Archive for the ‘St Louis Theatre’ Category

by Eric Berg
Directed by Phil Wright
First Run Theatre
August 11, 2023

Lexy Witcher, Jade Cash, Monica Allen
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is staging a compelling, highly evocative show at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Wayward, by Eric Berg, isn’t entirely original in terms of story, but it does an excellent job of portraying the characters in a specific time, place, and cultural moment in history. It’s also an ideal vehicle for the terrific cast that director Phil Wright has assembled. 

The framing device presents focal character Carol Kwiatkowski (Lexy Witcher) as a middle-aged mother in the mid-1980’s, telling a story to an unnamed and unseen adult child. The bulk of the story, though, takes place in Kansas City, Missouri in 1962, at the “Home for Wayward Girls”, operated by an order of Catholic nuns led by the stern Sister Elizabeth (Monica Allen), and assisted by the younger, more approachable Sister Anne (Jade Cash). The young Carol, pregnant and unmarried, arrives at the home early in the year and is advised of the rules and expectations by the sisters, although she insists she won’t be staying long, as her boyfriend Ronnie should be there to pick her up soon so they can get married and raise their child together. Sister Elizabeth has heard this story before, and is doubtful, but reluctantly allows Carol to delay signing an adoption consent form. Then, Carol is introduced to the other residents of the house, known by nicknames and aliases because they are “encouraged” not to use their real names or share personal information. So, we meet the friendly Country Girl (Mckenna Stroud); the well-read, culturally connected Mayflower (Sarah Vallo); the gruff, cynical Jersey Girl (Amie Bossi); and Maggie (Camryn Ruhl), who is due to give birth any day now. Over the course of the next few months, we see the developing relationships between the residents, as Carol finds her place in the group and the young women share their thoughts and hopes, as well as their contrasting personalities and efforts at friendship within the strict framework of the home’s rules, and the expectations of society around them.

This premise isn’t a new one. I’ve seen other plays and stories that cover similar ground, but what makes this one especially compelling is the characters, and especially the way the playwright portrays their relationships to one another and also to their cultural time and place, with Jackie Kennedy’s televised White House tour being a major focal point, and pop culture references brought up not just for setting, but as a reflection of the characters and society, emphasizing the fact that these are essentially “normal” young women who have found themselves in a situation made difficult by the social expectations and pressures of the time in which they live.  There are a few story threads I wish could be fleshed out a little more, but for the most part the story is engaging and thoughtful.

The evocation of time and place is excellent, and particularly compelling. I believe these characters, and the terrific performers make me believe them all the more. Witcher, as Carol, is an ideal, approachable lead, taking a credible emotional journey and bringing the audience along with her. Cash is also memorable as the initially shy, but increasingly sympathetic Sister Anne. All of the players are strong, from Allen’s stern but multi-dimensional Sister Elizabeth, to Stroud’s kind Country Girl, Vallo’s reserved but also kind Mayflower, Bossi’s defensively snarky Jersey Girl, and Ruhl’s two important and contrasting roles. It’s a cohesive ensemble, bringing much energy and heart to the proceedings. 

The early 1960’s setting is well-established in the plot and characters, and the production values enhance this atmosphere. Brad Slavik’s set is simple but effective, and the costumes are well-suited, although there is no designer listed in the program. There’s also effective lighting by Michelle Zielinski and sound by Jenn Ciavarella. 

Ultimately, Wayward is about a young woman who makes the most of a difficult situation, and the relationships she forms and the lives she affects in the midst of societal pressure and a strict structure that offers markedly different treatment for women vs. men. As a play, it makes the most of a premise that’s been used before, although this show brings a degree of nuance and character that makes the story especially compelling. It’s the best show I’ve seen from First Run, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Camryn Ruhl, Mckenna Stroud, Sarah Vallo, Jade Cash, Amie Bossi, Lexy Witcher
Photo: First Run Theatre

Cast of Wayward
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Wayward at the Kranzberg Arts Center until August 20, 2023

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Merry Wives
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo
August 8, 2023

Michelle Hand, Rae Davis, Carl Overly Jr., Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Christina Yancy
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Imagine if The Merry Wives of Windsor was a 1990’s sitcom. That’s the premise of Merry Wives, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo show that’s running (for free) in various parks and other locations in the St. Louis area throughout the month of August. With a small, energetic and versatile cast, and some fun production elements, this is an entertaining Shakespearean update, even if it is a bit on the long side.

