Posts Tagged ‘st. louis’

Grand Horizons
by Bess Wohl
Directed by Sharon Hunter
Moonstone Theatre Company
March 17, 2023

Sarah Burke, Joneal Joplin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

What happens when a long-married couple suddenly declare that they’re planning to divorce? That’s essentially the premise of Moonstone Theatre Company’s latest production, Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, directed by Sharon Hunter. This well-cast, characterful comedy-drama explores the effects of such an announcement on a couple’s family, as well as revealing difficult truths about their relationship with one another, and also with their adult children and how years of unspoken issues influence the lives of those around them.

The divorce announcement is not a spoiler. It’s the inciting incident of the play, with the idea introduced in the very first scene, as Bill, played by Joneal Joplin and Nancy, played by Sarah Burke, sit down to dinner what appears to be a familiar, mostly wordless ritual. Lack of communication becomes a major theme in this story, as the couple’s adult sons, Jared Joplin as Ben and Cassidy Flynn as Brian, along with Ben’s pregnant wife Jess, played by Bridgette Bassa, react to the news in a somewhat explosive manner. Obviously, the “kids” aren’t happy, and the brothers determine to stick around until they can convince their parents to change their minds, or at least explain themselves, which they don’t seem ready to do at first, even to each other. What ensues is a series of difficult revelations and not a few surprises, some more shocking than others, as the truth of the long-standing strain in the marriage is revealed, along with its effect on their sons, including Ben’s relationship with Jess, who has her own frustrations with her husband’s apparent lack of sensitivity. Brian, meanwhile, deals with the fact that he doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by his family, and deals with commitment issues of his own while he deals with the revelations about his parents and his role as “the emotional one” compared to his more “practical” older brother.  

The play also deals with issues of aging, changing views of gender roles in marriage over the decade–especially in expectations for women–the concepts of parental influence on children, and parental roles in the lives of their children as they grow up start their own independent lives and relationships. The characterizations are strong, the story is well-structured, and the pacing is timed with precision, with just enough time given to the more important revelations, the various surprises having a suitably strong impact.

The cast here is excellent, led by long-time St. Louis actor Joneal Joplin as wannabe stand-up comedian Bill, and Burke as the initially reserved Nancy. The interplay between these two provides much of the drama, as well as a good deal of the humor, and both performers adeptly reveal layers of their characters’ personalities as needed. There are also strong performances from Jared Joplin–Joneal’s real-life son–as the more emotionally reserved, practically minded older son Ben, and Flynn as the conflicted, more expressive younger son, Brian. Bassa, as Ben’s wife Jess, a family therapist, is a strong presence as well, trying to help her husband’s family deal with their new situation while also dealing with tensions in her own marriage and expectations for the upcoming birth of her child. There’s also excellent support from Carmen Garcia as Carla, a rival for Bill’s affections, and William Humphrey in a brief but memorable scene as Tommy, a man Brian brings home for an intended romantic liaison.  The ensemble chemistry is dynamic and credible, contributing much to the overall dramatic and comedic impact of the show.

The production values are superb, with a detailed set by Dunsi Dai that believably recreates a unit in a retirement community. The costumes by Renee Garcia suit the characters well, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting contributes much to the mood of the production. There’s also impressive sound design by Amanda Werre, and effective use of music when needed, especially in the last moments of the show, in which the chosen song couldn’t be more perfectly selected.

Grand Horizons is another strong showing from the relatively new Moonstone Theatre Company. It’s an insightful, sometimes whimsical look at marriage, family, and most of all, the importance of communication and true intimacy in relationships. It’s a great turn from a stellar cast and technical crew.

Jared Joplin, Bridgette Bassa, Sarah Burke, Casssidy Flynn, Joneal Joplin
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Moonstone Theatre Company

Moonstone Theatre Company is presenting Grand Horizons at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until April 2, 2023

This review was originally published at KDHX.org

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The Birthday Party
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Suki Peters
Albion Theatre
March 10, 2023

Teresa Doggett, Ted Drury, Nick Freed
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

The latest production from Albion Theatre is a well-known classic of British theatre. The Birthday Party, by celebrated playwright Harold Pinter, is intriguing, memorable, challenging, and deliberately unsettling and disturbing. At Albion, director Suki Peters has staged a thoughtful, impeccably cast production that speaks to its own time as well our own, and is sure to get audiences thinking. 

