Tuesday, July 29, 2014

FUNNY GIRL • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog closes its season with Bob Merrill and Jule Styne's "Funny Girl", very loosely based on the life of turn-of-the-century actress, singer and radio star, Fanny Brice. This story of a young Jewish girl from the Lower East Side and her rise to stardom is heavily associated with Barbra Streisand, who originated the role onstage in 1964 and starred in the 1968 film adaptation, but Lindsey Jones puts her own stamp on the score with a reliably strong voice, anchoring the show. Isobel Lennart's book (perhaps the weakest part of the musical) narrows the focus of Brice's life to her career in the Ziegfeld Follies and her marriage to charismatic gambler, Nick Arnstein, played here by Jeffrey M. Wright.

We start at the dressing table of Fanny, who's waiting for her husband's return after his release from prison. From there the story unfolds as a flashback with her mother, Mrs Brice, (Laura Kyro) and her friends playing a game of poker. Mrs. Strakosh (Lynda Levy Clark) and Mrs. Brice try to discourage a teenaged Fanny, who by that time had already worked in vaudeville, from aiming for higher show business dreams because of her plain looks. With the encouragement of her friend, a dancer with a crush named Eddie Ryan (Zach Wachter), and her own determination and talent, Fanny wins over Florenz Ziegfeld (Michael Monsey) and lands a job in the Follies. She first meets Nick before that at Keeney's Music Hall when he visits her backstage. This handsome gambler is willing to bet on Fanny and her career, and Fanny is immediately taken with him. As Fanny's star rises, her relationship and eventual marriage to Nick becomes complicated.

(l to r) Rachel Kuenzi, Mike Hodges, Kendra Moore,
Lindsey Jones (Fanny Brice), Angela Bubash, Brendan Ochs,
and Sara Rae Womack. (seated) Emily C. Johnson,
Kelvin Urday, Corey Fraine, and Eileen Engel.
Photo credit: John Lamb
While Jones and Wright do exceptional work, the two don't seem to gel until near the end when the stakes are highest. Still, in addition to Jones turning in strong performances in the most well known songs, "People" and "Don't Rain On My Parade", she has some wonderfully comedic moments. Wright slips into the role of the alluring Nick Arnstein smoothly, and their duet, "You Are Woman, I Am Man" is charmingly funny. Kyro turns in an earnest performance as Fanny's mother, along with Wachter (who's got some sweet tap skills) as an endearing Eddie Ryan. Their duet "Who Taught Her Everything?" was a highlight. Clark is also strong as the meddling Mrs. Strakosh, and Michael Monsey has the bluster, if not the austerity, of Broadway heavy hitter, Florenz Ziegfeld.

(l to r) Laura Kyro (Mrs. Brice), Lindsey Jones (Fanny Brice),
Zach Wachter (Eddie Ryan), and Lynda Waters (Mrs. O’Malley).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The ensemble members are a little uneven but capable, and handle Zachary Stefaniak's choreography nicely. Robert J. Lippert's scenic design features a grand staircase and makes good use of the stage with a glimmery curtain opposite the staircase, and set pieces to accommodate a variety of locations efficiently and smartly. Director Gary F. Bell also provides a variety of stylish costumes, with lighting by Tyler Duenow and musical direction by Chris Petersen.

This rarely revived musical doesn't make an appearance that often, and though not perfect, if you've never seen this onstage before, the lead performances make it worth your while to check out.


FUNNY GIRL

Book by Isobel Lennart
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through August 9 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, additional performances Wednesday, July 30 at 8pm and Saturday, August 9 at 2pm

Cast:
Lindsey Jones (Fanny Brice), Jeffrey M. Wright (Nick Arnstein), Laura Kyro (Mrs. Brice), Lynda Levy Clark (Mrs. Strakosh), Lynda Waters (Mrs. O’Malley), Jan Niehoff (Mrs. Meeker), Zach Wachter (Eddie Ryan), Eileen Engel (Emma), Michael A. Wells (Tom Keeney), Michael Monsey (Florenz Ziegfeld), Michael A. Wells (Mr. Renaldi), Ensemble/Chorus: Angela Bubash, Eileen Engel, Emily C. Johnson, Rachel Kuenzi, Kendra Moore, Sara Rae Womack, Corey Fraine, Mike Hodges, Brendan Ochs and Kelvin Urday

Creative:
Scenic design by Robert J. Lippert; costume design by Gary F. Bell; lighting design by Tyler Duenow; choreography by Zachary Stefaniak; music and vocal direction by Chris Petersen; stage manager, Justin Been.

Band:
Director/keyboard, Chris Petersen; acoustic bass, Andrew Gurney; percussion, Bob McMahon; reeds, Gabe Newsham & Harrison Rich; trumpet, Andrew "AJ" Lane.

Friday, July 18, 2014

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL I • St. Louis Actors' Studio

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio's LaBute New Theater Festival, featuring premiere one-act plays, began its second appearance last Friday after a successful debut last year. Over 250 world-wide submissions were whittled down to seven finalists and three high school finalist that will be presented over the next month. The first set of four finalists will be presented from July 11th through the 20th and the second set of three begin on the 25th and run through August 3rd, with the high school finalists presented as free stage readings on the 26th. The festival's namesake, playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute, has also once again written a world premiere one-act for the festival, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, that will be presented nightly.

We kick off the night with Steve Karp's comedy, "Rubbas", directed by Milton Zoth. And it's rubbers -- as in prophylactics.
Reginald Pierre (Tom), B. Weller (Senator)
and Emily Baker (Ms. Goldman).
Photo credit: John Lamb
An Alabama senator (B. Weller) is going over one of his state's most lucrative companies with his aide, Tom (Reginald Pierre). Alacorp produces condoms, and though the senator doesn't want the company to draw too much attention from his conservative constituents, he's ready to fight a government push to move production to China, where higher quality rubbers can be made cheaper. The play ends feeling a little unfinished, but provides laughs with good performances by Pierre, Emily Baker, who plays Ms. Goldman, the opposing government official, and a very funny Weller who plays the senator with all the convincing polish of a seasoned politician.

GP Hunsaker (Tailor).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Aleks Merilo's understated "Little Moscow" features GP Hunsaker as a tailor who tells a customer a story from his childhood involving his intolerant father, blindly loyal to Russia, his older sister who brings a Jewish suitor to meet the family, and the fascination that inspired him to become a tailor. Chris Limber directs this one, and though the script meanders a bit, Hunsaker quietly lends a sensitively intimate performance. 

"I Want to Show You Something", written by Jan Henson Dow and also directed by Limber, begins with a very nervous Mrs. Spencer (Baker) struggling to work up the nerve to open up to psychiatrist Dr. Fisher (Chopper Leifheit) about the abuse she suffered as a child. The story becomes chilling as Dr. Fisher pulls out Mrs. Spencer's long-hidden secrets that go deeper that he expected, with a strong performance by Baker, shifting subtly in tone and demeanor on a dime in this, one of the more successful pieces.

Emily Baker (Mrs. Spencer) and Chopper Leifeit (Dr. Fisher).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Thomas Pierce's "Blue Lagoon", directed by Milton Zoth, takes place in Istanbul, where Russell (Weller), an intelligence analyst in hot water, anxiously waits to meet a contact he hopes can help him. When he's joined by Alice (Jenny Smith), an older, chatty tourist, he becomes annoyed. When Alice reveals herself as his contact, Russell is skeptical -- even after exchanging a few code phrases. But Alice is more than meets the eye in this futuristic comedy, as Russell soon finds out. Weller and Smith deliver great performances in this look at drones, and what may be in store for their future.

Neil LaBute's play, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”, directed by Zoth, finds Bill (William Roth) having lunch on a park bench, when he's approached by Kip (Reginald Pierre), who strikes up a friendly conversation. Kip's tone begins to turn as he questions Bill about his acquaintance with his wife and four year-old son. Pierre is impressive, slowly and convincingly displaying the fierce protection of a father who will do whatever it takes to keep his family safe, and Roth is exceptional as Bill, a man insistent about his innocence, knowing he will be forever judged by past crimes.

Jenny Smith (Alice) and B. Weller (Russell).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The performances were solid throughout, and Patrick Huber's scenic design provided a simple set, easy to accommodate quick set changes, with a back wall used for projections. The directors handled the sound design duties for their pieces, Bess Moynihan provided the lighting design and Carla Landis Evans provided the costumes and props design.

This festival is a wonderful addition to the St. Louis theatre scene that shouldn't be missed, providing the opportunity to see world premiere works in our own backyard. LaBute, with over twenty plays and a dozen-plus film credits to his name, is slated to be in town on the 25th, and is reportedly down for continuing this festival indefinitely. YES!


LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL I

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” by Neil LaBute • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Reginald Pierre (Kip) and William Roth (Bill).

Reginald Pierre (Kip) and William Roth (Bill).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Finalists (July 11 - 20):

"Rubbas" by Steve Karp, New York, NY • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: Reginald Pierre (Tom), B. Weller (Senator) and Emily Baker (Ms. Goldman).

"Little Moscow" by Aleks Merilo, Brooklyn, NY • Directed by Chris Limber
Cast: GP Hunsaker (Tailor).

"I Want to Show You Something" by Jan Henson Dow, Bluffton, SC • Directed by Chris Limber
Cast: Emily Baker (Mrs. Spencer) and Chopper Leifheit* (Dr. Fisher).

"Blue Lagoon" by Thomas Pierce, Seattle, WA • Directed by Milton Zoth
Cast: B. Weller (Russell) and Jenny Smith (Alice).

Finalists (July 25 - August 3):

"Coffee House, Greenwich Village" by John Doble, New York, NY • Directed by John Pierson
Cast: Paul Cereghino (Waiter), Ellie Schwetye (Pamela) and Nathan Bush (Jack).

"The Thing with Feathers" by Susan Steadman, Wilmington, NC • Directed by John Pierson
Cast: Chopper Leifheit* (Aaron), Caroline Adams (Mara) and GP Hunsaker (Police).

"Comeback Special" by JJ Strong, Los Angeles, CA • Directed by Tom Martin
Cast: Paul Cereghino (Jesse), Ellie Schwetye (Bonnie) and Chopper Leifheit* (Elvis).

High School Finalists - Stage Readings • Directed by Aaron Orion Baker (July 26 at 11 am):

"Prosaic Beatings" by Jared Ray McSwain, Stockbridge, GA
Cast: Terry Meddows* (Hal) and Michelle Hand (Audrey).

"Pisces" by Aidan Murphy, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, IL
Cast: Pete Winfrey (Madison) and Jennifer Theby-Quinn (Waverly).

"The Hushed Machine" by Amelia Himebaugh, Lindbergh High School, St. Louis, MO
Cast: Nancy Lewis (Ethel), Terry Meddows* (David), Michelle Hand (Michelle) and Pete Winfrey (Andrew).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through August 3 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Creative:
Scenic design by Patrick Huber; lighting design by Bess Moynihan; sound design by Milton Zoth, Chris Limber, Tom Martin and John Pierson; costume and props design by Carla Landis Evans; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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