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Archive for August, 2018

St. Lou Fringe 2018

The St. Lou Fringe festival has come to Grand Center again, featuring two headline acts–one national and one local–and a variety of performances by an array of different local and national artists. It’s a celebration of the performing arts at their most quirky and inventive–or, at least, it’s supposed to be. I didn’t get to see as many shows this year as I would have liked, but what I did see was something of a mixed bag in terms of quality, ranging from top-notch shows, to shows that need work. Here are my reviews:

The Gringo (Local Headliner)

Music, Lyrics, and Book by Colin Healy

Directed by Colin Healy

Cast of The Gringo
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

The first show I saw at this year’s Fringe is a show that embodies a lot of the qualities that I have come to expect in a Fringe show–challeging, thought-provoking, timely, and inventive. It’s not a perfect show, but there’s definitely promise there, and the music and cast are excellent. Written entirely by local artist Colin Healy but taking place in Miami, the show is certainly distinctive, even though the sound balance and odd acoustics in the .Zack made it difficult to understand at least half of the lyrics. Still, there’s a story here, and some great characters, even if there are too many and some of their situations and relationships are difficult to figure out.

The Gringo is also somewhat of a baffling title, since it references a character who isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the focus of the show, and whose role in the show is confusing to say the least. Ishmael (Riley Dunn), who is white, is a wandering street artist whose wanderings have taken him to a mostly non-white neighborhood in Miami. I sort of get the initial focus on him in terms of portraying how often artists of color are ignored in favor of white artists trying to be “edgy” and getting celebrated as such, but still, the real focus of the show is (and should be) Kahlo (Alcia Reve Like), a famous artist who laments being treated as a curiosity at best by white tourists. The story takes place in the aftermath of the killing of local artist El Fantasma by police, and it follows the reactions of various people who were close to him, such as his brother Diego (Gheremi Clay), who is something of a “friends with benefits” type relationship with Kahlo, although Kahlo, along with Ishmael, decide to navigate the unpredictable world of online dating, which is how the two artists meet and form a tentative relationship, which further alienates Diego, who is wary of Ishmael but also gives him his nickname, “The Gringo”. As white “internet celebrities” such as @Sally7777777 (Janine Norman) discover Ishmael’s work and plaster it all over Instagram in a self-congratulatory “look what I discovered” sort of way, the rest of the neighborhood prepares to memoralize El Fantasma, Diego searches for answers and validation, and the somewhat mysterious Manni (Robert Crenshaw) occasionally appears expressing his animosity for The Gringo. There’s also popular drug dealer Molto (Omega Jones) and Kahlo’s friend Reya (Evann De-Bose), who have a tragic subplot of their own. The characters’ relationships and motivations are muddled, to say the least, and there are  simply too many plots to follow coherently. I think keeping the main focus on Kahlo’s and Diego’s situations would make the most sense, and while Ishmael has his moments, he seems mostly irrelevant by the time the story draws to a close.

There are some great performances here, especially from Like, Clay, Jones, and Norman, and the songs are clever and memorable, at least from what I could hear of them.  The look of the show is striking, with an eye-catching set (designer not credited in the program), art by Tielere Cheatem, and distinctive costumes by Carly Uding. The band conducted by Healy is excellent as well, as is the energetic choreography by Christopher Page-Sanders. The sound mix is uneven, though, and the story is incomprehensible at times because the lyrics of the songs were often drowned out by the band. This is a show with definite promise, if Healy could streamline it some and make a clearer focus on the more compelling characters and define the relationships and character motives more clearly. Overall, it’s an impressive debut, even though it still needs some work.

Race Cars and Romance (National Headliner)

Book by Klay Rogers, Music by Brent Rogers, Lyrics by Klay Rogers and Brent Rogers

Directed and Choreographed by Brandon Bieber

Even though it’s not a perfect show, The Gringo has a lot of potential and fares much better than Fringe’s national headline act, Race Cars and Romance, which is, frankly stated, a mess. Staged with much fanfare at the Grandel, this show just leaves me asking “why?’ on so many levels. Billed as a “family friendly musical”, it’s basically just a big collection of stereotypes, shallow characters, poor plot structuring, and a plot that’s so episodic it almost comes across as more of an anthology than a play–and not a very good anthology at that. I will say to start, though, that the performance I saw was a preview, and I hope the overall energy improved in the subsequent performances, but in terms of characters and structure, I don’t see how seeing one of the “official” performances would have mattered.

