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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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Jerry Springer the Opera
Music by Richard Thomas, Book and Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2015

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Jerry Springer Show and its infamous host are well known for shocking subject matter, outrageous guests, and sensationalist topics to turn the talk show format into a kind of voyeuristic entertainment.  New Line’s latest production, Jerry Springer the Opera, is in the same vein. It seems to want to be about something, although in the end it comes across much like its subject–a celebration of sensationalism that is entertaining at times, but has little sense of direction. Still, it’s got some intriguing ideas, and New Line’s cast has done about as well with the material as I could imagine.

This show is kind of frustrating, because it has quite an interesting concept, although it doesn’t seem to really want to go anywhere meaningful with it. The first act is basically a musicalized re-creation of a typical Springer show, with some slightly extreme representations of Springers’ usual types of guests.  There’s an enthusiastic audience, a warm-up man (Matt Pentecost) with a mind of his own, and Springer himself (Keith Thompson), who is the only character who never sings.  He’s a talk-show host, and his job is to talk, I suppose. His guests for this particular program include Dwight (Zachary Allen Farmer), who is cheating on his fiancee Peaches (Taylor Pietz) with both her best friend Zandra (Lindsey Jones) and drag queen Tremont (Luke Steingruby). There’s also Montel (Marshall Jennings), whose secret he’s kept from his own fiancee Andrea (Christina Rios) is that he wants to be a grown-up baby and wear diapers. He’s also got a paramour of his own, the equally child-like and crass Baby Jane (also Pietz).  A third story involves would-be pole dancer Shawntel (Anna Skidis) and her controlling boyfriend Chucky (Ryan Foizey).  The usual amount of shocking revelations, audience cheering and jeering, and violence that has to be broken up by security man Steve (Matt Hill) ensues, with Jerry increasingly at odds with the warm-up guy, who seems to want to encourage the audience’s rowdiness. That’s only Act One. The second and third acts inject a supernatural, fantastical element, as Jerry descends into hell and has to host a version of his show at the behest of Satan himself (also Pentecost), involving confrontations with Adam and Eve (Foizey and Skidis), Jesus (Jennings), Mary (Jones) and eventually God (Farmer).

It’s an ambitious concept, and there are some clever conceits. The fact that everyone but Springer is singing full-out operatic arias is intriguing, as is the fact that they’re all playing this as seriously as possible. The songs range from mildly shocking to to unapologetically vulgar.  The style ranges from traditional opera to the soulful “It Ain’t Easy Being Me”, sung by God. The fact that one of the catchiest tunes is called “Mama Gimme Smack On the Asshole” is a testimony to how outrageous this show is trying to be. I say “trying” because I don’t think it succeeds in being much more than an exercise in shock value.  The whole “Springer in hell” sequence has a lot of promise as a concept, but it seems like a lot of the ideas were thrown in more for cheap humor than for any sort of substance.  I found myself wishing the show had pursued its subject further rather than just bringing up a concept and then just racing by to the next one for a joke.  It’s a show full of almost-interesting ideas, and I have no problem with raunchy humor if there’s substance to it. This show, however, seems to be all about being raunchy while only bringing a semblance of substance. It’s got a very interesting sense of style, though, and I’m sure for Springer fans (and I’m admittedly not one), it might have more appeal.

Still, even though the show itself disappoints me, the production team at New Line has put in an admirable effort.  The cast is strong, and the usually impressive New Line singing isn’t quite as operatic as one might expect, but the energy is there and there are quite a few memorable performances. Thompson is in good form as the somewhat incredulous Springer, who just wants to do his show without being bothered. Pentecost, as the warm-up man and a particularly determined Satan, is a real stand-out, with a strong voice and great deal of oily, smarmy energy. Pietz makes a memorable impression, especially as the naughty, childlike Baby Jane, and Farmer gets to show off his powerful vocals doubling as the duplicitous Dwight and a khaki-clad, ponytailed God.  There are also excellent performances from Jennings as Montel and Jesus, Steingruby as the brash Tremont, Rios as the somewhat mousy Andrea, and Skidis as the determined Shawntel and as Eve.  There’s also a solid performance Hill as the ever-faithful security man, Steve.  Adding to the main cast is an enthusiastic ensemble that brings energy to various roles, including Springer’s studio audience.

