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Archive for July, 2021

Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden (Based on Original Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
The Muny
July 26, 2021

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is back! After having to cancel their live performances last year due to the pandemic, sitting in the familiar green seats in Forest Park is a welcome experience. What’s also welcome is a surprisingly refreshed production of a show I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing–Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I had seen it before, and didn’t see much beyond a collection of staged hit songs by the popular songwriting duo of Lieber and Stoller. The music is great, but there wasn’t a lot of “show” here, or so I thought. The Muny has, with their first production of their 103rd season, given me a pleasant surprise, with an excellent and consistent setting and actual characterization in addition to a great cast and classic songs.

There still isn’t a lot of plot, but what has been brought out here is a strong sense of setting and theme, with the cast playing consistent characters. Even though the cast members play a few different roles throughout the show, each has a “main” character whose story they return to over the course of the production. There are some stories to follow, mostly involving the characters’ love lives, with a few vignettes of life in the neighborhood to further establish the theme and atmosphere. The setting is in St. Louis’s iconic Gaslight Square neighborhood, which was a hot spot known especially for its ambiance and nightlife in its heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s, which fits well for the Lieber and Stoller soundtrack.

The main cast consists of nine excellent performers–Charl Brown, Michael Campayno, Mykal Kilgore, Tiffany Mann, Hayley Podschun, Dee Roscioli, Christopher Sams, Nasia Thomas, and Jason Veasey–backed by the energetic Muny Youth Ensemble. Everyone is in strong voice, showcasing the hit songs well, with some standout vocals from Mann on “Fools Fall in Love”, “Saved”, and “Hound Dog”, and Kilgore on “I (Who Have Nothing)”. There’s great dancing, as well, and fun production numbers like the Act 1 closer of “D.W. Washburn” leading into “Saved”. There’s also a little bit of a “slice of life” angle going on here, showcasing the setting especially well, with the excellent band–led by music director Abdul Hamid Royal–playing a memorable part and being showcased on stage, especially in the second act in which they are visible and become characters in the show.

This is a visually dazzling show, as well, with the historic Gaslight Square neighborhood featured in its glory, as represented in Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s stunningly detailed set, highlighting some real Gaslight Square establishments and street names. Kevin Loney’s memorable video design also contributes to this atmosphere, as do Rob Denton’s atmospheric lighting and, especially, Sully Ratke’s colorful, period-specific costumes.

My thoughts about Smokey Joe’s Cafe (based on a previous production not at the Muny) are already on record. I’ve referred to it as a “staged concert” and “an extended theme park show”, even though the production I saw was well-performed and produced. What the Muny has demonstrated with this production is that there is a real show here, and it’s a thoroughly engaging one, masterfully conceived and directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and impressively performed by its cast and band. It’s a fun and entertaining return to a St. Louis institution, as well as a celebration of a legendary St. Louis neighborhood and a catalog of enduring hit songs.

Tiffany Mann, Mykal Kilgore (center), and cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Forest Park until August 1st, 2021.

 

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Now Playing Third Base for St. Louis Cardinals… Bond, James Bond
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Shane Signorino
July 8, 2021

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

It’s summer in St. Louis, and for many in this baseball-obsessed town, this season is synonymous with the St. Louis Cardinals. For Joe Hanrahan of the Midnight Company, the Cardinals and the cultural climate of St. Louis and the wider world at a particular moment in history have been woven into a fascinating feat of storytelling in his new and expanded version of his original one-man play, which has a relatively short running time despite its long title: Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… Bond, James Bond. It’s a story about a lot of things, but as Hanrahan says in the play, ultimately it’s about theatre. 

Hanrahan performed an earlier version of this show a few years ago at the St. Lou Fringe festival, and I remember being impressed then. What stuck in my memory from that show was the juxtaposition of the triumphs 1964 Cardinals’ championship season with the theatrical telling of the story of the second theatrical Bond film, From Russia With Love, by Hanrahan portraying his teenage baseball teammate, Danny. That combination is still here and is an important and fascinating part of the story, but other aspects stood out to me this time, such as the focus on the national grieving after the relatively recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the influence of music as a soundtrack for the times. There’s also some focus on the pervasive influence of racism in St. Louis and in general, and particularly in Major League Baseball. Above all, though, is the emphasis on theatre, as Hanrahan gives the audience a bit of history about one-person shows and explanations of the nature of theatre itself. In its basic essence, theatre is about storytelling, and Hanrahan tells a compelling story–or, at least 4 compelling stories woven together. Here, Hanrahan becomes characters as he needs to (such as Danny and the movie characters), but he’s mostly narrating as himself, looking back on a memorable time in the city’s, the nation’s, the world’s, and his own personal history. The set is basic, consisting of a bench and a video screen, and Hanrahan is casually dressed in a baseball-style t-shirt and jeans, which is fitting for the casual, reflective tone of the show. 

This is an impressive show in its construction, and Hanrahan commands the stage with his insightful, humorous, and memorable performance. Also impressive are the simple but clever production values, with lighting and overall design by Kevin Bowman, and especially outstanding use of video projections, designed by Michael B. Perkins. The video elements and musical soundtrack work seamlessly along with Hanrahan’s performance to serve as an illustrative backdrop to the events as Hanrahan tells them. 

There’s more going on in this show than is easy to describe. What Hanrahan gives us is essentially a tribute to storytelling, whether in a theatre, on a movie screen, on a baseball field, or anywhere in life. Stories are everywhere, and Hanrahan tells a memorable one here. It’s another fascinating production from The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond, James Bond at the Chapel until July 25, 2021

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