The Who’s Tommy
Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend, Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2019

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

For its latest production, Stray Dog Theatre is bringing back a show they first staged 8 years ago. Although I didn’t see that production, I’ve heard some glowing comments about it, so I’m not entirely surprised they would want to produce it again. Now, the company has restaged The Who’s Tommy with a new look and concept, and an excellent cast, particularly in terms of the three performers playing the title role at different ages.

Legendary British rock group The Who first produced their rock opera Tommy as a concept album in 1969. It has since been adapted into a trippy movie directed by Ken Russell in 1975, and later into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Each version has been altered in various ways from the original album, and I hadn’t seen the stage show before this latest production from SDT, although I had seen the film roughly 30 years ago. What I remember most is the iconic rock score, featuring hits like “Pinball Wizard”, and much of that score is featured here. The story focuses on the life of Tommy Walker (played from young adulthood by Kevin Corpuz), who is born in England in the early years of World War II and suffers a traumatic incident involving his parents (Kelly Howe, Phil Leveling) and his mother’s lover (Jordan Wolk) when he is four years old (played by Alora Marguerite Walsby). As a result, Tommy loses the ability to see, speak, and hear, and grows up experiencing the world using his other senses and emotions. He’s further abused and bullied by other relatives, including his creepy, alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Cory Frank) and his opportunistic Cousin Kevin (Tristan Davis), and taken by his parents to various doctors and others offering “cures” for Tommy (played at age 10 by Leo Taghert). Eventually, Tommy is introduced to pinball by his cousin, and he displays a surprising and remarkable talent for the game, causing a sensation and attracting fans and followers. He then becomes something of a cult figure for a lot of his fans, and he has to figure out what to do about that and come to terms with his own past, present, and future.

The entire technical side of this production is stunning, especially in the visuals. This production is given a unique design that gives it more of a futuristic look rather than the 1940s–1960s time frame would suggest. This look goes especially well with the rock music score and overall mysterious tone of the piece. There’s a fluorescent neon look to Eileen Engel’s costumes that gives them a striking appearance and works well with Josh Smith’s concert-stage like multilevel set, Justin Been’s dazzling kaleidoscopic projections, and Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting. The driving score is played with style by the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, with particular kudos going to guitar players Adam Rugo and John J. Reitano, who give the music much of its power. The only occasional drawback to the sheer volume of everything is that sometimes the words to the songs can be lost under the music, especially in the ensemble numbers, and with a show like this that is mostly sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, it’s especially essential to be able to hear the lyrics.

The casting is especially strong here, led by the three performers who play Tommy as he grows up. Corpuz, as the adult Tommy and “guiding voice” for his younger versions, gives a commanding performance, with strong stage presence and a powerful voice that fits the score well. The younger Tommys are just as good, too, from Walsby’s mostly silent performance and very credible reactions to Taghert’s journey as the youthful Tommy goes through a series of traumatic encounters and finally finds his talent. All three of these actors are the heart of this show, and much of the dramatic weight rests on them. There are also strong showings from Howe and Leveling as Tommy’s parents, Frank as the smarmy Uncle Ernie, Davis in a particularly well-sung turn as Cousin Kevin, Engel as a determined young fan of Tommy’s named Sally Simpson, and Jeffrey M. Wright in several roles. The ensemble is also strong all around, vocally and in demonstrating Mike Hodges’ energetic choreography.

The Who’s Tommy has something of a rock concert feel to it, as is fitting with the show’s origins. Still, there is a compelling story here, told by a bold, bright, futuristic-looking production led by a particularly strong trio of title performers. It’s another memorable musical from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Who’s Tommy at Tower Grove Abbey until October 26, 2019

Brighton Beach Memoirs
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
New Jewish Theatre
October 10, 2019

Jane Paradise, Jacob Flekier, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is starting a new season with a celebrated work by one of America’s most prolific playwrights, Neil Simon. The first in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy”, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a semi-autobiographical tale that veers swiftly between comedy and drama at times, but ultimately it’s a poignant and nostalgic coming-of-age story, even if it is dated in places. Especially, this production features a strong cast that makes the most of the comedic and dramatic elements of the story.

