Posts Tagged ‘review’

Jesus & Johnny Appleweed’s Holy Rollin’ Family Christmas
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Scott Miller
Original Orchestrations by John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Tony L. Marr Jr.
Choreographed by Tony L. Marr Jr.
New Line Theatre
December 1, 2023

Kay Love, Terrell Thompson
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line is a theatre company that’s not afraid of taking risks. They’ve staged some excellent, smaller-scaled productions of musicals from the well-known to the obscure, and occasionally, like with their latest production, original works. Their latest production, written and co-directed by New Line’s artistic director Scott Miller, is a holiday show with a twist. Jesus & Johnny Appleweed’s Holly Rollin’ Family Christmas is a world premiere musical parody that’s got a lot of potential, even though it’s still a bit rough around the edges.

The show is a sort-of sequel to Miller’s earlier original musical Johnny Appleweed, which was staged by New Line in 2006. I didn’t see that show, so I can only go by what I’ve read about it. This show features some characters from that show, but in the format of kind of an extended adaptation of A Christmas Carol, featuring a seemingly typical white-bread American Family, the Goodsons, led by the stuffy, traditionalist father Harry (Terrell Thompson), who in the first act spends an evening being surprised and shocked by his family members, who all have secrets that they reveal under the influence of some pot-spiked Christmas cookies. Narrated by a group of “Stoner Carolers” (Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Stephanie Merritt, and Lauren Tenenbaum), the show follows as Harry’s kids Chip (Tony L. Marr Jr.) and Tammy (Marlee Wenski), brother-in-law Hugh (Tawaine Noah), and wife Bess (Kay Love) take turns singing about their lives in ways that increasingly disturb Harry. And then, in the second act, Jesus (also Marr) shows up as the “Jacob Marley” figure, warning Harry–who has passed out on the couch after eating a bunch of the cookies–that he will soon be visited by three ghosts, like Ebenezer Scrooge but with more of an herbal influence. Noah, Wenski, and Love play the ghosts, with Love appearing as the titular Johnny Appleweed, and bringing a great deal of energy to a show that’s a bit overlong, even though it gets better as it goes along.

The show gets off to a slow start, and it could deal with a good bit of trimming, as the first act is all set-up and the plot doesn’t really get moving until Jesus shows up in Act Two. There are some fun songs and some compelling points being made about the clash between the idealization of  1950s America and reality, as well as the encroaching social rebellion of the 1960s. The music is hit-or-miss, with some songs that basically stop the action to tell a long story, and others that are especially clever–especially in the second Act when the weed humor ramps up, which surprised me somewhat, since I’m not usually a huge fan of stoner jokes. Still, this show is at its high point (pun intended) when it leans into the pot jokes, and especially after the energetic Love shows up as Johnny Appleweed, leading the Carolers and the cast in what is probably the show’s most catchy song “That Stick Up Your Ass”. There are also some clever re-writings of traditional Christmas carols, sung with excellent harmonies by the Carolers. 

As for the rest of the cast, Wenksi is also hilariously energetic as Tammy and as movie star Sandra Dee, whose intro song is a fun nod to Grease. Thompson struggled with his lines a bit in the first act, but gained more energy and confidence in the second. Noah, as Hugh and the first of three Christmas ghosts is also fine, and Marr–a last-minute replacement as Chip–moves well and has a good sense of presence, but struggles a bit with the vocals. Marr is also the choreographer and co-director for this production,  providing some fun moments of dancing especially in the show’s livelier moments. 

In terms of technical elements, this show looks great, filling the stage at the Grandel Theatre with a vibrant Mid-Century Modern influenced set by Rob Lippert. The costumes by Lauren Smith Bearden are also colorful and stylish, with the props by Erin Goodenough also adding much to the satirical tone of the show. There’s also excellent lighting by Matt Stuckel and a lively band led by music director/keyboardist Mallory Golden.

Jesus & Johnny Appleweed’s Holly Rollin’ Family Christmas isn’t a perfect show, but it’s new and it has a good deal of potential. The cast members seem to be enjoying themselves a great deal, and there are some memorable moments and an excellent sense of theme. If you like crass humor, and especially stoner jokes, this show should be a fun “alternative” holiday production. 

