Posts Tagged ‘st. louis’

by Anne V. McGravie
Directed by Trish Brown
PRISM Theatre Company
September 15, 2023

Avery Lux, Ashley Bauman, Sarah Naumann, Sadie Harvey, Jade Cash
Photo by Julie Merkle
PRISM Theatre Company

Probably the strongest aspect of PRISM Theatre Company’s new production of Wrens is how deliberately and authentically it sets its scene, time, place, and era. Inspired by the playwrights experiences during World War II, the play features well-defined characters, and a strong sense of setting. It also features some memorable performances by a cast of local performers. 

Playwright Anne V. McGravie’s story is based on her first-hand experiences as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, or “Wrens”. This particular story focuses on a group of Wrens at a base in Scotland at the very end of the war. The seven characters represent various regions of the United Kingdom, including the Welsh, Scottish, and English women of different ages and stages of life. Some, like Jenny (Avery Lux) and Gwyneth (Ashley Bauman), are married to men who are serving in the war, and others are single. There’s also a variety of attitudes toward work, life, and the war–the  orderly Cynthia (Sadie Harvey) objects to the others’ flouting of rules; the aloof Chelsea (Camryn Ruhl) is looked at as a snooty outsider by the rest in the barracks, and young Dawn (Sam Hayes) is dealing with a personal issue that she’s reluctant to share with her colleagues. As the end of the war in Europe is rumored to happen any day, the Wrens also reflect on how the war and their service have changed their lives, and the attitudes towards women in the workforce and in general. There are moments of humor as well as intense drama, as the end of their service looms and various revelations come to light.

The story itself is intriguing and informative, and the characters are well-defined, if sometimes not quite as fleshed-out as they could be. The dialogue is also odd in places, with some of the speech patterns seeming somewhat awkward. Still, it’s a fascinating show, for the most part, and the cast is strong across the board, led by Lux as the protective Jenny, Hayes as the evasive Dawn, and Bauman as the strong-willed Gwyneth, along with Sarah Naumann as the Wrens’ resident writer, Doris. Jade Cash is also memorable as the fun-loving youngest Wren, Meg. Harvey as the stickler Cynthia, and Ruhl as the detached Chelsea also make a strong impression, even if their roles aren’t as prominent. The ensemble chemistry is what especially makes this show work, as it lends much credibility to this story. These characters and their interactions are relatable and highly convincing as a group who has lived and worked together for a while. The various UK accents represented are also impressively done, for the most part.

The technical presentation also makes a memorable impression. The set by Caleb D. Long is meticulously detailed, and the costumes by Sam Hayes are well-suited to the characters and the era. There’s also excellent use of period music, and strong sound design by Jacob Baxley, as well as superb lighting by Catherine Adams.

Wrens does feature some difficult subject matter, as mentioned in the program, and its best recommended for older teen to adult audiences. World War II has been a frequent subject for dramatization, and Wrens offers its own look at an aspect of life during the war that might not be as well-known, especially for American audiences. It’s a compelling drama, taking the audience to a specific time and place with energy and impressive authenticity.

Cast of Wrens
Photo by Julie Merkle
PRISM Theatre Company

PRISM Theatre Company is presenting Wrens at the Kranzberg Arts Center until September 24, 2023

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Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original Concept and Direction by Floyd Mutrux
Directed and Choreographed by Keith Andrews
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2023

Jeremy Sevelovitz, Brady Wease, Edward La Cardo, Scott Moreau
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is closing out their season with a rousing tribute to good old fashioned Rock ‘n Roll, and some of the iconic musicians who helped popularize it in the 1950’s. Using a true event as the basis for a fictionalized story, Million Dollar Quartet–directed by Keith Andrews–also provides an excellent showcase for its cast and a collection of memorable songs. It’s the musicality and presence of the cast, as well as the simple but effective production values, that make this show a delightful, energetic, crowd-pleasing production that celebrates not only the celebrities represented, but the music itself. 

