Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘review’

Wildfire
by David Paquet
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2020

Tom Wethington, Nancy Bell, Jane Paradise
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

I came out of Wildfire unsure of exactly how to describe it at first. It’s not a traditional type of show, that’s for sure, but it certainly provides much to think about. The latest production from the always excellent Upstream Theater isn’t very long in terms of running time, but it packs a lot of story, characterization, and thought-provoking questions into its 75 minutes on stage. It’s also a great showcase for its impressive cast of three.

The structure of the show is fairly straightforward, or seemingly so. Its three cast members each play two different characters over the play’s three parts. The first one, called “The Bonfire” features all three performers as close but somewhat combative triplets who all have their own unique goals–anxious, controlling new mother Claudette (Jane Paradise); lonely, cookie-baking Claudine (Nancy Bell); and commanding, secretive Claudia (Tom Wethington). The three sisters talk, plan, hope, and bicker, leading to a somewhat startling conclusion. Part 2, “The Dragons”, features new characters Callum (Wethington) and Carol (Paradise) in a halting, quirky sort of romance which has its own bizarre twists. Finally, Part 3, “The Fever” is more of an extended monologue, as Caroline (Bell) recounts her unusual and disturbing sexual attraction to a particular type of man. I won’t spoil the details here, but the plotting here is especially clever, in that all three stories turn out to be connected, in some ways that become more predictable as the show goes on, and other ways that especially surprise, even though in hindsight, they shouldn’t be that surprising. The overall theme, as highlighted in Upstream Managing Director Peter Mayer’s note in the program, seems to be about the explosive power (and consequences) of raw desire and longing. It’s a thought-provoking piece, to be sure, with a good deal of quirky, sometimes disturbing and macabre humor, with some moments of sadness and regret along for good measure.

There’s a great cast here to make the most of the well-drawn, offbeat characters and situations. All three performances are impressive, from their convincing sibling chemistry in the first part as three very different sisters, to the quirky romantic chemistry of Wethington and Paradise in the second part, to Bell’s bizarre and boldly performed monologue in the third part, this is a top-notch ensemble infusing a great deal of sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always intriguing energy to this rather off-the-wall cycle of stories.

The production values here are simple, but effective, with a black-and-red color scheme that is reflected in Laura Hanson’s costuming as well as Michael Heil’s squarish unit set. Steve Carmichael’s lighting credibly adds to the mystique, as well, as do Traci Lavois Theibaud’s striking productions. There’s also an appropriately ominous soundtrack provided by composer and sound designer Anthony Barilla.

Wildfire isn’t a show for everyone. If offbeat, sometimes sharp and disturbing humor bordering on horror-comedy isn’t your thing, this play probably won’t be, either. Still, it’s a prime showcase for its excellent cast in a series of stories that are sure to get you thinking, and wondering. It’s an impressive, if unusual, theatrical accomplishment.

Jane Paradise, Tom Wethington
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wildfire at the Marcelle Theatre until February 9, 2020

Read Full Post »

Songs for Nobodies
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Max & Louie Productions
January 24, 2020

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions has had a lot of success with Debby Lennon front and center, and their latest production is no different. Songs For Nobodies is a one-woman show featuring the stories of five “ordinary” women and their encounters with five legendary performers of the 20th Century, featuring a variety of musical styles from classic pop standards, to country, to jazz, to classical. It seems an ideal vehicle for the talented, vocally versatile Lennon, and she and the show do not disappoint.

This isn’t one story, but five, highlighting the larger-than-life talents of legendary singers Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas, as told from the points of view of five different women who had memorable meetings with one of the five. There’s restroom attendant Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who encounters Garland while on the job at a swanky New York hotel and receives some comfort and advice in a difficult time. There’s also Pearl Avalon, whose meeting with Cline (at what would turn out to be the singer’s last performance) inspired her future career as a backup singer for some of country music’s greatest stars. We also meet Edie Delamotte, an English librarian who remembers her father’s fateful meeting with Piaf during World War II, as well as Too Junior Jones, an ambitious New York reporter who gets an interview with Holiday. Finally, Irish nanny Orla McDonagh recounts her run-in with Callas–and Aristotle Onassis–on a luxury yacht. The overall point seems to be highlighting the music of the famous singers, while also showing their impact on “everyday” women in more “mundane” non-celebrity positions, while also in its own way showing the humanity of iconic figures who are often remembered more by their public image. So, while some of these women may be “nobodies” and some are world-renowned, the underlying point is that everyone is somebody.

