by Deanna Jent
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 12th, 2014

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston, Michelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
 Mustard Seed Theatre

Falling has become quite the success story in terms of St. Louis theatre on a national stage.  Since Mustard Seed’s first production in 2011, the play has enjoyed productions in New York (Off-Broadway) and Los Angeles with critical acclaim. Now, the production has come full circle, being re-staged at Mustard Seed with most of its original cast.  Although I didn’t see the show the first time around, I can see now why this show has enjoyed so much success. It’s a powerful, riveting and extremely well-written  drama that tells the story of one family’s very specific struggles, but also manages to speak to universal human themes in the process.  This may be Mustard Seed’s second time producing this show, but everything from the cast to the staging to the overall effect can only be described as first-rate.

Inspired by playwright/director Deanna Jent’s personal experience as the mother of an adult child with autism, this play tells the story of the fictional Martin family by first introducing us to 18-year-old Josh (Daniel Lanier) as he wakes up and goes about his usual morning routine of wandering through the living room setting things in order (such as arranging stacks of videotapes) and enjoying one of his favorite rituals involving tipping over a box of feathers that fall onto his head as he joyfully dances underneath.  We then meet the rest of his family–mom Tami (Michelle Hand), dad Bill (Greg Johnston) , and teenage sister Lisa (Katie Donnelly), as the family prepares breakfast and gets Josh ready to go to school.  Although the challenges with Josh’s situation are apparent early on (it’s a struggle to prepare him for school),  it’s when Bill’s mom Sue (Carmel Russell) arrives later for a visit from out of town that the situation becomes even more tense eventually bringing out a wide range of emotions and issues as this family deals with the ever-increasing  conundrums concerning the family’s relationships and the increasingly uncontrollable (and occasionally aggressive) Josh’s future. Tami especially is confronted with the dilemma of how best to help Josh while trying to maintain some level of harmony within the rest of her family as a series of increasingly confrontational and explosive events forces her to come to terms with her own hopes and fears concerning Josh, her family and herself.

One of things I find particularly impressive about this production is that it presents such a fully-realized world, through the combination of the carefully crafted script, a fully committed cast and meticulously appointed set (designed by John Stark) and strikingly atmospheric lighting effects (designed by Michael Sullivan).  This show becomes something of a window into this family’s life, and the proceedings are more powerful in that they are all so achingly real, from Tami’s struggles to stay optimistic, keep  order in her family and love her son despite his increasingly uncontrollable and occasionally dangerous behavior, to Bill’s frustration in maintaining his bond with his wife, to Lisa’s anger and resentment of her brother and his necessary hold on his parents’ attention, to the devoutly Christian Sue’s struggle to reconcile the concepts of her faith with her desire to be a help to her family.  All of these characters and their situations are fully realized without being cookie-cutter characters, and the play presents the issues and challenges of dealing with a family member with special needs in a way that is simultaneously specific and universal. Not everyone watching this play will have the same or similar experience to the Martin family, but there’s something about the human condition and the continual struggle to find hope in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that all humans will be able to relate to in one way or another.  It deals with issues of family love, parents’ sense of inadequacy, sibling resentment, faith and doubt, and other common human situations, confronting a range of possible solutions to these problems but with no easy answers, as is often the case in life.

The cast here is top-notch, bringing this family to life with realism and power.  As Josh, the play’s focal point and the catalyst for its action, Lanier is astounding. He’s at once endearing and physically imposing, bringing energy and warmth as well as a capacity for both gentleness and violence, and his interactions with his family are full of both highly-charged emotion and great sympathy.   Hand, as Tami, demonstrates a tremendous emotional range as the initially optimistic and upbeat Tami, who is trying to make the most of difficult situation but is finding that increasingly difficult.  Her character’s ever-increasing weariness, as well as her great love for all of her family,  is readily apparent in Hand’s remarkable performance.  While Hand and Lanier portray the play’s central relationship, the rest of the cast is equally excellent in support, with Johnston strong as the loving but increasingly exasperated Bill, Donnelly in an extremely true-to-life portrayal of the teenage girl who just wants her life to be more “normal” and struggles with her own resentment, and Russell in a refreshingly sincere, non-caricatured performance as the well-meaning but somewhat out of touch grandmother.  Across the board, this cast provides a very rich and believable portrayal of a family  I could easily imagine meeting in real life.

