A Dose Of “Reality” Closes Out HotCity’s Season And Their Long, Long Run In St. Louis

December 16, 2014
Producer Ben Nordstrom looks on as Maggie Conroy and Tyler Vickers pledge their love in the opening scene of "Reality" at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

Producer Ben Nordstrom looks on as Maggie Conroy and Tyler Vickers pledge their love in the opening scene of “Reality” at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

It is with a pang of regret that “Reality” will be the last show of the great career of City Players, HotHouse Theatre and now HotCity Theatre. From the days of Irma Schirer and Gerard Tucker to the current incarnation led by Marty Stanberry, some form of this great company has sustained us theatre fans in St. Louis for many, many years. At least we see them go out on a high note with a remarkable cast bringing in an original production, “Reality.”

Julie Layton and Maggie Conroy discuss their experiences in "Reality" at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

Julie Layton and Maggie Conroy discuss their experiences in “Reality” at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

Winner of the final GreenHouse New Play Festival at HotCity this year, Lia Romeo’s clever take on the reality and non-reality of the so-called reality shows is a fresh look at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of such a series that has become so popular on televisions across the country and around the world. Anyone with half a brain knows there’s nothing “real” about reality television. So we take a trip into a show not unlike “The Bachelor” to see what happens when the cameras stop rolling. In a clever take on such shows, we see a “safe house” where the “winner” and her new found mate can get together in secret until the final show is aired and the public knows the outcome. But in a clever staging technique, each scene is announced and we get to see the “backstage” area on stage as everything is…well, staged.

Tyler Vickers and Maggie Conroy discuss the aftermath of their engagement in HotCity Theatre's production of "Reality." Photo: Kyra Bishop

Tyler Vickers and Maggie Conroy discuss the aftermath of their engagement in HotCity Theatre’s production of “Reality.” Photo: Kyra Bishop

The frazzled producer of the show, Josh, is given a straight-forward approach by Ben Nordstrom. Focused entirely on the success of the show and its “believability,” he soon veers off course after some dramatic events change the real reality of the couple. The couple, Annie and Matt, are given powerful portrayals by Maggie Conroy and Tyler Vickers. She’s fallen for him- although we soon learn of her fickleness- and he’s just not into this whole marriage thing. Rounding out the cast is Julie Layton as the runner-up in the contest who just happens to live somewhat nearby the winner in the middle of Iowa. They become best friends on the show and then share the reality (or is it?) in the aftermath of Annie’s win.

It’s one surprise after another as the crises unfold over the 90 or so minute running time. How serious are all of the participants in the show? Is the reality close to the reality we see on screen? What kind of special breed of people inhabit this weird world of reality TV? And finally, who is telling and living the truth? The search for instant fame and maybe instant happiness is not so real in front of or behind the cameras.

Julie Layton and Tyler Vickers get cozy after things go sour in "Reality" at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

Julie Layton and Tyler Vickers get cozy after things go sour in “Reality” at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Kyra Bishop

Director Annamaria Pileggi oozes every sleazy moment out of the script and handles the fluctuating emotions of everyone in the cast with humor as well as pathos. She’s blessed with a marvelous cast of some of the finest actors in our town. They throw themselves into it and make us care and detest their characters in the ebb and flow of reality TV on stage.

The clever Kyra Bishop set design allows us to see the opening scene of the final episode before the backdrop is hastily disposed of like yesterday’s news. A television monitor hangs above the stage area to help us remember that what we’re seeing is not reality. Then the multiple sets are magically transformed by the change of drapes, couch pillows, a few pieces of furniture along the way. The L-shaped stairs offer access to the onstage proceedings as well as the backstage look to remind us that nothing is as real as it seems. The Michael Sullivan lights add to the “reality” as the onstage area is always brightly lit but the backstage area remains in shadows as members of the cast and crew are often seen lounging, awaiting their next entrance. The sudden blackout, flash and return highlighting each scene is also a brilliant interpretation of what is going in in this script.

reality-promoJane Sullivan’s costumes are beautiful reminders of our characters and the Patrick Burks sound design adds to the entire scheme. Reality TV stripped to the bare essentials shows what’s really behind these shows. People pledging love to total strangers and people fighting to keep the “reality” alive are all part of the scenario as it becomes a battle for survival and ratings.

“Reality” plays at HotCity through December 20th and it’s highly recommended for a clever script and a powerful acting ensemble. Give them a call at 314-289-4063 or contact them at hotcitytheatre.org and become part of the history of this wonderful company as they end a long and illustrious run in our area.

Strong Cast, Powerful Script Combine For Superb “Eat Your Heart Out” At R-S Theatrics

December 15, 2014
Ann Marie Mohr as Nance and Stephen Peirick as Tom in "Eat Your Heart Out" at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Ann Marie Mohr as Nance and Stephen Peirick as Tom in “Eat Your Heart Out” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

It’s too bad R-S Theatrics only ran this play for two week-ends. It deserves an open-end run so as many people can see it as possible. “Eat Your Heart Out” is so magic and so well constructed that you marvel at the three tales that unfold before you in short scenes that combine for a searing as well as touching finale that may leave you speechless.