The one-woman show nature of this piece makes casting a crucial matter, and Max & Louie’s creative team have chosen their “go-to” MVP, Lennon, for this challenging task. The choice is unsurprising considering Lennon’s already proven talent, both in terms of acting and her remarkable voice. She gets a chance to show off all of her considerable skills here, from giving us unique characterizations of all of the “ordinary women” that require her to employ several different accents and play different ages, to getting to perform a “greatest hits” array of songs associated with the five legendary singers–such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” for Garland, “Crazy” for Cline, “Non, Je Regrette Rien” for Piaf, “Strange Fruit” for Holiday, and Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” for Callas. This is an impressively wide range of styles, and Lennon delivers each song with remarkable versatility.  Overall, each segment has its own humor, drama, and poignancy, although for me the standout was the Piaf segment, both for Lennon’s uncannily accurate singing and for the power of the story itself.

Technically, the show is remarkable in its stylish simplicity. There are no costume or makeup changes, and Lennon–outfitted by costume designer Dorothy Jones in a simple black dress–relies on the strength of her own acting to show the changes in characters, with occasional use of accessories such as scarf and sunglasses for Callas, a glass of whiskey for Holiday, a black shawl for Piaf. Dunsi Dai’s elegant set, Kevin Bowman’s projections, and Stellie Siteman’s props contribute much to the mood, as well. There’s also excellent atmospheric work from lighting designer Tony Anselmo, proficient sound from Phillip Evans, and an excellent musical ensemble led by music director and pianist Nicolas Valdez and featuring Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion.

Songs for Nobodies is a “showcase” kind of show, for its iconic celebrity subjects, for their “ordinary counterparts” and, especially because of its structure, for the show’s featured star. Here, Debby Lennon gets to remind audiences of her memorable talents, and Max & Louie Productions gets to produce another remarkable performance. If you love these artists and their music, and especially if you love to experience the power of live performance, this is a show to see, and hear.

 

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Songs for Nobodies at the Kranzberg Theatre until February 2, 2020

Read Full Post »

My Name is Asher Lev
by Aaron Posner
Adapted From the Novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Aaron Sparks
New Jewish Theatre
January 23, 2020

Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a compelling showcase for excellent local actors. It’s also a fascinating look at one person’s struggle to find his place in two different worlds that seem at odds with one another. My Name is Asher Lev is a well-structured, almost poetic look at an artist’s journey of self-discovery, and his relationship with his art, his faith, his family, and the world around him.

Based on Chaim Potok’s celebrated novel, this play’s subject matter is fairly straightforward. It’s titled after its main character, Asher Lev (Spencer Sickmann), a controversial painter who has been making waves in the art world. Asher narrates the story, in fact, which focuses on his growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn. As he discovers his talent and his constant need to draw the world as he sees it, Asher often finds himself at odds with his parents and with the rest of his community. The structure of the play has all the supporting male characters played by one actor (Chuck Winning), and the women played by another (Amy Loui). The most important figures in Asher’s life are his parents–his strict, zealous father and his devoted, academically inclined mother. As Asher’s skills as an artist become apparent, as well as his determination to persist in expressing his talent, the Rebbe (the community and religious leader) arranges for Asher to study with Jacob, a non-Hasidic Jewish artist who introduces Asher to new styles and forms of art, including nudes, which further disturbs Asher’s parents. He also develops a fascination with images of crucifixions, challenging his parents’ strict belief system while maintaining his own faith, despite his gradual exposure to secular influences in the art world. Asher is torn between two worlds, becoming something of an outsider in both, as he embarks on an artistic career that challenges convention in both of these spheres. It’s a fascinating play, exploring several compelling concepts as personified by Asher, a man who is compelled to exercise his talent but also to remain true to his faith, or least the best he can.

The story here is one of relationships and complex characters, embodied with great charm and expertise by the excellent Sickmann as Asher, as well as by the equally strong–and commendably versatile–Winning and Loui. Sickmann takes the audience along on his artistic journey in a remarkably compelling way, and the strong ensemble chemistry between Sickmann, Winning, and Loui also adds to the appeal of the production. It’s a tour-de-force for Sickmann, especially. This piece is named for Asher Lev and Sickmann makes the character intriguing and unforgettable.

