New Jewish Theatre Presents “The Diary Of Anne Frank”

October 15, 2014
The families gather to play and converse once the coast is clear in the New Jewish production of "The Diary Of Anne Frank." Photo: John Lamb

The families gather to enjoy a special treat in the New Jewish production of “The Diary Of Anne Frank.” Photo: John Lamb

What could be more fitting than a production of “The Diary Of Anne Frank” at the New Jewish Theatre? Unbelievably, they’ve never produced it there before and, with a cast that brings tears to your eyes, this is one of their finest shows ever. And that’s saying a lot because they consistently put quality productions on their stage. This is the much improved version adapted by Wendy Kesselman in 1997. It offers a more realistic and honest version of the story than the original 1955 version. Both are based on the famous diary written by the young Anne Frank when she and her family moved to a small garrett above where her father worked in 1942 in an attempt to escape the Nazi oppression that affected many Jews including those in her home of Amsterdam.

Leo B. Ramsey as Peter and Samantha Moyer as Anne share a moment in "The Diary Of Anne Frank" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Leo B. Ramsey as Peter and Samantha Moyer as Anne share a moment in “The Diary Of Anne Frank” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

This version offers a much more exuberant Anne with the giddiness of a young girl (13 years old when we first see her) and a girl who matures despite the cramped quarters and the lack of any outside activity or the normal life such a girl should be experiencing as she grows into womanhood. There is also more attention to the real plight of the Jews and a stunning denouement that her father delivers after they are captured just weeks before the final liberation. This is some powerful stuff, sprinkled with humor and a true nod to the fear they all lived under when the slightest noise might mean discovery. Although they were under strict silence during the working day when the factory was open downstairs, their evenings were mostly their own with extreme caution still the rule of the household.

New Jewish has chosen a bright, young actress, Samantha Moyer, to play Anne. Her excitement is hard to contain as she looks on this as an adventure and begins to chronicle her life there with her father, mother, sister and the Van Daan family. Bobby Miller continues his mastery of the stage with a strong outing as Anne’s father, Otto. He’s the master of comedy in most shows we’ve seen him in lately but proves he is a powerful dramatic actor as well. His final scene, choking back tears as he describes the horrors his family has gone through since their capture, is one of the most moving performances we’ve seen on any stage.

Bobby Miller as Otto Frank, comforts his daughter, played by Samantha Moyer in "The Diary Of Anne Frank" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Bobby Miller as Otto Frank, comforts his daughter, played by Samantha Moyer in “The Diary Of Anne Frank” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Amy Loui is masterful as well as Anne’s mother, Edith. As she seethes and worries about their precarious predicament, she manages to have an outward strength to help bolster her family. She is particularly good in her heartbreaking scene with a disillusioned Anne who confronts her and breaks her heart. Taylor Steward shines as the older and somewhat shy sister of Anne. Though as different as night and day, they are truly fond of each other and it shows.

The Van Daan’s are friends of the Frank family and have been invited to try to “wait out” the Nazi manhunt as well. Jason Grubbe is stern as the father and Margeau Steinau is jittery and, at times, a true bundle of nerves as Mrs. Van Daan. The two seem perfect together even when their major brawl over her fur coat sends them in opposite directions. Leo B. Ramsey turns in a first rate performance as their son, Peter. His hesitancy over Anne’s outgoing personality seems to stymie him at first but then they soon become almost “forced” soul mates as their hormones begin to kick in.

Joining the already crowded household is Terry Meddows in a superb performance as a local dentist, Mr. Dussel. At times you think he may try to take over the whole household but the strong yet gentle hand of Otto Frank takes command. Stefanie Kluba is the Christian liaison for the family who has found the attic room and makes weekly visits to bring them food, books and whatever else she finds that she thinks may ease their fears. In one particular heartwarming scene, she brings Anne a pair of red high heeled shoes that she loves but in which she has trouble maneuvering. Her cohort in aiding the two families is Eric Dean White in a fine performance as Mr. Kraler. Is it he who finally gives them up or is some other outside influence? Because eventually, a Nazi officer and two Nazi soldiers, played by Nathan Schroeder, Erik Kuhn and Craig Jones storm into the attic and take them away, just after they’ve been hearing the news from General Eisenhower that the allies are on their way and liberation seems imminent.

The two families and Mr. Dussel gather once the "coast is clear" in the New Jewish production of "The Diary Of Anne Frank." Photo: John Lamb

The two families and Mr. Dussel gather once the “coast is clear” in the New Jewish production of “The Diary Of Anne Frank.” Photo: John Lamb

Director Gary Wayne Barker makes this a powerful piece that literally sings as the families cope with each other and the outside forces that threaten them daily. The tension builds then is broken by another narrow escape or by one or the other of the inhabitants bringing a moment of joy to a household that lives in almost constant fear. Jim Burwinkel’s monumental set design offers the feeling of close quarters without destroying the flow of the play. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes add the touch of authenticity and Maureen Berry’s lights enhance the strength of this overwhelming production.

“The Diary Of Anne Frank” is a testimony to tenacity and a paean to the horrors of war and the unbelievable treatment of a whole group of people. The New Jewish Theatre production takes it all to another level as you feel all the pain, fear and sheer joy that only the indomitable spirit can bring to a family and a race that must suffer through unwarranted persecution. It plays through November 2nd. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 or contact them at newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Approachable “Antigone” Poses Old Questions But Hints At The Present At Upstream Theatre

October 13, 2014
Maggie Conroy as the title role in Upstream Theater's "Antigone." Photo: Peter Wochnicak

Maggie Conroy as the title role in Upstream Theater’s “Antigone.” Photo: Peter Wochnicak

From 414 BC to 2014, echoes of tyrannical rulers and innocent victims resound at Upstream Theatre as they present a very timely production of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” With a new translation by David R. Slavitt, this is a most relevant and approachable production. Creon makes the decree that, of two brothers recently killed in battle, only one will be honored and the other shall be left unburied on the battlefield to be feasted on by birds and animals. With the news recently that a young man killed in North County was left dead on the streets of Ferguson for a seemingly unnecessary length of time before being removed to the morgue, the irony across the ages cannot be overlooked.

Eteocles receives a heroic burial while his brother, Polyneices, lies as carrion for the vultures. Their sisters, Antigone and Ismene meet and Antigone vows to bury her brother in defiance of the proclamation from the King of Thebes. When a guard discloses his discovery of Antigone burying her brother, Creon is adamant that she shall be punished, despite the fact that his son, Haemon, is planning to marry Antigone. When he locks her in a cave, a blind soothsayer reprimands Creon and tells him the Gods are not pleased with his decisions. A messenger verifies the tragic results of his actions and he is left to suffer the losses he incurs from his stubborn and unwise choices.

Peter Mayer as Creon mourns his son, played by Andrew Michael Neiman in "Antigone" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Peter Mayer as Creon mourns his son, played by Andrew Michael Neiman in “Antigone” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Peter Mayer is intense as Creon. He boasts and commands respect for his decisions and then falls apart emotionally as he carries his dead son on stage and realizes he has lost everyone including his beloved wife. As Antigone, Maggie Conroy is equally defiant in her quest for honor for her brother. A fiery performance that stands up to the intensity of Creon. As her sister, Ismene, Wendy Renee Greenwood continues her mastery of the stage that has been steadily earning her laurels. She also takes on the role of Creon’s wife, Eurydice and, without a word, expresses emotions beyond what can be said for her pain and sorrow.

The three Theban Elders act as narrators and, at times, an unwanted conscious for Creon. Dennis Lebby, Norman McGowan and Patrick Siler have most of the onstage time as they comment as representatives of the people of Thebes and play lackeys to Creon. They also provide the musical accompaniment that often becomes a part of any Upstream production. John Bratkowski also pulls double duty- as the hapless guard who must deliver the news of Antigone’s defiance to Creon and then as the soothsayer who chastises him.

Theban Elders relate the hopes and fears of the people in "Antigone" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Theban Elders relate the hopes and fears of the people in “Antigone” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Andrew Michael Neiman is strong as Haemon as he also decries his father’s actions and then decides to show his defiance to Creon in the most tragic way possible. Rounding out the cast is a remarkable performance by Nancy Lewis as the Messenger who brings Creon’s world crashing in around him.

Artistic Director of Upstream, Philip Boehm, handles the directorial duties of “Antigone” with and eye for the classic it is while still making it a play with great audience appeal. It speaks well and, with that contemporary tie-in, makes it even more powerful than usual. The Michael Heil set design is stunning in its simplicity and LaLaonnie Lehman’s costumes are spot on. Steve Carmichael’s lighting design enhances the production as well to make this a production not to be missed.

“Antigone” plays at the Kranzberg Center through October 26th. Give them a call at 314-863-4999 or visit at upstream theater@sbcglobal.net for tickets for more information.

 

Agatha Christie Baffles Us Again As Stray Dog Delivers With “And Then There Were None”

October 12, 2014
The classic curtain call as the suspects and victims strike a final pose on the stunning Stray Dog set of "And Then There Were None." Photo: John Lamb

The classic curtain call as the suspects and victims strike a final pose on the stunning Stray Dog set of “And Then There Were None.” Photo: John Lamb

It was a dark and stormy night…all of the mystery cliches come out in full force with Stray Dog Theatre’s season opener, “And Then There Were None.” Whether you remember it as “Ten Little Indians” or this title, Agatha Christie’s smart whodunit never ceases to intrigue as, one by one, guests at a party where the host doesn’t show begin to meet their maker. The audience was buzzing on opening night- both at intermissions and sometimes during the play itself- trying to guess which of the ten guests were behind it all and gasping as each body was discovered- onstage or off. It’s hard to resist a good mystery and Stray Dog has given us one of the best. A great companion piece to “The Mousetrap” that we saw at the Rep not too long ago, Agatha Christie never fails to intrigue and keep us on our toes.

Dr. Armstrong declares another victim in Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Dr. Armstrong declares another victim in Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

A truly ensemble cast gathers at the island home off the coast of Devon, England. The time is early August in the mid 20th century. So the guests are dressed appropriately and stunningly by designer Eileen Engel. Teamed with the stream-lined, ultra-modern (for the time) set designed by Rob Lippert and the effective lighting design of Tyler Duenow, you’re in the mood for a good, classic mystery before the cast even settles in. Stray Dog favorite, Sarajane Alverson, leads the way as the tres chic Vera Claythorne. She really captures the spirit of the time and genre with her wonderful performance. Joining her as the first of the guests to arrive is Jeff Kargus as Philip Lombard- they later become key players in solving the mystery (or are one or the other responsible for the death and destruction?).

Rob Lippert pulls double duty in this production as he plays a minor role as the boatman who ferries the guests to the island. But does he decide to stay and surreptitiously become the killer? Yes, folks, red herrings abound and one of them might turn out to be the real thing. Lindsay Gingrich and Jason Meyers play temporary hosts as the maid and butler (of sorts) as the real host has been mysteriously delayed. Did the butler, classically, do it in this one?

Suspicions begin to fester as victims fall in Stray Dog's production of "And Then There Were None." Photo: John Lamb

Suspicions begin to fester as victims fall in Stray Dog’s production of “And Then There Were None.” Photo: John Lamb

Mark Abels does fine work as Dr. Armstrong while Zachary Stefaniak also shines as the cryptic Sir Lawrence Wargrave. Michael Juncal delights with his not-so finely honed detective skills and Ryan Wiechmann, David K. Gibbs and Judy E. Yordon round out the cast to heighten the suspect list as well as the list of victims. Stray Dog Artistic Director, Gary F. Bell, directs this production with an eye for detail and heightened suspense. He cleverly lays the clues and  handles the clever “disappearing” soldiers from the mantlepiece with style and deception.

“And Then There Were None” is about as clever a mystery as you could ask for. Despite seeing the film and other stage productions, I was fooled again. I mis-guessed what I thought I knew. I’m ready now- if someone does this one again, it’s time to look for the how and why along the way. So, even if you’ve seen this one before, don’t be so sure- you may over-think it like it did on opening night. What a fun evening in the theatre. Don’t miss Stray Dog Theatre’s opening production of the season, Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” It plays through October 25th. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

 

“Bonnie & Clyde” Tear Up Stage At New Line With Bullets And Ballads

October 4, 2014
Matt Pentecost and Larissa White as "Bonnie & Clyde" at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Matt Pentecost and Larissa White as “Bonnie & Clyde” at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Let’s play word association- you know, I give you a word or phrase and you say the first thing that pops into your head. “Scott Miller.” Now you say “Frank Wildhorn.” Not in a million years, you say? Well, the world must be coming to an end because New Line Theatre is producing a Frank Wildhorn show but it’s not like any you’ve seen (or more importantly, heard) before- “Bonnie & Clyde.” Although it lasted only four weeks on Broadway, Scott Miller always seems to breath new life into shows that meet that kind of fate. This one is a fast-paced, toe-tapping romp through the lives of these two outlaw lovers who captured the public’s fascination during America’s depression and made heroes out of two inept, small time thieves who eventually became killers as well.

Frank Wildorn has obviously put together a musical score that is a perfect fit with the story and his country/bluegrass take makes for a spirited sound that lifts the story into much the same realm that the famous film did back in the ’60’s. Frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber contributor, Don Black has provided appropriate lyrics and Ivan Menchell’s book focuses on the lovers and their families and shows how misguided these two truly were. It makes for a great companion piece to the new kids on the block, the November Theatre Company and their production of “Assassins” playing its final week-end in town. Lots of gunfire and whacked out psychology that wreaks havoc on everyone who stands in their way.

Zak Farmer leads the congregation in "Bonnie & Clyde" at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Zak Farmer leads the congregation in “Bonnie & Clyde” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The cast, as usual, is simply first rate. Bonnie and Clyde are both making their New Line debuts and what a wonderful chemistry they display. Larissa White, a willowy and winsome Bonnie Parker wins our heart from the start and displays a phenomenal singing voice along with a strong acting performance. As Clyde Barrow, Matt Pentecost simply shines on both levels as well. There’s electricity on stage whenever they’re together and their steam warmed up a nippy opening night in the theatre.

Brendan Ochs as Buck Barrow and Matt Pentecost as Clyde in "Bonnie & Clyde" at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Brendan Ochs as Buck Barrow and Matt Pentecost as Clyde in “Bonnie & Clyde” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Brendan Ochs and Sarah Porter make another strong couple as Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife, Blanche. Always in and out of jail (usually breaking out), Clyde and Buck are a worry to their respective mates until Bonnie eventually delights in the fame they’re gathering. Reynaldo Arceno shows off his pipes as one of Bonnie’s more respectable suitors, Ted Hinton. A lawman bent on putting both Barrow brothers behind bars, he never gives up his pursuit of their heads and Bonnie’s heart. New Line veteran, Zachary Allen Farmer, continues to amaze with his splendid singing voice and an actor who continually has a twinkle in his eye. In this one, he’s the fire and brimstone preacher who tries to tame the town as well as these displaced lovers. His two big numbers, “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and the second act opener, “Made In America,” are highlights in a show filled with special moments.

Larissa White charms Matt Pentecost in New Line's "Bonnie & Clyde." Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Larissa White charms Matt Pentecost in New Line’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sharing the spotlight in supporting roles are a handful of wonderful new and established New Line performers. Kimi Short and Joel Hackbarth are superb as the long-suffering parents of Clyde while Alison Helmer turns in a great performance as Bonnie’s unforgiving mother. Christopher “Zany” Clark (must be an interesting story about that nickname) is strong as the local sheriff while Mara Bollini is a riot in a short but memorable moment at the governor. Kent Coffel has a few chest and desk pounding moments as a Texas Ranger and the rest in that long list of featured players include Christopher Strawhun, Marshall Jennings, Ann Hier and Nellie Mitchell.

The new New Line band is impressive indeed headed up by Jeffrey Richard Carter. In sight at the back of the stage, Mr. Carter is as entertaining as the on stage cast as he directs the band with subtle yet striking hand gestures and head nods. As mentioned, the score is an impressive one and includes an outstanding opening sequence (where we see what is really the finale) and it leads into “Picture Show” and “This World Will Remember Me” where Bonnie and Clyde envision two different outcomes to a life leading to fame and fortune. Clyde and Buck share a special, frenetic moment in “When I Drive” and the beautiful love duet, “You Love Who You Love” features Bonnie and Blanche accepting the mates they have chosen in life. The gorgeous “What Was Good Enough For You” could easily have been called the “Bonnie and Clyde Waltz”- it’s a wonderful stage moment that takes on a dream sequence quality.

Clyde Barrow goes on a robbing spree in "Bonnie & Clyde" at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Clyde Barrow goes on a robbing spree in “Bonnie & Clyde” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The incredible Rob Lippert has outdone himself with a scenic and lighting design that fit like a glove into the show’s theme and beauty. The front of a ’30’s roadster dominates the backstage area as it opens up on a highway that splits the stage. Henry Barrow’s gas station, the subtle backdrop of a bank, barbershop, sheriff’s office and jail cell are all appropriately tucked into place. The brilliant lights featuring a lot of red and stark whites along with the flashes of gunfire that fill the stage are incredible. Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert’s costumes are beautifully realized and Tim Ceradsky’s sound just adds to the thrills and chills of “Bonnie & Clyde.”

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy bring it all together for another entertaining and fun-filled show. As I mentioned, we see the fate of the murderous lovers as the show opens and then a fitting finale features what appears to be Bonnie’s words from her number, “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” unrealistically coming true. It’s a strong ending to an evening that is full of surprises and multiple magic moments. Frank Wildorn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” plays at New Line Theatre through October 25th. Give them a call at 314-534-1111 for tickets or visit them at newlinetheatre.com for more information.

WEPG Opens Season With Family Turmoil In Joan Ackermann’s “Off The Map”

October 1, 2014
Paula Stoff Dean, John Foughty, Bob Nickles and Julia Monsey in WEPG's production of "Off The Map." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean, John Foughty, Bob Nickles and Julia Monsey in WEPG’s production of “Off The Map.” Photo: John Lamb

Not an easy piece to describe, “Off The Map” is playwright Joan Ackermann’s look at a somewhat dysfunctional family with a few twists and turns along the way. In this West End Players Guild opening production, the Groden family lives, as the title would suggest, way off the map in the deserts of New Mexico. As seen through the narrator, Bo, as an adult, we see the family as they were when she was about ten or eleven. With a father suffering from depression, a somewhat beleaguered mother, a kindly uncle and a misguided stranger thrown in the mix, her upbringing is unconventional yet fascinating.

Matt Hanify and John Foughty share several beers in "Off The Map" at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

Matt Hanify and John Foughty share several beers in “Off The Map” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

Kate Weber starts things off as the adult Bo introducing us to her off the map and often off the wall family. Julia Monsey does a fine job as the young, inquisitive Bo who finds everything new and exciting. Her mother, Arlene, is given a rock-solid performance by Paula Stoff Dean. A total one-eighty from her role at Stray Dog as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” you can feel the weariness in her voice as she struggles with a husband, Charley, who hasn’t spoken more than a few words in some time and does nothing but wipe away tears from this sudden bout with depression. John Foughty, also greatly subdued from his role in the comedy, “The Liar” at St. Louis Shakespeare, gives a moving performance as the stoic Charley.

Paula Stoff Dean and Bob Nickles discuss his future as John Foughty ignores them in the background and Julie Monsey does a little eavesdropping in "Off The Map." Photo: John Lamb

Paula Stoff Dean and Bob Nickles discuss his future as John Foughty ignores them in the background and Julie Monsey does a little eavesdropping in “Off The Map.” Photo: John Lamb

Another low key but strong performance from Matt Hanify as George. The fishing buddy of Bo, he eventually breaks her heart as he decides to move away, leaving her- or so she believes- totally friendless in the world. Rounding out the cast is the lanky Bob Nickles as William Gibbs. Although arriving at the Groden household as an IRS agent (the family has not paid taxes in some time as they actually have no real income, living off the land, as it were), he eventually and unexpectedly  professes his love for Arlene and decides to camp on their sofa as long as he’s allowed. Whatever his eventual plans, we realize he no longer considers himself a member of the Internal Revenue Service. He eventually winds up making some very good money as an artist- all starting with a mural for Bo’s room painted on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

Director Robert Ashton has brought some semblance of reality and believability to this somewhat outlandish script. Guiding us through the quirky Groden family, he makes the whole thing a lot more entertaining than I would have expected. Joan Ackermann has produced some off beat characters and the narrative, though plausible, is not all that interesting. This cast and director have pulled it, however, from the realm of dreary to something that’s quite fulfilling.

John Foughty as Charley in the WEPG's production of "Off The Map." Photo: John Lamb

John Foughty as Charley in the WEPG’s production of “Off The Map.” Photo: John Lamb

The impressive Mark Wilson set design gives us that open, airy look of the desert Southwest and John “JT” Taylor’s lights also enhance the feel of the play. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes are perfect and the Chuck Lavazzi sound design is a strong one that moves the play along beautifully.

“Off The Map” may not totally be on the mark, but it’s a rather entertaining look at this bizarre family and their unprecedented lifestyle. Thanks to the strong cast and the moving direction, it’s worth your while. It plays at WEPG through October 5th. Give them a call at 314-667-5686 or go online at http://www.westendplayers.org for tickets or more information.

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.

 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.