The story is based on a gathering at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in December, 1956, in which Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all met at the now-legendary studio and recorded some songs together for studio owner and producer Sam Phillips. The iconic “jam session” has become the stuff of legend, but book writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have played up the “legendary” aspect of the story even more, taking the opportunity to add some biographical details on the performers and Phillips, as well as including many of the performers’ most recognizable hits. The setup involves Philips trying to surprise Cash with a contract renewal, and RCA trying to court Phillips to sell Sun Records and move to New York to work with Elvis again. Also, Elvis did apparently have a girlfriend with him that day, but she wasn’t a singer, so the writers have created the character of Dyanne, an aspiring chanteuse who joins in on the jam session singing lead on some popular hits and harmonizing with the guys on other songs.

The performances are nothing short of stellar, and the casting of the singers and musicians is ideal, with Jeremy Sevelovitz as Carl Perkins on vocals and guitar, and Chuck Zayas as Carl’s brother Jay Perkins on bass being the standouts in terms of pure musicianship. Everyone is in excellent voice, with Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash managing to capture Cash’s deep vocal sound with impressive accuracy, and Edward La Cardo as Elvis has the necessary moves, vocals, and sheer charisma of the young King of Rock ‘n Roll. Brady Wease is a scene-stealer as the showboating Lewis, as well, with great vocals and impressive piano playing. Shelby Ringdahl as Dyanne also adds a likable personality and strong vocals to the mix, and music director David Sonneborn accompanies the group with style as drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland. The production’s emotional anchor is the excellent, personable Jeff Cummings as Phillips, who provides much of the dramatic weight of the production and makes the somewhat thin plot work smoothly. 

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that makes this show work, and the sheer musicianship and atmosphere, which is ably supported by means Adam Koch’s detailed set, Brad Musgrove’s excellent period costumes, Sean M. Savoie’s vibrant lighting, and the cohesive sound design by Beef Gratz. 

Million Dollar Quartet is both a history lesson and a celebration of the true joy of music, especially old-school rock ‘n roll and pop, traditional country, and some old-time gospel hymns. It’s a marvelous tribute to these iconic performers, as well as their seemingly boundless talent and musicality. 

Cast of Million Dollar Quartet
Photo by Phillip Hamer
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Million Dollar Quartet at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center until October 8, 2023

This review was originally published at

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The Lehman Trilogy
by Stefano Massini, Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Carey Perloff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 8, 2023

Firdous Bamji, Scott Wentworth, Joshua David Robinson
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening their new season with a much talked-about, award-winning play that’s really three plays in one, as its title suggests. The Lehman Trilogy examines the lives and history of three immigrant brothers and the company they founded, as well as the legacy they left behind, along with a critique of American corporate greed and its impact on society over the years. It also provides an ideal platform for a trio of memorable acting performances and some truly stunning production values that highlight the work of an impressive crew and creative team. 

This is a long show, running at about three-and-a-half hours, and the cast of three (Firdous Bamji, Joshua David Robinson, and Scott Wentworth) plus one onstage musician (Joe LaRocca) get quite the workout with so much stage time, character changes, and quick pacing. The story begins with the three German Jewish immigrant Lehman brothers, Henry (Wentworth), Emanuel (Robinson), and Mayer (Bamji), who start off selling fabric and suits, and then farming equipment before becoming cotton brokers and finally bankers, eventually moving their business from Montgomery, Alabama to New York City. We see the brothers’ entrepreneurial spirit develop, as well as their differing talents and roles in the company as it grows, and eventually, passes along to their descendants, including Emanuel’s assertive son Philip (Wentworth), Mayer’s inquisitive son Herbert (Robinson), and later, Philip’s worldly son Robert (Bamji). The third act moves the company into the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, as its fortunes rise and fall with the stock market, and trends of the times. It’s all told in a brisk but occasionally poetic manner, and is driven by the dynamic staging and eye-catching production values.