The play is often mentioned as a prime example of the mid-20th Century Theatre of the Absurd genre, as well as being labeled a “Comedy of Menace”. Both of these descriptors are apt, in that there is a message here, but it’s often not a strictly “coherent” one, and fear, uncertainty, and menace are major features in the play, setting a sort of questioning tone and not providing much in the way of answers. The way it’s staged at Albion focuses much on the building tension and sense of nebulous dread, as well as the mannerisms and particularities of the characters, who are at once unique individuals and recognizable “types”. 

The setup is fairly simple, as older English couple Petey (Robert Ashton) and Meg (Teresa Doggett) have breakfast together in their simple house in a small seaside town. They engage  in a rote, mostly empty discussion of the meal, the day, and their boarder Stanley (Ted Drury), an out-of work pianist who lives out his purposeless days bickering, and occasionally flirting, with Meg, and avoiding people in the outside world. It also may or may not be his birthday, and Meg prepares to celebrate, as neighbor Lulu (Summer Baer) delivers an odd present, and Stanley appears to be unsettled by the news that two men from out of town have asked Petey for a room for the night, because the place may or may not be a boarding house. Soon, the strangers arrive, and they appear to be on a mission involving Stanley, who seems to recognize Goldberg (Chuck Winning), who appears to be in charge, and clearly has unpleasant plans for Stanley, even though we’re never told exactly what those plans are, or what Stanley has done to precipitate the interrogation and menacing that ensues. Goldberg is accompanied a stoic, matter-of-fact Irish assistant, McCann (Nick Freed), and the two proceed to terrorize Stanley while acceding to Meg’s wish to celebrate his “birthday”, insisting on attending the party, which is eventful, to say the least, and not a little disturbing.

Although the “plot”, for what it is, is fairly basic, it’s the characterization and the tone that make this show, with moments of comedy–sometimes broad, sometimes cynical–are interspersed with a more threatening atmosphere. The players here are all well-chosen, and although the accents are mixed bag–ranging from essentially flawless (Ashton and Doggett, who are both originally from the UK, and Freed, who sounds authentically Irish), to “good enough” (Drury and Baer), to “barely there” (Winning)–the characterizations are consistent and excellent. Drury makes a credible, sullen Stanley, adding to the tension and mood with his body language as well as his speaking moments, and he plays especially well in scenes with the superb Doggett as the well-meaning and over-intrusive Meg. Doggett’s comic timing is especially strong, as is Winning’s. Winning and Freed make a suitably threatening pair, and Freed manages to bring layers of depth to his fairly simply presented character. Ashton and Baer are also memorable, making the most of their fairly limited stage time. It’s a strong, cohesive ensemble, handling the overall tone and pacing well. 

The technical aspects of the production are also excellent. The simple unit set by Brad Slavik, along with the costumes by Tracey Newcomb and props by Gwynneth Rausch, establishes the time and place with suitable accuracy while also project a drab “ordinariness” that works especially well for this show. Anthony Anselmo’s lighting is used to striking effect throughout, especially in the birthday party sequences, and the sound by Michael Musgrave-Perkins is also effective. Ryan Lawson-Maeske’s fight-chorography lends to the menacing tone of the play with credible results, as well. 

The Birthday Party, as with other works by Pinter, is a play that is open to interpretation in various ways, and there have been a few differing theories about what is really happening here. Regardless of what it “really” means, though, it’s the feeling of uncertainty and looming threat that dominates, along with a cynical sense of purposelessness and meaningless mundanity in everyday life. These are themes that still resonate now, and this staging highlights them with clarity and intensity. It’s a remarkable, highly memorable production. 

