Posts Tagged ‘review’

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 5, 2023

Lincoln Clauss (Center) and Cast of Rent
The Muny

If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would eventually be seeing Rent at the Muny, I’m not sure if I would have believed them. But now, it’s here, and it’s great.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning show that took Broadway by storm in the 1990’s is now onstage in Forest Park, in a vibrant, terrifically cast production that serves as a good introduction to the show for those who haven’t seen it before, as well as highlighting the strengths of the story for those who already know and love it. 

This Rent may not please some die-hard purists, considering it doesn’t have the classic look of the Broadway show, and some of the grittier elements have been toned down a bit for the Muny stage. Still, this production was obviously made by people who love this show, and it is the relationships and the emotion that shine through in this new production that brings an immediacy and energy to the story that, even with its mid-90’s setting, feels fresh and vibrant for today’s audiences. The story, with its inspiration from Puccini’s opera La Bohème and focus on struggling artists and others in New York City’s East Village, is very much of its time, but it doesn’t seem as dated as I had been expecting. This version has also been scaled to fit the Muny’s huge stage, with an excellent multilevel set by Arnel Sanciano that represents the neighborhood with vivid detail. There’s also fantastic use of video design by Paul Deziel, featuring images from the era as well as the films recorded by one of the leading characters, aspiring filmmaker Mark (Lincoln Clauss). The costumes by Raquel Adorno are appropriately of the era, and suit the characters well. There’s also memorable lighting by Heather Gilbert, and an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The story and characters are familiar if you know the show, and if you don’t, this serves as a good introduction. There’s filmmaker Mark,  along with his wannabe rock-star roommate Roger (Vincent Kempski); and the troubled and ailing dancer Mimi (Ashley De La Rosa), who shares a strong attraction with Roger, but he is afraid to commit for various reasons.  The rest of the characters are mostly part of the same group of friends, former friends, lovers and former lovers who deal with various struggles, mostly due to high housing prices, greed, drug addiction, and the AIDS epidemic. Performance artist Maureen (Lindsay Heather Pearce), used to date Mark but is now in a volatile relationship with lawyer Joanne (Anastacia McCleskey); out-of-work professor Collins (Terrance Johnson, standby for Evan Tyrone Martin) becomes involved with the charismatic drag queen and street performer Angel (Adrian Villegas); and Benny (Tré Frazier), who used to be Roger and Mark’s roommate but now owns their building after marrying into wealth, deals with the pressures he’s getting as a result of his new social position as well as his own former involvement with Mimi. The hopes, fears, struggles, loves, and losses of this group over the course of a year form the basis the plot, featuring a series of memorable songs and leading up to an emotionally charged conclusion.

What I think works especially well in this production is the development of the various relationships, and the overall sense of connection among the group of friends, even despite their conflicts. The cast is uniformly strong, with notable standouts being Kempski and De La Rosa, who show palpable chemistry as Roger and Mimi; as well as Pearce as the fiercely determined Maureen, McCleskey as the equally determined but frequently exasperated Joanne, and Villegas as the memorable Angel, who has great moments with Johnson’s also excellent Collins. The voices are strong across the board, as well as strong ensemble energy from an enthusiastic supporting cast including the Muny Teen Ensemble. 

Rent is an almost 30-year-old show that’s making its Muny debut with style, energy, and most of all heart. I’m glad to see it in such a big, well-produced version with such a strong cast. It’s another strong entry in the Muny’s stellar 2023 season. 

Cast of Rent
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rent in Forest Park until August 10, 2023

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Caroline, or Change
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Directed by Brian McKinley
Choreographed by Caleb Long
Fly North Theatricals
August 30, 2023

De-Rance Blaylock, Kimmie Kidd, Kanisha Kellum
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
Fly North Theatricals

Caroline, or Change is a show I’ve known about for a long time, but had never seen. Now, Fly North Theatricals has given me, and the rest of St. Louis, the opportunity to take in this profoundly thoughtful, intensely musical show that depicts a historical reality as well as blends of fantasy and timeless messages. It’s also a remarkable showcase for its supremely talented cast. 

