Call me sentimental, hokey or even crazy, but sometimes when I'm sitting in a dark theatre and the lights come up on the actors on the stage, I get chills all over my body and I just know that what I'm about to watch is going to be a great show. There's something in the air that gives it away. This happened to me last Friday at the Missouri History Museum, where I went to see Metro Theater Company's production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I read the synopsis of this play. A toy rabbit goes on a journey? What really happened is that playwright Dwayne Hartford took me and the rest of the audience on Edward's journey and it was miraculous.

The play begins in a grand house where Pellegrina gives her granddaughter Abilene a new china rabbit made just for her in Paris. He has his own suits, pocket watch, and silk pajamas. Abilene names him Edward Tulane.

Abilene loves Edward deeply, but Edward, who is vain and shallow, isn't capable of loving anyone. How does the audience know this? After all, he's a toy who can't speak since his mouth is painted on. They know because Edward has his thoughts, which are brought to life by actor Pete Winfrey. Winfrey is credited as The Musician in the cast list, and he strums the soundtrack to the play on his guitar while embodying Edward Tulane, doing both so well that I occasionally forgot he was there, and Edward's thoughts seemed to actually come from Edward the toy rabbit.

Grandmother Pellegrina can hear those selfish thoughts and tries to teach him a lesson with a morbid story about a princess who loved no one but herself, but Edward can't understand her message -- yet. Only after he is accidentally tossed from a ship, lies face-down in the muck of the ocean for months, is rescued by a fisherman and taught about the stars and loss, becomes the confidant of many Great Depression-era hobos -- only after that does he understand the message of Pellegrina's story. Only then can he appreciate the sacrifices people make when they love someone.

All these adventures take place on a bare stage with just a few props and set pieces, yet nothing more is needed. Every member of the crew was on their best game for this show, from sound to costumes. The stories are told, and told well, through the actors' incredible work. Bridgette Bassa and Adam Flores are a dynamic duo on stage, always in perfect sync; their accents and body language moving fluidly from character to character. Erin Renee Roberts is a dauntless narrator and player of many other characters, who holds the audience easily in her grasp. Roxane McWilliams is perhaps underused as The Player; she never speaks, but her musical additions round out the soundtrack. At the heart of it all is Winfrey, the only actor who plays the same role throughout the production.

Hartford adapted Kate DiCamillo's book of the same name for the stage, and director Julia Flood found all the richness of this script and has it on display for us to see. From the original music, the design of Edward, the magical projections of stories and stars that somehow seem at home in the historic setting, she and her cast and crew have woven a beautiful, poignant theatrical experience that every St. Louisan over the age of 8 can enjoy.

If you believe the holidays are about loving and being loved, then this show is for you. Metro Theater Company's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, directed by Julia Flood, plays at the Missouri History Museum now through December 30.  

 

Peter Pan, the story of a boy who wouldn't grow up, was created by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie in 1904 and has delighted children and adults worldwide for more than a century through countless versions on the stage and screen. The story behind this story, however, didn't really come to light until the 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Alan Knee, which inspired the 2004 film Finding Neverland, which in turn inspired the 2012 musical by the same name. 

Finding Neverland made its St. Louis debut last week at the Fabulous Fox on its first National tour, bringing a heaping dose of family-friendly inspiration and imagination (and a bit of schmaltz) in telling the story of Barrie's most renowned work. While Peter Pan's directions to Neverland are "second star to the right, and straight on till morning," Barrie's own path to finding Neverland was inspired by his relationship with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her young sons.

As the show opens, Barrie, played with childlike wonder and zest by Kevin Kern, is enjoying a rare sunny day in Kensington Gardens in turn-of-the-century London. Wracking his brain to come up with a new play for his producer, Charles Frohman (played by the comedic Tom Hewitt), he's only able to rehash old ideas from past plays. Inspiration comes serendipitously in the form of Sylvia's boys: George, Jack, Michael and, of course, Peter. A rotating cast of fine young actors plays the Davies brothers. 

George, Jack and Michael romp around the park playing pirates, much to Barrie's delight and fascination -- though he becomes even more fixated on young Peter (played on opening night by the excellent Eli Tokash), who seems to have lost his desire for imaginative games following the recent death of his father. Barrie also takes an instant liking to Sylvia, played poignantly by Christine Dwyer. Being a married man, however, the two keep their relationship platonic, if not a bit flirtatious. Together, they rekindle Peter's spark, as well as their own, in the catchy, pop-driven number "Believe." 

Complicating things is Barrie's high-society wife, Mary, and Sylvia's dour mother, Mrs. du Maurier, neither of whom approve of the pair's budding friendship. Mary inevitably walks away from her husband, not content to play second fiddle, while Mrs. du Maurier tries to protect her daughter and grandchildren by all but forbidding them to spend more time with the frivolous Barrie. 

Inspired by his interactions with the family, however, Barrie begins to create the fantasy world of Neverland. The most fun moments of this show are those that reveal the origins of some of Peter Pan's iconic imagery. The reflection of a spoon on the wall at a dinner party become's Tinkerbell's light; the curve of Charles Frohman's cane as he warns Barrie that the "clock is ticking" becomes Captain Hook's famous hook-hand. 

Peter Pan's characters, too, are drawn directly from Barrie's relationships with the people in his life. Yet, while he bestows his title character with young Peter's name, it becomes apparent that "the boy who wouldn't grow up" is really a reflection of Barrie himself. When he shares his new vision with Frohman at the theater, the producer balks and rolls his eyes, declaring, "A play for children?" Barrie responds prophetically, "It's not just a play for children -- it's a play for everyone. We all have a child inside us."

As Act One draws to a close, Barrie and retreats deeper and deeper into his imagination, reflected in the four-part "Circus of Your Mind," the most complex and layered of the show's tunes by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, as the legendary Captain Hook emerges as Barrie's own "darker side."

In Act Two, Frohman's theatre company prepares to perform Peter Pan, feeling very out of sorts with their highly unconventional new roles. The Davies brothers are on hand to inspire and provide a child's-eye view of Barrie's vision of Neverland. 

Now single, Barrie's friendship with Sylvia quickly deepens into something more, becoming fully realized in the sugary ballad, "What You Mean to Me," as the couple's shadows dance along, projected on the wall behind them. Kern and Dwyer have undeniable chemistry and harmonize beautifully, making this overly-sentimental moment bearable. 

Their blooming romance is cut short, however, by the growing frequency of Sylvia's deep and foreboding cough. The realization of Barrie's masterwork coincides with the loss of his new love in a beautifully executed sequence that evokes a full range of emotions, bringing deeper meaning to the show's title. 

Vivid and quickly morphing set designs by Scott Pask bring Edwardian era London to life in every scene, while unique projection design by Jon Driscoll, coupled with lighting effects by Kenneth Posner inject the show with a touch of Peter Pan magic, particularly in the dazzling finale. 

Finding Neverland is an inspiring story of life, death, love and the power of imagination, loosely based on J.M. Barrie's real-life creation of his greatest masterpiece and those who inspired it. While the story could have delved deeper into the darker and more complex aspects of these relationships, as well as the work they produced, it treads more on the surface, making it clear that the producers, along with writer James Graham and Director Diane Paulus, were going for something with a broader appeal. 

While not necessarily groundbreaking in its adaptation, Finding Neverland is an uplifting show meant to please Broadway fans of all ages. As Barrie's character declares, "Shouldn't theatre be for everyone? The young and the young at heart?" 

Finding Neverland continues at the Fabulous Fox through December 18.

 

 

Theatergoers looking for an alternative to holiday stories can't get much further away than Mamet, with his love for expletives and stories of downtrodden people living on the fringes of society and, sometimes, sanity. In many ways, his characters illustrate just how fragile the American dream is for millions of its citizens. American Buffalo at St. Louis Actors' Studio embraces this premise with a gritty, raw production that pushes all the right buttons. Though not entirely hopeless or bereft of light, the story is a dark tale of petty crime and life lived under the radar.

Donny is a perpetually down-on-his luck proprietor of a rundown resale shop and the host of a regular card games among his friends, including Teach, a small time thief and opportunist. Young Bobby is a hopelessly lost junkie, desperate to please Donny and be cut in on a heist. He struggles to keep his thoughts and actions clear, but has told Donny that their latest mark, a coin collector, has left with a suitcase, indicating the time for a robbery has arrived. When Teach learns of their plans, he wants to be cut in -- and to cut Bobby out. The friendship between the three is based more on mutual need than trust or likability, though Donny and Bobby clearly care deeply about each other and with good reason.

Though straightforward in its plot, the story is more character study than action, and director John Contini taps into the nervous energy until suspicions, petty squabbles, and distrust permeate the air. Teach presses Donny to get rid of Bobby and instead call on their poker buddy for assistance. Bobby initially tries to win Teach over, but is soon shirking away from the man's overbearing personality. Donny is irritable and irritated, particularly by the way Teach so easily manipulates him, though he can't quite articulate the thought. He also wants to get "his" American Buffalo nickel back, a pitfall of running a small time resale shop and not knowing the value of all the items he displays.