Robert Ashton, Chuck Winning, Nick Freed, Ted Drury
Photo by John Lamb
Albion Theatre

Albion Theatre is presenting The Birthday Party at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 26, 2023

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Nine
Book by Arthur Kopit, Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Based on the Film 8 1/2 Written by Federico Fellini
Adapted from the Italian by Mario Fratti
Directed by Scott Miller and Chris Kernan
Choreographed by Chris Kernan
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2023

Cast of Nine
Photo by Gerry Love
New Line Theatre

Nine is a show I’d heard about, and heard songs from, but had never seen. From what I had seen and heard, I wanted to see it, but I just hadn’t had the opportunity, because it doesn’t seem to be performed a lot, at least in St. Louis. Yes, there’s a movie, but I had heard highly mixed reports about it, and I prefer to see shows on stage first if at all possible. I also hadn’t seen the original Fellini movie, 8 1/2, on which Nine is based–although now, I want to. Thankfully, New Line Theatre has now given me and others the chance to see this unusual, fascinating show, which is ideal for this theatre company, known for its bold choices and excellent production quality, and especially great singing. 

The story focuses on self-absorbed movie director Guido Contini (Cole Gutman) and the multitudes of women in his life, from his longsuffering wife, Luisa (Lisa Karpowicz) to his eager mistress Carla (Sarah Wilkinson), to his determined producer, Liliane LeFleur (Kimmie Kidd-Booker), and his elusive favorite film star Claudia (Ann Hier Brown) to various other figures in his life, such as his mother (Stephanie Merritt) and a host of muses, exes, critics, and more. The creative, conflicted Guido is struggling to come up with a script for his next picture, which is due to be filmed imminently. This story has a fantastical element, in that most (if not all) of the action is taking place in Guido’s mind, as he struggles not only with his present dilemma while staying at a spa in Venice, but also deals with the influences of his past, and the continued theme of his relationships with–and attitudes toward–women.

There’s a lot going on here, and I won’t go into too much detail since the journey of discovery is important to see firsthand. It’s Guido’s journey, and although the show explores his relationships with many women, his marriage with Luisa is the most prominent, and the staging reflects her importance, with Luisa often seeming to be a spectator to some of the more elaborate fantasy sequences, so we can see her reactions not only to his attitudes and interactions, but toward Guido himself, and the kind of man he is. There’s obviously love here, but there is also intense conflict, and other figures in Guido’s life also loom large, with impressive performances all around, and some of the best, most intricate ensemble singing I have heard at New Line, and with this company, that’s saying something.

As Guido, Gutmann is charismatic, enigmatic, and dynamic,  conveying all the difficult qualities of Guido’s personality credibly, but also maintaining a strong presence and a degree of sympathy when needed. His voice is strong and versatile, and he has great chemistry with his co-stars. Karpowicz is also excellent in a somewhat subdued performance as Luisa, managing to convey her frustration and her affection for Guido even when in moments when she is mostly reacting to what is happening around her. Karpowicz also has a strong voice on songs like “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own”. There are also strong performances from Wilkinson as the amorous Carla, Brown as the conflicted Claudia, Merritt as Guido’s Mother, and Kay Love as a sort of narrator figure known as Our Lady of the Spa. There are also especially memorable, dynamic performances from Sarah Lueken as Saraghina–and influential figure from Guido’s school days–who leads the memorable “Be Italian”; and especially Kidd-Booker as the brassy, bold, and theatrical LeFleur, with her showstopping “Folies Bergères” number commanding the stage with humor, presence, and style. The rest of the ensemble is also strong, contributing to the first-rate vocals and the overall tone of the story.

This staging is based on the 2003 Broadway revival version, as opposed to the 1982 original. The scaled-down production is ideal for New Line, and the look is strikingly simple, with a black-and-white color scheme predominating, from Rob Lippert’s white- tiled unit set to the stylish black costumes by Sarah Porter. Matt Stuckel’s lighting adds much in the way of mood and atmosphere to the proceedings, as well, including flickering film-like effects at the beginning–and the great New Line band led by music director Dr. Jenna Lee Moore lends power to the memorable Maury Yeston score.

