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A Christmas Carol
Adapted by David H. Bell
From the Novella by Charles Dickens
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 2, 2016

Jerry Vogel, John Rensenhouse Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jerry Vogel, John Rensenhouse
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

‘Tis the season for holiday-themed shows in the St. Louis theatre scene, and this year, the Rep has brought back a show that used to be staged annually decades ago. A Christmas Carol is the classic Dickens tale that has been adapted many times over the years by various playwrights, in musical and non-musical form. The Rep’s latest production, adapted by David H. Bell and performed previously by several other theatre companies, isn’t really a musical although seasonal carols abound.  It’s a technically stunning, well-cast production that keeps true to the spirit of Dickens.

As most viewers will already know, A Christmas Carol centers around the crusty, miserly money lender Ebenezer Scrooge, played here by John Rensenhouse.  After Scrooge spends Christmas Eve being his usual Christmas-hating, bah humbugging self, he gets a rude awakening when he’s suddenly visited by the spirit of his old, long-dead business partner Jacob Marley (Joneal Joplin) and warned that three more spirits will be visiting before dawn breaks on Christmas Day.  Through the visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past (Jacqueline Thompson), Present (Jerry Vogel), and Future (Landon Tate Boyle), Scrooge is reminded of what he has lost and what he could still have if he only is able to change his ways. We meet the familiar characters of Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Michael James Reed), Cratchit’s wife (Amy Loui) and seven children including the optimistic but ailing Tiny Tim (Owen Hanford), as well as Scrooge’s persistent nephew Fred (Ben Nordstrom), and faces from his past including his former boss Mr. Fezziwig (also Vogel) and his one-time fiancee, Belle (Lana Dvorak).  The end of the story is well-known enough, but what’s important here is how the story is told, with humor, drama, music, and a lot of dazzling effects.

The cast here is excellent, led by the impressive Rensenhouse, who makes Scrooge’s journey and ultimate reformation thoroughly convincing. There’s also strong work by Joplin as a particularly creepy ghost of Jacob Marley,  Vogel in a dual role as the bouncy Fezziwig and a Ghost of Christmas Present who resembles a cross between Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, and Thompson as an ominous Ghost of Christmas Past. There are also strong performances from Nordstrom as the kindly but disappointed (in Scrooge) Fred, Reed as the earnest Bob Cratchit, Loui as Mrs. Cratchit, young Hanford as the lovable Tiny Tim, and Kaley Bender, Justin Leigh Duhon, Kennedy Holmes, Phoenix Lawson, Nathaniel Mahone, and Kara Overlein as the rest of the Cratchit children.  Susie Wall is also excellent in a dual role as Scrooge’s feisty housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and as Mrs. Fezziwig. There’s a strong ensemble as well, playing various characters and augmenting the story with a variety of well-sung Christmas carols, contributing to the overall Victorian holiday atmosphere of the piece.

Technically, this production is particularly impressive, featuring a spectacular multi-level set by Robert Mark Morgan that serves as an ideally versatile background for the action of the play. Dorothy Marshal Englis’s costumes are also superb, ranging from the authentic Victorian-era costumes of most of the ensemble to the more fantastical costumes worn by the various ghosts, including a truly chilling Ghost of Christmas Future. Rob Denton’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute wonderfully to the sometimes haunting, sometimes festive atmosphere of the production, and there are also some excellent flying effects by On the FLY Productions LLC.

Although I have seen quite a few of the filmed versions of this story, I had never actually seen a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol before. The Rep’s production certainly captures the spirit of this well-known story. It’s at turns whimsical, frightening, compassionate, challenging, and wondrous, with a strong cast taking the audience on this journey that’s at once familiar and new at the same time. It’s a worthwhile show for the holiday season.

Cast of A Christmas Carol Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until December 24, 2016.

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes

Suggested by the Unfinished Novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 2, 2015

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

An unfinished novel by one of literature’s most celebrated writers might seem like a strange subject for a musical, especially one written by a guy who’s probably best known for a 1970s one-hit-wonder pop song.  Still, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a remarkably memorable, energetic and tuneful show, popular in the 1980s when it debuted on Broadway, and in its more recent revival.  It’s a great show for a company like Stray Dog and director Justin Been, who brought a vibrant and striking edition of Cabaret to St. Louis audiences last year.  And Drood does not disappoint. Boasting top-notch technical elements and an extremely strong cast, this musical’s appeal is definitely no mystery.

