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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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Ragtime, the Musical
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 3, 2017

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

“Ambitious” is a good word to describe Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Ragtime, just thinking about it. SDT isn’t a huge company, and their venue, the Tower Grove Abbey, isn’t that big either, but Ragtime is a big musical, in terms of casting, technical demands, and overall scope. This is one of those situations that might make someone wonder if a production like this would even work. Fortunately, however, this production does work, extremely well.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, heavily plotted novel, the musical Ragtime is grand in scope, examining life in New York City and its suburbs in the early 20th Century, and the major societal changes that were going on during that time. There’s a lot of story here, and the writers deserve credit for fitting all the plots into a coherent and fascinating musical. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), Harry Houdini (Joseph Gutowski), J.P. Morgan (Gerry Love), Henry Ford (Jason Meyers), Evelyn Nesbit (Angela Bubash), and Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.) appear in the show interacting with the fictional characters and helping to set the scene and paint a picture of the times. The three main plots involve characters from different backgrounds living in a world of class and racial tensions, systemic racism and discrimination, as well as the rise of immigration, changes in technology and societal expectations, and more.  There’s an upper-class family in the rich, and very white, suburb of New Rochelle, featuring a somewhat obtuse but world exploring Father (Phil Leveling), a cynical Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi), a pampered Mother (Kay Love) who is learning that the world isn’t as simple as she had thought, and the Little Boy, Edgar (Joe Webb).  Against the expectations of society, Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah (Evan Addams) and her newborn son. The child’s father is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones), who wants to marry Sarah and has big dreams for their future as a family. There’s also Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), a Jewish immigrant artist from Latvia who arrives in New York with his daughter (Avery Smith) looking to make a new life in America. This is only the beginning, though. Complications occur for everyone involved, as Mother starts to see her values conflicting with those of her husband, Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee) looks for a purpose in life, Coalhouse is bullied and harassed by the local fire chief (also Lavazzi) and his cronies who don’t like the idea of a black man with a fancy new car spending so much time in New Rochelle, and Tateh’s efforts to provide for his daughter take him from the streets of New York to Boston and beyond. Hopes and dreams are confronted with harsh reality, cruelty, and injustice, and life changes significantly for everyone involved.

This isn’t an easy story to describe without taking too much time and spoiling too much, but all the plots are woven together expertly, and the tension builds throughout the first act and explodes in the second. This is an intensely challenging, moving, and thought-provoking work, and SDT has staged it as well as I could imagine. The singing is first-rate, from the leads to the large and impressive ensemble. From the very first moment of the show, the ensemble and the music set the mood, along with the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The music is a mixture of traditional Broadway and turn of the 20th Century styles including, as is to be expected from the title of the play, a major ragtime influence.  The time and place are evoked well through means of David Blake’s expansive, multi-level set with platforms, staircases, and the look of steel-beam construction from the era. There are also meticulously detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel, and dramatic lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps transport the audience to this specific era and place in history. The only small issue I have with this production is that Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby (played by a doll) never actually ages despite the fact that several years go by in the course of the story.

The cast here is simply remarkable, with not a weak link among them. Everyone is ideally cast, and the character relationships are well-established and believable, with excellent chemistry in the ensemble and among the leads. Jones and Addams especially display a strong connection as Coalhouse and Sarah, with powerful voices as well. Their hopeful duet “Wheels of a Dream” in Act 1 is a particular highlight. Jones is also especially adept at portraying Coalhouse’s journey throughout the story, as the character goes through a great deal of profound changes. Also strong are Kay Love, in a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully sung turn as Mother; Wright, determined and engaging as Tateh; and Bee as a particularly earnest and determined Younger Brother. There are also some memorable performances from Lavazzi in two distinct roles–the jaded Grandpa and the bigoted, bullying fire chief–as well as Bubash as the perky singer and actress Evelyn Nesbit, who is the center of a national scandal; Kyro as the insistent activist Emma Goldman; and young Webb and Smith as the Little Boy and the Little Girl. Everyone is excellent, though. If I named all the strong performances, I would be listing the whole cast, because everyone is just that good. This is a show that demands a lot from its cast in terms of vocals, acting, and overall energy, and this cast delivers all that and more, from the very first note to the stirring Act 1 finale “Till We Reach That Day” to the Epilogue that ends the show.

