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Archive for June, 2019

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Text by John Cameron Mitchell, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Jordan Woods
The Q Collective
June 22, 2019

Sarah Gene Dowling, Luke Steingruby
Photo: The Q Collective

It’s fun seeing a show you’ve seen before in a new light. The Q Collective’s small-scale, intimate staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at The Monacle is an ideal example of a new venue bringing an additional dimension to a show. The small nightclub setting, combined with excellent staging and an ideal cast makes for a thoroughly entertaining production.

The Q Collective is a newer theatre company that focuses on issues of gender and sexuality. Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems an ideal show for this company, with its exploration of gender identity among other issues. The title of the show has a double meaning for German-American rocker Hedwig (Luke Steingruby). “The Angry Inch” is the name of her band (keyboardist Holly Barber, guitarist J. Michael, bassist John Gerdes, and drummer Joe Winters) but it also refers to the result of a botched surgery that she explains as she tells her story, which details her life growing up as “Hansel” in Cold War Easr Germany, then meeting an American soldier and becoming “Hedwig”, and later getting involved with an insecure young man who eventually becomes rock star “Tommy Gnosis”. Her relationships with the men in her life, as well as her mother, and with her own identity, form the basis for the show, which is more of a concert than a play. Hedwig is joined onstage by her husband, Yitzhak (Sarah Gene Dowling), who used to have a drag act until he met Hedwig, who refuses to let him perform in drag, much to Yitzhak’s distress. The interplay between the two forms a lot of the drama of the show, in addition to Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy, who mostly appears in Hedwig’s stories and is heard shrouded in mist behind a door as he gives a concert nearby. The songs are rock-based, from more upbeat, driving songs like “Angry Inch” to slower power ballads like “Wicked Little Town”.

The setting at the Monacle brings a lot of realism to the performance. Although Hedwig is an over-the-top personality in many ways, this production brings her closer to the audience and makes her story even more personal and direct. The performances are especially strong, as well, with Steingruby delightfully theatrical as the enigmatic Hedwig. Dowling is also impressive as the longsuffering Yitzhak, who puts up with Hedwig’s moodiness and delivers powerful vocals as well. Steingruby shows off a smooth voice on songs like the memorable “Wig in a Box” and Wicked Little Town”, and Dowling shines as well both in backing vocals and singing lead on “The Long Grift”. The chemistry between the two is excellent, as well, as they portray a credible relationship arc on stage leading up to a dazzling finale.

Production-wise, this may be small scale, but the technical quality is first-rate. From the excellent band led by music director Holly Barber, to impressive lighting by Brian M. Ebbinghaus, to truly dazzling costume, wig, and makeup design by Lauren Smith, this production brings Hedwig’s world to life with remarkable detail. Hedwig and the Angry Inch from The Q Collective has the feel of an edgy indie-rock show in a small club. It’s bold, quirky and edgy, and entirely winning.

The Q Collective is presenting Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Monacle until June 30, 2019

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Indecent
by Paula Vogel
Directed by Joanne Gordon
Max & Louie Productions
June 21, 2019

Cast of Indecent
Photo: Max & Louie Productions

Indecent is a play about a play. It’s a lot more than that, too, but in the new St. Louis premiere staging by Max & Louie Productions, the theatre arts are front and center. It’s a message play, certainly, with themes about censorship, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and more. Ultimately, as currently staged at the Grandel Theatre, this new production is a triumph of lyrical staging and theatricality.

Indecent covers several decades in the creation of and controversy surrounding the staging of Polish Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which was originally written, in Yiddish, in 1907. Controversial in some circles from the beginning for its portrayal of characters that some Jewish critics considered stereotypical, as well as its treatment of the Torah and lesbian themes including a prominent love scene, the play still became a big hit in Europe before being brought to Broadway, translated into English, in 1923, where it became the centerpiece for a scandal. Shortly after opening, the production was raided by police and the company arrested and subsequently tried for obscenity. While God of Vengeance itself isn’t shown in great detail in Indecent beyond two prominent scenes, the point being made seems to be more about what the play represents and the issues it raised, especially concerning freedom of expression and personal, national, and religious (particularly Jewish) identity, and how different forms of prejudice (antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.) can be bound up together. The ominous gradual build-up to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, and their aftermath, is also a prominent theme. In addition to these issues, though, the play is a celebration of form, told in the manner of a traveling Yiddish acting troupe and featuring musicians as part of the production, playing Klezmer-style music among other styles such as jazz when the show’s time frame “arrives” in the 1920s. The players (TJ Lancaster, Paul Cereghino, Zoe Farmingdale, John Flack, Katie Karel, Judi Mann, and Tim Schall) all play various characters in the course of the production, and the musicians (Alyssa Avery, Kris Pineda, and Jack Theiling) are involved in the story as well. This is actually a somewhat challenging play to describe, since it covers so much in terms of scope, theme, structure, and tone. There’s broad humor and poignant drama; lyrical poetry and music and occasional theatrical melodrama. Mostly, though, it’s a highly personal story focusing on the playwright Asch (Cereghino and later, Flack) and the troupe of players led by Asch’s friend, former tailor-turned-Stage Manager Lemml (Lancaster) and the trials, tribulations, and persistent hope of expression and understanding of Asch’s most controversial work. It’s about more than one play, though–it’s about art, expression, and humanity itself.

