Archive for May, 2013

Strong Singing And Dancing Make “The Wiz” A Winner At Black Rep

May 31, 2013
The Scarecrow, Lion, Dorothy and the Tinman "Ease On Down The Road" in the Black Rep production of "The Wiz." Photo: Stewart Goldstein

The Scarecrow, Lion, Dorothy and the Tinman “Ease On Down The Road” in the Black Rep production of “The Wiz.” Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Though not a strong show to begin with, “The Wiz” is transformed due to an impeccable cast at the Black Rep with plenty of energy, great singing voices and pinpoint choreography. It all blends to make a satisfying conclusion to their 2013 season. The score includes the charming “Ease On Down The Road” and the powerful “Brand New Day.”

Sisters Sarah and Sophia Stephens perform together with Sarah earning the yeoman role of Dorothy. She handles it with wide-eyed innocence and a spectacular singing voice that rings through the rafters of the old Grandel Square Theatre. She is poised and handles the acting and dancing chores as well as belting out the tuneful score. Her sister Sophia also shines but only briefly at show’s end when she enters as Glinda and also brings the house down with a smooth and silky singing voice.

Keith Tyrone as the Tinman loosens up after a shot of oil in "The Wiz" at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Keith Tyrone as the Tinman loosens up after a shot of oil in “The Wiz” at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

It’s the old “Wizard of Oz” story with a funky beat. Although not as tight as the original, the colorful cast of characters are all there and each gets a moment or two to stand out. Nakischa Joseph gets things started on the right foot as Aunt Em as she professes her love for her niece in the touching song, “The Feeling We Once Had.” As the show gets on the “road,” so to speak, Dorothy encounters the Munchkins and a delightful performance by Linda Kennedy as the Good Witch Of The North- also known as Addaperle. She soon discovers the Scarecrow in search of a brain- played with magnificent pliability by Ian Coulter-Buford. His number, “I Was Born The Day Before Yesterday,” shows off his singing skills as well as his Ray Bolger-esqu dances.

The smooth and sassy Tinman is Keith Tyrone. His “Slide Some Oil To Me” is a sexy turn that features some more intricate moves on the dance. Finally, the Lion enters in the person of Herman Gordon (who doubles as Uncle Henry). His fierce demeanor soon turns to his true colors as a “scaredy-cat.” He, too, gets his moment in the spotlight as he introduces himself as a “Mean Ole Lion.”

Cedric Neal is a powerhouse as the all-talk, no-action Wiz. His numbers, “So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard” and, especially his second act blockbusters, “Believe In Yourself” and the rousing “Y’All Got It!” are both scene-stealers. Raphaelle Darden makes her evil presence known as Evillene- the Wicked Witch of the West and Daniel Hodges does some fine work as her underling as well as the skittish Gatekeeper.

Ian Coulter-Buford as the Scarecrow tells Dorothy (played by Sarah Stephens) why he needs a brain as the Yellow Brick Road looks on. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Ian Coulter-Buford as the Scarecrow tells Dorothy (played by Sarah Stephens) why he needs a brain as the Yellow Brick Road looks on. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Director Ron Himes keeps the pace moving with the only slow-downs being a few of the scene changes that could have been crisper. Choreographer Cecil Slaughter has done wonders with the driving music and he is blessed with a dancing chorus who is precision-perfect. Musical director Charles Creath does a fine job but it’s too bad they couldn’t have put some brass into it because this show really needs that driving sound that only a brass section can deliver. But he has the chorus singing and blending beautifully to match the power of the featured cast.

The clever Dunsi Dai set design works well and the inventive Sean Savoie lights are a wonderful complement to the proceedings. The colorful costumes of Sarita Fellows are right on the mark from the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion costumes right through to the other principles and the wonderful orange “brick” overalls and yellow shoes and poles of the four gents playing the Yellow Brick Road.

This is a really good production with a lot going for it. Give them a call at 314-534-3810 and join in the rousing good time that is “The Wiz” at the Black Rep. It runs through June 30th.

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Polished Production of “Anything Goes” Shows Why You Can’t Beat A Cole Porter Score

May 31, 2013

314Led by veteran Rachel York as nightclub singer/evangelist Reno Sweeney, the national tour of “Anything Goes” gets rave reviews for a lively song and dance fest despite the creaky (although updated) script that accompanies the great Cole Porter score.

