This week's In Performance features just one new show, but there are several top-notch productions entering their final weekend of performances, including the extended run of Titus Androgynous. Most theaters are dark next weekend, and I'll be taking a break as well, so In Performance will be back in two weeks with a slate of new openings. Until then: stay warm, stay safe, treat each other with kindness, have fun, and go see a play or musical!

The Independent Theater Company, a relatively new face in the St. Louis theater community, premiers Random in a very limited run at the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves on November 17 and 18. The small professional company is dedicated to "showing the fascinating world of drama" where viewers are "pulled in by the riveting performances and vivid characters," and then taken on journeys both internal and external in nature. It's an ambitious goal, but one to which the company's founders Jennifer Stinebaker, Britteny Henry, and Randy Stinebaker are deeply committed.

Patience Davis stars in the one-woman show by Debbie Tucker Green that follows the life of an ordinary black London family on an ordinary day that suddenly turns everything but ordinary. The comfortable normalcy of their lives is shattered by a random act of knife violence in which a member of their family is the victim. As the company's creative and artistic directors (Jennifer) Stinebaker and Henry note, the "powerful, poetic, and often comic play doesn't waste a word as it tells of a West Indian family who believe you should 'never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you' -- only to find it sitting in their front room, in the shape of three policeman bearing bad news."

Green's ability to bring the smallest details into focus, to remember with absolute certainty the little things but stumble over the trauma itself, is evocatively effective. "Written with a vivid immediacy that captures the wonderfully observed idiosyncrasies of an ordinary family starting what they think is an ordinary day, Random is another provocative tour de force from Britain's leading black female playwright," Stinebaker and Henry continue. "Davis brings Green's haunting script to life with subtle shifts and dramatic swings that expertly capture the chaotic and unreal sense of the family in the midst of an unimaginable and unexplainable tragedy." Tickets for the limited, two-night run of Random are selling quickly, so you'll want to make your reservations right away.

Continuing this weekend: 

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble brings John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, running through November 18, to life in an interpretation that shifts the perspective forward to reflect contemporary America. Steinbeck's story, layered with personal and social disparity, introduces us to George and Lennie. The two farm workers dream of a life far away from fields filled with migrant labor but must first earn the stake to purchase the land. Actors Carl Overly, Jr., as Lennie, and Adam Flores, as George, anchor a remarkable cast that vividly realizes this fresh, realistic interpretation of the classic American drama. Not everyone will agree with the approach, but the portrayals are historically supported and eloquently delivered by the ensemble. Director Jacqueline Thompson guides the show with clear vision, supported by excellent dramaturgy, design, and acting.

The West End Players Guild presents a thoroughly entertaining production of the light Irish comedy Stones in His Pocket. In the humorously perceptive show, a Hollywood film company has taken over a tiny village in Ireland's County Kerry and the audience follows extras Jake and Charlie as they submit to, mock, and sometimes rebel against Hollywood and the egos involved in the production. In addition to the leading men, Jason Meyers and Jared Sanz-Agero play a combined 13 supporting roles, creating distinct, individual voices, quirks, and mannerisms for each. The play is delightfully biting and the veteran character actors are impressively flexible and fluid in a multitude of roles. Stones in His Pockets continues through November 19th.

YoungLiars is pleased to announce the extension of the comic and bloody Titus Androgynous, with additional performances added on Friday November 17 and Saturday, November 18, at the Centene Center for the Arts. The story tells of the Roman general's defeat of the Goths and subsequent bitterly personal feud with the scheming Goth queen Tamora. Under Chuck Harper's direction, with songs by Paul Cereghino that push the exposition and compress the timeline, the farce is constant and bloody good. 

As always, check out the KDHX Music and Events Calendar for a listing of community art, music, and performance events!

 

John Steinbeck's short novel Of Mice and Men, from his Dust Bowl trilogy also known as the California Series, springs vibrantly to life in Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's (SATE) riveting production. Director Jacqueline Thompson and the company intentionally cast the emotionally powerful show to authentically reflect our country's migrant workforce, adding poignant relevance to a story originally set in 1935. 

