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“Hamlet” A Wild And Unusual Ride At The Rep

October 16, 2017
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Michael James Reed as Claudius and Jim Poulos as Hamlet in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Less melancholy Dane and more merry prankster is how Hamlet’s madness comes across in the first time ever production of Shakespeare’s classic at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. It works beautifully despite the initial shock of schtick instead of wild-eyed crazy thanks to the talents of Jim Poulos as Hamlet and a strong supporting cast.

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Christopher Gerson as Horatio and Jim Poulos as Hamlet over a fallen Laertes in “Hamlet” at the Rep. Photo: Peter Wochniak

It all starts with a vision and Rep stalwart director, Paul Mason Barnes who has directed Shakespeare and others on the Rep stage including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the innovative New Orleans production of “The Comedy of Errors,” decided to make this “Hamlet” the story of an Everyman surrounded by characters from every walk of life. No distinctions carved in stone but a mix of traditional and nontraditional in both viewpoint and presentation.

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Jim Poulos as Hamlet with Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu as his buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochnicak

First- the cast. Jim Poulos is a most unusual Hamlet but one that works well and spreads less gloom and more madness than any interpretation we’ve ever seen. From doing bicycling type exercises to stalking and taunting and even mimicking those around him, he pulls it off with a great dose of angst and anger mixed in. Carrying on like that for the almost three hour production must be exhausting but what an incredible performance.

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Robyn Rodriguez as Queen Gertrude pleas with Jim Poulos as Hamlet in the Rep production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

As Claudius, the new king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle and man behind the demise of Hamlet’s father, Michael James Reed turns in another brilliant character. He commands the stage even when Hamlet is chiding and rebuking him. The Queen- Hamlet’s mother- is a coy and somewhat confused but often befuddled Robynn Rodriquez. Her “showdown” with Hamlet is a gut-wrenching scene.

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Kim Wong as Ophelia talks to Larry Paulsen as her father, Polonius in “Hamlet” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Larry Paulsen gives an almost contemporary touch to Polonius. Like an addled Jim Anderson from “Father Knows Best,” he is concerned with his children- a delightful and powerful Kim Wong as Ophelia and a strong Carl Howell as Laertes- but is trying to sort out his fealty to Claudius while watching the slow decline into madness by Hamlet.

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Alas, poor Yorick with Jim Poulson as Hamlet in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Christopher Gerson is a more sedate Horatio while our friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are handled well by Ross Cowan and Stephen Hu. The stern and pompous Fortinbras is given a more traditional touch by Jeffrey Cummings. A superb ensemble highlights the proceedings including the various soldiers, servants, handmaidens, gravediggers and, of course, the wonderful “players” who produce the play with added touches by Hamlet to trip up the usurper king.

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Jim Poulos as Hamlet and Carl Howell as Laertes with Ben Nordstrom in the background fence with tragic results in “Hamlet” at the Rep. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The design team continues the vision of director Barnes with the eclectic costumes from Dorothy Marshall Englis that span the eras to help make this “Everyman” concept work within the parameters of this production. The spare but impressive set design by Michael Ganio opens the play to provide several acting areas but letting the words of Shakespeare dominate the proceedings. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lights provide the proper mood as does the Barry G. Funderburg effective sound design. A special nod to fight director Paul Dennhardt as director Paul Mason Barnes has broken with tradition again bringing a “mask and vest” sword fight with points until the final, tragic moment and then choosing a more sweeping method of dealing with the (spoiler alert) deaths at play’s end.

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“The play’s the thing…” as the ensemble watch a “recreation” of the death of Hamlet’s father in the Rep production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

Trimmed to a more comfortable two acts featuring about an hour and a half or so each, the Rep’s “Hamlet” is an entertaining ride that will surprise you with a feel like no other production you’ve seen. The tragedy is still there but the spirit of the play has taken a sharp turn providing lighter moments and unusual staging. “Hamlet” plays at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through November 5th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

 

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Polish Playwright And Iconic Local Landmark Meet In “Sweet Revenge” At Upstream Theater

October 10, 2017
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The cast during a dress rehearsal of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater with Director Philip Boehm. Photo: Patrick Huber

Aleksander Fredo may have been the Moliere or Sheridan of 19th Century Poland as he was one of the best known comedic playwrights of the early 1800’s. With a few lapses for political and social reasons, he wrote and produced some of the best Polish theatre of the time. In this translation of one of his best, “Zemsta” or “Sweet Revenge,” Artistic Director of Upstream Theater, Philip Boehm has also directed a talented cast and added a bit of local color as well. In a wonderful piece in the program, my one time colleague at Maryville University, Tom Bratkowsi, explains that the Julius Slowacki Theatrical Society established itself in 1909 at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Polish National Catholic Church in St. Louis to continue Polish artistic endeavors for those who had escaped oppression to America.

As a paean to those St. Louis players (the society was disbanded in 1959) Boehm has presented Fredo’s play as if done by this group of amateur actors. It’s a real treat as we’re transported back to 1933 St. Louis and, in turn, to 1834 Poland. To begin, the curtain (a replica of that original curtain at the church) starts to rise slowly as music begins. A few in the audience start to rise and then the whole crowd is on their feet realizing that the Polish National Anthem is being played. The curious cast begins to peek beneath the curtain as it rises to see how the “house” is and then the play begins.

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The iconic curtain for “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

A play in verse, “Sweet Revenge” is a lot like a drawing room comedy featuring feuding neighbors who find the walls that divide them can symbolically tear down those inner walls to come to some understanding. The first act features one neighbor, Czesnik, who can’t decide if he should pursue the young Klara or chase the elderly but well to do Hanna. Whit Reichert is perfect as the often bumbling Czesnik who finds fault with just about everyone in both his household and those of his neighbors. Witty dialogue and sharp physical comedy are right up Reichert’s alley and he plays this pompous and often bombastic character with style and humor.

Like the Fred Astaire to Mr. Reichert’s Gene Kelly, John Contini brings another side of the humor to Czesnik’s neighbor, Milczek. Ramrod straight with a devious mind, he punctuates every line with a sarcastic twist. As a braggadocio soldier, Papkin, who enhances his accomplishments, John Bratkowski (yes, Tom’s brother), swashes and buckles his way through each outrageous story that we soon find out are nothing but- dare I say it?- “fake” news. It is a brilliant performance that never wavers.

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Whit Reichert dictates as John Bratkowski and Eric J. Conners frantically take it all down in the Upstream Theater production of “Sweet Revenge.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Jane Paradise is the widow Hanna who courts both neighbors in an effort to secure another rich husband. Her feminine wiles ooze through to both men as she floats from one to the other. As the other apple of Czesnik’s hopeful love life, Klara, Caitlin Mickey is a charmer who only has eyes for Milczek’s son, Waclaw, played with wily charm and youthful candor by Pete Winfrey. Strong on physical comedy as well, his body and facial expressions speak volumes for what’s in his character’s mind. Combined with Ms. Mickey, they are a truly inspired comedic stage couple.

Rounding out the cast is yeoman work from Eric J. Conners in multiple roles as majordomo to Czesnik, a cook in his service and as a mason building the infamous wall. He manages to rise to the occasion with a change of costume, posture and voice inflection to give vibrant life to each. Director Philip Boehm has brought a deliciously clever, broad, comedic and slightly slapstick presentation of this Polish masterpiece to the stage. It works so well and reminds you every now and then that these are “amateur” actors performing out of love for the work. And he is to be commended on translating a Polish play in verse into a play in verse in English- not an easy accomplishment.

Patrick Huber’s set design is perfect with a backdrop that transitions from each household with ease and minimal set pieces that the actors, of course, move for themselves. Laura Hanson’s costumes are spot on from the ragged royalty of the neighbors to the buffoonery of Papkin. Steve Carmichael’s lights enhance the whole proceedings while staying in the vein of the performance.

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The brilliant cast of “Sweet Revenge” at Upstream Theater. Photo: Patrick Huber

Clever and unexpected, “Sweet Revenge” is a real treat. It plays at Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Theatre and you can go to upsteamtheater@sbcglobal.net for tickets or more information.

 

“Spring Awakening” Oozes Angst And High Spirits In A Second Run At Stray Dog

October 6, 2017
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Riley Dunn as Melchior and Stephen Henley as Moritz are properly scolded by schoolmaster Ben Ritchie in “Spring Awakening” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

It was only five years ago when Stray Dog Theatre first produced “Spring Awakening” and somehow they knew we needed another dose of teen anger and angst. This is a beautiful production that reaches the audience literally and figuratively as the cast spends some quality time with the folks enjoying the show.

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Allison Arana as Wendla and Riley Dunn as Melchior in Stray Dog’s production of “Spring Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

This time around Riley Dunn and Allison Arana play the young lovers in the 19th century German village which tries to suppress raging hormones without much success. School master and administrator and parents try to throw water on the fires burning inside these youth but they only succeed in making things worse with often tragic consequences. Mr. Dunn as Melchior is often ramrod straight in demeanor but soon succumbs to his passion for Allison Arana as Wendla. Both have exquisite voices and shine in their duets, especially the second act paean, “Whispering.”

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The ladies of “Spring Awakening” during the opening number at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Stephen Henley is a superb Moritz who struggles to keep up with his studies and the abuse of his father. Again, these young actor/singers at Stray Dog are impressive- a few performing for the first time at the Abbey. Dawn Schmid is Ilse and her haunting duet with Moritz, “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind,” is a highlight of the night. Ben Ritchie, local actor/bon vivant, steps up as all the grown up male characters including the harsh task master of a school teacher and playing multiple fathers of several of the young folk. On the other side, Jan Niehoff does a great job as the multiple older women in the production.

Rounding out the cast of young men and women are Luke Steingruby, Annie Heartney, Jacob Schalk, Jackson Buhr, Angela Bubash, Tristan Davis, Bridgid Buckley and Kevin Corpuz. This is truly an ensemble as each member gets a chance to shine and their group numbers are thrilling and spectacular to watch.

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The schoolboys of the Stray Dog Theatre production of “Spring Awakening.” Photo: John Lamb

Justin Been has directed with the raw power of this show blasting through on stage. He pulls no punches as this energetic cast showcases his sincere attachment to “Spring Awakening.” Choreographer Sam Gaitsch follows suit with some strong, vital numbers that work well on the small stage and rock both stage and the aisles with foot stomping and often forceful music.

Robert M. Kapeller’s set design is a powerful statement itself incorporating the abiding message of “nature” with a tree that appears to have a piano growing out of it and a small platform on stage right to accommodate a cello player. The rest of Jennifer Buchheit’s band is scattered across the back of the stage and they really make this score sound brilliant. From hard rock to soft, beautiful ballads, it is a delight to hear as well as see. Tyler Duenow’s lights are a masterpiece including hanging bare bulbs giving a festive and youthful flavor to the proceedings. Eileen Engel’s costumes also evoke the time period perfectly and then lead into a more contemporary finale with the dramatic closing number, “The Song Of Purple Summer.” You might find a few similarities to “Hair” and the evocative “Age Of Aquarius” with lots of touchy-feely in the audience as, even through death and betrayal, love must win out.

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The cast of “Spring Awakening” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

This is a truly outstanding production of this haunting piece of musical theatre- raw emotion followed by serene, almost introspective beauty. You might recall moments about your own turning of age and the difficulties and trauma that inevitably turned to moments of pure bliss. “Spring Awakening” is often hard to watch but it screams of, not only growing up in 19th century Germany, but growing up anywhere, anytime, any place. It plays at Stray Dog Theatre through October 21st. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information. You may want to see this one at least twice!

 

 

 

“Lizzie” Slashes Its Way Across The New Line Stage With Powerful Performances

October 2, 2017
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Marcy Wiegert as Emma and Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie in the New Line production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Lizzie Borden has been a legend since childhood for many of us. The opening and closing of New Line’s latest off the wall musical, “Lizzie,” features that macabre nursery rhyme-like chant, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks…”- also made famous in the bizarre folk music icon which states “You can’t chop your mother up in Massachusetts.” Now, four wonderful performances by four stunning ladies brings that story to life.

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Anna Skidis Vargas holds the axe as the title character in “Lizzie” at New Line. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

It’s no doubt that Lizzie was the O.J. Simpson of her time (1892) because, despite overwhelming evidence, she was acquitted. The writing team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner focus on Lizzie being guilty and acting as she did because of sexual and mental abuse from her father and stepmother. Along with her sister Emma, they had been cut out the will and the pressure finally got to Lizzie and, by an axe, hatchet or some other implement, carried out her dastardly deed.

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Larissa White as Alice and Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie in the New Line production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Anna Skidis Vargas leads the way as a robust and manic Lizzie. Starting with the bizarre and haunting song, “This Is Not Love,” she sets the tone for the evening and then follows up with a resounding duet with next door neighbor, Alice, furthering the conflict with “Gotta Get Out Of Here.” There’s very little dialogue as the music drives this show with a marvelous rock beat.

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Marcy Wiegert rocks out as Emma Borden in “Lizzie” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

As Alice, another New Line favorite, Larissa White, brings a touch of innocence into this over the top story line. Although some folks in 1892 thought Lizzie might have been involved in a Lesbian relationship with the maid, Bridget, this version ties that in with Alice. Despite her love for Lizzie, she rats on her because she feels Lizzie has done something awful. In a cast filled with New Line powerful women, Kimi Short comes up as a doozy of a maid, Bridget Sullivan. As loony as the Borden sisters, she feels she had been slighted by the family- they still call her by the name of their previous maid.

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Anna Skidis Vargas and Marcy Wiegert as the Borden sisters in New Line’s production of “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Rounding out the cast is a stellar performance by Marcy Wiegert as Lizzie’s sister, Emma. With ramrod confidence and that fabulous shock of green hair, she simply kills the music with a Janis Joplin flair. Her second act duet with Lizzie (mainly her performance, though) of “WTF Now, Lizzie” (I cleaned that up a bit), is one of the brightest performances in musical moments on stage in our town.

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Larissa White rocks a ballad in “Lizzie” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Director Mike Dowdy-Windsor focuses solely on the tenacity of these women and the pulsing rock themes of the musical. They move about stage in half theatrical  performance/half concert mode. It’s killer direction with strong choreography aspects throughout. The rambling set design of Rob Lippert is right on the mark and his lighting design captures the essence of both the story line and the anachronistic feel of the production. Sarah Porter’s costumes also hold that out of date feel but perfectly exquisite in this setting.

The New Line band never sounded better with some unusual choices that gives the proper feel to the piece. Sarah Nelson leads the way and, with the band stretched around the backstage area and in plain sight more than ever, a few distractions ensue. The percussionist, Clancy Newell seemed to be the busiest man in town with everything from drums to cymbals to guiro and a lot more. And the cello is a distinct choice that really enriches the chaotic score. However, Miss Emily Trista Lane is a bit of a distraction with her 21st Century beauty in sharp contrast to the 19th Century fury and outlandish characters on stage just a step away from her.

Once again Scott Miller has brought a show I’ve been listening to for a while onto the stage. Perhaps I should give him a short (or long) list of shows I’d like to see in the future that I’ve enjoyed on CD over the years. Shows that no one else in town is ever likely to produce.

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Anna Skidis Vargas as Lizzie, Kimi Short as Bridget and Marcy Wiegert as Emma in New Line’s “Lizzie.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

“Lizzie” is more than a musical, it’s an event of epic proportions. These four women simply hew their way through a rock-perfect score and strike fear, terror and a bit of humor through the audience. This one is a no-brainer- you must see it and savor it. “Lizzie” plays at New Line at the Marcelle Theater through October 21st. Contact them at 314-534-1111 or at newlinetheatre.com for tickets or more information.

Weird, Wild And Wonderful- “The Feast” Opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio Eleventh Season

September 25, 2017
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Spencer Sickmann watches as Jennifer Theby-Quinn admires his masterpiece in “The Feast” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Bringing bathroom humor to a whole new level, “The Feast” offers a psychological study with outrageous humor and it’s all happening at St. Louis Actors’ Studio featuring- what else- three superb actors. And it’s written by a local young man, Cory Finley, who is a graduate of John Burroughs High School (answering the ultimate St. Louis query).

In the span of 70 minutes we see a young couple on the verge of a break up, a series of men who enter their lives- all looking very much like the same man- and a mental break down of gargantuan proportions. At the center of it all is an on stage toilet that appears to be talking to someone in grunts, groans and guttural cries for help- or maybe something else.

Spencer Sickmann is Matt- a struggling artist who is on the brink of madness due to the noises from his toilet who then eventually explores the “underworld” secrets that the toilet seems to draw him into. His girlfriend, Anna, is the wonderful Jennifer Theby-Quinn who may be fed up with his obsession or perhaps driving him further into it. Both actors have very expressive faces that convey a wide range of emotions. Mr. Sickmann combines the good (but neurotic) looks of Jake Gyllenhaal with the rubber-faced look of the old comedian Charlie Callas. Ms. Theby-Quinn is delightful even as she delivers the shocking news that she’s had an affair. The two are like oil and water that somehow combine to make a satisfying comedic/battling couple.

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Ryan Scott Foizey as the plumber and Spencer Sickmann as Matt have an interesting encounter during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Feast.” Photo: Patrick Huber

The broad humor of Ryan Scott Foizey has never been more lethal than playing the role of “The Man.” He is, indeed, several men. Playing a plumber who finds nothing unusual about the toilet and then Matt’s psychiatrist who drops hints that he is well aware of the underworld secrets of the toilet people who Matt has seen- then quickly changes his tune. Are we privy to Matt’s madness at this point or is the doctor playing tricks? Next he becomes Matt’s best friend who also slips into a scenario of how the underworld are at odds with Matt because he has painted a masterpiece that exposes their “secret life. And finally he becomes the man, Connor,  with whom Anna is having the affair. It’s a remarkable performance as you recognize Mr. Foizey- but you truly believe he, with a change of glasses and costumes, becomes the embodiment of each character.