The story is set in 1937 in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, New York, and narrated by Simon’s teenage avatar Eugene Morris Jerome (Jacob Flekier). Eugene is an aspiring writer, and this story is part of his “secret” memoir. In addition to his writing ambitions, Eugene is also interested in baseball (particularly the New York Yankees), looks up to his older brother Stanley (Spencer Kruse), and harbors an increasingly intense crush on his older cousin Nora (Summer Baer), who along with her younger sister Laurie (Lydia Mae Foss) and their widowed mother, Blanche (Laurie McConnell) has been living with Eugene’s family. Eugene’s mother Kate (Jane Paradise) is concerned about the well–being of all of her family, including hardworking husband Jack (Chuck Brinkley), her sons, and her younger sister Blanche and her daughters. It’s the Great Depression in America, and the threat of war is looming in Europe, and the family members have their own hopes, goals, and fears, as Eugene deals with puberty and his future goals, Stanley deals with a moral dilemma at his job, Jack deals with financial struggles and the concerns of taking care of a family, as does Kate. There are family conflicts between the lonely Blanche and her aspiring dancer daughter, Nora; between Kate and Blanche who have old issues to settle; between Stanley and his parents, and the expectations set on him by his family; and more. Eugene is the central figure and the narrator, but the primary conflicts are mostly within the rest of the family, as the hardships of the world and expectations and conventions of society are reflected in the conflicts and hardships of the family. It’s an insightful, witty script for the most part, with some fairly intense drama that is built up well, but there are some moments that can come across as jarring for a 2019 audience, especially in the expressed attitudes of Stanley and Eugene toward girls and, particularly, Nora. Still, for the most part this is a poignant and thoughtful comedy/drama, with a hopeful bent toward the end even despite the continuing tensions in the wider world. It’s been described by Simon (as noted in the director’s message in the program) as somewhat of an idealization of his childhood and his family, but nonetheless these characters seem believably real, especially as portrayed by the excellent cast in this production.

As for that cast, each cast member seems especially well-chosen for this production. As Eugene, Flekier is full of energy and enthusiasm, portraying the teenager’s adolescent angst and occasional cluelessness with admirable clarity. There are also fine performances from Kruse as the conflicted Stanley, Baer as the determined Nora, and Foss as the occasionally snarky young Laurie. The adult characters are especially well-played here, as well, with truly remarkable performances from Paradise and McConnell as the contrasting sisters Kate and Blanche, with McConnell especially bringing out a lot of the heartwrenching poignancy of her story. These two are especially believable as siblings, and their scenes together are a highlight of the production. Paradise also has credible chemistry with the also excellent Brinkley as the world-weary, well-meaning Jack. Brinkley’s presence as the strong-but-fair father figure is readily apparent in all his interactions here, especially with his sons. It’s a strong ensemble, representing a believably imperfect but generally loving family unit, reacting to each other and to their times in sometimes humorous, occasionally heartrending ways.

As is usual for NJT, the physical production is top-notch, with a terrific, painstakingly detailed two-level set by Margery and Peter Spack that evokes the era ideally. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes also fit the period and characters well. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, and impressive sound design by Zoe Sullivan, effectively bringing the audience along for the story and into 1930s Brooklyn.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is a well-known show that I hadn’t managed to see before this production, and I’m glad that New Jewish Theatre has given me my “introduction” to this piece on stage. It’s an impressively cast, well-realized production that reflects Simon’s witty and occasionally intense script especially well. I’m finding myself hoping NJT will stage the other two plays in the “Eugene Trilogy” in future seasons, with as much of the same cast as they are able to retain. This is a strong start to a new season for New Jewish Theatre.

Jacob Flekier
Photo by Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 27, 2019

The Agitators
by Mat Smart
Directed by Lisa Tejero
Upstream Theater
October 4, 2019

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

For me, The Agitators at Upstream Theater is an educational experience as well as a theatrical one, and I would imagine the same would be true for many others in the audience. Following the true but not generally highlighted friendship of two well-known and important historical figures, this production also serves as an ideal showcase for its excellent actors. Its also notable for a memorable musical soundtrack and strong production values.

