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Heroes
by Gérald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Robert Ashton
Albion Theatre
September 25, 2022

David Wassilak, Will Shaw, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

There’s a new theatre company in town, and its first play is an intriguing one. Albion Theatre is focused on works from the British Isles, and occasionally Ireland. Their inaugural production, Heroes, is actually French in origin, but this English translation by one of the UK’s most celebrated playwrights, Tom Stoppard, debuted in a critically-acclaimed run in London’s West End.  As Albion’s first entry in its repertoire, it makes a quiet but strong impression, featuring excellent performances and thoughtful but somewhat slower pacing.

Heroes is classed as a comedy, but it’s not a laugh-a-minute type of show. It’s a more gentle, thoughtful piece, focused more on developing the characters than just getting laughs. It’s also deliberately paced to the point that it forces the audience to pay attention, and can drag in places if not well-paced. For the most part, this production is paced just right. The story follows a trio of French World War I veterans who are living in a retirement home for vets in 1959. They have each been there for a different length of time–Henri (David Wassilak), who lost part of his leg in the war and walks with a can, has been there 25 years; Phillipe, who suffers from period fainting spells due to shrapnel lodged in his head, has been there 10 years; and the semi-reclusive Gustave (Will Shaw), has been there six months, although he seems to see himself as something of the ringleader of the group. The three spend their days on a terrace of the home, passing the time sharing their opinions of the various residents of the home and the nuns who work there, reminiscing and bragging about past romantic exploits, as well as family difficulties, and imagining elaborate trips abroad, even going so far as to plan an escape to see a grove of poplar trees in which Gustave is fascinated. They also share an odd connection to a stone dog sculpture that sits on the terrace, often acting as if it is a real animal. There isn’t much in the way of plot–it’s more of a character study and a meditation on aging. loneliness, and the need for companionship, as well as the changes in society over time and attitudes toward the aging and veterans in particular. It’s clearly a comedy, with a humor that is sometimes subtle, sometimes mildly risqué, and sometimes with hints of darkness, as these three men know their time is limited and are struggling to maintain meaning in their lives. 

The characters are well-drawn and the dialogue is well-constructed. The slower tone of this play requires engaging actors to keep the pace, and this production has found excellent performers. All three work together well, and the interplay between the characters is what makes the story here, with all three inhabiting their characters fully and portraying their quirks, annoyances, and endearing qualities with clarity and intelligence. Shaw as the somewhat bossy but insecure Gustave has memorable presence, and Wassilak as the more practical-minded Henri is also excellent, as is Di Lorenzo as the physically fragile but emotionally energetic Phillipe. All three lend a compelling air to the proceedings, as do their interactions with the one silent cast member, the stone dog statue, credited in the program as “Gérald Le Chien”. 

The dog also contributes to the interest of the play in a different way, as he is frequently being moved around between scenes by assistant director/stage manager Gwynneth Rausch with a hand truck–I wonder how much he weighs. Trying to guess where the dog will end up next contributes to the comic tone of the show. The other technical qualities are also strong, including Brad Slavik’s simple but realistic unit set, Marjorie Williamson’s expert set painting, Nathan Schroeder’s excellent lighting, Tracey Newcombe’s character-appropriate costumes, and Robin Weatherall’s proficient sound design. The overall atmosphere of time and place is well-maintained, working well with the mood and style of the play. 

Overall, while I think Heroes is something of a subdued choice for a debut production from a new theatre company, Albion Theatre has made a strong impression, especially considering the strength of the cast. It’s a thought-provoking show with some truly funny moments, as well as moments of poignancy. I’m looking forward to seeing more productions from this promising new company.

David Wassilak, Will Shaw, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

Albion Theatre is presenting Heroes at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until October 9, 2022

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Something Rotten!
Music and Lyrics by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell
Conceived by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Directed by Scott Miller
Choreographed by Alyssa Wolf
New Line Theatre
September 23, 2022

Chris Kernan, Carrie Wenos, Melissa Felps, Marshall Jennings, and Cast of Something Rotten!
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line has proved over and over that they know how to take Broadway shows and find more substance while focusing on the characters, often by scaling down to fit their smaller company and performance space. Their latest production, Something Rotten! is another example of this concentrated approach, and for the most part, it’s a resounding success. With thoughtful direction and a great cast, and toned-down production values, this show succeeds in managing to find the heart of its story while maintaining the crackling humor and fun meta tone of the piece.

The story takes place in London during Elizabethan times, but the look of this production is more of a mix of period and modern influences, with a much more minimalized staging and tone than the touring production based on the Broadway version that I saw at the Fox a few years ago. The story follows brothers Nick (Chris Kernan) and Nigel Bottom (Marshall Jennings), who head up a theatre troupe and are having trouble figuring out what their next play will be, after having to abandon their latest project due to competition from the persistent, rock-star like William Shakespeare (Clayton Humburg), who consistently sells out his shows and has drawn a large following of groupie-like fans, much to Nick’s distress. The more practical-minded Nick is looking for a hit that will help pay off his debts and support his family, resisting his forward-thinking wife Bea (Carrie Wenos) in her suggestions that she get a job to help. Nigel, however, is a poet, and what he strives for is artistic integrity. Nigel finds a kindred spirit in fellow poetry nerd Portia (Melissa Felps), to the dismay of her father, the stuffy Puritan Brother Jeremiah (Jason Blackburn), who is also leading an effort to shut down the brothers’ production and company. With various struggles including the financial difficulties, creative challenges, rivalry with Shakespeare, the moralistic challenges, and some unexpected family news from Bea, the increasingly stressed Nick decides to bring in a soothsayer–the enthusiastic Thomas Nostradamus (Jeffrey Izquierdo-Malon), nephew to the more famous prognosticator–to let him know what the biggest trend in theatre will be in the future, as well as what Shakespeare’s most celebrated play will be. The mixed up Nostradamus comes up with a hodgepodge of muddled information that leads first to the hilarious, gloriously meta production number “A Musical” and then to Nick’s newest hope of a bankable hit–Omelette: The Musical, along with a host of other terrifically witty meta-references to musical theatre that are too numerous to count.

The best word to describe this show, and this production, is “fun”. It’s also smart, thoughtful, occasionally raunchy, but most of all full of genuine emotion and a strong message about artistic integrity and the importance of authenticity vs. commercialism in art, and particularly theatre. There are also some well-place criticisms of the culture in Shakespeare’s day as well as some insightful comments about today’s society. It was big and flashy in it’s Broadway version, but director Scott Miller has impressively toned it down here, making it seem less derivative of the slapsticky tone of the works of Mel Brooks and Monty Python and more like a just as hilarious but also more character-focused story in its own right. With this toned-down approach, all the jokes still land, but the message and the heart ring even more true. 

Also working in this production’s favor are the simple production values, with Rob Lippert’s fairly basic but nice-looking unit set and a few furniture pieces setting the scene. The costuming by Sarah Porter is also fun, with cool touches like Shakespeare’s “rocker” look with the leather pants and eye liner, and the Elizabethan-inspired dresses for the woman characters. It all is in keeping with the whimsical but not over-the-top overall tone of the production, along with Matt Stuekel’s appropriately atmospheric lighting. There’s also a great band led by music director Mallory Golden, although their placement–in the middle of the performance areas, mostly behind the performers but slightly intruding into their space–sometimes leads to the music overpowering the singers, although this issue improves as the show goes on. The only major issue I have technically is with Nostradamus’s makeup and wig/bald cap, which is overdone to the point of looking cartoonish, which is out of keeping with the overall tone of this production and makes the character look like he’s not in the same show as everyone else. This is especially unfortunate considering Izquierdo-Malon’s otherwise terrific, scene-stealing performance, which is full of personality, excellent vocals, comic timing and impressive dance skills. It’s a true highlight of this production, despite the somewhat distracting makeup.

As for the rest of the cast, they are stellar–led by the amiable and marvelously-sung performances of Kernan as the angsty Nick and Jennings as the dreamer Nigel, who work especially well together as the obviously caring but very different brothers. There’s also excellent work from Wenos as the ambitious, loyal Bea, and especially Felps as the earnest, poetic Portia, whose scenes with Jennings are another highlight. Humburg is also a lot of fun, hamming it up as the egotistical and oddly insecure Shakespeare, showing off some surprising rock-star energy. Chris Moore also makes a strong impression opening the show as the Minstrel. There’s a strong ensemble in support, as well, keeping up the energy and comic timing, and performing well with Alyssa Wolf’s energetic and somewhat goofy (in a good way) choreography. 

Overall, Something Rotten! is a real treat. At New Line, it’s not big or flashy, but it looks great, for the most part, and it distills the story down to its essential elements–music, comedy, truth, and heart. It’s a remarkable example of the idea that sometimes, less really is more. 

Clayton Humburg (Center) and Cast of Something Rotten!
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Something Rotten! at the Marcelle Theatre until October 15, 2022

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Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Book by Dominique Morisseau
Music and Lyrics from The Legendary Motown Catalogue
Based on the Book The Temptations by Otis Williams with Patricia Romanowski
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
The Fox Theatre
September 20, 2022

Marcus Paul James, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr., James T. Lane
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The touring production of Ain’t Too Proud, the hit Broadway musical about the legendary R&B group The Temptations, is currently onstage at the Fox Theatre. This is one of those shows that draws a big crowd simply on the subject’s reputation, with a broad catalogue of hit songs from the group and other classic Motown artists. With an excellent cast and a fast-moving, stylish technical production, it’s an engaging, energetic crowd-pleaser. 

