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Sweet Smell of Success
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Book by John Guare
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 3, 2017

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a somewhat obscure musical that had a short run on Broadway, won a few awards and received a mixed critical reception, and it’s based on a movie that’s well-regarded by critics but isn’t exactly a household name. I hadn’t seen the film before seeing New Line’s newest production of Sweet Smell of Success, although I had heard of the film and the musical. Oddly, I don’t think familiarity with the source material matters much in terms of enjoying this show, even though its subject matter revolves heavily around the concept of success, notoriety, and the sheer level of power that can come from being a household name. This is the kind of show that New Line does especially well–a show that might have been too “small” in a sense for Broadway. It’s the kind of show where an intimate presentation in a venue like New Line’s Marcelle Theatre can be ideal, to scale this story down to its most important elements–the characters, the raw emotions, and the key concepts at play in this seedy, sultry, and sometimes downright scary morality tale that focuses on the down side of the quest for fame.

The story takes the audience to New York City in the 1950’s, to a world in which gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Zachary Allen Farmer) exerts his influence through his nationally syndicated and widely read newspaper column. As the ensemble asserts in the opening number, making it into “The Column” is essential for achieving that elusive measure of success for the small nightclubs that host celebrity sightings, the up-and-coming actors and musicians who are looking for their big breaks, and even the press agents who work tirelessly to get their clients mentioned by J.J. One of these press agents is Sidney (Matt Pentecost), who makes call after unheeded call to J. J.’s secretary Madge (Kimi Short) in hopes of getting his only client, the small but ambitious Club Voodoo, a mention. Sidney’s luck doesn’t improve until a chance meeting at the club with an aspiring young actress who turns out to be J.J.’s sister, Susan (Ann Hier), who is indulging in a secret romantic relationship with struggling jazz musician Dallas (Sean Michael). When J. J. himself walks into the club looking for Susan, Sydney tries to help her by pretending to be her friend, and ends up getting J.J.’s notice, which begins Sidney’s  ascent up the ladder to success, at the increasing expense of his own scruples. As J.J.’s true character is revealed, along with his creepy obsession with and sense of control over Susan, Sidney is caught between his desire for celebrity and influence under J.J.’s tutelage and his genuine fondness for Susan and desire to help her. The problem Sidney finds is essentially, how does a person hold onto his own soul after he sells it in the name of success? The consequences turn out to be messy for some, and tragic for others.

The setting and overall atmosphere of this production is masterfully achieved by virtue of strong production values and an ideal setting. As excellent as New Line’s shows have been since moving to the Marcelle, I think this production has been most successful at making the most of this venue.  The small, intimate atmosphere and the meticulously crafted set by Rob Lippert create the ideal mood for this jazzy, dark, and challenging piece of theatre. Lippert’s excellent lighting also contributes to the Noir-ish atmosphere, as do Sarah Porter’s stylish and detailed period costumes. The pacing is strong here, as well, with the mood being tense when it needs to be, and even downright brutal and bleak when necessary as well. There are also some much-needed moments of humor in the midst of the tension, though, and these are also handled well by way of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s astute direction and the extremely strong cast that the directors have assembled, as well as the excellent band led by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter, bringing the show’s jazz-influenced score to life with a bold attitude and style.

The focus of much of this play is on the figures of J.J. and Sidney, and both parts are cast well with veteran New Liners. Farmer brings a sense of self-assured determination and a steely resolve to the role of the domineering J.J., as well as a wry sense of humor and a strong voice. His status as the influential power player is unquestioned. Pentecost brings a sense of weary charm to Sidney that makes the viewer want to sympathize with him to a point. His scenes with Farmer and with Hier are particularly memorable. Hier, in the difficult role of the conflicted, dominated Susan, shines as well, bringing a quiet strength to the role that makes itself more clear as the show goes on. Michael, as Susan’s principled secret boyfriend Dallas, is also excellent, displaying a strong tenor voice on “I Cannot Hear the City” and “One Track Mind”. His chemistry with Hier is credible, as well. There’s also a standout performance from New Line veteran Sarah Porter, making an impression is the small but important role of Sidney’s girlfriend, waitress and aspiring actress Rita, who gets the show’s single best solo musical moment with “Rita’s Tune”. Kent Coffel as corrupt police Lt. Kello, Jason Blackburn as rival gossip columnist Otis Elwell, and Short as J.J.’s no-nonsense secretary Madge lend excellent support as well, as does the show’s cohesive ensemble, playing a range of New Yorkers and contributing to memorable musical numbers like the intro and the energetic, sharp and chilling “Dirt”.

