Friday, September 30, 2011

DIRTY BLONDE • Dramatic License Productions

A clever look at the bawdy, naughty film star, Mae West, is what's on offer at Dramatic License Productions.  Mae West was a true icon, and a pioneer when she started out in vaudeville.  With her sexually provocative stage shows and salacious one-liners, what she may have lacked as far as talent, she made up for with chutzpah, pushing the envelope of censorship.  You go, girl!

This play covers a lot of ground considering it has only 3 actors.  It starts off introducing us to Charlie (John Reidy) and Jo (Kim Furlow).  They're two modern day fanatics who LOVE Mae West, and run into each other in a Brooklyn cemetery at Mae's crypt on August 17, the anniversary of her birth.  Jo is a lonely actress who temps more than she acts, and Charlie is a mild, quiet man who works at the New York Public Library Film Archives.  They strike up a friendship, and the ambiguous relationship between these two Mae West devotees grows during the course of the play.  By the end of it, they both get to "be" Mae West -- in a sense.  There are also scenes involving a young Mae (also Kim Furlow), with the various men of her life (John Reidy and B. Weller).  These follow her beginnings on the vaudeville stage, honing her persona, testing the boundaries of what she could get away with, and taking a few tips from a couple of drag queens -- a hilarious scene that suggests these queens helped give Mae West some finishing touches that solidified the indelible images that come to mind when we hear her name.  There are also scenes that show a young Charlie meeting Mae when he was 17 and she was an aging sexpot in her 80's, still trying to work it for all it was worth.  These scenes were some of the most compelling for me, with a rather sad Mae taking delight in looking at old pictures of herself, and Charlie, completely smitten, and Joe Frisco (B. Weller), a long-time friend of Mae's and hanger-on hoping to get lucky again.  Even into her mature years, she insisted that she looked like a woman of 26.

Kim Furlow (Mae West).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Kim Furlow was up to the task of pulling double duty as Mae and Jo.  She does quite a good characterization of Mae West, and approaches both roles with loads of energy.  The fellas end up playing so many people it makes your head spin, and their commitment to each one is first-rate.  John Reidy is wonderful as Charlie along with the other characters he plays, as was B. Weller, who made a very entertaining Joe Frisco.  Again, they were both quite memorable as a couple of drag queens.  These 3 navigate all of their parts with skill, and really work their butts off in the process.  This show must have been a real bitch to direct -- so many time changes, wardrobe changes and scene changes, and director Carolyn Hood handles it pretty well although it was a little unevenly paced at times.  The scenic design by Courtney Sanazaro Sloey involved just a few pieces that got the job done, but at times the set changes took awhile.  That proved a bit distracting.  Justine Brock's lighting design was fine, and the projections used to inform time and place were a nice touch.  Teresa Doggett's costumes were a treat, and there was also lovely piano accompaniment by Jeremy Melton.  All in all, it's a witty, insightful sneak peek into the life of Mae West, with a quirky little romantic storyline at the heart of it.  Only one more weekend to check it out!


Written by Claudia Shear
Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine
Directed by Carolyn Hood
Dramatic License Productions, Chesterfield Mall (upper level entrance, next to Houlihans)
through October 2 | tickets: $22.00 - $25.00
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Kim Furlow (Mae/Jo), John Reidy (Charlie/Harry/Jim Timony/Lt. Gregg/Duchess/Kid Moreno/W.C. Fields/Muscleman) and B. Weller (Man/Armando/Joe Frisco/Frank Wallace/Edward Elsner/Ed Hearn/Muscleman).

Costume design by Teresa Doggett; scenic design by Courtney Sanazaro Sloey; lighting design by Justine Brock; sound design by Joseph Pini; musical accompanist, Jeremy Melton; stage manager, Natasha Toro.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

PASSING STRANGE • New Line Theatre

New Line's season opener rocks.  Literally.  Never letting you forget you're watching a play, PASSING STRANGE challenges the preconceptions about what a musical is -- a musical for people who don't think they like musicals.  It's a high-octane, allegorical, semi-autobiographical account of a musician, Mark Stewart, who goes by the single name, Stew, and his journey of self-discovery.  It opened on Broadway in 2008, garnering a Tony Award for Best Book.

Stew (Charles Glenn) serves as the older, wiser narrator, looking back on "Youth" (Keith Parker) who serves as his rebellious younger self, our Hero for the evening.  Pivotal scenes from Stew's life are played out with Youth, and a fully engaged ensemble.  Strong numbers like, "Baptist Fashion Show", "Amsterdam", and "May Day", shine a full light on the electrifying strength of this cast that a New Line production always promises.

Keith Parker (Youth)
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Youth grows up in a black middle-class South Central Los Angeles suburb.  His church-going single mother (Talichia Noah) longs for the son she adores to settle into the life she imagines for him.  After successfully dragging him to church -- a good ole Black Baptist church where catching the spirit of the "Holy Ghost" is expected, Youth does end up having what he calls a "religious experience".  As it turns out, his encounter with the Holy Ghost has less to do with God, and more to do with his connection with the music.  In that moment Youth finds his calling, while his mother slaps him in humiliation.  Although Youth does agree to join the choir, he soon leaves it to start his own rock band.  In a hazy marijuana induced epiphany with some of the church kids and a deep conversation with the Reverend's flamboyant son Franklin (John Reed II), Youth decides he needs to find "The Real", so he leaves his middle-class familiars behind, and journeys to Amsterdam and Berlin in a quest to try to experience new things and allow his artistic aspirations to flourish.  In Amsterdam he meets up with a group of artistic Bohemians.  In Berlin, he meets up with a group of radical Bohemians.  In both places, in different ways, snippets of "The Real" are glimpsed, and he eventually learns that as important as love is, sometimes unconditional love -- love without understanding, is as real as it gets.  This show wraps up with a sober slap in the face that resonates with everyone -- black, white, gay, straight, whatever.  An emotional reminder of what "The Real" is.

Talichia Noah (Mother), Keith Parker (Youth),
John Reed II, Andrea Purnell, Cecil Washington Jr.,
and Jeanitta Perkins.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
PASSING STRANGE features a terrific cast with fine voices, and Scott Miller, New Line's artistic director and director of this show, always seems to elicit the most from them.  Charles Glenn is arresting as the narrator, with a smooth rich voice that held the evening together like glue.  Resembling the real-life Stew, Glenn fits this role like a glove.  Keith Parker's tireless "Youth" is impressive throughout with an excellent voice as well.  Talichia Noah is loving and heartbreaking as Mother.  Under Miller's rock-solid direction, the ensemble members of PASSING STRANGE were absorbing in all of their characterizations -- whether as a group of conservative church folks, free-loving Dutch hippies, or revolutionary young Germans.  They all had their moments to shine, and Jeanitta Perkins was fierce in all of her parts, especially Desi, one of the militant Germans.  John Reed II was terrific as the Reverend's pot-smoking son, and incredibly commanding and funny as Venus, the German performance artist.  Cecil E. Washington Jr. had some great moments as Hugo and Andrea Purnell was a turbulent Sudabey, a "postmodern pornographer" whose porno films feature "fully clothed men making business deals.”  Ha!  There is no choreographer listed in the program, but damn these kids can move!  (Hard for me to take my eyes off of Cecil Washington Jr.  during "Amsterdam").

Cecil Washington Jr. (Christophe), Jeanitta Perkins (Renata),
and John Reed II (Joop).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
The costume designs by Amy Kelly were straightforward with simple accoutrements to effectively distinguish the array of characters.  Todd Schaefer's scenic design was clean with a couple of benches, chairs, a table and a brick backdrop with exposed little spaces.  This backdrop, when coupled with Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design that illuminated through the open spaces added much to the mood of several visually beautiful scenes, and the New Line band was tight, and handled the score wonderfully.

It's a brilliant show with memorable performances and amazing songs.  Actually, I'm buying the cast-recording the second I post this entry.  In short, go see it.  I'm not kidding.

Charles Glenn (Narrator).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Book/lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Scott Miller, assistant director, Nikki Glenn
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through October 15 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm 

Charles Glenn (Narrator), Keith Parker (Youth), Talichia Noah (Mother), Jeanitta Perkins (Sherry/Renata/Desi), Andrea Purnell (Edwina/Marianna/Sudabey), John Reed II (Rev. Jones/Franklin/Joop/Venus) and Cecil E. Washington Jr. (Terry/Christophe/Hugo).

Costume design by Amy Kelly; scenic design by Todd Schaefer; lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl; sound design by Donald Smith; stage manager, Trisha Bakula.

The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Justin Smolik; lead guitar, D. Mike Bauer; rhythm guitar, Aaron Doerr; bass, Dave Hall; percussion, Clancy Newell.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE WINNERS • HotCity Theatre

So, how does winning a butt-load of cash in the lottery change your life?  Or more intriguingly, what temptations and behaviors do new-found financial freedom uncover? That's at the center of THE WINNERS, written by David L. Williams.  This play won HotCity's GreenHouse new play competition last year, and it's receiving a full production in its St. Louis premiere in the cozy black-box confines of the Kranzberg.

What's the first thing Cassie (Shanara Gabrielle) and her husband Kurt (Shaun Sheley) do after raking in $337 million?  What else?  They buy a hooker for the night!  See, Cassie used to have the hots for an Asian classmate in college, but she never experimented, so they hire "Tiffany" (Sasha Diamond) a young attractive escort, so Cassie can live out her fantasy.  Naturally her husband was all for it.  After awkward small talk and money negotiations they get down to business.  All of the "action" takes place offstage, but once the first round is over, there's a bit of animosity in the air.  Cassie and Kurt seem to do a little "power-tripping" in light of their upper-hand in the situation, and they proceed to run Tiffany through a series of rather humiliating scenarios.  Throughout the night, we also hear from a crying Shirley, the couple's daughter, over the baby monitor.  Shirley's almost two years old, but not yet able to talk.  Weary of always having to go up and check on the baby, Cassie and Kurt have Tiffany go up to check on her to give themselves a break.  Geez.  Have the hooker do the dishes too while you're at it.

Shaun Sheley (Kurt), Sasha Diamond (Tiffany)
and Shanara Gabrielle (Cassie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The play takes a major turn in the second act.  A turn that seems to come out of nowhere, and a little disjointed from everything else that's going on.  This is where it becomes a bit challenging to stay with the ballgame, but you'll have to check it out for yourself, cause I'm not giving anything away.  Like I said earlier though, new-found financial freedom can uncover all sorts of responsibility-shirking temptations...

The performances of the three leads were engaging, especially considering some of the situations they had to pull off -- particularly Shanara Gabrielle as Cassie.  The action flowed perfectly under Marty Stanberry's direction, and the realistic and warm set (James Holborow) and comfy lighting (Sean M. Savoie) make you feel at home right as you walk into the space.  Also nice costume work by Jane Sullivan.  Including the lingerie…

This play poses some interesting, if not unexpected questions.  But hey, leaving the theatre talking is better than not, right?

Shanara Gabrielle (Cassie)
and Shaun Sheley (Kurt).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by David L. Williams
Directed by Marty Stanberry
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through September 24 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Shanara Gabrielle* (Cassie), Shaun Sheley* (Kurt) and Sasha Diamond (Tiffany).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by James Holborow; lighting design by Sean M. Savoie; costume design by Jane Sullivan; stage manager, Richard B. Agnew.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

RED • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

"What do you see?"

That's the first question painter Mark Rothko poses, almost pleads, to his new apprentice Ken in the opening minutes of the Rep's scorching season opener, John Logan's RED.

Mark Rothko's "multiforms" led to the development of Color Field Painting in the 1940's and 50's.  Although he is considered a master abstract expressionist, he shunned labels of any kind applied to his style.  You know -- that temperamental artist thing.

The play takes place in Rothko's 1950's art studio after he's been given a $35,000 commission (over $2 million today) to paint a series of murals for Manhattan's new Four Seasons restaurant.  Ken, an aspiring young artist himself, has been hired as Rothko's assistant.  He does everything from fetching Chinese food and preparing Rothko's canvases, to being a sounding board for the master and his intellectual ramblings.  Before Ken even has a chance to answer Rothko's initial question, he's given instructions on how to perceive his art -- "Let it work on you.  Let it pulsate.  Now what do you see?".

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Mark Rothko didn't want his paintings to end up in the houses of people who were trying to keep up with the neighbors or high-brows convinced they should buy a "Rothko" because the New York Times told them they should buy a "Rothko".  He required the active participation of the viewer.  Having a disdain for natural lighting, Rothko was very particular about exactly how his art was to be displayed, and even who was permitted to see it.  He insists to Ken that, "You cannot be an artist until you are civilized", and although he has ensuing diatribes about the nature of art, Nietzsche, Freud and Shakespeare, they don't leave you feeling like you've just been hit over the head with intellectual babble.  Under Steven Woolf's incredible direction, it's engrossing.

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Ken works for Rothko for 2 years, with Rothko taking little or no notice of the details of Ken's life.  There is one tragic aspect of Ken's childhood that he does share, but Rothko immediately suggests that Ken use it as a creative stimulus.  Ken doesn't really get many words in edgeways at the beginning, but once he grows to voice his own opinions about art and his admiration of painters like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, Rothko's doubts about his own relevance begin to peak out.  I mean, let's face it -- as Ken points out, for all of Rothko's talk full of artistic Apollonian and Dionysian comparisons, he was on the verge of providing artwork for a swanky trough for the bourgeois -- the last people prepared to appreciate his work as he intended.  It presents Rothko with soul-searching challenges that we get to witness.  In addition to these brewing self-conflicts, there is an amazing scene where Rothko and Ken prime a huge canvas together with an aria playing in the background, leaving them exhausted and splattered in red paint.  This scene is one that will keep you riveted to the edge of your seat, as will most of this play.

Matthew Carlson (Ken) and Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Rep is one of the first regional theatres in the country to be granted the rights to put on this production that won Tony awards for best play, featured actor, direction, scenic design, lighting design and sound design of a play.

Michael Ganio's scenic design was lovely and evocative.  Dark, immersive lighting design by Phil Monat set a beautiful tone, along with spot-on costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis.  The performances by its leads were striking.  Brian Dykstra's Mark Rothko is forceful, and pulls our attention at the outset with his gaze and keeps hold of it throughout.  Matthew Carlson's Ken shines later in the play once his character questions his boss's long-held beliefs about what art is and bravely presents his opinions about what it could be.

I was ecstatic when I found out the Rep was doing this show, and the production is no less thrilling than it was when I saw it in NYC last year.  RED is a vibrant reminder of why we go to the theatre -- engaging, visceral experiences.

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Written by John Logan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through October 2 | tickets: $22.50 - $72
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).

Scenic design by Michael Ganio; costume design by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by Phil Monat; sound design by Rusty Wandall; music consultant, Jeffrey Carter; stage manager, Glenn Dunn; assistant stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

FALLING • Mustard Seed Theatre

With an estimated 1 in 110 kids having an ASD, or Autism spectrum disorder, many of us are familiar with autism to some degree -- in a once or twice removed kind of way.  But seeing the challenges of a family with an autistic son up close and personal in Mustard Seed's first show of their season, written by artistic director, Deanna Jent, is a powerful and touching experience.

There's a palpable heaviness in the Martin household that's apparent the minute the lights come up.  Josh (Jonathan Foster) is the 18 year old son of Tami (Michelle Hand) and Bill (Greg Johnston).  His parents seem to have done their research about this disorder, and there are knowing glances exchanged between them when anything in Josh's life suddenly strays outside of the normal routine.  They are in a constant state of readiness to deflect and distract him, if necessary.  Sometimes during the day this means a box of feathers.  Other times, it means bringing out his marble collection or one of his favorite DVDs.  Tami and Bill's adolescent daughter Lisa (Katie Donnelly) is also well acquainted with the code words, routines and triggers and she's been forced to shift the focus of her own life to her brother's, and take on the role of a co-care-taker.  Josh's autism can tend to be aggressive, and the growing strain on the family is doubled when Bill's God-fearing mom, Sue (Carmen Russell), comes into town for a visit.  She thinks prayer and an on-hand bible will help take care of Josh's disorder, but again, there are glances exchanged between the parents that make it clear that they are veterans in "extreme parenting", and grandma is a newbie, with no real understanding of the situation.  They've tried prayer -- it doesn't make anything go away, and Sue isn't used to the cloud of tension that the parents have become accustomed to living with every day.

Michelle Hand (Tami Martin), Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin)
and Greg Johnston (Bill Martin).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's very eye-opening to see how Bill and Tami have come up with little bets and prizes for each other, and a day without a phone call from their son's special needs school is a cause for quiet celebration.  But Sue soon becomes aware of the anxiety of their lives when the barking of a dog is all it takes for Josh's aggressive unease to explode, and it's a scene that is violently captivating.

There is a "theatrical conceit" (<-- I think that's the correct term.  Probably not though) that happens about 3/4's of the way in that I won't disclose here, but it does leave the audience with the pleasure of thinking this family might have gotten a break, only to find out that no, the reality of autism doesn't easily just disappear, and it leaves you feeling a little guilty -- wishing, for the family's sake, they had gotten a break. 

Under  the impressive direction of Lori Adams, the cast was strong all the way around.  Michelle Hand was funny and effectively heartbreaking as Josh's mom Tami, who always has a bottle of red on hand if she needs a glass, or a shot of bourbon when the pressure becomes more difficult to handle.  Greg Johnston was wonderful as Bill, whose approach was a little more relaxed, but it was clear he was not unaffected by his son's influence on the household.  Nor was he unaffected by the strain his son has inflicted on his marital relationship with his wife.  Katie Donnelly as Josh's sister, Lisa, was touchingly believable as an adolescent, "totally over" the family life, and ready to move in with Grandma to escape the stress of her own home.  Carmen Russell was intriguing as Grandma Sue, taking on the role as an outsider looking in, like the audience, and Jonathan Foster as Josh was believable and commanded your complete attention.

Greg Johnston (Bill Martin), Carmen Russell (Sue Martin),
Michelle Hand (Tami Martin) and Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Also great work by the technical crew, including John Stark's set, Julie Mack's lighting, Zoe Sullivan's sound design and Shaun Sheley's movement & combat choreography.

This show has extended for another week, so now there are 2 more weekends to check this out.  Honestly -- I wasn't planning on seeing it, but I'm so glad I did.  The performances alone make it well worth seeing.


Written by Deanna Jent
Directed by Lori Adams
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through September 24 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin & Lawrence Malerry), Michelle Hand (Tami Martin), Katie Donnelly (Lisa Martin), Greg Johnston (Bill Martin) and Carmen Russell (Sue Martin).

Scenic design by John Stark; costume design by Deanne Jent; lighting design by Julie Mack; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; movement & combat by Shaun Sheley; stage manager, Adam Flores.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...