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

Tanya Bardgley, Deb Dennert
Photo: First Run Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

Deb Dennert, Tyson Cole
Photo: First Run Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally published at KDHX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally published at KDHX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barefoot in the Park
by Neil Simon
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
October 27, 2022

Luis Aguilar, Rhiannon Creighton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Barefoot in the Park is one of celebrated playwright Neil Simon’s earlier works, first having been staged on Broadway in 1963, starring a young Robert Redford, who later starred in the 1967 film adaptation opposite Jane Fonda. Moonstone Theatre Company has chosen to set their season opening production in 1966, perhaps to take advantage of the late 1960s style trends, and this production certainly achieves an eye-catching aesthetic. It also features some winning performances and well-paced direction by Sharon Hunter, highlighting the more timeless elements of the play’s appeal, although the age of this script does show through in places.

This is one of those shows that, while contemporary in its time, only works as a period piece today. The 1960s setting is one of the highlights of this production, but it also highlights the changing times, including views of marriage, relationships, and perceptions of age and gender roles. The story focuses around young newlyweds Corie (Rhiannion Creighton) and Paul (Luis Aguilar), who have just come from their honeymoon to settle into a small, fifth-floor walkup apartment in New York City. Although they are still in the flush of “young love”, these two are very different in terms of personality. Corie is impulsive, vivacious, and upbeat, always looking for a new adventure in life. Young lawyer Paul, on the other hand, is more conventional, and wary of Corie’s more outgoing, quirky ways. Still, they’re obviously in love, and excited about beginning their life together, until a series of interactions calls both to question whether or not they should even be together. This is a Neil Simon comedy, so the complications tend toward the madcap rather than the introspective, and hilarious characters and situations are the focus. First, there’s Corie’s mother, Ethel (Jilane Klaus), who personality-wise seems to have more in common with her new son-in-law than her daughter. Ethel, who voices her support for the new couple, is also obviously concerned and has the tendency to want to meddle. She’s also lonely, set in her ways, and (*gasp*) 50(!), so Corie is determined to inject some excitement into her mother’s life by introducing her to their worldly, eccentric upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco (TJ Lancaster), who proves to be charming and affably wacky. Naturally, hijinks ensue, leading to the young couple’s questioning their own relationship and their attitudes toward one another and life in general. 

The show is certainly funny, and the characters and situations are never dull, especially with the excellent performances and brisk staging. Still, there are some creaky elements to the script that make it obvious how much society has changed in the past six decades. First, although both Corie and Paul learn about compromise in relationships, the major “weight” of the self-reflection is given to Corie, with elements of the old “change to keep your man” theme. Also, the attitudes toward aging, and  how people age 50+ (especially women) are perceived and expected to behave, is especially jarring. Still, there is a lot to like here, as well, and a lot of the themes are still as relatable today as they were 60 years ago.

For this production, the vibrancy comes from the excellent, very period-focused atmosphere as well as the wonderful cast. Dunsi Dai’s colorful, detailed set is a mid-century marvel, as are Michele Siler’s character-appropriate costumes, Michael Sullivan’s atmospheric lighting and Amanda Werre’s excellent sound design. The period-specific music played before the show and during the two intermissions also highlights the 1960s mood. 

As for that wonderful cast, everyone is strong, with a cohesive ensemble chemistry and excellent comic timing. Creighton as the energetic Corie and Aguilar as the more reserved Paul make a memorable pair, making the somewhat rocky arc of their relationship believable. Klaus is also strong as Ethel, who undergoes a believable transformation of sorts aided by the hilarious Lancaster, who gives a charming, scene-stealing performance as Victor. There are also excellent featured performances from Chuck Brinkley as a telephone repairman and Bob Harvey as a delivery guy. 

Overall, Moonstone’s Barefoot in the Park is a brightly atmospheric trip into the 1960s, and a fun look at how contrasting personalities and outlooks on life can influence relationships. It does have its share of dated elements, but this production, featuring its great cast and memorable aesthetic, is ultimately fun, funny, and heartwarming. It’s an entertaining opening for Moonstone’s new season.  

TJ Lancaster, Jilanne Klaus, Luis Aguilar, Rhiannon Creighton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Barefoot in the Park at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until November 13, 2022

Roll With It!
by Katie Rodriguez Banister and Michelle Zielinski
Directed by J. Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
October 13, 2022

Kate Rodrigquez Banister, Hannah “Mo” Moellering
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company has returned to the stage with a world premiere production starring and co-authored by its subject. Roll With It! is a highly personal look at writer, speaker, and disability activist Katie Rodriguez Banister’s life and relationships with family, friends, the world, and herself. It’s an inventively staged production that tells a fascinating story, even if it could use a little bit of editing. 

The stars of this production are unquestionably Banister, who plays herself and co-wrote the script with Michelle Zielinski, and Hannah Geisz, who plays Katie Before the Accident, who sticks around with Katie while her life story plays out in the form of vignettes, flashbacks, and commentary. The car accident that changed Katie’s life and left her paralyzed from the chest down is the major inciting incident, but the main subject is Katie herself, as she learns to deal with her own issues not just stemming from the accident, but also relating to her relationship with her parents, her own self-image, and more. The play also recounts her recovery from the accident, her lawsuit of the company that made the car she was riding in on that fateful day, her involvement in theatre and in disability education and activism, and her meeting the man who would eventually become her husband–Steve Banister, played by Tyler Gotsis. Ultimately, though, the story is about Katie coming to terms with herself, and learning to accept the earlier version of herself along with who she becomes. This aspect is inventively portrayed through the device of having two “Katies” who not only act out events as they happened, but who also directly interact with one another, wrestling with their issues in a visual, visceral way that forms most of the compelling drama, and humor, in this production.

The two main performers are both excellent, portraying a full range of emotions and interacting with energy, intensity, and credible emotion. They are supported by an ensemble of supporting players (Kelly Ballard, Dennis Calvin, Gotsis, Kristen Hayes, Hannah “Mo” Moellering”, Claire Sackman, Luke Steffen, and Rob Tierney), who each play a variety of roles including friends, colleagues, family, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and more as Katie’s story plays out in a series of scenes. For the most part, the staging is compelling, although there are some uneven moments, and a few “backstory” moments that could be explained more clearly. Still, Banister’s story is fascinating and compelling, and this play reflects that reality well.

Technically, it’s a simply staged show with some memorable projections by director J. Michelle Rebollo, as well as excellent lighting by Ryan Luedloff and sound design by Banister and Rebollo. Overall, Roll With It! is a promising new work that features a pair of impressive performances and tells a remarkable and fascinating true life story. 

Hannah Geisz, Katie Rodriguez Banister, Tyler Gotsis
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting Roll With It! at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until October 23, 2022

This review was originally written for KDHX

Music. Lyrics, and Book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed and Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Choreographed by David Neumann
The Fox Theatre
October 11, 2022

Hannah Whitley, Matthew Patrick Quinn, Nathan Lee Graham, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Cast and Musicians of Hadestown
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Hadestown North American Tour

Hadestown, the Tony-winning Broadway musical, is now onstage at the Fox. I’m happy to be able to see it again, having seen it in New York three years ago. I loved it then, and was looking forward to seeing the tour and seeing if it’s as impressive as it was on Broadway. I’m glad to report that it’s a wonderful production, with a few necessary set and staging adaptations, but still with stunning production values and a great, Broadway-caliber cast. 

The story is adapted from Greek mythology, set in a nebulous time and place reminiscent of the Depression-era USA. Featuring a primarily folk/folk-rock/jazz/blues score by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, the show took a long road to the Broadway stage, starting out with small productions in New England, and eventually to a concept album, then an Off-Broadway run and stops in Edmonton and London’s National Theatre before finally arriving on Broadway and winning several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  The story features several figures from Greek legend, including the god Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), who narrates the story, and Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn), who rules over an industrial underworld known as Hadestown, and whose marriage to Persephone (Shea Renne on Opening Night, understudying principal Maria-Christina Oliveras) has become rocky, affecting the normal progression of the seasons and causing much consternation in the world above. The main focus, though, is on the relationship of earnest young poet/singer Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma), and the world-weary Eurydice (Hannah Whitley), whose story is compelling even when you do know how it turns out. The story is also engaging in the way it incorporates the excellent band into the action, as well as the ensemble and notably the enigmatic Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, Nyla Watson), who are a constant presence throughout. 

The cast for this tour is terrific, even considering it is not the original touring cast. The level of excellence here is impressive. Graham, as narrator/mentor figure Hermes, is dynamic and in great voice, with a vibrant physicality. Ihuoma and Whitley are also standouts, with their strong chemistry and compelling performances and vocals. Quinn makes a suitably menacing Hades, working well with Renne, who gives an impressively complex performance as Persephone. Kempf, Moyono, and Watson display strong presence and vocals as the Fates, and the ensemble is strong in support. This is a first-rate production from start to finish, performing David Neumann’s strikingly inventive choreography with energy and power, and effectively carrying the intensity and emotion of the story.

In a technical sense, the production dazzles just as much as it did in New York, with some impressive adaptations to Rachel Hauck’s eye-catching set design so that it works better on tour. Most notably, the lift in the middle of the stage has been replaced by big “elevator” doors that suggest movement between the “up” and “down” worlds more than directly showing it. The lighting by Bradley King is also stunning, as are the meticulously detailed costumes by Michael Krass. The staging is thoroughly thrilling, keeping up a pace that fits the rhythm and mood of the score, as well as the intensity, heart, and occasional humor of the story. 

Hadestown is one of my favorite recent musicals, and I’m glad its touring production is so strong. It helps a little in following the story if you know at least a little about Greek mythology, but you don’t have to know all the details to enjoy this wonderfully original take on an oft-told legend. It’s hauntingly intense, marvelously cast, and thrillingly energetic. It’s a remarkable production.

Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Matthew Patrick Quinn, and Cast of Hadestown
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Hadestown North American Tour

The North American Tour of Hadestown is playing at the Fox Theatre until October 23, 2022

St. Louis Woman
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
October 9, 2022

The Midnight Company’s latest production, St. Louis Woman, is more of a revue than a play. Written by the company’s artistic director Joe Hanrahan, the show features a dynamic central performance by a talented singer backed by first-rate musicians, and features an illuminating backdrop of projections that illustrate the stories well. The show tells the stories of St. Louis women in music and the arts, with a variety of songs, dancing, and informative narration.

St. Louis Woman is a one-woman show starring locally-based singer/songwriter and cabaret performer LAKA, who narrates the history of women–particularly Black women–in the arts in St. Louis from the late 19th Century until the present day. She starts out telling the stories behind the classic songs “Frankie and Johnny” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, singing the songs with style and power. Then, the story turns to individual performers and a variety of musical styles, from Willie Mae Ford Smith’s gospel music to the soul and R&B sounds of Fontella Bass and Ann Peebles. There are also sections about dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham and writer Maya Angelou. The biggest featured segments, however, are those centered around legendary singer and cabaret performer Josephine Baker, and Rock/Pop/R&B icon Tina Turner. The performance is a lesson in history as well as a celebration of the work of these celebrated artists, introduced and performed with memorable and versatile style by LAKA.

The main reason to see this production is undoubtedly its leading performer, as well as the superb backing musicians, music director Corey Patterson on keyboards and Gabe Bonfili on percussion. LAKA is notable for her remarkable versatility as she manages various styles from Jazz, to pop, to gospel, to R&B, to rock n’ roll, with excellent power and presence, managing to sing in the styles of the performers she portrays with expert skill, in marvelous tribute to these legendary performers. Acting-wise, she seems a little more uneasy at times, although she also has moments of excellence, especially in the Tina Turner sequence. 

The show itself is highly informative and fascinating, for the most part, although some of the segments are dragged out a little too much, and sometimes it seems more like a series of disjointed vignettes than a cohesive show. The transitions (in which LAKA changes costumes) can be overly long as well, although the musicians and Michael Musgrave-Perkins’s eye-catching projections do help maintain interest in these moments. Visually, it’s an enjoyable show in terms of those wonderful projections of historical photos, and the detailed costumes by Liz Henning, along with Tony Anselmo’s evocative lighting.

Overall, I would say that St. Louis Woman is an entertaining and informative production, covering the important St. Louis music and art and the women who made an impact on this city, and on the world. Although there are a few rough edges, it’s still a memorable, well-performed production featuring an immensely talented performer. LAKA gives this performance her all, and her voice, versatility, and enthusiasm are great reasons to see this show.

Photo: The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting St. Louis Woman at the .ZACK Theatre until October 22, 2022 

by Steven Dietz
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
October 8, 2022

William Roth, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I’ve sometimes thought that if I were ever to write my memoirs, they would have to be at least partially fictionalized. Since life is rarely as dramatic as literature, at least a little embellishment would be necessary in telling my life story. Also, there are real people involved in my story, and I don’t own their lives, so fudging to protect privacy would also be needed. In addition to these reasons, imagining what could have happened is often easier, more fun, and sometimes less painful than remembering what really happened. These ideas–of truth vs. fiction in telling our stories and those of others we know–are dealt with in intriguing, highly personal detail in Steven Dietz’s relationship drama Fiction, which explores the marriage of two writers who, upon being faced with mortality, are forced to confront their own secrets, mysteries, and realities in their relationship and in their writings. 

The story begins mid-conversation in a café in Paris, where Michael Waterman–played by William Roth, and Linda, played by Lizi Watt–are arguing about music. It’s a conversation that establishes the characters’ personalities to a degree, and we see the good-natured banter and obvious affection between them. Then, the story flashes forward to the present, in which Michael and Linda are both well-known authors who have been married for 20 years. Linda, who lives in the shadow of her more famous husband and the memory of her celebrated first novel, teaches a college writing class. Michael churns out a series of best-selling novels that keep getting made into movies. They have their concerns and regrets, but they know each other well, and they’re happy. That is, they’re happy until Linda gets diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and is given just weeks to live. In the midst of the pending grief, Linda tells Michael she wants him to read her journals after she dies, and requests to read his. Michael is hesitant, but eventually agrees, and as they say, the plot thickens, as the years and years of diaries contain secrets that Michael hasn’t told Linda, involving a young woman that he met at a writers’ colony–Abby, played by Bryn McLaughlin. It may appear obvious where this story is going, and in a way, that is where it goes, but in a much bigger way, this story leads back to something less obvious and potentially more devastating. It’s a story that challenges not only the Watermans’ relationship, but also their identities as writers, and the very ideas of truth and fiction in their lives, as these concepts blend together in mysterious and occasionally confusing ways, leading to some startling revelations and a conclusion that brings the story back to where it began, with a degree of resonance concerning what is to come for the young, unwitting couple. 

I’ve seen a few plays by Steven Dietz, and I think this is most well-constructed, although the characters are hard to like at times–especially Michael. Still, Roth manages to infuse him with enough charm that, as blustery and self-important as he can be, I can understand the connection between him and Linda. Linda, for her part, is much more likable at first, and Watt conveys such an earnestness in her portrayal that makes later revelations all the more surprising. It’s a rich, nuanced performance, and the centerpiece of the play. Watt and Roth also display believable chemistry. McLaughlin, in the somewhat mysterious role of Abby, is also excellent, as her motives aren’t made obvious at first. McLaughlin is adept at maintaining the mystery until the necessary reveals, playing well against both Roth and Watt with a believable degree of antagonism mixed, occasionally, with admiration.

The staging by director Wayne Salomon is fairly briskly paced, taking just enough time for the drama to play out credibly and with due poignancy, but without dragging. The set, designed by Patrick Huber, is dark and minimal, with a bit of abstraction represented by the vague scribblings painted on the walls, like the mysterious vagaries of a writer’s mind. Kristi Gunther’s mood-setting lighting adds to the atmosphere of the production, as do Carla Landis Evans’s well-suited costumes. 

Overall, this is a play that holds my attention from the sheer strength of the acting, as well as the well-crafted intrigue of the unfolding mystery that has more layers than may be apparent at the start. It’s a difficult story at times, in terms of trying to figure out where it’s going, but I’m sure that’s deliberate on the playwright’s part, as even the strongest relationships have their difficulties, and their conundrums. Fiction is the title, but there’s much truth here, in the play itself as well as in the first-rate staging and performances. 

William Roth, Bryn McLaughlin, Lizi Watt
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fiction at the Gaslight Theatre until October 23, 2022

This review was originally written for KDHX