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The Rose Tattoo
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Kaplan
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 18, 2022

Rayme Cornell, Valentina Silva and Cast of The Rose Tattoo
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Rose Tattoo is a Tennessee Williams play I had heard of, but hadn’t seen before. Now that I have seen it, in a lively production currently being staged by Tennessee Williams Festival, I now think I’ve seen it in a way few have experienced. That’s because of the unique approach director David Kaplan and the company have taken here–staging the production in a circus tent, with many circus elements incorporated into the play. It’s a unique staging, but it works especially well in emphasizing the emotion of the piece, as well as the truly hilarious comic elements of the story. 

This is something of an unusual play, or at least in this production, since the first act plays more as a mysterious drama, but the second act is much more broadly comic, but also full of deeply expressed emotion and longing. The circus elements, including clowns, aerialists, and animal acts work to heighten the mood and sense of dreamlike fantasy as the story focuses on Sicilian immigrant Serafina Delle Rose (Rayme Cornell), who is passionately attached to her husband, and is devastated when he is killed early in the play. She retreats into her house, becoming focused on her memories and overprotective of her teenage daughter, Rosa (Valentina Silva), who is about to graduate high school and is excited about a new boyfriend, a sailor named Jack (Oliver Bacus), who Serafina doesn’t want her to see. Serafina is also suspicious of her neighbors, who always seem to be watching her, and spreading rumors about her husband that Serafina doesn’t want to believe. Eventually, she has a chance meeting with a young truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Bradley Tejeda), who reminds her of her husband, and a comic “courtship” of sorts ensues. It’s an exploration of grief, dreams, parent-child relationships, romantic ideals, and the role of religious devotion in a person’s life, as Serafina is devoutly Catholic. It’s a highly emotional, somewhat lyrical story that uses music to set its mood at times, as well as, in this production, the balletic work of the aerialists in some key moments. 

The staging here is inventive and clever, with the circus elements working very well to help set the mood and further the emotion of the story. The first appearance of Alvaro as a clown also works because Serafina sometimes compares him to one. And the direction is sharp and well-paced, with some slapstick elements in the second act as well as the more melancholy moments played expertly by the excellent cast. The biggest star here is Cornell, who owns every moment she’s in as the highly emotional, grief-stricken Serafina. It’s a virtuoso performance that drives the momentum of the show. Tejada is also fantastic as Alvaro, with a strong physical performance as well as excellent stage presence and chemistry with Cornell. There are also strong performances from Silva as the lovestruck and often frustrated (with her mother) Rosa; and Bacus who is well-matched with Silva as the young sailor who loves Rosa. Harry Weber has a nice dual turn as the local priest Father De Leo and as Miss Yorke, a teacher at Rosa’s high school, and there’s excellent work from a fine ensemble playing various supporting roles, bringing atmosphere and energy to the show. Also notable is the work of aerialists Annika Capellupo, Natalie Bednarski, Sage McGhee, and Maggie McGinness, whose beautiful performances add much to the overall tone of the story.

Technically, this show has a look that’s fitting for a play that’s staged in a circus tent. The set by James Wolk makes use of movable pieces that suggest the various locations as needed, with the panels that serve as the walls of Serafina’s house being able to be arranged to suggest a closed-in feeling as she retreats further from the world in her grief, and can also be opened up as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes suit the characters well and also work appropriately with the circus theme.  Jesse Alford’s lighting is works especially well in the space to set the mood and atmosphere, as well.  There were a few sound issues with microphone feedback and odd acoustics that made the dialogue difficult to hear at times, but this improved as the show went on.

If you’ve seen The Rose Tattoo before, seeing this production might be like seeing it for the first time all over again, since the theme and conceit are unique. This production’s fantastical circus format is well-suited to the story, with excellent dialogue and symbolism by Williams. It’s a showcase for a stellar leading performance and equally strong cast, with dynamic circus performances and a memorable, ultimately hopeful comic tone. It’s a one-of-a-kind production, well worth a visit to the Big Top. 

Cast of The Rose Tattoo
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Rose Tattoo at The Big Top in Grand Center until August 28, 2022

Brontë Sister House Party
by Courtney Bailey
Directed by Keating
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 17, 2022

Maggie Conroy, Cassidy Flynn, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

I love SATE. I say that every time I write a review of one of their productions, it seems. I say it so much, I’m afraid I’m going to sound like a shill, or insincere. But it’s true, and absolutely sincere. I love this theatre company, because they embody what is truly exciting about theatre, time and time again. From production to production, SATE seems to strike just the right notes, whether the play is comedy or drama, new play or classic. Their latest, local playwright Courtney Bailey’s Brontë Sister House Party, is another example of SATE’s remarkable legacy of excellence.  This production, with its clever production and first-rate cast, is at once hilarious, poignant, thoughtful, challenging, educational, historical, and modern. 

