Archive for October, 2012

Between Carol Burnett and Dramatic License, We’ve Got This “Gone With The Wind” Thing Covered

October 29, 2012

Dave Cooperstein, Dean Christopher and Kent Coffel “attack” the script of “Gone With The Wind” in the Dramatic License Production of “Moonlight and Magnolias.” Photo credit: John Lamb.

A wild premise indeed, “Moonlight and Magnolias” at Dramatic License Productions shows us what might have happened to the classic “Gone With The Wind” with a bit of last minute fiddling (or fiddle-de-deeing). So between the hilarious Carol Burnett parody of the on screen possibilities and this absurd look behind the scenes, this beloved movie may never be viewed the same way again.

Although the Ron Hutchinson script can get a little wordy and heavy handed at times- probably because we’re all so familiar with the movie- the excellent cast keeps us laughing during the two hours of a meeting between producer David O. Selznick, writer Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming. Dissatisfied with the way shooting is going on the film version of the most adored book in the country, Selznick fires director George Cukor and hires Fleming. In order to beef up the script, Selznick hires Chicago journalist Ben Hecht. Two problems- Hecht has never read the book and he’s given five days to completely revamp the script.

In order to insure quality and no nonsense while creating the new script, Selznick locks himself, Hecht and Fleming into his office with no escape and living on bananas and peanuts (both good brain food). Dave Cooperstein is marvelous as the frenetic producer. He blusters, whines and even acts out several parts in the book to bring Hecht up to speed. As Ben Hecht, veteran Dean Christopher gives a convincing performance mixed with frustration and disbelief. But, ever the writer, he eventually knuckles down and- with Selznick and Fleming guiding the way- hammers out the new script.

Dean Christopher watches as Kent Coffel acts out a portion of the book in Dramatic License Productions’ “Moonlight and Magnolias.” Photo credit: John Lamb.

Kent Coffel is delightful as the brash, wide-eyed Fleming. He eventually reaches his breaking point before returning to the task at hand and, eyeing cinematic shots in his head, carries on with this marathon session. Rounding out the cast is a wonderful turn by Maggie Murphy as the beleaguered secretary who pops in and out with food, phone call interruptions and, eventually, general hysteria on her part as well.

Director Jason Cannon has directed this wild and wooly production with the proper sense of urgency and bedlam. Along with Scott Schoonover’s workable (and eventually messy) set design and the perfect lighting plot of Max Parrilla, it all adds up to controlled chaos. A nod as well to the thoughtful and appropriate costumes of Becky Fortner.

It’s light a fluffy but a great escape for a couple of hours. Anyone who is familiar with the book and movie (and who isn’t?), “Moonlight and Magnolias” is as welcome as a comfy robe and slippers. And you might want to go on you tube and watch that Carol Burnett episode again just for grins. Catch “Moonlight and Magnolias” at Dramatic License (in Chesterfield Mall) through November 11th. Contact them at 636-220-7012 or at http://www.dramaticlicenseproductions.org for tickets or more information.

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“Clybourne Park” Reaches Across The Decades To Put Us Back At Square One

October 28, 2012

The cast of the Rep’s “Clybourne Park” during a tension-filled first act. Photo credited to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

It picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin In The Sun” ends and then transports us fifty years into the future, but the multiple award winning “Clybourne Park” shows how little has changed over those years. Mistrust and preconceived notions are still at the root of racial prejudice and profiling in our world but it’s interesting to see how the tactics and gentility of the situations have changed- including a shift in the power play. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings us this wonderful play in the Studio Theatre.

Act I shows us the small urban neighborhood filled with a mix of nationalities near Chicago in 1959. Tragedy has struck the owners of one of the bungalows and, after failing to deal with their son’s death, they decide to move away from the memories that haunt them daily. Russ has dealt with the blow by increasingly growing anxious and angry. His wife, Bev, tries to maintain the daily flow which is now preparing for the big move. Her packing and cheerful attitude tries to overshadow her husband’s lack of help and obsession with trivia. Mark Anderson Phillips is powerful as the stoic Russ as you can see the tension boiling right below the surface. Nancy Bell provides a “June Cleaver” attitude but her breaking point also seems near.

Tanesha Gary politely declines the offer of a chaffing dish from Nancy Bell in “Clybourne Park” at the Rep Studio. Photo credit to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Tanesha Gary gives a strong performance as the “colored” maid, Francine, who plays the role of acquiescence while showing just the right amount of disdain. Enter Eric Gilde as a minister friend who tries to- as he obviously has so many times previously- provide solace to this family who is still suffering their loss. But, this close to moving day, he lights the spark under Russ who eventually blows his first of many gaskets during this tension-ridden first act. His complete breakdown comes when a neighbor, Karl enters with his deaf wife, Betsy and eventually confronts Russ with the fact that his realtor- perhaps without Russ’ knowledge- has sold the house to a black family.