The set and lighting by Rob Lippert work especially well here, with a unit set backed by Kareem Deanes’s projections and a distinctive atmosphere that adds to the storytelling. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and sound by Deanes. The staging is well-paced and flows especially well, as Asher takes the audience with him on his personal journey.

My Name is Asher Lev is at once compelling, dramatic, touching, and thought-provoking. It’s about one man and his relationships with the people and world around him, but there are some universal themes here with which many in the audience can relate. The process of a person’s growing up and finding their own identity separate from their parents’ expectations, as well as the struggle to find meaning in life and to best use one’s gifts and talents, are all relatable issues. Here on stage at the New Jewish Theatre, this story is a profound, fascinating, and especially well-portrayed tale. Asher Lev is a remarkable character, well worth meeting.

Spencer Sickmann, Chuck Winning
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting My Name is Asher Lev at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 9, 2020

Read Full Post »

Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
January 18, 2020

James A. Williams, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has a reputation for excellence, and it consistently lives up to that reputation. It’s latest production, Two Trains Running, is a prime example of this excellence, with a vividly realized world put on stage for the audience to experience. With stunning production values and a superb cast, this is a profoundly affecting production that deserves all the praise it can get.

This company is no stranger to August Wilson’s plays, having produced many of his works several times. This latest production emphasizes again the strength of Wilson’s work, and the vivid way he portrays life in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th Century. Two Trains Running, a part of this cycle, brings us to Lee’s Restaurant in 1969, in the midst of economic struggles, “urban renewal”, and the influences of the Civil Rights movement. The owner, Memphis (James A. Williams), is hoping to sell his restaurant, which is declining in business as is much of the rest of the neighborhood. He wants to set his own price, though, and the white powers-that-be in the city government are giving him a hard time. The regulars in the restaurant hang out there daily, with the retired Holloway (Ron Himes) occupying his usual table and commenting on the neighborhood goings-on, while Wolf (Carl Overly, Jr.) uses the restaurant’s phone in his numbers running racket, to Memphis’s irritation. Memphis’s only employee is Risa (Sharisa Whatley), who waits tables and cooks, being taken for granted by her boss while catching the eye of newcomer Sterling (Jason J. Little), who is looking for a job after having spent five years in prison. Sterling is also increasingly involved in political activities that also irritate Memphis, although he quickly becomes a part of the group of regulars at the restaurant, building a rapport with Hambone (Travis Banks), who doesn’t talk much except about a ham that was promised to him a long time ago by a local grocery owner for a painting job. That promise hasn’t been fulfilled, and Hambone won’t let anyone forget that. There’s also West (Samuel J. Davis), who in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, has made an ample income as the director of the local funeral home, which is currently busy with mourners filing in to pay their respects to a recently deceased religious leader and neighborhood icon, Prophet Samuel. At first the story plays out as something of a “slice of life” vignette, as we observe the characters interacting, but the story arcs develop gradually and surely, as bonds develop between characters, injustices are revealed and reiterated, hopes and dreams are expressed and sometimes realized, and the passage of time is made clear. It’s a fairly long play, but it moves so well and the characters and situations are so well defined, that even when the play ends, I find myself wishing I could find out more about what happens.

Such a brilliant script and well-drawn characters demand a first-rate cast, and this production certainly delivers in that respect. From Williams’s curmudgeonly Memphis, to Himes’s ever-present, world-wise Holloway, to Davis’s determined, confident West, to the entire cohesive ensemble, this production goes from strength to strength, without a weak link. Also strong are Little in a convincing performance as the activist Sterling and Whatley as the wary Risa, and the bond these two eventually form is marked by credible chemistry. There’s also a believable bond between Little and the also excellent Banks as the single-minded Hambone. Also excellent is Overly as the swaggering, enterprising Wolf. All of the players work together to form a convincing group chemistry that drives this story and gives it its palpable emotional weight.

The set here is especially worth noting, as designers Margery and Peter Spack have brought such a finely detailed representation of a restaurant that looks and feels so real, it’s easy to imagine sitting at one of the tables and ordering lunch. There are also excellent well-suited costumes by Daryl Harris that reflect the characters’ personalities especially well. Jim Burkwinkel’s atmospheric lighting and Kareem Deanes’s proficient sound design also work well in establishing and maintaining the world of these characters and their stories.

Two Trains Running might just be the best production I’ve ever seen at the Black Rep, and considering the consistency of excellence from this company, that’s saying something. It’s a powerful, profoundly affecting story, with superb performances and a vividly realized setting. It’s certainly a must-see.

