Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Humana Festival 2015: Loss, longing, and life after death make for a compelling mix in "I Will Be Gone"

Amy Berryman
Photo: Bill Breymer
Share on Google+

Who: Actors Theatre of Louisville
What: I Will Be Gone by Erin Courtney
When: March 13-April 12, 2015

[Watch my capsule video blog review with co-critic Tina Farmer.]

In Erin Courtney's drama "I Will Be Gone," almost all of the residents of a small town in California's Sierra Nevada mountains are haunted by something, be it painful memories, unfulfilled desires, or actual ghosts. Their attempts to come to grips with both the impermanence of life and the occasional visit by a traveller from Shakespeare's "undiscovered country" are the basis for a play which, while not without its flaws, is still intriguing and compelling.

As the play opens, seventeen-year-old Penelope is still hurting from the death of her mother, Theresa, only a month earlier. She's now living with her mother's sister, Josephine, in the small town where the two sisters grew up—and which Theresa left as soon as she could.

It's a typical small town where everybody knows everybody else. Josephine's old high-school sweetheart, Liam, is now the mayor, and their brainy friend Jim has become the local homeless eccentric, driven by his schizophrenia to endlessly rattle off tangentially related facts. When Penelope meets Elliot, the boy next door who is battling drug addiction, they find common ground as the town outsiders and become friends.

L-R: Birgit Huppuch and Amy Berryman
Photo: Bill Breymer
At a loss for what to do with herself, Penelope takes a job as a docent, leading tours of Bodie, the nearby ghost town, now preserved by law in a state of "arrested decay." As Penelope becomes more familiar with Bodie and its history, the town and the ghosts that might inhabit it take on added importance, and it becomes apparent that the adults around Penelope may be in their own states of arrested decay.

A terrific ensemble cast is led by Amy Berryman as Penelope and Birgit Huppuch as Josephine. It's nice to see a new play with big, multi-layered roles for women, and both of these actresses completely inhabit their parts. Alex Moggridge perfectly captures the fading charm of Liam, who has never quite grown up, and Triney Sandoval is unnervingly credible as the troubled Jim, unable to shut off the flow of thoughts from the once-brilliant mind that has betrayed him.

Ms. Courtney has created a painfully real character in Jim. A scene late in the play in which the teenage Jim has a romantic interlude with the young Theresa (perfectly played by Hernando Caicedo and Lexi Lapp, respectively) makes the character's fall all the more poignant, since it allows us to see the brilliant young man he once was.

Rachel Leslie does fine work as Liam's sharp-tonged wife Liz, and Seth Clayton is endearing as the troubled Eliot. Eighth grader Elise Coughlan has a nice cameo as Young Josephine in an opening ghost scene.

Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has filled the floor of the Bingham black box theater with weathered-looking doors and windows that suggest both the ghost town and its living neighbor. A large scale model of the ghost town descends from the ceiling on wires for scenes in Bodie, and then flies up to become the big, open sky characteristic of the high country. When it's lowered, it dominates the stage, reminding us of just how large a presence the ghost town is.

L-R: Lexi Lapp and Hernando Caicedo
Photo: Bill Breymer
Kip Fagan's direction is precise and crisp, but he often violates the First Law of blocking for theatre in the round by having actors face each other directly instead of working on diagonals. As a result, there are times when parts of the audience see nothing but performers' backs.

Original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger and Seth Clayton produce vivid soundscapes, including disturbingly realistic earthquakes and otherworldly manifestations.

At one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, "I Will Be Gone" felt a bit long. A couple of scenes, such as a punk rock band rehearsal in the city hall, seemed to serve no useful purpose and could probably be cut. Some elements of the supernatural subplot also felt a bit under-developed. On the whole, though, this is a very strong script that says intelligent things about loss and life transitions, and does so with compassion and humor.

This play deserves a life beyond Humana. It could be very attractive to regional theatres looking for new material. Even smaller companies with more modest technical resources should be able to pull it off.

"I Will Be Gone" runs through April 12th at Actors Theatre of Louisville, as part of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. For more information: actorstheatre.org.

Humana Festival 2015: An inglorious birthday party for Thomas Merton

Photo: Bill Brymer
Share on Google+

Who: Actors Theatre of Louisville
What: The Glory of the World by Charles Mee
When: through April 12, 2015

[Watch my video blog capsule review with co-critic Tina Farmer.]

