Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘gary f bell’

Spellbound: A Musical Fable
Music. Lyrics, and Book by Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 8, 2015

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spellbound: A Musical Fable, an original musical based on a blend of fairy tales and folk legends, closes out Stray Dog Theatre’s 2014-2015 season. A work that’s apparently taken the better part of 20 years to produce, and co-written by Stray Dog’s Artistic director Gary F. Bell, Spellbound is definitely a treat for the eyes, with elaborate sets and colorful costumes and some inventive staging. Still, a show is about more than how it looks, and this one needs work. Although it boasts a strong cast and some interesting ideas, the show ultimately comes across as confusing and somewhat cluttered, and still needing a great deal of work.

Although director and co-author Bell provides a long list of folktale influences on the show in his director’s note in the program, Spellbound is essentially “Cinderella” meets “Little Red Riding Hood” by way of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic story is mostly “Cinderella”, though. The show gives us a young protagonist, Arabella (Meadow Tien Nguy), who has grown up being mistreated by her evil stepmother Layla (Deborah Sharn) and selfish stepsisters (Maria Bartolotta as Muchaneta, Eileen Engel as Kokumo). She has a father, the well-meaning but dominated Bangabobo (Patrick Kelly), but he’s being controlled by Layla through use of a magic “tea” that she forces him to drink. Layla, who practices black magic and wishes to rule the mythical land of Samera, has a plan that involves trying to marry one of her daughters to the newly-returned prince, Adama (Chris Tipp) and eventually overthrow his father, the land’s ruler Changamire (Zachary Stefaniak).  When Changamire, desperate to find a wife for his son, listens to the advice of fairy queen Inaambura (Paula Stoff Dean) and hosts a Carnivale at his castle, Layla sees her chance. This being a Cinderella story, of course Arabella wants to go, and of course she’s not allowed. The twist is that now Arabella is sent on a deceptive quest involving a Bengal Tiger (also Tipp). The story continues from there with a few twists and turns, but the outcome is fairly predictable to anyone who’s seen any version of the Cinderella story.

I find it difficult to describe this play as anything other than cluttered. It’s three acts and over three hours long, and contains many elements that are not essential to the story, and some of the fairy tale elements have been done before (and better) elsewhere, such as in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. There’s a prologue scene that doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the story, and the songs are mostly unmemorable.  There are some standout moments, though–especially the well-staged and entertaining “The Tiger’s Tango” sequence in Act 2. Nguy has an excellent voice and strong stage presence as Arabella, showing off her vocal prowess in the 80s style power-pop ballad “Wings of an Angel”, and displaying good chemistry with Tipp as both the Tiger and as the aimless Adama. It’s strange that this is billed as a journey of identity acceptance when Arabella seems to be the most confident person around, and the character who really changes the most is Adama.  Tipp gives a sympathetic performance, and his scenes with Nguy are the real highlights of the show. Otherwise, there are good performances from most of the overcrowded cast, with Kelly, Dean, Sharn and others giving fine performances, although there’s kind of an air of “dress rehearsal” about a lot of the performances and staging.

The real star of this show is its production values. The whimsical, colorful set by Rob Lippert and stylish, quirky costumes by Engel and Bell are the real highlights here, putting the audience into the magical world much more than the actual story does. There’s also some spectacular lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps maintain the mystical, ethereal atmosphere of a wondrous fairy tale.  This show is worth seeing simply for the spectacular visuals.

Overall, I would say that, while Spellbound has its moments and is generally entertaining, it’s a story with a little too much going on and with ideas that have been done better elsewhere. Bell did say in his pre-show speech that the show is still being worked on and changed throughout its run, and I hope those changes manage to make the story clearer and less cluttered. Still, it’s an impressive effort from the large cast, and especially the top-notch production design. This show’s real accomplishment is visual, creating a world with a stunning sense of style. I just wish there was a little more magic in the story.

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Spellbound: A Musical Fable runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until August 22, 2015.

