The wheels of change kept driving the local theater scene in 2019. Hana S. Sharif officially took over as the Augustin Family artistic director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and began her regime with the 53-year-old company’s first production of the epic drama, Angels in America.
After several years at the helm of R-S Theatrics, Christina Rios has stepped aside and Sarah Holt was appointed the company’s artistic director. Mustard Seed Theatre has gone on hiatus as the resident professional troupe at Fontbonne University after its 2018-19 season.
Jim Dolan opened The Blue Strawberry cabaret performance space in the Central West End. And Grand Center continues to add venues for local theatrical troupes as well as ancillary restaurants, clubs, etc.
The caliber of performances and behind-the-scenes artistic efforts seems to improve every year in The Lou. While touring productions at The Fox and home-grown productions at The Muny pack in thousands for each performance, hundreds of local theater artists ply their craft nobly on stages throughout the area for the dozens of local companies, both professional and community.
In addition to the top productions of the year, there were several dozen others which stood out for one reason or another and resonated beyond their original presentation at area venues, including a number at Grand Center.
At the Fox Theatre, e.g., the stellar touring version of the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof was fresh, vigorous and immensely rewarding to modern audiences. And Come from Away, the story of airline passengers rerouted to Newfoundland in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the care given them by residents in the town of Gander, was surprisingly uplifting and highly satisfying.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis executive producer Tom Ridgely culled delightful performances from his polished ensemble in a sparkling rendition of Love’s Labors Lost, one of the Bard’s wittiest and most engaging comedies, for its annual production in Forest Park. Later, Shakespeare Festival teamed with Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis and the Nine Network of Public Media for Such Sweet Thunder, a stylish and inventive exercise in artistic unity based on a 1957 jazz album by Duke Ellington.
Steve Woolf brought down the curtain on his long and illustrious tenure as artistic director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis with a rollicking presentation of The Play That Goes Wrong, England’s Mischief Theatre Company’s fun-filled comedy of high-energy errors on and behind the stage in its American regional theater debut. In The Rep’s Studio Theatre, former associate artistic director Seth Gordon presented the world premiere of Nonsense and Beauty, a compelling drama about the complicated life of 20th century literary giant E.M. Forster.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, which also makes its home at the Loretto-Hilton Center where The Rep performs, presented the masterful world premiere of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, composer Terence Blanchard’s powerful piece based on the best-selling memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Earlier, Opera Theatre opened its initial season under the guidance of new general director Andrew Jorgensen with a bright, bouncy, richly entertaining version of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.
Union Avenue Opera celebrated a pair of milestones, its own 25th anniversary as well as the centennial of late composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, with an amusing and handsomely mounted production of Bernstein’s comic operetta gem, Candide. The company also scored with a stellar presentation of Puccini’s perennially popular love story, La Boheme.
What if Hamlet had studied at Wittenberg University and had met Martin Luther, a theology professor on campus? And what if Hamlet had learned philosophy under Dr. Faustus? Upstream Theater artistic director Philip Boehm helmed a lively production of Wittenberg, playwright David Davalos’ whimsical journey to 16th century Germany to wonder about the possibilities when Hamlet, Luther, Faustus and also Helen of Troy congregated in the same place at the same time to ruminate about themselves, the universe and the advantages of ego over id.
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) began its 13th year, The Season of Ritual, with Classic Mystery Game, a fitfully funny parody of the 1985 movie Clue and the classic 1949 board game of the same name on which it is based. Director Katy Keating (now known as Keating) kept the wacky antics going full throttle, deliciously delivered by an inspired ensemble and their fevered performances.
At the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, director Tim Ocel and his cast struck all the right notes in a faithful adaptation of The Night of the Iguana, one of playwright Williams’ strongest dramas and the linchpin of this year’s Williams Festival. Filled with dialogue which accentuates the playwright’s poetic touch, it was an ideal pillar for the Williams Festival’s fourth annual showcase.
Nina Simone: Four Women, Christina Ham’s powerful and moving drama with music, brought The Black Rep’s 2018-19 season to a glorious close in an excellent production directed by Black Rep producing director Ron Himes. Ham’s moving drama taps into Simone’s rich musical legacy to underscore the artist’s lifelong commitment to social justice in satisfying fashion.
Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company scored with a pair of compelling productions. Hanrahan was among the first to produce Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust, Amy Crider’s one-man play about a disarmingly perceptive man who has always tried to just be “doin’ the right thing.” Also, Hanrahan teamed with Rachel Hanks for an informative and delightful look at a little-known facet of artist Henri Matisse’s life and work in A Model for Matisse.
West End Players Guild opened its 109th season with an absorbing production of Equivocation, a provocative and fascinating drama by Jesuit priest Bill Cain. Director Tom Kopp and his expert ensemble gave a smoothly polished rendition of Cain’s intriguing theory about what may or may not have happened in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of late 1605 and the subsequent debut of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth, in early 1606.
New Line Theatre got its 29th season off to a smart, high-stepping start with the return of its delightful 2012 regional premiere of the rockabilly musical, Cry-Baby, based on a 1990 film by John Waters. Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor brought out the best in this bright, energized musical, which dabbles creatively in several genres, including rockabilly, barbershop quartets and old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.
Stray Dog Theatre put a different twist on one of its biggest hits, Tommy, when it opened its 17th season by reprising the rock musical by The Who it first presented in 2011 (named the top show of that year by Ladue News). This rendition, again smartly directed by Justin Been, was fresh, imaginative and fully captured the infectious energy of composer Pete Townshend’s rock music classic half a century after The Who’s memorable double album was released in 1969.
Playwright John Wolbers used the backdrop of a fictional 1940s radio station in St. Louis and the halcyon days of “live” broadcasts of dramas, comedies and other entertainment on radio in adapting Frank Capra’s cinema classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The Metro Theater Company presentation was a classy and captivating good time and a terrific start to the holiday season.
R-S Theatrics unveiled a nifty and heartfelt St. Louis premiere of A Man of No Importance as part of its Season of Finding Home. The endearing musical, written by the team behind Ragtime, was anchored by an affecting, bravura performance by Mark Kelley in the title role.
Insight Theatre Company gave St. Louis a Bastille Day bon-bon with its engaging version of prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a paean to several outspoken and accomplished women in the days of the French Revolution. Another headstrong woman, Rose Dawson of Titanic movie fame, was the focus of a fanciful, funny yarn from Lucy Cashion’s ERA (Equally Represented Arts) company, mining newly discovered comic potential in the character. For this maiden voyage, Rose was an amusing ‘queen of the world.’
A new troupe, Ron Strawbridge’s and Suki Peters’ Cherokee Street Theater Company, opened to packed houses for its initial production, Gremlins – LIVE! A Parody. And Theatre Nuevo joined in the celebration of the life and work of Cuban-American avante garde playwright, director and teacher Maria Irene Fornes with its faithful treatment of Fefu and Her Friends, one of Fornes’ best-known stories.
St. Louis Actors’ Studio revived one of master playwright Sam Shepard’s finest works, True West, as a fitting piece for its 12th season, titled Blood Is Thicker than Water. The season also featured a taut, terrific production of Farragut North, a fascinating political cautionary tale written by John Burroughs alumnus Beau Willimon. Wayne Salomon directed his smart cast in a compelling and provocative presentation.
And world premieres were abundant throughout the area, with new plays written and performed at STLAS’ LaBute New Play Festival, SATE’s Aphra Behn Festival, Tesseract Theatre Company and The Q Collective, among others. Perhaps the most-awaited presentation was Canfield Drive, an engrossing and even-handed new work presented by The Black Rep about the death of Michael Brown Jr. on the street of Canfield Drive in Ferguson in 2014, the “Black Lives Matter” movement and other resulting aspects.
Of the 124 productions I viewed on local stages in 2019, including professional, community and college presentations, the following is the list of the 13 productions which topped an impressive list of shows performed here. In ascending order they are:
#12 (tie): District Merchants at New Jewish Theatre. The character of Shylock and his treatment by other characters in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice have been problematic for four centuries. New Jewish Theatre’s powerful presentation of Aaron Posner’s 2016 adaptation smartly combined stellar acting with superior technical work under the expert direction of Jacqueline Thompson. District Merchants not only updated The Bard’s troublesome masterpiece but also added several new and intricate layers to demonstrate its still relevant message of injustice in a too often cold world.
#12 (tie): The Crucible at Stray Dog Theatre. It’s remarkable how timely and relevant Arthur Miller’s probing drama, which won the 1953 Tony Award for Best Play, is in the 21st century. Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell painstakingly recreated the original staging of Miller’s Herculean look at the unstoppable wave of unfounded accusations of witchcraft in Puritanical Salem, Massachusetts, an allegory for the McCarthy-era search for communists in America at the time the play debuted. Stray Dog’s version was a noble and rewarding rendition.
#11: Salt, Root and Roe at Upstream Theater. Tim Price’s affecting, absorbing drama about aged twins, one of whom deals with the dementia of the other, was given a top-notch presentation in its American premiere production at Upstream Theater. It ideally fit Upstream artistic director Philip Boehm’s goal “to move you and move you to think.” Salt, Root and Roe did Upstream’s mission proud, a well-wrought piece which dealt with a controversial subject with multi-layered, thoughtful poignancy.
#10: The Women of Lockerbie at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE). Playwright Deborah Brevoort’s one-act drama is set in Lockerbie, Scotland seven years after the crash of ill-fated Pam Am flight #103 in 1988, in which 259 passengers, crew and Lockerbie residents were killed by a terrorist attack. SATE closed its Season of Ritual with a moving production of this sobering drama, in which a group of Lockerbie women attempt to wash 11,000 articles of clothing still held as evidence from the crime. The Women of Lockerbie is an affecting and inspirational play which was given deserved justice in SATE’s powerfully poignant presentation.
#9: Oslo at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Steven Woolf, The Rep’s emeritus Augustin Family artistic director, made his final directorial effort at the helm of The Rep a smashing success with this riveting, superbly acted and beautifully modulated production of the unlikely drama about clandestine peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2017. It was heartwarming to see Woolf at the top of his game in his directorial swan song as the company’s longtime artistic director.
#8: Well at Mustard Seed Theatre. This charming, whimsical and seriously informative 2004 piece by playwright Lisa Kron was dusted off by Mustard Seed artistic director Deanna Jent and brought to captivating life in the troupe’s wonderful rendition. Jent called Well a “wild ride” and it was all of that and more as main character Lisa addressed the audience directly, telling us we were about to see a “multi-character theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in the community.” Well is tough to categorize but was easy to enjoy and appreciate in Mustard Seed’s fine and studied version.
#7: Guys and Dolls at The Muny. For the opening production of its second century, The Muny showcased its magnificently remodeled stage with a spectacular presentation of the perennially popular musical comedy, Guys and Dolls. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1950, Guys and Dolls made its eighth visit to the Forest Park amphitheater – but just the third since 1977 -- in director Gordon Greenberg’s energetic, exquisite production. Muny artistic director Mike Isaacson noted that this “’fable of Broadway’ has it all – laughs, love, magical songs and thrilling dances” to help The Muny “soar into our next century.” It did all that and more in The Muny’s lavish and lovable new version.
#6: Fully Committed at New Jewish Theatre. Set in the dungeon of an office for a reservation-taker at a swanky New York City restaurant, Becky Mode’s one-act comedy which takes place during the holiday season is a delightful one-man show. Will Bonfiglio gave a masterful, tour de force performance portraying more than 40 characters, including indefatigably decent reservationist Sam, under Ellie Schwetye’s sage direction at New Jewish Theatre. Bonfiglio’s unrivaled acting acumen in a mind-numbing array of roles at breakneck speed made Fully Committed a true holiday treasure.
#5: Matilda at The Muny. Muny artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson welcomed Roald Dahl’s humorous work, Matilda, to the amphitheater’s spacious stage in the guise of renowned local artist Mary Engelbreit’s colorful and whimsical works. It was an inspired master stroke of genius, elevating the already magnificent level of this smart and stylish musical under John Tartaglia’s ambitious direction as he harnessed the energy of his agreeable cast. Matilda brought The Muny’s 101st season to a joyous, inspiring close.
#4. Angels in America, Parts I and II, at The Rep. Not one to shy away from daunting challenges, Rep Augustin Family artistic director Hana Sharif chose Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning epic masterpiece about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s as her initial production in St. Louis. Even more ambitious was her decision to showcase both segments of Kushner’s work, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, in rotating repertory during their month-long run.
The Rep described Angels in America as “The AIDS epidemic is the flashpoint in Kushner’s swirling tapestry of American culture, myths and spirituality.” Sub-titled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels in America came full circle as Kushner conceived his original idea for the seven-hour play while he worked at The Rep in the ‘80s. The Rep’s inaugural production of this sweeping saga featured spectacular technical artistry and a star-studded cast who delivered exhaustive performances under Tony Speciale’s impeccable direction.
#3. Photograph 51 at West End Players Guild. Anna Ziegler’s one-act drama is based on the little-known story of Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography whose efforts led to the discovery of DNA, the “building block of life” found in the nucleus of cells. Franklin’s “friendly competitors,” Francis Crick and James Watson, announced “their” discovery in 1953 shortly after seeing Franklin’s amazing photo while she continued further research. Photograph 51 is a fascinating and complex portrayal of the double helix of science and emotions which wrapped around each of its well-etched characters in a virtually flawless production told in superior style at West End Players Guild under the watchful eye of director Ellie Schwetye.
#2. Man of La Mancha at Stages St. Louis. Stages St. Louis closed its 2019 season with a powerful and affecting presentation of Man of La Mancha, the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by the classic 17th century novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. James Patterson excelled in the title role and led an outstanding ensemble in Stages’ stirring and superior rendition, directed briskly and meticulously by artistic director Michael Hamilton. More than half a century after its premiere, Man of La Mancha remains timely because of its huge heart, its noble idealism and its power to embrace the lofty goals and aspirations each of us possess, even when tilting at windmills.
#1. Indecent at Max & Louie Productions. Paula Vogel’s drama focuses on the story behind the play, Got fun Nikome (The God of Vengeance), written by Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch and later performed in 1906 in Berlin. Advised by acclaimed Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz to burn his manuscript because it includes a lesbian love scene and a character throwing the Torah to the floor in anger, Asch instead sees it performed throughout Europe before taking it to America. A Yiddish production in New York City in 1907 is called “immoral” and “indecent” by several Yiddish newspapers. Eventually God of Vengeance appears on Broadway in 1923. Later, Asch’s troupe continues to perform it in Europe even under the growing threat of Nazi Germany.
The St. Louis premiere of Vogel’s taut, searing and beautifully written drama about “the true story of the little Jewish play” was brilliantly staged and performed in Max & Louie Productions’ presentation. Director Joanne Gordon shrewdly utilized every theatrical facet available to her in a riveting and mesmerizing production, an ensemble effort in the best sense. The company’s rendition of Indecent was both an intellectual and emotional achievement of the highest rank, a penetrating look at how art can survive even in the most savage of times.
Local professional theater seems to get better with each passing year for appreciative audiences. Here’s to more of the same in 2020.
Photos courtesy of Dan Donovan and Patrick Huber (Indecent), Peter Wochniak (Man of La Mancha), John Lamb (Photograph 51), Peter Wochniak (Angels in America), Phillip Hamer (Matilda), Jon Gitchoff (Fully Committed), Phillip Hamer (Guys and Dolls), Ann Aurbach (Well), Peter Wochniak (Oslo), Joey Rumpell (The Women of Lockerbie), Peter Wochniak (Salt, Root and Roe), John Lamb (The Crucible), Eric Woolsey (District Merchants)