Archive for February, 2019

Farragut North
by Beau Willimon
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 16, 2019

Spencer Sickmann, Joshua Parrack, David Wassilak, Shannon Nara
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio hits the campaign trail in its latest production, Farragut North. Taking an incisive, often harsh look at the world of contemporary political campaigns, this play features some sharply drawn characters and intense situations and a thought-provoking, occasionally witty script.  Onstage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre, this production features a strong cast of excellent local performers.

This play was also the source material for the 2011 film The Ides of March, although if you’ve seen that movie, don’t think you know what’s going to happen in this play, because it’s quite a bit different even though the initial situation and some of the characters are the same. The play opens in the midst of a fictionalized 2008 primary race, as campaign staffers for a leading Democratic presidential candidate gather at their hotel bar and swap stories. The central figure is Stephen Bellamy (Spencer Sickmann), the candidate’s press secretary, who is confident of victory in the upcoming caucus, and of the endorsement of a major political figure that will help their candidate emerge as the front-runner in the presidential race. Stephen’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (David Wassilak), is also confident as he prepares to travel to an important meeting in another state. As Stephen and Paul tell their stories, a newer staffer, the young and promising Ben (Joshua Parrack) listens, as does ambitious journalist Ida (Shannon Nara), who is eager for every juicy scoop that Stephen can give her. The situation for Stephen gets more complicated when Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer), the campaign manager for another prominent candidate, calls and requests a confidential meeting, and Stephen debates whether or not he should tell Paul. In the midst of the intrigue that results from the meeting, Stephen also navigates a burgeoning personal relationship with an ambitious young intern, Molly (Hollyn Gayle), and Stephen finds out that the campaign situation isn’t as simple as he had imagined. As new twists emerge, Stephen finds himself in the midst of several difficult dilemmas, and his own personal goals as well as those of his colleagues and candidate, undergo some intense challenges.

The centerpiece of the this play is Stephen’s emotional journey, which is deftly navigated here by the always excellent Sickmann, who brings an accessible relatability to his especially determined, sometimes difficult character. Wassilak is also strong as the dedicated political veteran Paul, and Mayer makes the most of his limited stage time as the tough-talking, hard bargaining Tom. There are also excellent turns from Parrack as the idealistic, aspirational young Ben, and Nara as the persistent Ida. Luis Aguilar, in a dual role as a waiter and another campaign staffer, and Gayle as Molly are also fine, although Gayle’s portrayal isn’t quite as worldly as the character seems to suggest. The strongest moments are the scenes between Sickmann and Wassilak, and Sickmann and Mayer, which crackle with energy and intensity as the intrigue of the well-constructed plot unfolds.

Technically, this production uses its space well, with a versatile if somewhat stark set by Patrick Huber. The characters are well outfitted by costume designer Andrea Robb, as well. Huber also designed the lighting, which works well to set and establish the mood and tone of the show, as does director Wayne Salomon’s sound design.

This is an intense, taut, intriguing political thriller, with much of the intensity coming from the characters’ big personalities and the great cast’s memorable performances. It’s a decidedly cynical, sometimes bleak take on the world of politics, although hints of idealism show up from time to time, only to be crushed by harsh realities and the reminder that anyone on a campaign, no matter how seemingly essential, can be replaced. St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production brings these stark realities to the stage with crisp, biting incisiveness.  There’s one more weekend to catch it.

Peter Mayer, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Farragut North at the Gaslight Theatre until February 24, 2019

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Milk Like Sugar
by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Nicole Brewer
The Black Rep
February 15, 2019

The Black Rep’s reputation for insightful, thought-provoking theatre continues this month with their latest production, Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar. A challenging piece centering on a group of black teenagers in what could be essentially any state in America, this play shines light on the legacy of systemic racism and the challenges and roadblocks that exist for African-American youth in today’s society. It’s not a long play, but it has a lot to say.

