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Archive for September, 2019

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Conceived by Vinnette Caroll
Original Production Music Direction and Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd
The Black Rep
September 7, 2019

Cast of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is beginning their new season with another memorable musical production. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a revue that ran on Broadway in the early 1970s, and this production presents it as both of its time and timeless. With a strong cast, great vocals, and remarkable dancing, this is a show that both entertains and challenges.

As I’ve written before, I’m not usually particularly keen on revues, since most of them come across more as staged concerts designed to showcase hit songs rather than fully conceived theatrical experiences.. Fortunately, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope isn’t a usual revue. It’s not a “jukebox” show, for one thing, with an entirely original score by Micki Grant, including some especially memorable melodies. It also as a cohesive theme, so even without much dialogue it tells a convincing story–or rather, several convincing stories. Focusing on various aspects of the African-American experience, and particularly life in the city, this show is remarkable for its specificity as well as its overall humanity, as well as its variety of musical styles, from rock, pop and jazz to blues, soul, gospel and more. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1972, addresses themes that were particular for its day but also are especially timeless. There are songs about life in various neighborhoods, as well as about dance, music, relationships, church, and resisting oppression, and overall about the experience of life with trials and tribulations, but ultimately with a sense of determination and hope for progress. Although most of the cultural references are from the early 70s, there have been occasional modern references added. The musical arrangements reflect the 70s origins of the piece, but are also accessible for today’s audiences, and the focus on storytelling through song and dance is especially effective in the hands of this excellent cast–Drummond “Drum” Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Sieglinda Fox, Herman Gordon, Amber Rose, Camille “Cee” Sharp, Denise Thimes, Keith Tyrone, Alison Brandon-Watkins, and Tyler White.

What stands out about this piece for me is, of course, the great cast, but also the sheer sense of musicality about it, in singing and dancing, in the accompaniment provided by the first-rate band led by the Black Rep’s veteran musical director, Charles Creath and through the vibrant choreography of Kirven Douthit-Boyd. The featured dancers (Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Brandon-Watkins, Robert Crenshaw, Tyrone, and White) are especially strong, from poignant and evocative ballet, to energetic tap, and more. Although the whole cast is strong, Thimes, White, and Fox have particularly outstanding vocal moments.

The atmosphere and emotion is maintained and augmented in the technical aspects of the show, as well, from  Margery and Peter Spack’s evocative unit set, to the stunning use of projections throughout the various performances, to Joe Clapper’s atmospheric lighting and Andre Harrington’s costumes that reflect a 70s influence, like the show itself. This is a revue, but with memorable original music and a unified theme and message. It’s a stirring, effective work that showcases the excellent theatrical and musical tradition of the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 22, 2019

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Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 6, 2019

Valeri Mudek, Jayson Speters, Barrett Foa, Ben Cherry
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening a new season with a new Artistic Director, and a two-part production of a play that has become a modern classic. I have to admit I had never seen either part of Tony Kushner’s much-lauded Angels in America before, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. So far, this production has lived up to the hype, with an excellent cast including a few high-profile names, and truly stunning production values. It’s a fascinating story with richly drawn characters as well, although it’s clearly only half of a two-part story. I was actually considering holding off on this review until after part 2 opens next weekend, but I had to write a few words about this memorable first chapter.

This part of the story introduces the major characters who will continue into the next part. It has the air of the epic about it, telling a tale that blends realism and fantasy, focusing on a small group of characters primarily based in New York City in the mid-1980s, during the escalation of the AIDS crisis in America. The various threads of the story seem isolated at first, but connections gradually develop as the play progresses, and each of the actors plays more than one role. Most of the characters are fictional, although a few are based on real people–particularly, high-profile conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette). In addition to the aggressively closeted Cohn, the characters include boyfriends Prior Walter (Barrett Foa) and Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry), who face trials when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; as well as Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), a young Republican of Mormon background who works for Cohn and who is struggling to come to terms with an important reality in his life; and Joe’s unhappy wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), who faces the truth about her relationship with Joe and goes on medication-induced flights of fantasy. There’s also Joe’s mother, Hannah (Meredith Baxter), who travels from Utah after a sudden revelation from Joe on the phone; and Prior’s longtime friend Belize (David Ryan Smith), an ex-drag queen and nurse at the hospital who provides support for Prior and difficult truths for Louis. And then there’s the mysterious Angel (Gina Daniels), who speaks to Prior with confusing and unsettling messages. The cast members play other roles as well, as the various plots unfold and intersect in different ways, some expected and some more surprising. The whole story has the air of an epic about it, with moments of searing drama blended with humor and wild fantasy, telling the story of mid-80s America and challenging major elements of society, such as materialism, corporate greed, social and religious conventions and restrictions particularly dealing with homosexuality, social progress, predictions for the then-future 21st century, and more. It’s a highly ambitious piece, and it’s at turns insightful, affecting, and challenging. The sense of suspense as a cohesive story begins to unfold is palpable, and some of the characters’ plots seem to be only just getting started as part 1 ends, adding to the anticipation for part 2, which I’m eager to see. These are compelling stories that one play–even with a running time of more than three hours–can’t entirely contain. The way the plot is structured, Part 2 is as necessary as it is inevitable, even though part 1 is remarkable on its own.

The overall tone of heightened realism and forays into fantasy is well maintained by the physical production of the show, as well as the perfectly paced staging by director Tony Speciale and associate director and “violence, intimacy and movement director” Tommy Rapley. Tim Mackabee’s set is versatile, making ideal use of the Rep stage’s turntable and trap doors, and the scene changes are elegant and fluid, aided by Broken Chord’s poignant and stirring original music and sound design. There’s also evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, ideally suited and period appropriate costumes by Dede Ayite, and excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. It’s a stunning play to look at, listen to, and experience, with a full range of emotions reflected in the whole look and feel of the production in addition to the remarkable script and first-rate acting. It is for mature audiences, considering some of the language, intensity, frank talk of sexuality, and one brief scene of nudity.

As for the cast, they are universally superb, led by a trio of actors who are probably best known by the general public for their television work but also have a good amount of stage experience. It’s an impressively cohesive ensemble, with excellent work from all. Particularly effecting is Foa as Prior, whose journey is as compelling as it is harrowing. Foa brings out the many facets of the character with approachable and charismatic presence. Frechette is also strong as the confrontational, perpetually-in-denial Cohn, managing to make a character intriguing to watch even when he’s not particularly likable. Mudek, as Harper, is also remarkably affecting, as is Baxter in a variety of roles including Hannah, an elderly Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also convincing and effective are Cherry as the conflicted Louis, Speters as the confused and also conflicted Joe, Daniels in a variety of roles including the Angel and a hospital nurse, and Smith as both Belize and a character from Harper’s fantasies called “Mr. Lies” . This is a cast that mines emotion without overdoing it, bringing out the nuances in character and making the stories all then more compelling in this installment and creating even more promise for part 2.

So far, I would say Hana S. Sharif’s first season as the Rep’s Artistic Director is off to an impressively promising start. With a stunning Angels in America part 1, the only real “letdown” is that I the first part is only half of the story, but that makes me even more eager to see the continuation.  Part 1 is powerful, emotional, and challenging, and creates anticipation for part 2, which debuts this weekend–and the Rep will also have some “marathon days” for theatregoers who want to see both parts in one day. Go see it! It’s an excellent example of the Rep–and theatre itself–at its best.

 

Peter Frechette, Jayson Speters
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches until October 6, 2019. 

 

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan, From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Dustin Massie
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 31, 2019

In addition to performing the works of their legendary namesake playwright, St. Louis Shakespeare has also established an excellent track record for comedy, even when it’s not from the Bard. The company’s latest production is a popular one. The 39 Steps, with its basis especially on the Alfred Hitchcock film version of the story, has been performed memorably in St. Louis before, and it is likely to be seen here again in various amateur and professional settings. Still, perhaps the thing that makes this show so appealing is its fairly simple premise and casting requirements. If you have four gifted comedic actors, regardless of budget and set complexity, you can do this show. And STL Shakespeare certainly has those four gifted performers, as well as a fun approach and excellent pacing and setting.

In his note in the program, director Dustin S. Massie makes much of the European tradition of Clowns, which becomes the inspiration for this production. The sense of “clowning” is there from the very start of the show, when all four cast members (Phil Leveling, Kelly Schnider, Rebecca Loughridge, and Brian Kappler) appear onstage, wandering amid the prop-strewn set and playing around with the various props while a lively soundtrack plays. Eventually, the four come together to tell a story, that of The 39 Steps, and each cast member takes a role–or more appropriately, roles. In fact, the only actor who plays only one role is Leveling, who plays Richard Hannay, a resident of 1930s London who reluctantly becomes the center of a murder mystery, a spy plot, and a nationwide manhunt. Schnider appears as two prominent women in the story–the mysterious Anabella Schmidt, who plays an ominous and important role in the beginning of the story; and later Pamela Edwards, who finds herself forced to work with Hannay when she–like almost everyone else in the story–suspects him of foul play. All the other characters in the story–and there are many–are played by Loughridge and Kappler. It’s a sweeping story, leading from Hannay’s small flat in London to the Scottish countryside and elsewhere, and involving much pre-World War II international intrigue as well as a great deal of hilarity along the way, both in the situations and in the portrayals by this excellent cast of “clowns”.