First we meet Tom and Nance as they meet at an art museum for their first online-arranged date. Stephen Peirick is charming as the over-eager Tom. He even admits as things unfold that he seldom gets to the second date. Nance, in a wonderful performance by Ann Marie Mohr, is a bundle of nerves- obviously too much on her plate to attempt such a connection. Her ex was less than loving and now she is a Social Worker who arranges for adoptions for couples who cannot conceive. The awkwardness of both individuals adds up to a strange, likable pair.

Katie Donnelly as Evie and Casey Boland as Colin in R-S Theatrics' "Eat Your Heart Out." Photo: Michael Young

Katie Donnelly as Evie and Casey Boland as Colin in R-S Theatrics’ “Eat Your Heart Out.” Photo: Michael Young

Then we meet Evie, Nance’s daughter who is overweight like her father and struggles to fit in socially. In an angst-ridden and beautifully crafted performance, Katie Donnelly gives one of the best performances I’ve seen her in. She has been outstanding in the past, but this role gives her the chance to really unleash the acting chops and she does so in full force. Her only friend is Colin, another strong outing by Casey Boland. His long distance relationship with his girlfriend in New Hampshire prevents him from seeing Evie as anything but a friend and it is just killing her. She has so much love to give and, even when she brings those emotions out, he doesn’t respond the way she feels he should.

Nance listens as Michelle Hand as Alice and Eric Dean White as Gabe try to impress her in "Eat Your Heart Out" at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Nance listens as Michelle Hand as Alice and Eric Dean White as Gabe try to impress her in “Eat Your Heart Out” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Finally we meet Alice and Gabe. Michelle Hand brings a full range of emotions to the nervous wife who wants to bring a child into their relationship. She is simply spectacular as she goes from nervous to outraged to venomous and contrite all in the same scene. It’s overwhelming. Eric Dean White rounds out the cast as Gabe who convinces Nance that he was raised in a loving home until Alice, in her private session with Nance, spills the beans and seals their fate and possibly loses their chance to adopt.

Going from one quick scene to another, the three couples begin to weave through each others’ stories until tragedy strikes and brings them all full circle into a very cathartic final scene that cements our hopes for humanity and civility in a chaotic and often cruel world.

Katie Donnelly and Ann Marie Mohr have one of their few mother-daughter bonding moments in R-S Theatrics' "Eat Your Heart Out." Photo: Michael Young

Katie Donnelly and Ann Marie Mohr have one of their few mother-daughter bonding moments in R-S Theatrics’ “Eat Your Heart Out.” Photo: Michael Young

Director William Whitaker has blended the scenes and stories beautifully and piqued our interest all along the way. His subtle touch makes even the more violent scenes ring with truth and vibrancy. Elizabeth Van Pelt has tied it altogether in a long, slightly changing set design that goes through the center of the main floor of The Chapel. The Nathan Schroeder lights key those various areas and the quick work of changing a bench or a prop keeps the rhythm flowing. Ruth Schmalenberger has costumed the show appropriately denoting the personality of each character strikingly.

Even with the strange title of Courtney Baron’s piece- perhaps noting the play on the heart strings of all of the characters involved- “Eat Your Heart Out” is a striking piece of theatre that will haunt you for days afterward. I did not get to attend until the second and final week-end with the expanse of theatre going on this first and second week-end of December, but I can only hope that you made this a top priority. It was well attended, I understand and for that I’m grateful. This is one that really deserves to be seen by anyone with even a mild interest in theatre in our town. Even go so far as to call it a quiet little masterpiece.

 

Enough “Rude and Crude” To Go Around In The Sequel- “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical”

December 13, 2014
Paula Stoff Dean rants to Kay Love, Jessica Tilgham and Laura Kyro while Kevin O'Brien looks on in "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean rants to Kay Love, Jessica Tilghman and Laura Kyro while Kevin O’Brien looks on in “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

When Stray Dog Theatre introduced us to Armadillo Acres Trailer Park in 2013 with “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” who knew there were enough “fart” jokes and crude but clever lyrics to go around again? But “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” proves that two is better than one. Maybe not quite as effective as the initial “shock and awe” of seeing the first one, but the three ladies making up the “Greek Chorus” have returned while two new men and one ornery lady have entered their lives.

The Armadillo Acres Trailer Park crowd rocks out in Stray Dog's "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical." Photo: John Lamb

The Armadillo Acres Trailer Park crowd rocks out in Stray Dog’s “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.” Photo: John Lamb

Jessica Tilghman returns as “Pickles” and still has that same distant look (often falling asleep on her feet) and wide-eyed innocence that makes her so endearing. With a powerful singing voice and her “cute as a button” looks, she’s a natural for this role. This time around Laura Kyro tackles the role of Betty with a worldly wise attitude and another strong singing voice. Then we have Lin, real name Linoleum because her momma had her on the kitchen floor. Kay Love is a real treat as the compassionate one in this trio who wants to protect the innocence of Pickles (in other words, don’t let her know Santa Claus isn’t real) and be the peacemaker in all the bad that happens during the annual “Christmas curse” that seems to befall Armadillo Acres.

Kay Love, Jessica Tilghman and Laura Kyro are the lovely ladies of "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" at Stray Dog Theatre.

Kay Love, Jessica Tilghman and Laura Kyro are the lovely ladies of “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” at Stray Dog Theatre.

Two new tenants are in the trailer park- Rufus Jeter and Darlene Seward. Kevin O’Brien is a stalwart, if not too bright, fellow who handles all of the Christmas decorations for the trailers hoping to win them the ten thousand dollar grand prize for best decorated trailer park. Paula Stoff Dean lends her strong singing voice, strong acting and agile pratfall techniques to the mix. As Darlene, she is the ultimate Grinch until a shocking accidents turns her personality around. Rounding out the cast is Gerry Love as Darlene’s boyfriend, Jackie Boudreaux who owns the local pancake house, “Stacks.” Our favorite trio of ladies fill in as the “help” complete with provocative costumes that almost put Hooters to shame.

A holiday toast from the cast of Stray Dog's "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical." Photo: John Lamb

A holiday toast from the cast of Stray Dog’s “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.” Photo: John Lamb

Musical numbers are just as crude as the dialogue as we’re treated to several Christmas-themed songs including the one that’s bound to become a classic, “F*** It, It’s Christmas.” The implausible story that surrounds the effective but tacky music is just right. It’s perfect for the outrageous antics that these denizens of trailer park domesticity come up with. You won’t hear typical carols or be treated to warm, fuzzy stories that evoke the spirit of the season, but you’ll have a lot of fun and do a lot of laughing.

Musical director and keyboardist Chris Petersen leads the small combo that have just the perfect sound that doesn’t drown out those outstanding lyrics although a few mike problems on the night I attended distorted some of the dialogue. David Nehls (music and lyrics) and Betsy Kelso (book) have once again brought us this down and dirty look at life in Starke, Florida. Director Justin Been brings every “nuance” out of the script. and Rob Lippert has once again done Stray Dog proud with a set including three trailers (the middle one opens up to reveal the “Stacks” Pancake Parlor) and enough kitsch to get you through at least three tacky musicals.

stray-ornamentTyler Duenow’s lights are perfect including the wide array of holiday lights while Eileen Engel’s costumes are appropriately fitting to the local folks. Jamie Lynn Eros provides the simple but effective choreography. If you want something a little bit different this holiday season, try “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.” Then you can enjoy “The Messiah” or the “Living Nativity” somewhere else. Give Stray Dog Theatre a call at 314-865-1995 or contact them at straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information. The show runs through December 20th.

 

“Blithe Spirit” Floats The Audience To Another Time, Another Place At STLAS

December 10, 2014
Nancy Bell, Lee Anne Mathews and Michael James Reed in the sparkling comedy, "Blithe Spirit" at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

Nancy Bell, Lee Anne Mathews and Michael James Reed in the sparkling comedy, “Blithe Spirit” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

As drawing room comedies go, you can’t get any better than Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” As productions of “Blithe Spirit” go, you can’t get any better than the current one playing at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. All of the wit, charm and bubbling humor come across from the deft and delicious cast with director Bobby Miller bringing out every nuance of this absurd yet somehow plausible scenario.

Charles and Ruth Condomine are awaiting the arrival of their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman as they plan to hold a seance with Madame Arcati so Charles can gather research for his latest novel. The small talk turns to Charles’ first wife, Elvira as Ruth grills him about how he compares her to his “dearly departed.” Madame Arcati is not aware that she is there for merely observation in the hopes that Charles can expose the fraudulent side of mediums so she goes full swing into the seance. With Elvira fresh in his mind, Charles unwittingly brings her back but he’s the only one who can see or hear her.

The seance scene in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

The seance scene in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Throw in a addle-brained maid, Edith, and you’ve got the makings of a first-rate English comic romp with proper stiff upper lips and genteel manners. The ensuing events over the next few days are remarkable indeed with a wild and wooly finish that any ectoplasm would be proud to take credit for. When done with skill and aplomb like the STLAS production, it is the height of entertainment with the effervescence of bubbly champagne and crackle of subtle and sublime English sophistication.

Nancy Bell as Elvira proves her presence to Michael James Reed as Charles and Lee Anne Mathews as Ruth in STLAS' "Blithe Spirit." Photo: John Lamb

Nancy Bell as Elvira proves her presence to Michael James Reed as Charles and Lee Anne Mathews as Ruth in STLAS’ “Blithe Spirit.” Photo: John Lamb

Leading the way is the multi-talented Michael James Reed as the marvelously pompous Charles. He tosses off Coward gems and sparkling nasty comments with the greatest of ease while always maintaining the demeanor of the proper English gentleman. The equally adept Nancy Bell hovers about and trades sarcastic remarks to a fare-thee-well as the wispy Elvira. Holding her own with these two battling exes is Lee Anne Mathews as Ruth. Incredulous at the circumstances and her inferiority complex toward Elvira combine to make her go “raging harpy” on both Charles and Elvira.

Andra Harkins as Mrs. Bradman and Nancy Lewis as Madame Arcati in "Blithe Spirit" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Andra Harkins as Mrs. Bradman and Nancy Lewis as Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Absolutely riveting every time she enters is the delightful Nancy Lewis as the outrageous Madame Arcarti. Rapidly moving her body and her mouth from one subject to the next, she never stands still. Even when she’s in a trance, it seems she can’t control her need to sprawl, wave her hands about and marvel at her own talents. It’s a remarkable performance that will astound you with its flights of fancy and frenetic behavior. Steve Isom is solid as the no-nonsense Dr. Bradman who appears to be convinced of Madame Arcati’s talents when she manages to tip over the seance table and send them all sprawling. Andra Harkins is the proper British housewife as Mrs. Bradman who is fascinated as well with the unexpected events that result from the seance. Rounding out the cast is a wonderful performance by Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the maid. Though presented at the outset as broad comic relief in a comedy that’s bent on sophistication, she becomes a key player later in the play.

Bobby Miller’s direction is flawless. Despite being a typical three-act comedy, the time flies by as the beautiful prose and unforgettable plot twists of Noel Coward propel “Blithe Spirit” into the stratosphere. Keeping it taut and to the point, Miller has brought us a comedy for the ages in the way it was meant to be seen. The Patrick Huber set design is wonderfully clever and efficient on the small stage and his lights also enhance the proceedings. Michele Friedman Siler has costumed the show impeccably complete with smoking jackets and sparkling gowns that keep with the spirit of the play. Mark Wilson provided the special effects that particularly come into play during the final scene. And Bobby Miller also kept us older folks in the audience guessing with his delightful sound design featuring music from the period but not necessarily always from artists of that period.

“Blithe Spirit” doesn’t come along very often on local stages so you must make an effort to see this production. It is handled with style and class befitting a work and playwright of the stature of Noel Coward. I’m still waiting for someone to produce the musical version, “High Spirits” that has a sprightly score matching the wit and sophistication of the original work. But right now, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio version of “Blithe Spirit” is about as good a play as you’re going to get anywhere in town. See it through December 21st at the Gaslight Theater. Call them at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

Here We Go Again! Another Wild 24 Hour Play Festival Cures The Winter Blues

December 9, 2014

Allen's Alley picAnother edition of Allen’s Alley focuses on the fun and games at a unique event in our theatre community.

Round Three of the 24 Hour Play Festival was another huge success for Theatre Lab and The Players Project Theater Company. This time we were treated to six plays written in seven days then cast, rehearsed and presented on stage in 24 hours. I was honored to judge once again along with 3-time judge Max Foizey of Max on Movies and first timer Alan Knoll. It’s wonderful to include one of St. Louis’ foremost actors and directors on board as a judge- another perspective on the proceedings.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 9.37.12 AMChatting with Alan after our ballots were turned in, we both agreed that the opening play was the most clever and well written, full of surprises and- best of all- the most innovative use of this season’s required insert into the play, a winter-related prop. “Cringe,” written by Jason Klefisch, used the snow shovel as one of the major ingredients in the plot and offered several audience-gasping moments. Nick Kelly won again as best actor for the evening while Matt Pentecost and Ben Watts were outstanding as well. Todd Shcaefer of the Players Project directed.

Another clever script by first time playwright in the festival, Wendy Renee Greenwood, brought three sisters together in “Trinity Park.” The always incredible Rachel Hanks was joined by the equally amazing Mollie Amburgey and Larissa White in the play directed by Rachel Tibbets.

Cast and crew assembled and ready to tackle the scripts for 24 hours.

Cast and crew assembled and ready to tackle the scripts for 24 hours.

“What You Need” by Carl Wickman was the shortest and strangest play of the night as we all wondered what was real and what wasn’t when Michelle Catherine was visited by salesman Brian Claussen for a mid-winter encounter. Chris Chi directed this one.

“R.O.M.E.R.O.S,” by Greg Fenner used a wild and wooly premise to tell of a rather unusual father/daughter reunion. Em Piro, chosen as best director for the evening, brought laughs from the script and from her insightful movement and gestures of the father and the creation of an interesting dialogue that everyone understood despite not understanding the language involved. Jason Klefisch took on the role at the last minute (but does that really matter when you’ve only got 24 hours?) and Blaire Hamilton also shines as the daughter of this “mixed marriage.”

Zak Allen Farmer checks in again with a zany script called “Fun And Games In The Bedroom.” Far from the sex romp you might expect, Ellie Schwetye does a masterful directing job in handling Margeau Steinau, Reggie Pierre, Troy Turnipseed (another late entry to the acting ensemble) and Carl Overly Jr. as they try to figure out the question that is puzzling them all through a haze of smoke.

A scene from "Line," awarded best ensemble for the evening.

A scene from “Line,” awarded best ensemble for the evening.

Finally, Spencer Green brings us “Line,” a Victorian mash-up that won best ensemble of the evening along with best actress for Amy Kelly. She’s joined by Kimi Short and Evan Kuhn in an improbable fight over a turkey. Theatre Lab Artistic Director Ryan Foizey directed this unexpected series of events that led to a prim and proper (almost) version of catching a greased pig.

While votes were being tabulated, we were treated to an improv presentation by Zero Hour Playfest Troupe. Pat Niday of the Improv Shop hosted the festivities. This was a very busy theatre week-end but, if you’ve never attended a 24 Hour Play Festival, you’ve got to put it on your calendar for the next one. This is truly, as I said before, the most fun you’ll have in the theatre. The cast, playwrights and directors are tireless. How they manage to accomplish all of this in such a short time is nothing short of amazing.

Thanks again for a great time and don’t forget to support local theatre including Theater Lab and The Players Project throughout 2015 and beyond. You’ll be rewarded with even more impressive local theatre whether it takes several weeks or only 24 hours to bring it to the stage.

Grand Ole Opry Comes To The Rep With “Ring Of Fire”

December 8, 2014
The four "principal" players gather for some of the music made famous by Johnny Cash in the Rep's "Ring Of Fire." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The four “principal” players gather for some of the music made famous by Johnny Cash in the Rep’s “Ring Of Fire.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A rather unusual holiday show plays the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage this year with a definite Nashville flavor. More of a concert than a musical, it’s “Ring Of Fire: The Music Of Johnny Cash.” As the name indicates, it’s not necessarily a biographical look at the Man In Black, but rather a celebration of his music. Outstanding musicians, mostly good singing and some sketchy acting at times makes for a show that country western fans will love. In fact, I’m sure it has the feel of a visit to the Grand Ole Opry.

Derek Keeling belts out a number in "Ring Of Fire" at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Derek Keeling belts out a number in “Ring Of Fire” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As most folks who follow my blog and know me are aware, I’m not fond of either Country or Western and the two together often set my teeth on edge. I enjoyed “Patsy Cline” at Stages and that was a massive hit sending the show into the stratosphere of encores- even changing the theatre venue to accommodate the fans. And I admit the scripted musicals with country or bluegrass scores are among those I like- “Cotton Patch Gospel,” “Smoke On The Mountain” and even the lesser known “Robber Bridegroom.” But the twang of country for the sake of twang alone doesn’t always float my boat.

Featuring four “principal” characters all emulating Johnny or June Carter Cash, the show flows smoothly from one musical number to the next with the onstage band featured singing a lot of the songs as well as helping to relate the occasional update of moments in Cash’s life. Trenna Barnes, Allison Briner, Jason Edwards and Derek Keeling all hold their own and wisely don’t try to do “impressions” of either Johnny or June, but put the music out there lumped into various themes focusing on their lives.

The second act opener features an impressive rendition of "I've Been Everywhere" at the Rep's "Ring Of Fire." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The second act opener features an impressive rendition of “I’ve Been Everywhere” at the Rep’s “Ring Of Fire.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Highly successful numbers include the opening of the second act when bassist John W. Marshall stands center stage as the audience is getting settled and slaps and strums the big bass with amazing results. Soon the other musicians join in and then the whole ensemble forms a curved line across the stage and performs “I’ve Been Everywhere” each taking a city or state within the song and singing it down the line like a vocal “peel” similar to a line of dancers. Sepia colored post cards pop up on a screen that serves as a billboard through much of the show and the result is an impressive blend of music and voices.

Other outstanding musicians include fiddler Brantley Kearns, drummer Walter Hartman, keyboardist and accordion expert Jeff Lisenby and string players (guitars, mandolin and even a trumpet for that infamous “Ring Of Fire” number) Brent Moyer and Andrew Platt.

Fiddler Brantley Kearns steps into the spotlight at "Ring Of Fire" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Fiddler Brantley Kearns steps into the spotlight at “Ring Of Fire” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The more dramatic numbers are most effective including the story of the floods in Johnny’s youth as told through the song “Five Feet And Rising.” Then the prison sequence in Act II featuring the comic “Delia’s Gone” and the popular “Folsom Prison Blues” are a highlight along with the comic rendering of “A Boy Named Sue.” In fact, the second act far outshines the first as it closes with some fine gospel music that was also close to Johnny Cash’s heart.

The aforementioned Jason Edwards helped create this concert for the stage and he also directed this production with Jeff Lisenby as musical director. Denise Patton provides the nice choreography and John Iacovelli’s smart set design features the cabin of Johnny’s youth dominating the stage left area and the billboard rising over the right. Kenton Yeager’s lights are precise and the projections designed by Joe Payne are exquisite. Lou Bird’s costumes are appropriate as well.

So, as you may gather, I probably shouldn’t review shows like this because the audience seemed to really be into it on opening night. Just not a CW fan. But if you enjoyed “Patsy Cline” at Stages and love this style of music- particularly the always popular Johnny Cash, “Ring Of Fire” is the perfect night for you. It plays at the Rep Mainstage through December 28th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for more information or to order tickets.

Susie Wall Takes On An Icon In “Becoming Dr. Ruth” At New Jewish

December 6, 2014
Susie Wall as Dr. Ruth holds a pivotal object to her survival in NJT's "Becoming Dr. Ruth." Photo: John Lamb

Susie Wall as Dr. Ruth holds a pivotal object to her survival in NJT’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Photo: John Lamb

Bringing sex out of the shadows and into everyday conversation is the legacy that Dr. Ruth Westheimer will always be remembered for. But her early life was not easy and her struggles before notoriety make for an interesting one-woman show and New Jewish Theatre brings her to us in the guise of the remarkable Susie Wall. “Stumbling” on the audience who suddenly appears in her Washington Heights apartment in 1997, she begins to tell her story as she packs up her belongings for a move across town. Her life is so fascinating and Susie Wall so compelling that you sit back for a 90-minute peek- filled with humor and pathos- into how she became who she is in “Becoming Dr. Ruth.”

Susie Wall's Dr. Ruth holds one of the many, many books she's written on the subject over the years in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Susie Wall’s Dr. Ruth holds one of the many, many books she’s written on the subject over the years in “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Born Karola Ruth Seigel in Frankfort, Germany in 1928, her life was ripped apart by the Kristallnacht perpetrated by the Nazis and was soon shipped off by the Kindertransport program to an orphanage in Switzerland. She never saw her parents again and she presumed they were killed in Auschwitz. Through studies and teaching all over the world and marriages to three different husbands, she became the host of a 15-minute radio program in New York airing after midnight. It caught on and she soon became a full-fledged star due to her outspoken opinions on sex and her belief that sex should be discussed openly and without shame.

Another object to pack brings back stories from her past for Dr. Ruth as portrayed by Susie Wall at NJT's "Becoming Dr. Ruth." Photo: John Lamb

Another object to pack brings back stories from her past for Dr. Ruth as portrayed by Susie Wall at NJT’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth.” Photo: John Lamb

Susie Wall captures the spirit and unabashed frankness of Dr. Ruth as she packs, talks about her life, her three husbands and talks to people on the phone including the mover who is expected the next day who asks if Dr. Ruth can talk to his grandmother. That conversation becomes a revelation for them both. All the while, she drops bon mots of advice and philosophy as she discovers triggers in items she is packing that take her from subject to subject as she shares many moments from her life.

Director Jerry McAdams keeps the flow moving and, from that opening moment when she “discovers” us sitting and viewing her living room, the audience feels like a welcome guest. The elaborate set designed by Cristie Johnston is remarkable. I’m sure many folks thought as I and another reviewer did as we entered the theatre- “I could live here!” The clever use of an upstage picture window for projections designed by Michael B. Perkins is a wonderful touch that really opens up the stories that she tells. Kimberly Klearman’s lighting design adds to the realistic setting and Teresa Doggett’s costume for Dr. Ruth is impeccable.

Dr. Ruth- portrayed by Susie Wall- talks sex on one of her radio broadcasts in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Dr. Ruth- portrayed by Susie Wall- talks sex on one of her radio broadcasts in “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is still alive today and working at her practice. Although her days of appearances on the David Letterman show and other venues including her own radio and television show are over, she still remains an icon of an era. Playwright Mark St. Germain, who wrote the powerful “Freud’s Last Session” that played the Repertory Theatre Studio last year, has captured the soul of Dr. Ruth and has brought a fascinating and difficult life to the stage. We were all so focused on the small framed lady speaking in a strong accent about taboo subjects that we never really knew what brought her to the point of celebrity. It’s a wonderful story.

Susie Wall brings “Becoming Dr. Ruth” to imaginative life through December 21st at the New Jewish Theatre. Call them at 314-442-3283 or contact them at newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Actors Chew Each Other Instead Of The Scenery In “Cannibal: The Musical” At Magic Smoking Monkey

December 2, 2014
Wild West hooligans in Magic Smoking Monkey's "Cannibal: The Musical."

Wild West hooligans in Magic Smoking Monkey’s “Cannibal: The Musical.”

The return of “Cannibal: The Musical” at Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre is an appropriate addition to the Thanksgiving season. No need for stuffing as you chew on the hand or foot of your former friend. Inspired by the Donner Party, Trey Parker of “South Park” and “Book Of Mormon” fame has created a deliciously creepy and hilarious musical that incorporates a lot of humor (and even some characters) from that iconic television cartoon noted for its “bad” animation and irreverent situations and dialogue.

Led by Keith Parker as Alfred Packer, this merry band of mischief makers are led into the Colorado territory in hopes of finding gold but find untraditional (at best) fur trappers and other assorted characters instead. Parker’s Packer presents preposterous proposals for his posthumous friend after he is shot in anger and this leads to the classic reenactment of the Donner Party fiasco. Accompanied by his horse, Liane who, at times, seems to be a bit of a fickle filly, these two make a Wild West odd couple. Betsy Bowman Saule is a perky palomino with that gorgeous flowing red mane that peaks into appropriate ears. With only gestures and facial expressions, she gets her point across until a surprising appearance near the end of the play that’s as hilarious as it is a bit sad.

Which came first- the eatery or the eaten? Join the zany cast of "Cannibal: The Musical" at Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre.

Which came first- the eatery or the eaten? Join the zany cast of “Cannibal: The Musical” at Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre.

A huge cast takes over the Ivory Theatre stage including a great performance from Ben Ritchie as the hot-headed and musical theatre nay-sayer, Frank Miller. Also standing out is Jeff Kargus as the mind-blowing Frenchy. Chris “Mr.” Jones, Eustace Allen, Patrick Kelly and Sean Green comprise the little band of nomads and Robbie Haupt and Andrew Weber follow their leader. Sarah Porter and Nicole Angeli stand out as the females involved in the hooliganism while Jaysen Cryer, Soupy Alan David, Mike Monsey, John Foughty and Chuck Brinkley round out the mainstream cast. Maxwell Knocke and Juan Schwartz get in on the fun while the two Stage Ninjas who open the show, change scenery and even take on iconic figures like Kenny, are played by Maria I. Straub and Abigail Lampe.

The cast sing the praises of a "Shpadoinkle Day" in Magic Smoking Monkey's "Cannibal: the Musical."

The cast sing the praises of a “Shpadoinkle Day” in Magic Smoking Monkey’s “Cannibal: the Musical.”

All of this madness is made possible by Suki Peters at the director’s helm. She was recently named Artistic Director of St. Louis Shakespeare and, as a bonus, gets to continue the madness of their offshoot troupe, the Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. Maria I. Straub choreographs a lot of the fast-paced lunacy on stage and Brian Peters is fight choreographer and has designed the highly effective set on the small stage. Beth Ashby’s costumes are a gem and Deech Mestel has lit the production appropriately. Jeff Roberts is responsible for the sound design and Bob Singleton has brought the video and motion graphics to life at the back of the stage including the wonderful opening sequence. Musical Director Patrick Blindauer has brought the silly but effective score to life with Larry Kornfeld setting down the music tracks. From “Shpadoinkle Day” to a lot of references to baked potatoes, it’s all a treat for the ears as well as the eyes.

For those familiar with the crazy take-offs and satires rooted in Magic Smoking Monkey, the return of “Cannibal: The Musical” will be a welcome sight. For those yet to experience the insanity, plan a trip to this off-beat show before it closes on December 6th.

 

 

The Laughs (Dark and Light) Just Keep On Coming In Max & Louie’s “Chancers”

November 14, 2014
Pamela Reckamp, Nathan Bush, Donna Weinsting and Jared Sanz-Agero cautiously feel each other out in "Chancers" at Max & Louie.

Pamela Reckamp, Nathan Bush, Donna Weinsting and Jared Sanz-Agero cautiously feel each other out in “Chancers” at Max & Louie.

We’re dealing with a U.S. premiere here in Robert Massey’s funny, funny look at life in County Kildare, Ireland as “Chancers” takes a look at ethics versus survival when a winning lottery ticket becomes the prized possession in four people’s fight for the $250,000 grand prize. Intrepid acting and superb direction bring this play to life with snappy (and often rather “blue” dialogue) and a dilemma that never quite gets solved but leaves the audience somewhat to their own devices. Max & Louie Productions bring us this laugh filled play fresh from it’s Dublin premiere.

Nathan Bush as Aiden threatens his best friend, JP, played by Jared Sanz-Agero in Max & Louie's "Chancers."

Nathan Bush as Aiden threatens his best friend, JP, played by Jared Sanz-Agero in Max & Louie’s “Chancers.”

Aiden and Dee own a small convenience store in rural Ireland and business has not been booming. A blousy, rude and vindictive neighborhood harpy, Gertie, drops in every day to complain and taunt them- letting them know how much better and cheaper things are at the local Aldi and mega store. Her philosophy seems to be “if you can’t say anything nice about someone- go ahead and say it.” Add to the mix a friend of the couple who obviously dated Dee in the past, JP, who becomes the catalyst for family discordance and a nefarious plot that turns the story line upside down.

Nathan Bush is excellent as the wishy-washy husband who tries scheme after scheme to pump customer attractive perks to his store. The latest fail is a hot food bar that he’s already shut down as it was losing them money even faster. The delightful Pamela Reckamp is his long-suffering wife who is trying to get some extra money in by going to a job interview as the play opens. You realize that this is going to be another major fail. These two make a wonderful couple who, in other circumstances, would be perfect for each other.

Nathan Bush and Pamela Reckamp settle a disagreement as Jared Sanz-Agero looks on in "Chancers" at Max & Louie.

Nathan Bush and Pamela Reckamp settle a disagreement as Jared Sanz-Agero looks on in “Chancers” at Max & Louie.

The always incredible Donna Weinsting plays the irascible Gertie who wears her disdain like a letter sweater. She’s proud to be the local Debbie Downer and has a mother’s blindness for her rather perverted son who we never see but get enough info on through his escapades and a very funny yet disturbing phone call with Dee. And she provides most of the “X-rated” dialogue. Jared Sanz-Agero is a ball of fire as the life-long friend who bounces around the little shop devouring their food and drinking their soft drinks while not opening his wallet.

The crux of the plot comes when Gertie asks Aiden to check her lottery ticket and we see from the stunned look on his face that it’s a really big winner. He composes himself and tells her it’s not a winner and tries to throw it away. But Gertie likes to keep her old losing tickets, just in case. When Aiden tells JP about the ticket after Gertie has left, he tries to hatch a plot to mug her and steal it. Aiden won’t go along but when Dee returns after her failed job interview, she agrees with JP but feels they should find a more genteel route to procuring the winning ticket. Through brawls between the two men, the obvious ignored “voice of reason” from Dee and the final confrontation with Gertie, “Chancers” gives us a chance to see the worst in human nature. A hilarious transformation to mugger for JP and the absolutely absurd plans and counter plans are just a wonderful trip for the audience.

Pamela Reckamp, Donna Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero and Nathan Bush in a promo shot for Max & Louie's "Chancers."

Pamela Reckamp, Donna Weinsting, Jared Sanz-Agero and Nathan Bush in a promo shot for Max & Louie’s “Chancers.”

Sydnie Grosberg Ronga has directed with a frenetic pace that suits the outlandish script. Assisted by a masterful set design by Margery and Peter Spack and the strong lighting design of John Cameron Carter, this plays has the proper feel for the small Irish village. And special kudos to dialogue coach Katy Keating who brings an almost flawless dialect to all involved.

This is your last week-end to catch “Chancers” at the Kranzberg Arts Center- it’s all over November 16th. The small crowd on Thursday night when I was lucky enough to see it filled the space with laughs to a well deserved cast. Contact Max & Louie Productions at maxandlouie.com to get more information or buy tickets.

Ethereal, Elusive Tennessee Williams Play, “Stairs To The Roof,” Opens After 67 Year Absence

November 10, 2014
Em Piro and Paul Cereghino as the young lovers in "Stairs To The Roof" by Tennessee Williams produced by Sudden View Productions.

Em Piro and Paul Cereghino as the young lovers in “Stairs To The Roof” by Tennessee Williams produced by Sudden View Productions.

Wow! St. Louis theatre just keeps getting better all the time. Those in the know realize what a wonderful theatrical community exists here and now, a new company and a new production cements that solid reputation with a Tennessee Williams play that hasn’t been professionally produced in 67 years. Despite being an early attempt at a Broadway bound play, this is a very un-Tennessee Williams play despite the echoing voice that was to eventually bring us a multitude of powerful theatrical wonders. “Stairs To The Roof” is a dream-like romance that points to a happy ending but with that underlying tension of dissatisfaction and pessimism that pervades so much of his later work.

Sudden View Productions, led by Artistic Director Carrie Houk, takes a big bite out of the theatrical apple for her first attempt. A large cast and stunning technical qualities belie what you might think would be a beginning for a new group. But SVP pulls it off with style and panache. Benjamin D. Murphy is a dreamer. Despite being trapped in a thankless job at a shirt making concern (close to Mr. Williams’ early career at the International Shoe Factory here in St. Louis), he dreams of freeing himself and his start is discovering an almost hidden stairway that leads to the roof of the factory. Paul Cereghino is sheer perfection in the role of Murphy. He literally embodies the spirit that is expressed in one of the key lines in the play, “to be free is to have achieved your life.” Throughout the performance you can detect the itch for freedom in his manner and voice inflection.

The beginnings of the love that erupts as realized by a ballet sequence in the Tennessee Williams play, "Stairs To The Roof."

The beginnings of the love that erupts as realized by a ballet sequence in the Tennessee Williams play, “Stairs To The Roof.”

He eventually hooks up with “The Girl,” played with exquisite subtlety and radiance by Em Piro. The two go on an all night spree that encompass local haunts like Washington University and the Zoo (where he frees a group of foxes that are howling for their escape) and even encounter love in the beautifully realized dream sequence featuring a lovely pas de deux featuring St. Louis Ballet dancers Clayton Cunningham and Elizabeth Lloyd. Local acting icon, Peter Mayer, is properly stern and clueless as Ben’s boss while Reginald Pierre is outstanding as the “mysterious” Mr. E who pops up throughout and then plays the major role as deus ex machina in the final sequence.

An outstanding supporting cast bring this ethereal production to glorious life. From the mechanical, rhythmic secretaries in the opening scene to the stunning circus-like dream sequence during the young lovers’ night out, this is a massive and quite successful undertaking that makes this Tennessee Williams script more than memorable. The surreal circus sequence is just one of many highlights in this unusual Tennessee Williams play. Thanks to the brilliant direction of Fred Abrahamse, the production pops with an other-worldly feel. With the talents of Marcel Meyer as set designer, costumer and choreographer, it is awash in symbolism and a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. Patrick Huber’s lighting design just adds to that feel with broad strokes of color amid the touches of realism. With a theme of “blue” in Ben’s outfit, scenery and lighting and the often bluesy score of Henry Palkes, we get a real feel for the overriding themes of “Stairs To The Roof.” The music for the dream ballet in particular is a work of art in itself and makes that scene a transcendent moment in the whole production.

One of the many stunning stage pictures that encompass the beautiful Tennessee Williams play, "Stairs To The Roof" at Sudden View Productions.

One of the many stunning stage pictures that encompass the beautiful Tennessee Williams play, “Stairs To The Roof” at Sudden View Productions.

With promises of more in the near future and an eventual Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Carrie Houk and Sudden View Productions may become a major player in an already rich theatre scene in St. Louis. Despite the occasional production over the years, this is the first full professional production of this unusual Williams play in sixty-seven years. What a fitting tribute to the man who made St. Louis home despite his often derogatory remarks about our fair city. It molded him and made him the great playwright that he became. Now we get a chance to see how it started before “The Glass Menagerie,” before “A Streetcar Named Desire,” before “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and before the marvelous output over a lifetime of great and near-great plays and short stories.

It’s also the grand opening of the newly renovated Boo Cat Club- a marvelous venue in the midst of mid-town and one of many elegant residences that housed amenities such as a grand ballroom and a fully realized stage. In fact, many of Tennessee Williams’ plays were first produced in this building when it was the home of the St. Louis Artist Guild. Be sure to plan on seeing this historic play while it plays here through November 22nd.


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