Archive for December, 2012

2012 Year In Review (Tongue-In-Cheek Edition)

December 26, 2012

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.54.35 PMWith my fellow colleagues and I planning the first “Louie Awards” for this March, I thought it would be fun to just offer some thoughts from the 2012 theatre season in St. Louis with no commitment to truly “best” of the year. Our plans for the Louie’s include a nice break down of Drama, Comedy and Musicals but don’t worry, you won’t have a long and involved awards ceremony for this one- it’s casual, fast, with plenty of food and drink available next door to the Gaslight Theatre in the West End Grill and Pub. And it will be a great chance to meet and greet those of us who review  the actors, directors and tech folks throughout the year.

But now, let’s take a look at some of my personal “categories” this year…

Most Ambitious Production of the Year: Stray Dog Theatre’s “Angels In America.” Let’s face it, it’s great if it works and they gave us about 6-1/2 hours of the most gripping theatre we’ve seen in some time.

Best Look At “Gone With The Wind” Since Carol Burnett: Dramatic License production of “Moonlight and Magnolias.” How did this movie ever reach the screen let alone as one of the most enduring classics of all time?

Most Impressive Set Change: The exciting crew that changed the interior of the Chicago bungalow and added 50 years to the place in the Rep’s “Clybourne Park.” And a shout out to set designer Scott C. Neale for his marvelous work. First time I’ve seen an audience stick around during intermission when they realized what was going on- also prompted applause for the set change crew.

Best Shakespeare That Wasn’t Officially Shakespeare: With the Bard represented a great deal this year- “Othello,” “Coriolanus,” “Winter’s Tale,” two “Midsummer’s” and perhaps more, it was only fitting that they were all “trumped” by St. Louis Shakespeare’s “The Compleat Works…Abridged.”

Nazi’s, Nazi’s Everywhere: Despite Mel Brooks’ attempts to disparage Hitler for good with “The Producers” and his “Hitler On Ice” segment of “History of the World,” those pesky Nazi’s keep showing up. This year, another production of “Sound of Music”- this time at Stages, and STLAS’s marvelous production of C.P. Taylor’s “Good.”

Suicide is Painless…I Mean, Painful…That Is, Funny…Wait, I Just Don’t Know: This year R-S Theatrics showed us suicide is all of that and more with “Suicide, Inc.”

Best Non-English Speaking Character Speaking Gibberish: John Scherer in the Rep’s delightful return (after 30+ years) of “The Foreigner.”

Point of Please Return: We miss Avalon Theatre Company and NonProphet Theatre and hopefully will soon see the return of Citlitlites Theatre. We will also miss- if the blurb in the “Good” program is true- Rachel Fenton who plans a move to California.

But Let’s Keep These Good Times Rolling: A happy initial season to the St. Louis Fringe Festival. And congratulations on the marvelous success of Deanna Jent’s off-Broadway venture with her dynamic play, “Falling.” This one will live on in regional productions and maybe even a revival in the Big Apple. Finally, a big shout out to the cooperation of the St. Louis theatre community best exemplified by the folks at Gaslight Theatre opening their arms and doors to R-S Theatrics when they ran afoul of problems at the Black Cat Theatre in mid-rehearsal.

Best Show About Boxing Day: Hey, I can’t help it- I love Alan Ayckbourn and it was a delight to see “Season’s Greetings” at STLAS given such a “British” production thanks to the solid direction of Elizabeth Helman.

The “Rachel, Rachel” Awards (with apologies to Joanna Woodward) For The Best…Rachels: Two superb actresses sharing the same first name- Rachel Fenton and Rachel Hanks- displayed their acting chops in multiple productions this year. Let’s hear it for Rachel and, of course, Rachel.

Loose Cannon Awards: Since we’re on the subject, how about two folks sharing the same last name- Sarah Cannon and Jason Cannon lit up the stage as well this year. Audiences had a real “cannon”ball watching them both.

