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Rodney’s Wife
by Richard Nelson
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
July 7, 2022

Kelly Howe
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The MIdnight Company

The Midnight Company’s latest production is a complex character study that features intricate plotting and an excellent showcase for six  talented local performers. Rodney’s Wife is an intriguing period piece that explores family and marital relationships, while also presenting a vivid setting and backdrop for the action. It’s a more elaborate production for this theatre company, and it’s thoroughly intriguing.

If you don’t know much about the story going in, that’s probably a good thing for this show, since the characters and situations are not what they may first appear to be in some ways, while in others ways they are exactly what you might expect. The set-up features Kelly Howe introducing the story as an unnamed character talking about her mother, Fay, and an important time in Fay’s life focused on a period spent in an Italian villa in 1962. Then, Howe takes her glasses off and becomes Fay, and the main story begins, as Fay is staying with her husband Rodney (John Wolbers) in Italy while Rodney, an actor, is filming a western film with an Italian director.  The action begins on an evening in which Rodney’s daughter from his first marriage, Lee (Summer Baer), and her new fiance, Ted (Oliver Bacus), have recently announced their engagement–to everyone except Fay, it seems. Also present is Rodney’s recently widowed sister Eva (Rachel Tibbets), who seems a little too involved in her brother’s life, to Fay’s increasingly obvious irritation. There’s also Henry, Rodney’s manager, who has a new script for Rodney to read with a great role for Rodney, but it’s filming in Los Angeles, and the various characters react to this possibility in starkly contrasting ways. There are many suggestions and hints about what’s really going on, as subtle and not so subtle reactions lead to further revelations later in the play. At the center of all this drama is Fay, who is hiding secrets of her own, and is upset about both Lee’s seemingly sudden engagement and the prospect of going back to Hollywood. I won’t add much more because the real drama here comes from the gradually unfolding plot, as well as the characters’ relationships with one another and with the secrets they keep and reveal. 

This is a drama of relationships, and there are elements of comedy along with the drama. In fact, the first act leans more toward the comic, as a portrait of “jet-setting” Hollywood people in Italy with sometimes hilariously caustic interactions between characters. Still, there’s an undercurrent of something else going on, which is revealed in the second act as the tensions explode, and all the actors play this exceptionally well. As the central character, Howe portrays the character’s complexities with credible emotional reactions, as Fay’s world is often defined by the decisions of those around her, especially the excellent Wolbers as the outwardly amiable but inwardly needy Rodney, and the superb Tibbets as the clingy, controlling Eva.  Baer, as the somewhat mysterious Lee, is also strong, as is Bacus as her affable but somewhat clueless fiance, Ted. Ritchie also lends strong support as the somewhat anxious Henry. Everyone works well together, with some especially memorable moments between Howe and Wolbers, Howe and Baer, and Wolbers and Tibbetts as the story plays out, relationships are shown for what they are, and hidden secrets are revealed.

The action is well-paced by director Hanrahan, and the set by Bess Moynihan is nothing short of remarkable. With meticulous detail, the fully realized Italian villa has been brought into the relatively small space at the Chapel. It’s easily the most elaborate set I’ve seen in this venue, and it serves as an ideal backdrop for the action, setting the mood, tone, and period style of the show. And speaking of “period style”, Liz Henning’s costumes are impressively accurate, colorful, and oh-so-early 60s chic. Along with Moynihan’s evocative lighting and some well-chosen music of the era, the mood is ideally set, adding much ambiance to the proceedings as the story plays out.

Rodney’s Wife is a show that features a lot of mature situations, and some strong language and sexual situations, so it’s for mature audiences. The drama can get intense, as well, especially in the second act, as the show explores the world of characters who aren’t always who they seem. It’s an exploration of truth, lies, artifice, and the sometimes stifling efforts to define oneself by others’ expectations. It’s a fascinating play, performed with compelling skill by the impressive cast and crew at The Midnight Company.

Oliver Bacus, Summer Baer, John Wolbers
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Rodney’s Wife at the Chapel until July 23, 2022

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Mary Poppins
Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Book by Julian Fellowes
New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
July 6, 2022

Cast of Mary Poppins
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Mary Poppins has flown into the Muny for the second time. After an entertaining production nine years ago, the “Practically Perfect” nanny is back, and this time she has a bit of an edge. The latest presentation in the Muny’s 2022 season is big, vibrant, and sharper than ever, with a great cast and loads of energy, led by two stellar performers in the leading roles. 

