Archive for November, 2022

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
by Ginna Hoben
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
Westport Playhouse
November 30, 2022

Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo: Westport Playhouse

The Twelve Dates of Christmas isn’t a typical “feel-good” holiday show. It’s an off-beat comedy with moments of drama, showcasing a strong performance from the always excellent local performer Jennifer Theby-Quinn. In the small space at Westport Playhouse, the show is a fun, occasionally poignant look at one woman’s year following a breakup and her adventures and misadventures in dating. 

This isn’t a “family show”, considering its language and mature themes, but family figures in the story in a major way, as Mary (Theby-Quinn) finds out about her fiancé’s betrayal in a surprisingly public way, while spending time in her Ohio hometown with family for Thanksgiving.  Over the course of the performance, we hear about Mary’s parents, her exercise-loving sister, and her meddling aunt who is determined to find the “perfect man” for Mary. Over the course of the year, Mary goes through a series of dates and acting jobs in New York City, marking the various men she dates with ornaments on a large projected Christmas tree. Over the course of a little over a year, she meets a variety of men, from the “too good to be true” to the obviously wrong guys, to one or two guys with real possibilities. Mary, who is pursuing an acting career, also recounts some of her acting jobs, as well as a day job as a barista in a coffee shop. Over the year and the series of eventful and uneventful dates, Mary also makes a few new friends, including the jilted ex of one of her dates, and a five-year-old boy who plays Tiny Tim in a production of A Christmas Carol in which Mary is cast. It’s essentially a series of narrated vignettes, as Mary deals with single life in the modern world, and with difficult relatives who she cares about even though she doesn’t appreciate their meddling. 

The play is essentially a showcase for its leading performer, and Theby-Quinn is ideally cast. Adept at comedy, drama, and singing, Theby-Quinn shines as Mary, who experiences the ups-and-downs of the seasons, and the dating scene, aided by some familiar holiday music and a series of clever video projections designed by Margery and Peter Spack, and edited by Lenny Mink and Kurtis Gibbs. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Daniel MacLaughlin and sound designer Jacob Baxley. This is a fun show for this space, as well, providing some offbeat holiday-themed entertainment and a compelling, if somewhat predictable, story. 

Even though there’s nothing especially innovative about this show, it isn’t trying to be anything but an offbeat exploration of one woman’s journey back from a bad breakup, with a holiday theme and soundtrack. Theby-Quinn proves again that she is a consummate performer, and this is a good showcase for her talents.  If you’re looking for an entertaining, funny, occasionally poignant, occasionally crass holiday show, The Twelve Dates of Christmas is worth a look. 

Westport Playhouse is presenting The Twelve Dates of Christmas until December 23, 2022

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Bernice’s 70th Birthday
by Nancy Gall-Clayton
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2022

Tanya Badgley, Deb Dennert
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre has a commendable mission to showcase new plays by regional playwrights. Their latest production, Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton has much going for it, with a well-staged production and good cast. There’s a compelling story here, although perhaps a little too much for one play in terms of subject matter, and not enough in terms of action. 

This is essentially a character study, focusing on the active, upbeat Bernice (Deb Dennert), who is celebrating her 70th birthday, although she balks at being called a “senior”. Bernice is fun-loving a likes to think outside the “box” society seems to want to put her in. She clashes with her middle-aged daughter, Carol (Tanya Badgley) about her life goals and plans for her house and living arrangements. Carol, who has issues of her own with workaholic tendencies and a struggling marriage, encourages Bernice to look into moving into a condo in a retirement community, while Bernice tries to help Carol “loosen up” a bit. Bernice offers marriage advice, but also has her own issues coming to terms with her late husband’s long-ago death and its impact on her family, including estranged son Evan (Tyson Cole), who is much younger than Carol and was a child when his father died. He’s also gay, which Bernice has trouble accepting, and when he turns up after eight years asking lots of personal questions, Bernice is forced to confront several issues in her life that she has previously avoided. The dynamic between Carol and Evan–who have stayed in touch but don’t seem to have much in common–is also explored, as a series of meetings and conversations and meetings on Bernice’s back porch challenge the characters to examine their relationships, decisions, and attitudes toward each other, their loved ones, and their attitudes toward life.

There are a lot of ideas in this play, and many of them have been explored before elsewhere. The structure is fairly laid-back, but the conversations can get intense, to the point at times where it just comes across as a lot of yelling. Also, there might be a little too much here in terms of subject matter for one play, and the characters’ story arcs (especially Carol’s) can seem a little simplistic. There isn’t a lot of action here, and while there have been some great plays that consist mostly of a series of conversations, this one could use a little more focus on what it’s trying to say. Also, I often found myself wishing to see some of the characters who are just talked about–such as Carol’s husband, Evan’s partner, and Bernice’s “yoga friends”. 

The fine cast does a good job making the characters compelling, with Dennert’s Bernice leading the way. Dennert does an excellent job of portraying Bernice’s strengths as well as her flaws, and her attitudes toward both of her children are complex and credible. Cole is also strong as Evan, who longs for answers and a better relationship with his mother, and Badgley does a creditable job with the difficult role of Carol. The scenes between Badgley and Cole are especially well-done, and all three make a believable, if strained, family unit.

The production values are fairly basic, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, fine lighting by Nathan Schroeder and suitable costumes by Tracey Newcomb, working well in the black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center. The play itself could use some editing, but what First Run has presented here portrays this script in a compelling light. It’s not the most lively of birthday celebrations, but it’s a credible family dynamic with a good cast, and there’s a lot to think about here. 

Deb Dennert, Tyson Cole
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Bernice’s 70th Birthday at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 4, 2022

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A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 25, 2022

Paul Aguirre, Guiesseppe Jones
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s holiday tradition is continuing with their lively production of Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. The same adaptation by Michael Wilson that was staged to acclaim last season is back this year, and it seems to have found a new energy the second time around. With much of the same cast and the same stunning production values, the show carries an enduring message and a spirit that only seems more moving this year.

The story is well-known, following the classic Dickens tale with a few modifications, as the miserly, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by a series of ghosts and forced to come to terms with who he was and what he has become, with the chance of reformation.  The casting is mostly the same as last year, and the players are more effective than ever–with Guiesseppe Jones at the center as Scrooge. Jones is joined again by Armando McClain as Scrooge’s longsuffering but optimistic clerk Bob Cratchit; Michael James Reed in a dual role as Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber and the persistent ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley; Laakan McHardy, Paul Aguirre, and Eric Dean White as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as “real-world” merchants in debt to Scrooge; and a host of others repeating their roles from last year, joined by a few newcomers like Peterson Townsend as Scrooge’s cheerful nephew, Fred, as well as the younger adult version of Scrooge himself. There’s also a vibrant youth ensemble in the child and teen roles, split into two groups performing on alternating nights–I saw the “Green” ensemble.

It’s a strong cast all around, with Jones, Reed, and all three Spirits as the standouts once again, along with McClain’s eminently likable Cratchit, and Townsend making a strong impression as Fred. The Rep is also collaborating with local organizations COCA and Big Muddy Dance Company, along with Webster Conservatory, adding cohesive energy to the ensemble.

The production values are as stunning as ever, with the set design by Tim Mackabee, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Seth Reiser, and projections by Hana Kim all contributing to the alternately dramatic, funny, and truly thrilling tone of the production. There’s also excellent work from composers and sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes as well as music director Tre’von Griffith. The music is a surprisingly effective blend of traditional European folk music, familiar carols, and hip-hop influences including a rap sequence and eye-catching dancing, inventively choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. 

There have been so many versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, and the material has proven to hold up well in various forms, because the classic themes of generosity, kindness, and redemption endure throughout the generations. With the Rep’s intention of making this show an annual event, I thought it might seem stale doing the same adaptation again, but I was mistaken. In fact, this year’s version is even better than last time. It might be nice to see them change up the  adaptations at some point, but this one works so well with all the performance and technical elements pitched just right. It’s an ideal theatrical start to the holiday season in St. Louis.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 30, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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Ordinary Days
by Adam Gwon
Directed by Elisabeth Wurm
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 18, 2022

Jacob Schmidt, Lauren Tenenbaum
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Ordinary Days isn’t a big musical, but its staging is a big step for Tesseract Theatre Company. The show, a sweet-natured relationship story from writer/composer Adam Gwon, is Tesseract’s first venture into the world of musical theatre, after focusing primarily on new and lesser-known plays. As a first foray into a new creative direction, with more musicals planned for next year, I would say this production gets the company off to a promising new start.

