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Posts Tagged ‘stray dog theatre’

Blue/Orange
by Joe Penhall
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 14, 2021

Jason Meyers, Ben Ritchie, William Humphrey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s second production of it’s latest season is also their first indoors. Playing to a limited capacity audience, the three-person show is a good fit for the situation. Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall is a play that approaches its subject matter from a British perspective, although many of the issues are more universal. SDT’s production brings this challenging, character-focused play to a St. Louis audience with energetic staging and outstanding performances from an excellent cast.

Blue/Orange is urgent in its pacing, and this urgency is well maintained by director Justin Been and the cast of three impressive local actors. The setting is a psychiatric hospital in London early in the first decade of the 21st Century, and the action takes place over a 24-hour period, as patient Christopher (William Humphrey) is getting ready to be released after 28 days. His doctor, Bruce Flaherty (Jason Meyers) has doubts about Christopher’s diagnosis and seemingly too-early release, and has called in his supervisor, Dr. Robert Smith (Ben Ritchie), to confirm Bruce’s doubts. To Bruce’s surprise, though, Robert not only disagrees with Bruce’s concerns–he challenges Bruce’s motives and competency, bringing up various issues including attitudes toward race, as Bruce and Robert are white and Christopher is Black. The subject of money also comes up, as the hospital doesn’t have the funds it needs to keep many patients for longer than 28 days. There’s a power struggle here between the doctors, as well, as Robert is exerting his authority as the higher-ranking and more experienced doctor, and as the more insecure Bruce worries about his opportunity for advancement, also pointing out that Robert has a book he’s hoping to publish, and is hoping to use Christopher as a subject in a study. Christopher, who has trouble trusting either doctor while also seeming to be subject to their manipulation, becomes both a catalyst and a pawn in the midst of this power struggle, as the two doctors continue to spar and challenge one another, seeming increasingly to care more about scoring points against the other than about their patient. 

This is a heavy, intense play. It’s also loud at times, as the power struggles and interactions between doctors and patient often escalate to shouting and strong language. The issues here are timely and intriguing, from UK-specific issues like the structure of their health system to various areas of London, to more universal matters like the issues of race, racism, and privilege, as well as the monetization of health care and career ambitions potentially undermining patient care. It’s all framed with a very British eye, as well, and there don’t seem to have been a lot of productions of this show in the USA, or at least, I haven’t been able to find many in searching online. It’s very popular in the UK, though, which makes sense considering how UK and London-centric it is. This is why I question the decision for the actors to not use British accents in this production, although it may make the play easier to understand for American audiences, and consistency in British accents is often difficult for American actors. 

The accent issue, though, is the only real “negative” I can say about the staging of this production, as everything else is excellent, from Been’s minimal but effective set, to Gary F. Bell’s well-suited costumes, to Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting, to the profoundly excellent performances from all three cast members. The acting here is simply superb. All three actors are at their best–from Meyers’s initially well-meaning, somewhat awkward and insecure Bruce; to Ritchie’s haughty, controlling, ambitious academic Robert; to Humphrey’s unpredictable, energetic, alternately confrontational and withdrawn Christopher. All three work together especially well, with their interplay providing much of the dramatic tension of the play. A full range of emotion is on display here, with a dynamic, riveting result. 

There’s a lot to think about in Blue/Orange. This is definitely not a play you want to see for light entertainment. With its well-drawn characters and challenging subject matter, this is the kind of play that should have audience members thinking, and talking about afterwards. As a production, it’s an acting tour-de-force and a memorable theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Jason Meyers, William Humphrey, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Blue/Orange at Tower Grove Abbey until October 23, 2021

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Art
by Yasmina Reza
With Adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 6, 2021

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick, Jeremy Goldmeier
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

In a time of increasing uncertainty and efforts to return to live theatre (both outside and inside), Stray Dog Theatre has adapted its usual performance setting in presenting a play that explores not only the subjective nature of art, but also the need for, and definitions of, friendship and personal relationships. Yesmina Reza’s Art (adapted by Christopher Hampton) is an incisive, occasionally witty, occasionally caustic character study of a comedy, looking not only at these issues but also exploring the influence of outside relationships on an individual’s personality view of oneself. At SDT, this somewhat talky play is given a great deal of energy by its excellent cast of three.

