Once again, St. Louis Shakespeare’s offshoot comedy troupe, Magic Smoking Monkey, has succeeded in creating a lightening quick retelling of a successful film franchise with a cult-like following. This time, it’s the post-apocalyptic road trip of Mad Max: Live!, which includes a visit to the Thunderdome and an epic battle on Fury Road.

Mad Max: Live! continues the company’s tradition of creating barely contained chaos that may or may not spill into the audience. We are introduced to Max and the rest of the cast through quick moving scenes that deliver all the important details and key moments from the movie franchise, emphasizing the over-the-top story with a nod and a wink. There’s also a comically excessive amount of flying body parts, weapons and other sundry objects. To cap off the madness, the ensemble’s campishly on-point version of “Rolling on the River” may in and of itself be worth the price of admission.

Although I’m not as familiar with this franchise as the writers and cast, I could easily follow the show’s progression through the films and was surprised at how many characters I recognized. And while the script is stuffed with jokes and exaggerated characterizations, the story is clearly communicated and complete, creating a satisfying arc. As is the company’s style, they generously sprinkle in cultural references that go beyond the movies, upping the comedy with sly but satisfying quips.

The show pivots around Ben Ritchie, playing the stoic, mysterious Max versions one through three before turning the character over to Charlie Barron. In many ways, Ritchie is the straight man in this show. Though he gets in his fair share of verbal jabs, he often says more with an over-the-shoulder glance to the audience, an exasperated sigh, or a dumbfounded stare. With this approach, he perfectly punctuates the humor and ridiculous plot lines without straying from character.

The entire cast commits to the over-the-top exaggerated characters in delightfully strange and comic ways. Ritchie is matched, arched eyebrow for pointed gesture, by Nicole Angeli as the tough but sexy Furiosa and Carl Overly, Jr. as a diva-licious Aunty Entity. Charlie Barron, Jamie Pitts, Dustin Allison, and John Wolbers are gleefully twisted and tightly wound in a number of roles. Stan Davis, Brennan Eller, Roger Erb, Britteny Henry, Amy Key, Morgan Maul-Smith, and Cliff Turner round out the ensemble playing a number of supporting characters and adding to the onstage cacophony.

Suki Peters directs the show with a light touch that focuses on the comic parody without neglecting the story at its center. The sparse stage suits the production well, and the props and set pieces are effective and quickly moved in and out of place, helping to maintain the breakneck speed of the performance. The costumes are appropriately hodgepodge, with a few fanciful and tragically chic pieces thrown in for both comic and visual interest. Video is used effectively throughout, helping with transitions and comically mimicking a green screen effect during several scenes, and a number of sound and lighting effects provide a little extra bang to the show.

While light, pop culture driven comedy isn’t for everyone, Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre’s latest is a delightfully weird and enjoyable production that delivers laughs aplenty. The company’s core creative team put together this clever parody, and the collaborative nature of the ensemble ensures that the show succeeds for a broad audience. For a healthy dose of unadulterated silliness that thoroughly entertains with relentless humor and non-stop action, Mad Max: Live! is a sure thing.

 

Alan Ball's glib, bitingly funny look at weddings and well-to-do Southern culture, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, has more substance than all the taffeta and crinoline suggests. With modern sensibility, the show pulls back the mask on recognizable stereotypes, revealing contemporary women grappling with age-old issues. Stray Dog Theatre's production succeeds spectacularly with sharp, on-the-mark performances and clear direction from Gary F. Bell.

Southern bell Tracy has just gotten married to a handsome, successful man. Rather than partying at the reception, however, her tragically clad bridesmaids seek refuge in younger sister Meredith's room. They each have their reasons for avoiding the party and more in common than first appears. The first act is filled with reminiscing, gossip, and petty jabs, but the action and conversation ripples with tense energy that hints at the revelations and twists to come.

Sarajane Alverson leads the cast as Trisha, a wisecracking feminist and Tracy's best friend from high school. Tough and perfectly polished on the outside, she has a knowing, compassionate heart, even when she doesn't want it to show. As the play progresses, she reveals her character to be perceptive and caring, as well as vulnerable. Alverson's Trisha may have met her perfect match in Kevin O'Brien's Tripp, a wealthy cousin to the groom, whom she initially avoids. Self-assured and verbally adroit, Tripp is a perfect foil for Trisha's carefully guarded walls, and he surprises by standing his ground and calling her bluff.