Marlee Wenski, Terrell Thompson, and Carolers
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Jesus & Johnny Appleweed’s Holy Rollin’ Family Christmas at the Grandel Theatre until December 16, 2023

Read Full Post »

by William Luce
Directed by Erin Kelley
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2023

John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

John Contini has starred in Barrymore before, garnering great reviews and winning a Kevin Kline Award in 2010. I didn’t get to see that production, but now St. Louis Actors’ Studio is staging the show, allowing me and other St. Louis theatergoers to see this intense, remarkable performance. With vibrant staging and striking production values, this production showcases Contini’s portrayal of one of theatre’s more celebrated actors in a vividly realized, highly emotional production.

John Barrymore was one of the better-known actors on stage and screen in the first part of the 20th Century. Coming from a famous acting family that is perhaps best known today because of John’s granddaughter Drew Barrymore. In their day, however, John–called “Jack” by those who knew him–his brother Lionel, and sister Ethel were considered something of a “royal family” of acting–following in the tradition of their parents. This show features Jack toward the end of his life, in 1942, as he rehearses scenes from Richard III with the help of an unseen but much-heard line prompter, Frank (Alexander Huber). As Frank tries to keep him on track, Barrymore frequently digresses into stories of his childhood, his difficult relationship with his father, his four marriages, his alcoholism, his relationships with his siblings, his attitudes toward acting in film and theatre, and more. Although there is much wit and humor here, the overall impression I get from this story is a sad one, of a talented man at the end of his life, full of regrets and struggling to hold on to his reputation as one of the prominent Shakespearean actors of his day. 

It’s a very deep, multi-faceted performance that portrays Barrymore’s humanity with sharp veracity. Contini is a marvel in how he portrays the many aspects of Barrymore’s personality, as well as his still-apparent talent. It’s a riveting performance, from start to finish. Huber is also commendable in a sympathetic performance as the helpful but frequently exasperated Frank. Even though Huber never appears onstage, Frank’s presence is palpable and important, serving as an ideal sounding-board for Barrymore and something of an audience surrogate, as well.

The world of the play is brought to life vividly by means of Patrick Huber’s detailed set and excellent lighting design, as well Teresa Doggett’s remarkable costumes and Emma Glose’s props. It’s like the audience has been transported to a small theatre in 1942, with just the right look and mood. Director Erin Kelley’s staging is thoughtful and dynamic, as well.

Although the main “selling point” for this production is John Contini’s remarkable performance, all the other elements are also first-rate. This is a remarkably vivid recreation of another time and place, as well as an emotional reflection on the life of an actor. I highly recommend this production, especially for those with an interest in the history of the American theatre.

John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Barrymore at the Gaslight Theatre until December 10, 2023

Read Full Post »

Walter Cronkite is Dead
by Joe Calarco
Directed by Anna Blair
West End Players Guild
December 2, 2023

Leslie Wobbe, Kate Durbin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Two women meet as strangers in an airport bar. One is more outgoing and talkative; the other is initially more reserved and reticent. Brought together by circumstance, they soon find themselves opening up to one another, revealing their differences, as well as how much they have in common. This is the premise of Joe Calarco’s Walter Cronkite is Dead, which is currently being staged in a thoroughly engaging production at West End Players Guild, featuring two memorable performances and an overall atmosphere that draws the audience into the worlds of these two different, but oddly similar, characters. 

This is something of a “talky” play, but it doesn’t get boring in the least, considering the dynamic staging by director Anna Blair and the superb performances of its two leads, Leslie Wobbe as Patty and Kate Durbin as Margaret. Finding refuge in a bar at Washington, DC’s Reagan National Airport because of a weather emergency causing massive flight delays, the two form a gradual bond that at first seems unlikely, considering that the more reserved Margaret seems wary of the talkative Patty, but eventually the conversation starts, revealing much about these two women and why they are in the airport, as well as their contrasting outlooks on life, with Patty being a more “country” conservative from Tennessee, and Margaret being more of a Northeastern liberal who loves the Kennedy family so much that she’s named all four of her children after them. It’s a lively interaction, with ups and downs as the two struggle with their differences and deep-held stereotypes, as well as discovering similarities with which they can relate, concerning their relationships with their children and more. The tone is mostly comic, but there are also some palpable moments of drama, providing a deep emotional range for these two excellent performers. 

The acting is just marvelous, from both Wobbe as the more chatty, outgoing Patty, and Durbin as the more standoffish, but eventually just as emotive Margaret. The dialogue is well-constructed, and Wobbe and Durbin play off of each other with relatable energy, making for a completely believable performance and building relationship. 