Peter Mayer, as Donny, is querulous and defensive, but always protective of Bobby. He fits his environment perfectly, with an unshaven, tattooed exterior and old biker clothes that mask the tenderness he feels towards Bobby and complement his gruff, defensive conversational style. The relationship between the two irritates Teach, and William Roth brings an intensity and ambition to the character that spills forth in biting comments and insinuations. He talks with the continuous patter of a con man, throwing out opinions as if they were fact and obfuscating challenges to his authority and intelligence with long rambling diatribes. As Bobby, Leo Ramsey shows both the character's nervous, drug-fueled energy as well as his vulnerability. Gaunt from addiction and jumpy by nature, Bobby becomes more agitated when Teach is in the room, though he often ends up skulking out. Ramsey finds meaning in all of Bobby's ticks and addled thoughts.

The characters are wrought from pain, hard work and little reward; and their stories and dreams for a big score are as heartbreaking as they are relevant. The show moves at a fast clip that makes the most of Mamet's deftly illogical logic and crisp, expletive-filled dialogue. The characters aren't particularly likable and their plans result in frustration more than release, but it's hard to take your eyes off them because you just know hell is going to break loose at some point. The tension starts building from Teach's entrance, doesn't let up, and is only partially resolved by the conclusion -- though this device feels entirely appropriate to the story. 

John Contini directs this gut-wrenching show with a soundtrack straight from the mid-70s that fits the tone and energy of the show. The play's action is enhanced with fight choreography by Shaun Sheley and lighting by Dalton Robison that suggests a dim, gloomy room. The resale shop, an important element that's almost a character itself, is fabulously cluttered and interesting. Carla Landis Evans, as costumer and props design, along with set designer Cristie Johnson have outdone themselves, creating the rundown establishment bursting with junk. 

But you'll forget all of that in just a few minutes as you're swept into the story and the intricate battles of wit, will, and false hope. American Buffalo is not a pretty story, but the performances are compelling, beautifully executed, and heartbreakingly real. The show, running through December 18, 2016 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is laden with social sub-context and while it won't leave you humming holiday tunes, it is definitely powerfully effective theater.

The New Jewish Theatre brings Alfred Uhry's gentle and lovely ode to aging and race relation to life in a thoroughly enjoyable production of Driving Miss Daisy that reminds us why the movie struck such a chord when first released. The show, which moves with languid fluidity, traces the 25-year relationship between an older white Jewish woman and her chauffeur, a slightly younger African-American man. Set in the period from 1948 to 1973, their relationship is a microcosmic view of the changes in American society as the Civil Rights movement gained steam and was passed into law.

Daisy Werthan, a comfortably well off widow of a certain age, has just wrecked her new car. As a result, her son, Boolie, and her insurance company determine she is no longer capable of driving. Understanding his mother's desire to socialize and move around independently, Boolie suggests hiring a chauffer. Daisy immediately bristles at the idea, but Boolie ignores her and hires Hoke Coleburn, an African American man in his late fifties.

Daisy rebuffs Hoke initially, saying she'll take the trolley to the store rather than waste money on a driver, but he flatters her into accepting his offer to drive. One might think that, considering the period and recent persecution of the Jewish people, Daisy would be less inclined towards prejudice. But she proves otherwise, initially showing distrust and slight distain to Hoke. Daisy seems oblivious to the harm her words and actions can do, and it's very satisfying to watch her attitude and behavior change as the play progresses. Hoke shows remarkable patience and forgiveness towards the older woman, eventually winning her over with his essential honesty and genuine likability. 

The play's moral compass is firmly rooted in understanding and relationship building, an idea that's continually reinforced. Daisy and Hoke's back and forth continues over the years, mellowing into a valued friendship filled with increasing interest and affection. The time period of the show, critical to the theme and Uhry's nudging moral, is reflected in the actors changing ideas about trust, race, and society. The personal nature of the story, which is also reflected in Boolie's loving relationship with his mother and unquestioned respect for Hoke, is effectively employed to address the larger issue of societal racism without berating audience members.

Kathleen Sitzer is charmingly stubborn and warm, even when she's careless or rude, and she brings a zest for life to Daisy. Though her movements become slower and more difficult to execute as she ages, she retains her vibrant and curious personality from start to finish. J. Samuel Davis is kind, patient beyond words, and genuinely likable. He carries himself with dignity that commands, but never demands, respect and effectively counters Sitzer with a calm, cheerful demeanor prone to laughter. The exchanges between the two are pure fun to watch, and they play off each other in delightful ways. Laughter is more frequent, their postures relax, and they become freely affectionate as the show progresses. Eric Dean White is sympathetic and caring as Boolie, an almost thankless role that nonetheless adds important context to the story. Appropriately supportive, he nonetheless provides additional perspective and a voice of reason and progress, even when his mother fears he's losing his Jewish roots.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga clearly knows the material well, and she ensures the actors find multiple emotional levels, an important touch to a show that is more dialogue and character than action. Dunsi Dai provides the set design and art, effectively using levels and smaller, quickly moved pieces to augment the fixed set. Lighting designer Mark Wilson does a nice job shifting focus; he somehow manages to make the rest of the set disappear when not needed. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, props master Meg Brinkley, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and dialect coach Nancy Bell all contribute to the show, in part by keeping the focus on the story.

Much like the soft, southern accents employed by the actors, Driving Miss Daisy, in performance at the New Jewish Theatre through December 18, 2016, moves with a slow but constant fluidity. The difficulty of covering a span of 25 years is solved with small changes and additions that never disrupt the action or story. These touches help the audience enter Daisy and Hoke's world and embrace the sweet natured love of their deep friendship. We are invited along for the ride as race, age, religion, and class melt into the past and we're left with two near inseparable companions sharing one last visit.

 

Though absolutely a work of fiction, it is so easy to buy into the delightfully fanciful and imaginative Buyer and Cellar that you may forget it's just a story. Stray Dog Theatre embraces the concept of the one-man show, by Jonathan Tolins, and director Gary F. Bell and actor Will Bonfiglio commit 110% to the character and the play's oddly realistic premise. The result is a delicious little bon-bon of a show that is sure to brighten your spirits. 

Alex Moore, played with convincing charm and a dollop of sass by Bonfiglio, is an under-employed actor with experience in retail and on Disney's Main Street, a surreal mix of costumed characters and tchotchke-filled storefronts. These qualifications make him uniquely suited to serve as the sole proprietor in a very exclusive European-style shopping mall, which just happens to be located underneath the barn on Barbra Streisand's estate. 

The "mall" is, in actuality, a series of faux storefronts created to house and display the star's various collections, with a few specialty shops featuring extra goodies like frozen yogurt and gift-wrapping. Streisand's many collections range from her favorite costumes to themed categories of gifts she's been given to items she's purchased over the years for her own gift-giving. Alex spends his days carefully cleaning, rearranging, and caring for the shops while he waits for a tinkling bell, signaling that his lone customer is coming to browse. 

Some of the best moments in the show are Alex's clever conversations and price negotiations with Barbra after she shows a particular interest in one of the dolls on display. Alex quickly makes up a detailed backstory for the doll that is melodramatic and touchingly hilarious. Bonfiglio convincingly plays both characters while providing increasingly humorous commentary. Tolins story is written in a way that reveals more and more of the actor's personality as the story continues, and Bell and Bonfiglio make smart choices at every turn, creating a real sense of intimacy between the actor and audience. 

Bonfiglio exudes warmth and friendliness as he invites the audience in, glibly transitioning from one story or impression to another, and we see Alex's life play out. The effect is naturally conversational and genuine. Though the stage is bare with the exception of a few well-appointed pieces of white furniture, excellent use of imagery, including favorite photos of the star, help us enter Alex's world. 

The show is a convincing and imaginative extension of reality, for Streisand has in fact created a replica mall for her collections as described in Tolins script and the singer/actress's 2010 book. Her self-penned and photographed tome includes lengthy and storied detail about how she designed her property. Some selections from the book are read verbatim, and again it is Alex's deliciously irreverent but never mean-spirited commentary that keeps our interest. Bonfiglio is absolutely and charmingly mesmerizing, infusing his character with joie de vivre in a performance that's filled with insight, nuance, and the perfect mix of fawning and gossip. 

Scenic designer Rob Lippert, lighting designer Tyler Duenow, and sound designer Justin Been are clearly in sync with director Bell's vision for the show. Together they create just the right balance of fact and fiction. In particular, selected images from Streisand's book, projected on the back of the stage, provide anecdotal evidence to corroborate Alex's story while maintaining the artifice of theater.  

Fans of Streisand will love the little personal bits strewn throughout, but Buyer and Cellar, running through December 17, 2016 at Stray Dog Theatre, is more a celebration of an actor plying his skill with grace and humor than it is a star tribute. Sweet natured and performed with a deft, loving touch by Bonfiglio, the show is an engaging little confection that's a perfect theatrical treat. 

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