“Luchadora!” Is Tender, Touching Story With Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo Joining Forces

June 6, 2018

Isabel Garcia and Carmen Garcia as Vanessa and Nana Lupita in “Luchadora!” at Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo’s joint production. Photo: John Lamb

A lunch conversation with her mother and a briefcase bring Vanessa into a world she never suspected was part of her heritage- lucha libre wrestling. As Lupita’s story unfolds,  we get to see this history of masked wrestlers unfold before our eyes with twists and turns that both Vanessa and the audience cannot believe. That’s how we start our story of “Luchadora!” at Deanna Jent’s Mustard Seed Theatre in a joint production with Theatre Nuevo and AD Anna Skidis Vargas.

We flash back to when young Lupita was working with her father selling flowers from his small pushcart in a small border town in Texas. He asks Lupita to take a briefcase to a local mask maker but implores her not to look in the case. What other incentive does a child need? She discovers a mask of a lucha libre wrestler and begins to wonder what it means.


Thalia Cruz (in background) as young Lupita gets instruction from the Mask Maker, played by Cassandra Lopez in becoming a wrestler in the Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo joint production of “Luchadora!” Photo: John Lamb

Thalia Cruz is a charmer as the young Lupita. Vulnerable and naive, she soon discovers that the mask maker, played with strength and resolve by Cassandra Lopez, has been making and repairing masks for her father for some time- because he is the famous Mascalarosa who was set to meet El Hijo for the world championship when he became a no show. As we learn from the tender and performance of Rahamses Galvan as her father, he injured his back and is still in pain- even though El Hijo still haunts him and taunts him from the ring whenever El Hilo appears at matches.

Two young locals- German immigrants, Leopold and Liesl, are Lupita’s best friends and soon they all discover her father’s secret. He is determined to meet El Hijo in Milwaukee and settle the score once and for all. Cassidy Flynn and Ashley Skaggs are the fresh faced friends and the three of them make the most of just being kids with such a heavy secret now in their grasp. Leo and Liesl have a sister, Hannah, played with passion by Hannah Pauluhn who offers a sad side story as well. She also plays a series of smaller roles throughout the play.


The kids wrestle as young Lupita decides she will become a stand in for her father in “Luchadora!” at the Mustard Seed and Theatre Nuevo co-production. Photo: John Lamb

Isabel Garcia makes a delightful Vanessa as she discovers Lupita’s secret after looking in her briefcase, just as young Lupita did those many years ago. And, telling her story, Carmen Garcia is a treasure as the lady luchadora. The mask maker encourages the young girl to learn the trade and then go on against El Hijo in her father’s stead with her as her trainer. The wonderful Carl Overly, Jr. plays multiple roles as well but is most impressive as the brash, masked El Hilo. He pops up all around the stage with his taunts to Mascalarosa. Rounding out the cast in a series of small roles is Ryan Lawson-Maeske.

Anna Skidis Vargas directs with a real feel for the material- written about the memories of his grandmother by Alvaro Saar Rios. David Blake’s two level set is remarkable with a small acting area on upper stage left where Vanessa and Lupita enjoy their surprising lunch and a bridge crossing over to steps leading down to the main acting area that becomes a wrestling training area, the flower cart, the mask maker’s business and a bike trail for the three youngsters. Michael Sullivan’s lights also are effective offering both drama and playfulness. Mark Kelley provides the unusual fighting choreography as young Lupita is taught her most dangerous weapon, the elbow drop. Then a small, roped off ring rolls into the MainStage for the exciting conclusion.


Carl Overly, Jr. as El Hijo taunting his rival in the Mustard Seed/Theatre Nuevo production of “Luchadora!” Photo: John Lamb

“Luchadora!” brought back a lot of memories as my grandfather was a big wrestling fan and we took him to the old Kiel Auditorium many times to watch American wrestlers but he then watched a lot of lucha libre wrestling as well as all kinds of wrestling became quite the rage. The play mixes a lot of life lessons about the hard life of the migrant workers, many of whom tried to escape and become luchadora’s and, of course, about family loyalty. It plays at Mustard Seed Theatre through June 17th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information.

Singing, Acting Help Pull “Yeast Nation” Off The Bottom Of The Sea At New Line

June 4, 2018

Yeasts gather to honor their chief Jan the Eldest (Zachary Allen Farmer-seated) at the opening of “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

New Line Theatre and AD Scott Miller have brought back musicals everyone counted as dead like “Cry Baby,” “High Fidelity” and many more that deserved to be restaged. Many have had life in repertory theatres because of that spark of life New Line gave them. Although the music is pretty good and the acting and singing are outstanding, “Yeast Nation” may not be one of those musicals. With the creative team of Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who brought us “Urinetown,” this tale of primordial goop from 3 billion years ago is a one joke show that doesn’t hold water.


Sarah Gene Dowling as the blind Jan the Unnamed invokes the philosophy of the yeast in New Line Theatre’s production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

In typical fashion, the New Liners bring us a wonderful production full of energy and singing and acting skills that are stellar. But yeast and single cell organisms are not the stuff of successful musicals. The secret here is to stick around for the second act when the score improves and you can forget that you’re watching yeast instead of people.


Zachary Allen Farmer as Jan the Eldest talks to Michael Lowe as Jan the Wise while Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest stands in the background in “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Zachary Allen Farmer- a New Line veteran- holds down the fort as Jan (pronounced yahn) the Elder, the chief yeast who rules his nation with a firm but loving hand as he lets us know with his opening number, “You Are My Children.” Jan the Second-Oldest is a powerful Dominic Dowdy-Windsor who discovers something not common to the yeast nation, an emotion called love. The object of his affection is the beautiful and wistful Jan the Sweet, sweetly portrayed by Larissa White.


Larissa White as Jan the Sweet professes her love for Dominick Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest in the New Line Theatre production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The “heavy” yeast, Jan the Wise, is played by Michael Lowe. He believes in keeping the rules of the nation strict and by the book- the Mike Pence of one cell beings. He also has affection for Jan the Sweet but she rejects his advances. Also throwing a monkey wrench into yeast harmony is Grace Langford as Jan the Sly. She plots to overthrow (let’s just say kill) the Elder and, when her plot goes awry, she turns on the Second Oldest. Jan the Famished is the delightful Jennelle Gilreath and Keith Thompson as Jan the Wretched meets an early demise but comes back as a prominent member of the ensemble!


Zachary Allen Farmer as Jan the Elder, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Jan the Second Oldest and Grace Langford as Jan the Sly with the other yeasts in the New Line Theatre production of “Yeast Nation.” Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Sarah Gene Dowling is the blind and capricious Jan the Unamed and Colin Dowd (a reverse of the versatile Keith Thompson) comes out of the ensemble to take on the part of the newly born Jan the Youngest. An illicit affair with gunk from above (Second Oldest has “risen” Illegally to the top of the ocean and brought back the substance) has resulted in The New One- a new type of life form in the form of Lex Ronan. The usual outstanding ensemble does a wonderful job in backing up all this insanity. All of this speculation on indiscriminate life 3 billion years ago on the ocean floor just didn’t grab me. But, it’s all about the execution and Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have certainly “risen” above the weak material to bring us an entertaining show.


Grace Langford as Jan the Sly and Jennelle Gilreath as Jan the Famished in “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert has given us a fine representation of the ocean bottom (no sign of Spongebob Squarepants, however) along with the assistance of Victoria Xu. Sarah Porter has also given us this unusual vision in the form of very esoteric costumes that represent the sameness of yeast while giving them all their own individuality. Sarah Nelson leads the wonderful New Line Band in a score that gets better as the evening goes on.


The New Line ensemble gather at the bottom of the sea for “Yeast Nation” at New Line Theatre. Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Don’t look for “Yeast Nation” to resuscitate itself as so many New Line reincarnations have in the past but it’s a nice way to while away a couple of hours with the enormous talent on stage, some good music and a few laughs along the way even if the one-joke script may fail to win you over. “Yeast Nation” plays at New Line Theatre through June 23rd. Contact them at newlinetheatre.com for tickets or show information.














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.


Gripping “Judgment At Nuremberg” Latest At The Midnight Company

April 27, 2018

Photo: Joey Rumpell

The film version of “Judgment At Nuremberg” was nominated for eleven Oscars and won two- one for Maximilian Schell as the defense attorney and one for adapted screenplay for Abby Mann. She had earlier written the play for the old Playhouse 90 television show and then revised the script for this stage version. It made courtroom drama popular which inspired “Perry Mason” and the slew of such shows we’ve had since. This one from The Midnight Company is a stellar production with excellent visual effects to enhance the proceedings.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

Joe Hanrahan, Artistic Director of Midnight, plays Judge Dan Haywood, the lead judge who, along with two others, must decide the fate of three men involved in the Third Reich and their participation in Nazi war crimes. With a laid back and keen eye for the facts, Mr. Hanrahan dissects the evidence and comes to his own conclusions while one of the other two judges balks at his findings. It’s a complicated case which must be weighed for the merits of their actions at the time and what they knew about the atrocities involving concentration camps and the horrific things that went on there. His final confrontation in the judges’ chambers and the outcome of the trial of the three men (judges in their own right at the time) are powerful stuff.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

Chuck Winning as prosecutor Colonel Tad Parker is dynamic in his delivery and has the power of the films from the camps that Hitler insisted on recording by the likes of filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riesenstahl (used extensively in the powerful documentary “Night And Fog”). His foe, Oscar Rolfe, is played with stunning bravado and even touching sympathy by Cassidy Flynn. His impassioned plea in his final summation is heartbreaking.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

The other judges are played by Jack Corey and Charles Heuvelman while the three on trial are played by the brilliant Steve Callahan, Terry TenBroek and Hal Morgan. Charlotte Dougherty is superb as the landlady to Judge Haywood for his stay in Nuremberg, Mrs. Habelstadt and a bravura performance from Rachel Tibbets as Frau Margarete Bertholt who the judge displaced in the apartment. She becomes the tour guide and close companion of the judge during his stay in Germany.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

Other characters including witnesses and military personnel include fine work by Francesca Ferrari and Jaz Tucker along with Mark Abels, Steve Garrett, Michael B. Perkins and Alex Fyles.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

Ellie Schwetye has directed with a strong knowledge of the time and importance of the material. She moves things along and keeps the two hour (with one intermission) play gripping and tense. The Jonah Sheckler set design is functional  but the video design of Michael B. Perkins makes the difference with a steady set of slides and film projected on the background to put us in the place whether it be the courtroom, the ruins of Nuremberg, the horrors of the concentration camps or other sites around the area. Bess Moynihan’s lights are just about perfect and the appropriate costumes of Sarah Porter complete the look that keeps the play riveted in the time period. A shout out to Pamela Reckamp as well for her excellent work in keeping the actors on point with their dialects.


Photo: Joey Rumpell

It’s hard to direct a cast this large in such an important work. Although some of the acting was a bit sketchy, the power of the story comes through in a production worthy of your time. It’s a reminder in these days  when where we’re seeing stories on social media about millennials who have no idea what a concentration camp was that we can never forget. “Judgment At Nuremberg” has a short run- only through this Sunday but you also have a chance to see two matinees (along with evening performances) on Saturday and Sunday. Contact the Missouri History Museum (where the play is being staged) at mohistory.org/judgement-at-nuremberg for tickets.

Upstream Theater Brings Humor And Compassion With “A Tree, Falling”

April 20, 2018

Jerry Vogel and Kari Ely in the Upstream Theater production of “A Tree, Falling.” Photo: Virginia Harold

Two of St. Louis’ finest actors bring a story about dementia to life with a touching and compassionate look at a performer with the failing disease and his “friendly visitor” who becomes his hope and lifeline. “A Tree, Falling” is by Australian playwright Ron Elisha and his play is a gentle and profound production at Upstream Theater.


Kari Ely as Lola tries to explain things to Jerry Vogel as Lenny in “A Tree, Falling” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Jerry Vogel is almost unrecognizable as Lenny- a man who has trouble remembering where he is but can recall incidents and names from his past that even the best of us couldn’t recall. His aging make up and his demeanor belie the usual spirit he portrays on stage. Rambling in speech and ambling in walk, he deftly portrays this man who constantly has to ask of his friendly visitor (I presume an Australian term for in home caregiver) what her name is and who she is.


Kari Ely as Lola tries to comfort the frustrated Jerry Vogel in Upstream Theatre’s production of “A Tree Falling.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Kari Ely as Lola brings a tender performance as she gradually comes to depend on Lenny as much as he does on her. Even when she explodes when Lenny has thrown her son’s keyboard into the pot belly stove soon gives way to compassion. It is a nuanced performance that makes this play work so well.


Jerry Vogel as Lenny carries the infamous keyboard in the Upstream Theater production of “A Tree, Falling.” Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Director Michael Dorsey has created that feel on stage with his equally powerful direction. He never lets things turn too maudlin and the result is an uplifting story that just may bring a tear to your eye. Christie Johnson’s set design cover several areas including Lenny’s kitchen that holds that infamous pot belly stove where he likes to throw things he doesn’t want or doesn’t recognize (short term memory is a real problem for him). Tony Anselmo provides a great lighting design and Laura Hanson’s costumes are appropriate to the characters.


Kari Ely embraces Jerry Vogel in “A Tree, Falling” at Upstream Theater. Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com

Upstream Theater has long presented plays from other countries (a lot of them translated by Artistic Director Philip Boehm) and this one from prolific Australian playwright Ron Elisha is a worthy addition. It plays through April 29th and you can go to http://www.upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information.

Heartbreaking “The Dresser” Closes Out St. Louis Actors’ Studio Season

April 18, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak and Richard Lewis in “The Dresser” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Playwright Ronald Harwood has crafted several plays set in the theatre about actors, but “The Dresser” is probably his most poignant and deeply affecting play. It’s the current production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. During the beginning of the war in Europe in 1942, air raid sirens shriek through the night as a troupe of actors attempts to stage “King Lear” in the English Provinces while everyone’s life seems to be on hold.

At the heart of the show are Sir, an aging actor who has bouts of insecurity and doubt which may show signs of approaching senility and his loyal dresser of 16 years, Norman. Though Sir has affection for Norman, he constantly berates him for his own forgetfulness as he tries to blame his battle with lines and other business on his dresser. On the other hand, Norman simply adores Sir and it shows in his devotion and his defense of Sir’s foibles to others who would argue against his failings.

David Wassilak gives an emotion-ridden performance as Norman. You can see the aguish in his face and hear it in his voice as he tries to support the faltering actor. On scene especially caught my eye as Sir’s long suffering wife, Her Ladyship, flips off a statement, “Who wants to see him act anyway?” After a pause, with a look of pity and, ironically, self doubt, Norman responds, “There’s bound to be someone.” That moment sums up the devotion and love he has for his mentor and hero.


John Contini as Sir and David Wassilak as Norman in the St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of “The Dresser.” Photo: Patrick Huber

Veteran John Contini who, in another ironic twist, actually played Lear on this stage a few season ago, is nothing short of brilliant as the aging actor. His bluster and bravado have not waned even if his ability to remember the opening line has. Chatting with Mr. Contini after the show, he said he feels this is an even more difficult role than that of King Lear. The nuance and balance between a proud actor and the fear that he may be losing his ability to continue is something to behold. It’s a polished and heartbreaking performance.

Missy Heinemann is superb as Her Ladyship. She too treads a tight line between her devotion to her husband and irritation with the often reckless decisions he is beginning to make. Emily Baker is hilarious as the stage manager, Madge, who really keeps the offstage production of “King Lear” running despite the air raid sirens and the questionable delays in getting Sir onto the stage and the hold-your-breath drama of getting him through yet another performance. Also a highlight is Bridgette Basa as a young actress who is rescued from yet another lascivious encounter with the rakish Sir in his dressing room.

As a particular whipping boy to Sir, Richard Lewis is sad but funny as he is dressed down  (dressed as a clown) by the actor while Chuck Brinkley gives dead pan humor to his role as one actor who stands up to the great Sir. Rounding out the cast are two non-speaking roles as Lear’s men, Jeremy Goldmeier and Anthony Heinemann.

Director Bobby Miller has brought a deft touch to this sad story laced with wicked humor. He brings out the sympathy without reaching too far into the maudlin. Patrick Huber has once again spun his magic on the intricate set design that makes a very small stage seem open and inviting. Dalton Robinson provides a wonderful lighting design and, another magician of the theatre, Teresa Doggett, has brought us an incredible costume design that evokes the majesty of the theatre in 1942.

I talked to Wayne Salomon after the performance (yes, we were in the men’s room at adjoining urinals) about how St. Louis Actors’ Studio is like the reincarnation of one of the greatest theatre troupes of old, Theatre Project Company. Wayne, along with Bobby Miller (one of the founding members), John Contini and David Wassilak were all part of TPC. In fact several folks I talked to at the cast party expressed the same feeling. In fact, we may hear more about Theatre Project Company in the future.


Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak and John Contini in “The Dresser” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: Patrick Huber

Enough reminiscing- audiences are just happy that we have such a distinguished company playing our area today. “The Dresser” is part of that heritage now and it will join the ranks of outstanding theatre produced in Gaslight Square over the years. “The Dresser” plays through April 29th. Give them a call at 314-458-2978 for tickets or more information.

#straydogsuperstar Says It All As They Present Their Take On “Jesus Christ Superstar”

April 15, 2018

The crowds surround Jesus (Omega Jones) in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo: John Lamb

Despite the Easter Sunday presentation on NBC, I was looking forward to my favorite (though probably not his best) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Not to be outdone, Stray Dog Theatre matched them pretty much move for move, note for note and character for character and even outdid the TV team in several areas. Another triumph for our local theatre scene.


The Last Supper in “Jesus Christ Superstar at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Perhaps the most significant power play was Omega Jones as Jesus. Though John Legend is a pop star, that’s not the Jesus I want to see. A true theatre artist who possesses a powerful singing voice is what fits this show and Mr. Jones fills that bill. Whether taking the low road or belting it to the rafters in the appropriate setting of Tower Grove Abbey, he delivers in every respect and acts the hell (can I say that in an Abbey?) out of the role. Following closely in his footsteps is Stray Dog’s Judas Iscariot, Phil Leveling. His role may be the most demanding across the board vocally and he just gets stronger as the night goes on.


Omega Jones as Jesus, Heather Matthews as Mary and Phil Leveling as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Add to that the beautiful and golden voiced Heather Matthews as Mary Magdalene (who is also a superb actress) and you’ve got the trifecta at the top of this show that carries it through with a powerful story told in the most contemporary of manner. It doesn’t hurt to have a great supporting cast and excellent ensemble behind you and these people really throw themselves into this show. John Hey is a properly menacing Caiaphas  as he puts forth his best effort to destroy this King of the Jews before he gains too much popularity. As his major domo, Mike Hodges shines as well as a perfectly oily sidekick to one of the most powerful men in Rome. Mr. Hodges also bring a tremendous presence to the choreography that is no mean feat with such a large ensemble inside this somewhat limited space.


Lavonne Byers as Pilate rebukes Omega Jones as Jesus in Stray Dog Theatre’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo: John Lamb

Lavonne Byers never ceases to amaze and, unusually cast in the role of Pontius Pilate, she commands the stage when she’s on. Her breakdown when she can no longer condemn this “miserable puppet” Jesus, is a master class in singing/acting. Gerry Love trips out as the loquacious King Herod as he and his crew taunt Jesus. Riley Dunn also weighs in with a great performance as Simon Zealots as does the stunning collapse of Peter brought to us by Kevin Corpuz.


Gerry Love as Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

As usual, Stray Dog uses the aisles, the stage and even streaming through the pews at one point to utilize the entire space of the Abbey. Like a well oiled machine, the ensemble and principal cast take this popular show and stamp it with their own brand. The results are moving and spectacular.


Kevin Corpuz as Peter and Omega Jones as Jesus in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo: John Lamb

Director Justin Been takes us on a religious and metaphysical journey through the last days of Jesus. He has pumped this entire cast with an enthusiasm that keeps the audience moving and rocking all night long. Music director Jennifer Buchheit also gets the band revved up bringing out the power and drive of the music as well as keeping bassist M. Joshua Ryan busy with that solid undertone in so many numbers. The Josh Smith set design is perfect for the various areas where the story is set and he has even cleverly hidden the band under the row of steps leading to the palace and various other spots. Eileen Engel’s costumes are a wide mix- most appropriate to Director Been’s vision as “a distant future in the Golgotha Territory.”


Jesus (Omega Jones) greets his followers as Caiaphas (Jon Hey) looks on in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

Using one intermission, “Jesus Christ Superstar” still only runs about two hours. When this show comes along, you’ve got to see it. Fortunately you’ll see one of the better interpretations of the Webber and Rice masterpiece at Stray Dog Theatre. A lot of performances are already sold out so give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” And As Funny As Ever At St. Louis Shakespeare

April 12, 2018

Ted Drury and Rober Thibault as Guldenstern and Rosencrantz (or is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?) at the St. Louis Shakespeare production. Photo: Ron James

Tom Stoppard dazzled audiences with his take on “Hamlet” back in the 60’s with a look at two minor characters who we follow in and around Elsinore while major folk from that Shakespeare drama drift in and out of their action. “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” was one of those watershed moments in theatre history when a clever idea melded with a clever script to drive a thirsty audience to the well to drink it all in. Now St. Louis Shakespeare has brought this colorful cast of characters to life again.