The look and mood of the show is well-maintained by means of a simple set–the designer of which is not credited in the program, as well as atmospheric lighting by Amy Ruprecht, sound by Mary Beth Winslow, and props by Blair. The costumes are also excellent and perfectly suited to their characters. I’m not sure if there was a designer or if the performers assembled the outfits themselves, but the whole look and style of the characters works well considering their personalities. 

Walter Cronkite is Dead has a lot to say considering first impressions, stereotyping, and polarization in today’s society. Although the story takes place in 2010, it’s especially timely for 2023. It’s a remarkable, insightful production. 

The West End Players Guild is presenting Walter Cronkite is Dead at the Union Avenue Christian Church until December 10, 2023

Read Full Post »

Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Directed by Robert Quinlan
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
New Jewish Theatre
November 30, 2023

Cast of Into the Woods
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

Into the Woods has become something of a modern classic of musical theatre. It’s become especially popular with regional and school theatre groups, and I can see why, since the subjects it deals with are relatable to most, considering the foundational fairy tales on which the story is based. Also, from what I’ve seen, it’s especially adaptable in terms of style and theme, and many directors over the years have staged their own unique concepts without actually changing the script. At New Jewish Theatre, director Robert Quinlan has staged a quickly paced, smaller-cast version in the round, with an excellent, versatile cast and an especially approachable tone.

The story is well-known, made up of a collection of fairy tales mashed together, with an original story to tie them together–of a Baker and his Wife hoping to break a curse so they can have a child. In carrying out the directions of the Witch who lives next door–who has her own reasons for wanting to break the spell–the Baker and his Wife encounter several familiar characters–including Cinderella, Rapunzel, and their respective Princes, along with Little Red Riding Hood, the beanstalk-climbing Jack, and the Big Bad Wolf, among others. The story gets into motion quickly, and never really stops moving, as the characters are determined to get their wishes in the first act, without much thought of how their actions affect others. The second act then deals with the consequences of those actions, with an overriding theme of “be careful what you wish for”, as well as an emphasis on community and how selfish goals can have unforeseen repercussions.

The look and tone of this production are both simple and elaborate at the same time, with a versatile, shifting set by C. Otis Sweezey, colorful costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, and atmospheric lighting by Jayson M. Lawshee helping to set the mood, which emphasizes earth tones and natural elements, with some movable trees and other set pieces, along with a simple but clever puppet of Jack’s cow, Milky-White, operated by Matt Billings, who also plays Cinderella’s Prince. There’s also a 3-piece musical ensemble led by music director Larry D. Pry, who also serves as the Narrator of the story. All of these elements along with the brisk pacing help to maintain the whimsical, fairy-tale-like tone as the story unfolds.

The cast is excellent, as well, led by the personable Molly Wennstrom and Kevin O’Brien as the Baker’s Wife and the Baker, and by the strong-voiced Sarah Gene Dowling as the Witch. There’s also a memorable performance from Kristen Joy Lintvedt as the determined Cinderella, as well as Aliyah Jacobs as an energetic Little Red, and Matthew Cox as both Jack and the royal Steward. Most of the cast members play multiple roles, and all are strong, including Billings as Cinderella’s Prince and Milky-White, Kevin Corpuz as Rapunzel’s Prince and Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda, Sarah Wilkinson as Rapunzel and Florinda, and Phil Leveling in a fun turn as the Wolf, the Mysterious Man, and Cinderella’s Stepmother. It’s a strong ensemble, with a great deal of energy and chemistry, as well as excellent vocals.

Overall, this journey Into the Woods is well worth the trip. With strong direction and pacing, as well as a consistent sense of theme, this show tells its tale with style and heart. And Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated score is ideally represented, as well. It’s an excellent closing show for the New Jewish Theatre’s 2023 season.

Molly Wennstrom, Kevin O’Brien
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Into the Woods at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until December 17

This review was originally published at

Read Full Post »

The fall-into-winter theatre season is in full swing in St. Louis. With the Holiday season starting up, and a host of new productions getting ready to open, there’s a feast of options on stage for theatre fans to enjoy. Here are short reviews of three recent productions–one recently closed, but two still running, that all feature strong casting and some clever staging, with two being literary adaptations, and one exploring the inner life of a struggling writer. 

