Charles Dickens' classic Victorian England springs vibrantly to life in the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' faithful production of A Christmas Carol. The story of the Christmas redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is filled with wonder, spectacle, and a bit of fear, as well as the addition of traditional carols. Though this is the first production of the beloved holiday tale in 35 years, it is clear that the cast and crew at the Rep hasn't forgotten how to add all the trimmings and ribbons to this lovely seasonal treat.

Scrooge, a miserly old businessman who thinks holiday celebrations and charity are simply clever ploys to make him part with his money, greets the coming of Christmas with a bah-humbug and dismissive flick of his wrist. His faithful employee Bob Cratchit somehow maintains a cheerful, hopeful disposition in the face of his employer's scorn and penny-pinching, but it's clear he and his large family are barely making ends meet. Even Scrooge's only relative, his gregarious nephew Fred, is scolded for the mere extravagance of inviting his uncle to a Christmas feast.

Scrooge is in a bad way and his only hope is a drastic change. The ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley appears to warn him, but Scrooge scoffs at his caution. As a result, three fantastic ghosts visit the curmudgeonly man. Each ghost guides Scrooge through the journey of his life: past, present, and future, recalling important moments that led to his current disposition. Director Steven Woolf and the spectacular cast get the story just right, and the crew steps it up a notch with intricately detailed costumes and mechanics for each of the ghosts. 

John Rensenhouse deftly moves from querulous and cantankerous to giddy as a schoolboy in his portrayal of Scrooge, and the large ensemble wonderfully complements him. Michael James Reed is sympathetic and likeable as Cratchit, and Amy Loui and Owen Hanford are equally compelling as Mrs. Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Ben Nordstrom is cheerful and kind as nephew Fred, while Joneal Joplin, Jacqueline Thompson, Jerry Vogel, and Landon Tate Boyle are by turns awe-inspiring and frightening as the ghosts.

The supporting ensemble features a plethora of renowned St. Louis' actors, including Chris Tipp, Jack Zanger, Peggy Billo, Alan Knoll, Donna Weinsting, and 13 members of the Muny Kids. The troupe moves fluidly and in-concert, and they add considerably to the choreography and carols, as well as the street scenes. There are a few questionable British accents heard here and there, but the ensemble succeeds in adding texture, movement, and a real sense of a picture postcard Victorian England to the show.

Technically speaking, the Rep pulls out all the stops once again to artistically render the fantastic tale. Music director Jeffrey Carter successfully weaves traditional English carols in and out of the storyline, with pleasant harmonies and familiar arrangements. Scenic Designer Robert Mark Morgan establishes the idea of a city filled with harsh economic realities by showing us the expanse of Scrooge's business, and swiftly moved furniture pieces set location and scene without slowing the show's quick pace. Clever stagecraft creates a number of inventive and magical moments that are sure to make you gasp and smile. 

The mechanics involving the ghosts entrances and exits are truly captivating, and occasionally a little creepy, adding to the dramatic tension. Lighting designer Rob Denton, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and movement supervisor Ellen Isom are assisted by On the FLY Productions, resulting in wonderfully effective and creative scenes. The costumes, by designer Dorothy Marshall Englis, are gorgeously constructed, with rich materials and textures, though some of the original story's focus on the poor and less fortunate feels slightly diminished by their uniform luxury.

The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is among the most beloved of holiday stories, and The Rep's production delivers the spectacle of the story in a standout revival that's a welcome theatrical treat. For holiday entertainment that's sure to delight all but the youngest members of the family, who may find some of the ghosts too frightening, you simply can't beat A Christmas Carol, running through December 24, 2016, with multiple matinees and special performances scheduled.

 

 

 

 

 

Tesseract Theatre's current production, artistic director Taylor Gruenloh's Adverse Effects walks through an emotional minefield as it seeks the truth behind a family's tragic loss. The engrossing show examines current medical and pharmaceutical practices regarding the study and approval of new drugs, and it's not always an easy play to watch. Luckily, a script that builds compassion and tension equally, with character-focused direction and solid performances, ensures a thoroughly engaging production.

The story centers on Phil and Jessica, a couple who tragically lost their only child, a daughter, to suicide. Both parents believe that a medication prescribed for allergies triggered her actions, but they are nearly destitute after spending all they had trying to prove their case. The relationship is strained, but there's genuine love and a commitment to get through this together between the two, and Carl Overly, Jr. and Musa Gurnis bring the pair compassionately to life.

