Feeds:
Posts
Comments

The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

The Story of My Life
Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
October 1,, 2021

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

In a season in which many local theatres are returning to live performance, it’s now New Line’s turn. For its new season opener, director Scott Miller has chosen a show that’s not “big” in the sense of being elaborate or flashy, or having a large cast, but it ends up being big in another, important way. While it may only have two cast members and a piano accompaniment, The Story of My Life is “big” in that it’s meaningful, and relatable to the audience in an especially memorable sense. 

This is simple story in its essence. Bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Jeffrey M. Wright) is trying to write the eulogy for his recently deceased childhood friend, Alvin Kelby (Chris Kernan), who “helps” Tom come to terms with his thoughts about what to write, as well as Tom’s memories and regrets concerning his relationship with Alvin, from when they first became friends in first grade, up until their last meeting shortly before Alvin’s death. Tom has a lot to think about, and Alvin appears as something of a representative of his conscience, reminding him to dig deeper into his memories and the mountain of thoughts and stories to not only remember the good times and the bad, but to discover the profound influence Alvin has had on Tom and his writing over the years. It’s a detailed reflection of an influential friendship, with memorable songs that fit into the story and help develop the characters, as we hear tales of their meeting, of Alvin’s unique personality and attachment to his family’s bookstore, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the tradition of making snow angels on Christmas day, and more, as the two boys grow up and go in different directions and even drift apart, although Tom can’t forget Alvin, and is reminded of the importance of their friendship.

One of the great things about this show is how “writer-y” it is. As a writer myself, I look at this show and see a lot of how it is constructed, even being able to predict some plot points simply based on how the story is building. While “predictable” is often seen as a bad thing, in this show it works, because the very structure of it is a reflection of the character of Tom, in whose brain the story is essentially taking place. Here, on Rob Lippert’s brilliantly realized set, Tom sits at his writer’s desk trying to compose the eulogy, but he’s constantly distracted by thoughts and memories of Albert. The piles of books and papers that cover the stage are representative of Tom’s thoughts and how he organizes them, as stories. The story builds in recognizable beats, but there is much that isn’t predictable as well, such as the unique quirks of Albert that Tom remembers, and their unique story as friends. It’s a story full of humor and heartbreak, joy and tragedy, and a testimony to the importance and influence of a good friend on a person’s life even after that friend is gone. 

In addition to the marvelous set, there’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that gives the space an ethereal quality that works especially well considering the elements of fantasy here, and the glow that surrounds Alvin in much of the show suggests a “guardian angel” quality to the character, kind of like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, who is often mentioned by Alvin. The costumes are credited to Kernan and Wright, and they have outfitted themselves ideally here, with Wright getting the “stereotypical intellectual” look with his button-down shirt and sweater vest; and Kernan clad all in white, again suggesting an angelic or ghostly quality that’s only augmented by the lighting. The staging is simple, with Lippert’s unit set and only a single piano accompaniment, by director and music director Miller. 

The performances are fantastic, as well, with the interplay between the two actors especially strong. Wright plays Tom with a somewhat stuffy quality from the beginning, and his journey as a character is evident as he interacts with Kernan’s quirky and offbeat but loving Alvin, who is there as a creature of Tom’s memory and conscience, but is embodied with much  warmth, energy and emotion by Kernan. Wright shows Tom’s growth throughout the course of the play with a great deal of credibility, and by the end it’s easy to believe the emotional journey he has taken, with the help of his memories of Alvin. Both performers are in great voice, as well, as is usual for New Line.

I think most people seeing this show will easily be able to relate to many of the issues brought up here, and specific friends and friendships. The Story of My Life is an apt title, since many of its themes are universal. At New Line, this simply staged show displays a great deal of complexity in its characters and their relationship, and even though it might not be “big” in the sense of size, it’s message is of profound importance. This is a very human show, with joy, with a very human heart. 