This play is a a bit of history, a bit of fantasy, a bit of philosophy, and a lot of party. Hosted by the famed literary sisters of the title, Charlotte (Maggie Conroy), Emily (Rachel Tibbetts), and Anne Brontë (Cassidy Flynn), this party is an existential exercise as well as an interactive experience with a moderate degree of audience participation. The sisters, after their lives on earth, have apparently been cursed by the unseen but much talked-about “Lavender Witch of Gondal” to exist in a “purgatorial time loop” for seemingly endless nights, hosting a new house party each night until they are finally able to reach the elusive and mysterious “Point of Celebratory Reverence”. Through the course of the evening, they lament their apparent lack of ability to throw parties, as well as recounting their lives and their relationships with their work; their brother Branwell (Joel Moses), who doesn’t know about their novels; and even fictional characters from their novels, such as Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns (Vicky Chen) and Cathy (Bess Moynihan) from Wuthering Heights. Singer Kate Bush (LaWanda Jackson), who sang a song about Wuthering Heights, also figures into the story, as does a personified version of Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant (Zeck Schultz), who serves as the DJ for the party. 

It’s a house party, and the atmosphere is remarkably realistic, as the evening goes through its degrees of anticipation, drinking, dancing, celebratory music, followed by a series of soul-bearing stories, revelations, and cathartic bonding. It’s an exploration of the sisters’ relationships to one another, as well as to their art and the times they lived in, and particularly to men, including their troubled brother. The entire look and tone of the production is set with just the right touches, as Bess Moynihan’s stunningly detailed set and lightening portray a much lived-in 19th Century house and the changing moods as the party progresses, The soundtrack of well-chosen songs suit the mood especially well, including some new music by playwright Bailey. The characters are outfitted with impeccable detail by Liz Henning, and Schultz’s sound design also adds much to the mood of the show. 

The scene is ideally set, which makes for a good party, but the most important part of any party is the people, and the hosts and guests are all especially well-cast. As the sisters, Conroy, Tibbetts, and Flynn all get their moments to shine, from silly fun near the beginning, provided most often by Flynn as the “nice sister”, Anne, to snarkiness from the guarded Emily, to seemingly misplaced hope from Charlotte, who still expects the professor she’s obsessed with to turn up, despite having missed thousands of parties already. The chemistry and interplay between these three provides much of the energy and emotion of the show, and there’s never a dull moment here. There are also excellent turns from Moses as the needy Branwell, Moynihan as the fiery, persistent Cathy, Chen as the disgruntled Helen, who gets a fun musical moment, and Jackson in an entertaining and well-sung turn as Kate Bush, even though Jackson doesn’t sing in the style of Bush.  There are a lot of intense moments here, as well as some fun surprises in terms of storytelling and staging, as the show manages to keep the audience involved and guessing what will happen next all the way through. 

I can’t give too much away concerning what happens at this party, but I will say it’s well worth attending. Even if you don’t know a lot about the Brontë sisters, it’s a fascinating show, with much to learn about the sisters, their stories, and their times, as well as some timeless thoughts about the human experience in general. It’s a compelling script, made all the more compelling by the remarkable pacing, technical qualities, and especially the performances. It’s another excellent show from one of my favorite theatre companies in St. Louis. 

Cassidy Flynn, Rachel Tibbetts, Maggie Conroy, Bess Moynihan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is presenting Brontë Sister House Party at The Chapel until August 27, 2022

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tre’von Griffith
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival TourCo
August 16, 2022

Cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Simply put, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream–currently touring various parks and public areas in the metro area–is a whole lot of fun. With a small cast playing various roles, eye-catching costumes and a catchy musical score, this is a Midsummer like you won’t have seen before, but you should see it, because not only is it unique, fresh, and fun–it’s also free!

Described on STLSF’s website as a “highly musical Afro-futurist adaptation”, this production was directed by Tre’von Griffith, who also composed the music and designed the sound. There’s a lot of plot going on here if you are familiar with this show’s story, and six cast members may not seem like enough, but these actors are more than up for the challenge, each playing multiple roles with energy, enthusiasm, and great comic timing. There are also memorable, futuristic costumes with occasional steampunk influences by Brandin Vaughn that add an additional air of whimsicality to this production. Modern touches like cellphones and characters filming TikTok videos of each other (and themselves), also add to this fresh take on the source material, which has been streamlined to run about 90 minutes. It’s fast-moving, hilarious, and full of memorable performances by the entire cohesive ensemble–Tiélere Cheatem, Rae Davis, Ricki Franklin, Asha Futterman, Mel McCray, and Christina Yancy. 