The focus is on an oil change shop in a small Alabama town, in which a collection of characters work, including new “star” mechanic Roni (Emily Trumble), who grew up in the town but spent some time working on the racing team of star stock car racer Chuck Champion, who is talked about a lot but never actually appears on stage. Another stock car racer and childhood friend of Roni’s, the clueless and somewhat vain Johnny Ray Ratchet (Ralph Meitzler), has been struggling on the racing circuit and is due to race at Talladega starting in last position, and needs his car fixed in preparation for the race. He brings it to the oil change, meets Roni, and… well, that’s all for a really long time while the play takes a break from their story to tell a lot of other stories that are only peripherally related to the main plot. It’s odd how much this plot is treated like an afterthought even though it’s supposed to be the lead story, as all the other characters are given their moments but not in a way that contributes much to the main story arc. We just get a lot of cliches and stereotypes, with some interesting characters but mostly a lot of filler, and excuses for songs that don’t advance the plot. There are some good performances here, especially from the big-voiced Trumble as Roni and Rachel Bailey as Roni’s friend, the romantically adventurous Louraine, who has a sweet but somewhat confusing romance with sweet-natured mechanic Pedro (Fredy Ruiz). Meitzler is fine as Johnny Ray, even though his character doesn’t have much to do beyond bragging about his racing prowess and inexplicably changing his mind a lot. The chemistry between the two leads is OK but not great, and there are some interesting songs but only one that really stands out–the plaintive duet “Lonely Lovers Game” for Johnny Ray and Roni, but the song is in the wrong place in the show, and it doesn’t do much to save the convoluted, implausible romance that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the long run. The cast does the best they can with what they are given, but they aren’t given much.

Techically, the show looks good, with a colorful set and costumes (production design credit is given to Klay Rogers). Still, as it is this is little more than a theme park show, and I’ve seen better shows at theme parks. Creator Klay Rogers gave an introduction before the performance explaining that a lot of the stories here are based on a real job he had at an oil change shop in Texas, but there are too many stories here and for the most part, this doesn’t work as one show. Maybe it would be better if he split the stories up into several different shows.

As a writer who sees myself as a fan more than as a critic, I try my best to be kind even when I don’t like a show, but I find that difficult with a show like this. The cast deserves credit for the effort, but the show itself has little to recommend.  I really hope Fringe picks something better to take center stage next year.

Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… BOND, JAMES BOND

by Joe Hanrahan

Directed by Shane Signorino

The Midnight Company

From the always intriguing Joe Hanrahan comes a delightful show that’s part personal memoir, part history lesson, part nostalgia, and all fascinating. It’s a cleverly constructed one-man show from St. Louis’s king of one-man shows, Hanrahan, who narrates and plays all the characters as needed. It’s a lesson in theatre appreciation as well, along with baseball appreciation and an appreciation for the 1960s-era James Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love. 

Telling the story as himself, Hanrahan takes the audience back to his childhood in St. Louis during the storied 1964 World Series-winning season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He weaves the story of that team with reminiscences of his little league practices and what he refers to as his introduction to theatre–a recounting of the plot of the “new” James Bond movie by one of his teammates, Danny.  As Hanrahan, playing Danny, tells the story of the movie, Hanrahan as himself gives the audience background information about the film and also stories about that famous Cardinals team, St. Louis in the 1960s as well as the history of theatre, World War II and more. It’s a somewhat difficult show to describe adequately, but what it is is excellent. Hanrahan through use of his great storytelling skills and impressive use of video designed by Michael B. Perkins, holds the audience spellbound for about an hour. It’s a great show, and I hope Hanrahan will get a chance to perform it again in another venue. It’s entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, and an ideal example of the best of what the Fringe can be, along with the last show I’m reviewing.

Aphrodite’s Refugees

Created by Monica Dionysiou, Visual Art by Aaron Young

MonTra Performance

Monica Dionysiou
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

I was looking forward to seeing this show, after seeing and enjoying Dionysiou’s last show at St. Lou Fringe in 2015, the  Alice In Wonderland inspired “Paper Glass”.  Here, like in that previous show, Dionysiou combines dramatic performance with visual art, but now her story is more personal, taken from her own family’s story, and she’s joined by Aaron Young, who paints a picture during the performance, illustrating and augmenting Dionysiou’s narrated tale.

Dionysiou tells the story, weaving with legends of the Greek goddess Aphrodite playing a card game with Ares, the God of War. In between these segments, she narrates the story of her family on the island of Cyprus. The main figure in this story is Dionysiou’s father, George, called “Koko”, portrayed by Dionysiou along with his sisters Eleftheria and Andrula, and his brother Dionysus. Through personal recollections, they tell the story of the family throughout various conflicts involving the continuing conflicts between the Greek (represented by the Dionysious) and Turkish populations of Cyprus. It’s a compelling story, based on Dionysiou’s interviews with her family, and her portrayals of all the characters, particularly the determined Koko and the mischievous Andrula, are convincing and impressive. She also makes excellent use of sound effects for the “card game” sequence as Young impressively recounts the story with his painting, including elements of movement that add to the story and the overall drama. It’s a fascinating story, and another ideal example of the excellence and inventiveness that should be celebrated by Fringe. I’ve been extremely impressed by both of Dionysiou’s shows that she has done here, and I hope to see her at a future Fringe as well.

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King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 19, 2018

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Bard liked to write about kings. He has quite a few plays about them, in fact, covering monarchs from ancient times to those of his more recent history. Well, if you’ve ever wondered how the Bard might dramatize the current British Royal Family, Mike Bartlett has come up with his own answer to that question in King Charles III. Imagining a future scenario in which the current Prince of Wales ascends to the throne, Bartlett has written a script–in iambic pentameter–that addresses some contemporary controversies while exploring the effects of the monarchy on the people, as well as on the monarchs themselves and their families. St. Louis Shakespeare has now brought this thought-provoking play to the Ivory Theatre, in a well-cast production that takes its time to express Bartlett’s vision.

The story, set in the future, is a fictionalization that’s even more so now, the recent Royal Wedding and other factors making the story even more of an obvious imagination. It’s an “alternate universe” story, if you will, ostensibly imagining what may happen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II and subsquent succession of Prince Charles to the throne. The Shakespearean styling becomes apparent in the use of various conventions and character archetypes that often occur in the Bards works, such as unlikely romances, ambitious throne-seekers, confused monarchs, and ghostly visitations. Here, the play begins just after the Queen’s funeral, as the new King Charles III (Colin Nichols) exercises his new royal authority in some surprising and unorthodox ways, to the confusion and shock of those around him, including members of his own family and the sitting Prime Minister Evans (Andra Harkins) and Opposition Leader Stevens (Patience Davis). Confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign a newly passed bill concerning regulation of the press, Charles hesitates, which threatens to cause a national crisis. Meanwhile, the aimless Prince Harry (Jeremy Goldmeier) is out clubbing with friends and meets the brash, anti-monarchy commoner Jess (Britteny Henry) and begins a relationship with her that he is warned will also cause a scandal. Also on hand is the popular Prince William (Michael Bouchard), who is reluctant to challenge his father’s authority but is encouraged to do so by his equally popular wife Kate (Lexie Baker), who has ambitions of her own. Also, both Charles and William recieve visions of the ghost of the late Princess Diana (Hannah Pauluhn), who seems to be telling both of them the same thing. This is an intriguing play full of interesting ideas and speculations, covering issues of royal responsibility, public perception of the monarchy, freedom of the press, and more. It’s a clever experiment, portraying some characters, such as Charles’s wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel) generally according to popular perception while presenting others in direct contrast to general expectations–especially Charles, William, and Kate, but also Harry as well.