Written by singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who famously recorded “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in 1979, Drood acknowledges the unfinished nature of Dickens’ story with a clever conceit. The show is staged as a play-within-a-play, as a troupe of English music hall performers are putting on a production of the story and the group’s Chairman (Gerry Love) explains the novel’s background. The idea is that they will be performing the story as written up until Dickens stopped writing, whereupon it will be left to the audience to vote on how it concludes. The Dickens tale is told, with occasional “breaking of the fourth wall” by the music hall performers who are playing the novel’s characters. The essential story is one of mystery, intrigue and jealousy, as oily choirmaster John Jasper (Zachary Stefaniak) yearns for the innocent young Rosa Bud (Eileen Engel), who is long betrothed to Jasper’s nephew, the eponymous Edwin Drood (Heather Matthews, playing a woman playing a man).  Along the way we meet other characters, such as the Reverend Crisparkle (Patrick Kelly), who has a past connection to Rosa’s mother and who is housing twins Helena (Kimberly Still) and Neville Landless (Kelvin Urday), who have recently emigrated to England from Ceylon.  Neville quickly becomes involved in a rivalry of sorts with Drood. Meanwhile, the unstable Jasper seeks comfort in an opium den operated by the mysterious Princess Puffer (Lavonne Byers). The somewhat convoluted story, which leads to the disappearance and presumed murder of the title character, also involves the town’s mayor (played in a last minute substitution by the Chairman himself) and bumbling drunkard Durdles (Eric Woelbling) and his young sidekick Deputy (Kevin Connelly).  After many twists and turns of the plot, the story finally ends in a fashion chosen by the audience, with a different murderer, detective and pair of secret lovers chosen every night by vote.

This is a big show, especially for the small-ish Stray Dog stage, and the well-chosen cast fills that stage extremely well, with excellent voices, well-executed choreography (by Stefaniak) and seemingly boundless energy. Love is a charming, hilariously entertaining Chairman, both introducing the proceedings and eventually reluctantly participating in them. There are strong turns by all of the cast members, as well, with Stefianiak reveling in the oily over-the-top manic energy of Jasper, although his enunciation on songs such as “A Man Could Go Quite Mad” is occasionally uneven. As male impersonator Alice Nutting playing Edwin Drood, Matthews displays excellent stage presence and impressive vocals. Her duet on “Perfect Strangers” with Engel as Rosa is a highlight, as her return in the show’s epilogue of sorts, “The Writing on The Wall”. Engel is a real find, playing the gutsy young Rosa with spirit and displaying a strong soprano voice on songs like “Moonlight” and its reprise. There are also memorable performances from Michael A. Well’s as the scene-grabbing Bazzard, Urday as the hot-headed Neville, Still as the feisty Helena, Woelbling as the comical Durdles and Connelly as the clueless but eager to please young Deputy.  Byers is, as usual, in excellent form as the scene-stealing Princess Puffer, deftly delivering broad comedy on “The Wages of Sin” as well as poignant emotion on “The Garden Path to Hell”.  The ensemble doesn’t have a weak link, either, with excellent vocals and tons of energy on group numbers like “There You Are”, “Off To the Races” and “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead”.

Visually, this show is a treat as well. The set, designed by Rob Lippert, is colorful, evocative, and versatile, with a set of green-painted staircases that can be rearranged in various configurations to suit the scenes. The costumes, by Engel, are also richly detailed and period appropriate, with a rich array of colors and patterns.  Tyler Duenow’s lighting sets the mood well, from the vibrant opening to the more mysterious elements later on. There’s also a first-rate band led by music director Chris Petersen, which expertly conveys the melodic energy of Holme’s catchy score.

I had never seen a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before, although I was familiar with the basic idea and some of the music. Stray Dog’s production is an ideal introduction to this tuneful, energetic and often hilarious musical, with an extremely impressive cast and impressive look and sound, and the fun bonus of a potentially different ending every night. It’s every bit as good as last year’s Cabaret, and maybe even a little better.