All the players are excellent here as the action moves swiftly between three different stories–of mixed-up lovers, mischievous fairies, and ambitious actors–and although it does help to know the story beforehand, the players do an excellent job of setting up the plots in the introduction, as well as playing out the story with clarity and vibrancy. Although everyone is excellent, and commendable as each performer plays more than one role, there are some standouts. Franklin shines especially as the self-promoting, overacting weaver-turned actor Nick Bottom. Yancy as both the sprightly Puck and the shy Snug (who has to play a lion in the play-within-a-play) is also a standout, as is Cheatem particularly in the roles of the lovelorn Helena and the imperious director of the actors, Peter Quince. It’s such a strong ensemble, and everyone seems to be having a great time acting out this fast-paced, laugh-packed story that also features some memorable hip-hop/r&b/pop influenced music. 

I was able to see the production in the parking lot of Schlafly Bottleworks, which proved to be a great location, accommodating a good-sized crowd with plenty of room. For the rest of the performances, the company will be traveling around the St. Louis area, with times, dates, and locations listed on the STLSF website at this link. Even if you’ve seen this play before, I highly recommend checking it out. You’re in for some fun surprises, and a particularly strong cast. 

 

Rae Davis, Ricki Franklin
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at various locations in the St. Louis area until August 27, 2022

Locked Ward
by Amy Crider
Directed by Phil Gill
First Run Theatre
August 14, 2022

Uche Ijei, Ethan Isaac
Photo: First Run Theatre

The title of First Run Theatre’s latest production, Locked Ward, is fairly straightforward, since it takes place in a locked ward at a psychiatric hospital. Still, there’s more to this story than its initial premise, with its clearly defined characters and an intriguing degree of mystery that works on several different levels. Currently on stage at the Kranzberg Black Box, this production is brought to life by a fine cast and simple but effective production values. 

The story, inspired by the playwright’s personal experience, takes place in a psychiatric ward inhabited by a variety of patients who are there for different reasons. Although it’s essentially an ensemble piece, the biggest focus appears to be on Glen (Ethan Isaac), a former police officer and recovering drug addict who doesn’t quite trust the insights and advice of psychiatrist Dr. Blumenthal (Jaz Tucker). Glen is convinced he knows what his problem is, but the doctor wants to explore additional possibilities, making Glen uncomfortable and suspicious. Glen enters the ward to join the “regulars” who all have strong, distinct personalities–there’s the rigidly programmatic Franklin (Duncan Phillips), who is most comfortable with a strict routine and whose role model is Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. There’s also Vladimir (Stephen Thompson Sr.), a Russian immigrant who wants to get out of the hospital so he make a fresh start in life, but who resists taking his meds and distrusts the establishment; and Jill (Jalani Hale), an intelligent but insecure aspiring doctoral student in art history, who has a crush on the doctor and endures regular ECT treatments that effect her memory. The newest patient besides Glen is Eleanor (Uche Ijei), who is only there for a short time under observation while she tries out a new medication to treat her depression. She and Glen form something of a bond as a new mystery unfolds–a well-liked nurse dies suddenly, and the patients try to figure out what happened. 

The biggest strengths of this play are the relationships between the characters and the unfolding mystery plot, as the characters try to figure out what’s happening and the medical staff urge them not to get too involved. The playwright does an excellent job of portraying the mystery on a few different levels, exploring the patients’ perspective as well as challenging the audience to wonder who to believe and what to think. The characters’ interactions are also richly portrayed, as conflicts are explored, bonds are made, and characters challenge and encourage one another. There’s no sensationalism here, either, which is also a strength, and the actors portray the disparate personalities with clarity and energy, and a good deal of ensemble chemistry.

The whole cast is strong, with convincing performances from Isaac as the conflicted, stubborn Glen, Ijei as the kindhearted Eleanor, Hale as the weary, self-doubting Jill, Thompson as the opinionated Vladimir, Phillips as the determinedly regimented Franklin, and Tucker as the enigmatic Dr. Blumenthal. Special mention should go to stage manager Gwynneth Rausch, who stepped in on short notice in the role of occupational therapist Linda, with the principal performer (Lillie Weber) out due to illness. All of the players work together to portray a credibly realistic situation with occasional elements of mystery.

The production values here aren’t flashy, but work well for the story. The basic set by Brad Slavik and atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo serve the plot well.  In terms of pacing, there were a few too many blackout scenes that could be jarring at times, and sometimes the tone could be overly relaxed, but for the most part the storytelling is effective, especially when focusing on the characters’ relationships. This play does deal with the subject of mental illness and many of the struggles that go with that topic, so appropriate warnings were given in the pre-show announcements. Overall, Locked Ward is a compelling look at a world many people don’t get to see, with convincing and sympathetic characters and situations. It’s a promising new play as presented by First Run Theatre. 

Image: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Locked Ward at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until August 21, 2022

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2022

Jason Gotay, Jessica Vosk
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is closing out its 2022 summer season with a bright, colorful, truly joyful performance of a crowd-pleasing classic. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been done a few times at the Muny before, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. As with any production of this show, though, each one has had its own unique style and energy. Joseph… is one of those shows that lends especially well to different direction and interpretations, and this latest production is a prime example of a staging that retains the “essence” of the show but also does its own thing, with a superb cast and its own dazzling, colorful style.

The story, based on the biblical tale from the book of Genesis, follows Joseph (Jason Gotay) on his journey from favored son of Jacob (Eric Jordan Young), to being sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, to being sent to jail, to rising to a place of prominence in the court of Pharaoh (Mykal Kilgore). All the while, it’s framed as a story being told by a Narrator (Jessica Vosk), and the Muny Kids and Teens are used especially well in this production, as the children’s chorus who listen to the Narrator’s tale and in various roles throughout the story. The show also features a variety of musical styles, from country to rock, to pop, to calypso, and more. It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first collaboration, first written as a short production for a school choir, and expanded over the years. It’s not a heavy or deep show, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and an excellent showcase for its leading performers as well as some key featured roles. 

As I’ve mentioned, this show is especially versatile, and I’ve never seen two productions that looked the same, although they all managed to maintain that overall energetic and fun spirit. This production is big, bright, and colorful, as is fitting for the Muny stage, with a whimsical set by  Edward E. Haynes, Jr. that blends elements of the ancient and the modern. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are also striking, from the Narrator’s pop-star glamour looks to Joseph’s more laid-back (mostly) looks, to more flashy looks for Pharaoh and Potiphar (also played by Young), as well as a variety of looks for the ensemble to suit the various production numbers. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Jason Lyons, dynamic video design by Greg Emetaz, and fun puppet designs by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman, playing those catchy tunes with great enthusiasm. 

The whole production is  big and lively, as is fitting for the Muny, and in keeping with the overall whimsical tone of the piece. The pacing is just right, as well, with a great deal of energy without being rushed. It’s not a long show, but the excellent cast makes the most of every moment here, along with the top-notch direction and choreography by Josh Rhodes. The whole cast is wonderful, led by the charming and boyish Gotay as Joseph. Gotay’s strong stage presence and great voice are just right for this role, and he works especially well in his scenes with the dynamic Vosk, who is a powerhouse as the Narrator, with equally excellent stage presence and a truly stunning voice. Kilgore is also a standout in a different interpretation of Pharaoh than usual. Usually, Pharaoh is played as an Elvis Presley impersonator, but not here. Here, Kilgore’s acrobatic, rock-styled vocals are showcased in a performance that is more reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz (thanks to my friend and St. Louis Theater Circle colleague, Tina Farmer, for that observation). There’s a strong supporting cast, as well, with memorable performances from all of Joseph’s brothers, especially Harris Milgrim as Reuben leading “One More Angel in Heaven”, Sean Ewing as Simeon leading “Those Canaan Days”, and, especially, Darron Hayes as Judah leading “Benjamin Calypso”. This is a fun show, and the cast here, from the leads to the ensemble to the Muny Kids and Teens, does an excellent job, making this show a joy to watch, and hear, from start to finish. There’s also an especially spirited “Megamix” at the end of the show that showcases the whole cast in ideal fashion.

Overall, this has been a great year for the Muny. From the excellent encore of Chicago a the beginning of the season to the stunning Sweeney Todd and The Color Purple, to this fantastic closing show, the Muny has been at its best, even though this year did include one of the more controversial productions I’ve seen (Camelot, which I enjoyed for the most part, but which many apparently didn’t like). Still, regardless of what you thought about any other productions this season, this Joseph… is a good one to see as an example of the energy, style, excellent casting, and sheer spectacle that the Muny has to offer. As staged on the Muny’s big stage in Forest Park, it’s an Amazing Technicolor Dream show! 

Cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Forest Park until August 18, 2022

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Shinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 5, 2022

Kevin Corpuz, Dawn Schmid, Grace Langford, Clayton Humburg, Kevin O’Brien, Sara Rae Womack, Chris Kernan
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

The spelling bee is one of those childhood rites of passage that many adults can relate to. I know I can. I still remember the word I was disqualified on in my 8th grade bee (“crucible”–I’d spelled it correctly, but I had started over after first missing the “r”). It also works as a seemingly innocuous but potentially high-pressure event that can bring out a lot of emotion and reflection in the participants. I think it’s this reflective quality that makes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee work so well as a concept. Of course, the great script, catchy songs, and memorable characters also help a great deal. As staged at Stray Dog Theatre, this show comes to life in all its charming, goofy, and insightful glory, as portrayed by a great cast of talented local performers.