What especially holds interest, though, is the wonderfully versatile cast. The three actors play a variety of roles between them, with clever staging and brisk transitions adding to the energy. All three players are strong, with Bamji especially notable in highly contrasting roles as the mild-mannered Mayer and the enterprising Robert. Robinson is also excellent in balancing comedic moments with drama, and is especially adept as playing Herbert’s transition from childhood to adulthood. Wentworth also puts in a strong performance, playing the more commanding characters with particular strength. All three hold the audience’s attention for the duration, with able, melodic support from LaRocca on clarinet and a series of other instruments. 

The other stars of this production are its design and designers. Sara Brown’s set is marvelously kinetic, adapting to the various eras of the time and reflecting the changing eras as the background shifts from packing crates and boxes in the 19th century, to smoother lines and neon in more recent times. The dazzling projections by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew add a lot of energy to the visuals, as does Robert Wierzel’s dazzling lighting. There’s also excellent sound design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes, and memorable original music by Bennett that reflects traditional and increasingly modern styles as the story progresses. 

Although the story tends to lose a little bit of steam and focus towards the end, the actors and crew keep up the energy all the way through. In terms of energy, acting, and staging, this show is a remarkable feat. Especially in terms of quality of performance, it’s a stunning work of theatre. 

Joshua David Robinson, Scott Wentworth, Firdous Bamji
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Lehman Trilogy until September 24, 2023

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Suddenly Last Summer
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
September 7, 2023

Bradley Tejeda, Lisa Tejero
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Suddenly Last Summer is perhaps one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known works, or at least, it’s not one of those shows that comes immediately to mind for most when the playwright’s name is mentioned, like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s still a show that’s been written about a fair amount; studied and contemplated, as well as adapted into a well-regarded 1959 film. At this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival STL, this play takes center stage featuring a strong cast, especially in the three main leads, even though it can be talky at times, and the deliberate pacing requires a good deal of concentration until the disturbing but riveting conclusion.

An intriguing aspect of this play is the fact that much of the story revolves around a character who never appears onstage. The enigmatic, well-traveled poet Sebastian Venable was revered and idealized by his mother, Violet (Lisa Tejero), loved by his cousin Catherine Holly (Naima Randolph)–who was with Sebastian when he died–and mourned by both in their own ways since his death the previous summer under disputed circumstances. Violet, in fact, is so disturbed by Catherine’s story of what happened, that she has gone to great lengths to silence her niece, including having her committed to an asylum and enlisting the young Doctor Cucrowicz (Bradley Tejeda)–or “Dr. Sugar” as he is called–to give Catherine a lobotomy. The doctor insists on interviewing Catherine first, despite the ailing but ever determined Violet’s insistence that the procedure be done. Catherine’s financially struggling mother (Rengin Altay) and brother, George (Harrison Farmer), are there to encourage Catherine to change her story, worried that Violet will deny them an inheritance from Sebastian, but the doctor seems determined to hear the truth. And after a lot of evasion, threatening, and attempt to delay the inevitable, the story comes out in an explosive, highly emotional manner. I won’t say what the story is, but I will say this is an intense, highly symbolic story that takes a while to get where it’s going while it builds an atmosphere of fear, doubt, and encroaching terror, revealing the personalities and intentions of various characters while exploring the concepts of societal expectations, self-delusion, and the depths of human cruelty. 

There’s a lot here to think about, and the characters are well-drawn, especially Violet and Catherine, who are the main adversaries here; and Dr. Sugar serves as a strong sounding board for both, as he challenges Violet’s insistent assumptions and works with determined focus to hear the whole truth from Catherine. The cast is excellent–especially in the three leading roles, with Tejero giving an intense and complex portrayal of the difficult, smothering Violet, and Randolph matching her intensity as the troubled but determined Catherine, who especially commands the stage in the play’s riveting final moments. Tejeda is also convincing and engaging as the doctor, working well with both Tejero and Randolph. There’s also strong support from Altay and Farmer as Catherine’s mother and brother, as well as Ieshah Edwards as Catherine’s chaperone from the asylum, Sister Felicity, and Bethany Barr as Miss Foxhill, Violet’s frequently exasperated assistant and caregiver. 

Technically, the play does a good job of maintaining the look and atmosphere of the old, fading New Orleans Garden District estate of its setting, with a fairly simple set design by James Wolk, and especially striking lighting by Matthew McCarthy. The sound by Phillip Evans and original music by Henry Palkes also serve the story well, as do the period costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis. 

Suddenly Last Summer is another memorable mainstage entry from TWFSTL. Even though the story takes a while to really get going, it packs a strong emotional punch when Catherine’s story is finally allowed to be told. It’s not an easy story to take, but the telling is the highlight of the drama, and the sheer terror that has been building throughout. It’s an intense show, and not for all ages, but it’s well worth seeing especially for the truly stellar leading performances. 

Rengin Altay, Bradley Tejada, Naima Randolph, Lisa Tejero, Ieshah Edwards
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis is presenting Suddenly Last Summer at COCA’s Berges Theatre until September 17, 2023

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Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Shaun Patrick Tubbs
Choreographed by Leah Tubbs
Union Avenue Opera
August 18, 2023

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera’s relatively new tradition of staging compelling musical theatre productions continues with their 2023 season closing show, Ragtime. This is a big show, with a large cast that, as is fitting for an opera company, especially highlights the superb vocals of its well-chosen cast. It’s also a detailed, well-produced show in a technical sense.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel, Ragtime tells the intersecting stories of three distinct groups of people and the times in which they live, featuring actual events and celebrities of the time interacting with Doctorow’s original characters. The focal characters include the white residents of affluent New York City suburb New Rochelle, represented by obtuse, world-traveling Father Eric J. McConnell, and pampered Mother (Debby Lennon), along with their son Edgar (Gavin Nobbe), Mother’s aimless Younger Brother (James Stevens), and the curmudgeonly Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi). Meanwhile, in Harlem, Black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nyghél J. Byrd) entertains and develops a following, but he has grand plans involving a young woman, Sarah (Jazmine Olwalia), with whom he has had a relationship and wants to renew the connection after Sarah has fled to New Rochelle and is taken in by Mother, along with her newborn son. Meanwhile, Tateh (Marc Shapman), and his daughter, the Little Girl (Nora Sprowls) are newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Latvia, and Tateh struggles to provide a safe, prosperous life for his daughter in the midst of poverty and discrimination. When Coalhouse, who has recently bought a shiny new Model-T car, starts spending many days in New Rochelle courting Sarah, he rouses the ire of racist fire chief Willie Conklin (Philip Touchette) and his cronies, who vandalize Coalhouse’s car and set into motion a series of events that eventually lead to profound tragedy and upheaval, as the 20th Century begins on a dramatic note and the various characters pursue their hopes and dreams in the midst of conflict and turmoil.  

There’s a lot happening in this story, and the writers do well in blending all the plotlines in, with historical events and figures being seamlessly inserted into the overarching story, as some of these characters–especially anarchist and activist Emma Goldman (Liya Khaimova)–serving as occasional narrators and commentators. Other figures like performer Evelyn Nesbit (Gina Malone), illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini (Joel Rogier), and educator Booker T. Washington (Miles Brenton) play more prominent roles in the story along with the main characters, including Mother, Tateh, and Coalhouse and Sarah. It’s a sweeping story, and Union Avenue Opera has brought together a large cast and a more elaborate set than I’ve seen before at this venue, with the result being a compelling, emotional, and thought-provoking work that highlights a truly remarkable score.

