Archive for September, 2012

Irreverent History Lesson Rocks New Line’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

September 29, 2012

John Sparger shines as “Old Hickory” in New Line Theatre’s production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

As historical musicals go, this one’s pretty accurate. It tells of Andrew Jackson’s life, his formation of the Democratic Party, his role as a general, then a president along with all the resulting trials and tribulations. But “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” gives us an irreverent, anachronistic look at the lead characters while also giving us the most entertaining musical look at history since “1776.” Only New Line Theatre could- or would- bring this “in your face” production to us.

It’s not your grade school history lesson with adult themes and language peppering the tale of “Old Hickory” and his success with defeating Indians, the British and Spanish in such memorable confrontations as the Battle of New Orleans in his rise to become governor of Florida. From there he loses his first bid for the presidency- despite winning the popular vote- due to machinations within the government who feared his rise to power (losing a presidency in Florida- sound familiar?). Then, four years later in 1828, he wins the election and decides to become a man of the people. Everything goes wrong and when he takes the bull by the horns behind his own convictions, it leads to the infamous “Trail of Tears” and other unpopular decisions that eventually divide his legacy as either one of the best or one of the worst presidents in history.

Stephanie Brown, Todd Micali and Sarah Porter spin a yarn during New Line Theatre’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

John Sparger, as Andrew Jackson, saunters his long, lanky frame on stage in front of the delightful Justin Smolik directed on stage band and immediately gets rude and crude with the audience. We know what kind of night we’re in for. The Alex Timbers script along with the wild and wooly music and lyrics of Michael Friedman take over and we’re on a wild west ride through the Indian problems that Washington doesn’t seem to want to address (told cleverly in an extended number called “Ten Little Indians”). Then Jackson’s injuries, at the hands of the Spanish, being healed by his future wife played with real star power by Taylor Pietz.

John Sparger and Brian Claussen attempt to hammer out a treaty for the Indian nation while Zachary Allen Farmer delivers some bad news. Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

How about a quintet of crooked politicians? Brian Claussen as Martin Van Buren, Mike Dowdy as James Monroe, Zachary Allen Farmer as John Quincy Adams, Nicholas Kelly as Henry Clay (and later as Chief Black Fox) and BC Stands as John Calhoun fit the bill. They all play a multitude of characters as do several other women in the cast including Stephanie Brown, Amy Kelly, Sarah Porter and Chrissy Young. Toss in some great work by Todd Micali and guitarist D. Mike Bauer as the band soloist and you’ve got quite a talented cast that sings, dances and generally misbehaves.

John Sparger as Andrew Jackson and Taylor Pietz as Rachel share a tender moment in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

Cell phones, gyrations that would make a saloon girl blush and a rash of other anachronistic references make this an unreal but highly accurate portrayal of the life of Andrew Jackson. It’s the most fun you’re ever likely to spend with a politician. Director Scott Miller has brought his magic touch into play milking the irony and laughs out of every line, pratfall and stage picture. Nicholas Kelly doubles as fight choreographer while Amy Kelly brings us the wild mix of costumes. Scott L. Schoonover’s set and Kenneth Zinkl’s lights add to the fun and mayhem.

If you’re in the mood for a bizarre look at this iconic period in American history, you’re in for a treat with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” It should be required viewing for every college American History course. The madness continues through October 20th at New Line’s space at the Washington University South Campus Theatre (formerly CBC High School). Give them a call at 314-534-1111 for info or tickets or contact them at newlinetheatre.com.

 

 

 

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“Dinner With Friends” Shines At Dramatic License

September 16, 2012

Sarah Cannon, Chad Morris, Michelle Hand and Christopher Hickey star in the Dramatic License Production of “Dinner With Friends.” Photo credit: John Lamb.

We all have friends who- even as our dearest friends- can bore us to tears with stories of their favorite causes, vacations or anything else that we could care less about. Gabe and Karen are that way with Beth about food and their latest trip to Italy. When they sense Beth’s inattentiveness to their ramblings about the great Italian woman who gave them the recipe complete with photos and intimate details about the type of tomatoes she uses, they chalk it up to just that- boredom. But something deeper is lurking behind her distraction and her sudden flow of tears starts us on this incredible journey.