The concept is fairly simple, but there are some fun touches that make the show especially fun. For instance, there’s an interactive aspect, in which four audience members who signed up to participate are brought onstage to compete alongside the “official” cast members. The spelling bee is serious business for its participants, from adults staffing the bee to the student spellers, who appear to be upper elementary and middle-school aged. The host is former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), who seems a little overinvested in the proceedings at times. She’s assisted by “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), who is there because he has to be (the reason is explained in the show), but who soon finds himself caring more about the bee and its contestants than he had expected. There’s also Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), a local elementary school vice principal, who announces the words and doesn’t always deal with unpredictable situations well. The spellers are a collection of students with their own quirks, foibles, and stories–last year’s champion, the high-achieving Chip Tolentino (Kevin Corpuz); socially awkward and serious speller William Barfée (Kevin O’Brien), who has an unusual way of remembering his spellings; sweet-natured homeschooler Leaf Coneybar (Clayton Humburg), who is insecure about spelling because his family doesn’t think he’s up to the challenge; young activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dawn Schmid), who faces family pressures of her own; academically gifted Marcy Park (Sara Rae Womack), who feels pressure from all around to be the best at everything; and Olive Ostrovsky (Grace Langford), who loves language and words, reads the dictionary for fun, and wishes her busy parents could be there to watch her in the bee. The format follows the spelling bee with a few “breaks” for the various characters to tell their stories. Obviously, since this is a competition, someone has to win, and the order of elimination provides a degree of suspense, as rivalries play out, friendships are formed, and words are spelled, defined, and used in a series of hilariously silly sentences. 

This is a sweet show, overall, with a little bit of raunchy, but mostly PG-13, humor thrown in, and the characters are well defined. Though the spellers do have their individual quirks, they don’t come across as caricatures. There are also some memorable songs the characters each tell their stories as the bee plays out. These are characters you get to know, and care about. The script is intelligent, witty, and insightful, and the performers bring the characters to life with a lot of energy and heart. Everyone is excellent, with wonderful ensemble chemistry, but if I have to pick standouts I’d have to say Langford is especially strong as the dictionary-loving, sweetly earnest Olive, and Humburg also has a charming turn as the offbeat Leaf. Kernan is also memorable as Mitch, with a strong voice and believable character arc, and O’Brien has a fun moment leading a production number about his “Magic Foot” spelling technique. Everyone is excellent, though, in voice, in comic timing, and in ensemble chemistry. There are no weak links here, and as some might want to say about the spelling bee, everyone is a winner–truly.

On the technical side, the production is also strong, with excellent use of lighting by Tyler Duenow to emphasize specific moments in the show, and a simple but effective set by director Justin Been. Eileen Engel’s costumes are also memorable, fitting the characters and their individual personalities especially well. There’s also a great band led by music director Leah Schultz, and effective sound design by Jacob Baxley, although there were a few moments where the volume seemed uneven and jarring, although in some cases that seemed to be intended for story purposes. 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical I had heard a lot about, but had never seen until this production. I’m glad this production has been my introduction to this show, since everything–from staging, to singing, to casting, to look and atmosphere–seems ideal. There are even some fun topical references thrown in for additional humor. Overall, this is a sweet, funny, quirky, thoughtful show that is sure to provoke a lot of reflection, and maybe even some nostalgia, from the audience. 

Dawn Schmid, Chris Kernan, Kevin Corpuz, Kevin O’Brien, Clayton Humburg, Grace Langford, Stephanie Merritt, Sara Rae Womack
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Tower Grove Abbey until August 20, 2022

The Color Purple
Based upon the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 4, 2022

Tracee Beazer, Anastacia McCleskey
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is continuing it’s excellent 2022 season with a remarkable Muny debut production of The Color Purple. The musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie, is a sweeping, intensely emotional tale that features memorable characters and a strong musical score. At the Muny, with a top-notch cast led by a stunning leading performance, as well as stellar direction and production values, this show makes a lasting impression. 

