“Falling” In Love Again At Mustard Seed Theatre

April 14, 2014

fall-posterYou’ll excuse the Marlene Dietrich reference, but Mustard Seed’s Artistic Director, Deanna Jent, has brought her wonderful play, “Falling” back to town after it has been off-Broadway and numerous venues throughout the country. Now a property of Samuel French, “Falling” has gained praise and support from audiences and advocates of autism awareness everywhere. The important thing about this play is that it for the general audience and, despite being a visceral plea for a better understanding of autism and coping with a family member who can turn destructive in a moment, it appeals on a more conventional level for those not dealing with it on a daily basis. Directing her own play, Jent has an older son with autism so she speaks from experience. Reuniting (almost) the Fall, 2011 cast from her initial production, “Falling” proves just as powerful and leaves no doubt why this play has been universally accepted and praised for its frank and honest portrayal.

Greg Johnston as Bill consoles Michelle Hand as Tami as Daniel Lanier as Josh calms down in the background. Photo: John Lamb

Greg Johnston as Bill consoles Michelle Hand as Tami as Daniel Lanier as Josh calms down in the background. Photo: John Lamb

Looking over some notes from that first production, I noted the power and the relevance of the show as both a theatrical presentation and as a seldom seen look for most of us of what this debilitating condition can cause. As she states in the play, there can be months of calm and then sudden outbursts of anger as it seems to come in cycles that have no rhyme or reason. Josh, the young man in the play, has obvious developmental problems that keeps the whole family on edge. His sister, Lisa, is afraid of him and the husband, Bill, is very good at coping and calming Josh down but also has reservations about him continuing to live under their roof. The mother, Tami, is vacillating about sending him to a facility that cares for severe autism patients because she realizes the risks involved- even though she takes the brunt of the anger during the play. She knows that by staying at home, he will get the love and attention he needs. Also involved is a visit from Bill’s bible-thumping mother, Sue, who quickly learns the dangers the family is in with Josh’s sudden and often violent outbursts.

Michelle Hand as Tami tries to get between Daniel Lanier as Josh and Carmen Russell as Sue in "Falling" at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Michelle Hand as Tami tries to get between Daniel Lanier as Josh and Carmen Russell as Sue in “Falling” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Michelle Hand again is a marvel as Tami. Her mixture of sympathy and fear makes her the central figure that pivots the actions of the rest of the family. Her small stature makes the audience even more fearful when a particularly violent scene leads into a turning point for the play. Greg Johnston also shines in the role he created of the husband, Bill. It’s stunning how good he can be with his son realizing how Josh’s behavior is affecting his marriage and the well being of his family. Reprising her role of daughter Lisa is Katie Donnelly. She, as well, has learned to cope but her displays of anger show a teen-ager’s frustration of feeling like she’s “second best” while she also is convincing at showing real fear.

Michelle Hand as Tami tries to appease Daniel Lanier's Josh at Mustard Seed' production of "Falling." Photo: John Lamb

Michelle Hand as Tami tries to appease Daniel Lanier’s Josh at Mustard Seed’ production of “Falling.” Photo: John Lamb

Daniel Lanier has taken over the role of Josh and, though not quite as big and intimidating as the original Josh, he is superb in portraying the sudden “triggers” that send him from a clam and relaxed young man to a sometimes paranoid and somewhat dangerous figure. He is able to sustain this remarkable character throughout and is also particularly effective in a short sequence near play’s end. Rounding out the cast is the returning Carmen Russell as Bill’s mother. She has honed this character into a truly believable portrayal of a woman who believes faith is the answer to all problems only to have that faith shaken by her first-hand knowledge of what this family is going through.

Deanna Jent says in her program notes that she has dubbed this “Extreme Parenting” as the family tries to “tap dance through a mine field.” An apt description. John Stark’s set design again recreates this suburban home and has flipped 180 degrees from the last performance. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the action and Jane Sullivan’s costumes are right on the money. Working from a broad recreation of her own experience, playwright and director Deanna Jent has shown us once again why her play has been so successful. It takes luck, of course, but it was inevitable as her play is brilliantly constructed and looks to be a perennial favorite in regional, college and even community theaters for some time to come. This production is scheduled to run through May 4th but don’t be surprised- like the first time it played- to find it extended due to popular demand. Give Mustard Seed Theatre a call at 314-719-8060 or contact them at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.


“Once” Has A Quiet Charm That Needs A More Cozy Venue

April 13, 2014

357.jpgMultiple Tony winner, “Once,” has finally made it to town but the Fox almost swallows up the charm and intimacy needed for such a delicate story. The cast of multi-talented entertainers is outstanding and the show itself is a bit corny but attractive enough to reel us in but the music telling the story is pretty but non-descript. In fact, the rousing Irish themes preceding the performance outshine the more subtle score that makes up the content of the show.

As in the original production, the pub onstage is open for business before the show and during intermission. The snaking line coming up one side the stage and meandering off the opposite side is long and an arduous way to snag a Guiness. A more intimate setting would allow for more of a mingle than a line-up (similar to when “Godspell” used to offer “wine” during intermission).