A lot of audience members will (or should be) familiar with prominent 19th Century activists Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. I had read a fair amount about both before, but I wasn’t aware that the two shared a close friendship that lasted for decades. This play focuses on that friendship, and on both central figures’ lives in devotion to their causes, the abolition of slavery and equal rights (including voting rights) for African-Americans and for women. The story spans the decades, starting in the 1840s when Douglass (Jerome Samuel Davis) and Anthony (Erin Kelley) first meet and form a friendship, through the years before and after the Civil War, to the effort to pass the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and in the continuing fight for women’s sufferage. The two are portrayed as affectionate friends and allies, but also strong personalities who occasionally clash in pursuit of their causes, as their focuses and approaches do not always align. It’s a fascinating portrayal of the struggles that activists can face, and the temptations to compromise some goals in favor of others. It also shows both characters challenging one another at various times, putting strains on their life-enduring friendship. It’s an in-depth look at these two and at a particularly tumultuous time in American history.

The casting is ideal here, with both performers giving terrific performances and working together especially well, showing an incredible bond between their characters. The strong presence and historical importance of both Douglass and Anthony is well-embodied by Davis and Kelley, as is their humanity, as well as the passage of time and aging of the two central figures over the years and decades. It’s a compelling portrayal from both, and the relationship forms the foundation of the drama. There’s also a strong musical soundtrack provided by Syrhea Conaway that is essentially a character in itself, lending much poignancy to the production.

The set, by Patrick Huber, is versatile and evocative, consisting of a wooden stage area and several blocks that are moved around by stagehands as needed, backed by excellent projections. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler also add to the sense of time, place, and character. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Huber and excellent sound by Kareem Deanes. All of these elements, as well as the props by Jenny Smith and wigs by The Wig Associates, work together to make for an impressively credible production.

The Agitators is a compelling drama, with its important historical characters–and the top-notch performers portraying them–at front and center. It’s educational and enlightening, highlighting important historic events as well an timeless themes of equality and justice. It’s an impressive season opener for Upstream Theater.

Jerome Samuel Davis, Erin Kelley
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting The Agitators at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 13, 2019

Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
October 1, 2019

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

I’ve seen Hello Dolly! a few times now, at various levels from dinner theatre to regional theatre, as well as the movie. Now, the Fox is presenting the tour based on the recent Broadway revival. My first reaction upon seeing this new production is “it’s Hello, Dolly!” What I mean is that it’s basically what you would expect. There are no reinventions or re-imaginings here. In fact, this one seems to be trying to preserve the spirit of the original Broadway production, and original director, choreographer Gower Champion is even listed in the credits. What is somewhat different about this production is that the emphasis seems to be on the lead performer more than ever, which makes sense since it was originally designed as a vehicle for Bette Midler. Here, with the role being taken by Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello, that starry sheen is as evident as ever, and the title character is certainly the star of the show.

The story is the same familiar tale–of matchmaker and all-around professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Carmello), who after years of making matches for other people, has decided that she’s tired of being a widow and wants to set up a match for herself. The object of her scheme is curmudgeonly Yonkers-based “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (John Bolton), who thinks he’s being paired with widowed hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming), but he doesn’t know Dolly has other plans. This show also has an especially strong “B” plot that, for me, often upstages the “A” plot–that focusing on Horace’s sheltered and overworked chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Daniel Beeman), who along with young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Sean Burns) takes advantage of the boss’s absence to take an adventurous day trip to New York City, eventually crossing paths with Irene and her young assistant, Minnie Fay (Chelsea Cree Groen). There are some other subplots as well, that all eventually get tied together, with memorable characters and some increasingly hilarious situations, all while Dolly tries to reconcile her future plans with her past, while manipulating situations to her advantage.

Of course, this show, being named after its main character, needs to have a stand-out star in the role, and more than any other stage production I’ve seen, this one has that. I’ve seen some excellent performers as Dolly, but this whole production is essentially Carmello being backed by everyone else. That’s not to disparage the rest of the cast–everyone is excellent, with Bolton a fine, cantankerous Horace, and particular standout performances from Burns as an eager, amiably and athletically dancing Barnaby, Groen as the outspoken Minnie Fay, and a fun, expressive turn by Laura Sky Herman as Horace’s nervous niece, Ermengarde. Beeman and Leaming also show fine chemistry as Cornelius and Irene. There’s also a great, energetic ensemble filling out splashy, dazzling production numbers like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and Before the Parade Passes By”. Still, the main focus is on Carmello, as it should be because she’s terrific. She’s got everything anyone would want in a Dolly, and more, with a great voice, the big personality to fill out the stage even when she’s the only one on it, especially impressive comic timing and physical comedy skills, and an emotional range that brings poignancy to her more serious moments. It’s a tour-de-force performance.

