Upstream Theater Brings Humor And Compassion With “A Tree, Falling”

April 20, 2018
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Jerry Vogel and Kari Ely in the Upstream Theater production of “A Tree, Falling.” Photo: Virginia Harold

Two of St. Louis’ finest actors bring a story about dementia to life with a touching and compassionate look at a performer with the failing disease and his “friendly visitor” who becomes his hope and lifeline. “A Tree, Falling” is by Australian playwright Ron Elisha and his play is a gentle and profound production at Upstream Theater.

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Kari Ely as Lola tries to explain things to Jerry Vogel as Lenny in “A Tree, Falling” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Jerry Vogel is almost unrecognizable as Lenny- a man who has trouble remembering where he is but can recall incidents and names from his past that even the best of us couldn’t recall. His aging make up and his demeanor belie the usual spirit he portrays on stage. Rambling in speech and ambling in walk, he deftly portrays this man who constantly has to ask of his friendly visitor (I presume an Australian term for in home caregiver) what her name is and who she is.

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Kari Ely as Lola tries to comfort the frustrated Jerry Vogel in Upstream Theatre’s production of “A Tree Falling.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Kari Ely as Lola brings a tender performance as she gradually comes to depend on Lenny as much as he does on her. Even when she explodes when Lenny has thrown her son’s keyboard into the pot belly stove soon gives way to compassion. It is a nuanced performance that makes this play work so well.

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Jerry Vogel as Lenny carries the infamous keyboard in the Upstream Theater production of “A Tree, Falling.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Director Michael Dorsey has created that feel on stage with his equally powerful direction. He never lets things turn too maudlin and the result is an uplifting story that just may bring a tear to your eye. Christie Johnson’s set design cover several areas including Lenny’s kitchen that holds that infamous pot belly stove where he likes to throw things he doesn’t want or doesn’t recognize (short term memory is a real problem for him). Tony Anselmo provides a great lighting design and Laura Hanson’s costumes are appropriate to the characters.

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Kari Ely embraces Jerry Vogel in “A Tree, Falling” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Upstream Theater has long presented plays from other countries (a lot of them translated by Artistic Director Philip Boehm) and this one from prolific Australian playwright Ron Elisha is a worthy addition. It plays through April 29th and you can go to http://www.upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information.

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“Oklahoma!” Sweeps Into Stages-St. Louis Finale With Style and Panache

September 14, 2018
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Blake Price as Curly tries to soften up Sarah Ellis as Laurey in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

When you load a musical with actors who are triple threats, you’ve got yourself a winner. Add them to a beloved show like “Oklahoma!” and you’ve outdone yourself. This sums up the finale to the 2018 season for Stages-St. Louis with all of the flawless production values we’re used to from this long running and beloved company.

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Blake Price as Curly, Sarah Ellis as Laurey and Zoe Vonder Haar as Aunt Eller imagine the “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

This was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who  had already had success with other partners in musicals. They created, in “Oklahoma!”, a turning point in the American musical where the songs actually drove the action instead of just providing a “break” to the story. It also started a history of musical comedy with dark overtones. The death of a major character had never been seen before and with subsequent shows they introduced weighty and thoughtful subjects along with standard musical comedy flair. With all of that going for it, “Oklahoma!” has stood the test of time and has been performed thousands of times since 1943 and most companies, like Stages, have produced the show multiple times.

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Lucy Moon as Ado Annie tells Sarah Ellis as Laurey why she “Cain’t Say No” during “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

It’s hard to imagine a cast better than this one. Blake Price as Curly and Sarah Ellis as Laurey not only have great chemistry but they both have terrific singing voices and can act- not only in dialogue but with expressive singing showing pathos, humor and drama with every note. Ms. Ellis even danced as “dream Laurey” during the ballet at the end of the first act. Nicholas De La Vega took over the role of “dream Curly.” They pretend to feud throughout when you know they really belong together so the pretend spats during “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and the coy “People Will Say We’re In Love” work to perfection.

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Con O’Shea-Creal as Will Parker and the male chorus dazzle with the “Kansas City” number in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

As the second comic leads in the show, Con O’Shea-Creal and Lucy Moon made a terrific pair as Will Parker and Ado Annie. Also wonderful actors and singers, his Will Parker dazzles in the “Kansas City” number and she simply charms during the “I Cain’t Say No” specialty number while they both delight in the “All Er Nuthin'” competition song in the second act. Her indecision between Will and her new found fascination with Ali Hakim is a treat to watch.

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Blake Price as Curly and David Sajewich as Jud Fry discussing Jud’s funeral during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Always a solid performer in both leads and character roles, Zoe Vonder Haar rules the roost as Aunt Eller doling out wisdom and singing and dancing with abandon. Also fitting comfortably in a minor role is the scintillating Leah Berry as the obnoxious Gertie Cummings who tries to steal Curly away from Laurey. Her double-barreled silly laugh garners laughs throughout the show.

