Archive for January, 2023

The Golden Record
Adapted and Curated by Courtney Bailey
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
January 26, 2023

Eric Satterfield, Summer Baer, LaWanda Jackson
Photo by Ray Bay Creates
Prison Performing Arts

Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company is putting on a unique, intriguing show at The Chapel. Taking inspiration from a NASA program, the company and playwright/performer Courtney Bailey have presented a highly personal work that provides insight into the work of PPA and the people who have been involved with it over the past several years. It’s a thoughtful ride through time, space, and memory, with a ukulele playing chicken along for the ride. 

This is essentially a retrospective, and audience members who are more familiar with PPA and its past works will probably understand it more than others, but there are a lot of intriguing, insightful moments here which provide a look into the lives of the PPA participants and their experiences. As this is a charity that works in prisons, the participants are able to share their experiences of being incarcerated, as well as readjusting to society after prison. It also serves as remembrance and tribute to several PPA members (listed in the program) who have passed away. It’s a time capsule-like document, curated and arranged by Bailey and featuring the work of several PPA participants and past productions including Antigone and First Impressions, starring a mixture of PPA alumni and professional actors. 

The story here, inspired by a pair of “Golden Records” included by NASA in the Voyager space probes in the 1970s, follows two Travelers (Eric Satterfield and LaWanda Jackson), accompanied by a cheerful chicken named Filberta (Summer Baer), who are traveling from their planet to an unknown destination. Through the course of the story, the Travelers listen to recordings and watch videos as reminders of life on their old planet, and the people they’ve left behind. They also participate in a series of repeating rituals, such as a recited “catechism” and a visit from a rogue satellite from the planet Antigone (operated by Bailey, voiced by Autumn Hales). There’s also a succession of New Year’s celebrations that seem to get closer and closer together as the Travelers lose track of time and the past becomes more and more of a distant memory. The rest of the cast appears throughout in a series of vignettes as the “transmissions” are played, and the Travelers get further and further away from their old home try to hold on to the hope of reaching their intended destination. 

The whole company is memorable, led by Satterfield and Jackson in emotional and relatable performances as the Travelers, and Baer as the devoted Filberta. The entire cast contributes memorable moments, ranging from humorous situations to poignant and heartfelt reflections. The cohesive ensemble–some appearing onstage, some on film, and others as recorded voices–includes David Nonemaker, Larry Butler, Bailey, Katie Leemon, Tyler White, Julie Antonic, Scott Brown (understudied by Bailey on opening night), Hazel McIntire, Autumn Hales, Sandra Dallas, Patty Prewitt, Dylan Staudie, and Tessa Van Vlerah. 

The simple but effective set and atmospheric lighting by Erik Kuhn contribute much to the science fiction-like mood of the show, as do Liz Henning’s costumes. There’s also highly effective use of projections designed by Michael Musgrave-Perkins, and video editing by Satterfield. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contributes to the overall dreamlike atmosphere of the production. 

Overall, I would say The Golden Record works well as a retrospective, especially for those who are familiar to some degree with the work of PPA. It’s an inventive reflection on identity, the passage of time, relationships, processing grief, a sense of uncertainty blended with hope for the future, and more. It’s a whimsical flight of fancy, a melancholy reflection, and an archive of past performances rolled into one imaginative package. 

Courtney Bailey, Eric Satterfield
Photo by Ray Bay Creates
Prison Performing Arts

Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company is presenting The Golden Record at The Chapel until January 29, 2023

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Six: the Musical
by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss
Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage
Choreographed by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
The Fox Theatre
January 24, 2023

Cast of Six: The Musical
Photo by Joan Marcus
Six: The Musical North American Tour

Royalty is in the house at the Fox. Originating in the UK, Six: The Musical is an energetic, clever, witty, and surprisingly educational show that looks at the stories of the six wives of King Henry VIII through a decidedly 21st Century lens, with a contemporary look and score. I first saw this show three years ago in London, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the touring show, based on the hit Broadway production, at the Fox. As an unabashed Anglophile and British history buff, this show had an immediate appeal to me, but even if you don’t know a lot about these six queens and their history, or British history in general, there’s a lot to learn here, about the past as well as subjects that transcend one historical moment, while being greatly entertained at the same time.

This show is almost deceptively clever. It packages its story in modern trappings and musical styles, in a manner that helps convey its story and themes to today’s audiences in a way that a “period piece” may not as much. The whole show is presented as a pop concert on a simple but dazzling set by Emma Bailey, featuring songs reminiscent of hits from the 90s and 2000s, with its six Queens dressed in an eye-catching blend of modern and historical fashion elements, superbly designed by Gabriella Slade. There’s also an excellent on-stage band of “Ladies in Waiting” led by conductor Katie Coleman on keyboards, and visually striking lighting by Tim Deiling that helps set the scene and underscore the plot points as the Queens tell their stories in song.

