Set in Dublin, “Bloomsday” is a little charmer that whisks you away to the Emerald Isle in a time travel love story. (Yes, you read that right).
Written by Steven Dietz in 2017, the playwright has an ear for the rhythms of youthful adventurers and the wistful reminiscences of older adults.
“Bloomsday” highlights James Joyce’s use of the Irish capital city’s landmarks during an ordinary June 16 in 1904, the setting for his masterwork novel, “Ulysses,” which was published in 1920.
There is such devotion to the novel that every June 16, fans dress up as characters and celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin, some making a pilgrimage.
With his literary use of modernism, the Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher, and critic is regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
The West End Players Guild opened its 110th season with Dietz’s witty drama, which had been postponed from last year during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. His play, “This Random World,” was previously performed in the Union Avenue Christian Church basement.
With minimal staging representing several locales, West End is well-suited to produce such an intimate play. The pleasing set design features a view of Dublin’s shops and pubs lining cobblestone streets, with excellent artwork by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith.
Four endearing performers star as a young couple, Robbie and Caithleen, in scenes from 35 years ago, and as the older Robert and Cait one day last June.
Jeff Lovell, topped with a straw boater hat familiar to Joyce fans, plays the 55-year-old American college professor Robert, whose life changed during one magical day. He was 20 years old and taking a walking tour highlighting James Joyce’s Dublin.
That’s when he met tour guide Caithleen, 20, played with verve by Megan Wiegert. She won Robbie’s heart that day — but he did not take her back to America with him. Why not? The dreamer in her was certainly willing.
Wondering what might have been with “the one who got away” is the focus in this no-frills yet delightful production. The takeaway is to make the most of the present before it is past because we can’t get back lost time.
The cast conveys the urgency to pursue that road less taken so that looking back isn’t such a heartache. Dietz injects humor into the discoveries as the quartet moves back and forth through time, reliving the impetuousness of youth as the older adults look back with regrets and “what ifs.”
Could it still happen after all these years? The older Robert, with the benefit of hindsight, has returned to Dublin for a reunion with Caithleen, who now calls herself “Cait.” However, he finds the spunky young Caithleen instead, having somehow traveled back in time to that only day they spent together. She remains full of wanderlust, and he remembers her attractive qualities.
The young – and directionless — Robbie is played earnestly by an energetic John T. Moore, and the older Robert realizes he should have been more decisive.
Colleen Heneghan is a sweet-natured Cait, playing the spry but aged woman with a twinkle in her eye and a song still in her heart. The yearning to experience all that life offers is still there, although she basically settled for complacency. In her conversations with her younger self, she is surprisingly candid and explains her choices.
Both women have worked to perfect convincing Irish dialects, and those lovely lilts are uplifting.
Costume Designer Tracey Newcomb has outfitted the foursome in suitable attire for travels, age and time periods while Jackie Aumer accented the scenes with appropriate props.
The four are an engaging ensemble – all making their WEPG debut — and the creative team has made this a memorable romantic comedy. Director Jessa Knust, also making her debut, has ensured that the unusual format is understandable. She was assisted by Karen Pierce.
Celtic folk tunes are used effectively to set a merry mood, and Ted Drury’s sound design is noteworthy, with Mason Hagarty crisply operating the sound board. Jacob Winslow has done a nice job with the lighting design.
I felt like I was on an interesting journey, which is a good thing after being mostly housebound during quarantines and the 18-month public health crisis.
After all, no one is alone in wondering what might have been. Having some interesting points to ponder was entertaining live theater.
The show has seven performances from Sept. 17 through Sept. 26, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday starting at 8 p.m. on the second weekend and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For tickets and more information, visit www.westendplayers.org
This season, the theater company is employing touchless ticketing, socially distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons and front-of-house staff and volunteers. They are operating under special policies and procedures to minimize the risk of Covid-19 transmission and infection. For full details on our public health policies, please visit www.WestEndPlayers.org/covid-19-policies/.
On stage, “Dear Evan Hansen” was a deeply personal and profoundly emotional experience, which the movie attempts to achieve through pared-down scenes that opt for intimacy.
