The Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble continues it's "Season of Adaptation" with a production of The Color of August, by famed Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero. This is a new translation and adaptation by Will Bonfiglio, who is a long-time member of the company. 

It's a short play, just an hour long, and it's a two-hander featuring SATE regulars Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts. It's directed by the imaginative Lucy Cashion, who also provides the quite beautiful sound design. The play is a frenetic, energy-packed hour. It is sometimes intriguing but often simply overwrought. It's a puzzling piece, fun to think over and analyze, and these two gifted actresses are fiercely invested in it, but in the end there are serious problems with the play and the production.

Maria and Laura grew up together and they came to be profoundly bonded. Whether this love had a sexual element is not clear, but it was passionate. Laura, herself a painter, became Maria's muse and she modeled for a number of Maria's best paintings. But eight years ago something happened to shatter this deep friendship, and the two haven't spoken since. Maria went on to become a highly successful artist, some of her paintings selling for over a million. (Dollars? Pesos?) Laura is now near poverty, failed as a painter, drinking a lot and eking out a living as a model.

As the play opens we meet Maria in her studio in Madrid. She is about to reëngage in that most important relationship of her life. Through an agency, and under a false name, she has hired Laura as a model. When Laura arrives she is startled and angry to learn who has hired her and that Maria brought her here not really to pose but to open up this painful old case -- to somehow reclaim her. The battle begins.

Old wounds are pried open, old love revisited. There is anger and confusion. These two have competed in all things, and now they are competing, somehow, to win . . . something. We learn that Laura had felt used. We learn that Maria envied Laura's breasts. We learn of Laura's lover, John, who abandoned her but with whom she's still obsessed. We learn that Maria's cliché husband ignores her to watch soccer. He occasionally hits her, but she doesn't seem to mind -- not because she loves him, but perhaps just because (thank God) that's not what this play's about. At one point Maria feeds Laura whiskey as if she were feeding a baby milk. The two women strip to their skivvies and indulge in a paint fight, chasing and daubing each other with paint. 

Gender and sexuality are important here. The womb is a recurring motif in Maria's paintings -- and she has done a statue -- a lovely, cubist sort of Venus de Milo with an illuminated red bird-cage in her belly. Laura remarks that "If we'd been a man and a woman we wouldn't have destroyed each other." But this is not a play about gender politics.

There is love and loss and punishment in this play. Each urgently punishes the other for the loss of what they shared.

There is shouting of anger. There is much shouting of anger. And there are startlingly abrupt shifts of gear from battle to cuddle -- or vice versa.

And therein lies a major problem in this production. There are changes but no transitions. A number of times one of the characters suddenly and without apparent motivation goes from almost violent hostility to loving vulnerable intimacy -- or the reverse. I have a suspicion that in these instances the script actually does suggest motivation, but we need a moment when something said actually registers and causes this emotional change in the other character. We need silences in which suspicion or doubt or menace or cunning -- or love can breed. But in this production the pace is relentless. We feel that we are merely watching very agile emotional contortionists. Another quarter-hour would be very well-spent on this play.

One other problem is the absence of any sense that this is a Spanish play -- which it is. Now Spain has a particularly vivid cultural history regarding romantic betrayal. Some Spanish plays are quite cosmopolitan and could be set anywhere; others are like Blood Wedding: so intensely Spanish that they really should only be performed by Spanish gypsies. The Color of August, I believe, is not all that cosmopolitan. The all-consuming passion expressed by these two women would be more credible if we set the play firmly in Spain. (Yes, Madrid is mentioned once, but why is Laura's false lover Juan anglicized into "John"?)

Finally, the two actresses have learned both roles. Who plays what is determined by a coin toss by a member of the audience. This is a gimmick in which many famous actors have indulged, and it carries an element of excitement. But it's a risk with undetermined benefits and a very definite cost: swapping roles halves the rehearsal time. Actresses taking on these roles require long and deep study to be able to discover and then express the motivations which are buried in this very complicated script.

So The Color of August is a flawed script and a flawed production, but the intricate script and the sheer dedication of the artists makes it worth seeing. It continues at the Chapel through August 19.

Newsies began as a 1992 Disney movie starring Christian Bale. The musical about newsboys taking on publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer featured muscled teenage boys dancing a-la-West Side Story. It didn't do well in the box office but slowly became a cult hit -- a well-deserved distinction. Eventually, fans called for a Broadway remake, and Harvey Fierstein (fire-steen), Alan Menken, and Jack Feldmen obliged. In 2012, Newsies: The Musical opened and, that year, won Tonys for choreography and best musical score. 

In the opening scene, a beautiful bromance between the two male leads is revealed from the top of a building in New York City around the turn of the last century. Jack Kelly and his disabled best friend Crutchie dream of escaping the stinking city streets for a better life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is fresh and, they surmise, you are paid fairly for a day's work. There, Jack says, Crutchie won't need to be able to run: he can ride horses all day. 

The boys and their friends sell newspapers for The World, an international newspaper published by Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer decides to raise the price the newsboys pay for their papers, and the boys go on strike. It's a familiar tale of giants squashing the little guy, but this time features romance, song and dance. 

During the opening scene of the Muny's current adaptation, the audience falls for Jay Armstrong Johnson as Kelly and Daniel Quadrino as Crutchie immediately. After this scene, the show stalls, with the cast seemingly saving their energy for later numbers. But by the mid-point of Act I during the call-to-action anthem "The World Will Know," the cast wakes up, and from that point on, they lock into the show. Tessa Grady is quirky and sharp as Jack Kelly's love interest. Her voice is perfectly suited to the role, and she nails her solo "Watch What Happens," although the music itself isn't very memorable. Ta'Rea Campbell as Miss Medda is beautiful on stage, and her maternal warmth can be felt from the back of the enormous house. Davis Gaines is comically evil as Joseph Pulitzer, and Spencer Davis Milford and Gabriel Cytron play the brothers Davey and Les with believable affection. 

The leads' and ensemble's vocals are absolutely stunning in every song. The Muny band, which is on point, as always, delivers Menken's iconic music into the audience's hearts with a jolt. The lighting, costume and video designs seamlessly work together to enhance the production, but the choreography can be sluggish. Director and choreographer Chris Bailey probably attempted to create dances that would wow the audience but still be easy for the cast to learn in a short rehearsal period. This method works in some numbers, but in others, the cast does their best to fill tired movements with joie de vivre while the music calls for more than they deliver.

The most touching scene of the night is Daniel Quadrino's "Letter From the Refuge." With his gorgeous voice, Quadrino is funny, pitiful, confident, and broken all at once during this brief scene. It is a remarkable moment.

Bailey and his cast and crew tackled a monumental task with staging a show like Newsies in an extremely short rehearsal time. They succeeded in creating a strong, uplifting version of the musical that leaves audiences feeling like a good guy can win sometimes. Newsies plays at the Muny now through August 13.

 

Troupe America transforms the Westport Playhouse stage into a 1960s style kitchen with its original, lighthearted, and homespun musical Church Basement Ladies. Overflowing with protestant platitudes, rural wisdom, and more than a touch of "Minnesota nice," the nostalgic show reminds, with gentle humor, that the one constant in life is change.

Self-appointed kitchen manager Mrs. Snustead, played with stubborn charm by Janet Paone, has been the head of the voluntary kitchen staff at the Lutheran church for as long as anyone can remember.  A bit set in her ways, and quick to remind others of tradition and her view of proper behavior, she's overwhelmed by the changes of the '60s. She's joined in the kitchen by Mrs. Gilmerson, a woman with hot flashes and an unlucky husband, played with cherubic enthusiasm by Autumn O'Ryan, and Mrs. Engelson, a spirited woman less upset by change and played with a loving, gracious flair by director Robbie Mancina. 

Mrs. Engelson's daughter Signe, a delightfully upbeat and forward thinking Tara Borman, joins the three in the kitchen when she's home from college in the twin cities -- a location seemingly more loathsome than the fires of hell to Mrs. Snustead. Pastor Gunderson the recently remarried leader of the congregation, played with appropriate decorum and humor by Greg Eiden, frequently joins the women for coffee, sweets, and conversation. There's occasional bickering, and consternation over any break in tradition, but mostly, there's abiding friendship and the comfort of knowing others need you.

The folksy story transpires over the period of a few years and covers all of Minnesota's seasons -- early winter, deep winter, late winter, and eight weeks of spring and summer and the scenes are connected through pleasant songs, some reverent, most humorous. The women's voices are well suited for the layered harmonies and easy melodies and, while no song stands out as a "hit," the tunes are nicely varied and convincingly delivered.

We learn that Mrs. Snustead is a widow and working in the church kitchen is more than just service, it's her connection to the world. Mrs. Gilmerson regales us with tales of her clumsy husband's adventures and accidents with such a cheerful attitude that it almost sounds fun. Even her hot flashes are the source of much laughter. It's also revealed that Mrs. Engelson ran from the church on her wedding day, only to return later to marry a man who better suited her more progressive disposition, through temperament alone, it's easy to see that she's Signe's mom. All the while, the Pastor pops in and out, testing sermon ideas and chatting over coffee.

While change often feels like a threat, the church and its congregation make their way through it all, even the introduction of guitars in the service, as is generally the case. And though Mrs. Snustead is stubbornly resistant, her character is good natured and maternal at heart; eventually, she finds a comfortable way to deal with things that make her uncertain. In a surprising and lovely turn of events, it is she who provides the reassurance and kindness that Signe needs when a serious case of nerves puts her in a tizzy on her wedding day.

The songs range from pleasantly humorous to sweetly reverent and are delivered with lovely harmonies and cute choreography. The basement kitchen of the church is cutely kitschy, filled with linoleum and Formica, though it did bother me that the ladies kept glancing at a clock that never changed time. There are some fun rhythmic moments with kitchen utensils, a malfunctioning furnace, and a multi-purpose deep freeze and the overall tone of the show is delightfully earnest but played for laughs. All in all, the show offers pleasant entertainment that emphasizes nostalgia and positivity over heavy plot or character development.

There's plenty of laughter and joy in Church Basement Ladies, running through October 1, 2017 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza, but it's delivered with a sense of reality. Much of the music and humor is woven in and out of the everyday trials and tribulations of a rural life that is frequently challenging. While the show will likely appeal most to those raised in the church, its simple message about the strength and support of community lauds the benefits of getting to know your neighbors. With multiple nods to Lutheran liturgy, there's also a strong chord of traditional worship tying the scenes together. Because, if you have faith, you can face any change that comes. Even if you're as stuck in your ways as Mrs. Snustead. 

 

Stray Dog Theatre closes its current season with a moving and effective version of Ragtime that will likely have you toe tapping and humming along to its infectious rhythms and memorable melodies. You may also be compelled to utter a gasp, have a laugh, and shed a tear or two. 

Thoroughly engrossing and entertaining, the musical presents three different stories that weave together in a fascinating fashion, connecting vastly different experiences in ways that feel entirely plausible, if not completely realistic. Though the characters' lives cross paths with deeper repercussions than most, the distance between them is apparent.

An affluent white family's lives are forever changed when the Mother finds an abandoned baby in her garden while the Father is away on an adventure. Without Father to restrain her better nature, she rescues both the newborn infant and his young, unwed mother. A young black man, a piano player in a Harlem saloon, searches for the girl of his dreams and finds a family, as well as a blockade of prejudice and hate. An immigrant widow and his young daughter flee their homeland in fear of being persecuted for their religious beliefs. From the moment they arrive at Ellis Island, they must fight through poverty and constant struggle to make a new home. These stories are the very fabric of our nation, and the company brings them to life with poignant urgency.

Kay Love is splendidly gracious as Mother, rescuing Sarah, caring for her infant son and, eventually, helping Coalhouse Walker, the piano player, win Sarah over. Full of emotion, her vocal interpretations convey an essential goodness that's tempered by a sense of longing. Her life changes through a simple act of kindness that has unexpected consequences. Jeffrey White, as the immigrant Tateh, is sympathetic and emotionally grounded in his desire to create a better life for his daughter. Desperate to deliver on the promise of America, there's a pressing urgency to his movements and while his songs bring hope, you can hear uncertainty in the phrasing. 

But it is Omega Jones, as Walker, and Evan Addams, as his beloved Sarah, who thoroughly captivate the audience with soaring solos, expertly intertwined harmonies, and a heartbreaking tale. Jones commands attention in a spirited and vital performance that seems to capture both the possibility and prejudice of the era. Addams counters him with grace and an impressive range that's perfectly balanced and true. There's an innocence to Sarah that Addams mines to a finely honed and mentally sharp point, and it is impossible not to root for the couple.

The supporting ensemble capably completes the story creating well-defined characters and delivering pleasing arrangements that fill the theater. Joe Webb is engagingly prescient as the Young Boy and Avery Smith is a sympathetic Young Girl. Phil Leveling is all pomp and certainty as the Father, while Chuck Lavazzi is a grumpy old Grandfather and a spiteful and bitter racist. Jon Bee is sympathetic as Mother's Younger Brother, with a kind heart and innate desire for equal justice, and Ebony Easter has a lovely, gospel infused moment as Sarah's friend. Terry Lee Watkins, Jr., Joseph Gutowski, Gerry Love, Jason Meyers, Laura Kyro, and Angela Bubash are entertaining versions of historic characters, and Jackson Buhr, Jennifer Clodi, Chris Gauss, Melissa Sharon Harris, William Humphrey, Caleb Long, Dorrian Neymour, Kevin O'Brien, Belinda Quimby, and Chrissie Watkins round out the diverse and talented cast.

Ragtime paints a richly textured picture of an America purposefully segregated by wealth, social status, skin color, and nationality. In many ways, our society still adheres to these constructed boundaries. Different perspectives of the American dream, and the lengths many will go to in an effort to secure that dream for themselves or their family, are the central theme of the show. The sweeping musical, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, effectively explores these issues at the turn of the century. That century is 1900, but the questions faced by these characters feel relevant and timely today. Though not all the stories end with "happily ever after," the ending feels cautiously hopeful for the future of our country, perhaps undeservedly so. 

