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Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder, Music Arranged by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2020

Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Alyssa Wolf, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre continues its tradition of offbeat hits with its latest production of Head Over Heels. Essentially a “jukebox musical” featuring music by pop group The Go-Go’s, this show show incorporates its musical catalog in a clever, crowd-pleasing way that’s more about telling a whimsical story inspired by classic literature and an ancient Greek setting than being a simple tribute to its musical source. It also provides a great opportunity for an excellent cast to showcase their talents as well as a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The plot can get convoluted at times, as a lot is going on here, but it’s a lot of fun, and the occasional confusion is part of the enjoyment. At first, in the kingdom of Arcadia, there are a lot of conflicting goals and motives. The King, Basilius (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Queen, Gynecia (Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer) have two daughters with romantic dilemmas. Younger daughter Philoclea (Melissa Felps) is in love with a rustic shepherd, Musidorus (Clayton Humburg), of whom her father does not approve. Meanwhile, the King is doubling his efforts to find an acceptable suitor for his elder daughter Pamela (Grace Langford), who isn’t interested in any of the men presented, and initially seems to be more in love with herself than anyone else. When the King and his attendant Dametas (Aaron Allen) go to visit the mysterious Oracle Pythio (Tiélere Cheatem), the oracle tells them of a four-fold prophecy which will lead to Arcadia’s losing its “Beat”. The king, determined to foil the prophecy, takes his people on a seemingly aimless journey, where eventually truths are revealed, lies are exposed, and there are a lot of whimsical twists and turns involving the King, Queen, Princesses, the Oracle, Dametas and his daughter, Pamela’s handmaid Mopsa (Jaclyn Amber), and more. 

Don’t think you have to be a fan of the Go-Go’s to enjoy this show. The group has always been more on the periphery of my musical interests, and I wasn’t extremely familiar with their songs beyond their bigger radio hits. Still, this show uses the songs well, and in a setting that might not seem an obvious one for these tunes. Everything from the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat” to other hits such as “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is used in an inventive way that contributes to the story. Especially notable is the fun, cleverly staged “Mad About You”, sung by Musidorus and a chorus of puppet sheep, staged in a hilarious, energetic way that makes it a highlight of the production. There is a message here, of accepting and encouraging change and not being bound to tradition simply for tradition’s sake, as well as some perspectives on challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes, and everything is integrated into the story so that it fits the characters and situations well. Most of all, though, it’s a fun show with a lot of broad comedy and catchy, well-utilized pop tunes that serve the setting surprisingly well, even with the dialogue that’s more Elizabethan-sounding for the most part.

As is to be expected at New Line, the casting is strong, and the singing is especially impressive. Everyone from the leads to the ensemble puts in a winning, energetic performance, with standouts being Langford and Felps as the sisters who are at once different and not-so-different;  Humburg as the lovesick Musidorus, who through the course of the story has to change his appearance in a way that drives a lot of the plot; and Amber as the loyal, determined Mopsa, who both challenges and inspires Pamela. Farmer and Priesmeyer are excellent as the King and Queen, as well, as is Cheatem in a dynamic performance as the oracle Pythio. The chemistry among all the couples is strong, as well, as is the spirit and enthusiasm of the ensemble. There’s some especially clever staging here by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, along with a great band led by music director Nicolas Valdez.

The presentation here is colorful and whimsical, with Rob Lippert’s classically inspired set serving as an ideal backdrop for the action. There are also bright, striking costumes by Courtney Gibson and Sarah Porter that add to the overall tone of the show nicely. Also lending to the overall atmosphere is Kenneth Zinkl’s dazzling lighting. Overall, the look and feel of this production is in keeping with the catchy, bright pop score and the general comic tone that blends the classical and the modern in a cleverly inventive way.

Head Over Heels is another example of one of those shows that seems to fit better in a smaller setting like New Line than on Broadway. Staged at New Line’s home base, the Marcelle Theatre, this show makes the most of the space and the closeness to the audience, who are seated on either side of the performance area here. It’s a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre.

Clayton Humburg and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Head Over Heels at the Marcelle Theatre until March 28, 2020

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The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Fox Theatre
February 25, 2020

Sasson Gabay, Janet Dacal
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The Band’s Visit North American Tour

The Band’s Visit is a Tony-Winning musical that’s more about characters and atmosphere than plot. That’s a good thing, in this case, since the characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is haunting and memorable. Currently on tour at the Fox, this production boasts an excellent cast and a stunning sense of musicality to underscore these characters’ simple but profound stories.