The story, set in Georgia in the early-to-mid 20th Century, centers around Celie (Anastacia McCleskey), a young woman who is brought up by an abusive father, giving birth to two children as a a teenager and being forced to give them up. She then is essentially given by her father to Mister (Evan Tyrone Martin), a bitter widower who beats her, calls her ugly, and makes no secret of the fact that he would have preferred her sister, Nettie (Nasia Thomas), who is chased away by Mister after refusing his advances. Separated from the only person she knows who truly loves her, Celie lives a difficult life driven by fear; doing whatever Mister wants and enduring his wrath, until a series of influential people come into Celie’s life and encourage her to stand up for herself and discover the beauty she hasn’t been able to see. These people include the outspoken, strong-willed Sofia (Nicola Michelle Haskins), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Gilbert Domally); and popular singer Shug Avery (Tracee Beazer), who has her own complicated history with Mister. Shug and Celie soon form a strong connection, and Celie also receives news that gives her hope of seeing her sister again. Nothing is simple or easy, as complications arise, people come in and out of Celie’s life, couples get together, break up, and sometimes reconcile, and Celie learns how to see and assert her own worth and value life beyond what has been dictated to her from childhood. 

This is a rich portrait of complex, well-drawn characters, and also of life situations affected by segregation and racist systems in the South in the first part of the 20th Century, as well as of the effects of authoritarianism and sexism. It’s a poignant, often intensely emotional story that requires a strong, talented cast, which this production clearly provides. Celie is a challenging character to play, requiring a strong sense of presence, a clear portrayal of the character’s vulnerability and inner strength, as well as a top-notch singing voice. At the Muny, McCleskey shines, displaying all those essential qualities and commanding the stage whenever she is on. She also has great chemistry with her equally strong co-stars, including the terrific Beazer as the worldly, outgoing Shug, Haskins in a memorable turn as the bold Sofia, and Thomas as the loyal, determined Nettie. Other standouts include Martin, ably portraying the complicated and contrasting aspects of Mister’s character; Domally, excellent as Harpo; and Erica Durham in a fun comic performance as aspiring singer and Harpo’s sometime-girlfriend Squeak. The standouts are supported by a stellar ensemble, as well, with excellent vocals and energetic movement to Breon Arzell’s dynamic choreography.  There’s also a great Muny orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The production values here are, as usual for the Muny, excellent, and the overall design is in different ways both minimalist and expansive.  Arnel Sancianco’s unit set is fairly minimal, although it covers the huge Muny stage well, and serves as an ideal setting for the story, as Heather Gilbert’s detailed lighting design and Paul Deziel’s stunning video designs add atmosphere, texture, and specificity. There are also striking costumes by Samantha C. Jones that fit the characters well, adding to the vibrancy and emotion as the story unfolds. 

 Even if you haven’t seen The Color Purple before, or experienced this story in its other forms, this production is an ideal introduction to this sweeping, intense, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s a memorable exploration of character, family, and community, at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, centering around a tour-de-force central performance. It’s a modern classic story and musical, given a remarkable staging at the Muny.

Nicole Michelle Haskins, Gilbert Domally, Erica Durham and Cast of The Color Purple
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Color Purple in Forest Park until August 9, 2022

Legally Blonde: The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, Book by Heather Hach
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
July 28, 2022

Kyla Stone (Center) and Cast of Legally Blonde
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Legally Blonde is at the Muny, but not without some troubles due to the weather. Still, despite one rescheduled performance as a result of flooding and a bit of a delay before the Thursday night performance due to technical checks following more rain, the show went on. And it was worth the wait, because this show is full of energy, and is a whole lot of fun. 

The story, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the 2001 MGM movie, centers around Elle Woods (Kyla Stone), a UCLA fashion student who follows her college boyfriend Warner (Dan Tracy) to Harvard Law School after he dumps her just before graduation because the perky, pink-clad, Malibu-raised Elle doesn’t fit his “serious” ideal. Elle, with support from her peppy Delta Nu sorority sisters, is determined to prove Warner wrong and win him back. So she applies to Harvard and is accepted, making the journey East to Boston and, for Elle, to a whole new world that isn’t entirely ready for her. Here, she makes some new friends, like her law school mentor Emmett (Fergie L. Phillippe) and hairdresser Paulette (Patti Murin), as well as some rivals, like Warner’s “serious” new girlfriend Vivienne (Olivia Kaufmann), while struggling at first to adjust to the Harvard atmosphere and earn a prestigious internship from cutthroat Professor Callahan (Sean Allan Krill). After a few trials (pun intended) and tribulations, Elle gradually learns more about herself and her own intelligence and inner strength, all the while finding out who her real friends are and how to navigate the law school world as her unique “legally blonde” self. 