The technical arena is where this show achieves its most obvious success. With a fairly basic set by Rob Lippert that recreates the setup of Springer’s talk show, Lippert’s lighting adds dramatic effect especially after the whole scene descends into hell.  The costumes, by Sarah Porter, range from the gloriously gruesome (some creepy, ghoulish nurses) to the stylishly suave (Pentecost’s devilish garb), to the outrageously colorful range of outfits worn by the equally outrageously colorful guests.  All of these elements blend to creat a fantastical, occasionally macabre atmosphere that contributes an air of stylistic grandiosity to the production that I wish was equaled by the script.

Overall, I would say this is a show that tries for more than it accomplishes, although I have difficulty imagining a more enthusiastic production than this one. The strong cast and technical aspects make this show worth seeing, as long as you know what to expect. It’s a show that pushes the envelope of crass subject matter about as far as it can be pushed, although oddly it doesn’t seem to pursue its more serious ambitions far enough. It’s an admirable effort from New Line, and although it’s not for all audiences,  if The Jerry Springer Show is your cup of tea, this show probably will be, too.

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Thetre

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Thetre

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Bonnie & Clyde
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2014

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

A musical about infamous 1930’s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with music composed by the controversial Frank Wildhorn, sounds like it could either be very intriguing or extremely disappointing. The fact that it was a notable flop on Broadway added to my curiosity, as did the fact that it’s being staged by New Line Theatre, which seems to make a habit of bringing lesser-known musicals out of obscurity and giving them compelling productions.  Bonnie and Clyde is New Line’s latest project, and with  its excellent cast and dynamic, colorful staging, it proves to be a surprisingly resounding success.

In a somewhat streamlined version of the real story, this show focuses on its namesake characters’ quest for notoriety and their surprising rise to folk-hero status in the midst of the Great Depression. As the story begins, both sing about their desire for fame in the song “Picture Show”. While Bonnie (Larissa White) has ambitions to be a movie star like silver screen “It Girl” Clara Bow, Clyde (Matt Pentecost) is a small-time criminal with dreams of becoming a notorious outlaw like Billy the Kid.  He and his older brother and frequent partner-in-crime Buck (Brendan Ochs) are in and out of jail, to the dismay of Buck’s devoted wife, Blanche (Sarah Porter), who wants her husband to give up his life of crime and pursue a more quiet, peaceful life with her. When Clyde, having escaped from jail, meets Bonnie, they quickly fall in love, and Bonnie eventually encourages Clyde in his lawless ambitions, as their crime spree becomes well-publicized and, oddly enough, even some of their victims regard them with a mixture of awe and admiration, as the authorities–including Bonnie’s would-be suitor, Deputy Sherriff Ted Hinton (Reynaldo Arceno)–become more and more determined to track them down and bring them to justice, dead or alive.

I know Wildhorn’s music has had a “love it or hate it” track record, although I hadn’t heard much of it before seeing this show, save for a few songs from Jekyll and Hyde and one song from The Scarlet Pimpernel, thanks to XM Radio’s Broadway channel, which repeats it frequently. I went into this musical not knowing much about the score, so I was determined to keep an open mind, and while I can’t speak for Wildhorn’s other works, this one is surprisingly impressive.  Several of the songs have a jazzy sound, as is fitting for a show set in the the 1930’s, and there’s a little bit of gospel as well, in the memorable church scene during the first act, with the glorious voice of Zachary Allen Farmer as the Preacher belting out “God’s Arms Are Always Open”.  There are memorable solos for Bonnie with “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dying Ain’t So Bad”, and Clyde with “Raise a Little Hell” and “Bonnie”, as well as a rousing duet for Clyde and Buck on “When I Drive”, and some good ballads and ensemble numbers.  The songs help create a believable Depression-era atmosphere and serve the story well, expertly played by New Line’s band, conducted by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The script has an occasional tendency to oversimplify events and characters, although book writer Ivan Menchell has done a good job of giving the characters believable rhythms of speech, and the four main characters are well-defined. There’s also a good sense of pacing especially in the second act, with the action picking up as Bonnie and Clyde embark on their famous crime spree and the tension gradually builds, along with a very real sense of escalating horror and impending doom.  Anyone who knows the story of Bonnie and Clyde knows how it ends, with them ironically achieving the infamy they most crave even more so after their violent end.  The show is also somewhat of an examination of American culture in the 1930’s and what led to the lionization of these two stylish but increasingly brutal outlaws.