As is true for a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies, Merry Wives involves a lot of trickery and mixed-up romances. It also involves a popular character from some of the Bard’s history plays that he brought back, Sir John Falstaff, played here by Carl Overly, Jr. The swaggering, party-loving Falstaff has made the mistake here of trying to woo two women at once–Mrs. Page (Michelle Hand) and Mrs. Ford (Christina Yancy)–who are too clever for his own good. Upon discovering that Falstaff has sent the same letter to both of them, the two women set out to play a trick on the knight that involves a lot of hilarious hijinks. Meanwhile, the jealous Mr. Ford (Joel Moses) sets out to expose his wife’s supposed treachery by disguising himself and asking Falstaff for “help”, and the Pages’ daughter Anne (Rae Davis) deals with a trio of varying suitors all played by Mitchell Henry-Eagles, with expected mix-ups and hilarity ensuing in that plot, as well. 

The sitcom structure works well here, with a fun soundtrack provided for the transition scenes, and a host of 90’s pop-culture references thrown in for good measure. The cast is excellent, with great enthusiasm and comic timing, and a whimsical production design by Laura Skroska with clever costumes by Kayla Lindsey. The approximately 90-minute runtime is a bit long for a sitcom, and, and it might have benefited from a little bit of trimming. Still, the whole cast and crew manage to keep up the spirit of the show throughout. Overly, as the only cast member who doesn’t play multiple roles, is an energetic Falstaff, and the rest of the players are commendable in their sheer versatility. 

I love the TourCo shows because they are so accessible. It’s not just free Shakespeare, like the headline shows in Forest Park each year. These are shows that go to various different venues throughout the region. I saw Merry Wives in Tower Grove Park, and if you look at STLSF’s website, you will find the schedule and locations for the rest of the run. It’s more than worth checking out. Even with its slightly long runtime for a show of this format, it’s a lively, fun production that’s easy to enjoy, especially for fans of 1990’s sitcoms and pop culture. 


Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Joel Moses
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photgraphy
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo is presenting Merry Wives in various locations until August 29. 2023

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Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 5, 2023

Lincoln Clauss (Center) and Cast of Rent
The Muny

If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would eventually be seeing Rent at the Muny, I’m not sure if I would have believed them. But now, it’s here, and it’s great.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning show that took Broadway by storm in the 1990’s is now onstage in Forest Park, in a vibrant, terrifically cast production that serves as a good introduction to the show for those who haven’t seen it before, as well as highlighting the strengths of the story for those who already know and love it. 

This Rent may not please some die-hard purists, considering it doesn’t have the classic look of the Broadway show, and some of the grittier elements have been toned down a bit for the Muny stage. Still, this production was obviously made by people who love this show, and it is the relationships and the emotion that shine through in this new production that brings an immediacy and energy to the story that, even with its mid-90’s setting, feels fresh and vibrant for today’s audiences. The story, with its inspiration from Puccini’s opera La Bohème and focus on struggling artists and others in New York City’s East Village, is very much of its time, but it doesn’t seem as dated as I had been expecting. This version has also been scaled to fit the Muny’s huge stage, with an excellent multilevel set by Arnel Sanciano that represents the neighborhood with vivid detail. There’s also fantastic use of video design by Paul Deziel, featuring images from the era as well as the films recorded by one of the leading characters, aspiring filmmaker Mark (Lincoln Clauss). The costumes by Raquel Adorno are appropriately of the era, and suit the characters well. There’s also memorable lighting by Heather Gilbert, and an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The story and characters are familiar if you know the show, and if you don’t, this serves as a good introduction. There’s filmmaker Mark,  along with his wannabe rock-star roommate Roger (Vincent Kempski); and the troubled and ailing dancer Mimi (Ashley De La Rosa), who shares a strong attraction with Roger, but he is afraid to commit for various reasons.  The rest of the characters are mostly part of the same group of friends, former friends, lovers and former lovers who deal with various struggles, mostly due to high housing prices, greed, drug addiction, and the AIDS epidemic. Performance artist Maureen (Lindsay Heather Pearce), used to date Mark but is now in a volatile relationship with lawyer Joanne (Anastacia McCleskey); out-of-work professor Collins (Terrance Johnson, standby for Evan Tyrone Martin) becomes involved with the charismatic drag queen and street performer Angel (Adrian Villegas); and Benny (Tré Frazier), who used to be Roger and Mark’s roommate but now owns their building after marrying into wealth, deals with the pressures he’s getting as a result of his new social position as well as his own former involvement with Mimi. The hopes, fears, struggles, loves, and losses of this group over the course of a year form the basis the plot, featuring a series of memorable songs and leading up to an emotionally charged conclusion.

What I think works especially well in this production is the development of the various relationships, and the overall sense of connection among the group of friends, even despite their conflicts. The cast is uniformly strong, with notable standouts being Kempski and De La Rosa, who show palpable chemistry as Roger and Mimi; as well as Pearce as the fiercely determined Maureen, McCleskey as the equally determined but frequently exasperated Joanne, and Villegas as the memorable Angel, who has great moments with Johnson’s also excellent Collins. The voices are strong across the board, as well as strong ensemble energy from an enthusiastic supporting cast including the Muny Teen Ensemble. 

Rent is an almost 30-year-old show that’s making its Muny debut with style, energy, and most of all heart. I’m glad to see it in such a big, well-produced version with such a strong cast. It’s another strong entry in the Muny’s stellar 2023 season. 

Cast of Rent
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rent in Forest Park until August 10, 2023

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Conceived and Originally Directed by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sara Rae Womack
Stray Dog Theatre
August 4, 2023

Kevin Corpuz (Seated) and cast of Godspell
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Just take a close look at the logo on the posters and program for Stray Dog Theatre’s new production of Godspell, and I think you may be able to guess its setting. Unlike more traditional productions of this well-known musical, SDT and director Justin Been have chosen to go with a drastically different concept and interpretation. Still, even if it isn’t what you may have been expecting, this is a fascinating, well-thought-out production that offers a lot to think about, inventive staging, and a host of excellent voices and performances. 

As is suggested by the World Trade Center towers featured as the two “L’s” in the logo, this is a Godspell set in New York City on September 11, 2001. I don’t need to remind viewers what that means, because even those not old enough to remember this world-changing event firsthand have most likely been hearing about it all their lives. It seems an odd setting for Godspell, but director Justin Been and this excellent cast have made it work about as well as I can imagine for this concept. Here, as a the various characters assemble at the Cortlandt Street Subway station on what starts out as a normal Tuesday morning, things become gradually more unusual as the tragic events play out outside the station, while inside, a stranger arrives and plays the role of Jesus (Kevin Corpuz) while leading the collection of office workers, artists, tourists, and everyday New Yorkers in a series of parables from the Bible. That’s it, basically. That’s the story, and though the overarching concept may seem odd or unrealistic, I don’t think realism is the aim here. Like a lot of the tales being depicted from the Gospel of Matthew, the framing device here plays out as something of a parable–a story that’s more about what it means than any literal situation it depicts.

Like SDT’s 2018 production of Jesus Christ Superstar, also directed by Been, this production seems to major more on universal underlying concepts than any particular religious interpretation. This production benefits from a more cohesive theme, though. The styling and setting are impeccably done, with Rob Lippert’s detailed set expertly representing an early 2000’s New York Subway station, and the costumes coordinated by Been help differentiate the characters well from their first appearances onstage. There’s also a remarkable use of effects in the finale, and stunning lighting design by Tyler Duenow. The band, led by music director Leah Schultz, adds a terrific accompaniment to the cast of stellar voices assembled here. 

