Archive for June, 2018

Singin’ In the Rain
Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Directed by Marc Bruni
Choreographed by Rommy Sandhu
The Muny
June 27, 2018

Corbin Bleu Photo: The Muny

Singin’ In the Rain is a well-known, iconic musical made for the silver screen, and about the silver screen and the world of Hollywood at the advent of the “talkie” era in the 1920s. It’s been adapted for the stage and performed in many venues around the world, including five times at the Muny. Now, as part of their 100th season, the Muny has brought this show back to the stage in a spectacular, marvelously staged production that features a strong cast and, of course, wonderful dancing.

Corbin Bleu, known to many fans from his roles in films on the Disney Channel, and especially High School Musical, has since established a successful career on Broadway, most recently taking on the role orginated by Fred Astaire in the stage adaptation of the movie Holiday Inn. Here at the Muny, Bleu follows in the dance steps of another legendary Hollywood hoofer, Gene Kelly, in the leading role of movie star Don Lockwood. He’s joined by Muny veterans Jeffrey Schecter as Lockwood’s longtime friend, pianist and dancer Cosmo Brown, and Berklea Going–who has essentially grown up performing at the Muny–as the aspiring actress and singer Kathy Selden. The story follows these three as they navigate the transition from silent movies to sound films, and particularly movie musicals. The trouble for Don, along with movie producer R.F. Simpson (Jeff McCarthy) and director Roscoe Dexter (George Merrick), is that Don’s longtime co-star, Lina Lamont (Megan Sikora), is not only selfish and limited in acting talent, she also can’t sing and has a shrill speaking voice that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Meanwhile, Kathy and Don meet and fall in love, but the possessive Lina–who has been romantically linked to Don in the press, but not in reality– tries everything she can to keep them apart. Though slight and not particularly deep, the story is a lot of fun, with an old-Hollywood charm and several stylized dance numbers with a lot of energy and flair.

Technically, this show is nothing short of spectacular, with excellent production values remarkably re-creating the look and atmosphere of 1920s Hollywood. Paul Tate dePoo III’s colorful, versatile set and Tristan Raines’s stylish, dazzling costumes are augmented by Greg Emetaz’s striking video design and Nathan W. Scheuer’s impressive atmospheric lighting. The Hollywood glitz and glamor are here in style, accompanied by the excellent Muny orchestra with music direction by Ben Whiteley.

There’s a great cast here, as well. Bleu, as Lockwood, is charming, with excellent dance skills and smooth, classic-style vocals. He’s an ideal choice as the much-loved movie star. Schecter, who was so memorable last year in The Little Mermaid and, especially A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is a delight here as Cosmo Brown, singing and dancing with energy and style, and displaying excellent comic timing. Going, as Kathy, also shows off a strong voice and dances skills, as well as good chemistry with Bleu’s Lockwood. Also standing out is Sikora in a brilliant comic performance as the diva-ish Lina. There are also memorable turns from McCarthy and Merrick, as well as local performer Debby Lennon as Hollywood entertainment reporter Dora Bailey. The ensemble is particularly strong as well, playing a variety of roles as needed and contributing to the truly stunning dance numbers, based on the film numbers originally choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and choregraphed for the Muny by Rommy Sandhu.

This isn’t a particularly deep show, and the ending is somewhat abrupt as staged, but overall it’s a spectacular evening of song, dance, and comedy. It’s a tribute to classic Hollywood with the style, energy, and performers of today. Fortunately, after a rain delay on Opening Night of last week’s show, The Wiz, this show opened on a clear night, despite its title–although it does really “rain” during the show’s splashy signature song. Singin’ In the Rain on stage at the Muny is a whole lot of fun.

Corbin Bleu, Berklea Going, Jeffrey Schecter Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Singin’ In the Rain in Forest Park until July 3, 2018.

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End of the Rainbow
by Peter Quilter
Directed by David New
Max & Louie Productions
June 22, 2018

Angela Ingersoll
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Judy Garland. She’s a legend, no question. She’s famous for her extraordinary voice, her film roles, and her turbulent life. In End of the Rainbow, the latest show from Max & Louie Productions, the focus is on Garland at the end of her too-short life. This play is also an excellent opportunity for the showcasing of two remarkable talents–the legendary Garland, of course, and also the wonderful performer who portrays her, Angela Ingersoll.

The Judy Garland we see in End of the Rainbow isn’t the star in her prime. Peter Quilter’s play focuses on a dramtatized and semi-fictionalized account of a six-week period of Garland’s life when she did a series of concerts at the “Talk of the Town” nightclub in London, portraying the famous performer near the end of her life. This Judy Garland is tired, in debt, addicted to alcohol and various prescription drugs, and engaged to the man who will become her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Kyle Hatley). In this story, as Garland and Deans arrive at a luxurious hotel suite that Garland proclaims “too small”, they are surprised by Anthony (Thomas Conroy), a British pianist who has worked with Garland before, but not recently. Still, he reveres her, even being familiar with her flaws as well as her still obvious talent. That great big voice is there, as is Garland’s sense of stage presence and audience rapport, but that rapport is challenged by Garland’s increasingly erratic behavior. Through the course of the play, we see Garland’s talent as well as her struggles, as well as a sort of battle between two men who try to show their love for her in different, and sometimes less than helpful, ways.

