St. Louis Shakespeare delights fans of theater and language with Is He Dead?, a delightfully camp comedy by David Ives based on a story by Mark Twain. The fast-paced play cautions us on the foibles of ignoring talent, chiding us for waiting until an artist is dead to celebrate -- and purchase -- their work. The charming and lighthearted show emphasizes humor over moralizing, however, and the result is thoroughly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Jean Francois Millet is the most talented artist among a circle of friends living on the outskirts of Paris, but even he is struggling to sell a painting these days. When the art dealer and loan shark Bastion suddenly shows up demanding repayment of the funds he's lent the artist as well as the elderly patron Leroux, the friends appear in dire straights. An attempt to quickly sell some work to satisfy the loan goes awry, but leads to inspiration and much comic confusion as Millet appears to die, causing demand, and his sister Daisy arrives to manage his estate. Several tangled love stories and many disguises are employed in the search for the eventual happy ending, this is a comedy after all.

Director Edward Coffield and the talented cast revel in the clever wordplay and absurdly convoluted plot without over-indulging, resulting in a constant barrage of humor delivered with an exaggerated style and twisted but tidy approach. Though we've seen all the plot devices before, Twain and Ives add interesting dialogue and a bit of social criticism to their story, and use a character who asks a straightforward question as entry point into the plot twists and turns. 

Zac McMillan engages as Millet and Daisy, and he's perfectly complemented by buddies Jack Zanger as Chicago, John Fisher as Dutchy, and Jacob Cange as O'Shauhnessy. The four employ physical comedy and seriously silly hijinks that show the influence of the Keystone Cops, Three Stooges, and Marx Brothers while deftly illustrating Twain's primary complaint. The show's sweethearts, Molly McCaskill as Marie and Natalie Walker as Cecile, willingly jump into the comic chaos with the men, as does their father Leroux, played to the hilt by Timothy Callahan. Though they take a lighthearted approach to their characters, the ensemble provides a sense of near realism that aids the plot and propels the dramatic tension.

It is the ancillary characters, portrayed in hilariously over-exaggerated performances by Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli, Jennifer Theby-Quinn and Joe Cella, however, that gleefully have the most fun in Is He Dead?. Their characterizations are so over-the-top as to suggest commedia del'arte, and it works. Ritchie is vaingloriously imposing and brutish as the villain, he even gets his own ominous music cue, as well as pointy eyebrows and a curling, sinister mustache. Angeli and Theby-Quinn cackle, tease, and drink everyone under the table as women with big hearts and suspicious moral fortitude. The two are impossible to ignore while onstage, their quips and banter communicating a good deal of exposition with a comic twist. Finally, Cella masters the art of the obvious, sot so hidden disguise as multiple characters. Though his initial assessment of the situation at hand is cleverly and comically off the mark, his characterizations are spot on funny.

The set, by Matt Stuckel, has the faded, somewhat tattered elegance of a struggling artist that suits Millet. Though a better job of masking the flats would be genuinely appreciated, it's a minor distraction. JC Krajicek adds much to the characters through costuming. Daisy's pink dress is an inspired and gaudy choice, the Madames' loud, color coordinated outfits are artfully excessive, Bastian's fiendish morning suit and top hat is villainy personified, and the sweetheart's fashionably feminine dresses are beguiling and flattering. Finally, lighting designer John Taylor and sound designer Ted Drury provide solid touches that emphasize without interference.

Is He Dead?, in performance through August 13, 2017 at the Ivory Theater, is a laugh-out-loud theater treat. David Ives clearly knows his way around classic scripts and clever wordplay. St. Louis Shakespeare excels in ensuring his scripts come to life with genuine affection and exaggerated humor that's played for laughs, but always has a point to reveal. The result is a tasty confection with a bit more substance than you may expect and a pleasing production that may leave you hungry for more. 

 

The third iteration of New Line Theatre's original cabaret revue, Out On Broadway celebrates the songs of Broadway with a gay perspective, and without any rewrites. In addition to an enjoyable evening of entertaining musical interpretations, the show reminds us that love is love and we all have far more in common than the differences we too often focus on. The thoroughly enjoyable evening of music features the voices of Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Mike Dowdy-Windsor, Ken Haller, Sean Michael, and Keith Thompson, with Dominic and Sean shining particularly bright in the spotlight.

The show loosely traces the progression of love, beginning with the idea of loving and accepting oneself before loving others, but there's nothing heavy handed or preachy in the message. The selected songs, primarily lesser known musical gems that deserve a listen, complement each other well while adding humor and genuine pathos to the evening. For the 2017 edition of the revue, company artistic director Scott Miller added numbers from recent shows that prove a surprising fit. Best of all, there are a number of songs from the evening that stand out, either vocally or through interpretation. 

In the first act, "Mrs. Remington," sung by Dominic (listed as Nick in the song selections), is a fun up-tempo piece with a clever lyrical bent. With layered harmonies that sound like a much larger choir, Sean, Keith, and Ken ensure "One Boy" is entertaining and impressive. "Bosom Buddies" is a perfectly comic number delivered with panache by Ken and Keith, as is "Happily Ever After." "Unusual Way," a loving duet sang by real life spouses Dominic and Mike, is buttery and soft with a compelling arrangement, and Nick and Sean stand out with strong vocals on "Stars and the Moon" and "Heart and Music," respectively.

The second act is almost perfect in terms of song selection, arrangement, and performance, but there are a few particularly effective choices. "Just Like Our Parents" tells a great story. "Getting Married Today," is funny and Mike is particularly charming as a groom with a serious case of the pre-wedding jitters. That song is countered by the humorous "Fine," which again features Dominic and Mike, this time after the honeymoon glow has waned. "Sleepy Man," is a hushed lullaby with Sean on lead vocals that envelopes you with warmth and love, while "Make Them Hear You" sees Dominic leading the charge in full, spirited voice. 

"In My Own Lifetime" gets a great interpretation by Ken, and Dominic provides the constant reassurance love needs on "I'll Be Here." Keith turns a certainty into a question in "One of the Good Guys," while Sean and the company offer a new lesson on tolerance with a haunting and cautionary "Children Will Listen." "You'll Be Back," from the musical Hamilton is a surprising and effective interpretation that gets lots of positive audience response, and "You Are the Light" closes the night with a hint of gospel that fits the inspiring and hopeful song. The song selection creates a lovely story arc and the men's voices perfectly suit the arrangements.

The men are dressed simply, in black slacks and solid colored shirts that span the rainbow, and are accompanied by Nate Jackson on a piano that's appropriately placed in front of the stage. There's no banter, so the sense of intimacy that usually characterizes a cabaret is somewhat lost, and the men seem a bit stiff and formal much of the time. Choreography isn't necessary in this format, however a more relaxed physical presence and a slightly looser, more conversational approach may enhance the emotional connection with the audience. Finally, some of the harmonies weren't quite on pitch the night I attended, but these men are all experienced professionals and I expect those errors will be corrected.

Out On Broadway: The Third Coming, in performance through August 19, 2017, is an original concept from New Line Theatre, with songs curated by Miller and associate artistic director Mike Dowdy-Windsor. The show, particularly the first half, feels a bit long for cabaret, but I'm not sure which songs I'd cut as each song has a distinct purpose. Additionally, the men interpret every song well, with intention and perspective that's clear, genuinely expressive, and uniformly well performed.  

Newsies began as a 1992 Disney movie starring Christian Bale. The musical about newsboys taking on publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer featured muscled teenage boys dancing a-la-West Side Story. It didn't do well in the box office but slowly became a cult hit -- a well-deserved distinction. Eventually, fans called for a Broadway remake, and Harvey Fierstein (fire-steen), Alan Menken, and Jack Feldmen obliged. In 2012, Newsies: The Musical opened and, that year, won Tonys for choreography and best musical score. 

In the opening scene, a beautiful bromance between the two male leads is revealed from the top of a building in New York City around the turn of the last century. Jack Kelly and his disabled best friend Crutchie dream of escaping the stinking city streets for a better life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is fresh and, they surmise, you are paid fairly for a day's work. There, Jack says, Crutchie won't need to be able to run: he can ride horses all day. 

The boys and their friends sell newspapers for The World, an international newspaper published by Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer decides to raise the price the newsboys pay for their papers, and the boys go on strike. It's a familiar tale of giants squashing the little guy, but this time features romance, song and dance. 

During the opening scene of the Muny's current adaptation, the audience falls for Jay Armstrong Johnson as Kelly and Daniel Quadrino as Crutchie immediately. After this scene, the show stalls, with the cast seemingly saving their energy for later numbers. But by the mid-point of Act I during the call-to-action anthem "The World Will Know," the cast wakes up, and from that point on, they lock into the show. Tessa Grady is quirky and sharp as Jack Kelly's love interest. Her voice is perfectly suited to the role, and she nails her solo "Watch What Happens," although the music itself isn't very memorable. Ta'Rea Campbell as Miss Medda is beautiful on stage, and her maternal warmth can be felt from the back of the enormous house. Davis Gaines is comically evil as Joseph Pulitzer, and Spencer Davis Milford and Gabriel Cytron play the brothers Davey and Les with believable affection. 