There is a lot going on in this story, which takes place in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963. Widowed mother Caroline Thibodeaux (De-Rance Blaylock), who is Black, is working as a maid for the Jewish Gellman family, doing laundry in their basement while 8-year-old Noah Gellman (Zoe Klevorn) hovers around trying to get her attention. Noah’s mother has died and his father, Stuart (Jordan Wolk) has recently remarried his late wife’s friend Rose (Avery Lux), who feels neglected by her still-grieving husband and struggles to gain the affection of the resentful Noah, who would rather spend time with Caroline. Caroline, for her part, struggles to support her children on her small salary, while imagining the appliances and other objects coming to life while she works. The Washing Machine (Kanisha Kellum) is seen as an ally, but the Dryer (Duane Foster) is more of a nemesis, while the Radio (Kimmie Kidd, Adrienne Spann, and Ebony Easter) offers Greek Chorus-like commentary, and the Moon (Kidd) is a mystical, comforting presence. As Caroline reflects on her past and on the changing world around her, her daughter Emmie (Kenya Nash) is responding to the world events in a different way, supporting the Civil Rights Movement and efforts for positive change in society. Speaking of change, that becomes an issue in a more literal sense, as Rose wants to teach Noah a lesson about leaving coins in his pockets when sent to be washed, and when Rose tells Caroline she can keep what she finds, this is a source of much reflection, tension, and drama. 

There’s too much happening here to explain everything, and it’s better to be seen, and heard, than simply described in a review, anyway. Other characters like Stuart’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Gellman (Ken Haller and Mara Bollini), and Rose’s father, Mr. Stopnick (Kent Coffel) also figure into the story; along with Caroline’s sons Jackie (Cameron Hadley) and Joe (Malachi Borum); and her friend Dotty (Kellum), who is attending night school at a local college. The show is mostly sung-through, with a variety of musical styles represented, including classical, gospel, folk, Jewish Klezmer music, and 1960’s Motown styles. The memorable and sometimes haunting score is a highlight, and the issues dealt with–of personal trauma, grief, the tension between the desire for change and the fear of it–set against the tumultuous backdrop of the South in the 1960s, makes for a challenging, thought-provoking musical that comes across as more of an opera at times, and makes me want to see it more than once (as well as reading the script), since the complexities and intricacies of the plot and characters are intensely fascinating and challenging. 

The superlative score and complex story are brought to life in this production by Director Brian McKinley and a truly stellar cast, led by Blaylock in a multi-layered, expertly sung performance as Caroline, whose struggles are made achingly credible. Nash is also impressive as the ambitious Emmie. There are also impressive performances from young Klevorn in a difficult role as Noah, Lux as the conflicted Rose, Wolk as the grieving Stuart; Kellum as the Washing Machine and as the determined Dotty; and Kidd, Spann, and Easter in excellent harmony as the Radio; as well as Foster, in excellent voice as the Dryer and the Bus. Everyone is strong here, with great vocals and strong, cohesive ensemble chemistry, making the most of the emotion and tension of the piece as well as its musicality. 

There are also strong production values, with the minimalist set by Caleb Long and Colin Healy, aided by Bradley Rohlf’s stunning lighting design, providing the appropriate period-specific atmosphere with a touch of fantasy. Vanessa Tabourne’s costume design and the band led by music director Healy also contribute impressively to the overall tone of the production. 

There’s a lot to say, and think, about Caroline, or Change, but the easiest thing to say about Fly North’s production is that it has to be seen. It’s a remarkable theatrical feat, with heart and emotion, as well as intense drama. It’s a strong example of the best of what theatre can do.

Cameron Hadley, Kenya Nash, Zoe Klevorn, Malachi Borum
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
Fly North Theatricals

Fly North Theatricals is presenting Caroline, or Change at the Marcelle Theatre until August 12, 2023

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Adapted from the Screenplay by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Sandy Rustin
Additional Material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price
Based on Original Direction by Casey Hushion
Directed by Steve Bebout
STAGES St. Louis
July 27, 2023

Cast of Clue
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

Clue is a lot of things. It’s a game, it’s a movie, and now it’s a play. It’s the first non-musical play STAGES has produced in a long time, but the way this show plays out, it’s not that much of a departure. In fact, even though it’s not a musical, with its pacing, original musical score by Michael Holland, energetic performances, and cast full of musical theatre veterans, it almost seems like one. It’s also a frantic, well-choreographed, hilarious good time at the theatre. 

