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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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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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