Upstream Theater, under the direction of Philip Boehm, is my favorite company in town. Since 2005 they have been our only company to concentrate on world theater. They've brought us twenty-one U.S. premieres plus another eleven rarely-produced plays -- almost all from foreign sources. Yes, an occasional classic -- an Oedipus, an Antigone, a Blood Wedding -- but those, too, are rarely produced. Only once before, I think, has Upstream offered a work by a famous American playwright; that was The Hairy Ape -- certainly one of O'Neill's least produced plays.

What in the world were they doing when they announced a season including a play that is one of the most familiar of all pieces ever to bless the American stage? The Glass Menagerie is without doubt a very great play. It is perhaps the very greatest of all American plays. But it's been done everywhere! It is so far outside Upstream's charter!?

But theater is to make you think. This production is extraordinary. It is certainly not a Glass Menagerie that you have ever seen before. Director Philip Boehm has taken risks. (Brave? Foolhardy?) In some aspects this production is unsuccessful, but overall it is most memorable. My wife and I talked about it late into the night. And the next morning we woke up talking about it -- talking, thinking, analyzing, evaluating all that this production offered. So, no two ways about it, this production was -- overall -- very successful theater. And it impressed us all the more with the beauty of Tennessee Williams' work.

First of all, in this production Amanda (the mother) and Tom (her son) are black. Linda Kennedy and J. Samuel Davis are familiar veterans on St. Louis stages; they've both done superb work for years. I would suggest that here, in Glass Menagerie, these two are exhibiting their "personal best."

But I am not one to whom race can be meaningless in theater. Every actor carries in his face a rich cargo of ethnicity. There are, of course, many roles and plays in which race is quite immaterial. Williams, however, sets Glass Menagerie very specifically in St. Louis in 1937 or 1938 -- a time and place when race was far from inconsequential. Kennedy and Davis -- in voice and manner -- portray the Wingfields as a very typical -- almost essential -- black lower-middle-class family. I was amazed at how totally at home Tennessee Williams' dialogue seemed to be in these black voices. It was almost as if he had written the play for a black family. Credit for this is surely due to the actors.

But there are those textual references -- Amanda's initiation into the D.A.R., and her reminiscences of her youth: "All of my gentlemen callers were sons of planters and so of course I assumed that I would be married to one and raise my family on a large piece of land with plenty of servants."

These almost antebellum dreams may indeed be mere fantasies of Amanda -- but they are not black fantasies. We all know what "antebellum" meant to black America.

And then there is the white daughter. Laura is played by the lovely blonde and alabaster-skinned Sydney Frasure. She speaks with a voice quite unlike that of her mother and brother. What are we to make of this? I guess we must simply ignore the differences

Miss Frasure is, in real life, wheel-chair-bound and has some manual limitations. Maneuvering the antique wheel-chair around the small stage at the Kranzberg poses significant logistical problems -- not all of which are comfortably resolved, and when Jim, the "gentleman caller," dances with Laura it is indeed problematical. But when Jim's easy sweet kindness lifts Laura out of her intense shyness the utter radiance shining from Miss Frasure's beautiful face makes us forget all of those difficulties. Jim's hesitant kiss gives Laura a later lifetime of sweet memory.

In a striking, unusual, and wonderfully effective device Mr. Davis (and Mr. Boehm) give us a Tom who is remembering from a very old age. In all of his "narrator" passages Tom is seen as an old, old man. He moves with a walker--and with that slightly-vacant wide-eyed gaze of the ancient. Davis, who must be in his 50's, so convincingly portrays the movements and posture of the aged! At these moments, when Davis is looking directly at you in the audience, he is utterly captivating! You cannot look away! And then, magically, when he steps into a family scene he instantly becomes young. It's quite wonderful.

Linda Kennedy gives us an Amanda full of life and vitality and often a warm, happy heart. In her strivings with her son she shows "sass" and "attitude." This Amanda is unquestionably sane -- not even neurotic. She's merely a mother who simply cannot stop talking and poking and prying into the lives of her children. She's irritating, yes, but she's surely not an unfamiliar, let alone a contemptible, mother. In her interaction with her children there is indeed frustration, but ever-so clearly there is also great love.