The show revolves around four characters–or five, since New York City itself is essentially a co-star in this story. Four young New Yorkers navigate the city, relationships both romantic and platonic, and their life goals in the first decade of the 21st Century. The play is tied to its time for at least one important reason that is made apparent as the story unfolds, but it’s also just as tied to its location, with New York City representing both ordinary day-to-day life struggles as well as the “Big Picture” goals as emphasized in one of the show’s more prominent songs. The characters interact primarily in pairs. There’s Micheal Lowe as Jason, a hopeful young man who has optimistic dreams for his relationship with his girlfriend Claire, played by Brittani O’Connell. The two are embarking on a new stage of their relationship, having just moved in together, but Claire struggles with making a lasting commitment due to issues from her past that she hasn’t revealed to Jason. Meanwhile, ambitious graduate student Deb, played by Lauren Tenenbaum, is frustrated when she misplaces her notebook containing her thesis, and is thrust into a halting friendship with the ever-cheerful Warren, a would-be artist played by Jacob Schmidt. Deb first views Warren, who finds her notebook, with suspicion, but their interactions eventually help her to see beauty in the “little picture” of everyday life in addition to the bigger picture of the lofty goals she pursues. There’s nothing flashy about this story, but it’s simple and full of heart, humor, and moments of poignant drama, focusing on the characters and their relationships as they live their lives in the Big Apple.

The staging is simple but effective, with a deliberate pace dictated mainly by the songs, as the show is mostly sung-through. Even though the odd acoustics of the .ZACK Theatre sometimes make the show difficult to hear, Director Elisabeth Wurm has assembled a strong cast, with excellent ensemble chemistry and credible interaction between the pairs of performers. Lowe is an amiable, believably optimistic Jason, with a strong voice although he tends to sound a bit shouty in some of the more intense moments. He’s well-matched by O’Connell, who is appropriately mysterious as the reticent Claire, and also in good voice except for a few occasional cracks. The best singer in the production is Schmidt, who has a strong tenor voice that works well with his songs and his sometimes overly cheerful character, who Schmidt infuses with an affable spirit that makes him likable even when his cheeriness threatens to go over the top. Tenenbaum also turns in a strong performance as the ambitious, anxious Deb, delivering her songs with energy and conviction, and working especially well with Schmidt as their characters’ unlikely friendship grows. The show also looks good, with the simple staging augmented by Taylor Gruenloh’s memorable projections, Brittanie Gunn’s evocative lighting, and Zach Neumann’s proficient piano accompaniment. 

Pivoting their focus to (mostly) musicals is a bold decision for Tesseract, but Ordinary Days shows that it’s a good call. This show also had the biggest audience I’ve ever seen at a production from this company, so theatregoers seem to like the decision, as well. It’s an auspicious beginning for Tesseract’s next act, represented by a little show with a big heart and a strong cast. 

Micheal Lowe, Brittani O’Connell
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Ordinary Days at the .ZACK Theatre until November 27, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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The Good Ship St. Louis
by Philip Boehm
Original Music by Anthony Barilla
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
November 6, 2022

Upstream Theater’s latest production is a World Premiere original, with intriguing subject matter and a strong cast. Based on true events, this show explores the issue of how refugees are treated in times of political upheaval, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s a highly ambitious project, and it’s a compelling story with simple but strong production values and a particularly effective ending, although there are a few bumps along the artistic voyage. 

The story is presented with a modern-day framing device, and a few looks at the refugee experience from various times in modern history, focusing much on St. Louis. The main story follows the passengers and crew of the M.S. St. Louis, a German vessel that was carrying many Jewish passengers to Havana, Cuba, in 1939. The ship sparked much controversy and international headlines, and after several countries (including the United States) refused to receive the ship and its passengers, it was eventually sent back to Europe, finally being allowed to dock in Antwerp, Belgium. The story of the ship is interspersed with the modern-day story of Susan (Kari Ely), who upon the death of both of her parents, finds a trove of boxes, documents, pictures, and various items in her attic relating the story of a married couple–the German-born Herbert (Jeff Cummings) and the Polish-born Rosa (Nancy Bell), who were passengers on the ship. The connection between Susan–whose parents were both raised in Irish-American families–and this couple becomes apparent eventually, leading up to a truly poignant conclusion and ending sequence.

