Seussical, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, opened on Broadway in 2000 and is now a favorite for family-centered community theatres like Over Due Theatre Company. This company is about family in every way, from its space at a community center to the little boy and his dad taking your tickets at the door. This is the idyllic theatre experience I imagine took place in rural communities in the '50s, and it's now happening 20 minutes from St. Louis. I took my 8- and 5-year-olds with me, and we mingled with children in costumes in the hall outside the theatre doors during intermission and giggled with grandmothers in the front row holding flowers to give their little dancers at curtain call.

The show encapsulates many well-known Seuss stories into one magical plot upheld by toe-tapping music. During Over Due's version, one blonde teenager struggled to hold her laughter in during half of the show, but otherwise the actors, even the tiny ones, were charming in their roles. Aside from a few choral issues at the beginning of Act II, the music was good and I was impressed with band's professional sound.

In particular, Brittany Kohl Hester delivered an impressive performance as Gertrude McFuzz, a bird with a one-feathered tail and a soft spot in her heart for elephants. Tristan Johnson did a lovable turn as the object of her affection, Horton the Elephant. My five-year-old, however, was most entranced with Robert M. Hanson's portrayal of the Cat in the Hat, guffawing loudly at Hanson's every move and most likely providing the actor with his daily dose of a self-esteem boost. None of that laughter, however, happened before Kevin Hester took the stage as General Gengus Khan Schmitz, a parody from Seuss's Butter Battle book. Hester's physical comedy broke the audience's sense of propriety and let us relax and begin to enjoy the show.

On the technical side, the costumes were the highlight of the show. The enormous cast all complemented one another, the story, the set, and Seuss's legacy of colorful illustrations. Interestingly, Kohl Hester also served as costume designer. The show did have a problem that I couldn't overlook: every theatre, community theatre or not, should be able to properly use their mics. I would rather hear a show with unaided voices over solo piano than a show with an excellent band but singers who come in and out over the speakers. The audience also had to listen to the backstage conversations of the cast many times over the run of the show because of mic misuse. This was a shame because their fellow actors were in the spotlight, performing their art, attempting to move our hearts through Seuss's stories, and those performances were lost among the amplified whisperings.

Despite this glitch, which I assume will fixed by next weekend, the show was worth the short drive to Olivette because the kids haven't stopped talking about it or singing the songs since. My children, who are currently in a Power Rangers phase and therefore usually watch high-octane action, barely breathed during the 2½ hour run, their eyes glued to the stage. Little Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Grinch and Max, Cindy Lou Who, and many other beloved childhood characters are brought to life by a troop of actors who are clearly love their craft and have a strong sense of togetherness on stage. They seem like a big, diverse family up there under the lights, doing what they love, together. They had fun, so the kids in the audience also had a great time.

Over Due Theatre Company'sSeussical, directed by Wayne A. Mackenberg, is playing again this weekend, August 5-7 at Olivette's Community Center. 

 

If you're at all interested in seeing a musical theatre production with what I think is absolutely perfect casting, you need to make a beeline to Stages St. Louis's current production of The Drowsy Chaperone. I've seen so many theatre productions in which at least one character was cast with an actor that made me think, "What was that Director thinking!?" Unfortunately, that question was asked by me during the first production from Stages this year, It Shoulda Been You, but not during Drowsy. This was my first Drowsy, and I haven't smiled so much at production or felt I was seeing an almost perfect show for quite some time. As a Stages 30th Anniversary return of this Tony-Award-Winning show from a previous outing in 2009, it literally hits all the right notes.

Director Michael Hamilton (whom I'm assuming had casting authority) was spot-on populating this production of a musical within an LP of a musical. The Man in Chair, actor David Schmittou, (miscast, I think, in Shoulda) was the Man in Chair. He inhabited the role like a comfortable pair of favorite slippers. (He played the same part in 2009). As an MC of sorts, he plays the LP record of a Broadway musical soundtrack he really likes, and the characters come wonderfully to life on stage.

And are they characters! Most are cut from a broad ream of stock character fabric: The Ingénue (Laura E. Taylor); the overbearing Broadway Producer (Steve Isom); the beleaguered Butler (John Flack), the Lush (Corinne Melançon), the Young Man in Love (Andrew Fitch), Trix (Kendra Lynn Lucas), Kitty (Dana Winkle), the Latin Lover (Edward Juvier, also the same part in 2009), the comic relief Gangsters (Ryan Alexander Jacobs, Austin Glen Jacobs), and others took their respective roles and worked the heck out of them. The theme of a wedding is the very loose weave that binds the production within a production, but that was all that was necessary. Witty dialog (oh, the puns!) by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, not an overuse of slapstick, memorable songs ("Show Off," "Accident Waiting to Happen") by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, competent actors, natty tapping (and roller skating), clever choreography--all combined for a very entertaining night.

In the technical regard, I usually praise the Stages production team for the quality of their sets (blanket amazing every time), but this production, while the set was comely and versatile, it was the costumes by Brad Musgrove that took the spotlight for me. Enough sequins and sparkle to dazzle, but dazzle in a period-appropriate (1920s) way. Ab-so-lute-ly spectacular. I also have kudos for the sound team, whose coordination of the digital orchestral accompaniment with the on-stage action was perfectly synchronized.

I said for me the show was almost perfect, the only slight detraction was the lighting, pre-set where sometimes the actors had difficulty finding the right spot. But if that's my only bobble of note, you can still take this show to the bank.

The two-hour production (no intermission) of The Drowsy Chaperone will be on stage at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center until August 21, 2016. I recommend you do not miss it.

 

 

Plug in the disco ball and dig out your glittering fringe, Mamma Mia! is heating up the MUNY stage with all the flash and pop sensibilities of ABBA's music wrapped with a sweet tale about love and romance, at any age. What could be more fun, on a midsummer's night, than a trip to a Grecian island where the air itself shimmers with romance?

At the young age of twenty, Sophie--played with an incandescent smile, voice, and personality by Brittany Zeinstra--is about to get married to Skylar, a friendly and likeable Jason Gotay. Her mom Donna, the appealing and vocally dynamic Julia Murney, is busy sprucing up the island taverna she owns for the wedding. There's a lovely warmth between the two actresses, and their voices complement each other in tone and timber, enhancing the picture of their close relationship.

Soon guests and friends are arriving for the festivities, including three men from Donna's past: adventurous travel writer Bill Austin, a robust and fun loving Mike McGowan; retired rock and roller Harry Bright, a loyal and caring Ben Nordstrom; and the architect that got away, Sam Carmicheal, a charming and spirited Justin Guarini. Hometown favorite Nordstrom and Guarini stand out with smooth phrasing and easy harmonies, while McGowan's "Take A Chance on Me," a comically in-tune diet with the irrepressible Ann Hurada, is a big crowd pleaser.

You see, although Sophie has her mom, groom, friends, the appealing Sara Gallo and Raven Thomas, and even a couple of "aunties" in the form of Donna's best friends, the scene stealing duo of Hurada and Jenny Powers, there's someone missing from her perfect picture. Her dad. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited the three men here to figure out which one is her father, so he can walk her down the aisle. 

The appearance of the three, particularly Sam, sends Donna's heart aflutter and her sense of independence through the roof. There's a lot of flirtation and anticipation in the story, and the capable ensemble keeps the show moving fast and the tension building. A feast of ABBA songs, some clever interpretations of disco dancing, and several comic turns later, a happy ending is celebrated by the cast and audience to the sequin-infused strains of "Waterloo."

Many of ABBA's most familiar and successful songs are featured in addition to the title track. The most surprising element of the show is that all of the songs aren't big, over-the-top productions. There's tenderness and an almost ballad-like quality some of the songs when stripped down, giving "Our Last Summer" and "The Winner Takes It All" well-supported emotional context. 

That's not to say the big productions are completely forgotten until the finale, there's plenty of splashy numbers throughout, with "Money, Money, Money," kicking things off in style, as well as the memorable "Dancing Queen" and "Super Troupers," and energetic "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme," to name a few highlights. There are sweet songs, regrets softly and tentatively voiced, and numbers that are pure fun, the interpretations simply follow the emotional arc. 

Director Dan Knechtges manages the balance of telling a story and creating a 1970s club experience superbly. He weaves the stories and songs together in a light, satisfying arc that's complemented by Michael Horsley's engaging music direction and arrangements that highlight each singer's voice. The choreography by Jessica Hartman is a slick mix of contemporary jazz and disco-era moves, and the ensemble takes to it well under the skillful lead of dance captain Riza Takahashi.

The gorgeous set design, by Tim Mackabee, makes me want to plan a trip to a Greek island and is thoughtfully complemented with video, designed by Greg Emetaz, and the lighting design of Nathan W. Scheuer. The highly detailed costumes, by Leon Dobkowski with wigs by John Metzner, are the icing on the cake in this show, ranging from bohemian chic island wear to the sparkle and flash of disco with just the right extra touches.

Running through July 28, 2016 at the MUNY in Forest Park, Mamma Mia! is a light-hearted, romantic romp filled with songs from the late 1970s that are near pop perfection. The bubbly songs and light romance complement each other, creating a delightfully charming, occasionally enchanting, and always optimistic musical comedy that's perfect family entertainment for a hot summer's night. 

 

 

In the second part of its fourth year, the St. Louis Actors' Studio production of the LaBute New Theater Festival succeeds in providing exceptionally well-articulated pieces that push realism to an exaggerated effect. Theatergoers expecting part two of this year's festival to be a continuation of part one are in for a surprise, and in this reviewer's opinion it's a good one.

In part two, the relationships and situations are hyper-real. Interpretations of myths and stories we've shared, some for hundreds of years, are brought to life in contemporary, essentially realistic situations that are pushed to the edge of plausibility and beyond. The combination is a little heady at times, but enticingly so, like a decadent dessert layered with unexpected flavors.

Life Model, by Neil LaBute, directed by John Pierson, opens both parts of the show, and once again features intriguing performances by Bridgette Bassa, as the model, and Jenny Smith, as the artist. Does the act of putting pencil to paper make one an artist, no matter the quality of the output? Is the act of disrobing, of taking one's clothes of for money, a form of prostitution, no matter the purpose or what follows? I don't know if it was familiarity or continued exploration by the actors, but I found my second viewing of the piece to be more aggressive and pointed in a way that enhanced the viewing. The arguments are well formed and the conclusion clear, though without a definitive winner.

American Outlaws, by Adam Seidel, also directed by Pierson, considers the logical ramifications of associating and working for organizations that exist outside the law. David Wassilak is a hired gun, Eric Dean White is a CPA paying off his gambling debts with a little money laundering. The two men inhabit their stereotypes while creating believable characters, towing a fine line that builds moderate suspense. White is humorously nervous and uncertain, Wassilak is calm, cool and collected. Both men are in love with White's wife, only one of them can have her.

A Show of Affection, by Laurence Klavan, directed by Patrick Huber, is a satisfying take on the vampire myth. There's a surprising twist to these vampires in that they only prey on loved ones. The significance might not immediately sink in, but realization comes with a tinge of sadness. Dad Wassilak, Mom Emily Baker, and their twin children, Bassa and Ryan Scott Foizey, are about to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner but are distracted by strange goings on in the neighborhood. Vampires are taking over, and the family is not left unscathed. Baker leads the way with a flawless take on a woman transformed. From the arch of her eyebrow to the lilt in her voice, the affectations are unnaturally natural; and Bassa and Foizey follow her lead to humorous effect. The short piece is sitcom funny and the performances artfully exaggerated.

The final piece in the festival, Blue Balls, by Willie Johnson, directed by Huber, is equally comic and uncomfortable. Foizey is the twenty-something, wheelchair-bound son of White’s date. He might be a touch bitter, he is definitely in the mood to push White's buttons. Foizey's character would be sympathetic if he wasn’t so determinedly contentious, while White is appropriately milquetoast. Huber and Foizey keep the character from being completely obnoxious, and White finds dimension in the boyfriend. The sparring between the two, Foizey's constant jabs and White’s continued deflections, is sharply directed and convincingly performed.

The four plays in the LaBute New Theater Festival: Part II, in performance at the St. Louis Actors' Studio through July 31, 2016, are individually compelling. Presented together, they create a provocative show. If part one of the festival looked at relationships from multiple angles, part two looks at them through a carnival glass prism.

 

Insight Theatre Company dives into the intricacies of family in the two act musical John & Jen, by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald. The story follows the life of Jen, a young woman with an abusive father, through her relationships with her brother and, later, her son. There's an attempt to find greater lessons on love in the pain and loss of life, but an unfocused script, difficult songs, and a cast not quite up to the musical challenge result in a rather forgettable production.

The first act focuses on Jen's relationship with her younger brother. The siblings live in fear of their father, with no protection other than each other, as expressed in songs and short scenes that hint at the troubles that bind them together. Though she promises to always protect her brother, Jen soon leaves for college, a devastating moment for John. The next time we see the two together, she is an anti-war protester planning a move to Canada and he has enlisted in the navy.

In the second act, we are introduced to Jen's son, John, who's about to graduate and move to the other side of the country for college. Jen, still grieving over the fact she never reconciled with her brother before his death in Vietnam, is reluctant to allow her son to move away and begin a life on his own. Regret and the choices people make to escape bad relationships, even when they're with a parent, are constantly present in this show, but never fully articulated. The characters are much the same. 

Jenni Ryan, as Jen, and Spencer Davis Milford, as both brother and son John, work hard to fill in the gaps and define their characters, but it's a difficult task. I am not sure if this is director Trish Brown's interpretation and direction or a weakness of the script, but these characters feel like personas; an amalgam of viewpoints and experiences that represent an era, not a person. 

Ryan and Milford put forth the effort but can't overcome the thin script and uninspired songs, which were often just as problematic and vague as the short scenes that linked them together. The two struggle with the material and arrangements, there are a number of moments when the harmonies are off and the notes simply missed. Still I genuinely wanted to embrace these characters and try to understand their story. 

Though Jen and her brother have a stronger, more visible connection, it's tenuous at best, making it hard for the audience to come along for their journey. The younger John, Jen's son, is largely undefined even though the second act is centered on his relationship with his mom. Part of the problem here is that there's a lot of exposition and telling, rather than showing in this musical. There are more than a few sweet scenes throughout the show, however, and several of the songs, with appealing choreography from Taylor Pietz, are effective in the moment. 

What intrigues me most about the story is the parallels of life, particularly for those who grew up in troubled families. The way learned ideas about love, loyalty, protection, and self-worth reveal themselves through the different but lasting bonds that exist between siblings, and between parents and children. Insight Theatre's ambitious but flawed production is at its best when those moments are brought to light and given an extra pause for attention. 

Unfortunately, even some of those scenes suffered from poor execution and a lack of focus on the relationships that are at the heart of this story. Music director Larry D. Pry does a nice job with the orchestra, but, where possible, the vocal parts would benefit from transposition or an emphasized harmonic to help the actors shine. The songs where the range and harmonies work, such as "Dear God" and "Timeline," are pleasant and engaging.

Acceptance, unconditional love, and forgiveness, as well as the cost to get there, are truly compelling themes. Family relationships and hardship are always good territory to explore. But John & Jen loses its way often, and forgets to tie the story together. The direction lacks purpose and certainty at times, leaving the actors too far apart for connection and relying too heavily on photographs and images projected on the video screen. As an audience member, I shouldn't need to glance at the screen to understand the scene I'm watching, and at times, the pictures felt a bit overbearing.

John & Jen, in production at Insight Theatre through July 31, 2016, seems desperate to tell us something, and Milford and Ryan give the show their all. Unfortunately, desire isn't quite enough to result in a satisfying production. I genuinely want to like this production; I simply feel it lacks the depth and quality of story, songs, or character to really hold my interest. Frankly, it left me wanting. 

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