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Always… Patsy Cline
by Ted Swindley
Directed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
August 11, 2021

Diana DeGarmo, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Always… Patsy Cline was the first show I saw from STAGES St. Louis, back in 2014 at the Westport Playhouse. That was the second year STAGES had produced the show, which is now their all-time best seller. Now, as the company officially moves into their big, shiny new venue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center and after missing a summer last  year due to the pandemic, STAGES is back with a new staging of their biggest hit, with one of the original cast members and an excellent new addition, celebrating the power of friendship and the music of a legendary singer, Patsy Cline. As it was then, it’s a show full of great music, strong production values, and a lot of energy and heart.

The two biggest differences between this production and the last one I saw 7 years ago are the venue and the performer playing Patsy, while there is a welcome sense of continuity as well in the form of the general look and feel of the show and its other leading lady. Veteran local performer Zoe Vonder Haar returns as Houston, TX divorcee, mother, and country music fan Louise Seger, who becomes a big fan of Cline’s and then manages to form a friendship with the singer. This time, Patsy is played by Broadway and American Idol veteran Diana DeGarmo, and the venue is a lot bigger than the tiny, somewhat cramped quarters at Westport. As a result, the show has more of an “opened up” feel this time, although the fun moments of audience interaction and the leads’ interactions with the onstage band are still as vibrant as ever. 

This story is a simple one–Seger becomes a fan of Cline’s through her music, then goes to a concert and meets the singer in person, and the two quickly form a friendship. The main focus of the show is on the music, and many of Cline’s biggest hits are featured, like “I Fall to Pieces”, “Crazy”, “Sweet Dreams”, and a lot more. What’s especially on display here, along with the great songs, is the interaction between the excellent DeGarmo and Vonder Haar as Patsy and Louise. Vonder Haar, as she was before, is energetic, outgoing, and personable as Louise, and DeGarmo is an excellent addition to the cast as Patsy, singing the songs well, especially in her mid-range, belting style, although she does struggle a little with volume on some of the low notes at times. DeGarmo also brings a lot to the role acting-wise, shining in quieter moments as Vonder Haar narrates the story. There are also a few fun duets between the two, with Act 2’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” a standout moment. 

Technically, the show looks great, with James Wolk’s set filling out the new venue’s stage especially well, with a detailed early 1960’s look. Sean M. Savoie’s lighting adds to the period feel, as do Brad Musgrove’s colorful costumes. There’s also an excellent band led by musical director and pianist Jeremy Jacobs.

If you’ve seen this show before at STAGES, you’ll know what to expect, although it’s worth checking out again. With a brand new venue and a great cast, and that great Patsy Cline music, this a show that’s sure to entertain. It’s not a surprise that this is STAGES’ best-selling show, with its sheer audience appeal. It’s at once a return to an old friend and a welcome to a new era for a familiar and celebrated local theatre company. 

Diana DeGarmo, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Always… Patsy Cline in the Ross Family Theatre at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until September 5, 2021

Art
by Yasmina Reza
With Adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 6, 2021

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick, Jeremy Goldmeier
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

In a time of increasing uncertainty and efforts to return to live theatre (both outside and inside), Stray Dog Theatre has adapted its usual performance setting in presenting a play that explores not only the subjective nature of art, but also the need for, and definitions of, friendship and personal relationships. Yesmina Reza’s Art (adapted by Christopher Hampton) is an incisive, occasionally witty, occasionally caustic character study of a comedy, looking not only at these issues but also exploring the influence of outside relationships on an individual’s personality view of oneself. At SDT, this somewhat talky play is given a great deal of energy by its excellent cast of three.

The story here is presented in an intriguing format, as the events play out in a  mostly linear fashion, while the three characters take turns narrating and sharing their personal thoughts with the audience. It begins as Marc (Stephen Peirick) recounts a visit to his friend Serge (Ben Ritchie), as Serge eagerly shows off his new “find” for his modern art collection–a painting by a celebrated artist. Marc’s reaction is not exactly pleasant, as he takes offense at his friend’s purchase of a basically white painting. Serge doesn’t take Marc’s reaction well, and Marc takes his case to their mutual friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), who is dealing with his own personal issues and just wants everyone to be happy. Yvan later visits with Serge and hears his side of the story. That’s just the beginning, as the initial conflict brings out–and reveals–more conflicts, between the three friends as well as with their romantic partners, family members, and more. 

