“Pump Boys And Dinettes” Returns To St. Louis At the Playhouse At Westport Plaza

February 18, 2017

pumplogoI’m not a big fan of country music but “Pump Boys And Dinettes” has always been one of my favorite musicals- actually a musical revue with all original music- an odd duck  but entertaining as can be. Now the Playhouse at Westport Plaza has brought the show back to our town after an absence of many a year and they have assembled a talented cast.

Written in 1982, “Pump Boys” was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as quite a few Drama Desk Awards. It played the Muny in 1992 and I believe it has had one or two other stints in town over the years. Combining a filling station and a short order cafe called The Double Cupp, the musical is just an excuse for stringing some great music together with four guys pumping gas and two girls serving victuals.

Chet Wollan is the “ringleader,” Jim, who does most of the transitional narration and handles a lot of musical instruments along the way. Brandon Fillette is the charmer, LM, who also serves up keyboard (including the ‘cordine) and some of the guitars. Steven Romero Schaeffer is the young buck, Jackson who also handles a few instruments and Ed Avila rounds out the filling station personnel as Ed- bass player and resident stone face.

Candice Lively (Mrs. Chet Wollan in real life) and Jessica Bradley are the Cupp sisters and display amazing singing talent and do some rather articulate percussion work using strainers, spoons and other paraphernalia hanging around the diner. In fact, the singing is the highlight of this production as the harmonies and solo work are all outstanding. Most show their dancing prowess as well including the girls who mingle with the audience at one point and grab a few paying customers to dance in the aisles.

A lot of the tunes are familiar and, at the time the show was written, made it to the “pop” music stations when pop music including songs from musicals were a regular part of their  repertoire. “Be Good Or Be Gone,” “The Best Man” and the delightfully catchy “No Holds Barred” were all part of that pop music phenomenon when songs like “76 Trombones” and “If Ever I Would Leave You” found permanent homes on local radio stations.

pumpDirector Curt Wollan has tied all of this wild and wooly madness into a wonderful package of entertainment. With a busy set and non-stop music, “Pump Boys And Dinettes” is a delightful treat for theatre goers. It has a very limited run- only through February 19th, so contact the folks at playhouseatwestport.com and plan now for a toe-tapping bundle of musical fun.

 

Frigid Flights Of Fancy In “The Ice Fishing Play” At West End Players Guild

February 14, 2017
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Michael Pierce and Shannon Lampkin visit Colin Nichols in “The Ice Fishing Play” at West End Players Guild. Photo: John Lamb

Garrison Keillor meets Jean-Paul Sartre in Kevin Kling’s unusual, almost mysterious, “The Ice Fishing Play” at West End Players Guild. Existentialism in the frigid Minnesota winter during the proverbial snowstorm of the century may not sound very entertaining but a funny script with a universal theme running through it makes for an enigmatic and moving play. A solid cast doesn’t hurt either.

Colin Nichols as Ron sets up shop in his ice fishing hut as the relentless wind whirls around outside and two good ol’ boys talk on the radio. The voices of Tim and Paul (Mark Abels and Michael Monsey) discuss a recent murder in the local community and then run through a litany of school closings due to the storm. It’s all we hear as Ron finally gets the beer stowed and his fishing line in the ice and snatches his first big catch- the license plate to his own car. His worst fears are realized as he goes to the door to discover his truck has been swallowed under the ice.

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Scott De Broux, Moses Weathers and Colin Nichols chew the fat while drinking and fishing in the WEPG production of “The Ice Fishing Play.” Photo: John Lamb

This is followed by an astonishing series of events which starts with a visit from two missionaries not dressed at all for the bitter cold weather. Shannon Lampkin and Michael Pierce are a hoot as the would be proselytizers as her view of the Bible takes a decidedly different twist than his. After they leave, Ron’s brother Duff enters as a cantankerous mischief maker played to the hilt by Scott De Broux. In the meantime, Ron gets a visit (we assume in his thoughts) from his wife Irene as she scolds him for leaving her by herself all the time as he holes up in the shack on the ice. Colleen Backer gives a wonderful performance as Irene and she’s the only one who gets the Minnesota accent right (although most of the actors don’t really attempt it at all).