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have assembled a first-rate cast, particularly in the four most prominent roles. As Clyde, Pentecost has the presence and charisma as well as that sense of audacious amorality as the unrepentant outlaw, Clyde. Ochs is an able counterpart in a charming, boyish characterization of Clyde’s conflicted but devoted brother, Buck.  Even more outstanding, though, are White and Porter, who both give stunningly affecting performances. Webster University student White is a real find in her New Line debut as Bonnie. Not only does she have a great voice, strong stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Pentecost; she also deftly navigates Bonnie’s evolution from wide-eyed neophyte to full-fledged partner in crime.  She’s a performer to watch.  As Blanche, Porter gives a richly nuanced portrayal of a church-going “good girl” who loves a “bad boy” and only wishes for a quiet, happy life with him, determined to encourage him to disassociate from his old ways and his dangerous brother. She serves as a stark contrast to  Bonnie, who supports the unapologetically destructive Clyde with worshipful devotion.  The two share a poignant, plaintively sung duet on “You Love Who You Love”. Porter also has great chemistry with Ochs, with great moments in the upbeat “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” and the reflective “Now That’s What You Call a Dream”.  There are also strong performances from Farmer as the Preacher, Arceno as the determined Ted, as well as Alison Helmer as Bonnie’s mother and Kimi Short and Joel Hackbarth as Clyde and Buck’s parents.  The ensemble is strong, as well, showing off the exceptional singing that New Line is known for.

The 1930’s are ably brought to life on stage through Rob Lippert’s meticulously detailed set with nice touches like an authentic-looking Ford car and a realistic vintage gas pump. Lippert’s lighting is also strikingly evocative, and costume designers Marcy Wiegert and Porter have done an excellent job recreating the period, with  a variety of outfits from high-end suits and dresses to overalls and work clothes that are all distinctly in-period. All of the technical aspects work together to provide a very sharp, striking representation of the period that’s in-keeping the with jazz-inflected score.

I’ve come to expect excellence from New Line, and my expectations have been met and exceeded by this impressive and memorable production.  I like being surprised by great performances, and there are quite a few in this show. Bonnie & Clyde is a show that’s compelling even as it’s unsettling and not a little disturbing, as two charismatic but unashamedly corrupt people rise to prominence quickly and then, even more quickly, fall.  It’s a truly memorable production.

Larissa White, Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Larissa White, Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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Hands on a Hardbody

Music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green

Lyric by Amanda Green, Book by Doug Wright

Directed by Scott Miller

New Line Theatre May 27, 2014

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Jeffrey M. Wright
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

It’s a musical about a truck.  That’s essentially all I knew before seeing New Line’s new production of Hands On a Hardbody.  I had heard one or two of the songs, and I knew the basic premise and had read good comments about it online, but unlike a lot of musicals I see, I didn’t know much else.  It’s nice to go into a show like this relatively unspoiled, because then I can be surprised. New Line’s production is a very pleasant surprise, indeed. One important thing I realized upon seeing it is that this is not just a show about a truck.  It’s about people and their hopes, dreams, disappointments and aspirations, and a richly detailed evocation of small-town Texas life in the wake of the recent economic recession.  With some catchy songs, a strong cast and excellent staging, New Line brings this show to life in vibrant, life-affirming style.