As for that cast, everyone excels. Its such a cohesive ensemble, and the sense of connection everyone builds throughout the course of the show is believable and compelling. Corpuz is a engaging as Jesus, with a strong presence and excellent voice; as is Alexandar Johnson in a dual role (or is it?) as John the Baptist/Judas. Johnson, a newcomer to SDT, is a promising talent who brings a great deal of talent and charisma to the stage. There’s also a strong supporting cast of mostly SDT “regulars”–Rachel Bailey, Sarah Gene Dowling, Stephen Henley, Laura Lee Kyro, Grace Langford, Chris Moore, Kevin O’Brien, and Dawn Schmid. With wonderful voices and energetic choreography by Sara Rae Womack, this cast makes the most of the memorable score, with especially strong moments for Dowling on “Day by Day”, Kyro on “Learn Your Lessons Well”, Langford on “All Good Gifts”, Henley on “Turn Back, O Man”, and a haunting duet for Schmid and Dowling on “By My Side”.  The build-up to the intense finale is also done well, although a sound mishap on the night I saw the show slightly undermined the intended effect, and the way the show ended could be a bit confusing in itself. 

Overall, Godspell at SDT is a fascinating exercise in concept, musicality, and movement. Even if you would prefer a more “traditional” performance of this show, there’s a lot here to think about, and a powerful emotional impact especially in second act. It’s well worth seeing, talking about, and pondering. 

Alexandar Johnson, Kevin Corpuz (center) and cast of Godspell
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Godspell at Tower Grove Abbey until August 26, 2023

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Caroline, or Change
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Directed by Brian McKinley
Choreographed by Caleb Long
Fly North Theatricals
August 30, 2023

De-Rance Blaylock, Kimmie Kidd, Kanisha Kellum
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
Fly North Theatricals

Caroline, or Change is a show I’ve known about for a long time, but had never seen. Now, Fly North Theatricals has given me, and the rest of St. Louis, the opportunity to take in this profoundly thoughtful, intensely musical show that depicts a historical reality as well as blends of fantasy and timeless messages. It’s also a remarkable showcase for its supremely talented cast. 

There is a lot going on in this story, which takes place in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963. Widowed mother Caroline Thibodeaux (De-Rance Blaylock), who is Black, is working as a maid for the Jewish Gellman family, doing laundry in their basement while 8-year-old Noah Gellman (Zoe Klevorn) hovers around trying to get her attention. Noah’s mother has died and his father, Stuart (Jordan Wolk) has recently remarried his late wife’s friend Rose (Avery Lux), who feels neglected by her still-grieving husband and struggles to gain the affection of the resentful Noah, who would rather spend time with Caroline. Caroline, for her part, struggles to support her children on her small salary, while imagining the appliances and other objects coming to life while she works. The Washing Machine (Kanisha Kellum) is seen as an ally, but the Dryer (Duane Foster) is more of a nemesis, while the Radio (Kimmie Kidd, Adrienne Spann, and Ebony Easter) offers Greek Chorus-like commentary, and the Moon (Kidd) is a mystical, comforting presence. As Caroline reflects on her past and on the changing world around her, her daughter Emmie (Kenya Nash) is responding to the world events in a different way, supporting the Civil Rights Movement and efforts for positive change in society. Speaking of change, that becomes an issue in a more literal sense, as Rose wants to teach Noah a lesson about leaving coins in his pockets when sent to be washed, and when Rose tells Caroline she can keep what she finds, this is a source of much reflection, tension, and drama. 

There’s too much happening here to explain everything, and it’s better to be seen, and heard, than simply described in a review, anyway. Other characters like Stuart’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Gellman (Ken Haller and Mara Bollini), and Rose’s father, Mr. Stopnick (Kent Coffel) also figure into the story; along with Caroline’s sons Jackie (Cameron Hadley) and Joe (Malachi Borum); and her friend Dotty (Kellum), who is attending night school at a local college. The show is mostly sung-through, with a variety of musical styles represented, including classical, gospel, folk, Jewish Klezmer music, and 1960’s Motown styles. The memorable and sometimes haunting score is a highlight, and the issues dealt with–of personal trauma, grief, the tension between the desire for change and the fear of it–set against the tumultuous backdrop of the South in the 1960s, makes for a challenging, thought-provoking musical that comes across as more of an opera at times, and makes me want to see it more than once (as well as reading the script), since the complexities and intricacies of the plot and characters are intensely fascinating and challenging. 