The casting is especially strong, with a impressive, cohesive ensemble and no weak links. Although everyone plays several roles, the players–with the exception of Lancaster as Lemml–are listed in the program by age group, with Cereghino and Farmingdale as the “ingenues”, Flack and Mann as the “Elders”, and Schall and Karel as the “Middle”. Standout roles and performances include Cereghino as the first idealistic and then increasingly disillusioned and haunted younger Asch; Lancaster as the determined Lemml; Farmingdale as the younger version of Asch’s wife Madje and also as the various actresses who play the young Rifkela in God of Vengeance; Karel as the various performers playing the worldly Manke in the play-within-the-play; and Flack and Mann as the older Asches. Everyone is excellent, though, including the musicians who are almost constantly onstage, joining in with the story.

Technically, this production is nothing short of dazzling. With a masterfully detailed, versatile set by Dunsi Dai, projections by Kevin Bowman, and truly stunning lighting by Patrick Huber that emphasizes shadows and contrasts, the mood, time, and place of the show are well maintained. There are also superb costumes and wigs by Teresa Doggett and excellent sound design by Phillip Evans and music direction by Ron McGowan. The sights, sounds, and effects of this play are remarkable, bringing the audience into the experience of the play in poetic style.

This is a show that got a lot of buzz when it was on Broadway, and with this production, I can see why. Whether you know much or anything about the source material (I didn’t), it doesn’t particularly matter because you will learn a lot simply by watching this play. There’s a lot here that’s still relevant in today’s day and age, as well as an important history lesson. Overall, the effect is bold, theatrical, and fascinating. The play may be called Indecent, but this production is more than simply “decent”. It’s a remarkable theatrical experience.

Paul Cereghino, Zoe Farmingdale
Photo: Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Indecent at the Grandel Theatre until June 30, 2019

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Kinky Boots
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Original Broadway Direction and Choreography by Jerry Mitchell
Direction Re-Created by DB Bonds
Choreography Re-Created by Rusty Mowery
The Muny
June 19, 2019

Cast of Kinky Boots
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s 101st season continues this week with the regional premiere of the Tony-winning musical Kinky Boots. With a score by pop legend Cyndi Lauper and a book by celebrated playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein, this is a bold, energetic and fun show, with a lot of style and heart. And the Muny has brought a great cast and dazzling production values to the stage, to boot.

The story, based on a 2005 British film that was inspired by a true story, tells of a surprising friendship and an unusual business venture. When Charlie Price (Graham Scott Fleming) inherits his family’s shoe factory upon the death of his father, he feels inadequate to live up to his father’s standards and run the failing factory, until he meets drag queen Lola (J. Harrison Ghee), who also has a backstory and a complicated relationship with paternal expectations. The two go into business, with Charlie as manufacturer and Lola as designer, but there are still complications as the two prepare to showcase the new “kinky boots” at a prestigious fashion show in Milan. For Charlie, he has to deal with a legacy of perfectionism as well as his ambitious fiancee, Nicola (Caroline Bowman), who wants him to give up the factory and move to London with her. There’s also Lauren (Taylor Louderman), a factory employee who grows closer to Charlie as they work together. For Lola’s part, there’s the memory of a strict, unaccepting father as well as factory worker Don (Paul Whitty) who continually gives Lola a hard time. It’s a fun show with a catchy score, featuring some poignant ballads like “Not My Father’s Son”  as well as some energetic production numbers such as “Sex Is In the Heel”, “Everybody Say Yeah”, and the uplifting, spirited finale “Raise You Up/Just Be”.

