Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Uhry’

The Robber Bridegroom
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman
Adapted From the Novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 2, 2018

Phil Leveling (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest musical production is a reflection of the sense of theatrical excellence that has come to characterize this company. The Robber Bridegroom is an offbeat, folktale-style musical with a bluegrass score, larger-than-life characters and a great bluegrass score.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1975, has a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and excellent, bluegrass-style music by Robert Waldman, played here by a top-notch band conducted by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The band members dress in costume and process in with the rest of the cast at the beginning of the show, remaining onstage throughout the performance and adding an old-fashioned, energetic spirit to the production, along with the superb cast, who are all in excellent form. The story is told in “storyteller” style and opens with a square dance, as the various characters introduce themselves and the premise is set up. In 18th Century Mississippi, Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling), while traveling, saves the rich planter Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey M Wright) from a murder attempt by notorious robber Little Harp (Logan Willmore)–whose “partner in crime” is the head of his brother, Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), that Little Harp carries around in a trunk. The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie to visit him at his plantation, with the aim of setting Lockhart up with his daughter Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), who is mistreated by her greedy, ambitious stepmother Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). The lonely Rosamund wanders in the woods and meets the notorius Bandit of the Woods, she doesn’t know is Jamie in disguise, and Salome enlists the not-too-bright Goat (Bryce Miller) to get rid of Rosamund, although that proves to be more difficult than Salome had imagined.

This is a show with which I hadn’t been familiar before, and I had only heard one of the songs out of context. Reading the plot synopsis, and the fairly dark nature of some of the plot points, made me go into this expecting it to be much more in the vein of something like Sweeney Todd. The approach here, though, is much different. For the most part, this is an upbeat musical, full of broad, sketch-like comedy, a rousing score, and no real “cautionary” lessons. It just presents the characters and situations in all their over-the-top, sometimes ridiculous glory and lets the audience, and the cast, enjoy the ride. It’s told in the form of a folk legend, or “tall tale”, with even the more implausible aspects of the plot (a disembodied head that talks, for instance) told in a straightforward, humorous manner. The bluegrass score adds to the overall “folk tale” atmosphere, and there are some memorable songs here, from the fast-moving “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”  and “Two Heads” to the haunting “Deeper in the Wood” to the lullabye-like “Sleepy Man” and more.

The general tone is upbeat and energetic, with broad characterizations that provide excellent opportunities for the excellent cast to shine. The larger-than-life characters are well-represented here, with Dowling’s angry, vengeful Salome, Willmore’s eagerly villainous Little Harp and O’Brien’s equally villainous but restrained (in a box) Big Harp, and Miller’s gleeful, physically agile but easily duped Goat as major standouts. Leveling as the charismatic but duplicitous Jamie, and especially Schmid in a superb comic turn as the determined, slightly goofy Rosamund lead the show well, displaying lively chemistry in their scenes together. The entire ensemble is excellent, as well, with lots of energy keeping the fast-paced show running smoothly and with much hilarity. The singing is also great, from the leads as well as the ensemble, with some strong harmonies in the group numbers.

The staging here is paced well, with a kind of exaggerated, not-too-serious tone that’s appropriate for this type of “tall tale”. Director Justin Been has also designed the versatile set, consisting of a tent-like backdrop, the main stage area decorated by period-era accessories such as crates and barrels, and a set of raised platforms to add visual interest. There’s also excellent lighting from Tyler Duenow, as well as colorful, detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and bright, energetic choreography by Mike Hodges.

This show is so much more fun than I had expected. It’s silly, that’s for sure, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its silliness, which makes it even more entertaining. The Robber Bridegroom isn’t a show I had known much about before, but now I’m glad Stray Dog has introduced me to it. It’s a real treat.

Dawn Schmid (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Robber Bridegroom at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 18, 2018.

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Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 4 2016

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that has become so well-known for its film version that it may become difficult to abandoned preconceived notions when going to see the stage version.  I personally had never seen the play before seeing the current production at New Jewish Theatre, although I had seen the film several times.  I know that a good production can easily make one set aside other versions if you give it a chance, and NJT’s production is an excellent production. It’s a story of a 25-year relationship and a specific time and place, challenging assumptions and more preconceived notions, and the casting is ideal.

