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Archive for January, 2018

The How and the Why
by Sarah Treem
Directed by Nancy Bell
New Jewish Theatre
January 25, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The How and the Why, the newest production from the New Jewish Theatre, is a story about relationships, about science, and about women. A one-act, two-woman show, Sarah Treem’s play is a strong showcase for two excellent local performers. It’s also an in-depth look at life through the eyes of two women at different stages of life who are inextricably tied to one another in more ways than one.

As the story begins, award-winning evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn (Amy Loui) sits in her office, alone, but she’s not alone for long. Soon, young graduate student Rachel Hardeman (Sophia Brown) arrives, and it appears that this may be a student-teacher meeting, but it’s more than that, as is evidenced by the obvious mixture of curiosity and awkwardness upon their initial meeting. Rachel has submitted a paper for presentation at a major conference of which Zelda is on the board, but that’s just the beginning. Through the course of the production, the two women gradually get to know one another, and we the audience learn about them in the process. That’s the basic premise, but a lot of ground is covered here in terms of establishing this relationship and revealing the differences and similarities between these two women at two different stages of their lives and careers. The playwright does a good job of making this situation credible, even though some of the plot may seem implausible. The play covers issues of science, family relationships, love and romance, dependence and independence, personal and professional priorities, goals and compromises, and more. It’s a somewhat sweeping range of subject matter made personal through these two well-drawn characters and their building relationship.

The characters are the story here, in a major sense, so ideal casting is essential. The performers here are both remarkable, not only convincing as individuals but also believably conveying an initially awkward but obviously important, growing relationship as these two women try to figure out how to relate to each other, as well as working out important choices in their own lives. Loui convinces as the older, sometimes wiser but sometimes regretful Zelda, projecting an air of confidence along with a real sense of vulnerability. She is well-matched by Brown, who gives a determined, earnest, occasionally angry and equally vulnerable portrayal of Rachel. This is a compelling story, but it’s made all the more real by the sensitive, strong performances of its leads.

Technically, the show is also impressive. Peter and Margery Spack’s two-sided set represents Zelda’s well-appointed office and then, later, a turntable revolves to reveal an equally detailed dive bar set. The whole set is also surrounded by representations of planets, shimmering and illuminated by Michael Sullivan’s excellent lighting. The costumes by Felia Davenport suit the characters appropriately, as well.

This production is notable in that it’s so focused on women. The playwright, the stars, the director and several of the designers are women, and a major focus of the story is the experience of what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, examining issues of science that are particularly centered around women. It’s also about an intriguing, thoroughly believable relationship, and as the title suggests, the “hows” and “whys” of life. It’s a fascinating story, thoughtfully staged at New Jewish Theatre.

Amy Loui, Sophia Brown Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The How and The Why the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 11, 2018

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Faceless
by Selina Fillinger
Directed by BJ Jones
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 12, 2018

Michael James Reed, Susaan Jamshidi, Lindsay Stock, Ross Lehman
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest Studio production at the Rep, Faceless, couldn’t be more timely if it tried. It’s one of those stories that’s so  plausible, it may as well be based on reality, even though it’s a fictional tale. Tackling many issues that are at the forefront of the modern political and social conversation, this play is challenging, affecting, and impeccably cast.

Delving into the worlds of religion, politics, the war on terror, and social media, this story follows the trial of a Chicago teenager, Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock), who was arrested for conspiring with terrorists after attempting to travel overseas to join an ISIS-involved soldier with whom she has only interacted online, even though she intends to marry him and has converted to Islam under his influence. The story starts with lead prosecutor Scott Bader (Michael James Reed) recruiting Harvard-educated attorney Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi), the American-born Muslim daughter of French and Iranian immigrants, to assist him on the case.  It’s a high profile case, and Claire knows exactly why the politically aspirational Scott wants her there, and after some resistance she agrees to join the team. Defending Susie is Mark Arenberg (Ross Lehman),  with an excellent reputation who is brought in by her widowed father Alan (Joe Dempsey). The structure is semi-linear, in that the story generally moves forward, but there are also frequent flashback sequences showing how Susie, whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty about a year previously, came to be involved with “Reza” online, showing texts and tweets projected on a screen, as “Reza” remains shrouded in mystery–a shadowy figure whose face we never see, and whose voice is given a ghostly echoing quality. The story explores the development of the case from various sides, the preparation of the legal teams as well as the personal stories of Susie and Claire, gradually narrowing focus to the developing relationship between these two characters, as Claire learns about Susie through the case, initially dismissing her as “Muslim Barbie”. As the trial continues, Clarie is forced to look more closely at Susie, and what has brought her to this point, as well as confronting issues in her own personal life and family relationships. The play covers many issues in addition to the main idea, from exploration of some aspects of online culture, to teenage alienation, to press sensationalism, to religious differences between the two Muslim characters, Mark who is Jewish, Alan who is an atheist, and Scott whose background is left more nebulous but who isn’t above using Claire’s religious background as an angle to get publicity for the case. There’s also an insightful exploraton of grief and father-daughter relationships. There are a lot of issues here, from the obvious to the less apparent, and the nuanced script is incisive, thought-provoking, and challenging. Many questions are raised, but not all of them are answered, and that lends an extra air of authenticity to the production.

