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Archive for March, 2019

Waitress
Book by Jessie Nelson, Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Based on the Motion Picture Written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Lorin Latarro
The Fox Theatre
March 26, 2019

Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

Waitress is the hit Broadway musical based on a cult-hit movie, and featuring lots and lots of pies. It’s one of those shows that might have you craving baked goods by the time the curtain goes down. It did for me, anyway. Still, there’s a lot more than pastries to commend this show, and this touring production currently on stage at the Fox. What’s front and center, beside the pies, is the excellent score and a top-notch leading performance, along with a strong supporting cast, even though the story itself has its problems.

With a catchy score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Waitress benefits from the name recognition of both Bareilles and the movie on which the show is based. I hadn’t seen the movie or the show before, so this touring production is my introduction, beyond knowing the basic plot and hearing one of the songs (the poignant “She Used to Be Mine”). The story follows Jenna (Christine Dwyer), who–as the title suggests–is a waitress at a small-town eatery called Joe’s Pie Diner. She’s more than a waitress, though, as she personally bakes the pies the establishment sells, as well as inventing the recipes. She works alongside fellow waitresses Becky (Maiesha McQueen) and Dawn (Ephie Aardema), supervised by the gruff cook Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin). She also waits on the diner’s eccentric owner, Joe (Richard Kline) every day, and goes home every night to her volatile, abusive husband Earl (Matt DeAngelis). The story begins when Jenna finds out she’s pregnant. She’s not thrilled with the news, but she resolves to make the most of it, making an OB/GYN appointment and meeting her new doctor, Dr. Pomatter (Steven Good), with whom she develops an initially awkward flirtation. And… that’s about as far as I can explain the plot without spoiling too much. What I will say, though, is that this show has its issues, not the least of which being problematic aspects of several of the relationships. The show is at its strongest when focusing on Jenna as an individual, and in her friendships with her fellow waitresses and with Joe, and Bareilles’s score is excellent, with several catchy songs that serve the story and the characters well. I just have some trouble liking some of the characters I think the show wants me to like (especially Dr. Pomatter), and some of the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be.

The real strength of this production is its central performance, and a few of the supporting performances. Dwyer is simply remarkable as Jenna, with a strong voice and excellent stage presence. She makes Jenna a relatable protagonist, and her pie-baking scenes involving flashbacks to her personal history are a particular highlight, as is her powerhouse performance of the show’s most well-known song, the aforementioned “She Used to Be Mine”. There’s also excellent support from McQueen as the snarky Becky and especially Aardema as the quirky, initially lonely Dawn, along with a standout performance from the energetic Jeremy Morse as Ogie, Dawn’s socially awkward suitor. Kline as the crotchety but secretly supportive Joe is also memorable, as is Dawn Bless as Nurse Norma, the nurse at Dr Pomatter’s practice. DeAngelis is a suitable villain as the obnoxious Earl, and there are also fine performances from Dunkin as Cal and Good as Dr. Pomatter, although I didn’t care about their characters as much as the show seems to want me to. There’s also a strong ensemble, supporting the leads well in the various production numbers.

Technically, this show impresses, with a versatile, eye-catching set by Scott Pask that smoothly transitions from the diner set to other locations as needed, and a stunning backdrop enhanced by Ken Billington’s excellent atmospheric lighting. The costumes by Suttirat Ann Larlarb are also striking, suiting the characters and the tone of the show especially well. Another memorable feature is that the band is onstage throughout the show, and they’re in excellent form, as conducted by music director and keyboardist Robert Cookman.

Waitress is, ultimately, an entertaining show, especially in terms of the score and the truly superb performance of Christine Dwyer as Jenna. Story-wise, it has its problematic elements, although for the most part–especially when it focuses on Jenna herself–it’s compelling. And of course, there’s pie– there were some “pies in a jar” on sale at intermission as a clever tie-in. It’s certainly crowd-pleaser, as well, and a thought-provoking conversation-starter. It’s worth checking out.

Steven Good, Christine Dwyer
Photo by Philicia Endelman
Waitress North American Tour

The North American tour of Waitress is playing at the Fox Theatre until April 7, 2019

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Nonsense and Beauty
by Scott C. Sickles
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 17, 2019

Jeffrey Hayenga, Robbie Simpson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s closing production for its 2018-2019 Studio season is a world premiere, which had a reading last year at the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival. Nonsense and Beauty is a poignant story that’s inspired by real events and people, most notably the 20th Century English author E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howards End, etc.). With simple, effective staging and an especially strong cast, this is a compelling, promising new play.