Nine, being essentially an extended fantasy sequence that deals with a lot of deeply personal issues for Guido. Luisa, and the rest of the characters, can be a little hard to follow at times, but it’s staged and sung so well as to make audiences want to pay attention, and to ponder the issues being dealt with here. There’s drama, occasionally raunchy humor, intensity, and reflection. As is frequent for New Line, it’s a production that is simultaneously simple and complex, bringing out the truth of the material through authentic, credible performances and thoughtful staging. It’s a fantastic production.

Cast of Nine
Photo by Gerry Love
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Nine at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2023

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Just One Look
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
March 1, 2023

Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company

Linda Ronstadt is a musical legend. That’s no question, considering all the accolades she’s received over the years, including several Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now, she’s become the subject of The Midnight Company’s latest production, written and directed by Joe Hanrahan and starring Kelly Howe as Ronstadt. On stage in a cabaret-like setting at the Blue Strawberry & Lounge, the show is an entertaining and informative look at Ronstadt’s life and career, and especially her music. 

The show is presented in an interview format, with Hanrahan as a music journalist named Lenny Anderson, who doesn’t even attempt to hide his affection for his subject. Howe, as Ronstadt, answers Lenny’s questions about her life, career, and attitude toward music, relationships, politics, and more–but mostly, she sings. If you’re a fan of Ronstadt’s, as I am, you’ll know most if not all of the songs, from Ronstadt’s first hit with The Stone Poneys, “Different Drum”, through her country-pop-folk-rock years of arena tours with songs like “Long, Long Time”, “You’re No Good”, “When Will I Be Loved?” and more, to her later years trying out radically different genres such as jazz-pop classics, operetta, and Mexican music in honor of her father. Howe sings the songs well, showing off an impressive vocal range and versatility, reminiscent of Ronstadt herself. She doesn’t sound exactly like Ronstadt, but I wasn’t expecting that. There’s only one Linda Ronstadt, but Howe does an excellent job of singing in Ronstadt’s style, and her mannerisms are similar to Ronstadt’s, as well, from what I’ve seen in interviews and the excellent documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which I highly recommend if you’re a fan. 

Hanrahan, for his part, does a fine job conducting the interview, even though his character can come across as intrusive at times, and he seems to be trying to do a British accent, but it’s not consistent at all, and disappears entirely for most of the show. There’s also an excellent band backing Howe as Ronstadt, led by music director Curt Landes on piano, and featuring Tom Maloney on guitar and bass, and Mark Rogers on percussion and backing vocals. 

This show is an ideal fit for its venue, as well. The Blue Strawberry is known primarily for hosting cabaret shows, and it provides a lively atmosphere for this production. I had never seen a show at this venue before, and I enjoyed it a lot. I look forward to seeing more productions there. 

Overall, Just One Look is a memorable, entertaining musical tribute to one of pop/rock music’s most celebrated voices. It’s also an excellent showcase for Howe, who has an impressive voice of her own and plays Linda Ronstadt convincingly. Especially if you are a fan of Ronstadt’s, this is a production well worth checking out. 

Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The MIdnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Just One Look at The Blue Strawberry Showroom & Lounge on Wednesday evenings until March 15

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The Last Five Years
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
February 19, 2023

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre company is staging its second musical, Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical two-hander The Last Five Years, at the .ZACK Theatre. It’s a mostly sung-through show that’s known as a showcase for excellent singers, and director Taylor Gruenloh has chosen the leads well, in prolific local performers who have the voices, the presence, and the chemistry to carry this emotional roller-coaster of a show. There are also some inventive directorial choices that add to the drama and characterizations. 

Some of the drama of this show is provided by its structure, as its tale of a failed relationship is told in two directions at once. Cathy, an aspiring musical theatre performer played by Grace Langford, starts at the end of the relationship and progresses backwards. Jamie, a successful young novelist played by Kevin Corpuz, begins at the beginning, shortly after he and Cathy have met, and moves forward in the story. Their narratives catch up in the middle, at their wedding, and then move further apart.  

