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Archive for July, 2022

Legally Blonde: The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, Book by Heather Hach
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
July 28, 2022

Kyla Stone (Center) and Cast of Legally Blonde
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Legally Blonde is at the Muny, but not without some troubles due to the weather. Still, despite one rescheduled performance as a result of flooding and a bit of a delay before the Thursday night performance due to technical checks following more rain, the show went on. And it was worth the wait, because this show is full of energy, and is a whole lot of fun. 

The story, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the 2001 MGM movie, centers around Elle Woods (Kyla Stone), a UCLA fashion student who follows her college boyfriend Warner (Dan Tracy) to Harvard Law School after he dumps her just before graduation because the perky, pink-clad, Malibu-raised Elle doesn’t fit his “serious” ideal. Elle, with support from her peppy Delta Nu sorority sisters, is determined to prove Warner wrong and win him back. So she applies to Harvard and is accepted, making the journey East to Boston and, for Elle, to a whole new world that isn’t entirely ready for her. Here, she makes some new friends, like her law school mentor Emmett (Fergie L. Phillippe) and hairdresser Paulette (Patti Murin), as well as some rivals, like Warner’s “serious” new girlfriend Vivienne (Olivia Kaufmann), while struggling at first to adjust to the Harvard atmosphere and earn a prestigious internship from cutthroat Professor Callahan (Sean Allan Krill). After a few trials (pun intended) and tribulations, Elle gradually learns more about herself and her own intelligence and inner strength, all the while finding out who her real friends are and how to navigate the law school world as her unique “legally blonde” self. 

This production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun. With a great cast led by the energetic, vocally strong Stone as Elle, the story never has a dull moment. Stone is clearly enjoying herself as Elle, and her chemistry with the also great Phillipe as Emmett is palpable, and their scenes are a highlight of this production. Also strong is Murin as the kind but self-doubting Paulette, showing off great stage presence and vocals on her showcase “Ireland” number. There’s also excellent support from Kelsey Anne Brown, Gabi Campo, and Khailah Johnson as Elle’s “Greek Chorus” of sorority sisters Margot, Serena, and Pilar. Krill makes an ideal villain as the self-serving, creepy Callahan, and there’s a fun turn from Hayley Podschun as fitness guru and murder trial defendant Brooke Wyndham. There’s strong work all around, from the leads to the energetic ensemble, and even including two adorable dogs–Ricky as Elle’s dog Bruiser, who has some scene-stealing moments; and Myrtle as Paulette’s dog Rufus. There’s vibrant choreography by William Carlos Angulo, and the staging is brisk and lively. 

What’s also lively and impressive is Tim Mackabee’s set, which features some surprising elements like an actual pool onstage in the opening scene, and several versatile set pieces. There’s also eye-catching video design by Kylee Lorra, and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Denton. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes also impress, suiting the characters well, and managing to help tell Elle’s story as she navigates her law school career. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Lon Hoyt, sounds great, as well.

Legally Blonde is a fun show, especially when the cast is as enthusiastic as this one. While it’s not the strongest score and book I’ve seen, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, and this production finds a lot of emotion and heart. It’s another entertaining success in the 2022 Muny season. 

Fergie L. Phillipe, Kyla Stone
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Legally Blonde in Forest Park until August 1, 2022

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In the Heights
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed and Choreographed by Luis Salgado
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2022

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

In the Heights was the first Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Best Musical before Hamilton. Even though it wasn’t quite the huge phenomenon that the latter show turned out to be, the first show is an entertaining, memorable, and character-filled hit in its own right. Now on stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center as produced by STAGES St. Louis, this is a dynamic, crowd-pleasing production with a strong cast and stellar production values.  It’s a compelling look at a distinctive New York City neighborhood and variety of people who live there, along with their hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Miranda’s blend of hip-hop, pop, Latin music, and traditional musical theatre influences work well to tell this story set in Washington Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood. The central character, Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) owns a bodega, assisted by his young cousin, Sonny (Luis-Pablo Garcia). Usnavi essentially narrates the show from the beginning, telling his own story as well as introducing many of the other characters whose stories intertwine. There’s the Rosario family, who run a taxi business–Kevin (Edward Juvier) and Camila (Tauren Hagans), who are proud of their daughter Nina (Isabel Leoni), who has just finished her first year at Stanford. She’s hiding a secret, though, which she’s afraid to reveal to her parents. Nina also grows closer to Benny (Jahir Lawrence Hipps), who drives for the taxi company, but hopes to start his own someday. There’s also Vanessa (Amanda Robles), the object of Usnavi’s affections, who dreams of moving to an apartment downtown. Other local characters include Vanessa’s boss at the local hair salon, the gossip-loving Daniela (Ariana Valdes) and equally gossipy co-worker Carla (Marlene Fernandez), as well as Sonny’s pal Graffiti Pete (Cristian Rodriguez), a local frozen treat vendor known as Piragua Guy (Michael Schimmele), and the woman most people call Abuela Claudia (Tami Dahbura), who is especially close to Usnavi and the Rosarios. It’s a steamy summer in the neighborhood, and transition is in the air for many of the characters, whose aspirations vary and are affected by various plot events in different ways. A lottery drawing, romantic and family tensions, a heatwave and a blackout all contribute to the drama of this compelling, well-structured story.

