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Souvenir
by Stephen Temperley
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
December 15, 2017

Paul Cereghino, Debby Lennon
Photo by Patrick Huber
Max & Louie Productions

Florence Foster Jenkins has gotten more notoriety than she could have predicted, even though she probably would have loved it. Even decades after her death in 1944, the socialite and wanna-be classical singer is probably more well-known than ever, thanks to the eponymous acclaimed film starring Meryl Streep as well as the play Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s charming two-character comedy that’s now onstage at the Marcelle, presented by the always excellent Max & Louie productions. It’s a well-cast production that highlights an important relationship in Jenkins’s life, and provides a showcase for two immensely talented local performers.

The play tells the unlikely but true story of Jenkins (Debby Lennon) through the eyes of her longtime accompanist Cosme McMoon (Paul Cereghino), who is initially shown reminiscing about their relationship 20 years after Jenkins’s death. McMoon then goes on to tell the story of how they met, and how they formed an unlikely team, and after McMoon’s initial shock at the combination of Jenkins’s personal confidence and her lack of discernible singing talent, the working relationship grew into a close friendship.  That’s basically the story, told with much humor but in an affectionate way rather than a ridiculing way. Even though Jenkins really isn’t the great singer she imagines herself to be, she’s got a lot of personal strength, and a truly enviable level of self-confidence. McMoon, over the years, grows to admire her and even feel protective of her, and their unfolding relationship is a joy to witness. Although for the most part, the tone of this piece is comic, there are also some poignant dramatic moments, leading to a truly touching and heartfelt conclusion.

While the script itself is excellent, what makes this production shine most of all is its casting. There are two remarkable performances here. I’ve been told by several trained singers that in order to accurately portray “bad” singing on purpose, it takes a great singer, and Lennon is that and more. The beauty of a piece like this is that it gives Lennon the opportunity to show off her “bad” singing as well as–in a fantasy sequence–her genuinely great singing. Lennon also has such an endearing quality about her as Jenkins that, even though her singing is spectacularly bad, the audience loves her for it. There are so many levels to Lennon’s performance, from humor to an undercurrent of loneliness and desire to be loved. Cereghino is every bit her match as McMoon, as well, getting the chance to show off his excellent piano skills in addition to his acting. His McMoon is charming and supremely likable, as well, and the growing friendship between these two is made all the more believable because of the excellent chemistry between Cereghino and Lennon. The comic timing is first-rate, and the dramatic moments are given just the right weight, as well.

The time, place, and mood of this show is well-maintained in the technical aspects, as well. Dunsi Dai’s gorgeous set, backed by a dazzling video wall/ceiling, provides the right backdrop for the show. There are also wonderful costumes by Teresa Doggett–from Jenkins’s various costumes ranging from classy to outrageous, to McMoon’s stylish suit and tux. There’s also excellent work from lighting designers Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo, as well as sound designer Casey Hunter. The world of Jenkins and McMoon and the overall milieu of 1930s and 40s New York is communicated with a great deal of style.

This is a remarkable production. The two leads shine, as does the whole show. It looks good and it’s thoroughly fascinating and compelling. A character who could easily be lampooned and ridiculed is given an affectionate tribute here, as is the fond friendship between the “singer” and her accompanist. This is a Souvenir worth celebrating.

Debby Lennon, Paul Cereghino
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Souvenir at the Marcelle Theatre until December 31, 2017.

 

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Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 4 2016

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that has become so well-known for its film version that it may become difficult to abandoned preconceived notions when going to see the stage version.  I personally had never seen the play before seeing the current production at New Jewish Theatre, although I had seen the film several times.  I know that a good production can easily make one set aside other versions if you give it a chance, and NJT’s production is an excellent production. It’s a story of a 25-year relationship and a specific time and place, challenging assumptions and more preconceived notions, and the casting is ideal.

The familiar story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s own family history, centers around widowed retired schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (J. Samuel Davis), who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Eric Dean White) after Daisy crashes her car and becomes too much of an insurance risk to drive. The proud Daisy insists she doesn’t need a driver at first, but Hoke is persistent and their initially rocky relationship grows closer over the years. The relationship dynamic is the centerpiece of this show, but the context is also extremely important, and although it’s not primarily a play about social commentary, it can be challenging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  The rich, Jewish Daisy insists that she isn’t rich and that she isn’t prejudiced against African-Americans, although the way she treats Hoke, especially at first, often belies that declaration. Even the seemingly easygoing Boolie is too afraid for his reputation to attend a dinner in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been invited to speak. The effort here is more to portray a specific relationship as it unfolds in the time and place–Atlanta, Georgia from 1948 until 1973–within the context of the highly restrictive and often volatile culture of the time. The relationship is the  centerpiece, however. The characters are well-drawn and the play tells a compelling, believable story in its roughly 90 minute running time.

