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Archive for November, 2017

Stones In His Pockets
by Marie Jones
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 10, 2017

Jason Meyers, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild take its audience to Ireland for its latest production. Stones In His Pockets is a play with many characters, but only two actors. A story with strong comic and dramatic elements, the show features the talents of two excellent local performers.

Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers form the entire cast of this production, each playing a variety of characters. Mainly, though, they are Charlie (Sanz-Agero) and Jake (Meyers), two new friends in a small Irish village that has been chosen as the setting for a major motion picture starring a well-known American actress. Many of the locals, including Jake and the newly-arrived Charlie, have been cast as extras in the film, and that’s the source of much of the comedy and drama of this play, as the filming impacts the town in various foreseen and unforeseen ways. Through the course of the story, we see the movie filming and life in this town through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, as well as through other memorable characters like the film director, the mostly friendly but self-absorbed movie star, a veteran extra who is the last surviving extra from the filming of the John Ford/John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara classic film The Quiet Man, and a troubled teenager and his friend. It’s the young teenager, Sean, whose character ultimately impacts the story the most, turning what starts out as a pleasant, insightful comedy into something more bittersweet and even tragic. The issues explored include the importance of hopes and dreams, as well as commercialism and self-importance in the film industry, and the simple decency of treating people like human beings and not just a means to an end.

The technical elements here work well to set the overall mood and atmosphere of rural Ireland, with Tracy Newcomb’s fairly minimal set and Nathan Schroeder’s evocative lighting setting the stage appropriately. Newcomb’s costumes are also excellent, with the two actors in basic, character-specific costumes but then adding small elements–hats, scarves, etc.–to suggest the changes in character. There’s also good work from dialect coach Richard Lewis, helping the actors achieve consistent and believable Irish accents, although there is a small issue with one name (that of a production assistant on the film, named Aisling) being consistently mispronounced. Still, the overall sense of Irish-ness is achieved and maintained well by this production, with the real centerpiece being the remarkable performances of the two leads, as well as the excellent direction that makes the story flow so well.

Sanz-Agero and Meyers are both wonderful in their roles, as the hopeful aspiring screenwriter Charlie and more jaded Jake, who has just returned from a disappointing time trying to make his fortune in America. Both are excellent at changing from character to character but consistently and quickly resuming their “base” characters as needed. For Sanz-Agero, his most memorable other characters include the movie star, Caroline, and the film director. Meyers excels at physicality in his roles, as well, especially finding poignancy in portrayals of Mickey, the elderly extra, and the moody young Sean. Their portrayals are so vivid, and their transitions so smooth, that it almost does seem like there are more actors in the show than just these two at times. These two play against each other extremely well, too, working to tell a convincing story full of humor, sadness, and ultimately hope.

This is the first time I’ve seen this play, and I’m glad I got to see it here. It’s an excellent production from West End Players Guild. Especially, the actors are to be commended for bringing the audience into such a well-realized world.

West End Players Guild is presenting Stones In His Pockets at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 19, 2017.

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Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 9, 2017

Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is back again, producing their remarkably ambitious, dynamic brand of theatre and this time succeeding in transforming a theatrical classic into something that’s at once faithful to the source material and dynamically immediate for today’s audiences. Of Mice and Men, as presented at the Chapel, features a remarkable cast and truly innovative direction, making for a must-see theatrical production.

As far as I can tell, not a word of the actual script has been changed. What has changed, instead, is the subtext, and deliberate casting and directorial choices that make this old story into something new. It’s still the story of migrant farm workers in 1935 California, centering on the small-statured, world-weary George (Adam Flores) and his friend, the larger, much stronger but developmentally challenged and somewhat childlike Lennie (Carl Overly, Jr.). The story follows them as they have left a recent job and are about to start a new one. George is protective of Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength and isn’t aware of the consequences of his actions or of the way he is perceived by others. The new job is on a ranch owned by The Boss (Jack Corey), whose son, Curley (Michael Cassidy Flynn), is highly insecure and suspicious, with a grudge against anyone bigger than him and mistrustful of his new wife (Courtney Bailey Parker). The work crew consists of a disparate group including Candy (Natasha Toro), who is drawn to Lennie and George and wants to help them achieve their dream of getting a place of their own, joining them in living “on the fat of the land”. There’s also the somewhat impulsive Carlson (Shane Signorino), the gossipy Whit (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), the more easygoing Slim (Joe Hanrahan), and stablehand Crooks (Omega Jones), who doesn’t get to share the bunkhouse and is treated with more suspicion than the other workers because he is black. The story plays out as written, as trouble continues to find Lennie and George, and tragedy follows. What’s different about this production, though, is the relationship dynamics brought about by the insightful direction and deliberately non-traditional casting, which works to emphasize the element of secrecy that’s already inherent in the plot.