But on to the show itself- it’s a very low-key musical unlike more flamboyant Tony winners of the past. Boy meets Girl, Girl encourages deflated Boy’s ego and they live happily ever after. Literally. It’s boy (or in this case, Guy)- given a delightful interpretation by Stuart Ward who is playing one of his songs with his own guitar accompaniment when girl- an equally impressive performance by Dani de Waal- stumbles into the pub and it’s love at first sight. Not relishing his job as a vacuum cleaner repair man and part time busker, he is really feeling bad about himself until Girl comes on the scene and rescues him from the depth of despair. Shoring up his confidence and securing a recording studio, it may not bring fame and fortune, but it certainly brings love and a bit of happiness.

e528ef10c12311e38cf50002c9540046_8The unique aspect of this show is that the entire cast also plays onstage instruments- and they do it well. A lot of actors- particularly musical actors- have a background in playing one or more instruments, but it’s rare to see a group act and play with equal competence. Raymond Bokhour as Guy’s father and doubling on the mandolin is quite effective as is Donna Garner who plays Girl’s mother and spices up the Irish spirit on the ‘cordine and concertina. The entire cast pulls together for both playing and dancing throughout the evening.

The impressive Bob Crowley set design (he also did the costumes) won him a Tony as well and it adapts well to the Fox stage. It works well in moving in and out of the various scenes throughout the show but the focus remains on the pub that you wish you could visit every night to throw back few and listen to the music. The Natasha Katz lights enhance the action and the combined efforts of director John Tiffany and movement choreographer Steven Hoggett make this play move and bounce and even shine during the more intimate, quiet moments.

Originally a film, “Once” has a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. It’s based, in fact, on their own love story. Although some of the tunes are melodic, they’re not particularly inspiring. They fit well into the sweet proceedings wrapping these two lovers together, but you’re not likely to leave the theatre humming these tunes. But there is a certain charm and substance about “Once” that’s hard to resist. It plays through April 20th at the Fabulous Fox and it’s worth a try simply because it’s an unconventional though very worthy Tony winner.

Scorching Hot “Cabaret” Sears Lasting Images Into The Brain As Stray Dog Defines The Musical

April 8, 2014
The Kit Kat Klub girls are indicative of what we're in store for in this wild production of "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The Kit Kat Klub girls are indicative of what we’re in store for in this wild production of “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Everyone knows the Emcee in “Cabaret” is androgynous- an outside observer- but I must say, Stray Dog Theatre and Lavonne Byers have turned that concept inside out with their scathing yet effective take on the musical that is almost ready for it’s AARP card. A female Emcee- hm-m. Could it work? How would they handle things like the “Two Ladies” number? Could a female convey the pain and joy that simultaneously work in a pre-Hitler Berlin that so resembles the fall of the Roman Empire? Those questions and more are answered in a highly evocative show that spreads itself all over the Tower Grove Abbey space and the audience that inhabits it.

This one’s based on the 1998 revival (which in turn was based on the 1993 Donmar Warehouse production in London) that featured Alan Cumming and offered a much grittier look at the 1930 New Year celebration in Berlin when no one saw what was coming with the sudden surge in “brownshirts” invading their streets, clubs and homes. A young, American aspiring novelist thrusts himself into the scene and, despite his warnings to all those who would listen, they all preferred to accept life as it was- or appeared to be. He and the worldly-wise Emcee appear to be the only people aware of imminent chaos and disaster.


Paula Stoff Dean as Sally and Paul Cereghino as Cliff in Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean as Sally and Paul Cereghino as Cliff in Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

Before the show even starts, the young girls and boys of the Kit Kat Klub stroll through the audience welcoming everyone while oozing sensuality out of every pore (and a lot of pores are exposed). The first sight of Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is quite a shock. Short hair and angular features make her the perfect “host” for the evening as she “Wilkomens” us to the club. Distinctly female yet offering that same ambiguous manner that everyone from Joel Grey to Mr. Cumming has created over the years. She simply captures us from that moment on and never lets go as (with the first time I saw it with Joel Grey at the old American Theatre) she pops up unexpectedly throughout the evening and in musical numbers and takes us aback with her surreptitious yet abrupt intrusion into every character’s life in the show. It’s an amazing performance. And that “Two Ladies” number? Don’t worry, it’s a surprise, but handled cleverly by two ladies and a man- but maybe not how you’d expect.

Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean is the lovable lunatic, Sally Bowles, who relishes shocking  people with her decadent lifestyle. Not only does she capture that devil-may-care attitude mixed with desperation but her singing voice is powerful enough to shake the rafters. Her version of the title number near show’s end is the most expressive and powerful rendition I think I’ve ever seen. As Cliff, the American writer who gets caught up in the whirling dervish world of Sally, Paul Cereghino gives him a life beyond the one normally portrayed. With only one song- a duet with Sally- and a bland character compared to the colorful people surrounding his life, he manages to make Cliff a viable part of the show and truly takes the role and runs with it. Michael Brightman is superb as the affable Ernst Ludwig who is all smiles and handshakes but soon reveals his political leanings which brings a whole new shade of grey to his character.

Emcee Lavonne Byers loudly proclaims "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" at the Kit Kat Klub in Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Emcee Lavonne Byers loudly proclaims “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” at the Kit Kat Klub in Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

The elderly lovers, Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit vendor suitor, Herr Schultz are well played by Jan Niehoff and Ken Haller. Their duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” is always a highlight of “Cabaret.” They do a clever bit trying to achieve harmony and finally get it “locked in” during the final phrase. Although her wig is a disaster and doesn’t help her achieve the proper age, it seems missteps with hair is the only recurring error I found in an otherwise flawless production. So many of the Kit Kat girls had hairstyles that would never have been seen in 1930′s Berlin. A delightful performance by Deborah Sharn as Fraulein Kost also shines and, since she is a powerful singer to boot, Director Justin Been has expanded her role to include a beautiful solo (German edition) of the classic “Married” number sung by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In addition, after a scratchy phonograph edition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” she brings that number to life- which is usually performed by a young brownshirt in most productions. This one is no less chilling.

Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is supported by her "Two Ladies"- Jessica Tilghman and Michael Baird in "Cabaret" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Lavonne Byers as the Emcee is supported by her “Two Ladies”- Jessica Tilghman and Michael Baird in “Cabaret” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Keith Thompson rounds out the major cast as the Kit Kat Klub owner, Max, who uses and abuses Sally to no end. But the entire cast and chorus of performers at the club are outstanding. As I said, they roam the audience and even entertain before the show and at intermission and mingle as servers at certain points throughout the show. Rather than being a distraction, it seems natural as they attend the few small tables set up in front of the Stray Dog elevated stage and the runway set up for this show. The Zachary Sefaniak choreography emphasizes their talents with some very clever routines that fit right into the raunchier version that this show brings to us. In addition, Chris Petersen’s musical direction is right in tune with the proceedings with an extended band that brings that raw feel to the show as well.

Robert J. Lippert (Circle Award winner) brings the proper amount of decadence to the clever set and, combined with the smooth scene changes provided by members of the Kit Kat Klub, makes for a wonderful in character transition from one scene to the next (a definite highlight since I just saw a horrible example of how not to change scenery earlier in the week-end). Tyler Duenow’s lights are also a standout providing just the proper mood from moment to moment. The costume design of Alexandra Scibetta Quigley also makes a definite statement and fits in beautifully to complete the overall mood to the show.

Paula Stoff Dean sings the iconic title song during Stray Dog's "Cabaret." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean sings the iconic title song during Stray Dog’s “Cabaret.” Photo: John Lamb

Justin Been’s direction is beyond words. He has brought a whole new dimension to this classic show. From the bold choice of a woman Emcee to the powerful final scene, this show is packed with little gems that help define what the impending tragedy of this time in Europe was all about. Every movement, every line has a meaning. With no curtain call, the shocking finale leaves the audience stunned. Lights still up on stage, house light come up and people are still rooted to their seats. Some can’t believe what they’ve just experienced- others, perhaps, can’t believe (or won’t believe) the show is over. It’s not until Artistic Director of Stray Dog, Gary Bell, rolls up that iconic door that separates theatre space from lobby space that (the night I attended anyway) the audience members were finally shaken into their standing ovation.

This is one “Cabaret” and one show you can’t miss this year. Of course, the opening week-end was sold out and I expect that the rest of the run will be the same. I won’t be surprised if the run is extended or extra performances are added. Right now it’s scheduled to run through April 19th. Get in on what everyone is raving about by calling 314-865-1995 or contact them at straydogtheatre.org to get tickets or get more information.



Long, Noisy Set Changes Spoil An Otherwise Fine Production At WEPG’s “Rx”

April 7, 2014
Laura Singleton and Jeff Kargus in West End Players Guild's production of "Rx." Photo: John Lamb

Laura Singleton and Jeff Kargus in West End Players Guild’s production of “Rx.” Photo: John Lamb

Kate Fodor has written a cute little play about the excess of drugs in our lives today and turned it into a love story that is peppered with goofy characters, some good laughs and maybe a moral or two. West End Players Guild has cast it fairly well and the actors do a splendid job of bringing the story to life on stage. The only problem with “Rx” is a technical one- how to quickly and quietly move from one scene  to the next in a play that has about seven or eight locale changes in both acts. They didn’t solve this problem and, as a consequence, the erratic and lengthy breaks between scenes caused a bit of a stir in the audience and broke the concentration and rhythm of the play.

Laura Singleton is splendid as Meena, a neurotic editor of a farm animal magazine who hates her job. Her expressive face and body language give us some priceless moments as she reacts to the absurdity of some of the situations she’s placed in. As the play opens, she is being interviewed for entry into a program testing a new drug to help you cope with and enjoy your work. The doctor taking her information is an insecure nebbish named Phil portrayed brilliantly by Jeff Kargus. You can almost see the sparks fly immediately and before you can get through the first, arduous scene change, they’ve broken all the rules of the test cases by falling in love.

John Lampe and Jeff Kargus in "Rx" at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

John Lampe and Jeff Kargus in “Rx” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

His boss, Allison, is  given a tough-as-nails performance by Beth Davis. She’s no-nonsense with a smoldering sexuality that can’t help but influence her every action. Matt Hanify is an office geek, Simon, who actually seems to enjoy rooting around for the best stories about swine and cattle. His sudden burst of behavior with Meena sets the stage for a “guess where this is going” second act. John Lampe plays dual roles but is superb as the science expert, Ed, who has a penchant for inadvertently blowing things up and almost consistently getting things wrong. Rounding out the cast is Suzanne Greenwald as an elderly widow who starts to haunt the large ladies lingerie department of the local Bon Ton when she meets and starts to carry on conversations with Meena. The exchanges seem to help both ladies get through the rough patches in their lives.