Sharisa Whatley, Jason J. Little, Travis Banks, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Two Trains Running at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 26, 2020

Read Full Post »

The Thanksgiving Play
by Larissa Fasthorse
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2020

Ani Djirdjirian, Adam Flores, Jonathan Spivey, Shayna Blass Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep Studio’s newest production looks at a controversial subject from a satirical point of view. The Thanksgiving Play, by playwright Larissa Fasthorse, tackles an especially relevant issue in society with a somewhat novel approach–over-the-top, biting satire that is unquestioningly hilarious while at the same time tackling some uncomfortable truths. Although the characters can be seen to some degree as “easy targets”, that doesn’t change the relevance and outright bombastic hilarity of the piece, or the overall importance of its message.

To a degree, the characters here are funny because they are so familiar, and the type of obtuse, “trying-too-hard” white liberals portrayed here have been poked fun of in various media before. Still, there’s also a point to be made that these “types” are so funny because they do, to various degrees, represent reality. Also, from the point of view of a Native American playwright, we get to see even more how misguided many efforts of “cultural inclusion” turn out to be when you look at them closely enough, as well-meaning white artists try to “help” the cause, trying to avoid cultural appropriation and stereotype so much in one area that they don’t realize how much they reinforce these ideas in other ways. So here, we have self-important street performer and yoga enthusiast Jaxton (Adam Flores) and the ever-earnest and anxious director Logan (Shayna Blass), who are tasked with staging a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving themed play at an elementary school for Native American Month. Joining them are Caden (Jonathan Spivey), a history teacher and aspiring playwright who is hired to be their consultant on historical matters, and Los Angeles-based Alicia (Ani Djirdjian), who has been brought in to act in the show under the assumption that she’s Native American–an assumption reinforced by her series of specifically styled headshots that have been shopped around by her agent. What she turns out to be is vapid “Hollywood” type who, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t pretend to be anything else and as a result, is envied by Jaxton and Logan because of her “simplicity”. So, these four work together to tell the traditional Thanksgiving story in a “sensitive” way and, predictably, things don’t go exactly as planned–and that’s an understatement. Their efforts start out relatively predictable and get more and more outrageous as the show goes on, managing to to provide loads of laughs along with some especially sharp and biting social commentary, along with some truly brutal reminders of the more unsavory aspects of history that have been glossed over in the “traditional” telling of the Thanksgiving story. Interspersed with the linear story are some out-of-time moments in which the four players enact some truly bizarre and sometimes horrifying representations of Thanksgiving presentations from various schools around the country. I’m not sure if these are taken from real life or not, but sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are. In addition to its main message, the play also pokes fun at some other conventions, such as Hollywood, pretentious artists, and more.

The pacing here is ideal, as the story starts off slow-ish and then snowballs out of control, and the characters respond to the various conflicts in kind. The casting is excellent, as well, with Flores and Blass making a credible couple as both play off of each others’ quirks, augmenting them and spurring on the rest of the players in turn. Blass especially is strong as the over-earnest, increasingly insecure Logan, who is nervous about getting her play right but doesn’t quite know what “right” looks like. Djirdjian is also a treat as the vapid starlet who owns her vapidness, and Spivey also stands out in a strong performance as the closest thing to a “straight man” (in the comic sense) in this group, although he has his quirks as well. It’s the interplay between these four disparate characters and the way they play off of each other with their varying expressions of well-meaning but clueless determination that provides the bulk of the comedy here, and this company gets the tone just right.

Technically, the production values are simple but well-suited. The unit set, by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., is a detailed representation of an elementary school classroom. The costumes, by Lux Haac, represent the characters and their personalities, especially well. There’s also excellent lighting by Porche McGovern that especially highlights the “interlude” scenes, and Cricket S. Myers’s sound is proficient, as well.

Overall, this is one of those shows that’s likely to make audience members laugh their lungs out and then, when they’ve caught their breath, feel uncomfortable at the harshness of the reality being conveyed even by these broadly drawn, hilariously stereotypical characters. The reality that history has been written by those in power, at the expense of those not in power, is made clear in the midst of the hilarity, and the sharp satire works especially well in getting this message across. This is an ideal show for making one think, as well as laugh.