This whole, wild world draws you in with the brilliant direction of John Pierson- himself chair of the Theatre, Speech and Dance department of the playwright’s alma mater. With a great eye for the absurd combined with the ability to make the strange world seem oh, so normal. He has brought outstanding performances from all three actors who all share the same tongue-in-cheek, wide-eyed believability.

Patrick Huber’s set and lights are perfect showing off the Brooklyn apartment and turning the focal point toilet into an almost ominous fourth character with lights and the glorious sounds it emits thanks to John Pierson’s scary yet funny creaks and groans. Carla Landis Evans has designed the perfect costumes including Matt’s opening wardrobe featuring a rose, silk robe, the business chic of Anna and then the transition of The Man’s four major characters.

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Spencer Sickmann as Matt contemplates his life and his toilet during the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Feast.” Photo: Patrick Huber

“The Feast” is a laugh out loud script that features an even funnier finale which may surprise. The twists and turns lead you to the ending which may be interpreted in several different ways. I thought it was obvious when I first thought about it and then I found myself thinking of several other scenarios. Let’s face it, you’re gonna love “The Feast.” It plays at St. Louis Actors’ Studio at Gaslight on Boyle through October 8th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for more information and how to get season tickets.

New Company, Inevitable Theatre, Brings “Unsuspecting Susan” To Life With Donna Weinsting

September 22, 2017
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Donna Weinsting as Susan in the Inevitable Theatre Company production of “Unsuspecting Susan.”

It’s not a new company- just to St. Louis. Transplanted from Dallas, Artistic Director Robert Neblett of Inevitable Theatre Company opens their stay in our area with a gem of a play called “Unsuspecting Susan” by British playwright, Stewart Permutt. Mr. Neblett had the foresight to ensure his success with the casting of local favorite, Donna Weinsting in this one woman play.

As Susan Chester, Ms. Weinsting brings the bright, bubbly and very opinionated character to life. With her background in stand up comedy, Donna has always had impeccable timing on the stage as well. During this 80 minute or so one-act, she gets chuckles and outright belly laughs from this outrageous character. She dotes on her son, Simon, who has evidently had a few questionable moments in his past due, in part, to a suspected mental problem.

It’s her gossiping about the neighbors in this small English village that bring the biggest guffaws of the night, however. A bit of a snob, she berates the local folks who question Simon’s behavior and wonder about the relationship of his new roommate in London.  It seems her son may have started to mature in his new environment and she chatters on about her visit there and her insistence to the roomie that he keep an eye on Simon.

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Donna Weinsting as Susan in “Unsuspecting Susan” ponders the bad news in the Inevitable Theatre Company production.

A somber change in tone suddenly happens when Susan gets some heart-breaking news. Again showing her versatility as an actress, Ms. Weinsting does a complete 180 as she goes through denial and then tries to explore what went wrong along the way and how she might have prevented it. It’s an astounding performance that reaches the depths of giddiness and despair in the flash of an eye.

Mr. Neblett has directed with a clever nuance that only an actress of Donna Weinsting’s talent could pull off. The production design by Bruce Bergner makes for a lovely, Hampshire setting and John “JT” Taylor’s lighting is impeccable. Christina Sittser not only has designed costumes, she also plays a small, non-speaking role in the production. Presented at The Chapel, which has become a wonderful, eclectic setting for plays, it provides a natural setting for one of the more tender and explosive moments of the evening.

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Reminiscing and gossiping by Donna Weinsting in “Unsuspecting Susan” by the Inevitable Theatre Company.

“Unsuspecting Susan” plays through September 30th. Be prepared to be rocked to your toes with the unexpected happenings and the solid performance from Donna Weinsting. Check out Inevitable Theatre Company at http://www.inevitabletheatre.org for tickets or more information.

 

Classic Production Of Classic “South Pacific” Closes Stages-St. Louis Season

September 17, 2017
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Joanne Javien as Bloody Mary and the Seabees in “South Pacific” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Rodgers and Hammerstein were said to have brought the modern musical to life with “Oklahoma” highlighted by the perfect marriage of story and songs. But “South Pacific” was even more innovative as it introduced, in 1949, a gritty story based on history that pulled no punches with it’s stance on several controversial issues that still plague us today. Stages-St. Louis has brought it to their stage once again and this is a powerful and gorgeous production that must be seen- even if you’ve seen the show time and time again.

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Leah Berry as Nellie and Michael Halling as Emile in the lovely opening scene of the Stages production of “South Pacific.” Photo: Peter Wochnicak

The direction and musical staging of Stages’ Artistic Director, Michael Hamilton, has melded beautifully with the wonderful choreography of Ellen Isom to bring a classic telling of James Michener’s “Tales Of The South Pacific” to life with a sumptuous look. Leah Berry brings a pert and cheery Nellie Forbush to us with a powerful acting job when she discovers the secret that Emile De Becque has decided to share with her. Her singing voice is powerful and playful with the diverse score of this Rodgers and Hammerstein hit. Matching her step for step is Michael Halling as the quintessential De Becque bringing a marvelous baritone to the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” and the powerful unrequited love song of the second act, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

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Matthew Hydzik as Cable and Sydney Jones as Liat in “South Pacific” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Matthew Hydzik does an equally powerful turn for the tenor section as Lieutenant Joe Cable. His “Younger Than Springtime” is exquisitely sung and then he gets the powerhouse number of the night with the second act masterpiece, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” As his love interest, Sydney Jones is a gorgeous Liat and the comedy portion of the night is brought by a solid Luther Billis as portrayed by Mark Diconzo and Joanne Javien with a delightfully bossy interpretation of Bloody Mary. Also look for some outstanding work- bringing humor to a serious situation- by veterans John Flack and Steve Isom.

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Luther Billis (Mark Diconzo) struts his stuff at the holiday show in the Stages-St. Louis production of “South Pacific.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

The ensemble work is, as usual, outstanding. My wife always preferred to be in the chorus because they usually dominate the stage work and this group of seabees and nurses do just that. I referred earlier to this production of “South Pacific” as sumptuous and a lot of that has to do with the solid set design of James Wolk and the lighting design of Sean M. Savoie. Reminiscent of the latest Lincoln Center production, they show the beauty of the South Pacific area in stunning scenes and colorful effects.

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Leah Berry and the nurses perform the iconic “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair” in “South Pacific” at Stages-St. Louis. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Garth Dunbar’s costumes are perfect with the possible exception of some anachronistic beige tennis shoes worn by some of the nurses. Lisa Campbell Albert does her usually steady job as musical director which brings out the lush and romantic score as well as the humor of the comedy numbers.

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The beautiful finale of “South Pacific” at Stages-St. Louis. A powerful statement that needs to be heeded today as well as it was in 1949. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Stages-St. Louis will close next season with the other Rodgers and Hammerstein hit I mention at the opening, “Oklahoma.” For now, however, give them a call at 314-821-2407 and make sure you get to this marvelous production of “South Pacific.”

Rep Opener Takes Quantum Leap With Stunning “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time”

September 12, 2017
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Jimmy Kieffer and Nick LaMedica in “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Just days after the sad news that Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Artistic Director Steven Woolf will retire in two years, one of the most impressive plays he has ever produced hits the boards with the Simon Stephens Tony winner, “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.” This look at a brilliant teen who dazzles with his complicated mind but can’t handle day to day social situations is a totally immersive play that draws us into his world with innovative staging and a powerful cast.

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Cast members of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” overwhelm Christopher at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge is director and choreographer even though this show is not a musical. But the ensemble cast play several roles and, in the mind of 15-year old Christopher Boone, his interactions with them ranges from friendly to hostile to outright fear. She shuttles the cast around the stage in often dizzying fashion and in the midst of it all, Christopher is often overwhelmed but never loses his focus on finding the real killer of his neighbor’s dog (he has been accused) and his reality of taking an early (for his age) test of the A-levels- the British equivalent of the SAT’s. No surprises here when the test results are revealed. Dodge is able to translate this unusual world of a budding genius into a frenzied but beautiful, whirling dance of a complicated mind.

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Nick LaMedica as Christopher works out math problems during the Rep’s production of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Nick LaMedica is nothing short of brilliant as Christopher. His confidence in himself is front and center yet he is constantly stunned and amazed at what is going on about him. With a healthy dose of sarcasm and determination, he tackles the obstacles in his way as overwhelming events unfold about his family, neighbors and the painful trip he must take to London. The story draws you in but it is the reactions and emotions this young man goes through in his journey that makes you care so much about this play.

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Nick LaMedica and the cast of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Jimmy Kieffer is outstanding as Christopher’s father. He tries to protect his son but it appears that he may have ulterior motives in keeping the biggest secret from him. Amy Blackman also shines as his mother who has also been duped in this heart breaking scenario. Kathleen Wise serves as a mentor and narrator to the story as she drives the plot along while observing Christopher’s problems and various encounters.

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Nick LaMedica and the ensemble in the Rep’s production of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The ensemble cast joins in with good work by Laiona Michelle as several characters including the next door neighbor and Kevin Cutts as her ex-husband who helps turn the crux of the plot. Michael Baxter, Nathan B. Williams, Ka-Ling Cheung and Dale Hodges round out the cast who do yeoman work creating characters and keeping the mind of Christopher turning at hectic speed.

The Narelle Sissons set design is stunning and a bit overwhelming itself. Combined with the Matthew Richards lighting design, it makes for a visual feast to compare with the beautiful story unfolding on stage. Leon Wiebers costumes are effective with the odd item here and there combining to handle a cast of characters with just a handful of actors. David Bullard’s sound design also adds to the shock value of the play.

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Laiona Michelle and Nick LaMedica in “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a curious story that comes from the original, stunning novel by Mark Haddon. He never thought the story could be translated to film or the stage but playwright Simon Stephens cleverly treats it as a play, a mind-bending experience and a diary of Christopher’s life. And he’s got a Tony to prove his instincts were right. Catch this beautiful, powerful and heart-wrenching experience at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through October 1st. Call them at 314-968-4925 and get in on the fun and creative mind-boggling experience that is “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.”

 

 

Existential “Snow White” Is Perfect Fit For Quirky St. Louis Fringe Festival

August 23, 2017
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Some of the motley crew of dwarves? in “Snow White” by ERA at the Fringe. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Is it an existential retelling of a favorite fairy tale or, as they tell us in hand outs, “Snow White” from another planet? Whatever the case, ERA has brought us a bizarre and highly entertaining evening at the Fringe Festival. Snow White? Yes, although a bit bored with her lot. The evil stepmother? Yes, but having trouble carrying out her plan to do in Snow- so maybe she’ll choose someone else instead. The handsome prince? Yes, but he’s a bit too self-centered and, frankly, lazy to carry out his mission so he becomes a monk instead.

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Katy Keating as Snow White’s biological mother and often narrator of “Snow White,” casts an eye to the future. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Lucy Cashion has brought us outlandish takes on other classics including the brilliant “Oedipus Apparatus” last year at WEPG. This one is truly ambitious and convoluted and, even if you have trouble following it, it’s still one entertaining piece of theatre. Maggie Conroy shines as the sometimes bewildered evil stepmother. Toting one of those long cigarette holders stolen from an old Noel Coward play, she dominates with her ranting and raving and conspiring with the mirror. The mirror is a projection on a screen over the back of the stage and it offers prerecorded messages from those looking into the “mirror” for advice. The mirror even talks back through whatever character is facing it but with the resonant voice of Randy Brachman telling it like it is.

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Mitch Eagles and Maggie Conroy spy on the neighbors- or is it the audience in ERA’s “Snow White” at the Fringe Festival. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Julia Crump is the perfectly whiny Snow White wondering where the action is and why her prince isn’t interested in her life style living with seven “grown up” dwarves. Katy Keating is Snow White’s biological mother and narrator of the piece as she continues to relate increasingly dire news of how the young one died. Will Bonfiglio makes a charming prince who perhaps has the most existential conversations of the evening and eventually decides life is easier as a monk so he can be an onlooker instead of a participant.

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Reginald Pierre as dwarf “Kevin” spouts off in “Snow White” as ERA’s entry into the St. Lou Fringe. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

The seven gentlemen who share their abode and feelings with Snow include a hip Reginald Pierre who has mastered the “looking busy with a hair pick” mode and the nervous note-taker, Henry, as portrayed by the always spot on Carl Overly, Jr. Alex Fyles is the cowboy, and others in the motley crew include Mitch Eagles, Anthony Kramer, Gabe Taylor and Pete Winfrey- each with a distinctive style as they each bring something to the table.

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The cast of ERA’s “Snow White” playing at the St. Lou Fringe Festival. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Speaking of table, they partake in a wild and wicked salad making sequence that would have Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg inviting them over for Thanksgiving dinner. It brings a whole new meaning to “is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just making fruit salad?” As they go off stage- and sometimes on stage- they do a shuffle off to Buffalo while uttering the classic Snow White mantra, “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho.”

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The radical leader of the “dwarves,” Mitch Eagles as Bill, gets tied up during “Snow White” at ERA’s St. Louis Fringe presentation. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Joe Taylor provides the creative musical score and also is the video director of the clever mirror sequences. Marcy Wiegert brings the right touch to her delightful costumes- some traditional, some slightly left of center. And the whole, wild, upside-down world of “Snow White” is adapted, scene designed and directed by the one and only Lucy Cashion.

When I was a student at Florissant Valley Community College in the mid 60’s, a friend of mine and I who specialized in re-writing classic American musicals in different genres, tackled several stories that were staged at the college. One of them was “Carbon Black and The Eight Dwarves.” We were unconventional as well- instead of writing  new lyrics for the songs in Disney’s classic film, we featured the same lyrics but changed the tunes- for instance, the dwarves sang “Oh, We Whistle While We Work” to the tune of “There Is A Tavern In The Town.” So I’m used to an unorthodox take on Snow White.

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Another group shot of the cast of “Snow White” at the St. Lou Fringe as presented by ERA. Photo: Meredith LaBounty

Equally Represented Arts (ERA), has brought a whole new meaning to fairy tales in general and to “Snow White” in particular. Unfortunately, as the St. Louis Fringe Festival flies by very quickly, you only have until Saturday to catch the madness that is “Snow White.” Go to the St. Lou Fringe Festival site and get your tickets now- it’s playing at the recently revamped Grandel Square Theatre.

 

“In The Heights” Brings The Heat As R-S Theatrics Powers This Local Premiere

August 21, 2017
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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Before “Hamilton” ran away with the Tony’s, Lin-Maneul Miranda won his share of Tony’s for “In The Heights-” including Best Musical. Now we finally get to see that show thanks to R-S Theatrics with their usual smooth and exciting production values. This one’s incredibly hot with the salsa rhythms and a series of story lines centered on the Hispanic community in Washington Heights.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

In one of her dream productions, R-S Theatric’s Artistic Director, Christina Rios, takes the reins as director of “In The Heights” and brings us a scintillating production that brings the house down. Jesse Munoz plays one of the lead characters, Usnavi (if you haven’t guessed where he got the name, the show will explain) and he gives a charming, almost laid-back performance that’s effective for the role. We see the love blossom between he and Vanessa, played with spark and sass  by Natasha Toro.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Another love story we follow is that between Camila and Benny, played with style and longing by Cassandra Lopez and Marshall Jennings. Since Benny works for her father, their love is a bit on the sly as both his father, a stern yet caring Jaime Zayas and his mother, another laid back performance by Maritza Motta-Gonzalez don’t approve of their relationship

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Stealing the show is Anna Skidis Vargas as hairdresser Daniela. Together with her partner in style, Gabriela Diaz as Carla, they rock the house with the first act number, “No Me Diga” and then Skidis starts the fun going in the second act with “Carnaval Del Barrio” which lights up the stage with a powerful ensemble number.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Cecily A .King roots another story as Claudia’s mother. We see teen Claudia with a lovely performance by Isabel Garcia and then young Claudia featuring nice work by Alora Marguerite. As the grandmother, Abuela Claudia, Carmen Garcia blows us away with her feature number and provides the foundation for this little family of saints and sinners who inhabit the barrio.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

As usual, the ensemble stands out in an R-S Theatrics show and the crisp direction and amazing achievements of choreographer Cecily A. King on this small stage are highlights.  And the always marvelous work of conductor Leah Luciano gets an extra lift with an expanded orchestra including nice work by Ron Foster on trumpet and Mike Hansen on drums and Peter Gunn on percussion- two sounds essential to this musical. The whole orchestra is right on.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

I’m still having a bit of difficulty falling in love with .Zack space- it’s a bit too cumbersome at times- particularly for a full fledged musical production. But Keller Ryan has provided a very workable set that includes a lot of quick scene changes with items being rolled off and on. Sarah Porter’s costumes are colorful and perfect while the lighting of Nathan Schroeder is great but we had a few missed cues on press night. Once this show gets moving and the adrenal builds for full houses, it’s all going to work to perfection.

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Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

“In The Heights” is a massive undertaking but R-S Theatrics has surprised us before and they’re doing it again. It runs through September 3rd but most performances are sold out- in fact they’ve just added a Thursday night performance to accommodate the demand for tickets. Give them a call at 314-252-8812 and keep your fingers crossed that you get to see this wonderful production.