Archive for December, 2015

“Wicked” Never Ceases To Amaze

December 15, 2015

wickedlogoCelebrating the tenth anniversary, “Wicked” makes a return to the Fabulous Fox Theatre and does not disappoint. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it, I always get goosebumps at least a half dozen times throughout the show.

After Glinda makes her opening appearance in her bubble to open the show, we travel back to see how she (then Galinda) first meets Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Things aren’t quite as they appear in “The Wizard Of Oz” as truths and half-truths are bandied about and we even see how other familiar characters from the L. Frank Baum classic originated- according to Gregory Maguire’s original book version of “Wicked.” With Winnie Holzman’s adaptation of Mr. Maguire’s story for the stage and music from the brilliant Stephen Schwartz, “Wicked” has become a cultural phenomenon around the world.

wicked2Just as in “42nd Street,” we get the announcement on press night that the touring Elphaba is ill and we get the understudy, Mary Kate Morrissey, and she kills it. What a glorious voice and a superbly acted performance. Coupled with Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda, they make a wonderful team and bring down the house during the big second act number, “For Good.”

wicked1Wendy Worthington is a delightful Madame Morrible while Sam Seferian makes a powerful and poignant Boq. Jake Boyd is properly smug as Fiyero and Megan Masako Haley does a star turn as Nessarose. Chad Jennings is wonderfully tragic as Dr. Dillamond and Stuart Zagnit rounds out the principle cast as the Wizard. The cast is particularly strong in this production and the supporting cast of singers and dancers simply shine.

Veteran Joe Mantello has directed with a keen eye for the humor and surprises in the plot. Wayne Cilento’s brilliant musical staging along with the dance arrangements of James Lynn Abbott are superb.

wicked“Wicked” is so popular that, although it’s been her several times in the past, this time around it plays for almost a month. Performances run through January 3rd. So make plans now to see it again and I’m thrilled for those of you who will be experiencing “Wicked” for the first time.

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Like Visiting Old Friends As STLAS Brings Back “The Gin Game”

December 12, 2015
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Weller and Fonsia begin their unexpected journey into the game of gin in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Gin Game.” Photo: John Lamb

I first met Fonsia and Weller on a PBS special featuring the two actors who originated “The Gin Game,” Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. Since then, I’ve visited them often on local stages and in other towns. Now St. Louis Actors’ Studio brings them back with great success in the forms of Linda Kennedy and Peter Mayer- two premiere actors in St. Louis- and the results are beyond expectations.

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A rare quiet, tender moment in “The Gin Game” with Peter Mayer and Linda Kennedy at St. Louis Actor’s Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Through love, bickering and consternation, these two form a bond that doesn’t always happen on stage. Linda Kennedy simply shines as Fonsia. Her delight at having company at this decrepit home for seniors becomes apparent once Weller introduces himself and they start playing his favorite card game- gin. As so often happens, the woman smashes the ego of her male counterpoint by declaring “gin” after three or four moves- every time. The range of emotions Kennedy shows is nothing short of fabulous. Her apologies turn to anger as the game goes on and Weller gets more and more agitated and then her emotional breakdown turns to grief by play’s end. What a delightfully rich performance.

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Weller’s anger continues to build as Fonsia bests him once again in the STLAS production of “The Gin Game.” Photo: John Lamb

Peter Mayer also goes all out with his portrayal of Weller. He can’t suppress his anger over losing time and time again and clearly escalates this simple card game into a life or death scenario. His continual apologies soon fall on deaf ears until the final moments when he may have carried things too far. One thing is clear, Mr. Mayer and Ms. Kennedy click from their first meeting until that unexpected ending when both actors leave the audience on the verge of tears.

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Peter Mayer as Weller sympathizes with Linda Kennedy as Fonsia as she begins to pour her heart out to him in “The Gin Game” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

To get those performances, excellent direction is necessary and who better than John Contini to bring out the full measure of each actors’ talents? His interpretation of the play and the relationship is right on the mark. Christie Johnston has transformed the small STLAS stage into a dilapidated work of art and Dalton Robison’s lights add to the effect. Carla Landis Evans cements the perfect touch with her costume design.

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Game after game is played on the old back porch as Fonsia and Weller form an unusual bond in the STLAS production of “The Gin Game.” Photo: John Lamb

You won’t find better acting and you won’t find a more poignant story than Donald Coburn’s “The Gin Game.” The play and the company along with the two wondrous actors are a match made in heaven. Catch “The Gin Game” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio through December 20th at the Gaslight Theatre. Contact them at http://www.stlas.org for tickets or more information.

 

Return To The 50’s With “Devil Boys From Beyond” At Stray Dog Theatre

December 11, 2015
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Sarajane Alverson, Stephen Peirick and Michael Juncal during a dramatic moment of “Devil Boys From Beyond” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

There are many things to like about the 1950’s and I lived through it all. But one of the best things are the science fiction movies about traveling to other planets or, more likely, creatures from other planets visiting us. Stray Dog Theatre returns us to those thrilling days of yesteryear with their holiday show, “Devil Boys From Beyond.”

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Stephen Peirick is torn between Sarajane Alverson and Michael Baird during their love triangle in Lizard Lick, Florida in Stray Dog’s “Devil Boys From Beyond.” Photo: John Lamb

It’s actually kind of a mix of themes from that era and features hunky young aliens that look a lot more human than most I remember from that decade. Tough newspaper editor, Gilbert Wiatt hears about some possible alien presence in the small town of Lizard Lick, Florida. He sends his ace reporter, Matilda Van Buren and her ex, photographer Gregory Graham to the scene but tagging along after overhearing the story is Matty’s rival, Lucinda Marsh, who also has her sights on Greg. And so the plot thickens- but don’t worry, it gets a lot thicker before the night is over.

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Sarajane Alverson, Jonathan Hey, Michael Juncal and Teryl Thurman in a scene from “Devil Boys From Beyond” at Stray Dog. Photo: John Lamb

Jonathan Hey is marvelous as the gritty editor while Sarajane Alverson really gets into the mood of the era as Matty and Stephen Peirick plays a marvelous drunk as the easily swayed photographer. These three capture the essence of overreacting as we remember so fondly from old “Superman” television episodes as George Reeves and Phyllis Coates used to do double-takes and pose dramatically at every plot turn. But in this case, overreacting is good acting because they play to that genre.

Michael Baird is one of two males who take on female characters in the play. He is the snippy Lucinda who wants her story and wants her man. She stops at nothing to get both. It’s a wonderful performance that includes a not-so-dramatic near death scene near the finale that inadvertently keeps the audience in stitches. Also donning a dress is Michael Juncal as one of the locals, Florence, who has encountered the aliens. With his bulk and obvious manly appearance, it just makes it spectacular in its absurdity.

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Sarajane Alverson and Stephen Peirick relax on a plane while Michael Baird plots her next move in “Devil Boys From Beyond” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Teryl Thurman is delightful as another local who tries to latch onto anything wearing pants. She and Florence are recipients of the alien duo who set their middle-aged hearts (and other parts) atingle as they take over the heart and soul of their husbands. These are the hunky guys I referred to earlier in the form of Ryan Wiechmann and Brandon Brendel.

All of this lunacy is directed by Stray Dog Artistic Director, Gary F. Bell. His high-handed camp is just right for the show, written by Buddy Thomas and Kenneth Elliott. With a pre-recorded score and sound design by Drew Fornarola, it provides just the right touch with familiar alien sounds including space ships and the “woo-woo” sounds from every alien movie from the 50’s. “Devil Boys From Beyond” does bring the simple message from that decade when most futures were hopeful ones.

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Jonathan Hey, Sarajane Alverson and Stephen Peirick plan their strategy to cover the alien story during Stray Dog’s “Devil Boys From Beyond.” Photo: John Lamb

The Eileen Engel costumes are right on the mark for the period including the guys who have chosen to tackle those female roles. Justin Been’s set is sparse but effective, dominated by a huge billboard proclaiming the joys of living in Lizard Lick. It’s all enhanced by Tyler Duenow’s strong lighting design.

Director Gary F. Bell greets the audience as usual and declares to continue doing non-traditional holiday shows. As long as he keeps us in stitches with campy ones like this and actors who can pull it all off, I’m all for it. Join Stray Dog Theatre and these marvelous denizens of both New York and Lizard Lick, Florida through December 19th. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 or visit straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

Swordplay Turns To Wordplay As The Rep Treats Us To “Peter And The Starcatcher”

December 11, 2015
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Spencer Davis Milford as Peter “hangs out” with Molly (Betsy Hogg) in “Peter And The Starcatcher” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunhem, Jr.

In the prequel to “Peter Pan,” we see how dropping one letter can turn the standard swordplay on a pirate ship into wordplay as puns, spoonerisms and jokes galore make this fantasy fantastic. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings us the enchanting and laugh-out loud funny “Peter And The Starcatcher” for their holiday offering.

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Peter and his boys bond with Fighting Prawn during the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “Peter And The Starcatcher.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

We learn how Peter, the charming Spencer Davis Milford, goes from orphan boy to his famous Peter Pan appellation thanks to the outspoken and precocious Molly (who is the starcatcher from the title), played with wit and a bit of panache by Betsy Hogg. These two make a wonderful couple and sparks begin to fly almost immediately when they meet.

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Jose Restrepo as Smee and Jeffrey C. Hawkins as Black Stache in “Peter And The Starcatcher” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Peter is hanging out with his rascally troupe of boys, Ted (played by Andrew Carlyle) and Prentiss (Sean Mellott) when Molly enters his life. Daughter of Lord Leonard Aster, a stern but loving Clinton Brandhagen, Molly already knows she’s smarter than most and uses it to her advantage. Also along for the ride is Jose Restrepo as the faithful sidekick, Smee and Arturo Soria as villainous Bill Slank and the clever Fighting Prawn (don’t ask- just go see for yourself).

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Arturo Soria and Jeffrey C. Hawkins provide some interesting swordplay during “Peter And The Starcatcher” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Stealing the night is Jeffrey C. Hawkins as the conniving Black Stache- not the precursor to Blackbeard, but rather the future Captain Hook. We find out how he really lost that hand in the second act with the only bad scene in the show. For some reason, either the author or the director decided to go the way of the old “dinner theatre” routine and have the actors do fake break-ups during this otherwise hilarious bit. It’s a shame because both the actor and his great delivery is enough to carry this outstanding scene.

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Two ships, two trunks- which has the treasure? Find out at the Rep’s production of “Peter And The Starcatcher.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The rest of the cast also gets into the spirit of the tongue-in-cheek look at the early days of Peter including Natalie Morgan Fisher, Jesse Munoz, Andy Patterson and Nick Vannoy. The second act opening number is worth the price of admission. A better dancing and singing chorus you’re not likely to find anywhere- and what costumes!

Playwright Rick Elice is responsible for this madcap tomfoolery while Wayne Barker provided the music. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson provided the original novel based on the J. M. Barrie classic. Director Blake Robison keeps the action moving full tilt and the combination of one-liners and serious groaners keeps the audience on their toes. It’s a classic based on a classic.

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Spencer Davis Milford as the boy who will become Peter Pan in “Peter And The Starcatcher” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The simple, sweeping set design by James Kronzer fits right into the fun and those David Kay Mickelsen costumes are a hoot. Kenton Yeager provides appropriate mood lighting with Matthew M. Nielson’s sound and orchestrations and a special nod to Casey Sams as movement coach.

This is really a great time and it truly bears a second and maybe even a third viewing as things- especially the smart and witty dialogue- move fast. “Peter And The Starcatcher” plays at the Rep through December 27th. Contact them at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

Dysfunction, Sincerity And A Lot Of Conflict Brings Laughs And Tears With “Bad Jews”

December 4, 2015
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Em Piro as Daphna, tries to reason with Antonio Rodriguez as Liam while Taylor Steward as Meloday listens in the background in “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Poppy has died and two brothers and their cousin are expected to attend the funeral of their grandfather. In “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre, things don’t go exactly as planned and the result is hilarious and moving, scary and filled with empathy. You really learn to care about all of the characters despite their fury and often obnoxious behavior.

Daphna and Jonah open the play as she and her cousin discuss and spar over the ceremony, the missing brother and her desire to get only one thing left behind by Poppy, his Chai necklace. As the only practicing Jew in the bunch, she has a deep affection for the symbol of Life and what it means to her religion and the memory of Poppy. Jonah is still Jewish but doesn’t practice his faith. He just wants to be left out of any family squabbles.

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Pete Winfrey as Jonah and Em Piro as Daphna try to relate during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

When brother Liam enters with his goy girlfriend, Daphna goes ballistic and tears into both of them immediately. Liam professes to now be an atheist and his Christian soon-to-be-fiance, Meloday, is mostly referred to as Delaware as if it describes both her home and her religion. Liam has been given the Chai necklace- or maybe he just took it. He, however, plans to give it to Meloday in lieu of an engagement ring. So he’s not willing to part with it. To further complicate things, Liam reveals he didn’t get to the funeral because he dropped his cell phone off the ski lift while he and Meloday were vacationing in Aspen and didn’t know Poppy had died.

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Liam rants while Jonah, Daphna and Meloday look on during “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

The ensuing battles- mainly between Daphna and Liam with Meloday as a victim by association- are classic stage rants. I’m sure families act this way toward each other, but it really makes for good theatre. Daphna, among other concerns, feels that Liam marrying a Christian and Jonah not practicing his faith, will end the long line of Jewish heritage- both in the family and perhaps the world as we know it. A bit extreme, perhaps, but everything with Daphna is taken to the nth degree.

Em Piro is a whirling dervish as Daphna. She bounces around the stage and has overreactions to almost everything that’s said or done. She neither has the ability nor the inclination to stop talking and making demands on everyone. It’s a stellar performance that almost steals the show. But Antonio Rodriquez has a few things to say about that. As he makes a triumphant return to St. Louis from his new acting home base, Chicago, he flings himself into this broad, bombastic role with pure relish.  He is nothing short of spectacular.

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Liam consoles Meloday while Jonah looks on during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Taylor Steward’s Meloday is a wonderful contrast to these feuding cousins. She tries to shy away from getting involved too deeply but at times can’t help but defend herself. At two different times, the women go into the bathroom and they are heavily discussed by the other members of the family. We soon learn that walls don’t drown out the sound so the ladies both know exactly what the others think of them. Ms. Steward is a delight as she struggles between acquiescence and rage.

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Daphna and Jonah look on as Liam consoles Meloday in “Bad Jews” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Rounding out the cast is Pete Winfrey as the laid-back brother, Jonah. As he says, “don’t put me in the middle of this.” He tries to placate the feuding cousins but it just doesn’t want to resolve itself. His reactions to all of the carnage is priceless. He’s one of the best young actors in our town and this role shows how solidly he can play a character while the rest of his family is literally falling apart at his feet. You can see that he is as torn up about the feud as he appears to be about his faith.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga keeps “Bad Jews” running at full tilt. She captures every nuance and aspect of the subject matter while keeping controlled chaos effectively on stage. The Dunsi Dai set design is wonderful even though, for purposes of suspension of disbelief, you’d have trouble finding a New York apartment this spacious. Kimberly Klearman’s lights add just the right touch and the costumes of Michele Friedman Siler are perfect showing contrasts between the two brothers as well as the apparent differences between the two ladies.

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Meloday and Daphna try to work it out during the New Jewish Theatre production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

There’s a lot of wickedness on stage but also a lot of love and concern. At one point the brothers and cousin find mutual understanding in retelling a story about Poppy. And even with the swirl of cursing and accusations, there seems to be an underlying respect. At least we hope things will go better in the future.

“Bad Jews,” a delight mixture of humor and hubris by Joshua Harmon, plays at New Jewish Theatre through December 20th. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

Another Glorious Start To The Holidays With “All Is Calm”

December 1, 2015

What is becoming a holiday happening blossoms on stage again with a whole new cast as Mustard Seed Theatre brings “All Is Calm” back to the boards. This marvelous piece about the famed Christmas Truce of 1914 is remarkable because of the story it tells but also for the beautiful a cappella  score that simply soars with eleven male voices blending into a flawless presentation.

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The cast of “All Is Calm” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

The story is a simple one- during the Great War the German soldiers can be heard singing across no-man’s land by the British battalion on the other side as Christmas draws near. Applause ensues and then an exchange of songs rather than bullets breaks out which leads to a hesitant exchange in the middle of no-man’s land and then a friendship like no other as the soldiers communicate, trade stories and personal items and even engage in a friendly game of football before the higher-ups call a cease fire to the fun and, by the next day, they’re back to shooting at each other across the line.

But this story is told in actual letters and historical documents from the period with the bulk of the dialogue being in song using mainly traditional music of the season. To hear these exquisite voices roll over the audience is enough to bring a tear to everyone’s eye. It’s a powerful piece of theatre that never fails to inspire and move us. This year’s group of actors is especially adept at the intricate harmonies that bring out the richness of the score. Tricky key changes and modulations can be heard and admired and the bass line is extremely strong this year as well. Musically, it’s probably the best presentation yet.

Paul Cereghino gets to open the show as he strolls on stage singing “Will Ye Go To Flanders” before the entire cast joins him onstage. You know immediately that this is going to be something special. Luke Steingruby gets the premiere piece as he does beautifully with “O Holy Night” sung in French. The entire cast is tremendous as both singers and actors including great work by Steve Isom, Ben Nordstrom, Will Bonfiglio, and Gerry Love. Charlie Barron is most effective in several roles and this marvelous cast also includes powerful characterizations by Tim Schall, Greg Lhamon, Kelvin Urday and Tyler Cheatem.

With the marvelous script conceived by Peter Rothstein and musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach, “All Is Calm” starts the season right. Director Deanna Jent and music director Joe Schoen give us a stunning production and special nod to Richard Lewis as dialect coach. Everyone mastered the difficult task of switching characters throughout and thus changing accents on a moment’s notice.

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Kyra Bishop’s set design is right on the mark and the lights of Michael Sullivan set the proper mood. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are perfect as the whole picture comes into focus  beautifully. This is a remarkable achievement and one play that should not be missed during this holiday season. “All Is Calm” runs through December 20th at Mustard Seed on the Fontbonne campus. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information.