Saturday, June 29, 2013

1776 • Insight Theatre Company

Just in time for the 4th of July Holiday, 1776 looks back at the efforts to establish a new nation of independent states, breaking away from the rule of the British Empire.  Although there were some liberties taken with the historical accuracy of events, the culmination that happens with the tenaciously fought for signing of the Declaration of Independence gives a new appreciation for how the wheels of progress have always turned.  Slowly.  It premiered on Broadway in 1969 and received three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

As the lights come up on a striking tableau of the Second Continental Congress, we join them on a hot summer day in Philadelphia and a very annoyed John Adams (a dynamic and strong voiced Martin Fox).  In the midst of a growing war and increasing taxes from England, his arguments for American independence are falling on deaf ears.  Congress seems determined to postpone the very discussion of the topic indefinitely -- John Dickinson in particular, characterized wonderfully by Christopher Hickey.

Martin Fox  (John Adams - Massachusetts).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Dickinson is a fat cat from Pennsylvania who doesn't want to ruffle the King's feathers and considers all this talk about separating from the British no less than treason, so he proposes that the vote for independence be unanimous.  After Adams gets that vote postponed in favor of putting the intentions down on paper, he talks Thomas Jefferson (Peter Meredith) into writing the Declaration, after the task is dodged by other members of the Congress in the amusing "But, Mr. Adams".  Along with Jefferson, Tom Murray as the charmingly witty Benjamin Franklin also figures heavily in the story, with Franklin gently prodding Adams along with good-humored encouragement.  Fox, Meredith and Murray come together in the second act opener, the "The Egg", where they try to determine what America's national bird will be.

Peter Meredith (Thomas Jefferson - Virginia),
Tom Murray (Benjamin Franklin - Pennsylvania)
and Martin Fox  (John Adams - Massachusetts).
Photo credit: John Lamb
With the musical numbers so spread out between the scenes, this is more play than musical, and the wordy first act, running over an hour and a half, felt sluggish.  The pacing improved in the second act with the whole production, directed by Maggie Ryan, buoyed by strong performances and handsome production elements.  Matt Pentecost as Edward Rutledge from South Carolina shines in "Molasses to Rum", a song about the North's hypocritical condemnation of slavery, even though their own pockets were filled by providing ships for the "triangle trade".  Janine Burmeister makes a few appearances as Abigail Adams, corresponding with her husband while she is at home in Massachusetts, teaming up with Fox for the lovely duet, "Yours, Yours, Yours".  Joneal Joplin as the plainspoken Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island, always asking for a nip of rum, perks up all of the scenes he contributes to, and Charlie Ingram as the Courier who delivers bleak messages from General George Washington, sings a memorable "Mama Look Sharp" about the losses suffered on the battlefield.  The rest of the huge cast of 1776 were pretty uniformly strong and sounded great together in the show's first number , "Sit Down, John".  Bill Schmeil's scenic design was simple and elegant, bathed in changing colors of background light by Maureen Berry.  Laura Hanson's costumes were gorgeous and Zoe Vonderhaar's choreography added charm.  Charlie Mueller provided the musical direction.

It's an entertaining history lesson that I'm glad I finally got to see.  1776 will be playing until July 7th.


Cast of Insight Theatre Company's 1776
Photo credit: John Lamb
1776

Music/lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Book by Peter Stone 
Directed by Maggie Ryan 
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave.
through July 7 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Tuesdays to Saturday at 8pm Sundays at 2pm, dark Thursday, July 4th

Cast:
GP Hunsaker (John Hancock - President), Tyler Linke (Dr. Josiah Bartlett- New Hampshire), Martin Fox  (John Adams - Massachusetts), Joneal Joplin* (Stephen Hopkins - Rhode Island), Troy Turnipseed (Roger Sherman - Connecticut), Matt Huber (Lewis Morris - New York), Joey Otradovec (Robert Livingston - New York), Ken Haller (Rev. John Witherspoon - New Jersey), Tom Murray* (Benjamin Franklin - Pennsylvania), Christopher Hickey* (John Dickinson - Pennsylvania), Michael Brightman (James Wilson - Pennsylvania), Charles Heuvelman (Caesar Rodney - Delaware), Jim Leibrecht (Col. Thomas McKean - Delaware), Greg Cuellar (George Read - Delaware), Adam Stefo (Samuel Chase - Maryland), Michael Amoroso (Richard Henry Lee - Virginia), Peter Meredith (Thomas Jefferson - Virginia), Paul Balfe (Joseph Hewes - North Carolina), Matt Pentecost (Edward Rutledge - South Carolina), Zack Stefiank (Dr. Lyman Hall - Georgia), Kent Coffel (Charles Thomson - Congressional Secretary), Tom Wethington (Andrew McNair - Congressional Custodian), Joe Kercher (A Leather Apron), Charlie Ingram (Courier), Janine Burmeister (Abigail Adams) and Taylor Pietz (Martha Jefferson).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Bill Schmeil; sound design by Mark Griggs; lighting design by Maureen Berry; costume design by Laura Hanson; musical direction by Charlie Mueller; choreography by Zoe Vonderhaar; dramaturge, Paul Balfe; stage manager, Sarah Luedolff.

Orchestra:
Viola, Justin Arndt; flute, Paula Bernhardt; cello, Anna Bird; keyboard, Timothy Clark; trombone, Michael Dunsmoor; trumpet, Aaron Mahnken; violin, Tony Morales; percussion, Josh Politte; clarinet, Katie Rahmoeller.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

SHREK THE MUSICAL • The Muny

Shrek The Musical, based on the 2001 animated DreamWorks film that was in turn loosely based on William Steig's picture book, Shrek!, is making its Muny debut.  This story about an ogre who falls in love with a princess has enough fairy tale elements to please the kids, but also enough harmless adult humor to keep everyone else entertained.  It also manages to transcend the sight gags and fart jokes to give this musical an innocently sincere message about self-acceptance.  The production's eye-candy's not bad, either.

Stephen Wallem (Shrek) and Michael James Scott (Donkey).
Photo credit: Sarah Conard
© All Rights Reserved
Shrek (Stephen Wallem), a green ogre who was kicked out of his home and shoved out into the world at seven years old has grown into a grouchy loner who cherishes his solitude, so when a bunch of fairy tale misfits show up in his swamp, Shrek's not having it.  They were kicked out of the kingdom of Duloc and ordered there by Lord Farquaad (Rob McClure), so Shrek heads to the castle to get the deed to his land back.  On the way to Duloc, Shrek meets the talkative but delightful Donkey (Michael James Scott), another misfit who's on the run from the kingdom's guardsmen, so Shrek begrudgingly rescues him and takes him along.  Once they arrive, the vertically challenged Farquaad, desperate to marry and become king, ends up enlisting Shrek to rescue Princess Fiona (Julia Murney -- B'way Crush #2 and most recently in our very own Deanna Jent's play, Falling, off-Broadway), who he has learned is locked in a dragon-protected tower.  In exchange for bringing her back to the castle,  Farquaad promises to get the fairy tale squatters off of Shrek's property.  Bonding on their travels, Shrek and Donkey make their way to Princess Fiona.  After subduing the dragon, Fiona and Shrek, an unlikely pair, start to warm to each other after discovering they share a proficiency for flatulence and burping.  Still, Fiona is guarding a secret that is eventually uncovered, and all of the first act set-ups for Shrek, Farquaad and Fiona satisfyingly pay off.

Julia Murney (Princess Fiona) and Stephen Wallem (Shrek).
Photo credit: Larry Pry
© All Rights Reserved
Shrek and Fiona make an amusing pair, and while Wallem makes the otherwise intimidating Shrek quite likable and vulnerable, Murney gives Princess Fiona humor with a dose of attitude.  One of their numbers together, "I Think I Got You Beat" is a display of low-brow humor at its best as they try to out-belch and out-fart each other.  Wallem makes his second act "When Words Fail" touching and sweet, and Murney's "I Know It's Today", performed with the younger Fionas (Maria Knasel and Allison Broadhurst) is also a little bittersweet, but funny and nicely staged.  Scott and McClure draw the biggest laughs as Donkey and Lord Farquaad.  Animated throughout, Scott milks every opportunity for humor as Donkey, and adds a marvelous singing voice to the hilarious "Don't Let Me Go".  McClure spends most of the night on his knees as the diminutive Farquaad with little legs out in front of him.  The effect is pretty comical and McClure makes the most of it whenever he's on stage.  Shrek also features a strong ensemble, many filling in for various roles, and the fairy tale characters all shine in "Story of My Life".

Rob McClure (Lord Farquaad).
Photo credit: Larry Pry
© All Rights Reserved
This musical rolled through the Fox a few years ago, and here under the direction of John Tartaglia, (the Genie in this past season's Aladdin), I thought certain aspects of this production were more engaging than the tour -- something I never thought I would say.  The show was not, however, without its rough patches, but the pacing and unevenness will most likely smooth out with more performances under everyone's belt.  Nevertheless, I love a big dragon puppet.  This one is nimbly controlled by a group of puppeteers and soulfully voiced by Natalie Venetia Belcon.  There was the traditional iomk (influx of Muny kids), but the scenes in which they appeared weren't forced, enjoyably done and complementary to the musical numbers.

It's playing until the 30th, so check it out and let your freak flag fly!


The Dragon.
Photo credit: Larry Pry
© All Rights Reserved
SHREK THE MUSICAL

Book/lyrics by  David Lindsay-Abaire
Music by Jeanine Tesori 
Directed by John Tartaglia
through June 30 | tickets: $12 - $80
Performances Monday to Sunday at 8:15pm

Cast:
Stephen Wallem (Shrek), John Echele (young Shrek/Dwarf), Tiffany Green (Mama Ogre/Humpty Dumpty/Happy People), Jerry Jay Cranford (Papa Ogre/Captain of the Guards), Julia Murney (Princess Fiona), Maria Knasel (Young Fiona), Shaver Tillitt (King Harold/Baker/Papa Bear), Ann Sanders (Queen Lillian/Mama Bear/Blue Bird Voice), Courtney Arango (Ugly Duckling/Blind Mouse), Michel Baxter (Peter Pan/Guard/Knight), Whitney Brandt (Tweedle Dee/Guard), Matthew Crowle (White Rabbit/Guard/Knight Happy People), Anthony Christian Daniel (Pinocchio/Guard), Marjorie Failoni (Fairy Godmother/Fiona Double/Happy People), Ryan Fitzgerald (Pig/Guard/Knight/Happy People), Becky Frohlinger (Baby Bear/Blind Mouse), Jordana Grolnick (Wicked Witch/Happy People), Madison Johnson (Tweedle Dum), Cory Lingner (Pig/Bishop/Guard/Happy People), Adam Rogers (Mad Hatter/Thelonius), Heather Jane Rolfe (Sugar Plum Fairy/ Gingy/Blue Bird Puppet/Happy People),Sam Seferian (Pig/Guard/Knight), Kaitlyn Louise Smith (Shoemaker's Elf/Duloc Performer/Blind Mouse), Jerry Vogel (Big Bad Wolf/Pied Piper/Happy People), Michael James Scott (Donkey), Rob McClure (Lord Farquaad/Voice of Dwarf/Dragon Head), Allison Broadhurst (Teen Fiona) and Natalie Venetia Belcon (Dragon).

Creative:
Scenic design by Steve Gilliam; lighting design by Nathan W. Scheuer; projection design by Seth Jackson; costume design by Andrea Lauer; musical direction by Rick Bertone; sound design by Jason Krueger; choreography by Vince Pesce; production stage manager, Michael T. Clarkston; asst. stage managers, Mary Jane Probst and Suzi Bonnot.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

ST. LOU FRINGE 2013

The second annual St. Lou Fringe has come and gone and although there were over two dozen performances varying from theatre and dance to workshops, music and street performances, I was only able to see two shows.  :(  Naturally I gravitated toward the theatre offerings, but that's the great thing about Fringe,  there's a wide variety of performance types and times to choose from.  Here's a look at This Is A Play, and Montana: The Shakespearean Scarface.


THIS IS A PLAY • R-S Theatrics

So, you've got a female actor, a male actor and an older female actor in an awful play about lettuce and small town family secrets.  Sounds pretty bad right?  But when the play is less about an actual play and more about the steady stream of each actors' inner thoughts, This Is A Play is anything but bad.  Through their inner monologues they berate the writer and the director for lines they don't get and directions they don't understand.  They also analyze their own performances, the performances of the other actors, and sometimes hang each other out to dry.
The female actor who plays "the niece" (Beth Wickenhauser) is dedicated to her craft and the play, as dreadful as it is, and tries to make the most of her scenes while putting up with her overacting cast-mate, the male actor (Casey Boland).  He plays "the stranger" and spends his time intently making the most of his entrances and trying to draw the attention of a casting director in the audience.  The older female actor, "the aunt" (Kirsten Wylder), is skilled and gains the admiration of her fellow cast members, but is largely indifferent about this stinker she's currently in and the less experienced ones she has to share the stage with.

Boland, Wickenhauser and Wylder brought the script to clever, convincing life with their self-consciousness, exasperation and scenery-chewing, and the perspective offered by the play, written by Daniel MacIvor and directed by Mark Kelley, was a highly entertaining one.


THIS IS A PLAY 

Written by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Mark Kelley
Fubar Lounge, 3108 Locust St.
run complete | tickets: $10 with a Fringe Badge

Cast:
Casey Boland (Male Actor), Beth Wickenhauser (Female Actor), and Kirsten Wylder (Older Female Actor).
________________________________________________________________________

MONTANA: THE SHAKESPEAREAN SCARFACE •  Out of the Ashes (of the NonProphet) Theater Company

Most people are familiar to some degree with the film Scarface, Brian De Palma's 1983 crime drama about a Cuban refugee's violent rise and fall as a drug cartel kingpin in Miami, starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana.  Using this classic film as their source material, the writers of this play, Robert A. Mitchell, Nick Tamarkin and Michael B. Perkins, have hit upon a simple truth, I think -- hearing foul language wrapped in iambic pentameter is just fun.  With guns exchanged for daggers, this stripped-down but otherwise faithfully re-created play takes us from Tony and his friends' arrival in the states and his employment by Frank Lopez ("Dost thou know what a Hassa is?  Not straight but crooked doth he fly"), to his wooing of Frank's girlfriend Elvira and pursuit of a family of his own ("Dreamest thou of progeny?"), his takeover of Frank's empire and eventual downward spiral (Bid good morrow to my little friend).  The fact that the Shakespearean rules were also faithfully adhered to makes it all the more impressive.  The cast is also impressive, led by Tom Lehman as Tony Montana who absolutely nailed the dialect  and attitude of Pacino's Montana.  The rest of the cast work hard playing multiple roles with quick changes and under Mitchell's direction, it moves along at a lively clip.  I hope they do another one next year!  


MONTANA: THE SHAKESPEAREAN SCARFACE

Written by Robert A. Mitchell, Nick Tamarkin and Michael B. Perkins
Directed by Robert A. Mitchell
Satori, 3003 Locust Street
run complete | tickets: $10 with a Fringe Badge

Cast:
Tom Lehman (Tony Montana), Chris Ayala (Manny/Ninja), Courtney Gibson (Elvira/Hit Man 2/Ninja), Hannah Bailey (Gina/Reporter 1 Hot Girl/Hitman 2), Joe Hanrahan (Cop 3/Rebenga/ Hector/Lopez/Alberto/Ninja), Margeau Steinau (Mami/Marta/Cook/Hitman 1/Reporter 2/Informant's Wife/ Ninja), Reynard Fox (Cop 1/Waldo/Kid/Sosa/Comic/Fernando/Ernie/Jerry/Ninja), Rob Davis (Cop 2/Angel/Omar/Mel/Informant/Nick/Ninja) and Robert A. Mitchell (Man in Sunglasses).

Creative:
Costume consultant, Linda Kennedy; sound technician, Laura Adams; seamstress, Courtney Gibson.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH • [insert name here] Theatre Company

A musical about a transgender singer from East Berlin?  You bet!  Hedwig became an off-Broadway hit in 1998 after gathering a cult following and ran for two years, inspiring a film released in 2001.  Now Hedwig Schmidt (a magnetic Paul Cereghino), and his band, The Angry Inch, are playing one of their tour stops, which happens to be The Focal Point on Sutton Avenue.

They're playing where they can, following Hedwig's former lover, rock-star Tommy Gnosis around the country, who is on his much more successful tour.  He broke Hedwig's heart and pilfered her music, and she tells us about him and other stories from her life during the set, starting with her days in Berlin as a "slip of a girly boy", then called Hansel.  Her quest to find her soulmate seemed promising after finding love with an American named Luther.  She agrees to marry him and move to Germany, so her mother gives her a passport, her name, and Hedwig gets gender reassignment surgery in order to legally get married.  The operation however, is completely screwed up, and Hedwig is left with an "angry inch".  After facing an uphill battle, struggling to fashion a new sense of self and sexual identity, Luther leaves Hedwig after they'd immigrated to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas.  Hedwig voices her painful past through humorous self deprecation and one-liners, but also with Stephen Trask's heartfelt, tuneful songs like "Wig in a Box" and "Wicked Little Town".  She's backed up vocally by her current husband, drag-king, Yitzhak (Connie Reinhardt).

Hedwig and The Angry Inch.
The intimate space at The Focal Point does add to the construct of the show, but the stage is almost too small.  Cereghino, while very energetic in the role, seemed inhibited only by the area he had to work with.  Under Tim Clark's musical direction, the band sounded pretty good, but were loud.  Like, way loud.  These two things hampered the show a bit, but the snappy pacing that keeps you involved in Hedwig's story, her love/hate relationship with Yitzhak, and the eventual steps she takes toward making herself whole all came together to mitigate a great deal.  While Cereghino gives us a full range, always reveling in the glory of the role, Reinhardt powerfully contributes to the duets with a great set of pipes.  Brittanie Boado's scenic, lighting and sound design worked nicely, particularly the occasional bursts of the Tommy Gnosis concert.  Hedwig looks fabulous in Wes Rankin's costume and make-up design, and under Chris Owens's direction, this rock show makes for a fun night out.  Only a few more performances left!


Paul Cereghino (Hedwig).
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

Music/lyrics by Stephen Trask 
Book by John Cameron Mitchell 
Directed by Chris Owens
The Focal Point, 2720 Sutton Ave.
through June 22 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Paul Cereghino (Hewig) and Connie Reinhardt (Yitzhak).

Creative:
Sound and lighting design by Brittanie Boado; scenic design by Brittanie Boado; makeup and costume design by Wes Rankin; stage manager, Liz Schuster.

The Angry Inch:
Musical direction by Tim Clark; guitar, Marshall Leek; bass, Jacob Mreen; drums, Tyler Jensen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

ST. LOU FRINGE PREVIEW

Just a quick shout out to remind folks that the second annual St. Lou Fringe is upon us!  It starts this Thursday and will run until the 24th in midtown St. Louis.  Em Piro, the festival's founder, hosted a preview this past Sunday offering a little taste of this year's performances, and there's a ton featuring local companies and artists from all over the country.  St. Lou Fringe offers theater, dance, music, comedy, street performers, workshops and then some with 30 performances to choose from.  For everything St. Lou Fringe, check out their website where you'll find information about the venues, parking, performances and after-parties.  A Fringe Badge can be purchased for 5 bucks, allowing entrance to the festivities.  Once you've gotten your badge, tickets for the individual performances can be purchased for $5 - $12.

So get ready to Fringe, St. Louis!  Get your badge, check out the performances, and get your tickets soon!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

THERE'S A GUN IN YOUR GOODBYE BAG • OnSite Theatre Company

Where else can you take in a show and get some laundry done at the same time, I ask you?  OnSite's distinctive characteristic is that its shows are staged "on site", and this world premiere written by St. Louis native Elizabeth Birkenmeier (who appeared in OnSite's Bowling Epiphany - The Revival! last season), takes place at Classic Coin Laundry in University City.

While guitarist Rob Birkenmeier provides the welcoming pre-show music, we staked out our places to sit.  Some sat in chairs and others were perched on top of washing machines in the middle of the laundromat.  During the course of the play we meet people who, while waiting for their loads to get done, share their stories -- stories about kindred spirits met and loves lost.  Ruby (Amanda Swearingen), sleeping on one of the machines, is the first one we meet.  She has a hard time telling her waking life from her dream-reality because she's experimenting with polyphasic sleep, napping for 20 minutes 6 times a day.  She'd hoped that a dryer cycle would allow enough time for a little snooze, but since it's not timing out the way she'd planned, she talks to us.  There's a boy she met in Michigan where things got too heavy and she split, a girl she was really into, and one who was really into her.  She doesn't deal with emotionally challenging terrain too well, and usually ends up lying to get herself out uncomfortable situations.  After a bit, Iva (Michelle Hand) comes in barking orders at a young man.  We learn that the guy she's with is a drifter, and she's taken him off of the street and to the laundromat, thinking he probably needs clean clothes.  As bossy and neurotic as she is, she tries to do the right thing -- to comfort.  She talks about her husband who dresses in women's clothes, and a boy she met whose father drowned in Michigan.

Antonio Rodriguez (Gus) and Michelle Hand (Iva). 
Photo credit: Meagan Stevenson
Right as a strong feeling of déjà vu starts to kick in, Lenny (Rachel Hanks), who enters asking about a car in the parking lot, discovers Ruby there, and they seem to share a sense of mutual recognition.  Then there's Gus (Antonio Rodriguez).  He comes in placating his developmentally childlike older sister who is insisting she have her socks, even though they're not dry yet.  After striking up a conversation with Ruby, we find out that he's been the sole caretaker of his sister ever since they became orphans after the loss of their father.  There's a lost love of his, too -- a girl he met in Michigan who ran off all of a sudden.  Gus never saw her again.

Birkenmeier has cleverly connected these characters together with a surreal crossing of paths  -- made even more surreal by the setting and the real folks who come in and out to do their laundry.  Under Edward Coffield's seamless direction, the cast of four disappear into their roles and perform wonderfully with each other and in the space.  Swearingen holds her own as Ruby, stuck between reality and non-reality, delivering a charming performance.  Hand completely inhabits two roles -- one as Iva, anxious and a little "type A", tempered with a lonely lack of connection, and the second as the developmentally challenged sister, convincing, funny and compelling to watch.  Gus has had his share of sadness, and Rodriguez makes him likable, layered and engaging.  Hanks also authentically portrays Lenny, an unexpected blast from Ruby's past.

Running at right around fifty minutes, this intriguing unique little play leaves it up to you to decide which side of reality the play takes place in, and lends itself to second viewings.  So, if you have any loads to get done, or even if you don't, head down to Classic Coin for an absorbing, different theatre-going experience.  It's playing until the 29th.


Rachel Hanks (Lenny), Amanda Swearingen (Ruby)
and Michelle Hand (Iva).
THERE'S A GUN IN YOUR GOODBYE BAG

Written by Elizabeth Birkenmeier
Directed by Edward Coffield
Classic Coin Laundry, 7200 Balson Ave.
through June 29 | tickets: $20
Performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm

Cast:
Michelle Hand (Iva), Rachel Hanks (Lenny), Antonio Rodriguez (Gus), Amanda Swearingen (Ruby) and Rob Birkenmeier (The Musician).

Creative:
Stage manager, Adam Hunn.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre really seems to be on a roll.  In the past couple of seasons, they've handsomely produced everything from Psycho Beach Party to The Who's Tommy to Spring Awakening and the epic Angels in America.  In celebration of Stray Dog's 10th anniversary season, they're going back to their roots, producing the first play the company presented, John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.  This 1990 Pulitzer Prize nominated play was inspired by a true story and popularized by the 1993 film bearing the same name.  The six degrees of separation theory asserts that everyone is connected to everyone else on the planet by a succession of six or fewer people.  This play is less about the theory though, and more about how you manage the realities within your own circle.

We begin in the posh Fifth Avenue apartment of art dealer Flanders and his wife Ouisa Kittredge (Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson).  They’re snooty high society types but are always trying to angle their way up to higher rungs on the social ladder.  They're preparing to entertain their wealthy friend Geoffrey (Robert Ashton) in hopes of talking him into parting with $2 million for a Cezanne painting.  The schmoozing is interrupted when a young black guy named Paul (Greg Fenner) is let in by the doorman.  Paul is bleeding from a knife wound he got during an attempted mugging and claims to have ended up at their home because he attends Harvard with the Kittredges' children.

Gerry Love (Flanders Kittridge), Greg Fenner (Paul),
Sarajane Alverson (Ouisa Kittridge)
and Robert Ashton (Geoffrey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
After being patched up, Paul charms them with intellectual conversation, a delicious home-made dinner, and warm company that the Kittredges never get from their own kids.  Paul also tells them that he's in town to meet up with his father (Sidney Poitier no less), who's making a film adaptation of the musical Cats.  Flan and Ouisa find Paul intriguing and wouldn't mind traveling in a circle that included Sidney Poitier, so they offer him some pocket money and a room for the night so he can rest up.  Thing is, none of Paul's stories are true.  Not long after finding Paul in a compromising position the next morning, Flanders and Ouisa learn that they're the most recent victims of Paul's con.  Paul's been getting familiar with the upper-class neighbors, and their friends, Kitty (Kay Love) and Larkin (Christopher R. Brenner) have also been duped.  They all recruit their kids in an effort to discover how Paul knows so many details about their lives.  While Paul is busy deceiving another couple -- a young pair of actors who take him in (to disastrous results), Ouisa Kittredge finds herself, despite Paul's duplicity, emotionally invested in him.

Michael Monsey (Dr. Fine), Mitch Eagles (the Detective),
Greg Fenner (Paul), Gerry Love (Flanders Kittridge),
Sarajane Alverson (Ouisa Kittridge),
Kay Love (Kitty) and Christopher R. Brenner (Larkin).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Alverson and Love make a believable upper-crust couple.  While Love's Flanders keeps his distance a bit from Paul, Alverson's Ouisa ends up confronting her own alienation and false comforts.  Fenner is appealing and cunning as Paul but also shows us a deep-seated insecurity beneath the cool veneer.  Stefanie Kluba (Elizabeth) and Jeffrey Salger (Rick) also do good work as the young couple, as well as Michael Monsey as Dr. Fine, another victim.  Shannon Walton, Zach Wachter, Joseph Corey Henke, Richard Stewart, Evan R. Fornachon, Mitch Eagles and Paul Edwards all turn in sharp supporting performances.  In addition to directing the play, Gary F. Bell also tackles not only the costume design, but the scenic design that economically says "rich", complete with a slowly spinning two-sided Kandinsky painting.  Tyler Duenow provides the lighting design and the sound design is courtesy of Justin Been.

This is really a fascinating play to watch unfold.  In this “internet-age", connections are easier than ever to make with people all over the world, but that accessibility sheds new light on this 23 year old play.  What is the quality of those connections, and why are we drawn to certain people in the first place, and what does it say about us?  Like that Kandinsky painting, most all of us have two sides -- regardless of what kind of hustler you are.


Michael Monsey (Dr. Fine), Gerry Love (Flanders Kittridge),
Sarajane Alverson (Ouisa Kittridge), Kay Love (Kitty),
Christopher R. Brenner (Larkin), Zach Wachter (Woody),
Shannon Walton (Tess), Richard Stewart (Doug)
and Joseph Corey Henke (Ben).
Photo credit: John Lamb
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Written by John Guare
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through June 22 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, final Saturday, June 22 at 2pm & 8pm

Cast:
Sarajane Alverson (Ouisa Kittredge), Gerry Love (Flanders Kittredge), Greg Fenner (Paul), Robert Ashton (Geoffrey), Kay Love (Kitty), Christopher R. Brenner (Larkin), Michael Monsey (Dr. Fine), Shannon Walton (Tess), Zach Wachter (Woody), Joseph Corey Henke (Ben), Richard Stewart (Doug), Evan R. Fornachon (Trent), Jeffrey Salger (Rick), Stefanie Kluba (Elizabeth), Mitch Eagles (Detective) and Paul Edwards (Policeman/Doorman).

Creative:
Scenic/costume design by Gary F. Bell; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; sound design by Justin Been; stage manager, Justin Been.

Monday, June 10, 2013

THE CHERRY SISTERS REVISITED • R-S Theatrics

R-S begins its season with Dan O’Brien's The Cherry Sisters Revisited.  The play, inspired by the real-life Cherry Sisters, was part of the 34th Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2010.  These five Iowa farm girls formed a vaudeville act in the 1890's and eventually became renown.  For being completely talentless.  Once the Cherry sisters took their show on the road, it gained a reputation for being an absolute train wreck.  This propelled the sisters, schadenfreude style, to the Olympia Theatre on Broadway where they were greeted with jeers, catcalls and "truck-garden bouquets" of thrown vegetables.

The Cherry sisters included Effie (Rachel Tibbetts), our narrator and the biggest dreamer of the five, Lizzie (Mollie Amburgey), the pretty one, Addie (Beth Wickenhauser), the witty one who wrote most of the act, Jessie (Ellie Schwetye) the tightly wound but caring mother figure and Ella (Nicole Angeli), the mentally addled one.  There's also Pops (B. Weller), the drunken patriarch of the Cherry family who, though found dead at the beginning of the play, makes appearances to insult his daughters throughout.  In fact, the opening lines from Effie are, "Do you believe in ghosts?  You in the audience?  Because you’re looking at one".  This line sets an almost eerie tone from the get go, but then quickly plunges into Effie's recollections of her peculiar family.

(Top) Mollie Amburgey (Lizzie),
Beth Wickenhauser (Addie), Nicole Angeli (Ella),
Rachel Tibbetts (Effie) and Ellie Schwetye (Jessie).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Their act consisted of bizarre songs (a song about corn juice, anyone?), melodramatic plays usually involving pronounced dialects, and sometimes a homily from Jessie.  Encouraged by polite home town applause, the sisters worked on honing their act, "Something Good, Something Sad", and prepared to take it on the road.  As the act became more and more infamous traveling from town to town, they took up with an "agent", also named Pops, and also played by Weller.  The opportunity to see something so dreadfully bad tends to draw a crowd, and before long the Cherry sisters found themselves on the Great White Way, playing to standing room only houses.  Because Pops (the agent) deceptively told the girls that the responses from the audience were probably the result of jealous competition, they remained clueless about true public opinion, and disregarded negative press.  At one point, a mesh netting had to be erected to protect the sisters from the barrage of everything from rotten vegetables to chairs.

(From top, left to right) Ellie Schwetye (Jessie),
B. Weller (Pops), Mollie Amburgey (Lizzie),
Beth Wickenhauser (Addie), Rachel Tibbetts (Effie)
and Nicole Angeli (Ella).
Photo credit: Michael Young
Kirsten Wylder, making her professional directorial debut, was able to achieve a nice balance with a challenging play, drawing out the simultaneous laughter, pity and sadness it offers.  The sisters have good chemistry with each other, and along with Weller, they make the most of their individual moments and illustrate well-defined characters.  Schwetye is very funny as Jessie, especially when she goes off on the audience for being impolite.  Wickenhauser was also comical as Addie, with her bad jokes and fake accents, but the biggest laughs went to Angeli as the slow sister Ella.  Her facial expressions were priceless, evoking both chuckles and sympathy.  Liz Henning does a great job with the costume design, and Scott De Broux's rural scenic design complements the action along with Maria I. Straub's choreography and Leah Luciano's musical direction.

There's an unusual oscillation between humor and sadness in this play, and you might feel a little guilty about laughing at the Cherry sisters, but like a car-wreck, you'll probably find it impossible to look away.  It's playing until the 16th.


THE CHERRY SISTERS REVISITED

Book by Dan O’Brien
Music by Michael Friedman
Directed by Kirsten Wylder
through June 16 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Mollie Amburgey (Lizzie), Nicole Angeli (Ella), Ellie Schwetye (Jessie), Rachel Tibbetts (Effie), Beth Wickenhauser (Addie) and B. Weller (Pops).

Creative:
Costume design by Liz Henning; scenic design by Scott De Broux; sound design by Mark Kelley; choreography by Maria I. Straub; musical director, Leah Luciano; stage manager, Heather Tucker.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

CHAPTER TWO • Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre kicks off its season with a play that, like many Neil Simon plays, is largely autobiographical.  Chapter Two, premiering in 1977, chronicles the grief Simon suffered after the death of his first wife, and his struggle to start a new life with his second wife, Marsha Mason (who btw will be in town tomorrow, June 9).

We begin with novelist George Schneider (John Pierson) returning to his NYC apartment after a month-long European vacation -- a failed attempt to work through his grief.  His brother Leo (Jerry Russo), a good natured fast-talking press agent, is determined to lift him out of his doldrums with a blind date or two, but George insists that he's got his writing to keep him occupied.  He's not ready yet.  Across town, actress Jennie Malone (Katy Tibbets) is also in no mood for cheering up, no matter how hard her saucy friend Faye (Jenni Ryan), tries.  Jennie is still nursing wounds from her recent divorce from a football player, so she's not ready either.  

John Pierson (George Schneider)
and Jerry Russo (Leo Schneider).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Meanwhile, Leo is facing separation from his wife, and Faye is on the verge of an affair -- any affair, to escape her unhappy marriage for awhile.  Faye happens to run into Leo, an old-flame, and together they attempt a set-up between George and Jennie.  They are both convinced they have the perfect match, but neither George nor Jennie are looking to meet anyone new.  After they accidentally meet over the phone, clumsy, cute conversation leads to cautious flirting.  They seem to have a connection and decide to meet each other.  After a breakneck romance and a hurried marriage, Faye and Leo voice their concerns and George and Jennie find themselves overdue for a reality check as unresolved issues come home to roost.

Under Susie Wall's direction, the cast handle Simon's comic rhythm and one-liners well, and Pierson and Tibbets deftly manage scenes that might otherwise come off as overly sentimental.  Pierson is especially good in the second act when his emotional complications expose a hard-hearted mean streak.  Ryan and Russo display great chemistry when they meet up for a little rendezvous, providing some welcome comic relief from the heavier scenes later in the play.  

Katy Tibbets (Jennie Malone)
and John Pierson (George Schneider).
Photo credit: John Lamb
One half of Mark Wilson's set was George's apartment and the other half was Jennie's, filling Heagney Theatre's expansive stage.  Both sides are well appointed with a cut-out backdrop of the city's skyline.  Wilson is also responsible for the lighting design, smoothly highlighting the shifting action on stage.  Emily Gaither provides the costumes and Dave Hinson contributes the well executed sound design.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I ended up there on a preview night, but the pacing moved along like clockwork.   Playing until the 16th, it's a must see for Neil Simon fans.