The stories are based in historical fact, but the way they are told, and the way the characters are presented, is given a modern twist, with elements of “today” like cell phones, contemporary slang, and mentions of social media. The Queens, who introduce themselves in the catchy opening song “Ex-Wives” by the well-known mnemonic “divorced, beheaded, died–divorced, beheaded, survived”, are presented as at once accessible and larger than life. After the somewhat extended intro presenting the premise–a contest for who has the “best” story–the Queens take turns at center stage. Catherine of Aragon (Cecilia Snow at the performance I saw), Anne Boleyn (Zan Berube), Jane Seymour (Amina Faye), Anna of Cleves (Terica Marie), Katherine Howard (Aline Mayagoitia), and Catherine Parr (Sydney Parra) each get their moments to tell their emotional, often harrowing tales in song, as well as exchange witty and occasionally caustic banter as the performance continues, leading up to a memorable conclusion that re-casts their tales–and the historical approach toward their stories–in a new light. 

The dynamic staging helps keep the show moving, the excellent score gives it an energetic beat, and the visuals never fail to dazzle, but the heart and soul of this show is, as to be expected, its Queens. The performers in this iteration of the show are excellent, with excellent interplay between the cast members, energetic dance, and great voices all around. Standouts for me include Zan Berube’s perky take on Anne Boleyn, Terica Marie’s powerfully-voiced Anna of Cleves, and Amina Faye’s memorable, moving solo on “Heart of Stone”. All of the cast members are strong, though, with each song cleverly crafted to make a point about the historical treatment of women that is driven home especially well here by these fully realized, character-rich performances. 

There’s a whole lot happening in Six, and its slick, glitzy packaging is only the beginning. There’s an educational historical message here, as well as themes of women’s roles in society, difficult and sometimes brutal treatment, and the importance of agency and making voices heard. It may look like it’s designed to appeal to younger audiences, and it probably is, but there’s a lot here for us “older” theatregoers, as well. I was curious to see how the show would translate from the UK to the USA, and it has done so remarkably well, because even though this is a story based in British history, many of its themes are timeless and universal. It’s an entertaining evening of theatre, that’s for sure, but it’s a whole lot more than that. 

Cast of Six: The Musical
Photo by Joan Marcus
Six: The Musical North American Tour

The North American Tour of Six: The Musical is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 5, 2023


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Broadway Bound
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
January 19, 2023

Bob Harvey, Spencer Kruse, Jenni Ryan, Jacob Flekier
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The latest production from the New Jewish Theatre is something of a family reunion. Broadway Bound is Neil’s Simon’s well-known conclusion to his acclaimed semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy”. NJT produced the first of the series, Brighton Beach Memoirs, in 2019, and has brought back the director, Alan Knoll, three key cast members, and some of the design team for the continuation of the story of Simon’s fictional avatar, Eugene Jerome, and his family. As with the first production, this one showcases its impressive cast in a remarkable way as Simon’s memorable blend of humor and poignancy takes the stage.

Where Brighton Beach focused on Eugene as a young teenager and emerging writer, Broadway Bound features the character as a young adult trying to break into the new and exciting world of television comedy in the late 1940s. Jacob Flekier returns to the role as a likable narrator and focus character, as Eugene and his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse, also returning) strive to make their dreams come true as they work on sketches and try to get a job as writers at CBS, and Eugene is caught up in the excitement of a new relationship with a young woman he hopes to marry. The play also updates the story of Eugene’s parents, and especially his mother, Kate (Jenni Ryan), who finds herself in a difficult situation as her marriage to her husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley once again) appears to be in trouble, and her aging father, Ben (Bob Harvey) resists pleas from Kate and her now-wealthy sister Blanche (Christina Rios) to join their mother in moving to Florida for the sake of his health. The story deals with changing relationships, family expectations, hopes and dreams for the future, memories and regrets from the past, and more, with a tone that ranges from character-focused comedy to poignant drama. It’s a rich, fascinating portrayal of a family at a pivotal moment in their lives, and one of Simon’s more celebrated later works. 

This being a sequel, the production at NJT is especially effective if you saw the earlier production Brighton Beach Memoirs as well, since several elements of that production are revisited here, starting with an excellent re-creation of the meticulously realistic set by Margery and Peter Spack, which is identical to the earlier set, except for a few differences in decoration reflecting the 12-year time difference between the stories. Michele Friedman Siler also returns as costume designer, outfitting the characters in detailed, suitably evocative period attire. Lighting designer Kimberly Klearman Petersen has based the design for this production on that of previous designer Michael Sullivan, with credible atmospheric effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer Kareem Deanes (new for this production) and choreographer Ellen Isom, adding to the mood of the show’s most memorable scene, which is also superbly acted by Ryan and Flekier. 

