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Posts Tagged ‘stray dog theatre’

Evil Dead: The Musical
Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, George Reinblatt
Music Supervision by Frank Cipolla, Additional Lyrics by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2018

Christen Ringhausen, Jennelle Gilreath, Stephen Henley, Dawn Schmid, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s newest production is Evil Dead: The Musical. Now, if you’re reading this and that title excites you, you will probably love this show. Otherwise, though, I’m not so sure. As is usual with this theatre company, the show is well cast, enthusiastically staged, and musically strong. Still, it’s an extremely niche-appeal show, and if you love the Evil Dead franchise and/or the slasher/horror genre generally, this is your kind of show. There isn’t much here, though, for those for whom that genre doesn’t appeal.

Story-wise, the plot is essentially a combination of the first two Evil Dead films with a few nods to the third one thrown in for good measure. The opening number “Cabin In the Woods” sets up the premise–a Spring Break excursion to a secluded cabin by a group of five young adults–Ash (Riley Dunn), his girlfriend Linda (Dawn Schmid) and younger sister Cheryl (Christen Ringhausen), along with his best friend Scott (Stephen Henley) and his latest fling Shelly (Jennelle Gilreath), whom Scott has recently picked up at a bar. The five expect to have a typical (but unauthorized) “party” week at the cabin, but they soon find out that this is no ordinary cabin. There are evil spirits here, which inhabit not only the cabin but the trees that surround it. Other characters soon become involved, including the tape-recorded voice of Professor Knowby (Kevin O’Brien), the owner of the cabin, who has discovered an ancient book with incantation that will awaken the “Candarian demons”. There’s also the professor’s daughter, Annie (Maria Bartolotta) and geeky research assistant Ed (Corey Fraine), who return to her father’s cabin along with local resident Jake (Josh Douglas) and find the uninvited Ash, his friends, and lots of trouble.

The main focus here is on humor and gore, and there are certainly some funny moments, with the cast seeming to have a great time hamming it up for all its worth. It’s a strong cast all around, with Dunn’s swaggering hero Ash and Ringhausen’s initially clueless but eventually bloodthirsty Cheryl being standouts, along with Bartolotta who leads the show’s most memorable musical number, the hilariously titled “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons”. Douglas also has some fun moments in his dual role as Jake and as a singing Moose head. It’s a strong cast all around, though, with their enthusiasm adding a great deal of energy to this show.

Visually, the production values are excellent, as is usual for SDT. Josh Smith’s set brings the iconic “cabin in the woods” to life with vivid detail, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting adds a suitably creepy effect. Eileen Engel’s colorful costumes and  Sarah Castelli’s eerie horror-style makeup contribute to the overall comic-horror atmosphere. There’s also a great band, led by musical director Jennifer Buchheit. There’s also, as advertised, lots and lots of stage blood, but it is so over-the-top in its use that the overall effect is more humorous than scary, and I think that’s the intention.

As I already wrote in my recent review of The Zombies of Penzance at New Line, shows about zombies are generally not my cup of tea, even though I know the genre is extremely popular and I try my best to see its appeal. Evil Dead isn’t exactly a typical “zombie” story, although it features zombie-like “Deadites”. Still, it’s even more out of my comfort zone than Zombies.. Evil Dead, as an unapologetic homage to the movie series on which it is based, as well as other horror/slasher type movies, isn’t trying to re-imagine anything or be deep or profound. It’s just a straight-up R-rated comedy horror show with lots of crude humor, gore and stage blood, and an advertised “splatter zone” appealing to audience members who want the interactive experience of being splattered with fake blood and guts. Again, if this concept sounds appealing to you, you will probably love it. If it doesn’t sound interesting, though, you might have trouble seeing the appeal. Still, it’s a well-staged production and the cast and crew seem to be having a whole lot of fun. For fans of horror/gore-related comedy and the Evil Dead franchise in particular, this is sure to be a hit.

Riley Dunn (Center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Evil Dead: The Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until October 27, 2018

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The Robber Bridegroom
Book and Lyrics by Alfred Uhry, Music by Robert Waldman
Adapted From the Novella by Eudora Welty
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 2, 2018

Phil Leveling (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest musical production is a reflection of the sense of theatrical excellence that has come to characterize this company. The Robber Bridegroom is an offbeat, folktale-style musical with a bluegrass score, larger-than-life characters and a great bluegrass score.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

The show, which first opened on Broadway in 1975, has a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and excellent, bluegrass-style music by Robert Waldman, played here by a top-notch band conducted by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The band members dress in costume and process in with the rest of the cast at the beginning of the show, remaining onstage throughout the performance and adding an old-fashioned, energetic spirit to the production, along with the superb cast, who are all in excellent form. The story is told in “storyteller” style and opens with a square dance, as the various characters introduce themselves and the premise is set up. In 18th Century Mississippi, Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling), while traveling, saves the rich planter Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey M Wright) from a murder attempt by notorious robber Little Harp (Logan Willmore)–whose “partner in crime” is the head of his brother, Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), that Little Harp carries around in a trunk. The grateful Musgrove invites Jamie to visit him at his plantation, with the aim of setting Lockhart up with his daughter Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), who is mistreated by her greedy, ambitious stepmother Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling). The lonely Rosamund wanders in the woods and meets the notorius Bandit of the Woods, she doesn’t know is Jamie in disguise, and Salome enlists the not-too-bright Goat (Bryce Miller) to get rid of Rosamund, although that proves to be more difficult than Salome had imagined.

This is a show with which I hadn’t been familiar before, and I had only heard one of the songs out of context. Reading the plot synopsis, and the fairly dark nature of some of the plot points, made me go into this expecting it to be much more in the vein of something like Sweeney Todd. The approach here, though, is much different. For the most part, this is an upbeat musical, full of broad, sketch-like comedy, a rousing score, and no real “cautionary” lessons. It just presents the characters and situations in all their over-the-top, sometimes ridiculous glory and lets the audience, and the cast, enjoy the ride. It’s told in the form of a folk legend, or “tall tale”, with even the more implausible aspects of the plot (a disembodied head that talks, for instance) told in a straightforward, humorous manner. The bluegrass score adds to the overall “folk tale” atmosphere, and there are some memorable songs here, from the fast-moving “Once Upon the Natchez Trace”  and “Two Heads” to the haunting “Deeper in the Wood” to the lullabye-like “Sleepy Man” and more.

The general tone is upbeat and energetic, with broad characterizations that provide excellent opportunities for the excellent cast to shine. The larger-than-life characters are well-represented here, with Dowling’s angry, vengeful Salome, Willmore’s eagerly villainous Little Harp and O’Brien’s equally villainous but restrained (in a box) Big Harp, and Miller’s gleeful, physically agile but easily duped Goat as major standouts. Leveling as the charismatic but duplicitous Jamie, and especially Schmid in a superb comic turn as the determined, slightly goofy Rosamund lead the show well, displaying lively chemistry in their scenes together. The entire ensemble is excellent, as well, with lots of energy keeping the fast-paced show running smoothly and with much hilarity. The singing is also great, from the leads as well as the ensemble, with some strong harmonies in the group numbers.

The staging here is paced well, with a kind of exaggerated, not-too-serious tone that’s appropriate for this type of “tall tale”. Director Justin Been has also designed the versatile set, consisting of a tent-like backdrop, the main stage area decorated by period-era accessories such as crates and barrels, and a set of raised platforms to add visual interest. There’s also excellent lighting from Tyler Duenow, as well as colorful, detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and bright, energetic choreography by Mike Hodges.

This show is so much more fun than I had expected. It’s silly, that’s for sure, but it’s the kind of show that revels in its silliness, which makes it even more entertaining. The Robber Bridegroom isn’t a show I had known much about before, but now I’m glad Stray Dog has introduced me to it. It’s a real treat.

Dawn Schmid (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Robber Bridegroom at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 18, 2018.

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Jesus Christ Superstar
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 26, 2018

Omega Jones (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar is s show that’s been staged in various different ways over the years.  There are the more straightforward Biblical-style stagings, and there have been some re-imaginings, which seem increasingly popular in recent times. In their latest production, Stray Dog Theatre has gone the “re-imagining” route, resulting in an entertaining, well-cast production that can be somewhat confusing in its theming.

Telling the story of Jesus Christ (Omega Jones) mostly from the point of view of the disciple who betrayed him, Judas Iscariot (Phil Leveling), this rock opera has had its controversies over the years, but while it’s over 40 years old now, the music has held up well over that time. Here, though, the story isn’t told in the traditional Biblical setting. Here, director Justin Been has updated the show to give it something of a futuristic, sci-fi type setting that isn’t entirely consistent. Still, the music is all here, performed extremely well by the excellent Stray Dog band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. In this production, Jesus and his disciples are presented as some kind of enigmatic rebels to a futuristic regime that has suggestions of various Evil Empires from a variety of science fiction stories, especially Star Wars and Star Trek in terms of costuming.  The drama is in the performances and music, with well-known songs such as the title number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the show-stopping “Gesthsemane” represented extremely well, although sometimes the power of the story seems a little muted due to the theming.

There’s a great cast here, especially in terms of voices. Jones has a remarkably versatile vocal range and charismatic presence as Jesus, and Leveling sings better than I’ve ever heard him as a particularly cynical version of Judas. There are also strong performances from Heather Matthews as an enthralled Mary Magdalene, Gerry Love hamming it up with gusto as King Herod, and Lavonne Byers as a conflicted, reflective Pontius Pilate, with the songs particularly suiting her lower vocal range. Riley Dunn as Simon Zealotes, and Kevin Corpuz as Peter also have standout vocal moments, and the main players are backed by a strong, energetic ensemble, who are in excellent voice and also move well as expertly choreographed by Mike Hodges, who also puts in a memorable, oily turn as Annas as a complement to Jon Hey’s deep-voiced, menacing Caiaphas.

Visually, the show is striking and otherwordly. Josh Smith’s set is vividly realized, with an imposing, marble-like staircase as the most prominent feature, surmounted by a pair of ominous doors. The various levels of the set also lend well to the theatricality of the production, with ladders, platforms and various areas of the stage used to great effect. The costumes by Eileen Engel are meticulously crafted but not entirely cohesive in terms of making it seem like all the characters are inhabiting the same world. Still, the show is visually memorable, with exellent lighting by Tyler Duenow adding to the overall effect.

This is definitely an entertaining production. It’s unquestionably Jesus Christ Superstar in terms of the performances and music, but theming-wise, this production doesn’t always seem to know what it wants to be. Still, the cast is wonderful, and the music is driving, powerful and memorable. Overall, I would say this was a worthwhile and truly memorable theatrical experience.

Phil Leveling, Heather Matthews, Omega Jones, Jon Hey, Mike Hodges and ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Red Scare on Sunset
by Charles Busch
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2018

Shannon Nara, Stephen Peirick, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is the second play I’ve seen by local theatre company a period of two months that has dealt with the “Red Scare” in the entertainment industry in the 1950s, but the two plays couldn’t be more different. While New Jewish Theatre’s A Jewish Joke was a one-man show that took on the topic seriously, SDT’s Red Scare On Sunset is a deliberately over-the-top campfest with an enthusiastic cast of eight performers portraying a variety of roles. It’s a completely different approach to this much-portrayed subject, and it brings some sharp satire along with its laughs, although the message can be somewhat confusing at times.

The story takes us to the world of television, radio, and film in vibrant Los Angeles in the 1950s. Wholesome “All-American” movie star Mary Dale (Will Bonfiglio) is married to struggling actor Frank Taggart (Stephen Peirick), who has ambitions for more “serious” acting roles. The Red Scare is at its height, and Mary’s BFF, the brash comic radio host Pat Pilford (Shannon Nara) fires an actor on her show because of his alleged Communist ties. Frank is seduced by the charms of rival film actress Marta Towers (Ariel Roukaerts), whose invitations to a famous acting coach’s Method acting class lures him into the clutches of “the Party”, and soon the far-reaching effects of the conspiracy are revealed, with some surprising and not-so-surprising twists along the way. It’s a broad, satrical look at politics, conspiracy theories, censorship, the acting business and acting techniques, and more, with extremely broad characterizations and deliberately over-the-top, hammy acting. There are many memorable moments, and the message can be surprisingly caustic amid all the humor, when it becomes unclear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I’m assuming that confusion is mostly deliberate, although the message comes across as somewhat muddled, and it’s not always clear what this show is trying to say, since the “how” seems to become more important than the “what”.

The cast is strong, for the most part, led by the deliciously campy performance of Bonfiglio, who makes the most of his role as the “heroic” Mary. Bonfiglio’s performance is matched by that of Nara as the crass, determined Vaudeville veteran Pat. Peirick as Frank and Roukaerts as Marta also seem to be having a lot of fun in their exaggerated roles, as does Stephen Henley is multiple roles. The ensemble of Gerry Love, Michael Baird and Chris Ceradsky lend their support in a variety of broadly comic roles as well.

The technical aspects of this production add a lot to the overall atmosphere of the play. Rob Lippert’s fairly simple set backed by a large movie screen provides an excellent setting for the action. and Amy Hopkins’s colorful, occasionally outrageous costumes contribute to the comedy well. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow. The staging is fast-paced, with heightened sense of “seriousness” that contributes a lot of the comic effect.

Overall, Red Scare On Sunset is a fun production. If it’s not always entirely clear in what it’s trying to say, it’s still says it in a stylish way. The overall effect is one of style over substance, but with some extremely strong comic performances and a good deal of energy and attitude.  There are a lot of laughs to be had here.

Ariel Roukaerts, Gerry Love, Stephen Peirick, Chris Ceradsky
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Red Scare On Sunset at Tower Grove Abbey until February 24, 2018.

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Steel Magnolias
by Robert Harling
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
November 30, 2017

Sarah Gene Dowling, Eileen Engel, Andra Harkins, Alison Linderer, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is of a well-known play that I, and I assume many others, have previously only seen in its even more well-known 1989 film version. On stage, Steel Magnolias is similar to the film in that it serves as an excellent showcase for a strong cast of women, only it’s notably different in structure and somewhat in focus. It’s a character study, essentially, not just of people but of a time and place as well.

Unlike the film that “opens up” the story and features some of the characters only talked about in the play, the stage version has an all-female cast and takes place in only one location, the small-town Louisiana beauty shop owned by personable stylist Truvy Jones (Sarah Gene Dowling). The play starts out as Truvy is hiring a new employee, the initially shy and guarded Annelle (Alison Linderer), and then the story unfolds in four scenes spanning a two-year period from April 1987 to November 1989. Over the course of the story, we meet several of the “regulars” in Truvy’s shop, learning about their characters and the atmosphere and traditions of the town in which they live and the people who populate their lives, even though we don’t actually meet anyone except for the six main characters. There’s the lovably cranky Ouiser (Andra Harkins) and her old friend, Clairee (Liz Mischel), who is the widow of the town’s former mayor and who shares a snarky but affectionate friendship with Ouiser. There’s also M’Lynn (Jenni Ryan), a local social worker and overworked mother whose eldest child Shelby (Eileen Engel) is preparing to get married. The story, while featuring all of the characters well, soon focuses primarily on M’Lynn and Shelby’s story, as we learn of Shelby’s desire to have children despite her serious health concerns, and M’Lynn’s struggle to accept her adult child’s decisions even when she doesn’t think they are wise. It’s a story full of character moments, lots of humor and stories of life in this small Southern town, as well as some poignant and even heartbreaking moments of drama. For the most part, though, even with the intense emotional moments, the overall tone is more comic than tragic, and the overall message seems to be one of hope through the up and down moments of life.

The casting here is strong, with all the performers suiting their roles well. Dowling gives a solid performance as the kind, dependable Truvy, and Linderer is especially impressive as the character who undergoes the most change in the play, the shy, then secretive, then fun-loving, then devout Annelle. Mischel and Harkins lend excellent support as the snarky but loving long-time friends Clairee and Ouiser, and Ryan and Engel portray a believable, poignant mother-daughter relationship as the concerned M’Lynn and the sometimes frustrating upbeat Shelby. The interplay between all six performers is strong, as well, which is essential to this play that depends largely on ensemble chemistry for its humor and its drama. The 1980’s look and atmosphere is well-maintained as well by means of Josh Smith’s detailed unit set, and the colorful, period-specific costumes by Engel and director Gary F. Bell. Tyler Duenow’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of this production.

This is a story about women and their relationships, as friends, mothers, daughters, and neighbors. It’s also a specifically Southern play, with strong dialogue and a well-realized setting and tone. It’s essentially the same story as the 1989 film, but the structure makes some of the story elements play a little differently, and the overall tone is more intimate. It’s another memorable show from Stray Dog Theatre.

Alison Linderer, Liz Mischel, Andra Harkins, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Steel Magnolias at Tower Grove Abbey until December 16, 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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

 

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Ragtime, the Musical
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 3, 2017

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

“Ambitious” is a good word to describe Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Ragtime, just thinking about it. SDT isn’t a huge company, and their venue, the Tower Grove Abbey, isn’t that big either, but Ragtime is a big musical, in terms of casting, technical demands, and overall scope. This is one of those situations that might make someone wonder if a production like this would even work. Fortunately, however, this production does work, extremely well.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, heavily plotted novel, the musical Ragtime is grand in scope, examining life in New York City and its suburbs in the early 20th Century, and the major societal changes that were going on during that time. There’s a lot of story here, and the writers deserve credit for fitting all the plots into a coherent and fascinating musical. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), Harry Houdini (Joseph Gutowski), J.P. Morgan (Gerry Love), Henry Ford (Jason Meyers), Evelyn Nesbit (Angela Bubash), and Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.) appear in the show interacting with the fictional characters and helping to set the scene and paint a picture of the times. The three main plots involve characters from different backgrounds living in a world of class and racial tensions, systemic racism and discrimination, as well as the rise of immigration, changes in technology and societal expectations, and more.  There’s an upper-class family in the rich, and very white, suburb of New Rochelle, featuring a somewhat obtuse but world exploring Father (Phil Leveling), a cynical Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi), a pampered Mother (Kay Love) who is learning that the world isn’t as simple as she had thought, and the Little Boy, Edgar (Joe Webb).  Against the expectations of society, Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah (Evan Addams) and her newborn son. The child’s father is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones), who wants to marry Sarah and has big dreams for their future as a family. There’s also Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), a Jewish immigrant artist from Latvia who arrives in New York with his daughter (Avery Smith) looking to make a new life in America. This is only the beginning, though. Complications occur for everyone involved, as Mother starts to see her values conflicting with those of her husband, Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee) looks for a purpose in life, Coalhouse is bullied and harassed by the local fire chief (also Lavazzi) and his cronies who don’t like the idea of a black man with a fancy new car spending so much time in New Rochelle, and Tateh’s efforts to provide for his daughter take him from the streets of New York to Boston and beyond. Hopes and dreams are confronted with harsh reality, cruelty, and injustice, and life changes significantly for everyone involved.

This isn’t an easy story to describe without taking too much time and spoiling too much, but all the plots are woven together expertly, and the tension builds throughout the first act and explodes in the second. This is an intensely challenging, moving, and thought-provoking work, and SDT has staged it as well as I could imagine. The singing is first-rate, from the leads to the large and impressive ensemble. From the very first moment of the show, the ensemble and the music set the mood, along with the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The music is a mixture of traditional Broadway and turn of the 20th Century styles including, as is to be expected from the title of the play, a major ragtime influence.  The time and place are evoked well through means of David Blake’s expansive, multi-level set with platforms, staircases, and the look of steel-beam construction from the era. There are also meticulously detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel, and dramatic lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps transport the audience to this specific era and place in history. The only small issue I have with this production is that Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby (played by a doll) never actually ages despite the fact that several years go by in the course of the story.

The cast here is simply remarkable, with not a weak link among them. Everyone is ideally cast, and the character relationships are well-established and believable, with excellent chemistry in the ensemble and among the leads. Jones and Addams especially display a strong connection as Coalhouse and Sarah, with powerful voices as well. Their hopeful duet “Wheels of a Dream” in Act 1 is a particular highlight. Jones is also especially adept at portraying Coalhouse’s journey throughout the story, as the character goes through a great deal of profound changes. Also strong are Kay Love, in a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully sung turn as Mother; Wright, determined and engaging as Tateh; and Bee as a particularly earnest and determined Younger Brother. There are also some memorable performances from Lavazzi in two distinct roles–the jaded Grandpa and the bigoted, bullying fire chief–as well as Bubash as the perky singer and actress Evelyn Nesbit, who is the center of a national scandal; Kyro as the insistent activist Emma Goldman; and young Webb and Smith as the Little Boy and the Little Girl. Everyone is excellent, though. If I named all the strong performances, I would be listing the whole cast, because everyone is just that good. This is a show that demands a lot from its cast in terms of vocals, acting, and overall energy, and this cast delivers all that and more, from the very first note to the stirring Act 1 finale “Till We Reach That Day” to the Epilogue that ends the show.

I’m fairly sure this is the biggest show Stray Dog has ever done, and it’s simply stunning. The pacing is just right as well, not too rushed and not too slow. The moments of emotional resonance are given just the right amount of time, and all the players work together with precision and strength. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a pivotal time in American history, but it also has a lot to say for today’s times as well. This is a truly brilliant production.

Kay Love, Evan Addams
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ragtime at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 19, 2017.

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