The actors are clearly having a great time here, making the most of their roles as clowns and as the characters they portray. The comic timing is excellent as well. Leveling makes an ideal suave, witty, perpetually clueless Hannay, well-matched by the adept Schnider as two distinct and important women, and especially in her second and larger role as Pamela. The chemistry between these two fuels their story, and it works well. Loughbridge and Kappler are also full of enthusiasm and energy in their various roles, ranging from a music hall performance due to random spies to a married couple of Scottish innkeepers, to much, much more. The physical comedy is a highlight here as well, with all four performers. It’s their interaction and impeccable timing that make this show as hilarious and riveting as it is, but the setting certainly helps, as well. A result of the terrific work of set and lighting designer Devin Lowe, costume designer Kayla Lindsey, sound designer Michelle Paladin, and props designers Massie and Paladin, the stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church as been transformed into a space reminiscent of an attic of old treasures, strewn with the materials that make the story, along with an appropriately tone-setting soundtrack.

The 39 Steps works well as an affectionate send-up of Hitchcock and the classic spy genre as well as of English music hall style entertainment, in addition to being a prime showcase for a strong cast of gifted comic actors. The “clowns” are out in force in this production, and the result is delightful. It’s another excellent comedy from St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The 39 Steps at Tower Grove Baptist Church until September 7, 2019

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Shakespeare in Love
by Lee Hall (Adapted From Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman)
Directed by Suki Peters
Insight Theatre Company
August 30, 2019

Aaron Dodd, Michelle Hand (standing), Gwendolyn Wotawa
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Shakespeare in Love is a play! Or at least, it is now. The acclaimed and somewhat controversial 1998 film was adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall and first produced in London in 2014. Now, Insight Theatre Company has brought the play to St. Louis in an energetic production currently on stage at the Grandel Theatre. While the show itself has a few issues in terms of translation from screen to stage, Insight has assembled a top-notch cast, and the result is a fun, highly entertaining show.

Despite the ongoing debate over its Oscar wins, my opinion on the film of Shakespeare in Love is largely positive. Maybe it didn’t deserve to beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, but on its own merits, it’s a clever, witty, and enjoyable film. The play retains a lot of that wit, although the transition to the stage seems a bit clunky at times, in that the focus seems to be more on Will Shakespeare (Aaron Dodd) and his relationship to friend/frenemy/mentor Christopher Marlowe (Spencer Sickmann) than I remember from the film. Shakespeare’s unexpected paramour and muse, the idealistic Viola de Lesseps (Gwendolyn Wotawa) is still prominent, but doesn’t seem to have the same level of emphasis onstage, and Viola’s story takes something of a backseat to Shakespeare’s, particularly at the end. The ensemble nature of the piece is highlighted more on stage, as well, with a relatively large cast and some excellent featured roles. This is a good thing, although there is a lot of hopping from setting to setting that may flow well on screen, but can seem a bit abrupt on stage. Still, for the most part, it’s an engaging story, especially in the hands of director Suki Peters and the excellent cast. The love story is here, as is the generally broad comic tone with some serious overtones and themes, including the relationship between artists and their patrons; the roles of women in theatre and in society; the pressure of living up to societal expectations; the very nature of inspiration and collaboration, and their role in creating arts, and more. It’s a lively, fast-paced show that plays more as a comedy than a romance, at least on stage, and the biggest romance seems to be of writers/performers with their work, more than with a particular person.

The cast, as previously mentioned, is first-rate, led by the personable Dodd as the conflicted, earnest Shakespeare, the charismatic Sickmann as the worldly Christopher Marlowe, and the engaging Wotawa as the determined, stage-loving Viola. There are also strong performances from Michelle Hand as Viola’s devoted Nurse; Ted Drury as Viola’s oily fiance, the Earl of Wessex; and the memorable, stage-commanding Wendy Renee Greenwood in the small but pivotal role of Queen Elizabeth I. Other standouts include delightful comic performances from Joneal Joplin and Whit Reichert as theatre patron Fennyman and producer Henslowe. Carl Overly Jr. and Shane Signorino are also excellent as prominent rival actors Richard Burbage and Ned Alleyn. The whole supporting cast is strong as well, with a lot of energy and an excellent sense of ensemble chemistry. Overall, the Elizabethan atmosphere and the sense of what the theatrical world in Shakespeare’s day was like shines through with vibrant enthusiasm.

The Elizabethan flair is well-maintained through the play’s physical production, as well. Chuck Winning’s multi-level unit set is colorful and versatile, as are Julian King’s impeccably well-suited costumes. There’s excellent work from lighting designer Jaime Zayas and sound designer Robin Weatherall, as well. There is also a strong musical sense in this production, with period-style songs and score played by musicians Rachel Bailey, Chuck Brinkley, Ruth Ezell, Cara Langhauser, Catherine Edwards Kopff, and Abraham Shaw, and vocals by various cast members. The music especially works well for setting and maintaining the tone and era of the play.

Overall, I would say Shakespeare in Love on stage, as performed by Insight, is a success. The adaptation is not without its flaws, but the overall enthusiasm of the production and the superb cast make up for any script and flow issues, for the most part. It’s a fun show, ultimately, with a real sense of love for its characters, and for theatre itself. It’s worth seeing especially for the strong performances.

Cast of Shakespeare in Love
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Shakespeare in Love at the Grandel Theatre until September 15, 2019

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