Stray Dog Theatre treats audiences to a new version of one of its favorite previous productions, the coming-of-age musical Spring Awakening, by Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik. The book is an adaptation of a German play by Frank Wedekind that warns of the tragic consequences of raising children in ignorance and an adherence to strict religious doctrine. Naturally, the authoritarian approach doesn't allow room for questions or curiosity. The problem, of course, is that humans are naturally curious and full of questions, and teenagers particularly so. Then their hormones kick in.

The company turns out a marvelous production of the musical, adding in a few new twists that work to keep the show fresh while underscoring the relevance, or perhaps prevalence, of the themes in contemporary America. Justin Been directs this smart interpretation with a sure hand, Sam Gaitsch provides engaging, equally fresh choreography, and the cast is uniformly compelling, vocally and in character. The parts come together so well, and the little twists and variations are quite effective, helping the show hit home and its themes linger.

Allison Arana shines as Wendla, innocent and uncertain but with a bold spirit and genuine, pleasing voice. She is convincingly unaware of the changes happening to her body and, though she pleads to know more, her mother seems content to keep her in that state. 

Arana moves with an uneasy grace, her posture and expressions underscoring conflict and new sensations. Riley Dunn counters her as the more worldly and philosophically curious Melchior. All intellectual rebellion and eager energy, he's a natural leader with a mind that challenges the status quo. Dunn walks with a sure and confident stride through the majority of the play, making the moments when he recoils in horror at his feelings, particularly an overwhelming sense of rage and power, all the more effective.

Stephen Henley, Dawn Schmid, and Brigid Buckley are sympathetic and heartbreaking as Moritz, Ilse, and Martha; their truths are painfully real and poignantly expressed. Jackson Buhr and Luke Steingruby ensure the story of their love is touching, with a slow, shy burn that builds in intensity as the teens explore newfound feelings. All the pairings and longings have that same intensity of youth, an urge for exploration and touch that's wonderfully expressed through Been's directorial choices and the ensemble's commitment to storytelling.

Jan Niehoff and Ben Ritchie are by turns comic and cruel as the Adult Woman and Adult Man, and each transitions fluidly between characters. The schoolmaster and headmistress are stern, rigid creatures of habit, and quite comfortable quashing young spirits. The parental figures range from sympathetic to monstrous to the right measure, ensuring the focus stays on the teenagers' stories. Angela Bubash, Kevin Corpuz, Tristan Davis, Annie Heartney, and Jacob Schalk complete the ensemble. There are several instances when some of the ensemble overact and need to pull back their performance to match the pace and emotional intensity of the moment. This includes a few scenes when they distract from the story, but the cast is generally well synchronized and connected with the story and each other. 

Robert M. Kapeller's scenic design evokes the feeling of the town with rough hewn boards and wooden chairs that simply but effectively indicate location as well as adding to the rhythm and choreography during several the songs. A single, gorgeous old tree, to which the piano seems connected, adds the suggestion of nature, representing both a place of sanctuary and unknown danger. 

Music director Jennifer Buchheit and the band are scattered along the perimeter of the set, and the piano is used quite effectively, and with seamless switchovers, by the cast and the band. Buchheit directs the score with restraint, finding more levels and effectively employing layering to create a rich tone. The emotional arc of the story is complemented with thoughtful musical interpretations that direct focus to the story context and still allow the exuberance of youth to burst forth, when appropriate. Been and choreographer Gaitsch also make good use of the theater space, with entrances, exits, and several dance sequences moving among the seated patrons. The moves set up the final song well, and while some purists will likely scoff at the shift from past to present, it feels natural and organic in context with the continuing relevance of the material.

As usual, the company takes some risks, and not everyone likes the approach. As an audience member who sees theater frequently, I appreciate the curious and adventurous nature of the company and enjoy the exploration quite a bit. The choices remain true to the story and demeanor of the original, but allow the musical to grow in a way that feels organic and well grounded.

With a substantially new cast and a fresh and inspired approach to key moments, the company once again captures our interest and applause. Director Been, the band, and cast are completely aligned and the pleasing show finds new levels of emotion and expression. Though still beating with a raw and authentic heart, Stray Dog Theatre's production of Spring Awakening, running through October 21, is much more than a revival of a previous success.

 

Twenty-four centuries ago Aristophanes won second place in the Dionysian festival with his comedy, The Birds. The University of Missouri, St. Louis, has revived this old classic in a brand new adaptation by Jamie McKittrick, who also directs this production.

The Greek classics are difficult to render meaningful to modern audiences. The comedies in particular are so full of topical references, political jabs, and pokes at regional (or personal) rivals that today much of the dialogue leaves us in a daze.

In The Birds two middle-aged friends, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, are so frustrated with the trials of life in Athens that they decide to go and live with the birds. In fact, they persuade the birds to build a great city in the air -- Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. There, between the earth and the heavens, the birds will be able to blockade Olympus and prevent earthly prayers from reaching the gods. Thus the gods will be starved into submission, and the birds will reign supreme.

Jamie McKittrick has done yeoman's work to modernize the piece. She has given the characters more accessible names: "Pisthetaerus" becomes "Ty"; "Euelpides" becomes "Yulie"; "Tereus" becomes "Terry." (Tereus had been transformed from a king into a bird because of his sins.)

She makes the production awash in music -- we are treated to almost every pop song in fifty years having a lyric pertaining to birds or chickens or flight. There is some rap. There is much percussion, there is much choral dance. There are appearances by the gods: Iris (the rainbow), Poseidon, and an odd unnamed god of the Triballians. There's a demigod (Heracles) and a titan (Prometheus). A veritable all-star show!

There are fantastic, comic bird puppet/costumes by Felia Davenport. We see a quite goofy peacock, flamingo, chicken and a flock of seagulls -- as well as a jackdaw, crow and a hoopoe. In the original play Tereus, as king of the birds, is nearly naked of feathers due to "severe molting"; Here Terry appears in a bird mask and a bodysuit with common white underpants. 

The set, by Cameron Tesson is spacious and beautiful. The Des Lee Theatre is set up as an "alley stage," where the audience sits on two sides with the acting space in between. Tesson's set is simple, with varied levels of platform -- all in a lovely speckled blue-green with light blue border lines. Stylized trees decorate one end. Stairs lead to a set balcony at one end, and at the other both levels of the architectural balconies are used for scenes involving the gods. It's altogether lovely. Bess Moynihan ably provides excellent lighting to all of these various acting areas.

Cassidy Flynn leads the cast with illimitable energy as Ty. He briskly scampers about the stage. Moreover he sings with considerable ability. One other outstanding singer is Joshua Mayfield as the Peacock. Dre Williams gives us a very strong Terry, though he's burdened with a great beak that masks his nose and mouth -- not a good thing to impose on an actor/singer. Yulie is given a "beak-on-a-stick," like a lorgnette or a masquerade mask. This is a much less encumbering treatment. Dylan Houston is an attractive Yulie, but occasionally rushes his lines; this, with some less-than-perfect diction makes it hard for us to follow just what's happening. Mona Sabau makes a graceful poet in smock, beret and French accent. She also appears as Iris at an upper balcony and lets fall a great beautiful flow of rainbow-colored fabric. In the chorus Kyle Mertens, playing a chicken, is lithe and agile as a cat.

So there is much to charm our eyes in this production, but it lacks two things to make it appealing to a modern audience, accustomed as we are to modern musical comedy:

  1. A coherent story line. This production is fairly true to the structure of Aristophanes' play--the characters, the basic incidents, the intrusion of unwanted visitors, the interludes of choral dance and song. But the adaptation fails to make this a modern piece of theater. There's a sense of scatter-shot events. The bird city is built and in the end the gods submit to Ty's demands, but in between there's just a lot of arbitrary action. Just what is Prometheus doing in this story? And the Poet? And the Inspector? And Iris? And that Triballian god?
  2. Considerably more attention should have been paid to the song and dance. The dances were rather elaborately staged, but there seemed to be no trained dancers in the cast. Similarly much of the "song" was merely lines chanted in time with the music.

The entire cast is energetically committed to the performance. I am grateful to UMSL and to adapter/director Jamie McKittrick for undertaking this project. I had never seen The Birds staged and I was eager to do so. But perhaps it just isn't viable today.

It played at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, October 12 -15.

 

 

 

New Line Theatre takes a boisterous swing at the legend of Lizzie Borden with Lizzie, a rock 'n' roll musical that's one part horror story, one part rock opera, and all riot grrrl fury. The all-female cast attacks the concept with zeal and the result is hard rocking storytelling that grabs you by the collar and doesn't let go until the final chord.

The story explores the murder of the well-to-do Borden patriarch and his second wife, Lizzie and her sister Emma's stepmother. The two were brutally attacked and killed in their own house one day and daughter Lizzie was eventually arrested, charged, and put on trial. A lack of evidence, contradictory stories, and sheer disbelief that a woman could commit such a vicious crime, coupled with Lizzie's ability to hire the best defense lawyers money could buy, contributed to her eventual acquittal.

Lizzie, filled with rage, rhythm, and sexuality, presumes that Lizzie, after strong insinuation from her sister Emma, committed the murders. The show lets the story unfold in bits and pieces that not only infer Lizzie's guilt, but her motivations.  Several scenes suggest the stepmother was greedy and plotting to disinherit the sisters. Songs reveal their father's incestuous fondness for his daughters. All the songs, like the story itself, are filled with a tension and uncertainty that is as hard hitting as the punk influenced melodies.

With a voice that easily turns from three-chord anger to the complex, multi-octave demands of a rock opera, Anna Skidis Vargas completely mesmerizes as Lizzie Borden. She moves fluidly between a showman, preening and growling like Freddy Mercury, to the gender-challenging virtuosity of the Wilson sisters and operatic range of Pat Benatar. All with the energy, disdain, and DIY FU attitude of early punk bands like The Runaways, Sex Pistols, and The Clash. Though the score offers the opportunity, the performance is all the work of Skidis Vargas and director Mike Dowdy-Windsor; the two truly bring this character to her peak. Skidis Vargas fills Lizzie with passion and dares us to join her in her rage. 

Marcy Wiegert, Larissa White, and Kimi Short are bold, commanding, and seething with repressed longings of their own. As big sister Emma, Wiegert is the perfect partner-in-crime. With flashing glances and vocal licks, Wiegert turns curse words into meaningful lyrics, bringing dark edges and frightening thoughts to light with a conspiratorial sneer. Short adds a touch of bluesy rock that reverberates from her core, as well as expressions that artfully emphasize the discomfort the audience sometimes feels. The details of the crime and family history are simply unpleasant, Short acknowledges that, as does White. As neighbor and suggestively close friend Alice, White teases and entices, sometimes genuine, sometimes calculating, without missing a note. She shows genuine pain as clearly as her need for self-preservation.

Together the four women fill the theater with their story in a way that simply demands to be heard. Dowdy-Windsor directs with attention to detail and purposeful clarity towards the emotional and contextual story. The lack of a listed choreographer is interesting. There are moments that could benefit from more structure, but the free spirited approach succeeds more often than not. Important scenes are accompanied by almost uncontrolled dance and well-controlled vocal gymnastics that heighten the tension and are quite satisfying.

The book and music, by the creative team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, are decidedly modern and the show borrows liberally from both Broadway and rock 'n' roll. Concert like numbers are interspersed with short, meaningful scenes, revealing exposition, and aching ballads. Though the music is often loud, hard, and fast, it never overpowers or distracts, and does much to guide the show's deeply emotional tone. Musical director Sarah Nelson and the New Line Band add the perfect touch here, enhancing the more rebellious, angry influences.

Rob Lippert's set supports the Borden story and period, using varying levels and his lighting design to provide rock show ambience. The transitions are seamless, enhanced by character changes and emotional shifts that feel equally effortless. Sarah Porter's costumes are the perfect finishing touch, expertly marrying periods by capturing the gothic and Victorian details prevalent in punk and modern rock genres. The choice of pink to contrast the mostly black costumes is brilliantly feminine and fierce, emphasizing the sense of empowerment that is the sub-context of the story.

And the story is compelling. Questions about Lizzie Borden's guilt or innocence continue to fascinate the public. This version includes more cursing and sexuality than many, with material sourced from the available information, but is otherwise familiar. Countless dramas and "whodunit" shows have featured Borden's story. The musical gives it a life of its own, with a clearly modern and bold, unrepentantly murderous, perspective. 

Theatergoers who enjoy a driving beat, insistent melodies, and powerful vocals will find the show easy to embrace and a lot of fun to experience. From the haunting opening notes to the final anthemic rendition of "40 Whacks," New Line Theatre's Lizzie, in performance through October 21, grabs your attention and compels you to listen. 

 

 

From Shakespeare's sulking Dane to Next to Normal's frantic mom to evil spirits that go bump in the night, just about every mood and emotion is covered in this week's KDHX In Performance feature. There's even a free reading of the powerful Keely & Du this evening on The Stage! at KDHX. As you're making your plans, remember to visit the KDHX Calendar for a list of all the arts and events happening around town. 

Local audiences get another chance to see the quirky and deeply effective Next to Normal when Take Two Productions presents its interpretation of the popular musical. The contemporary story effectively explores how a typical suburban family copes with the ups, downs, and crises of living with someone suffering from mental illness and features Stephanie Merritt, Jonathan Hey, Leah Loran Koclanes, and Gabriel Beckerle. Directed by local playwright, actor, and director Stephen Peirick, the show "really tries to take the audience into the family member's minds and emotions, presenting their family's story with love, sympathy and heart." 

Peirick was drawn to the play for its relevance and important message. "At the 2017 Video Music Awards, rapper Logic, with Alessia Cara and Khalid, sang his song entitled 1-800-273-8255, which just happens to be the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. At the end of his performance, he commented that the mainstream media doesn't want to talk about 'mental health, anxiety, suicide, depression...' While theatre may not be 'mainstream media,' it's not afraid to tackle these topics." Next to Normal, in performance through October 21, is raw and realistic at times, but never without heart or a caring. Even in its darkest moments, there's a thin ray of light and a hopeful perspective lurking.

On Thursday, October 12, Solid Lines Productions open their season with a free reading of Keely & Du, an painfully honest show that looks at violence against women with a deft touch, presenting a believable situation and authentic dialogue that acknowledges the difficulty people often have with the subject matter. Director Susan Kopp initially presented the play to the company and is honored to be guiding the talented and dedicated cast through the reading. "I proposed the play to Solid Lines because I know many women felt violated last year by the election of a president who did not seem to respect them," she explains. "Many women, including myself, became concerned that the right to their own bodies would be threatened once again."

The story of Keely, a woman who becomes pregnant through an act of rape and is kidnapped and held to ensure her pregnancy is not terminated, is not suitable for all audiences. Frankly, the subject matter is likely quite upsetting and difficult to watch for some. The story is deeply personal, with conflicting views and realistic responses. The performance at The Stage! at KDHX begins at 7:30 pm, and the audience is invited to participate in a talk back session immediately following the show. Through its season, Solid Lines is hoping to create conversations that cover important topics and address related questions in a respectful environment, encouraging discussion and compassion among varying perspectives and views.

If you're ready for murderous stories and haunting tales, you'll want to catch the Repertory Theater of St. Louis' first ever production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, running through November 5. Arguably one of the Bard's greatest plays, the dark story tells of lust, murder, and revenge among Danish royalty. Young Prince Hamlet teeters on the edge of madness in reaction to his father's unexpected death and his mother's quick marriage to his uncle. Spurred on by the accusations of his father's ghost, he takes a tragic, often erratic, path through grieving and vengeance. Filled with complex characters, profound soliloquies, and clashing swordplay delivered through an unforgettable script, the Rep amps up the drama with excellent stagecraft, technical design, and effects. 

If you're ready to get into the Halloween spirit in a bold but comic way, you'll want to put Emery Entertainment's production of Evil Dead the Musical, running through October 22 at the Grandel Theater, on your To Do! list. The fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek musical, based on the popular movie franchise, delivers all the cheesy puns and blood-spattered mess of the films. The cult classic about five college friends trapped in an abandoned cabin in the woods after accidentally unleashing an evil force is set to catchy melodies and toe-tapping rhythms you can really dance to. The result is a gory good time for fans of horror, comedy, and musicals. 

Continuing this weekend: 

Stray Dog Theatre presents Spring Awakening, a bold coming of age tale set among a deeply private religious community. Directed by Justin Been, and delivered with a rebellious rock and roll score, the story follows a group of friends through the trials of adolescence. The musical, running through October 21, features adult themes and subject matter and is intended for mature audiences. 

Upstream Theater presents Sweet Revenge, a sympathetic satire in performance through October 22 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Considered the "finest Polish comedy ever written," the story, directed by Philip Boehm, is told from the perspective of an amateur St. Louis Polish immigrant theater troupe in the 1930s. 

Tuesdays with Morrie is an adaptation of Mitch Albom's memoir about reconnecting with his professor, mentor and friend and saying goodbye. What begins as a one-off visit turns into weekly lessons on life in the New Jewish Theatre's production of the heartwarming story continuing through October 22. 

St. Louis Shakespeare shakes things up a bit with the introduction of a new work to the Bard's canon: Cardenio: Shakespeare's Lost Play. Based on an episode involving a supporting character in Cervantes' Don Quixote, the dramedy, running through October 15, 2017, is a re-imagination by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

New Line Theatre amps up the gothic rage with the St. Louis premier of Lizzie, a rock opera running through October 21 that's loud, rude, and a bit nasty. The show is blistering and powerful, filled with a punk rock ethos and riot grrrl rage as well as an outstanding cast featuring Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Larissa White, and Marcy Ann Wiegert. 

 

The West End Player's Guild opens their 107th season with Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods. The deceptively straightforward play, which premiered in 1988, introduces audiences to Andrey Bottvinnik, a Russian negotiator, and his newly appointed American counterpart, John Honeyman. The two men meet in Geneva, Switzerland over many months in an attempt to come to terms on a nuclear arms treaty that each will then present to their government's leadership. The story unfolds in a woody area where the two men walk, talk, and take refuge from the press.

The two bicker over matters large and small as they work to craft an agreement in a process layered with bureaucracy and stubborn tradition. The intentionally measured pace of the show reminds us of the high stakes behind the gamesmanship, the purposeful manipulation and political maneuvering. The setting in the woods reminds us of the essential humanity of Bottvinnik and Honeyman. They may work for opposing governments, but they are simply two men facing the Herculean task of preventing global nuclear obliteration. 

Tom Moore, and Tim Naegelin are well cast and each man comports himself with appropriate gravitas in his role. Moore's Bottvinnik is slight, impeccably dressed, and a bit weary after years spent repeating the same process with little forward progress. He expresses himself in big ideas and small, particular movements, and has a humorous fondness for quality. Naegelin's Honeyman is new to the position and eager to prove himself despite his lack of experience. He is serious and on task, determined to succeed where others have failed, and it's surprising when he's finally pressed to the point of losing his patience. His posture is upright, often stiff, and he often looks like he'd rather be somewhere else, somewhere more industrious. Bottvinnik is less interested in hammering out details, his familiarity with the process providing him the benefit of knowing the likely outcome before his first meeting with Honeyman.

Director Renee Sevier-Monsey guides the show with purpose and clear intention, and the actors turn in strong performances. Jacob Winslow's set is gorgeous, transforming the basement theater into a secluded wooded spot not too far, but away from the fluorescent lights, negotiating tables, and reporters. The setting suits the conversational, character driven nature of the script and is complemented by the simple but effective light and sound design. I do wish that the costumer or stage manager would give Honeyman a handkerchief of some sort, as the lights and his layered costume add to the warmth in the room causing a bit of sweat at times.

The problem with the show is that it's almost too personal, and too real. The reality of the situation, the tedious back-and-forth that never ends, belies the serious nature of the work. The men eventually soften and lose some of their initial formality, but they don't fundamentally change. It becomes easy for audience members to tune out for a bit -- perhaps missing some well-crafted and subtly pointed dialogue that should spur us to demand action. Bottvinnik may be too comfortable with a sword hanging over his head; Honeyman may be too focused on the sword. There's tension here, but without any urgency the story languishes, has nowhere to go. That of course, may be the point.

A show this cerebral, focused on the intricate workings of government, is almost too easy to overlook. There's a lovely back and forth to the conversation that belies the serious nature of the men's task, and while traditional dramatic action is scarce, it is impossible to forget that these two men are working to prevent the destruction of our planet. A Walk in the Woods, running through October 8, ultimately proves worthy of our attention, though it struggles at times to hold it. The West End Players' Guild production focuses on character while dramatizing serious commentary on nuclear proliferation and war. In today's political climate, the script seems disturbingly prescient and timely, with relevant themes and sharply pointed dialogue that could be lifted from the headlines. 

 

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