lizzie Borden story with rock music–and that is what New Line presents, but there is a lot more to it than that simple premise describes. The format here is a particular strength in that it takes subject matter that’s been talked about and presented in many different ways before and brings it to the audience in a way that at once sets it apart and makes it more accessible. This Lizzie is loud, but it’s also incisive. The story is old, but it’s also new. It’s a story that’s been told, but not in this way. It’s New Line at its bold, brash, thought-provoking best.

Larissa White, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Lizzie at the Marcelle Theatre until October 21, 2017.

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