Stray Dog Theatre sashays into its sixteenth season with a bawdy, over-the-top (in the best way) production of The Rocky Horror Show. The show is pure fun, a counter-culture and audience-participation approved celebration of B-movies and flashy songs. The musical, delivered with a nod and a wink to a knowing audience, celebrates sexual liberation with hyper-charged 1970's style and diva-esque attitude. What makes this particular production stand out is quality vocals and an attention to detail at every turn.

Set in 1969, the light as a feather story takes place in a time before cell phones or roadside service -- important devices to the thin plot. The newly engaged Brad and Janet take a spontaneous road trip to share the happy news with their former professor. This uncharacteristic jump into the unknown turns out to be a life-changing moment, in a most comic and theatrically sexy way. After getting a flat tire in the rain, they decide to seek refuge in the ominous manor down the road and, as they say, "time meant nothing, never will again."

Kevin O'Brien and Heather Matthews are simply peachy as the young lovers, but they're completely overshadowed, in a good way, by their host and his entourage. Nothing in their conservative upbringing has prepared them for the sensually eccentric Dr. Frank 'N' Furter, a vivacious and teasing Michael Juncal, and his band of merry phantoms and devotees. 

A self-proclaimed "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania," he's accompanied by Corey Fraine's sinister, sneering Riff-Raff, Maria Bartolotta's crazed, lustful Magenta, Sara Rae Womack's wide-eyed and star-struck Columbia, and an entourage of Phantoms. Over the night, the good doctor gives Brad and Janet a liberal dose of the excitement they've been missing. The dichotomy creates a saucy conflict that only science fiction and a drag floorshow can resolve.

The focus is on the fun in this rendition of The Rocky Horror Show, there's more than a touch of camp in the tone and gestures, but the quality of the singing takes the production up a notch. Visually, it took me about three seconds to adjust to Juncal's bald Frank 'N' Furter, but vocally he is near perfection, with growls, purrs, and just the right amount of contemporary sass to own the character. 

O'Brien and Matthews harmonize well, and each has a strong voice with a warm tone. Fraine hisses and snarls in key, while Bartolotta and Womack once again show great range and control, and Womack turns in a nice bit of tap as well. Michael A. Wells pulls double duty as Dr. Scott and Eddie, a full-throated rock 'n' roll rebel. Gerry Love is a humorous narrator with a penchant for evidence, and the ensemble is rounded out with leading quality vocalists and performers including Angela Bubash, Sarah Polizzi, and Tim Kaniecki, who really needs a role where he can show off his considerable dancing chops. Finally, Luke Steingruby's Rocky is practically flawless, with an angelic voice, Charles Atlas muscles, blond hair, and a tan.

The production is enhanced by the company's continued commitment to make the most of their space, equipment, and budget. The fantastic, multi-story set by Rob Lippert has multiple, intricately detailed levels that help with the storytelling. Clever choreography by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner references the original and takes full advantage of the venue while adding a few fresh twists. Tyler Duenow's lighting recreates numerous effects and adds dramatic tone, which is amplified by Chris Peterson's musical direction. 

Eileen Engel's costumes are creatively true to the original vision and wonderfully flexible, with one glaring exception. Magenta's primary costume is unfortunately frumpy and out-of-character, even with the lovely décolletage accent. Bartolotta is exceptionally talented and she makes strong choices as an actor, the costume stands out as incongruous with the role. 

The company gets so much, so much more than right, however, and there's a palpable joie de vie in the enthusiastic cast that instantly captures and draws the audience into the fun. Plus, singing along and shouting out familiar retorts is encouraged. The impact of the choices is surprisingly fresh and satisfying, particularly for a show whose characters are so specifically ingrained in pop culture.

Intentionally immersive from the moment the Usherette greets you in the lobby to the sing-and-dance along curtain call, The Rocky Horror Show, in performance at Stray Dog Theatre through October 29, 2016, is a sweet little treat you'll be happy to indulge. If you want to join in on the fun you'll need to get your tickets asap, as many performances are already sold out.

