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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

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Dreamgirls
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 4, 2019

Cast of Dreamgirls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has been producing more large-cast shows in their relatively small space at Tower Grove Abbey lately. Its current production, Dreamgirls, is the latest example. A well-known Broadway show that’s also been made into an acclaimed movie, this is a big, glitzy and glamorous musical that adapts very well to the smaller venue at SDT. Especially, it serves as a showcase for some standout performances and impressive production values.

The original Broadway Dreamgirls and the movie are well-known for their music and for the performances of two famous Jennifers–Holliday (on stage) and Hudson (on screen)–as central character Effie White, the original lead singer for a Supremes-like singing group. Here, Effie is played by the excellent Ebony Easter, as the show traces Effie’s and her group’s path from obscurity to stardom. The Dreamettes–who later become the Dreams–start out as a group of three friends entering a talent contest at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Effie, along with her friends Deena Jones (Eleanor Humphrey) and Lorrell Robinson (Tateonna Thompson) are young a naive at first, embarking on a tour supporting R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Omega Jones), but encouraged by Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Marshall Jennings) and their highly ambitious car-salesman-turned manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Abraham Shaw), they soon learn more about the reality of show business, with its joys, triumphs, disappointments, and heartbreak in their personal and performing lives, also dealing with inherent racism in the music industry as Early and the Dreams aim to cross over from R&B to pop. The show is a deliberate evocation of the Motown sound, being basically a fictionalized tale of the rise of Motown and the Supremes in particular, with a memorable score featuring many highlights, including the title song, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, “One Night Only” and  Effie’s show-stopping “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”.

The staging at SDT is, for the most part, excellent, reflective the glitzy and occasionally glamorous world of show business in the 60s and 70s, but also showing the realities of life backstage and offstage. Josh Smith’s glittery, red-and-gold two-level set is striking, as are Julian King’s detailed era-specific costumes, reflecting the evolving styles of the eras in which the show takes place as well as the Dreams’ growth in maturity and sophistication. There’s also sparkling lighting by Tyler Duenow and energetic choreography by Mike Hodges, along with an excellent–if a little too small for the sound–band ably led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The staging and pacing is good, for the most part, although there are occasionally some awkward scene transitions.

What especially stands out here is the excellent cast, and particularly the leading performances. Although the ensemble energy varies at times, there are some truly dynamic performances here, led by Easter who is in excellent voice as the determined Effie. Humphrey as rising-star Deena is also strong, and Thompson as Lorell is a particular standout. The always dynamic Jones puts in a dazzling performance as Early, as well.  Also notable are Jennings in a well-sung, highly likable performance as C.C. and Shaw in the difficult role as the highly ambitious but controlling and manipulative Curtis. The performance scenes especially are excellent, as an evocation of the 60s and 70s transitions between soul and R & B to pop, and eventually disco.

Dreamgirls is a fascinating show, with excellent songs and characters, and a real sense of history about it. At Stray Dog Theatre, this show is given a highly entertaining staging featuring some especially strong performances by an impressively talented cast. It’s a tuneful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s another memorable musical from this theatre company.

Eleanor Humphrey, Marshall Jennings, Abraham Shaw, Tateonna Thompson, Omega Jones, Ebony Easter, Diamon Lester
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Dreamgirls at Tower Grove Abbey  until April 20, 2019

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The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
by Paul Rudnick
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 7, 2018

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting a show for the holiday season that somewhat lives up to expectations, and also defies them. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is, at the outset, an iconoclastic comedy. In addition to some over-the-top humor, though, there’s also some challenging, intense drama here. With a great cast and excellent production values, this is a show to make audiences laugh, cry, and think.

In a way, this show tells two stories, or at least it’s one story told in two ways. Mostly a comedy but with some especially intense dramatic moments, this is a show that looks at religion–particularly Christianity and Judaism–and well-known biblical tales, from a different viewpoint, with particular emphasis on gay and lesbian perspectives. In some ways, its message brings to mind another show that recently opened in St. Louis–David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which is currently in its final weekend at New Jewish Theatre. That play also mentioned a creation story involving “Adam and Steve” and its ultimate message isn’t dissimilar to the one here, but The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is more character-driven and more focused on a particular theme. Here, we have a first act that’s more of a fantastical twist on familiar biblical stories, telling the story of the first humans, gay couple Adam (Luke Steingruby) and Steve (William Humphrey), and lesbian couple Jane (Maria Bartolotta) and Mabel (Angela Bubash). This half of the story is more broadly comic and satirical, as the characters live through a version of the biblical stories that takes them from creation to the flood to Pharaoh’s court, to eventually their own version of the Nativity story, occasionally interrupted by commentary from a variety of characters in the audience. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, and it’s a pointed twist on the established stories, with a focus on gay characters and themes. The second act is more current and realistic, set in late 1990s New York. Here, the enthusiastic Adam is hosting a Christmas party, even though he is Jewish. His partner, Steve, is more skeptical but goes along with the party for Adam’s sake. Here, we meet their friends and party guests, including Jane and Mabel, and Adam’s somewhat naive coworker Cheryl (Dawn Schmid), who has just moved to New York from Utah. In this half, the story becomes more immediate and poignant, as the group of friends deal with personal struggles, milestones, and crises, all while wrestling with the idea of the meaning of life and the existence of God.