This is what I felt so strongly -- in contrast to so many productions of "Glass Menagerie." I felt the strong love between mother and son. And I've never, never felt such a strong and tender love between Tom and his sister Laura as when Davis and Miss Frasure nuzzle their heads together over the desk in this production.
The Gentleman Caller, Jim, is a role a little too nice to be true. He's just so full of Dale Carnegie and "positive thought." Jason Contini does him great justice. (Though I think that a moustache robs him of a bit of his very desirable innocence.)

So: How does the lively warmth of this family effect the drama? Does the real vitality of this Amanda diminish the tragedy of her abandonment? Tom, in the script is younger than Laura, but in this production he is clearly older. Is his abandonment of this slight, deeply dependent Laura in any way forgivable? Here we see Tom as a very old man remembering; he has clearly reached the end of his life journey. Should not Tom, perhaps, be still journeying? Seeking? Certainly Tennessee Williams was in quest till the very end.

The beautifully detailed set is by Michael Heil. It's properly shabby, and filled with muted earth tones. A striking image of a fire-escape serves as backdrop. Claudia Horn is responsible for all the perfect, period properties.

The evening is supported by lovely live piano music by Joe Dreyer -- gentle old parlor ballads as if from Laura's phonograph, light and crystalline -- or livelier dance tunes from the Paradise Dance Hall across the street.

The Upstream production of The Glass Menagerie will leave you wondering about many things. But that's good! Do see it. It's well worth your time.
It continues Thursdays through Sundays through May 15th at the Kranzberg Arts Center

 

Filled with an abundance of familiar melodies, the new production of The Sound of Music, premiering at the Fox Theatre through May 8, 2016, brings a fresh perspective and an enthusiastic approach to this family friendly show. Clever direction by Jack O'Brien -- with orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett and dance and vocal arrangements by Trude Rittman -- takes the beloved musical and gives things a shake, breathing new life into to the story of the musical family that resisted the Nazi occupation of Austria and became cultural heroes.

Maria, a postulate nun played with joyful abandon by Kerstin Anderson, is missing from prayers again. The Mother Abbess, a sympathetic and powerful Melody Betts, must decide how to best guide the free-spirited girl. To help Maria find her purpose, she sends the young woman to serve as nanny to the von Trapp family. There Maria learns valuable lessons about herself, her ability to love, and her life's purpose. Captain von Trapp, played with amiable confidence and a soft heart by Ben Davis, is at first bewildered, then beguiled, by Maria's vibrant spirit and constant singing.

The seven von Trapp children, led by eldest sibling Liesl, in a radiant performance by Paige Silvester, quickly warm to Maria and they are soon singing, laughing, and thriving. The new stage production retains all the charm and appeal of the original while giving the show a fresh interpretation that emphasizes the romance without shorting the conflict of war. The Captain is fiercely committed to Austrian independence, an element of the story that receives definitive, if measured, emphasis in the production. Strong character development and a contemporary sense of World War II influence the production and the result is a fast-moving show that thoroughly entertains audiences of all ages.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's memorable songs and lyrics, as well as the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse as suggested by the original story by Maria Augusta Trapp, is treated with joyful reverence. The vocal arrangements emphasize the craft and musicality of the evocative, well-known songs, and are skillfully delivered by every member of the ensemble. Excellent harmony and stirring renditions are apparent from the first song, a reverent hymn from the Nuns at the Abbey, to the last reprise of "So-Long, Farewell." The dance sequences by Rittman and associate choreographer Jonathan Warren seamlessly weave in and out of the story, creating picturesque moments.

The scenes are crisp and lively and the tension, whether romantic or political, builds to a satisfying, hopeful conclusion that shows the Von Trapp family making their escape from the Germans by fleeing into the mountains they know and love. The attention to detail is apparent, with excellent sets, stage-craft and costuming that punctuates and reinforces the story arc.