Laura Singleton consoles Suzanne Greenwald in "Rx" at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

Laura Singleton consoles Suzanne Greenwald in “Rx” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

That department store setting is the major problem with set changes in this play. Instead of a roll-on prop for the lingerie bins, several scene changers must carry on a huge prop that must be lifted onto an elevated stage in front of the proscenium. Not only does it make for long pauses in the story, it’s a noisy process that disrupts the magic of the moment. West End Players Guild has a unique space and, with the small proscenium stage, they often use the front of the space for additional scenes in plays. Although they usually work well, this one does not. Another problem is with multiple costume changes that also hinders the progress of a play that needs to be more like a farce  than the slow-paced production it has become. Director Renee Sevier-Monsey has done a remarkable job with the clever script but she really should have worked even more closely with set designer Ethan Dudenhoeffer to streamline the scene changes. Sevier-Monsey also designed a fine lighting design that works well within the parameters of the play and the Jean Heckman costumes are fine.

It’s a real shame because the play and the outcome are very funny and sweet. With absurd characters and implausible but laughable situations, it is a very pleasant production. The actors work hard and do a great job, but those tech problems just slow things down too much to allow an audience time to get into and enjoy the delightful show that is going on onstage. “Rx” runs through April 13th. Contact them at westendplayers.org for tickets or more information.

St. Louis Shakespeare Rolls Out A Solid “Romeo And Juliet”

April 2, 2014
Emily Jackoway and Leo Ramsey during the balcony scene of "Romeo And Juliet" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Brian Peters

Emily Jackoway and Leo Ramsey during the balcony scene of “Romeo And Juliet” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Brian Peters

With age-appropriate leads, spirited direction, and a bit more humor than we’re used to in “Romeo And Juliet,” St. Louis Shakespeare delivers a good, solid production of the story of the star-crossed lovers and the family feud surrounding them. As in any production of this Shakespeare tragedy, the second act seems to overstay its welcome, but the most admirable cast and some more light touches of humor help us get through it all until the final, inevitable outcome.

Roger Erb as Tybalt and Charlie Barron as Mercutio in St. Louis Shakespeare's production of "Romeo And Juliet." Photo: Brian Peters

Roger Erb as Tybalt and Charlie Barron as Mercutio in St. Louis Shakespeare’s production of “Romeo And Juliet.” Photo: Brian Peters

Young lovers Romeo, played with a confident swagger by Leo Ramsey and Juliet, with a sweet innocence portrayed by Emily Jackoway, are closer to the real ages as described in the script and they both handle the difficult roles with aplomb. The balcony scene, in particular becomes a bit more frivolous but closer to the reality you’d expect from two such eager young lovers with hormones running wild and the unmistakeable pain in the need to part from each other- even for a moment. Brian Kappler and Andrew J. Weber team up for playful fun with their friend, Romeo and Charlie Barron is wonderful as the trustworthy Mercutio. Also turning in a solid performance is Roger Erb as Tybalt from the House of Capulet who, like Mercutio, meets an early end as Act I comes to a close.

Leo Ramsey as Romeo mourns the passing of Juliet as portrayed by Emily Jackoway in "Romeo And Juliet" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Brian Peters

Leo Ramsey as Romeo mourns the passing of Juliet as portrayed by Emily Jackoway in “Romeo And Juliet” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Brian Peters

Jamie Eros is perfect as the caring but stern Nurse who tries to guide Juliet through the complications of young infatuation. Brian J. Rolf and Christi Mitchel as Lord and Lady Capulet and Chuck Winning and Cindy Lewis as the Montague’s all deliver the goods as the heads of the feuding households. Paul Devine, despite more than a few fumbles with lines on opening night, is a good Friar Lawrence. He mixes wit and wisdom in equal doses in dealing with the headstrong young Romeo. Paul Edwards gives us a strange but somehow effective portrayal of young Paris showing perhaps a bit too much of his feminine side. As a prospective suitor for Juliet, he does not exactly impress the young princess as does the bravado and passion of young Romeo. The rest of the ensemble also does fine work in keeping with the feel and tenor of the period.

Director Suki Peters does a masterful job of controlling the core of the tragedy while bringing us a more light-hearted and down to earth portrayal of the folks in fair Verona. It’s a spirited production that wins us over even as we await the tragedies that befall so many members of both sides of the families-particularly in the surprise outcome of the fight between Romeo and Tybalt. Assistant Director and Fight Choreographer Brian Peters does a stunning job as well- bringing the strength and tension of the various bouts of swordplay encompassing the entire stage and making it all very realistic. Add to that the contribution of Jamie Eros as choreographer.

The young lovers of St. Louis Shakespeare's "Romeo And Juliet." Photo: Brian Peters

The young lovers of St. Louis Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet.” Photo: Brian Peters

Kudos as well to the technical crew including Chuck Winning’s handsome set design with the fountain at center stage which comes in play at the end of Act I in particular and then becomes the burial pyre for the second act. Lighting designer Jaime Zayas also does a fine job including occasional projections to help set the locations and a very fine sound design from Josh Cook.

It’s all over too soon, however as this will be the final week-end of “Romeo And Juliet” for St. Louis Shakespeare. The final performance will be on Sunday, April 6th. Contact St. Louis Shakespeare at 314-361-5664 for tickets or more information.

The Third Annual “Briefs” Brings Us Eight Short Plays With LGBT Themes

March 26, 2014
The entire cast assembles for a group shot of the Third Annual "Briefs: A Festival Of Short LGBT Plays."

The entire cast assembles for a group shot of the Third Annual “Briefs: A Festival Of Short LGBT Plays.”

For the third year in a row, that Uppity Theatre Company and Vital Voice brings us a great spectrum of short plays all based on the LGBT community with playwrights, directors and actors from both inside the community and from the wide range of talented folks working in theatre throughout St. Louis. “Briefs: A Festival Of Short LGBT Plays” offers eight short pieces filled with humor, pathos and problems and feelings common to everyone- they just happen to be about lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgenders. It only ran for one week-end but I was lucky enough to catch it between all of the other theater going on.

Ben Watts and Pete Winfrey communicate via Victorian "messaging" in "Buggery" at "Briefs."

Ben Watts and Pete Winfrey communicate via Victorian “messaging” in “Buggery” at “Briefs.”

As with any program involving that many short plays or one-acts, there are some ebbs and flows in the plays but most are pretty impressive and all are acted well. Pete Winfrey and Ben Watts get the show started with a Victorian send-up of today’s texting. The gentlemen- dressed in skivvies and elaborate top hats, sporting bushy mustaches- stand at either end of the stage with a clothesline attached to pulleys. They pull notes from various areas of their clothing and pin them to the line and send them on their way. Written by Brigham Mosley and directed by Ryan Foizey, “Buggery” is a great way to open the series. An unexpected twist in a relationship highlights “Lucky,” written and directed by Theresa Masters. Paige Russell is a nurse assisting the always delightful Rachel Hanks- a victim of a mugging. When a friend of hers, played by Alaina Appleby enters to pick her up, we get some very telling clues about their relationship.

Rachel Hanks and Alainaappleby reunite in "Lucky" at the "Briefs" Festival.

Rachel Hanks and Alaina Appleby reunite in “Lucky” at the “Briefs” Festival.

“Sharp Corner” by Donna Hoke and directed by Lee Anne Mathews, brings Alyssa Ward and Michael Amoroso together in a little experiment between friends that may or may not cause complications. Closing out the first act is Meghan Maguire looking for a good woman to date and Sara Hamilton as an old friend and ex-lover who is trying to make the right connection for her. “Ready,” written and directed by Festival sponsor and director of That Uppity Theatre Company, Joan Lipkin is a well written and tight little story that leaves a lot of hope open for our heroine.

A wonderful musical pastiche, “Not My Father’s Son,” opens the second act and features Zachary Alan Lee and his alter ego, Desire’ Declyne- a very touching and painful story beautifully told through song. “Messages Deleted” by Rich Espey and directed by Christopher Limber, offers another nice twist as John Wolbers and Jeffrey M. Wright are planning what to move out of the apartment as a visit from one of their fathers, played by Chuck Brinkley changes everything about their relationship. The thing is, their relationship has already changed forever but it’s touching to see how the father’s unexpected but necessary visit changes his outlook as well.

Michael Amoroso and Alyssa Ward contemplate what they've just done in "Sharp Corner" at the "Briefs" Festival.

Michael Amoroso and Alyssa Ward contemplate what they’ve just done in “Sharp Corner” at the “Briefs” Festival.

Written by Tabia Lau and directed by Bonnie Taylor, “In The Water” features another somewhat strained relationship as Kirsten Wylder and Carrie Hegdahl must come to a common ground on how to handle a family situation. Closing out the Festival is “Strange Bedfellows” written by Donald Miller and directed by Michael B. Perkins. Eric Dean White and Rich Scharf are hilarious as their three month relationship has met its first snag- can a Republican stay cozy with his partner, a Democrat? More friendly than hostile, they try to work things out by airing their different philosophies and reaching detente.

With the talents of Uppity’s Artistic Director, Joan Lipkin and Darin Slyman of Vital Voice, this was a delightful two hours of entertainment. Michael B. Perkins’ projections help the transition from each play and the actors, directors and playwrights must all be commended for their hard work and dedication to this project. “Briefs” is over for this year, but a fourth annual is promised and you should really plan on attending for a good cause and a good laugh or two along with some very poignant moments as well. It’s just good fun and the audience showed their enthusiastic appreciation when I saw it.


Slamming Doors And Sardines Invade The Repertory Theatre As “Noises Off” Delights And Impresses

March 25, 2014
The entire cast of "Noises Off" pose for the finale at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The entire cast of “Noises Off” poses for the finale at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The funniest show about life in the theatre (maybe the funniest show ever), Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” returns to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis after the initial production 25 years ago and this time it’s just as hilarious and just as finely tuned. Despite the great premise and hysterical dialogue, precision is essential in this show and when you see three doors slam but only hear one very loud slam, you know you’re in for a treat. It’s a perfect show to end the season because, as the old show biz saying goes, “always leave ‘em laughing.”

Rep go-to director, Edward Stern, provides yet another theatrical gem with a cast more than up to the task. With Michael Frayn’s reworking of the script- this latest in 2011- we’re treated to two acts instead of three and the Mainstage turntable makes this possible as the second act performed almost in mime backstage while the play is going on “behind the scenes” to us, and then a return to the real stage in this fictitious play within a play goes smoothly without missing a laugh. A play on his own title, Frayn’s fictitious play, “Nothing On,” lets the bumbling- often disinterested- players go through a dreadful dress rehearsal before our peek backstage as the play opens and finally the atrocious final performance where everything is still going wrong making the play even funnier for the real audience (us) since we’ve been privy to egos, illicit affairs, actors with drinking problems and all of the other things that make an actor’s life less than glamorous offstage.

