Mustard Seed Theatre Opens Their 10th Season With A Strange And Haunting Tale- “Kindertransport”

August 22, 2016
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Hannah Ryan as Eva and Kelley Weber as Helga in “Kindertransport” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The first time I had heard of the kindertransport was a play based on the life of Ruth Westheimer at New Jewish Theatre last year in a bravura performance from Susie Wall. Dr. Westheimer was a kindertransport child herself. Now Mustard Seed Theatre is opening their 10th season with a marvelous script by Diane Samuels based on the stories she has compiled about this unusual and somewhat controversial program set up in 1938.

I’m sure it didn’t seem controversial at the time- a group was formed in war torn countries during the Nazi regime to protect children (particularly Jewish children) from the horrors of the concentration camps and the violence against Jews at the hands of Hitler. The British based Movement for the Care of Children from Germany provided transport for younger children into Britain- some staying with foster parents, others staying at hostels, schools or farms. The problem being that these children had to be torn away from their parents with the hope that they would be reunited after the war. A lot of them did not and some, as we see from “Kindertransport,” had difficulty rekindling a relationship with their family.

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Brian J. Rolf and Hannah Ryan in a scene from Mustard Seed Theatre’s “Kindertransport.” Photo: John Lamb

Director Deanna Jent has taken the raw emotions laid out by the playwright and spilled them out over two acts, each encompassing less than an hour each. The lives affected are often hard to watch but Jent’s powerful lead brings us a story that we won’t soon forget. We first meet young Eva- a remarkable performance from Hannah Ryan- as her mother Helga- rock solid portrayal from Kelley Weber- as she explains to her daughter that she must go on the train and they will all meet up again soon in England. Being a child of nine, Eva can’t comprehend why she has to go without her family.

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Michelle Hand, Kirsten De Broux and Katy Keating in “Kindertransport” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Flash forward to the 1970’s in England and we meet Evelyn as she is discussing her daughter Faith’s move out of the house into her own apartment. Michelle Hand gives a stoic and highly charged performance as Evelyn and Katy Keating is her vacillating daughter. Trouble ensues when Faith discovers a box of Evelyn’s keepsakes including a German children’s book and some photographs. Kirsten De Broux- with another great performance as her grandmother, Lil, tries to trivialize the mementoes away but Faith is adamant and demands an explanation from her mother. That’s when the true story of this family is revealed and pain and hurt roll over them and us like a tidal wave.

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Katy Keating, Michelle Hand and Kirsten De Broux in Mustard Seed’s “Kindertransport.” Photo: John Lamb

When Helga comes to England it’s just too late as her daughter’s lifestyle and her perfect British accent tell her what has truly happened. It’s a heartbreaking story that one wouldn’t expect from a program that was designed to save the children of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria. Rounding out the cast is Brian J. Rolf in a series of roles including a Nazi soldier, a mailman and a few other characters.

The Kyra Bishop set design is spectacular with a spacious attic space on two levels that doubles and triples as a few other settings as well. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the story and Jane Sullivan’s costumes hit just the right note for the 30’s and 70’s locales. Again a special shout out to Nancy Bell as vocal coach and Marlene Rene Coveyou as German language coach- particularly in the case of young Hannah, her German was impeccable and all of the accents from the cast were spot on.

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Kelley Weber and Hannah Ryan in “Kindertransport” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Everyone will probably react to “Kindertransport” in a different way but everyone will be affected by this unusual play. It’s a good thing to read the program before the play starts to make yourself more familiar with the kindertransport program. As I said, I had never heard of it until the Ruth Westheimer play but this play makes the assumption that you may already know about the program. Enjoy a stirring evening with truly wondrous performances all around as “Kindertransport” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through September 4th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 or contact them at http://www.mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Sarah Porter- Cute, Cuddly And Looking For Love In “Tell Me On A Sunday” At New Line

August 20, 2016
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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