The cast is terrific, simply stated. Alvarado has an amiable, awkward charm as Usnavi, and his performance is somewhat reminiscent of original Broadway lead Miranda. His chemistry with Robles’s determined Vanessa is sparkling, as are his scenes with the superb Dahbura as the “heart” of the show, Abuela Claudia. Garcia is also a strong standout as Sonny, showing strong physicality and comic timing. Also strong are Leoni as the conflicted Nina, who also has excellent chemistry with the equally impressive Hipps as Benny. There are some particularly strong voices here all around, and some great moments to shine especially for Dahbura on “Paciencia y Fe”, Schimmele as Piragua Guy, and Valdes as the big-voiced Daniela. Also worth mentioning are Juvier as Kevin Rosario, and Fernandez in a fun comic turn as Carla. There’s a great ensemble here, as well, with lots of energy, enthusiasm, and strong dance skills in the production numbers, dynamically choreographed by director Luis Salgado. It’s also great to see a live orchestra here again, which is becoming an especially welcome new tradition for STAGES now that they are in their current venue. The band here, led by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, is lively and in great form. 

With great music and vocals, this show is a treat for the ears, as well as for the eyes, since the production values are nothing short of dazzling. Broadway set designer Anna Louizos has brought Washington Heights to the stage here in vivid detail, with a richly appointed multi-level set. There’s also vibrant lighting design by Sean M. Savoie and colorful, detailed costumes by Brad Musgrove. In the setting and the staging, the neighborhood has come to life as essentially a character in its own right. 

With music, drama, dynamic energy, and lots of heart, In the Heights is a vivid portrayal of a community and a neighborhood, as well as a portrayal of the importance of family, friendships, dreams, and the definition of “home”. It’s also supremely entertaining. It’s a first-rate production at STAGES St. Louis.

Amanda Robles, Ryan Alvarado, Luis-Pablo Garcia
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting In the Heights at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 31, 2022

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All That Remains
by JM Chambers
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 23, 2022

Nyx Kaine, Sherard E. Curry, Victor Mendez
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

The second, and final, play in the Tesseract Theatre Company’s 2022 Summer New Play series is an in-depth look at the impact a great tragedy has on individual survivors, on relationships, and on an entire community. All That Remains deals with its heavy subject matter in a credible way, and the production features some excellent performances by its strong cast. It’s a well-structured play, for the most part, focusing on the direct human impact of a public tragedy, and it’s a fascinating, ultimately emotionally moving production.

This play doesn’t take any time to get to the drama. In fact, it starts in the middle of a loud, emotional argument between married couple Gary (Sherard E. Curry) and Elaine (Melody Quinn). Both are distraught for different reasons related to the same event–Gary is refusing to leave the house or do much of anything as he is still dealing with immense grief and trauma following a mass shooting at the high school where he was a teacher. Elaine is upset because she’s at the end of her rope, not knowing how to help Gary and still dealing with her own grief over both the shooting and another personal tragedy a few months before the shooting. She’s trying to encourage Gary to get out and try to move on, hanging out with friends Maggie (Morgan Maul-Smith) and Dylan (Luis Aguilar), but the one attempted get-together doesn’t go well. Gary, for his part, knows on one level that he needs to do something, but is still too overwhelmed, as he continually deals with flashbacks to the shooting and still hears the voices of victims he was close to–his best friend and fellow teacher Melody (Nyx Kaine) and Alejandro (Victor Mendez), one of his students. The emotions and issues continue to spiral out of control, until Elaine feels forced to take a drastic action to help Gary, which at first only appears to make things worse. Elaine, for her part, is also a sounding board for Maggie, who has lost one of her twin sons in the shooting and is dealing with how to help the surviving son. Much of the focus is on Gary, who has a huge struggle ahead of him, and Dylan proves to be a surprising resource of help in that regard. It’s a long, slow road as Gary and Elaine try to work their way back toward one another, but are there feelings and efforts enough? And what of the rest of the community that has been devastated by this tragedy?  

This is a story that pulls no punches in its depiction of deep grief and trauma resulting from tragedy. Emotions are laid bare, and there are many sensitive issues dealt with–such as violence, mass shootings, mental illness, the loss of loved ones, stillbirth, and more. It’s an intense show, but it’s well structured for the most part. There are some somewhat confusing timeline issues at times, but mostly, this is a compelling story centered on the various effects that a mass shooting can have on individuals, families, friendships, and whole communities.  The focus here is highly personal, with little to no mention of the political debates that often surround these tragic events. This is about Gary, and Elaine, their circle of friends, and their small Nebraska town, dealing with an overwhelming event that none of them had expected. It shows how they try, fail, and hopefully eventually succeed in picking up the shattered pieces of what had been and making a way in life. 

The direction and performances are excellent, as the build-up, tension, and road to recovery are shown with all the messiness and difficulty of grief, but also with an ever growing sense of hope in the midst of the struggle. As Gary, Curry gives a credible, emotionally resonant performance, as does Quinn as Elaine. Even throughout their intense struggles, they portray a couple that one wants to succeed. Aguilar and Maul-Smith are also convincing in support as Dylan and Maggie, who each have their own struggles to relate. Kaine and Mendez are also especially memorable as Melody and Alejandro, whose appearances seem to mark different levels of Gary’s struggle. It’s an especially cohesive ensemble, and the writing is also sufficient in that even with such a small cast, the overall sense of community and collective grief process of a whole town is clearly evident.

The production values are simple but effective, with a basic set by director Brittanie Gunn that forms an appropriate background for the action, and excellent lighting by Kevin Bowman that emphasizes the stark simplicity of the setting and centers on the performances. All That Remains may be intense, but it also has an undercurrent of persistent, even stubborn striving for hope. It’s another promising new play from Tesseract.

Melody Quinn, Morgan Maul-Smith
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting All That Remains at the Marcelle Theatre until July 31, 2022

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The LaBute New Theater Festival, Part 2
Directed by Spencer Sickmann
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 22, 2022

Carly Uding, Brock Russell, Bryn Mclaughlin in “St. Louis”
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is back this week with the second round of their 2022 LaBute New Theater Festival. This week’s selection features one from last week, namesake playwright LaBute’s “St. Louis”, which stood out for its sharp dialogue on this viewing, as well as its strong performances by Carly Uding, Brock Russell, and Bryn Mclaughlin. The rest of this installment’s entries represent a mix of styles and subject matter, with a bit of a focus on the unexpected, as well as a turn more toward drama. Here are some thoughts:

“TNT”
by Steve Apostolina

This play is the most comedic of this set, focusing on relationships between work colleagues Tucker (Drew Patterson), Nunez (Mara Bollini), and Thompson (William Humphrey), who work in the parking garage of some type of movie and/or television studio. The personality conflicts, political differences, and hidden secrets between these three characters form the story. Tucker and Nunez, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, seem to barely tolerate one another while trying to maintain a cordial working relationship, while Nunez drops hints about new co-worker Thompson and soon, a series of surprises reveal themselves as the story plays out, revealing how quickly feelings can change when key information is revealed. It’s briskly paced, and all three performers handle the timing well, even though the ending is more than a little abrupt, to the point where it almost leaves me wondering what the point of this play is. Still, it’s a timely reflection on how relationships are affected by core beliefs, with some amusing moments, along with some room for thought and reflection.

“Maizie and Willow, Brown Penny, Blue Pillow”
by John Yarbrough

This is by far the shortest of the plays in this set. In fact, it comes across more as a scene from a larger play, and as such it leaves a lot of questions. There’s a lot of detail here that doesn’t get explored because the play is so short. The story focuses on married couple Maizie (Missy Heinemann) and Willow (Jaelyn Hawkins), as they deal with a major life decision having to do with Willow’s apparent terminal illness. There are intense moments in this play, and both performers exhibit strong chemistry and intense, credible emotion while dealing with a controversial subject that is going to affect different audience members different ways. It’s an intriguing vignette, but for the most part, it  seems incomplete. 

“What Do they Want”
by Gary Pepper

This play gets my vote for “best of the festival” this year–in a near-tie with the next play of this set–with its fascinating twists and turns in the plot, as well as it’s surprisingly well-drawn characters and excellent pacing. In this story, strangers Gary (Brock Russell) and Burt (Drew Patterson) meet on the roof of a building, while Gary tries to figure out a puzzling issue and Burt is trying, again, to quit smoking. At first, it’s not entirely clear what Gary’s problem is, but when Burt tries to help, he finds himself more and more disturbed. Then, the situation turns in a striking way with a fairly simple revelation, and the power balance shifts back and forth as these two work out their issues and talk through a variety of issues in their lives. It’s a mixture of comedy of drama in terms of tone, with both performers turning in excellent performances as these two increasingly fascinating characters. 

“Who Will Witness For the Witness”
by Susan Hansell

This is another strong entry in the festival, with a focus on women from history that you may or may not have heard of, and an infamous, horrific, and tragic event

that is well known. Told in a narrative style, first presented by a photojournalist character identified in the program as “Woman 1” (Jaelyn Hawkins) and then intertwining with the stories of Woman 2 (Mara Bollini), a philosopher, mystic, and activist; Woman 3 *Bryn Mclaughlin), a resistance fighter; and Woman 4 (Missy Heinemann), a Catholic convert and nun. All are essentially contemporaries, standing up against atrocities and injustice, mostly revolving around the World War II and specifically the Holocaust. This in an intense play, with a strong sense of story and character, as these historical figures tell their tales and implore the audience never to forget. There’s a lot here, but it’s a well constructed story, making a profound, emotional impression. This is a remarkable production. 

