Tension Builds At A Slow But Steady Pace In Classic American Drama “All My Sons” At The Rep

January 10, 2017
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Mairin Lee (center) tries to intermediate between Zac Hoogendyk and Patrick Ball in “All My Sons” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Arthur Miller’s powerful masterpiece, “All My Sons,” doesn’t get as much attention of some of his more popular dramas, but director Seth Gordon makes sure everyone gets their share of “ah-ha” moments and outright gasps as the tense family story comes to a revealing and somewhat shocking close. It’s a master class on the dramatic school of playwrights from the 40’s, 50’s and into the 60’s as the story and characters build until the tension becomes almost too much to bear. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis delivers again as they show why they handle these plays almost better than anyone else.

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Margaret Daly as Kate slaps John Woodson as Joe during the Repertory Theatre St. Louis production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

In fact, the exposition as the play starts almost lulls you to sleep as neighbors are introduced and a bit of the background story slowly unfolds on stage. But once things get going, it’s a series of ebb and flow that resembles a game of Jenga as one secret is revealed after another until the final, tragic moments fall on the characters as well as the audience.

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Patrick Ball as Chris and Mairin Lee as Anne in “All My Sons” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

At the heart of the story, set in 1947, is Joe Keller, a factory owner who, with his partner built airplane parts during the war effort. Although his partner took the fall for faulty products that resulted in the death of 21 pilots, there has always been whispers and doubt about Joe’s involvement in the tragedy. As the play opens, John Woodson makes Joe an affable and outgoing father who enjoys bantering with the neighbors and relishing his family, although one of his sons died as a result of those mistakes in the factory. His performance is a powerful one as he keeps an effortless front while he is constantly reminded of what he might have done to his son as well as his partner.

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Margaret Daly as Kate talks to Mairin Lee as Anne during a quiet moment in the Rep production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

His loyal but delusional wife, Kate, is give a stellar performance by Margaret Daly. She lives every day with the hope that the missing son, Larry, will walk through the door and prove everyone wrong- that he was shot down and killed. Additionally, she harbors the nagging doubt of Joe’s involvement in the cover up of the defective parts. Rounding out the family is the surviving son, Chris, and Patrick Ball infuses him with emotional and unwavering élan.

Chris has decided that he should pursue the love of Larry’s life, Ann- who also is the daughter of Joe’s partner who is now incarcerated-  and Chris invites her to the house with the sole purpose of asking to marry her. Mairin Lee is delightful as the equally eager Ann who has pined for Chris and is more than willing to accept his proposal. Joe agrees but Kate still holds onto the hope that Larry will return and is reluctant to give her consent. Enter Ann’s brother George who initially is furious that Ann has once again gotten involved again with the Keller family. Zac Hoogendyk tackles the most complex character of the piece with a master’s touch. His range of emotions from hatred to nostalgia to passive aggressive is remarkable to behold. It’s an outstanding performance in a play filled with characters of nuance and a full range of depth.

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Margaret Daly as Kate tries to ease the tension with Zac Hoogendyk as George in “All My Sons” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Jim Ireland and Amy Hohn play neighbors as do Grant Fletcher Prewitt and Emily Kunkel while Ana McAlister rounds out the cast. They all at turns show their loyalty to the Keller family while all eventually expressing doubt as to the outright innocence of Joe in all of the scandal involving his factory. They represent an interesting character study themselves as they pass through the family garden with their own baggage as their feelings and beliefs finally pour forth.

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Patrick Ball as Chris tries to stop his father, Joe, played by John Woodson in the Rep production of “All My Sons.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael Ganio has designed an intriguing set where the main playing area if a very realistic portrayal of a backyard oasis while a very stylized house hovers over the background. His choice of an upper level bursting through the corners of the house points out Kate’s obsession with her dead son as racks and racks of his clothes dominate in a line that is lit by the outstanding lighting design of Peter E. Sargent occasionally throughout the play. Myrna Colley-Lee has provided excellent period costumes and Rusty Wandall’s sound design is perfect for the setting.

As I mentioned at the top, Associate Artistic Director of the Rep, Seth Gordon, has fashioned a wonderful moment-by-moment reveal that suits the pace of “All My Sons” perfectly. Everyone arrives at various conclusions like a flower slowly blossoming- both to the characters on stage and the audience alike. It’s a rare, classic interpretation of this great American tragedy.

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John Woodson “holds court” with Patrick Ball and Mairin Lee in “All My Sons” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through January 29th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 to see an exquisite take on a classic of the American theatre.

2016 Theatre In Review (Tongue In Cheek Edition) Volume 4

December 31, 2016

 

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Having missed a year due to my caregiving duties and seeing only a handful of plays in 2015, it’s time for another look at my musings on the theatre season just passed. Not a “best of,” just random thoughts and observations. Again, I did not see everything and missed a lot of newer venues due to time and the aforementioned caregiving (which will continue) but there was some great theatre this year and I couldn’t help but put my spin on things.