In the meantime, we also get to see the stories of other passengers and crew, including sympathetic Captain Schröder; the captain’s steward Leo Jockl (Eric J. Conners), who harbors a secret; and Nazi group leader and second class steward Schiendick (Christopher Hickey), who is a secret spy; and several of the Jewish passengers including Recha (Sarah Burke), and her ailing professor husband Moritz (Tom Wethington), as well as Charlotte (Kathleen Sitzer), who was raised in a well-to-do family. We also get to hear the stories of a few people affected by different conflicts over the years, including Bosnian refugee Jasmin (Conners), who settles in St. Louis; Leyla (Sitzer), a Syrian refugee who settles in Lebanon; and Ukrainian Latin teacher Lidia (Burke), who finds her knowledge of Latin useful as she travels between various countries. There’s also a series of vignettes featuring three characters with similar names in similar situations, reacting to the news of the day in various times and places–Federico/Freddie/Frederick/Fred (Hickey), and Benito/ Benny/Benedict/Ben (Wethington), who discuss the news of the world and sports; and Maria/Marie/Mary/Marisa (Mariand Jagels Felix), who waits tables (or who could, considering the circumstances). It’s a compelling story with perhaps a few too many plots and characters, although the connection to the refugee experience and attitudes toward refugees over the years is an important idea. The structure can get a little muddled and drag at times, although the main story of the M.S. St. Louis remains compelling despite the occasionally clunky presentation, involving projections and titles describing what’s happening at various moments in the story.

I guess the best way to characterize this play in terms of genre is to call it a “sort of musical”. I say “sort of” in that it doesn’t present itself as a musical initially, so the first time characters start singing, it comes across as somewhat jarring, and the songs aren’t as pervasive as they are in most musicals. I guess you could call it a “play with music”, but the songs do drive the plot when they appear, but they are not as strong an influence as they could be. The music is a mixture of original songs by Anthony Barilla and a few traditional songs and popular songs of the era. It’s well-performed by music director Henry Palkes on piano and cellists Coco Wicks and Ethan Edwards, and the actual singing is good, with varying degrees of vocal quality among the cast, although regardless of vocal power, everyone brings a commendable degree of emotion to their songs. 

The most effective story  line is that of the M. S. St. Louis itself, and especially that of Rosa and Herbert, who are played with strong chemistry and poignancy by Bell and Cummings. Ely also makes the most of her somewhat underwritten role as Susan, although she and Bell probably have the single strongest moment in the show, toward the end. There are also memorable performances from Mayer as the conflicted Captain, and Burke and Conners in a variety of roles each, as well as Hickey and Wethington, also in a variety of roles. Everyone gives their all, and the performances are the highlight of the production.

The show also boasts a strong sense of time and place, well-maintained through the means of Laura Fine Hawkes’s well-realized unit set that suggests the deck of the ship, aided by Barilla’s atmospheric music and sound design, as well as Steve Carmichael’s excellent lighting and Laura Hanson’s detailed costumes. Brian McLelland and Mona Sabau provide memorable projections, as well, even though the use of these projections sometimes lends a “classroom instruction” type of air to the proceedings, as the show occasionally errs in the way of telling rather than showing the plight of its characters. 

Even though I do have some quibbles with the structure and presentation of the story, for the most part I find it poignant, thought-provoking, and effective. Especially considering the strong cast and compelling subject matter, this is a promising new play from Upstream Theater. The Good Ship St. Louis may have a bit of a rough journey at times from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s very much a worthwhile one to see. 

Upstream Theater is presenting The Good Ship St. Louis at the Marcelle Theatre until November 20, 2022

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Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Book by Jennifer Lee
Directed by Michael Grandage
Choreographed by Rob Ashford
The Fox Theatre
November 3, 2022

Caroline Bowman, Lauren Nicole Chapman, and cast of Frozen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

