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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“Man Of La Mancha” Exciting Conclusion To Stages-St. Louis Season

September 14, 2019
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Steve Isom as the Governor confronts James Patterson as Quixote in Stages-St. Louis’ production of “Man Of La Mancha.” Photo: Peter Wochniak.

One of the top ten musicals on my personal list, “Man Of La Mancha” has never seen a better production than the one that is currently playing at Stages-St. Louis. Style, bravado  and a dash of comedy unfold as the well known Knight Errant, Don Quixote (really a landowner named Alonzo Quixana), rides on to fight windmills, slay dragons and find a lady worthy of continuing his quest for honor and decency in our world.

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James Patterson goes from Alonzo to Don Quixote as he begins to tell the story of the Knight Errant. Photo: Peter Wochniak.

James Patterson is a commanding presence on stage as writer Cervantes who is jailed for foreclosing on a church in his role of tax collector- of course, he’s also a writer, poet and playwright. He then transforms himself on stage to Don Quixote de la Mancha. Mr. Patterson has a lovely, operatic singing voice but manages to bring the powerful music of Mitch Leigh and lyrics of Joe Darion down to a nitty-gritty rendition for most songs and even earns a rare standing ovation for the show’s biggest hit, “The Impossible Dream.” As his Aldonza, the scullery maid who he believes is his virginal lady, Dulcinea, Amanda Robles is impeccable as both singer and actress.

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Amanda Robles as Aldonza and Patrick John Moran as Sancho in “Man Of La Mancha” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak.

Quixote’s sidekick is Sancho Panza, played with skill by Patrick John Moran. Comedy timing is his forte and his singing voice rings throughout the theatre- particularly with the comic song, “The Missive.” He’s a treat to watch and listen to.

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Julie Hanson, Erik Keiser and Zoe Vonder Haar spill secrets during the Stages-St. Louis production of “Man Of La Mancha.” Photo: Peter Wochniak.

One of the best comical songs occurs when as priest is hearing confessions of two of Alonzo’s close friends as they claim “We’re Only Thinking Of Him” as the priest continues to console with words of forgiveness. Antonia, played by Julie Hanson is engaged to Dr. Carrasco (a commanding presence in the form of Ryan Jesse) and fears that her uncle’s delusional journey as a knight may harm her chances of happiness and a wealthy husband. The Housekeeper, played with panache by  Zoe Vonder Haar, also shows more concern for herself than the Lord of the manor. In the role of the padre, Erik Keiser is a gem- getting to shine in a couple of songs.

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The moment in “Man Of La Mancha” at Stages-St. Louis when James Patterson as Quixote explains to Amanda Robles’ Dulcinea why he follows the quest in “The Impossible Dream.” Photo: Peter Wochniak.

Stages-St. Louis favorite, Steve Isom, plays the dual roles of the governor of the prison and as the Innkeeper of the inn that Quixote mistakes as a castle. A chameleon, Mr. Isom brings the same intensity to a role whether it be a lead or a secondary one. He makes them all his own. Another regular at Stages is John Flack who plays the captain of the Inquisition. Also, kudos to Ryan Cooper for bringing a true touch of hilarity to the role of the wandering barber who must surrender his shaving basin to Quixote who mistakes it for a knight’s helmet.

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Quixote (James Patterson) threatens the Barber (Ryan Cooper) to hand over the golden helmet, held by Sancho (Patrick John Moran). Photo: Peter Wochniak.

The usual excellent work by the singers and dancers leading the way is something we simply expect from Stages-St. Louis and we always are satisfied. In addition, special high fives to the technical folks who brought us a stunning recreation of the prison and surrounding areas. James Wolk is the scenic designer who makes you feel the chilly atmosphere of a prison while Sean M. Savoie lights the set beautifully. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are right on the mark as well. Michael Hamilton directs and stages while his choreographer is Dana Lewis.

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James Patterson as Quixote and Patrick John Moran as Sancho ride of to adventure in “Man Of La Mancha” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak.

You have until October 6th to see this wonderful production of “Man Of La Mancha” so don’t let the time get away from you- order tickets now or find out more information by calling the box office at 314-821-2407. If you have never seen this show- it is an experience and, if you have seen it, you’ve never seen it this good.