While the stage show and the classic Disney film have much in common, they are not the same. The stage version–which debuted in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006–features some fairly significant changes. Differences include a new book that adjusts the story somewhat and includes elements from P.L. Travers’s books, as well as adding some new songs and changing the settings of some of the more familiar movie songs. It’s still the story of a mysterious and even magical nanny (Jeanna De Waal) who flies into the lives of the Banks family–children Jane (Laila Fantroy) and Michael (Gabe Cytron), and parents George (Nehal Joshi) and Winifred (Erin Davie). This family needs some help, as George is absorbed in his work at a bank and a professed need for “precision and order”, Winifred is feeling inadequate and neglected by her husband, and the children have been subjected to a series of sub-par nannies and have difficulty living up to their father’s rigid expectations. Soon, Mary Poppins arrives and, with the help of the charming jack-of-all-trades Bert (Corbin Bleu), shows the family what their world can be like if they just remember what is important. 

I’ve seen the stage show four times now, beginning with the London production in 2006, and including the last time the Muny presented it in 2013. While, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the stage version, I’ve had some issues with the way the adaptation has flattened out some of the characters, such as the the Banks parents and especially Winifred. Also, while I’ve seen excellent performers in the role of Mary, the performances always seem to take a while for her to establish that “spark” that she needs to carry the show. This production has remedied those issues to a large degree in the form of casting, as De Waal brings a bit of a wry edge to to Mary Poppins that works especially well with the slightly darker tone of the stage show. She’s also in excellent voice, and works well with the thoroughly winning Bleu as Bert. Davie also adds an air of substance to Winifred Banks that I’ve haven’t seen before, with a standout performance that adds depth and interest to her story. Joshi works well with Davie and with the also excellent Fantroy and Cytron. There are also memorable comic performances from Zoe Vonder Haar and Barrett Riggins as the Banks family’s household servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, as well as Debby Lennon in a menacing and vocally impressive appearance as George’s imperious childhood nanny, Miss Andrew. Another especially memorable performance is that of Darlesia Cearcy as the Bird Woman, whose soaring voice and excellent harmonizing with De Waal makes “Feed the Birds” one of the true highlights of this production. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, lending strong support and contributing much energy to the production numbers, featuring spirited choreography by Patrick O’Neill.

This production looks great, as well, with a big, bold, colorful production featuring a versatile set by Paige Hathaway, detailed and whimsical costumes by Robin L. McGee, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, as well as eye-catching video design by Alex Basco Koch and spectacular flying effects by EFX. There was a bit of an problem with Lennon’s microphone in the performance I saw, but the issue was covered well, as Lennon was given a hand-held mic which added an amusing “evil lounge singer” vibe to her character that worked surprisingly well. The Muny orchestra is also in fine form, as led by music director Brad Haak, providing a full, rich sound to the well-known score.

This is probably the best stage version of Mary Poppins I have seen, with a lot of energy, musicality, and heart, and that little witty edge that gives it something extra. With memorable performances from De Waal. Bleu, and the rest of the cast, and dazzlingly vivid production values, this is a show that’s sure to please theatregoers of all ages. It’s a “Jolly Holiday”, indeed.

Jeanna De Waal, Corbin Bleu
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Mary Poppins in Forest Park until July 13, 2022

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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Bradley Rohlf
FlyNorth Theatricals
July 1, 2022

Eli Borwick, Sarah Lantzberger, Eileen Engel, Jaymeson Hintz
Photo by John Gramlich
Fly North Theatricals

It’s Assassins, but (mostly) immersive! That’s essentially the idea of Fly North Theatricals’ latest production of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical study of various individuals who have sought out to assassinate Presidents of the United States, with varying degrees of “success”. I put that word in quotes because of the inherently problematic and disturbing nature of the goal, which is pointed out in chilling fashion in this cleverly staged production, which features a contextualization that adds a degree of immediacy to the show that contributes much to the overall dramatic effect. 