Elektra: Elektra’s Version
Based on the play by Sophocles, translated by Anne Carson
Directed and Designed by Spencer Lawton
November 16, 2023

Maida Dippel (Center, on bed) and Cast
Photo: Critique Theatre Company

Director Spencer Lawton has brought together an enthusiastic cast for a new look at the classic Greek tragedy Electra as filtered through the lens of early 2010’s Tumblr culture and the Marina and the Diamonds Album Electra HeartWith some input from the cast and from local artist/director Lucy Cashion–who is known for these kinds of literary re-imaginings–Lawton’s production is a cleverly staged, well-cast show that provides much to think about, as well as making the most of its space at the fun new venue, Greenfinch Theater and Dive

The venue is great for this staging, providing a blank canvas of sorts on which the artists can present their vision. The cast, led by Maida Dippel as the brooding, vengeful Elektra, is in excellent form, with several of the actors playing more than one role. The ensemble is especially strong and cohesive, including Katie Orr, Victoria Thomas, Miranda Jagels-Félix, Celeste Gardner, Alicen Kramer-Moser, Laurel Button, and Emma Glose, with similarly costumed Ross Rubright and Anthony Kramer-Moser as “The Man Parade”. 

While there’s a lot going on here, and sometimes it could be hard to follow–especially at a point in which most of the cast members are speaking at once–this is a fascinating staging with a lot to think about, especially in terms of the often conflicting messages that society presents to teenage girls. It’s got drama, dark comedy, and lots of attitude, as well as a sense of social critique that seems fitting considering the name of this theatre company. The stylized look of the characters and costumes–influenced by the Electra Heart album–also contributes to the distinctive style of this show. 

It’s a compelling production, and I hope it has a life beyond the one weekend it played at Greenfinch. 

Q Brothers Christmas Carol
Based on the Novella by Charles Dickens
Written by Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, JAX, POS)
Developed with Rick Boynton
Music Composition by JQ
Directed by Q Brother Collective (GQ, JQ, & JAX)
November 24, 2023

Garrett Young, Mo Shipley, Victor Musoni, Maya Vinice Prentiss
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

The Q Brothers Collective has had a relationship with St. Louis Shakespeare Festival for a few years now, starting with their hilarious production of Dress the Part in early 2020. The Festival has now brought the Chicago-based company’s lively, hip-hop-influenced Q Brothers Christmas Carol to town in a memorable, eye-catching staging at the National Blues Museum downtown. With an energetic, musical staging featuring DJ Stank (Mel Bady) spinning the tunes, this is an update of a classic that brings a lot of humor, heart, and style.

With a cast of just four actors, this show’s comedy benefits a lot from all the quick changes and the fact that most of the actors are playing multiple characters. With Garrett Young as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, the story plays out essentially as expected, but with many modern twists and jokes. Young is especially effective as Scrooge, making the character’s journey believable, and working well with co-stars Victor Musoni, Mo Shipley, and Maya Vinice Prentiss, who each play a variety of roles, from the various ghosts, to townspeople, to figures from Scrooge’s past, present, and future. It’s a fast-paced show with a memorable musical score and a modern festive spirit. 

It’s also a great-looking show, with excellent costumes by Erika McClellan, scenic design by William Attaway, lighting by Jesse Klug, and sound by Stephen Ptacek. The staging is quick and lively, and the update is decidedly 21st Century, with a tone that I would characterize as PG-13-ish in terms of language and subject matter. It works very well in the space at the Blues Museum, with a themed bar set up for before the show. It’s a good way to start off the holiday season in a theatrical way.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Q Brothers Christmas Carol at the National Blues Museum until December 23. 

Leannán Sidhe
by Deanna Strasse
Directed by Sean Belt
First Run Theatre
November 26, 2023

Matt Hanify, Tanya Badgley
Photo by David Hawley
First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre’s mission of presenting world premiere productions of shows by Midwestern playwright’s continues, staging Milwaukee-based playwright Deanna Strasser’s play Leannán Sidhe, an intriguing look at the life of an ambitious playwright who, Strasser admits in the program notes, is based on herself. Directed by Sean Belt and featuring a small, effective cast, this is a well-staged production to which I think a lot of artists–and especially writers–may relate, even if they don’t go as far as the main character does in retreating into a fantasy that threatens to take over her life. 