 

 


Upstream Theater's well-scripted and contained world premier of Maya Arad Yasur's one act play Suspended, is a powerfully moving story of the immigrant experience. We are introduced to Benjamin, a recent immigrant to the United States, played by Phillip C. Dixon, and Isaac, another immigrant from the same country, played by Reginald Pierre. The premise seems simple enough, Isaac has hired Benjamin to work with him; but nothing about this story is as simple, or straightforward, as it seems.

To begin with, the work is as a window washer, suspended well above the city streets, always on the outside looking in as they work their way from floor to floor. Isaac and Bennie, as Isaac calls him, were close friends in their home country, torn apart by war and rebel gangs that kidnapped and indoctrinated young men, turning them into boy soldiers. The fact that both men escaped only to reunite again, hanging side-by-side and suspended from the roof of a skyscraper, may be much more than coincidence. But that is for the actors to work out.

Linda Kennedy provides focused direction, and Dixon and Pierre turn in strong performances that compel the audience to pay close attention, watching every movement and listening for every nuance. There's much said through tone and intensity, but also in the smaller, quiet moments, and the brief flashes when the men's deep friendship re-emerges are genuinely uplifting. The two men have an easy chemistry, and it's easy to feel genuine friendship and concern in their relationship, important elements if the two are to survive working with each other.

The script tackles a myriad of topics as the men slowly and rhythmically traverse the outside of the building, repeating the same washing movements over and over. There's a lovely cadence to their movements and voices, and a general attention to the job at hand, which is getting to the top of the roof by dark.

As they talk, the fact that they are working such a precarious job seems less surprising, even when Benjamin accidentally looks down and experiences vertigo so bad that Isaac must grab and steady him. They have feared and fought for their lives so many times before, keeping steady and balanced must seem easy compared to dodging bullets, bombs, and soldiers. Still, it's realistic and lends authenticity later in the show.

Pierre's Isaac has lived in America for several years, while Benjamin is a recent arrival, leading to differences in perspective that are significant but not insurmountable. Dixon gives Bennie the wide-eyed appreciation of a new immigrant, but he shows restraint and a touch of skepticism. Pierre seems more acclimated to his new country, and determined to make a success, even as he feels he will never be fully accepted. The actors and director Kennedy ensure each man's tone and external actions reflect the turmoil he is still working through, successfully communicating their conflict and aspirations.

Questions about the past keep cropping up, though Isaac forcefully states that he doesn't want to discuss it, that the only way to succeed in America is to forget and focus on the future. But Bennie is haunted by a night during which his life was threatened and his sister impregnated by a soldier. He believes Isaac is the only one who can help him understand what happened. Each man is forced to deal with the trauma of the past, as well as to confront his feelings about the other man -- a man who now has the power to send him plunging to his death. Even in the safe space of a theater, the effect is chilling and the tension real.

The set, lighting, and sound, by Cristie Johnston, Tony Anselmo, and Dan Strickland, respectively, do an excellent job of bringing the audience into the scene. The perspective, the weather, and passing of time are well-executed effects that add much to the story. I do question the frequent use of a freeze in the action throughout the show. Though it punctuates some important moments, the device is also used randomly, causing a bit of confusion over intention and the intended time frame. Additionally, a little more attention to the physical action of the men's occupation, the illusion of moving up and down or across the window, will add to the show's immediacy.

Upstream Theater's provocative and layered Suspended runs through October 23, 2016, at the Kranzberg Center of the Arts. There's more than the history of childhood between these two men, and audience members may find themselves on the edge of their seat, filled with emotion, and waiting to plunge into the story with these two talented actors.


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.


St. Louis Shakespeare Company gives one of the Bard's most well-known and oft performed tragedies, Macbeth, the story of the notorious Scotsman and his ambitious wife, a spooky retelling appropriate for the Halloween season. Acclaimed as a noble and courageous soldier and trusted consort to the king, Macbeth and his friend Banquo have a seemingly chance encounter with three witches that changes the course of their history.

