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Mike Isaacson

The Muny revealed the lineup for their historic 100th season today, and I was honored to be invited to attend the press conference making the announcement. It looks like the Muny has a lot of exciting events in store to celebrate this milestone year, and as I sat there listening to the announcements, I found I was listening not just as a “member of the press”, but as a fan for whom St. Louis is my adopted hometown. I’ve been seeing shows at the Muny since my family and I first moved here in 2004, and in a fun coincidence, the first show I saw there is one that will also be part of the Muny’s 100th season.

The are many great shows and events planned for next year, as announced by the Muny’s Marketing and Communications director Kwofe Coleman and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, following introductory remarks by the Muny’s President and CEO, Dennis Reagan. In addition to the lineup of seven musicals, there will be parties, an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and a documentary on HCTV as well as Judith Newmark’s continued “Muny history” article series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more information, see the Muny 100 page on their official website.  Now, on to the list!

Dates and exact order will be announced at a later date, but the full line-up of shows is as follows:

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

The Wiz

Singin’ In the Rain

Annie

Gypsy 

Jersey Boys

Meet Me in St. Louis

I have a lot of thoughts about this list, but for the most part, I think it’s a great lineup. In Isaacson’s introductions of the shows, he repeatedly talked about the Muny’s legacy and its historical reputation, as well as the idea of musical theatre as an American innovation. These are all American shows, with some having a long history at the Muny. There are two shows here, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Jersey Boys, that will be regional theatre premieres. There are also time-honored classics and more modern classics. There’s also, as I mentioned above, the first show I ever saw at the Muny, Meet Me In St. Louis, which is an obvious choice considering what this show means for the history of this city.  It’s a lineup that is sure to appeal to a wide audience, as the Muny generally seeks to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Isaacson’s Muny will do with them. Also, while I’m familiar with all of these shows and have seen the movies and/or televised versions of six of them, I’ve only seen three of them live on stage before, so this will be a particularly interesting season for me to cover.  I’m looking forward to it, and to all of the various celebrations the Muny has in store for their 100th season.

 

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Spring Awakening
Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater, Music by Duncan Sheik
Based on the Play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 6, 2017

Allison Arana, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spring Awakening is that edgy musical from 2006 based on an even edgier (for its day) German play from 100 years earlier. The musical has become quite popular with regional theatres over the last decade or so, and this is actually the second time Stray Dog Theatre is producing it. Their first production was five years ago, though, and although I’ve heard good things about it, I didn’t see it. Actually, I hadn’t seen the show at all before this latest SDT presentation, although I had heard some of the music. Still, having read about the show and listening to the music doesn’t entirely prepare someone for seeing it live. On stage at SDT now, Spring Awakening is daring, shocking, extremely well-cast, and overall just plain excellent.

The story here is essentially an object lesson for adults in “how not to teach (or not teach) your kids about the facts of life”. It’s not all about sex, but that’s an important focus of the plot. It takes place in Germany in the 19th Century, in a rigid society where there are expectations for proper behavior, and for proper education, and that’s different for boys and for girls. The girls, like Wendla (Allison Arana), are expected to be “good” and eventually grow up and be a good wife and mother, although they’re not expected to know exactly where the babies come from. Wendla’s mother (Jan Niehoff, who plays all the adult women) isn’t much help, and so her daughter is dangerously naive when she eventually finds herself in a growing flirtation with young student Melchior (Riley Dunn). The other girls gossip and swoon over the boys and wonder about their futures, while the boys are in school learning how to be upstanding members of society. They’re drilled in Latin, math, and other subjects by their strict schoolmaster (Ben Ritchie, who plays all the adult male characters), and they are not expected to question authority. The boys are stressed out about their classes and expectations, but they’re also discovering their sexuality as well, which especially confuses Melchior’s friend Moritz (Stephen Henley), who is so distracted by certain thoughts that he can’t study, and the teachers determine he’s just not fit for school. As the play goes on, Wendla, Melchior, Moritz, and their friends deal with the strictness and evasion of the adults and society in different ways, with distressing and even tragic results. There are also other stories involving Wendla’s friend Martha (Brigid Buckley), who doesn’t want to share the full story about how badly her father treats her, and also Ilse (Dawn Schmidt), who ran away from a similar situation to live a more free-spirited life as a model at an artists’ colony, although she’s still gossiped about by her childhood friends. There are also Hanschen (Luke Steingruby) and Ernst (Jackson Buhr), who discover an attraction to one another. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things turn out better for some and worse for others, but generally, the rigid rules and strict expectations of this society don’t mesh well with the passions and desires of youth.  There’s little effort for actual communication–just dictation and evasion from the adults and confusion and impulsive reactions with sometimes devastating consequences for the youthful characters.

