All of a sudden it’s nearing the end of December and thoughts of New Year’s resolutions dance in our heads. Before we enter 2014, however, let’s reflect on what the past year has given us on local stages.
Several new companies put out shingles this year, always a good sign in a vibrant theater community. We welcomed the Theatre Lab Project, Tesseract Theatre Company and Encore! Theater to the dozens of professional, community and college companies already performing.
Also, the Black Rep lost its long-time home when the Grandel Theatre was sold, but resurfaced recently at its new venue, the Harris-Stowe State University Performing Arts Center. And Shakespeare Festival St. Louis announced that in 2014 it will present three plays, rather than the previous one, in two different performances and a slightly longer season.
The St. Lou Fringe, led by Em Piro, enjoyed its second ambitious year of productions in mid-town, while the St. Louis Actors’ Studio unveiled a new play festival in conjunction with famous playwright Neil LaBute. HotCity continued its delightful GreenHouse New Play Festival, as did The Rep with its Ignite! selections.
All told, I viewed 137 plays in 2013, including virtually every professional performance as well as selected community and college presentations. Either the caliber of productions continues to improve or my grading system has become more watered down, or both, because there were 21 performances that received a ‘5’ rating, while another 24 garnered a 4.5 tally.
Some of the excellent productions that didn’t make the Top Twelve (couldn’t stop it at 10) this year included HotCity’s cautionary tale, Maple & Vine, and Stages’ rousing, foot-stomping homage to one of country western music’s biggest stars, Always…Patsy Cline, a box-office smash which the company will reprise at Westport Playhouse in the spring of 2014.
The Black Rep mounted a magnificent interpretation of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, while Stray Dog Theatre gave us the wacky, witty Psycho Beach Party and the disturbing Six Degrees of Separation. New Line Theatre ‘s presentation of the musical version of George Romero’s zombie cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, was serious, sober and scary stuff, and its version of Next to Normal was much more appropriately intimate than the rendition that played The Fox a couple of years back.
The Fox, by the way, was the scene for a surprisingly delightful show called Million Dollar Quartet featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Donna Weinsting and Charlie Ingram were most charming in Max & Louie Production’s version of the amusing Mrs. Mannerly, while Dramatic License Productions gave us a heart-rending performance by Bobby Miller along with Aaron Orion Baker in Tuesdays with Morrie.
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble delivered the chills superbly with a stylized production of the long-running West End creepfest, The Woman in Black, while Saint Louis Shakespeare offered a trimmed-down and terrific Comedy of Errors. R-S Theatrics mounted a captivating version of the superior musical, Parade, and The Fox welcomed Evita back in grand style.
In the runner-up category was an impressive assortment of productions that included Good People, The Mousetrap, Cabaret, Double Indemnity and Venus in Fur, all at The Rep. St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented a riveting version of the classic Waiting for Godot with Terry Meddows, Gary Wayne Barker, Aaron Orion Baker and Greg Johnston delivering masterful performances. The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis made Twelfth Night an endearing evening under the stars in Forest Park, while The Muny’s presentation of West Side Story was fresh and invigorating, as was the touring production of Anything Goes at The Fox.
The Top Twelve of 2013, in ascending order:
#12) Opus at West End Players Guild. Musician Michael Hollinger penned this witty, fascinating and always engaging piece about the tensions on stage and off between members of a brilliant ensemble known as the Lazarus String Quartet. West End Players Guild staged an amusing and highly appealing effort that hit all the right notes under Jerry McAdams’ gifted guidance, with a strong cast featuring John Wolbers, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Dennis Folwarczny II and Caitlin Mickey.
#11) Our Town at Insight Theatre Company. On the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Insight Theatre mounted a moving and marvelous rendition of Wilder’s wistful and charming classic about life in a New England town in the early 20th century. Mark Wilson’s less-is-more set followed the playwright’s dictum for a ‘minimal’ effect. Director Tom Martin’s wonderful cast featured Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Peggy Billo, Alan Knoll, Amy Loui, Taylor Pietz, Jack Dryden, Donna Weinsting and Michael Brightman, among others.
#10) Hannah Senesh at New Jewish Theatre. Director Kat Singleton orchestrated a beautifully balletic performance by Shanara Gabrielle in this one-woman show about a fiery Zionist freedom fighter who parachuted into enemy territory in World War II in an effort to free her own family from the Nazis, only to be captured, tortured and executed. Playwright David Schechter’s script is a textured, superbly told tale that received a richly rewarding presentation at New Jewish Theatre.
#9) The Cherry Sisters Revisited at R-S Theatrics. Who knew that the sad, sorrowful tale of five sisters from an Iowa farm could translate into comedy? Dan O’Brien’s witty and ingenious effort is based on a real family who achieved ignominious fame at the turn of the 20th century with a vaudeville act devoid of any discernible talent. As presented by R-S Theatrics, The Cherry Sisters Revisited was a deliciously surprising delight, buoyed by expert performances by director Kirsten Wylder’s smart, inventive cast that included B. Weller, Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Beth Wickenhauser, Nicole Angeli and Mollie Amburgey.
#8) Topdog/Underdog at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. The troupe housed at Gaslight Theater began its seventh season, titled “Sins of the Father,” with a searing rendition of Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. The loneliness, rejection and hopelessness of two black brothers ironically named Booth and Lincoln were fully realized in director Elizabeth Helman’s pointed interpretation and the scintillating performances of Chauncy Thomas and Reginald Pierre as the doomed brothers.
#7) Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Surely, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will see its star shine even more lustrously following the world premiere of this taut, powerful and completely engrossing work. Based on the story of the late, bisexual welterweight boxer Emile Griffith and commissioned by OTSL, it contains a strong and stirring score by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and a sobering libretto by playwright Michael Cristofer. It also featured remarkable performances by Arthur Woodley as the feeble, older Griffith debilitated by “boxer’s brain" and Denyce Graves as his self-centered mother. James Robertson’s stage direction was tense and disciplined on the impressive set designed by Allen Moyer.
#6) Café Chanson at Upstream Theater. This enthralling, poignant piece was conceived, written and directed by Ken Page, one of St. Louis’ best-known and successful performers. Page created a compelling look at one man’s rueful reflections on his life as he makes a final circle around the tiny stage and intimate space at this mythical and mysterious cabaret. Henry Palkes and his combo provided pleasing musical accompaniment for a top-notch cast that included J. Samuel Davis, Justin Ivan Brown, Willena Vaughn, Elizabeth Birkenmeier, Gia Grazia Valenti, Antonio Rodriguez and John Flack in the lead role as a lonely old GI who comes face-to-face with long-lost loves.
#5) Fly at The Rep. Co-writer and director Ricardo Kahn drew inspiration for this affecting drama from an old photo of Tuskegee Airmen. He and Trey Ellis penned their tribute to the nearly 1,000 black pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program between 1941 and 1946, men who helped pave the way for more equitable treatment of African-Americans in the decades to follow. Included in the story is a character known as the Tap Griot, a modern variation on the traditional storytellers and oral historians of the Mali Empire in West Africa, and a breathtaking scenic design by Beowulf Boritt that has an IMAX effect.
#4) All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 at Mustard Seed Theatre. Directed by Mustard Seed artistic director Deanna Jent along with musical director Joe Schoen, this hauntingly beautiful and deceptively ‘simple’ musical was masterfully performed by a cast of 10 talented singers. The accomplished vocalists blended their diverse voices in affecting harmony to breathe new life into this century-old tale that is touching and inspirational. It truly was an ensemble piece in the best definition of the word. Charlie Barron, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, J. Samuel Davis, Shawn Bowers, Jason Myers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright comprised the stellar cast.
#3) Les Miserables at The Muny. As memory serves, The Muny previously staged a rousing presentation of this venerable musical in 2007. This new production was a superior effort on many levels, starting with the striking, massive painting on Robert Mark Morgan’s set that greeted audience members as they arrived. Director Richard Jay-Alexander, who also staged the original Broadway, touring and selected international productions in association with Cameron Mackintosh, was lured by Muny executive director Mike Isaacson to weave his magic at the sprawling outdoor theater. Claude-Michel Schonberg’s music was as thrilling and affecting as ever. You may have seen Les Miserables before, but you likely didn’t view a presentation as panoramic and persuasive as this one.
#2) War Horse at The Fox. Writing an anti-war story is unsurprising. What makes War Horse so endearing and affecting is that war is the secondary thread in this yarn behind the emotional bond between an English lad and the animal he loves circa World War I. Anyone who has ever considered a pet to be a member of the family will understand this. From its start to its conclusion, War Horse is a profoundly moving experience, accentuated by the efforts of the Handspring Puppet Company with its magical work in portraying the equine Joey, his German adversary-turned-friend Topthorn and other horses. Watching puppeteers manipulate Joey’s 120-pound frame with impeccable timing to match the sound design was quite remarkable.
#1) The Whipping Man at The Black Rep. Playwright Matthew Lopez’s stark and provocative drama about a pair of newly liberated slaves and their former slave-holder, all Jews living in the South at the end of the Civil War, maintains a tense and taut tone throughout its two acts in gripping and harrowing fashion.
Its St. Louis premiere sizzled under Ed Smith’s probing and insightful direction. Smith harnessed the energies of his combustible trio of players to deliver a wholly rewarding theatrical experience. Key to the flavorful concoction he prepared was a powerful and persuasive performance by Ron Himes as Simon, whose age gives him patriarchal status among the three characters. Ronald Conner and Justin Ivan Brown brought their own considerable skills to the effort, which was underscored by Mark Wilson’s haunting lighting design of Tim Case’s masterful set, the forlorn remains of a once stately mansion.
This year delivered many magnificent performances by a wide variety of troupes in The Lou. We owe all of them our thanks and gratitude for the tireless dedication and remarkable talent they put into their work both on and behind area stages. Bravo!
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein (The Whipping Man), Brinkhoff/Mogenburg (War Horse), Larry Pry (Les Miserables), John Lamb (All Is Calm, Topdog/Underdog, Our Town, Hannah Senesh, Opus), Jerry Naunheim Jr. (Fly), Peter Wochniak (Café Chanson), Ken Howard (Champion), Michael Young (The Cherry Sisters Revisited)