Uhry’s play is well-structured and serves as an excellent showcase for its actors, led by NJT’s Artistic Director Sitzer in a rare acting role as Daisy.  Sitzer is excellent in portraying the complex character of Daisy, who is proud, stubborn, and set in her ways, but whose stubbornness masks an underlying vulnerability.  Davis is also excellent as Hoke, convincingly portraying the character’s developing relationship with Daisy and displaying a great deal of personal strength and determination. Both performers excel in the witty banter as well as the more dramatic moments of the piece, and the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to affectionate is convincing, as is their characters’ aging over the years as presented in the story. White also gives a strong performance as the personable, conciliatory Boolie.

The set, as is usual for productions at NJT, is impressive. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a believable, elegantly appointed house fronted by a representation of a car in which Hoke and Daisy make their various excursions. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are detailed and appropriately evocative of time and place, as well as the changing styles over the years. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Mark Wilson that helps to evoke the changing of time and season, and strong sound design by Zoe Sullivan. Music from the times is effectively used to help set the scene in various moments, as well.

This is a well-known play that I think is more complex than is often perceived. It can be sharp, challenging, and convicting as well as funny and heartwarming in moments.  Mostly, it’s a portrayal of particular distinctive characters and their growing, complex relationship.  New Jewish Theatre’s production is an excellent presentation of this memorable story.

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Driving Miss Daisy at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 18, 2016.

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Inherit the Wind
by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Insight Theatre Company
August 18, 2016

Alan Knoll, John Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Alan Knoll, John Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Inherit the Wind is Lawrence and Lee’s classic play that highly fictionalizes events relating to one of the 20th Century’s most famous trials in order to communicate the playwrights’ message. It has been performed by countless professional, amateur, and school theatres over the years and it has been filmed several times. Now, Insight Theatre Company has brought this well-known play to the stage in St. Louis, featuring a cast of excellent local actors and boasting impressive production values.

The story of this play isn’t really about the Scopes trial. It’s the playwrights’ imagining of the trial seen through the lens of 1950’s McCarthyism and anti-intellectualism. The playwrights weren’t shy about saying that, notably mentioning in their preface to the script that this isn’t intended to be a historically accurate portrayal. If you want an accurate representation of what happened in Dayton, TN in 1925, there are much better resources, but the purpose of this play was never to teach a history lesson about the trial or the real people involved, and some key characters and situations have been entirely invented. Its William Jennings Bryan stand-in, Matthew Harrison Brady (Alan Knoll) comes across as more McCarthy-as-Bryan, for instance, and the primary “every day person” representative, Rachel Brown (Sigrid Wise), is an entirely original character.

The basic framework of the Scopes trial is here, though, with Brady coming to town to lead the prosecution of high school teacher Bertram Cates (Pete Winfrey) who’s been arrested for violating the state’s law against the teaching of evolution. Defending Cates is the play’s Clarence Darrow figure, the intrepid, thoughtful Henry Drummond (John Contini). The town, as portrayed here, is dominated by fundamentalist zealots who welcome the much-admired Brady with parades and prayer meetings while the agnostic Drummond becomes a target for suspicion and scorn. His biggest ally is the cynical Baltimore reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Jason Contini), who snarks his way through the ensuing trial and doesn’t bother to conceal his contempt for the town and its people. Drummond gets to be the hero here, as the representative of free thinking in a repressive society, as Brady in all his grandiosity represents repression, misplaced nostalgia, and fear of change and new ideas. In the midst of all of the debates and sensationalism we see the conflicted Rachel trying to figure what influences to follow–the past and blind obedience to tradition as represented by her father (Michael Brightman), an influential local preacher, and championed by the charismatic Brady; or the free exchange of ideas personified by Cates and, to an even larger degree, Drummond.

The two central figures in all this drama are undoubtedly Drummond and Brady, and the success of any production of this play depends largely on the casting of these two pivotal roles. In this production, the leads are extremely well-chosen. Both actors have considerable stage presence, keeping the audience’s attention riveted when they are on stage. Knoll’s Brady is full of bombast and pride, but also a real note of humanity, and John Contini’s Drummond is sympathetic, determined, and likable. Their courtroom scenes are dynamic, although their best moment is at the end of Act 1 as they sit together on a bench, reflecting on their past friendship and the direction their lives have taken. Other notable performances include Winfrey and Wise as the earnest Cates and conflicted Rachel, and Jason Contini as the proudly cynical Hornbeck. Brightman, as Reverend Jeremiah Brown, also makes the most of a role that’s written to be one dimensional. There’s a strong ensemble, as well, playing various townspeople and figures in the trial.

Visually, the re-creation of a 1920’s small town is well done, with Kyra Bishop’s excellent set and Tracey Newcomb-Margraves costumes setting the mood and atmosphere well, although there was apparently a somewhat strange decision to have most of the jury wearing modern clothes with only a few accessories (hats, shawls, etc.) to suggest the time period. Sean Savoie’s lighting and Brett Harness’s sound design also contribute well to the overall tone of the production.

Inherit the Wind has a message that still resonates today, about freedom of expression and the dangers of a restrictive, anti-intellectual society. In terms of style, it does come across as somewhat dated although the performances can make a production. That’s the case with this production at Insight, with two extremely strong leads and a memorable supporting cast making for a fascinating, thought-provoking story.

Sigrid Wise, Pete Winfrey, John Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Sigrid Wise, Pete Winfrey, John Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Inherit the Wind at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until August 28, 2016.

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Bad Jews
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 6, 2015

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Bad Jews is a provocative title in and of itself. Joshua Harmon’s darkly comic play, currently playing at the New Jewish Theatre, is certainly thought-provoking. Exploring the issues of Jewish identity, family relationships, and personal grief, this play takes a broadly confrontational approach that’s sure to be the impetus for much thought and conversation among viewers.

The story follows three cousins after the death of their beloved grandfather, Poppy, who was a respected community leader and Holocaust survivor. The contrast between the cousins couldn’t be greater. All three are Jewish, but their views about Judaism and how it relates to them personally couldn’t be more different. Daphna Feygenbaum (Em Piro) is the ostentatiously devout cousin, for whom Judaism means following and studying the religious teachings and constantly holding her cousins accountable for not being as observant as she is. She gets along reasonably well with her mild-mannered younger cousin Jonah (Pete Winfrey), who keeps a lot of his own personal views to himself and mostly tries to keep from being caught in the middle between cousin Daphna and his older brother Liam (Antonio Rodriguez), a grad student and self-described “Bad Jew” who identifies as an atheist and is constantly at odds with Daphna, who he insists on referring to not by her chosen name but by her given name, Diana. Also brought into the midst of all the acrimony is Melody (Taylor Steward), Liam’s somewhat flighty, non-Jewish girlfriend who becomes a further point of contention between Liam and Daphna. The real struggle, though, is over what to do about a cherished family heirloom–Poppy’s “chai” necklace. “Chai” means “life” in Hebrew, and the necklace was a valued personal treasure of Poppy’s that he kept with him throughout his time in a concentration camp during World War II. For the cousins, and especially for Daphna and Liam, this valued item holds different meanings–a personal connection to Poppy, but also different aspects of his story that resonate differently with them.

The characters, like the play, are a study in extremes with one exception, which presents the play’s biggest problem. The Jonah character simply isn’t defined enough to hold up between the two extremes of his brother and cousin. Melody is also an extreme in a way, but not as sharply defined as the increasingly caustic Liam and Daphna. The actors do an excellent job of making the characters believable, though, especially the likeable Winfrey as the more moderate Jonah. Steward plays the somewhat vacuous Melody with about as much depth as the character could display. Piro, as Daphna, is full of zeal and talks a mile a minute, making her character’s implacable determination somewhat bearable for a time. The same goes for Rodriguez, who gives an energetic performance as Liam, who is preoccupied in a way both by his hatred of his cousin and his love of Melody.

Daphna and Liam both make points worth thinking about, although this play seems to be designed to raise issues for thinking about rather than offering concrete resolutions. A lot of important issues are raised considering personal identity, the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism, and also generally how adult cousins can relate to one another. In fact, one of the play’s highlights is when the cousins are able to put their differences aside for just a few minutes as they share a personal story of a shared memory of Poppy. One of the best successes of this play is that Poppy, who necessarily doesn’t appear on stage, is such a well-realized character. 

The set, designed by Dunsi Dai, is an authentically realized representation of a high-end New York apartment, appropriately cluttered because it’s been serving basically as a temporary residence for the cousins. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes represent the characters well, from the upwardly mobile Liam and Melody, to the more casual attire of Daphna and Jonah.  There’s also fine work from lighting designer Kimberly Klearman, props designer Kyra Bishop, and sound designer Zoe Sullivan, providing a suitable atmosphere for the situations of the play.

Bad Jews is a play that raises a lot of important, relevant issues for today’s world. Sometimes, I think the tone can get in the way of the issues, and I do wish the Jonah character had been better developed especially. Still for the most part this is an intense, well thought-out play that explores a modern family dealing with some important and sometimes polarizing issues.

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Bad Jews at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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Chancers
by Robert Massey
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
Max & Louie Productions
October 30, 2014

Nathan Bush, Jared Sanz-Agero, Pamela Reckamp Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Nathan Bush, Jared Sanz-Agero, Pamela Reckamp
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Forbidden fruit.  It’s a concept that’s at least as old as the Old Testament book of Genesis, and has been represented in many different ways throughout the years. The idea of wanting something you can’t have, and the lengths a person will go to in order to obtain the object of their desire, is dealt with in Robert Massey’s Irish comedy Chancers, which is currently being produced by Max & Louie Productions at the Kranzberg Theatre in Grand Center. Here, the object of temptation is that ubiquitous symbol of modern pie-in-the-sky optimism, the lottery ticket. It’s a dark comedy that explores some of the baser elements of the human condition, and it’s been given a sharp, well-focused treatment by Max & Louie’s excellent cast and creative team.

Aiden (Nathan Bush) and Dee (Pamela Reckamp), a married couple who own a small convenience store, are suffering the effects of a downturn in the Irish economy. While Aiden struggles to keep their store financially afloat, and while Dee prepares for an important job interview, both are worried about how they will continue to make ends meet and support themselves and their two young sons.  Meanwhile, the wealthy, haughty customer Gertie (Donna Weinsting) serves as constant reminder to Aiden that life isn’t fair.  When Aiden discovers that a lottery ticket he has checked for Gertie is a big winner and then tells her it’s not, he is presented with the dilemma of whether to tell Gertie the truth. A further complication comes when he seeks counsel from his opportunist friend JP (Jared Sanz-Agero), who always seems to have one get rich quick scheme after another.  JP’s rather extreme plan for obtaining the ticket throws Aiden for a loop, and when JP then brings Dee into the discussion, the situation gets even more challenging.  The action takes a little while to get going since the set-up takes a while, although the story really starts moving in Act 2, barreling forward towards an open-ended conclusion that challenges the audience to think about what we would do in this situation.

I’m struck by the cleverness of this script, which is being given a US premiere production here.  With sharp dialogue and characters who manage to serve as individuals and archetypes at the same time, the material presents a strong challenge for actors and director.  The story here is a fairly clear twist on Adam and Eve, with JP as the serpent.  There’s even an apple very prominently featured in a key scene early in Act 2.  Bush makes an appealing protagonist as the conflicted Aiden, who’s a decent guy just trying to figure out how to make his life make sense in a world that has become increasingly corrupted by greed, which is represented by the smug Gertie, played with much attitude and energy by Weinsting. Reckamp, as Dee, effectively portrays the frustration and conflict as she’s torn between siding with her husband or with the scheming JP. Sanz-Agero is full of forceful energy and wily manipulation as JP. His scenes with Bush and Reckamp are full of fierce humor and biting social commentary, as well as a very real sense of desperation driving his actions.  These three characters are all desperate in their own ways, and that desperation is well-portrayed by this strong combination of actors.

The world of the play is very well-realized in the meticulously detailed set, designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The director and design team obviously did their research, as evidenced by the photos of actual Irish convenience stores on display in the hallway outside the theatre, and by the well-appointed set, which strives for the utmost authenticity down to the last little candy bar and bag of chips on display.  The Lotto sign with its tempting catch-phrase of “it could be you” is an effective an omnipresent reminder of the theme of this play, and the constant sense of temptation resulting from the hope that a life-changing jackpot may be waiting just around the corner. The consistency of the Irish accents, courtesy of the cast and dialect coach Katy Keating, is also to be commended. The immersive quality of the production even extended to the handing out of free scratcher lottery tickets on opening night.

The authenticity of the production values and portrayals adds depth to the extreme sharpness of the comedy and the situation. Some of the humor here is downright brutal, but so is the desperate situation in which these characters are living. The situation here may be extreme, but it’s also grounded in  reality. Anyone who has bought a lottery tickets knows that fantastical sense of “what if” that comes with the purchase, even when, inevitably, those tickets don’t win big prizes.  This play uses dark humor to portray a universal aspect of the human condition–that of temptation and the dilemma how to handle it. Max & Louie’s production is at turns hilarious, shocking, and thought-provoking. It’s a memorable staging of a challenging, incisive play. It’s very much worth taking the chance to see.

Nathan Bush, Pamela Reckamp, Donnie Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Nathan Bush, Pamela Reckamp, Donnie Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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