-Event Of The Year- I know, I just said this wasn’t a “best of,” but the Tennessee Williams Festival was something to behold and a marvelous moveable feast. As I said in my review of the plays I was lucky enough to see, this whole week gave me an eerie feeling. I could feel the presence of the playwright who hated his hometown in all of the productions and the spaces of “The Two Character Play” set in an old theatre that Mr. Williams used to try out some of his original works and “The St. Louis Rooming House Plays” in particular gave me chills. All of the plays and players and everyone involved brought a regal feeling to this Love Fest and became a respectful and insightful slice of life to St. Louis theatre. Thanks to Carrie Houk and all who brought this series of special moments to life.

-“Hanging Around Talking- Women’s Edition”- “Five Women Wearing The Same Dress” at Stray Dog Theatre. These bitchy yet provocative bridesmaids made for some entertaining moments as they opened wounds in their own lives and the lives of those around them.

-“Hanging Around Talking- Men’s Edition”- Yes, I’m going there- Reginald Pierre and Phillip C. Dixon in “Suspended” at Upstream Theatre. Not only did they literally hang around, they brought a lot of thoughtful dialogue to an audience wondering how two guys who couldn’t move around the stage could keep us interested. They did.

-“Those Magic Moments”- A quick look at just a few of the moments that made me pause and say, “now that’s a brilliant piece of stagecraft.” There are so many but here’s a few that immediately come to mind. -Linda Kennedy unabashedly reminiscing about her days as a debutante as Amanda Wingate in Upstream’s “A Glass Menagerie.” -Edward Juvier reprising his role and delighting us with “I Am Rodolpho” in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Stages. -The eerie, symbiotic relationship of Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schweyte in “Cuddles” at SATE. -Rachel Hanks blaring the trumpet in the Ozark inspired “As You Like It” at SATE. -The clash of two titans in “Inherit The Wind” at Insight with two titans of the local stage, Alan Knoll and John Contini. -The surprise filled interpretation of “Trash Macbeth” at ERA. -The stunning and unexpected curtain call/finale of “42nd Street” at the Muny. As I said, just a few of many magical moments on stage this year.

-“One For The Money”- One person shows are a true test of an actors’ resolve- keep us entertained all by yourself. In some cases, you’re playing one character, sometimes you’re playing several over the course of (usually) one-act. Will Bonfiglio filled the bill with his sharp interpretation of a fictitious character placating to Barbra Streisand’s whims in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog. Dael Orlandersmith not only kept us intrigued with several characters created from the Ferguson riots, but she put the show together herself using interviews with those who lived through it all. Her performance was at the Mainstage at the Rep. Another strong female performance was the indomitable Lavonne Byers as she portrayed Golda Meir at New Jewish Theatre’s “Golda’s Balcony.” The true events showed how powerful a female leader can be (U.S voters, I’m talking to you). New Jewish gave us not just one, but two portrayals of strong women as Glynnis Bell delighted with her nervous schoolteacher in “Underneath The Lintel.” And finally, how about the remarkable performance by Sarah Porter in New Line’s presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Tell Me On A Sunday?” She charmed us with her mix of a strong yet waif-like Emma looking for love.

-“Two For The Show”- Some great couples teamed up this year on stage including Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye in the bizarre but fascinating “Cuddles” at SATE.”Gidion’s Knot” at STLAS featured another pair of women as Laurie McConnell and Elizabeth Ann Townsend struggled with the death of a student. The gentlemen got their chance in the aforementioned “Suspended” at Upstream and then Jerry Vogel and Will Bonfiglio dazzled in “Old Wicked Songs” at New Jewish. Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand brought the surreal brother and sister team to life in “The Two Character Play” during the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival and two musicals joined the fray as Insight brought us “Jon and Jen” and, though technically a few more people on stage, the two main characters of “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” were Michael Baird as Hedwig and Anna Skiddis Vargas as Yitzhak at Stray Dog.

-“Three To Get Ready”- Don’t worry, this is where I stop the numbers game. “American Buffalo” and “Three Tall Women” at STLAS, “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish, Eleemosynary” at Mustard Seed and “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” at the Black Rep all showed how intriguing a play can become when a third character is added to the mix. And speaking of threes, a tip of the hat to Laurie McConnell for tackling three distinct and equally challenging roles on stage this year- the concerned school teacher in “Gidion’s Knot” at STLAS, the flirtatious vamp in “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” at the Black Rep and the outrageous, boozy Joanna in “Company” at Insight Theatre.