There’s a lot of story here, but it’s told well, and Ducan Sheik’s rock-influenced score augments the story especially well, with its frank and confrontational treatment of sexuality, among other subjects. The music works to tell the story well, from quieter, plaintive moments (“The Word of Your Body”) to full-on adolescent rage (“The Bitch of Living” and the riotous, spectacularly staged “Totally Fucked”). It’s a memorable score, and the staging here, with dynamic choreography and synchronized movement, adds much to the overall feeling of the production. The cast manages to get the whole performance area in Tower Grove Abbey shaking at one point. The casting is excellent as well, with Arana ideally cast as the innocent, bewildered Wendla well-matched with Dunn as the skeptical, would-be iconoclast Melchior. These two display strong, halting chemistry as well. There are also strong performances from Henley as the conflicted Moritz, and by Schmid, who displays a great deal of presence as the somewhat mysterious Ilse. Steingruby and Buhr, as Hanschen and Ernst, are also excellent, as are Ritchie and Niehoff in the adult roles, Buckley as the haunted Martha, and the entire ensemble (Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk).  It’s a confrontational show in a lot of ways, but it’s also a human show, and the wonderful cast does an excellent job of portraying the humanity of these teenagers with all their hopes, dreams, and flaws.

The stage is set minimally, with Robert M. Kepeller’s set consisting of a few wooden set pieces that frame the action more than establishing a concrete scene. The excellent band, led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, is right on stage with the actors, as well, blending the music into the environment in a thoroughly immersive way. There are also superb costumes by Eileen Engel and striking lighting by Tyler Duenow to help realize this richly portrayed world.

Spring Awakening is an important show in portraying the dangers of an overly rigid society and especially lack of true communication and essential education for growing teenagers to the point of stifling and even denying their basic humanity. It’s a timeless message despite the 19th century setting, and blend of the modern music with this setting helps to augment the universality of some of its themes. There’s some difficult and sometimes downright brutal subject matter here, but there is also hope, especially personified in the dazzling final scene and “The Song of Purple Summer”. As someone who hadn’t seen this musical before, I think  SDT has done the show about as well as I can imagine it being performed. It’s absolutely worth seeing while you have the chance.

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Spring Awakening at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 21, 2017.

 

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Tuesdays With Morrie
by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
New Jewish Theatre
October 5, 2017

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

 

The first production of New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season is the stage adaptation of Mitch Albom’s popular book Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s a two-man show, bringing to the stage two excellent local actors, continuing NJT’s tradition of excellent casting. I hadn’t read the book or seen the play, and I’m glad this has been my introduction to it.

The story is autobiographical, depicting the friendship between author and sportswriter Mitch Albom (Andrew Michael Neiman) and his former university professor, Morrie Schwartz (James Anthony). Mitch narrates the story, starting with how he first met and got to know Morrie at Brandeis University in the 1970s, but then lost touch after Mitch graduated and he threw himself into his career. After 16 years of no contact, Mitch finally sees Morrie on TV, being interviewed on Nightline. It’s through this program that Mitch learns of Morrie’s diagnosis with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Mitch then calls Morrie, who actually remembers him, and the phone call eventually leads to a visit, which becomes a series of visits in which Mitch gets reacquainted with Morrie as Morrie’s illness progresses. Over the course of a few months, Mitch and Morrie become close again, and Mitch learns a lot from Morrie about what really matters in life. We also see the devastating effects of Morrie’s condition, as the once energetic professor finds himself unable to perform basic everyday tasks, and Mitch has to help him more and more during his visits. It’s a vivid depiction of two men and their remarkable friendship as both of them learn to deal with issues of life, mortality, and priorities in different but highly personal ways.

It’s a moving story already, but what really makes this production is the casting. Neiman and Anthony are both excellent in their roles, with Neiman convincingly portraying Mitch’s journey from a workaholic who buries his emotions in his job to being forced to care about Morrie and his situation and reconsider his own outlook on life. Anthony, especially, is superb as Morrie, an intelligent, witty, and vital man who has to come to terms with his own physical decline and his impending death. It’s a remarkable performance, achingly realistic as Morrie’s motor functions first falter, and then gradually fail, while Morrie still maintains his passion for life and his concern for Mitch and everyone else around him. The later scenes in the play may be difficult to watch, as Morrie’s decline is more and more evident, and as Neiman and Anthony portray the increasingly close friendship between these two men as the inevitable approaches.