The casting really does change things up, forcing the viewer to see this well-known story through a new lens. It still works for the time and place, as well. Here, the traditionally white roles of Lennie and George are played by Flores, who is Latino, and Overly, who is black but of lighter complexion than Jones, who plays Crooks and whose character is clearly treated as inferior by his co-workers. Here, a key scene between Lennie and Crooks gains new power as Crooks points out the difference in their situations, also making it clear that Lennie is unaware of the reason for this difference, although Crooks is very aware. There’s also the casting of a Latina woman, Toro, playing the traditionally white male role of Candy, although the clear suggestion, made even more obvious by a scene with Curley’s wife, is that this Candy is a woman living as a man, although few people seem to realize that fact. The relationship dynamics bring a lot to the story, making the sense of alienation and looking for a place to belong even more of a prominent theme than it was already in this story.

The casting is first-rate, with strong, memorable portrayals by all of the players. Overly, as Lennie, gives a truly remarkable performance especially, portraying Lennie’s childlike enthusiasm and a sense of longing that underscores all of his actions, and his affection and rapport with Flores as George is apparent. Flores is also strong in a poignant performance as the determined, weary and protective George. There’s also excellent work from Toro as Candy, Jones as Crooks, who also has a poignant musical moment singing “The House of the Rising Sun” at the beginning of Act 2, accompanied by the production’s musical director, Chris Ware, who is a presence throughout the production, sitting just offstage playing his guitar, supplying the music that underscores this production. There are also strong performances from Flynn as the belligerent Curley, and by Parker as his lonely wife. Corey, Signorino, and Lawson-Maeske lend excellent support, as well. It’s a fully inhabited, real, human world on stage at the Chapel, and the excellent chemistry of the cast adds much to the drama and immediacy of this production.

Also adding to the production is the strong sense of time and place conveyed in the technical elements here. Bess Moynihan’s versatile set and evocative lighting suggests an authentic setting as well as the transience of the characters. Liz Henning’s excellent costumes, Rachel Tibbetts’s props, and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contribute well to the overall mood of the production, as does Chris Ware’s aforementioned striking music and Lawson-Maeske’s fight choreography.

This is the story you may know, but it’s also not. It’s old and it’s new, and it’s profoundly affecting. Of Mice and Men at SATE is another superb, intelligent and challenging production from this continually impressive theatre company.

of Mice and Men-267

Natasha Toro, Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores, Courtney Bailey Parker, Omega Jones Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

 

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Of Mice and Men at the Chapel until November 18, 2017.

 

 

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On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine
Directed by Jerry Mitchell
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
The Fox Theatre
November 7, 2017

Mauricio Martinez, Christie Prades
Photo by Matthew Murphy
On Your Feet! National Tour

The latest national tour at the Fox is a tuneful crowd-pleaser. On Your Feet! is another in the growing genre of “jukebox bio-musicals”, in the vein of Jersey Boys, Beautiful, and more. This time, the subject is the music and life of Latin-pop music icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan, following their story and featuring many of their well-known hits. With a great cast and an excellent soundtrack, this national tour of the recent Broadway production is an entertaining tribute and a compelling story.

While it’s billed as “The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical”, the focus of the story here is primarily on Gloria (Christie Prades), as well as her personal and professional relationship with musician, producer, and her eventual husband Emilio (Mauricio Martinez). The story follows Gloria as a young child growing up in Miami, where she and her family immigrated from Cuba. Her relationships with her father, Jose Fajardo (Jason Martinez), her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo), and her mother, also named Gloria (Nancy Ticotin). The young Gloria (Amaris Sanchez and Carmen Sanchez, alternating in the role) starts out playing songs on her guitar, and then grows up  taking care of her father as he suffers the progressive effects of MS. She’s not intending a career in music at first, but her grandmother contacts Emilio, who is part of a popular local act called the Miami Latin Boys, and Gloria and her younger sister Rebecca (Claudia Yanez) go to his house for an audition. Eventually, Gloria becomes the lead singer of the band, which gains fame under its new name, Miami Sound Machine, in various countries and crossing over from the Latin market to the Pop market. The show, punctuated with hits like “Anything for You”, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and the rousing “Conga”, follows the couple’s rise to international fame as well as personal challenges in relationships with Gloria’s family, and Gloria’s fight to regain her health after a devastating tour bus crash, culminating in her celebrated “comeback” performance of “Coming Out of the Dark” on the American Music Awards broadcast in 1991.