Dale Hodges sits frustrated on the sofa while the trio of Kevin Sebastian, Fletcher McTaggart and Joneal Joplin bring us yet another great sight gag in the Rep's "Noises Off." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Dale Hodges sits frustrated on the sofa while the trio of Kevin Sebastian, Fletcher McTaggart and Joneal Joplin bring us yet another great sight gag in the Rep’s “Noises Off.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Dale Hodges opens the show as Dotty, playing Mrs. Clackett onstage. The infamous “sardine” props and fuel for some of the funniest moments in “Nothing On,” come into play immediately and set up one of the great running gags of all time. She is hilarious as the befuddled actress playing an equally befuddled maid. John Scherer returns to the Rep stage as the bumbling Garry with a deft hand for comedy and slapstick. Ruth Pferdehirt is also precise and uproarious as the ditzy blonde (both on and offstage) who spends most of her time scantily clad. The stuffy actor prone to nosebleeds, Frederick, is given a properly pompous performance by Andy Prosky while Victoria Adams-Zizchke is right on the money as the long-suffering Belinda Blair.

John Scherer and Ruth Pferdehirt as Garry and Brooke in "Noises Off" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

John Scherer and Ruth Pferdehirt as Garry and Brooke in “Noises Off” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

With various states of despair and outrage, Fletcher McTaggart is wonderful as director Lloyd Dallas. Rebecca Miller shines as the victim of unrequited love, Poppy who gets into a wonderful piece of business with stage manager Tim Allgood on announcing the “start of the show” to the audience from backstage. As Tim, Kevin Sebastian is a model of a person trying to mold a working unit out of the chaos that is going on both onstage and off. Looking back at the Rep’s production of this show in 1989, the now famous St. Louis native, Norbert Leo Butz played this role. Also from that production, playing the inebreated “veteran” actor, Selsdon Mowbray, was a Rep legend, the late Brendan Burke. And I’m sure he played the role in his trademark slippers that he seemed to wear in every production he did. In this production, a living legend of St. Louis theatre in general and the Rep in particular is Joneal Joplin. He is simply remarkable as the beffudled actor playing a cat burglar who can’t seem to get his entrances or his lines quite right.

Andy Prosky as Frederick and Kevin Sebastian as Tim during a calmer moment in the second act opening of "Noises Off" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Andy Prosky as Frederick and Kevin Sebastian as Tim during a calmer moment in the second act opening of “Noises Off” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

With a superb acting ensemble, the show really relies of the split second timing with both those infamous slamming doors and the beautifully choreographed shenanigans  going on backstage during that zany opening to the second act. Edward Stern is a master at his craft and give us all (and maybe a little bit more) that we expected. James Wolk’s delightful set design enhances the French farce feeling of the play and Peter E. Sargent’s lights are right on the money. And congratulations are in order for the old pro, Mr. Sargent, for his recent honor as recipient of the Missouri Arts Awards for Leadership In The Arts. Elizabeth Covey’s costumes are a treat as well and be sure to read your program thoroughly because, besides the full playbill for the fictitious “Nothing On,” there are bios for all of the fictitious actors in the play within a play as well as an hilarious “program note” on bedroom farce.

This is non-stop hilarity at it’s best. “Noises Off” has been one of the most popular shows in repertory, community and college theaters for years but, as the old axion goes, “it’s all in the timing.” And this closing production at the Rep has the timing, the actors and director who combine to make it all work beautifully. “Noises Off” plays on the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through April 13th. Do yourself a favor and give them a call at 314-968-4925 and get those tickets now.

Great Drama Meets Great Cast In “The Price” At New Jewish Theatre

March 22, 2014
Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller and Michael James Reed in the New Jewish Theatre production of "The Price." Photo: John Lamb

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller and Michael James Reed in the New Jewish Theatre production of “The Price.” Photo: John Lamb

A lot of folks complain that most local reviewers are too generous in their praise and don’t find negatives in the plays presented by the 30 or more companies around town. Simple explanation- we’ve got a core of great actors, directors and technical people putting it all together and producers who allow them to do so. Looking over my last few reviews, I do have some complaints here and there but they’re usually about the play itself or some minor points about execution. On the whole, however, we’ve got a great theatre community and all the evidence you need is currently playing at New Jewish Theatre with Arthur Miller’s “The Price.” Veteran actors and a prolific director help seal the deal on a play that is a gem to begin with.

Kelley Weber as Esther pleads with Michael James Reed as Victor in "The Price" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Kelley Weber as Esther pleads with Michael James Reed as Victor in “The Price” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Brothers Victor and Walter Franz haven’t spoken to each other in 16 years. Victor, a policeman since dropping his schooling 28 years earlier, has always had bitterness for his brother because Victor had taken care of their father in his Brownstone while Walter pursued his dreams of becoming a doctor. Walter had contributed five dollars a month- not a great sum even in the years prior to the time of the play, 1968. The city is tearing down the brownstone so Victor and his wife Esther must find someone to buy up the massive amount of “junk” that has been taking up residence in his father’s attic for these many years since his death. After a heated conversation about “sharing” the take with his brother and Esther’s constant digs about how much more successful Walter has been, Gregory Solomon enters- swiftly nearing 90 years of age and still shrewd as they come in trying to get the most bang for his buck in taking old and only occasionally valuable furniture from mostly unsuspecting  families.

Although Victor has been trying to reach his brother for several months, he has not returned any of his calls. But suddenly he appears at the door of the Brownstone’s attic and it becomes a tug-of-war between good cop/bad cop and good doctor/bad doctor. Revelations come to light (it has been sixteen years, after all, since they’ve communicated) and pent up feelings come pouring out. Although relationships remain strained, the resulting family feud does manage to heal the rift between Walter and Esther while Solomon still manages to get what he wants. It’s a tragic war of words that does little to change the family dynamic but at least gets some long lingering questions answered. It all comes down to money- who has it and who doesn’t, pride and resentment.

