Archive for March, 2018

Moving, Funny And Poignant, “The Color Purple” Returns To The Fox Theatre

March 24, 2018

color-cerlie:sisterThe story, the music and excellent performances lead the way as “The Color Purple” takes another  bow at the Fox Theatre after the successful Tony award winning revival on Broadway. The show is so tragic yet so uplifting as our heroine, Celie, has the world collapse on her in the early 20th century in her Georgia home.

color-trioAdrianna Hicks is powerful in voice and displays strong acting skills as the beleaguered Celie. She tries to cope with a father who rapes her and then takes her babies away from her then a man known as “Mister” who marries her even though she’s “the ugliest thing” he’s ever seen and then has to put up with his beatings and emotional abuse. Gavin Gregory is solid as Mister who rules Celie and his son, Harpo with a strong hand.  Her only solace is her sister, Nettie, given an equally strong performance by N’Jameh Camara. But when she leaves home to try to stay with Celie and her husband, she is threatened by Mister as well so she leaves and, although she writes Celie letters, Celie never receives them.

color-pushbuttonThe ladies in her life provide the emotional support she needs including Sofia, Harpo’s wife, who is strong and begins to dominate Harpo much to the chagrin of Mister. On opening night, Britt West played the part of Sofia with a master degree in feminism. She’s  not putting up with any crap from Harpo- a riveting performance by J. Daughtry- who soon bends to her every wish. Another strong influence on Celie is Shug Avery- the hotter than hot chanteuse who makes a triumphant return to Georgia and agrees to play a set at Harpo’s new gin joint. Carla R. Stewart is every inch a smoldering woman- particularly in her big production number, “Push Da Button.” But she soon becomes a mentor and role model for Celie and other women in the town as her strong presence mixed with a bit of sexuality also spins the menfolk’s heads around.

color-fathersonSqueak, played on opening night by Gabrielle Reed, eventually dallies with Harpo when Sofia leaves him and she is a treat indeed with a voice to match her name and then comes the moment when she realizes that she has empowerment too. Jared Dixon rounds out the major cast as Grady, a wealthy businessman who marries Shug and eventually leads her to have the money she needs to back up the power she already has. The ensemble is just as powerful as the featured cast helps carry the show.

color-sophia:chorusWhen Celie learns that Nettie has been writing her all the time and Mister hid the letters,  a reunion is soon planned when Nettie returns from her missionary work in Africa. To cap off the story line, Celie designs a set of pants that help ladies of any size to look attractive and they soon take flight and become a popular item. So she becomes independent as well and the tables are turned as the women in “The Color Purple” become the driving force in this little Georgia town.

color-flagsThe book by Marsha Norman captures the basis of Alice Walker’s powerful story and, although I’ve never read her book, a new found friend in the audience recommended I do so since it really expands the characters and their relationships with each other. The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray turns this musical version into an even more powerful piece than the film and that movie was nothing short of spectacular (Spielberg was “screwed” by the Academy Awards- eleven nominations and no wins). From the gorgeous title number to the winsome “What About Love?” to the rest of the plot-driven songs, this is a soaring score.

color-celiefinale“The Color Purple” is a treat. I’m not sure of my reaction to the “bare bones” set with platforms, a wooden wall filled with chairs hanging on it and the bizarre sequence when Celie walks in with a old dial type phone and sets it down because her character receives a phone call in that scene. In this case, I guess the story says it all and you don’t need an elaborate set. It plays through Easter Sunday, April 1st at the Fox. Get tickets now and you won’t be disappointed- a beautiful story told with strong acting and superb singers.

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70 Years And It’s Still Politics As Usual As Rep Closes Season With “Born Yesterday”

March 19, 2018
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Andy Prosky as Harry, Randy Donaldson as Eddie and Aaron Bratz as Paul in “Born Yesterday” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As sparkling and witty as it was in 1948, Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” could have been ripped from today’s headlines. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has brought it back and it’s a perfect way to close the season. Gee, a business giant (in this case a junk tycoon) strolls into Washington DC to influence congressmen to sway legislation toward his advantage. Things have only taken a turn for the worse in today’s politically charged environment with the basic story of greed and corruption but this time with a lively twist.

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Kurt Zischke as Senator Hedges and Ruth Pferdehirt as Billie in the Rep production of “Born Yesterday.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Blowhard Harry Brock is played with proper bluster and shamelessness by Andy Prosky. He thinks money can convince anyone to do what he says and he’s usually right. The fly in his proverbial ointment is his sassy blonde girlfriend, Billie Dawn, played with a perfectly ditzy bravado by Ruth Pferdehirt. Harry agrees to meet with a member of the press Paul Verall- played with a smooth and candid style by Aaron Bartz. When Harry decides to pay him to instruct Billie in social skills and to improve her brain, he unleashes a monster that can never to back to her role as the docile ex-showgirl.

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Ted Deasy as Ed and Ruth Pferdehirt as Billie in “Born Yesterday” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Ted Deasy is the smooth lawyer who makes sure Billie signs a bunch of papers on an almost daily basis that protects Harry’s interests by “diversifying” his portfolio. He finally begins to question his position as well and gets the stirring curtain speech which we’ve seen repeated in one form or another in “politics as usual” situations for the past 70 years. One of the senators that Harry attempts to schmooz on his arrival to Washington is Norval Hedges, played with above board integrity by Kurt Zischke. His wife, played by Gina Daniels, also has some positive influence on the new and improved Billie.

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Andy Prosky as Harry tries to reason with the “new” Billie played by Ruth Pferdehirt a the Rep’s production of “Born Yesterday.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Harry’s right hand man and “muscle” is played with aplomb by Randy Donaldson. The  rest of the cast is peppered with other actors familiar to the Rep including the versatile Michelle Hand. It’s a wonderful ensemble who play everything from bellhops to assistant managers to bootblacks and barbers and manicurists. They make for a typical zany group that is synonymous  with the screwball comedies of the 40’s.

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Andy Prosky as Harry offers a new job to Paul, played by Aaron Bartz in “Born Yesterday” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Director Pamela Hunt has brought that looney tunes feel to this period piece and it works so well as it rings true for the same world of political intrigue that we regretfully still have today. The James Morgan set design is simply stunning. All the amenities of a luxury  DC hotel of 1948 are there and the whole piece is lit with style as well by lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger. Lou Bird’s costumes are perfect including several stylish dresses for Billie and Rusty Wandall has provided excellent sound design including some nostalgic music to set the mood.

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Aaron Bartz as Paul gets closer with Ruth Pferdehirt as Billie in the Rep production of “Born Yesterday.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

TCM has been showing the classic film lately starring Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William Holden but this current version at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is phenomenal and live! Don’t miss “Born Yesterday” as it provides laughs, nostalgia and current events rolled into one powerful package. It plays through April 8th and you can call 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

“As It Is In Heaven” Brings Simplicity And Order To Stage At Mustard Seed Theatre

March 18, 2018
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The ladies of the Shaker community sing in “As It Is In Heaven” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple” rings through your mind as you watch the profound and spiritual play by Arlene Hutton at Mustard Seed Theatre, “As It Is In Heaven.” Set in a Shaker community in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky in the early 1840’s, we are greeted  by the Sisters of this community as they live together while the men of the Shaker commune live in a separate area. They all live a celibate lifestyle although, as we see as the play progresses, some of the ladies share more than a passing interest in some of the Brothers.

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Quilting is one of the bedrocks of life in the Mustard Seed Theatre production of “As It Is In Heaven.” Photo: John Lamb

Singing, dancing and celebrating their love of Christ are the most common activities of the day other than each members’ set of chores handed down by the eldress and her two assistants. As a bit of background, the Shakers originally came to America from England to escape religious persecution. Mother Ann Lee led the way as they reached shore in 1774.

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Patrice Foster as Fanny raises her hands as the Sisters praise her visions in “As It Is In Heaven” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Patrice Foster as Fanny becomes the center of attention in the community when she has visions of angels on her trips to the meadow beyond the compound. Others begin to have visions as well including that of the spirit of Mother Lee. Ms. Foster gives a beautiful and tender performance as she is more scared and upset by her sightings than she is inspired. Hannah, the eldress, is perturbed that these visions appear to be real as she expects them to come to her and not one of the new members to their group. Amy Loui brings the agitation combined with almost forced understanding to the role. You can see how hurt she is but is also grappling with her love of God and those in her charge.

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The ladies of the Shaker community enjoy a picnic in the Mustard Seed Theatre production of “As It Is In Heaven.” Photo: John Lamb

Laurie McConnell is the cook and baker of the bunch as Peggy. She plays the role with a sunny outlook with always a kind word for her fellow Sisters. Christina Sittser is one of the “adopted” members, Izzy and Jennelle Gilbreath is a novice, Jane, who has recently lost her husband. Both do a great job and find themselves fighting with their faith as they try to cope in this environment that seems almost too confining for them. Their lives, however, bring the conflict that drives the forces of less than perfect harmony in the play.

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Jenelle Gilbreath as Jane relates details of her life to Alicia Reve Like as Betsy in “As It Is In Heaven” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Leslie Wobbe as Rachel, Alicia Reve Like as Betsy, Mary Schnitzler as Phebe and Amanda Wales as Polly round out the Sisters with this brilliant ensemble who almost move and act as one. From the impromptu dances and singing to their daily tasks and talk, they move with a fluidity that shows how they all act and think alike in their service to God.

Artistic Director of Mustard Seed, Deanna Jent has given this look at Shaker life an inspired and moving feel. You can’t help but be captivated and captured by their spirit and sense of community. The simple set with a varnished floor and a bit of grass at the front of the stage and just some basic benches and open air doors and windows are the work of Cameron Tesson. Bess Moynihan’s lights enhance the simple and effective technical work as do the Jane Sullivan costumes.

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The ladies of the Shaker community perform one of their many impromptu songs and dances in “As It Is In Heaven” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“As It Is In Heaven” runs a crisp 90 minutes and is moving in its simplicity. It will fill you with awe at their devotion to God and community and make you laugh and cry at the touches of humanity that go beyond faith into the trials of everyday life. It plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through March 31st. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information.

Elusive “Caught” At The Rep Studio Will Blow You Away As It Blows Your Mind

March 13, 2018
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Kenneth Lee opens the play with an art lecture in “Caught” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Truth versus lies, reality versus perception, facts versus fake news and even as basic as black versus white. These concepts are explored and dissected in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio production, “Caught” by Christopher Chen. When you enter the theatre you are handed a program but not a standard program with cast list, bios and such- instead it’s a guide to the art installation which has been constructed in front of the stage. The usher says you will receive the real theatre program as you exit this 90 minute masterpiece.

Director of “Caught,” Seth Gordon gets some stage time as he introduces the speaker for the evening, Chinese dissident and artist of these works, Lin Bo. He talks about his time in prison as a result of his art and gets very descriptive about some of the atrocities of his time behind bars. All the while he is clicking through a series of pictures that show his work and some informational background on his ordeal. Sweep away the art display and we are in editorial offices at the New Yorker.

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Kenneth Lee, Jeffrey Cummings and Rachel Fenton chat in the offices of the New Yorker in the Rep Studio production of “Caught.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim,Jr.

This is where the fun begins as Lin Bo, a personable Kenneth Lee, goes through another form of interrogation by the writer of a special New Yorker piece on his life. Rachel Fenton is perfect as the sunny writer/editor, Joyce, until her questions suddenly become a bit darker and sinister. She is assisted by another member of the editorial board, Bob, played with intensity by Jeffrey Cummings. She is stern but he is a roaring lion ready to attack.

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Rachel Lin and Rachel Fenton have an off kilter interview in “Caught” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The infamous fourth wall is totally shattered in the next scene when Joyce takes on a new persona to interview the playwright- a female named Wang Min who is given a spirited portrayal by Rachel Lin. Playwright, you say- playwright of what? The play “Caught?” But a man, Christopher Chen wrote the play. Don’t ask- you’ll figure it out (maybe) by attending the play, but you’re likely to find more questions than answers. This scene in particular leads us through a fanciful circular dialogue that seems to confuse and enlighten despite itself.

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Rachel Lin and Kenneth Lee crack each other up during the final scene of the Rep Studio production of “Caught.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The play is like a trip through a garden maze when you come so close to finding the exit but another obstacle suddenly appears. I even appreciate the various word plays throughout including the use of the word “appropriate” in one scene with emphasis on the “Ate” meaning to take against another’s will. Then in the next scene we hear it again as appropri-ut meaning perfectly acceptable. So, on many levels this play distorts every perception of what you consider to be true and makes you wonder just what is real. Just like an ordinary day in America under Trump.

Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan has crafted a clever and ambitious set (especially for the small Studio space) to open us up to this almost magical world. The Ann G. Wrightson lighting design also works well as do the Felia K. Davenport costumes and the subtle sound design of Rusty Wandall. Besides the stellar cast, the star of this show is director Seth Gordon who has taken this enigmatic play and turned it into an “Alice In Wonderland” for a modern age.

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Things get heated as Kenneth Lee, Jeffrey Cummings and Rachel Fenton battle in “Caught” at the Rep Studio. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“Caught” is at the Rep Studio through March 25th. The 90 minute, no intermission running time will leave you plenty of time to enjoy a nosh and discuss this intriguing and ethereal play- plan on thinking about it long after you’ve seen it. Call the Rep at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

Insight Theatre Company Brings Love Story For An Older Generation To Stage With “The Last Romance”

March 9, 2018
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Tommy Nolan and Joneal Joplin try to spark a little romance in “The Last Romance” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

Playwright Joe DiPietro has fashioned a great idea with an older singer sad that he didn’t get his chance with the Metropolitan Opera striking up an octogenarian romance with a woman he meets in a dog park. Add the novelty of the singers’ younger self hanging around (mainly to lead in and out of scenes with an aria) and the man’s slightly younger sister and you’ve got a love story mixed with family dependency.

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Maggie Ryan as Rose tries to discourage Tommy Nolan as Carol from seeing her brother in the Insight Theatre Company production of “The Last Romance.” Photo: John Lamb

Veteran actor Joneal Joplin plays the 80 year old Ralph Bellini and is directed by another veteran actor and director, Alan Knoll. Jop is charming and flourishes the role- as he always does- with excellent delivery and a true knowledge of the character he’s playing. An easy charm and attention to his fellow actors is a key to his years of his success and he does not disappoint with this stellar performance.

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Clark Sturdevant as the young man auditions for the Met while Joneal Joplin as Ralph reminisces about that day in “The Last Romance” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

As his younger self- in the playbill described as “the young man”- Clark Sturdevant is superb as he handles the snips of arias with ease. He merely walks on stage and sings or occasionally hangs like a specter observing these people in their 70’s and 80’s still trying to figure out life and romance.  The arias chosen are classic including Mozart, Offenbach, Verdi and the most popular, “Fra Quest’ Ansie” from “Pagliacci.” As Ralph’s sister, Rose, Insight’s Artistic Director Maggie Ryan does a nice turn as she is mainly indignant with Ralph’s lack of attention to her and then, in turn, upset with the attention he is paying to a woman he has met in the dog park.

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Maggie Ryan as Rose tries to some agreement with Joneal Joplin as her brother Ralph in the Insight Theatre production of “The Last Romance.” Photo: John Lamb

Visiting the park without a dog may seem strange but perhaps Ralph finds it easier in his dotage to hang out in the dog park instead of trying to find romance in the younger world of visiting bars. One day he spots Carol and her Yorkie and strikes up a conversation. He weaves a certain magic over her until their relationship begins to blossom. Tommy Nolan as Carol was a bit uneven on the night I saw the play- either she was having a few problems with lines or she was so into this older character that she was having some dramatic memory lapses. She’s very comfortable for the most part but between a little twitching and some odd pauses, it didn’t quite ring true for the character.

Mention should also be made of her Yorkie who we get to see in one scene and then at curtain call- Peaches in the play, Oscar in real life. Very nice work and even gave Jop a nice little nose lick on cue. I also had a few script problems despite the lovely premise. Some of the dialogue seemed a bit stilted and sometimes predictable.  However, Alan Knoll has done wonders with the weaknesses in the script and brought us an overall satisfying production.

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Joneal Joplin as Ralph and Tommy Nolan as Carol in “The Last Romance” at Insight Theatre Company. Photo: John Lamb

The technical crew does fine work as the Landon Shaw set design worked very well as did the lights of Geordy Van Es. Teresa Doggett’s costumes are well conceived and a very nice sound design by Robin Weatherall. “The Last Romance” plays at the Kranzberg through March 18th as presented  by Insight Theatre Company. Give them a call at 314-556-1293 for tickets or more information.

New Line Cuts A Wide Swath With Unusual Production (For Them), Of “Anything Goes”

March 9, 2018
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“Anything Goes” brings one hit after another at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Before the erudite lyrics and crazy internal rhymes of Stephen Sondheim wowed musical theatre audiences, the wittiest lyricists around were from the pens of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. New Line Theatre, in a departure from their more off beat fare, have decided to delve into one of Mr. Porter’s more successful shows, “Anything Goes.” It was a good choice as those clever lyrics and dynamite book by Guy Bolton, the irrepressible P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse work perfectly for this always inventive local treasure that is New Line.

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The ship’s captain (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) leads a group in a more restrained moment in New Line’s production of “Anything Goes.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Starting with those wonderful songs- standards by anyone’s measure- “You’re The Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Friendship,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and the title song are all jammed into the first act. Although “Tinpantithesis” has always blown my mind, it’s wonderful to hear these often far-reaching but effective rhymes sweeping over the delightful and often silly plot line. Gangsters, pseudo-preachers, former lovers, celebrities, politicians and even Harpo Marx make for a great set of companions on an ocean voyage that all goes hilariously wrong but somehow oh, so right.

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Evan Fornachon studies a passport as Sarah Gene Dowling and Aaron Allen look on in “Anything Goes” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

As usual, Artistic Director Scott Miller, this time with co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor, has put together a superb cast of actors/singers who carry off the powerful music with strict attention to the charm and wit of the dialogue. Evan Fornachon leads the way as the wily Billy Crocker. Not only does he sing the heck out of the role, he shows us a leading man with the sophisticated wit of Cary Grant. His versatility of moving from head-banging roles such as “American Idiot” to romantic, old fashioned musical comedy is remarkable.

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Eileen Engel bring us the lovely ballad, “All Through The Night” during the New Line production of “Anything Goes.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

His love interest (at least at the outset) is the perky, gorgeous and wonderfully funny Eileen Engel as Hope Harcourt. Her duets with Billy- the bouncy “It’s De-Lovely” to the plaintive “All Through The Night” are stellar. As her mother, Jimmie Kidd-Booker is also a comedy find with her haughty yet caring ways. Don’t worry, she- like everyone else on board- eventually finds true love.

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Sarah Porter as Reno instructs her “angels” during the delightful “Anything Goes” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Porter simply lights up this musical and takes it to another level with her rousing portrayal of night club singer Reno Sweeney. From her solos and duets in Act I to her belting of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” in the second act, she just shines throughout this madcap high seas adventure. Zachary Allen Farmer always steals a show no matter what role he’s playing. This is no exception as he drolly whips himself into a very stiff upper lip frenzy with his presentation of Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. From dry, understated dialogue to his “cutting loose” with “Let’s Misbehave,” he simply delights.

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Sarah Porter and Aaron Allen camp it up in the New Line production of “Anything Goes.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Another great comedy team is Aaron Allen as Public Enemy Number 13 and his sidekick, Bonnie, played by Sarah Gene Dowling. Mr. Allen’s tortured look enhanced by his equally tortured body language is nothing short of brilliant. Ms. Dowling’s escapades include leading the lively, “Let’s Step Out” number- another real show-stopper. Our old buddy, Jeffrey M. Wright plays the drunken businessman who stumbles his way in and out of scenes with great addled agility and hilarity.

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These little devils are really “angels” in New Line Theatre’s production of “Anything Goes.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Reno’s angels are a stunning foursome led by Larissa White, Michelle Sauer, Alyssa Wolf and Sara Rae Womack. Both Sauer and Womack also handle the sprightly choreography that captures the spirit of the 1962 version of “Anything Goes” that New Line has chosen to present. The ensemble, playing a host of characters, also add to the fun and fantasy.

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Zachary Allen Farmer charms both Sarah Porter and Eileen Engel with his dashing, witty English charm in “Anything Goes” at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Music Director Nicolas Valdez has also captured the true essence of this classic musical comedy. A shout out to his entire orchestra but in particular trumpet player Ron Foster. If any show needs crisp, clear notes, it’s “Anything Goes.” From the title number to the purposeful trumpet volleys of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” it was nice to hear those soaring notes from the brass section. Colene Fornachon has added a delightful mix of appropriate costumes including those “just skimpy enough” costumes for the Angels. Rob Lippert has brought his magic to the set and lighting design, transporting us back to this Golden Age.

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Part of the “Anything Goes” ensemble in the Cole Porter masterpiece at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

“Anything Goes” is not, as most reviewers (and many audience members) say, the usual show you’re likely to see at New Line. But Mr. Miller and company have proven once again that they can make their own imprint on any musical- even a revered classic like this one. It plays through March 24th at the Marcelle Theatre. Give a call to 314-534-1111 for tickets or see more information at http://www.NewLineTheatre.com.