Archive for the ‘St Louis Theatre’ Category

The Light
by Loy A. Webb
Directed by Kristi Papailler
The Black Rep
February 11, 2023

Alicia Revé Like, Eric J. Conners
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

It’s somewhat difficult to review the Black Rep’s latest production–not because it’s not excellent. It certainly is, with well-cast leads and a thoroughly credible, intriguing story that is meticulously constructed. The issue I’m having, though, is that describing what happens in this play seems like too much of a spoiler, since the unfolding “reveal” is the main source of the drama. I will try my best to be vague about what happens here, but what I can say unreservedly is that The Light is an excellent play, with outstanding performances. 

A lot happens in this play, especially considering how short it is–about 70 minutes, without intermission. Even with that running time, nothing in this story seems rushed. It takes its time, even to the point where for a while I was wondering why this was even a play, because for quite a while, it just seems like an “ordinary” situation–a couple celebrating their two-year dating anniversary, after Chicago firefighter Rashad (Eric J. Conners) has set up a plan to propose to Genesis (Alicia Revé Like), a school principal.  There’s a lot of wordless business about his hiding envelopes and a ring box around the apartment, and then Genesis arrives home from work and it seems like a fairly typical day, as the two talk about their day, and reminisce about their relationship. For a while, it seems like this is going to be a relatively light piece, until things get more serious in a way has the intended dramatic impact but also makes complete sense considering how the story has developed. It’s a masterful exercise in foreshadowing and deliberate dramatic build-up, with a potentially devastating impact on the characters’ lives and relationship. 

The story–which deals with some difficult subjects–is given all the more impact by the excellent performances of the two leads, who make a thoroughly believable couple and fully realized individual characters. The interplay between Like and Conners forms the heart of this play, and even when the conflict emerges and gets heated, the emotional investment is there. The clearly  established love between these two characters is so carefully built up in the first part of the play, and both Like and Conners deliver that strong sense of connection so well, it makes the latter half of the play all the more dramatically intense, leading up to a perfectly timed conclusion that leaves room for hope, even though it doesn’t provide easy answers.

This production also showcases the technical excellence of its designers, starting with Jim Burwinkel’s fully realized apartment. There are also well-suited costumes by Kristen Gray, and appropriately mood-setting lighting by Sean Savoie. The sound, by Christian Kitchens, is excellent, as well.

The Light is an appropriate title for this play, as becomes clear as the story unfolds. It’s a serious-issue play–dealing with many timely topics given a highly personal focus–but it’s not without a ray of hope. It’s another strong production from one of the most consistently excellent theatre companies in St. Louis. It’s a thoroughly compelling drama. 

Eric J. Conners, Alicia Revé Like
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The Light at Washington University’s  Hotchner Studio Theatre until February 21, 2023

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Outside Mullingar
by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2023

Colleen Backer, Jason Meyers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is gifting their audience with a sweet, offbeat romantic comedy for the Valentine’s Day season. Outside Mullingar is a small, character-driven play with much in the way of quirky comedy, as well as a good deal of heart. What makes this production work especially well, though, is its excellent cast. 

Outside Mullingar is a short play, running about 90 minutes with no intermission. It consists of a series of scenes involving four characters over a period of what appears to be about three years, as farming neighbors in rural Ireland deal with issues of land ownership, family grudges, parental expectations, and especially the relationship between a socially awkward man and the woman who grew up next door. Anthony, played by Jason Meyers, and Rosemary, played by Colleen Backer, are obviously in love, but for various reasons neither has admitted their feelings to the other. They both are objects of concern for their parents–Rosemary’s mother, the recently widowed Aoife , played by Jodi Stockton; and Anthony’s also widowed father, Tony, played by Brad Slavik. Both parents are in ill health, and Tony especially is having second thoughts about leaving the family farm to Anthony, who Tony considers odd, worrying that his son will never marry or have children to inherit the land. Much comic bickering ensues, and time passes as Rosemary continues to drop hints at a seemingly clueless Anthony. Will they ever get together, and if so, how? 

