“Oedipus Apparatus” Brings Modern Concepts To Ancient Story At WEPG

April 25, 2017
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Maggie Conroy as Jocasta and Mitch Eagles as Oedipus grasp for each other through the apparatus at WEPG’s production of “Oedipus Apparatus.” Photo: John Lamb

West End Players Guild brings Lucy Cashion’s brilliant and well directed (by Cashion as well) script to stage in “Oedipus Apparatus.” Combining the traditional Oedipus story with geometric and analytical thinking and a massive “apparatus” that fulfills the stop/time narrative aspect of the ancient legend, it adds up to a fascinating evening of riveting theatre that even includes a visit to “The View.”

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Ellie Schwetye as the Sphinx and Alicen Moser as Antigone converse in “Oedipus Apparatus” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

According to the prophecy, Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother- a theme that Sigmund Freud had a field day with (even in this production). His father, King Laius, abandoned him on a mountainside hoping he would not survive and thus not fulfill the prophecy. But those ancient Gods, along with the oracle at Delphi, had other plans and Oedipus was rescued and raised in Corinth. When he returned to Thebes, his destiny was carried out. Along the way, however, he encounters alternative narratives to his fate that all lead to the same conclusion.

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Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) gets schooled by Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) in the WEPG production of “Oedipus Apparatus.” Photo: John Lamb

Mitch Eagles is a bombastic Oedipus determined to carve his own fate despite everything that leads him to his ultimate destination. Every encounter is serious as he pushes on with the help of a “time machine” apparatus that successfully stops the action and rewinds in an attempt to readjust the story. As his mother/wife, Jocasta, Maggie Conroy is impeccable as she broods over her own fate. With the help of modern technology- microphones and video in particular- she manages to deliver her message. Cara Barresi as Artemis is equally morose as her counterpart in delivering dreary epithets throughout the performance.

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Will Bonfiglio as Creon and Mitch Eagles as Oedipus in the WEPG production of “Oedipus Apparatus.” Photo: John Lamb

Will Bonfiglio packs a punch as Creon, brother to Jocasta. He delivers bad news on top of worse news to Oedipus throughout the series of stops and starts provided by the apparatus. Alicen Moser is the morose Antigone while Rachel Tibbets portrays a semi-comotose Athena who has a few issues of her own as one of the oracles. Ellie Schwetye is properly saucy as the Sphinx who allows Oedipus to enter Thebes once he has cracked the riddle she has put forth. Carl Overly, Jr. is a powerful Tiresius as he goes toe-to-toe with Oedipus.

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Jocasta (Maggie Conroy) holds Antigone (Alicen Moser) in “Oedipus Apparatus” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

Rounding out the cast are Michael Cassidy Flynn as Dr. Freud and Joe Taylor as Apollo, who also plays piano throughout. They become part of the “talk show” format where a distant voice proclaims she’s always wanted to do a show with oracles of different ages and various viewpoints. This also is televised throughout the performance. Not only do we have these obvious intrusions on the classic myth, but the monstrous amalgamation of pipes and spokes dominates the scene as a series of designers takes over the elongated space of the WEPG playing area and takes the stage as the set for “The View” and the opposite end as, predominately, Jocasta’s bedroom. Those designers include Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois and Ben Lewis. The Meredith LaBounty costumes are a great mix of ancient and modern styles.

Playwright/director Lucy Cashion has fashioned a wonderful post-modern production of the Oedipus myth and thrown in a series of theorems from Pythagorus and a lot of left brain talk of the radius of this and the dissecting lines of that which tend to blend an unexpected spin to the classic myth. I’m not sure if any further viewings on my part would even begin to comprehend this odd yet satisfying mix of cultures unless it’s just to show constants like mathematics and the powers of destiny. She has, however, managed to bring a brilliant production to the forefront and, despite the length of the one-act (an hour and fifty minutes) the crashing sound and the often furious pace of the apparatus startles you into an unusual fear and trepidation of Oedipus.

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Sharing their “View,” the oracle at Delphi pontificate to Creon during “Oedipus Apparatus” at WEPG. Photo: John Lamb

“Oedipus Apparatus” plays at West End Players Guild through April 30th. Give them a call at 314-667-5686 for tickets or more information.

 

 

Joyous “Dancing At Lughnasa” Closes Out Mustard Seed Season

April 16, 2017
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A group shot of some of the cast of “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

It’s funny that several people I talked to after the opening night performance of “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre had the same reaction I did- this was the first production of this Brian Friel Tony Award winning play that I really enjoyed. It’s a charming memory play involving five sisters living in the fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal, Ireland. More later about my reasoning for not really getting into this play before now but the cast, direction and the whole feel of this production brought the story and the family closer than ever before.

Being a memory play, we first meet a grown up Michael, given a solid and straightforward performance by Jim Butz, as he reflects on being a 7 year old in 1936 and  living a poor yet grand existence with his mother and four aunts. Although he is not really there, he responds to his family as they occasionally interact with his young self and we see some of his handiwork like a couple of kites and a top. Jennifer Theby Quinn gives a rich and wonderful performance as Chris Mundy- the youngest sister and mother of young Michael. She is solid in her conviction to stay away from her errant husband who leaves for sometimes years at a time but then she soon becomes a giddy young girl as he re-enters her life once again. Richard Strelinger is a charmer as her husband, Gerry, who woos her once again before he leaves with promises to return to her and Michael as soon as he can.

Amy Loui is the strong pillar of the Mundy family, Kate, major breadwinner. Whenever things to go off the wheels, she always brings it all back into focus. Kelley Weber is the heart and soul of the clan as she is the chief cook and bottle washer. Leslie Wobbe is the quiet one of the bunch- Agnes. She and her sister Rose bring in a bit of money as they sew gloves to sell to the richer ladies in town. And finally, Michelle Hand is a study in enthusiasm as Rose. Though a bit addled, she manages to spark the fun times the ladies have together. Finally, Gary Glasgow shines as Jack, the older brother of the five ladies who has had his brains addled a bit as well, serving in Uganda with lepers for many years until he has become a bit too settled in the “native” ways.

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A strong ensemble highlights the Mustard Seed Theatre production of “Dancing At Lughnasa.” Photo: John Lamb

This off-beat family struggles to survive but have each others’ backs and find the fun in a world that is starting to come loose at the hinges. They have acquired a wireless which they call Marconi- since that is what is emblazoned on the front. The only problem is, it is erratic and only seems to come alive with news and music when it feels like it. But when it sparks into life, the ladies dance and sing and joy pours out of every one of them.

Director Gary Barker has brought a lust for life to this production which I cannot recall seeing before. It’s a spirited production with highs and lows that speak to the times as well as their lifestyle. He’s been blessed with a wonderful ensemble that is really dedicated to this play. Another reason I believe this production has won us all over is the work of Nancy Bell as dialect coach. There’s nothing more difficult than listening to a random set of accents that sometime work and other times do not. She has instilled a true sense of the lilt of the brogue in all the players and it pays off in a believable rhythm to this play that never falters.

The Kyra Bishop set design is a work of art in itself with a cutaway peek at the interior of the cottage and the expansive playing area outside of the house as well. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are exquisite and Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the overall production beautifully. Zoe Sullivan gets into the act too with a wonderful sound design. Kudos as well to Helen Gannon as the Irish dance choreographer who brings the spirit of the “dance” to “Dancing At Lughnasa.”

Brian Friel has set several plays in this fictitious town of Ballybeg including another fine play, “Philadelphia, Here I Come.” West End Players Guild did an excellent job as well with one of his other plays several years ago, “Lovers: Winners And Losers.” But this one has always had me scratching my head until this delightfully rich production at Mustard Seed. It won’t soon be forgotten.

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Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe and Jennifer Theby Quinn in “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“Dancing At Lughnasa” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne through April 30th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information. With this one going simultaneously with the strong performances at St. Louis Actors’ Studio and their production of “August: Osage County,” it’s a grand month for our local actresses. Go see them all.

 

 

“August: Osage County” Sparkles With Mix Of Wit And Drama At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

April 15, 2017
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Kari Ely, Meghan Baker and David Wassilak in “August: Osage County” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Take a Eugene O’Neill family drama and throw in a little of the recently departed Don Rickles and you’ve got the highly entertaining “August: Osage County” from the pen of actor/playwright Tracy Letts. His caustic wit almost overshadows the crises throughout the Weston family that makes the death of the patriarch the launching pad for secrets and near secrets to erupt during this three act, fast moving masterpiece as presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

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William Roth as Charlie leads an awkward prayer before dinner in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “August: Osage County.” Photo: Patrick Huber

We’ll let you discover the fun and games as it peels off layer after layer of hate and deceit within this classic dysfunctional family. Suffice to say you’ll laugh and cry along with them as sides are taken (and betrayed), alliances are built and even unusual love stories emerge (one heart wrenching, the other perverse). It all starts as we see Larry Dell in an opening monologue as Beverly Weston as he’s talking to the new hire, Johanna, played by Wendy Renee Farmer, a Cheyenne woman he has hired to do chores around the house. The “conversation” seems to be a rambling preamble to his ensuing suicide which brings the whole clan together for the funeral.

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Kari Ely drops in on Wendy Renee Farmer and Larry Dell in the opening scene of “August: Osage County” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Kari Ely gives one of the most astonishing performances of her illustrious career as Bev’s wife, Violet. I know that some of the younger members of the cast (and older ones too) must have watched in awe at rehearsals as she developed this remarkable character who uses her voice, intimate and grand gestures and her biting dialogue to do- as is finally revealed- what her mother did to destroy as many members of her family as she can. She’s a tough woman to root for or even tolerate but her vulnerability comes through as well to form this unusual love/hate relationship. It is one astounding portrayal.

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Rachel Fenton standing and Meghan Baker and Emily Baker as the three daughters in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “August: Osage County.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Her daughters are a varied lot as the strongest, Barbara, played with a tough outer skin by Meghan Baker, takes us on a ride of ups and downs until her second act curtain when you know this will either make or break Violet. Emily Baker is the shy, vulnerable daughter who has a little secret of her own that brings sorrow but eventually (we hope) joy to her life. The final daughter, Karen, played with random bursts of joy and almost lunacy at times by Rachel Fenton, is the most naive of the bunch and her new boyfriend becomes a focal point of a lot that makes this family erratic.

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Bridgette Bassa tries to put off the advances of Drew Battles during “August: Osage County” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Barbara’s husband, Bill, is played with a staid, professorial tenor by David Wassilak. His dalliance with a young student of his causes consternation in their marriage which isn’t helped by their daughter, Jean, a wild 14-year old played with proper sass by Bridgette Bassa. Trying to fend off the unsightly advances of Karen’s fiance, Steve, played to the hilt of pomposity by Drew Battles, she simply brings more pain to a family which has already suffered a horrible reunion.

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Stephen Peirick and Emily Baker provide a bit of romance during the feuding in “August: Osage County” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Violet’s sister, Mattie Fay, is given a rousing, almost Southern Belle charm, by Kim Furlow. She comes on strong and hides a few secrets of her own which tend to complicate family matters as well. Her husband, Charlie, is the delightfully droll William Roth who becomes a faint beacon of sanity in this out of control bunch. Their son, Little Charlie, brings one of Stephen Peirick’s strongest performances to the stage. His strength and pathos is a great mix and his secret is one of the more hopeful ones in the play. Rounding out the cast is GP Hunsaker as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau- a pivotal character from Barbara’s background.

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Multiple conversations going on during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “August: Osage County.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Director Wayne Salomon has woven a perfect tapestry of dysfunction with “August: Osage County.” He brilliantly brings out each characters’ idiosyncratic tendencies and blends them into a whole that keeps the audience roaring with laughter while feeling for the heartbreak and tragedy of each character as well. With a brilliant cast, he has turned this production into an instant classic.

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GP Hunsaker as the Sheriff brings bad news to the family in “August: Osage County” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Getting the feeling of grandeur of the Weston estate, set designer Patrick Huber had nowhere to go but up and he does it brilliantly with a split-level version of the three story mansion. Those familiar with the small, black box feel of the Gaslight Theatre will marvel at this achievement. Dalton Robison’s lighting design also helps create the illusion of bigness and Carla Landis Evans has created a wonderful costume design that fits each character perfectly.

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Groups gather during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “August: Osage County.” Photo: Patrick Huber

We have a cast that is nothing short of amazing from top to bottom with Kari Ely leading the way, superb direction and one of the quirkiest works of art Tracy Lett has devised. That makes “August: Osage County” a must-see for your April theatre viewing. It plays through April 30th at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

Stray Dog And St. Louis Shakespeare Bring Musical Tragedy And Classic Comedy To Local Stages

April 10, 2017
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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

The Gods of Comedy and Tragedy bring their wares to our town with “Sweeney Todd” and “The Comedy Of Errors.” Both are worthy productions that show off both Stray Dog Theatre and St. Louis Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved and clever comedies- at St. Louis Shakespeare Company- brings two sets of twin brothers together after years of separation with hilarious results. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio, are living a fine life until their long lost twin brothers come to town from Syracuse where they have lived since being parted in a shipwreck many years ago. As the father of the two “Antipholi” decries to the Duke of Ephesus, he is merely visiting from Syracuse in an attempt to track down his other twin son. High jinks with Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, happen when she mistakes the Syracusian of being her husband and the low brow comedy continues with mistaken identities and confusion until everything is resolved at the final curtain.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

Meanwhile, not too far away at Tower Grove Abbey is the Stray Dog Theatre production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Further underscored as a musical thriller, we meet Sweeney as he arrives back home in 1846 London where he was framed and sent to prison by the nefarious Judge Turpin who coveted Sweeney’s wife Lucy. Sweeney was then know as Benjamin Barker and one of his old cohorts, Mrs. Lovett recognizes him and they spark a relationship which ends up with some throat-cutting of local citizens with Sweeney’s old, faithful razors and then Mrs. Lovett cleverly concocting some very special meat pies for her bakery from the victims. It all ends like any tragedy, musical or not, with a whole lot of blood- only this time with singing!

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

Back to “Comedy,” director Shaun Sheley has given some broad slapstick and appropriate silliness to this version and it works well. The physical humor works with the story very well and the twins, in looks and costuming, are very convincing. Chuck Winning is a charming and confused Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio is the delightful Michael Pierce. For the Syracuse branch of each family, we have Shane Signorino is Antipholus and Zac McMillan is his Dromio.

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

Frankie Ferrari is the Ephesus wife, Adriana while her sister Luciana is played by Jamie McKitrick, who eventually falls for the Syracuse Artipholus and poor Syracuse Dromio is stalked by the Ephesus Dromio’s Rubenesque wife. Fine work as well from Dan McGee as Egeon, Erick Lindsey as the Duke, Margeau Steinau as the Abbess, Ben Ritchie in multiple roles and a whole town of involved citizens.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

Strong singing voices dominate “Sweeney Todd” as Johnathan Hey leads the way with his towering presence and beautiful handling of the famously tough Stephen Sondheim music and rhythms. This version, which could be called “Teeny, Meany Sweeney” (teeny for the space, meany for Mr. Hey’s maniacal looks), works so well because of the close proximity to actors and audience which always highlights a Stray Dog production. The townsfolk rambling up and down the aisles and the main actors also using the audience space really makes it frightening at times.

Lavonne Byers continues her winning ways (winner of Best Actress in this years’ Circle Awards) with her precocious rendition of Mrs. Lovett. Her sweetly evil charm relies mainly on that charm and humor to win us over to a pretty despicable character. Cole Gutmann brings a strong singing voice to Sweeney’s new friend, Anthony, who falls in love with Johanna Barker (Sweeney’s daughter who is also ward to Judge Turpin). Eileen Engel is a lovely Johanna with a sweet singing voice as well. Connor Johnson is charming as the young Toby who Mrs. Lovett takes under her wing after the demise of his companion, Adolfo Pirelli, Barber to Kings, played with panache by Tyler Cheatem. Gerry Love as Judge Turpin and Mike Wells as Beadle Bamford make an amusing pair and Kay Love is saucy as the Beggar Lady who is involved in the plot twist at musical’s end.

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“Comedy Of Errors” photo by Ron James

A simple yet effective set for “Comedy of Errors” is the work of Scott McDonald and James Spurlock’s lights add the right touch. Annalise Webb designed the fun costumes which include matching ones for both Antipholus’s and Dromio’s.  At Sweeney, the intricate, two story set is the work of Rob Lippert which includes a clever “delivery system” for Sweeney’s customers. The Tyler Duenow lights are eerie and effective while costume designer Ryan Moore has done a great job including dressing Sweeney like a 1940’s dock worker to make him even more menacing.

Director Justin Been has given us an even darker Sweeney that we’ve seen before using the powerful frame of Jonathan Hey to full advantage. With a fairly large ensemble, he manages to keep controlled chaos the order of the day, particularly during the “City On Fire” sequence toward the end of Act II. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street,” runs through April 22nd at Stray Dog Theatre. Call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information. “Comedy Of Errors” has already closed but St. Louis Shakespeare returns with a new season in August.

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“Sweeney Todd” photo by John Lamb

As always, there’s a lot of theatre in St. Louis and St. Louis Shakespeare and Stray Dog Theatre are examples of the great work done in our town. Support them and the other companies that bring great works to our stages.

“Million Dollar Quartet” Has Them Dancing In The Aisles At The Rep Season Finale

March 20, 2017
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John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis, Dominique Scott as Jerry Lee Lewis and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash in “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Closing their wonderful 50th Anniversary season, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis avoids drama and gives us a fast a furious look at how rock and roll began with “Million Dollar Quartet.” Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, gathered, by happenstance but mainly by choice, four of his most famous clients in December of 1956. He knew he had what the public wanted and he was trying to keep everything the way it was but he knew he had an uphill battle.

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Ari McKay Wilford strike a typical Elvis pose in the Rep production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 

This is the story but the real story is the music from rock, country and rockabilly legends, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis. It rings the rafters of the Rep until no one can stay still or even stay in their seats as hit after hit swarms over the audience. I was almost eleven years old at the time of this historic meeting and the first “rock” anthem I remember from my youth was one of the songs they all sing, “Rockin’ Robin.” But each legend gets a turn at the mike and they all combine for duets and foursomes throughout the evening.

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John Michael Presney displays amazing guitar skills and a perfect rockabilly voice in “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

John Michael Presney holds down the Carl Perkins role and, besides his singing, he demonstrates superior guitar skills. Sky Seals has the style of Johnny Cash and even sounds a lot like the icon who combined rock with country for a unique sound. Ari McKay Wilford plays the King with a lot of flair and the signature body moves and lip sneers. Finally, Dominique Scott plays the outrageous and flamboyant Jerry Lee Lewis with all the braggadocio you’d expect from this talented but very disturbed man. From “Who Do You Love?” to “Folsom Prison Blues” to “That’s All Right” to “Great Balls of Fire,” they all shine in signature numbers. Then, at the encore, they go even further with “Hound Dog,” “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” “See You Later, Alligator” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”

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Ryah Nixon smolders with “Fever” as Eric Scott Anthony accompanies on bass in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 

This could have been called “Million Dollar ‘Quintet'” because Elvis brings along his latest girlfriend, Dyanne- given a lively and talented turn by Ryah Nixon. She smolders with “Fever” in the first act and, along with joining in on some of the other numbers, rocks us again in the second act with her rendition of “I Hear You Knockin’.” James Ludwig holds the spontaneous reunion together as best he can as Sam Phillips as the artists start dropping away from Sun Records like flies and he even shows some mean harmonica work. Rounding out the cast are Eric Scott Anthony as Carl’s brother Jay on bass and Zach Cossman as Fluke on percussion.

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Sky Seals croons it out as Johnny Cash in “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 

With a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, “Million Dollar Quartet” is directed with the emphasis on the music by Hunter Foster. John Michael Presney doubles as musical director and the Adam Koch set design is a perfect feel for the era. Lauren T. Roark has brought a real flair to the costumes including the dazzling “encore” numbers with plenty of color and spangles leading the way. The lighting design of Kirk Bookman explodes on the stage and makes it all a bedazzled and almost surreal world.

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Sky Seals, Dominique Scott, John Michael Presney, Ryah Nixon and Ari McKay Wilford in the Rep’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr. 

Like so many so called “juke box” musicals, it takes a small story and makes it work within the realm of the characters. But “Million Dollar Quartet” is powered by a group of skilled and talented people who started the rock and roll revolution. The world in general and the St. Louis area in particular just lost another rock icon who started his own revolution, Chuck Berry so it’s befitting that the Rep closes out their season with this wonderful, audience participation musical. Don’t miss “Million Dollar Quartet” as it splashes across the stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 9th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

The Chilling Leopold And Loeb Case Resurfaces In “Never The Sinner” At New Jewish

March 18, 2017
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Jack Zanger as Leopold, Pete Winfrey as Loeb and John Flack as Clarence Darrow in “Never The Sinner” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

There is probably no more disturbing murder case in history than the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb case in Chicago. Two upwardly mobile young men who were becoming law students with very high I.Q.’s were obsessed with Neitzche’s theory that “supermen” existed who were so superior that he deemed them above the law. When they decided to play out their thoughts and commit the perfect crime, a series of bizarre events led the case to “trial of the century” status.

 

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Eric Dean White (center) as Robert Crowe questions a witness during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Never The Sinner.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

New Jewish Theatre is currently presenting “Never The Sinner” by John Logan and it explores the crime, the young men and the ensuing trial. As disturbing as the crime itself, Director Rick Dildine evokes horror on a massive level as these two young men laugh at their accusers and show disdain toward everyone who lacks their self imagined intellectual and moral superiority which includes, well, everyone. At the root is a love story not unlike Bonnie and Clyde as these two men are corrupt individually but once they meet, they not only fall in love, but create a force that society cannot reckon with nor accept.

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Pete Winfrey as Loeb and Jack Zanger as Leopold in “Never The Sinner” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Pete Winfrey as Richard Loeb and Jack Zanger as Nathan Leopold are stunning in their portrayal of these entitled gentlemen who lack any sense of morality. Although Leopold is a bit more skeptical of their plan to murder a young man in their neighborhood, he goes along with Loeb’s almost obsessive need to carry out the deed. This is where their plan goes awry as Leopold becomes sloppy in the execution and leaves behind his glasses which eventually- along with other evidence- leads to their downfall.

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John Reidy, Maggie Conroy and Will Bonfiglio in reporting mode at the New Jewish Theatre production of “Never The Sinner.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

John Flack is brilliant as defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Getting a bit long in the tooth by 1924, he nonetheless has the wherewithal to devise a plan to escape execution for the pair. They have already all but confessed to the crime after so much evidence has been found so now Darrow is trying other tactics in an attempt to escape prosecution altogether. Clever but frustrated by Darrow’s tactics, Eric Dean White gives a solid performance as prosecutor Robert Crowe. Often incredulous, he must deal with the master manipulator in a trial that should have been open and shut.

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Jack Zanger as Leopold and Pete Winfrey as Loeb in “Never The Sinner” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

The supporting cast includes three folks playing multiple roles- mainly as reporters. Will Bonfiglio, Maggie Conroy and John Reidy deliver the goods and flesh out the story from several angles. As mentioned, Rick Dildine, Artistic and Executive Director of the wonderful Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, delivers an impactful story that brings out the utter audacity of these two friends.

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John Flack as Clarence Darrow tries to instruct his clients during a scene from “Never The Sinner” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Several years ago, Max & Louie Productions offered the musical- yes musical- version of the Leopold and Loeb case, “Thrill Me,” written by Stephen Dolginoff. As surprisingly effective and chilling as that was, “Never The Sinner” brings out even more of the cringe-worthy aspects of the case. Even a few very good laugh lines in the script elicit nervous chuckles instead of laughs because of the unbelievable impact of the story. The audience is too horrified to even laugh at an attempt at some comic relief.

Peter and Margery Spack have designed a powerful set that extends through the center of the theatre with audience seating on either side. It provides for multiple spaces that are heavily decorated at each end but provide a solid center space for movable pieces of furniture that again fit various scenes. Also included are a series of pictures and prints adorning the walls throughout that are highlighted throughout the production. They focus mainly on Leopold’s obsession with birds but also offer other insights into character and other aspects from the time of the trial. Maureen Berry’s lights also make statements including the use of when to highlight those multiple wall hangings. And Michelle Friedman Siler’s costumes spark the proper tone for the time period.

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John Flack, Pete Winfrey, Jack Zanger and Eric Dean White in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Never The Sinner.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

If you’re not familiar with the Leopold and Loeb case, this one may upset you a bit with the brash behavior of these two young men. It has a familiar ring- as do so many things in life these days- of what is going on in our world today. But what a play and what sterling performances from everyone involved. “Never The Sinner” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through April 2nd. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

 

 

“The Briefs Festival” Entertains Once Again In This, The Sixth And Final? Season

March 15, 2017
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The cast enjoys a curtain call at “Briefs.”

As the old line goes, “Say it ain’t so.” For the sixth season, “Briefs, A Festival Of Short LGBTQ Plays” is underscoring this as “The Final Act.” This has always been a highlight of the theatrical season because you get to see a wide range of talented actors, directors and playwrights who work under the parameters of short- ten to twenty minute normally- plays with LGBTQ themes. They usually offer eight plays that, with intermission, offer a delightful evening that is thought-provoking and always highly entertaining.

Sponsored by Joan Lipkin and her That Uppity Theatre Company, the Vital Voice the LGBTQ community and- since the beginning- the main sponsor has been Pearl Vodka, a home town product. Of course, the Regional Arts Commission, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation and the Missouri Arts Council add financial support as well. This year, besides the LGBTQ community, “Briefs” is honoring our brothers and sisters from the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis and the International Institute of St. Louis. A beautiful poster commemorating that unity was available for sale as well.

briefs-logoWritten by Jon Fraser and directed by Ryan Scott Foizey, “Gaga” opens the evening as Steve Callahan and Daniel John Kelly are enjoying a drink at their favorite bar when youngsters Andrew Kuhlman and Tielere Cheatem enter and start spouting names as if they are conversing in some “twin speak” language. The point becomes clear at play’s end. Then “Straight Up” by Lisa Konoplisky and directed by Pamela Reckamp brings a chemistry driven couple, Shane Signorino and Alice Kinsella together for some sparring. Shannon Geier wrote and Sarah Lynne Holt directs “Twenty Questions” which pits lovers Carl Overly, Jr. and Jaz Tucker in a hospital waiting room which brings on a discussion of their fidelity. “Our Friends” closes the first act and it is written and directed and stars Festival founder Joan Lipkin with Judi Mann as more questions come up about relationships.

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“Briefs” founder Joan Lipkin (seated) joins Judi Mann for a short play written and directed by Joan Lipkin.

The second act opens with a favorite from last year, “When Oprah Says Goodbye,” written by Dan Berkowitz and directed by Fannie Belle-Lebby. This touching story stars Peggy Calvin and Mary Hardcastle as they meet in a nursing home after breaking up many years earlier. Thomasina Clarke plays the overly eager nurse. Theresa Masters wrote and and Christopher Limber directs another touching story, “Danny Boy” which brings Daniel John Kelly back on stage with Troy P. Hargrove as they visit an ailing father, Gerry Love, who surprises them both. “Trial And Swear” is written by this year’s winner of the Ken Haller Playwrighting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth, McKenzie Moser. Directed by Gad Gutterman, it features Kiah McKirnan and Delaney Piggins as roommates attempting a little experimentation. Finally, “Last Night At The Cherry Pie” is a play written by Daniel Hirsch and directed by the wonderful Marty Stanberry. Two solid acting performances from Donna Weinsting and Rich Scharf tell the story of the closing down of an iconic gay bar.

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The “Briefs” cast. Photo: Annie Dent

Stage Manager and Technical Director Michael Perkins said approximately 4,500 people attended the performances at both the Centenne Center and the new .Zack Performing Arts Center. So why not bring back a seventh season? I’ve been privileged to attend four of the six seasons so I consider myself lucky. In case another season pops up next year, be prepared and attend an entertaining and eye-opening evening of unusual theatre.

Rep Studio Closes With Rhythmic, Powerful Boxing Story “The Royale”

March 13, 2017
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Akron Lanier Watson as Jay Jackson in “The Royale” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

With stomps, hand claps and body percussion, the sounds of a boxing match become stylized and choreographed for a beautiful insight into the sport with “The Royale,” the closing production of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre season. Dipping into a sport that Negro gentlemen started to dominate in the early century, we also get a look at how they were treated poorly and taken advantage of while managers and promoters flourished.

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Lance Baker announces the fight with the ensemble of sound effects behind him in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio production of “The Royale.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Akron Lanier Watson looks like a boxer and has the acting chops to bring the fictitious (though based on the iconic Jack Johnson) Jay “The Sport” Jackson to vibrant life. He acts with his body and his face as expressively as he delivers his lines to show the pain, joy and explosiveness of his character. Although we know his manager, Max- a wonderful performance by Lance Baker- must succumb to the manners of the time, it’s difficult to watch him make promises that he knows he can’t keep to his fighter. Mr. Baker also works as the highly effective ring announcer.

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Samuel Ray Gates as Wynton gives some insight to Akron Lanier Watson as Jay in “The Royale” at the Studio Theatre at the Rep. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

The cast excels throughout as Samuel Ray Gates gives strength and slyness to trainer Wynton and Bernard Gilbert is excellent as a young, tenacious opponent (Fish) who eventually becomes a sparring partner for Jay. Bria Walker is powerful in the role of Jay’s sister, Nina, who is an ethereal inner conscience to him. In a stunning scene at play’s end, she becomes the manifestation of his opponent as he fights for the world title against the white champion. He’s battling demons from his past as well as fighting prejudice and hate against a man no one wants him to defeat.

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Akron Lanier Watson as Jay has a conversation with his sister, Nina, played by Bria Walker at the Studio Theatre production of “The Royale.” Photo: Jon Gitchoff

Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams round out the cast as ensemble players. Stuart Carden has directed almost with the beauty of directing a ballet. The fights are highly stylized and sometimes a punch isn’t even thrown into the space between the opponents on stage for the other to react. Scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge has given us a wooden, square platform placed in a 3/4 audience setting with the hint of ropes and pipes along the back wall to simulate a gym as well as a boxing ring. The palette-like square features smaller square lighting areas to designate the fighters as they rarely face each other.

Stephanie Paul designed the movement and body percussion which worked fairly well on opening night with very few missteps. As the play moves on, this precision movement and sound will only get better- even though it was truly effective with the few blips that did happen. Christine Pascual’s costumes and the sound design of Michail Fiksel also work well. The Marco Ramirez script is outstanding- a short 75 minutes long, it moves on a roller coaster of emotions. The only flaw is when one of the characters decides to listen to the championship fight on the radio at a local bar. The play takes place between 1905 and 1910 and the first radio broadcasts of any type didn’t occur until the 1920’s.

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Bernard Gilbert as Fish prepares to battle Akron Lanier Watson as Jay while Lance Baker watches in the background during “The Royale” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jon Gitchoff

“The Royale” packs a punch while barely throwing one. It’s a perfect play for the Studio with the almost confining feel of sleazy gyms and smokey arenas as the audience is immersed in the world of the prizefighters. It plays through March 26th at the Rep Studio- give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

 

“Cabaret” Doesn’t Act Its Age As The Fox Presents The Roundabout Version

March 9, 2017
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Jon Peterson as the Emcee and the company perform the opening number in “Cabaret” at the Fox.

When I saw Joel Grey on tour with the original “Cabaret” at the old American Theatre downtown (I also saw him at the top of the Arch during that run- but that’s another story),  it was a frightening and eerie story and I remember how fascinating it was to see him pop up on stage and realize you never saw him hit that mark. That foreshadowing of how the Nazi regime creeped up in early 1930’s Berlin was a not so distant reminder of how they took that country and the world by surprise. Now, 50 years after that original story, “Cabaret” has been given an even darker look as it comes to the Fox Theatre and I’m afraid too many people aren’t seeing similar themes rise up in our current political spectrum.

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Cliff, played by Benjamin Eakeley and Ernst, played by Patrick Vaill, meet on a train to Berlin in “Cabaret” at the Fox.

By the tone of the conversations, that thought was looming heavily on a lot of folks around us in the theatre opening night. But even with the more ominous and somewhat sleazier look, the great Kander and Ebb score and the gripping story kept the audience enthralled. It didn’t hurt to have an outstanding cast either. From the opening “Wilkommen” number to the surprising new ending, Jon Peterson keeps you fascinated with his mixture of raw energy, sexual innuendo and charisma. His ad libs with audience members at the beginning of the second act are hilarious. He also, like Joel Grey from years ago, turns up in the most unusual places- sometimes just leering at the audience or other characters, sometimes dressed differently- but always that mixture of menace and mischievousness.

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Leigh Ann Larkin as Sally leads the ladies in “Don’t Tell Mama” at the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret” at the Fox.

Leigh Ann Larkin is one of the best Sally Bowles I’ve ever seen perform the role. She has a remarkable stage presence which helps out as she entertains the customers at the Kit Kat Klub but she brings a nuance to songs which have become standards like “Maybe This Time” (now interpolated into the stage musical from the movie version) and the iconic title number which she gives a whole new brand that works beautifully. Benjamin Eakeley is a wonderful Cliff as well. He becomes more than a third wheel between Sally and her frivolous ideas and pursuit of her dream.

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Mary Gordon Murray as Fraulein Schneider discovers Herr Schultz, played by Scott Robertson, has brought her a pineapple in “Cabaret” at the Fox.

Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson make a fine couple as the older, more set in their ways folks- Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz- who believe the Nazis are just a passing fad. Their delightful duet of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and his plaintive “Married” are highlights. Alison Ewing is delightful as the promiscuous denizen of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house and Patrick Vaill is both friendly and disturbing as the ominous Ernst Ludwig. The large company of singers and dancers from the Kit Kat Klub are perfect as they grind and gyrate their way through the songs- most of which are filled with double entendres. The play is obviously not for children- although I saw a few them on opening night- but the “Two Ladies” number in particular is exceedingly explicit.

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Jon Peterson as the Emcee touts the benefits of having “Two Ladies?” during “Cabaret” at the Fox.

This is the version of “Cabaret” that started at the Domar Warehouse in England that starred Alan Cumming which was recreated and later revived at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Club- also starring Mr. Cumming . B.T. McNicholl directed with the original Sam Mendes staging and Cynthia Onrubia recreated the original Rob Marshall choreography. The slightly askew set- as befitting a trashy nightclub- was designed by Robert Brill and the equally lurid lights are the creation of Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. Costumes, including the provocative Emcee’s costume, are the work of William Ivey Long.

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The wonderful Kit Kat Klub band performs during “Cabaret” at the Fox.

If you haven’t seen the new incarnation of “Cabaret,” get ready for a much darker and more profound production. The wonderful music of John Kander and lyrics of Fred Ebb along with the book by Joe Masteroff are still there with a bit of a different take on the proceedings. It’s disturbing but highly entertaining and can be seen at the Fox through March 19th.

 

 

St. Louis Theater Circle Awards- Fun, Food, Drink, Camaraderie And…Oh, Yes, Awards!

March 8, 2017
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Nominee “Arcadia” from West End Players Guild.

The time is drawing near when we shall be privy to the largest cast party of the year as the 5th Annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards will highlight local theatre in our area. The date is March 20th and you’ll have the time of your life. Those who are nominated will be a bit nervous but, as one who has been runner up in several awards presentations in the past (okay, I’ve won a few, too), the secret is the before and after of the presentations. That’s where the fun begins…and continues.

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Circle Award nominee, “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” from The Black Rep.

Let’s take a few “by the numbers” looks at this year’s awards:

6- Six new companies have been nominated who have never been honored before (although some are new companies this year as well). They include Act, Inc., Equally Represented Arts (ERA), The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, Variety Children’s Theatre, Winter Opera St. Louis and YoungLiars.

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Nominee “Company” from Insight Theatre Company.

27- Total number of theatre companies nominated this year.

119- Total number of artists nominated this year.

24- Most nominations from one company- Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

11- Most nominations for one production- “Grey Gardens” for Max & Louie Productions.

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Will Bonfiglio (from “Buyer and Cellar” at Stray Dog) with one of his record number four acting nominations.

4- Most nominations for one individual across the categories- Will Bonfiglio- nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy, and Best Supporting Actor for Comedy, Drama and Musical.

12- Number of multiple nominates (2) for actors this year.

2- New categories. Both opera categories which have been switched out of the musical categories.

5- That’s right- this is the 5th Annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.

20- The most important date for you this month- Monday, March 20th.

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A scene from “Brighton Beach Memoirs” from first time nominees from Act, Inc.

It has been a pleasure for me to be part of this awards program as a founding member and I look forward to another successful year. All of the details are listed below as we have already started another calendar year of great theatre in our town. I look forward to seeing you at all of the venues this year and especially at the Circle Awards this month.

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Maybe you’ll see Frank N Furter and Rocky from the Stray Dog production at the Circle Awards…

The St. Louis Theater Circle Awards ceremony is being held Monday, March 20th at 7:00 PM at the Skip Viragh Center on the campus of Chaminade Prep on Lindbergh. General admission tickets are $15.00 and you can order them at brownpapertickets.com or pay (cash or check only) at the box office that evening.

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Another nominated show- “Glass Menagerie” at Upstream Theatre as part of the Tennessee Williams Festival.

In addition, With Love Catering will provide a pre-event buffet starting at 5:30 PM. Tickets this year will be $25.00 (plus tax + tip) for food and 2 drink tickets. Order at withlovecatering.com. A cash bar will also be available before and after the ceremony and at intermission. See you there!