It’s not a long play, running at 90 minutes with no intermission, and the setup is simple. An Egyptian police band has arrived in Israel to perform a concert, having been invited to appear at the opening of a cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. There’s a misunderstanding at the bus station, however, and the band ends up in the small, out-of-the-way town of Bet Hatikva. Once the mistake is realized, band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his band are informed that the next bus arrives the following day, so they find themselves unexpectedly spending the night in the town, making the acquaintance of local restaurant owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (played at the performance I saw by standby Danny Burgos). The various band members split up and spend the evening with the locals. Tewfiq and the suave Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina, and Dina shows Tewfiq the town while Haled tags along with Papi and his friend on a double date, discovering that Papi is insecure and doesn’t know how to connect with his date. Clarinetist and composer Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik’s family, forming a bond and finding himself helping in an unexpected way. Dina and Tewfiq share a bond and an attraction, but Tewfiq is haunted by past regrets. Meanwhile, the ever-persistent “Telephone Guy” (Mike Cefalo) waits by a payphone hour after hour for his long-absent girlfriend to call. This is more a series of episodes with a common theme than one cohesive story, and ultimately there is a message of persistence and hope in the midst of regret and despair, as well as finding common bonds among people from different cultures. There’s a memorable score by David Yazbek with standout songs like “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different” for Dina, and “Haled’s Song of Love” as well as the emotive “Answer Me” and more, played with heartrending beauty by the onstage band conducted by Adrian Ries.

The production values here are impressive, especially considering this is a tour, with detailed, fluidly-moving set by Scott Pask that represents all the various locations in the town and uses the stage’s turntable particularly well. There’s also evocative lighting by Tyler Micoleau that further sets and maintains the show’s lyrical tone and mood. Also excellent are the detailed costumes by Sarah Laux that help bring these characters to life along with the stunning performances.

As for those performances, the entire ensemble is strong here, with superb voices and strong presence. The heart of the show is the connection between Dacal’s bold Dina and Gabay’s soft-spoken Tewfiq, and both performers are stunning in their portrayals and in their chemistry. Other standouts include Joseph as the smooth-voiced ladies’ man Haled, Burgos as the anxious Papi, and the clear-voiced Koch as Itzik, who gets a poignant moment with “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Cefalo is also memorable as the determined Telephone Guy. The whole cast is strong, with a strong sense of cohesive energy and determination, singing the score well and bringing out the emotion of the memorable score.

Overall, The Band’s Visit is about little moments that turn out to be bigger than expected. It’s a “little” show in some ways, with a short run time and a relatively small cast, but it’s got a big heart and sense of musicality that shines through even beyond the curtain call. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking production.

The North American tour of The Band’s Visit is running at the Fox Theatre until March 8, 2020

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The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Sean Belt
West End Players Guild
February 22, 2020

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Relationships can be complicated, and so can influence within those relationships. Whether they are romantic relationships, friendships, siblings, parents and children, etc., the dynamics of various relationships have often formed the basis for exploration through drama, and comedy. The latest production from West End Players Guild, Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, which explores the developing relationship between two middle-aged women who start out as strangers, then become friends, and then… well, let’s just say it’s complicated. And in the hands of the excellent performers in this production, it’s also fascinating from start to finish.

Described in the show’s promotional materials as a “dark comedy”, The Roommate introduces audiences to two very different women who are brought together by necessity and loneliness. It also explores the development of influence and shifting power balances within interpersonal relationships. At first, Iowa homeowner Sharon (Jane Abling) seems shy and uneducated about much of the world outside of the Midwest, even though she stresses that she knows better than the Iowa-born residents around her, because she’s originally from Illinois. Regardless of where she’s from, Sharon isn’t happy, as her marriage has just ended, and her son lives in New York City and doesn’t seem to be home often when she tries to call him. She doesn’t get out much, and in her loneliness she advertises for a roommate. That roommate turns out to be Robyn (Julie George-Carlson), who seems somewhat scary to Sharon at first, since she’s very different–a vegan lesbian from NYC who is very secretive about her past–but Sharon is determined to get to know her new roommate, and the two soon form a friendship that’s full of surprises. One surprise is that the dynamic begins to shift, as Sharon grows bolder and Robyn more reticent, becoming drawn back into some activities that Robyn was trying to leave behind her. It’s a funny play, certainly, but also has its moments of poignancy and also a dark, insidious undercurrent that makes the proceedings increasingly uncomfortable, which seems to be deliberate. The relationship and its results are complex, to be sure, and certainly the cause for much thought and reflection concerning a variety of issues such as middle-aged loneliness, peer pressure (no matter what your age), the difficulties of fleeing past regrets, and more.

The script is witty and insightful, and it builds well, and the relationship here is made all the more believable by the truly compelling performances of the two leads. Abling is excellent in portraying the development of Sharon from shy and naive to bold and assertive, giving a strong sense that the character is revealing aspects of her personality that she has kept hidden for a long time, perhaps even to herself. Then there’s George-Carlson, whose Robyn is consciously hiding things, but then finds herself reluctantly opening up and then dealing with the palpable struggle between excitement at finding a friend to regret at how that relationship influences her new friend, and also herself. There’s a strong sense of chemistry and bonding between the two, as well, which adds to the credibility of the relationship and makes the story all the more compelling.

Technically, the show makes the most of the stage in the basement of Union Avenue Christian church, as the stage itself and area in front of it are put to use by means of George Shea’s detailed, believable set. There’s also excellent lighting from Tony Anselmo and sound from Chuck Lavazzi. Most impressive, however, is the costuming work by Tracey Newcomb, and in how the costumes not only suit the characters but also play a considerable part in showing the evolving relationship between these women, and how both characters are influenced by one another over the course of the play. It’s an impressive feat from both director Sean Belt and costume designer Newcomb that adds a great deal of depth to this play.

The Roommate is an insightful comedy that shows especially well how relationships–whatever their nature–can be influential, empowering, revelatory, and even dangerous. It deals with moral dilemmas as well as the conflicting emotions that come with such dilemmas. It’s certainly a thought-provoking piece with a lot of humor, but also a lot to think about. At WEPG, it’s ultimately an especially strong showcase for two talented performers.

Jane Abling, Julie George-Carlson
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Roommate at Union Avenue Christian Church until March 1, 2020

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Annapurna
by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

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The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 14, 2020

Esteban Andres Cruz, Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a much-celebrated play that was especially popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now onstage at the Rep, the concept is fun and interesting, and the technical aspects are stunning. There’s also a pair of hardworking, talented actors playing all the roles. Still, although this combination of elements may look great on paper, what plays out on stage comes across as oddly too much and too little.

The conceit is clever and fun–a tribute/send-up of classic Gothic horror tropes with all the roles being played by two actors, with a lot of quick costume changes worked into the staging. With some nods to monster movies and a setup similar to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this is the story of a couple and the odd goings-on around them. The “Irma Vep” of the title is the deceased first wife of Lord Edgar (Esteban Andres Cruz), who has recently married a new wife, recently retired actress Lady Enid (Tommy Everett Russell). Like in Rebecca, there’s also a household maid who was particularly fond of the first wife and not too sure about the second. That maid, Jane (also Cruz), also has something of a familiar but combative relationship with another household servant, Nicodemus (also Russell), who is harboring his own dark secret. In fact, dark secrets abound in this tale that takes us from a mansion in England to an archeological jaunt to Egypt and back, with legends of vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, and more thrown in for good measure.

It’s an intriguing concept, with all the broad comedy, quick changes, and fast pacing, and as popular as this play has been over the years, I’m curious to see another production sometime. The Rep, and especially the main stage with its lavish production values, doesn’t seem like the ideal venue for this piece. With the resources they have, the Rep has provided a stunningly detailed set by Michael Locher, appropriately atmospheric lighting by Marie Yokoyama, and especially dazzling and delightfully over-the-top costumes by Sara Ryung Clement. Still, with all the details here and in the spirit of this show, it all seems a little too much. It seems to me that this would be a better fit for the Studio Theatre than the main stage, with the focus being more on the performers themselves and the comedy than on overwhelming production values.

As for the comic elements and the performers, actors Cruz and Russell are given a lot to do, and they give entertaining performances especially in their “main” roles–the eccentric Lord Edgar and the suspicious Jane for Cruz, and the determined Lady Enid and oddball Nicodemus for Russell–but the pacing and energy seem a bit off and the show is not nearly as laugh-inducing as it could be. The first act drags a bit, as well, with more action in the second act although things don’t really get going until near the end. It’s a commendable effort for the two obviously talented performers, but there wasn’t quite “enough” with the timing of everything.

The Mystery of Irma Vep was an intriguing choice for the Rep, but ultimately the sum of all the elements doesn’t add up to as much as it could. This strikes me as the kind of show that needs just the right balance of timing, energy, and talent, and while this production has the talent, it lacks in the other important areas, while the technical aspects end up coming across as somewhat overblown. It does have its moments, though. Still, I wish there were more here, and also in a way, less.

Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Mystery of Irma Vep until March 8, 2020

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Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2020

Angela Bubash, Donna M. Parrone, Jan Meyer
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production isn’t the first production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women that I have seen in St. Louis. In fact, the last staging I saw, a few years ago, featured one of the same performers as this one. Still, SDT’s staging is compelling on its own merits, with a strong cast and excellent production values, as the three women of the play’s title share their stories and reflect on their lives.