-“A New Take On Shakespeare’s Tragic Men”- It’s hard to make classic Shakespearean villains new and fresh but St. Louis Shakespeare managed to bring a new spin to them this year. Charlie Barron made “Richard III” move us to hate and tears with a very moving performance and Ben Ritchie took “Macbeth” to new heights with a very personal look at how the circumstances took him beyond his comfort zone. Bravo to two young actors who took a new approach to these tragic characters.

-“Faded Glory”- Two musicals appeared on the theatre scene this year that showed how youth is fleeting and how old facades emerge from promising beginnings. In “Grey Gardens” at Max & Louie, the real life Bouvier clan (Jackie Kennedy’s family) are shown in their heyday Edith and Edie Beale go from prominence and wealth to living in a hovel that used to be their magnificent mansion in a span of 30-plus years. Then, at The Rep, the return of the classic musical, “Follies” features a group of prominent players reuniting in the old theatre that is about to be torn down that housed their follies-type show. Their younger selves appear to interact bringing  back memories both good and bad and how that has affected their lives today. Two great musicals given outstanding productions.

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-“Tragedy In 2016”- Not only has it been a tough year for celebrity deaths this year, we’ve lost many local actors and other theatre folk during this most tragic year. Two of the losses were felt by a great many on the local scene. Jay V. Hall, the gracious and charming “host” at Stray Dog Theatre always went above and beyond for members of the press and, I believe, for everyone who visited Tower Grove Abbey. Whenever I requested “a” ticket, he always told me he’d save two just in case Gail felt up to attending. One of the sweetest men around. And, although I didn’t know him well, B (Barry) Weller was a wonder on stage. He always made a role his own and brought a fresh insight into every character he played- even to his final role in Chekov’s “Ivanov” at STLAS. I really fell in love with his work during Mustard Seed’s “Jane Eyre.” He took a minor role, did a Nigel Bruce spin on the character and made it a memorable one you couldn’t forget. To these two giants of local theatre and all the others we lost, a sad and final farewell.

Although there is a lot more to cover on the 2016 theatre scene, we’ll leave that to the upcoming St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards in March. I thank you for listening and reminiscing with me and I’ll see you all for the 2017 season.

 

“American Buffalo” Rips Across The STLAS Stage With Classic Mamet Dialogue

December 9, 2016
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Leo Ramsey, William Roth and Peter Mayer in the STLAS production of “American Buffalo.” Photo: John Lamb

It’s not just the cursing, it’s the lyrical beauty of the realistic language that helped win Mamet the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1977 for “American Buffalo.” As St. Louis Actors’ Studio shows in their latest offering- it hasn’t lost a bit of that gritty, hard hitting dramatic impact. Led by a strong cast and excellent direction, it’s a must see.

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William Roth as Teach drives home a point to Peter Mayer as Donny in “American Buffalo” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Donny Dubrow’s cluttered Resale Shop is the setting as Donny has taken Bobby under his wing and is trying to keep the slow-witted young man on the right track- according to the philosophy of Donny. He’s concerned about his eating habits while Donny munches on junk food himself as he cooks up a scheme to regain an American Buffalo nickel that he feels he sold too cheap to a wealthy coin collector. The plan is to break into the guy’s house and steal all the coins. Joining them in the caper will be Donny’s good friend Walter- known as “Teach.”

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William Roth looks on as Peter Mayer unsuccessfully tries to contact their missing accomplice in “American Buffalo” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

Peter Mayer’s Donny is an impatient and hardened by life man who, despite his nefarious ways shows a soft side when it comes to protecting young Bobby. Teach seems to tolerate Bobby while “playing nice,” mostly to appease Donny. He doesn’t like the idea of giving the break in job to Bobby since he’s sure he will screw things up so he insists on bringing in a third party. This leads to bad feelings all the way around which leads to the violent but inevitable closing to “American Buffalo” which leaves us with mixed emotions.

STLAS Artistic Director William Roth handles the role of Teach with mild exasperation prone to bursts of  explosive behavior. He and Mayer play off each other with the skill of dueling surgeons- slicing each other up with the precision of enemies who are closest friends. Leo Ramsey, who we’ve seen on other stages in town, uses this as his break-out performance. He brings a heart-breaking pathos to the role of Bobby that makes you want to cry, cringe and root him on all in the course of this short, two-act drama.

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William Roth and Peter Mayer discuss the heist in Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Who better to guide us through this gritty Mamet classic than director John Contini? As a skilled actor and director, he manages to squeeze every ounce of passion from this hard boiled script. It’s sometimes hard to watch as the characters almost seem determined to make their lives more miserable than they already are, but it’s a brilliant performance by all three that is made even better by Mr. Contini’s direction.

