Last week RFT theater reviewers Dennis Brown and Paul Friswold selected ten theater highlights from 2011. This week they continue the dialogue with a discussion of theater in St. Louis.
Dennis Brown: Paul, I suppose that every year is a transitional year, because nothing stands still. But it would seem that there was a significant amount of movement this year, both good and ill. Let's start with the good. At the Muny Mike Isaacson is infusing the place with fresh thinking as its new executive producer. He has already brokered a new partnership with the Fine Arts Conservatory at Webster University. The addition of master classes and workshop development projects for Conservatory students is another indicator that the Muny wants to rejoin the community. Any thoughts?
Paul Friswold: I'm all for more cross-pollination between the established entities and our up-and-coming actors and technical crews. Webster Conservatory productions traditionally feature strong performances and interesting decision-making; here's hoping some of the risk-taking rubs off on the pros.
Brown: Obviously, it's way too early to even think about passing judgment on Isaacson. His predecessor, Paul Blake, was there for 22 years; Isaacson hasn't even been on the job for 22 weeks. But he has announced a season that, by Muny standards anyway, is loaded with potential — though perhaps I should note that last year on this same page you pushed for a 21-year Muny moratorium on shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber. You were brazenly ignored, and the Muny is going ahead with that great family favorite, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Are you one to bear a grudge?
Friswold: In a career littered with insipid melodies and characters so thin that the descriptor "translucent" is too weighty for them, Andrew Lloyd Webber really outdid himself with Joseph. If this is family entertainment, it's no wonder most murders are committed by family members — I know I'd kill to not sit through it again.
So no, no grudges.
Brown: Nevertheless, Joseph and his brothers aside, I hope for an intriguing summer. Obviously, Isaacson's first significant challenge will come with casting. If, for instance, he is able to bookend the season by persuading Sutton Foster to reprise her Tony Award-winning role in Thoroughly Modern Millie and then lure rising star Kate Baldwin back to St. Louis to play Mrs. Anna in The King and I, who could ask for anything more?
On a less happy note, the Crestwood ArtSpace already seems to have run its course.
Friswold: There's hope the ArtSpace will return to the mall after reconstruction, but that's projected for 2014. Right now Soundstage (and its spinoff project, R-S Theatrics), Avalon and Echo return to the ranks of the gypsy theater companies, along with a dozen other arts organizations formerly ensconced in the ArtSpace. I don't understand how a town with so many fallow properties has so many companies on the hoof every year. Is there no landlord out there willing to donate a building or two (*cough* tax write-off) for the sake of the arts? Think of the good will it would engender!
Am I seriously appealing to landlords for charity? Landlords, picture your company's name in lights on a marquee 40 weeks of the year. (Vanity, that's how we'll get 'em involved.)
Brown: Another huge transition this year was the reopening of the old Kiel Opera House, redux Peabody. Obviously they've spent a lot of money, and the place is comfortable and embracing. But I would remind those in charge that a theater experience does not begin when the lights come up on the stage. The night I first visited, the Blues were playing next door. Parking was a nightmare. So yes, the Peabody Opera House may finally be open, but there are still problems to solve.
Friswold: I'm willing to endure parking nightmares for the right show. But I also like the bustle of a busier downtown. You know how Grand Center looks on a Friday night when the symphony's playing, and something's playing at the Fox, and the Grandel and the Kranzberg both have crowds? That's what I want to see downtown: thousands of people out and enjoying themselves. Even better if they're supporting the arts.
Brown: I know that last week we listed memorable productions from 2011. But the talent pool in St. Louis is so strong, I would be remiss if I didn't also single out some additional individual performances. Alan Knoll and Whit Reichert brought a goofy Rowan & Martin kind of freshness to the otherwise quite serious Black Rep staging of The Real McCoy. Peggy Billo and Michelle Hand personified equal measures of conviction and passion in The Immigrant at New Jewish Theatre. Donna Weinsting's portrayal as the conflicted mother of a murderess in the St. Louis Actors' Studio staging of Nuts literally took my breath away. And John Contini was equally forceful as her duplicitous husband.
Friswold: Well if you're going to double dip on the praise, so am I. Joshua Thomas was a dashing blowhard in Act Inc.'s The Royal Family, and then he inspired every commoner and noble in England to glory at Agincort in St. Louis Shakespeare's Henry V — that's quite a range. Justin Ivan Brown delivered a nuanced and complete performance through song in Citilites Theatre's Songs From an Unmade Bed. And the entirety of Brian and Suki Peters' independent production of Cannibal! The Musical — everything and everyone from the technical crew right up to the lead actors — was magnificently done, as the streak of sellout performances attested. It's no secret to the theater community that there's a wealth of talent at work on stages across the city, but the crossover appeal of Cannibal delivered that truth to quite a few new people.
Brown: Here at the start of a new year, we can look to Ignite! The Rep's New Play Festival, in March, and to the city's first fringe theater festival in June. But to me the best-kept theater secret in town is the National Theatre Live broadcasts on Saturday mornings at the Tivoli. Every production I've seen has been memorable, and the recent staging of One Man, Two Guvnors, which opens on Broadway in April, was hilarious beyond description. Yet the shows don't get the attendance they deserve. Too bad, because anyone who cares about great theater should be rushing to the Tivoli four or five times a year.
Friswold: I sheepishly admit I've not seen a one of those performances. Consider me duly chastened — I'm sure I'll be camping out in line for tickets to whatever the next broadcast is during the entire week of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so don't call me during that stretch for any reason.
Brown: And on that cheery note, Happy New Year to all!