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Archive for August, 2021

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 30, 2021

J. Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s 103rd season in Forest Park is closing out in style with a bold, brassy production of the modern classic musical Chicago. Initially appearing on Broadway in 1975 and eventually spawning an enormously popular 1990’s revival and an Oscar-winning movie in 2003, the show is an incisive satire of the 1920s and “celebrity culture” in America in general. Here, with excellent casting, intelligent staging, and vibrant choreography, the show is nothing short of fantastic. 

This isn’t the minimalist, concert-style revival version that has been playing on Broadway since 1996. This is a fully staged, sumptuously appointed and precisely choreographed production that tells its story in a Vaudeville format, which is fitting for the subject matter, and time period (the 1920’s), as some enterprising women look for fame and fortune in a society where if they are famous enough, they can get away with murder. That is what Roxie Hart (Sarah Bowden) and Velma Kelly (J. Harrison Ghee), aspire to do, with the help of smooth-talking celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (James T. Lane). As the story gets started, Roxie kills her lover in cold blood and initially convinces her neglected but devoted husband Amos (Adam Heller) to take the blame. When that doesn’t work, she confesses and is taken to jail, where she meets Velma and the two become rivals for the attention of the public and the press. The events unfold in the style of an old-fashioned Vaudeville show, with each number given an introduction in that vein. 

The score is well-known, with memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Razzle Dazzle”, and “Nowadays”. The Muny’s well-chosen cast performs those numbers and more with the appropriate style and energy. And it’s a truly remarkable cast, led by the fantastic duo of Bowden and Ghee.  Bowden, as the fame-hungry Roxie, has a great voice, excellent comic timing, and impressive dance skills, also imbuing Roxie with a palpable sense of needy ambition, excelling in the show’s darker moments as well as its more humorous aspects. Ghee–who was last seen at the Muny in a marvelous performance as Lola in Kinky Boots–is also superb as show-biz veteran Velma, who has killed her husband and sister in a crime of passion. Ghee’s Velma, physically towering over the rest of the cast (complete with stiletto heels), exudes stage presence and style, lighting up the stage from the first moments of “All That Jazz”. These two performers are the stars of the show, but the supporting cast also shines brightly, with Lane exuding showmanship as the attention-loving Billy; Heller in a poignant performance as the often overlooked Amos; Ali Ewoldt in an impressively sung performance as radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Also notable is the terrific Emily Skinner, who brings a lot of energy and character to the role of prison matron “Mama” Morton, pairing especially well with Ghee in several moments. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, livening up the stage especially in the Charleston-inspired dance numbers and the electrifying “Cell Block Tango”, skillfully choreographed by director Denis Jones. 

This is a great-looking show, as well, with a jaw-droppingly vivid set by Tim Mackabee that makes excellent use of the Muny’s newly rebuilt stage and all its technical resources. An old-fashioned stage setup is featured, flanked by the leaning Chicago skyline and a a versatile set that changes as needed from nightclub to prison cell to courtroom, The Muny’s video screens are put to good use, with eye-catching video design by Shawn Duan that provides “curtains” for the Vaudeville stage, as well as fitting backdrops for many of the production numbers. There’s also dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and impeccable and colorful period costumes by Emily Rebholz. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Charlie Alterman, plays the bold, jazzy score with exuberant energy.

Chicago isn’t just a flashy show full of memorable music. It’s a sharp satire, with some genuine darkness amidst the glitz, and this production brings all the essential elements of the show into sharp focus, with perfectly pitched direction and an ideal cast. It may be set in the 1920’s, but it has a lot to say about today’s America, as well. It’s a “grown up” show for a grown up audience, and its as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. This is a brilliant production, showing that the Muny, after a memorable season, has saved its best for last. 

Cast and set of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until September 5, 2021

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You Lied to Me About Centralia
by John Guare
Directed by Rayme Cornell
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 22, 2021

In the same weekend that the Tennessee Williams Festival has premiered it’s excellent, site-focused outdoor production of The Glass Menagerie, they’ve also staged a much shorter companion piece featuring one of the characters featured in Williams’s classic play. You Lied to Me About Centralia is a short play–running about 20 minutes–and the tone is much more wryly comic than the headlining show–but celebrated playwright John Guare’s examination of these characters and their situation adds much to think about concerning Williams’s work as well as the ways individuals allow themselves to be influenced by others.

