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. 

 

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. 

 

Kids have such a wonderful ability to access magic and possibility, so there's something inherently life-affirming to watching theater created with them in mind. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her crew clearly get this. Her vision and choices for the MUNY's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid seem to spring forth from the mind of a very precocious child. When combined with the highest quality ensemble, fluid choreography, and an imaginative design, the result is delightful theater that the whole family can enjoy and children are likely to remember for years to come.

Disney's The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, the youngest daughter of Triton, king of the mer-people and ruler of the seas. Inquisitive and adventurous by nature, Ariel is enamored with the humans who live above the water and desperately wants to know more about them. Her constant companions Flounder the fish, Sebastian the crab, and Scuttle the seagull do their best to watch over the spirited mermaid, but she soon meets and falls in love with Prince Eric. A human. With legs. Aided by Triton's jealously wicked sister Ursula, Arial gets the opportunity to join the humans. But if she doesn't get the prince to fall in love with her in three days, she will lose her soul.

The synopsis is more frightening than the story itself, which is an underwater fairytale replete with fanciful sea animals, catchy songs, and the requisite happy ending. Nickelodeon star Emma Degerstedt is instantly appealing as Ariel. She's believably enchanting, with an ebullient spirit, and her voice, whether singing or speaking, has the bright anticipatory tone of youth. Her movements, except when she's learning to use her newfound legs, are gracefully fluid and expressively animated. Degerstedt laughs and smiles and seems to float across the stage, sharing her enthusiasm and telegraphing her hopes and emotions to the audience.

Degerstedt is matched in excellence by a strong supporting cast. Jason Gotay, as Prince Eric, has a rich midrange voice that pairs well with Degerstedt and his characterization matches hers in wide-eyed excitement. Jerry Dixon is powerful, with a rich deep voice and stern demeanor as King Triton, but he's clearly a softie who wears his heart on his sleeve. James T. Lane and Richard B. Watson show great comic timing as Sebastian and Grimsby, respectively, and Lane is captivating and fun on the lead vocals in "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." 

The irrepressibly delightful Spencer Jones steals a number of scenes as Flounder. His pleasing voice is much mightier and better developed than one would expect for his age, and is only belied by his character's eager nature. Kevin Zak and Will Porter slither and shine as Ursula's sea serpent henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam. They're perfect complements to the flawless Emily Skinner as Ursula, a capriciously evil role that Skinner clearly enjoys. She (and the perfectly synchronized teenagers who form her tentacles) is completely captivating as she schemes, cackles, and sings with wicked glee, and her every movement is a spectacle in itself.

The technical considerations for this show are a significant element of its success. Choreographer Josh Walden and music director Charlie Alterman complement Dodge's vision to near perfection, visually and audibly creating the suggestion of a world beyond the shore. Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc., with the help of costume designer Robin L. McGee and wig designer John Metzner, fill the expansive stage with visual interest that's in continuous motion, as it naturally would be in a world under the sea. The cast crew, and orchestra come together in complete harmony from the opening note to the final bow, and the plethora of colorful sea creature puppets are a kaleidoscopic delight. 

There are some minor disappointments in the show, however. The costumes are fabulous for the most part, but a few need more visual and character affirming details. The most prominent is Flounder's costume, which lacks oomph and falls a little flat compared to the others, though Jones adds plenty of personality. I also want Sebastian to look a tad more crustacean, perhaps with some antennae. Additionally, I expected shell tops on the mermaids; it's a small quibble that still seems important in my memory.  The use of the video walls is also a bit hit or miss for me. They enhance the feeling of being on or under water but also create confusion, particularly during Ursula's final scene. These are all little touches, however, and may reflect choices made to emphasize the idea of the show springing from the imagination of a child. They certainly don't diminish the quality or enjoyment of the production.

Much like Disney's original film, the MUNY's take on this classic tale is fantastic family theater that's filled with abundant heart and plenty of laughs. The story is visually compelling and delivered with a light touch, the songs are catchy, and the characters are realized in ways that resemble and amplify the animated version. In short, Disney's The Little Mermaid, in performance through June 29, 2017, springs to life with imagination and creativity that's sure to entertain.