Mya Sraid (Tanya Badgley) is a playwright whose life isn’t exactly going the way she would like it to, considering producers keep wanting her to write farces, and her friends all seem to want to bring her to productions of the same old plays because they know people in the cast and/or crew. Her house is a mess, as her friend Jessica (Amie Bossi) notices when she arrives for an outing to a production of The Music Man that Mya has been dreading, and the audience is made to wonder who that guy in the background is who is doing dishes seemingly without being noticed. After Jessica leaves, we find out that the “background guy” is actually Vincent Thane (Matt Hanify), an actor Mya saw in a recent production and has become obsessed with. Well, this guy isn’t actually Vincent, but an imaginary version of him that Mya has invented to be her fantasy lover and artistic muse. He’s there to be able to dance in the rain (produced at whim by Mya’s imagination) to Etta James’s “At Last” and spout encouraging words to her, admiring the always-full moon out the window and serve as inspiration for Mya’s latest play, which is a drama for once, and not a farce. Soon, though, we find that even the imaginary Vincent is starting to protest, and not behave exactly as Mya would wish, as Mya’s apartment gets messier, and her real-life friends grow concerned.

The staging here is effective, with a simple set by Brad Slavik, as well as props and set decoration by Gwynneth Rasuch and Denise Mandle that lend a sense of realism to the proceedings. There’s also excellent lighting by Michelle Zielinski and sound by Leonard Marshell, bringing the world of Mya’s apartment, and the world inside her mind, to life and aiding the strong performances of the cast, led by Badgley in a relatable performance as Mya, whose descent into fantasy and flirtation with the darker sides of her imagination is believable and compelling. There’s also good support from Hanify as the not-so-perfect dream lover Vincent, and Bossi as the convincingly concerned Jessica. 

This is a show that explores issues that I think a lot of writers and creative people face, as well as looking with a bit of critical eye on “celebrity worship” culture as well as dealing with the subjects of depression and social detachment. It’s an intriguing and promising new work. It’s running for one more weekend, so there’s still a chance to check it out.

First Run Theatre is presenting Leannán Sidhe at the Kranzberg Arts Center until December 3, 2023


Read Full Post »

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical
Book by Katori Hall, with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Choreographed by Anthony Van Laast
The Fox Theatre
November 14, 2023

Parris Lewis and Band
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical North American Tour

St. Louis loves Tina Turner. Lots of people around the world love her, but St. Louis has a special connection. The legendary icon of rock n’ roll, pop, soul, and R & B spent several formative years here, and got her start playing in clubs on both sides of the river. Those early years, along with the rest of her celebrated career are highlighted in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, currently onstage of the Fox and featuring a strong cast, especially in the title role, along with many hits from the singer’s career. 

Actually, “singer” is a bit simplistic in describing Tina Turner’s talents. She was a multi-talented entertainer who could sing, dance, and make an audience take notice. As with other “jukebox” bio-musicals, this show uses the artist’s musical catalogue to tell the story of her life, but even more than other shows in this vein, this one seems to depend much more on its star as the central focus. The title of this show mentions Tina twice, and that emphasis is evident in the structure of the show, which uses songs by Tina and occasional other artists to tell her story through the years, from young Anna Mae Bullock’s childhood in Tennessee to her career as an international superstar, with all the trials, tribulations, and triumphs along the way. Considering the colossal talent it’s portraying, the musical essentially demands great casting in the title role, and this touring production has that. The role of Tina is shared by two performers who alternate performances–Ari Groover and Parris Lewis. On opening night at the Fox, Lewis took the stage with energy, stage presence, convincing emotional range, and most of all, the towering vocals that Tina Turner was known for on classic songs like “Proud Mary”, “River Deep, Mountain High”, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and more. 

There is a strong supporting cast, as well, led by Roz White as Tina’s mother, Zelma, Wydetta Carter as Gran Georgeanna, and especially young Brianna Cameron as the young Anna Mae, who shows off great presence and powerful vocals as the girl who will eventually become known to the world as Tina Turner. There’s also a fine performance from Deon Releford-Lee, making the most of the difficult role of Ike Turner, who discovers the teenage Anna Mae, gives her her stage name and eventually marries her, also revealing himself to be controlling, philandering, and abusive. The drama in their relationship is difficult to watch at times, and the story gains more momentum once Tina is on her own. There’s a strong ensemble as well, with the production numbers being especially strong in re-creating live performances from Tina’s career, both with Ike and without.

