Archive for April, 2019

True West
by Sam Shepard
Directed by William Whitaker
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 12, 2019

William Humphrey, Isaigh Di Lorenzo
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has just opened the final play of their 2018-2019 season, and it’s a certainly a wild one. True West by celebrated playwright/screenwriter/actor Sam Shepard is a caustically comic look at family relationships, show business, and more. It’s definitely on the “unusual” side to say the least, and STLAS has staged it with their usual flair, and an excellent cast of local actors.

The story is set in Southern California in what appears to be the early 1980s, reflected in Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. The central characters are two brothers–college-educated screenwriter Austin (William Humphrey) and the gruff, confrontational Lee (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who lives more of a wandering life and has just returned from a stint in “the desert”. Austin is house-sitting for the brothers’ mother (Susan Kopp), who is on an extended vacation in Alaska, and he’s working diligently on a film script, anticipating a meeting with producer Saul (William Roth)–a meeting that Lee ends up crashing, and making a surprisingly positive impression on Saul. The play charts the increasingly antagonistic and competitive relationship between the brothers, as each begins to take on aspects of the other’s personality in surprising ways, some of which involve typewriters, televisions, and toasters. That’s all I will say, since the comedy of the piece revolves a lot around the element of surprise. It’s an usual story, to say the least, with larger-than-life characters, gritty dialogue, and fast-moving situations.

The comedy also hinges a lot on characterization, as the two very different brothers begin to show that they might not be as different as they thought. It’s a lot of “reaction” humor, as the brothers keep doing things that surprise one another. Humphrey, as the more strait-laced Austin, is especially hilarious in his transformation. Di Lorenzo, as the more initially outrageous Lee, is also convincing, and the actors play off of each other well. There are also fine performances from Roth as the somewhat fickle producer Saul, and Roth as the brothers’ mother, who is surprising in her own way.

The technical aspects of the show, as is usual for STLAS, are well done. The small space at the Gaslight Theater is used especially well, transforming belivably into a suburban California dwelling, and the props are great, too, such as the vintage typewriter and a variety of household appliances. Steve Miller’s lighting also contributes well to the tone of the show, as do Andrea Robb’s costumes, which suitably reflect the characters’ personalities. The staging is smart and fast-paced, as well, with Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography of special note.

True West isn’t a show for everyone, and at moments it seems like the story is just weird for the sake of being weird, which some viewers might find especially hilarious and others might find frustrating.  Still, the characterizations are strong and the STLAS actors are especially well-cast. It’s a memorable way to close out the season.

William Humphrey, WIlliam Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio


St. Louis Actor’s Studio is presenting True West at the Gaslight Theater until April 28, 2019

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by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrice Foster
St. Louis Shakespeare
April 6, 2019

Reginald Pierre, Bridgette Bassa
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has moved to a new venue, and they’re bringing a fresh approach to a classic tragedy along with the change of location. This Othello is updated in setting and costumes, but also given an intense, personal approach that lends a sense of timeliness to the story. There are a few surprises here, and an especially strong cast to bring even more resonance to this oft-staged play.

Othello is the name of the play, as well as its lead character, played here by Reginald Pierre. He’s a Moorish general who has recently married Desdemona (Bridgette Bassa), the daughter of the influential Brabantio (Brad Kinzel). Othello has also upset his ensign Iago (Cynthia Pohlson) by promoting Cassio (Phil Leveling) as his lieutenant instead of Iago. The vengeful, self-absorbed Iago then sets out to ruin Othello’s life, enlisting the help of the disappointed Roderigo (Jesse  Muñoz), who had hoped to pursue Desdemona himself. That’s essentially the setup, and the plot grows from there, as Iago plays on Othello’s trust for him and doubts about Desdemona’s loyalty, as well as using and manipulating everyone around him in his single-minded quest to destroy Othello, and Cassio as well.

This production, brought into a contemporary setting, highlights personal relationships as well as the insidious influences of both racism and sexism. The show emphasizes injustices–the mistreatment and mistrust of Othello first, and of the women consistently–even by the supposedly “good” Cassio. Iago is there trying to use everything to his advantage, as well. He is a monster, but he gets away with his monstrosity for a long time because he’s “one of the guys”, and the women are, for the most part, treated as convenient accessories, and sometimes as nuisances. It’s an intense, dynamically staged production that highlights the relationships of the characters and makes the most of the company’s new performance space at Tower Grove Church.