Running at approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, Milk Like Sugar takes the audience into the world of Annie (Brandi Threatts) and her friends as Annie prepares to celebrate her 16th birthday. The program lists the time frame as 2004/2005, and the place as “any urban city”, and the Director’s Note in the program highlights the themes of the play and the ubiquity of the situations presented here. Annie and her two best friends, Talisha or “T” (Tyler White) and Margie (Camille Sharp) wait in a tattoo parlor as the play begins, trying to decide on a tattoo for Annie’s birthday and a way to symbolize an agreement they’ve made to all become mothers at the same time. Margie is already expecting, and as she envisions a joint baby shower for the three friends, the girls talk about how Annie, who doesn’t have a boyfriend, can fulfill her part in the pact. There’s a boy, Malik (Dwayne McCowan), who seems to like Annie, and her friends are encouraging her to make a move. Still, Annie isn’t sure, about Malik or about the agreement, even though she allows herself to get caught up in her friends’ dreaming at first, and talk of older men (like Talisha’s unseen boyfriend), cell phones as status symbols, designer diaper bags, and more. As the play continues, we see that Annie’s home life is hectic, as her mother Myrna (Michelle Dillard) works in a demanding, unfulfilling job and dreams of becoming a writer, all while she discourages Annie from spending too much focus on school. Meanwhile, she meets a new girl at school, Keera (Jillian Franks) who is always talking about church and an idealized family life; the astronomy-minded Malik tries to interest Annie in the stars, while his own home life is also complicated; and tattooist Antwoine (Brian McKinley) tells of his own artistic pursuits. The authority figures here–parents and teachers–seem to be either absent, self-absorbed, or transient, and as Annie tries to figure out her own place in the world, she often finds confusion and conflict. It’s a challenging, compelling look at life amid a system of ingrained racism and a cycle of poverty.

There are some strong performances here, particularly from Threatts, who embodies a mixture of cynicism and hope as the conflicted Annie, and from Franks as the quirky, devout Keera, whose life is more complicated than it may first appear, as well as Sharp and White as Margie and Talisha, and McCowan as the stargazing Malik. McKinley, as Antwoine and Dillard as Myrna are also excellent in their roles, and the energy and chemistry among the friends is especially strong. The production values are also memorable, with scenic designer Rama’s symbolic, all-white set (except for Malik’s telescope), atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie, realistic character-appropriate costumes by Marissa Perry, and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

The world of Annie and her friends is immediate and credible, with characters whose humanity and need for love and support shines through even in harshness of some of the situations. This is a stark, challenging play that’s sure to provoke thought and necessary conversation. It’s another memorable production from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Milk Like Sugar at Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre until March 3, 2019

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Exit, Pursued by a Bear
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Teresa Doggett
West End Players Guild
February 9, 2019

Alex Fyles, Lexa Wroniak Photo: West End Players Guild

In a St. Louis theatre weekend that featured the opening of two shows that were on the longer side, West End Players Guild’s offering veers toward the other extreme. At approximately 75 minutes with no intermission, prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear has a quick pace and quirky structure to go with that brief running time. On stage at West End’s usual venue in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church, this play features an enthusiastic cast and a lot of broad humor, and for what is being billed as a “revenge comedy”, for the most part it’s surprisingly upbeat.

The story follows Nan Carter (Lexa Wroniak), who isn’t related to former President Jimmy Carter, but she seems to wish she was because she seems to have memorized his writings, and she quotes him a lot. Nan is married to Kyle (Alex Fyles), a somewhat stereotypical brutish redneck husband who has neglected and abused Nan for too long, and now Nan has decided to take action. The play begins with Kyle duct-taped to a chair, and with his mouth covered with tape as well. Nan, along with her new friend, stripper and aspiring actress Sweetheart (Tara Ernst), and her old friend, Simon (Ethan Isaac)–who shows up in a cheerleading uniform complete with skirt at first–has decided to act out a little play to teach Kyle a lesson. Then, as she tells Kyle many times, she plans to surround him with packages of frozen venison (from the deer that Kyle has personally poached) and honey, leaving him at the mercy of the black bears in the area. Needless to say, Kyle isn’t happy, and he tries to plead his case during the moments when Nan removes the duct tape from his mouth.

The subject matter here could easily have been turned into something much darker than how this play has turned out. In fact, I was expecting something darker and grittier, but this play leads with the comedy more than the darkness. It’s an exercise in revenge fantasy, but with a more hopeful conclusion than other playwrights may have chosen. It certainly doesn’t excuse Kyle’s brutish behavior, but the focus is much more on Nan and her own personal journey of liberation, as well as her bonds of friendship with Sweatheart and Simon, along with the ideas of “chosen family” and the importance of new friends and old. Through a clever stylized structure that makes use of a screen to project a script outline throughout the course of the story, the theatrical nature of the show itself and the actions within the story are played up. I won’t say much else about the plot, except that, true to the overall tone of the play, the conclusion tends to major on hope rather than something more on the grim side. This is all played out on an excellent, remarkably detailed set by Robert M. Kapeller, and with director Teresa Doggett’s colorful, character-appropriate costumes, along with memorable projections by Michael B. Perkins, excellent lighting by Amy Ruprecht and equally excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

Although there is a bit of stereotyping, the characters are quirky and interesting, for the most part, and the performances are strong, with Ernst and Isaac almost stealing the show in their roles, which are more broadly comedic than those of Nan and Kyle. Wroniak and Fyles, for their parts, are also strong, with Fyles managing to bring more than one dimension out of Kyle, and Wroniak presenting Nan’s case in a relatable way that’s sure to make the audience root for her. The ensemble chemistry is great as well, especially between Wroniak, Ernst, and Isaac.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear isn’t as intense as I had been expecting. In fact, as plays about revenge go, it’s especially on the tame side. What’s here, though, is a collection of quirky characters and a message of empowerment along with, in keeping with Nan’s plan, a dose of honey. There’s little, if any, real sympathy for Kyle, but that’s part of the point. The sympathy, and the story, is with Nan and her friends. This is a short play, and not as deep as it maybe could have been, but what it does have is energy, and at WEPG, a quick pace and a great cast.

Tara Ernst, Ethan Isaac
Photo: West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Exit, Pursued by a Bear at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 17, 2019

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by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 8, 2019

Kathleen Wise, Jim Poulos Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest play at the Rep is a multi-award winning play by J.T. Rogers. Oslo is a fact-based play about diplomacy, essentially. Despite its widespread critical acclaim, this is one of those plays that, to me, sounds a lot less dramatic in description than it actually plays out on stage. It’s a testament to the skill of the playwright that he was able to take a series of secret negotiations over a year and half and craft them into such a riveting, insightful, surprisingly witty drama. The excellent cast at the Rep adds to the dramatic value as well.

This play runs at a little over two and a half hours, and there are three acts, structured in an inventive and ultimately compelling way. At first, it can be a little hard to follow because there are a lot of characters and a lot of talking, but the appeal of the story and the characters soon draw attention. It follows the secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and the PLO that eventually resulted in the famous Oslo Accords in 1993, focusing on married Norwegian diplomats Terje Rød-Larsen (Jim Poulos) and Mona Juul (Kathleen Wise), who arranged and facilitated the meetings. The unprecedented negotiations take careful diplomacy, unorthodox methods, and a lot of interpersonal influence, involving Norwegian government officials like Johan Jorgen Holst (Jonathan Gillard Daly), Israeli officials like Yossi Beilin (Jerry Vogel) and “unofficial” negotiators Yair Hirchfeld (John Rensenhouse) and Ron Pundak (Michael James Reed), and official negotiators Uri Savir (Ben Graney) and Joel Singer (Jim Shankman), as well as PLO negotiators Ahmed Qurie (Rajesh Bose) and Hassan Asfour (Amro Salama). The process is slow and careful, with tensions readily apparent, but with the insistent Terje setting up ground rules that encourage socialization outside the negotiating room. It’s a fascinating play on many levels, with the dramatic tension coming mostly from personality conflicts and the urgency of the situation. There’s also a fair amount of humor and wit, along with the charismatic characters and performances.