Shayna Blass, Adam Flores, Ani Djirdjirian, Jonathan Spivey Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Thanksgiving Play in its Studio Theatre until February 9, 2020

Read Full Post »

Madam
Music, Lyrics, Book, and Orchestrations by Colin Healy
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Choreographed by Carly Niehaus
Fly North Theatricals
January 11, 2020

Abigail Becker, Gracie Sartin, Kimmie Kidd-Booker, Marta Bady, Eileen Engel
Photo by Caroline Guffey
Fly North Theatricals

It’s especially enjoyable to get to see new shows being developed locally, especially when they are as promising as the latest production from Colin Healy’s Fly North Theatricals. Madam takes a look at a once-prominent but now more obscure figure in St. Louis history, fashioning a story around her that proves to be a vehicle for a memorable score and strong performances. Even though some of the plot elements are predictable, it proves to be a thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience.

The show is somewhat deceptively titled, in that, while 19th Century St. Louis madam Eliza Haycraft (Kimmie Kidd-Booker) is a prominent figure in the play, the story more often focuses on her “girls”, the employees at the high-class brothel she runs that is also greedily eyed by a well-connected man listed in the program only as “The Benefactor” (Phil Leveling). It’s the brothel’s residents and employees who start off the show and mostly serve as narrators, each one with her own signature color. Each of the girls also has her own hopes and goals for life beyond the brothel, or (in one case) not. There’s the adventurous but insecure Calista (Cameron Pille); the brash Billie (Marta Bady)–who once disguised herself as a man to serve in the Civil War; the caring Ripley (Gracie Sartin), who’s saving money to go to medical school; and Tennie (Eileen Engel), who wants to find and reconnect with her sister, a noted activist. At least some of these characters are loosely based on real people, as well. The action starts when the mysterious Mercy Jones (Abigail Becker) appears asking for help, and is taken in, eventually befriending the girls and gaining the confidence of Eliza. At least, that’s how it starts. There is a twist, and it’s not hard to guess, although the lack of suspense in that area doesn’t take away from the story, because the real drama here is in the characters, and especially in their relationships. Although the Benefactor is somewhat of a cartoonish villain, even that’s not a problem, as the memorable score heavily influenced by classic musical theatre traditions, and the compelling script make the show work. The strong performances, both in acting and in singing, also help immensely.

Those strong performances are turned in by an especially cohesive ensemble cast, led by the four “working girls” with Bady and Sartin especially standing out for their presence and the strength of their voices. Kidd-Booker is also a standout as the ailing but determined Eliza, and Becker is also strong as the enigmatic Mercy, and Leveling makes a suitably oily vilain, as well. Healy’s score is catchy, as well, providing a lot of excellent material for the strong voices of the cast, from the driving “Empire” at the beginning to ballads like Mercy’s “I Want to Be a Star” to Billie’s especially memorable “Another Fence (the Baseball Song)”.

A lot of the credit for this show’s success should go to Healy, who not only wrote the book, music, and lyrics, but also serves as the show’s musical director, plays piano, and conducts the excellent band. The shows other technical merits include a colorful set by George Shea and detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel. Kevin Bowman’s evocative lighting and Tazu Marshall’s sound also ably contribute to the overall mood and 19th Century atmosphere of the show.

There’s a message of empowerment here along with the memorable characterizations, as well, and although the setting is in a brothel, it’s not quite as raunchy as I had been expecting–though it has its moments in that department. It’s an especially strong showing for such a new show that’s only had one full-scale production before this one. Mostly, it’s a show full of memorable characters, strong relationships, and a catchy score, and although there are a few places where the script could be smoothed out a bit, Madam has made a strong showing in this highly entertaining production from Fly North Theatricals.

Kimmie Kidd-Booker
Photo by Caroline Guffey
Fly North Theatricals

Fly North Theatricals is presenting Madam at the .Zack Theatre until February 2, 2020

Read Full Post »

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Rebecca Martinez
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 10, 2020

Cheryl Umaña
Photo by Cory Weaver
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s a new year and a new production for the Rep, as the company takes on a tale inspired by a well-known Greek tragedy, with a decidedly 21-Century twist. In Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, playwright Luis Alfaro adapts the Euripides classic Medea to focus on a timely topic and a challenging, thought-provoking theme. At the Rep, director Rebecca Martinez’s production boasts an excellent cast and a memorable presentation.