This play is a lot more character-focused than plot-focused, giving the cast members excellent situations for expression, both dramatically and in a comedic sense. The comedy is somewhat caustic and biting, as well as ironic at times, and the characters can be hard to like at times (especially the domineering Marc). As such a character-centric work, it’s an ideal showcase for the actors, and all three performers shine here. Ritchie’s pretentious, particular Serge; Peirick’s selfish, control-focused Marc; and Goldmeier’s overwhelmed, would-be mediator Yvan are all strong characterizations, with Goldmeier standing out especially in a well-realized, at once humorous and sympathetic portrayal. The interplay between all three actors is a particular highlight, as well, with each gaining energy from the others and feeding the increasingly frantic progression of the proceedings.

Technically, the show does well in its new outdoor space, on the lawn next to SDT’s usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. A stage has been set up with folding chairs for the audience, with a good view of the minimal but effective set by Josh Smith, which is put to excellent use by director Gary F. Bell and the cast. There’s also impressive lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as character-appropriate costumes by Bell. It all works well in an outdoor setting, in terms of being able to see and hear everything.

Art is a show with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of plot, but with fully-realized characters who provide all the focus for the comedy and the drama. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings, along with an exploration of the subjective nature of art. At Stray Dog Theatre, it sets the stage for some especially strong performances, and serves as a welcome return for this theatre company.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Art outside at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 21, 2021

The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 3, 2021

Kate Rockwell, Michael Hayden, Jenny Powers, and the Von Trapp Children
Photo: The Muny

The hills are alive, and so are the trees, the stage, the scenery, the lights, and the video in the Muny’s latest production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. Although there is a strong cast here, for the most part, and the audience loved every minute, what shines here especially is the technical artistry, as well as the integration of the setting with the Muny’s natural environment in Forest Park, with the return of the live trees on stage. The classic songs and characters are here, as well, but what’s especially stunning is the sheer spectacle.

This is a show that the Muny has produced many times, although it’s only the second time I’ve seen it here, even though I’ve seen several other productions in various other venues. Here, it’s the familiar show with all the iconic characters and 1930’s Austrian setting, although a few little tweaks have been made. First, when aspiring nun Maria (Kate Rockwell) is first seen, she’s given a bit of a “Julie Andrews moment” in a nod to the famous film by way of this production’s eliminating the usual nuns’ prelude and Maria’s introduction to the title song. The first words we hear are “the hills are alive”, just like the film. Maria also gets a striking entrance standing on a stump that rises out of the stage, as Rockwell is flanked by those lovely trees as well as some stunning projections by video designer Caite Hevner, whose work is one of the true highlights of this production.  We then follow Maria, who is having trouble fitting into convent life, as the wise Mother Abbess (Bryonha Maria Parham) sends her to test her calling by serving as a governess to the widowed Captain George von Trapp (Michael Hayden) and his seven neglected children, (Elizabeth Teeter, Victor De Paula Rocha, Amelie Lock, Parker Dzuba, Jillian Depke, Abby Hogan, and Kate Scarlett Kappel). Maria’s initial idea is to help the children prepare for a new stepmother, as the Captain has been courting wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Jenny Powers), but as most of us know, things don’t quite turn out to plan, for Maria, for the Captain and the children, or for Austria itself, as the brutal, menacing Nazi regime is poised to take over the country.

The cast here is good, with some particular standouts, like Teeter in an especially thoughtful turn as eldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl, John Scherer as the enterprising concert promoter Max Detweiler, and, especially, Parham as the Mother Abbess, who not only displays a strong sense of wisdom and compassionate authority, but also a fantastic voice on songs like “My Favorite Things” and the iconic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Rockwell is a spunky Maria, and Hayden takes a while to find his energy, but eventually gives a thoughtful, memorable performance as the Captain, especially shining in his moments with Rockwell and the children. Other standouts include Depke as the observant young Brigitta, and Kappel in a spirited performance as youngest daughter Gretel. The children as a group show a strong sense of family connection. Powers also gives a strong, if somewhat subdued, performance as Maria’s romantic rival Elsa. 

The staging is clever, with a colorful set by Paige Hathaway and excellent use of the Muny’s turntable in conjunction with the scenic and video design. There’s a particularly stunning moment in Act 2 during the wedding in which set, video projections, staging, and Shelby Loera’s superb lighting design come together to awe-inspiring, almost cinematic effect. There are also excellent period-specific costumes by Tristan Raines. In fact, the production is nearly flawless from a technical standpoint, aside from a few obvious and distracting wigs. Also worth noting is the melodious Muny Orchestra led by music director Ben Whitely.

Overall, The Sound of Music at the Muny is an entertaining, fully realized experience that makes the most of its venue. If you love this show, I imagine you’ll enjoy this production. It’s a well-staged production that truly makes its location one of the stars of the show.

Kate Rockwell, Bryonha Marie Parham
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Sound of Music in Forest Park until August 9, 2021

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the Book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail, and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Sydie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
July 30, 2021

Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand, Abraham Shaw, Wendy Renée Greenwood
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Now that the St. Louis theatre schedule is starting to fill up again, I’m thinking about the types of shows that work especially well for “re-introducing” theatre to an audience that has been missing it for so long. There are the “fun” shows that are there primarily to entertain, there are those that celebrate the art of theatre itself, and then there are the thoughtful, thought-provoking shows that ask questions that may or may not be answered. Even though it’s a show that’s framed to be about someone answering questions, Tiny Beautiful Things, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, is one of these thought-stirring types of shows, compellingly performed by a first-rate cast.

The play is a dramatic presentation, adapted by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) of a book by writer Cheryl Strayed, which is essentially a compilation of letters and answers from an advice column that Strayed once wrote for an online literary magazine called The Rumpus. In the production, Strayed (played here by Michelle Hand) takes on the mantle of “Dear Sugar” after the job is offered to her by the column’s previous writer (Greg Johnston). As “Sugar”, Hand is the only performer who plays the same role throughout the production. The three other players (Johnston, Wendy Renée Greenwood, and Abraham Shaw) play a variety of characters, from the writers of the various dramatized letters, to readers who are eager to learn Sugar’s identity, to figures in Strayed personal life, and most notably her mother (Greenwood), who has a profound influence in Strayed’s life, career, and advice. It’s a short play, running at roughly 90 minutes with no intermission, but there’s a lot here to think about. The letters run the gamut from the humorous to the profound,  touching on a range of issues from relationships (with parents, significant others, etc.) to personal identity and acceptance, to aspirational goals, and more. 

The show here has a structure if not exactly a lot of “action”. The “plot” is essentially the progression of “Sugar’s” thought process as she explores her own background by way of trying to help others through her answers to their letters, and the letters also deal with some lighter issues as well as some more intense, weighty ones (including addiction, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse), providing the audience the opportunity to think and process how we might respond to them, as well as to Sugar’s answers. What’s especially compelling here in the dramatic presentation is the performance, and the excellent portrayals by all four of the cast members, led by the superb Hand in an engaging performance as Sugar. Johnston, Greenwood, and Shaw are also especially strong in portraying a range of different characters and situations, and the imagined interactions with Sugar are poignantly portrayed. It’s all compellingly staged by director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga in a way that makes the subject matter, and the various characters, especially relatable and stirring.

The production values are excellent, as is usual with this theatre company, with a great set by Dunsi Dai and costumes by Eileen Engel, striking lighting by Patrick Huber, and proficient sound design by Phillip Evans.  Tiny Beautiful Things is a memorable production with top-notch performances that’s sure to make audiences think, and another reminder of what’s so great about being back in the theatre.