Assassins is a show that blends sharp satire with social commentary and moments of intense drama. It profiles various would-be presidential assassins, some well-known and some more obscure, but they are not glorified here, although there is criticism of the societal and cultural values and situations that influenced them. The tone is satirical for the most part, but this production in particular brings out a degree of immediacy in the sense of how the show is framed. While most productions of this show have the backdrop of a carnival/fair shooting gallery attraction, this production is set up as a panel discussion at a convention called “PresCon 2022”. Each audience member is given a lanyard with a badge, identifying each attendee as “President”. The pre-show activities are a combination of hilarious and disturbing, such as autograph sessions with John Wilkes Booth (Jordan Wolk), a projected schedule of events that includes some clever topical and historical references, and more. Then the show starts and all the “presidents” settle down to watch the “panel”.  For a closer look at the pre-show activities and a lists of the various “schedules of events”, you can check out Fly North’s Facebook page

Although the show is advertised as “fully immersive”, it’s most immersive elements are before the actual play begins, and then it plays out as written, only with a different set than usual, and with the Proprietor (Eileen Engel) outfitted in professional attire and serving essentially as the host of the panel. The assassins and aspiring assassins are presented and begin to tell their tales. In addition to Booth, we meet Leon Czolgosz (Eli Borwick), Charles Guiteau (Bradford Rolen), Sarah Jane Moore (Kimmie Kidd-Booker), Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Avery Lux), John Hinckley (Jaymeson Hintz), Giuseppe Zangara (Ryan P. Townsend), Sam Byck (Sarah Lantsberger), and Lee Harvey Oswald (Stephen Henley).  The characters and their motives are varied, but the ultimate goal is the same–to kill a president. There’s also social commentary in the form of a figure called The Balladeer (also Henley), who–aided by clever projections–clicks through his cell phone to show us background on the various figures and their situations. The stories are sometimes linked in ways they didn’t in real life–like with Fromme and Moore, who both tried to assassinate President Ford, but not together as shown here, and Fromme and Hinckley, whose disturbingly dissonant duet “Unworthy of Your Love” is one the show’s most memorable tunes. Of course, these characters are all from different times and places, but having them interact adds to the theme, drama, and satire of the piece. This particular production adds another layer to that drama, as well, casting the audience as “presidents”, which makes everyone a potential victim if you think about it. Also, the sharp dramatic turn the show takes toward the end adds even more tension and impact to the story, making it a lot more personal than I had seen before. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll give a clue–the guns used in the show are all obviously fake (mostly toys). There’s a rather jarring moment when that changes, which affects the whole tone of the show in a powerfully effecting way. 

The theming here is excellent and consistent, working well with this production, as the “PresCon” setting is played out especially well in the build up to the show itself, and Lauren Perry’s simple but effective set and clever media design adds to the overall effect. The colorful, character-appropriate costumes by Engel are also excellent, as is Tony Anselmo’s evocative lighting. Music Director Colin Healy leads a top-notch band that accompanies the show with style, as well, although the band’s placing and the acoustics in the .ZACK theatre sometimes work to make the music drown out the singers.

Aside from occasional sound issues, though, this is a strong production all around, led by a superb cast with no weak links. Engel has an oddly effective air of detached menace as the Proprietor, and Wolk’s prideful, vengeful Booth is also a standout, as is Lantsberger (who also briefly plays anarchist Emma Goldman) as the attention-seeking Byck, whose goal was to assassinate President Nixon. Lux and Kidd-Booker are memorable in their scenes together as Fromme and Moore, and Hintz is effective as the single-minded and disturbed Hinckley, as is Borwick as aspiring anarchist Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley. Rolen, as the gleefully self-promoting Guiteau (Garfield’s assassin), is a stand-out, as well, and Henley is in excellent voice as the Balladeer, and also makes a convincing Oswald. The whole cast is excellent here, with strong ensemble chemistry and strong stage presence, energy, and vocals. 

If you’ve seen Assassins before, you essentially know what to expect, but there are some surprises in this version, in terms of direction and focus, with a powerful turn toward the end that makes the story more personal than I’ve seen before. Fly North Theatricals has presented some memorable productions in the past, but I think this is their best yet. It’s a profoundly affecting theatrical experience. 

Jordan Wolk, Eli Borwick, Kimmie Kidd-Booker, Bradford Rolen
Photo by John Gramlich
FlyNorth Theatricals

Fly North Theatricals is presenting Assassins at the .ZACK Theatre until July 23, 2022

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Camelot
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Book Adapted by David Lee
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
June 23, 2022

Robert Petkoff (center) and Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Camelot is a strange show, in the sense that it never seems to be the same show depending on what production you see. Since it first played on Broadway in 1960, there have been many professional, amateur, and school productions, along with a Broadway revival in 1980 and various national tours. I’ve seen many versions, from a high school production to dinner theatre, to a couple of those tours, to the last Muny production in 2009, and there always appear to be changes to the way the story plays out, in terms of the song catalogue and the book. It’s a legendary story that has become a beloved classic, but you never really know what you’re going to see when you see Camelot. Now, the Muny is going even further in the book revisions than I’ve ever seen before with their newest production, featuring an adapted book by David Lee that streamlines many aspects of the story while focusing on the three main characters. It’s a bold endeavor, and for the most part, it works.

