Archive for July, 2018

Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
July 27, 2018

Cast of Gypsy Photo: The Muny

It makes sense that the Muny would be staging Gypsy in its historic 100th season, considering the show’s reputation as an iconic American classic. It’s a show that’s been lauded for its strong book, its memorable score, and its well-realized characters, and particularly for the role of Rose–a part that has been played by many legendary performers over the years from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Patti Lupone and Imelda Staunton. It’s also been filmed three times, and although I had seen two of those three filmings, I had never seen the show onstage in its entirety before, having been part of a group trip to a community theatre production when I was a teenager that was lesss than great, although I was struck by the excellent songs and intriguing story. Although I had wanted to stay, I was outvoted and my group left that production at intermission, so I only got to see half of it. Now, the Muny is presenting this show and I’m happy, not just because I finally get to see the whole show on stage, but also because it’s such a wonderful production, staged with such precision, attention to detail, stunning production values and a superb cast lead by Broadway and Muny veteran Beth Leavel.

This show is a fictionalized account based on the memoirs of famous mid-20th Century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee isn’t the main character here, although she is important, and the story does show how Louise (Julia Knitel, with Elise Edwards as the younger “Baby Louise”) eventually became Gypsy Rose Lee. The primary focus, though, is on her mother, Rose (Leavel), a determined “stage mother” who once had hopes of stardom for herself but eventually pours all her energy into her daughters’ success in Vaudeville, and particularly her younger daughter, June, first as the headlining child performer “Baby June” (Amelie Lock) and later as the teenage “Dainty June” (Hayley Podschun). As Rose promotes the act in various venues on the West Coast, she eventually meets Herbie (Adam Heller) an agent-turned-candy salesman who is attracted to Rose, and whom she persuades to represent June’s act. While Herbie hopes to marry Rose, she strings him along, also neglecting Louise in her focus on the “star” of the act, June, and both sisters feel the pressure of having grown up on the road. Rose’s indomitable drive alienates and intimidates a lot of people, but the act is sucessful for a time, although not without consequences, as key figures in her life eventually are driven away. Although the story is well-known, I won’t give away too much, other than the obvious fact of who Louise eventually becomes. How she gets there, though, is a pivotal part of the drama and her relationship with her domineering mother.

Rose herself is a formidable character, a challenging role that’s considered one of the most sought-after roles in musical theatre. She’s complex and forceful, and not always likable, although a strong performer can make her watchable and even sympathetic in crucial moments. Here, Leavel takes the role and fills that colossal Muny stage with her powerful voice and memorable presence. She has her over-the-top moments, as is expected for the character, but she also portrays the characters humanity and desperate need for validation with clarity. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” are intense, but she also displays an easy chemistry with Heller’s supremely likable and dependable Herbie in songs like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”. Her last scene with the grown-up Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee is especially poignant. Knitel, for her part, is excellent as Louise, showing a truly credible personal journey as she grows from insecure teenager to world-class burlesque performer in the course of the show. There are also stand-out performances from Podschun as the outwardly perky but increasingly exasperated June, by Drew Redington in a dazzlingly danced turn as chorus boy and aspiring song-and-dance man Tulsa, and especially by Jennifer Cody, Ellen Harvey, and Ann Harada as the trio of strippers who explain the secrets of their success to Louise in the show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number. The whole cast is excellent here, from the leads to the ensemble, with some cast members playing a few different roles and everyone in excellent form in singing, dancing, and acting.

One of valuable lessons I learned from that half-production I saw years ago is that pacing in this show is crucial. This is a show that, as great as it is, depends a lot on timing and energy. Director Rob Ruggiero has staged this show at just the right pace, so it’s not too slow but still takes the time to tell the story well. At the Muny, the lavish production values also help, with and excellent versatile set designed by Luke Cantarella that makes great use of the Muny’s turntable and authentically recreates the look and atmosphere of Vaudeville theatres and Depression-era America. There are also excellent costumes by Amy Clark, striking lighting by John Lasiter, and impressive use of video, designed by Nathan W. Scheuer.

This is a show that demands a great production, and the Muny has delivered that here. Anchored by the excellent performances of Leavel and her co-stars, this is a Gypsy production that’s worth seeing and remembering. It’s a magnificent production.