“Hands” On Award: We might as well stay in the pun ballpark and give a shout out to Michelle Hand who played a psychiatrist, a “friend” and even a donkey- among others- in roles that would stretch any actress (it’s rumored that- after that last role- she may have to carry Sancho Panza around on her back next year).

Heaven And Hell Awards: We were given some false hopes about heaven (“Way To Heaven” at New Jewish), a visit from, not one, but many “deities” in “Imaginary Jesus” at Mustard Seed and descended into the “9 Circles” of hell at R-S Theatrics.

Ya’ Smart Aleck Kid, Ya’ Awards: Lot’s of smart mouthed little ones running around on stages in St. Louis this year- good and bad. How about Ryan DeLuca as Eugene in the Rep’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs?” Chris Cross gave Ron Himes all he could handle as Billy Ray, Jr. in the Black Rep’s “On Golden Pond.” Ryan Foizey gave us the anguish of youth as Moritz in Stray Dog’s “Spring Awakening” and Ashley Emerson gave us the irrepressible young heroine in Opera Theatre’s “Alice In Wonderland.”

Musicals:

Most Outrageous Musical: The machinations and missteps of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” at New Line featuring an even more outrageous performance by John Sparger.

Most Welcome Live Music: “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Stages featured an on stage band. A welcome relief from the normal “canned” music in their productions.

Sondheim, Sweeney, Sunday: That’s right, both “Sweeney Todd” at Opera Theatre and “Sunday In The Park With George” at the Rep showed why Sondheim is still the king.

With Neighbors Like This…: Stray Dog brought us the trashiest musical of the year (but in a good way) with “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”

Bet You Won’t See These Musicals Again: Despite “High Fidelity” at New Line being a “repeat,” you probably won’t see a production in town again. Also, their production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How about the aforementioned “Great American Trailer Park Musical?” And one more that we’re not likely too get a chance to see again is the excellent production from R-S Theatrics of “Adding Machine-The Musical.”

My Wife Hates Musicals With Kids: That’s right, Gail is not a friend of “Annie” and shows of that ilk (she likes “Le Miz” because the kid gets killed!) so you can imagine she did not accompany me to Stages’ “Sound of Music.” But she missed a dynamite performance by the Von Trapp children (and the adults were pretty darned good, too). BTW: She loves “teaching” children music having just retired last year after 35 years of teaching music in Pattonville School District.

Best Singing Schoolteacher: Keith Thompson in Stray Dog’s “Spring Awakening.”

Best Singer In A Non-Musical: Missy Miller gave a stirring rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling In Love Again” (in German, yet) in STLAS’s “Good.”

Best Belters: Nothing like a lady who knows how to belt a song- bringing it from her toes and blowing us out of our theatre seats. My choices this year were Willena Vaughn doing her best Nell Carter in Stages’ “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Johanna Elkana Hale giving it her all in Insight Theatre’s production of Kander and Ebb’s “And The World Goes Round.”

I’m exhausted so that’s about all I’m up for his year. Hope you got to see a lot of theatre in our town this year and don’t forget the “Louie’s” coming in March- more details later.

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“Wicked” Good Performances As The “Alternate” Oz Returns To The Fox

December 17, 2012
Jeanna de Waal as Galinda and Christine Dwyer as Elpheba in "Wicked" at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Jeanna de Waal as Galinda and Christine Dwyer as Elpheba in “Wicked” at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

The unusual background story of Oz created by Gregory Maguire then turned into the hit musical by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman has hit St. Louis again and this show, “Wicked,” never fails to entertain. We find out how the Wicked Witch (real name: Elphaba) wasn’t so bad after all. We also meet Glinda, the Good Witch and find out how her actions put the whole “Wizard of Oz” story into motion. If you follow closely, you’ll see where everything goes wrong and meet some of your other favorites from the Emerald City in this clever and enchanting musical.

