For sheer spectacle and artistic excellence, I can't think of many shows I'd rather see than Broadway's take on the beloved animated film Disney's The Lion King. And while the musical is based on and takes its storyline from the original movie, the stage production is its own fantastic journey -- one that honors the original story and the African savanna where it is set. 

The "Circle of Life" is the story at the center of this thoroughly engaging tale. Rafiki the monkey and Zazu the dodo guide the audience through the story, each in their own fashion. As the leader of his pride, Mufasa, the acknowledged king, is respected and admired by the animals that share his kingdom, which stretches as far as your eyes can see. Naturally, the birth of his son Simba sees all the creatures from far and wide gathering to celebrate. Everyone, it seems, is excited to meet the princely young lion cub. Well, almost everyone. Scar, Mufasa's younger brother, would prefer he were the king and, with clearly devious intention, he schemes and plots his ascendance. 

Frightened by the untimely death of his father, the gullible Simba heeds Scar's advice and runs away from the pride. Scar jumps at the opportunity and, thinking Simba has died as well, installs himself as king. Somewhere on the other side of the jungle, however, Timon, the meerkat, and his companion Pumbaa, the warthog, have rescued Simba and are helping him survive and mature. Though it was never his intention, a chance meeting with the lioness Nala, his childhood friend, leads Simba to realize his destiny and return home. 

Mukelisiwe Goba is enchanting as Rafiki, introducing the story in a language filled with clicks, smiles, and body language. The scene completes the imaginative opening sequence and transitions us from spectacle to story. Gerald Ramsey's Mufasa is strong and stern, a fair king who's able to enjoy frequent playful outbursts with his son. His death, while dramatic, is presented with a kind touch. You may shed a stray tear or two during the show, and this is one of those moments. Tony Freeman is humorous in voice and body movements as Zazu the Dodo, the eyes and ears of the kingdom, and Sophia Stephens, as Sarabi, Nick Cordileone, as Timon, and Ben Lipitz, as Pumbaa provide outstanding, often comic, support.

The all-important test of maturation and ability is the battle between Simba and his uncle Scar for the crown and the heart of Nala. Mark Campbell is particular, petulant, preening, and always plotting as Scar, the coordination of his exaggerated pointing, stretching, and turning with his mask is marvelous to watch. Dashaun Young counters with a Simba that is bold, street smart, and muscularly graceful, while Devin Graves and Jordan Wilson provide a younger reflection of Simba that's believably similar in tone and movement. Nia Holloway gives Nala a decidedly fierce and independent attitude, with athletic movements that are fluid and connected. Grier Burke and Meilani Cisneros demonstrate the same stubborn attitude and curious nature as young Nala.

Disney's The Lion King musical is a unique theatrical experience for the opening parade of animals alone. The staging re-imagines the well-known story with African rhythms, culture, and language, fitting changes that enhance the show. The songs, originally composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, receive new arrangements and adaptations by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer that more seamlessly blend with the African influences. Modern dance choreography by Garth Fagan fully articulates and emulates the graceful movements of wild animals; the dances are acrobatic and bursting with expression. Finally, exquisite puppetry captivates and delights. Birds fly, giraffes lope, gazelles leap, and elephants march across the dessert plains with expert synchronicity and form. 

The set design, lighting, and costumes expertly capture the colors, textures, and sense of the African plains, and the actors truly disappear into their characters. The combination of choreography, costume and make-up, and actor is, for the most part, phenomenal; though I wish Timon the meerkat was better integrated. That was, however, my only serious quibble in an otherwise fabulous production. 

The resulting show is filled with a sense of awe that lingers well beyond the curtain. Suitable for all but the youngest and most sensitive family members, the production fills the fabulous Fox Theatre with color, light, sound, and action. Many characters enter, speak, and exit throughout the theater, an unusual but effectively immersive touch. Disney's The Lion King, running through May 7, 2017, is a singularly unforgettable experience. The music is engaging and entertaining, the story told with a deft touch, and the animals vibrate with joie de vivre in a magical, memorable production.