Jessica's brother Richard, a believably unaware and easily swayed research scientist portrayed by Phil Leveling, helps the family when he can by giving them some of the money he earns when he agrees to add his name as co-author on a medical research study. The dubious documentation is actually authored by Alyssa, a comely writer working for a medical education company backed by the pharmaceutical industry, portrayed with appropriately shaky conviction by Julianne King. Unfortunately her boss, a manipulative and rationalizing Taleesha Caturah, views a lack of enforceable culpability as permission to engage in questionable practices.

Phil refuses to give up and finally convinces Maurice, a local reporter tired of covering high school sports, to take an interest in Phil's story even though his editor cautions against it. Though driven in part by boredom, the writer, in an intelligent performance by Maurice Walters II filled with curious energy, is doggedly inquisitive once convinced he's found a story. In the well-developed plot twist, the reporter's queries and desire to find the truth lead him to Richard. Maurice's story gets picked up and a real investigation is finally launched, leading his boss Ed, played with a gruff likeability by Don McClendon, to promote him--a positive secondary plot that, though clichéd, adds much needed lift to the story.

The show is deep and thought provoking, and director Brittanie Gunn serves the script well by focusing on character development and motivation. Gunn and her cast dive in, showing the many facets of their characters and responding with varied nuance and pain. Phil and Jessica are consumed with grief, and we see the full range of logic and emotion in which it is expressed. Richard has fallen hard for Alyssa and he naively allows himself to be all too easily led down a path he instinctively questions. Maurice is simply looking for a story he cares enough about to write. 

There are, however, a few problems with the show. First, the script is very dense and not all audiences will want to commit to the journey, though the destination is quite emotionally satisfying and cathartic. Secondly, the show is comprised of multiple short scenes, particularly the first act, presenting a staging challenge. The multiple transitions slow the show at times and a few of the actors got off to a slow start that lingered. The second act completely redeems the first, however, as the action, conflict, and pace are effectively managed and executed.

Adverse Effects is an incredibly relevant story, and well researched, and you shouldn't let the medical theme or personal tragedy scare you away. At it's heart, this modern twist on a morality tale touches more deeply on love and the lengths we will go to trying to protect and honor those we love than it does science. Overly and Gurnis are effectively sympathetic and imperfect, and each finds numerous levels to express their emotion and frustration, while Walters, Leveling, King, Caturah, and McClendon provide convincing support.

Tesseract Theatre's Adverse Effects, running through December 11, focuses on contemporary issues in a thoughtful way. I wish the transitions between scenes could have been reduced through set design. However, each scene is necessary in setting up the powerful, and likely tear inducing, second act, which moves along perfectly and with increasing tension. 

 

The University of Missouri at St. Louis presents George Orwell's 1984 in a stunningly fine stage adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan.  

Orwell's novel was written in 1948. I read it as a freshman some sixty years ago. Since then not a year has gone by without events in the world reconfirming and deepening my conviction that this is the most important, the most profoundly prescient book on modern politics and power ever written.

The story is set in a totalitarian dystopia of 24/7 surveillance where BIG BROTHER IS (quite literally) WATCHING YOU! Eternal war is maintained among the three global super-powers. Expressing, or even thinking, a politically-incorrect idea is a crime. Newspeak, a reduced and crippled form of English, helps to make "thought-crime" impossible. History is constantly revised according to the regime's current whim. The regime frustrates and destroys all trust--all love--except for the love of Big Brother. The population is to be kept in ignorance, fear, insecurity and hunger. Arbitrary furious hatred is manufactured. Truth itself is abolished. The Ministry of Peace maintains the eternal war; the Ministry of Truth serves propaganda and revises history; the Ministry of Plenty oversees rationing and starvation; the Ministry of Love is concerned with brainwashing and torture.  

If any of this reminds you of 

  • the fight over the content of Texas history books or 
  • the willful destruction of the words "Miss" and "Mrs." or 
  • the vast proliferation of surveillance cameras or
  • the Taliban "Vice and Virtue Ministry" or
  • "pro-choice" vs. "pro-abortion" or
  • the change, in 1949, of our "Department of War" into the "Department of Defense" or
  • the increasingly deft media science of manipulating the mass mind or the storm of hatred and mistrust and the flight from truth in the recent presidential election;

then it's time for you to revisit 1984 to see what else is in store. I strongly recommend this fine production.

The entire play takes place in the Ministry of Love where our hero Winston is being interrogated. For almost the entire play Winston is strapped to a high-tech gurney and forced to tell the story of his "reactionary" thoughts and deeds. From time to time--almost randomly--he is subjected to frightening electro-shock torture. This is all in an effort to "cure" him of his hatred of the regime and to make him truly love Big Brother.