This is a tour-de-force kind of show. The role of Judy Garland is a demanding one, both in terms of talent and of energy. I’ve seen the Olivier and Tony Award nominated Tracie Bennett play the role impressively in London, and now this challenging, intense role is taken by Angela Ingersoll, who is every bit as impressive, if not more so. Ingersoll has the vocal stylings as close as I can imagine to Garland’s on hits like “Just In Time”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “The Man That Got Away”, “The Trolley Song”, and of course the iconic “Over the Rainbow”. She’s also got an explosive kind of energy, able to portray Garland in this era at her worst, as well as her best, allowing a youthful glow to shine through in a poignant scene in which Conroy’s caring and nigh-worshipful Anthony does her makeup before a show. Her chemistry is strong with the excellent, likable Conroy, and also with Hatley, memorable as the enigmatic, sometimes forceful, sometimes capitulating Deans. Paul Cereghino is also strong in a trio of roles–as a bewildered BBC radio presenter, a weary hotel porter, and an overworked assistant stage manager at the club.

The look and atmosphere of 1960s London is represented well in Dunsi Dai’s sumptuous, versatile set. It’s essentially just the well-apppointed hotel room, but part of the back wall opens up to reveal a backing band during the concert scenes, and additional furniture is added for a few scenes in various other locations. Patrick Huber’s lighting is stunning, accentuating the mood in the hotel scenes as well as the glitzy performance scenes. There are also appropriately suited period costumes by Bill Morey and Teresa Doggett. Garland’s glamourous concert outfits are especially memorable. The concert-within-a-play format is well-served by the excellent band and music direction by Conroy.

During the conclusion of End of the Rainbow, I realized that the day I saw the show, June 22, was the 49th anniversary of Judy Garland’s death. This play, while showing the performer at rock bottom but with glimmers of her earlier glory, may seem like an unusual memorial. It does have its moments of melodrama, but it’s the performances that make this show, and particularly Ingersoll’s seemingly boundless energy and evocation of the spirit of the legendary Garland. It’s a performance not to be missed.

Thomas Conroy, Angela Ingersoll, Kyle Hatley
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting End of the Rainbow at the Grandel Theatre until July 1, 2018

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The Wiz
Adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown with addtional material by Tina Tippit
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Additional Material for The Muny production by Amber Ruffin
Directed by Denis Jones
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
The Muny

June 19, 2018

Darius de Haas, Nathan Lee Graham, Danyel Fulton, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane
Photo: The Muny

As part of their 100th season, the Muny is presenting a show they haven’t produced since 1982: The Wiz. The well-known adaptation of the Wizard of Oz story by African-American writers and featuring an all black cast, The Wiz at the Muny has been updated and given a lavish, stylish, superbly cast production that–in reflection of its story–brings a great deal of brains, heart, and courage to the Muny stage.

Based more on the original book, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz than the popular and perhaps even more well-known 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, this production of The Wiz contains elements taken more from the book while also occasionally acknowledging both the 1939 Wizard of Oz film and the 1978 film version of The Wiz. With a score influenced by R&B, soul, gospel, disco and pop, the show tells this story in its own unique, distinctive way. The stage version debuted on Broadway in 1975, with a look and sound that was innovative and contemporary for its time. For the Muny’s version, acclaimed television writer Amber Ruffin worked with the original writers to update the script for a 2018 audience, along with excellent new orchestrations by music director Darryl Archibald and vibrant, energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown. The result is a production of The Wiz that honors and celebrates the orginal while also reflecting a more contemporary setting for today.

The story is the familiar one, as young Dorothy (Danyel Fulton) lives on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em (Demetria McKinney), Uncle Henry (Rhaamell Burke-Missouri), and dog, Toto (Nessa). Dorothy feels misunderstood, though, and longs for something more, whereupon she is whisked away by a tornado (here represented in striking fashion by dancers) to the Land of Oz, where she is informed by the Munchkins that her house has fallen on–and killed–the Wicked Witch of the East. She then meets Addaperle (E. Faye Butler), the Good Witch of the North, who tells her about The Wiz, the powerful wizard who can perhaps help her get home. Dorothy also dons the magic silver slippers (silver as they were in Baum’s original book) and follows the Yellow Brick Road (represented here by four dancers–Chloé Davis, Karma Jenkins, Amber Barbee Pickens, and Allysa Shorte) to look for The Wiz in the Emerald City. Along the way, she meets and befriends Scarecrow (Jared Grimes), who wants a brain; Tinman (James T. Lane), who wants a heart; and Lion (Darius de Haas), who wants courage. All join Dorothy on her quest, hoping the Wiz will be able to grant their desires as well. When they finally meet The Wiz (Nathan Lee Graham), he tells them he’ll grant their wishes only if they are able to destroy the evil Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (also Butler), who runs a blue-jeans producing sweatshop and terrorizes the land, and who also has a grudge against Dorothy for killing her sister and taking the silver slippers, which Evillene covets for herself. In the end, all the main characters learn more about themselves and their own strengths, as well as what is important to them, and Glinda (also McKinney), the Good Witch of the South, helps Dorothy to think about what she has learned.

