Theatre Nuevo, a relatively young company on the block, continues to provoke audiences with its thoughtful exploration of what it means to be fully human. The six short plays introduce us to a variety of real people who are often relegated to labels filled with preconceived notions and prejudice. Each of the shows features well-developed scripts and actors fully invested in their scenes, creating an enjoyable evening of entertainment that may also lead to self-examination. I find this type of prodding from the company beneficial and entertaining, as well as fitting into the old adage that art is sometimes designed to make you uncomfortable, or at least more aware.

The six plays include:

A Comfortable Fit by Stephen Peirick, directed by Adam Flores, a short play that takes a closer look at what it really means to embrace and accept your identity. The beauty here is that the twists are not surprising, but still fresh and revelatory. The comedy-infused script, set in a shoe store, is funny and perceptive and features Julianne Bennett (Gwen), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Jennifer), and Omega Jones (Charlie).

Cleopatra Under Water by Georgina Escobar, directed by Natasha Toro, allows audiences to sit in on a girls' night out that's filled with insights on navigating the world as a woman. We may not all be so perceptive, but the situation is instantly familiar to anyone who has faced a night out as a single adult. Issues of contemporary feminism and the nature of friendship punctuate the quick clever script featuring Grace Langford (Becky), Erin Renée Roberts (Arlene), and Elizabeth Van Pelt (Charity).

La Reception by Carlos-Manuel, directed by Robert Ayllón, is a touching wedding story that feels instantly familiar to anyone who has felt the fear of rejection from family and close friends.  Told in a mix of English and Spanish, the story is easy to follow and engaging. The couple may be gay and Latinx, adding personal relevance and intimacy, but their story is universal in nature and features Isabel Garcia (Sonia), Jesse Muñoz (Raul), and Kelvin Urday (Enrique).

Ofélio by Joshua Inocéncio, directed by Rahamses Galvan, is the most intense and disturbing play of the evening, and it hits hard at the subject of sexual consent. Without getting preachy or judgmental, the show nonetheless takes a pointed look at important issues. Too many people share stories familiar enough to Ofélio's for it not to hit a nerve or two, and the actors, Tyson Cole (Grad Student), Kevin Corpuz (Ofélio), and Grace Langford (Doctor), approach the subject matter with sensitive honesty.

The Bullshit by Gregory Fenner, directed by Anna Skidis Vargas, is a searing script that unabashedly points out inconsistencies in the way people are treated based on looks or ethnicity. The short play drives its points home hard, but without anger, and the actress treated dismissively may at times surprise you with her reactions. The smart show features Chrissie Watkins (Jennifer), Clayton Bury (Simon), Tyson Cole (Morgan), Evan Fornachon (Robert), and Erin Renée Roberts (ASM)

The History of Mexicans in 10 Minutes by Alvaro Saar Rios, directed by Elizabeth Van Pelt, is as comically light as it is genuinely informative. In a quick ten minutes we learn that in the beginning there were no Mexicans. The factual assertion leads to a delightful compressed education delivered with enthusiasm and spirit by Rahamses Galvan (Player 1), Anna Skidis Vargas (Player 2), and Kelvin Urday (Narrator). The information is interesting, entertaining, and you may learn a thing or two just from listening.

Acronyms, like labels, badges, and icons, can be useful in their ability to quickly convey a concept or define shared understanding. Applied too liberally or used as a means of generalizing people -- particularly those you don't personally know or interact with -- is a dangerous and disingenuous practice. Theatre Nuevo mines this slippery slope in Acronyms, an evening of short plays running through June 17, 2017, that provide plenty of art for thought. The direction and performances are compelling, presenting realistic situations and authentic dialogue sharpened for the stage, and the scripts are satisfyingly compact and focused.

 

The MUNY opens its 99th season with a spectacular production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic rock take on the last days of Jesus. The songs are driving, memorable, and serve the storytelling exceptionally well. The performances, featuring Constantine Maroulis as Judas Iscariot, Bryce Ryness as Jesus of Nazareth, and an incomparable Ciara Renée as Mary Magdalene, are phenomenal. Emotionally driven and resonant, they easily read from the front of the stage to the back of the house without feeling overplayed. In short, the musical is a spectacular, crowd-pleasing open to a celebratory season.

Jesus Christ Superstar traces the growing popularity of Jesus, his persecution by the Caiaphas, Annas and other priests, his meeting with King Herod, and his eventual arrest, trial, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate with help from Judas. The action covers a compressed period, keeping the focus tight while allowing for contextual incorporation of many of Jesus' teachings and parables. We're introduced to Judas as he first begins to question why he's following Jesus; to Mary Magdalene when Jesus saves her from stoning; to Simon Zealotes and the Pharisees when each challenges Jesus; and to Peter and the other apostles at the last supper, with each introduction complementing the accompanying lesson. Even Pontius Pilate is first introduced when he wakes from a puzzling dream about Jesus.