A true super girl, Sarah Porter has been featured in a host of New Line shows and costumed just as many or more. Now she steps to the forefront as Emma in a song cycle by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Tell Me On A Sunday,” which is part of his “Song And Dance” experimental musical originally starring Bernadette Peters on Broadway. Sarah nails it, kills it and every other theatrical cliche you can think of with a stellar breakout performance.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Always a stand out in any show she’s done, she just jumps out at you on stage in both bizarre and demanding roles but usually as part of a larger cast. I really loved her zany antics in “Rent” a few years back. But now she gets to stand alone and bring joy, tears, heartbreak and resiliency  to a role that brings over twenty songs in just over an hour as a young British girl tries to find love in America. From New York and a brief stint in Hollywood, we root for Emma as she follows her instincts from one man to another in her search for true love. Unfortunately, her instincts aren’t holding up too well and, as she tells us through her correspondence to her mum in England, she kisses a lot of frogs but can’t seem to find her prince.

Of course the signature song in “Tell Me On A Sunday” is “Unexpected Song” but the score is filled with a delightful compendia of great Andrew Lloyd Webber music with lyrics supplied by both Don Black and Richard Maltby, Jr. “Take That Look Off Your Face” becomes an anthem for Emma and has, in real life, become an oft featured background tune for Lord Webber himself in his appearances. “Come Back With That Same Look In Your Eyes” is a plaintiff plea for a love affair that she knows will end soon and the title song is another plea- this time for breaking the news of a break up as gently as possible. “It’s Not The End Of The World” becomes a recurring theme as well as Emma’s spirit convinces her there’s always new hope around the corner.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

This is an excellent one-act musical that really showcases a performer. Sarah Porter not only sings the role with perfection, her acting is superb and she maintains that British accent throughout in a show that’s completely sung. Facial expressions, body language and the range of disappointment, hope and joy in her voice make for a character and a show that you can’t help but fall in love with. What a stunning performance.

For the first time in New Line history, the show has not been directed by Scott Miller. His long time associate director and co-director in many productions, Mike Dowdy-Windsor has taken the reins and created a most likable and lovely show. He has guided Porter through the wonderful world of Emma with heart and soul.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The lovely set and lights are provided by Rob Lippert. He has once again brought a workable and inspired design to the show- as he has for New Line and other companies around town. The New York skyline complete with a full moon dominate and he’s even managed to make the short California scene memorable with a classic piece of furniture and even convincing us Emma is dipping her toes into a Hollywood swimming pool.

Sarah Porter has once again double-dipped as performer and designer of her own costumes. She runs the gamut from trendy to super casual, lingerie and into sophistication. And a special note to her dialect coach, Laurie McConnell. She obviously taught her well and saw to it that she maintained the accent throughout.

Let’s face it, New Line surprised us with a Frank Wildhorn show recently and now, despite the obvious appeal of “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (both shows they’ve done in the past), they have dipped into the Andrew Lloyd Webber collection to pull out this gem. But when you’ve got Sarah Porter lurking in all of those other featured roles, you’ve got the right lady at the right time and it’s the right time to showcase her talents.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

There aren’t as many performances as usual with this one-act musical, so plan on getting to New Line by August 27th to catch this talented and lovely lady, Sarah Porter as Emma in “Tell Me On A Sunday.” Tickets available at MetroTix, 314-534-1111 and go online at newlinetheatre.com for more information.

 

 

Two Powerful Actors In Epic Battle Of “Inherit The Wind” At Insight

August 15, 2016
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Alan Knoll as Matthew Brady and Susie Wall as Mrs. Brady in “Inherit The Wind” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

As current as any of today’s headlines during this election year, “Inherit the Wind” pits religion versus science based on the Scope’s Monkey Trial. In that famous trial, Clarence Darrow battled William Jennings Bryan for the right of a teacher to use Darwin’s “Origin Of The Species” in a classroom- supposedly mocking the teachings in the Bible.

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote “Inherit The Wind” to use that trial to help expose the tyranny of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his infamous Communist Witch Hunt in the 1950’s. As we see once again, the play is relevant to almost any era. In the play a young teacher is put on trial in a small Southern town and the infamous Matthew Harrison Brady comes to town to defend the Bible against this heathen. But the equally celebrated Henry Drummond takes up his cause and resorts to using the teachings of the Bible against his esteemed opponent to attempt to exonerate his young charge.