This is something of a difficult play to describe, because a lot happens here. From the more stylized first act to the more realistic second act, with a shift from broad, confrontational and often extremely bawdy comedy to some poignant and intense and especially challenging dramatic moments, along with a message that will land different ways depending on the viewers’ beliefs about God (very much like An Act of God, as well), there’s a lot to think about here. It’s an especially timely and poignant reminder of the importance of belonging and chosen family. The shifts in tone are well handled through Justin Been’s thoughtful direction and through the excellent casting, and though, as befits the name of the show, the truly fabulous production values, from the whimsically detailed and versatile set by designers Justin Been and Josh Smith, to the colorful costumes by Jules King, to the especially striking lighting by Tyler Duenow.

There’s a great cast here, led by Steingruby’s winning performance as the inquisitive, ever-optimistic Adam and Humphrey as the more practical, melancholy Steve. They make a convincing pair, as do Bartolotta as the tough-talking Jane and Bubash as the hopeful Mabel. These four are supported by a strong ensemble playing a variety of roles, from animals to royalty to clergy to New York houseguests. Standouts include Schmid as the eager-to-fit-in Cheryl, Jennelle Gilreath as tradition-challenging Rabbi, and Stephen Henley and Jeremy Goldmeier as friends of Adam and Steve at the Christmas party. The overall ensemble energy and chemistry is a major strength for this show, especially considering its broad scope and occasional shifts in tone.

This is not an all-ages show, as it contains moments of nudity and some especially bawdy humor, in addition to some frank discussions of sexuality. It’s also particularly challenging and thought-provoking in terms of the subject of religion. It’s a sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant tale that runs the gamut from holiday cheer to some serious moments of sadness. Overall, though, it’s a thoughtful, well-cast show that highlights some excellent local performers.

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 22, 2018.

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Evil Dead: The Musical
Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, George Reinblatt
Music Supervision by Frank Cipolla, Additional Lyrics by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2018

Christen Ringhausen, Jennelle Gilreath, Stephen Henley, Dawn Schmid, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s newest production is Evil Dead: The Musical. Now, if you’re reading this and that title excites you, you will probably love this show. Otherwise, though, I’m not so sure. As is usual with this theatre company, the show is well cast, enthusiastically staged, and musically strong. Still, it’s an extremely niche-appeal show, and if you love the Evil Dead franchise and/or the slasher/horror genre generally, this is your kind of show. There isn’t much here, though, for those for whom that genre doesn’t appeal.

Story-wise, the plot is essentially a combination of the first two Evil Dead films with a few nods to the third one thrown in for good measure. The opening number “Cabin In the Woods” sets up the premise–a Spring Break excursion to a secluded cabin by a group of five young adults–Ash (Riley Dunn), his girlfriend Linda (Dawn Schmid) and younger sister Cheryl (Christen Ringhausen), along with his best friend Scott (Stephen Henley) and his latest fling Shelly (Jennelle Gilreath), whom Scott has recently picked up at a bar. The five expect to have a typical (but unauthorized) “party” week at the cabin, but they soon find out that this is no ordinary cabin. There are evil spirits here, which inhabit not only the cabin but the trees that surround it. Other characters soon become involved, including the tape-recorded voice of Professor Knowby (Kevin O’Brien), the owner of the cabin, who has discovered an ancient book with incantation that will awaken the “Candarian demons”. There’s also the professor’s daughter, Annie (Maria Bartolotta) and geeky research assistant Ed (Corey Fraine), who return to her father’s cabin along with local resident Jake (Josh Douglas) and find the uninvited Ash, his friends, and lots of trouble.

The main focus here is on humor and gore, and there are certainly some funny moments, with the cast seeming to have a great time hamming it up for all its worth. It’s a strong cast all around, with Dunn’s swaggering hero Ash and Ringhausen’s initially clueless but eventually bloodthirsty Cheryl being standouts, along with Bartolotta who leads the show’s most memorable musical number, the hilariously titled “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons”. Douglas also has some fun moments in his dual role as Jake and as a singing Moose head. It’s a strong cast all around, though, with their enthusiasm adding a great deal of energy to this show.

