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Born Yesterday
by Garson Kanin
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 16, 2018

Ruth Pferdehirt, Aaron Bartz
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Born Yesterday is a classic comedy that made a star of Judy Holliday, on stage in 1946 and on screen in 1950. The sharp, old-school screwball comedy is a potential star vehicle for whoever plays the role of Billie Dawn, the former showgirl who starts out playing into the “dumb blonde” stereotype but turns around to subvert it. The Rep, finishing out their season with this production, has found an ideal star for this role in gifted comic performer Ruth Pferdehirt. She’s not alone in this production, however, shining in a top-notch cast with the Rep’s well-known stellar production values.

The story takes place in in a luxurious suite in an upscale Washington, DC  hotel in the late 1940s, where brash self-made millionaire and “junk man” Harry Brock (Andy Prosky) has come to exert his influence on some legislation that will benefit him and his business. He’s brought along his lawyer and chief advisor Ed Devery (Ted Deasy) to help him connect with a senator (Kurt Zischke) who is up for some financial “encouragement”. Harry has also brought along his longtime girlfriend and former chorus girl Billie (Pferdehirt), whose lack of manners and education embarrasss the equally uneducated Harry, who is trying to impress the society types in DC, including the senator and his wife (Gina Daniels). Rather than send Billie home, the domineering Harry enlists an idealistic young journalist, Paul Verrall (Aaron Bartz) to tutor Billie in some of the basics of government and society. The initially reluctant Billie and Paul soon disscover a mutual attraction, as Billie reveals that she’s a lot brighter than Harry, or anyone in his entourage, had expected. Soon, Billie discovers that all those papers Harry has been making her sign aren’t quite as innocuous as she had been led to believe, and Paul, in addition to his tutoring, also encourages her to assert her independence and stand up to the shady, increasingly volatile and violent Harry. All this is played out to the tune of Garson Kanin’s witty, incisive script that speaks a lot to today’s political climate as well as that of its day.

The powerhouse performance here is Pferdehirt in a wonderfully layered and also delightfully comic tour de force as Billie. Her increasing boldness, as well as her dawning sense of awareness of herself and the world around her, is magnificiently portrayed, with a strong stage presence and over-the-top but still relatable personality. She stuggles a little bit with consistency in terms of her New York accent early on, but that smooths out over the course of the play. She has great chemistry with the also excellent Prosky as the boorish, ruthlessly ambitious Harry, and with Bartz, who gives a charming performance as Paul. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Deasy as the increasingly conflicted Ed; Randy Donaldson as Harry’s cousin and all-purpose assistant Eddie; Zischke and Daniels as Senator and Mrs. Hedges; Michelle Hand as the initially surly maid Helen; and also CeCe Hll, Cassandra Lopez, Tom Wethington, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Maison Kelly, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in various ensemble roles. Director Pamela Hunt has staged the show in a fast-moving way that highlights the strength of the comedy and the characters, as well.

Visually, the show looks great. The 1940s high-society look has been ideally achieved in James Morgan’s sumptously appointed set. Lou Bird’s costumes are also stylish and period-appropriate, with a succession of colorful outfits for Billie and well-tailored suits for the men, as well as appropriate outfits for the various hotel staff members. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger and sound designer Rusty Wandall, helping to set the overall tone and mood of this sharp, bright and still thoughtful comedy.

This Born Yesterday is a delightful production. It’s bold, it’s funny, it’s surprisingly timely, and it has a great cast, led by the truly stellar performance of Pferdehirt as Billie. It’s a memorable way to close out a great season at the Rep.

Andy Prosky, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Born Yesterday until April 8, 2018.

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The latest project at the Rep Studio is probably the most difficult production I’ve ever had to review. In fact, I’m tempted to just write: “this is really interesting and non-tradtional–go see it!” When audiences are brought into the studio space, they’re given a program for an art exhibition, not a play. Still, they’ve billed it as a play, and the Rep is a theatre company. Although the initial setup isn’t usual, it’s fairly obvious there’s something theatrical going on here. Still, because Caught depends so much on form, and surprise, I’m not going to describe it in detail. It’s not a vague show in any sense, but the structure of it essentially requires a somewhat vague review.

So, go see it! Enjoy!

