As You Like It Director Risa Brainin captains a boatload of talented designers and actors, steering them in the centerpiece of 2004's Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, a gently realistic comedy that's heavier on romance than laughs. Julie Evan Smith and Rashaad Ernesto Green have great chemistry as heroine Rosalind and her "love-student" Orlando, while Caroline Bootie as Celia matches Smith's infectious energy. Jerry Vogel has fun playing brothers (one evil, one not). The magical scene-shift from the bleakly oppressive court to the forest of Arden is breathtaking. Come with a picnic, play in the mud, watch the jugglers and comic actors -- and it's all free. Don't miss the "lickety-split" mini-version of the play, performed beforehand, at 7 and 7:30. Through June 20 on the east side of Art Hill in Forest Park (no show June 17). Call 314-361-0101. (Deanna Jent)
Carmen Jennifer Dudley brings solid acting skills and impressive castanet technique to her portrayal of the tragic libertine in a low-key and naturalistic interpretation that relies more on the beauty of Georges Bizet's melodies than on the sheer vocal power normally associated with opera. Opera Theatre of St. Louis' staging of this sexy and satisfying version of this nineteenth-century masterpiece is brisk and sure-handed. The ensemble singing is wonderful. The orchestra is lush. There is much splendid cleavage. And it's all done in English. Through June 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Call 314-961-0644 for performance schedule. (Lew Prince)
Cavalleria Rusticana and Sister Angelica It's diva night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, featuring Lisa Daltirus as Mascagni's jilted lover and Kelly Kaduce as Puccini's tormented nun. Both turn in bravura performances in this pair of one-act operas. There's lust, betrayal, tragedy and redemption galore as the two sopranos pull out all the stops and conductor Steven Lord leads OTSL's fine orchestra in a pair of topnotch productions. Bring plenty of Kleenex. Performed (of course) in English. Through June 27 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Call 314-961-0644 for performance schedule. (Lew Prince)
Grease You know that summer has officially arrived when the rambunctious gang from Rydell High rears its heads and threatens to moon its bottoms. Hasn't everybody sat through this foolish paean to rock & roll at least twice? Apparently not, judging from the glee and surprise in audience members' eyes (many so young they've evidently not even seen the sanitized film version). This bright and bubbly student production has a sweetly self-conscious quality. But that doesn't prevent Maria Tholl, in a supporting role as one of the Pink Ladies, from maintaining exactly the right exuberance level for the entire two hours, regardless of whether she's center stage or off in a corner. Roger Speidel's set design is a veritable museum of 1950s memorabilia. A good time is had by all. Presented by University Theater through June 20 at the Katherine Dunham Hall Theater on the SIU Edwardsville campus, I-270 and Route 157, Edwardsville, Illinois. Call 888-328-5168, ext. 2774. (Dennis Brown)
Gypsy Stages St. Louis has opened its season with the kind of show that gives this company the most trouble: a book-heavy musical that requires real direction. Despite memorable songs by Jule Styne, comic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an abundance of colorful sets and costumes, this is possibly the longest two hours and 50 minutes you'll spend in a theater all summer. In the title role, Christy Morton successfully conveys the poignancy of the shy waif who develops into striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. As the indefatigable Mama Rose, Zoe Vonder Haar works like a Trojan, but her brassy portrayal owes less to predecessors like Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury than it does to Babe Buchanan. Diehard conservatives might enjoy this surface production; everyone else should bring a sack lunch. Through June 27 at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road, Kirkwood. Call 314-821-2407. (Dennis Brown)
Raisin Whenever she opens her mouth to sing, Sandra Reaves-Phillips is a towering presence. Her performance as a weary black matriarch determined to provide her fragmented family with a better life spearheads a uniformly strong cast in this 1974 Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's seminal American drama A Raisin in the Sun. In order to make way for the songs, the text of that important play has been reduced to a Reader's Digest "best parts" version. But there are soaring musical moments that transport an audience to a realm beyond speech. At its best, this Raisin is musical theater taken to the ultimate. Performed by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company through June 26 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Call 314-534-3810. (Dennis Brown)
Reefer Madness Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney's musical homage to the 1936 movie portrays the horrifying effects of marijuana: cannabilism, sluttiness, bad manners and more. Good music and sly lyrics are the highlights of the New Line Theatre's mostly hilarious telling of this cautionary tale; director Scott Miller uses the wide stage effectively but the pacing during dialogue doesn't match the crisp energy of the songs. Robin Berger's choreography is snappy, groan-inducing rhymes abound and the smoke smells authentic. Strong performances add to the over-the-top delight; but the highlight of each act is a guest appearance by Jesus (Jeff Pruett, in a perfectly awful wig and beard), backed by a chorus of singing -- and cross-dressing -- nuns. Through June 26 at the Artloft Theatre, 1527 Washington. Call 314-534-1111. (Deanna Jent)
The Secret Marriage Reviewed in this issue.