Archive for January, 2013

Short, Sweet and Sassy- Mustard Seed Opens 2013 With Two Short One-Acts

January 28, 2013
Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis wax philosophical about ducks during David Mamet's "The Duck Variations" at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis wax philosophical about ducks during David Mamet’s “The Duck Variations” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

As Director Deanna Jent says in her notes, “a sweet Christopher Durang play? A funny Mamet script without using the “f” word?” It does seem like an alternate universe (to see the “real” Mamet, check out New Jewish in February when they present “Speed-The-Plow”). But Durang’s 10-minute look at a blue-haired theatre patron’s view of theatre in general (“Mrs. Sorken”) paired with Mamet’s take on old age and friendships (“The Duck Variations”) is a classy duo that go well together.

Peggy Billo tackles the history of theatre as Mrs. Sorken at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Peggy Billo tackles the history of theatre as Mrs. Sorken at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

We see Peggy Billo enter the Mustard Seed Theatre space along with the other patrons and she takes a seat in the second or third row. After the “welcome” by our Director/Artistic Director, Ms. Jent, she introduces her well-learned colleague, Mrs. Sorken and a delightful mish-mash of fact and fabrication comes forth as the fox-stole, pill-box hat adorned lady gives forth with the derivation of theatre and other related subjects as she sees it. Rattled at times (when she can’t find her prepared notes) and reaching for answers she really doesn’t know, it is one of the most hilarious ten minutes you’ll spend in- and learning about- the theatre. She even mentions our other featured playwright of the evening- David Mamet- with a mix of flattery and condemnation.

This leads us into the featured piece of the evening where veteran actors Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis have the time of their lives discussing everything from ducks to Greek culture and its influence on the modern world- mainly ducks. You get the idea that these two elderly gents get together on a regular basis on this same park bench (maybe daily, maybe once a week?) and discuss- perhaps the benefits of macaroni or why everyone liked Ike- whatever tangent they get off on that particular day. Among this seeming gibberish is true insight into their characters as well as their long-standing relationship with each other which, among other things, helps combat the loneliness of their obvious singular lives.

Reminiscent of the great one act, “I’m Herbert” from Robert Anderson’s play, “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” this Mamet masterpiece covers so much in the space of less than an hour on this park bench that is filled with wisdom and befuddlement for this moment in time. Both actors handle the material with sincerity and diligence. The sidelong glances- particularly from Mr. Miller- tell a story in itself and their long friendship is verified with small touches like one man simply holding out his cup while the other, without hesitation or break in conversation, fills it from his thermos. It’s these little touches and moments of enlightenment that make these two actors priceless and Deanna Jent’s direction flawless.

A flight of ducks excites Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis in "The Duck Variations" at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

A flight of ducks excites Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis in “The Duck Variations” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The spare but effective set design and perfect lights are brought to us by the brilliant Bess Moynihan and the Emma Bruntrager costumes fit the bill perfectly while the realistic sound design of Kareem Deanes adds to the lovely evening. It all goes by so quickly- about an hour and ten minutes for both plays- but it’s one of the most touching and beneficial nights you can have in the theatre. What a lovely way to start off the 2013 season.

Mustard Seed Theatre presents “Mrs. Sorken and The Duck Variations” through February 10th at the Fontbonne Theatre space. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 or contact them at mustardseedtheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Advertisements

Enigmatic Albee Scores Big At STLAS Exploring A Man And His Goat

January 21, 2013
John Pierson and Nancy Bell in STLAS' production of Edward Albee's "The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?" Photo: John Lamb

John Pierson and Nancy Bell in STLAS’ production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?” Photo: John Lamb

The 2002 Edward Albee play, “The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?” is one of the strangest plays you’re likely to see. But as the St. Louis Actors’ Studio shows us, even bestiality can elicit laughter amid the disbelief and- to some- horror. Martin and Stevie are a happy, well-to-do couple- he a successful architect and she is obviously a well educated and astute woman. But as we see this lovely couple in the opening scene, he is turning 50 and their marriage is turning 22 but this obvious compatibility is about to take a nasty turn.

