Dubbed "the crime of the century" at its time, the stunning case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb is ripe with drama from the facts alone. In 1924, the two affluent and intelligent college students from Chicago kidnapped and brutally murdered a young boy as a social experiment. The New Jewish Theatre brings Never the Sinner to life in an engrossing tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat, with stunningly creepy and compelling performances by Pete Winfrey and Jack Zanger.

The three young men were members of the same community, Leopold and Loeb were lovers, of a sort, and the media propelled interest by spilling the sordid details on the front page day after day. Empowered with a sense of invincibility, the two do not deny their acts, and the prosecutor presses for the death penalty. In an impassioned plea for mercy and compassion, famed prosecutor Clarence Darrow defends the young men, not from their guilt in the crime, but from a sentence of death.

Winfrey and Zanger are mesmerizing, and oddly sympathetic, as their love story turns into a sordid game of control and reward that ends in a brutal crime. Brilliant and gifted with wealth, the two show a convincing air of disdain for those they don't deem their equal and spend their time pursuing intellectual and moral conundrums. Appealing and convincing as lovers, there's a fatal intensity between them that is deliciously and emotionally compelling. Winfrey expertly captures Loeb's charisma and need for attention in a character that is by turns charming and alarmingly callous. Zanger's Leopold is content to bask in the glow of Loeb's light, seeming to live only for his pursuit of intellectual stimulation, affection, and sexual gratification. But, as the closing moment so pointedly suggests, Leopold may have more influence than his actions infer.

John Flack, as Clarence Darrow, and Eric Dean White, as the prosecutor Robert Crowe, are dignified and equally passionate in their beliefs. Both eloquent and logical, if perplexing at times, their back and forth is a thoroughly engaging part of the plot. The three actors in the ensemble are as completely in the moment as the principles. John Reidy skillfully shifts his posture and lowers his voice, becoming a new character. Maggie Conroy dons a scarf and her just the facts ma'am reporter is a flouncing, flirty party girl. In a manner of seconds, Will Bonfiglio ages 15 years, using his physical bearing and facial expressions to go from eager cub reporter to wizened doctor. It's a genuine pleasure to watch as Dildine smartly builds scenes to moments that allow the actors to shine in service to the story.

The sounds of a photo bulb flashing and the casters rolling across the wooden floor as the set pieces glide in an out of place are deceptively simple and effective bits of stagecraft. The audio clues signify the fluidity of time within the framework of the drama while enabling a seamless transition from scene to scene. Whether intentional or not, the device is an important layer in the tapestry Dildine has created. The approach is cinematic in nature and the execution is flawless.

Period appropriate, Michele Friedman Siler's costumes and Margery Spack's props are quickly and easily modified to signal a change in time, place, or character. An exchange of hats turns a reporter into a policeman. Notebooks are swapped out for clipboards and two other reporters become psychiatrists probing the minds of Leopold and Loeb. The loss of a single pair of glasses becomes damning evidence, but the audience doesn't notice until Loeb questions Leopold in a critical scene that transforms to the police station with the addition of lights and an actor.

Another important layer is the gorgeous stage, designed by Peter and Margery Spack, with multiple ornithological drawings and paintings as well as the sculptural effect of hanging glass jars of liquids adorning the theater and set walls. The platforms and aforementioned furniture give prominence to key plot pieces and easily blend from scene to scene. Dildine and the cast take the same approach with the characters -- every tick, flinch, smile, arched or furrowed eyebrow, touch, and embrace adds context. Smart lighting by Maureen Berry and sound by Michael Perkins complete the enveloping environment and affirms the contemplative and moody disposition of the show. 

John Logan's Never the Sinner, running through April 2, 2017, isn't always easy to watch. The subject matter is at times disturbing, but the story is enthralling. The murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb was a scandalous, newsworthy crime, and the New Jewish Theatre production is taut and captivating. Darrow's impassioned summary during the sentencing hearing is an important touchstone in our ongoing debate on capital punishment and the story of the two young murderers is surprisingly fascinating. The tension kept me in my seat during the brief intermission, anticipating and wanting to get on with the rest of a story that is as intimate as it is sensational and unsettling. 

 

 

Given that Motown Records founder Berry Gordy literally wrote the book for Motown: The Musical, based on his own autobiography, it's not too surprising that the somewhat preachy and awkward script often feels more like hagiography than a conventional musical. 

Fortunately, there's not that much of it. The sketchy story of Motown's rise from small-time recording studio in the back of a modest two-story building on West Grand in Detroit (dubbed "Hitsville U.S.A." by Gordy) to a major independent label serves mostly as a backdrop for performances of over fifty Motown classics by a remarkable cast doing virtuoso celebrity impersonations of artists made famous by the label, including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations.

Yes, the script often rises above the level of the typical jukebox musical by placing many of the songs in their historical contexts, including the civil rights struggle and the political turbulence of the 1960s. But make no mistake about it; this is ultimately a celebration of the music that those of us of a Certain Age grew up with, from straightforward hits like "Please Mr. Postman" and "I Can't Get Next to You" to protest classics like "What's Goin' On" and "War." As the happy response from the opening night audience made clear, it was the music that kept everyone clapping, smiling, and even singing (although that required a bit more prompting).

Chester Gregory, who played Berry Gordy on Broadway last summer, reprises the role here and made a powerful impression on opening night. His performance, late in the show, of "Can I Close the Door," one of only three songs written specifically for the show, was a passionate crowd pleaser. Allison Semmes' Diana Ross was equally impressive, easily capturing the charisma and vocal power that made the real Ross a superstar. The brief scene in which she played Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues was especially remarkable. How "meta" can you get?

Jarran Muse captures the angry intensity of Marvin Gaye perfectly, including a compelling a cappella version of "Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology)," a song which, sadly, is as relevant now as it was in 1971. David Kaverman, meanwhile, makes a strong Equity debut as a cheerful Smokey Robinson.

Probably the single most engaging performance, if the audience response was any indication, came from 11-year-old CJ Wright/12-year-old Raymond Davis Jr. as the young Michael Jackson. He had the voice and the moves down pat and had the crowd in the palm of his diminutive hand.

Speaking of having moves down pat, congratulations are also due to the ensemble members who wowed the crowd with their smooth vocals and impressive dancing as they took on the personas of stars like Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells as well as famous groups like The Temptations, The Commodores, The Contours, and of course, The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. A tip of the hat is also due to Doug Storm for his hilarious Ed Sullivan.

Technically, Motown: The Musical runs like a well-oiled machine under Charles Randolph-Wright's expert direction. Digitally projected sets make the frequent scene changes fast and fluid while striking animation sequences vividly evoke everything from Vietnam War protests to the flashy backdrops of the Hollywood Palace TV show. Down in the pit, Darryl Archibald conducts the small band in high-energy performances of all that well-known music. And the choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams perfectly captures the styles of the '60s and '70s.

 Motown: The Musical premiered on Broadway in 2013, it got a bad rap from some New York critics who were apparently expecting a more conventional book musical. They were right to criticize the flimsy characters and clunky dialog, but they were also missing the whole point of the show. Motown is all about the music Gordy and his performers made famous, and all about recreating a time when black performers were breaking the color barriers in entertainment and taking control of their own careers. Motown: The Musical is a celebration of the songs that had us all, as the exuberant final number reminds us, "Dancing in the Streets."

It's also a reminder of how far we have come as a nation from the days when white radio stations refused to play what they called "race" records and when audiences were segregated by skin color. With all of that progress now under attack at the national level, Motown: The Musical's message of inclusiveness feels more timely than ever.

Motown: The Musical runs through Sunday, March 26, at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center. Note that evening performances start at 7:30.  

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis sends their 50th season out with a celebratory rock 'n' roll dance party, and the audience is invited to get on their feet and join in the fun. Set on December 4, 1956, the fact-based Million Dollar Quartet recounts the one-time only, friendly recording session of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley at Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. The show touches upon the increasing influence of money, power, and the excess of fame as this new style of music catches on, but is mostly a feel good tribute. 

Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux treat Phillips, the man who tirelessly promoted the genre, and the four influential performers who got their start in his small studio kindly in the script. Though the men's personal demons are all alluded to, the show is upbeat and generous, with a focus on the songs. At the time of this recording, rock and the men's careers were trending up, and the production wisely emphasizes the contributions of each performer to the genre.

As Sam Phillips, James Ludwig narrates the story, providing insight into each of the characters from the producer and promoter's experience. Framing the show in the space of Phillips' memory adds a sense of perspective that enables us to appreciate the musicians' talents both individually and as part of the history of rock music. Ludwig is charming and enthusiastic as Phillips, his love of music is clearly present while his emotional connection to the character works effectively to ground and focus the show. Ludwig's infectious smile, seemingly spontaneous jigs, and harmonica chops are an added bonus.

Jerry Lee Lewis, played with spirit and a comic touch by Dominique Scott, is young, brash, and outspoken. He's got confidence, a head-shaking mop of a hairstyle, and a mouth that doesn't know when to stop. His performance reminds us that Lewis' showmanship and mastery of the piano helped keep the instrument relevant during the rise of the guitar, and he has the moves and growls of Lewis down pat. Scott's rendition of "Real Wilde Child" really kicks the show into high gear.

Sky Seals conveys the plainspoken, storytelling style of Johnny Cash with a hint of gospel reverence that's also seen in Ari McKay Wilford, as Elvis. It occurs to me that Cash's is the most singular and difficult to imitate voice of the well-recognized singers. Seals gets the essence right, his mannerisms and intonation reflective of Cash, and his laconic way of interacting with others is instantly familiar. His voice stands out on "Ghost Riders in the Sky" as well as "Peace in the Valley," a genuine moment that shines in this production.

Wilford nicely suggests Elvis's vulnerability and his dependency on those around him, all the while sneering and playing with the king's signature moves. Wilford's more restrained interpretation, while not the Elvis we see in films, feels connected and well motivated, a surprising find for the production. His transition from Dean Martin impersonation on "Memories Are Made of This" to full on Elvis by the end of "That's All Right" is fluid and delightful to watch.

John Michael Presney flashes an easy smile as Carl Perkins, in a memorable interpretation of the early rocker that emphasizes his guitar virtuosity. Presney is also music director for the show and he makes good use of each actor's strengths in the vocal arrangements and harmonies. "Who Do You Love" transported me straight to guitar heaven and I instantly developed a crush on the talented and charismatic Presney. He and director Hunter Foster find areas to inject fresh spirit and interpretation into the show while keeping the pace fast and the characters on point.

Ryah Nixon, as Dyanne, an aspiring singer and starlet who accompanied Elvis that night, demonstrates a strong range and solid vocal chops, as well as a flirtatious nature. She hits all the notes and belts it out on "Fever" and "I Hear You Knocking," and her voice is a welcome addition to the harmonies. Nixon's playful demeanor and interaction with the players on stage, including session band members Eric Scott Anthony, as Brother Jay, and Zach Cossman, as Fluke, helps pull the show together, making it feel more like a genuine in-studio jam session.

The technical and artistic staff at the Rep gets in on the fun as well, completing the picture with a realistic looking storefront that opens to reveal an intricately detailed recording studio. Scenic designer Adam Koch makes excellent use of the Rep's resources and the intriguing closed view of the set demands attention as the audience fills the theater. The costume design, by Lauren T. Roark, pays attention to period details, though it always bugs me that Johnny Cash is clothed in all black but isn't dressed that way in the photo of the session that's inevitably projected over the stage.

Million Dollar Quartet is a big, celebratory rock 'n' roll party, filled with early classic rock songs, good-humored teasing, and the heart and soul of a dedicated promoter. The show's got a beat you can dance to and engaging, infectious performances, ensuring a whole lotta shaking and a fitting close to The Rep's anniversary season. 

 

For the past six years, St. Louis has played host to Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays. Each year saw full houses and a supportive audience, indicating a thirst for these stories. And with each passing festival, audiences were treated to steady improvements in production quality and storytelling. If 2017 is indeed the year's final curtain, the producers, sponsors, and creative contributors can be proud of the work accomplished and the stories shared.

A refreshing aspect of this year's show was the range of ages represented in the eight short plays, a point cleverly and humorously pointed out in the opening piece, Jon Fraser's Gaga. Delightfully if sometimes awkwardly self-aware and 50% pop-culture savvy, the light script invites us along as two mature gentlemen pop in to a popular gay bar for drinks. As the bar fills up, their conversation is interrupted by two younger guys, eager to get the bartender's attention and fluent in cultural icons. The exchange is slightly exaggerated, but Foizey keeps things fast and funny.

Straight Up, by Lisa Konoplosky, directed by Pamela Reckamp, finds Shane Signorino and Alice Kinsella hanging out at a sports bar. He attempts a pick up line or two, she informs him she's a lesbian, and pretty soon the two are bonding over "women." This slice of life piece feels a bit like a sketch, but the characters are well constructed and the longer script allows us to get beyond the obvious and find authentic common ground.

Playwright Shannon Geier is everywhere recently, with two new scripts in production, including the cleverly insightful and openly curious Twenty Questions, directed by Sarah Lynne Holt. Carl Overly, Jr. is Don, and Jaz Tucker is his brother Ken. The two are discussing Don's spouse Helen's transition to Henry. Ken is filled with questions, starting with the obvious "does this mean you're gay now?" and a reminder for Don to call their mom. The story is about support, about loving and accepting each other, and it's realistically satisfying.

That Uppity Theatre Company artistic director and Briefs co-producer Joan Lipkin brings us Our Friends, a bristling contemporary play that is a real nudge for allies. Judi Mann, as Samantha, and Lipkin, as Alison, are a longtime couple, but their reaction to current politics may be driving a wedge into their relationship. The sharply written script ensures love wins, but the relevant piece is filled with important dialogue that really hits home.

The loss of love can leave scars that never fully heal, and this includes the love of a trusted friend. When Oprah Says Goodbye is a funny, touching look at our aging LGBTQ population written by Dan Berkowitz and directed by Fannie Belle-Lebby. The show, featuring Thomasina Clarke, Peggy Calvin, and Mary Hardcastle, was brought back again this year to the delight of many attendees. Their story, a reunion of two long separated friends, turns from bitter to bittersweet to simply sweet in this lovely piece.

Acceptance. It's a big word and often even those who truly love us have trouble accepting us. The resulting conflict is poignantly expressed in Danny Boy, Theresa Masters' play about love and caring for an aging parent, directed by Christopher Limber. Daniel John Kelly, as Daniel, and Troy P. Hardgrove, as Spencer, have been together for years, a fact Daniel's father Bernard, played by Gerry Love, has never fully accepted. But after a serious incident, Bernard can no longer care for himself and Daniel and Spencer must decide his fate.

Trial and Swear, by McKenzie Moser, directed by Gad Guterman, is the 2017 Ken Haller Playwriting Competition for LGBTQ and Allied Youth winner. The clever script rings with authenticity and familiarity. Kiah McKirnan is Jade. She's once again rushed over to listen to her straight crush and best friend Lanie, played by Delaney Piggins, complain about another failed romance. A few shots of liquor and confession later, and this story still doesn't end with a neat and tidy bow. This short piece is a valentine of sorts to uncomfortable crushes and finding your sexuality.

Speaking of valentines, Last Night at the Cherry Pie, by Daniel Hirsch, directed by Marty Stanberry, is a straight up love letter to those LGBTQ and allies who paved the way for us all. Set in a decrepit bar that just celebrated it's final last call the night before, bartenders Terry, played by Rich Scharf, and Pam, played by Donna Weinsting, must now face the future. As they clean up, they reminisce about the good times and bad, and enjoy a fitting farewell toast. The touching story has a happy ending, as Pam made wise financial decisions for the two, making it a lovely way to say goodbye.

In its six year history Briefs: A Festival of Short LGBTQ Plays offered audiences the opportunity to experience the stories of the LGBTQ community. We were invited to share in the ups and downs of navigating self and life with leading characters who resonated with authenticity and compassion, and happened not to be heterosexual.

The festival also gave much to the participating artists, particularly playwrights who often have trouble getting their voices heard. Each play selected for production received up to 20 hours of additional work with the festival staff and advisors, helping to tighten the stories and ensure a successful production. As leading voices in the LGBTQ community, co-producers Darin Slyman, of the Vital VOICE magazine, and Lipkin are proud of the festival and the work they've done to bring these stories to a wider audience. While I wish them both continued success, I hope that we see them collaborate on a production again soon.

 

Set in the world of professional boxing in the early 1900s, The Royale takes a pointed look at race relations and the importance of sport in the eventual integration of our segregated nation. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production is a dynamic and captivating interpretation of Marco Ramirez's tightly wound play, teaming with purpose, raw emotion, and rhythm. 

Jay "the Sport" Jackson is the best boxer in the United States, but, because he's a black man he doesn't hold the official championship. Easily pummeling the competition his white promoter Max lines up, he longs to fight the white champion Bixby, who recently retired holding the title. Max arranges a bout, but is reluctant to set it up because of Bixby's ridiculous money split demands. Despite Max's objections, Jay accepts the deal. 

While training with a promising young fighter named Fish and his ever-present coach Wynton, Jay gets a visit from his sister Nina. She begs him to consider losing the fight for the sake of peace, for others who may be punished by his victory. But Jay is filled with anger at the disparity of a segregated society, at the fact that his photo is never on the front page, not even in the sports section, and his sister never sees women in beauty adds that look like her. The championship fight is powerful and filled with a fierce spirit, but there are repercussions and the price paid is more than gold. 

Akron Lanier Watson stands tall and self-assured as Jay. Warm and engaging when he smiles, he is even more imposing and formidable when he sets his jaw. He is quick and witty in the ring, his constant chatter almost as imposing as his fist. However, his humble, dignified demeanor outside the gym suggests he's taken his share of hits on both sides of the rope. Watson gives the character an authentic sense of urgency, and a resolute determination to carry the weight of racial injustice on his broad shoulders.

Lance Baker, as Max, is frightened and impressed by the determined boxer, while Bernard Gilbert, as Fish, and Samuel Ray Gates, as Wynton, are infectious, supportive teammates. Baker's nervous reactions when Jay challenges Max add subtle humor that releases some of the building tension. Gilbert's Fish is youthful and eager, likeable but with a stubborn will of his own. Gates, as Jay's trusted advisor Wynton, remains a constant calming and encouraging voice in the boxer's corner, his smooth, resonate voice providing an intellectual counterpoint to Jay's stinging jabs and solid punches. Watson, Gilbert, and Gates have easy chemistry and their friendships naturally intertwine.

Bria Walker is pleading and sympathetic as Nina, with a steely backbone and sharp wit of her own. She dances around the ring verbally sparring with her brother, cajoling and prodding both his anger and sense of responsibility. Webster University students Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams capably round out the cast, providing additional percussion and quickly engineering set changes as well as adding to the sense that we're at the boxing ring. 

Under the sure direction of Stuart Carden, The Royale is a fast paced story that examines the individual moments and sacrifices made in the name of equality. The staging is effectively bold, allowing us to see both Jay and Fish as they fight. But we don't see them striking -- instead we view each in a separate spotlight. We watch as one fighter lunges forward, thrusting a contact punch with force, and then shift our focus as the other reacts, stumbling back or dodging with skillful footsteps. 

The seamless incorporation of body percussion -- deliberate rhythmic movements such as beats, slaps, claps, stomps, and verbalizations -- designed and choreographed by Stephanie Paul, adds beautiful dimension to the tense, engrossing story. The sounds mimic the immediacy of the fight, underscoring the athletic movements, emphasizing their precision and power. Costume Designer Christine Pascual captures the era down to the leather gloves and fine suits, including Nina's matching skirt and jacket and Jay's summer linen. The set and lighting designs by Brian Sidney Bembridge and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel complete the environment, recreating a well-worn gym and providing a soundboard for the complex percussion.

The integration of sports was a key turning point in creating a less segregated society. Boxing matches, such as the fight between Jay and Bixby, and baseball games were the most popular of the occasional competitions held between the races as novelty events. But breaking the color barrier took years of athletes succeeding in Negro leagues and making financial sacrifices for the occasional opportunity to compete against white athletes. Though fictional, Ramirez's play is based on historical figures and accurately represents its era.

The winning show spectacularly combines percussion with a fresh perspective created through the staging and fully invested performances without forgetting its place in history. We clearly see that Jay's fight is about much more than the title. The Royale, running through March 26, 2017 at the Rep, delivers the heart racing excitement and suspense of a battle without the physical violence. 

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