Adam Heller, Beth Leavel, Julia Knitel Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Gypsy in Forest Park until August 2, 2018

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The Realistic Joneses
by Will Eno
Directed by Edward M. Coffield

Rebel and Misfits Productions
July 26, 2018

Alan Knoll, Isaiah DiLorenzo, Kelly Hummert, Laurie McConnell
Rebel and Misfits Productions

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is a fascinating play, in terms of characterization, language, and insight. It’s one of those plays I’m tempted to write essays about, rather than simply a review. Its use of language makes me want to buy, read, and re-read the script. Still, a play is about more than the script. It’s about the whole production–acting, staging, production values, etc., and the new production by Rebel and Misfits Productions is the real deal. It’s a challenging, thoughtful, impeccably cast production of this intriguing, insightful play.

The story is something of an unfolding mystery, and part of its brilliance is that almost as much is communicated by what is not said as by what is said. The “Joneses” of the title are two married couples who at first seem to share little in common besides their last name. Appearances can deceive, however, and not all is how it first appears. The story unfolds in a series of scenes, starting as Bob (Alan Knoll) and Jennifer Jones (Laurie McConnell) sit at a table in their backyard, awkwardly attempting to converse. They are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of their new neighbors, the younger couple John (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Pony Jones (Kelly Hummert). This first meeting is soon followed by a series of more meetings of various combinations of the characters, as the new neighbors get to know more about each other, and the audience learns that there’s more to this story than originally presented. The relationships grow more and more complex, and life situations more serious as issues of life and death, love and meaning, are discussed and played out. The process of discovery is a big part of the story, so I won’t reveal too much, but I have to say that Eno’s script is so well crafted, and this production is so insightfully staged, that clues to what is really going on become apparent in subtle but powerful ways.

This is a show that relies a lot on subtext, and that’s handled extremely well in this production, and by the truly excellent cast. The language is also particularly idiosyncratic, with each character having a specific way of speaking. All four performers here carry off the text and the subtext with impressive clarity, with excellent ensemble chemistry and couple chemistry. There’s real credibility in the relationships between the bickering Bob and Jennifer–played by real-life married couple Knoll and McConnell–and between the quirkier Pony and John, played by Hummert and DiLorenzo with presence, humor, and poignancy. The characters are all relatable in different ways, and enigmatic in other ways–with Knoll and DiLorenzo particularly adept in portraying their characters’ particular types of evasion, McConnell’s wariness through her weariness, and Hummert’s clear communication of the outwardly flighty Pony’s inward depth and dawning realization of what is happening. It’s an ideal cast for this challenging, highly character-driven play.

The neighborhood setting is well-realized through Peter and Margery Spack’s detailed set. Sitting on either side of the performance space, the feeling is of being in these characters’ backyard. There’s also excellent sound design by Ellie Schwetye, and lighting by Jon Ontiveros that helps set the mood and sense of passage of time throughout the play.

The Realistic Joneses is one of those plays that makes me really think about language, to the point where it had me thinking about speech patterns in real life even after the play was over. It’s a highly character-focused play that presents characters that one might see every day, but also emphasizes communication, of emotions, of ideas, and of the changing realites of life. It’s a play I’d read about but had never actually seen, and now I’m glad this remarkable production has given me the opportunity to see it.  There’s still some time to see it, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Laurie McConnell, Alan Knoll
Photo: Rebel and MIsfits Productions

Rebel and Misfits Productions is presenting The Realistic Joneses at the JCC New Jewish Theatre Black Box until August 12, 2018

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson, Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 25, 2018

Dan’yelle Williamson, Corinne Melançon, Dana Winkle
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

When someone says the phrase “jukebox musical”, the first example that comes to mind for a lot of people is Mamma Mia! Featuring the songs of Swedish supergroup ABBA, a large cast of characters, and a sunny, summery setting, this isn’t a deep show but it’s still a lot of fun. Now STAGES St. Louis is staging a production that emhpasizes the “fun”, and the infectious score, with a light, summery atmosphere that works well in the middle of July in St. Louis.