Wendy Renee Greenwood, Ted Drury, Nicholas Kelly and Robert Thibault in “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Ron James

You no doubt remember the pair of school chums of Hamlet who offer sage as well as frivolous advice to the Prince of Denmark. News of their death in “Hamlet” doesn’t evoke a tear or even a thought, actually but when they become the focus of the play and Polonius, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude and even the Player from the play that Hamlet hopes will “catch the conscious of the king,” take a back seat, it takes on a whole new story.


Robert Thibault and Ted Drury watch as Isaiah Di Lorenzo emotes during the St. Louis Shakespeare production of “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo: Ron James

Robert Thibaut and Ted Drury recapture the errant pair in a most ingenious way. Almost like a great comedy team from the 50’s or 60’s they set each other up and wax philosophical (not so astute, yet philosophical nonetheless) in the Tom Stoppard nonstop wordplay and nonsense that is “R&G.” From the infamous coin tossing game as the play opens (90-something “heads” in a row) to their myriad other games and bets and into the marvelous patter that accentuates their lives, this is a glimpse of what these two characters probably do when they are “off stage” during “Hamlet.” In the Rep’s recent production of Shakespeare’s work, their Hamlet took on a wise-cracking tone as well and it was a fascinating new look at the character. Thibaut and Drury also change the dynamics of this play a bit with a more unconventional look at the pair.


Eileen Engel as the pensive Ophelia in “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Ron James

King Claudius- who killed Hamlet’s father and took, not only his crown but his wife as well, is played with a matter of fact (I’m the king and there’s nothing you can do about it) attitude by Nicholas Kelly. Boisterous yet secure, he is joined by the stately Wendy Renee Greenwood as Gertrude. The lovely and slightly pensive Eileen Engel plays an almost mute Ophelia and Dan McGee is the proper and befuddled elder statesman, Polonius. Rounding out the major cast of “Hamlet” and the minor cast of “Rosencrantz…etc.” is Scott McDonald as the melancholy Dane himself. Brooding and reflective, he is everything you expect from the Dane and less (by the nature of this version).


The Players offer an impromptu performance during the St. Louis Shakespeare production of “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo: Ron James

The true supporting characters to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the players from “Hamlet” who are to perform in the royal court using a convenient piece in the repertoire that explores the killing of the king by his brother and the eventual take over of the throne. With bravado and just the right touch of “over the top,” Isaiah Di Lorenzo takes this Goth version of the lead player to new heights. From a coquettish lift of his kilt to dramatic poses and faces, he is the epitome of what this play needs. Where R & G are clever with their wordplay, the lead player takes the humor to the broadest level possible and it works beautifully.


Dan McGee as Polonius and Scott McDonald as Hamlet in “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Ron James

Joe Garner is the hapless “leading lady” persona of the troupe of players which also include Genevieve Collins as lead ukulele, Megan Wiegert, Cliff Turner and Michael Pierce. They all get their chance to shine in the off beat and almost impromptu performances they offer throughout the show.


Headed for England are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with Hamlet on a deck chair in the background during the St. Louis Shakespeare production. Photo: Ron James

Artistic Director of St. Louis Shakespeare, Suki Peters, has directed with a nimble touch that brings out the clever humor of the piece while stamping it with her own sense of style and flair. Chuck Winning has brought a versatile set that transitions throughout the piece (it’s three acts, but moves very quickly). The Meredith LaBounty costumes are spot on adding touches of humor with an AC/DC tee shirt on one of the players and a God Save The Queen tee on Hamlet and, of course, the kilt that goes with the outrageous make up for the Player. Kevin Bowman’s lights are also quite effective.


Hamlet reflects with R & G during the St. Louis Shakespeare production of “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo: Ron James

“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” hasn’t been performed, to my knowledge, in the area for quite some time. Saw it quite a bit in the years following the Broadway run but that cutting edge wit and fascinating look at “Hamlet” from the back porch is always a welcome sight. St. Louis Shakespeare and Suki Peters have done it justice. It plays at the Ivory Theatre through April 15th. Contact boxoffice@stlshakespeare.org for tickets or more information.