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Story of My Life at the Marcelle Theatre until October 23, 2021

Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 30, 2021

Jason Michael Evans, Brent Michael DiRoma, Christopher Kale Jones, Ryan Jesse
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their 2021 season, and first at their shiny new venue, with their first production of the popular “jukebox” musical Jersey Boys. This is a show that never seems to fail to please an audience, with its story following the legendary Frankie Valli and the Four Season, and its score chock full of nostalgic hit songs. It’s also a great showcase for its titular quartet, providing they have the vocals and the personality for the roles–and at STAGES, they definitely do, supported by the first-rate production values for which this company is known.

This show has one of the stronger books for this type of show–the jukebox bio-musical. The story follows the original members of the Four Seasons, who take turns narrating as the show goes on, showing their trials and tribulations as the band rises from obscurity in their working class New Jersey neighborhood to worldwide fame and fortune. We also see the flaws and foibles of the individual members, as well as their strengths, starting with ambitious, bossy guitarist Tommy DeVito (Brent Michael DiRoma), then moving on to more business-minded but initially more personally sheltered keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Ryan Jesse), to quirky bassist Nick Massi (Jason Michael Evans), and finally to probably the most well-known of the group, the gifted vocalist Frankie Valli (Christopher Kale Jones). As the band evolves from a three-man act looking for a fourth, to a world-famous quartet, to renowned lead singer and his backing band, we see the early struggles, the personal conflicts, the battling egos, the personal triumphs and tragedies, and the more and less pleasant aspects of the characters’ personalities. All along the way we hear the memorable soundtrack of hit after hit after hit, from “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ and “Working My Way Back to You”. For the most part, this is a look at four guys and their music, although some of the characters are more likable than others, but the music is legendary. 

The casting is essential in this show, especially in terms of the Four Seasons themselves, and STAGES gets it right, as all four roles are ideally cast. DiRoma, who has been in several shows at STAGES before, is in excellent form as the cocky, bossy DeVito, and Evans has some memorable moments as the more eccentric, more introverted Massi. Jesse is also a standout in an amiable performance as Gaudio, and Jones, who has played Franki Valli on tour, is simply fantastic, managing to sound a lot like the real Valli and also portray his maturing through the years in a convincing way. All four work well together, as well, with a strong vocal blend and superb ensemble chemistry. There’s also a strong ensemble to support them, led by STAGES regulars John Flack and Steve Isom, both playing various roles, as well as Edward Juvier as producer/songwriter Bob Crewe, and Jenna Coker-Jones, Sarah Ellis, and Donna Louden as various women in the Four Seasons’ lives. There’s a strong ensemble, providing support, vocals, and energetic dancing–choreographed by Dana Lewis–as well. 

The staging by director Michael Hamilton is well-paced, and the smaller venue of STAGES works especially well for the more intimate nature of the scenes in which we see the group’s “personality” developing, as well as moments in the studio and in concert. The new venue works well here, as well as providing a space for a terrific on-stage band led by musical director Jeremy Jacobs. I hope STAGES continues to feature live music in its shows now that its venue allows for it. James Wolk’s two level set, along with Brad Musgrove’s colorful period-specific costumes, and Sean M. Savoie’s striking lighting, provide just the right tone and mood for the show, as the times move forward from the 1950s to several decades following. 

Even if you’re not overly familiar with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, their story and especially their songs are memorable. In fact, the songs just might be playing in your head for a few days after seeing this crowd-pleasing production at STAGES. It’s an ideally cast, well-presented look at an important group in the history of Rock ‘n Roll. 

Cast of Jersey Boys
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Jersey Boys at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 24, 2021

Elsinore
by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield
Directed by Christopher Limber
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
September 24, 2021

Cast of Elsinore
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

Hamlet, as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, has been the subject for many treatments by other playwrights over the years. There have been parodies, sequels, re-imaginings, and more. The latest production by Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company is a prequel, called Elsinore and imagining what Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and company were doing in the years leading up to the famous tragedy. Seeing it staged in an engaging production at the Chapel over the weekend, I’m left with the thought that this is an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential if developed a little more. 

