The Nutcracker Here's something different: a talking Nutcracker. Ever since Tchaikovsky set music to E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 fantasy about Maria (whose name is usually changed to Clara in ballet productions) and her close encounter of the third kind with a prince who is imprisoned in a nutcracker, the story has pretty much lost its ability to speak. Without sacrificing some of Tchaikovsky's most familiar themes, yet at the same time reducing them from entrées to appetizers, playwright Sarah Brandt and composer Neal Richardson have adapted the story for the Rep's touring Imaginary Theatre Company. Scott Loebl's set design is simple yet creative, and Ellen Isom's choreography lends a sense of fluidity to simple gestures. At the performance I attended last weekend at First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, the mostly youthful audience was attentive and involved, thanks especially to Ann Ashby, whose Maria drives the story forward in an energetic yet not condescending manner. Performed December 18 (sold out), 20 and 21 at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves. Tickets are $6. Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.—Dennis Brown
As Bees in Honey Drown A meditation on the cult of celebrity and the perceived value of sizzle versus steak, Douglas Carter Beene's satirical comedy relates the seduction of young author Evan (Martin Fox) by the fabulously affected Alexa Vere De Vere (Sarajane Alverson). Alexa swoops in on clouds of dropped names and scattered hundred-dollar bills, offering Evan the chance to write the screenplay for her biopic — the fact that the deal includes entrance to the glossy world beyond the velvet rope is the 24-karat carrot Evan greedily pursues. Alverson smoothly navigates Alexa's curlicues of dialogue, but the character is such a cartoonishly glitzy monster that the play feels uneven; she's swanning about, declaiming ludicrous bons mots to the room while Fox plays Evan with naturalistic realism. One of them seems to be misplaced, but who is it? Alexa's declarations of intent, such as "Fame without achievement is the safest thing I know," bring wry laughs, and Kevin Boehm's turn as nutball music executive Morris Kadon is right on the money. Presented by Stray Dog Theatre through December 18 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 314-865-1995 or visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
— Paul Friswold
Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) When was the last time you saw a play in which one of the leading characters (or supporting characters, even) was a building? Terry Meddows' wondrous portrayal of a once-elegant mansion instills a buoyant sense of Chekhovian storytelling to a tale that is otherwise odd and oblique, yet constantly compelling. For inside Meddows' crumbling building live a mother and daughter whose lives are also falling apart. Kirsten Wylder nails the aching confusion of a mother who helplessly watches her eleven-year-old daughter (the riveting Chelsea Serocke) self-destruct. In 70 painful yet absorbing minutes, Sheila Callaghan's script deals with themes of family loss and celebrity obsession. Justin Ivan Brown is on hand as fantasy figures Justin Timberlake (for the daughter) and Harrison Ford (for Mom). And when Colleen Backer, who plays Mom's eccentric sister, reels off the names of her 57 cats, it's about as eerie a moment as you're likely to see this holiday season — which is just what we've come to expect from Echo Theatre, a company that delights in shaking us up. Through December 19 in Theatre 134 at the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza), Watson and Sappington roads, Crestwood. Tickets are $20 ($15 for seniors; rush seats for students are two for $20, fifteen minutes before curtain). Call 314-225-4329 or visit www.echotheatrecompany.org(DB)
Last of the Red Hot Mamas The notably uneventful rags-to-riches journey of brassy entertainer Sophie Tucker is told through songs piled upon songs that recall the early-20th-century eras of ragtime, vaudeville and jazz. Three actresses portray Tucker at various stages in her life: Christy Simmons is our anchor and narrator; Phoebe Raileanu handles the early years; Johanna Elkana-Hale tackles Tucker as she's hitting her stride. The show has a relentless desire to be loved, and the thin plot is sometimes maudlin. But an onslaught of proven songs like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "There'll Be Some Changes Made," "Shine on Harvest Moon," "Hard Hearted Hannah" and "Darktown Strutters Ball" — all slickly staged by director-choreographer Tony Parise — provide tuneful nostalgia for an era when melodies could still be hummed and lyrics rolled off the tongue as smoothly as glass marbles. Produced by New Jewish Theatre through December 26 at the Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus, Creve Coeur. Tickets are $36 to $40 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org. (DB)
Over the Tavern You can always rely on a humorless nun to elicit a few laughs. When Darrie Lawrence's ruler-wielding Sister Clarissa is onstage, Tom Dudzick's rose-colored reverie about life in a dysfunctional 1950s bartending Buffalo family is wryly engaging. Lawrence is a consummate actress who personifies a theater credo the playwright never learned: Less is more. Dudzick never met a joke he didn't like, and they're all crammed into these two acts. In between gags, Celeste Ciulla delivers a standout portrayal as the bewildered, exhausted yet valiant mother. Just as this mother holds her crumbling family together, so does this actress hold the production together. Ciulla's understated contribution to the evening's palatability is heroic. The provocative set design by Paul Shortt provides a view of rooftop TV antennas competing for space with crosses on a nearby church steeple — which is a more nuanced concept than anything posited by Dudzick's verbose script. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through December 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $15 to $70. Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org. (DB)
The Sunshine Boys Neil Simon's comedy about two vaudevillians who reluctantly reunite for a TV special after not speaking to each other for more than a decade is a showcase for Joneal Joplin (who plays Willie Clark) and Whit Reichert (Al Lewis). Joplin is the demanding comique artiste who nurses a massive grudge against his former partner for reasons real (Al retired, effectively retiring Willie as well) and manufactured (Al spits when he talks, he pokes too hard). Reichert plays Al with a guileless charm, an affable old man who is a crashing bore in conversation and who doesn't understand how much Willie needs the stage. The first act is fitfully funny, and mostly setup — although there is something magical about two senior citizens dueling with kitchen knife and tray table. The second act is a blur of laughs, as the two re-create their legendary "doctor sketch" and the years melt off both men; Reichert tumbles and cavorts, Joplin goes for a bizarre accent and zany persona at odds with the "real" Willie. Presented by St. Louis Actors' Studio through December 19 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org. (PF)
This Wonderful Life "I love It's a Wonderful Life." So begins our genial narrator-storyteller-host in this solo paean to Frank Capra's 1946 movie about poor ol' put-upon George Bailey and the richness of life in everybody's favorite small town, Bedford Falls. Two Decembers ago the Rep staged a fun holiday production of this same specialized material. So why see it again? For starters, the playing space. The Rep production had to fill the capacious Loretto-Hilton stage, to the point where at times the actor seemed dwarfed. This more modest playing space makes Alan Knoll the evening's focus. Knoll tells the story of Capra's film with such heartfelt persuasion, you might think he wrote the piece himself. (Steve Murray did.) It makes no difference whether Knoll is impersonating Lionel Barrymore's irascible Mr. Potter or H.B. Warner's sorrowful druggist or Jimmy Stewart's frustrated, despairing George — every line Knoll utters, every move he makes, is pitch-perfect and bathed in affection. You leave the theater not only loving the movie all over again, but also astonished at the ability of live theater to instill an aging film with freshness and vigor. Performed by Dramatic License Productions through December 19 at Chesterfield Mall (space 291, next to Sears and Houlihan's), Clarkson Road and Chesterfield Parkway, Chesterfield. Tickets are $20 ($18 for students and seniors). Call 636-220-7012 or visit www.dramaticlicenseproductions.com. (DB)