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A Man of No Importance
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Book by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
August 8, 2019

Cast of A Man of No Importance
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

Discovering lesser-known shows is a fun experience, especially when they’re performed by a company with a track record for excellent, thoughtful productions. Such a production is now onstage at the Marcelle in Midtown, produced by R-S Theatrics. A Man of No Importance is a show I hadn’t heard of before I saw the announcements for this production, so I looked it up and saw it had a great team of writers (the same team who created Ragtime), as well as an excellent cast and R-S Theatrics’ strong reputation for thought-provoking theatrical excellence. Upon seeing the show, I’m even more glad for companies like this, since it’s a witty, charming and poignant show that deserves a wider audience.

This is a show that’s full of character, and characters. Set in Dublin, Ireland in the 1960s, it’s based on a somewhat obscure 1994 film of the same name. It’s also, for the most part, a highly affectionate look at the world of amateur theatre. The central figure is Alfie Byrne (Mark Kelley), a bus conductor who is unmarried and lives with his sister, Lily (Stephanie Merritt). Lily wants to marry the traditionalist Mr. Carney (Michael B. Musgrave-Perkins), but has waited for Alfie to marry first, although Alfie is essentially “married” to his theatre company, St. Imelda’s Players, and he spends his time reading Oscar Wilde and imagining new productions he can stage. When Alfie meets newcomer Adele (Lindy Elliott), he is captivated, but not in the way Lily wishes he would be. Instead, he sees in Adele the ideal star for his dream production of Oscar Wilde’s biblical drama Salome, and he encourages her to participate even though she has no theatrical experience. He also harbors a secret affection for his good-looking young bus driver, Robbie (Kellen Green), who he also tries to recruit to be in the play. The usual regulars of his productions are there, as well, including kindly widowed stage manager Baldy (Kent Coffel) and eager participants Mrs. Curtin (Nancy Nigh), Mrs. Grace (Jodi Stockton), and Miss Crow (Kay Love), Rasher Flynn (Marshall Jennings), and Ernie Lally (Dustin Allison). The problems come when Mr. Carney, who has also been cast in the play, starts to have issues with its content, and he takes up his concerns with the local Catholic organization and Father Kenny (also Allison), the priest at the church where the theatre group performs. Through the course of the events, Alfie is also forced to come to terms with some important truths about himself. The show starts out as a flashback and a sort of play-within-a-play, telling Alfie’s story and that of his troubled production. The characters are especially well-drawn and specific, and the story is thoroughly engaging, with elements of fantasy blended in with slice-of-life comedy drama, with an intelligent book by Terrence McNally and an engaging score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that includes influences of Irish music.

With such strongly defined characters, a great cast is essential for a show like this, and this production has that. Led by Kelley’s truly charming, thoughtful, well-sung performance as Alfie, this is a production full of impressive performances, including Merritt as the stubborn but loving Lily; Green, who is in great voice as Robbie; and Elliot who is sympathetic as the initially shy, somewhat mysterious Adele. Musgrave-Perkins is also a strong presence as both the self-absorbed, strait-laced Mr. Carney and as the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who appears as an encouraging figment of Alfie’s imagination. All the players are excellent, with Nigh, Stockton, and Love giving strong comic performances, and Allison excellent in a dual role as a well-meaning but doubtful priest and as a theatre company member who presents a directorial challenge for Alfie. There are also fine performances from Coffel as the dependable Baldy and Jennings as Rasher and also as Breton Beret, an enigmatic figure who Alfie meets in a pub. Jennifer Theby-Quinn, in a relatively small role as church member Mrs. Patrick, gets some terrific solo vocal opportunities, as well. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing energy and style and a believable Irish flair to the story.

The technical aspects of this show are also strong, with a believable lived-in look to the set (designer not listed), as well as colorful costumes by Amanda Brasher. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting and Heather Tucker’s props also add to the overall atmosphere especially well. There’s also an excellent band led by music director Curtis Moeller, who also plays a few smaller roles in the show, along with a few other band members. The music sounds great, although at times they can overpower the singers.

