Archive for July, 2016

The LaBute New Theater Festival Scores Again At St. Louis Actors’ Studio

July 26, 2016
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Bridgette Bassa and Jenny Smith in “Life Model” by Neil LaBute at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Four weeks in the summer we get exciting new theatre at the LaBute Festival hosted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio. This year is no less inspiring, kooky and delightful as young playwrights from around the country submit scripts that are dwindled down to six or so plays to be presented in tandem with a new one-act written by Neil LaBute to open each evening.

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Emily Baker in “Show Of Affection” at the LaBute New Theater Festival at STLAS. Photo: Patrick Huber

The first set, running for two weeks featured Mr. LaBute’s “Life Model” which poses several layers of questions about what art is, the validity of said art and how different people are affected by art- by creating it, posing for it or critiquing it. Directed by John Pierson, it features Bridgette Bassa and Jenny Smith. Then Jeff Carter’s “Fire Sans Matches” is a take on a family outing that leads unexpectedly to the end of the world (have to see it to believe it!). Again directed by Mr. Pierson, it stars Emily Baker, Eric Dean White and Jeremy Pinson.

James Haigney’s “Winter Break” takes on modern problems that would have seemed routine only several years ago without the threat of terrorism. Michael Hogan directs this intense production featuring Jenny Smith, Leerin Campbell and Ryan Foisey. Finally, “Mark My Worms” by Cary Pepper is a delightful play that plays with words as a late playwright has left a script with typos that the director insists be played as written. Mr. Hogan once again directs with excellent work with the absurd and clever script by Emily Baker, Eric Dean White and David Wassilak as the supercilious director.

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Bridgette Bassa and Ryan Foizey at St. Louis Actors’ Studio and the LaBute New Play Festival. Photo: John Lamb

The second set of plays that is still running again features Mr. LaBute’s “Life Model” as the opening one-act followed by “American Outlaws” By Adam Seidel. This quirky cat and mouse game with two shady characters takes a bizarre turn after the actors leave the stage. Those actors include Eric Dean White and David Wassilak. It’s directed by John Pierson.

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Eric Dean White and David Wassilak in “American Outlaws” at the LaBute Festival at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

“Show Of Affection” by Laurence Klaven and directed by Patrick Huber tries to out-quirky the previous play with a very odd family that would give the Addams Family a run for their money. Bridgette Bassa as the daughter, Ryan Foizey as the son, Emily Baker as the mother and David Wassilak as the father put the “fun” in dysfunctional. Finally, “Blue Balls” by Willie Johnson and again directed by Mr. Huber make the evening complete with more dysfunction as suitor Eric Dean White has a close encounter with his date’s son, played by Ryan Foizey.

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Ryan Foizey and Eric Dean White in “Blue Balls” at the LaBute New Theatre Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio will once again be taking these plays to New York for a showing there in January and February. You’re invited to join them by calling 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information. Meanwhile, you can still catch the second set of one-acts at the Gaslight Theatre through July 31st. It’s a unique experience and this year is no exception. The one-act play is a lot of fun and these are all new and original scripts offered every year at the LaBute New Theatre Festival at STLAS.

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“Mamma Mia” (Along With The Weather) Sizzle At The Muny

July 24, 2016

mia-juliaOne of the hottest nights of the year features a Muny show that gets both the cast and the audience working up a sweat- “Mamma Mia!” Nobody waits for the finale when you’re actually invited to get up and dance- people spontaneously stood and started moving with almost every ABBA number that broke out on stage. That’s the way it should be and the Muny is a perfect place for this kind of Public Display of Affection for the Swedish soft rock group and their electrifying music.

mia-menThe story is really nothing more than a thin plot to hold the songs together. In fact, it’s based (it would seem) on a failed musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane from the early 90’s called “Carmelina.” A young girl is getting married and she wants to invite her father but has no idea who he is. She and her mother live on a Greek island and even the mother is not sure who the father is since she had three men from her past who could all be the likely suspects. So this moves along with the music of ABBA and everyone is happy as the wedding finally takes place, Mamma is reunited with her true love and everyone gets to dress up in disco duds and dance the night away.

mia-weddingMuny favorite Julia Murney returns to play Donna, the mother and she belts some of the most intriguing music from the group including “The Name Of The Game,” “S.O.S.” and “Our Last Summer.” The men in her life are played by a strong trio including our town’s Ben Nordstrom as the British banker, Harry, Bill Austin and Justin Guarini as her long-lost love. Also bringing a lot of pizzazz to the stage is Ann Harada as friend Rosie and a delightful Jenny Powers as Tanya.

mia=3shotThe young lovers, Donna’s daughter Sophie and her fiancĂ© Sky, are played with appropriate mooniness and verve by Brittany Zeinstra and Jason Gotay. The back up ensemble is quite lively and fit in well in this show because of the chance for production numbers and specialty numbers to help fill out the plot line. The big finish is really something to behold as the brightly colored costumes and mix of dance moves both on stage and off make “Waterloo” a fitting tribute to ABBA’s spirited songbook.

Director Dan Knechtges and choreographer Jessica Hartman keep things moving- as well they should to celebrate this unique song cycle of a show. Michael Horsley’s orchestra keeps pace and Leon Dobkowski’s costumes fit the eclectic feel of the show beautifully. Tim Mackabee’s set and the lighting design of Nathan W. Sheuer are also top notch.

-finaleAlthough you may think you’ve seen “Mamma Mia!” a the Muny before- you have not. It seems the show comes to town every few years (I’ve seen it at least five times) but this is actually a Muny debut. Get there quick as the show runs through July 28th with another favorite, “Fiddler On The Roof,” following closely on their dancing heels.

 

Mixed Bag With “John & Jen” As Insight Presents This Small But Mighty Musical

July 18, 2016
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Photo: John Lamb

The Andrew Lippa score is gorgeous and there’s a lot of it- “John & Jen” is pretty much sung-through with two 45-minute acts and an unusual story by Lippa and Tom Greenwald. Insight Theatre Company brings us this rarely done show that explores the bond between brother and sister in the first act and, after a tragedy ends it, reveals act two with the sister and her son- who she has named after her brother.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spanning 1952 to 1971, Act One sees Jen welcoming her younger brother to the world and, as time moves on, we see the inseparable bond that has been built between them. But a case of abuse in the family leads to a split between the two and John joins the Navy and is deployed to Vietnam. Act Two (1972 to 1990) then sees the same bond being built between Jen and her son, John. This also is put asunder by circumstance and the different dynamic from brother and sister to that sister and her son. It’s a moving story and the song cycle that is the score and largely the book is simply breathtaking at times and highly entertaining most of the time.

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Photo: John Lamb

Musical director Larry D. Pry does a masterful job with this most difficult show musically. With he at piano, Adam Kopff on percussion and Christo Bachmann on cello, they always have complete command of the score and sound just amazing. Likewise Director Trish Brown moves the action along and hits all the right spots between sentimentality and humor. It is a moving story and she captures the essence of it. Tip of the hat as well to choreographer Taylor Pietz. She also seizes every moment and what it means to John and Jen as they travel a sometimes difficult road together. From a slow do-si-do in the first act to a very energetic and amusing “Little League” number in the second act, she dazzles with all the right moves in a show that is as heavily choreographed as it is blocked.

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Photo: John Lamb

Spencer Davis Milford is absolutely wonderful as the John the brother and John the son. He moves from little boy to maturity- twice, and acts and sings the part with dexterity. Jenni Ryan is Jen and she commands the stage from an acting standpoint but can’t seem to handle the upper register when singing this beautiful score. At times pitchy and often not able to hit the notes at all, it takes away from an otherwise splendid production. She may well fall into a more comfortable place with the music as the show continues but opening night was a bit of a letdown. It’s a shame because she really handles the role well and is adept at all the right touches as she ages while Spencer gets to play boy-to-man in both acts.

The clever multi-level set and poignant projections following their lives is the brilliant work of Kyra Bishop and, combined with the often subdued but effective lights of Oliver Littleton make for a wonderful look. Leah McFall’s costumes also work well for this family story that features both triumph and tragedy.

jj-porchBeing a collector of Broadway, off Broadway and everything else in the form of vinyl and CD’s for years, I’ve always admired Andrew Lippa’s scores and this one for “John & Jen” is very good indeed. Insight Theatre Company has brought it to our town and it’s worth the wait. Catch it now until July 31st. Give them a call at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information.

 

All The Pieces Fit In Glorious “Grey Gardens” At Max & Louie

July 13, 2016
Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Reviewing a production is, of course, a personal viewpoint and every one of the several critics we have in our town will vary in their opinions. But with “Grey Gardens,” the current musical from Max & Louie Productions, I think we’ll join forces in our praise for just about every aspect from casting and direction down through the technical creators. If it isn’t flawless, it comes pretty darn close.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, “Grey Gardens” tells the real life story of the relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and their prominence in social circles in the 40’s to their bizarre decline and definite anti-social behavior in the 70’s. Still living in their magnificent mansion in East Hampton where we first see them preparing for a promised engagement of Little Edie Beale to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in 1941, we see a broken down mother and daughter in the same, deteriorated mansion swarming with cats and a life of accumulated trash in 1973.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

This show offers a break out performance for Debby Lennon in the dual roles of Edith Bouvier Beale (in the 1941 segment) and her daughter, Little Edie Beale in Act II which takes place in 1973. A singer and performer for many years in St. Louis and elsewhere, Debby Lennon blows the roof off the Wool Center at the home of New Jewish Theatre with a tour de force unlike anything we’ve seen in some time. Her “big” Edie is brash and overpowering with a gusto and ego that can’t be held back. Culminating in a show stopping finale to Act I with the ballad, “Will You?,” it is a no-holds barred performance. In Act II, playing “little” Edie, her demeanor is much the same with delusional touches that solidify her mastery of the character and the entire show ending with the heart-wrenching duet with Donna Weinsting (now playing the older Edie), “Another Winter In A Summer Town.”

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Donna Weinsting brings a clever madness to the aged Edith that hovers between semi-coherence and outright insanity. In an odd, controlled way, she portrays this decline into despair and delusion with a sense of dignity. Tom Murray is a boisterous, frustrated J.V. “Major” Bouvier in Act I. His dissatisfaction with Edith is apparent but he is gentle and witty with the youngsters (great performances from Phoebe Desilets as young Jackie Bouvier and Carter Eiseman as Lee- the future Lee Radziwell)- especially in the clever musical number, “Marry Well.” In the second act, Mr. Murray does a splendid turn as Norman Vincent Peale in one of Big Edie’s many fantasies.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Another great turn by Terry Meddows as the gay, raconteur friend of Edith as her accompanist and “hanger-on,” offering encouragement in her musical career. Madeline Purches absolutely stuns as little Edie during the 1941 sequence- displaying a beautiful singing voice and great acting chops as she manages to destroy her future by alienating the young Kennedy and driving him away from what he can see is sheer madness. As Joseph Kennedy, Will Bonfiglio turns in another great performance (so good in the recent “Old Wicked Songs” at NJT in the same space)- even locking down the famous Kennedy accent. In the second act, he becomes the only friend and odd “gentleman caller” of big Edie. Is he taking advantage of her? Most likely, but he also offers her much needed companionship. Omega Jones rounds out the cast as the long-suffering butler to the Beale/Bouvier clan and is still loyal to the two ladies as we see in his passionate performance in Act Two.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Nothing works without the inspired direction of Annamaria Pileggi. Her insight and deeply involved compassion for this story and characters is felt from the very beginning and continues through the heartbreak of the second act. Along with the witty and almost retro choreography of Robin Berger, it makes for a totally satisfying look at this bizarre story. Jennifer JC Krajicek’s costumes are spot on including the beautifully rendered blousy trousers of Terry Meddow’s character- very Cole Porter-ish. Michael Sullivan’s lights are sheer perfection.

Dunsi Dai has created two different worlds- both in magnificent fashion as set designer. From the opulence of the First Act to the decadence of the second, it’s a feat that is as powerful as it is persuasive. Along with the Claudia Horn prop design, this production transports you to two very different but equally effective worlds. The musical direction of Neal Richardson also blends into this production with ease. This is a captivating score and the use of piano, cello and violin is an excellent choice. At times you’d swear there was a full orchestra backing up the actors and at other times the subtlety of the music is astounding.

Theatre production on July 6, 2016

Photo: Dan Donovan

Enough cannot be said for this Max & Louie production of “Grey Gardens.” Every piece of the puzzle fits together splendidly to bring laughs and tears to an eager audience. Do not miss the chance to see this exquisite presentation that you will never forget. It plays through July 30th.

 

 

Ensemble Shines In Low Key “Music Man” At The Muny

July 8, 2016

music-76Hot, humid weather slowed things down for the opening night of “The Music Man” at the Muny but that didn’t stop the singers and dancers from pumping some much needed life into this production. A great supporting cast added to the effort to keep things from wilting. This is an all-American classic and the music alone can lift your spirits so, despite the humidity, the audience enjoyed the Meredith Willson score.

music-quartetThe cheers were long and loud for the delightful barbershop quartet as J.D. Daw, Adam Halpin, Joseph Torello and Ben Nordstrom blended beautifully with the classic “Lida Rose” and the rest of the melodic ditties when these sworn enemies constantly get distracted by Harold Hill’s music cues to elude their prying for his credentials. Veteran Broadway and film star, Mark Linn-Baker is a blusterous Mayor Shinn and Nancy Anderson is also wonderful as his bewildered wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn.

Todd Buonopane shines as Harold Hill’s (or should we say, Greg’s) friend, Marcellus Washburn and leads the crowd in the rousing “Shipoopi” number. Local favorite, Michael James Reed, plays the thorn in Professor Hill’s side, Charlie Cowell- anvil salesman and Elizabeth McCarthy is a precious Mrs. Paroo. Owen Hanford charms as Marian’s brother, Winthrop and Halli Toland as Zaneeta and Colby Dezelick as Tommy Djilas are a great pair.

music-troubleWhat slows the show down are the two leads- Hunter Foster as Harold Hill and Elena Shaddow as Marian- the infamous librarian. In a very low key performance, Mr. Foster seemed to have trouble with lines on opening night including some of the lyrics. While Ms. Shaddow seemed a bit “older and wiser” than her youth would indicate. Being a strong ensemble show with “can’t miss” music, it didn’t completely dampen the crowd (the St. Louis weather took care of that), but it did seem to distract from the usual, bubbly feeling you usually get from “The Music Man.”

music-mayorDirector Rob Ruggiero kept the show moving and choreographer Chris Bailey kept the dance moves sprightly and energetic. Musical director James Moore kept up the spirit of this lively show and Amy Clark’s costumes are right on the mark. The Michael Schweikardt set design is a bit off putting as well as we had several set pieces portraying different settings and we really didn’t get a chance to visit the actual Madison Park Fairgrounds, although the bridge for the lovely “Till There Was You” was excellent. John Lasiter’s lighting design is also to be commended.

music-librarySo, “76 Trombones” blazed the way and it’s always a delight to see this stirring, classic American musical. With a few bumps in the road, it’s still a wonderful show that will stir you and occasionally bring a tear to your eye. “The Music Man” plays at the Muny through July 11th to be followed by the Mel Brooks creation, “Young Frankenstein.”

July 7, 2016

jayA rock, an anchor, a cheerleader, a great man in the St. Louis theatre community. We will miss you, we will always remember you. RIP Jay V. Hall