Posts Tagged ‘st louis’

Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company
September 20, 2023

Joe Hanrahan, Kelly Howe
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company


The Midnight Company’s work at the Blue Strawberry Theatre & Lounge is continuing with another concert-with-a-story, Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival. Written by Midnight’s artistic director Joe Hanrahan and starring Hanrahan and Kelly Howe, the show has a bit more of a story this time, featuring two strong leading performances and Howe’s impressive vocals on a variety of classic hits. The show also benefits from a strong sense of theme. 

The setting is a world in which an unspecified cataclysmic event has happened, and our two leads, Professor Sunshine (Hanrahan) and singer Cheyenne (Howe) apparently spend their days traveling to sparsely populated towns and performing concerts. At first, Cheyenne appears weary and reluctant, complaining about the Professor’s late arrival and controlling ways, and beginning the concert set with the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place”, which apparently the “boss” doesn’t like her to sing. Soon, the Professor shows up, and a dialogue of sorts ensues amidst the collection of classic rock hits, mostly from the 60s and 70s, but ranging into the 80’s with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. The relationship between these two is at turns prickly and familiar, working out into a sort of odd friendship, as they explore regrets and reflections of life on the road in a post-apocalyptic world. 

Mostly, though, the production is showcase for Howe’s versatile vocals. While for her last collaboration with Hanrahan at the Blue Strawberry, Just One Look, Howe was playing Linda Ronstadt and had to sing (wonderfully) in Ronstadt’s style for the whole show, here she has more freedom to cut loose on songs from The Animals, Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin, Roy Orbison, and more, showing off the power and control of her excellent voice. Howe’s voice is the musical highlight here, but Hanrahan gets his chance to exhibit his own “talk-singing” on “Rocky Raccoon” and “A Song For You” with admirable style and character. The interplay between Howe and Hanrahan and the script full of humorous rock ‘n roll references adds much to the entertainment value here, as does the excellent band made up of music director Curt Landes on piano, Tom Maloney on guitar and bass, and Mark Rogers on percussion and backing vocals. Liz Henning’s costumes add a great deal of flair, as well, helping to further define the characters and tone of the production. 

Overall, this is an enjoyable show that celebrates classic rock music and a supremely talented lead vocalist, with an intriguing, if somewhat vague, story to tie the show together. It all fits very well into the setting of the Blue Strawberry, as well. There’s one more performance scheduled, and it’s worth checking out, especially if you’re into classic rock.

The Midnight Company is presenting Professor Sunshine’s Traveling Post-Apocalyptic Rock ‘n Roll Revival at the Blue Strawberry Showroom & Lounge until September 23, 2023

Read Full Post »

This Palpable Gross Play
A Kind-Of Midsummer Night’s Dream
Adapted from Shakespeare by Ellie Schwetye, with Lucy Cashion and Jimmy Bernatowicz
Directed by Lucy Cashion
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 17, 2023

Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

In considering the latest new production from SATE, the old adage “you write what you know” comes to mind, considering both the source material and the adaptation. It’s clear that this is a very “theatre-y” production, by theatre people, about theatre people, and probably best appreciated by theatre people. Still, even if you’re not an actor, director, or other theatre maker, this is a fun deconstruction that showcases its fine cast and is sure to provide much laughter and pondering. 

This show is more whimsical remixing from creatives who are known for this kind of thing, and they do it extremely well. Primary adaptor Ellie Schwetye and director Lucy Cashion (who also contributed to the adaptation) have both been involved with several productions that take established works and either re-examine them or turn them completely on their heads, and usually both. This one does both with an emphasis on the “turning on its head” element. Here, the characters and basic plot is taken from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s not a straightforward telling of that story. Here, the story focuses mostly on Puck (Ross Rubright) and the “Mechanicals” (Kristen Strom, Andre Eslamian, Kayla Ailee Bush, Joshua Mayfield, and Anthony Kramer Moser)–the group of artisans and amateur actors who put on a play for a royal wedding. In this show, though, the play isn’t about Pyramus and Thisbe, but about the mixed-up lovers from the source play–Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena.  Puck is involved here as “Robin Starveling”, growing more and more frustrated with the various attempts at “acting” from the group–from the overzealous and opinionated Bottom (Eslamian), to the unenthusiastic Flute (Bush), to the self-doubting newcomer Snug (Kramer Moser), to overwhelmed director Peter Quince (Strom). Puck has ideas about what to do about this problem, though, that somehow involve a sleeping drug commercial from a few years ago. Meanwhile, Puck also has his fun with an ongoing feud between fairy Queen Titania (Victoria Thomas) and King Oberon (Spencer Lawton), with the anticipated  result being switched up in clever and hilarious manner. 

