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St. Louis Reviews


April 2011


Next To Normal

 by Riveting Production

at The Fox Theater

Reviewed by 

Anne Quinn

Runs April 12 - 24, 2011

Believe it or not, Next To Normal, this smash hit musical on tour from Broadway, is a family show! Not in the sense we would expect based on our namby-pamby TV depictions of modern American families, however. This is a straight-forward, in-your-face production that starts right off expressing the out-of-whack behavior of this non-typical family fueled by the obvious illness of the matriarch. Both the father/husband and daughter react by disassociating from her outbursts in their ill fated attempts at normalcy.

 

Alice Ripley (Diana) stars as the bipolar mother and reprises her acclaimed performance on Broadway where she earned the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical. The rest of the cast is equally talented. As her husband, Asa Somers is a devoted and well-meaning foil whose efforts to aid Diana serve to exacerbate her illness. Her daughter Natalie, played by Emma Hunton, fearing her mother’s illness is hereditary, lashes out in typical young adult behavior. Gabe, the son, is disturbingly well-played by Curt Hansen.

 

The music composed and directed by Tom Kitt also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations. The lyricist, Brian Yorkey, also received the 2010 Pulitzer for Drama and the 2010 Tony Award for Best Score. Much of the interaction between cast members in this modern-day opera is sung, leaving a minimum of dialogue. Due to the nature of the conflicts that arise, it is sometimes difficult to understand what is happening. Perhaps a smaller venue would lend itself to better audience understanding.

 

Mark Wendland’s set is quite ingenious and used very effectively. Lighting by Kevin Adams smoothly interacts with the action of the play.

 

Next To Normal is appearing at the Fabulous Fox Theatre April 12-24. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 pm. Matinees at 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 with an additional matinee on Thursday, April 21 at 1 pm.


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December 2010


Cirque Dreams Holidaze

The Fox Theater

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

December 21-29, 2010

 

This is a light-hearted Christmas show with brightly-colored costumed ornaments coming to life on a stage that is filled with floor-to-ceiling toy soldiers and a giant Christmas tree. Some ornaments sing, some dance, some are elves, but there are plenty of white-knuckled moments of acrobats, trapeze artists and contortionist circus-type performers who do impossible things with their bodies.

 

In Everyone’s Flipping Out, four performers from Ethiopia are costumed as gingerbread cookies. While two performers are lying down, they toss two others back and forth with their feet, the tossed performers landing in various balancing poses. Another impressive act are the twins from China called Two Times Fun Ornament who playfully pull their extremely limber bodies through long narrow tubes with their heads meeting up with their feet. Among the cast of characters, there’s an Ice Queen, Ragdoll, Santa and his Helper, Flying Reindeer, Skipping Elves, Slippery Penguins and Aerial Angels to name a few. You get the idea of the frivolity. In Symphony of Bells, the elves pull five “random” (or are they plants?) folks from the audience to ring Christmas bells at varying pitches that becomes a comedy act and a concert in and of itself.

Created and directed by Neil Goldberg, Cirque Dreams Holidaze comes from Goldberg's Florida-based Cirque Product-ions, which since 1993 has been producing touring shows such as: Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy and Cirque Dreams Pandemonia. Cirque Dreams has 5 uniquely different productions touring throughout the U.S. and is not connected to Cirque du Soleil. Cirque Productions gives many talented young performers from all over the world a chance to run away and join the cirque. Over 150 very talented and skilled individuals compose, design and invent these productions with collabor-ation and their imaginations. The stage design and brightly colored sparkling costumes are a “joy to the world.”

At times there is so much happening on the stage, it’s hard to keep up with the girl spinning numerous hulu-hoops on various parts of her body or the young man rolling and spinning around inside a ring but for the most part, the pacing keeps the show exciting. It is appropriate for all ages but I think the young ones would be the best audience. Dust off your Christmas spirit and rush down to the Fabulous Fox theatre to catch this show, playing until Wednesday, December 29th.

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Cats

The Muny

July 19 - 25, 2010

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Have you ever seen a “Jellicle Cat?” That’s a word made up by T.S. Eliot in the book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Andrew Lloyd Weber composed the music to Cats and it’s become one of the most popular and longest running Broadway Shows.

Jellicle cats start off the show staged in a back alley or junkyard with a sparkling backdrop and a bright full moon. The tribe of cats are excited as they dance about the stage because this is the night the revered “Old Deuteronomy” will select the special cat to travel on to the “Heavyside Layer” (the next life—or nine lives for cats.) First we meet Jennyanydots, an overweight tabby who “sits and sits and sits all day and that’s what makes a Gumby cat.” Then we are dazzled by Rum Tum Tugger, the rock star and typical of every cat I’ve had, “I’m always on the wrong side of the door.”

With all the dancing and frivolity of various cats presenting their stories, the mood quickly changes as a hushed tension takes over. Grizabella, the glamour cat who has seen better days, makes her entrance with crooked ears and tattered coat. At first, all the cats shun her. But after her plaintive song “Memory” in the second act, she wins the cats and the audience over. Old Deuteronomy selects her for “Up, up, up past the Russell Hotel, Up, up, up to the Heavyside Layer.”

This is the third time I’ve seen Cats and what I missed in this performance is the humans acting more like cats. Other times, I’ve seen them running and scooting across the stage but perhaps they can’t scoot across the Muny stage. I would have liked more preening, more washing about the face and ears with a well-licked paw, more hissing, clawing, and attitude or should I say “cat-itude.” Opening night seemed a little rough in places. Sometimes the dancers were off. Sometimes the mics were off when they should have been on and the spotlight was frequently late upon arrival of the featured cat of the moment.

However, there were some strong performances. Old Deuteronomy (Ken Page) was a formidable presence deserving of awe and respect from the cats and the audience. His booming voice was especially moving during the summation “The Addressing of Cats.”  Also noteworthy and enjoyable, was Rum Tum Tugger (Kevin Loreque) with his swagger like Mick Jagger. But the highlight was definitely the heart felt “Memory” that Grizabella (Stephanie J. Block) pulls out from her worn-out soul at the end. She totally nailed the solo. I got chills…and it was still hot out.

Cats continues at the Muny through July 25, 2010.

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May 2010

Young Frankenstein

The Fabulous Fox Theater

Reviewed by Anne Quinn

Ends Sun May 23rd

For an evening of exhilarating fun, don’t miss the current Broadway production playing at the Fox Theater!

Once again, Mel Brooks makes us laugh and cheer with his hilarious rendition of the old horror classic Frankenstein. It’s hard to imagine anyone afraid of the ‘Jolly Green Giant’ as characterized by Rye Mullis. Yes he’s very tall and clumsy, grunts instead of speaking and, of course, he’s green. But the Monster really isn’t a scary guy, he’s just misunderstood.

Roger Bart as Dr. Frankenstein is out-standing in the role created by Gene Wilder in the Hollywood film. He can sing and dance and handle the clever dialogue created by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. The original music and lyrics are also creations of Mr. Brooks with the outstanding choreography by the inimitable Susan Stroman. Her “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is a theatrical triumph! Igor as played by Cory English is the perfect sidekick for the doctor with excellent timing, singing and dancing skills.

Amidst the plethora of beautiful, busty blondes is the talented Anne Horak as Inga, the sexy doctor’s assistant. The very odd housekeeper, Frau Blucher, is ably played by Joanna Glushak. While Beth Curry as Elizabeth certainly runs the gamut as the doctor’s fiancée and the soon-to-be Bride of Frankenstein. The singing and dancing chorus is a well blended ensemble with beautiful costuming designed by William Ivey Long.

The production is faithful to the film with the addition of singing and dancing. Roger Wagner has created fantastic sets with flashing lights and thunderous sound effects. There’s fun for everyone and this is a show that will appeal to the whole family.

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March 2010

The Fantastics

St. Louis Repertory

Reviewed by Ed Golterman

The Fantasticks pays forward pretty well -a matched-made love story in Act 1 that takes a dark turn in Act 2, but nobody dies. The Rep’s expedited production smartly tells this story in poetic dialogue, vigorous song and playful staging in not much over 2 hours including intermission. Very smart. But, not without at least a few hazards.

Thank god an OSHA inspector didn’t shut it down for sending performers up and down iron framework, leaping across platforms and down poles, to come in on cue with dialogue or lyric. The only thing missing was a trapeze.

The show is in two very good on-stage hands: The mime, Sarah Bruner, and the not-silent narrator/El Gallo played by Bryan Sutherland.

Bruner opens the show and “walks” the mini curtain with a huge smile, closes the show in the same fashion. In between, she moves set pieces and provides the background mood for the players.

Sutherland observes, shares the progression of the love story, and teaches the lessons. His interpretation is a bit toward a gentle therapist confirming the joy and pain of love.

He moved to the ‘front’ with the tongue-in-cheek Rape Ballet, brilliantly choreo-graphed and blocked by Martin Cespedes.

Matt (Corey Michael Smith) and Luisa (Stella Hearth), the young lovers, connected most of the time. Their duets were fine.

Sparks of energy and whimsy laced both acts by the fathers: Bellomy (Scott Shaefer) and Huckelbee (Dan Sharkey). They cleverly fooled us, separating Matt and Luisa in order to bring them together: Just Say No.

Adding comedy and action far beyond ‘comic relief’ are Joneal Joplin and John Woodson. The two played their parts, their roles well in the battle ensuring Matt would ‘save’ Luisa from the abductors. (Perhaps Jop could have lasso-d some of the others to stop them from running around the stage quite so much.)

Act One's mini-curtain closed on a freeze of happy dads and happy children.

Act Two opened on the same posing but during intermission major boredom had set in and everything falls apart.

Matt leaves, but comes back after the world kicks his butt. The embrace and the healing begins.

Jones and Schmitt spared us the obvious line “the grass is always greener…”

Musical Director David Horstman could have nudged tempo on a couple of ballads.

Musical theater today depends on audio amplification-how well voices are “carried true to the audience”. For the most part, vocal amplification was a strength. It had to be with the level of “movement” assigned to the performers.

Lighting by Peter Sargent complemented the set and the director’s intent.

The Rep brought forward a four-decades old show and did it well. Audience appreciation was genuine. It did not need a radio reviewer leading a standing ovation!

