Dark and sensual, the Roundabout version of Cabaret now playing at the Fabulous Fox theatre is the most openly suggestive and insidiously sinister of the three versions of the popular musical. The current production is tense, exciting, and satisfying. The emotional turmoil and increasingly authoritarian government propels the show from bawdy and libertine to fearful and persecuted with such ease, the ending startles the audience even though we know what is coming.

Set in Berlin, Germany, the show opens on the last day of 1929 and continues through several months of 1930. It's an important historical period, and we see the changing attitude of the German people and the corresponding and devastating effect the influence and rise of the Nazi party had on artists, performers, and homosexuals, as well as the Jewish citizens targeted by the regime. 

Clifford Bradshaw, a struggling American writer looking for inspiration, meets the German Ernst Ludwig on a train to Berlin after inadvertently helping the other man smuggle a briefcase across the border. Cliff accepts his new friend's recommendation on a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, a mature woman courted by Herr Schultz, the Jewish proprietor of a fruit stand. Cliff also takes Ludwig's advice and visits the Kit Kat Klub, where he meets the irrepressible Sally Bowles and bumps into an old flame, Bobby. The club, their lives, an unplanned pregnancy, and the encroaching power of the Nazis soon intersect in a memorable show.

Leigh Ann Larkin and Benjamin Eakeley are compelling as the imperfect hedonist Sally Bowles and her solid, perceptive, and openly bisexual lover Clifford Bradshaw. Larkin is insouciant and coy, with a voice that, whether by direction or nature, belies the character's insecurity while still remaining pleasant. Eakeley counters with a smooth tone and graceful carriage. Observant by nature, his responses show he can't avoid taking a side as Berlin changes around him. 

Patrick Vaill handles the sharp turns of Ludwig well; Mary Gordon Murray and Scott Robertson are kind and heartbreaking as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz; and Alison Ewing and Joey Khoury stand out among a strong supporting cast. The story is compelling, but it's at the Kit Kat Klub where the action really heats up. And here, Jon Peterson captivates as the Emcee, always teasing the audience as he deftly moves from showman to omnipresent force to prisoner. 

Beguiling and gregarious, Peterson purrs and bounds through the show's opening numbers, sparkling in the light and reveling in naughty double entendres and flirtation. The Emcee's shine and enthusiasm waivers as the new political movement's power grows, until he stands alone, his truth fully exposed in a searing spotlight. Peterson uses all of his tools: expression, posture, movement, costume, and gestures with finesse, transitioning emotionally, vocally, and physically as the show closes in on the club. An omnipresent force, he keeps his intentions secret and his exclamations lascivious.

This version of Cabaret is darker, dirtier, and more starkly realistic. The presence and increasing control of the Nazi party is never far from mind, and increasingly vocal. The scantily clad, suggestive Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles' promiscuity, and Clifford Bradshaw's bisexuality are played for maximum effect, but there's humanity and grace to be found in all that bumping and grinding.

The high-energy production is visceral, filled with catchy, familiar songs, as well as sensual and increasingly aggressive choreography. The favorite numbers from the show are all executed with a fresh energy and interpretation. "Willkommen," "Don't Tell Mama," "Two Ladies," and "If You Could See Her" are bright and humorous, while "It Couldn't Please Me More," "I Don't Care Much," and "Cabaret" are deeply emotional and effective. The songs reflect the dichotomy at the core of the sharply written show. 

The script is perceptively biting, filled with commentary that's expressed in dominant movements, sharply hissed whispers, singular acts of rebellion, and increasing fear. This production, under the direction of BT McNicholl, hits all the right notes, in the right cadence, letting the layered and nuanced story unravel under the bright lights and tattered costumes. 

Cabaret, playing through Sunday, March 19, 2017 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre, is bristling with energy that vividly captures the period and delivers a transcendent message on the dangers of political might. Richly engaging, with tender moments, risqué comedy, bold choreography, and a startling conclusion, Cabaret delivers its cautionary tale in a dazzling package that's a treat to the senses. 