The voices are magnificent, led by Byrd and Olwalia, who both give excellent performances and fill the sanctuary at Union Avenue Christian Church with their stellar vocals and convincing performances. These two are the heart of this production, but the rest of the cast is also strong, from the always excellent Lennon as Mother, to Stevens as the gradually more determined Younger Brother, to Schapman as the dedicated and creative Tateh. There’s a strong ensemble all around, and the group numbers especially shine, from the Act 1 ending “Till We Reach That Day” to the stirring finale. It can be a little difficult to hear the spoken dialogue from the balcony, but the supertitles (designed by Touchette) are especially helpful in this regard. The singing, and the marvelous orchestra led by conductor Scott Schoonover, were especially evident. 

Technically, this production is more than impressive. It’s stunning, especially in terms of the set by Patrick Huber and the meticulously crafted costumes by Teresa Doggett. There’s also excellent lighting by Huber that helps set and maintain the tone of the story as it unfolds. 

Ragtime is another strong production from Union Avenue Opera. As a musical with the scope of an opera and a challenging vocal score, this is an especially appropriate choice for an opera company to produce. It works well as a showcase for a strong cast of excellent singers, and it’s worth seeing–and hearing–for yourself. 

Nyghél J. Byrd, Jazmine Olwalia
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting Ragtime at Union Avenue Christian Church until August 26, 2023

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Sister Act
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater
Book by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner
Additonal Book Material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 15, 2023

Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is ready to boogie! Audiences should be ready, as well, because the closing entry in their wonderful 2023 season is the joyful, disco-filled Sister Act, which fills that big stage with abundant energy, style, and fun. The cast is great, the production looks fabulous, and the audience seems to love every  minute. 

The stage version of this show essentially follows the plot of the popular 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, but with a few important differences. First, this version has a full musical score with songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, as opposed to the classic 1960s songs of the film. Also, the setting has been adjusted so that the story now takes place in late 1970’s Philadelphia, where Deloris Van Cartier (Bryonha Marie) aspires to become a singing sensation, and her chosen genre is disco. When she unexpectedly witness a murder committed by her crime boss/nightclub owner boyfriend Curtis Jackson (Alan H. Greene), Deloris turns to the police, and former high school classmate, Officer Eddie Souther (James T. Lane), who arranges for Deloris to hide out in the convent at Queen of Angels Church, where she takes on the guise of “Sister Mary Clarence”.  Although the more traditionalist Mother Superior (Mamie Parris) is suspicious of this brash new addition to her ranks, Deloris soon builds a rapport with the other nuns, including the perky Sister Mary Patrick (Katy Geraghty) and the shy postulant Mary Robert (Meredith Aleigha Wells), along with the snarky Mary Lazarus (Madeleine Doherty). Before too long, Deloris has the nuns’ choir singing the rousing disco tunes that she loves, drawing an enthusiastic following in the once-struggling parish, while continuing to frustrate the Mother Superior and causing worry for her and  Eddie, who are concerned that the determined Curtis and his cronies TJ (Darron Hayes), Pablo (Brandon Espinoza), and Joey (Rob Colletti) will find her and put the whole convent in danger. 

At the Muny, as staged and choregraphed by Denis Jones, this is a fast-paced, tuneful, and ultimately heartfelt show that celebrates friendship and human connection, with the uplifting disco, pop, R&B, and gospel-influenced score providing a memorable soundtrack for the story. The cast is, in Deloris’s words “Fabulous, Baby”, led by Bryonha Marie as an engaging, determined but vulnerable Deloris, with a great voice and excellent comic abilities. Parris is also excellent as the initially stern but well-meaning Mother Superior, with an equally stunning voice. The supporting cast is also strong, with memorable turns by Wells as the shy young Mary Robert, who learns to assert herself and raise her strong, powerful voice; and Garaghty as the endearingly plucky Mary Patrick. Lane is also excellent as Eddie, whose chemistry with Deloris is strong; and Greene is suitably menacing as the sinister Curtis, with Hayes, Espinoza, and Colletti getting some funny moments as Curtis’s henchmen. There’s also a fun turn from Thom Sesma as Monsignor O’Hara, who becomes a surprisingly enthusiastic supporter of the choir as they spread the “Sunday Morning Fever” in their performances at the church. The leads are joined by fantastic ensemble, as well, including the Muny Kids and Teens, as the energetic production numbers fill the Muny stage with enthusiastic energy and tuneful, disco-infused joy.

The show also looks great, with a colorful, versatile set by Edward E. Haynes, Jr. that makes excellent use of the Muny’s turntable, and dynamic video design by Kevan Loney. There are also eye-catching costumes Leon Dobkowski and memorable wig design by Kelley Jordan. The lighting by Shelley Loera is also spectacular, adding dazzle to the proceedings, and there’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley.

Sister Act is a glorious, energetic ending to a spectacular lineup of shows for the Muny. With a rousing, fittingly Muny-style finale that pulls out all the stops, and a fun, heartwarming story led by a supremely talented cast and crew, this production is a resounding success. I’ve been attending Muny shows since 2004, and as far as I’m concerned, this has been this best season yet. I’m looking forward to what they have in store for next year. 

Cast of Sister Act
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Sister Act in Forest Park until August 20, 2023

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by Eric Berg
Directed by Phil Wright
First Run Theatre
August 11, 2023

Lexy Witcher, Jade Cash, Monica Allen
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is staging a compelling, highly evocative show at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Wayward, by Eric Berg, isn’t entirely original in terms of story, but it does an excellent job of portraying the characters in a specific time, place, and cultural moment in history. It’s also an ideal vehicle for the terrific cast that director Phil Wright has assembled. 

The framing device presents focal character Carol Kwiatkowski (Lexy Witcher) as a middle-aged mother in the mid-1980’s, telling a story to an unnamed and unseen adult child. The bulk of the story, though, takes place in Kansas City, Missouri in 1962, at the “Home for Wayward Girls”, operated by an order of Catholic nuns led by the stern Sister Elizabeth (Monica Allen), and assisted by the younger, more approachable Sister Anne (Jade Cash). The young Carol, pregnant and unmarried, arrives at the home early in the year and is advised of the rules and expectations by the sisters, although she insists she won’t be staying long, as her boyfriend Ronnie should be there to pick her up soon so they can get married and raise their child together. Sister Elizabeth has heard this story before, and is doubtful, but reluctantly allows Carol to delay signing an adoption consent form. Then, Carol is introduced to the other residents of the house, known by nicknames and aliases because they are “encouraged” not to use their real names or share personal information. So, we meet the friendly Country Girl (Mckenna Stroud); the well-read, culturally connected Mayflower (Sarah Vallo); the gruff, cynical Jersey Girl (Amie Bossi); and Maggie (Camryn Ruhl), who is due to give birth any day now. Over the course of the next few months, we see the developing relationships between the residents, as Carol finds her place in the group and the young women share their thoughts and hopes, as well as their contrasting personalities and efforts at friendship within the strict framework of the home’s rules, and the expectations of society around them.

This premise isn’t a new one. I’ve seen other plays and stories that cover similar ground, but what makes this one especially compelling is the characters, and especially the way the playwright portrays their relationships to one another and also to their cultural time and place, with Jackie Kennedy’s televised White House tour being a major focal point, and pop culture references brought up not just for setting, but as a reflection of the characters and society, emphasizing the fact that these are essentially “normal” young women who have found themselves in a situation made difficult by the social expectations and pressures of the time in which they live.  There are a few story threads I wish could be fleshed out a little more, but for the most part the story is engaging and thoughtful.

The evocation of time and place is excellent, and particularly compelling. I believe these characters, and the terrific performers make me believe them all the more. Witcher, as Carol, is an ideal, approachable lead, taking a credible emotional journey and bringing the audience along with her. Cash is also memorable as the initially shy, but increasingly sympathetic Sister Anne. All of the players are strong, from Allen’s stern but multi-dimensional Sister Elizabeth, to Stroud’s kind Country Girl, Vallo’s reserved but also kind Mayflower, Bossi’s defensively snarky Jersey Girl, and Ruhl’s two important and contrasting roles. It’s a cohesive ensemble, bringing much energy and heart to the proceedings. 