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Romeo and Juliet with Street Cred

The St. Louis Black Rep

The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Reviewed by David Mount

As presented on January 29, 2010

Runs through February 14, 2010

It is said (by whom, I can’t recall), there are some half-dozen universal tales and nearly all other stories repeat the same foundations in all geographic and societal and temporal conditions. The renowned Swiss psychologist and renegade student of Freud, Carl Jung and his “disciples” have demonstrated the universality of fairy tales across cultural boundaries, even where societal intermingling is archeologically impossible. However, it is critical for the storyteller, in whatever creative art or setting in which the tale is presented, to convince each receptive individual of the story’s validity, temporal context, and personal relevance. Friday night’s audience was diverse in both race and age and judging from our reactions (at the end of the performance as well as throughout), and indeed my own impressions of this memorable evening, the troupe was eminently successful in achieving those goals. 

The universality of Shakespeare’s timeless tale of “star-cross’d lovers”, written sometime between 1591 and 1595, was successfully adapted by The Black Rep to a more contemporary setting. Retaining The Bard’s eloquence, they also inject contemporary expressions with masterful enhancement. Crowd-pleasing and entertaining dance to Motown hits (kudos to Heather Beal, choreographer) anchor the timeframe to 40 years ago while jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding street fights (Andrew Keller, fight choreographer) fix the location to any American town large enough to have gang territories. I appreciated that costume designer Jennifer Krajicek opted to have Lord and Lady Montague attired in contemporary ethnic styles while their counterparts, Juliet’s parents, “chose” to be more conventional. The younger characters dressed as we know urban teens of the 1970s would: Afros, Army jackets, muscle shirts, tattered bellbottoms. All-in-all, the entire cast, crew, and directoral staff have successfully brought the audience into the production via very credible affective elements. After all, it would seem that the purpose of nearly any theatrical production, be it live or on the screen, is to make plausible to the viewer, the perspective of the players and through that experience, enable us to understand one another from a not-so-voyeuristic position. Both my guest and I were emphatically enthusiastic that The Black Rep was thoroughly successful in this endeavor.

Simple but flexible sets by Jim Burwinkel and effective, dramatic lighting (Sean Savoie) gave the audience clear impressions of streets, the Capulet’s home, as well as the catacombs of Verona. Producing director (and Lord Capulet) Ron Himes and Director Chris Anthony had either a challenge on their hands or were presented a gift when one considers the variety of experience of the cast. While there were no fewer than 5 cast members and one student intern making their debuts with The Black Rep, the balance of the cast have truly incredible resumés in professional theatre. While I have to limit my verbosity in this column, I can’t be stifled before commenting on the outstanding jobs done by Linda Kennedy, Chauncy Thomas, and Tim Norman. Ms. Kennedy was, of course, the elegant and proud Lady Montague, but in my mind, her performance as the Apothecary selling poison to Romeo was even more mindbending. Tim Norman, in the role of Tybalt, astonishingly accomplished in his debut performance! But in my mind, the most outstanding player of the night was Chauncy Thomas in the role of Mercutio. His bravado and provocations of his bro Romeo were sensational and I offer that you need to appreciate for yourself why I found myself smiling when he was centerstage, throwing karate poses. With ability in the cast represented by these three actors covering the experience spectrum, Himes and Anthony must have had a great time putting this production together!

The only short-falls of Friday night’s presentation would be that despite the intimate setting of the Grandel, I had some difficulty hearing a few lines of dialog, but these were sufficiently brief that it may have been more of a personal issue than a production or player “fail” and even slight familiarity with the play made these losses non-consequential. The second issue was that the fight scenes seemed somewhat stilted although I appreciate that even unintentional injury would be less than desirable. In a couple of places (although not the battle in which Mercutio is killed), I felt that it was not due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the players.

It is a credit to Shakespeare that he is translatable to any language, any location, any time… He resonated in 16th-century England and with the same lesson even when set in an urban US locale in the latter half of the 20th. The Black Rep resonates in the 21st century!

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[title of show]

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Reviewed by Verna Kerans

A show that really fits into the category “something different” is the newest offering at the SLRep at Webster.

First of all it is called [title of show]. How it got that name is quickly explained by Jeff (Benjamin Howes) and Hunter (Ben Nordstrom). This is a musical that was written by just beginning – it may have been Chekov who said “just sit down and write something - anything – as long as you begin.”

So this is how these two, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, music composer and writer, began to write their musical. They just started talking and writing down what they said.

After the beginning they called in two female friends Heidi (Amy Justman) and Susan (Stephanie D’Abruzzo) and took down everything they said as well and the quartet quickly (in three weeks) had a musical to enter in a contest for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Originally, the four who wrote this show were the actors performing. It won the contest and went on to be presented at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006 and an eventual Broadway run at the Lyceum Theatre in 2008.

There are several songs that I really liked. The Playbill Song – Monkeys and Playbills - was lots of fun – where did they find all those old Playbills? Die, Vampire, Die, which is a hymn to ego and self-confidence, and finally, Heidi singing “A Way Back to Then”. As she sang I wondered–did we all start at eight years of age trying to put on a show in the backyard? How it brought back memories! I would love to take a survey of all the theatre people who got hooked at this tender age.

The show fits well into the category of “what you already know about the theatre will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show”. But anyone can enjoy this peek into how it all began.

It’s different and interesting. Ben Nordstrom is a little way over the top but, for the most part, this is a well-balanced cast. David Horstman is the Musical Director /Larry and even has few lines!

The show runs until January 31, 2010. Call 314-968-4925.

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The 39 Steps

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Script adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan

From the Hitchcock film “The 39 Steps” and an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

Review by C. J. Jones

as performed on January 7, 2010

Let me just start with: The set by James Wolk was fabulous! The very modern Repertory Theatre was turned into an old St. Louis University theatre during the early ‘70s, with loose bricks and all. I felt transported back to my old college days when, while waiting to go on, we would sit around playing spades or Jim would teach us to crochet. Yes, he really did! And that is an occupation that I continue to this day – but I digress.

Let me also say that I was really excited about this production because I simply adore Alfred Hitchcock. And, upon the curtains opening, I completely forgot The Rep’s letter indicating they were doing this show in a somewhat farcical fashion, and felt transported into the world of Hitchcock with its dour drama and titillating murders by the sheer magnificence of Mr. Wolk’s set, complete with loosened bricks, the rafters and the feel of a cold draft coming through the stage door.

Within minutes, however, I was again transported back to my college days when, simply to facilitate line memorization, we would completely mess up the context of the story, playing the characters in ludicrous fashion, and giving double entendres to each line. It was much fun to do, but we, of course, never performed the show that way to an audience. This exercise just kept us fresh during long rehearsals and sometimes discovered new meaning in old, tired, over-rehearsed lines. This “messing up” is what, I felt, we were served with this so-called Alfred Hitchcock presentation. Yes, Alfred would turn over in his grave with a final “Good Night.”

In addition to the set, the costumes, lighting, props and sound were all superb as usual. We’ve grown to expect nothing less from The Rep, but I am disappointed that the directors chose this particular bastardized version of The 39 Steps. Suffice it to say, I would much rather have enjoyed the treat of a real Alfred Hitchcock drama.

I was not bored, however. There were many, many laughs, with quite a few from the belly. But I grew tired within minutes of the constant foppish slapstick of the two Men (played by Michael Keyloun and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and the over-the-top comedic acting of the characters Annabella/ Pamela/Margaret (albeit played very well for this production by Marina Squerciati). I enjoyed (and/or was least annoyed by) Paul DeBoy with his portrayal of Richard Hannay. He still seemed to maintain some of the integrity of The Gentleman Adventurer.

I know The Rep is always reaching to stretch the limits of the theatre experience, and I applaud that endeavour. I just can’t help but wish they would do less of the foppishness, which seems to appear somewhere in nearly every production, and give some of us heterosexuals a rest. Sorry if you don’t agree; just my opinion. Save it for Cabaret.

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Chicago

The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

January 1-3, 2010

Sure, we were tired from the cold and all the party festivities but still a substantial crowd made it to seeChicago on New Year’s Day. And it cheered us up.

The musical Chicago is a satire on corruption based on the 1924 trials of two murderesses with memorable music (All That Jazz) and choreography in the style of Bob Fosse. That means bowler hats, white gloves and plenty of slinking around.

The two main slinkies were a red-headed Roxie (Bianca Marroquin) and an African-American Velma (Brenda Braxton) as the murderesses competing for the best lawyer and the most publicity. The sleazy lawyer, Billy Flynn, is played by Tom Wopat (from The Dukes of Hazard in the 1980’s who has since gone on to play many other Broadway roles).

Red-headed Roxie was quite cute and coquettish in her energized version of Roxie with vampish Velma playing a smoother, more sophisticated role. Both were strong leads and gave fine performances of all the numbers.

The opening number was a bit lack-luster but the second half of the show picked up in speed and intensity especially with the pacing of the courtroom scene. The stage was dominated by the orchestra set in a large box with bleachers that the actors occasionally brought into the show. For example, Roxie interacts with the conductor and Roxie’s “jail cell” is kept in those bleachers amongst the musicians. That only left a small area in front of the orchestra box for the dance numbers.

I especially enjoyed Razzle Dazzlewith all the brightly colored triangular metallic confetti that drifted from the rafters—very sparkly! Roxie’s poor dumb husband Amos (Tom Riis Farrell) stood out in his plaintive song, Mr. Cellophane, because he feels he is invisible. And Mama Morton (Carol Woods), the prison guard and chief commander, belts out a great version of When You’re Good to Mama.

A Chorus Line

Darn! You Missed It!!

Family Musical Theater/Ivory Theater

Reviewed by Anne Quinn

November 2009

That is if you didn’t get down to the Ivory Theater to enjoy the Family Musical Theater’s latest production of  A Chorus Line. This was no “Let’s  paint the barn and put on a show” but a very well directed and performed rendition of  this timeless portrait of  life.

Not just a dancer’s dilemma but of life in general. Whether we like it or not, we are often auditioning in our daily lives, putting our best foot forward, being successful or not.

Michael Bennett’s choreography was extremely well directed by Director/ Choreographer Larry Love and Co-Choreographer Jim Kimker! Their attention to detail was outstanding. The show was so well performed, it was like watching a Broadway performance. Obviously, a lot of the praise also goes to the Assistant Director, Dan Jones and the Music Director Kevin J. Jones. The orchestra was right on pitch and performed splendidly.

Special praise has to go to Kimberly McCreight (Cassie) whose The Music and the Mirror was outstanding. Another standout was Priscilla Case whose Sheila was just great! Paul played by Terry Love did an excellent job, as did Michael Jones as Richie. It’s too bad there isn’t room to mention all the principals because this was a truly talented cast of over 30 individual actors/dancers. Nor can I forget Larry Love’s excellent performance as Zach.