Director Steven Woolf has paced this play well, with the action getting more and more tense as the proceedings continue. The production values add a lot to the drama, with Michael Ganio’s versatile set and Nathan W. Scheuer’s stunning projections helping to set and maintain the mood of the show. There are also excellent costumes by Dorothy Marshal Inglis, as well as effective lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Fitz Patton.

The technical aspects help to set the stage, but the performances are what carry the weight of this excellent, thoughtful script. The central figures, Terje and Mona, are embodied expertly by Poulos and Wise, who have strong chemistry that make them believable as a married couple, as well as a great deal of energy and determination. Also standing out are the dynamic, charismatic performances of Bose as Ahmed Qurie and Graney as the initially enigmatic Uri Savir. There are also fine performances from the rest of the cast, including Daly, Rensenhouse, Reed, and Michelle Hand in various roles. It’s a superb cast all-around, contributing a great deal to the already riveting story and first-rate script.

Although it took me a few minutes to get into the story, once I did, the long running time of this play didn’t really matter. The structure of Act One especially is particularly clever, and the rest of the play continues the compelling storytelling all the way through until the bittersweet ending that acknowledges history since 1993. The play is a fascinating lesson in history, character development and the careful balancing act that diplomacy can be. It’s an insightful and thoroughly human drama, expertly staged at the Rep.

Rajesh Bose, Jim Shankman, Amro Salama, Ben Graney Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Oslo until March 3, 2019

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The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7, 2019

Gerry Love, Chrissie Watkins, Chuck Lavazzi, Graham Emmons, Cynthia Pohlson
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

First it’s Henrik Ibsen, and now it’s Arthur Miller. Stray Dog Theatre has been having a lot of success with productions of classic plays lately. This time, instead of 19th Century Norwegian plays, like its excellent productions of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, the company has turned to the work of a legendary 20th Century American playwright and one of his best known works, The Crucible. Like the first of the aforementioned Ibsen plays, The Crucible is a play I had read but never seen. Now, at Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey, I’ve seen it, and it’s a remarkable success.

This is a long play, with four acts and running about three and a half hours. It’s also a large cast for SDT, and a heavy subject matter, with Miller’s portrayal of the historical Salem Witch Trials told through the lens of 1950s McCarthyism. It’s not a precisely accurate account of the trials themselves, but this is more of a parable about the dangers of groupthink, peer pressure, overreaching government control, and more. The story starts as the Reverend Samuel Parris (Ben Ritchie), a respected pastor in the community, discovers some local girls dancing in the woods, including his young daughter, Betty (Avery Smith) and his orphaned  teenaged niece, Abigail Williams (Alison Linderer). Soon, other teenage girls from the community are identified, as well as Tituba (Kelli Wright), who Parris brought back from Barbados as a slave, and although she is initially suspected as the instigator it soon becomes clear that somebody else is in charge. There’s also Reverend John Hale (Abraham Shaw), a minister from a neighboring town who is brought in to investigate the charges of witchcraft and demonic influence, which eventually affects the whole village, particularly farmer John Proctor (Graham Emmons) and his wife, Elizabeth (Cynthia Pohlson)–who had recently dismissed Abigail from their employment–and Mary Warren (Chrissie Watkins), who now works for the Proctors and is a good friend of Abigail’s. Other prominent members of the community and church, including the highly respected Rebecca Nurse (Suzanne Greenwald) and the wife of landowner Giles Corey (Gerry Love) are suspected, with the accusations coming from Abigail and her friends, as well as influential landowners Thomas and Ann Putnam (Tom Moore and Laura Kyro). When prominent judges and officials Judge Hathorne (Jonathan Hey) and Deputy-Governer Danforth (Joe Hanrahan) become involved in the trials, it seems like most of the authorities are more interested in reputation and the process then in the truth.