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Oliver!
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Directed by Edward M. Coffield

Choreographed by James Compton and Libby Salvia

Insight Theatre Company

June 6, 2014

Ronan Ryan, Spencer Davis Milford Insight Theatre Company

Ronan Ryan, Spencer Davis Milford
Insight Theatre Company

Oliver! is the classic musical, based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, that tells the story of an earnest young orphan who escapes life in a workhouse to explore life in 19th century London, eventually falling in with a gang of child pickpockets led by the devious and charming old scoundrel Fagin.  Featuring memorable characters like the Artful Dodger, Nancy and the villainous Bill Sikes, Oliver! has been produced many times over the years on Broadway, in London’s West End, and in various regional and school productions over the past few decades, in addition to its adaptation into the very well known and much-beloved Oscar-winning film. I had been looking forward to seeing Insight Theatre Company’s current production, because I had heard and read wonderful things about this theatre company, and this is a show I know fairly well. This is a company that often features some of the best of St. Louis theatrical talent, and I do wish to see more productions from Insight in the future. Still, it’s unfortunate to have to write that I was disappointed, but that’s what I have to do. While this production looks great and has several good points, for the most part I find it to be problematic at best.

To start with the good, I must say that from a purely visual perspective, this production looks stunning.  With a richly detailed unit set by Margery and Peter Spack, delightful costumes by Laura Hanson, and excellent atmospheric lighting designed by Seth Jackson, this show is a treat for the eyes. There’s also some excellent, energetic choreography by James Compton and Libby Salvia, and it’s in several of the ensemble numbers such as “It’s a Fine Life” and “Oom Pa Pa” and the second half of “Consider Yourself” that this production is at its best.  There are also some standout performances by Spencer Davis Milford as a particularly energetic and likable Artful Dodger (even if he does seem a bit old for the role) and, especially, Jennifer Theby-Quinn in a scene-stealing performance as opportunistic workhouse matron Mrs. Corney.  Ryan gives a generally appealing performance as Oliver, especially in his scenes with Dodger and Fagin’s gang. There’s also a very convincing bond between Dodger and Nancy (Cherlynn Alvarez), which lends a degree of poignancy to some moments.

Even with this production’s strengths, I think they are overshadowed by its problems. First of all, the sound quality is very muddled.  It’s difficult to understand what many of the performers are saying or, in the solo musical numbers, singing.  Also, several of the leading performances strike me as confusing and oddly unfinished, coming across as more of a first run-through kind of characterization rather than a complete performance. Alvarez shows a lot of potential as Nancy, with a great voice and a very good rapport with the kids in the scenes in Fagin’s lair, as well as a very strong performance of “Oom Pah Pah” with the adult ensemble. Her most famous number, “As Long As He Needs Me” is mostly very good if lacking in volume.  Her stage presence, however, is hit-or-miss, and her later scenes are oddly paced and lack dramatic weight. Amoroso comes across more as an ineffectual bully than a truly menacing Sikes, as well, and Marc Strathman as the workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble lacks energy and presence, as do several of the other cast members. The most problematic performance, though, comes from Knoll as Fagin.  He performs the role with two very different voices, for one thing–a higher, reedy-sounding voice in some moments of the songs, and a somewhat lower voice for his speaking and some singing moments. This ends up sounding disjointed since he just jumps between the two sounds with very little attempt to blend them. His best moments are with his gang of pickpockets. “Be Back Soon” has its moments, especially, but his big solo “Reviewing the Situation” is just strange. The pacing is off and he even changes the melody and rhythm of parts of it, which is jarring and distracting.  He seems like an actor playing Fagin rather than simply the character.

I also find the overall pacing of the show to be uneven.  The first act ends abruptly and without the sense of suspense that the scene calls for, and all of the scenes between Nancy and Bill Sikes come across as rushed and unconvincing.  The climactic scene also seems cluttered and confusing, and two major character exits end up losing their dramatic impact as a result.  At other times, such as in the scenes with Mr. Brownlow (Troy Turnipseed), the pacing seems to drag.  The usually delightful “Who Will Buy” is a bit of a mess, as well.

While this production has its good moments and great visual appeal, overall I find it mostly unfulfilling, especially in the direction, pacing, and overall lack of energy among most of the leading performers.  Browsing through the production photos on the company’s Facebook page, I’m again struck by how vibrant this production looks. Unfortunately, that vibrancy is only superficial, and while there are some bright spots in this production, the overall impression is, sadly, one of style over substance.

Cherlynn Alvarez (center) and children's ensemble Insight Theatre Company

Cherlynn Alvarez (center) and children’s ensemble
Insight Theatre Company

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