This is fun, quirky show, made all the more hilarious by the excellent pacing by director Jessa Knust, and strong chemistry and comic timing from the wonderful cast. Meyers and Backer are both superb, and their chemistry is obvious from their first moments on stage together, even as the characters continue to talk around their readily apparent attraction. Meyers makes the awkward, reticent Anthony endearing, and Backer’s increasingly frustrated and determined Rosemary is easy to sympathize with. There are spirited supporting performances from Stockton and Slavik as the bickering Aoife and Tony, with Slavik especially having some strong scenes with Meyers. All four work well together, bringing much energy to the already witty script. 

The setting, mood, and atmosphere of rural Ireland are maintained admirably by means of Jacob Winslow’s simple but effective set, as well as Karen Pierce’s evocative lighting. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes suit the characters well, and there’s also effective sound design by Morgan Maul-Smith. 

Overall, Outside Mullingar is an entertaining, sweet romantic comedy. The exceptional cast makes it an especially enjoyable theatrical experience. It’s an excellent Valentine from West End Players Guild. 

Jodi Stockton, Brad Slavik
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Outside Mullingar at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 19, 2023

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 9, 2023

Stephen Henley, Stephen Peirick, Claire Wenzel, Mara Bollini
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Who’s afraid of an acting challenge? Apparently not Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and his first rate cast in an Edward Albee classic. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is famous for its intense plot, strong characterizations, and the intensity of its performances. The roles of Martha and George, especially, have been played in various productions by a succession of acclaimed actors. Here, Bell has assembled a top-notch cast of local performers and staged a volatile, highly charged production of this portrait of troubled relationships, shattered dreams, and alcohol-fueled revelations. It may not be an easy play to watch, considering the tension and emotional fireworks, but its expertly played and a must-see for the sheer caliber of the performances. 

The basic plot, set in 1962 New England, involves middle-aged couple George (Stephen Peirick) and Martha (Mara Bollini), who have been married for over twenty years and whose relationship has become a picture of resentment, regret, and repeated exercises in mutual mocking and caustic bickering. He’s a professor at a small college, and she’s the daughter of the institution’s president. When the action begins, they’ve just returned from a party, and after some banter, Martha informs George that she has invited some guests from the party to join them for drinks–a new professor, Nick (Stephen Henley), and his wife, Honey (Claire Wenzel). Soon, the young couple arrive, and a series of emotional games ensues, challenging both relationships and resulting in a series of revealing tales and shocking discoveries. 

With its intense subject matter, not-easy-to-like characters, and over three-hour running time, this play can seem daunting to the unfamiliar. Still, even though it’s long and intense, Albee’s script is intelligent and incisive, and the roles are oft-coveted by actors. It’s a play that requires the audience to pay attention, and the script, along with the excellent performances here, make it hard to look away, even when the situations can become awkward and challenging. It also helps that this production  has set the scene so well–with a well-realized, period-appropriate set and costumes by director Bell, and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been.

The centerpiece of this production, though, is its first-rate performances and thoughtful, dynamic staging. Peirick and Bollini are well-matched as the constantly sparring George and Martha. Their chemistry is strong and credible, managing even amidst the mind games to convey the sense that this difficult marriage once had its happier, more hopeful moments. These are big personalities, but neither becomes a caricature, with Bollini communicating Martha’s sharper aspects as well as an underlying sense of sadness and regret, and Peirick matching in her in energy while also showing George’s hurt and weariness. It’s a remarkable set of performances, with strong support from Henley as the initially guarded, ambitious Nick, and Wenzel, whose initially clueless Honey masks very real regrets of her own. The interplay between all four characters provides the “action” here, and its turns halting, volatile, and emotionally devastating.

There’s a lot to think about in this play, with its boldly defined characters and explorations of societal expectations in an early 1960s academic setting, as well as its look at how years of expectations and disappointments can affect a relationship. Its themes obviously still resonate today, roughly 60 years after the play first premiered, considering how often this play has been staged over the years. Here in St. Louis, audiences are fortunate to have this first-rate production to witness. It’s a remarkable staging from Stray Dog Theatre. 

Claire Wenzel, Mara Bollini
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Tower Grove Abbey until February 25, 2023

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Side by Side by Sondheim
Directed by Reggie D. White
Choreographed by Heather Beal
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 3, 2023

Phoenix Best, Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Singlah, Amy Spanger
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Since Stephen Sondheim died in 2021, many performers and theatre companies have offered their various tributes, in the form of special performances, concerts, and productions of his shows. Now, the Rep is taking the opportunity to salute this legend of musical theatre with a somewhat understated production of the revue Side by Side by Sondheim, focusing mostly on his works up until the mid-1970s. Although this production has its moments, the performances are hit-or-miss, and it could use more energy and presence.