This is almost like two plays in one, as the situation in Act 1 is more straightforward while Act 2 becomes more fantastical, with three performers playing the same character at different ages. In the first act, they are three distinct characters–A (Jan Meyer), an elderly and wealthy woman who is declining in health; B (Donna M. Parrone), who is the home caregiver for A; and C (Angela Bubash), who is here representing A’s lawyer to see about some unpaid bills. There are subjects brought up in this first act that repeat with even more relevance in the second act, in which all three characters are different versions of A. The age difference between the characters is emphasized in their differing perspectives in the first act, while in the second, A and B essentially “educate” C about what is to happen in “their” life, while the still idealistic C isn’t quite ready to hear what her life will become.There’s also the character of A’s son, only referred to in the program as “The Boy” (Stephen Henley), who appears in the middle of Act 2 but doesn’t speak, and the indication is that their relationship was strained. It’s a fascinating play, based largely on Albee’s own mother and his relationship with her. There’s a lot of insight here about aging and regret, as well as some cynicism about relationships, both romantic and familial.

It’s a talky play, but the characters (and Albee) have a lot to say, and the performances here give weight and energy to the playwright’s words. Meyer, who I have seen in this role before, is a commanding presence as A, and the center of the story from her very first line in Act 1. Meyer is excellent at showing the contrast between the forgetful, declining A in Act 1 to the world-weary, more assured A in Act 2. Parrone is also strong as B, who is a caring support in Act 1 and as the middle-aged A in Act 2, brings out an interesting combination of confidence and cynicism. As C, Bubash also excels, especially in Act 2 where she is given more to do as the optimistic young A whose trials and tribulations are still largely ahead of her. She brings a youthful energy and determination to the role that contrasts well with her older counterparts, and all three performers play off of each other well. Also Henley, in his unspoken role, provides a good focal point for his mother’s (all three versions of her) reflections.

The look of this production is striking and cohesive. Miles Bledsoe’s set is an elegant representation of a wealthy woman’s well-appointed bedroom. Gary F. Bell’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters well in Act 1 and coordinating in shades of purple in the second act. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow in maintaining the mood of the show, and Stray Dog’s venue, Tower Grove Abbey, is an ideal location for the somewhat intimate setting of this piece.

Three Tall Women is a compelling staging of an intriguing work by one of America’s most celebrated playwrights. I appreciate being able to see it again in such a thoughtful, engaging production. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Angela Bubash, Jan Meyer, Donna M. Parrone
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Three Tall Women at Tower Grove Abbey until February 22, 2020

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Flanagan’s Wake
Conceived by Jack Bronis
Created by Jimmy Binns, Amy Binns-Calvey, Geoff Binns-Calvey, Jack Bronis, Mark Czoke, Phil Lusardi, Patricia Musker and Bonnie Shadrake
Music by Bonnie Shadrake, Lyrics by Jimmy Binns and Bonnie Shadrake
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
Playhouse at Westport Plaza
February 8, 2020

Teresa Doggett, Dustin Petrillo, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Lynn Berg, Alan Knoll
Photo by John Flack
Playhouse at Westport Plaza

The latest locally-produced production at the Playhouse at Wesport Plaza has an enthusiastic, talented cast. That’s about the best I can say about Flanagan’s Wake, a new production of a show that was apparently a hit in Chicago. A piece that relies heavily on improvisation and audience participation, the show certainly has its moments. Still, there isn’t much new here, and it seems the entertainment value depends mostly on stereotypes and hopes for good contributions from the audience.

Billed as “The Hilarious Interactive Irish Wake”, this show does have some fun participatory elements, such as making the audience wear “Irishized” nametags, and having a working bar onstage where theatregoers can buy drinks before the show and during intermission. The setup is as you might expect–a collection of characters gathers onstage to mourn a dearly departed friend, Flanagan, whose coffin is the centerpiece of the set, which is a pub in a small Irish town. The characters include some expected “types”, such as the offbeat Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan (Alan Knoll), the stingy pub proprietor who is also the mayor (Lynn Berg), the departed Flanagan’s domineering but incoherent mother (Bill Burke), and his longtime fiancee Fiona (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who keeps trying to get a bit too affectionate with Flanagan’s coffin. In the midst of a gaggle of oft-used tropes about Irish people (heavy drinking, telling heavily embellished stories, etc.) is the audience element, as the characters take turns paying their respects to Flanagan with emotional speeches, the subjects of which are dependent on contributions from the audience. And, well, these contributions can sometimes be great, and other times not-so-great, so as not to give the players much to work with. While this is a fairly expected issue with improv-dependent shows, this one is so dependent on the improv aspects that poor contributions can especially diminish the entertainment value, since the setup is basically just a series of speeches and songs that can get tedious if they’re not interesting, no matter how hard the talented cast tries to make them interesting.

