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Dinner & A Show: The Best of St. Louis Theater in 2015

Dinner & A Show: The Best of St. Louis Theater in 2015

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Theater in many forms continues to grow in the St. Louis area. Consider, for example, that St. Louis now has four opera companies, namely Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Union Avenue Opera, Winter Opera and Gateway Opera. Except for early autumn an opera devotee can see a local production pretty much year-round now.

Cabaret has blossomed significantly in the past few years as well, with Tim Schall’s annual festival in the summer and both spring and autumn sessions produced by Jim Dolan and The Presenters Dolan. Other venues, including new spots, offer even more of these songs-in-a-setting presentations.

Also, a splashy, new venue called the Marcelle Theater became the permanent home of New Line Theatre. Artistic director Scott Miller, whose troupe has performed through the years in such locales as the St. Marcus Theatre, the Art Loft and the old CBC High School on Clayton Road, took up full-time residence in its 25th anniversary season with an imaginative production of the musical version of Heathers that played to full houses.

And, while we’ve lost a number of theater companies in the last several years, new ones have come along to energize, entertain and challenge audiences along with established companies.

OnSite Theatre co-founding director Ann Marie Mohr, e.g., announced late this year that the site-specific company she founded with Kristen Edler would be going on hiatus, at the least, while Edler continues living in Switzerland. That’s not before, though, the company showcased Alec Wild’s witty work, Off the Record, taking audiences along on a campaign bus carrying a political candidate with a secret (Steve Peirick), his increasingly annoyed wife (Maggie Conroy), an opportunistic PR man (Charlie Barron), a flustered volunteer (Sarajane Alverson) and a gruff reporter (Donna Weinsting). Fun stuff.

Max & Louie Productions resurrected a 1960s British comedy, The Killing of Sister George, with an energized cast including Lavonne Byers in the title role as an actress whose ongoing role in a BBC radio serial is ticketed for elimination. Erin Kelley, Shannon Nara and Cooper Shaw contributed to the satiric comedy.

The Muny delivered several musical surprises. The Buddy Holly Story brought the ‘50s singing sensation to life on The Muny’s expansive stage, with Andy Christopher’s charisma and musical charm shining through in the title role of the upbeat Texan whose death in a plane crash at a very young age became synonymous with “the day the music died.”

Another pleasant Muny presentation was just the second production nationally of Holiday Inn, a bright, splashy musical based on the movie of the same title, with festive tunes cherry picked from the Irving Berlin canon to mark holidays throughout the calendar year. And director Rob Ruggiero’s Oklahoma!, with Ginger Thatcher’s restaging of Susan Stroman’s inventive new choreography of Agnes de Mille’s legendary dances, made Oklahoma! as fresh and invigorating as a gentle breeze sweeping across the plains.

Em Piro’s St. Lou Fringe Festival continues to grow in size and stature. This year’s event spanned two weeks and included performers from throughout the country. A couple of home-grown gems were Candy Says by Carl Wickman, a poignant story about a lonely middle-aged man (Terry Meddows) who calls for the services of a robotic prostitute (Rachel Hanks), and House, with Midnight Company’s Joe Hanrahan raging into the audience as a man prone to spasms of anger while discussing his life, his wife, his therapist and the world out to get him.

Musical excellence was in abundance everywhere. Stray Dog Theatre mounted a wonderful, whimsical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as director Justin Been opened up the Tower Grove Abbey to limitless possibilities with an exuberant cast romping through Rupert Holmes’ Tony Award winner inspired by Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. And The Black Rep presented a captivating charmer titled Once on This Island, an enchanting, mystical excursion into the fantastical and uplifting, accentuated by graceful dancing, spirited singing and a winning way under producing director Ron Himes’ savvy direction.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis offered a delightful version of Rossini’s most famous comic opera, The Barber of Seville, to start its 40th anniversary season, an offbeat look at the classic by stage director Michael Shell, who said he was inspired by the fantasy films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Conductor Ryan McAdams led a spirited reading of the score by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Stages brought the musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Café, to life on the intimate Reim Theatre stage at the Kirkwood Civic Center, with a spirited ensemble taking turns warbling from the canon of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. An enduring classic of a different stripe, The Fantasticks by composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones, was given a touching rendition at Insight Theatre Company by a cast led by Martin Fox as the roguish narrator, El Gallo.

Union Avenue Opera presented an affecting version of Verdi’s haunting Rigoletto, with Jordan Shanahan bringing a brilliant interpretation to the role of the tortured, tragic title character. Under Tim Ocel’s penetrating direction and conductor Scott Schoonover’s powerful reading of Verdi’s brooding score, Rigoletto was a memorable operatic experience. UAO also opened its 21st season with a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Director and choreographer Lara Teeter pulled out all the stops once again for the annual Variety Children’s Theatre musical. This year’s offering, Mary Poppins, handsomely fulfilled its two primary goals, namely offering a forum for integrating children of all abilities into its cast and production staff, and presenting a show intricately shaped by Teeter and carefully crafted by an assortment of both local and professional talents. With Elizabeth DeRosa and Drew Humphrey as the title character and the loose-limbed chimney sweep Bert respectively, every performance was a holiday with Mary.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre opened its 2015-16 season with a production from the first North American tour of Matilda the Musical, a jubilant, vibrant explosion of infectious good humor and tuneful music that delighted children and offered entertainment for adults as well. And Mustard Seed Theatre’s third annual rendition of the a cappella musical, All Is Calm, was every bit as heart-rending as the first two, even with a largely new cast.

Comedy was given its due in several stellar shows. West End Players Guild delivered a wonderful, irreverent gem titled Mr. Marmalade, the ribald and very funny story of a 4-year-old girl (Kimberly Byrnes) and her imaginary friend, the foul-mouthed, vice-heavy title character played with manic mischief by Todd Schaefer. Michael Brightman was delightful as Mr. Marmalade’s long-suffering aide-de-camp.

St. Louis Actors’ Studio put on an acting workshop when Linda Kennedy and Peter Mayer matched wits and haunting memories as a pair of card-playing residents at a senior’s home in The Gin Game, under John Contini’s measured direction. Act Inc. brought back an early Woody Allen comedy, Play It Again, Sam, with Joseph Cella capturing both the mannerisms and cadence of Allen’s quirky style under Lori Renna’s light, breezy direction.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble made the most of The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s madcap comedy based on the John Buchan novel and the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, within the cozy confines of The Chapel. Carl Overly Jr., Ellie Schwetye, Rachel Tibbetts and Pete Winfrey took their cues from Kirsten Wylder’s clever direction with expertly paced delivery, sundry silly accents and more than an occasional raised eyebrow to elevate this smile-inducing, laugh-filled performance that proved that less can indeed be more.

Kirkwood Theatre Guild delivered a pair of winners during the year, including a fitfully funny version of Neil Simon’s Rumors. Director Robert Thibaut’s rendition was rife with hilarious moments in this witty and wacky farce. The mood was somber and serious, on the other hand, when the troupe performed the fact-based drama, Radium Girls, a poignant drama about the devastating deaths and illnesses brought to New Jersey factory workers decorating watches with radium-based paint in 1917. Brad Schwartz’s excellent direction elicited several moving performances.

St. Louis Shakespeare excels at farce and comic exaggeration and is at its best when presenting unusual, rarely performed theatrical gems such as Wild Oats, an adaptation of a Restoration play that pits good-guy underdogs against nefarious Establishment types. Set in the Wild West, director Shaun Sheley and company chewed up delectably tasty dialogue for two hours of shenanigans filled with humor and rib-ticklin’ good times.

Ken Ludwig has written some very funny plays, such as the engaging farce Lend Me a Tenor. In the hands of versatile performer Alan Knoll and deft direction by Edward Coffield, Ludwig’s Moon over Buffalo featured some truly hilarious performances in an Insight Theatre Company production. Knoll showed once again why he’s one of our area’s elite actors with an uproarious performance as the self-centered, irresponsible main character. He was at the top of his game in an hilariously drunken state, spilling off of couches or into crevices with amusing dexterity.

Mustard Seed Theatre’s premiere production of An Invitation Out was unlike anything mounted on a local stage in 2015, a wonderfully complex and fascinating journey into a troubled, vacuous future as conjured by playwright Shualee Cook under the wise direction of artistic director Deanna Jent. Cook’s clever comedy was a consistently fine homage to Oscar Wilde and comedies of manners so prevalent in Victorian literature, an update in which friends meet regularly through their ‘avatars’ in an online chat room, masquerading as characters they aspire to be rather than who they actually are.

And The Rep offered a superior rendition of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning salute to the 19th century Russian master storyteller, Anton Chekhov. This paean to many things Chekhovian was given an expert and delightfully precise rendering by director Michael Evan Haney and a six-player cast who knew well the tenuous art of evoking laughter.

In the realm of drama several shows stood out. Metro Theater Company drew upon the famous historical events that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century and Arthur Miller’s drama, The Crucible, with Laurie Brooks’ prequel to Miller’s work. Afflicted Daughters of Salem offered a possible explanation of what drove five young women to fan the fires of hysteria in their village, aided by splendid performances by a six-player cast under Julia Flood’s wise direction.

Upstream Theater offered a poetic, haunting, mystical excursion with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Director Patrick Siler’s adaptation of Coleridge’s epic poem was presented as a ‘lyrical ballad’ in a richly rewarding presentation that artistically wove the music of Sleepy Kitty and literature together. Jerry Vogel used his considerable intelligence to carefully craft a depiction of the world-weary title character, with Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer providing intriguing backup in multiple roles.

Equally Represented Arts, a relatively new company, scored impressively with R&J: A Telephone Play or Don’t Drink the Milk. Coinciding with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ annual Shake 38 event, R&J: A Telephone Play was a boldly imaginative, exuberantly executed exercise engineered and orchestrated by artistic director Lucy Cashion. Several gifted playwrights presented an array of brief ponderings inspired by the tragic consequences of Juliet for her Romeo.

New Jewish Theatre offered one of the most arresting works of the year with a riveting presentation of Bad Jews, a searing, seething, knock-down battle of wits and withering verbal attacks between twenty-something cousins that left a tony but sterile apartment a war zone strewn with emotions laid raw like so many bayonet wounds. Sydnie Grosberg Ronga’s full-force direction guided a superior cast consisting of Antonio Rodriguez, Em Piro, Pete Winfrey and Taylor Steward.

The Rep’s production of Angel Street featured one of the year’s most impressive set designs, an ingenious, three-story structure conceived by Wilson Chin that was integral to this intricately crafted rendition of a stylish old English ‘ripping yarn.’ That followed All the Way, a stirring, stellar presentation of the 2014 Tony Award winner for Best Play. A look at the accomplishments of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the year between President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the former vice president’s own, elected four-year term as president, All the Way was a pulsating history lesson that should have been required viewing for any high school history or civics class.

R-S Theatrics, which bills itself as ‘Never Safe -- Always R-S,’ delivered a weird, wonderful version of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a three-part “dark comedy” written by Anne Washburn. The playwright’s disturbing story about the survivors of an apparent nuclear disaster expanded the capabilities of the Ivory Theatre, where artistic director Christina Rios made some beguiling directorial choices for this well-conceived and executed rendition.

And Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presented a superior ensemble piece titled One Flea Spare, another story dealing with survivors, this time from the bubonic plague in 17th century England. This powerful and poignant story about the dangers that wreak ruin not only on the body but its fragile psyche as well featured Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman and Hannah Ryan in a provocative drama.

Midnight Company brought back a pair of winning performances by Joe Hanrahan, its artistic director. The Good Thief was a case study about a small-time Irish hood and his brushes with death which he recounts in a story about gangsters on the Emerald Isle, while the narrator of St. Nicholas tells the audience how he, a theater critic, ended up consorting with vampires while chasing after the woman of his dreams. Hanrahan cagily embodied each of these lonely, tortured souls with an empathy they may not have deserved.

Theatre Lab presented a harrowing, haunting interpretation of The Pillowman, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s macabre, sinister tale about two Eastern European cops questioning and torturing a self-professed writer of mostly unpublished short stories about a series of gruesome child killings that have shocking similarities to the writer’s grisly tales. Director Ryan Foizey’s focused direction distilled several tasty performances by Eric Dean White, Nick Kelly, Jason Klefisch and Darian Michael Garey.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis celebrated its 15th anniversary of free performances of plays by William Shakespeare in Forest Park with an eclectic production of Antony and Cleopatra. Directed by St. Louis native Mike Donahue, it was a breezy, delightful potpourri of romance, comedy, tragedy and history that offered something for every Bard aficionado.

The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University regularly showcases the impressive talents of its students, none more so than a winning presentation of the seldom seen Stage Door. Alec Wild harnessed the energies of a huge student cast to handsomely serve Edna Ferber’s and George S. Kaufman’s venerable yarn about aspiring actresses in New York City in the 1930s.

And St. Louis Actors’ Studio continued to build its increasingly prestigious LaBute New Theater Festival with its month-long offering of new works in July at the Gaslight Theater. The festival, which is expanding next year to a production off-Broadway in January, featured several new one-acts, including an original work by Neil LaBute titled Kandahar, the harrowing tale of a soldier returned stateside from Afghanistan whose interrogation by unseen Army officers leads to a stunning revelation.

Of the 126 shows I viewed in 2015, there were several dozen presentations that stood out in one way or another, including a dozen or so that finished just out of the top tier. The following, though, is a list of the Top Ten productions in 2015, in ascending order:

#10 (tie): Into the Woods at The Muny. Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer of The Muny, said in his program notes that one of the two most common questions he’d been asked since he joined The Muny was “When will we see Into the Woods?” Isaacson’s answer was a resounding success of a production in 2015. If ever a show seemed tailor-made for The Muny, Into the Woods would qualify. The pastoral expanse of The Muny’s imposing stage in Forest Park was ideally suited for this sprawling saga conceived by writer James Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The Muny’s presentation, under the inspired direction of Gary Griffin, was a sumptuous interpretation of a clever, sophisticated musical.

#10 (tie): The Threepenny Opera at New Line Theatre. The granddaddy of dark, decadent musicals still packs a punch with its biting social commentary that has remained relevant through the ages. New Line Theatre’s production was fresh, vital and deliciously subversive, underscoring author Bertholt Brecht’s sly observations that crime does indeed pay, whether for a rogue like Threepenny’s Macheath or for the pillars of a society that diminishes the humanity of the less fortunate. Artistic director Scott Miller’s presentation had a spring in its seditious step that kept this interpretation amusing and entertaining throughout, with Todd Schaefer cool and collected as the anti-hero Macheath.

#9: The Kiss at Upstream Theater. This affecting, two-character drama by Dutch playwright Ger Thijs was true to Upstream Theater’s mission “to move you, and move you to think.” The Kiss was a pas de deux of vulnerability between two lonely souls searching for answers and meaning if not happiness through the intercession of an interested outsider with surprising results. Heart-rending performances by Lisa Tejero and Eric Dean White and soft, focused direction by Kenn McLaughlin made The Kiss a magical, marvelous exploration of the heart.

#8: The Amish Project at Mustard Seed Theatre. Playwright Jessica Dickey’s one-woman drama is a fictionalized account of a mass murder in 2006 when a local milkman walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and systematically shot 10 girls in the head before killing himself. Dickey’s depiction of that horrific incident and the subsequent forgiveness of the killer by the Amish parents of his victims was deftly rendered by Mustard Seed Theatre in a powerful, profoundly moving interpretation crafted by artistic director Deanna Jent and performer Amy Loui’s luminous portrayal of seven different characters.

#7: Emmeline at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Emmeline Mosher was taken from her family home in 1841 by her Aunt Hannah, a stern, religious woman who put her to work in a textile mill. Twenty years later, Emmeline now runs her family’s boarding house and is pursued by several suitors, including a handsome young railroad worker who proposes marriage. Happiness turns quickly into tragedy, however. Tobias Picker’s brooding 1996 opera received its first full-scale production since its Santa Fe Opera debut in a brilliant presentation impeccably directed by James Robinson at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Both musically and theatrically, Emmeline was a bravura performance, highlighted by Joyce El-Khoury’s OTSL main stage debut in the title role. OTSL’s rendition depicted tragedy in its purest and most heart-breaking form.

#6: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Edward Albee’s epic 1962 play about domestic warfare is one of the epochal works in 20th century American theater. It is demanding of its performers and exhaustive of its audience’s capacity to observe and absorb verbal punishment. Its ability to envelop one into its precipitous decline of civility was handled very well indeed in a sizzling presentation performed by Kari Ely, William Roth, Betsy Bowman and Michael Amoroso under the precise direction of John Contini. A quartet of smoothly calibrated performances maintained the story’s edge and pathos throughout.

#5: Sight Unseen at New Jewish Theatre. Playwright Donald Margulies knows how to dig into the marrow of relationships, something he does in Sight Unseen with pinpoint precision. New Jewish Theatre’s production about a successful artist’s meeting with his former lover and her husband was a moving, melancholy account of how relationships change with the sifting sands of time, sometimes not pleasantly so. Under Bobby Miller’s incisive direction, a quartet of players -- Aaron Orion Baker, Emily Baker, David Wassilak and Em Piro -- in this achingly effective drama led their audience along the myriad paths of their characters’ complicated hearts. Sight Unseen cleverly depicted how art can imitate life but not always atone for it.

#4: Anything Goes at Stages St. Louis. Audiences have delighted in the charms of this Cole Porter musical since it debuted on Broadway in 1934. Stages’ presentation under Michael Hamilton’s impeccable direction kept the show humming along from one memorable tune to another and was timeless in its appeal. The top-notch cast was irrepressible as they sang, danced and frolicked across the stage in a presentation that sparkled from the Manhattan bar where it begins to the maritime wedding in its finale. Anything Goes was a bright and breezy musical cruise in high-kickin’, smooth-sailin’ fashion, led by charismatic Julie Cardia as nightclub chanteuse Reno Sweeney and captivating Brent Michael Diroma as the amiable Billy Crocker.

#3: Safe House at The Rep. Loosely based on playwright Keith Josef Adkins’ own ancestral roots, Safe House tells the tale of Addison Peddigrew, a free man of color living in the border state of Kentucky in 1843, but one who is required to carry a certificate with him that designates him as free and not a runaway slave. When Addison’s brother harbors an escaped slave in their home, Addison is forced to make tough decisions that affect his entire family. A gripping story superbly told, Safe House was given an exhilarating interpretation by director Melissa Maxwell and a superior cast led by Daniel Morgan Shelley and Will Cobb in The Rep’s Studio Theatre, beautifully paced to extract maximum impact from its clever and well-honed script. Safe House was powerful, compelling and visceral theater at its finest.

#2: Dogfight at Stray Dog Theatre. The story of three young Marines enjoying a night on the town in 1963 in San Francisco before shipping out to Vietnam was given a wonderfully affecting, heartfelt adaptation by Stray Dog Theatre of the musical based on Bob Comfort’s 1991 screenplay of the same title. Under Justin Been’s meticulous direction, Shannon Cothran and Brendan Ochs led a stellar cast in an achingly evocative rendition of the way we were more than half a century ago, with Cochran and Ochs showing the aching vulnerability of two teens still defining who they are and will be. Dogfight’s premise of Marines bringing the ‘ugliest’ girls they can find to a dance is cruel, but its music and message are affecting for anyone who’s ever felt alone and outside the mainstream, a lonely heart’s best friend.

#1: The Winslow Boy at The Rep. Where to begin to describe the delicate beauty of this production? The stars aligned in breathtaking symmetry at The Rep, where artistic director Steven Woolf meticulously coaxed a bevy of magnificent performances from a cast well attuned to the nuances of Sir Terence Rattigan’s compelling script. Rattigan’s drama focused on a 13-year-old cadet at England’s Osborn Naval Academy in 1912 accused and assumed guilty of stealing from another cadet. The boy’s professed innocence compelled his father to defend his son and the family honor by enlisting the services of the nation’s pre-eminent barrister.

From the set to the costumes to the lighting and the characters brought to impeccable life by a cast led by Jay Stratton and Kathleen Wise, The Winslow Boy was a treat for the senses as well as the heart and mind.

Time and time again this year, local audiences were treated to artistic excellence that made the St. Louis theater scene resonate with passion and power. Here’s a hearty salute to all of the artists both on and behind the stage and the impressive work that they showcase in our town.

Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr., John Lamb, Peter Wochniak, Eric Woolsey, Ken Howard, Jill Ritter Lindberg, Phillip Hamer

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