The familiar story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s own family history, centers around widowed retired schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (J. Samuel Davis), who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Eric Dean White) after Daisy crashes her car and becomes too much of an insurance risk to drive. The proud Daisy insists she doesn’t need a driver at first, but Hoke is persistent and their initially rocky relationship grows closer over the years. The relationship dynamic is the centerpiece of this show, but the context is also extremely important, and although it’s not primarily a play about social commentary, it can be challenging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  The rich, Jewish Daisy insists that she isn’t rich and that she isn’t prejudiced against African-Americans, although the way she treats Hoke, especially at first, often belies that declaration. Even the seemingly easygoing Boolie is too afraid for his reputation to attend a dinner in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been invited to speak. The effort here is more to portray a specific relationship as it unfolds in the time and place–Atlanta, Georgia from 1948 until 1973–within the context of the highly restrictive and often volatile culture of the time. The relationship is the  centerpiece, however. The characters are well-drawn and the play tells a compelling, believable story in its roughly 90 minute running time.

Uhry’s play is well-structured and serves as an excellent showcase for its actors, led by NJT’s Artistic Director Sitzer in a rare acting role as Daisy.  Sitzer is excellent in portraying the complex character of Daisy, who is proud, stubborn, and set in her ways, but whose stubbornness masks an underlying vulnerability.  Davis is also excellent as Hoke, convincingly portraying the character’s developing relationship with Daisy and displaying a great deal of personal strength and determination. Both performers excel in the witty banter as well as the more dramatic moments of the piece, and the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to affectionate is convincing, as is their characters’ aging over the years as presented in the story. White also gives a strong performance as the personable, conciliatory Boolie.

The set, as is usual for productions at NJT, is impressive. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a believable, elegantly appointed house fronted by a representation of a car in which Hoke and Daisy make their various excursions. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are detailed and appropriately evocative of time and place, as well as the changing styles over the years. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Mark Wilson that helps to evoke the changing of time and season, and strong sound design by Zoe Sullivan. Music from the times is effectively used to help set the scene in various moments, as well.

This is a well-known play that I think is more complex than is often perceived. It can be sharp, challenging, and convicting as well as funny and heartwarming in moments.  Mostly, it’s a portrayal of particular distinctive characters and their growing, complex relationship.  New Jewish Theatre’s production is an excellent presentation of this memorable story.

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Driving Miss Daisy at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 18, 2016.

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Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 5, 2013

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn Photo by Michael Young

Pete Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Michael Young

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis. Of all the shows I have seen in 2013, only one has rated less than “very good” to me, but still there are those few truly transcendent productions that stand out even from a great crop of contenders. R-S Theatrics’ ambitious production of Parade is one of those stand-out productions. This is the first production from this company that I have seen, and to say I’m impressed is an understatement. I was bowled over by the level of talent, intensity and sheer drama of this production of a show that is certainly not a “feel good” musical. It’s raw, intense and stunningly real presentation of subject matter that can be difficult to watch and process, but needs to be told and is done so is a truly involving and compelling way.

This is not a happy musical, to put it mildly. Parade is the story of the famous case of Leo Frank, a New York-raised Jewish factory manager in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, who was accused and convicted of the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan, even though he was almost certainly innocent (and was eventually pardoned in 1986). It’s the story of a Southern town unable to forget (and, in fact, celebrating) its Confederate past with all its problems and inequities all wrapped in a rosy idealistic formula, as most of the town turns out—miniature battle flags in hand and waved enthusiastically–for the annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. Meanwhile, Leo (Pete Winfrey) feels his detachment not only from the town and a culture that romanticizes the Old South, but also from his own wife, Lucille (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who is also Jewish but grew up in Georgia and views herself as a part of Southern society. In this setting, the murder of the well-liked young Mary (Beth Wickenhauser) brings all the doubts and distrust of the “outsider” Frank to the boiling point and bringing the whole town into the spotlight and all the ugliness of racism and antisemitism to the surface, as well as some other unsavory elements such as the thirst for revenge at all costs–represented notably by Mary’s friend Frankie Epps (Zach Wachter), and the self-serving desire for political advancement at all costs, demonstrated primarily by District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (Ken Haller).

