It is rare to create a theatrical production that is both simplistic and breathtaking, but Director Bartlett Sher and his creative team have done it with their Lincoln Center Theater Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I".

The airy, gauzy curtains open to reveal a large wooden boat floating on a river of fog as teacher Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrive in Siam to teach the language and culture of the West to the King's wives and children. The mother and son, despite their years spent in India and Singapore, are overwhelmed by the strange sights and smells. They begin the iconic song, "I Whistle a Happy Tune."

This opening's lighting, scenery and soundscapes work together so well that you can almost smell the Asian riverside city as it was in the 1860's. As the show progresses, settings in the palace are explored with few, choice set pieces on a vast, open stage. Director Bartlett Sher relies on the story's kaleidoscope of characters, gilded costume pieces, and stage presence of cast members to draw his audience into the unfolding story. 

Laura Michelle Kelly makes it immediately clear that she was born to play Mrs. Anna. The Broadway star brings her A-game to the Fox, revealing Anna's developing feelings for the King and her understanding of the Siamese people layer by layer. Jose Llana's vibrant portrayal of the King delivers at all the right moments, most poignantly during comedic flashes, and he is framed perfectly by Brian Rivera as Kralahome and Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang. Almedilla's "Something Wonderful" pushes and pulls through a range of raw emotions. Q Lim as Tuptim embodies every young feminist, at once lovely and furious as she sings, "What does he know of me, this lord and master? [...] Something young, soft and slim [...] eyes that shine just for him, so he thinks!"  

The play within the show, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", is the crowning glory of the production. This beautiful ballet has audience members rooting for Eliza, loving her even though we only know her for a few minutes.  The dancers are precise yet jovial and warm. This type of a scene is difficult to do because of the timing--it's necessary to achieve absolute precision between the narrator, dancers, singers, orchestra, actors and lights. The piece was flawless.

The Fox's orchestra deserves a standing ovation for the work they do in "The King and I". The production is largely driven by the music, and the musicians expertly accompanied the performers while completing the historic South Asian setting, providing comedic relief, and building tension. 

Sher's re-telling of this iconic show pays homage to the classic, reviving memorable scenes and choreography from Jerome Robbins, but the story doesn't feel stale: Every bow, smile, and turn of the wrist feels fresh and delightful. And the book's theme of gender equality is just as pertinent today as it was when the show debuted in 1951. 

With choreography by Christopher Gattelli, music direction by Ted Sperling, set by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Tony-Award winner Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder and sound by Scott Lehrer, "The King and I" is playing at the Fabulous Fox through December 10th. For more information, visit www.thekinganditour.com

Photo from Stray Dog Theatre production of Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s moving tribute to his late sister, is an emotionally packed drama that explores parental love, the desire to live life to its fullest, and the importance of friendship. Told by a bevy of strong southern women, the story is heartbreakingly sad in moments but resonates with warmth and love as well as the resilience of the human spirit. Stray Dog Theatre’s compelling interpretation brings the story to life with quirky but relatable characters and an inspiring lead that refuses to let illness dampen her dreams.

Truvy, a bubbly salon owner who espouses there’s no such thing as natural beauty, has just hired Annelle, a reticent young woman with a mysterious past, to help out at the shop and it didn’t happen a moment too soon. Shelby is about to get married and the whole town is all-abuzz with excitement, particularly the ladies who frequent Truvy’s salon. Soon enough, Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn, arrive for their appointments. There’s a constant flow of gossip, snark, and friendly advice as the stylists wash, set, curl, and fix each woman’s hair. We learn about Ouiser’s feud with Shelby’s father, Clairee’s opinion of the new mayor’s wife, the one that replaced her. We also learn that Shelby has a serious illness and shouldn’t have children, a fact she resists and her mother worries over.