Michael James Reed is outstanding as the “cautious” bigot who pulls out all the stops to convince Russ to squelch the deal. Each volley results in tempers reaching the breaking point. As Betsy, Shanara Gabrielle gives a convincing performance as she attempts to understand what the ruckus is about. Finally, we add Chauncy Thomas to the mix as Francine’s husband. All seven characters provide enough tension to make an audience feel uncomfortable at times, perhaps a bit guilty, and even break out in nervous laughter.

Act II jumps ahead 50 years in the same bungalow after the incredible “show” at intermission where the running crew takes the marvelous Scott C. Neale set and transforms it from the charming little house into a graffiti stained and trashed “crack” house in just short of the 15-minute interval. This time the cast takes on different roles- all with unexpected ties to the families from the previous act- as a young couple are trying to move in and renovate the house but are meeting with lawyers and members of the local neighborhood association to iron out some of their proposed plans. As the plot unfolds, we see how the “faces” may have changed but the problems have not. Then the final scene ties everything together from five decades previously. Although I believe playwright Bruce Norris went a bit further than he had to in bringing back characters from the first act. He had the perfect ending already with a revealing letter from the deceased son in the hands of a workman on the renovation crew- simple but effective.

The Bruce Norris script is strong- after all it won multiple awards here and in England- but I found both acts a bit off in several ways. The first act seemed at times a bit too much like a sitcom as it opens. It’s in sharp contrast to the vitriol that closes the act, but it seems too cartoonish for such a serious work. Even the actors seemed almost like “characters” instead of real people. That may have been more a directorial choice than a flaw in the script. While the second act got bogged down in legalese and constant interruptions. I can see where the playwright was going, but it got to be unnerving at times as you waited for the plot to move along. Credit the actors, however, with keeping it all on an even keel and grabbing the audience and never letting go. Kudos as well to director Timothy Near for keeping us absorbed in the real story and bringing out every nuance in the script to get the point across.

Same cast, different characters, 50 years later, same amount of tension in “Clybourne Park” at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

I already mentioned the unbelievable word of set designer Scott C. Neale, but the play also is enhanced by yeoman work by the entire technical crew including Lou Bird’s decade-appropriate costumes, the Ann G. Wrightson lights and a marvelous sound design provided by Tom Haverkamp. This was definitely worthy of a Mainstage production but due to some of the language in the second act and maybe even some of the highly volatile subject matter, Steve Woolf and company made the wise choice of bringing this powerful show to the smaller venue of the Studio space.

“Clybourne Park” got a week’s extension before it even opened and you can see why. Word of mouth precedes it and it is a play worthy of its hype. It is one of those “not to be missed” moments on stage and one we can all relate to in our own way. See it at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre- now through November 18th. Contact them at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

“Good” Is The Best At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

October 16, 2012

I remember seeing this powerful drama, “Good,” many years ago at the old City Players and when I saw that St. Louis Actors’ Studio was doing it to open their new season, I couldn’t wait to see it. And the wait was well worth it as a cast of seasoned actors bring this mesmerizing play to brilliant life.

The cast of C.P. Taylor’s “Good” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo credit: John Lamb.

C.P. Taylor’s “Good” is akin to Van Druten’s “I Am A Camera” or, in the more popular musical form, “Cabaret.” As in those variations, the Nazi horror creeps up on an unsuspecting populace in the 1930’s and, before the “good” people of Germany know it, they are overwhelmed by a harsh dictator who is determined to wipe out an entire race and create a super-human species. “Good” centers on John Halder, an academic and author who must rationalize each vile act that occurs by hoping this Hitler thing will only last a few weeks before people realize what evil he plans to perpetrate. Even when it becomes apparent that atrocities like the Holocaust are occurring, Halder must justify it by surmising that maybe the Jewish race is to blame because they didn’t heed the early warning signs and flee the country.

How is he so seduced by the Nazi regime? Flattery and disbelief. All of the officers and even Hitler himself recognize him for a book he wrote condoning euthanasia in response to the frustration he felt because at his mother’s spiral into senility. Little did he realize that this played right into the plans they had for death camps. The irony of his “success” is that ultimately he is, as he claims to one of his Jewish friends, “Happy.” His life is accompanied by his own soundtrack (an affliction I’m afraid many of us suffer) and the various songs played by brilliant keyboardist Tim Hearn and bursting forth from various cast members to tunes of the period, are testament to the fact that even after he sees the misery and carnage, he can still claim, “But I’m happy.”