Tony L. Marr, Jr., does beautiful work in the very demanding role of Winston. His convulsive reaction to the shock torture is horrifyingly realistic.

Six guards act out other roles in Winston's story. Costumer Jennifer (JC) Krajicek gives them all Stalinesque uniforms--vaguely military, tending toward dowdy for the two women. "Sensible" shoes, of course.

Jordan Cooper gives a very strong performance as Julia, the girl with whom Winston has an illicit affair. In her job she's an absolute party faithful, but alone with Winston in their secret hide-away she is a romantic rebel.

Harry Menner, Andrew Hartley, Andrew Woodard, Sage Hayes and Kyle Mertens all do fine work as the guards. John Singer makes us really hate him as O'Brien, the Thought Police agent who lures Winston and Julia into this horrid fate. (Andrew Woodard plays O'Brien in an earlier scene--a nicely unsettling choice. Who indeed is O'Brien?)

Mr. Woodard also designed the strikingly dramatic projected images that so strongly support the drama. A wonderful job!

Director Matthew Kerns has done beautiful work in his staging of this difficult but very important piece.   

1984 continues at the Kranzberg through December 11.

  

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre leaps into the holiday season at light speed with their uproarious parody The Making of the Star Wars Holiday Special! The company takes on the famously bad show with exaggerated comedy, plenty of 1970s television references, and spectacularly clumsy impressions played for comic effect. 

By 1978, the Star Wars franchise had already earned blockbuster status and all-time favorite mentions. What better way to extend the popular franchise than to create an action filled holiday adventure story with a message about love, family, and acceptance? Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch was hired and he created quite a story. The tale sees the surprisingly loveable and popular Chewbacca trying to make it home to celebrate "Life Day," a Wookie celebration reminiscent of Christmas, with subtle references to other religions and tolerance thrown in. Han Solo is taking him home, and naturally the two encounter alien challenges and battles between the rebel forces and storm troopers. Just as naturally, Luke Skywalker, Leia, CP30, and R2D2 come to the aid of their friends. Frenemy Lando Calrissian may or may not make an appearance.

The show is schmaltzy, clichéd, and confusing in plot. There's also the added challenge of a lead character who can't communicate much without benefit of translation, due to his limited vocabulary, in a human sense, and hirsute exterior. The special was, frankly, a disaster. More focused on star cameos than story, it only aired once and, as young fans of the franchise, my brothers and I eagerly tuned in. I can assure you it was bad. Perfect source material for a Magic Smoking Monkey show!

As our host, John Fisher is spot on and nearly flawless in his impression of the eccentric writer Bruce Vilanch, with great mannerisms and snark. He guides the audience through the show and shares "previously unaired footage" from the TV special, which is naturally among the funniest and bawdiest bits. The thin as a negligee on a supermodel story flits through the outtakes, commentary, cameo star turns, and occasional song with gleeful abandon. And, although there are no listed age restrictions, a lot of the humor is risqué or caustically sharp in nature. I'm sure Vilanch would approve, but parents of children younger than 15 or so may not.

Jim Ousley and Ron Strawbridge, primarily as Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, anchor the storyline with an abundance of charisma. Whether winking and flirting with the crowd, delivering laughably cheesy dialogue, or seductively slinking across the stage in drag, the two are eminently watchable. Each member of the ensemble plays multiple roles and every one of them has several laugh out loud funny moments. Hunter Fredrick, Brie Howard, Amy Kelly, Rob McLemore, Shannon Nara, and Duncan Philips have some of the best supporting bits, and Tyson Blanquart is a strikingly good Art Carney. Nick Kelly, Scott McDonald, and Jason Puff capably and humorously round out the ensemble.

Though much of the audience and actors are far too young to have seen the special, 70s television is alive and thriving on a number of stations. The audience certainly seems to get it, and the impressions of the prior era stars are broad and funny enough to convey the character, personality and style parodied. As with most Magic Smoking Monkey productions, knowledge of the genre, and in this case the era, helps but is not necessary to enjoy watching genuinely talented actors poke a little fun. 

Donna Northcott directs the show with an appropriately casual approach, ensuring the characters are well defined and the marks are hit, but otherwise awarding free reign. The company's original adaptations maintain a sense of comically controlled chaos, a commitment to farce and innuendo, and a healthy dose of pop culture references including other prominent entertainment franchises. In short, the show is a great choice for light, laughter filled entertainment with plenty of fresh references and skewering wit.