The production values here, as usual, are first-rate, with a detailed and imaginative set by Cristie Johnston that focuses on a large, leaning bookcase, and also effectively utilizes a turntable at a key point in the production. The sense of movement and passage of time is effectively achieved through the staging, as well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, props master Sarah Azizo, and sound designer Amanda Werre, as all the technical elements work together to help bring the audience into Mitch and Morrie’s world.

Tuesdays With Morrie is an emotional play, portraying a full range of feelings and moods from humor to drama to heartrending sadness, to ever-persistent hope, as personified by Morrie and his relationship with and influence on Mitch. It’s an expertly staged and acted production that’s likely to bring laughter as well as tears. It’s a thoroughly believable portrayal of a genuinely affectionate friendship, as well as the depiction of terminal illness and the process of grief. It’s another memorable production from New Jewish Theatre.

Andrew Michael Neiman, James Anthony
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Tuesdays With Morrie at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 22, 2017

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The Bodyguard
Based on the Warner Bros. film Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Choreographed by Karen Bruce
The Fox Theatre
October 2, 2017

Deborah Cox and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

It’s a “jukebox musical” showcasing songs made famous by Whitney Houston, based on a popular film. That’s basically all there is to The Bodyguard, the musical that debuted in London and is now touring the USA, currently running in St. Louis at the Fox. For the most part, it’s entertaining, with some good performances and well-delivered hit songs that really are the main reason to see this show in the first place.

I hadn’t seen the film, but based on the synopses I’ve read, the show’s story has been modified slightly to work better on stage. The story is the same as the movie, though, as superstar singer Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) starts getting disturbing letters from a mysterious stalker (Jorge Paniagua) who breaks into her dressing room during a concert, taking one of her dresses without being noticed by her security team. As a result of this scare, Rachel is persuaded to hire a new bodyguard, the experienced but somewhat secretive Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), who makes fast friends with Rachel’s sister Nicki (Jasmin Richardson) and son Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Sebastian Maynard-Palmer), but who is initially distrusted by Rachel herself. Of course, if you know much about the film, you know where this is going, with a somewhat unlikely romance and more intrigue as Frank and the rest of Rachel’s security team zeroes in on the stalker. This all happens with soundtrack of songs from the film as well as other Houston hits, such as “I Have Nothing”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “One Moment In Time”, and of course “I Will Always Love You”, which is set up in a humorous way, first being sung awkwardly by Frank in a Karaoke bar before making its more iconic appearance later in the show.

This is a fairly by-the-numbers plot, and some of the scenes are disjointed–particularly the brief opening scene that isn’t particularly necessary. Still, it’s enjoyable enough, with some good performances–particularly from Cox as Rachel and Richardson as Nicki, who sing the Houston hits impressively. There’s also a strong performance from young Jones as Fletcher, and Mills is fine although a bit one-note as Frank. There’s an energetic ensemble, as well, and the group dance numbers featuring Karen Bruce’s choreography are among the highlights of the show.

Technically, the show has a cinematic look befitting an adaptation of a film. Tim Hatley’s set features many pieces that change out smoothly, representing Rachel’s well-appointed house, a rustic cabin, the karaoke bar, and various concert locations. Hatley’s costumes are also well-suited to the characters, and there’s effective lighting by Mark Henderson. The use of video, designed by Duncan McLean, is particularly impressive, as well.

Overall, I would say if you’re not expecting to be dazzled by the story, and if you want to have a reasonably enjoyable evening at the theatre and listen to some well-sung Whitney Houston hits, The Bodyguard won’t really disappoint. As “jukebox” musicals go, it’s not in the top tier, but it has its moments. The music is really the star here.

Deborah Cox, Judson Mills
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

The US Tour of The Bodyguard is running at the Fox Theatre until October 15, 2017.

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Lizzie
Music by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt
Lyrics and original concept by Steven Cheslik-deMeyere and Tim Maner
Book and Additional Music by Tim Maner
Additional Lyrics and Orchestrations by Alan Stevens Hewett
Directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 29, 2017

Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Lizzie Borden murder case is still infamous even 125 years after the event. It’s been the frequent subject of books, documentaries, and dramatizations on stage and screen. This year, New Line Theatre is opening their new season with another look at this infamous story, with a highly personal approach and a bold new soundtrack. Lizzie is a musical that takes the story “out of time” in a sense, with it’s high-powered rock score and minimal staging at once appealing to modern audiences and adding a new dimension to the legend that has developed around the actual event.  With New Line’s excellent cast and production values, this show makes an intense impression.