The staging is dynamic and energetic, with a versatile set and eye-catching costumes by Mark Thompson, and excellent projections by Jeff Sugg that help maintain the sense of movement throughout the story. There’s also strong lighting by Bruno Poet and sound by Nevin Steinberg, as well as a great band led by music director Anne Shuttlesworth. 

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is a fitting tribute to its celebrated subject. If you’re a fan, there’s a lot to like here. The proclamation of Tina Turner Month in St. Louis by the mayor’s office after the curtain call on opening night was a great bonus, as well. This is a show that fits especially well at the Fox, in a city and metro area where this musical icon got her start. It’s an entertaining show, with a memorable leading performance.

Brianna Cameron and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical North American Tour

The North American Tour of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is running at the Fox Theatre until November 26, 2023

Read Full Post »

The Mad Ones
by Kait Kerrigan and Bree Lowdermilk
Based on an Idea by Zach Altman and Bree Lowdermilk
Directed and Choreographed by Kevin Corpuz
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 3, 2023

Melissa Felps, Grace Langford
Photo by Florence Flick
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company’s foray into musical theatre continues to be a resounding success. Having produced a few impressive musicals so far, the company’s new focus is continuing with an excellent production of a smaller show with a big heart. The Mad Ones–written by Kait Kerrigan and Bree Lowdermilk–isn’t one I had heard of before, but after seeing the first-rate production at the Marcelle, directed and choreographed by Kevin Corpuz, I’m sure I’ll remember it for some time to come.

The plot isn’t particularly unique, featuring the reasonably familiar formula of the young, rule-following protagonist trying to figure out the direction of her life, influenced by the more carefree attitude of her more outgoing, rebellious best friend. There’s also a caring but sometimes overprotective parent and a sweet but unadventurous boyfriend, who the best friend thinks is boring. There’s even a twist that’s fairly easy to figure out early on in the show. Still, while in some ways seems like a story that’s been told before, what makes it work is the sheer believability and likability of the characters, and the relatability of the situations. Recent high school graduate Samantha, her friend Kelly, her mom Beverly, and boyfriend Adam have a story to tell that’s thought-provoking and well-constructed. There’s also a  good balance of humor and drama, as well as a memorable score of songs that fit the story well and express the characters’ motivations and emotions with clarity.

The show is staged in an eye-catching way with an abstract set by Todd Schaefer that consists of series of platforms and performance areas, and a minimalist approximation of a car that features prominently in the story. There’s also vibrant lighting by Brittanie Gunn that adds to the atmosphere and tone of the story. The sound by Jacob Baxley is well-balanced, and there’s a great band led by music director and keyboardist Joe Schoen, doing justice to the score and supporting the performers well without overpowering the singers. The staging and choreography by director Corpuz are also well-paced and engaging.

What’s most engaging of all here is the wonderful cast. Led by the eminently likable Melissa Felps as Samantha, the story is given just the right degree of emotional resonance, and the singing is excellent from all. Felps has a strong, emotive voice, and the rest of the cast is just as good, with Grace Langford as the impulsive, party-loving Kelly working especially well with Felps in their many scenes together. There are also pitch-perfect performances–both acting-wise and vocally–from Sarah Gene Dowling as the statistics-minded Beverly and Cody Cole as the kindhearted Adam. It’s a strong ensemble all around, with cohesive chemistry and exquisite vocal harmonies. 

Overall, The Mad Ones may not be the most well-known of shows and its premise might not seem entirely original, but it’s well worth checking out for its emotional resonance, well-drawn characters, and relatable message. At Tesseract, it’s also a showcase for a marvelous cast and some truly magnificent singing. It’s more evidence for Tesseract that the decision to focus more on musicals was the right one.

Grace Langford, Cody Cole, Melissa Felps, Sarah Gene Dowling
Photo by Florence Flick
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Mad Ones at the Marcelle Theatre until November 12, 2023

This review was originally published at

Read Full Post »

by Anthony Horowitz
Directed by Robert Ashton
Albion Theatre
October 20, 2023

Nick Freed, Chuck Winning
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

The latest production from  Albion Theatre, Mindgame has an appropriate title. Anthony Horowitz’s intense psychodrama–directed by Robert Ashton–is twisty, intense, and visceral, presenting quite a challenge for actors and directors. Albion meets that challenge in a strong, highly provocative production that’s sure to keep audiences thinking.