The leads' and ensemble's vocals are absolutely stunning in every song. The Muny band, which is on point, as always, delivers Menken's iconic music into the audience's hearts with a jolt. The lighting, costume and video designs seamlessly work together to enhance the production, but the choreography can be sluggish. Director and choreographer Chris Bailey probably attempted to create dances that would wow the audience but still be easy for the cast to learn in a short rehearsal period. This method works in some numbers, but in others, the cast does their best to fill tired movements with joie de vivre while the music calls for more than they deliver.

The most touching scene of the night is Daniel Quadrino's "Letter From the Refuge." With his gorgeous voice, Quadrino is funny, pitiful, confident, and broken all at once during this brief scene. It is a remarkable moment.

Bailey and his cast and crew tackled a monumental task with staging a show like Newsies in an extremely short rehearsal time. They succeeded in creating a strong, uplifting version of the musical that leaves audiences feeling like a good guy can win sometimes. Newsies plays at the Muny now through August 13.

 

The Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble continues it's "Season of Adaptation" with a production of The Color of August, by famed Spanish playwright Paloma Pedrero. This is a new translation and adaptation by Will Bonfiglio, who is a long-time member of the company. 

It's a short play, just an hour long, and it's a two-hander featuring SATE regulars Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts. It's directed by the imaginative Lucy Cashion, who also provides the quite beautiful sound design. The play is a frenetic, energy-packed hour. It is sometimes intriguing but often simply overwrought. It's a puzzling piece, fun to think over and analyze, and these two gifted actresses are fiercely invested in it, but in the end there are serious problems with the play and the production.

Maria and Laura grew up together and they came to be profoundly bonded. Whether this love had a sexual element is not clear, but it was passionate. Laura, herself a painter, became Maria's muse and she modeled for a number of Maria's best paintings. But eight years ago something happened to shatter this deep friendship, and the two haven't spoken since. Maria went on to become a highly successful artist, some of her paintings selling for over a million. (Dollars? Pesos?) Laura is now near poverty, failed as a painter, drinking a lot and eking out a living as a model.

As the play opens we meet Maria in her studio in Madrid. She is about to reëngage in that most important relationship of her life. Through an agency, and under a false name, she has hired Laura as a model. When Laura arrives she is startled and angry to learn who has hired her and that Maria brought her here not really to pose but to open up this painful old case -- to somehow reclaim her. The battle begins.

Old wounds are pried open, old love revisited. There is anger and confusion. These two have competed in all things, and now they are competing, somehow, to win . . . something. We learn that Laura had felt used. We learn that Maria envied Laura's breasts. We learn of Laura's lover, John, who abandoned her but with whom she's still obsessed. We learn that Maria's cliché husband ignores her to watch soccer. He occasionally hits her, but she doesn't seem to mind -- not because she loves him, but perhaps just because (thank God) that's not what this play's about. At one point Maria feeds Laura whiskey as if she were feeding a baby milk. The two women strip to their skivvies and indulge in a paint fight, chasing and daubing each other with paint. 

Gender and sexuality are important here. The womb is a recurring motif in Maria's paintings -- and she has done a statue -- a lovely, cubist sort of Venus de Milo with an illuminated red bird-cage in her belly. Laura remarks that "If we'd been a man and a woman we wouldn't have destroyed each other." But this is not a play about gender politics.

There is love and loss and punishment in this play. Each urgently punishes the other for the loss of what they shared.

There is shouting of anger. There is much shouting of anger. And there are startlingly abrupt shifts of gear from battle to cuddle -- or vice versa.

And therein lies a major problem in this production. There are changes but no transitions. A number of times one of the characters suddenly and without apparent motivation goes from almost violent hostility to loving vulnerable intimacy -- or the reverse. I have a suspicion that in these instances the script actually does suggest motivation, but we need a moment when something said actually registers and causes this emotional change in the other character. We need silences in which suspicion or doubt or menace or cunning -- or love can breed. But in this production the pace is relentless. We feel that we are merely watching very agile emotional contortionists. Another quarter-hour would be very well-spent on this play.

One other problem is the absence of any sense that this is a Spanish play -- which it is. Now Spain has a particularly vivid cultural history regarding romantic betrayal. Some Spanish plays are quite cosmopolitan and could be set anywhere; others are like Blood Wedding: so intensely Spanish that they really should only be performed by Spanish gypsies. The Color of August, I believe, is not all that cosmopolitan. The all-consuming passion expressed by these two women would be more credible if we set the play firmly in Spain. (Yes, Madrid is mentioned once, but why is Laura's false lover Juan anglicized into "John"?)