Helping to add to the power of the production is a beautifully cluttered set by Christie Johnston. Looking like an indoor yard sale- every large, outdated piece and every small trinket tells a story as the floor, walls and ceiling are filled with each odd piece. Dalton Robison’s lights add to the story and Carla Landis Evans has provided the perfect costume design including the gold lame shoes and shirt worn by Teach in the first act.

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William Roth talks to Leo Ramsey as Peter Mayer looks on in the STLAS production of “American Buffalo.” Photo: John Lamb

There’s no denying that David Mamet’s play is still powerful to today’s audiences. And St. Louis Actors’ Studio has given us a definitive production that brings every nuance to the typical Mamet profanity laden dialogue that almost overwhelms as it brings a harsh reality to the story of the seamier side of these low life characters. “American Buffalo” plays at STLAS through December 18th.

Bizarre Barbra Boutiques Baffle, Befuddle And Bewitch In “Buyer And Cellar” At Stray Dog

December 7, 2016
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Will Bonfiglio as Alex More ponders his newly discovered life as Barbra Streisand’s shopkeeper in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

In a tour de force for young local actor Will Bonfiglio, “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre takes a coffee table book penned and photographed by Barbra Streisand and leads us on a fictional romp through her personal mall built in her basement. With the unusual premise written by playwright Jonathan Tolins, you just want this eccentric tale to be true because it is so out there and something you know Babs probably would do.

The premise is that Barbra has built this huge mall in her cellar with little shops such as a doll shop, a boutique that actually contains most of her costumes from her plays and movies and even a snack bar that keeps coming into the script referring to the whirring of a slushy machine and the popping of a popcorn maker. Into this world, Ms. Streisand’s assistant/housekeeper must provide a “caretaker” who keeps everything neat and tidy in all of the shops and just waits for the inevitable “shopping trips” that Barbra will make to the mall.

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A publicity photo shows Will Bonfiglio pondering the Streisand book that inspired “Buyer And Cellar” as presented by Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: Justin Been

A young actor named Alex More- he even announces himself as an actor at the beginning of the play- has applied for and won the job. Mr. Tolins’ script emphasizes that, although the basic fact of the mall is true, his story of this young actor is just his imagination running with the initial premise. Once ensconced in the job, Alex eventually meets The Barbra and she eventually opens up to him and even dickers on the price he must come up with in his head for a mechanical doll. If these exchanges he has with Streisand in the cellar mall were true, it would seriously question her sanity and be a delightful, eccentric side that one would probably not expect from a star of her magnitude. That’s why I say, please let it be true!

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Will Bonfiglio as Alex More ponders his fate in Barbra Streisand’s basement in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Buyer And Cellar.” Photo: John Lamb

This 100 minute one man show is truly a unique work of art as fashioned by Will Bonfiglio and director Gary F. Bell. We know Will from his wide range of roles on local stages and is admired as one of the best young actors we have today. But this performance takes him to another level. As young Alex, he announces early that he will not be doing a Barbra Streisand impersonation but he truly does come across clearly with her mannerisms and a certain voice rhythm that clearly speaks to Barbra. We even meet James Brolin at one point in the proceedings.

What he really has down perfectly is precise timing. His comic timing is flawless but he has studied this script and character so well that every pause, every movement, every nuance is money. There’s a boatload of laughs in this long one-act and Mr. Bonfiglio nails each and every one. In fact, with timing like this, he might consider a side gig at some of the comedy clubs in town.

Robert J. Lippert’s sparse but effective set suits the play well and is enhanced by the lighting design of Tyler Duenow. Director Gary Bell has brilliantly given the play the necessary ebb and flow and where to play for laughs and pathos, but Will Bonfiglio has really made “Buyer And Cellar” his own. It’s one of those performances that you will be talking about for years to come.

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Hands on hips, Will Bonfiglio as Alex More wonders what he got himself into in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

And what better time than this start of the holiday season to enjoy an evening of laughs and the most bizarre story you’re ever likely to encounter? “Buyer And Cellar” plays at Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey through December 17th- they’ve even added a special matinee on that closing day at 2:00 PM. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Lose Yourself In The Holiday Season As “A Christmas Carol” Returns To The Rep

December 6, 2016
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Scrooge makes an invisible appearance at the Fezziwig Christmas past in the Rep’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

In what seems like a newer, streamlined version, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings “A Christmas Carol” to their stage for the first time in 35 years. In honor of their 50th producing season, a highly entertaining version of the classic story brings a very local feel to the festivities.

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Jerry Vogel as the leafy and highly decorated Ghost of Christmas Present guides John Rensenhouse as Scrooge through what could be in “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

John Rensenhouse, although not a local actor, seems right at home as he’s performed in many productions here over the years. His Scrooge is what you would call definitive. The mean spirited side is in full court press as he grouses at Bob Cratchit’s laziness and the foolhardiness of his nephew Fred along with slings and arrows for anyone or anything about him that reminds him of the holiday season. It is, after all, just another working day in his mind. Then, after the infamous visits from his old partner and the three ghosts, his joy is unbounded. It’s a delightful performance filled with humor and pathos.