Enter Ross, a good friend and host of a local television program focusing on successful people. He’s there to interview Martin on his recent top-flight award and his plum of a role as chief architect on a “city of the future.” When he senses something wrong in Martin’s demeanor, he draws the truth out of him- that, for the past six months, he’s been having an affair with a goat. Finding her on his search for a country week-end home for he and his wife, Martin can’t explain the attraction (who could?). But, as we find out when Ross spills the beans to his wife, he even goes to a sort of “bestialities anonymous” group. But he can’t relate because they all seem to be ashamed of their condition while Martin seems to relish it. He’s in love, after all.

Add a young homosexual son to the mix and this play has a lot of issues for all of the characters to deal with. John Pierson is remarkable as Martin. He is sincere yet contrite about his unusual extra-marital affair as he tries desperately to explain his predilection to his wife and son. Nancy Bell is superb as the not-so-understanding wife. From her “mouth dropped open like a two-dollar suitcase” look when she first reads Ross’ letter to her fits of screaming and breaking up the perfectly detailed living room, she is convincing as she is driven further and further into madness.

As the rat of a best friend, William Roth is perfect. He’s cold as ice as he jokes about his friends’ problems with both the unbelievable affair and dealing with the son- claiming “he’ll grow out of it.” He’s rather despicable but so charming at the same time that you can’t help but like him. Scott Anthony Joy rounds out the cast in great fashion as the effeminate son. A bit over the top at times, it seems to be an appropriate reaction when you think about it. His father has taken a goat as a mistress, for heaven’s sake.

The precise direction of Wayne Salomon helps get the absurd premise across believably and he brings out the true dark humor of Albee’s script as the chuckles and outright laughter occasionally break up the seriousness of the situation. Patrick Huber’s set and lighting design brings out the wealth and sophistication of the couple’s lifestyle and Teresa Doggett’s costumes are right on the mark. Lisa Beke must have spent a season’s worth of budget on the props that are destroyed every night of performance and, if she’s responsible for the chilling final scene, her work is an artistic, dramatic success.

“The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” is not for everyone. But if you’re an Albee fan or a fan of truly off-beat humor, this one is for you. You’ll see an amazing cast and experience a most unusual night in the theatre. It runs without intermission- about 90 minutes. Call St. Louis Actors’ Studio at 314-458-2978 or at http://www.stlas.org for tickets or more information.

Rita Gardner Brings Life To Latest Studio Production At Rep: “4000 Miles”

January 20, 2013
Rita Gardner, as Grandma, scolds her grandson Leo- played by Dan McCabe in the Rep Studio production of "4000 Miles." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Rita Gardner, as Grandma, scolds her grandson Leo- played by Dan McCabe in the Rep Studio production of “4000 Miles.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

When the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis announced the cast for their current Studio Theatre production, I immediately e-mailed my friend to share the news. Rita Gardner, the original girl in the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt masterpiece, “The Fantasicks” was coming to town. I wore through my original LP and replaced it but now have the show on CD. It’s been my favorite musical since I first heard it in the early ’60’s.

I’m happy to report that Rita Gardner has not missed a step. Instead of the young girl, she’s playing a 91-year old grandmother, but she is brilliant as ever as she tosses off the wise-cracks and shuffles along with determination in the Amy Herzog play, “4000 Miles.” It centers on a self-centered young man who has biked from Seattle to New York and stops in to see a grandmother he has not seen in many years. Domestic “in”tranquility abounds as we find that Leo has estranged most of his family but seems- perhaps a bit unhealthily- attached to his adopted sister. He curses at and argues with his grandmother but the audience can feel a certain tension growing underneath his bravado. When the story of what happened to his best friend as they biked across the country together comes out, you feel some empathy for Leo- but not much.

