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Archive for October, 2021

It Is Magic
by Mickle Maher
Directed by Suki Peters
The Midnight Company
October 21, 2021

Michelle Hand, Chrissie Watkins, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

There is magic in the theatre, but there can also be stagnation, monotony, rejection, competing egos, and jaded artistic directors with ulterior motives.  These ideas are some of what you can draw from The Midnight Company’s latest production, although there are many more thoughts and ideas you can also derive from this darkly comic, outrageously unpredictable, and ultimately riveting production that just opened at the Kranzberg Arts Center.  The production is called It Is Magic, and as directed by Suki Peters and featuring a stellar cast, it actually is quite magical. 

One of the many highlights of this show is the construction of it, and its sheer sense of thrill-ride unpredictability. It starts out as one thing, then morphs into something else, and then still into another thing, with a steady and relentless pace as it tells its story with dark, twisted abandon. Overall, it’s about theatre, and there’s a lot of biting satire here, but there’s also a sense of subversion about it that doesn’t seem apparent at the start. As the play opens, we’re in the basement of the Mortier Civic Playhouse, where the determined Deb Chandler (Michelle Hand) is conducting auditions for her new adaptation of “The Three Little Pigs” for adult audiences. As the good-natured perennial bit-player Tim Padley (Carl Overly, Jr.) auditions for the lead role of the Wolf, Deb’s glum sister Sandy (Nicole Angeli), who also wants the part, looks on. After Deb has stopped the audition several times with some somewhat overzealous “notes’ and the audience might start to think this play is something along the lines of the modern classic film Waiting For Guffman,  pontificating artistic director Ken Mason (Joe Hanrahan) arrives from upstairs, where he’s directing a production of “The Scottish Play” (Macbeth) on the Playhouse’s Main Stage. Ken is looking for Tim, who is supposed to go onstage as the Second Murderer very soon, even though Deb keeps detaining him because, even though she’s determined that Tim should get the part of the Wolf, something’s not quite right. That’s just the beginning of the story as things start to get more unusual, and then even more so, as eventually Elizabeth (Chrissie Watkins) shows up to the audition claiming to know Deb and Sandy, although they don’t seem to remember her. From there, the surprises keep coming as the show veers from straight-up comedy, to flirtations with melodrama, and then crashes back into comedy with a decidedly dark tone, and all the while there are building elements of mystery and, yes, magic. 

That’s about as far as I want to go with the plot synopsis, because the unfolding mystery and unpredictable, perpetual surprise element of the story is the real driving force of this production. On the way, though, there is a fair amount of skewering of theatre tropes, like the audition process, self-important artists, the cult of personality, and more. There’s also a fun blend of the fairy tale elements with themes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and aspects of fantasy and even horror. Underneath all the jokes, plot developments, surprises, and revelations, though, is an exploration of the purpose of theatre and its importance, and the tension between the desire to create and to challenge, and the temptation to slide into a sense of the mundane and mediocre.  

The black box theatre at the Kranzberg is the ideal place for a show like this. The minimal set by Kevin Bowman, and the lighting, also by Bowman, provide an all-too realistic setting for this depiction of a small community theatre audition and rehearsal space. The characters are also outfitted ideally in Liz Henning’s striking costumes, and director Peters–who is especially adept with comedy–has paced the show with a precise sense of timing, bringing the absolute best out of her excellent cast.

And that cast is truly marvelous. Everyone is ideally cast. Hand, as the self-doubting, all-too-earnest Deb projects a sense of both mounting desperation and hopeful determination, along with a somewhat unsettling hero-worship of Ken, who is played by Hanrahan with an outward wit and charm that still doesn’t disguise his underlying condescension and controlling nature. There’s also impressive work from Angeli, who gives a multilayered performance, bringing out a sense of melancholy, bitterness, determination, and an ember of hope to the ever-rejected Sandy, who eager for a chance to finally get a part in a play, but also has some other surprising motives. Overly, as the good-natured but increasingly exasperated Tim, is also strong, with some surprises of his own; and Watkins brings a fierce intensity to her game-changing role as Elizabeth. All of the players work well together, with much of the comedy, tension, and energy coming from their various interactions.

I wish I could write more about exactly what this play is about, but really, this is the kind of show that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s also a show that should raise some challenging questions concerning the purpose and nature of theatre itself. it’s a fascinating, riveting and genuinely hilarious play to watch. It’s an impressive show from The Midnight Company, that usually (but not always) produces one-person shows, especially considering the fact that the ensemble chemistry makes this production all the more compelling. And absolutely, like the title says, It Is Magic.

Joe Hanrahan, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting It Is Magic at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 6, 2021

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Blue/Orange
by Joe Penhall
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 14, 2021

Jason Meyers, Ben Ritchie, William Humphrey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s second production of it’s latest season is also their first indoors. Playing to a limited capacity audience, the three-person show is a good fit for the situation. Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall is a play that approaches its subject matter from a British perspective, although many of the issues are more universal. SDT’s production brings this challenging, character-focused play to a St. Louis audience with energetic staging and outstanding performances from an excellent cast.

Blue/Orange is urgent in its pacing, and this urgency is well maintained by director Justin Been and the cast of three impressive local actors. The setting is a psychiatric hospital in London early in the first decade of the 21st Century, and the action takes place over a 24-hour period, as patient Christopher (William Humphrey) is getting ready to be released after 28 days. His doctor, Bruce Flaherty (Jason Meyers) has doubts about Christopher’s diagnosis and seemingly too-early release, and has called in his supervisor, Dr. Robert Smith (Ben Ritchie), to confirm Bruce’s doubts. To Bruce’s surprise, though, Robert not only disagrees with Bruce’s concerns–he challenges Bruce’s motives and competency, bringing up various issues including attitudes toward race, as Bruce and Robert are white and Christopher is Black. The subject of money also comes up, as the hospital doesn’t have the funds it needs to keep many patients for longer than 28 days. There’s a power struggle here between the doctors, as well, as Robert is exerting his authority as the higher-ranking and more experienced doctor, and as the more insecure Bruce worries about his opportunity for advancement, also pointing out that Robert has a book he’s hoping to publish, and is hoping to use Christopher as a subject in a study. Christopher, who has trouble trusting either doctor while also seeming to be subject to their manipulation, becomes both a catalyst and a pawn in the midst of this power struggle, as the two doctors continue to spar and challenge one another, seeming increasingly to care more about scoring points against the other than about their patient. 

This is a heavy, intense play. It’s also loud at times, as the power struggles and interactions between doctors and patient often escalate to shouting and strong language. The issues here are timely and intriguing, from UK-specific issues like the structure of their health system to various areas of London, to more universal matters like the issues of race, racism, and privilege, as well as the monetization of health care and career ambitions potentially undermining patient care. It’s all framed with a very British eye, as well, and there don’t seem to have been a lot of productions of this show in the USA, or at least, I haven’t been able to find many in searching online. It’s very popular in the UK, though, which makes sense considering how UK and London-centric it is. This is why I question the decision for the actors to not use British accents in this production, although it may make the play easier to understand for American audiences, and consistency in British accents is often difficult for American actors. 

The accent issue, though, is the only real “negative” I can say about the staging of this production, as everything else is excellent, from Been’s minimal but effective set, to Gary F. Bell’s well-suited costumes, to Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting, to the profoundly excellent performances from all three cast members. The acting here is simply superb. All three actors are at their best–from Meyers’s initially well-meaning, somewhat awkward and insecure Bruce; to Ritchie’s haughty, controlling, ambitious academic Robert; to Humphrey’s unpredictable, energetic, alternately confrontational and withdrawn Christopher. All three work together especially well, with their interplay providing much of the dramatic tension of the play. A full range of emotion is on display here, with a dynamic, riveting result. 

There’s a lot to think about in Blue/Orange. This is definitely not a play you want to see for light entertainment. With its well-drawn characters and challenging subject matter, this is the kind of play that should have audience members thinking, and talking about afterwards. As a production, it’s an acting tour-de-force and a memorable theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Blue/Orange at Tower Grove Abbey until October 23, 2021

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Breadcrumbs
by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Sarah Lynne Holt
R-S Theatrics
October 9, 2021

Julie Amuedo, Jodi Stockton
Photo by Mike Young
R-S Theatrics

Stories are powerful. They can be personal, shared between friends and family, told to the wider world, or passed down from generation to generation. The newest production from R-S Theatrics, Breadcrumbs, explores all those aspects of storytelling along with a fascinating unfolding tale of a developing relationship, along with memories of a formative one. It’s also a showcase for two first-rate performances, and some especially inventive staging that helps to tell the story with utmost clarity. 

Breadcrumbs, directed by R-S Theatrics’ new artistic director, Sarah Lynne Holt, is two stories told in parallel, with elements of iconic fairy tales woven in. It’s essentially the story of a writer, Alida (Jodi Stockton), who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and her relationships with two important figures in her life, past and present. Both of these important characters are played by the same person, as their similarities become keys to discovery. In the present day story, Alida meets Beth (Julie Amuedo), a nurse’s aide, at a clinic where she is being evaluated in a effort to make a diagnosis. In this meeting, Beth and Alida both tell their stories in essentially a fairy-tale form, and as their relationship develops and we learn more about both of these characters, the parallel story plays out, as Alida remembers her childhood and her mother(also Amuedo), who would move the two of them around a lot in pursuit of the mother’s various boyfriends, finally settling into a situation that leads to even more mystery. In the present, Beth’s story parallels that of Alida’s mother, and as Beth makes herself more indispensable in Alida’s life, the exploration of Alida’s childhood mystery grows; and as both women in the present day learn to navigate their own issues of trust and dependency, an initially tentative bond between them develops.

The play’s structure is clever, but it can also be tricky, in that it could easily become confusing as the two parallel tales–linked by Alida–are told in a way that the past and present accounts often switch back and forth abruptly. The staging, however, is especially clever in making the distinctions clear, with effective lighting by Karen Pierce that not only sets the mood and fairy tale-like atmosphere especially well, but also changes to distinctly different hues to distinguish the different timelines. The staging is also expertly paced, heightening the tension as Alida’s memory difficulties increase, and as the her trust in Beth is repeatedly called into question. The performances also aid in the clarity, as both performers excel in portraying this mysteriously unfolding story, with Stockton’s manner changing between older adult and little girl effectively, and Amuedo’s changes between the two similar but also very different characters also made strikingly apparent. Both performers are excellent, and their relationships are poignant and remarkably believable. lending much to the overall poignancy of the story. Director Holt’s set also lends an air of simultaneous elusiveness and realism to the proceedings, which also feature fine costumes from Amanda Brasher and sound by Ted Drury.

Breadcrumbs is a fascinating story, from beginning to end, and its use of parallels in the structure as well as the story is impressive. At R-S Theatrics, the story resonates with poignancy and truth, and although it uses the theme of fairy tales, there are issues dealt with here that are for mature audiences (featuring issues like domestic abuse and neglect as well as health issues cognitive decline). As staged by an excellent cast and creative team, this is a tale well told. 

 

Julie Amuedo, Jodi Stockton
Photo by Mike Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting Breadcrumbs at the .Zack Theatre until October 24, 2021

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The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

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The Story of My Life
Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
October 1,, 2021

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

In a season in which many local theatres are returning to live performance, it’s now New Line’s turn. For its new season opener, director Scott Miller has chosen a show that’s not “big” in the sense of being elaborate or flashy, or having a large cast, but it ends up being big in another, important way. While it may only have two cast members and a piano accompaniment, The Story of My Life is “big” in that it’s meaningful, and relatable to the audience in an especially memorable sense. 

This is simple story in its essence. Bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Jeffrey M. Wright) is trying to write the eulogy for his recently deceased childhood friend, Alvin Kelby (Chris Kernan), who “helps” Tom come to terms with his thoughts about what to write, as well as Tom’s memories and regrets concerning his relationship with Alvin, from when they first became friends in first grade, up until their last meeting shortly before Alvin’s death. Tom has a lot to think about, and Alvin appears as something of a representative of his conscience, reminding him to dig deeper into his memories and the mountain of thoughts and stories to not only remember the good times and the bad, but to discover the profound influence Alvin has had on Tom and his writing over the years. It’s a detailed reflection of an influential friendship, with memorable songs that fit into the story and help develop the characters, as we hear tales of their meeting, of Alvin’s unique personality and attachment to his family’s bookstore, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the tradition of making snow angels on Christmas day, and more, as the two boys grow up and go in different directions and even drift apart, although Tom can’t forget Alvin, and is reminded of the importance of their friendship.

One of the great things about this show is how “writer-y” it is. As a writer myself, I look at this show and see a lot of how it is constructed, even being able to predict some plot points simply based on how the story is building. While “predictable” is often seen as a bad thing, in this show it works, because the very structure of it is a reflection of the character of Tom, in whose brain the story is essentially taking place. Here, on Rob Lippert’s brilliantly realized set, Tom sits at his writer’s desk trying to compose the eulogy, but he’s constantly distracted by thoughts and memories of Albert. The piles of books and papers that cover the stage are representative of Tom’s thoughts and how he organizes them, as stories. The story builds in recognizable beats, but there is much that isn’t predictable as well, such as the unique quirks of Albert that Tom remembers, and their unique story as friends. It’s a story full of humor and heartbreak, joy and tragedy, and a testimony to the importance and influence of a good friend on a person’s life even after that friend is gone. 

In addition to the marvelous set, there’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that gives the space an ethereal quality that works especially well considering the elements of fantasy here, and the glow that surrounds Alvin in much of the show suggests a “guardian angel” quality to the character, kind of like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, who is often mentioned by Alvin. The costumes are credited to Kernan and Wright, and they have outfitted themselves ideally here, with Wright getting the “stereotypical intellectual” look with his button-down shirt and sweater vest; and Kernan clad all in white, again suggesting an angelic or ghostly quality that’s only augmented by the lighting. The staging is simple, with Lippert’s unit set and only a single piano accompaniment, by director and music director Miller. 

The performances are fantastic, as well, with the interplay between the two actors especially strong. Wright plays Tom with a somewhat stuffy quality from the beginning, and his journey as a character is evident as he interacts with Kernan’s quirky and offbeat but loving Alvin, who is there as a creature of Tom’s memory and conscience, but is embodied with much  warmth, energy and emotion by Kernan. Wright shows Tom’s growth throughout the course of the play with a great deal of credibility, and by the end it’s easy to believe the emotional journey he has taken, with the help of his memories of Alvin. Both performers are in great voice, as well, as is usual for New Line.

I think most people seeing this show will easily be able to relate to many of the issues brought up here, and specific friends and friendships. The Story of My Life is an apt title, since many of its themes are universal. At New Line, this simply staged show displays a great deal of complexity in its characters and their relationship, and even though it might not be “big” in the sense of size, it’s message is of profound importance. This is a very human show, with joy, with a very human heart. 

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Story of My Life at the Marcelle Theatre until October 23, 2021

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Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 30, 2021

Jason Michael Evans, Brent Michael DiRoma, Christopher Kale Jones, Ryan Jesse
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their 2021 season, and first at their shiny new venue, with their first production of the popular “jukebox” musical Jersey Boys. This is a show that never seems to fail to please an audience, with its story following the legendary Frankie Valli and the Four Season, and its score chock full of nostalgic hit songs. It’s also a great showcase for its titular quartet, providing they have the vocals and the personality for the roles–and at STAGES, they definitely do, supported by the first-rate production values for which this company is known.

This show has one of the stronger books for this type of show–the jukebox bio-musical. The story follows the original members of the Four Seasons, who take turns narrating as the show goes on, showing their trials and tribulations as the band rises from obscurity in their working class New Jersey neighborhood to worldwide fame and fortune. We also see the flaws and foibles of the individual members, as well as their strengths, starting with ambitious, bossy guitarist Tommy DeVito (Brent Michael DiRoma), then moving on to more business-minded but initially more personally sheltered keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Ryan Jesse), to quirky bassist Nick Massi (Jason Michael Evans), and finally to probably the most well-known of the group, the gifted vocalist Frankie Valli (Christopher Kale Jones). As the band evolves from a three-man act looking for a fourth, to a world-famous quartet, to renowned lead singer and his backing band, we see the early struggles, the personal conflicts, the battling egos, the personal triumphs and tragedies, and the more and less pleasant aspects of the characters’ personalities. All along the way we hear the memorable soundtrack of hit after hit after hit, from “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ and “Working My Way Back to You”. For the most part, this is a look at four guys and their music, although some of the characters are more likable than others, but the music is legendary. 

The casting is essential in this show, especially in terms of the Four Seasons themselves, and STAGES gets it right, as all four roles are ideally cast. DiRoma, who has been in several shows at STAGES before, is in excellent form as the cocky, bossy DeVito, and Evans has some memorable moments as the more eccentric, more introverted Massi. Jesse is also a standout in an amiable performance as Gaudio, and Jones, who has played Franki Valli on tour, is simply fantastic, managing to sound a lot like the real Valli and also portray his maturing through the years in a convincing way. All four work well together, as well, with a strong vocal blend and superb ensemble chemistry. There’s also a strong ensemble to support them, led by STAGES regulars John Flack and Steve Isom, both playing various roles, as well as Edward Juvier as producer/songwriter Bob Crewe, and Jenna Coker-Jones, Sarah Ellis, and Donna Louden as various women in the Four Seasons’ lives. There’s a strong ensemble, providing support, vocals, and energetic dancing–choreographed by Dana Lewis–as well. 

The staging by director Michael Hamilton is well-paced, and the smaller venue of STAGES works especially well for the more intimate nature of the scenes in which we see the group’s “personality” developing, as well as moments in the studio and in concert. The new venue works well here, as well as providing a space for a terrific on-stage band led by musical director Jeremy Jacobs. I hope STAGES continues to feature live music in its shows now that its venue allows for it. James Wolk’s two level set, along with Brad Musgrove’s colorful period-specific costumes, and Sean M. Savoie’s striking lighting, provide just the right tone and mood for the show, as the times move forward from the 1950s to several decades following. 

Even if you’re not overly familiar with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, their story and especially their songs are memorable. In fact, the songs just might be playing in your head for a few days after seeing this crowd-pleasing production at STAGES. It’s an ideally cast, well-presented look at an important group in the history of Rock ‘n Roll. 

Cast of Jersey Boys
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Jersey Boys at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 24, 2021

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