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Archive for July, 2019

Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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Grease
Book, Music, and Lyrics Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Additonal Songs by Barry Alan Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, Scott Simon
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 24, 2019

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Grease is an unusual show, especially for one so popular. A perennial crowd-pleaser, the show has been altered a lot since its Broadway debut in 1972 and subsequent mega-hit film version in 1978. In fact, it’s the film’s ubiquitous hit status that has affected this show the most, with most major productions and big-scale revivals including songs from the movie and sometimes even changing the plot and order of scenes/songs to more reflect the film. I’ve seen the show on stage several times, and it’s never been the same show. Now the show is featured as the second entry in the 2019 season at STAGES St. Louis, and as is usual for this musical, the crowd loves it. It’s an entertaining show, with an enthusiastic cast and the familiar songs that basically everyone recognizes now. Here, although the version being staged greater highlights the differences between the original play and the film, and how awkward blending them can be, the cast and creative team have worked together to present a show where the music, 50s style theme, and especially the dancing are at the forefront, making for a fun show overall.

Grease is so well-known that a detailed plot summary isn’t that necessary, except in terms of how the stage version differs from the film. It’s still the story of “bad boy” greaser Danny Zuko (Sam Harvey) and “good-girl” new girl in school Sandy Dumbrowski (Summerisa Bell Stevens), who have to deal with the pressures from various groups around them after they unexpectedly reunite at Rydell High School after an idyllic summer romance at the beach. The T-Birds, led by Danny and his best buddy Kenickie (Jesse Corbin) are here as an influence on Danny, and the Pink Ladies, led by tough-talking Betty Rizzo (Morgan Cowling) awkwardly bring Sandy into their group after she’s befriended by wanna-be beautician Pink Lady Frenchy (Lucy Moon).  Those basic plots are the same in the film and the original stage show, but the songlist is different and some of the scenes have been changed around, as well as the tone and message being generally harsher, grittier, and more crass in the stage show, although most revivals have “smoothed out” the grittiness. This one tries to keep it for the most part, although the mix is somewhat odd because the movie songs (especially “You’re The One That I Want” instead of “All Choked Up”) don’t exactly fit, and the context doesn’t always work as well. Also, whether you see the ultimate message as problematic or empowering (I’ve seen both arguments), it seems more abrupt and somewhat muddled in this version. Also, the sanitized versions of the songs (especially “Greased Lightning”) are used here, which doesn’t mix as well with the grittier tone of the stage script.

Still, this production entertains, even with the awkwardness of the mix between sources. The emphasis this time is on the styling, musical performances, and 50s-style choreography by Tony Gonzalez, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm from a strong ensemble. The leads are good, particularly Harvey’s charmingly goofy Danny, but the real standouts are the “supporting” T-Birds and Pink Ladies, especially Brooke Shapiro as Jan and Collin O’Connor as Roger, who make a fun couple and whose “Mooning” number is a highlight, as well as Julia Johanos as the more worldly Marty, and Patrick Mobley as Doody, who brings a youthful energy to his role as the rock-star wannabe T-Bird. The chemistry between the various cast members is also strong, bringing joyful style to songs like “We Go Together”, as well. Also excellent is Kenora Lynn Lucas in a dual role as a big-voiced Teen Angel in the show-stopping “Beauty School Dropout” number and as strict teacher/principal Miss Lynch, hilariously delivering the pre-show announcements in character to the start off the show on a fun note.

Technically, this production is excellent, with a fun, colorful set by James Wolk featuring a backdrop resembling an old-style jukebox, and vibrant lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also memorable, colorful and true to the period. This is a great looking show visually, and the energetic choreography gives it an upbeat tone overall.

While no two versions of Grease are the same in my experience, this is a show that can draw an audience on its name alone. At STAGES, the emphasis is on style, dancing, and ensemble energy. Even with some of the odd mixture between versions, this is a fun show, sure to entertain.

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Grease at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 18, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2019

The second set of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is now on stage at the Gaslight Theatre. Featuring a fresh collection of plays, all ably directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood, and the one holdover–festival namesake LaBute’s entry “Great Negro Works of Art” (directed by John Pierson). Featuring strong casts, these plays are also thought-provoking if not quite as well-formed as most of the first set. A new set of issues is in focus here, including artificial intelligence and privacy issues with technology, as well as journalistic integrity and couples therapy. Here are some thoughts about Set Two:

“Predilections”

by Richard Curtis

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Kim Furlow, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play, which opens the newer set, features a meeting between a reporter named Sparlin (Tiélere Cheatem), and an enigmatic stranger named Laura (Kim Furlow). Being a journalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner who now writes obituaries, Sparlin has done research on Laura, but he hasn’t figured out why she wants to see him. As the plot–or really, the conversation–unfolds, Laura tells Sparlin a story, the importance of which becomes clear soon enough. It’s an intriguing concept, with the intended ideas apparently being about sensationalism in journalism and how easy it is for a person’s whole life to be obscured by one incident, but as a play it doesn’t have much suspense or structure. It’s just a conversation, basically. Furlow and Cheatem do well in their roles, bringing about as much drama as this play can produce, although there isn’t much here that couldn’t be covered just as well by an essay.

“Henrietta”

by Joseph Krawczyk

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

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

The evening’s second play is its cleverest concept, being part “perils of modern technology” tale and part morality play. Here, as Carl (Chuck Brinkley) prepares for an extramarital tryst in a nearby motel, he finds his new “upgraded” GPS AI has other plans. Called “Henrietta” and voiced by Carly Rosenbaum, this AI isn’t putting up with Carl’s excuses, taking him for a nightmare ride as she takes control of his car. It’s an especially well-acted and staged bit of thriller-fantasy that’s especially chilling is its basic plausibility. It’s one of those “be careful what you do when you don’t think anyone’s looking” tales beefed up with a bit of “Big Brother” technological fear thrown in for good measure. The staging and pacing here is crisp and chilling, and both Brinkley and Rosenbaum give especially convincing performances, and particularly Rosenbaum as the determinedly in-control “Henrietta”.