This is a challenging, incisive story with an incisive message, richly drawn characters, and even more richly drawn settings. It’s an homage to Film Noir, tied to its time in one way, but surprisingly timeless in another, since the modes of communication and the names may change over the years, but human nature hasn’t changed, and neither have the temptations that come with the thirst for knowledge, influence, and especially power and control. Sweet Smell of Success isn’t always sweet, but at New Line and with this cast and creative team, it’s certainly a success.

Cast of Sweet Smell of Success
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Sweet Smell of Success at the Marcelle Theatre until June 24, 2017.

 

 

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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

zorba1

Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

zorba2

Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2107.

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Celebration
Words by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 30, 2016

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Celebration is an unusual musical, but unusual musicals are what New Line Theatre does best.  Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1969 “experimental” musical is the latest production at this (pun intended) celebrated St. Louis theatre company, and true to form it’s a memorable, colorful, extremely well-sung production. I also can’t imagine better casting for this particular show.

The structure of this show is highly symbolic and allegorical. With four main characters basically representing the four seasons, it’s based on ancient legends and rituals and framed as the preparation for a New Year’s Eve party, ushering in a new year as a mysterious newcomer arrives to shake up the status quo. The master of ceremonies for this story is Potemkin (Kent Coffel), a rough-around-the-edges trickster who introduces the audience to the setting of the play, a somewhat bare city street corner that becomes the background for the ensuing celebration. The story continues as a newcomer arrives, identified only as “Orphan” (Sean Michael). Orphan grew up in a more rural setting, and he’s arrived ostensibly to save the land and garden where he grew up from a ruthless, filthy-rich businessman, William Rosebud Rich (Zachary Allen Farmer), who seems to own basically everything. He also meets Angel (Larissa White), an aspiring singer and actress who attracts the attentions of both Orphan and Rich, and although she’s attracted to Orphan, she sees Rich as more advantageous to furthering her own career goals.  The struggle between Orphan and Rich for power and influence is the central conflict, with Angel, Potemkin, and the chorus of revelers caught in the middle.

Structure-wise, this is an intriguing show, with memorable characters and a fairly straightforward theme, although the ending is extremely abrupt. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea of the woman being the main “prize” to be fought for among the two male adversaries. Still, it’s all symbolism, and the characters are well-realized. The atmosphere is very reminiscent of other shows from its era, especially musically, with memorable musical numbers such as the title song, “My Garden”, and “It’s You Who Makes Me Young.” New Line’s production also has the benefit of what I consider to be ideal casting of the main parts.

The casting is so great, in fact, that I can’t easily imagine who else could have played these roles. Coffel, as the crusty, wily, opportunistic and worldly-wise Potemkin, is full of energy and mischievous charm. He makes a fitting tour guide to the proceedings. Michael’s Orphan is amiable, appropriately naive and optimistic at first, but he also portrays a believable sense of growth and determination as the story progresses. He also has a great tenor voice that suits his songs particularly well. White, as Angel, is also excellent, with a strong voice and believable chemistry with Michael. She makes the character’s dilemma easier to believe. Last but definitely not least is Farmer, who hams it up with gleeful abandon as the slimy, entitled Rich, who clearly sees himself as the hero of the story even though his time is clearly running out. The interplay between all four characters is a major highlight of this production, and they are backed by an excellent ensemble of rowdy revelers to contribute to the overall primal atmosphere of the show.

Visually, this production is spectacular and richly detailed. The somewhat sparse set by Rob Lippert –essentially a series of stacked platforms with a trash can and street lamp at center–is an excellent backdrop for the action of the show, and Sarah Porter’s costumes are truly spectacular. From Rich’s shiny bathrobe and Donald Trump wig, to Orphan’s more simple rustic garb, to the outlandish costumes of Angel and the revelers, everything suits the production just right. Along with Kenneth Zinkl’s striking lighting, Scott L. Schoonover’s distinctive masks for the revelers, Michelle Sauer’s energetic choreography, and the excellent band led by Sarah Nelson, the theme and mood of the production is stylishly presented, lending much to the overall entertainment value of the production and augmenting the performances of the excellent cast.

