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Antigone: Requiem Per Patriarchus
By Lucy Cashion and the ensembles at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center; St. Louis University Theatre; SATE; and Equally Represented Arts
Directed by Lucy Cashion
SATE Ensemble Theatre, Equally Represented Arts
August 14, 2019

Cast of Antigone: Requiem Per Patricarchus
Photo by Joey Rumpell Photography
SATE Ensemble Theatre, Equally Represented Arts

“Who is Antigone?” That’s a question the audience is directly asked multiple times and in different ways throughout SATE and ERA’s latest, called Antigone: Requiem Per Patriarchus.  It’s another Lucy Cashion remix of a work of classic drama, brought to today’s audiences in a way that speaks to both its timeless universality and its more personal connection with individual viewers and readers. As is usual for Cashion and for both of these theatre companies, the result is both convention-challenging and thought-provoking, showcasing a superb cast of local performers.

This isn’t your English teacher’s Antigone, although the play’s reputation as an oft-studied and assigned classic work of literature is addressed in this production. In a way, this is more than one story, and the set-up is essentially like a play-within-a-play. The set-up begins before the play “officially” starts, in a similar vein to other productions I’ve seen from both of these companies. The cast members wander the audience, each introducing herself as “Antigone”. As the play begins, the “sisters”–all clad in khaki-colored prison outfits, gather together in the middle of the floor space at the Chapel performance venue. They are all Antigone, they inform the audience, and they are in prison, but they are also dead, in some kind of in-between state, set to retell and reenact their story over and over. They read letters, they talk about the expectations and impressions that the Antigone story has produced over the centuries, and they express their solidarity as well as their individual voices. Then, in a stunning musical transition, the situation shifts, and the cast members all don flowing gowns and perform a version of the Antigone tale, with each “Antigone” taking a specific role and examining both the play itself and the timeless issues it raises, including the abuse of power and authority, men’s and women’s roles in society, speaking up for oneself and others, loyalties to families and countries, and more. The story at this point runs basically as it’s known, with Antigone standing up to her uncle, King Creon, who is refusing to allow her brother, who was killed along with another brother on opposing sides of a recent war, to be buried. As is usual for a Cashion show, the classic tale is blended with other influences, such as various cultural references and especially for this production, music. Various pop and rock songs are sampled in the production, and the cast members sing at various times. There’s also a persistent, ominous and highly effective percussion backing throughout, proficiently provided by Marcy Ann Wiegert.  There’s also intense drama and a touch of sarcastic humor. It’s one of those shows where I wish I could see it multiple times, because there is so much going on that it can be too much to process at times. Still, it’s a bold, challenging work, with an emotional resonance and a confrontational style that emphasizes both the personal and the universal about the Antigone story.

The cast is universally strong, with excellent moments from all–Alicen Moser, Victoria Thomas, Laura Hulsey, Taleesha Caturah, Ellie Schwetye, Natasha Toro,  and Miranda Jagels-Felix, with Wiegert supplying the drums and also as a member of the show’s Greek Chorus. it’s a true ensemble piece, with the whole cast contributing and working together as a cohesive unit, bringing out the meaning and depth of the play through collaboration, although there are some individual highlights. Standouts include Moser as the imperious and increasingly conflicted Creon, Jagels-Felix as a particularly strong-willed  “main” Antigone, Caturah as the haunting, challenging blind prophet Tyresias, and Schwetye in a series of stand-up comic routines that help maintain a confrontational, iconoclastic tone as the story plays out. The ensemble chemistry is excellent, as is the use of movement throughout. It’s a dynamic production, with a suitably dynamic cast and direction.

The visuals here are memorable, as well, transforming the small space at the Chapel into an otherworldly realm that the ensemble inhabits. With simple but lush scenic and sound design by Cashion, along with Erik Kuhn’s evocative lighting and Liz Henning’s distinctive costumes, the full dramatic effect of this show is enhanced. It’s an impressive transformation of the space.

I’ve made it no secret what I think about both SATE and ERA. Both companies are bold, innovative, thoughtful, and consistently excellent in acting and staging. This Antigone is another example of that tradition of excellence. It’s timeless, but it’s also very much “now”, with themes that speak to humanity, and particularly women’s experiences, throughout history. It’s a lot to think about and a lot to see. It’s a truly stunning presentation.

Cast of Antigone: Requiem Per Patricarchus
Photo by Joey Rumpell Photography
SATE Ensemble Theatre, Equally Represented Arts

SATE and Equally Represented Arts are presenting Antigone: Requiem Per Patriarchus at The Chapel until August 31, 2019

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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a Story and Characters of Damon Runyon
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
August 9, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Guys and Dolls is a well-known, oft-produced show known for being colorful and larger-than-life, based on the mid-20th Century New York stories of author Damon Runyon. Now Stray Dog Theatre is staging a production that’s not as big and flashy as other productions I’ve seen, but the scaling down manages to seem more relatable in some ways. It’s a well-cast show that looks great, sounds great, and offers a fresh take on iconic theatrical characters.

The story, witty dialogue, boldly drawn characters, and classic Frank Loesser score are all here, as SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey stage has been transformed into a cross-section of post-World War II New York City. It’s a world populated by gamblers, represented by the determined Nathan Detroit (Kevin O’Brien), who along with his cronies Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mike Wells) and Benny Southstreet (Cory Frank) is desperately looking for a new venue for his long-running “floating crap game”, to the constant frustration of his long-time fiancee, nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Sara Rae Womack). Meanwhile, the Salvation Army-like “Save-a-Soul Mission”, led by the earnest young Sarah Brown (Angela Bubash) and her kindly grandfather Arvide Abernathy (Howard S. Bell) is struggling to find “sinners” to preach to and attend prayer meetings. When high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jayde Mitchell) comes to town, Nathan makes him a bet in hopes of raising the money Nathan needs to secure his preferred venue. It’s a bet Nathan thinks he can’t lose–Sky has to get Sarah to agree to go to Havana with him for the night. Their relationship builds from animosity to something more as the gamblers gamble, the missionaries preach, the long-suffering Adelaide deals with a persistent cold as she continues to wait for the devoted but reluctant Nathan. Throughout, the memorable songs and production numbers are there, from the initial “Runyonland” setting-establishing sequence and “Fugue For Tinhorns”, to the iconic “Adelaide’s Lament”, the giddy “If I Were a Bell”, the rousing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and more.

Guys and Dolls is a show of types, and different productions can make the setting and characters more over-the-top than others. At SDT, the “types” are still there, but they’ve been brought down in scale somewhat, in a way that makes them seem more like real people you could have met. The couples are strong, especially, with Womack an especially credible Adelaide, bringing the audience along with her in her exasperation with Nathan, delivering a strong “Adelaide’s Lament” and an even stronger reprise in Act 2. O’Brien is a likable Nathan, with good chemistry with Womack and also with his gambler compatriots, the equally excellent Wells and Frank. Wells especially gets a fine moment leading the show-stopping “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. The show’s other lead couple is also impressive, with Mitchell giving a slightly edgier take on Sky, and Bubash in an engaging turn as an increasingly conflicted Sarah. These two have particularly strong moments in their scenes at the end of Act 1. Bell is a standout as Arvide, as well with a great voice on his song “More I Cannot Wish You”, which is also a strong moment of connection for him and Bubash. There’s a small but energetic ensemble to support the leads, bringing much enthusiasm to the production.

Although the show isn’t as flashy as it is sometimes staged, it’s still richly detailed, with a stunning unit set by Josh Smith that captures the atmosphere and look of the time and place, along with excellent, period-appropriate costumes by Lauren Smith. There’s also bold lighting by Tyler Duenow and a great band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, doing justice to the show’s familiar score. There were some odd sound-mixing issues on the night I saw the show, but for the most part, it’s a strong, stylish production.

This is a fun Guys and Dolls. It’s the same classic show, but adjusted well to Stray Dog’s smaller venue. It’s a “Musical Fable” that’s a little more on the “down to earth” side, and for the most part, it works. This is another strong showing from Stray Dog Theatre.

Sara Rae Womack and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Guys and Dolls at Tower Grove Abbey until August 24, 2019

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A Man of No Importance
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Book by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
August 8, 2019

Cast of A Man of No Importance
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

Discovering lesser-known shows is a fun experience, especially when they’re performed by a company with a track record for excellent, thoughtful productions. Such a production is now onstage at the Marcelle in Midtown, produced by R-S Theatrics. A Man of No Importance is a show I hadn’t heard of before I saw the announcements for this production, so I looked it up and saw it had a great team of writers (the same team who created Ragtime), as well as an excellent cast and R-S Theatrics’ strong reputation for thought-provoking theatrical excellence. Upon seeing the show, I’m even more glad for companies like this, since it’s a witty, charming and poignant show that deserves a wider audience.

This is a show that’s full of character, and characters. Set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1960s, it’s based on a somewhat obscure 1994 film of the same name. It’s also, for the most part, a highly affectionate look at the world of amateur theatre. The central figure is Alfie Byrne (Mark Kelley), a bus conductor who is unmarried and lives with his sister, Lily (Stephanie Merritt). Lily wants to marry the traditionalist Mr. Carney (Michael B. Musgrave-Perkins), but has waited for Alfie to marry first, although Alfie is essentially “married” to his theatre company, St. Imelda’s Players, and he spends his time reading Oscar Wilde and imagining new productions he can stage. When Alfie meets newcomer Adele (Lindy Elliott), he is captivated, but not in the way Lily wishes he would be. Instead, he sees in Adele the ideal star for his dream production of Oscar Wilde’s biblical drama Salome, and he encourages her to participate even though she has no theatrical experience. He also harbors a secret affection for his good-looking young bus driver, Robbie (Kellen Green), who he also tries to recruit to be in the play. The usual regulars of his productions are there, as well, including kindly widowed stage manager Baldy (Kent Coffel) and eager participants Mrs. Curtin (Nancy Nigh), Mrs. Grace (Jodi Stockton), and Miss Crow (Kay Love), Rasher Flynn (Marshall Jennings), and Ernie Lally (Dustin Allison). The problems come when Mr. Carney, who has also been cast in the play, starts to have issues with its content, and he takes up his concerns with the local Catholic organization and Father Kenny (also Allison), the priest at the church where the theatre group performs. Through the course of the events, Alfie is also forced to come to terms with some important truths about himself. The show starts out as a flashback and a sort of play-within-a-play, telling Alfie’s story and that of his troubled production. The characters are especially well-drawn and specific, and the story is thoroughly engaging, with elements of fantasy blended in with slice-of-life comedy drama, with an intelligent book by Terrence McNally and an engaging score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that includes influences of Irish music.

With such strongly defined characters, a great cast is essential for a show like this, and this production has that. Led by Kelley’s truly charming, thoughtful, well-sung performance as Alfie, this is a production full of impressive performances, including Merritt as the stubborn but loving Lily; Green, who is in great voice as Robbie; and Elliot who is sympathetic as the initially shy, somewhat mysterious Adele. Musgrave-Perkins is also a strong presence as both the self-absorbed, strait-laced Mr. Carney and as the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who appears as an encouraging figment of Alfie’s imagination. All the players are excellent, with Nigh, Stockton, and Love giving strong comic performances, and Allison excellent in a dual role as a well-meaning but doubtful priest and as a theatre company member who presents a directorial challenge for Alfie. There are also fine performances from Coffel as the dependable Baldy and Jennings as Rasher and also as Breton Beret, an enigmatic figure who Alfie meets in a pub. Jennifer Theby-Quinn, in a relatively small role as church member Mrs. Patrick, gets some terrific solo vocal opportunities, as well. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing energy and style and a believable Irish flair to the story.

The technical aspects of this show are also strong, with a believable lived-in look to the set (designer not listed), as well as colorful costumes by Amanda Brasher. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting and Heather Tucker’s props also add to the overall atmosphere especially well. There’s also an excellent band led by music director Curtis Moeller, who also plays a few smaller roles in the show, along with a few other band members. The music sounds great, although at times they can overpower the singers.

A Man of No Importance is a show you may not have heard of, but if you don’t know it, you should! It’s a well-constructed story with some important themes of community, self-expression, family relationships, and more, as well as an overarching tone of sheer love for the theatre. At R-S Theatrics, director Christina Rios and company have staged another memorable, thoughtful success. It’s Rios’s last production as director for this company, and she’s going out on an especially high note. Go see this if you can.

Cast of A Man of No Importance
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting A Man of No Importance at the Marcelle Theatre until August 25, 2019

 

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Matilda
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Orchestrations and Additional Music by Chris Nightingale
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 5, 2019

Mattea Conforti (center), Laura Michelle Kelly (right) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The final show in the Muny’s 101st season is a production of one my favorite 21st Century musicals, which is being billed as Roald Dahl’s Matilda. That’s accurate, since it’s a much lauded, award-winning adaptation of Dahl’s modern classic book. Still, this production might also accurately be described as “Mary Engelbreit’s Matilda” in terms of its overall look and style. That look is entirely intentional on the Muny’s part, and St. Louis’s own Engelbreit has worked with the designers to develop its theme. It’s also a resounding success, not just visually but in the entire production itself, which manages to fit the show into Engelbreit’s style while also preserving the overall tone of Dahl’s work and that of the original creators of the musical. It’s visually stunning, certainly, but it’s also a triumph of music, performance, and overall whimsical energy.

Also the source material was adapted into a popular film in 1996, although the musical is directly based on the book rather than the film. The tone is bold, whimsical, and in keeping with Dahl’s usual style, focuses on darker themes while also showing good characters along with the bad. The intelligent, talented Matilda Wormwood (Mattea Conforti) is born into a family who not only doesn’t appreciate her talents and interests–her self-centered, materialistic parents (Josh Grisetti and Ann Harada) actively discourage and disparage them, spending most of their time on their own pursuits and doting on their older child Michael (Trevor Michael Schmidt), who seems to spend most his time watching TV, playing video games, and repeating his parents’ words. The five-year-old Matilda takes refuge in reading books far beyond her grade level, and telling stories to the encouraging librarian Mrs. Phelps (Darlesia Cearcy). When Matilda starts school, she goes to the imposing Crunchem Hall, presided over by the imperious, vindictive headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Beth Malone). Matilda does manage to make friends, gaining influence despite Miss Trunchbull’s efforts to undermine her, and develops a bond with her kind but insecure teacher Miss Honey (Laura Michelle Kelly), who also lives in fear of Miss Trunchbull but is determined to help Matilda. Meanwhile, Matilda continues to tell her stories to Mrs. Phelps, and this tale–concerning an Escapologist (Colby Dezelick) and an Acrobat (Gabi Stapula) who fall in love and get married–ends up tying in to the rest of the story in a surprising manner.

The tone is somewhat dark throughout much of the show, with a brilliant book by Dennis Kelly and the clever, ingenious lyrics by composer Tim Minchin, focusing on themes of bullying vs. acceptance, selfishness vs. kindness, and independence vs. coerced conformity, centering on the singular figure of one bold, unconventional girl and her influence on the world around her, as well as on the trials, disappointments, aspirations, and joys of childhood and the influence of people’s childhood experiences and environment on the adults they become.

It’s a remarkable show in its own right, but this production is not like you may have seen it before. In contrast to the Muny’s earlier (and excellent) staging of Kinky Boots, which was essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, this Matilda looks very different to its London and Broadway productions, although it retains much of the tone and general movement style, reflected in John Tartaglia’s direction and Beth Crandall’s superb choreography.  The look and style are inspired by Engelbreit, who was in the audience on opening night. It’s a vividly realized vision, with versatile sets by Paige Hathaway, colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowski, dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and clever video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, all working together to achieve a world very much in keeping with both Dahl’s tone and Engelbreit’s visual work. It works very well for this show, which also features an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley, giving energetic life to Minchin’s wonderful score.

The cast here is also stellar, led by the fantastically talented young Conforti as the brave, precocious Matilda. Having played the role on Broadway, Conforti has the presence and energy of a seasoned performer, bringing a straightforward boldness and an excellent voice to the part. Malone, as the crass, vicious Trunchbull, is also a standout with an imposing presence and great vocals on songs like “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion”. She’s also the first woman I’ve seen play the role, which has been more often played by a man. Other standouts include the always excellent Kelly as a particularly sympathetic Miss Honey, Grisetti as the gleefully smarmy Mr. Wormwood, Harada as self-absorbed Mrs. Wormwood, and Sean Ewing in a hilariously physical performance as Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dance partner, Rudolpho. There are also some strong performances from the show’s child performers, especially Owen Hanford as the determined Bruce Bogtrotter, and Ella Grace Roberts as Matilda’s self-appointed best friend, Lavender. The ensemble is impressive, as well, particularly the youth ensemble, who perform with much energy and attitude on group numbers like “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and the artfully confrontational “Revolting Children”. The dancing is energetic and precise, as is the staging, in keeping with the style of the show, and the result is energetic, engaging, and supremely entertaining.

This is a Matilda like I’ve never seen it before, even though I had seen the production once in London and once on tour here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. With a first-rate cast and a superb sense of style inspired by the work of Mary Engelbreit, this show is sure to engage hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful way to conclude the excellent, newly energized 101st season at the Muny.

Beth Malone (center) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Matilda in Forest Park until August 11, 2019

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Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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Grease
Book, Music, and Lyrics Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Additonal Songs by Barry Alan Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis, Scott Simon
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Tony Gonzalez
STAGES St. Louis
July 24, 2019

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Grease is an unusual show, especially for one so popular. A perennial crowd-pleaser, the show has been altered a lot since its Broadway debut in 1972 and subsequent mega-hit film version in 1978. In fact, it’s the film’s ubiquitous hit status that has affected this show the most, with most major productions and big-scale revivals including songs from the movie and sometimes even changing the plot and order of scenes/songs to more reflect the film. I’ve seen the show on stage several times, and it’s never been the same show. Now the show is featured as the second entry in the 2019 season at STAGES St. Louis, and as is usual for this musical, the crowd loves it. It’s an entertaining show, with an enthusiastic cast and the familiar songs that basically everyone recognizes now. Here, although the version being staged greater highlights the differences between the original play and the film, and how awkward blending them can be, the cast and creative team have worked together to present a show where the music, 50s style theme, and especially the dancing are at the forefront, making for a fun show overall.

Grease is so well-known that a detailed plot summary isn’t that necessary, except in terms of how the stage version differs from the film. It’s still the story of “bad boy” greaser Danny Zuko (Sam Harvey) and “good-girl” new girl in school Sandy Dumbrowski (Summerisa Bell Stevens), who have to deal with the pressures from various groups around them after they unexpectedly reunite at Rydell High School after an idyllic summer romance at the beach. The T-Birds, led by Danny and his best buddy Kenickie (Jesse Corbin) are here as an influence on Danny, and the Pink Ladies, led by tough-talking Betty Rizzo (Morgan Cowling) awkwardly bring Sandy into their group after she’s befriended by wanna-be beautician Pink Lady Frenchy (Lucy Moon).  Those basic plots are the same in the film and the original stage show, but the songlist is different and some of the scenes have been changed around, as well as the tone and message being generally harsher, grittier, and more crass in the stage show, although most revivals have “smoothed out” the grittiness. This one tries to keep it for the most part, although the mix is somewhat odd because the movie songs (especially “You’re The One That I Want” instead of “All Choked Up”) don’t exactly fit, and the context doesn’t always work as well. Also, whether you see the ultimate message as problematic or empowering (I’ve seen both arguments), it seems more abrupt and somewhat muddled in this version. Also, the sanitized versions of the songs (especially “Greased Lightning”) are used here, which doesn’t mix as well with the grittier tone of the stage script.

Still, this production entertains, even with the awkwardness of the mix between sources. The emphasis this time is on the styling, musical performances, and 50s-style choreography by Tony Gonzalez, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm from a strong ensemble. The leads are good, particularly Harvey’s charmingly goofy Danny, but the real standouts are the “supporting” T-Birds and Pink Ladies, especially Brooke Shapiro as Jan and Collin O’Connor as Roger, who make a fun couple and whose “Mooning” number is a highlight, as well as Julia Johanos as the more worldly Marty, and Patrick Mobley as Doody, who brings a youthful energy to his role as the rock-star wannabe T-Bird. The chemistry between the various cast members is also strong, bringing joyful style to songs like “We Go Together”, as well. Also excellent is Kenora Lynn Lucas in a dual role as a big-voiced Teen Angel in the show-stopping “Beauty School Dropout” number and as strict teacher/principal Miss Lynch, hilariously delivering the pre-show announcements in character to the start off the show on a fun note.