The “jukebox bio-musical” has been a popular genre in recent years, with a host of  shows featuring the stories and songs of legendary musical artists and groups making the rounds on Broadway and on tour. With Ain’t Too Proud, the focus mostly on the “classic” version of The Temptations as they rose to fame at Motown Records in the 1960s–Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James), Paul Williams (James T. Lane), Melvin Franklin (Harrell Holmes Jr.), Eddie Kendricks (Jalen Harris), and David Ruffin (Elijah Ahmad Lewis). The story, narrated by Otis Williams, focuses on how the group started, following as they achieved the height of their popularity, endured personal tensions and other issues, and eventually lost and gained members as the group–and the world–moved into the 1970s, 80s, and beyond, dealing with issues of changing musical styles as well as more weightier issues like dealing with racism in the industry and in the rest of the country, as well as war and violence in the world. The show also features other popular Motown artists–most prominently The Supremes (Amber Mariah Talley as Diana Ross, Shayla Brielle G. as Florence Ballard, and Traci Elaine Lee as Mary Wilson), portrayed as the Temptations’ main rivals for chart supremacy in the 1960s. Personal struggles, including the group members’ romantic relationships and family issues, are dealt with to a degree–especially for Otis Williams, whose first wife, Josephine (Najah Hetsberger), and son Lamont (Gregory C. Banks Jr.) are featured, highlighting the ongoing struggle to balance family and career ambitions. Other group members deal with the various temptations (pun noted) of fame, including drug and alcohol addiction, as the years go by and the group changes in various ways, with newer members Dennis Edwards (Dwayne P. Mitchell), Richard Street (Devin Holloway), and Damon Harris (Lawrence Dandrige) all getting notable stage time. 

The setup has some similarities to Jersey Boys (about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), in that it focuses on a prominent music group of men and their personal and musical struggles over the years, but the story is framed more from the point of view of one member of the group, since the show is based on Otis Williams’s memoir. So, everything is essentially from Otis’s perspective, and the music takes precedence over the personal drama most of the time. The book, by playwright Dominique Morisseau, is well-structured, managing to involve all the main players in prominent ways, for the most part, although as time goes by and the personnel of the group changes, it does seem to gloss over some detail sometimes, although the major focus is, as always, on the music, keeping the audience’s attention and enthusiasm throughout. In fact, there are a few well-timed moments in which the performers encourage the audience to sing and clap along, which works well in showcasing the classic Motown music and the overall tone of the show as a celebration of the Temptations’ legacy. The staging is smooth and energetic, with a great ensemble, vibrant choreography by Serigio Trujillo, and a dynamic set by Robert Brill that emphasizes movement and the swift passage of time, augmented by the excellent projection design by Peter Nigrini. There’s also dazzling lighting by Howell Binkley, along with stylish, marvelously detailed costumes by Paul Tazewell that reflect the changing eras especially well. 

As for the cast, it’s stellar, with the main five Temptations all giving strong, well-sung performances, with James as Otis Williams serving as an ideal narrator, and Lewis showing off excellent stage presence and some particularly impressive dance moves as David Ruffin. Lane also has some especially poignant moments as Paul Williams, and Harris as Eddie Kendricks and Holmes as Melvin Franklin also give winning, memorable performances. There are also strong turns from Mitchell as Ruffin’s replacement in the group, Dennis Edwards, Hetsberger as Josephine, and Reed Campbell as the group’s agent Shelly Berger. Everyone, from featured players to ensemble, is full of presence, energy, and excellent vocal ability, showcasing the story and especially the catalogue of classic hit songs with vibrancy and style. 

Overall, Ain’t Too Proud is an entertaining tribute to a legendary musical group, as well as Motown music in general. If you love this music, you are likely to love this show. With a terrific cast, impressive production values, and of course that legendary music, this is sure to entertain, and have you humming the tunes on the way home. 

Cast of Ain’t Too Proud
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Ain’t Too Proud North American Tour

The North American Tour of Ain’t Too Proud is playing at the Fox Theatre until October 2, 2022

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A Chorus Line
Conceived and Orginally Directed and Choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Gayle Seay
Choreographed by Dena DiGiacinto
STAGES St. Louis
September 14, 2022

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

A Chorus Line is a classic musical that’s oddly very much of its time while also being, in another way, ageless. It’s a show that ran for many years on Broadway and has been performed by countless theatre companies at many levels around the world for over four decades, but while elements of it are very tied to 1975, a good production is still as fresh and engaging as if it were a brand new show. STAGES St. Louis is closing out their 2022 season with just such a lively, thoughtful, thoroughly entertaining production.