Based on a 1997 documentary about a real contest, Hands on Hardbody takes place in Longview, Texas, as a of group of characters of different ages and backgrounds gather at the Floyd King Nissan dealership to compete in an endurance competition, with the prize being a much-coveted icon of Texas life, a shiny red pickup truck. The rules are simple–keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, outside in the summer heat, with no leaning or squatting, without the aid of chemical stimulants, and with only a 15 minute break every six hours.  Over the course of five days, the contestants battle fatigue, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure as they each try to outlast the others, with the last one standing getting to go home with the prize.  Throughout the competition, we get to meet the different contestants and hear their stories, why they entered the contest, and what they plan to do if they win.  Among the hopefuls are a cocky previous champion, Benny (Jeffrey M. Wright), the bubbly and devoutly Christian working mother, Norma (Anna Skidis), the battle-scarred young Marine, Chris (Luke Steingruby), and the middle-aged and world-weary JD (Todd Schaefer), who is recovering from a severe leg injury and feels coddled by his concerned wife Virginia (Alison Helmer), who is watching on the sidelines.  Another supportive spouse is Don (Keith Thompson), who is enthusiastically cheering on his wife Janis (Cindy Duggan).  There are also young contestants Greg (Ryan Foizey) and Kelli (Marcy Weigert), who connect over their mutual dream to experience life outside of small town Texas, as well as Jesus (Reynaldo Aceno), who wants to raise money to pay for college.  Along with the upbeat Ron (Marshall Jennings) and the determined and conflicted Heather (Taylor Pietz), these very different people express their hopes and their frustrations, make friendships, form alliances and endure conflicts on the way to the inevitable and suspenseful conclusion. There can only be one winner, although there is much to learn all around, as expressed in the uplifting epilogue “Keep Your Hands On It” as the winner and “losers” sing about what they learned and what happened in their lives after the contest.  It’s a stirring story of friendship, love, faith, disillusionment, fear, economic hardship, and the ever-enduring sense of hope that there’s something better down the road.

Musically, the style is mostly country-flavored, with influences of gospel, Latin music and southern rock.  As usual with New Line, the singing is excellent across the board, with Jennings, Foizey, Pietz , Wiegert and Zachary Allen Farmer (as local radio DJ Frank Nugent, who is broadcasting the event) especially standing out with their strong, clear voices.  While there is no real choreography to speak of, this show presents a particular challenge in the area of staging, since so much time is spent with the various characters standing in the same place. Director Scott Miller has risen to that challenge admirably, and the show never gets boring or static, as the players move around the truck in time to the music in some moments, while in others, the truck is used for percussion accompaniment such as on the rousing “Joy of the Lord” number led by Skidis.

In terms of acting, there are many memorable performances, with the standouts being Schaefer as the ailing but stubbornly determined JD, Wright as the alternately villainous and sympathetic Benny, and Skidis as the infectiously devout Norma. There’s great comic work from Thompson, Duggan and Jennings. Mike Dowdy and Margeau Baue Steinau also provide excellent support as the bickering managers of the dealership, and Foizey and Wiegert display excellent chemistry as two young people developing a quick bond, as do Wright and Helmer as a couple who obviously love each other despite their differences.  There are nice little moments with all of the characters, however, and there isn’t a weak link in this whole cast.  The writing helps, but the actors really flesh out these characters and make them seem like real people rather than just a collection of stereotypes.

Visually, although there isn’t much of a demand for a set beyond a desk, a big banner, some lawn chairs and that ever-important red truck, all of these elements are well-realized by scenic designer Rob Lippert and crew. Costumers Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert are to be commended for finding just the right outfits for all the individual characters and adding to the very small-town Texas vibe of the show.  Aside from a few minor sound issues (microphone crackling, mostly), this show is as seamless technically as it is dramatically and musically.

This show only ran on Broadway for a short time, although it garnered some excellent reviews and a lot of award nominations. I’m sure it was great on Broadway, although I didn’t get to see it there. Still, I think a smaller scale regional theatre setting probably works better for a show like this, especially in the very capable hands of Miller and his extremely impressive cast and crew.  It’s a vibrant, energetic, and deeply compelling production with characters just as full of vibrant color as the truck they are all vying for.  Although that truck can ultimately only go to one person, everyone is a winner in the long run, and that includes the audience of this big, shiny, colorful prize of  a show.

Set for Hands on a Hardbody Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Set for Hands on a Hardbody
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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Rent

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Original Story Concept/Additional Lyrics by Billy Aronson

Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy

New Line Theatre

March 8, 2014

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of RENT Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of Rent
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

I was somewhat surprised when I read that New Line was going to be staging a production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent.  The surprise was not that New Line was doing the show.  It was that they had never done it before. Known for their offbeat and edgier productions of musicals, New Line seems like just the right venue for this show, even though it’s taken all these years for them to produce it.  Good things happen in their proper time, I guess, and it seems like that time is now, as New Line has proven with the visually striking and emotionally gripping version that is currently being presented on their stage.

Rent is the enormously popular and critically acclaimed examination of life in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1990’s, inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme and its source material, the novel Scenes de La Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger. Like the earlier works, this show revolves around the lives of struggling young artists, updated to reflect the times and issues of early 90s New York, including class struggles and the AIDS epidemic. The story centers on aspiring filmmaker Mark (Jeremy Hyatt) and his roommate, the melancholy, HIV-afflicted ex-junkie rock musician Roger (Evan Fornachon), and their diverse group of young Bohemian friends.  There’s Mark’s ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Sarah Porter) and her current girlfriend, Ivy-league educated lawyer Joanne (Cody LaShea), who experience a somewhat volatile relationship.  There’s also Mimi (Anna Skidis), a young dancer who struggles with drug addiction and HIV, and who is drawn to Roger, as well as sometime college professor Collins (Marshall Jennings), who develops a romance with the charismatic drag queen street performer Angel (Luke Steingruby).  In contrast to the young Bohemians is the newly wealthy Benny (Shawn Bowers), Mark and Roger’s former roommate who married a millionaire’s daughter and is now their landlord.  Throughout the story, the various romantic entanglements are woven throughout the story that also focuses on issues of artistic expression, integrity vs. commercialism, and the struggle against economic and social injustice in the city.

This is an intense show, with moments of sadness and angst, as well as moments of love, joy and hope, and that full range of emotion is well-represented in this vibrant production. I did notice in the performance I saw that it took a little bit of time for the show to really get moving, but once it did (with Hyatt and LaShea’s highly charged performance of “Tango; Maureen” ), it kept getting better and better. The show’s better-known songs like the raucous “La Vie Boheme” and the poignant “Seasons of Love” are well represented here along with the rest of the memorable score, sung by the glorious voices of New Line’s impeccable ensemble.

The leading cast is superb as well, especially Hyatt as a particularly energetic and sympathetic Mark, as well as Skidis’s vulnerable Mimi and Porter’s fiery and confrontational Maureen, bringing laughs and attitude to “Over the Moon”, and sharing the spotlight with the equally strong LaShea in their memorable duet “Take Me Or Leave Me”.  Steingruby brings a lot of charm and sweetness to Angel, particularly in his scenes with Jennings.  Fornachon, as the moody Roger, has a great rock singing voice and looks the part, working well in his scenes with Skidis and Hyatt, but I also find myself wishing he would hold his head up more and wouldn’t sing to the floor as much. Bowers is also convincing as the increasingly conflicted Benny.  I was particularly struck by the excellent voices of the entire company, but this shouldn’t have surprised me since the singing at New Line is always top-notch.

I loved all the attention to detail in this visually stunning production. Set and lighting designer Rob Lippert, costume designers Porter and Marcy Wiegert, props master Alsion Helmer and the entire design team have created a look that is unique to this production and that brings the audience into the world of this Bohemian New York neighborhood in the 1990’s, with characteristic elements such as a vintage pay phone, clunky cell phones, and Mark’s handheld movie camera, and painted with authentic-looking graffiti.  It’s a multilevel set with all the performance areas put to full use, including the perimeter areas and the audience.  The centerpiece is a giant round table/platform that is painted to resemble the moon, which makes it an ideal stage for Maureen’s “Over The Moon” performance, as well as serving as a large cafe table for “La Vie Boheme” and as a way to set off the ensemble in the “Life Support” group scene.  It’s a bold setting for a bold production, and it leaves a lasting impression.

Shockingly enough considering how popular and acclaimed this show is,  I had never seen it live before.  I had only previously watched the filmed version of the Broadway production that was released in 2009, in addition to having heard many of the songs on various occasions.  I enjoyed that DVD, but I’m also glad directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have chosen to follow their own vision for the show. New Line’s version is full of youth and energy.  It’s also staged with a sense of immediacy that brings a lot of life to the show. Although the passage of time has turned Rent into something of a period piece, New Line doesn’t treat it that way, and that’s as it should be.  It’s an iconic show made achingly real, with all the truth and energy brought along with its humanity.  It may have taken New Line many years to finally do this show, but this production is well worth that wait.

