Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE K OF D: AN URBAN LEGEND • Blue Rose Stage Collective

Along Cherokee Street's Antique Row, through an alleyway of rusty remnants and wrought iron running alongside Revisionist Inn, there's a crackling fire pit, hot cider, s'mores, and a makeshift stage on the back of a broken-down facade -- the perfect setting for playwright Laura Schellhardt's "The K of D", presented by director Tom Martin’s Blue Rose Stage Collective and featuring the dexterous Em Piro, the founder and creative fireball behind St. Lou Fringe. She inhabits over a dozen characters to present a legend that was generated by an odd series of events that followed the tragic death of a young boy.

After a few shared ghost stories, a girl from the audience says she’s got one – more urban legend than ghost story. She tells us about the rural town of St. Marys, Ohio, her group of rowdy childhood friends who spend their summers hanging out on a pier by a man-made lake, and Charlotte McGraw. It was Charlotte’s twin brother, Jamie, who was hit by a blue Dodge while he was skateboarding to school.
Em Piro
Photo credit: Todd Heilman
The death of her twin leaves her devastated beyond speech, and a dying kiss from him seems to impart Charlotte with a lethal knack that the group of friends try to figure out during the course of the play, along with a possible connection to the appearance of an eerie gray heron spotted on the lake. In addition to our narrator, the kids in the group include the muscle-head, a pair of brothers, the jaded leader beyond her years and the monied valley-girl. The adults include Johnny Whistler, the reckless redneck driver of the car that killed Jamie who moves next door to the McGraws, his flock of girlfriends, Charlotte's father, who's got a dark streak of his own, and her slightly deranged mother, obsessed with her accolades as a teacher. Then of course there's Charlotte herself, who stopped talking after her brother was killed.

Em Piro
Photo credit: Todd Heilman
After a professional premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2008, this play is picking up steam, being performed in more and more places, but Martin and Piro's choice to stage it outdoors is a brilliant first. Piro, slight in stature and huge on physical energy, deftly guides us through the tale, embodying the wide range of kids and adults with a quick change in voice and carriage. Atmospheric sound design by Michael Perkins helps color in the tone wonderfully, and Mark Wilson adds a bit of nifty stagecraft with shadow puppets and the use of a fan, as well as providing the scenic and lighting design, and Billy Croghan's original music effectively punctuates the story. Playwright Schellhardt, who spent her summers at St. Marys as a child, has an intriguing script, and though it's slender on payoff, the terrific creative elements of this production, along with Martin's well-paced direction and Piro's tireless performance, elevate the material to a unique night of memorable theater. It's playing until the 25th. Did I mention there's yummy cobbler for after the show? There's cobbler after the show.


Photo credit: Todd Heilman
THE K OF D: AN URBAN LEGEND

Written by Laura Schellhardt 
Directed by Tom Martin
Revisionist Inn, 1950 Cherokee St.
through October 25 | tickets: suggested donation $10 - $20
Performances October 17 at 11pm, doors open at 10:30, October 24 and 25 at 10pm, doors open at 9:30

Cast:
Em Piro

Creative:
Shadow puppets, scenic and lighting design by Mark Wilson;  sound design by Michael Perkins; original music by Billy Croghan.

Musicians:
Billy Croghan and Gavin Duffy.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

BONNIE & CLYDE • New Line Theatre

"Bonnie & Clyde" made a brief appearance on Broadway in 2011 after a world premiere in California two years earlier. This musical isn't a remake of Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn's well known 1967 film starring Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It's another take on this infamous young pair of West Texas bandits, and despite a couple of Tony Award nominations, it only lasted for 36 performances on Broadway. So, what better local company to snatch it up and give it a fresh perspective, as it's done many times in the past ("Hands on a Hardbody", "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson", "High Fidelity"), than New Line Theatre?

The opening numbers introduce us to Bonnie Parker (Larissa White), who longs to be a star of the silver screen, and Clyde Barrow (Matt Pentecost), who longs for easy money and celebrity as an outlaw, like Al Capone and Billy the Kid -- his heroes. These two are trying to break away from the poverty of the Great Depression with a craving for wealth and fame. When they meet after Bonnie's car breaks down, there are immediate sparks. Clyde has just broken out of prison with his brother Buck (Brendan Ochs), and his bad-boy appeal and winning smile is a combination that Bonnie, antsy for a change of pace, can't resist. Buck, meanwhile, has to face the music of his God-fearin' wife Blanche (Sarah Porter), who wants him to turn himself in, finish his time in jail, and get right with Jesus. Bonnie and Clyde's reckless quest for notoriety, through robbing banks, grocery stores, and eventually shedding blood, leads them down a path that brings them closer to the goal, but ultimately to their ends.

Matt Pentecost (Clyde)
and Larissa White (Bonnie).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Pentecost and White's chemistry propels the piece, and both turn in solid performances. Pentecost is half badass and half spoiled brat as Clyde, and White is impressive in her first professional appearance. Once Bonnie gets a whiff of thrill from smuggling a gun into the jail for Clyde, she's all in, later gleefully signing an autograph during a bank robbery. While these two crazy kids may not have a lot in the way of introspection, they both have loads of charm, even as their crime spree, along with Bonnie's poems, lands them on the front pages of the paper. Their ballads to each other, "How 'Bout a Dance?" and "Bonnie" are standouts. Ochs turns in a great performance as Clyde's brother Buck, tempted to follow his brother but pushed to do the right thing. He and Pentecost sound great in "When I Drive". Porter adds a nice dose of humor as Buck's high-strung religious wife Blanche. She may be brassy, but she's sweet in her satisfaction with what she has in "Now That's What You Call a Dream". Strong performances also include Zachary Allen Farmer who lends his soulful voice to the Preacher, Christopher “Zany” Clark as the unflappable Sheriff Schmid, Reynaldo Arceno as Ted Hinton, a lawman who's carrying a torch for Bonnie, and swears to bring Clyde down, Mara Bollini in a brief but memorable appearance as Governor Ferguson and Alison Helmer as Bonnie's distraught mother, Emma.

Cast of New Line Theatre's "Bonnie & Clyde"
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Under Jeffrey Richard Carter's musical direction, the New Line Band is tight, handling Wildhorn's score of depression-era blues, folk, gospel and rockabilly superbly. Rob Lippert's meticulous set features an old gas station, a jail, office and an old Ford center stage that plays into the violent opening and closing of the show. Lippert is also responsible for the lighting design, with costume design by Porter and Marcy Wiegert, who nail the attire, especially the leads, whose duds become swankier as their crimes accelerate. These details, along with Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy's precise direction, work together seamlessly.

Zachary Allen Farmer (Preacher)
and Kimi Short (Cumie Barrow)
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Seeing this production makes it hard to understand why it didn't last longer in NYC. But in the hands of Miller and Dowdy, this tale of ill-fated kids who became nationally known outlaws presents them as they were -- products of their time, which was certainly enough to bring them the fame they both wanted, and definitely worth seeing. Check it out. It's playing until the 25th.


BONNIE & CLYDE

Music by Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Directed by Scott Miller & Mike Dowdy
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through October 25 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm

Cast:
Matt Pentecost (Clyde Barrow), Larissa White (Bonnie Parker), Brendan Ochs (Marvin "Buck" Barrow), Sarah Porter (Blanche Barrow), Reynaldo Arceno (Ted Hinton), Mara Bollini (Governor Miriam Ferguson), Christopher “Zany” Clark (Sheriff Schmid), Kent Coffel (Guard/Capt. Hamer), Zachary Allen Farmer (Preacher), Joel Hackbarth (Henry Barrow), Alison Helmer (Emma Parker), Ann Hier (Eleanore), Marshall Jennings (Judge/ Shopkeeper/Bank Teller), Nellie Mitchell (Stella), Kimi Short (Cumie Barrow/Trish) and Christopher Strawhun (Deputy Bud).

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Rob Lippert; sound design by Tim Ceradsky; costume design by Sarah Porter & Marcy Wiegert; props by Kimi Short; stage manager, Gabe Taylor.

The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Jeffrey Richard Carter; guitar, D. Mike Bauer; violin, Nikki Glenn; second keyboard, Sue Goldford; bass, Andrew Gurney; percussion, Clancy Newell; reeds, Robert Vinson.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

ASSASSINS • The November Theater Company

There's a new theatre company on the scene folks, and the November Theater Company has chosen for its inaugural production, "Assassins", with a book by John Weidman and score by my hero, Stephen Sondheim. This bold musical that debuted off-Broadway in 1990, jumps historical timelines to parade before us a powerless group on the fringes, who have found the "American Dream" out of reach, so they claim what that dream has, for them, disclaimed, through successful and unsuccessful attempts on the life of a US President. And yes, it's a comedy, but it's a dark one.

Directed by Suki Peters, the opening number kicks off in a carnival setting with a gathered variety of malcontents, urged on by the carnival's ominous Proprietor (Jon Hey) to step right up to the shooting gallery and grab a prize, with the help of an assortment of guns he's more than happy to sell you. Whether it's Leon Czolgosz (Nick Kelly), a rage-filled steel worker with anarchist leanings who killed President McKinley, or would-be assassins like John Hinckley (Nate Cummings), who tried to take the life of President Ronald Reagan to garner the attention of Jodie Foster, these sad historical footnotes are presented as vignettes over the course of the play. Charlie Barron, wonderful as the Balladeer, serves as our narrator, introducing us to certain characters and questioning the motives of others from an affably smug distance, turning in a strong performance as a "special guest" near the end. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln to avenge the South, wanders throughout the crowd like an "OG", or "OA" in this case, played with cocky charm by Michael Amoroso.

Nick Kelly (Leon Czolgosz), Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau),
Mitch Eagles (Guiseppe Zangara), Patrick Blindauer (Sam Byck),
Michael Amoroso (John Wilkes Booth), Jon Hey (Proprietor),
Nate Cummings (John Hinckley)
and Jennifer Theby Quinn (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme).
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
Strong performances also include the reliable Jennifer Theby Quinn as hippy love-child Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the infamous "Manson family" who tried to kill President Gerald Ford, teaming up with a very funny, pantsuit wearing Jessica Townes as Sara Jane Moore. There's also Mitch Eagles as Italian immigrant, Guiseppe Zangara who attempted to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt, Patrick Blindauer as the ranting, Santa Claus suit wearing Sam Byck who planned to fly a plane into the White House when Nixon was in office, and Patrick Kelly as pompous zealot, Charles Guiteau, who shot President James Garfield, with Nancy Nigh making a terrific appearance as a subtly staunch Emma Goldman.

Sondheim and Weidman don't display these successful and unsuccessful assassins before us to glorify or condemn them. They're presented as enemies of society, but undeniably products of it as well.

Charlie Barron (The Balladeer), Jon Hey (Proprietor)
and Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau).
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
This is an ambitious choice for the new company, but not without its hiccups. The show contains a lot of humor, but it's also got a dark side, and while the comedy landed, the menacing undertones that give this show its edge didn't always come through. The cast sounds quite strong in several numbers like "The Gun Song", "Ballad of Guiteau" and the closing "Everybody's Got the Right", under Charlie Mueller's musical direction, but canned music is tricky. I imagine it's like hopping on a treadmill that's already running -- while you've got to get on at the right pace, you've also got to keep up, and some of the performances seemed hindered, not being allowed the flexibility to breathe or quicken their gaits, and the music didn't quite encompass the full scope of Sondheim's marvelous score. This, in a show where the music plays a huge part in the shaping of these historic characters, is unfortunate. Scenic designer Jason Townes provides a great two-tier set, well worn and dotted with faded red white and blue accents, including a nifty, underused set piece with past President's heads mounted on a wheel of fortune. Meredith LaBounty's costumes inform a wide range of characters from different time periods nicely, with lighting design by Russell Warning, sound design by Emily Hatcher, and projections by Bob Singleton.

Cast of November Theater Company's "Assassins"
Photo credit: Katie Puglisi
While this production fell a little short of its aim, it's still worth checking out if you've never seen it, and it'll be exciting to see what November Theater Company does next. It's playing until October 5th.


ASSASSINS

Book by John Weidman
Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Directed by Suki Peters
Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave.
through October 5 | tickets: $25
Performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Michael Amoroso (John Wilkes Booth), Charlie Barron (The Balladeer), Patrick Blindauer (Sam Byck), Will Bonfiglio (Ensemble), Nate Cummings (John Hinckley), Mitch Eagles (Guiseppe Zangara), Brittany Kohl Hester (Ensemble), Jon Hey (Proprietor), Nick Kelly (Leon Czolgosz), Patrick Kelly (Charles Guiteau), Dorothy Hendrick LaBounty (Ensemble), Nancy Nigh (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Jennifer Theby Quinn (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Jessica Townes (Sara Jane Moore), Kelvin Urday (Ensemble) and Mike Wells (Ensemble).

Creative:
Scenic design by Jason Townes; costume design by Meredith LaBounty; sound design by Emily Hatcher; lighting deign by Russell Warning; projection design by Bob Singleton; musical direction by Charlie Mueller; stage manager, Emily Hatcher.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ALL IN THE TIMING • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Playwright David Ives plays fast and loose with the concepts of time and language in his zesty collection of six one-act comedies. You have an idea of what you're getting into when you see Patrick Huber’s set adorned with scenic artist, Cristie Johnston's Salvador Dalí-like melting clock on the floor of the Gaslight's stage, backed by a blue sky with clouds. Fasten your seat belts, please.

The first play, "Sure Thing", opens with strangers meeting in a cafe. As Bill (Ben Ritchie) tries an opening line on Betty (Emily Baker), to no avail, the ringing of an offstage bell reboots their conversation over and over.  "Is this chair taken?" -- "Yes" turns into "Is this chair taken?" -- "No, but I'm expecting somebody in a minute" -- and they make their way through blunders, pretension and disinterest, posing questions and answers in different ways, until a romantic spark is finally ignited, with Ritchie and Baker's performances turning on a dime.

Michelle Hand (Kafka), Shaun Sheley (Milton)
and Ben Ritchie (Swift).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Words, Words, Words" features three monkeys, Swift (Ritchie), Milton (Shaun Sheley) and Kafka (Michelle Hand), caged in a lab with three typewriters and a tire swing. An unseen Dr. Rosenbaum is testing something called the "The Infinite Monkey Theorem" -- basically an idea that a monkey with a typewriter can, in time, produce Hamlet. In between beating their chests and eating bananas, Milton manages to type out the first lines of Paradise Lost, Kafka bangs out twenty lines of the letter "K" before giving in to writer's block, and Swift's main concern is breaking out of their cage. Even though they're all dressed in circus clothes, there's a self-awareness of their plight which makes it all the more amusing -- touching on commonly shared feelings recognizable to anyone who's ever had to sit down at a keyboard or a blank piece of paper.

In "The Universal Language", a bashful young woman with a stutter named Dawn (Baker) enrolls in a class for a language called "Unamunda" -- a fake language made up by the instructor, Don (Sheley). After a $500 commitment for the class and some clumsy starts and stops, both connect over a language of nonsense. There's actually a translation of it! The dexterity in which Sheley and Baker translate this babble into something that even the audience begins to understand after a while is impressive.

Ben Ritchie (Baker), Emily Baker (Woman #1),
Michelle Hand (Woman #2) and Shaun Sheley (Philip Glass).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" opens with… well… Philip Glass buying a loaf of bread. When he's recognized by one of the two women in the bakery (Baker and Hand), they, along with the baker (Ritchie) and Philip Glass (Sheley), embark on a musical parody in the style of the titular minimalist composer with the repetition of a few words of dialogue, working in some synchronized movements. It's as fascinating as it is absurd, and delivered with deadpan perfection by the cast. You really have to see this one in person.

In "The Philadelphia", Mark (Ritchie) meets his buddy Al (Sheley) at a local diner after having a very bad day. Seems he can't get anything he wants and feels like he's in the Twilight Zone, until Al explains that Mark is actually in "a Philadelphia" -- a black hole of sorts where you have to get what you want by asking for the opposite. This is soon proven true when Mark orders a meal from the snippy waitress (Baker, in a hilarious wig and cat eye glasses), who assures him that his situation isn't so bad. She was in “a Cleveland" once, where nothing could be worse.

Shaun Sheley (Trotsky), Ben Ritchie (Ramon)
and Michelle Hand (Mrs. Trotsky).
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Variations On The Death of Trotsky" starts on the last day of the Russian revolutionary's life after having a mountain climber's axe buried in his skull. It's true that the blow to Leon Trotsky's head failed to kill him instantly, but here, Sheley as Trotsky suffers from a major time lag while his wife (Hand), with the advantage of an encyclopedia, along with his killer, Ramon (Ritchie), assure him -- yep, you're a goner.

These plays are like a forced-perceptive funhouse of theatre, where timing plays as much a part as language and connection, skillfully directed by Elizabeth Helman. This talented cast of four deliver the comedy with precision, and bring out the "under the surface" messages that underscore each piece. Huber's scenic and lighting design complement the action with props and costumes by Carla Landis Evans, and sound design by Helman.