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John Contini as Drummond, contemplates the Bible versus Darwin in the Insight Theatre Company production of “Inherit The Wind.” Photo: John Lamb

As the powerful Brady, Alan Knoll oozes Southern charm to drawl his way through Bible thumping tirades. He commands the role with the mastery of the stage veteran he is. Matching him stride for stride is the incomparable John Contini as Henry Drummond. He also uses a certain country charm to outmaneuver Brady until the courtroom battle erupts in tragedy. These two powerhouses of the local stage just own this show. In this large cast, they simply dominate the proceedings.

John’s real life son, Jason Contini plays the persistent newspaper reporter sent to cover this historic case. He is a real observer for the audience as he reacts to the case and both men involved with a slightly jaundiced yet perceptive eye to the truths that are at stake. Pete Winfrey and Sigrid Wise are a delightful pair as the teacher and his girlfriend. The unfortunate thing for them is that her father is the local minister- a role played with relish as well as hell-fire-and-brimstone by Michael Brightman. Susie Wall is also wonderful as Matthew Brady’s wife.

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Sigrid Wise, Pete Winfrey and John Contini in “Inherit The Wind” at Insight. Photo: John Lamb

The rest of the large cast is well represented by some local favorites as well as a few names I didn’t recognize but they all do a credible job, some playing multiple roles. There seemed to be a few sound problems on opening night, the most glaring being with the rather soft-spoken judge who was always drowned out by his own gavel-banging. This hardly mattered as the play’s the thing and this one is a can’t miss favorite.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga handled the large cast well as she moved them on and off in groups several times across the wings jutting out through the audience. The on stage action is tense and she brought the dramatic tension out with a masterful touch. Kyra Bishop designed the almost laid back but quite efficient set which made good use of just a few scene changes. Sean Savoie’s lights added to the mood and Tracey Newcomb-Margave costumed the show appropriately.

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Rivals Alan Knoll and John Contini as Brady and Drummond in the Insight production of “Inherit The Wind.” Photo: John Lamb

It is always a treat to revisit a classic like “Inherit The Wind.” It’s a provocative reminder of no matter how things change, they always remain the same. With today’s penchant for ignoring the separation of church and state and substituting beliefs for fact is still prevalent and will always be with us. That’s why religion and politics are always hot buttons and all we can do is try to let cooler heads prevail as we just try to get along. Insight Theatre Company will present “Inherit The Wind” through August 28th. Give them a call at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information. Go for the classic play and to see two stellar actors do their thing.

Stray Dog And Muny Close Out Their Seasons With “Bat Boy” And “Aida”

August 12, 2016
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Photo: John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre closes out their current season with a cult musical, “Bat Boy: The Musical.” A lively cast and a very funny script enhance this wild look at a young boy who was conceived by a pair of humans with a little intervention by a group of bats. The result is a clever and off-kilter musical that has splendid moments and a lot of laughs and cringe-worthy moments. It’s all based on a story printed many years ago by one of the tabloids that became a classic in its own right.

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Photo: John Lamb

Corey Fraine is a wonder as the Bat Boy- eventually known as Edgar. He twists his body like a Hindu rubber man as he cowers from humans until he is “tamed” in a “Rain In Spain” parody that is absolutely brilliant. Soon he’s even serving tea to his surrogate parents played to the hilt by Patrick Kelly and Dawn Schmid. And another great performance from Angela Bubash as the daughter and soon Bat Boy’s lover. Great work all around by a supporting cast of townspeople who sometimes cross-dress to “fill out” the local folks including Josh Douglas, Colin Dowd, Lindsey Jones, Tim Kaniecki, Michael A. Wells and Sara Rae Womack.

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Photo: John Lamb

It all comes together under the superb direction of Justin Been with a band led by Chris Petersen and choreography by  Mike Hodges. Robert J. Lippert provides a multi-level set and Tyler Duenow’s lights enhance the look of Hope Falls, West Virginia. Cara Hoppes McCulley finishes it all off with just the right costuming touch.