I wasn’t prepared for the extreme quality demonstrated in this production. It truly rivaled professional theater performances of this musical seen here in St. Louis in the past. I will be looking forward to next year’s season of Family Musical Theater which will include The World Goes Round, Annie Get Your Gun, Company, and Little Shop of Horrors

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

March 18 – April 22, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), has been the subject of countless stage and screen adaptations since it's publication. Seven years before Freud and Breuer published their first paper on “hysteria”, the Scotsman was examining the duality of man, and writers have been producing their own “twists” on his story ever since. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's current production opts for chills more cerebral than visceral, as playwright Jeffrey Hatcher attempts to reinvigorate this well plumbed tome.

Though the story is a familiar horror staple, the original tale is actually more psychological in tone than most remember. Jekyll is portrayed as a good man, and a knowledgeable scholar and surgeon, but he's smug in his beliefs, and given to fits of outrage at the ineptitude he finds in the teachings of chief surgeon, Sir Danvers Carew. His secret desires are unleashed when he concocts a potion that releases his darker side; in the murderous form of Edward Hyde.

Anthony Marble gives a strong and sturdy performance as Henry Jekyll, but he really doesn't get to let loose until the end of the play, when Jekyll can no longer control Hyde's re-emergence. It's during these scenes that Marble gets to open up, with a less restrained approach. Anderson Matthews is very good as Jekyll's solicitor, Utterson. Matthews displays a fatherly concern in his main role, and displays the right raspy vocal touch as one of Edward Hyde's many incarnations.

Scott Schafer takes on several parts, but is especially memorable as Sir Danvers Carew. After Jekyll berates his teachings in front of a class of students, he seeks recompense, but doesn't count on getting his skull bashed in by an enraged Mr. Hyde, instead. Kyle Fabel is sympathetic and amusing as Jekyll's school chum, Lanyon. He's also quite good playing Hyde for the lion's share of the time.

Katie Fabel is attractive as Elizabeth Jelkes, a chambermaid who crosses paths with Hyde when he nearly tramples her little sister. Fabel is fine in the part, but it's a superfluous and underwritten role, added to provide a twist. Hatcher follows the standard convention that nearly every writer has in adapting this work; he adds a love interest. But, the spin here is that the girl isn't in love with Jekyll, she's in love with Hyde. Which would be fine, if it was believable, and developed properly.

Bernadette Quigley is miscast as Jekyll's servant Poole, and as another embodiment of Hyde. I have no qualms with the part being cast against gender lines, but Quigley adopts a gruff voice for both parts that's distracting at best.

Edward Stern directs with a keen eye toward keeping the action, and the actors, stylized to an almost formal degree. And, I wonder if this play wouldn't be better served by eschewing an intermission. It would certainly allow the tension to build and climax in better fashion.

Thomas Hase implements a dramatic, almost cinematic, lighting scheme that carefully focuses our attention on each detail. Robert Mark Morgan's scenic design adds a modern touch with it's bi-level construction, but it's woefully underutilized. Rusty Wandall's sound design creates an ominous mood between scenes, with low, synthesized moans adding atmosphere. Elizabeth Covey's costumes are period accurate, but I expected more than just the donning of a black cape to differentiate Jekyll from Hyde.

Hatcher's major change is to have Hyde played by four different actors, and there are times that this really pays off. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of those kind of moments to justify their inclusion. He remains remarkably faithful to Stevenson, but the lack of action (a condition also present in the book), may be too much of a hindrance to overcome.

The Rep's handsome, and occasionally gripping production, continues through April 12th, 2009.
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Sylvia

Stray Dog Theatre

Through March 28, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

The appeal of having a dog as a pet should be obvious to most. There's certainly nothing that warms the heart more than the unconditional love they offer their owners. And, the genuine affection they deliver, coupled with their keen attentiveness, makes them an ideal companion. So, it's interesting that A. R. Gurney's play, Sylvia, explores what happens when one is suddenly introduced into a marriage that is at a crossroads after twenty-five years. Stray Dog Theatre is presenting a wonderfully performed and directed production of this work as part of their workshop series.

Gregg is going through a mid-life crisis. He's lost his enthusiasm for his job, and seems to be headed toward a confrontation with his boss. His wife, Kate, is a career-minded English teacher, who's enjoying the freedom created by their recently emptied nest, and is excitedly looking forward to her next challenge. Though they don't really realize it yet, they've grown apart and lost the spark that brought them together in the first place. When Gregg brings home a stray named Sylvia one day, he finds his world, and his marriage, turned upside down. 

Alan Knoll is adept at playing the role of a man child, and Gurney's play affords him the opportunity in spades. Gregg is going through a period of rediscovery as he struggles to find some kind of meaning to it all, and Sylvia provides him with the “open mind” he so desperately needs to connect with. As his partner, Kate, Susie Wall is excellent. Unlike Gregg, Kate is an adult, ready to take on the world, and Wall injects a driven enthusiasm into her. But, she also manages to find her soft side as well.

Paris McCarthy is just terrific as Sylvia. She adopts an almost balletic grace to her movements that nicely conveys her animal instincts. And, she perfectly captures the constant emotional shifts she's experiencing as well.

Larry Dell amuses as Tom, a fellow dog enthusiast with a philosophical bent that Gregg meets in the park; Phyllis, a family friend who sympathizes with Kate's plight; and Leslie, a marital counselor who's experimenting with gender identification.

Lana Pepper does a fine job directing this production. The pace rarely lags, and the actors seem focused and assured, for the most part. Jay Hall's set design is functional, and nicely appointed. Gary Bell's costumes are appropriate, but I think a pantsuit would work better for the part of Leslie, rather than the eclectic ensemble that's utilized.

A. R. Gurney packs a lot of ideas into Sylvia, and some succeed better than others. There's also an inconsistency in the tone, and in the way that Sylvia's verbalizations are handled. Sometimes the characters are conversing as if they completely understand her, and other times they seem to be interpreting the unintelligible vocalizations of an animal. Irregardless, Sylvia is a humorous and surprisingly touching work.

Stray Dog Theatre's production of Sylvia continues through March 28, 2009 at the Tower Grove Abbey. Call 314-865-1995 for ticket information, or go online to www.straydogtheater.org
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Miracle Worker

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

February 11 – March 9, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

William Gibson's classic play, The Miracle Worker, is a compelling and intense piece. And, it's success or failure is also greatly dependent on the caliber of actors who are performing in it. Rest assured, the casting of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is exemplary, making this production a satisfying and moving experience that's well worth your time.

Though not born deaf and blind, Helen Keller contracted an illness early in life that left her that way. Treated more like a pet than a actual daughter by her family, their abuse was more in the way they rewarded her bad behavior, spoiling the child, and stunting her growth in process. The arrival of Annie Sullivan, a teacher intent on reaching Helen by teaching her language, brings the promise of change. But she faces a test of wills, both with the Keller family, for her unusual methods, and with Helen herself.

Amy Landon commands attention as Annie Sullivan. It's really as much her story that's at the heart of this play, and Landon captivates with her Irish resolve. She's well matched by the work of young Olivia Jane Prosser (the part alternates with actress Hannah Ryan) as Helen. Their scene in the dining room at breakfast, where Annie refuses to allow Helen to continue to graze upon everyone's plates, is physically and emotionally exhausting.

John Rensenhouse is strong as Captain Keller, the family matriarch. He's reluctant to go along with Annie's ideas, especially when they involve having Helen removed from the house, but he's consistently won over by her persistence. Krista Hoeppner is sympathetic as Kate, Keller's wife. She's supportive of Annie's efforts, but unwilling to give up her role as mother.

Matthew Carlson gives Keller's son, James, a sarcastic edge that masks the pain he feels from failing to gain his father's acceptance. Jerry Vogel is warm and lovable as Mr. Anagnos, the teacher who has prepared Annie for her journey to the Keller's Alabama homestead.

A terrific supporting cast includes: Donna Weinsting, Monica Parks, Jarret D. Harkless, Ashlee Marnae, and Murray as the family dog.

Susan Gregg's assured direction finds the emotional core in this riveting play. Having been familiar with this play since I read it as a child, it was interesting to see the revisions that have occurred to quicken the pace, and excise any redundancy. John Ezell's scenic design is superlative, with his movable two-story construction of the Keller home being particularly impressive. Michael Philippi's lighting heightens the drama in an effective manner. Tom Mardikes's sound bites for the thoughts racing through Annie's head are difficult to hear at times.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's production of The Miracle Worker continues through March 8, 2009 on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

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Blackbird

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Through February 8, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

I know I can always count on the Rep's studio series to provide me with something dramatic, intimate and unique. David Harrower's compelling work, Blackbird, fits that description perfectly, providing an evening of intense entertainment that consistently confounds your expectations. It's an example of the type of "challenging" theatre you're always hearing or reading about, but rarely encounter anywhere else.

When Una was 12 she was violated by a forty year old man. That man, Ray, served prison time for the offense, and underwent the same sort of treatment in prison that anyone who'd abused a child would undergo. As time passed Una went through her own cycle of hell. The shame she was made to feel was undeniably worse, since she was the victim here. So, perhaps it's a sense of closure, or a demand for reparations for damages, that causes her to seek out Ray, now named Peter, after 15 years have passed.

Carmen Goodine gives an amazing performance as Una. At first, we think she's just there to cause Ray trouble, as she unleashes her wrath, confronting him in his new life and forcing him to explain his actions to the grown up girl he essentially raped. She's bitter because he's stable now, even after being incarcerated, and she's still an emotional wreck with scars that may never fully heal. As the truth is revealed, we literally see her regress to a preteen, as she lets her hair down, kicks off her shoes and lets her feet dangle over the edge of a table. Goodine is exceptional here.

She's matched by Christopher Oden, who gives Ray a kind of world weary, and yet controlled, desperation. He's been trapped at work, where no one suspects his past, and now it's all come back in one fell swoop. You can feel his pain as it all comes crashing down around him again. Oden manages to elicit a degree of sympathy and understanding that's difficult given material that makes his character appear to be a pedophile of sorts. But, that's the beauty of this play, it makes you question whether these matters are ever as cut and dry as they seem. Ray's certainly not Humbert Humbert from Nabokov's Lolita, but he's not above reproach either. Above all, he's he guarded and protective about how much he's willing to reveal about himself, and Oden walks this fine line credibly.

Director Amy Saltz does terrific work with this material, utilizing the rectangular shape of the stage set up to keep the audience locked in and focused. At times, it's like a tennis match as we're constantly shifting from one character's line of dialog to the other character's reaction. Luke Hegel-Cantarella's scenic design and Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting expertly captures the look and feel of an office break room, complete with harsh florescent lighting and a wall of lockers. Blackbird is a show to talk about and discuss with your friends. It sparks a debate with it's themes and characters, and that's what good theatre is supposed to do.

The Repertory of St. Louis's provocative and engaging production of Blackbird continues in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton through February 8, 2009. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go online to www.repstl.com.

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Saint Joan 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

January 7 – February 1, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is given an excellent showcase in the Repertory of St. Louis's current production of Saint Joan. Shaw's script from 1923 tackles the familiar story of Joan of Arc, imbuing the tragic tale with an undeniable sense of humor along the way. Though historians will debate the accuracy of the events portrayed here, Shaw does adhere closely to the transcripts available, even if he could be accused of "humanizing" the villains of the piece. A top notch cast works the material with precision, carefully and thoughtfully savoring Shaw's verbiage.

Tarah Flanagan is well cast as Joan. Her diminutive stature and boyish haircut aside, it's her plucky enthusiasm and endearing innocence that bring the character to life. Her unwavering belief in what the voices tell her never seems contrived, or attributable to the ravings of an unstable mind. She's well matched in the presence of Tuck Milligan as her inquisitor, Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais. His outrage at Joan's unwillingness to recant her position is nicely balanced against his desire to save her body, and soul, from the ravages that will occur if she fails to comply.

A large cast, with many of the actors playing dual roles, delivers exceptional support. Bobby Steggert is amusing as Charles, the Dauphin (soon to be Charles the Victorious), giving his "boy who would be king" a petulant and cowardly countenance. Jerry Vogel is quite good as the Squire who first allows Joan to follow her destiny, and later as a promoter at her inquisition. Jason Cannon makes a strong impression as the gung-ho Captain Le Hire, and as the ghost of an English soldier who's taking a day off from Hell.

John Rensenhouse makes a compelling argument on behalf of his fellow feudal lords as Richard de Beauchamp. His attempts to sway the church in his favor are aided by the misguided efforts of Chaplain John de Stogumber, effectively played by Christopher Gerson. His revelation is at the core of the plot, and Gerson manages to make his zealot pitiable. Kevin Orton makes Jack Dubois a lovable rouge as he instructs Joan on military strategy. Matt D'Amico is adept as both the heroic, but simple minded Bertrand, and the overly pious Brother Martin.

Director Paul Mason Barnes keeps the action moving with the scenes flowing seamlessly into one another, but some of the staging leaves actors with their backs to large sections of the audience for extended periods of time. Robert Mark Morgan's scenic design features a curved Gothic arch which looms over the proceedings, reinforcing the sense of religious oppression. Peter Sargent's lighting neatly enhances the mood and set. Costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis does fine work recreating the period.

The question of whether Joan truly heard the voices of angels, or was simply listening to her own inner voice, or suffering from some sort of mental disorder, will probably never be answered. If the themes presented still don't seem to resonate with you, then consider the stories that circulated regarding President Bush's claim that God told him to go to war. How would Joan be treated today?

Modern audiences would probably prefer that the play, described as "six scenes and an epilogue", end after Joan's fiery death at the hands of her English captors, but the epilogue offers a look at how time distorts popular opinion, and it lightens the mood of the piece considerably as Joan's accusers offer their belated capitulations.

The Rep's production of Saint Joan continues through February 1, 2009 at the Loretto-Hilton. For more information go online to www.repstl.com.

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This Wonderful Life

 The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

November 26 – December 28, 2008

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

The classic film It's a Wonderful Life is brought to the stage of the Loretto-Hilton in a unique presentation, re-titled as This Wonderful Life, that finds one actor taking on all the roles. Mark Setlock's self-professed love of the movie-witnessed by his ability to recall and recite entire scenes of dialog- led him to collaborate with writer Steve Murray on an adaptation that condenses 130 minutes of screen time into ninety minutes of pure fun. It's a tremendous undertaking with the plethora of diverse characters that parade through this venerable work based on Philip Van Doren Stern's story "The Greatest Gift", but Setlock is more than up to challenge. The Repertory of St. Louis's production is a wonderful, heartwarming and hilarious production sparked by Setlock's bravura performance.

Film director Frank Capra and a team of screenwriters shaped the piece into something that's inadvertently become a holiday staple. Frequent television airings, and the appearance of cheap copies that came out on videotape and DVD during the 80's and 90's, when it became a public domain title after the copyright was allowed to lapse, have ensured that a larger amount of people have been exposed to its charms in recent years, than those who saw it when it was first released. I remember being able to view it at different points in the story by simply changing from one channel to another during one particular Christmas weekend.

Essentially the story of a selfless man named George Bailey, who never realizes his dreams to travel the world because he's too busy coming to the rescue of everyone else. But, he finds true happiness in the generosity of his large circle of family and friends. If you've never seen the movie before it really doesn't matter since the story is easy to follow, with the script including plenty of asides and commentary to better explain the motivations and situations the characters are dealing with. In the end this approach allows for a deeper and finer understanding of just how noble these folks are.

But, I've strayed from the plot, which finds George on the brink of suicide when the Bedford Falls Savings and Loan comes up short in the coffers due to Uncle Billy's forgetfulness. He's saved by an angel named Clarence who lets him see his impact on those around him by making his wish to have never been born come true. By now that device has been a cliché, but you have to remember its novelty at the time.

Setlock is a marvel, and his interpretations of each character show his affection for the source material. His George Bailey has the halting cadence and "aw shucks" demeanor of Jimmy Stewart's portrayal without being a direct imitation. His take on the evil Mr. Potter conjures up the twisted image presented by Lionel Barrymore. Thomas Mitchell, who excelled at playing drunks is also given his due with Setlock's expert rendering of Uncle Billy.

The female roles find Setlock mining the material for comic gold. Gloria Grahame's vampy Violet Bick becomes a riot of overstated allure, positively dripping with sexuality. George's wife Mary, played with doe-eyed innocence by Donna Reed, is a model of strength and shyness, yet Setlock somehow manages to imbue her with a sharp sense of humor as well.

But, it's with Bedford Falls' lone ethnic stereotypes that Setlock really hits his stride. His simple and sassy version of Annie, the Bailey's black maid, is succinct and priceless. The wildly funny gesticulations of Italian bar-owner Giuseppe Martini are an example of the politically incorrect interpretations common to 1940's Hollywood fare. Setlock explores this issue, makes a pointed comment on it, and then milks the situation for maximum laugh potential.

Martha Banta's sure-handed direction keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, but allows for the occasional moment of drama so necessary to the story. James Wolk's terrific set resembles a bijou from the period, but the panels and signage easily transform into whatever backdrop is required. A bridge railing (complete with snow gently falling from above) and a tombstone pop up out of the floor, and a desk becomes a taxi with the simple addition of a pull-out sign. All illustrate Wolk's clever utilization of changeable pieces. Matt Frey's lighting adds the proper mood to each scene and Jill BC Du Boff's sound design adds texture, with effects that approximates the various locations presented.

This Wonderful Life is perfect holiday fare, combining an uplifting story with a gentle dose of good humor to create a delightfully winning package. The Rep's production continues through December 28, 2008. Call 314-968-4925 for ticket information.

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

I'm always searching for a theatre experience that's challenging and provocative. More often than not, I have to settle for more conventional material. But, the Rep's Off-Ramp production of Martin McDonagh's brilliant work, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, satisfies completely with a shocking mix of gore and humor one can only refer to as a "splat-stick" comedy.

Padriac is a terrorist in Ireland by trade, a member of a splinter group of the IRA (he was too extreme for them-so they rejected his application) who finds delight in the torture of petty criminals and the bombing of chips shops. He's left his cherished cat, Wee Thomas, in the care of his father. But, one day a local lad, Davey, finds the damaged remains of the battered feline lying in the roadway. Padriac returns home to wreak havoc on those responsible for this tragedy, but runs into another splinter group bent on his demise. To reveal any more of the plot would spoil the dark charms of it's many twists and turns.

David Whalen amazes as Padriac, veering wildly between madness and sentimentality as the story dictates. It's an intense performance that builds over the course of the action. Matt Decaro impresses as his oafish father Donny, who tries to place the blame on Davey, and who also attempts to cover up the truth by coating another cat in black shoe polish in order to fool Padriac. Dan McCabe is a riot as Davey, a long haired lad who runs afoul of Padriac. Keira Keeley is a marvel as his sister, Mairead. She idolizes Padriac, toting around a pellet gun and firing with deadly accuracy when called upon to do so. Keeley invests herself fully in the role, and it's a captivating performance.

Christopher McHale, Sean Meehan and Keith D. Gallagher provide additional comedy relief and conflict as members of another splinter group, and the actual perpetrators of Wee Thomas' murder. Their bickering is priceless, with their logical dissertations in complete contrast to their thuggish behavior. It's a common trait among the characters in this play, and it's part of what makes it so engaging, despite it's violent and disturbing action.

Stuart Carden's direction is stellar. The action and the acting are intense and compelling throughout. Carden is aided by a terrific open-air set design by Gianni Downs, that depicts the ramshackle abode of Padriac's ancestry amidst a rocky Irish coastline. Jim French's lighting adds drama and Pei-Chi Su's costumes are a perfect fit. Steve Tolin's effects work is simply outstanding, with copious amounts of blood and body parts crafted skillfully and effectively.

To focus solely on the more violent aspects of McDonagh's play is to do it a disservice. The laughs and blood flow freely in this stunning and engaging production.

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Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

Stephen Sondheim's dark and horrific take on the tale of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, Sweeney Todd, is given a highly entertaining present-ation in a touring production that touched down at the Fox Theatre this past week (November 14-16, 2008). This version follows the template of the 2005 revival by eschewing the pit orchestra and elaborate set pieces (the infamous tilting barber chair which would deposit victims beneath the shop for butchering), for a more stark and intimate approach, that finds the actors playing the music themselves. It's a thrilling adaptation that trades spectacle for intensity, oozing rather than gushing the copious amounts of blood prevalent in previous stagings.

Banished by a trumped out charge to Australia, barber Benjamin Barker returns to his native soil to seek revenge on those who wronged him and his family under the guise of Sweeney Todd. He begins his career anew in a shop above the home of the worst meat pies in London. Mrs. Lovett, has her own suspicions about Todd, but finds a use for his murderous leftovers that leave both satisfied. He cuts a bloody swath through those who wronged him while searching for the daughter he left behind, who wound up a ward of the judge who condemned him.

Merritt David Janes is powerful and brooding as Todd. He plays Todd with a malevolent passion that commands your attention, from his opening appearance rising from a coffin during “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, to his eventual comeuppance at the hands of an unexpected assailant. He has a strong voice, and contributes nice work on muted trumpet and finger picking acoustic guitar as well. Carrie Cimma is impressive as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime. Her brash countenance livens up the proceedings considerably, providing welcome comic relief in an otherwise grim saga. Her take on “The Worst Pies in London” is a self-deprecating scream. She's also playful on occasion as witnessed during “By the Sea” as she contemplates an idyllic, albeit still slightly twisted, life as Todd's wife. Her bits on euphonium and percussion also act as amusing highlights.

Duke Anderson is very good as Anthony, a sailor who rescues Todd and returns him to England. He falls in love with Todd's daughter, delivering the lovely melodic tune, “Johanna”, as he professes his love. His paramour, and fellow cellist, Wendy Muir does excellent work in the role, and offers up a solid soprano voice as well. Patty Lohr is properly bedraggled as a beggar woman with a secret, and also performs on clarinet.

Strong support is also given by a group of exceptionally talented actors/ musicians, including: Bob Bohon (clarinet, keyboard) as Beadle; Matt Cusack (bass) as Jonas Fogg; Chris Marchant (violin, clarinet, flute and keyboard) as Tobias; David Alan Marshall (trumpet, percussion) as the insidious Judge Turpin, who has eyes for his own ward; and Ruthie Ann Miles (accordion, flute, keyboard) as rival barber, and first victim, Pirelli.

Adam John Hunter faithfully recreates John Doyle's original staging for the 2005 re-imaging. It's a masterpiece of choreography and blocking that keeps the actors moving and performing with unbelievable grace and ease, despite their multi-tasking. David Fiorello's musical direction captures the dissonance and harmony that are fighting for dominance in Sondheim's brilliant score. These arrangements really crackle with an intensity missing from the full-blown version. Paul Miller's moody lighting really works well with John Doyle's stark design. Shannon Slaton's sound gives the play a sonic depth, with jarring effects that jolt the audience out of their seats.


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The Color Purple

The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

A wonderfully talented touring company landed at the Fabulous Fox Theatre (October 21 – November 2, 2008) for a run of the musical version of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple. While my expectations were admittedly low (I had a hard time slogging through the movie), I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this tale. Outstanding performances and clever, catchy music drives this story of Celie and her incredible journey through life.

Sisters Celie and Nettie are separated when the latter is sent to become wife and mother to a hard nosed farmer and his brood. Celie had already given birth to two children from her stepfather, but they'd been taken away from her. Nettie ends up in Africa as missionary, but Celie isn't allowed to see the letters she has sent. Celie's husband, who she only knows as "Mister", settled for her when it was made clear her sister was considered too good for him. But, he pines for Shug Avery, a glamorous creature who's broken more than a few hearts along the way. The twist here is that a love triangle is formed between the three of them, as Celie and Shug share an intimate encounter that changes them both. Events transpire over the course of time, with Celie eventually finding happiness, even though there are many heartaches along the way.

Jeannette Bayardelle is simply amazing as Celie, portraying her across several decades with ease. Her vocals are strong as well, captivating the audience with songs like "Somebody Gonna Love You", "What About Love" and "I'm Here". Rufus Bonds, Jr. is very good as Mister, and though he's hard to take at first, even his character changes over time. His signature song, "Big Dog" is a great tune with clever rhythmic hook. Angela Robinson has the necessary sex appeal to carry the part of Shug, and she also has the voice to carry numbers like the delicate tune "Too Beautiful for Words", and the funky song "Push Da Button".

Standouts in support include: scene stealing Felicia Fields as the daunting Sofia, who delivers a show stopping take on "Hell No", her answer to anything she takes offense to; LaToya London as Nettie; Quentin Earl Darrington as Celie and Nettie's hard hearted stepfather; and the Greek chorus of church ladies played by Kimberly Harris, Virginia Woodruff and Lynette Dupree, who offer their amusing commentary in musical form.

Marsha Norman's script neatly condenses the action in the novel and tones down the violence. The terrific music and lyrics of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray runs the gamut from gospel to blues and even swing, snuggly fitting each mood presented.

Gary Griffin's direction keeps the action flowing briskly from scene to scene, but allows each emotional climax time to blossom fully. Donald Byrd's choreography is splendid, with the African sequence at the beginning of act two being a highlight. Sheilah Walker's musical direction manages to rein in the vocals for the most part, but this is a soulful show, so there is a bit of crowd-pleasing showboating here and there. John Beatty's scenic design brings the era to life with backdrops that set the mood and catch the eye. Paul Tazewell's costumes are authentic and properly understated when necessary. 

The Color Purple provides the audience with an interesting and compelling experience as we view life through Celie's eyes. It's an emotional and, ultimately, uplifting ride.

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Killing Women

HotCity Theatre

September 19-Oct. 4, 2008

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

The play Killing Women is not about mercenaries killing poor, defenseless women. It’s a dark comedy about women themselves being the killers. In this case, they are professional assassins. Well, really one of them is a wife and mother named Gwen who blows her husband away when she catches him cheating on her. It turns out she’s a sharp-shooter, a dead-shot so to speak.

Then there’s Abby who is the toughest and most likely to succeed in a high-level assassin job. Trouble is she finds out the next in line for a promotion is …you guessed it… a male. The man in charge, Ramone, is a scoundrel who is not sympathetic to women’s equality and not a very nice person.

So Abby takes it on herself to "train" a couple of other women in the fine art of murder to convince her male boss that women can do this job as well as men. Her first student is "Lucy" who really enjoys having a relationship with her assignment before she "offs" him. She also doesn’t like guns so she resorts to injections in the neck while she distracts him with a passionate kiss.

Abby then tries to train housewife Gwen, who doesn’t seem to have any problem with the killing part—it’s the disposal of the body she doesn’t like. So Abby is left to finish the job as she drags the body across the stage while her "boyfriend", another assassin doesn’t help her.

All in all, the Killing Women stand together at the end and all refuse to kill each other even at the insistence of the "boss man" so no women were killed in the making of this story. They only kill men, their husbands, boyfriends or bosses.

The ending was implausible. Tough Abby becomes the babysitter looking after Gwen’s daughter with her love interest while Gwen herself, the sharp shooter, is promoted to the new boss. Lucy continues to seduce before she kills.

The best scene was the three women learning to do injection murders with Gwen proving she can practice injections in both her arms since she is ambidextrous while tough girl Abby passes out in the chair due to fear of needles.

The actors were all reasonably good, the set creatively designed with modular furniture (basically squares) that was rearranged for scene changes. Also, a great new location just down from the Fox in the old Woolworth’s building which is now Kranzberg Arts Center at 501 N. Grand. Check it out. 

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Fiddler on the Roof

Muny Opera

August 2008

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

"A Fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?" How about opening night for this production at the Muny Opera on a sweltering hot St. Louis August night—probably the hottest night so far? Crazy! How do the performers do all those dances with heavy clothes and coats on? I’ve heard the Muny stage is air-conditioned. Is that possible? Perhaps the performers might wear ice packs under their clothes.

What ever they do, I didn’t see anyone keel over from heat exhaustion. They put on a fine performance in spite of the heat. It was a traditional "Fiddler" about tradition and how life changes anyway, no matter how hard you try to control it. Tevye, the father of five daughters, learns this each time one of his daughters decides to choose their own mate (potentially putting the matchmaker out of business.) The musical’s title is a metaphor for survival in a life of uncertainly and imbalance. Tevye says "You might say each one of us is a "Fiddler on the Roof." "The Fiddler" has an impressive history of winning nine Tony awards for best musical.

This performance was great, well danced, well sung and well acted. I especially enjoyed Scene 7, "The Dream" in which the butcher’s previous wife who is deceased returns in the form of a ghost in long flowing skirts on stilts (in this heat!) to threaten Tevye not to let his oldest daughter marry the butcher—a scene that Tevye cleverly makes up so his wife, Golde will accept the daughter marrying the poor tailor instead. (They gave each other a pledge. Unthinkable! Unheard of!)

Only a couple of snags; the daughters couldn’t get the house to open up in the first scene but it finally did and sometimes the mics weren’t on at the right time. These are issues of opening night that I’m sure were ironed out later in more pleasant weather. In the grand tradition of the Muny Opera in the sometimes oppressive heat of St. Louis, this was truly a pleasant note to end on. I applaud and enjoyed the final show of the Muny for the summer.

Next summer will be here before you know it. We can look forward to a new season at the Muny Opera. 

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Mamma Mia!

The Fabulous Fox Theatre

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

"Jukebox musicals" are proliferating at an alarming rate, with any number of rumored productions being discussed. We've already seen Elvis (Elvis, The Musical), The Beatles (Beatlemania!), The Beach Boys (Good Vibrations) and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) immortalized on stage with varying degrees of success. But, my personal favorite continues to be that frothy concoction that utilizes the undeniably catchy music of Swedish 70's supergroup ABBA, Mamma Mia!. Arriving with it's film premiere just around the corner (July 2008), a pretty solid touring company landed at the Fox for a week's run (June 3rd - 8th, 2008)

Catherine Johnson's plot is wafer thin, but filled with good humor. It concerns Sophie Sheridan's desire to have her father attend her upcoming nuptials in Greece. The problem is that Donna, her mother, had a fling with three different men some 20 years ago, and doesn't know which of them is the culprit. So, Sophie invites them all, with the hope that the truth will be revealed, and she'll be given away properly on her wedding day. The complication here is that Sophie gleans this bit of knowledge from her mother's diary, and doesn't bother to let her know that her former lovers are going to show up at her doorstep at any moment.

Rose Sezniak makes a lovely and appealing Sophie. She has a clear and beautiful voice that fits the material like a glove. Her opening number during the prologue, "I Have A Dream" sets a sweet and inviting tone for the evening. She's aided in her deceit by her friends Ali and Lisa, winningly played by Rebecca Covington and Nicole Laurenzi. Their run through "Honey, Honey" as Sophie quotes from the purloined diary is especially amusing. Geoffrey Hemingway is a nice match as her fiancée Sky, and shines vocally when he invites Sophie to "Lay All Your Love On Me".

Susie McMonagle is Donna, the long-suffering single mother with a chip on her shoulder, who's about to have her world turned upside down. Donna runs a floundering, but afloat taverna on a Greek island, and has tried to forget her past, but it's all come back in one fell swoop. McMonagle is certainly attractive, but her voice is just a tad weak in spots, though this was covered nicely by conductor Susan Draus and the sound crew. She does deliver a particularly strong versions of "The Winner Takes It All" during a bitter encounter with her former flame, Sam.

Kittra Wynn Coomer and Michelle Elizabeth Dawson are a riot as Donna's friends and former bandmates, Rosie and Tanya. Dawson contributes nicely with "Chiquitita", as she implores her friend to open up about her life and problems. Coomer puts a sexy charge into "Does Your Mother Know", as she rebuffs the advances of the much younger barkeep, Pepper. Their group performances on "Super Trooper" and "Dancing Queen" are highlights, complete with resplendently tacky spandex costumes.

As potential father number one, Martin Kildare fares well as Aussie adventurer and writer, Bill Austin. His reaction to Tanya's advances as she asks him to "Take A Chance On Me" are priceless. Michael Aaron Lindner is very good as father number two, the former "Head Banging" Harry Bright. Lindner's infectious enthusiasm brightens an already cheery show considerably. His work on "Our Last Summer" with McMonagle drew laughs with it's hippie and reefer references. And, his duet with Sezniak on "Thank You For the Music" was actually touching. Only father number three, John Hemphill comes up short as Sam Carmichael, the most likely suspect, and the only one Donna ever truly loved. But, Hemphill takes the part much too seriously. This isn't heavy drama after all, and a lighter approach would be much more appropriate for the material.

Additional support and comic relief is provided by Adam Michael Kaokept as Pepper and Anthony Cefala as Eddie, a pair of horny taverna employees.

The show probably peaks right before intermission, with a bachelorette party that finds all three men volunteering to walk Sophie down the aisle propelled by the strains of "Gimme!Gimme!Gimme!(A Man After Midnight) and "Voulez-Vous". But, it's a fun ride to the finish, and nothing turns out the way you expect it to. And, you'll definitely want to stay for the mini-concert finale which features rousing renditions of "Mamma Mia!", "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo".

Phyllida Lloyd's direction (she's helming the big screen adaptation as well) is stellar with a pace that rarely lags and seamless transitions between scenes. The tempo is aided by the clever two-piece design of the taverna which can be rotated and lit in any number of ways to suggest a scene's locale. Anthony Van Laast's imaginative choreography adds to the fun, with the emphasis on humor, such as a dance number performed in swim fans. Martin Koch's musical arrangements give the songs a huge sound that makes the original recordings seem thin in comparison. And there's just no way you can get that opening riff from the title track out of your head (no matter how hard you try). Howard Harrison's lighting scheme shifts effortlessly between scenes and moods.

It's a good bet ABBA won't be touring anytime soon, especially when you consider their acrimonious breakup after the dissolution of their marriages. But, this production is evidence that you can still get your fill of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus's wonderful melodies, in an marvelous and uplifting package guaranteed to leave you humming as you exit the theatre.

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Pippin

Kirkwood Theatre Guild

May 2-10, 2008

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Pippin is a musical about a young prince, the son of King Charlemagne who is searching for meaning in life as he sets out to explore the world.

Rivers belong where ramble

Eagles belong where they can fly

I’ve got to be where my spirit can fun free

Got to find my corner of the sky

Kirkwood Community Theatre produced this large event with a seeming cast of thousands, (okay maybe it was only twenty but on a small stage it looks like thousands). There were many songs, dancing, and much frivolity. It took two actors to fill the shoes of Ben Vereen, the role that made him famous, as "The leading players." The player’s role could be described as a muse or more like a personal coach. "Yeah, Pippin, You’re on the right track."

Overall, it was a big undertaking in which they overplayed the gay card a little. I was afraid that Pippin’s half brother Lewis (as well as one of the players) was going to throw his back out with all that sashaying.

I was pleased to hear Catherine, Pippins’ love interest, had a delightful singing voice.

Pippin was charming in a bewildered lost puppy kind of way. He could have used a little more energy and a stronger singing voice. King Charlemagne had a good strong voice and was believable as a king. I thought the best numbers were "War is a Science" and "No Time at all." Good delivery on those two productions carried more punch. Also good job on the stage design and lighting.

Still, for a large scale production with lots of music and dance during the reign of King Charlemagne, it’s a valiant undertaking. I’m amazed at how actors can keep performing night after night simply for the gratification of acting and the great appreciation of a mostly gray-haired audience.

In the end, Pippin finds his corner of the sky with his true love Catherine and her son.

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Avenue Q

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

February 12-24, 2008

Although it was a cold, blustery February night, I was surprised to see a good crowd at the Fox theatre where Avenue Q is playing February 12-24. Avenue Q is sort of an adult version of the children’s show “Sesame Street.” It features actors carrying puppets who interact with each other although not everyone has a puppet. Some actors are puppetless. At first, I found the puppets distracting but the actors are making the same gesture as the puppets so soon they become one unit and blend together.

The story starts off with various characters from the neighborhood singing and dancing about how their lives suck. The plot centers around several main characters who are looking for love such as a young woman and a new male neighbor, two male roommates who haven’t come out of the closet as gay men yet, and a mixed race couple who are struggling to find jobs and make ends meet. Actually all the characters are looking for their “purpose.” This is featured by large video screen dropping from the ceiling and showing short animations of purpose related topics.

There are plenty of songs in this musical such as “The Internet Is for Porn,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and “I’m Not Wearing Any Underwear Today.” You get the general idea. I especially enjoyed the “Bad Idea Bear” puppets who would suggest in the sweetest possible way the worst possible choice such as buying and drinking a case of beer when you have no money or job or sleeping with someone on the first date, etc.

There isn’t much dance in Avenue Q but there are puppets that are having graphic sex (only from the waist up.) This is not a show for prudes but if you just want some rowdy light-hearted fun, it’s an enjoyable experience. The stage was nicely done with windows lighting up during certain sequences and the acting, singing and lighting were all very professional.

In the end, the characters all discover who they truly are, find love and most find their “purpose” through helping or giving to others. As a reminder to not take life too seriously, the message of story is summed up by the closing song “Everything in Life Is Only for Now.”

December 2009

The Santaland Diaries
The Echo Theater Company, Crestwood, MO

Reviewed by Tamlin

December 2009

Talk about an ELF WITH ATTITUDE! If you haven’t seen The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, try not to miss this one. During this season of melancholy productions and nostalgic music, Sedaris’ recollection of his time spent working as a Macy’s elf is just what is needed to refresh our sense of humor and give us balance.

The Echo Theater Company in Crestwood presented a significant set for this one-man show. The exclusively red and white set made a statement to let you know this was Macy’s. The huge, lovingly grimacing Santa Claus face backdrop told you which department you were visiting.

Eric Little (the Elf, and co-founder of Echo) performed an on stage costume change that was a masterpiece of acting. The self-conscious, embarrassed and truly disgusted emotions he portrayed as he donned his elf costume set the tone for what he was to experience in his new position as Santa’s elf.

All the beautifully wrapped boxes on stage (Terry Meddows – “Master Gift Wrapper”) were opened one by one as the story evolved. This put the audience in a position of being not just an observer but a partaker of the holiday tradition of gifts, both good and bad.

The best news of the evening was announced before the show started. This enthusiastic group of thespians will be receiving extra grant money in the future. With the background and talent of those connected with Echo we predict they will go to the top like the bubbles in our New Year’s champagne.

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QUILTERS
Avalon Theatre Company
Missouri History Museum

Reviewed by Verna Kerans

Congratulations to Avalon for a great production of Quilters written by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek which is now playing at The History Museum. Over the years I have watched Larry Mabrey and Erin Kelley present their shows at a little church on Watson and they always did a fine job with what was available to them. Last year they presented a world premiere of Little Bosnia with Susie Wall that was excellent. Then they got a space of their own at Crestwood Court. Now they have really grown with a full size production of Quilters. Well done! 

Quilters  was first presented in Denver. The show won awards and a dear friend of mine, Allen Lee Hughes, did the lighting. The show became an immediate hit around the circuit. In 1995, I played the mother, Sarah Bonham, with a cast of talented women at St. Mark's Players in Washington D.C.

From my own experience I can say – this is a very difficult show to do. At first glance it seems easy but once you get into it you realize that it is a series of monologues and group scenes but there really is no story line except for the fact that these women like to quilt and put all their experiences into the quilts they make.

Each story is represented by a square that is a part of a giant  quilt: Wedding Ring, Schoolhouse, Log Cabin and Windmill are just a few of the squares that ultimately come together to form an enormous quilt. The quilt is quite impressive. As I said: a lot of work goes into the making of this play.

Early pioneer life without the usual barrage of TV and magazines was a long hard struggle. The quilting “Bee” was one of the few times a woman had in her life to “get away from it all”. She could exchange ideas, lean on people for support and generally let down her hair with her friends. Life on the prairie was hard and these courageous women were part of it. Crossing the plains, fighting the cold, prairie fires, experiencing death and the excruciating burden of bearing one child after another, form some of the stories these seven women have to tell. Sarah, (Peggy Billo) has six daughters and leaves them a legacy and a letter of her last wishes. Molly Denninghoff, Erin Kelley, Kay Love, Judi Mann, Jacqueline Thompson and Katy Tibbets play her daughters and various other roles as well.

Under the direction of Millie Garvey the show moves right along. Musical direction is by Diane Ceccarini with three talented members of the orchestra. These women sewed  their troubles into their quilts and put all their heart into each stitch. Handing the skills to the younger generation was sometimes a formidable task but finally everyone was involved – even the men.  This show deals with a lot of warm experiences along with the difficult.

This is a show worth catching as it only plays thru  April 26  and while  you are at the Museum be sure to see the quilts on display. Call for tickets at 314-746-4599.

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Songs for a New World
Stray Dog Theatre

Through February 28, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

Not exactly a revue or a cabaret, Songs for a New World collects the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown to create a sort of "concept" musical. Brown himself says that the common thread among this group of intriguing melodies is that they all find their protagonists at a particular moment in their lives where they have to take a stand or make a choice. Stray Dog Theatre’s production is engaging and generally well performed, but I’m not sure the show really works, although it's an enjoyable time, nonetheless.

JT Ricroft, Deborah Sharn, Leslie Sikes, and Joel Snider are the singers, who perform the material, and each invests the songs with the proper emotion and feeling that the lyrics suggest. The melodies and subject matter covers a broad range of topics, some historical in nature, including a song about Betsy Ross called "The Flagmaker, 1775". That approach brings a certain amount depth to the concept, but it also points out the disparity between the various subjects presented.

The cast begins with the strongest melody of the night, "The New World", a theme which pops up a number of times, often reworked and added to the ending of one of the other songs. It’s a fine showcase for the group as a whole, and it’s followed by a number of solo moments that give each performer a chance to shine. Deborah Sharn does terrific work on "Just One Step" as she teeters on a building ledge lamenting her cheating husband’s ways. She’s also good on "Stars and the Moon", which finds her settling for money over love, and regretting her choice. She also does fine work on "Surabaya-Santa", an amusing number told from the point of view of an angry Mrs. Claus. Leslie Sikes delivers some of the more plaintive material, with "I’m Not Afraid of Anything" and "Christmas Lullaby", which celebrates motherhood being especially moving. But, sometimes her vocals seemed to overpower the sound system, producing some unwanted distortion. JT Ricroft’s soulful vocals grace "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship", the gospel inflected song, "The Steam Train", and "King of the World". Ricroft has a nice quality, and his range is stretched to the limit by some of these numbers. Joel Snider is less effective when singing alone than he is with the group, and this is partially due to his husky vocals, which lack clarity. It’s often just too difficult to discern the lyrics he’s offering up, and that’s a real shame. However, his duet with Leslie on "The World Was Dancing" does come off well.

Director Laura Robbins attempts to give each song its own mood, and she’s aided by some nice lighting effects that include the use of projected images from the paintings of Edward Hopper. The simple set, resembling a brownstone of sorts, but here starkly painted white, allows for multiple levels to prevent a static presentation. Justin Smolik’s work on piano, and as musical director, is sharp and focused. These songs are challenging with their unique harmonies and circuitous melodies, and he manages to get the best from a talented ensemble.

Songs for a New World is definitely a mixed bag, but it’s certainly an interesting idea to try and cobble together a show from such a wide range of selections from composer Jason Robert Brown. Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Songs for a New World continues through February 28, 2009 at the Tower Grove Abbey.

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Spring Awakening
The Fabulous Fox Theatre

February 10 – 22, 2009

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

My wife said that throughout the performance of Spring Awakening she'd look over and see me smiling from ear to ear. I've been listening to the soundtrack to this show for a couple of years now. And, I've been completely floored by how listenable each and every song is. I'd become a fan of Duncan Sheik, the composer, because of his pop songs like “Barely Breathing”, but I was completely taken by this particular music. Needless to say, I was bound and determined to see this show when it came to the Fox. Despite my higher than high expectations, this production lives up to all the hype and hoopla. It's a stunner of a show, squarely aimed at the 30-something and younger crowd, but crossing over all boundaries.

Frank Wedekind's controversial play, written in 1891, is given a modern voice by Stephen Sater. The original plot elements are still in place, but the themes of adolescent angst centering specifically around their sexual awakening, are given a bed of supremely catchy and engaging music to lie upon.

Blake Bashoff makes a vivid impression as Moritz, a misfit destined for failure, and a sadly tragic finish. And, he rocks out on “The Bitch of Living” and “And Then There Were None”. Kyle Riabko is also strong as his friend, Melchior. A descriptive essay on sex (complete with illustrations) leads to his expulsion, before more darkness descends. And it's at that point that he delivers the best song of the night, “Totally F*****”; an explosive number that drew a huge response from the audience. Christy Altomare is delicate, but full of surprises as Wendla, who discovers her sexuality in a hay loft with Melchior. “The Word of Your Body” finds her duetting with Riabko in a sensual exchange of lyrical innuendo. “Mama Who Bore Me” pours forth from her as she struggles to get her repressed mother to tell her the facts of life. Steffi D shows off her powerful vocals as Ilse, a girl who's fallen from grace, resorting to nude modeling for horny old artists. Her take on “Blue Wind” made me wish she'd been given more material to sing. Most impressive are the two actors who play all the adult roles: Angela Reed and Henry Stram. They're counted on to assume a variety of parts that are distinct contrasts in styles, and do so with considerable aplomb.

Michael Mayer's direction is superb, with his cast displaying an intensity rarely witnessed. Christine Jones's scenic design is inventive, with audience members seated on stage along with the band. Innovations abound, but Kevin Adam's lighting is especially effective, with bulbs on wires hanging from the ceiling, and rings of neon-like tubing coloring the space for an instant mood. Bill T. Jones's choreography adds more drama with it's playful mix of foot stomping and expressionistic vogue moves.

Jared Stein's work as conductor and pianist is exceptional, and he has some really fine musicians laying down the groove. There are no clinkers in this score, and the story is compelling and captivating.

Spring Awakening is a wonderful show with a terrific cast, and it demands your attendance. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's outstanding presentation of Spring Awakening continues through February 22, 2009 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.

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Medal of Honor Rag
St. Louis Actor's Studio
January 30 – February 15, 2009
Reviewed by Chris Gibson

At a time in our history when we're engaged in a war that's not likely to end any time soon, despite a change in presidency and philosophy, Medal of Honor Rag reminds us all of the sacrifices made by those who fight for their country. Though it's set in 1971, it's relevance to today's audience is a moot point. The only shortcoming here is a certain degree of familiarity that permeates the work, and it's probably a direct result of the amount of material that's tread upon similar water over the past 40 years. However, I still consider this essential viewing because we need to remember our past so we can stop repeating the same costly mistakes.

A doctor examines a soldier name Dale Jackson (he prefers to be called DJ) who's been traumatized by his combat experience, and been laid up at the Valley Forge Army Hospital after failing to assimilate back into society since being sent home. The twist here is that the soldier is the recipient of the Medal of Honor; a result of heroic efforts that found him the last man standing among his unit when a battle broke out.

The doctor recognizes his behavior as being symptomatic of a condition known as "survivor's grief", something he's experienced as well. But, his efforts to help DJ cure himself are undermined by his desire to see him send his medal back in an act of protest. Of course, that's the irony inherent in the medal itself. It's a double-edged sword that can bring wealth and fame, while remaining a reward, or sorts, for killing vast numbers of the enemy.

Bryan Keith gives a powerful and ingratiating performance as DJ. Shuffling around in his bathrobe and standard hospital issue pajamas, he embodies the role fully, alternating between closed-mouth, mind-numbing frustration, and a rage tempered by his genial nature. For this play to even have a chance at connecting with it's audience, there has to be a strong actor in this part, and Keith delivers the goods.

Less successful, but solid overall, Tyler Vickers plays the doctor intent on getting through to DJ. Though he's supposed to be the older of the two characters, he doesn't project that difference in maturity or guile. Since the angle is brought up by DJ, that this doctor may just be using him to gain his own measure of fame, I was looking for something more conspiratorial rather than overly sympathetic in Vicker's portrayal. But, maybe that's just my own paranoid cynicism creeping in. Keith Borzillo amuses as an MP, bringing some humor to a mostly somber and dramatic piece.

David Wassilak's direction is assured and engaging. Despite the cramped confines, the action is compelling and involving. Patrick Huber's fluorescent lighting and industrial green color scheme evoke the proper sterile atmosphere. Tom Cole's one act play, Medal of Honor Rag, still resonates, but it may have lost some of it's bite because we've simply seen so many of these types of stories dramatized in various mediums.

And, I probably would've utilized a newer song like Springsteen's "Last to Die" to close, rather than opting for the time worn cliché of Hendrix ripping through "The Star Spangled Banner". I mean, you want to at least make some kind of connection to the present. The St. Louis Actor's Studio's production of Medal of Honor Rag continues through February 15, 2009 at the Gaslight Theatre. For more information call 314-458-2978 or go online to www.stlas.org.

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A Fire As Bright As Heaven
St. Louis Actors' Studio
and
the 2008 NYC Fringe Festival
Reviewed by Joan Leyden

In this one-man play, A Fire As Bright As Heaven, actor/author Tim Collins has created a piece of theatre that is extraordinary in its equal appeal to heart and mind. Playing 40 distinctly drawn and beautifully executed characters in five different settings, Collins draws successfully upon his own experiences to dramatize the pervasive fear and militarism that characterize our culture.

As the play opens, Collins, arriving in London as a new drama student on the eve of that fateful September 11th, encounters a variety of conflicting attitudes in his first class, including those of the stricken Americans and a dispassionate expatriate counselor. It is truly artful, even Shavian, how Collins presents the multiple sides to the many issues he raises throughout the piece. We next meet him in 2003 as a salesperson in an educational toy store in a small New England town confronting the implicit militarism of his disgruntled customer who had come to purchase a “G.I. Joe.” 2005 finds him in Boston conducting disquieting interviews on the street about terrorism and our occupation of Iraq.

By the fourth “act” in 2007 our young man is at the NRA national convention in St. Louis, his examination of which is sobering indeed, revealing the unexamined fears and resultant angers that continue to characterize much of our political decisions. In the final , highly affecting segment Collins, as a door-to-door canvasser, depicts a meeting with an overwrought young man who has almost given up on the possibility of making effective choices in our present political climate of false or withheld information.

A Fire As Bright As Heaven is a highly intelligent, sometimes quite funny, and ultimately challenging meditation on the state of the union. There is a quality of caring that characterizes this material, and an underlying sense of sadness that this is where we Americans find ourselves in 2008. It is a wonderful opportunity to become familiar with a young man who has very special gifts as both actor and author. A Fire As Bright As Heaven has been nominated as an outstanding new play in the Kevin Kline Award competion 2009, and is being published in PLAYS AND PLAYWRIGHTS 2009 in February.

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Die! Mommie! Die!
Stray Dog Theatre

December 4 – 20, 2008

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

I was really looking for something to bring me a little holiday cheer this Christmas season, and I found the perfect remedy while taking in Stray Dog Theatre's wacky and compelling production of Charles Busch's Die! Mommie! Die!. You'd have to combine the tacky suburban sensibilities of John Waters with the convoluted pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler to come up with a piece as delightfully deranged as this. It's like a tale torn directly from the headlines that illustrate Kenneth Anger's infamous book, Hollywood Babylon.

Stray Dog's presentation benefits greatly from Gary Bell's expert direction and the terrific ensemble he's assembled. Angela Arden was once a star of some renown (and the audience knows this because Justin Been has assembled a cool little film to illustrate the point and open the show), but her star faded after a musical version of Marie Antoinette flopped. Her marriage to Sol Sussman, the producer of her disaster, is on the rocks and she's cheating on him with Tony Parker, a lothario at loose ends. An opportunity to resurrect her career is vetoed by Sol, but his state of constant constipation provides an entry point for a poisonous solution to Angela's problems.

Landon Shaw is a glamorous marvel as Arden, and even though you know it's a man in a woman's role (and it's supposed to be played that way), Shaw impresses with his ease and grace. It's truly exceptional work, especially when you consider that Shaw came in after the actor originally cast was unable to take on the part. He's well paired with Will Ledbetter, who's great as Sol, perpetually stopped up, and finding himself in a professional pickle when he's forced to borrow money from the mob to complete his latest opus.

Meg Rodd nearly steals the show as the Edith, Sol's daughter, who seems to share an unnaturally close relationship with her father. Rodd's completely over the top as a "daddy's girl" gone wild, bringing a vibrant and vivacious energy to the action. Zack Huels gives a naive and innocent quality to his role as the Sussman's gay son Lance, who has a bit of a maniacal streak in him as well. Roger Erb adds to the fun with his slick portrayal of the well endowed Parker, down on his luck after his TV show is canceled, and looking for any angle he can to make a quick buck. Andra Harkins nicely rounds out the cast as the tipsy housemaid, Bootsie Carp.

Gary Bell's sharp work putting this production together extends to the period clothing (the story is set in 1967), and the well chosen props and furniture that decorate Jay Hall's wonderful set. Tyler Duenow's lighting adds immeasurably, particularly during an acid trip sequence in the second act. 

Stray Dog Theatre continues to deliver consistently entertaining and challenging productions. Next up is Songs for a New World, which kicks off the second half of their season in February 2009.

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Pippin
Stray Dog Theatre

Reviewed by Chris Gibson

By eschewing some of the trademark elements that Bob Fosse brought to the original staging of Pippin, Stray Dog Theatre breathes new life into Stephen Schwartz and Robert O. Hirson's musical. Shorn of the familiar "jazz hands" and bowler hats Fosse was known for, the play is actually more accessible, with the action more clearly focused than before. This fresh approach makes this production of the venerable Pippin, engaging entertainment worthy of your patronage.

Essentially a fairy tale utilizing characters from history, Pippin tells the tale of the son of King Charles, who is searching for meaning in his life. Seeing the folly of war first hand, he enters into a plot to murder his father and usurp the throne. But he finds no satisfaction in ruling, and after a magical moment where the King is brought back to life, he roams the countryside aimlessly.

Jeffrey Pruett is a startlingly muscular presence as the leading player, guiding the audience and Pippin through the narrative. His bitchy impatience fits perfectly, and he does strong work with the opening tune, "Magic To Do".

Jeffrey Wright is an excellent Pippin, showing a vulnerable side, and mining the text for all it's humor. Wright is always easy to take, and he makes the young prince likable, doing a splendid job with "Corner of the Sky", "Morning Glow", and the silly, but touching "Prayer for a Duck".

Julie Venegoni is appealing as his love interest, the widowed Catherine. Her fine vocals do wonders for bland ballads like "Kind of Woman" and "I Guess I'll Miss the Man". Evan Robinson is cute as Catherine's son, Theo. Chuck Lavazzi and Laura Kyro offer standout support as King Charles and his mother Berthe, respectively. Lavazzi amuses as the randy king, and Kyro stops the show with "No Time At All" as she advises Pippin on a course to take with his life. Tyler Vickers makes his muscles bulge admirably as Pippin's stepbrother, Lewis.

Leslie Sikes chews the scenery with relish as his scheming stepmother, Fastrada. Melissa Finn, Julie Nagy, Michelle Sauer, and Natasha Toro add a sexy element to the proceedings as the Greek Chorus, here turned into gypsies.

Gary Bell's direction removes some of the more campy and out of place elements from the original production, and the play benefits greatly from this rethinking. David Horstman's musical direction and solo accompaniment on piano are both well executed, allowing the vocals to be heard clearly despite the room's natural echo. JT Rycroft's re-imagined choreography makes inventive use of the space and retains enough of the sexier elements to be successful. Tyler Duenow's lighting design brings variety to the overall look with frequent and effective changes in the scheme setting each particular mood. Cheryl Bowman Thibaut's costuming follows Bell's gypsy motif, and it's a welcome change as well.

Stray Dog Theatre's delightful reworking of Pippin continues through November 8 (2008) at the Tower Grove Abbey. Call 314-865-1995 for ticket information, or go online to www.straydogtheatre.org.

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Regrets Only
Stray Dog Theatre
Reviewed by Chris Gibson

Paul Rudnick's riotously funny play, Regrets Only, takes the form of a comedy of manners, but delivers punchline after punchline of biting satire and politically charged commentary. Stray Dog Theatre's production (September 11 – 27, 2008) features strong comic performances provided by an excellent ensemble that suits the material well. Successful clothing designer Hank Hadley has recently lost his lover, Mike to cancer. He visits his close friend and socialite, Tibby McCullough, with the intention of spending an evening on the town while trying to forget his pain. But, when her lawyer husband Jack receives a phone call from the president asking for help with a constitutional amendment regarding marriage, Hank finds himself, and the idea of gay marriage on trial. Hurt by the treatment he receives from friends he'd considered more open minded, he concocts an amusing scheme that asks the question, "What if all the gay people went on strike?". Thom Crain is alternately funny and touching as Hank. His character is a catalyst for the more politicized material as he offers up his surprisingly contrary views on the sanctity of marriage, while maintaining a sense of outrage at the thought of an amendment banning the union of two same sex individuals. Lavonne Byers plays his friend and confidant, Tibby, privileged and yet, completely aware of what she's received in life through the virtue of being a "rich white woman". Byers revels in the scathingly biting and witty lines she's given. John Reidy impresses as her ultra-conservative husband, more consumed by the so-called "honor" of working on a constitutional amendment, than realizing the ramifications it would have. Julie Venegoni is strong in the rather thankless role of their daughter, Spencer. Her initial appearance is a bit off-putting, since she comes across as completely self-absorbed and pampered. But, these people aren't supposed to be likable, and Venegoni manages to make this spoiled creature watchable. Jennifer Marissa Bock steals the show as the McCullough's zany maid, Myra Kesselman. Bock provides a bevy of juicy one-liners and bits of trivial knowledge, and they arrive at the precise moment you think the play is headed down an overly serious or sentimental path. Sally Eaton is also very good as Tibby's mother, Marietta Claypool. Our first impression, after we're told early on that's she's a bit daft, comes with her grand entrance at the beginning of Act Two. She appears in an outfit that's pinched from a dumpster after her clothes are stolen, and this garbage bag and police tape ensemble brings forth the query; "Prada?". Gary Bell's direction is superb. The laughs are well-timed and the drama is appropriately touching. Rudnick's brazen and outspoken comedy begins the 2008-2009 season in splendid fashion. Stray Dog Theatre's next production will be Pippin (October 23 – November 8, 2008) at the Tower Grove Abbey. Call 314-865-1995 for ticket information or visit them online at www.straydogtheatre.org.

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 Morning's at Seven Stray Dog Theatre Reviewed by Chris Gibson Paul Osborn's perfectly charming play, Morning's at Seven, was topical, to a degree, when it was written in the late 1930's. Though some of it's themes may seem antiquated, or even shopworn due to their familiarity, this is a very entertaining show, similar in some ways to Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You. Stray Dog Theatre's production, their last of the season, is wonderfully performed by a very talented ensemble. Aaronetta Gibbs has lived with her sister Cora, and her husband Thor, for the past fifty years. But, Cora has decided that she and her spouse need to move out and live their remaining years on their own. The house she's chosen is the one that her sister Ida's husband Carl, who's given to spells, has promised to give to his son Homer, whenever he finally takes a wife and moves out. So, naturally Homer brings his fiancée Myrtle home to meet his parents, for what everyone presumes is a marriage proposal. To add further intrigue, there's another sister down the block named, Esther. Her husband David, finds them all to be morons and discourages his wife from visiting and dishing the latest gossip. Events will transpire over the course of the evening that will shake up everyone's life and living arrangements. Sally Eaton is terrific as Aaronetta, who has harbored a secret for fifty years. She imbues her character with a pitiable quality despite the bitterness she outwardly projects. Liz Hopeful is very good as Cora, who's coped with her sister's presence for too long, and needs to finally have some time alone with her man. Eleanor Mullin does fine work as long-suffering sister, Ida, with a husband prone to having fits of anxiety about where is in life, and a son who's aptly named, since he shows no signs of ever wanting to leave his home. Suzanne Greenwald is equally sharp as Esther who defies her husband, and his threat to live separately in the same house if she continues to sneak over to her siblings. Together they share a marvelous chemistry, and that really makes the play work. David Gibbs plays Cora's husband, Theodore, nicknamed Thor, as eternally bemused, and rarely rattled. But, he has a secret to keep as well, and ably displays the concern of a man anxious to avoid confrontation. Bob Harvey amuses as Carl, who's ashamed that he never achieved his dreams, and goes off on rants where he questions his own self worth. He's especially upset with Myrtle coming to visit, and Cora pressuring him to lease his property to her. Chuck Lavazzi provides splendid work as the pompous ex-professor, David, who can't disguise his disdain at the behavior of his wife's family. But, he shows us David's human side as well, when Esther takes him up on the idea of separate living quarters, and he drops his guard. Shawn White is a riot as Homer. He's a true "man-child", he's forty, he still lives with his parents, and he's been engaged for far too many years to his fiancée. His sputtering apprehension is hilarious, and in perfect contrast to Colleen Backer's ever-gracious approach to Myrtle. Backer simply steals this show with her overly polite manners and perfectly timed delivery. She lifts the show ever time she appears, and that's not an easy feat when you consider the talent she's surrounded by. Gary Bell's direction is excellent, with seamless and believable interaction a constant. Although, the pace of the show does lag toward the end of the second act, which could be related to the source material, with it's old-school three act format. Tyler Duenow's lighting scheme throws a sepia glow over Alex Gaines's set design, which features a folk art inspired backdrop and see through houses. Stray Dog Theatre's engaging production of Morning's at Seven continues through June 28, 2008 at the Tower Grove Abbey. Go online to www.straydogtheatre.org to find out more information.                                      

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