Jenni Ryan (Faye Medwick)
and Jerry Russo (Leo Schneider).
Photo credit: John Lamb
CHAPTER TWO

Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Susie Wall
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave.
through June 16 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sunday, June 16 at 2pm

Cast:
Katy Tibbets* (Jennie Malone), John Pierson* (George Schneider), Jenni Ryan (Faye Medwick) and Jerry Russo* (Leo Schneider).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic/lighting design by Mark Wilson; sound design by Dave Hinson; costume design by Emily Gaither; stage manager, Roger Tackett.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

BUKOWSICAL • New Line Theatre

New Line closes its 22nd season with Bukowsical, another wonderfully executed regional premiere.  Charles Bukowski, an American German-born poet, short story writer and novelist, was considered the "godfather" of a North American literary movement called Dirty Realism – a style that described in plain language the seedy lives of ordinary people and the drudgery of the everyday.  He wrote for the dispossessed.  Railing against the social conventions of the time, he gained some notoriety in the 70's for the profanity-laden honesty in his autobiographical fiction.  Bukowski didn't shy away from odious topics like whoring, boozing, gambling and violence.  That was his world, and he held nothing back.  He achieved cult figure status for awhile and was dubbed a "laureate of American lowlife" by Time magazine.  The Sacred Fools Theatre in Bukowski’s hometown of Los Angeles gave Bukowsical its first showing in 2006. 

(front, l-r) Kimi Short, Chrissy Young, Marcy Wiegert,
(middle) Nicholas Kelly, Joel Hackbarth, Christopher Strawhun
(back) Ryan Foizey and Zachary Allen Farmer.
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
We begin with our narrator (Joel Hackbarth) introducing us to Charles Bukowski (Zachary Allen Farmer).  The opening number pretty much signals the audience to buckle up with lyrics like, "What’s the feeling you get / When you’re down on your luck / And you’re too drunk to fuck? / Bukowsical!".  This vulgar rollick looks at a succession of pivotal moments in Bukowski's life.  We see the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and the ridicule aimed at him from his schoolmates -- parts of his childhood that the real-life Charles Bukowski referred to as his "literary training".  There's also the moment he met "Sweet Lady Booze" (Marcy Wiegert), and his writing lesson visit from Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, William Burroughs and Sylvia Plath, who advise him to "Get Dirty".

Zachary Allen Farmer (Charles Bukowski)
and Marcy Wiegert (Sweet Lady Booze).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Bukowsical is a musical tailor-made for director Scott Miller and his consistently solid cast of New Liners.  The perfectly cast Farmer personifies Bukowski with honesty and understanding, a perfectly crude exterior, and an impressive voice.  Short doesn't hold back as Bukowski's drunken love interest, and is not only hilarious, but strong voiced in her songs, "Chaser of my Heart" and "Remember Me".  Joel Hackbarth makes an amiable narrator, nicely filling in for other characters as well.  The rest of the ensemble is rounded out by Ryan Foizey, Nicholas Kelly, Christopher Strawhun, Marcy Wiegert and Chrissy Young.  They all do a very fine job characterizing various roles with gusto, and they sound wonderful together.

Kimi Short (One True Love)
and Zachary Allen Farmer (Charles Bukowski).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Scott L. Schoonover's set consists of a bar, of course, and a table, chair and typewriter where Bukowski does his writing, all illuminated by Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design.  Amy Kelly provides the vibrant costumes, and Robin Michelle Berger’s choreography is top-notch.  Kerrie Mondy provides the sound -- all of the ensemble members are clearly heard and balanced well with the band, and under Justin Smolik's musical direction, the musicians are tight and sound fantastic.

This musical not only sheds considerable light on what went into making Charles Bukowski the artist he was (I watched a documentary -- the show is fairly accurate), it also satirizes the conventions of musical theatre.  It defies tradition by packaging foul lyrics about slimy behavior in these irresistibly tuneful, upbeat little songs.  Under Miller's clear-sighted direction, the entire cast passionately embrace all kick-lines, key changes, and every instance of "jazz hands".  Seeing these supposedly contradictory elements combined with such enthusiasm is what makes it so funny.  The profanity may offend your sensibilities, but with everything else this show has to offer, I bet you'll get over it after about 4 minutes.  Check it out!  It's playing until the 22nd.


Nicholas Kelly (William Faulkner), Joel Hackbarth (Tennessee Williams),
Christopher Strawhun (William S. Burroughs)
and Chrissy Young (Sylvia Plath).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
BUKOWSICAL

Book/lyrics by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale
Music by Gary Stockdale
Directed by Scott Miller
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through June 22 | tickets: $10 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Cast:
Zachary Allen Farmer (Charles Bukowski), Joel Hackbarth (Narrator/Father/Tennessee Williams), Ryan Foizey (Bishop Fulton Sheen/ Mickey Rourke), Nicholas Kelly (William Faulkner/ Barbet Schroeder), Kimi Short (One True Love), Christopher Strawhun (William Burroughs/ Sean Penn/Swifty Lazar), Marcy Wiegert (Sweet Lady Booze) and Chrissy Young (Teacher/Sylvia Plath).

Creative:
Music direction by Justin Smolik; choreography by Robin Michelle Berger; scenic design by Scott L. Schoonover; sound design by Kerrie Mondy; costume design by Amy Kelly; lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, stage manager, Gabe Taylor.

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

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