We unfortunately lost the teddy bear of Stray Dog, Jay V. Hall, last month but this production of “Bat Boy” was one that he would have loved- the usual tongue-in-cheek approach to offbeat musicals that he loved. “Bat Boy: The Musical” plays at Stray Dog Theatre through August 20th.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

In a fitting finale to a beautiful summer of shows on the Muny stage in Forest Park, Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida”spends a dazzling week lighting up the surroundings and bringing us to Ancient Egypt. Michelle Williams is powerful in the title role as she takes over these often haunting and memorable songs. Zak Resnick is a force to be reckoned with as well as Radames.

Local favorite and super star of Broadway, Ken Page, takes a major role in the season finale as well as Nubian king, Amonasro. His commanding presence is always a welcome sight on the Muny or any other stage. Another Missouri born and bred performer, Taylor Louderman shines as Amneris and Lara Teeter also joins in the fun in the role of Pharaoh. Wonza Johnson and Patrick Cassidy round out the major cast but the usual excellent work from the ensemble is prominent in this production as well.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

Director Matt Lenz keeps a nice pace throughout and musical director Andrew Graham gives proper due to the underrated musical score. Jon Rua’s choreography is a perfect fit and the set design of Tim Mackabee is a highlight. Nathan W. Scheuer’s lights are right on the mark and the unusual but very satisfying costume design of Robin McGee gives a fresh approach to “Aida.” This final show of the season at the Muny is one for the record books- it finishes off a very satisfying season with very few glitches in casting or procedure. We look forward to next summer.

“Fiddler On The Roof” Is A Triumph At The Muny

August 3, 2016
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Photo: Phillip Hamer

It’s one of those shows that you see over and over again- and for good reason. “Fiddler On The Roof” is not only iconic, it has become a “tradition.” This one at the Muny is one for the ages- it all works with an outstanding cast, great interpretation from director Gary Griffin and that marvelous Bock and Harnick music. In fact, Sheldon Harnick was on hand as he was inducted into the Muny Hall Of Fame during this run.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

Michael McCormick is one of the best Tevye’s I’ve seen. A somewhat low key performance but one that captures the spirit and demeanor of the milk man who struggles with his faith, his wife and his five daughters. Together with Anne L. Nathan as Golde-another great performance, they make “Do You Love Me” one of the most touching renditions you’ll ever see.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

The three daughters who buck tradition and actually find mates on their own rather than going with someone chosen for them by Yente, the Matchmaker, are all delightful. In the wonderful song called “Matchmaker,” they literally sweep us away on the winds of change. The oldest, Tzeitel, is a delightful Haley Bond. She has chosen shy but determined Motel over Yente’s choice, Lazar Wolf the butcher. Motel is played with charm by Alan Schumuckler. Middle daughter Hodel is given a sweet performance by Briana Carlson-Goodman and she has decided to set her sights on the scholarly Perchik, played by Marrick Smith. Finally, the most rebellious of all is Chava who truly defies everyone’s wishes by choosing the militant Fyedka. Carly Blake Sebouhian and Colby Dezelick make a lovely pair.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

Nice work as well by Peter Van Wagner as Lazar Wolf and Nancy Opel as Yente and as the ghost of Lazar’s wife, Fruma-Sarah during Tevye’s dream sequence. As usual, the ensemble playing both minor roles and in the singing and dancing chorus are wonderful. This is one polished show. Choreographer Alex Sanchez mixes the traditional dances with some new, inventive moves and musical director Brad Haak plays a flawless score. The Robert Mark Morgan scene design is minimal- more in line with what this desolate city of Anatevka probably looks like and it is all well lighted by Rob Denton’s design. Amy Clark’s costumes finish the show beautifully.

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Photo: Phillip Hamer

It’s different but still the exciting “Fiddler” at it’s heart. From “Tradition” to the plaintiff “Anatevka” and all the poignancy of the actual fiddler on the roof throughout, this is a classic Muny production. “Fiddler On The Roof” will be followed by the last show of the season, Elton John’s “Aida,” opening August 8th.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” Returns For Stages’ 30th Season And It’s Better Than Ever

August 1, 2016
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David Schmittou opens the show as The Man In The Chair and guides us through “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

They blew us away in the 2009 season with “The Drowsy Chaperone” and now, for their 30th Anniversary Season- Stages St. Louis reprises one of their biggest hits. Is it even better the second time around? Too close to call so I’ll just say “yes!” As someone who can identify with The Man In The Chair (collecting cast albums for 50-plus years), this show has a special appeal. Imagination always inspired me with shows I’d never seen performed as I tried to see them through the marvelous recordings. That’s just what happens on a grand scale with this show- the recording starts and the performers burst into this man’s living space and recreate the 1920’s magic of a show titled “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

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The Jacobs twins and Steve Isom get us started on the eventual production number, “Toledo Surprise” in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

David Schmittou returns in the iconic role of The Man In The Chair. A bit cynical at times but his love of musicals always comes through. Whether just sitting in his easy chair, cheering on a performer or even getting into the action on stage, Schmittou is totally committed to this obsessive character as he guides us through the magic of vinyl. What a performance.

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Corinne Melancon in the tile role and Edward Juvier as Adolpho in Stages St. Louis production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo: Peter Wochnicak

This time around, Corinne Melancon takes the title role and brings her special blend of song styling and often outrageous humor to the Drowsy Chaperone. She is nothing short of brilliant in both her featured number- “As We Stumble Along” and with her delightful play off the self-proclaimed Latin Lover, Adolpho- played again with high camp and low humor by the effervescent Edward Juvier.

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David Schmittou watches as Laura E. Taylor as Janet sings in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

The young bride and groom, Janet and Robert, are played with abandon by Laura E. Taylor and Andrew Fitch. Their number, “Accident Waiting To Happen,” with him on roller skates and blindfolded, is a true highlight in a show that’s filled with both musical and humorous highlights. Real twins, Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs play the gangsters posing as pastry chefs and they are a nimble pair indeed. Their specialty number, “Toledo Surprise,” which turns into a big chorus number, is truly filled with surprises.

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Corinne Melancon belts out “As We Stumble Along” while Laura E. Taylor looks on in the Stages St. Louis production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Kari Ely is charmingly ditzy as Mrs. Tottendale who is hosting the wedding and the droll John Flack is superb as the butler who everyone refers to as “Underling.” Steve Isom shines as Feldzieg, the Broadway producer who is trying to foil the wedding so that Janet will return to his employ and Dana Winkle is a real treat as the scatterbrained Kitty who accompanies Feldzieg and tries to convince him that she can take over the role abandoned by Janet. Con O’Shea-Creal also proves a valuable member of the troupe as George, Robert’s best man and almost steals the show with an energetic tap number with Robert as they discuss their “Cold Feets.”

As usual, the Stages ensemble is as talented as the featured players. Taking on all of the friends and guests, they are an invaluable part of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” singing and dancing their hearts out. The great team of Michael Hamilton- Director and Dana Lewis- Choreographer have fashioned this show into an unmistakeable hit. Fast paced and over-the-top hilarious. Musical direction is by Lisa Campbell Albert with orchestral design by Stuart M. Elmore. The magnificent, ever-changing set design by James Wolk is a wonder to behold and Sean M. Savoie’s lights are impeccable. Brad Musgrove’s costumes complete the magnificent technical aspects of the show featuring glam, glitter and suiting the 20’s to a T.

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The cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” (including The Man In The Chair) at the end of a production number at Stages St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

With music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, “The Drowsy Chaperone” may be the perfect musical about musicals. It is so good to see it staged again by the wonderful Stages St. Louis. Their love of musicals is unquestioned and this is one of the biggest and brightest (and funniest) of their 30 season run. Don’t miss it as it plays through August 21st. Give them a call at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

The LaBute New Theater Festival Scores Again At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

July 26, 2016
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Bridgette Bassa and Jenny Smith in “Life Model” by Neil LaBute at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Four weeks in the summer we get exciting new theatre at the LaBute Festival hosted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio. This year is no less inspiring, kooky and delightful as young playwrights from around the country submit scripts that are dwindled down to six or so plays to be presented in tandem with a new one-act written by Neil LaBute to open each evening.

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Emily Baker in “Show Of Affection” at the LaBute New Theater Festival at STLAS. Photo: Patrick Huber

The first set, running for two weeks featured Mr. LaBute’s “Life Model” which poses several layers of questions about what art is, the validity of said art and how different people are affected by art- by creating it, posing for it or critiquing it. Directed by John Pierson, it features Bridgette Bassa and Jenny Smith. Then Jeff Carter’s “Fire Sans Matches” is a take on a family outing that leads unexpectedly to the end of the world (have to see it to believe it!). Again directed by Mr. Pierson, it stars Emily Baker, Eric Dean White and Jeremy Pinson.

James Haigney’s “Winter Break” takes on modern problems that would have seemed routine only several years ago without the threat of terrorism. Michael Hogan directs this intense production featuring Jenny Smith, Leerin Campbell and Ryan Foisey. Finally, “Mark My Worms” by Cary Pepper is a delightful play that plays with words as a late playwright has left a script with typos that the director insists be played as written. Mr. Hogan once again directs with excellent work with the absurd and clever script by Emily Baker, Eric Dean White and David Wassilak as the supercilious director.

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Bridgette Bassa and Ryan Foizey at St. Louis Actors’ Studio and the LaBute New Play Festival. Photo: John Lamb

The second set of plays that is still running again features Mr. LaBute’s “Life Model” as the opening one-act followed by “American Outlaws” By Adam Seidel. This quirky cat and mouse game with two shady characters takes a bizarre turn after the actors leave the stage. Those actors include Eric Dean White and David Wassilak. It’s directed by John Pierson.

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Eric Dean White and David Wassilak in “American Outlaws” at the LaBute Festival at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

“Show Of Affection” by Laurence Klaven and directed by Patrick Huber tries to out-quirky the previous play with a very odd family that would give the Addams Family a run for their money. Bridgette Bassa as the daughter, Ryan Foizey as the son, Emily Baker as the mother and David Wassilak as the father put the “fun” in dysfunctional. Finally, “Blue Balls” by Willie Johnson and again directed by Mr. Huber make the evening complete with more dysfunction as suitor Eric Dean White has a close encounter with his date’s son, played by Ryan Foizey.

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Ryan Foizey and Eric Dean White in “Blue Balls” at the LaBute New Theatre Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio will once again be taking these plays to New York for a showing there in January and February. You’re invited to join them by calling 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information. Meanwhile, you can still catch the second set of one-acts at the Gaslight Theatre through July 31st. It’s a unique experience and this year is no exception. The one-act play is a lot of fun and these are all new and original scripts offered every year at the LaBute New Theatre Festival at STLAS.

“Mamma Mia” (Along With The Weather) Sizzle At The Muny

July 24, 2016

mia-juliaOne of the hottest nights of the year features a Muny show that gets both the cast and the audience working up a sweat- “Mamma Mia!” Nobody waits for the finale when you’re actually invited to get up and dance- people spontaneously stood and started moving with almost every ABBA number that broke out on stage. That’s the way it should be and the Muny is a perfect place for this kind of Public Display of Affection for the Swedish soft rock group and their electrifying music.

mia-menThe story is really nothing more than a thin plot to hold the songs together. In fact, it’s based (it would seem) on a failed musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane from the early 90’s called “Carmelina.” A young girl is getting married and she wants to invite her father but has no idea who he is. She and her mother live on a Greek island and even the mother is not sure who the father is since she had three men from her past who could all be the likely suspects. So this moves along with the music of ABBA and everyone is happy as the wedding finally takes place, Mamma is reunited with her true love and everyone gets to dress up in disco duds and dance the night away.

mia-weddingMuny favorite Julia Murney returns to play Donna, the mother and she belts some of the most intriguing music from the group including “The Name Of The Game,” “S.O.S.” and “Our Last Summer.” The men in her life are played by a strong trio including our town’s Ben Nordstrom as the British banker, Harry, Bill Austin and Justin Guarini as her long-lost love. Also bringing a lot of pizzazz to the stage is Ann Harada as friend Rosie and a delightful Jenny Powers as Tanya.

mia=3shotThe young lovers, Donna’s daughter Sophie and her fiancé Sky, are played with appropriate mooniness and verve by Brittany Zeinstra and Jason Gotay. The back up ensemble is quite lively and fit in well in this show because of the chance for production numbers and specialty numbers to help fill out the plot line. The big finish is really something to behold as the brightly colored costumes and mix of dance moves both on stage and off make “Waterloo” a fitting tribute to ABBA’s spirited songbook.

Director Dan Knechtges and choreographer Jessica Hartman keep things moving- as well they should to celebrate this unique song cycle of a show. Michael Horsley’s orchestra keeps pace and Leon Dobkowski’s costumes fit the eclectic feel of the show beautifully. Tim Mackabee’s set and the lighting design of Nathan W. Sheuer are also top notch.

-finaleAlthough you may think you’ve seen “Mamma Mia!” a the Muny before- you have not. It seems the show comes to town every few years (I’ve seen it at least five times) but this is actually a Muny debut. Get there quick as the show runs through July 28th with another favorite, “Fiddler On The Roof,” following closely on their dancing heels.

 

Mixed Bag With “John & Jen” As Insight Presents This Small But Mighty Musical

July 18, 2016
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Photo: John Lamb

The Andrew Lippa score is gorgeous and there’s a lot of it- “John & Jen” is pretty much sung-through with two 45-minute acts and an unusual story by Lippa and Tom Greenwald. Insight Theatre Company brings us this rarely done show that explores the bond between brother and sister in the first act and, after a tragedy ends it, reveals act two with the sister and her son- who she has named after her brother.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spanning 1952 to 1971, Act One sees Jen welcoming her younger brother to the world and, as time moves on, we see the inseparable bond that has been built between them. But a case of abuse in the family leads to a split between the two and John joins the Navy and is deployed to Vietnam. Act Two (1972 to 1990) then sees the same bond being built between Jen and her son, John. This also is put asunder by circumstance and the different dynamic from brother and sister to that sister and her son. It’s a moving story and the song cycle that is the score and largely the book is simply breathtaking at times and highly entertaining most of the time.

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Photo: John Lamb

Musical director Larry D. Pry does a masterful job with this most difficult show musically. With he at piano, Adam Kopff on percussion and Christo Bachmann on cello, they always have complete command of the score and sound just amazing. Likewise Director Trish Brown moves the action along and hits all the right spots between sentimentality and humor. It is a moving story and she captures the essence of it. Tip of the hat as well to choreographer Taylor Pietz. She also seizes every moment and what it means to John and Jen as they travel a sometimes difficult road together. From a slow do-si-do in the first act to a very energetic and amusing “Little League” number in the second act, she dazzles with all the right moves in a show that is as heavily choreographed as it is blocked.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spencer Davis Milford is absolutely wonderful as the John the brother and John the son. He moves from little boy to maturity- twice, and acts and sings the part with dexterity. Jenni Ryan is Jen and she commands the stage from an acting standpoint but can’t seem to handle the upper register when singing this beautiful score. At times pitchy and often not able to hit the notes at all, it takes away from an otherwise splendid production. She may well fall into a more comfortable place with the music as the show continues but opening night was a bit of a letdown. It’s a shame because she really handles the role well and is adept at all the right touches as she ages while Spencer gets to play boy-to-man in both acts.

The clever multi-level set and poignant projections following their lives is the brilliant work of Kyra Bishop and, combined with the often subdued but effective lights of Oliver Littleton make for a wonderful look. Leah McFall’s costumes also work well for this family story that features both triumph and tragedy.

jj-porchBeing a collector of Broadway, off Broadway and everything else in the form of vinyl and CD’s for years, I’ve always admired Andrew Lippa’s scores and this one for “John & Jen” is very good indeed. Insight Theatre Company has brought it to our town and it’s worth the wait. Catch it now until July 31st. Give them a call at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information.

 

All The Pieces Fit In Glorious “Grey Gardens” At Max & Louie

July 13, 2016
Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Reviewing a production is, of course, a personal viewpoint and every one of the several critics we have in our town will vary in their opinions. But with “Grey Gardens,” the current musical from Max & Louie Productions, I think we’ll join forces in our praise for just about every aspect from casting and direction down through the technical creators. If it isn’t flawless, it comes pretty darn close.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, “Grey Gardens” tells the real life story of the relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and their prominence in social circles in the 40’s to their bizarre decline and definite anti-social behavior in the 70’s. Still living in their magnificent mansion in East Hampton where we first see them preparing for a promised engagement of Little Edie Beale to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in 1941, we see a broken down mother and daughter in the same, deteriorated mansion swarming with cats and a life of accumulated trash in 1973.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

This show offers a break out performance for Debby Lennon in the dual roles of Edith Bouvier Beale (in the 1941 segment) and her daughter, Little Edie Beale in Act II which takes place in 1973. A singer and performer for many years in St. Louis and elsewhere, Debby Lennon blows the roof off the Wool Center at the home of New Jewish Theatre with a tour de force unlike anything we’ve seen in some time. Her “big” Edie is brash and overpowering with a gusto and ego that can’t be held back. Culminating in a show stopping finale to Act I with the ballad, “Will You?,” it is a no-holds barred performance. In Act II, playing “little” Edie, her demeanor is much the same with delusional touches that solidify her mastery of the character and the entire show ending with the heart-wrenching duet with Donna Weinsting (now playing the older Edie), “Another Winter In A Summer Town.”

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Donna Weinsting brings a clever madness to the aged Edith that hovers between semi-coherence and outright insanity. In an odd, controlled way, she portrays this decline into despair and delusion with a sense of dignity. Tom Murray is a boisterous, frustrated J.V. “Major” Bouvier in Act I. His dissatisfaction with Edith is apparent but he is gentle and witty with the youngsters (great performances from Phoebe Desilets as young Jackie Bouvier and Carter Eiseman as Lee- the future Lee Radziwell)- especially in the clever musical number, “Marry Well.” In the second act, Mr. Murray does a splendid turn as Norman Vincent Peale in one of Big Edie’s many fantasies.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Another great turn by Terry Meddows as the gay, raconteur friend of Edith as her accompanist and “hanger-on,” offering encouragement in her musical career. Madeline Purches absolutely stuns as little Edie during the 1941 sequence- displaying a beautiful singing voice and great acting chops as she manages to destroy her future by alienating the young Kennedy and driving him away from what he can see is sheer madness. As Joseph Kennedy, Will Bonfiglio turns in another great performance (so good in the recent “Old Wicked Songs” at NJT in the same space)- even locking down the famous Kennedy accent. In the second act, he becomes the only friend and odd “gentleman caller” of big Edie. Is he taking advantage of her? Most likely, but he also offers her much needed companionship. Omega Jones rounds out the cast as the long-suffering butler to the Beale/Bouvier clan and is still loyal to the two ladies as we see in his passionate performance in Act Two.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Nothing works without the inspired direction of Annamaria Pileggi. Her insight and deeply involved compassion for this story and characters is felt from the very beginning and continues through the heartbreak of the second act. Along with the witty and almost retro choreography of Robin Berger, it makes for a totally satisfying look at this bizarre story. Jennifer JC Krajicek’s costumes are spot on including the beautifully rendered blousy trousers of Terry Meddow’s character- very Cole Porter-ish. Michael Sullivan’s lights are sheer perfection.

Dunsi Dai has created two different worlds- both in magnificent fashion as set designer. From the opulence of the First Act to the decadence of the second, it’s a feat that is as powerful as it is persuasive. Along with the Claudia Horn prop design, this production transports you to two very different but equally effective worlds. The musical direction of Neal Richardson also blends into this production with ease. This is a captivating score and the use of piano, cello and violin is an excellent choice. At times you’d swear there was a full orchestra backing up the actors and at other times the subtlety of the music is astounding.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Enough cannot be said for this Max & Louie production of “Grey Gardens.” Every piece of the puzzle fits together splendidly to bring laughs and tears to an eager audience. Do not miss the chance to see this exquisite presentation that you will never forget. It plays through July 30th.

 

 


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