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Part 2 of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theater until July 31, 2022

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
The Muny
July 17, 2022

Ben Davis, Carmen Cusack
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny has gone darker and grittier with its latest production, and it’s brilliant! Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces, but it hadn’t been performed at the Muny before, and it’s taken a while for this production. First announced  for the eventually cancelled 2020 season and then postponed again after last year’s season was shortened, this production has been long-anticipated, and I’m glad to say it’s been well worth the wait. With first-class production values that use the vast Muny stage ideally, a sumptuous sounding full orchestra, and a wonderful cast, this is a production of a modern classic that brings all the intense energy with chilling results. 

This is a big production, as is fitting the huge stage at the Muny, and all the lavish production values are here, fitting the darker and more horror-themed tone with just the right blend of gritty realism and old-style theatrical thrill. The story, following revenge-minded barber Todd (Ben Davis) upon his return to London after many years exiled in Australia, is well-cast and expertly paced. All the well-known characters are here and impeccably cast, from Todd’s admirer and eventual partner-in crime, meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Carmen Cusack), to his arch-nemesis Judge Turpin (Robert Cuccioli), who lusted after Todd’s wife in the old days and, after had Todd exiled on trumped-up charges, has been raising the barber’s daughter Johanna (Riley Noland) and aims to marry her now that she’s older. There’s also Anthony Hope (Jake Boyd), a young sailor who rescues Todd on his way back from Australia and soon becomes enamored with Johanna. Todd, for his part, is fixated mostly on getting revenge on the judge and his accomplice, the weaselly Beadle Bamford (Stephen Wallem), while Mrs. Lovett has her own plans for Todd, and for her pie shop. It’s a complex and eventually gruesome tale with interweaving plotlines, callbacks, and clues that come together gradually at first, and then pick up speed in the second act, leading to a shocking but essentially inevitable conclusion. 

While the Muny has occasionally produced darker, more cynical shows like Chicago, and Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd heads into even grimmer territory, as anyone who knows the basic plot will realize, even if it takes most of Act 1 to get to the “meat” of the story (pun most definitely intended). All the intricate plotting leads to a fully realized story and a pace that becomes more brisk as the story plays out, and in the hands of director Rob Ruggiero, this Sweeney never misses a beat. With a marvelously detailed and dynamic set by Michael Schweikardt, detailed costumes by Alejo Vietti, chillingly evocative lighting by John Lasiter and striking video design by Caite Hevner, as well as a superb orchestra led by music director James Moore, this is an ideal Sweeney Todd for this venue.

Nothing is “too much”, either–it’s all what it needs to be, including an ideal cast, led by the charismatic, big-voiced Davis as the moody, vengeful Todd, who is well-matched scene-for-scene by the equally superb Cusack as the devoted, single-minded Mrs. Lovett. Cusack also has a great voice, along with good comic timing and lots of energy. Other standouts include Cuccioli and Wallem as the appropriately villainous Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford; Boyd and Noland as well-matched youthful lovers Anthony and Johanna; Lincoln Clauss as the young, impressionable Tobias Ragg, who gets taken in by Mrs. Lovett and comes to mistrust Todd; and Julie Hanson, in strong voice as the mysterious Beggar Woman who, in many ways, is the key to this whole story. There’s an excellent ensemble, as well, all in superb voice, singing Sondheim’s complex harmonies with energy and precision. 

So far, this is a remarkable season for the Muny, and this production just may be the best so far. It’s a long-awaited production (by me, anyway) that’s proven to be worth the hype. It’s a big, intense, emotional, well-cast, gloriously sung show that brings out all the chilling intensity that you would expect from Sweeney Todd. There’s much to think about here, and it’s not just blood and gore–and that aspect is done with just the right level of spectacle without being overly sensationalized. It’s not a show for all audiences, but if you know what to expect, this production delivers all the characterization, emotion, and intensity with much to think about, as well. It’s a true must-see at the Muny. 

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Sweeney Todd in Forest Park until July 22, 2022

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The LaBute New Theater Festival
Directed by Spencer Sickmann
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 10, 2022

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Eric Dean White, Carly Uding in “Time Warp”
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s usually annual LaBute New Theater Festival is back at the Gaslight Theater after a two year hiatus, in its usual 2 part format. The first set of plays, which opened on July 8, focus largely on relationships–romantic, adversarial, and friendship. It’s an intriguing set of plays, and as usual, features an entry by the festival’s namesake, Neil LaBute, that will be running throughout the festival. Unlike previous years’ festivals, which had a variety of directors, all the plays this time were directed by Spencer Sickmann. The set design and lighting design are by Patrick Huber, the costume design is by Carla Landis Evans, and the props and sound design are by STLAS. Here are my thoughts on Part 1:

“What Else is New”
by Aren Haun

Eric Dean White, Mitch Henry-Eagles
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is a character-focused show that seems to drag a little at first, but picks up as the story plays out. The setting is a nameless diner, and Bruno (Eric Dean White) enters with a roll-on suitcase and begins asking questions of the only worker in the place, Mark (Mitch Henry-Eagles), who we soon find out is an art student. Bruno is very particular, bringing his own silverware and straw to the diner, as well as asking Mark pointed questions and insisting he turn on the TV. At first, Mark seems annoyed by Bruno, but as Bruno shares more of his story, the tone starts to change. It’s an intriguing look at the developing relationship between two characters who are initially strangers, although it does seem to run a little long. The point seems to be about finding connection in the midst of loneliness and disappointed dreams, and both actors do an excellent job portraying these two contrasting characters.