In contemporary America, the hands that gather the crops and tend to the harvest are those of diverse, transient, and some times undocumented laborers. These workers often lack or are afraid to seek insurance, education, and access to social support systems. In this light, the ethnicity and circumstances of lifelong friends Lennie and George, as well as the rest of the crew hired to buck barley in California's Salinas River Valley, feels natural and believably realistic, if unfamiliar to most Americans.

Lennie and George have traveled together for years. Moving from farm to farm, they're trying to save enough money to purchase a small place of their own, so they can "live off the fat of the land" like the farmers and ranchers who now employ them. George is the brains of the operation, and he often has his hands full trying to keep the slow-witted but hard-working Lennie out of trouble. Mentally underdeveloped, Lennie doesn't know his own strength and has difficulty controlling his impulses and emotions. So far, George has been able to intervene and the two have simply moved on to another job, but their luck can't last forever. 

Carl Overly, Jr. and Adam Flores are simply mesmerizing as Lennie and George. Overly shines in his best performance to date, giving Lennie both guileless gullibility and an endearing, sweet-natured, and sympathetic heart. Flores matches him in an excellent turn as the resourceful, eloquently quick-witted, and achingly aware George. While he wishes for just one night free of worry and concern, it is clear George loves Lennie like a brother and desperately wants the two of them to make it to the end of the harvest. The relationship between the men, expressed in Lennie's need for constant guidance and George's unending patience, is palpable and played with genuine affection. As the familiar story unfolds, you may long for the show to end on a more positive note, just this once.

Natasha Toro is compelling as the disabled laborer Candy, and realistically accurate as a woman trying to pass as a man to survive on her own. Candy's tale is painfully hopeless unless she can convince George and Lennie to cut her in on their plans. Toro's reactions and eager pleading after Candy overhears Lennie and George talking about their dream is silently expressive and naturally motivated by the enthusiastically detailed descriptions the two men share. The three actors have great chemistry, creating a space in which it is easy to believe that the men on the crew would suspend their disbelief and accept Candy as one of the guys. 

Courtney Bailey Parker gives Curley's wife a tragic but lovely moment of kindness, otherwise she's appropriately self-absorbed, sexually dissatisfied, and bored to distraction. With SATE's casting of Toro as Candy, the tension between Candy and Curley's wife is particularly sharp and potentially explosive. Joe Hanrahan's Slim, Michael Cassidy Flynn's Curley, Shane Signorino's Carlson, Ryan Lawson-Maeske's Whit, Jack Corey's Boss, and Omega Jones' Crooks are all fully developed characters actively invested in the story. 

Of particular note is the scene when Overly's Lennie visits Jones' Crooks, which is surprisingly impacted by the company's casting decision. Jones jabs Overly with his finger, his voice filled with anger and frustration at his segregation from the others simply because of his skin color. The moment is underscored by the fact that Overly is also black, but lighter than Jones'. In this context, he's able to pass after the Boss accepts him as the Latino George's cousin. Without overemphasis, the scene gives pause by presenting a very real, often unspoken truth. The exchange amplifies the moment when Curley's wife invites Lennie to stroke her hair, underscoring how little these near strangers understand him and reminding us how much he needs George.

Dramaturge Rachel Hanks' extensive research is displayed in the lobby, providing background on migrant labor as understood by Steinbeck and as documented across generations, and illuminating Thompson's directorial approach. Liz Henning's costumes and the set and lighting designs, by Bess Moynihan, are simple but effective. Henning's costumes define socioeconomic standing and working conditions rather than a specific period, and Moynihan's three-sided backdrops are quickly moved and turned to distinguish the various locations in the play without slowing the transitions. Ellie Schwetye's sound design, featuring live acoustic guitar from music director Chris Ware, adds a finishing touch with traditional folk tunes that set the emotional tone of this thoroughly American tragedy. 

Steinbeck's short novel captures a snapshot of the lives of migrant workers, and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble brings that tragic picture to life in a convincing retelling. Thompson directs with a sure hand and a well-researched and realistic perspective, drawing performances filled with nuance and subtlety from the intentionally diverse ensemble. Powerful and emotional, Of Mice and Men, in performance through November 18, 2017, is an exceptional production that lovers of theater and classic American literature will not want to miss.  

 

First Run Theatre, a company dedicated to the development and production of original work by St. Louis artists and playwrights, presents six short plays in Spectrum 2017: A Festival of One Acts. An eight-actor ensemble and two directors help to streamline production details and, though the short plays often feel more like scenes from a longer play or sketches rather than complete stories, the resulting production is an entertaining mix of topics and situations. 

The six selected pieces in this year's festival include four debut scripts and two shows originally produced for the Spectrum 2016 festival. As far as I recall from last year's production, the scripts for the two repeated shows do not appear to have significantly changed and there are no program notes to explain their inclusion, leading me to question why they were remounted. While the plays, Pride of Dummies, by Joe Wegescheide, directed by Patrice Foster, and Placebo Effect, by David Hawley, directed by Nikki Lott, are generally entertaining and well constructed, I found my second viewing decidedly less satisfactory than the first. 

The four new plays include Cooter Holland Rides a Tractor, by Tim Naegelin, directed by Lott; Storage, by Tom Moore, directed by Foster; Raisinets by Samantha L. Shanker, directed by Foster; and Wake-Up Call by Zachary Michael Jack, directed by Lott. Michelle Dillard serves as assistant director for all six plays. Set designer Lew Blink, light designer/artist Ann Johnson, sound designer/composer Brad Slavik, and costume/props designer Madelyn Boyne also contribute to the effort. While the production values have a decidedly homemade look and feel, they suit the festival's mission and capably serve the plays.

Both Storage and Raisinets feel like scenes from longer scripts, and they generate enough intrigue that I'm curious about the rest of each story. Storage combines a flea market with a storage unit auction and offers an interesting plot that hints at redemption. Three regular attendees, including a woman trying to make a go with her baby's father because she never knew her own dad and a man who regrets becoming estranged from his little girl after divorcing her mom, chat just before the auction begins. Though there are no surprises here, the plot twist develops nicely and naturally, and actors Gwynneth Rausch, Tinah Twardowski, and Aaron Mermelstein are genuinely sympathetic. 

Raisinets presents two very different mothers of young children trying to find compromise after one child has struck the other in a way that causes genuine concern. Rausch is an older mom who tried for many years before finally having a daughter; Lexie Baker is a teen mom determined to complete her education and create a good life for her son. Though their backgrounds are quite different, the two both need and resent each other. Each has secret fears they don't want to admit and their defensive retorts are as telling as their confessions, with portrayals that are grounded and genuine.

The remaining two one-acts feel much more like sketches, not short plays. Though I find that each has strong points, the story arcs, though enjoyable, feel somewhat unfinished or incomplete. Cooter Holland Rides a Tractor has compelling, likable characters and lively dialogue, but lacks a plot. Rather than story twists, we simply listen in on an important conversation between a young couple. Karen Pierce is particularly effective as Lisa, and as she questions Luke Steffen's Gary we clearly see the conundrum build, but there's no action or unfolding of their story. The resolution is a genuinely lovely moment, I wish it didn't feel tacked on to create a happy ending. 

Wake-Up Call, by Zachary Michael Jack, feels incomplete and a bit confused. The short piece has a lot of comic potential that seems left by the wayside and, unfortunately, I am left with more questions than plot. Luke Steffen and Andrea Standby are convincing best friends, while Lexie Baker is a seriously quirky waitress. I don't know if the issue is direction or source material, but Baker and Standby's interactions don't align with Steffen and Standby's, creating the sense that we're seeing two different ideas mashed together in an attempt to create a single piece. The script offers an interesting but terribly thin premise; perhaps stage directions or the author's notes are the source of the oddly disjointed production.

First Run Theatre is to be congratulated on their ability to recruit, workshop, and produce the work of local St. Louis playwrights. While the six shows in this year's Spectrum 2017: A Festival of One Acts are a mixed bag, the festival presents the opportunity to see productions whose very existence is a testament to our city's thriving art scene.  

 

West End Players Guild successfully transports audiences to a small, dying village in Ireland's County Kerry where the arrival of a major studio film crew offers opportunity and disappointment in nearly equal measure. Marie Jones' comic and insightful Stones in His Pocket lightly skewers the Hollywood movie machine while offering a humorous look at the village residents caught up in the excitement. The local extras jockey to get noticed by the director, producers, or at least the comely leading lady. Many of them harbor hopes of being "discovered" and offered an opportunity to move to the States and seek stardom, or at least steady employment, in the movie business.

The story is centered around two of the extras, Jake a local resident who is related to almost everyone else in town, and Charlie, an extra from another small Irish town. Like most of the town, Jake struggles to find work. Unlike the others, he's already lived in America and recently returned home a bit jaded and disillusioned. After a movie rental chain forced the closure of his small business, Charlie took a chance, packed up his tent and few remaining belongings, and came to the small town looking for work. He hopes that, as an extra, he can get close enough to someone in the show to pass along a script he's written and kick start a new career. 

The engagingly light and mostly humorous tale introduces us to the starlet, director, production leads, and a number of extras and townspeople. But it is the friendship that blossoms between Jake and Charlie that anchors the show and grabs audience sympathy. As Jake and Charlie, Jason Meyers and Jared Sanz-Agero have good chemistry and their friendship feels organic and genuine. Since the two men also play the other dozen or so characters in the quick-paced show, excellent transitions, sharp timing and reactions, and the ability to create clearly distinguished characters are equally important skills. Meyers and Sanz-Agero easily prove they are up to the task.

In this respect, director Steve Callahan, dialect coach Richard Lewis, and choreographer Cindy Duggan are also to be commended for their contributions. The show moves crisply, the transitions and accents are almost uniformly clear, and the exchanges between the men feel natural. Callahan and stage manager Bradley Rohlf keep their eyes on every detail, helping Meyers and Sanz-Agero to convincingly convey each role. While some of the characterizations are less interesting than others, and the pace occasionally lags just a tad, Meyers and Sanz-Agero ensure each is distinct and individual, sometimes through small actions -- a hand on a hip, a tilt of the head, unique gestures, or donning a different cap.

Tracy Newcomb provides an effectively simple set design and costume pieces that can be quickly added or removed to indicate certain characters. Nathan Schroeder's lights and Chuck Lavazzi's sound are similarly complimentary without distracting from the story or action. The focus is squarely on the storytelling and the approach is satisfying, keeping the play active and engaging. The best example of this comes through as each actor transitions from one character to the next. Meyers and Sanz-Agero remain committed to their exiting character as they move away from the scene, and then react to the transition as the new character while they move into the next bit. Though difficult to accurately describe, the small adjustments and subtle acknowledgements go a long way in defining each role and scene. 

West End Players Guild's production of Stones in His Pockets, running through November 19, 2017, is a smartly constructed production, with a humorous story that touches on socioeconomic disparity and the lack of opportunity that often dooms rural communities, no matter where on the globe that small town may be. Though not a masterpiece, the show is compelling and entertaining, with a clear storyline, strong direction, and inspired, thoroughly engaging performances from Meyers and Sanz-Agero.

 

Time was when operetta was common on local stages. Shows like Rose Marie, The Fortune Teller, and Robin Hood made up the bulk of the season at The Muny when it opened back in 1919, and even as late as the 1970s you could still see the occasional Desert Song or Student Prince on the Forest Park stage.

For those of you longing for the sounds of good old-fashioned operetta in general, or The Student Prince in particular, Winter Opera has a brand new production of that 1924 Sigmund Romberg classic for you Friday and Sunday, November 10 and 12, 2017. And while not quite up to the standard set by their Merry Widow last fall, it's still a nice piece of work that's likely to warm the cockles of the operetta lover's heart.

When it opened on Jolson's 59th Street Theatre on Broadway, The Student Prince was a great hit, running 608 performances. That made it the longest-running show of the decade. Subsequent revivals in the 1930s and 1940s maintained its popularity, but it was undoubtedly the 1954 film version, featuring the voice of the legendary tenor Mario Lanza, that really brought it into the American mainstream.  

Based on Wilhelm Meyer-Förster's play Old Heidelberg, the book by American actress and playwright Dorothy Donnelly revolves around young Prince Karl Franz of the mythical kingdom of Karlsberg. Chafing at the gloomy regimentation of castle life, the prince is taken by his kindly tutor Doctor Engel to study at Engel's alma mater, the University of Heidelberg. There he has a brief romance with Kathie, who waits tables at her uncle's beer garden, and is ready to run away with her to Paris when he learns the king is ill and he must return to seal the betrothal to Princess Margaret that was arranged when they both were children. In the end, Margaret persuades Kathie to give up her claim on Karl Franz's affections and Karl Franz reluctantly takes up his kingly mantle, wistfully recalling the good old student days.

It's all rather thin stuff by contemporary standards, with cardboard characters and a perfunctory plot advanced with telegraphic brevity between songs. But what wonderful songs they are!

The enchanting "Serenade (Overhead the Moon is Beaming)" is probably the most famous number from the show, but there are plenty of other memorable moments in this appealing score, including the students' "Drinking Song" and the moving "Deep in My Heart, Dear." The music is what matters in The Student Prince. A production will stand or fall based on the strength of its voices.

It's a good thing, therefore, that Winter Opera has strong, appealing singers in both the lead and supporting roles, starting with tenor Andrew Marks Maughan as Prince Karl Franz. From the first notes of his sentimental duet "Golden Days" it was obvious that he had an excellent clear voice that projected easily over the orchestra without being strident. 

The same is true of soprano Caitlin Cisler as Kathie. Her acting is not, perhaps, in the same league as her fluid and flexible singing, but when she and Mr. Maughan joined their voices in the lovely "Deep in My Heart, Dear" that hardly mattered. They're both attractive and charismatic performers, their vocal blend is ideal, and they are, in any case, dealing with a text that is not what you'd call dramatically deep.

As the kindly and ailing Dr. Engel, bass John Stephens radiates warmth and compassion. Zachary Devin's powerful tenor leads the Heidelberg students in a rousing rendition of the drinking song, ably assisted by baritone Joel Rogier, and Gary Moss once again demonstrates his considerable comic talents as the prince's self-important valet Lutz.

Parenthetical note: Lutz seems to me to be a gloss on Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else from The Mikado, which makes his disdainful references to Gilbert and Sullivan that much more amusing.

Ellen Hinkle, who was such a delight as Frasquita in Winter Opera's Carmen back in March, once again charms as Princess Margaret, most notably in the waltz duet "Just We Two" with tenor Ryan Keller. Although they're both just starting their careers, their vocal and acting skills are already impressive, and I hope to see more of them in the future.

There are many other fine performances in this large cast. That includes (but is not limited to) Karen Kanakis as the stern Grand Duchess Anastasia, Karla M. Hughes as the flighty barmaid Gretchen, and director Dean Anthony as the unyielding Count von Mark.

When I reviewed Winter Opera's Merry Widow last year, I noted that Mr. Anthony clearly had a good eye for what works well on a stage. The same is true here. That includes his choreography, which once again does an excellent job of keeping the real dancers front and center while providing easily executed steps for the non-dancing singers. Things were still a bit rocky in spots when I saw the show at final dress rehearsal, but that could easily change by the time you see it in performance.

Under Scott Schoonover's baton, the Winter Opera orchestra has never sounded better, with a full and polished sound. JC Krajicek, who has costumed so many fine local productions, scores once again with appropriately colorful outfits, including lavish hoop skirts for the women and dashing military garb for the men. Scott Loebl's sets are in the same fairy tale mode, including a nice trompe l'oeil backdrop for the big Act III ball scene that's reminiscent of the one he did for Merry Widow last year.

It's nice to see Winter Opera taking up the mantle of the neglected operetta repertoire. The sentimental melodrama of The Student Prince might not have aged as well as the comic hijinks of The Merry Widow, but it's still fun to hear these classic tunes sung so well in the warm acoustics of the Viragh Center. See the last performance this Sunday, November 12.

 

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