It’s an intriguing structure, and in most productions–like the last one I saw, twelve years ago–Jamie and Cathy spend most of their moments apart from one another, trading songs and stories but only interacting in the middle, when their narratives meet. Here, director Gruenloh has staged it differently, so both characters are frequently onstage together, as Jamie will be there reacting to Cathy’s songs, and Cathy reacts to Jamie’s. They are able to respond to one another more directly, which adds to the drama and adds a degree of depth to the relationship. I still find myself sympathizing with Cathy more, as Jamie often comes across as an a self-centered jerk, although this production seems to bring out Jamie’s charm a little more, especially in the first half of the show, and we also get to see more nuance in Cathy’s perspective. 

The casting is excellent. I already knew Langford and Corpuz had great voices and strong acting skills from seeing them in a variety of previous productions. Here, it’s just the two of them together, and they are matched well, with strong chemistry and excellent voices. Jason Robert Brown’s music is memorable and challenging, and both of these two performers rise to the challenge. Josie Schnelten is also strong in a brief, wordless appearance later in the show. 

The staging is fairly simple in terms of set, since the action takes place on a mostly empty stage, with evocative lighting by Gruenloh and Brittanie Gunn, along with projections by Gruenloh that help the audience keep track of what year it is in each scene. Both performers are simply dressed, as well, with Langford in red and Corpuz in black and grey. The band, led by music director Leah Schultz, is onstage above and behind the actors, and they sound great, although the acoustics of the venue make it so the band can sometimes drown out the performers as they sing, making it difficult to understand the lyrics at times.

For the most part, though, this is a highly effective, moving production that benefits greatly from the inventive direction and the dynamic performances of the two leads. The Last Five Years runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, and there are no dull moments here. It’s another impressive musical production from Tesseract. 

Grace Langford, Kevin Corpuz
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Last Five Years at the .ZACK Theatre until February 26, 2023

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Confederates
by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Elizabeth Carter
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 17, 2023

Tatiana Williams, Tiffany Oglesby
Photo by Liz Lauren
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s latest production, from celebrated playwright Dominique Morisseau, is one of three regional premieres around the United States. Confederates is an inventively structured look at the lives of two Black women in different situations and historical eras, but who both struggle for freedom in their own ways. With stellar production values and a first-rate cast, this show makes a strong impression and is sure to provoke much thought and conversation. 

The stories play out in interspersed scenes, focusing on Sandra (Tatiana Williams), a professor at a prestigious university, and Sara (Tiffany Oglesby), an enslaved woman on a plantation during the Civil War. Sandra is dealing with various issues, both personal and professional, including a recent divorce, conflicting expectations from her students and colleagues, as well as trying to find out who placed a photoshopped image on the door of her office. Sara, who has grown up on the plantation, helps out her brother Abner (Xavier Scott Evans), who has run away to join the Union Army, and is faced with the unexpected return of Missy Sue (Tracey Greenwood), the daughter of the plantation’s owner, who has a plan for the conflicted Sara. Both central figures are forced by circumstances to reflect on their own positions and take action, dealing with systemic injustice and striving for freedom on their own terms, many times being forced to figure out who their true allies are, if any.

The leading performances are both excellent, with Williams and Oglesby both exuding strength, stage presence, and credible emotion as their characters endure a variety of challenging circumstances and relationships. The rest of the cast members each play two characters, and all are strong, with Celeste M. Cooper as Sandra’s academic colleague Jade and as the enslaved, conflicted Luanne a particular standout. There’s also excellent support from Evans as Abner and Sandra’s student Malik, and Greenwood as the entitled Missy Sue and Sandra’s student assistant Candice. The staging is dynamic and well-paced, with occasional moments of humor amid the increasingly intense drama.

The set design, by Nina Ball, is inventive and visually striking, with contrasting wood floors representing the divide between eras and locations most of the time, but also serving as an effective setting when the whole stage is required for some key moments in Sara’s story. There’s also effectively evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, and excellent use of projections by Micah Stieglitz. Ricky German’s costumes are excellent, as well, suiting the characters well as being versatile to provide for quick changes for the performers who play different characters. There’s also compelling use of sound and music from composer/designer T. Carlos Roberts. All of these technical elements work well to represent the two eras and locations as well as providing a thematic connection between the stories.  

Confederates is a compelling, story that provokes much reflection and thought. There are many important issues portrayed here, in the person of two memorable, vividly portrayed characters and their situations. It’s a must-see show that can be a catalyst for important and challenging conversations. It’s a remarkable production from the Rep.

Tatiana Williams, Celeste M. Cooper
Photo by Liz Lauren
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Confederates until March 5, 2023

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Feminine Energy
By Myah L. Gary
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 12, 2023

Erin Renee Roberts, Ricki Franklin, Andrea Purnell
Photo by Jon Abbott
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre, which has been “on pause” for the past few seasons, is making a return with what is being billed as a “pop-up” production of a new play, Myah L. Gary’s Feminine Energy. An intriguing drama-with-humor that looks at the lives of three close friends, this is a welcome engagement from a well-respected St. Louis theatre company and featuring excellent local performers. It’s a character-driven show that provides much to think, and talk about.

The show centers on three best friends who grew up together and their medical and family struggles. They all have different life situations, and some contrasting goals and beliefs, but they maintain a close friendship and support one another in their various struggles. Debra (Andrea Purnell) has received a scary diagnosis and has been struggling with how to tell her family–including her teenage aspiring-vlogger daughter (Rae Davis), nervous husband (Joshua Mayfield), and hypercritical mother (Michelle Dillard). Monique (Ricki Franklin), a midwife, is happily married but struggling with infertility. Soleil (Erin Renee Roberts), a professor and counselor, is single and dealing with issues involving work, health, and family, as she deals with an immature personal assistant (also Davis), a long struggle with endometriosis, and a concerned mother (also Dillard) who doesn’t like Soleil’s decision to not have biological children. Their stories are interwoven as all three women deal with difficult situations and people in their lives, sharing their hopes, dreams, fears, and concerns as their stories unfold. 

The three central performers are all excellent, with a believable friendship bond and many memorable moments, both comic and dramatic. Roberts, Franklin, and Purnell are also ably supported by a quartet of performers who play various roles. Dillard plays the “Mamas” with remarkable energy, making each of these characters easy to distinguish from the others. Davis is also excellent as several characters including Debra’s daughter Jasmine, Soleil’s initially flighty but gradually maturing personal assistant Regina, and a distrustful client of Monique’s. Mayfield is fine as various characters, as well, including the two very different husbands of Debra and Monique, although some variation in costuming might help in distinguishing these characters more easily. There’s an excellent turn from Claire Louise Monarch as a series of medical professionals–some helpful and some not as much–and a somewhat goofy client of Monique’s. 

The look of this production is stylish and memorable, with a versatile set by Patrice Nelms and evocative lighting by Michael Sullivan. The costumes, by Shevare Perry, are especially remarkable and vibrant, with a variety of styles that are well suited to the various characters. There’s also proficient sound design by AhSa-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford, and excellent use of music to establish the tone of the production.

Overall, Feminine Energy is an engaging, thoughtful look at friendships among women–and particularly Black women–as they navigate various challenges in life, love, and work. It’s well-structured, for the most part, giving adequate time to the various stories and connecting them well, although the ending seems slightly abrupt. It’s a thoroughly compelling story, with a great cast and strong production values. I hope this is a good sign for Mustard Seed, and that the success of this production will lead to more from this company in the future. 

Erin Renee Roberts, Rae Davis
Photo by Jon Abbott
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Feminine Energy at Fontbonne University until February 19, 2023

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The Light
by Loy A. Webb
Directed by Kristi Papailler
The Black Rep
February 11, 2023

Alicia Revé Like, Eric J. Conners
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

It’s somewhat difficult to review the Black Rep’s latest production–not because it’s not excellent. It certainly is, with well-cast leads and a thoroughly credible, intriguing story that is meticulously constructed. The issue I’m having, though, is that describing what happens in this play seems like too much of a spoiler, since the unfolding “reveal” is the main source of the drama. I will try my best to be vague about what happens here, but what I can say unreservedly is that The Light is an excellent play, with outstanding performances. 

A lot happens in this play, especially considering how short it is–about 70 minutes, without intermission. Even with that running time, nothing in this story seems rushed. It takes its time, even to the point where for a while I was wondering why this was even a play, because for quite a while, it just seems like an “ordinary” situation–a couple celebrating their two-year dating anniversary, after Chicago firefighter Rashad (Eric J. Conners) has set up a plan to propose to Genesis (Alicia Revé Like), a school principal.  There’s a lot of wordless business about his hiding envelopes and a ring box around the apartment, and then Genesis arrives home from work and it seems like a fairly typical day, as the two talk about their day, and reminisce about their relationship. For a while, it seems like this is going to be a relatively light piece, until things get more serious in a way has the intended dramatic impact but also makes complete sense considering how the story has developed. It’s a masterful exercise in foreshadowing and deliberate dramatic build-up, with a potentially devastating impact on the characters’ lives and relationship. 

The story–which deals with some difficult subjects–is given all the more impact by the excellent performances of the two leads, who make a thoroughly believable couple and fully realized individual characters. The interplay between Like and Conners forms the heart of this play, and even when the conflict emerges and gets heated, the emotional investment is there. The clearly  established love between these two characters is so carefully built up in the first part of the play, and both Like and Conners deliver that strong sense of connection so well, it makes the latter half of the play all the more dramatically intense, leading up to a perfectly timed conclusion that leaves room for hope, even though it doesn’t provide easy answers.

This production also showcases the technical excellence of its designers, starting with Jim Burwinkel’s fully realized apartment. There are also well-suited costumes by Kristen Gray, and appropriately mood-setting lighting by Sean Savoie. The sound, by Christian Kitchens, is excellent, as well.

The Light is an appropriate title for this play, as becomes clear as the story unfolds. It’s a serious-issue play–dealing with many timely topics given a highly personal focus–but it’s not without a ray of hope. It’s another strong production from one of the most consistently excellent theatre companies in St. Louis. It’s a thoroughly compelling drama. 

Eric J. Conners, Alicia Revé Like
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting The Light at Washington University’s  Hotchner Studio Theatre until February 21, 2023

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Outside Mullingar
by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2023

Colleen Backer, Jason Meyers
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is gifting their audience with a sweet, offbeat romantic comedy for the Valentine’s Day season. Outside Mullingar is a small, character-driven play with much in the way of quirky comedy, as well as a good deal of heart. What makes this production work especially well, though, is its excellent cast. 

Outside Mullingar is a short play, running about 90 minutes with no intermission. It consists of a series of scenes involving four characters over a period of what appears to be about three years, as farming neighbors in rural Ireland deal with issues of land ownership, family grudges, parental expectations, and especially the relationship between a socially awkward man and the woman who grew up next door. Anthony, played by Jason Meyers, and Rosemary, played by Colleen Backer, are obviously in love, but for various reasons neither has admitted their feelings to the other. They both are objects of concern for their parents–Rosemary’s mother, the recently widowed Aoife , played by Jodi Stockton; and Anthony’s also widowed father, Tony, played by Brad Slavik. Both parents are in ill health, and Tony especially is having second thoughts about leaving the family farm to Anthony, who Tony considers odd, worrying that his son will never marry or have children to inherit the land. Much comic bickering ensues, and time passes as Rosemary continues to drop hints at a seemingly clueless Anthony. Will they ever get together, and if so, how? 