Guare’s one-act is based more directly on Williams’s short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, which was a predecessor of The Glass Menagerie. Still, the story is similar enough, and the character of Jim O’Connor (Chauncy Thomas) is essentially the same, especially at TWFSTL considering that he’s played by the same actor in both productions. Thomas is joined here by Julia Crump as Jim’s fiancee, Betty, who was mentioned by name but does not appear in The Glass Menagerie. In that play, Jim mentioned that he had to pick Betty up at the train depot after her trip to visit a sick aunt in Centralia. This play–which gets its title from its first line of dialogue–imagines that meeting, and Guare’s depiction of events suggests aspects of Jim’s character–and especially Betty’s–that Williams hadn’t portrayed. 

Here. Betty hadn’t been visiting an ailing aunt–she’d been to see a rich uncle in Granite City instead, with the idea of trying to get “Uncle Clyde” to give her money to buy a house. Jim is initially upset by the deception, but his affable personality allows him to gloss it over, although we also get to see how Betty’s influence–and that of their more “socially acceptable” friends–affects how Jim tells the story of his dinner date with the Wingfields. Betty’s own prejudices also surface when we hear her account of finally meeting her uncle, who had given a different impression of himself in his letters; and her comparisons of her uncle to Tom Wingfield reveal aspects of her character that lie beneath her well put-together, seemingly bubbly surface. The relationship dynamics here are fascinating to watch, and although the tone is largely comic, there’s a tragic aspect here, as we see how Jim responds to her teasing by telling her what she wants to hear. The play serves as not only a character study, but as an examination of social norms at the time, and of the concept of socially enforced conformity. 

The performances are strong, with Thomas getting to show a different side to this character he has already played in a different context, and Crump displaying a strong sense of presence and influence. Both performers work well together, displaying good comic timing and chemistry. The staging is simple and also excellent, as the action plays out on a minimal set (just a bench) on the same stage as The Glass Menagerie, which serves as an intriguing echo since we are now getting to see another look at one of that play’s memorable characters. It’s another memorable moment from the still relatively new, but always excellent, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. 

 

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On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
August 21, 2021

Omar Lopez-Cepero, Arianna Rosario
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

On Your Feet! at the Muny is what you may expect in some respects. It’s high energy, crowd-pleasing, and full of hit songs from Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, and Miami Sound Machine. It’s big, bright, and lots of fun, but it’s also a celebration not only of music or an artist or a band, but of love, determination, and devotion.

Emilio and Gloria Estefan are well-known now, but everyone has a history, and this musical is theirs, with the emphasis, for the most part, on Gloria (Arianna Rosario). That makes sense since Gloria has been the one in the spotlight for the most part, first as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a solo recording artist. Really, though, she and husband and producer Emilio (Omar Lopez-Cepero) have been partners in music since they first started working together. This show goes back further than their meeting, though, as Little Gloria (Isabella Ianelli) sends tapes of her singing to her father José Fajardo (Martín Solá) while he is serving in Vietnam. The story then follows Gloria and her family as Gloria gets older, including her mother, Gloria Fajardo (Natascia Diaz), her younger sister Rebecca (Cristina Sastre), and her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo). It’s Consuelo who is convinced that the young Gloria should pursue a career in music, and encourages her to audition for Emilio’s band. She does, and the band grows from a popular local act focusing on Latin music to an international pop music sensation.

Throughout the story, we see continued demonstrations of determination and devotion–of Gloria’s parents and grandparents as they flee Cuba to settle in Miami; of Gloria to her family as her father falls ill with multiple sclerosis; of Consuelo, who never gives up on encouraging Gloria in her musical ambitions; of Emilio to Gloria and their mutual drive for innovation and success. It’s a heartwarming story, told with a fair amount of flashback as stories unfold and challenges arise and are overcome, culminating in Gloria’s famous 1991 performance on the American Music Awards. 

