William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is not an easy play to interpret or produce. First, a company must overcome the fact that the play is required reading in almost every U.S. high school program, and often assigned again in college. Secondly, Shakespeare's lengthy examination of character and ambition is cloaked in layers of mythology, war, and politics. 

As an audience, we collectively know the story arc before we arrive to the theater: Caesar is brutally murdered at the Senate by members of his inner circle on the Ides of March. They are led by Cassius, a jealous army commander who convinces the loyal Brutus to take his side. Eventually, the noble hero Marc Antony revenges Caesar's death, and young Octavius Caesar ascends to the leadership of Rome. This is not the first St. Louis Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar, however, and the company and director Tom Kopp have learned a lesson or two from previous shows.

The tone of the company's current production is more personal and intimate than any other production I've seen, with a politically astute sensibility and layers of symbolism. There's less focus on the battle scenes and more emphasis placed on the characters, their relationships and flawed decisions. A few scenes languish under this approach, while others lack requisite intensity, and the second act is always problematically wordy, but the overall production is nonetheless captivating and the actors turn in strong performances that kept me interested and involved to the final curtain.

Ben Ritchie is honest to the point of recklessness as the Brutus, the wise general who the fatal habit of believing all men to speak the truth even when in pursuit of greater ambition. Ritchie fully commits to the character's intellectual and personal honesty, throwing sympathetic light with a thoughtful, measured portrayal. Brutus may be a good man to have in court or on the battlefield, but his fundamental inability to judge character is a fatal flaw and Ritchie's realization of such, near the end of the second act, is a lesson in controlled devastation and stoic response. 

In his best role to date, Max Knocke turns in a slithering performance as the manipulative Cassius, and it's a pleasure to see the impressive growth he's had over the past year. I encourage him to continue to find levels and emotional connection, but his Cassius was filled with clear motivation and wonderfully sinister expression. Brennan Eller is stoic and forthright as Marc Antony, though I would have like to see even more anger at key moments, while Tim Callahan is vanity itself, from his flashy rings and brightly colored clothing he to his appropriately over coiffed wig and dismissive flicks of his hand.

Annalise Webb, Bridgette Bassa, Michael Pierce, Josh Saboorizadeh, and Jake Blonstein are memorable in supporting roles and the ensemble comports itself well, ensuring the essential story is conveyed with clarity and purpose. Webb and Bassa are impassioned as they try to protect their husbands from a fate it seems only they and Saboorizadeh's soothsayer can clearly see, and Pierce and Blonstein are engaging as young Octavius and Brutus' faithful servant Lucius. Chuck Brinkley, Eric Kuhn, Erik Woods, Ted Drury, DJ Ludwig, Lucas Howard Reilly, Joshua Parrack, Abby Lampe, and Kaitlynn Ferris capably fill out the large cast, displaying clear purpose and loyalties in multiple roles.

But this is really the story of one man's tragic flaw. It is Brutus who let's Cassius convince him Caesar is too ambitious and must be killed for the good of Rome. It is Brutus alone who spares Marc Antony's life and allows him to speak to the Romans. And, finally, it is Brutus who too late realizes his mistakes and the price Rome will pay.

The company makes good use of the Ivory Theater stage, and Chuck Winning's set is filled with Roman columns and multiple levels. I enjoyed the restraint showed with the fight choreography, by Kuhn, which kept the focus on the more subtle but important battles of will and personality that give this show its spark. The costumes were a somewhat mixed bag, as I found the contemporary sandals and belts a bit distracting, but genuinely appreciated both the overall roman style and that only Caesar and Calpurnia wore robes saturated with richly dyed color.

This being a political year, I enjoyed the subtle gamesmanship and symbolism. Julius Caesar, running through August 14, 2016 at St. Louis Shakespeare, is a tangled knot of ambition, power, and persuasion in which the cooler head fails to prevail. Tom Kopp's pointed direction seems intended to convey a cautionary tell, and the actors embrace the choice, adding layers of meaning and insinuation to Shakespeare's already dense play. Though the pacing lags at times, the resulting show is quite enjoyable with astute observations that easily extend to our current political climate.

 

 

 

 

A long time ago, when the pharaohs ruled Egypt and their armies were exploring and annexing every nation they could conquer, a renowned captain unknowingly captures a Nubian princess. Surprised by her quick wit and strength, and beguiled by her beauty, he spares her life and the lives of the women and children captured with her. Soon they fall for each other, creating a love triangle with tragic consequences. The fictionalized romance is filled with lessons on love, betrayal, and leadership, delivered in a fantasy-like setting and filled with pop rock sensibilities.

