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Archive for July, 2019

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Additional Lyrics by Douglas Carter Beane, David Chase, and Bruce Pomahac
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
July 8, 2019

Jason Gotay, Mikaela Bennett (Center) and the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Photo: The Muny

“Muny Magic” is a familiar phrase for the musical theatre company that has become a fixture in Forest Park. So far, the Muny has been firing on all cylinders with their newly refurbished stage and excellently staged productions for their 101st season. The latest show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, seriously brings the “magic” to the forefront, with a dazzling, energetic and superbly cast production that makes me see the show in a new light, even though I’ve seen this revised version before.

This show isn’t all Rodgers and Hammerstein, even though they’re billed before the title. Although it features a classic score by the legendary team, this version has a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, and a few lyrical additions as well. It’s a revamping of the classic story that retains its Fairy Tale setting but is given a modern twist, with some new characters and more for Cinderella to do than dream of meeting a prince, although she does that too. Here, Cinderella (Mikaela Bennett)¬† wants to make the world a better place, by showing kindness to those around her and encouraging people–including heir to the throne Prince Topher (Jason Gotay), and idealistic activist Jean-Michel (Chad Burris) to stand up for what they believe. Also, one of her stepsisters, the sweetly goofy Gabrielle (Stephanie Gibson), isn’t mean, and she’s in love with Jean-Michel. The over-the-top vain stepmother Madame (Alison Fraser) is here, making Cinderella’s life miserable and trying to make sure one of her daughters, Gabrielle and the brash, selfish Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) marries the Prince after he invites the eligible women of the land to come to a ball where he hopes to meet his bride. Well, he’s actually more reluctant, and the ball is the idea of his scheming, power-hungry adviser Sebastian (John Scherer), but the ball does happen, and Prince Topher meets the glammed-up Cinderella and falls in love, only for her to flee at midnight and… well, you know the story, or at least you know some of it. There are some added twists here, and the plot is changed up a bit from what you might expect, but the familiar elements are here, from the glass slipper to the pumpkin coach, to the Fairy Godmother, who here is a neglected village outsider named Marie (Ashley Brown), who is treated kindly by Cinderella. In fact, kindness is at the forefront in this production, as personified by Cinderella. Kindness, as well as standing up for one’s convictions, are the major themes here. The familiar songs, from “My Own Little Corner”, to “Ten Minutes Ago”, to “Impossible”, are all here along with some additional songs for a magical, tuneful experience that’s sure to appeal to all ages.

I had seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production first played the Fox Theatre, and I remember liking it, mostly, but not this much. This version at the Muny has an energy and spirit that’s new and works especially well on that giant stage in front of the large Muny audience. It also seems to flow better and, although it’s still not the deepest of stories, it makes more sense here. The casting makes up for a lot of the difference, I think, with no weak links and a lot of memorable performances, led by the truly remarkable Bennett as Cinderella, who has all the presence and warmth required for the role and then some, along with a glorious voice. She also has great chemistry with the appropriately charming Gotay as Prince Topher, who brings a lot of likability to the role along with a smooth, powerful voice of his own. Brown as Marie is also excellent and vocally stunning, as is Victor Ryan Robertson as the prince’s herald, Lord Pinkleton. There are standout comic performances as well, from¬† Fraser as a gleefully vain Madame, and Cody who has a delightful comic solo in “Stepsister’s Lament”, backed by a strong, energetic ensemble. Gibson is also a delight as Gabrielle, well-matched with the amiable Burris as the idealistic but socially awkward Jean-Michel. The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is employed especially well here, also, operating puppets for the various animals in the play (mice, raccoons, etc.), among other roles. The key word here, I think, beyond “magic” is “energy”. There’s a ton of it in this large, enthusiastic cast, making the production numbers particularly entertaining.

Technically, the show isn’t over the top with the special effects, but it still looks fantastic. There are some fun effects here and there, especially with outfit transformations, and Paige Hathway’s set is whimsical and colorful. There are also dazzling, distinctive costumes by Robin L. McGee, clever puppets by Puppet Kitchen International, Inc. and Eric Wright, fun video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton. The array of brightly colored wigs by Kaitlyn A. Adams also add a lot of quirky flair to the show. The staging is well-paced, with energetic choreography by Josh Walden, and everything is ably backed by the terrific Muny Orchestra led by music director Greg Anthony Rassen.

This is such a fun show. It’s a Cinderella for today that’s about magic and celebrating kindness more than anything else, and it gives audiences a Cinderella and Prince who are credible as a couple, and as equals. It’s also full of whimsical, fantastical spirit, with that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score that probably will end up playing in your head for the rest of the night. It’s another strong production from a particularly stellar Muny season.

Alison Fraser, Mikaela Bennett, Stephanie Gibson, Jennifer Cody
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Forest Park until July 16, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2019
Set One
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 5, 2019

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest installment of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival is now under way at the Gaslight Theatre. The first set of plays, which opened over the weekend, feature a variety of thought-provoking, timely issues, along with some memorable characters and strong performances. Here are some brief thoughts:

“Great Negro Works of Art”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Carly Rosenbaum, Jaz Tucker
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The first play of the evening is the annual work by the Festival’s namesake playwright, Neil LaBute. It’s also the first of two plays in the set that deal in some way with what can be best described as “the perils of online dating”. That issue is more directly addressed in the set’s second play, but it’s an issue in this one as well, although other topics are more prominent. This pairing features Jerri (Carly Rosenbaum), who is white, and Tom (Jaz Tucker), who is black, who are meeting in person for the first time after communicating online. Jerri chose the location, which is an art exhibit with the same provocative title as the play itself. The main focus here is on the interplay between Jerri and Tom, who points out the similarity of their names to the well-known cartoon characters, as well as cringing at Jerri’s increasingly flippant and obtuse comments and ignorance not only of African-American culture, but also apparently of her own inability to listen and recognize her obtuseness. It’s an all-too-realistic encounter, which serves as a challenge to the systems in society that have historically recognized works of white artists over those of artists of color, as well as a challenge to individuals (especially white individuals) to recognize how they contribute to this disparity. The performances of both performers are strong, and the play is both an intense character study and a thought-provoking personalization of timely issues.

 

“Color Timer”

by Michael E. Long

Directed by Jenny Smith

Shane Signorino, Rachel Bailey, Colleen Backer
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

Or “The Perils of Online Dating, Part 2”. In this play, the couple in question features intellectual Aaron (Shane Signorino), and calculating reality TV production worker Stacy (Colleen Backer). They meet for their first date at a restaurant, and Stacy comes on strong, challenging Aaron with confrontational questions and a few shocking revelations. This play, more than the first, is a more direct examination of dating in the age of technology, as well as the challenges and perils of a tech and entertainment-oriented society in general. The highlight here is Backer’s gleefully brash and enigmatic performance, along with excellent performances by Signorino as a man put on the defensive and by Rachel Bailey as a well-meaning and seemingly clueless server. This one is especially chilling, and keeps you guessing up until the very end.

 

“Privilege”

by Joe Sutton

Directed by Jenny Smith

Chuck Brinkley, Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play has a lot of ideas but probably needs some more work. The premise is compelling, as a young would-be lawyer, Peter (Spencer Sickmann), undergoes an unexpectedly aggressive line of questioning when applying for his law license. The unseen questioners are particularly interested in Peter’s family, including his uncle, Mark (Chuck Brinkley), to whom Peter turns for advice. His cousin, Amy (Carly Rosenbaum), another aspiring lawyer, who is the daughter of another of Peter’s uncles, experiences the same questioning, which turns out to relate to a violent incident from years before that involved Peter’s cousin (Amy’s brother), and that the family had done their best to cover up. Peter, for his part, doesn’t want to sweep it under the rug–he wants to find out what really happened, and to meet with the victim (Shane Signorino). There seems to be an element of symbolism here, concerning the family’s last name and some lines uttered by Mark and Amy, but the short nature of the play makes it difficult to cover the subject adequately. Still, the performances are compelling, especially from Sickmann as the determined Peter, and the use of lighting (by Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo) is particularly effective.

 

“Kim Jong Rosemary”

by Carter W. Lewis

Directed by John Pierson

Eli Hurwitz, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

I had been especially anticipating this play, considering its author, Carter W. Lewis, is the writer of my overall favorite play from a LaBute Festival (2017’s “Percentage America”). This one, though, certainly has its moments, but it isn’t quite as cohesive and effective as the previous play. It has a fascinating premise, as mother and daughter Rhonda (Jenny Smith) and Beth (Eli Hurwitz) talk about issues relating to Rhonda’s anger, which is physically represented by a giant, overstuffed bag that she pushes around on a dolly. Colleen Backer makes a memorable appearance as an incarnation of the playwright, explaining the reasons for writing the play and acknowledging contributions to the anger of Rhonda and women in general. It’s an interesting character-piece, with talking points about gender roles and identity, societal expectations, and more, but it leans a little on the self-indulgent side this time. Still, there are great performances all around, and the dialogue is witty and provides food for thought on several timely topics.