This time around, Christine Dwyer gets the fun of putting on green make up and taking center stage for great songs like “I’m Not That Girl,” “No Good Deed” and the powerful Act I finale, “Defying Gravity.” She brings a powerful voice and some excellent acting to the role. This “Wicked,” however, belongs to Jeanna De Waal as Galinda. This is the first time I’ve noticed the remarkable growth in character of Galinda and, of course, Ms. De Waal gets to brings us the great comedy turn, “Popular.”

A first-rate supporting cast includes Billy Harrigan Tighe as the puffed-up Fiyero who takes on a more familiar role at play’s end and Michael Wartella as the hapless Boq who also meets an alternate fate. Zara Mahler is marvelous as the deceitful Nessarose and Gina Ferrall delights as Madame Morrible. Paul Kreppel is properly scatterbrained as the Wizard and shines in his solo number, “Wonderful.” Jay Russell also turns in a solid performance as Doctor Dillamond who turns out to be the last of the “animal” professors- you have to see it to believe it.

Christine Dwyer, as Elphaba, belts out the dynamic "Defying Gravity" during "Wicked" at the Fox Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Christine Dwyer, as Elphaba, belts out the dynamic “Defying Gravity” during “Wicked” at the Fox Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Joe Mantello has directed with verve and a touch of the absurd ably assisted by Wayne Cilento’s musical staging. Thankfully the orchestra keeps things at an even pitch so we can hear the lyrics because they are quite clever. The fabulous gears and wheels of the Eugene Lee scenery is wonderful along with the constant onslaught of green. There’s just no better way to have fun than watching this upside down version of one of our beloved classics. “Wicked” is just flat out entertaining.

As you might expect, this (the third time it’s been at the Fox) is a “popular” show so plan your evening or matinee at the theatre soon. “Wicked” runs through January 6th at the Fabulous Fox. Contact MetroTix at 314-534-1111 to get your seats for “Wicked.”

An Unusual Holiday Tie-In Fits The Bill As Stray Dog Presents “Fully Committed”

December 10, 2012
Greg Fenner is never at a loss for words- his character Sam's and numerous others during  "Fully Committed" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Greg Fenner is never at a loss for words- his character Sam’s and numerous others- during “Fully Committed” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

It’s not “A Christmas Carol” or even the unconventional but appropriate “Season’s Greeting” that St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting for the holidays, but Stray Dog Theatre gives us a loose connection to the yuletide festivities with Becky Mode’s hyper one-man show, “Fully Committed.” Greg Fenner gets the call in this one (or should I say “calls?”) as he plays an enormous amount of characters during this 90-minute tour-de-force.

We see a dilapidated basement office of a trendy New York restaurant with the usual trappings of cluttered shelves, odds and ends laying all over and two desks. It’s early December and this is the reservation call-in area for the posh eatery. We soon learn that one person has taken an unscheduled day off while another has supposedly had an auto accident which leaves Sam alone to handle the multiple calls for reservations, a few personal calls (he’s really an actor waiting for callbacks as he works “temporarily” at the restaurant) and even calls from other folks in the restaurant including a very angry chef.

Greg Fenner as Sam juggles multiple phone calls during Stray Dog's "Fully Committed." Photo: John Lamb

Greg Fenner as Sam juggles multiple phone calls during Stray Dog’s “Fully Committed.” Photo: John Lamb

Enough can’t be said for Greg Fenner’s performance. Not only does he have to deliver 90 minutes of dialogue, he has to portray the series of customers on the phone and keep all of those characters’ voices and mannerisms correct. It’s an unusual convention that works beautifully once we get into the play. A bit disconcerting at first, once we get the flow it’s amazing as he slips from Sam into a snobby socialite into a bitter colleague and into an amazing number of others including his father who sounds suspiciously like Jimmy Stewart. He handles these changes of character with flawless precision providing distinct body language, mannerisms and voice inflections for each and every one.

The highlights include the fey assistant to Naomi Campbell and the belligerent chef who you can just picture chewing on a stubby cigar while steam pours out of his ears. But there are so many that it’s a wonder that Mr. Fenner can keep everyone straight while delivering a frenetic yet perfectly pitched performance.

Director Gary F. Bell (also Artistic Director of Stray Dog) keeps the pace and the actor moving at warp speed. The amazing audio design of Justin Been handles the numerous incoming calls and other distractions and he has also provided the exquisite set design. Tyler Duenow’s lights also add to the dreary yet chaotic events of the evening.

“Fully Committed” may not be the first play that pops into mind at Christmas time, but it’s a worthy addition to the wonderful holiday themed and just plain fun shows the entire St. Louis theatre community has put forth for us this year. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 or contact them at straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

 

 

“Talley’s Folly” Hasn’t Lost Its Luster As An Odd Love Story With This Holiday Gift From New Jewish Theatre

December 9, 2012
Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire share a moment in New Jewish Theatre's production of "Talley's Folly." Photo: John Lamb

Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire share a moment in New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Talley’s Folly.” Photo: John Lamb

Though described as a “valentine” by both New Jewish Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer and director Deanna Jent, “Talley’s Folly” is a perfect holiday gift for this season of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanza. Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1979 play seems nostalgic yet still highly relevant today with its themes of prejudice, romantic connection and long held secrets.

It’s been many years since we’ve seen this wonderful play on a local stage and I had forgotten how often bitter it could be as it leads these two seemingly polar opposites on the road to inevitable love. Set in 1944, the play centers on Matt Friedman, a St. Louis lawyer who met and fell in love with Sally Talley a year ago on a visit to her hometown of Lebanon, Missouri. Though not making his “move” at that time, he has

Meghan Maguire as Sally Talley and Shaun Sheley as Matt Friedman, embrace during a tender moment  in "Talley's Folly" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Meghan Maguire as Sally Talley and Shaun Sheley as Matt Friedman, embrace during a tender moment in “Talley’s Folly” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

popped in from time to time and showered her with letters. Now comes the big moment when he plans to ask for her hand. The only problem is that her family cannot abide him because he is Jewish and have even threatened to shoot him, if necessary, to keep him away from Sally.

So here we are in a dilapidated boathouse on the Talley property that shows hints of past grandeur as this cat and mouse game of finding the love they both feel tries to break the bonds of prejudice, shyness and a tragic secret that Sally has only alluded to in the past. Although this romantic waltz can get downright physical and mean spirited at times, the audience roots for these disparate lovers to come together in the inevitable “happy ending.” Does it happen or are their differences too much to expect a harmonious outcome? During this 90 minute slow but evenly paced one-act, we experience the same highs and lows as Matt and Sally and seem to share each biting as well as tender moment. It’s really quite a lyrical tale that still shows why the critics and audiences were raving in 1979 and still get mesmerized by the play today.

One can’t get through this often gut-wrenching experience without incredible actors and fortunately New Jewish has put two of the best on stage. Shaun Sheley is a gifted actor who draws us in with his comic opening remarks where the “fourth” wall is broken and he invites us into his world. This set up and his closing remarks remind us that we’re watching a play while we become totally absorbed in these two lives throughout the rest of the one-act.

Equally adept is Meghan Maguire as the whimsically rhymed Sally Talley. Hers is the more serious role as she is consumed by this secret that she feels may turn Matt away for good. Hiding behind her family’s prejudice, she tries to shun Matt while secretly wishing he would whisk her away from a world she doesn’t fit in. The actors work beautifully together to fulfill Landford Wilson’s obvious wish for “Talley’s Folly” to

Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire in the New Jewish Theatre production of  Landford Wilson's "Talley's Folly." Photo: John Lamb

Shaun Sheley and Meghan Maguire in the New Jewish Theatre production of Landford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly.” Photo: John Lamb

work as a well “choreographed” play.

Bringing that play to just that outcome is Mustard Seed’s Artistic Director, Deanna Jent. Freelancing at NJT, she brings every nuance with moments of joy and anguish to this little masterpiece. Jason Coale’s brilliant set design and the mood enhancing lights of Nathan Schroeder just add to the romance while Michele Friedman Siler’s spot-on costumes catch the mood of the period.

Late-blooming love is a beautiful thing and nobody says it better than Lanford Wilson- who we unfortunately lost last year- in this well crafted play, “Talley’s Folly.” See it through December 23rd at the New Jewish Theatre. Call them at 314-442-3283 or visit at newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

 

 

STLAS Revels In Christmas- English Style- With Alan Ayckbourn’s “Season’s Greetings”

December 3, 2012
Eric Dean White as Neville and Emily Baker as Belinda discuss issues as Jason Grubbe as Harvey enjoys a "shoot-'em-up" holiday story on TV as St. Louis Actors' Studio presents "Season's Greetings." Photo: John Lamb.

Eric Dean White as Neville and Emily Baker as Belinda discuss issues as Jason Grubbe as Harvey and Wendy R. Greenwood as Pattie enjoy a “shoot-’em-up” holiday story on TV as St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents “Season’s Greetings.” Photo: John Lamb.

The delightful progression of excellent holiday shows continues on St. Louis stages as St. Louis Actors’ Studio brings us the witty and “perfectly English” shenanigans of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Season’s Greetings.” The only other production of this comedy of manners I can recall in our town is years ago at City Players. It should really become a more frequent visitor at holiday time as this superb cast and excellent execution would attest to. Enjoy it while you can this year, however.

As in most Ayckbourn plays (“Absurd Person Singular,” “How The Other Half Loves” and the marvelous trilogy, “Norman Conquests” to just name a few) domestic tranquility goes topsy-turvy while crisp dialogue and a plethora of sight gags help to keep the laughs coming. We’re at the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker as Christmas and Boxing Day bring presents, surreptitious liaisons and even an annual puppet show led by an inept uncle. As our hosts, Eric Dean White is great as the mechanically-obsessed husband while Emily Baker finds her attention drawn to her shy sister’s unexpected guest, a one-book wonder author played to the hilt by Stephen Peirick. He, in fact, becomes the catalyst in this holiday gone wrong that leads to gun play and a few more surprises.

Phillip E. Bozich is simply hysterical as Bernard, who brings a new dimension to make-shift marionettes in his 16-scene presentation of “The Three Little Pigs” (don’t worry, we don’t have to sit through all 16 scenes). As his wife- the cook for the festivities- we’re treated to a laugh-out-loud performance from Teresa Doggett and her   tipsy flirting with the author. Another uncle, played by Jason Grubbe, adds to the zaniness with his obsession for movies on TV (appears to be a Christmas-themed “shoot ’em up”) and his penchant for supplying the youngsters with real guns as holiday gifts.

Stephen Peirick as Clive and Emily Baker as Belinda get set for a special holiday present during STLAS' production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Season's Greetings." Photo: John Lamb.

Stephen Peirick as Clive and Emily Baker as Belinda get set for a special holiday present during STLAS’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Season’s Greetings.” Photo: John Lamb.

The bickering couple, Tom Lehmann as Eddie and Wendy R. Greenwood as his pregnant wife, Pattie, go against the properly British type as their open hostility bring a few questioning glances and awkward silences. Rounding out this simply outstanding cast is a simply outstanding performance from Rachel Hanks as the shy, nervous sister. Her emotions sway as, at first, she thinks she’s been stood up by her new “friend,” the author, then to euphoria as he shows up and finally outright hostility as she realizes his fascination for her sister Belinda.

Director Elizabeth Helman brings out the perfectly understated humor in Alan Ayckbourn’s script along with the downright uproarious dialogue and silly situations. Although not stated in the program, a dialogue coach may have helped because the entire cast maintained pitch-perfect accents throughout. The Christie Johnston set design works remarkably well on the small Gaslight Theatre stage and the lights of Jonathan Zelezniak and sound design of Robin Weatherall combine for many a flawless effect. The costumes of Jennifer “JC” Krajicek complete the package that STLAS has wrapped and presented us for the holidays.