The characters here are complex and richly drawn, and extremely well-cast. Everyone is excellent, with the focus being largely on Jamshidi’s confident, vulnerable portrayal of Claire and Stock’s alternately defiant, grieving, lonely, and impressionable Susie. There are also strong moments for Dempsey as Susie’s also grieving father, the always strong Reed as the somewhat cocky Scott,  and Lehman as the thorough, thoughtful Mark. The trial preparations and the courtroom scenes themselves can be riveting and dramatic, but there are also some quietly chilling moments as Susie’s backstory plays out. The excellent set by John Culbert, the evocative lighting by Heather Gilbert and sound by Andre Pluess,  and the superb projections designed by Stephan Mazurek, showing Susie’s texts and tweets and texts to her shadowy “fiance”, add to the chilling drama. This is a show in which the technical aspects augment the performances in a critical way to help convey the overall feeling of the story.

The play is supsenseful, timely, smartly paced and impressively staged by director BJ Jones and the cast. This isn’t a very long play, but a lot goes on in its approximately 90 minute running time. It’s not a true story, but the way it’s portrayed here, it’s easy to see how this could happen. There’s a lot to think about here in terms of politics, religion, family relationships, and more. It may be called Faceless, but a major part of this play’s effectiveness is the fact that it gives these issues a face. It personalizes issues that can easily be thought of in the abstract. Here, the drama is real, it’s intense, and it’s well worth seeing.

Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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School of Rock
Based on the Paramount Movie Written by Mike White
Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, New Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter
The Fox Theatre
January 16, 2018

Cast of School of Rock
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national tour

As far turning popular movies into musicals goes, School of Rock makes more sense than others, at least on paper. It’s a show about rock music, after all, with music by a composer not unfamiliar with the genre, having composed a few “rock operas” back in the day. It’s also a good casting opportunity for talented young performers, who actually play their instruments live on stage. The national tour is at the Fox now, and it’s a fun show, even if the story isn’t necessarily the most credible.

I haven’t seen the movie, and all I had seen of the musical before was the brief performance by the orginal Broadway cast on the Tony Awards broadcast. Still, although I knew the basic idea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The story, as it is, is a little bit thin, and it’s the characters, and the live music, that really make the show. The story follows aspiring rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), who is kicked out of the rock band he helped found shortly before the band, No Vacancy, is due to audition for a “Battle of the Bands” competition. The downcast Dewey lives with his long-time friend and ex-rocker Ned (Matt Bittner) and his controlling girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Ned is a substitute teacher now, having long given up dreams of rock n’ roll glory, but one day when Ned isn’t home, Dewey answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the exclusive Horace Green prep school, offering Ned a sub job. Dewey, attracted by the offered salary, poses as Ned and takes the job instead, intending to spend the days goofing off and letting the school kids do whatever they want, until he hears them playing classical music and decides that he’s going to turn them into a rock band, and that they are going to be his ticket to the Battle of the Bands. The kids have a range a personalities and insecurities, and after a time, Dewey helps them learn to expresses themselves via rock music, and they in turn teach him a lesson about responsibility. Also, Dewey’s unorthodox attitude and teaching methods begin to affect the morale of the other teachers. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really not that difficult to guess where this story is going to go, even if you haven’t seen the film. The plot is more than a little predictable, as well as being implausible, but the performances, and the genuine sense of bonding between Dewey, the kids, and eventually Rosalie, makes the show work. There’s also some good music here, from the upbeat “You’re In the Band”, to the confrontational “Stick It to the Man”, to the plaintive “If Only You Would Listen”, to the hard-driving, motovational title song.