I’ve seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox Theatre. Here, there’s some continuity with that production, as Alma Cuervo, who plays Consuelo, also played the same role on that tour (as well as in the original Broadway cast), and as she was on tour, she is excellent here, providing a lot of the “heart” in this story. Also strong are Diaz as Gloria Fajardo, who is determined and devoted for her own part, although she harbors some regrets. There are also strong performances from Solá as José, Sastre in the somewhat small role of Rebecca, and especially young Iannelli, who lights up the stage with much energy and an excellent voice as Little Gloria. At the center of this show, of course, are Rosario and Lopez-Cepero as Gloria and Emilio. These two, who are also married in real life, display a great deal of chemistry, and their scenes together are a highlight. They also give winning individual performances, with Rosario bringing all the stage presence, vocal quality, and energy necessary for her role, and Lopez-Cepero displaying the strength and determination, as well as a clear sense of love for his family, that characterizes Emilio in this story. There’s also an excellent ensemble, doing a terrific job with all those high-energy dance numbers choreographed by William Carolos Angulo.

Visually, the show fills the large Muny stage with vibrant style, with a vivid, versatile set by Tim Mackabee, dazzling costumes by Leon Dobkowski, great lighting by Rob Denton and memorable video design by Kate Ducey. There’s also a great band (brought onstage for much of the second act) led by music director Lon Hoyt. There were quite a few issues with the microphones on opening night, with some dialogue being difficult to hear, and the otherwise excellent “Reach” number suffering from not being able to fully hear some of the ensemble solos. I hope this improves as the show continues its run. 

Still, for the most part, this is big, fun, enthusiastically performed and heartwarming show. The well-known songs like “Get On Your Feet”, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, and “Conga” are here, and the audience clearly appreciates it, right up to the “Megamix” medley of hits at the end.  What I find especially memorable about this show in addition to the music, however, is the portrayal of strong and enduring relationships. On stage at the Muny for the first time, On Your Feet! brings a lot of heart along with the familiar tunes. 

Arianna Rosario (Center) and Cast of On Your Feet!
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting On Your Feet! in Forest Park until August 27, 2021

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Con College
by Sam Rozier
Directed by Jordan Block
St. Lou Fringe Festival
August 20, 2021

Spencer Davis Milford, Sam Rozier
Photo: River Rat Productions
St. Lou Fringe Festival

This year, St. Lou Fringe is back to in-person live performances, running over one weekend after a slate of digital offerings the previous weekend. The show I’ve been able to see this year is a promising new work by a troupe of mostly St. Louis based artists, by a local playwright-actor who has set the show in St. Louis. Con College, which boasts a strong cast, seems to fit best in the “R-rated dark comedy” genre, although it has dramatic moments and doesn’t always seem to know how dark it wants to be. For the most part, however, it’s a promising new work with an intriguing premise and interesting characters.

As the story starts, we meet Davey (Spencer Davis Milford), who is seemingly content in his life as a brainy and somewhat smug Wash U student who spends much of his time partying with friends, smoking pot, and making money writing papers for fellow students. A phone call with his mom suggests there’s been some family drama in the past, as he refers to himself as “the good son”. Soon we find out more about Davey’s older brother, Jake (Sam Rozier) when Detective James (Alison Kertz) and Officer Rob (Jordan Bollwerk) arrive to inform Davey that Jake–who has been in prison for five years after robbing a jewelry store–has escaped. There’s more to the story, involving white supremacist gangs, the witness protection program, and Jake’s former girlfriend, Jessica (Caroline Amos), who has kept in touch with Davey and has been trying to move on with her life and free herself from Jake’s destructive influence. Soon, of course, Jake shows up and the plot gets even more complicated and we learn more about some of the relationship dynamics between Jake and Davey, as well as their relationships with Jessica, and Jake’s explanation for why he does what he does.

As the story develops, the comedy gets more and more physical and dark, somewhat reminiscent of the plays of Martin McDonagh, although not quite as dark or gory–although there are moments where it looks like the proceedings may go in that direction. Here, though, there is a strong dramatic vein that could stand to be emphasized a little more, leading up to a somewhat abrupt ending that maybe could use a little more build-up. For the most part, though, this is an intriguing story with some well-drawn characters who seem a lot more credible and less caricatured than in some broader dark comedies I’ve seen. The St. Louis references are nice, as well, if a little superficial.