The production here is essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, with original direction and choreography re-created, and with some key leading roles played by performers who have played the roles before. The cast is excellent, with Ghee as Lola especially strong, both vocally and in sheer presence. Ghee works well with the also excellent Fleming, who puts in a sensitive performance as the conflicted Charlie. Louderman also turns in a winning performance as Lauren, even though the character isn’t given a lot to do at times, but still, Louderman excels especially belting out Lauren’s solo “The History of Wrong Guys” and has good chemistry with Fleming’s Charlie. Other standouts include Whitty as the belligerent Don, and John Scherer in a fun comic turn as Charlie’s assistant at the factory, George. Also worthy of special mention the “Angels” (Callan Bergmann, Ian Fitzgerald, Valton Jackson, Jacob Lacopo, Michael Olaribigbe, Kyle Post, Ricky Schroeder, and Joey Taranto), who back up Lola in her nightclub act, and who exhibit a delightfully flashy, enthusiastic style.

The production values here are simply stunning, utilizing the newly renovated Muny stage with utmost flair. Michael Schweikardt’s set is colorful and versatile, complemented well by Shawn Duan’s video design. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are especially dazzling, suiting the characters from factory workers to drag queens with stylish detail. There’s also excellent lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and a great Muny Orchestra and music direction by Ryan Fielding Garrett.

Kinky Boots is, above all, a show with energy and heart. It portrays a growing friendship with poignancy and charm, as well as dealing with father/son relationships, romance, acceptance of differences, and more. It’s an upbeat and highly entertaining production from the Muny, and another remarkable success for a so-far stellar 101st season.

Cast of Kinky Boots
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Kinky Boots in Forest Park until June 25, 2019

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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Lorin Lotarro and Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
June 10, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo:The Muny

The stage looks bigger. That was my first impression when the Muny’s Executive Producer and Artistic Director, Mike Isaacson, appeared on the newly rebuilt stage to introduce this season’s opening production, Guys and Dolls. It’s a new era for the Muny, unveiling its newly revamped performance area and technical setup, and they’ve chosen a classic 1950s-set Broadway musical to introduce the “new Muny” to the audience. I’m not sure if the stage really is any bigger, but it looks big, shiny, and new, but what’s not new is the expectation of an excellent show, and the Muny has delivered that with an energetic, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining production of this well-known “musical fable”.

Guys and Dolls is a show of its time, and that time is the early 1950s. The place is Damon Runyon’s stylized New York City. It’s not supposed to be gritty and realistic. It’s broad comedy, for the most part, and the sensibilities can be jarring to 21st century eyes. The focus is on gamblers and the women who probably shouldn’t love them, but do anyway. Nathan Detroit (Jordan Gelber) is the proprietor of a notorious “floating crap game” who, along with his cohorts Benny Southstreet (Jared Gertner) and Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Orville Mendoza) is eager to find a new place to host the game while they avoid the watchful eye of the persistent police Lt.Brannigan (Rich Pisarkiewicz). He’s also been engaged for 14 years to the increasingly exasperated nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Kendra Kassebaum), who is nursing a frequent cold apparently brought on by her stress over the situation. Meanwhile, high rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Ben Davis) is in town, and in order to secure the money he needs for his crap game location, Nathan makes a bet with Sky, involving the pious young Sarah Brown (Brittany Bradford), who works for the struggling Save-a-Soul Mission. It’s a show full of larger-than-life and deliberately broad characterizations, with stereotypical gamblers and visions of New York City, along with a great score and lots of energetic dancing.

One notable fact, casting-wise, about Guys and Dolls is that there are four equal leading roles. It’s not a lead couple and a supporting couple. All four roles–Adelaide, Nathan, Sarah, and Sky–share the same prominence, and the casting for all four is essential. The roles here are memorably played, and the chemistry (“yeah… chemistry!”) is excellent. Davis and Bradford show off strong voices in their roles, and Bradford shows strong comic ability with her fun rendition of “If I Were a Bell”. Gelber is fun as a the marriage-avoidant and crap-game obsessed Nathan, and Kassebaum conveys Adelaide’s increasing weariness along with her genuine love of–and exasperation with–Nathan with impressive presence and energy, delivering a strong rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” especially. The supporting players are well-cast, as well, led by Mendoza and Gertner who make a fun comic team, and by beloved Muny regular Ken Page in a charming turn as Sarah’s kind, devoted grandfather and co-worker at the mission, Arvide Abernathy. There’s a vibrant, energetic ensemble as well, contributing to dazzling group numbers like “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “The Crapshooter’s Dance”, which also showcase the dynamic choreography of Lorin Latarro and Patrick O’Neill.