I’ve seen The Wiz in three versions–a high school production years ago, the film, and the live televised version on NBC in 2015. All of those versions were slightly different, and this one at the Muny is different still. It’s essentially the same, but the jokes have been updated, the dialogue has been changed here and there, and the look has been modified so that everything is a lot more “now” than 1975. The design is excellent, with Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s sets filling the Muny stage with big, vivid backdrops and presenting the various locations in clever ways, like the Poppy scene and its lip-shaped sofas, or the entrance to the Emerald City, which is like the entrance to an exclusive nightclub, and the Emerald City itself with its dance club atmosphere. The Muny’s scenery wall is put to excellent use as well with memorable video design by Greg Emetaz,  as the location changes from Kansas to Oz and takes Dorothy and her friends to various places around Oz, from Munchkinland to Evillene’s palace, to the Emerald City and beyond. The costumes, by Leon Dobkowski, are striking, whimsical, and distinctive, from Evillene’s light-up skirt to Dorothy’s shiny silver slippers, to the Wiz’s dazzling green outfits, and more. Rob Denton’s lighting also contributes to the overall spectacular effect of this marvelous show.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by Fulton in a stellar performance as the determined Dorothy. She’s got excellent stage presence, a strong, powerful voice, great dance skills, and superb chemistry with her co-stars. She’s the star of the show, but she also has some great co-stars, including Grimes, Lane, and de Haas who are ideally cast in their roles as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, with Grimes and Lane having some especially strong dance moments, and de Haas excelling in comic timing. There are also two great double performances by McKinney as both the motherly Aunt Em and the wise Glinda, and Butler who is equally excellent as the kindly Addaperle and the gleefully evil Evillene. Graham, as the Wiz, also puts in a memorable performance. There’s also a great ensemble, all playing multiple roles from Munchkins to Crows to Poppies and more. There are energetic, intricately choreographed production numbers, from the hit “Ease On Down the Road” to the joyful “Brand New Day”.

This is a truly wonderful production. Filling the big Muny stage and featuring a stellar cast, The Wiz is full of heart, soul, comedy, drama, some spectacular dancing, and a celebration of friendship, family, home, and hope. It’s a magnficent show.

Darius de Haas, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane, E. Faye Butler, Danyel Fulton
Photo: the Muny

The Muny is presenting The Wiz in Forest Park until June 25, 2018

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Blow, Winds
Written by Nancy Bell, Music and Lyrics by Lamar Harris, Additonal Material by Mariah L. Richardson
Directed by Tom Martin
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Shakespeare In the Streets
June 16, 2018

Reginald Pierre, Erika Flowers Roberts, Joneal Joplin, Adam Flores, Michelle Hand
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis


Shakespeare in the Streets is back again, after a postponement, with an important, challenging message for St. Louis. Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Blow, Winds departs from previous SITS productions–which each featured a particular neighbhorhood–and focuses on the St. Louis metro area as a whole. In many ways, this production–presented on the steps of the Central Library downtown–is the most polished of the SITS productions, as well as the most visually spectacular and the most directly challenging to the “status quo” of the St. Louis area.

Blow, Winds was originally scheduled to be performed in September 2017, but was canceled due to unrest following the verdict for police officer Jason Stockley, charged with first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, and subsequently and controversially acquitted. The original program for the scheduled production is included in the program for the 2018 presentation, in fact. The 2018 version, however, isn’t the same production as was previously planned. Now it’s been revised, with additions by SFSTL Playwriting Fellow Mariah L. Richardson, to more accurately reflect the state of St. Louis after, and because of, that controversial and troubling verdict. Based on King Lear but modified to reflect modern-day St. Louis, the show also makes a tonal change from the straight tragedy of Lear to a more comedy-drama approach, certainly with tragic elements but with a more hopeful twist at the end. The Shakespeare characters have also been modified, with some composite characters representing two or more original Lear characters, and one instance where one original character has been split into two. Also, as musical as the previous SITS efforts have been, this one is even more so, with an original score by music director Lamar Harris and significant contributions from the Central Baptist Church Choir, the Genisis Jazz Project, and the Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

In this story, King Lear becomes King Louis (Joneal Joplin), an aging king who decides to divide his kingdom–the St. Louis metro area west of the Mississippi River, represented by a large map hanging up on the face of the Central Library building–among his four children, his daughters Goneril, (Jeanitta Perkins), Regan (Katy Keating), and Cordelia (Erika Flowers Roberts) and his “illegitimate” son Edmund (Reginald Pierre). While Regan and Goneril are focused on their own advancement and flatter their father insincerely, Cordelia refuses to flatter and asks only for justice, and is banished from St. Louis while her greedy sisters are rewarded, and Edmund is given the “less desirable” North section of the map and essentially exiled there by his father. Cordelia flees to the Kingdom of Illinois, welcomed by its king (Jaz Tucker), who gladly marries her and supports her cause. Also exiled is the king’s faithful counselor Kent (Michelle Hand), who criticizes his treatment of Cordelia and Edmund. Through the course of the play, Louis slowly but definitively learns the error of his ways, as the shallowness of his elder daughters and the truth of Cordelia’s and Edmund’s causes is brought to light for him. All the while, the action is narrated by the Fool (Adam Flores), who serves as something of a Greek Chorus and occasional translator of the Shakespearean language into more modern speech. The Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team also contribute memorably to the production, with the dance and movement elements among the highlights of the production.

The technical elements here are the strongest and most striking yet for a SITS production. The distinctive Central Library building makes an ideal backrop for the action, aided by some truly stunning projections by scenic designers Marjery and Peter Spack, as well as excellent lighting by John Wylie and memorable costumes by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek. The steps make an ideal stage, setting off the performance well, and the cast is excellent, led by Flores as a particularly earnest Fool, Joplin as the conflicted and self-deceived King Louis, Perkins and Keating as the unapologetically greedy sisters Goneril and Regan, Hand as the devoted Kent, Pierre as the rejected but determined Edmund, and Roberts as the also determined, justice-minded Cordelia. They are supported by an excellent ensemble, as well, including the truly impressive performances from the aforementioned Central Baptist Church choir and Gentlemen of Vision Step Team.

The story is compelling and challenging, adapting the Lear story to focus on St. Louis in some specific, sometimes funny and often serious ways, with references to the oft-asked “high school” question as well as neighborhood and city landmarks, as well as serious questions about the need for racial and economic justice and equality in the area. Occasionally there are tendencies to “tell” rather than “show” in terms of the play’s message, but overall, this is an important work, showcasing the strengths of the Shakespeare In the Streets concept. There were only two performances of this production, and I’m glad I was able to see one of them. It’s a remarkable production.

Cast of Blow, Winds
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
by James M. Barrie, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Sammy Cahn,
Moose Charlap, Betty Comden, Larry Gelbart, Morton Gould, Adolph Green,
Oscar Hammerstein II, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Laurents, Carolyn Leigh,
Stephen Longstreet, Hugh Martin, Jerome Robbins, Richard Rodgers,
Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim, Joseph Stein, Jule Styne
Directed by Cynthia Onrubia
Additional Choreography by Harrison Beal, Dan Knechtges, Ralph Perkins
The Muny
June 11, 2018

Cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 100th season is finally here, and it’s opening in grand style with a show that’s really several shows in one. The 1989 Tony Winner for Best Musical, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway pays tribute to a prolific director-choreographer from the Golden Age of Broadway in a production that, even though it has “Broadway” in the title, seems almost tailor-made for the Muny.

The Muny has traditionally been about big, large-cast musicals with spectacle and style, and that’s here in abundance with Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. It’s the first regional production of the show ever, apparently, and although it’s not exactly the same as the 1989 version, most of the songs are here, highlighting Robbins’ illustrious career and featuring some iconic numbers from classic shows, as well as some numbers from lesser-known shows. From On the Town, HIgh Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby to West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, and Fiddler On the Roof, this show has a little bit of everything, dance-wise, from dramatic, ballet-influenced numbers, to jazz, to slapstick comedy, and more, staged with the usual big, bold, high-energy stage-filling style of the Muny.

There isn’t really a story here. It’s a revue, essentially, with Rob McClure as “The Setter” introducing the scenes. McClure, a Muny veteran and favorite performer, also plays several memorable roles in the production, including two roles from HIgh Button Shoes and the role of Tevye alongside Maggie Lakis as Golde in the excellent Fiddler sequence that features “Tradition”, “Tevye’s Dream”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, and the always thrilling wedding dance. There are many excellent moments here. In fact, there are so many highlights, it’s not easy to name them all. Among the standout routines is a thrilling rendition of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan starring Sarah Marie Jenkins as a vibrant Peter Pan, along with Elizabeth Teeter as Wendy, Gabriel Cytron as Michael, and Cole Joyce as John. This sequence is particularly dazzling, with excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. and great use of the Muny’s electronic scenery wall. The ensemble is the star here, really, with energetic dancing from the more dramatic West Side Story moments to the high comedy of the “On a Sunday By the Sea” number from High Button Shoes. Another memorable sequence is the truly stunning dance number “Mr. Monotony” featuring powerful vocals from Muny veteran Jenny Powers and astounding dancing from Sean Rozanski, Alexa De Barr, and Garen Scribner, who also all turn in strong performances in the West Side Story sequence as Bernardo, Maria, and Tony respectively, alongside the equally excellent Davis Wayne as Riff and Tanairi Vazquez as Anita, along with an athletic, energetic ensemble of Jets and Sharks. There is so much here to see and enjoy, with Robbins’ routines recreated with an authentic look and feel, to the point where it seems for some moments as if the audience has traveled in time.

The production values here are also first-rate, with a stylish, colorful and versatile set by Paige Hathaway and remarkably authentic costume design by Robin L. McGee. There’s also excellent lighting design from John Lasiter, lending atmosphere and changing tones and moods to the various production numbers. There’s also great video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and wonderful music from the always excellent Muny Orchestra.