Another standout feature of this show is its dazzling physical production. It’s a great-looking, fresh-from-Broadway stylish presentation, with a stunning, highly detailed set and fantastically colorful costumes, both by Santo Loquasto. There’s also excellent lighting by Natasha Katz and sound by Scott Lehrer. The production is also accompanied by a delightful orchestra led by Ben Whitely, making the classic score sound great.

The only major drawback to reviewing this production is that Carolee Carmello has joined the show so recently that there aren’t any production photos of her yet. Still, she’s the reason to see this show. It’s a fun, energetic production, with a good cast, but Carmello is the star, filling this great, classic role with style.

Cast of Hello, Dolly!
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Hello, Dolly! National Tour

The North American tour of Hello Dolly! is being presented at the Fox Theatre until October 13, 2019

by Bill Cain
Directed by Tom Kopp
West End Players Guild
September 28, 2019

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, John Wolbers, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is opening their new season with the second play by a local company focusing on the working and personal life of the Bard in two months. There are some major differences, though, between those productions. The last one, Insight’s Shakespeare in Love, was a large-cast comedy. This one, Equivocation, has a relatively small cast and is more dramatic in tone, although it does have its humorous moments. It’s also one of the best productions I’ve seen from this company.

This play is something of a “What if?” story, presenting the playwrights idea of what could have happened in history, even if there’s no concrete evidence that it did. It’s an intriguing idea, too, with successful playwright William Shagspeare (Roger Erb) -as he is called here–being summoned by the Prime Minister, Robert Cecil (John Wolbers), who orders Shagspeare to write a play about the infamous–and recently foiled–“Gunpowder Plot”. Shagspeare is reticent for several reasons, but Cecil is insistent, as is Richard (Reginald Pierre), the leader of Shagspeare’s theatrical troupe. The other players, Nate (also Wolbers), Armin (Mark Conrad) and the newest member, Sharpe (Michael Pierce) are all intrigued as well, but Shagspeare’s daughter, Judith (Alicen Moser), who professes to hate theatre, isn’t so sure, especially since her father states he wants to tell the truth. “How can there be anything true about a play?” she asks, and that’s the big question here. How does a playwright write the truth when so many factors are working against him? There are pressures from his actors to write good roles for them, and to write a play that sells tickets. There’s also the more pressing government pressure to tell the “official” story of the plot, of which Shagspeare is skeptical, to say the least. There’s also his own self-doubt and personal regrets based on past reactions to his plays and what his audience expects from his plays. Add that to the personal tensions he has with his daughter, his lingering grief about having lost his son, and the outlook for this play doesn’t look promising, at least at first. Then, the playwright begins to interview some of the “plotters”–particularly Tom Wintour (also Pierce) and Catholic priest Garnet (also Pierre), learning that there’s a lot more to the story than the “official” account lets on, and that Cecil has his own reasons for wanting this play written and the plotters executed. What ensues is a positively fascinating plot full of twists, turns, memorable characters, and lots of intrigue, with a clever, insightful script and a surprisingly timely subject matter, as a playwright deals with the struggle to tell the truth in a society that is hostile to that truth. It also deals poignantly with issues of parent/child relationships and grief, as well as about the process of writing and an overall sense of love for the theatre. Also, the development of the play Shagspeare is writing, which turns into something you may recognize, is compellingly and cleverly portrayed.

The cast is excellent, led by Erb in an excellent, sympathetic portrayal of a writer, actor and father who searches for, and seeks to best represent, the truth while facing some difficult personal truths. Erb has a strong presence and relates well with the rest of the cast, especially the equally strong Moser as the initially surly, but ultimately well-meaning Judith. The other cast members all play multiple roles, and they play them well, from Wolbers as the scheming, aristocratic Cecil to Pierce as the somewhat insecure up-and-coming actor Sharpe as well as the devout, imprisoned Wintour and another role that’s unlisted but especially important, to Pierre as the determined, proud and aging actor Richard and the intriguing, philosophical Garnet, to Conrad in various roles including actor Armin. Everyone does an impressive job with the transitions between characters, which can sometimes be abrupt. The interplay between the cast members provides a lot of the drama here, and director Tom Kopp keeps the tone and pacing just right. Even though the play is relatively long, it doesn’t seem that way, and is fascinating from start to finish.