My description of the show seems woefully inadequate, since I would spoil too much if I went into too much detail. Let me just say that a lot goes on here, from “actor-y” in-jokes to clever staging, and hilarious “behind-the-scenes” moments, as the play rehearsal happens on one plane on the stage, with the Titania/Oberon/Puck hijinks happening mostly in the background. The cast is marvelous, as well, led by Rubright in a self-assured performance as the charming and somewhat smug Puck. Everyone is excellent though, so it’s difficult to single anyone else out. The ensemble chemistry is brilliant, and the staging is precise and well-timed. It looks great, too, with a fantastic set by Schwetye and Cashion, delightful costumes by Liz Henning and props by Rachel Tibbetts, and strikingly atmospheric lighting design by Erik Kuhn. There’s also a memorable music score and sound design by Joe Taylor. 

This is SATE, so I was expecting clever, unique, and unusual, and that’s what This Palpable Gross Play provides, with a lot of enthusiasm and personality. It’s one of those shows that might benefit even more from repeated viewings, considering how much is going on in one place. It’s another fun, thoughtful show from this excellent local company. 


Cast of This Palpable Gross Play
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting This Palpable Gross Play at The Chapel until September 2, 2023

Read Full Post »

LaBute New Theater Festival 2023
Directed by Kari Ely and John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 14, 2023

The 2023 edition of St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute New Theater Festival is currently running at the Gaslight Theater. It’s a streamlined setup this year, with one slate of five plays showing for the whole run, which is a benefit as I see it, since it makes the festival easier to follow, and also seems to lend an increased degree of consistency to the productions. While in past years, there have been some excellent plays, the festival has usually had its ups and downs in terms of overall consistency of productions. This year, all five plays are solid, thought-provoking productions that feature strong acting and a step up in production values. They are also all two-handers, with communication issues and personality conflicts being a major theme, as well as an air of mystery in most of them.

Production values are impressive across the board, from the relatively simple staging of the first play, “Safe Space” to more elaborately staged plays with a degree of lighting effects and costuming like “The Mockingbird’s Nest”, the creative team has done impressive work. Technical director Joseph M. Novak, set designer Patrick Huber, lighting designer Kristi Gunther, props designer Jenny Smith, and costumes/hair/makeup designer Abby Pastorello have contributed much in the way of tone, atmosphere, and overall style to the productions, as have sound designers and directors Kari Ely and John Contini. As for the individual shows themselves, here are some brief thoughts:

“Safe Space”
by Neil LaBute

Jane Paradise, Reginald Pierre
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is the “headliner” show, by the festival’s namesake playwright, LaBute. Like several other of his entries in previous festivals, this play consists mainly of a conversation between two people about a potentially volatile subject. The setup here is a “Black Out” performance of an unnamed play, where a Black man (Reginald Pierre) is surprised to see a white woman (Jane Paradise) take the seat next to him. What then ensues is an awkward interaction in which both convey their opinions about various topics relating to this situation, such as the need (or not) for “Black Out” performances of shows or “safe spaces” in general, and both characters’ personal and family experiences of racism and oppression. The structure of this script is clever in that it first appears to be an exploration of theatre manners, and the issue of the actual situation is revealed gradually. Both performers give convincing performances, and the arguments given can be alternately intriguing, thought-provoking, and occasionally infuriating. The issues brought up might better be covered in a longer play, but this vignette provides a lot to think, and talk about. 

“The Blind Hem”
by Bryn McLaughlin

This play is probably the most straightforward relationship drama of this year’s group, but elements of mystery and communication troubles are also on clear display. In what appears to be a hotel room or small apartment, Kate (Eileen Engel) and Robert (Anthony Wininger) are engaging in what has become a regular ritual for them–getting cleaned up after a rendezvous, while reflecting about the nature and future of their relationship, as well as Robert’s past and reluctance to commit. While this general idea isn’t new, it is approached in a clever way by playwright Bryn McLaughlin, who employs the inventive device of a running water faucet to obscure sound just enough so the characters can share their true feelings without being sure if the other can hear. Also, Robert is a college English professor, and Kate is a former student of his, so there are a fair amount of literary references (especially Shakespeare) thrown in to give the story a bit of a poetic flair at times. The performances are strong, with Engel and Wininger demonstrating believable chemistry as the younger, optimistic Kate, and the middle-aged, widowed and regretful professor.

