Posts Tagged ‘repertory theatre of st louis’

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 25, 2022

Paul Aguirre, Guiesseppe Jones
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s holiday tradition is continuing with their lively production of Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. The same adaptation by Michael Wilson that was staged to acclaim last season is back this year, and it seems to have found a new energy the second time around. With much of the same cast and the same stunning production values, the show carries an enduring message and a spirit that only seems more moving this year.

The story is well-known, following the classic Dickens tale with a few modifications, as the miserly, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by a series of ghosts and forced to come to terms with who he was and what he has become, with the chance of reformation.  The casting is mostly the same as last year, and the players are more effective than ever–with Guiesseppe Jones at the center as Scrooge. Jones is joined again by Armando McClain as Scrooge’s longsuffering but optimistic clerk Bob Cratchit; Michael James Reed in a dual role as Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber and the persistent ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley; Laakan McHardy, Paul Aguirre, and Eric Dean White as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as “real-world” merchants in debt to Scrooge; and a host of others repeating their roles from last year, joined by a few newcomers like Peterson Townsend as Scrooge’s cheerful nephew, Fred, as well as the younger adult version of Scrooge himself. There’s also a vibrant youth ensemble in the child and teen roles, split into two groups performing on alternating nights–I saw the “Green” ensemble.

It’s a strong cast all around, with Jones, Reed, and all three Spirits as the standouts once again, along with McClain’s eminently likable Cratchit, and Townsend making a strong impression as Fred. The Rep is also collaborating with local organizations COCA and Big Muddy Dance Company, along with Webster Conservatory, adding cohesive energy to the ensemble.

The production values are as stunning as ever, with the set design by Tim Mackabee, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Seth Reiser, and projections by Hana Kim all contributing to the alternately dramatic, funny, and truly thrilling tone of the production. There’s also excellent work from composers and sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes as well as music director Tre’von Griffith. The music is a surprisingly effective blend of traditional European folk music, familiar carols, and hip-hop influences including a rap sequence and eye-catching dancing, inventively choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. 

There have been so many versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, and the material has proven to hold up well in various forms, because the classic themes of generosity, kindness, and redemption endure throughout the generations. With the Rep’s intention of making this show an annual event, I thought it might seem stale doing the same adaptation again, but I was mistaken. In fact, this year’s version is even better than last time. It might be nice to see them change up the  adaptations at some point, but this one works so well with all the performance and technical elements pitched just right. It’s an ideal theatrical start to the holiday season in St. Louis.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 30, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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Private Lives
by Noël Coward
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 7, 2022

Amanda Pedlow, Stanton Nash
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest entry in the Rep’s current season is a classic “comedy of manners” from celebrated British playwright Noël Coward. Private Lives is hilarious look at contrasting relationships, as well as marital expectations among the English upper class in the 1930s. As staged by the Rep, it’s a meticulously orchestrated, highly physical romp that brings a great deal of laughter from the audience, thanks to the superb direction and pitch-perfect cast.

As the old saying goes, some couples can’t seem to live with or without one another. One such couple is former spouses Elyot Chase (Stanton Nash), and Amanda Prynne (Amelia Pedlow), who haven’t seen each other for five years until they suddenly find themselves staying next door in the same French hotel on their honeymoons with their respective new spouses, Sibyl Chase (Kerry Warren) and Victor Prynne (Carman Lacivita). While each professes to be devoted to their new spouse at the beginning of the play, once they see one another again, Elyot and Amanda can’t help but be drawn together, despite their volatile, clashing personalities that eventually led to the breakup of their former marriage. Of course, there is the matter of their current spouses, who haven’t previously met but find themselves having to work together to confront Elyot and Amanda, with potentially explosive results. 