The casting here is especially notable in the choice to cast Pohlson as Iago, playing the role as a man, and as a swaggering, entitled, fiercely scheming one at that. It’s a dynamic performance, and a stunning one. Pohlson commands the stage with every step and plot from beginning to end. Pierre is also excellent as the highly conflicted Othello. and Phil Leveling makes a strong Cassio, still complex in his own right. Bassa, as Desdemona and Hillary Gokenbach as Iago’s mistreated wife Emilia are also outstanding, and there are fine turns from Muñoz as the manipulated Rodrigo and Lisa Hinrichs as Cassio’s sometime-lover Bianca as well. The cast chemistry is especially strong. The “bedroom” scene at the end is positively chilling, with top-notch performances all around, and the tragic conclusion carries credible emotional weight.

In terms of staging, the set by Jared Korte is simple, consisting of boxes that are moved around as needed. Brendan Schmidt’s lighting is effective as well, highlighting the increasingly ominous tone of the story. There are also well-suited contemporary costumes that work especially well, particularly the striking military uniforms. There’s also good work from props designer Amanda Handle, sound designer Ted Drury, and fight choreographer Tod Gillenardo. The new venue has its drawbacks (pew seating in particular), but for the most part, it works well for this production.

This is an Othello for today–intense, confrontational, timely. The staging by director Patrice Foster is intelligent and poignant, with a sense of energy and immediacy from beginning to end. It’s worth checking out on its final weekend.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Othello at Tower Grove Baptist Church until April 13, 2019

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Photograph 51
by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
April 5, 2019

Alex Fyles, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is revisiting a winning formula with its latest production. It’s a biographical show about an important but historically overlooked woman scientist, and it’s directed by Ellie Schwetye. This year, though, it’s not Silent Sky. This time, the play in question is Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, and the featured scientist is 20th century English chemist Rosalind Franklin. The resulting production, as before, is wondrous and illuminating.

Here, in Ziegler’s intelligent, thoughtful, and surprisingly witty play, the emphasis is on efforts to discover the structure of DNA, in which Franklin (Nicole Angeli) played a significant but–until recently–largely uncredited role. The play follows Franklin as she comes to work at Kings College, Cambridge in the early 1950s, and shows her utmost devotion to her work and her often rocky relationships with her colleagues, including the socially awkward and initially dismissive Maurice Wilkins (Ben Ritchie) and doctoral student Ray Gosling (Ryan Lawson-Maeske). As Franklin sets out using x-ray photography to get a clear picture of the structure of DNA, other scientists around the world are using various methods to achieve the same goal, and most notably the team of American James Watson (WIll Bonfiglio) and the English Francis Crick (John Wolbers), who are working together in London and become especially interested in Franklin’s work. Meanwhile, Franklin corresponds with admiring American doctoral student Don Caspar (Alex Fyles), with whom Franklin forms a bond of mutual understanding. While this synopsis seems fairly basic, the structure of the play is anything but basic. It’s especially clever in the way it reveals the events and the personalities of the characters through it’s semi-linear structure and frequent fourth-wall breaking, having the characters narrate parts of the story in turn but also occasionally talk about their observations in an “after-the-fact” way. It’s a fascinating play, in its depiction of events but also in its personalization of those events and vivid portrayal of the characters involved. It shines a light on the continuing issue of women being overshadowed by men in professional settings, as well as examining interpersonal communication, connection, scientists’ relationships with their work, and the pressure to succeed and find the next big discovery first.

West End Player’s Guild’s space in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church is being well-utilized by this production, with a traditional stage setup and a remarkably detailed set by Kristin Cassidy, who also designed the props. The period setting and specific laboratory atmosphere is well-realized, with the two main lab spaces–Franklin/Wilkins and Watson/Crick, being the focal point but with the whole stage space being put to full use.  Tracey Newcomb’s excellent costumes also contribute to the authenticity of the tone and setting, as do Elizabeth Lund’s lighting and director Ellie Schwetye’s sound design.

The staging is smooth and dynamic, and the cast is simply ideal, with top-notch local performers led by the outstanding Angeli in a compelling performance as the determined, complex Franklin. She’s tough, snarky, and determined, but she’s also vulnerable and awkward at times, and her chemistry with her co-stars–particularly the also excellent Ritchie and Fyles–is excellent. Lawson-Maeske is also a standout as the opinionated and often overlooked Gosling, and there are also outstanding performances from Bonfiglio as the fiercely determined Watson and Wolbers the equally determined but more diplomatic Crick. It’s a truly stellar cast with no weak links, and the witty interplay between the characters is among the best features of this smartly staged production.