I’m fairly sure this is the biggest show Stray Dog has ever done, and it’s simply stunning. The pacing is just right as well, not too rushed and not too slow. The moments of emotional resonance are given just the right amount of time, and all the players work together with precision and strength. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a pivotal time in American history, but it also has a lot to say for today’s times as well. This is a truly brilliant production.

Kay Love, Evan Addams
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ragtime at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 19, 2017.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From and Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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The Rocky Horror Show
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner
Stray Dog Theatre
October 13, 2016

Michael Juncal (center) and cast Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Juncal (center) and cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

I have a confession to make–I had never seen The Rocky Horror Show before. I hadn’t even seen the movie, the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, even though I had seen several clips and heard some of the songs. I felt at a distinct disadvantage when seeing the latest production at Stray Dog Theatre. Although it’s a well-staged production with a great cast and reflective of Stray Dog’s usual excellence, I think a show like this would appeal best to those who are more familiar with the material.

The point of a show like Rocky Horror is more the experience than the actual plot. It’s a funny spoof of old-fashioned horror films, with hilariously over-the-top characterizations and some fun songs and raucous, raunchy humor, but that’s not all it is. It’s an interactive show, really, and the audience participation is what makes it work best. The audience gives energy to the performers, and the whole entertainment value is enhanced, especially when audience members are reciting lines along with the performers, singing along with the songs, and shouting responses at the characters on stage. The program wisely contains instructions that differentiate the play from the film, so things like throwing things and squirting water are not permitted, but dressing up, singing along, and talking back are encouraged. It’s the kind of experience that made me wish I had seen the film, because I was just watching a lot of the time, rather than participating because I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, and this show is best when the audience is fully engaged.

That all said, Stray Dog’s production is extremely well-staged, well-cast, and technically impressive. The story follows naive newly engaged Brad (Kevin O’Brien) and Janet (Heather Matthews) after their car breaks down late one night and they stop at the nearest castle to use the phone. There, they encounter an unusual cast of characters led by cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter (Michael Juncal). Frank is working on an important project that he’s about to reveal on this very evening–his “creature”, the scantily clad, extremely physically fit Rocky Horror (Luke Steingruby). Along with his strange and enthusiastic household staff including “handyman” Riff Raff (Corey Fraine), housemaid Magenta (Maria Bartolotta), and “groupie” Columbia (Sara Rae Womack), Frank educates Brad and Janet about his life’s work, and about… well, quite a few other subjects. Led by an enthusiastic, deadpan Narrator (Gerry Love), the story is as over-the-top and campy as one would expect, with a catchy score of well-known songs such as “The Time Warp”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and “Touch-A Touch Me”.

The cast here is well-chosen and they all seem to be having a great time on stage, from the leads to the ensemble. Juncal hams it up with gleeful mischief as Frank, Matthews plays the sheltered but increasingly fascinated Janet convincingly, and she’s well-matched with O’Brien as the comically uptight Brad, and Steingruby as the eager-to-learn new creation, Rocky. There are also strong performances from Fraine and Bartolotta as the scheming Riff Raff and Magenta, and Womack as the enthusiastic Columbia. Love is also a comic treat as the narrator, and the rest of the cast is excellent as well, performing the songs with impressive presence and energy.

The staging by director Justin Been and choreography by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner is also clever and inventive. I especially liked how the ensemble members “became” Brad and Janet’s car. Robert J. Lippert’s multi-level set is colorful and detailed, and Eileen Engel’s costumes are striking and well-suited to the characters, from Frank’s corsets to the household staff’s unique outfits to the Narrator’s military garb. There’s also excellent lighting by Tyler Duenow and a top-notch band led by music director Chris Petersen.

Rocky Horror is a funny, shocking, larger-than-life comic horror story that isn’t for all audiences (it’s definitely not for the kids), but it can be a lot of fun. I do think it will be best appreciated by those who are familiar with the material and can add to the audience participation, which contributes greatly to the fun of a show like this. Stray Dog’s production, however, is entertaining even for those who haven’t seen it before. It’s worth seeing, especially if you know what to expect.

Cast of The Rocky Horror Show Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Rocky Horror Show
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Rocky Horror Show at Tower Grove Abbey until October 29, 2016.