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Michael James Reed and Amy Loui and the rest of the Cratchit family raise a glass as John Rensenhouse as Scrooge watches on in “A Christmas Carol” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Although the other versions of “A Christmas Carol” only played a three year span in the early 80’s, this 50th season version is tied together by the sublime appearance once again of Joneal Joplin as Scrooge’s late partner Jacob Marley. His ghostly visage enhanced those productions and now he appears for his 100th performance on the Rep stage. What a legacy and what an actor. His booming voice and grim announcement to Scrooge is a highlight of this production which is wonderful from start to finish.

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John Rensenhouse as Scrooge in uncontrollably ecstatic while Ben Nordstrom as Fred looks on in horror in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael James Reed and Amy Loui play the downtrodden yet ever optimistic Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit. Mr. Reed’s almost apologetic demeanor changes to one of delight and pleasure as Scrooge invisibly visits his family on his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present. And that ghost is the magnificent Jerry Vogel who has a rather dramatic entrance and drives his part of the message to Scrooge home with power and wit. He also doubles as Mr. Fezziwig in the Christmas Past segment.

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Susie Wall as Mrs. Fezziwig enjoys the attention of two young men during the Christmas Past section of “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is given a great portrayal by Jacqueline Thompson. She shows Scrooge as a young man (Landon Tate Boyle) when he still had that spirit of the season infused in his soul  before it was turned sour by the advice he got to grab, cheat and steal if needed to amass his fortune. At the home of the annual Christmas bash, the Fezziwigs, he dances and falls in love- which soon dissolves as well as there is no time for love when there’s money to be made. Susie Wall is delightful during this scene as Mrs. Fezziwig and then makes her mark again with a great comic portrayal of Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber.

The versatile Ben Nordstrom is nothing short of brilliant as nephew Fred. He even gets a big hand as he demonstrates some party games at the current day Fezziwig soiree. Landon Tate Boyle reappears as the scary, highly effective Ghost of Christmas Future which cements the deal for Scrooge and turns him back into a jolly old soul. Rounding out the major cast is Owen Hanford as a wonderful Tiny Tim. The ensemble is entirely made up of local actors and this is what makes this production so enticing. This seeming shorter script gets right to the point and this large group of actors- young and old- make the whole production sparkle like new fallen snow.

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Joneal Joplin, performing in his 100th production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis makes an appearance as Jacob Marley to a frightened John Rensenhouse as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Helping matters progress with pomp and flash is the superb technical crew. Robert Mark Morgan’s elevated backdrop and smooth scene changes are a delight to behold. Quietly impressive and enhanced by the stunning light design of Rob Denton. Dorothy Marshall Englis has designed a glamorous array of costumes and Rusty Wandall’s sound design is joyous. Jeffrey Carter has arranged the music and directed the chorus while Ellen Isom has provided appropriate choreography for this large cast. The special effects are a great boon to the production as well and the credit goes to On The FLY Productions LLC.

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Jacqueline Thompson as the Ghost Of Christmas Past starts Scrooge on his journey in “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The main man behind this intrepid 5oth anniversary production is the current and longest running Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Steven Woolf. He has directed a stunning and memorable production that will guide us through this somewhat tough holiday season and hopefully give us renewed energy for the new year. There’s no “Bah, Humbug!” with this show- it’s a beautiful tribute to the Rep and the season.

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Tiny Tim (Owen Hanford) is hoisted on the shoulders of Scrooge (John Rensenhouse) in the Rep production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“A Christmas Carol” runs on the Mainstage of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through Christmas Eve, December 24th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

“Driving Miss Daisy” Still Touches The Heart As New Jewish Theatre Continues Season

December 2, 2016
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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy tries to listen in as Eric Dean White as Boolie and J. Samuel Davis as Hoke have a discussion in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Spanning 25 years and a lot of emotion, Alfred Uhry’s heart-wrenching story “Driving Miss Daisy,” still delivers the goods. At New Jewish Theatre, we’re in for a treat as Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer trods the boards once again in the title role.

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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy does her best back seat driving as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke listens in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Proving she’s still got it, Kathleen Sitzer gives a moving portrayal as Daisy Werthan. As the play opens in 1948, she’s 72 years old and recovering stubbornly from an automobile accident with the old Packard. Her son, Boolie, insists she get a driver because the insurance company will no longer allow her to drive. She adamantly refuses but Boolie hires a black driver named Hoke Coleburn who spends most of his first week on the job sitting in the kitchen while Daisy takes the streetcar everywhere she needs to go.

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Hoke listens respectfully as Daisy does her best to lay down some ground rules in the NJT production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eventually giving in- with reservations and a list of rules for behavior- she allows Hoke to drive her to the temple and to the Piggly-Wiggly as long as he stays with the car and doesn’t try to help her (although she allows him to bring the groceries into the house). What starts off as a begrudging and suspicious relationship for Daisy eventually blossoms into a life-long friendship that leads to a touching finale in this 90 minute one-act.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke is interviewed by Eric Dean White as Boolie in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Two local, great gentleman actors make the most of their roles, making the characters sympathetic and understanding without too much of the schmaltz that can often ruin this gentle, nurturing play about crossing boundaries of understanding and trust. J. Samuel Davis is absolutely brilliant as the gentle natured Hoke. With quiet exasperation, he kindly leads Daisy along to an acceptance of both her circumstances and his intrusion on her privacy. It’s a low key yet animated performance that is probably the most realistic portrayal of Hoke I’ve seen that matches both the manners and mores of the time period while showing his wise grasp of humanity.

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Eric Dean White as Boolie listens as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tells him about a turn in Miss Daisy’s health in “Driving Miss Daisy” at NJT. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eric Dean White is a powerful force in Daisy’s life as son Boolie. He lets her keep her independence while still maintaining a presence in her life and trying to protect her without hovering. He and Hoke also share a bond as they protect this grand lady (who turns 97 by play’s end). But the tear-jerking finale shows what progress can be made that leads to a very special friendship between Daisy and Hoke that you realize is very rare indeed.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga plays on the sympathy and tenderness that Mr. Uhry has fashioned in “Driving Miss Daisy” but avoids the sloppy sentimentality that can turn it saccharine. It’s a lovely piece that brings a real tear to the eye. The set design of Dunsai Dai is a perfectly place two level set that features Daisy’s parlor upstage along with Boolie’s office off to stage right. The lower level features the mock up of Daisy’s new Oldsmobile symbolized by a front and back seat, steering wheel mechanism and two large “headlights.” It’s simple, unobtrusive and effective. Add the pinpoint lighting design of Mark Wilson and the whole play unfolds with little delay between scene and time changes.

The costumes of Michele Friedman Siler are on the mark and the fascinating sound design by Zoe Sullivan fits right into the historical perspective of the play. A shout out to Nancy Bell as well as the dialect coach who keeps them all on the Southern  drawl of the Atlanta gentry over the decades.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tries to calm down Kathleen Sitzer’s Daisy in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

“Driving Miss Daisy” gets a lot of stage time in our town. As a matter of fact, my old group- Hawthorne Players- just staged it within the last couple of months. But it’s a beautiful and near-perfect play so I guess we can’t really get too much of it. Enjoy this exquisite version at New Jewish Theatre through December 18th. Contact NJT at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

“Boom” At R-S Theatrics Is Ionesco Meets “The Twilight Zone”

November 21, 2016
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Andrew Kuhlman as Jules and Elizabeth Van Pelt as Jo in the R-S Theatrics production of “Boom.” Photo: Michael Young

Once you catch up with the unusual rhythm of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “Boom” at R-S Theatrics, you’re in for a wild, apocalyptic ride that resembles Theatre of the Absurd and a broad dose of sci-fi as it may have been presented in “The Twilight Zone.” It may be real, it may be imagined, it may be in the future, it’s definitely narrated by a character reminiscent of a docent in a museum. What it is for sure is highly entertaining.

Jo, a journalism student, has answered an ad for “sex that will bring you to the end of the world” (or words of a similar nature). Sounds like a casual, uncomplicated hook up but she finds something different when she meets Jules in his laboratory in a basement of one of the college academic buildings. He has another plan in mind- preparing for the end of the world as predicted by his fish. He is, after all, a marine biologist and is studying the random and unusual recent nature of the fish in his tank. He believes it signals impending doom.

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Elizabeth Van Pelt as Jo is confused by her blackouts and unusual behavior in “Boom” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Elizabeth Van Pelt is a diminutive and enticing Jo as she battles tooth and nail with the obsessive Jules, given a strong and vibrant portrayal from Andrew Kuhlman. Although he claims to be homosexual, they soon get rather hot and heavy in some pre-apocalyptic entangling. The end eventually comes to fruition (or so we’re led to believe) but is it really? Because Jo and Jules and the whole impending doom seem to be manipulated by our onstage “Rod Serling” in the guise of Barbara- a powerful and hilarious performance by Nancy Nigh. Beating on drums, flipping levers and interjecting pithy commentary on the two would-be lovers’ cat and mouse game, she’s a cross between a guide and a goddess as she seems to be calling the shots from her upstage podium a la the Wonderful Wizard of Oz- which may mean she has little power other than sound and fury signifying nothing.

This whole out of body experience is cleverly directed by Sarah Lynne Holt who runs with the absurdity and allows the audience to decide for themselves if they should read between the lines. Keller Ryan’s set design displays the Chapel’s versatile space as he uses both the small stage (leaving a bit of room for a few audience members there) and runs the action down through the center of the normal audience space- allowing seating on both sides. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design picks it all up very well and Mark Kelley’s sound adds the right touches.

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Elizabeth Van Pelt as Jo and Nancy Nigh as Barbara in the R-S Theatrics production of “Boom.” Photo: Michael Young

From the often awkward and uncomfortable coupling (which often involves Jo leaping into the arms of Jules- even off the stage- good catch, Andrew!) to the outlandish premise and quirky dialogue to the unusual finale, “Boom” is something you don’t want to miss just because you won’t believe what you’re watching. As Rod Serling might have said, “a dimension of sight, a dimension of sound, a dimension of mind- you’re entering the absurdist Twilight Zone.” “Boom” plays at R-S Theatrics through December 4th. Give them a call at 314-252-8812 for tickets or more information.

 

 

Fourth And Final? I Think Not- Presentation of “All Is Calm” at Mustard Seed

November 15, 2016

all-group1As most people were saying after opening night of Mustard Seed Theatre’s fourth annual “All Is Calm- The Christmas Truce Of 1914,” we hope this isn’t really the final presentation. Different casts, returning members, new singers- it all adds up to one thing- this is a holiday tradition that must go on.

If you’re one of the few folks in St. Louis who has not yet experienced this lovely and haunting piece of theatre, get your tickets now. The show has been extended again this year and will now play through December 11th. Citing real letters and documents from this World War I phenomenon, an a cappella group of ten men use songs of the period to retell the story of one Christmas Eve in 1914 when Allied and German soldiers were close enough to be heard by each other and started serenading each other with songs from their respective countries. Folk songs, Christmas carols and the like could be heard floating across no-man’s land and, eventually, even that wall was broken as they greeted each other, exchanged souvenirs and continued to sing until the next day when “war” broke out again.

all-posterIt’s an uplifting story and you get to meet a myriad of men through their own words as each story leads into another song. As usual, I finally broke down over “Silent Night” or “Stille Nacht” which, of course, resonates with the title of the show. A few changes have been made to this year’s edition, but the message and power of the piece remains. From the haunting opening of “Will Ye Go To Flanders” through the traditional “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag,” the spirit of war and camaraderie prevail. And, of course, the holiday music includes “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard On High” and the haunting rendition of “O Tannenbaum.”

A strong cast of singers adds to the beauty of “All Is Calm” as the harmonies resonate from the tenors and baritones to the powerful bass voices that seem to shake the rafters (if there were any rafters). Paul Cereghino, Kent Coffel, Steve Isom, Steve Jent and Gregory Lhamon join Gerry Love, the returning (from his new success in Chicago) Antonio Rodriguez, the rich voice playing the opera singer soaring with “O Holy Night,” Luke Steinburgy, Kevin Urday and Jeff Wright. It’s an ensemble that not only sings remarkably well together, but really displays the spirit of true comrades that unite in a war none of them want.

Deanna Jent, artistic director of Mustard Seed, once again directs with a flair for the dramatic and pulling the heartstrings. Joe Schoen returns as musical director and the Kyra Bishop set, Michael Sullivan’s lights and costumes of Jane Sullivan make the complete package. I look forward to the Rep’s return of the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol” and I appreciate the other shows of the season that inevitably show up on local stages, but “All Is Calm” is a holiday tradition that needs to extend ad infinitum.

all-group2With the extension through December 11th, it’s more important than ever to catch this beautiful story (only about an hour long) before it possibly gets put into the vault. Mustard Seed Theatre has created a monster that everyone loves and looks forward to- give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information. This truly is a must-see.

 

“Forbidden Broadway” Makes Rare Appearance In Town At Westport Playhouse

November 8, 2016

forbEven though we have a theatre-rich community and a lot of musicals are seen by a lot of folks thanks to the Fox, Muny and other venues, the long-running and ever-changing spoof of musicals, “Forbidden Broadway,” hasn’t often played in our town. Well, it’s back and funnier than ever at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza.

It’s always the same format- four performers and one pianist as they rip through old and new shows, changing lyrics to fit the spoof and offering broad exaggerations  of some of our favorites. This time around they’ve delved into some of the classics from the past including “Ambition”- a take-off on “Fiddler On The Roof” and one that always seems to pop up- an actress with a cigarette dangling from her lips and dressed in a bright red “AnnIe” dress, singing, “I’ll be 40 years old…tomorrow.”

Some new ones appear too including a put down of “Once.” I agree with this one when they say, “Once is enough.” But the old staples are the highlights of this production- I guess because they feel the St. Louis audiences may be more familiar with the older shows that have played our town like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and even a spoof on Cameron Mackintosh who produced those two show and other big, splashy musicals. He sings about piling success on top of success by selling tacky merchandise to tie in with the shows as he opens his coat and shows T-shirts, mugs, CDs and other items- all to the tune of “My Favorite Things” but singing “My Souvenir Things.”

This cast is an energetic and talented one including Valerie Fagan, Jeanne Montano, Kevin B. McGlynn and William Selby. Between costume changes and changes of character, they are non-stop whirlwinds. With musical accompaniment by Catherine Stornetta along with some clever choreography from Phillip George and wild costumes from Alvin Colt, it makes for a complete package. It’s also directed by Phillip George and the father of “Forbidden Broadway,” Gerard Alessandrini. He created this show as a small cabaret act in 1982 and now it has grown into this world wide phenomenon.

“Forbidden Broadway” is here for a very short time- through November 13th- so plan on seeing it soon. If you’re a big fan of Broadway musicals, you probably already know about the show, but if you haven’t seen it, get thee to Westport Playhouse and treat yourself to an evening of fun and laughs. For more information, contact them at http://www.playhouseatwestport.com

Don’t Expect Any Warm Fuzzies As “Cuddles” Creeps Us Out At SATE

November 7, 2016
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Ellie Schwetye stands over Rachel Tibbets in the SATE production of “Cuddles.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble is known for just that- plays that are often slightly askew- off the beaten path of traditional fare. With “Cuddles,” the opening play of their Season of Adaptation, they manage to provide cringe-worthy status to that word. With two excellent actresses and one superb director, it somehow makes you want to give them all big hugs anyway.

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Rachel Tibbets agonizes over her sister’s absence while Ellie Schwetye talks with her new boyfriend in the downstairs parlor in “Cuddles” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

It starts with a creepy, smoke-filled set designed by the incredible Bess Moynihan (who also provides magic with the lighting design). Newspapers hanging behind and in front of a makeshift bed given a fourposter look with acting areas of both sides of it, and the eerie and, at times, provocative music by director Joe Hanrahan, lets you know you’re in for a treat. Then a figure appears rising from the bed and, as she pulls off the thin muslin-like material, we see  Rachel Tibbets (one of the original founding members of SATE) as the mysterious and ethereal Eve as she begins a “once upon a time” story that sends chills down your spine.

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Rachel Tibbets makes an eerie first appearance in “Cuddles” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

We soon learn that she is the “monster” younger sister she describes in this off beat fairy tale and we soon meet her older sister, Tabby, in a wonderful, almost bi-polar performance by Ellie Schwetye. Eve is obviously suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome as Tabitha has convinced her that she is a vampire and must stay hidden in her room. Not only does she have a pot to pee in- she also has a separate pot to poop in and she often gets them mixed up much to the chagrin of her older sister. Eve loves her sister but when she suggests she go outside, she goes ballistic knowing that only three things kill a vampire- sunlight, beheading and hammering a stake through the heart.

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The sisters try to resolve their differences in the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble production of “Cuddles.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Problems arise (as if these weren’t problems enough) when Tabby finds a man she’s interested in and must solve her dilemma of “caregiving” Eve. The love between the sisters is obvious despite the unorthodox way of life Tabby has carved out for them and it may take one level, two level or maybe five level cuddles to get them through it. You’ll understand better when you see the bizarre “Cuddles” by English playwright Joseph Wilde. It’s sprinkled with humor- dark and otherwise and the most unconventional story you’re likely to see this side of Halloween (just a few days late for that holiday). But, like the earlier SATE hit, “Mary Shelley Monster Show,” Mother Nature provided some special effects on opening night that enhanced an already scarily perfect show.

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Rachel Tibbets expresses her feelings to Ellie Schwetye in “Cuddles” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Director Joe Hanrahan, a superb actor as well, has paced this production with knife-edged skill. He cuts through a script that may be a bit wordier than needed and brings every chilling moment to frightening and realistic life.With Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye as the only two performers, it really showed how much these two actresses have grown into top notch performers. Playing two completely different characters- one skittish and dominated and one authoritarian and cold, they played off each other beautifully and, in a city with a ton of acting talent, they have proven to be right up there with the best.

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Part of the spellbinding opening sequence featuring Rachel Tibbets in the SATE production of “Cuddles.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

SATE Ensemble Theatre has given us another scare for this very special season and they show how diverse they are from any other company working today. Original or adapted classics come to spectacular life in their hands. “Cuddles” plays at the Chapel through November 12th. Contact them at 314-827-5760 or at slightlyoff.org for more information or for tickets.