Though the show is about Jesus, the story is a twisted and intense triangle, as personified in the battle for Jesus approval and attention between Judas and Mary Magdalene. The plot structure is a constant tug of war with Jesus the serving as the rope, and the struggle to please everyone takes a noticeable and physical toll on him. Ryness, Maroulis, and Renée squeeze every ounce of passion, belief, and drama from the conflict, the sub-context reading as clearly as the biblical storyline. Their voices are clear and well intoned, and director Gordon Greenberg keeps the action and actors moving with equal purpose. You may have seen Jesus Christ Superstar before but it's rarely been played with such commitment to character and motivation.

Under the direction of Colin Welford, the orchestra starts the show with a ringing call to prayer that seamlessly transitions to the tense rock score. Maroulis quickly jumps in with the opening song "Heaven on Their Minds" which deftly incorporates the athletic modern choreography of Jon Rua. This sense of synchronicity continues throughout the show, directing focus. Even the ballads, though quiet and often poignant, are delivered with a sense of urgency, as if everyone on stage can feel the tension building with each step that Jesus takes.

Maroulis has a fabulous rock baritone voice with Broadway finesse, a trait also apparent in Ryness' Jesus, while Renée is perfection from the first note of "Everything's All Right" on. Her gentle, heartfelt "I Don't Know how to Love Him" is at once intimately small and close, but emotionally expansive, and the audience zeros in on the corner of the stage in almost reverent silence. Other musical highlights include the guitar intro and accompanying howl of Maroulis on "Damned for All Time," and Ryness takes on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane."

The Vegas-styled "King Herod's Song," featuring Christopher Sieber, and "Hosanna," "The Last Supper," and the titular "Superstar" are highlights from the ensemble. Nicholas Ward, Mykal Kilgore, Andrew Chappelle, and Ben Davis stand out among the supporting roles, and dance captain Brianna Mercado leads an impressively precise core. Frankly, every song is memorable and exceptionally performed keeping the energy and audience response high. 

The scenic design, by Paul Tate dePoo III and costumes by Tristan Raines artfully blend periods to support the visual and thematic approach. Jesus and his followers are in more traditional garb, while the Romans and Pharisees wear drab uniforms, some with red insignia embossed armbands. The landscape combines ancient stone structures with barbed wire and scaffolding as well as a massive video wall that shows just how closely Jesus is being watched. The lighting design by Nathan W. Scheuer, sound design by John Shivers and David Partridge, and aforementioned video design by Greg Emetaz complete the spectacular storytelling.

Having said that, I have a few minor quibbles with some of the choices made in this production. Jesus collapsing repeatedly into the arms of various followers, as if literally drained by the crowds' demands or other pressures, feels overdone. Perhaps at one key moment it may add dramatic punctuation, as is it weakens a strong, resolute, and aware Jesus, which seems unnecessary. Additionally, the suggestion of resurrection at the end of the show reads like an emotional device, diminishing the thematic intent of Jesus Christ Superstar. I so enjoy the production, the angle and storytelling, and the genuinely connected, exceptionally voiced, and fully engaged performances of Maroulis, Ryness, and Renée, I want the show to end with the same clear focus.

A majestic rock 'n' roll take on a familiar yet compelling story, Jesus Christ Superstar, running through June 19, 2017 at the MUNY in Forest Park, is arguably Rice and Webber's penultimate work. Strong direction from Greenberg and outstanding performances by Maroulis, Ryness, Renée, and the ensemble ensure the story resonates for audiences new and old.

 

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and St. Louis-based playwright Stephen Peirick team up to present the world premier of Monsters, a twisted tale of a dysfunctional couple, their siblings, and a hastily planned murder that twists and turns in gleefully scripted chaos. The contemporary show, set in an unfinished basement somewhere in St. Louis, is clever, funny, and oddly plausible. Solid direction and a talented cast ensure the company makes the most of the witty plot in a thoroughly engaging production.

Monsters focuses on brothers Jeremy and Davis and their desperate, last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating diner they inherited from their father. The plan? A murder for hire carried out at the request of two aging members of the St. Louis mafia. The brothers don't actually know the intended victim, but their regulars have given them enough details to convince them to act and make them feel confident they can succeed. There's also the lure of the $200,000 payout once the deed is done. The plan goes awry when Davis's wife Andi, who is supposed to be at work, discovers Jeremy standing over a bound and gagged Carl in her basement. Andi's sister Piper shows up with her laundry, Davis finally shows up, and comedy ensues. 

