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Archive for September, 2018

Mama’s Boy
by Rob Urbanati
Directed by Brad Schwartz
The Tesseract Theatre Company
September 22, 2018

Tesseract Theatre Company is one theatre company I’ve seen that has seemed to figure out how to make the best use of the performance space at the .Zack Theatre. The space is known for difficult sight lines and a high stage, but in both productions I’ve seen from Tesseract at this venue, the space has been used to excellent effect and minimized its more challenging issues in terms of staging. Their latest production is a well-cast production that presents a few challenges of its own, mostly from a storytelling standpoint, althought it’s definitely a compelling story. The show is Mama’s Boy, a by Rob Urbanati, and the focus is on an infamous figure in American history and his family.

The central figures in Mama’s Boy are Lee Harvey Oswald (Brandon Atkins) and his mother, Marguerite (Donna Parrone). It’s largely told from Marguerite’s perpective, and told in flashback as she tries to challenge public perceptions of her son in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby. It’s an exploration of the relationship between Oswald and his mother, as well as with his Russian-born wife Marina (Carly Uding) and his older brother Robert (Jeremy Goldmeier), recounting events between the time Oswald returned to the United States after defecting to the Soviet Union, and the JFK assassination and its aftermath. Now, there are a lot of theories about what exactly happened and what Oswald’s role was in those events, but this play focuses Marguerite’s view, and her complex and sometimes controlling relationship with her sons, and particularly Lee. It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking story for the most part, especially in terms of relationship dynamics, but there are also some elements that don’t seem necessary and only serve to add confusion to what wants to be–and is, for the most part–a tense, character-focused drama. Those elements involve characters that are referred to in the program as “Shadows” (Lydia Aiken, Kathryn Kent, Alexa Moore, Melody Quinn), who wear masks and hover around at various times throughout the play, sometimes serving a functional role by playing various minor characters as needed, and sometimes adding a mysterious air to the proceedings, but at other times they just seem to be wandering around for no specific reason. Sometimes, they can be confusing, especially in one key Act 2 scene in which Lee goes through a series of unexplained motions with one of the “Shadows” in the foreground while the rest of the characters are having a tense conversation. Although there are moments when the “Shadows” did add to the drama, most of the time they just seemed superflous and distracting.

The set, designed by Brittanie Gunn, makes excellent use of the .Zack performance space. It’s a simple stage setup with furniture that can be moved around as needed. The costumes by Amanda Brasher help to set the time and place well, and the lighting, designed by Kevin Bowman, is effective for the most part, although there are a few moments when it’s difficult to see what’s going on. Staging-wise, the show is well-paced, especially in the interactions between the main cast members.

The casting is excellent, and the relationships are well-defined. Parrone’s Marguerite is a looming, controlling presence, effectively dominating the action as fits the character. Her scenes with Atkins as the enigmatic Lee and Goldmeier as the neglected (by her) but responsible Robert are excellent. Uding, as Marina, also gives a strong, affecting performance as a woman who is increasingly confused and bewildered by her husband’s actions, and increasingly wearying of her mother-in-law. The relationships here are the heart of the play, lending emotional drama to the events as they unfold.

I didn’t know a whole lot about Oswald beyond the basic facts before seeing this play, and it works well in an educational capacity to one degree. Front and center, though, are the relationships. Apart from a few confusing moments (mostly involving the “Shadows”), this is a gripping, well-portrayed story that provides a different, closer and more intimate look at lesser known figures involved in a major moment in history.

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Mama’s Boy at the .Zack Theatre until September 30, 2018

 

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AN APOLOGY For the Course And Outcome of Certain Events Delivered By DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS On This HIs Final Evening
and The Hunchback Variations
By Mickle Maher
The Midnight Company
September 21, 2018

It’s FAUSTival part 2! As the latest entry in the extended “festival” featuring works from various local theatre companies, Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is presenting something that’s appropriately Faustian and also reflective of the Midnight Company’s offbeat style. And, also as is usual for this company, the result is well-cast, thoughtful, and fascinating.