Actually, I have to describe it a little. Just be warned that everything is not exactly as it seems, ever, in this production. We first get an art show, and a lecture by a Chinese artist, and then more situations that end up differently than how they start out. There are actors involved, and I have to credit them because of their excellent performances with comic and dramatic twists, but I’m only listing their names here: Kenneth Lee, Rachel Fenton, Jeffrey Cummings, and Rachel Lin. There are also excellent production values–an impressivly detailed, evolving set by Robert Mark Morgan, well-suited costumes by Felia K. Davenport, striking atmospheric lighting by Ann G. Wrightson, and strong sound design by Rusty Wandall. All the elements work together to make this a unique, challenging work of theatre that addresses timely issues of truth in media, as well as the very concept of truth itself. In fact, you’re likely to leave the space not only wondering what you just saw, but questioning the very idea of truth in communication.

That’s it, really. That’s about all I can write without spoiling too much. The overall experience of this production and the unfolding nature of it is so essential to its purpose, that telling too much could mar that experience. So, what I’m back to is simply–“this is really interesting and non-traditional. Go see it!” Especially if you like experimental theatre, you won’t regret it

By the way, you get the “real” program at the end of the show. And in keeping with that structure, I’m ending with this:

Caught
by Christopher Chen
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 9, 2018 (Running Until March 25, 2018)

Kenneth Lee Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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The Marvelous Wonderettes
Written and Created by Roger Bean
Directed by Choreographed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 5, 2017

Leanne Smith, Chiara Trentalange, Morgan Kirner, Iris Beaumier
Photo by Eric Woolsey

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is starting out 2018 with an upbeat, nostalgic tunefest. The Marvelous Wonderettes is something of a blend between a jukebox musical and a revue, featuring many classic pop hits from the 1950’s and 60’s. There’s not a lot of plot here, and what is there tends to be somewhat silly, but still, there’s a strong cast here and the overall tone is “fun”.

The “story”, or what there is of it, takes place in two acts, set ten years apart, in 1958 and 1968. The “Marvelous Wonderettes” of the title are a group of high school classmates performing at their senior prom.  In the first act, we meet the perky, slightly ditzy Suzy (Leanne Smith), the vain Cindy Lou (Chiara Trentalange), the brash Betty Jean (Iris Beaumier), and the assertive Missy (Morgan Kirner), who are all friends but have their conflicts and personal issues that are reflected in the songs they sing. There’s a little bit of an effort at audience participation (asking the audience to vote for Prom Queen, for instance), but for the most part this is something like a concert with a story. The first act highlights songs from the 50’s, such as “Mr. Sandman”, “Lollipop”, “Secret Love”, “Stupid Cupid” and more. The second act, taking place in the same high school gym for the classmates’ 10 year reunion, features 60’s hits such as “You Don’t Own Me”, “I Only Want to Be With You”, “It’s My Party”, and “Son of a Preacher Man”, among others. Through the course of their singing, we get to know the characters’ stories and see how their relationships with one another develop, and it becomes obvious that some of the off-stage characters mentioned are named to fit the lyrics of some of the songs. It’s an energetic show, with an overall comic tone, and it’s a lot of fun despite being obviously contrived to fit the stories of the songs.

The performers here are excellent, bringing a lot of energy, emotion, humor, and chemistry to this show. The biggest voices belong to Trentalange as the sometimes overconfident Cindy Lou, and Beaumier as the alternately confrontational and insecure Betty Jean. Trentalange also stands out for being the character who changes the most between the two acts, and for making this change believable. There are also strong comic performances from Kirner as the determined Missy, and by Smith as the sweet but longsuffering Suzy. The friendships and conflicts between the characters are made credible by the strong cohesive chemistry here, and the vocal harmonies on the songs are also strong.

The 50’s and 60’s look and sound are achieved here with colorful style by means of Adam Koch’s “high school gym” unit set and Dorothy Marshall Englis’s colorful period costumes. Peter E. Sargent’s lighting adds to the mood in various scenes as well, and Rusty Wandall’s sound is crisp and clear. There’s some fun staging of the various musical numbers, as well, choreographed by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The songs, arranged by Brian William Baker and orchestrated by Michael Borth, are appropriately catchy with an authentic era-specific sound as well as being convincingly performed by a group of high school friends.

Overall, The Marvelous Wonderettes is a fun show. It’s definitely on the “light entertainment” end of the spectrum, but it’s very well done light entertainment. With a lot of energy, personality, and a succession of well-known classic pop songs, it’s an entertaining start to the new year at the Rep.

