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.

 

Mustard Seed Theatre once again brings the musical All Is Calm to St. Louis audiences for the holiday season. The story, based on actual events that transpired on Christmas Eve and Day along the front lines of World War I, is an inspiring, moving tale. A combination of songs and monologues pulled from soldiers' letters, the show quietly but forcefully reminds audiences that the holiday season is also about "peace on earth" and "goodwill to men." 

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 1914, the Pope called for but could not get an agreement on a holiday truce between the allied forces and Germany. In a surprising act, the soldiers in the trenches spontaneously declared a truce of their own. The warring factions ceased fighting with bullets and bayonets and instead sang familiar holiday songs to each other. Eventually, many of the troops met between the trenches, exchanging souvenirs, sharing personal stories, and even playing soccer.

Paul Cereghino opens the show on a high note and never backs away from the mark as the other voices drone, bagpipe like, in accompaniment. His voice is strong and pure, and immediately grabs your attention. Anthony Rodriquez fills the stage with natural empathy, and he deftly steers many of the show's important transitions. Rodriguez's voice is clear and pristine, both he and Luke Steingruby show brilliance and control on the higher notes. Steingruby also has a captivating solo that leaves the room silent in awe and emotion.

The crisp, sparkling voices of Jeff Wright, Gerry Love, Kent Coffel, and Steve Jent mix with effortless ease that envelops the room. Steve Isom and Gregory Lhamon have noteworthy songs, and provide considerable texture and gravitas to the show, while Kelvin Urday once again impresses vocally and on the trumpet. The ensemble pieces feature intricate, pitch perfect harmonies and spot on characterizations. Their voices, under the confident direction of Deanna Jent and music director Joe Schoen, blend expertly and I would listen to a CD of this ensemble performance year after year. 

The spontaneous nature of the truce unfolds as the show moves fluidly between song and letters. Dialect coach Richard Lewis ensures the accents are distinct and appropriately varied, and the actors hit all the emotional levels while telling a story that warms the heart, creating hope for peace in troubled times. The commitment to storytelling is the soul of this musical, and the ensemble cast is mesmerizing and on point from the first note to the last refrain. 

The message of All Is Calm comes from the historic accuracy, use of letters, and selection of traditional and period songs. The songs provide context, a sense of era and, most importantly, an emotional arc that complements and connects the monologues. The set, by Kyra Bishop, costumes, by Jane Sullivan, and lighting by Michael Sullivan, make excellent use of the theater space, conveying both the expanse and isolation of army trenches. But it is through the performances, with excellent direction and technical support, that we feel the incredible significance of the occasion. 

All Is Calm, with an extended run through December 11, 2016, is a hopeful tale and a welcome addition to the holiday musical genre. Though centered on Christmas, the theme reminds us of the universal and very human desire for peace. Reflecting on the truce from a 21st century perspective, we are reminded that peace, even if fragile and fleeting, is not simply a common human desire, it is achievable.

Mustard Seed Theatre has indicated that this will be the last year of the show, but I encourage them to reconsider. Their production of All Is Calm is worthy of becoming a tradition for the entire family that rings with messages of peace and goodwill towards all.

 

 

Deanna Jent, Joe Schoen, Richard Lewis

 

 

 

Brooke Michael Smith had a wardrobe malfunction on the opening night of her cabaret show, The Girl I'm Meant to Be, at The Monocle in St. Louis, on Friday, November 18. She didn't have a wardrobe. In her excitement she had forgotten to bring the dress she had planned to wear. No matter. As the dress was fetched from home, it gave the audience 15 minutes to get acquainted with each other, and ultimately this delay, which might have derailed a lesser performer, was the only hiccup in a delightful, funny, moving evening of cabaret.

As a reviewer and practitioner of cabaret, I still find myself explaining exactly what cabaret is. It is this: telling stories through song. As such, it is not so much about brilliant vocal production, as you might expect from a recital. Rather, it is imperative that the singer find songs they connect to in order to tell those stories. Smith's audience was happy to find that she had accomplished both emotional connection and splendid singing. This is no surprise in that her director is the Tony award-winner, Faith Prince, who is a brilliant teacher of the art of cabaret and demands such connection of all her students.

Onstage, Smith, apropos of her show's title, The Girl I'm Meant to Be, projects an attractive, smart, slightly gawky girl-next-door aura with an open yet rueful smile that reminds this reviewer of Sarah Paulson. And while she hits all the beats of a typical autobiographical cabaret show -- born here, went to school there, moved here, met and married there -- the stories and songs lead to surprises that are by turns hilarious and touching. She is ably assisted onstage by her Music Director, Eryn Allen, on the piano. Allen's arrangements were spare or lush depending upon the demands of the song and its emotional content, and she was perfectly in sync both musically and tonally with Smith throughout the show.