“Da Vinci’s Cockroach”
by Amy Tofte

This play is a quirky one, and it has a lot to say, as two very different people reflect on art, science, and the meaning of life after a chance encounter in an art gallery, where Finn (Laurel Button) works and Dana (Colleen Backer) has come out of a sort of clinical curiosity following the recent death of a family member. The acting is the real highlight here, with Button’s sincere, determined hopefulness serving as a contrast to Backer’s more reserved, cynical Dana. The art gallery setting is well realized through means of artwork provided by Abby Pastorello, and the staging is dynamically paced, the characters memorable, and the dialogue thought-provoking. 

“One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston”
by J. B. Heaps

Eileen Engel, Reginald Pierre
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Here is perhaps the darkest play of the evening in terms of tone. Its an imagination of an evening toward the end of the life of former World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston (Reginald Pierre), who died under mysterious circumstances. The story imagines a meeting between Liston and a mysterious woman (Eileen Engel) who has been sent by a guy named Vinnie with a “gift” that appears to be drugs. Soon, the two engage in a flirtation and a discussion of Sonny’s life and career, as a harsh truth is gradually revealed. The actors here do an excellent job, working together well as the tone grows more ominous as the story plays out. The costumes and set are also especially impressive in this production. 


“The Mockingbird’s Nest”
by Craig Bailey

This is perhaps the weirdest play here, but it starts with a basic premise, as Robyn (Colleen Backer) is spending the day caring for her elderly mother, Daisy (Jane Paradise), who suffers from dementia and is getting increasingly unpredictable in her behavior and recounting of once-familiar stories. That’s just the beginning, though, and the story develops in an unexpected direction that I will not spoil. It’s a fascinating story, though, with stellar performances from both Backer, as the increasingly exasperated Robyn, and Paradise in an impressively versatile and physical performance as Daisy. The lighting effects are also memorable here, in a story with no dull moments. 

Colleen Backer, Jane Paradise
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio


St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting the LaBute New Theater Festival at the Gaslight Theater until July 23, 2023



Read Full Post »

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by John Tartaglia
Chorographed by Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
June 23, 2023

Cast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a modern classic. Whether it’s the original animated film, the stage production, or the more recent live action film version, this story has found a large, enthusiastic audience over the years. Currently in St. Louis, the Muny is staging a huge, heartfelt production that especially showcases its two leads, as well as an energetic ensemble and some impressive production values. 

Considering its adaptations and the enduring popularity of the original movie, the Disney version of the classic tale is perhaps even more well-known than its source story, at least in America. It’s so popular that it has even spawned many memes and jokes, as well as fan theories that, although inaccurate in my opinion, are widely repeated. But  regardless of what you may think of the story, there’s little doubt that it’s popular, and that the iconic image of Belle in her gold dress and the Beast in his blue coat is easily recognizable by many. The stage show takes the familiar story, with all its iconic moments from the film, and fleshes it out a bit, including some darker moments that aren’t included in the original film, as well as some memorable new songs, and a bit more focus on the servants in the Beast’s castle, who have been transformed into household objects by the same spell that turned the selfish young Prince into a Beast, who is hoping to find true love so he and everyone in his household can become human again.

Belle is the focus character, as is usual, and she’s as strong-willed and intelligent as ever, while being seen as odd by her neighbors in a small French village, and as an object of vanity by the good-looking but self-obsessed Gaston. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to free her father, the heart of the story is set into motion, and we see how she becomes a catalyst for the Beast’s self-reflection and eventual change. The stage show takes a little more time to explore this relationship, as well as the relationship between the Beast and his servants, including Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts; as Gaston continues to plot to get his way, leading to an inevitable confrontation. 

The Muny and director John Tartaglia have assembled an excellent cast for this production, led by Ashley Blanchet in a terrific turn as a particularly strong-willed, relatable Belle. Blanchet also has a powerful voice that shines on solo songs like “Home” as well as production numbers like the opening song. Ben Crawford, as the Beast, is also excellent, with strong vocals, memorable stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Blanchet as well as a believable rapport with his household staff, who are all well-cast. Kelvin Moon Loh as the charming Lumiere and Eric Jordan Young as the fastidious Cogsworth especially stand out, and Ann Harada as Mrs. Potts also has some memorable moments, although her voice isn’t quite as strong as those of others I’ve seen in the role. There are also some fun moments from Debby Lennon as opera singer-turned-wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche, Holly Ann Butler as maid-turned-feather duster Babette, and Michael Hobin as Mrs. Potts’s son Chip, who has been transformed into a teacup. Claybourne Elder hams it up impressively as the villainous Gaston, as well, matched by Tommy Bracco in a hilarious performance as sidekick LeFou. There’s also a strong ensemble playing everyone from townspeople to enchanted objects, who lend energy and enthusiasm to the production numbers, memorably choreographed by Patrick O’Neill and occasionally featuring some eye-catching pyrotechnics.