The play, written by company members David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, features many of the well-known characters from Hamlet, with a few notable additions. The two-act structure features the characters at different times in their history–with the first act taking place 15 years before the events of Hamlet, and the second act taking place in the year leading up to the start of the more famous play. In Act One, the young Prince Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) is a rebellious teenager who resents his authoritarian father, the King (John Wolbers), and prefers goofing off with his buddies Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File) or hanging out at the home of his uncle Claudius (Satterfield), who is happily married to Collette (Julie Antonic), who is expecting a child. King Hamlet is bothered that the young prince seems to favor his uncle, as well as being generally immature and not taking his role as heir to the throne seriously. Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) is also frustrated, but more at her domineering husband than at her son, who she suggests might benefit from being sent to study in Wittenberg. We also see the burgeoning romance between young Hamlet and Ophelia (Summer Baer), who has returned from an unhappy time at the royal court in France, and envies Hamlet’s opportunity to study. As the story progresses to Act 2, we get to see what all this education has done for Hamlet, as well as increasing the focus on Claudius, and his growing ambition as he serves a temporary term as regent while his brother is ill. Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows where the story is going, but the mystery concerns how events develop to that point, as tensions increase and scenes begin to parallel and foreshadow events in Shakespeare’s story. 

For the most part, playwrights Nonemaker (who also plays Polonius here) and Satterfield have constructed a compelling backstory for Hamlet, Claudius and company, with some clever nods to its inspiration as well as intriguing developments of the characters. There are a few things that could be worked on, though, as the second act is a bit long, and there’s a little too much “quoting” of the “parent play”. Also, the King Hamlet character comes across as one-dimensional much of the time, despite a strong effort from the consistently excellent Wolbers. The cast, made up of a mixture of Prison Performing Arts program alumni, professional and student actors, is strong, for the most part, as well. Satterfield as Claudius has perhaps the largest part, and his journey as a character increases in power as the story goes on. There are standout performances from File in a dual role as Guildenstern and as “Young Claudius” (son of the elder Claudius), Lawson-Maeske as Rosencrantz and Horatio, and Antonic as the sweet-natured  Collette; with fine performances across the board from the rest of the cast. The biggest standouts, though, are Bacus as the initially wild but gradually maturing young Hamlet and Baer as a witty, sort of feminist Ophelia. The scenes between these two are the true highlight of this production, and their chemistry is electric. Every moment they are onstage together is a delight. There were times I wished the whole play was about them, although knowing where their story is going to lead adds poignancy to these scenes, and the developing story of how Claudius becomes who he is in Hamlet is also intriguing. 

The staging is fairly simple, with a static set that consists of two thrones backed by flags. Erik Kuhn’s lighting helps set the mood, especially as the sense of mystery grows in the second act. There are also excellent, detailed costumes by Liz Henning and crisp, clear sound by Ellie Schwetye, with the technical elements working together well to help this production maintain a consistent look and tone.

Overall, Elsinore strikes me as a promising play that, with a little more development, could potentially be produced by other companies, as suggested by director Christopher Limber in his notes in the program. As produced at the Chapel by the PPA Alumni Theatre Company, it’s a thought-provoking production with an energetic cast. It’s a compelling look at what could have happened before the tragic events of one of the world’s most well-known works of theatre. 

John Wolbers, Oliver Bacus
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

 

The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee and
The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2021

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are two of the most celebrated playwrights of the of the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Their work is often performed and reviewed, and has influenced many great playwrights that have followed. Now at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, two of the writers’ more influential early works, both two character plays, are being featured with the same two actors in both plays. Albee’s The Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are both important plays in the history of theatre, and as shown at STLAS, they are both still powerful, thought-provoking works that serve as excellent showcases for actors. 

Presenting these plays in this manner makes for an excellent way to challenge the actors in their versatility, as William Roth and Joel Moses each play contrasting roles in the two different plays. In The Zoo Story, Roth is Peter, a mild-mannered family man who is enjoying a quiet afternoon reading on a bench in Central Park, when he is suddenly approached by Jerry (Moses), a much more confrontational character who does most of the talking, as he announces he has been to the zoo and then takes a roundabout way of telling the story of why, revealing much about his character and background in the process, as he openly challenges Peter’s more “status quo” lifestyle. Here, Jerry is essentially in control for most of the proceedings, and the play is a challenge for both actors in different ways, as Jerry is very active and loud, while Peter doesn’t speak through much of the story, and Roth is forced to sit there and react to this increasingly uncomfortable invasion of his personal space. Both actors do an excellent job here, with Moses bringing much emotion and humanity to the confrontational Jerry, and Roth giving something of a master class in “reaction acting”, as both characters display a strong sense of increasingly combative chemistry. It’s a challenging play–not out of the ordinary for modern audiences, but especially controversial in its day, as director Wayne Salomon points out in his note in the program. 

The director’s comment also applies to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is from the same era as The Zoo Story, but has a British setting, and this time the two actors take markedly different roles, as two hit men who are waiting in a windowless basement room for a call about their next assignment. Here, Moses plays Gus, the younger, more reticent hit man, while Roth is the more commanding “senior partner”, Ben. Like The Zoo Story, this play also focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters, with one seeming to be more in control than the other. Here, though, the location is also a “character”, in a way, as the titular dumbwaiter seems to have a mind of its own, serving as the instrument for communication (along with a snake-like “speaking tube”) between the main characters and some unseen “others” who keep sending food orders like they are in a restaurant. The dumbwaiter is also prone to opening and–startlingly–slamming shut at unannounced moments, providing a strong source of tension in the play. The performances here are first-rate, as well, with Moses impressive as the more naive, nervous Gus and Roth excellent as the gruff, more businesslike Ben, who is in for some surprises of his own as the play leads to a somewhat surprising, abrupt end.

To echo Salomon’s comments in the director’s note, neither of these plays should be unusually “shocking” for a modern audience, as this sort of grittiness has become much more commonplace in theatre. Still, the sense of character and storytelling is sharp in both, and each is memorable and thought-provoking in its own right. The productions here are well-paced and dynamic, with a strong sense of ensemble chemistry between the two actors, and good technical elements, as well, including especially impressive work from set designer Patrick Huber in producing two very different settings for the plays–as backdrops and a bench provide the park setting for The Zoo Story, and these later give way to the stark, grimy basement setting of The Dumb Waiter. Huber’s lighting design is also effective, as  are Teresa Doggett’s meticulous costumes. 

It’s intriguing to see these two one act plays by different, important playwrights presented this way. Using the same actors in both plays allows both to show more of their range, and allowing the audience to see both plays together allows for comparing and contrasting and getting a direct display of the early foundations of modern theatre. These are plays you may have heard about, or read, or seen in separate productions, but here STLAS is providing an ideal opportunity to see them together. It’s an impressive return to the stage for this local company.

 

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter at the Gaslight Theater until October 3, 2021

Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

Bloomsday
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
September 16, 2021

John Moore, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild has joined the numerous other St. Louis theatre companies in returning to the stage for its first live production since early in 2020. Their production of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday was originally planned for that earlier season, and its staging now is especially welcome, being a pleasant, intriguing romantic comedy that plays with the convention of time, featuring an engaging cast and a simple but especially effective set that evokes its Dublin location in an elegant manner.

Of all the “time travel” type stories I’ve seen (and there are many), this one seems to be less “sci-fi” focused than most, in that the time-twisting is treated as a given, and can also be seen more as a metaphor than as literal, for the most part. The setup has Robert (Jeff Lovell), an American college professor, narrating the story as Caithleen (Megan Wiegert), a young Irish tour guide, begins the introduction to her tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin”, which is focused on Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. At first, it appears as if Robert is narrating a memory from 35 years previous, but then as he starts actually talking to Caithleen and seeming to know things that, from her perspective, he shouldn’t know, the story turns into something different. Later, we meet Robbie (John Moore)–a young American tourist who goes on Caithleen’s tour–and Cait (Colleen Heneghan)–an older, world-weary woman who knows a lot about Caithleen’s past, present, and future. Caithleen, for her part, soon realizes what is happening, as it reminds her of something that happened to her mother–although Robbie remains clueless. Overall, the story plays out as a character study and a meditation of the nature of regret, and how sometimes simple, brief events can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a warm, thoughtful tone to much of the story, and a light humor that is punctuated with moments of poignancy that adds impact to the play, and for me, it works a lot better than another Dietz play, This Random World, that was also staged at WEPG a few years ago. Where that play often seemed like it was toying with the audience for the sake of being clever, this one speaks more to a universal condition to which I think a lot of viewers can relate, and that’s the idea of “what if?” Or more precisely, “what would my life be like if I had done this one thing differently?” That idea has been explored in different ways in other works in more elaborate ways–like in the musical If/Then, for instance, but here the emphasis isn’t as much on the structure or the concept but on the characters themselves, and their interactions. 

It’s the characters that make this play more than the concept, and the performances here breath credible life into those characters. The chemistry in their interactions is also strong and palpable, whether its between the older Robert and Cait, the younger Robbie and Caithleen, or any combination of the four. Lovell as Robert manages to combine cynicism and a reflection of youthful idealism especially well, and Wiegert’s strong-willed but wary Caithleen is also excellent, as are Moore as the captivated and increasingly confused Robbie, and Heneghan as the regretful but still energetic and hopeful Cait. There are many excellent moments between all four of these characters, and these make the show especially memorable. A little bit of knowledge about Dublin and Joyce helps, as well, but the play provides enough information to enjoy it no matter what your level of experience with those subjects may be.

Another factor that adds to the overall atmosphere of this production is the simple but vivid set painting by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith. There isn’t a lot of set; it’s mostly only furniture that’s moved around as needed, with the setting provided by an excellent, seemingly three-dimensional backdrop painting that evokes the Dublin setting remarkably well. Played out against this backdrop, the Irish setting comes to life with style. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, in outfitting the characters to reflect their personalities. Jacob Winslow’s lighting, Ted Drury’s sound design, and Jackie Aumer’s props also contribute well to the overall effect of the play.

Overall, Bloomsday is a welcome return for West End Players Guild. Whether you have been to Dublin, read Ulysses or not, it’s an especially relatable trip through time, space, and memory, examining how events can effect people in ways that won’t leave them even years after the fact. Here played out by an excellent cast against a vivid backdrop, it’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

John Moore, Colleen Heneghan, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Bloomsday at Union Avenue Christian Church until September 26, 2021

Sweat
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 11, 2021

Poster Image: The Black Rep

The Black Rep has returned to live performance with the thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage.  It’s a dynamic return for a theatre company that has been known for its excellence. The Black Rep maintains that reputation with a well-cast, impeccably paced production that focuses on issues of economic, class and racial tensions that were relevant in the time period in which the play is set, and that still resonate today. 

The story is told in flashback, starting out in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Don McClendon) is taking turns to interview two young men who have just been released after serving several years in prison. Jason (Franklin Killian) and Chris (Brian McKinley) both allude to something “bad” that they did that led to their conviction, but they are vague. It’s also clear that the two used to be close friends, but they are awkward now about having accidentally run into one another in town. The setting then shifts to eight years earlier, in early 2000, at a bar in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, frequented by workers from a local factory. Three friends and factory co-workers, Cynthia (Velma Austin), Tracey (Amy Loui), and Jessie (Kelly Howe), celebrate Tracey’s birthday and banter with the bartender, Stan (Blake Anthony Edwards), and in a series of subsequent scenes we get to know the characters and their situations, including the younger Jason and Chris, who also work  at the factory.  Gradually and deliberately, a story emerges from these vignettes, as the factory management looks for ways to cut costs, the workers feel the stress of wondering about job security, and Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position at the factory.

We see the expected worker-management suspicion, as well as racial tensions come to the surface threatening the friendships among the characters. Tracey and Jessie, as well as Tracey’s son Jason, are white, along with Stan, who tries to be the mediator and peacemaker in the various situations. Cynthia and her  estranged husband Brucie (A.C. Smith), along with their son Chris, are Black, and are starting to see some resentment from their longtime friends, and especially Tracey. There’s also Oscar (Gregory Almanza), the Colombian-American bar assistant who shows Tracey a Spanish-language job poster from the factory looking to hire workers at a lower rate, which had been posted at the Latin Community Center and leads to further tensions among the characters, as hostility rises against Oscar, who has  been seen as an outsider even though he was born and raised in the area, as well. We also see some of the effects of the management’s treatment of its workers, as well as that of other factories with similar issues, on its workers, as both Brucie and Jessie deal with addiction in their own ways, and others indulge in dreams of “getting out” while some try to hold onto past family traditions and the way things had been for many years. In the midst of this, we see the foreshadowing and increasing buildup to the incident that Jason and Chris allude to in the introductory scenes–and when the moment arrives, it’s shocking in both its brutality and its sheer sense of realism. 

The play is well-constructed, as is expected for playwright Nottage, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking plays are duly celebrated. There’s also a good use of period newscasts and topical references to help set the events in their time as well as suggest a climate of tension across the country that’s not only being felt in this one town. The staging is dynamic and well-paced by director Ron Himes, and the atmosphere is well-maintained with a detailed, realistic set by Tim Jones, evocative lighting by John D. Alexander, clear sound by Kareem Deanes, and excellent costume design by Hali Liles. This setting seems like a real bar that anyone could just walk into and order a drink, and these characters and situations are immediate and believable.

The credibility of the characters is due to the combination of the strong script and the superb performances of the well-chosen cast at the Black Rep. As central figures Cynthia and Tracey, both Austin and Loui convey the complexity of their characters especially well, with a strong sense of history between the characters, and Loui especially manages to keep Tracey interesting even as her character becomes more difficult to like. There’s also a strong, anchoring performance from Edwards as the affable, world-weary bartender Stan. Killian and McKinley are also outstanding playing Jason and Chris as both their younger, more idealistic characters and the characters they become later. Almanza is effective as the determined Oscar, as well, as are Smith as the needy Brucie, Howe as the occasionally snarky Jessie, and McClendon in a small but memorable role as parole officer Evan. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry that helps to drive the drama and relatability of the play. 

Sweat is a play that succeeds on many levels, as is fitting for a Pulitzer Prize winner. At the Black Rep, the company has staged a profoundly provocative show that is sure to make audiences think, which is important in a world in which issues such as these are increasingly timely. It’s a first-rate, remarkable production. 

The Black Rep is presenting SWEAT at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 26, 2021

Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 30, 2021

J. Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s 103rd season in Forest Park is closing out in style with a bold, brassy production of the modern classic musical Chicago. Initially appearing on Broadway in 1975 and eventually spawning an enormously popular 1990’s revival and an Oscar-winning movie in 2003, the show is an incisive satire of the 1920s and “celebrity culture” in America in general. Here, with excellent casting, intelligent staging, and vibrant choreography, the show is nothing short of fantastic. 

This isn’t the minimalist, concert-style revival version that has been playing on Broadway since 1996. This is a fully staged, sumptuously appointed and precisely choreographed production that tells its story in a Vaudeville format, which is fitting for the subject matter, and time period (the 1920’s), as some enterprising women look for fame and fortune in a society where if they are famous enough, they can get away with murder. That is what Roxie Hart (Sarah Bowden) and Velma Kelly (J. Harrison Ghee), aspire to do, with the help of smooth-talking celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (James T. Lane). As the story gets started, Roxie kills her lover in cold blood and initially convinces her neglected but devoted husband Amos (Adam Heller) to take the blame. When that doesn’t work, she confesses and is taken to jail, where she meets Velma and the two become rivals for the attention of the public and the press. The events unfold in the style of an old-fashioned Vaudeville show, with each number given an introduction in that vein. 

The score is well-known, with memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Razzle Dazzle”, and “Nowadays”. The Muny’s well-chosen cast performs those numbers and more with the appropriate style and energy. And it’s a truly remarkable cast, led by the fantastic duo of Bowden and Ghee.  Bowden, as the fame-hungry Roxie, has a great voice, excellent comic timing, and impressive dance skills, also imbuing Roxie with a palpable sense of needy ambition, excelling in the show’s darker moments as well as its more humorous aspects. Ghee–who was last seen at the Muny in a marvelous performance as Lola in Kinky Boots–is also superb as show-biz veteran Velma, who has killed her husband and sister in a crime of passion. Ghee’s Velma, physically towering over the rest of the cast (complete with stiletto heels), exudes stage presence and style, lighting up the stage from the first moments of “All That Jazz”. These two performers are the stars of the show, but the supporting cast also shines brightly, with Lane exuding showmanship as the attention-loving Billy; Heller in a poignant performance as the often overlooked Amos; Ali Ewoldt in an impressively sung performance as radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Also notable is the terrific Emily Skinner, who brings a lot of energy and character to the role of prison matron “Mama” Morton, pairing especially well with Ghee in several moments. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, livening up the stage especially in the Charleston-inspired dance numbers and the electrifying “Cell Block Tango”, skillfully choreographed by director Denis Jones. 

