Friday, June 22, 2012

LAUGHTER, TEARS & THE RIGHT STUFF • ST. LOU FRINGE

In case you haven't heard, there's a Fringe festival going on right now in St. Louis!  Before I get into that, let me give you a quick review of the show I saw earlier tonight.
The West End Players Guild is presenting three short plays written by Stephen Peirick for the Fringe Festival entitled Laughter, Tears and the Right Stuff.  The first play, The Right Stuff, is a rollicking peek at three women who are reliving their high-school days, camping out for concert tickets.  Why camp out when there's the internet?  Unnecessary?  Maybe.  But all of the girls end up enjoying their throwback days on the sidewalk.  (I totally did that for Prince and the Revolution tickets once.)  The second play, The Goodbye Party, takes a serious turn as Lilly (Emily Baker) tries to cope with her loss in the midst of a wake.  The last play, The Third Time, looks at the humorous challenges of a couple who find themselves, for the third time, at the fertility clinic.  This is a really brief description of the plays (apologies), but trust me, all of Peirick's plays that I've seen are quality.  He has a way of sucking you in by slowly peeling away the layers of his characters and their various situations, that you almost can't help but become invested in them.  All of the performances are also top notch (Stephanie Merritt, Sarajane Alverson, Ann Hier, Emily Baker, Nancy Nigh and Jason Meyers).  Definitely worth checking out.  It was a great Fringe kickoff for me, and I hope to see more plays during the weekend.

So, about this Fringe business…  It's great!  Honestly, I just get a kick out of the fact that this is going on here.  It's been done before, albeit on a smaller scale, but although it hasn't been hugely advertised, this five day jammed-packed Fringe fest offers a lot, including over 30 wildly varying performances, featuring some local companies as well as artists from all over the country, four performance spaces, not to mention all of the stuff going on in between shows like drum circles, street painting, face and body painters, fire dancers, slam poets and more!  Plus the after parties starting at 10pm.  I know, right?!

Step one is to check out their website.  Everything is there, but I'll give a little breakdown here of some of the particulars.  Everything starts at “Fringeland” located at 3141 Locust.  Here's a map for your bearings.  At Fringeland you pay 5 bucks for a nifty little button that allows you access to the shows.  Then you pay for the individual shows, but none of the shows are over $12.  Another cool thing about these buttons is that once you get yours, you're offered rewards at restaurants, hotels, and great discounts that keep on giving when St. Lou Fringe is over.  You can get a printout of these rewards and discounts at Fringeland.  You'll also get a little paper that fills you in on some background info., venue breakdowns, and the schedule of shows and workshops.  Once you've figured out what you wanna see and you're equipped with your stylish button and tickets, it's time to fringe!

Did I mention the after parties?

I've never posted a blog this quickly, so I'm sure I've inevitably left a lot out.  As always, comments are welcome, so please leave them if you like, in addition to more info. you may have about the Fringe and your own Fringe experience!  Seriously, check it out this weekend if you can.  It promises to be a great time in the city!  Kudos to the organizers of St. Lou Fringe, including (but not exclusively) Em Piro, Billy Croghan, Tara Daniels, Tom Martin, Lauren Garvey, Sherre Waggoner and Toni Roper.

Now go get your Fringe on this weekend!


LAUGHTER, TEARS & THE RIGHT STUFF
Written by Stephen Peirick
Directed by Stephen Peirick & Tina Farmer
Cabaret Space at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through June 25 | tickets: $5 plus $5 for the Fringe button.
Cast:
Stephanie Merritt (Melissa), Sarajane Alverson (Bridget/Belinda), Ann Hier (Tracy/Julie), Emily Baker (Lilly), Nancy Nigh (Brenda) and Jason Meyers (Rick).

Monday, June 18, 2012

BOWLING EPIPHANY - THE REVIVAL! • OnSite Theatre Company

You really can't beat a night of theatre and bowling, right?  OnSite Theatre specializes in "site specific" plays.  Every show is set in a different location suited to the play, and trust me, this provides an exciting layer to its productions.  OnSites' five year anniversary presentation takes place at Epiphany Lanes and features three short plays.  Better still, you can get a frame of bowling in during the intermissions!  This presentation is truly set up for a great time.  Plays that are the perfect length, set in a perfectly encompassing location, with Joe Hanrahan's direction, and a talented, tight cast of three -- Elizabeth Birkenmeier, Antonio Rodriguez and Donna Weinsting -- you can't go wrong.
"Just Bowl" "(Gardenofeve(dot)com)"
Donna Weinsting opens it up.  She narrates as we get to eavesdrop on an incredibly awkward first date.  You can tell these two don't get out much.  They want badly to connect with each other, but find it challenging when they have to meet each other in the flesh.  They've become socially inept.  Victims of the internet.  Our narrator calls it a "decline in social capital".  Rodriguez and Birkenmeier have a wonderfully clumsy way with each other, and they provide an entertaining and charming look at what happens when people are more comfortable sharing their feelings through a Facebook status update as opposed to face-to-face interaction.

---BOWL!!---
"Anarchy of a Pin Boy"
Next up, Weinsting is a free-wheelin' redneck bowling enthusiast trying to get her daughter (Birkenmeier) interested in the game, but her daughter isn't having it.  She'd rather be a poet, but Mom tells her that all that silly talk about poetry disrespects the clientele.  Ha!  Hoosiers…  Her daughter ends up meeting the alley's pin boy (Rodriguez), and their initially cautious flirty conversation turns into a rather surreal little chance encounter, proving that people may sometimes be a lot more that who they seem to be.
---BOWL!!---
"What Would Jesus Bowl?"
Our last play has Job (Rodriguez), like the guy from the bible Job, laid out completely disoriented on the floor with angel (Weinsting) and devil (Birkenmeier) discussing what to do with him.  Apparently his trials and tribulations were just a human experiment, so the polar opposites, good and evil, have to sort it all out.  What better place than a bowling alley to do this, right?  Good times...
So basically, you've got some plays about bowling taking place in a bowling alley with free bowling.  Need I say more?  I'm telling you, this will make for a really fun night.  Check it out -- it's playing until the 30th.
BOWLING EPIPHANY - THE REVIVAL!
"Just Bowl" "(Gardenofeve(dot)com)" written by Dan Rubin 
"Anarchy of a Pin Boy" written by Carter Lewis
"What Would Jesus Bowl?" written by Dan Rubin
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
Epiphany Lanes, 3164 Ivanhoe Ave.
through June 30 | tickets: $25 (June 21st tickets include drinks, food, bowling prizes and a champagne toast for OnSite's 5 year Anniversary)
Performances selected Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Cast:
Elizabeth Birkenmeier, Antonio Rodriguez and Donna Weinsting.
Creative:
Stage manager, Linda Menard, artistic director, Ann marie Mohr; managing director, Kristen Edler. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ • Stages St. Louis

Stages' first show of its season splendidly hearkens back to the music of the 1920s and '30s.  It's not a traditional "musical".  It's a musical revue -- in tribute to the tunes of Thomas "Fats" Waller, a classically trained musician, best known for his infectious, brilliant compositions that helped lay out the blueprint for the sound of the Harlem Renaissance.

After an initial run at the Manhattan Theatre Club's cabaret in 1978, Ain't Misbehavin' transferred to Broadway featuring pianist, Luther Henderson, who adapted Waller's music for the revue, Nell Carter, Armelia McQueen, Charlaine Woodard, AndrĂ© DeShields, and our own Ken Page, a St. Louis native, and won three Tony Awards.  Cast member names remain assigned to the original Broadway "real-life" cast, and the nature of the show yields very little that is spoken.  But with this music, who cares?!

This strong-voiced ensemble delivers each number with inexhaustible energy and style.  The range of music will entertain you, make you laugh, make you think, and maybe bring a lump to your throat.
Raena White (Armelia), Dwelvan David (Ken),
Wendy Lynette Fox (Charlaine), Eric Lajuan Summers (Andre)
and Willena Vaughn (Nell).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Willena Vaughn not only looks like Nell Carter, but man can she blow!  She wins the audience over immediately with her comedic charm, and breaks your heart in act two's "Mean To Me".  Dwelvan David as the amorous Ken is irresistibly appealing in his duets, and hilarious in "Your Feet's Too Big".  Raena White makes for a gorgeous Armelia and packs clarion vocals, as well as great comedic timing.  Wendy Lynette Fox's Charlaine also sounds great (can you tell by now that all of these people have amazing voices?), and is hilarious in "Yacht Club Swing".

Eric Lajuan Summers (Andre)
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
Eric Lajuan Summers as Andre is magnetic and sly and practically takes the show with "The Viper's Drag".  And when I say drag, I mean like a drag off of something.  Like a little reefer.  It's a great number.  As slick as the solo numbers are, when this cast all combine their voices in numbers like the memorable "Hand Full of Keys" or the chilling "Black and Blue", the rhythmically syncopated harmonies are like ear-candy, and these are what truly took the show for me.

James Wolk's scenic design reveals itself bit by bit, to great effect, and includes receding archways with illuminated piano keys.  Lou Bird's costume design provides vibrant duds in every scene.  They are both put in the best light, literally, courtesy of Matthew McCarthy's lighting design.

Raena White (Armelia).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak

There are just a couple of times when the show starts to drag, but just then, another great number comes your way.  I'd never seen this show before, though I'd heard of it for quite some time.  Seeing it, under Michael Hamilton's snappy direction and Peggy Taphorn's smooth choreography, I'm glad I saw this production.  Also, there's a smokin' hot *live* band.  Go see it.


AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’

Conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz
Created by Richard Maltby Jr.
Music by "Fats" Waller
Lyrics - various
Directed by Michael Hamilton
The Robert Reim Theatre, 111 South Geyer Road
through July 1 | tickets: $41 - $57
Performances Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm, selected Sundays 2pm or 7:30pm

Willena Vaughn (Nell)
and Dwelvan David (Ken).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak

Cast:
Dwelvan David* (Ken), Wendy Lynette Fox* (Charlaine), Adaron “Pops” Jackson (Luther), Eric Lajuan Summers* (Andre), Willena Vaughn* (Nell) and Raena White* (Armelia).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Choreographer by Peggy Taphorn; musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert; lighting design by Matthew McCarthy; scenic design by James Wolk; costume design by Lou Bird.

The Band:
Alto clarinet, Jason Swagler; tenor clarinet, Kendrick Smith; trombone, Cody Henry; trumpet, Matt Bittles; bass, Jahmal Nichols; drums, Bernard Long, Jr.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

HIGH FIDELITY • New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre has revived High Fidelity after giving this musical its first regional premiere in 2008.  Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity suffered a short life on Broadway, but New Line's artistic director, Scott Miller, has a thing about reviving Broadway flops.  Seeing the potential and the heart at the center of this rock musical, he and his trusty crew at New Line gave it a new life then, and it's even better this time around.

Rob (Jeffrey M. Wright) is a rock music aficionado and owner of a record store, Championship Vinyl.  He values few things more than his treasured collection of records, and Rob has his favorite music categorized biographically, from his first school-boy crush to his more recent heartbreaks.  He, along with his pals who work with him at the store, have a definite musical preference.  Sex Pistols = Yes.  John Tesh = No.  In the winning opening number, "The Last Real Record Store on Earth", we learn that he's just been dumped by his live-in girlfriend Laura (Kimi Short).  This latest breakup has moved Rob to examine his dating history, and Liz, (Talichia Noah), a mutual friend of Rob and Laura's, checks in on him from time to time to try to help him get his priorities in line, although he does end up stalking Laura's new hippie boyfriend, Ian (Aaron Allen) and has a hilarious rap-style revenge fantasy.

Aaron Allen (Ian), Zachary Allen Farmer (Barry),
Jeffrey M. Wright (Rob) and Mike Dowdy (Dick). 
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.
He also gets some advice from conjuring up a couple of his heroes, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen (a very entertaining Ryan Foizey and Todd Micali).  Rob, along with his buddies, socially awkward and sarcastic Barry (Zachary Allen Farmer), and shy, self-conscious Dick (Mike Dowdy), all suffer some overdue growing pains during the course of this sincere,
contemporary coming-of-age tale.  
Under Miller's perceptive direction, just about every aspect of the show seems to have been brought up a notch, and Jeffrey M. Wright's portrayal of our hero Rob Gordon (one of many wonderfully reprised roles from 2008), has matured.  Although Rob isn't always the nicest guy, Wright gives you the full spectrum of a relatable, everyday guy, with heart, authenticity and charm.  Hearing him sing isn't hard on the ears, either.  He is also complimented nicely by Kimi Short's Laura.  She handles a role that doesn't seem as fleshed out as Wright's, but she delivers her scenes in a way that makes you want to root for her, as well as Rob.

Kimi Short in front (Laura), Terrie Carolan, Chrissy Young,
Talichia Noah [hidden], Sarah Porter and Taylor Pietz.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

Talichia Noah makes a great truth-telling Liz, and Margeau Baue Steinau has a great turn as the barely famous singer Marie LaSalle, very proud of the fact that she has slept with Lyle Lovett.  The female and male choruses of High Fidelity are bulked up from the last St. Louis showing, and Terrie Carolan, Taylor Pietz, Sarah Porter, Chrissy Young and Talichia Noah make a full impact when they add their voices to the show's first number.  The male chorus, Keith Thompson, Nicholas Kelly, Todd Micali and Ryan Foizey also give knock-out performances.  Whether the ensemble members are record store employees, guys and girls who hang out there browsing the wares, or are among Rob's "Top 5 Breakups", they're always lively and interesting to watch -- a definite New Line Theatre trait.
Keith Thompson, Ryan Foizey, and Todd Micali.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.
Scott L. Schoonover's scenic design is eye-catching, featuring strewn cassette tape, hanging albums and LP covers, and walls of cassette tapes and CDs.  It immediately sets the mood when you walk in.  Amy Kelly's costume design and Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design also make fine contributions, and Robin Michelle Berger's choreography fits perfectly with the music.  Under Justin Smolik's musical direction, the New Line Band sounds fantastic.
It's playing until the 23rd.  Check it out for some great songs, great performances, and a very good time.
Jeffrey M. Wright in front (Rob), Sarah Porter,
Chrissy Young, Taylor Pietz, Talichia Noah
and Terrie Carolan.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg.

HIGH FIDELITY
Book by David Lindsay-Abaire
Lyrics by Amanda Green 
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through June 23 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm
Cast:
Jeffrey M. Wright (Rob), Kimi Short (Laura), Zachary Allen Farmer (Barry), Mike Dowdy (Dick), Aaron Allen (Ian), Talichia Noah (Liz), Terrie Carolan (Anna), Margeau Baue Steinau (Marie LaSalle), Ryan Foizey, Nicholas Kelly, Todd Micali, Taylor Pietz, Sarah Porter, Keith Thompson and Chrissy Young.
Creative:
Scenic design by Scott L. Schoonover; choreography by Robin Michelle Berger; costume design by Amy Kelly; 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; second keyboard, Jeffrey VanDiver.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

9 CIRCLES • R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics has settled nicely into its new home at the Black Cat Theatre in Maplewood with a searing production of Bill Cain's 9 Circles.  The title is a reference to Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem, "Divine Comedy".  It chronicles Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and begins with "Inferno", where Hell is depicted as nine descending circles of suffering located within the earth.  In Cain's play, scenes are introduced as "circle one, circle two", and so on as the audience follows Private Reeves’ descent into his own psychological hell of the Iraqi war.  This play also seems to point an accusatory finger at the war, posing questions about whether or not it, or previous unwelcome wars for that matter, were worth it, and considers the moral complications of war, and the very thin line between military action, and plain old violence.

Reeves is an army "grunt" who has just been informed that he's been honorably discharged from service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He signed up when he was 19 years old under a “moral waiver” that allowed him in, despite his past arrests, lack of an employment history, and personality disorder.  When his sergeant informs him that he is being discharged for his horrifying crimes, Reeves asserts that “we are here to kill people”, and cannot understand why his actions warrant being booted out of the army -- the one place Reeves has felt at home.

Michael Scott Rash (Reeves) and B. Weller (Pastor).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Reeves’ actions closely mirror those of real-life Pvt. Steven Green, who along with four other soldiers, left their checkpoint duty at "The Triangle of Death", and entered the nearby home of an Iraqi family.  They raped a 14 year-old girl, shot her, set her body on fire, and shot and killed her parents and a younger sister.  Heinous.  Pvt. Green ended up getting life in prison, but it doesn't go that way for our Pvt. Reeves.  Later, while Reeves is in jail, he gets a visit from an army officer who informs him that trial in a civil court (by this time Reeves has been discharged), as opposed to a military court, puts him in a prime position to be the scapegoat for an unpopular war.  His actions have done the worst thing possible:  they have created sympathy for the Iraqis.  The last thing you want is for American citizens to start sympathizing with "the bad guys", right?  The descending levels of this intense play bring us closer to an understanding of Reeves and the torment he and countless other war vets have had to endure, through duo scenes with his military officers, a pastor, an army psychiatrist, and attorneys.  In the end, an end that leaves you with a surprising sympathy for Reeves, and a dirty feeling about wars in general, Reeves finds himself tormented in his death -- just like his 14 year old victim.

Michael Scott Rash (Reeves) and John Wolbers (Attorney)
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
The scenic design (GP Hunsaker) is sparse, but it's the words and performances in the play that pack the strongest punches, and Hunsaker's direction is captivatingly paced.  Michael Scott Rash, a newcomer to St. Louis, is Private Reeves, in a completely present performance that is raw, moving and impressive.  Although the rest of the cast is described as simply Man #1, Man #2 and Woman, B. Weller, John Wolbers and Michelle Hand all greatly contribute in their varying roles.  B. Weller shines in his portrayal of a born-again Christian Pastor who visits Reeves in jail.  Michelle Hand as a military psychiatrist is absorbing in a scene that sheds a great deal of light on the otherwise dark recesses of this play.  John Wolbers also fully delivers his performances as a military officer and an attorney.

Michael Scott Rash (Reeves)
and Michelle Hand (Army Psychiatrist).
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
I'm still thinking about the grim realities that 9 Circles lays at your feet, and I'll bet you'll walk away with plenty of food for thought, too.  Check it out.


9 CIRCLES

Written by Bill Cain
Directed by GP Hunsaker
Black Cat Theatre, 2810 Sutton Blvd.
through June 10 | tickets: $15 - $18
Performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Michael Scott Rash (Reeves), B. Weller (Man #1), John Wolbers (Man #2) and Michelle Hand (Woman).

Michael Scott Rash (Reeves)
Photo credit: Autumn Rinaldi
Creative:
Costume design by Cat Baelish; lighting design by David Hahn; sound design by Mark Kelley; scenic design by GP Hunsaker; stage manager, Liz Henning.

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