The book has always been considered a weakness of Camelot, despite its beloved score and beloved reputation. Revising the book has been done before, and it’s going to be done again (for Broadway later this year, in the hands of well-known playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin). The current Muny production is an adaptation by writer David Lee that overhauls the script in a somewhat drastic way, omitting several characters and some songs, and creating a framing device in which a group of “revelers” tell the story of King Arthur (Robert Petkoff), Queen Guenevere (Shereen Pimentel), and Sir Lancelot (Brandon S. Chu), along with the Knights of the Round Table and the legendary court of Camelot.  It starts off somewhat abruptly once Arthur is introduced, and he starts right into his first song, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, but soon he meets Guenevere and their chemistry is strong, lighting up the stage as they form a strong, credible bond. Eventually, though, their relationship is challenged by the arrival of Lancelot from France, and the new knight causes a stir in the King’s court and in his marriage, as Lancelot and Guenevere find it difficult to fight their attraction to one another, despite their love for Arthur. Soon, the devious Mordred (Barrett Riggins) shows up to further stir up tensions, among the increasingly bored and dissatisfied knights as well as the royal couple and Lancelot, threatening the very ideals that Arthur has built his kingdom upon. 

It’s a well-known story, but this version has distilled the story down to its basic elements, for the most part. There’s a small ensemble, but notable characters from the musical are missing–most notably Merlyn, who is relegated to off-stage status, and King Pellinore, who I found myself missing, since I think his role as a confidant for Arthur is needed in some places. I didn’t miss Merlyn, though, and Arthur’s stories about him work well even without the character’s appearing onstage. Still, what’s done here works to speed up the show a bit, and the framing device helps to emphasize the legendary nature of the story. The look and presentation of the show is also radically different, with a stylized set by Anne Beyersdorfer that is frequently in motion, striking costumes by Tristan Raines that blend elements of Medieval style with more modern rock-inspired looks that feature a lot of leather jackets and chains for the knights, along with more modern suits and dresses for Arthur and Guenevere. The set, along with Shelby Loera’s stunning lighting design and some excellent video design by Kylee Loera, works well with the staging, which takes advantage of the Muny’s turntables to keep the action, and the story, moving along. 

The casting is strong, as well, led by a charming performance from Petkoff as the idealistic but self-doubting Arthur. He’s a joy to watch, and his chemistry with Pimentel’s Guenevere is palpable. Pimentel is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a glorious voice, bringing energy to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “The Lusty Month of May”, and more. Chu is good as Lancelot, with a strong voice, although he doesn’t quite have the bold presence that the character demands from his first appearance, and his scenes with Pimentel aren’t as electric as they should be, although this improves as the show goes on. Other standouts include Riggins as the gleefully malevolent Mordred, oozing stage presence from his first moment on stage. There are also memorable turns from the trio playing Camelot’s top three knights–Daryl Tofa as Sir Lionel, Sarah Quinn Taylor as Ser Sagramore, and Evan Ruggiero as Sir Dinadan. There’s also a strong ensemble and some excellent, energetic choreography by Beth Crandall and some well-paced staging of musical numbers, most notably the cleverly staged “C’est Moi”, which shows Lancelot’s journey to Camelot while he sings. 

This is a Camelot like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. While I did find myself missing some of the elements that were cut out, I find this staging excellently paced and well-cast, with strong singing and a dazzling set and production values. The finale works especially well, with the emphasis on the legendary nature of this story, and for the most part, the cast brings a “shining moment” to the Muny with excellent style. 

 

Shereen Pimentel, Robert Petkoff, Brandon S. Chu and the Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Camelot in Forest Park until June 28th, 2022

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Every Brilliant Thing
by Duncan Macmillan, With Jonny Donahoe
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
June 17, 2022

St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest dramatic presentation isn’t from the Bard, but it contains its fair share of comedy, drama, and tragedy. Every Brilliant Thing is a simply staged one-person show with interactive elements that is able to be tailored toward the leading performer, as well as each unique audience. Directed by Donna Northcott and starring local actor Isaiah Di Lorenzo, this is an engaging show that fits well into its space and tells its story with poignancy and hope.

