Plug in the disco ball and dig out your glittering fringe, Mamma Mia! is heating up the MUNY stage with all the flash and pop sensibilities of ABBA's music wrapped with a sweet tale about love and romance, at any age. What could be more fun, on a midsummer's night, than a trip to a Grecian island where the air itself shimmers with romance?

At the young age of twenty, Sophie--played with an incandescent smile, voice, and personality by Brittany Zeinstra--is about to get married to Skylar, a friendly and likeable Jason Gotay. Her mom Donna, the appealing and vocally dynamic Julia Murney, is busy sprucing up the island taverna she owns for the wedding. There's a lovely warmth between the two actresses, and their voices complement each other in tone and timber, enhancing the picture of their close relationship.

Soon guests and friends are arriving for the festivities, including three men from Donna's past: adventurous travel writer Bill Austin, a robust and fun loving Mike McGowan; retired rock and roller Harry Bright, a loyal and caring Ben Nordstrom; and the architect that got away, Sam Carmicheal, a charming and spirited Justin Guarini. Hometown favorite Nordstrom and Guarini stand out with smooth phrasing and easy harmonies, while McGowan's "Take A Chance on Me," a comically in-tune diet with the irrepressible Ann Hurada, is a big crowd pleaser.

You see, although Sophie has her mom, groom, friends, the appealing Sara Gallo and Raven Thomas, and even a couple of "aunties" in the form of Donna's best friends, the scene stealing duo of Hurada and Jenny Powers, there's someone missing from her perfect picture. Her dad. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited the three men here to figure out which one is her father, so he can walk her down the aisle. 

The appearance of the three, particularly Sam, sends Donna's heart aflutter and her sense of independence through the roof. There's a lot of flirtation and anticipation in the story, and the capable ensemble keeps the show moving fast and the tension building. A feast of ABBA songs, some clever interpretations of disco dancing, and several comic turns later, a happy ending is celebrated by the cast and audience to the sequin-infused strains of "Waterloo."

Many of ABBA's most familiar and successful songs are featured in addition to the title track. The most surprising element of the show is that all of the songs aren't big, over-the-top productions. There's tenderness and an almost ballad-like quality some of the songs when stripped down, giving "Our Last Summer" and "The Winner Takes It All" well-supported emotional context. 

That's not to say the big productions are completely forgotten until the finale, there's plenty of splashy numbers throughout, with "Money, Money, Money," kicking things off in style, as well as the memorable "Dancing Queen" and "Super Troupers," and energetic "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme," to name a few highlights. There are sweet songs, regrets softly and tentatively voiced, and numbers that are pure fun, the interpretations simply follow the emotional arc. 

Director Dan Knechtges manages the balance of telling a story and creating a 1970s club experience superbly. He weaves the stories and songs together in a light, satisfying arc that's complemented by Michael Horsley's engaging music direction and arrangements that highlight each singer's voice. The choreography by Jessica Hartman is a slick mix of contemporary jazz and disco-era moves, and the ensemble takes to it well under the skillful lead of dance captain Riza Takahashi.

The gorgeous set design, by Tim Mackabee, makes me want to plan a trip to a Greek island and is thoughtfully complemented with video, designed by Greg Emetaz, and the lighting design of Nathan W. Scheuer. The highly detailed costumes, by Leon Dobkowski with wigs by John Metzner, are the icing on the cake in this show, ranging from bohemian chic island wear to the sparkle and flash of disco with just the right extra touches.

Running through July 28, 2016 at the MUNY in Forest Park, Mamma Mia! is a light-hearted, romantic romp filled with songs from the late 1970s that are near pop perfection. The bubbly songs and light romance complement each other, creating a delightfully charming, occasionally enchanting, and always optimistic musical comedy that's perfect family entertainment for a hot summer's night. 

 

 

Insight Theatre Company dives into the intricacies of family in the two act musical John & Jen, by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald. The story follows the life of Jen, a young woman with an abusive father, through her relationships with her brother and, later, her son. There's an attempt to find greater lessons on love in the pain and loss of life, but an unfocused script, difficult songs, and a cast not quite up to the musical challenge result in a rather forgettable production.

The first act focuses on Jen's relationship with her younger brother. The siblings live in fear of their father, with no protection other than each other, as expressed in songs and short scenes that hint at the troubles that bind them together. Though she promises to always protect her brother, Jen soon leaves for college, a devastating moment for John. The next time we see the two together, she is an anti-war protester planning a move to Canada and he has enlisted in the navy.

In the second act, we are introduced to Jen's son, John, who's about to graduate and move to the other side of the country for college. Jen, still grieving over the fact she never reconciled with her brother before his death in Vietnam, is reluctant to allow her son to move away and begin a life on his own. Regret and the choices people make to escape bad relationships, even when they're with a parent, are constantly present in this show, but never fully articulated. The characters are much the same. 

Jenni Ryan, as Jen, and Spencer Davis Milford, as both brother and son John, work hard to fill in the gaps and define their characters, but it's a difficult task. I am not sure if this is director Trish Brown's interpretation and direction or a weakness of the script, but these characters feel like personas; an amalgam of viewpoints and experiences that represent an era, not a person. 

Ryan and Milford put forth the effort but can't overcome the thin script and uninspired songs, which were often just as problematic and vague as the short scenes that linked them together. The two struggle with the material and arrangements, there are a number of moments when the harmonies are off and the notes simply missed. Still I genuinely wanted to embrace these characters and try to understand their story. 

Though Jen and her brother have a stronger, more visible connection, it's tenuous at best, making it hard for the audience to come along for their journey. The younger John, Jen's son, is largely undefined even though the second act is centered on his relationship with his mom. Part of the problem here is that there's a lot of exposition and telling, rather than showing in this musical. There are more than a few sweet scenes throughout the show, however, and several of the songs, with appealing choreography from Taylor Pietz, are effective in the moment. 

What intrigues me most about the story is the parallels of life, particularly for those who grew up in troubled families. The way learned ideas about love, loyalty, protection, and self-worth reveal themselves through the different but lasting bonds that exist between siblings, and between parents and children. Insight Theatre's ambitious but flawed production is at its best when those moments are brought to light and given an extra pause for attention. 

Unfortunately, even some of those scenes suffered from poor execution and a lack of focus on the relationships that are at the heart of this story. Music director Larry D. Pry does a nice job with the orchestra, but, where possible, the vocal parts would benefit from transposition or an emphasized harmonic to help the actors shine. The songs where the range and harmonies work, such as "Dear God" and "Timeline," are pleasant and engaging.

Acceptance, unconditional love, and forgiveness, as well as the cost to get there, are truly compelling themes. Family relationships and hardship are always good territory to explore. But John & Jen loses its way often, and forgets to tie the story together. The direction lacks purpose and certainty at times, leaving the actors too far apart for connection and relying too heavily on photographs and images projected on the video screen. As an audience member, I shouldn't need to glance at the screen to understand the scene I'm watching, and at times, the pictures felt a bit overbearing.

John & Jen, in production at Insight Theatre through July 31, 2016, seems desperate to tell us something, and Milford and Ryan give the show their all. Unfortunately, desire isn't quite enough to result in a satisfying production. I genuinely want to like this production; I simply feel it lacks the depth and quality of story, songs, or character to really hold my interest. Frankly, it left me wanting. 

 

Fans of musical comedy and Mel Brooks will be delighted with the MUNY's fast-talking, wisecracking, innuendo-throwing, high-stepping, laugh-out-loud funny production of Young Frankenstein. The show retains all of the fun, horror movie spoofs, and clever references of the movie on which it's based while dropping only a few of the film's favorite jokes.

Victor Frankenstein has died, bringing much relief to the local villagers. That is, until they learn that the doctor has a living grandson, Frederick, teaching medical science in America. A telegram is sent post haste and soon the brilliant doctor is saying goodbye to his coy fiancée and boarding a ship to Transylvania, his family's homeland. Though he pronounces his last name Frahnk-en-schteen and swears an aversion to his grandfather's calling, he finds himself tinkering around in the laboratory, trying to re-animate a creature of his own. The villagers are scared and plan to investigate, but end up frightening the monster away, where he finds temporary refuge with a hermit that just wants some company. All accompanied by a barrage of puns, physical comedy, and bawdy humor.

The villagers want to destroy the monster; the doctor feels compassion for his creature and a growing attraction to his assistant, Inga. She is curious and willing, Igor is delighted to see him working, and Frau Blucher is melancholy and suspicious. Naturally, his fiancée chooses this moment to show up. Comic confusion ensues, the monster sings, dances, and falls in love, and everything eventually falls into place with a happy ending assured for all.

Robert Petkoff brings a friendly, frenetic energy to the role of Frederick Frankenstein. He's light on his feet with a smooth easy voice and gregarious nature. His inflections and phrasing remind one of Gene Wilder in the best ways, and is pushed to near perfection in act two. Steve Rosen, as Igor, is full of fantastic double takes and sly humor, and it's a joy to watch him and Petkoff interact. Their reactions to each other are well timed, and they play off each other's character in moments both subtle and overt. The chemistry between the two men can be felt clear to the back of the amphitheater.

Jennifer Cody, as Elizabeth; Stephanie Gibson as Inga; and Vicki Lewis, as Frau Blucher; add to the fun with strong singing voices and exaggeratedly comic gestures. The three women use their voices expertly, and Cody and Lewis are particularly inspired with cartoonish interpretations that reflect the tone and spirit of the original roles, while Gibson gives the naïve sex kitten a sharp wit and knowing air.

John Scherer, Zachary Daniel Jones, and dance captain Brandon Timmons provide strong support, and Timothy Hughes is a delightfully fleet footed, dim witted, and randy Monster. Hughes is remarkably quick and agile for a man wearing six-inch (or higher) platforms shoes, and the difference in his and Cody's height is irresistible comedy that's mined to great effect throughout their scenes. 

Mel Brooks may be the grandfather of "bad dad" jokes, with his love of corny puns and sly interjections of topical humor. He's never one to miss a pratfall or the opportunity for a lewd joke delivered with a leering glance. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge recognizes and embraces his style by updating some of the pop culture quips and keeping the sexual humor without showing too much skin or lingering too long. The balance works well for a family friendly show, though parents of preteens and younger children will want to consider the movie, which provides the source material.

The music and choreography are campy and fun, and there's always a point of visual interest or an unexpected joke to catch your attention. The songs feature numerous stylistic references from the history of American music that keep the tone of the show light and breezy. Music Director Charlie Alterman and the orchestra do a spectacular job of paying attention to the details in the musical styles while keeping the transitions fluid, interesting, and engaging. 

You hear Broadway show tunes in "The Brain," the sounds of country in the twang influenced "Roll in the Hay," and pop and teenage angst in "He Was My Boyfriend." Brooks has penned a plethora of clever ditties, with layered, suggestive lyrics and catchy tunes, but it's the spectacular dance number, Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," that best captures the spirit and humor of the show. The song builds from a faltering duet between Frankenstein and the Monster to an enthusiastic jazz and tap routine that features the entire ensemble, plus a cadre of younger MUNY dancers. Josh Rhodes choreography starts slow and simple then adds layers of complexity, increasing tempo, and an onslaught of dancers, creating a number that's both visually and rhythmically mesmerizing.

The MUNY's production of Young Frankenstein, running through July 19, 2016, pulls out all the stops with intentionally madcap scenes, smart, well-crafted songs, and sharp dancing that perfectly complements the over-the-top horror movie spoof. Though some of the humor may be a bit risqué for younger children, the show is a good-natured romp through Mel Brooks fertile imagination that is sure to leave you laughing and humming.

 

 

 

I was quite nervous to attend Theatre Nuevo’s presentation of ten short plays, Orgullo: A Pride of One Acts, currently in production at the creative space at 1900 Park. Not because of the subject matter, which is an exploration of contemporary attitudes on race through situations that can be found in cities large and small across America. I was nervous because I don’t speak Spanish and was afraid that I would be lost; unable to follow the stories I was watching.

I’m happy to report that my nerves were unnecessary. Fluency in Spanish is not required to enjoy the thoroughly engaging, sometimes humorous, and always well-constructed stories presented. There were undoubtedly details and nuance that I missed in the Spanish dialogue, but the stories are primarily told in English. As importantly, the ensemble cast, featuring Robert Ayllón, Clayton Bury, Rahamses Galvan, Ann Marie Mohr, Jesse Muñoz, Ariel Saul, Gabe Taylor, Natasha Toro, Kelvin Urday, and Anna Skidis Vargas, does an excellent job adding context, expression, and action to convey each play’s meaning.

The show opens with “Brown Only,” by Alvaro Saar Rios, directed by Adam Flores. This piece is about actors, auditioning, and authenticity. Clayton Bury is a white guy who wants to audition for the part of Pancho Villa in an upcoming musical, even though there is a room full of Latino actors who can clearly handle the part. There’s an appropriate edge to this piece, and its truth made me a little uncomfortable for all the right reasons. Natasha Toro is powerful as a woman trying to balance the inequities of assimilation, family loyalty, and respect for the law in “No Apologies – Our Song,” By José Casa, directed by Skidis Vargas. Even though the audience can sense where the story is headed, the show still delivers a shock.

“La Cita,” by Carlos Manuel, directed by Toro with assistance from Manuela Kalamboukas, features Skidis Vargas and Ayllón as a therapist and client dealing with the ramifications of frustration and anger. The script that features a genuinely unexpected twist that is as eye opening as it is laugh inducing. As I struggled to comprehend some of the speedy Spanish dialogue in this one, I found myself able to tap into the emotional context of the play in a personal way.

“La Cocina de Jorge,” by Gregory Fenner, directed by Ayllón, reminds me how powerful economic status can be, and how often it is used to entice or take advantage of others. Toro and Muñoz are sympathetic, with a good connection that helps deliver the conflicting emotions the story engenders. The closing piece of act one, “Menudo Pops,” the second by Alvaro Saar Rios, directed by Skidis Vargas, pushes this idea further with a satirical commercial and unnaturally perky performances by Galvan, Mohr, and Urday.

The second act opens with of “No Apologies – Muñeca,” another play by José Casas, directed by Skidis Vargas. This is the only piece entirely in Spanish, for which a translation is included in the program. In a conversational monologue, Galvan tells the story of a young father working hard to build a better life for his family and, particularly, his young daughter. The depth of feeling, the sense of both hope and desperation, is palpable whether you understand every word or not. Galvan clearly communicates that he understands the risks he’s taking but is more concerned about his family’s welfare.

“Byzantine,” a thoughtful play by Tlolac Rivas, directed by Christina Rios, follows Galvan’s monologue. A play about connection, it mines the idea that each of us has a story to tell and the opportunity to make a positive impact. Actors Muñoz and Mohr are at first hesitant, then cautious, and finally make a tenuous but important connection. Though not at all heavy handed, the story reminds us we have much in common, while emphasizing that listening and compassion matter.

“Never Mess with a Mexican Girl,” by Miryam Madrigal, directed by Gabe Taylor, is a delightfully humorous retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” with a Mexican heroine. Toro lets the character’s personality shine, and Galvan and Urday contribute to the humor while Saul provides spirited narration. “Exotic,” by Melinda Vargas, directed by Kathryn Bentley, probes personal identity and challenges the effects of careless or casually slung adjectives we often use to label others. The script is conversational, and actors Skidis Vargs and Taylor ensure the message hits home without berating. Nathan Jatcko’s humorous sketch with song, “I’m Casting A Vote,” directed by Ayllón, closes the evening with a cheerful nudge for audience members to get out and vote. There’s no overt politicking here, just a tuneful suggestion.

“Orgullo” is the Spanish word for pride, and pride is apparent in the selected plays and direction. The ten stories tell of the Latino experience with contemporary, relatable stories that could happen in almost any community in the United States. But each story is varied, with truths and complexities that represent the fullness of life, not simply a single perspective. Rather than focusing on fancy sets or big production numbers, Theatre Neuvo demonstrates a deep commitment to storytelling with this production. And storytelling is what makes Orgullo: A Pride of One Acts, in performance at 1900 Park Avenue through July 24, 2016, such a compelling evening’s entertainment.

 

 

With submissions from around the country, St. Louis Actors' Studio has quickly established its annual production of original plays, The LaBute New Theater Festival, as a "must see" event for theater fans, and this year is no exception. The St. Louis-based festival is presented in two parts, the first part runs through July 17, 2016 and the second part the following two weekends, with selected pieces to be performed in New York later this year.

Neil LaBute's Life Model, directed by John Pierson, opens part one. The well-constructed script is a humorous piece that begs deeper questions, leading the actors and audience along a twisted path that slowly reveals its intended point. We are introduced to Jenny Smith, as the Artist, and Bridgette Bassa, as the Model, during a break in a sketching session.

A seemingly innocent glance at the work in progress leads to an exploration of art and commerce that pushes each character to defend her value. Suggestions of perversity are countered by accusations of artistic prostitution, although the question at the core of the piece remains, "What defines an artist?" LaBute's dialogue is sharp, transitioning from casual conversation to uncomfortable battle and uneasy resolution, with clear direction and bristling performances.

Sans Matches, by Jeff Carter and directed by Pierson, slides insidiously into your head while entertaining with cleverly realistic dialogue and characters fully immersed in the day-to-day drama of contemporary life. Emily Baker and Eric Dean White are the yin and yang parents of Jeremy Pinson, a typical American teen. There's a perfected air of indifferent annoyance between the family members. Though each character has a few secrets they hide, the trouble with this family is familiarity not dislike.

The three are struggling to enjoy a picnic in the woods outside a major city when their mindless bickering is spectacularly interrupted. Suddenly, a show about a family just trying to get along ends with an environmental catastrophe and, with a splash of irony, we are reminded how small the battles and how careless the actions of mankind really are.

Winter Break, by James Haigney, directed by Michael Hogan, is another play about contemporary issues, as it confronts religious freedom and its impact on the prototypical American family. Directed with an eye for body language that heightens conflict, the show pushes some comfort buttons as a young woman from a moderate protestant family defends her decision to travel to the Mideast and continue her conversion from Christian to Muslim. Smith, Leerin Campbell, and Ryan Scott Foizey turn in compelling performances, creating sympathetic characters that refuse easy analysis, though the dialogue could use some focus and clarity. The show is filled with tension from the first movement, and the resolution is layered with confusion, hesitation, and the unwavering love of parents for their children.

Cary Pepper's Mark My Worms, directed by Hogan and the closing piece in part one, is a hilariously absurd play that examines ideas of artistic expression and merit. David Wassilak is a director attempting to mount a newly discovered play from a celebrated, but deceased, playwright featuring actors White and Baker. The playwright's estate insists that the script must be performed exactly as presented, though it is clearly riddled with typos.

Together, the three wrestle over meaning, interpretation and fame, leading the audience to question whether it was typos, rather than genius, that led to the author's success. The three actors are clearly comfortable playing with the genuinely absurd dialogue, and director Hogan gives them reign without losing site of the destination. The physicality of their interpretations is matched with line after line of ridiculously plausible but illogical dialogue, once White and Baker get going the effect is electrifying, silly, and effective.

Just four seasons into the festival, the event attracts high quality scripts from a wide variety of playwrights that touch on common, contemporary themes. The shows are also presented in an order that, with a nod to the selection and production teams, creates a satisfying dramatic arc. Patrick Huber's set and lighting design serve all the shows well while enabling quick set changes under the direction of stage manager Amy J. Paige and her efficient crew.

The four pieces of St. Louis Actors' Studio's LaBute New Theater Festival: Part I, running through July 17, 2016, are an engaging and well-positioned slate of short plays. Directors Pierson and Hogan show a deep appreciation for the original scripts, leading the actors with confidence and exploiting the theater's small space. The resulting production is fast-paced and interesting, with compelling, motivated performances that ensure a thoroughly enjoyable, provocative, and at times laugh out loud funny evening.

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