Frozen has become a household name these days, starting with the hit Disney film, which spawned a sequel, and a Broadway musical that’s enjoyed a popular North American tour. The modern classic tale of magic, the love of family (both biological and found), and overcoming fear has now landed at the Fox, in a production that’s technically stunning to the point that I haven’t seen in a touring production, as well as boasting a strong cast and a memorable score. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the plot, although there are a few additions and expansions to the story for the stage version. Still, it’s a fairly faithful translation from screen to stage, centering on a pair of royal sisters. Elsa (Caroline Bowman), the heir to the throne of the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, has magical ice-creation powers that she’s hidden since childhood when she (played as a child by Sydney Elise Russell at the performance I saw) accidentally lost control of her power and injured her younger, non-magical sister, Anna (Aria Kane as a child at my performance, Lauren Nicole Chapman as an adult). The princesses’ parents, King Agnarr (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen Iduna (Belinda Allyn), are concerned, and after summoning the “hidden folk” led by Pabbie (Tyler Jimenez) to heal Anna and remove her memories of Elsa’s magic, they swear Elsa to secrecy and encourage her to hide her power. Upon their parents’ unexpected death in a shipwreck, the princesses live a reclusive life in the palace until the day arrives for Elsa’s coronation as Queen. The fearful Elsa, who has shunned her sister to protect her, welcomes the public to the palace for the first time in years, which leads to a series of events that changes everyone’s lives and threatens the survival of the kingdom. Along the way, Elsa has to learn what to do with her great power, and she and Anna learn about the power of love–familial for the sisters, but also of the romantic variety for Anna, as she falls quickly for the newly arrived Prince Hans (Will Savarese), while later finding herself drawn to mountain-dwelling ice-seller Kristoff (Dominic Dorset), who helps her look for Elsa after a catastrophic mishap sends the Queen fleeing to the mountains. 

This is a fairly well-structured show, although perhaps a little too much time is given to the prologue, and the finale seems a little bit rushed. Still, it’s a thrilling adventure for the most part, and sure to please fans of the movie. All the well-known characters are here, from the sisters to the mysterious Prince Hans, to the brave and loyal Kristoff and his reindeer friend, Sven (Collin Baja at the performance I saw, aided by a magnificent costume/puppet), and the lovable snowman Olaf (Jeremy Davis, operating a well-realized puppet). The music is familiar as well, with favorites like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the iconic “Let It Go” joined by a few new songs for the stage. 

The cast is excellent across the board, with memorable performances and an excellent sisterly bond from Bowman as the conflicted, secretive Elsa and Chapman as the energetic, adventurous Anna. While Elsa is prominent in the show, and Bowman shines in her scenes, showing off her powerful vocals on “Let It Go”, in the stage version especially, this comes across more as Anna’s story primarily, and Chapman does a commendable job holding the audience’s attention with her excellent vocals, comic timing, dramatic ability, and dance skills. The young Russell and Kane are also strong as the sisters in the prologue scenes. There are also standout performances from the engaging Dorset as Kristoff, whose scenes with Chapman are a highlight; and Savarese, whose Hans is suitably charming upon his introduction. Davis as Olaf is also a delight, providing comic relief as well as some heartwarming moments without ever going over-the-top. The puppetry, designed by Michael Curry, is stunning here, as well, also lending realism and wonder to the role of Sven, who is acted beautifully by Baja in a fully articulated reindeer outfit. Michael Milkanen also has a notable moment here as shopkeeper Oaken, who leads the bright and hilarious Act 2 opening number “Hygge”. There’s great work from all the players here, and striking, energetic choreography by Rob Ashford that helps move the story along well. 

As good as the cast is, however, the biggest star in this production is the technical wizardry that provides many “ooh” and “ahh” moments in the show. The glorious set and costumes by Christopher Oram and the special effects by Jeremy Chernick are probably the most elaborate and impressive that I have seen in a touring production of any show. Along with the dazzling lighting by Natasha Katz and video design by Finn Ross, these technical elements truly draw the audience into the world of Arendelle, first in the richly appointed castle and then into the awe-inspiring, wintery mountain landscape. It’s a magnificent technical achievement that serves the story well and inspired applause in at least one notable moment later in the show.

Frozen is certainly a crowd-pleaser. It’s also a heartfelt, occasionally thrilling story with a clear message about overcoming fear and the importance of love–not just romantic, but also (and especially) love of family. It’s appealing for all ages, as well.  It’s been a while since I had seen the movie, but the stage version strikes me as an especially fine, successful adaptation. 

Dominic Dorset, Colln Baja
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Frozen North American Tour

The North American Tour of Frozen is running at the Fox Theatre until November 13, 2022

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