The superlative score and complex story are brought to life in this production by Director Brian McKinley and a truly stellar cast, led by Blaylock in a multi-layered, expertly sung performance as Caroline, whose struggles are made achingly credible. Nash is also impressive as the ambitious Emmie. There are also impressive performances from young Klevorn in a difficult role as Noah, Lux as the conflicted Rose, Wolk as the grieving Stuart; Kellum as the Washing Machine and as the determined Dotty; and Kidd, Spann, and Easter in excellent harmony as the Radio; as well as Foster, in excellent voice as the Dryer and the Bus. Everyone is strong here, with great vocals and strong, cohesive ensemble chemistry, making the most of the emotion and tension of the piece as well as its musicality. 

There are also strong production values, with the minimalist set by Caleb Long and Colin Healy, aided by Bradley Rohlf’s stunning lighting design, providing the appropriate period-specific atmosphere with a touch of fantasy. Vanessa Tabourne’s costume design and the band led by music director Healy also contribute impressively to the overall tone of the production. 

There’s a lot to say, and think, about Caroline, or Change, but the easiest thing to say about Fly North’s production is that it has to be seen. It’s a remarkable theatrical feat, with heart and emotion, as well as intense drama. It’s a strong example of the best of what theatre can do.

Cameron Hadley, Kenya Nash, Zoe Klevorn, Malachi Borum
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
Fly North Theatricals

Fly North Theatricals is presenting Caroline, or Change at the Marcelle Theatre until August 12, 2023

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Adapted from the Screenplay by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Sandy Rustin
Additional Material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price
Based on Original Direction by Casey Hushion
Directed by Steve Bebout
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2023

Cast of Clue
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

Clue is a lot of things. It’s a game, it’s a movie, and now it’s a play. It’s the first non-musical play STAGES has produced in a long time, but the way this show plays out, it’s not that much of a departure. In fact, even though it’s not a musical, with its pacing, original musical score by Michael Holland, energetic performances, and cast full of musical theatre veterans, it almost seems like one. It’s also a frantic, well-choreographed, hilarious good time at the theatre. 

If you know the board game, you know most of the characters here, and if you’ve seen the film, you know more of the characters, and the basic plot. It generally follows the plot of the film, as far as I remember, but there are some additions, and it’s all staged in an especially theatrical way, with a great deal of energy by the cast, and some impressive production values. The mansion, the weapons, the rooms, and the familiar board game characters are all here–Colonel Mustard (David Hess), Mrs. White (Tari Kelly), Mrs. Peacock (Zoe Vonder Haar), Mr. Green (Charlie Franklin), Professor Plum (Graham Stevens), and Miss Scarlet (Diana DeGarmo)–welcomed to Boddy Manor by butler Wadsworth (Mark Price) and the shady Mr. Boddy (Jeff Cummings, who plays a variety of roles). All the characters have their secrets, and a sudden murder sends them all into “mystery solving” mode while more mayhem ensues. It would spoil too much to go into too much detail, but I will say it involves a lot of well-orchestrated chaos.

It’s a good thing many of the cast members are experienced in musical theatre, because while this isn’t a musical, exactly, it’s a highly stylized staging that features lots of heavily choreographed movement, as well as some dancing and an affected “sing-song” way of speaking for some of the characters. The cast is excellent across the board, with everyone getting their moments to shine, and Price a notable standout as the fastidious, energetic Wadsworth. The ensemble chemistry is excellent, as well, with all the players previously mentioned–along with Cameron Jamarr Davis in several roles–working together with seamless efficiency and wacky comic energy. This isn’t a long play, with its one act running at roughly 80 minutes, but the cast makes the most of every minute, milking the laughs for all they are worth.

The breakneck pace of the staging is also highly dependent on the technical aspects of the production, most notably the mansion, which is essentially a character in itself. The marvelous set by Lee Savage is highly versatile and strikingly detailed, with quick set-changes and movement essential to the action of the play. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also terrific, bringing the characters from the game to life with vivid detail. There’s also stellar lighting by Sean M. Savoie and sound by Beef Gratz. 