Visually, the show is recognizable as the Disney classic while also featuring its own spin on the classic look. The set by Ann Beyersdorfer is versatile and detailed, aided by memorable video design by Greg Emetaz, which for the most part is excellent, although there is one unintentionally humorous video moment late in the show that detracts from the overall weight of an important scene. The lighting by Jason Lyons and detailed costumes by Robin McGee also add to the entertaining and occasionally thrilling atmosphere of the production, along with some whimsical puppets designed by Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Ben Whiteley, playing that lush, melodic score with style.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Muny is, for the most part, a rousing success. It’s a classic tale of love, compassion, and standing out from the crowd, brought to Forest Park again with wit, style, and and occasional touches of whimsy, melancholy, and glamour. Although some moments may be scary for very young children, this is a show that should appeal to all ages, and the crowd certainly loves it. It’s another entertaining entry in the Muny’s 2023 season. 

Ashley Blanchet, Ben Crawford
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in Forest Park until June 30, 2023

This review was originally posted at

Read Full Post »

Welcome to Arroyo’s
by Kristoffer Diaz
Directed by Brittanie Gunn
Tesseract Theatre Company
April 29, 2023

Victor Mendez
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

Welcome to Arroyo’s! That’s the name of Tesseract Theatre Company’s latest show, currently being staged at the .ZACK Theatre. Production-wise, it’s vibrant and fun, with an energetic cast. The play itself can be frustrating in its structure at times, but for the most part it’s an intriguing journey into the world of a small New York City bar, its staff and would-be regulars, with a lively, mostly hip-hop soundtrack.

The story, narrated alternatingly by aspiring rap duo Nelson (Kevin Corpuz) and Trip (Jacob Schmidt), and by earnest grad student Lelly (Hannah de Oliveira), follows three main threads, as Alejandro (Victor Mendez) strives to turn his mother’s former bodega into a thriving bar; Alejandro’s younger sister Molly (Remi Mark), a graffiti artist, looks to establish a name for herself despite run-ins with the police, including Officer Derek (Marshall Jennings), with whom she develops a reluctant attraction; and Lelly’s quest to discover the identity of an influential figure in the early hip-hop scene, about whom she’s writing a thesis. These stories all intersect at various points, with the bar as the central locale, but really, it’s a story about hopes, dreams, personal history, family connections, and the role of a community in the lives of its residents, and vice versa.

It’s a compelling story, for the most part, with memorable characters, a good dose of humor, and excellent use of music. Still, the structure can be a little difficult to follow at times, as each plot keeps putting off key revelations in ways that seem more designed to frustrate the audience than to really drive the story. At Tesseract, the story is well-played, though, with the characters and memorable performances bringing energy to the overall presentation, along with vibrant production values.

The production manager is Sarah Baucom, but there’s no credit given to the set designer or projection designer, although the simple but effective set and memorable projections provide much of the overall atmosphere. Also contributing to the mood are Tony Anselmo’s eye-catching lighting and Jaz Tucker’s excellent sound design. The hip-hop soundtrack and use of other music adds much to the overall energy of the show.

As for the cast, the standouts here are Corpuz and Schmidt, who are both hilarious and personable as the aspiring hip-hop artists who work at the bar. Much of the play’s energy and humor comes from these two, and they energize all the scenes they are in. Mark and Jennings are also strong as the rebellious Molly and somewhat weary but well-meaning cop Derek, who has his own identity issues to deal with concerning sharing his name with a celebrity. Mendez also puts in a solid performance as Alejandro, making the most of a part that isn’t given much to do beyond being alternately sad and determined; and de Oliveira is fine as Lelly, although she could use more energy in some moments. Overall, it’s a cohesive cast that makes the most of this show’s oddly organized script.

While the script is not without its flaws, Welcome to Arroyo’s is a compelling story with good characters and lots of humor and heart. It’s a show about relationships between people, as well as between artists and their art, and individuals and the communities in which they live.  At Tesseract, it’s an entertaining and thoughtful production.