If you know the board game, you know most of the characters here, and if you’ve seen the film, you know more of the characters, and the basic plot. It generally follows the plot of the film, as far as I remember, but there are some additions, and it’s all staged in an especially theatrical way, with a great deal of energy by the cast, and some impressive production values. The mansion, the weapons, the rooms, and the familiar board game characters are all here–Colonel Mustard (David Hess), Mrs. White (Tari Kelly), Mrs. Peacock (Zoe Vonder Haar), Mr. Green (Charlie Franklin), Professor Plum (Graham Stevens), and Miss Scarlet (Diana DeGarmo)–welcomed to Boddy Manor by butler Wadsworth (Mark Price) and the shady Mr. Boddy (Jeff Cummings, who plays a variety of roles). All the characters have their secrets, and a sudden murder sends them all into “mystery solving” mode while more mayhem ensues. It would spoil too much to go into too much detail, but I will say it involves a lot of well-orchestrated chaos.

It’s a good thing many of the cast members are experienced in musical theatre, because while this isn’t a musical, exactly, it’s a highly stylized staging that features lots of heavily choreographed movement, as well as some dancing and an affected “sing-song” way of speaking for some of the characters. The cast is excellent across the board, with everyone getting their moments to shine, and Price a notable standout as the fastidious, energetic Wadsworth. The ensemble chemistry is excellent, as well, with all the players previously mentioned–along with Cameron Jamarr Davis in several roles–working together with seamless efficiency and wacky comic energy. This isn’t a long play, with its one act running at roughly 80 minutes, but the cast makes the most of every minute, milking the laughs for all they are worth.

The breakneck pace of the staging is also highly dependent on the technical aspects of the production, most notably the mansion, which is essentially a character in itself. The marvelous set by Lee Savage is highly versatile and strikingly detailed, with quick set-changes and movement essential to the action of the play. The costumes by Brad Musgrove are also terrific, bringing the characters from the game to life with vivid detail. There’s also stellar lighting by Sean M. Savoie and sound by Beef Gratz. 

Clue is, ultimately, a whole lot of fun. If you’re a fan of game and/or the film, it will probably be even more fun, but even if you don’t know much about either, this is simply a laugh fest from start to finish. Its almost dizzying pace adds to the laughs, as does the high-energy enthusiasm of the cast and the impressive production values. It’s a very musical “non-musical”, especially, and a hilarious success for STAGES St. Louis. 

Cast of Clue
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Clue at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until August 20, 2023

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Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Music by Alan Menken
Based on the film by Roger Corman, Screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
July 26, 2023

Cast of Little Shop of Horrors
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s excellent 2023 season is continuing this week with the modern classic horror/comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a show I’ve seen before in various productions, including the popular 1986 film and the last Muny production in 2011. This year, the little show is bigger and bolder than ever with some truly remarkable production values, strong direction, and a first-rate cast. It’s not a large-cast show and it’s not very long in running time, but there’s a lot of talent on that huge Muny stage, and this production makes the most of the tone, setting, and excellent score.

This show brings the “Skid Row” neighborhood to the stage with flair, by means of Kristen Robinson’s well-crafted, detailed set and Greg Emetaz’s eye-catching video design. Based on a 1960s b-grade horror film, it takes us into the world of nerdy, neglected Seymour (Robin de Jesús), who works at a rundown flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Michael McGrath) and pines after his co-worker Audrey (Pattie Murin), who is in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin (Ryan Vasquez, who plays several roles). When Seymour’s new “strange and unusual plant”, that he’s dubbed Audrey II (manipulated by Ryan Patton, voiced by Nicholas Ward) starts demanding to be fed human blood, this starts a chain of events that first seem to benefit Seymour, but soon threaten him, those he loves, and eventually, the rest of the world. There’s a memorable cast of characters, an increasingly dark tone that’s alternately comic and terrifying, and a prominent Greek chorus of 1960’s styled street urchins and “girl group” singers named Crystal (Kennedy Holmes), Chiffon (Taylor Maire Daniel), and Ronnette (Stephanie Gomérez), who narrate and comment on the story. It’s a Faustian tale with a warning, as with vividly drawn characters and a memorable score well-played by the Muny Orchestra led by music director Andrew Graham. 