The story of Mamma Mia! is only a small part of its appeal. It’s actually kind of a goofy story, but the show doesn’t claim to be anything deep or challenging. It’s just a celebration of family, friendship, and most of all, ABBA music. The classic hits are all here, from the energetic title tune to iconic disco-era hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me”, and many more. The story follows young Sophie Sheridan (Summerisa Bell Stevens) as she prepares for her wedding at a small Greek Island resort owned by her mother, former singer Donna (Corinne Melançon). Neither Donna nor Sophie’s fiance Sky (David Sajewich) know that Sophie has found Donna’s diary from years ago that reveals the identities of three men who could possibly be Sophie’s biological father. Now, Sophie has invited all three of them–American architect Sam (Gregg Goodbroad), British banker Harry (David Schmittou), and Australian writer Bill (Steve Isom)–to her wedding. Also in town for the festivities are Donna’s longtime friends and former bandmates Tanya (Dana Winkle) and Rosie (Dan’yelle Williamson), who reminisce about their days as Donna and the Dynamos and get involved in the pre-wedding shenanigans that ensue when all three men turn up to Donna’s surprise, and dismay.  The plot is kind of thin, but it provides a suitable backdrop for the obvious centerpiece of the show, which is the music and the big, cleverly and sometimes hilariously staged production numbers. It’s a sweet show with a message of love and family acceptance, with some amusing character moments, but the real star of the show is ABBA.

The casting here is strong, for the most part. Everyone is obviously having a great time, and the energy is fun and infectious. Melançon and Stevens display a strong, believable mother-daughter relationship as Donna and Sophie, and they sing well, although some of the songs don’t seem to naturally fit Melançon’s voice. She’s at her best in the slower songs, with the poignant “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the emotional “The Winner Takes It All” as highlights. Stevens also has strong chemistry with Sajewich’s devoted Sky and with all three potential “dads”, who are all strong as well. Other standouts include Winkle and Williamson, who display great stage presence, excellent comic timing, and powerful vocals. There’s also a strong ensemble that brings a lot of energy to the bigger musical numbers as well, performing Tony Gonzalez’s whimsical, inventive choreography with style.

Visually, the show looks great. James Wolk’s mult-level set adapts the island resort setting well for STAGES’s space. There are also excellent, colorful costumes by Brad Musgrove that help to capture the spirit of the show, including the glitzy disco-inspired jumpsuits and more. There’s also great atmospheric lighting by Sean M. Savoie.

Overall, this production of Mamma Mia! is a fun, spirited staging that definitely pleased the enthusiastic opening night audience. It’s one of those shows that’s essentially about enjoying the music and performances and not thinking too much about the plot. At STAGES, there’s a good cast, great production values, and above all, a whole lot of fun.

Corinne Melançon, Summerisa Bell Stevens
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Mamma Mia! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 19, 2018


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Labute New Theater Festival 2018
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2018

The Labute New Theater Festival is back with Set Two, and it’s a stronger set altogether. St. Louis Actors’ Studio is continuing its festival with another set of plays that feature thought-provoking concepts, strong acting and staging, providing for an all-around impressive production at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. In addition to the continued run of the festival’s namesake playwright Labute’s “The Fourth Reich” in which Eric Dean White’s performance is even more insidiously creepy than it was the first time around, the bill includes a strong group of three intriguing plays:

“The Gettier Problem”

by Michael Long

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first of the new plays is an intriguing work that challenges the audience’s perception and raises some interesting questions. The “Gettier” of the title here is Edie Gettier (Colleen Backer), a patient in a hospital psychiatric ward who is awaiting a surgical procedure and is attended by a stern, wary nurse (Erin Brewer) and an assistant (Spencer Sickmann) with whom Gettier seems to be enamored, referrring to him as her “boyfriend” and insisting he stay with her after the nurse leaves. Then, she spins a story that he finds difficult to believe at first and calls to question everything we’ve seen up until this point. It’s an interesting premise, although the short play format makes the ideas raised somewhat difficult to explore. It would be interesting to see what a longer version of this play could look like. The performances are universally strong, especially from Backer who presents an enigmatic character with impressive credibility. Sickmann and Brewer provide strong support, as well.

