Archive for May, 2018

Sit Com Chekov At New Jewish Theatre With “Life Sucks”- Or Does It?

May 29, 2018

Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings address the question in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

With all of the angst, a gun firing in the third act (even though it wasn’t hanging on the wall in Act I) and all of the somewhat dreary characters, this might be “Uncle Vanya” but playwright Aaron Posner has taken that Chekov classic and turned it on it’s head. Though “Life Sucks” is not really written by relative, Uncle Miltie Chekov with additional dialogue by David Mamet, it comes close to being what this brooding Russian playwright would have written if he were writing for today’s TV situation comedies- on cable, of course.


Michelle Hand struts through the garden with Greg Johnston and Katy Keating in the background and Christopher Harris in front during the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

A manor house run by Robert, a professor, his daughter, Sonia and his young wife, Ella is the setting and soon a group of others descend on the estate including the his first wife’s brother, Vanya, a sort of caretaker, Babs a local doctor and a local “cheerleader” for life, Pickles. Like in most Chekov, they complain about their lot and life in general- hence the title, “Life Sucks.” But in Posner’s script, melancholy is more a state of mind than an affliction.


With tub side manners to spare, Jeff Cummings as the doctor chats with Christopher Harris as Vanya in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Christopher Harris is larger than life as Vanya. In love with Ella, he mopes around and even approaches Ella about his love for her. Along the same vein, Jeff Cummings as Doctor Aster professes his love for Ella and is similarly rejected. His opening semi-monologue sets the table for the evening as he pours his soul out to Babs. Jan Meyer is a tower of strength as the only truly sane person in the bunch, Babs. She dispenses logic where there really is none in this wacky garden party.


Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris and Jeff Cummings in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Greg Johnston is solid as the professor realizing that his young wife is bait dangling in front of all the men- no matter their age. Although he flares up from time to time, he is confident in Ella’s love for him. Ella is the enticing Julie Layton. Provocative without trying to be, she- as several in the cast sometimes do- addresses the audience at one point asking who wants to sleep with her. She’s a bit befuddled at her sudden appeal but, with a wink and a joke, realizes it’s her curse. In fact the audience is really taken aback at how often the actors not only address them but ask for their opinion.


Julie Layton as Ella and Michelle Hand as Pickles in “Life Sucks” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Katy Keating gives a touching performance as the delightful but overshadowed daughter who is in love with the doctor. She is the typical tragic character in any Chekov play as she feels destined to die an old maid. Finally we have Michelle Hand as the irrepressible Pickles. Oversized glasses, blue overalls and a hat scrunched down on her head give her the look of a homeless person who wandered into the proceedings. Hers is the magical role that brings a positive vibe to this whole “Life Sucks” party. This is a smart cast and you can always tell when a cast is delighted, not only with what they’re bringing to the stage, but with each other. It makes everything work with a more upbeat message- if you’ll pardon the rephrasing of a Gershwin tune- than any Russian play could ever do.


Jeff Cummings as the doctor and Katy Keating as Sonia in the New Jewish production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s all brought together by the New Jewish Theatre’s newest Artistic Director (next season), Edward Coffield. His touch is a light one that doesn’t shy away from Chekov but brings out the clarity and upside down treatment to his original “Uncle Vanya.” Peter and Margery Spack bring their wondrous talents to the front with an elegant garden for the estate. Divided into several playing areas (including a bathtub), it offers a lovely playground for this group of misfits. Maureen Berry’s lights enhance the mood and the wildly appropriate costume design is by Michele Friedman Siler.


The cast in a wonderful final tableau in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Life Sucks.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

It’s good to see a Chekov play (at least one based on one of his more popular works) where you can leave the theatre with a smile on your face. Aaron Posner’s “Life Sucks” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through June 10th. Take time out to laugh and ponder the serious questions in life. Call them at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

A Gorgeous “La Traviata” Opens Opera Theatre-St. Louis Season

May 20, 2018

Geoffrey Agpalo as Alfredo is in awe of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Lush and lovely in every way, Opera Theatre-St. Louis has opened their season with a beautiful production of Verdi’s classic tragic opera, “La Traviata.” From set to lighting to costumes to voices and acting, this is a simply splendid production from every aspect.


Sydney Mancasola as the stunning Violetta in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “La Traviata.” Photo: Ken Howard

This time it ain’t over ’til the lithe, winsome lady sings. Sydney Mancasola is a wonderful Violetta and appropriately slight for the horrible things that are happening to her body- she is dying. Her clear as crystal soprano is a delight to listen to as she breezes through arias and duets with nuance and clarity. With those long legs and regal gait- even in the throes of consumption- she is perfection on stage.


Geoffrey Agpalo as Alfredo and Joo Won Kang as Giorgio in “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Geoffrey Agpalo is her lover, Alfredo, who is infatuated with her and persuades her to leave Paris and join him in his country house. Agpalo’s bright tenor is a pleasing match to Mancasola’s soprano and their duets together are spectacular. Interference from his estranged father, Giorgio leads to a misunderstanding between the lovers that separates them. Joo Won Kang rounds out the trio of principles with his rich baritone while all three are as excellent acting as they are at singing- sometimes not always the case.

The secondary cast also holds court in both acting and singing categories. Simona Rose Genga is a powerful Annina, maid to Violetta while Andrew Munn handles the small but important role of Violetta’s doctor in the final act. Briana Hunter displays a lively spirit as Flora and Baron Douphol is the properly stuffy Jeff Byrnes. As always the rest of the singing cast is superb and the singing and dancing chorus is exquisite.


Briana Hunter as Flora dazzles the crowd in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “La Traviata.” Photo: Ken Howard

Conductor Christopher Allen holds a strong baton for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as they master the powerful and often playful score by Verdi and the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is a good one as well. A renowned opera singer herself, Patricia Racette handles the directing duties and she has successfully handled that transition showing a strong knowledge of the material. Sean Curran does his usual excellent job as choreographer making the festive crowd scenes flow with the large cast.


Sydney Mancasola as Violetta in the second act masquerade party in “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

The stunning set design is by Laura Jellinek and her lovely backdrop of overlapping camellias are reminiscent of asGeorgia O’Keefe painting with the center blossom opening and closing for entrances and exits, including the stunning final scene as Violetta disappears into the flowers as the frozen tableau of her lover, maid and doctor overlook her deathbed. The one scene change in the second act runs smoothly as the rest of the set pieces are functional if not profound.

The costumes by Kaye Voyce are beautiful and Christopher Akerlind’s lights are nothing short of brilliant. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect evening at the opera where everything (despite a broken champagne glass in the first scene) runs as smooth as clockwork. A joyous cast and a classic tale (used as a basis for the Julia Roberts film, “Pretty Woman”) combine for heavenly sounds and story.


Andrew Munn as the doctor takes the pulse of Sydney Macasola (Violetta) as her maid, Simona Rose Genga looks on in the final act of “La Traviata” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis. Photo: Ken Howard

Opera Theatre-St. Louis is a quick season so you have to be on the ball. A good line up is coming up with “Regina,” “An American Soldier” and “Orfeo & Euridice” along with this superb “La Traviata,” which runs through June 23rd in repertory. Call 314-961-0644 for tickets or more information.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” Brings Major Heft To This Year’s Tennessee Williams Festival

May 12, 2018

Sophia Brown as Blanche and Amy Loui as Eunice in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Tennessee Williams Festival. Photo: Ride Hamilton

Still considered Williams’ masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is the highlight of the Tennessee Williams Festival this year and it delivers a knock out punch with an excellent cast, smart direction and a technically beautiful production. Leading lives of desperation, all of the characters in the play must cope with themselves and their own demons but also with the same from those around them. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions filled with pockets of humor but mainly a fight for humanity with an almost hopeless, inevitable outcome.

Leading the way is a truly remarkable performance from local actress Sophia Brown as the iconic Blanche Dubois. This is truly Blanche Dubois heaven as Ms. Brown delivers a multi-layered character that simply commands the Grandel stage. At times vulnerable and at times psychotic, she delivers lines with a mix of genteel Southern charm and vitriol and then desperation that cannot be imagined by many actresses. Her heavenly voice also works from Vivian Leigh sweetness to the throatiness of Kathleen Turner. The turns from madness to moments of lucidity are stunning. Her performance had me in awe throughout the night.


Nick Narcisi as Stanley and Lana Dvorak as Stella in the Tennessee Williams Festival production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photo: Ride Hamilton

Her sister, Stella Kowalski, is given a powerful turn as well by Lana Dvorak. Written in 1947, these ladies grew up in a time when their love and dependance on a man far outweighed the verbal and physical abuse they had to withstand. Ms. Dvorak brings a sincerity to the role that transforms Stella into a stronger woman than she should be. As Stanley, Nick Narcisi is also masterful as the crude husband who hates his sister in law and her intrusion on his family (soon to be three with Stella’s baby on the way). And everyone knows how that hatred manifests itself- his eventual seduction of Blanche.


Spencer Sickmann as Mitch and Sophia Brown as Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Tennessee Williams Festival. Photo: Ride Hamilton

Spencer Sickmann plays it just right as the vulnerable Mitch who thinks he has found the right woman in Blanche but soon breaks both their hearts when he can’t cope with rumor and innuendo about Blanche’s past. Amy Loui shines as the upstairs neighbor who tries to protect Stella while Isaiah DiLorenzo and Jesse Munoz  play the friends and poker playing buddies. Jacob Flekier is the innocent, young bill collector who almost falls for the seduction techniques of Blanche- evidently one of many patterns from her past. David Wassilak is the doctor while Isabel Pastrana also makes a brief appearance as a flower seller and Maggie Wininger rounds out the cast in two roles.

Director Tim Ocel has mixed it all into the perfect combination. His insight into the play is uncanny as he plays for the steaminess of the volatile menage of characters but shows the raw emotions of everyone in how they feel about themselves and how they interact. It’s quite an overwhelming outcome. The James Wolk set design is breathtaking and the  Sean Savoie lighting design brings out the seaminess of the play while keeping it at a strong dramatic pace. Michele Siler’s costumes are provocative as they are appropriate and there’s a lot to be said about the rich, jazzy original score behind it all by Henry Palkes as it makes this production even stronger.


Sophia Brown as Blanche and Nick Narcisi as Stanley in the Tennessee Williams Festival production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photo: Ride Hamilton

I had a lot of personal problems going on last year and had to miss the entire TWF after enjoying the first year immensely. Now I’m back and thrilled that Carrie Houk  and her staff have brought such a magnificent piece to us as this third year of the Tennessee Williams Festival begins. See “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Grandel Square Theatre and the rest of the festival as it plays out over the next two weeks.