This is a show that’s more about the characters and their interactions than the plot. The plot is fairly simple, in fact, but the relationships are anything but simple, as Elyot and Amanda deal with the intense magnetism that drew them together as well as the intense conflicts that drove them apart, and their new spouses have to contend not only with aspects of their partners that they hadn’t seen before, but with their new acquaintances as well, along with their own burgeoning personality conflict. This is a show that highlights Coward’s famous wit, as well as as the intense chemistry and conflict among lovers. It’s also oh-so-British and oh-so-1930s, with sharp humor, a bright, energetic tone, and a few memorable musical moments featuring memorable period tunes. The atmosphere is impeccably maintained, with a richly detailed set by Lex Liang, marvelous costumes by Kathleen Geldard, excellent lighting by Colin Bills, and superb sound design by Lindsay Jones. 

As for the cast, they are stellar, with sizzing chemistry between Nash and Pedlow as the intense, witty, and emotional Elyot and Amanda. These two bring much energy to their roles, and their chemistry is like that of a classic old film pairing. There’s also excellent work from their co-stars, with Warren hilarious as the needy Sibyl and Lacivita comically bewildered as the more strait-laced Victor. When all four are together, the comic energy is especially strong. There’s also a fine performance by Yvonne Woods in a small role as Parisian maid Louise. 

Overall, this is a show that sparkles with comic intensity and expert direction and pacing. It’s also one of those shows that makes me feel for the stage crew, since the beautifully appointed set isn’t so neatly organized by the time our leads get through with it, and each other. I hadn’t seen Private Lives before, but I’m glad this excellent production has been my introduction. It’s a classic comedy of wit, character, and passion, superbly staged at the Rep. 

Kerry Warren, Amelia Pedlow, Stanton Nash, Carman Lacivita
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Private Lives at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until October 23, 2022

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House of Joy
by Madhuri Shekar
Directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 2, 2022

Omer Abbas Salem (Center) and Cast of House of Joy
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening its new season with an ambitious new play. House of Joy blends elements of drama, action, romance, and fantasy, with a little humor thrown in for good measure. A lushly appointed period piece set during South Asia’s historic Mughal Empire, this is a fast-moving, emotionally compelling and visually and technically dazzling production, although the plot could use some streamlining and a little more focus. 

The House of Joy of the title is the harem of an unnamed and unseen Emperor. The women of the royal household live here. The rules are that the women can’t leave and men (with exception of the Emperor) can’t enter, but the house’s steward, Salima (Omer Abbas Salem), who describes themself as “both” woman and man, can come and go as they please, and often serves as a source of information about the outside world for the women in the house, especially Princess Noorah (Aila Ayilam Peck), the ambitious daughter of the Emperor and the late Empress. The story’s main focus is essentially on Roshni (Tina Muñoz Pandya), who is fleeing the city after a violent altercation, and is recruited by Salima to fill a vacancy in the harem’s guard unit. Offered some safety and stability, Roshni agrees, and is trained by the guards’ captain, Gulal (Miriam A. Laube) along with other “junior cadets” including the outgoing and determined Hamida (Sumi Yu), who quickly becomes Roshni’s closest friend. Then, the action shifts to a year later, as the newest Queen, Mariyam (Emily Marso) is expecting a baby, who almost everyone is assuming will be the much-desired male heir to the throne. Mariyam, who is still not accustomed to royal life, is hoping for a girl, although she tries to keep that fact to herself, eventually sharing it with Roshni when the two finally meet under initially tense circumstances, and they quickly form a bond that seems to be aided in part by the house itself, which appears on many occasions to have a mind of its own. There’s also political intrigue in the form of Noorah, who has been doing much of the work in running the Empire behind the scenes,  and who harbors resentments toward her father and the new queen, as well as the societal expectations that keep her role in government hidden to the outside world. She sets in motion a plot that drives much of the action, especially in the second act, and loyalties are called into question, as the Empire, the guards, the royal household, and the house itself figure in the unfolding drama as tensions lead to their breaking point.