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, the quirky offshoot of St. Louis Shakespeare, celebrates the ridiculous and absurd in our culture. And, let's be honest, there's an abundance of material to choose from around the holidays. The Making of The Star Wars Holiday Special!, a "behind the scenes" look at the spectacular failure of the television special, running through December 10, 2016, is high-octane fun for the holidays. 

 

 

 

 

The Glorious Ones has opened at Webster Conservatory. It's a fond, loving, bawdy musical bouquet to the memory of one of the most enduring traditions that ever graced the stage: the commedia dell'arte.

This style of comedy flourished in Italy in the sixteenth century. It featured the first truly professional actors--though they were viewed by society as "vagabonds, rogues and thieves." commedia was often performed in the streets on wagon stages. Using stereotypical characters and costumes the actors improvised from a repertoire of standard comic scenarios. Commedia endured in Italy and France until it was banished by Napoleon because it was getting too political. It has influenced written comedy for centuries and we still hear its echoes in theater, film and television.

The Glorious Ones is an intimate musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty--the team who gave us Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical and Rocky. The story here concerns a small Commedia troupe and their struggles to survive with their improvised plays against the incursion of scripted comedy into the entertainment world. (It's analogous to the forces at play in Singin' in the Rain, where silent-film actors are faced with competition from "talkies", or also to the long battle between acoustic and electronic music.)

The Webster production is a small but rich one, under the caring direction of Quin Gresham. High praise must go to him as well as to music director Larry Pry and movement coach Jamie McKittrick. All the others in the production team--designers, actors and staff--are very gifted students at the Conservatory.

Scene designer Jordan LaMagna gives us a small stage on a large rustic wagon. Behind is an Italian street-scene on (appropriately) a painted back-drop. A beautiful job!

We meet a struggling Commedia troupe of seven actors. Their leader is Flaminio Scala, the capcomico, or chief comic. He's played with zest and energy by Michael Grieve, a handsome, ardent young man with a strong clear musical-theater voice.

Flaminio's combative lover, Columbina, is played by the beautiful Brenna Noble whose striking eyes and fine stage presence help her give a wonderfully sassy--and at times moving--performance. Costumer Kathleen Embry blesses Columbina with a gorgeous costume featuring a generous offering of the bosom, and Miss Noble confidently employs that neckline (and her own lovely attributes) to make the comic and erotic most of every opportunity. And the lady can sing!

Rebecca Russell, who was so delightful in last season's The Miser, plays Armanda Ragusa, a diminutive scamp-of-all-comedy who is ever filled with merriment. Her voice bears a touch of that fascinating purr so characteristic of Glynis Johns and Joan Greenwood.

Corbyn Sprayberry does charming work. She first appears as a wondrously loose-jointed clown, Pedrolino or Peppe-Nappa. (This is the character that eventually developed into the Italian Pagliaccio, the French Pierot and the English Mr. Punch.) Miss Sprayberry masters this eccentric physicality--like a marionette with strings a little loose. Then, "Presto!" she appears as the beautiful Isabella, a noblewoman who joins the troupe because she's in love with an actor. With golden hair and a face like a porcelain doll she is the perfect fairy-tale princess. The role lets her display her lovely classically-trained voice.

Pantalone, the foolish old man, is played by Ben Love. (I love this character; I played him myself earlier this year.) Mr. Love does fine work, giving us a lean and morose Pantalone who captures all the comedy, yet occasionally evokes our sympathy.

Jay Stalder plays il Dottore, the pompous Latin-spouting scholar. His is another lovely performance--including some impressive physical comedy.

Francesco, the young lover, is well-played by Liam Johnson. He's a lithe and gifted dancer and his manic argument with himself is a comic tour de force.

We see the ambitious troupe travel to France, where they elicit the wrath of the Cardinal. We see the professional and romantic conflict between the young Isabella and the older Columbina. We see Flaminio stubbornly resisting the advent of the written script, which is embodied in a romantic verse drama that Isabella has written for the company.

There is much physical comedy, much bawdiness. There is wildly athletic sex (behind a curtain). There are comic "mad-scenes" where first Columbina and then Isabella believes she is a duck. The players are in constant lovely movement--almost dance. In this Jamie McKittrick, their movement coach, has done wonderful work.

The music varies widely and includes riotous comic numbers, Fosse-esque rhythms, romantic ballads. One poignant song gives Columbina the simple, potent lyric: "I was young/Then I wasn't."

The Glorious Ones is another highly enjoyable production from the Webster Conservatory. It runs in their Stage III on Lockwood through December 11.

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