The play is carefully constructed, introducing the main characters gradually and building the drama as each act progresses, with some particularly intense moments in the courtroom and with a memorable, devastating conclusion. The casting at SDT is especially strong, led by the poignant performances of Emmons and Pohlson as the conflicted Proctor and Elizabeth. Their relationship, strained at first, develops with believable emotion and chemistry. Linderer, as the initially enigmatic, manipulative Abigail, is also excellent, with some particularly strong moments in scenes with Emmons and with her friends/followers in the courtroom. There are also standout performances from Watkins as the conflicted Mary Warren, Hanrahan as the authoritarian Danforth, Shaw as the concerned and conflicted Hale, Greenwald as the noble Rebecca Nurse, Love as the determined Giles Gory, and more. It’s an especially strong ensemble, and the staging is well-paced and emotionally balanced, with the intense moments set up appropriately and significant time given to the more quiet moments as well.

Technically, this production is powerful, as well, with a striking, somewhat abstract set by Josh Smith and realistic costumes by Amy Hopkins. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been are also strong, with a poignant (if sometimes overdone) use of background music. The production design works well in emphasizing the historical basis of the play as well as it’s timely and timeless themes.

The Crucible is a classic, relevant in its time and just as relevant in contemporary times, when its various issues are especially applicable. With this production, SDT and director Gary F. Bell have assembled an exceptional cast for an immediate, intense and fascinating production. It’s another powerful staging of a classic by Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Crucible
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Crucible at Tower Grove Abbey until February 23, 2019


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Classic Mystery Game
by Katy Keating
Directed by Katy Keating
SATE Ensemble Theatre
February 1, 2019

Cast of Classic Mystery Game
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

Do you like board games? Murder mysteries? Fast paced, high-energy comedy? Well, if you do, SATE has a “Clue” for you! Classic Mystery Game is writer-director Katy Keating’s parody of the well-known mystery game, Clue, as well as a tribute to the 1985 film based on the game. In the capable, creative hands of Keating and the cast and crew at SATE, it’s a fast-paced, highly physical examination of 21st century American culture as well as a riff on the classic style of the game.

Ostensibly based on the movie, this play is more based on the game itself, with a fair amount of local and topical references thrown in, including an opening video sequence that features the performance venue, the Chapel. Staged on the floor at the Chapel with the audience seated on the stage, the cast performs before a large painted replica of the Clue board. Bess Moynihan’s set design is especially clever, with that board featuring the rooms with lights around them that light up as each room is featured in the story, and a versatile set consisting of furniture and a movable door that is moved around as needed. Costume designer Liz Henning has outfitted the characters in colorful, vaguely 1950s-ish style, and Ben Lewis’s lighting helps highlight the ominous, comically haunting atmosphere. There’s also excellent work from props designers Rachel Tibbetts and Bess Moynihan, as well as fight choreographer Ryan Lawson-Maeske. The sights, sounds, and atmosphere are all set remarkably well, setting the stage for Keating’s witty, rapid-fire dialogue and fast-paced action as butler Wadsworth (Michael Cassidy Flynn) introduces the story and serves as narrator while participating in the story as well.