Clue is, ultimately, a whole lot of fun. If you’re a fan of game and/or the film, it will probably be even more fun, but even if you don’t know much about either, this is simply a laugh fest from start to finish. Its almost dizzying pace adds to the laughs, as does the high-energy enthusiasm of the cast and the impressive production values. It’s a very musical “non-musical”, especially, and a hilarious success for STAGES St. Louis. 

Cast of Clue
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Clue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 20, 2023

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Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Music by Alan Menken
Based on the film by Roger Corman, Screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
July 26, 2023

Cast of Little Shop of Horrors
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s excellent 2023 season is continuing this week with the modern classic horror/comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a show I’ve seen before in various productions, including the popular 1986 film and the last Muny production in 2011. This year, the little show is bigger and bolder than ever with some truly remarkable production values, strong direction, and a first-rate cast. It’s not a large-cast show and it’s not very long in running time, but there’s a lot of talent on that huge Muny stage, and this production makes the most of the tone, setting, and excellent score.

This show brings the “Skid Row” neighborhood to the stage with flair, by means of Kristen Robinson’s well-crafted, detailed set and Greg Emetaz’s eye-catching video design. Based on a 1960s b-grade horror film, it takes us into the world of nerdy, neglected Seymour (Robin de Jesús), who works at a rundown flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Michael McGrath) and pines after his co-worker Audrey (Pattie Murin), who is in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin (Ryan Vasquez, who plays several roles). When Seymour’s new “strange and unusual plant”, that he’s dubbed Audrey II (manipulated by Ryan Patton, voiced by Nicholas Ward) starts demanding to be fed human blood, this starts a chain of events that first seem to benefit Seymour, but soon threaten him, those he loves, and eventually, the rest of the world. There’s a memorable cast of characters, an increasingly dark tone that’s alternately comic and terrifying, and a prominent Greek chorus of 1960’s styled street urchins and “girl group” singers named Crystal (Kennedy Holmes), Chiffon (Taylor Maire Daniel), and Ronnette (Stephanie Gomérez), who narrate and comment on the story. It’s a Faustian tale with a warning, as with vividly drawn characters and a memorable score well-played by the Muny Orchestra led by music director Andrew Graham. 

The staging is spectacular. This isn’t a big show, generally, but director Maggie Burrows and the excellent creative team have managed to fill that big stage with much detail and some impressive effects without losing the show’s overall spirit. In addition to the great set and video production, there are also marvelous costumes by Leon Dobkowski, along with fantastic puppet design by James Ortiz, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton. This show looks and feels just the way it should, with a few welcome surprises in staging in terms of how the plant is portrayed, that are still in keeping with the tone of the show.

The cast is still relatively small, as well, for a Muny show, with only the principals and a moderately sized Youth Ensemble, who all put in strong, energetic performances. As for the leads, everyone is doing a great job, with  de Jesús the biggest standout in an engaging, terrifically sung turn as Seymour. Holmes, Daniel, and Gomérez are also stellar as the ubiquitous Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronnette, whose singing and dancing is especially impressive. There’s also great support from Vasquez in a variety of roles, including the gleefully violent dentist Orin. Murin and McGrath are also strong as Audrey and Mushnik, and Murin’s scenes with de Jesús are compelling. And then there’s Audrey II, with truly fantastic performances by Ward on vocals and Patton manipulating the meticulously detailed, evolving puppet. This is a somewhat tricky show in terms of tone, considering it’s a comedy, but there are also some seriously dark moments. This cast gets the energy, tone, and atmosphere just right. 

The Muny is on a roll this year. 2023 marks the 20th season I’ve seen shows here, and so far, it has been the best in terms of overall quality and consistency. I have seen some great shows here, but even with its reputation for excellence, the Muny is outdoing itself this season. Little Shop of Horrors is another example of that excellence. It’s  a comedy, but with some dark and genuinely chilling moments. It’s a truly impressive feat of theatrical performance and technical wizardry.