Bobby Miller as Solomon counts out money to Michael James Reed as Victor while Jerry Vogel as Walter watches in the background during "The Price" at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Bobby Miller as Solomon counts out money to Michael James Reed as Victor while Jerry Vogel as Walter watches in the background during “The Price” at NJT. Photo: John Lamb

Michael James Reed astounds from his first play-within-a-play silent look around the cluttered attic. A sly smile, a long-forgotten memory brought back by an item he finds and a general, almost-defeated demeanor he portrays is enough to establish his feelings- all in the first five minutes before a word of dialogue leaves his lips. His wife is given a solid portrayal by Kelley Weber. Where she could have easily have made her complaints painful with a shrewish tirade, she shows how this woman has endured her husband’s unspoken frustrations and stoic persona for these many years. A wonderful performance.

The irrepressible Bobby Miller bursts on the scene in comic fashion and coyly begins to wrap Victor around his finger. Using his age and “forgetfulness” to ply Walter with stories while he surreptitiously takes notes and quickly picks the wheat from the chaff of the treasures in the attic, he then manages to continue the manipulation on Walter and Esther as they enter the negotiations once Victor has verbally already made a deal. With an impressive swagger of a man who feels superior to his brother (even though he won’t admit it), Jerry Vogel masterfully controls the ebb and flow of the arguments between his brother, Esther and himself. Making gestures that seem generous and denying any wrongdoing on his part from the decisions made years ago, he seems to clear his own conscience even though his brother looks at it differently.

The cast of New Jewish Theatre's "The Price" by Arthur Miller. Photo: John Lamb

The cast of New Jewish Theatre’s “The Price” by Arthur Miller. Photo: John Lamb

Director Bruce Longworth has brilliantly staged this wordy but dynamic Arthur Miller masterpiece. He keeps as much action moving on the stage as possible and brings tension to the rise and fall of the outbursts and occasional calm that wrap around this dysfunctional family drama. Mark Wilson has brought an effective cluttered feel to the attic space with furniture pieces scattered off the left and right wings as well as hanging from the diamond-shaped outline of the ceiling and skylight above the stage. Michael Sullivan’s lights also go far in focusing in on the dynamic nature of the play and Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are impeccable.

“The Price” is an almost underrated play by Arthur Miller overshadowed by some of his more popular pieces- particularly “Death Of A Salesman” (which we’ll see later this summer at Insight Theatre) but it’s still a powerful piece that, put in the right hands, is simply spectacular to watch. This is such a production. Catch it at New Jewish Theatre through April 6th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 or at newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Masterful Interpretation Of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” Floats Across Time In The St. Louis Actors’ Studio Production

March 20, 2014
Members of the cast of St. Louis Actors' Studio production of "The Awakening." Photo: John Lamb

Members of the cast of St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

Washington University Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature, Henry I. Schvey, has transformed the scandalous and beautiful Kate Chopin novel, “The Awakening” to an ethereal production for the stage which seems to catch a moment in time that is refreshing with an other-worldly feeling that puts the audience in another place, another time and another state of mind. It’s an amazing achievement that is enhanced by a wonderful cast and a simple but effective set design.

Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, was looked upon at the turn of the century as a rebel and an immoral woman. As we get into her mind, however, we learn she is struggling with the Victorian sensibility that seems to be handcuffing people in general and women in particular. A rather strict and often abusive (at least verbally) husband, Edna seeks out resolution to her restless nature and feelings of being trapped in an era that doesn’t fit her psyche. She seeks companionship, accepts the flirtations of other men in her life, but is truly looking for peace within her own soul. The people who move in and out of her life take on an often dream-like nature as she becomes the focus of the entire play.

Emily Baker and Antonio Rodriguez in "The Awakening" at St. Louis Actors' Studio at the Missouri History Museum. Photo: John Lamb

Emily Baker and Nathan Bush in “The Awakening” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Missouri History Museum. Photo: John Lamb

Emily Baker gives another sterling performance as Edna. This may be the most complex role and most difficult one to convey she’s ever tackled and she takes us on Edna’s journey through, not only the powerful dialogue within the play, but also through her subtle gestures, facial responses and pure movement. Her portrayal is pure art in every sense of the word. As her husband, Leonce, Terry Meadows also gives a poignant performance of a man who knows what is expected from a wife and knows what he wants in life. Although the words and actions of his wife confuse him, he reaches a manner of sympathy but we fear his patience may soon wear thin.

A handsome, somewhat cleverly roughish chap is the first of her dalliances as Antonio Rodriguez appears to capture her heart as Robert Lebrun. Although reluctantly  going along with her husband’s wishes to learn how to swim, she appears to be more interested in Robert’s flirtatious ways than his ability to teach her the breast stroke. She later gets tongues wagging with another supposed “affair” with one of the Beau Brummels of New Orleans society, Alcee Arobin, staunchly played by Nathan Bush.

Maggie Murphy is solid as her concerned but stalwart friend, Adele and a great comic turn is given by Christie Mitchell as a singer with a bit of a puffed-up attitude who takes a liking to Edna. Rounding out the cast are Michael Monsey and Molly Rose Fontana who both also give solid performances remaining true to the spirit of this beautiful play.

Emily Baker and Antonio Rodriguez in St. Louis Actors' Studio production of "The Awakening." Photo: John Lamb

Emily Baker and Antonio Rodriguez in St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

Director Milton Zoth, who is being stretched a bit thin due to also directing the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “Day Of The Dog” opening almost simultaneously off-Broadway, handles the double-duty directing chores beautifully. His subtle yet strong touch blends perfectly with this haunting script. The Patrick Huber set design is incredible with a pole upstage with pegs holding four round-back chairs and a table that all get utilized throughout the play and his lighting design only enhances the beauty of the play. Also on stage are twin matching projection screens set at an angle on either side of the pole on which Michael B. Perkins’ wonderful video designs keep us in the various locations of the play with both still and moving backgrounds. Add the brilliant and beautiful costumes of Teresa Doggett and the wonderful sound design of Robin Weatherall and you’ve got the complete package.

This is quite an achievement for Henry I. Schvey and St. Louis Actors’ Studio. I never thought the complex and inner dialogues of “The Awakening” could be so magically transformed to the stage. Along with this astounding company of actors and the technical brilliance surrounding them, this is an experience for the audience. There is a certain feeling coming off the stage that I can’t remember experiencing anywhere else. Don’t look for them at their usual home at the Gaslight Theatre- this one is being played at the Missouri History Museum and it has a short run- only through March 23rd. Give them a call at 314-314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.


“Soups, Stews And Casseroles:1976″ Delves Into The Past And Reminds Us Of Our Present

March 19, 2014
Nancy Bell, Vincent Teninty and Susan Greenhill in the Rep Studio production of "Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976." Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Vincent Teninty and Susan Greenhill in the Rep Studio production of “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis closes out their Studio season with one of the plays from the Ignite! new play development initiative of last year- Rebecca Gilman’s “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976.” Exploring the tension in a small Wisconsin town when a conglomorate takes over their cheese factory, family and friend dynamics in one household are a microcosm of what we still have today with venture capitalists and the swift take-overs of small firms just to mechanize them, boot out the workers and then earn a quick profit by turning over the company to a third party.

In this play, there’s no grey area- we’re given the black and white only and issues such as union vs. non-union, friendship vs. affiliation and loyalty vs. promotion are explored within the framework of a very tight script that only leaves one big question at the end- who wins and who loses. The new bosses have the upper hand as they try to sell the factory off after stream-lining the operation and cutting the work force but if the union organizers order a strike, everyone may lose their job and the factory may close forever.

Mhari Sandoval and Emma Wisniewski in "Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976" at the Rep Studio. Photo provided by the Rep

Mhari Sandoval and Emma Wisniewski in “Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976″ at the Rep Studio. Photo provided by the Rep

In the meantime, we see one family struggling to come to grips with the new dilemmas facing them and their town. Wife Kat is content with submitting the occasional article to the local newspaper and helping her older friend, Joanne put together the annual cookbook which is a fund-raiser (thus the name of the play- no main dishes, no vegetables, just soups, stews and casseroles). Nancy Bell gives another solid performance as the reticent Kat. She wants to do the right thing but also sees a chance for her husband, Kim, to advance with the new company. Vincent Teninty is strong as Kim- he is obviously a capable floor manager and catches the eye of the new owner. Besides the immediate promotion, he’s also given an offer to follow the boss to Chicago as his assistant when the factory is re-sold. Susan Greenhill is a riot as the cantankerous Joanne who has an opinion about everything and doesn’t mind letting everyone know about her left wing leanings. In fact, just about everyone at the factory believes that the imminent elections will bring their savior, Jimmy Carter, in to save the day, the unions and their jobs.

One of those folks is the union rep, Kyle, played with intensity by Jerzy Gwiazdowski. He is cautious yet optimistic about his friend Kim when the new promotion pushes Kim to management’s side. He does, however, sign the grievance letter that Kyle is sending to the union. Kim and Kat’s daughter, Kelly, is given a wide-eyed yet wise performance by Emma Wisniewski. She worries about her topic for a school debate but can’t help but get caught up in the family and community dynamic going on around her. Finally, entering the mix is the new factory owner’s wife, Elaine, given a sophisticated yet manipulative portrayal by Mhari Sandoval. She gains Kat’s confidence and even gets her into circles in the community that she would never have able to crack before Elaine’s friendship. They truly do become friends but there’s still the wall of social stature between them to which neither can fully adjust.

Vincent Teninty and Jerzy Gwiazdowski in the Rep's "Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976." Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Vincent Teninty and Jerzy Gwiazdowski in the Rep’s “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Associate Artistic Director of the Rep, Seth Gordon, has done a masterful job of bringing the full force of this play to the forefront. There are a lot of questions brought up in the script and it could be a very difficult play to understand without the proper guidance and focus the director brings. He is ably assisted by the masterful recreation of a ’70′s kitchen, dining area and entry foyer created by scenic designer, Kevin Depinet. Lou Bird’s costumes are right on the money as well and John Wylie’s lights are a bit dark at times but enhance the production well. Rusty Wandall’s sound also evoke the proper era.

There’s a lot of ground covered and a lot of personal and all-encompassing issues paraded before us in the two and a half hours of the play. But it’s a charming look back as well as a masterful comic/drama made even better with such a strong cast. “Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976″ is something truly different and a play I think that will touch a lot of chords in both folks of “a certain age” as well as the younger audience members. The play runs through March 30th at the Rep Studio. Call the box office at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.


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