When they ‘open up’ musical numbers just to expand the landscape, that’s when it becomes less effective. Those who connected with the musical because it struck a chord about belonging and understanding in a chaotic and often cruel social media age will find this a worthy adaptation.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) has a severe social anxiety disorder, and his therapist wants him to write a daily affirmation letter. Because the anti-social and angry young man Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) snatched the letter, it is found in his possession after he commits suicide. His grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) mistake it as one their troubled son wrote to his only friend and invite Evan to dinner. Instead of telling the truth and wanting to please, he keeps up the charade, which quickly spirals out of control. Suddenly, classmates who ignored him make him an internet star.
One drawback is that Evan’s self-deprecating humor, which worked so well on stage making the nerdy high school senior relatable, is missing.
The score, by golden boys Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, still resonates in a timely way, particularly after 18 months of dealing with a public health crisis that created even more distance between people.
While nothing can duplicate the live theater ‘feels,’ this adaptation has been thoughtfully crafted to tug at your heartstrings. I mean, how cynical do you have to be to resist sharing in the desire to matter?
The musical, which opened on Broadway in December 2016, won six of the nine Tony Awards it was nominated for in 2017, including Best Musical.
When I saw the national tour in November 2019 at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, I was a puddle, crying through most of it. I figured that the movie would provoke the ugly cry reprise, so I brought plenty of tissues along, and while I teared up through key moments, it wasn’t the waterworks that happened while discovering the stage musical. Perhaps I am now too familiar with the songs, but when Heidi (Julianne Moore) sings “So Big/So Small” (Everybody in the Fox audience could be heard sniffling through it) it’s heart-breaking, and Ben Platt’s voice just prompts eyes to tear up during the ballads.
Of course, when you first hear that everything is based on a lie, it’s a ‘wait – what?’ reaction, but because people are comforted by the tall tales, leading Evan on a journey of self-discovery, most do not get all judgy—instead, investing in the story.
There are those who think exploiting a tragedy for personal gain is abhorrent, but I can see how and why it went south – all those insecurities, the desperation driving the falsehoods/fantasy, that awareness of being an outcast. There are so many gray areas of life that can’t be sorted into black and white, and this is one of them.
Director Steven Chbosky, who knows how to genuinely portray adolescents after helming “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder,” taps into those socially awkward misfit feelings many people share but think they’re alone.
Pasek and Paul’s heartfelt and aching songs have won Tonys, an Oscar (for “La La Land”), Grammys and Emmys, and still pack an emotional wallop – even if they are stripped down renditions. “You Will Be Found” is the signature song that never wears out its welcome, offering a beacon of light in uncertain times.
Much has been written criticizing casting 27-year-old Ben Platt as the geeky isolated teenager. After all, he originated the role on Broadway, winning a Tony Award and much acclaim. This role is in his DNA, and he captures the emotional roller-coaster nature of the part. No one can convey the vulnerability, anxiety and yearning for acceptance better than he can.
Like Robert Preston as Harold Hill and Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, Platt will be defined by Evan Hansen for the rest of his life, no matter how many TV shows, movies and stage productions he does.
And if we’re talking age disparities, then one must mention John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing as high school students in “Grease,” and we could make a long list of examples.
I did not find him a weak link, and honestly had been worried about how he would look and fit the part on screen. Except for a bad curly hair choice, the de-aging process does not distract. I thought he was fine, and his touching interpretations of “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever” and “Words Fail” remain the gold standard.
Colton Ryan, who was an understudy for Connor on Broadway, is strong as the black-clad hostile jerk who lashes out like a caged animal. His suicide leads to the school body creating “The Connor Project” in his honor, a benefit to re-open the Autumn Smile Apple Orchard and rename it for him.
The movie comes out during Suicide Prevention Month, and any awareness of mental health and the prevalence of young people taking their own lives is a good thing. The “if only” and “Woulda, shoulda, coulda” second-guessing is relentless after a tragedy – so the pro-active efforts of this film are appreciated.
The film was adapted by Steven Levenson, who won the Tony Award for the musical’s book, and he has altered the ending to make Evan more accountable for the mess he has created – but also shows him making amends.
Not sure why they switched the original dad character to a stepfather in Larry’s case, but Danny Pino fits as the work-and-success-obsessed guy married to Amy Adams’ Cynthia, who has provided a good life for his family but has become increasingly distant over the years.
Adams, whose experience singing includes the Disney film “Enchanted” and her breakthrough Oscar-nominated performance in “Junebug,” is earnest as a grieving mother who clings to any memento and memory of her fallen son. Evan has provided her with a lifeline, and in turn, he feels accepted.
Julianne Moore, another versatile actress, is a natural as Heidi Hansen, a hard-working single mom who tries her best to support her son’s therapy and his needs.
Kaitlyn Dever is a bright spot as Connor’s sister Zoe, Evan’s crush, who admits to not knowing her brother very well. Her song with Evan, “Only Us,” is handled well as a romance blossoms.
Other noteworthy supporting turns include Nik Dodani as tech whiz and Evan’s confidante Jared and Amandla Stenberg as the cheerful over-achiever and environmental activist Alana who spearheads The Connor Project..
Stenberg collaborated with Pasek and Paul on a new song for the film, “The Anonymous Ones,” which is an outstanding addition.
However, they have removed four songs from the original score, including the two moms’ duet on parenting, “Anybody Have a Map,” and that is a shame. However, listen closely to the marching band during the pep rally and you will hear that and “Good for You.” “Disappear” and “To Break in a Glove” were also cut.
“Dear Evan Hansen” remains a moving experience, a timeless message for today and a hard-fought journey on acceptance and healing.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical drama directed by Steven Chbosky and starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan and Amandla Stenberg. It is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference. The runtime is 2 hours, 17 minutes. It is out in theaters on Sept. 24. Lynn’s Grade: B+
By Lynn Venhaus A domino chain of events have a devastating effect on a group of blue-collar steel workers in Lynn Nottage’s hard-hitting play, “Sweat,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017 and retains its timeliness.
The Black Rep’s outstanding production, which kicked off its 45th season on Sept. 9 and continues through Sept. 26, features powerful performances in a lived-in atmosphere.
You know these characters, the ‘little guys’ who’ve worked the factory floor for years and thought their labor unions would protect them when the corporate owners moved operations to another country for a cheaper labor force.
Set in a local tavern where the Olstead mill workers hang out in Reading, Pennsylvania, this could have taken place in Granite City or Centralia, Ill., or near the shuttered car plants in St. Louis.
Director Ron Himes knows this and understands how today’s political and racial tensions are much the same as then, as well as immigration issues. Those are addressed in two story arcs — changing demographics and the territorial birthright felt by the longtime Caucasian residents.
Sadly, this tale is often not one of fiction in real lives — and has become familiar to anyone living anywhere in the Rust Belt, part of those Northeast and Midwestern regions where an industrial decline has been going on for decades, especially where coal and steel were economy mainstays.
The 2015 play starts and ends in 2008, but most of it takes place in flashback eight years earlier – in 2000, a pivotal time in America, after NAFTA is in place and corporations are going to Mexico. Transparency is not a word in these companies’ vocabulary, as they leave communities shattered and people broken.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States in 1994 and created a trilateral trade bloc.
The action veers from longtime friends celebrating birthdays, laughing, joking and talking about their lives to escalating tension as uncertainty about their jobs increases, along with harsh outlooks on their economic futures.
This ensemble is nimble and natural, conveying the complexities of their relationships with skill and emotional depth. The cast projects how longtime friends act and what their workplace is like with ease.
Nottage’s dialogue is shrewd and perceptive about race, class and identity. She understands the frustrations of these characters, and the lens in which they view the world.
Nottage, who is the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice for Drama, first for “Ruined” in 2009, frequently writes about marginalized people.
For Cynthia and Tracey, is friendship or survival stronger? The actresses Amy Loui and Velma Austin expertly convey their conflicts and mood shifts, show how friendships sour when misunderstandings and envy erupt.
Their friend Jessie drinks too much and once had dreams of traveling the world but got a job at the factory and stayed. Kelly Howe gives what could be a stereotype some nuance – and superbly displays various levels of inebriation.
The cast is anchored by Stan, the bartender who was injured on the job at the mill and reflects on multiple labor issues as he is often the voice of reason – and at least history.