Sarajane Alverson, as the sharp-tongued Andi, is nobody's fool. She eventually takes charge of the situation making it clear she's accustomed to cleaning up after her husband and brother-in-law. Alverson is all sighs, eye rolls, and exasperation until she learns of the handsome payout; then she's willing to be swayed. She has a secret of her own, that she's been hesitant to share with anyone except her sister Piper, which further complicates an already tangled situation. 

Kevin O'Brien is simple-minded and childish as Jeremy, but in a good-natured way that makes his character easy to forgive (at least most of the time). He seems a little slow at times, but we soon realize that's likely just his nature. He's a bit spoiled and clearly accustomed to being told what to do, so he doesn't bother wasting time thinking for himself. O'Brien brings naiveté and innocence to the part and the character's convoluted logic trips easily off his tongue, almost convincing us that he's making perfect sense.

Eileen Engel and Jeremy Goldmeier, as Piper and Davis, respectfully, fully realize their character quirks in engaging performances. Engel gives Piper a bit of an edge to animate the character in ways that ensure the at times sarcastically funny part isn't overlooked or thrown away. Goldmeier does a similarly strong job with Davis, who is clearly smarter than his recent actions may indicate, and there's a wonderfully warm rekindling of Davis and Andi's love that's completely unexpected and welcome. Finally, Michael A. Wells is expressive and appropriately nervous in a comic turn as the intended victim, Carl. The gag in his mouth keeps him silent most of the play, but his flailing arms and wide eyed headshakes speak volumes, ensuring audience members generally realize his key lines long before he speaks.

Justin Been provides the stage design, a realistic looking unfinished basement that would fit in to almost any city neighborhood. Director Bell adds casual contemporary costumes, and Tyler Duenow creates an effective lighting design, pulling the show together nicely and giving things a comfortable look and feel. The matter of fact setting serves to further heighten the comic tension. You've likely been in a basement like this one before unless you're like Andi, who generally avoids such things do to their inherent creepiness and propensity to harbor monsters. This attention to detail is understated but important: by the show's end you may wonder whether you haven't seen a few monsters.

Peirick writes fabulous, funny dialogue with a well-developed plot that falls just this side of believable, making the show a comic treat. However, the one-act play still feels about twenty or so minutes too long. Some judicious editing to remove redundancy and a second look at Piper and Andi's birth control discussion scene, which feels heavy and out of place as currently written, may take this good show to the next level. 

In its current version, Monsters, running through June 24, is already a thoroughly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny tale with some surprisingly relatable moments. Mistakes and secrets are revealed as each member of the cast attempts to rationalize the current situation, and Carl's impending demise, while also negotiating a comically dysfunctional family dynamic. Though some editing would undoubtedly improve the show, Stray Dog Theatre has a solid hit with this genuinely appealing and funny comedy.

 

The Midnight Company has gained a reputation for finding and bringing to life the stories of interestingly offbeat characters in odd and unfamiliar situations. Such is the case with Title and Deed, a story about a man seemingly trapped at an airport. The short show, presented without intermission, is curiously lulling and siren-like in its pull.

Will Eno's "monologue for a slightly foreign man" is a warm, wandering journey that gently reminds the audience we are all just passing through this earthly plane. That life is best when you love and allow your self to be loved. That you should fell free to wander aimlessly, but don't stay away too long. Trepidation, determination, and fascination share space in the chatty man's rambling talk. Sometimes actor Joe Hanrahan falters as he searches for a world, other times he becomes so passionate he loses control of the subject matter. Or so it would seem. No matter the detour, he consistently finds his way back to the moment. 

Under the direction of frequent collaborative partner Sarah Whitney, Hanrahan lures us in by creating a curious and complex character with a compelling, if not always clearly purposed, story. With intricate and detailed threads weaving in and out of focus, Eno and Hanrahan seem in perfect consort. They practically hypnotize the audience with language, accent, timing, and pauses. Those pauses of Hanrahan are well timed and deftly played. Whether searching for a word, a memory, or to have a short chat with an audience member, they are gloriously rich in sub-context and innuendo.

Hanrahan ambles on to the stage carrying a small bag and looking around with a somewhat confused expression. He greets the audience as if he half expected us to be waiting for him, but is nonetheless surprised. In a rambling one-hour monologue we learn quite a bit about the man, his mother and father, his loves, and the mistakes he's made in life.  Occasionally stumbling over his word choice and our customs, it's clear the man isn't from "here;" without saying so directly, he even suggests he's not from this planet or plane. What's not clear is whether the man has been sent here on a mission or if he's just passing through on a visit. 