“Twilight Time” 
by John Doble

Bryn Mclaughlin, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This one is the shortest play of the night, again featuring two strangers meeting and forming a connection. What’s different about this play is that the characters, Benjamin (Alexander Huber) and Geraldine (Bryn McLaughlin), soon find that they are both there for the same dark reason. Not to give too much away, but I feel the need to provide a warning here, as suicide is discussed, along with various methods. Soon, however, the mood shifts, as the two characters find that they share much more in common than their mutual, sad goal. In fact, an attraction quickly grows between them, and the tone of the show starts to shift somewhat rapidly. The overall staging is simple, but well-paced. This is a very short play, and the overall comic tone may strike some audience members as odd, but both performers play out this story with excellent chemistry and compelling stage presence, and the characters seem surprisingly well-developed as a result, considering the length of the play. 

“Funny Thing”
by Willie Johnson

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Drew Patterson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This entry is more of a relationship drama, with a non-linear element that can become confusing at times, although the staging and especially the lighting help in figuring out what is going on, and when. It shows the development and breakup of a romantic relationship between two characters identified as Older Man (Drew Patterson) and Younger Man (Mitch Henry-Eagles), with Older Man starting and ending the show holding a large rock-like object that he then hangs on the wall for the most of the play, taking it back down at the end. I’m not entirely sure what this action and object are supposed to mean. Maybe the relationship–or the act of of meeting, dating, and then breaking up is seen as a cyclical burden–but that’s not made entirely clear. It’s mostly just an “observational” type story as we see these characters meet, get to know another, and then break up, with the initial breakup scene happening right after the first meeting scene, forming two basic “threads” of the story. It’s an intriguing structure, reminding me somewhat of the musical The Last Five Years except here, both characters are interacting in both threads. It’s an interesting concept, but  Older Man isn’t especially likable, and there’s not enough time to show exactly why the relationship sours, so it’s not as easy to follow as it could be. The performances are strong throughout, but there doesn’t seem to be a major point here much of the time. 

“Time Warp”
by Fran Dorf

Eric Dean White, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is, to my mind, the most fascinating concept, as well as featuring the most compelling characters. The story takes place in what appears to be an antique shop in New York City, as an older couple, Brian (Eric Dean White) and Beth (Carly Uding) are celebrating their anniversary with a trip, and find themselves wandering into this shop, run by a friendly but mysterious proprietor , CG Young (Mitch Henry-Eagles). Soon, both Brian and Beth begin recognizing objects in the shop, as well as remembering, or almost-remembering, events that seem to have happened in their dreams. Soon, we hear about Brian’s experiences while serving in the Vietnam war, and an old Army acquaintance of his starts to figure into his memories and Beth’s–the angry but talented artist Joey Passarelli (Alexander Huber). It soon becomes clear that this shop is not what it first appears to be, and the answer to Brian and Beth’s growing confusion is something that the audience may not have guessed. I know I didn’t guess. The acting here is especially strong, although some of the subject matter is highly disturbing. Still, it’s a compelling story, and all of the players work well together. The lighting and sound are also especially notable in this production, working to lend a mysterious air to the proceedings.

St. Louis
by Neil LaBute

Carly Uding, Brock Russell, Bryn Mclaughlin
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As the “headline” act of this festival, “St. Louis” strikes me as curious. It’s a cleverly structured, interview-style play, featuring a developing story of the intertwining relationships of characters listed in the program as Him (Brock Russell), Her (Carly Uding), and She (Bryn McGlaughlin), although they do have names that are mentioned throughout–Scott, Stephanie, and Sue, respectively. All three seem to be responding to an interrogation of sorts by an unseen interviewer, as their answers are sometimes hostile and/or defensive. It tells a fairly simple story in an “unfolding mystery” type of way, as Scott moves into the same apartment building as Stephanie and Sue, who are a couple. Soon, though, he and Stephanie strike up a rapport, and the story plays out from there, in a somewhat predictable fashion. It’s fairly easy to follow, and the characters and their relationships are clearly defined and portrayed, even though all three are standing alone in different areas of the stage. The acting is strong here, with characters who aren’t always easy to like (especially Scott), but the setting is somewhat superficial. The title of the play is “St. Louis”, and the story is ostensibly set here, but that setting doesn’t go any further than mentioning a few local place names. These names could easily be changed to have to play set essentially anywhere. Still, the dialogue is sharp and the characters well-defined. I’m curious to see what I will think when I see it again in Part 2 of the festival.