He attempts to put things in perspective and tells the young bucks who are chomping at the bit that they should be outraged by the bosses, not the little guys trying to get ahead like they are.
In his Black Rep debut, Black Anthony Edwards is impressive as the guy who’s good at listening, who speaks common sense, and has made lemonade out of the lemons he was given impairing his leg and being unable to work at what he did for years.
Physically, he looks like the character Stan. Praise to the costume designer Hali Liles for her spot-on outfits depicting the wardrobes of ordinary people living in the Rust Belt.
After they strike, and Cynthia and Tracey’s sons Chris and Jason are laid off, their lives are altered forever after tensions explode in violence. The fight choreography by Paul Steger is fluid and the cast well-rehearsed to make it seem natural.
Chris wanted to make something of himself, and Brian McKinley earnestly portrays his yearning to achieve, especially after watching his dad Brucie (frequent Black Rep performer A.C. Smith) fall on hard times after being shut out at a textile plant.
The boys serve prison sentences, as reflected in the opening scene with parole officer Evan, played with authority by Don McClendon. Franklin Killian is strong as the hothead redneck Jason, now tattoed on his face and a white supremist. He perfectly embodies the once fun-loving guy now a lost soul.
The subject of the boys’ rage is represented by Oscar, a Colombian American who works as the bar’s busboy but seizes an opportunity to make more money by replacing striking workers. The regular clientele are seething about this ‘scab.’
Oscar, well-played by Gregory Almanza, pours out his heart to Stan, telling him about how ignored he is, perceived to be an immigrant when he was born in the U.S. His dad swept floors at the mill, now he wants to achieve more. He is caught in the crossfire of misplaced fury.
The scenic design by Tim Jones aptly captures this world, with detailed property work by Meg Brinkley, all expertly lit by lighting designer John D. Alexander. The jukebox works well, thanks to the terrific sound design by Kareem Deanes.
Featuring one of the year’s best ensembles, a timely tale and expert production elements, “Sweat” is not to be missed.
“Sweat” will continue through Sept. 26, with Thursday show at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.
$15 student rush tickets are available for all shows — 30 minutes before the show with a valid student I.D.
Season subscriptions and single tickets for “Sweat” are available at www.theblackrep.org or by calling the Box Office at 314-534-3807. Groups of 12 or more may also reserve tickets by phone. Seating will be at 50 percent capacity; for complete information on current health protocols please visit www.theblackrep.org.
The Black Rep’s 45th Anniversary Season sponsors include the Arts and Education Council, The Black Seed Initiative, Centene Charitable Trust, Missouri Arts Council, Regional Arts Commission, Rodgers-Townsend, The Shubert Foundation, the Steward Family Foundation, and Washington University in St. Louis.
Our top priority for reopening is the health and safety of our staff, artists and patrons. We have been working diligently to bring live theatre back. The Black Rep is part of the growing coalition of St Louis performing arts venues and producers that have agreed upon Covid-19 Vaccination/Testing and Mask Requirements for audiences, artists and staff through the end of 2021.
Everyone must be fully vaccinated or have received a negative covid test results no more than 72 hours prior to coming on campus. A Covid19 vaccination card or a negative test result must be presented upon entering the building.
Masks are required at all times while indoors on campus. Even if you are seated in pods and distanced, masks must remain in place.
Everyone will need to complete the visitorscreening.wustl.edu within 2 hours of your arrival to campus. You will receive a message indicating that you are cleared to come to campus and you will be asked to present the “cleared” message to ushers at the entrance of the building. For those without smart phones, there is a station in Mallinckrodt where you can complete the screener on an iPad. If you receive a message that you are “not cleared”, we ask that you not come to campus or leave campus if you are completing the screener on campus.
By Lynn Venhaus William Tell (a shortened surname) is a broken man, but he hides it well. With his well-groomed appearance, this sharp-dressed man looks every bit a winner when he walks through casinos across the country.
But cracks in his icy façade start showing in “The Card Counter,” once we view his austere existence, his penchant for staying at nondescript motels, his OCD-like tendencies, and the flashbacks to his grisly military service.
This revenge thriller shows how an ex-military interrogator turned gambler is haunted by the ghosts of his past.
Tell served in the Iraq War, and afterwards, spent 8.5 years in military prison for torturing the enemy at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. The abhorrent behavior of the interrogators and the squalid living conditions are well-documented and glimpsed here.
Isaac is convincing as a man trying to come to terms with the lives he destroyed emotionally and physically. But the mental turmoil has clearly taken a toll, and he seeks redemption – despite not being able to forgive himself.
Wrestling with demons is a specialty of writer and director Paul Schrader, whose last film in 2017, “First Reformed,” was about a guilt-wracked pastor (Ethan Hawke, in his best work to date).
The quintessential outsider, Schrader finally received his first Oscar nomination for the “First Reformed” screenplay but has been part of such highly praised films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “American Gigolo” for five decades.
He’s not afraid to explore the dark side, and neither is Isaac, who is most well-known as the heroic pilot Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” chapters. But he has impressed with edgy portraits in “A Most Violent Year,” “Ex Machina” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
This film is dark and disturbing, but also haunting and hypnotic. That is largely due to the cast’s interpretation of this material as well as first-rate production elements.
The fine young actor Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “Joe”) plays Cirk, who is hell-bent on revenge. He hooks up with Tell at a law enforcement convention, where their mutual enemy, a retired major turned security consultant, Gordo (customary good work from Willem Dafoe), is the keynote speaker. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s suicide, and he was Tell’s superior officer.
Tell decides to take Cirk under his wing on the casino trail, where he has met the intriguing La Linda, a keen observer who runs a gambling stable for corporations. She has her eye on Tell. He’s wary of this mysterious financier – Tiffany Haddish, playing against type – but he’s in. The trio’s goal is the World Series of Poker.
Like Rev. Toller in “First Reformed,” Tell writes his innermost thoughts in a diary. He has determined that Cirk is too undisciplined to control, and things will go from bad to worse – let’s leave it at that.
While the garish confines of casinos speak volumes about the people who flock there for refuge, entertainment and competition, it is a fitting backdrop for this drama. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography and Ashley Fenton’s production design add to the bleak atmosphere.
The throbbing music score composed by Robert Levon Been adds to a feeling of urgency and is a superb component to the escalating tension.
This is a tough watch. There is an inescapable sadness to it all, but if you are familiar with Schrader’s work, you would know what you are getting. His themes, as always, are his view of the country we live in, and the vulnerable way we all feel under duress.
“The Card Counter” is a revenge thriller directed by Paul Schrader and starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality and the run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B
A tragic day that we will never forget in America inspired our Far North neighbors, the Canadian town of Gander in Newfoundland, to provide overwhelming needs over the course of five days for 7,000 world travelers, the “come from aways,” stranded on 38 international planes diverted to the airport there.
That raw reminder of our shared humanity has been turned into an unforgettable work of art, the award-winning, big-hearted, crowd-pleasing musical “Come From Away.”
If ever we needed to be uplifted and reminded of people’s capacity for empathy, it is now.
What an enduring and fitting tribute to 9-11 that a recording of the staged musical will be released on the eve of the 20th anniversary.
In the aftermath, the FAA had closed the airspace in the U.S. and those passengers had nowhere to go.
This Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein tells what transpired in the week that followed when the Gander residents sprung into action and provided clothing, food and housing for 7,000, which doubled the town’s population — and there were 19 animals in cargo too. This is the true story of some of the real people who were caregivers and passengers then.
It premiered on Broadway in March 2017 and this remarkable example of the kindness and generosity of strangers in the face of great adversity struck a chord. The musical is a celebration of how resourceful and resilient we can be when we all come together. A community stepped up when they were called upon to do so.
Even in the darkest of times, people experienced beacons of light. Some of them even formed lifelong friendships and would return 10 years later to Gander for a reunion.
Looking back, the mayor said: “Tonight we honour what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.”
It was filmed, with multiple cameras, before a live audience – some were 9-11 survivors and frontline workers — in May at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City, where it had become the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history.
Originally planned as a feature film adaptation on location in Newfoundland, the coronavirus pandemic impact shifted it to a live recording in the theatre.
Full of memorable characters, a script brimming with humor, and a tuneful score using folk, country and pop to bring on lumps in the throat, the filmed recording retains the vitality of this one-act musical that had been playing to sold-out audiences until the pandemic forced its shutdown in March 2020.
The musical returns to Broadway on Sept. 21, and will resume its national tour in October, which began in the fall of 2018.
When it played at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis in May 2019, I was prepared for its emotional wallop, but I didn’t realize how much these characters would touch my soul.
The film reminded me of all the good the play had spotlighted. It truly is one of the best musicals of the past five years, destined to be a classic, and grabs one immediately with the rousing “Welcome to the Rock” opening number. I still get goosebumps every time I hear their big voices, and their passion and pride about their community.
The cast also brought out the bridging of various cultures, and the memories of how we all felt that day was put back into focus. The ensemble is a mix of the original and current Broadway casts.
The original cast starring in this work include Petrina Bromley as Bonnie Harris, Jenn Colella as pilot Beverley Bass, Joel Hatch as the mayor Claude Elliott, Caesar Samayoa as Kevin Jung and Ali, W. Smith as Hannah O’Rourke, Astrid Van Wieren as Beulah Davis and Sharon Wheatley as Diane Gray.
New are De’Lon Grant as Bob, Tony LePage as Garth and Kevin T., Emily Walton as Janice Mosher, Jim Walton as Nick Marson and Doug, and Paul Whitty as Oz Fudge. Everyone plays multiple roles. Dressed like ordinary people and displaying various personality types, the cast is relatable and familiar.
The execution of all the elements to make it a vibrant live theater experience is another reason it stands out. Besides a committed cast who honors every real person or composite character that they are asked to play, we have innovative, fluid staging by director Christopher Ashley and vivacious choreography by Kelly Devine.
The singers showcase exceptional harmonies in these emotionally wrought songs by Sankoff and Hein that provide context and advance the action.
A Celtic-influenced band stays on stage and entertains the crowd after the show has ended with an instrumental “Screech Out.” Their enthusiasm is contagious.
Ashley, who oversaw the filming, won the Tony Award for directing in 2017, when the seven-times nominated show had lost mostly to the juggernaut that is “Dear Evan Hansen.” including Best Musical. His staging is clever and conveys intimacy and connection – from the plane’s close quarters to the cozy town settings.
As we were transfixed to television sets watching the horror unfold that beautiful fall day in 2001, we did not think about the passengers that were stranded by the shutdown of flights, and the challenges they faced trying to get home. What a compelling story!
The composers met the people affected in Gander in 2011, at the 10-year reunion, and they shared their stories. We, in turn, get to know Claude the mayor, Oz the police constable, Beulah the teacher and Bonnie the SPCA worker.
The passengers were kept on the planes for hours – 14 becomes 28 – and in the dark about what happened in New York City, Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Penn. Once permitted to leave the planes, they watched the news – as stunned as we were. Frightened, they try to reach their families, including the mother of a New York firefighter who is unable to locate her son.
The fear and tensions ease somewhat as the townsfolk make them welcome and comfortable, and in the company of these quirky islanders, they bond. Some let their hair down at a local bar, and even participate in an initiation rite involving kissing a codfish.
The gravity of the situation is never far from people’s minds – and they eventually are allowed to leave, but the world is different, and so are they. One couple develops a romance while another breaks up under the stress. A Muslim chef faces growing prejudice and is forced to endure a humiliating search before boarding for home.
Jenn Colella, Tony-nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, is impressive as the first woman pilot for American Airlines. She beautifully sings “Me and the Sky” about how her love of aviation drove her career aspirations, but now her workspace has been weaponized.
Ten years later, the crew and passengers reunited to celebrate these friendships forged during the worst of times, a forever band of brothers. We experience these people at their best. Their makeshift hospitality at an unspeakably grim, fearful and anxious time will make you cry, laugh and marvel at how kindness can be a tonic.
Like the documentary on Mister Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, this heartwarming tale makes you want to become a better person.
“Come From Away” is a musical recorded as a live theatrical production on a Broadway stage, directed by Christopher Ashley. The cast includes original and current cast members. It is rated TV-MA and runs 1 hour, 46 minutes. It is streaming on Apple TV + beginning Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: A.
Tough blue-collar guys hardened by harsh winters, bleak childhoods, dead-end adult lives, and rigid views on masculinity are the central figures in “Small Engine Repair,” an intense and powerful drama with crackling flashes of comedy that is set in Manchester, N.H.
The three rough-hewn childhood friends Frankie Romanoski (John Pollono), Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) needle each other with insults but have a deep love for each other. That bond of brotherhood is tested numerous times – as they drink too much, get into fights because of their hair-trigger tempers and cope with unfulfilled lives. Frank is clearly the leader, and is a recovering alcoholic.
They have one thing they can agree on, besides the Boston Red Sox — their tender concern for Frank’s daughter, Crystal, now 17. Fiercely protective, their loyalty comes into question during an out-of-control evening based on Pollono’s 2011 award-winning play.
At first glance, one may find John Pollono’s characters drawn in broad strokes, but reserve judgment because layers will be revealed, subtly and perceptively, as the bigger picture on societal roles, class struggle and modern technology emerges.
Ten years after his explosive 70-minute one-act play hit Los Angeles audiences hard with a sledgehammer, Pollono has adapted his edgy pitch-black piece for film, expanding the landscape and adding two female performers instead of just alluding to them in dialogue. The movie, with flashbacks, runs 1 hour and 43 minutes.
Ciara Bravo, a young actress known for TV shows who starred opposite Tom Holland in “Cherry,” excels as the feisty teenage daughter Crystal. She’s a senior in high school who yearns for bigger things, like going to college and becoming somebody. Raised basically by her single dad, mechanic Frank, she considers Swaino and Packie her family.
Jordana Spiro is in the brief but pivotal role as her mostly absent mom Karen Delgado. She became pregnant as a high school junior, and eventually left the area. Her troubled relationship with Frank is complicated and she pushes his buttons. Spiro nails this woman whose life didn’t turn out as she planned.
Ultimately, this brilliantly constructed work will show how substantive it is, but as this unsettling tale unfolds, it’s not that black-and-white. Pollono, who also directed and reprises his role as Frankie, grew up in New Hampshire, and knows this grimy world. He understands about shared histories and love-hate relationships with your coarse working-class guy pals.
Actor Jon Bernthal originated the role of ladies’ man Swaino on the L.A. stage and serves as a producer. He was unable to appear in the 2013 off-Broadway production because of his burgeoning acting career in film and television. He fits Swaino to a T, inhabiting this crude, vain and unrefined guy who is too quick to react and stuck in a warehouse job. But he is sincere in his love for Crystal.
He and Pollono carry their chemistry, first exhibited in the Los Angeles production that won every award possible, over to the screen. They easily convey a longtime friendship, along with the biggest surprise – character actor Shea Wigham’s Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan.
Wigham is a revelation as stuck-in-a-rut Packie, a smart man whose technical prowess and knowledge of social networking will come into play. But he’s a serious case of arrested development, living in his grandmother’s basement, inept with women, and invasive with personal questions.
The trio don’t seem to be aware of what boundaries are, let alone have filters when they are together. Their jabs at each other cut too deep sometimes and their locker room talk gets repetitive. Yet the actors keep up a frantic pace of macho sex talk and putting each other down at every opportunity.
After a tiff, the men reunite at Frank’s urging to hang out one evening at his small engine repair garage. Only he has an ulterior motive bringing them back together for top-shelf Scotch whiskey and steaks.
Frank has asked arrogant frat boy Chad Walker (Spencer House), his drug dealer, to stop by with “Molly,” which is another name for the synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen Ecstasy (MDMA).
As they knock back shots with the technically savvy Millennial, who reeks of privilege, are they really all that different? Chad has a callous disregard for women as sex objects and is casually dismissive of others ‘not in his league.’ House displays the entitlement of a kid whose big-deal attorney father has handed him everything in life accept the lesson that actions have consequences.
One can’t divulge too much of the plot, but it’s driven by family ties and the intangible bonds of lifelong friendships. If comparing to other works, think David Mamet – and even the characters satirized by Saturday Night Live in the ‘wicked-funny’ Boston sketches. For those who watched “Mare of Easttown,” it has an uncanny resemblance to that clannish Pennsylvania enclave depicted in the HBO mini-series.
