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.

The Woman, The Myth, The Monster- All Is Covered In Slightly Askew’s Season Finale

August 22, 2014
Mary converses with her "monster" in SATE's "Mary Shelley Monster Show." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary converses with her “monster” in SATE’s “Mary Shelley Monster Show.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

As their Season of the Monster closes with an original script, “Mary Shelley Monster Show,” Mother Nature added special effects on opening night at SATE as Shelley and her famous creation- Frankenstein’s Monster- conversed while thunder rattled and lightning shone through the stained glass windows of The Chapel. It made for an exciting night as the one-hour one act covered Mary Shelley, her famous husband and the crowd she ran around with as Rachel Tibbetts plays Mary and the versatile Ellie Schwetye plays everyone else.

This was a concept that Tibbetts and Schwetye had been working on for some time and playwright Nick Otten brought it all together giving us glimpses into the unusual world of both Mary and her famous husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hanging out with a gang headed up most notably by another poet, Lord Byron, rumors spread about their supposed risqué behavior while Mary says their most ardent pursuits centered on their famous ghost story contests which eventually resulted in her penning “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” in 1818. “Mary Shelley Monster Show” centers a lot on her continuing intellectual conversations with her creation as she is often surprised by what her imaginary visitor knows and how well he read her innermost thoughts. She had created her monster with an eye on such works that impressed her as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Coleridge’s “The Rime Of  the Ancient Mariner.” In her novel, her creation even reads works by Goethe and others- which made him a well-rounded monster so she should not have been surprised at his knowledge and ability to share cognitive thought.

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in "Mary Shelley Monster Show" at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in “Mary Shelley Monster Show” at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary frequently surprised her famous and not-so-famous contemporaries by her knowledge and depth. Pithy comments such as “a bad translation is worse than bad judgement” never failed to impress her fellow writers and, of course, her monster friend. She also shared frequent conversations with her late mother who she lost when she was only eleven days old. This tragedy also haunted her throughout her life as she felt she was responsible for killing her mother through her own birth.

Rachel Tibbetts is amazing as Mary. Her levels of emotion bring out the roller coaster of feelings she had in everyday life and even in her most quiet moments with her mother and monster conversations. As the monster, Percy, Lord Byron, Mary’s friend and rival, Claire Clairmont, Mary’s mother and a host of others, Ellie Schwetye is remarkable in her versatility. Passing backstage into one exit and immediately entering with just a slight change- a scarf, a shawl, a waistband- she immediately becomes another character. Even onstage changes occasionally occur with just a turn, a slumped shoulder or a stoop at the waist. Her “monster” appears through a scrim backed up by a rear-projecting light that gives her an odd shape and size that she further distorts through body movement. It’s quite a performance. The third, offstage, party is the powerful, booming voice of Carl Overly, Jr. As a portrait painter and interviewer of Mary, he is a striking presence though he doesn’t appear until curtain call. Director Kelley Weber has tied it all together in a package that looks remarkable and sounds as Gothic as Mary Shelley’s works.

Mary talks to her dead mother in SATE's "Mary Shelley Monster Show." Photo: Joey Rumpell

Mary talks to her dead mother in SATE’s “Mary Shelley Monster Show.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

The clever set design by David Blake consists of three-deep walls of diagonal wooden slats that rise above each other as they move toward backstage. Built in is a large scrim on stage left reserved mainly for the monster appearances and a smaller scrim stage right to accommodate Mary’s mother as she sits on a stool and chats. With Bess Moynihan’s striking lighting design, the effects become even more dramatic. Add the wonderful video design by Michael B. Perkins that travel over the wooden planks, the scrims and on a small easel and you’re treated to a show that is as visually stunning as it is remarkably acted. Ellie Schwetye also provides a wonderful sound design to flesh it all out.

“Mary Shelley Monster Show” is a wonderful, creative piece of theatre. It truly captures the essence of her time and the bizarre life she must have led. SATE, the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, presents it on stage through August 30th. Give them a call at 314-827-5760 or at slightlyoff.org for tickets or more information.

 

“The Liar” Brings An Abundance Of Laughs To St. Louis Shakespeare’s Latest

August 19, 2014

First- it’s great to be back in the reviewing saddle again. After two and a half months, Gail is doing much better despite back surgery, broken ankle, another back fracture and now impending cataract surgery. The thing we must remember is that it is all temporary and she’ll be back at full strength very soon. So, despite missing most of the summer season (all of the Muny, most of Opera Theatre, the LaBute Festival and many, many other wonderful productions on St. Louis stages), I have returned to the job I love- watching theatre and then talking about it.

Maggie Murphy and Nicole Angeli as the ladies who make life miserable for "The Liar" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

Maggie Murphy and Nicole Angeli as the ladies who make life miserable for “The Liar” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

And speaking of that, St. Louis Shakespeare Company has brought us a doozie with David Ives’ “The Liar.” Adapted from 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille’s play, it offers a lot of laughs and the usual amount of mistaken identities, outlandish characters and even some inappropriate yet somehow plausible anachronisms.

The always precise Suki Peters has directed with an eye for detail, comedic savvy and keeping the action moving- which includes adding two young ladies dressed according to the period who help move things off, on and around in a timely fashion. The title character, Dorante, is played with swagger and verve by Jared Sanz Agero. His philosophy appears to be “why tell the truth when a good lie works just as well.” Early in the play he acquires a manservant who is his extreme opposite, Cliton. Played with scrupulous honesty and charm by Ben Ritchie, Cliton tries his best to keep calm amid all the chaos. He even attempts to get lessons from Dorante in the art of lying with little success.

Jared Sanz Agero, John Wolbers and John Foughty spar in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of "The Liar." Photo: Kim Carlson

Jared Sanz Agero, John Wolbers and John Foughty spar in the St. Louis Shakespeare production of “The Liar.” Photo: Kim Carlson

John Foughty, with a bad hair day all around- head and chin- turns in a great performance as the possibly cuckolded Aclippe. He and his pal, Philiste- played with proper foppishness by John Wolbers, try to keep ahead of the silver tongues Dorante but to no avail. Also providing a bounty of laughs is the clueless father of Dorante, Geronte, given an equally befuddled performance by Robert Ashton. Even in the light of obvious contradictory lies, he never sways from the path his son leads him down.

Almost stealing the show are the ladies. Nicole Angeli as the broad minded yet stubborn Clarice and Maggie Murphy as the smitten Lucrece. Though Clarice is the object of Dorante’s affection, he mistakes her for Lucrece- which leads to the mistaken identity plot that always spices up such follies. Rounding out the cast is the marvelous Jamie Pitt as the two servants of Clarice and Lucrece. With the addition of a coat, ruffle and two outlandish versions of the same red wig, she turns from flirtatious Isabelle to stern Sabine- often in a matter of seconds.

Jared Sanz Agero instructs Ben Ritchie on the fine art of lying in "The Liar" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

Jared Sanz Agero instructs Ben Ritchie on the fine art of lying in “The Liar” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Kim Carlson

The mix of appropriate and bizarre costumes that seem to fit the piece perfectly are the work of JC Krajicek. Michael Dombek’s set design works well as do the lights of Alex Pack. Jeff Roberts’ sound design is wild and nothing probably heard during the days of Pierre Corneille (chamber music, no doubt).

Catch this delightful comedy through August 24th at The Music Center in University City. St. Louis Shakespeare Company presents “The Liar” by David Ives. Give them a call at 314-361-5664 or contact stlshakespeare.org for tickets or more information.

Stage Door Temporarily Shut Down- Will Return Soon

June 13, 2014

Allen's Alley picMaybe you’re wondering why some of the wonderful shows haven’t been reviewed lately on Stage Door St. Louis. My wife had back surgery two weeks ago and, rather than go through another rehab nightmare like she had two years ago, I’m acting as caregiver so she can recuperate at home. Consequently, I haven’t been to several of the recent openings. I will be making up as many as I can though some have such short runs, I probably won’t be able to include them all.

I did get to sneak in Shakespeare In The Park before it all happened and will be posting that (or those) reviews soon. After reviewing “The Magic Flute” at Opera Theatre, it looks like the rest of the short repertory season may elude my grasp. The Muny opens next week and I hope to get to those as well. She is doing quite well but it really takes full time care and I’ve only been out to the grocery store and a few other necessary short trips as she needs assistance getting in and out of bed, have been fixing our meals, etc.

So, please stay tuned and, if you follow me on FB, I’ll continue to have updates there. In the meantime, keep enjoying the wonderful productions around town and I’ll see you all very soon. Thanks for following Stage Door St. Louis….Steve Allen

“The Magic Flute” Brings Magic From A Movie Sound Stage

May 27, 2014
Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Though a little unorthodox, the opening show of Opera Theatre St. Louis’ summer rep is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”- directed and designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Perhaps the opera most easily open to interpretation, “Flute” is a fairy tale to begin with filled with magical animals, the Queen of the Night and an overall aura of mystery. With my background heavily grounded in traditional American musical theatre, I found the heavy incorporation of dance and the familiar setting of a movie soundstage to be refreshing and unique. A few distractions perhaps, but this opera is so well known and loved that it’s nice to see a fresh look at an old favorite.

Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Tamino is dressed like Gene Kelly in that magnificent dance ballet from “An American In Paris.” The Princess Pamina appears to be a combination of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in “The Wizard Of Oz.” In fact, the entire cast is reminiscent of one- or a blend- of famous characters from film. The Queen of the Night dressed as Greta Garbo or perhaps ready to spout “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” The bird catcher, Papageno looks a lot like W.C. Fields with some Big Bird feathers sprouting from his belly. Add some flying monkeys (or at least they look like they could fly any minute), some Groucho-esque Shriners, the three spirits dressed like the “Triplet” trio from “The Bandwagon,” pink tuxedoed forest creatures and other Hollywood “types” and you’ve got a whole new look at “The Magic Flute.” Even the guys who change the set look like stage hands from the Golden Age of filmdom.

Photo; Ken Howard

Photo; Ken Howard

The dance sequences that accompany some of the arias, duets and even “production” numbers, are often mirrored by “dream” Tamino and “dream” Pamina like the ballet sequence from “Oklahoma!” created by Agnes DeMille. Dressed like our leads, this can be a bit distracting at times but it blends well and gives the opera almost the feel of a musical. When Mr. Mizrahi directed “A Little Night Music” for Opera Theatre a few years ago, he was more in his element. With his interpretation of Mozart, he formed the opera to fit his element. Quite a coup and one that works successfully- even if it doesn’t please all opera purists.

Soprano Claire de Seveigne is exquisite as the Queen of the Night. Her first act entrance where she enters and trails a “miles long” purple train up a flight of stairs is impressive indeed. With members of the chorus unobtrusively guiding the garment, it’s a moment that is worthy of a Hollywood star. Soprano Elizabeth Zharoff is delightful as Pamina and tenor Sean Panikkar is strong as Tamino. The three attendants of the Queen of the Night, Raquel Gonzalez, Summer Hassan and Corrie Stalllings, almost steal the show when they are on. They move and sing as a unit and, again, dressed in magical blue gowns that evoke the Hollywood period.

Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Papageno is superb and proves to be an outstanding actor as well as accomplished singer. Bass Matthew Anchel brings a strong voice to the role of Sarastro and Matthew DiBattista is wonderful as the “blue” Monostatos. Jane Glover thrillingly conducts the St. Louis Symphony orchestra- bringing out every clever nuance from Mozart’s music. Choreographer John Heginbotham manages to incorporate the vision of Mr. Mizrahi’s dance-heavy “Flute” without distracting from the overall quality of the production. And once again, Isaac Mizrahi’s vision with direction, set design and costumes is just overwhelming. His soundstage with scaffolding, a huge wooden rolling door at the back of the stage, the powerful second act temple and the impressive array of costume choices is mind-boggling. And he  keeps the action moving with help from the clever “stage hands” that move scenery in and out like a well-oiled movie set.

“The Magic Flute” may not please everyone, but I found it a fresh interoperation that works on many levels. it plays in repertory with three other operas through June 28th. Contact Opera Theatre St. Louis at 314-961-0644 for tickets or more information.


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