This production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun. With a great cast led by the energetic, vocally strong Stone as Elle, the story never has a dull moment. Stone is clearly enjoying herself as Elle, and her chemistry with the also great Phillipe as Emmett is palpable, and their scenes are a highlight of this production. Also strong is Murin as the kind but self-doubting Paulette, showing off great stage presence and vocals on her showcase “Ireland” number. There’s also excellent support from Kelsey Anne Brown, Gabi Campo, and Khailah Johnson as Elle’s “Greek Chorus” of sorority sisters Margot, Serena, and Pilar. Krill makes an ideal villain as the self-serving, creepy Callahan, and there’s a fun turn from Hayley Podschun as fitness guru and murder trial defendant Brooke Wyndham. There’s strong work all around, from the leads to the energetic ensemble, and even including two adorable dogs–Ricky as Elle’s dog Bruiser, who has some scene-stealing moments; and Myrtle as Paulette’s dog Rufus. There’s vibrant choreography by William Carlos Angulo, and the staging is brisk and lively. 

What’s also lively and impressive is Tim Mackabee’s set, which features some surprising elements like an actual pool onstage in the opening scene, and several versatile set pieces. There’s also eye-catching video design by Kylee Lorra, and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Denton. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes also impress, suiting the characters well, and managing to help tell Elle’s story as she navigates her law school career. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Lon Hoyt, sounds great, as well.

Legally Blonde is a fun show, especially when the cast is as enthusiastic as this one. While it’s not the strongest score and book I’ve seen, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, and this production finds a lot of emotion and heart. It’s another entertaining success in the 2022 Muny season. 

Fergie L. Phillipe, Kyla Stone
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Legally Blonde in Forest Park until August 1, 2022

In the Heights
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed and Choreographed by Luis Salgado
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2022

Cast of In the Heights
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

In the Heights was the first Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Best Musical before Hamilton. Even though it wasn’t quite the huge phenomenon that the latter show turned out to be, the first show is an entertaining, memorable, and character-filled hit in its own right. Now on stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts center as produced by STAGES St. Louis, this is a dynamic, crowd-pleasing production with a strong cast and stellar production values.  It’s a compelling look at a distinctive New York City neighborhood and variety of people who live there, along with their hopes, dreams, triumphs and struggles.

Miranda’s blend of hip-hop, pop, Latin music, and traditional musical theatre influences work well to tell this story set in Washington Heights, a largely Latino neighborhood. The central character, Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) owns a bodega, assisted by his young cousin, Sonny (Luis-Pablo Garcia). Usnavi essentially narrates the show from the beginning, telling his own story as well as introducing many of the other characters whose stories intertwine. There’s the Rosario family, who run a taxi business–Kevin (Edward Juvier) and Camila (Tauren Hagans), who are proud of their daughter Nina (Isabel Leoni), who has just finished her first year at Stanford. She’s hiding a secret, though, which she’s afraid to reveal to her parents. Nina also grows closer to Benny (Jahir Lawrence Hipps), who drives for the taxi company, but hopes to start his own someday. There’s also Vanessa (Amanda Robles), the object of Usnavi’s affections, who dreams of moving to an apartment downtown. Other local characters include Vanessa’s boss at the local hair salon, the gossip-loving Daniela (Ariana Valdes) and equally gossipy co-worker Carla (Marlene Fernandez), as well as Sonny’s pal Graffiti Pete (Cristian Rodriguez), a local frozen treat vendor known as Piragua Guy (Michael Schimmele), and the woman most people call Abuela Claudia (Tami Dahbura), who is especially close to Usnavi and the Rosarios. It’s a steamy summer in the neighborhood, and transition is in the air for many of the characters, whose aspirations vary and are affected by various plot events in different ways. A lottery drawing, romantic and family tensions, a heatwave and a blackout all contribute to the drama of this compelling, well-structured story.

The cast is terrific, simply stated. Alvarado has an amiable, awkward charm as Usnavi, and his performance is somewhat reminiscent of original Broadway lead Miranda. His chemistry with Robles’s determined Vanessa is sparkling, as are his scenes with the superb Dahbura as the “heart” of the show, Abuela Claudia. Garcia is also a strong standout as Sonny, showing strong physicality and comic timing. Also strong are Leoni as the conflicted Nina, who also has excellent chemistry with the equally impressive Hipps as Benny. There are some particularly strong voices here all around, and some great moments to shine especially for Dahbura on “Paciencia y Fe”, Schimmele as Piragua Guy, and Valdes as the big-voiced Daniela. Also worth mentioning are Juvier as Kevin Rosario, and Fernandez in a fun comic turn as Carla. There’s a great ensemble here, as well, with lots of energy, enthusiasm, and strong dance skills in the production numbers, dynamically choreographed by director Luis Salgado. It’s also great to see a live orchestra here again, which is becoming an especially welcome new tradition for STAGES now that they are in their current venue. The band here, led by music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, is lively and in great form. 