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Matthew Curiano as Ali Hakim discusses his intentions with Con O’Shea-Creal as Will and Lucy Moon as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Rounding out the major cast is a strong performance from David Sajewich as the scary Jud Fry who has his heart set on Laurey and the outrageously funny Matthew Curiano as the peddler Ali Hakim. Jud is a stern and malevolent personality who tries to disrupt the picnic basket raffle and, in contrast, Mr. Curiano displays a comic flair as he “snake oils” his way in and out of situations to his advantage. Other Stages’ vets shine with John Flack as an irascible Andrew Carnes and Steve Isom as Cord Elam while relative newcomer Christopher DeProphetis is Ike Skidmore.

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The wedding near the finale of “Oklahoma!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The ensemble gives their usual 100 per cent either with speaking roles or as the various ranch hands and their girls twirling and singing their way through this amazing musical score. The technical aspects are particularly impressive in “Oklahoma!” led by the incredible set design of James Wolk, Sean M. Savoie’s savvy lighting design and the exquisite costumes rendered by Brad Musgrove.

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Sarah Ellis as Laurey explains her philosophy during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Oklahoma!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Michael Hamilton’s direction and staging is spot on- even including the often cut but always entertaining number for Ali Hakim and the boys, “It’s A Scandal! It’s An Outrage!” The choreography of Dana Lewis is powerfully effective and Lisa Campbell Albert provides the musical direction featuring the orchestral design of Stuart M. Elmore.

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The stirring finale of “Oklahoma!” during the production at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

One can’t ask for more than a stellar and polished production of a steady warhorse like “Oklahoma!” and Stages-St. Louis serves it up to the delight of their faithful audience. Even if you’ve seen it a dozen times (and believe me, I have) it’s a show that never gets old- especially when it’s done as well as this one. “Oklahoma!” delivers through October 7th at Stages-St. Louis. Call them at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

“Evita” Dazzles And Casts Its Magic Spell At The Opening Of Season 52 At The Rep

September 9, 2018
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The iconic balcony scene as Eva encourages her following, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Having seen “Evita” probably at least eight or nine times, I was looking forward to what the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis would do to impress a crowd that has also probably seen the show multiple times. They do not disappoint. The whirlwind that was the life of Eva Peron travels at break neck speed with dazzling performances, costumes and set design all sweeping across the Rep stage in the capable hands of director Rob Ruggiero.

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Michelle Aravena as Eva Duarte finally reaches her first goal in “Buenos Aries” in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michelle Aravena brings a strong performance to the First Lady of Argentina as she dances, sings and brings the proper devious flirtation to Eva Duarte Peron. The one quibble I had was with her diction in certain numbers. This is a very difficult role as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have given the lady some tight, compact lyrics and a lot of the numbers are almost shouted rather than sung. Ms. Aravena, however brings the proper pathos (even if it’s insincere on the part of the character) to the show’s biggest number, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

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Sean MacLaughlin as Peron and Michelle Aravena as Eva in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You” in the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As her eventual husband, Juan Peron, Sean MacLaughlin is a real powerhouse bringing weariness to the role and you get the feeling that, without Eva, he wouldn’t have reached the heights he did- because she wanted to reach even higher. Although I’ve seen the “hand to hand” combat in several productions during the effective “Art Of The Possible” number, I miss the original choreography of the rocking chair version of musical chairs. But choreographer Gustavo Zajac has added a nice Latin twist with the Argentine Tango flick kicks added to the grapple for power.

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Pepe Nufrio in a powerful performance as Che in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The most charismatic performer in “Evita” is always the character of Che. Though he’s an anachronistic character- out of place in the time of Eva Peron- he shows the disdain so many people felt for both Juan and especially Eva at the time. Pepe Nufrio is an outstanding Che as he serves as narrator and travels in and out of the action as Eva becomes Santa Evita. His powerful singing voice and his ability to pop up everywhere (even in the audience) makes him a delightful character to watch and listen to. Although not as angry as the original- Mandy Patinkin (who is EVER as angry as Mandy?)- costumer Alejo Vietti has chosen to even do away with the traditional Army greens and tone him down even further with a more casual- almost preppy- wear for Che. It works.

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Nicolas Davila as the hapless Magaldi during the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Rounding out the major cast are Nicolas Davila as the tacky Magaldi who becomes the first person to be seduced by Eva’s predatory ways. He’s a fine singer and handles the jilted lover properly. Also, a fine job by Peron’s jilted lover, Shea Gomez. Her rendition of “Evita’s” most haunting number, “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” is stunning. A real treat is the heavy Latino cast in this production of “Evita,” both in major roles and in the ensemble.

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Sean MacLaughlin as Peron and Michelle Aravena as Eva as the two are headed for Argentinian autocracy in “Evita” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As I said, the brilliant choreography of Gustavo Zajac makes for an exciting look for this production. The large chorus whirls around the Rep stage with the exciting music of the show as a backdrop. Music direction is by Charlie Alterman with a great sound from the true orchestra pit and a nod to Mariana Parma as the tango consultant which is put to good use in several numbers. And Rob Ruggiero has directed with perfection- powering through the story and keeping the action moving.