The staging is spectacular. This isn’t a big show, generally, but director Maggie Burrows and the excellent creative team have managed to fill that big stage with much detail and some impressive effects without losing the show’s overall spirit. In addition to the great set and video production, there are also marvelous costumes by Leon Dobkowski, along with fantastic puppet design by James Ortiz, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton. This show looks and feels just the way it should, with a few welcome surprises in staging in terms of how the plant is portrayed, that are still in keeping with the tone of the show.

The cast is still relatively small, as well, for a Muny show, with only the principals and a moderately sized Youth Ensemble, who all put in strong, energetic performances. As for the leads, everyone is doing a great job, with  de Jesús the biggest standout in an engaging, terrifically sung turn as Seymour. Holmes, Daniel, and Gomérez are also stellar as the ubiquitous Crystal, Chiffon, and Ronnette, whose singing and dancing is especially impressive. There’s also great support from Vasquez in a variety of roles, including the gleefully violent dentist Orin. Murin and McGrath are also strong as Audrey and Mushnik, and Murin’s scenes with de Jesús are compelling. And then there’s Audrey II, with truly fantastic performances by Ward on vocals and Patton manipulating the meticulously detailed, evolving puppet. This is a somewhat tricky show in terms of tone, considering it’s a comedy, but there are also some seriously dark moments. This cast gets the energy, tone, and atmosphere just right. 

The Muny is on a roll this year. 2023 marks the 20th season I’ve seen shows here, and so far, it has been the best in terms of overall quality and consistency. I have seen some great shows here, but even with its reputation for excellence, the Muny is outdoing itself this season. Little Shop of Horrors is another example of that excellence. It’s  a comedy, but with some dark and genuinely chilling moments. It’s a truly impressive feat of theatrical performance and technical wizardry.

Travis Patton, Robin de Jesús
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Little Shop of Horrors in Forest Park until July 31, 2023

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In Bloom
by Gwyneth Strope
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 21, 2023

Cast of In Bloom
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company’s second entry in its Summer New Play Festival finished up performances this past weekend. In Bloom, by Gwyneth Strope, is a thoroughly engaging, character-driven comedy-drama that has a lot of promise as a new play. At Tesseract, a likable, enthusiastic cast brought this intriguing one-act play to life with simple but effect production values. Although it’s not without its issues that need to be worked out, it’s a highly promising story and a vivid portrait of a family, their relationships, and their struggles.

The story follows divorced mother Dorothy (Christina Rios) and her four daughters who each have their own personal goals, interests, and struggles. There’s eldest Rosalind (Amy Riddle, standing in for principal Rhiannon Creighton), who wants to go to flight school and become a pilot; the creative but insecure Lorelei (Catherine Analla), who is concealing a secret; the usually quiet, empathetic Camille (Vaida Gruenloh), who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis; and the strong-willed youngest daughter, aspiring athlete Eileen (Rosario Rios-Kelley), who is suspicious of all the changes that are about to take place in her family as Camille takes it upon herself to be a matchmaker for her mother and Kevin, Eileen’s best friend’s father, who is much talked about but unseen onstage. The action begins as the family prepares to attend Dorothy’s mother’s wedding, and continues as the family deals with various issues of relationship, future aspirations, personality conflicts, and more, with a good deal of literary references and the motif of a developing garden, both literal and figurative. 

It’s a promising show, with vividly portrayed characters and believable relationships, with a bit of a resemblance to Little Women, although this is not an adaptation of that story. The casting is excellent, with all the players working together to portray a believable family dynamic, led by the excellent Rios as the loving but frequently exasperated Dorothy, and each of the daughters well-cast. Especially notable is Riddle, who had script in hand while filling in as Rosalind, but managed to give a strong, convincing performance and fit well as a member of the onstage family. The performers also managed to make the offstage characters–Kevin and his son Matt, as well as the grandmother and her new husband–seem real despite their not physically appearing.  

The pacing is excellent, as well, and the set by Brittanie Gunn and Taylor Gruenloh is simple and effective. Erin Riley’s lighting also contributes to the atmosphere well. Although there may be a bit too much going on at times, this is a relatable, intriguing story that should appeal to audiences of various ages. It’s another strong entry in Tesseract’s increasingly memorable Summer New Play Festival. 