As narrator Alan Knoll points out early in the production, there isn’t much here in terms of a plot. Instead, the show is presented as an overview of Sondheim’s work up until about 1976, when this revue first debuted in London’s West End. in fact somewhat amusing to hear Knoll refer to 1976’s Pacific Overtures as one of Sondheim’s “later works”. Still, even with the somewhat dated elements and obvious exclusion of Sondheim’s work from the late 1970s and forward, the show as written is intriguing, and I imagine it could be a great success with more consistent performances. The cast includes late-addition Knoll, as well as performers Phoenix Best, Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Sinlah, and Amy Spanger, accompanied by Kris Pineda and Stephen A. Eros on Piano. 

The show covers Sondheim’s earlier works as a lyricist working with other composers on shows such as West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as his work as both composer and lyricist on shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, and Follies. Also featured are some more obscure songs from lesser-known works, as well as television and film. 

The staging can be inventive on occasion, featuring Heather Beal’s energetic choreography, Tre’Von Griffith’s  music direction, and a simple set featuring a screen and eye-catching projections by Camilla Tassi, and flanked by the two pianists seated at grand pianos on either side. Xavier Pierce’s atmospheric lighting also adds flair to the staging, and Sharath Patel’s sound design is proficient, although there are occasional issues with the singers’ volume. 

As for those performers,  the biggest standouts are Knoll, in a personable and occasionally hilarious turn as the Narrator, and the appropriately named Best, who delivers several memorable solos on songs such as “I’m Still Here”, “I Never Do Anything Twice”, and “Send in the Clowns”. Miller also has his moments and a strong tenor voice, but Sinlah and especially Spanger struggle to maintain energy and consistency. After a somewhat lackluster opening, there are a few memorable group numbers, including a unique staging of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy and an entertaining closing medley. It’s a fairly low-key production, and could use a little more energy in places.

Side by Side by Sondheim isn’t the spectacular tribute it could be, and I also think modern audiences might notice the lack of material from the composer’s more well-known later works like Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. Still, even though it focuses on his earlier works, this could be a much more vibrant show than the Rep has managed to produce. It’s not entirely a miss–there are certainly some memorable moments, especially from Best and Knoll, and there are some interesting bits of trivia to learn about the legendary composer and lyricist. Anyone who is a particular fan of Sondheim’s, though, might still be frustrated with the lack of energy and true sparkle.

Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Singlah, Phoenix Best, Amy Spanger
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Side by Side by Sondheim at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until February 19, 2023

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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 Micahel 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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It’s a Marvelous Life
by Rob McLemore and Jaysen Cryer
Directed by Donna Northcott
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
December 9, 2022

Cast of It’s a Marvelous Life
Photo by John Lamb
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre is St. Louis Shakespeare’s more mischievous sibling, best known for performing un-polished but hilarious parodies of well-known pop culture properties. Their latest, the cleverly titled It’s a Marvelous Life, was two spoofs in one, with a holiday theme and lots of laughs, a slapstick style, and an energetic cast performing a variety of roles. The show just finished up a two-weekend run on December 10. It was a short show, running approximately one hour, but that was plenty of time to provide loads of clever, fast-paced humor, likely to appeal most to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life

The story was inventively constructed, following all the major points of It’s a Wonderful Life while also essentially telling the story of the four “official” Avengers films. Each Marvel character had a role to fill in the source story–with Steve “Captain America” Rogers in the George Bailey role–here played by co-writer Rob McLemore in a spot-on Jimmy Stewart impression. The events were being viewed by Uatu, the Watcher (James X. Randolph) and Dr. Strange (Riley Stevenson), who took the “Clarence the Angel” role, with his reward for helping Steve being his own movie franchise instead of wings.  The story played out, hitting all the main story points of both It’s a Wonderful Life and the Avengers saga, with a good deal of inventive shoehorning to make everything fit. Mr. Potter was Thanos, Tony Stark/Iron Man was Mary Bailey (sort of), and–perhaps most hilariously–George’s Uncle Billy was the Hulk. Many Avengers showed up, too, as well as other heroes from Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and more, with the story moving at a lightning pace and several actors frequently switching roles. There were many in-jokes and meta nods along the way, with references to actors and creators providing some of the funnier jokes.