The story here is presented in an intriguing format, as the events play out in a  mostly linear fashion, while the three characters take turns narrating and sharing their personal thoughts with the audience. It begins as Marc (Stephen Peirick) recounts a visit to his friend Serge (Ben Ritchie), as Serge eagerly shows off his new “find” for his modern art collection–a painting by a celebrated artist. Marc’s reaction is not exactly pleasant, as he takes offense at his friend’s purchase of a basically white painting. Serge doesn’t take Marc’s reaction well, and Marc takes his case to their mutual friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), who is dealing with his own personal issues and just wants everyone to be happy. Yvan later visits with Serge and hears his side of the story. That’s just the beginning, as the initial conflict brings out–and reveals–more conflicts, between the three friends as well as with their romantic partners, family members, and more. 

This play is a lot more character-focused than plot-focused, giving the cast members excellent situations for expression, both dramatically and in a comedic sense. The comedy is somewhat caustic and biting, as well as ironic at times, and the characters can be hard to like at times (especially the domineering Marc). As such a character-centric work, it’s an ideal showcase for the actors, and all three performers shine here. Ritchie’s pretentious, particular Serge; Peirick’s selfish, control-focused Marc; and Goldmeier’s overwhelmed, would-be mediator Yvan are all strong characterizations, with Goldmeier standing out especially in a well-realized, at once humorous and sympathetic portrayal. The interplay between all three actors is a particular highlight, as well, with each gaining energy from the others and feeding the increasingly frantic progression of the proceedings.

Technically, the show does well in its new outdoor space, on the lawn next to SDT’s usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. A stage has been set up with folding chairs for the audience, with a good view of the minimal but effective set by Josh Smith, which is put to excellent use by director Gary F. Bell and the cast. There’s also impressive lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as character-appropriate costumes by Bell. It all works well in an outdoor setting, in terms of being able to see and hear everything.

Art is a show with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of plot, but with fully-realized characters who provide all the focus for the comedy and the drama. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings, along with an exploration of the subjective nature of art. At Stray Dog Theatre, it sets the stage for some especially strong performances, and serves as a welcome return for this theatre company.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Art outside at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 21, 2021

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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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Disenchanted!
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dennis T. Giacino
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 12, 2019

Sarah Gene Dowling, Kelly Slawson, Dawn Schmid
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Revisionist versions of fairy tales have been in vogue for a while, with films, stage shows, and TV featuring different takes on classic stories. The latest production from Stray Dog Theatre, the cabaret-style DIsenchanted! is composer/lyricist/book writer Dennis T. Giacino’s take on this popular idea. It turns out to be something of a mixed bag in terms of orginality, but it’s still a lot of fun and features some memorable performances from an enthusiastic cast.

Hosted by iconic princesses Snow White (Kelly Slawson), Cinderella (Sarah Gene Dowling), and Sleeping Beauty (Dawn Schmid), Disenchanted! is presented in a sort of cabaret/variety show format, in which various princesses offer their own takes on their portrayals in popular culture, and especially  in Disney films. They focus much on the messages that these films, and the whole “Princess Complex” has on society, and particularly the young girls who grow up watching the films and are presented with the Fairy Tale Princess ideal. Well, these princesses are here to tell us that there’s a lot more to their stories than that ideal. There is also a lot of meta-exploration of how the characters themselves are dealing with how they have been portrayed and received, and some reminders of the pre-Disney origins of their stories, both serious and humorous,. There is “Honestly” sung by Pocahontas (Gitana Mims) in the former category and, in the latter category along with a good dose of meta and digs at commercialism, “Not V’One Red Cent” sung with gusto by Rapunzel (Erika Cockerham). While some of the songs seem rather obvious and one-note, others are more inventive and memorable. Also, for the most part there isn’t much said here that hasn’t been said before by other works.  Still, it makes for an entertaining evening, especially in the second act as the sense of camaraderie and solidarity between the characters grows and becomes most credible.