The players in this production are excellent, with particular stand-outs being Haller as the charismatic but corrupt Dorsey, Wachter as the grieving and increasingly vengeful Epps as well as an idealistic young Confederate soldier at the start of the show, and Marshall Jennings as the smooth-talking factory janitor Jim Conley (who most historians believe was the real murderer). Jennings grabs the stage–and the audience’s attention–and won’t let go in his chillingly energetic numbers “That’s What He Said” (at Frank’s trial) and “Blues: Feel the Rain” (in Act 2). Kevin Hester is sympathetic as the conflicted governor Jack Slaton, to whom Lucille Frank appeals for help, and Shawn Bowers (as night watchman and original suspect Newt Lee), Alexis Coleman (as the Franks’ house maid Minnie McKnight), Kay Love (in a dual role as Mrs. Phagan and Mrs. Slaton) and Wickenhauser as Mary deliver strong performances as well, with Bowers and Coleman delivering one of the show’s strongest musical moments at the beginning of Act 2 in “A Rumblin’ and A Rollin'”. This is a show full of powerful musical moments from the very beginning (the haunting “Old Red Hills of Home”), to the sweetly comic (Frankie and Mary’s “The Picture Show”), to the disturbing (most of the trial), to the heartbreaking (Mary’s funeral) and the hopeful (the Franks’ “This Is Not Over Yet”). This is a cast of fine voices, and the ensemble carries the mood of the show convincingly as well.

In the midst of all this tension and injustice is a tragically beautiful love story, anchored by the truly brilliant performances of the two leads. As Leo and Lucille Frank deal with trying to prove Leo’s innocence, the initially emotionally distant couple find not just answers, but each other, and this relationship is portrayed compellingly and with much warmth and honesty by Winfrey and Theby-Quinn. Individually, their performances are the centerpiece of this production–Winfrey’s initially cold and nervous and increasingly vulnerable Leo, and Theby-Quinn’s gentle and polite but ultimately fiery and determined Lucille. What’s more, all of their scenes together are outstanding, with the devastatingly intense “All the Wasted Time” being perhaps the best single scene I’ve seen on stage all year. Their chemistry is more than believable—it’s electric, and their efforts to say all the things they had left unsaid is almost unbearably honest, but so deeply compelling it’s impossible to look away. It’s all the more tragic seeing their relationship develop and watching all the tenderness and intensity of this scene, all the while knowing what is going to happen ultimately. It’s one of those moments where I find myself wishing I could just freeze the show right at that point, so these two can have their moment and nothing bad will happen, but this isn’t that kind of show. The genius of this show, and this production, is that it can make the audience wish for a happy ending even when it’s not possible. We want it to be possible, but it’s not to be, and the final scene, displaying the aftermath of the tragedy, is gut-wrenchingly effective.

The time and place are effectively suggested by a minimal set–a darkly painted stage, starkly lit, with a a few set pieces and furniture brought in as needed to suggest the factory, the courtroom, a jail cell, and more. It all plays particularly well in the ornate, red-curtained Ivory Theatre, with period music playing before the show to set the mood, and the excellent musical ensemble playing Jason Robert Brown’s excellent score.

I don’t cry easily at shows, but this production had me near tears on at least three occasions. Even though this is based on a true case and the exact circumstances have changed since 1913-15, the issues of prejudice, pressure for conformity, and the dangers of mob mentalities and vengeance, as well the overarching message of reconciliation as personified by the Franks themselves, are still relevant today. Stories like this need to be told, and R-S Theatrics has told this story with clarity and truth. It’s a remarkable piece of theatre.

Parade Ensemble Photo by Michael Young

Parade Ensemble
Photo by Michael Young

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