West End Players Guild has another winner with Photgraph 51. With an impressive cast and a thoughtful, often philosophical approach to its subject, it’s a show that manages to be surprisingly funny and poignant in equal measures. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss this one.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Will Bonfiglio, John Wolbes, Nicole Angeli, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Photograph 51 at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 14, 2019

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Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 4, 2019

Cast of Dreamgirls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has been producing more large-cast shows in their relatively small space at Tower Grove Abbey lately. Its current production, Dreamgirls, is the latest example. A well-known Broadway show that’s also been made into an acclaimed movie, this is a big, glitzy and glamorous musical that adapts very well to the smaller venue at SDT. Especially, it serves as a showcase for some standout performances and impressive production values.

The original Broadway Dreamgirls and the movie are well-known for their music and for the performances of two famous Jennifers–Holliday (on stage) and Hudson (on screen)–as central character Effie White, the original lead singer for a Supremes-like singing group. Here, Effie is played by the excellent Ebony Easter, as the show traces Effie’s and her group’s path from obscurity to stardom. The Dreamettes–who later become the Dreams–start out as a group of three friends entering a talent contest at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Effie, along with her friends Deena Jones (Eleanor Humphrey) and Lorrell Robinson (Tateonna Thompson) are young a naive at first, embarking on a tour supporting R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Omega Jones), but encouraged by Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Marshall Jennings) and their highly ambitious car-salesman-turned manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Abraham Shaw), they soon learn more about the reality of show business, with its joys, triumphs, disappointments, and heartbreak in their personal and performing lives, also dealing with inherent racism in the music industry as Early and the Dreams aim to cross over from R&B to pop. The show is a deliberate evocation of the Motown sound, being basically a fictionalized tale of the rise of Motown and the Supremes in particular, with a memorable score featuring many highlights, including the title song, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, “One Night Only” and  Effie’s show-stopping “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”.

The staging at SDT is, for the most part, excellent, reflective the glitzy and occasionally glamorous world of show business in the 60s and 70s, but also showing the realities of life backstage and offstage. Josh Smith’s glittery, red-and-gold two-level set is striking, as are Julian King’s detailed era-specific costumes, reflecting the evolving styles of the eras in which the show takes place as well as the Dreams’ growth in maturity and sophistication. There’s also sparkling lighting by Tyler Duenow and energetic choreography by Mike Hodges, along with an excellent–if a little too small for the sound–band ably led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The staging and pacing is good, for the most part, although there are occasionally some awkward scene transitions.

What especially stands out here is the excellent cast, and particularly the leading performances. Although the ensemble energy varies at times, there are some truly dynamic performances here, led by Easter who is in excellent voice as the determined Effie. Humphrey as rising-star Deena is also strong, and Thompson as Lorell is a particular standout. The always dynamic Jones puts in a dazzling performance as Early, as well.  Also notable are Jennings in a well-sung, highly likable performance as C.C. and Shaw in the difficult role as the highly ambitious but controlling and manipulative Curtis. The performance scenes especially are excellent, as an evocation of the 60s and 70s transitions between soul and R & B to pop, and eventually disco.

Dreamgirls is a fascinating show, with excellent songs and characters, and a real sense of history about it. At Stray Dog Theatre, this show is given a highly entertaining staging featuring some especially strong performances by an impressively talented cast. It’s a tuneful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s another memorable musical from this theatre company.

Eleanor Humphrey, Marshall Jennings, Abraham Shaw, Tateonna Thompson, Omega Jones, Ebony Easter, Diamon Lester
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Dreamgirls at Tower Grove Abbey  until April 20, 2019

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Popcorn Falls
by James Hindman
Directed by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company
March 30, 2019

Popcorn Falls is the latest quirky, offbeat production from Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company. Hanrahan is well-known in St. Louis for his one-man shows, but he has also shared the stage with an array of excellent local performers. This time, Hanrahan and Shane Signorino team up with director Sarah Whitney to stage a hilariously energetic comedy of hopes, dreams, and a host of memorable characters.