So yes, there are some fun moments here, and some memorable performances, particularly from Theby-Quinn, Noll, and Burke, as well as musicians and music directors Charlie Mueller and Patrick Blindauer. The set, constructed by TheatreMarine, and costumes by Elizabeth Henning contribute to the overall atmosphere well enough, and the cast does about as well as they can, but still, the overall result is underwhelming and predictable, right up to the “twist” near the end.

I generally love improvisation and improv-based shows, but Flanagan’s Wake is is a mixed bag. It has an enthusiastic tone and a talented cast, but the problems here are a little too big to overcome. I imagine the experience will be slightly different on different days, and that’s good. I hope future audiences give this cast more to work with. It may be worth seeing just for that unknown element. Otherwise, it comes across as something of an enthusiastic–but largely unsuccessful–experiment.

Cast of Flanagan’s Wake
Photo: Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Flanagan’s Wake is playing at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza until March 21, 2020

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Dress the Part
Music and Lyrics by Q Brothers
Directed by GQ and JQ
Choreographed by Sheena Laird
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
January 31, 2020

Garrett Young, Jordan Moore
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is doing something different, in various ways, with its newest production, Dress the Part. It’s a comic adaptation of Shakespeare, with a high school setting and a hip-hop beat, staged at a concert venue in one of St. Louis’s trendier neighborhoods. It’s also a superb showcase for two actors who, between them, play a variety of characters with a fast-paced, quick-change dynamic.

Written and directed by Q Brothers, who have produced other hip-hop Shakespeare adaptations in the past, Dress the Part has a fairly short running time (80 mins), but it’s long on talent. Featuring just two actors (Jordan Moore, Garrett Young) and a DJ (Crim Dolla Cray), the show manages to create its own world and larger-than-life characters within seemingly limited parameters. It’s based on Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but this time “Verona” is a high school. The show’s main characters, Valentine (Young) and Proteus (Moore) are best buddies and teammates on the Verona College Prep football team, until Proteus starts seeing “artsy” girl Julia and tries to quit the team. Valentine is upset, accusing Proteus of choosing a girl over their friendship, but then he finds himself smitten with new cheerleading captain Sylvia, who also catches the eye of someone else, causing much consternation and hilarious complications. The play, with a driving hip-hop soundtrack and performed in rhyme, features Moore and Young swapping costumes and props quickly in order to portray all the characters, including the team’s adage-mixing Coach Duke, marching band flautist Speed, Julia’s best friend Lucetta, enthusiastic team water boy Lance, a “Skater Boy” with a hidden talent, and more. It’s a high-energy look at high school “types” and old tropes like “jocks vs. nerds” etc. but done with a witty comic flair, some great “meta” humor, and terrific performances by its two leads and DJ. There’s also a fun immersive element, as the venue is festooned with posters advertising events at the school (even in the restrooms), and the audience is encouraged to chant along with the characters at various times, and especially during the climactic football game.

The set by Peter and Margery Spack is simple in the best way–it’s colorful and works well as a backdrop for the action. Christina Leinecke’s costumes are colorful and appropriate for the quick-change nature of the show, establishing the different characters clearly. There’s also great work from choreographer Sheena Laird, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and prop master Katie Orr. This production has a very distinctive look and tone, and all the technical aspects serve the story especially well. Even the program is excellent in how it helps audiences keep track of all the characters, with its “yearbook page” included with pictures.

Front and center here are the superb actors. Both Young and Moore play a range of characters each, and there are a few (such as Sylvia and drama kid Iggy) that they both play at different times, sometimes with the costume changes hilariously worked into the story. Both of these two have the energy, stage presence, and rhythm required for a laugh-a-minute show like this that never lets up. These two dynamic actors are also ably supported by DJ Crim Dolla Cray, who keeps her cool in the midst of the madness and contributes to the dialogue on occasion.

Dress the Part is something different for SFSTL, and that’s a wonderful thing. It works well in appealing to many different ages, including some that might be put off by a more “traditional” Shakespeare production. It’s also a great way of expanding SFSTL’s presence in the city’s neighborhoods, as an addition to the company’s already established Shakespeare in the Streets program. This production is something fresh, bold, and especially well-performed.  It’s new, it’s cool, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Dress the Part at The Ready Room until February 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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

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

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

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

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

 

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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

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