“The Process”

by Peter McDonough

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is a puzzle of sorts–an unfolding mystery that becomes increasingly riveting as the story unfolds, although there is a degree of predictability to it. That doesn’t take away from the poignancy, though, in this tale of an interview that at first appears to be a therapy session of some kind, with a “client” who is soon revealed to be a soon-to-be-married elementary school teacher (Carly Rosenbaum). She’s meeting with someone who initially seems to be a counselor (Erin Brewer) who is helping her “client” recover memories that she seems to have blocked out. What is happening becomes more apparent as the details are gradually revealed, although I did guess the “twist” fairly early in the story. The weight of the drama is still here, though, even if you can guess where this is going. With great, sympthetical and emotional performances from both Rosenbaum and Brewer, this is a stunningly effective play and story.


by Sean Abley

Directed by Ryan Scott Foizey

Zak Farmer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Justin Foizey
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This, the last and most inventive production of the evening, is an impressive exercise in world-building, with well-realized characters and an intriguing setting for a short play. It’s something of a venture into fantasy that could easily have been an episode of The Twilight Zone–an imagined “what if” situation in which words have become a valued commodity. Here, in what appears to have once been a library or bookstore in an unspecified but vaguely post-apocolyptic setting, a shopkeeper (Zak Farmer) hosts a frequent customer (Spencer Sickmann) whose passion for new words is almost akin to a drug habit. He’s desperate, intense, jittery, and hanging on every word he can find, both from Farmer and from an unseen competitor who seems to be feeding Sickmann faulty definitions for some inexplicable reason, leading to some humorous moments as well as some poignant ones. It’s a clever script, tackling some intriguing ideas and touching on some timely topics and some challenging philosophical concepts. It’s another play that I wish could be longer, because it would be interesting to see these ideas elaborated further. Farmer, Sickmann, and Eric Dean White (as another of Farmer’s customers) perform their parts well, with Sickmann especially memorable. This is probably my favorite of this year’s festival plays. It’s a highlight of a particularly strong week of plays that is well worth catching while this year’s festival heads into its final weekend.

Set Two of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 29, 2018



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Book by Thomas Meehan, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2018

Cast of Annie Photo: The Muny

It’s strange to think that, considering my personal history, I had never actually seen Annie onstage until the Muny’s latest production. I had seen two of the three filmed versions and almost wore out my LP of the Original Broadway Cast recording when I was a little girl, before any of the movies had been made. Like countless kids then and since, I would sing along with the album and imagine playing Annie someday. Still, despite the proliferation of productions around the country and the world since the original production opened, including several at the Muny (and two since I moved here in 2004), I had never actually gotten around to seeing a stage production of the show. Now, in the Muny’s 100th season, they’ve brought this classic to the stage in a vibrant production that’s got a lot going for it, especially an excellent cast.

Annie is a familiar story to many, following the adventures of the tough but vulnerable title character (Peyton Ella), an 11-year-old girl who has grown up in an orphanage run by the domineering Miss Hannigan (Jennifer Simard), whose imperious, harsh treatment of Annie and her friends drives the orphans to frustration and near-despair. Annie, who still dreams of being reunited with her parents, refuses to give up hope. Meanwhile, wealthy industrialist Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Sieber) tasks his assistant, Grace Farrell (Britney Coleman), with finding an orphan to invite to spend two weeks in luxury at his mansion over the Christmas season. The bitter, jealous Miss Hannigan schemes with her shady brother, Rooster (Jon Rua) and Rooster’s ditzy girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Holly Ann Butler) to get back at Annie and swindle Warbucks out of thousands of dollars. Also, it’s the 1930s, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (John Scherer) is trying to figure out what to do about that. The shows mixture of realism, comedy, and optimism in the midst of uncertainy is a large part of its enduring appeal. It’s got some moments that could be seen as cheesy, but its core is sincerity and heart.

This is the Muny, so it’s fairly easy to assume that there’s going to be a large cast to fill up that great big stage. This production has excellent leads, backed by a strong ensemble, even if there are somewhat jarring moments, such as when Annie and the six “main” orphans (Ana Mc Alister as Molly, Samantha Iken as Pepper, Trenay LaBelle as Duffy, Amanda Willingham as July, Madeline Domain as Tessie, and Ella Grace Roberts as Kate) are about to sing “Hard Knock Life”, only to be suddenly joined by about 30 more orphans who just seem to appear instantly from the wings. The energy takes a while to build in the first act, but by the time Annie arrives at Warbucks’ mansion, the show has found its groove and the momentum only builds from there, highlighted by sparkling production numbers such as “NYC” and the truly delightful “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”. Peyton Ella, as Annie, has an impressive voice and great stage presence, delivering the iconic “Tomorrow” with power, and she has great chemistry with the other orphans and with Sieber, who is in excellent form as Warbucks. There are also strong performances by Coleman as the kind Grace, Rua as the scheming Rooster, Simard as the delightfully hammy Miss Hannigan, and a memorable moment for Abigail Isom in the featured solo as the “Star-to-Be” in the “NYC” number. Scherer as FDR is memorable, as well, along with a large ensemble of adults and kids. There are also a few scene-stealing moments from Sunny, the adorable terrier who plays Sandy, a stray dog that Annie befriends and then makes various appearances throughout the production.