Part 1 of the LaBute New Theatre Festival is running at the Gaslight Theater until July 17, 2022. Part 2 begins on July 22, 2022.

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The Length of a Pop Song
by Taylor Gruenloh
Directed by Karen Pierce
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 9, 2022

Donna Parrone, Rhiannon Skye Creighton
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

 

The Tesseract Theatre Company is opening its 2022 Summer New Play Series with an emotional work by the company’s Artistic Director, Taylor Gruenloh. The Length of a Pop Song is a somewhat heavy play, featuring some particularly frank discussions of difficult topics. It’s not without hope, however, portraying one young woman’s struggle with her own difficult life and how to deal with the way she has been treated by others. It focuses on three important relationships in her life–two with people, and one with pop music. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, well-acted piece, although there are some structural issues. 

The Length of a Pop Song isn’t very long, actually. It runs about 95 minutes with no intermission, but a lot happens in those 95 minutes. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, with a “present day” story intersecting with flashbacks and some sequences that seem to be set in the mind of the central character, Lex (Rhiannon Skye Creighton). Lex was once an aspiring songwriter with big ideas about how pop music speaks into her own life and the lives of others, but she seems to have given up on writing lately, as well as on life itself.  She has had a hard life, with a devout Catholic mother, Anna (Donna Parrone), who has been somewhat emotionally distant and who Lex perceives as judgmental, and a philandering father who doesn’t seem to care much about his own family. The story begins as Lex comes home after being away for a long time, after a life of drug addiction, self-harm, and being mistreated, abused, and assaulted by various men. When a video of her being assaulted is put up online, she becomes involved in a court case against the perpetrators, but isn’t sure she wants to continue participating. Anna is trying to connect with her daughter, owning up to her mistakes as a mother, while Lex continues to lash out and push her away. All the while, childhood best friend Oliver (Kelvin Urday) is there as something of a sounding board/moral compass/conscience figure, although it’s not always clear when he’s actually there or when he’s only in Lex’s imagination. Also, the music and lyrics keep coming back as a recurring theme, until ultimately Lex has to decide what to do about her own life, as well as her relationships and her music.

For the most part, this is a fascinating play, with well-drawn characters and especially strong performances, led by Creighton in a dynamic, emotionally volatile portrayal of Lex. Through her performance, we get to see the the full range of her character–from the pain, cynicism, and self-hatred to the sense of idealism and hope that once was there and could still be there. Her relationships with Urday as Oliver and especially Parrone as Anna are credible and compelling. Parrone is also strong as Anna, a woman who obviously loves her daughter, and is struggling greatly to understand her and, especially, to help her. Urday is also excellent as the encouraging Oliver, who tries to see the best in Lex even when she can’t see it herself. The acting and pacing are excellent here, as is Creighton’s singing in her performance of the original song “Again” by Gruenloh, Gracie Sartin, and Teddy Luecke. There are also simple but effective production values–a good basic set by Brittanie Gunn, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Bowman, and strong sound design by Gruenloh. 

It’s a promising play, but does have its confusing moments, as the blend of present-day story, flashback, and conscience/imagination can be hard to follow at times, and there are several moments where I wish Anna was given a little more to say in response to some of Lex’s accusations. Still, it’s a thoughtful, highly emotional drama, with a strong cast and simple but effective staging. There is some sensitive subject matter-including drug use, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide, and there is a general warning posted in the theatre. Ultimately, though, this is a play that doesn’t leave the audience with despair, and although the relationship struggles can be difficult, there is obvious care and love on display.  The Length of A Pop Song is a promising new play, well worth seeing.

Kelvin Urday, Rhiannon Skye Creighton, Donna Parrone
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Length of a Pop Song at the Marcelle Theatre until July 17, 2022

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Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
by Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
July 8, 2022

Lakesha Glover, Christian Kitchens, Claire McClannan, Mekhi Mitchell, Lucia Graff
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is taking audiences on a vivid, emotional journey in its latest production. Something of visual poem as well as a quest story, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea features lavish production values, strong performances, and a mixture of drama, music, and dance to tell its engaging story.  It’s a rich, intriguing portrayal of a young man’s exploration into the past, the future, and the vast unknown of the sea.

The basic story follows Dontrell Jones III (Christian Kitchens), an 18-year-old from Baltimore who is already seen as somewhat unconventional in his family, although he has a lot of promise. He makes journal entries addressed to “future generations” on his microcassette recorder, and, although he is a bright student who has been given a full Scholarship to Johns Hopkins, his mother (Lakesha Glover) is concerned that he might not go, as he is now determined to follow the direction of a dream he’s had, involving a long-lost ancestor who was apparently lost at sea while being transported on a slave ship from Africa. Despite his family’s concern, Dontrell is single-minded in his goal to get to the ocean to somehow communicate with his ancestor. In the course of the story, we also learn about Dontrell’s more recent ancestors, including his somewhat secretive father Dontrell, Jr. (Olajuwon Davis), and his grandfather, the original Dontrell, who apparently had been committed to a mental asylum. In his quest to get to the sea, Dontrell seeks help from his cousin Shea (Brannon Evans), who works at the aquarium, asking her for diving gear. To the bewilderment and confusion of his family and friends, including his sister Danelle (Lucia Graff) and childhood best friend Robby (Mekhi Mitchell), Dontrell persists in his efforts. He eventually meets Erika (Claire McClannon), a lifeguard at the local pool, when she rescues him from drowning after he jumps into the deep end, even though he hasn’t learned to swim. Dontrell and Erika form an instant bond, as well as a romantic connection, and she supports him on his quest. Will he finally achieve his goal and get to the sea? If he does, will he find his long-lost ancestor? And what will he learn if and when he does reach his goal? That’s what you will find out as you follow this compelling story full of emotion, history, symbolism, and heart.