As the story progresses, the audience is invited into the intimate circle of friends. Truvy remains a steady force, cracking jokes and teasing hair, but the others undergo significant changes during the two-year span of the bittersweet play. Clairee and Ouiser each find a new and very different lease on life. Annelle finds religion, as well as her self-respect and real love. Shelby faces daunting odds at every turn, but she so frequently succeeds that it causes us to drop our guard, making the final scene hurt that much more, so we shed a tear or two over the miracles and tragedies that life doles out. The story arc is serious, but gentle, delivered with tender regard and a sense of humor

Eileen Engel fills Shelby with a spirited, passionate demeanor that demands we pay attention from the moment she enters the room and encourages us to believe for her. Engel finds multiple layers in Shelby, even her optimism is tinged with complexity, and there’s resolve and sincerity in her portrayal that charms. In contrast, Alison Linderer starts small and quiet, the wallflower in the corner that blossoms into a kind, nurturing woman. She’s the perfect partner to Truvy’s over-the-top energy and represents the youthful energy the friends need to maintain hope.

Jenni Ryan unravels M’Lynn slowly, revealing carefully masked layers of maternal pain and fear that feel heartbreakingly honest. She is by turns anxious and supportive, but she’s willing to give everything she has to help her daughter stay alive. Sarah Gene Dowling is boundless and bawdy as Truvy, her hands and mouth constantly working in concert. Liz Mischel and Andra Harkins round out the cast as Clairee and Ouiser, two wonderfully vivacious and bickering senior citizens with hearts of gold. Accents were lost a few times here and there, and more than one actress appeared to stumble over a few lines, but the spirit of the show remained intact throughout. The chemistry and sense of camaraderie are present from the opening scene and the women’s relationships feel genuine, down to the little squabbles and too familiar teasing.

Director Gary F. Bell steers the show purposefully, creating well-developed characters that, for the most part, avoid stereotypes, though Truvy and Annelle are not as substantial as the other women. The lack of depth may reflect more on the script than the actors, but more levels and vocal variety may also add depth to the one-note characters. Josh Smith’s set is a wonderful recreation of a small town beauty parlor, complete with running water and hooded dryers, while the sound design set the tone of the show with catchy pop tunes from the 1980s. Finally, Bell and Engel’s costumes and hairstyles capture the period, with the liberal application of hairspray a perfect finishing touch.

The impact of the powerful play, filled with witty observations and sly jokes as well as tender scolding and long hugs, sneaks up on the audience. Despite all the challenges these women face, they remain optimistic and long for a better tomorrow not simply for themselves, but for their friends. Even when they quarrel, they do so with real affection and interest. Though there’s a wedding, there’s not a happy ending for all; still, Steel Magnolias, in performance through December 16 at Stray Dog Theatre, offers friendship, comfort, and hope with a healthy dose of humor.

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz in 'A Jewish Joke'

In Yiddish, the term “mensch” is used to signify a person who is a good guy, someone filled with honor and integrity who can be counted on to step up and do the right thing, whether they want to or not. In real life, however, doing the right thing can be complicated. Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman illustrate this issue in the often humorous and highly personal A Jewish Joke, a story that takes audiences back in time to the days of McCarthyism and the hunt for communists hiding among the American public.

Bernie Lutz is one half of a successful comedy writing team preparing to attend the red carpet opening for their first big movie. Lutz has just picked up his and partner Morris’ tuxedo from the dry cleaners and his wife is about to be surprised with a selection of dresses and shoes from which to choose this evening's outfit. The phone is ringing with requests for script updates, meetings, and story pitches with all the studios and major stars, including a project for the Marx Brothers, Lutz’s personal idols. But, before he can relax and celebrate, Lutz has to deal with the small matter of a bothersome letter investigating his partner and him for ties to communism. Unfortunately, the two have been listed on the “Red Channel,” and reporters, studio executives, and an eager FBI Agent are all anxious to hear what Lutz has to say.