Most impressive to me from a performance standpoint was that fact that Smith not only plays the guitar on a few songs but wrote some of them. Using material unfamiliar to an audience is always risky, yet in these moments, Smith's smart writing, crisp diction, and emotional commitment made her original songs easily accessible and clear highlights of the show.

Because the material in a cabaret show can be highly personal, the performer has to walk a narrow line between being too open and too reserved. Smith treads that line effortlessly, and I always felt that she was giving me the gift of creating a space for the audience to have their own emotional experience. This was especially true for me near the end of the show when Smith, talking about the profound experience of being a mom, allowed me to reflect on my own life as a pediatrician. This emotional resonance is what cabaret is all about, and I am grateful to have been present.

I urge you to be on the lookout for Brooke Michael Smith is a cabaret venue near you. She is not to be missed. Meanwhile, cabaret continues on a regular basis at The Monocle in The Grove.

 

 

R-S Theatrics captivating production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Boom peeks into a post-apocalyptic museum where a story of unexpected doom leads to a new creation myth. The humorous pairing of humanity's potential next Adam and Eve is countered by the more clinical, yet nonetheless passionate, observations of our docent, Barbara. The story is part creation myth, part scientific embellishment, and all for laughs in the company's smartly executed retelling. 

In this show, the audience members are visitors to the museum. Barbara, sympathetically played with a crisp point by Nancy Nigh, guides us through the exhibit, pausing the action to provide her notes regarding the presentation. She clearly loves her work and wants to share her interpretation of the events with reverential devotion. Whether Barbara is puppet master or god, it quickly becomes clear that she has more control over the tale that is about to unfold than perhaps she should. We soon learn others have made the same observation.

After her introduction, we meet the exhibit's subjects. Jules, an intellectually exuberant, socially awkward Andrew Kuhlman, and Jo, a sharp-witted and extremely skeptical Elizabeth Van Pelt, as well as the fish: Dorothy, Jon Jon, and their two companions. Sex and the fish figure prominently in Jules' work, leading him to seek a companion in his underground apartment in the event his conclusions, scoffed at by his peers, prove correct. 

Jo answered an ad for "world changing sex" placed by Jules in the student newspaper in hopes of completing a journalism assignment. She's quite forward about getting to the sex, which immediately intimidates Jules. She's also sarcastic and a little weirded out by Jules' theory. Unfortunately, things aren't looking good for them. Jo is on a deadline, Jules is gay, and they are both nervous virgins. Could a global catastrophe improve their luck?

The cat-and-mouse nature of Jules and Jo's relationship is deliciously satisfying, as are Barbara's increasingly frequent and personal interjections. The three actors pace around with increasing determination as the tension builds, and there's a continuously on-edge tone that becomes more comically persistent. The story is revealing and funny, though there are underlying currents of fear, loneliness, and the pain of never quite fitting in that resonate with affection. 

The expanse of the theater space at the Chapel is quite effectively transformed into a large exhibit hall. There's a table with a brightly colored aquarium in the center of the floor, while the elevated stage looks resembles a small apartment. Attention to detail also reveals a control podium and a large drum to the rear of the stage. Every detail serves a purpose, and most are equipped with hidden, humorous surprises.

This configuration reinforces Barbara and the audience as observers, setting up an invisible wall for a show that may at times feel uncomfortably close. Scenic designer Keller Ryan, lighting designer Nathan Schroeder, and sound designer and fight choreographer Mark Kelly have teamed with director Sarah Lynne Holt and technical advisor Scott Schoonover to create a show that successfully merges museum and mythology with comedy.

The closing production of R-S Theatrics season artfully demonstrates a commitment to intellectually stimulating, visually engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable theater. The quirky characters and odd intermingling of stories is strikingly personal and prickly, but touching. While the tale feels familiar if a bit odd, Holt brings clear-headed direction, with a focus on timing and delivery that adds context, sass, and sensibility to the show's inventive twists and obstacles. She and the actors find every sympathetic and comic moment in the script and turn it to their advantage. 

"How did I get here?" "What if my contribution isn't deemed worthy by others?" Whether you approach the answer through faith, art, analysis, or a myriad of other paths, these conundrums remain a lasting source of query and inspiration. Boom, http://www.r-stheatrics.com, running through December 4, 2016 is a welcome and enjoyable dive into that question, with an imaginative script, smart direction, and captivating performances. 