In terms of production values, the show looks great, for the most part. There is some issue with wigs–Annie’s is somewhat distracting at times, and Warbucks’ skull cap is obvious. Still, those are minor issues when the rest of the production works so well, from Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, to Leon Dobkowski’s colorful period-specific costumes, to Nathan W. Scheuer’s striking lighting, to Rob Denton’s vibrant video design. The Muny Orchestra is in excellent form as well, performing that classic score with style.

So, whether this would be the first time you’ve ever seen Annie or the fiftieth, or any number in between, the Muny’s production is likely to please. It’s a big, vibrant produciton that communicates the enduring spirit of a show that’s become such a legendary classic over the past 40 years. When I recently re-discovered that old LP of the cast album, my son noted the tagline–“A New Musical”, thinking that sounded strange for a show that premiered more than 20 years before he was born. Still, even though it’s not exactly new anymore, the show’s vibrancy and hopeful spirit remain timeless, and the Muny’s production is fresh and full of energy. It’s a fun show, and I’m glad I’ve finally had the chance to see it. It’s definitely worth checking out, no matter how old or young you may be.

Peyton Ella, Jennifer Simard, Britney Coleman Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Annie in Forest Park until July 25, 2018

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The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Ed Reggi
Insight Theatre Company
July 12, 2018

Will Bonfiglio, Julia Crump, Gwen Wotawa, Pete Winfrey
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic play that has been performed and taught in school literature classes for many years. Despite this ubiquity, though, I had never seen the play live before–I had only seen filmed versions. Now, Insight Theatre Company has given me and theatregoers in St. Louis the opportunity to see this legendary example of writer Oscar Wilde’s wit and characterization. It’s a great script, and Insight has brought it to the stage at the Grandel Theatre with an excellent cast and well-paced staging.

This is a prime example of an English “Drawing Room Comedy”, and a particularly madcap one at that, with loads of witty banter and plot twists involving mistaken identity, long-held family secrets, romantic complications, and more, all taking place in the world of upper-class Victorian English society. The story centers on two young friends, bachelors Algernon “Algie” Moncrieff (Will Bonfiglio) and John “Jack” Worthing (Pete Winfey), and on the significance of the name “Ernest”, which is how Jack has been identifying himself to Algie until circumstances force him to admit that he’s been posing as his own imaginary younger brother as an excuse for his many pleasure-seeking jaunts to London from his country estate. When Jack tells Algie about his life at the “Manor House”, and especially of his young ward Cecily Cardew (Julia Crump), Algie gets an idea that eventually stirs up even more trouble that eventually involves everyone closest to both men, including Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Ruth Ezell), clergyman Dr Chasuble (Steve Springmeyer), and the object of Jack’s affection, Algie’s cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax (Gwen Wotawa), who is the daughter of the well-connected Lady Bracknell (Tom Murray). The situations all resolve in a hilarious way, relying largely on sharp satirical comedy and Wilde’s sharp, witty dialogue.

This is a funny play to read, but it’s even funnier on stage, brought to life in vibrant, face-paced style by director Ed Reggi and a wonderful, ideal cast. Bonfiglio, as the mischievous Algie, and Winfrey, as the somewhat bewildered Jack are the core of this production. Their banter is a highlight of the show. There are also delightful performances from Wotawa and Crump as the sometimes friendly, sometimes combative Gwendolyn and Cecily. Both performers have excellent chemistry with their respective love interests, as well, and Wotawa especially pronounces Wilde’s clever dialogue with a sense of polished delight. Murray is also a treasure as the imperious Lady Bracknell. Ezell as the secretive, protective Miss Prism and Springmeyer as the loyal Dr Chasuble are also strong, as is Spencer Kruse in a dual role as two different butlers. The cast here is cohesive and energetic, doing justice to Wilde’s script. As clever as the dialgoue is, this is somewhat of a talky play, so it requires excellent timing and presence–and this cast delivers that with verve and deliciously droll style.