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Pepe Nufrio backed up by soldiers and the elite above him on the balcony during the Rep’s production of “Evita.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Luke Cantarella has provided another marvelous set design along with the added projections which always are an important part of this show. The patina-like backdrop of Eva’s bust, as if it is in the middle of an Argentinian boulevard, dominates with the overhead balconies that often come into play and then the effective use of the turntable on the stage all combine for a dynamic look. Already mentioned is the wonderful work of costume designer Alejo Vietti which provides a colorful splash throughout the production and John Lasiter’s lights enhance the overall effect.

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Another iconic moment in the Rep’s “Evita” is the Act I finale, “A New Argentina.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Evita” just whizzes by with a few cuts but nothing drastic and leaves us with a great feeling that we’ve seen yet another solid production of this popular Lloyd Webber show. Believe me, I’ve seen a few less than stellar productions. Visit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis during the final season under the Artistic Direction of the brilliant Steve Woolf. “Evita” runs through September 30th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

Remarkable “Run-On Sentence” At SATE Developed In Conjunction With PPA

June 11, 2018
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Taleesha Caturah, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Jamie McKittrick in “Run-On Sentence” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Playwright Stacie Lents spent many hours interviewing and talking with prisoners at the Women’s Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri as part of a grant to develop a new play for Prison Performing Arts. “Run-On Sentence” is the result and it and is a powerful story that is a work of fiction but based on those hours of input from the female prison population.

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Kristen Strom as Officer Wallace confronts Jamie McKittrick, Margeau Baue Steinau, Wendy Renee Greenwood and Taleesha Caturah at the SATE production of “Run-On Sentence.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Rachel Tibbetts, one of the founders of SATE has, along with Christopher Limber, taken over the reigns of PPA from the late, great Agnes Wilcox. This is a wonderful legacy to their work at PPA and a crowning achievement for both them and SATE. A ninety minute one act, “Run-On Sentence” offers humor, pathos and a great story about loyalties and betrayals within the confines of the prison walls.

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Wendy Renee Greenwood has a stern warning for Bess Moynihan in “Run-On Sentence” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Taleesha Caturah is Mel- a principal character and a narrator to keep the audience apprised of the rules and mores of prison life. You know from her opening monolog that this is going to be a play laced with humor- both appropriate and dark. Although not the veteran of the prison inmates, she is the unofficial “captain.” She’s tough and tender but it mostly her compassion that guides her. Wendy Renee Greenwood is her best bud, Bug. In a beautiful performance, she shows a lot of erratic and suspicious behavior and proves to be a bit territorial in her space and her relationships.

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Margeau Baue Steinau, Jamie McKittrick, Taleesha Caturah and Wendy Renee Greenwood gather in the SATE production of “Run-On Sentence.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

In a truly touching performance on her return to stage from her usual spot behind the scenes (usually lighting or set design- she designed this set for “Run-On Sentence”) is Bess Moynihan as Mary. Although, as the newcomer, she tells the ladies that she is in for assault, her story takes a decidedly more twisted turn as the play evolves. Jamie McKittrick is Giant- a bit slow witted but filled with passion and joy and deeply affected by any bad news about any of her fellow inmates.

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Kristen Strom helps Wendy Renee Greenwood with her hair in SATE’s “Run-On Sentence.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

Miss Alice is the “lifer” or the group and played with a steely indifference by Margeau Baue Steinau. She’s got a heart of gold that has been tarnished by her stay in behind bars.  And rounding out the cast is Kristen Strom as Officer Wallace. Wanting to be a “pal” to the prisoners, she finds she must take on a rougher exterior.

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Wendy Renee Greenwood has a show down with Taleesha Caturah while the other girls cower in the background in “Run-On Sentence” at SATE. Photo: Joey Rumpell

Rachel Tibbetts has directed with a real feel for the prisoners she has personally worked with over the past few years. She takes a human and humorous approach that makes the ladies more accommodating than you’d expect. She has also designed the costumes that probably align with female prison wear. Dominick Ehling’s lighting design enhances Ms. Moynihan’s set and makes for a grim look at life behind bars.

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Bess Moynihan (seated) tells her story to Taleesha Caturah in SATE’s “Run-On Sentence.” Photo: Joey Rumpell

“Run-On Sentence” is a particularly satisfying experience and the story of its creation is as powerful as the actual Stacie Lent’s script. As noted in the program, she asked her ladies what they hoped people would learn from this piece and the most common response is the theme “that we are all human beings” and “it could happen to you.” See “Run-On Sentence” at the Chapel, presented by SATE through June 17th.

 

Charming “I Do! I Do!” Zips Through Marriage And Life At Stages-St. Louis

June 9, 2018
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Corinne Melancon and Steve Isom share a dance on the fourposter in “I Do! I Do!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

I’ve always been a fan of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt two person musical, “I Do! I Do!” and now Stages-St. Louis has given us, not one, but two casts to enjoy this romp through a life from marriage to old age. Though there are a lot of people who don’t like the show, the music has always been impressive and the story line is funny, schmaltzy and pretty realistic when you quickly break down (not up) a marriage like that of Michael and Agnes.

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The nervous couple say their “I Do! I Do’s!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

On opening night we saw Corrine Melancon and Steve Isom, a steady actress and singer who has been with Stages for several years and a versatile player in Mr. Isom who has been with the company almost since the inception. In fact, “I Do! I Do!” is being performed for the first time since that first season back in 1987.

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Steve Isom as Michael professes the prowess of older men in “A Well Known Fact” during the Stages-St. Louis production of “I Do! I Do!” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Miss Melancon is a terrific actress and powerful singer. Although at times a bit hoarse on opening night, she still belted when the occasion arose like her spectacular rendition of “Flaming Agnes” and the plaintive “What Is A Woman.” Steve Isom delights all through the show with his shows of bravado and his male chauvinism (the 50 years of the marriage run from 1895 to 19454). His hat and cane number, “A Well Known Fact,” is a definite highlight and shows that chauvinism with flying colors. Of course, the only real hit from the show is the early paean to love, “My Cup Runneth Over”- a tender moment that brings a few tears to the eye every time I hear it.

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Corrine Melancon as Agnes touts the joys of motherhood in “I Do! I Do!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Their duets are priceless as well including the snarky “Nobody’s Perfect,” the malicious “The Honeymoon Is Over” and the sweet reminiscing of “Where Are The Snows?” They even pull of the most outrageous number of the show, “When The Kids Get Married” where they discuss their leisure time and then pull out a saxophone and a violin and actually play a scratchy version of the number- including a bit of harmony.

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Corrine Melancon and Steve Isom as Agnes and Michael in the Stages-St. Louis production of “I Do! I Do!” Photo: Peter Wochnicak

Stages Artistic Director, Michael Hamilton staged and choreographed the show to perfection with a lot of little bits that enhanced the already poignant script. James Wolk has designed a simple but effective set and the Sean M. Savoie lights enhance the playing areas. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are on the mark and Lisa Campbell Albert provides musical direction.

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Corrine Melnacon and Steve Isom prepare to leave their home of 50 years in “I Do! I Do!” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

You can go on the Stages website to choose the cast you’d like to see- the second cast is Kari Ely and David Schmittou. They are also long time Stages’ favorites. If I have the chance, I will catch their version of the proceedings. “I Do! I Do!” plays at Stages-St. Louis through July 1st but, as is so often the case with Stages, shows sell out fast. So give them a call at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

“Luchadora!” Is Tender, Touching Story With Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo Joining Forces

June 6, 2018
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Isabel Garcia and Carmen Garcia as Vanessa and Nana Lupita in “Luchadora!” at Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo’s joint production. Photo: John Lamb

A lunch conversation with her mother and a briefcase bring Vanessa into a world she never suspected was part of her heritage- lucha libre wrestling. As Lupita’s story unfolds,  we get to see this history of masked wrestlers unfold before our eyes with twists and turns that both Vanessa and the audience cannot believe. That’s how we start our story of “Luchadora!” at Deanna Jent’s Mustard Seed Theatre in a joint production with Theatre Nuevo and AD Anna Skidis Vargas.

We flash back to when young Lupita was working with her father selling flowers from his small pushcart in a small border town in Texas. He asks Lupita to take a briefcase to a local mask maker but implores her not to look in the case. What other incentive does a child need? She discovers a mask of a lucha libre wrestler and begins to wonder what it means.

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Thalia Cruz (in background) as young Lupita gets instruction from the Mask Maker, played by Cassandra Lopez in becoming a wrestler in the Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo joint production of “Luchadora!” Photo: John Lamb

Thalia Cruz is a charmer as the young Lupita. Vulnerable and naive, she soon discovers that the mask maker, played with strength and resolve by Cassandra Lopez, has been making and repairing masks for her father for some time- because he is the famous Mascalarosa who was set to meet El Hijo for the world championship when he became a no show. As we learn from the tender and performance of Rahamses Galvan as her father, he injured his back and is still in pain- even though El Hijo still haunts him and taunts him from the ring whenever El Hilo appears at matches.

Two young locals- German immigrants, Leopold and Liesl, are Lupita’s best friends and soon they all discover her father’s secret. He is determined to meet El Hijo in Milwaukee and settle the score once and for all. Cassidy Flynn and Ashley Skaggs are the fresh faced friends and the three of them make the most of just being kids with such a heavy secret now in their grasp. Leo and Liesl have a sister, Hannah, played with passion by Hannah Pauluhn who offers a sad side story as well. She also plays a series of smaller roles throughout the play.

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The kids wrestle as young Lupita decides she will become a stand in for her father in “Luchadora!” at the Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo co-production. Photo: John Lamb

Isabel Garcia makes a delightful Vanessa as she discovers Lupita’s secret after looking in her briefcase, just as young Lupita did those many years ago. And, telling her story, Carmen Garcia is a treasure as the lady luchadora. The mask maker encourages the young girl to learn the trade and then go on against El Hijo in her father’s stead with her as her trainer. The wonderful Carl Overly, Jr. plays multiple roles as well but is most impressive as the brash, masked El Hilo. He pops up all around the stage with his taunts to Mascalarosa. Rounding out the cast in a series of small roles is Ryan Lawson-Maeske.

Anna Skidis Vargas directs with a real feel for the material- written about the memories of his grandmother by Alvaro Saar Rios. David Blake’s two level set is remarkable with a small acting area on upper stage left where Vanessa and Lupita enjoy their surprising lunch and a bridge crossing over to steps leading down to the main acting area that becomes a wrestling training area, the flower cart, the mask maker’s business and a bike trail for the three youngsters. Michael Sullivan’s lights also are effective offering both drama and playfulness. Mark Kelley provides the unusual fighting choreography as young Lupita is taught her most dangerous weapon, the elbow drop. Then a small, roped off ring rolls into the MainStage for the exciting conclusion.

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Carl Overly, Jr. as El Hijo taunting his rival in the Mustard Seed/Theatre Nuevo production of “Luchadora!” Photo: John Lamb

“Luchadora!” brought back a lot of memories as my grandfather was a big wrestling fan and we took him to the old Kiel Auditorium many times to watch American wrestlers but he then watched a lot of lucha libre wrestling as well as all kinds of wrestling became quite the rage. The play mixes a lot of life lessons about the hard life of the migrant workers, many of whom tried to escape and become luchadora’s and, of course, about family loyalty. It plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through June 17th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information.

Singing, Acting Help Pull “Yeast Nation” Off The Bottom Of The Sea At New Line

June 4, 2018
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Yeasts gather to honor their chief Jan the Eldest (Zachary Allen Farmer-seated) at the opening of “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

New Line Theatre and AD Scott Miller have brought back musicals everyone counted as dead like “Cry Baby,” “High Fidelity” and many more that deserved to be restaged. Many have had life in repertory theatres because of that spark of life New Line gave them. Although the music is pretty good and the acting and singing are outstanding, “Yeast Nation” may not be one of those musicals. With the creative team of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who brought us “Urinetown,” this tale of primordial goop from 3 billion years ago is a one joke show that doesn’t hold water.

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Sarah Gene Dowling as the blind Jan the Unnamed invokes the philosophy of the yeast in New Line Theatre’s production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

In typical fashion, the New Liners bring us a wonderful production full of energy and singing and acting skills that are stellar. But yeast and single cell organisms are not the stuff of successful musicals. The secret here is to stick around for the second act when the score improves and you can forget that you’re watching yeast instead of people.

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Zachary Allen Farmer as Jan the Eldest talks to Michael Lowe as Jan the Wise while Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest stands in the background in “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Zachary Allen Farmer- a New Line veteran- holds down the fort as Jan (pronounced yahn) the Elder, the chief yeast who rules his nation with a firm but loving hand as he lets us know with his opening number, “You Are My Children.” Jan the Second-Oldest is a powerful Dominic Dowdy-Windsor who discovers something not common to the yeast nation, an emotion called love. The object of his affection is the beautiful and wistful Jan the Sweet, sweetly portrayed by Larissa White.

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Larissa White as Jan the Sweet professes her love for Dominick Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest in the New Line Theatre production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The “heavy” yeast, Jan the Wise, is played by Michael Lowe. He believes in keeping the rules of the nation strict and by the book- the Mike Pence of one cell beings. He also has affection for Jan the Sweet but she rejects his advances. Also throwing a monkey wrench into yeast harmony is Grace Langford as Jan the Sly. She plots to overthrow (let’s just say kill) the Elder and, when her plot goes awry, she turns on the Second Oldest. Jan the Famished is the delightful Jennelle Gilreath and Keith Thompson as Jan the Wretched meets an early demise but comes back as a prominent member of the ensemble!

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Zachary Allen Farmer as Jan the Elder, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest and Grace Langford as Jan the Sly with the other yeasts in the New Line Theatre production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Gene Dowling is the blind and capricious Jan the Unamed and Colin Dowd (a reverse of the versatile Keith Thompson) comes out of the ensemble to take on the part of the newly born Jan the Youngest. An illicit affair with gunk from above (Second Oldest has “risen” Illegally to the top of the ocean and brought back the substance) has resulted in The New One- a new type of life form in the form of Lex Ronan. The usual outstanding ensemble does a wonderful job in backing up all this insanity. All of this speculation on indiscriminate life 3 billion years ago on the ocean floor just didn’t grab me. But, it’s all about the execution and Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have certainly “risen” above the weak material to bring us an entertaining show.

