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Archive for March, 2022

Proof
by David Auburn
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
March 26, 2022

Summer Baer, Michael James Reed
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company continues to impress with its second production onstage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. David Auburn’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof is a profoundly thoughtful drama with rich characterizations and intelligent explorations of subjects from math to family relationships to struggles with mental health. It’s a challenging play to stage, and Moonstone has risen to the challenge admirably with a remarkably well-cast production.

The play tells its story with a blend of straightforward realism, flashback, and fantasy, as it explores the lives that have been affected by renowned mathematician and university professor Robert (Michael James Reed), and especially that of his younger daughter, Catherine (Summer Baer), a once-promising math student herself, who left school early to care for her father as he struggled with mental illness. In the aftermath of Robert’s death, three characters are dealing with his passing in different ways. Catherine is left struggling to cope, and also dealing with fears that she will inherit her father’s condition. Her business-minded older sister Claire (Julie Amuedo), deals with what to do with Robert’s house, and how to take care of Catherine, whom Claire views as “fragile”. There’s also Hal (Oliver Bacus), a former student of Robert’s who now teaches at the university. Hal has been looking through the many notebooks Robert left behind in case there might be some important math discovery hidden among the often incoherent scribblings Robert filled them with in his later years. As Catherine deals with memories of her father, the expectations of her sister, and her initially awkward interactions with Hal that soon reveal an obvious mutual attraction, she is forced to confront her own fears, as well as unresolved issues concerning her father’s legacy, her own future, and her mathematical gifts. 

This is a story about relationships primarily–interpersonal relationships, teacher/student, parent/child, and sibling relationships, and potential romantic relationships. It also focuses on mental health and also on individuals’ gifts, talents, and intelligence, and how they utilize them. With Catherine as the central character with the most personal issues to deal with, and Robert being a looming presence even when he’s not on stage, the other characters are developed mostly through their relationships with these two key figures. Catherine is a bundle of contradictions, and a lot of promise but also self-doubt, and she is portrayed with vivid complexity by Baer, who shines in every scene she is in, and especially in her moments with the superb Reed as Robert; and with Bacus, who gives an impressively likable performance as the initially awkward but determined Hal. Amuedo is also strong in the difficult role of the somewhat haughty Claire, who is essentially the antagonist of the piece, and her scenes with Baer are fraught with tension. It’s a strong ensemble all around, and the staging and pacing help to maintain the emotion of the story.

The action takes place at Robert’s old, deteriorating house and backyard, which are vividly realized by means of Dunsi Dai’s simply impressive set. Michele Siler’s costumes suit the characters well, and there’s also excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan that adapts well to the changing tones of the show. Along with Amanda Werre’s strong sound design, the technical aspects help to maintain the mood of the production.

There is so much going on here in terms of emotion, unfolding discoveries, and character relationships, and there are some especially intense moments, but it’s all approached deftly by the cast and director Sharon Hunter that it never seems too heavy, even though there’s a lot to think about here. It’s a profound story and a rich portrayal of well-drawn characters. The relationships between the characters and some of the more philosophical and mathematical concepts are also portrayed in a fascinating way, and I can see why this play won a Pulitzer. Proof marks another strong showing for this relatively new theatre company.

Oliver Bacus, Summer Baer
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Proof at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until April 10th, 2022

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan
From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Kate Bergstrom
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 25, 2022

Futaba Shioda, Ryan Colbert, Jimmy Kieffer, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 39 Steps is a popular play, possibly because it’s so deceptively simple, with a small cast and a format that’s conducive to basically any budget. This latest production at the Rep is the fourth production I’ve seen in St. Louis over the last twelve years, including presentations by three different theatre companies. In fact, the first time I saw it was also the first show I saw at the Rep, in 2010. Even though they’ve staged it before, the Rep brings a new, fresh energy to this latest staging, led by a first-rate cast of four flexible and seemingly fearless performers.