Remi Mark, Marshall Jennings
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

The Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting Welcome to Arroyo’s at the .ZACK Theatre until May 7, 2023

Read Full Post »

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie
Adapted by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 24, 2023

Armando Durán
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s shows have long been known to have high production values, but with their latest show, I think they’ve outdone themselves. In this production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the technical  aspects are so impressive, they threaten to upstage the also superb cast. It’s a vibrant, thrilling, dramatic, and often humorous staging where every note rings true, and the technical aspects lend a cinematic flair that makes this show a true must-see.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s better-known stories, and it’s been filmed several times over the years for the big and small screens. Here, as adapted by Ken Ludwig, the cast has been pared down a little and the story streamlined slightly, but the tone is classic Christie, and Hana Sharif’s brisk direction keeps the story moving along in a well-timed, almost filmlike way, as the legendary Christie detective Hercule Poirot (Armando Durán) tells the story after a brief filmed introduction that has the feel of classic Hollywood cinema. The action begins in a hotel, as Poirot prepares to embark on the storied Orient Express train. He fortuitously runs into his old friend Monsieur Bouc (Jamil A. C. Mangan), who runs the train line and helps Poirot secure a ticket for what he hopes will be a relaxing journey. Soon, however, the detective finds himself surrounded by intrigue, as a collection of disparate characters converge on the train, and of course, there’s a murder. Of course, Poirot has to solve the case, but it’s not easy when everyone around him seems to be hiding something, and the train itself becomes caught in a snowstorm. I won’t give away the conclusion, but it’s one of Christie’s more inventive ones, and it’s made especially believable here by means of staging and the excellent cast.

The memorable characters are cast especially well, with Durán leading the way as the determined, clever Poirot. Mangan, as Bouc, is also strong, showing a lot of charm and energy as he assists Poirot and tries to maintain order on the train. Standouts also include the marvelous Ellen Harvey as the strong-willed, much-married American Helen Hubbard; Gayton Scott as exiled Russian Princess Dragomiroff; Fatima Wardak as the devout, nervous missionary Greta Ohlsson; and Christopher Hickey and Aria Maholchic (the understudy, filling in for principal Margaret Ivy) as the secretive lovers Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham. Cameron Jamarr Davis is also memorable as Hector MacQueen, private secretary to Joel Moses’s shady, boorish Samuel Ratchet; and Michael Thanh Tran lends strong support as dutiful train conductor Michel. This cast is supported by a small ensemble of Webster University students (Luka Cruz, Kyleigh Grimsbo, Colby Willis, and usually Maholchic), lending to the overall filled-out, movie-like feel of the production. 

Also contributing to that cinematic flair is the truly spectacular set by Tim Mackabee, which meticulously recreates a series of locales, including several train cars, and utilizes the stage’s turntable to magnificent effect, with scene changes meticulously timed to go along with the richly produced, filmlike score by composers and sound designers Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts. There are also dazzling projections by Michael Salvatore Commendatore and marvelous lighting by Jason Lynch, contributing to the overall 1930s atmosphere and thrilling tone of the story. There are also excellent period costumes by Fabio Toblini that contribute to the overall atmosphere of the show.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a riveting, thrilling, cinematic marvel that captures the essence of classic Christie tales while also maintaining an “Old Hollywood” sense of glamor and style. It’s an expertly choreographed, technically dazzling show that holds the audience’s attention from the very first moment. The cast is excellent, but the set is so spectacular that the train itself becomes a character in the show as well. It’s a wonderful old-fashioned whodunit with style, energy, moments of well-timed humor and credible drama. It’s a remarkable feat for the Rep.

Cast of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express until April 9, 2023

Read Full Post »

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Bartlett Sher
The Fox Theatre
February 28, 2023

Justin Mark, Richard Thomas, Melanie Moore, Steven Lee Johnson
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour

The latest adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the works of two celebrated writers–Haper Lee, who wrote the classic novel, and playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who created the script for this new stage version. Directed by Bartlett Sher, this production shifts the focus slightly while still emphasizing the timeless themes of the novel. The touring production, currently on stage at the Fox, also boasts a strong, memorable cast and a remarkable technical presentation, along with fast-paced, dynamic staging to tell this classic story in a truly memorable way.

