Archive for June, 2013

“1776” Fits Right In As Insight Theatre Helps Us Celebrate Independence Day

June 28, 2013
Martin Fox as John Adams, tries to deal with the stubborn Continental Congress during the opening sequence of "1776" at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Martin Fox as John Adams, tries to deal with the stubborn Continental Congress during the opening sequence of “1776” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

One can’t help but be inspired by the Tony Award winning musical, “1776” even through a few technical glitches, dropped lines and occasional pitch problems with both actors and orchestra. That’s what plagued Insight Theatre on opening night of the stirring saga brought to the stage by playwright Peter Stone and the music and lyrics of Sherman Edwards. Those few missteps aside, this is a great way to celebrate our country’s independence since most of the moments on stage are based on how the Continental Congress actually fought it’s way to the Declaration.

Martin Fox leads the way with a stirring and insightful portrayal of John Adams. Whether dealing with Congress or his dear wife, he is tenacious. His powerful closing song, “Is Anybody There?” brings chills to the spine as you can feel the heartbreak of the man and the nation. His cohort in the fight is Ben Franklin and Tom Murray brings all of the joy, humor and wisdom to the role. Add the stoic but equally committed Thomas Jefferson as brought to brilliant life by Peter Meredith, and you’ve got the dynamic trio who helped “hatch the egg” that would become America.

Peter Meredith as Thomas Jefferson, Tom Murray as Ben Franklin and Martin Fox as John Adams discuss hatching "The Egg" that will bring America into the world. Photo: John Lamb

Peter Meredith as Thomas Jefferson, Tom Murray as Ben Franklin and Martin Fox as John Adams discuss hatching “The Egg” that will bring America into the world. Photo: John Lamb

Michael Amoroso, despite a few vocal problems on opening night, brings the proper, uninhibited spirit to Richard Henry Lee and Christopher Hickey is solid as the lone dissenter in the fight for independence, John Dickinson. Michael Brightman is in proper “yes” man mode as James Wilson who actually turns the whole question of independence on its ear. And GP Hunsaker is perfect as the great mediator and president of the Congress, John Hancock.

Janine Burmeister brings a sweet disposition and even sweeter singing voice to Abigail Adams. The scenes between her and John are lovingly portrayed even though they remain separated by the width of the stage. And the only other woman on the scene, Martha Jefferson is given a lively and spirited turn by Taylor Pietz.

Matt Pentecost stops the show cold in the second act as Edward Rutledge with a magnificent interpretation of the powerful “Molasses To Rum” sung soliloquy that topples one of the major components of the Declaration. Another show stopper is the first act finale when Charlie Ingram, as the courier who continually brings in dispatches from George Washington then noisily departs, stops to relate how it really is on the battlefield with a gripping “Momma Look Sharp.”

John Adams ponders the options as the rest of the Continental Congress deal with the question of Independence in "1776" at Insight Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

John Adams ponders the options as the rest of the Continental Congress deal with the question of Independence in “1776” at Insight Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

This is truly an ensemble cast and, despite naming only a few, the entire company steps up and has their moments during those days leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a tight cast and they work extremely well together to bring reality to the events that unfold on stage.

Insight Artistic Director Maggie Ryan has directed “1776” with a keen eye for detail. Perhaps a bit long with the first act reaching close to the two hour mark, we do get to the matters at hand rather quickly in the second act. Zoe Vonder Haar has provided the delightful choreography while the beautiful set design of Bill Schmeil and lights of Maureen Berry combine to set the proper mood. Charlie Mueller is in charge of the musical direction.

At my household, we’ll still continue our long tradition of watching the film version of “1776” on the holiday itself. But it’s nice to have a stage version available appropriately fitting into the actual Independence Day celebration time frame. Visit Insight Theatre Company at insighttheatrecompany.com for more information or to get tickets. “1776” runs through July 7th.

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“Shrek” Makes His Muny Debut And New Fans Make It An Almost “Cool” Night

June 25, 2013
Julia Murney as Fiona and Stephen Wallem as Shrek at the Muny this week.

Julia Murney as Fiona and Stephen Wallem as Shrek at the Muny this week.

Last week during the opening show, “Spamalot,” the heralded new fan system had to be turned off due to a cool down after the afternoon rainstorms. This week, “Shrek” was made even more pleasant because of the new fans that kept air circulating throughout the huge Muny Opera audience and made the muggy, 85+ degree temps almost bearable.

Meanwhile, onstage, a talented crew of actors brought the outrageous fairy tale, “Shrek,” to life led by a great performance by Stephen Wallem as the green ogre. Tossing off the grumpy and sarcastic lines with a real flair, he brings the essence of Shrek to life. As his unexpected princess, Fiona, Julia Murney is a delight bringing a crystal clear singing voice to the Jeanine Tesori music and David Lindsay-Abaire lyrics. She also handles the comedy with ease. Rounding out the traveling threesome is Michael James Scott with verve and hilarity as the outspoken donkey.

Rob McClure as Farquaad in "Shrek" at the Muny.

Rob McClure as Farquaad in “Shrek” at the Muny.

Rob McClure just about “walks” away with the show as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. With the elaborate get up that forces the actor to move around on his knees, he brings the house down with his clever antics including a musical turn on a tiny piano. All the usual suspects from the movie franchise “Shrek” are on hand as well including the gingerbread man, Pinocchio, the massive dragon and the three blind mice who do a great musical number with Donkey called “Make A Move” and then join the rest of the cast at curtain call with their movie hit, “I’m A Believer.”

Other highlights include the beautiful trio with Fiona and her young self (Maria Knasel) and her teen self (Allison Broadhurst) in the touching “I Know It’s Today,” the stirring “Freak Flag” and the hilarious “What’s Up Duloc?” featuring Farquaad and the palace guards. John Tartaglia has directed with a flair for the nonsensical and the great choreography is by Vince Pesce. The Steve Gilliam set and lights by Nathan W. Scheuer add to the fun.

The impressive moves of the dragon include a stint on the extended thrust during "Shrek" at the Muny.

The impressive moves of the dragon include a stint on the extended thrust during “Shrek” at the Muny.

Although “Mary Poppins,” later in the Muny season, is the official children’s production of the year, “Shrek” drew a huge crowd of parents and youngsters and, at least around me, they all really got into the show with no whining and/or falling asleep. Although kids adore all of the “fart” and “belching” jokes- both in the script and in the lyrics- there are a few inappropriate lines that hopefully went over their heads. “Shrek” plays at the Municipal Opera in Forest Park through Sunday, June 30th to be followed by “Nunsense: Muny Style” with St. Louis native Phyllis Smith.

Opera Or Operetta? It’s A Close Call But “The Kiss” Delights- Whichever It Is

June 19, 2013
Corrine Winters and Garrett Sorenson in Smetana's "The Kiss" at Opera Theatre St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Corrine Winters and Garrett Sorenson in Smetana’s “The Kiss” at Opera Theatre St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

With lilting melodies, something close to marching songs and comic numbers, Bedrich Smetana’s “The Kiss” sounds more like operetta than opera (actually it’s billed as a folk opera) but a winning cast, absurd story and that great music add up to a fun evening at Opera Theatre St. Louis. When Lukas wished to marry Vendulka years ago, his parents thought he should marry closer to his “station.” So, when the show opens, we see the burial of that wife, find out his parents have also passed and the chance encounter with Vendulka leads to a rekindling of their romance.

Vendulka, however, refuses to give Lukas a kiss- insisting that they wait until they can be married out of respect for his deceased wife. Paloucky, her father thinks it’s a bad idea altogether since he feels they’re both stubborn and will constantly fight. Sure enough, an argument ensues over the little kiss and they part ways. Lukas goes on a tear with the local girls of questionable repute but doesn’t do too well since he is still convinced that Vendulka is the only girl for him. To cap off this absurd plot, they finally resolve their differences and, when Vendulka asks for kiss, Lukas denies her. It’s his little joke, however and a long, thrown to the floor, passionate kiss finally unites the two forever.

Yes, it’s silly- but no sillier than Gilbert & Sullivan plots or so many other operas. What makes it work so well is the wonderful Smetana music. From overture to curtain call, the delightful music lovingly fills the OTSL stage and keeps the audience enthralled. Anthony Barrese conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with a steady hand, keeping the music as light and airy as the story itself. Director Michael Gieleta and choreographer Sean Curran follow suit by keeping the story appropriately melodramatic and full of comic turns.

kiss logoSoprano Corinne Winters returns once again to the Opera Theatre stage to charm and delight us. Her almost tomboyish enthusiasm is infectious and wins her character over immediately. Garrett Sorenson and his wonderful tenor voice bring a truly comic performance to Lukas. Matthew Burns delights as Paloucky even though he’s hampered by a wheel chair, a bum leg when he stands and two annoying nuns for his character. But he makes the most of his comic moments- particularly with his wonderful “I told you so” attitude that keeps him traveling throughout the audience taunting the couple after they split up.

Elizabeth Batton is also a treasure as Vendulka’s aunt who happens to be a member of a group of smugglers as well. Emily Duncan Brown as Vendulka’s servant and Matthew Worth  as Lukas’ brother-in-law also share in the fun with spirited portrayals as does Charles Z. Owen as the leader of the smuggler’s band.

It won’t send chills up your spine like “Champion” and it doesn’t measure up to the brilliance of “The Pirates Of Penzance,” but “The Kiss” is a delightful way to spend a night at the opera. Sit back and relax and let it sweep over you with sheer joy. “The Kiss” plays in repertory with three other operas and has its final performance on June 28th.

The Knights Of The Round Table Play The Big Stage- “Spamalot” Opens Muny Season

June 19, 2013
David Hibbard and John O'Hurley as Patsy and King Arthur in "Spamalot" at the Muny. Photo: Larry Pry

David Hibbard and John O’Hurley as Patsy and King Arthur in “Spamalot” at the Muny. Photo: Larry Pry

This must be the first time “Monty Python’s Spamalot” has played an outdoor theatre AND had such a huge crowd watching because one of the creators, Monty Python’s Eric Idle made a surprise guest appearance after curtain call and led the crowd in a reprise of “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” That was just one of the many magical moments for the opening of the 95th season of the Muny in Forest Park. With rain dampening the St. Louis area all day, the skies cleared just in time (with a short delay for a malfunctioning message board) for the most polished no-tech, no-dress rehearsal performance we’ve seen. Oh, there were a few glitches along the way, but the cast responded to opening night in spectacular fashion.

Michele Ragusa as the Lady of the Lake in the Muny's "Spamalot." Photo: Larry Pry

Michele Ragusa as the Lady of the Lake in the Muny’s “Spamalot.” Photo: Larry Pry

John O’Hurley, has done the show many times before but the Muny stage is a whole other animal. He gives a dry, amazingly funny portrayal of King Arthur. In the spirit of the show itself, he sprinkles the performance with several ad libs along the way referring to St. Louis and particularly the nasty weather leading up to opening night. In fact, quite a few unexpected references to upcoming Muny shows and other highlights were featured in slight departures from the script. And what a script it is. It’s easy to forget how funny this show is and, anyone who’s a fan of the “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” film are especially pleased to visit the rude Frenchmen, Tim the killer rabbit and the other denizens of this nonsensical look at the Once and Future King legend.

As his sidekick (who he mostly ignores- especially in song), Patsy, is played by David Hibbard with a flair for the comic dramatic. Chris Hoch displays panache as the suddenly “turned” Lancelot while Kevin Cahoon is his “outer,” Prince Herbert along with several other roles including the historian that weaves us through the unusual history of the Britons. Ben Davis is wonderful as the handsome “Dennis” Galahad and John Scherer makes a perfectly cowardly Sir Robin- who has had his lyrics to “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” changed to a more “politically correct” interpretation.

Curtain call with surprise guest, Eric Idle at "Spamalot" at the Muny. Photo: Larry Pry

Curtain call with surprise guest, Eric Idle at “Spamalot” at the Muny. Photo: Larry Pry

Michele Ragusa gives a splendid comic performance as the Lady of the Lake. Channeling Cher and other performers along the way, she delights with songs like “The Song That Goes Like This” and “The Diva’s Lament,” otherwise known as “Whatever Happened to My Part?” The entire ensemble shines throughout handling the silly story and songs with gusto and fortitude. Thanks to Denis Jones’ lively direction and choreography and the musical direction of Ben Whiteley, “Spamalot” moves along at a great clip, not missing a sight gag or joke along the way.

And then, to cap it off, onstage comes Eric Idle heaping more praise on the cast, the Muny and St. Louis in general, encouraging the crowd to photograph and video the sing along ending to send in to the Guiness Book Of World Records. A wacky finale to an explosively funny opening night.

As we know, the Muny shows only hang around for a week- “Monty Python’s Spamalot” closes Sunday, June 23rd. So get your tickets now- you won’t want to miss the craziness of John O’Hurley and company in one of the funniest musicals ever written.

The Winner And New Champion Is…”Champion”- The Opera

June 17, 2013
Members of the cast of "Champion"- enjoying its world premiere at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Members of the cast of “Champion”- enjoying its world premiere at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

It doesn’t take long into the World Premiere of the new jazz-opera, “Champion” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis to realize that you’re watching something historic. The libretto by Michael Cristofer and the music by jazz composer and musician Terence Blanchard unfold like a wave of fresh, dramatic power over the audience. Each moment gets more exciting than the last until we hit the mesmerizing finale. It’s truly a work of art and the jazz inspired score simply rolls over you with a feeling that you’re onto something great.

Of course, the tremendous cast and superlative direction by James Robinson helps the creation as does the spirited baton of George Manahan. This is a story based on real life events in the life of boxer Emile Griffith and his rise from the tragedy of accidently killing another boxer in the ring to a long reign as world champion and then his decline due to dementia caused by too many blows to the head. But another story surfaces about his closeted homosexuality (this is the 1960’s, after all) and how that affected his life in and outside the ring.

Simply put, this cast is amazing. Arthur Woodley shines as the older Emile, opening the opera in confusion as he wonders where his other shoe is. His adopted son and now caretaker, Luis, played with expert precision by Brian Arreola, tries to calm him down. Woodley, in a truly remarkable performance, observes through much of the flashbacks of his younger life, looming over the proceedings like a ghostly presence trying to change moments that went wrong and remember the good times with his addled perception of a curious life.

As the young Emile, Aubrey Allicock looks the part (even if he is a bit shorter in stature than his “older” self) and definitely brings the crowd to his side with his beautiful bass-baritone. He runs the gamut of emotions in this play and handles it all with grace and style. When he first comes to America from his native St. Thomas, he has plans to make hats, play baseball and become a singer. But when his mother introduces him to Howie Albert, who owns a hat factory, Howie recognizes the potential in his frame and upper body strength (from holding cement blocks over his head as a child as punishment) to become a welterweight boxer. Robert Orth gives a powerful performance as Howie- who becomes his manger and mentor on his road to fame and fortune.

champion-325All the while, his mother- who doesn’t recognize which one of her children he is when he arrives at her doorstep- tries to make his life an easy one in the states. Denyce Graves is outstanding as his mother, Emelda. Her second act aria, accompanied only by a bass, is one of the most stunning pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. The bass player, Robert Hurst III, is part of the in-pit jazz rhythm trio that accompanies and often takes the lead with the St. Louis Symphony orchestra members. Combined with Fabian Almazan on piano and the amazing Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, this is just one of many reasons that “Champion” sets itself apart from most conventional operas.

In 1962, Emile’s life is changed forever when he meets Benny “The Kid” Paret and, when taunted by Paret before and during the match about his gay life-style, he plants 17 hard blows on Paret in a matter of seven seconds and knocks him out. As a result of his injuries, Paret dies and then begins “haunting” Emile the rest of his life. As Paret (and later his son) Victor Ryan Robertson adds another great voice and acting talent to this overwhelming cast. His final scene with the older Emile is touching and brings a tear to most everyone’s eye. Despite his setback, Emile goes on to win the title and hold it for many years until his deteriorating mental state combined with guilt, drive him into a nosedive where he loses the title, his money and his prestige.

Arthur Woodley, Jordan Jones and Denyce Graves in "Champion." Photo: Ken Howard

Arthur Woodley, Jordan Jones and Denyce Graves in “Champion.” Photo: Ken Howard

A very clever part of the script by Mr. Crisofer divides the proceedings into “rounds” with a ring announcer calling each chapter in Emile’s life. Christopher Hutchinson is brilliant as the announcer, even adding a confusing tone of voice when he announces parts of Emile’s life that have nothing to do with boxing. Rounding out the major cast is Meredith Arwady as the bar owner where Emile first “comes out” and realizes his sexual preference. She belts out her numbers akin to the great musical comedy star from across the pond, Tessie O’Shea. What a delightful character she brings to the proceedings.

After Emile is beat up by a bunch of bigoted thugs one night coming out of the bar, a quick transition to the older Emile takes place and he utters one of the many profound phrases of this remarkable play, “I kill a man in the ring and the whole world forgives me. I love a man and the whole world wants to kill me.”

The efficient set design of Allen Meyer and the astounding lights of Christopher Akerlind combine to make the play even more remarkable. Rusty Wandall’s sound design also shines as does the choreography of Sean Curran- particularly during the colorful festival sequence as Emile prepares to leave St. Thomas for the U.S.

This is simply an incredible piece of theatre that is destined to become a showcase in many an operatic season around the globe. Kudos to all involved but especially to this superb cast and the talents of Michael Cristofer and Terrence Blanchard. It’s a moment in the theatre that you’re not likely to forget. Contact Opera Theatre of St. Louis at 413-961-0644 for tickets or more information on this World Premiere. It runs in repertory with three other operas through June 30th.

So…John Paul Sartre Walks Into A Laundromat…

June 16, 2013
Rachel Hanks, Amanda Swearingen and Michelle Hand gather in a laundromat for some other-worldly doings in OnSite's production of "There's A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag.":

Rachel Hanks, Amanda Swearingen and Michelle Hand gather in a laundromat for some other-worldly doings in OnSite’s production of “There’s A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag.”:

“There’s A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag” is a play set (and staged) in a laundromat. Three strikes against it, right? One for the title, Two for the show, Three for the setting, now go, cats, go! Sorry, I digress. So does this play but it’s such a fascinating study as it seems to cross dimensions and bring substance to hallucinations and everyday perceptions. Written by Elizabeth Birkenmeier, it could be the “No Exit” of today’s generation. Existentialism in a laundromat.

Young Ruby, played with amazing dexterity and insight by Amanda Swearingen, curls up on a washer in the laundromat that becomes the setting for the play. As the audience gathers and finds appropriate seating on coin-operated washers and dryers, folding tables or the random chairs for customers, Ruby enters with her backpack and appears to be taking a cat-nap on top of one of the appliances. When she awakens and stretches, we begin to hear her story of an attempt to gain something (time? energy? kharma?) by practicing polyphasic sleep- sleeping in 20-minute intervals throughout the day. However, it sounds like sleep depravation is all she’s accomplishing as her totals only add up to about two hours of sleep a day.

As she travels in and out of sleep and time, she conjures up people- close friends and chance acquaintances- that, for some reason are all doing their laundry or maybe searching her out. Michelle Hand turns in another beautiful performance as Iva. Whether she is the wife or sister of Gus (doesn’t really matter since this crosses through such conformity), she is brilliant. A tough, aggressive, domineering and exasperated wife and then turning into a timid and shy bundle of nerves in “another character” sharing the same name.

Gus is the milquetoast husband (or is he a vagrant off the street) who, at one point, goes on and on about making the best moonshine. Yet, when asked by Ruby later, Gus (perhaps in another guise) hasn’t the faintest idea of what moonshine is. Antonio Rodriquez travels easily among multiple characters making each his own. Then there’s the enigmatic character of Lenny (maybe a guy, maybe a girl, maybe both) who makes a grand, loud entrance into the laundromat and then discovers her old flame (or something else, perhaps?) in the form of Ruby. The delightful Rachel Hanks is both boisterous and tender in this role that perhaps touches Ruby more than any of the others. Add the subtle guitar background of Robert Birkenmeier and you’ve got a complete, out of body experience.

Rachel Hanks and Amanda Swearingen share a moment- or do they?- in "There's A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag" at OnSite Theatre's production in a laundromat.

Rachel Hanks and Amanda Swearingen share a moment- or do they?- in “There’s A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag” at OnSite Theatre’s production in a laundromat.

With recurring themes and catch phrases such as “We only talked about things we knew how to talk about” (in one form or another), this journey through the time/space continuum is a fascinating character study as well as a damn fine play. Edward Coffield masterfully directs this incongruous chance meeting in a laundromat with savvy and wit. Despite the obvious problems involved such as noisy machines being used by actual customers, unorthodox seating arrangements and a slightly damp atmosphere due to laundry being done in a tight space and not much air circulation, this thing actually works. You won’t be disappointed by taking in this quirky little piece of ethereal fantasy in the most unconventional of places.

Kudos to OnSite Theatre, Elizabeth Birkenmeier and company in bringing us a most unusual and yet totally satisfying experience. “There’s A Gun In Your Goodbye Bag” plays at the Classic Coin Laundry in University City through June 29th. Bring a load of laundry and enjoy this fifty-minute flight into another dimension. Call OnSite Theatre at 314-686-0062 or at onsitetheatre.org for tickets or more information.

A Reminder Of The Past- A Story For The Present- Stray Dog Presents “Six Degrees Of Separation”

June 11, 2013
Greg Fenner as Paul (center) regales Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson (as the Kittredge's) about his time at Harvard with their children in Stray Dog's "Six Degrees of Separation." Photo: John Lamb

Greg Fenner as Paul (center) regales Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson (as the Kittredge’s) and Robert Ashton as Geoffrey about his time at Harvard with the Kittredge children in Stray Dog’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” Photo: John Lamb

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stray Dog Theatre presented John Guare’s disturbing play, “Six Degrees Of Separation” as their first production ten years ago. Returning to that source for the anniversary of the inception of their company, they show us why this story is still relevant today. Although “Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon” has helped keep it in the public eye, it’s wonderful to revisit the original script and see why it’s still timely.

Is there anyone to root for in this mix of comedy and tragedy? The Kittredge’s are full of themselves as they try to ooze a two million dollar loan from their wealthy friend in order to make a killing on a “sure fire” deal. Although set in 1990, a two million dollar investment is still a pretty stiff “borrow” from even the best of friends. As their plying their “mark,” Geoffrey with drinks and planning which hoity-toity restaurant to splurge their money on to bait and hook him, their plans are interrupted by a young, injured by a supposed mugging, black man, Paul who is let in by the doorman and, just as he has conned the doorman, he begins to con the Kittredges with stories of being in school (Harvard, of course) with their children. He is so charming as he is literally given the shirt off Flanders Kittredge’s back (his is bloody and torn), cooks them a fabulous meal (so they don’t have to spend a fortune at the local, overpriced eatery) and then regales them with tales from Harvard.

Members of the cast of Stray Dog Theatre's "Six Degrees of Separation" on the multi-level set. Photo: John Lamb

Members of the cast of Stray Dog Theatre’s “Six Degrees of Separation” on the multi-level set. Photo: John Lamb

It’s all believable to them and all, of course, a classic con- including his claim to  being the son of Sidney Poitier (which they also fall for). Along with the running joke of all being cast in Poitier’s plans to make a of film of “Cats,” the whole thing is so implausible yet so irresistible that everyone is taken in. Through a series of reality checks, suddenly reprehensible behavior from Paul and confrontations with their children, the light suddenly dawns and then an unexpected turn of events at plays’ end makes this one of the most puzzling yet fascinating plays from the brilliant playwright, John Guare.

The riveting cast makes it all work. Sarajane Alverson is perfectly gullible as Ouisa Kittredge. She is so anxious to keep climbing up the social ladder and remain a responsible and dedicated champion of worthy causes that she can’t help but latch onto Paul’s charismatic character. Gerry Love is perfect as Flanders, her wheeling and dealing husband who has some reservations but goes along with his wife’s charitable demeanor. Greg Fenner is simply outstanding as the con man, Paul. He weaves a story that even has the audience falling under his spell. And, like Ouisa, we almost fall into his trap a second time.

Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson contemplate the mistakes they may have made in trusting the intruder, Paul during "Six Degrees of Separation" at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson contemplate the mistakes they may have made in trusting the intruder, Paul during “Six Degrees of Separation” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Robert Ashton is delightful as the rich, South African philanthropist who agrees to Flanders’ plea for a loan, after a few drinks. Kay Love and Christopher R. Brenner make a splash as the Kittredge’s friends while a supporting cast rounds out this long one-act of gullibility and greed. “Get rich quick” schemes are still with us in abundance today and, this lesson from the early 90’s, is still as relevant today as it was then. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

Stray Dog Artistic Director, Gary F. Bell, returns to the helm to direct this production of “Six Degrees of Separation” just as he did ten years ago. It’s crisp and clean and right to the point. Justin Been’s set design is simple and effective while the Tyler Duenow lights add to the mix beautifully.

You’ve probably played the trivia game more than you’ve seen a production of the play, but “Six Degrees of Separation” makes a welcome return to the St. Louis theatre scene.  it’s nice to see an old friend every now and then and be reminded of how much we’ve missed him. So is the case with this delightful and almost forgotten play- solid and substantial as ever. Give Stray Dog Theatre a call at 314-865-1995 or visit online at straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information. “Six Degrees Of Separation” plays through June 22nd.

Small, Audience Friendly “King Lear” Very Approachable At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

June 11, 2013
The cast of "King Lear" at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

The cast of “King Lear” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

A Shakespearean tragedy is not always a fun way to spend an evening. I’ve seen way too many productions where any combination of an inept cast, spotty direction or technical inadequacies tend to make the Bard unbearable. Not so with the St. Louis Actor’s Studio presentation of “King Lear.” An absolutely superb cast with snappy direction by Milton Zoth and sets and lights that work effectively on the small stage at Gaslight Theatre along with some tremendous work by costumer Teresa Doggett all add up to a most pleasant and gripping evening.

The return of John Contini to local theatre in the title role is welcome news indeed. He simply masters the complex monarch who tries to coax love and affection out of his three daughters and eventually goes mad doing so. His final sequence entering from the back of the theatre, some simple audience participation and then the dramatic finale on stage is nothing short of epic. Hand in hand is his right hand man, The Fool, given a broad (in both the tragic and comic sense) interpretation by the outstanding Bobby Miller. When he utters those immortal words, “I am a fool, you are nothing,” it strikes a chord at the heart of “King Lear.”

Bobby Miller, Justin Ivan Brown, John Contini and Rusty Gunther is STLAS' production of "King Lear." Photo: John Lamb

Bobby Miller, Justin Ivan Brown, John Contini and Rusty Gunther is STLAS’ production of “King Lear.” Photo: John Lamb

The three daughters are played by three actresses of note who display a wide variety of character while still showing the same false heart. Meghan Maguire as the decietful Goneril, Missy Heinemann- the flirtatious Regan and Jessica Laney as the devoted yet stoic Cordelia all give stellar performances.

William Roth is solid as the Earl of Gloucester with equally adept performances from his sons Edgar and Emond, played by Justin Ivan Brown and Rusty Gunther. Eric Dean White is the somewhat oily Earl of Kent while the cast is rounded out by David Wassilak as Oswald and Paul Cooper as a knight. The entire cast melds as a unit, all peaking with the same level of expertise and devotion to the Shakespeare script.

"King Lear" at STLAS with John Contini in the title role and William Roth as the Earl of Gloucester. Photo: John Lamb

“King Lear” at STLAS with John Contini in the title role and William Roth as the Earl of Gloucester. Photo: John Lamb

Patrick Huber has done wonders with the lighting and set design on the small theatre space. Multi levels with doorways leading under the elevated areas and, of course, using the audience entries to extend the action. A circular disc in the background is home to several projections that allow for scene identification as well as other aspects of the script. Combined with those spectacular Teresa Doggett costumes, this is a consummate production that brings the action close to the audience and lets us identify with the characters like no “King Lear” we’ve seen before.

Milt Zoth and company are to be applauded for pulling off this feat. With the intimacy of the theatre space, it’s such an approachable production and you can feel the pain, deceit and misguided majesty of the King, his family and followers. “King Lear” plays at the Gaslight Theater through June 23rd. Contact St. Louis Actors’ Studio at 314-458-2978 or at http://www.stlas.org for tickets or more information.

Odd Mix Of Kooky Sisters Makes For A Funny And Sad Adventure At R-S Theatrics

June 8, 2013
The Incredible Cherry Sisters in the R-S Theatrics production form their "infamous" pyramid. Photo: Michael Young

The Incredible Cherry Sisters in the R-S Theatrics production form their “infamous” pyramid. Photo: Michael Young

The Cherry Sisters actually existed. And in Dan O’Brien’s play, “The Cherry Sisters Revisited,” presented by R-S Theatrics, we get a portrait of what made them so infamous, funny and, at times, very sad. They created a vaudeville act right before the turn of the century and, undaunted by catcalls and a shower of vegetables at nearly every performance, they continued for ten years of so before giving up the ghost.

And speaking of ghost, their father, Thomas, shows up in the play even though he’s dead, appearing to the girls on occasion and offering “fatherly” advice, mostly after a few nips of whiskey. In fact, early in the play, the girls are even referred to as “ghosts” which makes the play a bit confusing at first. But soon you’re having too much fun to sort all of that out after you get a peek at the horrific acts they put together to work the circuit. Amazingly, in real life, the Cherry Sisters even made it to Broadway for a short time. I think the audiences looked at it more as a “specialty” act designed for laughter even though the sisters took their songs and stories seriously.

Rachel Tibbetts as Effie and B. Weller as the manager in "The Cherry Sisters Revisited" at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Rachel Tibbetts as Effie and B. Weller as the manager in “The Cherry Sisters Revisited” at R-S Theatrics. Photo: Michael Young

Five talented and uproarious ladies treat us to the creation and fruition of “The Incredible Cherry Sisters.” Rachel Tibbetts is Effie, the often moody older sister who comes up with the idea and refuses to give in even when her sisters can see the handwriting on the wall. Mollie Amburgey is Lizzie, the “pretty” one who later courts and marries a suitor. Ellie Schwetye is Jessie, the stern, austere sister who fails to keep proper decorum with the act. Beth Wickenhauser is Addie, the “funny” sister who comes up with the lame jokes and stories and Nicole Angeli is Ella, the “backward” sister who is frequently off in space somewhere but probably exhibits the most sense of any of them. She also has the best lines and expressions of the night and takes full advantage of her “special” status.

This is a smart ensemble who work together flawlessly. It’s obvious that the actresses all like each other very much and had a blast coming up with the odd and slightly off-kilter series of variety acts- all finishing with the famous “pyramid.” With only five sisters (and later four and then three), it wasn’t a very impressive pyramid but, with tongues extended and obviously a great deal of exertion, they always make it look good.

The incredible Cherry Sisters and Pops in the R-S Theatrics production of "The Cherry Sisters Revisited." Photo: Michael Young

The incredible Cherry Sisters and Pops in the R-S Theatrics production of “The Cherry Sisters Revisited.” Photo: Michael Young

Add to the mix the talents of B. Weller as their Pop and later as the love interest of Lizzie. It’s a bit odd as they seem to recognize him as Pops and even refer to him with that moniker in his other persona, but he woos and wins Lizzie which leads to a bit more dissension in the family. He brings dimension to both the drunken Irish father and the con man who becomes their agent and Lizzie’s husband.

It’s all pulled together by first-time professional director, Kirsten Wylder. She also has a flair for this family of oddities and brings both the humor and the pathos to the story as we’re in on the deaths of a few of the sisters along the way and the sad but seemingly satisfying life they lead as the “worst act in Vaudeville.” It’s really a story of never giving up on your dreams no matter the obstacles. Like Momma Rose alludes to in “Gypsy,” if they throw vegetables, just add them to the chow mein.

You’ll have a lot of fun at R-S Theatrics’ “The Cherry Sisters Revisited.” The enthusiastic cast and quirky nature of the family will keep you smiling and maybe even shed a tear or two. It plays at the Chapel near Skinker and Wydown through June 16th. Call them at 314-466-0071 for tickets or more information.

Stages Takes A Sharp Turn With “Always…Patsy Cline”

June 7, 2013
Zoe Vonder Haar and Jacqueline Petroccia as Louise Seger and Patsy Cline in Stages' presentation of "Always...Patsy Cline." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Zoe Vonder Haar and Jacqueline Petroccia as Louise Seger and Patsy Cline in Stages’ presentation of “Always…Patsy Cline.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

No singing and dancing chorus. No splashy musical numbers with taps ringing through the theatre. Not the usual Stages approach to musicals. Just two great actress/singers pouring out the story of Patsy Cline and her biggest fan, Louise Seger. My reviewer friends and most of the theatre community know I’m not a big fan of country music. But you’ve got to give credit where it’s due and these two actresses play the heck out of this love letter to a career cut way too short by a plane crash.

By my internal “applause-o-meter” trained on the audience and the word on the street about ticket sales, this is one of the biggest successes Stages has had in their long and fruitful run. You would have thought Patsy herself was on the stage as every

Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy Cline in "Always...Patsy Cline" at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy Cline in “Always…Patsy Cline” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

number was greeted with wild applause and then, of course, even louder applause when the number was over. And that’s a credit to a knock-out performance by Jacqueline Petroccia as the queen of country music. Uncannily, she captures the essence of Patsy’s voice and manner. She has a great blend of poise and naivete as she portrays a woman who must know she has a tremendous talent but is in awe that everyone else seems to think so as well. Still, she’s just that old country girl who finds this over zealous fan while playing a gig in Houston and follows her home to make bacon and eggs and winds up with true friendship. They talk the night away and then, as the show title indicates, they become even closer friends through letter writing (1961, folks- no internet and facebook) and she always closes her letters to Louise with “love always…Patsy Cline.”

While this is Ms. Petroccia’s first work with Stages, we all know and love the local gal filling the boots of Louise Seger, Zoe Vonder Haar. Whether it’s the persistent scheming of Dolly Levi or the bawdiness of Meg in “Brigadoon,” Zoe Vonder Haar has been thrilling St. Louis audiences- particularly at Stages- for several years. This is one of her most exuberant and genuine moments on stage, playing the role of a real person. After “discovering” Patsy Cline on the old Arthur Godfrey show and then bugging the local radio station to play her songs over and over again, she finally gets to meet her and the rest is history. Her wide-eyed innocence and tender feelings for her “idol” come through loud and clear with Vonder Haar’s wonderful performance.

Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise reads a letter from Patsy in Stages' production of "Always...Patsy Cline." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise reads a letter from Patsy in Stages’ production of “Always…Patsy Cline.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Both ladies- especially Zoe Vonder Haar- talk directly to the audience throughout the evening and, in the guise of Louise, she even makes several trips into the audience. At one point she even crawls through one of  the long, long aisles at the Kirkwood theatre to retrieve a willing man to bring on stage and dance with her. It all adds to the “down home” feeling this show engenders and it works well.

Michael Hamilton shows he can bring out the best in a small cast as well as those extravaganzas we’re used to from Stages. His direction and musical staging are top notch. James Wolk’s effective set design features the kitchen and living room of Louise and, behind the scrim at the back, it either lifts to feature Patsy at the Grand Ole Opry and other venues with her music, or is simply back-lit to feature more intimate moments in her performances. Matthew McCarthy provides those great lighting sequences while Lou Bird’s costumes are simply magnificent- particularly the various gowns and country duds for Patsy. It all comes together with the marvelous on stage (behind another scrim that is occasionally lit) band led by Lisa Campbell Albert.

Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy belts out "Honky Tonk Angels" as Zoe Vonder Haar (as Louise) looks on. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy belts out “Honky Tonk Angels” as Zoe Vonder Haar (as Louise) looks on. Photo: Peter Wochniak

It’s a vast departure for Stages but one that works beautifully. It might encourage them to attempt other smaller cast musicals (such as “The Fantasticks”) in the future. I love the big blockbusters like “Legally Blonde” and “My Fair Lady” that come up later in the summer, but it’s refreshing to see the excellence of Stages’ presentations combined with a more intimate show.

“Always…Patsy Cline” plays at Stages through June 30th. Give them a call at 314-821-2407 to get more information or try to get tickets. They’ve already added an additional performance on Sunday, June 23rd to accommodate the overwhelming popularity of this show.