Archive for February, 2013

Outrageous? Yes. Disrespectful? Yes. Crude? Yes. So What’s Not To Love About “Book Of Mormon?”

February 22, 2013

313Don’t let the fact that it won multiple Tony Awards (including Best Musical) fool you. This show is not for everyone but for those who like rude, disrespectful and outrageous, “The Book Of Mormon” fits the bill. There’s an attempt to put an almost respectful spin on the religion they’re satirizing in particular and those they are implicating along the way but don’t let that fool you either. There’s no help, however, for those who are sensitive to the rude and outrageous parts of the musical. But the show is so darn funny that you can’t help but laugh at the silliness that’s going on despite yourself.

The no-holds-barred humor of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is well known through the lengthy run (and still going strong) of their potty-mouthed little youngsters from “South Park.” So we can have little sympathy for those going to this one and expecting “The Sound of Music.” From crude gestures to questionable practices of Ugandan natives to song lyrics that will stand your hair on end, “The Book Of Mormon” doesn’t take it easy on an audience. But, if you’re in the right frame of mind, you’re in for a treat.

Screen shot 2013-02-22 at 3.28.34 PMMark Evans shines as the young missionary, Elder Price, who gets assigned to a two year stint in the jungles of Uganda. He has high ideals toward saving souls but even higher ideals about himself. When he is paired in the mission with a geeky, low self esteemed Elder Cunningham, he makes it quite clear that they will cut quite a swath- but mostly him. Christopher  John O’Neill is a find as Elder Cunningham. He never comes across as obnoxious or overpowering but has a child-like innocence that immediately draws the audience to him.

Samantha Marie Ware is also outstanding as the chieftan’s daughter who takes a shine to Elder Cunningham. Their unusual “love” duet is one of the funniest in any musical with double entendres galore. Derrick Williams is a riot as the terrorist general- with a most outrageous moniker. This is truly an ensemble cast, however, as our dynamic duo meet up with several other missionaries who have been stranded in Uganda for some time with nary a baptism or convert to show for it. Then the colorful assortment of natives who inhabit the little village include everything from a suspicious suitor to a man with an unusual hygiene problem. But you really have to see them all to appreciate this wildly talented cast of singers and dancers.

Along the way we meet the principles involved in creating the Mormon religion, how it came to be and some of the unusual precepts of that religion. But when Elder Cunningham’s penchant for stretching the truth to fit the situation backfires in his face, the Mission president is treated to an even more outrageous look at his religion as the natives present a pageant worthy of “The Little House of Uncle Thomas” from
“The King and I.” It’s all wrapped up in typical- if unusual- musical comedy fashion as the natives become the latest recruits of doorbell-ringing Mormon missionaries.

I’ve used two words quite a bit in this review- outrageous and unusual. And that about sums up “The Book Of Mormon.” It can’t be emphasized enough that you have to know what you’re getting yourself into when you attend this one. It’s wonderful and entertaining, but if you’re easily offended by bad language, obscene gestures or inappropriate actions and suggestions, stay away from the Fox Theatre for the next few weeks. “The Book Of Mormon” plays at the Fox through March 3rd. Call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 for tickets.

Strong Second Act Makes “Speed-the-Plow” A Winner for New Jewish Theatre

February 18, 2013
Charlie Fox (Michael James Reed) and Bobby Gould (Christopher Hickey) celebrate their good fortune in NJT's "Speed-the-Plow." Photo:

Charlie Fox (Michael James Reed) and Bobby Gould (Christopher Hickey) celebrate their good fortune in NJT’s “Speed-the-Plow.” Photo: John Lamb

In their first attempt at a David Mamet play, New Jewish Theatre chose wisely with his 1988 classic of Hollywood BS, “Speed-the-Plow.” There’s  quite liberal use of Mamet’s favorite “F” word throughout- but if you’re a Mamet fan, you’re used to that. Nevertheless, this is a smart, clever and appealing production due to some excellent direction and three strong actors.

Bobby Gould has recently been promoted to a studio head with one big “green light” decision a year (a script that he can approve with little or no fuss). His buddy, Charlie Fox brings him a script that’s been languishing in a pile somewhere for some time but a big star from the studio “across the street” reads it and wants to do it. He tells Charlie that he’s ready to cross over and do the picture with him. Dropping this on Bobby’s desk is a cause for celebration and the two continue to BS and heap faint praise on each other throughout most of the first act.

Sigrid Sutter as Karen and Christopher Hickey as Bobby discuss a script in "Speed-the-Plow" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Sigrid Sutter as Karen and Christopher Hickey as Bobby discuss a script in “Speed-the-Plow” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

However, Bobby has a temp at the reception desk and, when she delivers the coffee, she delivers enough charm to get a rile out the constantly horny Charlie. A bet ensues that Bobby can’t get this new girl, Karen, to go on a date with him and five “C’s” is the prize. Reluctant at first, Bobby agrees and he gets the ball rolling by offering her a miserable script about radiation that he and Charlie had both agreed was nothing more than a “courtesy read” as a favor to a studio mucky-muck. When she gushes over the novel later in Bobby’s apartment, he finally hits the jackpot as she agrees to go to bed with him.

The second act really picks up and it’s a short one but gets right to the point. Now that Bobby has dumped the “star” vehicle in favor of the radiation script, Charlie confronts he and Karen with unexpected results. It’s a brilliant piece of writing by Mamet that gets right to the foibles and shallowness of the industry and of mankind in general.

Christopher Hickey is brilliant as Bobby. He has the power now and, as we cut through the pile of hooey he and Charlie are laying on each other, we see the true nature of the beast in his confrontation with Karen. Powerful in his relentlessness, Michael James Reed plows through Charlie’s character like a fast moving freight train. He is unstoppable and, in the second act, he epitomizes the true Hollywood ethic. Sigrid Sutter’s Karen is a testament to the power of woman. She dallies through the flattery and charm both men bestow on her and then tries to outrun her true intentions (which are never really quite clear). But she’s got the moves and she uses them to the best of her ability.

Michael James Reed as Charlie confronts Karen (Sigrid Sutter) and Bobby (Christopher Hickey) in Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Michael James Reed as Charlie confronts Karen (Sigrid Sutter) and Bobby (Christopher Hickey) in Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Tim Ocel has directed “Speed-the-Plow” with a clear mastery of David Mamet’s script. He hits all the right notes and, at times, overpowers us with the cutthroat business of making movies. Dunsi Dai’s magnificent set design is simple yet effective and offers a quick transition from office to apartment during the long first act. Maureen Berry’s lights are perfect and the costumes of Michele Friedman Siler work with the possible exception of the suspendered “high waters” of Bobby in the first act and his almost tripping over the longer suit pants in the second act. A nice sound design by Matthew Koch included movie themes from “Casablanca,” “Ten Commandments” and others to get us into the mood before each act.

This is powerful stuff and a real departure for New Jewish but one that fits into their season beautifully. If you missed the “F” word in the recent Mamet one-act, “The Duck Variations” at Mustard Seed, he more than makes up for it in this superb production.  See “Speed-the-Plow” through February 24th at the New Jewish Theatre. Call 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

Charm And Wit Propel “Sense And Sensibility” At The Rep

February 16, 2013
The cast of "Sense and Sensibility" on the beautiful open-air set. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The cast of “Sense and Sensibility” on the beautiful open-air set. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

With the flowing dialogue, open air set design and a marvelous cast, Jane Austen is well represented on stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis with an absolutely captivating production of her “Sense and Sensibility.” She has gotten a lot of mileage out of a handful of novels and none more charming or genteel than this one.

We are introduced to two sisters, Marianne and Elinor, who recently lost their father and now they and their mother are forced out of their home and take up residence in a small cottage. As men- both noble and humble, witty and dull- pass through their lives, decisions are made and circumstances intervene to make those lives the stuff of drama and romance. We spend a couple of pleasant hours with them representing many years until this valentine (appropriately for this month) of a show is wrapped up with ribbons of sentimentality and smiles.

Elinor, Sir John, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne contemplate their move to the "country" in the Rep's production of "Sense and Sensibility." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Elinor, Sir John, Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne contemplate their move to the “country” in the Rep’s production of “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Adapted and directed by Jon Jory, “Sense and Sensibility” is one of the most successful transformations of Jane Austen to the stage we’ve seen. Combined with the airy feel of the Tom Burch set design that tosses away the limiting conventions of English mansions and the uptight stuffiness they bring, it gives a certain joyful and even playful feeling to the proceedings. The rest of the design team- Patricia McGourty’s costumes, Ann G. Wrightson’s lights and the appropriate soundtrack of Joe Cerqua add to the sprightly surroundings.

Amelia McClain is a fanciful Marianne as she hopes for true romance while her more sensible sister, Elinor, is given a wonderful turn in the hands of Nancy Lemenager. Their mother, Mrs. Henry Dashwood, is played to the hilt by a delightful Penny Slusher. The often dastardly side of the family who forces them to vacate their home are beautifully portrayed by local favorites, Kari Ely and her real-life hubby, Peter Mayer.

Geoff Rice is perfect as the enigmatic Edward while Alex Podulke shines as the stiff-as-a-rail Colonel Brandon. Charles Andrew Callaghan is a treat as the flamboyant- if scheming- Willoughby and Diane Mair is equally cunning as Lucy Steele who throws a monkey-wrench into the hopes of marriage for one of the sisters. V Craig Heidenreich is properly brash as the boastful Sir John and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini is sweet as Mrs. Jennings. Another local favorite, Michelle Hand, gets her first moment on the Rep stage and makes the most of it as both Lady Middleton and Mrs. Ferrars while Jonathan Finnegan plays a few roles including the country-bumpkin brother of Edward.

Director Jory has done wonders with the cast of servants, other nobles and assorted country folk as they provide the lighting-fast set changes on this wonderful, romantic set. From mansions to gardens to cottages and back again as actors stroll into their next scene in the blink of an eye as the open air set transforms to their next destination. It’s not an easy feat to make these set changes seem effortless and not break the continuity of the script. A big shout out to these wonderful performers as well.

Elinor eagerly receives the proposal of Edward in Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Elinor eagerly receives the proposal of Edward in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Much like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” this production of “Sense and Sensibility” transfers you to a state of mind rather than any physical location. The great Jane Austen story remains strong, but you have an ethereal feeling throughout the play rather than the stodgy sense that you’re in Victorian England. What a marvelous production.

One personal note: since I had been laid up with the flu bug and missed opening night, I attended a Wednesday matinee and what a different audience I encountered. Busloads of senior citizens (of which I am a proud member) filled the crowd and as soon as the final lights were dimmed and the actors poured onto stage for their curtain call, seniors jumped to their feet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standing ovation but rather a cattle call like egress to get to their buses (I guess for the best window seats). Haven’t seen that since the Muny.

Despite that minor setback (and a few more than usual coughs and candy unwrappings throughout the show itself) this was a most pleasant theatrical experience. I urge you to see this delightful show, “Sense and Sensibility” before it all comes to and end on March 3rd. Call the box office at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.


Flu Bug Shuts Me Down For The Busy Theatre Week-end

February 11, 2013

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.54.35 PMI’ve got a lot of shows to make up. Due to a vicious bout with the flu, I couldn’t get to any of the five- count ’em, 5- shows that opened this past week-end. I’ll be hitting most of them (along with other new openings) this week and into the week-end. The infamous Z-pack seems to be working so I think I’ll be up and about very soon. Thanks for checking in and we’ll see you all back at the theatre in a few days.

Lunch With Rita Gardner Turns Out To Be “Much More” For Three Old Codgers

February 3, 2013

rita_b_w_sketch_full_iiAll of us have many heroes or people we look up to or just appreciate over the years. When you get a chance to meet one of those people, it’s like “every secret prayer, every fancy free”. When they turn out to be as nice as Rita Gardner, it’s “like your wildest dreams multiplied by two.”

Yes, those are lyrics from “They Were You” from, arguably the best musical ever written, “The Fantasticks.” And Rita Gardner started her long acting and singing career as the original Young Girl (Luisa) in that show which opened in 1960 and is still running in New York today. Recently three of her biggest fans met her for lunch- Dick Wobbe broadcaster on Classic 99 (still going strong on the web), Robert Boyd, college professor and former reviewer for “Talkin’ Broadway” and yours truly- also formerly of Classic 99 and now reviewing here on my blog, Stage Door St. Louis. At the end of our two-plus hour lunch, this personable and generous lady had us all mesmerized with her tales of a long and glorious career in show biz.

Dick Wobbe and yours truly flanking the great Rita Gardner during our all-too brief lunch.

Dick Wobbe and yours truly flanking the great Rita Gardner during our all-too brief lunch.

Ria Gardner has closed her run at the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles.” She was marvelous as the loving, wise-cracking grandmother to a young man who has bicycled from Seattle to her rent-controlled New York apartment. Although this gig at the Rep is over, her 50-plus years on stages around the world is not ending. She’s got some wonderful plans for the months (maybe years) ahead which she also shared with us.

But let’s start at the beginning- when she came into auditions for “The Fantasticks” looking- as she called it- like a hippie. Actually, hippies came a little later, but she told us she was all in black, bundled up (it was February) and a bit scraggly. Producer Lore Noto was a big fan already and, although director Word Baker had his eyes on another actress, Rita was finally chosen and joined with the now legendary Jerry Orbach, Kenneth Nelson (more about him later) and the rest of that memorable cast.

The original cast of "The Fantasticks."

The original cast of “The Fantasticks.”

No one could have guessed how successful this perfect little love story would be. Anyone who has seen it knows how magical it is and this was her springboard into this great career. Susan Watson had replaced her in “The Fantasticks” and, ironically, she replaced Susan in the Broadway production of the musical “Ben Franklin In Paris.” This show brought another legendary actor in her life- Robert Preston. “How sweet that man was,” she reminisced. “He had a lot of problems in his life at the time, but he was so kind to everyone. On my opening night, he sent flowers and a bottle of champagne to my dressing room.”

Broadway, off-Broadway, touring shows, regional theaters, film and television have filled her life along with her current one-woman show, “Try To Remember: A Look Back At Off-Broadway.” When booked, she uses the opportunity to combine her show with a master class in acting when appropriate. Major roles in “Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well and Living In Paris,” the musical version of “Wings,” “Side By Side By Sondheim,” “Steel Magnolias,” “The Gingerbread Lady,” and the national tour of “Kiss Of The Spider Woman” are just a few of her accomplishments. And, of course, she originated the role of the grandmother in “The Wedding Singer.” Although that character was pretty salty, she told us how they eventually had to cut one of her songs because it was so raunchy, they were truly afraid it would alienate the audience.

Roberta Peters and Rita Gardner "knock 'em dead" at a benefit for the O'Neill Theatre Center.

Roberta Peters and Rita Gardner “knock ’em dead” at a benefit for the O’Neill Theatre Center.

Her film career has included “Mr. Gibbs,” and “P.S. I Love You” among others and she’s been in several television series including the soap, “The Guiding Light” and every version of “Law & Order.” “However,” she mentioned, “I never got to do an episode when Jerry Orbach was with the show.”

But she and Mr. Orbach did reunite and have a successful stint in the 1963 revival of Marc Blitzstein’s classic 1930’s musical, “The Cradle Will Rock.” Playing the piano for this production was Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Bernstein knew Mr. Blitzstein and would stop singers in rehearsal to instruct them on how a particular song was to be interpreted. Ms. Gardner gushed about Leonard Bernstein saying “you couldn’t imagine how he played piano. It became a totally different instrument under his talented fingers. The man just gave off an aura of greatness. It was magical just being in his presence.” In fact, she and Jerry would look at each other occasionally at rehearsals and just say, “My God, it’s Leonard Bernstein!”

Rita and cast at the recording session for "The Wedding Singer."

Rita and cast at the recording session for “The Wedding Singer.”

One of the biggest thrills of her life came when a good friend, opera star Roberta Peters called her one day and said, “Rita, I’ve got a one-woman show scheduled for a benefit for the O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterbury, Connecticut and I can’t possibly perform for that length of time.” This was later in the great soprano’s career (she has since retired from singing). “You must join me. I’ll do some of my opera, you’ll do some of your songs and then we’ll find some things to do together.” Well, that turned out to be one of the most successful gigs of her career as people are still talking about that show and how it knocked the audience out of their seats.

Rita as Luisa in "The Fantasticks." This photo was on the end table of her New York apartment in the Rep's "4000 Miles."

Rita as Luisa in “The Fantasticks.” This photo was on the end table of her New York apartment in the Rep’s “4000 Miles.”

Not only is Rita Gardner a throw-back to a gentler, more respectable time, she also appreciates how lucky she is and stays in touch with friends and colleagues she has met over the years. She talked about how sad she is that Tom Jones’ wife is very ill. Mr. Jones, lyricist for “The Fantasticks” and many other successful musicals, is currently working on rewriting the 2005 musical based on the great Ruth Gordon (another old friend of Rita) film, “Harold and Maude.” Although that production (starring Estelle Parsons) didn’t work out, Tom and composer Joe Thalken are going to try it again and the York’s Jim Morgan would like Rita to play Maude this time around.

As for the other mastermind behind “The Fantasticks,” Harvey Schmidt, Rita said he has moved back to Texas with another old friend of hers, his wife Margie. Another dear friend, Jerry Herman stays in touch as well. He, of course, came in to try to rescue “Ben Franklin In Paris” when it was floundering at the box office (several other composers are rumored to have helped as well) and wrote “Too Charming” and “To Be Alone With You” for stars Robert Preston and Ulla Sallert. But he wrote several specialty pieces for Rita as well for her one-woman show.

Other projects on the horizon for Rita include a trip to Oregon to meet with composer Doug Katsaros (“Altar Boyz,” among others), lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz and book writer Ken Davenport to do a reading for a new musical adaptation of “Somewhere In Time.” Not busy enough? How about participating in a Pinter One-Act Festival. Harold Pinter is one of her favorite playwrights so she couldn’t pass this one up. And, of course, her one-woman show continues to flourish including her next gig in Boston later in February.

A recent publicity photo of Rita Gardner.

A recent publicity photo of Rita Gardner.

Bob Boyd broached an interesting question- who has ever given an unsolicited kindness to you? Although admitting there were many, she singled out Laura Benanti who steered her in the right direction when vacillating on an important career decision but  she then turned the question around and spoke about her co-star in “The Fantasticks,” Kenneth Nelson (who played Matt, the young boy). He was offered a part in a new play, “The Boys In The Band.” Society not being as liberal as they are today, he was afraid of being stereotyped by appearing in a play about the gay subculture at the time. Rita asked him, “Is it a good script?” Answering in the affirmative, Rita encouraged him to take it and, of course, it turned out to be a tremendous- if somewhat provocative- success.

Kindness and a good heart are rare commodities anywhere these days and you don’t normally associate either with actors. Rita Gardner proved to be “not evil, but (‘much more’ than) a little worldly wise” and charming as she chatted with us three admirers as if she’d known us all her life. The long lunch we enjoyed with her reminded me, if you’ll excuse one more “Fantasticks” indulgence, of a time when “life was slow and oh, so mellow.” Thank you Rita for being as sweet and breath-taking as I’ve imagined you all these years.

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A special thanks to the Repertory Theatre- Becky Hadley-Cutright, Lory Bowman and Steve Woolf for setting up our lunch and convincing Rita that we were three reputable (despite being critics and radio personnel) and respectable gentlemen.