It is 1958, the night of the senior prom, at Springfield high. Go, Chipmunks! Entertainment was supposed to be supplied by the Crooning Crab Cakes, from the boy’s glee club, but their band leader has just been suspended for smoking outside the girls’ locker room. Luckily, the boys are replaced by four singers in crinolines, the Marvelous Wonderettes. What ensues is an utter charm bomb. Set in two acts, first on prom night and then the ten-year reunion’s night, we are treated to a nonstop sock-hop medley of first ’50s and then ’60s rock-and-roll hits. Being performed on the main stage of the Saint Louis Repertory Theater, this musical is the perfect balm for our often raw January weather. We loved it!
Considered Shakespeare’s best play and arguably the best play ever, Hamlet has come to the Rep. The show begins in ghostly darkness and ends three-hours later, with everyone dead. The show has the usual fine production values for which the Saint Louis Repertory Theater is well know. The cast performs their roles flawlessly. Great material with perfect execution, but then why am I still left feeling underwhelmed? Is it that the script seems more like a recitation from Bartlett’s than dialogue? Or is it the countless parodies that it has spawned?
Hamlet: To be or not to be that is the question.
Yoda: Be or be not. There is no question.
If imitation is truly the highest form of flattery, then Hamlet has no shortage of pretenders. I just became aware that the Lion King is a Hamlet retelling, only in a more anthropomorphic and African setting. Which begs the question, which two Shakespearian characters do Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog duo, represent? My money is on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mainly though the play is just too long and is filled with too many “words, words, words”.
We kicked off the theater season with our first show at the Rep, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. This play, set in England, tells the story of Christopher a school boy, who happens to be on the spectrum for autism. The incident is his finding the neighbor’s dog dead, with a garden fork stuck in it.
Christopher doesn’t like the colors yellow and brown or being touched. He does like numbers, lists, accuracy and Sherlock Holmes. Christopher is living with his dad, because his mother died in the hospital or so his father tells him. As it turns out the old man is not entirely honest. Not able to cope with Christopher, Mom ran away with the neighbor’s husband and is living in London. Dad killed the dog, knowledge of which causes Christopher to fear for his life. Most of the rest of the story deals with Christopher’s odyssey to London, where he successfully reunites with his mother. In the end, he passes his A-level exam, reconciles with his father and gets a puppy, making for a happy ending of sorts.
The cast when they are not portraying a particular character work together as an ensemble. The ensemble moves randomly about the stage, sometimes speaking, but mostly distracting. Acting like a Greek chorus they serve well to convey a sense of Christopher’s confused perception of the people around him. It is always a difficult task to put the audience into a character’s head. One usually ends up resorting to metaphors, which Christopher hates, because to his literal world view, these abstractions are like lies to him. The play tries to portray Christopher as different, but not deficit. Christopher comes to realize this distinction and accepting this reality allows his parents to move forward too.
Earlier this month, we caught the conclusion to this year’s Ignite! festival, presented by the Rep. The play Teenage Dick was read. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III, only set in a contemporary American high school. Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, second only to Hamlet, so some liberties would be expected when you are shoehorning the original five-act drama into a one-act comedy-drama. The titular character, Richard (Gregg Mozgala), is running for class president, although it might as well be king and he really is being a dick about it. Mr. Mozgala has cerebral palsy, which he uses to help define his character’s ambition. Two other students are also candidates in this election. There is Eddie (Nick Dillenburg), the incumbent, football hero, etc. As Richard’s antagonist, I believe that he is a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Edward IV. The other candidate, Clarissa (Liesl Allen Yeager), I couldn’t place in the original work. She reminded me most of Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick from the movie Election. Other characters include Buck (Shannon DeVido), who represents the Duke of Buckingham and uses a motorized wheelchair. A major theme of this play is to portray people with disabilities as real people, who are not defined solely by their disability. Anne (Tiffany Villarin) or Lady Anne is the play’s love interest. She was dating Eddie, but is wooed by Richard and they attend the Senior Prom together. The only other character is Elizabeth (Nikiya Mathis) or Queen Elizabeth. She plays the faculty advisor to the student council. Teenage Dick was billed as part comedy, but the laughs are rather sparse. What laughs there are, are delivered by Elizabeth. Whenever one of the student characters break the rules, Elizabeth is heard to yell, “Take them to the Tower!” Her best line occurs during the student president’s debate, which is being live streamed on Twitter. When things eventually get out of hand and the Twitterati commence their snarking, Elizabeth calls out, “Twitter is no place for sarcasm!” The Rep’s next main stage season still has one as yet unannounced spot in January. It will be interesting to see, if one of the three Ignite! featured plays snag that vacancy.
Corazón Eterno (Always in My Heart) by playwright Caridad Svich is the middle play in this year’s Ignite! festival at the Rep. This festival involves the reading of new, still developing plays before a live audience. We have been regularly attending Ignite! since its inception. This year the festival has moved from the Opera Theater rehearsal hall to the Rep’s Studio Theater, the black box, where the chairs are more comfortable. Svich’s play is a story of unrequited love. As the title implies, it has a Latin American setting and it also uses language reminiscent of Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Its story is as old as Romeo & Juliet and features two star-crossed lovers separated by their families. The twist here is that the two protagonists are both named Julia and their love is the romantic love between two women.
After each reading Seth Gordon, the Ignite! artistic director comes out and quizzes the audience, asking us what aspect of the play was most memorable. I’ve always felt that this Q&A was primarily for the playwright’s benefit, giving them additional feedback on their work. I mentioned that these plays are still at a stage of considerable flux and this is especially true for this play here. I was surprised to learn while researching this post that Corazón Eterno had been performed this February in the Twin Cities. The Pioneer Press gave it a nice review, but also divulged a storyline that was significantly different. Three of the actors appeared on both stages: Mariana Fernandez, Lisa Suarez and Sasha Andreev still play Julia, Clemencia and Michael respectively. Julia still had an overbearing father, but then the other Julia (Keira Keeley) was called Julio and was played by a man. Holy gender-bending, Batman!
I’ll leave you with the following unrelated YouTube link. It shows the band Fever High playing their song “Looks Good on Paper”. It features some rather snappy bubblegum and is my nominee for this summer’s earwig.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all met and played together in an impromptu jam session, which Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet.” Sam had rolled tape that afternoon, from which several albums have ensued. The quartet had primarily played old gospel songs, because those were the ones that they all knew. Last night, we enjoyed the musical version of this story at the Rep. In this version of Million Dollar Quartet gospel is paid its due, with songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley”, but the main event is all rock and roll. With twenty-two tunes in the show, there are way too many to enumerate here.
It is the intervals that make this play much more than an Elvis impersonation. The spaces between the songs, where we are given a glimpse at how these legends worked and interacted. That Christmas was a turbulent time for Phillips and Sun. Cash’s contract was up for renewal and RCA was trying to acquire Phillips’ services to help manage Presley. Sam had only a year before sold the rights to Elvis for $40,000, to keep Sun afloat. RCA’s initial response to that offer had been, “We can buy the World Series for less than that.” Acting as MC, Phillips rises above this squabbling sea of virtuosos and rides the rising tide to historical vindication, but not before a host of some mighty fine tunes are performed. At the end of the second act, each member of the quartet ‘solos’ with one of their signature songs: “Hound Dog” for Elvis, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” for Cash, “See you Later Alligator” for Perkins and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” for Lewis. The last two are played out as encores, hyping the rock concert feel of the show. The crowd was on its feet well before the lights came up and it was announced that Elvis had left the building.