The slithering, enticing witches lure the men with tales of personal glory and success. When Macbeth relates these events to his wife, she pushes him to take action rather than waiting for the prophecy to unfold. The laws of nature insist that every action have a reaction, and this is where the tale turns dark and murderous, splitting Scotland's loyalties and leading to war.

Shakespeare's play is a brutal, bloody tale that warns against over-reaching. The company pushes this idea into a battle between man and nature, where the witches are both agents of mischief and misdeeds and a representation of nature's rebellion against man's attempted domination. It's an ambitious approach, but in the Halloween season, with a contentious political cauldron of our own, the interpretation really works.

As the titular Scotsman, Ben Ritchie shows his preference for restraint and underplay, but here he allows himself to become a vessel for the influence of malice, turning increasingly erratic and explosive by the second act. He embraces the narcotic pull of power with the affliction of clarity. As Lady Macbeth, Michelle Hand is in consort with the witches, mirroring their incantations and movements, but becoming disjointed and frenetic. Hand is captivating and persuasive, whether she's pushing her husband to action or fervently washing her hands.

The story itself seems preternaturally controlled by the witches, Elizabeth Knocke, Taleesha Caturah, and Katie Robinson, who manipulate and propel the suspense. Their incantations have a good meter, and the textures in their voice are effectively weird, but it is unfortunate that there are times when it's difficult to hear them, perhaps due to the placement and levels of the speakers.

Maxwell Knocke's Banquo is relentlessly unforgiving, and his slow burn when he realizes Macbeth is turning against him is distinct and memorable. Duncan, played by a stoic and loyal Eric Lindsey, flees for his safety, and it is Maggie Wininger's impassioned, determined Macduff who must rise and lead the battle to reunite the torn country. Alex Bollini, Wendy Farmer, and Michael Pierce stand out among the supporting cast, as do the young Macduff children: Dylan James, Riley James, and Morgan Murphy.

The set and lighting design by Chuck Wining and Nathan Schroeder frame the show well, while enhancing the sense of disparity and conflict. Emphasizing director Suki Peter's stylized vision, they provide a suspenseful tone and an environment at war -- the tree overgrown with moss and fungus, the gateways burnished with patina after years in the wind, rain, snow, and hot sun. Eric Kuhn's fight direction is crisp and purposeful, and generally takes advantage of the set and staging; it is best shown in the one-on-one battles.

JC Krajicek's costumes distinguish the real, Scottish world from the underworld, though I would have like to see the punk-influenced style and make-up pushed even further. Unfortunately, the sound was not as well planned or executed. It was often distractingly loud, overpowering character dialogue, particularly when delivered from upstage.

While compelling and generally well delivered, the production is not without other unfortunate flaws. The worst of these are issues of consistency and commitment. The pacing is generally uneven, and too languid in the first act, and at times the actors lose their focus and posture. Vocal command, measure, posture, and even the sharpness of execution are important to sustaining drama from curtain to final bow, and will serve the company well. The stakes are high in the story and tension -- constant and building -- seems key to a successful retelling.

There are a number of truly engrossing scenes: Macbeth's reaction when he sees the ghost at dinner. Banquo's impenetrable stare. The murder of Macduff's wife and children, and the range of emotions Macduff expresses on learning of their demise and avenging their deaths. Lady Macbeth's crazed pacing and hand washing. The well-executed final fight choreography between Macbeth and Macduff. All the while, the witches appear and disappear Cheshire cat-like, casting spells and setting tragedy in motion. If the company can tighten and infuse the periods in between the moments with tension, the show will be even more effective and memorable.

While imperfect, St. Louis Shakespeare's production of Macbeth, running through October 16, 2016 is a wicked good time. The darkly imagined show gives the Scottish play an extra dose of the macabre that entertains while providing a new point-of-view through which we can imagine this moving tragedy.

 

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.

Stay Involved on Social Media