The local bait store owner, Junior, even pays a visit in the form of Moses Weathers. His enthusiastic, boundless character warms up the chilly ice fishing shack. And we even get a visit from Ron’s younger self, played by George Nichols. Why are all of these people encroaching on the solitude of an ice fisherman who just wants to be alone? Early on it all becomes clear and there’s only one question left at play’s end…

This charming play is directed by Adam Grun and he keeps the going light while catching all of the humor in the script. The Zachary Cary set design is a perfect representation of the lonely ice shack and Nathan Schroeder’s lights add just the right touch. Tracy Newcomb-Margrave has costumed the play with an eye for detail and the J.D. Wade sound design is highlighted by that constant, swirling wind.

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Colleen Backer invades the solitude of Colin Nichols in the West End Players Guild production of “The Ice Fishing Play.” Photo: John Lamb

Playwright Kevin Kling is a native Minnesotan and has done extensive work as a reporter and storyteller on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He has captured the homespun humor,  the local flavor and the obsession with ice fishing in this play. The existential side is a surprise but it’s a rare treat in a play that you think may take a whole different direction. WEPG’s production of “The Ice Fishing Play” runs through February 19th. For an unusual evening of theatre, give them a call at 314-667-5686 or track them down at westendplayers.org.

 

Wordy “The Way We Get By” Entertains Despite Itself At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

February 14, 2017
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Andrew Rea and Sophia Brown have both hot and cool conversations during “The Way We Get By” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Neil LaBute’s wonderful Festival Of One-Acts each summer at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio is one of the best things to look forward to in St. Louis theatre. It has even transformed (along with one other STLAS production) to Off Broadway in New York for the past few years. Now we’re treated to an extended one-act from Mr. LaBute during their regular season- the intriguing “The Way We Get By.”

With the trademark halting speech and doing the end-around from characters that exemplify so much of his work, Neil LaBute might have considered taking a few swipes with the scissors on this one. There is a big reveal that, unfortunately comes almost half way through this 90 minute one-act and it rather feels that we’ve been cheated in a certain way by doing this dance with the after sex discussions ranging from near regret to heights of giddiness. Because everything changes after we find out about their background and then the truly serious complications go roaming through out thoughts.

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Things get serious for Sophia Brown as Beth and Andrew Rea as Doug in the STLAS production of “The Way We Get By.” Photo: John Lamb

Thankfully we’re blessed with two wonderful actors and a beautifully conceived production that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Andrew Rea gives a superb performance as Doug as he feels a strong aversion to having a second go after the sex the night before seems to have been spectacular. As Beth, Sophia Brown- so wonderful in the STLAS production of “Three Tall Women” earlier in the season- is a breath of fresh air as she makes all the right moves but soon gets bogged down as well after they have the “discussion” that would probably throw a damper on any relationship. They do have great chemistry together on stage.

Director Nancy Bell works her magic spell as she pulls out all the stops in this scintillating relationship- definitely for mature audiences only. Despite the hesitant speech and working around personal foibles as the first half of the play unfolds, you’re fascinated to know just where this will all lead. Patrick Huber’s set design is perfect depicting a New York apartment which includes an important part of the plot- a swivel chair that takes on a special significance. Mr. Huber also designed an effective lighting design while the costume design by Carla Landis Evans features the “less is more” approach- perfect for “The Way We Get By.”

Neil LaBute has a distinctive touch with modern issues and his one-acts which open the summer seasons of his Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio are always splendid as they lead the way for unknown playwrights across the country to display their wares for, often, the first time. “The Way We Get By” might have worked better as a shorter piece but once we get to the heart of the matter, it really poses some serious questions. I can’t imagine similar problems arising in most relationships, but it’s truly food for thought.

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Sophia Brown and Andrew Rea in “The Way We Get By” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

“The Way We Get By” plays at St. Louis Actors’ Studio through February 26th. Contact STLAS at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

 

 

“To Kill A Mockingbird” Endures With Latest Production At The Repertory Theatre Of St. Louis

February 13, 2017
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Roman and Kaylee Ryan as Jem and Scout in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A classic in any year, this time around at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, “To Kill A Mockingbird” seems particularly significant. In 2017 it seems ludicrous that we’re on the path to returning to the way things were in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama, but the atmosphere seems juiced and it looks like our current presidential administration would like to return to these “good ol’ boy” days. Thanks to the return of Atticus Finch, we’re reminded how we can’t let this happen again.

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Jonathan Gillard Daly as Atticus Finch commands the courtroom in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

It’s tough to compete with Gregory Peck but Jonathan Gillard Daly has that quiet spirit and firm but soothing tone that we expect of Atticus Finch. The small town lawyer who takes up the case of the young black man accused of raping a young white girl seems to be a lost cause but he pokes holes in the case against Tom Robinson to no avail. A lesson is learned and we learn it best from Atticus, his two children and a young boy visiting his aunt for the summer.

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Kaylee Ryan, Tanesha Gary and Roman Ryan in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A strong performance by young Kaylee Ryan as Scout leads the way for the three children who, in their innocence, try to understand the mood of the town when they know Tom to be innocent. She is a natural on stage and easily brings forth the befuddlement of a young girl who hasn’t yet been tainted by a world of prejudice and hate. Kaylee’s twin brother, Roman Ryan does a fine job as Jem- her older brother in the play. And young Charlie Mathis- in a superb performance as well- rounds out the “three musketeers” as they battle against social injustice with the naiveté of pre-teen children.

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Whit Reichert as the Judge looks on as Rachel Fenton as Mayella viciously attacks the accusations of Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Ben Nordstrom does well as the prosecutor trying to put Tom away- a nice way of saying getting him lynched- and doubles up as Boo Radley’s older brother while Christopher Harris is Boo and Walter Cunningham. Whit Reichert is a superb judge who takes no back talk from anyone in his courtroom. Alan Knoll shines in a very different role for him lately- the redneck father who continually stands and vilifies Atticus as he cross examines his daughter. As the daughter, Rachel Fenton has returned to our fair city after a few years in New York and she is amazing as the wretched young girl who tries to frame Tom. Both with her hate-spewed dialogue and, more importantly with her posture and demeanor when she’s fidgeting on the stand, she is a small study in proper acting technique.

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The three young kids sit in the upper gallery during the trial at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

A mix of several local and other professional actors assemble the remaining cast with nice work by Terrell Donnell Sledge as Tom, Tanesha Gary as the Finch housemaid and babysitter as well as Michael Keck as Reverend Sykes who also arranged the unique gospel music that breaks up scenes in “To Kill A Mockingbird” as the Negro crowd (relegated to the upper balcony in the courtroom) help move the plot with the inspirational melodies.

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Alan Knoll as a furious Bob Ewell lashes out in court as Whit Riechert as the judge looks on in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the play moving even though it still comes in at about two and a half hours or better with one intermission. Although Narelle Sissons has done some clever work with the set design, it might be just a bit too spare. The tree dominates the stage left side with the courtroom scenes, the Finch household and various other spaces taking up the rest. Rolling screen doors on and even the neighborhood “get off my lawn” lady rolling in on a wheelchair with a window and flower box attached are nice touches but they don’t make up for one of the major “characters” in the story- Boo Radley’s ominous house. The Devon Painter costumes are excellent as are the lights designed  by Michael Klaers.

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Jonathan Gillard Daly as Atticus Finch has a serious talk with Kaylee Ryan as Scout in “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

It’s always a treat to visit this Harper Lee classic- even after the disappointing book sequel that came out a few years ago. This adaptation of the stage play is by Christopher Sergel. “To Kill A Mockingbird” is still a moving piece that is a constant reminder of how important it is to not lose ground that has been so preciously won over the years. It plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage through March 5th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

True Musical Comedy Fans Will Have A Field Day With “Something Rotten” At The Fox

February 10, 2017
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Rob McClure as Nick and Adam Pascal as Shakespeare battle it out for supremacy in “Something Rotten” at the Fox Theatre.

Everyone will enjoy the sharp wit, the wonderful music and over the top choreography of the Broadway hit, “Something Rotten,” currently playing at the Fox Theatre. But true-blue fans of musical comedy will be rolling in the aisles at the subtle and overt jokes in both the dialogue and music in this uproarious comedy that tackles the invention of musical comedy during the age of Shakespeare.

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Maggie Lakis and Rob McClure in the Fox production of “Something Rotten.”

Nick Bottom writes plays for a living and most of them are pretty good. But he’s writing them in 1500’s London and trying to compete with the literal rock star of the theatre of the time, William Shakespeare. He travels to a soothsayer to see if he can discover a new and fresh idea that would sway the adoring fans of the Bard into his camp. The predictions of the seer are pretty good as he predicts the coming of the musical comedy as foreshadowed in a broad, brassy and bold musical number called “A Musical.” Not only does he predict the medium, he even is able to forsee actual plot lines and characters from today’s modern musicals.

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Autumn Hurlbert as Portia and Josh Grisetti as Nigel in “Something Rotten” at the Fox Theatre.

As if this weren’t silly enough, Nick and his collaborating brother, Nigel (who writes prose so well that Shakespeare is actually jealous enough of him to steal his manuscripts), decide to write a musical based on another of the soothsayer’s slightly foggy vision- “Omelette, The Musical.” But, to steal one of Nigel’s better lines (now attributed to Shakespeare) “all’s well that ends well” and a typical musical comedy ending blends with a not-so-typical musical comedy to make “Something Rotten” a delight from start to finish.

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Rob McClure as Nick and Blake Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus in the finale of “A Musical” during the Fox Theatre production of “Something Rotten.”

Muny favorite, Rob McClure is the energetic Nick. From his “God, I Hate Shakespeare” number through his competition patter song with the Bard to the production number- “Make An Omelette”- which features another series of modern musical comedies paraded before their time, he is a charming bundle of musical comedy genius. Nigel, his brother, is given an equally adept- though slightly shyer- portrayal by the talented Josh Grisetti. The man himself, Will Shakespeare, gets the modern day rock god treatment as Broadway veteran, Adam Pascal delights in his tight fitting leggings and silver lame and anachronistic collar ruffles- not to mention his rather “noticeable” codpiece.

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Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah and Rob McClure as Nick in “Something Rotten” at the Fox Theatre.

The long-suffering wife of Nick, Bea, is the lovely Mrs. McClure, Maggie Lakis and the love of Nigel’s life, Portia- daughter of a Puritan ramrod- is the quintessential, talented musical comedy female side kick, Autumn Hurlbert. Her sanctimonious father, Brother Jeremiah, is a marvelous Scott Cote who takes the hilarious step out of the closet during the raucous “We See The Light” number in the second act.

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Nick (Rob McClure) gets advice from Shylock (Jeff Brooks) during the Fox presentation of “Something Rotten.”

The portly yet nimble soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (nephew to the other one), is the outstanding Blake Hammond who goes step for step with the chorus of dancers. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender (you’ll notice how Shakespeare honed a lot of his plot and characters), is played by the wickedly world-wise Jeff Brooks.

This madness was created by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick who wrote the music and lyrics and the book was developed by Karey and John O’Farrell. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw ran with the concept and turned it into a true masterpiece of a musical comedy. Scott Pask’s scene design is effective and clever and the lights of Jeff Crotter add just the right touch. The Gregg Barnes costume design is truly inspired and the musical direction of Brian P. Kennedy is perfection.

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Adam Pascal as Shakespeare is greeted by his adoring fans in “Something Rotten” at the Fox Theatre.

“Something Rotten” is a musical that is thoroughly enjoyable the first time around but the real musical comedy fan will have to see it multiple times to catch the rapid fire references to musicals of the past decades as well as current ones. The sly innuendo, the outright obvious references (such as the “A Chorus Line” resume photos) and the incessant barrage of tributes to maybe hundreds of shows past is incredible through both dialogue, lyrics and actions. “Something Rotten” plays at the Fox Theatre through February 19th. Do not miss this one.

The Stunning “A Doll’s House” At Stray Dog Is A Classic That, Today, Amuses Rather Than Shocks

February 5, 2017
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Ben Ritchie as Torvald and Nicole Angeli as Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

When the Henrik Ibsen classic, “A Doll’s House,” premiered in 1879, it shocked with themes of women’s liberation and ideas that polite society never thought about, let alone talked about. Now, during the final act of this production at Stray Dog Theatre, Torvald’s words elicit snickers instead of gasps but it’s such a well honed and beautiful story that one can’t help but appreciate the language as well as the intent of Ibsen’s work.

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Nicole Angeli as Nora and Stephen Peirick as Nils in the Stray Dog Theatre production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Photo: John Lamb

Nora lives a life of the complacent housewife who worries about Christmas presents and, quite frankly, opens the play with such effusion and delight that you’re surprised when she later reveals a dark secret. Her husband, Torvald, showers her in affection and even gives her little baby animal names as he chides her on the holiday purchases while “tsk-tsk”ing her like you would a not so naughty child. But her secret becomes apparent in a series of circumstances when Torvald accepts a new position (lawyer to banker) and is about to get rid of one of his new employees.

Nora is secretly deep in debt to the fired employee, Nils, and despite her pleas to help her friend Kristine who has lost her husband as well as most of her money, she realizes that when Torvald makes way for her in the bank by firing Nils, she must pay up to Nils immediately. This four way dilemma opens a fifth door when an old friend, Dr. Rank, expresses his love for Nora- a problem she doesn’t need when all of these other things fill her plate. Then, the stunning finale occurs when Nora decides she doesn’t need Torvald’s condescension nor the traditional trappings of marriage and boldly makes her statement that shocked audiences in 1879 but has then cheering in 2017.

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Nicole Angeli as Nora consoles Ben Ritchie as Torvald in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

A most diverse actress, Nicole Angeli, is perfect as Nora. She moves from almost clueless housewife to rebel as she becomes increasingly overwhelmed with her situation. And actress who handles both comedy and drama with equal aplomb, she is nothing short of outstanding in this very difficult role. Ben Ritchie is equally adept in roles running from broad humor to his previous triumph, Macbeth. As Torvald, he is a rigid taskmaster with a marvelous penchant for sappy sexism when it comes to Nora. It’s a controlled performance that opens bit by bit until his final, audacious rampage.

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John N. Reidy, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie and Nicole Angeli in the Stray Dog Theatre production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Photo: John Lamb

Rachel Hanks returns to Stray Dog and gives a wonderful performance as Kristine. She, too, has a few secrets she reveals to Nora and then, surprisingly, has a connection to Nils as well. Stephen Peirick gives a ramrod performance as Nils. With a mix of desperation and stern conviction, he won’t let anything stand in the way of achieving his goals. John N. Reidy rounds out the major cast as the quiet but always lurking Dr. Rank. You get the feeling that he knows more than he is letting on as he moves through the household with an almost surreptitious presence.

Also in the cast are Melanie Kozak and Tina Renard as domestics in Nora and Torvald’s household and a short appearance by Simon Desilets and Joe Webb as their children. The lavish set design befitting their rank in the community is the work of Robert J. Lippert and the stunning costumes are by Eileen Engel. Tyler Duenow’s lights are spot on and Justin Been’s sound design is superb as well.

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John N. Reidy as Dr. Rank shares his feeling with Nicole Angeli as Nora in “A Doll’s House” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

This adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” has been adapted by Frank McGuinness and offers a straight forward and easy to follow plot. Despite being three acts, director Gary F. Bell has paced the play beautifully. It goes by leaving you hanging on edge for the next act and the powerful finale is a thing of beauty. “A Doll’s House” plays through February 18th and you can contact Stray Dog Theatre at 314-865-1995 or at straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Road Trip! “Little Thing big thing”At The Midnight Company Pits Nun Vs. Thief

February 2, 2017
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Joe Hanrahan and Rachel Tibbetts in the Midnight Company production of “Little Thing big thing.” Photo by Ellie Schwetye

Larry O’Donell is a thief. This time he’s after a valuable statue of the Virgin Mary that’s housed in a chapel in Ireland that is  being torn down. Sister Martha is a nun who is sent to close down that chapel. When she realizes someone is after her- or rather after a roll of film she is to deliver to someone in Dublin- a wild and reckless road trip through Ireland ensues and this unlikely pair bicker and bond until the sobering finale.

Donal O’Kelly has crafted this bizarre story and, once you get used to his insistence on the actors mouthing sound effects and, of course, the Irish and Scottish brogues, “Little Thing big thing” settles into a delightful if hazardous romp. Joe Hanrahan, Artistic Director of The Midnight Company, is a brazen, profane thief who makes no excuses for his behavior and lifestyle. A great role for the talented Mr. Hanrahan as his brash portrayal is perfect for this likable bad guy.

Rachel Tibbetts, founder of Slightly Askew Theatre Company (SATE), is the prim but, as it turns out, far from proper Sister Martha. Objecting to Larry’s Mamet-like mouth, she soon falls into the rhythm- if not the spirit- of his charming style and soon becomes quite thrilled with this new adventure of eluding whoever is after her (them) and the rather rough ride of his rickety old car as they bounce through the countryside. A delightful performance that sparkles with wit and a bit of wild abandon as both she and Joe Hanrahan tackle multiple roles along the way. Mr. Hanrahan recently directed Ms Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in a dark production of “Cuddles” at SATE and now both of the ladies are involved in The Midnight Company production. A wonderful collaboration that I hope continues.