A revival of a production staged a few years ago, this is a set of two separate one-act pieces, one of which is a “Faust” tale. Both, however, are somewhat metaphysical explorations of concepts and characters. AN APOLOGY… is, essential, just what the title says. Here, Hanrahan plays Dr. John Faustus on the last day of his life on earth, having agreed to sell his soul 20 years earlier to Mephistopheles (David Wassilak), who spends most of the play looming in the background, clad in black velvet and wearing sunglasses and appearing somewhat bored of Faustus’s whole spiel. For Faustus’s part, he’s in regret mode, as well as desperate to hold on to a semblance of privacy as he recounts his efforts to keep some privacy from Mephistopheles, who as part of the agreement has lived as Faustus’s servant for the past 20 years, a constant, annoying presence and reminder of Faustus’s pride and rashness. The casting here is strong, with Wassilak’s presence being suitably menacing by just sitting there most of the time, and Hanrahan’s Faustus being increasingly desperate and grasping for some sort of meaning in his life that’s about to end in moments. Since it’s essentially a long speech with a few brief interruptions by Mephistopheles, it does tend to get rambling and a little hard to follow at times, although Hanrahan’s presence keeps it interesting, as do some clever immersive elements involving Faustus handing out beer and chips to the audience.  It’s a particularly philosphical and condensed take on the “Faust” story, with more of an introspective focus as Faust tries to gain the audience’s sympathy.

While An Apology… certainly has its moments, especially in terms of its exploration of language and the concept of time and the overall brevity of life, the more entertaining piece of the evening is the more fast-moving, comic seminar-styled The Hunchback Variations. Here, there’s much more of a focus on humor, and the situation is even more bizarre than it is in the first play.  Here, the audience is given an imaginary scenario in which composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (Hanrahan) and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame character, Quasimodo (Wassilak) are seated at a table littered with various offbeat musical instruments (kazoo, tin whistle, etc.) and are giving a lecture recounting their efforts to identify an elusive sound described in a stage direction in Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. The show is essentially a series of vignettes, with similar staging and introduction, as the two, usually led by the more outwardly confident Beethoven, recount their efforts to meet and discover this mysterious sound, as the more sullen, earnest Quasimodo plays various sounds and expresses more of an initially pessimistic outlook about their meetings. This is a fascinating play on many levels–first, it’s hilarious, and the comic timing is impeccable. Second, it’s also kind of sad, as we see the futility and failure of the endeavor as they recount attempt after attempt with the big unasked question lingering in the air–what’s the point? The interplay between these two characters presents their relationship as sometimes companions in futility, sometimes frenemies. It’s an intriguing dynamic to watch, and both players play their parts extremely well, from Hanrahan’s bossy, overconfident Beethoven to Wassilak’s gruff-voiced, weary but still hopeful Quasimodo.

Both of these plays are presented in a small backroom at the Monocle bar in the Grove neighborhood, and the intimate setting adds to the mood in both plays. This is a thoughtful, sometimes funny, somtimes profound, always unusual production, showcasing two excellent local actors. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

The Midnight Company is presenting AN APOLOGY and The Hunchback Variations at the Monocle until September 29, 2018

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Crowns
by Regina Taylor
Adadpted from the Book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Mayberry
Directed by Linda Kennedy
The Black Rep
September 15, 2018

Cast of Crowns
Photo by Dunsi Dai
The Black Rep

The first thing that catches my notice in the Black Rep’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor is a giant hat on the stage. That’s fitting, because hats are front and center in this musical collection of stories, a celebration of hats in African American culture, and particularly among black women. It’s a fascinating subject, showcasing some exceptional talent and the superb voices of its cast while highlighting some compelling stories of several generations of women and men in the American South.

There is a connecting story here, but it’s more of a loose framework that provides a means of exploring the show’s theme. The framing device involves Yolanda, a Brooklyn teenager whose brother is killed in a shooting. Taking his red baseball cap with her to remember him, Yolanda is sent down South to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson). Yolanda’s story is revisited several times throughout the show, serving as the introduction to various themes focusing on church services, including regular Sunday service, as well as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. The rest of the characters use these segments to tell their own stories, centering on hats and what they mean in various contexts, from African traditions to church culture, to family relationships, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. All of these stories are punctuated by songs, mostly gospel songs and hymns, showcasing the superb voices of the always excellent Jackson and the rest of the cast. It’s an occasion for thought, reflection, remembrance for those familiar with the cultural traditions portrayed here, and learning for those who aren’t.

The setting is established well, with that giant hat as the centerpiece of Dunsi Dai’s memorable scenic design, framed by stained glass windows. There’s also excellent use of lighting, designed by Joe Clapper, to set the mood throughout the production. The costume design is also particularly strong, with a variety of detailed outfits of various periods, and of course a succession of hats of many shapes and sizes, from simple to more ornate. The staging is dynamic and full of movement, as well, with Kirven Douthit-Bird’s choreography utilizing the stage setup well, as the ensemble sings and dances around the giant hat that serves as both a centerpiece and a pedestal.

The music is also a star here, with excellent songs and singing from the whole cast, and particularly Jackson, whose stage presence and vocal power are obvious, as also Amber Rose as Velma, whose solo on ‘HIs Eye is On the Sparrow” is a highlight of the production. White as Yolanda is also excellent, both vocally and in terms of acting, conveying her character’s journey well. The whole ensemble is strong, as well. In addition to Jackson, Rose, and White, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda, Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, and Myke Andrews in various male roles (including the pastor of the church) give excellent perfornances, relating their stories and singing their songs with energy and feeling.

This is a celebration of hats and culture, but also of music. It’s an outstanding showcase for great voices and fascinating stories, with humor, drama, and a strong sense of community, tradition, and shared experience. Crowns is a great start to a new season from the Black Rep.

Cast of Crowns
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Crowns at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 23, 2018

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Gustavo Zajac
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 7, 2018

Sean MacLaughlin, Michelle Aravena
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has opened its newest season with a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita. This is a show that I had heard much of the music to, but had never actually seen. I’m glad the Rep’s production is the first one I’ve been able to see, since it’s stunning, with an especially strong cast and fabulous production values.

Evita is a well-known collaboraton from the celebrated team of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, and after seeing this production, I think it’s Lloyd Webber’s strongest score. With memorable songs like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, “Buenos Aires” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, this is a vibrant score with elements of tango, rock, and operatic styles, sung through and structured like an opera. It tells the story of the celebrated First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 50s, Eva Perón (Michelle Aravena), who starts out as Eva Duarte, rising from obscurity in rural Argentina, moving to the big city of Buenos Aires to become an actress, later meeting and marrying influential Colonel Juan Perón (Sean McLaughlin), and using her influence and popularity with the people to help him win the Presidency. The show, is narrated in a critical manner by Ché (Pepe Nufrio), who represents the common people of Argentina as Eva grows in power, influence and affluence and gains many admirers, who adore her as “Evita”. It’s a well-structured show with many strong musical moments, and a prime opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its lead. Told essentially as flashback starting and ending with Eva’s funeral–accompanied in this production by actual footage projected on a screen above the stag–the story unfolds at a steady pace, examining Eva’s character and influence on her husband’s rise to power, as well as her influence on the general population of Argentina and her eventual inconic status.

I don’t know enough about the real Eva Perón to know exactly how historically accurate it is, but it’s a convincingly told story and a fascinating show, given an impressive staging at the Rep, with those glorious production values that the Rep is known for, including a fabulous unit set and projections by Luke Cantarella, dazzling period costumes by Alejo Vietti, and stunning lighting by John Lasiter. The staging is dynamic, using the turntable to excellent effect, whether it’s comic as in “Goodnight and Thank You” as Eva meets and moves on from a succession of lovers in Buenos Aires, or dramatic as in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, poignantly sung by Perón’s rejected young Mistress (Shea Gomez) after Eva moves in. There’s also energetic choreography with a strong tango influence by Gustavo Zajac, and a first-rate band led by music director Charlie Alterman.

In terms of the cast, since this is Evita, it’s essential to cast that central character well, and the Rep has done that with the outstanding Aravena, who delivers a strong, powerful, and vulnerable performance as Eva. Vocally she is impressive despite a little bit of straining on the higher notes, and her dancing is particularly strong, as is her portrayal of Eva’s emotional journey from ambitious teenager to complicated national icon. She is well-matched by Nufrio, who displays excellent stage presence and a great voice as the challenging, confrontational Che. Her chemistry with MacLaughlin’s equally strong Perón is convincing, as well. There are also memorable performances from Gomez as Perón’s Mistress, and by the smooth-voiced Nicolas Dávila as singer Augustin Magaldi, who first brings Eva to Buenos Aires. There’s also a versatile and energetic ensemble ably supporting the leads in various roles, bringing spark and power to the production numbers such as the Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina”.

Evita is one of the more famous shows that I hadn’t actually seen before, and when I heard the Rep would be producing it I was looking forward to it. I’m happy to say the production has lived up to its promise. It’s a big, visually and vocally impressive show with a stellar cast that does justice to its celebrated score. It’s a great way to start a new season at the Rep.

