Posts Tagged ‘stray dog theatre’

Ride the Cyclone
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
December 2, 2022

Riley Dunn, Grace Langford, Eileen Engel, Mike Hodges, Dawn Schmid, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

When Stray Dog Theatre originally announced this season a while back, I was unfamiliar with Ride the Cyclone. Since then, over the past year, I’ve seen it mentioned quite a bit in theatre fan spaces online. Although it’s never had a Broadway run (yet), this quirky Canadian musical has developed a fairly large cult following, so I read more about it and was looking forward to seeing SDT’s production to see what all the enthusiasm was about. After seeing the show, I’m pleased to say that for the most part, it lives up to the hype. With the great cast that SDT has assembled, along with excellent production values, it’s a little show with a memorable score and a compelling story.

Ride the Cyclone has a fairly familiar general setup, in a broad sense, that has been used in several other musicals, such as Cats and another recent SDT show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Several characters tell their stories, with one of them selected to win a “prize” of some sort at the end.  Here, the characters are teenagers from a Canadian high school choir who recently were killed in a roller coaster accident at a traveling carnival, and they are “competing” for a second chance at life. The host for the event is The Amazing Karnak (billed “As Himself” in the program), a carnival fortune telling machine that has the mysterious ability to predict the exact day of a person’s death, including his own. Karnak has assembled the five choir members and a mysterious sixth teen only known as “Jane Doe” (Dawn Schmid) to plead their cases and then vote for which one should be brought back to life. The characters are a varied collection of personalities, from chronic overachiever Ocean (Eileen Engel) to her professed BFF and “nicest girl in school” Constance (Grace Langford), to the theatrical Noel (Mike Hodges), who laments being seemingly the only gay teen in his small town. We also meet Misha (Riley Dunn), an aspiring rapper who is originally from the Ukraine and who pines for his online fiancée; and Ricky (Stephen Henley), who was somewhat isolated due to a degenerative illness and constructed an elaborate imaginary adventure for himself in his head. These five–along with Jane Doe, who was unidentified after the crash and doesn’t remember her life–each get their solo moments to state their cases, or for the most part, simply to tell everyone else who they were. Most of the “campaigning” comes from Ocean, who sees herself as the obvious candidate for a second chance. The interactions between the characters are the center of the story, along with their strikingly staged musical moments–ranging from the more straightforward (Ocean’s “What the World Needs) to the elaborate (“Noel’s Lament” and Ricky’s “Space Age Bachelor Man” to the more melancholy and/or haunting numbers like Misha’s ode to his far-away fiancée “Talia” and the memorable “Ballad of Jane Doe”, to Constance’s cathartic “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud”.  

The tone of the show is darkly comic, for the most part, with some poignant moments of drama thrown in. There’s an overall eerie quality set by Jane’s haunting “Dream of Life” from the very beginning, and that mood shapes much of the proceedings even at their most comic. I see why this has such a following, especially among teens and young adults, since there’s a lot here with which to relate in terms of growing up and figuring out one’s purpose in life, even here where we are already told most of the characters won’t be continuing in the land of the living. There’s a sense of “what could have been” that lingers in the air, adding weight to the stakes, as well as providing cause for personal reflection for the audience. 

All of the performers are ideally cast, giving top-notch performances with excellent characterization and vocals. The ensemble chemistry is essential in a show like this, and that’s on display here in a big way. It’s hard to single anyone out, because everyone fits their roles so well. Still, for me the biggest standouts are Schmid with her strong vocals and otherworldly and melancholy portrayal; and Langford as the “nice girl” Constance who is keeping a secret, and eventually and dramatically reveals it. Everyone is great though, and the staging is also memorable with some fun choreography by Hodges and some hilarious production numbers–most notably from Henley and Hodges in their characters’ big moments. 

The production values are truly spectacular, especially from a smaller theatre company without an enormous budget. SDT pulls out all the stops, with a mood-setting, detailed set by Josh Smith, spectacular costumes by Engel, dazzling lighting by Tyler Duenow, and superb projections by director Justin Been that contribute to some of the shows more intensely poignant moments. There’s also a great on-stage band led by music director Leah Schultz, providing strong musical accompaniment to the story and the singers.

Ride the Cyclone might be a show that has flown under your radar, but I would highly recommend checking out this production. It’s a thought-provoking story with a memorable score and some striking visuals, as well as providing a showcase for a truly excellent cast. Especially if you’re into more quirky, off-beat shows with a bit of an edge, this is one not to be missed. 

Grace Langford, Riley Dunn, Mike Hodges, Dawn Schmid, Eileen Engel, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ride the Cyclone at Tower Grove Abbey until December 17, 2022

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A Little Night Music
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
October 6, 2022

Jonathan Hey, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is honoring the late Stephen Sondheim with a delightfully vibrant production of the composer’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Although in his pre-show speech artistic director Gary F. Bell mentioned that this show was planned before Sondheim’s passing, it’s nonetheless a fitting tribute to the celebrated legend of musical theatre to have one of his well-known shows staged with such energy and style. At SDT, this production highlights acting, emotion, and musicality in a memorable and thoroughly entertaining way.

This is the second production of this show I’ve seen this year. The first one, by a local opera company, was also excellent, although SDT’s version seems to emphasize the sensuality and emotion a little more in this tale of entanglements, temptations, and volatile emotions in early 20th Century Sweden. There’s a fairly large cast of characters, but the main focus is famous stage actress Desirée Armfeldt (Paula Stoff Dean) and lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Jonathan Hey), who were once lovers but have been apart for 14 years before being reunited when Fredrik takes his new, much younger wife Anne (Eileen Engel) to one of Desirée’s plays. Anne, who professes to love Fredrik but who still refuses to consummate the marriage, is distraught when it becomes obvious that her husband carries a torch for Desirée, though at first he claims not to know her. Meanwhile, Anne engages in somewhat of a flirtation with Fredrik’s son Henrik (Bryce A. Miller), an earnest young seminary student who tries to suppress his feelings for his young stepmother. Eventually, Desirée arranges to have her mother, Madame Armfeldt (Liz Mischel) invite the Egermans to her country estate for the weekend, and Desirée’s latest paramour, the jealous and self-important Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Degitz-Fries), decides to crash the party along with with his neglected wife, Charlotte (Madeline Black), who hatches a plan to make her husband jealous so he will drop the affair with Desirée, who already appears to be tiring of the affair and turning her affections back to Fredrik. Also figuring into the story are Desirée’s young daughter Fredrika (Adeline Perry), who has been living with her grandmother while Desirée tours; Anne’s romantically adventurous maid Petra (Sarah Gene Dowling), and a quintet listed here as the “Liebeslieder Singers” (Cory Anthony, Shannon Lampkin Campbell, Jess McCawley, Kevin O’Briend, and Dawn Schmid), who serve as something of a Greek Chorus, singing songs that offer commentary on the proceedings. 

The plot may seem somewhat convoluted, but it all makes sense in the context of the show, and the subplots weave together with precision. The themes include the volatility of relationships, moral hypocrisy in high society, the fleeting nature of life, and more. It’s a highly melodic show with an Old World atmosphere, and a style that’s obviously influenced by older European musical styles, as well as operetta. There’s comedy ranging from the light and witty to the more risqué, as well as some darker comic moments along with moments of poignancy and romance. The staging here gets the tone just right, with the right balance of wit, energy, and drama, with a superb cast who are all in excellent voice, led by the wonderfully melodic Liebeslieder Singers, who also play other roles in the story as needed. There’s also excellent, waltz-heavy choreography by Michael Hodges that fits well with the mood of the show, along with an excellent small orchestra led by music director Leah Schultz.

As for individual performances, it’s great to see Dean again, who makes a return to SDT after several years, and who shines as Desirée, especially showcasing the character’s wit and strength, also providing a particularly emotional rendition of the show’s most famous song, “Send in the Clowns”. Dean is well-matched by the equally excellent Hey, who is especially adept at showing Fredrik’s vulnerability and progression of awareness through the course of the show. There are also standout performances from Miller as the conflicted, idealistic Henrik and Engel as the also conflicted Anne, who doesn’t seem to know exactly what she wants until suddenly, she does. Mischel is also memorable as the strong-minded but somewhat regretful Madame Armfeldt, and young Perry makes a strong impression as the curious and surprisingly observant Fredrika. Degitz-Fries and Black give fine performances as the Malcolms, as well, as does Dowling in a memorable and well-sung turn as Petra. It’s a strong ensemble all-around, and they do justice to Sondheim’s classic score and Hugh Wheeler’s witty, incisive book.

The show looks wonderful, as well, with gorgeously appointed period costumes by Engel, excellent atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow, and a minimal but effective set by Justin Been, consisting of a color-changing backdrop and various furniture pieces as needed. It’s a musical delight from start to finish, and one of the most marvelous shows I’ve seen from the already excellent Stray Dog Theatre. A Little Night Music may not be as well known as some other Sondheim shows, but this production emphasizes its classic, timeless appeal.

Cast of A Little Night Music
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting A Little Night Music at Tower Grove Abbey until October 22, 2022

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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

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The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2022

Stephen Peirick, Joey Saunders
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Depending on your age, the early days of the AIDS crisis may be living memory for you, or something you’ve only heard and/or read about after the fact. Even if you do remember, the level of detail you remember depends on level of involvement or whether you or anyone you knew was directly affected. For Larry Kramer and his friends in New York City in the early 1980s, the growing crisis was an unavoidable daily reality, as was the fight for recognition, funding, and care for the growing number of people suffering and dying as a result of the virus, before the virus was even identified or named. In Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Kramer’s acclaimed play The Normal Heart, the sense of urgency is readily apparent, as is the focus on the real people behind the fight for recognition and care against increasingly frustrating opposition. With a strong cast and highly effective staging, this is a show that cuts to heart, profoundly and affectingly.

The story and the people represented in this play are real, as noted in the voiceover at the beginning and in a letter from Kramer published in the program. There are elements of dramatization because it’s a play, and the names have been changed, but this is essentially Kramer’s account of his involvement in the development of an activist movement in the early 1980s in New York City, in response to a lack of urgency in the media and public as the news of the virus and its spread–largely among gay men. Kramer is represented here in the person of activist writer Ned Weeks (Stephen Peirick), who is affected in various ways, as he realizes that several people he knows are getting sick and dying, and little to nothing is being done. He and several other friends, including closeted businessman Bruce Niles (Jeffrey M. Wright) and health department employee Mickey Marcus (Jonathan Hey) start a new organization that focuses on raising awareness and helping those affected by it. As Ned and his friends fight for funding and support from the city government and the press, they also deal with tensions among themselves, as Ned’s confrontational approach gets a lot of pushback, and Ned grows increasingly impatient. Ned also navigates various personal relationships in his life, from his friendships in the organization to his new romance with society and fashion writer Felix Turner (Joey Saunders), to his increasingly difficult relationship with his straight, well-to-do lawyer brother, Ben (David Wassilak). The medical research side of the AIDS epidemic is also addressed through the character of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarajane Alverson), a friend of Ned’s who is treating increasing numbers of patients and is losing her patience with the medical establishment, who don’t seem to take her seriously. There’s a lot of story here, but it’s grounded in a human focus. We see real struggles here, and credible relationships, as a well a profound sense of growing urgency and a current of grief, as the crisis continues to grow, and the numbers of deaths increases at an overwhelming rate.

This play is at once intensely personal and grander in scope, with an effort to document the early days of a movement while also increasing that movement’s reach and furthering its goals, all the while emphasizing the humanity and personhood of the people affected. The patients and victims are not just names on the stacks of boxes that fill the stage in Stray Dog’s production. They are people, with hopes, dreams, emotions, and very real fears. The sense of urgency is palpable here, as is the sheer level of emotion and the intensity of the grief as the crisis grows and gets closer and closer to the personal lives of Ned and his friends. The setting and staging of the play reflects that sense of urgency and quest for recognition, with a simple but effective set by Justin Been, striking atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow, and dynamic staging by director Gary F. Bell, who also served as costume designer. The look of the production isn’t as time-period specific as it could be, but that’s not a problem because a more timeless style lends to the immediacy of the production. 

The biggest strength of this production is it’s impressive cast, with no weak links and excellent ensemble energy. Peirick’s Ned is at the center, in the best performance I’ve seen from this already excellent actor.  Peirick convincingly portrays all the sides of Ned, from caring friend and boyfriend to frustrated brother to firebrand activist. There are also excellent turns from Wright, Hey, and Alverson, who all get intense “showcase” monologue moments in the second act. Saunders and Wassilak are also convincing in their roles as key figures in Ned’s life–his new boyfriend, and his brother. Saunders especially portrays the tragedy and struggle with compelling intensity. There’s also strong support from Jeremy Goldmeier and Michael Hodges in a variety of roles. 

The Normal Heart is a play you won’t forget, especially as staged by Stray Dog Theatre’s stunningly effective company. This is an era of history that you may or may not remember directly, but it’s important not to forget, even as strides have been made in the treatment and care of HIV/AIDS. It’s not just something from a history book or documentary. It’s a human story about real people. It’s important to put faces to all those names, and this production does that with poignant sensitivity and drama. 

Stephen Peirick, Jeffrey M. Wright, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Normal Heart at Tower Grove Abbey until June 25th, 2022

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Triassic Parq: The Musical
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Marshall Pailet
Book and Lyrics by Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Michael Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 15, 2022

Rachel Bailey, Bryce Miller, Tristan Davis, Michael Wells, Dawn Schmid
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is going on a modern prehistoric adventure with an entertainingly goofy show that presents itself as a parody of a well-known book and movie franchise. It’s not Jurassic Park, but it is, sort of; or it uses that story as a starting point before going its own way, with its funny title, silly and frequently raunchy humor, and dinosaurs galore. In fact, it’s the dinosaurs who take center stage here, played by an impressive, enthusiastic cast, and featuring some catchy songs and eye-catching production values. 

This story leans into the silly humor, and the dinosaur-theming. The lead characters are dinosaurs, and the humans are mostly only mentioned and not seen, with one notable exception–a funny “cameo” by initial narrator Morgan Freeman (Laurell Stevenson) Even the band is presented as made up of dinosaurs. billed as Pianosaurus (Leah Schultz), Guitarotops (Adam Rugo), and Drumadon (Joe Winters). Pianosaurus even figures into the story and interacts with the main characters at various points. Those main characters are, as one might expect knowing the source material, mostly velociraptors and t-rexes, with the addition of another dino called “Mime-A-Saurus” (Bryce Miller) who figures into the story both as a character and as occasional scenery. The key figures are a trio of velociraptors, The Velociraptors of Faith (Michael Wells), Innocence (Tristan Davis), and Science (also Stevenson), as well as two tyrannosaurs, T-Rex 1 or “Kaitlyn” (Dawn Schmid), and her BFF T-Rex 2 (Rachel Bailey). As is explained in the intro that echoes the film, all the dinosaurs are female, or are supposed to be, so they won’t reproduce. Well, that may have been the plan, but soon T-Rex 2 starts exhibiting some strange symptoms and behavior, which leads to some complicated situations which disrupt the established order of things that has been emphasized and enforced by the dinosaurs’ de facto leader and spiritual advisor Faith, who leads the dinosaurs’ religion that centers around worshiping the lab that produced them, as well as hiding uncomfortable truths from Innocence, who Faith refers to as her “Little Miracle”, and is consistently given special treatment, which both confuses and fascinates Innocence. In the midst of the chaos that’s building from T-Rex 2’s discovery as well as Faith’s continued avoidance and efforts to hide uncomfortable truths, Innocence goes on a quest to find the “Exiled One”, Science, who has been sent away from the others after a conflict with Faith. In the midst of the story, the referential humor continues, with jokes involving lines and events especially from the first of the Jurassic Park films. 

While there is a message here, which seems to be a lot about fear of the unknown (as director Justin Been points out in his note in the program), as well as the need for honesty and communication, what stands out the most is the over-the-top humor, including the dinosaur puns, referential jokes, raunchy moments, and more. The songs are mostly rock-based, and are presented well by the cast, who are in excellent voice. The comic timing is strong, as is the ensemble chemistry, with impressive individual performances from all, with a particularly strong turn from Davis as Innocence, who brings a great deal of presence, likability, and soaring vocals to the role. Stevenson is also a standout in two notable roles as well as a small ensemble role, showing off especially strong comic abilities. Schmid as Kaitlyn/T-Rex 1 has a strong voice as well, and a fun, quirky energy, working well with the equally strong Bailey as the conflicted T-Rex 2. Wells, as Faith, handles a difficult role well, and Miller, as Mime-O-Saurus, adds some fun comic moments especially with physical comedy. 

The look and atmosphere here are eye-catching, with a well-realized set by Josh Smith that effectively evokes the setting of the source film without exactly copying it. There’s also dazzling lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as whimsical, colorful costumes by Eileen Engel that suit the characters well, presenting them as dinosaurs in a more stylized rather than literal way, with some flashy, rock-band like looks. And speaking of bands, there’s a great one here, led by music director Schultz, who also does well with a few small acting moments. The choreography, by Michael Hodges, is energetic and in keeping with the spirit of the production, as well.

This show started at the New York Fringe Festival before eventually running Off-Broadway, and it has the look and attitude of a fringe production. It’s not super deep or profound, and many of its themes have been done before, but it’s fun, flashy, and at SDT, boasts a great cast with strong voices and lots of enthusiasm. It provides for a fun evening at the theatre, especially if you like raunchy, irreverent humor and memorable, rock-based singing. It’s another crowd-pleaser from SDT.

Dawn Schmid, Michael Wells, Laurell Stevenson, Tristan Davis, Bryce Miller, Rachel Bailey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Triassic Parq: the Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until April 30, 2022

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Good People
by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 19, 2022

Stephen Henley, Liz Mischel, Stephanie Merritt, Lavonne Byers
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is an intriguing, compelling piece that features a vivid depiction of its characters and setting. Playwright David Linsday-Abaire’s Good People is a prime example of a thoughtfully-written play that finds its heart and resonance in its sense of detail and rich portrayal of a specific locality and the people who inhabit it. It’s also an excellent showcase for a strong cast, and especially in its leading role. 

This is a play about character, but also about class distinctions, and the conflicts and issues that can be stirred up in their comparison. The story centers on Margaret “Margie” Walsh (Lavonne Byers), who is a lifelong resident of Boston’s working-class “Southie” neighborhood. As the play begins, her boss, Stevie (Stephen Henley), breaks the bad news to her that he has to let her go from her job at a convenience store due to chronic lateness. The ever-determined Margie doesn’t go out without a fight, and she’s got a good reason to be late, as she has difficulty getting consistent care for her developmentally challenged adult daughter, Joyce, who is much talked about but not seen onstage. Eventually, she’s resigned to her fate, but determined and even desperate to find a new job, under pressures from her passive-aggressive landlady Dottie (Liz Mischel) that she might lose her apartment if she can’t keep up with the rent. Soon, Margie’s longtime friend, the no-nonsense Jean (Stephanie Merritt), suggests that Margie look up their childhood friend Mike (Stephen Peirick)–who Margie briefly dated years ago–in hopes that he might be able to offer her a job. Mike has recently returned to Boston after years out of town, having built up a career as a successful fertility doctor, now living in the upscale Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Their reunion stirs up a lot of old tensions, especially for Mike, who insists he’s the same as he always was, but who takes pride in having “gotten out” of the old neighborhood, and has things he hasn’t told his wife, Kate (Laurell Stevenson) that Margie brings into the light. Margie, for her part, also has some things she hasn’t told Mike. Over the course of the show, from Southie to Chestnut Hill, from a swanky doctor’s office to Bingo night with a usual crowd, this show highlights the differences between situations while dealing with issues of friendship, loyalty, deception, class distinctions, racism (both subtle and blatant), and more. 

The tone tends to be comedic much of the time, with forays into the the dramatic and some darker undertones, and the characters are vividly drawn, and the sense of history is clearly apparent, between Margie and her neighborhood friends, to the strained dynamic between Mike and Kate, and the backstories that are revealed slowly but surely. It’s a briskly paced play, with a tone and setting that are as well-drawn as the characters. As produced at SDT, it’s a showcase for a great cast, led by the always excellent Byers in a superbly complex performance as Margie. As gifted with comedy as she is with drama, this is an ideal role for Byers, who gets to use her sharp sense of wit and timing along with a compelling emotional range. Byers also gets great support from the rest of the cast, from the quirkiness of Mischel’s Dottie, to Merritt’s tough-talking Jean, to Henley’s conflicted but well-meaning Stevie. Peirick and Stevenson are also excellent as Mike and Kate, highlighting their complex relationship and different approaches toward Margie.

Josh Smith’s set, consisting largely of a series of doors and occasional necessary furniture, provides a good backdrop to the action here. The character’s personalities are also well represented by way of director Bell’s excellent costumes. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow and sound designer Justin Been, as the technical elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere and mood of the play.

Good People is more than a good play. It’s a thoughtful, sometimes witty, sometimes intense play in which the characters and the setting feel authentic. The cast, and especially Byers, also make the most of the piece. It’s both entertaining and challenging, With only one more weekend of performances left, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stevenson, Stephen Peirick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Good People at Tower Grove Abbey until February 26, 2022

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Who’s Holiday
by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2021

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Who’s Holiday is Stray Dog Theatre’s offering for the festive season, and it’s not exactly what one might expect for a “holiday” show, as director Gary F. Bell pointed out in his introduction before the performance. An “adult” parody of Dr Seuss’s well-known “Grinch” story, the show has jokes that sometimes land well, and sometimes don’t, and it does have some clever elements despite a tendency to emphasize the elements of shock.  The greatest element of this one-person show, though, is its star, as Sarah Polizzi takes center stage and turns in a vibrant, personable comic performance as Cindy Lou Who.

If you’re familiar with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you’ll know who Cindy Lou Who is. Here, though, she’s not a little kid anymore. She’s all grown up and she’s had something of a difficult life, as she explains in the show. I won’t go into detail, because the point of much of the comedy is the surprise, but I will say that it’s not “family friendly”, some story elements can be unsettling, and the end result of it can come across as essentially negating the whole point of the Grinch story. Still, there are a lot of references to that and other Seuss stories and characters, as many of them figure into Cindy Lou’s story or have sent their “regrets” in response to her invitations to the holiday party she’s preparing to host at her trailer. That’s essentially the whole set-up–Cindy Lou is hosting a party, and she talks to the audience as she anticipates her guests’ arrival, with various levels of audience interaction as she tells her sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes outright shocking story full of Dr. Seuss references and jokes that vary from the silly to the clever to the crass.

This show is certainly not for everyone, and there’s very little here in terms of subject matter that hasn’t been done in similar shows. It is enthusiastically staged, however, with fun production values and a colorful, whimsical set by Josh Smith, as well as colorful costume design by Megan Bates that includes a fun quick-change moment. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been also contribute to the overall bright and festive look and atmosphere.

The best part of this show is its leading performance, with Polizzi in excellent form as Cindy Lou, who tries to stay upbeat and positive for the most part, even as she recounts the hardships she has endured over the years. Polizzi is excellent at maintaining the rhythm of her mostly-rhyming lines, and displays great comic timing as well. She also shines in the occasional sadder moments, as well as displaying an impressive singing voice at times and good “comically bad singing” in another moment. It’s a performance that has to carry the show, because she’s the only cast member, and Polizzi does an excellent job here.

Who’s Holiday had an enthusiastic audience the night I saw it. It’s not your expected “holiday show” in one way, but in other ways it’s exactly what you may expect. While this may or may not be your cup of tea, what it does have is a bright, sparkly holiday performance from its one and only cast member.

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Who’s Holiday at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 18, 2021

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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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