Tuesday, April 29, 2014

SHAKE 38 • Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis honored the Bard's 450th birthday with Shake38 last week, a five day festival with various companies staging all of Shakespeare's plays. The plays were performed in a variety of locations around the city -- everywhere from coffee shops to backyards -- all free. The festivities began with a wreath laying at the Shakespeare statue in Tower Grove Park on Wednesday morning.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble had a couple of plays on offer, starting with "The Merry Wives of Windsor" playing out at the ruins in Tower Grove Park. This presentation, directed by Mollie Amburgey, featured Carl Overly as a smooth, pimp Falstaff, deciding to court two rich women in town -- Mistress Ford (Rachel Tibbetts) and Mistress Page (Ellie Schwetye), hoping to gain some financial footing. This feisty, condensed version streamlined the focus to Falstaff and the Mistresses and their husbands, Master Page and the disguised Master Ford (Stephanie Amoroso and Jared Sanz-Agero).
The rest of the cast was rounded out by Michael Amoroso (Writer/Sir Hugh Evans/Fenton), Payton Gillam (Mistress Quickly), Daniel Blackwell (Slender), Rachel Hanks (Pistol), Cara Barresi (Nym), Annie Garea (Anne Page), Ryan Lawson-Maeske (Doctor Caius), Mollie Amburgey (Shallow) and the adorable beagle Polly as Simple. There was a nice crowd Saturday afternoon, and the ruins at Tower Grove provided a beautiful setting.

Slightly Askew's second offering came later that night in a candlelit backyard production of "Haunted Hamlet" -- perfect for those with short attention spans, where only the spooky bits with ghosts and murders were read. With Tonya Darabcsek as Hamlet, Carl Overly as Horatio, Michael Amoroso as Marcellus & Polonius, Mollie Amburgey as Francisco & Gravedigger # 2, Ellie Schwetye as Ghost & Gravedigger # 1 and Rachel Tibbetts as Barnardo & Gertrude, it was pretty awesome, complete with a fire pit, smores, hot dogs and libations. I mean, you just can't beat that really, and many folks stayed long after the last specter had disappeared into the night.

Photo credit: Rick Forrestal
Sunday afternoon, "Romeo and Juliet", was presented by Blind Pigs at the COCA Black Box theatre. This tale of doomed young love featured Casey Boland as a youthful and headstrong Romeo, and Beth Wickenhauser as a sweetly sincere Juliet.

In addition to these two, this polished production, directed by Christina Rios, included some excellent performances -- relatable and squeezing out individual characteristics in great fashion. In addition to a very entertaining Mark Kelley as Mercutio and Sarajane Alverson as a humorous Nurse -- as only Alverson could do, there was Khnemu Menu-Ra and Suki Peters, the stern and nicely paired Capulets, John Wolbers as the good Friar Lawrence, Paul Cereghino as a hot-headed Tybalt, Dennis Folwarczny as the serious Prince Escaluswith, with Aaron Dodd as Paris, Mark Abels as Montague, Ben Ritchie as Peter and Pete Winfrey as Benvolio rounding out the cast.

Photo credit: Rick Forrestal
In this, another streamlined presentation, scenes were separated by quick fades to black, with splendid costume design by Liz Henning, lighting design by Nathan Schroeder, text coaching by Wolbers and fight choreography by Todd Gillenardo. Nothing like being in a cozy theater space in the front row with some sword fighting going on!

I wish I had been able to see more, and Shakespeare admittedly intimidates the crap out of me, but this showcase of his plays takes the intimidation factor out of it, and just makes it fun, and is a wonderful lead up to the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presentation of "HENRY IV" and "Henry V", coming in May to Forest Park's Shakespeare Glen. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ONCE • The Fox

After an off-Broadway run in 2011, “Once” opened on Broadway the next year, snagging eight Tony awards. Based on the 2006 film bearing the same title, the song "Falling Slowly" also won an Oscar for Best Original Song.

 Right off the bat, as the audience files into the Fox, there's already an Irish-flavored party happening onstage, where you are welcomed to go up to the onstage bar and get a drink before the show starts. The house lights are up during this pre-show jam session, and they stay up well into the prologue. Every member of the ensemble here is a musician -- really talented ones at that, functioning as the show’s orchestra as well as its cast of characters.

Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (Girl).
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Guy (Stuart Ward) is a brooding Dublin musician who also works at his father's shop repairing vacuum cleaners. He's ready to walk out on his musical ambitions, still mourning the loss of his relationship with a girl who's moved to New York. Dani de Waal plays Girl, a plucky Czech pianist who has been listening to Guy, and after a brief introduction, she's convinced not only that Guy is quite talented, but that if he played these songs for his ex, she'd be sure to take him back. She then claims to have a Hoover that "doesn't suck", and says if he'll fix it for her she'll pay him back with music at the piano store where she works. The emotional center of Guy's songs start to shift once Girl convinces him to make a demo tape and follow his dreams to New York City. Though the attraction between them is apparent, Guy and Girl have complicated histories that derail what would presumably be a "happily ever after" ending.

