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The Best of St. Louis Theater in 2018

The Best of St. Louis Theater in 2018

It’s rare when something lives up to the rarefied air of its hype.

That’s what happened, though, when Hamilton graced the stage at The Fox Theatre in April 2018. Winner of 27 awards for its Off-Broadway debut in 2015 and garnering a smashing 11 Tony Awards for its Broadway incarnation in 2016 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Hamilton’s touring company proved to be a hard ticket to come by when it played The Fox.

No wonder. Everything heard about the scope, majesty and electricity of this Lin-Manuel Miranda musical was as advertised and then some. It was an evening of amazing music, lively choreography and an astute history lesson about one of our key Founding Fathers and the creator of the United States treasury system. It’s always a bonus when education is also entertaining.

The performing arts scene continues to blossom in the area. Including touring companies, local professional troupes, community theaters, college presentations and cabaret engagements, there doubtless were more than 300 shows available for viewing on both sides of the Mississippi River (and the Missouri, too) during this past calendar year.

There literally were dozens of excellent performances that fell just a bit short of our Top Ten (actually, 11) shows which achieved a perfect “5 out of 5” in their renditions. One particular play, Silent Sky, received excellent renditions from two different companies, West End Players Guild last winter and then Insight Theatre Company this fall.

Les Miserables returned to The Fox in a superior touring company production of the 25th anniversary version. Two other terrific touring shows, Aladdin and The Color Purple, also graced The Fox with highly enjoyable presentations.

The Muny celebrated its centennial season with a number of sparkling shows made expressly for The Muny’s immense stage. Among its highlights under the watchful eye of artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson were a smashing version of Annie, top-notch productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Gypsy and the world’s premiere non-Broadway presentation of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

The Rep concluded its 50th season last spring and then began its 51st and final one under the tutelage of retiring artistic director Steven Woolf with several memorable shows. The list included a rollicking good time with Born Yesterday, the timely and controversial drama Admissions in The Rep's Studio Theatre and the modern sequel, A Doll’s House 2, to Henrik Ibsen’s groundbreaking 19th century drama, A Doll’s House. Hana Sharif will succeed Woolf for the 2019-20 season.

The final season of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis under the guidance of departing artistic director Timothy O’Leary produced stellar renditions of Regina (based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes), the world premiere of An American Soldier as part of OTSL’s ongoing New Works, Bold Voices series, an enchanting rendition of La Traviata and a refreshing interpretation of Gluck’s Orfeo & Euridice.

The final season of New Jewish Theatre with founding artistic director Kathleen Sitzer at the helm included a lively and invigorating production of Life Sucks, a modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s drama Uncle Vanya, originally set in dreary Russia in the late 19th century. Edward Coffield has assumed the mantle as NJT’s new artistic director.

Patrons had the opportunity to partake in the “Faustival,” a series of works by five local companies that ran monthly from August through December, exploring the medieval myth of Doctor Faustus selling his soul to Satan in exchange for power and fame. The St. Lou Fringe returned last summer with offerings from local, regional and national acts, and the Grand Center Theatre Crawl offered glimpses into productions by dozens of local troupes.

Jim Dolan’s The Presenters Dolan returned with a number of national and local cabaret performers at the Gaslight Theater, while the St. Louis Cabaret Festival under the guidance of Tim Schall brought several featured acts to the Sheldon.

Mustard Seed Theatre presented an affecting drama, As It Is in Heaven, as well as the biting wit of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, while Bankside Repertory Theatre in Alton presented a well done version of Falling, a drama written by Mustard Seed’s artistic director Deanna Jent.

The Midnight Company revived the mid-20th century courtroom drama, The Nuremberg Trial, with an absorbing production featuring Midnight Company artistic director Joe Hanrahan and a cadre of fine players at the Missouri History Museum. Over at the Kranzberg Arts Center, Black Mirror Theatre mounted the first local professional performance of the sizzling Tony Award-winning drama, Benghal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in satisfying fashion.

Once again The Black Rep offered a sterling version of an August Wilson drama, in this case Fences, as its opening production in 2018. Opposite the heavy themes in Fences are the wit and wisdom of Tom Stoppard’s whimsical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which was given an amusing and thoughtful presentation by St. Louis Shakespeare.

Union Avenue Opera pulled out all the stops for Lost in the Stars, its first presentation ever of a Kurt Weill work in the company’s 24-year existence. The production was moving and beautifully performed and offered patrons a chance to see the rarely performed show. UAO also scored with an amusing version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore.

Regarding Gilbert and Sullivan, New Line Theatre staged the world premiere of The Zombies of Penzance, artistic director Scott Miller’s musically engaging and humorous homage to the classic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, with a nod to zombie horror flick icon George Romero. New Line also delivered an entertaining, stylish rendition of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.

Stray Dog Theatre struck gold with its hilarious, high-kicking good time of a production The Robber Bridegroom, an infectious musical written by Alfred Uhry of Driving Miss Daisy fame. Over at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, bravura performances by John Contini and David Wassilak propelled The Dresser, a sobering but also funny tale of life in the theatrical trenches, an affecting paean which sadly turned out to be the swan song for its director, the late and incomparable Bobby Miller.

R-S Theatrics’ eighth season, titled “The Season of the Not-So-Perfect Past,” concluded with two touching tales. The one-woman show, Every Brilliant Thing, featured a heartwarming performance by Nancy Nigh, followed in December by a well-crafted presentation of Perfect Arrangement, Topher Payne’s tidy little tale about government intrusion into the lives of citizens in the 1950s, when the good old days weren’t all that terrific for far too many Americans.

Stages St. Louis did credit to Mamma Mia!, bringing the infectious good times of one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals to the Kirkwood Community Center, where it also staged a children’s production of Madagascar: A Musical Adventure, a rollicking, rambunctious good time for kids and adults alike.

Linda Kennedy gave a luminescent performance in Chef, a haunting and searing drama by English-Egyptian playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, which was given its American premiere at Upstream Theater. Jerry Vogel and Kari Ely turned in touching, endearing interpretations in another American premiere at Upstream, Ron Elisha’s drama, A Tree, Falling.

Two different but equally stylized and effective shows were offered by Rebel and Misfits Productions. The company delivered a lively interpretation of Will Eno’s funky story, The Realistic Joneses, under Edward Coffield’s studied direction. Later the troupe provided an “immersive theater” experience of the first rank with its staging of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows, in which patrons were transported by bus as “refugees” seeking sanctuary at Inverness (the old St. Liborius Catholic Church in north St. Louis). Co-directors Sean Patrick Higgins and company artistic director Kelly Hummert doubled as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble)’s “Season of Entrapment” offered a pair of intriguing presentations. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a landmark work of 20th century existentialism, was given a fine rendering, as was the professional premiere of Run-On Sentence, a drama by Stacie Lents which was commissioned by Prison Performing Arts as part of its New Plays Initiative.

And Metro Theater Company joined forces with Jazz St. Louis for a delightful presentation of Bud, Not Buddy, a one-act play with words by Kirsten Greenidge and an original musical score by jazz legend Terence Blanchard.

Of the 136 productions I viewed on local stages in 2018, including professional, community and college, the following is the list of the 11 productions which achieved a perfect “5 out of 5” in our Ladue News rating system. In ascending order they are:

#11: End of the Rainbow at Max & Louie Productions. Angela Ingersoll packed a powerful wallop in a sizzling, astounding performance as Judy Garland, the diminutive and tragic talent who loved her audiences but, in her own words, “often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” This drama is a remarkable work that was given due respect under director David New’s meticulous and affecting guidance. Max & Louie Productions’ performance was truly over the rainbow in its heartbreaking brilliance.

#10: All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 at Mustard Seed Theatre. Back for a fifth rendition at Mustard Seed since its 2013 presentation won five St. Louis Theatre Circle awards, this year’s a cappella ensemble featured a cast whose crystal-clear voices and handy way around accents and dialects once again made All Is Calm an affecting experience. Based on letters and observations of men who served in the trenches in World War I, All Is Calm is an excellent choice for a holiday show as it underscores what the spirit of Christmas was meant to be. Impeccably directed by Mustard Seed artistic director Deanna Jent along with musical director Joe Schoen, this hauntingly beautiful musical was masterfully performed.

#9: The Little Foxes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Lillian Hellman’s expertly written drama is as superior today as when she wrote it in the 1930s. It was old-fashioned theater at its finest as St. Louis Actors’ Studio unveiled its season titled “Blood Is Thicker Than Water” with this three-act treasure in a finely paced, well-wrought interpretation under John Contini’s meticulous direction. This impeccable rendition of Hellman’s thoroughly engaging drama about a conniving, money-loving Southern family made a suitable bookend for Regina, presented by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis earlier in the year.

#8: Hedda Gabler at Stray Dog Theatre. Gary Bell, artistic director of Stray Dog Theatre, reunited the cast from Stray Dog’s 2017 presentation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama, A Doll’s House, for this excellent interpretation about another famous Ibsen character. Nicole Angeli in the title role led a stellar cast in one of the truly great plays of Western literature. Stray Dog’s presentation, based on a new adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz, did handsome justice to this landmark drama.

#7: Into the Breeches! at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. To kick off its “fourth pillar of programming” titled In the Works, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis unveiled this poignant and engaging production of a new play by George Brant which had debuted at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company earlier in 2018. The Midwestern premiere about a community theater whose women decide to go forward with a production of Henry V, despite most of its male members being off to war, was wonderfully funny, thought-provoking and resonant all at once under director Nancy Bell’s incisive guidance. There were lessons to be learned in this witty and astute play which exhorted its audiences to accompany its characters ‘into the breeches.’

#6: Jersey Boys at The Muny. The world regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning jukebox musical about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame quartet, The Four Seasons, was the best presentation in The Muny’s centennial season. The first licensed production of Jersey Boys anywhere in the world was everything one could hope to see carrying the banner for this biographical look at pop singer Frankie Valli and friends. People of a certain age recalled when Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and other tunes were fresh on the charts while the younger set could see history in action in The Muny’s rousing version of the Best Musical from 2006.

#5: Torn Asunder at The Black Rep. Nikkole Salter’s moving, profound and magnificent drama about the search of a former slave for her husband, separated from her when he is sold off in the shadow of the Civil War, was given its stunning world premiere by The Black Rep. Salter’s marvelous prose was elevated to epic status with searing performances by an excellent ensemble under producing director Ron Himes’ astute direction, making this a poignant and unforgettable saga.

#4: Tribes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Nina Raines’ absorbing and arresting drama focuses on a deaf man, who was raised by a bruising family where impulses are acted out and thoughts of any kind are expressed with nary a concern for hurt feelings, whose life is changed when he meets a young woman raised by deaf parents and who is slowly losing her own hearing. Director Annamaria Pileggi and a first-rate cast brilliantly interpreted Raines’ extraordinary play in St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s riveting rendition.

#3: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Tennessee Williams Festival. The centerpiece of the 2018 Tennessee Williams Festival in Grand Center, Williams’ classic drama about the fateful meeting of a neurotic Southern belle and her brutish brother-in-law in New Orleans was given a bold, brazen and beautiful interpretation under Tim Ocel’s nuanced direction. Standout performances by Sophia Brown, Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak and Spencer Sickmann mined the poetry and passion of what Ocel calls Williams’ “greatest play.”

#2: Evita at The Rep. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opened its 51st season with a fascinating version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice landmark musical about the power and allure of Eva Duarte Peron, the 20th century Argentinian celebrity and political leader who rode charisma from poverty to popular acclaim in her native country. Complex and difficult to sing, albeit hauntingly lovely and invigorating, Evita was an electrifying presentation under Rob Ruggiero’s sharply focused vision as he pulled together masterful efforts by artists both on stage and off. Michele Aravena packed a powerful wallop in her diminutive frame as the ambitious title character.

#1: Hamilton at The Fox. With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton explodes out of the starting gate and maintains an exhilarating pace throughout. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, the multiple-Tony-Award-winning musical presents the life of Founding Father Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became General George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and later served as the first Treasury Secretary for the fledgling United States of America. Hamilton is a towering and transfixing theatrical achievement and, even with its dramatic license stretching the truth, an important lesson in American history as well.

In addition to the aforementioned shows, dozens of other fine productions delighted audiences throughout the area in 2018 as local professional theater seems to get better with each passing year. Here’s to more of the same in 2019.

Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus (Hamilton), Eric Woolsey (Evita), Ride Hamilton (Streetcar), Patrick Huber (Tribes), Kathy Perkins (Torn Asunder), Phillip Hamer and Eric Woolsey (Jersey Boys), Phillip Hamer (Into the Breeches!), John Lamb (Hedda Gabler), Patrick Huber (The Little Foxes), John Lamb (All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914), John Lamb and Patrick Huber (End of the Rainbow)

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