The real draw of this show is the live music, played on stage by the child performers with energy and style. The lead role of Dewey is also important, as he is the focus of the story, and Colletti manages to make the intially selfish character interesting and compelling. He’s got a lot of charm and stage presence, and he particularly shines in the classroom scenes and in scenes with the excellent Sharp as Rosalie. Sharp combines a great voice with strong comic timing and manages to make an underwritten role stand out. The rest of the adult cast is good as well, but aside from Colletti and Sharp, the kids really make the show, from Ava Briglia as bossy band manager Summer, to Gianna Harris as shy but vocally gifted Tomika, to Phoenix Schulman as guitarist and songwriter Zack, to Theodora Silverman as cellist-turned-bass player Katie, to Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as drummer Freddy, to Theo Mitchell-Penner as insecure keyboardist Lawrence, to John Michael Pitera as enthusiastic band stylist Billy, and more. The entire cast of kids is great–putting on a great show playing their instruments with attitude, and believably portraying the transformation from sheltered prep school kids to confident rockers.

The show’s technical elements are impressive, as well, with a versatile set and colorful costumes by Anna Louizos, dazzling rock-show lighting by Natasha Katz, and clear sound design by Mick Potter. There’s also a strong band led by music director Martyn Axe in addition to the kid performers.

Overall, this is an entertaining show. The characters are likable, lending an air of credibility to the not entirely convincing plot. The stars of the show, though, are the band–Dewey and the child performers–and the energy of the music itself.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Rob Colletti Lexie Dorsett Sharp
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national Tour

The national tour of School of Rock is running at the Fox Theatre until January 28, 2018

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Fences
by August Wilson
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
January 6, 2017

Ron Himes, Richard Agnew
Photo by Joe Clapper
The Black Rep

The latest production at the Black Rep is a well-known modern classic. A Pulitzer Prize winner recently made into an award-winning film, Fences is a poignant, incisive play by August Wilson. With its casting requirements and powerful script, this is a challenging play, and the Black Rep has presented it with poignance, power, and precision.

The story follows a family in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, focusing on a character whose life has been profoundly affected by the systemic and societal racism of the times. Troy Maxson (Ron Himes) was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but after spending a long time in prison for petty offences, missed out on his chance to play in the Major Leagues because of his age. Troy, who now works for a sanitation company, lives with his wife, Rose (Linda Kennedy) and their teenage son, Cory (Brian McKinley), who has shown promise as a football player, although the embittered Troy refuses to let him talk to a college recruiter. The trials and events of Troy’s and Rose’s lives also involve Troy’s friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Robert Alan Mitchell), who questions some of Troy’s personal choices; Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Steven Maurice), a musician who lives in the hope of gaining his father’s approval; and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Richard Agnew), who hasn’t been the same since he was injured in the war and who used to live with Troy, and who now wanders the streets during the day seeming to believe himself to be the Angel Gabriel, ready to blow his trumpet to signal the opening of the gates of Heaven.  Through the course of the play, Troy is forced to confront his own past and his disappointment with the way his life has turned out, as well as his goals for the present and the future, and his own thinly veiled resentment for his own son, whose hopes for advancement are viewed as something of a threat.  The play deals with a variety of issues, including personal and family responsibility; the effects of societal racism on individuals, families, and communities; parent-child relationships, and more. It’s a powerful character study as well as a thought-provoking portrait of a time and place in history, with themes that resonate still today.

This is a long, talky play, marked by Wilson’s insightful dialogue and richly-drawn characters, including a deeply flawed central character. Troy is a difficult role, as bitter, manipulative and self-focused as he can be, but there’s also an inherent sympathy in his situation, and it takes a strong actor to convincingly play all the many layers of this character. Himes is simply superb in the role, bringing his strong stage presence to the role and conveying with authenticity all the complexities of this character. He’s well-paired with the truly excellent Kennedy as the determined, longsuffering Rose, whose love for and exasperation with Troy are in full evidence, as is her devotion to her family.  There are also strong performances from Mitchell as Troy’s loyal but increasingly disillusioned (with Troy) friend, Bono; and by Agnew in a standout performance as the unstable, single-minded Gabriel. Maurice as Lyons and McKinley as Cory are also convincing, for the most part, although their stage presence isn’t quite at the same level as the rest of the powerhouse cast. For the most part, this is a strong, cohesive ensemble, supporting the first-rate performances of Himes and Kennedy who are real anchors of this production, thoughtfully and dynamically staged by director Lorna Littleway.

Technically, this show is also impressive, as is usual for the Black Rep. The stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre has been transformed into the Maxson’s backyard by means of  Jim Burwinkel’s comprehensive, detailed set. There’s also excellent character-specific costume design by Marissa Perry. Joseph W. Clapper’s striking lighting, Kareem Deanes’s clear, effective sound design, and Kate Slovinkski’s props also contribute to the overall dramatic impact of this play.

The Black Rep is known for its remarkable work, including previous productions of August Wilson’s works. This latest production of Fences is yet another example of this company’s commitment to excellence and its position as a showcase for superb acting. It’s a riveting, personal, highly affecting drama, especially highlighting the performances of some of St. Louis’s more celebrated performers. It’s well worth seeing.

Robert Alan Mitchell, Ron Himes, Linda Kennedy
Photo: Joe Clapper, Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fences at the Edison Theatre until January 21, 2017

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The Marvelous Wonderettes
Written and Created by Roger Bean
Directed by Choreographed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 5, 2017

Leanne Smith, Chiara Trentalange, Morgan Kirner, Iris Beaumier
Photo by Eric Woolsey

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is starting out 2018 with an upbeat, nostalgic tunefest. The Marvelous Wonderettes is something of a blend between a jukebox musical and a revue, featuring many classic pop hits from the 1950’s and 60’s. There’s not a lot of plot here, and what is there tends to be somewhat silly, but still, there’s a strong cast here and the overall tone is “fun”.

The “story”, or what there is of it, takes place in two acts, set ten years apart, in 1958 and 1968. The “Marvelous Wonderettes” of the title are a group of high school classmates performing at their senior prom.  In the first act, we meet the perky, slightly ditzy Suzy (Leanne Smith), the vain Cindy Lou (Chiara Trentalange), the brash Betty Jean (Iris Beaumier), and the assertive Missy (Morgan Kirner), who are all friends but have their conflicts and personal issues that are reflected in the songs they sing. There’s a little bit of an effort at audience participation (asking the audience to vote for Prom Queen, for instance), but for the most part this is something like a concert with a story. The first act highlights songs from the 50’s, such as “Mr. Sandman”, “Lollipop”, “Secret Love”, “Stupid Cupid” and more. The second act, taking place in the same high school gym for the classmates’ 10 year reunion, features 60’s hits such as “You Don’t Own Me”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “It’s My Party”, and “Son of a Preacher Man”, among others. Through the course of their singing, we get to know the characters’ stories and see how their relationships with one another develop, and it becomes obvious that some of the off-stage characters mentioned are named to fit the lyrics of some of the songs. It’s an energetic show, with an overall comic tone, and it’s a lot of fun despite being obviously contrived to fit the stories of the songs.

The performers here are excellent, bringing a lot of energy, emotion, humor, and chemistry to this show. The biggest voices belong to Trentalange as the sometimes overconfident Cindy Lou, and Beaumier as the alternately confrontational and insecure Betty Jean. Trentalange also stands out for being the character who changes the most between the two acts, and for making this change believable. There are also strong comic performances from Kirner as the determined Missy, and by Smith as the sweet but longsuffering Suzy. The friendships and conflicts between the characters are made credible by the strong cohesive chemistry here, and the vocal harmonies on the songs are also strong.

The 50’s and 60’s look and sound are achieved here with colorful style by means of Adam Koch’s “high school gym” unit set and Dorothy Marshall Englis’s colorful period costumes. Peter E. Sargent’s lighting adds to the mood in various scenes as well, and Rusty Wandall’s sound is crisp and clear. There’s some fun staging of the various musical numbers, as well, choreographed by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The songs, arranged by Brian William Baker and orchestrated by Michael Borth, are appropriately catchy with an authentic era-specific sound as well as being convincingly performed by a group of high school friends.

Overall, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a fun show. It’s definitely on the “light entertainment” end of the spectrum, but it’s very well done light entertainment. With a lot of energy, personality, and a succession of well-known classic pop songs, it’s an entertaining start to the new year at the Rep.

Iris Beaumier, Morgan Kirner, Chiara Trentalange, Leanne Smith
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Marvelous Wonderettes until January 28, 2017

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