The ill-fated love between Aida and Radames is brought to life in the MUNY's ephemeral production that is at times languid, but always filled with tension. Aida is set in ancient Egypt, but the dream-like opening and suggestive set clearly establish that this story is a fantasy. 

Stars Michelle Williams, as Aida, and Zak Resnick, as Radames, are engaging as the ill-fated lovers. Resnick is confident and self-assured, though most appealing when he shows vulnerability. Williams is particularly effective when she reclaims her pride and purpose as daughter to the king of Nubia, a naturally powerful cameo by Ken Page. But it is Taylor Louderman who commands the stage, embracing her role as Amneris, the pharaoh's daughter and successor, as well as Radames betrothed. 

Each character is individually sympathetic, and the chemistry between the three leads is convincing. It is easy to see that Radames loves both women, and the respect and mutual admiration between Aida and Amneris is as infectious as their laughter and as deep as their battle. The storytelling is fabulous, driven by the action and punctuated by the songs.

The ensemble capably handles the vision and the songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice, as well as courtly intrigue and the inevitable tragedy. Director Matt Lenz shows clear purpose and a good understanding of the story's emotional levels, though the pacing could be pushed. The musical is moving and the story engrossing, but there are moments when more intensity and a deeper emotional connection between the actors would really amp up the show's power.

After the provocatively moody opening number, Louderman's character turns perky and self-absorbed. As the events unfold and her own storybook romance falls apart, she gains wisdom and maturity. As importantly, the actress channels her emotions well, filling the large stage with expression and using her impressive range to good effect.  The romance between Aida and Resnick is heartfelt, though played a bit too intimately for the large stage at times. However, Williams is often radiant, and undeniably regal in her posture and movements. These qualities played well to the audience, particularly when supported with the vocal prowess Williams naturally possesses. 

The songs are drenched with Elton John's lyrical styling and easy melodies, and the cast handles the challenges and opportunities well, though a few of the ballads would benefit from more passionate interpretations. Louderman opens the show finding heartbreaking nuances in "Every Story Is a Love Story," then Williams turns up the volume and energy with "Dance of the Robe," while Resnick, Patrick Cassidy, and Wonza Johnson stand out in several supporting numbers. Cassidy and Lara Teeter, as the ailing pharaoh, present an interesting subplot and Cassidy's villainous ambition is delightfully comic. But this is the lady's show, and William and Louderman play off each other fabulously, as admiring friends and as adversaries in love and war.  

Music director Andrew Graham does a nice job with the arrangements, while Jon Rua's choreography is filled with Egyptian and African influenced numbers, which the ensemble capably handles under dance captain Brianna Mercado. The scenic and lighting design, by Tim Mackabee and Nathan W. Scheuer, successfully captures the dream-like atmosphere of an ancient land and is complemented by sound design from John Shivers and David Partridge. Personally, I found the costumes, by Robin L. McGee, to be a less successful element of the show. I understand this is a rock fantasy interpretation, but would have preferred to see the textures, colors, and style consistently reflect the land and era in which the story was set. 

Aida, the closing show of the MUNY's 98th season, running through August 14, 2016, transports audiences back in time to the mysterious, glory days of the pharaohs, then tells a classic love story with a perspective we've seldom heard. The result is captivating, if not always inspiring, with the interplay between Williams, Resnick, and Louderman a multi-layered and intriguing highlight. 

 

 

 

 

 

Seussical, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, opened on Broadway in 2000 and is now a favorite for family-centered community theatres like Over Due Theatre Company. This company is about family in every way, from its space at a community center to the little boy and his dad taking your tickets at the door. This is the idyllic theatre experience I imagine took place in rural communities in the '50s, and it's now happening 20 minutes from St. Louis. I took my 8- and 5-year-olds with me, and we mingled with children in costumes in the hall outside the theatre doors during intermission and giggled with grandmothers in the front row holding flowers to give their little dancers at curtain call.

The show encapsulates many well-known Seuss stories into one magical plot upheld by toe-tapping music. During Over Due's version, one blonde teenager struggled to hold her laughter in during half of the show, but otherwise the actors, even the tiny ones, were charming in their roles. Aside from a few choral issues at the beginning of Act II, the music was good and I was impressed with band's professional sound.

In particular, Brittany Kohl Hester delivered an impressive performance as Gertrude McFuzz, a bird with a one-feathered tail and a soft spot in her heart for elephants. Tristan Johnson did a lovable turn as the object of her affection, Horton the Elephant. My five-year-old, however, was most entranced with Robert M. Hanson's portrayal of the Cat in the Hat, guffawing loudly at Hanson's every move and most likely providing the actor with his daily dose of a self-esteem boost. None of that laughter, however, happened before Kevin Hester took the stage as General Gengus Khan Schmitz, a parody from Seuss's Butter Battle book. Hester's physical comedy broke the audience's sense of propriety and let us relax and begin to enjoy the show.

On the technical side, the costumes were the highlight of the show. The enormous cast all complemented one another, the story, the set, and Seuss's legacy of colorful illustrations. Interestingly, Kohl Hester also served as costume designer. The show did have a problem that I couldn't overlook: every theatre, community theatre or not, should be able to properly use their mics. I would rather hear a show with unaided voices over solo piano than a show with an excellent band but singers who come in and out over the speakers. The audience also had to listen to the backstage conversations of the cast many times over the run of the show because of mic misuse. This was a shame because their fellow actors were in the spotlight, performing their art, attempting to move our hearts through Seuss's stories, and those performances were lost among the amplified whisperings.

Despite this glitch, which I assume will fixed by next weekend, the show was worth the short drive to Olivette because the kids haven't stopped talking about it or singing the songs since. My children, who are currently in a Power Rangers phase and therefore usually watch high-octane action, barely breathed during the 2½ hour run, their eyes glued to the stage. Little Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Grinch and Max, Cindy Lou Who, and many other beloved childhood characters are brought to life by a troop of actors who are clearly love their craft and have a strong sense of togetherness on stage. They seem like a big, diverse family up there under the lights, doing what they love, together. They had fun, so the kids in the audience also had a great time.

Over Due Theatre Company'sSeussical, directed by Wayne A. Mackenberg, is playing again this weekend, August 5-7 at Olivette's Community Center. 

 

The first act of Fiddler on the Roof draws to a close just as dusk turns to night. The traditional chuppah over the bride and groom, the rustically simple but effective set, and the lighting design bouncing off the trees, create a scene from a post-card picture wedding. And, then, the near-celestial harmonies of "Sunrise, Sunset" slowly roll over the audience like a light breeze, wrapping the crowd in a reverent silence. It's moments like this, when theater and environment coalesce with perfect timing, into which indelible memories are carved.

Fiddler on the Roof is the much-loved tale of the humble and reverent dairyman Tevye, his wife, and daughters. A poor but respected family in the small Jewish town of Anatevka; they are concerned by the Russian soldiers' occupation of the village, struggling to survive, and faithful to the core. Michael McCormick is vivacious and spirited as Tevye. He's perfectly balanced by both the lithe and musical Andrew Crowe, as the fiddler, and the earthy and nurturing Anne L. Nathan as his wife, Golde.

McCormick and Nathan have voices that complement each other well, with a similar everyman quality, while daughters Haley Bond, as Tzeitel, Briana Carlson-Goodman, as Hodel, and Carly Blake Sebouhian, as Chava, stand out for superior tone and range. Their voices couple well with Alan Schmuckler, as Motel, Marrick Smith as Perchik, and Colby Dezelick as Fyedka. Nancy Opel is chatty and gregarious as Yente, Peter Wagner is gruff but reasonable as Lazar Wolf, and Jerry Vogel and Jeremy Lawrence, as Mordcha and the Rabbi, respectively, have several comic moments that add to the sense of close kinship that inhabits the show.

At its heart, Fiddler on the Roof, book by Josef Stein with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is a story about faith, family, and community. There's an imperfect honesty to the characters and the lives they lead, and the show is refreshingly clear sighted in approach and emotional context. Tevye's conflict, watching him argue and balance his adherence to the traditions of faith with his love for his daughters and learning, is central to the story. McCormick is fluid and compelling as the patriarch, and his affection for the role radiant. As the fiddler, Crowe is mesmerizing, with a beguiling almost daring attitude.

The capable ensemble is a pleasing mix of singers and dancers who skillfully mirror the emotional shifts of the show. Emma Resek and Elise Edwards are adorable as youngest sisters Shprintze and Bielke. Zoe Vonder Haar, Zachary Daniel Jones, Ben Lanham, April Strelinger and Taylor Elizabeth Pietz, making her MUNY debut, are among the local favorites in the ensemble. Strelinger and Polly Butler Cornelius have nice solo moments in the gossip song, and Pietz's soprano is a distinct and pure touch among the Villager harmonies.

Dance captain Michael Biren effortlessly leads the ensemble through Alex Sanchez's elevated traditional dance, which references ballet and modern techniques. "To Life," featuring the Russian dancers, and "The Wedding," including the bottle dance, are crowd-pleasing standouts.

In an unexpected and refreshing twist, the orchestra, under the direction of Brad Haak, is seated at the rear of the stage. In addition to providing an unexpected visual addition, the placement affords a number of interactions that subtly add to the sense of an established, interdependent community. This touch, along with Amy Clark's costumes and John Metzner's wigs, as well as the aforementioned lighting, by Rob Denton, and sound, by John Shivers and David Partridge, add texture and an environment that shades the musical in a natural, warm palette.

All the favorite numbers from the original show receive rich renditions, kicked off by the fiddler's haunting melody. "Tradition," "If I were a Rich Man," and the humorous "Tevye's Dream" get lively rousing interpretations. While "Do You Love Me," and "Far from the Home I Love" benefit from a plaintive, poignant touch and personal inflection. The new piece, "Any Day Now," feels a bit long, because it's not familiar, but fits in and adds to the show, providing a glimpse into the love between Hodel and Perchik that motivates her leaving her home. The simple and effective "Chavaleh," is a surprising revelation, at least for me. The song is bittersweet and the accompanying modern dance influenced choreography poetic.

The theme and setting of this musical are not conducive to a happy story, but it is heartfelt and reassuring, ensuring it's suitable for the whole family. Though the family and village face challenges, and must grapple with the meaning of the political changes around them, the story retains a sense of optimism. During times of uncertainty and fear certain traditions endure, celebrating the resilience of faith and the human spirit. With a spectacular setting, and clear, focused direction by Gary Griffin, it is easy to understand why Fiddler on the Roof, running through August 5, 2015 at the MUNY in Forest Park, has taken a place among America's enduring musical classics.

 

 

If you're at all interested in seeing a musical theatre production with what I think is absolutely perfect casting, you need to make a beeline to Stages St. Louis's current production of The Drowsy Chaperone. I've seen so many theatre productions in which at least one character was cast with an actor that made me think, "What was that Director thinking!?" Unfortunately, that question was asked by me during the first production from Stages this year, It Shoulda Been You, but not during Drowsy. This was my first Drowsy, and I haven't smiled so much at production or felt I was seeing an almost perfect show for quite some time. As a Stages 30th Anniversary return of this Tony-Award-Winning show from a previous outing in 2009, it literally hits all the right notes.

Director Michael Hamilton (whom I'm assuming had casting authority) was spot-on populating this production of a musical within an LP of a musical. The Man in Chair, actor David Schmittou, (miscast, I think, in Shoulda) was the Man in Chair. He inhabited the role like a comfortable pair of favorite slippers. (He played the same part in 2009). As an MC of sorts, he plays the LP record of a Broadway musical soundtrack he really likes, and the characters come wonderfully to life on stage.

And are they characters! Most are cut from a broad ream of stock character fabric: The Ingénue (Laura E. Taylor); the overbearing Broadway Producer (Steve Isom); the beleaguered Butler (John Flack), the Lush (Corinne Melançon), the Young Man in Love (Andrew Fitch), Trix (Kendra Lynn Lucas), Kitty (Dana Winkle), the Latin Lover (Edward Juvier, also the same part in 2009), the comic relief Gangsters (Ryan Alexander Jacobs, Austin Glen Jacobs), and others took their respective roles and worked the heck out of them. The theme of a wedding is the very loose weave that binds the production within a production, but that was all that was necessary. Witty dialog (oh, the puns!) by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, not an overuse of slapstick, memorable songs ("Show Off," "Accident Waiting to Happen") by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, competent actors, natty tapping (and roller skating), clever choreography--all combined for a very entertaining night.

In the technical regard, I usually praise the Stages production team for the quality of their sets (blanket amazing every time), but this production, while the set was comely and versatile, it was the costumes by Brad Musgrove that took the spotlight for me. Enough sequins and sparkle to dazzle, but dazzle in a period-appropriate (1920s) way. Ab-so-lute-ly spectacular. I also have kudos for the sound team, whose coordination of the digital orchestral accompaniment with the on-stage action was perfectly synchronized.

I said for me the show was almost perfect, the only slight detraction was the lighting, pre-set where sometimes the actors had difficulty finding the right spot. But if that's my only bobble of note, you can still take this show to the bank.

The two-hour production (no intermission) of The Drowsy Chaperone will be on stage at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center until August 21, 2016. I recommend you do not miss it.

 

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