Visually, the production values are excellent, as is usual for SDT. Josh Smith’s set brings the iconic “cabin in the woods” to life with vivid detail, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting adds a suitably creepy effect. Eileen Engel’s colorful costumes and  Sarah Castelli’s eerie horror-style makeup contribute to the overall comic-horror atmosphere. There’s also a great band, led by musical director Jennifer Buchheit. There’s also, as advertised, lots and lots of stage blood, but it is so over-the-top in its use that the overall effect is more humorous than scary, and I think that’s the intention.

As I already wrote in my recent review of The Zombies of Penzance at New Line, shows about zombies are generally not my cup of tea, even though I know the genre is extremely popular and I try my best to see its appeal. Evil Dead isn’t exactly a typical “zombie” story, although it features zombie-like “Deadites”. Still, it’s even more out of my comfort zone than Zombies.. Evil Dead, as an unapologetic homage to the movie series on which it is based, as well as other horror/slasher type movies, isn’t trying to re-imagine anything or be deep or profound. It’s just a straight-up R-rated comedy horror show with lots of crude humor, gore and stage blood, and an advertised “splatter zone” appealing to audience members who want the interactive experience of being splattered with fake blood and guts. Again, if this concept sounds appealing to you, you will probably love it. If it doesn’t sound interesting, though, you might have trouble seeing the appeal. Still, it’s a well-staged production and the cast and crew seem to be having a whole lot of fun. For fans of horror/gore-related comedy and the Evil Dead franchise in particular, this is sure to be a hit.

Riley Dunn (Center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Evil Dead: The Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until October 27, 2018

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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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Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 26, 2018

Omega Jones (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar is s show that’s been staged in various different ways over the years.  There are the more straightforward Biblical-style stagings, and there have been some re-imaginings, which seem increasingly popular in recent times. In their latest production, Stray Dog Theatre has gone the “re-imagining” route, resulting in an entertaining, well-cast production that can be somewhat confusing in its theming.

Telling the story of Jesus Christ (Omega Jones) mostly from the point of view of the disciple who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling), this rock opera has had its controversies over the years, but while it’s over 40 years old now, the music has held up well over that time. Here, though, the story isn’t told in the traditional Biblical setting. Here, director Justin Been has updated the show to give it something of a futuristic, sci-fi type setting that isn’t entirely consistent. Still, the music is all here, performed extremely well by the excellent Stray Dog band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. In this production, Jesus and his disciples are presented as some kind of enigmatic rebels to a futuristic regime that has suggestions of various Evil Empires from a variety of science fiction stories, especially Star Wars and Star Trek in terms of costuming.  The drama is in the performances and music, with well-known songs such as the title number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the show-stopping “Gesthsemane” represented extremely well, although sometimes the power of the story seems a little muted due to the theming.

There’s a great cast here, especially in terms of voices. Jones has a remarkably versatile vocal range and charismatic presence as Jesus, and Leveling sings better than I’ve ever heard him as a particularly cynical version of Judas. There are also strong performances from Heather Matthews as an enthralled Mary Magdalene, Gerry Love hamming it up with gusto as King Herod, and Lavonne Byers as a conflicted, reflective Pontius Pilate, with the songs particularly suiting her lower vocal range. Riley Dunn as Simon Zealotes, and Kevin Corpuz as Peter also have standout vocal moments, and the main players are backed by a strong, energetic ensemble, who are in excellent voice and also move well as expertly choreographed by Mike Hodges, who also puts in a memorable, oily turn as Annas as a complement to Jon Hey’s deep-voiced, menacing Caiaphas.

Visually, the show is striking and otherwordly. Josh Smith’s set is vividly realized, with an imposing, marble-like staircase as the most prominent feature, surmounted by a pair of ominous doors. The various levels of the set also lend well to the theatricality of the production, with ladders, platforms and various areas of the stage used to great effect. The costumes by Eileen Engel are meticulously crafted but not entirely cohesive in terms of making it seem like all the characters are inhabiting the same world. Still, the show is visually memorable, with exellent lighting by Tyler Duenow adding to the overall effect.

This is definitely an entertaining production. It’s unquestionably Jesus Christ Superstar in terms of the performances and music, but theming-wise, this production doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be. Still, the cast is wonderful, and the music is driving, powerful and memorable. Overall, I would say this was a worthwhile and truly memorable theatrical experience.