With great music and vocals, this show is a treat for the ears, as well as for the eyes, since the production values are nothing short of dazzling. Broadway set designer Anna Louizos has brought Washington Heights to the stage here in vivid detail, with a richly appointed multi-level set. There’s also vibrant lighting design by Sean M. Savoie and colorful, detailed costumes by Brad Musgrove. In the setting and the staging, the neighborhood has come to life as essentially a character in its own right. 

With music, drama, dynamic energy, and lots of heart, In the Heights is a vivid portrayal of a community and a neighborhood, as well as a portrayal of the importance of family, friendships, dreams, and the definition of “home”. It’s also supremely entertaining. It’s a first-rate production at STAGES St. Louis.

Amanda Robles, Ryan Alvarado, Luis-Pablo Garcia
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting In the Heights at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 31, 2022

All That Remains
by JM Chambers
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 23, 2022

Nyx Kaine, Sherard E. Curry, Victor Mendez
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

The second, and final, play in the Tesseract Theatre Company’s 2022 Summer New Play series is an in-depth look at the impact a great tragedy has on individual survivors, on relationships, and on an entire community. All That Remains deals with its heavy subject matter in a credible way, and the production features some excellent performances by its strong cast. It’s a well-structured play, for the most part, focusing on the direct human impact of a public tragedy, and it’s a fascinating, ultimately emotionally moving production.

This play doesn’t take any time to get to the drama. In fact, it starts in the middle of a loud, emotional argument between married couple Gary (Sherard E. Curry) and Elaine (Melody Quinn). Both are distraught for different reasons related to the same event–Gary is refusing to leave the house or do much of anything as he is still dealing with immense grief and trauma following a mass shooting at the high school where he was a teacher. Elaine is upset because she’s at the end of her rope, not knowing how to help Gary and still dealing with her own grief over both the shooting and another personal tragedy a few months before the shooting. She’s trying to encourage Gary to get out and try to move on, hanging out with friends Maggie (Morgan Maul-Smith) and Dylan (Luis Aguilar), but the one attempted get-together doesn’t go well. Gary, for his part, knows on one level that he needs to do something, but is still too overwhelmed, as he continually deals with flashbacks to the shooting and still hears the voices of victims he was close to–his best friend and fellow teacher Melody (Nyx Kaine) and Alejandro (Victor Mendez), one of his students. The emotions and issues continue to spiral out of control, until Elaine feels forced to take a drastic action to help Gary, which at first only appears to make things worse. Elaine, for her part, is also a sounding board for Maggie, who has lost one of her twin sons in the shooting and is dealing with how to help the surviving son. Much of the focus is on Gary, who has a huge struggle ahead of him, and Dylan proves to be a surprising resource of help in that regard. It’s a long, slow road as Gary and Elaine try to work their way back toward one another, but are there feelings and efforts enough? And what of the rest of the community that has been devastated by this tragedy?  

This is a story that pulls no punches in its depiction of deep grief and trauma resulting from tragedy. Emotions are laid bare, and there are many sensitive issues dealt with–such as violence, mass shootings, mental illness, the loss of loved ones, stillbirth, and more. It’s an intense show, but it’s well structured for the most part. There are some somewhat confusing timeline issues at times, but mostly, this is a compelling story centered on the various effects that a mass shooting can have on individuals, families, friendships, and whole communities.  The focus here is highly personal, with little to no mention of the political debates that often surround these tragic events. This is about Gary, and Elaine, their circle of friends, and their small Nebraska town, dealing with an overwhelming event that none of them had expected. It shows how they try, fail, and hopefully eventually succeed in picking up the shattered pieces of what had been and making a way in life. 

The direction and performances are excellent, as the build-up, tension, and road to recovery are shown with all the messiness and difficulty of grief, but also with an ever growing sense of hope in the midst of the struggle. As Gary, Curry gives a credible, emotionally resonant performance, as does Quinn as Elaine. Even throughout their intense struggles, they portray a couple that one wants to succeed. Aguilar and Maul-Smith are also convincing in support as Dylan and Maggie, who each have their own struggles to relate. Kaine and Mendez are also especially memorable as Melody and Alejandro, whose appearances seem to mark different levels of Gary’s struggle. It’s an especially cohesive ensemble, and the writing is also sufficient in that even with such a small cast, the overall sense of community and collective grief process of a whole town is clearly evident.

The production values are simple but effective, with a basic set by director Brittanie Gunn that forms an appropriate background for the action, and excellent lighting by Kevin Bowman that emphasizes the stark simplicity of the setting and centers on the performances. All That Remains may be intense, but it also has an undercurrent of persistent, even stubborn striving for hope. It’s another promising new play from Tesseract.

Melody Quinn, Morgan Maul-Smith
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting All That Remains at the Marcelle Theatre until July 31, 2022