Still, this is a play that has a lot going for it, with the relationship between the brothers–and of both brothers with Jessica–being the highlights. The cast here is strong, as well, led by the Milford as Davey, who brings a relatable likability to the role that is essential for this play to work. He’s contrasted by the also strong Rozier as Jake. Even though he doesn’t have quite the swagger and presence that the role seems to demand, Rozier brings a sense of boyish charm to the the otherwise destructive character that makes both Davey’s and Jessica’s devotion to him more believable. Amos as the conflicted Jessica is excellent, as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Milford and Rozier, and allowing the audience to sympathize with her plight. There’s also good supporting work from Kertz in the small but important role of Detective James, and Bollwerk in a dual role as Officer Rob and another important character who shows up later and is the catalyst for a lot of the darker moments of the show. This dual-casting is a bit confusing at first and it may help the play in future productions if these roles are not played by the same actor, but Bollwerk does a good job in both roles nonetheless. 

This is a fast-paced show with no dull moments, a strong cast, and a script that brings up some thought-provoking moral dilemmas in the midst of the increasing mayhem. Con College is a show that I’d be curious to see again after it’s had a little more development. As it is now, it’s a memorable show that works well in its somewhat rough setting, staged in a tent at St. Lou Fringe. I’m glad I was able to see it.

 

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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Brian Hohlfeld
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 19, 2021

Brenda Currin, Bradley James Tejeda
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Glass Menagerie calls itself a “memory play”, and much of it is not-so-subtly based on the life of its playwright, Tennessee Williams. For their headline production this year, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has taken the “memory” aspect even further than usual. By incorporating a Central West End apartment building in which Williams once lived, and staging the play outside, director Brian Hohlfeld and the creative team, along with an excellent cast, are able to take advantage of the historic location to help set the tone and period atmosphere.

The overall tone is affected greatly by the setting, with Dunsi Dai’s superbly realized set providing the ideal backdrop for this haunting, emotional and evocative production. The lighting by Catherine Adams and sound by Kareem Deanes, along with detailed period-specific costumes by Michele Siler, are also exactly on-point, lending much to the storytelling. Every expression and word of dialogue is clear, as is the feeling of the St. Louis of days gone by. Atmospheric music that’s supposed to be emanating from records on the Victrola or wafting in from the (in-story) dance hall across the alley helps to maintain the overall heightened sense of longing and hoping for something better for this family consisting of faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Brenda Currin) and her adult children, the shy, socially awkward and physically challenged Laura (Elizabeth Teeter), and the restless writer Tom (Bradley James Tejeda), who wishes to focus more on his writing and explore the world beyond St. Louis and the drudgery of his job at a shoe factory. The story, which leads up to a fateful dinner with a much-anticipated “Gentleman Caller” named Jim (Chauncy Thomas), is told as a set of memories recounted by an older Tom, as he reflects on his family’s situation and everyone’s dealing with events of the past as well as hopes and fears for the future. 

The staging is adapted to the set especially well, with the outdoor setting and especially the real fire escapes working ideally for the story, and the performances are remarkable. Tejeda’s Tom is a constant presence even when he’s not on stage, and his perspective paints a vivid picture of the sense of growing longing and desperation among the various characters. The overall family dynamic is on clear display, from anger and resentment, to some genuinely affectionate moments, as Tom truly cares for the well-being of his sister and, occasionally, his mother. The family scenes are especially memorable, with outstanding performances from Currin as the regretful, sometimes overbearing Amanda, and Teeter as the wistful, painfully shy Laura, who struggles with her own insecurities and everyone else’s expectations for her. Thomas is also strong as the personable, cheerful Jim, who forms a believable connection with Teeter’s Laura in some of the most captivating scenes in the play. This is a highly emotional play, and all of the performers convey those emotions truthfully and with power. 

This play, when done well, is one of those shows that can stay with a person for a while after they’ve seen it, like a vivid, lingering memory. And this production at TFSTL is done remarkably well. Sitting out in the open space behind the Tennessee apartment building in the CWE, the audience is put into the world of The Glass Menagerie, and with this cast and that stunning set and production values, it’s a world well worth visiting.