I think one of the reasons this show is so popular, with theatre companies and audiences, is that it brings so much with seemingly little. It’s a small cast, and the production values can be as simple or elaborate as the director and company wants, but the true appeal is in the characters, and the energy they bring, with most cast members playing a variety of different characters. In fact, the only cast member who plays the same role throughout is the actor playing Richard Hannay (here played by Ryan Colbert), a Canadian living in London who unwittingly finds himself in the midst of an international espionage plot. After attending a seemingly innocent evening at the theatre, Hannay finds the experience turning ominous as he meets a mystery woman (played by Olivia Gilliatt), who soon ends up murdered in his apartment, but not until after she drops some hints of spies plotting a scheme that threatens to imperil the country in the leadup to World War II. Hannay is then forced to flee for his life, as he is suspected of murder, and along the way he meets a collection of characters from police officers to spies, to Scottish farmers and hotel keepers, as well as theatre performers, and eventually, a woman (also Gilliatt) with whom he becomes entangled (sometimes literally) in the process of trying to stop the plot and clear his name. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed comedy full of memorable characters mostly played by two “Clowns” (Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda), as well as three memorable women played by Gilliatt, while the hapless Hannay desperately seeks to find answers, and the audience is treated to a hilarious romp through English and Scottish cities, towns, farms, and railways. 

The cast and the staging make this show, and the technical aspects blend seamlessly  with the broad, hilarious performances to make this clever riff on classic spy stories, and particularly the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a treat from start to finish. Director Kate Bergstrom has staged the show with lots of action, and the cast is more than able to keep up, showing great physical comic abilities–and Kieffer and Shioda are especially adept at this. Kieffer and Shioda also show off their versatility in a range of different roles, as does Gilliatt in convincingly portraying three very different women–the mysterious Annabella, the lonely and infatuated Margaret, and the determined Pamela. As Hannay, Colbert shows a convincing blend of dashing charm, stubborn determination, and a little bit of goofy cluelessness. His chemistry with Gilliatt’s Pamela is especially strong.

The physical stunts are also well-staged, with kudos to fight director Michael Pierce. There’s a versatile set by Stephanie Osin Cohen that suggests an old-time theatre stage, but also is especially adaptable as pieces are moved around to form different set pieces as needed. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are also excellent and versatile, and there’s great atmospheric work by lighting designer Christina Watanabe, lending much to the old fashioned spy film look and feel of the show. 

The 39 Steps is popular for good reason. It’s fast-moving, funny, and crowd-pleasing, as well as being clever, witty, and evocative of an earlier era and genre of films. It’s an especially great showcase for an enthusiastic cast, and the Rep definitely has that. It’s an immensely enjoyable show, and the Rep has, once again, staged it with excellence.

Ryan Colbert, Futaba Shioda, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The 39 Steps until April 10, 2022

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Laughter on the 23rd Floor
by Neil Simon
Directed by Edward Coffield
 New Jewish Theatre
March 24, 2022

Jacob Flekier, John Wolbers, Joel Moses
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is back to live performances with a lively new production of a well-paced, semi-autobiographical comedy by celebrated playwright Neil Simon. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is the playwrights look back at his early years as a television writer, but for NJT it’s a promising look ahead at a new season that’s finally able to get underway. It’s a welcome return for this company, and the strong cast makes the most of Simon’s vivid, personal look at an important era in his own life, as well as the entertainment industry’s–and the country’s–history. 