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Joe Hanrahan and Rachel Tibbetts in “Little Thing big thing” at The Midnight Company. Photo by Ellie Schwetye

Along with the on stage duo, off to the side is the duo of Jason Scroggins on guitar and Will Bonfiglio on “fiddle.” Accompanying with everything from appropriate Irish tunes to a tongue-in-cheek “Bonnie and Clyde,” they fill out the story beautifully. Will has another commitment so he will be replaced by Amy Greenhalgh during the rest of the run.

Ellie Schwetye directs “Little Thing big thing” and keeps the pace moving at breakneck speed in this 90 minute one-act. They are aided by the Michael B. Perkins video design which features location photos as well as a running video of their road trip including maps as they search for their final destination. With the basic background of a television studio where they are performing, the lighting design, the musicians, a few platforms, some props and the running video make it seem bigger than it is. A shout out to Pamela Reckamp as well working as the dialect coach and the costumes of Jennifer “JC” Krajicek.

The Midnight Company always provides some of the most unusual theatre in our town. “Little Thing big thing” is no exception as, once you settle into the occasional sound effects coming from the actors and the accents, it is a marvelous evening of adventure and (mostly) comedy.

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Joe Hanrahan and Rachel Tibbetts in The Midnight Company production of “Little Thing big thing.” Photo by Ellie Schwetye

Don’t miss out on this entertaining road trip as “Little Thing big thing” runs through February 11th. Contact The Midnight Company at midnight company.com for tickets or more information.

 

Murky Landscape Of The Mind As “The Year Of The Bicycle” Premieres At Upstream

January 31, 2017
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Magan Wiles as Amelia and Eric J. Conners as Andile in the Upstream Theater production of “The Year Of The Bicycle.” Photo:ProPhotoSTL.com

Upstream Theater is normally one of the most rich and challenging companies in town with translations from playwrights from other countries (usually translated by Artistic Director Philip Boehm) or classic American pieces. With “The Year Of The Bicycle” by playwright and actor Joanna Ruth Evans, the short one-act is just a bit too confusing at times as it doesn’t always jump logically from past to present. Described as a shared mental landscape of the two characters, it often gets a bit too murky as they journey through twenty years of real and perhaps imagined life.

At one point they talk about imagining themselves in the sky looking down at themselves and then in the world looking up at themselves in the sky. Perhaps an indication that they have departed this earth together or is it merely this murky landscape that they somehow share over the years? Maybe it’s an unanswered question in the script for us to ponder.

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Magan Wiles and Eric J. Conners in “The Year Of The Bicycle” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Magan Wiles is a white South African girl named Amelia who we first meet at age 8. Eric J. Conners is Andile, a black youngster from the neighborhood who is Amelia’s best (and probably his only) friend. Sharing soccer, bicycles and even a made up baby brother made out of scraps of cloth, their imagination takes the place of any other real playthings. Emulating Amelia Earhart, she even takes Andile on a “plane ride” using the wheel of a bicycle. Andile, in the meantime, continually uses a ball of red yarn to mark out spaces on the oblong set that features eight thin poles to indicate their world.

Both actors keep us enthralled- if confused at times- particularly during the unabashed thrill of eight year olds at play. Tragedy and change mark their grown up selves but we’re never quite sure if it all takes place twenty years in the future or various times throughout that twenty years. A lot of the dialogue is stilted and dream-like which just adds to the perplexing story.

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Magan Wiles and Eric J. Conners during a special moment in the Upstream Theater production of “The Year Of The Bicycle.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Philip Boehm directs with an eye for broad moves and abandon during the sequences featuring them as children but a more reserved and, at times, slow motion movement during their later years. Although this help delineate between their time together, the whole mental landscape situation doesn’t come off as obvious enough. David A. N. Jackson serves as the “soundscape,” a random but effective set of mostly percussive instruments. As in most Upstream productions, this becomes an outstanding “extra player” in the cast that adds a lot to the proceedings.

Michael Heil’s set design is intriguing as the audience sits on both sides of the long rectangles and the random objects denoting the bicycle and a rolling table that serves quite a few purposes are fine in the scheme of things. Tony Anselmo’s lights are superb and the costumes of Laura Hanson fit the two characters well as they travel through time.

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Magan Wiles “flies” the plane and Eric J. Conners is along for the ride in “The Year Of The Bicycle” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

With a running time of just over an hour, it’s just about enough time to try to wrap your mind around just what is going on. The idea is fascinating but I think the script needs a bit of work to clear up some of the conceptual thoughts and bring things into focus. “The Year Of The Bicycle” plays at Upstream Theater through February 12th. Contact them at http://www.upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information.

Multi-Layered “Intimate Apparel” Is A Beautiful Moment In Time At New Jewish

January 28, 2017
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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

With layers rich in text and sub-text, Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” takes the stage at The New Jewish Theatre and a strong cast and direction make it a heart-wrenching evening that will leave you breathless, crying and with strong feelings for all of the characters she has created.

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Linda Kennedy as Mrs. Dickson and Jacqueline Thompson as Esther in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Nottage has based her lead character, Esther, on her grandmother. A seamstress in 1905 New York, she has struggled for years while saving up her money to open a beauty parlor for black patrons. She sees the girls in her rooming house meet and marry while, at 35, she still has hope to make that dream come true for her, but it doesn’t appear likely. Until a friend who has ventured South hooks her up with a “pen pal” who is helping to build the Panama Canal. After a whirlwind courtship, she agrees to marry him sight unseen- even though she is illiterate and has been assisted in her correspondence by one of her rich, white clients as well as her friend who is a lady of the evening.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Chauncy Thomas as George in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Things take an unexpected twist as the second act turns from euphoria and innocence to a much darker story. As the tale unfolds, you connect with all of the people in her life, including the Jewish fabric store owner who seems infatuated with her. Perhaps one of the most telling notes in the play is the use of overhead kirons that announce each scene- at the end of the first act and the second as well, a flash indicates a photo is taken and both the marriage picture and a photo of her return to her sewing are described as “unidentified couple” and “unidentified seamstress.” So, as involved as we are in all the stories that open up to us, history reveals their anonymity.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther and Andrea Purnell as Mayme in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Vivid performances highlight the show starting with a fragile and touching turn by Jacqueline Thompson as Esther. Like a delicate flower, she sways to please whoever enters her life until circumstances change her and, eventually, bring her a new resolve. Chauncy Thomas has returned to the St. Louis scene after having success on the East Coast and brings an epic portrayal of George- the Barbados native who woos and wins Esther sight unseen. He masterfully tackles the changing and challenging moods of the character and maintains a most difficult dialect as well.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther gets advice from Julie Layton as Mrs. Van Buren in “Intimate Apparel” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

One of the grande dames of local theatre, Linda Kennedy, gives richness and texture to the nosy landlady, Mrs. Dickson with those special touches in both movement and voice inflection that define any character she plays. Andrea Purnell brings that hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold vulnerability to her role as Mayme and Julie Layton is perfectly proper as Esther’s rich client, Mrs. Van Buren. Both ladies- at opposite ends of the economic and social spectrum- come to the assistance of and then play a major part in Esther’s enormous change of circumstances during the course of the play.

Jim Butz rounds out the cast as the Jewish fabric store owner, Mr. Marks. His shy, almost stilted flirtation with Esther is obvious as he can sense her moods and feels true concern for what he knows must be going on in her life. His subtle performance includes two similar moments as Esther leaves his shop and he is stopped in his tracks trying to wonder what has happened after their near moments of intimacy. His stance and the expression on his face both times say so much as the scene fades to black.

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Jacqueline Thompson as Esther admires the fabric shown to her by Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the delicate and seasoned touch of Gary Wayne Barker as director of “Intimate Apparel.” The audience can really detect the director’s hand in this play as it moves from moment to moment, crisis to crisis with tension and raw emotion. An outstanding scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack also complements the story as the stage is divided into several playing areas with curtains that either move from side to side or up and down- thus keeping the theme of Esther’s profession of sewing intimate apparel for ladies of wealth. It gives the whole play a feeling of intimacy as you’re focused on small areas of the stage at a time with a centerpiece of a bedroom that serves as various truly intimate areas as needed.

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Jim Butz as Mr. Marks in his shop during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Intimate Apparel.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Sean Savoie’s lighting design adds to that intimacy as do the several wonderful costume pieces of Michele Friedman Siler as they speak with a refinement to Esther’s profession. This play is remarkable in both the broad scope of the story and the intimate moments that surround the characters. Lynn Nottage has crafted a beautiful piece that speaks to generations and cultures over the years. Call the New Jewish Theatre at 314-442-3283 and see this wonderfully evocative story, “Intimate Apparel,” playing through February 12th.

 

 

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.