 

"You look great, did you lose weight?" "You have such a pretty face, if you could just lose some weight..." "You're so skinny, are you sick?" Fat shaming and body commenting in general is still socially acceptable in American culture. It's ok to crack jokes about the "fat guy" or to openly question whether a large stranger should be ordering an ice cream. The ensemble of because why not? theatre company forcefully reminds us of this fact at the open of Fat, before pushing us to look beyond our assumptions.

As consumers, we are faced with a constant deluge of commercials, diet products, and images of perfect people that shame us for having a less than perfectly proportioned body. Not too fat, not too thin -- if you want to be considered attractive and desirable, you, too, must conform. Even science shows that we have an obesity problem in the U.S., somehow adding to the permission to shame. The stories we don't often hear are the ones examining how this national obsession with our weight affects individuals and families. 

Shannon Geier's new play Fat presents us with a family that is torn apart by its issues surrounding weight and food. Amy, in a truly sympathetic and conflicted performance by Taleesha Caturah, is in a constant battle with her weight. Her husband Joel responds by becoming over-vigilant, and Jeff Kargus somehow manages to keep him from being a complete ass, despite his irritating lack of support. Daughter Tara, played with genuine urgency by Alicen Moser, overhears her parents constantly arguing about Amy's weight before they divorce. As she matures, she develops eating and control issues of her own that threaten her health. This is a taut, uncomfortable family dynamic that feels all too real to anyone who has struggled with body issues or their weight.

After her divorce, Amy's friends and sister try to boost her spirits and keep her positive, but their own perceptions and issues crowd their best intentions. Christa Williams, Patricia Duffin, Rhonda Cropp, Laura Singleton, and Helen Pancella represent different perspectives on weight shared among women without feeling like caricatures. Duffin is outspoken in her appreciation of her health and weight. Singleton is constantly about to start working on her dream gym. Pancella chooses to ignore her health issues. Cropp immerses herself in work and online romances that never materialize. As Amy's sister, Williams is torn between support and embarrassment. In Amy's daughter Tara's story, Olivia Pilon is effectively kind and tugs at your heart as an overweight schoolmate.

Interspersed between scenes of Amy's life, friends, and family, Parvuna Sulaiman and Darrious Varner interject social ideals on body beauty via the commentary you hear in daily life. They are newscasters and spokespersons, a skinny waitress, and an insightful therapist. The two are also slim, conveying much with tone, shrugs, and sideways glances. Though never intentionally mean-spirited or overtly harsh, they provide a consistent voice of judgment that reflects reality. Director Andrea Standy skillfully weaves the commentary through the story, keeping the focus on Amy and Tara while reminding us all of the constant messaging we receive.

The cast handles the confrontations and inherent pain in Geier's script well, and several of the scenes hit remarkably close to home for anyone who has felt uncomfortable in their skin. Caturah and Kargus arguing over her weight and efforts, over the fact that food isn't something you can just give up. Duffin and Caturah meeting by chance in a restaurant, resulting in a civilized but vicious attack. Moser and Kargus arguing over her control and food issues, all the while skirting around the pain their characters feel for Amy. These scenes are fraught with emotional tension, authentically raw, and discomforting.

A few of the scenes feel somewhat unfinished and some of the transitions need work, but the overall impact of the show is psychologically and emotionally relevant to audiences of all shapes and sizes. We've all been part of these conversations; diet and exercise are as much a part of our common vernacular as asking about the weather. Geier's script and the heartfelt, emotionally connected performances strike hard at the conflict and offer an opportunity to consider other perspectives. Where I felt I was missing something in the script is in Amy's story. She comes across well, and her voice is effectively emotional and impactful; perhaps that's why I want to more fully know her character and motivations. 

Thoughtful and perceptive, the show nudges audiences to reconsider their assumptions and to pay more attention to the messages around them. Fat, an original because why not? theatre company production running through Saturday, March 11, 2017, puts the spotlight on weight and obesity and asks us to take a deeper look at our own assumptions and response. 

 

This coming weekend, March 9 through March 11, St. Louis audiences will have one last chance to catch Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays written and produced by and about the LGBTQ Allied community. The festival, which has announced this will be its final year in this format, is the brainchild of Joan Lipkin, the artist and activist behind That Uppity Theatre Company, and Darin Slyman, CEO of the Vital VOICE, a leading LGBTQ community magazine.

Subject matter varies from play to play, but the focus of the festival is sharing the stories of LGBTQ individuals through theater. There's no prescribed theme or agenda to the festival, which features a wide variety of relevant, high quality shows each year. The festival makes its political statement simply by promoting a platform focused on the many creative voices in the LGBTQ community. Year after year, there's always been a story or two that touches your heart, another few that generate tears of laughter, and a solid handful that thoughtfully and artistically explore life in the flyover region of the United States from the perspective of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning people. 

During the six-year run, the Briefs festival has produced over 50 plays, with multiple premiere performances debuting each year. For the third year, the festival will include a production of the winning submission in the Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth, Trial and Swear, by McKenzie Moser. John Schmidt, winner of the first year's competition, recalls how important the festival and community support he received was. "The Haller was a bookend for me in a lot of ways -- it marked the culmination of my college writing career and journey to coming out, recognizing and affirming my queer voice in a way no one had before, while also signaling the beginning of my professional artistic life, cementing St. Louis and That Uppity Theatre Company as a safe haven that I know will always welcome and support me."

It is the support and empowerment of the LGBTQ community in St. Louis and the recognition of artists who identify as members that makes the festival such a vibrant and vital part of our theater community. But everyone is welcome at Briefs, though performances are intended for mature audiences. The cast and crew is an ensemble of technicians, staff, and artists that reflect the St. Louis region, and includes LGBTQ and straight allies, as well as new and returning participants. 

Long time ally Chris Limber returns once again to direct, while two newcomers to the festival, playwright Shannon Geier and director Sarah Lynne Holt, are rising stars in St. Louis Theater. The two are working to bring Geier's script on transgender acceptance to life for the festival while Geier is also participating in the premier production of her full-length play Fat, which opened at the Chapel on Alexander last weekend. Two concurrent productions make this an incredibly busy time for Geier, but she doesn't seem to mind at all and can be found beaming with pride at either show. As Geier told me, "The thing that means so much to me about the theatre is hearing the stories that don't usually get told. I don't see or hear the stories dealing with obesity and its effects. I don't hear stories about the families of the LGBT communities that often -- unless it's about how the family has shunned and disowned them, even though that isn't always the case. I want, and I think the audiences want, to be entertained, but to also be challenged to think and explore and look at things from a different perspective." 

The festival offers the opportunity for under-represented voices in our community to be the focus, in the spotlight and not simply a supporting character. The show features eight to ten short plays, with each running about 10 minutes in length. This year's festival includes the Ken Haller award winner and a reprise production of one of the festival's most beloved shows, When Oprah Says Goodbye, as well as the highly anticipated Gaga by Jon Fraser. 

Art and freedom of expression are essential for the survival and well being of our culture, including our LGBTQ and allied community. Through the festival, "we are getting the opportunity to see LGBTQ stories though the medium of live theatre," says Slyman. "Of course we read about these LGBTQ stories and hear about them, but we rarely have the opportunity to see them, and seeing is very powerful." Though several of the plays are likely to be serious in nature, the overall tone of the production is one that encourages acceptance and positivity. At its heart, Briefs is always a celebration of voices, stories, and people.

If previous festivals are any indication, patrons will want to ensure they order their tickets early, as Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays generally sells out the majority of its performances. Pearl Vodka and the Vital VOICE sponsor the show, which will run for four performances March 9 through March 11, 2017, in the .Zack Performing Arts Center. 

 

Filled with passion and genuine exuberance, Zorba is the most beautifully hopeful tragedy I've seen in quite some time. The score and dancing are evocative, drenched with the sounds of Greek folk music. The lyrics are filled with exposition and storytelling reminiscent of the classics. The musical tackles the story of humanity as told through the eyes of an aging man determined to squeeze every last ounce from his own life. Tragic in nature, because we all must die at some point, the tale is nonetheless spirited and filled with love and passion.

Zorba, an aging Greek man with a lust for life and a careless way with other people's hearts and money, is constantly looking for his next adventure. When he meets Nikos, an American who recently inherited a mine on one of the islands, he quickly latches on to the uncertain businessman. The two are soon busy trying to revive the shuttered mine with the help of the locals, who are hoping for employment once the mine is operating. Along the way, they encounter romance, heartbreak, and a business trip by Zorba that nearly bankrupts the young man.