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

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Next to Normal
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre, St. Louis
February 28, 2013

n2n set

Lights go up on a stage set with a framework representing the inside of a house, assembled in a jumbled fashion from elements of one family’s life.  It all looks well-ordered at first glance, and then the odd elements catch the eye. There are lamps that stand right-side-up, hang upside-down, or stick out sideways from wall beams.  There is a door on its side where the roof should be, and boxes are stacked neatly in rows, while hundreds of small pill bottles decorate the scene everywhere.  In the foreground are four chairs, three neatly arranged in a line and one on the floor on its side.  This is reflection of the fact that not all is as it first seems with the show’s central characters, Diana Goodman (Kimi Short) and her family–husband Dan (Jeffrey M. Wright), son Gabe (Ryan Foizey) and daughter Natalie (Mary Beth Black). This show takes us on a tour through the lives of a family dealing with mental illness, relationship struggles and more, with an extremely well-written script, many excellent songs and New Line’s top-notch cast.

As Diana, Short gives a wonderfully measured, grounding performance that showcases the character’s energy as well as her confusion, fear and regret. It is something of an “every woman” performance in that she makes the character easy to relate to, even for those of us who do not share her struggles with mental illness.  With all of the character’s ups and downs, Short takes the audience with her along the way and has us hoping for a good outcome to her quest for answers and healing.  Her voice is strong and reminiscent of Alice Ripley’s from the Broadway cast album. She brings real strength and sympathy to songs like the wistful “I Miss the Mountains” and the angry “You Don’t Know”.  Her Diana is the center of this production, and the rest of the cast works very well with her.

As Diana’s stable-but-overwhelmed husband Dan, Wright lends excellent support, and makes Dan’s struggles to cope with the chaos as well as his own journey of grief, denial, and finally hope compelling. Their teenage daughter Natalie is an aspiring classical pianist who has her own struggles in dealing with relating to both of her parents as well as her sweet, affable slacker/stoner boyfriend Henry (Joseph McAnulty), and she is remarkably portrayed by high-school junior Mary Beth Black, an extremely promising young performer who has a very bright future ahead of her.  In addition to her very strong vocals, Black brings out all the sympathy in Natalie’s situation while at the same time very believably portraying the character’s confusion, frustration and anger, as well as her desire for a more genuine relationship with her parents in the midst of all the drama.  Natalie’s journey of self-discovery parallels Diana’s in several significant ways, and Black’s scenes with Short (including a trippy fantasy sequence in “Wish I Were Here”) are a particular highlight of this production.  Black also has great chemistry with McAnulty, and the off-and-on romance between Henry and Natalie is both intriguing and endearing.  I also liked how the Natalie/Henry relationship was contrasted with that of Diana and Dan especially in the second act in “Why Stay?”/”A Promise”, which is perfectly played by all four performers and is only one highlight of many in this beautifully realized production.

Rounding out the cast with equally outstanding performances are Ryan Foizey as the enigmatic son, Gabe, and Zachary Allen Farmer in a dual role as two of Diana’s doctors.  Gabe is in many ways the key to the conflict in this show, and Foizey is excellent, bringing all the charm, menace and mystery that the role requires, and his voice is strong and clear, bringing physical and emotional energy to numbers like “I’m Alive” and haunting magnetism to the slower numbers like “There’s a World”.  Farmer, provides strong support as the two very different doctors, displaying a strong voice and handling the “rock-star” fantasy sequences particularly well.

This show has lately become very popular with regional theatres, and New Line is the first St. Louis company to perform it.  It’s one of my favorite new musicals, and I was excited to be able to see a local production after having seen the national tour at the Fox two years ago with its giant multi-level set and slicker production values.  This production is smaller and more intimate, and that works very well as a way for bringing the audience into the action and emotions of the characters.  The set by Scott L. Schoonover doesn’t have all the height or scale of the Broadway and tour set, but it suits this production extremely well, with lots of depth and little details (like the the askew furniture and pill bottles) that may not be evident as first but become more noticeable upon further scrutiny.  The set provides just the right backdrop for this enthralling drama, and there is also an excellent band conducted by Music Director Justin Smolik which lends dynamic support to the truly spectacular cast.

It’s only three months into this year, and I’ve already fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions–to explore some more of St. Louis’s excellent local theatre companies.  New Line’s Next to Normal has impressed me in so many ways that I hope to see many more of this company’s productions in the future. Aside from a minor issue with uneven sound (that I’m sure will be corrected as the run continues), this was about as close to a perfect production of this show as I could imagine.  I encourage all my St. Louis readers to check it out.

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