It was a great time to be had for anyone, but I thought it would especially appeal to Marvel and classic film fans. The cast was excellent, with everyone seeming to have a great time. Standouts included McLemore as the very Stewart-like Steve Rogers; Tori Stukins as a swaggering Tony Stark, Stevenson as a delightfully goofy Dr. Strange; John Fisher in a variety of roles including Kevin Feige, Red Skull, and Black Widow’s stunt double; Kim Byrnes as the villainous Thanos/Potter and Bucky Barnes; and John Waller as the smash-happy Hulk. It was a great cast all around, portraying an array of Marvel characters with madcap energy and flair.

The staging was brisk, with some jokes landing better than others, but since there were so many jokes, there were more than enough laughs to go around. The set by Ethan Dudenhoeffer was simple, colorfully painted by Brian Wasserman. The elaborate and whimsical costumes by Tracey Newcomb were a lot of fun, as well. There was also effective lighting and sound by John “JT” Taylor. 

Overall, It’s a Marvelous Life provided a simply marvelous good time. With superheroes, magic tricks, puppets, and more, there was a lot to like here. It has been another entertaining exercise in creative silliness from Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. 

This review was originally published at KDHX.

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The Fever
by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company
December 7, 2022

Kelly Ballard
Photo by Jessica Koenig
Black Mirror Theatre Company

The Fever, as currently being produced by Black Mirror Theatre Company, is an intriguing production. The play, which is written as essentially a one-person monologue, originally performed by playwright Wallace Shawn, has been expanded in an inventive way. Featuring a cast of six, the story uses it’s clever staging to drive home its unsettling, personal and political message. 

In an author’s note included in the digital program, playwright Shawn explains that this work was written to be able to be performed by anyone in various contexts, including in people’s living rooms. In this production, director Brian J. Rolf’s setup resembles a cocktail party, featuring a well-stocked bar cart, and ashtrays with cigarettes. The unnamed central figure, played by Kelly Ballard, tells the story of staying in a hotel room in a war-torn country, where she reflects on the state of society around her, and suffers from a mysterious illness. She is surrounded by the “cocktail party”, its participants (Hannah de Oliveira, Uche Ijei, Victor Mendez, Kyra Pearson, and Michael Wagner) seemingly unaware of Ballard’s existence as they banter, opine, and tell stories about their lives, focusing on the great disparity between the privileged and the poor, and reflecting on revolutionary movements and the promises of politicians regarding “gradual change”. The points are made in various ways, as the ailing protagonist is suffering a “fever dream” of sorts, and the elite partygoers range in their approaches from the smug to the fearful to the downright cruel. The “plot” is fairly basic, and the main point of this show is the message, which is deliberately designed to make audience members uncomfortable, faced with unsettling realities of the disparity of living situations around the world.

This is an intense, political and personal message, made all the more visceral in this production’s presentation. The transformation of the script from monologue to multi-character story is seamless, to the point where if I didn’t know it was written for just one actor, I wouldn’t have guessed. The “dialogue” seems natural, and the give-and-take of the conversations illustrates the message in a powerful way. All the players are excellent, as well, with Ballard giving a strong, emotional performance as the central figure battling physical illness as well as an intellectual, emotional, and mental crisis. The rest of the cast is also strong, and the flow of the conversation ranges from the arch to the smug to the intensely emotional. The pacing is deliberate, and the language is precise to the point where paying attention requires effort at times, but the presentation is duly challenging and pointed. The setup is simple and effective, with the production staged in the round, and the performance area sparsely furnished, with appropriately stark lighting by Michelle Zielinski that helps maintain the overall challenging mood of the production. 

Overall, The Fever is an effective, highly challenging production that’s sure to provoke thought and self-examination. It’s an intelligent production with impressive staging and a strong cast. It’s only running this week, so there are only a few days left to see it. It’s certainly worth checking out. 

Hannah De Olivera, Kyra Pearson, Kelly Ballard, Michael Wagner, Victor Mendez, Uche Ijei
Photo by Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting The Fever at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until December 10, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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