This is an old-school musical revue with lots of energy and a big cast to fill out the enormous Muny stage. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is a collection of numbers that serves as an ideal first show for the Muny’s 100th season. It’s a retrospective, but also a celebration of musical theatre’s past as the Muny prepares to move into the future. It’s a dazzling start to a long-awaited season in Forest Park.

West Side Story Dancers
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in Forest Park until June 17, 2018.

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Run-On Sentence
by Stacie Lents
Commissioned by Prison Performing Arts
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
June 9, 2018

Wendy Renée Greenwood, Margeau Baue Steinau, Jamie McKittrick, Bess Moynihan, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE continues to be one of St. Louis’s boldest, most remarkable theatre companies, continuing to present challenging, thought-provoking, impeccably-staged theatre primarily in the small, versatile Chapel arts venue. I’ve made it no secret what I think of SATE. I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of their productions, and they continue their streak of excellence with an intense, confrontational work originally written for the Prison Performing Arts organization. It’s called Run-On Sentence, and it’s a truly remarkable production.

This is a small-cast, one act play, set in a women’s prison and orginally performed in one. Under the direction of SATE co-producer Rachel Tibbetts, the Chapel has been transformed into a starkly furnished cell, with four bunk beds and a small bank of lockers. The story is structured as something of a flashback/testimonial, told by Mel (Taleesha Caturah), who has been incarcerated for over 15 years on a life sentence. She describes what it’s like to be in prison, which as you would expect, is rough. We meet her fellow inmates, the moody, suspicious, aspiring baker Bug (Wendy Renée Greenwood), the trusting, potato-chip loving Giant (Jamie McKittrick), who appears to be mentially challenged, and the more even-tempered Miss Alice (Margeau Baue Steinau), who has been there a long time and who leads aerobics classes for the inmates. There’s a complexity of relationships, and difficulty building trust among inmates, which is demonstrated with the arrival of a newcomer, Mary (Bess Moynihan), a first-timer with a PHd and a complicated story that doesn’t get revealed right away. Intially, Mel is annoyed by Mary, but their relationship soon develops to a point that makes Bug (Mel’s best friend) jealous and even more suspicious of Mary. There’s also a new prison guard, Officer Wallace (Kristen Strom), who tries to be fair-minded and is taunted by the inmates for being naive. Through a series of scenes we get to see the dynamics among the inmates, hear some of their stories, and see the routines and hierarchies to which they have become accustomed. The story is told in what is essentially a series of vignettes, but the major threads are about Mel and Mary, how their relationship develops, and how that relationship is affected by various revelations that happen during the course of the story. The harsh realities of prison life are emphasized, and so is the underlying uneasiness with the idea of hope–everyone wants to get out, but nobody knows for sure if and when they ever will.

This is a challenging play, with relationship dynamics at its center, along with SATE’s usual clever use of their performance space and dynamic, well-paced staging. The cast is in top form, with all players turning in powerful, memorable performances, led by Caturah as the guarded, tough-talking Mel, whose vulnerability becomes more apparent as the story progresses. The entire cast’s chemistry is strong, with the characters’ relationships immediate and credible. Everyone is excellent, with Greenwood’s unpredictable Bug and McKittrick’s somewhat childlike Giant as particular standouts. Stil, there’s not a weak link in this six-member cast, with all the players having their memorable moments, and the sense of bonding and also tension among the inmates readily apparent. The script is well-structured, revealing important information gradually, as the reason for this format is eventually made clear.

The sheer despair and monotony of prison life is on display here, as are the very real fears, grievances, and hopes of the characters. The emotions can be raw, and the drama can be tense, but there are also moments of humor, and it’s all pitched just right in this production. The simple, spare set designed by Moynihan, and the realistic costumes by Rachel Tibbetts just add a sense of authenticity to the realism of the script. There’s also effective use of lighting by Dominick Ehling and sound by Ellie Schwetye, helping to transform the performance space of the Chapel into the stark setting of a prison.

This isn’t an easy play to watch at times. It’s confrontational; it’s personal; it’s raw. It shines light on the realties of life in prison for audiences who might not know much about what that’s like. It’s also an intriguing character study and showcase for SATE’s always excellent cast of first-rate actors. Run-On Sentence is another strong example of the excellence that is SATE.

Kirsten Strom, Jamie McKittrick, Margeau Baue Steinau, Wendy Renée Greenwood, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Run-On Sentence at the Chapel until June 17, 2018

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by Patricia Burke Brogan
Directed by Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
June 8, 2018

The Black Mirror Theatre Company’s recent production was a two-weekend showcase featuring two plays on the same subject, billed as “A Tragedy Two Ways”. I previously reviewed the first play in this series, the excellent Magdalen by Erin Layton. That was a one-woman show, while the second production in the series is an ensemble drama, Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed, featuring an impressive cast and a strong, memorable setting.