Zorba, played with a full voice and a touch of sobriety by Kent Coffel, is charming and filled with practical, earthy wisdom. Seemingly cavalier, he speaks from the perspective of age and experience, choosing to live his life in the moment. Coffel sparkles with good humor and a teasing, gregarious nature. Though he shows a hardening of heart when challenged to feel beyond the here and now, his final goodbye with Madame Hortense is emotional and comforting. 

Dominic Dowdy-Windsor as Nikos, the American Zorba takes under his wing, counters Coffel with a curious, cautious nature. Nikos is bookish and inexperienced in life and romance, and Coffel and Windsor-Dowdy complement each other well. Dowdy-Windsor has a rich, pleasing voice and is wonderfully naïve as the studious American. His budding romance with the Widow is as sweetly innocent as it is tragic. 

Margeau Steinau is thoroughly delightful as Madame Hortense, Zorba's latest infatuation. She flirts and plays a coquettish innkeeper with a vivacious laugh and easy nature that suits Coffel's Zorba well. Ann Hier is heartbreaking and sympathetic as the Widow. The lessons she teaches are gracefully portrayed and her strong singing adds sincerity to the mistreated character. Lindsey Jones is playful but persistent as the all-seeing and all-knowing chorus Leader. She commands attention with her powerful voice, pointed gestures, and expressions, always pushing the story forward. 

The ensemble delivers well-constructed harmonies and Greek influenced choreography that fills in the story. Evan Fornachon is delirious with unrequited love, Devin Riley a good-natured and likeable Mimiko, and the supporting cast, including Mara Bollini, Sarah Dowling, Robert Doyle, William Pendergast, Kimi Short, and Sara Rae Womack, are fully invested in the show and the vision of directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor.

The band, led by conductor Sarah Nelson, skillfully weaves the Broadway melodies and Greek music together, creating a pastiche that fills the theater with the sense of the islands. Choreographer Michelle Sauer demonstrates firm knowledge of Greek folk dancing, and the ensemble executes even the more intricate and challenging steps with confidence. Rob Lippert's gorgeous set design is detailed, warm, and inviting; it just may have you planning a vacation to the Greek islands as you wait for the curtain to rise. 

Sarah Porter takes a slight misstep with the Leader in an otherwise smartly costumed show. The all black choice creates some confusion with the Widow, but it is the black wig Jones wears that stands out for the wrong reasons. A decoration or brightly colored veil may help integrate the hairpiece, and it's unfortunate because the rest of the costumes so nicely depict the working class townspeople and their "wealthy" guests from France and America. And those crows hats are spectacular. Beautifully constructed and moody, I'm considering approaching Porter to see if she'll offer them for sale when the show closes.

There's a lot of artifice to the story and show, and it works well to showcase the highly stylized influence of Greece, its dances, customs, and storytelling traditions. The same artifice also reminds audiences that this is a story from a markedly different time and place. This is important because, honestly, there are a lot of stereotypes and more than a little chauvinism in the show, which may make some patrons uncomfortable though the overall tone is life affirming and bittersweet.

Some of the ideas and stereotypes are incongruous with contemporary thought and an audience must be able to allow this inconsistency. Thankfully, New Line Theatre has produced a deeply satisfying and effective show that resonates with hope. Zorba, running through March 25, 2017, is a compelling story. The performances are sharply executed and endearing, and, though the ending is sad, it is filled with joy and gratitude. 

 

 

 

For millennia men have ruled the realm of the hard sciences while women, of course, had governance over domesticity, motherhood, and the gentler arts. More than occasionally the male leaders in the sciences have led us into error. For example Ptolemy was a famously mistaken astronomer; mathematics led to the delusions of numerology; engineers built the Tower of Babel (and that other tower in Pisa). Could women, perhaps, have done a better job?

St. Louis University Theatre is dedicating its current season to plays about women in STEM fields -- i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Their current production is Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky. It tells the true story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer at Harvard who in 1912 made a remarkable discovery that totally revolutionized our ability to measure the universe. Yet she has, 'til recently, remained more-or-less unknown. Her superiors and other colleagues (all men) took most of the credit. In 1925 the Nobel folks were about to nominate her for a prize when they discovered that, alas, the brilliant Miss Leavitt was already four years dead.

Henrietta, along with a number of other highly educated women, worked as a "computer" at the Harvard observatory under Prof. Edward Pickering. Their job was to scan thousands of glass photographic plates from the great telescope in Peru. They identified, catalogued and categorized many thousands of stars from the pinpoints of light on those plates. At thirty cents an hour they were not allowed to call themselves "astronomers". Perched at their desks, squinting into those slides, fiercely jotting notes, they were more like bean-counters than scientists. But their minds were at work, and several of these ladies made distinguished astronomical contributions. 

Miss Leavitt's study, her obsession, was with Cepheid variables, a type of star that pulsates -- bright, dim, bright -- with wonderful regularity. She herself discovered 1,200 such stars (doubling the known catalogue). Her great discovery was of the relation between a star's period and its absolute luminosity: bright stars slow, dim stars fast. With this one could determine a star's actual distance from us. With this the universe expanded one-hundred-billion-fold!

This production of Silent Sky, under the direction of Lucy Cashion, is light, graceful and moving. Katie Schoenfeld gives full dimension to the reserved Henrietta, capturing her deep scientific passion as well as her conflicting dedication to family. Her strong performance is supported by equally fine work from Erica Withrow as Williamina Fleming and Miranda Jagels Felix as Annie Cannon. These are Henrietta's star-counting colleagues. Ms. Felix makes Miss Cannon a very powerful proto-feminist. 

(I was a little surprised to hear this Annie speaking with a distinctly Spanish accent, but then I found that Ms. Felix is herself recently from Madrid.) 

Now Williamina Fleming was a native of Scotland. She was working as housekeeper to Prof. Pickering when the professor, upset over the incompetence of a male employee, said "My housekeeper could do a better job!" He forthwith fired the slacker and replaced him with Mrs. Fleming. In this role Erica Withrow gives, I think, the most perfect performance of all. It twinkles with spirit and intelligence, and her Scottish accent is utterly convincing, fresh and clear. 

Carlee Cosper is charming and loving as Henrietta's sister, Margaret. The deep love of these two sisters overcomes their strikingly different drives in life: Henrietta is totally committed to astronomy while Margaret subordinates her musical gifts to the more traditional path of family and church.

In SLU's November production of Arcadia we met Thomasina, an adolescent mathematical genius. Here we meet Henrietta, an adult astronomical genius. Thomas Edison once said that "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." Thomasina's genius seemed to be pure inspiration, but with Henrietta that perspiration (or should I say "glow"?) was obvious in her many long, late nights of relentless pursuit of Cepheids.

As with Thomasina, Henrietta's brilliant gift was not unnoticed by her male superiors -- who were drawn to it, but didn't quite know how to deal with it. Henrietta's immediate supervisor was Peter Shaw, a nice guy but a very unexceptional scientific plodder. Peter is immediately smitten with her, but the conventions of the day make it impossible for him to see her as a real colleague. Nevertheless the beginnings of a romance burgeon between them--but that romance is to be sadly, awkwardly truncated.

Jimmy Bernatowicz does lovely work as Shaw, but the role as written makes it too easy to play him as a rather pompous male chauvinist. The drama would be enriched if we saw him as a bit more sensitive, truly in love and in a struggle with himself.

There was one tiny but irritating error that appeared throughout the evening: Those variable stars, first found in the constellation Cepheus, are pronounced "SEE-fee-id" not "SEFF-id".

An important aspect of the beauty of this production is the piano music which pervades the evening -- some of it recorded and some, I believe, live under the fingers of Carlee Cosper. There are lovely old church hymns as well as delicate crystalline abstractions that seem the very voices of stars.

Jim Burwinkle gives us a rather spare and flexible set which allows the vast sky to be ever-present, and lighting designer Mark Wilson and video designer Shannon Tinsley fill that sky with a thousand brilliant stars. (And, yes, those Cepheids really pulsate!) And Emily Vanencia's costumes are properly period and beautifully fitted.

Silent Sky is a lovely show. It played at St. Louis University March 2 through 5. 

 

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