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West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Original Jerome Robbins Choreography Reproduced by Parker Esse
The Muny
July 16, 2023

Christian Douglas, Kanisha Feliciano
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The last time I saw West Side Story onstage was at the Muny ten years ago. This classic show is unquestioningly a Muny favorite, with the  2023 production being the theatre’s ninth. I remember the previous production being particularly stellar, but I’m not going to spend time comparing, because this current production deserves to stand on its own merits. And fortunately it has a great many merits, indeed. Although it does take a little while to really get going, the end result is a powerful, heart-wrenching triumph of a production.

When I first was introduced to West Side Story as a child, in the form of the 1961 film as shown on TV, I hadn’t been aware that the story was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but now it seems that the more I see of this story–on stage or on screen–I’m reminded even more of its origins. The “star-crossed lovers”, the warring gangs/families, the excitement of young love, as well as the hatred and violence that leads to tragedy is all here, set in late 1950’s New York and focusing on a gang rivalry between recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants and the first-generation American-born descendants of European immigrants. Tony (Christian Douglas) and Maria (Kanisha Feliciano) meet and fall in love among the growing tensions between the Sharks–led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (Yurel Echezarreta), and the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend, Riff (Kyle Coffman), who won’t let former Jet Tony forget that they once led the gang together. As we get to know the characters, including Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Jerusha Cavazos) and the various gang members along with sympathetic drugstore owner Doc (Ken Page) and a collection of would-be authority figures, the tensions grow to a breaking point, leading to the inevitable tragedy for which this show and its source play are both well-known.

This show is also well-known for its timeless score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and its dynamic dancing, originally choregraphed by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the original Broadway production. The director here is Muny veteran Rob Ruggiero, and the iconic Robbins choreography is re-created by Parker Esse. There’s a great ensemble and the dancing sparkles with energy in numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “Cool”. While the energy is good in the first act, though, the show especially comes alive in the second, with the players giving their all and the bringing out the raw emotion of the piece. Douglas and Felicano make an ideal pair as Tony and Maria, with “One Hand, One Heart” especially compelling. Feliciano also has memorable scenes with the also excellent Cavazos as the strong-willed Anita. Other standouts include Coffman, who shows off his “cool” moves as Riff; as well as Echezarreta as an especially memorable Bernardo, and Muny favorite Ken Page (repeating his role from the 2013 production) in a convincing and emotionally resonant turn as Doc. It’s a great cast all around, with Jets, Sharks, and everyone else filling the stage with intense energy, impressive vocals, and that great, athletic dancing as needed. 

The look, sound and overall setting and mood are achieved with superb detail by means of Ann Beyersdorfer’s New York neon-and-fire-escape inspired set, which also utilizes the Muny’s turntable in effective ways. There’s also dynamic lighting by John Lasiter, strong video design by Shawn Duan, and marvelous costumes by Gail Baldoni. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director James Moore, is in fine form, as well, filling the Forest Park air with that glorious Bernstein score and supporting the performers with style. 

There’s no doubting that West Side Story is a legendary show. It’s also a timeless classic that continues to resonate with audiences over 65 years after its Broadway debut. The Muny also obviously loves this show, and this latest production is another example of that tradition of excellence, as well as the sheer emotional impact of this story. As before in 2013, this year’s production is also notable for the rapt silence of the audience at the end of Act 1, and this year, especially at the end of the show, after a truly powerful finale. I have no doubt the Muny will stage this show again in a few years, but now, this production is one to see, experience, and remember. 

Cast of West Side Story
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting West Side Story in Forest Park until July 21, 2023

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The One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: A Parody!
Directed by Donna Northcott
Magic Smoking Monkey Theater
July 15, 2023


Image: Magic Smoking Monkey Theater

The monkey is back, and he’s still smoking! The latest offering from St. Louis Shakespeare’s more rebellious sibling is the succinct and enthusiastically played One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: a Parody! And it’s exactly what the title describes, even down to the scarily accurate timing. It’s a fast-paced, energetic skewering of all three Star Wars films, with the running time clocking in at exactly 60 minutes, or very close. As with basically everything from this company, it’s energetic, not especially polished, and a whole lot of fun, although in this case, I think more could have been done in the way of parody. 

