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.

 

George Herman's tribute to commedia dell'arte, A Company of Wayward Saints, introduces a traveling theater company currently performing in Dressel's Public House in the Central West End. The rag tag group is practiced in improvisation, but audiences have been thin and the actors are weary. Harlequin, the company's manager, has received a request from a wealthy patron to present the history of man. If the show entertains, he will provide funds for their journey home.

Played with a knowing air by Michael J. Dobson, Harlequin is a man of more confidence than control, and he's desperately trying to keep his company together without letting the audience see just how fractured the troupe has become. Jane Abling plays his wife, the effectively sharp-tongued Columbina, and Ashley Netzhammer is the flirtatious and comely Ruffiana, and the two are constant rivals for Harlequin's favor.  

Jonathan Meyer is exuberant as Scapino, the heir apparent to Harlequin, who's smartly countered Steve Callahan as the comically befuddled and the foolish Pantalone. Both characters are engaging and friendly to the audience, adding humor with their careless antics. Jesse Russell is a pompous Dottore, and Michael MClelland strikes just the right pose as the gallant Capitano, while Janine Norman and Joe Kercher round out the cast as the sweet, ever-loyal lovers Isabella and Tristano. 

By the end of the first act, all hope seems lost and the company abandons Harlequin, leaving him to beg the audience for patience. If they want to get home again, the actors must put aside their overblown egos and petty squabbles to please their benefactor. The device works perfectly as act two opens with the actors slowly returning to the stage and somehow managing to deliver a compelling, touching show while also reigniting their passion to perform.

The best scenes of the performance are in the second act. Kercher is warm as an expectant father, getting coaching from Dobson. Meyer and Netzhammer are genuinely watchable as a flirtatious couple that finds love in their desire to skip school and get on with life. Finally, Abling and Callahan delight as two older singles trying to make a match for his daughter but instead finding love of their own. These three scenes are the highlight of this production, particularly the adolescent and marriage broker scenes. It was here that I felt the most connection between the actors, and a deeper appreciation for the artifice of the show. Herman's script is smartly structured: the first act hints at certain expectations that the second act fills with heartwarming stories. 

Unfortunately, these few scenes are not enough to ensure the success of the show. Frankly, the production feels under-rehearsed and somewhat sloppily performed, and the cast is at times unfocused. There are multiple noticeable mistakes and several of the actors look literally lost on the small stage. Finally, a sense of emotional connection, either to the characters or story, is missing, leading me to occasionally lose interest. 

At times, the solution is as simple as considering the angles of the performance floor, obstructions, and seating placement in the room. At other times, more attention to craft is required. Certain ensemble members appear disinterested except when delivering their lines and the connection between dialogue and meaning goes missing.  Still, there are a number of enjoyable, entertaining scenes, and the cast seems eager to please and improve. 

Cocktails and Curtain Calls production succeeds in conveying the rudiments of comic improvisation without quite getting the internalization part of acting. Director Don Krull has a good script, an eager and willing cast, and a smart idea. Marie Moore's costumes and Marjorie Williamson's masks are delightful, adding much to the visual sense of the show's era and characters. What seems to be lacking is the commitment to story, which necessitates deeper analysis and character development.

At the end of the night, A Company of Wayward Saints, running through July 17, 2015 is a charming nod to the comedic arts. The cast delivers an enjoyable, if flawed, production that is certain to improve throughout the show's run. 

 

 

 

The MUNY in Forest Park celebrates Independence Day, and the charm of small midwestern towns, with The Music Man. A strong cast, stellar orchestra, and well-produced production numbers ensure that this popular musical provides a satisfying evening of entertainment, but everything seems a bit more subdued, and significantly less persuasive.

Early one summer in 1912, Professor Harold Hill, a con artist posing as a traveling salesman, dazzles and swindles the town of River City, Iowa with promises of turning the local boys into a sharply dressed marching band. He intends to take the cash and run to his next mark before delivery. He falls under the spell of the local librarian, a well-educated woman who sees through his act even as she begins to succumb to his charms. By the end of the show, the scoundrel is redeemed, the town is singing and playing in harmony, and a happy ending seems assured for all.

One of the best known and most frequently performed musicals, the show charms with simple, catchy melodies, and its tale of love and redemption is delivered by a town full of interesting characters. Patriotism, the meaning of character, and lessons of acceptance and understanding are liberally sprinkled in between the song and dance numbers. Truth be told, there isn’t a lot of substance to the story between the songs, though audiences may find some parallels to politics in the fast-talking, over-promising salesman’s pitch.

The MUNY’s production includes a number of memorable performances beyond the solid leads of Hunter Foster, as the irrepressible showman and con artist Hill, and Elena Shaddow as the kind, vocally blessed Marian Paroo, the Librarian. Director Rob Ruggiero takes a markedly different tact with the leading roles, and I’m not convinced it works. Hill is somewhat restrained and earnest, and Marian more stridently independent than in previous renditions, adding an unbalanced dynamic to the story that makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief and embrace the romance.

Mark Linn-Baker is endearingly funny as the town mayor, his many malapropisms delivered with serious aplomb. He’s expertly complemented by the gracefully comic Nancy Anderson as his delightfully preening wife. Liz McCarthy, Todd Buonopane, April Strelinger, Michael James Reed, Tim Schall, Allison Broadhurst, and Halli Tolland standout, as do Greta Leigh Clark, as Amaryllis, and Owen Hanford as Winthrop, the little boy with the big personality and comic lisp. But it’s the barbershop quartet of J.D. Daw, Joseph Torello, Adam Halpin, and Ben Nordstrom that nearly steals the show with wonderfully layered harmonies and textured interpretations of their songs.

The appealing ensemble adds significant humor and character to the show, often drawing attention from the leads. For the most part, this works in the shows favor, as it’s the ensemble pieces we all remember most. The rhythmic “Rock Island” and “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little,” jubilant “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” energetic and poppy “Shipoopi,” as well as the rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones,” are highlights of the show. Shaddow has a clear, lilting voice, ensuring “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You” are memorable, and Foster’s “Marian the Librarian” is full of spunk and flirtation. The crowd-pleasing quartet delivered the night’s knock out numbers, however, particularly the medley of “Lydia Rose & Will I Ever Tell You.”

Much like the interpretation, the stage and costumes -- with scenic design by Michael Schweikardt and costume design from Amy Clark -- were primarily subdued and bathed in pastel shades of green and peach. An equally shaded lighting design from John Lasister cast lovely shadows among the trees while complementing the production. Though visually gorgeous, these choices calmed the excitement and showmanship for which the production is known. Chris Bailey’s choreography was sharp and engaging but failed to wow, although I enjoyed the whimsical touch of marching the townsfolk in and around the set pieces as the turntable revolved.

Meredith Wilson’s tribute to small town America in the early nineteen hundreds is a pleasantly patriotic show filled with hummable tunes and high-stepping choreography that closes with the requisite seventy-six trombones filling the stage. While the show is thoroughly entertaining, I found the energy to be a little flat and the pacing a little off. Finally, though I appreciated the kinder, gentler approach to Professor Hill, the character lacked the charisma expected of the part and I left the show feeling underwhelmed instead of buoyant. 

 

American royalty. The phrase immediately conjures images of excess and grandeur, of smartly dressed, well-educated men and women mingling on spacious lawns, casually forming alliances that determine the direction and personality of our national character. In reality, the picture is a bit messy and fractured, and its occupants more eccentric and troubled, than first appears. Such is the appeal of Grey Gardens, a wonderfully textured musical filled with finely tuned performances.

Edith Bouvier Beale lives in a spacious mansion in East Hamptons with her aging father, a retired military man, and youngest child, a daughter known as little Edie who seems tormented by her situation. On the one hand, little Edie desperately wants to get married and move far away from her mother's shadow. On the other, she longs to please, placate, and care for her. The family's wealth and fading star, as well as Edith's constant self-publicity, garners curiosity and scandal that deters Edie's suitors and leads to their isolation. 

Edith's almost pathological need for attention drives a wedge between little Edie and her soon-to-be fiancé Joe Patrick Kennedy. Yes, of that Kennedy clan. Infuriated, little Edie sets out on her own, determined to break the grasp of her mother's persona. Her increasingly erratic and affected behavior indicates she may have, unfortunately, waited too long to leave. By act two, the two women have become reclusive eccentrics, caring for each other and an unknown number of cats.

Donna Weinsting, Madeline Purches, and Debby Lennon share the roles of mother and daughter, chronicling their relationship at different ages. The artifice works brilliantly, resulting in a spectacular performance by Lennon who skillfully mines Weinsting to suggest ticks and gestures we see in the older version of the matriarch and taps Purches for a sense of the young, hopeful little Edie. 

The actresses' movements and gestures don't simply mirror each other, they evolve from each other's work organically, a credit to the actresses and director Annamaria Pileggi. The three create layered reflections of Edith and little Edie that are fascinating to watch develop and change. We clearly see hints of madness in Purches that become fully blown in Lennon, along with a cold, self-serving efficiency brought to mean-spirited fruition by Weinsting. 

Will Bonfiglio stands out as both Joe Kennedy and Jerry, a teen who helps care for the pair and the crumbling mansion in which they take refuge. There's a warm kindness and honesty to Jerry that, while inexplicable, feels natural; and Bonfiglio broke my heart when, as Kennedy, he ended his engagement to little Edie with seemingly callous finality. 

Actresses Phoebe Desilets and Carter Eiseman charm the audience as young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, cousins who will face fame and scandals of their own. Desilets instinctively demonstrates the poise and political instincts that took Jackie far beyond the White House, while Eiseman is more free-spirited and stubborn. 

Tom Murray, Omega Jones, and Terry Meddows round out the ensemble, providing solid support. Each finds ways to infuse their characters with relatable quirks and personality. Murray is frighteningly direct as both the gruff father and the stern preacher, Jones is quietly steady and caring as the father and son who served the family for generations, and Meddows is the friend you want at every party. His piano playing seems flawless from every perspective. Actually, it's the ever-reliable Neal Richardson, who also serves as music director, on the keys, though Meddows sells it with a wonderfully fey touch. 

The songs and arrangements highlight Lennon's considerable range while moving the story along with a variety of styles that capture the emotional turmoil and fleeting dreams of the two women. Lennon shines on "The Girl Who Has Everything," "Drift Away," and "Around the World." A number of the tunes, including "Marry Well" and "Jerry Likes My Corn," are bouncy and fun. Purches is fierce in "Daddy's Girl," while "The Five-Fifteen" and "Entering Grey Gardens" are haunting and uncertain. The way the songs serve the story's emotional context is one of the most interesting elements of this complex production.

Grey Gardens, a Max and Louie Productions show running through July 30, 2016, is not an easy musical to distill into a few words, but it is a pleasure to experience. The show and story are intriguing, the characters complex and conflicted, the songs compelling, and the sum of the parts so much more than satisfying. 

 

 

 

 

Union Avenue Opera is kicking off its season with a sparkling production of Gilbert and Sullivan's venerable comic operetta The Mikado featuring superb singing, solid comic acting, and eye-pleasing sets and costumes. As a bit of a G&S purist I have a few issues with Eric Gibson's direction, but they pale in comparison to the sheer entertainment value of the show as a whole.

The cast, to begin with, is consistently strong, all the way down to the smallest roles. As Nanki-Poo, the royal heir disguised as a Second Trombone, tenor Drake Dantzler could hardly be better, with a light, fluid voice that allows him to tune his supple song to perfection. His beloved Yum-Yum is soprano Karina Brazas, also gifted with a wonderfully flexible voice and a fine comic sense.

Baritone Andy Papas is a frenetically comic Ko-Ko, the "cheap tailor" raised to the exulted post of Lord High Executioner despite the fact that he literally wouldn't hurt a fly. He, too, has a rich, powerful voice—something you don't often hear in the "principal actor" roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. When he joins with Mr. Dantzler and Ms. Brazas in trios like "Here's a how-de-do" and "The flowers that bloom in the spring,” the vocal blend is lovely.

Resplendent in a flowing red-and-black gown, mezzo Melissa Parks cuts a commanding figure as Katisha, the "most unattractive old thing / with a caricature of a face" whose unwelcome attentions drove Nanki-Poo to flee the Mikado's court. She makes the character's frankly unnecessary Act II aria "Alone, and yet alive" more interesting than it sometimes is and she's appropriately formidable in "There is beauty in the bellow of the blast,” her duet with the hapless Ko-Ko, who has to woo her in order to save himself from a lingering death involving boiling oil. Or is it melted lead?

The title role of the Mikado isn't large. He has only two songs and the second one ("See how the fates") is often cut, as it is in this production. But bass Zachary James, who created the role of Lurch in The Addams Family on Broadway, turns his one number, "A more human Mikado,” into a real show stopper, complete with minimal but effective choreography. And that's despite being hampered with a hat that partially obscured his face.

Bass-baritone E. Scott Levin gets what is, for my money, the plum role of the snobbish Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else whose family pride is “something inconceivable.” In his capable hands the character is hilariously stuffy and his solid voice handles the florid "long life to you" toast at the end of Act I with ease. Baritone Nicholas Ward, meanwhile, makes an impressive UAOT debut as Pish-Tush, providing a solid vocal anchor in "Brightly dawns the wedding day.”

Sopranos Gina Malone and Elise LaBarge are Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum's school chums. They're both appropriately winning and Ms. LaBarge does a particularly nice job with her part of "The criminal cried," the trio in which she, Pooh-Bah, and Ko-Ko each provide self-congratulatory and wholly fictional accounts of the execution of Nanki-Poo.

The chorus is small but sings with great clarity. I don't see a chorus master credited, so I have to assume conductor Scott Schoonover gets credit for that.

Stage Director Eric Gibson is, for my taste, a bit too fond of noisy slapstick that sometimes overwhelms Gilbert's verbal humor. And while it's customary to replace the more dated jokes in the "list" songs of Ko-Ko and the Mikado, I think replacing nearly every word is a bit hubristic.

That said, he gets the important stuff right. He moves the show along at a good clip and his blocking is clear, focused, and character-driven. That's not always the case on the operatic stage, so it deserves praise.

I'm less persuaded by his visual design choices. Inspired by Jonathan Miller's somewhat controversial 1986 production for the English National Opera, which moved the action from Gilbert's colorful cartoon Japan to an English seaside resort in the 1920s, he and his designers have placed this Mikado in a "1920s cocktail hour at an English gentleman's club."

That allows Jeff Behm to create a two-level set that's visually striking, with realistic wood paneling, warm sconce lights, and even a chandelier, and Teresa Doggett's period costumes are ideally suited to their characters. It even allowed Mr. Gibson to create a nice little moment by turning that disposable second act aria of Katisha's into a torch song delivered to a handsome young bartender, who hands her a sympathetic martini at the end.

None of this, however, has anything much to do with the music or text, so it ultimately amounts to an attractive distraction. For what it's worth, I don't think it worked all that well when Miller did it, either.

On the purely musical side, Mr. Schoonover conducts his 19-piece orchestra in an expertly played and well thought out account of Sullivan's irresistible score. He took a number of optional cuts, which is fine, but I do wish he had left the charming overture intact. He deleted the entire middle section of it, as he did with last November's Yeoman of the Guard at Winter Opera. In neither case could it be considered an improvement.

But these are ultimately minor complaints of the sort which, frankly, matter mostly to G&S devotees. They certainly aren't important enough to spoil this very polished and tremendously entertaining take on one of the classics of comic operetta. Union Avenue Opera's production of The Mikado continues through July 16 at the Union Avenue Christian Church at Union and Enright in the Central West End.

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