This production, directed by Donna Northcott, is steadily paced and sometimes could benefit from a little more energy. Still, the story is fascinating and the casting, for the most part, is good. Nichols plays Charles in a mostly sympathetic light, but can sometimes come across as vacillating and overly meek. The Princes, Bouchard and Goldmeier, give credible performances as the Princes who have to deal with different kinds of pressure, although Goldmeier makes Harry come across as being more interested in Jess for the “novelty” of dating an opinionated commoner rather than genuinely being interested in her as a person. I’m not sure if that’s the result of the script, the direction, or the performance, though. There are also strong performances from Harkins and Davis as the determined political rivals, by Henry as the confrontational Jess, who for her part does seem genuinely interested in Harry, and especially by Dustin Allison in a memorable performance as the king’s press advisor James Reiss, and by Baker as a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque version of the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s these two –Reiss and Kate–who ultimately seem to be the ones really running the show, and their portrayers demonstrate that well. There’s also a strong, supportive ensemble playing various roles.

Visually, the show is simply and strikingly staged, with S. H.’s Boygen’s versatile set giving the suggestion a chess board with its tiled floor and movable set pieces. Jaime Zayas’s lighting provides a sometimes stark, sometimes ethereal atmosphere as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s richly detailed costumes are also noteworthy, lending a sufficiently regal air to the proceedings.

Overall, King Charles III is a fascinating if sometimes bizarre speculation presenting several “what-if” scenarios in terms of history and theatrical form. Although sometimes the energy is lacking, the story and characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention. I would imagine the actual royals might have some issues with it in terms of how they are portrayed, but for the most part, this production comes across as a worthwhile exercise in theatrical imagination.

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting King Charles III at the Ivory Theatre until August 26, 2018

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No Exit
by Jean Paul Sartre
Translated by Alyssa Ward
Directed by Bess Moynihan
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 16 , 2018

Sarah Morris, Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

No Exit is one of those Important Plays that you study in English or drama class, but have you ever actually seen it? In speaking with SATE co-producer Ellie Schwetye before the show, we both commented on how many people we know (including myself at that point) had read or read about the play but hadn’t actually seen it. Well, if that’s you too, now you can see it! And not only is it being produced in St. Louis now, it’s by one of the boldest, most consistently excellent small theatre companies in town. Utilizing the rather intimate performance venue of the Chapel, SATE’s production is impeccably staged, ideally cast, and fascinating from start to finish.

The set-up and approach here are immersive, with audiences being greeted as they arrive by the blank-faced, deadpan delivery of Katy Keating’s Valet, who announces “Welcome to Hell”. The audience waits, seated around the perimeter of the Chapel on the edges of a precisely decorated room with limited furniture. As the play begins, the Valet eventually ushers in three newly deceased characters from different areas and different walks of life. The evasive Garcin (Shane Signorino) was a political activist, the confrontational Inès (Sarah Morris) was a postal worker, and the vain Estelle (Rachel Tibbetts) was a wealthy Parisian wife who insists she doesn’t belong in Hell. Over the course of the evening, the three manage to get under one another’s skin. Everyone’s in denial in one way or another, but soon the realities and brutalities of their lives are revealed as their interactions become the focus of the drama. The tension builds and the play’s conclusion produces its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here but once you hear it, you’ll probably know it. This is a classic representation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy with sharply drawn characters and dynamic, thought-provoking diaologue veers from the dramatic to the darkly witty. It’s the kind of play people write papers about, and I’m sure there have been thousands over the years. Still, it’s a play, and it comes alive with a dynamic staging, which this production certainly is, directed by Bess Moynihan with a lucid energy that maximizes the drama.

There’s a great cast here, as well, from the unsettlingly serious Keating, a strong presence in the relatively small part of the Valet, to the contrasting characters of the three leads. Morris is all combative energy as the brutally honest, challenging Inès, with Signorino equally strong as the preoccupied, self-deluded Garcin. They are matched by Tibbetts in an impressive turn as the almost confronationally shallow, vain Estelle, who seeks her value in her desirability to men. The chemistry among all three is intense, driving the play so there is never a slow moment.

Also impressive is the complete look and atmosphere of this production. The 1940s style and character-specific suitability of the costumes by Marcy Ann Wiegert and the meticulous set design by director Moynihan make an ideal setting. There’s also impressive lighting, designed by Michael Sullivan, setting the creepy, ominous tone from the beginning. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also adds to this tone.

This is such a precisely staged, superbly acted production, with the strength of the script shining through. Kudos also to translator Alyssa Ward, as the wit, drama, and intensity shine through the dialogue. It’s the first production of No Exit I’ve seen, but I find it difficult to imagine how this play could be done any better. It’s a milestone of 20th century drama, but here it’s made fresh and very much in the moment. Again, the excellence with which SATE has come to be known shines through. This is a show that needs to be seen.

Katy Keating, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting No Exit at the Chapel until September 1, 2018

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FAUST (go down with all the re$t)
Script by ERA Ensemble
Music by Kid Scientist
Directed by Lucy Cashion and Gabe Taylor
Equally Represented Arts
August 11, 2018

Alicen Moser, Joe Taylor
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

Equally Represented Arts, or ERA, has kicked off a several month-long collaboration by several local theatre companies called “Faustival“. As the name implies, the theatre companies in question are all producing plays that are to some degree based on the well-known “Faust” story or well-known versions of it, such as those by Marlowe and Goethe. Here, in keeping with ERA’s penchant for experimental mash-ups, their offering, Faust (go down with all the re$t) features elements frome Goethe and from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, as well as TV game shows and a few elements from other Faust stories. As is usual with ERA, this mixture of sources and creative innovation yields a fascinating result. Even though it tends a little bit to the pretentious at times, for the most part it’s a fun, inventive, and thought-provoking production.

The first unconventional thing about this Faust is its venue. Presented at the Foam bar on Cherokee Street, the production has made the most of its setting and the space provided, creating an immersive experience for the audience that starts at the door. Audience members are greeted by Mephistopheles (WIll Bonfiglio) and encouraged to sign a “contract” that’s full of fine print that includes some funny provisions such as how to return the show if you don’t like it. Also, in keeping with the Faustian theme, it involves “selling your soul”, although with the assurance that you’ll get it back at the end. Audience members then turn their contracts over to God (Grace Landford) and are ushered into the main room of the bar, where they are enouraged to buy drinks, find a seat, and mingle if they wish, like they would at any bar. Alicen Moser, who plays Faust’s long-suffering mistress Margaret, is up front with the band, Kid Scientist, providing the music, singing the “instructions” as the patrons take their seats. Then, the show sets going as Mephistopheles returns as a game show host, featuring Faust (Joe Taylor) and his assistant Wagner (Gabe Taylor) as contestants on a show called “The Pit”, complete with flashy red game board and sound effects. The tale continues through clever use of close-circuit TV, non-linear storytelling, and a classical-tinged rock score with songs from several of the characters. The themes of materialism and love vs. money dominate here, with religious elements and critique as well, with a particular emphasis being on the plight of Margaret, who is the primary victim of Faust’s bargain.

The show features some particuarly strong performances led by Moser as the devoted but frequently ill-treated Margaret, by Joe Taylor as a somewhat clueless Faust, by Gabe Taylor as the eager assistant Wagner, by Langford in a dual role as Margaret’s mother and as a particularly capricious God, and especially by the charismatic Bonfiglio in a gleefully enthusiastic turn as the smarmy Mephistopheles. The production values are eye-catching, with whimsical costumes by Meredith LaBounty, atmospheric lighting and video by Ben Lewis, clever staging by directors Lucy Cashion and Ben Taylor, and a driving score performed with spirit by Kid Scientist. There are some elements, such as the contract and somewhat monotonous intro that can veer toward the pretentious, but for the most part this is another clever, thought-provoking production from the always innovative ERA.  It bodes well for the rest of the “Faustival” shows that will follow.

Grace Langford, WIll Bonfiglio
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

 

 

 

ERA is presenting FAUST (go down with all the re$t) at Foam until August 18, 2018

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The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Christina Rios
Choreographed by Cecily A. King
R-S Theatrics
August 9, 2018

Macia Noorman, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is great with making people anticipate their shows. They’ll announce a show months–sometimes as much as a year–in advance, and it creates this sense in me of “wow! They’re doing X show? That sounds great! I can’t wait to see it!” That was the case with last year’s In The Heights, and now with their latest production, The Light In the Piazza. Like everything R-S does, this show hadn’t been produced locally in St. Louis before (although the national tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox), and I was looking forward to seeing what this theatre company–that has already produced many excellent shows in the past–would do with it. Well, it’s on stage now at the Marcelle, and I’m happy to say that it was worth the wait.

This show, which I had heard the score for but not seen until this production, was a hit on Broadway and had a national tour as well as a PBS broadcast performance. It’s a somewhat unusual hit in terms of having a relatively small cast, a more classical-sounding score, and having several extended untranslated sequences in Italian, although there are also important scenes that are translated in a particuarly effective way. The story, based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer that was also turned into a film in 1962, follows American mother and daughter Margaret (Kay Love) and Clara Johnson (Macia Noorman), who at first appear to be “ordinary” tourists in Florence, where Margaret is showing her daughter the sights of the city and the youthful Clara attracts the interest of a young Italian man, Fabrizio (Tiélere Cheatem). The attraction is mutual, but Margaret is concerned because of a secret about Clara that Margaret is reluctant to reveal. We also get to meet Fabrizio’s family, who are close-knit but also have troubles of their own, such as Fabrizio’s married older brother, Giuseppe (Michael Lowe), who neglects his wife, Franca (Stephanie Merritt) in favor of the attentions of other women. His parents Signor and Signora Naccarelli (Kent Coffel, Jodi Stockton) are wary but initially supportive, although, inevitably, there are complications that have to be worked out, and Margaret has to deal with her own feelings of regret and concern for her and her family’s past and present realities, as well as being understandably protective of her daughter, while also wanting to encourage Clara to make her own choices.   There’s a lot of detail here that I’m leaving out because the journey of discovery is an important part of the play. The tone is lyrical, emotional, and alternately melancholy and romantic.

With the intense emotional and vocal demands of a show like this, a strong cast is essential, and this production has that. Led by the reflective, nuanced and wonderfully sung performance of Love as Margaret, and by the equally excellent Noorman in a sensitive, also well-sung turn as the youthful, determined Clara, this cast is extremely well chosen. Love and Noorman display a strong and credible mother-daughter relationship, and their scenes together are a highlight of the show. Cheatem, as the love-struck young Fabrizio, is also strong although occasionally struggling with volume on the vocals, although his vocal quality is superb, and the chemistry betweeen him and Noorman grows in intensity over the course of the show. There are also solid supporting performances from Coffel, Lowe, and Merritt, and an especially memorable portrayal by Stockton as the occasionally snarky Signora Nacarelli, who doesn’t speak English but still translates a lot of the Italian scenes by way of the magic of theatre. There’s a great ensemble here, too, in excellent voice and delivering complex harmonies with style, as well as helping to contribute to the overall 1950s atmosphere of the piece.

That time-and-place atmosphere is also supported by means of particularly impressive production values. The show fits well into its venue, the Marcelle Theatre, with a performance space that’s just the right size for this show. Director Christina Rios has staged the show with a constance sense of movement, as well as taking time for reflection as necessary. The set, designed by J. Keller Ryan, is simple and versatile, consisting of marble-painted blocks that are arranged to suggest the Florentine setting, as well as being able to be moved around as needed. The costumes, by Ashley Bauman, are well-suited to the characters and the era, and Nathan Schroeder’s ethereal lighting also contributes to the mood. Although there are occasional moments where the musical accompaniment can overpower the vocals, the stunning score is well-played by the superb band, as well, led by music director Sarah Nelson.

This is a thoughtful, reflective, highly emotional play that deals with many thought-provoking and timeless themes, especially in terms of risk and regret involved with love, both familial and romantic. Its well-defined characters and lyrical atmosphere are well-represented in this memorable production from a theatre company that already has a strong reputation for dramatic excellence. The Light In the Piazza is illuminating, challenging, heart-warming, and well-worth seeing.

Kay Love
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting The Light in the Piazza at the Marcelle Theatre until August 26, 2018

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Meet Me In St. Louis
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Revised Book by Gordon Greenberg, Additional Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
August 4, 2018

Emily Walton (center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

In the closing show of the Muny’s 100th season, two famous slogans coincide. Now “Meet me at the Muny” meets “Meet Me In St. Louis“, as the stage version of the classic film has been brought to the Muny again with a revised book and a nostalgic tone, as well as a hopeful message. It’s a classic, but it’s also new, looking back on a celebrated era in the city’s past but also encouraging a spirit of family, connection, and optimism.

This show has been done several times at the Muny over the years. Now, it’s back with a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and some additional songs, including one that was written for the original film but cut from the final version, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Based on Sally Benson’s stories of her family’s life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the focus here is on the Smith family, and especially the character played by Judy Garland in the film, second daughter Esther (Emily Walton), who pines after the “Boy Next Door”, John Truitt (Dan DeLuca), before she even meets him. They eventually do meet, adding to the romantic entanglements of the rest of the Smith family, including oldest sister Rose (Liana Hunt) whose boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Michael Burrell) transfers to Washington University to be closer to Rose, and brother Lon (Jonathan Burke), who brings the trendy New Yorker Lucille Ballard (Madison Johnson) home to meet his family. The rest of the family’s drama also involves New York, as father Alonzo Smith (Stephen R. Buntrock) informs his wife Anna (Erin Dilly) that his lawfirm has given him a promotion and a job in the New York office. The plans are overheard by the family’s Irish-American maid Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald), and the three try to delay telling the rest of the family for as long as possible, because only Alonzo seems happy about the idea and they know their family, including younger daughters Agnes (Elle Wesley) and Tootie (Elena Adams) and Anna’s father, retired physician Grandpa Prophater (Ken Page), won’t take the news well. The story is something of a love letter to St. Louis in that era, with memorable characters and some iconic songs, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in addition to some classics from the time, such as the iconic title tune that’s sung by the family here as they and the whole city anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a relatively light show, and it’s a lot of fun, showcasing the various characters at different times and, with this new version, throwing in some subtle nods to the Muny, such as when Esther and John have lunch in Forest Park as the fairgrounds are constructed and talk about the future, pointing out the young oak trees around them and imagining them growing into tall shade trees, like the ones that now surround the very stage on which they are having this conversation. It’s a fun little moment in the show, which is full of funny, nostalgic and poignant moments leading up to a rather spectacular finale.

The plot can get a little convoluted at times, but the characters and the various set pieces featuring the changing seasons in St. Louis are the highlight here. It’s not a deep show, but it’s fun, and the classic songs are given excellent treatment here, along with the requisite “Muny Magic”, as with the real trolley onstage for “The Trolley Song”, the grand set designed by Michael Schweikardt, the colorful costumes by Tristan Raines, and the spectacular production values, including lighting by Rob Denton, sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and excellent video design by Matthew Young, along with the glorious Muny orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman. This is a big, bright, warm and funny family show, staged with obvious love for the city and park in which it is set and in which it is being staged.

The cast is first-rate, as well, with Walton as an amiable Esther, doing justice to the classic songs and lending credibility to Esther’s crush on next-door-neighbor John, who is played with sweetly awkward charm by DeLuca. They make a believable couple, as do real-life married couple Dilly and Buntrock as the Smith parents. The whole Smith family is surperbly cast, with standout performances especially from Wesley and Adams as the mischievous younger daughters, Agnes and Tootie. Muny stalwart Page is also excellent as the kind Grandpa, Fitzgerald is pleasantly spunky as Katie, and the large Muny ensemble lends strong support, with lots of dynamic energy and enthusiasm in the big production numbers. It’s a big, entertaining show and fills out the huge Muny stage with style and spirit.

When my family first moved to St. Louis, it was 2004, 100 years after the famous fair, and as I remember, the city celebrated that centennial with various activities throughout the year to commemorate the fair. One of those events was the first show of the Muny season that year–Meet Me In St. Louis. It was also the first show I ever saw at the Muny. We sat in the free seats, and I remember enjoying the show. Seeing this new, spectacular production to close out the Muny’s 100th season reminds me of how much has changed since then, not just for me but for the Muny and for the city as a whole. It also reminds me of the timelessness of this show, and of the Muny itself. This production celebrates the city and the milestones in families’ lives, as well as an iconic moment in history, with a clarity and charm that is timeless and transcendant. It’s a magnificent way to close out a historic season.