Alfaro’s adaptation basically distills the Medea story into a highly personal look at Mexican immigrants adjusting to life in Los Angeles in different ways. After a difficult and sometimes violent journey from their hometown, Medea (Cheryl Umaña), Jason (Peter Mendoza), and their family react to life in America in different ways, with Jason eager to assimilate and succeed in American society, and seamstress Medea still haunted by her past and not knowing how to move forward, although she tries for the sake of Jason and their son, Acán (Cole Sanchez). Also accompanying the family from Mexico is their companion and household servant/helper Tita (Alma Martinez), who is devoted to Medea and tries to mentor her in carrying on her tradition of healing arts as well as trying to make an effort to adjust to a new way of living. Tita enlists fellow immigrant Josefina (Guadalis Del Carmen) to befriend Medea, all the while Jason aspires to make the most of his new life and his job with real estate developer Armida (Maggie Bofill), who has her own designs on Jason and, it seems, Medea’s whole family. Medea is increasingly shown to be the outsider, struggling to hold on to her family and identity as Jason becomes more and more ambitious and secretive, and as Medea’s relationship with her family and friends are threatened by the pressures of ambition and the pressure to assimilate into an upwardly mobile “American dream” based focus. The show paints a vivid portrait of Medea’s past, as well as setting an increasingly inevitable, ominous pace for her present, and future. Anyone who knows the classic Medea story knows where this is leading, and what’s most compelling here is the portrayal of how the characters, and especially Medea herself, get to that point. It’s a jarring story in ways, especially at the end, and also compelling, thoughtful, and especially timely today’s world.

As the show’s most vividly drawn characters, Umaña and Martinez are the standout performers here in an excellent ensemble. Martinez is strong as the one character who sticks by Medea throughout, displaying a fierce devotion as well as compassion and strength. Umaña is equally strong as the conflicted Medea, with a strong sense of presence and credible chemistry with Mendoza’s somewhat enigmatic Jason. Del Carmen is also a delight as the friendly but (eventually) also conflicted Josefina, and young Sanchez gives a fine performance as Acán, who is affected by the conflict between his parents and their competing views of life in LA. There’s also Bofill, as the driven Armida, giving a convincing performance in a somewhat underwritten role, and Luis Chavez who makes the most of his small role as a menacing soldier.

Technically, the show reflects the usually strong production values at the Rep, although not quite as dazzling as one may have come to expect. There’s one prominent special effect, employed late in the second act, that comes off as something of a gimmick and doesn’t quite add the dramatic effect to which it seemingly intends. Still, Mariana Sanchez’s set is convincingly realistic, as are Carolyn Mazuca’s costumes. There’s also effective lighting by Maria-Cristina Fusté and strikingly evocative sound and score by David R. Molina.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles is ultimately a fine example of adapting a time-honored classic and its timeless themes to a modern, especially timely setting. With a first-rate cast and an especially strong leading performance, this is a well-paced, compelling drama. It’s another strong showing for this new artistic era at the Rep.

Alma Martinez, Guadalis Del Carmen, Cole Sanchez, Cheryl Umaña, Peter Mendoza
Photo by Cory Weaver
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles until February 2, 2020

Read Full Post »

Disenchanted!
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dennis T. Giacino
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 12, 2019

Sarah Gene Dowling, Kelly Slawson, Dawn Schmid
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Revisionist versions of fairy tales have been in vogue for a while, with films, stage shows, and TV featuring different takes on classic stories. The latest production from Stray Dog Theatre, the cabaret-style DIsenchanted! is composer/lyricist/book writer Dennis T. Giacino’s take on this popular idea. It turns out to be something of a mixed bag in terms of orginality, but it’s still a lot of fun and features some memorable performances from an enthusiastic cast.

Hosted by iconic princesses Snow White (Kelly Slawson), Cinderella (Sarah Gene Dowling), and Sleeping Beauty (Dawn Schmid), Disenchanted! is presented in a sort of cabaret/variety show format, in which various princesses offer their own takes on their portrayals in popular culture, and especially  in Disney films. They focus much on the messages that these films, and the whole “Princess Complex” has on society, and particularly the young girls who grow up watching the films and are presented with the Fairy Tale Princess ideal. Well, these princesses are here to tell us that there’s a lot more to their stories than that ideal. There is also a lot of meta-exploration of how the characters themselves are dealing with how they have been portrayed and received, and some reminders of the pre-Disney origins of their stories, both serious and humorous,. There is “Honestly” sung by Pocahontas (Gitana Mims) in the former category and, in the latter category along with a good dose of meta and digs at commercialism, “Not V’One Red Cent” sung with gusto by Rapunzel (Erika Cockerham). While some of the songs seem rather obvious and one-note, others are more inventive and memorable. Also, for the most part there isn’t much said here that hasn’t been said before by other works.  Still, it makes for an entertaining evening, especially in the second act as the sense of camaraderie and solidarity between the characters grows and becomes most credible.