Technically, this production is excellent, with a fun, colorful set by James Wolk featuring a backdrop resembling an old-style jukebox, and vibrant lighting by Sean M. Savoie. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also memorable, colorful and true to the period. This is a great looking show visually, and the energetic choreography gives it an upbeat tone overall.

While no two versions of Grease are the same in my experience, this is a show that can draw an audience on its name alone. At STAGES, the emphasis is on style, dancing, and ensemble energy. Even with some of the odd mixture between versions, this is a fun show, sure to entertain.

Cast of Grease
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Grease at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until August 18, 2019

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LaBute New Theater Festival
Set Two
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 20, 2019

The second set of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is now on stage at the Gaslight Theatre. Featuring a fresh collection of plays, all ably directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood, and the one holdover–festival namesake LaBute’s entry “Great Negro Works of Art” (directed by John Pierson). Featuring strong casts, these plays are also thought-provoking if not quite as well-formed as most of the first set. A new set of issues is in focus here, including artificial intelligence and privacy issues with technology, as well as journalistic integrity and couples therapy. Here are some thoughts about Set Two:

“Predilections”

by Richard Curtis

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Kim Furlow, Tiélere Cheatem
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play, which opens the newer set, features a meeting between a reporter named Sparlin (Tiélere Cheatem), and an enigmatic stranger named Laura (Kim Furlow). Being a journalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner who now writes obituaries, Sparlin has done research on Laura, but he hasn’t figured out why she wants to see him. As the plot–or really, the conversation–unfolds, Laura tells Sparlin a story, the importance of which becomes clear soon enough. It’s an intriguing concept, with the intended ideas apparently being about sensationalism in journalism and how easy it is for a person’s whole life to be obscured by one incident, but as a play it doesn’t have much suspense or structure. It’s just a conversation, basically. Furlow and Cheatem do well in their roles, bringing about as much drama as this play can produce, although there isn’t much here that couldn’t be covered just as well by an essay.

“Henrietta”

by Joseph Krawczyk

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The evening’s second play is its cleverest concept, being part “perils of modern technology” tale and part morality play. Here, as Carl (Chuck Brinkley) prepares for an extramarital tryst in a nearby motel, he finds his new “upgraded” GPS AI has other plans. Called “Henrietta” and voiced by Carly Rosenbaum, this AI isn’t putting up with Carl’s excuses, taking him for a nightmare ride as she takes control of his car. It’s an especially well-acted and staged bit of thriller-fantasy that’s especially chilling is its basic plausibility. It’s one of those “be careful what you do when you don’t think anyone’s looking” tales beefed up with a bit of “Big Brother” technological fear thrown in for good measure. The staging and pacing here is crisp and chilling, and both Brinkley and Rosenbaum give especially convincing performances, and particularly Rosenbaum as the determinedly in-control “Henrietta”.

“Sysyphus and Icarus: a Love story”

by William Ivan Fowkes

Directed by Wendy Renee Greenwood

Tiélere Cheatem, Shane Signorino
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final of the new entries for Set Two is a cute concept that evolves into something reminiscent of a late-episode Saturday Night Live sketch. It’s a fun concept, with the mythological figures of Sysyphus (Tiélere Cheatem) and Icarus (Shane Signorino) speaking in faux-Shakespearean dialogue and forming an attraction, then, as the story veers into SNL territory, they show up a few years later as a married couple clad in hipster-ish beanies being counseled by the New York-accented Libra (Colleen Backer), a self-promotional therapist who tries to help them see why their once-exciting relationship has soured. It’s a fun show, full of broad comedy that brings laughs but not much in the way of substance. The performers seem to be having a great time, though, and they’re all excellent. The production values are particularly notable here, too, with great work from festival costume designer Megan Harshaw and lighting designers Patrick Huber (who also designed the set) and Tony Anselmo.

Overall, the LaBute Festival continues to be an intriguing showcase for new playwrights, with some hits and misses but with some thought-provoking subject matter and strong work from the actors and directors. Set Two has one more weekend left, and it’s worth checking out.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Set Two of the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theatre until July 28, 2019

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