Cast of Evita
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Evita until September 30, 2018

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Preparations for stage construction

I’ve been writing about the Muny since I started this blog in 2010, and I’ve been seeing shows there since my family moved to St. Louis in 2004. That’s only 14 years of the 100 years of the company’s existence, and in those 14 years I’ve seen a lot of shows at the outdoor theatre in Forest Park that’s become a household name in St. Louis. There’s been a lot of reflecting and looking back over the past year as the Muny has celebrated its centennial. There was a gala concert, a 100th season of performances, a public “open house” style event where St. Louisans were invited to see and celebrate the inner workings of the company, and an impressively detailed and informative exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that I finally got to see recently. That, along with another major event in the Muny’s schedule, were occasions for me and others who attended to reflect on the Muny’s past, and to look toward its future.

The day after I attended the exhibit at the History Museum, I attended the Muny’s presentation called Intermission: Setting the Stage For the Next Act. It was a small gathering in which major Muny donors and representatives of the press were invited as the Muny prepared to begin major renovations to performance and backstage areas, many of which will be ready for next year’s 101st season. Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan, and others gave brief descriptions of the projects and outlined their grand plans for the space and for the venue in the years to come. For me, it was an informative gathering but also an instance for reflection, thinking back about my own experience as a Muny audience member and as a reviewer and blogger, and also about the Muny’s place in St. Louis as a cultural institution and tradition for the past century.

Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson speaks on the Muny stage

Now, as to the details of the project and the donors, I refer you to the article I’ve linked on the Muny’s website, as well as their Second Century Campaign page that gives more details on the project and on how anyone can donate to the campaign. It’s an exciting plan in many ways, and walking around on that vast Muny stage that’s full of memories but also outdated in many ways, I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it will be like to be sitting in that auditorium next year and seeing the fully rebuilt stage and updated surrounding areas, featuring improvments both cosmetic and functional. I noted the wooden rail constucted on the stage’s edge as that stage awaits its demolition in preparation for a new one. Next year, that rail won’t be there, and the stage I stood on will be replaced with something shiny and new, and more up to date with today’s theatrical needs. I’m especially curious to see those renderings brought to life.

The memories, still, are there, and the devotion to both preserving and expanding that tradition was stressed at the Intermission event as well as at the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, which I highly recommend. It may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of history in 100 years. It’s easy to look at a number like 100 and think it’s beyond the scope of imagining, but that exhibit does an impressively thorough job of recounting that history–focusing on the high points, as is expected in an exhibit like this, but there’s also a bit of perspective inherent to exhibits of this nature. We all know the Muny, for instance, or at least we think we do, but 50, 60, 70 years ago it was still the Muny (or the Municipal Opera, as it was formally called), but there were a lot of difference as well. Many changes have happened over the years, both in terms of cultural changes and in terms of the kind of shows presented (operas and operettas used to be the norm), to the long list of performers who have appeared on that stage. For every legendary star who has tread the boards at the Muny (Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, etc.), there are others whose names used to be familiar but now have mostly been forgotten (Gladys Baxter, Guy Robertson, and more). Imagining the Muny a century from now,, I have little doubt there would be performers from today in both of those categories. A century is a long time.

Trees surround the existing Muny stage. New trees will soon be planted as well.

Still, the focus now, even with the talk of the “Next Century” is on practical improvements for the immediate future, and those results will be seen as early as next year. I’ve already witnessed a lot of changes in the 14 years I’ve been here, but the next few years sound like they’re going to be even more interesting. The sense of hope and optimism was palpable at the Intermission event. It was a very small gathering, representing an important but small portion of the total audience for Muny shows. High dollar donors are needed for a big project like this. They are essential, but the “regular” Muny goers are just as important, if not more so, because a venue as big as this needs audiences to see the shows. There were some great events featured in the Muny’s 100th season, including An Evening With the Stars, the aforementioned History Museum exhibit, and more, but I think my favorite was the “Birthday Bash” open house event, in which the general public was invited into spaces they normally don’t get to see–backstage, behind the scenes, and onto that vast stage to look out at the immense seating area from an angle most of us don’t normally get to see. I sincerely hope that more events like that are planned for the future.

Thanks for the memories, Muny. Here’s to the next 100 years!

Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan

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