I have to admit that I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on as the story played out in more and more fantastical ways, but for the most part, it appears to be a coming of age story with the idea that each individual has to make their own way, and figure out their own goals in life–with connection to the past and hope for the future. There’s a good deal about reckoning with secrets and injustices in this past, as well, but this story mostly plunges forward even as Dontrell seeks to find a connection with those who have gone before him. He’s an explorer in a real sense, and witnessing his journey is a dazzling spectacle as portrayed at the Black Rep, with truly stunning visual effects, with a vivid, nautically-inspired set by Emma Hoffbrauer, dynamic projections by Margery and Peter Spack, dazzling lighting by Jasmine Williams, and superb sound design by Jackie Sharp. There are also richly appointed costumes by Daryl Harris and fluid, lyrical choreography by Heather Beal, as the stylized blends with the more realistic in the unfolding of this grand, evocative journey.

The stellar cast is led by a supremely likable, determined Kitchens as the the quirky, somewhat nerdy, single-minded Dontrell. He’s an amiable hero of this quest, and he’s well supported by the rest of the strong ensemble. Davis and Glover are excellent as Dontrell’s parents, both having several memorable moments, and McClannon is also strong as the supportive Erika, who has dealt with some family drama of her own. Evans, Graff, and Mitchell lend their support with strong performances of their own, and the whole cast works together well in the more stylized, movement-centered moments. 

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is a unique theatrical experience. It’s also highly thoughtful, thought-provoking, and emotional, with well-paced staging and a first-rate cast. It’s another example of true excellence from the Black Rep.

Cast of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until July 24, 2022

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Rodney’s Wife
by Richard Nelson
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
July 7, 2022

Kelly Howe
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The MIdnight Company

The Midnight Company’s latest production is a complex character study that features intricate plotting and an excellent showcase for six  talented local performers. Rodney’s Wife is an intriguing period piece that explores family and marital relationships, while also presenting a vivid setting and backdrop for the action. It’s a more elaborate production for this theatre company, and it’s thoroughly intriguing.

If you don’t know much about the story going in, that’s probably a good thing for this show, since the characters and situations are not what they may first appear to be in some ways, while in others ways they are exactly what you might expect. The set-up features Kelly Howe introducing the story as an unnamed character talking about her mother, Fay, and an important time in Fay’s life focused on a period spent in an Italian villa in 1962. Then, Howe takes her glasses off and becomes Fay, and the main story begins, as Fay is staying with her husband Rodney (John Wolbers) in Italy while Rodney, an actor, is filming a western film with an Italian director.  The action begins on an evening in which Rodney’s daughter from his first marriage, Lee (Summer Baer), and her new fiance, Ted (Oliver Bacus), have recently announced their engagement–to everyone except Fay, it seems. Also present is Rodney’s recently widowed sister Eva (Rachel Tibbets), who seems a little too involved in her brother’s life, to Fay’s increasingly obvious irritation. There’s also Henry, Rodney’s manager, who has a new script for Rodney to read with a great role for Rodney, but it’s filming in Los Angeles, and the various characters react to this possibility in starkly contrasting ways. There are many suggestions and hints about what’s really going on, as subtle and not so subtle reactions lead to further revelations later in the play. At the center of all this drama is Fay, who is hiding secrets of her own, and is upset about both Lee’s seemingly sudden engagement and the prospect of going back to Hollywood. I won’t add much more because the real drama here comes from the gradually unfolding plot, as well as the characters’ relationships with one another and with the secrets they keep and reveal. 

This is a drama of relationships, and there are elements of comedy along with the drama. In fact, the first act leans more toward the comic, as a portrait of “jet-setting” Hollywood people in Italy with sometimes hilariously caustic interactions between characters. Still, there’s an undercurrent of something else going on, which is revealed in the second act as the tensions explode, and all the actors play this exceptionally well. As the central character, Howe portrays the character’s complexities with credible emotional reactions, as Fay’s world is often defined by the decisions of those around her, especially the excellent Wolbers as the outwardly amiable but inwardly needy Rodney, and the superb Tibbets as the clingy, controlling Eva.  Baer, as the somewhat mysterious Lee, is also strong, as is Bacus as her affable but somewhat clueless fiance, Ted. Ritchie also lends strong support as the somewhat anxious Henry. Everyone works well together, with some especially memorable moments between Howe and Wolbers, Howe and Baer, and Wolbers and Tibbetts as the story plays out, relationships are shown for what they are, and hidden secrets are revealed.