Travis Patton, Robin de Jesús
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Little Shop of Horrors in Forest Park until July 31, 2023

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In Bloom
by Gwyneth Strope
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 21, 2023

Cast of In Bloom
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company’s second entry in its Summer New Play Festival finished up performances this past weekend. In Bloom, by Gwyneth Strope, is a thoroughly engaging, character-driven comedy-drama that has a lot of promise as a new play. At Tesseract, a likable, enthusiastic cast brought this intriguing one-act play to life with simple but effect production values. Although it’s not without its issues that need to be worked out, it’s a highly promising story and a vivid portrait of a family, their relationships, and their struggles.

The story follows divorced mother Dorothy (Christina Rios) and her four daughters who each have their own personal goals, interests, and struggles. There’s eldest Rosalind (Amy Riddle, standing in for principal Rhiannon Creighton), who wants to go to flight school and become a pilot; the creative but insecure Lorelei (Catherine Analla), who is concealing a secret; the usually quiet, empathetic Camille (Vaida Gruenloh), who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis; and the strong-willed youngest daughter, aspiring athlete Eileen (Rosario Rios-Kelley), who is suspicious of all the changes that are about to take place in her family as Camille takes it upon herself to be a matchmaker for her mother and Kevin, Eileen’s best friend’s father, who is much talked about but unseen onstage. The action begins as the family prepares to attend Dorothy’s mother’s wedding, and continues as the family deals with various issues of relationship, future aspirations, personality conflicts, and more, with a good deal of literary references and the motif of a developing garden, both literal and figurative. 

It’s a promising show, with vividly portrayed characters and believable relationships, with a bit of a resemblance to Little Women, although this is not an adaptation of that story. The casting is excellent, with all the players working together to portray a believable family dynamic, led by the excellent Rios as the loving but frequently exasperated Dorothy, and each of the daughters well-cast. Especially notable is Riddle, who had script in hand while filling in as Rosalind, but managed to give a strong, convincing performance and fit well as a member of the onstage family. The performers also managed to make the offstage characters–Kevin and his son Matt, as well as the grandmother and her new husband–seem real despite their not physically appearing.  

The pacing is excellent, as well, and the set by Brittanie Gunn and Taylor Gruenloh is simple and effective. Erin Riley’s lighting also contributes to the atmosphere well. Although there may be a bit too much going on at times, this is a relatable, intriguing story that should appeal to audiences of various ages. It’s another strong entry in Tesseract’s increasingly memorable Summer New Play Festival. 


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West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Original Jerome Robbins Choreography Reproduced by Parker Esse
The Muny
July 16, 2023

Christian Douglas, Kanisha Feliciano
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The last time I saw West Side Story onstage was at the Muny ten years ago. This classic show is unquestioningly a Muny favorite, with the  2023 production being the theatre’s ninth. I remember the previous production being particularly stellar, but I’m not going to spend time comparing, because this current production deserves to stand on its own merits. And fortunately it has a great many merits, indeed. Although it does take a little while to really get going, the end result is a powerful, heart-wrenching triumph of a production.

When I first was introduced to West Side Story as a child, in the form of the 1961 film as shown on TV, I hadn’t been aware that the story was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but now it seems that the more I see of this story–on stage or on screen–I’m reminded even more of its origins. The “star-crossed lovers”, the warring gangs/families, the excitement of young love, as well as the hatred and violence that leads to tragedy is all here, set in late 1950’s New York and focusing on a gang rivalry between recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants and the first-generation American-born descendants of European immigrants. Tony (Christian Douglas) and Maria (Kanisha Feliciano) meet and fall in love among the growing tensions between the Sharks–led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (Yurel Echezarreta), and the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend, Riff (Kyle Coffman), who won’t let former Jet Tony forget that they once led the gang together. As we get to know the characters, including Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Jerusha Cavazos) and the various gang members along with sympathetic drugstore owner Doc (Ken Page) and a collection of would-be authority figures, the tensions grow to a breaking point, leading to the inevitable tragedy for which this show and its source play are both well-known.