In first hearing about this play and what it’s about, I did a little bit of research of my own because while I had known that Forster was gay, I didn’t know about his long relationship with English police officer Bob Buckingham, which is the basis of this play. Here, playwright Scott C. Sickles tells the story of their relationship and their relationships to other important figures in their lives. In fact, the effect of the play makes it more of the story of a small group than of the one couple in particular, although that relationship is at the center. The story is also the story of a different time in history, in which gay relationships not only carried a social stigma, but were actually illegal in the United Kingdom. So, when Forster (Jeffrey Hayenga) is first introduced to young Bob (Robbie Simpson) by his friend, J.R. “Joe” Ackerley (John Feltch), there’s an air of secrecy about how they conduct their relationship, and the social and legal pressures on Bob as a police officer are also made apparent. Still, the relationship grows with a sense of sweet simplicity despite the societal pressures, until Bob meets May (Lori Vega), a vivacious young nurse with whom he begins a flirtation that eventually leads to marriage. Needless to say, this complicates the situation with Forster, called Morgan by his friends and Edward by his imperious mother, Lily (Donna Weinsting). For Morgan, Bob is the great love for which his has waited, but for Bob, the situation becomes especially complicated since he seems to genuinely love both Morgan and May, and almost despite himself, Morgan begins to admire May as well. Although Lily’s presence is an obvious influence on Morgan, the real drama and focus in this play is on the relationship dynamics between Morgan, Bob, May, and Joe. The story plays out over several decades, with an air of poignancy and sadness about it, although there are elements of hope as well.

It’s a well-constructed play, for the most part, although the first act seems slow at times and some characters are more developed than others, it’s ultimately a fascinating play, exploring the complexities of love and friendship in an extremely restrictive time and place. The direction is simple and effective, and the casting is especially strong, particularly of Hayenga, who shines as the sensitive, loyal and initially lonely Forster, and Feltch as the devoted, occasionally snarky Joe. Vega is also excellent as May, and Simpson gives a fine performance as Bob as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Hayenga and Vega. Weinsting makes a memorable impression in the small but significant role of Forster’s mother Lily, as well, although for the play itself, her character seems the most extraneous. It’s a strong, especially cohesive ensemble, making the most of Sickles’ thoughtful, literate script.

Technically, the show is simply staged in the round. The set, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, is sparse, consisting of a simple square performance area and some furniture as needed. Bembridge also designed the lighting, which is especially evocative and helps set the tone of the play well. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall, and well-suited period costumes by Felia K. Davenport. Overall, the technical aspects support the mood and style of the piece and reflect its period setting well.

Nonsense and Beauty is a compelling new play, with a sense of time, place, and character that’s well-defined, although it could use a little bit more defining here and there. Ultimately, it’s an effective, evocative and highly personal focus on the life and relationships of an important literary figure who was a real person, not just a name to read about in English class. It’s an excellent production to close out the season at the Rep Studio, and it’s a highly promising new play.

Robbie Simpson, Jeffrey Hayenga, Lori Vega, John Feltch
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Nonsense and Beauty in its Studio Theatre until March 24, 2019

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La Cage aux Folles
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sarah Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 16, 2019

Zachary Allen Farmer, Robert Doyle
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre has staged another remarkable production with their rendition of the modern classic musical La Cage aux Folles. As often happens at New Line, this production distills the essence of the show and brings out its human drama, emphasizing character and relationships, along with the excellent singing that I’ve come to expect from this company. In addition, it’s also sparkly and dazzling, with a strong ensemble and a truly stunning performance from one of New Line’s most recognizable players.

This production is also my introduction to this show, in terms of seeing it live. I’d heard the score many times, and seen clips of televised performances of some of the songs, but I’d never seen a production of the show before until now. I did know the story, though. It focuses on performers in a drag show at a nightclub in Saint-Tropez, France. Georges (Robert Doyle) is the MC of the show, and his longtime partner Albin (Zachary Allen Farmer) is the star of the show, performing as “Zaza” and backed by Les Cagelles (Jake Blonstein, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg, and Ian McCreary). Offstage, Georges and Albin live in an apartment over the club, and are attended by the enthusiastic butler/maid Jacob (Tiélere Cheatem), who is also an aspiring drag performer who wants to be in the show. Georges has a son, Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz), whom Georges and Albin have raised together. Now, Jean-Michel has returned with announcement–he’s engaged, and his fiancée, Anne (Zora Vredeveld) is the daughter of a prominent ultra-conservative political candidate, and he’s invited her parents (Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini) to meet his parents, but with a twist that leads to much examination of relationships, identity, and the sense of belonging for Albin, Georges, Jean-Michel and eventually most of the cast. This version is based on the most recent London and Broadway revivals, with a smaller cast than the original Broadway production, but with the catchy, memorable Jerry Herman score intact, as well as Harvey Fierstein’s insightful book and the memorable lead characters.