Good news from opening week-end is that both HotCity and St. Louis Actors’ Studio sold out performances. It’s great that local theatre is so well attended and hopefully that will continue into the new year and new seasons for these and other outstanding groups in our town. For now, add STLAS’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Season’s Greetings” to your to-do list of holiday must-have’s. Contact them at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

“The Foreigner” As Funny As Ever With New Rep Production

December 3, 2012
Carol Schultz, Casey Predovic, John Scherer and Winslow Corbett share a break-through moment in "The Foreigner" at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Carol Schultz, Casey Predovic, John Scherer and Winslow Corbett share a break-through moment in “The Foreigner” at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Larry Shue’s wonderful comedy, “The Foreigner,” makes another appearance at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (last on the Mainstage 26 years ago) and it proves as funny now as it was then. Having become a staple for professional and amateur companies around the world, the basic premise and the successful execution of the script prove the reason for its popularity- it’s laugh-out-loud hysterical.

An uneasy and shy Englishman, Charlie Baker, faces a life crisis- not the least of which is his wife’s infidelity and his ineptness in confronting her or even caring that his marriage is over. So his friend, “Froggy” LeSueur decides to take him on Froggy’s annual trip to Georgia in the US for Army maneuvers and training. Dumping him off at his friend’s fishing lodge, he devises a plan to protect Charlie’s extreme shyness by telling his friend, Betty, that Charlie is a foreigner and doesn’t understand or speak English. Finding this to his liking, Charlie unintentionally overhears a series of

Brent Langdon comforts a shy John Scherer during the Rep's production of "The Foreigner." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Brent Langdon comforts a shy John Scherer during the Rep’s production of “The Foreigner.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

conversations and suddenly loses his inhibitions and “comes out” as a brash foreigner who is “learning” English from a dim-witted hayseed and decides he can make a difference in everyone’s lives. The results are joyful to behold as they unfold in both expected and unexpected fashion.

John Scherer is very unimposing as the play opens but turns in a remarkable performance as the suddenly aggressive Charlie. From his breakfast sequence to his acting out a fairy tale to his remarkable solutions to help this family are wonderous. Brent Langdon’s Froggy is right on the mark as he returns to find his friend transformed into this “hero” speaking broken English. As the lodge owner, Carol Schultz gives a marvelous performance as she takes to Charlie and never questions his unbelievable learning process and transformation.

Casey Predovic is delightful as the dull yet enthusiastic Ellard who “teaches” Charlie the English language in record speed. As the young woman, Winslow Corbett brings the perfect touch of innocence to the role and as her nefarious fiance, Matthew Carlson hides behind his role as a Reverend to carry out his plot to steal the lodge and turn a handsome profit. Finally, as the Reverend’s partner in crime, Jay Smith is great as an oily bigot. The final resolution to this attempted crime is one of the most satisfying and surprising finales to any play

Jay Smith as Owen Musser devises the "perfect" plan with Matthew Carlson as the Reverend David Marshall Lee in the Rep's production of "The Foreigner." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Jay Smith as Owen Musser devises the “perfect” plan with Matthew Carlson as the Reverend David Marshall Lee in the Rep’s production of “The Foreigner.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

you’re likely to see.

Rep veteran director, Edward Stern, has brought a quality product to the stage. His eye for detail and nuance is incredible. Add the fabulous John Ezell set, Peter E. Sargent’s always impeccable lighting design and the marvelous costumes of Dorothy Marshall Englis, and you’ve got a total production that easily satisfies. I can’t remember so much laughter at an opening night at the Rep in a long time. That’s just the kind of play “The Foreigner” is and when you add the quality production values of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, you’ve got a sure-fire winner.

Be sure your holiday plans include a trip to the Rep for Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner.” Contact them at 314-968-4925 or at http://www.repstl.org for tickets or more information.