Tammy's other high school friend turned bridesmaid is Georgeanne, a girl with a failing marriage and painful connection to the bride, played with drunken abandon by Shannon Nara. Georgeanne makes a big entrance drinking champagne from the bottle and crying over a deep, lingering pain. Nara sympathetically handles the many mood swings and sense of desperation, ensuring the character is appealing and authentic.

Lindsay Gingrich is heartbreakingly poignant as Meredith, the rebellious little sister with a big secret of her own. Her need to hang on to the idea of love in denial of abuse is at times difficult to watch but easy to forgive, and Gingrich navigates these emotions in a touching performance. Eileen Engel is endearingly naïve and gratingly religious as cousin Frances, and while her transformation takes place in baby steps, she's genuine at her core. Frankie Ferrari is appealingly awkward and outspoken as the groom's lesbian sister, Mindy, infusing the show with comic clumsiness and frank honesty.

Though overflowing with snark, gossip, and humor, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, is much more than a genteel comedy of manners. The show is filled with personal discovery as each character confronts difficult truths with realistic reactions, even when some of the barbs hit tender nerves. Painful issues that challenge long-held notions of tradition, gender roles, and classism surface for each of the women, and several of the details are genuinely distressing. While the show's ending strikes a happy pose, the underlying context suggests these stories are not yet finished. Still, the show feels complete and entertains thoroughly.

In addition to sure-handed direction, Bell also designed the oversized bedroom set, which captures the feel of the large, Southern mansion it represents. As importantly, since the room was originally older sister Tracy's, the sense that it's more a place of necessary refuge than a comfortable, welcoming space is clearly conveyed. Tyler Duenow's lighting design is well balanced and unobtrusive, while Eileen Engel's costumes capture the worst aspects of frilly, fancy, overdone bridesmaid dresses that flatter no one and seemed selected only to ensure that the bride shines more brightly.

A funny script, strong performances, and numerous revelations ensure the highly entertaining Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, running through June 25, 2016, is another engaging production from Stray Dog Theatre that entertains even as it prods. Playwright Bell's delightfully surprising play is delivered with deft timing, sincerity, and heart by an appealing and engaging cast, and a show that opens with the feeling of a "chic flick" turns into an insightful, satisfying tale of friendship and discovery.

 

Act Inc. dips into the territory of lesser-known plays from the golden age of theater for the second production in its two-show summer season, An Inspector Calls. The solid cast wraps their talent around the story, language, and heady dialogue, but the script feels sloggy and dated. The result is an enjoyable, if predictable, show that drags on a bit longer than it should.

Set in England in 1912, the Birling family is just finishing a celebratory dinner with Gerald Croft, son of Mr. Birling's business rival and recently engaged to daughter Sheila. Mrs. Birling hovers around the group expectantly, while younger brother Eric looks on with disdain and several helpings of port. The group creates a perfect picture of affluence and contentment, sprinkling in just enough judgmental dialogue to alert the audience that something is about to change. Just as the family is finishing their meal, Inspector Goole arrives, presumably from the local police department, to ask the family a series of questions about a mysterious young woman who died earlier that evening.

Through the course of the questioning, family members break down, unpleasant secrets are revealed, and everyone is made quite uncomfortable by the inspector's impertinent attitude. This is where the morality tale comes in, as it turns out each family member may be in some way complicit in the death of the young woman. Even the fiancé Croft is not above suspicion, although the inspector is careful to limit the information he shares in his directed and pointed inquiries. The mood of the show quickly shifts from celebratory to suspenseful as the inspector meticulously gathers answers.

Charlie Heuvelman is perfectly perfunctory as the inspector, while Colin Nichols and Liz Hopefl are rather dismissive of the lower classes as the Birling parents. Sister and brother Courtney Friday and Joshua Parrack are spirited and more liberally inclined than their parents, while Anthony Wininger, as the fiancé, strikes a balance somewhere between the generations. Each actor brings individuality and life to their performances, but the characters are stilted and broadly dated, traits that are not helped by languid pacing and indecisive movements.

