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Tell Me On a Sunday
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
August 13, 2016

Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Tell Me On a Sunday is a challenging show. It’s a one-woman production, and a musical at that, with many songs and no spoken dialogue. It tells a story entirely through song, and it requires a personable actress with a great voice and loads of stage presence. New Line Theatre has chosen the right performer in veteran New Liner Sarah Porter, who brings a lot of energy and heart to this memorable score and intriguing story.

The one-act musical follows the story of Emma (Porter), an English expat living in the United States. Spending time mostly in New York with a short detour to Los Angeles, Emma navigates her way through culture shock, a quest for her Green Card, and a series of relationships with a variety of men. The events are punctuated with a succession of letters to her mother, in which Emma tries her best to explain her emotions and  her thought processes. She also sings to the audience, who serve as stand-ins for various people in her life, from her boyfriends to curious and sometimes gossipy friends. It features a memorable score with some well-known songs such as the melancholy title song, the ballad “Unexpected Song”, and the confrontational “Take that Look Off Your Face”.

Porter handles the songs and story with excellent range, in both singing and acting. She brings the audience along on Emma’s emotional journey, exploring the discoveries of new love, exploring a new country, and issues of personal identity and dependence in her successive relationships. The songs range from happy to humorous, wistful to angry, and Porter not only delivers the material with strength and energy–she presents the character with all of her degrees of complexity, making her at once intriguing and relatable. This is one of those “showcase” type of shows, giving the performer a chance to shine throughout the entire duration of the show, and Porter certainly does shine. It’s a remarkable performance, played out with an impressively believable English accent, as well.

Porter notably also designed the costumes for this production, excellently. She changes outfits several times throughout the show, and each one is well-chosen for each particular moment, reflecting Emma’s personality and her journey of self-discovery. There’s also a richly decorated set and lighting by Rob Lippert that sets the tone and mood of the production well, from the New York scenes to the brief sojourn in LA. Due credit should also go to props master Kimi Short, Sound Designer Benjamin Roseman, and dialect coach Laurie McConnell for their vital contributions to the production, as well as the entire technical crew.

With all the songs and  no spoken lines, this is a show that could easily come across as more of a concert than a play, but thanks to the clever, dynamic staging of director Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Porter’s superb performance, that doesn’t happen here. This is a fully staged, fascinating story, centered around a complex character who is learning about herself as she learns about her world and her relationships. There’s a lot to talk and think about, as well as some real humor and drama. It’s not a long production, running at just over one hour, but it’s a thoroughly engaging hour.

Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Tell Me On a Sunday is being presented by New Line Theatre at the Marcelle Theatre until August 27, 2016.

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Atomic
Book and Lyrics by Danny Ginges, Music and Lyrics by Philip Foxman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
April 4, 2016

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The development of the first atomic bomb was certainly a world-changing moment in history, bringing with it much moral questioning and tragedy amid the quest for scientific innovation. In New Line Theatre’s latest production, Atomic, the story of the bomb’s development isn’t simply a history lesson. It’s a character study of some of the key people involved as well as a morality play examining the capabilities, demands, and limits of scientific research. It’s also an extremely well-staged, well-cast, compelling piece of theatre.

Although several of the major players in the development of the atomic bomb in the United States are featured in this play, the focus is primarily on Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (Zachary Allen Farmer), whose thirst for knowledge is tempered by his concern about the potential catastrophic danger of such a weapon. The musical follows Szilard through his journey from his home country to England and finally to the United States, accompanied by his companion and eventual wife, physician Trude Weiss (Ann Hier). As World War II progresses and rumors of the German government’s work on the development of a nuclear weapon are spread, Szilard becomes involved with the now well-known Manhattan Project, working with fellow scientists to develop a bomb before the Germans are able to succeed with theirs. Szilard works alongside other notable scientists from around the world, including Italian Enrico Fermi (Reynaldo Arceno), fellow Hungarian Edward Teller (Sean Michael), and Americans Arthur Compton (Ryan Scott Foizey), Leona Woods (Larissa White), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jeffrey M. Wright). As the work on the project progresses, questions arise about the need for this weapon, especially after Germany surrenders. The concerned Szilard finds himself turning activist, determined to prevent the bomb’s being dropped on a Japanese city amid pressures from the US government and some of his fellow scientists to support the effort.

Although this play certainly employs a degree of dramatic license in portraying its characters’ stories, the overall focus of this story is on the ethics more than the simple historical facts. The show raises some compelling questions, such as whether or not the mere ability to make something so dangerous justifies its use, and what the motivation should be in the quest for scientific innovation.  Atomic energy certainly changed the world, but was it for better or worse, or somehow both?  These are all profound questions, personified in Atomic by Szilard and his colleagues and portrayed through the use of a rock-influenced score with occasional elements of 1940’s-era themes, such as the Andrews Sisters-esque “Holes In the Doughnuts” sung by Hier, White, and Victoria Valentine as a trio of factory workers. There are also memorable power-ballads such as “The Force That Lights the Stars” and the memorable and oft-reprised “Greater Battle”.

The key role of Szilard is played by the versatile New Line veteran Farmer with convincing sincerity and strong, powerful voice. His scenes with the equally excellent Hier as the loving and long-suffering Trude are a notable highlight. There are also strong performances from Foizey as the devout Compton, who struggles with reconciling his faith with his scientific endeavors; as well as White as the determined Woods, Arceno as Fermi, and Wright in a dual role as Oppenheimer and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. As usual with New Line, the singing is top-notch, as is the musicianship of the excellent band led by musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The show is also superbly presented in a technical sense, with a cleverly set-up stage in which the audience sits on either side of Rob Lippert’s well-appointed set.  The period details and atmosphere are apparent in the furnishings as well as in Sarah Porter’s stylish costumes. There’s also Lippert’s spectacular lighting and Benjamin Rosenman’s excellent sound, which are put to remarkably effective use in recreating the chilling effects of the bomb’s detonation.

New Line’s production of Atomic is the show’s St. Louis debut, and only the fourth overall production of this intense, intriguing show. In the hands of directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, along with the first-rate cast and crew, the show is a fascinating examination of the history of nuclear development as well as a stirring examination of the moral dilemmas inherent in the project. It’s a story that’s sure to provoke much thought and conversation.

Cast of Atomic Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Victoria Valentine, Reynaldo Arceno, Ryan Scott Foizey, Sean Michael, Jeffrey M. Wright, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Atomic is scheduled to run at the Marcelle Theatre until June 25, 2016.

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American Idiot
Music by Green Day, Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
March 4, 2016

Cast of American Idiot Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cast of American Idiot
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

American Idiot was an album first, and then it was a musical. Now, it’s on stage at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center in a big, loud, angry, and extremely thoughtful production from New Line Theatre. With the first-rate singing that New Line is known for, as well as a stellar cast and striking physical production, American Idiot makes a strong impression with its story of displacement and confusion in post-9/11 America, underscored by the music of Green Day.

This is essentially the story of three young men and their quests for meaning and fulfillment amidst the disillusionment of their suburban existence. Johnny (Evan Fornachon), Tunny (Frederick Rice), and Will (Brendan Ochs) make a plan to escape to the city to seek adventure and a better life, but Will’s dream is immediately derailed when his girlfriend Heather (Larissa White) announces she’s pregnant, meaning Will stays home while his friends head off to New York. Once in the city, Johnny and Tunny take different paths. Johnny finds himself torn between the enticement of drugs personified by the charismatic St. Jimmy (Chris Kernan), and love with a girl he meets who is only referred to as Whatsername (Sarah Porter). Tunny catches onto a patriotic dream and joins the military, being sent overseas where he eventually finds that the reality of war doesn’t live up to its promise. Throughout the story, the loud, punk rock beats of Green Day drive the story of the contrasting lives of these three friends.

What’s particularly striking about this production is the staging, although it does have its drawbacks as well. The Marcelle’s black box theatre has been arranged so that the action takes place on a wide plane, with Rob Lippert’s vividly decorated set serving as a backdrop. Staging the action at various levels and in designated areas of the stage helps to distinguish the three main characters’ stories, but it’s also so spread out that it’s easy to miss events that happen on either end of the stage, depending upon where you’re sitting. I would advise sitting in the middle if at all possible. The costumes by Sarah Porter are excellent as well, suiting the characters well and ranging from the everyday clothes of the young protagonists to the more striking styling of characters like St. Jimmy. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is also effective in achieving the appropriate mood of the production especially in the more stylized fantasy sequences.  And directors Miller and Dowdy have staged the show well, with striking synchronized movement on songs like “Holiday”, “Before the Lobotomy”, and the more melancholy “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “21 Guns”.

This isn’t a perfect script, but the production makes the most of it. I’m mostly disappointed that this is such a male-centered story in which most of the female characters only seem to serve as figures in the men’s journeys, and except for Heather, they don’t even have real names. Still, the story is memorable and a strong realization of the anger, confusion, and occasional efforts at hope that characterize these characters’ lives in a world of competing images, promises, and propaganda. It’s the dynamic staging, the expertly played music by New Line’s excellent band conducted by Sue Goldford, and the as always stunning singing that give life to this highly emotional, affecting musical.

As usual, New Line has assembled a superb ensemble, and every cast member is in the moment every minute on stage. The three leads are well-cast, with Fornachon’s angry Johnny, Rice’s haunted Tunny and Ochs’s dejected and disenchanted Will serving as ideal representations of the themes portrayed here. All three have great rock voices as well, especially Rice. There’s also strong support from Kernan’s hypnotic St. Jimmy, Porter’s earnest Whatsername, White’s conflicted, strong-voiced Heather, Kevin Corpuz as the personification of military glory, the Favorite Son, and Sicily Mathenia as Tunny’s nurse and fantasy muse, the Extroardinary Girl.

American Idiot is a gritty, high powered, emotionally charged rock opera that presents a compelling picture of the lives of three young men on a journey for fulfillment in difficult times. It’s definitely not for kids, but for adults and older teens, this is a show that provides a lot to think about. It presents a striking auditory and visual tableau of life in early 2000’s America, with a soundtrack by a band that helped define the cultural atmosphere of that era.

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting American Idiot at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until March 26, 2016.

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Heathers
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy
Based on the Film by Daniel Waters
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2015

Grace Seidel, Evan Forachon, Anna Skidis Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Grace Seidel, Evan Fornachon, Anna Skidis
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I have a confession to make. I went to high school in the 1980’s and I’ve never seen the movie Heathers in its entirety. There’s no particular reason for this omission in my cinematic track record. I just never got around to seeing it beyond about 20 minutes of it on TV sometime in the 1990’s, even though it was always on my list of “movies I have to watch someday”. Still, even though I still haven’t seen most of it, the movie’s influence has not been lost to me, having heard it quoted and referenced in various places over the past two and a half decades. Still, as New Line Theatre’s excellent new production proves, one doesn’t have to have seen the movie to enjoy the musical adaptation, which has been brought to tuneful, colorful life by New Line’s top-notch cast and crew at the company’s shiny new venue, The Marcelle Theatre.

Essentially a dark, satirical look at “high school” films of the 80s, Heathers the musical definitely shows off the darker side of teenage life, although there is a glimmer of hope as well. It starts out, with the song “Beautiful”, setting the stage at Westerberg High School and introducing most of the main characters and cliques. We’re introduced to protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Anna Skidis), an amiable, ambitious high schooler who is relatively low on the social pecking order until she manages to get into the good graces of the school’s ruling set–three uber-popular girls of varying degrees of bitchiness who all happen to be named Heather. There’s group leader Heather Chandler (Sicily Mathenia) and her devoted cronies Heather Duke (Cameisha Cotton) and Heather McNamara (Larissa White). The Heathers and their football player pals Ram Sweeney (Omega Jones) and Kurt Kelly (Clayton Humburg) rule the school and basically dictate the social order. One problem for Veronica is that her newfound popularity has put her at odds with her longtime best friend, the sweet, nerdy and constantly bullied Martha Dunnstock (Grace Seidel). There’s also outsider and loner J.D. (Evan Fornachon), who appears on the scene to shake up the status quo and challenge Veronica to decide where her true loyalties lie. Unfortunately, J.D.’s methods are problematic to say the least. It’s basically a battle for Veronica’s soul, and J.D.’s as well, to a degree, as well as a challenge to the idea of high school cliques and labels, and what those say about a person’s true identity and potential.

The tone of the play starts out somewhat upbeat but gets darker as the plot moves forward, and especially in the second act.  There’s a lot of raunchy and somewhat twisted humor, as well, fitting the darkly ironic tone of most of the story.  But there are some poignant moments amid the comedy, as well, again especially in the second act, with Veronica’s challenge to J.D. in “Seventeen”, Heather McNamara’s revelatory “Lifeboat”, and especially Martha’s heart-wrenching solo “Kindergarten Boyfriend”. In fact, the tone shifts early in the second act to get more and more ominous, as Veronica is confronted even more with J.D.’s dark ideas and nature, as well as the idea that people do not have to be forever bound by the labels they’re forced into by high school culture.

The cast here is first-rate, including a few New Line veterans like the terrific Skidis as Veronica and Fornachon as the charming but dangerous J.D. These two display a fiery, intense chemistry, excellent stage presence and great voices. There’s also the impressive White in a vulnerable performance as the least bitchy Heather, McNamara. Many of the other performers are New Line newcomers, including Mathenia and Cotton who give virtuoso “mean girl” performances as Heathers Chandler and Duke; and Jones and Humburg, who are ideally cast as the superficial, sex-crazed jocks Ram and Kurt.  The most obvious “find” of this production, though, is Seidel, who gives a wonderfully nuanced, sensitive performance as the beleaguered Martha. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, mostly made up of actors who are making their New Line debuts. The top-notch singing that I’ve come to expect in every New Line show is on full display here as well, as well as strong choreography by Robin Michelle Berger.

Technically, this production makes the most of New Line’s new black box theatre, the Marcelle. The space is smaller than New Line’s last space, but it seems incredibly versatile, and it will be interesting to see how it’s used in future productions. Here, Rob Lippert’s set is sufficiently colorful with its bright color scheme and versatile modular design, and Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is appropriately atmospheric. The costumes, designed by Sarah Porter, are just right for the characters and the overall late 1980’s theme of the show.

Heathers is a memorable show, with a message that seems to be about how high school is not the end, and how people aren’t free to decide someone else’s future and what they will become. High school roles are often superficial and not set in stone. The song “Seventeen” is a reminder that while the teenage years don’t last forever, they can be enjoyed and savored in the little moments of life. It’s a dark, sometimes brutal show, but with a surprisingly hopeful ending, and it takes the “high school movie” genre and examines it in intriguing ways.  It’s a spectacular production, highlighting the always excellent singing that New Line is known for, as well as some strong characterization and a great use of New Line’s new theatre space. Heathers the musical is a hit whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Now, however, I think I’ll make a point of seeing the film.

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Heathers is running at the Marcelle Theatre in Midtown until October 24th, 2015.

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Bonnie & Clyde
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2014

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

A musical about infamous 1930’s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with music composed by the controversial Frank Wildhorn, sounds like it could either be very intriguing or extremely disappointing. The fact that it was a notable flop on Broadway added to my curiosity, as did the fact that it’s being staged by New Line Theatre, which seems to make a habit of bringing lesser-known musicals out of obscurity and giving them compelling productions.  Bonnie and Clyde is New Line’s latest project, and with  its excellent cast and dynamic, colorful staging, it proves to be a surprisingly resounding success.

In a somewhat streamlined version of the real story, this show focuses on its namesake characters’ quest for notoriety and their surprising rise to folk-hero status in the midst of the Great Depression. As the story begins, both sing about their desire for fame in the song “Picture Show”. While Bonnie (Larissa White) has ambitions to be a movie star like silver screen “It Girl” Clara Bow, Clyde (Matt Pentecost) is a small-time criminal with dreams of becoming a notorious outlaw like Billy the Kid.  He and his older brother and frequent partner-in-crime Buck (Brendan Ochs) are in and out of jail, to the dismay of Buck’s devoted wife, Blanche (Sarah Porter), who wants her husband to give up his life of crime and pursue a more quiet, peaceful life with her. When Clyde, having escaped from jail, meets Bonnie, they quickly fall in love, and Bonnie eventually encourages Clyde in his lawless ambitions, as their crime spree becomes well-publicized and, oddly enough, even some of their victims regard them with a mixture of awe and admiration, as the authorities–including Bonnie’s would-be suitor, Deputy Sherriff Ted Hinton (Reynaldo Arceno)–become more and more determined to track them down and bring them to justice, dead or alive.

I know Wildhorn’s music has had a “love it or hate it” track record, although I hadn’t heard much of it before seeing this show, save for a few songs from Jekyll and Hyde and one song from The Scarlet Pimpernel, thanks to XM Radio’s Broadway channel, which repeats it frequently. I went into this musical not knowing much about the score, so I was determined to keep an open mind, and while I can’t speak for Wildhorn’s other works, this one is surprisingly impressive.  Several of the songs have a jazzy sound, as is fitting for a show set in the the 1930’s, and there’s a little bit of gospel as well, in the memorable church scene during the first act, with the glorious voice of Zachary Allen Farmer as the Preacher belting out “God’s Arms Are Always Open”.  There are memorable solos for Bonnie with “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dying Ain’t So Bad”, and Clyde with “Raise a Little Hell” and “Bonnie”, as well as a rousing duet for Clyde and Buck on “When I Drive”, and some good ballads and ensemble numbers.  The songs help create a believable Depression-era atmosphere and serve the story well, expertly played by New Line’s band, conducted by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The script has an occasional tendency to oversimplify events and characters, although book writer Ivan Menchell has done a good job of giving the characters believable rhythms of speech, and the four main characters are well-defined. There’s also a good sense of pacing especially in the second act, with the action picking up as Bonnie and Clyde embark on their famous crime spree and the tension gradually builds, along with a very real sense of escalating horror and impending doom.  Anyone who knows the story of Bonnie and Clyde knows how it ends, with them ironically achieving the infamy they most crave even more so after their violent end.  The show is also somewhat of an examination of American culture in the 1930’s and what led to the lionization of these two stylish but increasingly brutal outlaws.

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have assembled a first-rate cast, particularly in the four most prominent roles. As Clyde, Pentecost has the presence and charisma as well as that sense of audacious amorality as the unrepentant outlaw, Clyde. Ochs is an able counterpart in a charming, boyish characterization of Clyde’s conflicted but devoted brother, Buck.  Even more outstanding, though, are White and Porter, who both give stunningly affecting performances. Webster University student White is a real find in her New Line debut as Bonnie. Not only does she have a great voice, strong stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Pentecost; she also deftly navigates Bonnie’s evolution from wide-eyed neophyte to full-fledged partner in crime.  She’s a performer to watch.  As Blanche, Porter gives a richly nuanced portrayal of a church-going “good girl” who loves a “bad boy” and only wishes for a quiet, happy life with him, determined to encourage him to disassociate from his old ways and his dangerous brother. She serves as a stark contrast to  Bonnie, who supports the unapologetically destructive Clyde with worshipful devotion.  The two share a poignant, plaintively sung duet on “You Love Who You Love”. Porter also has great chemistry with Ochs, with great moments in the upbeat “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” and the reflective “Now That’s What You Call a Dream”.  There are also strong performances from Farmer as the Preacher, Arceno as the determined Ted, as well as Alison Helmer as Bonnie’s mother and Kimi Short and Joel Hackbarth as Clyde and Buck’s parents.  The ensemble is strong, as well, showing off the exceptional singing that New Line is known for.

The 1930’s are ably brought to life on stage through Rob Lippert’s meticulously detailed set with nice touches like an authentic-looking Ford car and a realistic vintage gas pump. Lippert’s lighting is also strikingly evocative, and costume designers Marcy Wiegert and Porter have done an excellent job recreating the period, with  a variety of outfits from high-end suits and dresses to overalls and work clothes that are all distinctly in-period. All of the technical aspects work together to provide a very sharp, striking representation of the period that’s in-keeping the with jazz-inflected score.

I’ve come to expect excellence from New Line, and my expectations have been met and exceeded by this impressive and memorable production.  I like being surprised by great performances, and there are quite a few in this show. Bonnie & Clyde is a show that’s compelling even as it’s unsettling and not a little disturbing, as two charismatic but unashamedly corrupt people rise to prominence quickly and then, even more quickly, fall.  It’s a truly memorable production.

Larissa White, Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Larissa White, Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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