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Grace Langford as Jan the Sly and Jennelle Gilreath as Jan the Famished in “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert has given us a fine representation of the ocean bottom (no sign of Spongebob Squarepants, however) along with the assistance of Victoria Xu. Sarah Porter has also given us this unusual vision in the form of very esoteric costumes that represent the sameness of yeast while giving them all their own individuality. Sarah Nelson leads the wonderful New Line Band in a score that gets better as the evening goes on.

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The New Line ensemble gather at the bottom of the sea for “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Don’t look for “Yeast Nation” to resuscitate itself as so many New Line reincarnations have in the past but it’s a nice way to while away a couple of hours with the enormous talent on stage, some good music and a few laughs along the way even if the one-joke script may fail to win you over. “Yeast Nation” plays at New Line Theatre through June 23rd. Contact them at newlinetheatre.com for tickets or show information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sit Com Chekov At New Jewish Theatre With “Life Sucks”- Or Does It?

May 29, 2018
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Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings address the question in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

With all of the angst, a gun firing in the third act (even though it wasn’t hanging on the wall in Act I) and all of the somewhat dreary characters, this might be “Uncle Vanya” but playwright Aaron Posner has taken that Chekov classic and turned it on it’s head. Though “Life Sucks” is not really written by relative, Uncle Miltie Chekov with additional dialogue by David Mamet, it comes close to being what this brooding Russian playwright would have written if he were writing for today’s TV situation comedies- on cable, of course.

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Michelle Hand struts through the garden with Greg Johnston and Katy Keating in the background and Christopher Harris in front during the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

A manor house run by Robert, a professor, his daughter, Sonia and his young wife, Ella is the setting and soon a group of others descend on the estate including the his first wife’s brother, Vanya, a sort of caretaker, Babs a local doctor and a local “cheerleader” for life, Pickles. Like in most Chekov, they complain about their lot and life in general- hence the title, “Life Sucks.” But in Posner’s script, melancholy is more a state of mind than an affliction.

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With tub side manners to spare, Jeff Cummings as the doctor chats with Christopher Harris as Vanya in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Christopher Harris is larger than life as Vanya. In love with Ella, he mopes around and even approaches Ella about his love for her. Along the same vein, Jeff Cummings as Doctor Aster professes his love for Ella and is similarly rejected. His opening semi-monologue sets the table for the evening as he pours his soul out to Babs. Jan Meyer is a tower of strength as the only truly sane person in the bunch, Babs. She dispenses logic where there really is none in this wacky garden party.

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Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Greg Johnston is solid as the professor realizing that his young wife is bait dangling in front of all the men- no matter their age. Although he flares up from time to time, he is confident in Ella’s love for him. Ella is the enticing Julie Layton. Provocative without trying to be, she- as several in the cast sometimes do- addresses the audience at one point asking who wants to sleep with her. She’s a bit befuddled at her sudden appeal but, with a wink and a joke, realizes it’s her curse. In fact the audience is really taken aback at how often the actors not only address them but ask for their opinion.

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Julie Layton as Ella and Michelle Hand as Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Katy Keating gives a touching performance as the delightful but overshadowed daughter who is in love with the doctor. She is the typical tragic character in any Chekov play as she feels destined to die an old maid. Finally we have Michelle Hand as the irrepressible Pickles. Oversized glasses, blue overalls and a hat scrunched down on her head give her the look of a homeless person who wandered into the proceedings. Hers is the magical role that brings a positive vibe to this whole “Life Sucks” party. This is a smart cast and you can always tell when a cast is delighted, not only with what they’re bringing to the stage, but with each other. It makes everything work with a more upbeat message- if you’ll pardon the rephrasing of a Gershwin tune- than any Russian play could ever do.

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Jeff Cummings as the doctor and Katy Keating as Sonia in the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s all brought together by the New Jewish Theatre’s newest Artistic Director (next season), Edward Coffield. His touch is a light one that doesn’t shy away from Chekov but brings out the clarity and upside down treatment to his original “Uncle Vanya.” Peter and Margery Spack bring their wondrous talents to the front with an elegant garden for the estate. Divided into several playing areas (including a bathtub), it offers a lovely playground for this group of misfits. Maureen Berry’s lights enhance the mood and the wildly appropriate costume design is by Michele Friedman Siler.

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The cast in a wonderful final tableau in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s good to see a Chekov play (at least one based on one of his more popular works) where you can leave the theatre with a smile on your face. Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through June 10th. Take time out to laugh and ponder the serious questions in life. Call them at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

A Gorgeous “La Traviata” Opens Opera Theatre-St. Louis Season

May 20, 2018
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Geoffrey Agpalo as Alfredo is in awe of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Lush and lovely in every way, Opera Theatre-St. Louis has opened their season with a beautiful production of Verdi’s classic tragic opera, “La Traviata.” From set to lighting to costumes to voices and acting, this is a simply splendid production from every aspect.

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Sydney Mancasola as the stunning Violetta in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “La Traviata.” Photo: Ken Howard

This time it ain’t over ’til the lithe, winsome lady sings. Sydney Mancasola is a wonderful Violetta and appropriately slight for the horrible things that are happening to her body- she is dying. Her clear as crystal soprano is a delight to listen to as she breezes through arias and duets with nuance and clarity. With those long legs and regal gait- even in the throes of consumption- she is perfection on stage.

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Geoffrey Agpalo as Alfredo and Joo Won Kang as Giorgio in “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Geoffrey Agpalo is her lover, Alfredo, who is infatuated with her and persuades her to leave Paris and join him in his country house. Agpalo’s bright tenor is a pleasing match to Mancasola’s soprano and their duets together are spectacular. Interference from his estranged father, Giorgio leads to a misunderstanding between the lovers that separates them. Joo Won Kang rounds out the trio of principles with his rich baritone while all three are as excellent acting as they are at singing- sometimes not always the case.

The secondary cast also holds court in both acting and singing categories. Simona Rose Genga is a powerful Annina, maid to Violetta while Andrew Munn handles the small but important role of Violetta’s doctor in the final act. Briana Hunter displays a lively spirit as Flora and Baron Douphol is the properly stuffy Jeff Byrnes. As always the rest of the singing cast is superb and the singing and dancing chorus is exquisite.

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Briana Hunter as Flora dazzles the crowd in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “La Traviata.” Photo: Ken Howard

Conductor Christopher Allen holds a strong baton for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as they master the powerful and often playful score by Verdi and the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is a good one as well. A renowned opera singer herself, Patricia Racette handles the directing duties and she has successfully handled that transition showing a strong knowledge of the material. Sean Curran does his usual excellent job as choreographer making the festive crowd scenes flow with the large cast.

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Sydney Mancasola as Violetta in the second act masquerade party in “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

The stunning set design is by Laura Jellinek and her lovely backdrop of overlapping camellias are reminiscent of asGeorgia O’Keefe painting with the center blossom opening and closing for entrances and exits, including the stunning final scene as Violetta disappears into the flowers as the frozen tableau of her lover, maid and doctor overlook her deathbed. The one scene change in the second act runs smoothly as the rest of the set pieces are functional if not profound.

The costumes by Kaye Voyce are beautiful and Christopher Akerlind’s lights are nothing short of brilliant. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect evening at the opera where everything (despite a broken champagne glass in the first scene) runs as smooth as clockwork. A joyous cast and a classic tale (used as a basis for the Julia Roberts film, “Pretty Woman”) combine for heavenly sounds and story.

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Andrew Munn as the doctor takes the pulse of Sydney Macasola (Violetta) as her maid, Simona Rose Genga looks on in the final act of “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Opera Theatre-St. Louis is a quick season so you have to be on the ball. A good line up is coming up with “Regina,” “An American Soldier” and “Orfeo & Euridice” along with this superb “La Traviata,” which runs through June 23rd in repertory. Call 314-961-0644 for tickets or more information.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” Brings Major Heft To This Year’s Tennessee Williams Festival

May 12, 2018
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Sophia Brown as Blanche and Amy Loui as Eunice in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Tennessee Williams Festival. Photo: Ride Hamilton

Still considered Williams’ masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is the highlight of the Tennessee Williams Festival this year and it delivers a knock out punch with an excellent cast, smart direction and a technically beautiful production. Leading lives of desperation, all of the characters in the play must cope with themselves and their own demons but also with the same from those around them. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions filled with pockets of humor but mainly a fight for humanity with an almost hopeless, inevitable outcome.

Leading the way is a truly remarkable performance from local actress Sophia Brown as the iconic Blanche Dubois. This is truly Blanche Dubois heaven as Ms. Brown delivers a multi-layered character that simply commands the Grandel stage. At times vulnerable and at times psychotic, she delivers lines with a mix of genteel Southern charm and vitriol and then desperation that cannot be imagined by many actresses. Her heavenly voice also works from Vivian Leigh sweetness to the throatiness of Kathleen Turner. The turns from madness to moments of lucidity are stunning. Her performance had me in awe throughout the night.

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Nick Narcisi as Stanley and Lana Dvorak as Stella in the Tennessee Williams Festival production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photo: Ride Hamilton

Her sister, Stella Kowalski, is given a powerful turn as well by Lana Dvorak. Written in 1947, these ladies grew up in a time when their love and dependance on a man far outweighed the verbal and physical abuse they had to withstand. Ms. Dvorak brings a sincerity to the role that transforms Stella into a stronger woman than she should be. As Stanley, Nick Narcisi is also masterful as the crude husband who hates his sister in law and her intrusion on his family (soon to be three with Stella’s baby on the way). And everyone knows how that hatred manifests itself- his eventual seduction of Blanche.

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Spencer Sickmann as Mitch and Sophia Brown as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Tennessee Williams Festival. Photo: Ride Hamilton

Spencer Sickmann plays it just right as the vulnerable Mitch who thinks he has found the right woman in Blanche but soon breaks both their hearts when he can’t cope with rumor and innuendo about Blanche’s past. Amy Loui shines as the upstairs neighbor who tries to protect Stella while Isaiah DiLorenzo and Jesse Munoz  play the friends and poker playing buddies. Jacob Flekier is the innocent, young bill collector who almost falls for the seduction techniques of Blanche- evidently one of many patterns from her past. David Wassilak is the doctor while Isabel Pastrana also makes a brief appearance as a flower seller and Maggie Wininger rounds out the cast in two roles.

Director Tim Ocel has mixed it all into the perfect combination. His insight into the play is uncanny as he plays for the steaminess of the volatile menage of characters but shows the raw emotions of everyone in how they feel about themselves and how they interact. It’s quite an overwhelming outcome. The James Wolk set design is breathtaking and the  Sean Savoie lighting design brings out the seaminess of the play while keeping it at a strong dramatic pace. Michele Siler’s costumes are provocative as they are appropriate and there’s a lot to be said about the rich, jazzy original score behind it all by Henry Palkes as it makes this production even stronger.

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Sophia Brown as Blanche and Nick Narcisi as Stanley in the Tennessee Williams Festival production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photo: Ride Hamilton

I had a lot of personal problems going on last year and had to miss the entire TWF after enjoying the first year immensely. Now I’m back and thrilled that Carrie Houk  and her staff have brought such a magnificent piece to us as this third year of the Tennessee Williams Festival begins. See “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Grandel Square Theatre and the rest of the festival as it plays out over the next two weeks.

 

Gripping “Judgment At Nuremberg” Latest At The Midnight Company

April 27, 2018
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Photo: Joey Rumpell

The film version of “Judgment At Nuremberg” was nominated for eleven Oscars and won two- one for Maximilian Schell as the defense attorney and one for adapted screenplay for Abby Mann. She had earlier written the play for the old Playhouse 90 television show and then revised the script for this stage version. It made courtroom drama popular which inspired “Perry Mason” and the slew of such shows we’ve had since. This one from The Midnight Company is a stellar production with excellent visual effects to enhance the proceedings.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

Joe Hanrahan, Artistic Director of Midnight, plays Judge Dan Haywood, the lead judge who, along with two others, must decide the fate of three men involved in the Third Reich and their participation in Nazi war crimes. With a laid back and keen eye for the facts, Mr. Hanrahan dissects the evidence and comes to his own conclusions while one of the other two judges balks at his findings. It’s a complicated case which must be weighed for the merits of their actions at the time and what they knew about the atrocities involving concentration camps and the horrific things that went on there. His final confrontation in the judges’ chambers and the outcome of the trial of the three men (judges in their own right at the time) are powerful stuff.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

Chuck Winning as prosecutor Colonel Tad Parker is dynamic in his delivery and has the power of the films from the camps that Hitler insisted on recording by the likes of filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riesenstahl (used extensively in the powerful documentary “Night And Fog”). His foe, Oscar Rolfe, is played with stunning bravado and even touching sympathy by Cassidy Flynn. His impassioned plea in his final summation is heartbreaking.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

The other judges are played by Jack Corey and Charles Heuvelman while the three on trial are played by the brilliant Steve Callahan, Terry TenBroek and Hal Morgan. Charlotte Dougherty is superb as the landlady to Judge Haywood for his stay in Nuremberg, Mrs. Habelstadt and a bravura performance from Rachel Tibbets as Frau Margarete Bertholt who the judge displaced in the apartment. She becomes the tour guide and close companion of the judge during his stay in Germany.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

Other characters including witnesses and military personnel include fine work by Francesca Ferrari and Jaz Tucker along with Mark Abels, Steve Garrett, Michael B. Perkins and Alex Fyles.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

Ellie Schwetye has directed with a strong knowledge of the time and importance of the material. She moves things along and keeps the two hour (with one intermission) play gripping and tense. The Jonah Sheckler set design is functional  but the video design of Michael B. Perkins makes the difference with a steady set of slides and film projected on the background to put us in the place whether it be the courtroom, the ruins of Nuremberg, the horrors of the concentration camps or other sites around the area. Bess Moynihan’s lights are just about perfect and the appropriate costumes of Sarah Porter complete the look that keeps the play riveted in the time period. A shout out to Pamela Reckamp as well for her excellent work in keeping the actors on point with their dialects.

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Photo: Joey Rumpell

It’s hard to direct a cast this large in such an important work. Although some of the acting was a bit sketchy, the power of the story comes through in a production worthy of your time. It’s a reminder in these days  when where we’re seeing stories on social media about millennials who have no idea what a concentration camp was that we can never forget. “Judgment At Nuremberg” has a short run- only through this Sunday but you also have a chance to see two matinees (along with evening performances) on Saturday and Sunday. Contact the Missouri History Museum (where the play is being staged) at mohistory.org/judgement-at-nuremberg for tickets.