Read Full Post »

God of Carnage
by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 5, 2015

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Children have been getting into playground fights for generations, although lately it’s been more common–and newsworthy–for the parents to get involved.  God of Carnage, the latest offering from Stray Dog Theatre, depicts a meeting of two sets of parents concerning their children’s squabble that threatens to turn into an all-out brawl itself.  Delving into the rawest of human emotions and peeling away the veneer of politeness that most adults try their best to maintain, this play is an exploration of some of the baser aspects of human nature as well as a grand showcase for an excellent cast of local actors.

The story starts straighforwardly enough, with two sets of parents meeting to discuss what to do about a recent fight involving their sons. The meeting takes place in the well-appointed, middle class Brooklyn home of Veronica (Sarajane Alverson) and Michael (Michael Juncal), whose young son, Henry, has been hit in the face with a stick, splitting his lip and breaking two teeth. The perpetrator is Benjamin, son of Annette (Michelle Hand) and Alan (Stephen Peirick), and the two sets of parents are all politeness, at first.  Throughout the course of the evening, the true nature of these people is revealed and the dynamics shift back and forth. They break out the snacks, and later the coffee, and eventually the booze, and their true feelings emerge as a result. In addition to their sons’ altercation, subjects discussed, bantered and argued about include lawyer Alan’s addiction to his cell phone, Veronica’s need to control the situation, Annette’s suppressed but surfacing anxiety, and Michael’s concern for his ailing mother and distrust of Alan.  It’s a full-length one-act with no intermission, and the dark comedy with hints of drama builds as these four people jockey for position and drop all pretense as they struggle to work out more issues than just their children’s fight, with a conclusion that provides just as many questions as it does answers.

This is a play with no “leads” or “supporting” parts, as all four characters share equal importance, and the cast assembled here is excellent. Hand, as Annette, is clearly the standout, with her repressed, nervous portrayal exploding into a fitful, stream-of-consciousness one-woman tirade.  With excellent use of physicality and perfect comic timing, Hand infuses the production with a vibrant, nervous energy.  Alverson as the controlling, pretentious Veronica also turns in a memorable performance, displaying a sharp wit and excellent chemistry with the rest of the cast. Peirick, as the workaholic Alan, is also strong in an emotionally charged performance, and Juncal’s Michael is effectively defensive and combative. In a play with so many shifting character dynamics, ensemble chemistry is essential, and for the most part, this ensemble manages to maintain the fast pace and explosive tension of the play.

The visual design of the play is striking, with an excellent, detailed set by Rob Lippert, with its middle-class modern furniture and well-appointed tables and shelves full of books, knickknacks and booze. There are also well-suited, character appropriate costumes by director Gary F. Bell, whose staging is dynamic and uses the whole stage to great effect.   The technical aspects of this play, as usual for Stray Dog, continue to impress in terms of making the most of a relatively small performance space, and adding to the overall atmosphere of the performance.

This isn’t a particularly “pretty” depiction of parental strife and concern, although its continual changes and reversals, and shifting alliances lend to the overall dark and tension-building tone of the comedy, suggesting a sense of uncontrolled chaos about the lives of seemingly every day, “normal” (whatever that word means) parents.  It’s a play about expectations and judgments, both internal and external, and a reminder that people are often more complex, and more self-focused, than they may initially seem.  It’s a bit of an indictment and deconstruction of the modern concept of parenting–both the overprotective and the neglectful.  There’s a lot of challenging material here, but it’s mostly painted with a broad comic brush. At Stray Dog Theatre, God of Carnage is a revealing, energetic and memorable evening of theatre.

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Read Full Post »

And Then There Were None
by Agatha Christie
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
October 9, 2014

Cast of And Then There Were None Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of And Then There Were None
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 

Agatha Christie shows can be difficult to write about for fear of spoiling the plot, and And Then There Were None is particularly difficult considering the intricacies of its plot.  Stray Dog Theatre has chosen this well-known show as its season opener, and it’s no spoiler to say that I think it’s one of their stronger productions.  With fine casting and especially impressive technical details, this play manages to maintain the anticipation and mystery throughout.

The most common question I get when I tell people I’m going to see a Christie show is “is it Marple or Poirot?”  This one, notably, is neither. Even though it’s one of Christie’s more well-known works, her two most famous detective characters are absent, and the sleuthing duties are divided up between various characters at different times.  It tells the story of a group of strangers all invited to a mysterious island retreat by a host none of them seem to know.  On prominent display in the house is a set of ten ceramic soldier figures, lined up on the fireplace mantel with a framed plaque above it featuring a rhyme about “Ten Little Soldier Boys” and how, one by one, they are eliminated in various ways.  This seems like a simple decoration to the guests until the murders start happening, curiously in ways that parallel the rhyme.  There’s also an eerie recorded welcome message that greets them, accusing each one of a different particular crime, which prompts confessions, suspicion, and accusations from the guests.  Just how many murders are there, and does anyone actually figure out who did it before there’s nobody left to find out?  You will just have to watch and see.

This is ‘whodunit” I’ve seen before, but since it was so long ago, I didn’t remember exactly how the story played out. It’s a credit to director Gary F. Bell and the excellent pacing to admit that I was kept guessing until the end, even though I had inklings of how it was going.  All the intricate twists and turns of the plot are played out very well, with the focus on those little figurines on the mantel getting more and more obvious as the plot unfolds, as the figures disappear in succession, as if by magic, as the murders occur. The style is typical Christie, with broadly defined characters and elements of dark comedy thrown in with the mystery. The production details here add to the suspense, including some atmospheric music that plays at key moments and a terrific set designed by Rob Lippert and some classy Mid-Century Modern furniture provided by The Future Antiques store.  Eileen Engel’s marvelously detailed costumes also add to the overall Christie-ish atmosphere.

The characters are memorable and well-played by an enthusiastic cast. It’s difficult as a critic here, though, because talking about the characters too much would potentially give away plot details, and there are some surprising twists in characterization that are essential to the play’s conclusion.  It’s a very strong 11-member cast, with standout performances from Stray Dog regulars Sara Jane Alverson as nervous secretary Vera Claythorne and Zachary Stefaniak as authoritarian judge Sir Lawrence John Wargrave. Other standouts in the cast are Judy E. Yordon as the haughty and sanctimonious Emily Caroline Brent, Jeff Kargus as in a Clark-Gable-esque performance as adventurer Philip Lombard, Mark Abels as the seemingly even-keeled Dr. Edward George Armstrong, Michael Juncal as confrontational police detective William Henry Blore, and David K. Gibbs as the fastidious General MacKenzie.  There is a minor issue with uneven British accents, but that doesn’t detract from the overall characterization, and the players do an excellent job of building and maintaining the suspense of the piece, as suspicions rise and emotions get increasingly tense as the play draws to its surprisingly unpredictable conclusion.

Keep an eye on those little figures.  I wasn’t ever able to notice one falling, but their gradual disappearance greatly adds to the drama, and I found myself looking back at them regularly. They’re almost like characters in the play themselves, supporting the performances of the strong ensemble of actors.  Christie shows aren’t particularly deep, but when done well, her mysteries are riveting and entertaining.  This is a strong, suspenseful, thoroughly entertaining season opener for Stray Dog Theatre.

 

Cast of And Then There Were None Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of And Then There Were None
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Read Full Post »

Funny Girl
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak
Stray Dog Theatre
July 24, 2014

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Funny Girl is one of those unusual shows in that it’s about a real person who was very famous at one time, although its first association in most people’s minds is with the actress who originated the role, in the Broadway production and later in the hugely popular film.  For the general public, this show is about Barbra Streisand much more than it is about Fanny Brice.  The difficulty with that situation is that there’s only one Barbra Streisand, and any actress who plays this role with Streisand too much in mind is inevitably going to look like a pale imitation. The best thing that theatre companies can do, then, when producing this show is try to forget about Streisand entirely and put the focus on the person whose story the show tells–early 20th Century singer and comedienne Brice. With the right performer in the role, playing Brice rather than Streisand-as-Brice, this can be a highly successful show, and Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production at least has that one point in its favor. With Lindsey Jones in a strong-voiced, sympathetic, very un-Streisand characterization, this show manages to entertain despite its noticeable flaws.

Another issue with productions of this play is that the film is much more well-known than the stage version, and there were many modifications made for the movie including adding several songs that Brice actually sang.  The show’s music is all original, and the story is told in more of a traditional musical format and with more subplots than the film, in which the focus was turned even more toward Fanny’s relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein (played here by Jeffrey M. Wright).  That plot is still a major feature of this production as it’s told in flashback format, as the older, now-famous Fanny Brice remembers her rise to fame and the people who helped her achieve that fame, such as her mother (Laura Kyro) and her family friends from her old New York neighborhood and her early days on the Vaudeville circuit, including dancer Eddie Ryan (Zach Wachter).  Eventually, Fanny is noticed by famous Broadway produced Florenz Ziegfeld (Michael Monsey), who signs her to star in his famous Follies.  As Fanny becomes increasingly well-known, her romance with Arnstein develops gradually, eventually leading to much tension and drama as these two very different people try to maintain a relationship in the midst of the challenges of Fanny’s career and Nick’s own personal ambitions.  It’s a somewhat disjointed script, as the story keeps jumping back to the “old neighborhood” when it probably should keep the focus on Fanny, although there are some entertaining moments with Mrs. Brice and her poker playing friends.

Despite some problematic casting in other roles in this production, Jones herself shines as Fanny Brice.  Although she doesn’t physically resemble the real Brice very much (but then, neither did Streisand), she actually sings more in the style of Brice than Streisand did, and her voice is strong and clear.  It’s not a perfect performance, in that Jones does seem to take a little while to find her energy, but when she does find it (about halfway through Act 1), she owns the stage.  On iconic songs like “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and, especially, “People”, Jones sings with heart and personality.  She displays a good sense of comic timing in the more humorous numbers, as well, and leads production numbers like “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with authority despite the lack of cohesion in the ensemble that supports her. She portrays Fanny’s maturing and growth in confidence as a performer well, as well as her frustration with her increasing personal difficulties. Jones is really the star of this production, with some excellent support by Kyro as Mrs. Brice, who shows a great deal of stage presence, comic ability and a strong voice, and especially by Wachter as Eddie, who commands the stage with charm and excellent tap-dancing skills. In fact, Wachter’s solo version of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”–which is supposed to be a rehearsal–is actually more captivating than the “finished” ensemble performance that immediately follows it. These three performers, along with several of the female ensemble members, give the most engaging performances in the show, but the most of the male ensemble is noticeably weaker, and Monsey as Ziegfeld lacks the engaging personality and authority that the role requires while sporting a distractingly obvious fake mustache.  Wright, as Arnstein, gives a fine performance for the most part, although he doesn’t quite project the right air of suave confidence early on, and his chemistry with Jones is awkward at best, with the one exception of their very last scene together, which is poignant and  believable but also not really enough to make up for their earlier lack of connection.

Another uneven aspect of this production is its visual presentation and its pacing, particularly in the production numbers.  The grand Ziegfeld Follies staircase is there, and it looks great, as does most of Robert J. Lippert’s set, which fits well on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, although the costumes, designed by director Gary F. Bell, are hit-or-miss in terms of period detail, with some of the female ensemble members rehearsing in outfits that look much more of this century than of the last.  The Follies sequences, despite the nice-looking set, simply are not grand enough, and the ensemble lacks cohesion  in the production numbers until Jones shows up and brings up the energy level.  There are also some issues with volume, in that there were moments of dialogue that were difficult to hear.  Stray Dog’s productions have impressed me a great deal in the past, especially their spectacular Cabaret earlier this year, but this one is surprising in its inconsistency, even there there is a lot to enjoy about the production as well and I hope the ensemble’s energy and presence will improve  as the show continues to run.

Ultimately, this show is about Fanny Brice, and a winning performance in that role makes the show worthwhile even if the rest of the production is flawed.  Plain and simple, Lindsey Jones is the main reason to see this show.  With excellent support from Wachter and Kyro, Jones overcomes the shortcomings of the script and an occasionally uneven supporting cast to present a memorable, appealing performance as Fanny Brice.  It’s definitely a characterization worth seeing.

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Read Full Post »

Love! Valour! Compassion!
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 14, 2014

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 

Love! Valour! Compassion! is a play I’d never had the chance to see before attending the production currently being presented at Stray Dog Theatre.  I knew the basic premise and that there was at least some amount of nudity, but otherwise basically what  I knew was that Terrence McNally is an accomplished, award-winning playwright, this play was critically acclaimed and won several awards in its initial Broadway run (with Nathan Lane in the cast), and Stray Dog has never ceased to impress me with the quality of their shows.  After seeing the show, I can say that as far as I’m concerned, Stray Dog still has a perfect track record.  This show may put some people off with its mature subject matter and yes, the nudity, but really it’s about people, with richly drawn characters and relationships, portrayed by a truly wonderful cast.

Set at an idyllic, secluded lakeside cabin in upstate New York, the story is presented in a stylized, overtly theatrical, occasionally poetic manner, as each of the characters breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, alternately narrating the happenings over three successive holiday weekends and reflecting on matters of life, art, belonging, fear and humanity. Eight gay men, most of whom are longtime friends, spend the weekends talking, laughing, singing, boating and sometimes skinny dipping in the lake.  Relationships are built, renewed, challenged and sometimes broken, and hopes, fears and insecurities are shared.  This is 1994, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Two of the characters–the bubbly, musical-obsessed Buzz (Patrick Kelly), and the gentle, sweet, British James (David Wassilak)–are dealing with the disease while the group plans a dance performance for a benefit concert, and others deal with survivors’ guilt and the prospect of losing more dear friends to the epidemic. Mortality is at the forefront in other ways, as well, as celebrated choreographer and dancer Gregory (Zachary Stefaniak), who owns the cabin, deals with the reality that his body is aging and that he won’t be able to dance at the same level much longer, as well as the insecurities of his relationship with his much younger boyfriend Bobby (Zach Wachter), who is blind. There’s also long-term couple Perry (Stephen Peirick) and Arthur (Jonathan Hey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary and dealing with issues of stagnancy and temptation. Also in the group are the acerbic and manipulative John (also Wassilak), twin brother and polar opposite of James, and Ramon (Chris Tipp), a good-looking, brash 22-year-old dancer with an eye for Bobby, and who poses a threat to Gregory both as a romantic rival and as a symbol of youth and potential in his dance career.

This show is essentially a character study. It’s about how gay men relate to one another and to the world around them. It’s also about the human condition, and the nakedness here goes beyond the merely physical.  In fact, the actual nudity is dealt with in such a way that it becomes basically incidental, with more importance being given to the baring of emotions.  The cast here is nothing short of superb, across the board. Each character is fully realized and ideally cast.  The most memorable performances for me were those of Kelly as the endearingly enthusiastic Buzz, with his list of obscure musical theatre facts and his (not always successful) determination to stay positive in the midst of his illness, and of Wassilak in the extremely challenging dual role of a pair of identical twins with anything but identical personalities.  The distinction between the characters is immediately obvious due to Wassilak’s mannerisms, even in one poignant and memorable scene in which he portrays a conversation between both characters, shifting between the characterizations with apparent ease. Kelly and Wassilak (as James) share some of the play’s more poignant scenes, as well. Stefaniak is also impressive as the compassionate and proud Gregory, and Wachter is charming as the alternately optimistic and bewildered Bobby. Hey and Peirick display excellent chemistry as Arthur and Perry, and Tipp is full of bravado and attitude as the confrontational Ramon.  There are many great scenes, but what is most impressive is the overall cohesive energy of this group of actors.

The dialogue here is sharp and witty in moments, and occasionally sentimental.  It’s a very obviously theatrical script, with the words and rhythms of speech emphasizing the heightened emotions.  There’s quite a bit of humor as well as more intense drama over the course of an approximately three-and-a-half hour running time (with two intermissions). It’s all very well paced by director Gary F. Bell, who also designed the very character-appropriate costumes.  The world of the cabin by the lake is also fully realized by Rob Lippert’s evocative set, and a backdrop by Lippert and Gary Karasek that gives the suggestion of an Impressionist painting.  There’s also great lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been that helps add to the overall rustic atmosphere.

I think one of the most important aspects of theeatre is its capacity for communication and education.  Situations can be different, and people are different, but no matter how different we are, we are all human and we can learn so much from one another if we will just take the time to listen.  Love! Valour! Compassion! will raise a lot of questions and give audience members a lot to think and talk about after the show is over. Stray Dog’s production is even more impressive than I had expected. It’s a memorable and profound production.

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts