First Run Theatre, a small company dedicated to producing new, locally sourced work, travels back in time to 1963 to take another look at the pivotal days of the civil rights movement. Set in Danville, Virginia, birthplace of the confederate leader Jefferson Davis, Rob Osborne's original play Dreaming in Black and White introduces us to Sonny, an aging white man with a heart condition, and Pearleane, a black working mom trying to take care of her family. 

Sonny needs almost constant care so Pearleane, a local woman who's been working for his sister's friend Lucille, is hired to watch over him while Sister is working at the five and dime in town. The arrangement gets off to a rough start. Sonny is offhandedly racist and accustomed to bossing people around and having them wait on him hand and foot. Pearleane quickly sees through his behavior and refuses to do tasks that Sonny is capable of completing on his own. Add in the persistent racism of the south, and local sit-ins and protests associated with the battle for civil rights, and it quickly becomes apparent that this play has a lesson to teach.

After a fitful start, the two begin to bond over Sonny's love for baseball and both of their hopes and dreams for their sons. Sonny's boy is a promising pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals system while Pearleane's son is simply looking for a respectable job. The protests initially stir contention between the two, and neighbor Charlie Farris, Lucille's husband, adds negative running commentary in a determined effort to get Pearleane fired. Sonny doesn't think much of Charlie, which may help lead him to begrudgingly respect the actions of Pearleane, her son, and the town's other black citizens, or at least that's suggested by the closing scene. 

Will Shaw displays an irascible charm as Sonny, it's clear he's not a bad guy and his racism is played off more as habit rather than hatred. Tamitra Williford is calm and almost serene as Pearleane. Though she mostly avoids direct eye contact with the whites she serves, she refuses to be broken by their disrespect and eventually earns the confidence and affection of Sonny and Sister, played with a chatty tone and perky disposition by Pepi Parshall. Karen Burton and Ed Burguiere, as Sister's best friend Lucille and her overtly racist husband, complete the cast and capably fill the stereotypical roles.

Though well constructed and complete, Dreaming in Black and White is nonetheless a problematic show. The characters and situations are instantly familiar to audiences: an aging, unconsciously racist white person must accept the help of a black person, which leads to a deep friendship and important personal change. In fact, much of the conflict and even some of the dialogue feels like a carnival mirror reflection of Driving Miss Daisy. Director Phil Gill and the cast turn in solid, well-motivated performances, but it's just not enough to keep this well crafted effort from feeling like a retread of better material.

Osborne simply hasn't brought any new ideas or interpretive variation to his script, resulting in a show with characters we already know and a story arc we can easily predict. I wonder if the playwright could have created a script that touched on the important themes presented just as effectively, but was told from a different perspective. In all honestly, I found myself more drawn to and interested in Sister and Lucille.

Sister put her life on hold to care for her brother Sonny. Though she is at first uncertain about a black woman coming into her home, she's quickly won over. Plus, hiring Pearleane gives her the first taste of freedom she's had in years. Every time she comes to visit, Lucille brings along baked goods. Why does Lucille bake so much? Is it possibly a way to deal with her husband's racism and philandering? These two life-long friends are interesting and their changing views on race and culture, as well as the actions each takes in support of each other and Pearleane, offer a different view from which to experience the central theme.

Earnest in its approach, the script is clearly filled with good intentions but there may be a missed opportunity here. Instead of focusing on a situation we've heard before, I would have enjoyed seeing the familiar tale through different eyes. The premier of Dreaming in Black and White continues through July 16, 2017 at First Run Theatre. Solid performances and compelling themes hold your attention, but audiences may be left with the feeling that they've seen this world premier production before.

 

St. Louis Actors' Studio has clearly hit its stride with its annual LaBute New Theater Festival named for, and featuring a new work by, playwright and director Neil LaBute. As usual, the first part of the festival, running for two weekends, has me eagerly anticipating the second. The four plays presented in part one are uniformly strong and feature interesting plots and well developed characters; though there were a few miscues as well as some edits to be considered. 

LaBute's Hate Crime, directed by John Pierson, opens the evening, and does so with brutal impact. The story tells of two lovers plotting to murder the fiancé of the younger lover. Chauncey Thomas and Greg Hunsaker play the lovers with such conviction and questionable motives that the audience is left more than a little uncertain as to the true feelings of either character. The script is viscerally powerful, and the unsettling ending so abrupt, it leaves one uncertain whether there's another scene to come.  

Thomas's expressions are often at odds with the words he's saying, and he visibly bristles at Hunsaker's graphic descriptions, whether discussing the upcoming attack or describing intimate acts. Hunsaker reveals a raw, angry, hatefulness that makes you question why he is in the room with Thomas and, as importantly, why is Thomas with him. The story and sub-context are so clearly at odds with each other, it creates a vicious circle filled with tension.

Waiting for Erie Lackawanna by Ron Radice, directed by John Pierson, is a clever tongue twisting script that delights in wordplay and physical comedy while borrowing more than a little from Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot.' That last observation is both a positive and a negative. Radice show's a talent for dialogue and verbal gymnastics with a good sense of physical comedy; and Reginald Pierre, Spencer Sickmann, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske capably underplay the humor to great effect. 

Pierre and Sickmann are significantly taller than Lawson-Maeske, and the three use this to great comic advantage, and Lawson-Maeske is appealingly convincing as the odd man out who simply doesn't want to ruffle feathers. Pierre and Sickmann bicker like an old married couple, and there's a running bit with the two men surreptitiously switching briefcases that's quite slick. The script becomes a bit self-indulgent and the references to Beckett a bit too obvious, however, causing the show to drag and feel about ten minutes too long, despite the bright performances. 

Sacred Space, by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, directed by Nancy Bell, manages to surprise, educate, and move the audience with a quiet force. Set in a cloistered room reserved for prayers and preparation of the dead, on the morning after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the show both honors and challenges religious tradition while giving voice to the memory of those lost to horrific and inexplicable violence. Sophia Brown and Kim Furlow are Jewish women responsible for bathing and praying over the recently departed members of their congregation. The two are in the midst of administering to a deceased woman when their solemn reverence is interrupted by text messages from victims of the Pulse shooting, which start floating in the air above their work space. The women must decide why this is happening, what it means to them, and what they must do.

In all honesty, the script is a bit emotionally manipulative; but the intention feels pure and a genuinely heartfelt attempt to make sense of the senseless. Brown and Furlow turn in lovely, nuanced performances and the moment when most audience members realize the story unfolding was singularly forceful. The simple acts of dignity and care shown to the dead resonates without overplaying the tragedy.

The evening closes on a effectively comic, yet no less socially perceptive, play Percentage American by Carter W. Lewis, directed by John Pierson. Nancy Bell and Thomas are utterly delightful, self-absorbed, and somewhat pretentious, intellectually speaking. The two were matched via some online app or another, but neither was completely honest in their profile or initial text conversations. As a result, their initial meeting seems destined to fall flat and end quickly. That is, until they realize they are complaining about the same deficiencies of modern dating and the candidates you most frequently meet, which leads to a few awkwardly honest confessional revelations, and provides the missing spark.

After a discussion bemoaning the lack of truth in the world, Bell tells Thomas of a recent experience a couple she knows had while trying to rekindle their romance. In an instant, the two become newshounds sleuthing for the "real truth" and calling in favors from friends and contacts. Bell and Thomas are enthusiastic and impassioned by the process, while Kelly Schaschl provides excellent support as the tragic girl from the news as well as a plethora of newscasters. The script is funny and well written, one of the best the festival has produced, but there's a cautionary point to this tale as well.

Set and lighting designer Patrick Huber has clearly learned a thing or two during the festival's run as well. This years set is compact and efficient, quickly moving from one configuration to the next to reduce changeovers, either from scene-to-scene or play-to-play. Directors Bell and Pierson, along with Linda Kennedy who directs a piece in part two of the festival, provide smart sound design for their shows with selections from the pop canon that nicely transition from play-to-play.

The themes in part one of this year's LaBute New Play Festival, in performance at St. Louis Actors' Studio through July 16, 2017, with part two running July 21 through 30th, resonate contextually and emotionally. The well-crafted scripts feature sharp and insightful dialogue, and bristle with relevance as they explore current topics. The overall impact of the selected plays reinforces the idea that we do, in fact, live in interesting times. 

 

Filled with suggestion, scheming, and comeuppance, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum tells how the slave Pseudolus earns his freedom from Hero, the son of Senex, by helping him win the heart of the lovely Philia, who is currently betrothed to her brother (though the two have never met and don't know they're related). That's a lot to take in, but the show focuses on conveying the story as well as the song, dance, and funny parts. Expertly telegraphing themes and weaving in silly moments, director Gary Griffin keeps the touch appropriately light, with a wry tone that's perfect for the loose and bawdy musical.

Debuting 55 years ago, the musical comedy is loosely based on the plays of Plautus, written around 200 B.C., with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The show kicks off at a merry pace and keeps the laughter rolling from the opening number through mistaken identity and outrageous schemes to the prerequisite happy ending. 

Though some of the attitudes are decidedly outdated, the musical entertains contemporary audiences with its clever take on traditional archetypes and over-the-top portrayals that emphasize the humor in every outrageous moment. Throw in a couple of running gags involving neighbors Lycus and Erronius, one a brothel owner, the other desperately seeking his kidnapped children. Shake well, and you've got the recipe for a frothy comic farce that successfully mixes Broadway, vaudeville, and ancient history.

If you haven't heard, a theatrical plot twist put The Muny's production in peril. Severe allergies, an all-too-common malady for many locals, forced lead actor Peter Scolari to step away from the part just four days before opening night. Thankfully, Jeffrey Schechter (Scuttle from the delightful, family-oriented The Little Mermaid) agreed to step in and fill the role of Pseudolus. The audience on opening night responded graciously to the actor's genuinely funny and endearing portrayal.

As Pseudolus, Schechter impressively fills in for the ailing Scolari and, with the exception of a well timed ad lib, it's easy to forget that he joined the cast just a few days before A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened. Schechter has great physical presence and a demeanor as suitable to the character as his fabulous timing. He revels in the differences between exposition and innuendo, with an earnest, pleasant voice that suits the role. A testament to the ensemble, director Griffin, and Schechter, it all works to ensure it truly is easy to forget the script he holds in his hand at times. 

Schechter is joined by an amiable and capable ensemble, featuring Mark Linn-Baker, who brings a touch of everyman charm to the philandering Senex. E. Faye Butler is full voiced and fierce as the shrewish Domina. Her interplay with Linn-Baker and Marrick Smith, as her son Hero, is humorously overbearing and she expertly commands the stage. John Tartaglia is the perfect counter to Schechter as number one household slave Hysterium. His expressions are easy to read, but never clownish, and you can't help but keep an eye on him. Clearly comfortable playing against each other, Schechter and Tartaglia are a delightfully comic treat that tops off the humorous show. 

Smith's Hero and Ali Ewoldt's Philia complement each other vocally and in character tone and attitude. She's decidedly under-educated, he's most certainly naïve, and everything works out to their advantage, even with Nathaniel Hackmann, who struts and huffs as the preening Miles Gloriosus. The always engaging Jason Kravits and local favorite Whit Reichert continuously pop in and out of scenes to humorous effect and the increasing laughter and applause of the audience; and the Proteans are perhaps the funniest live-action interpretation of "minions" that I've seen to date.

The musical comedy fits the genre to a tee, and the light farce is fun, fast-paced, and filled with silly but engaging characters in a transparent, but nonetheless satisfying, story arc. The feel-good script is complemented with upbeat, positive songs, skillfully directed by Brad Haak and delivered with a bright, crisp tone that clips along at a steady beat. Choreographer Alex Sanchez maximizes the comic opportunities and Mara Blumenfield and John Metzner have fun inside the lines with the referential costumes.

Even with a last minute change in the leading role, The Muny's production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, running through July 11, 2017, is a laugh-packed farce and terrific entertainment, with a couple of memorable songs that may have you humming for days to come. Schechter fills in impressively for the ailing Scolari and the ensemble clearly rallies behind him, adding extra charm and lifting the show a notch. Suitable for the entire family, with humor that hits all the right spots, the show is a perfect distraction for a hot summer night. 