This story isn’t new, but this approach certainly is, although the premise is somewhat similar to other dramatizations in presenting the idea of why Lizzie (Anna Skidis Vargas) would actually commit the murders of her father and stepmother, for which she was tried and acquitted. The show is presented in almost a concert format, with minimal staging and the characters outfitted in Sarah Porter’s colorful, stylized, modern punk-rock inspired costumes. The story is both told in-time and taken out of time by means of this format, with the result of making it a focused, highly personal drama. Lizzie is joined on stage by her older sister Emma (Marcy Wiegert), the family’s maid Bridget Sullivan (Kimi Short), and next-door neighbor Alice Russell (Larissa White), as they sing of their troubled lives in the “House of Borden”, with imperious father Andrew and highly disliked stepmother Abby. What emerges is a picture of a troubled family, and a lonely Lizzie who isn’t given a lot of options in life. The restrictive roles of women at the time are also presented as a factor, which makes the rebel-rock approach all the more effectively jarring. The show has its loud moments and quiet interludes, humanizing these characters that have been almost flattened by history and showing poignancy in the relationships between Lizzie and Emma, and also a particular attachment between Lizzie and Alice, as well as showing alienation from various characters–the sisters from their parents, and Bridget’s from the family for whom she works and who don’t even call her by the right name (calling her “Maggie” instead–the name of a previous maid).

What’s given here is a concert of relationships, finely crafted, shockingly portrayed, and effectively humanized, played with energy, grit, and magnetism by the first-rate New Line cast, led by Vargas as the alternately fragile and fierce Lizzie. She’s in great voice, as well, as are the rest of the performers here, and there are some strong musical moments from the opening “Forty Whacks” to ominous “The House of Borden” to the driving “Sweet Little Sister”, to the poignant, hymnlike “Watchmen for the Morning”, which features the particularly affecting harmonies of Vargas and Wiegert. Wiegert as the bold, protective Emma, White as the more gentle, longing Alice, and Short as the overworked, weary but strong-willed Bridget are all excellent, with strong voices and excellent chemistry. It’s a strong showing for all of them, and they sell this story for all its complex, emotional worth.

There are strong production values here, as well, from Porter’s aforementioned costumes to Rob Lippert’s starkly minimal set and stunning, concert-like lighting. There’s also a top-notch band conducted by music director Sarah Nelson. All these elements work together in achieving a consistent look, sound and vision for this unconventional presentation of a reasonably well-known story.

This is one of those shows that takes the audience by surprise in a way. You think you know what you’re getting–the Lizzie Borden story with rock music–and that is what New Line presents, but there is a lot more to it than that simple premise describes. The format here is a particular strength in that it takes subject matter that’s been talked about and presented in many different ways before and brings it to the audience in a way that at once sets it apart and makes it more accessible. This Lizzie is loud, but it’s also incisive. The story is old, but it’s also new. It’s a story that’s been told, but not in this way. It’s New Line at its bold, brash, thought-provoking best.

Larissa White, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Lizzie at the Marcelle Theatre until October 21, 2017.

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The Feast
by Cory Finley
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 22, 2017

Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is highlighting local talent in the first play of its new season, The Feast. Written by a St. Louis native and featuring three talented local performers, The Feast is something of a comedy thriller, but with the “thriller” elements becoming more and more apparent as the story plays out. It’s a memorable, even chilling production.

This is the story of a man and his toilet, essentially. Matt (Spencer Sickmann) is a painter who lives in a small apartment with his girlfriend Anna (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). He’s woken up one morning by a visit from a plumber (Ryan Foizey, who plays several roles), who informs Matt that Anna has called because their toilet has been making unusual noises. Matt himself seems both disturbed and increasingly fascinated by the strange sounds. As Matt tries to go about his everyday life, his thoughts keep getting drawn to that toilet, and the strange noises and sights that go on in his bathroom. The “toilet problem” grows as Matt talks to his therapist and his agent (both played by Foizey), and as he navigates difficulties in his relationship with the evasive Anna.  Something of a mythology emerges through the course of the play about what’s actually happening. We know Matt believes there’s something real behind these strange phenomena, and something of an odd mythology emerges, although we aren’t sure if the strange occurrences are real or if they are all in Matt’s head. The script is clever, with a balance of comedy and horror elements. The comedy is inherent in some of the relationship dynamics and in the basic premise of a toilet that “speaks”. Still, the tone gets increasingly unsettling as the story goes on, and the playwright keeps the element of mystery right up until the jarring conclusion.