This is a great-looking show, as well, with a jaw-droppingly vivid set by Tim Mackabee that makes excellent use of the Muny’s newly rebuilt stage and all its technical resources. An old-fashioned stage setup is featured, flanked by the leaning Chicago skyline and a a versatile set that changes as needed from nightclub to prison cell to courtroom, The Muny’s video screens are put to good use, with eye-catching video design by Shawn Duan that provides “curtains” for the Vaudeville stage, as well as fitting backdrops for many of the production numbers. There’s also dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and impeccable and colorful period costumes by Emily Rebholz. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Charlie Alterman, plays the bold, jazzy score with exuberant energy.

Chicago isn’t just a flashy show full of memorable music. It’s a sharp satire, with some genuine darkness amidst the glitz, and this production brings all the essential elements of the show into sharp focus, with perfectly pitched direction and an ideal cast. It may be set in the 1920’s, but it has a lot to say about today’s America, as well. It’s a “grown up” show for a grown up audience, and its as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. This is a brilliant production, showing that the Muny, after a memorable season, has saved its best for last. 

Cast and set of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until September 5, 2021

You Lied to Me About Centralia
by John Guare
Directed by Rayme Cornell
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 22, 2021

In the same weekend that the Tennessee Williams Festival has premiered it’s excellent, site-focused outdoor production of The Glass Menagerie, they’ve also staged a much shorter companion piece featuring one of the characters featured in Williams’s classic play. You Lied to Me About Centralia is a short play–running about 20 minutes–and the tone is much more wryly comic than the headlining show–but celebrated playwright John Guare’s examination of these characters and their situation adds much to think about concerning Williams’s work as well as the ways individuals allow themselves to be influenced by others.

Guare’s one-act is based more directly on Williams’s short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”, which was a predecessor of The Glass Menagerie. Still, the story is similar enough, and the character of Jim O’Connor (Chauncy Thomas) is essentially the same, especially at TWFSTL considering that he’s played by the same actor in both productions. Thomas is joined here by Julia Crump as Jim’s fiancee, Betty, who was mentioned by name but does not appear in The Glass Menagerie. In that play, Jim mentioned that he had to pick Betty up at the train depot after her trip to visit a sick aunt in Centralia. This play–which gets its title from its first line of dialogue–imagines that meeting, and Guare’s depiction of events suggests aspects of Jim’s character–and especially Betty’s–that Williams hadn’t portrayed. 

Here. Betty hadn’t been visiting an ailing aunt–she’d been to see a rich uncle in Granite City instead, with the idea of trying to get “Uncle Clyde” to give her money to buy a house. Jim is initially upset by the deception, but his affable personality allows him to gloss it over, although we also get to see how Betty’s influence–and that of their more “socially acceptable” friends–affects how Jim tells the story of his dinner date with the Wingfields. Betty’s own prejudices also surface when we hear her account of finally meeting her uncle, who had given a different impression of himself in his letters; and her comparisons of her uncle to Tom Wingfield reveal aspects of her character that lie beneath her well put-together, seemingly bubbly surface. The relationship dynamics here are fascinating to watch, and although the tone is largely comic, there’s a tragic aspect here, as we see how Jim responds to her teasing by telling her what she wants to hear. The play serves as not only a character study, but as an examination of social norms at the time, and of the concept of socially enforced conformity. 

The performances are strong, with Thomas getting to show a different side to this character he has already played in a different context, and Crump displaying a strong sense of presence and influence. Both performers work well together, displaying good comic timing and chemistry. The staging is simple and also excellent, as the action plays out on a minimal set (just a bench) on the same stage as The Glass Menagerie, which serves as an intriguing echo since we are now getting to see another look at one of that play’s memorable characters. It’s another memorable moment from the still relatively new, but always excellent, Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.