One frustrating aspect of being relatively new to reviewing plays in such a vibrant theatre scene is that there will always be particularly acclaimed productions I wish I had gotten the chance to see, and short of time travel there’s no way to be able see those shows. With this encore production of Falling, It feels like I’m actually getting to realize one of those missed chances, and that’s a real blessing with a production as profoundly moving as this one. For anyone who missed this last time, I would strongly suggest you catch it this time.  It’s more than worth the effort.  

Michelle Hand, Daniel Lanier Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Michelle Hand, Daniel Lanier
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

A Revelatory Satire

The Trials of Brother Jero
by Wole Soyinka
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 11, 2014

Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The last play of the Black Rep’s 2013-2014 season is also the first play I’ve seen from this well known and much acclaimed St. Louis theatre company. This production of Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian Playwright Wole Soyinka’s satirical comedy (originally produced in 1960) has made me wish even more that I had been able to see some of their previous plays.  It’s a visually striking and well-presented representation of Soyinka’s satire of life in his home country, well-realized by strong direction and a good cast.

Telling the story of an itinerant self-proclaimed prophet, The Trials of Brother Jero depicts a day in the life of Jero (Ron Himes) and showing his influence on life in his small fishing village and his manipulation of people and situations around him.  Jero is an opportunist who freely (and proudly) admits manipulating his followers for personal gain.  On this particularly eventful day, Jero narrates his trials and tribulations after his disgruntled former mentor (Phillip Dixon) pronounces a curse on Jero, proclaiming that Jero’s downfall will be brought about by women, or “daughters of Eve”.  Jero then sets about trying to disprove this pronouncement while displaying his simultaneous attraction and disdain for women, as well as his dominance over his most devout follower, a frustrated government-employed messenger named Chume (A. C. Smith), whose strong-willed merchant wife Amope (Velma Austin) camps outside Jero’s house to demand payment for a cape she sold him months before. Chume, however, has no idea that the man Amope is angry with is Jero. This situation and others provide for quite an eventful day for Jero, as his own attitudes and actions and those of his followers serve as the focus of a broadly humorous look at aspects of Nigerian society in the time the play was written.

This relatively short play is well-realized by the production team at the Black Rep, and is particularly successful in its visual presentation and the performances of its leading performers, as well as its strong sense of musicality.  The set and lighting, designed by Jim Burwinkel, and the colorful costumes by Marissa Perry effectively set the tone and atmosphere of the play. The lighting is particularly striking, and the relatively simple set provides the proper backdrop for the play’s action.  I was particularly impressed by the musical sequences in the introduction and the conclusion of the play, as well as in a particularly memorable scene depicting one of Jero’s prayer meetings. A combination of strong ensemble singing, Linda Kennedy’s choreography and Arthur Moore’s expertly played drums adds greatly to the overall style and mood of the piece.

As the scheming,  self-centered Jero, Himes (who also directed the play) is an ideal centerpiece to the production. Even despite the character’s obvious flaws, Himes makes him unquestionably entertaining, displaying great comic timing and a sense of over-the-top grandiosity that is fun to watch, particularly in his scenes with Smith (in an equally strong performance as the clueless and misogynistic Chume) and Matthew C. Galbreath as a particularly gullible government official with whom Jero crosses paths.  Austin, as the determined and outspoken Amope, also gives a strong performance, and her scenes with Smith are a comic highlight.  The rest of the ensemble lends good support to the leading players for the most part, although there were a few performers in some of the smaller roles who could have shown more energy and presence.  Overall, though, this is a mostly well-paced satirical farce that brings out the more ridiculous facets of its characters to outrageous comic effect.

I had been unfamiliar with the plays of Soyinka prior to seeing this play, and I’m grateful to the Black Rep for bringing this acclaimed playwright’s works to the  St. Louis audience. Although this play’s tone is broadly comic, Soyinka gives the audience a lot to think about in terms of what was going on in Nigerian culture at the time, and particularly the influence of religious charlatans, ineffectual government leaders and the roles of and attitudes toward women in that society.  It’s a strongly written play with broadly drawn characters and situations, shedding light on specific details of  a culture with which modern-day Americans may be unfamiliar.  It’s an educational, thought-provoking and, ultimately, very entertaining production from The Black Rep.

