Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, the creative team behind Celebration, as well as the beloved musical The Fantasticks, seem to speak almost exclusively in allegory and metaphor. Their shows tackle big issues, like life and death and love and propagation of the species, but they do so through personal stories of intense focus, ritual, and ceremony. By weaving meaning into every prop and pause, they entreat audiences to stay involved.

Ultimately, their musicals become a sort of deconstruction and laying bare of the elements that make life so fantastic and worth living. New Line Theatre, in its visual and titillating production of Celebration, embraces the conceit with skill and fluidity. The story pits old against new, real versus fake, and money versus love. They're typical stories, told in atypical fashion as the fading year rings in the new and revelers flit to and fro.

William Rosebud Rich, in a naturally exaggerated performance by Zachary Allen Farmer, is nearing the end of his life. Wealthy beyond even his imagination, he is fundamentally dissatisfied with the excess of living excessively. Nothing in his world is real -- not his hair, or garden flowers, or relationships with the entertainers hired for his amusement -- therefore, he feels nothing.

The mysterious Potemkin, a mischievous and sprightly Kent Coffel, promises to make the old man feel again, and we immediately question his motives. He sets about using the naïve if not quite innocent Orphan, a genuinely sympathetic Sean Michael, and Angel, the naughty but nice and always compelling Larissa White, to put his plan to action. Real feelings spring up between teasing songs and sensuous dances, eliciting real fear in the young couple. The entire room seems to undulate with lust and desire, and the two initially choose against each other. Even with all his magic, Potemkin cannot stop the march of time or the changing of the guard from old to young.

The central themes of the story are neatly covered with the excess of cheap theater, and it works spectacularly. We see a girl who believes she wants to be somebody no matter the price, until she sees the price, and a boy who believes that being a nobody doesn't mean he has no value. Looming over them is Rich, desperately hanging on to the allusion of his youth and seeking to replenish himself vampire-like, through Angel.

The choreography and costumes have a flashy Bob Fosse feel to them, and the songs have a bump and grind sway, giving the show a slightly disconcerting backdrop. Farmer, Michael, and White excel in the vocal runs, with strong voices and successful interpretations filled with motivation and emotional context. White gets a star turn as Angel and she commands the stage, at once ferocious then playful, by turns vulnerable and determined. Her voice is particularly well suited for the role, completing her character in a spot on performance that shines.

There's a good deal of "talk-singing" in this show, wherein the vocalist must carefully control instinct to deliver exposition, and Farmer and Coffel provide excellent examples of achieving this necessary balance. Coffel also demonstrates deft showmanship and a flare for suspense in his role, directing our attention to important moments and setting each scene with a flourish.

Todd Micali is delightfully impish as the mischievous and manipulative lead reveler, a sly assistant to both Rich and Potemkin. The ensemble also includes Colin Dowd, Sarah Dowling, Christopher Lee, Nellie Mitchell, Michelle Sauer, and Kimi Short, and it is appropriately difficult to distinguish one from the other as they move and think as one. The effect is visually striking and works well, particularly when accompanied by Scott L. Schoonover's gorgeous masks and Sarah Porter's always on-point costumes.

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have a clearly defined vision for a show that's not crisply constructed, and their approach and staging benefit the production. Rob Lippert's smart set design features multiple levels and plenty of space for choreographer Michelle Sauer's period-influenced dances and poses. The band, led by conductor/pianist Sarah Nelson, is tight and synchronized with the tempo and emotion of the show. They keep the pace up while setting the tone and timbre of the show. All the details fit together well and the effect is marvelous, creating the atmosphere of an exclusive party at a decadently fading disco.

The songs are showy and catchy and the dialogue witty, allowing lead actors White, Farmer, Michael, and Coffel to shine. A little quirky and weird, Celebration, running through October 22, 2016 at New Line Theatre, is a delightfully provocative musical gem filled with intentional pomp and theatrical circumstance.

 

The New Jewish Theatre creates a personal and persuasive portrait of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in its production of William Gibson's effective Golda's Balcony. The one-woman show, another superb performance by the versatile and sympathetic Lavonne Byers, goes both broad and deep when capturing the life and motivation of one of the twentieth century's most popular and divisive female leaders.

The show revolves around the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Meir had her finger on the button and a steely resolve to use it, if necessary to defend her country. Only a concerted diplomatic effort, that included a commitment to the continuation of the state of Israel, would prevent a nuclear war.  This was a significant moment not only for the Jewish people, but also for the world and, more specifically, a region embroiled in centuries of conflict and dispute.

We are introduced to Mrs. Meir in her later years, as she sits smoking and reflecting on the difficult decisions and sacrifices she had to make, time and again. Between puffs and telling moments of reflection, she covers her entire life, from her memories of the pogroms in Kiev to growing up in Milwaukee to heading to Palestine with other idealistic Zionists with plans to bring the third temple -- the Jewish state -- to life. From these stories, it becomes clear that establishing Israel was not just Golda's work or calling, it gave her life meaning.

The simple poignancy of that statement, and the lives it deeply affected, cannot be easily communicated in a review. The choices that idealists must make when they achieve power are not easily numbered and their rationale sometimes difficult to understand. Byers captures not only the emotions and conflicts, but also the conviction, intensity, and passion that allows us to see Meir as more than a great leader. We see her as fully human, filled with contradictions and flaws that she cannot forgive, as well as longings that she would not ignore.

Under the skilled direction of Henry Schvey, Byers shows us the hesitation and worry of Golda during wartime decisions, revealing tenderness as well as strength. We then see the realism behind the "Mommile Golda" persona, when she ruefully asserts that the stock at the base of her chicken soup was made of blood. These contradictions point out the humanity of historic figures we often forget, the moments of cynicism, frustration, and doubt that are never revealed in public.

The show and stage are equally impressive and imposing, expertly conveying the sense of normalcy under pressure. Byers moves from story to story with confidence, directing our attention to the rock of Israel or the rods of uranium above her head without glancing up. Visually, we are reminded of the cost of independence, the lives lost in the pursuit of a nation, and the threat that hangs over every leader's head.

Golda Meir sacrificed much, championing a people at the cost of the self and ensuring the continuation of the state of Israel. Led by her most deeply held convictions, she became a powerful symbol for Jews and people seeking self-determination everywhere. Byers brings Meir to life in a compelling performance filled with nuance, humor, and just the right amount of gravitas, creating a fully realized picture of a remarkable woman.

Emotionally layered and effective, Golda's Balcony, running through October 30, 2016 at the New Jewish Theatre, gives us a terrifyingly real and decidedly unromantic view of those who seek to balance power and idealism. The one-woman biography is a stunning success and fitting tribute.

 

The slow-burning hit musical Once played at the Fox last weekend for five quick shows before the tour moved on to other cities, and if you missed it, you missed out on something special. The show was "delicious," as a friend of mine said, with soul-piercing music and moving performances by the entire ensemble. 

Once turned the enormous Fox theatre into a small, intimate, warm setting with its cleverly-designed set that put the 4,500-person audience together in a small Irish pub with lights that felt like small bonfires in a dark field and cloudy mirrors that reflected shimmery visions of the cast. From the orchestra, every note and every word of the show were clearly heard. There was no curtain; the show began with players and audience members on stage having what felt like an impromptu jam session. Audience members were ushered to their seats slowly during the jam, and eventually, one of the performers sang and played a lilting Irish folk song on his mandolin as the lights lowered and our attention unconsciously turned to the story unfolding. 

Guy entered and played half a song from his heart for a small crowd at the pub, quitting before he finished because the emotions were too much for him. He had written this song for a girl he could no longer have and was ready to give up music entirely. Girl, moved by his music, wasn't having it. She forcefully inserted herself into Guy's life because she believed everyone deserved to hear his songs. They were falling in love, maybe, but it was complicated because they each had responsibilities to others. What's clear is that they were able to give one another exactly what each needed.

Sam Cieri played Guy with perfection: every shrug, every high note, every grunt was the embodiment of his character. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy as Girl was refreshing and honest, and her voice is one of the most lovely I've heard on stage in years. She sometimes forgot she was supposed to be Czech, but I forgive her for it -- accents are so difficult to maintain, and she was so likable that much of the audience never noticed when her American accent came through. 

The two leads were supported by an ensemble of leading men and women; everyone in the cast played multiple instruments while dancing. They never left the stage, came in and out as different people and each new character was as believable as the last. Liam Fennecken stood out as Švec; with only a few lines, he had the audience laughing and loving him, and his musicianship was extraordinary. Jenn Chandler stunned with her ability to sing badly when she is, in reality, a very adept vocalist. It is arduous for trained musicians to fake incompetence with music. 

The story of Guy and Girl was aching and rings with truthfulness; its love story for Dublin woven skillfully through the plot. Based on the film Once by John Carney, Enda Walsh adapted the screenplay skillfully for the stage. When sung by Cieri, Lesser-Roy, and this ensemble, every song by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sounded like a timeless hit. 

Once, directed by John Tiffany, played at the Fabulous Fox September 30 through October 2. 

 

 

Setting yet another St. Louis theater milestone, this one for longevity, the West End Players Guild opens its 106th season with a thoroughly engaging and entertaining production of Tom Stoppard's playful and brainy Arcadia. Focused direction and strong performances boost this time traveling comic mystery, with Lord Byron, gardening, math, sex, and literature thrown in to keep the audience on their toes. 

Set on a country estate in Derbyshire 200 years apart, the interwoven storylines are interesting and compelling. In the earlier period the science of order and conformity is pitted against the chaos of the natural sciences. In the present, the characters spar over the application of the scientific method, fact versus instinct, and the nature of creative genius. There's more than a touch of lustful scandal, and, in a surprising and satisfying twist, much of the romance is sparked by intellectual debate. Blended together, the two tales create a satisfying, if at times dizzying, story arc.

The show opens in flashback, in a cinematic sense, alternating scenes from the past and present until midway through the second act. It is often difficult to feel immersed in live theater when significant time jumps are introduced, but director Ellie Schwetye, assistant Kate McAllister, and the well-chosen cast succeed with confidence. 

The cast is period distinct, with the exception of Mason Hunt, who convincingly plays a character of singular importance in each period. Hunt is the audience eye, more observer than participant, and his reactions reflect confusion, thoughtful progression, and intelligence.

Kristin Rion and Michael Cassidy Flynn are filled with youthful exuberance and curiosity as the heroine and hero of the past, while Nicole Angeli and John Wolbers argue and bicker with magnetic intensity in the present. The leads complement each other, and their counter-time couple as well, with Rion and Flynn overflowing with curiosity and possibility, while Angeli and Wolbers display seasoned restraint and skeptical interest. 

One of the delightful twists in Arcadia is that both Rion and Angeli are intellectuals and, while each is comely, they attract with their minds. As importantly, they prize their mind and capabilities over affectations of gender. Director Schwetye and the actresses make wise choices that naturally emphasize each character's ability to see connections and possibilities others cannot.

The ensemble employs visually connected, near immersive storytelling that enables the scenes to seamlessly merge. Andrew S. Kuhlman, Anne Marie Mohr, Anthony Wininger, Carl Overly, Jr., and Scott De Broux complete the period cast, while Erin Renee Roberts and Jaz Tucker capably support the contemporary story. Each actor finds proclivities and preferences to distinguish their character. Kuhlman stands out for his peevish and petulant poet, Overly for his comically artistic flair, and Mohr for her primly passion. In contrast, Roberts and Tucker are smart but feisty, active foils to Angeli and Wolbers carefully studied academic demeanor.

The cast employs a variety of British dialects, and each character stays generally true to the chosen accent and consistent throughout the performance. There's a lot to say in this well-crafted script, however, and it is sometimes difficult to keep up as the cast is committed to a brisk, energetic pace. The approach works for the most part, but there are a few moments, particularly after a major revelation or significant clue is dropped, when a well-placed pause would serve the actors and audience well.

Attention to detail creates a layered story that is told as much by each prop's placement and use as it is by the distinct expression, personality, and motivations of each character. To successfully suggest the expanse of the grand manor, the set consists of one room, a garden study with a large table and picture windows, as well as multiple entrances and exits. Tracy Newcomb-Margrave does a wonderful job establishing period and tone with her costumes, and the props are impressive in number, detail, and significance to the overlapping stories.

In the service of transparency, this reviewer feels compelled to mention that I was part of a committee that recommended this script to the company, however I had no part in the casting or production. Audiences should also be cautioned that active listening is required, though you are likely to be quite pleased with the results of your effort.

Sharply scripted and smartly performed, Arcadia -- running through October 9, 2016 at the West End Players Guild -- is a fantastic choice for theatergoers who enjoy the mental entertainment of suspense mixed with history and imaginatively stirred. 

 

 

 

The 2016 theater calendar has been a banner year for St. Louis theater, with a number of companies celebrating milestone anniversaries in their current season. St. Louis Actors' Studio joins the list of accomplished companies, opening its 10th season with Edward Albee's engrossing Three Tall Women. The Pulitzer Prize-winning script is filled with insightful dialogue and sharply drawn characters that open the window into the soul of an aging matriarch known simply as "A."

 The play is presented in two distinct acts that complete the picture of a strong-willed, independent woman whose flaws and temperament color and strain every interaction, destroying her most important relationships. Set in 1991, the play explores aging and self-identity from a variety of angles, culminating in a brilliantly scripted second act conversation with the self that is humorous, perceptive, and equally cruel and forgiving.

We are introduced to the main character, played with great range and sensitivity by Jan Meyer, in her later years, living with only her attendants and staff to care for her. Though not yet bedridden, she is 91 and suffering from fragile bones, fractured memory, and an acute awareness of death's proximity. Meyer skillfully moves from lucid to lost and from acid-tongued to sweet nothings while maintaining a regal presence in the face of physical and mental decline.

She is dependent on a nurse, the nearly flawless Amy Loui, who seems to genuinely care about her comfort and well being, even when A is verbally abusive, pointedly unkind, or unconsciously racist and offensive. A is also visited by a young lawyer from the firm handling her estate. The lawyer, played with impeccable confidence by Sophia Brown, is filled with questions and quite skeptical of A's ability to handle her own affairs, though she can't say as much directly. The conversation alludes to the woman's long life and personal struggles, piquing audience curiosity and setting up the surprising second act, in which each of the three woman represent Character A at different ages -- 21, 52, and 91, or 92, perhaps.

The character's quickly failing health has summonsed her selves to the room, and the three chat about her life as they, and her estranged son, patiently wait for her to die. Michael Perkins is stoic and still in the unheralded role of the son, unaware as Meyer, Loui, and Brown explode around him. The three actresses relate A's story while battling and seeking comfort from each other -- and the relationship between the selves is as fractured and tenuous as A's grasp on life.

Patrick Huber's set is nicely appointed, reminiscent of A's fading wealth and aesthetic sensibilities. The colors in the set and his lighting design reflect a character that is cool, but not cold, conservative, but newly rich and slightly loud about it. The costumes, by Carla Landis, reflect the same conservative showiness. I particularly like the second act costumes' floral references. Brown, as A at 21, wears a soft pink dress with a shape and structure that suggests the petals of a flower in full bloom, while Loui and Meyer wear dresses embellished with floral details. Loui wears a bold blue that represents her height of strength and determination, while Meyer wears a lavender shade that's a fading combination of the other two dress colors.

I also appreciate the differing wigs worn by Meyer; she's somewhat disheveled in the reality of act one, but expertly coiffed as her inner aging self. Even the decision to have Perkins wear his hair long and curly, visually referencing Brown's full curls, feels an intentional touch designed to complete director Wayne Salomon's vision of the tale and its deeper meaning. Though modest in budget and technical wizardry, the company is adept at supporting the script and the actors, who turn in powerful and affecting performances.

Meyer, Loui, and Brown, under the sure-handed direction of Salomon, find ways to peel back the layers, to confront and resolve their conflicting emotions and memories until they create a balance where they can comfortably coexist as one. Watching these three talented actresses unravel the tangled knots and weave back together as a whole is all at once painful, and satisfying, and mesmerizing.

The St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Edward Albee's fascinating Three Tall Women runs through October 9, 2016. Relative newcomer Brown stands tall with established powerhouse veterans Meyer and Loui in a compelling show that is at times painfully realistic, vibrantly imaginative, and touchingly forgiving.
 

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