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.

 

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.  

 

With a drive that can easily take an hour each way, theater patrons living in the far reaches of our region may long to attend the theater more often than they can make it to the city. In far west St. Charles county, community based O'Fallon Theatre Works answers the call of live theater fans by producing high quality community shows that feature the best of the area's talent. 

The company's current production of Bye Bye Birdie boasts an endearing cast, sharp direction, smart choreography, delightful costumes, and an overall sense of joie de vivre that completely entertains. Directed by Katy Leigh Gilda-Fry, with musical direction by Colin Healy and surprisingly complex choreography by Julie Garey, the upbeat show is as cheerful and fun as the bright color palette of the set and costumes. The central plot is pure romantic comedy, but Gilda-Fry infuses teen angst, a hint of modern feminism, and plenty of mischief to hold our interest as the familiar story unfolds.

Pop star and heartthrob Conrad Birdie has deferred his draft enlistment as many times as possible and must now report for basic training. Birdie's manager and songwriter Albert fears his struggling label will fold without its star, but his loyal assistant Rosie comes up with a big publicity stunt to save the day. Birdie will plant a goodbye kiss on one lucky girl, going out on a high note and releasing a guaranteed hit record. Naturally, Rosie and Albert are in love, but no girl is good enough to merit Albert's domineering mother's approval. Meanwhile, in the little town of Sweet Apple, Kim McAfee, an officer in the Conrad Birdie Fan Club, has just gotten pinned to Hugo Peabody and the towns' party line is all abuzz with teen gossip.

Such is the set up for the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, a nostalgic romp through the early days of rock and roll. In this production, the teen roles are filled with actual teens from the community. Like the adults that join them on the stage, they are uniformly talented, enthusiastic, and well rehearsed. The majority of the songs feature solid harmonies and pleasant solos, and the lead characters are generally capable of steering the show and garnering sympathy. The musical drags a little at the top, but once Conrad arrives in Sweet Apple the show finds its footing and everything clicks into a higher gear. The result is a production teeming with community all-stars, and enough fans and friends to fill the converted gymnasium space to near capacity. 

Becky Loughridge and Andrew Woodard are charming as Rosie and Albert, and both display great versatility as dancers as well as solid acting and singing chops. Robert Michael Hanson gives Conrad Birdie a swagger and a sneer, but keeps him likeable, not too pompous or full of himself. Erin Morris and Patrick Blanner are earnest and beguiling as the high school sweethearts, while Oscar Lares, Michelle Yorty, and Brady Stiff are laugh out loud funny as the McAfee family. There is also blatant misogyny and less obvious racism in the show that, while period appropriate, is a bit overbearing. Gilda-Fry treads these lines carefully but directly, playing the sexism big and obvious, with a hint of wink and nod to the audience, while downplaying the subtle racial digs directed at Rosie from Albert's mother. Considering the relative homogeny of her cast and community-friendly intentions of the company, both are wise choices.

Community theater is an essential component of a culturally rich region, and a stepping-stone for actors, crew, and audiences. Many of us experienced theater first by taking in a community show at a local gymnasium or school auditorium. When a cast is as enthusiastic and committed as the one Gilda-Fry has assembled, it is easy to keep fans interested and seats filled. Productions such as O'Fallon Theater Works Bye Bye Birdie, running through November 12, are an important part of our culture -- every performance creates an opportunity to pass an appreciation for locally produced art to the next generation.  

 

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.

 

 

Kirkwood Theatre Guild's production of Tony-award winning playwright Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor is a madcap, high-spirited farce that's filled with one-liners, double entendres, mixed up characters, and a multitude of fast-paced physical hi-jinks. Nancy Crouse directs the capable cast through the show's constant parade of comic maneuvers; with the funniest bits executed with flair and finesse by Todd Macali as the overworked and under-appreciated Max.

Max is in love with Maggie, the daughter of Saunders, who is the producer of the Cleveland Opera. To build up their ticket sales and national prominence, the opera has hired a world-renowned tenor to sing the lead role of 'Otello' in their local production. The tenor, Tito, arrives hours late, exhausted, and in the company of his very jealous wife Maria. Tito and Maria squabble and Tito sarcastically declares he has a woman in his closet without knowing that Maggie has hidden there in hopes of meeting her favorite singer. Tito decides to take a nap before the performance, aided by an oversized helping of pills intended to relax him, and Maria takes off in a huff after leaving Tito a cryptic note. Max can't wake Tito up, but the show must go on!

The story is funny and the antics of the ensemble are thoroughly and comically engaging. Naturally, the audience can see all the mix-ups and where story threads are getting crossed, which only adds to the sense of fun in the often laugh out loud and silly show. An effective stage design by Crouse, enhanced by an abundance of doors and the absence of the wall separating the bedroom from the rest of the suite (except the door and its frame), enables an almost constant flow of action, a point reinforced during the mostly silent and quite charming curtain call.

Macali is simply captivating as Max, and always at the center of the quickly changing plot. He is pliable, flexible, and willing to throw himself around in inventive and comic ways that keep the laughs rolling. He's also a bit nebbish and lacking in confidence, ensuring he's taken for granted by those who need him most. Melody Van Quinn, as Maggie, and Tim Callahan, as Tito, are perfect foils to Macali's comic excess, with sharp reactions and witty subplots of their own. Van Quinn longs for enchantment and fairy tale special effects in her romance. Callahan is a man of many appetites, who nonetheless loves his wife as passionately as he fights with her. 

Scott De Broux is pompous and anxious as Saunders, pacing nervously and making feeble attempts to hide his concern from the opera's board chairman Julie, a pretentious and surprisingly bawdy Annie Bayer. Kathryn Kent plays the opera's leading lady, Diana, with steely determination and a seductive flair, while Annalise Webb is comically bold and fiery from her well-heeled shoes and stylish dress to the top of her lungs. Finally, Isaac Weaver delights as the Bellhop, with stylized mannerisms and a surprisingly mellifluous voice.

The show is well directed by Crouse, who uses the entrances and exits to humorously boost the thin plot. Unfortunately, the show employs black face as a major plot device. While pertinent to the story, which relies heavily on a character switch wherein Max disguises himself as Tito in an effort to ensure that the show goes on, its use is strongly questioned in 2017. Though operatic performances of 'Otello' have traditionally employed white men in blackface, it feels unfortunate that Kirkwood Theatre Guild couldn't have found a different way, such as a mask, to effectively communicate the ruse. Or perhaps they could have chosen a different play to feature the considerable comic abilities of the talented cast. 

Filled with over-the-top shenanigans and non-stop energy, Lend Me a Tenor, running through November 12, 2017 is a funny, satisfying romantic comedy with a problematic plot twist. The majority of the show is well-constructed and written, with clever twists and turns that a community theater cast can readily mine for comic gold. The Kirkwood Theatre Guild production features a spectacular performance by Macali and solid support from the agile and humorous cast. 

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