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Book by Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Directed by John Tiffany
Fox Theatre
April 8th, 2014

Stuart Ward, Dani DeWaal Photo by  Once National Tour

Stuart Ward, Dani De Waal
Photo by Joan Marcus
Once National Tour


As simple a story and concept as it is, Once has become something of a phenomenon.  A small indie move from 2006 quickly developed a following, and the film’s haunting ballad “Falling Slowly” won the Oscar for best song. Still, as surprisingly successful as it was, I doubt many people would have predicted it would become a stage musical, or that the musical would become a critically acclaimed hit that would win the Tony for Best Musical in 2012 and lead to a successful production in London’s West End and, now, a National Tour. It’s kind of like “The Little Show That Could”.  I think the reason for its success, as the excellent National Tour production currently running at the Fox Theatre exemplifies, is that it’s never tried to be anything more than it is–a simple, sweet, expertly crafted story with a basic concept that emphasizes the characters and the lovely music that they make.

The story here, based on the film starring songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is not flashy or overly produced. Against the simple backdrop of a bar in Dublin, Ireland, we are told the story of a nameless busker referred to in the credits as Guy (Stuart Ward)  who is ready to give up his dreams of a career in music until a fateful meeting with a young Czech bystander known only as Girl (Dani De Waal), who is impressed by Guy’s music and encourages him not to give up.  The whole story takes place over about a week, in which Girl helps Guy assemble a band from an unlikely mixture of characters–a belligerent music shop owner (Evan Harrington), a music-loving banker (Benjamin Magnuson), and two of Girl’s Czech housemates (Matt DeAngelis, Alex Nee). Girl meets Guy’s father (Raymond Bokhour) and Guy meets Girl’s mother (Donna Garner) and daughter (Kolette Tetlow).  A strong friendship and “will they or won’t they” mutual attraction grows (despite personal complications) as they work together to record a demo of Guy’s songs that they hope will be the key to a successful musical career.  Although it’s a fairly basic story and a lot of the elements are somewhat predictable, it’s still a mesmerizing story because of the extremely well thought-out concept and well-played characters.

This is a brilliant example of a “concept show” in which the concept doesn’t detract from the characterization.  In a big way, the characters are the concept, in that the structure of the show and the simple set and format allows for the main focus to be on the characters and their story.  Also, the staging contributes to the overall musical atmosphere to the point that the music becomes a character itself.  The songs are glorious, all accompanied onstage by the actors themselves on various instruments from piano to guiatars, drums, mandolin, violins, cello and more.  The music is such a big part of the show that it even begins before the show does, on the authentically-appointed bar set (designed by Bob Crowley, who also designed the great costumes). Several of the players are  onstage playing traditional folk tunes before the story officially starts and (in a nice interactive twist) the audience members have been invited onstage to buy drinks.   After a little while, when Guy first appears onstage to sing the anguished “Leave” it almost seems like it’s happening in “real life” (and the house lights don’t go down until halfway through the song).  Then he ends his song with Girl just standing there, having quietly entered from the audience, and the story gets going from there.  The staging is like that throughout–simple and with an entirely organic feel, with the actors moving the set pieces on and off with elegant, dance-like  moves, and simple sitting down at the sides of the stage to play their instruments during many of the musical numbers. Credit goes to original director John Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett for their creative use of staging and movement that contributes to the telling of the story.   I also found the clever use of Czech subtitles (projected on a screen above the bar) to indicate when characters were speaking Czech (although the actors are actually speaking in English), except for one very key scene in which an actors speaks Czech that is subtitled in English.  I’m truly amazed by the beauty and simplicity of it all.  Not one foot is put wrong in the concept and staging, and everything serves the story perfectly. It’s a great concept, and it’s all executed remarkably well.

Performance-wise, the show centers primarily on its two ideally suited leads. Both Ward and De Waal bring charm, stage presence and likability to their characters, and their chemistry together is wonderful.  The attraction between them is obvious, and they make the audience care about their relationship from the first time they meet.  Ward is able to communicate Guy’s disappointment, anguish and melancholy at the beginning of the show as well as convincingly portray his journey toward hope, spurred on by De Waal’s spunky, determined Girl.  They also harmonize beautifully on all their duets, and particularly on the show’s most well-known song, “Falling Slowly”.  Each is also given some great solo moments, with Ward’s strong, emotional delivery showcased well in “Leave” and “Sleeping” and De Waal shining with “If You Want Me” and “The Hill”.  The supporting players are exellent as well, most notably Harrington as the overbearing but still likable shopkeeper Billy, and Magnuson as the overly eager bank manager. It’s a very well-balanced cast all around, with no weak links, and everyone sounds great, both vocally and intrumentally.  I especially liked the ensemble work on the two very different arrangements of “Gold”–sung as a driving anthem in the first act and as a haunting a capella ballad in the second.

I can’t say enough how impressed I am by this show. I  had never seen the film before, although I had heard much about this musical and I had been eager to see it.  The anticipation was definitely worth it.  I find myself continually amazed at how well this very simple little story could be told with such big emotion, beautiful visual and rich musicality.  It’s a classic “boy meets girl” story with a few small twists along the way, with their real love story not only being with each other, but with their city, their friends and families and ultimately, their music. It’s a great show, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Cast of Once Photo by Joan Marcus Once National Tour

Cast of Once
Photo by Joan Marcus
Once National Tour

Prescription For Comedy

by Kate Fodor
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
March 4th, 2014

Laura Singleton, Jeff Kargus Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Laura Singleton, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

They say laughter is the best medicine, although the executives at the large drug company that is the center of Kate Fodor’s satirical comedy Rx may beg to differ.  A fast-moving, witty send-up of the pharmaceutical industry, West End Players Guild’s final production of its 2013-2014 season presents a world in which there’s a prescription for many a malady, whether real, imagined, or invented.  In this well cast and (for the most part) well-paced production, WEPG provides an entertaining prescription for anyone looking for a few well-earned laughs.

In a story that plays out as more of a broadly satirical romantic comedy than the sharp indictment I had been expecting, Rx tells the story of a big pharmaceutical company, Schmidt Pharma, and the lengths to which they will go in order to market their newest product.  The plot follows Meena Pierotti (Laura Singleton), a managing editor at a trade magazine for the livestock industry who hates her job and feels increasingly hopeless and aimless, often fleeing to a nearby department store so she can hide in the ladies’ underwear department and cry.  She is admitted to the clinical trial for Schmidt Pharma’s new “workplace depression” medication where she meets Dr. Phil Gray (Jeff Kargus), who at first doesn’t seem very happy in his own job. Meanwhile, Phil is enlisted to consult in the marketing of the drug by single-minded executive Allison Hardy (Beth Davis), who doesn’t personally understand “workplace depression” because she loves her job., and Meena develops a friendship with Frances (Suzanne Greenwald), and elderly widow she meets at the department store.   As Phil’s initially awkward relationship with Meena turns romantic and Allison’s determination to develop a winning ad campaign for the drug shifts into high gear, that’s when the complications really start.  Meena’s job satisfaction starts to increase and Phil begins to wonder if this is really a good thing, Allison’s anxiety builds as legal issues threaten the drug’s marketing launch, and Frances finds a new enthusiasm for life as a result of her interactions with Meena, only to discover a health crisis of her own.

This play is very fast-moving and episodic, almost seeming more like a series of interconnected sketches than one continuing story. The pacing a a show like this is a challenge, and the great cast tries their best to rise to the challenge despite some technical issues that threaten to slow down the production.  Everything seems to be a little too frantic, with many scene changes and costume changes and the cast (especially Singleton) running around in order to make their cues and sometimes appearing hurried and breathless. The need for quick changes also seem to be a reason for a few of the ill-fitting costumes for Singleton.  The set (designed by Ethan Dudenhoeffer) is simple but spread out, and the act noticeably have to hurry to get into their positions for the various scenes. I found the use of props (organized by Rebecca Davis) to be particularly effective, though, from all the various medical equipment to the bags and bags of pills the eccentric research doctor Ed (John Lampe) keeps in his desk, and the sound (designed by Chuck Lavazzi) was put to excellent use as well, adding to the comedy especially with the use of a modified Dolly Parton song played on a recording by one of the company’s marketing guys (also played by Lampe).

This is a quickly paced, madcap kind of show, and although sometimes the technical elements struggle to keep up, the cast does an excellent job nonetheless. Kargus in particular is endearingly earnest as the nerdy Phil, who struggles to find purpose in his own life and finds it in surprising ways, mostly through his interactions with Meena, played amiably by Singleton. As a pair, these two share a charming chemistry, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show.  Singleton also has some great scenes with Greenwald as the sweetly engaging Frances, who gets some great comic lines and whose journey of self-discovery (or re-discovery) seems to parallel Meena’s.  Most of the comic weight of this production is carried by Davis as the fiercely determined Allison, especially when things start to look iffy for the drug’s trial process.  Davis’s Allison puts just as much comic energy into her disappointment as she initially invests in her drive for success, and her implosion is hilarious to watch. Lampe is also a joy in a dual role as a hilariously over-invested advertising executive and an Einstein-idolizing “mad scientist” pharmaceutical research doctor. It’s an excellent cast that provides the real focus of this production despite any technical missteps.

Simply put, in spite of its drawbacks, this show is just a whole lot of fun.  I had been expecting it to be more of a brutal satire instead of the more lighthearted romp with a few cutting moments that this turned out to be.  It does manage to be a little challenging and provides some good food for thought about the pharmaceutical industry and its marketing practices, but in a somewhat lighter vein.  The real strength of this production, though, is its excellent, engaging cast.  In the end, it’s an entertaining production full of energy, humor, and ultimately, heart.


Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Justin Been

Chorographed by Zachary Stefaniak

Stray Dog Theatre

April 3, 2014


Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean  Photo by  Stray Dog Theatre

Paul Cereghino, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Surely nobody in the audience at  Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Cabaret on opening night had visited a cabaret in 1930′s Berlin.  That era is so  far removed from the present time and place that it’s easy to gloss it all over as stories in a dusty history book.  What Stray Dog has done, however, is take its audience on a journey and immerse us in the very atmosphere of a dark and seedy nightclub in the waning years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. It’s gritty, it’s raunchy, and the issues get increasingly uncomfortable as the plot unfolds.  It’s a bold take on an oft-performed musical, and what we are left with is a truly unforgettable experience.

This production is a lot more atmospheric and downright gritty than the excellent but overly polished production I saw at the Rep last Fall.  Here, Stray Dog Theatre has transformed their performance space at Tower Grove Abbey into the dark, sultry Kit Kat Club, with the ensemble members even roaming around before the show in character as music from the era plays over the sound system, and also serving drinks and  desserts at tables in the front row during the show. This production uses the whole performance space to full advantage, presided over by Lavonne Byers as the ever-present Emcee, who serves as a commentator on the action as well as the presenter of the various club performances that are interspersed with the story of American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Paul Cereghino) and Kit Kat Club singer Sally Bowles (Paul Stoff Dean) and their lives and relationships amid the growing political turmoil and the rise of the Nazi party and its effects on German culture.  Throughout the story, it’s clear that the world is changing and the club serves as one way to escape that reality, and although Sally is perhaps the most self-deluded, she’s not the only one faced with the dilemma of what to do when life doesn’t turn out as wished, and the over-the-top bawdy acts at the club increasingly evolve into more and more stark echoes of the increasingly frightening reality of what Germany is becoming.

Byers, the first female Emcee I’ve seen, is the driving force behind this production and she brings a boldness and ferocity to the role as well as a strong wit and clear, richly-toned singing voice.  From the rousing “Wilkommen” to the  raunchy and ironic “Two Ladies” (with Byers as the “only man” and one of the “ladies played by a male dancer (Mike Hodges) in drag), to the cutting “If You Could See Her” and the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much”, Byers commands the stage and serves as an ideal host for the show’s increasingly chaotic proceedings.  Having a female in this role brings a different meaning to some of the songs, although Byers plays up the androgyny in several of the numbers as well.  She also achieves the commendable feat of emphasizing the character’s humanity in the midst of the increasing absurdity.  Dean’s Sally is at once dynamic and tragic, and she manages to find sympathy in a character who can be difficult to understand at times.  Cereghino’s Cliff is charmingly infatuated with both the Berlin society and with Sally, although I’m less convinced by his attitude later in the play where he occasionally comes across as more callous and bossy than concerned.   Still, Dean and Cereghino complement each other well in most of their scenes together, and particularly in their initial duet “Perfectly Marvelous”. Ken Haller also puts in an excellent performance as the Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz, whose relationship with the conflicted Freulein Schneider (Jan Niehoff who is especially fine in her scenes with Haller) provides some poignant and sweet moments as well as some heartbreaking drama.  With great work by Michael Brightman as scheming Nazi Ernst Ludwig and Deborah Sharn as the lascivious and calculating Freulein Kost, as well as a top-notch ensemble of Kit Kat Boys and Girls, this production boasts a cast that ideally showcases the classic and oft-produced material.

The raw edginess and contrasting absurdity and realism of this production is also very well served in its technical aspects.  Rebert J. Lippert’s striking two-level set and Aleandra Scibetta Quigley’s colorful and detailed costumes help set and maintain just the right mood, as does Zachary Stefaniak’s outstanding choreography and director Justin Been’s excellent staging.  This is a production that brings the audience along on a ride, from its promising opening to its startling conclusion with many daring twists and turns along the way.   Although this production has obviously taken inspiration from the 1998 Broadway revival, it’s not a carbon copy.  It’s very clearly and boldly realized in its concept. It’s difficult to single out particular songs and scenes because everything is so well done, from the outrageously challenging (“Don’t Tell Mama”, “Mein Herr”, “Two Ladies”) to the sharply satirical (“The Money Song”, “If You Could See Her”) to the hopeful (“Maybe This Time”) to the devastatingly tragic (“Cabaret”).  With songs from the film integrated with those from the original production, expertly performed by the cast and the very high caliber band led by Chris Petersen, this show is musically as well as visually stunning. It’s not an easy show to do, and this team does it as well as I’ve ever seen, tackling the lighthearted scenes as well as the increasingly brutal subjects with remarkable skill. I also would like to commend the company for their great professionalism in the midst of the very strange weather on opening night, in being able to start, stop, and re-start the show with remarkable efficiency as the result of a tornado warning.

Short of inventing time travel, I can’t think of many ways to communicate the atmosphere of 1930′s Berlin as vividly as this production.  It’s a tour-de-force all around, from the director to the creative team to the leads and the extremely strong ensemble.  Stray Dog’s Cabaret gives us a good look at life in this very specific time and place in a production that’s at turns wildly entertaining, grippingly suspenseful, intensely tragic and even downright frightening.  Although this is a show that is often produced and re-imagined, this production succeeds in being truly and profoundly memorable.  It’s an outstanding example of live theatre at its challenging, thought-provoking best.

Lavonne Byers (center)  and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs) Photo by Dan Donovan Stray Dog Theatre Photo by

Lavonne Byers (center) and the Kit Kat Boys (Mike Hodges, Michael Baird, Zach Wachter, Brendan Ochs)
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
March 28, 2014

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is, with the possible exception of Hamletprobably Shakespeare’s best-known play.  Most adults will remember it mostly from having to study it in English class in high school, or perhaps from one or both of the most popular movie versions (either Franco Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrmann’s).  This familiarity presents something of a challenge to theatre companies when they produce it. Since everyone already thinks they know what it’s about, the challenge is whether to try to live up to the general expectations (more like the Zefferelli film) or try something more bold and outside-the-box (more like the Luhrmann film).  In this latest production, presented at the Hunter Theatre at DeSmet Jesuit High School, St. Louis Shakespeare has gone the more straightforward route.  With a production built around the strong performances of its young lead performers, the company has produced a thoughtful, striking and, for the most part, well-paced production of a classic play that is more complex than it may appear.

One of the strengths of this production is that the tone is just right. This is something of a strange play in that it essentially starts out as a comedy. Yes, there are the feuding families–Montagues and Capulets–but the overall tone throughout the first half is lighthearted.  Director Suki Peters gets the pacing just right, as we are introduced to Romeo (Leo Ramsey) and his friends Benvolio (Brian Kappler) and Mercutio (Charlie Barron) as they prepare to attend a party hosted by Lord and Lady Capulet (Brian J. Rolf and Christi Mitchel), are taunted by brash Capulet kinsman Tybalt (Roger Erb), and listen to Romeo’s speeches concerning his infatuation with the unseen Rosaline, who he promptly forgets upon meeting the Capulets’ daughter Juliet (Emily Jackoway) at the party.  Juliet is young and curious about the world, with a doting Nurse (Jamie Eros) and parents who are eager to arrange her marriage to the well-connected Paris (Paul Edwards).  Upon meeting, Romeo and Juliet are suddenly struck by the giddiness and impulsiveness of young love.  They secretly marry and are all full of hope for the reconciliation of their families.  Then,the belligerent Tybalt, angry at Romeo for sneaking into the party, goes looking for him and things get serious.  Mercutio accepts Tybalt’s challenge when Romeo refuses, and an initially light-hearted sparring session quickly turns ugly. Everything goes downhill from there, as anyone who is familiar with the story knows.  The second half of the show is all tragedy, and the actors handle the transition extremely well as the play drives to its bleak and inevitable conclusion, in which the star-crossed lovers meet their fate.

The casting is key in this production, and the young leads make a convincing pair. It’s refreshing to see the teenage Romeo and Juliet played by actors who appear to be close to the right age. The youthful energy and impulsiveness is there, and both Jackoway and Ramsey do an excellent job of switching from the more upbeat earlier scenes to the more tragic later events.  Ramsey is all earnest and effusive, and Jackoway is full of wide-eyed wonder in their first scenes together, and the classic balcony scene is sweetly romantic and engaging, with genuine chemistry that makes their love scenes all the more convincing, and their parting after the tragedy begins to enfold is both truthful and heartbreaking, as are their tragic last moments. These two are the real emotional anchors of this production, ideally suited for their roles and bringing all the range of emotions from breathless joy to haunting sorrow with honesty and strength.  They are well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Eros as the earthy, sympathetic Nurse, Paul Devine as the wise but somewhat bumbling Friar Lawrence, Barron as the witty and brash Mercuitio, and Erb as the menacing Tybalt.  Mitchel also has a great moment as Lady Capulet mourns for Tybalt. There were a few supporting players who are less convincing, such as Maxwell Knocke as a particularly surly and shouty Prince Escalus, and Edwards as a basically bland Paris, although for the most part this is a strong cast, demonstrating excellent comic and dramatic abilities as the atmosphere of the play shifts.

The look of this production is very traditional, with well-suited costumes by Beth Ashby and an evocative set by Chuck Winning complete that effectively achieves the Old World marble-and-stone look, with some nice touches like a working fountain. Despite  a minor issue with the sound in that I sometimes had trouble hearing what was being said, it’s a solid effort technically. I was especially impressed by Brian Peters’ dynamic fight choreography, particularly the highly suspenseful sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt and the subsequent battle between Romeo and Tybalt.  In keeping with the tone change of the play, the first fight starts out playfully and then swiftly escalates in brutality. It’s an excellent showcase for the actors as well, and Ramsey’s moment of realization after his confrontation with Tybalt is one of the most memorable moments in the show.  It’s a very physical production, with a raw emotional energy that builds with startling realism.

This production is sure to spark all the usual debates about whether Romeo and Juliet were really in love, or what would have happened if the families didn’t let their own prejudices cloud their judgment, and whether or not the blend of comedy and tragedy works. In this production, I would say that blend is what works best of all.  With two charismatic and youthful leads, and a well-realized vision and excellent pacing, this story unfolds with engaging, shocking, jarring and ultimately gut-wrenching effectiveness.  It’s a classic story well-told.

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare


Ghost the Musical
Book and Lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Music and Lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard
Based on the on Paramount Pictures Film Written by Bruce Joel Rubin

Original Broadway Production Directed by Matthew Warchus

Choreographed by Ashley Wallen

Peabody Opera House

March 25, 2014

Steven Grant Douglas Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost the Musical Tour

Steven Grant Douglas
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost the Musical Tour

When I first heard that the well-known 1990 film Ghost had been turned into a musical that played in London’s West End and then on Broadway, I have to admit I was skeptical. I’m a little weary of the recent trend of musicalizing popular films, and I wasn’t sure if Ghost needed to be a musical. After seeing the current Troika national tour–based on the Broadway production–at the Peabody Opera House, I’m still not sure this adaptation was entirely necessary, although I did find it entertaining, full of flashy and stunning visuals and some good performances.

This musical, like the movie it’s based on, tells the story of Sam Wheat (Steven Grant Douglas), a successful young banker with a life that seems too good to be true. He has a job he loves, a great loft in Brooklyn, and a loving girlfriend in artist Molly (played at this performance by understudy Andrea Rouch).  As Sam and Molly look forward to a happy life together, Sam is suddenly and brutally murdered in what appears to be a mugging gone wrong. Instead of moving on into the afterlife, however, Sam finds himself stranded on Earth as a ghost. After meeting a few other ghosts who give him a few pointers (in the song “You Gotta Let Go”), Sam follows Molly and soon finds out more about his murder and the involvement of his co-worker and former best friend Carl (Robby Haltiwanger). Upon a chance meeting with self-proclaimed psychic and con artist Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), Sam finds that he can communicate with Oda Mae and sets out to get a message to Molly before anything bad can happen to her.

The plot follows the film fairly closely, including the famous song “Unchained Melody” that was so prominently featured in the movie. The rest of the songs are original, though, and most aren’t particularly memorable.  The songs that do make a positive impression include Oda Mae’s introduction song, the gospel and disco influenced “Are You a Believer?”, Molly’s poignant solo “With You”, the Act Two opener “Rain/Hold On” and Oda Mae’s Act Two showstopper “I’m Outta Here”.  Aside from these songs, though, I find it difficult to remember much of the score, although it’s mostly well-sung by the youthful cast (many of whom are recent college graduates).  It’s a smoothly-told story but the young cast (especially the ensemble) doesn’t always bring the energy, and live theatre is about energy ultimately. I do think the show got better as it went along, though, and the finale was particularly moving and well-done.

Still, this is an engaging show for the most part, with some strong performances by the lead performers, particularly Stewart as the feisty Oda Mae and understudy Rouch as the at first hopeful and then grieving Molly. Douglas looks and sounds good as Sam, but is somewhat lacking in stage presence in this pivotal role, especially at the beginning of the show.  He does gain strength as he goes along, and he does well in his scenes with Rouch and Stewart. Haltiwanger is fine as Carl, but like a lot of this cast, I wish he had more energy and presence.  Brandon Curry makes a memorable impression as a surly Subway Ghost who becomes Sam’s reluctant mentor.

The biggest strength of this production is in its physical look and special effects, re-created from the Broadway production.  It’s a very flashy show set-wise, making use of many projections including city scenes and images of people, as well as moving images to represent the subway cars and an elevator.  The special effects, such as those used to make objects fly around the stage, and people “rise up” out of their bodies when they become ghosts or are carried into the afterlife (surrounded by an ethereal silvery white light for good guys, and angry red lights for bad guys).   Kudos to the whole team that designed and/or re-created the lighting (Hugh Vanstone, Joel Shier), video projections (Jon Driscoll) and Illusions (Paul Kieve).  It’s a stunning technical production with a sleek, updated look set in the present day rather than in the movie’s era of the early 1990′s.  The effects and visuals help keep the story moving, and some of the special effects even drew applause from the audience.

Ghost is an ambitious production that manages to entertain despite its drawbacks. I’m glad I was able to see this show, although I do think that it will be frequently compared to the film, and it doesn’t quite live up to that comparison.  For what it is, though, it works well enough, and I was able to follow the story of Sam, Molly, Oda Mae and the rest of the cast with interest and some emotion, especially at the end.  I do think that with a little more energy, this show could be even better.  It was worth seeing, however, and I think anyone who enjoys a good simple love story with a lot of flashy special effects should enjoy it.

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble Photo by Joan Marcus Ghost The Musical US Tour

Carla R. Stewart (center) and ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
Ghost The Musical US Tour




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