The last time I saw this show was in a somewhat “opened up” staging at the Muny, and while I enjoyed that production, I think the show fits better in the smaller, more intimate setting at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, where STAGES is based. The set, by James Wolk, is extremely simple. For most of the show, there’s just a bare stage backed by mirrors, with a prominent line taped on the floor in front. While there are some excellent technical aspects to this production–including dazzling lighting by Sean M. Savoie and excellent detailed period costumes by Brad Musgrove–the heart and soul is the performers. The show is about the cast, and the act of casting in itself, as a group of dancers of various ages and stages in their careers vie for eight roles in the chorus of an upcoming Broadway show. Based on a series of interview sessions with real performers, the various stories are relatable especially to anyone who has been involved in “show business” at essentially any level.

The audition is a framing device for a series of vignettes and songs, highlighting various aspects of these dancers’ lives, from their desire to get a job (“I Hope I Get It”) to how they discovered dancing (“I Can Do That”, “At the Ballet”, etc.), and more, leading up to the well-known, glitzy finale “One”. Some characters are more prominent than others–like Cassie (Lauralynn McClelland), a one-time featured performer whose career has stalled and is hoping to start over in the chorus, much to the consternation of her ex-boyfriend Zach (Danny McHugh), who also happens to be the director of the show. There’s also the determined Diana (Megan Elyse Fulmer), who leads two prominent songs, including the classic “What I Did For Love” as an ode to the life of a performer; the tough-talking veteran dancer Sheila (Dana Winkle), who is concerned about “aging out” of the chorus; and Paul (Omar Garibay), whose heartbreaking and intensely personal monologue mid-show is one of the dramatic highlights. While there is a story and a premise, with the end goal of finding out who ultimately gets those coveted chorus roles, the real center of the drama is on the characters and their very human stories of artistic and career ambition, personal triumph and tragedy, and more.

The show is also very much about dance, and Dena DiGiacinto’s vibrant choreography is well-danced by the entire ensemble, and it’s fun to watch the opening number without knowing the characters’ names yet and trying to guess who is going to make the cut based on how they dance.  Once the “line” of final contenders is chosen, as we get a chance to hear their stories, we also see them perform, and it’s an impressive cast all around. Standouts include McClelland as the down-on-her-luck but determined Cassie, who impresses with dazzling dance moves on her showcase number “The Music and the Mirror”. There are also memorable turns from Garibay as the sensitive Paul, Winkle as the bold Sheila, Caleb James Grochalaski as the eccentric Bobby, Ronan Ryan as the wide-eyed youngest dancer Mark, Sarah Chiu as the amiable Connie, and Fulmer as the devoted Diana. Everyone does an excellent job here, with fun comic moments particularly from Leah Hofmann as the somewhat flighty Judy and Ashley Klinger as the bubbly Kristine, whose main problem is that she can’t sing. McHugh also does a convincing job as the professionally demanding but personally conflicted director Zach. Every single member of the “line” deserves our time, and our attention, rewarding the audience with expertly crafted performances and strong dancing.

A Chorus Line is one of those “essential musicals” that’s important to see if you love musical theatre. It’s a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize winner that still speaks to the human condition nearly fifty years after its debut, even though it is also very much of its time in terms of the way its characters speak and articulate the influences on their lives. STAGES St. Louis has presented a production that lives up to the show’s reputation and conveys the spirit and energy of the piece with style and depth. It’s a crowd-pleaser as well, and a thrilling theatrical experience.

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting A Chorus Line at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 9, 2022

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The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2022

Alex Jay, Coda Boyce, Olajuwon Davis, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their new season with an intriguing period drama based on true events. The African Company Presents Richard III is going to be a history lesson for a lot of viewers, since while its subject is important, it’s not as widely known as it probably should be. At the Black Rep, the production continues the company’s usual tradition of excellence, in acting, staging, and production values. 

As mentioned, this is something of an educational play, in the sense that it tells about a particular set of events that actually happened and people who really existed, although I imagine there has been a degree of dramatic license, like all dramatizations of historical people and events.  The focus here is on a Black-operated theatre company in 1820s New York City, called the African company and founded by William Henry Brown (Olajuwon Davis), who goes by “Billy” to his friends. Billy and his company have been staging a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at their small venue, but they have been drawing relatively large crowds and receiving notices in the newspaper. The show, geared for Black audiences, has been drawing more white patrons lately, as well, and this attention has raised the ire of Steven Price (Eric Dean White), who manages the nearby Park Theatre, which is about to host its own production of Richard III starring noted white English actor Junius Brutus Booth. Price is concerned that the African Company will be drawing attention away from his production, and is determined to shut them down, with the help of the local police constable listed in the program as “The Contable-Man” (Dustin Petrillo). Meanwhile, the African Company is dealing with some internal drama of their own, as leading actor James Hewlett (Cameron Jamarr Davis), known as “Jimmy”, tries to keep the increasingly dissatisfied Ann “Annie” Johnson (Coda Boyce)–who plays Lady Anne–from leaving the show. Also in the company are seamstress/actress Sarah (Alex Jay), who works as a maid for a wealthy white woman who becomes a somewhat surprising unseen ally; and the drum-playing, storytelling Papa Shakespeare (Wali Jamal Abdullah), who acts in the play as well as adding his rhythmic soundtrack to the proceedings. 

