You say you want more MasterMinds, more innovation and creativity? This fall you can hear the words and melodies of Sondheim and Shakespeare and Simon. Of Lerner & Loewe, and Kander & Ebb, and Thornton Wilder. Sometimes it takes a listing like this one to remind us of the abundance and variety of riches that are readily at hand on local theater stages.
First up (September 6 through 15) — and one of the most-anticipated theater events of the fall season — is Parade, an infrequently staged musical by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. First produced on Broadway in 1998, the show chronicles the sensational 1913 trial in Georgia of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was accused of having murdered Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee. The controversial case (complete with overtones of anti-Semitism and Southern Reconstruction) has been dramatized many times on film and stage, but to attempt the story as a musical was audacious. Today Brown is better known as the composer of The Last Five Years, but this production from R-S Theatrics (Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Avenue; 314-456-0071 or www.r-stheatrics.com) is a rare opportunity to tune into early Brown at his most ambitious.
That same week (September 6 through October 6) Stages St. Louis (Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 South Geyer Road, Kirkwood; 314-821-2407 or www.stagesstlouis.org) opens the perennial 1956 favorite My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. In his recent memoir Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim devotes an entire page to downsizing the reputation of fellow lyricist Lerner ("professional and uninteresting"). Then, in the interest of accuracy, Sondheim concedes that despite his reservations, My Fair Lady is "the most entertaining musical I've ever seen." A backhanded compliment to be sure, but My Fair Lady has earned its lofty perch in the pantheon of musical theater.
A third musical arrives the following week (September 11 through October 6). The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road; 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org) opens its new season with the vintage Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret. Surely the mastermind behind this Rep staging will be director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who is developing a reputation as one of the fastest-rising talents today. Her recent Tony Award-nominated revival of Ragtime surprised even the show's author, Terrence McNally, who later said, "Marcia understands the power of an image." Expect to see the 1966 Cabaret to be rethought and fresh.
Moving on to some non-musicals...
Thornton Wilder seems to have been lost in the shuffle of today's theater, but Our Town, Wilder's 1938 celebration of the joys of ordinary life, is still recognized as the great American play. Insight Theatre Company (Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Avenue; 314-556-1293 or www.insighttheatrecompany.com) will visit Our Town from September 12 through 29. The large cast includes John Contini, Peggy Billo, Alan Knoll and Donna Weinsting, with Joneal Joplin as the Stage Manager. Surely for these actors, the opportunity to appear in Our Town is as humbling a privilege as it is for the audience to see it.
Last season New Jewish Theatre (Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur; 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org) fared well with Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers. So from October 3 to 20 the company is tackling The Good Doctor, one of Simon's least commercial plays — which is not to say that it is a bad script, only that it is unconventional. The work comprises nine playlets adapted from or suggested by the masterful stories of Anton Chekhov. The Good Doctor is now 40 years old — Chekhov himself only lived to age 44 — and it is probably staged more than any of Simon's other minor works. Apparently there's something appealing about America's most successful playwright attempting something different.
William Shakespeare would be on anyone's short list of early masterminds. The Comedy of Errors is early Will, written when he was around 25. It's hard to be too specific because we don't know the date Comedy was written, nor do we know the date of Shakespeare's birth. Other than that, we're in great shape. And we also can state with some certainty that this farce about twins who were separated at birth is Shakespeare's shortest play, which is always a plus. St. Louis Shakespeare will make merry at the Florissant Civic Center (Parker Road and Waterford Drive, Florissant; 314-361-6543 or www.stlshakespeare.org) from October 18 through 26.
Fall also heralds the return of university theater. Three area theater departments are mounting spirited musicals.
The kinetic staged rock concert known as Spring Awakening will be performed by the Washington University Performing Arts Department at Washington University's Edison Theatre (6445 Forsyth Boulevard; 314-935-5858 or www.edisontheatre.wustl.edu) from October 25 through November 3. The show's conceit is that when the actors speak, they are in nineteenth-century Germany; when they sing, they are here and now. Expect this eloquent exploration of the frustrated longings of teenagers in a repressed society to play like gangbusters when performed by a student cast.
From Germany, we move back a few centuries to ancient Rome. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum will be cavorting at Saint Louis University (Xavier Hall, 3733 West Pine Mall; 314-977-3327 or slu.edu/theatre/) from November 15 through 24, courtesy of the Saint Louis University Theatre. The book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart would be a laugh riot without any songs at all. Fortunately, the tunes by a young Stephen Sondheim are delightful. In his aforementioned and supremely valuable memoir, Sondheim tells us that these lyrics were the most difficult he ever had to write. "The sad fact is," he confesses, "that the book and the score didn't go together, and they still don't." OK, if he says so. Funny Thing might be mismatched, but when the show is done right, out of this imperfection emerges the most hilarious musical farce ever written. Prepare to laugh, not think.
Finally, from December 4 through 15 the Webster University Conservatory will transform Stage III (Webster Hall, 470 East Lockwood Avenue; 314-968-7128) into Smokey Joe's Café, which is not so much a location as it is a state of mind. The 39 songs in this reverie of a musical revue pay homage to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who (mostly together, sometimes with others) wrote, among others, "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak," Love Potion #9," "Kansas City" and "On Broadway." They supplied rock & roll tunes to the Drifters, the Coasters — but mostly to Elvis. For those who are old enough to remember these songs, the evening should be bathed in nostalgia. For those who aren't: Welcome to the '50s.