Phil Leveling, Heather Matthews, Omega Jones, Jon Hey, Mike Hodges and ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Spring Awakening
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the Play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 6, 2017

Allison Arana, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spring Awakening is that edgy musical from 2006 based on an even edgier (for its day) German play from 100 years earlier. The musical has become quite popular with regional theatres over the last decade or so, and this is actually the second time Stray Dog Theatre is producing it. Their first production was five years ago, though, and although I’ve heard good things about it, I didn’t see it. Actually, I hadn’t seen the show at all before this latest SDT presentation, although I had heard some of the music. Still, having read about the show and listening to the music doesn’t entirely prepare someone for seeing it live. On stage at SDT now, Spring Awakening is daring, shocking, extremely well-cast, and overall just plain excellent.

The story here is essentially an object lesson for adults in “how not to teach (or not teach) your kids about the facts of life”. It’s not all about sex, but that’s an important focus of the plot. It takes place in Germany in the 19th Century, in a rigid society where there are expectations for proper behavior, and for proper education, and that’s different for boys and for girls. The girls, like Wendla (Allison Arana), are expected to be “good” and eventually grow up and be a good wife and mother, although they’re not expected to know exactly where the babies come from. Wendla’s mother (Jan Niehoff, who plays all the adult women) isn’t much help, and so her daughter is dangerously naive when she eventually finds herself in a growing flirtation with young student Melchior (Riley Dunn). The other girls gossip and swoon over the boys and wonder about their futures, while the boys are in school learning how to be upstanding members of society. They’re drilled in Latin, math, and other subjects by their strict schoolmaster (Ben Ritchie, who plays all the adult male characters), and they are not expected to question authority. The boys are stressed out about their classes and expectations, but they’re also discovering their sexuality as well, which especially confuses Melchior’s friend Moritz (Stephen Henley), who is so distracted by certain thoughts that he can’t study, and the teachers determine he’s just not fit for school. As the play goes on, Wendla, Melchior, Moritz, and their friends deal with the strictness and evasion of the adults and society in different ways, with distressing and even tragic results. There are also other stories involving Wendla’s friend Martha (Brigid Buckley), who doesn’t want to share the full story about how badly her father treats her, and also Ilse (Dawn Schmidt), who ran away from a similar situation to live a more free-spirited life as a model at an artists’ colony, although she’s still gossiped about by her childhood friends. There are also Hanschen (Luke Steingruby) and Ernst (Jackson Buhr), who discover an attraction to one another. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things turn out better for some and worse for others, but generally, the rigid rules and strict expectations of this society don’t mesh well with the passions and desires of youth.  There’s little effort for actual communication–just dictation and evasion from the adults and confusion and impulsive reactions with sometimes devastating consequences for the youthful characters.

There’s a lot of story here, but it’s told well, and Ducan Sheik’s rock-influenced score augments the story especially well, with its frank and confrontational treatment of sexuality, among other subjects. The music works to tell the story well, from quieter, plaintive moments (“The Word of Your Body”) to full-on adolescent rage (“The Bitch of Living” and the riotous, spectacularly staged “Totally Fucked”). It’s a memorable score, and the staging here, with dynamic choreography and synchronized movement, adds much to the overall feeling of the production. The cast manages to get the whole performance area in Tower Grove Abbey shaking at one point. The casting is excellent as well, with Arana ideally cast as the innocent, bewildered Wendla well-matched with Dunn as the skeptical, would-be iconoclast Melchior. These two display strong, halting chemistry as well. There are also strong performances from Henley as the conflicted Moritz, and by Schmid, who displays a great deal of presence as the somewhat mysterious Ilse. Steingruby and Buhr, as Hanschen and Ernst, are also excellent, as are Ritchie and Niehoff in the adult roles, Buckley as the haunted Martha, and the entire ensemble (Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk).  It’s a confrontational show in a lot of ways, but it’s also a human show, and the wonderful cast does an excellent job of portraying the humanity of these teenagers with all their hopes, dreams, and flaws.

The stage is set minimally, with Robert M. Kepeller’s set consisting of a few wooden set pieces that frame the action more than establishing a concrete scene. The excellent band, led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, is right on stage with the actors, as well, blending the music into the environment in a thoroughly immersive way. There are also superb costumes by Eileen Engel and striking lighting by Tyler Duenow to help realize this richly portrayed world.

Spring Awakening is an important show in portraying the dangers of an overly rigid society and especially lack of true communication and essential education for growing teenagers to the point of stifling and even denying their basic humanity. It’s a timeless message despite the 19th century setting, and blend of the modern music with this setting helps to augment the universality of some of its themes. There’s some difficult and sometimes downright brutal subject matter here, but there is also hope, especially personified in the dazzling final scene and “The Song of Purple Summer”. As someone who hadn’t seen this musical before, I think  SDT has done the show about as well as I can imagine it being performed. It’s absolutely worth seeing while you have the chance.

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Spring Awakening at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 21, 2017.

 

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