This is fun, quirky show, made all the more hilarious by the excellent pacing by director Jessa Knust, and strong chemistry and comic timing from the wonderful cast. Meyers and Backer are both superb, and their chemistry is obvious from their first moments on stage together, even as the characters continue to talk around their readily apparent attraction. Meyers makes the awkward, reticent Anthony endearing, and Backer’s increasingly frustrated and determined Rosemary is easy to sympathize with. There are spirited supporting performances from Stockton and Slavik as the bickering Aoife and Tony, with Slavik especially having some strong scenes with Meyers. All four work well together, bringing much energy to the already witty script. 

The setting, mood, and atmosphere of rural Ireland are maintained admirably by means of Jacob Winslow’s simple but effective set, as well as Karen Pierce’s evocative lighting. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes suit the characters well, and there’s also effective sound design by Morgan Maul-Smith. 

Overall, Outside Mullingar is an entertaining, sweet romantic comedy. The exceptional cast makes it an especially enjoyable theatrical experience. It’s an excellent Valentine from West End Players Guild. 

Jodi Stockton, Brad Slavik
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Outside Mullingar at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 19, 2023

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Side by Side by Sondheim
Directed by Reggie D. White
Choreographed by Heather Beal
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 3, 2023

Phoenix Best, Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Singlah, Amy Spanger
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Since Stephen Sondheim died in 2021, many performers and theatre companies have offered their various tributes, in the form of special performances, concerts, and productions of his shows. Now, the Rep is taking the opportunity to salute this legend of musical theatre with a somewhat understated production of the revue Side by Side by Sondheim, focusing mostly on his works up until the mid-1970s. Although this production has its moments, the performances are hit-or-miss, and it could use more energy and presence.

As narrator Alan Knoll points out early in the production, there isn’t much here in terms of a plot. Instead, the show is presented as an overview of Sondheim’s work up until about 1976, when this revue first debuted in London’s West End. in fact somewhat amusing to hear Knoll refer to 1976’s Pacific Overtures as one of Sondheim’s “later works”. Still, even with the somewhat dated elements and obvious exclusion of Sondheim’s work from the late 1970s and forward, the show as written is intriguing, and I imagine it could be a great success with more consistent performances. The cast includes late-addition Knoll, as well as performers Phoenix Best, Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Sinlah, and Amy Spanger, accompanied by Kris Pineda and Stephen A. Eros on Piano. 

The show covers Sondheim’s earlier works as a lyricist working with other composers on shows such as West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as his work as both composer and lyricist on shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, and Follies. Also featured are some more obscure songs from lesser-known works, as well as television and film. 

The staging can be inventive on occasion, featuring Heather Beal’s energetic choreography, Tre’Von Griffith’s  music direction, and a simple set featuring a screen and eye-catching projections by Camilla Tassi, and flanked by the two pianists seated at grand pianos on either side. Xavier Pierce’s atmospheric lighting also adds flair to the staging, and Sharath Patel’s sound design is proficient, although there are occasional issues with the singers’ volume. 

As for those performers,  the biggest standouts are Knoll, in a personable and occasionally hilarious turn as the Narrator, and the appropriately named Best, who delivers several memorable solos on songs such as “I’m Still Here”, “I Never Do Anything Twice”, and “Send in the Clowns”. Miller also has his moments and a strong tenor voice, but Sinlah and especially Spanger struggle to maintain energy and consistency. After a somewhat lackluster opening, there are a few memorable group numbers, including a unique staging of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy and an entertaining closing medley. It’s a fairly low-key production, and could use a little more energy in places.

Side by Side by Sondheim isn’t the spectacular tribute it could be, and I also think modern audiences might notice the lack of material from the composer’s more well-known later works like Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. Still, even though it focuses on his earlier works, this could be a much more vibrant show than the Rep has managed to produce. It’s not entirely a miss–there are certainly some memorable moments, especially from Best and Knoll, and there are some interesting bits of trivia to learn about the legendary composer and lyricist. Anyone who is a particular fan of Sondheim’s, though, might still be frustrated with the lack of energy and true sparkle.

Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Singlah, Phoenix Best, Amy Spanger
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Side by Side by Sondheim at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until February 19, 2023

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