Monday, August 14, 2017

THE COLOR OF AUGUST • Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble continues its "Season of Adaptation" with The Color of August, by Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero. Written in 1988, and translated and adapted for this production by Will Bonfiglio, The Color of August explores a reunion of two artists and old friends that wavers between soft embraces and loud shouting, dependence and conflict. The play features Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts -- actors who have been together in a few two-handers in the past, and there’s an undeniable synergy between them that complements the play. Who will portray which role is determined by a coin toss before each performance. The night I went it was “heads”, and Tibbetts played Maria, a successful artist, with Schwetye playing Laura, her inspiration.

Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Maria and Laura have known each other since childhood and shared an intimate friendship, but eight years have passed since they’ve spoken. Since their estrangement, Maria's artwork has garnered fame, while Laura, who gave up her art some time ago, scrapes by as a model. Laura doesn’t know it yet, but they’re about to meet up again. Using a false name, Maria has booked Laura for a modeling gig, and the air is charged with tension from the moment they see each other. Maria may have accolades and wealth, but she’s desperate for Laura to stay, while Laura meets Maria with cool indifference. Nursing old wounds and trying to maintain leverage, they fluctuate between attraction and aversion, and end up stripping down, literally, splashing each other with paint -- seemingly the only way they can reach a level playing field.

Maria (Rachel Tibbetts) and Laura (Ellie Schwetye).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Director Lucy Cashion, artistic director and founder of Equally Represented Arts, keeps the interaction between the women surprising, and includes her signature use of movement, providing a further extension of the push and pull of a tangled relationship. As Maria, Tibbetts entices and cajoles to be in Laura’s company for as long as she can be, offering her drink after drink after drink. Schwetye’s Laura is agitated when she realizes she’s been duped into a forced reunion, and aloof when she reluctantly agrees to stay awhile. The only other character is “John”, a man mentioned, briefly heard, but not seen. Maggie Genovese and Anne Genovese provide the original paintings, and Bess Moynihan provides the scenic design of a nicely appointed artist's space featuring Maria's latest piece center stage, and a fountain in front of the stage, functioning practically and symbolically.

With a running time of about an hour, it’s a compelling study of an emancipation of sorts -- humorous and bold, that leaves you considering it in the car on the way home. It’s playing at the Chapel until the 19th.


Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
THE COLOR OF AUGUST

Written by Paloma Pedrero 
Directed by Lucy Cashion 
through August 19 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm
Pay-What-You-Can performances on Thursdays, August 10 and August 17

Cast
(If the coin toss is heads)
Maria: Rachel Tibbetts
Laura: Ellie Schwetye

(If the coin toss is tails)
Maria: Ellie Schwetye
Laura: Rachel Tibbetts

Laura (Ellie Schwetye) and
Maria (Rachel Tibbetts).
Photo credit: Joey Rumpell
Creative
Stage Manager: Kristen Strom
Translator: Will Bonfiglio
Dramaturg: Miranda Jagels Félix
Scenic Designer: Bess Moynihan
Lighting Designer: Bess Moynihan
Costume Designer: Liz Henning
Sound Designer: Lucy Cashion
Original Paintings: Maggie Genovese, Anne Genovese
Assistant Lighting Designer: Dominick Ehling
Photography: Joey Rumpell
Graphic Designer: Dottie Quick
Box Office Manager: Kristin Rion

Sunday, August 6, 2017

RAGTIME • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog closes out its season with an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s sweeping musical adaptation, Ragtime. Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, it places us at an intersection between the comfortable lives of suburbia, the disadvantaged lives in Harlem, and the enterprising optimism of newly-arrived immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The painful growth of 1900's America is illustrated in Ragtime’s rousing prologue, where we are introduced to the ingredients in this uniquely American stew.

The upper-classes are represented by Mother (Kay Love), the matriarch of a well-to-do family living in New Rochelle, New York, that made their money manufacturing fireworks. Mother embraces everyone she meets with an open heart, and Love portrays her with a genteel determination, delivering a stirring ”Back to Before”. Mother’s husband, Father, in a solid performance by Phil Leveling, is a bit of a throwback -- resistant to the changing landscape of the country.

(upper level) Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee),
Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), Mother (Kay Love),
Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro),
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones)
and (lower level) The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
In Harlem, Ragtime music was catching on, represented by a pianist named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. -- talented and amiable, but defiant in his pursuit of justice. Omega Jones plays him with charisma, style and powerful vocals -- a very impressive performance. Evan Addams, an alumna of the Artists-in-Training program with St. Louis Opera Theatre, makes her Stray Dog debut in a knockout performance as a washerwoman named Sarah, his girlfriend, who is taken in along with her illegitimate child, by Mother. She’s got a gorgeous voice, and adds goose-bump inducing top notes over the big ensemble numbers.

Then there’s Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who sells portrait silhouettes on the streets, struggling to make a decent life for himself and his daughter. Jeffrey M. Wright brings a heartfelt resilience to the role, with a lovely rendition of "Gliding”.

The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Strong performances are also counted in the portrayals of the historical figures of the time who are added to the mix, including a provocative Laura Kyro as political activist Emma Goldman, Angela Bubash as the acclaimed model and chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit, and Terry Lee Watkins, Jr., resolute as educator and civil rights activist, Booker T. Washington. Additionally, there's Chuck Lavazzi as a grumpy Grandfather, and a volunteer fire chief, who has a penchant for the “n” word and an envious disdain for Walker and his fancy new car. Joe Webb and Avery Smith, as The Little Boy and The Little Girl respectively, also turn in great performances.

Mother (Kay Love) and Sarah (Evan Addams).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Justin Been directs Stray Dog’s huge cast of 26 smoothly and smartly, and the staging, along with sharp choreography by Mike Hodges, clarify the boundaries between these groups clearly. There are no weak links among the energetic ensemble, and the band, under the direction of Jennifer Buchheit, does a fine job with the infectious Tony-Award winning score (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens). Eileen Engel provides the show with first-rate costume design, and David Blake’s striking scenic design of symmetrical iron railings handsomely frames the action.

There’s practically nothing to dislike about this production, and the friction between these bedrock groups of America ring with resonance today, but luckily, so does the resolve. The lyrics of Lynn Ahrens sum it all up beautifully:
“The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...

It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it Ragtime...”

Don’t miss it. It’s playing until the 19th.

Incidental thoughts
• If you’re not moved by the end of the first act closer, "Till We Reach That Day”, there may very well be something wrong with you.

Henry Ford (Jason Meyers) and
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones).
Photo credit: John Lamb
• There's a great little number in there that pays tribute to the favorite sport of the day, baseball. The male ensemble is a hoot.


RAGTIME

Book by Terrence McNally 
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through August 19 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Additional performances 8pm Wednesday, August 16 and 2pm Saturday, August 19

Cast
The Little Boy: Joe Webb
Father: Phil Leveling
Mother: Kay Love
Mother’s Younger Brother: Jon Bee
Grandfather: Chuck Lavazzi
Coalhouse Walker, Jr.: Omega Jones
Sarah: Evan Addams
Booker T. Washington: Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.
Tateh: Jeffrey M. Wright
The Little Girl: Avery Smith
Harry Houdini: Joseph Gutowski
JP Morgan: Gerry Love
Henry Ford: Jason Meyers
Emma Goldman: Laura Kyro
Evelyn Nesbit: Angela Bubash
Sarah’s Friend: Ebony Easter

Ensemble
Jackson Buhr
Jennifer Clodi
Chris Gauss
Melissa Sharon Harris
William Humphrey
Caleb Long
Dorrian Neymour
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Chrissie Watkins

Creative
Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Scenic Designer: David Blake
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Choreographer: Mike Hodges
Production Manager: Robert M. Kapeller

The Band
Clarinet: Kelly Austermann
Piano 3: Mike Blackwood
Music Director/Piano 2: Jennifer Buchheit
Violin: Mallory Golden
Piano 1: Chris Petersen
Trumpet: John Reichert
Percussion: Joe Winters

Monday, July 10, 2017

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

The fifth annual LaBute New Theater Festival has chosen five finalists to debut this year, along with five high school finalists that were presented as stage readings this past Saturday. The festival’s namesake, Tony-nominated playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute, has once again written a play specifically for the festival that will be presented every night of the run. The first of two sets of plays will run until the 16th, and they share a contemporary, political tinge.

LaBute’s Hate Crime gives us a peek into the lives of two lovers plotting a murder to collect on an insurance claim. Greg Hunsaker goes over the details of his planned method with his lover, played by Chauncy Thomas. He intends to make the deed look like a hate crime, and Thomas seems resolved with the plans, even though there's a twist involved.
Greg Hunsaker and Chauncy Thomas.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Hunsaker’s crafting of a murder with the goal of making it look like a hate crime is creepy enough, without Thomas’s hot-and-cold vibe that makes you doubt his own motives in a piece that’s unexpectedly over before you know it.

In Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna by Ron Radice, three guys toting briefcases are on a platform waiting for their train. One, played wonderfully by Ryan Lawson-Maeske, is on his way to a job interview. An insignificant elbow nudge puts him in the middle, literally and figuratively, as the two other guys (Spencer Sickmann and Reggie Pierre) take turns bad-mouthing each other and throwing suspicion on the other’s character. Small trespasses become major breaches of decency in a dual-pronged gaslighting. There’s also quite a bit of briefcase switching going on. Radice’s absurdist play gets a little meandering, but Sickmann and Pierre’s exaggerated performance plays well to the tone of it.

Spencer Sickmann, Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Reggie Pierre.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
Sacred Space, by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, begins with two women, Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow, preparing for a Tahara -- a purification ritual to ready a body for Jewish burial. It’s the morning after the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, and the tragedy is troubling the minds of them both. Just as the cleansing begins, a text from one of the shooting victims appears against the wall. They think they’re hallucinating at first, but after the texts are joined by the texts from the mother of the victim, they decide that maybe just this once, they can interrupt the rules of tradition to help more than one soul receive peace. Peppered with humor and well executed by Brown and Furlow, Sacred Space offers an ode to the victims of the shooting that dominated the news just over a year ago.

Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
In Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, drilling down to find the truth in an everyday news story is equal to foreplay. After the initial clumsiness of a first date between two D.C. residents, played by Nancy Bell and Thomas, they decide to try something new and “kinky”. They spend the rest of their date analyzing a breaking headline story. Researching online, making phone calls and listening to the news, they try their best to strip away all the layers of hype to find the truth, as Kelly Schaschl delivers the flurry of newscast soundbites. The idea of truth-seeking as a turn on is an interesting idea, and well played by the cast, but it loses a little steam once the premise is set. Those political threads run most strongly through this one.

Nancy Bell and Chauncy Thomas.
Photo credit: Patrick Huber
The directors do skillful work with the scripts they are given, but a couple of the plays seem incomplete, coming off more as a running commentary on the current climate, as the question of whom to believe and what sources to trust has become a slippery business. The second set of one-acts will start July 21 and run through July 30.

Incidental thoughts
• In the past couple of years, some finalists of the festival have enjoyed New York premieres at 59E59 Theaters, an off-Broadway spot in Midtown Manhattan. It’s a great opportunity for the playwrights, and great exposure for St. Louis Actors’ Studio.


LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through July 30 | tickets: $30 - $35
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Hate Crime by Neil LaBute • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Greg Hunsaker

Finalists
Set One (July 7-16):

Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna by Ron Radice, Andover, MA • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Spencer Sickmann
Reggie Pierre
Ryan Lawson-Maeske

Sacred Space by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, Needham, MA  • Directed by Nancy Bell*
Cast
Sophia Brown
Kim Furlow
The Deceased: Kelly Robertson

Percentage America by Carter W. Lewis, St. Louis, MO • Directed by John Pierson*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Nancy Bell*
Kelly Schaschl
Voice of Friend #1 Lindsey Steinkamp
Voice of Friend #2 Isabella Koster

Finalists
Set Two (July 21 – July 30):

How’s Bruno by Cary Pepper, San Francisco, CA • Directed by Nancy Bell*
Cast
Chauncy Thomas*
Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Reggie Pierre
Spencer Sickmann

Sin Titulo by Tearrance Chisholm, St. Louis, MO • Directed by Linda Kennedy*
Cast
Patrice Foster
Reggie Pierre
Jaz Tucker

High School Finalists
Saturday Morning Stage Readings (Free admission July 8 @ 11am):
Directed by Edward Ibur

Depths of Hell by Erica O’Brien, Webster Groves High School

Five Things I Wish My Mother Never Told Me by Cicely Henderson, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts

24th December by Ella Schmidt, John Burroughs School

10 Steps to A Good Life by Ella Genovese, Nerinx Hall

Dessert in the Desert by Danielle Goldberg, Parkway High School

Cast
Mara Sudekum
Laurel Button
Max Rodhouse
Dahlia Haddad
Peter Mayer*
Nancy Bell*
Spencer Sickmann

Creative
Stage Manager: Amy J. Paige
Assistant Stage Manager: Phoebe Sklansky
Scenic Designer: Patrick Huber
Lighting Designer: Patrick Huber
Sound Designers: John Pierson, Nancy Bell and Linda Kennedy
Technical Director: Joseph Novak
Costume Designer: Carla Landis Evans
Props Designer: Carla Landis Evans
Light Board Operator: Carla Landis Evans and Sally Liz Evans
Sound/Projection Operator: Amy J. Paige
Master Electrician: Dalton Robison
Stagehands: Kelly Robertson and Phoebe Sklansky
House Manager: Kimberly Sansone

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Grand Center Theatre Crawl • St. Louis Public Radio and Grand Center

The fifth annual Grand Center Theatre Crawl kicked off this past Friday in the Grand Center Arts district. With a map and program of performances in hand, patrons were free to rotate through any one of 19 venues and get access to 24 local theatre groups. With short one-acts starting every thirty minutes, you could see up to six shows each day, starting at 6:30pm Friday and 1pm Saturday. Best of all, it’s free!

It’s impossible to see everything, but here are a handful of things that were on offer.

The Midnight Company • TONIGHT'S SPECIAL by Joe Hanrahan • Directed by Sarah Whitney @ STLPR Learning Studio
with Emily Leidenfrost and Joe Hanrahan

A seasoned waiter working at a highly reputable restaurant tries to warn Rose, a young waitress, about the dangers of the restaurant business. Rose is an aspiring actress who’s been coming to the restaurant since she was a kid and loves the fact that she now works there, but she’s been spending more and more time with the staff, partying till all hours. The waiter’s buck-wild days are behind him, and he doesn’t want to see Rose let her dreams fall by the wayside by carving out habits that may be hard to break. Hanrahan’s story gave each actor the opportunity to shine, with some nice bonding moments over the restaurant’s unique culinary pairings (like Greek tacos or Italian egg rolls).


Theatre Nuevo • THE HISTORY OF MEXICANS IN 10 MINUTES by Alvaro Saar Rios @ Front Steps of the Sheldon
with Anna Skidis Vargas, Jesse Muñoz and Kelvin Urday

Theatre Nuevo’s short, featured in their most recent festival, Acronyms, first takes the audience back to a time when there were no Mexicans. From the Aztecs and the lisping Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, to the birth of the Mestizos and the reclaiming of Mexico from the Spanish Empire, not only was this presentation funny, it was also very informative. Kelvin Urday served as the narrator and Jesse Muñoz and Theatre Nuevo’s artistic director, Anna Skidis Vargas, acted out all of the vignettes. 


Stray Dog Theatre • THE THIRD TIME by Stephen Peirick • Directed by Gary F. Bell @ Grandel Ballroom
with Kevin O'Brien, Maria Bartolotta and Angela Bubash

This play opens with a couple making their third trip to the fertility clinic. The wife decides to stick around for moral support when an “inspiration pile” of magazines and videos sparks an argument between them. While he tries to explain that visual stimulation is just a natural thing for guys, she finds the pornography disgusting, and is disappointed that he can’t just fantasize about her. The couple soon learns that sharing your fantasies with your spouse is not a good idea. Great performances from Kevin O'Brien and Maria Bartolotta as the couple, and Angela Bubash as Nurse Bunny.


Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis • YOU LIED TO ME ABOUT CENTRALIA by John Guare • Directed by Pete Winfrey @ Metropolitan Lobby
with Pete Winfrey and Julia Crump

You Lied to Me about Centralia is based on the short story, Portrait of a Girl in Glass by Tennessee Williams, that evolved into The Glass Menagerie. In Centralia, Jim, the Gentleman Caller, meets his fiancée on a train platform. He’s just come back from the Wingfields’, while Betty went to her Uncle’s house hoping to snag a cash wedding gift for a house she desperately wants. She’s sickened to find him living snugly with a black man named Rainbow who she initially assumes is the help. Though Betty spends her evening in uncomfortable displeasure, Jim has an enlightening dinner with his “limp-wristed” co-worker named Shakespeare and his sister. As Jim longingly recalls the events of his night, you come to realize that he was quite taken with Shakespeare’s sister, and you feel a pang of pity for him -- considering the boxed-in future that awaits him with his bigoted, shallow wife-to-be. Although a familiarity with The Glass Menagerie is helpful, there were wonderful performances from Pete Winfrey and Julia Crump.


Tesseract Theatre • WALTZING BABE VICTORIA by Taylor Gruenloh @ STLPR Community Room
with Ashley Netzhammer, DDare Bionic and Jazmine Wade

In this absurdist piece, a man described as a gentleman from the Naval Academy instructs Victoria, a young dancer, on variations of the waltz. During their practice, they’re circled and shadowed by a witch in a black robe. Periodically, the gentleman reprimands Victoria seemingly for nothing, and calls on the witch to bind her feet, then her hands, knees, and mouth. The more bound she becomes, the more beautiful she is to him. With some references to pop culture and social media sprinkled in, it’s an oddly fascinating piece that you could walk away from with any number of interpretations.

You always wish events like this had a longer run, but it's a unique opportunity to get a taste of several companies. The variety of performances alone make it a must see, so keep an eye out for it next year. Did I mention it was free?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

MONSTERS • Stray Dog Theatre

In an unfinished basement somewhere in St. Louis, Andi discovers her brother-in-law in her basement with a man, bound and gagged, and tied to a chair. This is the jumping off point for St. Louis playwright Stephen Peirick’s latest one-act comedy thriller, Monsters. It’s getting its world premiere after being introduced at a staged reading last year at Stray Dog’s New Works Laboratory. Though there are plans for further tweaks, the play is pretty good in its current form, showcasing Peirick’s trademark wit, unpredictable plots, and ear for comedic dialogue.

Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier) and Jeremy (Kevin O’Brien) are brothers, struggling to keep their late father’s debt-ridden diner afloat. Neither one is the sharpest knife in the drawer, so when a couple of diner regulars (members of the St. Louis mafia) offer to pay them $200,000 for a murder-for-hire scheme, they can’t bring themselves to say “no”, despite the fact that they have practically no idea whom they’re supposed to whack.

Jeremy (Kevin O'Brien), Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier)
and Andi (Sarajane Alverson).
Photo credit: John Lamb
A monkey wrench is thrown into their already half-baked plans when Davis's wife, Andi (Sarajane Alverson), a cosmetologist with something she’s keeping under wraps herself, unexpectedly stays home from work, and discovers Carl (Michael A. Wells) restrained downstairs, with Jeremy, clumsily trying to explain the situation. Andi’s sister, Piper (Eileen Engel), who’s out on parole, adds another wrinkle when she pops in to do her laundry. When Davis finally comes home, his desperate position gets worse after Andi shoots holes all up and down his strategy. That is, until she learns about the money that’s at stake.

Piper (Eileen Engel), Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier)
and Andi (Sarajane Alverson).
Photo credit: John Lamb
O’Brien does a great job as Jeremy -- a guileless kid in a grown man’s body, along with Goldmeier as Davis, who’s just this side of being the more responsible of the two brothers. Andi’s growing exasperation with her husband and brother-in-law’s ineptitude drive her to finally take things into her own hands, perfectly illustrated with Alverson’s acerbic delivery and body language. Engel’s detached sarcasm as Piper adds nicely to the mix, with Engel not letting a comic beat go by untouched. Then there’s Wells as poor Carl. He gets a great deal across, considering he doesn’t do much, except for trying desperately to inch his way across the floor when nobody’s looking towards any kind of weapon. When he does get to speak, he piles on another twist.

Gary F. Bell directs this new work with a skilled hand, keeping the audience on their toes in a play where everyone seems to be barreling head-first towards an impossibly bleak situation, with plenty of laughs to be had at this motley crew’s expense. While Monsters sits pretty solidly already, it could be a little tighter with a bit of trimming to eliminate some of the repetition in the script. Still, getting to see one of Peirick's plays is always a treat -- keep an eye out for his future work.


Jeremy (Kevin O'Brien)
and Davis (Jeremy Goldmeier).
Photo credit: John Lamb
MONSTERS

Written by Stephen Peirick
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through June 24 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performance 2pm Saturday, June 24

Cast
Andi: Sarajane Alverson 
Piper: Eileen Engel
Davis: Jeremy Goldmeier
Jeremy: Kevin O’Brien 
Carl: Michael A. Wells 

Creative
Stage Manager: Justin Been
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Assistant Stage Manager: Robert M. Kapeller
Costume Designer: Gary F. Bell
Scenic Designer: Justin Been

Thursday, June 15, 2017

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR • The Muny

When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album was released in 1970, it was a big deal. Considered blasphemous by some, Superstar depicts the last week of Jesus of Nazareth’s life through a contemporary lens. The Muny’s 99th season opener proves that this pounding rock opera still resonates, incorporating themes of political activism with an absorbing score full of recurring musical motifs.

Lloyd Webber’s got a reputation for punishing his singers, and Superstar is no exception. Luckily, the leads are strong-voiced, starting with Tony nominated Constantine Maroulis of “American Idol” fame as Judas Iscariot. The opening number, "Heaven on Their Minds”, beautifully sets the narrative that centers more around Judas than Jesus -- he’s fearful of the growing fame Jesus is garnering, and the possible wrath this might bring down upon the Jews, and Maroulis makes a blazing first impression.
Judas Iscariot (Constantine Maroulis).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
He plays all of the angsty bits well, and delivers powerful vocals, but more often than not, he incorporates a ton of back phrasing when he sings. Now that’s fine, until its over use starts to affect the "story" of the songs themselves by changing up the rhythm too much. Overall though, it’s a solid performance.

Bryce Ryness is vocally and physically agile as Jesus of Nazareth. Ryness gives a quiet strength to his portrayal -- fierce in his convictions, exhausted by the demands that are placed on him, and weighed down by the knowledge of his fate. His “Gethsemane” is potent, defiant and sad.

Jesus of Nazareth (Bryce Ryness).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
The show gives a real voice to Mary Magdalene, played tenderly by Ciara Renée. Mary’s world is rocked by Jesus, and while she’s undeniably attracted to him (on a few levels), she just wants to give him comfort, and becomes increasingly worried about his path. Renée lends beautiful vocals to "Everything's Alright” and "I Don't Know How to Love Him”.

Ben Davis is excellent as the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. His solid baritone informs his power, though he’s a man who doesn’t want any unnecessary trouble if he can avoid it. Nicholas Ward’s rumbling bass also gives weight to his character, Caiaphas -- the high priest of Jerusalem, who wants to shut all of this Jesus business down. Along with his fellow priest, a more level-headed Annas (a wonderful Mykal Kilgore) they deliver an ominous "This Jesus Must Die”. Christopher Sieber is King Herod, a role typically played flamboyantly for laughs, despite the dire circumstances surrounding his big number, "King Herod's Song”. In it, Herod taunts Jesus, daring him to produce a miracle. In this production, the song is musically couched within Tom Jones’ “It's Not Unusual”, which is kind of awesome, and Sieber plays it to the hilt.

Mary Magdalene (Ciara Renée).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
Paul Tate dePoo III’s knock-out scenic design features wire fencing, steel catwalks and stone archways, lit by Nathan W. Scheuer’s moody lights. Nice work also by costume designer Tristan Raines, who outfits the hippie disciples in gem-tones, the Romans with red armbands with the officers in military attire, and Jesus in white. Jon Rua’s choreography was especially keen, including a variety of styles, but leaning heavily towards hip-hop, executed sharply by a proficient ensemble. The orchestra, under the direction of Colin Welford, performed the beloved score superbly.

Pontius Pilate (Ben Davis) and Jesus of Nazareth (Bryce Ryness).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
If you’ve never seen Jesus Christ Superstar onstage, now’s the time. If you have seen it, this production is worth a revisit. It’s playing until Sunday.

Incidental thoughts
• The first influx of Muny kids happens during “Hosanna”.

• Keep an eye out for the Andy Warhol-styled illustrations of Christ. Very impressive in person.


JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
through June 18 | tickets: FREE - $95
Performances Monday to Sunday at 8:15pm

Caiaphas (Nicholas Ward).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
Cast
Jesus of Nazareth: Bryce Ryness
Judas Iscariot: Constantine Maroulis
King Herod: Christopher Sieber
Mary Magdalene: Ciara Renée
Pontius Pilate: Ben Davis
Caiaphas: Nicholas Ward
Annas: Mykal Kilgore

Ensemble
AnnEliza Canning-Skinner
Susie Carroll
Andrew Chappelle
Zach Erhardt
Dionne D. Figgins
Atiauna Grant
King Herod (Christopher Sieber).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
Phillip Johnson-Richardson
Sean Harrison Jones
Jose-Luis Lopez Jr.
Douglas Lyons
Gabriella Mancuso
Brianna Mercado
Fergie Philippe
Shelby Ringdahl
Akilah Sailers
Maria Cristina Slye
Daryl Tofa
Voltaire Wade-Green

Creative
Choreographer: Jon Rua
Musical Director/Conductor: Colin Welford
Scenic Designer: Paul Tate dePoo III
Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
Costume Designer: Tristan Raines
Lighting Designer: Nathan W. Scheuer
Sound Designer: John Shivers and David Patridge
Video Designer: Greg Emetaz
Wig Designer: Leah J. Loukas
Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard
Assistant Stage Manager: Willie Porter and Eric Elz
Artistic Director and Executive Producer: Mike Isaacson

Jesus of Nazareth (Bryce Ryness).
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
The Muny Orchestra
Violin: Tova Braitberg (Concertmaster), Nancy Chow, Beth Hoffman, Julie Leonhardt and Nathan Banks
Viola/Violin: Susanna Woodard (Principal) and Wendy Lea
Cello: Antonio Innaimo (Principal) and Nathan Hsu
Bass: Adam Anello (Principal) and Terry Kippenberger
Woodwinds: Mike Buerk (Principal), Elsie Parker, Robert Hughes, Nancy Summers and Nicholas Pyles
French Horn: Nancy Schick (Principal) and Steven Hanrahan
Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Photo credit: Phil Hamer
Harp: Cherilyn Trusty
Trombone: Tom Vincent (Principal) and Tyler Vahldick
Trumpet: Andy Tichenor (Principal) and Vicky Smolik
Tuba: David Unland
Percussion: Jerry Bolen (Principal)
Drums: John Brophy
Guitar: Steve Schenkel

Sunday, April 16, 2017

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET • Stray Dog Theatre

Anybody hungry?
Stray Dog Theatre invites audiences to “Attend the tale...” in their latest offering, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, meaty musical thriller, Sweeney Todd. With a 2007 film version and contemporary stage variations, it’s a welcomed opportunity to get the chance to see this classic onstage in its more “OG” version -- though that wasn’t its original form.

The story of a murderous barber was introduced in a “Penny Dreadful” -- ghastly publications that were popular in the Victorian era. The serial, originally called “The String of Pearls: A Romance,” emerged many years and adaptations later, when Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical version debuted in 1979, winning eight Tony Awards.

There’s solid casting here, starting with Jonathan Hey in the title role. His imposing, brooding Sweeney will unnerve you -- in a good way. After being sent to the clink for life on a bogus charge, Sweeney escapes after 15 years and returns to London, hoping to discover the fate of his wife and daughter.
Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers)
and Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey).
Photo credit: John Lamb
He is also determined to exact revenge on Judge Turpin, who had Sweeney sent down so he could have Sweeney’s wife for himself. Hey’s strong baritone and acting chops take you along into his descent into hell-bent vengeance, with props for his pale-faced, dark-eyed make-up design. His willing accomplice is Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a role filled by another great pick, Lavonne Byers. Lovett owns a pitiful meat-pie shop and she’s Sweeney’s biggest fan-girl. After teaming up, Sweeney’s retribution is indulged while Lovett’s pie shop business is invigorated. No spoilers... Byers lands all of her comedic beats, and handles her musical numbers well, kicking her voice up when the score gets high. Some of her expressions alone are worth the price of admission, and their "A Little Priest" is a gem.

Vocal standouts include Kay Love as the woeful and erratic Beggar Woman, Eileen Engel’s Johanna, who tackles the challenging phrasing well, along with her beau, Cole Gutmann as an open-faced Anthony. Mike Wells as Judge Turpin’s right-hand man, Beadle Bamford, is also impressive vocally -- his “Parlor Songs” number is a treat. The cast is rounded out by Tyler Cheatem’s flamboyant Adolfo Pirelli, Gerry Love as the unscrupulous Judge Turpin and Connor Johnson, who does a fantastic job as Toby -- an orphaned street kid who ends up hawking for Mrs. Lovett’s pie business.

Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers),
Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey)
Adolfo Pirelli (Tyler Cheatem) and ensemble.
Photo credit: John Lamb
The ensemble sounds layered and deep, and all of those iconic big numbers like, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and its reprises, "God, that's Good!”, and "City on Fire”, shine. Also, huge props to Kimmie Kidd and Stephanie Merritt for adding their clear soprano voices overtop of those numbers. They're kicking' it.

Being a Sondheim show, this score is no joke. Complex music and tight lyrics make his musicals challenging. Music director, Stray Dog vet Chris Petersen, keeps his eight-piece band pretty tight, but the orchestra and cast were occasionally out of pocket, but it’s a minor quibble, sure to smooth out over the course of the run.

Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey)
and Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Lavonne Byers).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Rob Lippert’s set has rotating portions that hint at the bakehouse and reveal Sweeney’s upstairs tonsorial parlor, bathed in lighting designer, Tyler Duenow’s purple and pinks. Ryan Moore’s costume design suggests a dirty, 19th century London, and all of these elements, along with Stray Dog’s aisle-roaming ensemble, come together to great effect.

Under Justin Been's perfectly paced direction, if you’ve never seen Sweeney Todd onstage, this is the time to check it out. It runs at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22. Get your tickets now, because it will sell out!


SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

Music/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through April 22 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, additional performance 8pm Wednesday, April 19

"City on Fire" Cast of Stray Dog’s Sweeney Todd
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast
Anthony Hope: Cole Gutmann
Sweeney Todd: Jonathan Hey
Beggar Woman: Kay Love
Mrs. Nellie Lovett: Lavonne Byers
Johanna Barker: Eileen Engel
Judge Turpin: Gerry Love
Beadle Bamford: Mike Wells
Tobias Ragg: Connor Johnson
Adolfo Pirelli: Tyler Cheatem
Fogg: Scott Degitz-Fries

Ensemble
Angela Bubash
Ted Drury
Laura Megan Deveney
Kimmie Kidd
Stephanie Merritt
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Benjamin Sevilla

1979 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street artwork
Creative
Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Stage Manager: Robert M. Kapeller
Scenic Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Ryan Moore

The Band
Clarinet: Kelly Austerman
Violin: Steve Frisbee
Trumpet: Bill Hershey
French Horn: Liz Kuba
Cello: Michaela Kuba
Music Director/Piano: Chris Petersen
Bass: M. Joshua Ryan
Percussion: Joe Winters

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