Technically, this show makes the most of the basement stage at Union Avenue Christian Church. George Shea’s set is versatile and effective, evoking its era but also allowing for the various changes of setting and for some striking staging effects. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters and the period especially well. There’s also appropriately evocative lighting design by Amy Ruprecht and sound and original music by Susan Kopp.

Equivocation is, unequivocally, a dramatic triumph from West End Players Guild. It’s a play I hadn’t heard of before, and I’m glad to have seen it now. This is a stunning piece of theatre, with a cast that is nothing short of stellar. It’s a superb way to start off a new season from West End Players Guild.

Alicen Moser, Roger Erb, Mark Conrad, Michael Pierce, Reginald Pierre, John Wolbers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players’ Guild is presenting Equivocation at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 6, 2019

Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger
Based on the Film Written and Directed by John Waters
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer
New Line Theatre
September 27, 2019

Caleb Miofsky, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is opening a new season with an old favorite. Their previous production of Cry-Baby was apparently extremely well-received, so now the company has brought it back for a rousing, fun new production. It’s one of those shows that seems made for this company, and the excellent cast of veteran New Liners and talented newcomers makes the most of every moment.

This show, based on a John Waters film that I also hadn’t seen, isn’t quite as simple as it might first appear. The tone is upbeat and rocking, for the most part, although the underlying message is more serious. The characters are deliberately cartoonish and placed into “types”, all in service to the idea that appearances can be deceiving, and strictly enforced social roles can’t (and shouldn’t) substitute for genuine integrity. The setting is 1954 Baltimore, and the conflict is on between the accepted “clean and decent” young people, the Squares, and their parents and respected elders, and the countercultural Drapes (basically greasers), who like loud music, defy accepted social norms, and are looked down upon by the Squares and their supporters. The focus is on a Romeo and Juliet-like “first sight” attraction between baton-twirling Square Allison Vernon Williams (Grace Langford) and “bad-boy” aspiring rock ‘n roller Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Caleb Miofsky), who is derided for his background by the Squares led by Baldwin Blandish (Jake Blonstein), who is also interested in Allison and who leads a sweater-clad vocal group called The Whiffles (Stephen Henley, Ian McCreary, Christopher Strawhun). Cry-Baby sings regular gigs at a local establishment favored by the Drapes called Turkey Hill, hosted by his friend and aspiring DJ Dupree W. Dupree (Marshall Jennings), and backed by a trio of outspoken, also socially outcast Drapes Pepper Walker (Reagan Deschaine), Wanda Woodward, and Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malronorowski (Sarah Gene Dowling). When Allison’s interest in Cry-Baby becomes obvious and she accepts Cry-Baby’s invitation to join him at Turkey Hill, this upsets the vengeful Baldwin as well as the obsessive Lenora Frigid (Aj Surrell), who is fixated on Cry-Baby and determined to make him notice her. Then there’s the issue of Cry-Baby’s tragic backstory, which causes conflict not only for him, but also for Allison’s socialite grandmother, Cordelia Vernon-Williams (Margeau Steinau), who may know more about what happened than she lets on.

As I’ve already stated, this is a fun show, with a bright, energetic score that’s heavily influenced by early 50s rock and pop, and this production gets that sound just right, not only by means of the excellent singing that’s come to be a given at New Line, but also by the also predictably superb New Line Band, led by Nicolas Valdez, who shares credit as music director of the show with Marc Vincent. It’s also almost impossibly energetic in terms of tone, and some serious topics are covered throughout the course of the sometimes deceptively bouncy score and characterization. As mentioned in the Director’s Notes in the program, it’s essentially about irony, in situation and tone. There are some deep messages thrown in there that (deliberately) clash with the oh-so-hyper-positive tone–issues of questioning social norms and oppressive societies, of the inevitability of social and cultural change, of generation gaps, and more. That’s all there, but the upbeat energy is also infectious even when you know how the story is going to turn out, and what’s going to happen in the larger society after the show’s time period ends.