The production values here help the story along a lot. Patrick Huber’s set is a detailed representation of Matt and Anna’s apartment with a place of prominence given to the bathroom, and the all-important toilet. Huber’s lighting also contributes a great deal to the mood of the piece, especially as the creepiness factor amps up, and the toilet glows. There’s also superb sound design by director John Pierson, lending those otherworldly noises emanating from the throne. There’s also excellent work from costume and props designer Carla Landis Evans.

The acting here is top-notch as well, focusing especially on Sickmann’s impressive performance as Matt. Sickmann is adept at portraying Matt’s many facets, as the frustrated artist, confused and insecure boyfriend, and increasingly fascinated and bewildered witness to the strange goings-on in his toilet and sewer system. The question of Matt’s grasp on reality is clearly apparent in Sickmann’s performance, as is his relatable “everyman” quality even as the weirdness continues to get weirder. There are also strong performances from Theby-Quinn as the professionally ambitious but personally evasive Anna, and by Foizey, billed as “The Man”, playing a variety of characters who may or may not be versions of the same person.

This isn’t a long play, but it’s not the easiest play to describe. It runs slightly more than an hour, but there’s a lot going on in that short period of time. It can be seen as metaphorical in a lot of ways, and there are issues here beyond the simple premise–of honesty in relationships, artistic motivation and integrity, and more. With richly drawn and impeccably cast characters and some simply fantastic technical elements, The Feast is one of those shows that might keep you thinking–and questioning–for a long time after it’s over.

Spencer Sickmann, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Feast at the Gaslight Theatre until October 8, 2017.

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Unsuspecting Susan
by Stewart Permutt
Directed by Robert Neblett
Inevitable Theatre Company
September 15, 2017

Donna Weinsting
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Inevitable Theatre Company is new to the St. Louis theatre scene, but they aren’t entirely new. The company orginated in Texas but has now relocated to St. Louis, and their first production here is currently running at the Chapel, headlined by celebrated local performer Donna Weinsting. Unsuspecting Susan is an excellent showcase for Weinsting and a promising local debut for this “new” theatre company.

In this one-act, conversational play, Weinsting plays Susan Chester, who lives a comfortable life in Hampshire, England and seems to enjoy talking about it. She has many hobbies and many strong opinions about her interests and her neighbors. She’s heavily involved in her church and the local amateur dramatic society. She likes a good drink, and she’s not shy about talking about her difficult former marriage, her ex-husband, and her troubled son, Simon, who seems to have found a new purpose in life after moving to London.  Susan is affable but also not a little entitled and self-important, and these qualities display themselves more and more as her story continues. The plot gradually builds as the conversation continues and time passes, and we hear more about Susan’s involvement in her community and in a local production of The Killing of Sister George. We also hear more and more about the unseen Simon, and the idea that she’s painting a rosier picture than what is really going on becomes obvious, as do Susan’s own veiled doubts about her ability as a parent, masked always by the air of confidence she insists on projecting. Soon, Susan’s world is turned upside down by devastating news about her son, and we see Susan’s ever-present confidence and sense of entitlement begin to unravel.

I don’t want to say much else about the plot, because the gradual revelations are important to the story, as well as to Susan’s character development. I do want to say, though, how Weinsting’s masterful performance makes this story–already intriguing “on paper”–even more fascinating. She lives and breathes this character and her world that revolves around herself and her own views of the world, until something happens to shatter her perceptions and her confidence. It’s a multi-layered performance from Weinsting, who is able to portray so much in terms of subtext while initially maintaining her self-important air. She makes the audience care about this character who can be difficult to like at times, and her emotional journey through the last third of the play is especially remarkable, as Susan explores issues of friendship, faith, societal perceptions and expectations, her identity as a person and as a parent, and more.

The production values here are impressive, as well, with a well-appointed set and excellent use of music and lighting effects. Kudos to production designer Bruce A. Bergner, lighting designer John “JT” Taylor, and costume and scenic assistant Christina Sittser (who also appears briefly onstage in a non-speaking role) as well as director Robert Neblett for setting and maintaining the mood and tone of this production.

Unsuspecting Susan could also be subtitled “Unsuspecting Audience” in a way, since so much of what happens in this play isn’t apparent at first, and Susan puts on such a good front for such a long time, and while the sense that everything isn’t as it seems becomes more obvious as the play goes on, the sense of devastation is real when the news does break. Sometimes it does seem like it takes a little too much time for the script to get where it’s going, but Weinsting makes that time worth it. This is a challenging, thought-provoking and increasingly timely play. It’s an excellent first St. Louis production for Inevitable Theatre Company, and a tour-de-force for Weinsting.

Inevitable Theatre Company presents Unsuspecting Susan at The Chapel until September 30, 2017.

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