This is a fascinating show that shines a light on a particular moment in history during a time when Black people–even in Northern cities like New York–are treated with suspicion and hostility even without institutionalized slavery. There are still expectations, and lines they are not supposed to cross, and the African Company and their members risked a lot–their lives, their jobs, and more–in challenging these boundaries. We also get to see moments of their Richard III rehearsals and performance, which provides a look into the making of theatre in the 19th Century. It’s got humor, drama, suspense, and a real sense of the historic, as well as shining a light on the sheer pervasiveness of systemic oppression.

There’s a great cast here, with excellent performances all around, from Olajuwon Davis’s ambitious, earnest Billy to Cameron Jamarr Davis’s charismatic, determined Jimmy; to Boyce’s conflicted Annie, who has great scenes with Jimmy and with the also excellent Jay as Sarah. Abdullah is full of engaging presence in a scene-stealing performance as Papa Shakespeare, and his drumming skills are impressive. There are also memorable villainous turns from White as the scheming Price and Petrillo as the somewhat sycophantic Contable-Man. There’s vibrant ensemble chemistry, especially among the members of the African Company, and the action is well-paced and compelling. 

Technically, the production has ably transported the stage at the Edison Theatre into 1820s New York, with an authentically detailed set by Jamie Bullins and excellent costumes by Andre Harrington. There’s also superb work from lighting designer Jasmine Williams, sound designer Kareem Deans, and props designer Emily Kennebeck. Nobody alive now will have been able to attend an actual 19th Century theatrical performance, but as staged here, we’re given as close an approximation as could be expected. 

Overall, this is a thoroughly well-staged and riveting production. It’s thoughtful, challenging, and historical but with important, timeless themes. If you’re familiar with the Shakespearean source and/or the historical background, or if you are not, this is a play that’s not to be missed. It’s a profound and remarkable theatrical experience.

Wali Jamal Abdullah
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The African Company Presents Richard III at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 25, 2022

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The Bee Play
by Elizabeth Savage
Directed by Sarah Whitney
New Jewish Theatre
September 8, 2022

Ellie Schwetye, Miles Brenton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

According to new artistic director Rebekah Scallet in her pre-show speech, The Bee Play is the New Jewish Theatre’s first-ever world premiere. This play has had a relatively long development process, and now is brought to the stage with an engaging story, a strong cast, and NJT’s usual excellent production values. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, with a great deal of insight and potential, even though there are still a few rough edges.

The story takes place in a Bronx apartment building in the recent past (2016, according to the program). Carver Washington (Miles Brenton) is a determined and studious young man who is fascinated with bees, keeping hives on the roof of his building and speaking to the audience about the importance of bees for the health and survival of the planet. Carver lives with his ailing grandmother, Ma’Dear (Margery A. Handy), who raised him and his younger sister after the death of their mother, and who depends upon Carver for her care. His energetic sister, Paris France Washington (Riley Carter Adams) is an enthusiastic dance student who is preparing for her first big recital. Carter, who has a strong sense of responsibility to his family, also has a strong desire to attend college out of state where he can get a degree in Apiary Science (the study of bees). His grandmother is suspicious of his educational and life goals, but he has the support of his idealistic friend Devora (Ellie Schwetye), who lives nearby in an “urban kibbutz” and has hopes of changing the world for the better.  Change is a big issue in this story, in fact, as some characters fear change, others pursue it, and sometimes it happens when the characters least expect it.

There are many issues covered here, from family relationships and responsibilities, to religious differences and influence, to humans’ responsibility toward the planet and other living beings. It’s a compelling story with especially memorable characters, and some excellent dialogue and thought-provoking conversations, although some of the backstory needs a little more attention, and the second act feels a bit rushed, leading up to an ending that leaves more questions than answers and seems to happen too quickly.  There are also some somewhat confusing moments that could use further explanation.

For the most part, though, this is a fascinating show, and the terrific cast makes it all the more engaging. Brenton is a strong protagonist as the earnest, determined Carver, conveying his passion for bees and conflicted feelings about his family responsibilities especially well. His scenes with the equally strong Schwetye as the outgoing, idealistic Devora are convincing, as are his moments with the excellent Handy as the complex, somewhat enigmatic Ma’Dear. There’s also a truly fantastic performance from young Adams as the highly energetic, strong-willed Paris, showing off impressive dance skills along with marvelous stage presence. The actors work together well, making all the relationships, conflicts, and tensions believable, and conveying the moments of comedy and drama with equal strength.

