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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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Dogfight
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan
Based on the Warner Bros. Film and Screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 8, 2015

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is getting the chance to see great new plays I haven’t seen before. Dogfight, currently being presented by Stray Dog Theatre, is one of those fortunate discoveries. With an intriguing story, strong characters, a great score, and excellent casting, this is one of the surprise hits of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

Based on a somewhat obscure 1991 film, the story follows a group of Marines in 1963 San Francisco. They’re about to be shipped off to Vietnam and they are determined to enjoy their last night in the States. Eddie Birdlace (Brendan Ochs) and his buddies Boland (Luke Steingruby) and Bernstein (Kevin O’Brien)–who refer to themselves proudly as the “Three Bees”–are among the Marines attending a dance that will feature the unfair and objectifying contest referred to as a “dogfight” in which each man competes to find the most unattractive date, with the “winner” taking home the pot of prize money. While the Marines are out looking for their dates, Eddie wanders into a diner where he meets Rose (Shannon Cothran), a sweet but socially awkward young waitress, and invites her to the dance. What he doesn’t bargain for, however, is that he’ll find himself genuinely drawn to the idealistic Rose, or that his friend Boland will skirt the rules of the dance and hire an opportunistic date, Marcy (Sara Rae Womack), who has her own agenda. The dance isn’t the whole story, though. In fact, it’s just the beginning, as the play explores various relationships and attitudes among the Marines and the civilians they encounter, as well as challenging the casual sexism of the Marines in the story, and exploring the concepts of war, mortality, and the permanence of friendships.

It’s an exceptionally well-written show with a strong, memorable score that manages to be modern and evocative of the era at the same time. Especially effective are Rose’s songs such as “Give Way”, “Before It’s Over”, and her duet with Eddie, “First Date, Last Night”. The story is told in flashback, as Eddie takes a bus ride back to San Francisco a few years after the main action of the play, and the treatment of a Vietnam vet’s homecoming is poignantly portrayed. The show also does a good job of portraying well-rounded characters, managing to make the Marines interesting and sympathetic characters despite some of their more unsavory attitudes. The actors deserve a lot of credit for this sympathy, as well, with Steingruby’s shady Boland and O’Brien’s eager Bernstein being brought to life convincingly.

The centerpiece of the show, acting-wise, is the duo of Cothran’s Rose and Ochs’s Eddie. Cothran, returning to the stage after a long absense, is a discovery as the wide-eyed, gawky but sweet Rose. Her sense of self-confidence visibly grows as the story goes along, and she has a strong, expressive voice. She also accompanies herself ably on guitar in several songs. Her chemistry with Ochs is palpable, and Ochs matches her performance with a charm and poignancy of his own. Every moment these two are on stage together is a highlight. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, notably from Womack as the enterprising Marcy, Jenni Ryan as Rose’s mother, and Jason Meyers in several roles including a Marine sergeant and a lounge singer.  There’s a strong ensemble in excellent voice, as well, and the staging is dynamic and well thought-out.

The technical elements of the show add to the overall atmosphere and drama of the performance. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is versatile and vivid–suggesting the Golden Gate bridge and other San Francisco sites, as well as the Marine base, the dance hall, the diner, and more. There are also nicely detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and evocative lighting by Tyler Duenow.

I had heard of this play before seeing it, but only knew the very basic premise, and I’m glad I got to see it. Stray Dog Theatre’s Dogfight is a surprising, poignant, and memorable show with a great score and standout performances. This is one of the best musicals I’ve seen all year. It’s definitely one that shouldn’t be missed.

Cast of Dogfight Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of Dogfight
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Dogfight runs at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 24, 2015.

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Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
June 4, 2015

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird Photo John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird
Photo John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

I’ll start out with my own fairly obvious confession–I am a Peanuts geek. My online nickname “Snoop” (and hence, the title of this blog) comes from Snoopy. I’ve been a fan of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip for as long as I’ve been able to read. Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme is the ringtone on my phone. I love this comic strip, and the TV specials and movies based on it. Going to see Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, I already knew that what I was going to see was not an authorized work. Still, although I sort of knew what to expect (I had read a synopsis of the play), I wasn’t prepared for the jumbled mess of a play that I actually saw. Although Stray Dog’s production values are good and the cast members perform their parts well, this show ultimately comes across as confused at best, and mean-spirited at worst.

Imagining the comic strip characters as teenagers, the story opens as CB (Michael Baird), the Charlie Brown figure, is writing a letter to his pen pal about the recent death of his dog, who apparently got rabies and killed his friend, the little yellow bird. Yes. it looks like Snoopy went rabid and ate Woodstock. After this unpromising, shock-value start, the play does actually get more interesting when CB’s Sister (Sierra Buffum) arrives for the makeshift backyard funeral and they start to talk about life, their identities and their departed dog.  Apparently none of their friends want to come mourn with them, even though CB is now inexplicably one of the “popular kids”, along with Matt (Brendan Ochs)–a selfish, germaphobic jock who hates when anyone calls him “Pigpen”. There’s also Van (Ryan Wiechmann), a sex-obsessed stoner who apparently is supposed to be Linus, and the play’s Peppermint Patty and Marcie stand-ins, Tricia (Sara Rae Womack) and Marcy (Eileen Engel), who have been transformed over the years into a pair of vacuous mean girls.  Everyone’s ostracized their former friend Beethoven (Chris Tipp), based on Schroeder–a sensitive musician who’s constantly bullied for being gay. And what of Lucy, you may ask? She’s here, too, in something of a cameo appearance in the form of Van’s Sister (Maria Bartolotta), who’s got her own unique and shocking reason for not being around all the time. The story covers a lot of ground, from identity and mortality issues to sexuality to teenage angst to fumbling romances to self-expression and more. It starts out with some promising and sometimes excellent moments before descending into confusion and cliche.

I’m not someone who will simply dismiss something out of hand just because it’s a parody of something I love. There are affectionate parodies, sarcastic parodies, and scathing critiques, and all of these can be done well. There are also  parodies of popular works that succeed extremely well in which family friendly source material is used as inspiration for something considerably un-family friendly (like the excellent and hilarious musical Avenue Q, for instance). This show’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to know what kind of parody it wants to be. Sometimes it seems to want to be affectionate, but most of the time it relies on shock value to tell its story. Also, very few of the characters make any logical sense as teenage versions of the kids they supposedly used to be. The only major exception to this is CB’s Sister, a philosophical, ever-exploring artsy kid who seems to have a new identity every week in what is a near-perfect realization of an older Sally. Beethoven, the Schroeder character, is the next most believable, although the playwright has given him a tragic backstory that’s dealt with in a superficial way that makes it seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought for added shock value. Otherwise, I have a lot of trouble imagining any of these characters as who they are purported to be. It’s as if playwright Bert V. Royal had in mind the kind of story he wanted to tell and the character types he wanted to populate it with, and then shoehorned the Peanuts characters into that vision. There are some funny moments, and one brilliant one in which the outstanding Buffum (the star of the show, in my opinion) performs a monologue about a platypus.  Otherwise, it’s just a collection of teen movie stock themes that have been handled much better elsewhere, knit together into something vaguely resembling the Peanuts format, only shallowly dealing with some potentially weighty issues and leading up to an overblown conclusion that’s supposed to be poignant but ultimately comes across as artificial.

Even though the play itself isn’t great, the production is good. Rob Lippert’s set is colorful and appropriately evocative of a slightly twisted version of the Peanuts world, and Eileen Engel’s costumes suggest the characters with their color schemes without exactly recreating the iconic costumes (until a key moment late in the play). There’s also good lighting work by Tyler Duenow, and the staging is interesting, for the most part.

This production’s biggest strength, though, is its cast, and particularly the marvelous Buffum in a scene-stealing performance as CB’s Sister, and Tipp, who brings a likeable, neurotic energy to the long-suffering Beethoven.  He has some good, intriguing scenes with Baird’s CB, although Baird’s performance ranges from sympathetic to over-the-top (at the end). Engel and Womack make an amusing team as Tricia and Marcy, and Bartolotta is memorable in her key scene as Van’s Sister.  Wiechmann is reasonably personable as Van, but he isn’t given a lot to do beyond smoking pot and leering at CB’s Sister, and Ochs does a decent job with a rather generic bully role as Matt.

Peanuts is a work that’s often regarded as simple and innocent, although there are layers of depth that are rather profound, and it says a great deal about the world around us. Even though its characters are children, Schulz was brilliant at telling stories that adults could relate to as well as kids, if not more so. The biggest problem with Dog Sees God is that it doesn’t either skewer the source material or honor it very well. All it does is come across as a shallow mockery. I know it’s a very popular play lately and it’s won several awards, but I have a great deal of trouble seeing why. Although Stray Dog’s production is very well staged and performed, the show itself leaves me cold. To borrow an expression from Good Ol’ Charlie Brown–AAUGH!

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until June 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Music and Lyrics by David Nehls, Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2014

Kevin O'Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Kevin O’Brien, Jessica Tilghman, Paula Stoff Dean, Kay Love, Laura Kyro
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s Christmas time, and Stray Dog Theatre is taking us back to Armadillo Acres to celebrate the season.  Having performed the original Great American Trailer Park Musical in 2012, Stray Dog is now re-visiting the trailer park for a second helping of countrified humor, and it turns out that there’s more genuine charm in the sequel than in the original.  With a better, more engaging script and some hilarious and heartwarming moments, the excellent cast at SDT brings holiday cheer to brighten the Scroogiest hearts and tickle funny bones with outrageous humor and tuneful songs.

I didn’t see Stray Dog’s production of the first Trailer Park Musical. The production I saw was at Dramatic License earlier this year, and while I liked the cast, I remember having some issues with the show itself.  In terms of the plot and script, the Christmas edition manages to correct a lot of the problems I had with the first installment.  It still veers wildly from the crass to the sentimental, and the characters are still broadly drawn, but there’s a lot more genuine emotion in this edition, and the humor seems more affectionate than mocking toward the characters.  The only characters in common with both shows are the enthusiastic narrators: trailer park manager Betty (Laura Kyro), the now-widowed Linoleum or “Lin” (Kay Love), and young single mother “Pickles” (Jessica Tilghman).  Just like in the first one, these three serve as our “tour guides” to the goings-on at Armadillo Acres, occasionally stepping in to play other roles as the story requires. Among the new additions to the story is Rufus Jeter (Kevin O’Brien), who works several jobs and loves to help decorate the trailer park for Christmas.  There’s also Darlene Seward (Paula Stoff Dean), a Scroogelike trailer park dweller who hates Christmas and lives to antagonize Rufus and the rest of the Christmas-loving residents.  When Darlene gets an electrical shock in the midst of a tirade, she’s struck with a comically convenient case of amnesia that not only makes her forget who she is, but basically changes her whole personality. Suddenly the mean, Christmas-hating Darlene becomes a wide-eyed enthusiast who is eager to join in the decorating, all the while struggling to regain her memories and finding herself strangely attracted to formal rival Rufus.  All of this is unbeknownst to Darlene’s boyfriend Jackie (Gerry Love)–the money-hungry, egotistical owner of a small chain of pancake houses called Stacks, which are described as a “combination of IHOP and Hooters”.  With a few funny subplots and several not-so-subtle nods to A Christmas Carol, the story unfolds with a few surprises and revelations along  with the requisite trailer park humor.

I think this version works better because the plot is more streamlined, and the holiday theme gives it more of a focus.  It’s still not exactly a masterpiece of musical theatre, but it’s a lot of fun, and the cast is obviously having a great time, shining on such upbeat group numbers as “Christmas In My Mobile Home” and the hilariously crass “…It’s Christmas”.  The cast is led by the strong performances of Kyro, Tighlman and Kay Love as the three narrators as well as additional characters, most notably Kyro’s hilarious turn as a tough but kind biker named Hank, who plays a key role in Darlene’s back story.  All three are in great voice and display strong comic timing. Dean, as Darlene, does an excellent job of portraying both the “mean” and “nice” versions of her character, as well as bringing some depth to her identity crisis and bringing real sympathy to her character.  She and O’Brien’s sweet, goofy Rufus have some cute moments together. Gerry Love makes a suitably scheming villain as Jackie, as well.  All six members of the cast work well together, bringing a great deal of energy to the sweet but still somewhat silly plot that involves the aforementioned amnesia as well as a Christmas curse, a much talked-about photo shoot with Mobile Homes and Gardens magazine, and a crazy finale that involves a few supernatural surprises.

The look and atmosphere of the show is achieved with much detail and whimsy by scenic designer Rob Lippert, costume designer Eileen Engel, and lighting designer Tyler Dubenow, with some spirited choreography by Jamie Lynn Eros.  All of the characters are suitably outfitted, and the set fills the stage with an explosion of colors and kitsch.  It’s amazing just how many tacky Christmas decorations have been assembled for this show.  It all adds to the over-the-top outlandishness of the show, which is basically the point of it all.

I found myself genuinely enjoying this new story more than the original, perhaps because while the show is still wild, crazy, and raunchy, this time it has more real sentiment, and although the situations are as implausible and exaggerated as ever, the central plot line is easier and more rewarding to follow.  It’s almost like an R-rated Hallmark Christmas Special at times, and I think that comparison is intended, as this show takes familiar Christmas story tropes and puts its own southern fried spin on them.  It’s a very fun show, with the cast seeming to have at least as much fun as the audience.  It’s a pleasant surprise–a shiny, gaudy, goofy holiday gift from Stray Dog to its audience.

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Great American Trailer Park Muiscal
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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