What this show is, ultimately, is a showcase for its talented cast. Although there is some deliberately comically “bad” singing (and a notice about it in the program), there are also some powerful voices, and some excellent comic performances. The standouts for me include Schmid as a determined, quirky, and frequently nodding off Sleeping Beauty, who (eventually) gets one of the show’s best songs in “Perfect”. Slawson and Dowling are also memorable as fellow co-hosts, a somewhat imperious Snow White and more whimsical Cinderella. Cockerham, as a statuesque, big-voiced, Germanic Rapunzel who gets her moment in a hilarious Cabaret-styled number, is another standout, as are Selena Steed as the Princess Who Kissed the Frog who leads the rousing “Finally”, and Eleanor Humphrey as Princess Badroulbadour (from the original source for Aladdin), in excellent voice on “Secondary Princess”. It’s an energetic, cohesive ensemble overall, carrying the somewhat uneven material here with a lot of personality and enthusiasm.

The overall irreverent, whimsical tone of the show is carried over well into the production values, with a colorful unit set by Miles Bledsoe and memorable costumes by Eileen Engel. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow contributes to the bold, variety-show styled look of the show. There’s also some fun choreography by  Mike Hodges and an excellent small band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, although the sound mix is uneven at times and it can be difficult to hear the words to some of the songs.

Overall, while Disenchanted! isn’t the most original of this “meta-fairy tale” sort of shows, it’s an entertaining and frequently hilarious production. I think this show may especially appeal to people who are well-versed in the Disney versions of these characters and don’t mind some sharp criticism of the works or the company. It has it’s moments, definitely, and it’s another fun staging from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of Disenchanted!
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Disenchanted! at Tower Grove Abbey until December 21, 2019

Read Full Post »

A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 8, 2019

William Roth, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

If you’ve ever been involved in theatre at any level, St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s latest production will have something to which you can relate. A Life in the Theatre is David Mamet’s two-hander focusing on two actors at different stages in their careers, continuing STLAS’s season of two person plays. Here, with two excellent performers in the leading roles, this is a show that serves as an insightful glimpse at the theatrical life, for actors and for anyone who loves this art form.

This isn’t a long play, running at roughly 85 minutes and with no intermission, but makes its point well in that short running time. Its a series of vignettes, essentially, following the interactions of two actors who frequently work together. Robert (William Roth) is the older, more seasoned performer and John (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) is the younger actor whose career is on the way up. Through the course of the evening, we get to see their backstage interactions as well as portions of some of their plays, including a World War I drama, an office drama, and others. As the show goes on, there are successes and mishaps, including several that many who have worked on a play will recognize. There are missed technical cues, forgotten lines, mistimed entrances, and more. Also, we see the changing dynamics of the relationship between the two characters, as John experiences new successes and Robert is reminded of the swift passage of time and deals with jealousy as well as mortality. Mamet’s script is insightful and frequently humorous in a knowing sort of way, demonstrating the timelessness of theatre and the acting profession, and how the art goes on even as the performers age and change. It’s a witty show with moments of cynicism and poignancy, but ultimately it reinforces the old adage that “the show must go on”.

It’s an intriguing character study in which the characters are “types” as much as they are individuals. The two are played with flair by STLAS veterans Roth and Lawson-Maeske. Roth gets to make the most of his range as Robert starts out with a sense of projected overconfidence and then gradually loses that and grows more and more unsure and unstable. Lawson-Maeske is also winning as the young performer gaining experience and learning to deal with success as well as managing his relationship with his colleague. The two share a strong on-stage rapport as well, that turns into something of a “frenemies” situation, occasionally crossing the line into combative, and both performers excel in these moments, and in the more comic moments as well.

The staging by director John Contini is well paced, and Patrick Huber’s set is versatile and well-realized, allowing for various easy scene changes that change the perspective from backstage to on stage. There’s also a range of appropriately suited costumes by Andrea Robb, and excellent sound design by Contini and lighting by Huber. Even in its staging, this is an excellent glimpse of the life of a performer in its various aspects.