Charles Mee's "The Glory of the World" was written to celebrate the centenary of the birthday of author and philosopher Thomas Merton. Born in France but a long-time resident of Kentucky, Merton was a man of many parts. Although baptized in the Church of England, he was a devout Catholic who embraced Zen Bhuddism. He was an ascetic who had a child as a result of an extramarital affair. He was a cloistered Monk who, as a result of a spiritual revelation on a street corner in downtown Louisville, threw himself back into the world to become a political activist. He was a pacifist, Communist, adventurer and much more.

He was, in short, a man of dualities. "Mee's play," writes Amy Wegener in her program notes, "adopts a structure that reflects those dualities, beginning in silence and evolving toward cacophonous celebration. It unfolds as a series of toasts that erupt into a raucous party."

Photo: Bill Brymer
That looks good on paper. As directed by ATL Artistic Director (and script co-creator) Les Waters, though, it was rather like a drunken, coked-up frat party where you, as an audience member, are the only sober person. Many of the college kids in the audience apparently found it hilarious. The adults looked bored. Some of them walked out.

The play begins on a bare stage with a large overhead door upstage center. It looked like a massive industrial garage, complete with drywall and power outlets. Mr. Waters (presumably representing Merton) enters and sits, facing upstage, at a table. Sentences are projected on the set left and right that suggest the kind of thoughts that might run through your mind while trying to calm yourself for meditation—the awareness of ambient sound and so on.

Long after this becomes tedious, the garage door opens and the stage fills with male partygoers. A series of toasts to Merton degenerates into an argument that consists mostly of dueling quotations culled from everyone from Mother Theresa to Lady Gaga. From that point on, the audience is subjected to an increasingly noisy, chaotic, and surreal series of skits and sight gags.

The younger members of the cast engage in a duel of silly muscle-flexing body builder poses. Two of the actors perform a cheesy nightclub version of "Oops, I Did it Again." A pantomime rhinoceros is led across the stage. Two actors strip down to Speedos and glide back and forth across a water-soaked plastic mat. And so on.

Finally, it all degenerates into a smartly choreographed (if sometimes sloppily executed) fight scene that leaves the stage strewn with trash.

Photo: Bill Brymer
The actors leave through the garage door and Mr. Waters returns, this time facing the audience. Now the projected sentences pose a series of questions about existence and our place in the world. After an hour of empty sound and fury, silence is now a bit of a relief. There's a final question and then a blackout. The play (if you can call it that) is over.

At around 80 minutes with no intermission, "The Glory of the World" is far too long, given the paucity of its ideas. The point about the contrast between meditative silence and the chaos of the world could have been made more effectively and economically in half the time. This isn't so much a play as it is a collection of other people's quotes alternating with sight gags and pop culture references. It's the sort of thing the Leonard Pinth Garnell character on "Saturday Night Live" lampooned: "Bad Conceptual Theatre."

That said, I have to congratulate the seventeen-member cast (eighteen, if you count Mr. Waters) for their unwavering energy, stamina, and physical acting skills. This looks like an exhausting and exhilarating piece to perform, and they deserve applause for the quality of their work.

A thinker of Merton's depth and importance deserves a much better 100th birthday celebration than the one provided here. As it is, "The Glory of the World" seems to be more about Les Waters and Charles Mee than Thomas Merton.

"The Glory of the World" runs through April 12th in the Pamela Brown auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It's part of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. For more information: actorstheatre.org

Sunday, March 29, 2015

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 30, 2015

[Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.]

For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's events web site.

Share on Google+

Jeremy Webb in Buyer and Cellar
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Buyer and Cellar through April 12. "Inspired by Barbra Streisand's coffee table book, My Passion for Design, this uproarious fictional account of celebrity eccentricity takes us into Babs' basement, where she houses her unique collections in a small street of shops. An underemployed actor becomes the caretaker, interacting with Barbra in moments both hilarious and surprisingly tender. A runaway hit in New York, this one-man show takes us into the ultimate fantasy of a star-struck dreamer as he fills the oddest of odd jobs." Performances take place in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Kinky Boots
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Kinky Boots through April 5. The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. "In Kinky Boots, Charlie Price has reluctantly inherited his father's shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father's legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola. A fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he's meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible... and discovers that when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world." For more information: fabulousfox.com. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents Jason Robert Brown's two-character musical The Last Five Years Friday through Sunday, April 3-5. "An emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show's unconventional structure consists of Cathy, the woman, telling her story backwards while Jamie, the man, tells his story chronologically; the two characters only meet once, at their wedding in the middle of the show." Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium on the Webster University campus. For more information, events.webster.edu or call 314-968-7128.