“Dinner With Friends” won playwright Donald Margulies a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and several other awards and nominations. It’s easy to see why with the excellent Dramatic License Productions’ cast leading the way with this complicated look at marriage, friendship and human nature. We soon learn from Beth that her husband Tom has left her for another woman and, despite her story of him being in Washington on business, he is really meeting with his mistress. As both couples’ children interrupt from upstairs where they’re watching a video, the story shocks Gabe and Karen who had introduced the couple eleven years earlier.

Sarah Cannon and Michelle Hand listen as Christopher Hickey explains a culinary detail during “Dinner With Friends” at Dramatic License Productions. Photo credit: John Lamb.

As this wonderfully crafted play progresses, we see Tom’s reaction to Beth “getting the first shot in” to their friends and a very unexpected end to their very heated argument. As the second act opens, we flash back to their first introduction at Martha’s Vineyard as Tom and Beth get to know each other while Gabe and Karen are pleased that their respective friends seem to have “found each other.” As the play jumps back to present day, more facts about the marital break-up muddies the waters of Gabe and Karen’s presumptions and makes them question their own seemingly solid marriage. “Dinner With Friends” is a thought-provoking piece in many ways as the various levels of love and friendship begin to slowly reveal that there are even more than two sides to every story.

This cast is simply outstanding- there’s not much else you can say. Michelle Hand is rock-steady as Karen showing concern and surprise on several levels as those various levels of truth begin to unravel. As her husband, Gabe, Christopher Hickey delivers a brilliant, low-key performance that becomes the foundation of this tangled web as he tries to hold it all together. Sarah Cannon brings multi-dimensional power to her portrayal of Beth. From the opening emotional scene through the naive young artist and into a more worldly-wise and sophisticated woman, she is stunning. And Chad Morris also shines as a passionate Tom who may hold the key to the failed marriage but also reveals why he may not be to blame as we first may think. It’s a delightful enigma of strong relationships and why they’re not always what they seem.

Michelle Hand and Christopher Hickey contemplate their future after the startling events of “Dinner With Friends” at Dramatic License. Photo credit: John Lamb.

Director Gary Wayne Barker has pulled every ounce of emotion from these four brilliant actors. From staging to body language to gestures and facial expressions, we get insight into every twist and turn of this plot. Although the play is divided into several scenes, the clever Jason Coale set design gives us as little distraction as possible as we move from on setting to the next. In fact, the evening I saw the play, we had an impromptu intermission thanks to a fire alarm about five minutes before the end of Act I that evacuated the entire Chesterfield Mall. That was more disconcerting than any scene change but the actors- in particular Christopher and Chad- were able to get us back on track and into this emotional roller coaster without missing a beat.

This is a remarkable production with solid direction and four of the finest actors you’ll see together on any local stage. They wring every tense moment from the script along with the myriad of laughs along the way. I guess you could call it a “dramedy,” but it’s really a domestic pastiche with multiple surprises along the way. Don’t form an opinion after the first scene, because that opinion will change many times throughout the evening. That’s why it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Don’t miss “Dinner With Friends” at Dramatic License through September 30th. Call them at 636-220-7012 or online at http://www.dramaticlicenseproductions. org for tickets or more information.

Nothing Better Than Gershwin At Stages- “My One And Only” A Tap-Happy Hit

September 15, 2012

Tari Kelly and David Elder in a romantic interlude in Stages’ production of “My One And Only.” Photo credit: Peter Wochniak.

Nobody does a tap dancing show like Stages and nobody wrote better tap numbers than George and Ira Gershwin. It all comes together in Stages’ final show of the summer, “My One And Only.” Like the current Broadway hit with Matthew Broderick, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” this one was not an original book from the ’20’s but a compilation of tunes from the Gershwin songbook to create a new story. With “My One And Only,” Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer wrote the book and it was all conceived by Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh.