To this point, Lutz has lived a mostly charmed life and he figures that he can quickly and easily smooth things over in regards to the pesky issue. As the story unfolds, Lutz begins to understand the serious nature of the accusations, and the very real consequences being on the list have for his career. One by one, the duo’s projects get put on hold or, worse, assigned to other writing teams. Even the Marx Brothers project is jeopardized. When the friendly agent offers Lutz the opportunity to make all his problems go away, Lutz quickly asks what he must do. Will he provide names and details to the agency or will he sacrifice his wealth and comfort for principle? For the first time in his life, Lutz has to decide where his loyalties lie and whether he can be the mensch.

Co-writer and star Phil Johnson brings Bernie Lutz to life in a pleasantly rambling portrayal that draws the audience in with ease. The character is an affable, genial sort, a man who wants to make everyone laugh and have a good time. He sprinkles his conversations with familiar stand up jokes, self-deprecating comments, and homespun Jewish wisdom that always has a moral. Lutz clearly adores his wife and wants to pamper her. He admires and respects his friend and writing partner Morris, and credits him for the pair’s success.

Johnson lets us watch as Lutz talks his way through his competing desires, the pace of his patter increasing with the story’s tension. Johnson ensures Lutz is an active and energetic man, if at times a bit bumbling and confused, with a humble demeanor and sense of justice, or at least an appreciation for right and wrong, that rivals his love of the finer things in life. The set effectively emphasizes his situation, it’s a bit shabby, but there are a number of scripts hanging from Lutz’ desk, signifying potential and upward momentum. As the show continues, and each project is removed from the board, we are faced with an increasingly blank slate, a subtle reinforcement of the very real threats to the writing team’s livelihood.

The lighting is low key, the costumes are well worn, and a bit frayed at the edges, and the sparse office and simple sound design, primarily the ringing phone, emphasize the everyman sense of Lutz. His is a warm and compelling story with a nice arc, but it lags at times and feels like it could be about 20 or so minutes shorter. Incorporating more of the historical background into the script may also help younger audience members understand the context and significance of the story.

A Jewish Joke, running through December 10 at The New Jewish Theatre on the JCCA campus, is running in a limited engagement, and ticket reservations should be made early. The deceptively straightforward show reflects on a time in U.S. history when citizens were encouraged to turn against each other with suspicion and distrust. Though filled with a keen sense of humor, the lesson of this poignant tale is one we would be well advised to heed in today’s tumultuous times.

Image from St. Louis Actors Studio production of 'A Behanding in Spokane'

St. Louis Actors Studio once again shakes up the holiday season by presenting a show that, at least at first glance, seems antithetical to all things bright and cheery. A Behanding in Spokane is a loud, querulous, and darkly comic play filled with quirky characters and convoluted conversations that are as interesting as they are illogical. The one-act play, written by Martin McDonagh, entertains by mixing oddly distinct personalities with a few surprises that are quite welcome and unexpectedly satisfying. Engaging performances by a talented cast and pointed direction from Wayne Salomon make the most of this unconventional comedy.

At the tender young age of 17, Carmichael was attacked and beaten, then held down as a train ran over his arm and severed his hand. To add insult to injury, the gang that abused him mocked him as they ran away, waving back to him with his dismembered hand. The scene is one Carmichael cannot erase from his mind and, for nearly fifty years now, it has propelled him to seek out his attackers and recover his hand. Truth be told, he’s long ago reckoned with his attackers, but he remains committed to the quest for his missing hand, useless as it may be.

Marilyn and Toby are a couple of pot dealers looking to make a quick buck. They’ve stolen a hand from the local museum and intend to pass it off as Carmichael’s so they can collect the money he’s promised. Always suspicious, Carmichael is holding Toby in the closet of his hotel room while Marilyn retrieves the hand. Toby’s incessant scratching on the closet door clearly annoys Carmichael, so he fires his gun near Toby’s head to scare him. The gunshot piques the interest of the loquacious hotel desk clerk Mervyn. He comes to investigate and, curiously enough, doesn’t get shot by Carmichael who instead attempts to convince Mervyn that he heard the sound of a car backfiring and not a shot.