This is a short show, running a little over an hour, and while the tone is whimsical at times, it deals with some heavy subjects including depression, self-harm, and suicide. There are resources included in the back of the program for anyone seeking help. In the play, Di Lorenzo is presented as a version of himself, telling his story of trying to list all the “brilliant” bright spots in life, first as a way to comfort his chronically depressed mother, and eventually for himself, as well. As he tells the story, he interacts directly with the audience, enlisting some viewers to participate in the action, playing his father, a teacher from school, his college sweetheart, and more, as well as reading the items on the list from cards as Di Lorenzo calls their number. It’s a thoroughly engaging show, given weight, drama, and heart by the personable Di Lorenzo, who has an excellent way of engaging the audience in the story. The audience engagement goes a little further than the story itself with this production, as well, as guests are encouraged to add their own “brilliant things” on sticky notes that they can attach to the walls in the lobby after the show. 

The staging is fairly simple, with no elaborate production values and a simple setup with chairs set out around the perimeter of the floor at the Chapel venue. For a set, there is only a crate in the middle to serve various purposes as Di Lorenzo weaves his compelling tale. There’s excellent support from sound designer John “JT” Taylor and properties designer Amanda Handle. 

Every Brilliant Thing seems to be an especially popular show these days, and I can see why, considering its interactive nature, compelling and poignant story, and the opportunity it provides to showcase a talented performer. At St. Louis Shakespeare and featuring the impressive Di Lorenzo, this show doesn’t disappoint. Even with its weighty subject matter, it’s a poignant and ultimately hopeful story which is especially well-told in this powerful production.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Every Brilliant Thing at The Chapel until June 26, 2022

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Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 14, 2022

Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is back, with a familiar show, a familiar cast, and a familiar “Razzle Dazzle”, as Chicago takes the stage for an encore run after having been cut short last year due to a COVID-19 outbreak. This year, it’s the same amazing show that took the Muny stage by storm last season, and won Outstanding Production of a Musical and six other awards from my colleagues and myself in the St. Louis Theater Circle. All the principal performers are back, along with the same production design and dazzling staging. 

Sarah Bowden, James T. Lane (center) and Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

I raved about the show last season–and you can read that review here. I will add that it’s just as energetic, jazzy, and exciting as it was last season, led by truly dynamic performances from Sarah Bowden as Roxie Hart and J. Harrison Ghee as Velma Kelly. All the other leads are excellent, as well, including James T. Lane as Billy Flynn, Emily Skinner as Matron “Mama” Morton, Adam Heller as Amos Hart, and Ali Ewoldt as Mary Sunshine. It’s a truly stunning show, from production values to casting, including the brilliant ensemble supporting the first-rate leads. Everything I wrote last year is still true, and if you weren’t able to see the show last year, now is your chance. Go see it while you can. It’s a thoroughly entertaining,, jazzy, satirical, funny, musical treat!

Sarah Bowden, J. Harrison Ghee
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until June 19th, 2022

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Dear Jack, Dear Louise
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Sharon Hunter
New Jewish Theatre
June 9, 2022

Molly Burris, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is currently serving as a time machine, or the closest we can probably get outside of science fiction. Its staging of Ken Ludwig’s love letter to his parents, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, portrays its time period and setting in a way that makes everything seem so astonishingly immediate. It’s billed as a “romantic comedy”, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and in the hands of the two wonderful leading performers, this is a tale that takes the audiences on a convincing emotional journey.

As made clear in the play’s promotional materials, and via pictures displayed in the lobby, this show is about two real people, playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents Jacob “Jack” Ludwig (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Louise Rabiner (Molly Burris), who “meet” via letters after being “set-up” by their parents in the early 1940s. I would say this is a two character play, but as staged here, there are basically four characters–Jack, Louise, the 1940s, and World War II. After an initially halting and brief first letter, their relationship grows and these two get to know each other more closely, even though they don’t actually meet in person for most of the play, despite several frustrated attempts, as the war (for Jack) and Louise’s burgeoning career as an actress and dancer intervene. Of course, because of the poster in the lobby and the promotions for the play, we know these two will eventually meet and marry, but Ludwig’s construction of the play, along with the performances and Sharon Hunter’s well-pitched direction make this a thoroughly engaging and even suspenseful story, as we the audience get to know these characters as they grow closer to one another through their letters, developing a friendship that leads to romantic feelings and expectations. The presentation is dynamic–rather than simply having the characters read the letters, they are structured more like dialogue, as the characters respond to one another more conversationally as the story develops. The growth of the relationship, along with various challenges–from personal issues and jealousy to the growing and increasingly threatening presence of the war–is portrayed in a fully credible and compelling way, as these well-drawn characters form a believable personal connection, engaging the audience in their hopes, dreams, and struggles.