Ensemble of "Once"
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Having never seen the film, I was expecting a romantic comedy -- a genre that admittedly isn't a favorite of mine, but this musical disarmed me with its unique staging and music. Just when Guy's angst or Girl's thickly accented (but charming) advice about following your dreams threatens to become overly sentimental, the true nature of the characters come through in the songs, with Ward's powerful vocals and de Waal's haunting delivery, and are made more powerful by the show's inconspicuous choreography that brings those inner conflicts out in nuanced movement.

Donna Garner (Baruška), Alex Nee (Andrej),
Dani de Waal (Girl), Claire Wellin (Réza)
and Matt DeAngelis (Švec).
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
With brisk direction by John Tiffany, the talents of Ward, de Waal and the musicianship and vocal talent of the ensemble is impressive. The story plays out on Bob Crowley's set of an Irish pub with dark wood and mirrored surfaces set off with small lights. Subtle shifts in Natasha Katz's lighting design designate different locations along with the addition of small set pieces that are moved on and off, and Clive Goodwin's sound design maintains a beautiful acoustic sound that adds to the show. I love it when I'm completely caught off-guard by a show, and this one did it. Only a few more days to check this one out. See it!


Music/lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Book by Enda Walsh
Based on the film Oncewritten and directed by John Carney
Directed by John Tiffany
Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
through April 20 | tickets: $25 - $95
Performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Thursday, April 17 at 1pm, Saturdays at 2pm, Sundays at 1pm, Sunday, April 13 at 6:30pm

Ensemble of "Once"
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Stuart Ward - guitar (Guy), Dani de Waal - piano (Girl), Raymond Bokhour - mandolin (Da), Matt DeAngelis - guitar, mandolin, banjo, drum set, percussion (Švec), John Steven Gardner - piano, guitar, percussion, melodica, harmonica (Eamon), Donna Garner - accordion, concertina (Baruška), Evan Harrington - guitar, percussion, ukulele (Billy), Ryan Link - guitar, banjo (Emcee), Benjamin Magnuson - cello, guitar (Bank Manager), Alex Nee - electric bass, ukulele, guitar, percussion (Andrej), Erica Swindell - violin, percussion (Ex-Girlfriend), Kolette Tetlow (Ivanka) and Claire Wellin - violin (Réza).

Scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley; lighting design by Natasha Katz; sound design by Clive Goodwin; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; movement by Steven Hoggett; stage manager, Daniel S. Rosokoff.

Monday, April 7, 2014

CABARET • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog kicks off the last half of its season with Kander and Ebb's classic, "Cabaret", turning the space at Tower Grove Abbey into Berlin's Kit Kat Klub. This darkly ironic musical about the collision between the fun-loving hedonism of 1930's Berlin and the impending Nazi upheaval has been staged twice in town during the past year, but Justin Been's excellent direction and fresh interpretation, some wonderful performances, and smart use of the intimate space give this production an edge.

After a bit of pre-show activity that has the Kit Kat boys and girls sauntering throughout the audience, the Emcee (Lavonne Byers) struts her way into the first number, "Willkomen", welcoming us to the club, introducing us to the girls and the band, and telling us that here, "life is beautiful."

Cliff Bradshaw (Paul Cereghino), a young American, is traveling to Berlin, hoping to find inspiration for a novel he has yet to begin. On the train he meets Ernst Ludwig (Michael Brightman), an amiable local who recommends a boardinghouse owned by Fräulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff). Cliff can only afford fifty marks for the modest accommodations, and though Schneider would prefer one hundred, she's learned to take what she can get ("So What?"), so she takes the fifty.

Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Back at the club, the Kit Kat's featured artist, Sally Bowles (Paula Stoff Dean), performs "Don't Tell Mama", and takes the chance afterwards to call Cliff on one of the phones that are right on the tables of the place -- convenient for uninhibited introductions. They meet, hit it off, and Sally gets kicked out of the club by her jealous boyfriend Max (Keith Thompson), the owner of the Kit Kat Klub. Cliff and Sally develop a friendship (with benefits) once she moves in, while Fräulein Schneider is being courted by a Jewish fruit vendor named Herr Schultz (Ken Haller). Schneider has her hands full keeping an eye on Fräulein Kost (Deborah Sharn), a resident who requires daily visits from sailors to pay the rent, if you know what I'm sayin', but she makes time to spend with Herr Schultz, and their relationship grows as well.

Jan Niehoff (Fräulein Schneider)
and Ken Haller (Herr Schultz).
Photo credit: John Lamb
In the middle of developments between both couples, the rise of the Nazi party starts to change the landscape outside the walls of the Kit Kat Klub, and is met with varying responses. This all leads to a chilling last scene, after the banner "Arbeit macht frei" ("work makes you free"), is unfurled, and the hints and indications come to chilling clarity, with no "take you out of it" curtain calls. Love…

This musical is frequently staged, and I have no idea about the number of times a woman has been cast as the Emcee, but Byers was a great choice here that pays off. As our sexually ambiguous host for the evening, she sets the tone of this run-down haunt of Berlin's pleasure-seekers with a throaty laugh and a bold performance that plays from lighthearted, to mocking, to apathetic. While Cereghino's Cliff enjoys the excesses of the time, he remains aware of the impending threat, with an understated seriousness. Dean's Sally, willfully oblivious to the fact that the party's over, brings solid vocal performances, and conveys a heartbreaking range of emotions in her rendition of "Cabaret" -- a real standout. Niehoff's Fräulein Schneider and Haller's Herr Schultz display a nice mix, and the initial disharmony between them that they eventually settle into in "It Couldn't Please Me More" was sweet.

Paul Cereghino (Cliff)
and Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Brightman's Ernst Ludwig becomes more and more stern as his political affiliations come to light, and Sharn is playfully naughty as boardinghouse resident Fräulein Kost. In addition to Thompson's Max, Sally's surly boyfriend, the ensemble members provide incredibly strong support to the numbers, and the inclusion of Bobby (Michael Hodges) in "Two Ladies", along with Byers and Jessica Tilghman's Texas, was another highlight -- set off by cleverly suggestive silhouettes behind a piece of cloth. Whether it's the pre-show action, or moving set pieces on and off, the ensemble members make every move a sensual one.

Zachary Stefaniak contributes some fantastic choreography that adds interest to every number, and Robert J. Lippert's scenic design is appropriately dingy, with a rusty spiral staircase leading up to a second level balcony that sits below the club's marquee, along with a panel that slides in for the scenes at the boardinghouse. Tyler Duenow lights the set encompassing a wide scope of moods, and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's costumes maintain the visual themes wonderfully with holey fishnets and black for the club's employees, and an array of outfits that very nicely inform the leads. Musical director Chris Petersen and the band are tight and pull their weight in their small perch above the stage, and though the vocal prowess varies among the cast, the "power numbers" are delivered strongly.

(center) Lavonne Byers (Emcee)
and (clockwise) Michael Baird (Victor),
Kimberly Still (Fritzie), Angela Bubash (LuLu),
Mike Hodges (Bobby), Jessica Tilghman (Texas),
Zach Wachter (Hans), Deanna Mazdra (Helga),
Brendan Ochs (Herman) and Eileen Engel (Frenchie).
Photo credit: Tom Gannam
This musical is perhaps best known from the 1972 film version, but under Been's perfectly paced direction, this production shouldn't be missed. For a little extra $$, you can snag "Signature Seating" that's offered on a first come, first served basis, with seating at one of the Kit Kat's tables. That'd be cool. It's up until the 19th.


Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 19 | tickets: $18 - $35*
*Signature Seating is offered on a “first come - first serve” basis and comes at an additional premium.
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm

Jessica Tilghman, Lavonne Byers
and Michael Hodges.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Lavonne Byers (Emcee), Paula Stoff Dean (Sally Bowles), Paul Cereghino (Cliff Bradshaw), Jan Niehoff (Fräulein Schneider), Ken Haller (Herr Schultz), Michael Brightman (Ernst Ludwig), Deborah Sharn (Fräulein Kost), Keith Thompson (Max), Eileen Engel (Frenchie), Kimberly Still (Fritzi), Deanna Mazdra (Helga), Angela Bubash (Lulu), Sara Rae Womack (Rosie), Jessica Tilghman (Texas), Michael Hodges (Bobby), Zach Wachter (Hans), Brendan Ochs (Herman) and Michael Baird (Victor).

Scenic design by Robert J. Lippert; costume design by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; choreographer, Zachary Stefaniak; dialect coach, Daniel Blackwell; production stylist, Priscilla Case; property design by Justin Been and Jay V. Hall; stage manager, Justin Been; assistant stage manager, Dan Jones.

Lavonne Byers (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys
(l to r: Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter
and Brendan Ochs).
Photo credit: Dan Donovan
Musical and vocal director/keyboard, Chris Petersen; accordion, Steve Wozniak; banjo and guitar, Adam Rugo; bass, Kevin Baudrexl; percussion, Bob McMahon; reed 1, Harrison Rich; trumpet, Andrew "AJ" Lane, Trombone, Gabe Mueller; violin, Steve Frisbee.


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