Setting yet another St. Louis theater milestone, this one for longevity, the West End Players Guild opens its 106th season with a thoroughly engaging and entertaining production of Tom Stoppard's playful and brainy Arcadia. Focused direction and strong performances boost this time traveling comic mystery, with Lord Byron, gardening, math, sex, and literature thrown in to keep the audience on their toes. 

Set on a country estate in Derbyshire 200 years apart, the interwoven storylines are interesting and compelling. In the earlier period the science of order and conformity is pitted against the chaos of the natural sciences. In the present, the characters spar over the application of the scientific method, fact versus instinct, and the nature of creative genius. There's more than a touch of lustful scandal, and, in a surprising and satisfying twist, much of the romance is sparked by intellectual debate. Blended together, the two tales create a satisfying, if at times dizzying, story arc.

The show opens in flashback, in a cinematic sense, alternating scenes from the past and present until midway through the second act. It is often difficult to feel immersed in live theater when significant time jumps are introduced, but director Ellie Schwetye, assistant Kate McAllister, and the well-chosen cast succeed with confidence. 

The cast is period distinct, with the exception of Mason Hunt, who convincingly plays a character of singular importance in each period. Hunt is the audience eye, more observer than participant, and his reactions reflect confusion, thoughtful progression, and intelligence.

Kristin Rion and Michael Cassidy Flynn are filled with youthful exuberance and curiosity as the heroine and hero of the past, while Nicole Angeli and John Wolbers argue and bicker with magnetic intensity in the present. The leads complement each other, and their counter-time couple as well, with Rion and Flynn overflowing with curiosity and possibility, while Angeli and Wolbers display seasoned restraint and skeptical interest. 

One of the delightful twists in Arcadia is that both Rion and Angeli are intellectuals and, while each is comely, they attract with their minds. As importantly, they prize their mind and capabilities over affectations of gender. Director Schwetye and the actresses make wise choices that naturally emphasize each character's ability to see connections and possibilities others cannot.

The ensemble employs visually connected, near immersive storytelling that enables the scenes to seamlessly merge. Andrew S. Kuhlman, Anne Marie Mohr, Anthony Wininger, Carl Overly, Jr., and Scott De Broux complete the period cast, while Erin Renee Roberts and Jaz Tucker capably support the contemporary story. Each actor finds proclivities and preferences to distinguish their character. Kuhlman stands out for his peevish and petulant poet, Overly for his comically artistic flair, and Mohr for her primly passion. In contrast, Roberts and Tucker are smart but feisty, active foils to Angeli and Wolbers carefully studied academic demeanor.

The cast employs a variety of British dialects, and each character stays generally true to the chosen accent and consistent throughout the performance. There's a lot to say in this well-crafted script, however, and it is sometimes difficult to keep up as the cast is committed to a brisk, energetic pace. The approach works for the most part, but there are a few moments, particularly after a major revelation or significant clue is dropped, when a well-placed pause would serve the actors and audience well.

Attention to detail creates a layered story that is told as much by each prop's placement and use as it is by the distinct expression, personality, and motivations of each character. To successfully suggest the expanse of the grand manor, the set consists of one room, a garden study with a large table and picture windows, as well as multiple entrances and exits. Tracy Newcomb-Margrave does a wonderful job establishing period and tone with her costumes, and the props are impressive in number, detail, and significance to the overlapping stories.

In the service of transparency, this reviewer feels compelled to mention that I was part of a committee that recommended this script to the company, however I had no part in the casting or production. Audiences should also be cautioned that active listening is required, though you are likely to be quite pleased with the results of your effort.

Sharply scripted and smartly performed, Arcadia -- running through October 9, 2016 at the West End Players Guild -- is a fantastic choice for theatergoers who enjoy the mental entertainment of suspense mixed with history and imaginatively stirred. 

 

 

 

The slow-burning hit musical Once played at the Fox last weekend for five quick shows before the tour moved on to other cities, and if you missed it, you missed out on something special. The show was "delicious," as a friend of mine said, with soul-piercing music and moving performances by the entire ensemble. 

Once turned the enormous Fox theatre into a small, intimate, warm setting with its cleverly-designed set that put the 4,500-person audience together in a small Irish pub with lights that felt like small bonfires in a dark field and cloudy mirrors that reflected shimmery visions of the cast. From the orchestra, every note and every word of the show were clearly heard. There was no curtain; the show began with players and audience members on stage having what felt like an impromptu jam session. Audience members were ushered to their seats slowly during the jam, and eventually, one of the performers sang and played a lilting Irish folk song on his mandolin as the lights lowered and our attention unconsciously turned to the story unfolding. 

Guy entered and played half a song from his heart for a small crowd at the pub, quitting before he finished because the emotions were too much for him. He had written this song for a girl he could no longer have and was ready to give up music entirely. Girl, moved by his music, wasn't having it. She forcefully inserted herself into Guy's life because she believed everyone deserved to hear his songs. They were falling in love, maybe, but it was complicated because they each had responsibilities to others. What's clear is that they were able to give one another exactly what each needed.

Sam Cieri played Guy with perfection: every shrug, every high note, every grunt was the embodiment of his character. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy as Girl was refreshing and honest, and her voice is one of the most lovely I've heard on stage in years. She sometimes forgot she was supposed to be Czech, but I forgive her for it -- accents are so difficult to maintain, and she was so likable that much of the audience never noticed when her American accent came through. 

The two leads were supported by an ensemble of leading men and women; everyone in the cast played multiple instruments while dancing. They never left the stage, came in and out as different people and each new character was as believable as the last. Liam Fennecken stood out as Švec; with only a few lines, he had the audience laughing and loving him, and his musicianship was extraordinary. Jenn Chandler stunned with her ability to sing badly when she is, in reality, a very adept vocalist. It is arduous for trained musicians to fake incompetence with music. 

The story of Guy and Girl was aching and rings with truthfulness; its love story for Dublin woven skillfully through the plot. Based on the film Once by John Carney, Enda Walsh adapted the screenplay skillfully for the stage. When sung by Cieri, Lesser-Roy, and this ensemble, every song by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sounded like a timeless hit. 

Once, directed by John Tiffany, played at the Fabulous Fox September 30 through October 2. 

 



The Black Rep flexes some serious dramatic muscle in the opening show of their 40th season. A love triangle, particularly one tinged with deep seeded hatred, is always ripe material for a riveting script. The stakes are heightened in the sharply written Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, as playwright Mark Clayton Southers amps up the dramatic tension and consequences by setting this triangle in the Reconstruction-era South. The relationships between races during the era, particularly in the South, were thrown in to turmoil as the nation slowly rebounded from war, creating a power structure in flux and challenging previous laws and social conventions.

The script, and inspired adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie, is filled with racial strife, and the lines between former slaves who still work for their former owners are particularly blurred. Miss Julie is the white daughter of the former plantation owner, Clarissa is her mixed race half-sister by her father, and John is black, a former family slave. He is also the object of Miss Julie's unabashed advances, as well as Clarissa's love and long-time companionship.

The play chronicles the midsummer's celebration at the plantation, during which the three lives are irrevocably changed. The day was traditionally reserved for celebration, with music and dances, and Miss Julie is known to be particularly uninhibited at these parties. John is fixing breakfast for the Captain, Miss Julie's and Clarissa's father, while Clarissa busies herself with daily chores. She's also preparing for the party and brewing a syrup used to cause pregnant dogs to lose the litter. The syrup is brewing at Miss Julie's request, and reveals her callous and cavalier nature towards living beings she considers beneath herself, including her half-sister and John.

Laurie McConnell shows why she's one of the busiest actresses in St. Louis with an emotionally erratic, yet deeply connected performance that captures the character's complexity. She's bold and brazen in one scene, then panicked and desperate in another and yet these disparities feel natural. Miss Julie may be a bit fickle, and there are secrets she's holding, but she's also vibrant, determined, and overtly manipulative. It is difficult to like the character, but McConnell expertly plays the sympathetic moments to ensure we remain interested.

Alicia Revé Like is more grounded and practical as Clarissa, but she too is filled with fiery emotions, and she uses her voice and physicality with great command. Her laughter and pain are clear, and authentically raw, but she's also quite perceptive, saying volumes with a small gesture or second look. Like's performance is filled with honesty and loyalty that's backed by a sharp, decisive mind. In many ways, she is the opposite but equal to her sister, and Like and director Andrea Frye deftly emphasize her qualities while McConnell desperately works to discredit them.

Eric J. Conners is compelling and intriguing as John, a man truly caught in the middle, though not due to equal affection towards the women. John is caught between slavery and freedom, between the comfort of the known enemy and the uncertainty of the unknown. Between a beautiful but skittish woman who attracts him, though he doesn't want it, and a beautiful, constant woman who has long held his heart. For the audience, Conners' actions and choices reflect the times and changing world all the characters are trying to navigate. Conners shows restraint in his choices and reactions that add gravitas to the character.

Frye mixes thoughtful hesitations, impulsive moves, and manipulated circumstances to create a tense, driven script that rings true as a psychological thriller more than a morality or period piece. The set design, by Jim Burwinkel, and costumes, by Jennifer Krajicek, set the tone, perfectly capturing the faded glory and reduced circumstances of the a grand plantation. Kathy Perkins' lighting design and period appropriate props by Jenny Smith add the finishing technical touches. Strong performances and a thought provoking script ensure the Black Rep's Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a deeply entertaining production. The play runs through September 25, 2016 at the Edison Theatre at Washington University.



 

The 2016 theater calendar has been a banner year for St. Louis theater, with a number of companies celebrating milestone anniversaries in their current season. St. Louis Actors' Studio joins the list of accomplished companies, opening its 10th season with Edward Albee's engrossing Three Tall Women. The Pulitzer Prize-winning script is filled with insightful dialogue and sharply drawn characters that open the window into the soul of an aging matriarch known simply as "A."

 The play is presented in two distinct acts that complete the picture of a strong-willed, independent woman whose flaws and temperament color and strain every interaction, destroying her most important relationships. Set in 1991, the play explores aging and self-identity from a variety of angles, culminating in a brilliantly scripted second act conversation with the self that is humorous, perceptive, and equally cruel and forgiving.

We are introduced to the main character, played with great range and sensitivity by Jan Meyer, in her later years, living with only her attendants and staff to care for her. Though not yet bedridden, she is 91 and suffering from fragile bones, fractured memory, and an acute awareness of death's proximity. Meyer skillfully moves from lucid to lost and from acid-tongued to sweet nothings while maintaining a regal presence in the face of physical and mental decline.

She is dependent on a nurse, the nearly flawless Amy Loui, who seems to genuinely care about her comfort and well being, even when A is verbally abusive, pointedly unkind, or unconsciously racist and offensive. A is also visited by a young lawyer from the firm handling her estate. The lawyer, played with impeccable confidence by Sophia Brown, is filled with questions and quite skeptical of A's ability to handle her own affairs, though she can't say as much directly. The conversation alludes to the woman's long life and personal struggles, piquing audience curiosity and setting up the surprising second act, in which each of the three woman represent Character A at different ages -- 21, 52, and 91, or 92, perhaps.

The character's quickly failing health has summonsed her selves to the room, and the three chat about her life as they, and her estranged son, patiently wait for her to die. Michael Perkins is stoic and still in the unheralded role of the son, unaware as Meyer, Loui, and Brown explode around him. The three actresses relate A's story while battling and seeking comfort from each other -- and the relationship between the selves is as fractured and tenuous as A's grasp on life.

Patrick Huber's set is nicely appointed, reminiscent of A's fading wealth and aesthetic sensibilities. The colors in the set and his lighting design reflect a character that is cool, but not cold, conservative, but newly rich and slightly loud about it. The costumes, by Carla Landis, reflect the same conservative showiness. I particularly like the second act costumes' floral references. Brown, as A at 21, wears a soft pink dress with a shape and structure that suggests the petals of a flower in full bloom, while Loui and Meyer wear dresses embellished with floral details. Loui wears a bold blue that represents her height of strength and determination, while Meyer wears a lavender shade that's a fading combination of the other two dress colors.

I also appreciate the differing wigs worn by Meyer; she's somewhat disheveled in the reality of act one, but expertly coiffed as her inner aging self. Even the decision to have Perkins wear his hair long and curly, visually referencing Brown's full curls, feels an intentional touch designed to complete director Wayne Salomon's vision of the tale and its deeper meaning. Though modest in budget and technical wizardry, the company is adept at supporting the script and the actors, who turn in powerful and affecting performances.

Meyer, Loui, and Brown, under the sure-handed direction of Salomon, find ways to peel back the layers, to confront and resolve their conflicting emotions and memories until they create a balance where they can comfortably coexist as one. Watching these three talented actresses unravel the tangled knots and weave back together as a whole is all at once painful, and satisfying, and mesmerizing.

The St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Edward Albee's fascinating Three Tall Women runs through October 9, 2016. Relative newcomer Brown stands tall with established powerhouse veterans Meyer and Loui in a compelling show that is at times painfully realistic, vibrantly imaginative, and touchingly forgiving.
 

 

The Fox Theatre kicked of its 2016-2017 Broadway season on Tuesday evening with A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, appearing on its first National Tour. Set against the backdrop of Edwardian England, as the show opens, the "gentleman" in question, poor peasant Monty Navarro (played delightfully by Kevin Massey), has just lost his beloved mother. After a visit from an old family friend, Mrs. Shingle, he soon discovers his mother's life's secret -- that she was actually a member of the noble D'Ysquith family, which disowned her years ago when she married a Castilian musician, choosing love over money. 

Upon discovering his wealthy bloodline and the eight D'Ysquith heirs before him to the title of Earl of Highhurst, Monty sets in motion a murderous plot to get rid of each of them in a dark and amusing romp that harkens back to the Golden Age of musical comedy. Monty quickly embraces his new role as a dashing serial killer, and does his dirty deeds to avenge his mother and improve his station in life. He hopes to win over his long-time mistress, the beautiful but shallow Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), who marries a man she doesn't love because he's rich. Meanwhile Monty meets and is soon set to marry his newfound cousin, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), in a bizarre and familial love triangle. 

The real star of this show, however, is John Rapson, who plays all eight of the doomed D'Ysquith heirs, each with his (and even her) own personality and panache. He seamlessly makes the transition between more than half of the show's characters and costumes in a series of quick changes that leaves the audience's collective heads spinning. Rapson commands the stage whenever he's on it (which is often) -- bringing an over-the-top caricature quality to each D'Ysquith's untimely death -- and plenty of laughs along the way. Massey's Monty is equally charming as his foil, and the pair display great chemistry and comedic timing in their unseemly dances of death.

The appeal of Gentleman's Guide is a bit subtler than some of the better-known recent musicals. What it lacks in big, flashy numbers, it makes up for in wry humor. The best pure song and dance moment comes in Act Two's "I've Decided to Marry You," during which Monty performs a dizzying back and forth between two closed doors that hide his dual love interests, Sibella and Phoebe, both pleading him in overlapping lyrics. Overall, the songs in this show are less-than-memorable in and of themselves and mostly serve as a witty lyrical delivery of the storyline. 

Alexander Dodge's stage-within-a-stage set design is intriguing, though it does make the performance feel farther away and more confined than if it comprised the entire stage. The mini-stage, however, serves well as a frame for Aaron Rhyne's unique projection designs that illustrate various locations and animate the D'Ysquiths' death sequences. Linda Cho's period-appropriate costume designs add color and flair. 

While you may not go home humming its tunes, Gentleman's Guide is an entertaining night at the theatre and a truly original piece of writing by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) that's a breath of fresh air amid some of the more derivative and uninspired Broadway fare. 

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs at the Fabulous Fox Theatre through September 25.

 

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