Stages makes it their own with precision tap numbers built around the sappy love story and the great music. In their typical flawless fashion, the performers in a Stages show dazzle you with their talents. Number after number combine to exhaust an audience almost as much as the on-stage dancers. An old favorite, David Elder, plays the Tommy Tune role of an American flyer in the ’20’s, Captain Billy Buck Chandler, who is determined to be the first to fly solo across the Atlantic. His plans are interrupted by another ’20’s phenomenon, a woman who swam the English Channel. This time in the guise of Edythe Herbert played- with a winning smile and taps to rival Ann Miller- by another St. Louis favorite, Tari Kelly.

David Elder and “The Dancing Gentlemen” during one of the many precision tap routines in “My One And Only” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo credit: Peter Wochniak

A wealth of typical musical comedy characters with a ’20’s hallmark abound including Dexter Jones as the tap guru, Mr. Magix. His duet with Elder to the title tune is one of many highlights in this fun show. Also bringing us laughs and looniness are Steve Isom and Zoe Vonder Haar as a Russian prince- agent to Edythe- and Captain Billy’s mechanic (although she has a little surprise for him and the audience in Act II). Their relationship culminates in another one of those classic moments, Gershwin’s lovely song, “Funny Face.” And then we have a great comic turn by Larry Mabrey as a priest by day, nightclub owner by night.

The chorus comes through like in no other show, however, as they just about steal the whole evening from the leads with their precision work on great tunes like “High Hat” which evolves into the music for “Sweet and Lowdown,” “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” and the luscious “Kickin’ The Clouds Away.” A specialty trio- the New Rhythm Boys- made up of C.K. Edwards, Richard Riaz Yoder and Borris York kick it up as well with several specialty numbers.

Add to this the great solo numbers and duets by our hero and heroine like “Boy Wanted,” the unusual “Blah, Blah, Blah,” a wonderful water tap to “S’Wonderful” and the low key version of what is usually a big production number, “Strike Up The Band,” and you’ve got a light, fluffy but totally captivating production.

Zoe Vonder Haar and Steve Isom confront each other in Stages’ production of the Gershwin’s “My One And Only.” Photo credit: Peter Wochniak.

Director Michael Hamilton and choreographer Dana Lewis combine their specialties to bring it all together and the great scenic design and lighting effects of James Wolk and Matthew McCarthy respectively make this an even more dazzling evening of theatre.

This is musical comedy in its purest form, folks and you won’t find it any better than the way Stages brings it to you. It may have been created in 1983, but the great Gershwin songs and the staging of “My One And Only” brings you back to the exciting and light-hearted roaring ’20’s when George and Ira were the kings of Broadway. Enjoy “My One And Only” at Stages through October 7th. Call them at 314-821-2407 for tickets or more information.

Hot City’s “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” Sports Great Cast But Lacks Dramatic Punch

September 10, 2012

Nicole Angeli as Lynn and Peggy Billo as her mother struggle for Lynn’s duffel bag in Hot City Theatre’s production of EM Lewis’ “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday.”

Hot City Theatre continues their season with a play that you root for but begs the question, where’s the dramatic crux? While the story of a woman who needs to leave her husband and her family to pursue a career in commercial fishing has a valid premise, it seems to overemphasize the focus and the reactions of those involved. So “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” becomes a play without a lot of punch but one that is buoyed by a stellar cast.

This is a 70 minute one act but the point is made in the first ten minutes and then we seem to be beating a dead horse to get to the inevitable conclusion. Lynn doesn’t want to cut ties with her husband or her eccentric family, she just feels the need to get away for some time and do something completely foreign to her everyday life. We first encounter the reactions of her family on the morning she is about to leave on her quest. Her mother attempts to “hide” her duffel bag to postpone her departure, her father is befuddled by her actions and thinks taking her fishing at the local lake will satisfy this urge. Her brother, closeted only to the parents, and his lover also try to change her mind. When her husband finally arrives he is flush with bravado but, like the rest of the family, finally concedes to her wishes.

Nicole Angeli is solid as Lynn. She is battling these demons which are drawing her away- at least temporarily- from her family and her cat and can’t really articulate what the problem is. Peggy Billo is simply delightful as the scatter-brained mother who seems to have an obsession with keeping her family fed as eggs, toast and coffee constantly appear in front of everyone. And Joe Hanrahan gives a marvelously low-key performance as the father who seems to stay without a clue throughout the entire play.

Joe Hanrahan as the father tries to convince his daughter, Lynn, played by Nicole Angeli to go fishing in “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” at Hot City Theatre.

Charlie Barron is perfect as the brother who even comes out to his parents in a last-ditch effort to keep his sister at the old homestead. Rusty Gunther is fine as his significant other while Eric White does a great job in transforming from bluster and rage to kindness and understanding. Bill Whitaker has directed with a keen eye to detail and the exquisite set design of Sean Savoie adds to the family drama.

Playwright EM Lewis has the kernel of a great idea but fails to bring the necessary drama to make this family crisis seem all that critical. You see  the emotions and you understand the dilemma but it doesn’t seem to be enough to make the whole story believable. Some re-writes seem to be in order. “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” was the winner in Hot City’s new plays contest last year and it seems a worthy contender but could use some work before it becomes stage-ready.

“Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday” is worth the effort, however, for the great cast and to see a play in progress as it attempts to make it to the big time. Catch it through September 22nd at Hot City Theatre in the Kranzberg Arts Center. Call 314-289-4063 or get online at http://www.hotcitytheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Rep Opens Season With Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

September 10, 2012

The Jerome family gathers in the Rep’s production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Real life on stage can be compelling or boring. Thanks to the brilliance of Neil Simon, “Brighton Beach Memoirs”- showing us a 15 year old Mr. Simon- comes in as the former. In his vast volume of hit plays, this autobiographical sketch is truly one of his best and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings us a winning production. What you might call the Jewish version of  the Catholic coming of age play, “Over The Tavern” which the Rep has done twice before, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” uses a young narrator to give us an insight into growing up that centers on family. Oddly enough, this is the first Neil Simon play on the Mainstage in this, the beginning of their 46th season.

Michael Curran-Dorsano as Stanley and Ryan DeLuca as Eugene, share a “brotherly” moment in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Artistic Director Steven Woolf takes the helm as director and he surround himself with an impeccable cast. Ryan DeLuca brings a masterful performance as Eugene who begins the play with an imaginary game of baseball interrupted by his mother who wants him to help set the table. Not a proper job for a future Yankee great. Exposition is easy as the young man uses his natural humor to introduce his mother, father, aunt, two cousins and his older brother throughout the course of the beginning of a typical hectic day in 1937 Brooklyn at the Jerome household.

If Eugene is the catalyst in this play, the mother and father are the glue. She has a solution for every problem and he worries about everything from getting the next meal on the table to the impending war in Europe. Lori Wilner is rock-solid as the mother, Kate. She busies herself with household duties while trying to run that household that is expanded by her sister and her two daughters. Adam Heller is equally adept at bringing sympathy and strength to the father, Jack.

Christianne Tisdale brings the proper dose of empathy to the long-suffering sister while Aly Viny as the pretty, Broadway-dreaming daughter Nora and Jamey Jacobs Powell as the self-fulfilling hypochondriac daughter are perfectly cast as well. Rounding out this misfit family is a truly strong performance by Michael Curran-Dorsano as Eugene’s older brother, Stanley, who brings the facts of life to humorous life but also shines as he lets his pride get in the way of his job and aspirations.

Lori Wilner as Kate and Adam Heller as Jack share a tender moment in the Rep’s production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The Michael Ganio set design is a wonder from the upstairs double bedrooms to the great effect of a telephone pole with lines stretching over the audience. It really creates a timeless atmosphere for this period piece. Elizabeth Covey’s costumes and the lighting design of Phil Monat add to the strength of this production while Steven Woolf’s solid direction makes “Brighton Beach Memoirs” an opening to remember.

You can truly believe that the prolific playwright, Neil Simon, grew up under these circumstances and that the loving atmosphere of a family that fights, worries and cares for each other really molded him into what he eventually became. It’s a touching piece filled with humor and one you shouldn’t miss. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” runs through September 30th at the Mainstage of the Rep. Contact them at 314-968-4925 or online at http://www.repstl.org for tickets or more information.

“Adding Machine: The Musical” Is The “Total” Package

September 7, 2012

Part of the cast of R-S Theatrics’ “Adding Machine: The Musical” playing at the Gaslight Square Theatre. Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi

As I told director Chrisina Rios at opening night, I get to check another “never-seen” musical off my bucket list. In fact, if you don’t catch “Adding Machine: The Musical” during this run, you probably won’t get the chance again. It’s not on the must-do list for most theatre groups. I’m glad R-S Theatrics found it on theirs.

I encountered the original Elmer Rice play in college and then have listened to the musical (adapted in 2007) on CD many times. It’s not for everyone with a lot of dissonance in the score and not a very conventional story line, but it makes for fascinating theatre. In a world where everyone is truly a number, Mr. and Mrs. Zero are having marital problems as their 25th anniversary approaches and Mr. Zero expects a big promotion on the anniversary of his job. What does he do? He adds. A willing secretary, Daisy Devore (at least it rhymes with “four”) rattles off numbers and he adds them in his head and transfers them to a ledger. Instead of the promotion, he is dismissed due to the “addition” of an adding machine that’s so simple, a high school girl can operate it. So age and sex discrimination is around in this futuristic?- or at least other-worldly setting.

Reginald Pierre and Chuck Brinkley discuss Mr. Zero’s existence in the afterlife in “Adding Machine: The Musical” at R-S Theatrics. Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi.

Mr. Zero’s solution to this problem? Kill the boss. So he’s arrested, meets an odd mother-murdering cohort (Shrdlu- rhymes with two?) in jail and is sent to the electric chair. The second act takes place in the Elysian Fields where once again Mr. Zero has the opportunity to take control of his life (or his afterlife) but fails miserably again. As Mr. Zero, Chuck Brinkley turns in a marvelous, befuddled performance. He’s simply stunned that the world doesn’t think the way he does and is confused by simple emotion as well as complex theory.

As his wife, Kimberly D. Sansone is the perfect nagging wife. From the clever opening scene as she goes over the day in bed as he’s trying to sleep to the cocktail party where she’s trying to impress Mr. and Mrs. One and Two, you begin to get an idea why Mr. is the way he is. Antonio Rodriguez continues to impress on St. Louis stages as he gives the most definition to this multi-dimensional character of Shrdlu. In revelation after revelation, he startles us with his ability to almost show, without a word, what Shrdlu is thinking.

Maggie Murphy is a delight as the shy Daisy who is about to come to full bloom. Her confrontations with Zero in this life and after are superb. Reginald Pierre shines as well as the boss and “The Fixer” who ultimately fills us in on how this whole afterlife thing works. A quartet of something similar to a Greek Chorus moves around as well on the small Gaslight Theatre stage filling in the “blanks” and fleshing out characters within the narrative. They include Rachel Hanks, Anna Skidis, Nick Moramarco and Bradley J. Berhmann.

Chuck Brinkley as Mr. Zero and Maggie Murphy as Daisy Devore share a tender moment in “Adding Machine: The Musical” at R-S Theatrics. Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi.

The music, as I said, is an odd combination of dissonance, some melodic pieces and some recitative. Composed by Joshua Schmidt, who also co-wrote the libretto with Jason Loewith from the original Elmer Rice play, it takes some getting used to but once you get in the rhythm of the piece, it works quite well. The only problem with this production is that a few of the actors had a bit of trouble with the difficult music. It all comes across well, it’s just jarring at times to hear dissonant music combined with, at times, poor execution of that music. But the opening sequence with a cacophony of numbers overlapping from the assembled nine singers is stunning and mesmerizing. Musical director and accompanist Leah Luciano handles the difficult score quite well with assistance from percussionist Devin Lowe.