A Man of No Importance is a show you may not have heard of, but if you don’t know it, you should! It’s a well-constructed story with some important themes of community, self-expression, family relationships, and more, as well as an overarching tone of sheer love for the theatre. At R-S Theatrics, director Christina Rios and company have staged another memorable, thoughtful success. It’s Rios’s last production as director for this company, and she’s going out on an especially high note. Go see this if you can.

Cast of A Man of No Importance
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting A Man of No Importance at the Marcelle Theatre until August 25, 2019

 

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

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mothers and Sons
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 29, 2016

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons, currently playing at the Rep Studio, isn’t a long play, but there’s a whole lot going on. A complex plot and well-drawn characters make this play interesting and at times profound. The Rep’s production is especially notable for its excellent performances, conveying a lot of the depth of this story and making it riveting to watch.

It’s a somewhat complicated plot, mostly based on conversation and reflection. The play opens with Katharine (Darrie Lawrence) standing by the window in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment with Cal (Harry Bouvy), who’s pointing out the view of Central Park and various sights. The conversation is awkward, and we soon learn why. It turns out that Katharine is the mother of Andre, who died of AIDS 20 years previously and who was in a long-term relationship with Cal, who hasn’t seen Katharine since Andre’s memorial service. A lot has changed in 20 years, in the country as well in the personal lives of Katharine and Cal. Katharine is a recent widow, and Cal is now married to Will (Michael Keyloun), and they have a 7-year-old son, Bud (Simon Desilets). Katharine’s visit is a disruption of Cal and Will’s happy existence, and many issues are stirred up, including Katharine’s regrets concerning her relationship with Andre and with Cal, Cal’s feelings of guilt for having survived Andre and having achieved the happy married life he and Andre were unable to have, Katharine’s denial of various aspects of her son’s life, Will’s jealousy of the memory of Andre, the age difference between Will and Cal and its effects on their views of the world, and more. It’s a somewhat talky play, taking place in one space and with only four characters, so the emphasis is on the character dynamics and the relationships.  It covers a lot of issues in its 90 minutes, but the story builds well and the playwright Terrence McNally’s dialogue is incisive and insightful, for the most part. The biggest strength of this production, though, is in the acting.

Darrie Lawrence gives a remarkable, powerful performance as Katharine, an extremely flawed character who is made to face and deal with her own flaws, despite her frequent bouts of denial.  Lawrence makes Katharine’s rigidity, her resistance to change, and her humanity extremely believable, bringing weight to all the developing relationships in the play, especially with Bouvy’s Cal and the unseen but very well-realized Andre. Bouvy is also excellent as Cal, a man who has found happiness after loss but still deals with some unresolved guilt and regret. His scenes with Lawrence are charged with tension, and he also has some great moments with Keyloun as the amiable, earnest and thoughtful Will.  Young Desilets also gives a strong performance as Bud, a well-loved little boy who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening around him, but who wants everyone to be happy.  The love between the family unit of Cal, Will, and Bud is convincing, as are Bud’s attempts to include Katharine in the family dynamic.

The play’s staging setup works well for the drama that unfolds, as the action is surrounded on three sides by the audience, allowing for an effective sense of immediacy. James Wolk’s set recreates an upper class Manhattan apartment convincingly, and Elizabeth Eisloeffel’s costumes suit the characters well, also helping to emphasize the age and generational differences between the characters. There’s also strong use of lighting by John Wylie and clear, effective sound by Amanda Werre.

Overall, as its title suggests, Mothers and Sons is a play about relationships, featuring well-drawn characters and situations.  It tackles a number of issues specific to these characters as well as some important universal themes.  Terrence McNally is a an excellent playwright and he has a strong sense of time, place, and character, although what really brings this production to life is its superb performances, and especially that of Lawrence as Katharine.  There are a lot of difficult, intense emotions here, and they are portrayed with intensity, depth and clarity in this excellent, well-directed production at the Rep Studio.

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons is being presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio until November 13, 2016.

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The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 9, 2015

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty is the closing production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2015 season. I had never seen this show before, or the film on which it is based. For the most part, I find it a pleasant surprise.  Everyone knows it as that show about male strippers, but even more than that it’s a celebration of friendship, family, and determination. With a strong, likable cast and the impressive production values that STAGES is known for, this proves to be an entertaining, worthwhile production.

Adapted from the popular British film, the musical version of The Full Monty moves the setting from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York in the late 1990’s. The story follows Jerry Lukowski (Brent Michael Diroma) and his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Todd A. Horman), who have lost their jobs when a local steel mill shut down. Jerry, a divorced father of 14-year-old Nathan (Cole Hoefferle), needs a job so he can keep up child support payments and maintain joint custody of his son. Dave has self-image issues based on being out of a job and being overweight, causing him to neglect his loving wife Georgie (Lindsie Vanwinkle). After noticing the popularity of a local “women only” strip club, Jerry gets the idea to form a group to perform a one-night-only act in order to make the money he needs. Along the way, they meet other down-on-their-luck guys, like the fastidious Harold (James Ludwig), who takes dance classes with his materialistic but loving wife Vicki (Julie Cardia) and agrees to become their choreographer. There’s also Noah “Horse” Simmons (Milton Craig Neal), who is older and has a bad hip, but is a great dancer, although he struggles with public perceptions demonstrated in his song “Big Black Man.” Rounding out the group are the shy young Malcolm (Erik Keiser), who lives with his elderly mother and struggles to find a purpose in life, and the amiable and charming but not too bright Ethan (Adam Shonkwiler), who forms a close bond with Malcolm. A lot happens through the course of this show, with the grand finale strip performance being the ultimate goal, although what’s really important is the relationships–friendships and romances–that are formed and rebuilt.

For the most part, this is a highly entertaining show. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of “empowerment through stripping”, but that’s not all this show is about. It’s about friends and family, and honesty and integrity. It’s populated with likable characters, although there are some stereotypes that can be uncomfortable, and most of the songs are not particularly memorable, with some truly clunky lyrics. The closing number “Let It Go” (no, not that one) is catchy enough, though, and there’s a memorable moment for Keiser and Shonkwiler in “You Walk With Me”, although none of these songs is likely to become a classic. Still, there’s great dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf, and some truly poignant moments as well some excellent comedy.

The heart of this show is its characters, and the actors are well-cast.  Diroma makes a convincing down-on-his-luck Jerry, although at times he seems a little too clean-cut for the role. He’s got a strong voice and good stage presence, though, and great chemistry with the rest of the group of guys, especially Horman’s glum but sweet Dave.  The real standouts in the cast for me, though, are Ludwig and Cardia as Harold and Vicki, a loving couple who have to deal with a secret that threatens their relationship. The energy and affection between these two is heartwarming. There’s also local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as the group’s feisty, no-nonsense self-appointed pianist, Jeanette. Neal as Horse shows off great dance and comic ability, and Keiser is particularly winning as the initially depressed Malcolm. Shonkwiler as Ethan gives a strong performance as well, particularly in his scenes with Keiser.

In terms of production values, this show delivers what STAGES is known for–excellence and professionalism. The set, by James Wolk, is appropriately evocative of a working class Buffalo environment. The costumes, by Garth Dunbar, are suitably late 90’s styled, colorful, and character-appropriate. There’s also outstanding lighting, designed by Matthew McCarthy, that lends gritty realism to some scenes and showbiz glitz to the strip club scenes.

Although I have some issues with the writing of this show, for the most part it does what it intends to do: entertain. With a very strong cast of characters and top-notch production values, The Full Monty is a crowd pleasing closer to STAGES’ season. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart.

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty from STAGES St. Louis runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 4, 2015

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Love! Valour! Compassion!
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 14, 2014

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 

Love! Valour! Compassion! is a play I’d never had the chance to see before attending the production currently being presented at Stray Dog Theatre.  I knew the basic premise and that there was at least some amount of nudity, but otherwise basically what  I knew was that Terrence McNally is an accomplished, award-winning playwright, this play was critically acclaimed and won several awards in its initial Broadway run (with Nathan Lane in the cast), and Stray Dog has never ceased to impress me with the quality of their shows.  After seeing the show, I can say that as far as I’m concerned, Stray Dog still has a perfect track record.  This show may put some people off with its mature subject matter and yes, the nudity, but really it’s about people, with richly drawn characters and relationships, portrayed by a truly wonderful cast.

Set at an idyllic, secluded lakeside cabin in upstate New York, the story is presented in a stylized, overtly theatrical, occasionally poetic manner, as each of the characters breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, alternately narrating the happenings over three successive holiday weekends and reflecting on matters of life, art, belonging, fear and humanity. Eight gay men, most of whom are longtime friends, spend the weekends talking, laughing, singing, boating and sometimes skinny dipping in the lake.  Relationships are built, renewed, challenged and sometimes broken, and hopes, fears and insecurities are shared.  This is 1994, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Two of the characters–the bubbly, musical-obsessed Buzz (Patrick Kelly), and the gentle, sweet, British James (David Wassilak)–are dealing with the disease while the group plans a dance performance for a benefit concert, and others deal with survivors’ guilt and the prospect of losing more dear friends to the epidemic. Mortality is at the forefront in other ways, as well, as celebrated choreographer and dancer Gregory (Zachary Stefaniak), who owns the cabin, deals with the reality that his body is aging and that he won’t be able to dance at the same level much longer, as well as the insecurities of his relationship with his much younger boyfriend Bobby (Zach Wachter), who is blind. There’s also long-term couple Perry (Stephen Peirick) and Arthur (Jonathan Hey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary and dealing with issues of stagnancy and temptation. Also in the group are the acerbic and manipulative John (also Wassilak), twin brother and polar opposite of James, and Ramon (Chris Tipp), a good-looking, brash 22-year-old dancer with an eye for Bobby, and who poses a threat to Gregory both as a romantic rival and as a symbol of youth and potential in his dance career.

This show is essentially a character study. It’s about how gay men relate to one another and to the world around them. It’s also about the human condition, and the nakedness here goes beyond the merely physical.  In fact, the actual nudity is dealt with in such a way that it becomes basically incidental, with more importance being given to the baring of emotions.  The cast here is nothing short of superb, across the board. Each character is fully realized and ideally cast.  The most memorable performances for me were those of Kelly as the endearingly enthusiastic Buzz, with his list of obscure musical theatre facts and his (not always successful) determination to stay positive in the midst of his illness, and of Wassilak in the extremely challenging dual role of a pair of identical twins with anything but identical personalities.  The distinction between the characters is immediately obvious due to Wassilak’s mannerisms, even in one poignant and memorable scene in which he portrays a conversation between both characters, shifting between the characterizations with apparent ease. Kelly and Wassilak (as James) share some of the play’s more poignant scenes, as well. Stefaniak is also impressive as the compassionate and proud Gregory, and Wachter is charming as the alternately optimistic and bewildered Bobby. Hey and Peirick display excellent chemistry as Arthur and Perry, and Tipp is full of bravado and attitude as the confrontational Ramon.  There are many great scenes, but what is most impressive is the overall cohesive energy of this group of actors.

The dialogue here is sharp and witty in moments, and occasionally sentimental.  It’s a very obviously theatrical script, with the words and rhythms of speech emphasizing the heightened emotions.  There’s quite a bit of humor as well as more intense drama over the course of an approximately three-and-a-half hour running time (with two intermissions). It’s all very well paced by director Gary F. Bell, who also designed the very character-appropriate costumes.  The world of the cabin by the lake is also fully realized by Rob Lippert’s evocative set, and a backdrop by Lippert and Gary Karasek that gives the suggestion of an Impressionist painting.  There’s also great lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been that helps add to the overall rustic atmosphere.

I think one of the most important aspects of theeatre is its capacity for communication and education.  Situations can be different, and people are different, but no matter how different we are, we are all human and we can learn so much from one another if we will just take the time to listen.  Love! Valour! Compassion! will raise a lot of questions and give audience members a lot to think and talk about after the show is over. Stray Dog’s production is even more impressive than I had expected. It’s a memorable and profound production.

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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