This story is a fictionalized account informed by playwright Brogan’s personal experience as a novice nun in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Told in flashback, the vividly realized story focuses on a group of young women who have been incarcerated in one such facility, put there primarily for having children out of wedlock or for being born under the “wrong” circumstances. The story begins as a young woman (Scarlett O’Shaughnessy), who was put up for adoption and raised in America, comes to the now-closed laundry in search of her birth mother, Brigit (Carly Uding), who was a “penitant” there in the 1960s. She’s given a box of mementoes by the now-elderly Nellie-Nora (Ivey March), who was also confined there alongside Brigit. The story then flashes back to show the working and living conditions in the convent-run laundry, which was presided over by the stern, uncompromising Mother Victoria (Jane Abling), assisted by earnest young novice Sister Virginia (Frederica Lewis), who increasingly questions the harsh treatment of the young women under her charge. The rebellious Brigit and milder-mannered Nellie-Nora were joined by the imaginative, Elvis-obsessed Mandy (Alison Linderer) and the haunted, determined Cathy (Shannon Lampkin), whose asthma is made worse by the conditions in the laundry, and who is set on getting out so that she can see the twin daughters that are being kept from her at a local orphanage. These four are soon joined by Juliet, who grew up at the orphanage, the daughter of a former inmate. Drama is mixed with moments of humor as the girls bond and try their best to find moments of meaning under the persistent eye of Mother Victoria and the increasing sympathy of Sister Virginia, who’s personal conflict only grows as she tries improve conditions for the girls but is seen more often than not as more of an enemy than an ally. With a well-defined structure, richly drawn characters, and atmospheric use of period music, this play is somewhat surprising in its portrayal, in a way less soul-crushingly bleak than the situation presented in Magdalen, but tragic all the same. The moments of hope and humanity here serve to highlight the tragedy of keeping these young girls confined simply because they were seen as “damaged” and unwanted by society.

The show is simply staged. No credit is given for scenic design, but the set is an effective respresentation of the work room in the laundry, with occasional, simply set moments in Mother Victoria’s office. There’s stark, striking lighting design by Darren Thompson and excellent props by Jane Abling. The period details–a radio, and iron, the period costumes–help to establish the time and place, along with the soundtrack of 60s music blended with religious chants. All of these details serve the excellent script and strong cast. This is truly and ensemble play, and the chemistry and sense of bonding among the girls is well-realized, with excellent performances all around. Standouts include Linderer’s starstruck Mandy, Uding’s confrontational Brigit, Lewis’s conflicted Sister Virginia, and Lampkin’s ever-determined Cathy. Everyone is strong, though, and the vivid characterizations are the highlight of this thought-provoking production.

“A Tragedy Two-Ways” was an inventive, poignant way to draw attention to the brutal realities of life in the Magdalene laundries. Both plays featured memorable performances and characterizations, and a powerful, affecting remembrance of these generations of women who spent their lives in these places. Eclipsed, like Magdalen, only ran for one weekend, but it was a memorable and thought-provoking theatrical experience.


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Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen
A New Adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz, from a Literal Translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes-Harvey
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 7, 2018

Stephen Peirick, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, John Reidy, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

I don’t think I would have guessed two years ago that Stray Dog Theatre would turn out to be the definitive interpreter of Ibsen plays in St. Louis, but now it’s certainly looking that way. Last year, SDT and director Gary F. Bell showed their impressive understanding of Ibsen with a riveting production of the classic A Doll’s House. Now this year, the company–along with most of the same cast–continues to impress with an equally excellent production of another iconic Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler.

As I pointed out in my review of A Doll’s House last year, that play and Hedda Gabler essentially serve as counterpoints to one another in various ways, especially in that they portray central female characters who are, in different ways, trapped by societal expectations, who both find rather extreme ways of ultimately dealing with their situations. In other ways, though, the plays–and their central characters–are very different, even though Stray Dog has assmebled most of the same players for this production. Here, the headstrong, enigmatic, sometimes vindictive Hedda is played by Nicole Angeli. Her new husband, the earnest academic Jørgen Tesman, is played by Ben Ritchie. Jørgen is devoted to his studies, his two elderly maiden aunts including Juliana (Jan Niehoff) and another, much-beloved and ailing aunt who is often mentioned but never seen. Jørgen is devoted to Hedda, his aunts, and his studies, not necessarily in that order, and Hedda, the popular daughter of a famous general, is bored. She apparently married Jørgen because of his prospects for advancement in his career and for social standing, and she longs for power and the idealized days of her youth, when she held another young scholar, Ejlert Løvborg (Stephen Peirick), in thrall. When an old school acquantance, Thea Elvsted (Rachel Hanks) arrives in town looking for Løvborg, and Jørgen’s well-connected friend Judge Brack (John Reidy) suggests that the newly academically successful Løvborg might be in line for the promotion that Jørgen has been expecting, Hedda is driven by a combination of motivations–including jealousy–to exert her influence over Løvborg andThea in ways that threaten to destroy not only those around her, but Hedda herself. That’s as far as I’ll go with the description, but if you’ve read or seen the play, you know where this is going, and if you haven’t seen it, the unfolding of events is an essential element in the drama.