Lola Van Ella
The St. Lou Fringe presents The Life and Times of Marie Anoinette on Friday, April 4, at 7 p.m., preceded by a cocktail hour at 6 p.m. "We've hand-picked some of the top visual and performing artists to bring the story of MARIE ANTOINETTE to life through music, food, dance, burlesque, and visual art. Hosted by international burlesque star, St Louis’ own Lola Van Ella." The event takes place at The Ready Room, 4196 Manchester in The Grove. For more information: stlfringe.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Muuurder in Maaaybury through April 25. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM April 2-18. "This raucous show within a show kicks off when a hilariously loony Victorian musical troupe 'puts on' its flamboyant rendition of an unfinished Charles Dickens mystery. Each performance ends differently depending on how the audience chooses to finish the story that Dickens didn't!" Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

Nancy Kranzberg
The Presenters Dolan present Nancy Kranzberg and the Second Half in a benefit performance for the St. Louis Actors' Studio on Thursday, April 2, at 8 PM as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. "With her trio The Second Half, featuring Tom George on piano. A maker and shaker in the arts, Nancy does an evening of jazz standards to benefit The St. Louis Actors' Studio." The performance takes place at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

OnSite Theatre Company presents Off the Record by Alec Wild Fridays at 8 PM, and Saturdays at 7 and 9 PM, April 3-11. "The timely comedy, Off the Record, follows the gubernatorial campaign of a promising candidate as a surprising scandal puts him and his staff on their toes and forces them into damage-control mode. As the audience takes on the role of the press corps following the candidate, pieces of information about the candidate and his wife leak to the audience bit by bit via cellphone." Audiences will board the bus at Tavolo, 6118 Delmar. For more information: www.OnSiteTheatre.org.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery through April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Christopher Durang's Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike through April 12. "Stuck in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live a quiet existence until their lives are thrown into comic upheaval with the arrival of their B-list celebrity sister, Masha, and her 20-something boy toy, Spike. Add to that a soothsaying housekeeper, a star struck young neighbor and a rather odd costume party, and the stage is set for mayhem and hilarity in this present-day homage to Chekhov. Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Springboard presents the 19th Annual Wise Write Festival of One-Act Plays on Monday, March 30, at 10:00 am. on the Mainstage at The Repertory theater of St. Louis in Webster Groves. " They've been working hard all school year and now is their moment in the spotlight! Join fifth grade playwrights from Hudson Elementary in Webster Groves and from Wyland Elementary in Ritenour as they see their plays come alive." Admission is free and open to the public.

Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Friday, March 27, 2015

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of March 30, 2015

Roger Kaza
Share on Google+:

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presents a St. Louis Symphony Monday concert on Monday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. "Principal horn Roger Kaza leads a concert of Baroque period music with musicians from the St. Louis Symphony." The concert takes place in the Hettenhausen Center for the Arts on the college campus in Lebanon, IL. For more information: thehett.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents The Linjadi Trio on Friday, April 3, at 8 p.m. The Linjadi Trio consists of Lindsey Jones, violin; James Nacy, cello; and Diana Umali, piano. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of March 27, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

Share on Google+:

New This Week:

Blood Reigns
St. Louis Shakespeare presents Blood Reigns-The War of the Roses Trilogy through March 29. "This significant piece is an adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy created specifically for St. Louis Shakespeare. In this production you will find all of the things you love most about Shakespeare's works: blood, betrayal, intrigue, forgiveness and redemption. Chris Limber directs and brings his 35 years of experience with the bard to craft a truly cunning, artful tale." Performances take place in the Thomas Hunter Theatre at DeSmet Jesuit High School, 233 N New Ballas Road. For more information, call 314-361-5664 or visit stlshakespeare.org.

My take: This absurdly ambitious undertaking collapses Shakespeare's Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3—plays which, uncut, would run about as long as Wagner's Götterdämmerung—into around three and one-half hours, including two intermissions. That, all by itself, would make it worth recommending. As KDHX's Tina Farmer notes, however, this adaptation also "brings Shakespeare's history to life with clarity and emotional undertones that color the performances." "The ensemble cast is uniformly strong," she continues, "articulating difficult dialogue and exposition with purpose and intent, and demonstrating well developed, fully internalized characters. This did not prevent the occasional scenery chewing, awkward phrasing or long pauses, but the performances were organically generated and effectively connected to the storytelling." That's good enough for me. And besides, director Chris Limber (who sis the adaptation along with Michael B. Perkins and sound designer/composer Robin Wetherall) can generally be counted upon for intelligence and good taste.

Photo: John Lamb
That Uppity Theatre Company and The Vital Voice present Briefs: A Festival Of Short Lesbian and Gay Plays Friday through Sunday, March 27-29. "This year's collection of eight plays have been selected from over 170 submissions from across the nation and include such themes as a gay mermaid looking for love, a Jewish mother who competitively wants her single son to have the biggest wedding, the stresses of sexual identity for LGBTQ adolescents, a lesbian version of Dr. Seuss and a conflict between a gay male couple around involvement in Ferguson. The playwrights will include acclaimed humorist Paul Rudnick, whose short play, "My Husband" was first seen in Standing on Ceremony: the Gay Marriage Plays, and produced in New York City as well as "This Flight Tonight" by Wendy MacLeod, by special arrangement with Dramatist's Play Service." Performances take place at The Rialto Ballroom at Grand Center, 3547 Olive. For more information, visit uppityco.com or call (314) 995-4600.

My take: This remarkable festival of one-acts continues to get stronger every year. From it's rough-and-tumble beginnings threee years ago, Briefs has blossomed quickly quickly into a major theatrical event. If I were in town, I'd be there.

T. Oliver Reed
The Presenters Dolan present T. Oliver Reed in Drop Me Off in Harlem on Friday and Saturday, March 27 and 28, at 8 PM as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. "T. Oliver Reid takes us club-hopping through the swanky clubs and lowdown joints of 1930's Harlem. "In 1934, on a Saturday night in New York City, if you were boozin' and jazzin', you were doing it in Harlem," says Reid. Reid comes to St. Louis after Feinstein's, 54 Below and Jazz at Lincoln Center. It's cabaret, it's theater, it's of a very high order, and it is absolutely not to be missed." The performance takes place at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

My take: Harlem in its heyday played host to major black artists, musical and otherwise. This is a fascinating period of American musical history that deserves more attention that it has gotten. Reviewing this show at the Metropolitan Room last October, the New York Times dubbed it "sensational." Marilyn Lester at Theater PIzzaz! agreed. "“Drop Me Off In Harlem,” she writes, "has evolved since its debut a few years ago, and like, Reid, just keeps getting better and better." Looks like a winner to me.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a staged reading of The Full Catastrophe by Michael Weller, based on the novel by David Carkeet, on Wednesday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Ignite! New Play Festival. "Jeremy Cook, once a celebrated linguist, is suddenly out of work and out of sorts. In desperation, he takes a job as a live-in marriage counselor for Roy Pillow, a shadowy, wannabe-scientist billionaire. Confused by his mission and at a crossroads in his personal life, Jeremy finds himself confronting the ghosts of his failed relationships past, and the mortal danger of repeating his big mistake over again. Michael Weller is the author of the American classic Moonchildren and the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of Doctor Zhivago." The reading takes place at Sally S. Levy Opera Center, 210 Hazel Avenue, on the Webster University Campus. For more information: repstl.org.

My take: As I noted last week, The Rep's Ignite! festival offers a fascinating glimpse at new works while they're a-borning. Some, like Soups, Stews, and Casseroles 1976, have gone on to full productions and proven worthy of attention. Will this be the start of something big? The only way to know is to attend. It's a fascinating experience and a great opportunity to let the playwright know what you think.

Kinky Boots
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Kinky Boots March 24-April 5. The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. "In Kinky Boots, Charlie Price has reluctantly inherited his father's shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father's legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in the form of Lola. A fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he's meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible... and discovers that when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world." For more information: fabulousfox.com.

My take: A show with music by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein obviously has two very strong things going for it from the start, and this tour apparently makes the most of its material. "A pure delight from beginning to end," writes Amy Burger at KDHX, "on the surface, Kinky Boots is a story about shoes; but at it's heart, it's a really a story about having the freedom to wear whatever shoes you want and always feeling comfortable in them."

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a staged reading of Molly's Hammer by Tanny Ryan, based on the book Hammer of Justice by Liane Ellison Norman, on Saturday, March 28, at 3 p.m. as part of the Ignite! New Play Festival. "In 1980, Molly Rush took a stand. The Pittsburgh housewife and mother of six walked into a G.E. plant and took a hammer to a nuclear warhead to protest the buildup of America's nuclear arsenal. Molly's Hammer is the story of the Plowshares Eight, Molly, and her husband's wish to stop his wife from sacrificing herself to save the world." The reading takes place at Sally S. Levy Opera Center, 210 Hazel Avenue, on the Webster University Campus. For more information: repstl.org.

My take: As I said, the Ignite! festival is always worth a look. This play has the added punch of dealing with an important subject.

Sally Eaton and the PR2
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents the world stage premiere of Sky Sky Sky, by Elizabeth Birkenmeier, March 26-29. " The world premiere drama, written by alumna Elizabeth Birkenmeier (LA '08), features three human actors and one fully functioning, custom-programmed PR2 robot, on loan from Oregon State University." The performances take place in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

My take: I am reminded of "The Darfsteller," a famous Hugo Award-winning short story by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (author of the science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz) in which human actors have been completely replaced by robots. AI (artificial intelligence) hasn't gotten anywhere near that sophisticated yet, but even so it might not be long before we're forced to face the question of when a machine stops being a machine and begins to turn into something else. Elizabeth Birkenmeier is a smart writer. I appeared in her Winning Juliet (which she co-authored with Chris Limber) two years ago and was impressed by the quality of her work.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Christopher Durang's Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike through April 12. "Stuck in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live a quiet existence until their lives are thrown into comic upheaval with the arrival of their B-list celebrity sister, Masha, and her 20-something boy toy, Spike. Add to that a soothsaying housekeeper, a star struck young neighbor and a rather odd costume party, and the stage is set for mayhem and hilarity in this present-day homage to Chekhov. Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: This starts out as a broad, noisy parody of Chekov but finishes as something much more deep and satifying. "Playwright Christopher Durang," writes Tina Farmer at KDHX, "won a Tony Award for this insightfully hilarious look at aging and modern life through a lens tinted with Chekhov and Greek tragedy. The actors in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike bring these characters to life convincingly, emphasizing their quirks, vanities and flaws in a production layered with humor and pathos, second questions and, perhaps, second chances." I couldn't agree more. Director Michael Evan Haney can be proud of this one.

Held Over:

Jeremy Webb in Buyer and Cellar
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Buyer and Cellar through April 12 (extended from March 29). "Inspired by Barbra Streisand's coffee table book, My Passion for Design, this uproarious fictional account of celebrity eccentricity takes us into Babs' basement, where she houses her unique collections in a small street of shops. An underemployed actor becomes the caretaker, interacting with Barbra in moments both hilarious and surprisingly tender. A runaway hit in New York, this one-man show takes us into the ultimate fantasy of a star-struck dreamer as he fills the oddest of odd jobs." Performances take place in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: One-man shows can be risky propositions, but this one is apparently a success. "If you are a Streisand fan (and who among us isn’t?)," writes Bob Cohn at St. Louis Jewish Light, "'Buyer & Cellar' is a double treat. Not only is the play itself highly amusing and satisfying, it also contains enough Streisand trivia to satisfy an entire season of questions on 'Jeopardy.'" "Jonathan Tolins is a very clever writer," says Bob Wilcox at KDHX. "Jeremy Webb is a very smart actor. Put them together, with some inventive guidance from director Wendy Dann, and you get a quite enjoyable ninety minutes or so in the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis."

Jerry Springer the Opera
Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre presents the St. Louis premiere of the musical Jerry Springer the Opera Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, through March 28. "The New Line season continues with one of New Line's wildest and most ambitious projects, JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA, the smash-hit, multi-award winning musical that ran to unprecedented rave reviews and standing ovations at the National Theatre in London, after a sold-out run in London's West End. The Sunday Times called it “a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece.” With music by Richard Thomas, and book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee, this is an audacious, fearless piece of theatre that brilliantly and hilariously dissects the cultural forces that have kept Jerry Springer on the air all these years, the lives of quiet desperation that explode into public view in Springer's weirdly nonjudgmental, national confessional." Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road. . For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com or call 314-534-1111.

My take: Come on, how can you not want to see a show with a title like this? The second act, after all, is a "very special" episode of the Jerry Springer Show broadcast live from Hell. And, yes, it really is an opera—or at least a musical in which there is no spoken dialog. "I recognize a quality production with strong direction and spot-on performances," says Tina Farmer in her KDHX review, "and I applaud the company for the bold and daring theater they produce."

Robert McNichols, Jr. as Paul Robeson
Photo: Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep presents Paul Robeson through March 29. "In Phillip Hayes Dean's biographical two-man play, the legendary actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson sings songs and tells stories of his multi-faceted career, from triumphs in Show Boat and The Emperor Jones, to his fight for racial equality to accusations of Communist involvement." Performances take place at the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org.

My take: Paul Robeson's story is an important one, and not just because he was one of the great bass-baritones of the early 20th century. His courage in the face of virulent racism and deranged red baiting is an inspiration to us all. "Seeing a performance of playwright Phillip Hayes Dean’s fascinating, one-man drama, Paul Robeson," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "is an exhilarating and educational experience." Over at stltoday.com, Judy Newmark has words of praise for the show's star, Robert McNichols, Jr.: "An opera singer himself, McNichols performs the song with feeling and intention, and gives an equally meaningful treatment to a trio of gospel numbers that Robeson sang in his stage debut. McNichols is also a fine actor, a big plus for a show that’s not a musical."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Minterview: Kim Furlow of Dramatic License Productions

Co-Artistic Director Pamela Reckamp,
Founder/Co-Artistic Director Kim Furlow and
Managing Director Sara Hughes
[Minterview = mini-interview]

Dramatic License Productions is a small professional theatre group that operates out of an 85-seat theatre in the ARTropolis arts district in Chesterfield Mall. The company was founded in late 2009 by St. Louis veteran actress Kim Furlow to offer additional directing, acting and design opportunities to local artists and to bridge the gap in professional theatre offerings west of I-270. DLP staged its first production, Doubt, A Parable downtown in August, 2009. They moved to Chesterfield early in 2010, where they now present five to seven theatre and cabaret performances annually.

Nearly two months ago, DLP announced a major change in its artistic mission to concentrate on the production of plays and musical presentations for, by, and about women. I caught up with Kim Furlow via email to pose a couple of questions about this new direction.

Chuck: The decision to feature plays by and about women represents a significant shift in the artistic focus at Dramatic License. What made you decide to make this move at this point in the company's development?

Kim: Board member Pamela Reckamp, production manager (now managing director) Sara Hughes and I all sat down one evening after our final theatre production of the 2014 season and discussed the fact that our most recent audience survey showed a trend that follows the national one: 68% of all DLP audiences are women. Up to 70% of women nationwide purchase theatre tickets according to a 2013 study by Theatre Communications Group, NYC.

We thought, "How can we increase patronage and serve the largest portion of our audience-women? We had produced a kids' show that bombed, and at least two productions appealing probably mostly to men, which also didn't sell well. We have seen only a slight uptick in attendance since launching the company in late 2009. The highest grossing DLP productions in five seasons were "The Great American Trailer Park Musical", "Steel Magnolias", and "Boeing Boeing" (one comedy, one dramedy and one ribald musical.) 98% of survey respondents were women.

Pam also conducted informal research among 10 local small professional theatre companies to gauge the number of available women roles between 2013-14 vs. the number of men's roles. The findings were pretty astonishing although unfortunately akin to what's happening across the nation: Most plays produced are written by male playwrights and most roles in St. Louis go to men, despite the fact that the number of women showing up at auditions is significantly larger than the number of men. In fact, out of 10 companies casting in 2013-14, we found that 63% of all roles went to men, and a piddly 37% went to women.

The Orange Girls had a successful five-year run producing plays by, for and about women. We hope to pick up where they left off.

DLP isn't necessarily going to produce plays exclusively about women's "issues" but rather stories that resonate with women. They might feature a strong (or weak) leading female character, a particular issue pertaining to women in our past or present, or a particular story written by a female playwright like Beth Henley. Will we exclude male roles, male playwrights or stories that appeal to men? No! We think men will leave the theatre with keen insight not only into women's "issues" but also into their hearts, their desires, their history, their hopes, and their feelings about the opposite sex, among other things. They may just change their minds about how they view women. If we can spark thought and discussion among either of the sexes from our productions, we're doing our jobs and have accomplished our goal.

Chuck: Dramatic License also produces a cabaret series. Will that share the emphasis on women as well? And if so, what form will that take?

Kim: In the interest of providing what our audiences have come to know and expect from DLP: high-quality musical presentations by the areas best vocalists and musicians, we will continue to present an annual Valentine Cabaret (cancelled in 2015 due to maintenance to our theater space) and the popular Holiday Musical Revue Dec. 11-13. This season we've added a June cabaret which will include music by both male and female composers but about themes that resonate with women such as motherhood, marriage, career, the opposite sex and more. More on this show will be announced later.


The first show of Dramatic License Production’ sixth season—the first one under its new artistic mission—is The Odd Couple (Female Version), Neil Simon’s 1985 rewrite of his hit comedy from two decades earlier. In this version Felix and Oscar become Florence and Olive, with the sex of other characters changed accordingly. The Pigeon sisters, for example, became the Costazuela brothers, Manolo and Jesus. The show opens on April 24 and runs through May 10. For more information: dramaticlicenseproductions.org.

Cabaret Review: Meghan Kirk hits all the right notes at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival

Who: Meghan Kirk
What: The Story Goes On
Where: The Gaslight Cabaret Festival at The Gaslight Theatre, St. Louis, MO
When: March 20, 2015

St. Louis' own Meghan Kirk has been appearing at the Cabaret Project's monthly open mic night (which I host) for around a year now. I've been impressed as hell with her work there, but haven't been able to get to one of her shows until this past Friday, when she presented a revised version of the show she premiered at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival last fall.

I'm glad I finally did; she's a tremendously talented and charismatic performer—a classic singing actress with solid vocal technique and the acting chops necessary to inhabit a lyric.

As Ms. Kirk said at the very beginning of her show—right after a charmingly flirty romp through Kander and Ebb's "Don't Tell Mama"—she's a dyed-in-the-sequins musical theatre geek. No surprise, then, that her song list is heavily weighted towards numbers originally written for the stage, from Kern and Hammerstein's "Bill" to Jeff Bowen's " A Way Back to Then" from that ultimate insider musical theatre send-up, "[title of show]" (2006). But she also made room for recent cabaret hits like Heisler and Goldrich's "Taylor the Latte Boy" and a clever Beatles medley that crams a surprising number of the Fab Four's hits into an remarkably short time span.

Ms. Kirk knitted all this together with memories of her life, family, and multiple careers as a performer and flight attendant on private jets. That "this is my life" approach can be risky—your audience might not find your personal story as interesting as you do, after all. But Ms. Kirk kept the anecdotes short, entertaining, and focused on the task of providing context for the songs, so her patter never degenerated into the kind of self-referential navel gazing that sometimes accompanies the approach.

Of particular importance were her memories of her grandfather, a former professional singer whose fondness for music of the stage and screen colored her childhood. Family Christmas gatherings, she recalls, were more not so much about carols as about selections from "Oklahoma." This sets up a touching moment towards the end of the show when she sings a duet version of Sondheim's "Love, I Hear" (from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") with the digitally remastered voice of her late grandfather, culled from private recordings he made in the 1960s.

That's the sort of thing that could have been overly precious, but Ms. Kirk's good taste and professionalism kept it real and made it the emotional heart of the show.

Guest stars can also liven up an act, and Ms. Kirk had two very strong ones this time. Local singer and choreographer JT Ricroft joined her for an engaging run through Kern's "I Won't Dance" (with the Dorothy Fields lyrics) and guest pianist Dan Duffy took over the baby grand from Carol Schmidt for Jason Robert Brown's always welcome "Stars and the Moon" (from the under-rated "Songs for a New World").

Speaking of Ms. Schmidt, her arrangements fit Ms. Kirk's voice and persona as perfectly as the singer's shiny low-cut gown fit the rest of her, and her backup vocals added lovely touches, most notably in a medley that mixed "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with Joan Baez's highly personal "Speaking of Dreams." And Ms. Schmidt's pianism was impressive as always. Ben Wheeler provided a solid musical foundation on acoustic bass.

Meghan Kirk's skillfully crafted and thoroughly enjoyable show was part of the spring edition of The Presenters Dolan's Gaslight Cabaret Festival, which continues through April 11 at the Gaslight Theater in the Central West End. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Announcing the recipients of the third annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards

Well, the third St. Louis Theater Circle awards have all been handed out. A crowd of nearly 400 actors, directors, designers, and theatre fans gathered at COCA last night to eat, drink, and be merry celebrating professional theatre in St. Louis. A fine old time was had by all, and many of the honorees (complete list below, courtesy of HECTV) used their brief acceptance speeches to note what a vibrant and lively theater community we have here in St. Louis.

Perusing the list of award recipients, I'm struck by how diverse it is. I was especially glad to see some of our smaller companies walk off with awards. It's a reminder that you need not have a big budget to produce big theatre.

And if you didn't get to attend the live event of watch the broadcast, rest assured that HECTV will be making the whole thing available for your viewing pleasure shortly at their web site.

COMEDY
Outstanding ensemble: "All in the Timing," St. Louis Actors' Studio
Outstanding supporting actress: Nancy Lewis, "Blithe Spirit," St. Louis Actors' Studio
Outstanding supporting actor: Michael James Reed, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding actress: Nancy Bell, "Blithe Spirit," St. Louis Actors' Studio
Outstanding actor: Raymond McAnally, "One Man, Two Guvnors," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding director: Paul Mason Barnes, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding production: "Blithe Spirit," St. Louis Actors' Studio

DRAMA
Outstanding ensemble: "Death of a Salesman," Insight Theatre Company
Outstanding supporting actress: Katie Donnelly, "Eat Your Heart Out," R-S Theatrics
Outstanding supporting actor: Jason Contini, "Death of a Salesman," Insight Theatre Company
Outstanding actress: Kate Levy, "The Other Place," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding actor: John Contini, "Death of a Salesman," Insight Theatre Company
Outstanding director: Wayne Loui, "Death of a Salesman," Insight Theatre Company
Outstanding production (a tie): "Death of a Salesman" at Insight Theatre Company and "The Normal Heart" at HotCity Theatre

MUSICALS
Outstanding choreographer: Stephen Bourneuf, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Stages St. Louis
Outstanding musical director: Jeffrey Richard Carter, "Bonnie & Clyde," New Line Theatre
Outstanding ensemble: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Stages St. Louis
Outstanding supporting actress: Sara Kapner, "The Addams Family," the Muny
Outstanding supporting actor: Rob McClure, "Hello, Dolly!," the Muny
Outstanding actress: Lavonne Byers, "Cabaret," Stray Dog Theatre
Outstanding actor: Ben Nordstrom, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," Stages St. Louis
Outstanding director: Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, "Bonnie & Clyde," New Line Theatre
Outstanding production: "Seussical," the Muny

DESIGN AWARDS TO PLAYS (comedies and dramas)
Outstanding set design: Michael Ganio, "Other Desert Cities," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding costume design: Susan Branch Towne, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding lighting design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Outstanding sound design: Barry G. Funderburg, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

DESIGN AWARDS (musicals)
Outstanding set design: Robert Mark Morgan, "Seussical," the Muny
Outstanding costume design: Leon Dobkowski, "Seussical," the Muny
Outstanding lighting design: Rob Denton, "Seussical," the Muny

ADDITIONAL AWARDS
Outstanding new play: Rebecca Gilman, "Soups, Strews and Casseroles: 1976," Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Special award for a body of work: Donna Northcott, founder and artistic director, St. Louis Shakespeare
Special award for a body of work: Agnes Wilcox, founder and artistic director, Prison Performing Arts

Monday, March 23, 2015

The winners' circle

The St. Louis Theatre Circle at the 2014 awards
Well, tonight's the night. It's the night when the auditorium at COCA in University City will be crammed with St. Louis theatre folk all dolled up for the third annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards honoring shows from calendar year 2014.

Food and drink will be served before, during, and after the show by With Love Catering, noted music director and cabaret artist Joe Dreyer will tickle the ivories, and a fine time will be had by all.

As this is being written, the program is either sold out or very close too it. But it you didn't get a ticket, never fear: you can watch the whole shebang live, starting at 6:30 p.n., visit HEC-TV. Emmy Nominated Tim Gore hosts the pre-show with red carpet interviews by HEC-TV’s Two on the Aisle’s Gerry Kowarsky and Bob Wilcox.

For a complete list of the 113 individuals from 21 local professional companies that were nominated, check out my earlier blog post. For regular updates via Twitter, check out the hastag #stltheatercircle.

Let's party on!