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Meet Me in St. Louis in Forest Park until August 12, 2018.

 

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The Robber Bridegroom
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman
Adapted From the Novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 2, 2018

Phil Leveling (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest musical production is a reflection of the sense of theatrical excellence that has come to characterize this company. The Robber Bridegroom is an offbeat, folktale-style musical with a bluegrass score, larger-than-life characters and a great bluegrass score.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1975, has a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and excellent, bluegrass-style music by Robert Waldman, played here by a top-notch band conducted by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The band members dress in costume and process in with the rest of the cast at the beginning of the show, remaining onstage throughout the performance and adding an old-fashioned, energetic spirit to the production, along with the superb cast, who are all in excellent form. The story is told in “storyteller” style and opens with a square dance, as the various characters introduce themselves and the premise is set up. In 18th Century Mississippi, Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling), while traveling, saves the rich planter Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey M Wright) from a murder attempt by notorious robber Little Harp (Logan Willmore)–whose “partner in crime” is the head of his brother, Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), that Little Harp carries around in a trunk. The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie to visit him at his plantation, with the aim of setting Lockhart up with his daughter Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), who is mistreated by her greedy, ambitious stepmother Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). The lonely Rosamund wanders in the woods and meets the notorius Bandit of the Woods, she doesn’t know is Jamie in disguise, and Salome enlists the not-too-bright Goat (Bryce Miller) to get rid of Rosamund, although that proves to be more difficult than Salome had imagined.

This is a show with which I hadn’t been familiar before, and I had only heard one of the songs out of context. Reading the plot synopsis, and the fairly dark nature of some of the plot points, made me go into this expecting it to be much more in the vein of something like Sweeney Todd. The approach here, though, is much different. For the most part, this is an upbeat musical, full of broad, sketch-like comedy, a rousing score, and no real “cautionary” lessons. It just presents the characters and situations in all their over-the-top, sometimes ridiculous glory and lets the audience, and the cast, enjoy the ride. It’s told in the form of a folk legend, or “tall tale”, with even the more implausible aspects of the plot (a disembodied head that talks, for instance) told in a straightforward, humorous manner. The bluegrass score adds to the overall “folk tale” atmosphere, and there are some memorable songs here, from the fast-moving “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”  and “Two Heads” to the haunting “Deeper in the Wood” to the lullabye-like “Sleepy Man” and more.

The general tone is upbeat and energetic, with broad characterizations that provide excellent opportunities for the excellent cast to shine. The larger-than-life characters are well-represented here, with Dowling’s angry, vengeful Salome, Willmore’s eagerly villainous Little Harp and O’Brien’s equally villainous but restrained (in a box) Big Harp, and Miller’s gleeful, physically agile but easily duped Goat as major standouts. Leveling as the charismatic but duplicitous Jamie, and especially Schmid in a superb comic turn as the determined, slightly goofy Rosamund lead the show well, displaying lively chemistry in their scenes together. The entire ensemble is excellent, as well, with lots of energy keeping the fast-paced show running smoothly and with much hilarity. The singing is also great, from the leads as well as the ensemble, with some strong harmonies in the group numbers.

The staging here is paced well, with a kind of exaggerated, not-too-serious tone that’s appropriate for this type of “tall tale”. Director Justin Been has also designed the versatile set, consisting of a tent-like backdrop, the main stage area decorated by period-era accessories such as crates and barrels, and a set of raised platforms to add visual interest. There’s also excellent lighting from Tyler Duenow, as well as colorful, detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and bright, energetic choreography by Mike Hodges.

This show is so much more fun than I had expected. It’s silly, that’s for sure, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its silliness, which makes it even more entertaining. The Robber Bridegroom isn’t a show I had known much about before, but now I’m glad Stray Dog has introduced me to it. It’s a real treat.

Dawn Schmid (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Robber Bridegroom at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 18, 2018.

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