The plot is so deliberately constructed, and the dialogue so precise and thorough, that this play could potentially come across as tedious if not staged well, with just the right director and just the right cast. Fortunately, those factors are present here, and impressively so. As with A Doll’s House last year, director Gary F. Bell has gotten the pacing just right, highlighting the building tension and drama with just the right balance of action and silence. It’s all so well-choreographed, and the characterizations are excquisitely rendered, led by Angeli’s sharp, caustic, calculating Hedda. This is such a difficult character with her mix of vindictiveness, anger, boredom, and growing sense of helplessness, and Angeli gets all those points and more in her complex, perfectly pitched portrayal. Still, a great Hedda alone doesn’t make a great Hedda Gabler. The rest of the cast is just as crucial, and all the players here are excellent, from Ritchie’s kind, maybe a little too-earnest Jørgen, to Hanks’s initially shy but increasingly determined, idealistic Thea, to Peirick’s troubled visionary Løvborg, who has excellent chemistry with both Hanks and Angeli, to Reidy’s oily, calculating Judge Brack. These five main cast members, all holdovers from last year’s A Doll’s House, are joined this year by Niehoff in a fine performance as the concerned Juliana, and by the equally strong Suzanne Greenwald as the Tesmans’ housekeeper, Berte. It’s an especially cohesive ensemble that brings a great deal of energy to this deliberate, intricately plotted play that starts off with promise and slowly builds to a devastating, intensely effective conclusion.

The technical qualities here are also impressive, with Miles Bledsoe’s meticulous set, hair and makeup, and Amy Hopkins’s well-crafted costumes aiding in bringing the late 19th Century setting to life. Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey venue, built in the early 1900s, provides an ideal location for the setting, as well. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow also contributes a great deal to the overall mood and atmosphere of the production.

I had seen Hedda Gabler once before, in 2012 in an excellent production at London’s Old Vic Theatre, but that was a different translation. This adaptation, by Jon Robin Baitz, is appropriately ominous and intense, and Stray Dog has staged it remarkably well. It’s a taut, well-paced, riveting, and sometimes disturbing psychological drama with strong, memorable characterizations by a top-notch St. Louis cast. It’s a prime example of classic theatre at its best, and another impressive turn from Stray Dog Theatre. Don’t miss this one. It really is that good.

Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Hedda Gabler at Tower Grove Abbey until June 23, 2018

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I Do! I Do!
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
June 6 and 7, 2018

Corrine Melançon, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is kicking off their new season with one production that’s also, in a way, two. A classic two-person musical tracing the history of a marriage, I DO! I DO! is doing something slightly different this year, in that it has not one cast, but two. On alternating days, audiences can see the “Purple Cast” or the “Red Cast”. The show itself is entertaining with a slight, somehwhat problematic book and a strong, memorable score, ultimately serving as an excellent showcase for the performers in both casts, each bringing their unique talents and chemistry to this production.

The story is essentially “marriage in a nutshell”–a look at a 50 year marriage that tries to do a little too much and is somewhat dated in its portrayal (even as a period piece), although it has its strong moments, particularly in the songs. Following the story of Agnes and Michael from their wedding day until the day they move out their house, the story touches on a lot of familiar marriage tropes–the honeymoon stage, new parenthood, disillusionment, temptations to infidelity, midlife crises, growing old together, and more. It’s a fun show, for the most part, with catchy songs and some insightful moments and a genuinely touching finale, but the show also tries to cover too many issues sometimes, to the point where they are only given cursory and/or stereotypical treatment, and conflicts get brought up and resolved much too easily, especially at the end of Act 1. Still, the second act works a lot better, although it’s also filled with its share of cliches. For the most part, though, this is just a fun show, here as a showase for its performers and to highlight some memorable songs from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Essentially, the biggest strength of a show like this is in casting, and this production boasts not one, but two excellent pairs in the leads. Both casts feature one local performer and one New York-based performer, and both casts bring different strengths and insights into the material. The “Purple Cast”–Corrine Melançon as Agnes and Steve Isom as Michael–and the “Red Cast”–Kari Ely and David Schmittou–are excellent in their own ways, with some moments standing out more with one cast, and some with the other. Both Michaels, Isom and Schmittou, have excellent stage presence and carry off the “song-and-dance” aspects of the role well, with Schmittou displaying especially strong chemistry with Ely in the “older” scenes in Act 2, and Isom standing out more in the “gleefully self-important” and smarmy moments for the character, such as Act 1’s “A Well-Known Fact”.  The biggest contrast is in the portrayers of Agnes, with Melançon the more polished singer and dancer, shining in moments like Act 1’s “Flaming Agnes”, and Ely bringing a more reflective portrayal, making Agnes’s journey through midlife self-doubt in Act 2–embodied in the song “What Is a Woman” and the scenes that follow–especially convincing. Both couples portray convincing chemistry, portraying the aging of the characters through the years well, and both do the best they can to make the somewhat clunky resolution to Act 1 work, with the “Purple Cast” doing a slightly more convincing job, but really, that scene is the script’s problem and no matter how great the performers are, it’s still kind of hard to believe. The strength here in general is in the connection between Agnes and Michael as a couple, and both pairs portray that well in their own unique ways.