Technically, this production is wondrous, making the most of the new capabilities of the new and improved Muny stage. Paul Tate dePoo III’s stylish, colorful set shows off the neon boldness of old-school New York, aided by the excellent video design by Nathan W. Scheuer and lit up brightly by lighting designer Rob Denton. There are excellent, vividly styled period costumes by Tristan Raines, as well. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra and music direction by Brad Haak that bring Frank Loesser’s classic score to life with verve.

Guys and Dolls is a fun show. It’s big, bold, and full of energy, filling the Muny’s enormous stage with stylized characterizations and energetic singing and dancing. I’m not sure if the new stage really is bigger, but it seems that way, and it certainly looks newer, with some new aspects that add to its versatility. It’s a new stage for a new era, and Guys and Dolls is ushering that new era, and the Muny’s 101st season, with style.

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Guys and Dolls in Forest Park until June 16, 2019

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Sylvia
by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 6, 2019

Tim Naegelin, Kay Love, Susie Lawrence
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s fitting that Stray Dog Theatre would be producing A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia, considering it’s a play about a stray dog. Or more precisely, a formerly stray dog who “adopts” a man and stirs up trouble between that man and his wife. It’s a comedy, with some serious moments, focusing on relationships between humans and their pets, and with one another. On stage currently at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, it’s a fun play with a an especially strong cast.

Sylvia has an intriguing conceit to start off with–the title character, a dog, is played by a human (Susie Lawrence). This is a deliberate choice, apparently, because of the frequent comparison’s between this dog’s relationship with Greg (Tim Naegelin), the man who brings her home and his relationship with his wife, Kate (Kay Love). Greg and Kate are recent empty-nesters, having just recently sent their youngest child off to college. Now living in a small apartment in New York City, the two seem to have different outlooks on life. Kate is excited about her job as a middle school English teacher, developing a curriculum to help her students learn Shakespeare. Greg, however, is tired of his job and not thrilled with his boss’s insistence on his going into a more “abstract” line of work for his company. We learn all this over the course of the play, through the couple’s interactions with one another and especially with (and about) Sylvia, with whom Greg develops an instant bond and who Kate sees as more of a threat, both to her relationship with Greg and to her plans for the future. Greg, meanwhile, is finding himself spending more and more time with Sylvia, pouring out his deepest thoughts to her even though she seems more interested in yelling at local cats and meeting other dogs in the park, where Greg meets Tom (Melissa Harlow), another dog owner who shares his book-learned “expertise” about dogs with Greg while their dogs play. Kate, in turn, shares her concerns with her socialite friend Phyllis and, eventually, a therapist named Leslie (both roles also played by Harlow), while Greg finds himself increasingly torn between his attachment to Sylvia and his commitments to Kate.

Gurney’s script is well-constructed, with some fun conceits, such as translating “dog-language” into English, such as when Sylvia “barks”, she doesn’t say “woof” or “arf”. Instead, she says “hey! hey!” The relationships between people and their pets are explored in various ways, as well as changing marital relationships, mid-life crises, career fulfillment and lack thereof, and more. There are some poignant moments, as well, although it’s a comedy and there are many laughs. The staging in this production is well-paced, making the most of the whole performance space as SDT does so well. The production values are simple and effective, with a colorful set by Miles Bledsoe that features a backdrop of the city, well-suited costumes by director Gary F. Bell, and effective lighting by Tyler Duenow.

The real highlight of this production is the cast. Naegelin and Love are both excellent in their roles, with Naegelin playing Greg as something of a man-child and Love conveying the right mix of exasperation and hope. They have believable chemistry, as well. Lawrence, as Sylvia, has many moments to shine, and her physicality and presence make the role believable. She’s not stereotypically “dog-like” in her movements most of the time, although she manages to convey the energy of an excitable canine with enthusiasm. Also outstanding is Harlow in an impressive triple role, managing complete characterizations of all three to the point of almost being unrecognizable between them. Her comic timing is also especially strong.

Sylvia is a play I think a lot of dog lovers will be able to relate to in one way or another. While not everyone gets attached the way Greg does, dog owners love their dogs and will understand some of the moments in this story. It’s also a credible portrayal of a long-term married couple that has to deal with challenges as their life circumstances change. It’s a clever idea for a play, and SDT has presented it with charm and energy. It’s a fun show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Melissa Harlow, Kay Love
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sylvia at Tower Grove Abbey until June 22, 2019

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The Boy From Oz
Music and Lyrics by Peter Allen
Book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
June 5, 2019

David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

If you didn’t know a lot about Peter Allen before, The Boy From Oz at STAGES St. Louis will educate you. A singer/songwriter and entertainer known for his songs, his flashy stage show, and his brief marriage to Liza Minnelli, Allen becomes the larger-than-life focus of this star-vehicle of a musical. It starred Hugh Jackman on Broadway, but the STAGES production has a dazzling star of its own who, along with an excellent supporting cast, makes this a lively, dazzling spectacular of a show.

The story, narrated by Allen (David Elder), follows the entertainer from his childhood days in Australia. Young Peter Woolnough (Ben Iken, alternating with Simon Desilets) takes up dancing at an early age, encouraged by his mother Marion (Corrine Melançon) and largely ignored by his violent, alcoholic father Dick (Steve Isom) who dies when Peter is still young. As Peter ages into his teens, he teams up with another singer and musician, Chris Bell (Erik Nelson) to form an act known as “The Allen Brothers”, gaining notoriety in their home country and, eventually, overseas. Peter is eventually noticed by the legendary Judy Garland (Michele Ragusa), and the “brothers” become her opening act for her concerts. He also meets and quickly forms a bond with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli (Caitlyn Caughell). The two marry, but eventually separate when Peter comes out as gay. The second act follows Peter through the 1970s and 80s, as he finds new love with partner Greg Connell (Zach Trimmer) and a new manager in Dee Anthony (also Isom), and he develops the flashy, glittery performance style for which he became known. It also follows Peter’s relationship with his mother over the years, and features many of the well-known songs that he wrote or co-wrote, including “I Honestly Love You”, “Everything Old Is New Again”, and the bouncy “I Go To Rio”. It’s a tuneful, energetic show that follows Peter Allen’s life with all its highs, lows, triumphs, and tragedies.

Like the better “jukebox” musicals, The Boy From Oz has a solid book and a compelling story, but this one works especially well as a vehicle for whoever plays Peter. Here, that role is filled by Elder, who is absolutely the star of the show–no question. As Peter, Elder radiates charm, charisma, and energy as he sings and dances his way through the story, even taking some moments to interact with the audience along the way. This is a role for a showman, and Elder is definitely that. He has excellent chemistry with his co-stars, as well. The supporting cast is also strong, with the standouts being Melançon in one of her best roles at STAGES in a poignant turn as Peter’s mother, and Caughell as a vibrant Liza Minnelli. Keiser and Trimmer are also excellent in their small-ish roles as Peter’s first performing partner and his most enduring romantic partner, and Isom is good as usual in his dual role as Peter’s father and, later, as his manager. Ragusa gives a fine performance as Garland, as well, for the most part, although she does seem to be trying so hard to “act” like Garland that it comes across as more of an impression than an authentic performance. There’s a great ensemble of singers and dancers to back up Elder and the supporting cast, as well, with the big, flashy production numbers being a major highlight of the show.

Production-wise, the show looks as great as it sounds, with a colorful set by James Wolk, dazzling costumes by Brad Musgrove, and splashy lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The changing eras from the 1930s through the 1990s are vividly portrayed here, with the changing times reflected in the changing life of its central figure.  It’s dynamically staged, as well, with energetic choreography by Dana Lewis and musical staging by director Michael Hamilton.

The Boy From Oz is a show I didn’t know much about before seeing this production, aside from who starred in the Broadway production. STAGES has brought the show to St. Louis now, with a star who may not have the name recognition of Hugh Jackman, but who has all the presence and star quality that anyone could ask for in the leading role. David Elder is the star here, and he and the rest of the excellent cast are definitely worth seeing. This is a terrific way to start a new season for STAGES.