There’s a lot going on here, and my summary isn’t adequate in describing everything, as is expected since a play is best seen rather than merely described. There’s a degree of “unfolding mystery” here that’s especially intriguing, and some truly compelling characters and situations, but also there seem to be a few too many plots and subplots, and concepts that are brought up but not adequately fleshed-out. Especially as the political plot ramps up in the second act, the story becomes harder to follow, leading up to a somewhat open-ended conclusion that I’m sure is deliberate, but seems overly abrupt. The tone also shifts a bit too much at times, with moments of whimsical, more contemporary-seeming comedy blended with intense drama in ways that come across as jarring at times. It’s also one of those increasingly common period pieces that has the characters speaking in more modern-day language and speech rhythms, which I personally like sometimes and can find jarring at other times, depending on the play, movie, TV show, etc. Here, it mostly works, but there are moments when it can distract a little from the story. 

From a visual and technical standpoint, and in terms of pacing and staging, this show is a stunner. The action moments are truly thrilling, with excellent fight direction by Gaby Labotka, who also serves as the show’s intimacy director. Dahlia Al-Habieli’s detailed set serves as an ideal setting for this story, along with Stefania Bulbarella’s strikingly effective projection design. The set, projections, and the expertly crafted sound design by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca work together well to bring this world, and the House of Joy itself, to life in a vibrant way that helps make the setting a character in itself. There are also marvelously detailed costumes by Oona Natesan and evocative choreography by Aparna Kalvanaraman that work well to immerse the show and the audience in the unique world of the play.

The cast is also strong, led by Pandya in a likable, determined performance as Roshni. There are also memorable turns from Salem, who exudes stage presence as Salima; Laube, as the tough but caring Gulal; Marso as the conflicted Mariyam, whose scenes with Pandya are especially convincing; and Peck as the scheming, determined Noorah, who is essentially a “villain”, but Peck’s performance makes her situation credible. The biggest standout, to my mind, is Yu as Hamida, who starts out as something of a comic “best friend” character but goes on a convincing emotional journey through the course of the show, and her friendship with Pandya’s Roshni is thoroughly believable. There’s strong ensemble chemistry all around, and the actors manage to hold attention even as the plot elements get a little confusing at times.

Overall, House of Joy is an entertaining debut for the Rep’s 2022-2023 season. It’s full of intrigue, drama, romance, and humor, even if sometimes the plot can get a little cluttered. It’s still a stunningly realized work, especially in the visual and technical areas, with a strong cast and compelling subject matter. It’s a promising work that could use a little bit of editing, but for now, what’s on stage at the Rep is a compelling, well-cast story that’s worth seeing for the spectacle and memorable cast. 

Emily Marso, Aila Ayilam Peck
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting House of Joy until September 8, 2022

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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan
From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Kate Bergstrom
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 25, 2022

Futaba Shioda, Ryan Colbert, Jimmy Kieffer, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 39 Steps is a popular play, possibly because it’s so deceptively simple, with a small cast and a format that’s conducive to basically any budget. This latest production at the Rep is the fourth production I’ve seen in St. Louis over the last twelve years, including presentations by three different theatre companies. In fact, the first time I saw it was also the first show I saw at the Rep, in 2010. Even though they’ve staged it before, the Rep brings a new, fresh energy to this latest staging, led by a first-rate cast of four flexible and seemingly fearless performers.

I think one of the reasons this show is so popular, with theatre companies and audiences, is that it brings so much with seemingly little. It’s a small cast, and the production values can be as simple or elaborate as the director and company wants, but the true appeal is in the characters, and the energy they bring, with most cast members playing a variety of different characters. In fact, the only cast member who plays the same role throughout is the actor playing Richard Hannay (here played by Ryan Colbert), a Canadian living in London who unwittingly finds himself in the midst of an international espionage plot. After attending a seemingly innocent evening at the theatre, Hannay finds the experience turning ominous as he meets a mystery woman (played by Olivia Gilliatt), who soon ends up murdered in his apartment, but not until after she drops some hints of spies plotting a scheme that threatens to imperil the country in the leadup to World War II. Hannay is then forced to flee for his life, as he is suspected of murder, and along the way he meets a collection of characters from police officers to spies, to Scottish farmers and hotel keepers, as well as theatre performers, and eventually, a woman (also Gilliatt) with whom he becomes entangled (sometimes literally) in the process of trying to stop the plot and clear his name. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed comedy full of memorable characters mostly played by two “Clowns” (Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda), as well as three memorable women played by Gilliatt, while the hapless Hannay desperately seeks to find answers, and the audience is treated to a hilarious romp through English and Scottish cities, towns, farms, and railways. 

