Photo from The Repertory Theatre of St Louis production 'Faceless'

This week’s In Performance introduces you to Faceless, an intriguing play where a woman of a targeted culture prosecutes a young woman radicalized online. The story begins with the premise of conflict and the actors dig in deeper, each representing a “side” from multiple perspectives. Any stand they take has immediate repercussions.

Faceless introduces audiences to Susie Glen, an 18-year-oldon trial for joining ISIS and planning terrorist attacks after her online recruitment. Claire Fathi, a Harvard-educated, practicing Muslim, represents the prosecution and she has a very different understanding of the religion Susie now professes to follow. Though set in a courtroom, the show isn’t a melodrama in the lines of popular television franchises so much as a compelling exploration.

Author Selina Fellinger was inspired by a news event, a young American woman was recruited by ISIS over an 18-month period and turned in to the FBI after her father found a suspicious boarding pass. The story provided Fellinger with so many questions to explore. Rational, tactical questions like how could this happen, and why? But also, questions about faith and loneliness, the very human need for community and forgiveness. Director BJ Jones found the story compelling and after a conversation with the playwright he quickly agreed to direct.

The layered show is a deeply personal look at a very real movement that’s grounded in faith and, as importantly, the expression of faith. “Susie is incredibly lost and confused and really vulnerable,” explains actress Lindsay Stock. “Her mother has just died. The one thing that she can hold onto is the faith that she has found.” But, until she meets the prosecutor, she doesn’t know what a true Muslim looks like. Claire Fahti, however, has doubts about taking the case. “At first she doesn’t want to be seen as the token Muslim in the room,” actress Susaan Jamshidi explains. “But then she sees how she can make a difference… How she can show the world what a modern Muslim woman is.” You can see the probing and thoughtful Faceless in the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through February 4.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents Andrew Lloyd Weber’s high-voltage musical The School of Rock, in performance through January 28. The teen-spirit filled musical features some truly prodigious kids who steal the show, and your heart, with raucous, unfettered enthusiasm. Even the back-story is a feel-good tale as Weber’s delightful rock musical was created to honor his kid’s favorite movie and its fabulous anti-hero with a heart, Jack Black.

Continuing this weekend:

JPEK CreativeWorks Theatre announces additional performances of Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting. The thought provoking period drama imagines an historic meeting between two of the most important figures of the Civil Rights Era, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will run at the .Zack February 23 and 24.

Cocktails and Curtain Calls In the Shadow of the Glen, continues in the Patriot Room of John D. McGurk’s Pub in Soulard through January 21. The story, influenced by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, introduces a man convinced his wife is cheating who fakes his own death to try to catch her.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continues its production of The Marvelous Wonderettes through January 28. The jukebox musical is a fond look at friendship that celebrates the girl bands and pop hits of rock and roll’s early years. The Rep’s talented cast and band are completely in-sync, creating a “wall of sound” that’s certain to entertain.

The Black Rep presents August Wilson’s perceptive and heart wrenching Fences through January 21. The sixth play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play. The evocative show makes a powerful statement on race in America, but may be best remembered for its depth and sincerity, ensuring it’s a show not to be missed.

Menopause the Musical continues at the Playhouse @ Westport Plaza through March 31. Set in a swanky department store where four women meet while fighting over a bra during a lingerie sale, the catchy musical comically addresses “the change of life” while encouraging feminine positivity and support.

To make sure you don’t miss an event of note, don’t forget to check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events.

 

Photo of JPEK CreativeWorks production 'The Meeting' by Phoenix Bell

Set in a hotel room looking over the streets of Harlem, The Meeting suggests what may have happened if the two most important and intriguing figures of the Civil Rights Era, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a one-on-one conversation at the height of the movement. Playwright Jeff Stetson imagines what the two may have discussed and JPEK CreativeWorks brings the story to life with committed performances and effects that provide historic context.

Naturally, there’s a lot of conjecture here and, perhaps due to their very different approaches, the two men initially eye each other with caution and skepticism. Malcolm X wonders whether Dr. King will even show. King questions what Malcolm X might want from him, eventually deciding that he must need protection and support. Both men have received death threats and been subject to violence, including the firebombing of Malcolm X’s house that very morning. Both realize they may not live to see their work completed, but neither is willing to back down any more.

Zachary Clark as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jason Little as Malcolm X are committed and convincing in their portrayals of the icons, but they avoid outright impersonation. Greg Jamison starts stiff but relaxes into the role of bodyguard Rashad, delivering increasingly comic asides that help to break the tension. The performances are referential, and each of the actors has just enough resemblance, through hairstyle, physical bearing, and costuming, to evoke the men they portray.

The emphasis here feels on the personality and intention of each character, and the actors move with a natural and unaffected ease, invoking a style that suggests each man. More careful study of Malcolm X’s and King’s natural speech patterns and inflection will help to add depth to their characterizations, but the two actors capture the essence and energy of the men they portray. Little comfortably slides into the rhythm of Malcolm X in his short soliloquies and Clark finds King’s gravitas when he speaks of his purpose and calling. The same attention to detail during more conversational moments, to capturing tone as well as intonation, will enhance the performances.

Director Joel P.E. King incorporates historic footage from the late 1950s and 60s well, particularly during the opening scenes. The film provides context and underscores the sense of responsibility -- the weight -- each man carries on his shoulders. The device is surprisingly evocative and enhanced with a moody, contemplative sound design that features a haunting Billie Holiday number and the jazz standard “Take Five”. The other technical elements, lighting, sound, and costumes, are appropriately simple and keep the focus squarely on the two men. The company has some technical hiccups they need to smooth over, the timing of some of the video was off and occasionally started with a glitch and a few scenes stretch longer than they should, but the entire show is thoroughly engaging and interesting and the errors don’t significantly detract.

Some criticism should also be directed at Stetson’s script, which struggles at times to find the balance between the men’s personal and public selves. Clark and Little do good work keeping us interested when the dialogue turns to pontification, and each reveals aspects of the historic figures that are personal and heartfelt. However, there are too many moments: the arm-wrestling, the exchange where Malcolm X tries to insist that King have a glass of water, and the chess analogies, that feel as artificial and manufactured as they are. In contrast, both the scene on the balcony and the exchange of the doll ring as authentic and emotionally grounded. Director King and the actors put in admirable work to make all the scenes play, but they’re saddled with too many purposeful but clunky metaphors here.

History recounts that while the men did meet, they only had a brief exchange. The Meeting conjures the character and philosophy of the two men and channels what we know of them into a spirited conversation that touches on the men’s differences and similarities. While neither concedes to the other, the story implies mutual respect bordering on admiration and a tacit acknowledgement that both men valued the work of the other. The moment feels good, even if the truth of history suggests otherwise.

Due to positive feedback and ticket sales, JPEK CreativeWorks is pleased to announce that The Meeting will receive additional public performances at the .ZACK Theatre, February 23 and 24.

 

The poster for 'Menopause the Musical' at the Playhouse at Westport

Filled with clever song parodies and short scenes that mine the problems women experience during the change of life for maximum humor, Menopause the Musical is, nonetheless, a high-energy, upbeat celebration of femininity. The premise is simple, four woman of a certain age meet in the lingerie department during Bloomingdale’s annual sale. Two of the women have a comic tug of war over a lacy bra, a third steps in to settle the disagreement, and soon the four are bonding over hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, memory loss, and all the other trials of growing older.

The four women represent various walks of life and each faces their own mix of familiar symptoms. There’s the overworked and underpaid professional doing her best to keep cool physically and emotionally, played by Marty K. Casey. A mature soap opera star obsessing over diminishing roles and hot flashes, played with a flirtatious and knowing air by Lee Ann Mathews. An earth mother looking for her chi, played with a sense of barely controlled serenity by Laura Ackerman. And, finally, an Iowa homemaker hoping to put the spark back into her relationship with her husband, played with a sweetly cheerful tone by Rosemary Watts. The actors are long-time members of the producing company and the ensemble’s chemistry is as strong as their harmonies.

Each actor takes the lead on several songs selected to best emphasize the way menopause is affecting her life, and the associations work well. There’s plenty of comedy to mine in each character, but there’s also satisfying emotional and physical variety. Director Seth Greenleaf uses these differences to develop relatable, authentic characters who, though they come from very different backgrounds, are believable striking up a conversation on very personal matters with practical strangers. As the show continues the raised eyebrows and protestations of “not me” turn to agreement and laughter, creating a pleasant tone that permeates the intimate Playhouse theater.

As the women meander through the store, with frequent trips to the ladies room, they treat us to funny quips and pop songs from the late 1960s and 70s, with rewritten lyrics that cleverly emphasize the side effects of menopause. The musical doesn’t hold back, but the songs are never cruel, and the twisted lyrics are quite fun. “Chain of Fools” becomes the soulful lament “Change of Life” and Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” a tropical “Heat Flash,” while the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” doesn’t get a change in lyrics so much as meaning and intention.

One drawback to the show is that it is beginning to feel dated around the edges. While certain songs transcend their era and remain fodder for parody, many of the songs in Menopause the Musical are less familiar and beginning to “show their age.” Playwright and lyrical satirist Jeanie Linder would be wise to consider a refresh, perhaps stretching her song selection into the 80s and 90s. Ageism, particularly towards women, is still an important subject and menopause still a natural occurrence for half the world’s population, so the topic is relevant. It’s the songs and dances that are beginning to lose currency.

The ensemble is clearly very comfortable with each other and the material, however, and their delivery entertains even when the source is unfamiliar. The actors also create an instant rapport that extends to the audience, and they revel in playing to and with the crowd. Matthews sees a man in the audience who interests her and immediately becomes a coquette, directing lines to him throughout the show. Casey and Watts are expert at delivering eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and double takes directly to the seats with perfect timing. Ackerman beams and shakes her head at the audience with equal grace, and, as with a favorite teacher or boss, you hope she bestows her unspoken praise on you.

That sense of camaraderie feels genuine and warm and continues throughout the show. The women have a great time with each other, particularly in the scenes where they’re shopping – trying on wigs, sunglasses, and accessories that visually complement the next song. The light choreography is cute and has a spontaneous feel that’s infectious, Matthews' brief Cher impersonation is delightfully on but too short, and Casey’s Tina Turner is vocally crisp and humorous, if short by a different definition.

Menopause the Musical, running through March 31 at the Playhouse at Westport, offers a lighthearted look at an often-difficult life transition. The show emphasizes the positives and encourages women to talk with each other, to reach out in support when you see a woman who could use a hand or a smile, even if you don’t know her. The performances are solid and engaging, if a bit routine, ensuring 90 or so minutes of fast-paced musical comedy that’s appealing enough to entertain women of all ages and give the men who love them a few laughs as well.

 

 

Using a beloved family film as source material for a Broadway musical can be a gamble. In the case of "School of Rock," it's one that mostly pays off. Based on the hit 2003 movie staring Jack Black, "School of Rock - The Musical" blends songs from the film with a new original score by legendary Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes.

"School of Rock" tells the tale of failed rocker Dewey Finn, delightfully portrayed by Rob Colletti, who has been booted out of his band and is about to be booted out of the apartment he shares with his best friend and former band mate Ned Schneebly and his uptight girlfriend, Patty, for not paying rent and generally being a lazy bum. 

All Dewey dreams of is competing in and winning the local Battle of the Bands, but he just can't seem to get it together. When a job call comes in for Ned, a substitute teacher, from the prestigious Horace Green prep school, Dewey, desperate for cash, accepts the gig, posing as his friend even though he has no experience and no business teaching kids. 

After witnessing a classical music lesson given to his class by tightly-wound school principal Rosalie Mullins (played to perfection by Lexie Dorsett Sharp), Dewey realizes the potential of the young musicians and sets to work at turning his class into the rock band he always dreamed of with a plan to win the Battle of the Bands.

Before the curtain rises on this show, the audience hears a brief voiceover message from Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. He states that people frequently ask if the kids in the show are actually playing their instruments live onstage, and that the answer is an "emphatic YES." While Colletti as Dewey makes a great lead, channeling all of the goofiness and affability of Jack Black in the film, the kids are the real rock stars of this show. 

With Colletti and Sharp building the set-up early in the first act, the show feels like it really takes off with the seminal number "You're in the Band," during which the kids take hold of their instruments for the first time and their talent becomes fully visible. Being cast in a Broadway touring production, they can obviously all sing and dance; but watching them play their instruments with all of the ferocity of a grown-up rock band is a delight. 

The standout is adorable Phoenix Schuman as misunderstood Zack, who shreds the electric guitar like he was born to do it. He has, in fact, played since he was eight. Sassy Theodora Silverman as Katie puts on a perfect rock pout as she slaps the bass guitar that's nearly as big as she is. Theo Mitchell Penner, a pianist since age five, slays the keyboard as nerdy, self-conscious Lawrence; and multi-instrumentalist Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton rocks out on the drums. 

Lovely Gianna Harris plays shy-at-first Tomika, who eventually comes out of her shell, belting out several incredible solos, including a soaring "Amazing Grace" Ava Briglia brings comic relief as Type A band "manager" and teacher's pet Summer. 

With wealthy, pressuring parents who fail to listen to what their kids really want or who they really are, the students gravitate to Dewey's less-than-structured teaching methods and begin to loosen up, embrace their talents and believe in themselves, even when they discover that he's deceived them. He also uses the power of rock to get Miss Mullins to let her hair down and remember the freewheeling music fan she was in her youth. 

Like the film, the show culminates in an epic performance of Zack's song "School of Rock" at the Battle of the Bands, which ultimately wins over the perturbed parents and Principal Mullins. Colletti and the kids have great on-stage chemistry, and the finale is where it really shines. 

Most of the original songs written for the show are primarily vehicles for telling the story and not entirely memorable on their own, with the exception of anthem "Stick it to the Man," which is repeated in Act I and encored at the end of the show. 

Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter keeps the classroom numbers lively and fun, while dynamic set and costume design by Anna Louizos help bring the production to life. Sliding wall pieces easily move and flip to alternate between the halls and classrooms of Horace Green, Dewey's apartment and the Battle of the Bands stage.  

While it may not go down in the cannon of all-time-great Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals, "School of Rock" is a fun and entertaining show the entire family can enjoy together, from young kids to grandparents, and a great opportunity to expose the youngest fans to the joy of Broadway musicals. 

"School of Rock" runs at the Fabulous Fox Theatre through January 28.

Photo from the touring production of 'Kinky Boots,' at the Peabody Opera House.

Kinky Boots, a musical about a nebbish young man trying to save his family’s shoe manufacturing company, reaffirms and shakes up everything audiences love about big Broadway musicals without out missing a high-heeled step. Written by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, the music is mostly up-tempo, the messages are uplifting, and about half the ensemble is drag queens. The resulting show is a delight, filled with contemporary twists on ages old lessons.

Charlie Price is a sympathetic hero whose every choice has increasingly bigger consequences. With low demand for his family’s shoes, he faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge and his best friends also happen to depend on him for a job. He’s also at a crucial point in his relationship with Nicola, his ambitious fiancée. She wants to move to London and make a lot of money in real estate. He’s less certain where he belongs or what he wants. A chance meeting with a drag queen with a penchant for stiletto heels named Lola offers opportunity but adds to his conflict. There’s betrayal and several moments when all hope seems lost, and Charlie nearly gives up before remembering what matters to him.

Lance Bordelon is charming and appealing, if at times purposefully awkward and uncertain, in his portrayal of the earnest, but not close-minded Charlie. He’s engaged but not really in the relationship, allowing Hayley Lampart’s Nicola to lead him around. He’s also the type of guy who instinctively chooses to be kind to all and loyal to those he cares for, an important quality for any accidental hero.

Jos N. Banks is empowering and captivatingly charismatic as Lola (known as Simon when out of drag), with a presence that demands attention and the voice and moves to hold it. Banks' ballad about Simon’s relationship with his father is a stunning, quiet moment that centers and grounds the show, and a very real scene. In contrast, Lola always sings showy melodies in a full voice with good range and control and well-executed choreography.

Lola is frequently backed by her team of Angels: Brandon Alberto, Eric Stanton Betts, Derek Brazeau, Tyler Jent, Tony Tillman, and Ernest Terrelle Williams, who mesmerize with choreography that snaps, spins, drops, and kicks in high-drag style and equally dazzling costumes. There’s a sense of knowing and fun to the drag performers, with a confidence that’s friendly and inviting.

Sydney Patrick adds an unexpected and welcome quirkiness to her portrayal of Lauren, an employee and, naturally, the right girl for Charlie. John Anker Bow gives Charlie’s assistant George just the right mix of prim exterior and arched eyebrow interest to comically steal moments, adding depth to the light comedy. Several of the supporting characters stand out, including Adam du Plessis as Don, Bethany Xan Jeffery as Pat, Ethan Kirschbaum as Harry, Monica Ban as Trish, and, in a small but memorable laugh out loud scene, Natalie Braha as the Milan Stage Manager.

Director DB Bonds and choreographer Rusty Mowery recreate original director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s show in ways that are visually interesting as well as impressively danced. The attention paid to supporting roles is also appreciated, and I applaud the instinct to add unique personalities rather than caricature to stock characters. Music director Kevin Casey ensures the arrangements suit each actor’s strengths and the levels are well balanced, ensuring it’s easy to hear distinct voices and instruments even during the busiest songs.

The scenic design, by David Rockwell, works well on the Peabody stage and is used quite inventively. Conveyor belts, ladders, and shoe molds create interesting levels on several ensemble numbers and the neon lights in the finale are a perfect touch. The design is complemented by Kenneth Posner’s lighting and John Shivers sound. Gregg Barnes’ drag queen costumes are, as previously mentioned, fabulous; the rest of the costumes are grounded in everyday wear, and include a nice mix of slacker and young professional garb, with a few tailored pieces adding texture and signaling status.

Kinky Boots is bold and loud at every turn, but it never shouts at the audience. Instead, the actors cajole and invite with a mix of characters that range from next-door neighborly to imaginatively over-the-top, and that’s part of the lure of a show that encourages each of us to be true to our better self. Through lessons on compassion and the contradictions of human nature, the production rocks with an assertion that each of us is valuable.

Without the true friendship and belief of Lola and a little mind-expanding compassion, Kinky Boots, in performance at the Peabody Opera House, January 13 and 14, could easily turn into a tragedy. Instead, we get tight harmonies and heartfelt melodies, a precise and acrobatic dance core, fabulous glitter, and a profitable if somewhat unconventional future for the family business. In short, Kinky Boots delivers sweet, spicy, and salty in a deliciously colorful musical confection.

 

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