The action is well-paced by director Hanrahan, and the set by Bess Moynihan is nothing short of remarkable. With meticulous detail, the fully realized Italian villa has been brought into the relatively small space at the Chapel. It’s easily the most elaborate set I’ve seen in this venue, and it serves as an ideal backdrop for the action, setting the mood, tone, and period style of the show. And speaking of “period style”, Liz Henning’s costumes are impressively accurate, colorful, and oh-so-early 60s chic. Along with Moynihan’s evocative lighting and some well-chosen music of the era, the mood is ideally set, adding much ambiance to the proceedings as the story plays out.

Rodney’s Wife is a show that features a lot of mature situations, and some strong language and sexual situations, so it’s for mature audiences. The drama can get intense, as well, especially in the second act, as the show explores the world of characters who aren’t always who they seem. It’s an exploration of truth, lies, artifice, and the sometimes stifling efforts to define oneself by others’ expectations. It’s a fascinating play, performed with compelling skill by the impressive cast and crew at The Midnight Company.

Oliver Bacus, Summer Baer, John Wolbers
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Rodney’s Wife at the Chapel until July 23, 2022

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Mary Poppins
Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Book by Julian Fellowes
New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
July 6, 2022

Cast of Mary Poppins
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Mary Poppins has flown into the Muny for the second time. After an entertaining production nine years ago, the “Practically Perfect” nanny is back, and this time she has a bit of an edge. The latest presentation in the Muny’s 2022 season is big, vibrant, and sharper than ever, with a great cast and loads of energy, led by two stellar performers in the leading roles. 

While the stage show and the classic Disney film have much in common, they are not the same. The stage version–which debuted in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006–features some fairly significant changes. Differences include a new book that adjusts the story somewhat and includes elements from P.L. Travers’s books, as well as adding some new songs and changing the settings of some of the more familiar movie songs. It’s still the story of a mysterious and even magical nanny (Jeanna De Waal) who flies into the lives of the Banks family–children Jane (Laila Fantroy) and Michael (Gabe Cytron), and parents George (Nehal Joshi) and Winifred (Erin Davie). This family needs some help, as George is absorbed in his work at a bank and a professed need for “precision and order”, Winifred is feeling inadequate and neglected by her husband, and the children have been subjected to a series of sub-par nannies and have difficulty living up to their father’s rigid expectations. Soon, Mary Poppins arrives and, with the help of the charming jack-of-all-trades Bert (Corbin Bleu), shows the family what their world can be like if they just remember what is important. 

I’ve seen the stage show four times now, beginning with the London production in 2006, and including the last time the Muny presented it in 2013. While, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the stage version, I’ve had some issues with the way the adaptation has flattened out some of the characters, such as the the Banks parents and especially Winifred. Also, while I’ve seen excellent performers in the role of Mary, the performances always seem to take a while for her to establish that “spark” that she needs to carry the show. This production has remedied those issues to a large degree in the form of casting, as De Waal brings a bit of a wry edge to to Mary Poppins that works especially well with the slightly darker tone of the stage show. She’s also in excellent voice, and works well with the thoroughly winning Bleu as Bert. Davie also adds an air of substance to Winifred Banks that I’ve haven’t seen before, with a standout performance that adds depth and interest to her story. Joshi works well with Davie and with the also excellent Fantroy and Cytron. There are also memorable comic performances from Zoe Vonder Haar and Barrett Riggins as the Banks family’s household servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, as well as Debby Lennon in a menacing and vocally impressive appearance as George’s imperious childhood nanny, Miss Andrew. Another especially memorable performance is that of Darlesia Cearcy as the Bird Woman, whose soaring voice and excellent harmonizing with De Waal makes “Feed the Birds” one of the true highlights of this production. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, lending strong support and contributing much energy to the production numbers, featuring spirited choreography by Patrick O’Neill.

This production looks great, as well, with a big, bold, colorful production featuring a versatile set by Paige Hathaway, detailed and whimsical costumes by Robin L. McGee, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, as well as eye-catching video design by Alex Basco Koch and spectacular flying effects by EFX. There was a bit of an problem with Lennon’s microphone in the performance I saw, but the issue was covered well, as Lennon was given a hand-held mic which added an amusing “evil lounge singer” vibe to her character that worked surprisingly well. The Muny orchestra is also in fine form, as led by music director Brad Haak, providing a full, rich sound to the well-known score.

This is probably the best stage version of Mary Poppins I have seen, with a lot of energy, musicality, and heart, and that little witty edge that gives it something extra. With memorable performances from De Waal. Bleu, and the rest of the cast, and dazzlingly vivid production values, this is a show that’s sure to please theatregoers of all ages. It’s a “Jolly Holiday”, indeed.

Jeanna De Waal, Corbin Bleu
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Mary Poppins in Forest Park until July 13, 2022

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