Everything is developed in such a vivid way, with Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed set and contributions by scenic artist Cameron Tesson and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler bring these characters and their world to life in a stunningly effective way. The 1940s vibe is enhanced by the pictures and posters that decorate the stage, featuring celebrities, plays, and movies from the era that are mentioned in the letters. There’s also an atmospheric soundtrack of 1940s pop hits to further set the mood, and excellent work from sound designer Amanda Were, lighting designer David LaRose, and props supervisor Katie Orr in bringing this world to vivid, dramatic life. 

As well developed as Jack and Louise’s world is here, the characters themselves are also ideally portrayed in the stunningly well-matched performances of Burris as the outgoing Louise and Lawson-Maeske as the more reserved but compassionate Jack. Both are intensely likable, portraying a range of emotions as the tone shifts between light romantic comedy and more intense drama.  Their chemistry is fully believable, as well. They’re a vibrant, complex and thoroughly winning combination, making this play all the more involving as these two embody their characters so completely and credibly. 

This show is excellent in portraying a world history event (the Second World War) in a relatably human way, as well as serving as the playwright’s tribute to his own parents, on whose early relationship this show is based. Dear Jack, Dear Louise at NJT is an effective time trip as well as a riveting romantic story. It’s another excellent theatrical experience from this celebrated theatre company.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Molly Burris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Dear Jack, Dear Louise at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until June 26th, 2022

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The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2022

Stephen Peirick, Joey Saunders
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Depending on your age, the early days of the AIDS crisis may be living memory for you, or something you’ve only heard and/or read about after the fact. Even if you do remember, the level of detail you remember depends on level of involvement or whether you or anyone you knew was directly affected. For Larry Kramer and his friends in New York City in the early 1980s, the growing crisis was an unavoidable daily reality, as was the fight for recognition, funding, and care for the growing number of people suffering and dying as a result of the virus, before the virus was even identified or named. In Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Kramer’s acclaimed play The Normal Heart, the sense of urgency is readily apparent, as is the focus on the real people behind the fight for recognition and care against increasingly frustrating opposition. With a strong cast and highly effective staging, this is a show that cuts to heart, profoundly and affectingly.

The story and the people represented in this play are real, as noted in the voiceover at the beginning and in a letter from Kramer published in the program. There are elements of dramatization because it’s a play, and the names have been changed, but this is essentially Kramer’s account of his involvement in the development of an activist movement in the early 1980s in New York City, in response to a lack of urgency in the media and public as the news of the virus and its spread–largely among gay men. Kramer is represented here in the person of activist writer Ned Weeks (Stephen Peirick), who is affected in various ways, as he realizes that several people he knows are getting sick and dying, and little to nothing is being done. He and several other friends, including closeted businessman Bruce Niles (Jeffrey M. Wright) and health department employee Mickey Marcus (Jonathan Hey) start a new organization that focuses on raising awareness and helping those affected by it. As Ned and his friends fight for funding and support from the city government and the press, they also deal with tensions among themselves, as Ned’s confrontational approach gets a lot of pushback, and Ned grows increasingly impatient. Ned also navigates various personal relationships in his life, from his friendships in the organization to his new romance with society and fashion writer Felix Turner (Joey Saunders), to his increasingly difficult relationship with his straight, well-to-do lawyer brother, Ben (David Wassilak). The medical research side of the AIDS epidemic is also addressed through the character of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarajane Alverson), a friend of Ned’s who is treating increasing numbers of patients and is losing her patience with the medical establishment, who don’t seem to take her seriously. There’s a lot of story here, but it’s grounded in a human focus. We see real struggles here, and credible relationships, as a well a profound sense of growing urgency and a current of grief, as the crisis continues to grow, and the numbers of deaths increases at an overwhelming rate.

This play is at once intensely personal and grander in scope, with an effort to document the early days of a movement while also increasing that movement’s reach and furthering its goals, all the while emphasizing the humanity and personhood of the people affected. The patients and victims are not just names on the stacks of boxes that fill the stage in Stray Dog’s production. They are people, with hopes, dreams, emotions, and very real fears. The sense of urgency is palpable here, as is the sheer level of emotion and the intensity of the grief as the crisis grows and gets closer and closer to the personal lives of Ned and his friends. The setting and staging of the play reflects that sense of urgency and quest for recognition, with a simple but effective set by Justin Been, striking atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow, and dynamic staging by director Gary F. Bell, who also served as costume designer. The look of the production isn’t as time-period specific as it could be, but that’s not a problem because a more timeless style lends to the immediacy of the production. 