The “Golden Age of Television” may be a distant but living memory for some, or the subject of stories, rumors, and reruns for others. For Neil Simon, it was a formative era of his career as a comedy writer. This play is based on Simon’s early years as a writer for legendary television comic Sid Caesar, sharing a writers’ room with other up and coming writers including Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart. Here, Simon has fictionalized the story somewhat, but the influence of his own personal life in the depiction of the early, formative years of television comedy is clear. Simon’s alter-ego in this play is Lucas Brickman (Jacob Flekier), an eager young writer who is excited to be working with a team he considers the best in the business, working on the staff for Sid Caesar-like TV star Max Prince (Ben Ritchie). Set entirely in the show’s writers’ room, it’s a story populated with larger-than-life characters, from the talented and caring but frequently insecure Max, to a collection of writers whose talents are obvious, but whose personalities constantly clash, including the theatrical Milt Fields (Joel Moses), world-weary Russian immigrant Val Skolsky (Aaron Mermelstein), ambitious Kenny Franks (Michael Pierce), attention-seeking, health-anxious Ira Stone (Dave Cooperstein), along with Irish-American Brian Doyle (John Wolbers), who aspires to write for the movies, and Carol Wyman (Kirsten De Broux), the only woman on the writing staff and, along with ditzy secretary Helen (Annie Zigman), one of only two women in the play, as a reflection of the times. Also in reflection of the times, we get to see not only the process of writing a hit comedy show in the early 1950s–we also get to see how the characters, and the show, are affected by world events, and especially the rise of McCarthyism and the haunting specter of the blacklist, as well as corporate influence on the arts, changing public tastes, and more. It’s a vivid look at a specific era in history, lent extra credibility by the fact that it’s informed by the playwright’s personal experiences.

The characters are sharply defined but, for the most part, manage to avoid stereotypes, and the actors here portray them with as much depth as can be imagined. Flekier makes for a likable, relatable focus character, narrating the proceedings and being an effective “tour guide” to this world and these characters. Ritchie conveys Max’s caring leadership especially well, even though not always as “big” a personality as he could be. The big personalities are definitely here, though, portrayed with excellent timing by Moses, Mermelstein, Pierce, and Cooperstein, who bring a strong sense of ensemble chemistry as their characters work, laugh, and bicker together at different times. De Broux is also strong in the somewhat underwritten role of Carol, and Zigman brings comic energy to her role as well, despite Helen’s being the closest thing to a real stereotype in the play. In an important way, the way this show plays out, the characters are the story, and this cast brings enthusiasm, strong timing, and lots of energy to the proceedings.

Technically, the show is something of a time machine, in that it effectively channels a bygone era in a way that’s immediate and relatable. From Rob Lippert’s detailed set, to Michele Friedman Siler’s period and character-specific costumes, the show brings 1953 to life with vivid style. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, and sound and projection designer Ellie Schwetye, adding to the mood and atmosphere of the production.

I’m glad that NJT is finally back staging plays again, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor is an excellent choice to start the new season. It’s focus is on a much-written and talked about time in history that many today haven’t experienced first-hand, and this production manages to bring that world to life with an excellent cast and production values. It’s a light comedy much of the time, but with important moments of resonance, both as a look at history and a somewhat surprising reflection of today as well. It’s a memorable return to the stage for this excellent theatre company.

Michael Pierce, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Laughter on the 23rd Floor at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until April 10, 2022

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My Fair Lady
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
The Fox Theatre
March 22, 2022

Shereen Ahmed (center) and cast of My Fair Lady
Photo by Joan Marcus
My Fair Lady National Tour

I love Bartlett Sher’s revivals. The celebrated Broadway director has a remarkable gift for taking a classic musical, and with little or no change to the actual script, bringing out the meaning and emotion of the piece in a way that’s especially accessible to today’s audiences. They’re not reinventions or “revisals”, really, but they manage to bring out the meaning of the shows in a new and fresh way, all the while retaining the “classic” spirit of the productions. I’ve seen Sher’s South Pacific (filmed for PBS), as well as The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof on tour, and I have loved how each production brought an “old” show to life. Now Sher’s latest revival effort, My Fair Lady, has come to the Fox Theatre in a glorious, sumptuously staged production that emphasizes the best of this show that’s often regarded as one of the true classics of musical theatre, but has elements that have become dated over time. Here, though, the show seems about as current as a period piece could be, in highlighting the foibles of its characters in addition to their strengths, and putting the focus even more on the perspective of its leading lady.