The Victorian atmosphere of the production is well-maintained here, with excellent costumes by Laura Hanson and a well-appointed set by Sucas Shryock. Tony Anselmo’s lighting and James Blanton’s sound design also lend to the overall whimsical mood of the show. Kudos also to dialect consultant Jeff Cummings and the entire cast for the constistent, appropriately posh English accents.

This is a show that’s been performed countless times throughout the world for over 100 years, and it still holds up in terms of story, comedy, and the oh-so-witty dialogue. The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic for good reason, and Insight’s production certainly does it justice. It fits well in the newly restored Grandel Theatre. There’s stil time to catch it. I highly recommend it!

Cast of The Importance of Being Earnest
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting The Importance of Being Earnest at the Grandel Theatre until July 22, 2018.

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Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 9, 2018

Nicolas Dromard, Keith Hines, Mark Ballas, Bobby Conte Thornton Photo: The Muny

The Muny has, over the course of its storied 100 year history, hosted several memorable concerts in addition to its traditional lineup of musical theatre and (originally) operetta. It’s been a while since the venue has hosted a rock concert, but its latest musical production, Jersey Boys, has the feel of a concert much of the time. Still, although it’s a “jukebox” show, it also has a strong book, telling the true story of a well-known American band with great production values and a stellar cast.

The story focuses on the legendary pop-rock group The Four Seasons. It’s a well-structured plot, narrated at turns by all four original members of the group: guitarist Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard), keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bobby Conte Thornton), bassist Nick Massi (Keith Hines), and lead vocalist Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas). As the title suggests, the story begins in a close-knit neighborhood in New Jersey, as a group of young, ambitious guys form friendships and a band, sometimes get in trouble with the law, navigate family struggles and romantic entanglements and eventually work their way up to the top of the charts as a world-famous band. The approach here doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story or the people involved, the personality conflicts, trials and tribulations as well as some of the more problematic aspects of the times. The tag-team narrative approach serves the story well, as each “Season” gets to have his say, using the group’s impressive repertoire of classic hits to help advance the story as well as entertain in concert-style, complete with a thoroughly appreciative, enthusiastic audience. Iconic songs like “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December 1963 (Oh, What a NIght)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, and “Working My Way Back to You” are represented well, with top-notch production values and a great, enthusiastic cast.

The Muny stage is great setting for this show. I’d seen the Broadway staging before on tour at the Fox, and that was great, but here, in the show’s regional world premiere, the staging and styling have been created specifically for the Muny. With a versatile multi-level platform set by Paul Tate dePoo III, the concert style is served well, as are the storytelling moments. There’s also dynamic lighting by Rob Denton and striking, effective video design by Matthew Young, along with some dazzling, colorful period-specific costumes by Andrea Lauer. The staging is energetic and well-paced, with great dance moves choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, and those great, memorable songs well-played by the excellent Muny orchestra led by music director Rick Bertone.

The Four Seasons are ideally cast here, with Dromard, Hines, Thornton, and Ballas recreating that distinctive sound credibly and impressively. They all sound great, with Ballas particularly standing out vocally, displaying Valli’s remarkable range and stage presence well. Dromard’s cocky, controlling DeVito is a standout as well, as are Hines’s quirky, enigmatic Massi and Thornton’s more quiet but ambitious and determined Gaudio. The relationships and group chemistry are believable, as well, and there are some especially great musical moments as the group develops their signature sound. There are also standout performances from Nicholas Rodriguez as music producer Bob Crewe, and Ben Nordstrom in various roles. There’s a strong, energetic ensemble, as well, each playing various roles and supporting the group in enthusiastic dance numbers. The look, sound, and style of the Four Seasons and their era–particularly in the 1960s–is well-represented in this excellent production.

Jersey Boys is grittier at times than what may be thought of as the “usual” Muny show. It has a sharp, well-structured book that makes it one of the best “jukebox” musicals that’s been produced, and of course, there are all those memorable hit songs. This is a big, flashy show with a good deal of substance along with the glitz, and the Muny has produced it about as well as I could imagine. It’s an excellent, complex and fascinating musical tribute.