This is a hilarious show, with a spirit reminiscent of old-time sketch comedy shows. All the regular characters from the game are here–Col. Mustard (Carl Overly, Jr.), Mrs. White (Ellie Schwetye), Mrs. Peacock (Rachel Tibbetts), Mr. Green (WIll Bonfiglio), Prof. Plum (Paul Cereghino), and Miss Scarlet (Maggie Conroy), along with Mr. Boddy (Reginald Pierre) and two “clowns” (Marcy Ann Wiegert, Bess Moynihan) who play a variety of roles each. The styling of the show serves the story especially well, with the flat cut-out glasses used for cocktails, and the representations of the weapons from the game. Everything moves very quickly, with a story that touches on conspiracy, government cover-ups, secrets and lies, and lots and lots of scheming, as the characters assemble under a pretence, and then are driven to search throughout the house for clues once a murder occurs. Well, once the first murder occurs. Yes, there are more murders, and more surprises, a series of revelations and lots and lots of jokes. There’s wordplay and innuendo, along with physical comedy, sight gags and more as the story continues on its rapid pace until its suitably hilarious conclusion. I won’t give any more details, because that will spoil the fun. And fun, it certainly is.

The performances are strong across the board, and everyone has standout moments, with Flynn as the obvious MVP for his fully realized, energetic comic performance. This is a performance that’s sure to take a lot of energy, and Flynn plays his role well. Everyone else is also excellent and it’s difficult to single anyone out. Everyone is their own unique, distinctive character, and everyone shows incredible energy and superb comic timing. It’s an ensemble show worthy of a theatre company where “Ensemble” has always been front and center.

Classic Mystery Game is Clue with a side of whimsy and snark. It’s topical, timely, and timeless all the same, and with so many jokes that, if you miss one, you’ll probably catch the next one. As is usual for SATE, this show is offbeat, excellently performed, and not to be missed.

Cast of Classic Mystery Game
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Classic Mystery Game at the Chapel until February 16, 2019


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Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty
Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
January 31, 2019

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Andrew Keeler Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Avenue Q is a show that advertises its shock value and irreverence. Still, as a sort of adult-oriented (not for kids) riff on Sesame Street, this Tony-winning Best Musical has a surprising amount of heart amidst all that crassness. Now onstage at the Playhouse at Westport in a locally-produced production, this latest iteration boasts a strong cast featuring a few notable local performers.

As fantastical as the setup may be–humans and puppets interacting in a grown-up version of a children’s TV show–a lot of situations are relatable, which is, I think, where Avenue Q gets a lot of its appeal. I mean, for English majors everywhere (such as yours truly), it’s easy to relate to a song called “What Can You Do With a B.A. in English?” The struggle to make one’s way in the adult world is an experience a lot of viewers can imagine, because to one degree or another, we’ve experienced that struggle, as well as the disconnect between childhood dreams and adult realities. Here, the story follows the optimistic puppet Princeton (Andrew Keeler) as he makes his way in the “real world” after college, settling in on Avenue Q and making new friends, including the idealistic Kate Monster (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), bickering roommates Nicky (Kevin O’Brien) and the fastidious Rod (also Keeler), the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (also O’Brien), and also human friends, aspiring comic Brian (Brett Ambler) and his fiancée, the clientless therapist Christmas Eve (Tori Manisco at the performance I saw, standing in for principal Grace Langford), as well as jaded former child-star Gary Coleman (Ileana Kirven), who is now the neighborhood superintendent. Amid struggles to succeed and form new relationships, there are also obstacles and temptations, represented primarily in the form of the Bad Idea Bears (O’Brien and April Strelinger) and local lounge performer Lucy the Slut (also Theby-Quinn). It’s a funny, frequently crass, occasionally surprisingly poignant show with some memorable songs, a catchy premise, and a message that manages to be both cynical and hopeful at the same time.

The staging, as usual, is colorful and whimsical, with a brightly colored set by Dunsi Dai that is somewhat reminiscent of Sesame Street, aided by some fun projections by Val Kozlenko. The intimate setting at Westport is a good setting for such a small show, as well. There are also appropriate costumes by Rissa Crozier and excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan. The puppets, conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, are in the recognized Avenue Q style, and the cast members do a good job with bringing them to life onstage.