“Sysyphus and Icarus: a Love story”

by William Ivan Fowkes

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Tiélere Cheatem, Shane Signorino
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final of the new entries for Set Two is a cute concept that evolves into something reminiscent of a late-episode Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s a fun concept, with the mythological figures of Sysyphus (Tiélere Cheatem) and Icarus (Shane Signorino) speaking in faux-Shakespearean dialogue and forming an attraction, then, as the story veers into SNL territory, they show up a few years later as a married couple clad in hipster-ish beanies being counseled by the New York-accented Libra (Colleen Backer), a self-promotional therapist who tries to help them see why their once-exciting relationship has soured. It’s a fun show, full of broad comedy that brings laughs but not much in the way of substance. The performers seem to be having a great time, though, and they’re all excellent. The production values are particularly notable here, too, with great work from festival costume designer Megan Harshaw and lighting designers Patrick Huber (who also designed the set) and Tony Anselmo.

Overall, the LaBute Festival continues to be an intriguing showcase for new playwrights, with some hits and misses but with some thought-provoking subject matter and strong work from the actors and directors. Set Two has one more weekend left, and it’s worth checking out.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set Two of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 28, 2019

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Footloose
Stage Adaptation by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie
Based on the Original Screenplay by Dean Pitchford
Music by Tom Snow, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Additional Music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman
Directed by Christian Borle
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2019

Mason Reeves, Eli Mayer
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s impressive 101st season is continuing this week with an energetic dance musical.  Footloose, based on the popular 1984 film, is a fun show most of all. This production fills the giant Muny stage with a large cast and lots of energy, along with a dose of 1980s nostalgia and an excellent cast, many of whom are college students or recent graduates.

I hadn’t seen the stage version of Footloose before, nor have I seen the 2011 film remake, and I hadn’t seen the original film for many years. From what I can tell, this rendition keeps fairly close to the plot of the first movie, with some character expansion and the addition of new, original songs along with hits from the film’s soundtrack such as the title song, love duet “Almost Paradise”, and the bouncy “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”. The story follows the teenaged Ren (Mason Reeves), who moves along with his mother, Ethel (Darlesia Cearcy) from Chicago to the small rural town of Bomont (state unspecified). Here, Ren has some trouble fitting in with the locals, eventually making friends with classmate Willard (Eli Mayer) and forming an attraction to an influential local preacher’s rebellious daughter, Ariel (McKenzie Kurtz). Ariel’s father, Rev. Shaw Moore (Jeremy Kushnier), is the driving force behind a restrictive law in the town that avid dancer Ren is shocked to hear about. All dancing in the town is banned, and after making more friends and gaining some support among his classmates, Ren leads the effort to change that law and hold a dance at the school. The reasoning behind Rev. Moore’s opposition to dancing, and his strained relationship with his daughter, is a key element of the story that drives a lot of the drama. It’s not a perfect book, with some characters being underutilized and a few loose ends in some of the subplots, but overall, it’s an entertaining show. There are some poignant moments here, with messages about family relationships, friendship and acceptance, as well as many upbeat moments of fun and, of course, dance, leading up to a rousing finale that makes excellent use of the large ensemble, including an energetic Muny Youth Ensemble.

The look and atmosphere of this production is impressive in that it’s able to achieve an obvious ’80s vibe without being too over the top with it. The colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowksi and wigs by Kelley Jordan reflect the setting well, and Tim Mackabee’s set is vibrant and versatile, making excellent use of Greg Emetaz’s video design as well. There’s also excellent lighting by Rob Denton and a rocking Muny Orchestra led by music director Andrew Graham. Jessica Hartman’s choreography is also impressive, with a blend of various styles showcasing the talent and energy of the whole cast.

There’s a great cast here, led by the immensely talented Reeves as Ren. He’s got charm, energy, a great voice and dance skills, and a strong presence on stage, and his chemistry with the also excellent Kurtz as Ariel is excellent. He also works especially well with the terrific, amiable Mayer as the sweet, gawky Willard, who has several great moments in the show such as the memorable Act 2 number “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down”. Also a standout is Kushnier, who originated the role of Ren in the 1998 Broadway production, as the conflicted, grieving Shaw Moore. He’s well-matched by Heather Ayers in a strong performance as Shaw’s wife Vi, as well, providing for a lot of the show’s poignancy and drama. A musical highlight is the simply staged, expertly harmonized ballad “Learning to Be Silent”, wonderfully performed by Ayers, Kurtz, and Cearcy. Other standouts include Khailah Johnson, Maggie Kuntz, and Katja Rivera Yanko as Ariel’s friends Rusty, Urleen, and Wendy Jo. Johnson especially gets a memorable moment to shine, leading the superbly staged “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” production number early in Act 2.

There’s a great assembly of talent on stage, bringing Opening Night energy even though the show’s tech rehearsal had to be cancelled because of the weather. Aside from a few slightly slow transitions early in the first act, the fact that this was the first full-scale staging of the show wasn’t apparent, and I’m sure it’s only going to improve in terms of energy and pacing as the show continues to run.  It’s a bright, upbeat, occasionally poignant, and highly crowd-pleasing evening of entertainment, and another reflection of the true excellence of this season at the Muny.

Cast of Footloose
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Footloose in Forest Park until July 24, 2019

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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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