Written by John Boynton Priestly near the end of World War II, An Inspector Calls is a dense combination of mystery, drawing room play and morality tale. Under the direction of Jane Sullivan, the capable cast puffs, struts and declares themselves above the problems of the working class in the intricately woven story that is nonetheless absolutely transparent to a modern audience.

The characters align with the story and time but are a bit over-generalized to satisfy the needs of the moral. Each represents the indifferent ways the affluently comfortable treat the working class, become a characterization rather than infused with distinctly individual personality. Good casting and sympathetic-leaning direction ensure the characters are likable despite a lack of depth, but it's not enough to temper the show's overblown moral persistence.

From a technical standpoint, the show is quite enjoyable to watch, with a smartly efficient set, with the design and properties coordinated by Jason Flannery, fine sound and lighting by Zoe and Michael Sullivan, respectively, and lovely period costumes designed by Lisa Haselhorst. Scene changes are easily done and I appreciated the attention to detail needed to open each act with the previous act's tableau.

Act, Inc. is known for reintroducing audiences to forgotten work, and I generally applaud their efforts and enjoy the plays they choose for their short season. This production is a pleasant enough show and the performances solid, but it just doesn't play well to contemporary audiences. The plot lines and story twists are too easily unraveled to create effective suspense, and the moral feels heavy handed and overbearing. Unfortunately, Act Inc.'s An Inspector Calls , running through June 25, 2016, may be a period piece that's better left on the shelf.

 

 

Stages St. Louis brings the magic of theater to life with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, a show for young audiences presented at the company’s Westport Theater. The production is a lively musical retelling of the beloved story of a young girl who follows a silly white rabbit through the looking glass. The two stumble into a wonderfully strange world filled with oddly weird and unique characters. The show includes songs, dancing, and just enough audience interaction to make it a perfect introduction to musical theater for most children two and older.

In this version, young Alice, played with a curious, beguiling nature by Alexis Kinney, is tired of being quiet at the insistence of her nursemaid Mathilda, a kind but harried woman portrayed with gentle firmness by Angela Sapolis. The bored young girl flits around her room with an air of impatience, until finally choosing to read a book, which makes her drowsy. Just as Alice is drifting off to sleep, the White Rabbit, a frantic and frenetic John Kinney, bursts in to her room, sparking Alice’s interest and leading her to follow him to Wonderland, where the real adventure begins.

This new land is unfamiliar to Alice, but she’s much more interested in finding the White Rabbit than worrying about her surroundings. She soon meets the congenial and energetic March Hare, played with a gleeful flare by Chris Tipp, and Ryan Cooper’s wacky, fumbling Mad Hatter. Though she doesn’t quite follow their logic, she gamely joins the two on their madcap ramblings through Wonderland.

Along the way, we’re introduced to Kendra Lynn Lucas as a soulful but bubbly caterpillar with a touch of fairy godmother to her demeanor. Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs are the mischievously acrobatic Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and they generate lots of laughter with their goofy antics. The red queen and king make their appearance, with help from Tipp and Sapolis, and a chorus of singing flowers, featuring Sapolis, Kinsey Bearman, Katie Brnjac, and Caroline Eiseman, rounds out the cast. The actors are cheerful and engaging, throwing looks and comments to the audience while they sing, harmonize, and smile through a quick one-act show.

Michael Hamilton provides direction and staging that’s reminiscent of the original Disney movie on which the musical is based, with additional choreography by Ellen Isom. The two keep the action moving and the dances lively and crisp, using a touch of slight-of-hand and theater magic to maintain interest during transitions and adding clever current references to hold everyone’s attention. Bubbles, magic tricks, and clap along moments in the songs engage the younger audience members, adding fun touches that entertain without being too over-the-top or ridiculous silly for the rest of the audience.

The show is as visually compelling as the performances. The set quickly and easily changes from a little girl’s room to an imaginative land somewhere far, far away on the other side of the mirror. Jim Sandefur’s design brims over with bold bright colors and strong visual references that are continued in the fanciful costumes by Garth Dunbar and emphasized by Jeff Behm’s warm and inviting lighting.

The performers genuinely seem to enjoy the show, grabbing onto the opportunity to cut lose in comic ways and still tell an enchanting story with a positive theme. In addition to the show, the company offers a number of activities before the performance as well as question and answer time, and the opportunity to take photos with cast members after the show. Even the company’s program is filled with activities and trivia that reinforce the show and provide a keepsake for the children.

Children will likely be enthralled by the clever dialogue, catchy songs, and abundantly joyful tone of the show; so much so that the simple but effective lesson about being true to yourself can easily sneak its way into their brains. Parents and older kids have not been forgotten, and most will appreciate the pop culture references, fast pacing, comic choreography, and high quality singing that ties the show up in a delightful bow.

Stages St. Louis production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a fabulously cheerful and imaginative show and, at just around an hour in length, it’s the perfect distraction to capture kids’ imaginations and spark some creative play of their own. Adult theater patrons looking to introduce younger children to the magic of live theater will delight in their likely response to the uplifting, comically satisfying show, running through July 3, 2016.

 

It Shoulda Been You, the premier production of the 30th season of Stages, is now running at the Robert G. Reim theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center on Geyer Road. This show is a feather in the cap of Stages, the first company given the rights to stage the show following its Broadway run in 2015.

It Shoulda Been You takes place in the contemporary setting of a stately hotel, soon to host a tony wedding between the families Steinberg and Howard. Jenny Steinberg (Claire Manship, very strong) has taken the reigns to coordinate the nuptials for her sister and her intended (Stacie Bono, Jeff Sears). Mother Steinberg (Zoe Vonder Haar, she of the delightfully dry delivery) meddles in the proceedings, nettled by spacey Mother Howard (Kari Ely), making an incendiary pair. Add in fathers (Michael Marotta, David Schmittou), a former boyfriend (Zal Owen), an over-the-top wedding planner (Edward Juvier), a Best Man (Erik Keiser) and Maid of Honor (Jessie Hooker), a "cougar" aunt (Morgan Amiel Faulkner), and a few others, and you get a melange of situations ripe for misunderstandings, conflicts, and fun.

Promotional materials for the show tell us that ultimately, Shoulda is all about families--traditional, and not so much--but that's the nature of current relationships in America in the 20-teens. It would be hard to give additional information about the action in the show without revealing too much of what should by rights be experienced live... So I won't!

The quality of the mixed New York/St. Louis cast, directed by Stephen Bourneuf, is excellent. Strong actors abound in the production and most have excellent singing voices. (I have no hesitation singling out Claire Manship and Zal Owen in this regard). In those times when the entire cast joins in on a song, the results are downright impressive.

Technically, the show is very much on target. The rendering of the set is (as usual) stunning; movement of set pieces to dress the various scenes that come and go on demand is (as usual) smooth. The pre-recorded music is (as usual) lush. The costumes (as usual) colorful and perfect to support character. The only bobble I could see was in the lighting, where some lights were narrowly-focused to hit a specific spot on stage, and heaven help the actor who can't precisely find that sweet spot, drifting in and out of the light.

But I know you're asking, is it a perfect show? Well, in this reviewer's humble opinion, no, not quite. I felt some musical numbers, consisting of Brian Hargrove's lyrics and Barbara Anselmi's music, were more successful than others. In those numbers, intelligent lyrics and pleasing melody set them apart from the other 18 very similar songs in the show. Much of the humor is gratuitous, and some book dialog of Hargrove's is a hair's breadth from being cruel, a jarring departure from the generally light-hearted show. Lastly, if you're looking for subtlety of character, this is not the place to find it, because everyone but the character of Jenny is a full-on stereotype. Had I only two words to describe, I'd say, "Kinda silly."

But such detailed examination of a show is usually only undergone by a theatre reviewer looking for ways to show how we're embracing our task! For most of the audience opening night was laugh-out-loud funny and wholly entertaining. And that's what counts, doesn't it? So all in all, it appears the 30th season of Stages St. Louis is off to a good start.

It Shoulda Been You is a one-act musical, running slightly less than two hours. It will be on stage at the Robert Reim Theatre through July 3.

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