Chauncy Thomas, Elizabeth Teeter
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Glass Menagerie at The Tennessee until August 29, 2021

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Gene de Paul
New Songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2021

Edward Watts, Kendra Kassebaum
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s latest show is both a repeat and a debut at once. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a well-known show that the Muny has staged several times before, and it’s based on a classic film. The version presented at the Muny this season, though, features a few script revisions and a new framing device to help make the story, which has been seen by many (including myself) as problematic, more palatable for modern audiences. The basic story is intact, though, as are the memorable score and spectacular dancing that this musical is famous for, performed by an excellent, enthusiastic cast headed up by an especially impressive leading lady.

The familiar story is here, with a few thoughtful twists. The show is now framed by a series of scenes that set the main story as a flashback; a tale told by an older Milly (Kendra Kassebaum) to her grandchildren. This framing device serves to not only allow Milly to share thoughts to the audience about the whole situation, but it also works as one of several elements that help to bring the focus more on the women of the story. The main story follows mostly the same way as before, as the rough mountain man Adam Pontipee (Edward Watts) arrives in town looking for a wife, and quickly woos the young, strong-willed Milly. What he neglects to tell her, though, is that he has six younger brothers (Harris Milgrim, Waldemar Quinones-Villaneuva, Ryan Steele, Garrett Hawe, Kyle Coffman, and Brandon L. Whitmore) who all live with him at his remote mountain cabin. Milly is initially (and understandably) upset, but she then becomes determined to teach the brothers manners, eventually taking them to a social in town, where they meet and become mutually smitten by local young women (Leslie Donna Flesner, Sarah Meahl, Kristin Yancy, Carly Blake Sabouhian, Shonica Gooden, and Mikayla Renfrow). Adam, meanwhile, becomes upset about Milly’s turning his brothers into “mama’s boys” and eventually leads his lovesick siblings on a mission to town to abduct the objects of their affects, inspired by a story in Plutarch’s Lives. This situation has been revised a bit, as well, which fortunately ends up making the brothers look better, except for Adam, although the change also raises the stakes and increases the tensions in Adam’s relationship with Milly.

I won’t give everything away, but for me, the result of the “script tweaking” is a story that makes a little more sense. It still features those memorable songs like “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”, and “Goin’ Courtin'”, along with plenty of energetic, athletic dancing ably choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, but the new recasting of this as telling the story through Milly’s eyes and the (slight) fleshing-out of the “brides” characters works to make the whole show easier to take, even with some of the more cringe-worthy moments still intact or, in some cases, amplified.

The staging at the Muny is dazzling, with a universally excellent cast and that dynamic choreography, all play out on Michael Schweikardt’s stunning set that brings the mountain setting to life backed by Caite Hevner’s excellent video design and making excellent use of the Muny’s turntable. Another aspect of this production that I appreciate is that, unlike previous stage productions I’ve seen, it’s not a carbon copy of the film. Amy Clark’s costumes are colorful and period-appropriate, but they don’t seem to be based on those in film. There’s also excellent lighting by Jason Lyons and sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and the wonderful Muny band and music direction by Valerie Gebert. 

The cast, as previously mentioned, is impressive, led by remarkable performance by Kassebaum, who gets to showcase her excellent voice, but also gives us a strong, relatable Milly who goes on a believable emotional journey throughout the production. She’s the heart of this version of the show, with a truly vibrant portrayal. Shaw, as the charming but pigheaded Adam, is also strong, with a bold baritone voice that’s evident from his first note on “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”. His chemistry with Kassebaum is strong as well. The rest of the cast is strong in support, with all the Brides and Brothers making good pairs, and Whitmore and Renfrow especially standing out as youngest brother Gideon and his love, Alice. There’s also energetic support from the adult and youth ensembles, bringing the 18th century mountain town to life in a mostly upbeat, believable way.

Another notable aspect of this production is that this wasn’t the originally planned opening night, with the August 12th performance having been postponed due to thunderstorms. Even though this was a “raincheck” performance, I don’t think anybody who didn’t know that would have been able to tell.  Kudos to the cast and crew for an exuberant, memorable production. It’s a crowd-pleasing show made even more so by the revisions and, especially, it’s superb cast and production values. 

Cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Forest Park until August 18, 2021

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Always… Patsy Cline
by Ted Swindley
Directed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
August 11, 2021

Diana DeGarmo, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Always… Patsy Cline was the first show I saw from STAGES St. Louis, back in 2014 at the Westport Playhouse. That was the second year STAGES had produced the show, which is now their all-time best seller. Now, as the company officially moves into their big, shiny new venue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center and after missing a summer last  year due to the pandemic, STAGES is back with a new staging of their biggest hit, with one of the original cast members and an excellent new addition, celebrating the power of friendship and the music of a legendary singer, Patsy Cline. As it was then, it’s a show full of great music, strong production values, and a lot of energy and heart.

The two biggest differences between this production and the last one I saw 7 years ago are the venue and the performer playing Patsy, while there is a welcome sense of continuity as well in the form of the general look and feel of the show and its other leading lady. Veteran local performer Zoe Vonder Haar returns as Houston, TX divorcee, mother, and country music fan Louise Seger, who becomes a big fan of Cline’s and then manages to form a friendship with the singer. This time, Patsy is played by Broadway and American Idol veteran Diana DeGarmo, and the venue is a lot bigger than the tiny, somewhat cramped quarters at Westport. As a result, the show has more of an “opened up” feel this time, although the fun moments of audience interaction and the leads’ interactions with the onstage band are still as vibrant as ever. 

This story is a simple one–Seger becomes a fan of Cline’s through her music, then goes to a concert and meets the singer in person, and the two quickly form a friendship. The main focus of the show is on the music, and many of Cline’s biggest hits are featured, like “I Fall to Pieces”, “Crazy”, “Sweet Dreams”, and a lot more. What’s especially on display here, along with the great songs, is the interaction between the excellent DeGarmo and Vonder Haar as Patsy and Louise. Vonder Haar, as she was before, is energetic, outgoing, and personable as Louise, and DeGarmo is an excellent addition to the cast as Patsy, singing the songs well, especially in her mid-range, belting style, although she does struggle a little with volume on some of the low notes at times. DeGarmo also brings a lot to the role acting-wise, shining in quieter moments as Vonder Haar narrates the story. There are also a few fun duets between the two, with Act 2’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” a standout moment. 

Technically, the show looks great, with James Wolk’s set filling out the new venue’s stage especially well, with a detailed early 1960’s look. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting adds to the period feel, as do Brad Musgrove’s colorful costumes. There’s also an excellent band led by musical director and pianist Jeremy Jacobs.

If you’ve seen this show before at STAGES, you’ll know what to expect, although it’s worth checking out again. With a brand new venue and a great cast, and that great Patsy Cline music, this a show that’s sure to entertain. It’s not a surprise that this is STAGES’ best-selling show, with its sheer audience appeal. It’s at once a return to an old friend and a welcome to a new era for a familiar and celebrated local theatre company. 

Diana DeGarmo, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Always… Patsy Cline in the Ross Family Theatre at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until September 5, 2021

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Art
by Yasmina Reza
With Adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 6, 2021

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick, Jeremy Goldmeier
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

In a time of increasing uncertainty and efforts to return to live theatre (both outside and inside), Stray Dog Theatre has adapted its usual performance setting in presenting a play that explores not only the subjective nature of art, but also the need for, and definitions of, friendship and personal relationships. Yesmina Reza’s Art (adapted by Christopher Hampton) is an incisive, occasionally witty, occasionally caustic character study of a comedy, looking not only at these issues but also exploring the influence of outside relationships on an individual’s personality view of oneself. At SDT, this somewhat talky play is given a great deal of energy by its excellent cast of three.