Dan McCabe (as Leo) tries to calm down Lisa Helmi Johanson (Amanda) in "4000 Miles" at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Dan McCabe (as Leo) tries to calm down Lisa Helmi Johanson (Amanda) in “4000 Miles” at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

His old girlfriend- who grandma continues to call “the chubby one”- comes to visit but only to let him know that she’s no longer interested. Leo attempts to “drown his sorrows” by bringing home a young Chinese girl but she freaks when she finds out that his grandmother- and possibly Leo himself- is a Communist. When grandma’s next door neighbor suddenly dies, the bond between her and Leo seems to solidify. She doesn’t see much of the neighbor (she never appears on stage) but keeps in touch with her daily to make sure one or the other don’t have their “toes turn up.”

Dan McCabe is successful in portraying a pretty unsympathetic young man with a believability that makes us admire the actor if not his character. Katie McClellan is perfect for the role of Bec- the girlfriend who feels jilted. She expresses a wide range of emotions on the roller coaster life she’s had with Leo. Lisa Helmi Johanson is delightful as the ditzy Amanda. From her hooker-with-a-heart appearance to her wild and crazy stories, she provides the perfect absurdity at a point in Leo’s life when he’s trying to cope with all that’s happened in a such a short span of time.

The real star of the show, however, is Rita Gardner. Her sassy performance is superb. With perfect timing, she puts down Leo, tells amazing stories about her former husbands, and has just the right combination of cheeriness and grumpiness to make us fall in love with her again as we did in “The Fantasticks” all those years ago.

Dan McCabe and Katie McClellan spar during the Rep's Studio Theatre production of "4000 Miles." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Dan McCabe and Katie McClellan spar during the Rep’s Studio Theatre production of “4000 Miles.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Jane Page has directed with a key to what’s important in this 90 minute look into these people’s lives. Although not a truly powerful script, it does bristle with life and has moments of true humor and intensity. Robert Mark Morgan has given us an earthy and appropriate set design that looks like it has been held in time for as long as grandma has lived there. John Wylie’s lights add the perfect touch, Jason Orlenko’s costumes are right on the mark and Rusty Wandall has given us sounds we’re likely to hear outside this little New York apartment.

Playing through February 3rd at the Studio of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, “4000 Miles” is worth a trip just to see the amazing performance from Ms. Gardner- but you might find the quirky little script to your liking as well. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

The Inaugural Louie Awards Are Here! And The Nominees Are…

January 18, 2013

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.54.35 PMLocal reviewers Mark Bretz and Judy Newmark hatched the plan soon after the Kevin Kline Awards announced they would not be giving awards after last year. We local theatre-loving souls agreed that this wonderful community should be recognized so we met and the Louie’s were born. Framed certificates instead of more costly awards, a casual “party” atmosphere instead of a more formal affair and a chance to meet and greet your fellow actors, directors, techies and- yes- reviewers before, during and after the awards’ presentation is the aim of this group. We call ourselves the St. Louis Theatre Circle and it’s based on similar groups of reviewers who highlight local theatre across the country. The presentations will all go down on Monday, March 11 at the Gaslight Theatre with closed circuit TV next door at the West End Grill and Pub. More details will come but for now, let’s take a look at the nominees. We decided to break the awards into three categories- drama, comedy and musical. We’re very happy to have such a diverse group- good luck to everyone. We are in the process of voting now so none us will know who gets the awards until we open the envelopes on March 11.

NOMINEES FOR MUSICALS

Outstanding Production

  • Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages St. Louis
  • Chicago, The Muny
  • Spring Awakening, Stray Dog Theatre
  • Sunday in the Park with George, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  • Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre Saint Louis

Outstanding Director

  • Justin Been, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog
  • Michael Hamilton, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages
  • Denis Jones, Chicago, The Muny
  • Scott Miller, High Fidelity, New Line Theatre
  • Rob Ruggiero, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep

Outstanding Actor

  • Ron Bohmer, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep
  • Ryan Foizey, Cry-Baby, New Line
  • Rod Gilfry, Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre
  • Antonio Rodriguez, Urinetown, Stray Dog
  • John Sparger, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, New Line

Outstanding Actress

  • Erin Davie, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep
  • Natascia Diaz, Chicago, The Muny
  • Tari Kelly, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Muny
  • Jennifer Theby, Urinetown, Stray Dog
  • Karen Ziemba, Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actor

  • Dean Christopher, Chicago, The Muny
  • Mike Dowdy, Cry-Baby, New Line
  • Zachary Allen Farmer, High Fidelity, New Line
  • Ryan Foizey, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog
  • Steve Isom, My One and Only, Stages

Outstanding Supporting Actress

  • Terrie Carolan, Cry-Baby, New Line
  • Beth Leavel, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Muny
  • Susanne Menzer, Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre
  • Deborah Sharn, Urinetown, Stray Dog
  • Anna Skidis, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog

Outstanding Acting Ensemble

  • Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages
  • Chicago, The Muny
  • High Fidelity, New Line Theatre
  • Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep
  • Urinetown, Stray Dog

Outstanding Set Design

  • David Blake, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Stray Dog
  • Adrian Jones, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep
  • Scott L. Schoonover, High Fidelity, New Line
  • Michael Schweikardt, The King and I, The Muny
  • James Wolk, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages

Outstanding Costume Design

  • Lou Bird, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages
  • Brad Musgrove, My One and Only, Stages
  • Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog
  • Alejo Vietti, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep

Outstanding Lighting Design

  • Tyler Duenow, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog
  • Seth Jackson, Chicago, The Muny
  • John Lasiter, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep
  • Matthew McCarthy, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages

Outstanding Choreography

  • Robin Michelle Berger, Cry-Baby, New Line
  • Denis Jones, Chicago, The Muny
  • Dana Lewis, My One and Only, Stages
  • Lara Teeter, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Muny
  • Chris Bailey, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Muny

Outstanding Musical Direction

  • Adaron “Pops” Jackson, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stages
  • Stephen Lord, Sweeney Todd, Opera Theatre
  • Chris Petersen, Spring Awakening, Stray Dog
  • Justin Smolik, High Fidelity, New Line
  • F. Wade Russo, Sunday in the Park with George, The Rep

NOMINEES FOR DRAMAS

Outstanding Production

  • Angels in America, Stray Dog Theatre
  • Clybourne Park, The Rep
  • Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, St. Louis Black Repertory Company
  • The Hairy Ape, Upstream Theater

Outstanding Director

  • Gary Bell, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Deanna Jent, Going to See the Elephant, Mustard Seed Theatre
  • Timothy Near, Clybourne Park, The Rep
  • Ed Smith, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Black Rep
  • Milton Zoth, Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Outstanding Actor

  • John Hickok, The Invisible Hand, The Rep
  • Michael Scott Rash, 9 Circles, R-S Theatrics
  • Michael James Reed, A Steady Rain, The Rep
  • Ben Watts, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • B Weller, Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Outstanding Actress

  • Nancy Bell, Clybourne Park, The Rep
  • Rachel Fenton, Oleanna, HotCity Theatre
  • Rachel Hanks, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Patrese McClain, No Child, The Black Rep
  • Kirsten Wylder, Bug, Muddy Waters Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Actor

  • Larry Dell, Killer Joe, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Greg Fenner, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Terry Meddows, Way to Heaven, New Jewish Theatre
  • Joshua Thomas, Othello, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
  • David Wassilak, Angels in America, Stray Dog

Outstanding Supporting Actress

  • Teresa Doggett, Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Rachel Fenton, Killer Joe, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Laura Kyro, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Elizabeth Ann Townsend, The Maids, Upstream Theater
  • Kelley Weber, Lost in Yonkers, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Acting Ensemble

  • Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Clybourne Park, The Rep
  • Going to See the Elephant, Mustard Seed Theatre
  • Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • The Hairy Ape, Upstream Theater

NOMINEES FOR COMEDIES

Outstanding Production

  • Jacob and Jack, New Jewish Theatre
  • The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • The Divine Sister, HotCity Theatre
  • The Foreigner, The Rep
  • The Violet Hour, Max & Louie Productions

Outstanding Director

  • Paul Mason Barnes, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • Edward Coffield, Jacob and Jack, New Jewish Theatre
  • Suki Peters, The Compleat Wks of Wm Shkspr (Abridged), St. Louis Shakespeare
  • Marty Stanberry, The Divine Sister, HotCity
  • Edward Stern, The Foreigner, The Rep