The technical aspects here are simple but well-done, although with at least one confusing costume choice. Michael Hamilton’s direction and choreography are energetic and well-paced, and James Wolk’s set–which is essentially just a few furniture pieces and a bed that slides on and offstage as needed–is simple and effective, and Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is also excellent. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are, for the most part, meticulously detailed and period-accurate covering the first 50 years of the 20th century, although Agnes’s costume and wig in the first part of Act 2 look more like something out of the 1970s than the 1920s. Still, for the most part the production values are strong, as is usual for STAGES. I also like the idea–apparently used in all productions of this show–of the performers’ applying their own age makeup on stage to prepare for the show’s conclusion.

I DO! I DO! is a fun musical comedy look at a marriage. It’s not particularly deep or profound, although it has some poignant moments, but mostly, it’s just fun, and an excellent showcase for its stars. At STAGES, there are four stars being showcased, and I’m glad to have seen both casts. It’s an entertaining show no matter which cast you see.

Kari Ely, David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting I DO! I DO! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 1, 2018

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by Alvaro Saar Rios
Directed by Anna Skidis Vargas
Mustard Seed Theatre with Theatre Nuevo
June 3, 2018

Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre/Theatre Nuevo

The final production in Mustard Seed Theatre’s  2017-2018 season is a collaboration with Theatre Nuevo, bringing a story to the stage that is at once informative, fascinating, and inspiring. Luchadora! tells a compelling story with memorable characters and an impressive cast. It’s a story that’s highly specific, focusing on a particular family and cultural experience, with universal themes of love, determination, and acceptance.

The story is told in flashback, with the characters from the present reacting to the situations from the past as the story unfolds. In present-day Milwaukee, Nana Lupita (Carmen Garcia) tells her granddaughter Vanessa (Isabel Garcia) a story that turns out to have a great deal of relevance to Vanessa’s current situation. Flashing back to Texas in 1968, Nana Lupita recounts a significant time in her life, and events that shaped the person she is today. The teenage, Mexican-American Lupita (Thalia Cruz) works for her father (Rahamses Galvan) selling flowers along with her German-American friends, the brother and sister Leopold (Cassidy Flynn) and Liesl (Ashley Skaggs). Lupita’s father, who struggles with chronic back pain, sends Lupita to deliver a briefcase to a woman known as The Mask Maker (Cassandra Lopez), who makes the distinctive masks used in lucha libre–Mexican professional wrestling. The wrestlers–called luchadors–are compared to superheroes, with a mystique about them and a highly devoted fan following. Whent the champion luchador El Hijo (Carl Overly, Jr.) issues a challenge to a legendary luchador who once challenged his father–also a champion–and then disappeared, a long-held secret threatens to be discovered as Lupita looks for answers, a purpose for her life, and a closer connection to her father.  Essentially, that’s the set-up. There’s also an a connecting subplot involving perceived roles of women in society, Leopold and Liesl’s older sister who ran away, and the Vietnam War.There are a lot of other details I’m leaving out because that’s the play and the best way to learn this story is to see it. Still, this play is called Luchadora! for a reason. Essentially this is Lupita’s story, and it’s one of determination, dedication, and heart.

This production does several things well. It tells an essentially timeless coming of age story while also bringing the audience into the world of lucha libre and also the Texas of the 1960s. The characters are well-drawn and the situations are credible and interesting, even though most of the plot is fairly predictable. This is a story aimed to encourage and inspire as well as inform, and it does that well, with strong, memorable performances from an excellent, enthusiastic cast. The key roles here are those of Carmen Garcia and Cruz, as the older and younger versions of Lupita. Both give strong, relatable performances, so much that the audience is drawn to identify with them, and to want to follow this story. These characters, along with Isabel Garcia’s Vanessa, drive the plot and its message–and all three performers play their roles accordingly, with excellent presence, energy, and heart. There’s also impressive support from the entire cast, with strong turns from Lopez as the Mask Maker, who becomes an encouraging mentor to Lupita; from Galvan, sympathetic and caring as Lupita’s father; from Flynn and Skaggs as her supportive friends; and from Overly as the brash, charismatic El Hijo, along with Hannah Pauluhn in an influential role as Leo and Liesl’s older sister, Hannah.

This fascinating story is aided by some excellent technical qualities, as well. David Blake’s two-level set is striking and comprehensive, showing Nana Lupita’s balcony as well as the Texas neighbhorhood of her youth and various other places as needed. The costumes by Carly Parent are also impressive–from the brightly colored luchador costumes to the period-specific attire of the different characters.  There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and dynamic fight choreography by Mark Kelley.

Lupita’s world, both in present-day and in 1968, is brought to vivid life in this inpiring, entertaining, and extremely well-cast production. For audience members not particularly familiar with lucha libre, this show serves as a good introduction, as well as communicating important messages about family, friendship, and challenging rigid societal expectations about gender roles, particularly for women and girls. It’s an impressive collaboration between Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo.

Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo are presenting Luchadora! at Fontbonne University until June 17, 2018

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