 

Cast Of “The Boy From Oz” Dazzles As Stages-St. Louis Opens New Season

June 8, 2019

boyPeter Allen wrote a few hit songs in his time- mostly in collaboration but he’s best know for marrying Liza Minnelli. That being said, Stages-St. Louis opens their 2019 season with “The Boy From Oz,” a show that features Mr. Allen’s life by using his songs to tell his story. With a talented cast and a flashy theatrical oomph that even Peter Allen would have appreciated, the show succeeds and is probably more enjoyable than watching one of his old night club acts.

The reason behind this success is the brilliant performance of David Elder as Peter Allen. With a charm and stage presence that just doesn’t quit, he razzle-dazzles his way through this sometimes sprightly, sometimes angst-laden score. Mr. Allen’s most successful song was the theme from “Arthur,” “Best That You Can Do,” also known as “Caught Between The Moon And New York City.” This was in collaboration with Christopher Cross, Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager.

In the show we go all the way back to a little town in Australia where young Peter is dancing for a handout in the local establishments. A delightful Ben Iken played the role the night we saw the show and offered a lot of verve and talent. Later Peter’s life took a dramatic change when he boldly chatted with Judy Garland in a night club in Hong Kong.  They hit it off and he and his singing/dancing partner Chris (a great performance by Erik Keiser) get the opening gig for Judy’s next tour.

Michele Ragusa is a wonderful Judy Garland as she captures the essence of the brilliant star. Her songs, especially “Don’t Wish Too Hard,” truly convince you that Judy is singing. Then there’s Liza, played with all the mixture of timidity and flashes of flair that was a signature for Liza. Caitlyn Caughell works the magic and becomes the driving force in Peter’s life that guides his career for almost a decade. Their touching duet, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love,” comes near the close of the first act.

The second act is Peter’s life after he comes out and hooks up with Greg- a wonderful performance from Zach Trimmer. He grounds Peter every bit as much as Liza had and becomes his set and lighting designer and guides his career in a stirring rebirth. Highlighted by a stint with the Rockets at Radio City Music Hall, we hear the great number that became a highlight of the Bob Fosse biopic, “All That Jazz,” “Everything Old Is New Again.” But, as is always the case with Peter, Greg leaves his as well with one of Mr. Allen’s better efforts, “I Honestly Love You.”

When Greg dies of AIDS, Peter returns home to Australia and is greeted by his long suffering and always supportive mother, Marion played by the impressive Corinne Melancon. She has several numbers in the first act but it’s her second act belting of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” that really hits home for both mother and son. Also leading the way with always impressive acting chops is Steve Isom in the dual role of Peter’s abusive father and his agent, Dee Anthony.

To end the dazzling evening of song, costumes (by Brad Musgrove), stunning sets (James Wolk), lights (Sean M. Savoie), musical direction (Lisa Campbell Albert) and inspired choreography of Dana Lewis and the steady hand at the helm of Michael Hamilton, we send an early, heavenly remembrance of Peter Allen in a Busby Berkley style number of his hit, “I Go To Rio.” He died at age 48 of AIDS but left a legacy of work that may not have measured up to some of his musical peers, but certainly made an impact on the world of pop music.

This is a show that you will love just for the sheer joy of spectacle. He led a unique life and made the most of his opportunities. This cast does yeoman work in bringing that life to stage in “The Boy From Oz.” It plays at Stages through June 30th. Contact them at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

Sibling Rivalry On Steroids As “True West” Takes Over STLAS Stage

April 18, 2019
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Isaiah Di Lorenzo as Lee towers over William Humphrey as Austin in “True West” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Brothers Lee and Austin are always entertaining gents to visit and this time St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting them in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Could there be any siblings with more dysfunction than these two? Thanks to a top notch cast, this fast moving play delights and shocks us until the final? confrontation.

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William Humphrey as Austin tries to work as Isaiah Di Lorenzo as Lee taunts him in the STLAS production of “True West.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Director William Whitaker pulls out all the stops as Lee visits his brother at their mother’s house in Southern California. Mom is vacationing in Alaska and Lee decides he should visit Austin and stir up some old wounds and basically get on his nerves. Austin is in the midst of writing a film script commissioned by an agent, Saul. Lee does everything he can imagine to distract him until Saul finally visits and the brash and charming Lee starts spinning a tale that only a bad agent would love. So Saul dumps Austin’s script and urges Lee to write an outline.

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Isaiah Di Lorenzo as Lee stuffs toast in his mouth from the toasters Austin has stolen in “True West” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Verbal and physical abuse begins until the final confrontation in which Austin is afraid that Lee has finally pushed him to the edge. William Humphrey is the mild mannered Austin but the tables suddenly turn when the con man Lee becomes “top dog” in this rivalry. Playing Lee with a lot of panache and uninhibited exuberance is Isaiah Di Lorenzo. He bounces around the stage, hopping on kitchen counters and literally and figuratively getting into Austin’s face. Discussions of the weather in the desert, who’s the better burglar and even who is the better son sets the chaotic relationship into overdrive.

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William Roth (r) discusses his decision with William Humphrey as Isaiah Di Lorenzo watches from the background in the STLAS production of “True West.” Photo: Patrick Huber

William Roth plays the lackadaisical Saul who chooses the childish screenplay that he hopes Lee will write over the deep and more philosophical musings of Austin. The brothers’ mom, Susan Kopp, enters in the final scene and it doesn’t take long to see how the brothers became the taunting, selfish young men they’ve become. The entire cast is wonderful but the brothers dominate the evening and they work the audience with a joyous, if often crass, charm.

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William Humphrey (l) and Isaiah Di Lorenzo (r) explain what happened to Mom’s (Susan Kopp) house in “True West” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Patrick Huber’s set design is California clutter with a lot of turquoise and, eventually, clutter. Steve Miller’s lights enhance the surroundings and Andrea Robb’s costumes speak to the characters beautifully. Shaun Sheley gets a special nod for his realistic fight choreography particularly in the final scene.

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Isaiah Di Lorenzo tries to deal with William Humphrey during the STLAS production of “True West.” Photo: Patrick Huber

If you’ve never seen the brilliant “True West” or any of Sam Shepard’s other equally powerful plays (“Curse Of The Starving Class” and “Buried Child” are considered a perfect trilogy along with “True West”), it’s high time you’ve made the trip to St. Louis Actors’ Studio to see how brilliant this man was. It plays at STLAS through April 28th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

 

“Time Stands Still” Explores Relationships And More At New Jewish

April 3, 2019
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Wendy Greenwood as Sarah checks out James, played by Ben Nordstrom as he peruses her new book of photographs in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Time Stands Still.”

Set in 2009, the Donald Margulies play, “Time Stands Still” focuses on two couples and the relationships through both friendship and long and short love affairs. Like most of Margulies’ work, the main focus is on those dynamics that cause us to fall in and out of love and maybe even in and out of friendship. New Jewish Theatre has brought us a profound production with a tight knit cast.

James and Sarah have been together for years. She is a photographer who is the quintessential recorder of wartime experiences- mainly in the Middle East. She has been recently wounded by a roadside bomb and is recuperating, on crutches, with her long time lover though there’s a hint that the couple may have been estranged before her recent mishap. James is a journalist who seems to be undergoing writer’s block and has lost his lust for adventure. Therein lies the crux of their spotty relationship- she’s been overseas for some time and he’s content with just staying home now that he has left the war torn countries. She, on the other hand, can’t wait to get healed and go back.

Wendy Greenwood is powerful as Sarah. She is caring and loving but can’t figure out if their relationship can last through the different routes their lives have taken. She seems to be content when James suggested getting married and having a baby, but her love for her profession keeps standing in her way. Ben Nordstrom is a bundle of nerves as James between his concern for Sarah’s safety as she recuperates and his wariness for his best friend (and editor for both of their work) Richard. Besides his insistence on James cracking out a new article by the end of the week, there’s the problem with Richard having hooked up with a “sweet young thing,” Mandy. Both James and Sarah agree at the outset that this just isn’t going to work out well for Richard.

Stage (and New Jewish Theatre) veteran, Jerry Vogel, is full of vim and vigor at his new found youth. He tries to mend some of the hurt that he sees in his old friends but at times seems a bit too giddy over his romantic conquest. As Mandy, Eileen Engel is rock steady. Though coming across as a bit naive to begin with, she soon shows that she can go toe to toe with the “big kids.” This cast of familiar and seasoned actors makes this show click. It’s powerful and heart wrenching and time doesn’t stand still- it seems to fly watching these pros tackle what could be a difficult script to interpret in lesser hands.

Which leads us to the masterful job by director Doug Finlayson who weaves a spell with this story of love, mending both physically and emotionally and friendship that stands the test of time. Scenic designer John Stark has fashioned a small loft apartment in Brooklyn that certainly evokes the period and the people. Michael Sullivan’s lights enhance the production and Michele Siler’s costumes reflect the characters beautifully.

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Wendy Greenwood as Sarah and Ben Nordstrom as James in “Time Stands Still” at New Jewish Theatre.

“Time Stands Still” is a thought provoking experience led by a cast that drives through the pains and pleasures of complicated relationships. It plays at New Jewish Theatre through April 14th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

 

 

“The Play That Goes Wrong” Goes Hilariously Right As The Rep’s MainStage Season Comes To A Close

March 18, 2019
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Michael Keyloun and John Rapson try to get a knocked out Ruth Pferdehirt through a stage window in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Anyone who has done theatre either as a professional or amateur knows there are some nights where nothing goes right. Perhaps an exit door that won’t open or a major prop that’s missing or, in the case of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” everything is a disaster. Since you’re expecting that from a play with that title, the audience is not only entertained, they are treated to non-stop, out loud laughs that just won’t stop. This is the closing show of the season on the MainStage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

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Dennis Tyde and John Rapson attemt to roll the “corpse”, Benjamin Curns, onto a stretcher in the Rep production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Set at a small university drama society production, president of that society as well as director and star of the Agatha Christie style mystery, “The Murder At Haversham Manor,” Chris Bean, has to explain to the audience before the show starts that a few problems may ensue. Those problems are evident even before the speech and the play as things start going wrong as the tech crew come out about ten minutes before curtain to remedy some of those problems. Then all hell breaks loose.

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Michael Keyloun appears a bit disturbed at the reaction of Ka-Ling Cheung as the stage manager filling for the leading lady in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael Keyloun leads the way as Mr. Bean and, in the play, Inspector Carter. His exasperation combined with many problems attributed to him as well, creates chaos that  never really gets under control. Benjamin Curns as Charles Haversham dies in the opening scene but, as to paraphrase Sally Bowles line in “Cabaret,” he’s the liveliest corpse you’ve ever seen. Among other things, the other actors bump him as he lies “calmly” on a chaise and he just has trouble staying in character and dead. He also makes several unexpected entrances with a blunderbuss throughout the play which all becomes clear in the second act.

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Matthew McGloin and Benjamin Curns in the aftermath of their sword fight in the Rep’s production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

To add to the hilarity, Charles’ brother Cecil, Matthew McGloin appears to think he’s in a musical as he  bounces around the stage emphasizing every speech with leg kicks and overreaching hand motions. Of course it doesn’t help that he’s dressed like a 20’s preppie tennis player. Later in the play he appears as Arthur the Gardener and makes no pretense to be anything but the actor playing both roles, even to the point of trying to stick his fake sideburns (which have fallen off) as a mustache on Charles’ intended, Florence Colleymoore. Played with perfect comic timing, Ruth Pferdehirt plays Colleymoore who may have some nefarious hand in Charles’ death- definitely a suspect.

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The very much alive “corpse” is pulled onto the second level with much consternation in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

John Rapson is Thomas Colleymoore, Florence’s brother while Evan Zes plays the loyal family friend and, rounding out the cast are the behind the scenes players who get into the action on stage when Florence gets knocked out- Ryan George as the sound and light technician and Ka-Ling Cheung as the stage manager. Several plants in the audience also help things along from a helper in the pre-opening to folks who start conversations or urge on the action.

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Ruth Pferdehirt jumps into the arms of Matthew McGloin during the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Director Melissa Rain Anderson has brought slapstick to new heights in providing the main laughs for the evening with falls through windows, knocking down posts so a cantilevered second floor section can trap the “actors” unawares and, as mentioned, even knocking out one of the actresses which leads to an absolutely spectacular scene as actors and stagehands try to get her offstage through a window flat. Timing is everything and it all works beautifully the “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

The wonderful Peter and Margery Spack have provided a set that often goes wrong as well while Lauren T. Roark provides the appropriate costume design and Kirk Bookman’s lights enhance the action. Rusty Wandall provides the sound design and a special bow to the backstage crew that handles the complex machinations to perfection.

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Michael Keyloun, Ka-Ling Cheung and Evan Zes in just one of the hilarious moments in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Comparisons to “Noises Off” are inevitable but whereas that play featured a lot of things that go wrong, it focuses on the relationships of the actors while “The Play That Goes Wrong” is straight out slapstick and silliness. Both are stellar examples of life behind the footlights but for now, get to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis before this hilarity ends. “The Play That Goes Wrong” runs through April 7th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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Just a quick word of explanation. Stage Door St. Louis has been dark for almost six months due to my wife’s illness. She is getting stronger every day and was able to attend “The Play That Goes Wrong” with me. Not sure of how my schedule will continue as it’s a day-to-day journey as her caregiver. But I plan to attend the Circle Awards at the end of the month and hopefully get back on a fairly regular schedule of enjoying St. Louis theatre this year. Thanks to everyone for understanding…Steve Allen

Outrageous And Entertaining- “Raging Skillet” Opens New Season At New Jewish Theatre

October 8, 2018
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Erin Renee Roberts, Sarajane Alverson and Kathleen Sitzer star in “Raging Skillet” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Not only is New Jewish Theatre starting a new season, they are celebrating the first show under new Artistic Director, Edward Coffield. Retired Artistic Director, Kathleen Sitzer has not traveled too far, however, as she is on stage for “Raging Skillet,” a provocative and, for the audience, a tasty new play based on the outrageous career of the real Chef Rossi.

Chef Rossi was actually in the audience on opening night laughing at her own life as portrayed on stage by the remarkable Sarajane Alverson. Rossi was born a Jew (changed her name), became a lesbian and created some of the most inventive recipes ever to come out of Hell’s Kitchen or anywhere else. Her life was colorful no matter how many twists and turns that life took- and there were plenty of them. Playwright Jacques Lamarre presents the play as a cooking demonstration (based on Chef Rossi’s cookbook) as she is holding a press launch for the book.

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Eric Renee Roberts and Sarajane Alverson consult the “cook book” during the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Raging Skillet.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Ms. Alverson commands the stage and runs the gamut from presenting recipes, cooking and telling stories of her life all presented in an entertaining and creative way for this 90-minute one act. Working for several years in our area on many stages, Sarajane is a marvel at whatever material she tackles. “Raging Skillet” is truly tour de force for her unique talent as she handles the role of the chef as well as she has tackled a ruthless business woman, a femme fatale, an angel of death (or redemption) or any of the myriad number of roles she has mastered in the past. She not only carries the role, she connects with the audience which has a major role in the play as well.

The onstage Chef Rossi is in a constant battle with her late mother who appears and never leaves so the interaction here becomes both divisive and cathartic. Kathleen Sitzer is a perfect Jewish mother heaping praise, guilt and disappointment on the Chef adding a dash of insight into how Rossi has both coped and succeeded in her profession. It’s a great performance that blends well with the sarcasm and angst of the Chef.

Rounding out the cast is Erin Renee Roberts as Skillit- DJ, sous chef and various characters that wander in and out of  Chef Rossi’s memory. With a sassy attitude and witty repartee that matches the Chef, Roberts becomes a delightful partner and foil in this kitchen battle. The use of a fireman type pole to extract Skillit from her DJ post above the stage helps the frenzy and movement as it never stops in “Raging Skillet.” There are also a couple of assistants who aid in handing out goodies to the audience throughout the play.

Director Lee Ann Matthews wraps it all up in a happy package of food, fun and a festive mood. Things rarely slow down and with various recipes being passed out to various section of the audience, you don’t leave hungry (and if you do, the “leftovers” are passed around at the after play meet and greet with the actors). Everyone was treated to Jewish Sangria involving Manischewitz, apple juice and some other ingredients (also non-alcholoic available) and then members of the audience were treated to pizza bagels, snickers krispy bars, barbecued chicken tam tams or, in my case, chocolate covered bacon.

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Kathleen Sitzer talks to Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson) and her sous chef (Erin Renee Roberts) in “Raging Skillet” at NJT. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Dunsi Dai’s set design is pleasing on the eye and works effectively to keep the play moving. Michael Sullivan’s lights enhance the action and Michele Siler’s costumes are spot on. “Raging Skillet” is a treat on every level. The cast is hard working and simply flawless. Things move quickly and the outrageous and colorful life of Chef Rossi just astounds. See “Raging Skillet” at New Jewish Theatre through October 21st. Call 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

“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.