The show which generated the most conversation in St. Louis in 2017 won’t be here until 2018.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre followed the frenzy for Hamilton, the multiple Tony Award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, by marketing the first touring production as part of its 2017-18 subscription series. Doubtless it sold many a season ticket in doing so, then saw individual tickets snatched up at a feverish pace when those became available.
Hamilton makes its local debut in April 2018. For this year, though, there literally were hundreds of presentations for patrons to select from professional, community and college efforts. There likely were about 200 theatrical shows, including comedies, dramas, musicals and operas, in addition to St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s annual LaBute New Play Festival, the Tennessee Williams Festival and the annual St. Lou Fringe extravaganza. In addition, there were dozens of cabaret performances by artists brought to town by The Producers Dolan led by impresario Jim Dolan and the annual St. Louis Cabaret Festival under the aegis of Tim Schall.
We welcomed new troupes, such as the fledgling Bankside Repertory Company and Rogue Theatre, both located in Alton, as well as the ‘because why not?’ company. Robert Neblett’s Inevitable Theatre Company debuted with an intriguing one-character show, Unsuspecting Susan, featuring the incomparable Donna Weinsting. Another new group which made a most auspicious debut was Theatre Macabre. In a performance produced by Theatre Lab, the new kid in town with a flair for the ghastly and ghoulish staged an impressive rendition of Martin McDonagh’s bloody comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
There were so many terrific productions which reflected the commitment of theater artists, both locally and nationally, to hone their craft with precision and pizzazz. St. Louis Shakespeare, e.g., regaled its audiences with a wacky performance of Is He Dead?, a free-wheeling adaptation by David Ives of an original play by Mark Twain. Likewise, Midnight Company’s Little Thing, Big Thing showed once again how large theatrical gems can come in packages delivered by small troupes, in this case Midnight’s artistic director Joe Hanrahan and Rachel Tibbetts.
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza expanded its calendar with a number of touring shows, including the rollicking Sister’s Christmas Catechism, which tapped into the shared grade school experiences of the area’s many Roman Catholics as well as other students of a bygone era. At the other end of the spectrum was the dark but fascinating Theatre Lab presentation of Patrick Marber’s drama, Closer, with director Tom Martin coaxing fine performances from his players.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gave us the American premiere of an engaging and darkly humorous interpretation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial by composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton. Over at The Muny, last-minute replacement Jeffrey Schecter regaled receptive audiences with his stellar performance as Pseudolus, the wily slave in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway production to feature both music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
We enjoyed the humor as well as the spirited singing in Union Avenue Opera’s version of Albert Herring during the summer and Winter Opera's rendition of The Student Prince last autumn.
The Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre was the locale for Mustard Seed Theatre’s season-opening reprise of Remnant, its inaugural production 10 years ago, while Insight Theatre Company offered a solid presentation of On Golden Pond at its new .ZACK Incubator residence. The .ZACK also served host to R-S Theatrics' energetic production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's earlier Tony Award hit musical, In the Heights, which filled the venue with enthusiastic audiences nightly during its run.
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble dazzled us with a delightful paean to Jane Austen titled First Impressions, in which troupe members recounted their own feelings and observations about Austen’s legendary novel, Pride and Prejudice. Later in its “Season of Adaptation,” SATE delivered a powerful and poignant performance of John Steinbeck’s classic work, Of Mice and Men, with Adam Flores and Carl Overly Jr. outstanding respectively as the migrant farm workers George and Lennie, moving from job to job during the Great Depression, desperately holding onto their dreams for a better life.
West End Players Guild showcased inspired performances by Jared Sanz-Agero and Jason Meyers as Irish lads hired as extras for a Hollywood movie on location in Ireland in Stones in His Pockets, while Act, Inc. staged a fine interpretation of William Inge’s 20th century drama, Picnic.
The Black Rep mounted a strong rendition of August Wilson’s masterpiece, Seven Guitars, one of his 10 plays which each focus on a different decade in the 20th century and set in African-American neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. The Black Rep also had a welcome return to Crossin’ Over, producing director Ron Himes’ musical about the African-American experience from the slave ships of Africa to the Civil Rights movement to contemporary times.
Upstream Theater visited South Africa for a stunning drama called A Human Being Died That Night, starring Jacqueline Thompson and Christopher Harris respectively as a black psychologist sent to a South African prison to interview Eugene de Kock, a criminal known as “Prime Evil” for the atrocities committed under his orders. Later in the year comedy took the Upstream stage for a wacky Polish work titled Sweet Revenge.
New Line Theatre showcased the talents of Zachary Allen Farmer and Matt Pentecost as infamous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (modeled on Walter Winchell) and struggling agent Sidney Falcone respectively in The Sweet Smell of Success, John Guare’s book about the dark side of the 1950s featuring Marvin Hamlisch’s jazz/rock musical score. Also, directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor staged the rarely performed Kander & Ebb musical, Zorba, mining its rich potential with an energized cast.
Max & Louie Productions mounted a sobering presentation about legendary singer and tortured drug addict Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, with Alexis Roston in a bravura performance as the immensely gifted but cursed Holiday. On a lighter note, the company offered a very funny and also poignant look at eccentric socialite Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir, with renowned vocalist Debby Lennon hitting all the right notes in appropriately horrible fashion, aided by Paul Cereghino as Jenkins’ long-time accompanist.
New Jewish Theatre staged a pair of sobering historical dramas. Phil Johnson delivered a moving and memorable performance in A Jewish Joke as a comedy writer facing the infamous ‘blacklist’ in the ‘Red Scare’ era of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. The setting was 1924 for a powerful presentation of Never the Sinner, the court trial of cold-blooded killers Leopold and Loeb and their defense by renowned attorney Clarence Darrow. And NJT mounted a moving rendition of Tuesdays with Morrie, with Andrew Michael Neiman as writer Mitch Albom and Jim Anthony as Albom’s mentor and victim of ALS, Morrie Schwartz.
Stages St. Louis presented a witty and engaging version of Seussical and an entertaining rendition of 9 to 5: The Musical, a gleeful show with serious undertones about sexual harassment in the workplace written by Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick. Stages also staged South Pacific, the World War II tale with contemporary relevance due to its treatment of race relations in the far-sighted musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Stray Dog Theatre’s second production of Spring Awakening was actually better than its original one a few years earlier, and its presentation of Sweeney Todd was a masterful telling of Stephen Sondheim’s musical about the 19th century “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in London. Jon Hey was terrific as the maniacal title character, with a smashing performance by Lavonne Byers as the duplicitous Mrs. Lovett. Stray Dog also showcased a fine presentation of Ibsen’s classic drama, A Doll’s House, with finely etched characterizations under artistic director Gary Bell’s meticulous direction.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continued its 50th anniversary season with a richly satisfying production of All My Sons, one of the best plays by one of America’s greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller. It concluded its golden anniversary with a rollicking version of the Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet, about legendary rock ‘n’ roll producer Sam Phillips and four of his “boys,” namely Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Rep’s 51st season included the touching two-character drama Heisenberg and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a charming ‘sequel’ to Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice.
Touring shows are the specialty of the Fabulous Fox Theatre and this year featured several gems. The Lion King returned in all its glory for another romp through the spacious venue, while the touring production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I showed why this 2015 edition directed impeccably by Bartlett Sherr won the Tony Award for Best Revival.
And the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary featured a return engagement of Cabaret, its signature 1998 Broadway production which garnered four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical for the show by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb that is set during the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party in 1930s Germany.
Of the 147 productions by more than two dozen companies which I viewed in 2017, listed below in ascending order are the Top Twelve:
No. 12 (tie): Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Stages. First written in a shorter form by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice while they were college students in the 1960s, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a snappy, snazzy paean to all manner of musical genres. Director/choreographer Stephen Bourneuf led a Stages troupe who kept the fun times rolling in a high-stepping, fast-moving rendition filled with infectious rhythm and an abundance of good cheer.
No. 12 (tie): A Chorus Line at The Muny. Director and choreographer Denis Jones once again weaved his musical magic with a sizzling, scintillating and superior rendition of the show that has been called “The Best Musical. Ever.” Fully 14 of the 19 dancers who participated in an all-night rap session in 1974 to discuss their lives and careers – material which inspired the script of A Chorus Line – at one time had worked at The Muny. A Chorus Line succeeds by integrating a series of personal vignettes into a seamless ensemble piece which reflects the selfless dedication of the dancers who provide the heft and heroics behind a glossy musical. Jones’ inspired version of Broadway’s sixth-longest running show added luster to its already polished history.
No. 11: Carousel at Union Avenue Opera. Thanks to the colorful and creative direction of Ken Page and a spirited reading of Richard Rodgers’ score by musical director Scott Schoonover and the UAO orchestra, Union Avenue Opera’s foray into the rich musical world of composer Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II was a resounding success. This rendition of Carousel entertained like a well-oiled merry-go-round suitable for the splendid acoustics of Union Avenue Christian Church.
No. 10: An American in Paris at The Fabulous Fox. The national touring production of this musical version of An American in Paris showed why the Broadway musical swept up four Tony Awards for its 2015 incarnation. Both the musical and the 1951 movie feature the tunes of composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira. An American in Paris was an effervescent, ever moving, constantly changing theatrical treat which whisked an audience away for an entertaining adventure that was charming and radiant throughout.
No. 9: Uncle Vanya: Valiantly Accepting Next Year’s Agony at Rebel and Misfits Productions. Kelly Hummert, founder and artistic director of Rebel and Misfits, utilized an actual home that was for sale in Ladue as an ideal location for the “immersive theater” concept. She updated Chekhov’s 19th century drama with references to the environment, climate change and other contemporary concerns, but the stifled creativity and thwarted passions of Chekhov’s dark Russian characters remained. It was a refreshing new take on Chekhov’s universal concepts of love, longing and loneliness.
No. 8: Lizzie at New Line Theatre. The “bad boy of musical theatre” opened its 2017-18 season with a sizzling, sensational rendition of a rock musical built around Lizzie Borden, who was accused but later acquitted of killing her father and stepmother in the infamous 19th century murder case which became a cause celebre and part of American folklore. Lizzie was an enjoyable delight from start to finish, thanks to the consistently fine efforts of its quartet of performers on stage, its expert six-piece accompanying band and the carefully defined direction of Mike Dowdy-Windsor. Add Lizzie to the rich artistic trove of adaptations and interpretations of one of America’s enduring criminal stories.
No. 7: The Grapes of Wrath at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. John Steinbeck’s classic 20th century novel about the plight of the common people against the harsh indifference of nature and human greed was given a magnificent and moving interpretation by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the premiere of a new revised version by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. Conductor Christopher Allen engaged members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in a compelling reading of Gordon’s highly listenable and unmistakably American score. Hints of folk music, bluegrass, blues, gospel and jazz permeated Gordon’s affecting music, which distinctly matched Steinbeck’s sobering subject matter.
No. 6: The Royale at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. This one-act, 75-minute drama by Marco Ramirez was inspired by the life of legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American fighter to win the world heavyweight championship. Under Stuart Carden’s astute direction The Rep staged an exhilarating, pulsating production of Ramirez’s taut drama, which blended choreography by “movement and body percussion” designer Stephanie Paul and social commentary into a searing and affecting cautionary tale. The show was similar to an actual boxing match, with its scenes described as “rounds” delivered in explosive, knock-out fashion.
No. 5: Dancing at Lhunasa at Mustard Seed Theatre. The stifling, lonely lives of the Mundy sisters in Brian Friel’s haunting Irish drama provide rich opportunities for accomplished performers to cast the characters in their own interpretations. Such was the case in Mustard Seed’s heart-rending rendition, guided by Gary Barker’s affecting direction. Impeccable performances by the wonderfully nuanced ensemble touched every corner of an Irish Catholic heart and beyond.
No. 4: Intimate Apparel at New Jewish Theatre. Playwright Lynn Nottage based her 2003 drama partly on the life of her great-grandmother, a seamstress at the turn of the 20th century in New York City who had married a man from Barbados. Loneliness is at the core of Nottage’s beautifully written tale, as her six characters each grapple with the stifling suffocation of lives unfulfilled in an industrially changing society often mired in emotional poverty. Outstanding performances by the entire cast under Gary Barker’s meticulous and well-crafted direction made Intimate Apparel a rare beauty stitched from the finest theatrical cloth.
No. 3: Ragtime at Stray Dog Theatre. Associate artistic director Justin Been upped his already impressive game with a monumentally moving and masterful interpretation of Ragtime, the 1998 Broadway sensation which garnered 13 Tony Award nominations. With a cast of 26 people, Stray Dog’s rendition wasn’t perfect but there were many staggering moments in Been’s presentation. It was a magnificent production, memorable and magical in its brilliance to underscore the epic scope of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel and Terrence McNally’s adaptation, stunningly relevant to 21st century America.
No. 2: August: Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Tracy Letts’ sprawling saga is an epic elegy written on an expansive canvas covering three generations of the Weston family in Oklahoma. St. Louis Actors’ Studio brought its ambitious appetite to Letts’ tantalizing tale and devoured the playwright’s piece de resistance with a ravenous hunger which left its audiences skewered but sated after the frightening feast. Wayne Salomon directed the proceedings on the cozy Gaslight Theater stage with an eye for placement of performers to accentuate more intensely dramatic scenes. The production was as up close and personal as you’d want to get to a family such as the Westons, so real it coursed through one’s blood.
No. 1: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Rep. The Rep opened the curtain on its 51st season with the nation’s first regional theater production of this Tony Award-winning Best Play by Simon Stephens, based on a novel by Mark Haddon. Thanks to the guidance and insight of director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Rep audiences saw first-hand a dazzling and intellectually stimulating interpretation of this complex, moody masterpiece, accentuated by Nick LaMedica’s arresting performance in the lead role of young Christopher, a character described by Rep artistic director Steven Woolf as one who “struggles processing everyday situations and exhibits characteristics and actions that many would associate with autism.”
While The Rep secured the rights to the play, it could not obtain permission to use the original design concept. Therefore, Dodge and her designers created their own imaginative and stylized method for conveying the complexities of Christopher’s mind and psyche. The Rep’s version of this unique drama was an invigorating and poignant portrayal of a singular young man who functions differently but as Haddon wrote, “sees things of overpowering beauty to which many of us will remain forever blind.”
In addition to the aforementioned shows, dozens of other productions by myriad companies delighted audiences throughout the area in 2016. Hopefully we can expect more of the same in 2018 in the bustling area arts scene.
Photo credits courtesy of John Lamb (Carousel, Ragtime, August: Osage County), Jerry Naunheim Jr. (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), Eric Woolsey (Intimate Apparel), Jay Gitchoff (The Royale), Ken Howard (The Grapes of Wrath), Jill Ritter Lindberg (Lizzie), Matthew Murphy (An American in Paris), Phillip Hamer and Eric Woolsey (A Chorus Line), Peter Wochniak (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Rebel and Misfits Productions (Uncle Vanya).