B. Weller is simply outstanding as John Halder. He manages to convince us that the horrors of Nazi Germany may not be so bad if you look at it logically. We know the reasons for his delusions, but we sympathize with him anyway because of his spirit and willingness to find “good” in every situation. Larry Dell shines as his best friend and confidante, Maurice. Even as the vise is closing in on him, he can’t convince John to help him escape the oppression. April Strelinger also gives a stand-out performance as John’s wife. She knows he is drifting from her romantically and emotionally, but she strives to make this relationship work.

Rachel Fenton is wonderful as John’s mistress, Anne. From the brilliant vocals (by a gorgeous Missy Miller) of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling In Love Again” (sung in German) announcing his break from his wife and settling in with Anne to her endearing love for him, she convinces the audience why John has fallen for her. Unfortunately, from her bio, it looks like we’re losing one of the finest actresses we’ve seen in the past few years as Ms. Fenton is heading to California.

Missy Miller, as already mentioned, is superb as a sister and then as the wife of one of the SS officers. David Wassilak is that officer and is delightfully sneaky as the man who lavishes the praise and- perhaps lies- to convince John to join the Party and give his all to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, Ben Ritchie plays the hated dictator in the first act and another influential officer in the second act. Teresa Doggett is powerful as John’s fading mother and Troy Turnipseed is equally compelling as another SS officer who influences a lot of John’s decisions. Paul Cooper rounds out the cast in fine fashion in a couple of roles.

A positive note as well to the production crew including Patrick Huber pulling double duty as set and light designer along with a nod to Christie Johnson as co-set designer.  Twelve chairs on a multi-level set is powerful and the dramatic lighting is essential to this highly involved production. Felia Katherine Davenport’s costumes are right on the money while Robin Weatherall’s deft handling of the sound and the music direction are flawless. Kudos to Cindy Duggan, too with her subdued but effective choreography.

Director Milton Zoth has laid it all on the line in this superb production. He shows how a moral and “good” man is swayed by love and politics and, above all, flattery, into a life that he never could have dreamed he would have fallen prey to. “Good” has been hailed as one of the best and most powerful plays about the spell Hitler and the Nazi’s cast over the German population. This production makes you a believer as you  see the deterioration of “good” people into a whirlpool of deceit, lies and horrors beyond belief. His choice to have all of the actors on stage during the entire production (most play at least two characters) is a statement in itself.

“Good” plays at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Square Theatre through October 21st. Contact them at 314-458-2978 or help@stlas.org for tickets or more information.

“Daddy Long Legs” Charms Despite Needing A Bit Of A Trim

October 13, 2012

Kevin Earley and Ephie Aardema delight as Jervis and Jerusha in the Rep’s production of “Daddy Long Legs.” Photo provided by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

A two character musical really needs to be short and to the point. At the world premiere presentation at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, “Daddy Long Legs” charmed the crowd but could benefit from a trim to the song laden score. Returning to the original source material, the Jean Webster novel, it benefits from the two person cast instead of the lavish versions we’ve seen in the past including the famous Fred Astaire movie musical and even the Shirley Temple vehicle, “Curly Top.”  However, the two acts- even though they are both under an hour- seems a bit lengthy for these two talented performers to carry. A 90-minute or less one-act would have worked much better.

Veteran John Caird wrote the book and directed this production. He has captured the charm and innocence of this story as an anonymous benefactor reaches out to a poor but potentially brilliant orphan to further her education in the early years of 20th century England. His hopes are to see her blossom into a writer but, of course, his infatuation with her mandatory letters of update on her progress leads him to force his “dream” on hers. Her social life, therefore, takes a hit as he forbids her association with friends and potential suitors who he thinks will interfere with his plans for her. Though she thinks her benefactor is an older man, the audience knows from the beginning that these two young people are meant for each other.

Ephie Aardema is sweet and lovely as the young orphan, Jerusha Abbott. Her lilting voice and charming innocence are perfect for the lovely score. As her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (Mr. John Smith to her), Kevin Earley is rock solid. The two work beautifully together and create a larger than life story out of these two powerfully written characters.

Sharing correspondence in song, Ephie Aardema and Kevin Earley charm the audience in the Rep’s World Premiere production of “Daddy Long Legs.” Photo credited to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The music and lyrics of Paul Gordon are appropriate for the setting and ring true and set the tone much in the way “The Secret Garden” did. In fact, they both contain similar themes in this scores’ song, “The Color Of Your Eyes” and the dramatic “Lily’s Eyes” from the Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman score.  The only jolting exception is the inexplicable country twang of “Charity” in the second act. Where did that come from? But again, with the two characters, the over-loaded score could use a trim with so many repetitive themes and similar melodies.

The design team continues to dazzle as the David Farley set and costumes are memorable and highly efficient. Paul Toben’s lights enhance the story and the great musicians, led by Julie McBride, are right on the mark. In fact, it’s great that two smaller cast musicals in town right now- this one and Stray Dog’s “Spring Awakening”- are both fleshed out with additional strings in addition to the traditional bass, keyboards and percussion.

It is wonderful to see the Rep continue to introduce new works- especially new musicals- in our town. The rousing welcome “Daddy Long Legs” received on opening night is an indication that it will surely go places and earn multiple accolades. It’s a powerful and charming work that will capture your heart. Go see it between now and closing night on November 4th. Contact the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at 314-968-4925 or at http://www.repstl.org for tickets or more information.

Timeless Art Takes On A New Meaning in WEPG’s “Inventing Van Gogh”

October 13, 2012

Under the direction of Steve Callahan, this inventive Steven Dietz script takes wings and the charming cast makes “Inventing Van Gogh” close to a masterpiece for West End Players Guild. A bit wordy at times trying to make the point of art vs. myth, this play still has enough strength to keep us entertained as well as intrigued.

Young artist Patrick Stone gets a visit from an art historian who tells him the story of the myth of Van Gogh’s missing final self portrait. Although sure it exists, the man hatches a plot to convince this talented young artist to “create” the final portrait as an impetus to draw the real piece out of hiding. We then start to time travel as teacher, historian and girlfriend all take on dual roles as characters from the present and those from the late 1800’s as the young artist meets Van Gogh and goes on an almost hallucinogenic journey as he struggles with his craft and that of the French master.

Jake Ferree takes on the amazing persona of Van Gogh and transforms us to that era as he convinces us he really is the French impressionist. It’s a marvelous performance. The always steady Reginald Pierre is also totally convincing as the young man struggling with ethical and creative issues as he tries to capture the self portrait of this often mad but brilliant artist.

Tom Kopp is perfectly over the top as Bouchard who convinces the young man and as Van Gogh’s artistic counterpart, Gauguin in the flashback scenes. Ron Haglof adds charm as both Patrick’s teacher and Van Gogh’s mentor while Nellie Ognacevic shines as both Patrick’s and Van Gogh’s lover and model. It’s a solid cast that brings this off center tale to life.

Ken Clark’s simple but effective set design fits in perfectly while the Renee Sevier-Monsey light design works despite leaving a few dead spots in key scenes. Chuck Lavazzi’s sound design is great and the costumes of Tracey Ann Newcomb are on the mark as well. The Van Gogh reproductions created by Marjorie Williamson are stunning and really fill the stage with a ghostly atmosphere during the final scenes.

“Inventing Van Gogh” offers up a trippy little piece of theatre that gives us mystery, myth and a look into artists and their temperament. It’s a trip well worth taking. It plays through October 14th at West End Players Guild.

Stray Dog Brings Us Teen Angst- From the 1890’s- With a Stirring Production of “Spring Awakening”

October 6, 2012

Schoolmaster (Keith Thompson) gets the attention of Moritz (Ryan Foizey) in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Spring Awakening.”

I barely remember teen angst. No, I’m not as old as the teens portrayed in Stray Dog Theatre’s latest, “Spring Awakening” would be now (it takes place in the 1890’s), but I’m not far behind. Those universal thrills and spills are as relevant today as they were for teens in that era, however, and the raw truth is splattered all over the stage with a talented cast and top notch production values.

Justin Been has brought the grittiness of the Steven Sater script and Duncan Sheik music to life. This one’s not for the faint of heart or those who are easily offended. The typical hormone rush is treated with frankness but also other teen approaches to life such as masturbation, homosexuality, rebelling against authority, unexpected pregnancy, abortion and even suicide are exposed like a raw nerve. But despite the openness with which these themes are presented, this is a highly entertaining piece of theatre.

Melissa Southmayd and Zach Wachter as the young lovers in “Spring Awakening” at Stray Dog Theatre.

Melissa Southmayd as Wendla and Zach Wachter as Melchior are at the center as the very young teens who fall prey to nature and naivete. Both are accomplished singers and actors and gain sympathy from the start. Ryan Foizey as Moritz becomes the true anit-hero of the piece. Angst pervades his demeanor for everything from unexpected erotic dreams to failure in making it to the next grade level (due, unfortunately to academic manipulation instead of his inability). He is a tall, gangly actor that is able to use his stature to convey joy and guilt with equal expression. His best friends who can’t alter his fate but both flawed themselves, are played with equal panache by Anna Skidis and Meadow Nguy.

All the problems and anxieties of the teen spectrum are portrayed by a group of unbelievable actors and singers. Paul Cereghino, Evan Fornachon, C.E. Fifer and Anthony Christopher Milfelt are the angry boys while the remaining female class is represented by Sabra Sellers and Natalie K. Sannes. Solid performances are also turned in by Jan Niehoff and Keith Thompson as all of the adult roles. Everything from rigid school administrators to failed parents to doctors are given powerful personas by this talented pair.

The girls of “Spring Awakening” let their emotions fly in the 10th season opener at Stray Dog Theatre.

The impressive David Blake set design works well for the ethereal feeling “Spring Awakening” envokes while the Tyler Duenow lights add to the mix. The Alexandra Scibetta Quigley costumes display the proper feeling of the time and, besides the excellent work of director Justin Been, the J.T. Ricroft pounding, foot stomping choreography adds the proper touch to the anger and confusion of these teens.

A real shout out to the Stray Dog musicians as well. Led by conductor and keyboardist Chris Petersen, the band (elevated above the stage proper) is discreet but powerful. The driving score is enhanced by additional strings- including guitar, cello, violin and viola- along with the traditional bass and percussion to bring this rich score to life.

You won’t be- can’t be- disappointed with the strength and enthusiasm of this production. You’ll be mesmerized by this tragic yet somehow uplifting tale. Tower Grove Abbey rocks again as this, the Season 10 opener, shows us why Stray Dog Theatre has become THE force to be reckoned with in local theatre. “Spring Awakening” plays through October 20th. Call them at 314-865-1995 or contact them at http://www.straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

“Midsummer” Gets Odd But Effective Treatment At St. Louis Shakespeare

October 1, 2012

Cole Rommel, Josh Rowland and Paul Edwards as the Mechanicals in St. Louis Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo credit: Kim Carlson.

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” makes another appearance at the Grandel Square Theatre- this time with St. Louis Shakespeare offering their take on the comedy. The Black Rep did the play back in February. This one is different and, despite some odd choices here and there, works just as well. One thing both productions have in common is a jumping, jiving curtain call.

Eric Peters opens the play as Theseus dressed in military khakis. Perhaps World War I? But there’s no mention of the time frame although several other characters wear garb from that period. Actually, the costumes of Wes Jenkins are very effective- especially the fairy costumes and those of the mechanicals. Mr. Peters and Jamie Chandler as his Hippolyta are good but we lose a lot of the opening dialogue due, in part perhaps, because of the always poor acoustics in the Grandel. Actors really have to project in this space and Shakespeare is particularly difficult at times because of the speech patterns of his plays.

Shane Bosillo is a bit too hyper as Egeus while Beth Wickenhauser, at times, matches him with some irritating whining as Hermia. Other than the opening scene, however, she really takes command of the role. Daniel Hayward is effective as her lover, Lysander while Laura Enstall and Jimmy Krawczyk also handle the other lovers- Helena and Demetrius- with style and panache. Michael Juncal truly takes control of the stage as Oberon. His voice and powerful demeanor command respect.

Njemile Ambonisye as Titania and Michael Juncal as Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo credit: Kim Carlson.

Joshua Nash Payne is simply delightful as Puck. He, along with several other cast members, take a bit of latitude with Shakespeare and interject a few anachronistic comments from time to time with highly pleasing results. Njemile Ambonisye is properly seductive as Titania and the quartet of fairies attending her and Oberon are superb- each with their own identity and personal quirks. Paul Edwards plays the perfect Bottom and, with his tall, lanky frame, wins us over both with and without his donkey persona. In fact, the merry band of mechanicals also stand out- each with their own personalities.

Director Donna Northcott has put a quality product on the stage with plenty of laughs and outlandish characters. The Michael Dombek set design utilizes the basic set design St. Louis Shakespeare has used all season (similar to the seven years of Opera Theatre and their infamous brick wall backdrop). But here, the set works beautifully for all the plays with multiple levels, a colorful cyclorama and generic columns that work for just about any Shakespeare performance. In fact, the technical crew once again shines for “Midsummer.”

One doesn’t mind two productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in one year- especially when they’re as diverse as these two have turned out to be. Catch it while you can, though, because it only runs through October 7th. Contact St. Louis Shakespeare Company at 314-361-5664 or at info@stlshakespeare.org for tickets or more information.