The small ensemble is well cast, led by the always excellent Theby-Quinn in a winning performance as the determined but unlucky-in-love Kate Monster, and also as the temptress Lucy. It’s especially impressive when both characters are talking to each other, and Theby-Quinn effortlessly transitions between the two different voices. She also displays a strong singing voice on numbers like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (as Kate) and “Special” (as Lucy). Keeler is also convincing as the optimistic Princeton and the conflicted Rod, also showing off strong vocals in both roles. O’Brien brings a lot of energy and comic timing to his roles as Nicky, Trekkie, one of the Bad Idea Bears, and more, and Strelinger is impressive in a variety of roles. The human characters are well-portrayed, also, with Manisco (the understudy) impressive as Christmas Eve, who ends up counseling a lot of the characters despite not having any formal clients. Ambler is funny as Brian, and Kirven shows excellent stage presence and a great voice as Gary.

This is a fun show, even if some of the songs have dated a little in the last decade or so, and some of the raunchiness seems to be there for the sake of shock rather than really serving the story. Still, for the most part it holds up well since the last time I saw a production 10 years ago. This edition highlights the comedy but also the heart, and it makes for an entertaining evening of theatre.

Cast of Avenue Q Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport

Avenue Q is running at the Playhouse at Westport until March 3, 2019

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Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher
Original Choreography by Hofesh Shechter
Choreography Recreated by Christopher Evans
The Fox Theatre
January 29, 2019

Yehezkel Lazarov
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

This is Fiddler on the Roof, but not exactly as you may have seen it before. The national tour of Bartlett Sher’s most recent Broadway revival takes this time-honored classic and injects it with a fresh energy. It’s still the same show, essentially, but some staging changes and some especially strong performances highlight the strength of the material in a new and refreshing way, anchored by an especially strong leading performance and ensemble cast.

As beloved as Fiddler on the Roof is, one of the challenges to staging it is that, for most professional productions, the staging has strictly adhered to the original Jerome Robbins staging and choreography. As excellent as that is, if you see enough productions of the show, it can all seem too similar after a while. The most recent revival, while still using the Robbins staging and choreography as the basis, brought in a new choreographer, Hofesh Schechter, to change up some of the dances, and acclaimed director Bartlett Sher has added a simple but effective framing device to add an element of timeless transcendence to the story. These elements, along with an energetic, well-chosen cast, have brought a sense of vibrancy to this show that is especially refreshing. The story is the same, following Jewish milkman Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) and his family in 1905 Tsarist Russia, but now, everything seems more immediate somehow. The relationships between Tevye and his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal) and his daughters, and between his three oldest daughers Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch), and Chava (Natalie Powers) and their suitors Motel (Jesse Weil), Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), and Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander) seem even more authentic and credible. From classic solo moments like “If I Were a Rich Man” to big production numbers like “To Life”, “Tevye’s Dream”, and especially the entire wedding sequence, the energy is readily apparent, with new relationship dynamics subtly suggested, and with a great deal of energy and heart. Even the poignant ending is given a new sense of timelessness and hope without denying the inherent sadness of the situation.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by the dynamic, charismatic performance of Lazarov as Tevye. With a strong voice and excellent stage presence, Lazarov brings all the energy, charm, likability and complexity of Tevye to the stage, leading the cast with a powerful performance. He’s well supported by a strong ensemble, as well, with standout performances from Uzal as Golde, Carol Beaugard as the determined matchmaker Yente, Jonathan Von Mering as the lonely butcher Lazar Wolf, and especially all three daughter-suitor combinations, with Weyn and Weil having particularly excellent chemistry. There’s a strong singing and dancing ensemble supporting the leads, as well, bringing the village of Anatevka to life in one memorable scene after another, from the opening “Tradition” to the closing “Anatevka”.

Technically, this production is stellar, as well. The set by Michael Yeargan is detailed and versatile, featuring well-realized settings like Tevye’s house against a more changeable background backed by an imposing brick wall. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are detailed and authentic, maintaining a classic Fiddler look with a few small changes here and there. There’s also truly stunning lighting by Donald Holder that sets and maintains the mood of the show especially well, along with excellent sound design by Scott Lehrer and Alexander Neumann.

One of the real strengths of director Bartlett Sher in his revivals is that he’s able to maintain the essence and spirit of a show while also bringing a new sense of immediacy and connection for modern audiences. He’s done that again, remarkably well, in this new Fiddler on the Roof. It’s still the same show, but there’s something extra there that’s especially rewarding. It’s on stage at the Fox now. Go see it if you can.

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof]
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

The North American Tour of Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 10, 2019

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The Motherf**ker with the Hat
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Carl Overly, Jr.
R-S Theatrics
January 26, 2019

Jesse Muñoz, Adam Flores, Aaron Dodd
Photo by Jill Lindberg
R-S Theatrics

The latest production from R-S Theatrics has an eye-catching title, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The Motherf**ker with the Hat is technically a comedy, but there’s a degree of sadness, and even tragedy there as well. It’s a character study, looking at complex people and situations, and R-S has assembled a strong local cast for this memorable St. Louis premiere.

The story is intense and challenging, but with a lot of comic dialogue and surprising situations, as well as richly defined characters. Jackie (Adam Flores) has recently been released from prison after serving time on drug charges, and he’s trying to get his life back together, staying sober with the help of a 12-step group. He’s just gotten a new job, and he’s hoping to celebrate with his girlfriend, Veronica (Sofia Lidia), but soon he discovers a hat in her apartment that doesn’t belong to him, making Jackie suspicious that Veronica may be cheating on him. He takes refuge at the house of his sponsor, Ralph D (Aaron Dodd) and his wife Victoria (Talessa Caturah), who are now in the “nutritional beverage” business. He also enlists the help of his reluctant Cousin Julio (Jesse Muñoz) in one of his schemes to deal with the hat situation. That’s about all I can say in terms of plot without spoiling too much, because this story definitely has its twists. Just know that things aren’t always as they seem, and Jackie learns that some people are not as trustworthy as they seem, while others might have more complex motives. Essentially, it’s a character study, also taking a look at the challenges facing someone in Jackie’s situation, as well as Veronica’s, and how easy it is for some people to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. It’s a gritty, intense play highlighted by sharp dialogue, strong language, and raw interpersonal interactions.

The characters here are multi-faceted, as are the impressive performances from the cast. As Jackie, Flores manages to be likable, intense, impulsive, and vulnerable at the same time,. Dodd as the self-centred, bold-talking Ralph is also excellent, portraying a character who is more than he may initially seem. Lidia, as the conflicted, addicted Veronica, gives a convincing portrayal of a woman who’s caught in several difficult situations. Caturah, as the exasperated Victoria, is also impressive, as is Muñoz as probably the kindest character in the show, the questioning but supportive Cousin Julio. The character interactions are highly charged much of the time, and they are well portrayed here by the cast and through director Carl Overly, Jr.’s fast-paced staging.

The .Zack can be a difficult performance venue, with its high stage, odd sight lines and giant pillars, but this production uses the space well, opening up the staging so the performance space includes the area in front of the stage in addition to the stage itself. Taylor Gruenloh’s set design reflects the grittiness of the piece, with its effective representations of Veronica’s small apartment the versatile floor area that converts from Ralph’s place to Cousin Julio’s place with a few quick furniture changes. The costumes by Christina Rios suit the characters well, and there’s also evocative use of lighting by Todd Schaefer and impressive sound work from Mark Kelley.

R-S Theatrics is known for its memorable, challenging, St. Louis premiere productions, and its latest show is another example of this tradition. The Motherf**ker with the Hat is a crass, sharply characterized, sometimes brutally intense show that portrays its characters with their flaws on clear display. The characters aren’t always easy to like, but they’re always interesting. It may seem a little too bleak for some, especially for a comedy, but at R-S, it’s especially well staged, and it’s worth checking out.

R-S Theatrics is presenting The Motherf**ker with the Hat at the .Zack until February 10, 2019

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