How to begin to describe the theater experience in St. Louis in 2007? Certainly the growth in both the quantity and quality of offerings is apparent, with several new theater companies including the St. Louis Actors’ Studio and Mustard Seed Theatre joining more established troupes. The year also marked the opening of several new venues, including Tower Grove Abbey (home of Stray Dog Theatre), Gaslight Theater (home of the St. Louis Actors’ Studio) and Ivory Theater (where New Line Theatre, the NonProphet Theater Company and Hydeware Theatre all reside).
In poring over columns from the past 12 months some 130 at professional, semi-professional, community and college stages I was a bit surprised to see that nearly one-third received lofty ratings. Here’s a brief recap of the superior and spectacular on local boards in this past year:
THE REP provided a number of outstanding productions, including the sci-fi drama, A Number, about the confrontations between a troubled scientist and several identical sons he cloned from the original. Anderson Matthews and Jim Butz were outstanding as the doctor and his sundry offspring, crisply directed by Susan Gregg.
Other Rep highlights included Sherlock Holmes’ Final Adventure, a feast for the eyes with its dazzling Victorian set by Neil Patel and handsome acting by Joris Stuyck as the iconoclastic sleuth. Woman Before a Glass was a stylish studio production with Glynis Bell capturing the pride and pizzazz of renowned modern art patron Peggy Guggenheim. And an infectious, delightful production of Kiss Me, Kate under the spirited direction of Victoria Bussert made a fine holiday gift for Rep subscribers.
The FOX THEATRE welcomed The Drowsy Chaperone and her entourage in a wonderfully witty and charming ‘comedy with music’ that featured a meek and mellow fellow played to perfection by Jonathan Crombie. Earlier this saw the triumphant return of The Lion King, an impressive, eye-popping extravaganza.
THE MUNY mounted an impressive production of Les Miserables that utilized the massive outdoor stage. After MIDNIGHT’s Cul-de-Sac featured a tour de force performance by Joe Hanrahan as several different neighbors in a cloistered suburban setting, most deliciously a precocious little girl who commented on the tawdry goings-on around her, while WEST END PLAYERS GUILD had great fun, led by Sean Ruprecht-Belt as a mysterious stranger, in a campy and clever rendition of Agatha Christie’s whodunit, The Unexpected Guest.
AVALON THEATRE presented a highly satisfying revival of William Inge’s folksy drama, Bus Stop, with a splendid ensemble acting under Peter Mayer’s direction.
STAGES ST. LOUIS reminded us how uniquely talented composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim is with a flawless production of his gem, A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Michael Hamilton’s superb direction and Kari Ely’s outstanding portrayal of a bohemian actress with her own sorrows highlighted a gorgeous presentation. Another highly engaging effort was a winning version of the Gershwin musical, Crazy for You.
HYDEWARE THEATRE brought us a terrific little comedy by James Russell Wax titled Insignificant Others…A Love Story, with director Nicholas Kelly bringing out the humorous best by his talented troupe in an offbeat romance about a neurotic guy, an overwhelmed gal and their respective imaginary friends.
MUDDY WATERS THEATRE focused its season on Arthur Miller, most notably in an immensely moving and satisfying Death of a Salesman. Peter Mayer embodied all the heartache as well as the bravado of Willy Loman, with expert direction by Milton Zoth.
THE ST. LOUIS BLACK REPERTORY COMPANY had a very strong year with a number of stellar presentations. There were several musical highlights, led by the musical revue, Crossin’ Over. Conceived and directed by Black Rep producing director Ron Himes, it tells the story of the African-American experience in songs representing various eras in history. The Black Rep also mounted entertaining productions of Guys & Dolls and the Fats Waller musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’. Also of note was its stirring presentation of Gem of the Ocean, the first (in setting) of August Wilson’s 10-work series of dramas about the lives of African-Americans in Pittsburgh in each decade of the 20th century. Still later in the year, Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena offered a penetrating look at the effects of apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s.
NEW JEWISH THEATRE delivered several thought-provoking works that resonated with audiences long after the productions. Women’s Minyan looked at the plight of a modern Israeli woman shunned by her society after leaving her husband, a rabbi who physically abused her for 20 years. Director Deanna Jent expertly told playwright Naomi Ragen’s tale through the superior efforts of some of the area’s best actresses, led by Mary Schnitzler’s portrayal of the scorned wife. The story of a young Jewish child sent to England by her German parents aboard the Kindertransport to escape the Nazis was another stellar show.
STRAY DOG THEATRE delighted with a wacky, uplifting homage to George S. Kaufman’s and Moss Hart’s enduring comedy, You Can’t Take It With You, highlighted by wonderful performances by Colleen Backer, Steve Callahan, Donna Weinsting, Michael Monsey, Kevin Beyer and others under the direction of the indefatigable Deanna Jent. Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell also brought us a wonderful holiday present in the person of Will Ledbetter in The Santaland Diaries.
UPSTREAM THEATER artistic director Philip Boehm unearthed a cerebral and sobering work, Knives in Hens, with expert performances by Christopher Hickey, Magan Wiles and Peter Mayer in a cautionary tale about a lonely, medieval miller and his liberating effect on the attention-starved wife of a brutish farmer.
VANITY PRODUCTIONS staged a rousing version of Hamlet, with Jason Cannon doing yeoman’s work as both director and the title character. NEW LINE THEATRE debuted to overly dramatic controversy in its new home, the Ivory Theater, with an original musical revue titled Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll stylishly concocted by artistic director Scott Miller.
MUSTARD SEED THEATRE made an impressive debut with a wonderful allegorical yarn titled Remnant, about the myriad hopes of a group of post-apocalyptic survivors. The very epitome of ensemble acting was nowhere better realized than in the ORANGE GIRLS’ unforgettable production, Playhouse Creatures, a look at the lives of the women who first successfully gained access to the English stage in the 16th century.
THE NONPROPHET THEATER COMPANY brought a holiday mystery to Ivory Theater with its superb telling of an arresting Christmas fable called Second. And earlier in the fall, NonProphet delivered a brilliant take on The Bard with a dazzling interpretation of David Mann’s Shakespearean riff on The Godfather, titled Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather. Andrew Neiman led a talented cast that handled comedy and drama equally well under Robert Mitchell’s astute direction.
THE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL OF ST. LOUIS provided us with a richly humorous and eminently accessible version of Much Ado About Nothing. And ST. LOUIS SHAKESPEARE presented a memorable Tale of Two Cities, highlighted by strong performances by Andrew Neiman as Sidney Carton. The troupe had another winner in an adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s pair of intertwined complex comedies, Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth.
ACT INC. once again dusted off a pair of trusty old tales this time around, namely Enchanted April, with Julie Venegoni and April Strelinger as a pair of lovelorn English women on a sojourn in Italy, and Man with a Load of Mischief, with Kirsten Wylder outstanding as a 19th-century lady of manners who becomes the object of a roguish nobleman. OPERA THEATRE OF SAINT LOUIS again justified its honored and national reputation with a pair of superior revivals, The Mikado and La Traviata.
So what shows managed to stand out from such a formidable number of successes? I’d say that the Top 10 for 2007 would be, in ascending order: You Can’t Take it With You; A Number, Insignificant Others…A Love Story; Crossin’ Over; The Drowsy Chaperone; Playhouse Creatures; Death of a Salesman; Women’s Minyan; A Little Night Music; and Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather as the best show of the year.