Eliza Doolittle has been regarded as one of the great leading roles in musical theatre, although it is a challenging one, in that it calls for a deep emotional range, comic ability, and a first-rate soprano singing voice. All those elements are here in this production in the person of the remarkably talented Shereen Ahmed, who brings a willful determination as well as a sense of optimism, energy, and true love of learning to Eliza, who is the first character the audience sees on stage, before anyone else enters. The focus is on her from the start, and as the strict and increasingly exasperated and exasperating taskmaster Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh) puts her through his rigorous course of phonetic exercises, it’s Eliza we are meant to sympathize, and empathize, with. Eliza has always been a sympathetic character, but here we get to see her determination showcased especially well, through means of Sher’s focused direction and Ahmed’s excellent stage presence, versatility, and remarkable vocals. The chemistry between her and Mackintosh’s proud, increasingly harried Higgins is also palpable, but this isn’t a sentimental love story, as emphasized by the directorial choices here that cast Eliza’s interest more as an infatuation, and the slightly altered ending that, in my mind, is more in the spirit of Eliza’s journey and lends more power in hindsight to what I have often considered the show’s best scene–the confrontation near the end at the home of Higgins’s mother (Leslie Alexander). The way the show plays out on Michael Yeargan’s impressively detailed set also highlights the immediate situation of Eliza’s journey, particularly in the use of turntable and impeccably appointed set of Higgins’s house. 

The settings help tell the story here especially well, as do the lavish costumes by Catherine Zuber and the wondrously dazzling lighting by Donald Holder. Hues of blue, green, purple, and pink are evident in the depiction of London at the turn of the 20th Century, in the depictions of life from the point of view of various classes, from lower to middle, to upper. The classic music is presented well, as conducted by music director John Bell, and the energetic choreography by Christopher Gatelli serves the story well, as performed by a strong ensemble.

As for the leading performers, in addition to the superb Ahmed and Mackintosh, there’s also excellent work from Kevin Pariseau as the enthusiastic and gentlemanly Colonel Pickering, as well as Martin Fisher, who gives a fun comic performance and is in excellent voice as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Sam Simahk is also strong as a particularly slouchy, simpering but golden-voiced version of Eliza’s upper-class suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and there are also strong performances from Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Gayton Scott as Higgins’s stern but caring housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. The whole ensemble here is enthusiastic, conveying the spirit of numbers like the comically stuffy “Ascot Gavotte” and the boisterous “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” with style and charm. There isn’t a weak link here, and the staging is well-paced and on point, even as the production encountered a technical issue in the midst of the Ascot scene on opening night, but handled it with utmost professionalism and resumed the show in a timely manner.

My Fair Lady is one of those shows that has been done so much it could easily become stale, and Higgins’s sexist pronouncements aren’t exactly pleasant, although here we get to see his character confronted in a more satisfying way than I’ve seen before. Also, Eliza gets the focus in ways that I hadn’t seen emphasized as much before in previous productions. That’s the beauty of Sher’s revivals–the script is there, the characters are there, but we get to see them from a slightly new angle even while the overall spirit of the show isn’t drastically different. There is a new twist on the conclusion, which has been somewhat controversial, although for me it makes a lot more sense than the way it’s been handled before. I’m not sure what notorious curmudgeon G. B. Shaw (author of the musical’s source play, Pygmalion) would think, but for me, it works. In fact, this whole show works especially well, being true to the “classic” tone while also being fresh and new in its own way. In Eliza’s words, it’s “loverly”.

Kevin Pariseau, Laird Mackintosh, Shereen Ahmed
Photo by Joan Marcus
My Fair Lady National Tour

The National Tour of My Fair Lady is playing at the Fox Theatre until April 3, 2022

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Behind the Sheet
by Charly Evon Simpson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 18, 2022

Jeff Cummings, Chinna Palmer
Photo: The Black Rep

Behind the Sheet is an intense drama about an aspect of history that has been often overlooked over the years. While much has been written about the horrors and brutality of slavery, the role of enslaved people as subjects of medical experimentation isn’t as known as it could be. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson’s play is a fictional story, but it’s inspired by actual events, and embellished in a way that sheds further light on the reality of the experience of slavery in America from the point of view of the enslaved women themselves, as they serve as test subjects for an ambitious white surgeon who views them more as a means to an end than as actual human beings. In fact, it’s the human experience of these women, even in the midst of the brutality, that shines through most of all in this play, compellingly staged by the Black Rep at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre.

The story, based on the work of Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims in 19th Century Alabama, focuses on a group of enslaved Black women who are suffering from fistula, which is a painful and chronic complication of long labors in childbirth. As the play begins, a new patient, Dinah (Patience Davis) arrives from another plantation, and the doctor in charge, George (Jeff Cummings) buys her from the plantation owner so that he can keep her at his own plantation and work on trying to develop a surgical procedure for repairing the fistula. Dinah joins the established patients Sally (Christina Yancy) and Mary (Taijha Silas), who have already endured several surgeries each, as the increasingly obsessed George works to discover the proper procedure, meanwhile not giving them any pain relief during surgery despite learning about the use of ether as anesthesia, and requiring fellow enslaved women Philomenia (Chinna Palmer) and Betty (Alex Johnson) to assist in holding them down while he operates. All the while, George seems most concerned with his own discovery process and building his reputation, as well as the potential to help the white plantation owners’ wives once he has perfected the process, despite the fact that he seems to find working on women’s bodies repulsive. He also is particularly interested in Philomenia, who assists him in his practice and is initially looked on with suspicion by the patients. Soon, however, Philomenia, who is expecting, will learn even more about the brutality of the situation in which the patients live, as she also deals with George’s whims and obsession, as well as suspicion and contempt from the lady of the house, George’s wife Josephine (Alison Kertz), who Philomenia has known all her life, being born into servitude to Josephine’s family.

This is a play that doesn’t shy away from the truly horrific elements of the situation, while also focusing on the problematic ethical situation involved, as George does seek to cure these women of a condition that causes enduring pain, but holds them captive so they have no choice about what he does and how he goes about his efforts. It also serves to highlight the brutality of slavery in terms of everyday realities for these women, who live at the whim of their plantation owners and are often separated from their loved ones, and are sometimes forced into personal situations that they are not allowed to refuse. The women still form friendships and rivalries, and struggle to find hope in the midst of their bleak situation, finding purpose and bonding in small but essential tasks like using flowers to make perfume to disguise the smell caused by their condition. There’s also an attraction and tentative courtship that develops between Philomenia and Lewis (Brian McKinley), a young enslaved man who works in the fields at the plantation, even though neither is free to truly pursue a relationship. 

There are a lot of issues covered in this play, and it’s told in a sometimes stylized, sometimes bluntly realistic manner, with a well-paced script and a first-rate cast. The central figure in the story is Philomenia, who goes through quite an intense journey as the story develops, and Palmer gives a compelling, truly remarkable performance as a woman who deals with trial after trial, and shows her strength and resilience in the midst of it all. There are also excellent performance from Davis, Yancy, and Silas, who display strong ensemble chemistry as the women bond in the midst of their shared trials. Kertz is also memorable as the entitled, suspicious, demanding Josephine, and excellent support from Johnson as Betty, as well as McKinley in two roles and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in a dual role as a haughty plantation owner and a young doctor who assists George. 

The story is also given added poignancy and power by means of the technical production, through use of Margery and Peter Spack’s versatile and evocative set.  Joe Clapper’s remarkable lighting is also memorable, especially in moments when surgery takes places behind a sheet that drapes from the ceiling, making the figures loom larger and the situation seem all the more horrific and ominous. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Andre Harrington in providing detailed period clothing, as well as sound designer Lamar Harris.

Behind the Sheet is a truly remarkable, as well as harrowing and intense theatrical experience. It showcases the brutality of slavery while also highlighting a problematic medical situation and shedding light on the figures whose stories have not been emphasized much until recently–these women who survived the horrors not only of slavery, but of unethical and often brutal medical treatment. This is not an easy show to watch in many moments, but it’s an important story to tell, and the Black Rep has presented it with remarkable effect. 

Taijha Silas, Christina Yancy, Chinna Palmer, Patience Davis
Photo: The Black Rep

 

The Black Rep is presenting Behind the Sheet at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until April 3rd, 2022

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