Iris Beaumier, Morgan Kirner, Chiara Trentalange, Leanne Smith
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Marvelous Wonderettes until January 28, 2017

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 1, 2017

Kim Wong, Justine Salata, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Harveen Sandhu
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jane Austen sequels and adaptations are nothing new. From modernizations like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to mysteries like Death Comes to Pemberley to the countless fan stories on a multitude of sites online, writers like to get creative with Austen’s characters, with results ranging from puzzling to delightful. The latest production from the Rep, the funny and festive Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is solidly on the “delightful” end of the spectrum, with an impressive script, excellent production values and a top-notch cast.

As the title suggests, the story finds the familiar characters from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, celebrating Christmas at the home of the now happily married Elizabeth (Harveen Sandhu) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Rhett Guter). While Elizabeth, the main character of Pride and Prejudice, and Darcy are prominently featured, as are sisters Jane (Kim Wong) and Lydia (Austen Danielle Bohmer), the main focus of story is on the often neglected middle sister Mary (Justine Salata), portrayed here as earnest, socially awkward, and unsure of her own future as two of her sisters have married happily, one insists she’s happy in her marriage although evidence suggests otherwise, and another (the unseen Kitty) is happily spending the holiday with her aunt and uncle in London. Mary is determined to make the most of her time at Pemberley despite feeling overshadowed by her elder sisters and their husbands, and her sisters soon learn there is more to her than than had previously acknowledged. Also invited for the festivities is Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Miles G. Townsend), the scholarly and socially awkward nephew and surprising heir of the recently deceased Lady Catherine. Arthur, who is most at home among his books, isn’t comfortable with his new noble title and his unexpected inheritance of his late aunt’s home, but he’s intrigued by the Darcys and soon hits it off with Mary, as the two bond over mutual interests and soon have to deal with feelings neither of them had expected. But more surprises are in store as well, with some unpleasant news brought by Arthur’s imperious cousin, the late Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne de Bourgh (Victoria Frings).

As much as I love the source material, this show takes me as something of a surprise especially in terms of its sparkling wit and humor. I expected an interesting show, but I didn’t expect to laugh this much. I’m also impressed by how true to the spirit of Austen this story is, and how well-realized the characters are. The familiar characters of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane and Mr. Bingley (Peterson Townsend), are here, as are Mary and Lydia, but the playwrights manage to do a great job of making them recognizable as Austen’s characters, but also of expanding on them, especially in the cases of Mary and the surprisingly nuanced Lydia. Mary has become a likable, relatable lead character here especially, delightfully played by Salata with a steely determination and a deliciously dry wit. She’s well-matched by Jackson’s highly physical, amiably awkward portrayal of Mary’s unlikely suitor Arthur de Bourgh. Their chemistry is delightful and, shall I say, adorkable. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Sandhu’s warm, encouraging Elizabeth and Guter’s devoted Darcy, and Bohmer’s enigmatic Lydia the real standouts. What’s struck me especially about this production is the attention to the relationship of the sisters, and all four performers do well to portray a believable sisterly bond.  Ensemble members Max Bahneman, Johnny Briseno, and Molly Burris also contribute well to the story as the Pemberley household staff doubling as stagehands.

In addition to being wonderfully charming and witty, this production also looks wonderful. Wilson Chin’s sumtuously detailed set effectively brings the tastefully opulent Pemberley to the stage, and David Toser’s detailed period costumes add to the charm. It’s a Regency Christmas in all its festive glory, featuring Elizabeth’s new project, an unusual German custom called a “Christmas Tree”. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and sound designer Philip S. Rosenberg.

This is such a fun show. With an outstanding lead performance and a first-rate supporting cast, along with stunning production values and and overall Austen-like atmosphere coupled with the festivity of the holiday season, this production is simply a winner. It’s a real treat for the holiday season. Go see it!

Justine Salata, Miles G. Jackson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley until December 24, 2017.

 

 

 

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Heisenberg
by Simon Stephens
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St.Louis, Studio
October 27, 2017

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening its Studio season with a much talked-about two-character play called Heisenberg. It’s a short play, running at just under an hour and a half, and the focus is much more on character than on the plot. It’s a clever, somewhat unpredictable script that serves as a great showcase for its two excellent lead performers.

The title of this play isn’t referenced in the story itself, but it’s one a lot of people will be familiar with, even if they aren’t well-versed in physics. Although associated with a particular scientific concept, one doesn’t really have to know anything about physics to get the gist of this title. Essentially, the first word most people associate with the name Heisenberg is “uncertainty”, and in this play, that’s the general idea. Life is uncertain, and people are uncertain, and we don’t even know how much time we have with the people who come into our lives. The story follows the quirky relationship of two very different people, the 40-something American expat Georgie (Susan Louise O’Connor) and 75-year-old Irish-born butcher Alex (Joneal Joplin), who meet at a train station in London and eventually become more involved in one another’s lives, due largely to Georgie’s persistence. Over the course of their relatively short acquaintance (six weeks, according to director Steven Woolf’s note in the program), there are lies, misrepresentations, revelations, sudden decisions, and other surprises as we learn more about these two and the qualities that draw them together. There isn’t much else to say that doesn’t spoil too much, but the real focus here is on the relationship, as these two characters grow closer and show how their relationship and their interactions with the world around them and other important people in their lives shapes their present decisions, relationship, and character.

The set here is minimal. Designed by Peter and Margery Spack, it consists mainly of two long tables and some chairs, with video screens to help suggest the setting. Nathan W. Scheuer’s lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound also contribute to the overall atmosphere here, which is more of a suggestion of settings than a concrete representation. Marci Franklin’s costumes are well-suited to the characters and their well-defined personalities.

And it’s those personalities that are the chief focus of this show, boldly embodied by the superb actors who bring them to life. Joplin does a great job of presenting Alex as a well-rounded character even early on, when he doesn’t speak as much and is largely reacting to Georgie. There’s so much communicated in Joplin’s mere looks and reactions, and as we find out more about him as the play progresses, Joplin continues to make these revelations fascinating, and his chemistry with O’Connor is wonderful. O’Connor is equally superb as the more outwardly expressive Georgie, although we soon learn that although she’s not as reserved as Alex, she has her own secrets. The contrast and dynamic between these two characters is really what makes the play so fascinating, and the performers here make the most of that relationship.

The play is fairly simple, plot-wise, even though its driven by a series of surprises, and the ending is somewhat abrupt. The point, I suppose, is that we never really know what to expect from life, so we might as well make the most of it while we are here. Here, that lesson is exemplified by two memorable characters in this witty, poignant play. This production, with it’s terrific leads and the assured direction of Steven Woolf, carries its message well. Life may be uncertain, but this play is certainly worth seeing.

Joneal Joplin, Susan Louise O’Connor
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Heisenberg in its Studio Theatre until November 12, 2017.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Simon Stephens
Based on the Novel by Mark Haddon
Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 8, 2017

Nick LaMedica and Cast
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been an elusive play for me. It was playing in London the last time I was there, and it was sold out. It was also playing in New York the last time I was there, and it was also sold out. I had read the book on which this play is based, and I’d heard great things about the stage version, but for some reason whenever I was in a position to see it, I wasn’t able to get a ticket. Now, fortunately, the Rep is opening its latest season with this play, finally giving me the opportunity to see it, and this show is definitely worth the wait. Cleverly staged and impeccably cast, this is a profoundly moving production.

If the title sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story, that’s no accident, because 15 year old Christopher Boone (Nick LaMedica) loves Sherlock Holmes stories, and when a mystery presents itself in the form of the death of a neighbor’s dog, Christopher is determined to solve that mystery. The mathematically gifted Christopher, who appears to be on the autism spectrum, lives in England with his father, Ed (Jimmy Kieffer) and goes to a “special school” which serves as the backdrop for much of the play’s action. His teacher, Siobhan (Kathleen Wise) encourages him as he writes a book about his discoveries in an investigation that leads him on an unusual path to an unexpected destination, and to some rather surprising revelations about his family and the people closest to him. On the way, we find out a lot about Christopher and how he sees the world and how he relates to those around him.

The staging of this production is apparently a lot different than it’s London and Broadway stagings, which featured more special effects. This production, designed for the Rep by Narelle Sissons, isn’t as high-tech but it’s still wondrous. It’s essentially Christopher’s classroom, but the walls are decorated with various words and mathematical symbols, and areas for Christopher to write and draw as he takes us along on his extremely personal adventure. There are various movable set pieces as well, and the ensemble also contributes to the set in inventive ways as Christopher’s self-appointed mission takes him to new places, from his own neighborhood to bustling London and back again. The costumes by Leon Wiebers and the stunning lighting by Matthew Richards also contribute to the full realization of Christopher’s world.