Outstanding Actor

  • Ryan DeLuca, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Rep
  • Greg Fenner, Fully Committed, Stray Dog
  • John Flack, The Divine Sister, HotCity
  • Bobby Miller, Jacob and Jack, New Jewish Theatre
  • John Scherer, The Foreigner, The Rep

Outstanding Actress

  • Emily Baker, Season’s Greetings, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Sarah Cannon, Dinner with Friends, Dramatic License Productions
  • Tarah Flanagan, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • Meghan Maguire, Talley’s Folly, New Jewish Theatre
  • Carol Schultz, The Foreigner, The Rep

Outstanding Supporting Actor

  • Matthew Galbreath, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Black Rep
  • Chopper Leifheit, The Divine Sister, HotCity
  • Casey Predovic, The Foreigner, The Rep
  • Antonio Rodriguez, The Violet Hour, Max & Louie Productions
  • Lenny Wolpe, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep

Outstanding Supporting Actress

  • Sarajane Alverson, Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs, West End Players Guild
  • Lavonne Byers, The Divine Sister, HotCity Theatre
  • Teresa Doggett, Season’s Greetings, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Shanara Gabrielle, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • Kirsten Wylder, The Divine Sister, HotCity Theatre

Outstanding Acting Ensemble

  • Jacob and Jack, New Jewish Theatre
  • The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • The Divine Sister, HotCity Theatre
  • The Foreigner, The Rep
  • The Violet Hour, Max & Louie Productions

COMEDIES and DRAMAS

Outstanding Set Design

  • Jason Coale, The Maids, Upstream Theater
  • Dunsi Dai, Imaginary Jesus, Mustard Seed Theatre
  • Scott Neale, Clybourne Park, The Rep
  • Erik Paulson, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep
  • John Stark, Way to Heaven, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design

  • Felia Katherine Davenport, Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Sarita Fellows, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Black Rep
  • Daryl Harris, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Black Rep
  • Alexandra Scibetta Quigley, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Margaret E. Weedon, The Comedy of Errors, The Rep

Outstanding Lighting Design

  • Steve Carmichael, The Hairy Ape, Upstream Theater
  • Tyler Duenow, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Phil Monat, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Rep
  • Nathan Schroeder, Talley’s Folly, New Jewish Theatre
  • Michael Sullivan, Way to Heaven, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Sound Design

  • Justin Been, Angels in America, Stray Dog
  • Zoe Sullivan, Going to See the Elephant, Mustard Seed
  • Rusty Wandall, A Steady Rain, The Rep
  • Robin Weatherall, Good, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  • Robin Weatherall, Way to Heaven, New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding New Play

  • Imaginary Jesus, Deanna Jent, Mustard Seed Theatre
  • Stupefy! The 90-Minute Harry Potter Live!, Jaysen Cryer, Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
  • The Invisible Hand, Ayad Akhtar, The Rep
  • The New World, Nancy Bell, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
  • Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs, Stephen Peirick, West End Players Guild.

Founding members of the St. Louis Theater Circle include Steve Allen, Stagedoorstl.com; Andrea Braun, The Vital Voice and Playback; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Chris Gibson, Broadwayworld.com; Harry Hamm, KMOX; Gerry Kowarsky, Two on the Aisle; Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Andrea Torrence, Stlouistheatresnob.com; Lynn Venhaus, Belleville News-Democrat; and Bob Wilcox, Two on the Aisle and Town & Style.

 

“Cafe Chanson” Brings Joie de Vivre To Upstream…And To Us

January 13, 2013

 

Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Justin Ivan Brown sing "A Blue Like The Blue" in the Upstream production of "Cafe Chanson." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Justin Ivan Brown sing “A Blue Like The Blue” in the Upstream production of “Cafe Chanson.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

If you’re looking for something in St. Louis theatres with a touch of French, forget about “Les Miserables” at the movie theatre and enjoy the thrill of live theatre with a trip to the Kranzberg for Upstream Theatre’s “Cafe Chanson.” The talents of St. Louis native Ken Page are on display and we hope this means more from him on our local stages in the future. He has given us a touching, haunting, melodic trip to another place- another time. You might have trouble coping with the corner of  Grand and Olive and 2013 after you’ve visited Paris in 1944.