The biggest strength of this production is it’s impressive cast, with no weak links and excellent ensemble energy. Peirick’s Ned is at the center, in the best performance I’ve seen from this already excellent actor.  Peirick convincingly portrays all the sides of Ned, from caring friend and boyfriend to frustrated brother to firebrand activist. There are also excellent turns from Wright, Hey, and Alverson, who all get intense “showcase” monologue moments in the second act. Saunders and Wassilak are also convincing in their roles as key figures in Ned’s life–his new boyfriend, and his brother. Saunders especially portrays the tragedy and struggle with compelling intensity. There’s also strong support from Jeremy Goldmeier and Michael Hodges in a variety of roles. 

The Normal Heart is a play you won’t forget, especially as staged by Stray Dog Theatre’s stunningly effective company. This is an era of history that you may or may not remember directly, but it’s important not to forget, even as strides have been made in the treatment and care of HIV/AIDS. It’s not just something from a history book or documentary. It’s a human story about real people. It’s important to put faces to all those names, and this production does that with poignant sensitivity and drama. 

Stephen Peirick, Jeffrey M. Wright, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Normal Heart at Tower Grove Abbey until June 25th, 2022

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Urinetown
Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollman, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by Scott Miller and Chris Kernan
Choreographed by Chris Kerman
June 4, 2022

Cast of Urinetown
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

“What is Urinetown?” That’s a question that gets asked often in New Line Theatre’s latest production. In terms of the plot, that’s for the audience to find out, but in terms of the show itself, Urinetown is a 2001 musical that gained a lot of accolades when it first played on Broadway. It’s notable for being one of the first “meta-musicals” in the fullest sense of the term. It’s a clever sendup of many of the conventions of musical theatre, as well as some specific shows. It’s a dark comedy and a sharp satire, and at New Line, it’s a memorable experience with an especially strong cast, insightful direction, and a striking aesthetic.

The story, narrated by Officer Lockstock (Kent Coffel) of the police, and the curious, precocious Little Sally (Jennelle Gilreath), tells of a nameless town in the not-so-distant future in which there has been a drought and a major water shortage, and in which a corporation, Urine Good Company, has taken over managing public toilets, which the townspeople are required to use. The part of town where most of the story takes place is home to only one of these public “amenities”, as they are called. The amenity is managed by the imperious Penelope Pennywise (Sarah Gene Dowling), and assisted by the young, increasingly dissatisfied Bobby Strong (Kevin Corpuz), who becomes convinced that the way things are is unfair, as anyone who is caught breaking the rules–including his own father Joseph (Zachary Allen Farmer) is arrested and carted off to the mysterious “Urinetown” as a punishment. Meanwhile, Urine Good Company’s big boss, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Todd Schaefer) is using his considerable influence to bribe Senator Fipp (Colin Dowd) to influence the government to pass new laws that raise the fees for the amenities, much to the public’s distress. When Cladwell’s fresh-faced college graduate daughter, Hope (Melissa Felps), gets lost on her way to work and meets Bobby, that starts a chain of events that leads to much uproar, rebellion, and the revelation of long-held secrets. Ultimately, the story is a highly cynical one, as Officer Lockstock reminds Little Sally that “this isn’t a happy musical”. It’s stylized, occasionally over-the-top, and cleverly sends up many of the tropes audiences have come to expect in the musical theatre canon. There are also some obvious sendups of well-known shows such as Les Miserables and West Side Story, among others. 

The staging is, as is usual for New Line, full of energy and strong singing, featuring a remarkable cast led by the charismatic Corpuz as the earnest, determined Bobby, and the equally excellent Felps as the well-meaning but initially sheltered Hope. There are also strong turns from Schaefer as the greedy, self-important Cladwell, Dowling as increasingly mysterious Pennywise, Marshall Jennings as Lockstock’s loyal counterpart, Officer Barrel, and Dowd as the corrupted, conflicted Senator Fipp.  Coffel and Gilreath hold the stage with excellent presence and timing as the authoritarian Lockstock and the inquisitive, occasionally snarky Little Sally. It’s a strong ensemble all around, with loads of cynical energy and strong vocals. There’s also excellent stylized choreography by Chris Kernan.