As is usual for Midnight shows, the staging is minimal, with just a few furniture pieces and props, and that’s all that’s needed here, along with some occasional simple costume changes as the actors change from one character to another. The main figures in the story–set in the declining small town of Popcorn Falls–are new mayor Ted Trundle (Hanrahan), and janitor Joe (Signorino), who find themselves teaming up to save the town from power-hungry county executive Doyle (also Signorino) who aims to tear down Popcorn Falls and build a sewage treatment plant in its place. The ray of hope comes in the form of a financial grant that was awarded for the purpose of financing a theatre group in the town–but there isn’t one, so Mayor Trundle sets out to start one with the aim of putting on a play in order to receive the money and save the town, even after Doyle has given them the seemingly impossible deadline of one week in which to stage this production. Through the course of the show, we meet a varied cast of characters who are assembled to be part of this show, and we learn more about everyone as relationships grow, backstories are revealed, and the characters encounter a series of increasingly difficult obstacles in their efforts to save the town.

With this show, the story is fun, but it’s the performers who essentially are the show. Hanrahan and Signorino are both impressive in their energy and presence, bringing a host of characters to life, with Hanrahan’s hapless Trundle and Signorino’s regretful Joe being the anchors. Hanrahan is excellent as usual, and Signorino–who has the most characters to play–is equally impressive, introducing the audience to such different personalities as an imperious librarian, a moody teenage girl, a single mother and aspiring actress, the villainous Doyle, and more. The interplay between these actors and their characters, along with the clever staging to allow for the quick changes–including both performers playing the same character at different times when needed–adds to the comedy and flow of the production. The simple set by Chuck Winning and lights by Tony Anselmo work well to maintain the overall improvised feel of the production, supporting playwright James Hindman’s fast-moving script.

This is a simple, somewhat frantic production that gets its energy–and its heart–from its performers. It’s not a long show, but there’s a lot going on, with something of a twist to the ending that’s entirely fitting to the tone of the show. Ultimately, Popcorn Falls is a fun show.

The Midnight Company is presenting Popcorn Falls at the Kranzberg Arts Center until April 13, 2019

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Daddy Long Legs
Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon, Book by John Caird
Based on the Novel by Jean Webster
Directed by Maggie Ryan

March 29, 2019


Terry Barber, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s latest production is something of a surprise, at least to me. I wasn’t very familiar with the source material before seeing this show, and the premise seemed somewhat problematic (even creepy) to my 21st Century eyes at first glance. Still, John Caird and Paul Goron’s musical version of Daddy Long Legs has been critically acclaimed in its London, New York, and regional runs, and the casting looked good. Now, upon seeing it, I’m pleased to report that not only is the production a sheer delight–it’s in the best musical production I’ve ever seen from this company.

Looking at the plot of this show through a 21st Century lense, the plot seems at least a little suspect. A young and rich, but socially awkward benefactor chooses an orphan girl to support and send to college, and (spoiler!) it eventually evolves into a love story. There are so many potential problems with this setup just looking at it like that, but one of the most admirable things about this show is that it doesn’t ignore or gloss over the potential problems–it directly addresses them and has the characters challenge and confront them, from power imbalances to dishonesty and misrepresentation and more. Ultimately, though, it’s a story of a surprising relationship that grows from entirely different intentions. It also helps that the orphaned Jerusha Abbott (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) is already 18 when the story begins. As she explains in song, she’s “The Oldest Orphan” at the place where she grew up, the John Grier Home, feeling as if she is stuck there by her circumstances and by societal expectations. Jesper Pendleton (Terry Barber) is a man from a prestigious family who has come into wealth at young age, and is a trustee for the orphanage. He’s financed other orphans’ college educations before as an act of charity, but only with boys until Jerusha, who has impressed him with an essay she has written. Initially, it’s all anonymous and mysterious, with Jerusha expected to write letters to the pseudonymous “Mr. John Smith” with no expectation of receiving a reply. She nicknames her benefactor “Daddy Long Legs” based on catching a glimpse of his tall figure walking away, and imagines him as an old man. As her letters grow more descriptive and animated, reflecting her strong and determined personality, Jesper is increasingly impressed, to the point where he feels compelled to meet her in person, and the story–and the relationship–grow more complex, and complicated, from there. I won’t give away too much, because that would spoil the fun of this surprising, richly characterized, and musically memorable character study that’s at times funny, thought-provoking, emotionally intense, thoughtful, and heartwarming. It’s well structured, and there’s never a dull moment.