 

  

Memory is a tricky thing. Life altering events take on exaggerated significance over the years, while the important, everyday pleasures and small moments fade from view. Mustard Seed Theatre's warm and comforting interpretation of Dancing at Lughnasa embraces those little moments and memories. Using the everyday as a setting, the show creates a warm tapestry of love and life in a rapidly changing world. 

Set in Donegal County, Ireland in 1936, when global tensions were mounting but local concerns kept the looming war far away, Brian Friel's tender memory play revisits an important summer in young Michael, our narrator's, life. A significant turning point for his family, Michael's unmarried mother, Christina, and her four sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, and Rose are eagerly anticipating their missionary brother Jack's return from Africa. 

The economy is tough, so they all live together in a small country cottage, scraping to get by as best they can. Jack has embraced the local beliefs of the leper community he served and, fittingly, returns shortly before the feast of Lughnasa, a pre-Christian harvest celebration still locally celebrated. Devoutly religious sister Kate has concerns about him, as well as her family's survival. Michael's father, Gerry, a wayward traveling salesman, unexpectedly pops in throughout the summer, adding stress to an already full house. 

As young Michael and narrator, Jim Butz exudes the reverence and innocence Friel has so expertly captured in his script. There's an unaffected lilt to Michael's voice that's present throughout the story, and Butz complements it with a wistful dreaminess in posture and expression as he voices his younger self. Butz and director Gary Barker ensure Michael never enters the scene with his family, but the actor is physically, emotionally, and mentally present in each moment. 

Butz gets splendid and affectionate support from a fabulous cast, helping the show traverse its ups and downs with a gentle but realistic tone. Jennifer Theby Quinn brings radiance to Christina's every breath, in moments of joy and sorrow. Her scenes with Richard Strelinger, Michael's father, sparkle with affection and emotion, a striking contrast to the hard working, matter-of-fact demeanor that takes over when he's away. Amy Loui gives Kate a sharp but not unkind edge. She's clearly upset by her brother's changes, and constantly worrying about how the family will get by. Kelly Weber shares her burden, but remains exuberant and playful as Maggie, working to stretch the food and keep spirits high. She's clearly the "man" of the house, and constantly reminds everyone how much she'd like a real man around to help her out.

Leslie Wobbe is kind, patient, and sensibly nurturing to all as Agnes. Her voice gentle and soothing and her hands constantly working, trying to contribute and keep the peace. Michelle Hand brings a deft but perfectly accentuated touch to simple Rose, underplaying the girl's troubles then bursting into joyful activity for a song on the radio or funny story that reveals all. Finally, Gary Glasgow is lit with fire and longing as Father Jack, while Strelinger brings rakish charm and a more base fire to his likeable turn as Michael's unreliable father.

The tone of the story is bittersweet -- both the home situation and the world will change radically over the coming decade. But Friel's rhapsodic dialogue and pristine clarity in the moment helps us to ignore, if not entirely forget, the inevitable. Butz skillfully guides us through these transitions as Michael and the result is a gentle lullaby of a show, dreamy and dotted with small, personal details that sparkle like distant stars. 

The fabulously detailed set, by Kyra Bishop, feels welcoming if sparse, expertly capturing the look of both the time and the family's struggles to survive. Jane Sullivan's cleverly appropriate costumes, Michael Sullivan's sunny lighting, and Zoe Sullivan's sound, including the wonderful "wireless" radio, add icing on this multi-tiered confection. 

Though tested by troubled times, Dancing at Lughnasa offers a tirelessly hopeful light, which, while dulled through years of harsh circumstances and sacrifice, shines bright. The show, running through April 30, 2017 at Mustard Seed Theatre on the Fontbonne University campus, is a poignant tale that dances and skips through serious subject matter, leaving the audience with a wistful, nostalgic warmth.

 

St. Louis Actors Studio puts the drama in dramedy with its production of Tracy Letts' unsettling story about life, death, and family secrets. August: Osage County is ripe with an abundance of dark humor and more than the normal surprises. The dysfunctional Weston family constantly scratches at wounds that never really heal and fight battles that can't be won. The three-act show is intense, unrelenting, and impossibly compelling -- even when the story makes you cringe, you absolutely want to know what will happen next.

Matriarch Violet Weston has called her daughters and sister to the family's Oklahoma homestead after husband Bev, in a small but effective turn by Larry Dell, disappears. Professor Barbara, librarian Ivy, and dreamer Karen do not have a close relationship, a fact emphasized repeatedly during the family emergency. Violet's sister, Mattie Fay, tries to be supportive in her own way, but she's harsh at times, a lesser evil to Violet's viciously mean-spirited candor. Barbara's husband and daughter, Mattie Fay's husband and grown son, and Karen's sleazy fiancée, as well as the newly hired housekeeper Johnna and local sheriff, have all come along for this bumpy, uncertain ride.

The remarkable Kari Ely gives Violet a steely grip, caustic wit, and unrestrained temperament. She commands and demands attention, whether slurring and falling off a chair in a stupor, or attacking her daughters with "the truth." Delivering her lines with a sniper's accuracy, she breaks down every character she encounters with a venomous tongue. Ely is not afraid of being unlikeable; her natural charisma fights this in a way that simply increases the turmoil. You want to see Vi change, soften just a bit; and at times you think you see a gentler side of her, but it's just another of Vi's calculated manipulations.

Meghan Baker, as daughter Barbara, matches her blow for blow, but she doesn't have Violet's tenacity. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, saying as much with a resigned shrug or pointed look, Emily Baker, as Ivy, is quiet but filled with steely resolve that can't be broken, her desperately fleeting expressions telling much. Always observant and seemingly obedient, she displays a fiercely protective nature when threatened. Rachel Fenton flits about brightly as Karen, appropriately self-absorbed, blind to her own truths, and out-of-touch with the emotions of the rest of the family in a performance that speaks volumes about the character's coping mechanisms. 

The women get sterling support from the men in their lives: Dell, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, and Drew Battles. Dell is drunk but sharp in his opening scene, ensuring Meaghan Baker's mirroring of his movements at the end of the play resonates loudly, one of many small but brilliant moments orchestrated by the sure hand of director Wayne Solomon. Wassilak, as Barbara's husband Bill, plays a man trying to do the right thing but losing patience and making it clear he'd rather be somewhere else. Peirick is awkward, clumsy, and endearingly sweet natured as Little Charles, Mattie Fay's much beleaguered son. He beams with genuine happiness in his scenes with Emily Baker, and stumbles and blushes when anyone else pays him attention. Battles slithers through the show, suggesting a man constantly on the prowl for his next amusement and accustomed to breaking rules without consequence, in a way that makes your skin crawl. 

Bridget Basa is convincingly uninterested in the family drama as Barbara and Bill's daughter. Kim Furlow and William Roth squabble lovingly as sister Matty Fay and her husband Charles, and the two have a powerful moment when Charles finally stands up to Mattie Fay's brow beating. Wendy Renee Farmer and GP Hunsaker are effective in smaller supporting roles, and Farmer's consolation of Ely as the curtain falls is surprisingly tender. The ensemble crowds the stage in a way that expertly reflects and intensifies the inherent tension in the darkly comic tragedy creating a captivating, at times horrifying, story that deeply unsettles and satisfies. 

The stage, by Patrick Huber, is a marvel in and of itself, and its compact, densely constructed three-story frame ensures the cast is uncomfortably close, yet frequently just out of reach. Dalton Robison's lights and Carla Landis' costumes and props and just the right ambiance and details to keep the scenes, spaces, and characters crisp and clear, not always easy to do with so many characters in such tight quarters.

The family dynamic is almost always compelling material, even more so when it's dangerously explosive. Letts captures that tension, and the related necessary releases of pressure, in a way that commands your attention. St. Louis Actors Studio's production of August: Osage County, running through April 30, 2017 is fantastically prickly and exceptionally well acted, creating a powerful evening of satisfying drama.

 

 

West End Players Guild closes their season with a complex and cerebral retelling of the tragedy of Oedipus. Their commissioned production Oedipus Apparatus delves into mythology and death -- what it means to humans to ponder their existence and how they feel about that final moment -- in heady fashion. In a clever twist, the fact Oedipus consciously tried to avoid his fate and is therefore blind to the truth before him is replayed and examined from differing perspectives until clarity is, presumably, achieved. 

Oedipus, the brave warrior who accidentally killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling the gods' curse while calling forth a plague on the city of Thebes, is trying to end the curse on the city he now rules. The storytelling is one part the class work of daughter Antigone, one part a psychic hotline show in the free flowing conversational style of The View, and one part soap opera-esque melodrama. The equation adds up, creating a cohesive, thought provoking show. 

Alicen Moser is cheerful and inquisitive as Antigone. She is creating a mechanical family tree as a class project and traces her history back to early mythology. Perpetually perky and hopeful, she is increasingly startled as she sees the story evolve. Her father Oedipus, played with a naturally overconfident swagger by Mitch Eagles, is stubborn, certain, and wrong. Mother Jocasta, a wonderfully hazy Maggie Conroy, nearly floats through her scenes, her voice a soft whisper with a languid cadence. 

Will Bonfiglio is part diplomat, part playboy as Creon, and genuinely distraught. There's a sense of punctiliousness about him that is both appropriate and disarming, and he and Eagles spar with verbal precision in turns witty, defensive, and assertive. Carl Overly, Jr. as Tiresius, Ellie Schwetye as the Sphinx, Cara Barresi as Artemis, Michael Cassidy Flynn as Dr. Freud, and Rachel Tibbetts as Athena and a priestess are engagingly funny and perceptive as our psychic talk show, and Joe Taylor provides music as well as portraying Apollo. The cast is continually moving back and forward in time, almost as if Taylor's Apollo is editing a filmed version of the drama unfolding. 

The dialogue shifts with each repetition, sometimes the actors speak in geometry and physics terms, other times they delve into the psychologically of dreams and the hubris of man in the face of unpleasant realities. The show demands your constant attention, enticing you to look in other corners and think about a different perspective without losing your way. Where the machine is all science, construction, and logic, the psychology is fluid, guileless, and open to interpretation. 

The set, designed and built by Kristin Cassidy and Lucy Cashion, with additional show design by Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis, is a marvel to behold. Expanding from the stage to well beyond the company's usual footprint, it consists of a giant Rube Goldberg-like machine in an almost continual state of movement or addition, bookended by Jocasta's bedroom suite and the set of the televisions show. 

At times, this hodge-podge of disparate ideas -- the history project, the machine, the talk show -- feels like it's about to lose its connecting thread, but it never does, much to the delight of this reviewer. Cashion and her talented ensemble of actors and technicians appear in perfect synchronicity, expertly shifting and resetting our attention while ensuring we remain entertained in each iteration. The story of Oedipus is the constant around which all the elements balance, enabling the machine to stay on track in its ceaseless repetition.

At just under two hours without an intermission, there are likely scenes that can be shortened, and a little overall tightening might help keep the pace from occasionally lagging, but I honestly can't pinpoint the necessary cuts. The characters are interesting, a well-constructed pastiche of vaguely familiar archetypes and antagonists, each serving a specific purpose in the show. The overarching introduction at the top of the show may be a bit pretentious, but the clever premise works, creating captivating theater that stimulates your senses and intellect.

Oedipus Apparatus, running through April 30, 2017 at West End Players Guild, won't please all audiences. Some may find the long opening monologue in a dark theater a bit uncomfortable; others may feel lost in the script's mathematically driven prose. For me, mixing philosophy, science, and mathematics with questionably sourced history and a televised talk show is wickedly fabulous entertainment. 

 

 

Wash U's Performing Arts Department has revived Gossip, a 1977 comic spoof by Canada's prolific George F. Walker. And I'm not exactly sure why. 

Gossip deals with the murder of Jane "The Bitch" Nelson -- a particularly obnoxious celebrity. She is poisoned at a very tony art exhibition and falls dead into a tire swing -- one of the objets d'art on display. (In some productions her body remains there throughout the play.) 

Well, who dunnit?

T.M. Power is a serious, hard-hitting political reporter and when his boss, Baxter, assigns him to investigate the case he at first refuses; this assignment into the world of scandal and gossip is beneath him. But Baxter insists and Power begins his investigation. In a dozen or more brief scenes in six different locations, Power meets the following bizarre members of the glitterati and their hangers-on:

  • Peter Bellum, a self-inflated acting coach, played by Daniel Washelesky
  • Anna, a young and sexy aspiring actress who will do quite anything for a buck, played by Nina Punyamurthy.
  • Brigot Nelson, an avant-garde poet (and sister to the dead Jane), played by Jacque Randolph.
  • Allan, Brigot's abjectly obedient servant, played by Dwayne McCowan. He is eager to obey every time she cries "Kill him!" (in the tone of the Red Queen crying "Off with his head!") 
  • Margaret, Power's deranged ex-sweet-heart, played by Carly Rosenbaum. She is madly in love with her own brother (a powerful and corrupt senator), but needs for Power to be in love with her.
  • Norman and Sam Lewis, lawyer brothers (twins?) who seem to do everything in synch, even smoking and sex. They're played by Jake Wallack and Brandon Krisko.
  • Susan Long, a very high-class hooker, played by Marley Rosetree.

All of these folks are sheer cartoons, and the plot is simply beyond comprehension. But that's not important, because we're not intended to comprehend. This is not a mystery, it's a spoof of all those noire murder mysteries. As with the enormously popular TV series Poirot and Midsomer Murders, the play ends with all the suspects gathered in the drawing room (or wherever) as the detective gives an expository monologue detailing the motives and actions and, finally, identifying the killer. The detective somehow magically knows all this. (Those "little gray cells" must be amazingly powerful.)

In Gossip, as T.M. Power delivers this final monologue, it is simply impossible to follow the Byzantine convolutions of murders, disguises, non-existent characters, mysterious things that may or may not have happened in Argentina, the discovery of a mystical tribe of tiny people, dreams of Utopia, hidden motives, and people who are not dead after all. And, actually, Power really never has found the killer of Jane "The Bitch".

Goofy? Well, yes! 

But why revive this play? Now, I believe that America's worship of celebrity -- our obsession with the manufacture, merchandizing and monetizing of celebrity -- is one of our greatest problems. But this play is not a satire on celebrity-worship. No, it is merely a spoof of that noire mystery genre with all its prickly hard-boiled dialogue and its Hollywood character types. As a spoof it could have been quite funny. (There were frequent laughs but there should have been many more.) To be a spoof it requires a far brisker pace. It requires a vaudeville pace. That final monologue should be just as presto as a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. To hell with making each word understood; we should be swept away in the vast silliness of it all. In this production the pace is too often leisurely, the acting too naturalistic. The show should have been maybe twenty minutes shorter. As it is I'm afraid I must say that it often sags into tedium. 

It's not just the acting that slowed things down. The set, by Lindsay Eisold, is very, very beautiful: simple, spare, elegant, all golds and tans with a sort of monochrome-Mondrian pattern on the floor. The minimalist art exhibition in the first scene is stunning: clean, bright, clear. Wonderful work. There's not a lot of furniture -- some benches, a desk or two, a table, a bed -- but for this play to work as a fast-paced spoof there's just too much. Scene changes are swift, but still the time needed for the shifting of even those few pieces of furniture slows things down. The cinematic style -- many short scenes -- is better served with perhaps just pools of light.

Director William Whitaker wisely chose to do the play in three-quarter round, with the audience on the stage. This intimacy is really helpful if the audience is to follow really fast-paced dialogue. But, alas, there was very little fast-paced dialogue.

So, despite yeoman's work by the entire cast, a failure in pace and acting style scuttles this revival of Gossip. It played at Wash U's Edison Theatre April 20 through 23.

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