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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “Briefs” cast. Photo: Annie Dent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nominee “Company” from Insight Theatre Company.

27- Total number of theatre companies nominated this year.

119- Total number of artists nominated this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Zorba” Brings A Strong Score To New Line Theatre’s Latest Production

March 8, 2017
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The Leader- Lindsey Jones- starts the show with “Life Is” as New Line Theatre presents “Zorba.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Kander and Ebb don’t have a bad musical in their repertoire. Although “Zorba” is not one of their most popular, it is still a strong score that relishes in the unique story and philosophy of Zorba who decries people who live life as if they will never die- he prefers to live it as if he will die any minute. For this reason and, as explained in his first song, “The First Time,” the fact that he approaches every experience- be it hearing a bouzouki, drinking a glass or rum or making love- as if it is his “first time,” he is a larger than life character that understandably dominates the show.

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Kent Coffel as Zorba and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Nikos in “Zorba” at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The chronology of Zorba can be summed up as a great performance by Anthony Quinn in the film, a great performance by Herschel Bernardi in the original musical version and then a horrible performance by Anthony Quinn in the revival of the musical. But New Line Theatre has given us a solid production with Kent Coffel in the title role and a solid supporting cast. Mr. Coffel has the zest and charisma needed for such an overpowering personality. He unabashedly swaggers into every situation, woos the women as if he knows they can’t resist him and handles the delightful music with a singing voice that matches the confidence of the character.

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Margeau Steinau as Hortense, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Nikos and Kent Coffel as Zorba in the New Line production of “Zorba.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Margeau Steinau is equally adept handling the strong willed but sentimental French woman who has been transplanted to Crete- Hortense. With a rather lusty past, she always seems to be reliving those affairs in her mind. She falls under the spell of Zorba and, with the subtle nuances of Ms. Steinau, makes them a pair that you can’t take your eyes off of during this production. The Leader, who sings the powerful opening number in the show- “Life Is”- is the brilliant Lindsey Jones. She belts her numbers with all of the gusto of any great lady of the musical theatre.

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Mara Bollini makes a point to Zorba and some of the men of Crete in “Zorba” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Dominic Dowdy-Windsor appears a bit hesitant at times but comes through with a strong performance as Nikos, the young scholar and new owner of the local mine who Zorba takes under his wing. He not only learns about life and love from his mentor, he truly becomes a man over the course of the play. Ann Hier is superb as the young widow who eventually casts her eye on Nikos. She manages to express emotions by merely taking in the reactions of those around her as well as when she is openly involved in the action.

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Ann Hier as the widow in the New Line Theatre production of “Zorba.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

A wonderful supporting cast who double up some pivotal roles are remarkable as well. Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor co-directed and they bring out the unusual story line and odd mix of characters full of life- and even a few deaths- with satisfying results. Based on the novel, “Zorba The Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis, this autobiographical tale has endured through film and this delightful musical. Sarah Nelson’s musical direction brings charm to the music of John Kander and the Fred Ebb lyrics book by Joseph Stein have kept the feel of the novel and original film. Thankfully they did not interpolate the iconic title theme from the film by Mikis Theodorakis- beautiful but I prefer my stage adaptations free from the original film music.

With the small stage and a somewhat large cast for that small venue, the Michelle Sauer choreography is fine but loses something in the translation. Even the traditional Zorba dance and the dance of friendship between Zorba and Nikos seemed a bit stiff and awkward. Rob Lippert’s outstanding work on set design and lights shine through as do the costumes of Sarah Porter.

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Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Nikos and Kent Coffel as Zorba dance to life and friendship in “Zorba” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

“Zorba” is worth the trip to the Marcelle because it is a classic Kander and Ebb score that is rarely heard these days. The cast is a strong one that succeeds in projecting the vastness of Crete and the overwhelming world of this quirky and endearing character of Zorba despite some of the limitations of space. It plays through March 25th. Contact New Line Theatre at http://www.newlinetheatre.com for tickets or more information.

“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.