What this show is, ultimately, is a showcase for its talented cast. Although there is some deliberately comically “bad” singing (and a notice about it in the program), there are also some powerful voices, and some excellent comic performances. The standouts for me include Schmid as a determined, quirky, and frequently nodding off Sleeping Beauty, who (eventually) gets one of the show’s best songs in “Perfect”. Slawson and Dowling are also memorable as fellow co-hosts, a somewhat imperious Snow White and more whimsical Cinderella. Cockerham, as a statuesque, big-voiced, Germanic Rapunzel who gets her moment in a hilarious Cabaret-styled number, is another standout, as are Selena Steed as the Princess Who Kissed the Frog who leads the rousing “Finally”, and Eleanor Humphrey as Princess Badroulbadour (from the original source for Aladdin), in excellent voice on “Secondary Princess”. It’s an energetic, cohesive ensemble overall, carrying the somewhat uneven material here with a lot of personality and enthusiasm.

The overall irreverent, whimsical tone of the show is carried over well into the production values, with a colorful unit set by Miles Bledsoe and memorable costumes by Eileen Engel. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow contributes to the bold, variety-show styled look of the show. There’s also some fun choreography by  Mike Hodges and an excellent small band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, although the sound mix is uneven at times and it can be difficult to hear the words to some of the songs.

Overall, while Disenchanted! isn’t the most original of this “meta-fairy tale” sort of shows, it’s an entertaining and frequently hilarious production. I think this show may especially appeal to people who are well-versed in the Disney versions of these characters and don’t mind some sharp criticism of the works or the company. It has it’s moments, definitely, and it’s another fun staging from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of Disenchanted!
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Disenchanted! at Tower Grove Abbey until December 21, 2019

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The Who’s Tommy
Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend, Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff
Additional Music and Lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2019

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

For its latest production, Stray Dog Theatre is bringing back a show they first staged 8 years ago. Although I didn’t see that production, I’ve heard some glowing comments about it, so I’m not entirely surprised they would want to produce it again. Now, the company has restaged The Who’s Tommy with a new look and concept, and an excellent cast, particularly in terms of the three performers playing the title role at different ages.

Legendary British rock group The Who first produced their rock opera Tommy as a concept album in 1969. It has since been adapted into a trippy movie directed by Ken Russell in 1975, and later into a Tony-winning Broadway musical. Each version has been altered in various ways from the original album, and I hadn’t seen the stage show before this latest production from SDT, although I had seen the film roughly 30 years ago. What I remember most is the iconic rock score, featuring hits like “Pinball Wizard”, and much of that score is featured here. The story focuses on the life of Tommy Walker (played from young adulthood by Kevin Corpuz), who is born in England in the early years of World War II and suffers a traumatic incident involving his parents (Kelly Howe, Phil Leveling) and his mother’s lover (Jordan Wolk) when he is four years old (played by Alora Marguerite Walsby). As a result, Tommy loses the ability to see, speak, and hear, and grows up experiencing the world using his other senses and emotions. He’s further abused and bullied by other relatives, including his creepy, alcoholic Uncle Ernie (Cory Frank) and his opportunistic Cousin Kevin (Tristan Davis), and taken by his parents to various doctors and others offering “cures” for Tommy (played at age 10 by Leo Taghert). Eventually, Tommy is introduced to pinball by his cousin, and he displays a surprising and remarkable talent for the game, causing a sensation and attracting fans and followers. He then becomes something of a cult figure for a lot of his fans, and he has to figure out what to do about that and come to terms with his own past, present, and future.

The entire technical side of this production is stunning, especially in the visuals. This production is given a unique design that gives it more of a futuristic look rather than the 1940s–1960s time frame would suggest. This look goes especially well with the rock music score and overall mysterious tone of the piece. There’s a fluorescent neon look to Eileen Engel’s costumes that gives them a striking appearance and works well with Josh Smith’s concert-stage like multilevel set, Justin Been’s dazzling kaleidoscopic projections, and Tyler Duenow’s dynamic lighting. The driving score is played with style by the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, with particular kudos going to guitar players Adam Rugo and John J. Reitano, who give the music much of its power. The only occasional drawback to the sheer volume of everything is that sometimes the words to the songs can be lost under the music, especially in the ensemble numbers, and with a show like this that is mostly sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, it’s especially essential to be able to hear the lyrics.

The casting is especially strong here, led by the three performers who play Tommy as he grows up. Corpuz, as the adult Tommy and “guiding voice” for his younger versions, gives a commanding performance, with strong stage presence and a powerful voice that fits the score well. The younger Tommys are just as good, too, from Walsby’s mostly silent performance and very credible reactions to Taghert’s journey as the youthful Tommy goes through a series of traumatic encounters and finally finds his talent. All three of these actors are the heart of this show, and much of the dramatic weight rests on them. There are also strong showings from Howe and Leveling as Tommy’s parents, Frank as the smarmy Uncle Ernie, Davis in a particularly well-sung turn as Cousin Kevin, Engel as a determined young fan of Tommy’s named Sally Simpson, and Jeffrey M. Wright in several roles. The ensemble is also strong all around, vocally and in demonstrating Mike Hodges’ energetic choreography.

The Who’s Tommy has something of a rock concert feel to it, as is fitting with the show’s origins. Still, there is a compelling story here, told by a bold, bright, futuristic-looking production led by a particularly strong trio of title performers. It’s another memorable musical from Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Who’s Tommy
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Who’s Tommy at Tower Grove Abbey until October 26, 2019

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Guys and Dolls
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser, Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Based on a Story and Characters of Damon Runyon
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
August 9, 2019

Cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Guys and Dolls is a well-known, oft-produced show known for being colorful and larger-than-life, based on the mid-20th Century New York stories of author Damon Runyon. Now Stray Dog Theatre is staging a production that’s not as big and flashy as other productions I’ve seen, but the scaling down manages to seem more relatable in some ways. It’s a well-cast show that looks great, sounds great, and offers a fresh take on iconic theatrical characters.

The story, witty dialogue, boldly drawn characters, and classic Frank Loesser score are all here, as SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey stage has been transformed into a cross-section of post-World War II New York City. It’s a world populated by gamblers, represented by the determined Nathan Detroit (Kevin O’Brien), who along with his cronies Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Mike Wells) and Benny Southstreet (Cory Frank) is desperately looking for a new venue for his long-running “floating crap game”, to the constant frustration of his long-time fiancee, nightclub dancer Miss Adelaide (Sara Rae Womack). Meanwhile, the Salvation Army-like “Save-a-Soul Mission”, led by the earnest young Sarah Brown (Angela Bubash) and her kindly grandfather Arvide Abernathy (Howard S. Bell) is struggling to find “sinners” to preach to and attend prayer meetings. When high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Jayde Mitchell) comes to town, Nathan makes him a bet in hopes of raising the money Nathan needs to secure his preferred venue. It’s a bet Nathan thinks he can’t lose–Sky has to get Sarah to agree to go to Havana with him for the night. Their relationship builds from animosity to something more as the gamblers gamble, the missionaries preach, the long-suffering Adelaide deals with a persistent cold as she continues to wait for the devoted but reluctant Nathan. Throughout, the memorable songs and production numbers are there, from the initial “Runyonland” setting-establishing sequence and “Fugue For Tinhorns”, to the iconic “Adelaide’s Lament”, the giddy “If I Were a Bell”, the rousing “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and more.

Guys and Dolls is a show of types, and different productions can make the setting and characters more over-the-top than others. At SDT, the “types” are still there, but they’ve been brought down in scale somewhat, in a way that makes them seem more like real people you could have met. The couples are strong, especially, with Womack an especially credible Adelaide, bringing the audience along with her in her exasperation with Nathan, delivering a strong “Adelaide’s Lament” and an even stronger reprise in Act 2. O’Brien is a likable Nathan, with good chemistry with Womack and also with his gambler compatriots, the equally excellent Wells and Frank. Wells especially gets a fine moment leading the show-stopping “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. The show’s other lead couple is also impressive, with Mitchell giving a slightly edgier take on Sky, and Bubash in an engaging turn as an increasingly conflicted Sarah. These two have particularly strong moments in their scenes at the end of Act 1. Bell is a standout as Arvide, as well with a great voice on his song “More I Cannot Wish You”, which is also a strong moment of connection for him and Bubash. There’s a small but energetic ensemble to support the leads, bringing much enthusiasm to the production.

Although the show isn’t as flashy as it is sometimes staged, it’s still richly detailed, with a stunning unit set by Josh Smith that captures the atmosphere and look of the time and place, along with excellent, period-appropriate costumes by Lauren Smith. There’s also bold lighting by Tyler Duenow and a great band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit, doing justice to the show’s familiar score. There were some odd sound-mixing issues on the night I saw the show, but for the most part, it’s a strong, stylish production.

This is a fun Guys and Dolls. It’s the same classic show, but adjusted well to Stray Dog’s smaller venue. It’s a “Musical Fable” that’s a little more on the “down to earth” side, and for the most part, it works. This is another strong showing from Stray Dog Theatre.

Sara Rae Womack and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Guys and Dolls at Tower Grove Abbey until August 24, 2019

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Sylvia
by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 6, 2019

Tim Naegelin, Kay Love, Susie Lawrence
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

It’s fitting that Stray Dog Theatre would be producing A. R. Gurney’s Sylvia, considering it’s a play about a stray dog. Or more precisely, a formerly stray dog who “adopts” a man and stirs up trouble between that man and his wife. It’s a comedy, with some serious moments, focusing on relationships between humans and their pets, and with one another. On stage currently at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, it’s a fun play with a an especially strong cast.

Sylvia has an intriguing conceit to start off with–the title character, a dog, is played by a human (Susie Lawrence). This is a deliberate choice, apparently, because of the frequent comparisons between this dog’s relationship with Greg (Tim Naegelin), the man who brings her home and his relationship with his wife, Kate (Kay Love). Greg and Kate are recent empty-nesters, having just recently sent their youngest child off to college. Now living in a small apartment in New York City, the two seem to have different outlooks on life. Kate is excited about her job as a middle school English teacher, developing a curriculum to help her students learn Shakespeare. Greg, however, is tired of his job and not thrilled with his boss’s insistence on his going into a more “abstract” line of work for his company. We learn all this over the course of the play, through the couple’s interactions with one another and especially with (and about) Sylvia, with whom Greg develops an instant bond and who Kate sees as more of a threat, both to her relationship with Greg and to her plans for the future. Greg, meanwhile, is finding himself spending more and more time with Sylvia, pouring out his deepest thoughts to her even though she seems more interested in yelling at local cats and meeting other dogs in the park, where Greg meets Tom (Melissa Harlow), another dog owner who shares his book-learned “expertise” about dogs with Greg while their dogs play. Kate, in turn, shares her concerns with her socialite friend Phyllis and, eventually, a therapist named Leslie (both roles also played by Harlow), while Greg finds himself increasingly torn between his attachment to Sylvia and his commitments to Kate.

Gurney’s script is well-constructed, with some fun conceits, such as translating “dog-language” into English, such as when Sylvia “barks”, she doesn’t say “woof” or “arf”. Instead, she says “hey! hey!” The relationships between people and their pets are explored in various ways, as well as changing marital relationships, mid-life crises, career fulfillment and lack thereof, and more. There are some poignant moments, as well, although it’s a comedy and there are many laughs. The staging in this production is well-paced, making the most of the whole performance space as SDT does so well. The production values are simple and effective, with a colorful set by Miles Bledsoe that features a backdrop of the city, well-suited costumes by director Gary F. Bell, and effective lighting by Tyler Duenow.

The real highlight of this production is the cast. Naegelin and Love are both excellent in their roles, with Naegelin playing Greg as something of a man-child and Love conveying the right mix of exasperation and hope. They have believable chemistry, as well. Lawrence, as Sylvia, has many moments to shine, and her physicality and presence make the role believable. She’s not stereotypically “dog-like” in her movements most of the time, although she manages to convey the energy of an excitable canine with enthusiasm. Also outstanding is Harlow in an impressive triple role, managing complete characterizations of all three to the point of almost being unrecognizable between them. Her comic timing is also especially strong.

Sylvia is a play I think a lot of dog lovers will be able to relate to in one way or another. While not everyone gets attached the way Greg does, dog owners love their dogs and will understand some of the moments in this story. It’s also a credible portrayal of a long-term married couple that has to deal with challenges as their life circumstances change. It’s a clever idea for a play, and SDT has presented it with charm and energy. It’s a fun show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Melissa Harlow, Kay Love
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sylvia at Tower Grove Abbey until June 22, 2019

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Dreamgirls
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 4, 2019

Cast of Dreamgirls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has been producing more large-cast shows in their relatively small space at Tower Grove Abbey lately. Its current production, Dreamgirls, is the latest example. A well-known Broadway show that’s also been made into an acclaimed movie, this is a big, glitzy and glamorous musical that adapts very well to the smaller venue at SDT. Especially, it serves as a showcase for some standout performances and impressive production values.

The original Broadway Dreamgirls and the movie are well-known for their music and for the performances of two famous Jennifers–Holliday (on stage) and Hudson (on screen)–as central character Effie White, the original lead singer for a Supremes-like singing group. Here, Effie is played by the excellent Ebony Easter, as the show traces Effie’s and her group’s path from obscurity to stardom. The Dreamettes–who later become the Dreams–start out as a group of three friends entering a talent contest at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Effie, along with her friends Deena Jones (Eleanor Humphrey) and Lorrell Robinson (Tateonna Thompson) are young a naive at first, embarking on a tour supporting R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Omega Jones), but encouraged by Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Marshall Jennings) and their highly ambitious car-salesman-turned manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Abraham Shaw), they soon learn more about the reality of show business, with its joys, triumphs, disappointments, and heartbreak in their personal and performing lives, also dealing with inherent racism in the music industry as Early and the Dreams aim to cross over from R&B to pop. The show is a deliberate evocation of the Motown sound, being basically a fictionalized tale of the rise of Motown and the Supremes in particular, with a memorable score featuring many highlights, including the title song, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, “One Night Only” and  Effie’s show-stopping “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”.

The staging at SDT is, for the most part, excellent, reflective the glitzy and occasionally glamorous world of show business in the 60s and 70s, but also showing the realities of life backstage and offstage. Josh Smith’s glittery, red-and-gold two-level set is striking, as are Julian King’s detailed era-specific costumes, reflecting the evolving styles of the eras in which the show takes place as well as the Dreams’ growth in maturity and sophistication. There’s also sparkling lighting by Tyler Duenow and energetic choreography by Mike Hodges, along with an excellent–if a little too small for the sound–band ably led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The staging and pacing is good, for the most part, although there are occasionally some awkward scene transitions.

What especially stands out here is the excellent cast, and particularly the leading performances. Although the ensemble energy varies at times, there are some truly dynamic performances here, led by Easter who is in excellent voice as the determined Effie. Humphrey as rising-star Deena is also strong, and Thompson as Lorell is a particular standout. The always dynamic Jones puts in a dazzling performance as Early, as well.  Also notable are Jennings in a well-sung, highly likable performance as C.C. and Shaw in the difficult role as the highly ambitious but controlling and manipulative Curtis. The performance scenes especially are excellent, as an evocation of the 60s and 70s transitions between soul and R & B to pop, and eventually disco.

Dreamgirls is a fascinating show, with excellent songs and characters, and a real sense of history about it. At Stray Dog Theatre, this show is given a highly entertaining staging featuring some especially strong performances by an impressively talented cast. It’s a tuneful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s another memorable musical from this theatre company.

Eleanor Humphrey, Marshall Jennings, Abraham Shaw, Tateonna Thompson, Omega Jones, Ebony Easter, Diamon Lester
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Dreamgirls at Tower Grove Abbey  until April 20, 2019

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The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7, 2019

Gerry Love, Chrissie Watkins, Chuck Lavazzi, Graham Emmons, Cynthia Pohlson
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

First it’s Henrik Ibsen, and now it’s Arthur Miller. Stray Dog Theatre has been having a lot of success with productions of classic plays lately. This time, instead of 19th Century Norwegian plays, like its excellent productions of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, the company has turned to the work of a legendary 20th Century American playwright and one of his best known works, The Crucible. Like the first of the aforementioned Ibsen plays, The Crucible is a play I had read but never seen. Now, at Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey, I’ve seen it, and it’s a remarkable success.

This is a long play, with four acts and running about three and a half hours. It’s also a large cast for SDT, and a heavy subject matter, with Miller’s portrayal of the historical Salem Witch Trials told through the lens of 1950s McCarthyism. It’s not a precisely accurate account of the trials themselves, but this is more of a parable about the dangers of groupthink, peer pressure, overreaching government control, and more. The story starts as the Reverend Samuel Parris (Ben Ritchie), a respected pastor in the community, discovers some local girls dancing in the woods, including his young daughter, Betty (Avery Smith) and his orphaned  teenaged niece, Abigail Williams (Alison Linderer). Soon, other teenage girls from the community are identified, as well as Tituba (Kelli Wright), who Parris brought back from Barbados as a slave, and although she is initially suspected as the instigator it soon becomes clear that somebody else is in charge. There’s also Reverend John Hale (Abraham Shaw), a minister from a neighboring town who is brought in to investigate the charges of witchcraft and demonic influence, which eventually affects the whole village, particularly farmer John Proctor (Graham Emmons) and his wife, Elizabeth (Cynthia Pohlson)–who had recently dismissed Abigail from their employment–and Mary Warren (Chrissie Watkins), who now works for the Proctors and is a good friend of Abigail’s. Other prominent members of the community and church, including the highly respected Rebecca Nurse (Suzanne Greenwald) and the wife of landowner Giles Corey (Gerry Love) are suspected, with the accusations coming from Abigail and her friends, as well as influential landowners Thomas and Ann Putnam (Tom Moore and Laura Kyro). When prominent judges and officials Judge Hathorne (Jonathan Hey) and Deputy-Governer Danforth (Joe Hanrahan) become involved in the trials, it seems like most of the authorities are more interested in reputation and the process then in the truth.

The play is carefully constructed, introducing the main characters gradually and building the drama as each act progresses, with some particularly intense moments in the courtroom and with a memorable, devastating conclusion. The casting at SDT is especially strong, led by the poignant performances of Emmons and Pohlson as the conflicted Proctor and Elizabeth. Their relationship, strained at first, develops with believable emotion and chemistry. Linderer, as the initially enigmatic, manipulative Abigail, is also excellent, with some particularly strong moments in scenes with Emmons and with her friends/followers in the courtroom. There are also standout performances from Watkins as the conflicted Mary Warren, Hanrahan as the authoritarian Danforth, Shaw as the concerned and conflicted Hale, Greenwald as the noble Rebecca Nurse, Love as the determined Giles Gory, and more. It’s an especially strong ensemble, and the staging is well-paced and emotionally balanced, with the intense moments set up appropriately and significant time given to the more quiet moments as well.

Technically, this production is powerful, as well, with a striking, somewhat abstract set by Josh Smith and realistic costumes by Amy Hopkins. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been are also strong, with a poignant (if sometimes overdone) use of background music. The production design works well in emphasizing the historical basis of the play as well as it’s timely and timeless themes.

The Crucible is a classic, relevant in its time and just as relevant in contemporary times, when its various issues are especially applicable. With this production, SDT and director Gary F. Bell have assembled an exceptional cast for an immediate, intense and fascinating production. It’s another powerful staging of a classic by Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Crucible
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Crucible at Tower Grove Abbey until February 23, 2019

 

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The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
by Paul Rudnick
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 7, 2018

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting a show for the holiday season that somewhat lives up to expectations, and also defies them. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is, at the outset, an iconoclastic comedy. In addition to some over-the-top humor, though, there’s also some challenging, intense drama here. With a great cast and excellent production values, this is a show to make audiences laugh, cry, and think.

In a way, this show tells two stories, or at least it’s one story told in two ways. Mostly a comedy but with some especially intense dramatic moments, this is a show that looks at religion–particularly Christianity and Judaism–and well-known biblical tales, from a different viewpoint, with particular emphasis on gay and lesbian perspectives. In some ways, its message brings to mind another show that recently opened in St. Louis–David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which is currently in its final weekend at New Jewish Theatre. That play also mentioned a creation story involving “Adam and Steve” and its ultimate message isn’t dissimilar to the one here, but The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is more character-driven and more focused on a particular theme. Here, we have a first act that’s more of a fantastical twist on familiar biblical stories, telling the story of the first humans, gay couple Adam (Luke Steingruby) and Steve (William Humphrey), and lesbian couple Jane (Maria Bartolotta) and Mabel (Angela Bubash). This half of the story is more broadly comic and satirical, as the characters live through a version of the biblical stories that takes them from creation to the flood to Pharaoh’s court, to eventually their own version of the Nativity story, occasionally interrupted by commentary from a variety of characters in the audience. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, and it’s a pointed twist on the established stories, with a focus on gay characters and themes. The second act is more current and realistic, set in late 1990s New York. Here, the enthusiastic Adam is hosting a Christmas party, even though he is Jewish. His partner, Steve, is more skeptical but goes along with the party for Adam’s sake. Here, we meet their friends and party guests, including Jane and Mabel, and Adam’s somewhat naive coworker Cheryl (Dawn Schmid), who has just moved to New York from Utah. In this half, the story becomes more immediate and poignant, as the group of friends deal with personal struggles, milestones, and crises, all while wrestling with the idea of the meaning of life and the existence of God.

This is something of a difficult play to describe, because a lot happens here. From the more stylized first act to the more realistic second act, with a shift from broad, confrontational and often extremely bawdy comedy to some poignant and intense and especially challenging dramatic moments, along with a message that will land different ways depending on the viewers’ beliefs about God (very much like An Act of God, as well), there’s a lot to think about here. It’s an especially timely and poignant reminder of the importance of belonging and chosen family. The shifts in tone are well handled through Justin Been’s thoughtful direction and through the excellent casting, and though, as befits the name of the show, the truly fabulous production values, from the whimsically detailed and versatile set by designers Justin Been and Josh Smith, to the colorful costumes by Jules King, to the especially striking lighting by Tyler Duenow.

There’s a great cast here, led by Steingruby’s winning performance as the inquisitive, ever-optimistic Adam and Humphrey as the more practical, melancholy Steve. They make a convincing pair, as do Bartolotta as the tough-talking Jane and Bubash as the hopeful Mabel. These four are supported by a strong ensemble playing a variety of roles, from animals to royalty to clergy to New York houseguests. Standouts include Schmid as the eager-to-fit-in Cheryl, Jennelle Gilreath as tradition-challenging Rabbi, and Stephen Henley and Jeremy Goldmeier as friends of Adam and Steve at the Christmas party. The overall ensemble energy and chemistry is a major strength for this show, especially considering its broad scope and occasional shifts in tone.

This is not an all-ages show, as it contains moments of nudity and some especially bawdy humor, in addition to some frank discussions of sexuality. It’s also particularly challenging and thought-provoking in terms of the subject of religion. It’s a sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant tale that runs the gamut from holiday cheer to some serious moments of sadness. Overall, though, it’s a thoughtful, well-cast show that highlights some excellent local performers.

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 22, 2018.

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