As is usual with this theatre company, the technical aspects of this production are impressive. Dunsi Dai’s remarkably detailed set is both realistic and transporting. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler suit the characters’ personalities well, and Jayson Lawshee’s lighting adds to the storytelling in atmospheric ways. There’s also impressive sound design by Schwetye, and energetic choreography by Sam Gaitsch. 

The Bee Play is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play with a lot of potential. Although there are few plotting a pacing issues that still should be worked on, it’s still a fascinating, emotional family drama that also raises some important environmental issues. It’s a memorable season opener for the New Jewish Theatre. 

Margery A. Handy, Riley Carter Adams
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Bee Play at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until September 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bandera, Texas
by Lisa Dellagiarino Feriend
Directed by Trish Brown
Prism Theatre Company
August 26, 2022

Leslie Wobbe, Maggie Lehman, Jenni Ryan
Photo by Dan Steadman
Prism Theatre Company

A brand new St. Louis theatre company is making its debut with a world premiere play, and it’s a promising beginning for both. Bandera, Texas is a family comedy with a touch of drama and a side of fantasy. Staged in a relatively simple setting at the Kranzberg’s Black Box theatre, it focuses on relationships–between parents and children, husbands and wives, with a primary focus on resilient women in the midst of challenging circumstances, with an emphasis on hope and the definition of home. 

The set-up features two women, Italian immigrant Mary (Leslie Wobbe) and Irish-American Genevieve (Jenni Ryan), telling of their attachment to New York City, and how they knew they belonged there. Then, the scene shifts to a cluttered trailer in Texas, as pregnant, transplanted New Yorker Liz (Maggie Lehman) has just arrived with her Texas-born husband, Dave (Mike DePope), and is regretting agreeing to this life-changing move, returning to Dave’s hometown as he has been offered his dream job teaching and coaching at his old high school. Liz, whose New York City roots run deep, has difficulty dealing with the shock of the change, and the way it seems to be affecting Dave, until suddenly, she finds herself in the presence of both of her grandmothers, paternal Grandma Mary and maternal Nana Genevieve. The biggest shock here for Liz is that both grandmothers are no longer living, so they are either ghosts or figments of Liz’s imagination. That aspect isn’t made entirely clear, but it doesn’t really matter, because the point is that the grandmothers are here to help Liz sort out her thoughts and emotions about the jarring change in her living situation, her relationship with Dave, and the anticipation of raising a child in an unfamiliar location. The story in Texas is intercut with flashbacks from the lives of both grandmothers, and how they dealt with various challenges and changes, both good and bad, in their own lives. It’s a compelling story full of fascinating characterizations and even a little bit of mystery, as the lives of these women unfold and we see how they relate to Liz’s situation. 

The dialogue is credible and well-paced, with a humorous tone much of the time and moments of poignancy at key times. The characters are well-defined, as well, and brought to life vividly by the strong cast. As Liz, Lehman projects a likable “everywoman” quality, with a believable degree of angst over her situation. DePope’s Dave is also amiable, showing good chemistry with Lehman and doing especially well with some of the more comic moments. Both Ryan and Wobbe are excellent as the grandmothers, differing in personality but both tenacious in their own ways, showing a playful contrast with one another and a palpable care for their granddaughter, and the flashback scenes are especially effective. There’s also a remarkable versatile performance from Ryan Burns displaying an excellent range both comic and dramatic as a variety of men in the grandmothers’ lives, from husbands to sons, to coworkers, and more. The interplay between the various characters forms much of the appeal of this play, and the energy and pacing are just right, from the more whimsical humor to the quieter dramatic moments. 

The technical setup is simple, but effective, with Leah McFall’s set providing the framework that suggests the trailer that Liz and Dave have moved into, with appropriate changes to cleanliness and order as the story progresses and the couple settles in. The characters are well-outfitted by costume designer Rebecca Bailey, as well–especially the grandmothers, whose wardrobe does much to suggest their personalities and style. The lighting, designed by Erin Thibodeaux, works well to set the mood and atmosphere, especially in the flashback sequences to set them apart from the present-day scenes; and there’s also excellent sound design by Jacob Baxley. 

Bandera, Texas is a promising first production from a promising playwright and an exciting new local theatre company. It’s a compelling look at how location, family, and personal history shape a person’s life, as well as showing how generations of women persevere through various trials. It’s mostly lighthearted, with some truly heartfelt moments of poignancy along the way. From New York to Texas to St. Louis, this play makes a memorable impression. 