Michelle Hand
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Tiny Beautiful Things at the Grandel Theatre until August 8, 2021




Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden (Based on Original Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
The Muny
July 26, 2021

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is back! After having to cancel their live performances last year due to the pandemic, sitting in the familiar green seats in Forest Park is a welcome experience. What’s also welcome is a surprisingly refreshed production of a show I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing–Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I had seen it before, and didn’t see much beyond a collection of staged hit songs by the popular songwriting duo of Lieber and Stoller. The music is great, but there wasn’t a lot of “show” here, or so I thought. The Muny has, with their first production of their 103rd season, given me a pleasant surprise, with an excellent and consistent setting and actual characterization in addition to a great cast and classic songs.

There still isn’t a lot of plot, but what has been brought out here is a strong sense of setting and theme, with the cast playing consistent characters. Even though the cast members play a few different roles throughout the show, each has a “main” character whose story they return to over the course of the production. There are some stories to follow, mostly involving the characters’ love lives, with a few vignettes of life in the neighborhood to further establish the theme and atmosphere. The setting is in St. Louis’s iconic Gaslight Square neighborhood, which was a hot spot known especially for its ambiance and nightlife in its heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s, which fits well for the Lieber and Stoller soundtrack.

The main cast consists of nine excellent performers–Charl Brown, Michael Campayno, Mykal Kilgore, Tiffany Mann, Hayley Podschun, Dee Roscioli, Christopher Sams, Nasia Thomas, and Jason Veasey–backed by the energetic Muny Youth Ensemble. Everyone is in strong voice, showcasing the hit songs well, with some standout vocals from Mann on “Fools Fall in Love”, “Saved”, and “Hound Dog”, and Kilgore on “I (Who Have Nothing)”. There’s great dancing, as well, and fun production numbers like the Act 1 closer of “D.W. Washburn” leading into “Saved”. There’s also a little bit of a “slice of life” angle going on here, showcasing the setting especially well, with the excellent band–led by music director Abdul Hamid Royal–playing a memorable part and being showcased on stage, especially in the second act in which they are visible and become characters in the show.

This is a visually dazzling show, as well, with the historic Gaslight Square neighborhood featured in its glory, as represented in Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s stunningly detailed set, highlighting some real Gaslight Square establishments and street names. Kevin Loney’s memorable video design also contributes to this atmosphere, as do Rob Denton’s atmospheric lighting and, especially, Sully Ratke’s colorful, period-specific costumes.

My thoughts about Smokey Joe’s Cafe (based on a previous production not at the Muny) are already on record. I’ve referred to it as a “staged concert” and “an extended theme park show”, even though the production I saw was well-performed and produced. What the Muny has demonstrated with this production is that there is a real show here, and it’s a thoroughly engaging one, masterfully conceived and directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and impressively performed by its cast and band. It’s a fun and entertaining return to a St. Louis institution, as well as a celebration of a legendary St. Louis neighborhood and a catalog of enduring hit songs.

Tiffany Mann, Mykal Kilgore (center), and cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Forest Park until August 1st, 2021.

 

Now Playing Third Base for St. Louis Cardinals… Bond, James Bond
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Shane Signorino
July 8, 2021

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

It’s summer in St. Louis, and for many in this baseball-obsessed town, this season is synonymous with the St. Louis Cardinals. For Joe Hanrahan of the Midnight Company, the Cardinals and the cultural climate of St. Louis and the wider world at a particular moment in history have been woven into a fascinating feat of storytelling in his new and expanded version of his original one-man play, which has a relatively short running time despite its long title: Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… Bond, James Bond. It’s a story about a lot of things, but as Hanrahan says in the play, ultimately it’s about theatre. 