The is a two-character show, and both performers are ideally cast in their roles. Jerusha carries most of the weight of the show. She appears to be the focus character for much of the story, and Theby-Quinn is truly impressive in the role, showing off her great acting range from delightfully snarky comic moments to poignant drama, as well as excellent vocals. Barber, as the initially more mysterious Jervis, does an excellent job of showing the character’s emotional growth, starting out as rather stuffy and remote, to displaying a real depth and vulnerability that reveals itself gradually as the story unfolds. He also has a glorious voice, particularly on his character’s personal epiphany moment with the song “Charity” in the second act. The chemistry between the performers is delightful, as well, also starting out believably awkward but then growing as the characters interact more. It’s a believable progression, and their voices blend together impressively, as well.

The staging is impressive, as well, with a meticulously detailed period set and striking lighting by Rob Lippert, and marvelously detailed costumes by Julian King. Jerusha’s outfits are particularly impressive, as she goes through various costume changes onstage for a variety of authentic early 1900’s looks. The only minor distraction is Barber’s somewhat obvious wig, but all other aspects of this production are stunning. There’s also excellent work from the small band led by music director Scott Schoonover.

This is a real must-see of a show. It’s a touching, tuneful, and impeccably staged production with two top-notch leading performances and a vividly realized portrayal of its time and place. It’s not only the best musical I’ve seen from Insight. It’s up there with 2014’s stunning Death of Salesman as one of their two best overall shows I’ve been able to attend there. Daddy Long Legs is truly marvelous production.

Terry Barber, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Daddy Long Legs at the Marcelle Theatre until April 14, 2019


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Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
March 28, 2019

Ben Nordstrom, Wendy Greenwood
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a look at relationships in several different aspects. Time Stands Still examines romantic relationships, as well as a people’s relationships with their work and their callings in life. It’s also an especially timely play in terms of its subject matter in various ways. On stage in St. Louis, NJT’s production is particularly compelling and impeccably cast.

The play and this production are notable for their realism. The first thing that stands out, even before the action begins, is John Stark’s detailed set that accurately represents a small but well-appointed Brooklyn loft. Playwright Donald Margulies is also meticulous in his script, with richly defined characters and vivid, emotional, and highly credible dialogue, tracking what seems to be about a year in the lives of the characters, who are both journalists. Sarah (Wendy Greenwood), a photographer, and her boyfriend, reporter James (Ben Nordstrom), live together in the loft, but they have apparently spent little time there recently as both had been on assignment in the Middle East, although James had come home earlier than Sarah. The play begins as Sarah, who was wounded in a bombing shortly after James left, returns home, and the two try to settle into a more “normal” life away from the dangers of war zones as Sarah recovers from her injury and James tries to finish several writing projects. They’re also struggling in various ways with how to resume–and define–their relationship following various traumatic events. Meanwhile, their friend and magazine editor Richard (Jerry Vogel) encourages them in documenting their experiences and also introduces his new, younger girlfriend Mandy (Eileen Engel), an event planner whose outlook on life is decidedly different from theirs.  The play deftly examines various themes–the dynamics of relationships and how career goals, life attitudes, and traumatic events can affect them, as well as artists’ and writers’ relationship with their art and also questions concerning covering troubling world events and whether or not that coverage makes a difference in public perception and encouraging activism and change. These seem like a lot of topics to cover in one play, but Margulies manages to do so in a seamless way while making the characters credible and relatable at the same time.

In terms of credibility, the performances are also essential even with the excellent script. Here, all four cast members are strong, with excellent emotional range from both Greenwood and Nordstrom, who display strong and throughly believable chemistry throughout all stages of their relationship. Vogel and Engel are also impressive, providing a striking contrast and an example for James and Sarah of what they could be if they so chose. The ensemble chemistry is strong and the energy is taut and palpable. It’s a truly impressive cast.

The technical aspects of the production, in addition to the set, are also strong. The excellent, evocative lighting by Michael Sullivan effectively portrays the change in seasons and passage of time, as well as setting the mood in various scenes. The costumes by Michele Siler are suitable and, as in keeping with the general tone of the play, realistic as well. The play is set in 2009, and there are some nice little touches like the small flat-screen TV that help to convey the sense of time and place.. There’s also crisp sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

Time Stands Still is an intense, thought-provoking play. It’s a highly emotional, vivid portrayal of characters who have been in intense situations and have differing reactions and life goals. On stage at New Jewish Theatre, it’s a memorable and compelling theatrical experience.

Wendy Greenwood, Jerry Vogel, Ben Nordstrom, Eileen Engel
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Time Stands Still at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 14, 2019

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