This is a demanding show in terms of style, pacing, and overall theming, and all that is done remarkably well at New Line, under the direction of Scott Miller and Kernan. There’s also a strikingly evocative set by Schaefer, meticulously detailed costumes by Sarah Porter, and excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that helps capture the overall dystopian tone of the piece. The excellent New Line Band, led by music director Tim Clark, provides ideal accompaniment, as well.

This is one of those shows that is probably not going to appeal to everyone. It’s remarkably sharp and clever, but it also can be deeply cynical and bleak, so if you are looking for a truly “happy musical”, this isn’t it. It’s witty, incisive, and hilarious at times, though, and a special treat for musical theatre buffs, in that it’s such a precise parody that features many familiar tropes and references, and has a memorable, highly referential score. At New Line, Urinetown challenges, provokes, and ultimately entertains with a superb cast of of local actors and singers. It may not be a happy musical, but it’s certainly a memorable one. 

Kent Coffel, Kevin Corpuz, Marshall Jennings
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Urinetown at the Marcelle Theatre until June 25th, 2022

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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
June 3, 2022

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Much Ado About Nothing seems to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies these days. I think that’s because it’s probably one of the least intimidating for general audiences who aren’t as familiar with the Bard’s work, or who may have only studied his plays in school. The plot is fairly straightforward, and many of the situations are easily relatable for modern audiences. It’s also especially conducive to various setting updates. St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, with its latest production, reiterates just how immediate and engaging this play can be, with a strong cast, sharp comic timing, and superb production values. 

The main story, as pointed out by Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely in his program note, is relatable because it’s timeless. The dynamic between the quick-witted Beatrice (Claire Karpen), and the equally sharp-tongued soldier Benedick (Stanton Nash) is one that’s been featured in stories–and especially in romantic comedies–for generations. As is usual for productions of this show, it’s the central relationship that shines through most clearly, as showcased through the strong chemistry, presence, and comic timing of Karpen and Nash, who make an ideal pair here. The subplots are done well, also, with the all-too easily persuaded Claudio (Kenneth Hamilton) wooing the sweet-natured Hero (Carmen Cecilia Retzer) but easily falling prey to the machinations of the scheming, gravelly-voiced Don John (Sorab Wadia), who seems to want to cause trouble just for the sake of it. There are also strong performances from Chauncy Thomas as the soldiers’ leader Don Pedro, who comes up with the idea to playfully trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. There’s also a goofy comic subplot involving bumbling local constable Dogberry (Liam Craig) and his assistant Verges (Whit Reichert), who have some hilarious moments with their watchmen, who despite Dogberry’s comic ineptitude, manage to catch Don John’s henchman Borachio (Aaron Orion Baker) and Conrade (Alex Rudd) in revealing an act of deception that causes a a lot of havoc between Claudio and Hero. There’s an excellent cast all around here, with standout moments from Gary Glasgow and Carl Overly, Jr. in dual roles, as well as Christopher Hickey as Hero’s father Leonato, Tim Kidwell as Leonato’s brother Antonio,  and Jenna Steinberg and Maison Kelly as Hero’s waiting gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula.  

According to the program notes, this version of the story is given a setting toward the end of the first quarter of the 20th Century, just after the First World War. That time period is the inspiration for the eye-catching production design here, including props like an authentic-looking Victrola-style phonograph, and the colorful and striking costumes by Dorothy Englis. Josh Smith’s multi-level set is also richly detailed and an ideal setting for the action, and the overall whimsical, witty, and musical tone of this production. And speaking of music, there’s a wonderful soundtrack here, with music to Shakespeare’s songs composed and played by Matt Pace and Brien Seyle, and beautifully sung by Michael Thanh Tran as Bathasar. The atmosphere and mood are also helped along nicely through means of John Wylie’s excellent lighting design, sound design by Rusty Wandall, sound effects by Kareem Deanes. It’s a great looking and sounding show that fits especially well into the outdoor setting in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen.

This is a fast-paced production with moments of slapstick comedy, witty banter, underhanded scheming, and an overall uplifting tone even though there are some darker moments sprinkled in amidst the comedy. The tone, the style, the energy, and especially the first-rate cast make this show a true delight, worthy of the excellent reputation of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and the Bard himself. 

Claire Karpen, Stanton Nash
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is presenting Much Ado About Nothing in Forest Park until June 26th, 2022

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