Hanrahan performed an earlier version of this show a few years ago at the St. Lou Fringe festival, and I remember being impressed then. What stuck in my memory from that show was the juxtaposition of the triumphs 1964 Cardinals’ championship season with the theatrical telling of the story of the second theatrical Bond film, From Russia With Love, by Hanrahan portraying his teenage baseball teammate, Danny. That combination is still here and is an important and fascinating part of the story, but other aspects stood out to me this time, such as the focus on the national grieving after the relatively recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the influence of music as a soundtrack for the times. There’s also some focus on the pervasive influence of racism in St. Louis and in general, and particularly in Major League Baseball. Above all, though, is the emphasis on theatre, as Hanrahan gives the audience a bit of history about one-person shows and explanations of the nature of theatre itself. In its basic essence, theatre is about storytelling, and Hanrahan tells a compelling story–or, at least 4 compelling stories woven together. Here, Hanrahan becomes characters as he needs to (such as Danny and the movie characters), but he’s mostly narrating as himself, looking back on a memorable time in the city’s, the nation’s, the world’s, and his own personal history. The set is basic, consisting of a bench and a video screen, and Hanrahan is casually dressed in a baseball-style t-shirt and jeans, which is fitting for the casual, reflective tone of the show. 

This is an impressive show in its construction, and Hanrahan commands the stage with his insightful, humorous, and memorable performance. Also impressive are the simple but clever production values, with lighting and overall design by Kevin Bowman, and especially outstanding use of video projections, designed by Michael B. Perkins. The video elements and musical soundtrack work seamlessly along with Hanrahan’s performance to serve as an illustrative backdrop to the events as Hanrahan tells them. 

There’s more going on in this show than is easy to describe. What Hanrahan gives us is essentially a tribute to storytelling, whether in a theatre, on a movie screen, on a baseball field, or anywhere in life. Stories are everywhere, and Hanrahan tells a memorable one here. It’s another fascinating production from The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Camille Mahs
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond, James Bond at the Chapel until July 25, 2021

Here Lies Henry
by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company
June 10, 2021

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Here Lies Henry is a show that’s perfect for Joe Hanrahan. Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has become known for his one-man shows (although that’s not all they do), and I can’t think of a better vehicle for Hanrahan’s talent than this one. It’s an ideal showcase, also featuring the talents of a strong technical crew and consistently excellent director.

This is kind of an odd show, but that’s par for this course for The Midnight Company, as well. When we first see Henry (Hanrahan), he’s obviously nervous, and it’s not obvious why he is there, shifting back and forth between different approaches to speaking to the audience, from telling personal stories to corny jokes, to singing a little bit of a song and, occasionally, dancing. For a while, the point of this presentation isn’t clear, and many of Henry’s comments seem random, but as the show continues, everything begins to fall more into place, as references return and return, eventually revealing their meaning, and the purpose for Henry’s speech is gradually revealed, leading to an abrupt but poignant conclusion.

The overall effect here is that the audience gets to know Henry little by little as he catalogs his history of being a great liar, which is one reason for the show’s punny title. In the midst of these lies, though, there is truth, as Henry reveals realities concerning his background, relationship with his parents, his experiences of love and personal identity, and more.  There is also much truth in Hanrahan’s relatable performance. Hanrahan, as usual, is excellent, and this show gives him an ideal opportunity to display a wide range of emotions, as well as philosophizing about the meaning of life–in general, and specifically for his character. 

The staging and technical aspects here are also superb, and deceptively simple, as the show is essentially Hanrahan on a mostly empty stage. Still, even though it’s simple, there’s a lot going on, as Tony Anselmo’s lighting and Kevin Bowman’s production design lend a lot of atmosphere to the story, and the overall effect is a testament to the proficiency of these artists and director Ellie Schwetye in letting Hanrahan shine as Henry tells his fascinating tale and Hanrahan embodies every moment with substance, humor, and drama.

It’s been a welcome return to theatre for me and theatre fans around St. Louis, with a variety of shows currently onstage. Here Lies Henry may seem like one of the “smaller” offerings, although it features a big performance and much to provoke thought and reflection. It’s another excellent and intriguing work from Hanrahan and The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Here Lies Henry at the Kranzberg Arts Center until June 27, 2021

Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Carl Cofield

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

June 4, 2021

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis and the cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Live theatre is back! I can’t properly express how excited I’ve been to finally be able to attend a real, in-person theatrical production for the first time since March 2020. There have been several excellent and creative virtual productions from various theatre companies, both national and local, but for me nothing has the same energy as a live show. I know many theatre fans, fellow critics and bloggers, and theatre artists have felt the same, and now that a lot of pandemic restrictions are being revised and relaxed, anticipation has been high.  It’s been a long break, and now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has answered that longing with a first-rate, riveting production of the Bard’s tragedy King Lear, starring an excellent cast of local and non-local performers and led by a genuine Broadway legend, André De Shields, in the title role. Along with a terrific cast including some excellent local performers, De Shields and the Festival usher live performance back to St. Louis in a bold, poignant, and unforgettable way.

This isn’t the first production of King Lear I’ve seen, or reviewed, although it couldn’t be more different than the last time I saw this show live, which was indoors and in a much smaller venue, and with a different director’s vision and setting. Here, the action is set in the present-day (or near it) in a kingdom in North Africa, with the atmosphere set by means of Wilson Chin’s striking set that features a crumbling facade and the suggestion of decline. The story is well-known, as the aging King Lear (De Shields) decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril (Rayme Cornell), Regan (Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (Nicole King). When the elder daughters flatter him excessively and Cordelia refuses to do the same, Lear is driven to anger, cutting off Cordelia and sending her away from the kingdom to marry the King of France (Michael Tran). Also banished is the king’s devoted friend the Earl of Kent (J. Samuel Davis), who supports Cordelia, although the ever-loyal Kent simply disguises himself under the name of Gaius and is taken into the king’s service. Lear, accompanied by the disguised Kent  and another devoted retainer, the Fool (Allen Gilmore), travels to stay with his remaining daughters–first Goneril and her husband, the sympathetic Albany (Jason J. Little), and then with Regan her co-conspiratorial husband Cornwall (Carl Overly, Jr.). As he is mistreated by his vain and scheming daughters, Lear is forced to confront his own vanity and rashness at rejecting Cordelia. This plot is intertwined with the story of Gloucester (Brian Anthony Wilson) and his two sons, the kindhearted Edgar (Daniel José Molina), and the scheming Edmund (Leland Fowler), who bemoans his “illegitimate” birth and resents his brother, who is the heir to his father’s title. Edmund’s plots against his brother leads to Edgar’s exile disguised as “Poor Tom”, who eventually comes into contact with Lear, who in his grief has taken to wandering in the wilderness with Kent and the Fool, bemoaning his fate, as well as Gloucester, who falls afoul of Lear’s daughters’ schemes and is also exiled. All of these events eventually lead to much conflict, personal reflection, and eventually war and and a series of tragedies. It’s an intense story, as expected, but the interpretation here is even more intense than I had remembered.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast is strong, although De Shields is unmistakably the star here. Known more for his performances in musical theatre over the years, he brings a singer’s vocal variation and a dancer’s physicality to this iconic Shakespearean role, although he doesn’t actually sing or dance. His journey from self-centered impulsivity to defiant regret and self-reflection, to abject grief is striking and bold. His scenes with the also excellent Davis as the ever-faithful Kent, Gilmore as the comedian/philosopher Fool, and King as the brave and honest Cordelia are especially memorable, as is his visceral disappointment in his self-focused daughters, Goneril and Regan, who are portrayed memorably by Cornell and Thompson respectively. There are also strong performances from Molina as Edgar, who ably morphs from gentle, hippie-ish skater dude to wild forest dweller to protective son; and Fowler as the ever-scheming Edmund; and especially Wilson as their duped and regretful father, Gloucester. Jason J. Little as loyal (to Lear) Albany and Overly in a dual role as the power-hungry Cornwall and a Gentleman attending Cordelia are also excellent, as is Tran as Goneril’s determined and sycophantic steward, Oswald as well as a brief turn as Cordelia’s suitor, the King of France. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, working together to bring the sense of intensity and drama, and occasional humor to this fully realized production.

Technically, this production also shines. The versatility of Chin’s set serves the story well, as pieces are reused to depict not only the changes in locales, but the deterioration of Lear’s kingdom. There’s also impressive work from fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, percussion director Atum Jones, and sound designer David R. Molina. John Wylie’s lighting design is also especially impressive, augmenting the drama especially in the moments of Lear’s exile and as military conflicts heat up.

This stunning production from St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a particularly profound answer to the year-long anticipation of the return of live performance. The Forest Park setting and modified “pod seating” also works well, lending a sense of intimacy to the proceedings. Anchored by an essential performance by its headlined star, and supported by a superb cast and technical crew, King Lear may be a tragedy as a play, but as a production it’s an outright triumph.

Michael Tran, Jacqueline Thompson, Rayme Cornell, Carl Overly Jr., André De Shields and cast of King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting King Lear in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen until June 27, 2021

A Late Summer Night’s Stroll
Conceived and Curated by The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Tom Ridgely, Producing Artistic Director
In Partnership with PaintedBlack STL
Javyn Solomon, Co-Founder, Charlie Tatum, Coordinator

August 14, 2020

Logo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is making me especially happy at the moment, since they are helping to usher in the return of something I’ve missed terribly the past few months–live theatre! That’s live theatre in a somewhat limited way, with some serious restrictions due to COVID-19, but it’s still theatre, and it’s still live and in person.  In lieu of the usual mainstage production in Forest Park, the newly renamed festival, led by Artistic Director Tom Ridgely, has partnered with PaintedBlack STL to present a production that utilizes one of St. Louis’s most prominent assets, Forest Park, to showcase the arts–visual and performing–in a fun, whimsical way that also serves as a showcase for several other local theatre companies and arts organizations, like SATE Ensemble Theatre, The Black Rep, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, and more.

Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the roughly mile-long, 60-90 minute “stroll” is a (mostly) self-guided walk that starts in the Festival’s “Shakespeare Glen” and follows a meandering path through the park, ending at the foot of Art Hill in front of the park’s picturesque Grand Basin. The path is marked by a series of beautifully painted arches, painted by Jessie Donovan, Eugenia Alexander, Nicholas Lawery, Tiélere Cheatem, Kyla Hawkins, Sherelle Speed, Brilynn Asia, Tyler Harris, Ryean Clark, N’Dea ‘Ori Tala’ Collins-Whitfield, Taylor Deed, Lashawnda Smith, Brock Seals and Dee Drenning. Each arch is unique and marks the performance space for the various presentations from the different theatre, music, and dance companies. These performances range from the more straightforward, such as Shakespeare Squadron’s introductory scene, to the more abstract, such as dances from The Big Muddy Dance Company and (traveling from one arch to another) Consuming Kinetics Dance Company. Most of the theatrical offerings are broadly comic, with memorable interpretations from Circus Flora/Ten Directions (featuring Lynn Berg and Audrey Crabtree), the Black Rep (featuring Brian McKinley and Christina Yancy), SATE (featuring Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, and a stuffed Ninja Turtle), and STLSF’s finale featuring Brittney Henry, Mary Heyl, Carl Overly Jr., and Michael Tran. Especially notable are performer Laura Coppinger and a special guest (you’ll have to see for yourself) performing as Titania serenading Bottom, who has been transformed into a donkey. The walk also features a fun presentation by Improv Shop (featuring Mo Burns), and memorable musical performances by Jazz St. Louis (featuring Benjamin Paille, Kendrick Smith, Bernard Taylor, and Micah Walker) and the Preparatory Program of the Community Music School of Webster University (featuring Ruth Christopher). It’s somewhat helpful if you are familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the energy and enthusiasm of the performers, as well as the unique format of the walk, make for an entertaining evening regardless.

While I’ve enjoyed several of the free online offerings by the Muny, Stray Dog Theatre, and other local companies, and I encourage theatre fans to support artists in this difficult time, there’s nothing like the experience of live theatre. It’s a unique art form, and I’ve missed it. While I’m expecting that a more widespread return of live productions will still be a few months away (at the soonest), I appreciate opportunities like this one from the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival to see, hear, interact, and experience the performing arts in person. A Late Summer Night’s Stroll is a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable endeavor makes the most of its setting and a host of talent and ingenuity. So, wear your sunscreen, bring your bug spray, put on your walking shoes, and give this “stroll” a try. It’s a lot of fun, and an excellent celebration of the arts in St. Louis.

Photo by Phillip Hamer
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting A Late Summer Evening’s Stroll in Forest Park until September 6, 2020