I don’t need to summarize the story here. If you’ve seen the Star Wars films, you know the plot. The Magic Smoking Monkey crew tells the story in a fairly straightforward way, though with exaggerated performances, much streamlining of the plot, and a few references to other films and franchises (such as Spaceballs and The Muppets) thrown in for good measure. The costuming by Emma Miller and props by Amanda Handle also contribute much to the laugh-out-loud hilarity of this show. The portrayal of R2-D2 by a plastic kitchen trash can with a swinging lid, and the Yoda/Kermit the Frog puppet (operated by Micheál Krownapple) are especially impressive. As for the cast, everyone seems to be having a great time, with standouts being Austin Cochran’s wide-eyed, just-over-the-top-enough Luke Skywalker, Mack’s earnest C3PO, Creigthton Markovitch’s swaggering Han Solo, and Nick Lane’s menacing Darth Vader. Everyone is having a great time, though, with rapid-fire jokes and good staging and pacing. 

This, like all shows from the Magic Smoking Monkey, is sure to entertain, especially if you love Star Wars. The large, enthusiastic audience at the performance I saw added much to the overall whimsical atmosphere, as well. Sometimes, I wish there were even more jokes, but what’s there is appropriately hilarious. Even if you aren’t a Star Wars geek, this is another fun parody from those familiar, crazy Monkeys. 


Magic Smoking Monkey Theater is presenting The One Hour Star Wars Trilogy: A Parody! at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center until July 23, 2023

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2023
Directed by Kari Ely and John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 14, 2023

The 2023 edition of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is currently running at the Gaslight Theater. It’s a streamlined setup this year, with one slate of five plays showing for the whole run, which is a benefit as I see it, since it makes the festival easier to follow, and also seems to lend an increased degree of consistency to the productions. While in past years, there have been some excellent plays, the festival has usually had its ups and downs in terms of overall consistency of productions. This year, all five plays are solid, thought-provoking productions that feature strong acting and a step up in production values. They are also all two-handers, with communication issues and personality conflicts being a major theme, as well as an air of mystery in most of them.

Production values are impressive across the board, from the relatively simple staging of the first play, “Safe Space” to more elaborately staged plays with a degree of lighting effects and costuming like “The Mockingbird’s Nest”, the creative team has done impressive work. Technical director Joseph M. Novak, set designer Patrick Huber, lighting designer Kristi Gunther, props designer Jenny Smith, and costumes/hair/makeup designer Abby Pastorello have contributed much in the way of tone, atmosphere, and overall style to the productions, as have sound designers and directors Kari Ely and John Contini. As for the individual shows themselves, here are some brief thoughts:

“Safe Space”
by Neil LaBute

Jane Paradise, Reginald Pierre
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is the “headliner” show, by the festival’s namesake playwright, LaBute. Like several other of his entries in previous festivals, this play consists mainly of a conversation between two people about a potentially volatile subject. The setup here is a “Black Out” performance of an unnamed play, where a Black man (Reginald Pierre) is surprised to see a white woman (Jane Paradise) take the seat next to him. What then ensues is an awkward interaction in which both convey their opinions about various topics relating to this situation, such as the need (or not) for “Black Out” performances of shows or “safe spaces” in general, and both characters’ personal and family experiences of racism and oppression. The structure of this script is clever in that it first appears to be an exploration of theatre manners, and the issue of the actual situation is revealed gradually. Both performers give convincing performances, and the arguments given can be alternately intriguing, thought-provoking, and occasionally infuriating. The issues brought up might better be covered in a longer play, but this vignette provides a lot to think, and talk about. 

“The Blind Hem”
by Bryn McLaughlin

This play is probably the most straightforward relationship drama of this year’s group, but elements of mystery and communication troubles are also on clear display. In what appears to be a hotel room or small apartment, Kate (Eileen Engel) and Robert (Anthony Wininger) are engaging in what has become a regular ritual for them–getting cleaned up after a rendezvous, while reflecting about the nature and future of their relationship, as well as Robert’s past and reluctance to commit. While this general idea isn’t new, it is approached in a clever way by playwright Bryn McLaughlin, who employs the inventive device of a running water faucet to obscure sound just enough so the characters can share their true feelings without being sure if the other can hear. Also, Robert is a college English professor, and Kate is a former student of his, so there are a fair amount of literary references (especially Shakespeare) thrown in to give the story a bit of a poetic flair at times. The performances are strong, with Engel and Wininger demonstrating believable chemistry as the younger, optimistic Kate, and the middle-aged, widowed and regretful professor.

“Da Vinci’s Cockroach”
by Amy Tofte

This play is a quirky one, and it has a lot to say, as two very different people reflect on art, science, and the meaning of life after a chance encounter in an art gallery, where Finn (Laurel Button) works and Dana (Colleen Backer) has come out of a sort of clinical curiosity following the recent death of a family member. The acting is the real highlight here, with Button’s sincere, determined hopefulness serving as a contrast to Backer’s more reserved, cynical Dana. The art gallery setting is well realized through means of artwork provided by Abby Pastorello, and the staging is dynamically paced, the characters memorable, and the dialogue thought-provoking. 

“One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston”
by J. B. Heaps

Eileen Engel, Reginald Pierre
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Here is perhaps the darkest play of the evening in terms of tone. Its an imagination of an evening toward the end of the life of former World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston (Reginald Pierre), who died under mysterious circumstances. The story imagines a meeting between Liston and a mysterious woman (Eileen Engel) who has been sent by a guy named Vinnie with a “gift” that appears to be drugs. Soon, the two engage in a flirtation and a discussion of Sonny’s life and career, as a harsh truth is gradually revealed. The actors here do an excellent job, working together well as the tone grows more ominous as the story plays out. The costumes and set are also especially impressive in this production. 


“The Mockingbird’s Nest”
by Craig Bailey

This is perhaps the weirdest play here, but it starts with a basic premise, as Robyn (Colleen Backer) is spending the day caring for her elderly mother, Daisy (Jane Paradise), who suffers from dementia and is getting increasingly unpredictable in her behavior and recounting of once-familiar stories. That’s just the beginning, though, and the story develops in an unexpected direction that I will not spoil. It’s a fascinating story, though, with stellar performances from both Backer, as the increasingly exasperated Robyn, and Paradise in an impressively versatile and physical performance as Daisy. The lighting effects are also memorable here, in a story with no dull moments. 

Colleen Backer, Jane Paradise
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio


St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theater until July 23, 2023



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The Years
by Cindy Lou Johnson
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
July 13, 2023

Joey File, Summer Baer, Ashley Bauman
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company puts on some fascinating plays. Whether comedy or drama, one-person shows or ensemble pieces, the shows from this company always seem to offer something to think about, or new angles on aspects of life and relationships. Their latest piece, Cindy Lou Johnson’s The Years, is no exception. Directed by Midnight’s Artistic Director Joe Hanrahan and featuring a universally excellent cast, this play offers a look at family relationships, chance encounters, and the sometimes surprising consequences of people’s actions. 

People can influence and affect one another in a variety of sometimes unexpected ways. The Years looks at a series of incidents in the life of a family and of a stranger who unwittingly begins a chain of connected events that reverberates over several years. It begins on a wedding day, as Andrea (Alicen Moser) prepares to get married and, after a traumatic event involving a strange man (Joseph Garner), has to deal with her family members who are all dealing with their own personal issues, as both Andrea and her sister Eloise (Summer Baer) are still grieving the relatively recent loss of their mother, and Eloise’s husband Jeff (Michael Pierce) arrives with unwelcome news. Meanwhile, their fastidious cousin Isabella (Ashley Bauman) tries to make everything perfect for the wedding, and their other cousin Andrew (Joey File) offers his own cynical view of marriage while serving as a sounding board for his cousins. As the story goes on, the years pass, and there are more weddings and more chance encounters, as the man from the first scene, whose name is Bartholomew, finds he can’t escape what happened earlier in his life no matter how much he thought he could, Andrea deals with her own view of herself and her life choices, and the cousins are faced with harsh truths in their relationships with one another, particularly brother and sister Isabella and Andrew.

There isn’t much detail I can go into without spoiling, but I will say that this is a compelling ensemble drama where all of the characters are given their weightier moments, although there is also a degree of humor that runs through the show that helps to ease the tensions at times, and emphasize it at others. It may seem like an odd series of situations, and it relies a lot on what could be seen as some unbelievable coincidences, but the play, and the performances, make all these seemingly unlikely events seem credible. The performances are first-rate across the board, as well; so much so that it’s difficult to single anyone out. All of the players present truly believable characters and situations, with superb ensemble chemistry and thoroughly authentic-seeming relationships. The staging and pacing by director Hanrahan is also excellent, with the emotional moments building in ways that seem both natural and compelling.

The minimalist set by Brad Slavik serves the story well, using the space at the Chapel venue to excellent effect. Costume designer Liz Henning has outfitted the cast appropriately for their characters, and there’s also appropriate atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo. The use of music in transition scenes is also particularly effective.

I wasn’t familiar with The Years before Midnight Company announced they were staging it, and I’m grateful to The Midnight Company for bringing it into my awareness. This is an intriguing, occasionally intense, and highly thought-provoking story that’s told well by a fantastic cast. It’s a remarkable production.

Joseph Garner, Alicen Moser
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting The Years at The Chapel until July 29, 2023

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Red Curtain Rivalry
by Amy Lytle
Directed by Chris Kernan
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 8, 2023

Alora Marguerite, Nic Tayborn, Chrissie Watkins, Beth Knocke
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company’s Summer New Play Festival is back for 2023, starting off with a comedy that has a lot of potential. Red Curtain Rivalry has a premise that should be relatable to many who are involved in theatre, and it features some fun characters and situations. It’s not without its issues that need work, but for the most part, it makes for a fun evening of theatre “in-jokes” and humorous characterizations. 

The premise is that two community theatres in the same town–the Essence, led by director Yolanda (Dorothy LaBounty), and the W led by Gareth (Kurt Knoedelseder)–have discovered that they are both doing the same play at the same time. As the theatres are across the street from one another and are long-time rivals, drawing from the same pool of local actors, this scheduling creates a series of problems, and as the saying goes, hilarity ensues. The central figures are longtime best friends Ronnie (Luis Aguilar)–a veteran performer at both theatres–and Penelope (Chrisse Watkins), who has recently returned to town from New York City, and who hasn’t done theatre since high school. When Ronnie persuades Penelope to audition for both productions of A Doll’s House: The Musical, she finds herself cast in one production in the same role as former high school friend and community theatre diva Clarissa (Beth Knocke) in the other production. The directors, who notoriously hate each other, strike up an agreement about a competition of sorts among the productions,  expecting that the show’s licensing representative, Judy (Tammy O’Donnell) will be on board with their plan.  Then, rehearsals get going, including a series of complications involving personality conflicts, old grudges, and parental expectations as Clarissa’s father young daughter, Willow (Chloe Kurzym) is also cast along with her mother and grandfather, Herbert (Will Shaw); and exasperated single father Chester (Nic Tayborn) struggles to deal with his bratty, would-be prima donna daughter, Missy (Alora Marguerite). There’s also a running gag involving local prankster Arthur (Gerry Love), who is cast in one of the shows and who seems intent on causing as much chaos as possible. 

This play has a fun premise, with a good deal of humorous moments and some memorable characters, although there may be too many plots to keep track of efficiently. Also, the preponderance of plots leads to a “wrapping up the loose ends” conclusion that comes across as forced. Still, there’s a lot of potential here, and there are some strong performances, especially from Watkins as the reluctant but talented Penelope and Knocke, who brings a welcome degree of nuance to the initially insufferable Clarissa. Aguilar as the somewhat arrogant but well-meaning Ronnie, Love as the mischievous Arthur, and LaBounty and Knoedelseder as the battling directors also have some strong moments, as does Tayborn as Chester, and O’Donnell–who makes the most of a relatively small part as Judy. Kurzym and Marguerite are also credible as two very different young performers, and Shaw does what he can with a small role as Herbert. 

The staging lends much humor to the proceedings, with good pacing and inventive use of the red-curtain-lined set pieces that are used to fun comic effect, as well as near identical set pieces for the play-within-a-play scenes. The set is designed by Brittanie Gunn and Taylor Gruenloh, with lighting by Erin Riley. The technical aspects of the show are fairly basic, but they work well in terms of versatility and service to the plot.

Overall, Red Curtain Rivalry doesn’t do a lot that’s “new” in terms of comedies about theatre, but it’s a fun idea and the performances entertain. There’s a whole lot going on that could be streamlined, perhaps, and the ending needs some work. Still it’s an enjoyable show with an enthusiastic cast, and it’s sure to bring up some relatable memories to anyone who has been involved in community theatre. 

Luis Aguilar, Dorothy LaBounty
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Red Curtain Rivalry at the Marcelle Theatre until July 16, 2023

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