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Posts Tagged ‘Max & Louie Productions’

Indecent
by Paula Vogel
Directed by Joanne Gordon
Max & Louie Productions
June 21, 2019

Cast of Indecent
Photo: Max & Louie Productions

Indecent is a play about a play. It’s a lot more than that, too, but in the new St. Louis premiere staging by Max & Louie Productions, the theatre arts are front and center. It’s a message play, certainly, with themes about censorship, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and more. Ultimately, as currently staged at the Grandel Theatre, this new production is a triumph of lyrical staging and theatricality.

Indecent covers several decades in the creation of and controversy surrounding the staging of Polish Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which was originally written, in Yiddish, in 1907. Controversial in some circles from the beginning for its portrayal of characters that some Jewish critics considered stereotypical, as well as its treatment of the Torah and lesbian themes including a prominent love scene, the play still became a big hit in Europe before being brought to Broadway, translated into English, in 1923, where it became the centerpiece for a scandal. Shortly after opening, the production was raided by police and the company arrested and subsequently tried for obscenity. While God of Vengeance itself isn’t shown in great detail in Indecent beyond two prominent scenes, the point being made seems to be more about what the play represents and the issues it raised, especially concerning freedom of expression and personal, national, and religious (particularly Jewish) identity, and how different forms of prejudice (antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.) can be bound up together. The ominous gradual build-up to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, and their aftermath, is also a prominent theme. In addition to these issues, though, the play is a celebration of form, told in the manner of a traveling Yiddish acting troupe and featuring musicians as part of the production, playing Klezmer-style music among other styles such as jazz when the show’s time frame “arrives” in the 1920s. The players (TJ Lancaster, Paul Cereghino, Zoe Farmingdale, John Flack, Katie Karel, Judi Mann, and Tim Schall) all play various characters in the course of the production, and the musicians (Alyssa Avery, Kris Pineda, and Jack Theiling) are involved in the story as well. This is actually a somewhat challenging play to describe, since it covers so much in terms of scope, theme, structure, and tone. There’s broad humor and poignant drama; lyrical poetry and music and occasional theatrical melodrama. Mostly, though, it’s a highly personal story focusing on the playwright Asch (Cereghino and later, Flack) and the troupe of players led by Asch’s friend, former tailor-turned-Stage Manager Lemml (Lancaster) and the trials, tribulations, and persistent hope of expression and understanding of Asch’s most controversial work. It’s about more than one play, though–it’s about art, expression, and humanity itself.

The casting is especially strong, with a impressive, cohesive ensemble and no weak links. Although everyone plays several roles, the players–with the exception of Lancaster as Lemml–are listed in the program by age group, with Cereghino and Farmingdale as the “ingenues”, Flack and Mann as the “Elders”, and Schall and Karel as the “Middle”. Standout roles and performances include Cereghino as the first idealistic and then increasingly disillusioned and haunted younger Asch; Lancaster as the determined Lemml; Farmingdale as the younger version of Asch’s wife Madje and also as the various actresses who play the young Rifkela in God of Vengeance; Karel as the various performers playing the worldly Manke in the play-within-the-play; and Flack and Mann as the older Asches. Everyone is excellent, though, including the musicians who are almost constantly onstage, joining in with the story.

Technically, this production is nothing short of dazzling. With a masterfully detailed, versatile set by Dunsi Dai, projections by Kevin Bowman, and truly stunning lighting by Patrick Huber that emphasizes shadows and contrasts, the mood, time, and place of the show are well maintained. There are also superb costumes and wigs by Teresa Doggett and excellent sound design by Phillip Evans and music direction by Ron McGowan. The sights, sounds, and effects of this play are remarkable, bringing the audience into the experience of the play in poetic style.

This is a show that got a lot of buzz when it was on Broadway, and with this production, I can see why. Whether you know much or anything about the source material (I didn’t), it doesn’t particularly matter because you will learn a lot simply by watching this play. There’s a lot here that’s still relevant in today’s day and age, as well as an important history lesson. Overall, the effect is bold, theatrical, and fascinating. The play may be called Indecent, but this production is more than simply “decent”. It’s a remarkable theatrical experience.

Paul Cereghino, Zoe Farmingdale
Photo: Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Indecent at the Grandel Theatre until June 30, 2019

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Souvenir
by Stephen Temperley
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
December 15, 2017

Paul Cereghino, Debby Lennon
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Florence Foster Jenkins has gotten more notoriety than she could have predicted, even though she probably would have loved it. Even decades after her death in 1944, the socialite and wanna-be classical singer is probably more well-known than ever, thanks to the eponymous acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep as well as the play Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s charming two-character comedy that’s now onstage at the Marcelle, presented by the always excellent Max & Louie productions. It’s a well-cast production that highlights an important relationship in Jenkins’s life, and provides a showcase for two immensely talented local performers.

The play tells the unlikely but true story of Jenkins (Debby Lennon) through the eyes of her longtime accompanist Cosme McMoon (Paul Cereghino), who is initially shown reminiscing about their relationship 20 years after Jenkins’s death. McMoon then goes on to tell the story of how they met, and how they formed an unlikely team, and after McMoon’s initial shock at the combination of Jenkins’s personal confidence and her lack of discernible singing talent, the working relationship grew into a close friendship.  That’s basically the story, told with much humor but in an affectionate way rather than a ridiculing way. Even though Jenkins really isn’t the great singer she imagines herself to be, she’s got a lot of personal strength, and a truly enviable level of self-confidence. McMoon, over the years, grows to admire her and even feel protective of her, and their unfolding relationship is a joy to witness. Although for the most part, the tone of this piece is comic, there are also some poignant dramatic moments, leading to a truly touching and heartfelt conclusion.

While the script itself is excellent, what makes this production shine most of all is its casting. There are two remarkable performances here. I’ve been told by several trained singers that in order to accurately portray “bad” singing on purpose, it takes a great singer, and Lennon is that and more. The beauty of a piece like this is that it gives Lennon the opportunity to show off her “bad” singing as well as–in a fantasy sequence–her genuinely great singing. Lennon also has such an endearing quality about her as Jenkins that, even though her singing is spectacularly bad, the audience loves her for it. There are so many levels to Lennon’s performance, from humor to an undercurrent of loneliness and desire to be loved. Cereghino is every bit her match as McMoon, as well, getting the chance to show off his excellent piano skills in addition to his acting. His McMoon is charming and supremely likable, as well, and the growing friendship between these two is made all the more believable because of the excellent chemistry between Cereghino and Lennon. The comic timing is first-rate, and the dramatic moments are given just the right weight, as well.

The time, place, and mood of this show is well-maintained in the technical aspects, as well. Dunsi Dai’s gorgeous set, backed by a dazzling video wall/ceiling, provides the right backdrop for the show. There are also wonderful costumes by Teresa Doggett–from Jenkins’s various costumes ranging from classy to outrageous, to McMoon’s stylish suit and tux. There’s also excellent work from lighting designers Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo, as well as sound designer Casey Hunter. The world of Jenkins and McMoon and the overall milieu of 1930s and 40s New York is communicated with a great deal of style.

This is a remarkable production. The two leads shine, as does the whole show. It looks good and it’s thoroughly fascinating and compelling. A character who could easily be lampooned and ridiculed is given an affectionate tribute here, as is the fond friendship between the “singer” and her accompanist. This is a Souvenir worth celebrating.

Debby Lennon, Paul Cereghino
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Souvenir at the Marcelle Theatre until December 31, 2017.

 

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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
by Lanie Robertson
Directed by Leda Hoffmann
Max & Louie Productions
February 17, 2017

Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Billie Holiday was an undisputed legend of jazz music. Since she died in 1959, there are many people today who have had no opportunity to see her in concert. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, gives audiences the closest chance they can get to seeing Holiday perform live. Through a remarkably complex performance from its leading performer, attenders are given a window into Holiday’s life and music, simultaneously showing the greatness and the struggles of her too-short life.

The Billie Holiday we see here, as portrayed by the remarkably talented Alexis J. Roston, is the Lady Day who was nearing the end of her career, as well as of her life. Taking place in March, 1959–four months before she died–the play has the conceit of a concert. Introduced by Holiday’s small band led by pianist Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal), Holiday is unpredictable but enthusiastic at first, singing a string of jazz tunes and sharing anecdotes from her life, some humorous and others poignant, sad, and even disturbing. This is a Billie Holiday whose greatness as a singer is still readily evident, although her weariness and decline is also clearly on display. It’s an incredibly strong, richly nuanced performance from Roston, who sounds like Holiday but comes across as a fully realized character rather than a simple impression or tribute. Songs like the poignant “God Bless the Child” and the devastating “Strange Fruit” are not simply sung well by Roston–they are vividly set up in the stories she tells, as she remembers her mother, her first husband who introduced her to heroin, and her experiences performing in the highly segregated and hostile Southern states. Sipping whiskey throughout, Holiday ranges from lucid to near-incoherent, but that voice still rings out when she sings, showing us the talent that made her a legend even when, at this moment in time, the best years of her singing career are behind her.

Although the show is primarily about Holiday, and Roston’s superb performance, she is well supported by Royal as her supportive but occasionally exasperated pianist, Jimmy, and by Kaleb Kirby (drums) and Benjamin Wheeler (Bass), Jimmy’s bandmates. The set, by Dunsi Dai, is a vividly realistic recreation of a 1950’s Philadelphia jazz bar, and Dorothy Jones’s costumes outfit Roston and her band in appropriate period attire. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also especially effective in setting and maintaining the mood and concert atmosphere of the production, with excellent work from sound designer Casey Hunter as well. The music is well-represented by Roston’s excellent voice as well as Royal’s strong music direction and the band’s top-notch playing.

There are many memorable songs here, from “I Wonder Where Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and the emotional “Deep Song” that closes the show.  What we see here in this stunningly realized production is an artist at the end of her life, but with so much of her talent on display even through the more difficult moments. Roston especially is a revelation, and this is a production not to be missed especially for fans of classic jazz music and of Lady Day herself.

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 4, 2017.

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