The sparse set, designed by Bess Moynihan, takes advantage of the "seamless wall" at Avatar Studios to blur the horizon, an effect that reinforces the sense of being nowhere specific, but somewhere in between. As the monologue continues, the minimal lighting design slowly begins to further blend the floor and wall. Is it possible that we're all in limbo? Is Hanrahan the angel of death? Or have I just been sitting around the airport waiting for my flight for so long that the world, punctuated by Hanrahan's gentle, rhythmic voice, is hazy. You may feel a part of the time and place without precisely knowing when or where.

Hanrahan's personification ensures we're thoroughly interested in the man's story even if we never quite understand why, and there's a sort of comfortable confusion to his demeanor that instantly engenders sympathy. He describes customs of his homeland -- like reverse weddings and terrible Saturdays -- that pointedly fail to align with our day-to-day realities, all the while espousing that there is no finer state than loving and being loved, an idea that leaves most of the audience nodding in agreement. His most important point however maybe his caution that we "don't get too lost, for too long." 

Title and Deed, running through June 24, perfectly pairs playwright Eno's fabulous wordplay with Hanrahan's gift for interpretation and personification. The Midnight Company once again delivers thoughtful, intimate theater that entertains and provokes. Though we may never fully realize the character's primary purpose, his story is delivered with simple eloquence that strikes me as vaguely important and definitely worth further thought. 

 

 

 

The Old Testament tale of Jacob's son Joseph has fascinated generations and inspired many interpretations. The best-known version of the story is undoubtedly Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical take Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Stages St. Louis opens their season with an energetic production of the popular show that dances and dazzles its way to success.

The favorite of twelve sons, the prophetic Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but survives and becomes the closest advisor to Egypt's Pharaoh. Many years later, when his brothers come to beg Pharaoh for help, Joseph recognizes them though they seem not to know him. Without hesitation, at least in this version, Joseph forgives and reconciles with the family in a story filled with drama, action, and strong moral themes.

Kirsten Scott is engaging and warm as our narrator. Scott's voice cuts through the ensemble with clarity and precision, helping those unfamiliar with the story keep track. Her singing is rich and pleasant, and she brings just the right touch of showmanship to the part. Her smile insinuates there's much more to come as she sets up each scene and transition with a gesture, flick of the wrist, or snap of her fingers. She occasionally interacts with the ensemble, but for the most part keeps herself distant, clearly in storytelling rather than character mode.

Jeff Sears gives Joseph a carefree attitude that's more reminiscent of a west coast surfer dude than a biblical hero. His voice is warm, with a soft rock timbre that suits the music and arrangements while highlighting his range. In a clever bit of writing that captures contemporary stereotypes, Joseph is blissfully unaware of his brothers' jealousy or the dangers he faces and Sears seems genuinely unaffected. Charming and effusive, he remains steadfastly positive in the face of every challenge, a choice that works to good effect in Stages breezy production. 

Scott and Sears are joined by a strong ensemble, ensuring very few off notes and solid harmonies. Steve Isom, Brent Michael DiRoma, Molly Tines, Jeremiah Ginn, Brad Frenette, and Jason Eno stand out in supporting roles, easily mastering the many musical styles present in the show. Stephen Bourneuf skillfully directs and choreographs the show, with musical direction from Lisa Campbell Albert, scenic design by James Wolk, lighting by Sean M. Savoie, and delightfully campy costumes by Brad Musgrove.

Stages production of the popular show is fast paced, flashy, and fun. Light exposition leads us through the story, but most of the telling is done via song and dance. The numbers are lively and well executed, touching on a variety of popular musical styles. Clever anachronisms, such as a "FedEx" delivery guy on a scooter, a debit card machine, a smart phone, and a hip-shaking, scene-stealing Pharaoh who's clearly channeling Elvis Presley, add fresh comedy to the show without distracting from the storytelling. 

Unfortunately, however, this production feels disconnected. The transitions are serviceable but they don't propel the story forward and the actors, from the leads through the chorus members, at times act as if they are the only one on stage. Simply put the cast hasn't yet come together; the energy is a little lacking, and the tempo a touch uneven, with a tendency to rush through the numbers. Hopefully, the show will find its footing and coalesce during its run. As of now, the overall result is a feeling that the show is quite good, but not quite there.

Additionally, there are so many different musical styles and featured solos incorporated that the show feels a bit like a musical revue and the story gets lost. It's almost as if Rice and Webber couldn't decide on their approach so they included a musical reference to every popular style at the time the show was penned. The "trying to please everybody" approach really muddies up the storytelling in this case. Though all the songs are good and well performed, they simply don't flow together and, honestly, there's not a single piece that stands out. 

Still, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, running through July 2, 2017, remains a good story with a humorous approach, pleasantly catchy tunes, and entertaining choreography. Though Bourneuf may have done more to ensure a clear through line, the failings of the show are easily traced to the disjointed and overstuffed book and score, and Stages St. Louis has plenty to be proud of in their clever and entertaining production.

 

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