Even with The Fixer explaining it all for us in this off-beat existential musical, you just have to suspend a bit more disbelief than you do with singing nuns or cute little orphans. As I said, it’s not for everyone but you’re in for a wild ride if you dare to take it. And thanks to adventurous groups like R-S Theatrics, we get to enjoy that ride. Catch “Adding Machine: The Musical” at the Gaslight Square Theatre through September 16th. Contact R-S Theatrics at 314-968-8070 for tickets or more information.

Going To See “Going To See The Elephant” Is A Must

September 3, 2012

Suki Peters, Emily Baker, Jessica Haley and Nancy Lewis gather at the table in Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of “Going To See The Elephant.”

Mustard Seed Theatre opens their season with a production that is brilliant in every respect. “Going To See The Elephant” offers a deceptively clever script, strong direction and one of the best ensemble casts we’ve seen in some time. The technical crew adds to the “aura of greatness” that best describes this overwhelming performance.

To give you an idea, the curtain call came as a surprise to the opening night audience. Granted, it was a somewhat abrupt ending but it really did make you wish for more time with these four delightful ladies from the 1870 Kansas prairie who must cope with fear, isolation, natural and real enemies and…each other. So when one character leaves for good and another turns to realize that things may not change for her, it’s makes you want to see what’s going to happen next for her and the other two remaining women. So the lights dim and go out, the actors come back on stage and the audience is silent. Suddenly, applause erupts and a standing ovation ensues. We’ve suddenly realized we’ve witnessed a very special evening in the theatre.

Nancy Lewis as Maw points out destinations she’s bound for to Emily Baker as Sarah in “Going To See The Elephant” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Nancy Lewis leads the way with a repeat of her Kevin Kline winning performance as Maw. She feels the need for change as this is what she’s known all her life and what she feels keeps her alive. So when she reveals her plans to move even further west to become a nurse in Colorado, Sarah, pregnant with her fourth child, panics. How will she manage? Emily Baker gives a touching and powerful performance as Sarah. She sings because she is full of life but also to keep her wits about her.

Two “house guests” at the homestead include an offstage Mr. Nichols and his wife, Helene. Although we never see the mister, Helene, given another strong performance by Suki Peters, is a disruptive force in the lives of the other three women. She and Maw battle for supremacy while she and Sarah reach a common ground talking about the sons they’ve lost to illness in this desolate country. This is one of many touching scenes that stretch the acting chops of these women and they succeed admirably. From stances to facial expressions, from delivery of lines to true emotion, from flat out powerful acting to nuanced magical moments, these four ladies are fantastic.

The tension mounts between Maw and Helene (Nancy Lewis and Suki Peters) in Mustard Seed Theatre’s “Going To See The Elephant.”

Rounding out this quartet is a neighbor, Etta, given a remarkable performance by Jessica Haley. Quite shy and backward, she is fanciful and naive. Her story adds to the diversity and strength of both the characters created by playwrights Karen Hensel and Elana Kent and to the actresses who mesmerize us for two-plus hours. “Going To See The Elephant” is one of the most surprising productions to pop up on local stages in some time. The stars have aligned perfectly as director Deanna Jent has put her magic to work to bring the most out of this wonderful script and these four remarkable actresses.

Daniel Lanier’s set design is exquisite in its desolation and the Michael Sullivan lighting design adds to the beauty while Jane Sullivan’s costumes hit the mark as well. With the theme of conquering the land and moving on to see what’s on the other side or, as Maw puts it, “going to see the elephant,” these ladies meet at a crossroads in their lives and somehow help each other conquer those fears and feelings of isolation while “moving on” in their own particular ways.

“Going To See The Elephant” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre on the campus of Fontbonne University through September 16th. Contact them at 314-719-8060 for more information- but especially to get tickets before this one “moves on.”