This 90 minute pastiche features songs from a feast of French artists that fit into the story line that Mr. Page has created to bring back ghosts from the past in order to cope with regrets in the present. We meet an old soldier who had served in the Army but is now ravaged with illness and left with his memories. As he literally steps through his “looking glass,” he comes face to face with his old buddy, Eddie who starts to re-run the old soldier’s life that focused on the little Cafe Chanson.

Antonio Rodriguez performs his "fan dance" during "Cafe Chanson" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Antonio Rodriguez performs his “fan dance” during “Cafe Chanson” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

John Flack does an incredible job as he watches himself and the many loves of his life from 1944 Paris to liberation when he leaves all of them behind. After “The Divine Sister” and now this brilliant performance, this may be the year of John Flack. The old soldier can only interact with Eddie who guides him through his memories and he realizes that he leaves as much regret behind as he has felt himself over the years. As the Narrator/Eddie, J. Samuel Davis is powerful as he takes the soldier through this surreal “This Is Your Life” sequence. He’s the glue that holds the story together and has a few surprises- and regrets- of his own.

As the younger version of himself, we watch as Justin Ivan Brown creates a strong character that you can see- through movement and manner- reflecting this brash soldier that is now reduced to re-living a life that is filled with regret. The owner of the Club Chanson, Madame, becomes the soldier’s first “conquest.” Played with a wonderful combination of strength and fragility by Willena Vaughn, the rest of the soldier’s escapades in Paris hinge on this affair. He meets a young lady, played with delightful sweetness and sincerity by Elizabeth Birkenmeir, whom he forsakes, of only momentarily for a more experienced relationship with a lady of the evening played with proper seduction by Gia Grazia Valenti.

Rounding out the cast is a remarkable performance by Antonio Rodriguez as a sort of M.C. a la “Cabaret” who takes on many guises including one of the soldier’s lovers. Not only does he sing and do a mean fan dance, but he plays trumpet at one point to accompany Madame. This is an outstanding cast that not only grasps the material, but works as a cohesive unit to bring this haunting story to life. The Patrick Huber set and light design enhance the audience’s trip back in time by setting up a true cabaret feel as we sit at bistro tables while the show literally goes on all around us. Add the perfect costumes of Teresa Doggett and this is about as realistic as you can get.

I’m not sure how many of the cast has smoked cigarettes before, but this also added authenticity to the piece. Unfiltered cigarettes and even a pack of Lucky Strikes and old Zippo lighter show up. The long drags and smoke escaping through both the mouth and nostrils filled the small Kranzberg space with smoke- again transporting us back in time. Hopefully any trouble with such an atmosphere won’t hinder you from seeing one of the best productions you’re likely to see this season.

Gia Grazia Valenti and Justin Ivan Brown share a drink during an interlude in "Cafe Chanson" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Gia Grazia Valenti and Justin Ivan Brown share a drink during an interlude in “Cafe Chanson” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The orchestra, led by the wonderful Henry Palkes, includes Tova Braitberg on violin, Mike Buerke on woodwinds and the haunting Parisian strains of the accordion by Bill Lenihan. An array of music from composers and performers like Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Melody Gardot and the great Jacques Brel enhance this charming story created by Ken Page. Mr. Page, of course, directed as well and has created the perfect atmosphere for his story.

One minor problem arises occasionally when the orchestra overpowers the singers and we lose some of the subtler and softer sung lyrics, but that almost seems nit-picking when Upstream has created such a beautiful show. “Cafe Chanson” is a must see. We all experience regrets in our life and most of those have to do with love. The old soldier says, “we’re lucky to get one great love in a lifetime.” So don’t regret love that’s unrequited or love that’s lost- continue on- for time heals all wounds.

Contact Upstream Theatre at 314-863-4999 or at upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information on the Ken Page production of his original work, “Cafe Chanson.”

“The Piano Lesson” At The Black Rep Brings Memorable Cast Together

January 12, 2013
Bob Mitchell, Ronal L. Conner, Ethan H. Jones and Chauncy Thomas break into an impromptu number in the Black Rep's "The Piano Lesson." Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Bob Mitchell, Ronald L. Conner, Ethan H. Jones and Chauncy Thomas break into an impromptu number in the Black Rep’s “The Piano Lesson.” Photo: Stewart Goldstein

To show you what a great training program the Black Rep has had over the 35 years of their existence, their current production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” brings actors from previous classroom experiences and former interns to the stage in a dynamic production of this classic play. Continuing the “second time around” for the August Wilson series of plays about the Black experience in America, “The Piano Lesson” centers on the Charles family in 1937 Pittsburgh and how family disputes need a little help from the ancestors.

Berniece and her daughter Maretha live with Berniece’s  Uncle Doaker having left Mississippi after the tragic killing of her husband. On this summer night (actually early morning), her brother Boy Willie bangs on the door waking up the whole family announcing he and his friend Lymon have arrived from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to sell. Suspicious of where they got the truck and the watermelons, Berniece isn’t happy about this 5 AM “wake-up” call. Besides, she’s always suspected her brother had some involvement in her husband’s death. What Boy Willie doesn’t divulge right away is his plan to sell the beloved, hand-carved piano that belonged to their mother in order to complete his plan (along with the sale of the watermelons) to buy the property in Mississippi where their family were once slaves.

Bob Mitchell tries to hold back Sharisa Whatley from attacking Ronald L. Conner in "The Piano Lesson" at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Bob Mitchell tries to hold back Sharisa Whatley from attacking Ronald L. Conner in “The Piano Lesson” at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Avery, a suitor to Berniece’s favors, has become a preacher and is seeking a loan to start his own ministry. And Doaker’s older brother, Wining Boy, has escaped the ravages of Mississippi as well to become a gambler/piano player who always seems to show up when his “bag of money” runs low. Add to the mix a “friendly” lady that Boy Willie and Lymon run into at the local tavern, and you’ve got a lively cast of characters. The off-an-on relationships of this family are mostly centered on the big argument about the piano which Berniece sees as an heirloom linking them to the past while Boy Willie just sees it as his chance to get his “piece of the pie.” Other-earthly interventions shake up this constant bickering and quite a few surprises and unexpected alliances make for an entertaining look at how disputes can break a family apart and just as quickly bring them together.

Ronald L. Conner is outstanding as Boy Willie. His tenacious grip on his plans and how to carry them out blind him to everything else in his life. Equally entertaining is Chauncy Thomas as his buddy, Lymon. His drunken encounter with Berniece is both touching and downright hilarious. Sharisa Whatley shines as the determined Berniece who doesn’t want her daughters’ or her life shattered by the unrealistic dreams of her brother.

Bob Mitchell is the voice of reason as Doaker. Continually trying to keep the peace, he doesn’t want to see his life disrupted either. Ethan H. Jones is delightful as the free and easy Wining Boy. He’s always looking for a way to make a buck or two and doesn’t seem to mind who he takes advantage of along the way. Robert Lee Davis, III is properly pompous as the newly ordained minister. He shows his true colors when he attempts to “exorcise” the demons in the Charles home. Rounding out the cast are the lovely Carli Officer as Maretha and Candice Jeanine with a wonderful turn as the “lady of the evening” who shows equal attention to Boy Willie and the later when she hooks up with Lymon.

Ronald L. Conner and Sharisa Whatley confront each other early in the Black Rep's production of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Ronald L. Conner and Sharisa Whatley confront each other early in the Black Rep’s production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Director Lorna Littleway has brought every nuance of this great August Wilson play to the stage. The characters are vivid and full of life and the unexpected a cappella version of “Alberta” with the four men at the end of the first act- complete with foot stomping bass- is a highlight in a play that truly delivers the goods. The Tim Case set design is perfect and Jim Burwinkel’s lights add to the atmosphere while Daryl Harris’ costumes fit the bill as well. It’s a total production and a good sign that this- the 36th season of the Black Rep- could be a banner year.