This is a show for theatre lovers, and especially for anyone who has worked on a production. If you know theatre, you should know a lot of what’s portrayed here. A Life in the Theatre is an apt title, since even though it depicts particular characters, there is something universal about this art, and the life of a performer. It’s well worth seeing, and remembering.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting A Life in the Theatre at the Gaslight Theater until December 22, 2019

Read Full Post »

The Cricket on the Hearth
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
December 7, 2019

Samantha Hayes, Kent Coffel, Mary Tomlinson, Kellen Green, Charles Heuvelman, Chuck Winning, Gracie Sartin
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

 

As the title of the giant storybook onstage at West End Players Guild suggests, it’s a Charles Dickens Christmas for the company this year. It’s a thoroughly Dickens story, and probably the second most well-known of the author’s Christmas writings. The Cricket on the Hearth has been dramatized and filmed quite a few times over the years, although not nearly as much the more famous Dickens holiday tale, and WEPG is presenting an all-new adaptation by a playwright they’ve worked with before, Vladimir Zelevinsky. As is to be expected with Dickens, it’s a play full of memorably named characters involved in a somewhat convoluted plot with some surprising twists and moral messages involved. As adapted and presented here, even though there are some slow moments, overall it makes for a heartwarming theatrical experience for the holiday season.

The storytelling convention used here works well for this particular story, having various characters take turns narrating the story, starting and ending with the cheerful Mary “Dot” Peerybingle (Grace Sartin), a young mother and the wife of the local mail carrier, the kindly but much older John Peerybingle (Chuck Winning), who dotes on his wife and child but is somewhat insecure about whether he deserves his by all accounts devoted young bride. It certainly seems like a happy home, blessed with occasional chirping of a cricket, viewed as a symbol of good luck. The cricket may not be seen by the audience, but its presence is made known through the use of playwright Zelevinsky’s memorable score, admirably played by Heather Chung on violin and accompanied by Cameron Perrin on flute. The Peerybingles’ lives are intersected with various others in this twisty little story, including the kind and weary toymaker Caleb Plummer (Charles Heuvelman), who weaves fantastic tales of an idealistic life to his daughter Bertha (Samantha Hayes), who is blind but who turns out to be much more perceptive than Caleb realizes. Caleb, who is a widower and whose other child, a son, is apparently lost after leaving to travel the world, works for an imperious boss, Mr. “Gruff and” Tackleton (Kent Coffel), who hates toys and children despite his line of business. Tackleton is set to marry the young May Fielding (Mary Tomlinson), and old friend of the Plummers and of Dot Peerybingle’s, to the consternation of Caleb. The preparations for the impending wedding, along with the situation of the Peerybingles’ taking in a mysterious, obviously disguised “Stranger” (Kellen Green), form the center of the conflict in this story that seems to emphasize the virtues of loyalty and kindness and their eventual triumph over the evils of greed.

Not having read the original story, I don’t know exactly how faithful the adaptation is, but as a play, it works. There are some twists and resolutions that at turns seem overly obvious, sudden, and implausible, but that’s in keeping with some Dickensian conventions. The story is dramatized well, for the most part, with a focus on generally likable characters (with the exception, for the most part, of “villain” Mr. Tackleton), as well as the musical themes that recur throughout the show and provide a fitting soundtrack to the production. The acting is excellent all around, with especially strong performances from Sartin and Winning as the Peerybingles, who seem well-matched despite the oft-mentioned age difference. Heuvelman as Caleb and Hayes as Bertha are also excellent, as is Coffel as a suitably and comically “Gruff” Tackleton. Green as the enigmatic “Stranger” and Tomlinson in the somewhat underwritten role of May round out the strong ensemble with their fine performances.

The production values here are especially impressive, among the best I’ve seen from this company, with a versatile, detailed, and whimsical set by George Shea that forms the ideal backdrop for the story. There are also well-suited, colorful costumes by Tracey Newcomb and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo that helps to set and maintain the overall mood of the production. There’s also that excellent music, already mentioned but worth mentioning again, serving so well to emphasize the overall Dickensian tone and themes of the story.

Overall, I would say this production makes an effective, thoroughly entertaining holiday tale. The Cricket on the Hearth may not be as celebrated as other Christmas stories, but it’s a worthwhile one nonetheless. As staged so effectively by the strong cast at West End Players Guild, this is an engaging, heartwarming holiday story.

Kent Coffel, Chuck Winning
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Cricket on the Hearth at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 15, 2019

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »