November Theater Company Hits The Mark With Their Inaugural Production, “Assassins”

September 28, 2014
The eerie line up of assassins and story tellers in November Theater Company's inaugural production of "Assassins."

The eerie line up of assassins and story tellers in November Theater Company’s inaugural production of “Assassins.”

Starting a brand new theatre company is scary enough. But when you choose a Sondheim musical to start the engines, it’s downright frightening. On the other hand, when you know St. Louis audiences are Sondheim-crazy, the choice has to be a good one and you’re next step is to land a competent cast and outstanding director. Mission accomplished. The November Theater Company opens their quest with his dark comedy/musical, “Assassins.” An enthusiastic opening night audience approved and it looks like “11theater” is on its way. Last month at the Ivory Theatre we saw a satiric look at famous First Ladies as R-S Theatrics brought us “First Lady Suite” and now we get a more terrifying yet equally irreverent, comic look at the serious business of presidential assassins.

Charlie Barron as the Balladeer introduces us to most of the shooters in Sondheim's "Assassins" at November Theater Company.

Charlie Barron as the Balladeer introduces us to most of the shooters in Sondheim’s “Assassins” at November Theater Company.

Landing new Artistic Director of St. Louis Shakespeare, Suki Peters, as director started their project off on the right foot. Her knowledge of the local theatre community and keen eye for casting has helped November to success on their first try. Strong singing voices and quality acting skills combine throughout the entire cast and Suki has brought her own special brand to this dark but comedic look at presidential assassins or “wannabes” throughout history. Focusing on the two most famous, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, we travel through a literal shooting gallery of fiendish and disturbed individuals as time and space are shattered so these shooters can interact with each other.

Jon Hey, as the Proprietor who sets the wheels moving, brings a strong stage presence to his role as he directs traffic in an introduction to the band of individuals we’re going to see over the next hour and a half. Charlie Barron takes over as the Balladeer and moves in and out of the story introducing everyone as their particular story unfolds. He displays a great singing voice and his personable approach makes us feel comfortable meeting these pariahs of history. He even makes a surprising “guest” appearance at the end of the musical.

Jon Hey as the Proprietor brings us together with famous assassins and wannabes at November Theatre Company's "Assassins."

Jon Hey as the Proprietor brings us together with famous assassins and wannabes at November Theater Company’s “Assassins.”

Mike Amoroso is stunning as John Wilkes Booth. His charm wins us over and his final scene with Lee Harvey Oswald is one of the most chilling encounters imaginable. Comparing himself, Lee Harvey and others to the despair of Willy Loman in “Death Of A Salesman” is brilliant. Whether striking out at yourself or other individuals who you think may be responsible for your failure, this presence of a “death wish” exists in so many situations. Mitch Eagles is a strong Guiseppe Zangara- the man who tried to assassinate FDR and Nick Kelly also shines as Leon Czolgosz who succeeded in his attempt at McKinley. A comic turn by Patrick Kelly as Charles Guiteau, assassin of Garfield, brings the house down as he cakewalks his way to the gallows.

Nate Cummings is superb as John Hinckley, attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan and delusionaly love struck with Jodie Foster. He teams up with a delightful Jennifer Theby Quinn as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme- attempting to assassinate Gerald Ford- in a freakishly romantic duet of “Unworthy Of Your Love.” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (the wild-eyed Jessica Townes) obsess with great comic results about killing Gerald Ford. Patrick Blindauer adds just the right amount of crazy to Sam Byck, attempted assassin of Richard Nixon. Dressed as Santa Claus, he brings a bizarre comic turn to his role.  Nancy Nigh brings a short, but effective touch to the radical protester, Emma Goldman. She also doubles as a solid member of the ensemble.

The wheel of assassins spins us into Sondheim's "Assassins" at November Theater Company.

The wheel of assassins spins us into Sondheim’s “Assassins” at November Theater Company.

Also doing great work in multiple roles are Will Bonfiglio, Brittany Kohl Hester, Dorothy LaBounty, Kelvin Urday and Mike Wells. The Jason Townes set design is incredibly effective providing upper and lower acting areas and muted national colors to emphasize the darker side of America’s history. Meredith LaBounty’s costumes are perfect and Bob Singleton’s sparkling projections hit just the right note. Charlie Mueller provides music direction although the canned music occasionally overtakes the singers and drowns them out. Russell Warning is responsible for the effective lighting design and Emily Hatcher’s sound design is also powerful including the multiple use of gunfire.

Producer Dustin Allison and his crew have made a most auspicious debut with Sondheim’s “Assassins.” This show is not an easy one to get across considering the dark nature of the plot, the often difficult Sondheim music and the need for so many powerful singers and actors. But this one works, folks and I urge you to support the efforts of this fledgling group. Great things are indeed ahead if they can maintain the quality of their inaugural production. Contact November Theater Company at 11theater.com for tickets or more information.

Cast Has A Blast In Surreal, “Twilight Zone”-esque Comedy, “All In The Timing” At STLAS

September 22, 2014
Ben Ritchie and Emily Baker ponder their next move in STLAS' "All In The Timing." Photo: John Lamb

Ben Ritchie and Emily Baker ponder their next move in STLAS’ “All In The Timing.” Photo: John Lamb

How can you not have fun being one of a trio of monkeys trying to write “Hamlet?” Or a living Trotsky contemplating why he has an axe through his head? Or how about Philip Glass trying, existentially, to buy a loaf of bread? All this and more shatters time and space in David Ives’ “All In The Timing.” And St. Louis Actors’ Studio, with a quartet of polished actors and a hip director make it the “must see” comedy of the year.

“All In The Timing” is a sextet of ironic, short one-acts that all tie together with timing. Expecting to hear “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again,” we travel through this series of surreal situations where time stands still or moves at either  halting or accelerated speed to bring us an absurd cast of characters. And, of course, the title suggests, timing is everything and these actors have got their timing down precisely to tackle the rapid fire dialogue- some of which is just this side of nonsense- as they milk every laugh from this hilarious script.

Michelle Hand and Shaun Sheley try to "publish or perish" in "Words, Words, Words" in "All In The Timing" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie and Shaun Sheley try to “publish or perish” in “Words, Words, Words” in “All In The Timing” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

In “Sure Thing,” Emily Baker as Betty sits quietly reading a book at a coffee shop when Ben Ritchie as Bill enters and asks if the other chair at her table is taken. As the dialogue ensues, an off stage bell rings and they begin their conversation again with different results. As we travel around and through this ever-changing conversation, we realize that the result will be inevitable but the real journey is getting the there as their dialogue “times out” until that result is achieved. Next we see Ben Ritchie again with Shaun Sheley and Michelle Hand as three erudite monkeys who are “going along” with a scientist experimenting with the timeless tale of putting a monkey and a typewriter together and hoping that, eventually, he (or she) will produce something profound (such as “Hamlet”). Although they move and act like monkeys, their personal communication indicates they realize the task but either write gibberish or deep thoughts unrelated to the task at hand. One even starts out typing the opening of “Hamlet” but then wanders into other Shakespeare verse before giving up altogether.

Our four actors sing the praises of bread in "All In The Timing" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Our four actors sing the praises of bread in “All In The Timing” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Closing out the first act is Emily Baker as a shy, stuttering student, Dawn, who hopes attending a class in learning a new “universal language,” Unamunda, will help her out of her shell and maybe into the arms of her teacher, Don, played by Shaun Sheley. This has to be the most difficult piece to memorize because of the unpredictability but alarming astute sounds of the language- which reminds us a lot like English but just slightly off kilter. While Don speaks it “trippingly off the tongue,” Dawn soon masters it herself, even though it’s nothing but nonsense again. Their timing is impeccable which makes it even more amazing as we soon begin to understand every word they say.

It's not always sunny in "The Philadelphia"- part of STLAS' production of "All In The Timing." Photo: John Lamb

It’s not always sunny in “The Philadelphia”- part of STLAS’ production of “All In The Timing.” Photo: John Lamb

As unpredictable as a piece of his music, we find Shaun Sheley’s Philip Glass portrayal mesmerizing as he enters a bakery attempting to buy a loaf of bread. The baker and two admiring women join him in a short oratorio on the benefits of being Philip Glass, the qualities that make for a good loaf of bread and various other idiosyncratic themes that echo the wandering scores of his music. In “The Philadelphia,” Mark (Ben Ritchie) compares the kind of ill luck his friend Al (Shaun Sheley) is having to that city of Brotherly Love. We find out that Mark is really in a Los Angeles kind of happy mood while the waitress in the little diner (Emily Baker) is obviously in another “city.” Again, we enter the time and space continuum to explain our moods and feelings.

Closing out the evening is “Variations On The Death Of Trotsky.” Shaun Sheley’s Trotsky discovers he has an axe firmly embedded into his skull thanks to the astute observation of his wife (Michelle Hand). Time traveling through an anachronistic wasteland, they, along with Ben Ritchie’s Ramon (Trotsky’s killer) use everything from the Encyclopedia Britannica to personal observations on their inevitable fate to ask why this has happened. So an evening of absurd themes centering on “All In The Timing” comes to a close with a journey we’re not likely to forget ourselves as time, inevitably, goes on.

Trotsky can't believe he's discovered an axe in his skull in "All In The Timing" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Trotsky can’t believe he’s discovered an axe in his skull in “All In The Timing” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Director Elizabeth Helman has a deft hand for comedy as she makes perfect sense out of David Ives’ warped take on history, relationships and life in general. Patrick Huber has given us an unbelievable set design featuring billowing clouds in a blue sky as the backdrop and a Salvatore Dali-like clock face melting over the front edge of the stage floor. His lights play an integral part as well. Carla Landis Evans’ costumes are a great combination of unity and humor while director Helman has added a provocative sound design.

This play opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio season of “The Best Medicine” in fine fashion. These four actors, Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie and Shaun Sheley, use pin-point timing and an inherent feel for comedy to bring us one of the most hilarious evenings we’ve spent in the theatre this season. It runs through October 5th and I urge you to call STLAS at 314-458-2978 or contact them at stlas.org for tickets or more information.

Hot City Brings A Stunning Production of “The Normal Heart” To Stage

September 19, 2014
John Flack and Eric Dean White in Hot City's "The Normal Heart." Photo: Todd Studios

John Flack and Eric Dean White in Hot City’s “The Normal Heart.” Photo: Todd Studios

Back in the early ’80’s we had friend who was planning to direct “L’il Abner” for a local community theatre group. He asked me to design the set and to please come to auditions and read for Marryin’ Sam. A month later he contracted what the doctor diagnosed as pneumonia. After two weeks, he died. This was my first real introduction to what was to become the AIDS epidemic. Soon after, we lost many more friends to this dreaded disease and no one knew why. Playwright Larry Kramer voiced our concerns eloquently in his play, “The Normal Heart.” Now, three decades later, it’s still a relevant piece of theatre and the message it imparts is still a powerful one.

Hot City Theatre has brought it back to our town and director Marty Stanberry and the solid cast allows us to painfully relive these moments all over again. It centers on a crusading journalist who tries to form a small group who will ask questions and fight to find the answers from the government, local health organizations and others as to why our friends are dying. Continually turning their back on the problem, those who could help, refuse for one reason or another. It’s only through the efforts of the fictitious Ned Weeks (based, of course, on Larry Kramer) that people begin to take notice and action slowly but surely is taken.

Lavonne Byers, John Flack and Greg Johnston surround the hospital bed of Eric Dean White in "The Normal Heart" at Hot City Theatre. Photo: Todd Studios

Lavonne Byers, John Flack and Greg Johnston surround the hospital bed of Eric Dean White in “The Normal Heart” at Hot City Theatre. Photo: Todd Studios

John Flack is one of our finest actors- whether in musicals at Stages St. Louis, the poignant portrayal of a soldier in Ken Page’s “Cafe Chanson” or his hilarious turn as a nun in “The Divine Sister” at Hot City last year, he’s proven time and time again what a versatile and powerful performer he is. But he has outdone himself with a riveting and outraged Ned in “The Normal Heart.” He explodes with venomous fury at the inattentiveness of the people who refuse to acknowledge the problem that the homosexual community is going through with this unexplained killer disease. It’s almost scary how much he puts into this role and how it mesmerizes the audience.

Eric Dean White is also a standout as his lover and eventual victim to the AIDS virus while Greg Johnston gives a wonderfully strong performance as Ned’s brother, Ben, who is reluctant at first to provide him with legal help but soon finds his conscience and offers his help and support. Lavonne Byers is superb as the one strong advocate among the medical community who suffered through her own enigmatic medical crisis years before when struck with polio.

Greg Johnston as Ben listens to the pleas of his brother Ned- John Flack- in Hot City Theatre's "The Normal Heart." Photo: Todd Studios

Greg Johnston as Ben listens to the pleas of his brother Ned- John Flack- in Hot City Theatre’s “The Normal Heart.” Photo: Todd Studios

The trio of committed yet wary companions who help Ned out in his fight are Tim Schall, Reginald Pierre and Ben Watts. Each has his own reason for not following Ned into the actual lion’s den, but they stick by him feeling the same kind of frustration that he does. Rounding out the cast in fine fashion are Stephen Peirick and Paul Cereghino in numerous roles. Marty Stanberry’s direction is solid and effective. It becomes a not-so-gentle reminder that this was a disease that was long ignored- mainly because it affected only the homosexual community- and that it’s still prevalent today. It’s better understood and more treatable but still an insidious, dangerous affliction.

The stark Sean Savoie set design speaks perfectly to the subject matter in shades of grey with towering rust-covered beams encircling the stage. He also brings us the dramatic lighting design. The Patrick Burks projections and sound design are both great accents to the powerful story and JC Krajicek’s costumes are right on the mark.

“The Normal Heart” is a wake up call for those of us who lived through it and an overwhelming history lesson for those too young to have experienced the horrors of AIDS and the friends who died from it in the early days. It had a recent life with and HBO movie adaptation but this strong cast led by John Flack is more powerful than any film could ever hope to portray. This one is a must-see. It runs through September 27th at the Kranzberg Center. Give them a call at 314-289-4063 or contact them at hotcitytheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Audience And Actors Alike Roll In The Aisles At “One Man, Two Guvnors” At The Rep

September 16, 2014
The WoolfPak opens the show and pops up throughout the evening with lively English Hall music at "One Man, Two Guvnors" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The WoolfPak opens the show and pops up throughout the evening with lively English Hall music at “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Another season has opened at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and they chose the rollicking comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” that has astounded audiences on a national level and even locally for those of my friends and colleagues who have been lucky enough to see it in London or New York. With all that hype, perhaps that’s why I was slightly disappointed with the show but I must admit, they give us plenty to laugh about and the pacing keeps those laughs going through all two and a half hours. Lots of surprises (several you can see a mile off) and wonderful performances keep you entertained.

A bit of therapy during the Rep's production of "One Man, Two Guvnors." Photo: Jerry Nauneim, Jr.

A bit of humorous therapy during the Rep’s production of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Photo: Jerry Nauneim, Jr.

The show revolves around Francis Henshall- the man who tries to “double dip” by serving two employes thus riding the gravy train in two different directions- often at cross purposes. Raymond McAnally fits the bill perfectly. A portly yet agile performer, he has the comedic rubber face that matches the burlesque skills necessary to pull off an absurd yet polished performance. He and the rest of the cast had their timing a bit off on opening night at times but the humor shines through despite the occasional dropped or “stepped on” line or bit. That, or course, will right itself as the show continues. Luke Smith also does a nice turn as the overly dramatic suitor who everyone excuses as “oh, he’s just acting.”

Francis Henshall tries his smooth moves during a scene in "One Man, Two Guvors" at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Francis Henshall tries his smooth moves during a scene in “One Man, Two Guvors” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A lot of English Music Hall humor abounds with great performances by the whole cast including Karis Danish, John Michalski, Ruth Pferdehirt, Jack Fellows, Mel Johnson, Jr., Anthony Cochrane and Keira Keeley. Aaron Orion Baker and Evan Zes provide a lot of the laughs as well as a couple of incompetent waiters. A fine group of supporting players kick in and the onstage (sometimes offstage band), humorously called “The WoolfPak, are terrific as they play a lively Beatles-like performance pre-curtain then continue to pop in and out- coming down the aisles or marching out the the orchestra pit. It’s really a lot of fun to watch and listen to them- almost as much fun as the show itself.

It’s all set in 1963 in Brighton, England and so the sound of the band and the fury on stage reflect a lot of the pop culture of that period. Playwright Richard Bean and composer Grant Olding have put together a solid show that works well on stage. Director Edward Stern has done another masterful job by keeping the controlled chaos just under control enough to make it enjoyable without letting it run away from the intent. There are basically two kinds of humor we have received from the British- the “Monty Python” and the “Benny Hill.” “One Man, Two Guvnors” is definitely from the Benny Hill branch of the tree. Not my favorite and I’m sure that had something to do with my slight disappointment with the show itself. Again, from all the hype I’d heard, I was expecting to be blown away but I was waiting for “Dead Parrot” and all I got were puns and sight gags. Also, I felt it brought back a lot of bad memories of some Dinner Theatre productions I’d see in the past (when you see it, you’ll understand why). But that’s okay- it’s all enjoyable, just not what I was hoping for.

Broad humor abounds in the Repertory Theatre's production of "One Man, Two Guvnors." Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Broad humor abounds in the Repertory Theatre’s production of “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Scott C. Neale has given us a great set to feast our eyes on that features a giant post card from Brighton as the backdrop. And the amazing sight gag that did entertain throughout the evening was the number of people who fell into or were pushed into the orchestra pit. Made you want to wander down to the stage after the performance to see what was down there that prevented a lot of injured actors. Kirk Bookman’s lighting design gives it that great Music Hall feel, Rusty Wandall’s sound design enhances the broad humor of the show and the costumes of David Kay Mickelsen continues the theme prevalent to the silliness of the evening.

It’s all a lot of fun and, despite my personal disappointments, it’s a great night for just getting away from it all and letting out a few rip-roaring laughs. “One Man, Two Guvnors” is a great way to open the new season on the Mainstage as it runs through october 5th. Give the Rep a call at 314-968-4925 or contact them at repstl.org for tickets or more information.

 

A True Classic, “Death Of A Salesman,” Gets Powerful Production At Insight’s Season Closer

September 14, 2014
Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt and Jason Contini in "Death Of A Salesman" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt and Jason Contini in “Death Of A Salesman” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Casting is key and Insight Theatre Company has done that with Arthur Miller’s classic American drama, “Death Of A Salesman.” From top to bottom, this cast is superb and tells this riveting story with pain, passion and a bit of panache. Of course, you’re working with some St. Louis acting royalty when you find John Contini, Susie Wall and Joneal Joplin headlining any cast. But that’s just a start- this production runs deep behind an excellent ensemble, outstanding direction and wonderfully conceived technical achievements.

American ideals are changing at the end of World War II and people caught in the status quo are left behind. We find the entire Loman family experiencing this phenomenon but no one more affected than patriarch Willy Loman. John Contini as Willy shows the frustration at every turn during his riveting performance. It’s often a low key approach as his sudden realization that he is no longer relevant creeps up on him. Living from day to day with no “401K” or savings to fall back on, he can’t even keep up with his insurance premiums. His blend of anger and hope provide a delicate balance that keys into what so many folks were struggling with at this time. It doesn’t help that his former boss has retired and left his hard nosed son in charge. Willy’s frustration is further brought out by his treatment of wife Linda. At one point he’s loving and understanding and the next he’s tearing into her for one small thing after another.

Joneal Joplin roughhouses with Matthew Linhardt as John Contini and Susie Wall look on at Insight's "Death Of A Salesman." Photo: John Lamb

Joneal Joplin roughhouses with Matthew Linhardt as John Contini and Susie Wall look on at Insight’s “Death Of A Salesman.” Photo: John Lamb

As Linda, Susie Wall continues to solidify her hold as a dominant actress in our town. Her performance is heart-wrenching, to say the least. From her anguish in the now famous line, “attention must be paid,” to her heartbreak and faith in her sons, it’s a classic performance in a classic play. Matthew Linhardt is also strong as the erstwhile Biff. He continually searches for the job that brings him wealth instead of trying to work at anything in this struggling post-war environment. His brother, Happy, also has strong character development thanks to the brilliant performance from John’s son, Jason Contini.

Another failed attempt by Willy to keep his job as he meets to plead his case in "Death Of A Salesman" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Another failed attempt by Willy to keep his job as he meets to plead his case in “Death Of A Salesman” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Taylor Pietz continues her blossoming career as a triple threat (this time putting the singing and dancing behind) with a finely tuned turn as Willy’s out of town mistress. Joneal Joplin is powerful once again (he played Willy several years ago at the Rep) as Willy’s brother Ben. Attempting to lure Willy away from his dead end job to share adventure and riches with him in Alaska and other destinations of danger but promise, he is saddened by Willy’s sudden turn of events but can’t continue to plead with him as he watches the inevitable happen. David Cooperstein also shines as the edgy boss who adds insult to injury by continually referring to Willy as “kid.”

Biff and Happy plead their case to their mother  during Insight's "Death Of A Salesman." Photo: John Lamb

Biff and Happy plead their case to their mother during Insight’s “Death Of A Salesman.” Photo: John Lamb

Michael Pierce turns in a fine performance as Bernard and Tom Murray gives us great work as Charley. In addition, a supporting cast that includes Mollie Amburgey, Julia Crump and Tom Wethington bring real substance to a group of actors who really have a handle on this play. Director Wayne Loui is the perfect choice for this piece. He has a mastery of the work and of Arthur Miller in general. He squeezes every ounce of pathos and charm out of the play and keeps us rooting for Willy and his family even though we know there’s little hope.

John Contini and Tom Murray in "Death Of A Salesman" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

John Contini and Tom Murray in “Death Of A Salesman” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

The beauty and shabbiness of Mark Wilson’s set design perfectly reflects the play itself and his lights follow that theme exquisitely. The set is usually your first look at a play these days (no more curtains hiding it as you walk in to the theatre) and this one really sets the tone. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are also a great reflection of the family and their surroundings while the Kyle Meadors sound design also establishes mood. This production is a total immersion into “Death Of A Salesman.”

Insight Theatre Company has brought this season to a close in dramatic and powerful fashion. It’s great to see Willy Loman again and it’s nice that every stitch of Miller’s tragedy is intact and resonates to today’s audience as well as it did 65 years ago. You’ll want to put this one on your radar as a “must see” of the season- and you can by calling Insight at 314-556-1293 or contact them at insighttheatrecompany.com for tickets or more information. “Death Of A Salesman” plays through September 21st.

 

 

The “Tradition” Continues As Stages Presents A Poignant “Fiddler On The Roof”- Their Season Finale

September 12, 2014
Bruce Sabath and Paul Sabala in the opening of "Fiddler On The Roof" at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Bruce Sabath and Paul Sabala in the opening of “Fiddler On The Roof” at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

In my opinion, one musical strikes a universal chord like no other- Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler On The Roof.” Combined with the masterful book by Joseph Stein, based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, it’s roots are in the Jewish tradition but the story of love, loss and change are resonant in everyone’s life at one time or another. Stages St. Louis has chosen it as the finale to this summer season and they have given us a gem.

Tevye's three eldest daughters dream of their future in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" at Stages' "Fiddler On The Roof." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Tevye’s three eldest daughters dream of their future in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” at Stages’ “Fiddler On The Roof.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Winner of 9 Tony Awards- including best musical- in 1965, the story immediately touched everyone’s heart as it dealt with clashes of culture, generations, faith and, most importantly as expressed in the opening number, “Tradition.” Tevye, a poor dairyman in the small village of Anatevka in Russia at the beginning of the revolution, struggles to keep his family- a wife, Golde, and five daughters- provided for as he looks to God to help him from everything from him lame horse to the multitude of problems that suddenly befall him as times change and he’s not ready to go with those changes. Michael Hamilton has directed with a flair for the basics at the heart of the show and has his cast moving at a pace that gets us to curtain call in under three hours (must be a record for this show). Gary John LaRosa has recreated the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography and streamlined it beautifully for the small Kirkwood stage. In fact, some of the cuts from a lot of other productions are here and the show still moves at a comfortable yet speedy pace.

Bruce Sabath and Kari Ely explore the question, "Do You Love Me?" during "Fiddler On The Roof" at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Bruce Sabath and Kari Ely explore the question, “Do You Love Me?” during “Fiddler On The Roof” at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

At the heart of the show, of course, if Tevye. Bruce Sabath is one of the best Tevye’s I’ve ever seen with his somewhat more youthful feel and his wonderful timing in both delivery and his handling of the songs. “If I Were A Rich Man” takes on a new, wonderful perspective with his version and his pairing with Golde in “Do You Love Me” is beautifully poignant. As Golde, one of our favorite local actresses, Kari Ely, simply commands the role. With a fine balance of tenderness and rigidity, she makes it her own.

The beautiful "Sabbath Prayer" as performed at Stages' "Fiddler On The Roof." Photo: Peter Wochniack

The beautiful “Sabbath Prayer” as performed at Stages’ “Fiddler On The Roof.” Photo: Peter Wochniack

Stephanie Lynne Mason is a delightful Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest while Julie Hanson also shines as Hodel as does Carissa Massaro as Chava. The three daughters simply “kill” with their specialty number, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” early in the First Act. As their eventual counterparts, much to the chagrin of Mama and Papa, are Nick Orfanella as Motel, the Tailor, Jason Michael Evans as Perchick, the young student and David Bryant Johnson as Fyedka the (God forbid!) Russian soldier who is also a gentile. Their intertwining stories are just part of the fascinating framework of this powerful musical.

Bruce Sabath as Tevye wonders what life would be like "If I Were A Rich Man" at "Fiddler On The Roof" as performed at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

Bruce Sabath as Tevye wonders what life would be like “If I Were A Rich Man” at “Fiddler On The Roof” as performed at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

The various “types,” as Tevye calls them, in the village include wonderful work by Christopher Limber as Lazar Wolf- the butcher who is originally promised Tzeitel, Rachel Coloff as Yente, the matchmaker, Steve Isom as the innkeeper, Bruce Rebold as the befuddled Rabbi, Whit Reichert as the sympathetic Constable and a host of other locals who help make up the diverse, tight-knit community of Anatevka. And, of course, great work by Paul Sabala as the Fiddler who becomes the silent but ever-present force linking them all together.

Filled with that great Bock and Harnick score including the exuberant “To Life,” the beautiful “Sabbath Prayer” and the always touching “Sunrise, Sunset,” this is one of the best melding of story and music ever to hit the stage. Add the fabulous “Bottle Dance” at the wedding and the hilarious “Tevye’s Dream,” and you’ve got a show crammed with memorable musical moments. The James Wolk scene design is splendid with smooth transitions between settings and Lou Bird’s costumes are nothing short of exquisite. Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design adds to the total stage picture and Lisa Campbell Albert’s musical direction is spot on.

The touching finale of "Fiddler On The Roof" as the people of Anatevka are leaving their home. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The touching finale of “Fiddler On The Roof” as the people of Anatevka are leaving their home. Photo: Peter Wochniak

“Fiddler On The Roof” is the total package. It delivers outstanding performances, exciting dances, incomparable music and a story that has been beloved since it first appeared on Broadway fifty years ago. That’s right, this is the 50th anniversary of this enduring musical. Don’t even think about missing this one- it plays through October 5th at Stages St. Louis. Give them a call at 314-821-2407 or contact them at stagesstlouis.org for tickets or more information.

Raunchy Rednecks Return As Dramatic License Tackles “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”

September 8, 2014
Members of the cast of "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" get their disco on at Dramatic License. Photo: John Lamb

Members of the cast of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” get their disco on at Dramatic License. Photo: John Lamb

Flat out fun runs rampant as we get another look at a musical that Stray Dog Theatre did a while back with great success. This time Kim Furlow (an actress in Stray Dog’s production) and her Dramatic License Productions take on the play, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” as Stray Dog is about to launch “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical” for the holidays this year. You’ll get a double dose of double wides and who could ask for anything better?

Kim Furlow, reprising her role as one of the three “Greek Chorus” women at the heart of the show, plays it broad in every sense of the word as Betty. Her booming voice and her ability to throw off one-liners (how many are ad libs, I wonder) makes her just a hoot once again. The flimsy, contrived story line is just what’s needed for a visit to a trailer park in Stark, Florida and centers on the three ladies who set up all of the action which includes a husband and wife with marital problems. Jeannie has agoraphobia (and maybe anachraphobia at the insistence of one of our lovely ladies) and her inability to leave the trailer causes problems for hubby Norbert. He wants to celebrate their twentieth anniversary and has even popped for tickets to the Ice Capades, but her fear throws him into the arms of a local ecdysiast who is on the lam from her hot-headed lover. When that lover shows up, all hell breaks loose and a series of unbelievable coincidences bring it all to a hilarious- if not logical- conclusion.

Leah Stewart does her act for three "unusual" men at DLP's "The Great American Trailer Park Musical." Photo: John Lamb

Leah Stewart does her act for three “unusual” men at DLP’s “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.” Photo: John Lamb

Joining Ms. Furlow in the trio of songbirds is a pair of Stephanies- Stephanie Benware as the “dumb as a box of rocks” Pickles who has a penchant for hysterical pregnancies and Stephanie Merritt as Lin (short for Linoleum) who is suffering from sexual withdrawal as her husband is spending his days (and nights) in jail. These three are a sheer delight from the opening number about being on “This Side of the Tracks” to their banter about everything that goes on in the trailer park. They even dress up as macho men who attend the striptease joint.

You would think that a musical about trailer parks with have a cast filled with actors with three names, but Jamie Lynn Eros is the only one and she is a wonderful as the pent up Jeannie. She was also in the Stray Dog production in a different role and she makes the most of the woman who ties herself to a rope as if she’s going to lose her way as she attempts to take small steps out of the trailer to ease her phobia. Jeffrey Pruett is also a riot as her straying husband. This production has a wealth of strong singing voices and he is one of the best of the lot. His lead in the disco number that ends Act I is worth the price of admission.

Leah Stewart shines as the stripper, Pippi, who belts out the surprisingly good musical score as well. She’s at a crossroads and handles the praise and criticism that come down on her with equal agility. Rounding out the cast is Luke Steingruby as Duke, the boyfriend who carries a gun and a hot temper. His hysterical take on his throw away line, “Pardon the introduction” got to me laughing each time he said it. The entire trailer park- Armadillo Acres, by the way, is filled with clueless, lovable, trailer trash characters.

Kim Furlow is hoisted by cast members during a dream sequence/Sally Jessy Raphael show in "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" at Dramatic License. Photo: John Lamb

Kim Furlow is hoisted by cast members during a dream sequence/Sally Jessy Raphael show in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” at Dramatic License. Photo: John Lamb

Well known actor who has killed on the DLP stage before, Alan Knoll,  takes the director’s reins and does a splendid job. He milks every corny line for all it’s worth and makes these folks even dumber on stage than they come across on the page. Stephen Eros plays piano and leads the great band which includes Bob Lowe, Clarence “Clancy” Newell and, on guitar, The Most Interesting Man. Sorta’ fits in with the whole mood of the show. Kyra Bishop has made the most of the scenic design on the small Dramatic License stage while Max Parrilla’s lights set the right mood right down to the fabulous disco number complete with mirror ball. Zachary Stefaniak provides smart choreography and Lisa Hazelhorst’s costumes fit the bill perfectly.

This raucous comedy with music and lyrics by David Nehls and book by Betsy Kelso probably doesn’t get a lot of play around the country but we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the insanity twice already and now look forward to a Christmas version. It doesn’t sound all that appealing, but “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is great fun and offers a lot of laughs along with a delightful musical score. Dramatic License Productions has it cranked up through September 21st at their unique theatre space in Chesterfield Mall. Give them a call at 636-821-1746 or contact them at dramaticlicenseproductions.org for tickets or more information.

 

Despite Dissonant Score, Political Satire And Great Acting Reigns At “First Lady Suite”

September 6, 2014
Elizabeth Van Pelt as a wide-eyed Mamie Eisenhower and Jeanitta Perkins as Marian Anderson in "First Lady Suite" at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt as a wide-eyed Mamie Eisenhower and Jeanitta Perkins as Marian Anderson in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

One of Michael John LaChiusa’s first scores, the chamber musical, “First Lady Suite,” is an odd duck that shows the frustrations of being the President’s wife through satire and a score that is more dissonance than melody. R-S Theatrics, a bold innovator on our local theatre scene, has brought this musical to our city for the first time. With the quirky story lines about four first ladies and some wonderful casting, they succeed despite the score that runs the gamut from beautiful to irritating.

Our first first lady is Jackie Kennedy who is flying over Texas in Air Force One en route to that tragic day in Dallas. R-S Artistic Director, Christina Rios takes on the role of the first lady with a proper if somewhat flummoxed manner. She delights with her off-center behavior and frequent asides to Belinda Quimby’s hysterical Lady Bird Johnson. Also in this vignette is a great comic performance by Katie Donnelly as her aide who is just, as she puts it, “pooped” from running around with the first lady. Kay Love shines as does the only man in the cast, Nathan Robert Hinds, to fill out the unusual yet creepy circumstances leading up to the assassination.

Christina Rios as Margaret Truman, belts out her number as Nathan Robert Hinds as Bess grumbles in the background in R-S Theatrics' "First Lady Suite." Photo: Michael Young

Christina Rios as Margaret Truman, belts out her number as Nathan Robert Hinds as Bess grumbles in the background in R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.” Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt gives us a looney-tunes look at Mamie Eisenhower. She is a master at throwing out the bat-guano-crazy dialogue as if it made sense and a series of facial expressions that are absolutely priceless. Her friend, opera star Marian Anderson is given a straight-forward and beautiful performance by Jeanitta Perkins while Mr. Hinds plays Ike and Ms. Quimby returns as the chauffeur. It’s all so nonsensical but somehow charming due to this broadly interpreted portrayal of Mamie.

Rachel Hanks shines in "First Lady Suite" at R-S Theatrics as she sings of her life with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as they fly with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby). Photo: Michael Young

Rachel Hanks shines in “First Lady Suite” at R-S Theatrics as she sings of her life with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as they fly with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby). Photo: Michael Young

I’m not sure if the original “First Lady Suite” was performed as a cantata but it has that feel. This production offers an intermission between the almost hour first act and an even shorter second act. Act II opens with Christina Rios returning as Margaret Truman and Nathan Robert Hinds in drag as her mother, Bess. Knowing the real life penchant for singing that Margaret had and her mother’s complete lack of faith in her abilities, this may be the closest to the truth about the four first ladies represented in this program. Margaret fumbles through her solo as the mother sits in the background tossing off candid, caustic remarks. Despite the beautiful singing voice of Ms. Rios, this one really brings the best laughs of the night.

We finish up with Eleanor Roosevelt (Kay Love) as she is flying high with Amelia Earhart (Belinda Quimby) and gushing over her every move and mastery of the plane. The real star of this piece, however, is Rachel Hanks as Mrs. Roosevelt’s press secretary, affectionately known as Hick. Though Eleanor seeks out Hick’s approval and reassurance on every remark and observation she makes, she never really listens to her. This piece turns into a brilliant soliloquy by Rachel Hanks pouring out her frustration of giving up a promising career in journalism to follow the first lady around the world. Once more emphasizing the worthlessness of the ladies compared to the powerful presidents they’re married to, this satirical political revue hits the mark despite being a very jaded look at the situations of these four ladies in particular.

Katie Donnelly and Kay Love sing their frustrations at serving Jackie Kennedy during the opening vignette at R-S Theatrics' "First Lady Suite." Photo: Michael Young

Katie Donnelly and Kay Love sing their frustrations at serving Jackie Kennedy during the opening vignette at R-S Theatrics’ “First Lady Suite.” Photo: Michael Young

Director Shualee Cook really drives the point home with his broad interpretation of the piece and set designer Kyra Bishop has worked wonders with a small space and just a few pieces that comprise planes, hotel rooms and such. Nathan Schroeder’s lights add the proper drama and the costume designs of Amy Harrison are a great combination of smart and witty. Musical director Nick Moramarco provides the needed emphasis to the unusual score with assistance from Leah Luciano. Some projections and occasional video almost get lost, however, with the washed out look of the screen from the stage lights.

This one’s not for everyone. In fact, on press night, we generally had a strong line of demarcation among the reviewers on who liked it and who didn’t with very little “middle of the road” comments. I, for one, enjoyed the powerful cast bringing every bit of tongue-in-cheek to the often outrageous dialogue and they really mastered this difficult score with agility and charm. For a most unusual evening of theatre, head to the Ivory Theatre to see “First Lady Suite” as presented by R-S Theatrics. Give them a call at 314-456-0071 or contact them at r-stheatrics.com for tickets or more information. It plays through September 14th.

“Human Terrain” At Mustard Seed Shows The “Human” Vs. “Humane” Aspects Of War

September 1, 2014
Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in Mustard Seed's "Human Terrain."

Wendy Greenwood and Melissa Gerth in Mustard Seed’s “Human Terrain.”

The Human Terrain System is an actual U.S. Army program designed to “improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed.” Easier said than done. It also aims to assist the U.S. government in understanding foreign countries prior to engagements in said region. The powerful play at Mustard Seed Theatre, “Human Terrain,” shows how the concerned people hired to carry out the program often are the only people with the humanity to truly understand those cultures.

Playwright Jennifer Blackmer has fictionalized such an encounter set in Fallujah, Iraq during a campaign set in 2007 and 2008. As the play opens, a scientist with a large aeronautics corporation is being questioned as to her actions as an HTS specialist during her time in Iraq. Knowing the language and having an understanding about a much of the culture and beliefs of the area, we flashback to her time there where she has befriended an Iraqi woman. The question comes down to whether she allowed this woman, Adiliah, certain information about imminent dangers to her and her community. In a terse and colorful manner, her interactions with the U.S. military and her friendship with this woman are explored during her time there and the big question of when does military action trump humane response and vice-versa.

Melissa Gerth is emotionally powerful as the scientist, Mabry. Her mix of compassion for the people she thinks she understands and her loyalty to her country becomes a volatile combination. As the interrogator, Kate, Dawn Campbell treads a thin line. She is tough-as-nails but we can see an occasional slight crack in her methodology. A remarkable performance by Wendy Greenwood as Adiliah transforms this play into a stark reality. She is nothing short of incredible in manner and language as she tightropes on the edge of friendship and suspicion.

Melissa Gerth and Antonio Mosley in "Human Terrain" at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Melissa Gerth and Antonio Mosley in “Human Terrain” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

B. Weller also shines as a ramrod Army captain who begrudginly accepts Mabry as a “civilian” counterpart to his command in Fallujah. He also is a stern taskmaster who occasionally displays a weakness for the human terrain program. John Clark and Taylor Campbell turn in nice work as soldiers who show both the compassion and mistrust of Mabry and what she is trying to accomplish. Rounding out the cast is a strong performance from Antonio Mosley as a young Iraqi who plays an integral part as the plot unfolds.

Director Lori Adams has brought a great deal of strength to the script with her compassion for the characters and striking a chord by showing the difference between the Human Terrain System and the humanity being implored by Mabry and probably others of her kind in these war torn countries. She is ably assisted with a great set design by John Stark and equally effective lighting design by Michael Sullivan. Making it a true family affair, Jane Sullivan brings a stark reality with her costumes and Zoe Sullivan has designed a powerful sound design.

Artistic Director Deanna Jent and the cast and crew of “Human Terrain” can be proud of this- their season opener. It bodes well for a season that continues with a replay of last year’s Circle Award winning  a cappella musical, “All Is Calm” in November and two more plays in 2015. Call Mustard Seed Theatre at 314-719-8060 or online at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information. “Human Terrain” plays through September 14th.

Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill” Offers A Small Town Story With Rustic Music

August 22, 2014
Pete Winfrey as Joe and Sam Auch as Percy in "The Spitfire Grill" at Insight. Photo: John Lamb

Pete Winfrey as Joe and Sam Auch as Percy in “The Spitfire Grill” at Insight. Photo: John Lamb

Never been a big fan of country music as a whole but I usually find it more palatable in a musical (Cotton Patch Gospel, Hands On A Hard Body, etc.). “The Spitfire Grill” is a show I’ve been listening to for years and find the home-spun music with some big show aspirations a delightful, tuneful CD to pop in the car on occasion. Insight Theatre Company has finally brought the show itself to my front door and the results are a bit mixed but worth the trip for some outstanding performances even though the story is a bit old fashioned. I have never seen the 1998 film on which the musical is based, but it’s folksy charm as translated to the stage is a bit much.

Perchance Talbot, just call her Percy, comes to the town of Gilliad, Wisconsin after a five year stay in prison. Her criminal background becomes fodder for some of the folks in town as her story unfolds throughout the play. She meets the kindly and helpful sheriff, Joe, who snags her a job at Hannah Ferguson’s Spitfire Grill- the only eatin’ place in town. She next meets Hannah’s nephew, Caleb and his wife, Shelby along with the town gossip and all-around busy body, Effy. Listed in the program as “The Visitor,” we soon meet the stranger that Hannah leaves a loaf of bread out for every night and he also plays an important role in the story as his background unfolds.

Janet Wells as Hannah, Troy Turnipseed as Caleb and Jenni Ryan as Shelby at Insight's "The Spitfire Grill." Photo: John Lamb

Janet Wells as Hannah, Troy Turnipseed as Caleb and Jenni Ryan as Shelby at Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill.” Photo: John Lamb

Percy has a hard time adjusting and gaining acceptance with the small town folk but she becomes a favorite to everyone except Caleb, who feels she’s influencing his usually pliant wife. She’s gaining independence from the man who used to be a big shot but now only has his wife to boss around. As secrets unfold and Hannah’s plan to “raffle” off the Grill to the most deserving essay (along with a $100 entry fee) on why folks think they deserve to be given the Spitfire, the sporadic musical score gives us some lovely ballads- “The Wide Woods” and “Forest For The Trees” along with the haunting opening number, “A Ring Around The Moon” and the raucous First Act closer, “Shoot The Moon.” How everything is resolved and what happens to the characters, including the Grill itself, makes for a pleasant if not totally absorbing story.

Amy Loui as Effy and Janet Wells as Hannah in "The Spitfire Grill" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Amy Loui as Effy and Janet Wells as Hannah in “The Spitfire Grill” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Sam Auch is a real find in the role of Percy. Her resounding, strong voice and emotional delivery make her a likable character right off the bat. Pete Winfrey also shines as the smitten sheriff and does Jenni Ryan as the long-suffering wife, Shelby. Janet Wells is a hoot as the irascible Hannah and Troy Turnipseed is powerful as the emasculated Caleb. Amy Loui gives us a great performance as the butt-insky, Effy and Paul Balfe rounds out the cast as the infamous “visitor.” Insight’s Artistic Director, Maggie Ryan, directs “The Spitfire Grill” with a deft hand and creates some beautiful stage pictures with the help of a powerful Kyra Bishop set design.

Jenni Ryan as Shelby and Sam Auch as Percy in Insight's "The Spitfire Grill." Photo: John Lamb

Jenni Ryan as Shelby and Sam Auch as Percy in Insight’s “The Spitfire Grill.” Photo: John Lamb

Catherine Kopff handles the musical direction well with a backstage orchestra that features piano, strings and accordion. The Jeff Behm lights are great as are the fine costumes designed by Tracy Newcomb. With music and book by James Valco and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, “The Spitfire Grill” is a delightful diversion and is ably assisted by a strong cast.

If you’re a big fan of the folksy, feel-good story line and the somewhat CW feel of the music, “The Spitfire Grill” is the play for you. Catch it at Insight Theatre Company through August 31st. Contact them at insighttheatrecompany.com for tickets or more information.


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