Outstanding performances and a compelling story will likely keep you on the edge of the seat, and the songs and music may make you want to dance despite the serious, almost cautionary undertones of the story, but the musical also provides much food for thought. Ragtime, running through August 19, 2017 at Stray Dog Theatre, isn't always easy to watch, but it rings with authenticity and emotion, resulting in a genuinely moving evening of theater. 

 

 

 

STAGES St. Louis adds a lot of comedy and sass to their season, plus songs by Dolly Parton, with an entertaining production of 9 to 5. The musical is bright, lively and filled with the best scenes from the hit movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. The story's heroes are an unlikely trio of women who have one important characteristic in common: they are trying to make their way in the male-dominated, 1980s corporate world. 

Violet, a single mom with more experience and corporate savvy than the majority of the men in her office wants respect and the place at the leadership table she's earned. Insecure, nervous, and in the final stages of a divorce, Judy needs a job and simply wants to make it through her first day without getting fired. Doralee, the boss's va-va-va-voom secretary, just wants to be one of the girls instead of the subject of office outcast. Each woman's life changes for the better, and, to sweeten the deal, their sexist, bigoted, chauvinistic boss gets some well-deserved comeuppance.

Corinne Melançon anchors the show as Violet, exuding both warmth and capability in a way that suggests a natural leader. A widow with a teenaged son and no time for romance, even her songs have a sense of the hard working, fair-minded ethic she personifies. Whether she's fixing things around the house, deflecting the attentions of a younger coworker, or fantasizing about the death of the boss after sharing a joint with Judy and Doralee, she inspires the type of confidence that makes you certain everything will be ok.

Laura E. Taylor hits all the right notes, literally and in terms of character, as Judy. Timid and easily discouraged at the start of the show, she learns that she is capable of standing up for herself and deserves better than the life and mistreatment she settled for. Judy's character goes through a complete change in the story, both internally and externally, and Taylor blooms in response. From her posture to her voice and willingness to speak up, she embodies Judy's transformation in a striking performance.

Summerisa Bell Stevens charms and cajoles as Doralee Rhodes, and her voice rings true and fine even through the country twang she adds for the part. The recipient of her bosses unwanted affection and gifts, Doralee is indefatigably kind and perky, as well as the last to know the rumors that cause the other women to avoid her company. Stevens expertly references Parton's original character, which is important to the show's comic premise, without becoming an impersonation of the singer, songwriter, and occasional actress.

A capable and entertaining cast, filled with top-notch dancers who also understand the importance of comic timing, provide outstanding support for the three leading women. Joe Cassidy, as the smarmy, offensive boss Franklin Hart, Jr., successfully shows no heart at all. As violet's son Josh, Jacob Flekier adds depth to Violet's character through their relationship and his procurement of pot, while Jason Michael Evans is endearing and persistent as Joe, a younger coworker with a serious romantic inclination towards Violet. Brent Michael Diroma is flirtatious and supportive, if a bit naïve, as Doralee's cheerleader husband Dwayne and Steve Isom is comically creepy as Dick, Judy's appropriately named husband.

 

Leah Berry and John Flack provide depth in the ensemble, and Kari Ely is on key and flat out hilarious as office tattletale Roz Keith. She's an absolute hoot from her Jane Fonda aerobics to her secret strip tease and enthusiasm for the French language. Director Michael Hamilton employs just the right touch here, keeping the show focused but loose, allowing for laughter rather than forcing it.

The show also gets strong support and high marks for the technical and stagecraft elements. Music director Lisa Campbell Albert gives the show a driving beat and positive tone, and the arrangements feature some fine harmonies. The set makes every changeover feel immediate and effortless, and the few times the cast moves set pieces are well choreographed. The 1980's era and fashion is communicated with spot on costumes and wigs, and the lighting and sound add effective, unobtrusive touches.

Strong, engaging performances aside, the show doesn't completely work for me. The premise is funny, but it's just one long joke. While I deeply respect Parton's skills as a songwriter and singer, a few of the songs feel like padding. I think this exaggerated realism wears on the cast a bit as well; with the exception of the title number, the best songs are the ones that live in the actor's fantasies. The comedy really works, but the storyline falters; perhaps as a musical the show works best played for laughs. The result is that the show feels a little too long and a story that plods in places.

Stages St. Louis's version of the popular movie 9 to 5, running through August 20, 2017, is a fun story, with plenty of light comedy and some standout songs. The underlying messages about respect and finding your place in the world are nice, though clunky, and the show wins with its can do attitude and humor. Captivating performances from Melançon, Taylor, and Stevens, and solid support from the ensemble, ensure an enjoyable night of theater. 

 

 

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