Written in 1934, it’s no wonder the well-worn plot doesn’t relate to our techno-filled world but oh, that wonderful music. Hits like the title tune, “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “De-Lovely,” “Friendship” and “You’re The Top,” among others, makes this a non-stop hit parade. Combined with the crisp direction and out of this world choreography of Kathleen Marshall, you can’t help but get swept up in this crazy cruise that features romance on the high seas.

Rachel York is simply tireless. She shines in number after number including the exhausting “Anything Goes” that closes the first act. Not many shows get two standing ovations including one at the Act I close, but this one does. Her energy sparks the show but the rest of the cast chimes right in.

Josh Franklin is an energetic Billy Crocker who is in love with Alex Finke’s Hope Harcourt. Although we know she shares the love, she is engaged to a “sensible” millionaire, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, played with a superb stiff upper lip by Edward Staudenmayer. Not helping true love win out is Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt, played perfectly by Sandra Shipley. Fortunately for the paper-thin plot, she is being wooed by an old flame, Dennis Kelly’s Elisha Whitney. Rounding out this wacky cast of characters is Fred Applegate as a riotous Moonface Martin (public enemy No. 13).

All these folks make for a silly shipload of mayhem and music. Highlights include the fun duet (with a built in encore) of “Friendship” with Moonface and Reno, a delightful song and dance by Hope and Billy to another Porter standard, “Easy To Love,” the bright and powerful “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and, of course that exciting title number that gets almost everyone involved.

Although difficult, even with the updated script, to make “Anything Goes” a viable show for today’s audiences, the spirit and the ’30’s musicals helps buoy it along and with such a tuneful score, it really can’t miss. Thanks to a brilliant cast and the innovative choreography of Ms. Marshall combined with excellent execution of same, this is a show that suddenly becomes a treat for everyone.

“Anything Goes” plays at the Fox Theatre through June 9th. Contact Metro-Tix for tickets and plan to attend this final musical of the season at the Fox as they end on a very happy note.

Opera Theatre Brings Us A Treasure Chest Of Gilbert & Sullivan Nonsense As “Pirates of Penzance” Opens The Season

May 27, 2013
The famous Pirates of Penzance make their entrance at Opera Theatre St. Louis.

The famous Pirates of Penzance make their entrance at Opera Theatre St. Louis.

Playing it for all the silliness it deserves, Opera Theatre St. Louis brings us a highly polished production of “The Pirates of Penzance” to kick off their 38th season. A free-wheeling cast led by director and choreographer Sean Curran plays it for non-stop laughs and kept the opening night full house in stitches as one outlandish character and situation followed the next until the surprise finale with a very special appearance by a very special lady.

We open in spectacular fashion as a 3-part ship soon comes together to make the infamous pirate ship that finds a happy Frederic who is spending his last day of indentured service as a pirate. His ward, Ruth, misheard his father years ago and thought he was to be apprenticed as a “pirate,” when, in fact, his father had said “pilot.” Now, with his twenty-first birthday, he is finally free from his duties and plans to find a suitable young maiden to marry since he’s not sure if the somewhat older and slightly portly Ruth is really representative of fine, feminine pulchritude.

As they come into port, Frederic roams the sandy beaches until he hears the excited prattling of several young ladies. For the first time in his life, he realizes that Ruth has been lying to him about her virtues. The pirates soon join him and try to claim the young ladies as their brides. But enter their father, the Major General who will have nothing of it. Having heard of the tales of the rather gullible pirates of Penzance, he preys on their weakness for orphans and manages to save his daughters from the clutches of these unsuitable suitors.

The nonsense continues with the arrival of the local constabulary who seem a bit reluctant to track down the pirate gang. But all ends happily for all involved once certain truths are revealed that bring everyone to the same frame of mind. All of this hilarity is accompanied by the brilliant music and clever lyrics of Gilbert & Sullivan. With patter songs, beautiful love ballads and outlandish chorus numbers, this is one of their best operettas.

Bradley Smoak leads the way as the Pirate King. Patterned closely on the great Kevin Kline portrayal from many years ago, he swashes and buckles his way through every twist and turn of the silly plot while displaying a powerful bass that handles the humor in the lyrics perfectly. Matthew Plenk offers a bit of a contrast as Frederic with his sweet but naive outlook while his wonderful tenor soars- particularly on his duets with Mabel.

As Mabel, Deanna Breiwick is lovely and talented. What else do you need in a heroine? Her lilting soprano brings down the house while her stunning beauty and way around the stage wins our heart. Maria Zifchak is the perfect comic foil as Ruth- also displaying a lovely mezzo-soprano voice.

Frederic and Mabel share a tender moment in the Opera Theatre St. Louis production of "The Pirates of Penzance."

Frederic and Mabel share a tender moment in the Opera Theatre St. Louis production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Hugh Russell delights as the Major General as he rattles off his nonsensical list of knowledge that makes him a “Modern Major General. And Jason Eck continues the silliness during his second act portrayal of the Sergeant of Police. He and his merry band of “Keystone Kops” keep us howling with the famous “Ta-Ran-Ta Ra” song and the goofy choreography that Sean Curran has them stumbling around to.

As usual, the chorus is in excellent voice and bring their own brand of wacky bravado to the proceedings. And the St. Louis Symphony under the baton and “voice” of Ryan McAdams is superb. James Schuette has added a wonderful mix of costumes and a colorful and humorous set design, all lighted to perfection by Christopher Akerlind.

This is one set of pirates you don’t mind keel-hauling your evening. With laughs and lots of “stuff and nonsense,” you’ll have a wonderful time spending two and a half hours with “The Pirates of Penzance.” Gilbert & Sullivan never sounded better and you can’t ask for a more inventive production.

“The Pirates of Penzance” runs in repertory with three other operas through June 29th. Contact OTSL at 314-961-0644 for tickets or more information.

Jerry Vogel Hits A “Homer” In Upstream’s “An Iliad”

May 26, 2013
Jerry Vogel as The Poet in Upstream Theater's "An Iliad."

Jerry Vogel as The Poet in Upstream Theater’s “An Iliad.”

Upstream Theater’s “An Iliad” has become one of the “must see” performances of the theatre season. Thanks to an unusual script and an unbelievable, gut-wrenching and mesmerizing performance by Jerry Vogel as The Poet, this is a production that could be classified as one of the all-time greats. Oddly enough, it’s taking the place of a play that Upstream’s Artistic Director, Philip Boehm couldn’t currently get the rights to produce.

We open on the simple Patrick Huber set design showing a blackboard, a small table and chair and a wooden box with a valance-like hanging pictorial of the Trojan War all in front of a gauze backdrop. Composer and musician Farshid Soltanshahi is positioned just off the elevated stage left area and introduces the opening on guitar. Later he handles percussion duties as well as a few other stringed instruments. Then Mr. Vogel enters through the center aisle- acknowledges the audience, beckons Mr. Soltanshahi to help him “set” the stage with two candles acting as footlights downstage right and left and then lighting an incense stick, allowing the scent to waft gently over the audience.

Relating tales of the bloody battles of The Trojan War- Jerry Vogel as The Poet in Upstream's "An Iliad."

Relating tales of the bloody battles of The Trojan War- Jerry Vogel as The Poet in Upstream’s “An Iliad.”

Simply called The Poet, we’re not sure if he is Homer reincarnated or a scholar giving us the “skinny” on the Trojan War and it’s effects on wars and humankind since the battles of that 8th century war that inspired the epic poem, “The Iliad.” Through the next 90 or so minutes, he treats us to an uncanny look at the incidents surrounding the major players of “Greece vs. Troy” while taking time to relate it to our more modern wars from the grandiose to the lowly- even including modern day personal skirmishes like “road rage.” Throughout he also relates personal tragedy as it affects family and others not directly related to the wars. Touches of humor combine with an intensity that puts the audience on the edge of their seats. As always, Fate- or in the case of ancient Greece and Troy- the Gods controlled the sway and outcome of battle.

Jerry Vogel has been one our local treasures as an actor for some time, but he simply blows us away with this portrayal. A series of highs and lows as he runs the gamut of emotions through the death of Achilles’ friend Patroclus as he wears Achilles’s armor to the eventual turning point of the Trojan War when Achilles humiliates Hector and literally “overkills” his opponent. Each incident rises to a fever pitch as vocally and physically he becomes these ancient warriors and brings a new, powerful level of acting that we haven’t seen on stage in some time. His brilliant litany of wars since the Trojan War is a masterpiece in itself. This is tremendous theatre.

Jerry Vogel portraying The Poet in "An Iliad" at Upstream Theater.

Jerry Vogel portraying The Poet in “An Iliad” at Upstream Theater.

The infamous Trojan Horse becomes an afterthought for these more important themes of what makes heroes or cowards in war and why war is such a driving force in almost every civilization on earth. Brilliant direction by Patrick Siler enhances these themes and he makes The Poet accessible to a modern audience- even has him interacting and moving about the audience throughout the play. And it can’t be emphasized enough how important the music of Farshid Soltanshahi is to this production. As in so many Upstream plays, live music is an integral part of the proceedings and this one is no exception.

The updated and more accessible translation of The Iliad by Robert Fagles is the inspiration behind this wonderful script by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. As director Siler states, that’s why this is called “An Iliad” rather than “The Iliad.” Combined with the gritty and triumphant performance of Jerry Vogel, this is a piece of theatre you cannot afford to miss.

Contact Upstream Theater at 314-863-4999 or at upstreamtheater@sbcglobal.net for tickets of more information. “An Iliad” runs through June 9th.

Set In 1967, “Mrs. Mannerly” Shows Etiquette With A Dark Past At Max & Louie

May 25, 2013
Charlie Ingram as Jeffrey has trouble with his posture exercise as noted by Donna Weinsting as Mrs. Mannerly at the Max & Louie production. Photo: John Lamb

Charlie Ingram as Jeffrey has trouble with his posture exercise as noted by Donna Weinsting as Mrs. Mannerly at the Max & Louie production. Photo: John Lamb

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher was so influenced by his 10-year old brush with a Manner’s Class that years later he decided to develop his experiences into a play and name the principal character after himself. How much did he embellish his memory of the sometimes traumatic, sometimes hilarious situations? Probably not much since etiquette and respect were still in fashion in the ’60’s and the “Mrs. Mannerly” of the title is pretty typical of the no-nonsense approach to grooming young men and women.

But, as this Max & Louie production points out, a few unexpected twists and turns in the remembered reality make for an unique outcome. First and foremost, our etiquette lady has a bit of a shady background and our young master Hatcher is determined to dig into that past. Secondly, Jeffrey himself is no saint and wise beyond his years. Their clash becomes an odd mixture of mistrust and mutual respect.

Donna Weinsting is the perfect choice for Mrs. Mannerly. Her brusque approach to teaching social graces gives way to other means while controlling the odd mix of students she has in her class in 1967 Steubenville, Ohio. She soon learns that Jeffrey is out for himself and determined to eliminate what he feels is the competition, taking the “winner take all” approach. Weinsting’s coy manner, occasionally addressing the audience and, in particular, her tipsy scene after nine Johnny Walker Blacks show her wide comedic range.

Charlie Ingram as Jeffrey tries to get a "perfect score" on the etiquette finals as presented by Donna Weinsting's Mrs. Mannerly. Photo: John Lamb

Charlie Ingram as Jeffrey tries to get a “perfect score” on the etiquette finals as presented by Donna Weinsting’s Mrs. Mannerly. Photo: John Lamb

Charlie Ingram, a senior at Webster University, does yeoman work as our ten-year old student, Jeffrey as an adult talking to the audience as well as the other five students in the class. He is convincing as them all including several split-second changes of character without losing a step. He manages to pull the real person (and her not-so sordid past) out of the Mrs. Mannerly persona and by play’s end, they are waltzing off together having formed a unique bond of friendship.

Director David Hemsley Caldwell draws deep to make these characters likable despite their often devious ways. The simple but effective Christopher M. Waller set depicts the 2nd floor YMCA rumpus room perfectly where Mrs. Mannerly is forced to pack up her “props” every day and schlep them home only to carry them back to her next class. Sara Wiegard’s costumes are good representations of the period and Maureen Berry’s lights and the sound design of Amanda Werre add to the magic of the long one-act.

Speaking of long- the play seemed to drag at times but every time it had a bit of a “valley,” one of those pithy lines of Mrs. Mannerly or schemes of Jeffrey brought you right back into it. Unfortunately, both actors had a few line problems on opening night too, which proved to be a bit of a distraction. But the fun and surprises in “Mrs. Mannerly” are quite obvious and the audience will have a blast with these two unusual personalities (or in Charlie Ingram’s case- seven unusual personalities).

Join the fun at Max & Louie’s production of “Mrs. Mannerly” running through June 2nd at COCA in University City. Give them a call at 314-725-6555, ext. 130 for tickets to this charming look back at manners and civility gone slightly askew.

Loneliness And Disillusionment Provide Unexpected Comedic Fodder For STLAS’ “Talking Heads”

May 21, 2013
Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Rosemary, treats her plants as well as the local gossip with equal care. Photo: John Lamb

Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Rosemary, treats her plants as well as the local gossip with equal care. Photo: John Lamb

Alan Bennett wrote a series of monologues for British TV in the late ’70’s which he collectively called “Talking Heads.” Their success led to stage adaptations and now St. Louis Actors’ Studio, under the superb guidance of director Lana Pepper, have brought three of those pieces to the Gaslight Theatre stage. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she put three of St. Louis’ leading actors on stage as well.

For those not familiar with Alan Bennett, he along with Jonathan Miller and the more familiar Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, created a sensation with the still fabulous and funny comic revue, “Beyond The Fringe.” Outrageous and inventive, it took Britain and then the U.S. by storm in the early ’60’s. The four wrote and performed memorable skits including one of my all time favorites, “The Frog and Peach.” Alan Bennett displays the same with but with a touch of irony in these three stories as performed at STLAS.

Alan Knoll as Graham struggles with changes in his well-ordered life. Photo: John Lamb

Alan Knoll as Graham struggles with changes in his well-ordered life. Photo: John Lamb

The opening monologue (all three comprise several scenes but total about 30-40 minutes each), features Elizabeth Ann Townsend as a devoted gardner in Leeds who starts to relate the story of a local “murder in the suburbs” story with a twist that includes her eventual friendship with the neighbor accused of doing in her husband. With quite a few other twists along the way, her storytelling simply mesmerizes us as the layers slowly unfold- even as she travels to Spain with her husband who, although not appearing, has a prominent place in her tale. Her friendship with the convicted neighbor fills a need that the husband- even before a certain secret is revealed- has not been providing.

Next we have another great performance by Alan Knoll as a slightly off-center middle-aged man who has stayed with his mother all of these years to take care of her (apparently needlessly) but it provides his raison d’etre. When an old flame steps in and tries to sweep the mother away, it brings confusion and a sense of finality to his life.

Glynis Bell tells "tales out of church" in the final offering of "Talking Heads" at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Glynis Bell tells “tales out of church” in the final offering of “Talking Heads” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Finally, we meet Susan, played with a flair for the comic and dramatic by the wonderful Glynis Bell. As her vicar husband, Jeffrey, makes his ascension further up the religious ladder, she becomes a forgotten piece in his life. Through the help of alcohol and a tryst with the local Indian grocer, she justifies her existence while continuing to ignore the things most important to Jeffrey and the vicarage.

Even with the rather sombre premises, Mr. Bennett has filled the monologues with crisp, British wit and an undercurrent of three people rising like a phoenix from what appears to be hopeless situations. These three stories make us long for the rest of the dozen or so monologues he has written in the series.

The effective and versatile Cristie Johnston set design slips easily into each story while the Jonathan Zelezniak lights and costumes of director Lana Pepper all add to the trio of tempting tales. Milt Zoth’s sound design also brings the proper mix of melancholy and mischief to the proceedings.

This is a short run- a quickly added piece to the season- at St. Louis Actors’ Studio as it runs only through this week-end, May 26th. So give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

Exuberant Nonsense Makes “Shlemiel The First” A Winner For New Jewish Theatre

May 18, 2013
Terry Meddows as Shlemiel and Antonio Rodriquez as Rascal in the New Jewish Theatre production of "Shlemiel The First."

Terry Meddows as Shlemiel and Antonio Rodriquez as Rascal in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Shlemiel The First.”

Everyone knows the dignity and drama evoked by Sholem Aleichem’s stories as translated into the hit musical, “Fiddler On The Roof.” Now, take a look at the lighter and zanier side of the Jewish experience as New Jewish Theatre presents the local premiere of “Shlemiel The First,” based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s silly tale of a shlemiel named Shlemiel and how his town of not-so bright residents send him on a non-sensical journey that confuses and confounds almost everyone.

Noted theatre producer, director and scholar, Robert Brustein, somehow thought this story would make wonderful theatre. With lyrics by Arnold Weinstein and music by Hankus Netsky, for some reason, it works. In lesser hands, it probably wouldn’t be as entertaining, but with New Jewish Theatre and director Edward Coffield, a lively cast makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (not Kosher, perhaps, but true). The implausible story of Shlemiel heading out on a journey around the world to spread the wisdom of the local “wisest man,” Gronam Ox, becomes even sillier when Shlemiel makes a wrong turn and winds up back in his home town of Chelm where he convinces everyone he must be in an alternate universe where his wife and all the townspeople are exactly the same but they must be different. So they become convinced and realize he must be Shlemiel the Second.

Antonio Rodriguez, Terry Meddows and Todd Schaefer in "Shlemiel The First" at New Jewish Theatre.

Antonio Rodriguez, Terry Meddows and Todd Schaefer in “Shlemiel The First” at New Jewish Theatre.

Terry Meddows simply shines as the hapless Shlemiel. Once again, as in his last triumph, “Waiting For Godot” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, his boots lead to questionable choices for his character. His singing voice is surprisingly strong as well. As his wife, Emily Baker adds to her list of memorable performances. She becomes a beacon of sanity in the muddled world of Chelm and its gullible citizenry. She takes the high road and makes the best of the new-found romantic tendencies of her addled husband. Taylor Pietz and Mike Dowdy add to the mix with their refreshing portrayal of their two bickering children and then show their versatility in playing other citizens including a wonderful turn by Dowdy as one of the gossipy women.

Todd Schaefer is a revelation as the self-proclaimed wisest man in town, Gronam Ox. His great comic timing, overly dramatic facial features and dancing that would make Groucho Marx jealous, add up to a top-notch performance. As his wife, Johanna Elkana-Hale also masters the comic timing and displays the most powerful singing voice of the show- just as she did in last year’s Insight’s production of “…And The World Goes Round” (also directed by Mr. Coffield).

The comic trio of Anna Skidis, Keith Thompson and Antonio Rodriguez just about steal the show with their campy portrayal of the three other wisest men in town (maybe six- since each also sports a sock puppet with views and voices of their own). Mr. Rodriquez also does a delightful turn as the “heavy” of the piece- Rascal. They all get the best workout in the show with zany dance numbers accompanied by the great Klezmer orchestra headed by musical director, Henry Palkes. The Klezmer style features a lot of fast-paced music which just adds to the frenetic quality of “Shlemiel The First.” In addition, this wild abandon is further fostered by the lively and extremely inventive choreography of J.T. Ricroft.

Townspeople gather as Todd Schaefer and Johanna Elkana-Hale discuss marital "bliss" in the New Jewish Theatre production of "Shlemiel The First."

Townspeople gather as Todd Schaefer and Johanna Elkana-Hale discuss marital “bliss” in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Shlemiel The First.”

This whole cartoonish style is enhanced by the wonderful set design of Margery and Peter Spack. With outlandish colors and off-kilter set pieces featuring touring wheels in the backdrop that mark Shlemiel’s journey (including the St. Louis Arch, the Coliseum and the Eiffel Tower, among other sites) and the infamous “Elsewhere” donwstage, this is one of the cleverest designs we’ve seen in some time. The Michele Friedman Siler costumes are perfect representations of the characters and the whole production is further enhanced by the Kimberly Klearman lighting design.

On a bad day, “Shlemiel The First” could be the worst idea ever. But in the hands of the talented, exuberant cast and the masterful direction of Edward Coffield, J.T. Ricroft and Henry Palkes, this turns out to be a wonderful example of “turn off your brain and just enjoy the insanity” type of production. You won’t walk away with any profound thoughts, but you will have enjoyed 85 minutes of non-stop joy and merriment.

Catch “Shlemiel The First” at New Jewish Theatre through June 9th. Contact them at 314-442-3283 or at newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

“Lu-ucy, You Got Some ‘Splainin’ To Do- What Are We Doing In 2013?”

May 6, 2013

With a bizarre, off the wall premise, “Maple and Vine” has found its way into the HotCity season and we can be glad it did. This upside down comedy by Jordan Harrison offers a trip back to 1955 thanks to an off-beat group called the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence or SDO for short. When a frustrated executive and her plastic surgeon husband decide to follow a charismatic member of SDO and his wife to this unusual community, things don’t go as planned.

Shanara Gabrielle as Katha and Alan C. David as Ryu, go over plans to go back to 1955 in HotCity's "Maple and Vine." Photo: Todd Studio's Photography

Shanara Gabrielle as Katha and Alan C. David as Ryu, go over plans to go back to 1955 in HotCity’s “Maple and Vine.” Photo: Todd Studio’s Photographysurgeon husband are approached by a husband and wife from this odd re-enactment group, they decide to throw caution to the wind and do a six-month trial at this small community where everyone lives as if it were 1955.

The idea, of course, is to throw away all of the technological entrapments of 2013 and live like Ozzie and Harriet or Lucy and Ricky. The simpler life with the husband as bread-winner and the wife eternally in pearls as she does the housework and cooks the meals, doesn’t exactly turn out that way. Katha, who has to change her name to Kathy to fit in the 1955 lifestyle and Ryu, who is Oriental and immediately distrusted but tolerated by post-war bigotry, aren’t exactly the mid-’50’s couple. As it turns out, neither are Ellen and Dean who persuaded them to take this journey. Dean, if fact, keeps a cell phone locked up in a drawer for emergencies.

We soon realize that people in our modern world may have fantasies about the “good old days,” but recapturing the elements of gentility, a simple lifestyle and a world with eternal goodness and light isn’t possible. In fact, the world they find full of racism, sexism, fear and skepticism is probably closer to what 1955 really was- it just wasn’t out in the open like our present amped up world with up-to-the-minute exposure to everyone else’s life, foibles and eccentricities.

Shanara Gabrielle is brilliant as the wife searching for something better than the dead-end job she feels she’s caught in. In fact, she quits her job in anticipation of her husband agreeing to this nostalgia trip. Alan C. David also shines as the surgeon who is tired of pumping up or reducing teen-age boobs for a living. As a couple, they struggle with their decision and then find life very confining until circumstances change their 1955 life completely.

Shanara Gabrielle, now as Kathy, talks on the rotary phone in the second act of "Maple and Vine" at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Todd Studio's Photography

Shanara Gabrielle, now as Kathy, talks on the rotary phone in the second act of “Maple and Vine” at HotCity Theatre. Photo: Todd Studio’s Photography

The wonderful Michelle Hand displays a breadth of talent as she plays both an office co-worker of Katha and the cheerful “Susie Homemaker” Ellen. Displaying the perfect ’50’s smile and gratuitous attitude, she charms us with her perky manner until the hammer gets dropped in the second act. It was fascinating to watch her in semi-darkness sitting at a kitchen table waiting for her philandering husband who is late again while a conversation is going on nearby between Katha and Ryu.

Playing her husband with a flair for ’50’s bombasity is Chad Morris. Like a snake oil salesman, he convinces Katha and Ryu to join them in 1955 and  soon reveals himself as the antithesis of the period in this not-so squeaky clean community. Bobby Suozzi rounds out the cast as an office employee in the present and a factory worker in the past. A fine ensemble cast that travel between past and present with agility.

Director Doug Finlayson has given the script the irony it deserves. He creates two separate worlds that soon meld into one. Scenic designer Sean Savoie has created a strong reality check for those of us who lived through the ’50’s with the help of properties master Meg Brinkley. The world they fashioned is incredible with vintage orange sofa and chair sets, an old metal kitchen table and a huge hi-fi console that takes up half the living room. The Michael Sullivan lighting design and the costumes of JC Krajicek, complete with petticoat undergarments, add to the atmosphere of “Maple and Vine.”

With a relatively short run- through May 18th- you’ll want to get to the Kranzberg Arts Center soon to catch this trip to the past. Contact HotCity at 314-289-4063 for tickets or more information on “Maple and Vine.”

Just another quick note- the vintage furniture is going on the auction block to be delivered the day after the final performance. If you’re interested, make a bid by contacting tickets@hotcitytheatre.org.

Allen’s Alley (5-1-13) News & Notes On Theatre In St. Louis

May 1, 2013

Allen's Alley picAnother edition of “Allen’s Alley” and first an answer to last week’s quiz. The former managing director of HotCity Theatre, John Armstrong, has the same name as actor John Armstrong from the now defunct City Players. Also in common is that HotCity is an offshoot of the old City Players.

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Before we launch into some local theatre news, let me explain a bit about “Allen’s Alley.” Besides an “outlet” for me to talk about theatre in our town and offer a few opinions as well as other tidbits of information, I’d like you to send me any info you’d like to get the word out on about auditions, casting, season schedules, etc. Just send it here or to my personal email- stlcritic@aol.com.

THE NAME: Although a big fan of my late namesake, Steve Allen, another comedian from that era (and a bit before) I was fond of was Fred Allen. He created a wide range of characters for his old radio show that he called “Allen’s Alley.” When I first started writing theatre reviews, my written column in several publications was called the same. So I decided to bring it back for this special weekly (or every other weekly or monthly or whatever strikes me) look into the theatre world around me.

THE LOGO: I met several remarkable people during my 23 years at Maryville University. Among those was a shy art student named Jim Brune who became one of my student assistants during his four year program at the college. I asked him to design a logo for my theatre review column using the “stage door” theme. This rather crude sketch became a favorite of mine and I searched high and low for it when I decided to create this column. Jim worked with me at the theatre department on campus and I got him involved in the Hawthorne Players community theatre as well. Unfortunately his life was cut short when, like so many of our friends during those late ’70’s and early ’80’s, he got flu symptoms and died of them in a few months. We later found out he died of AIDS before that term came into being. I’m proud of him, the confidence he gained and the man he became during his time at Maryville and Hawthorne and am pleased to honor Jim again by using his logo for my column.

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DramaDeskAwardTony and Drama Desk… A day after the wonderful news that the Drama Desk Awards included three nods to our town’s own Deanna Jent and her wonderful play, “Falling,” the Tony nominations were announced and there are some local ties involved there as well. First, a look at the head of Fontbonne’s theatre department and Mustard Seed Artistic Director Deanne Jent. Based on her own experience raising an autistic son, her play was a knock-out hit here in St. Louis and then producer Terry Schnuck took it to the Minetta Lane Theatre off-Broadway where it garnered rave reviews and now Drama Desk nominations for Best Play, Best Actress- Julia Murney and Best Actor- Daniel Everidge. More good news as “Falling” will be presented locally again- with the original St. Louis cast- as part of Mustard Seed’s season next year.

Another musical produced locally, “Bring It On: The Musical,” surprised the theatre world including now Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson and Fox Theatrical’s Kristin Caskey by garnering a Best Musical nod for the Tony Awards as well as Best Choreography for Andy Blankenbuehler. It had it’s pre-Broadway run at the Fox last year. And, of course, it starred the Bourbon, MO native, Taylor Louderman.

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Stages Announce Casting For Summer Season- Muny Starts Casting As Well…

stagesStages’ Summer season will see many favorites returning to the stage and some new actors as well. Running May 31-June 30 is “Always…Patsy Cline” and will feature Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy and the wonderful Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise Seger. “Legally Blonde, The Musical” plays July 19-August 18 and will bring Lauren Zakrin to town in the role of Elle Woods with familiar faces like Ben Nordstrom and David Schmittou lighting up the stage as well. Playing September 6-October 6 is the Lerner and Loewe classic, “My Fair Lady” featuring Christopher Guilmet as Professor Higgins and Pamela Brumley Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 2.24.38 PMas Eliza Doolittle with David Foley, Jr. as Alfred P. Doolittle and John Flack as Colonel Pickering. And don’t forget this year’s young audiences’ production of “Disney’s Cinderella” running June 19-30. Of course, you’ll see a lot of other local talent- always a highlight of any Stages season. BTW, Stages has moved their offices and box office, along with rehearsal space for the young audiences and other programs across Olive Blvd. to new digs at 1023 Chesterfield Parkway East- the new Kent Center for Theatre Arts.

the munyThe Muny has made a few casting announcements with lots more to come over the next month or so. Right now we can look forward to John O’Hurley as Arthur in “Spamalot” and recent Tony nominee Rob McLure returning to town as Lord Farquaad in “Shrek-The Musical.” Local talent, Phyllis Smith- famous as Phyllis in “The Office”- comes to the Muny stage as Sister Julia Child of God in “Nunsense-Muny Style” along with another local favorite who has re-settled into our town, Ken Page. And, of course, we’re looking forward to the new cooling system with fans quiet enough to run during the run of the shows. As I said, there’s a lot more to be cast in the seven show season so keep checking for new postings and, as always, we’re bound to see a lot of local talent on the Muny stage as well.

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Pop Quiz: Since we’ve been talking about Stages, what was the very first production they put on the boards in Kirkwood back in 1987?