The cast here is wonderful, led by a star-in-the-making performance from high school senior Miofsky as Cry-Baby. As the frequently misunderstood but still upbeat, kind, well-meaning would-be rock star, Miofsky has it all–the voice, the personality, the stage presence, and the chemistry with his co-stars, especially the equally excellent New Line veteran Langford as the perky but conflicted Allison. She also has a great voice. There are also strong comic performances from Blonstein as the increasingly vengeful, insistently “squeaky clean” Baldwin, Dowling as the confrontational “Hatchet-Face”, and the hilariously off-kilter Surrell as the Lenora. There are also strong performances from Jennings, in great voice as Dupree, and Steinau as the increasingly conflicted “pillar of the community” Mrs. Vernon Williams. There’s a strong ensemble all-around, with excellent singing, energetic dancing choreographed by Michelle Sauer, and cohesive ensemble chemistry that helps to tell the story well.

The production values here are great, too. The time, place, and tone of the show are well-represented in Rob Lippert’s eye-catching set and Colene and Evan Fornachon’s cool, colorful costumes. There’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl and sound design by Ryan Day.

Overall, this is a great looking and sounding show with a satirically upbeat 50s flavor and broadly comic tone. With some truly great performances and a memorable score, Cry-Baby is a hit. It’s another example of a show that works better at New Line than it probably would (and did) on Broadway. It’s also (if I haven’t mentioned this before) a whole lot of fun!

Cast of Cry-Baby
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Cry-Baby at the Marcelle Theatre until October 19, 2019

Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self
Created by Maggie Conroy and Chuck Harper
Directed by Chuck Harper
September 26, 2019

Maggie Conroy, Gabe Taylor, Keating, Jeffrey Skoblow
Photo by Valerie Goldston

YoungLiars are back, and they’re as unconventional as ever, with a new, revised production of a show they’ve performed before, with the intriguing title Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self. Like other works this company has performed, this production is solidly in the “experimental” category, and it’s certainly unique. It plays out as more of a series of sketches than a linear story, highlighting the comedic and dramatic skills of the talented ensemble.

It’s difficult to categorize this show. It starts out as something of a stream-of-consciousness sketch comedy, but the subject matter gets darker as the show plays out. There are some hilarious moments, some absurd moments, and some downright tragic tales told here. Subtitled “The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self”, the show is something of a free-form examination of various elements of the self-help movement, with credited inspiration from a number of well-known and lesser-known authors including Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. The six-member ensemble (Maggie Conroy, Frankie Ferrari, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Keating, Jeffrey Skoblow, and Gabe Taylor) shows off a range of skills, as movement is a large part of the show, from 60s-style dancing to comedic “acrobatics” with chairs, and more. There are also a few running sequences, such as one in which cast members are paired up to ask each other questions about kissing, with a mostly comic tone that turns truly bizarre in the last of these pairings. All the cast members except Skoblow are clad in white costumes, with Skoblow decked out in a black-and-white ensemble and a pair of steampunk-ish goggles. There are movement exercises, monologues, and moments of dancing. There are some potentially disturbing sequences as well–the production has posted a trigger warning concerning topics of depression and suicide, as well as a loud gunshot during the show. It’s impossible to describe this show adequately and do it justice. Essentially, it’s an experience, running the gamut of emotions and philosophies and  displaying their considerable comic timing and sheer emotional range.

The staging is energetic and well-paced, with a confrontational tone on some occasions and some engagement with the audience at times. Every cast member is excellent, and this is truly and ensemble work, with an excellent sense of cooperation and chemistry between the actors. The sound by Chuck Harper, lighting by Theresa Kelly, and costumes by Maggie Conroy are striking, as well, fitting the production well into the performance space in a ballroom at the Centene Center for the Arts.

This is a truly bizarre show, but also truly thought-provoking and memorable. It’s probably not for everyone, and will especially appeal to fans of experimental theatre. It’s inventive, energetic, and clever, with a first-rate ensemble. Oh, and not to spoil anything, but there’s a reason that there’s a picture of a banana on the program. Remember the banana!

YoungLiars is presenting Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self at the Centene Center for the Arts until October 5, 2019