Mike DePope, Maggie Lehman
Photo by Dan Steadman
Prism Theatre Company

Prism Theatre Company is presenting Bandera, Texas at the Kranzberg Arts Center until September 4, 2022

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A Little Night Music
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Choreographed by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal
Union Avenue Opera
August 19, 2022

Debby Lennon, Peter Kendall Clark
Photo by Dan Donovan
Union Avenue Opera

A Little Night Music is a show I had heard the score to but hadn’t seen onstage, and by the end of October I hope to have seen it twice, as two local companies have chosen to produce it this year. The first production by Union Avenue Opera, which as an opera company focuses much on the singing and orchestra. And it does sound wonderful, with gorgeous vocals, and a full, lush-sounding orchestra, although in addition, it is also superbly acted and directed, with a stellar cast including several St. Louis-based performers.

A lot of companies are doing Stephen Sondheim shows this year, in memory of the legendary composer/lyricist who died late last year at the age of 91. Sondheim is regarded by many, including me, as one of the true geniuses of musical theatre. A Little Night Music is one of his more operatic-sounding works, which makes it ideal for a company like Union Avenue Opera. Based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the show has a very “Old World European” feel, taking place in Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. It explores issues of romance, repression, and regret, as well as challenging the attitudes and conventions of upper class society. The main characters are middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Peter Kendall Clark), and well-known stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Debby Lennon), who had been romantically involved years before but had lost touch until Fredrik brings his new, much younger wife Anne (Brooklyn Snow) to a play in which Desiree is appearing.  Anne is suspicious of Desiree because Fredrik, who obviously still carries a torch for his old flame, is evasive about their relationship. Also figuring into the story are Desiree’s aging mother Madame Armfeldt (Teresa Doggett), who is still nostalgic about the romantic adventures in her own past, and Desiree’s teenage daughter Fredrika (Arielle Pedersen), who lives with her grandmother while Desiree tours. There’s also Fredrik’s son from his first marriage, Henrik (James Stevens), who is studying to join the clergy but struggles to live up to his own ideals, and who harbors thinly-veiled feelings for Anne. Also figuring into the story are Desiree’s latest paramour, the self-absorbed and not-too-bright Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Eric J. McConnell), and his neglected and jealous wife, Charlotte (Leann Schuering); and Anne’s maid, the bold and amorously adventurous Petra (Amy Maude Helfer). A somewhat hastily arranged weekend at Madame Armfeldt’s villa brings all these characters and their conflicting desires, jealousies, and conflicts together, resulting in a great deal of relational chaos, a measure of witty banter, and much reflection and commentary by way of song.

It’s a fascinating story, especially since a lot of the characters aren’t exactly likable, although all are made interesting and there isn’t a dull moment here, even though there isn’t much in the way of “action”, traditionally speaking. It’s a lot of talking, singing, and reflecting. There’s also a clever framework involving a Quintet (Joel Rogler, Gina Malone, Grace Yukiko Fisher, Philip Touchette, and Sarah Price) who serve as something of a Greek Chorus, commenting on the proceedings and characters as the story plays out. Many of the relationships are shallow and even silly, but I think that’s the point of this story, and there are a lot of selfish motives and petty squabbling, but it’s all done with so much wit, emotion, and energy, as well as well-paced comic timing, that it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch, and the ultimate reflections as the story starts to wind down and gets to the show’s most well-know song “Send In the Clowns”, are truly poignant and soul-bearing. That song, incidentally, makes a whole lot more sense in the context of the show than it does sung by itself.  

The characters are made all the more watchable by the terrific cast that has been assembled here. Debby Lennon, who is known locally in both musical theatre and opera, is excellent as Desiree, projecting that “stage star” presence with ease, as well as communicating the character’s vulnerability and sense of regret. She has has a wonderful voice, as usual, and her scenes with the equally excellent, rich-voiced Clark are a highlight of the show. There are also strong performances from Stevens as the idealistic, oh-so-earnest Henrik, with a strong tenor voice; excellent soprano Snow as the conflicted Anne; along with particularly strong comic turns by McConnell as the boastful, possessive Carl-Magnus, and Schuering as the jealous, exasperated Charlotte. The Quintet is also especially strong, and the biggest standout is Doggett in a delightful, hilarious performance as the aging, nostalgic Madame Armfeldt. There are strong performances all around, and the singing is especially stellar, as should probably be expected for an opera company. The wonderful singing is accompanied by an equally wonderful, rich-sounding orchestra conducted by Scott Schoonover, bringing the overall mood and atmosphere of the piece to life in a memorable way.

Technically, the set designed by C. Otis Sweezey isn’t as elaborate as you might expect from a traditional theatre company, but it’s effective all the same, with mood-setting backdrops and furniture being brought on and off by a highly efficient stage crew. The costumes by Doggett are sumptuously appointed and true to the period, suiting the characters especially well. There’s also excellent lighting by Patrick Huber that helps to set and maintain the tone and mood of the story. Another aspect of the production that’s more specific to opera companies is that “supertitles” (designed by Philip Touchette) are projected on screens at either side of the stage, displaying the script and lyrics as the show goes on, which is especially helpful in this show since there are several moments in which several characters are singing different lyrics at the same time. 

