The year 2011 yielded an abundance of significant news in local theater. Paul Blake mounted his final shows for The Muny after an impressive run as executive producer, closing with a strong production of Bye, Bye Birdie, the same show with which he made his Muny debut some 20 years ago.
The Peabody Opera House opened its doors after decades in which the once stately Kiel Opera House had stood in quiet desolation. On the other hand, the grand experiment that was the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court sent notes to its many artistic tenants informing them to vacate the premises in early 2012 while renovations are made.
The local calendar was bursting with daring new works and familiar favorites presented by local and touring professional companies as well as a wide array of community, college and cabaret presentations, with the latter continuing its explosive growth through much of the year. Of the nearly 140 productions I observed in 2011, approximately 30 received 4.5 stars on our 5-point evaluation system. Another 11 were awarded a top-line ‘5’ rating.
Fabulous performances were prominent as much at small venues as well as larger stages around town. RS Theatrics, for example, delivered a powerful presentation of a fascinating drama titled Suicide, Inc. at its modest space in Crestwood Court, while Citilites Theatre produced an affecting production of Southern Baptist Sissies, Del Shores’ poignant reflection on growing up gay in Texas.
Mustard Seed Theatre presented an engaging production of C.S. Lewis’ complex and absorbing drama, Till We Have Faces, while Black Cat Theatre provided a rollicking performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s witty Round and Round the Garden. There was the gritty Non-Prophet Theatre interpretation of Neil Labute’s raw Reasons to Be Pretty as well as Metro Theatre Company’s winsome presentation of the futuristic drama, The Giver.
Scott Miller’s New Line Theatre, always provocative and persuasive in its selection of material, scored with a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, a collaboration of Hair composer Galt MacDermot, playwright John Guare and director Mel Shapiro, with Terrie Carolan the best of a fine and energetic cast. New Line gave us an insightful rendering of the adventurous musical, Passing Strange, conceived by singer, songwriter and performance artist Stew in collaboration with performer/composer Heidi Rodewald.
Additionally, New Line delivered a stellar presentation of the affecting and intricately conceived work, bare, by composer Damon Intrabartolo and lyricist Jon Hartmere Jr. Bare is reminiscent of visceral rock works as Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. The latter show, believe it or not a musical about mental illness, made for a compelling and complex night of theater in its touring presentation at The Fox.
Blake, who can be credited with returning The Muny to audience sizes of its glory days during his 20-year reign, took his final bow with an impressive presentation of Bye, Bye Birdie after earlier sizzling productions of two other standards, Singin’ in the Rain and Kiss Me, Kate. The area’s other major summer musical company, Stages, scored with an impressive rendition of a rarely seen musical version of the children’s book, The Secret Garden, as well as an amusing and entertaining take on Blake Edwards’ witty comedy, Victor/Victoria, about a woman masquerading as a man impersonating a woman in 1930s Paris.
There were a number of outstanding dramas at several area venues, including a compelling rendition of Rabbit Hole, an affecting work about parents losing a young child, at Insight Theatre. Additionally, Insight presented the rip-roaring yarn, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, with the local Barrymores, aka Joneal Joplin and his children Jared and Jen, who delighted audiences as much as each other in a rare chance to work together.
HotCity Theatre offered up a tasty treat with a faithful interpretation of Sam Shepard’s off-kilter story, True West, while Avalon Theatre presented an excellent and compelling version of Arthur Miller’s look at a family living on fractured dreams, The Price. River City Theatre and Blue Rose Stage Collective collaborated on the sobering 9-11 drama, The Guys, with husband and wife Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell as a New York City fire chief and the writer who helps him prepare eulogies for his fallen comrades.
Max & Louie Productions presented Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story, a scintillating little musical about the 20th century’s first “crime of the century” and subsequent trial for the kidnapping and murder perpetrated by brilliant college students and lovers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Brooke Edwards directed a pair of talented college students from Western Illinois University in the highly effective St. Louis premiere of Stephen Dolginoff’s taut tale. At the other end of the intensity spectrum, Cannibal-STL Productions scored a major triumph with a very silly and very funny take on South Park creator Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical, a campy version of the only American ever convicted of cannibalism.
The Rep presented a visually arresting and provocative interpretation of Macbeth on its main stage, while offering an endearing, one-woman presentation by former St. Louisan Fontaine Syer of writer Joan Didion’s reflections on crushing tragedies in her life in its Studio production of The Year of Magical Thinking.
West End Players Guild took a different approach to Shakespeare with a sparkling presentation of Murdering Marlowe, an intriguing and intelligent fantasy penned by noted writer and savvy Shakespearean scribe Charles Marowitz. Director Robert A. Mitchell and a strong cast, led by John Wolbers as fabulously successful and appallingly arrogant Christopher Marlowe and Michael Perkins as a young Will Shakespeare eager to replace his friend Marlowe at the top of the literary heap, made this one of the year’s most unexpected treats.
Act, Inc. delivered Kind Sir, another of the little-seen gems that the summer company has a knack for dusting off and delighting audiences, while its presentation of The Royal Family featured the year’s best supporting performance by Joshua Thomas as the irrepressible, larger-than-life version of a thinly veiled John Barrymore in fitfully funny fashion.
New Jewish Theatre mounted a wonderful holiday treat with its strong ensemble effort, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, while St. Louis Actors’ Studio brought a most delightful and unexpected gift to its audiences during the Christmas season with another superior ensemble presentation, My Three Angels, set in the sultry heat of French Guiana at yuletide.
The Black Rep scored an impressive triumph with the searing and sober drama of modern-day atrocities in The Congo, Ruined, while The Fox welcomed the touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical about the Four Seasons rock group, Jersey Boys, back for another round of audience-pleasing performances. And Opera Theatre of Saint Louis produced an astonishing and riveting version of the controversial John Adams/Alice Goodman work, The Death of Klinghoffer, a 20-year-old piece rarely performed because of its incendiary political topic.
As solid as the productions noted above were, 11 presentations stood out above the rest. In ascending order, here’s a list of the year’s best productions:
• Honorable Mention: The Daughter of the Regiment (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis). Produced by Opera Theatre in 1990, this second rendition was a total delight, with diminutive Ashley Emerson big both on comedy and a soaring soprano that lifted the spirits of the audience as well as the protective soldiers of the Twenty-First Grenadier Regiment of the French Army. Conductor John McDaniel and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra were in smooth harmony with director/choreographer Sean Curran, with fine assistance from Dale Travis as the regiment leader and Sylvia McNair scoring a coup as the tone-deaf Duchess of Crackentorp.
• #10: How I Learned to Drive (Muddy Waters Theatre). Each year Muddy Waters’ artistic directors, Cameron Ulrich and Patty Ulrich, devote their season to plays by one major playwright. This season’s final production of works by Paula Vogel was a sizzling performance of her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, a superbly written look at child molestation using the metaphor of driving lessons taught to protagonist Li’l Bit by her covetous Uncle Peck. Director Milton Zoth extracted magnificent performances from Laurie McConnell as the abused Li’l Bit and B. Weller as her troubled uncle, with strong support from the Greek chorus of Michael Brightman, Kimberly Sansone and Denise Saylor and a series of arresting background video projections by Michael Perkins.
• #9: Red (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis). Mark Rothko was a psychologically complex genius, a phenomenal artist who approached his craft as a business, adhering to strict and predictable daily routines. That seeming conflict, as well as Rothko’s abrasive relationship with a young artist attempting to learn from the master while catering to his capricious whims, is superbly delineated in John Logan’s brooding, fascinating one-act drama that received its first non-Broadway performance at The Rep in a riveting presentation tautly shaped by artistic director Steven Woolf. Brian Dykstra inhabited Rothko’s domineering and tortured persona as completely as Matthew Carlson informed his troubled, mysterious assistant Ken. Michael Ganio’s scenic design was flanked by piercing, crimson triangles, with a New York City skyline behind the towering, title canvases utilized by the painter.
• #8: Cooking with Elisa (Upstream Theater). The mission of Upstream Theater is “to move you, and to move you to think,” a mantra that guides artistic director Philip Boehm in his selection of interesting, provocative works from around the world that his company presents to intrigued local audiences. Boehm himself adapted this richly disturbing drama by Argentine playwright Lucia Laragione that conveys the stifling political climate of 20th century Argentine dictators in an allegory about a domineering, repressed cook who attempts to tutor a young woman to prepare meals for her wealthy rancher employer while she takes a long-awaited vacation. Under Bonnie Taylor’s tasty, well-seasoned and richly flavored direction, Jane Paradise and Shanara Gabrielle offered a delicious entrée of exquisite performances in this brooding, Gothic masterpiece. The eye-poppingly dense kitchen set designed by Scott Neale was a violent and nasty character in its own right, ominously filled with hanging carcasses and bloody cleavers.
• #7: In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (The Rep). Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s drama was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play for its incisive and multi-leveled script about a 19th century physician who invents a machine that he believes will alleviate “hysteria” in his mostly female patients by touching them in sensitive areas. The clinical doctor ignores his own wife in his zeal for a scientific breakthrough, while she becomes curious about the gizmo as well as an artist her husband treats. The twin-edged title is just part of the allure of Ruhl’s script, which is both humorous and affecting and was performed to great effect in a Rep Studio production cleverly directed by Stuart Carden. His players measured their performances expertly in a presentation that was brisk, engaging and ever developing, provocative and challenging throughout.
• #6: The Visit (Stray Dog Theatre). Artistic director Gary Bell long had wanted to stage a version of this acclaimed work by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, a parable about a haughty queen who comes back to the obscure Eastern European town of her birth to extract deadly vengeance on the man who spurned her decades before. Bell’s loving admiration for the story was enhanced with an absorbing interpretation that blended aspects of commedia dell’arte, the Meyerhold technique of stylized movement, the employment of actors in non-traditional gender or age roles and a vibrant color scheme that emphasized the garish and grotesque in makeup, costuming and props. The result was a spellbinding exploration of the scope of human morality in a highly stylized rendition accentuated by superior technical contributions by Justin Been, Jay Hall, Tyler Duenow and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley. Bell’s extremely impressive ensemble was led by Julie Layton and R. Travis Estes as the inextricably entwined former lovers.
• #5: Falling (Mustard Seed Theatre). Artistic director Deanna Jent is the mother of an autistic child, and her original drama about his impact on the family is profoundly moving and beautifully evocative. Her writing about a family engaged in an ongoing, emotional emergency dealing with the incessant demands of an autistic child is sharp, informative and astounding in its clarity and impact. The ongoing fragility of the family structure is never far from the surface at any moment of this one-act, 80-minute powerhouse. Under her tight, meticulous and exacting direction, Lori Adams extracted superior performances from a quintet of players (Michelle Hand, Jonathan Foster, Greg Johnston, Katie Donnelly, Carmen Russell) to bring Jent’s words to vibrant realization on stage. Hand once again demonstrated her remarkable talents as she deftly walked a tightrope as the perpetually optimistic mother who nonetheless is never far from surrendering to her fears. Jent’s remarkable work is headed to off-Broadway in 2012.
• #4: Dead Man Walking (Union Avenue Opera). Noted composer Jake Heggie made his operatic debut in 2000 with the score for this powerful work that is based on the book of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean. The lean, incisive libretto by Terrence McNally meshes beautifully with Heggie’s music, which often sounds more like a movie score than an opera with its pulsating, driven style. The Missouri premiere by Union Avenue Opera showed precisely how compelling a modern opera can be, with Sister Helen in attendance on opening night. With impeccable stage direction by Tim Ocel and top-notch conducting of the tight Union Avenue orchestra by artistic director Scott Schoonover, this spare, direct work was a stunning achievement. Jordan Shanahan and Elise Quagliata shared the stage with equally compelling performances as condemned killer Joseph de Rocher and Sister Helen.
• #3: Awake and Sing! (New Jewish Theatre). Clifford Odets’ sobering dissection of a model American family circa 1935 is as powerful now as when it first premiered more than 75 years ago. Director Steven Woolf mounted a masterful production for the New Jewish Theatre that was carefully calibrated to synchronize with the inherent rhythms of Odets’ script. The result was a powerful, absorbing, compelling evening of theater that resonated with every impeccably delivered line uttered by Woolf’s smoothly polished cast. That ensemble of excellence was both exhilarating and affecting and comprised of some of St. Louis’s finest performers, including Bobby Miller, Julie Layton, Jason Cannon, Aaron Orion Baker, Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Gary Wayne Barker, Jerry Vogel, Jordan Reinwald and Terry Meddows.
• #2: The Real McCoy (The Black Rep). Born in Canada to runaway slaves in 1844, Elijah McCoy was taken under the wing of an esteemed Scottish physics professor and eventually obtained 57 patents, the greatest of which was the invention of the self-lubricating steam engine that revolutionized the railroad industry. McCoy, however, was considered a business liability because of his race, an injustice that haunted him throughout his life. Written and originally staged by Canadian playwright/director/actor Andrew Moodie, The Real McCoy is a fascinating drama about a brilliant man that is absorbing and engrossing, a beautifully textured piece that received its U.S. premiere in a brilliant Black Rep presentation. The Black Rep’s version was spellbinding, from the uniformly expert portrayals of its players to the ingenious technical design fashioned by Alex Van Blommestein, Doug Schroeder and Robert Van Dillen. Ka’ramuu Kush was a powerful and convincing presence as McCoy, with expert work as well by Chauncy Thomas, Antonio Fargas, Alan Knoll, Whit Reichert, Monica Parks and Sharisa Whatley.
• #1: Tommy (Stray Dog Theatre). Co-directed by artistic director Gary Bell and Justin Been, whom Bell graciously noted deserved the lion’s share of credit, Stray Dog’s Tommy was a glorious musical achievement that paid outstanding homage to the seminal rock opera written and performed originally by The Who and its lead guitarist and primary composer, Pete Townshend. The story of a boy who is struck deaf, dumb and blind when he witnesses a killing in his own home, Tommy featured a tight and talented musical combo directed by Chris Peterson at the rear of the Tower Grove Abbey stage. Been collaborated with James Volmert Jr. on a remarkably realized set inspired by a movement known as steampunk, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis with intimidating machinery overwhelming the people. A giant kaleidoscope looming above the stage revealed key scenes in Tommy’s mind, dazzlingly executed with Bean’s projections as well as Megan Henderson’s scenic art. Great performances abounded, including those of Antonio Rodriguez in the title, adult role as well as Paula Stoff Dean, Jeffrey Wright, Josh Douglas, Ryan Glosemeyer, Kay Love, Sarah Porter and Anna Skidis. Stray Dog’s Tommy was a fresh and invigorating take on a rock classic and the year’s top presentation.
Reviewing the list above, as well as all of the 140 or so shows I observed and the hundred or so others at community, college and cabaret stages locally, it’s readily apparent that whether the economy is improving or stagnant, the collective heart and soul of our performing artists grows stronger and more vibrant every year. Who knows what’s in store for 2012?