Finally, the two actresses have learned both roles. Who plays what is determined by a coin toss by a member of the audience. This is a gimmick in which many famous actors have indulged, and it carries an element of excitement. But it's a risk with undetermined benefits and a very definite cost: swapping roles halves the rehearsal time. Actresses taking on these roles require long and deep study to be able to discover and then express the motivations which are buried in this very complicated script.

So The Color of August is a flawed script and a flawed production, but the intricate script and the sheer dedication of the artists makes it worth seeing. It continues at the Chapel through August 19.

 

Stray Dog Theatre closes its current season with a moving and effective version of Ragtime that will likely have you toe tapping and humming along to its infectious rhythms and memorable melodies. You may also be compelled to utter a gasp, have a laugh, and shed a tear or two. 

Thoroughly engrossing and entertaining, the musical presents three different stories that weave together in a fascinating fashion, connecting vastly different experiences in ways that feel entirely plausible, if not completely realistic. Though the characters' lives cross paths with deeper repercussions than most, the distance between them is apparent.

An affluent white family's lives are forever changed when the Mother finds an abandoned baby in her garden while the Father is away on an adventure. Without Father to restrain her better nature, she rescues both the newborn infant and his young, unwed mother. A young black man, a piano player in a Harlem saloon, searches for the girl of his dreams and finds a family, as well as a blockade of prejudice and hate. An immigrant widow and his young daughter flee their homeland in fear of being persecuted for their religious beliefs. From the moment they arrive at Ellis Island, they must fight through poverty and constant struggle to make a new home. These stories are the very fabric of our nation, and the company brings them to life with poignant urgency.

Kay Love is splendidly gracious as Mother, rescuing Sarah, caring for her infant son and, eventually, helping Coalhouse Walker, the piano player, win Sarah over. Full of emotion, her vocal interpretations convey an essential goodness that's tempered by a sense of longing. Her life changes through a simple act of kindness that has unexpected consequences. Jeffrey White, as the immigrant Tateh, is sympathetic and emotionally grounded in his desire to create a better life for his daughter. Desperate to deliver on the promise of America, there's a pressing urgency to his movements and while his songs bring hope, you can hear uncertainty in the phrasing. 

But it is Omega Jones, as Walker, and Evan Addams, as his beloved Sarah, who thoroughly captivate the audience with soaring solos, expertly intertwined harmonies, and a heartbreaking tale. Jones commands attention in a spirited and vital performance that seems to capture both the possibility and prejudice of the era. Addams counters him with grace and an impressive range that's perfectly balanced and true. There's an innocence to Sarah that Addams mines to a finely honed and mentally sharp point, and it is impossible not to root for the couple.

The supporting ensemble capably completes the story creating well-defined characters and delivering pleasing arrangements that fill the theater. Joe Webb is engagingly prescient as the Young Boy and Avery Smith is a sympathetic Young Girl. Phil Leveling is all pomp and certainty as the Father, while Chuck Lavazzi is a grumpy old Grandfather and a spiteful and bitter racist. Jon Bee is sympathetic as Mother's Younger Brother, with a kind heart and innate desire for equal justice, and Ebony Easter has a lovely, gospel infused moment as Sarah's friend. Terry Lee Watkins, Jr., Joseph Gutowski, Gerry Love, Jason Meyers, Laura Kyro, and Angela Bubash are entertaining versions of historic characters, and Jackson Buhr, Jennifer Clodi, Chris Gauss, Melissa Sharon Harris, William Humphrey, Caleb Long, Dorrian Neymour, Kevin O'Brien, Belinda Quimby, and Chrissie Watkins round out the diverse and talented cast.

Ragtime paints a richly textured picture of an America purposefully segregated by wealth, social status, skin color, and nationality. In many ways, our society still adheres to these constructed boundaries. Different perspectives of the American dream, and the lengths many will go to in an effort to secure that dream for themselves or their family, are the central theme of the show. The sweeping musical, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, effectively explores these issues at the turn of the century. That century is 1900, but the questions faced by these characters feel relevant and timely today. Though not all the stories end with "happily ever after," the ending feels cautiously hopeful for the future of our country, perhaps undeservedly so. 

Outstanding performances and a compelling story will likely keep you on the edge of the seat, and the songs and music may make you want to dance despite the serious, almost cautionary undertones of the story, but the musical also provides much food for thought. Ragtime, running through August 19, 2017 at Stray Dog Theatre, isn't always easy to watch, but it rings with authenticity and emotion, resulting in a genuinely moving evening of theater. 

 

 

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