If you’ve never been to Union Avenue Opera, this is a good show to introduce you to this excellent company. Opera can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but musical theatre is generally seen as a little more accessible. This production of A Little Night Music has a lot of the best qualities of both art forms, with top-quality singing, acting, and orchestra, as well as being a compelling story with much to think about in terms of relationships and the varying, flawed people who engage in them.  It’s a remarkable production.

James Stevens, Leann Schuering, Eric J. McConnell, Jordan Wolk, Teresa Doggett
Photo by Dan Donovan
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting A Little Night Music at Union Avenue Christian Church until August 27, 2022

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The Rose Tattoo
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Kaplan
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
August 18, 2022

Rayme Cornell, Valentina Silva and Cast of The Rose Tattoo
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Rose Tattoo is a Tennessee Williams play I had heard of, but hadn’t seen before. Now that I have seen it, in a lively production currently being staged by Tennessee Williams Festival, I now think I’ve seen it in a way few have experienced. That’s because of the unique approach director David Kaplan and the company have taken here–staging the production in a circus tent, with many circus elements incorporated into the play. It’s a unique staging, but it works especially well in emphasizing the emotion of the piece, as well as the truly hilarious comic elements of the story. 

This is something of an unusual play, or at least in this production, since the first act plays more as a mysterious drama, but the second act is much more broadly comic, but also full of deeply expressed emotion and longing. The circus elements, including clowns, aerialists, and animal acts work to heighten the mood and sense of dreamlike fantasy as the story focuses on Sicilian immigrant Serafina Delle Rose (Rayme Cornell), who is passionately attached to her husband, and is devastated when he is killed early in the play. She retreats into her house, becoming focused on her memories and overprotective of her teenage daughter, Rosa (Valentina Silva), who is about to graduate high school and is excited about a new boyfriend, a sailor named Jack (Oliver Bacus), who Serafina doesn’t want her to see. Serafina is also suspicious of her neighbors, who always seem to be watching her, and spreading rumors about her husband that Serafina doesn’t want to believe. Eventually, she has a chance meeting with a young truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Bradley Tejeda), who reminds her of her husband, and a comic “courtship” of sorts ensues. It’s an exploration of grief, dreams, parent-child relationships, romantic ideals, and the role of religious devotion in a person’s life, as Serafina is devoutly Catholic. It’s a highly emotional, somewhat lyrical story that uses music to set its mood at times, as well as, in this production, the balletic work of the aerialists in some key moments. 

The staging here is inventive and clever, with the circus elements working very well to help set the mood and further the emotion of the story. The first appearance of Alvaro as a clown also works because Serafina sometimes compares him to one. And the direction is sharp and well-paced, with some slapstick elements in the second act as well as the more melancholy moments played expertly by the excellent cast. The biggest star here is Cornell, who owns every moment she’s in as the highly emotional, grief-stricken Serafina. It’s a virtuoso performance that drives the momentum of the show. Tejada is also fantastic as Alvaro, with a strong physical performance as well as excellent stage presence and chemistry with Cornell. There are also strong performances from Silva as the lovestruck and often frustrated (with her mother) Rosa; and Bacus who is well-matched with Silva as the young sailor who loves Rosa. Harry Weber has a nice dual turn as the local priest Father De Leo and as Miss Yorke, a teacher at Rosa’s high school, and there’s excellent work from a fine ensemble playing various supporting roles, bringing atmosphere and energy to the show. Also notable is the work of aerialists Annika Capellupo, Natalie Bednarski, Sage McGhee, and Maggie McGinness, whose beautiful performances add much to the overall tone of the story.

Technically, this show has a look that’s fitting for a play that’s staged in a circus tent. The set by James Wolk makes use of movable pieces that suggest the various locations as needed, with the panels that serve as the walls of Serafina’s house being able to be arranged to suggest a closed-in feeling as she retreats further from the world in her grief, and can also be opened up as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes suit the characters well and also work appropriately with the circus theme.  Jesse Alford’s lighting is works especially well in the space to set the mood and atmosphere, as well.  There were a few sound issues with microphone feedback and odd acoustics that made the dialogue difficult to hear at times, but this improved as the show went on.

If you’ve seen The Rose Tattoo before, seeing this production might be like seeing it for the first time all over again, since the theme and conceit are unique. This production’s fantastical circus format is well-suited to the story, with excellent dialogue and symbolism by Williams. It’s a showcase for a stellar leading performance and equally strong cast, with dynamic circus performances and a memorable, ultimately hopeful comic tone. It’s a one-of-a-kind production, well worth a visit to the Big Top. 

Cast of The Rose Tattoo
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting The Rose Tattoo at The Big Top in Grand Center until August 28, 2022

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