The story here is presented in an intriguing format, as the events play out in a  mostly linear fashion, while the three characters take turns narrating and sharing their personal thoughts with the audience. It begins as Marc (Stephen Peirick) recounts a visit to his friend Serge (Ben Ritchie), as Serge eagerly shows off his new “find” for his modern art collection–a painting by a celebrated artist. Marc’s reaction is not exactly pleasant, as he takes offense at his friend’s purchase of a basically white painting. Serge doesn’t take Marc’s reaction well, and Marc takes his case to their mutual friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), who is dealing with his own personal issues and just wants everyone to be happy. Yvan later visits with Serge and hears his side of the story. That’s just the beginning, as the initial conflict brings out–and reveals–more conflicts, between the three friends as well as with their romantic partners, family members, and more. 

This play is a lot more character-focused than plot-focused, giving the cast members excellent situations for expression, both dramatically and in a comedic sense. The comedy is somewhat caustic and biting, as well as ironic at times, and the characters can be hard to like at times (especially the domineering Marc). As such a character-centric work, it’s an ideal showcase for the actors, and all three performers shine here. Ritchie’s pretentious, particular Serge; Peirick’s selfish, control-focused Marc; and Goldmeier’s overwhelmed, would-be mediator Yvan are all strong characterizations, with Goldmeier standing out especially in a well-realized, at once humorous and sympathetic portrayal. The interplay between all three actors is a particular highlight, as well, with each gaining energy from the others and feeding the increasingly frantic progression of the proceedings.

Technically, the show does well in its new outdoor space, on the lawn next to SDT’s usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. A stage has been set up with folding chairs for the audience, with a good view of the minimal but effective set by Josh Smith, which is put to excellent use by director Gary F. Bell and the cast. There’s also impressive lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as character-appropriate costumes by Bell. It all works well in an outdoor setting, in terms of being able to see and hear everything.

Art is a show with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of plot, but with fully-realized characters who provide all the focus for the comedy and the drama. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings, along with an exploration of the subjective nature of art. At Stray Dog Theatre, it sets the stage for some especially strong performances, and serves as a welcome return for this theatre company.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Art outside at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 21, 2021

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The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 3, 2021

Kate Rockwell, Michael Hayden, Jenny Powers, and the Von Trapp Children
Photo: The Muny

The hills are alive, and so are the trees, the stage, the scenery, the lights, and the video in the Muny’s latest production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. Although there is a strong cast here, for the most part, and the audience loved every minute, what shines here especially is the technical artistry, as well as the integration of the setting with the Muny’s natural environment in Forest Park, with the return of the live trees on stage. The classic songs and characters are here, as well, but what’s especially stunning is the sheer spectacle.

This is a show that the Muny has produced many times, although it’s only the second time I’ve seen it here, even though I’ve seen several other productions in various other venues. Here, it’s the familiar show with all the iconic characters and 1930’s Austrian setting, although a few little tweaks have been made. First, when aspiring nun Maria (Kate Rockwell) is first seen, she’s given a bit of a “Julie Andrews moment” in a nod to the famous film by way of this production’s eliminating the usual nuns’ prelude and Maria’s introduction to the title song. The first words we hear are “the hills are alive”, just like the film. Maria also gets a striking entrance standing on a stump that rises out of the stage, as Rockwell is flanked by those lovely trees as well as some stunning projections by video designer Caite Hevner, whose work is one of the true highlights of this production.  We then follow Maria, who is having trouble fitting into convent life, as the wise Mother Abbess (Bryonha Maria Parham) sends her to test her calling by serving as a governess to the widowed Captain George von Trapp (Michael Hayden) and his seven neglected children, (Elizabeth Teeter, Victor De Paula Rocha, Amelie Lock, Parker Dzuba, Jillian Depke, Abby Hogan, and Kate Scarlett Kappel). Maria’s initial idea is to help the children prepare for a new stepmother, as the Captain has been courting wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Jenny Powers), but as most of us know, things don’t quite turn out to plan, for Maria, for the Captain and the children, or for Austria itself, as the brutal, menacing Nazi regime is poised to take over the country.

The cast here is good, with some particular standouts, like Teeter in an especially thoughtful turn as eldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl, John Scherer as the enterprising concert promoter Max Detweiler, and, especially, Parham as the Mother Abbess, who not only displays a strong sense of wisdom and compassionate authority, but also a fantastic voice on songs like “My Favorite Things” and the iconic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Rockwell is a spunky Maria, and Hayden takes a while to find his energy, but eventually gives a thoughtful, memorable performance as the Captain, especially shining in his moments with Rockwell and the children. Other standouts include Depke as the observant young Brigitta, and Kappel in a spirited performance as youngest daughter Gretel. The children as a group show a strong sense of family connection. Powers also gives a strong, if somewhat subdued, performance as Maria’s romantic rival Elsa. 

The staging is clever, with a colorful set by Paige Hathaway and excellent use of the Muny’s turntable in conjunction with the scenic and video design. There’s a particularly stunning moment in Act 2 during the wedding in which set, video projections, staging, and Shelby Loera’s superb lighting design come together to awe-inspiring, almost cinematic effect. There are also excellent period-specific costumes by Tristan Raines. In fact, the production is nearly flawless from a technical standpoint, aside from a few obvious and distracting wigs. Also worth noting is the melodious Muny Orchestra led by music director Ben Whitely.

Overall, The Sound of Music at the Muny is an entertaining, fully realized experience that makes the most of its venue. If you love this show, I imagine you’ll enjoy this production. It’s a well-staged production that truly makes its location one of the stars of the show.

Kate Rockwell, Bryonha Marie Parham
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Sound of Music in Forest Park until August 9, 2021

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Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the Book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Sydie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
July 30, 2021

Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand, Abraham Shaw, Wendy Renée Greenwood
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Now that the St. Louis theatre schedule is starting to fill up again, I’m thinking about the types of shows that work especially well for “re-introducing” theatre to an audience that has been missing it for so long. There are the “fun” shows that are there primarily to entertain, there are those that celebrate the art of theatre itself, and then there are the thoughtful, thought-provoking shows that ask questions that may or may not be answered. Even though it’s a show that’s framed to be about someone answering questions, Tiny Beautiful Things, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, is one of these thought-stirring types of shows, compellingly performed by a first-rate cast.

The play is a dramatic presentation, adapted by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) of a book by writer Cheryl Strayed, which is essentially a compilation of letters and answers from an advice column that Strayed once wrote for an online literary magazine called The Rumpus. In the production, Strayed (played here by Michelle Hand) takes on the mantle of “Dear Sugar” after the job is offered to her by the column’s previous writer (Greg Johnston). As “Sugar”, Hand is the only performer who plays the same role throughout the production. The three other players (Johnston, Wendy Renée Greenwood, and Abraham Shaw) play a variety of characters, from the writers of the various dramatized letters, to readers who are eager to learn Sugar’s identity, to figures in Strayed personal life, and most notably her mother (Greenwood), who has a profound influence in Strayed’s life, career, and advice. It’s a short play, running at roughly 90 minutes with no intermission, but there’s a lot here to think about. The letters run the gamut from the humorous to the profound,  touching on a range of issues from relationships (with parents, significant others, etc.) to personal identity and acceptance, to aspirational goals, and more. 

The show here has a structure if not exactly a lot of “action”. The “plot” is essentially the progression of “Sugar’s” thought process as she explores her own background by way of trying to help others through her answers to their letters, and the letters also deal with some lighter issues as well as some more intense, weighty ones (including addiction, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse), providing the audience the opportunity to think and process how we might respond to them, as well as to Sugar’s answers. What’s especially compelling here in the dramatic presentation is the performance, and the excellent portrayals by all four of the cast members, led by the superb Hand in an engaging performance as Sugar. Johnston, Greenwood, and Shaw are also especially strong in portraying a range of different characters and situations, and the imagined interactions with Sugar are poignantly portrayed. It’s all compellingly staged by director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga in a way that makes the subject matter, and the various characters, especially relatable and stirring.

The production values are excellent, as is usual with this theatre company, with a great set by Dunsi Dai and costumes by Eileen Engel, striking lighting by Patrick Huber, and proficient sound design by Phillip Evans.  Tiny Beautiful Things is a memorable production with top-notch performances that’s sure to make audiences think, and another reminder of what’s so great about being back in the theatre.

Michelle Hand
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Tiny Beautiful Things at the Grandel Theatre until August 8, 2021




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