Photo from the touring production of 'Kinky Boots,' at the Peabody Opera House.

Kinky Boots, a musical about a nebbish young man trying to save his family’s shoe manufacturing company, reaffirms and shakes up everything audiences love about big Broadway musicals without out missing a high-heeled step. Written by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, the music is mostly up-tempo, the messages are uplifting, and about half the ensemble is drag queens. The resulting show is a delight, filled with contemporary twists on ages old lessons.

Charlie Price is a sympathetic hero whose every choice has increasingly bigger consequences. With low demand for his family’s shoes, he faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge and his best friends also happen to depend on him for a job. He’s also at a crucial point in his relationship with Nicola, his ambitious fiancée. She wants to move to London and make a lot of money in real estate. He’s less certain where he belongs or what he wants. A chance meeting with a drag queen with a penchant for stiletto heels named Lola offers opportunity but adds to his conflict. There’s betrayal and several moments when all hope seems lost, and Charlie nearly gives up before remembering what matters to him.

Lance Bordelon is charming and appealing, if at times purposefully awkward and uncertain, in his portrayal of the earnest, but not close-minded Charlie. He’s engaged but not really in the relationship, allowing Hayley Lampart’s Nicola to lead him around. He’s also the type of guy who instinctively chooses to be kind to all and loyal to those he cares for, an important quality for any accidental hero.

Jos N. Banks is empowering and captivatingly charismatic as Lola (known as Simon when out of drag), with a presence that demands attention and the voice and moves to hold it. Banks' ballad about Simon’s relationship with his father is a stunning, quiet moment that centers and grounds the show, and a very real scene. In contrast, Lola always sings showy melodies in a full voice with good range and control and well-executed choreography.

Lola is frequently backed by her team of Angels: Brandon Alberto, Eric Stanton Betts, Derek Brazeau, Tyler Jent, Tony Tillman, and Ernest Terrelle Williams, who mesmerize with choreography that snaps, spins, drops, and kicks in high-drag style and equally dazzling costumes. There’s a sense of knowing and fun to the drag performers, with a confidence that’s friendly and inviting.

Sydney Patrick adds an unexpected and welcome quirkiness to her portrayal of Lauren, an employee and, naturally, the right girl for Charlie. John Anker Bow gives Charlie’s assistant George just the right mix of prim exterior and arched eyebrow interest to comically steal moments, adding depth to the light comedy. Several of the supporting characters stand out, including Adam du Plessis as Don, Bethany Xan Jeffery as Pat, Ethan Kirschbaum as Harry, Monica Ban as Trish, and, in a small but memorable laugh out loud scene, Natalie Braha as the Milan Stage Manager.

Director DB Bonds and choreographer Rusty Mowery recreate original director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s show in ways that are visually interesting as well as impressively danced. The attention paid to supporting roles is also appreciated, and I applaud the instinct to add unique personalities rather than caricature to stock characters. Music director Kevin Casey ensures the arrangements suit each actor’s strengths and the levels are well balanced, ensuring it’s easy to hear distinct voices and instruments even during the busiest songs.

The scenic design, by David Rockwell, works well on the Peabody stage and is used quite inventively. Conveyor belts, ladders, and shoe molds create interesting levels on several ensemble numbers and the neon lights in the finale are a perfect touch. The design is complemented by Kenneth Posner’s lighting and John Shivers sound. Gregg Barnes’ drag queen costumes are, as previously mentioned, fabulous; the rest of the costumes are grounded in everyday wear, and include a nice mix of slacker and young professional garb, with a few tailored pieces adding texture and signaling status.

Kinky Boots is bold and loud at every turn, but it never shouts at the audience. Instead, the actors cajole and invite with a mix of characters that range from next-door neighborly to imaginatively over-the-top, and that’s part of the lure of a show that encourages each of us to be true to our better self. Through lessons on compassion and the contradictions of human nature, the production rocks with an assertion that each of us is valuable.

Without the true friendship and belief of Lola and a little mind-expanding compassion, Kinky Boots, in performance at the Peabody Opera House, January 13 and 14, could easily turn into a tragedy. Instead, we get tight harmonies and heartfelt melodies, a precise and acrobatic dance core, fabulous glitter, and a profitable if somewhat unconventional future for the family business. In short, Kinky Boots delivers sweet, spicy, and salty in a deliciously colorful musical confection.

 

Photo from Cocktails and Curtain Calls 'In the Shadow of the Glen'

This weekend several of the newer companies around town have openings to add to your entertainment considerations. This week’s In Performance features two compelling stories that revolve around the very human need for connection and community, or at least an amicable agreement to disagree. Several shows from last week continue their run and the fabulous and spirited Kinky Boots lights up the Peabody Opera House, so there’s plenty of reasons for you to go see a play or musical.

CreativeWorks Theatre presents a one-weekend only production of Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting. The thought provoking period drama imagines an historic meeting between two of the most important figures of the Civil Rights Era, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The alleged meeting takes place on one of the higher floors of a Harlem hotel while both men are in New York City, just before Malcolm X’s fatal appearance at the Audubon Ballroom. Malcolm X, played by Jason Little, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., played by Zachary Clark, are initially cautious, wary of each other. Soon they begin to debate tactics and philosophies, leading them to argue, defend, and find some common ground, though each remains firmly resolved in his beliefs and course of action.

The show is a compelling “what if…” and, as director Joel PE King observes, “an interesting chance to explore, to properly sort and validate, each person’s philosophies. To allow moments of assertion and passivity to breathe through both men, opening the eye of thought and lessening the weight of opinion.” King is particularly interested in the portrayal of Dr. King, Jr., noting that people often confuse passivity with weakness. “What created pause,” King notes, “is this portrayal of meekness that often times gets confused with being a pushover.” He pauses just a moment before adding, “which is not too surprising, since the choice to move out of love and not aggression often gets a bad rap.”

King is passionate about The Meeting and his growing company. “We are here to produce quality, conscious theatre, one creation at a time,” he offers as his raison d’etre. “It is my goal to present pieces that are powerful, presentational, and reflect present day reality. With this creation, I believe we have achieved such.” The Meeting, a CreativeWorks Theatre production, runs through January 14 at the .Zack on Locust.

Cocktails and Curtain Calls In the Shadow of the Glen, performed at a local tavern, provides patrons a chance to enjoy a meal, a drink, and a show while hopefully intriguing pub patrons and drawing in new theater fans. Written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge, director Sean Belt notes “This is a rare opportunity for audiences familiar with Synge’s other work, such as Riders to the Sea, to see this genuinely beguiling and well-written script produced.”

The story, influenced by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, introduces a man convinced his wife is cheating who fakes his own death to try to catch her. The accusations are about as scandalous as they come, adding a good deal of spice to the humorous tale and a nice finishing twist for the wife. Belt compliments the cast, which includes Bob Beck, Jane Abling, and Stefan Peterson, remarking that they turn in “beautifully subtle and comic performances in their retelling of a story that’s quite lovely, if seldom performed.” Cocktails and Curtain Calls ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’ continues in the Patriot Room of John D. McGurk’s Pub in Soulard through January 21, an extension of the run may be announced later this month.

Inspired by true events, Kinky Boots, Broadway’s huge-hearted, high-heeled hit, with songs by Grammy® and Tony® winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper, plays at the Peabody Opera House January 13 & 14. The musical celebrates friendship, fashion, and the belief that you can change the world when you change your mind.

Continuing this weekend:

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continues its production of The Marvelous Wonderettes through January 28. The jukebox musical is a fond look at friendship that celebrates the girl bands and pop hits of rock and roll’s early years. From the moment the Wonderettes save their school’s 1958 prom to their 10-year reunion, the four women remain committed to the music and each other. The Rep’s talented cast and band are completely in-sync, creating a “wall of sound” that’s certain to entertain.

The Black Rep presents August Wilson’s perceptive and heart wrenching Fences through January 21. The moving drama introduces audiences to Troy Maxson, a star of the Negro Baseball League filled with bitterness and anger that takes a toll on his family. The sixth play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. The evocative show makes a powerful statement on race in America, but may be best remembered for its depth and sincerity, ensuring it’s a show not to be missed.

Menopause the Musical continues at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza through March 31. Set in a swanky department store where four women meet while fighting over a bra during a lingerie sale, the catchy musical comically addresses “the change of life.” Instead of melting down or hiding, this sweet and comic hit encourages women to deal with life’s hormonal adjustments by embracing and supporting each other.

To make sure you don’t miss an event of note, don’t forget to check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events.

 

Photo from 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

The high-energy jukebox musical, The Marvelous Wonderettes, re-imagines the stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis as a high school gymnasium, the setting of the 1958 Senior Prom and 1968 reunion. The Marvelous Wonderettes have stepped up at the last moment to replace the all-boy glee club as prom entertainment and the comic results are sometimes clumsy, often endearing, and always delivered with pitch perfect harmonies.

Musically, the focus is on the hits of girl-bands and female performers from the 1950s and 60s as well as choreography that reflects the popular dance and performance styles of the eras. The plot loosely connects each character’s song choices to her personal story and is a charmingly light and funny look at the early days of rock and roll delivered from the women’s point of view. The women bicker like teens, but never miss their cue, and their choreography is a bit unpolished but delivered with heart and soul.

Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy are your typical middle class high school girls, they’re best friends one second, then fighting over the same boy the next. The dreams they harbor are solidly anchored in the middle-class values of their time, with visions of motherhood and children reinforced by Suzy’s character, but there’s a distinct maturation by the second act, set 10 years after the first.

Chiara Trentalange and Iris Beaumier, as Cindy Lou and Betty Jean, respectively, anchor the show and music. Their voices clear and true, they shine whether harmonizing or taking a lead. Morgan Kirner and Leanne Smith, as Missy and Suzy, are also in fine voice, expressing the specific quirks and qualities of their characters to humorous, if at times awkward, delight. The four successfully create the right tension between the teenagers and their sideways looks, snaps, punch spiking, outright sabotage, and commentary add comedy and interest to a book that, unfortunately, tries too hard to create a song-themed story arc.

The songs are almost too appropriate for many of the character’s situations and while Betty Jean’s philandering boyfriend creates sympathy, Missy’s crush on their teacher and vocal coach Mr. Lee gets a bit unsettling. And while I understand the appeal in bringing a member of the audience to the stage and humorously singing to them, the moment can be more uncomfortable than funny, as it felt the night I saw the show. The treatment also results in characters that are a bit flat and one-dimensional. The ensemble brings plenty of energy and livens things up a bit, and luckily it’s the music that’s the draw in a jukebox musical.

The stage and the area above the audience’s heads gets a classic high school gymnasium feel from a clever design by Adam Koch that incorporates basketball hoops, balloons, and the suggestion of locker rooms backstage. Peter Sargent’s Lighting design, particularly the occasionally off-the-mark spotlight, and Dorothy Marshall Englis’ simple but perfectly period costumes add convincing touches that help transport the audience to the era. The show evokes a sense of post-war suburbia that’s isolated and comfortable to a T, I wish the show and connecting stories were as satisfying as the environment and personalities the Rep production suggests.

The majority of the songs are familiar, even to those born in later generations, and include “Mr. Sandman,” “Allegheny Moon,” and several clever medleys filled with recognizable tunes in the first act. The second act kicks up the intensity and energy with “It’s in His Kiss,” “I Only Want to Be with You,” and “Son of a Preacher Man,” as well as a spirited ending medley that includes “Respect.” The ensemble all have strong, solid voices, though no single performance stands out as exceptional the show entertains. The live band, playing off stage, provides depth and texture, plus a few fun vamps and transitions adding to the overall bouncy energy.

The show is about the music and, in this respect, it’s a nostalgic, well sung revue, with lots of telling intonation and emotion. With solid direction and clever, period choreography by Melissa Rain Anderson and musical direction by Joshua Zecher-Ross, The Marvelous Wonderettes, running through January 28 is an entertaining escape with a soundtrack you can dance to.

 

 

Photo from 'Fences' by August Wilson, produced by The Black Rep

The Black Rep continues its exploration of acclaimed playwright August Wilson’s canon with a finely wrought, hard-hitting production of Fences that explores the lingering impact of racism through the eyes of Troy Maxson. Heavy with dreams dashed and deferred and the cumulative anger of years of abuse and disrespect, the play is pointedly sharp and unflinchingly resolute.

A star in the Negro Leagues, Maxson was too old to play for a Major League Baseball team when the game eventually integrated, a fact he continues to challenge many years after his last plate appearance. He presently works as a garbage man in Pittsburgh and lives in a modest home with his wife Rosy and teen-aged son Cory. Cory is athletically gifted like his father and has a chance to be recruited by a university coach. Maxson has another son, Lyons, from a previous relationship, and a brother, Gabe, who frequently visit the family.

Angry and distrustful, Maxson is also incredibly selfish and shortsighted, with a penchant for throwing the N-word around as he shares his Friday night bottle with best friend, Jim Bono. There’s trouble brewing in Maxson’s world and change he isn’t ready to accept. Despite his many protestations, and soliloquies delivered to the angel of death, Maxson seems determined to stick to his stubborn, wayward ways. What he’s failed to consider are the consequences in this world.

The talented cast successfully inhabits their characters, the times, and their socioeconomic realities, creating an evocative period piece that resonates with contemporary audiences. Many of the issues Maxson rails against are still present in the U.S., though some progress has been made. However, Maxson’s refusal to explore the benefits or possibility of college recruitment with Cory seems a critical error even to Bono and his wife Rosy. The expertly crafted play contains multiple similarly binding threads, leading to an explosive climax and bittersweet resolution.

The relationship between the three older characters, Maxson, Bono, and the long-suffering Rosy, provides the heart, soul, and much of the heartache of the show. Ron Himes is full of fire and vinegar as the irascible but not unlikeable Maxson.  His moods swing wildly and at times foolishly as he refuses to consider those around him, or how his actions may impact them – their relationship and future. He is a man so afraid of losing his tenuous grip that he effectively stifles those around him.

Robert Alan Mitchell is on-point as Maxson’s best friend Bono. He’s loyal and always looking out for Mason’s best interest, even when his friend rejects the advice. Aware of his friend’s indiscretions, Bono cautions him to be careful and take care of what he has. Naturally, their relationship becomes strained as Maxson digs in his heels. Linda Kennedy may be small in stature, but her Rosy is the only one who can really stand up to Maxson. She is flirtatious and fiery, but always demanding respect and focused on what’s best for her son. When she finally puts her foot down, the consequences reverberate for years. The tension is as real as the circumstances and the entire ensemble responds, following the leads and ensuring Lorna Littleway’s vision is realized.

Steven Maurice starts out a bit stiff as Lyons, but as the play unfolds his characterization grows on you revealing a kind, quiet soul with unexpected resiliency. Brian McKinley is bold, brash, and eager to excel as young Cory. A generally obedient and respectful son, he reaches his breaking point with eloquent fire. Lena Sanaa Williams is engaging as the young Raynell. Her character is light and optimistic, signaling the potential for a better life ahead, and Williams fills her role with a sunny, curious disposition. Finally, Richard Agnew shines as Maxson’s brother Gabe. A bit addled and slow after getting injured in the war, Gabe is genuine and slightly underplayed to good effect. His closing lines hit you with raw authenticity, creating a powerful coda to the story that finds bittersweet hope in bitterness and anger.

Unsettling and uncomfortable at times, Fences, running through January 21, is a moving, evocative drama that reminds us of our human foibles and shortcomings while offering a hopeful conclusion. The cast turns in remarkable, memorable performances as August Wilson pulls bittersweet hope from the bitterness and anger over the personal cost of segregation and lingering racism.

 

Photo from 'The Marvelous Wonderettes' at the Rep through January 21

It’s bitterly cold outside, but several St. Louis theaters are opening productions sure to warm your heart, giving you the perfect reason to brave the cold and go see a show. This week’s In Performance includes a girl band reprising classics from the 50s and 60s, August Wilson’s acclaimed play about sports and segregation, and a long visit from a quartet of women going through “the change.” Whatever you do, be sure to bundle up and stay warm, inside and out!

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis welcomes in the new year with The Marvelous Wonderettes, a fond look at friendship that celebrates the girl bands and pop hits of rock and roll’s early years. From the moment the Wonderettes save their school’s 1958 prom to their 10-year reunion, the four women remain committed to the music and each other. Period favorites like “Mr. Sandman,” “It’s in His Kiss,” “Rescue Me,” and “Respect” are performed by the irrepressible quartet, complete with detailed choreography and pitch-perfect harmonies.

“Each of the Wonderettes is a powerful triple threat that can really dance, sing, and act” notes director and choreographer Melissa Rain Anderson. “When one girl is singing a solo, the rest are supporting her, ensuring a true ensemble-based production. That’s the beauty of this show: great chemistry, solid pop songs, and genuine friendship delivered at a quick-pace with plenty of comic relief.”

While the charming production features the music, Anderson emphasizes that “the show is so much more than a jukebox musical. It celebrates the enduring friendship between authentic characters who undergo significant changes in the years between act one and two. Life isn’t always rosy, but these women are committed to the music and to each other, creating a celebration with real heart.” In The Marvelous Wonderettes, running through January 28, The Rep’s talented cast and live band are completely in-sync, creating a “wall of sound” that’s certain to entertain.

The Black Rep presents August Wilson’s perceptive and heart-wrenching Fences through January 21. The moving drama introduces audiences to Troy Maxson, a star of the Negro Baseball League who must reconcile his bitterness and anger towards the segregation of his youth if he wants to save his relationship with his wife and son, a promising young athlete.

Wilson’s deeply affecting script explores Maxson’s reaction to his son’s prospects as well as his lingering disappointment over his exclusion from baseball during his prime. The sixth play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which artfully and thoughtfully explores the ever-changing and often difficult experiences of African Americans in white American culture, Fences won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. The evocative show makes a powerful statement on race in America, but may be best remembered for its depth and sincerity, ensuring it’s a show not to be missed.

Menopause the Musical, a celebration of women going through “the change of life,” returns to the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza for an extended run that’s the perfect excuse for planning a girls’ night at the theater. Set in a swanky department store where four women meet while fighting over a bra during a lingerie sale, the catchy musical is filled with humor and compassion. After noting their similarities in taste and age, the women quickly bond over the trials and tribulations of growing older in clever send-ups of hit songs from the 1970s and 80s. Younger members of the audience may not be as familiar with the original songs, but will still enjoy the fresh twists and funny truths the new lyrics reveal.

The popular musical comically addresses the many unexpected changes women over the age of 40 are bound to face. Instead of melting down or hiding, the witty show encourages women to deal with life’s adjustments by embracing and supporting each other. Jokes about hot flashes, mood swings, wrinkles, weight gain, impatience, and much more are exchanged and parodied in a number of familiar tunes with cleverly updated lyrics that hit the mark. For a rollicking good time that embraces femininity at any age, Menopause the Musical, in performance through March 31, is a sweet and comic hit.

Continuing this weekend:

January brings a fresh start to the calendar and the St. Louis theater schedule as well! To make sure you don’t miss an event of note, don’t forget to check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events.

 

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