Tony award winner Faith Price and her friend, and L.A. Drama Critics Circle award winner, Jason Graae team up to present the laugh-out-loud funny, personally reflective, and always in tune The Prince and the Showboy. The cabaret takes a fond look at life as a professional performer, with songs and stories that tell of victories and heartaches, large and small, and a tone that's genuinely appreciative of the craft. The resulting show is heartwarming and deeply personal, frequently referencing the duo's long friendship as the two share songs and stories that encompass career highs and lows. 

The show opens with an energetic medley that comically twists familiar show tunes to reference Prince and Graae. Snippets of "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Put on a Happy Face," "Tomorrow," and West Side Story's "Cool," as well as other classic musical favorites, are interspersed with humorous quips about the two performers and the business of musical theater. There's a sense of "insider" knowledge to the patter; as a newcomer, there were a few moments when I felt left out of the conversation, but they were fleeting and I quickly caught up. 

Graae and Prince then alternate with solo pieces, continuing to share personal stories and drop names, eliciting warm applause and rippling response from the crowd for every familiar mention. Both performers are talented comedians, and the timing of their remarks, double takes, and teasing jabs are consistently spot on. Graae is a tenor with a warm, full mid range and pleasing interpretations. "My Funny Valentine" was a standout number, though he showed the same quality and attention to detail throughout the evening. 

Prince is blessed with a powerful voice and expressive range, and she has perfected her craft, timing, and persona. She's opinionated and sassy when she needs to be, and at times vulnerable, fiercely funny, and authentic. Prince demonstrates expert command of her voice and her experience as an actress, changing the energy of the room with a shrug, sigh, or laugh and drawing the audience in during bittersweet moments. Her story of Elaine Stritch visiting her backstage, which segued perfectly in to "The Ladies Who Lunch," exemplified Prince's style of graciously acknowledging her influences and inspirations. She gave a soft, breathy interpretation to a song from Falsettos that felt like a hug enveloping the audience, and then made everyone miss home with the comforting "Sweet Kentucky Ham."

There's a lot more comedy than tears to this show, however. The duets between Prince and Graae are cleverly arranged, intentionally funny, and irrepressibly upbeat. Highlights from later in the show include "Bosom Buddies" and "Smile," which featured Graae on oboe, as well as playful interplay between the performers and talented pianist Alex Rybeck. Though costumes and props aren't typically called out in cabaret, Prince once again flexes her comic muscle as she wrestles with a microphone, taps on the piano, adjusts her top, or futzes with a feather boa to just the right effect.

Professional track festival participants Ari Axelrod, Paula Dione Ingram, and Gail Payne led off the evening. Each soloist entertained, presenting engaging interpretations and solid vocals with just a few missed notes, possibly a sign of nerves in front of a nearly full Sheldon Concert Hall, sprinkled in. The overall tone of the show is light and amiable, with a few tender revelations thoughtfully expressed.

Uninitiated audiences often find the art of cabaret a bit confusing to navigate, is it an intimate concert, musical theater, or variety show? Am I supposed to be following a plot and why don't I have a list of songs? As a relative novice to the art, I can sympathize with a hesitant approach, but want to encourage audiences to give cabaret a chance. This unique form of theatrical storytelling interweaves personal recollections with songs selected to emphasize a moment or point, and arranged to create a narrative arc that also complements the artist's vocal strengths.

The St. Louis Cabaret Festival, running July 19 through July 24, 2016 at various locations in the Grand Center Arts District, is an annual event that attracts national, regional, and local talent. Produced by The Cabaret Project, the festival offers a number of opportunities to experience individual, partnered, and ensemble cabaret as well as workshops and opportunities for performers to hone their skills and receive critical feedback. Arts patrons who enjoy music, storytelling, and the intimacy of small theater should consider adding the annual festival to their entertainment calendar.

 

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre sinks its teeth into the quirky musical Bat Boy, a tabloid-inspired show with a big message on love and tolerance, and it's deliciously different and entertaining. The fast-paced, energetic production tells of a mysterious half-human, half-bat boy found in a cave near a small town in West Virginia. The townsfolk are scared and frightened because he is such a different creature, and the creature is scared and frightened by the townsfolk and his unfamiliar surroundings. Throw in an insatiable appetite for blood, and you've got a humorous mix of teen drama, vampire myth, and tabloid-fueled hijinks guaranteed to entertain.

The captured boy is taken to the home of Dr. Thomas Parker, the local veterinarian, with the assumption that the good doctor will "put the creature down" and end the misery his existence causes. But, for reasons not immediately clear, the doctor can't bring himself to kill the boy, and soon he, his wife and daughter are spending their time working to educate and civilize the creature so that he can join the community. Given the name Edgar, the bright boy is soon dressing dapper and speaking with a comically proper British accent. 

He still has troubles controlling his desire for blood and resisting the urge to attack when emotionally threatened, but Edgar's sincere desire to join the community and to be accepted for who he is, is poignant and effective. Unfortunately, the town is not as accepting as the family. Tensions escalate when locals begin dying mysteriously, a fact complicated by the town's questionable decision to try to raise cattle on inhospitable land. Soon Edgar and his sister are fleeing into the cave pursued by an angry mob, Dr. Parker is behaving quite suspiciously, and Mrs. Parker is putting all the pieces together and fighting like hell to protect her family.

Corey Fraine is mesmerizing as Edgar, the Bat Boy. From his acrobatic leaps and turns across the stage to his polite Christopher Robin-esque sense of curiosity, he embraces his character and asks only to be embraced in return. Drawing from both B horror movie and comedy of manners influences, Fraine is by turns vulnerable, aggressive, and charming, and the plaintive tone of his voice is effectively tender in a number of songs.

Angela Bubash and Dawn Schmid are by turns effervescent, coy and stubborn as daughter Shelley and mom Meredith Parker, with strong voices that add richness to the numbers. Patrick Kelly is a jealous, villainous dad, with a squeaky clean exterior and desperate love. The supporting cast has the appropriate vocal and comic chops to create distinct, entertaining characters, and Colin Dowd, Tim Kaniecki, Michael A. Wells, Lindsay Jones, and Sara Rae Womack are memorable in several scenes.

Though inspired by an over-the-top piece of tabloid journalism, Bat Boy The Musical speaks to contemporary themes and problems we face in society today.. Using a clever script that mixes references to Frankenstein and vampire mythology with nods to My Fair Lady and countless makeover romantic comedies and pop culture humor, the show encourages us to be more understanding, and to seek commonalities among those who stand out from the crowd, no matter why. Director Justin Been directs the show using as much of the theater space as possible, adding surprising moments while maintaining a focus on the story. Robert J. Lippert sets the tone with a massive cave-like set that features the band on a raised level, and is complemented by Tyler Duenow's lighting design. Strong arrangements by music director Chris Petersen keep the focus on the theme, while Mike Hodges'  choreography takes advantage of every corner of the stage with humorously effective dances that understand the size and scope of the venue.

There's a real message about tolerance and understanding at the heart of Bat Boy: The Musical, running through August 20, 2016 at Stray Dog Theatre, perhaps the catchy songs, warm humor, good-natured excess, and inspired performances of this tabloid-take on the theme will help the message sink in. I would like to think it's a show and message Jay V. Hall would enthusiastically support, I both missed and felt his smile and presence throughout the entire performance.

 

 

 

 

 

A long time ago, when the pharaohs ruled Egypt and their armies were exploring and annexing every nation they could conquer, a renowned captain unknowingly captures a Nubian princess. Surprised by her quick wit and strength, and beguiled by her beauty, he spares her life and the lives of the women and children captured with her. Soon they fall for each other, creating a love triangle with tragic consequences. The fictionalized romance is filled with lessons on love, betrayal, and leadership, delivered in a fantasy-like setting and filled with pop rock sensibilities.

