Tuesday, May 29, 2012

SWEENEY TODD • Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical thriller has been captivating audiences since 1979, and has enjoyed not only theatre, but opera house productions from companies all over the world.  I read part of an article from a guy named Michael Dale that said, “Sweeney Todd is a musical when you wonder why Mrs. Lovett takes her bow after Sweeney.  Sweeney Todd is an opera when you wonder why the mezzo takes her bow after the soprano.”  Ha!  Regardless of whether you consider Sweeney Todd an opera or a musical, Opera Theatre's production of this darkly comic classic is marvelous.  Sweeney Todd also happens to be one of my favorites, and I love me some Sondheim, so please bear with me while I ramble for a minute…

Many people are familiar with the musical or film stories of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street whose victims wind up in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, but Sweeney Todd first appeared as a character in the Victorian "penny dreadfuls".  In these grisly publications of the 19th century, Sweeney Todd was a psychopathic barber, slitting the throats of his hapless victims in a weekly serial called, "The String of Pearls".  In 1973, this story was adapted into a play by British playwright Christopher Bond called Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  This version expanded Todd's backstory and gave the protagonist a motive for his fury.  In Bond's version, Todd was exiled to Australia for life on trumped up charges so the unscrupulous Judge Turpin could have Todd's wife, Lucy, for himself.  When Todd escapes, 15 years after his sentence, he heads back to London bent on one thing: revenge.  In 1979, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted Bond's version into a musical that won eight Tony's when it debuted on Broadway, and it's arguably one of Sondheim’s greatest and most intricate scores.

This production is dark.  Literally.  Against a minimal set with a backdrop of blood-stained sheets of corrugated metal, the ensemble, dressed in blacks and greys, bids us to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, giving us our engrossing introduction to the story, and one of many leitmotifs.  I got chills.

Rod Gilfry (Sweeney Todd) and Karen Ziemba (Mrs. Lovett).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The scenic design (Riccardo Hernandez) remained minimal throughout, including just a few small pieces that were brought on and off stage.  Like the corrugated metal, tinged in red, there was also this huge yellow-stained plastic curtain backdrop, providing a scrim to obscure a few scenes, including the masquerade at the judge's house, the asylum and the bake-house, to haunting effect.  Rod Gilfry is an imposing, alluring Sweeney Todd, and his rich baritone scares us when he's angry and makes us feel for him when he's in despair.  Karen Ziemba (saw her in Curtains.  Love.) squeezes every drop of humor out of the industrious Mrs. Lovett's numbers with her precise comic timing, and vocally holds her own in a wonderfully commanding performance.  Their "A Little Priest" is almost worth the price of admission, and they worked well together.  The young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, (Nathaniel Hackmann and Deanna Breiwick) sound lovely together and are impressive in their solo numbers.  Hackmann's "Ah, Miss" and "Johanna" were beautiful, and Breiwick's "Green Finch And Linnet Bird" for the first time for me, was a true joy to hear -- a clarion soprano, as opposed to the rather shrill ones I've heard before.  Timothy Nolen's deliberate and lascivious Judge Turpin knocked his version of "Johanna" out of the park, and Scott Ramsay's Beadle has a strong tenor voice and a great falsetto.  I've only seen two other versions of Sweeney Todd -- the original DVD, and the 2005 revival, and Susanne Mentzer's Beggar Woman was the most clear I've heard.  And most heartbreaking.  Also, Anthony Webb's Pirelli provided much flair in "The Contest" and Kyle Erdos Knapp's full tenor gave Tobias a sweet, innocent passion in his "Not While I'm Around".  Loved hearing his contributions in "Parlor Songs".  The "Johanna" quartet was also a favorite -- hearing Todd's hopelessness, Anthony's longing, Johanna's yearning for freedom and that crazy old Beggar Woman -- one of many beautifully executed numbers.
Deanna Breiwick (Johanna) and
Nathaniel Hackmann (Anthony Hope).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Then there's the ensemble.  *sigh*  Amazing.  I've said this before, but Tim Burton's decision to leave out all of the chorus tracks in his film was a travesty, and I'm sure he will be punished for this decision to some degree in the afterlife.  The ensemble provides so much of the frightening power in this show.  Whether it's in the Ballad of Sweeney Todd reprises, the tuneful "God, That's Good!" or the manic "City on Fire", the ensemble delivered these numbers exceptionally.  Emily Rebholz's costume design also stood out, particularly with the chorus.  In "God, That's Good!" -- when they are all consumed with Mrs. Lovett's delectable meat pies, now new and improved with "special ingredients" -- they were all dressed in black with a splash of red.  Genius.  In the scene at Fogg's asylum, they were all in white nightclothes with the bottoms stained with red.  Lotta red in this puppy.  Fair share of blood, too.  :)  They also made use of the aisles as patients from the asylum roamed around the audience during the final sequences.  And no doubt, those last scenes will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Scott Ramsay (Beadle Bamford) and
Timothy Nolen (Judge Turpin).
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The traditional barber chair that drops its victims down to the bake-house had to be worked around with this production's one level set.  Instead of the victims being dropped down through a trapdoor, they are carried away by members of the ensemble.  This is a minor complaint, considering my overall impression of the show, which if you can't already tell is a good one.

Under Ron Daniels' dead-on direction, and with a company of exceptional voices, and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit, this production is a delicious treat not to be missed.  And yes, there are spoilers I'm not giving away, cause that would be just wrong.  They are worth it though.  So, "attend the tale".  You will be very glad you did.

Rod Gilfry (Sweeney Todd).
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Ron Daniels*
Conducted by Stephen Lord
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through  June 24 | tickets: $25 - $120
Performances Saturday, May 26 at 8pm, Wednesday, May 30 at 8pm, Friday, June 1 at 8pm, Thursday, June 7 at 8pm, Tuesday, June 12 at 1pm, Saturday, June 16 at 1pm, Wednesday, June 20 at 8pm, Sunday, June 24 at 7pm

Rod Gilfry* (Sweeney Todd), Karen Ziemba* (Mrs. Lovett), Nathaniel Hackmann* (Anthony Hope), Deanna Breiwick* (Johanna), Kyle Erdos Knapp†* (Tobias Ragg), Timothy Nolen (Judge Turpin), Susanne Mentzer (Beggar Woman), Scott Ramsay* (Beadle), Anthony Webb†* (Pirelli), Marco Stefani†* (Jonas Fogg) and Jason Eck† (Bird Keeper).

Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez*; costume design by Emily Rebholz*; lighting design by Christopher Akerlind; sound design by Michael Hooker*; wig & makeup design by Ashley Ryan; choreography by Seán Curran; chorus master, Robert Ainsley; English diction specialist, Erie Mills; GYA teacher/coach, Erie Mills; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis*; repetiteur, Adam Burnette; stage manager, Cindy Knight; intern assistant stage manager, Rickelle Williams.
* = Debut; ° = former Gerdine Young Artist; † = current Gerdine Young Artist

Sunday, May 27, 2012

INSIDIOUS • The Black Rep

Ibn Shabazz's Insidious had its 2010 premiere at Road Less Traveled Productions in Buffalo, New York, and the Black Rep's production of this St. Louis premiere, the play's second mounting, is fearless.  Insidious takes an unblinking look at addiction, promiscuity and men on the "down low" -- men who engage in unprotected sex with other men, while maintaining relationships with girlfriends and wives.  Because of its adult language and themes, I would leave the kids at home for this one.

Dawud (Philip Dixon) and Kara (Jacqueline Thompson) are an attractive, frisky couple about to be married.  Kara is going over the details for the wedding when we learn that they are both in recovery.  Dawud, seven years clean, insists that he doesn't want the temptation of alcohol or drunken free-loaders at the reception, but Kara doesn't want to look cheap.  Once Kara leaves for work, Dawud leaves also, to come back home shortly afterwards with his hunky pick-up who calls himself Insidious (Nic Few).  After the foreplay of playstation and evasive small talk, they go into the bedroom to get down to business.  Here, Chris Pickart's scenic design and Mark Wilson's lighting design artfully render the pair obscured, and then in silhouette.  The two are nearly found out when Kara comes home unexpectedly to change clothes, but Dawud introduces Insidious as a new friend who has come over to play video games.  Once Kara goes back to work, Insidious isn't ready to leave after, and while going from needy to psychopathically defiant, he lets Dawud know in no uncertain terms that he will not go quietly. 

Dawud (Phillip Dixon) and Insidious (Nic Few)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Insidious lives up to his name with challenges to Dawud about his sexual preferences, threats of blackmail and suggestions that he might or might not have passed his HIV status onto Dawud, as well as Kara.  Once this seed is planted, along with the realization that Insidious has taken his keys, Dawud starts to freak out.  He is terrified at the possibility of having to tell his fiancée about his secrets.  A visit from Tajuan (Daniel Hodge), a mutual friend of Kara and Dawud's, heightens the tension as there is a flicker of recognition when he's introduced to Dawud's new ominous friend.

Chris (Ryan Cunningham) and Dawud (Phillip Dixon)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
As his reality starts to close in, Dawud calls on his buddy Chris (SirGabe Ryan Cunningham), who is also in recovery.  Chris tries to keep Dawud on track, and although he provides some welcome comic relief as Dawud tells him his story, he tries to convince Dawud to come clean with Kara about his past, with little success.  As Dawud attempts to deal with Insidious and the potential consequences of his actions and his self-loathsome feelings about his own sexuality, all while trying to hang onto his sobriety, things play out in unexpected ways with heavy foreshadowing that manage to rise above being simply a public health service announcement about the dangers of unprotected sex. 

Insidious (Nic Few)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
The language of Shabazz's play is coarse and authentic, and there are times when characters address the audience with slam poetry-like explanations of their motivations.  While these lyrical monologues tend to take you out of the story, they do provide clarifying looks into the experiences and perspectives of these characters.  The action drags a little in the second act after an abrupt first act close, but director Ron Himes admirably keeps the pace, and the stakes, high.  Few as the title character tempers his charm with his menace capably while Dixon's Dawud and Thompson as the unsuspecting wife-to-be make a genuine impression as a couple fighting to keep the havoc that Insidious has wreaked at bay.  Along with Cunningham as Dawud's best friend, Hodge provides a big slice of comic relief as the flamboyant Tajuan.  Together with the wonderfully realized set, lights, and costumes by Sarita Fellows, DJ Super Nova's sound design adds some nice touches throughout.

 Insidious (Nic Few), Tajuan (Daniel Hodges),
Dawud (Phillip Dixon), Chris (Ryan Cunningham)
and Kara (Jacqueline Thompson)
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Check it out for an incredibly provocative potboiler that shines a light on rarely discussed compulsions and their resulting consequences.  It runs at the Grandel until June 24.


Written by Ibn Shabazz
Directed by Ron Himes
Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through June 24 | tickets: $35 - $47
Performances selected Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm

SirGabe Ryan Cunningham (Chris), Philip Dixon (Dawud), Nic Few* Insidious), Daniel Hodge (Tajuan) and Jacqueline Thompson (Kara).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Chris Pickart; lighting design by Mark Wilson; costume design by Sarita Fellows; sound design by DJ Super Nova; fiber art by Carole Harris; stage manager, Tracy D. Holloway-Wiggins.

Monday, May 14, 2012

THE NEW CENTURY • Max & Louie Productions

Paul Rudnick's 2007 play is made up of vignettes, primarily featuring monologues by its main characters who all have one thing in common -- they are, or have been affected by, someone gay.  This set-up could potentially present as a virtual pride parade of stereotypical characters.  Well, it kinda does.  In between the ready-made laughs, and there are many, you can spot moments of introspection from certain characters, but those delicate strokes are often layered over with the script's heavier-handed brush strokes of over-the-top clichés.

The festivities begin with Helene Nadler (Stellie Siteman), self-proclaimed "most loving mother of all time".  Why?  Well, she's got a lesbian daughter, actually two, except one is transgender.  Then there's her son David, also gay, with fetishes for leather and scatology <-- don't ask.  That's why I made it a link.  In a presentation she's giving to the “Parents of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, the Transgendered, the Questioning, the Curious, the Creatively Concerned and Others” group, she fiercely defends her love for her children, but you can tell that despite her claims of being the most accepting mother in the world, she's really trying to convince herself that her children are truly okay.  Stellie Siteman plays up Helene's enthusiasm, but the over-long narrative loses steam near the end.  It also gets a little bizarre as she trots out her son, fully clad in leather, to show how submissive and obedient he is.  Whaa?

Stellie Siteman (Helene Nadler).
Photo credit:John Lamb
Then we're introduced to "Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" (Alan Knoll), and possibly the gayest man on the planet.  He's got his own show on Florida's public access channel 47 called "Too Gay".  He has no inclination to assimilate, and he claims to be able to turn people gay with a glance.  During his program, he sings the praises of good taste, laments the lost breed of pre-Stonewall era queens, and reads letters from his viewers.  Occasionally he's joined by his boy-toy, Shane (Joshua Nash Payne), who prances around showing off his hard body to the delight of Mr. Charles.  Alan Knoll completely inhabits this character, and looks like he has a lot of fun doing it, but although there was a hint of heart under all of those colorful fabrics, those insights get lost under the weight of the exaggerated characterization.  If a straight guy had written this, I'm telling you he'd be burned at the stake.

The third story contains most of the heart that there is to be had in The New Century.  Barbara Ellen (Peggy Billo) is a craftsmaster from Decatur, Illinois.  She can knit you a tuxedo cozy for your toaster, a sock puppet, or an evening gown for your cat.  After she shows us the wares from her craft booth, she eventually lets us in on the devastating loss of her son who died of AIDS, and the epiphanies she had during her trips to New York City, where her son was living.  Peggy Billo as Barbara Ellen is a standout.  She's engaging, very funny and heart-breaking in the scene that seems to have the most balance.

Joshua Nash Payne (Shane) and Alan Knoll (Mr. Charles)
Photo credit: John Lamb
All of the players wind up together at a NYC maternity ward in the fourth scene.  The reasons that bring them all there are a little vague, with the exception of Helene, whose grandchild has just been born.  We end up learning a little more about each of the characters here, but at this point, it seems more like a contrived way to have everyone meet up, not to mention a disco party ending that seems tacked-on.

It's unfortunate that a couple of these characters were written as one-dimensional stereotypes.  Now don't get me wrong -- I think poking fun at stereotypes can be fun.  There's usually always something recognizable -- parts of yourself, parts of people you know, that make it all relatable.  More often than not though, The New Century gives you nothing but assaulting one-liners that in the end, render a couple of the roles more caricature than character.

Peggy Billo (Barbara Ellen Diggs)
Photo credit: John Lamb
The stage at COCA seems a little cramped at times, but Marci Franklin's costumes were great and Mark Griggs's sound design added some nice touches.  Ted Gregory's direction seems a bit inconsistent, but again, Rudnick's script takes too long to make its point and in my opinion, doesn't underpin these stories with enough soul to rise above the over-worn stereotypes.  
Although there's plenty of humor in this presentation of short stories, don't look for too much heart.  It's playing until the 20th.  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.  Maybe I'm just uber-sensitive.


Written by Paul Rudnick 
Directed by Ted Gregory
through May 20 | tickets: $15 - $30
Performances Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Peggy Billo (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Joshua Nash Payne (Shane),
Stellie Siteman (Helene Nadler) and Alan Knoll (Mr. Charles).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Gary Wayne Barker* (Announcer), Peggy Billo* (Barbara Ellen Diggs), Elizabeth Graveman (Joann Milderry), Alan Knoll* (Mr. Charles), Joshua Nash Payne (Shane/David Nadler), Stellie Siteman* (Helene Nadler).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Sound design by Mark Griggs; scenic design by Patrick Huber; costume design by Marci Franklin; lighting design by Glenn M. Dunn; stage manager, Kim Gifford.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

JACOB AND JACK • New Jewish Theatre

In the final production of NJT's 15th season, actors play double roles and time-travel from the present day to the 1930's in a nifty little backstage romp.  It's always fun watching actors play actors, right?

Jack Shore (Bobby Miller) is an actor who's mostly known for his television commercials.  He's agreed to appear in a staged reading at a benefit for his mother's Ladies Club, that pays tribute to his grandfather Jacob Shemerinsky, a star of the Yiddish theatre.  In addition to not believing in rehearsing, Jack also has an eye for the ladies, and his latest target is a talented young actor named Robin (Julie Layton), also taking part in the reading.  She's so talented that Jack finds himself reconsidering his stance on not memorizing lines.  His flirting ends up pissing off his wife Lisa (Kari Ely), also an actor, also involved in the reading.  Jack, his insecurities, and his ego are placated and tolerated by his manager Ted (Terry Meddows) and they are both checked in on by the show's "gay as a picnic" stage manager Don (Justin Ivan Brown), and occasionally Jack's enthusiastic mom, Esther (Donna Weinsting).  That's the present day situation.

Terry Meddows (Ted), Justin Ivan Brown (Don),
Julie Layton (Robin) and Bobby Miller (Jack).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The actors, past and present, are housed in adjoining dressing rooms, and with a quick opening or closing (or slamming) of a door, we're back in 1935, and Jack's grandfather, Jacob (again, Bobby Miller) is preparing to play to a practically empty house, and considering a film career.  He, like his grandson, has a roving eye, and the object of his advances is a young inexperienced actor named Rachel (Julie Layton) who Jacob has had installed into the show.  This tests his long-suffering wife Leah (Kari Ely) who, like her modern day counter-part Lisa, is tired of having to suffer her husband's infidelity.

This parallel footing happening in different eras is entertaining to watch.  Most everyone comes to some sort or resolve for the most part, but still, this cast is top notch and Edward Coffield's quickly paced direction will keep you delightfully engaged.

Terry Meddows (Abe),  Bobby Miller (Jacob)
and Justin Ivan Brown (Moishe).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Each character is adept at the switching, sometimes almost in mid-sentence.  The main characters -- Bobby Miller as Jack and Jacob, Kari Ely as Lisa and Leah, and Julie Layton as Robin and Rachel are all strong.  Terry Meddows as Ted and Abe, is great to watch, and Justin Ivan Brown as Don and Moishe along with Donna Weinsting's Esther and Hannah are also well-played.

Robert Mark Morgan's scenic design of three adjacent dressing rooms perfectly serves this farce in addition to Kimberly Klearman's lighting design, Matthew Koch's sound design and Michele Friedman Siler's costume design.

It's playing at the New Jewish Theatre until the 20th.  Check it out for some clever performances.


Written by James Sherman
Directed by Edward Coffield
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through May 20 | tickets: $35.50 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Bobby Miller * (Jack Shore/Jacob Shemerinsky), Terry Meddows (Ted/Abe), Kari Ely * (Lisa/Leah), Donna Weinsting (Esther/Hannah), Julie Layton (Robin/Rachel) and Justin Ivan Brown (Don/Moishe).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; sound design by Matthew Koch, stage manager, Kate Koch.


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