Unfortunately, the hapless drug dealers have stolen a hand that in no way matches Carmichael’s. In a bit of quick thinking that’s nearly derailed by Marilyn, Toby tells Carmichael that Marilyn grabbed the wrong hand. Things go downhill quickly, but comically, from there and are complicated by calls from Carmichael’s mother and Mervyn’s bored meddling. Everything falls apart and reassembles a couple times, leading to the surprisingly warm and oddly “buddy film” like final scene.

Jerry Vogel is spot on as Carmichael, a curmudgeon with a conscience and a soft spot for his mom. He’s spent so long fixated on revenge and his missing hand that true resolution may be his undoing. Léerin Campbell and Michael Lowe ensure that our hapless potheads are much more than caricatures, and there’s tenderness in the way they care for each other that adds a ton of sympathy. Finally, William Roth plays Mervyn with a matter-of-fact attitude and deadpan tone that combine to great comic effect. He’s chatty and perceptive in an offhand way and bursting with a near constant stream of random facts and opinions. Roth’s interpretation ensures Mervyn is more endearing than annoying, though both characteristics are present.

The play succeeds best when the various characters’ eccentricities lead to confusion or conflict, creating a mishmash that’s part crime caper, part situation comedy. Several of the plot devices are a bit thin and require the audience to buy into the inherent absurdity of the situation. Director Salomon doesn’t dwell on these shortcomings, however, and it’s fun to watch the ways he and the cast resolve these moments.

There are also important, essentially American idiosyncrasies that the Irish born playwright doesn’t seem to fully grasp. Carmichael’s persistent use of racial slurs feels a bit forced and though there’s something amusing about his mother’s racism, neither seem authentic. The show also lags just a tick during the troublesome scenes, drawing attention to the clumsy dialogue in an otherwise intriguing and humorous script. Luckily the stumbles don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of this darkly funny tale.

St. Louis Actors Studio’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, continuing through December 17, is a genuinely entertaining and funny alternative to traditional Christmas shows. In fact, there’s not a single holiday or seasonal reference to be found in the quick moving, foul-mouthed show. While not for all audiences, as some may object to the language and subject matter, and decidedly not McDonagh’s best script, the play is thoroughly engrossing, oddly compelling, and laugh out loud entertaining.

St. Louis University has opened a strong production of The Merchant of Venice. This play, of course, features that most controversial of Shakespeare's characters -- Shylock, the moneylending Jew of Venice who demands his "pound of flesh" in payment from the luckless Antonio. 

What sort of play is this? To Shakespeare and his audience it was a comedy. After all there are women disguised as men, there are no fewer than three marriages and there's not a death at all! And yet we are early-on seduced into sympathy with the supposed villain of the piece. With the famous "Have we not eyes" speech Shakespeare commands our sympathy for Shylock. At the play's climactic courtroom scene we are deeply moved by the anguish of Shylock when the revenge for which he lusts suddenly (and really through trickery) becomes humiliating defeat. He is not only crushed, but he is mocked by these Christians who so blithely banter about "mercy".

This SLU production at the Marcelle Theatre is presented in an "alley" format, with audience on both sides of the performance space. Designer Jim Burwinkel gives us an attractively spare set with at one end the entrance to Shylock's home and at the other a kind of bridge that also serves as the courtroom dais. At center is a small sort of wishing-well.

In the very brisk opening we find ourselves in modern Venice at Carnival time. Players in festive masks roister about. Costumer Lou Bird gives the cast a high-fashion, GQ sort of style -- the men in snugly-fitted stylish jackets, tight pants, snappy hats, no socks. Sometimes this works but sometimes not;  Bassanio, for instance, has pant-legs and sleeves just a bit too short -- giving the impression of a growing adolescent boy. And in the courtroom scene the two ladies-disguised-as-men wear proper conservative business suits, but on their feet we see clunky tan almost-boots in which no classy Italian lawyer would be caught dead. But overall the costumes are stylish and bright and work well in this time-shifted concept.

Director Gary Wayne Barker draws fine performances from his student cast. I've seen most of these actors on stage in the past few seasons. One of the delightful things about attending university theater is watching young talent grow and fledge its wings in contrasting roles. 

Antonio, who co-signs the ill-fated loan from Shylock, is played beautifully by Dylan Norris;  he shows the same simple honesty and ownership of lines that he gave us as the Sherriff in Bus Stop three years ago. He is quite believably stoic as he bares his bosom to yield his pound of flesh to Shylock's knife.

Blake Howard plays Bassanio on whose behalf the loan was taken out. There's a charming sincere innocence in Howard's performance. Lean and long-limbed -- and with a little too much wrist and ankle showing -- he carries just a hint of Pinocchio -- or of Pee-wee Herman. A lovely job.

But the play really belongs to Shylock and Portia.

Zack Bakouris takes on the challenging role of Shylock and he shines in it. Shylock has moments of great melodramatic rage, and it seems almost cruel to deny an actor the flowing robes which would serve so well in such tirades. But Bakouris, though constrained to a simple business suit, carries it off well. 

Katie Schoenfeld does excellent work as Portia, smartly navigating the courtroom scene and having much fun in the missing-rings trick that she and Nerissa play on their husbands. 

Jakob Hulten fills Gratiano with sprightly energy; he's so physically articulate. Sarah Richardson gives Nerissa intelligence and charm. Carlee Cosper is a beautiful and sympathetic Jessica (Shylock's eloping daughter). Jimmy Bernatowicz does lovely comic work as the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo. Other supporting roles are ably played by Quincy Shenk, Haley Dirkes-Jacks, Molly Meyer, Rebecca Maneikis, Andre Eslamian, Caleb Vetter and Laurel Button.

Diction is generally fine and there is never any doubt that actors really understand their lines. Yet, as in almost all productions of Shakespeare, sometimes an actor allows himself to be simply  text-driven. Too often, once astride that trotting meter, an actor drops the reins and lets it carry him smoothly, thoughtlessly to the end of a speech. No breaking the meter; no tiny pauses to show the birth of a word, or to emphasize a word; no little hesitations or varyings of pace to show that the actor really means the words he's saying. Some attention to breaking this grip of the meter might have helped Shylock find more variety in his fury -- something to contrast with the shouted anger -- or helped Portia find more real poetry in her "quality of mercy" speech.

Why Shylock?

In Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which preceded The Merchant of Venice by a few years, Barabas, the title character, is an irredeemably evil bloodthirsty monster.  Barabas, like Shylock, would have been played by an actor wearing a red wig and beard and a grotesquely hooked false nose.  Such caricatures were common on the Elizabethan stage. They were not drawn from life;  Shakespeare might never have seen a Jew, since Edward the First had expelled them from England some three hundred years before. No, such portrayals grew from an ancient animosity.

The Jew, since the middle ages, had been seen by Christians as alien, suspect, and always a ready scapegoat. Horrid rumors swirled around the Jews for centuries: as late as 1946 forty Jews in Poland were killed because they were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood in making matzo. Why such continuing vilification?

Throughout history hatred and conflict have been the inseparable running-dogs of at least the monotheistic religions. The birth of Christianity saw centuries washed with internecine blood in obscure theological quarrels about the nature of the Trinity. Today we have but to look at the Middle-East or Northern Ireland to become painfully aware that such conflict has not lessened with the so-called "advance" of civilization. But today, as in ancient times, religion is really a false flag under which nationalistic or tribal entities rally their forces in economic and geopolitical struggles. 

The emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire to render his subjects more tractable. The kings of Europe, drawing their divine right to rule from a Christian God, had good reason to establish Christianity as their official religion. In such lands it is no wonder that the Jew became pariah.

But there is one more important historical fact which underlies the ancient resentment of Christians toward Jews: Jews were the moneylenders--the only moneylenders. Christians were forbidden by their religion to lend money at interest (as are Moslems to this day). The Jews, by default, took on this function. Just as in India, where the lowest castes perform certain shameful but necessary civic services, the Jews became "untouchable". And who among us does not hate his moneylender?

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