The story begins in the office at a hospital for the criminally insane. Styler is there making notes on his tape recorder. He’s hoping to meet with the director of the asylum, Dr. Farquhar–pronounced like “Far-ar” here, as the doctor insists when he arrives. Farquhar is mysterious and suspicious, seemingly not remembering a letter Styler sent requesting the meeting, and eventually being evasive and challenging when Styler reveals his desire to meet with one of the hospital’s infamous patients, a known serial killer. Soon, one of the hospital’s employees, Nurse Paisley, is brought into the story, seeming to be a reluctant participant in whatever Farquhar has planned. There isn’t much else I can say about this story without spoiling, but it involves a series of revelations, machinations, and psychological manipulations that threaten to–and sometimes do–veer into violence.

It’s a clever script, with well-drawn characters who have secrets of their own, and reveal themselves to be more than what they may seem at first, while offering a thought-provoking examination of various concepts including the treatment of mentally ill criminals, the public’s fascination with true crime–and particularly serial killers–and more. This frequently twisting plot and characters present a challenge for actors and directors. Director Ashton has paced the action well, and the excellent cast brings out all the rancor, occasional wry humor, and elevating sense of sheer terror that the script provides. Nick Freed as Styler is an effective protagonist, revealing a range of emotions, and motives over the course of the story, working well with Chuck Winning, who is also superb as the cunning, manipulating, and increasingly hostile Farquhar. Nicole Angeli rounds out the cast in a convincing turn as the mysterious Paisley, offering a convincing portrayal as the characters, and the story, continue to shift and evolve.

The look and atmosphere of this production are also well-done, with an effective, detailed set by technical director Erik Kuhn, who also serves as fight choreographer. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, lighting designer Eric Wennlund, and sound designer Jacob Baxley. The technical aspects work together to help set and maintain the overall tense, confrontational drama that ensues.

Mindgame is certainly a disturbing story, no question. There’s some difficult subject matter here, and it’s not for all audiences, so anyone squeamish about depictions and descriptions of violence, torture, and murder probably will not want to see this show. Still, what is presented here is an exquisitely crafted thriller that is ideally cast and energetically staged. It’s a memorable, provocative production from Albion Theatre.

Chuck Winning, Nicole Angeli, Nick Freed
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

Albion Theatre is presenting Mindgame at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 5, 2023

This review was originally published at

Read Full Post »

See You In a Minute
by Jacob Juntunen
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Contraband Theatre
October 14, 2023

Joseph Garner, Ricki Franklin
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Contraband Theater

It was inevitable that plays about the COVID-19 pandemic would happen. There have already been online plays and stories concerning this world-changing event, and with live theatre back in full swing, it only stands to reason that plays about the pandemic would start to appear more often. The only problem is, the relatively new (to St. Louis) Contraband Theatre has now set the bar so high with its latest new play that I’m not sure how anyone else will be able to measure up. I welcome the efforts, but Jacob Juntunen’s See You In a Minute is at once a reflection, a character study, a mildly science fiction-y exploration, and a portrayal of various levels of grief that I’m not sure can be matched. It’s that good, and as produced at The Chapel arts venue by an excellent cast under the direction of the always-excellent Ellie Schwetye, this show has made such an impression on me that I’m sure I will be thinking about it for some time. 

This play isn’t just about one pandemic, though. It’s about the next pandemic as well–in 2041. Kathryn (Ricki Franklin) is the educational director for an off-Broadway theatre company in New York, but she’s come home to St. Louis to help her parents during the new health crisis. Her dad, Joseph (Joseph Garner), is a playful, encouraging guy who offers his daughter sandwiches and plays childhood games with her involving stuffed animals used as puppets. Her mother, Deb (Kelly Howe), is a more practically-minded engineer who wants to focus on the immediate situation and not dwell in the past. There’s obviously something about the last pandemic, and the family’s experience at that time, that Kathryn isn’t able to get straight answers about, but there are other, more pressing situations in her life, as well. Her director in New York, Kris (Joshua Mayfield) is concerned that Kathryn hasn’t finished her presentation/sales pitch for high schools about the company’s upcoming production of the classic play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Kathryn, for her part, is struggling to find the century-old play’s relevance in modern times, and she keeps finding convenient ways to procrastinate while Kris, under increasing pressure from the theatre company’s board, grows ever more anxious. 