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Bat Boy: The Musical
Story and Book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 5, 2016

Corey Fraine, Angela Bubash, Dawn Schmid, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Corey Fraine, Angela Bubash, Dawn Schmid, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

Based on a story from an infamous tabloid, Bat Boy: The Musical is the darkly comic tale of a misfit child hidden away in a cave, and what happens when he’s discovered by the world around him. It’s a musical that started out off-Broadway and has become a modern cult classic, and it’s now on stage at Stray Dog Theatre. It’s the final show in STD’s current season, and it’s a well-cast, impressively staged production.

Stylistically, the show has essentially a sensationalist air, in the spirit of an over-the-top tabloid story like the one on which this is based. The influence of old-style “B” sci-fi movies is also apparent. Except for the main leads, most of the cast members play multiple roles of various ages and genders as needed. The title character (Corey Fraine) is originally found in a cave as two brothers and a sister (Michael A. Wells, Sara Rae Womack, and Lindsey Jones) are exploring. The initially wild “Bat Boy” quickly bites the sister, scaring the three siblings and sending their town into a panic of suspicion. The Sheriff (Josh Douglas) decides to take Bat Boy to the local veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Parker (Patrick Kelly), so the doctor can decide what to do, although he’s not home and his wife Meredith (Dawn Schmid) and daughter Shelley (Angela Bubash) meet Bat Boy first, and Meredith insists on taking the boy in and giving him a loving home, eventually persuading her reluctant husband to go along with her plan. Bat Boy is soon re-christened “Edgar” and, under the instruction of Meredith, Shelley, and Thomas, quickly reveals his intelligent and sensitive nature, although the townspeople still believe him to be a monster. Then there’s the matter of Thomas, who grows jealous of his wife’s attentions toward Edgar. As the townspeople gear up for a big tent revival meeting held by a visiting superstar evangelist (also Wells), Edgar and the various Parkers have dreams, concerns, and dilemmas to deal with.

The show has the exaggerated tone of tabloid television, with lots of comedy although there is also a tendency toward melodrama. The plot gets more and more sensationalized as it goes on, with elements of horror, forbidden love, “mad scientists”, religious themes involving conservative Christianity as well as ancient Greek mythology, and more thrown in for good measure. The “message” starts out being one of the need for acceptance and understanding of differences, but the themes get a little confused as the sci-fi horror elements are further developed. The music is a mixture of modern styles, with some memorable production numbers and ballads. The slightly over-exaggerated tone of most of the production is also portrayed well by means of Mike Hodges’s stylized choreography and Cara Hoppes McCulley’s colorful costumes, all staged on Robert J. Lippert’s detailed, evocative set.

The cast here is well-chosen and full of energy. Fraine as Edgar the Bat Boy gives a strong, sympathetic performance, with a strong voice and dynamic physicality. He’s well-matched by Bubash’s feisty Shelley and Schmid’s determined, slightly mysterious Meredith. Kelly is also excellent as the increasingly conflicted Thomas, and all four leads are in excellent voice. The rest of the ensemble, all playing multiple roles, is excellent as well, helping to maintain the comically melodramatic tone of the show.

Bat Boy’s  story may be on the ridiculous side, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its ridiculousness. With memorable characters, humor, and memorable music, it’s an entertaining and crowd-pleasing tale, very well told by this excellent cast and technical crew. It’s another memorable musical production from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of Bat Boy: The Musical Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of Bat Boy: The Musical
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Bat Boy: The Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until August 20, 2016.

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Text by John Cameron Mitchell, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
March 31, 2016

Michael Baird, Anna Skidis Vargas Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Baird, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has transformed Tower Grove Abbey into a concert venue for their latest production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Introducing us to a complex central character and her dramatic story, Hedwig isn’t a traditional musical. With an immersive experience that involves audience interaction and a dynamic lead performance, this show is unique, entertaining, and challenging all the same time.

This is a well-known show that’s had a celebrated off-Broadway run and a film starring co-author John Cameron Mitchell, as well as an award-winning Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris, who was then replaced by a succession of notable stars. It makes sense that a lot of actors would want to portray Hedwig, a complex and interesting character with an unusual and compelling story. Presented as a 1990s-era concert by East German-born rocker Hedwig (Michael Baird), the show explores issues of gender identity, personal fulfillment, the concept of love and soul mates, and more. Hedwig’s story is revealed as she performs a succession of autobiographical songs, through which she tells the story of her upbringing (as Hansel) in East Germany, and then her botched sex reassignment operation, her move to America and the evolution of her career as a performer, including her influence on another, now more famous, rock singer and former lover, Tommy Gnosis. There’s also Hedwig’s husband and bandmate Yitzhak (Anna Skidis Vargas), whose relationship with Hedwig is emotionally fraught, to say the least.