Casting-wise, this production shines, and particularly as a showcase for one of New Line’s most prolific performers. Thinking of all the shows I’ve seen at New Line since the first one I saw (Next to Normal) in 2013, it’s easier for me to count the shows Zachary Allen Farmer hasn’t performed in than the ones in which he has appeared. Still, seeing him here as Albin/Zaza is something of a revelation. Farmer is always excellent, but he’s especially so here, bringing out a depth and richness to both his acting and his always remarkable vocals on songs like the title number and especially the fiery “I Am What I Am” and the catchy “The Best of Times”.  Also, as with the best of performers, he brings a sheer level of stage presence that not only lights up the stage, but energizes everyone around him. A particular beneficiary of this energizing is Doyle as Georges, who starts off slowly but gets better and better as the show goes along, especially in his scenes with Farmer. The two have a strong, believable chemistry that lends poignancy to their characters’ relationship as a couple, exemplified in Georges’s ballad “Song of the Sand” and its duet reprise. Also standing out is Cheatem is a delightfully scene-stealing performance as the stylishly determined Jacob. There’s also strong support from Lindsey Jones as Georges and Albin’s friend, the vivacious restaurateur Jacqueline, and by Corpuz, who gives a strong performance as Jean-Michel, who also has convincing chemistry with Vredeveld as the sweet but little-seen Anne. Coffel and Bollini are also memorable in dual roles as two very different couples–the supportive, friendly Renauds and the more severe Dindons. There’s also excellent support from Joel Hackbarth as the club’s stage manager Francis and memorable, energetic singing and dancing from les Cagelles.

Visually, this show is striking, with a bold, flashy and very pink set by Rob Lippert, who also designed the excellent lighting. Sarah Porter deserves special mention for her spectacular costumes, from the sparkling Cagelles outfits to Jacob’s memorable attire, to Albin/Zaza’s array of eye-ctaching ensembles, many of which have a mid-80s vibe. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by Music Director and pianist Nicolas Valdez, and vibrant choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, performed with flair by the cast.

This is a show I’d heard a lot about, and I knew some of the songs well, but I hadn’t seen it on stage until New Line brought it to the stage with its usual insightful, inventive style. This is a fun show with a lot of flash, but it’s also a very human show, with poignancy and wit and charm. It’s another winning production from New Line.

Cast of La Cage Aux Folles
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting La Cage au Folles at the Marcelle Theatre until March 23, 2019

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The Play That Goes Wrong
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 15, 2019

Michael Keyloun, Ka-Ling Cheung, Evan Zes
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The expression “hilarity ensues” easily comes to mind when thinking of the Rep’s latest production, The Play That Goes Wrong. In fact, that expression itself is an accurate and succinct description of the play itself. While a lot goes on in this show, the emphasis is on physical comedy, mile-a-minute humor, and, especially, the element of surprise. It’s a wild and wacky show, even if it’s not really about anything other than generating as many laughs as possible, and the Rep’s version boasts an energetic, comedically gifted cast.

The basic conceit of this play is initially reminiscent of another celebrated farce that has been staged memorably at the Rep–Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Like with that play, the basic idea is that a theatrical company is putting on a production, and nothing happens as planned. What’s different here is that the action begins before the play-within-a-play officially begins, as actors and “crew members” wander the house looking for a lost dog, or a Duran Duran CD, and sometimes enlisting audience members to help repair elements of the already-crumbling set. Eventually, the play’s director and star, Chris Bean (Michael Keyloun) enters and introduces his company–the Cornley University Drama Society–and their play, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Bean plays Inspector Carter, who is investigating the murder of Charles Haversham, played by Jonathan Harris (Benjamin Curns), who starts out the play lying “dead” on a couch and trying to stay “dead” as various mishaps occur around him. The story of the play involves trying to solve the murder amid the various intrigues that arise, involving Haversham’s fiancée, Florence Colleymore played by Sandra Wilkinson (Ruth Pfirdehirt), her brother Thomas played by Robert Grove (John Rapson), and Haversham’s brother Cecil played by Max Bennett (Matthew McGloin). There’s also bumbling butler, Perkins played by Dennis Tyde (Evan Zes). While the story plays out and gets more and more absurd as it goes along, lighting and sound operator Trevor Watson (Ryan George) and stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ka-Ling Cheung) become increasingly involved in the antics onstage as well, in increasingly surprising and hilarious ways.

This isn’t the most original of concepts, but a show like this depends on the execution, timing, and energy more than a witty script. The fictional show-within-a-show is basically a stock English murder mystery, and the characters are stock concept characters, but the “play-within-a-play” conceit adds to the humor in that we see the actors acting—one who’s constantly appearing at the wrong time, another who repeatedly mispronounces words, another who responds enthusiastically to audience applause and hams it up accordingly. The stage crew members also become unexpectedly enlisted in the onstage performance, and a hilarious competition ensues as a result. More laughs come in the form of physical comedy, pratfalls, mishaps, and general mayhem that involves the actors, the props, and gradually more and more elements of the set. I won’t give too much away in terms of detail, but I will say that there are so many jokes and gags here that once you start laughing, it’s hard to stop because there’s always something that comes along to add to the pandemonium.

In a show like this in which everything is so chaotic, precision in the staging is essential, and director Melissa Rain Anderson has impressively managed to order the mayhem with energy and style. The technical aspects here are wondrous, as well, especially in the form of Peter and Margery Spack’s spectacularly whimsical set, which is the source of a lot of the unexpected humor here. There’s also top-notch lighting by Kirk Bookman and sound by Rusty Wandall, as well as delightfully colorful costumes by Lauren T. Roark.

The casting here assembles some stalwart comedy veterans of the Rep along with other impressive performers making their Rep debuts. Everyone is excellent, with strong comic timing and deliciously over-the-top performances, with the standouts being Keyloun and Rapson for their impressive physical comedy, McGloin for his delightful self-satisfied mugging, Zes for his expertly inept use of language as well as physicality, and especially Cheung for her increasingly determined, delightfully deadpan turn as stage manager and last-minute understudy.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a hilarious closer for the Rep’s 2018-2019 season, the last under retiring Artistic Director Steven Woolf. It’s one of those “throw in all the jokes and see what happens” kind of shows, staged with energy, style, and a lot of impressive technical prowess. It’s not the cleverest or wittiest of its type, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Ruth Pferdehirt, Matthew McGloin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Play That Goes Wrong until April 7, 2019

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Well
by Lisa Kron
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
March 14, 2019

Lori Adams, Katy Keating
Photo by Ann K Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

 

Well is an intensely personal play. The latest production from Mustard Seed Theatre assembles a top-notch cast to tell playwright Lisa Kron’s autobiographical tale that deals with health and wellness in various different aspects, physical, emotional, and relational. Essentially a comedy, there are some serious issues tackled here as well, and though the structure does seem a bit pretentious at times, it’s the personal relationships and connections, along with the strong performances, that make this production especially memorable.

Even though Well, as it’s written, is personal in itself, the original casting made it even more so, as playwright Kron played herself, surrounded by actors playing all the other roles, which I would imagine adds to the whole “meta” aspect of the story and the way it all plays out. Here, Kron is played by the excellent Katy Keating, who does an especially admirable job inhabiting the role, although the aspect of artifice is still there in a way it isn’t when the playwright is playing herself. That’s a difference that’s inherent to the situation, though, and it’s one that all regional productions of this play are going to share. This is one of those plays that announces its theatricality in its very structure, and with Kron’s witty, insightful script and Mustard Seed’s strong cast, that concept works. Here, Kron (Keating) starts out introducing the concept of her play, only to be interrupted by her mother, Ann (Lori Adams), who has dealt with chronic illness for as long as Lisa can remember. As Lisa tells the story, tales from her childhood and young adulthood are acted out by her and the rest of cast (Alica Revé Like, Carl Overly Jr., Bob Thibault, and Leslie Wobbe), highlighting her own experiences with illness and her mother’s theories about allergies, as well as Ann’s efforts to encourage racial diversity in their Michigan community in the 1960s and 70s. The structure is spelled out at the beginning, due to Ann’s intervention, the story, Lisa’s memories, and the very concept of the play are put under further scrutiny as the purpose for the story is made clear to the audience and to Lisa herself. Ultimately, this is an examination of the playwrights relationship with her mother, and with her own perspective and how that perspective has influenced her own thoughts and attitudes about life itself.

The structure of the play can seem a little overly and obviously “deconstructed” at times, but the overall concept is still compelling, especially as staged by the excellent company at Mustard Seed and led by Keating’s remarkable performance as Lisa. The story is about her, and even as her plans start to fall apart around her, Keating’s relatable presence anchors the show. Adams, as Ann, is also excellent, and the scenes between her and Keating are especially compelling. The rest of the players play their various roles well, in addition, lending solid support to Keating and Adams, as well as to the story and concept of the play itself.

The plays deconstructional nature is reflected well in its staging, as well, and its half-realistic, half-abstract set designed by Bess Moynihan. Ann’s house is well-realized on one side, while the other half of the stage is more open and adaptable. The lighting by Michael Sullivan adds to the overall tone of the show, along with Zoe Sullivan’s sound design and Jane Sullivan’s costumes, which suit the characters well and add a touch of symbolism and connection between the characters, especially Lisa and Ann.

Overall, Well is a memorable, character-driven look at personal relationships as well as attitudes toward physical, emotional, and community health. It’s particularly well-cast, even if the autobiographical aspect is altered slightly from its original presentation. It’s especially effective as a showcase for its superb cast. This is another thoughtful, memorable production from Mustard Seed Theatre.

Katy Keating, Bob Thibault, Carl Overly Jr., Leslie Wobbe, Alica Revé Like
Photo by Ann K Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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