 

Insight Theatre Company continues its inaugural season at the .Zack arts incubator with a stirring, effective production of On Golden Pond that celebrates love during the twilight years of life as well as the talents of long-time St. Louis favorites Joneal Joplin and Susie Wall. The lovely, languid show takes a kind look at a stubborn and resolute man and his endearing and enduring wife, and is filled with reconciliation and reflection.

In addition to strong performances by Wall and Joplin, Michael Pierce is surprisingly believable as fifteen-year-old Billy Ray, junior, quickly moving back and forth between eager kid to device-absorbed teen. Jenny Ryan and Eric Dean White are an engaging Chelsea and Bill Ray. Ryan goes toe-to-toe with Joplin in one of the show's most emotionally satisfying scenes. It's immediately clear that Chelsea has spent a good deal of time and energy trying to please her father, though I would have liked more from the script here. White is in clearly on-edge as a west coast city boy well out of his comfort zone, and his worries about bear attacks are quite humorous, particularly when punctuated by White's wide-eyed, nervous expressions. Kurt Knoedelseder rounds out the cast as the amiable Charlie. He's a plain spoken, down-to-earth fellow, even when wearing his lingering affection for Ryan's Chelsea on his sleeve.

The play, based on the popular movie of the same title, introduces audiences to Norman and Ethel Thayer, an aging couple whose affection has clearly deepened over the years, despite the trials and tests of life. Though the two occasionally bicker, even those moments are steeped in affection and good humor, leading to the overall impression that this couple has lived a truly charmed life. The show opens in late spring, as Norman and Ethel are opening up their summer home, and the couple's conversation flits between old times and neighbors to this summer's plans and the hope that daughter Chelsea will visit. 

Norman's 80th birthday is approaching, much to his chagrin, and he's dealing with a problematic heart, but both he and Ethel share a zest for life that spills enthusiastically forth. Charlie the mailman stops by frequently and Chelsea does visit, bringing her new boyfriend and his son with her and adding another layer of warmth to the story. Norman's prickly side emerges as soon as Chelsea arrives and her boyfriend is on the receiving end of his inquisition, though he's clearly been prepped for the encounter. Having longed for a grandchild, Norman and Ethel are pleased as punch to welcome his son Billy into the family, so much so that the young man stays with them while Bill and Chelsea head to Europe for a getaway of their own. The scenes with Norman, Ethel and the boy, filled with mischief and a renewed sense of purpose for the aging couple, are the most satisfying of the show. 

On Golden Pond ambles along at a measured steady pace, spanning a summer brimming over with the realities of aging, illness, adapting to change, and forgiveness. The joyful moments and memories are emphasized and the family's troubles, particularly the strain between Norman and Chelsea, are resolved without ever really unpacking the reasons that led to the tension. There's an almost too sweet sense of perfection to the nostalgic story and much of the dialogue feels emotionally contrived, yet director Trish Brown and the capable cast keep the show moving and the characters well motivated.

Matt Stuckel's set and technical design, which features a gigantic picture window that looks out on the pond as well as the frequent call of the loons, creates a perfectly rustic and homey setting for the story. Robin Weatherall provides the accompanying sound design and Geordy Van Es the lighting design, both of which complement the cabin setting, and the use of video in the window, rather than a static image, is an effective touch. We see time of day reflected in the glints of sun or moonlight hitting the water as well as watching the pelting rain.

Insight Theatre's production of On Golden Pond, running through July 23, 2017, is a sweetly reflective ode to the life Ethel and Norman Thayer built together. Though I would like more revelation from the story, the show is filled with warmth, redemption and compelling performances that will likely leave audiences feeling chipper and perhaps a little less leery of their own aging. 

 

The Union Avenue Opera just gets better and better. As the opener for their twenty-third season they are presenting a simply splendid production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

As usual, the performance takes place in the nave of the Union Avenue Christian Church -- so this is one of the most intimate venues for opera that you're likely to find. 

As always, founder and music director Scott Schoonover has assembled a cast of superb voices. Among the many Union Avenue productions I've seen I don't recall a one where the quality of voices was more uniformly fine or more ideally chosen to fit perfectly one with another. 

Benjamin Britten wrote fourteen operas and Albert Herring is the only comic one of the lot. The tale, taken from a story by Guy de Maupassant, concerns a small Suffolk village, Loxford. It's 1900 and the leaders of the town are meeting to select the girl who will reign as their annual Queen of the May. The wealthy and domineering Lady Billows is the festival's benefactor, and she rigidly insists that the chosen girl must be pure as the driven snow. One after another Loxford maiden is suggested, but Miss Pike, Lady Billows' keen and dedicated housekeeper, keeps up on every juicy morsel of village gossip; she quickly discredits each candidate for some shameful indiscretion.

What's to be done? Is there not a single virgin in Loxford? Well, there is one. But he's male! Innocent young Albert Herring is truly virtue incarnate -- but only because he has grown up under the oppressive thumb of his widowed mother. Nevertheless he is virtuous. So why not a King of the May? 

Scenic designer Kyra Bishop once again makes wonderful, imaginative use of the small stage. The downstage area is used for Lady Billows' home and for the May Festival Luncheon. Upstage we have the Herring green-grocery store. It took me a while to realize that what I was looking at was in fact a huge apple crate. What an inspired device! During the evening there is a little play with apples -- a little theft, a chomp or two. It's a lovely motif, as this opera is itself like an apple -- tasty, happy, crisp. And, of course, an apple is the very emblem of a fall from innocence.

The incomparable Christine Brewer returns to the Union Avenue stage as Lady Billows (a role she previously performed at Santa Fe Opera). She's a marvel -- a gorgeous voice and a commanding stage presence.

Tenor David Walton sings Albert, and he captures all the frustration and shyness of this repressed innocent. Albert is chagrined at being chosen King of the May and we suffer with him as, dressed all in virginal white and with a crown of orange blossoms atop his straw boater, he fumblingly accepts the monetary prize. (In today's world this would be some $3,000.) Walton has the perfect voice for this role, and he's most impressive in Act 2, scene 2, which is almost completely his soliloquy. Alone in his shop, a little tipsy, he longs for some romance in his life. 

There's a cast of thirteen. There are no real arias and there is no chorus, as such, but frequently we have nine or ten voices singing together, each with its own vocal line. The result is a cornucopia -- or better a kaleidoscope of beautiful music. There is lovely complexity and counterpoint. When, in Act 3, the town wakes to find Albert missing -- and assumes that he is dead -- there is first a beautiful quartet and then a nine-voiced threnody of mourning -- each principal soaring out in a brief solo over an almost chanting collection of other voices. Most beautiful indeed. 

Nathaniel Buttram and Holly Janz sing Sid and Nancy who inspire Albert's envy at their open delight in the pleasures of love -- and who naughtily pour some rum into his lemonade at the festival luncheon. Both are bright and attractive and perfect for these roles. 

Debra Hillabrand as Miss Pike, Leann Schuering as the teacher, David Dillard as the vicar, Anthony Heineman as the mayor and Mark Freiman as the police superintendent all do splendid work. Mr. Freiman, with a bobby's helmet, a grand Victorian moustache and a beautiful comic swagger was another reason why I kept expecting someone to break out into a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.

Janara Kellerman sings the role of Albert's mother most beautifully, and Gina Malone and Victoria Botero are delightful and convincing as village children. (They look so small!) They are joined by a real kid, Seth Drake, in various mischief -- and in a charming singing lesson where Miss Schuering urges them to replace their dropped "H's." (Echoes of "The Rain in Spain.")

Stage director Tim Ocel, who has directed Doubt, The Queen of Spades and Rigoletto for Union Avenue, again shows sheer mastery of his art. Britten's music is programmatic in a very detailed way; a musical phrase will often correspond to a specific movement or gesture or to a children's game with a bouncing ball. Sid's whistling for his sweetheart is supported by an harmonic glissando on a violin. Mr. Ocel gives his actors just the right movement to embody such musical phrases.  

Costumer Teresa Doggett again brings pure perfection to the dressing of these folk, and David Levitt's lighting is gracefully supportive but unobtrusive.

All in all Albert Herring is another gem in the glittering wake of Union Avenue Opera. It continues through July 15.

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