The show is dynamically staged, with a strong ensemble supporting the truly remarkable performance of LaMedica as Christopher. This is his story, and his world, and LaMedica inhabits the character and his world with energy, strength, and warmth that projects through his sometimes detached manner. Although the set, play structure, and production values do a lot in terms of bringing the audience into Christopher’s world, it’s LaMedica who most makes us care for this character. He navigates Christopher’s journey in a variety of emotions from cool detachment, to suspicion, to curiosity, to sheer joy when he’s solving complicated math problems. It’s a brilliant performance, ably supported by Kieffer as Christopher’s loving but weary and secretive father, Ed, by Wise as Christopher’s understanding and dedicated teacher, by Dale Hodges in various roles including a kindly neighbor of Christopher’s, and by Amy Blackman as Christopher’s mother, Judy. There’s also a strong ensemble playing various roles as needed, from teachers in Christopher’s school to neighbors and other people he meets in the course of the story.

This is a profoundly moving play. It’s cleverly staged and fast-moving, with a good balance of humor and drama. It’s a fascinating exploration of this one young man’s life and character, and his own approach to the challenges, relationships, and revelations he encounters. This is an excellent start to the Rep’s new season, and a truly riveting theatrical experience.

Nick LaMedica
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time until October 1, 2017.

 

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The Royale
by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Stuart Carden
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio
March 10. 2017

Bernard Gilbert, Lance Baker, Akron Lanier Watson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Royale is an ambitious concept. It’s a story inspired by history, told in manner that resonates well for today’s audiences. The latest production at the Rep Studio, this is a dynamic, fascinating play that features fine production values and a fantastic cast. Telling a tale that’s in a way as timely today as it would have been 110 years ago, it’s a challenging and vibrantly staged piece of theatre.

The story of The Royale takes place at “some point between 1905 and 1910”, according to the program. It’s a tale inspired by the real-life story of boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first black World Heavyweight Champion. It’s a story that’s been told before on stage and on screen in the form of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Here, though, the format is different and much more stylized. The lead character here is called Jay “The Sport” Jefferson (Akron Lanier Watson), and the story follows him as he engages in a series of matches with other black fighters across the country, although his real aim is for a chance at the world Heavyweight title, held by the retired (and unseen) white boxer Bernard Bixby. As Jay wrangles with his promoter Max (Lance Baker) and befriends a talented opponent, Fish (Bernard Gilbert)–who becomes Jay’s sparring partner–the potential of a match with Bixby looms, along with all the implications of such a fight, especially if Jay wins. The impact of the match on the highly segregated society of the time is shown especially in the form of Jay’s relationship with his sister Nina (Bria Walker), who is proud of her brother but has serious reservations about the title fight. The story is told in a unique format, with the boxing matches often staged side-by-side instead of head-to-head, and with carefully staged movement and use of rhythmic body percussion choreographed by Stephanie Paul.  It’s an inventive construction that helps to keep the story moving with a great deal of dynamic energy.

This play depends a lot on its cast, and that’s its biggest strength. Watson brings a real sense of charisma and presence that is essential for the dynamic, iconoclastic Jay. His boasting and bravado, as well as his athletic prowess, are on clear display, and when the situation gets more challenging, his sense of conflict is clear. His scenes with Walker’s determined Nina are a highlight of the show, as are his scenes with the excellent Gilbert as the determined, ambitious Fish. There are also strong performances from Baker as Max and by Samuel Ray Gates as Jay’s trainer and friend, Wynton.  Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the excellent ensemble of this well-choreographed, briskly staged play.

The more contemporary structure of the play actually works well in portraying the spirit and tone of the early 20th Century setting of the play. There’s also an excellent set by Brian Sidney Bembridge that basically puts the audience in the ring with the fighters, as well as strong atmospheric lighting also by Bembridge. Christine Pascual’s costumes are richly detailed and appropriate for the time and characters, from the boxing attire to Jay’s and Max’s stylish suits and Nina’s dress and hat. The only real misstep in terms of period accuracy is an odd anachronism I’m surprised hasn’t been caught already, in terms of radio. The characters keep talking about listening to events on the radio, when commercial broadcast radio didn’t exist until the 1920’s. Otherwise, the time, place and spirit of the production are well maintained, and the sense of drama is well-built in the structure, and especially in the thrilling climactic bout.

The Royale is a memorable production, and a fascinatingly inventive theatrical event. Theatre is a good venue for a sport like boxing, that can be theatrical in itself. Boxing also works as a fitting allegory for the struggle that Jay, his sister, and their contemporaries endured every day in a highly segregated and often brutal society. It’s a show with a message that still resonates now, because although times have changed,  events in the news show us that there’s still a lot of change needed. This is a strong production from the Rep Studio, closing out a first-rate season.

Akron Lanier Watson, Bria Walker
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Royale in its Studio Theatre until March 26, 2017.

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