As usual with a Fox Theatre production, the set and costumes are exquisite and the band and stagecraft nearly flawless. The characters are sharp and well-defined. Intentions and emotions are easily conveyed from the stage to the back of the house, yet they feel genuine and motivated. O'Brien directs with clear, purposeful vision, which is realized through Douglas W. Schmidt's scenic design, lighting by Natasha Katz, sound by Ken Travis, and costumes by Jane Greenwood. Jay Alger directs the band orchestra with precision, while production stage manager B. J. Forman ensures the set changes and transitions are effortless and timed perfectly to the actors' movements.

Theatergoers hoping to see a mirror of the movie starring Julie Andrews may be a bit surprised at the subtle but distinct changes in the new touring production of the show. Younger children may not understand all the historic and cultural references. But almost everyone is sure to be enchanted by the cheerful Maria and her brood of musically inclined siblings. The inspired revival of The Sound of Music, making its world premiere at the Fox Theatre and continuing through May 8, 2016, is thoroughly engaging entertainment for the whole family, with compelling performances filled with motivation and a plot that stays true to the original story.


It is a fantasy. It is a dream. It is a nightmare. It is a revelation. But is it Shakespeare? 

The brilliantly imaginative Lucy Cashion and her Equally Represented Arts company have done it again. After their recent exciting riffs on Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet they are serving up a strange and compelling piece called Trash Macbeth. In a remarkable, surrealistic way -- in a flurry of strange bits and pieces -- this adaptation seizes the fiery core of Shakespeare's play and drives it like a stake into the hearts of a 21st Century audience. This is far more than a director merely transposing the play into some other time and locale and hoping that we find some resonances. Miss Cashion puts the play through a meat-grinder, gives it spice and piquancy with juicy cuts from Emily Post, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the Book of Revelation, commercial television and, it would seem, Betty Crocker. 

She sets the play in a world of trash which is generated by overconsumption which is driven by incessant merchandizing which is driven by greed which relies on and exploits human weakness. She sets the play in America in the early 1950s. But this world bears the same resemblance to the real 50s America as Alice's "Wonderland" bears to the real Victorian England. And (most surprising indeed) we find that the moral tensions, the ambition, the workings of guilt and fear that lie at the heart of Macbeth are underscored and amplified by all those commercial forces preying on the insecurities of Americans who desperately seek the happiness and success that all those shiningly advertised products are promising them. 

Shakespeare's plot is solidly still present, but you must be quite familiar with it before attending Trash Macbeth

The tale is told by six actors:

Mitch Eagles and Rachel Tibbets as the Macbeths, etc.
Karl Overly and Maggie Conroy as the Macduffs, etc.
Nic Tayborn as Banquo, etc.
Ellie Schwetye as Emily Post, etc. 

We enter the theatre space and are graciously greeted by our hosts. A long dinner table fills the center of the hall. We are all guests at a royal banquet. Some of us sit with the cast at the table, others along the walls. Men in the cast wear formal black suits with a small bit of colorful trash worn as a boutonnière. The women wear strange cocktail-ish dresses; they're in a 50s style, but they're made of trash. Lady Macbeth, for instance, has a bodice composed of ads for Brillo. 

There is quite wonderful music throughout supporting every moment -- everything from soft simple jazz to strange haunting rhythms, from an ominous drone to a TV game show organ. Joe Taylor, the composer, plays keyboard; Philip Zahnd is on drums. 

The three witches can see the future. Like the Norns from Norse mythology they spin, measure and cut the thread of Fate. Moreover they keep score; at either side of the stage are posted "to-do" lists -- lists of those people to be killed. At each murder a witch crosses off a name. This underscores the inevitability that is so essential to tragedy.
From time to time great lengths of string are draped across the stage, eventually embodying the vast web of Fate in which Macbeth is entrapped.

The prim voice of Emily Post repeatedly interrupts to instruct us in how to host the perfect dinner party, or the precise way to light and hold a cigarette. Throughout we are assaulted by deluges of advertising jingles and mottoes. ("This execution is brought to you by ***DIAL SOAP***.") At the end this all combines into a cacophony of advice to the despairing Macbeth. Once, at the end of a card trick, the deck of cards is sprayed into the air -- a subliminal echo of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. When Macbeth appears after a murder his hands are filled with finely shredded paper, which drips over the audience as he passes -- like spatters of blood -- like drops of guilt. There is dance. There is also a great deal of inspired humor.

