By Lynn Venhaus
Oh the irony. Henry, who is an off-kilter sort, likes to sing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” when his life is anything but – or at least appears that way. That sets the tone for “Here Lies Henry,” a kooky one-man show that opened by The Midnight Company at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s blackbox theatre last weekend.

Part jester, part blowhard, Henry’s personality is central to his act, a freeform stream of conscience where he wonders aloud why there are yellow fire trucks and repeats his schtick with some twists. He wants to tell you something that you don’t already know. He can rant but he’d rather get a laugh. Did he really say that? Did he commit any of the crimes he takes credit for?

Henry is an entertainer created by the fertile mind of quirky Daniel MacIvor, a Canadian playwright, actor and screenwriter. MacIvor specializes in solo pieces, just like Joe Hanrahan, a St. Louis theater veteran, who acts, directs, writes and produces. He adds the peculiar and curious Henry to his repertoire of uncommon characters.

Hanrahan likes choosing works that aren’t part of the mainstream, and as The Midnight Company’s latest one-man show, the first since the coronavirus public health restrictions lifted, it’s a good fit.

Hanrahan has previously performed MacIvor’s other works, “Cul-de-Sac” and “House,” and understands the rhythm the playwright attains in this 1995 work.

As he tackles love and death, Hanrahan displays Henry’s awkwardness, his impish penchant for odd jokes and puns, and builds more confidence as he weaves tall tales. Henry might be “not quite right,” but will we know?

Director Ellie Schwetye, who has worked with Hanrahan multiple times, is also familiar with the off-center and the screwball. There is an ease to the presentation, maintaining a mood where you don’t quite know what’s happening or where it will go, but you’re willing to take the ride.

That uncertainty is the chief tone throughout – as Henry, who admits he lies, embellishes stories about his parents and life. Is he serious? Is this a TED talk? Or is this a comedy club’s open-mic night? It has that feel of a guy telling big whoppers at a bar – but you can’t ignore him here as he is compelled to get on your good side.

As always, Hanrahan is entertaining in his unconventional, idiosyncratic way. “Here Lies Henry” doesn’t necessarily answer the Big Questions, but you’ll have fun with the asking.

Technically, the show flows smoothly, with Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Kevin Bowman’s production design. Anselmo designed lighting for Midnight Company’s past works, “Popcorn Falls” and “A Model for Matisse.”

“Here Lies Henry” is an interesting look at one man’s point of view. The play is presented without intermission and runs 70 minutes.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

“Here Lies Henry” will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, from June 10 to June 26, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, June 27, at the Kranzberg Black Box. For tickets, visit MetroTix.com or MidnightCompany.com. Call 314-487-5305 for more information.

By Lynn Venhaus
Ambitious and intriguing, “Madam” is a new musical full of promise and potential.

Elevated by a charming cast of local performers, this vibrant musical cements composer and music director Colin Healy as one to watch.

His fifth original musical, “Madam” showcases what a multi-talent he is — Healy wrote the book, music and lyrics and did the orchestrations for his new Fly North Theatricals company’s latest work. He also conducts a very tight band and plays the piano.

With a lot of passion and heart behind it, “Madam” had a triumphant sell-out run of nine performances last summer at the Bluff City Theater in Hannibal, which commissioned the musical.

Now, St. Louisans has the opportunity to discover one of its most notorious businesswomen from the 19th century, wealthy brothel madam and philanthropist Eliza Haycraft. She built quite an empire, as the opening song says, and became the richest woman in Missouri, beloved by the general public during the Reconstruction Era.

Haycraft, born in 1820, arrived destitute in St. Louis at age 20. When prostitution was legal, for only a brief time, in St. Louis, she became owner and manager of a brothel, doing well even though she couldn’t read or write. She bought commercial and residential property and rented it back out. She was known for helping the city’s poor, offering them help and financial aid.

Healy’s crafted message is about the vulnerability of aging and the power of saying “No.”
Haycraft empowered her courtesans by granting them the right to refuse service to anyone. She had three simple rules: Respect, Consent and Pay Up Front.

“Madam” focuses on the last year of her life – she died in 1871 at age 51. While based on true events, the musical fictionalizes the story about a search for an heir to her sex empire when the richest and most powerful men were hellbent on taking it all away from her.

The passage of The Social Evils Act of 1870 made her business legitimate, but denied women affected by it of many of their rights they previously enjoyed.

The fascinating story’s conflicts must include the double standard conundrum – her houses were well-frequented by those rich guys who ran the city but she was shut out of polite society.

What the musical brings out in the small cast of female characters is their dependence on prostitution to support themselves and their independence by defying the status quo at a time when they had few legitimate rights – an early glimpse at feminism and sexism.

These characters are composites of strong spunky women – among them an escaped slave who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Union Army and a sister to Victoria Woodhull, a candidate for president in 1872.

Sunny Eileen Engel and Gracie Sartin, who have been with the production since its workshop, effortlessly strut with confidence in song and dance, smiles beaming as Tennie and Ripley.

They open the show, along with new addition Marta Bady as gutsy Billie, with a vivacious “Empire.” The three are often paired in song – including “Love Is Work,” “Another Fence (The Baseball Song)” and “The Great Benefactor.”

They aren’t the only working girls with gumption – Abigail Becker is the complicated once-married Mercy Jones and Cameron Pille is the troubled Calista, each with outstanding solos: Mercy in “A Man with Money” and “I Want to be a Star,” and the sad “The Unfortunate Song” with The Benefactor (Phil Leveling), and Calista with “It Feels So Good” and “Special.”

The women have moments to shine and plenty of melodic tunes to sing, and director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga has staged the musical numbers with verve in the small .Zack space, creating an intimacy by having performers up close on the ground and on the second level, not far from the audience.

Scenic designer George Shea has created a good space for the action to flow, well-lit by lighting designer Kevin Bowman.

Healy knows the drawbacks of the .Zack’s acoustics, and his sound designer Tazu Marshall has done a terrific job.

Choreographer Carly Niehaus has resolved the space challenges with streamlined numbers that punctuate the music. Eileen Engel also designed the costumes, and she made them extremely functional while period-appropriate.

The St. Louis cast is almost the same as the Hannibal cast minus three. Kimmie Kidd-Booker, who played Madam in the COCA workshop and Billie in Bluff City, resumes the leading role as man-hating Eliza. She is fierce and feisty as this remarkable dignified woman in her declining final days.

With her rich, velvety voice, Kidd-Booker has become a welcome fixture in both regional professional and community theater. She commands attention as she sashays across the two-level set with major attitude, first introduced in “All You Need to Know.” Her “No,” with Calista in the Part 1, and solo in Part 2, is a hard-hitting high point.

She understands Eliza as a smart, pragmatic woman who knows how to operate in a male-dominated world. Her mistrust of men reaches a boiling point as they threaten to ruin her. Fuming, she joins Ripley and The Benefactor in “The Social Evils Act.”

One of the three new cast members, Leveling has a fine voice but seems miscast as the unsavory The Benefactor, an imposing bad guy and frequent customer. This male chauvinist pig must be menacing and Phil is not that. In reality, maybe it’s a good thing that he’s not believable being mean to women, but not for the part – it is a sticky wicket. The role is a tad underwritten as it is.

While the music – infused with jazz and blues for a St. Louis flavor — is admirable, the book could use a little more tweaking – there are a few time leaps that are somewhat confusing

The musical is still a work in progress but the elements for success are there and will be going places.

Fly North Theatricals presents the local premiere of “Madam” from Jan. 10 to Feb. 2, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the .Zack Theater, 3224 Locust Street. For more information, visit www.flynorthmusic.com.

By Andrea BraunContributing WriterIndecent (2017) by Paula Vogel tells the story of a play written by the young Sholem Asch entitled God of Vengeance, first performed in 1907. It is presented as his first play, but it is actually his second; however, this and other departures from fact are described by Vogel as “emotional truth,” rather than absolute historical accuracy.

“Vengeance” ran in Germany in the original Yiddish and
was translated and traveled to several other countries, but then came America. At
first, Asch’s play ran off Broadway and stayed more or less under the radar.
But when it moved uptown to the Apollo and the general public was going to be
courted to buy tickets, as Vogel tells it, the script was changed without
Asch’s knowledge or permission because it contained “unacceptable” material.

Photo by Dan DonovanFor example, a Jewish man makes his living owning a
house of prostitution while he and his wife and “virginal” daughter occupy an
apartment upstairs. This was considered by American Jews to be anti-Semitic,
since the Jewish procurer was a stereotype and would be reinforced in the
general public’s mind. So would the focus on making money any way possible. At
one point, he becomes so furious he destroys a holy Torah, a great sin in
Judaism. But most controversial of all was what became known as “the rain
scene,” in which the daughter kisses one of the prostitutes and they proclaim
their love. To middle-class Americans, this is pornographic filth.

Photo by Dan DonovanAsch is so depressed he can’t leave his house.
Finally, his loving and patient wife talks him into attending a rehearsal, but
to him, the play is dead. The longtime stage manager, Lemml (Lou) also
considers this is a disaster, and it’s something they just cannot understand.
Even stranger, the play is closed down by the police and the actors are
arrested and tried, but the playwright and Lemml are not. Lemml tells Asch that
he is going to take the play back to Poland and translate it back into Yiddish.
He tells Asch, “I am tired of being in a country that laughs at the way I
speak. They say America is free? What [sic] do you know here is free?”

And so he does and his troupe performs the play in
cafes, attics, basements—anywhere that will have them until the Holocaust
decimated the European Jewish community of artists and patrons.  Asch himself returns after he’s received an
“invitation” from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s to
live in London and write prolifically until he literally dies in the saddle, at
his desk, writing. Before he leaves, he meets a young scholar from Yale whom he
tells that he, Asch, “lost six million [who] have left the theater.”

Photo by Dan DonovanThat’s the plot, but now comes the hard part: telling you about the production, which is indescribably beautiful (but I’ll try to describe it anyway). I haven’t listed the names of actors who play the characters because they are all played by seven extraordinary performers who not only tell the story through words but also through song and dance.

They are accompanied on stage by a group of three Klezmer musicians, who play a violin, bass clarinet, and accordion to help express both the sadness and joy the audience and characters are experiencing. I’ve only seen four of the actors listed below (Judi Mann, Tim Schall, John Flack, and Paul Cereghino) but I’ve never witnessed any of them stronger or more sure of the material which makes them turn into other people on a dime.

Photo by Dan Donovan

The evocative music is directed by Ron McGowan, Ellen
Isom choregraphs, Phillip Evans gets credit for sound, and Menachem Szus is the
Yiddish dialect coach.It is a clever conceit to have titles on the rear wall to
help us know where we are, and to have the actors use perfect English to speak
their native languages and accented English when they are speaking a second or
third language. The action spans Warsaw from 1906 to Bridgeport, Connecticut in
the 1950s, and as the program notes, “everywhere in between.”

It’s difficult to write about Indecent without gushing, and I don’t think I managed it. But you
know what? It’s brilliant in every way, so a little gushing is justified. It is
both timely and timeless, and I hope you’ll go see for yourself.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Indecent” at the Grandel Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available through Metrotix and more information is available at www.maxandlouie.com

Photo by Patrick HuberThe
Troupe

TJ
Lancaster:  Lemml, The
Stage Manager; Paul Cereghino: The
Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble; Zoe Farmingdale:
The Ingenue: Chana/ Ensemble; John Flack:
The Elder: Otto/Ensemble;  Katie Karel: The Middle:
Halina/Ensemble; Judi Mann: The
Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Tim Schall: The
Middle: Mendel/Ensemble

The
Musicians

Alyssa Avery: Nelly Friedman/Violin/Ensemble; Kris Pineda: Moritz Godowsky/Accordion/Ensemble; Jack Theiling: Mayer Balsam/ Clarinet & Mandolin/Ensemble

Photo by Patrick Huber

The Tesseract Theatre Company is changing gears and identity starting late spring 2019. The company will no long be producing a September – May calendar season. Instead it will premiere is first annual Festival of New Plays, premiering three new works over the course of two weeks, starting May 15 through the 26. These full productions will be performed in rep, so all three shows will be available to be seen each weekend of the festival.

The three shows, to be performed at the .Zack, 3224 Locust, are “Earworm” by Shualee Cook, “Dates” by Elizabeth Breed Penny and “Hoist” by Erin Lane.

“Earworm” will be directed by Morgan Maul-Smith.

“Earworm” tells the story of Candles Out, a decade-old punk rock break up song seeking closure with five people whose lives she’s entwined with in very different ways – a strange trip involving music and memory and how each affects the other.

Show dates and times:Wed. May 15 @ 7pmSun. May 19 @ 2pmThur. May 23 @ 7pmSat. May 25 @ 8pmSun. May 26 @ 2pm

In “Dates,” to be directed by Tinah Twardowski, Caroline has been finding it hard to live in the outside world: literally. And the more her friends try to help, the higher she builds her walls.

Dates and times:Fri. May 17 @ 8pmSat. May 18 @ 2pmSun. May 19 @ 7pmWed. May 22 @ 7pmSun. May 26 @ 7pm

In “Hoist,” to be directed by Kevin Bowman, Skyler, a recently returned Iraq war veteran, attempts to forget, so she can continue to exist in peace. Unfortunately, the effects of her military experience, and the return of an old flame, complicate her mostly good intentions.

Dates and times:Thur. May 16 @ 7pmSat. May 18 @ 8pmFri. May 24 @ 8pmSat. May 25 @ 2pm

Tickets are available by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111 at the Fabulous Fox box office, or by visiting www.metrotix.comTesseract tells big stories small. The company’s mission is to be an artistic home for diverse artists and a leader in new play development in the Midwest.For more information, visit www.tesseracttheatre.com