The cast and the staging make this show, and the technical aspects blend seamlessly  with the broad, hilarious performances to make this clever riff on classic spy stories, and particularly the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a treat from start to finish. Director Kate Bergstrom has staged the show with lots of action, and the cast is more than able to keep up, showing great physical comic abilities–and Kieffer and Shioda are especially adept at this. Kieffer and Shioda also show off their versatility in a range of different roles, as does Gilliatt in convincingly portraying three very different women–the mysterious Annabella, the lonely and infatuated Margaret, and the determined Pamela. As Hannay, Colbert shows a convincing blend of dashing charm, stubborn determination, and a little bit of goofy cluelessness. His chemistry with Gilliatt’s Pamela is especially strong.

The physical stunts are also well-staged, with kudos to fight director Michael Pierce. There’s a versatile set by Stephanie Osin Cohen that suggests an old-time theatre stage, but also is especially adaptable as pieces are moved around to form different set pieces as needed. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are also excellent and versatile, and there’s great atmospheric work by lighting designer Christina Watanabe, lending much to the old fashioned spy film look and feel of the show. 

The 39 Steps is popular for good reason. It’s fast-moving, funny, and crowd-pleasing, as well as being clever, witty, and evocative of an earlier era and genre of films. It’s an especially great showcase for an enthusiastic cast, and the Rep definitely has that. It’s an immensely enjoyable show, and the Rep has, once again, staged it with excellence.

Ryan Colbert, Futaba Shioda, Olivia Gilliatt
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The 39 Steps until April 10, 2022

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Stick Fly
by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Chanel Bragg
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 18, 2022

Ron Himes, Ricardy Fabre, Amber Reauchean Williams, Bobbi Johnson, Blair Lewin, DeShawn Harold Mitchell
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Stick Fly is one of those shows that’s a little hard to categorize in terms of “comedy” or “drama”. It’s a vivid, sometimes quirky depiction of a specific family with all their idiosyncrasies, and that can lead to moments of “laugh out loud” comedy, as well as compelling drama. On stage at COCA’s Berges Theatre, the Rep’s production of Lydia R. Diamond’s thoughtfully constructed play benefits greatly from well-paced direction and a memorable, first-rate cast.

This play centers around a well-to-do Black family who regularly spend time at the family’s generations-old house on Martha’s Vineyard, which has belonged to Joe Levay’s (Ron Himes) wife’s family for many years. Joe, a successful surgeon, has two sons, who have brought their respective romantic partners to the house to meet the family. Younger son Kent (Ricardy Fabre), called “Spoon” by his fiancée Taylor (Amber Reauchean Williams), is something of a disappointment to his father, having gone through a series of career aspirations, although now he’s excited about being a writer, with his first novel about to be published. He’s eager to introduce Taylor to the family, although she is insecure about what they will think of her and has various reasons why. Older son Flip (DeShawn Harold Mitchell), who seems to be his father’s favorite, is a plastic surgeon who has gone through a series of superficial relationships, but he’s somewhat nervous to introduce his new girlfriend Kimber (Blair Lewin), who is white.  Also here is Cheryl (Bobbi Johnson), the 18-year-old daughter of the family’s ailing longtime maid. Cheryl, who grew up with this family, has her own revelations and secrets to learn and reveal, as does Joe, who finds himself frequently dodging questions about why his wife has not joined him at the house. Over the course of their stay, the characters reveal a lot about themselves, and struggle with issues of parent-child relationships, family expectations, societal expectations and limitations, the concept of what it means to be a responsible man and father, and a lot more. The way the story plays out sometimes is reminiscent of a sitcom, although there’s a good deal of emotional intensity as well. 