 

Let's cut to the chase: you know all those things you've heard about how intelligent, theatrically powerful, and just generally wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical Hamilton is? Well, they're all absolutely correct. This is a flat-out brilliant piece of musical theatre that manages to be both educational and entertaining at the same time.

Tickets for the Broadway original are almost impossible to get, but fortunately the PrivateBank Theatre in the Chicago Loop is hosting the only other open-ended run of Hamilton in the country. That makes the trip north well worthwhile.

If you've somehow missed all the hype surrounding this amazing show, know that Hamilton is the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, including his heroic leadership during the Revolutionary War, his rapid rise to and fall from political power, and his friendship and rivalry with Aaron Burr, who finally killed Hamilton in a duel over the latter's support for Burr's political rival, Thomas Jefferson.

That might sound like dry stuff, but Mr. Miranda tells the tale with a non-stop torrent of deliberately and cheerfully anachronistic hip-hop, rap, soul, and even a bit of big-band jazz and 1960s pop. Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's sharply contemporary choreography move the story along at a breezy pace that makes the show's running time of just under three hours pass far too quickly, and the performances from the ensemble cast are nothing short of stunning.

In this version of Hamilton's story, the cast is aggressively diverse. Jefferson, Burr, Lafayette, and George Washington are all black. Hamilton is Latino. This is, in short, an ensemble that looks like America in 2016 instead of 1776. That makes the story feel sharply contemporary and reminds us that the men and women who made this country possible weren't carefully posed images in paintings, but living, breathing, and very fallible human beings. It's the sort of thing the now-classic musical 1776 did over four decades ago.

Heading this incredible cast are Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton and Joshua Henry as Burr. Mr. Cervantes (who alternates in the role with Joseph Morales) radiates determination and energy as the man who is repeatedly asked, "Why do you write like you're running out of time?" His performance has an urgency that's matched by Mr. Henry's Burr, who is in a constant war between his admiration of Hamilton's ability and his jealousy of the success it brings.

Ari Afsar is a sympathetically appealing Eliza, Hamilton's long-suffering wife, who finds her way to forgiveness for his affair with Maria Reynolds (a seductively smoky Samantha Marie Ware) and goes on to shape an important legacy of her own. Karen Olivo is a passionate Angelica Schuyler, Eliza's sister and a woman with whom Hamilton had a devoted but (at least in this version of the story) entirely intellectual relationship.

Chris De'Sean Lee is a lively comic presence as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Kirkland perfectly captures George Washington's quiet authority. Wallace Smith shines in the sharply contrasting roles of James Madison and revolutionary spy Hercules Mulligan. And José Ramos was wonderfully affecting in the roles of two doomed characters: Hamilton's friend John Laurens, who is killed in a completely unnecessary battle with the British, and Hamilton's son Philip, slain in an equally pointless duel defending his father's honor.

The day we saw the show, Jin Ha was hilariously effete as King George III (the role is usually played by Alexander Gemignani). His song "You'll Be Back," which treats the colonies as unfaithful lovers ("Remember we made an arrangement when you went away, now you’re making me mad") is, appropriately, a mock-1960s "British invasion" ballad.

That song is just one example of Mr. Miranda's seemingly limitless musical imagination. His score is filled with ingenious touches. When, for example, Jefferson makes his appearance at the top of the second act, having spent the entire revolution in France, his song "What'd I Miss?" written in the style of the late big band era, suggesting how out of touch he is with the more contemporary sounds of the other characters. The debates between Jefferson and Hamilton are staged as rap contests, complete with hand-held mics, in which the characters cheerfully dis each other in rhyme. And the lyrics are filled with theatrical references, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan and even Oscar Hammerstein II.

The set by David Korins is simple and suggests a late eighteenth-century wharf, with brick walls and a high wooden catwalk along the back and sides of the stage. Set pieces are whisked on and off to suggest scene changes, often with the help of a turntable. It's all very fluid and seamless.

There's currently no announced end date for the Chicago run of Hamilton. Tickets are currently being sold well into the summer (a Facebook friend just announced that he had seats for July) and I expect it will continue beyond then if sales warrant it. I assume a tour will play the Fox at some point, but I think this is a show that really deserves to be seen in a Broadway-sized house like the one in Chicago. The lyrics are rich, inventive, and often rapid-fire, and I expect many of them will be lost in the Fox's acoustics.

In nations, as in nature, diversity is a source of strength. Hamilton is a reminder of that strength. We are, as JFK wrote in his book of the same name, "a nation of immigrants," so it's encouraging to note that, when we saw Hamilton, spontaneous applause burst out when Jefferson and Hamilton sang "immigrants: we get the job done." Information on Hamilton and other live theatre in Chicago is available at the Broadway in Chicago website.

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