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.


WEPG Closes Season With Brutal, Twisty “Cardboard Piano”

April 10, 2018

Jazmine Wade and Frankie Ferrari pledge themselves to each other in the West End Players Guild production of “Cardboard Piano.”

With two acts set 15 years apart, “Cardboard Piano” has a lot to say in the season finale at West End Players Guild. From a church in Uganda in 1999 to the same setting in 2014, a lot more than just the church has changed and a few unexpected plot twists enhance this tender story that mixes love and war in a most unforgiving way.

With a war going on outside, two young women meet secretly to celebrate their wedding on New Years Eve of 1999 at a small church in Uganda. Frankie Ferrari is Chris and, although unofficial (even inside a church), she promises herself to her friend, Adiel (Jazmine Wade). Adeil’s parents operate the church and, of course, their forbidden love can’t happen any other way. They are interrupted by Pika, played by Darrious Varner, a soldier who is trying to escape another determined soldier played by Reginald Pierre.


Jazmine Wade and Frankie Ferrari tend to a wounded soldier, played by Darrious Varner in “Cardboard Piano” at WEPG.

The cast is outstanding even if the Hansol Jung play has a first act that drags a bit due to repetition. But the closing moments are horrific and bring the outside war stunningly into the church. It’s a payoff that transitions into the future in the second act with a plot twist the audience never sees coming.

In that second act, the same players take on different roles except for Ms. Ferrari who plays her same character, Chris. Jazmine Wade becomes Ruth, wife of the pastor of the newly renovated church, Paul, played by Mr. Pierre. He and Mr. Varner, who is now a friend of the church, Francis, become pivotal parts in the plot twists  building on the original story.

Linda Kennedy shines as director of “Cardboard Piano” with her strong touch mixing the fragile elements of the story in with pathos and passion. She leads the characters and the audience into a world we’re not familiar with but we soon relate to due to the brilliant direction handled by an equally competent cast.


Darrious Varner, Jazmine Wade and Frankie Ferrari in WEPG’s “Cardboard Piano.”

The simple but effective set and lighting design by Renee Sevier-Monsey add to the bare bones feel of the little church and Tracy Newcomb’s costumes add just the right elements. “Cardboard Piano” runs at WEPG through April 15th. Give them a call at 314-667-5686 for tickets or more information.

“New Jerusalem” At New Jewish Features Spinoza And His Religious Battles

April 9, 2018

John Flack, Greg Johnston and Jim Butz discuss the fate of Spinoza in “New Jerusalem” at the New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Playwright David Ives is well known for his outrageous comedies but, with a bit of mostly wry humor, this play takes on more serious subjects. New Jewish Theatre tackles his profound “New Jerusalem- The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” Spinoza’s most relevant work is his “Ethics” and it changed the way of thinking about religion by a large part of the Western world. Spurning traditional thought of both Jewish and Christian religions, he looked at God as existing in all things but with finite parameters.


Jim Butz, Rob Riordin and Karlie Pinder in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

For these revelations, he was branded early as an atheist and the leader of the Christian fundamentalists, Abraham van Valkenburgh, has decided he must be excommunicated. In Amsterdam at the time, Jews were “tolerated” rather than accepted into a mostly Christian community. They were allowed to practice their faith but not enter into discussion about it with Christians or profess it to anyone. So his interrogation- which is really a trial- begins in front of the local Jewish congregation overseen by Valkenburgh, Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera- his mentor, and Gaspar Rodrigues ben Israel, a noted member of the religion.


Will Bonfiglio and Rob Riordin discuss plans for the day in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Jim Butz opens the show as Valkenburgh literally storming the stage and calling for the doors to be closed and locked. He is relentless through this two act play as he hammers at the slightest hint that Spinoza may be garnering any sympathy- he wants to make an example of him. As the young Spinoza, Rob Riordin is not as blustery but equally adamant about his innocence and faith- despite the views that would seem to oppose his background. Their sparring takes on an interesting look into human nature.


Jennifer Theby-Quinn tells her tale to Jim Butz in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

As the Rabbi, John Flack is magnificent as the teacher who resorts to begging Spinoza (perhaps for his soul more than anything) to denounce his leanings. Jews are in such a tenuous situation in Amsterdam as it is, he believes the whole community may suffer. Will Bonfiglio amazes once again with a surprising twist as Spinoza’s best friend, Simon de Vries. The tables get turned several times during this production which just adds to the pseudo-courtroom drama that unfolds.


Rob Riordin and Karlie Pinder share a moment in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Greg Johnston plays the rigid ben Israel and Karlie Pinder is solid as Spinoza’s on again/off again girlfriend, Clara van den Eden. Lot’s of twists in this relationship as well. But the biggest turn is from Spinoza’s half sister, Rebekah de Spinoza, played with fire and fury by Jennifer Theby-Quinn. Charging in like a bat out of hell, she is determined as well to send her brother into excommunication but circumstances soon change in her corner as well. That is the power of Spinoza and his strong arguments. It all comes down to the ruling as the Rabbi holds his fate in his hands.


Will Bonfiglio and Rob Riordin in the New Jewish Theatre production of “New Jerusalem.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Director Tim Ocel has handled this courtroom battle with a deft hand. Aided by the marvelous in-the-round and slightly tilted set of Peter and Margery Spack, he is able to keep the action moving with a great view from all sides of the theatre. The set features a raised center platform with a chess board look which enhances the chess-like moves from everyone involved. The Jon Ontiveros lighting design is brilliant as well as are the utilitarian costumes designed by Michele Friedman Siler.


John Flack as the Rabbi pleads with Rob Riordin as Spinoza in “New Jerusalem” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

This is far from a dull interrogation, it crackles with one-two punches from every side of the argument and sprinkled with wit and charm. David Ives’ lines like Spinoza’s take on some of the teachings- “There is no Jewish dogma, only bickering”- spice up an already dose of clever and pertinent dialogue. Enjoy this entertaining and informative look at the development of Spinoza and his teachings as it plays at the New Jewish Theatre through April 22nd. Give them a call at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

“Hamilton” Is Stunning In Every Aspect As It Visits St. Louis For The First Time At The Fox

April 5, 2018


Part theatre, part history lesson, part rock concert and all spectacle, “Hamilton” has finally arrived in our town and the Fabulous Fox will be packed for the next three weeks in anticipation. This is really something special as this road company far surpasses anything you could hope for.


Like another Tony winner, “1776,” “Hamilton” is based on true history lessons about the early days of our “scrappy, hungry” country. Centering on the Hamilton/Burr relationship, we get a visit from early patriots and even King George as we try to settle into a new country that is torn away from England in the first act and then infighting around the new country in the second act. Like the feud in “Amadeus,” Burr is Salieri to Hamilton’s Mozart- jealousy gets the better of Burr and he fights for recognition while Alexander Hamilton continues his meteoric rise.


Austin Scott is a powerful Hamilton as he, as a nineteen year old immigrant, has plans to make his voice be heard. From his humble “Alexander Hamilton” opening number through the popular “My Shot” and into marriage, his dalliance and into his heartbreaking “Hurricane” and the impressive and haunting “Unimaginable,” we are obsessed about his obsessions and his drive.


As Burr, Nicholas Christopher dazzles in this love/hate relationship with Hamilton and strives to best him at every “competition”- real or imagined. One thing that is quickly apparent in this production is that every cast member is blessed with a beautiful singing voice and diction and enunciation beyond compare. Listening to the CD practically non-stop for the past two weeks, some of the songs become a bit unintelligible but even the fast rap numbers on the Fox stage are clear and concise.

ham-curtainAlexander’s eventual bride, Eliza Schuyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest gents in the country, is played to perfection by Julia K. Harriman. Her sweet voice and powerful acting skills are on display all evening long. Sabrina Sloan is another Schuyler sister, Angelica, who becomes confidante to Hamilton and, along with the third sister, Peggy, played  by Isa Briones, become a dominant trio. Ms. Briones also doubles as Maria Reynolds, the young married woman who causes Hamilton to stray.


Chris De’Sean Lee doubles as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson- a pair that demands almost polar opposites. He manages a slightly mangled French accent and then opens the second act as the flamboyant Jefferson who has been doing some dallying himself in France during the American Revolution. Chaundre Broomfield-Hall also does double duty as Hercules Mulligan and the irrepressible James Madison while Ruben J. Carbajal provides laughs turned to sadness as both John Laurens and then Hamilton’s son, Philip.

ham-kingRounding out the major cast are two marvelous performances- Carvens Lissaint as George Washington and Peter Matthew Smith as King George. Lissaint’s Washington is strong and determined but knows when it’s time to move on. Smith’s King is satirical and right on just as we need a bit of comic relief. He makes a valid point but can’t help but feel these “rebels” are about to overthrow the most powerful country and military and naval force in the world.


As I said at the beginning, this is a spectacle in the most awesome way. The David Korins set design is the perfect space with open space, balconies and ladders that move and don’t move. It can- and does- become every part of the time including Yorktown, New York and everywhere in between. The phenomenal orchestra, led by Alex Lacamoire, is right on the mark- moving from scene to scene and providing a few sound effects along the way. And that rock concert I talked about is due mainly to the constantly moving lighting design of Howell Binkley- a veritable light show that spins the head around. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography recreates the spectacular Broadway show that won “Hamilton” one of its many Tony’s. And finally, the magnificent staging by Thomas Kail which moves the three hour long show like a downhill racer.

This overwhelming piece is the masterpiece created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Mixing rap, ballads, soaring melodies, touching moments and historical fact into one beautiful piece around the first Treasurer in our country’s beginnings and the creator of the banking system we still follow today. And he slips in subtle reminders of other musicals along the way as I distinctly heard a lyric “you’ve got be carefully taught,” “Sit down, John” and a few others sprinkled throughout. It’s mind boggling that such a perfect piece of theatre could come about with so many disparate parts. But it works like a well oiled machine and will live forever in my memory as one of the most spectacular evenings I’ve ever spent in a theatre.

ham-balcony“Hamilton” plays at the Fox Theatre through April 22nd. There are several “lotteries” out there to win tickets or get bargain tickets and there may be a few you can actually purchase despite the rumor that the run is sold out. Any way to get there is going to be a win-win for any theatre fan. Catch it if you can.

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

March 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 19, 2018

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

March 18, 2018

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

March 13, 2018

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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