This is a well-produced show, with strong production values including David Rockwell’s versatile set, Emilio Sosa’s detailed costumes, Kenneth Posner’s dazzling lighting, and striking projection design by Darrel Maloney. There’s also vibrant, energetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and an engaging book by Alexander Dinelaris that emphasizes the importance of family history and relationships in the Estefans’ lives. The music is the main attraction, with hit after hit well-performed by this excellent cast, but it’s not just a concert. There’s a compelling story here, as well.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by the dynamic, strong-voiced Prades as Gloria, who is well-matched by Martinez in a solid, amiable performance as Emilio. The strength of their relationship is an important part of this story, and both of these two make that relationship work with their excellent chemistry. There are also memorable performances from Cuervo as Gloria’s supportive, persistent grandmother Consuelo, Ticotin as the loving but sometimes overprotective mother Gloria Fajardo, and Jason Martinez as Gloria’s father Jose. The whole cast is strong in support, as well, with an excellent singing and dancing ensemble, helping to bring this story, and the music from the chart-topping hits to lesser-known songs, to life with energy and style.

Although On Your Feet! is going to appeal especially to fans of the Estefans and Miami Sound Machine, the story and music are compelling enough to entertain even those who may not be as familiar with the music. There’s an energetic “Megamix” finale that lives up to the title, as well, bringing the audience member to their feet. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of that term.

Cast of On Your Feet!
Photo by Matthew Murphy
On Your Feet! National Tour

The National Tour of On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical is running at the Fox Theatre until November 19, 2017.

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Titus Androgynous : Un Comico Spettocolare
by William Shakespeare, Adapted by Chuck Harper
Directed by Chuck Harper
YoungLiars
October 28, 2017

Katy Keating, Jonah Walker
Photo: YoungLiars

This year, St. Louis has already seen a somewhat subdued production of Shakespeare’s notorious “bloodiest” play, Titus Andronicus, from St. Louis Shakespeare. Now, another company, the ambitious YoungLiars, has gone the other way entirely, hamming up the comedy and the blood in an over-the-top comic/horror/musical adaptation they’ve titled Titus Androgynous. It’s a definite twist on the source material, but it’s a hilarious twist.

The story here has been streamlined and tweaked, but it’s essentially the Titus Andronicus story with a few name changes and an emphasis on comedy and gore, to the point where the cart containing the copious amounts of stage blood used in the play is a prominent feature. There’s also, as suggested by the title, a Commedia Dell-Arte influence. Also prominently featured is Paul Cereghino as Valentine, the Master of Ceremonies, who plays keyboards and sings much of the narration of the story. All the characterizations are over-the-top here, and there’s also a good deal of breaking the fourth wall, as Cereghino tells the story and relates theatrical conventions as it goes–such as having some actors play more than one character, as well as when Valentine himself decides he wants to be in the play and takes on the role of a Clown, with hilarious results. The emphasis here is on comedy, sensationalism, and lots of scenery-chewing, telling the story of Titus (Jonah Walker) and his battle of revenge with Roman empress and former Queen of the Goths Tamora (Maggie Conroy), with a cast of characters (spellings as listed in the program) including Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Rachel Tibbetts), his sons Luscious (Mitch Eagles), Quintas (Amanda Wales), and Mutius (Ellie Schwetye), and his father Old Marcus Jeff Skoblow), as well as Tamora’s sons Demetriass (also Wales), Chiron (also Schwetye), and Alarbus (also Keating), along with Tamora’s husband, Roman Emperor Saturnanus (Isaiah de Lorenzo), his brother and would-be Emperor Bassianus (also Eagles), and Tamora’s scheming lover Aaron the Moore (Erin Renee Roberts).

YoungLiars has taken the original source’s “bloody” reputation and amped it up to the max here, to the point where the overall effect is more comic than gory. Still, if you are especially squeamish about blood on stage, take this as a warning. There is a lot of stage blood used in this production, and it’s not subtle. That aforementioned cart with the blood and various accessories is put to frequent use. David Blake’s scenic design is also characterized by the liberal use of white plastic sheeting. The costumes, by Maggie Conroy, are stylized, with a decidedly macabre, gothic look. Also prominent is the music, composed by Cereghino and played by Cereghino on keyboards and Michael Ferguson on drums, with a creepy-comic style that adds much to the overall atmosphere of this production.

Performance-wise, everyone is in top form, hamming it up to the extreme, with extremely hilarious results. Cereghino is a standout as the over-eager narrator and, later, as a persistent, pigeon-keeping Clown. There are also memorable performances from Keating in various roles, from Roberts as the gleefully villainous Aaron, by Walker and Conroy as the bitterly feuding Titus and Tamora, by Tibbetts as the tragic Lavinia, and by Schwetye and Wales in turns as Titus’s sons and Tamora’s sons. The whole cast is strong, though, seeming to revel in the exaggerated goriness of the proceedings in a plot that involves multiple murders, revenge, and even cannibalism.

Titus Androgynous is, in essence, Titus Andronicus turned up to its loudest, with a viciously comic twist and a memorable musical score. For anyone with a penchant for the macabre, this is the play for you. This is a bold, confrontational, and darkly hilarious production.

Maggie Conroy, Erin Renee Roberts
Photo: YoungLiars

YoungLiars is presenting Titus Androgynous at the Centene Center for the Arts until November 11, 2017

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Heisenberg
by Simon Stephens
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St.Louis, Studio
October 27, 2017

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening its Studio season with a much talked-about two-character play called Heisenberg. It’s a short play, running at just under an hour and a half, and the focus is much more on character than on the plot. It’s a clever, somewhat unpredictable script that serves as a great showcase for its two excellent lead performers.

The title of this play isn’t referenced in the story itself, but it’s one a lot of people will be familiar with, even if they aren’t well-versed in physics. Although associated with a particular scientific concept, one doesn’t really have to know anything about physics to get the gist of this title. Essentially, the first word most people associate with the name Heisenberg is “uncertainty”, and in this play, that’s the general idea. Life is uncertain, and people are uncertain, and we don’t even know how much time we have with the people who come into our lives. The story follows the quirky relationship of two very different people, the 40-something American expat Georgie (Susan Louise O’Connor) and 75-year-old Irish-born butcher Alex (Joneal Joplin), who meet at a train station in London and eventually become more involved in one another’s lives, due largely to Georgie’s persistence. Over the course of their relatively short acquaintance (six weeks, according to director Steven Woolf’s note in the program), there are lies, misrepresentations, revelations, sudden decisions, and other surprises as we learn more about these two and the qualities that draw them together. There isn’t much else to say that doesn’t spoil too much, but the real focus here is on the relationship, as these two characters grow closer and show how their relationship and their interactions with the world around them and other important people in their lives shapes their present decisions, relationship, and character.

The set here is minimal. Designed by Peter and Margery Spack, it consists mainly of two long tables and some chairs, with video screens to help suggest the setting. Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute to the overall atmosphere here, which is more of a suggestion of settings than a concrete representation. Marci Franklin’s costumes are well-suited to the characters and their well-defined personalities.

And it’s those personalities that are the chief focus of this show, boldly embodied by the superb actors who bring them to life. Joplin does a great job of presenting Alex as a well-rounded character even early on, when he doesn’t speak as much and is largely reacting to Georgie. There’s so much communicated in Joplin’s mere looks and reactions, and as we find out more about him as the play progresses, Joplin continues to make these revelations fascinating, and his chemistry with O’Connor is wonderful. O’Connor is equally superb as the more outwardly expressive Georgie, although we soon learn that although she’s not as reserved as Alex, she has her own secrets. The contrast and dynamic between these two characters is really what makes the play so fascinating, and the performers here make the most of that relationship.

The play is fairly simple, plot-wise, even though its driven by a series of surprises, and the ending is somewhat abrupt. The point, I suppose, is that we never really know what to expect from life, so we might as well make the most of it while we are here. Here, that lesson is exemplified by two memorable characters in this witty, poignant play. This production, with it’s terrific leads and the assured direction of Steven Woolf, carries its message well. Life may be uncertain, but this play is certainly worth seeing.

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Heisenberg in its Studio Theatre until November 12, 2017.

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