Cast of Jersey Boys Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Jersey Boys in Forest Park until July 16, 2018

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Labute New Theater Festival 2018, part 1
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 6, 2018

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s annual Labute New Theater Festival is on again at the Gaslight Theatre, showcasing new short plays by a variety of artists, including its namesake playwright. Set One has another weekend to run, with Set Two preparing to open next week. The first batch of plays showcase a variety of characters and situations, from amusing to confusing to downright disturbing. Here are my brief reviews:

“The Fourth Reich”

by Neil Labute

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As with all of Neil Labute’s previous showcased works at the festival, this play will be featured for the entire run of the event. Also like most of his festival offerings, this one comes across as more of an extended acting exercise than a play. It features an excellent local performer, Eric Dean White, in a memorable performance as an initially polite-enough seeming guy talking to the audience in an interview of sorts. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a formal interview, or some kind of organized event, or if White is just talking to the audience because he wants to. Still, he’s there, sitting in his comfy chair, growing more and more effusive in his praise of Adolf Hitler, acknowledging that Hitler lost World War II but insisting that history hasn’t given him a fair hearing. It’s a weird, defensive sort of monologue, as White’s unnamed character wheedles his way through a succession of repetitive arguments, growing more and more obviously sinister all the while, and even directly challenging the audience to broaden their perspective. It’s an impressive, measured performance by White, who manages to make the character grow more and more obviously sinister through the course of the monologue until the end, which is positively chilling. It’s a strong performance, but as a play I’m not sure what to do with this. A case could be made that this illustrates the sheer insidiousness of people and ideas like this, but still the play’s purpose isn’t entirely clear. The end result is just simply disturbing.

“Shut Up and Dance”

by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich

Directed by Wendy Greenwood

Colleen Backer, Erin Brewer, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second play of this set is in more of a darkly comic, somewhat fantastical vein, basing its situation at least in part on a real event. Here, a nameless Rockette (Erin Brewer), is haunted by imaginary “Rockette”-like apparitions in her dreams after she decides not to dance at Donald Trump’s inauguration. She flees to a hotel, later calling her mother (Margeau Steinau) and reflecting on the impact of her decision and the concerns about the future of the country. It’s an interesting idea, with good performances by all, especially Brewer and Steinau, although it seems disjointed in terms of format, almost like two plays instead of one, which becomes an even greater issue in the third play of the evening…

“Advantage God”

by Norman Kline

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Talk about disjointed. This is certainly a clever idea, but there’s a little too much going on here and the situation isn’t set up as clearly as it could be. Here, a couple of well-to-do suburbanites (Eric Dean White and Colleen Backer) try to cope with an apocalyptic crisis, as they find themselves in the midst of some nebulous invasion. The two prattle on about their various self-centered concerns while it looks like the world is falling apart around them, but then the Voice of God (Reginald Pierre) starts talking and the whole course of the play changes. The story then shifts to a philosophical and metaphysical debate of sorts before taking a more literal turn that requires a jarring and time-consuming scene change. It has some funny moments, and White, Backer, and Pierre give strong performances, but ultimately the story comes across as disjointed and confusing, although it defintely has some funny moments.

“Hipster Noir”

by Jame McLendon

Directed by John Pierson

Reginald Pierre, Carly Rosenbaum
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The last play of the first set is the most memorable, and the funniest. A cast of three, in excellent comic form, present an old-style Maltese Falcon-type detective story set in a coffee shop in ever-so-trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nick (Pierre) narrates the story with a sense of earnest urgency, as he recounts the tale of his meeting with the mysterious Delilah (Carly Rosenbaum), who apparently needs Nick’s help but who also has an agenda of her own. There’s also Atticus (Joshua Parrack), a young hipster with a fondness for typewriters and fountain pens. How he figures into the story isn’t made obvious until later in the play. The comedy here is sharp, with a kind of faux-serious tone that goes well with the Film Noir theme. It’s a fun, clever story with strong performances and a lot of jokes, particularly about hipster culture, relying largely on stereotypes and innuendo. It’s a little obvious at times, but it’s funny.

The production values across the plays are good, with some clever costuming by Megan Harshaw, a simple and versatile set by Patrick Huber, and strong lighting by Huber and Dalton Robison. So far, the festival has presented some interesting ideas, although most of the scripts do need some work, especially in terms of overall cohesiveness and clarity. Still, this festival is an excellent showcase for local actors and directors, presenting some interesting new works. I’m especially curious to see what Set Two is going to to bring.

Set One of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 2018 Labute New Theater Festival runs at the Gaslight Theater until July 15, 2018. Set Two opens on July 20 and runs until July 29, 2018. 

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