Overall, I would say Celebration is an entertaining production inventively staged. It’s not for everyone, as like almost all of New Line’s shows, this is for mature audiences. For the most part, Celebration is a witty, energetic, and extremely well-cast show that’s well worth checking out.

Sean Michael, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Celebration at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until October 22, 2016.

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Atomic
Book and Lyrics by Danny Ginges, Music and Lyrics by Philip Foxman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
April 4, 2016

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Ann Hier, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The development of the first atomic bomb was certainly a world-changing moment in history, bringing with it much moral questioning and tragedy amid the quest for scientific innovation. In New Line Theatre’s latest production, Atomic, the story of the bomb’s development isn’t simply a history lesson. It’s a character study of some of the key people involved as well as a morality play examining the capabilities, demands, and limits of scientific research. It’s also an extremely well-staged, well-cast, compelling piece of theatre.

Although several of the major players in the development of the atomic bomb in the United States are featured in this play, the focus is primarily on Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (Zachary Allen Farmer), whose thirst for knowledge is tempered by his concern about the potential catastrophic danger of such a weapon. The musical follows Szilard through his journey from his home country to England and finally to the United States, accompanied by his companion and eventual wife, physician Trude Weiss (Ann Hier). As World War II progresses and rumors of the German government’s work on the development of a nuclear weapon are spread, Szilard becomes involved with the now well-known Manhattan Project, working with fellow scientists to develop a bomb before the Germans are able to succeed with theirs. Szilard works alongside other notable scientists from around the world, including Italian Enrico Fermi (Reynaldo Arceno), fellow Hungarian Edward Teller (Sean Michael), and Americans Arthur Compton (Ryan Scott Foizey), Leona Woods (Larissa White), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jeffrey M. Wright). As the work on the project progresses, questions arise about the need for this weapon, especially after Germany surrenders. The concerned Szilard finds himself turning activist, determined to prevent the bomb’s being dropped on a Japanese city amid pressures from the US government and some of his fellow scientists to support the effort.

Although this play certainly employs a degree of dramatic license in portraying its characters’ stories, the overall focus of this story is on the ethics more than the simple historical facts. The show raises some compelling questions, such as whether or not the mere ability to make something so dangerous justifies its use, and what the motivation should be in the quest for scientific innovation.  Atomic energy certainly changed the world, but was it for better or worse, or somehow both?  These are all profound questions, personified in Atomic by Szilard and his colleagues and portrayed through the use of a rock-influenced score with occasional elements of 1940’s-era themes, such as the Andrews Sisters-esque “Holes In the Doughnuts” sung by Hier, White, and Victoria Valentine as a trio of factory workers. There are also memorable power-ballads such as “The Force That Lights the Stars” and the memorable and oft-reprised “Greater Battle”.

The key role of Szilard is played by the versatile New Line veteran Farmer with convincing sincerity and strong, powerful voice. His scenes with the equally excellent Hier as the loving and long-suffering Trude are a notable highlight. There are also strong performances from Foizey as the devout Compton, who struggles with reconciling his faith with his scientific endeavors; as well as White as the determined Woods, Arceno as Fermi, and Wright in a dual role as Oppenheimer and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. As usual with New Line, the singing is top-notch, as is the musicianship of the excellent band led by musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The show is also superbly presented in a technical sense, with a cleverly set-up stage in which the audience sits on either side of Rob Lippert’s well-appointed set.  The period details and atmosphere are apparent in the furnishings as well as in Sarah Porter’s stylish costumes. There’s also Lippert’s spectacular lighting and Benjamin Rosenman’s excellent sound, which are put to remarkably effective use in recreating the chilling effects of the bomb’s detonation.

New Line’s production of Atomic is the show’s St. Louis debut, and only the fourth overall production of this intense, intriguing show. In the hands of directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, along with the first-rate cast and crew, the show is a fascinating examination of the history of nuclear development as well as a stirring examination of the moral dilemmas inherent in the project. It’s a story that’s sure to provoke much thought and conversation.

Cast of Atomic Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Victoria Valentine, Reynaldo Arceno, Ryan Scott Foizey, Sean Michael, Jeffrey M. Wright, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Atomic is scheduled to run at the Marcelle Theatre until June 25, 2016.

