Metro Theater Company (MTC), St. Louis’s premiere theater for youth and families, presents a special virtual event for families this December to help keep the community connected during a holiday season that has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MTC’s A Christmas Carol brings together artists, athletes, civic leaders, media personalities, and first responders, for a streamed reading of Charles Dickens holiday classic Thursday, December 10 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 13 at 2:30 p.m. The public can register for free or make a donation with their registration. As a thanks for a donation of $50 or greater, audiences can receive a commemorative DVD or digital download of the broadcast. The DVDs will be available for all donations made through January 1, 2021.

The beloved holiday story of redemption, transformation, and goodwill comes to life in this all-St. Louis reading. Metro Theater Company Artistic Director Julia Flood adapted the story to produce the hour-long program.

More than 25 outstanding St. Louisans serve as readers for the broadcast, each contributing excerpts on camera, stitched together to create the final broadcast. While additional readers will still be announced, the lineup includes Emmy-nominated television star Ellie Kemper, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, two-time Tony Award-winning actress Judith Ivey, St. Louis Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, Grammy Award-winning soprano Christine Brewer, film, stage and voice actor Ken Page, nationally syndicated columnist and St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Aisha Sultan, St. Louis-based American Ninja Warrior Jamie Rahn, president of the St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature Julius B. Anthony, and medical director for the St. Louis Fire Department Mark Levine

Metro Theater Company’s virtual reading follows a long tradition of readings of Dickens’ novella. Public readings of A Christmas Carol—one of the most beloved and famous holiday stories ever written—have been around since 1853. Dickens adapted the work for public readings, doing more than 120 performances until his death in 1870. The popularity of the readings—staged readings, radio-style readings, family readings, and now virtual readings—continues as does the enchantment of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation into a sympathetic man through visits from the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. 

All funds raised through donations to this event will support MTC’s programs during COVID-19 to connect young people to the power and impact of theater, through live performances, virtual programs, and arts-integrated classroom experiences. Corporate and individual sponsorships are available.

WHEN:       Thursday, December 10 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 13 at 2:30 p.m.  

WHERE:       Virtual Event at http://metroplays.org/christmascarol 

TICKETSTickets are free. Donations are appreciated. Registration is required to receive the link for streaming.

A downloadable digital recording or commemorative DVD is available through January 1, 2021 with a donation of $50. Donors who give $250 or greater will receive the recording as well as a commemorative set of MTC mugs and a hot chocolate mix from St. Louis’s own Kakao Chocolates.

To register for free or to make a donation, please visit http://metroplays.org/christmascarol

NOTES:        A Christmas Carol: A St. Louis Virtual Holiday Reading is 60 minutes and recommended for ages 6 and up

Major support for Metro Theater Company is provided by Emerson, Centene, Arts & Education Council, Berges Family Foundation, Kranzberg Arts Foundation, Missouri Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and Regional Arts Commission. 

About Metro Theater Company: Since 1973, Metro Theater Company has been creating productions that respect young people’s intelligence, tell compelling stories, stimulate curiosity and provoke thoughtful reflection. The Company has reached a total audience of more than two million and has a national reputation for excellence in the field of professional theater for young audiences. Metro Theater Company has received major honors and awards, both locally and nationally. The company is led by Artistic Director Julia Flood and Managing Director Joe Gfaller. For more information, visit http://metroplays.org

Metro Theater Company (MTC), St. Louis’s premiere professional theater for youth and families, has launched a two-play summer digital streaming series, including the 2019 world premiere of The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus by Eric Coble (available May 27 – June 28) and the critically acclaimed 2016 production of And In This Corner… Cassius Clay by Idris Goodwin (available June 23 – July 26). 
Both productions, which were directed by MTC Artistic Director Julia Flood, will be available in a pay-what-you-can pay-per-view environment at metroplays.org, expanding the company’s artistic footprint into the living rooms of families in St. Louis and across the world as the St. Louis community adjusts to changes in public gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus this summer. The streaming performances are presented in partnership with HEC Media, whose video production team captured and edited both productions.
Prior to this summer streaming series, both productions were part of a virtual international festival and conference hosted earlier in May by TYA-USA, the national service organization for theaters for youth and families, attended by over 1,200 theater and education professionals. 
Summer Streaming Productions
The Girl Who Swallowed a CactusMay 27 – June 28, 2020Streaming at metroplays.org/watchnowThe Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus originally toured to schools across the St. Louis region in September, October, and November 2019. During that school tour, it also received several public performances, in partnership with the Missouri History Museum, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Central Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, and Urban Chestnut’s Oktoberfest. The pay-per-view performance being streamed was captured at the Missouri History Museum. The one-person play is an imaginative tour de force for actress Jamie McKittrick as she shares the story of a group of friends who go on a wild adventure in the American Southwest after a well-dressed talking coyote steals an orange traffic cone from their junkyard summer fortress.

Cassius Clay. Photo by Victoria Lafferty

And In This Corner…Cassius ClayJune 23 – 26, 2020 Streaming at metroplays.org/watchnowAnd In This Corner…Cassius Clay tells the story of the young man who would become Muhammad Ali and his relationship with a white police officer who introduced him to boxing in Jim Crow-era Louisville. The play was a hit of the 2015-16 theater season and generated numerous accolades for Metro Theater Company, including the Network for Strong Communities’ prestigious Paulie Award for creating positive change through collaborative nonprofit partnerships. Led by Trigney Morgan as Cassius Clay between the ages of 11 and 20, the play was celebrated by the St. Louis American for its “authentic chemistry among the cast” and its potential to encourage audiences “to channel their inner champion and fight for what’s right.” The streaming production was filmed during the play’s original February 2016 run at the Missouri History Museum.
Additional Virtual Offerings
Virtual Summer CampsJune 8–26, July 6–10, July 27–August 7, 2020   Available at metroplays.org/summer-campsIn response to COVID-19, Metro Theater Company has shifted its popular summer camps to run as virtual camps this year. Virtual camps begin with three weeks of middle school camp (June 8 – 26), each exploring a different theme, from Reality TV to a murder mystery whodunnit to characters from literature. High school camp is offered July 6-10, and two one-week camps for Pre K through Grade 5 are offered July 27 – August 7. All camps include a combination of drama, dance, music, and creative discovery, including audition technique, stage combat, stage make up, and playwriting for older campers. Camps start at $100 per week for half-day Pre-K and Kindergarten students. Registration and detailed pricing is available at www.metroplays.org/summer-camps

COVID-19 Memory ProjectOngoingOnline at metroplays.org/memoryproject Metro Theater Company also continues its COVID-19 Memory Project, sourcing stories from the St. Louis community throughout the pandemic. Stories and experiences shared with MTC are being adapted into virtual theatrical performances. The first short performance of material from the COVID-19 Memory Project will be included in the May 31 Arts United STL benefit for the Regional Arts Commission. The first of several short “Zoom Plays” will follow, beginning in early July. 

About Metro Theater Company: Since 1973, Metro Theater Company has been creating productions that respect young people’s intelligence, tell compelling stories, stimulate curiosity and provoke thoughtful reflection. The Company has reached a total audience of more than two million and has a national reputation for excellence in the field of professional theater for young audiences. Metro Theater Company has received major honors and awards, both locally and nationally. The company is led by Artistic Director Julia Flood and Managing Director Joe Gfaller. For more information, visit http://metroplays.org

By Joe GfallerContributing WriterWho lives, who dies, who tells your story. It’s the refrain that ends Hamilton. Even though the revolution is different, the sentiment carries beautifully into Paris in 1793 in Lauren Gunderson’s sparkling tragi-comedy The Revolutionists.

The play, presented by Insight Theatre Company, is at the Marcelle Theater through July 14.

Four bold, gutsy women of the French revolution meet in an imagined sequence of events in The Revolutionists. Three are real figures: Charlotte Corday (the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat), Olympe de Gouges (a feminist playwright), and Marie Antoinette (the deposed queen of France). One, Marianne Anglle, is a constructed amalgam of several free women of color who fought to end slavery in the French Caribbean.

That all four could ever have met – let alone built the relationships of trust, sympathy, and friendship constructed in the play – is impossible. The play acknowledges this directly before it ends. However, once you willingly suspend that disbelief and accept you are watching “a revolutionary dream fugue, as the play calls itself, you are quickly in for a treat.

Lauren Gunderson’s play is filled with a modern wit that captures the spirit of these women without ever trying to recreate the language of the period. “Chutzpah,” “high five,” and “work life balance” were probably never spoken in 18th century France – let alone some of the saltier 21st century language that these characters invoke. However, by pulling these women out of stilted period turns of phrase, the play makes them feel as vital and contemporary to audiences today as they would have felt to the people of France in their own day.

Where the play is at its best, The Revolutionists threads the playful and the profound. That is no better personified than in Laurie McConnell’s portrayal of Marie Antionette, who becomes at turns endearing and loveable, batty and self-absorbed. She can bring the house down by announcing “Gasp!” and then commenting “Sometimes I say it instead of doing it.” But, despite all the caricature, in the end, she finds her nobility in her humanity – knowing that, like most of our heroines, she is to face the guillotine and her own death. Her promise to deliver a message to the husband of another woman in the afterlife becomes one of the play’s most touching moments.

As Charlotte Corday, Samantha Auch gives the most
emotionally compelling performance in the production. She first bursts into de
Gouges’ parlor in search of a writer who can help her write her inevitable last
words at the guillotine. Full of self-righteous conviction, she can both
channel the innocence to believably call her plan to murder Marat “stabby stab
stab” and the icy certainty to comment on the sexual assault she eventually
receives in prison to confirm if she “is a virgin.” The beautiful clarion voice
with which she delivers the first of a few unexpected lines of music upon her
death filled the theater with hope in the play’s first great moment of despair.

Kimmie Kidd gives a solid portrayal of Marianne Angelle as a
dignified voice of reason, attempting to motivate her friend de Gouges to
harness her talents for the cause of abolition and women’s equality. In the one
scene of substantial dramatic stakes for these two, she and de Gouges abandon
their early witty banter and intellectual arguments for a fight that is grounded
in what feels to be true betrayal. As one who has lived the fight, Angelle’s
wounds are deep. “You can’t write it if you’re not in it,” Angelle bristles at
de Gouges, ultimately leaving the playwright on the floor, clutching the very
pages she was prepared to burn in order to save her own skin.

It is Olympe de Gouges’ journey that theoretically serves as
the arc of the play. Sadly, there are times in which the construct – of her as
writer that the other three women come to – feels like the engine of a plot
that is less about her and more about the others. In the spirit of Caryl
Churchill’s Top Girls, it’s as if we find ourselves at a prolonged
dinner party full of entertaining incident and careful, thoughtful character
studies. But the host herself feels hollow. We never learn how she and Angelle
have come to be as close as we’re told they are, so when their relationship
frays, it’s not one that we have found a way to invest in deeply. Their
struggle matters to them more than it matters to us.

In Jenni Ryan’s portrayal of de Gouges, some of the character’s artifice – constantly hiding behind arguments about the aesthetic value of theater and art – seem to bury the heart of this woman, who often can come across as a less-than-capable dilletante. (The real de Gouges seems to have been anything but.) Her struggle seems to be an intellectual one for three-quarters of the play – and when it finally becomes a real one, it seems to surprise the character as much as it does the audience.

Ultimately, in de Gouges’ final moments, Ryan transforms her into someone who is deeply sympathetic. One only wishes that transformation could have happened earlier in the evening.

Staging The Revolutionists in the round, Trish Brown does an elegant job of consistently using the space well and maintaining a level of energy and momentum that can make a somewhat heady play that relies more on great dialogue than plot continue to feel fresh, fun, and visceral. The simple impact of red flower petals as blood in the moment when Corday kills Marat was one of many beautiful grace notes she successfully incorporated into the staging.

The limited set design — a few pieces of furniture — by Leah McFall was complemented quite effectively by the periodic soundscapes of sound designers Trish Brown and Bob Schmit, and the strong lighting from designer Morgan Brennan. Julian King’s costume design also gave each of the four women signature looks for the entire evening. With a larger budget, one imagines that an occasional costume change would have given us a chance to see more of variety.

I could have lived without the periodic meta-theatrical comparisons to Les Miserables that peppered the script — particularly since the student revolution in that musical was an entirely different revolution than the one playing out in Paris in the 1790s.

But, that aside, the wit and humor of the piece was frequently deeply satisfying and consistently surprising. Bringing back to life these four women in such a novel and engaging setting makes the production well worth a visit.

It’s no wonder that playwright Lauren Gunderson was recently among the most-produced playwrights in America and that her plays have so frequently graced St. Louis stages. She is a rare talent that, in this play, marries heart, humor, and history in a way that will make any audience member clamor to cry “Vive la revolution!”

Insight Theatre Company presents “The Revolutionists’ June 27 – July 14 at the Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com or call 314-556-1293.

New production on national tour now at the Fox Theatre

By Joe GfallerContributing Writer“Miss Saigon” holds a powerful mirror up both to its own complicated history and to the dangers of the American Dream in a newly resonant production, the current national tour now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 5. It’s been 30 years since this musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (best known for “Les Misérables”) first opened in the West End in London.

Based on Puccini’s iconic opera “Madame Butterfly,” it played for nearly ten years on Broadway, creating the very definition of the “mega-musical.” That reputation of success looms large for anyone seeing it today, as does the musical’s deeply problematic reputation around race, identity, and victimization.

The current tour, based on the show’s recent West End and Broadway revivals, faces many of the story’s complex and devastating issues head on. Even with its powerful, nuanced performances and dazzling effects, it cannot fully escape the problems inherent in the story itself. However, in the many moments when it does, it is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

In this new version, one message is clear: the myth of the
American dream is toxic. It damns each of the characters it touches.

For the Engineer, played with equal parts giddy enthusiasm and depraved desperation by Red Concepción, it is a canker that only grows more obsessive and pathetic as the musical unfolds. By the time he reaches his show-stopping reflection on his American dream, his obsession with America has transformed into sinister self-hatred.

Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa as Kim and ChrisKim, given a heartfelt performance from Emily Bautista, is first surrounded by the promise of America in the aptly-named Dreamland club. There, each of her fellow dancers hope that the G.I.s who bed them will ultimately free them from what looks to be an unending cycle of human trafficking and violence.

However, from the moment Gigi is slapped by a G.I. for even speaking of marriage, it is clear that these dreams are nothing more than an unattainable fairy tale, told to give the women a reason to continue selling their bodies to the highest bidder.

Chris, an American G.I., thinks he embodies the American dream, and watching that “white savior” belief system crumble throughout Anthony Festa’s performance is devastating.

Unlike Madame Butterfly’s B.F. Pinkerton (upon whom Chris’s character is based), this is a man who starts off as neither callous nor selfish. In sharp contrast to the other men at Dreamland, he isn’t a leering, oversexed predator. He only takes Kim — still virginal and visibly uncomfortable on her first night there after escaping the destruction of her village — because his friend John has paid for her already.

He reflects later in the show, “I wanted to save and protect her. Christ, I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?” In Festa’s performance, the man we see years later in America is haunted by his PTSD, by the memories of what he saw, and by all the good he failed to do. It is a transformation that is chilling and deeply humane.

Discovering the lethal consequences of his own fear, internalized bias, and white fragility, Festa echoes a cry of anguish to close this production that cuts like a knife through the audience – severing us, for a moment, from the myth of the American dream as well.

Part of the reason that Bautista and Festa’s final reunion has such an impact is the electric sincerity of their initial love. In “Sun and Moon,” the two fall from full-throated harmony directly into a passionate embrace with a palpable chemistry.

As Saigon falls to the Communists and Kim and Chris desperately search for one another in a sequence of stunning cinematic scope, that chemistry seems to draw them inexorably together – making us believe against all reason that, yes, they will find one another.

It is in Kim’s journey which follows without Chris, however, that Bautista truly shines. Whereas the shadow of Vietnam seems to have slowly emasculated Chris after Saigon falls, for Kim, living with the consequences of those days together only makes her stronger. Her transformation from a vulnerable girl in a whirlwind romance to a steadfast mother is sensitive, nuanced, and riveting.

In the moment when Bautista pulls the trigger to prevent a man from killing her son for not being pure-blooded Vietnamese, we see a drive and iron will that is as tangible as the longing we feel in hearing her sing Miss Saigon’s signature anthem “I Still Believe.” By the time she has become a refugee in Thailand, there is not a choice she makes that does not feel deeply grounded in that drive, that love, and that longing.

The rest of the cast shines throughout. As John, J. Daughtry transforms wartime cynicism into peacetime sincerity. He pleads for the children left behind in “Bui Doi” with a simple clarion tone that stands apart from the otherwise intense and ballad-heavy score.

As Thuy, the man Kim had been promised to in her village, Jimwoo Jung is a powerful force – both in the flesh and as a ghost – with the strident moral rectitude of the post-war “re-educated” that reminds one of Les Misérables’s Javert. One imagines he would give an extraordinary turn in that role as well.

If Kim is Miss Saigon’s Fantine, Gigi is the show’s Eponine. (Les Misérables comparisons are rife and unfortunately unavoidable). Christine Bunuan gives Gigi a veneer of earthy stoicism, which buries most glimmers of hope, which is beautifully articulated in “The Movie in My Mind.” Given her performance, it’s hard not to wish Gigi’s story continued after the first few scenes.

In one of this production’s most engaging surprises, thanks to Stacie Bono’s controlled performance, Ellen, the woman Chris married in America, truly comes into her own.

Thanks to Bono’s confrontation with Bautista’s Kim in a Bangkok hotel room — and the addition of her new song “Maybe” in this revival, we see a complex portrait of a woman who can be at times harsh or vulnerable, but who is open to discovering her own capacity to love and forgive.

Whether in sharply choreographed sequences or more intentionally chaotic crowd scenes, the entire ensemble creates a dynamic world against which this deeply personal story plays out.

Bob Avian (musical staging) and Geoffrey Garratt (additional choreography) should both be applauded for one of the production’s most stunning numbers, “The Morning of the Dragon,” in which the three-year anniversary of Vietnamese unification under Ho Chi Minh is celebrated. The back flips, tumbles, and other high flying acrobatics of Daniel Gold, Noah Gouldsmith, McKinley Knuckle, and Kevin Murakami are simply stellar.

The design elements knit together coherently as well. Bruno Poet’s lighting design jumps from garish neon to narrow slivers peeking through broken wooden slats in a shanty town, all to create an atmosphere that transports us. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes do not shy from the grime of Kim’s poverty but also explode in lush opulence for The Engineer’s fantasy production number. The set, designed presumably by production designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, uses several of the same simple units that are almost unrecognizable scene-by-scene as the action moves across time and space.

And yes, there is a helicopter. From sound (by Mick Potter), to projections (by Luke Halls), to lighting, to moving set elements, this production handles Miss Saigon’s defining moment in a way that is surprising and riveting, leaving Wednesday night’s audience in a state of on-going rolling applause. 

The creators of the musical are also to be applauded for the work they’ve done to update the material from the original version millions have seen since 1989. I am not expert in that version, but it is clear efforts have been made to address some of the script’s most problematic elements.

Purists may be troubled by the alterations, but at least no longer is a night with a Vietnamese woman compared to the price of a Big Mac – a lyric that was unarguably degrading.

Just as the recent “South Pacific” revival was revised to examine Nellie Forbush’s received racism in a more honest way and the current “Kiss Me, Kate” revival replaces some of its period misogyny and sexism with a more complex look at power in human relationships, so too does “Miss Saigon” need these revisions for the 21st century. One could argue that it could benefit from even more.

So, yes, this production deserves a great deal of justified praise. However, the material still suffers from the very orientalism that created its predecessor opera, “Madame Butterfly.”

However noble Miss Saigon’s Kim is (and however much agency she attempts to stake for herself), she still spends most of the show suffering the consequences of decisions made by men: be it the Engineer, Chris, or Thuy. As much as one can blame the canker of self-hatred infecting the Engineer when he sings “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice,” destructive stereotypes still fill the show.

This production earnestly attempts to address those stereotypes when it can, but to eliminate them completely would require starting from scratch with a new musical. One could only imagine that this same material could have been written with a higher level of nuance had the writing and producing team consisted entirely, or even partly, of Asian artists back in 1989.

The cast itself features an ensemble that balances artists who are of Asian descent with those who are Latinx, African-American, and white. To produce the show without two entirely separate ensembles (one Asian, to play ensemble characters from Vietnam and Thailand, and one largely non-Asian for the American ensemble), white actors and dancers appear in the Vietnamese army after the fall of Saigon. No “complexion enhancing make up” (the polite term now for “yellowface”) is applied to these white performers for those scenes. However, make up or not, white performers in Asian roles is still considered yellowface to many. Absent exploding the cost of producing the musical by hiring an even larger cast, there may be few practical ways to address this issue.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate the discomfort that many may feel when looking at representation in casting in the production. (These and other questions recently became a flashpoint for controversy when this tour of Miss Saigon played in Madison, Wisc.)

That said, the “Miss Saigon” that exists is the “Miss Saigon” we have.

As this production begins, we see Saigon’s streets through the haze of a scrim. That hazy vision becomes a metaphor for the very nature of the musical’s storytelling. The people who wrote “Miss Saigon” could only see it through their own, perhaps biased, lens. They did their best to create a powerful evening of theater despite the limitations of their own experience. This production has clearly worked hard to mitigate those limitations.

We can embrace director Laurence Connor’s storytelling for allowing
the staging and nuanced characterizations to help us sympathize with all of the characters, even when they
are far from likeable people. We can applaud music director Will Curry’s strong
work with the orchestra and his cast to let the music soar and transport us.
And we can look to the talents of this remarkable ensemble and appreciate the
power, beauty, and heartbreak of the journey they take us on.

At the top of the second act, the production shows documentary footage of the half-Vietnamese, half-American children left behind after the war. When it is at its best, the production gives us moments like these that do not rely on the musical’s lyrics to point to the musical’s underlying story. For despite the fantasy and romance at the surface of “Miss Saigon,” it remains grounded in the harsh reality of our very recent history.

As refugees continue to cross borders to find a better life for their children, as sex trafficking continues among the most vulnerable of us, and as toxic masculinity threatens the welfare of women worldwide, that history continues today – sometimes in our own backyards. Despite its flaws, for that reason (and for the talents of the artists involved), I say that this “Miss Saigon” is a production that should be seen – and discussed for a long time to come.

The Fox Theatre in St. Louis is presenting “Miss Saigon” now through May 5. For tickets or more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com or call MetroTix at 314-534-1111.