Corinne Melançon, David Elder
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting The Boy From Oz at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until June 30, 2019

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Be More Chill
Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Scott Miller
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
June 1, 2019

Cast of Be More Chill
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I brought my son with me to see Be More Chill at New Line Theatre. It’s not the first show I’ve brought him to, or even the first New Line show, but this time, the reason was a little different. This is a show that I’ve seen highly polarizing reactions to, largely on generational lines, so I thought my 19-year-old son might offer a younger perspective that would be helpful. Watching the show together–and talking about it afterwards–was a valuable experience, although from both of our perspectives, the show wasn’t particularly polarizing since we were largely in agreement. For the most part, this is an entertaining show with the great cast, production values, and musicality that I’ve come to expect from New Line. It offers a fun take on old themes, although aside from the packaging there isn’t much “new” about it.

Be More Chill itself has been something of a sensation in its pre-Broadway incarnations, and its current Broadway run is a reflection of that popularity. It has obviously struck a chord with its audiences, and New Line’s production is about as well-presented as I could imagine, although as a show I see it as essentially derivative and–like a lot of the other popular “teen” stories–not particularly reflective of my high school experience (or my son’s 30 years later). There are definitely relatable aspects, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, and better. Still, it may not be revolutionary, but it’s a fun show, with some memorable songs and characters, including protagonist Jeremy (Jayde Mitchell), his longsuffering best friend Michael (Kevin Corpuz), bullying popular kid Rich (Evan Fornachon), and Jeremy’s crush, theatre geek Christine (Grace Langford), who develops an interest in Rich’s buddy Jake (Ian McCreary), who used to date popular girl Chloe (Laura Renfro). Everyone’s life is eventually affected when Rich tells Jeremy about a secret technological advance that can help him be “cool” and get whatever he wants, including Christine. The “Squip”–a microchip that is swallowed as a pill and activated by Mountain Dew–manifests itself to Jeremy in a form (played by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) that resembles Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix and grows more commanding and demanding as the story plays out.

This story is one that’s been told many times before in various forms. It’s a high school “outsider strives to be popular and learns the price of conformity” tale that represents high school in a way that hasn’t changed much since the teen comedy-dramas that were so popular when I was a teenager in the 1980s, except for changes in clothing and music styles and pop culture references. In fact, the themes go back even further than the 1980s, to the 1950s and possibly even earlier than that. One thing this show does well, though, is recognize its influences and celebrate them, from nods to Bye Bye Birdie and other pop culture phenomena through the ages, to those various teen movies that paint high school as a struggle between cliques and outsiders. It also features a Faustian angle and a sci-fi twist that calls to mind a gentler Little Shop of Horrors and directly references another iconic influence, The Matrix.

The staging at New Line is eye-catching, with a versatile, colorful set and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Lippert. Sarah Porter’s costumes are also memorable, reflecting the various personalities of the characters and sci-fi angle as well. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by keyboardist Marc Vincent and strong musical direction by Nicolas Valdez. The choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack is lively and energetic as well, reflecting the pop-rock based score well.

The performances here are the show’s strongest asset, with Mitchell and Corpuz making a believable team as Jeremy and Michael. Corpuz is especially notable for his sympathetic portrayal as Michael questions Jeremy’s treatment as Jeremy falls more and more under the influence of the Squip. Corpuz also gets the show’s most famous song, the catchy, angsty “Michael in the Bathroom” and he makes the most of it, with a dynamic, excellently sung performance. Dowdy-Windsor is also a standout as the stylish, demanding Squip, and Zachary Allen Farmer impresses in several roles, including an apathetic drama teacher and, especially, as Jeremy’s Dad, who has his musical moment with the show’s funniest song, “The Pants Song”. There are also memorable performances from Fornachon as the conflicted Rich, Langford as the earnest Christine, Renfro as “mean girl” Chloe and Melissa Felps as Chloe’s neglected friend Brooke, who develops an interest in Jeremy. It’s a strong, cohesive cast with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and, as is usual for New Line, especially strong singing.

Be More Chill may not be the best “teen” show I’ve seen, but as staged at New Line, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also a great show for people of different generations to watch together, and talk about. It became the catalyst for some meaningful conversations between me and my son. Also, since this is such a highly talked-about show, this production gives St. Louisans an ideal opportunity to see what so many people are talking about. Considering New Line’s size and scale, it may even be a better venue than Broadway for this particular show. It’s a memorable way to close another excellent season at New Line.

Special thanks to my son, John Kenyon, for thoughtful conversations that contributed to this review.

Jayde Mitchell, Kevin Corpuz
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Be More Chill at the Marcelle Theatre until June 22, 2019

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