The early 1960’s setting is well-established in the plot and characters, and the production values enhance this atmosphere. Brad Slavik’s set is simple but effective, and the costumes are well-suited, although there is no designer listed in the program. There’s also effective lighting by Michelle Zielinski and sound by Jenn Ciavarella. 

Ultimately, Wayward is about a young woman who makes the most of a difficult situation, and the relationships she forms and the lives she affects in the midst of societal pressure and a strict structure that offers markedly different treatment for women vs. men. As a play, it makes the most of a premise that’s been used before, although this show brings a degree of nuance and character that makes the story especially compelling. It’s the best show I’ve seen from First Run, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Camryn Ruhl, Mckenna Stroud, Sarah Vallo, Jade Cash, Amie Bossi, Lexy Witcher
Photo: First Run Theatre

Cast of Wayward
Photo: First Run Theatre

First Run Theatre is presenting Wayward at the Kranzberg Arts Center until August 20, 2023

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Merry Wives
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo
August 8, 2023

Michelle Hand, Rae Davis, Carl Overly Jr., Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Christina Yancy
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Imagine if The Merry Wives of Windsor was a 1990’s sitcom. That’s the premise of Merry Wives, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo show that’s running (for free) in various parks and other locations in the St. Louis area throughout the month of August. With a small, energetic and versatile cast, and some fun production elements, this is an entertaining Shakespearean update, even if it is a bit on the long side.

As is true for a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies, Merry Wives involves a lot of trickery and mixed-up romances. It also involves a popular character from some of the Bard’s history plays that he brought back, Sir John Falstaff, played here by Carl Overly, Jr. The swaggering, party-loving Falstaff has made the mistake here of trying to woo two women at once–Mrs. Page (Michelle Hand) and Mrs. Ford (Christina Yancy)–who are too clever for his own good. Upon discovering that Falstaff has sent the same letter to both of them, the two women set out to play a trick on the knight that involves a lot of hilarious hijinks. Meanwhile, the jealous Mr. Ford (Joel Moses) sets out to expose his wife’s supposed treachery by disguising himself and asking Falstaff for “help”, and the Pages’ daughter Anne (Rae Davis) deals with a trio of varying suitors all played by Mitchell Henry-Eagles, with expected mix-ups and hilarity ensuing in that plot, as well. 

The sitcom structure works well here, with a fun soundtrack provided for the transition scenes, and a host of 90’s pop-culture references thrown in for good measure. The cast is excellent, with great enthusiasm and comic timing, and a whimsical production design by Laura Skroska with clever costumes by Kayla Lindsey. The approximately 90-minute runtime is a bit long for a sitcom, and, and it might have benefited from a little bit of trimming. Still, the whole cast and crew manage to keep up the spirit of the show throughout. Overly, as the only cast member who doesn’t play multiple roles, is an energetic Falstaff, and the rest of the players are commendable in their sheer versatility. 

I love the TourCo shows because they are so accessible. It’s not just free Shakespeare, like the headline shows in Forest Park each year. These are shows that go to various different venues throughout the region. I saw Merry Wives in Tower Grove Park, and if you look at STLSF’s website, you will find the schedule and locations for the rest of the run. It’s more than worth checking out. Even with its slightly long runtime for a show of this format, it’s a lively, fun production that’s easy to enjoy, especially for fans of 1990’s sitcoms and pop culture. 


Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles, Joel Moses
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photgraphy
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s TourCo is presenting Merry Wives in various locations until August 29. 2023

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

Lincoln Clauss (Center) and Cast of Rent
The Muny

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

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

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

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

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

Cast of Rent
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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