This show is also well-known for its timeless score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and its dynamic dancing, originally choregraphed by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the original Broadway production. The director here is Muny veteran Rob Ruggiero, and the iconic Robbins choreography is re-created by Parker Esse. There’s a great ensemble and the dancing sparkles with energy in numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “Cool”. While the energy is good in the first act, though, the show especially comes alive in the second, with the players giving their all and the bringing out the raw emotion of the piece. Douglas and Felicano make an ideal pair as Tony and Maria, with “One Hand, One Heart” especially compelling. Feliciano also has memorable scenes with the also excellent Cavazos as the strong-willed Anita. Other standouts include Coffman, who shows off his “cool” moves as Riff; as well as Echezarreta as an especially memorable Bernardo, and Muny favorite Ken Page (repeating his role from the 2013 production) in a convincing and emotionally resonant turn as Doc. It’s a great cast all around, with Jets, Sharks, and everyone else filling the stage with intense energy, impressive vocals, and that great, athletic dancing as needed. 

The look, sound and overall setting and mood are achieved with superb detail by means of Ann Beyersdorfer’s New York neon-and-fire-escape inspired set, which also utilizes the Muny’s turntable in effective ways. There’s also dynamic lighting by John Lasiter, strong video design by Shawn Duan, and marvelous costumes by Gail Baldoni. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director James Moore, is in fine form, as well, filling the Forest Park air with that glorious Bernstein score and supporting the performers with style. 

There’s no doubting that West Side Story is a legendary show. It’s also a timeless classic that continues to resonate with audiences over 65 years after its Broadway debut. The Muny also obviously loves this show, and this latest production is another example of that tradition of excellence, as well as the sheer emotional impact of this story. As before in 2013, this year’s production is also notable for the rapt silence of the audience at the end of Act 1, and this year, especially at the end of the show, after a truly powerful finale. I have no doubt the Muny will stage this show again in a few years, but now, this production is one to see, experience, and remember. 

Cast of West Side Story
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting West Side Story in Forest Park until July 21, 2023

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The One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: A Parody!
Directed by Donna Northcott
Magic Smoking Monkey Theater
July 15, 2023


Image: Magic Smoking Monkey Theater

The monkey is back, and he’s still smoking! The latest offering from St. Louis Shakespeare’s more rebellious sibling is the succinct and enthusiastically played One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: a Parody! And it’s exactly what the title describes, even down to the scarily accurate timing. It’s a fast-paced, energetic skewering of all three Star Wars films, with the running time clocking in at exactly 60 minutes, or very close. As with basically everything from this company, it’s energetic, not especially polished, and a whole lot of fun, although in this case, I think more could have been done in the way of parody. 

I don’t need to summarize the story here. If you’ve seen the Star Wars films, you know the plot. The Magic Smoking Monkey crew tells the story in a fairly straightforward way, though with exaggerated performances, much streamlining of the plot, and a few references to other films and franchises (such as Spaceballs and The Muppets) thrown in for good measure. The costuming by Emma Miller and props by Amanda Handle also contribute much to the laugh-out-loud hilarity of this show. The portrayal of R2-D2 by a plastic kitchen trash can with a swinging lid, and the Yoda/Kermit the Frog puppet (operated by Micheál Krownapple) are especially impressive. As for the cast, everyone seems to be having a great time, with standouts being Austin Cochran’s wide-eyed, just-over-the-top-enough Luke Skywalker, Mack’s earnest C3PO, Creigthton Markovitch’s swaggering Han Solo, and Nick Lane’s menacing Darth Vader. Everyone is having a great time, though, with rapid-fire jokes and good staging and pacing. 

This, like all shows from the Magic Smoking Monkey, is sure to entertain, especially if you love Star Wars. The large, enthusiastic audience at the performance I saw added much to the overall whimsical atmosphere, as well. Sometimes, I wish there were even more jokes, but what’s there is appropriately hilarious. Even if you aren’t a Star Wars geek, this is another fun parody from those familiar, crazy Monkeys. 


Magic Smoking Monkey Theater is presenting The One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: A Parody! at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center until July 23, 2023

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