The casting of Hedwig is essential for a production of this show, and SDT has cast very well with Michael Baird. Baird’s emotionally charged, energetic, powerful performance is the centerpiece of this production. Hedwig’s personal journey is reflected well here, with Baird’s winning performance of stand-out songs like “Sugar Daddy”, “Wicked Little Town” and the especially memorable “Wig In a Box”. Baird is matched in intensity by Skidis Vargas as the conflicted, disgruntled Yitzhak, turning in a strong performance especially on “The Long Grift”. They are backed by a top-notch band, as well, led by music director Chris Petersen as Hedwig’s band leader, Skszp, who interacts with Hedwig throughout the performance.

The whole “rock concert” atmosphere is well-realized here. The bar is operating throughout the performance, with audience members encouraged to go up any time to order drinks. The stage set, designed by Rob Lippert, is appropriately representative of a rock music venue, with a two-level stage and scaffolding flanked by video monitors on all sides. The use of projected illustrations and animations by Ryan Wiechmann contributes style and substance to the show, as do the spectacular costumes by Eileen Engel, and the makeup and wig styles by Priscilla Case. Tyler Duenow’s lighting is also appropriately atmospheric.

This is an excellent, highly entertaining production. I did have one issue with the ending, in that the story seemed to be heading in a particular direction and didn’t actually go there, although when I read about the show online, it appears that it usually does end the way I had been expecting, although it doesn’t in this production. I’m not sure what to think about that. Overall, though, I would say this is an energetic, engrossing, well-staged and well-performed production that is very much worth checking out.

Michael Baird and Cast Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Baird and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is being presented by Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey until April 16, 2016.

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I’ll Be Back Before Midnight!
by Peter Colley
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
February 4th, 2016

Angela Bubash, Jeff Kargus Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Angela Bubash, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production, Ill Be Back Before Midnight! presents something of an enigma. It’s presented as a mystery/thriller, but it often comes across as something of a parody.  SDT has assembled an excellent cast, and the production values are good as always, but it’s something of a puzzling story.

The play’s central character is Jan (Angela Bubash), who has just been released from the hospital after an extended stay following a mental breakdown. Her husband Greg (Jeff Kargus) has brought her to a somewhat rundown country house with the idea that the remote location will help Jan to recover and help the two to strengthen their strained relationship.  There’s a friendly neighbor, George (Mark Abels) who helps to make the uneasy Jan feel more welcome, but the imminent arrival of Greg’s overbearing sister Laura (Sarajane Alverson) isn’t a pleasant thought for Jan, to put it mildly. This premise, wrapped up with some local ghost stories and Jan’s growing suspicions of the people around her, leads to a traumatic event at the end of the first act that ultimately leads to an initially suspenseful but surprisingly contrived and anticlimactic conclusion.

I don’t get what this play is trying to do, to put it bluntly. It’s got some comedy elements early on that help relieve some of the building suspense, and the events of the first act and most of the second are sufficiently chilling. The ending, however, is a disappointment, almost coming across as a parody. The actors do a good job of making the characters interesting, with Bubash’s sensitive and increasingly suspicious Jan as the standout. Bubash makes a likable and convincing protagonist, drawing sympathy as the story builds and her fear grows. Kargus is fine as Greg, especially earlier in the play, and he does the best he can with the bizarre last scene. Abels is amiable and a little bit mysterious as neighbor George, and Alverson is sufficiently imperious as the domineering Laura.

 The technical aspects of this show are impressive as usual. Set designer Rob Lippert has provided an appropriately dilapidated country cabin, with cracking plaster, an old wood stove, and more. Eileen Engel’s costumes are well-suited to the characters, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting effectively achieves the eerie atmosphere and heightened suspense required for the production.

Overall, this is a show worth seeing for its performances. It’s a strong cast, and and interesting story although the ending falls flat, and that’s the fault of the playwright more than the production.  Still, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight! is well-staged and, for the most part, a suspenseful, intriguing story.

Sarajane Alverson, Jeff Kargus, Mark Abels Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Jeff Kargus, Mark Abels
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production of I’ll Be Back Before Midnight! is running at the Tower Grove Abbey until February 20, 2016.

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