Alan Ball's glib, bitingly funny look at weddings and well-to-do Southern culture, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, has more substance than all the taffeta and crinoline suggests. With modern sensibility, the show pulls back the mask on recognizable stereotypes, revealing contemporary women grappling with age-old issues. Stray Dog Theatre's production succeeds spectacularly with sharp, on-the-mark performances and clear direction from Gary F. Bell.

Southern bell Tracy has just gotten married to a handsome, successful man. Rather than partying at the reception, however, her tragically clad bridesmaids seek refuge in younger sister Meredith's room. They each have their reasons for avoiding the party and more in common than first appears. The first act is filled with reminiscing, gossip, and petty jabs, but the action and conversation ripples with tense energy that hints at the revelations and twists to come.

Sarajane Alverson leads the cast as Trisha, a wisecracking feminist and Tracy's best friend from high school. Tough and perfectly polished on the outside, she has a knowing, compassionate heart, even when she doesn't want it to show. As the play progresses, she reveals her character to be perceptive and caring, as well as vulnerable. Alverson's Trisha may have met her perfect match in Kevin O'Brien's Tripp, a wealthy cousin to the groom, whom she initially avoids. Self-assured and verbally adroit, Tripp is a perfect foil for Trisha's carefully guarded walls, and he surprises by standing his ground and calling her bluff.

Tammy's other high school friend turned bridesmaid is Georgeanne, a girl with a failing marriage and painful connection to the bride, played with drunken abandon by Shannon Nara. Georgeanne makes a big entrance drinking champagne from the bottle and crying over a deep, lingering pain. Nara sympathetically handles the many mood swings and sense of desperation, ensuring the character is appealing and authentic.

Lindsay Gingrich is heartbreakingly poignant as Meredith, the rebellious little sister with a big secret of her own. Her need to hang on to the idea of love in denial of abuse is at times difficult to watch but easy to forgive, and Gingrich navigates these emotions in a touching performance. Eileen Engel is endearingly naïve and gratingly religious as cousin Frances, and while her transformation takes place in baby steps, she's genuine at her core. Frankie Ferrari is appealingly awkward and outspoken as the groom's lesbian sister, Mindy, infusing the show with comic clumsiness and frank honesty.

Though overflowing with snark, gossip, and humor, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, is much more than a genteel comedy of manners. The show is filled with personal discovery as each character confronts difficult truths with realistic reactions, even when some of the barbs hit tender nerves. Painful issues that challenge long-held notions of tradition, gender roles, and classism surface for each of the women, and several of the details are genuinely distressing. While the show's ending strikes a happy pose, the underlying context suggests these stories are not yet finished. Still, the show feels complete and entertains thoroughly.

In addition to sure-handed direction, Bell also designed the oversized bedroom set, which captures the feel of the large, Southern mansion it represents. As importantly, since the room was originally older sister Tracy's, the sense that it's more a place of necessary refuge than a comfortable, welcoming space is clearly conveyed. Tyler Duenow's lighting design is well balanced and unobtrusive, while Eileen Engel's costumes capture the worst aspects of frilly, fancy, overdone bridesmaid dresses that flatter no one and seemed selected only to ensure that the bride shines more brightly.

A funny script, strong performances, and numerous revelations ensure the highly entertaining Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, running through June 25, 2016, is another engaging production from Stray Dog Theatre that entertains even as it prods. Playwright Bell's delightfully surprising play is delivered with deft timing, sincerity, and heart by an appealing and engaging cast, and a show that opens with the feeling of a "chic flick" turns into an insightful, satisfying tale of friendship and discovery.

 

Stages St. Louis brings the magic of theater to life with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, a show for young audiences presented at the company’s Westport Theater. The production is a lively musical retelling of the beloved story of a young girl who follows a silly white rabbit through the looking glass. The two stumble into a wonderfully strange world filled with oddly weird and unique characters. The show includes songs, dancing, and just enough audience interaction to make it a perfect introduction to musical theater for most children two and older.

In this version, young Alice, played with a curious, beguiling nature by Alexis Kinney, is tired of being quiet at the insistence of her nursemaid Mathilda, a kind but harried woman portrayed with gentle firmness by Angela Sapolis. The bored young girl flits around her room with an air of impatience, until finally choosing to read a book, which makes her drowsy. Just as Alice is drifting off to sleep, the White Rabbit, a frantic and frenetic John Kinney, bursts in to her room, sparking Alice’s interest and leading her to follow him to Wonderland, where the real adventure begins.

This new land is unfamiliar to Alice, but she’s much more interested in finding the White Rabbit than worrying about her surroundings. She soon meets the congenial and energetic March Hare, played with a gleeful flare by Chris Tipp, and Ryan Cooper’s wacky, fumbling Mad Hatter. Though she doesn’t quite follow their logic, she gamely joins the two on their madcap ramblings through Wonderland.

Along the way, we’re introduced to Kendra Lynn Lucas as a soulful but bubbly caterpillar with a touch of fairy godmother to her demeanor. Ryan Alexander Jacobs and Austin Glen Jacobs are the mischievously acrobatic Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and they generate lots of laughter with their goofy antics. The red queen and king make their appearance, with help from Tipp and Sapolis, and a chorus of singing flowers, featuring Sapolis, Kinsey Bearman, Katie Brnjac, and Caroline Eiseman, rounds out the cast. The actors are cheerful and engaging, throwing looks and comments to the audience while they sing, harmonize, and smile through a quick one-act show.

Michael Hamilton provides direction and staging that’s reminiscent of the original Disney movie on which the musical is based, with additional choreography by Ellen Isom. The two keep the action moving and the dances lively and crisp, using a touch of slight-of-hand and theater magic to maintain interest during transitions and adding clever current references to hold everyone’s attention. Bubbles, magic tricks, and clap along moments in the songs engage the younger audience members, adding fun touches that entertain without being too over-the-top or ridiculous silly for the rest of the audience.

The show is as visually compelling as the performances. The set quickly and easily changes from a little girl’s room to an imaginative land somewhere far, far away on the other side of the mirror. Jim Sandefur’s design brims over with bold bright colors and strong visual references that are continued in the fanciful costumes by Garth Dunbar and emphasized by Jeff Behm’s warm and inviting lighting.

The performers genuinely seem to enjoy the show, grabbing onto the opportunity to cut lose in comic ways and still tell an enchanting story with a positive theme. In addition to the show, the company offers a number of activities before the performance as well as question and answer time, and the opportunity to take photos with cast members after the show. Even the company’s program is filled with activities and trivia that reinforce the show and provide a keepsake for the children.

Children will likely be enthralled by the clever dialogue, catchy songs, and abundantly joyful tone of the show; so much so that the simple but effective lesson about being true to yourself can easily sneak its way into their brains. Parents and older kids have not been forgotten, and most will appreciate the pop culture references, fast pacing, comic choreography, and high quality singing that ties the show up in a delightful bow.

Stages St. Louis production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a fabulously cheerful and imaginative show and, at just around an hour in length, it’s the perfect distraction to capture kids’ imaginations and spark some creative play of their own. Adult theater patrons looking to introduce younger children to the magic of live theater will delight in their likely response to the uplifting, comically satisfying show, running through July 3, 2016.

 

It Shoulda Been You, the premier production of the 30th season of Stages, is now running at the Robert G. Reim theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center on Geyer Road. This show is a feather in the cap of Stages, the first company given the rights to stage the show following its Broadway run in 2015.

It Shoulda Been You takes place in the contemporary setting of a stately hotel, soon to host a tony wedding between the families Steinberg and Howard. Jenny Steinberg (Claire Manship, very strong) has taken the reigns to coordinate the nuptials for her sister and her intended (Stacie Bono, Jeff Sears). Mother Steinberg (Zoe Vonder Haar, she of the delightfully dry delivery) meddles in the proceedings, nettled by spacey Mother Howard (Kari Ely), making an incendiary pair. Add in fathers (Michael Marotta, David Schmittou), a former boyfriend (Zal Owen), an over-the-top wedding planner (Edward Juvier), a Best Man (Erik Keiser) and Maid of Honor (Jessie Hooker), a "cougar" aunt (Morgan Amiel Faulkner), and a few others, and you get a melange of situations ripe for misunderstandings, conflicts, and fun.

Promotional materials for the show tell us that ultimately, Shoulda is all about families--traditional, and not so much--but that's the nature of current relationships in America in the 20-teens. It would be hard to give additional information about the action in the show without revealing too much of what should by rights be experienced live... So I won't!

The quality of the mixed New York/St. Louis cast, directed by Stephen Bourneuf, is excellent. Strong actors abound in the production and most have excellent singing voices. (I have no hesitation singling out Claire Manship and Zal Owen in this regard). In those times when the entire cast joins in on a song, the results are downright impressive.

Technically, the show is very much on target. The rendering of the set is (as usual) stunning; movement of set pieces to dress the various scenes that come and go on demand is (as usual) smooth. The pre-recorded music is (as usual) lush. The costumes (as usual) colorful and perfect to support character. The only bobble I could see was in the lighting, where some lights were narrowly-focused to hit a specific spot on stage, and heaven help the actor who can't precisely find that sweet spot, drifting in and out of the light.

But I know you're asking, is it a perfect show? Well, in this reviewer's humble opinion, no, not quite. I felt some musical numbers, consisting of Brian Hargrove's lyrics and Barbara Anselmi's music, were more successful than others. In those numbers, intelligent lyrics and pleasing melody set them apart from the other 18 very similar songs in the show. Much of the humor is gratuitous, and some book dialog of Hargrove's is a hair's breadth from being cruel, a jarring departure from the generally light-hearted show. Lastly, if you're looking for subtlety of character, this is not the place to find it, because everyone but the character of Jenny is a full-on stereotype. Had I only two words to describe, I'd say, "Kinda silly."

But such detailed examination of a show is usually only undergone by a theatre reviewer looking for ways to show how we're embracing our task! For most of the audience opening night was laugh-out-loud funny and wholly entertaining. And that's what counts, doesn't it? So all in all, it appears the 30th season of Stages St. Louis is off to a good start.

It Shoulda Been You is a one-act musical, running slightly less than two hours. It will be on stage at the Robert Reim Theatre through July 3.

 

Act Inc. dips into the territory of lesser-known plays from the golden age of theater for the second production in its two-show summer season, An Inspector Calls. The solid cast wraps their talent around the story, language, and heady dialogue, but the script feels sloggy and dated. The result is an enjoyable, if predictable, show that drags on a bit longer than it should.

Set in England in 1912, the Birling family is just finishing a celebratory dinner with Gerald Croft, son of Mr. Birling's business rival and recently engaged to daughter Sheila. Mrs. Birling hovers around the group expectantly, while younger brother Eric looks on with disdain and several helpings of port. The group creates a perfect picture of affluence and contentment, sprinkling in just enough judgmental dialogue to alert the audience that something is about to change. Just as the family is finishing their meal, Inspector Goole arrives, presumably from the local police department, to ask the family a series of questions about a mysterious young woman who died earlier that evening.

Through the course of the questioning, family members break down, unpleasant secrets are revealed, and everyone is made quite uncomfortable by the inspector's impertinent attitude. This is where the morality tale comes in, as it turns out each family member may be in some way complicit in the death of the young woman. Even the fiancé Croft is not above suspicion, although the inspector is careful to limit the information he shares in his directed and pointed inquiries. The mood of the show quickly shifts from celebratory to suspenseful as the inspector meticulously gathers answers.

Charlie Heuvelman is perfectly perfunctory as the inspector, while Colin Nichols and Liz Hopefl are rather dismissive of the lower classes as the Birling parents. Sister and brother Courtney Friday and Joshua Parrack are spirited and more liberally inclined than their parents, while Anthony Wininger, as the fiancé, strikes a balance somewhere between the generations. Each actor brings individuality and life to their performances, but the characters are stilted and broadly dated, traits that are not helped by languid pacing and indecisive movements.

Written by John Boynton Priestly near the end of World War II, An Inspector Calls is a dense combination of mystery, drawing room play and morality tale. Under the direction of Jane Sullivan, the capable cast puffs, struts and declares themselves above the problems of the working class in the intricately woven story that is nonetheless absolutely transparent to a modern audience.

The characters align with the story and time but are a bit over-generalized to satisfy the needs of the moral. Each represents the indifferent ways the affluently comfortable treat the working class, become a characterization rather than infused with distinctly individual personality. Good casting and sympathetic-leaning direction ensure the characters are likable despite a lack of depth, but it's not enough to temper the show's overblown moral persistence.

From a technical standpoint, the show is quite enjoyable to watch, with a smartly efficient set, with the design and properties coordinated by Jason Flannery, fine sound and lighting by Zoe and Michael Sullivan, respectively, and lovely period costumes designed by Lisa Haselhorst. Scene changes are easily done and I appreciated the attention to detail needed to open each act with the previous act's tableau.

Act, Inc. is known for reintroducing audiences to forgotten work, and I generally applaud their efforts and enjoy the plays they choose for their short season. This production is a pleasant enough show and the performances solid, but it just doesn't play well to contemporary audiences. The plot lines and story twists are too easily unraveled to create effective suspense, and the moral feels heavy handed and overbearing. Unfortunately, Act Inc.'s An Inspector Calls , running through June 25, 2016, may be a period piece that's better left on the shelf.

 

 

A very major event occurred last night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis--the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, an opera based on the novel by Salman Rushdie. This is a commissioned work, with music by Jack Perla and libretto by Rajiv Joseph.

The setting is primarily in Pachigam, a small village in the Vale of Kashmir (with a prologue and epilogue in California). The Vale of Kashmir is a place of legendary beauty--a lush valley replete with gardens, orchards, lakes and saffron fields, surrounded by the grandest, most beautiful mountains in the world. It nestles between India, Pakistan and China. Your grandparents would recall the sweet old parlor ballad penned in 1902, "Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar," a song that conveyed the idyllic romance with which the world regarded Kashmir. ("Shalimar" is the name of a famed Mughal garden in Srinigar.) For centuries Kashmir was a peaceful land, where Hindus, Muslims and others lived in harmony--or what the natives call kashmiriyat. But since the partition of India in 1947 Kashmir has become a war-torn province filled with religious strife.

Our story deals with Shalimar, a young tight-rope walker in a folk theater troupe. He falls in love with Boonyi, a beautiful dancer. After they are discovered making love their fathers command that they be married to restore their honor. Others protest, because Shalimar is a Muslim and Boonyi a Hindu, but Shalimar's father, a respected elder, says that such a wedding is acceptable in the spirit of kashmiriyat.

After the wedding, the American ambassador, Max Ophuls, visits and sees the troupe perform. He's enchanted by Boonyi and invites her to dance in New Delhi. She is eager to escape her backward village. An affair blossoms between Ophuls and Boonyi; a baby is born. The rest of the story follows Shalimar and his thirst for vengeance against Boonyi, against Ophuls, and even against the daughter born of that illicit liaison. Shalimar is drawn into a radical Islamist band of rebels, where he becomes a skilled assassin. This man, who's name means, in Sanskrit, "abode of love," has become the abode of bitter, bloody vengeance. He pursues it for twenty-five years.

Composer Jack Perla is a jazz musician as well as a composer of opera, chamber and symphonic music. His beautifully orchestrated score for Shalimar reflects all of these genres as well, of course, as a strong thread of northern Indian music. The raga, that complex, cyclic idiom, is present throughout Shalimar. The orchestra is augmented by Arjun Verma on sitar and Javad Butah on tabla; they do beautiful work. A synthesizer adds to the Indian flavor with electronic versions of the santoor (a kind of hammer dulcimer), the tanpura (a larger drone cousin of the sitar), and the harmonium. All of this adds lovely flavor and richness to the score. In the final moment as Shalimar and the illegitimate daughter, India, stand armed and poised to kill each other these instruments engage in a supremely intense raga that supports the conflict beautifully.

There is great variety in the score. There is pastoral music in the village, reflecting the interplay of different rhythms of nature; there is frenzied traffic music in L.A; there is a waltz, the leitmotif of Ophuls, hinting of his origins. (He sings--perhaps six times--that he was born in Strasbourg.) There is lovely, sensual music for Boonyi's dances. There is much that is lyrical. At times there is a busy, troubled undercurrent. There are fine arias and duets and there are gorgeous numbers for the chorus. So it's an excellent score. My one quibble is that, overall, I would have liked an even greater presence of an Indian musical sensibility. The libretto is generally good, though some of the exposition (as when Ophuls introduces himself) is quite blunt and heavy-handed.

All of the singers master this unusual and surely difficult score, but tenor Sean Panikkar stands out above them all. This is truly his show. Panikkar, who did such fine work last season as Pamino in The Magic Flute, here is even more astonishing. His pure, clear voice displays truly remarkable power. It shines like a beacon above the rest even when the entire cast are singing their hearts out. And his diction is superb. This is a longish opera and Shalimar is a tour de force role; Panikkar triumphs in it!

Soprano Andriana Chuchman sings both the dancer, Boonyi, and Boonyi's adult daughter, India. She does beautiful work in both. Moreover, she is a truly fine dancer, mastering the Indian style with such grace. In those distinctive crisp, articulate movements of arms, legs, head and hands she seems utterly authentic.

Baritone Gregory Dahl gives a powerful performance as Ambassador Ophuls. Katherine Goeldner is very styrong as the ambassador's embittered wife. Others worthy of special praise include Thomas Hammons as Shalimar's father, Geoffrey Agpalo as a teacher who exposes the shame of the young lovers, Aubrey Allicock as the "Iron Mullah" who brings terror to Kashmir, Justin Austin as Boonyi's father, and Jenni Bank as Shalimar's mother.

Chorus Master Robert Ainsley gets beautiful work from his large chorus. Some of the chorus numbers are wonderfully powerful and show impressive control of dynamics. Conductor Jayce Ogren handles the orchestra with grace and subtlety. Costumes, by James Schuette, are beautifully appropriate to the period and locale. The villagers are in nicely balanced muted tones, the circus costumes colorful, the "Iron Mullah" and his men fiercely grim and sooty.

Choreography is by Sean Curran. The traditional Indian dancing is lovely and sensuous, but there is an odd little war ballet in one scene depicting Indian soldiers assaulting a group of women in a curiously gymnastically stylized rape that is almost comic. It just doesn't work.

Allen Moyer, the scenic designer, gives us a vast background of stylized orchards--hundreds of trees, millions of leaves and fronds. Smack across the middle, dividing the image horizontally, is a kind of metal bridge or platform. It's black and industrial-looking and it chops that idyllic vision off at the knees, as it were. The large area under the bridge is often essentially unlit, so sometimes the entire chorus, while standing there, is literally singing in the dark. Sometimes at scene changes a large panel descends to cover the top or bottom half of our picture. It's like a Mondrian painting, but with rectangles of stainless steel enclosing projection screens where we see L.A. traffic or a city-scape or a large jet flying right toward us.

I found Christopher Akerlind's lighting a bit troubling at times. In several scenes we see normal bright light at the front of the stage, with strong footlights giving a theatrical look to faces. Then further upstage is an area lit with a strange rosy-orange glow, and then above all that is the rich blue-green of the orchard background. It's quite unnatural and I'm not sure what the intent was. Also there is frequent use of starkly-delineated square spot-lights. This, of course can be quite dramatic, but when such a vivid sharp square (with an actor's sharp silhouette in it) appears against that verdant orchard it effectively cuts a destructive hole into it.

Stage director James Robinson handles this large cast well, though the chorus usually enters as just a crowd coming on, rather than as real individuals. And a few times, near the end of a scene, I was distracted by preparations for the next scene--either on the turntable or in that dark area under the bridge.

So there were, for me, some awkwardnesses in the technical aspects of the show. But the musical and vocal virtues of Shalimar the Clown are enough to make it deserve the thunderous applause with which the curtain call was met.

Shalimar continues at Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 25.

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