 

 

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.

 

St. Louis theatergoers with a taste for twisted tales and things that go bump in the night have new cause to rejoice. With a smartly efficient approach and technical support, Theatre Lab helps bring Theatre Macabre's vision of horror-story-based theater to life. The company's inaugural production The Lieutenant of Inishmore is full-on horror and hilarity, delivered with a wink, a nod, and a pint or four of stage blood. Plus, the story is every bit as interesting as it is comically horrific.

The show is set during the active years of the IRA's campaign against Britain for control of Ireland. Padraic, an IRA lieutenant, takes to torture with the same eloquent style as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, only funnier. He's so bent and violent, however, that even the IRA questions his methods. The organization is particularly riled by his anti-drug behavior. After all, they're making money hand over fist from kickbacks and protection fees. As a result, Padraic is being pursued by three former acquaintances that unwisely choose to use his cat and "one true friend," Thomas, to lure him home and into their trap. 

Padraic's father Donny, who's just as afraid of the man as anyone, and neighbor Davey try to make the best of the situation, but Donny eventually has to call Padraic and let him know something's wrong with Thomas. Donny interrupts Padraic in the midst of torturing a captured prisoner, saving the prisoner's life and causing Padraic to hurry home. Mairead, Davey's 16-year-old sister who happens to love the IRA, Padraic, and her own cat with equal devotion, eagerly pursues him. The resulting mix-ups and gruesome violence that follow Padraic's homecoming is hilariously funny and, in some deeply wrong way, absolutely satisfying. Even Mairead's ascendance, as menacing as it may be, will keep audiences laughing.

Charlie Barron and Larissa White are fiendishly fabulous as Padraic and Mairead. Their romance is quirky and their personalities violently exaggerated, ensuring the two are also completely engrossing. Barron creates numerous contradictions in Padraic and, in a way that's creepily believable, effortlessly shifts from one extreme emotion or reaction to the next. White is enthusiastically trigger happy, and a sharp shooter to boot. What Mairead may lack in finesse and feminine wiles she makes up for with eagerness and accuracy; White embraces the character's inconsistencies with gleeful abandon.

Chuck Brinkley, as Donny, and Mark Saunders, as Davey, are convincingly daft and slow on the uptake and comically illogical, but with a genuine likability. They are the accidental witnesses and nosy neighbors who know more than they should. Brinkley and Saunders find levels in these bumbling characters that keep us almost as interested in them as we are in Baron and White. Chuck Winning, Brock Russell, and Jake Blonstein blunder effectively as Padraic's IRA buddies, their verbal and physical humor reminiscent of "The Three Stooges." It's clear they too have good reason to fear Padraic's wrath. It's equally clear that they don't quite fully appreciate the finer qualities of Barron's sharply wrought mania. Finally, Jackson Harned is among the most cooperative and sympathetic drug dealers and torture victims you will ever meet.

The simple set, designed by Eric Kuhn, is realistically normal and hard scrapple, allowing for the addition of increasingly interesting props and set pieces. A seesaw, multiple cats (both stuffed and real), a number of dead bodies, and several bloody effects, designed by Valleri Dillard, demonstrate that Theatre Macabre has a clear vision and well-defined expectations for the live horror theater they intend to produce. Lighting designers Tony Anselmo and Kevin Bowman, sound designer Ted Drury, and costume designer Sarah Porter turn in solid work that enhances the story and humor.

Theatre Lab and Theatre Macabre team together well, ensuring the production, directed with efficiency by Nick Kelly, moves at a quick pace. The effects are perfectly timed and executed, and the humor shines darkly in the night. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, running through June 25, 2017, may not surprise you, per se, but if you enjoy horror and comedy, this show is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. The situations are just plausible enough and the violence is over-the-top gleeful, ensuring that lovers of macabre stories and horror films will likely have a devilishly delightful time. 

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