The casting is first-rate, from the returning players as well as the newcomers. Flekier, as before, makes an engaging, relatable Eugene, and his relationships with all of the other cast members are excellent and believable. Kruse is also strong as the ambitious, nervously energetic Stanley. There are also strong turns from Rios as the caring, well-off but insecure Blanche, Harvey as the crusty, politically-minded Ben, and Brinkley in a difficult role as the disillusioned, secretive Jack, whose scenes with Ryan’s Kate are an emotionally-charged highlight. As for Ryan, she’s giving perhaps the best performance I’ve seen from her as the conflicted, devoted Kate, whose scenes with Flekier’s Eugene are especially convincing and moving. 

Broadway Bound is a thoughtful, memorably staged production that revisits both characters and performers from the earlier production with a few new twists and additions. It’s a welcome reunion and revisitation, with an especially strong cast, and a technical production that’s both impressive and realistic. It’s one of Simon’s more “serious” stories, but with a good dose of humor and hope. Even if you didn’t catch Brighton Beach Memoirs, this is a show that’s well worth seeing. 

Jenni Ryan, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Jon Gitchofff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Broadway Bound at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until February 5, 2023

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Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
The Black Rep
January 13, 2023

Christian Kitchens, Ron Himes, Chauncy Thomas
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The second entry in the Black Rep’s latest  season is a well-known classic of the American theatre. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one of those plays that’s become so ingrained in theatrical history that it’s been revived many times, as well as having been adapted for both the big and small screens multiple times, as well as being a frequent subject of study in high school and college literature and drama curricula. Its central figure, the world-weary salesman Willy Loman, has become a much-coveted role played by many a celebrated actor over the years, and many well-known directors have offered their takes on the story. At the Black Rep, director Jacqueline Thompson and cast look at this familiar story with a new perspective that adds a new layer to this already deep, tragic story, providing a strong showcase for a first-rate cast. 

The “color conscious” casting approach to this show that the Black Rep employs is not unique, as an acclaimed production with a similar concept recently played on Broadway (having originated in London a few years ago). Still, even though this isn’t the first production to take this approach, it proves the concept to be especially powerful, in providing new depth to the story and reinforcing the Black Rep’s tradition of theatrical excellence, in acting and in the technical aspects of the play. Here, the Loman family is Black–led by Willy (Ron Himes) and his longsuffering wife, Linda (Velma Austin). Their two sons, former high school football star Biff (Chauncy Thomas), and the more upbeat but somewhat ignored younger son Happy (Christian Kitchens) are frequent subjects of the increasingly reflective and delusional Willy’s memories, as is his much older brother Ben (Kevin Brown), who only appears in flashbacks and represents the adventurous, successful life for Willy. Other figures in Willy’s world are still cast as white, such as his boss Howard (Franklin Killian), neighbor Charley (Jim Read), and Charley’s studious and eventually successful lawyer-son Bernard (Jacob Cange). This casting brings a different tone to the already tragic story, as Willy fights against expectations and holds on to his dreams for himself and his sons (especially Biff), even when those dreams are increasingly shown to conflict with reality. 

The staging here is thoughtful and precise, bringing out aspects of the characters I haven’t noticed as much before. One notable difference is the prominence of Linda, played in a particularly emotional and insightful performance by Austin. I don’t think the script has been altered, but both in terms of direction and performance, I found myself noticing Linda more in this production, and her importance to the story is given more emphasis. Himes is also superb as Willy, in a sensitive and multi-layered performance that brings much sympathy to Willy’s plight, even when he isn’t entirely likable as a character. There are also strong turns from Thomas as the disillusioned Biff, and Kitchens as Happy, who tries to project a more carefree lifestyle but who is also clearly affected by his father’s situation and having lived in the shadow of his brother. There are also excellent supporting performances from Read and Cange as Charley and Bernard, as well as the rest of the cast. It’s a strong ensemble, with every scene crackling with energy and meaning. 

In a technical sense, this production also shines, with a detailed period set by Dunsi Dai and meticulous costumes by Daryl Harris that help set and maintain the mid-20th Century look and tone of the story. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Jasmine Williams that adds to the intensity when needed and also helps achieve an ethereal tone in the flashback scenes. The only small issue I have with this production is in the acoustics at the Edison Theatre, which I’ve also noticed in previous productions. Especially from the seats further back in the auditorium, it can be harder to hear in some of the quieter moments. Still, the powerful drama takes the lead for the most part, and even with a few small sound issues, the story is clearly told. 

Death of a Salesman is already a great play–a well-structured American tragedy that still communicates its message with power decades after it was written. The current production at the Black Rep has managed to find even more depth and nuance to this story, with profoundly affecting performances and incisive direction. It’s another dramatic triumph for this excellent St. Louis theatre company. 

Velma Austin, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Death of a Salesman at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 29, 2023

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