The novel is such a classic that it’s been assigned in school for generations, and many Americans have read it or at least seen the celebrated 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, or one of the many productions of the previous stage version by Christopher Sergel. It’s a story many are familiar with, so a new adaptation was always going to be a challenge, even for the award-winning Sorkin. The resulting script is fast-moving and dynamic, changing the focus slightly to center in more on lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) than his daughter, Scout (Melanie Moore), who is the protagonist of the novel, although Scout still has a prominent role here, narrating the show along with her brother, Jem (Justin Mark), and new friend, Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). The story is told in semi-linear fashion, alternating between the trial of Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch)–a Black man who Atticus defends against a false rape charge–and events in the lives of the Finch family and the townspeople as the trial further exposes the ingrained racist system and culture of the old South, and Atticus himself is challenged by the family’s housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams). 

Calpurnia and Robinson are given a bit more focus here, as well, with Welch getting some compelling moments in the trial, and Williams making a strong impression in scenes with Atticus and the children. The children are played by adults here, which may seem like a strange choice, but it works, and all three performers are convincing, from the gutsy Moore as Scout; to the confrontational Mark as Jem; to the impulsive and verbose Johnson as Dill. There’s also strong support from David Manns as the sympathetic Judge Taylor, and a chilling turn from Joey Collins as the threatening, racist Bob Ewell, father of Robinson’s accuser, Mayella, who is played with a credible blend of fear, evasiveness, and anger by Arianna Gayle Stucki. Also notable are Jeff Still as the “town drunk”, and Robinson’s employer, Link Deas, and Mary Badham, who so memorably played Scout as a child in the film, who now has a brief but memorable role as Mrs. Henry Dubose, who is essentially the opposite of Scout–a cranky, critical, racist old woman who has a few confrontational run-ins with Scout and Jem. Thomas, as Atticus, is excellent, and believable as the noble lawyer as well as a man who is forced to confront his own flaws. It’s a very human portrayal, and his scenes with Moore, Mark, Johnson, and Williams are especially effective. There’s a fairly large ensemble here for a touring play, and everyone is strong, adding a cohesive energy to the production and its evocation of a specific place and historical era.

Technically, the show also impresses, with Miriam Buether’s versatile set moving smoothly between the Finch’s house and the courtroom, among other areas as needed. Ann Roth’s costumes are equally impressive, meticulously crafted with period detail and suiting the characters well and in keeping with the era, as is the hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates. There’s also memorable, atmospheric lighting by Jennifer Tipton and proficient sound by Scott Lehrer.

Although there are needed moments of humor that are well-placed, To Kill a Mockingbird is an intense play, with important, serious subject matter dealing with issues of racism, along with abuse, bullying, and parental neglect. It also features some strong language, including frequent use of racial slurs, and suggestions and descriptions of abuse and assault. It’s a well-crafted drama featuring some truly remarkable performances, and to my mind, much more effective than the previous adaptation I have seen. Its a very human drama, speaking as much to today as it does to the time in which it is set. Like every adaptation of this book I’ve seen, it does streamline the story and leave some things out, but it does so with precision and insight. It makes me want to read the book again. It’s a remarkable adaptation, and a production that needs to be seen. 

Yaegel T. Welch, Stephen Elrod, Jacqueline Williams, Richard Thomas
Photo Julieta Cervantes
To Kill a Mockingbird National Tour

The national tour of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is running at the Fox Theatre until March 12. 2023

Read Full Post »

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 9, 2023

Stephen Henley, Stephen Peirick, Claire Wenzel, Mara Bollini
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Who’s afraid of an acting challenge? Apparently not Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and his first rate cast in an Edward Albee classic. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is famous for its intense plot, strong characterizations, and the intensity of its performances. The roles of Martha and George, especially, have been played in various productions by a succession of acclaimed actors. Here, Bell has assembled a top-notch cast of local performers and staged a volatile, highly charged production of this portrait of troubled relationships, shattered dreams, and alcohol-fueled revelations. It may not be an easy play to watch, considering the tension and emotional fireworks, but its expertly played and a must-see for the sheer caliber of the performances. 

The basic plot, set in 1962 New England, involves middle-aged couple George (Stephen Peirick) and Martha (Mara Bollini), who have been married for over twenty years and whose relationship has become a picture of resentment, regret, and repeated exercises in mutual mocking and caustic bickering. He’s a professor at a small college, and she’s the daughter of the institution’s president. When the action begins, they’ve just returned from a party, and after some banter, Martha informs George that she has invited some guests from the party to join them for drinks–a new professor, Nick (Stephen Henley), and his wife, Honey (Claire Wenzel). Soon, the young couple arrive, and a series of emotional games ensues, challenging both relationships and resulting in a series of revealing tales and shocking discoveries. 

With its intense subject matter, not-easy-to-like characters, and over three-hour running time, this play can seem daunting to the unfamiliar. Still, even though it’s long and intense, Albee’s script is intelligent and incisive, and the roles are oft-coveted by actors. It’s a play that requires the audience to pay attention, and the script, along with the excellent performances here, make it hard to look away, even when the situations can become awkward and challenging. It also helps that this production  has set the scene so well–with a well-realized, period-appropriate set and costumes by director Bell, and excellent atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been.

The centerpiece of this production, though, is its first-rate performances and thoughtful, dynamic staging. Peirick and Bollini are well-matched as the constantly sparring George and Martha. Their chemistry is strong and credible, managing even amidst the mind games to convey the sense that this difficult marriage once had its happier, more hopeful moments. These are big personalities, but neither becomes a caricature, with Bollini communicating Martha’s sharper aspects as well as an underlying sense of sadness and regret, and Peirick matching in her in energy while also showing George’s hurt and weariness. It’s a remarkable set of performances, with strong support from Henley as the initially guarded, ambitious Nick, and Wenzel, whose initially clueless Honey masks very real regrets of her own. The interplay between all four characters provides the “action” here, and its turns halting, volatile, and emotionally devastating.

There’s a lot to think about in this play, with its boldly defined characters and explorations of societal expectations in an early 1960s academic setting, as well as its look at how years of expectations and disappointments can affect a relationship. Its themes obviously still resonate today, roughly 60 years after the play first premiered, considering how often this play has been staged over the years. Here in St. Louis, audiences are fortunate to have this first-rate production to witness. It’s a remarkable staging from Stray Dog Theatre. 

Claire Wenzel, Mara Bollini
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Tower Grove Abbey until February 25, 2023

Read Full Post »

Roll With It!
by Katie Rodriguez Banister and Michelle Zielinski
Directed by J. Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
October 13, 2022

Kate Rodrigquez Banister, Hannah “Mo” Moellering
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company has returned to the stage with a world premiere production starring and co-authored by its subject. Roll With It! is a highly personal look at writer, speaker, and disability activist Katie Rodriguez Banister’s life and relationships with family, friends, the world, and herself. It’s an inventively staged production that tells a fascinating story, even if it could use a little bit of editing. 

The stars of this production are unquestionably Banister, who plays herself and co-wrote the script with Michelle Zielinski, and Hannah Geisz, who plays Katie Before the Accident, who sticks around with Katie while her life story plays out in the form of vignettes, flashbacks, and commentary. The car accident that changed Katie’s life and left her paralyzed from the chest down is the major inciting incident, but the main subject is Katie herself, as she learns to deal with her own issues not just stemming from the accident, but also relating to her relationship with her parents, her own self-image, and more. The play also recounts her recovery from the accident, her lawsuit of the company that made the car she was riding in on that fateful day, her involvement in theatre and in disability education and activism, and her meeting the man who would eventually become her husband–Steve Banister, played by Tyler Gotsis. Ultimately, though, the story is about Katie coming to terms with herself, and learning to accept the earlier version of herself along with who she becomes. This aspect is inventively portrayed through the device of having two “Katies” who not only act out events as they happened, but who also directly interact with one another, wrestling with their issues in a visual, visceral way that forms most of the compelling drama, and humor, in this production.

The two main performers are both excellent, portraying a full range of emotions and interacting with energy, intensity, and credible emotion. They are supported by an ensemble of supporting players (Kelly Ballard, Dennis Calvin, Gotsis, Kristen Hayes, Hannah “Mo” Moellering”, Claire Sackman, Luke Steffen, and Rob Tierney), who each play a variety of roles including friends, colleagues, family, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and more as Katie’s story plays out in a series of scenes. For the most part, the staging is compelling, although there are some uneven moments, and a few “backstory” moments that could be explained more clearly. Still, Banister’s story is fascinating and compelling, and this play reflects that reality well.

Technically, it’s a simply staged show with some memorable projections by director J. Michelle Rebollo, as well as excellent lighting by Ryan Luedloff and sound design by Banister and Rebollo. Overall, Roll With It! is a promising new work that features a pair of impressive performances and tells a remarkable and fascinating true life story. 

Hannah Geisz, Katie Rodriguez Banister, Tyler Gotsis
Photo by Brian J. Rolf
Black Mirror Theatre Company

Black Mirror Theatre Company is presenting Roll With It! at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre until October 23, 2022

This review was originally written for KDHX

Read Full Post »

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Shinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 5, 2022

Kevin Corpuz, Dawn Schmid, Grace Langford, Clayton Humburg, Kevin O’Brien, Sara Rae Womack, Chris Kernan
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

The spelling bee is one of those childhood rites of passage that many adults can relate to. I know I can. I still remember the word I was disqualified on in my 8th grade bee (“crucible”–I’d spelled it correctly, but I had started over after first missing the “r”). It also works as a seemingly innocuous but potentially high-pressure event that can bring out a lot of emotion and reflection in the participants. I think it’s this reflective quality that makes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee work so well as a concept. Of course, the great script, catchy songs, and memorable characters also help a great deal. As staged at Stray Dog Theatre, this show comes to life in all its charming, goofy, and insightful glory, as portrayed by a great cast of talented local performers.

The concept is fairly simple, but there are some fun touches that make the show especially fun. For instance, there’s an interactive aspect, in which four audience members who signed up to participate are brought onstage to compete alongside the “official” cast members. The spelling bee is serious business for its participants, from adults staffing the bee to the student spellers, who appear to be upper elementary and middle-school aged. The host is former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), who seems a little overinvested in the proceedings at times. She’s assisted by “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), who is there because he has to be (the reason is explained in the show), but who soon finds himself caring more about the bee and its contestants than he had expected. There’s also Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), a local elementary school vice principal, who announces the words and doesn’t always deal with unpredictable situations well. The spellers are a collection of students with their own quirks, foibles, and stories–last year’s champion, the high-achieving Chip Tolentino (Kevin Corpuz); socially awkward and serious speller William Barfée (Kevin O’Brien), who has an unusual way of remembering his spellings; sweet-natured homeschooler Leaf Coneybar (Clayton Humburg), who is insecure about spelling because his family doesn’t think he’s up to the challenge; young activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dawn Schmid), who faces family pressures of her own; academically gifted Marcy Park (Sara Rae Womack), who feels pressure from all around to be the best at everything; and Olive Ostrovsky (Grace Langford), who loves language and words, reads the dictionary for fun, and wishes her busy parents could be there to watch her in the bee. The format follows the spelling bee with a few “breaks” for the various characters to tell their stories. Obviously, since this is a competition, someone has to win, and the order of elimination provides a degree of suspense, as rivalries play out, friendships are formed, and words are spelled, defined, and used in a series of hilariously silly sentences. 

This is a sweet show, overall, with a little bit of raunchy, but mostly PG-13, humor thrown in, and the characters are well defined. Though the spellers do have their individual quirks, they don’t come across as caricatures. There are also some memorable songs the characters each tell their stories as the bee plays out. These are characters you get to know, and care about. The script is intelligent, witty, and insightful, and the performers bring the characters to life with a lot of energy and heart. Everyone is excellent, with wonderful ensemble chemistry, but if I have to pick standouts I’d have to say Langford is especially strong as the dictionary-loving, sweetly earnest Olive, and Humburg also has a charming turn as the offbeat Leaf. Kernan is also memorable as Mitch, with a strong voice and believable character arc, and O’Brien has a fun moment leading a production number about his “Magic Foot” spelling technique. Everyone is excellent, though, in voice, in comic timing, and in ensemble chemistry. There are no weak links here, and as some might want to say about the spelling bee, everyone is a winner–truly.

On the technical side, the production is also strong, with excellent use of lighting by Tyler Duenow to emphasize specific moments in the show, and a simple but effective set by director Justin Been. Eileen Engel’s costumes are also memorable, fitting the characters and their individual personalities especially well. There’s also a great band led by music director Leah Schultz, and effective sound design by Jacob Baxley, although there were a few moments where the volume seemed uneven and jarring, although in some cases that seemed to be intended for story purposes. 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical I had heard a lot about, but had never seen until this production. I’m glad this production has been my introduction to this show, since everything–from staging, to singing, to casting, to look and atmosphere–seems ideal. There are even some fun topical references thrown in for additional humor. Overall, this is a sweet, funny, quirky, thoughtful show that is sure to provoke a lot of reflection, and maybe even some nostalgia, from the audience. 

Dawn Schmid, Chris Kernan, Kevin Corpuz, Kevin O’Brien, Clayton Humburg, Grace Langford, Stephanie Merritt, Sara Rae Womack
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Tower Grove Abbey until August 20, 2022

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »