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Archive for December, 2019

Disenchanted!
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dennis T. Giacino
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 12, 2019

Sarah Gene Dowling, Kelly Slawson, Dawn Schmid
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Revisionist versions of fairy tales have been in vogue for a while, with films, stage shows, and TV featuring different takes on classic stories. The latest production from Stray Dog Theatre, the cabaret-style DIsenchanted! is composer/lyricist/book writer Dennis T. Giacino’s take on this popular idea. It turns out to be something of a mixed bag in terms of orginality, but it’s still a lot of fun and features some memorable performances from an enthusiastic cast.

Hosted by iconic princesses Snow White (Kelly Slawson), Cinderella (Sarah Gene Dowling), and Sleeping Beauty (Dawn Schmid), Disenchanted! is presented in a sort of cabaret/variety show format, in which various princesses offer their own takes on their portrayals in popular culture, and especially  in Disney films. They focus much on the messages that these films, and the whole “Princess Complex” has on society, and particularly the young girls who grow up watching the films and are presented with the Fairy Tale Princess ideal. Well, these princesses are here to tell us that there’s a lot more to their stories than that ideal. There is also a lot of meta-exploration of how the characters themselves are dealing with how they have been portrayed and received, and some reminders of the pre-Disney origins of their stories, both serious and humorous,. There is “Honestly” sung by Pocahontas (Gitana Mims) in the former category and, in the latter category along with a good dose of meta and digs at commercialism, “Not V’One Red Cent” sung with gusto by Rapunzel (Erika Cockerham). While some of the songs seem rather obvious and one-note, others are more inventive and memorable. Also, for the most part there isn’t much said here that hasn’t been said before by other works.  Still, it makes for an entertaining evening, especially in the second act as the sense of camaraderie and solidarity between the characters grows and becomes most credible.

What this show is, ultimately, is a showcase for its talented cast. Although there is some deliberately comically “bad” singing (and a notice about it in the program), there are also some powerful voices, and some excellent comic performances. The standouts for me include Schmid as a determined, quirky, and frequently nodding off Sleeping Beauty, who (eventually) gets one of the show’s best songs in “Perfect”. Slawson and Dowling are also memorable as fellow co-hosts, a somewhat imperious Snow White and more whimsical Cinderella. Cockerham, as a statuesque, big-voiced, Germanic Rapunzel who gets her moment in a hilarious Cabaret-styled number, is another standout, as are Selena Steed as the Princess Who Kissed the Frog who leads the rousing “Finally”, and Eleanor Humphrey as Princess Badroulbadour (from the original source for Aladdin), in excellent voice on “Secondary Princess”. It’s an energetic, cohesive ensemble overall, carrying the somewhat uneven material here with a lot of personality and enthusiasm.

The overall irreverent, whimsical tone of the show is carried over well into the production values, with a colorful unit set by Miles Bledsoe and memorable costumes by Eileen Engel. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow contributes to the bold, variety-show styled look of the show. There’s also some fun choreography by  Mike Hodges and an excellent small band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, although the sound mix is uneven at times and it can be difficult to hear the words to some of the songs.

Overall, while Disenchanted! isn’t the most original of this “meta-fairy tale” sort of shows, it’s an entertaining and frequently hilarious production. I think this show may especially appeal to people who are well-versed in the Disney versions of these characters and don’t mind some sharp criticism of the works or the company. It has it’s moments, definitely, and it’s another fun staging from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of Disenchanted!
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Disenchanted! at Tower Grove Abbey until December 21, 2019

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A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 8, 2019

William Roth, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

If you’ve ever been involved in theatre at any level, St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest production will have something to which you can relate. A Life in the Theatre is David Mamet’s two-hander focusing on two actors at different stages in their careers, continuing STLAS’s season of two person plays. Here, with two excellent performers in the leading roles, this is a show that serves as an insightful glimpse at the theatrical life, for actors and for anyone who loves this art form.

This isn’t a long play, running at roughly 85 minutes and with no intermission, but makes its point well in that short running time. Its a series of vignettes, essentially, following the interactions of two actors who frequently work together. Robert (William Roth) is the older, more seasoned performer and John (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is the younger actor whose career is on the way up. Through the course of the evening, we get to see their backstage interactions as well as portions of some of their plays, including a World War I drama, an office drama, and others. As the show goes on, there are successes and mishaps, including several that many who have worked on a play will recognize. There are missed technical cues, forgotten lines, mistimed entrances, and more. Also, we see the changing dynamics of the relationship between the two characters, as John experiences new successes and Robert is reminded of the swift passage of time and deals with jealousy as well as mortality. Mamet’s script is insightful and frequently humorous in a knowing sort of way, demonstrating the timelessness of theatre and the acting profession, and how the art goes on even as the performers age and change. It’s a witty show with moments of cynicism and poignancy, but ultimately it reinforces the old adage that “the show must go on”.

It’s an intriguing character study in which the characters are “types” as much as they are individuals. The two are played with flair by STLAS veterans Roth and Lawson-Maeske. Roth gets to make the most of his range as Robert starts out with a sense of projected overconfidence and then gradually loses that and grows more and more unsure and unstable. Lawson-Maeske is also winning as the young performer gaining experience and learning to deal with success as well as managing his relationship with his colleague. The two share a strong on-stage rapport as well, that turns into something of a “frenemies” situation, occasionally crossing the line into combative, and both performers excel in these moments, and in the more comic moments as well.

The staging by director John Contini is well paced, and Patrick Huber’s set is versatile and well-realized, allowing for various easy scene changes that change the perspective from backstage to on stage. There’s also a range of appropriately suited costumes by Andrea Robb, and excellent sound design by Contini and lighting by Huber. Even in its staging, this is an excellent glimpse of the life of a performer in its various aspects.

This is a show for theatre lovers, and especially for anyone who has worked on a production. If you know theatre, you should know a lot of what’s portrayed here. A Life in the Theatre is an apt title, since even though it depicts particular characters, there is something universal about this art, and the life of a performer. It’s well worth seeing, and remembering.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Life in the Theatre at the Gaslight Theater until December 22, 2019

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The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
December 7, 2019

Samantha Hayes, Kent Coffel, Mary Tomlinson, Kellen Green, Charles Heuvelman, Chuck Winning, Gracie Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

 

As the title of the giant storybook onstage at West End Players Guild suggests, it’s a Charles Dickens Christmas for the company this year. It’s a thoroughly Dickens story, and probably the second most well-known of the author’s Christmas writings. The Cricket on the Hearth has been dramatized and filmed quite a few times over the years, although not nearly as much the more famous Dickens holiday tale, and WEPG is presenting an all-new adaptation by a playwright they’ve worked with before, Vladimir Zelevinsky. As is to be expected with Dickens, it’s a play full of memorably named characters involved in a somewhat convoluted plot with some surprising twists and moral messages involved. As adapted and presented here, even though there are some slow moments, overall it makes for a heartwarming theatrical experience for the holiday season.

The storytelling convention used here works well for this particular story, having various characters take turns narrating the story, starting and ending with the cheerful Mary “Dot” Peerybingle (Grace Sartin), a young mother and the wife of the local mail carrier, the kindly but much older John Peerybingle (Chuck Winning), who dotes on his wife and child but is somewhat insecure about whether he deserves his by all accounts devoted young bride. It certainly seems like a happy home, blessed with occasional chirping of a cricket, viewed as a symbol of good luck. The cricket may not be seen by the audience, but its presence is made known through the use of playwright Zelevinsky’s memorable score, admirably played by Heather Chung on violin and accompanied by Cameron Perrin on flute. The Peerybingles’ lives are intersected with various others in this twisty little story, including the kind and weary toymaker Caleb Plummer (Charles Heuvelman), who weaves fantastic tales of an idealistic life to his daughter Bertha (Samantha Hayes), who is blind but who turns out to be much more perceptive than Caleb realizes. Caleb, who is a widower and whose other child, a son, is apparently lost after leaving to travel the world, works for an imperious boss, Mr. “Gruff and” Tackleton (Kent Coffel), who hates toys and children despite his line of business. Tackleton is set to marry the young May Fielding (Mary Tomlinson), and old friend of the Plummers and of Dot Peerybingle’s, to the consternation of Caleb. The preparations for the impending wedding, along with the situation of the Peerybingles’ taking in a mysterious, obviously disguised “Stranger” (Kellen Green), form the center of the conflict in this story that seems to emphasize the virtues of loyalty and kindness and their eventual triumph over the evils of greed.

Not having read the original story, I don’t know exactly how faithful the adaptation is, but as a play, it works. There are some twists and resolutions that at turns seem overly obvious, sudden, and implausible, but that’s in keeping with some Dickensian conventions. The story is dramatized well, for the most part, with a focus on generally likable characters (with the exception, for the most part, of “villain” Mr. Tackleton), as well as the musical themes that recur throughout the show and provide a fitting soundtrack to the production. The acting is excellent all around, with especially strong performances from Sartin and Winning as the Peerybingles, who seem well-matched despite the oft-mentioned age difference. Heuvelman as Caleb and Hayes as Bertha are also excellent, as is Coffel as a suitably and comically “Gruff” Tackleton. Green as the enigmatic “Stranger” and Tomlinson in the somewhat underwritten role of May round out the strong ensemble with their fine performances.

The production values here are especially impressive, among the best I’ve seen from this company, with a versatile, detailed, and whimsical set by George Shea that forms the ideal backdrop for the story. There are also well-suited, colorful costumes by Tracey Newcomb and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo that helps to set and maintain the overall mood of the production. There’s also that excellent music, already mentioned but worth mentioning again, serving so well to emphasize the overall Dickensian tone and themes of the story.

Overall, I would say this production makes an effective, thoroughly entertaining holiday tale. The Cricket on the Hearth may not be as celebrated as other Christmas stories, but it’s a worthwhile one nonetheless. As staged so effectively by the strong cast at West End Players Guild, this is an engaging, heartwarming holiday story.

Kent Coffel, Chuck Winning
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Cricket on the Hearth at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 15, 2019

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Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Adapted by Christopher Baker
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 6, 2019

Nick Rehberger, Katie Kleiger
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s brand new Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif makes her directorial debut with the company with an adaptation of the much-dramatized Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice, and it’s a fun production. Although, as is usual with stage adaptations of literature, there are some liberties taken with the story, this version is extremely fast-paced and comedic, and the leads give compelling and relatable performances. It’s witty and engaging, with sumptuous production values and inventive staging.

The story here is essentially what anyone who knows the book will remember, with a few alterations. For instance, instead of five Bennet sisters as in the novel, there are four, and their age order has been changed around a bit. Jane (Rebecca Haden), Elizabeth (Katie Kleiger), and Lydia (Sydney Leiser) are presented essentially as they are in the book, but Mary (Maison Kelly)–who is the youngest sister here–is something of an amalgamation of book-Mary, her younger sister Kitty (excised from this adaptation), and youngest Dashwood sister Margaret as interpreted in the two most recent filmed versions of another Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility. Also, some characters, such as Georgiana Darcy and Anne DeBourgh, are relegated to off-stage status, mentioned but not seen. This all makes sense in terms of the direction the adapter seems to have taken with the material, which is to focus on the most important characters and relationships, and to play up the comedy while managing to keep most of the characters on a more human scale and out of the realm of caricature. The central relationship, as always, is between the witty second daughter Elizabeth and the seemingly haughty, socially awkward Mr. Darcy (Nick Rehberger), with due time also given to Jane’s courtship with new neighbor and Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley (Grayson DeJesus), and the initially charming but rakish ways of Darcy’s old acquaintance Mr Wickham (Stephen Michael Spencer), who tries to cast his spell on both Elizabeth and Lydia, with varying degrees of success. What I especially like here is the emphasis on the Bennet parents (Michael James Reed as Mr. Bennet, Michelle Hand as Mrs. Bennet), and their portrayal as genuine flawed human beings rather than caricatures. Mrs. Bennet in particular has often come across as cartoonish in adaptations, and thankfully she doesn’t come across that way here. While she certainly can be single-minded and meddling, the playwright and the production give her a clearly communicated reason for her actions, which I find especially refreshing. Although the second act especially seems to move too fast at times in an effort to get all the important plot points covered, for the most part this is lively, quick-witted and spirited production that preserves the general essence of the novel while also making the story work as a theatrical presentation.

The cast here is, for the most part, excellent and ideally chosen. Kleiger and Rehberger lead the way with their strong personalities and palpable chemistry in a particularly effective pairing as Elizabeth and Darcy, who grow and change believably throughout the production. The sisters are also excellent, with fine performances from Haden as the shy and sweet-spirited Jane, Leiser as the more reckless Lydia, and especially Kelly in a fun performance in this show’s unique interpretation of Mary. There are also convincing performances from DeJesus as the kind, charming Mr. Bingley, Rebeca Miller as Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, Blake Segal as the fastidious and over-eager Mr. Collins, and Jennie Greenberry as Bingley’s haughty sister Caroline. Particularly notable, though, are Reed and especially Hand as the Bennets, who bring a real sense of humanity along with humor to their characterizations and their relationship. Hand was also particularly impressive on opening night, dealing with a set furniture malfunction in a thoroughly in-character and appropriately hilarious manner. There are fine performances all around, with the one weaker link being Lizan Mitchell as Lady Catherine DeBourgh, whose wildly over-the-top performance seems like it belongs in a different play than everyone else. Still, that’s a small role and not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of this delightful production.

In terms of set, designer Scott Bradley has given us something that’s appropriately dazzling, with grand windows and staircases and an excellent use of shadowy rooms behind the main playing area, where the audience is allowed to view the various characters observing one another at various moments. There’s also dazzling lighting by Xavier Pierce and colorful, meticulously detailed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis. The music and sound by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes contributes an effective brightly atmospheric tone to the production, and the projections by Alex Basco Koch contribute well to the transitions between scenes, although they do occasionally suggest an “English travelogue” vibe.

I love Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve seen many adaptations (film, television, and stage) over the years in addition to having read the book a few times. To my mind, this latest version from the Rep strikes a lively tone and pace, bringing out qualities of the characters that have sometimes been ignored in other productions. Austen purists might object to some of the liberties taken, but I think that they are mostly well within the spirit of the piece. It’s a fun, witty, extremely fast-moving show that showcases a classic literary pairing with appropriate emphasis, but also provides a tone and atmosphere that adequately reflects its English Regency setting and Austen’s well-established characters. The adapter, Christopher Baker, even managed to work Christmas into the story in a believable way that makes this work as a holiday show. It’s a treat of a production.

Cast of Pride and Prejudice
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Pride and Prejudice until December 29, 2019

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Fully Committed
by Becky Mode
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
New Jewish Theatre
December 5, 2019

Will Bonfliglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

One person shows are difficult enough, I would think. Still, when that one person is playing a multitude of characters all in the course of approximately 80 minutes, that seems especially challenging. Will Bonfiglio, as a performer, is no stranger to one person shows, winning critical acclaim, but now he’s taking the challenge to the next level in New Jewish Theatre’s latest production, the quick-paced, multi-character comedy Fully Committed. In fact, that title is an apt description for Bonfliglio’s performance, as he shows off his comic and dramatic abilities with impressive versatility and timing.

Bonfiglio showed his versatility playing multiple characters a few years ago in Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Buyer and Cellar. This time, he’s in a differently structured show and playing a lot more characters, and he’s just as stellar. In fact, his feat might even be more impressive considering how quick-moving playwright Becky Mode’s script is, and just how fast the transitions are between the 40-ish different characters Bonfiglio plays. He’s not narrating here, as he was in the show at SDT. Here, the play throws us right into the action as out-of-work actor Sam (Bonfiglio) is working the reservations desk at a highly trendy New York restaurant. The play is structured as such that at first, we are “meeting” so many different characters–difficult customers, restaurant staff, the personal assistants of celebrities, Sam’s friends and family–that we don’t really get to know Sam very much, until his personality and goals are gradually revealed through his various phone conversations. We are allowed to become invested in Sam’s situation as we experience his difficult job along with him, and as he is “encouraged”/taunted by his acting friend/rival Jerry and too-politely avoided by his agent, we see what his real passion is–acting, as he waits to hear the outcome of a recent audition. We also learn of his desire to take a few days off to spend Christmas with his father and siblings, and how that hope is variously ignored and treated as an inconvenience by some of his co-workers. We also get to the see the contrast between how he is treated by co-workers, relatives, friends, and strangers alike, as his day gets busier and busier and occasional respites come in the form of conversation partners who actually listen, realizing the person they are talking to is an actual human being and not merely an obstacle to their own goals. It’s a cleverly structured play that starts out as a simple series of conversations and eventually becomes a story told through those conversations. It’s also hilarious, with fast-paced comedy and broadly drawn characters that give the excellent, versatile Bonfiglio a lot to work with, and he never ceases to impress as he conveys the story, reveals Sam’s distinct character, and manages to become a host of contrasting characters consistently throughout the production.

Although in a real sense, Bonfiglio is the show, he is also ably supported by the top-notch technical aspects of the production. David Blake’s detailed set brings the audience into a vividly realized restaurant basement, which becomes something of a symbol of Sam’s reluctant confinement. There’s also excellent lighting by Elizabeth Lund and sound by Kareem Deanes that contribute to the overall tone of the production. Director Ellie Schwetye’s staging makes excellent use of the whole performance space, as well.

This is one of those shows that provide a prime showcase for a talented performer, and Will Bonfiglio certainly makes the most of that showcase with his excellent timing and winning stage presence. It’s a hilarious show that introduces the audience to a variety of characters, from accepted “types”–the gruff, pompous celebrity chef, the overworked staff, the demanding celebrities, and more–but also reveals a fair amount of depth in the course of a relatively short intermissionless show. There are a lot of laughs here, certainly, but there’s also a clear glimpse of humanity. It’s a gift of a show for the holiday season.

Will Bonfiglio
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Fully Committed at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 22, 2019

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