Overall, I would say this set is more cohesive and themed than I’ve seen before from the Festival. It continues to be an excellent showcase for new plays and playwrights. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Set Two.

 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 14, followed by Set Two from July 19-28, 2019.

 

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The Revolutionists
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
June 29, 2019

Jenni Ryan, Kimmie Kidd, Laurie McConnell
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre is continuing its latest season with a play by one of today’s most recognized playwrights. Lauren Gunderson’s plays have been performed by many theatre companies around the country, and in St. Louis lately, including Insight who last year was one of two local professional companies who presented Gunderson’s Silent Sky. This time, the featured show is The Revolutionists, a four-woman play that presents itself as a comedy, but has some striking dramatic twists.

The play, like other Gunderson plays I’ve seen, has a structure in which character interactions are crucial. There’s a plot, revolving around the French Revolution and specifically the Reign of Terror, and some prominent figures from that time, along with a fictional character who is something of a composite. The central figure is early feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Jenni Ryan), who as the play begins is struggling with how to continue her latest work-in-progress. As she struggles with style, story, dramatic form, and the purpose of her play, she comes into contact with other women who challenge her perspective. These women include determined assassin Charlotte Corday (Samantha Auch) and conflicted former Queen Marie Antoinette (Laurie McConnell), as well as Haitian activist Marianne Angelle, who is fighting to end slavery in her home country, which was then under French rule. The women share their stories and struggles with one another, encouraging Olympe to own up to her own convictions and not give into fear. Although the setting is specific, the situations and structure make the conflict more universal. It’s about France, but it also isn’t. Essentially, it’s about standing up for what one believes in, and about women making their voices heard. The interplay between the characters and witty, pointedly contemporary dialogue serve to make this show both compelling and relatable, with well-drawn characters and some fun “meta” moments thrown in along with some poignancy and an increasingly dramatic tone as the story plays out.

It’s a play essentially about the French Revolution, but it’s also “out of time” in important ways, such as language and the way in which the characters relate to one another, which is decidedly modern. It also has aspects that remind me of another Gunderson play, I and You, in some key ways that will become apparent to those who have seen both plays (although these stories are very different in other ways). The presentation of the show is unconventional, in a way, in that it’s especially minimalist, with a set by Leah McFall that consists entirely of a few period-specific furniture pieces that are used to set the tone and mood, but with the simplicity of the space highlighting the experimental tone of the play. It’s presented in the round, as well, which works especially well for the small-ish space at the Marcelle. Also of note are the costumes by Julian King, which are richly detailed and which help to emphasize the differences in situation between the characters. There’s also excellent use of lighting by Morgan Brennan that adds drama in some key scenes, and sound by Bob Schmit that provides essential context for the piece.

Even with its excellent technical aspects, the biggest asset of this production is its superb cast, led by Ryan in an impressively relatable turn as the show’s main viewpoint character, Olympe. In the midst of conflict and challenge, Ryan makes Olympe’s concerns and fears credible. She also shows strong chemistry with her castmates, who also give memorable performances. McConnell, as probably the best known character in the play, is especially strong, bringing a sense of real depth to a character who is portrayed as more complex than popular history has often painted her. It’s a winning portrayal. Kidd, as the idealistic Marianne, is also a strong presence, as is Auch in an intense portrayal as the single-minded Charlotte. It’s a impressive cast all-around, with excellent energy and rapport.

This is a play I didn’t know much about before seeing it, except for knowing a little about the history and having seen some of the playwright’s other plays. Overall, I think The Revolutionists holds up with Gunderson’s best work. It may not be the most detailed in terms of history, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s more about the characters and the points they are making, which revolve around women maintaining the courage of their convictions. At Insight, it’s a dynamically staged, impeccably cast production that’s sure to provoke some compelling conversations. It’s definitely one to check out.

Jenni Ryan, Samantha Auch, Kimmie Kidd
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theater Company is presenting The Revolutionists at the Marcelle Theatre until July 14, 2019

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