 

“The Divine Sister” At HotCity Brings A Touch Of Naughty And Nice And A Whole Lot Of Laughter To This Holiday Season

December 2, 2012
Lavonne Byers and John Flack in "The Divine Sister" at HotCity. Photo: Todd Studios.

Lavonne Byers and John Flack in “The Divine Sister” at HotCity. Photo: Todd Studios.

It’s not Julie Andrews and definitely not Rosiland Russell, but a gender-bending performance by John Flack as Mother Superior makes “The Divine Sister” one of my favorite shows about nuns. Not for the faint of heart, the show brings highly suggestive subject matter and downright off-color language to an art form that would make Jessica Lange blush on “American Horror Story: Asylum.” But the side-splitting humor and the abundance of movie and TV references (not just about nuns) makes this a must-see production at HotCity theatre.

With a plot borrowed from a dozen or so B movies, “The Divine Sister” features the nuns in 1966 Pittsburgh who are facing a crumbling convent and school so Mother Superior decides to call on the local rich “Jewess” and convince her to give up her nearby mansion as a new school and fund the building of a new convent. This goes over like a “nasty habit” until circumstances evolve which bring nun and dowager to the same purpose. In the meantime we get to see life before the convent for the Mother Superior as well in a series of flashbacks while we enjoy a bevy of zany characters throughout including nuns, disguised nuns, mad monks, newspaper reporters and even an eager little male student who dreams of becoming Mickey Mantle.

John Flack, from his first entrance on a bicycle (who can resist a nun on a bicycle?) to his life as a dame on the daily beat of a big city newspaper to his unexpected resolution to the revival of the convent, is nothing short of hysterical. He amps it up without being overtly “campy.” It’s a truly sincere performance that makes it even funnier. Kirsten Wylder is also brilliant as the hard-boiled Brooklyn nun who is always suspicious of everything around her. Playing Sister Agnes- who sees visions of her beloved St. Clare in urine-stained underpants and believes she has stigmata only to find Maraschino cherries in her hands instead- is played with equally sincere camp by Alyssa Ward.

Alyssa Ward, Lavonne Byers and Kirsten Wylder discuss the merit of "holy" stained underwear in HotCity's production of "The Divine Sister." Photo: Todd Studios.

Alyssa Ward, Lavonne Byers and Kirsten Wylder discuss the merit of “holy” stained underwear in HotCity’s production of “The Divine Sister.” Photo: Todd Studios.

Lavonne Byers takes command as a German nun who works well in either a habit or skin-tight leather jump suit. But where she really shines is an old washer woman with stoop shoulders and a heavy, unidentifiable accent that fits into this nonsense quite well. Chopper Leifheit also delights in a few roles including a mad monk a la “DaVinci Code” and as the love interest to our Mother Superior’s former life. In a show full of scene stealers, Susie Wall fits right in with the roles of Mrs. Levinson- the rich and pompous neighbor and (also in a gender-bending role) as the precocious young Timmy who lets it all hang out with an odd hitting stance and with his outspoken reference to his “nickname” from the bullies in the schoolyard.

HotCity’s Artistic Director, Marty Stanberry, has directed this Charles Busch opus with the proper amount of tongue-in-cheek. The humor never stops with one-liners, outrageous situations and generally profane behavior all around. In other words, a wonderful holiday classic. The clever James Holborow set design has just the right amount of decay with a surprise twist when we enter the mansion of Mrs. Levinson. Add the effective lighting design of Maureen Berry and the costumes of Jane Sullivan (yes, a lot more than just nun’s habits) and you’ve got a total package.

Playwright and actor Charles Busch is well known for writing “unusual” plays and then taking the female lead in drag. In this production, John Flack does the playwright proud and the rest of the cast gets into the spirit as well. Outrageous  humor is the order of the day but, as I said, it has a definite adult twist. So enjoy “The Divine Sister” for what it is through December 15th- you won’t be disappointed. Give them a call at 314-289-4063 or visit them at hotcitytheatre.org for tickets or more information.