I saw an excellent production of this play from another theatre company a few years ago, and my impression then was that there was a bit of an imbalance between Act 1 and Act 2, with most of the substance of the story being in Act 2. In this production, while Act 1 is still essentially a long introduction, its setup of the story that leads into the more intense moments of Act 2 seems to make more sense. My reaction this time might be because I’ve seen the play before this time, while it was new to me before. Here, it seems like a lot of that setup was necessary to build to the drama, as well as allowing for a more full depiction of the conflicts and backgrounds of all the characters. Also, a theme that resonated this time was something that was brought up in conversation about Kent’s book, which is the idea that a story becomes more universally relatable when it’s more specific to the culture, situations, and characters portrayed, rather than trying to focus more on broad general themes. That theme rings true with this play itself, and this production. Also, the pacing and direction helps to focus the story, and the actors play out their relationship dynamics with impressive credibility.

As for the actors, they are universally excellent, led by Himes in a compelling, complex performance as the sometimes demanding, sometimes evasive Joe, who sets a difficult example for his two very different sons. Fabre brings a lot of sympathetic energy to the role of Kent, who in many ways is the play’s emotional center–and his scenes with the also excellent Williams as the intellectually gifted, scientifically curious, but insecure and emotionally volatile Taylor are a highlight of this production. Mitchell is also convincing as serial charmer Flip, who is matched in energy and chemistry by Lewin as Kimber. Johnson as Cheryl is also strong, navigating her character’s significant emotional arc with clarity and strength. This is a true ensemble cast, with all the actors playing off of each others’ energy especially well, to convincing effect in both the comic and dramatic moments.

Technically, the production also impresses, with set designer Kyu Shin providing an excellent backdrop for the action with a fully realized, detailed house that looks like something someone could actually live in. There’s also great work from lighting designer Amina Alexander in setting and maintaining the mood of the show, as well as helping to differentiate the “outdoor” scenes from the rest of the house set. Costume designer April M. Hickman and sound designer Twi McCallum also contribute to the overall authentic effect of the production.

Stick Fly is another memorable production from the Rep. It works especially well in the new COCA space that the Rep has made excellent use of this season. It’s also a strong showcase for its memorable themes, thoughtful subject matter, vividly defined characters, and excellent cast. 

Ricardy Fabre, Amber Reauchean Williams, Ron Himes, DeShawn Harold Mitchell, Blair Lewin
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Stick Fly at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until March 6, 2022

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A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 10, 2021

Giuesseppe Jones (center) and cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is a tale that has been adapted many times, showing the versatility of the source, the classic Charles Dickens novel. For more than a century and a half, the story has been adapted numerous times, for stage, radio, big screen and small. It’s been musicalized, condensed, expanded, and set in different times and places. Now, with plans of establishing an annual tradition, the Rep has brought it to the stage in a version that’s alternately comic and serious, with not a little bit of an ominous, even horror-like tone at times. Utilizing the impressive resources of the Rep, both in terms of technical abilities and the talents of of an excellent cast, crew, and creative team, this is a production that honors the timeless classic while at the same time making it immediate and relatable for modern audiences. 

Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I’ve seen quite a few adaptions of this story over the years, mostly on film and TV, but also including the last time the Rep staged a production five years ago. What I’ve noticed from seeing all these versions is that A Christmas Carol as a story is especially versatile in terms of how it can be adapted depending upon the time, circumstances, and medium. For this new Rep production, the focus seems to be on a more darkly comic interpretation of the material, blended with poignant drama at important moments, and an extensive use of music and striking visuals in telling the familiar story of the confrontation and redemption of miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge (Guiesseppe Jones). The casting of one performer, Michael James Reed, as two highly contrasting characters–Scrooge’s whimsical housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and an ominous, frightening version of the ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley–highlights the overall tone of the piece, going for broad comedy on occasion and shifting to near-horror when appropriate. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Laakan McHardy), Present (Paul Aguirre), and Future (Eric Dean White)–who also double as merchant characters who owe debts to Scrooge–reflect this duality of tone, as well. Also, as is usual for this story, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Armando McClain) and his family, especially his young, ailing son Tiny Tim (Rian Amerikal Page) are the focus for much of the poignancy and emotion.

The staging is energetic and briskly paced, with a lot of focus on music and technical effects, in support of the excellent cast. The use of music–mostly traditional English and European carols and folk songs with some original music and some more modern arrangements–is impressive, as well, with strong work from music director Tre’von Griffith, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and composers/sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. The music and dance–including a rap sequence–works well with the story and supports the action and emotion especially well.  Also contributing to overall technically stunning look and atmosphere of the piece are set designer Tim Mackabee with a vividly realized and versatile set, along with lighting designer Seth Reiser, projections designer Hana Kim, and costume designer Dede Ayite who provides meticulously detailed outfits for the characters ranging in style from traditional Victorian English to the more steampunk-ish look of the Ghost of Christmas Future and his living counterpart, a clockmaker and inventor. The overall design of this show, and the truly thrilling flying effects with Marley, provide for much of the visual impact of the show while supporting the emotional arc of the story.

As for the cast, it’s a fairly large ensemble and everyone is excellent, from Jones as an energetic, miserly and believably softening Scrooge, to McClain and Michelle Hand as the hardworking Cratchits, to Reed in impressively contrasting performances as Mrs. Dilber and Marley. There’s also impressive work from  McHardy, Aguirre, and White as the ghosts and their non-ghost counterparts. Also excellent are Raffael Sears in a dual role as Young Scrooge and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred; and Alegra Batara as both Young Scrooge’s onetime fiancée, Belle, and Fred’s wife. The entire ensemble is strong, as well, including a superb Youth Ensemble–I saw the “Green” group (there is also a “Blue” group that alternates with the Green group). 

A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic story that most people with recognize to some degree. Being a “ghost story” in essence, this tale always has its scarier scenes, but this version emphasizes a lot of the intense moments, so parents should consider that when deciding whether to bring small children. It’s a bit different staging-wise than other versions you may have seen, but this is such a versatile story and this version has a lot of appeal for today’s audiences, with a top-notch cast and truly stunning production values. It’s a timeless tale for the ages, and the Rep’s production tells this classic tale with truth and vibrancy.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 23, 2021

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The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

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Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

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Mlima’s Tale
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Shariffa Chelimo Ali
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
June 6, 2021

Kambi Gathesha, Joe Ngo
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The last show I saw indoors before the lockdown was at the Rep (The Cake, in March 2020), so it’s fitting that the first indoor show I see, over a year later, is also a Rep production, although the venue is different. Staged at COCA’s new Berges Theatre, Mlima’s Tale is a small-cast production about a big subject, in more ways than one. In terms of the production, it’s about the Rep’s excellent cast and truly stunning production values, and it all begins with an elephant.

Mlima (Kambi Gathesha) means “Mountain” in Kenyan-Kiswahili, according to Director Shariffa Chelimo Ali’s note in the program. And Mlima is a mountain of an elephant, embodying all the grandeur and majesty suggested by the name. It’s a stunning performance by Gathesha, who doesn’t have to dress like an elephant to portray this character. Gathesha is simply attired, but his movements and body language suggest the towering Mlima, including his ears, his trunk, and his deliberate, measured gait. Mlima narrates his own story throughout most of the play, which focuses on the international ivory trade and the insidious power of avarice that can be more pervasive than people are willing to admit. The “Tale” leads the audience from a wildlife preserve in Kenya across the ocean to Vietnam and China, with many stops along the way as the spirit of Mlima “haunts” the various players involved as corruption, ignorance, compromise, and conflicting ideals drive their actions.

As presented by the Rep, the ultimate result of this storytelling is a fascinating, impeccably staged and acted production, anchored by Gathesha’s mesmerizing performance as Mlima. The rest of the ensemble is also superb, as three performers (Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann, and Joe Ngo) portray a variety of roles, from poachers, to government officials, to smugglers, to artists and business people, playing out the story in vivid detail as the mournful and haunting tone develops and grows, underscoring every moment. The staging is deft and lyrical, with excellent work from choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, composer and sound designer Avi Amon, dialect coaches Julie Foh and Barbara Rubin, costume designer Helen Q. Huang, and lighting designer Jasmine Lesane, as the tale is crafted on the stage in a truly engaging and challenging way.

While this is a specific story about elephants and the ivory trade, it also carries a relatable message that applies to many situations of our times, and how systemic issues are much more pervasive than we often realize. In this play, though, the elephant is front and center, and never truly leaves the story even though he is killed at the very beginning (as is mentioned in promotional materials for the show, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Mlima’s presence looms throughout every moment, and the hope is that his story will linger in the minds of audience members. It’s a truly compelling tale, and the Rep’s company tells it with intense emotion and power.

Ezioma Asonye, Will Mann
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mlima’s Tale in the Berges Theatre at COCA until July 11, 2021

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The stage for last year’s St. Louis Theater Circle Awards at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Arts

I’ve said it many times to friends and acquaintances both in town and out of town–St. Louis has an exciting theatre scene, much larger and more spread out than many can imagine. We have big companies like the Muny and the Rep, but also smaller and just as excellent companies too numerous to mention. Unfortunately now, live theatre has been put on hold due to the current major health crisis, in St. Louis and throughout the country and the world. Still, just because we are staying home, that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate theatre in our city. Several local theatre companies are sponsoring events, and I’ll be featuring two of these companies later in this post. First, though, I want to mention an event that’s coming up tomorrow night in which I’ve been honored to participate–The St. Louis Theater Circle Awards streamcast.

Usually, the Theater Circle Awards are a live event affectionately nicknamed “Theatre Prom”, in which people from throughout the St. Louis theatre scene have been able to attend, including actors, directors, theatre company staff, and more, hosted by the St. Louis Theater Circle, the critics’ organization of which I am a member. It’s not just an awards event. It’s a party, and it’s been fun to participate in the festivities for the past several years. This year, however, in light of the current situation, the awards presentation is going online. The Theater Circle has voted, and the results will still be announced, but now you will be able to watch the results from your own home thanks to HEC TV, who will be streaming the awards on their Facebook page starting at 7pm.  Next year, I hope “Theatre Prom” will be able to return, but I’m glad this medium has been made available, and I hope many people will be watching. One benefit to this format is that viewers from outside of St. Louis will be able to watch, so I encourage readers to spread the word and tune in!

Now, although live theatre is a unique experience, the next best thing is being able to film these productions and post them online, which many theatre companies have done around the world. In St. Louis, you can stream Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s recent production of The Cake (details at this link). The Rep is also participating with several other regional theatres around the country for a project called Play at Home, which you can find here.  

Another especially exciting online offering is Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s the outstanding Cymbeline, presented by their TourCo ensemble and featuring a first-rate cast (Hannah Geisz, Britteny Henry, Mary Heyl, Keating, Halli Pattison, and Jenni Ryan), deftly directed by Tom Ridgely, with an excellent creative team including music director Tre’von “Tre G” Griffith, stage manager Emily Clinger, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, and props master Laura Skroska. This is a superb production, well-paced and cleverly presented, and it’s up on the SFSTL Facebook page here. Go watch it while you can! Also, SFSTL is offering other streamed offerings from the TourCo ensemble, including readings of Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” and Albert Camus’s The Plague. Check out their Facebook page for these productions and more. 

I hope the wonder that is live theatre will be able to return before too long, but in the meantime what we can do is stay home to flatten the curve, support our local theatre companies as best we can (viewing, donations, buying tickets to future productions, etc.), and always remember the value of the arts and the people who make them.

 

 

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