There are a lot of issues being dealt with here, but nothing seems rushed or cluttered. Issues of artistic integrity vs. financial struggles in theatre, generational differences, pandemics, grief, and family responsibilities, among other issues, are dealt with with focus and clarity, as well as a degree of poetic elegance. There’s also an impressive balance between humor and drama, as well as some “twist” moments that are given just the right level of timing and weight to make their utmost impact. It’s a sensitive, insightful, theatrically literate, exquisitely emotional play that works especially well under Schwetye’s well-measured direction and with the superb efforts of the first-rate creative team, including set designer Caleb D. Long, Costume Designer Carly Uding, and especially lighting designer Morgan Brennan and sound designer Schwetye.

The staging is simple and efficient, with just the right level of emotional resonance, and the script is well-crafted, with a few surprises as well as some elements that are somewhat predictable to a point, but don’t play out exactly as they might. There are also some sci-fi elements since it’s set in the future–including scientific advances that make sense for the times–that are treated more as a simple matter-of-fact rather than major points of the story. 

As for the acting, it’s excellent. Franklin is engaging and relatable as Kathryn, making her various struggles and dilemmas believable and immediate, and her relationships–with both parents and with Kris–are especially credible. Garner is full of warmth and energy as the creative, encouraging Joseph–bringing a great deal of enthusiasm to the puppet shows in particular–and Howe is just as excellent as the more reserved but just as caring Deb. As Kris, Mayfield is thoroughly believable as a conflicted theatre director whose loyalties are challenged by circumstance. It’s a strong, cohesive ensemble that lends much emotional weight to the story.

See You In a Minute is at once timely, challenging, and ultimately hopeful. It’s a profoundly affecting theatrical experience, and an excellent introduction to the work of playwright Jacob Juntunen and Contraband Theatre. There’s so much else I could write, but I won’t because its best to experience it yourself. So far, it’s my favorite new play in St. Louis this decade. 


Joshua Mayfield, Kelly Howe, Joseph Garner, Ricki Franklin
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Contraband Theatre

Contraband Theatre is presenting See You in a Minute at The Chapel until October 28, 2023

Read Full Post »

Bitter Fruit
by Héctor Levy-Daniel
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 13, 2023

Jane Paradise, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater is a small-cast, one act, emotional drama of intrigue and mystery. Bitter Fruit, by Argentinian playwright Héctor Levy-Daniel, is a well-staged, provocative production that will keep audiences thinking. It’s also a showcase for some excellent local performers.

The story isn’t entirely linear, and it’s not always clear what the relationships are, but a lot of that seems to be intentional. There’s an unfolding mystery here, beginning as the wealthy María (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) comes home to the mansion she shares with her mother Teresa (Michele Burdette Elmore) to find a new housemaid, Luisa (Jane Paradise), who María instantly dislikes and distrusts. Luisa is somewhat evasive about her background and why she came to work there, but María is especially unsettled because the new maid seems to be constantly watching her. María is also involved in a dispute with local factory workers who are protesting their working conditions, and some have died under mysterious circumstances. She meets with a representative of the workers, Pedro (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who is shown through flashbacks to be no stranger to María, although their relationship is much altered from what it had been. While local authorities investigate the suspicious deaths, María has her own secrets to keep, all while she grows ever more suspicious of Luisa. 

It’s a fascinating play, and the performances are especially strong, with Theby-Quinn convincing in the difficult role of the haughty María, who is a compelling character even if she isn’t especially likable. Paradise also makes a strong impressive as the evasive but determined Luisa, and Di Lorenzo has some excellent scenes with Theby-Quinn that both add to the mysteries of the story and add depth to their situations. There’s also a strong performance from Elmore as the seemingly well-meaning Teresa, who has her own secrets and may know more than she lets on. There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but the drama is intense, the plot unfolds with precisely paced timing, and the cohesive ensemble plays the palpable tension well.

The set by Patrick Huber and lighting by Steve Carmichael, along with Michele Siler’s costumes, add to the overall mood and atmosphere of the production. There’s also an excellent, evocative musical score, performed live on guitar by Lliam Christy, who plays with skill and energy, adding to the emotional vibe of the story.

Overall, this is an intriguing St. Louis premiere production, looking at a time in relatively recent Argentinian history that might not be familiar to American audiences. There’s a useful note in the program from the University of Pennylvania’s Dr. Jennifer Joan Thompson, explaining some of the context. Bitter Fruit is another thought-provoking work of theatre from Upstream. 

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Michele Burdette Elmore
Photo by
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Bitter Fruit at the Marcelle Theatre until October 29, 2023

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »