Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘stray dog theatre’

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

Cast of Dreamgirls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast of The Crucible
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

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

 

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »