It is a rare feat when an actor can so totally lose their self in an historic figure that it makes you wish you had a better, deeper catalog of the original. Such is the case with Alexis J. Roston in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Her interpretation of Billie Holiday, the famed jazz singer and cabaret artist, is masterful. From her carefully nuanced singing and storytelling to her simple, elegant white dress and trademark gardenias, to her slurred words and mood swings, Roston conveys the soul and artifice of the tragically addicted Holiday late in her career. 

A three-piece combo takes the stage and bandleader Jimmy Powers starts the evening off with a soft, up-tempo number before he welcomes the audience and calls Ms. Holiday onto the stage. Music director Abdul Hamid Royal plays Powers as a man whose patience for Holiday's behavior and addiction has worn thin, but he can't resist the musical high when she's performing. Royal is clearly more comfortable behind his keyboards, but does a nice job using expression and body language to convey much of the tension. Drummer Kaleb Kirby and bassist Benjamin Wheeler are solid and smooth as the rest of the trio, and though neither has any lines in the show each gets in a good solo or two while remaining background figures.

Roston is mesmerizing as Holiday, deftly moving through stories of abuse, rape, love, and prejudice in a voice completely reminiscent of Holiday. For a brief moment at the top of the show, I even wondered if she were lip-syncing. She isn't. She's simply that connected and accurate in her portrayal of the troubled and immeasurably talented jazz singer.  Following playwright Lanie Robertson's lead, Roston takes an honest, at times unflattering, approach to the singer's repartee and cravings as well. Lowering her voice, she draws us in with stories of segregation and the open, hateful prejudiced she experienced, particularly when touring with white bands such as Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Just as quickly, she turns to Powers and pleads for a little "moonlight," telegraphing her need for another fix without ever mentioning it by name.

Scenic designer Dunsi Dai transforms the intimate Kranzberg theater space into a smoky bar, without the smoke, circa 1959, just months before Holiday's untimely death at the age of 44. The space feels appropriately well worn and gritty, the atmosphere enhanced by low general lighting and pre-show cocktail service. In addition to her single microphone, Holiday has a small side table ready with a glass and a bottle of liquor, which she nearly polishes off during the show.

Director Leda Hoffman and Roston clearly work well together and every moment is memorable. The two ensure they move through the character's transitions recreating famous moments from the singer's career, including "Strange Fruit" and ending with a spotlight smartly recreating Holiday's trademark look. Dorothy Jones' costume design and Casey Hunter's sound design are elegant understated touches, while the lighting design by Patrick Huber faithfully references images and reports from Holiday's many performances.

Billie Holiday was a revelation, and a genius with phrasing and intonation. She made an immediate and lasting impression and has influenced generations of vocalists. Though her range was limited, she treated her voice like and instrument, carefully playing with the texture, phrasing, and notes and always maintaining her trademark tone. Roston captures her humor, passions, and incredible vocal interpretations in a spectacular production. Just as Holiday was contractually obliged to do, Roston ensures that her most well-known, commercially successful songs are in the set, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "God Bless the Child," and "Strange Fruit." 

Other lesser known songs highlight Holiday's virtuosity, and Roston shines on "Crazy He Calls Me," "Baby Doll," and "T'ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do." The latter song is painfully accurate to watch, as Roston nods off in a drug-induced haze mid-song, one gloved sleeve rolled down revealing track marks. The moment is small, but communicates much about the downward spiral that would soon extinguish Holiday's talent.

Max & Louie Productions' Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill runs through March 4, 2017 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Alexis J. Roston immerses herself in the title role, and the one act, 15-song set is captivating and thoroughly satisfies as both theater and concert. Fans of Billie Holiday, jazz, and exceptional performances are in for a treat with this outstanding production.

 

Brimming with good humor, flirtation, and catchy songs that sound familiar even though they were written for the show, Pump Boys and Dinettes is a lighthearted musical with an emphasis on folksy comedy and romantic appeal. The original songs are mostly up tempo, with a few ballads sprinkled along the way to vary the pace and tone of the show.

The Pump Boys are a bunch of guys who work together at a service station during the day and fill the place with fans and music at night, a true "garage band," if you'll allow the pun. They're backed up by the Dinettes, a pair of sisters who run the Double Cup café and are singers and kitchen percussionists. Together the four guys and two girls bop, harmonize, and gently poke fun at each other while performing a solid set of rockabilly and country songs.

Jim and LM own the Highway 57 service station and are the natural leaders of the group. They're portrayed as congenial diamonds in the rough. Chet Wollan, as Jim, and Brandon Fillette, as LM, are big hearted, welcoming types, and both have the ability to lead the band with confidence, though they bring distinctly different abilities and personalities to their characters. Wollan also casually serves as the narrator of the show, introducing the other actors and providing exposition and a little romantic gossip. Fillette is the music director of the show and plays the piano and a swinging accordion. 

Guitarist Steven Romero Schaeffer, as Jackson, and bassist Ed Avila, as Eddie, round out the band. Avila doesn't sing as much as the other five, keeping his expression blank and his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses the entire show. Still, the two have fun playing up their minor characters, creating a spirited dynamic in the band that spills over to their interactions with the Dinettes and audience. Candice Lively is the perky and completely infatuated Prudie Cup and Jessica Bradley is Rhetta, her older, wiser, but no less romantic sister. The two have an easy, friendly relationship and harmonize well. In fact, the two have such good chemistry that the somewhat remorseful ballad "Sisters" feels almost out of place in the show. 

The set looks like the inside of a throwback diner and service station, there's even an old rotary dial phone that occasionally rings when Uncle bob calls to check on the repairs to his Winnebago. There's not much of a story here, more an on-going string of anecdotes and jokes that transition from song to song. The interaction between cast and audience is polished but relaxed, and everyone pokes good-natured fun at each other and their romantic exploits until it's time to close down for the night. 

The show was nominated for five Tony awards, and the skillfully interwoven songs feature a wide variety of country styles, from swing to rockabilly and even a touch of rootsy folk music. There are also a few ballads, including the plaintive "Mawmaw," which add to the textural and musical variety of the show. "Highway 57," "Drinkin' Shoes," and "Mona" are solid numbers that would fit in on country and oldies stations. Rhetta's "Be Good or Be Gone" is a belted out, girl power-tinged song that's a little Bonnie Raitt, a little Carrie Underwood, with just a little edge thrown into the twang. 

The pleasantly inoffensive musical, directed by Curt Wollan, is fast paced, breezing through twenty songs in a crisp hour and a half. The music, a little dancing, and a lot of gossipy chatter are all optimistic in nature, focused on personal relationships and getting along. It's a nice, nostalgic show, if essentially devoid of dramatic conflict, and an enjoyable evening of quality singing and playing. The effect is more music review than true musical, but the result is quality entertainment delivered with a smile.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the show is that Pump Boys and Dinettes only runs through February 19, 2017 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza. The cast is comprised of talented musicians who appear to be having as much fun as the crowds they play to and the songs are an enjoyable mix of country-infused tunes that swing along with an infectious beat. For those looking to escape the February blahs, this show is a lot of fun and an easy way to chase the winter blues away.

 

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods had its first production in 1986, and since then has been wildly successful, even making the cross-over into Hollywood with a film starring Meryl Streep as the Witch and Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Productions happen often in St. Louis; The Muny did a recent version with Heather Headley as the Witch. "New and fresh" aren't words theatre-goers  use to describe this oft-performed classic, but that is exactly what the Fiasco Theater production at the Peabody was: a re-imagined, refreshing glimpse at old, familiar characters and songs.

Fiasco Theater's Into the Woods had an Off-Broadway run from 2013-2015 and has been on tour since November of 2016. It played at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis in mid-February. The marketing information for the show states, "This is Into the Woods as you've never seen it before!" and they're right. Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld have created a small, tightly-knit version of Woods with only ten players. These performers are quadruple-threats: they sing, dance, act, and play instruments, never leaving the stage for the whole of the performance.

Set designer Derek McLane strews the guts of a piano around and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind makes those guts look magical. The main set piece is a single piano in the middle of the stage, and there sits the music director and pianist Evan Rees. He is a part of this production, usually as the pianist, but sometimes as narrator. Or a cow. The other players move around him, gliding effortlessly in and out of different characters with rapid-fired lines strung with comedic timing.

This show is ow-my-face-hurts-from-laughing funny. The actors begin the show on stage; there is no curtain to separate them from the audience. They wear 19th-century underwear to start and as they move through the rigorous paces of the show, costume pieces fly on and off: a hat here, a bell there, a shawl, a jacket. Men flit from playing a prince to playing a wicked step-sister with ease and grace and hilarity. Philippe Arroyo's Jack and Milky White, played beautifully by Darick Pead, have a delicious bromance (is it a bromance if Milky White is a she?).

Yet, through all the merriment, the actors let the audience feel their characters' longing and pain, and deliver the powerful message Woods is meant to deliver: appreciate what you have and be careful what you wish for. They do this best through song. Lisa Helmi Johanson's "I Know Things Now," Stephanie Umoh's "Witch's Lament" and Arroyo's "Giants in the Sky" are captivating, haunting renditions of songs the audience knew well, sung as if being heard for the first time.

There is no weak link in this small band of actors; each dazzled in their roles. When they weren't center stage, they were playing an instrument to supplement the piano. Bonne Kramer's bassoon and the other instruments added such depth to the score, it sometimes sounded like there was a whole band in the pit. Many of these instruments were non-traditional, like a child's piano and a waterphone. Combining these contemporary sounds with classic melodies furthered the concept of the whole show: a perfect balance of fun and philosophy. Fiasco Theater's Into the Woods is an extraordinary interpretation of a classic.

 

Philip Barry's most successful plays in the 1920s and '30s pictures life among the wealthy and fashionable. In The Philadelphia Story, a magazine writer and a photographer have been sent to cover a wedding in one of Philadelphia's old families. To complicate matters, this is the bride's second marriage, and her first husband is a neighbor who drops in now and then. Writing during the Depression, Barry has given the magazine writer some of the working class attitudes of the period. But his moral objections to wealth don't keep him from developing a crush on the bride. And the groom is a self-made man who has risen from coal miner to CEO. Barry gives them all lines that fit, but they tend to sparkling wit whenever appropriate. 

It is this style of high comedy that the teachers at the Webster Conservatory have imparted to their students, who have learned it well, and director Tim Ocel has guided them in a polished production that is a delight to see and hear. 

As Tracy, the bride, Libby Jasper is more than crush-worthy. Lucas Reilly's reporter manages to hang on to his self-control when dazzled by wealth and Tracy, while his photographer partner played by Leah Russell slyly underplays her challenged emotions. Michael Ferguson nicely preserves physical and vocal remnants of the working-class origins of the groom. As Tracy's ex, Andrew Oppmann maintains his cool in awkward situations, though I wouldn't have minded a little more charm. Harrison Farmer efficiently arranges things as the brother of the bride. 

As college students playing middle age, Lana Dvorak is especially successful as Tracy's mother, and Kai Klose makes a proper paterfamilias as her father, working his way back into the family's good graces. Jacob Cange faces a tougher challenge as the mother's brother Uncle Willie, hanging on to his youthful exuberance. Jarris Williams appears briefly as a minister. At the other age extreme, Becca Russell gets help playing Tracy's younger sister from her own energy and from pigtails given her by wig and makeup designer Brielle Creaser and her costume from Elizabeth Swanson, who has given the others in the cast the loveliest of the period's flowing styles. Matt Billings, Justin Duhon, Delany Piggins and Lauren Sprague are impeccably correct as butler, footman, and maids. Mitchell Holsclaw is a folksy night watchman. 

Kylee Loera's lights follow the hours of the day. Marion Ayers designed the period-appropriate sound, and Jason James's set at the Conservatory is in the best of taste. 

Continuing through Sunday, February 26, The Philadelphia Story in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, charms and delights for a lovely couple of hours. 

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of To Kill A Mockingbird is vibrant and engrossing, serving both the story and the times, past and current. Packed with an eloquent but forceful message on equality, dignity, and respect, the show is a memory play that feels at home in contemporary America. Harper Lee's seminal story on race and justice, adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, has not lost any relevance or impact since its original publication. 

Now a grown woman and long since moved away from her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout in her younger days, revisits her upbringing in a mostly segregated but intertwined southern town. Her father Atticus, the local barrister, has taken on the defense of Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of the rape of a young white woman. 

The year is 1935, and the small town is struggling to survive the Great Depression. Before we get to the heart of the trial, however, we meet Scout, her brother Jem, their new friend Dill, and Calpurnia, the tireless black woman who works for the Finch family and takes care of the children when their father is working. The times are tough and money is short, no doubt adding to the tension in the racially charged trial. The decision is a nearly foregone conclusion, but Atticus gives the case his all. 

The Rep's production of To Kill A Mockingbird captures all the tension and social commentary of the story and adds down-to-earth authenticity that enhances the overall impact. Lenne Klingaman narrates with a wistful, loving tone as the adult Jean Louise Finch. Jonathan Gillard Daly is genuine as Atticus. Calm but resolute, with a slight drawl and a habit of extending his words just long enough to ensure everyone is paying attention. 

Kaylee Ryan sparkles as the vivacious and curious Scout, filling the stage with a confidant, buoyant presence and infectious energy. She's aptly countered by Ronan Ryan as her protective brother Jem, Charlie Mathis as the impishly mischievous Dill, and Tanesha Gary as the thoughtful, observant, and loving Calpurnia. The young actors carry the bulk of the visual storytelling as well as much of the dialogue, particularly in the first act. Their performances are emotionally connected, filled with genuine expression and reaction, and properly nuanced, enabling them to deliver their lines with just the right tone.

The strong supporting cast contributes much of the texture and turmoil of the show. Amy Loui, Jerry Vogel, and Christopher Harris are memorable for their kindness and lack of guile. Alan Knoll and Rachel Fenton are convincing as Bob and Mayella Ewell. Their prejudice and distrust is nurtured by ignorance and poverty, and Fenton is sympathetically conflicted in her portrayal. Kimmie Kidd and Terrell Donnell Sledge may break your heart with their painfully nuanced and restrained interpretations of Helen and Tom Robinson. The two bring gravitas and clarity to the clearly innocent man and his appropriately distraught young wife. The ensemble and community add considerably to the production, evoking a visceral response to the story and artfully guiding the show's transitions with stirring gospel songs.

Director Risa Brainin keeps the focus on the storytelling and the emphasis on authentic, relatable characters. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons complements the approach, wisely constructing a minimal set that emphasizes the memory play's characters and lessons. Having the actors move and group flowers on the stage is another smart choice, suggesting the passing of time and season as well as shifting the emotional tone from scene to scene. Devon Painter's costumes are period appropriate, neither hiding nor exaggerating the social customs and tough times of the period. Composer and music director Michael Keck and lighting designer Michael Klaers provide the finishing touches to a show that moves with energy and purpose.

As an audience, we experience the town's deep-seeded attitudes and outspoken prejudice through the eyes of Scout and her companions, helping to soften the deeply troubling story and its emotional impact. The community provides comfort and hope through its resilience and quiet acknowledgement of even the smallest steps forward. The message of the show, and the history of prejudice that has often resulted in miscarriage of justice, cannot be understated -- these themes are still urgent and deserving of our attention. The production doesn't grandstand or beat a drum loudly to make its point, however, and the result is powerful and memorable.

Moving and effective, To Kill A Mockingbird, running through March 5, 2017 at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is still, and unfortunately, all too relevant a story nearly 85 years after the period in which it is set. Strong, grounded performances, with well-articulated sub-context and moving transitions directed by Brainin, create an artful and compelling production. 

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