The Black Rep flexes some serious dramatic muscle in the opening show of their 40th season. A love triangle, particularly one tinged with deep seeded hatred, is always ripe material for a riveting script. The stakes are heightened in the sharply written Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, as playwright Mark Clayton Southers amps up the dramatic tension and consequences by setting this triangle in the Reconstruction-era South. The relationships between races during the era, particularly in the South, were thrown in to turmoil as the nation slowly rebounded from war, creating a power structure in flux and challenging previous laws and social conventions.

The script, and inspired adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie, is filled with racial strife, and the lines between former slaves who still work for their former owners are particularly blurred. Miss Julie is the white daughter of the former plantation owner, Clarissa is her mixed race half-sister by her father, and John is black, a former family slave. He is also the object of Miss Julie's unabashed advances, as well as Clarissa's love and long-time companionship.

The play chronicles the midsummer's celebration at the plantation, during which the three lives are irrevocably changed. The day was traditionally reserved for celebration, with music and dances, and Miss Julie is known to be particularly uninhibited at these parties. John is fixing breakfast for the Captain, Miss Julie's and Clarissa's father, while Clarissa busies herself with daily chores. She's also preparing for the party and brewing a syrup used to cause pregnant dogs to lose the litter. The syrup is brewing at Miss Julie's request, and reveals her callous and cavalier nature towards living beings she considers beneath herself, including her half-sister and John.

Laurie McConnell shows why she's one of the busiest actresses in St. Louis with an emotionally erratic, yet deeply connected performance that captures the character's complexity. She's bold and brazen in one scene, then panicked and desperate in another and yet these disparities feel natural. Miss Julie may be a bit fickle, and there are secrets she's holding, but she's also vibrant, determined, and overtly manipulative. It is difficult to like the character, but McConnell expertly plays the sympathetic moments to ensure we remain interested.

Alicia Revé Like is more grounded and practical as Clarissa, but she too is filled with fiery emotions, and she uses her voice and physicality with great command. Her laughter and pain are clear, and authentically raw, but she's also quite perceptive, saying volumes with a small gesture or second look. Like's performance is filled with honesty and loyalty that's backed by a sharp, decisive mind. In many ways, she is the opposite but equal to her sister, and Like and director Andrea Frye deftly emphasize her qualities while McConnell desperately works to discredit them.

Eric J. Conners is compelling and intriguing as John, a man truly caught in the middle, though not due to equal affection towards the women. John is caught between slavery and freedom, between the comfort of the known enemy and the uncertainty of the unknown. Between a beautiful but skittish woman who attracts him, though he doesn't want it, and a beautiful, constant woman who has long held his heart. For the audience, Conners' actions and choices reflect the times and changing world all the characters are trying to navigate. Conners shows restraint in his choices and reactions that add gravitas to the character.

Frye mixes thoughtful hesitations, impulsive moves, and manipulated circumstances to create a tense, driven script that rings true as a psychological thriller more than a morality or period piece. The set design, by Jim Burwinkel, and costumes, by Jennifer Krajicek, set the tone, perfectly capturing the faded glory and reduced circumstances of the a grand plantation. Kathy Perkins' lighting design and period appropriate props by Jenny Smith add the finishing technical touches. Strong performances and a thought provoking script ensure the Black Rep's Miss Julie, Clarissa and John is a deeply entertaining production. The play runs through September 25, 2016 at the Edison Theatre at Washington University.



 

The Fox Theatre kicked of its 2016-2017 Broadway season on Tuesday evening with A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, appearing on its first National Tour. Set against the backdrop of Edwardian England, as the show opens, the "gentleman" in question, poor peasant Monty Navarro (played delightfully by Kevin Massey), has just lost his beloved mother. After a visit from an old family friend, Mrs. Shingle, he soon discovers his mother's life's secret -- that she was actually a member of the noble D'Ysquith family, which disowned her years ago when she married a Castilian musician, choosing love over money. 

Upon discovering his wealthy bloodline and the eight D'Ysquith heirs before him to the title of Earl of Highhurst, Monty sets in motion a murderous plot to get rid of each of them in a dark and amusing romp that harkens back to the Golden Age of musical comedy. Monty quickly embraces his new role as a dashing serial killer, and does his dirty deeds to avenge his mother and improve his station in life. He hopes to win over his long-time mistress, the beautiful but shallow Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), who marries a man she doesn't love because he's rich. Meanwhile Monty meets and is soon set to marry his newfound cousin, Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), in a bizarre and familial love triangle. 

The real star of this show, however, is John Rapson, who plays all eight of the doomed D'Ysquith heirs, each with his (and even her) own personality and panache. He seamlessly makes the transition between more than half of the show's characters and costumes in a series of quick changes that leaves the audience's collective heads spinning. Rapson commands the stage whenever he's on it (which is often) -- bringing an over-the-top caricature quality to each D'Ysquith's untimely death -- and plenty of laughs along the way. Massey's Monty is equally charming as his foil, and the pair display great chemistry and comedic timing in their unseemly dances of death.

The appeal of Gentleman's Guide is a bit subtler than some of the better-known recent musicals. What it lacks in big, flashy numbers, it makes up for in wry humor. The best pure song and dance moment comes in Act Two's "I've Decided to Marry You," during which Monty performs a dizzying back and forth between two closed doors that hide his dual love interests, Sibella and Phoebe, both pleading him in overlapping lyrics. Overall, the songs in this show are less-than-memorable in and of themselves and mostly serve as a witty lyrical delivery of the storyline. 

Alexander Dodge's stage-within-a-stage set design is intriguing, though it does make the performance feel farther away and more confined than if it comprised the entire stage. The mini-stage, however, serves well as a frame for Aaron Rhyne's unique projection designs that illustrate various locations and animate the D'Ysquiths' death sequences. Linda Cho's period-appropriate costume designs add color and flair. 

While you may not go home humming its tunes, Gentleman's Guide is an entertaining night at the theatre and a truly original piece of writing by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) that's a breath of fresh air amid some of the more derivative and uninspired Broadway fare. 

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder runs at the Fabulous Fox Theatre through September 25.

 

  

Tesseract Theatre Company is dedicated to producing new and in development shows in St. Louis. From a thematic standpoint, they frequently choose scripts that tackle big issues facing our society, whether economic, political, racial, environmental, or personal. The shows boldly address subjects that may cause disagreement, but the company generally and purposefully avoids soapboxing or advocating from the stage. Instead, they find personal ways to tell bigger stories, with the intention that the stories lead to conversation and dialogue, rather than arguments.

Their current show, Am I Black Enough Yet?, by Clinton Johnston is a collection of short vignettes and monologues that openly questions and explores the idea of "being black." The show starts with the members of the cast conferring honorary blackness on the members of the audience, with those members who already identify as black awarded "uber black, like Shaft" status and asked to help guide the newly black through the experience. The idea appears to be to make everyone feel welcome and in on the subject matter, and it basically works. Audience members seem to relax and look around for a moment, acknowledging and greeting the other patrons -- something you don't always see in the theater.

The capable ensemble, anchored by Sherard E. Curry and Darrious Varner and featuring Anna Drehmer, Erisha Tyus, and Nathan Maul, deliver strong and varied performances and easily handle the sharply written script. The style of the pieces ranges from spoken word poetry to conversational monologues and short, scripted scenes touching on a wide range of topics. In fact, perhaps the greatest lesson of the show is simply that "being black" isn't defined by a single set of criteria, interests or behaviors. Just like being a member of any group doesn't necessarily define everything that you are. 

The twelve or so scenes presented are independently and collectively interesting, and there's abundant humor woven throughout. If anything, the show tends to focus on finding the humorous moments, perhaps as a way of trying to make a connection or relieve any uncertainties the audience may feel. Each story is well written, making it difficult to pick favorite scenes, though a few stand out in ways that linger well past the curtain. Varner's cadence and intonation in the scene about two black girls on the bus is masterfully lyrical, but grounded in reality. Curry brings the sense of time and pain to his portrayal of a great black musician hesitant to accept an honor from an organization that won't accept his full self. 

Drehmer gives a chilling performance as a teacher facing bigotry in her classroom, patiently answering questions until she almost snaps. But does she tacitly agree with the student she's addressing, or are her final words the sign of resignation and defeat? Tyus shares a few jokes she learned; it starts light, then the impact of her words and emotional sub-context reveals so much more. She's also strong in a number of group scenes, including a strangely wonderful piece about a break up with Maul and Curry that is a bit twisted, but funny. A scene with Drehmer, Maul, and Curry in a small town in Minnesota is absurd, yet totally believable, as is the wonderful short piece on "guilty pleasures," a topic on which we can all relate. One of the final pieces, about the writer and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, ends the evening on a warm and satisfying note, because we all should have heroes that look like us.

Director Bre Love shows strong insight to the material, and she's made some great choices with her actors and the pacing and flow of the show. The actors are compelling throughout, and the stories that include history and personal choices are particularly engaging and filled with dramatic tension. While several of the short scenes feel complete and finished, there are a number of stories that I would enjoy seeing expanded into a full play.

Am I Black Enough Yet?, in performance through September 18, 2016, was the first show Tesseract Theatre produced, and is getting a rare reprisal this fall. Still relevant, the entertaining show is the perfect choice to revisit as the company prepares for its next chapter, in the new .Zack Arts Incubator.  

 

  

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis kicks of its celebratory 50th season with a spectacular production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies that is filled with a perfect balance of fantasy and reality. The show tells the story of Weismann's Follies, a fictional version of a famous entertainment style that was successful from the 1920s through the pre-World War II era. The extravagant shows featured singing, dancing, and comedy as well as a bevy of beautiful would-be starlets in sparkling, revealing costumes and flamboyant headdresses. 

Follies opens at a party in the theater's backstage area in 1971, thirty years after the last show closed. Former stars, musicians, crewmembers, and their friend are gathering one last time before the old theater is raised for a parking lot. Cocktails are flowing, old friends are catching up, and old wounds and heartaches are felt afresh. As with many places we hold dear, the theater itself seems inhabited with ghosts from the past, with inspired direction by Rob Ruggiero enabling the actors to see and almost interact with their former selves.

The story focuses on two women from the 1941 and their husbands, who were close back in the day. Phyllis and Sally were roommates while members of the follies, and though Sally dated then married Buddy, and Phyllis dated then married Ben, there was always an attraction between Sally and Ben. The lingering effects of that attraction, and what it meant to each of the four participants, provide the shows dramatic tension.

Throughout the evening, however, we hear from women who starred in shows from 1918 through the late 1930s. Each woman's song reflects reignited feelings and roads chosen, and it is wonderfully satisfying to hear from the women, rather than telling the story strictly through flashbacks. From the parade of beauties near the top of the show to the interchanges between the past and present to the varied texture, knowing intonation, and wry phrasing of their singing voices, the show is rich with appreciation for the fullness of beauty at any age. Quite refreshing, yet not so new, considering Sondheim wrote the piece more than 40 years ago.

This is no way diminishes the finessed direction, choreography, and gossamer-like threads that seem to connect the past and present. Ruggiero and the ensemble are most impressive when they embrace their ghosts and, without this bridge, the spectacular fantasy-filled Loveland Follies could never be reached. I must admit to having a "Dorothy sees Oz for the first time moment" when the tattered stage turns and Loveland is revealed.

Christiane Noll and Emily Skinner are fabulous as former best friends and performers Sally and Phyllis, and the two are well-matched by Adam Heller, as Sally's husband Buddy Plummer, and Bradley Dean, as Benjamin Stone. Carol Skarimbas, Zoe Vonder Haar, Amra-Faye Wright, E. Faye Butler, Dorothy Stanley, and Nancy Opel bring wonderful texture and nuance to their roles as the other Weismann beauties, and are well supported by the rest of the cast, including Robert DuSold, Ron Himes, James Young, and Joneal Joplin as well as the ensemble representing the characters in their youth. 

Each woman has a share of the spotlight, and the numbers reflect the styles of their time on the stage. "Broadway Baby," and its medley with "Rain on the Roof" and "Ah, Paris" were descriptive and nicely woven treats. "Who's That Woman" and "I'm Still Here" ring with personality and soul, while "One More Kiss," "Could I Leave You," and "Losing My Mind," are three distinctly different heartaches. The group numbers "Beautiful Girls" and "Loveland" are filled with the pomp, circumstance, and exquisite costumes of the follies, as well as a wink and a nod to fun. 

The Rep has access to some of the best technical crew available, and they put those talents to full use in every aspect of Follies. Music supervisor Brad Haak and choreographer Ralph Perkins complement Ruggiero's outstanding direction with strong numbers and delicately interwoven choreography that emphasize the allure of memory and the tenuous nature of life and love. Amy Clark's follies costumes are spectacular, and the other pieces suit the characters and period well, reinforcing the bond between reality and fantasy much like Luke Cantarella's impressive shabby to chic set design. John Lasiter and Randy Hansen add the final touches with polished, well-integrated lighting and sound designs, respectively.

If the opening show is any indication, The Rep has certainly set high standards for their season. The cast is connected to their characters and committed to the story, the songs touch on a variety of styles, from cabaret and vaudeville to ballads and catchy pop tunes, and the technical support is excellent, ensuring the compelling Follies, running through October 2, 2016, is visually and musically stunning. 

 

 

 

R-S Theatrics current production, Love? Actually..., is most decidedly not a Broadway musical style interpretation of the popular British romantic comedy from 2003, though both shows are thoroughly entertaining. To be fair, both are also focused on the struggles present in the quest for romantic satisfaction. But where the movie is a sweet trifle filled with happily ever after and covered in sprinkles, the company's Love? Actually... takes a revealing peek into all the ways the utterly human concept of love can miss its mark. 

Director Christina Rios and musical director Leah Luciano have put together an evening of completely engaging entertainment that looks at love from the failed perspective. The production is a three-act musical, with independent but related parts, beginning with a clever five-song cabaret. The second act moves to Steven Serpa's effectively sentimental opera Thyrsis & Amaranth, and the third act brings the evening to a close with Lin-Manuel Miranda's catchy and provocative 21 Chump Street

This Love? Actually... explores the painful stories -- the missed connections, the failed chance to say I'm sorry, the fights, the breakups, the regrets, the love that goes unrequited or unspoken -- that reveal the depth of longing and commitment. Just like love itself, the audience is both surprised and intrigued by the unexpected unfolding of the first act performances. Five randomly selected patrons are invited to the stage to select the two solos, two duets, and group numbers to be performed during the cabaret from three separate bowls. The performance I attended included solos from Phil Leveling and Kelvin Urday, duets from Lindsay Gingrich and Sarajane Alverson and Urday and Natasha Toro, and an exciting group number by Miranda. 

The songs are a mix of show tunes and popular music, and I appreciated the variety as much as the interpretations. All the performances are emotionally connected, well phrased, and vocally solid, my only objection to the first act is proximity. It is difficult to see the expressions and physical interpretation of the songs when the performers are standing right on the edge of the stage, I noticed several other patrons stretching to see as well.

The second act, Thyrsis & Amaranth, is a powerfully emotional contemporary opera in English that features the spectacular and mesmerizing voices of Gingrich and Eileen Engel in the title roles. In the garden after a wedding ceremony, Gingrich longs to express her feelings for Engel while Engel fancifully imagines herself the bride and center of attention at a ceremony of her own. The two friends chat about love and, just as Gingrich is about to reveal her heart, Engel crushes her by confessing the object of her love and affection. The wedding reception dumb show continues in the background as the two women tackle a number of difficult operatic runs like seasoned pros, creating the pleasant sensation that we are eavesdropping on the most elegantly delivered tête-à-tête.

Urday shines in the third act as a high school senior with good grades and a clear path to college and a better future who gets sidetracked by his infatuation with the new girl in class. He falls for Toro's character, who just happens to be an undercover cop with an overzealous commitment to making a difference in the War on Drugs, even when it harms someone else. Toro counters Urday nicely with her vocals, and she convincingly conveys her character's passion for her cause in a way that deftly foreshadows the story's conclusion. Though a bit thin in spots, the songs and story in 21 Chump Street showcase Miranda's style, wry observational wit, and trajectory and are nicely voiced by the talented cast.

In addition to the ensemble members featured above, Kevin L. Corpuz and Omega Jones added their talents to the production but didn't get their name pulled for the cabaret, while production manager Colleen Backer entertained with a cameo appearance and humorous monologue. Taylor Pietz assisted with smart choreography that made effective use of the tight space, while Keller Ryan, Nathan Schroeder, Amy Harrison, and Mark Kelley added nice touches with the set, lighting, costume, and sound design. 

The music is the play in R-S Theatrics tasty sampler of three short acts exploring the darker angles of our unceasing infatuation with love and romance. Love? Actually... running through September 18, 2016, is perhaps the most satisfying and enjoyable musical about the downside of love you'll ever see, and definitely worth the visit to the re-opened Westport Playhouse. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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