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American Idiot
Music by Green Day, Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
March 4, 2016

Cast of American Idiot Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cast of American Idiot
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

American Idiot was an album first, and then it was a musical. Now, it’s on stage at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center in a big, loud, angry, and extremely thoughtful production from New Line Theatre. With the first-rate singing that New Line is known for, as well as a stellar cast and striking physical production, American Idiot makes a strong impression with its story of displacement and confusion in post-9/11 America, underscored by the music of Green Day.

This is essentially the story of three young men and their quests for meaning and fulfillment amidst the disillusionment of their suburban existence. Johnny (Evan Fornachon), Tunny (Frederick Rice), and Will (Brendan Ochs) make a plan to escape to the city to seek adventure and a better life, but Will’s dream is immediately derailed when his girlfriend Heather (Larissa White) announces she’s pregnant, meaning Will stays home while his friends head off to New York. Once in the city, Johnny and Tunny take different paths. Johnny finds himself torn between the enticement of drugs personified by the charismatic St. Jimmy (Chris Kernan), and love with a girl he meets who is only referred to as Whatsername (Sarah Porter). Tunny catches onto a patriotic dream and joins the military, being sent overseas where he eventually finds that the reality of war doesn’t live up to its promise. Throughout the story, the loud, punk rock beats of Green Day drive the story of the contrasting lives of these three friends.

What’s particularly striking about this production is the staging, although it does have its drawbacks as well. The Marcelle’s black box theatre has been arranged so that the action takes place on a wide plane, with Rob Lippert’s vividly decorated set serving as a backdrop. Staging the action at various levels and in designated areas of the stage helps to distinguish the three main characters’ stories, but it’s also so spread out that it’s easy to miss events that happen on either end of the stage, depending upon where you’re sitting. I would advise sitting in the middle if at all possible. The costumes by Sarah Porter are excellent as well, suiting the characters well and ranging from the everyday clothes of the young protagonists to the more striking styling of characters like St. Jimmy. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is also effective in achieving the appropriate mood of the production especially in the more stylized fantasy sequences.  And directors Miller and Dowdy have staged the show well, with striking synchronized movement on songs like “Holiday”, “Before the Lobotomy”, and the more melancholy “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “21 Guns”.

This isn’t a perfect script, but the production makes the most of it. I’m mostly disappointed that this is such a male-centered story in which most of the female characters only seem to serve as figures in the men’s journeys, and except for Heather, they don’t even have real names. Still, the story is memorable and a strong realization of the anger, confusion, and occasional efforts at hope that characterize these characters’ lives in a world of competing images, promises, and propaganda. It’s the dynamic staging, the expertly played music by New Line’s excellent band conducted by Sue Goldford, and the as always stunning singing that give life to this highly emotional, affecting musical.

As usual, New Line has assembled a superb ensemble, and every cast member is in the moment every minute on stage. The three leads are well-cast, with Fornachon’s angry Johnny, Rice’s haunted Tunny and Ochs’s dejected and disenchanted Will serving as ideal representations of the themes portrayed here. All three have great rock voices as well, especially Rice. There’s also strong support from Kernan’s hypnotic St. Jimmy, Porter’s earnest Whatsername, White’s conflicted, strong-voiced Heather, Kevin Corpuz as the personification of military glory, the Favorite Son, and Sicily Mathenia as Tunny’s nurse and fantasy muse, the Extroardinary Girl.

American Idiot is a gritty, high powered, emotionally charged rock opera that presents a compelling picture of the lives of three young men on a journey for fulfillment in difficult times. It’s definitely not for kids, but for adults and older teens, this is a show that provides a lot to think about. It presents a striking auditory and visual tableau of life in early 2000’s America, with a soundtrack by a band that helped define the cultural atmosphere of that era.

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Frederick Rice, Brendan Ochs, Evan Fornachon and cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting American Idiot at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until March 26, 2016.

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Heathers
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy
Based on the Film by Daniel Waters
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2015

Grace Seidel, Evan Forachon, Anna Skidis Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Grace Seidel, Evan Fornachon, Anna Skidis
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

I have a confession to make. I went to high school in the 1980’s and I’ve never seen the movie Heathers in its entirety. There’s no particular reason for this omission in my cinematic track record. I just never got around to seeing it beyond about 20 minutes of it on TV sometime in the 1990’s, even though it was always on my list of “movies I have to watch someday”. Still, even though I still haven’t seen most of it, the movie’s influence has not been lost to me, having heard it quoted and referenced in various places over the past two and a half decades. Still, as New Line Theatre’s excellent new production proves, one doesn’t have to have seen the movie to enjoy the musical adaptation, which has been brought to tuneful, colorful life by New Line’s top-notch cast and crew at the company’s shiny new venue, The Marcelle Theatre.

Essentially a dark, satirical look at “high school” films of the 80s, Heathers the musical definitely shows off the darker side of teenage life, although there is a glimmer of hope as well. It starts out, with the song “Beautiful”, setting the stage at Westerberg High School and introducing most of the main characters and cliques. We’re introduced to protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Anna Skidis), an amiable, ambitious high schooler who is relatively low on the social pecking order until she manages to get into the good graces of the school’s ruling set–three uber-popular girls of varying degrees of bitchiness who all happen to be named Heather. There’s group leader Heather Chandler (Sicily Mathenia) and her devoted cronies Heather Duke (Cameisha Cotton) and Heather McNamara (Larissa White). The Heathers and their football player pals Ram Sweeney (Omega Jones) and Kurt Kelly (Clayton Humburg) rule the school and basically dictate the social order. One problem for Veronica is that her newfound popularity has put her at odds with her longtime best friend, the sweet, nerdy and constantly bullied Martha Dunnstock (Grace Seidel). There’s also outsider and loner J.D. (Evan Fornachon), who appears on the scene to shake up the status quo and challenge Veronica to decide where her true loyalties lie. Unfortunately, J.D.’s methods are problematic to say the least. It’s basically a battle for Veronica’s soul, and J.D.’s as well, to a degree, as well as a challenge to the idea of high school cliques and labels, and what those say about a person’s true identity and potential.

The tone of the play starts out somewhat upbeat but gets darker as the plot moves forward, and especially in the second act.  There’s a lot of raunchy and somewhat twisted humor, as well, fitting the darkly ironic tone of most of the story.  But there are some poignant moments amid the comedy, as well, again especially in the second act, with Veronica’s challenge to J.D. in “Seventeen”, Heather McNamara’s revelatory “Lifeboat”, and especially Martha’s heart-wrenching solo “Kindergarten Boyfriend”. In fact, the tone shifts early in the second act to get more and more ominous, as Veronica is confronted even more with J.D.’s dark ideas and nature, as well as the idea that people do not have to be forever bound by the labels they’re forced into by high school culture.

The cast here is first-rate, including a few New Line veterans like the terrific Skidis as Veronica and Fornachon as the charming but dangerous J.D. These two display a fiery, intense chemistry, excellent stage presence and great voices. There’s also the impressive White in a vulnerable performance as the least bitchy Heather, McNamara. Many of the other performers are New Line newcomers, including Mathenia and Cotton who give virtuoso “mean girl” performances as Heathers Chandler and Duke; and Jones and Humburg, who are ideally cast as the superficial, sex-crazed jocks Ram and Kurt.  The most obvious “find” of this production, though, is Seidel, who gives a wonderfully nuanced, sensitive performance as the beleaguered Martha. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, mostly made up of actors who are making their New Line debuts. The top-notch singing that I’ve come to expect in every New Line show is on full display here as well, as well as strong choreography by Robin Michelle Berger.

Technically, this production makes the most of New Line’s new black box theatre, the Marcelle. The space is smaller than New Line’s last space, but it seems incredibly versatile, and it will be interesting to see how it’s used in future productions. Here, Rob Lippert’s set is sufficiently colorful with its bright color scheme and versatile modular design, and Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting is appropriately atmospheric. The costumes, designed by Sarah Porter, are just right for the characters and the overall late 1980’s theme of the show.

Heathers is a memorable show, with a message that seems to be about how high school is not the end, and how people aren’t free to decide someone else’s future and what they will become. High school roles are often superficial and not set in stone. The song “Seventeen” is a reminder that while the teenage years don’t last forever, they can be enjoyed and savored in the little moments of life. It’s a dark, sometimes brutal show, but with a surprisingly hopeful ending, and it takes the “high school movie” genre and examines it in intriguing ways.  It’s a spectacular production, highlighting the always excellent singing that New Line is known for, as well as some strong characterization and a great use of New Line’s new theatre space. Heathers the musical is a hit whether you’ve seen the movie or not. Now, however, I think I’ll make a point of seeing the film.

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cameisha Cotton, Sicily Methenia, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre’s production of Heathers is running at the Marcelle Theatre in Midtown until October 24th, 2015.

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The Threepenny Opera
Music by Kurt Weill, Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
English Adaptation by Marc Blitzstein
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
May 29, 2015

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Todd Schaefer, Cherlynn Alvarez
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is a contradiction in several ways. It’s simultaneously comedic and bleak, energetic and gloomy. It’s a story without any real heroes, but where some villains are more villainous than others. It’s a classic that I’d never seen before, and New Line’s latest production has proven to be a memorable introduction.

This is a show that has elements of both broad comedy and tragedy, and although the characters are often larger than life, there are no real “good guys” or “bad guys”.  Basically, everyone is a “bad guy” in one way or another, and that’s essentially the point.  Set in Victorian London, the story follows a cast of unscrupulous characters who spend the show trying to outwit, dominate or enthrall other characters.  In the show’s intro–and by far its most famous song–we are introduced to the notorious criminal Macheath (Todd Schaefer), also known as “Mack the Knife.” He’s a notorious bandit, but he basically owns London, including the police commissioner, Tiger Brown (Christopher “Zany” Clark), who worships Macheath with a kind of puppy-like devotion. And then there’s Mr. Peachum (Zachary Allen Farmer), who operates something of an employment agency for beggars, and his scheming wife Mrs. Peachum (Sarah Porter).  Their latest problem is that their daughter Polly (Cherlynn Alvarez) has become romantically attached to Macheath and is set to marry him, despite the badly kept secret that he’s involved with many other women all over town, including Tiger Brown’s daughter, Lucy (Christina Rios), and local madam Jenny Diver (Nikki Glenn). That’s just part of the story, though, as subplots unfold involving the Queen’s coronation and a plot to have Macheath caught and hanged for his crimes. It’s a social critique and a dark comedy, with a memorable jazz-influenced score and a well-established sense of time and place.

Speaking of time and place, there is one aspect of New Line’s production that is worth noting. Although the story is set in London, the entire cast performs in American accents as, director Miller has informed me, was the intention of the original off-Broadway production for which this translation was produced. Otherwise, the setting is suitably in period, with Rob Lippert’s evocatively detailed set and Sarah Porter’s meticulously appointed costumes that add flair to each character.  There’s also striking use of lighting by Kenneth Zinkl, and as usual, an excellent band led by Music Director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The cast here is excellent, for the most part. The unquestioned stars of the show, from my perspective, are Farmer and Porter as the Peachums. Both ooze an oily villainy with enough presence to make them fascinating despite their complete amorality, and both are in strong voice. Farmer is especially memorable in his introduction “Morning Anthem” and his numbers with Porter and with Alvarez as their daughter Polly. Porter’s “Ballad of Dependency” is another highlight. These two completely command the stage whenever they appear. As Macheath, Schaefer is suitably menacing when he needs to be, although he can be a little overly laid-back at times. Alvarez has a strong voice as Polly, and is particularly adept at screaming when she needs to.  Other memorable performances come from Glenn as a particularly surly Jenny, and Rios as the jealous Lucy. She shows off a strong voice in her solo on “Barbara Song” and her “Jealousy Duet” with Alvarez. Brian Claussen, Kent Coffel, Todd Micali and Luke Steingruby are effectively comical as Macheath’s gang, as well. There’s also good presence and attitude from Kimi Short, Margeau Steineau and Larissa White as the girls at Jenny’s establishment. Jeremy Hyatt is also funny in a small but memorable role as would-be professional beggar Charles Filch. As usual for New Line, the ensemble singing is very strong, and there’s a great deal of energy and cohesiveness throughout.

The Threepenny Opera is a classic piece of theatre from a celebrated playwright and with a renowned score. It’s influenced a great many other works, as noted by director Scott Miller in the program.  It’s easy to see that influence in New Line’s production, which brings the show to the St. Louis audience in a vivid and highly accessible way.  It presents a message that’s particularly dark when you think about it, about how an unregulated capitalist system can bring about pervasive corruption, and it’s all presented in an entertaining and largely upbeat manner. It can be jarring to think about, but you just might find yourself humming “Mack the Knife” as you ponder.

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cherlynn Alvarez, Sarah Porter, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Threepenny Opera is being presented by New Line Theatre at the Washington University South Campus Theatre until June 20, 2015.

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