Call the box office at 314-534-3810 or go online at http://www.theblackrep.org for tickets or more information.

“Good People” At Rep Offers Gripping Story With Just A Bit Too Much Melodrama

January 7, 2013
Andrea Gallo, Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Denise Cormier plan strategy at Bingo Night in the Rep's "Good People." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Andrea Gallo, Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Denise Cormier plan strategy at Bingo Night as Aaron Orion Baker listens in during the Rep’s “Good People.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

We’re all a result of our environment- it’s just a matter of how we mold ourselves as a result of it. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has taken that concept and given us a look at two people from the same less than desirable neighborhood and the path each has taken as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents his multiple-award winning 2011 play, “Good People.” Margie has struggled all her life and still relies on her job at the Dollar Store to live from day to day. Mikey has become a doctor and lives in an upscale suburb. Set in South Boston’s Lower End and that tony Chestnut Hill section, we see these two lives intersect again after 30 years and the volatile results that come of that meeting.

Denise Cormier is brilliant as the desperate Margie who has just been fired from her job for excessive tardiness. Her machinations that set the reunion with her one time fling, Mikey, are innocent enough at the start but her jealousy at how his life has turned out compared to hers turns her vindictive. It’s a bit tough getting your ear tuned to that Southie accent, but once you do, you can’t help but root for the optimism that Margie exudes even in the direst of circumstances. R. Ward Duffy is equally adept at showing his nervousness at his old life reappearing now that he has worked so hard to rise above it. His scenes in the second act when old flame and new wife come together is classic. You can almost see the sweat popping out on his brow as his old days are in danger of being exposed.

Zoey Martinson and Denise Cormier in "Good People" at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Zoey Martinson and Denise Cormier in “Good People” at the Rep. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Andrea Gallo is delightful as Margie’s landlord and oversleeping baby sitter (which is why she’s always late for work). Her fascination with constructing styrofoam rabbits is a wonderful part of her character and becomes integral to the plot. Her best friend Jean is given a vivid and highly comic turn by Elizabeth Ann Townsend. Watching the three of them play bingo while they hatch plots to get Margie back to work is a great piece of writing.

Zoey Martinson is perfect as Mikey’s wife. Unaware initially of any contention between the two former lovers (at least for two weeks one summer), she quickly gets into the act as souls are bared during a confrontation in their upscale Boston home. Rounding out the cast is Aaron Orion Baker as Steve, the manager of the Dollar Store who feels bad about firing his old friend and tries desperately to make it up to Margie.

When the layers start to fall from these characters, it brings up many questions that perhaps demand varied answers. The “how’s” and “why’s” of the characters’ elevations or stagnations may depend on their treatment of each other. Did Margie really sacrifice herself for Mikey’s rise? Did he know about her plight- or even question it back in the old neighborhood? It’s an interesting look at class distinction and maybe it doesn’t come up with any real answers.

R. Ward Duffy tries to remain calm as his wife, Zoey Martinson discusses his youth in Southie with Denise Cormier in the Rep's "Good People." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

R. Ward Duffy tries to remain calm as his wife, Zoey Martinson discusses his youth in Southie with Denise Cormier in the Rep’s “Good People.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The somewhat complicated series of set changes disrupt the flow of the play a bit, but the Kent Dorsey set is outstanding. Myrna Colley-Lee has beautifully enhanced the distinction between the “classes” with her great costumes and the Michael Lincoln lights fit the piece perfectly. Director Seth Gordon has done a masterful job in bringing the script to the stage. Although I found it a bit too “reality TV” in some spots and somewhat overly melodramatic at times in that visceral second act, it’s an interesting theme to explore and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has brought it to beautiful life. As they say in the musical, “Seesaw,” it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish and this play shows quite clearly how these two lives took their respective paths. More importantly, it shows why these lives probably never should have crossed again.

See “Good People” through January 27th at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Mainstage. Call 314-968-4925 or contact the Rep at http://www.repstl.org for tickets or more information.