These surreal comedies, laced with a streak of the intellectual, are serious fun, and an exciting start to St. Louis Actors' Studio's eighth season called "The Best Medicine". It'll be at the Gaslight until October 5th. Check it out.


ALL IN THE TIMING

Written by David Ives
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through October 5 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Cast:
Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie, and Shaun Sheley*
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Elizabeth Helman; costume & props design by Carla Landis Evans; scenic painting by Cristie Johnston; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

Friday, September 19, 2014

PURLIE • The Black Rep

Ossie Davis’s Tony Award winning musical debuted in 1970, and is based on the play, “Purlie Victorious", that he wrote in 1961. The Black Rep gives this uplifting show about freedom and tenacity a rousing production.

We start at the funeral of Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee (Jim Anthony), the late, cocky, bull-whip wielding owner of a cotton plantation in rural Georgia. Purlie Victorious (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) is conducting the service, and though everyone's convinced the Cap'n is probably frying in hell right about now, Purlie and the congregation that toiled under his service, are giving him a fine send-off in the gospel-flavored opening number, "Walk Him Up the Stairs". From here, we're taken back to Purlie's quest to buy back the local church his father started, Big Bethel, from the hands of Cotchipee. There's a $500 inheritance that's due to Purlie's deceased Cousin Bea, so he plans to fool Ol' Cap'n into handing over the money to an impersonator, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Alicia Revé). Lutiebelle is straight out of Alabama and as country as a chicken coop, but willing to do anything to help out Purlie, whom she becomes very fond of. Purlie also enlists the help of his brother Gitlow (J. Samuel Davis) and Gitlow's wife Missy (Kimmie Kidd) to pull off the scheme, with Cotchipee's own son Charlie (Greg Matzker) playing his part in the plot.

Roston shines as Purlie, injecting his scenes with the passion of a man in the pulpit, and Revé's wide-eyed Lutiebelle has several wonderfully comedic moments, and it's charming to see her character become a closer part of the family. Davis brings his share of comedy to the role of the "Uncle Tom"ish Gitlow, and Kidd toes the line as his sensible wife, Missy. They've all got great voices. Anthony makes a good bad guy in the role of the racist Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, with strong support from Linda Kennedy as the sassy Idella, and Matzker as the open-hearted Charlie. 

Dunsi Dai's scenic design uses movable set pieces to represent Big Bethel, Purlie's home and Ol' Cap'n's Commissary, lit by Katie San Roman with costumes by Jennifer (J.C.) Krajicek. The band, though threatening to drown out the performers on occasion, is solid under the musical direction of Charles Creath.

The musical is set “not too long ago", yet Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, and Charlie sports jeans with peace signs on them. It's oddly dated, but even though some of the transitions between scenes are a little sluggish, under the direction of Ron Himes, "Purlie" strikes familiar chords. It's at the Edison Theatre until the 21st.


PURLIE

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell
Lyrics by Peter Udell
Music by Gary Geld
Directed by Ron Himes
Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.
through September 21 | tickets: $35 - $45
Performances Thursday at 7pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Jim Anthony* (Ol' Cap'n), J. Samuel Davis* (Gitlow), Linda Kennedy* (Idella), Kimmie Kidd (Missy), Greg Matzker (Charlie), Alicia Revé (Lutiebelle), Kelvin Roston, Jr.* (Purlie), Scheronda (Ronnie) Gregory, Church Soloist, Ensemble: Heather Beal, SirGabe Ryan Cunningham, Benisha Dorris, Billy Flood, Matthew Galbreath, Herman Gordon, Ryan King Johnson, Jennifer Kelley, Christian Kelly, Samantha Madison and Jaden Smith.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsai Dai; lighting design by Katie San Roman; sound design by Chris Baker; costume design by Jennifer (J.C.) Krajicek, choreographer, Heather Beal; musical director, Charles Creath; stage manager, Tracy D. Holliway-Wiggins.

Musicians:
Keyboard, Charles Creath; bass, William Ranier; guitar, Dennis Brock; trumpet, Anthony Wiggins; saxophone, Jeff Anderson; drums, Stan Hale.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE NORMAL HEART • HotCityTheatre

It's been nearly thirty years since Larry Kramer's autobiographical play about the early brutal days of the HIV-AIDS crisis debuted off-Broadway, but this smoldering indictment of the failure of bureaucrats to acknowledge the epidemic, the silence of the press, and the apathy of the gay community has lost none of its muscle in HotCity's potent current production.

The play hinges on Ned Weeks (John Flack), an outspoken writer and activist at heart who serves as the proxy for Kramer, who co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982. Ned wrangles a group of his friends together to form a support organization to get out as much information as they can about this savage disease that was claiming the lives of gay men at a staggering rate. While Ned's confrontational approach frustrates his friends, Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers) is one of the first in his corner. She's the victim of another virus -- polio, and is among the first doctors to try to treat men in NYC showing early symptoms of a disease with no name. Ned's brother Ben (Greg Johnston), a rich lawyer, helps him get the organization off the ground, but the long-held tensions between these two start to show once Ned asks his brother for public backing from his firm. While Ned struggles with his brother and the members of his group, and the New York Times continues to bury the story at the back of the paper, and the public officials continue to vilify those who have lost their lives to the disease, Ned meets and falls for Felix (Eric Dean White), a closeted New York Times fashion and style reporter, who eventually notices a purple lesion on his foot.

Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks) and John Flack (Ned Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
In the mid-eighties, "The Normal Heart" came right on the heels of the AIDS crisis, but with over 1 million men and women currently living with HIV-AIDS, and an estimated 56,000 new infections each year, the play is as relevant today as it was over a quarter of a century ago. Kramer's play is by nature compelling, but its power is heightened by the chemistry and vigor of its able cast -- directed fluidly by Marty Stanberry. Leading the pack is Flack as the unstoppable Ned Weeks. Flack moderates all of the fiery rage of a man railing against silence with the insecurities he reveals in his scenes with White beautifully, and truly leaves it all on the stage. As Dr. Brookner, Byers isn't on stage for that many scenes, but when she is, her passion matches Flack's -- particularly during a scene where she is refused funds for medical research. White's easy-going Felix Turner is a great balance for the compulsive Ned, and Johnston's Ben Weeks shows a genuine, albeit conditional, love for his brother.

Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner)
and Stephen Peirick (Examining Doctor)
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Tim Schall's Mickey, who works for the health department, Ben Watts's Tommy, a hospital administrator and self-professed "Southern bitch", and Reginald Pierre's Bruce, a closeted vice-president at Citibank who is elected president of the group, all work together wonderfully, and make the most of their moments -- punctuating the play with little explosions and revelations. Stephen Peirick and Paul Cereghino round out the cast in strong multiple roles. The creative elements are kept to a minimum -- a nearly bare stage flanked by rust-colored pillars (Sean Savoie), with projections and sound by Patrick Burks, and costumes by JC Krajicek.

The play is not without its laughs, but it's grueling. It's also a must see. There's a VIP night on the 18th, with a pre-show reception, a special performance by the Gateway Men’s Chorus, and a post-performance discussion with the actors and director. A portion of that evening's proceeds will benefit Doorways, a non-profit interfaith organization that provides housing and related supportive services to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.


Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner),
Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), John Flack (Ned Weeks)
and Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
THE NORMAL HEART

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through September 27 | tickets: $20 - $25 (VIP September 18th, $50)
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
John Flack* (Ned Weeks), Tim Schall* (Mickey Marcus), Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner), Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks), Reginald Pierre (Bruce Niles), Ben Watts (Tommy Boatwright), Paul Cereghino (Craig/Hiram Keebler/Grady/Orderly) and Stephen Peirick (David/Examining Doctor/Orderly).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Sean Savoie; sound & projection design by Patrick Burks; costume design by JC Krajicek; properties by Meg Brinkley; stage manager, Richard B. Agnew.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

FIRST LADY SUITE • R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics has never been a company to shy away from unconventional material, and its current St. Louis premiere production is no exception. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa dismantles four iconic First Ladies of the United States, along with their friends and associates, in four imaginative, if not bizarre vignettes. LaChiusa, a self-professed "first lady-ologist", riffs off of nuggets of truth and rumor found in each of the first ladies featured (Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt), and adds a rhythmically tricky and melodically atypical score that the cast can sink their teeth into, in an off-the-wall chamber musical that's anything but standard musical theatre fare. Love.

After a prologue with past first ladies flanking the current one, "Over Texas" starts with Mary Gallagher (Katie Donnelly) aboard Air Force One, missing her cat and bemoaning the demands of being personal secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy (Christina Rios) to a politely listening Evelyn Lincoln (Kay Love), the secretary to JFK. While exhausted and trapped in her service to Kennedy, Mary is giddy about having tea on the president's plane, and hopeful at the prospect of one day getting to ride in the motorcade.
Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher)
and Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Jacqueline interrupts, absentmindedly wondering where her famous hat and gloves are. After continuing the comedic vibe Donnelly sets up so well, the mood darkens as the image-obsessed Kennedy anticipates the endless blocks of smiling and waving she'll soon face in Dallas in that fateful motorcade with an uneasy dread. Donnelly handles the score well and mines the comedy in her performance, and Rios subtly exposes the depths of Kennedy's fears and frustrations. Belinda Quimby makes a few hilarious appearances as a disconnected Lady Bird Johnson along with Nathan Hinds as a political aide.

Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower)
and Jeanitta Perkins (Marian Anderson).
Photo credit: Gerry Love
In "Where's Mamie?", it's 1957, and Mamie Eisenhower (Elizabeth Van Pelt, the artist formerly known as Beth Wickenhauser) is annoyed because she's been left alone on her birthday. African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson (Jeanitta Perkins), makes a surreal appearance in Mamie's imagination to warn her of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas and the approaching civil rights riots to come if the President doesn't step in. So, she and Mamie take a trip back in time to forewarn the unfaithful President-to-be (Nathan Hinds), currently in the army, about what's on the horizon. What?!? Yeah. I mentioned this musical is offbeat, right? Van Pelt, in her pink bow and slippers, lends her comedic talents as a flashy one moment, deadpan the next Mamie, and Perkins controls her challenging singing duties well, with support by Hinds, and Quimby as Ike's chauffeur.

Nathan Hinds (Bess Truman)
and Christina Rios (Margaret Truman).
Photo credit: Michael Young
"Olio", the shortest and most comedic piece that comes after intermission, puts Bess Truman's daughter Margaret (Rios) front and center during a vocal recital, trying to carry on as her mother (Hinds in heels) sits behind her, bringing on a series of hilarious scene stealing. Rios sings the part beautifully, while Hinds throws out under-the-breath insults like any horrific stage mother would.

"Eleanor Sleeps Here", the last and most fully sketched scenario, takes place on another plane, but it's the plane of Amelia Earhart (Quimby), having a night flight over Washington DC with Eleanor Roosevelt (Love) and her close friend, journalist Lorena Hickok (Rachel Hanks). Three lesbians, amiright? Anyhoo, this story is really about "Hick" and her devotion to Eleanor, and what she gave up to be in this first lady's inner circle. Stationed at the back of the plane, later venturing onto the wing, she becomes jealous of Roosevelt's growing friendship with Earhart. While Eleanor is personified with amplified comedy, beautifully sung by Love, Hanks, also with a lovely voice, goes from romantic to jealous to angry and then full circle again, with strong support by Quimby as Earhart.

Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Kay Love (Eleanor Roosevelt)
and Belinda Quimby (Amelia Earhart).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Director Shualee Cook strikes a good balance between absurd comedy and emotional twinges. Kyra Bishop's scenic design features the Presidential Seal adorning the floor of the stage with a screen for projections, and just a few pieces of furniture. Amy Harrison puts a suitable combination together for the costumes, Mark Kelley's sound design seems sparse but works well, and Nathan Schroeder's lighting design follows the action nicely with music director Nick Moramarco and Leah Luciano lending musical support on piano.

Now, are you going to walk out of the theatre with a headful of hummable tunes? No. This musical is not for everyone. But the ambitious material, though it drags in some spots along the way, hides a few surprising depths within its fanciful folds, for me proving to be a unique, freshly progressive musical theatre experience. It's playing at the Ivory Theatre until the 14th.


FIRST LADY SUITE

Book/lyrics/music by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Shualee Cook 
Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave.
through September 14 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Rachel Hanks (Lorena Hickok), Katie Donnelly (Mary Gallagher), Kay Love (Evelyn Lincoln/Eleanor Roosevelt), Jeanitta Perkins (Current First Lady/Marian Anderson), Belinda Quimby (Ladybird Johnson/Chauffeur/Amelia Earhart), Christina Rios (Jaqueline Kennedy/Margaret Truman), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Mamie Eisenhower) and Nathan Hinds (Presidential Aide/Bess Truman/Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower).

Creative:
Scenic design by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Amy Harrison; sound design by Mark Kelley; stage manager, Nikki Lott.

Musicians:
Piano 1/music director, Nick Moramarco; piano 2, Leah Luciano.

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