The ill-fated love between Aida and Radames is brought to life in the MUNY's ephemeral production that is at times languid, but always filled with tension. Aida is set in ancient Egypt, but the dream-like opening and suggestive set clearly establish that this story is a fantasy. 

Stars Michelle Williams, as Aida, and Zak Resnick, as Radames, are engaging as the ill-fated lovers. Resnick is confident and self-assured, though most appealing when he shows vulnerability. Williams is particularly effective when she reclaims her pride and purpose as daughter to the king of Nubia, a naturally powerful cameo by Ken Page. But it is Taylor Louderman who commands the stage, embracing her role as Amneris, the pharaoh's daughter and successor, as well as Radames betrothed. 

Each character is individually sympathetic, and the chemistry between the three leads is convincing. It is easy to see that Radames loves both women, and the respect and mutual admiration between Aida and Amneris is as infectious as their laughter and as deep as their battle. The storytelling is fabulous, driven by the action and punctuated by the songs.

The ensemble capably handles the vision and the songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice, as well as courtly intrigue and the inevitable tragedy. Director Matt Lenz shows clear purpose and a good understanding of the story's emotional levels, though the pacing could be pushed. The musical is moving and the story engrossing, but there are moments when more intensity and a deeper emotional connection between the actors would really amp up the show's power.

After the provocatively moody opening number, Louderman's character turns perky and self-absorbed. As the events unfold and her own storybook romance falls apart, she gains wisdom and maturity. As importantly, the actress channels her emotions well, filling the large stage with expression and using her impressive range to good effect.  The romance between Aida and Resnick is heartfelt, though played a bit too intimately for the large stage at times. However, Williams is often radiant, and undeniably regal in her posture and movements. These qualities played well to the audience, particularly when supported with the vocal prowess Williams naturally possesses. 

The songs are drenched with Elton John's lyrical styling and easy melodies, and the cast handles the challenges and opportunities well, though a few of the ballads would benefit from more passionate interpretations. Louderman opens the show finding heartbreaking nuances in "Every Story Is a Love Story," then Williams turns up the volume and energy with "Dance of the Robe," while Resnick, Patrick Cassidy, and Wonza Johnson stand out in several supporting numbers. Cassidy and Lara Teeter, as the ailing pharaoh, present an interesting subplot and Cassidy's villainous ambition is delightfully comic. But this is the lady's show, and William and Louderman play off each other fabulously, as admiring friends and as adversaries in love and war.  

Music director Andrew Graham does a nice job with the arrangements, while Jon Rua's choreography is filled with Egyptian and African influenced numbers, which the ensemble capably handles under dance captain Brianna Mercado. The scenic and lighting design, by Tim Mackabee and Nathan W. Scheuer, successfully captures the dream-like atmosphere of an ancient land and is complemented by sound design from John Shivers and David Partridge. Personally, I found the costumes, by Robin L. McGee, to be a less successful element of the show. I understand this is a rock fantasy interpretation, but would have preferred to see the textures, colors, and style consistently reflect the land and era in which the story was set. 

Aida, the closing show of the MUNY's 98th season, running through August 14, 2016, transports audiences back in time to the mysterious, glory days of the pharaohs, then tells a classic love story with a perspective we've seldom heard. The result is captivating, if not always inspiring, with the interplay between Williams, Resnick, and Louderman a multi-layered and intriguing highlight. 

 

 

 

 

 

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is not an easy play to interpret or produce. First, a company must overcome the fact that the play is required reading in almost every U.S. high school program, and often assigned again in college. Secondly, Shakespeare's lengthy examination of character and ambition is cloaked in layers of mythology, war, and politics. 

As an audience, we collectively know the story arc before we arrive to the theater: Caesar is brutally murdered at the Senate by members of his inner circle on the Ides of March. They are led by Cassius, a jealous army commander who convinces the loyal Brutus to take his side. Eventually, the noble hero Marc Antony revenges Caesar's death, and young Octavius Caesar ascends to the leadership of Rome. This is not the first St. Louis Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar, however, and the company and director Tom Kopp have learned a lesson or two from previous shows.

The tone of the company's current production is more personal and intimate than any other production I've seen, with a politically astute sensibility and layers of symbolism. There's less focus on the battle scenes and more emphasis placed on the characters, their relationships and flawed decisions. A few scenes languish under this approach, while others lack requisite intensity, and the second act is always problematically wordy, but the overall production is nonetheless captivating and the actors turn in strong performances that kept me interested and involved to the final curtain.

Ben Ritchie is honest to the point of recklessness as the Brutus, the wise general who the fatal habit of believing all men to speak the truth even when in pursuit of greater ambition. Ritchie fully commits to the character's intellectual and personal honesty, throwing sympathetic light with a thoughtful, measured portrayal. Brutus may be a good man to have in court or on the battlefield, but his fundamental inability to judge character is a fatal flaw and Ritchie's realization of such, near the end of the second act, is a lesson in controlled devastation and stoic response. 

In his best role to date, Max Knocke turns in a slithering performance as the manipulative Cassius, and it's a pleasure to see the impressive growth he's had over the past year. I encourage him to continue to find levels and emotional connection, but his Cassius was filled with clear motivation and wonderfully sinister expression. Brennan Eller is stoic and forthright as Marc Antony, though I would have like to see even more anger at key moments, while Tim Callahan is vanity itself, from his flashy rings and brightly colored clothing he to his appropriately over coiffed wig and dismissive flicks of his hand.

Annalise Webb, Bridgette Bassa, Michael Pierce, Josh Saboorizadeh, and Jake Blonstein are memorable in supporting roles and the ensemble comports itself well, ensuring the essential story is conveyed with clarity and purpose. Webb and Bassa are impassioned as they try to protect their husbands from a fate it seems only they and Saboorizadeh's soothsayer can clearly see, and Pierce and Blonstein are engaging as young Octavius and Brutus' faithful servant Lucius. Chuck Brinkley, Eric Kuhn, Erik Woods, Ted Drury, DJ Ludwig, Lucas Howard Reilly, Joshua Parrack, Abby Lampe, and Kaitlynn Ferris capably fill out the large cast, displaying clear purpose and loyalties in multiple roles.

But this is really the story of one man's tragic flaw. It is Brutus who let's Cassius convince him Caesar is too ambitious and must be killed for the good of Rome. It is Brutus alone who spares Marc Antony's life and allows him to speak to the Romans. And, finally, it is Brutus who too late realizes his mistakes and the price Rome will pay.

The company makes good use of the Ivory Theater stage, and Chuck Winning's set is filled with Roman columns and multiple levels. I enjoyed the restraint showed with the fight choreography, by Kuhn, which kept the focus on the more subtle but important battles of will and personality that give this show its spark. The costumes were a somewhat mixed bag, as I found the contemporary sandals and belts a bit distracting, but genuinely appreciated both the overall roman style and that only Caesar and Calpurnia wore robes saturated with richly dyed color.

This being a political year, I enjoyed the subtle gamesmanship and symbolism. Julius Caesar, running through August 14, 2016 at St. Louis Shakespeare, is a tangled knot of ambition, power, and persuasion in which the cooler head fails to prevail. Tom Kopp's pointed direction seems intended to convey a cautionary tell, and the actors embrace the choice, adding layers of meaning and insinuation to Shakespeare's already dense play. Though the pacing lags at times, the resulting show is quite enjoyable with astute observations that easily extend to our current political climate.

 

 

 

 

The first act of Fiddler on the Roof draws to a close just as dusk turns to night. The traditional chuppah over the bride and groom, the rustically simple but effective set, and the lighting design bouncing off the trees, create a scene from a post-card picture wedding. And, then, the near-celestial harmonies of "Sunrise, Sunset" slowly roll over the audience like a light breeze, wrapping the crowd in a reverent silence. It's moments like this, when theater and environment coalesce with perfect timing, into which indelible memories are carved.

Fiddler on the Roof is the much-loved tale of the humble and reverent dairyman Tevye, his wife, and daughters. A poor but respected family in the small Jewish town of Anatevka; they are concerned by the Russian soldiers' occupation of the village, struggling to survive, and faithful to the core. Michael McCormick is vivacious and spirited as Tevye. He's perfectly balanced by both the lithe and musical Andrew Crowe, as the fiddler, and the earthy and nurturing Anne L. Nathan as his wife, Golde.

McCormick and Nathan have voices that complement each other well, with a similar everyman quality, while daughters Haley Bond, as Tzeitel, Briana Carlson-Goodman, as Hodel, and Carly Blake Sebouhian, as Chava, stand out for superior tone and range. Their voices couple well with Alan Schmuckler, as Motel, Marrick Smith as Perchik, and Colby Dezelick as Fyedka. Nancy Opel is chatty and gregarious as Yente, Peter Wagner is gruff but reasonable as Lazar Wolf, and Jerry Vogel and Jeremy Lawrence, as Mordcha and the Rabbi, respectively, have several comic moments that add to the sense of close kinship that inhabits the show.

At its heart, Fiddler on the Roof, book by Josef Stein with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is a story about faith, family, and community. There's an imperfect honesty to the characters and the lives they lead, and the show is refreshingly clear sighted in approach and emotional context. Tevye's conflict, watching him argue and balance his adherence to the traditions of faith with his love for his daughters and learning, is central to the story. McCormick is fluid and compelling as the patriarch, and his affection for the role radiant. As the fiddler, Crowe is mesmerizing, with a beguiling almost daring attitude.

The capable ensemble is a pleasing mix of singers and dancers who skillfully mirror the emotional shifts of the show. Emma Resek and Elise Edwards are adorable as youngest sisters Shprintze and Bielke. Zoe Vonder Haar, Zachary Daniel Jones, Ben Lanham, April Strelinger and Taylor Elizabeth Pietz, making her MUNY debut, are among the local favorites in the ensemble. Strelinger and Polly Butler Cornelius have nice solo moments in the gossip song, and Pietz's soprano is a distinct and pure touch among the Villager harmonies.

Dance captain Michael Biren effortlessly leads the ensemble through Alex Sanchez's elevated traditional dance, which references ballet and modern techniques. "To Life," featuring the Russian dancers, and "The Wedding," including the bottle dance, are crowd-pleasing standouts.

In an unexpected and refreshing twist, the orchestra, under the direction of Brad Haak, is seated at the rear of the stage. In addition to providing an unexpected visual addition, the placement affords a number of interactions that subtly add to the sense of an established, interdependent community. This touch, along with Amy Clark's costumes and John Metzner's wigs, as well as the aforementioned lighting, by Rob Denton, and sound, by John Shivers and David Partridge, add texture and an environment that shades the musical in a natural, warm palette.

All the favorite numbers from the original show receive rich renditions, kicked off by the fiddler's haunting melody. "Tradition," "If I were a Rich Man," and the humorous "Tevye's Dream" get lively rousing interpretations. While "Do You Love Me," and "Far from the Home I Love" benefit from a plaintive, poignant touch and personal inflection. The new piece, "Any Day Now," feels a bit long, because it's not familiar, but fits in and adds to the show, providing a glimpse into the love between Hodel and Perchik that motivates her leaving her home. The simple and effective "Chavaleh," is a surprising revelation, at least for me. The song is bittersweet and the accompanying modern dance influenced choreography poetic.

The theme and setting of this musical are not conducive to a happy story, but it is heartfelt and reassuring, ensuring it's suitable for the whole family. Though the family and village face challenges, and must grapple with the meaning of the political changes around them, the story retains a sense of optimism. During times of uncertainty and fear certain traditions endure, celebrating the resilience of faith and the human spirit. With a spectacular setting, and clear, focused direction by Gary Griffin, it is easy to understand why Fiddler on the Roof, running through August 5, 2015 at the MUNY in Forest Park, has taken a place among America's enduring musical classics.

 

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