The entire performance is a kind of ritual.

The murder of Lady Macduff and her children is particularly powerful. It's heart-breaking. There is a frighteningly violent chase and struggle between the pregnant lady and her killers. As her spirit departs she passively recites a commercial message; I won't give it away, but it wrenchingly expresses corporate America's utter disdain for all things sacred -- even beautiful married love -- just as Macbeth's greed for power holds even innocent human life in disdain.

Sometimes we find ourselves in a TV game show -- like Macbeth's ancient Scotland, a place of wildly unrealistic and undeserved expectations. The characters, in their drab little self-introductions, reveal subtle and deep insight into themselves.

Director Lucy Cashion, with the assistance of Will Bonfiglio as dramaturg, have created a most remarkable evening of theatre. Weird and effective costumes are by Meredith

LaBounty. The design by Kristin Cassidy makes perfect use of the space. The very effective lighting is by Erik Kuhn.

I loved it. You might just hate it. But it will give you something to think and talk about.

The Equally Represented Arts company will perform Trash MacBeth at the Chapel through May 7.

 

 

The Black Rep closes its 39th season with Twisted Melodies, a moving exploration of the connection between genius and madness, expertly conveyed in an evocatively personal performance by actor Kelvin Roston, Jr, who also researched and wrote the script. The one man show with music delves into the mind and mental illness of singer songwriter Donnie Hathaway in an affecting, heartbreaking portrayal that's filled with songs, reverence and genuine anguish.

St. Louis native and Vashon High graduate Donnie Hathaway was an extremely talented, rising star in R&B music during the 70s whose career was cut short by his untimely death. A prodigious pianist, Hathaway grew up under his grandmother's roof and tutelage. A strict, Bible-quoting woman with a commanding will, she taught him to play piano and sing gospel. Her insistence that he constantly practice piano seems both an acknowledgement of talent and of her grandson's mental illness. You see, Hathaway was also diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. His illness eventually consumed him.

As with many artists, Hathaway found that the medicine he took stifled his creativity and ability to compose music even more than it helped control his symptoms. Though his grandmother did her best to prepare him by providing a grounding point and focus in music, it was not enough to sufficiently shield him, and as he matured, his episodes became increasingly intense and disruptive.

Twisted Melodies takes place in a single day, opening at a studio recording session then quickly moving to Hathaway's small, dingy room in a boarding hotel. The place seems a bit cramped and closed up, perhaps mirroring Hathaway's attempts to keep schizophrenic episodes at bay through rigid order and control. In the course of an evening, we watch and listen as Hathaway tells us of his life and love in between episodes filled with genuine terror and confusion. He frequently speaks to someone in the room that we cannot see, and he seems to see the audience, viewing us as an ensemble of guardian angels sent to help.

An inventive bit of writing, this recognition accentuates Hathaway's loosening grip on reality and is enhanced by the ominous, sometimes angry sound design created by Rick Sims. Having helped develop Twisted Melodies as part of The Black Reps programs to nurture and support artists and original work, Ron Himes directs with certainty and a deep understanding of the story. Roston's performance is gripping -- at times the audience is moved to sing along, at other times they are left to gasp, astonished at Hathaway's complete breakdown and how easily the walls of reality crumble.

The story occasionally gets lost in the performance, and it's not always easy to understand Roston's character transitions. Some work to clarify the exposition would add a strong through line to the show, helping to increase tension and drive to the tragic denouement. Additionally, I found it incredibly disconcerting that the now-deceased character Hathaway returns to the stage for an encore song after the story's end. Roston fully commits to his character and performance, however, and largely succeeds in taking the audience inside the artist's troubled mind. He deftly embodies both the genius and madness, using his voice, slight ticks, and changes in posture to transition as his mind grapples with lucidity. At times inspired, at times violently paranoid, and sometimes frightening, we see the ugly and overwhelming power mental illness can hold over a person.

Thankfully, there are moments of genuine beauty between the madness as we get stirring, passionate versions of Hathaway's most popular hits, as well as some gospel and a touch of Roberta Flack. Roston delivers strong renditions and has his curation of music suits the theme and emotional tenor of the show. His voice is evocative and reminiscent of Hathaway, and he fills the theater with emotion and presence.

Talent brought Hathaway a bit of fame and fortune, but it was not enough to overcome his mental illness. His story is artfully and respectfully detailed by The Black Rep in Twisted Melodies, running through May 1 in Washington University's Edison Theater.

 

Superb young talent takes the stage in Webster Conservatory's fine production of The Pajama Game

This classic American musical first appeared in 1954. It is set in a pajama factory where a strike threatens the burgeoning romance between "Babe," head of the union grievance committee, and her ambitious young supervisor, Sid.

The premiere production was directed by the legendary George Abbott with Jerome Robbins. (Abbott also co-wrote the book.) The production won Tonys for "Best Musical," for Bob Fosse's choreography and for Carol Haney's featured performance as Gladys, the sexy secretary.

An interesting footnote to this production illustrates the fulfillment of that eternal dream of young actresses: during the run Miss Haney actually broke her ankle, giving her understudy her first chance to be in the spotlight. That understudy was the young Shirley MacLaine. (Ironically, in her childhood, as a ballet student, Miss MacLaine had herself broken her ankle during a performance, but she just tightened her laces and danced the role to the end; only then was an ambulance called.)

The Pajama Game is indeed a "well-made musical," in the sense that it has all the tried-and-true ingredients. You put 'em all in, turn the crank, and, "Hey presto!" out comes a successful musical. We have the main romance and the secondary comic romance. In each case we have boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl. We have the requisite big production numbers, the romantic numbers, the comic novelty numbers. That George Abbott really knew what he was doing! He was famous for being a "play doctor" -- often being brought in to tweak a script and make it work.

Well, Mr. Abbott had plenty of time to doctor this show. He directed a revival in 1973 (with Hal Linden as Sid), and he was working on revisions of the second act a week-and-a-half before his death in 1995 -- at the age of 107! But still the book is a little creaky, a little artificial, a little slim on development of character and relationships -- even more so than the usual musical. There are some terrific songs -- "The Pajama Game," "Hey There," "Steam Heat," "Hernando's Hideaway," "There Once Was a Man" -- but as if in a throwback to the earliest days of American musicals, some songs seem just "stuck on," having really no relevance to the story. (Where does "Steam Heat" come from anyway? But it's a helluva number.)

Anyhow . . .

The Conservatory students who enact this tale delight the audience. Several in the cast merit special praise. I was particularly impressed with Ryan Jacobs, who plays Sid. He's blessed with a remarkably fine voice. He has a power and purity of tone that extend easily and undiminished into his very highest range. A soaring tenor indeed!

Jeannie Moffitt is quite perfect as Babe. Her lovely, true voice and her sweetheart face make us nicely surprised when we see her adamant commitment to her fellow workers. Her duet, "Small Talk," with Sid is very, very beautiful.

Austen Bohmer is a bombshell as Gladys. This is a gem of a funny, sexy role, and Miss Bohmer steals the show more than once. Perky, crisp and trim she is most justifiably the show's featured dancer. She masters the articulate sexuality of this Fosse-esque choreography. At the company picnic, in a terribly cute tangerine sun-suit, she is utterly irresistible. And what a sense of comedy!

Robert Riordan is cast a bit against type as "Hinesy," Gladys' fella. Riordan is a handsome leading-man type. Hinesy is really written for a character comic -- a vaudevillian. (Eddie Foy, Jr., a real vaudevillian, played the role in the first production; Cab Calloway played it in the '73 revival.) But Mr. Riordan rises beautifully to the challenge. He's a barrel of laughs in the comic numbers "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" and "Think of the Time I'll Save."

The entire cast does splendid work.

Director Tim Ocel, choreographer Lara Teeter and musical director Larry Pry have led these students into a highly professional performance.

The designers of the production (all students) do wonderful work. Brooke Henderson's costumes are charmingly period -- even to the Bermuda shorts business suit of the boss. Sets by Luke Shryock are excellent -- and quickly, fluidly shifted. The brick factory building is so convincing! Lights by Jeffrey Behm and sound by Collin Ronsonette beautifully support the production.

The Pajama Game played at the Webster Conservatory from April 20 through April 24.

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