Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SMASH/HIT! • The Black Rep

Receiving its world premiere at the Black Rep, Smash/Hit!, written by Steve Broadnax and Michael S. Bordner, centers around "Money" (Ronald L. Conner), and his aspirations of making it big on the hip-hop scene along with his childhood friend, Chance (Matthew Galbreath).  The play also touches on other subjects -- the plight of poverty, post-traumatic stress disorder, father/son dynamics and homophobia in the black community.  It tries to cover a lot of ground.  Maybe too much.

Matthew Galbreath (Chance),
Ronald L. Conner (Money)
and DJ Super Nova (DJ).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
"No Plan B", the name of Money and Chance's hip-hop duo, begin by loosening up the crowd with a little rap music.  After learning that his girlfriend, Joi (FeliceSkye) is pregnant, Money is more determined than ever to be successful and does what he can to make some quick money.  He refuses to abandon his girlfriend and baby, the way he was abandoned by his own father.

He decides to join the army.  At least that way he'll be getting paid more than minimum wage, as opposed to working at some fast-food joint, which he's too proud to do.  Chance goes it alone while Money is off at service, and with some help from Good Boy, (Justin Ivan Brown), a local radio promoter, Chance starts to gain a little ground.  When Money returns from Iraq, Chance wants them to pick up where they left off, but Money has a hard time letting go of the horrors he experienced during his military service.

Although this play has had a couple of years being workshopped, it could still stand a little more fine-tuning.  In addition to not really following up on subjects that it introduces, the explanations that do happen, happen way too late, or not at all.

Feliceskye (Joi) and Ronald L. Conner (Money).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Under the direction of Ron Himes, the performances were very good, when the actors weren't being hampered by the script.  Ronald L. Conner as Money shows a range of emotions during the course of the play, and even though Galbreath's Chance is sometimes reduced to asking Money if, "everything is alright" early on -- a lot, he does a fine job with his character, especially when more about him is revealed in the second act.  Still, Conner and Galbreath are both pretty good rappers!  They do a great job with the original music featured in the play.  Brown as Good Boy and FeliceSkye as Joi  turn in solid performances, and D.J. Super Nova also does a nice job punctuating the narrative with his hip-hop beats from the upper level of the set, courtesy of scenic designer Jim Burwinkel.  David Warfel is responsible for the lights, Robin Weatherall for the sound, and Lou Bird for the costumes.

Justin Ivan Brown (Good Boy)
and Matthew Galbreath (Chance).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
There is some potentially good stuff here no doubt, but the focus could be narrowed with more loose ends tied up.  Smash/Hit! is playing at the Black Rep till the 18th.


Written by Steve Broadnax and Michael S. Bordner
Directed by Ron Himes
Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through May 18 | tickets: $20 - $47
Performances Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Matthew Galbreath (Chance) and Ronald L. Conner (Money).
Photo credit: Stewart Goldstein
Justin Ivan Brown (Good Boy), Ronald L. Conner* (Money), FeliceSkye (Joi), Matthew Galbreath (Chance) and D.J. Super Nova (DJ).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Jim Burwinkel; lighting design by David Warfel; sound design by Robin Weatherall; costume design by Lou Bird; stage manager, Linda Kennedy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

WAITING FOR GODOT • St. Louis Actors' Studio

Played out on a minimal set with a couple of stones, a leafless tree, and a backdrop of a blue cloudy sky, Waiting for Godot, as the title suggests, is about these two guys, Vladimir (Gary Wayne Barker) and Estragon (Terry Meddows), who are waiting for someone called Godot.  The men admit they don't remember how they know Godot, or if they even really know him at all.  Just about the only thing they do know is that when Godot shows up, everything will be better.  Hmm…  But what to do in the meantime…?

Samuel Beckett's tragicomedy (here pronounced GOD-oh, the way Beckett intended) that debuted in a small Paris theatre in 1953 has long been hailed as a classic example of the "Theatre of the Absurd".  It's practically devoid of dramatic conventions.  There's no solid plot.  Instead it's populated with the mundane details of what happens amidst the waiting.  The exchanges between Vladimir and Estragon (or Didi and Gogo -- their familiar names for each other), are where the wolfish, deeper themes of the play lay disguised (or in plain sight) as lamb's clothing.  This play presents the everydayness of life.  Whether they're bickering, eating carrots, trying to remember what day it is, or trading off hats and quick banter like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, the dialogue between Didi and Gogo is where the overall landscape of the bleak, comic, repetitive and uncertain nature of the human condition is cleverly cloaked.

Terry Meddows (Estragon)
and Gary Wayne Barker (Vladimir).
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Its revolutionary nature when it came onto the scene, plus the fact that Beckett always avoided elaborating much on the characters, made this play open to a wide range of interpretations and philosophical analysis.  I mean, it's kind of crazy how many online articles there are out there supposing what the characters might represent.  Thing is, what's in the text can be interpreted however the viewer chooses.  And there are several choices.

Act one opens with Estragon struggling to take one of his boots off.  Vladimir considers a Bible story, and at one point contemplates the consequences of hanging themselves from the tree.  There's nothing else to do besides wait, right?  They decide that they may not succeed with the hanging, considering all of the possible complications, so they go on figuring out what else they can do to fill time, while they wait for the arrival of Godot.

At one point near the beginning, they wonder whether they've gotten the right day, only to realize they can't be sure of what day it is at all.  Taking note of the tree, Vladimir wonders what kind it might be.  He suggests it might be a willow that must be dead, and Estragon answers, "No more weeping".  They go on like this -- talking about ordinary things, arguing back and forth and nursing hurt feelings like a newlywed couple.

Greg Johnston (Pozzo), Gary Wayne Barker (Vladimir),
Terry Meddows (Estragon) and Aaron Orion Baker (Lucky).
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
The everydayness is broken when two fellow travelers, Lucky (Aaron Orion Baker), a manservant/slave, shuffles forward with a noose around his neck, and his master Pozzo (Greg Johnston), an arrogant windbag, calling the shots on the other end of a long rope, come onto the scene.  They've been traveling around the lands, that Pozzo claims to be his, so they stop for awhile for some company.  As superior as Pozzo seems, while mercilessly abusing Lucky, he eventually reveals his own weaknesses.  Lucky, as miserable as his existence seems, at least has a purpose -- a purpose that the rest of the characters seem to lack.  Near the end of Act one, a Boy (Hayden Benbenek) appears to inform Vladimir that Godot can't make it that day.  He promises he'll be by the next day.  After questioning the boy about whether or not they've actually had this conversation the previous day, Didi and Gogo resume waiting.  They resolve to leave once night has fallen, but can't bring themselves to move.

Greg Johnston (Pozzo),
and Gary Wayne Barker (Vladimir).
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
The second act is a Twilight Zone-styled déjà vu of the first act, with many familiar exchanges.  Even Pozzo and Lucky show up again, but now, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is mute.  The Boy also makes another appearance to inform Vladimir that once again, Godot can't make it.  But tomorrow for sure…  The end.  Or more likely, not the end.  Whaa???

Now, I admit, I read way too much stuff about this play before I saw it, and was kinda scared.  This kind of theatre intimidates me.  Didn't think I'd get it.  But I was surprised at the accessibility of it, and the amount of comedy within the text.  For me, someone who's never seen this play before, that accessibility is largely due to its director, Bobby Miller, and a top notch cast.  Barker injects Vladimir with a playful, affable humor one moment, and exasperation the next.  Meddows as Estragon, the more somber of the two, has a face full of wide ranging expressions, from glee to downright despair.  Then there's Lucky -- pale, despondent and broken-down, but Baker gives us a clearly drawn representation of someone who may be luckier than the rest of the characters.  At least he and Pozzo have decidedly defined roles. Johnston confidently shows us a Pozzo whose cocksure affectations belie his shared helplessness.

Patrick Huber's scenic and lighting design were perfectively just enough, and Michele Friedman Siler's costumes ring true to the "tramp like" look of the men.

Terry Meddows (Estragon), Aaron Orion Baker (Lucky),
and Gary Wayne Barker (Vladimir).
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
The opening lines of the play sum it up rather nicely, when Estragon struggles to take off his boot, he says, "Nothing to be done".  He's answered by Vladimir who says, "I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle."  So yeah.  It's deep, but well worth it if you're willing to take the plunge.  I promise -- it's not scary.  Check it out from the comfort of your theatre seat, and watch these intriguing fellows bide their time.


Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Bobby Miller
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through May 5 | tickets: $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Terry Meddows (Estragon) and Gary Wayne Barker (Vladimir).
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Terry Meddows* (Estragon), Gary Wayne Barker* (Vladimir), Greg Johnston (Pozzo), Aaron Orion Baker* (Lucky) and Hayden Benbenek (A Boy).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; stage manager, Amy Paige.

Friday, April 12, 2013

GYPSY: A MUSICAL FABLE • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog continues its trend of not backing away from ambitious shows with its current production, Gypsy -- one of the most highly regarded book musicals in the canon of musical theatre.  Loosely based on the memoirs of famed striptease performer, Gypsy Rose Lee, there are many reasons this musical that premiered in 1959 about the stage mother of all stage mothers is regarded in such high esteem.  With a deeply-layered book by Arthur Laurents, clever lyrics by my hero, Stephen Sondheim and splendid, intricate music by Jule Styne, Gypsy not only has a reverence for "showbiz" itself and more than a few classic numbers (beginning with an old-school overture that you should definitely keep your pie hole shut for), but also, it centers around the complicated character, Mama Rose, who roots for and alienates those close to her.  It also has not one, but two major character arcs, where at the start there's a strong one and a weak one, and by the end, the strongest has become the weakest, and the weakest becomes the strongest.  Love…

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose) and Ken Haller (Herbie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It picks up in the early 1920's at "Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show" in Seattle.  Mama Rose (Deborah Sharn) is chasing after fame with her daughters, June (Lily McDonald) and Louise (Isabella Koster) in tow.  Rose is convinced that "Baby June" is destined to be a star, and if it kills her, she's determined to make that happen.  Along the way Rose meets Herbie (Ken Haller), a former show business agent and current candy seller.  He's attracted to Rose's moxie, and agrees to accompany Rose and her rag-tag vaudeville troupe to do what he can to help her book gigs, even if his nagging ulcer doesn't agree.

Evan Fornachon, Mike Hodges, Zach Wachter (seated),
Jennifer Theby-Quinn (June), Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose),
Michael Monsey (Mr. Goldstone),
Ken Haller (Herbie), and Steve Roma.
Photo credit: John Lamb
With that marvelous time-honored strobe-light transition from the young traveling company onstage to the older kids, years later, Rose is still at it, pilfering restaurant silverware, making motel blankets into coats, and chasing after the last threadbare shreds of vaudeville fame.  While her "less talented" daughter Louise (Sabra Sellers) plays along, yearning for connection with her mom, June's (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) eyes are wide open to the fact that their act that's hardly changed in forever is crap, they are still being dressed as children, and she's driven away to marry a member of the chorus, Tulsa (Zach Wachter), by Rose's relentless pursuit of the Orpheum Circuit.  Rose ends up re-shifting her attention to poor Louise in the show's wonderful act one closer, "Everything's Coming Up Roses".

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose),
Sabra Sellers (Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee),
and Ken Haller (Herbie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
They eventually end up in Burlesque -- where vaudeville acts go to die.  Three of the resident strippers, Tessie Tura (Jenni Ryan), Mazeppa (Kimberly Still) and Electra (Paula Stoff Dean) teach Louise, now called "Gypsy Rose Lee", the fine art of stripping in another one of the show's memorable tunes, "You Gotta Get a Gimmick".  Fortunes are reversed as Louise discovers she has a knack for this kind of work, and Rose sees herself playing a smaller and smaller role in Louise's life.  Rose lays it all out there with a shout-out to who she really is with "Rose's Turn".

Gary Bell directs this show and the huge cast with laser-sharp focus, and all of the aspects of Gypsy come together beautifully.  Sharn in the tyrannical role of Mama Rose blew me away.  With a strong, full-bodied voice, she delivers all of her big numbers without missing a step.  Haller as Rose's boyfriend Herbie really conveyed a man weighed down by Rose's demands, but the fact that he still loves her is apparent -- though you can hardly blame him when he's finally forced to walk out.  Sellers as Rose's painfully shy daughter, Louise, makes a great impression with a heartbreakingly sweet rendition of "Little Lamb", and reacts with horror when Rose bursts into "Everything's Coming Up Roses".  Theby-Quinn once again shows her comedic skill and flair as June, and delivers a splendid "Dainty June and her Farmboys".  She, along with Sellers, hit the harmonies on the head in "If Mama Was Married", one of my personal favorites.  All of the kids in the cast were adorable and the aforementioned strippers, Ryan, Still and Dean knocked their number out of the park.

Sabra Sellers (Gypsy Rose Lee), Eileen Engel, Andy Kay,
Sierra Buffum.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The set, courtesy of David Blake and Justin Been, while simple enough to let the acting and singing carry the show, had some lovely details, like the little marquee panels that were changed throughout to inform time and place.  J.T. Ricroft contributes some terrific choreography, as well as lending his adorable little dog Pedro as Chowsie.  Alexandra Scibetta Quigley coordinated the magnificent array of costumes that were accommodated by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Stages St. Louis.  The members of the cast had head mics, but it seemed to me that they weren't "kicked on" until a number was being performed, deftly avoiding the issue of the cast being drowned out by the music.  Kudos!  Chris Petersen directed the sizable orchestra, and while the band could have been a little tighter, I can't imagine a more challenging score, and I have to admit, this is a score I love.  I wasn't disappointed.

Time to "bump it with a trumpet", folks!  With familiar, haunting, funny, sad and frightening things in the mix of this "King Lear" of musicals, if you're reading this, and you miss it, you're an idiot.  Ha!  Just kidding…


Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Book by Arthur Laurents
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 20 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturday April 20 performances at 2pm and 8pm.

Deborah Sharn (Mama Rose), Ken Haller (Herbie), Sabra Sellers (Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee), Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Dainty June), Zach Wachter (Tulsa), Jenni Ryan (Tessie Tura, plus stage mother), Kimberly Still (Mazeppa, plus stage mother), Paula Stoff Dean (Electra, plus Miss Cratchitt), Lily McDonald (Baby June), Isabella Koster (Young Louise), Pedro Ricroft (Chowsie), Mature Men Roles: Michael Monsey, Charles Huevelman, Older Chorus Boys: Evan Fornachon, Mike Hodges, Steve Roma, Older Chorus Girls: Sierra Buffum, Eileen Engel, Andy Kay, Young Ensemble: Court Hyken, Lillian Kanterman, Ellie Lore and Fiona Scott.

Scenic design by David Blake and Justin Been; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; costume design and coordinator, Alexandra Scibetta Quigley (costumes courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Stages St. Louis); choreography by J.T. Ricroft; stage manager, Justin Been.

The Gypsy Band:
Director/keyboard, Chris Petersen; bass, Colin Lovett; flute and piccolo, Dedra Mason; percussion, Bob McMahon; reed I (alto saxophone and clarinet), Harrison Rich; reed II (clarinet and alto saxophone), Gabe Newsham; trumpet, Bill Hershey; trumpet (rehearsals) Ryan Foizey.

Monday, April 8, 2013

CONVICTION • New Jewish Theatre

This engrossing one-act, one-man show covers a lot of ground.  Adapted from the novel “Confession” by Yonatan Ben Nachum, it's based on a true story centering around Andrés Gonzalez, a fifteenth century priest during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

It begins at the Spanish National Archives in the 1960's, where an interrogation is taking place.  There's been some Inquisition files concerning Gonzalez -- trying to be smuggled out by a man who had been working on a Spanish genealogy project.  We never see who is being interrogated, only the interrogator (Ami Dayan), the manager of the National Archives.

Ami Dayan
Photo credit: John Lamb
After awhile, the interrogator begins to read from the files -- a confession written by Andrés Gonzalez himself, and once our interest is piqued, we flashback to fifteenth century Spain where Gonzalez (again, Ami Dayan), a Jewish man who converted and became a priest, tells his story and confesses his sins to a fellow priest, who later betrays him.  His sins involve a secret love affair with a Jewish woman he has fallen in love with.  Gonzalez relates his history in a detailed retelling of his painful childhood, the shelter he found in the Catholic church, his love for Isabella and his life with her once they were secretly married, his reconnection with his religious roots, and how his trust was ultimately betrayed.

Ami Dayan
Photo credit: John Lamb
Now, you know I love a black-box theatre space, and for this production, the audience is seated on all four sides, surrounding the stage.  The set is pretty minimal with a desk and chair, a kneeler, and a couple stacks of black boxes.  But with Dayan's engaging performance, it's all you need.  Nathan Schroeder's subtle lighting design is beautiful, accentuating the changing moods of the storytelling throughout.  Dayan's performance is very powerful, and once the play gains momentum, his command of the role of Gonzalez, struggling with his own identity, keeps you absorbed in the story.

Considering most of the play is all exposition, it's a compelling 75 or so minutes, that's only up for 2 weeks.  Check it out -- it's playing until the 14th.


Written by Oren Neeman
Directed by Joe Gfaller
Adapted by Ami Dayan
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through April 14 | tickets: $35.50 - $39.50
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Ami Dayan (Andrés Gonzalez and others).

Lighting design by Nathan Schroeder; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; stage manager, Becky Fortner.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

CHILDCARE • OnSite Theatre Company

OnSite Theatre Company, like the name suggests, specializes in site-specific theatre -- very cool and quite exceptional in the local area.  Their latest offering is a world premiere that takes place at the Downtown Children's Center.

We start out meeting Joy (Maggie Conroy) and her aunt Roz (Elizabeth Townsend), who runs a daycare facility that's in need of more clients.  Roz is desperate to beef up the enrollment because the daycare's board has been on her about bringing in more revenue.  Her niece has been taking early childhood education classes and would love a shot at handling a class or two, but Roz insists she needs Joy at the front desk handling the secretarial duties.  Joy has also had some trouble in the boyfriend department, and is trying to keep the details from Roz because she doesn't want any information passed along to her mother.

Christopher Lawyer (Andrew) and Julie Layton (Anita).
Photo credit: Kristen Edler
While these two talk in the daycare's reception area, we learn that Roz's chances for some extra income might be looking up.  She's waiting for a couple with an appointment to check out the facility.  Maybe they'll bring in another kid to the center which = more $$$.  After awhile Anita (Julie Layton) arrives.  She's anxious and jumpy when she meets Roz, worried about finding an appropriate place for her son, Noah.  She shows up alone, telling Roz that her husband Andrew (Christopher Lawyer) and their son will be there shortly.  Anita indicates that her son may require some special attention, but as much as Roz tries, she can't get a straight answer from Anita about exactly why special attention would be necessary.  According to Anita, Noah is three years old -- basically, and a normal boy… just kind of different.

Julie Layton (Anita) and Elizabeth Townsend (Roz).
Photo credit: Kristen Edler
As the audience follows the actors through several rooms of the Center, the rest of the play unfurls with revelations about Noah.  Joy's secrets about her boyfriend also come to light, along with a few secrets of Anita and Andrew's.

Director Shanara Gabrielle does a marvelous job utilizing the space at the Downtown Children’s Center, and fear not -- there are guides that cue the audience when and where to follow the action.  The cast, considering the audience is no more than a few feet away from them, did an excellent job in not only accommodating the onlookers, but throwing themselves into their roles with gusto.  Conroy is delightful as Joy, trying to be a good employee while figuring out her personal life.  Lawyer as Andrew really throws himself into his character and seems to be having a blast while doing it.  It's certainly a blast to watch him.  Layton's Anita shows a full range of emotion as a tense wife and mom, looking for a little respite from her everyday life for a few days a week, and Townsend as Roz is entertaining to watch in her quest to win over these potential clients and rack up some money for the daycare.

This play is only an hour, and while the resolution at the end may be a little too convenient, it's a very entertaining night out, and getting to see anything OnSite does pretty much guarantees a unique theatre-going experience.

Christopher Lawyer (Andrew) and Maggie Conroy (Joy).
Photo credit: Kristen Edler

Written by Margaret Stamell
Directed by Shanara Gabrielle
Downtown Children’s Center, 607 North 22nd Street, St. Louis
through April 13 | tickets: $20
Performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm

Maggie Conroy (Joy), Christopher Lawyer (Andrew), Julie Layton (Anita) and Elizabeth Townsend* (Roz).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Stage manager, Linda Menard.


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