Pollono wrote the screenplay to the 2017 movie “Stronger,” which tells of Jeff Bauman’s struggle to walk after the Boston Marathon bombing, another lived-in cadre of characters steeped in their New England environment.
He demonstrates a flair for crafting real-world characters and is a strong Frankie, who tries to take care of everybody but can’t manage his anger issues.
This is a fierce suspenseful production that is unapologetic in its politically incorrectness. It features bursts of ugly violence, a torrent of expletives, and with its vulgarities, earned every bit of its R rating. It is not an easy watch.
However, Pollono’s sharp observations on the narrow lanes still in place today in society – 10 years after its stage debut – gives one pause. Dynamic ensemble work makes this a drama whose impact will linger.
“Small Engine Repair” is a 2021 comedy-drama that is directed by John Pollono, who also stars, along with Jon Bernthal, Shea Wigham, Ciara Bravo, Spencer House and Jordan Spiro. It is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B+.
By Lynn Venhaus Now in Phase 4, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given their “Master of Kung Fu” comic book hero his own action movie, and this visual effects-martial arts extravaganza has its plusses and minuses.
Shang-Chi is the son of the immortal Wenwu (Tony Leung), who possess the Ten Rings with magical powers that offers immortality to its owner. After vanquishing his enemies, Wenwu searches for the hard-to-find kingdom of Ta Lo and gets more than he bargained for – meeting the love of his life, Li (Fala Chen), who is the fierce guardian.
Fast forward to modern times, and their son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), must confront the past he thought he left behind when a mysterious organization draws him into its web.
Let’s hear it for taking a leap into highlighting Asian performers, and the cast overall is a sturdy one. Likable Simu Liu makes for an appealing, yet typical, reluctant hero, while Awkwafina stands out in a slacker-sidekick role, as his best friend Katy.
However, the backstory is dense, for the ancient Chinese mythology goes back more than a thousand years. Besides, Ten Rings is also the name of a nefarious global crime organization that has been referenced in the movie that kicked off the MCU in 2008 –“Iron Man” and its third movie and “The Incredible Hulk.” In addition, other MCU movies “Doctor Strange” and “Avengers: Endgame” have included mentions of characters, too.
If you are familiar with all 24 MCU films and the four television shows now on Disney Plus, you will be at an advantage here, but it’s not a deal-buster. To learn more about how Shang-Chi fits into the bigger MCU picture, be sure to stay for the credits – like we’ve all been trained to do — and a few Avengers will pop into view.
Back to where we pick up the next generation of Asian actors. In present day, dear old dad Wenwu tracks down his two children– son Shang-Chi, now a parking valet in San Francisco who goes by the name Sean, and his sister, Xialing (musical theater actor Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club populated by hulking beasts and nefarious sorts.
In the first thrilling action set piece, Sean and Katy face off against Dad’s henchmen on a careening out-of-control city bus. Katy, also underemployed parking cars, tags along to Macao, which is on the southern coast of China.
For those of us not familiar with the comic book and unaware that the dad was originally Fu Manchu, we have a lot to wrap our heads around, and mixing the past with the present can get laborious.
As we find our way in an alternate reality and immerse ourselves in an elegant Eastern world, we enter some sort of parallel universe with strange creatures. And lo and behold, there is Ben Kingsley, who played “The Mandarin” but was really a dim British actor named Trevor Slattery in “Iron Man 3.”
He seems to be poorly used and in the way. But the Oscar winner and esteemed British thespian is amusing. Perhaps he will jog your memory.
Another blast from the past is the appearance of Benedict Wong, the sorcerer in “Doctor Strange,” who makes a few cryptic remarks. Look for him to be back if there is a sequel. And “The Abomination” too.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton is an odd choice to helm a Marvel blockbuster, for he started out in indies, and after his breakthrough “Short Term 12,” with breakout star Brie Larson (now Captain Marvel), directed “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” However, he is of Asian descent, and was tapped to pull the MCU into the 21st Century of diversity and inclusion, so bravo for that.
The jury is still out on his acumen filming action scenes. He has chosen to bombard us with computer-generated images and very busy visual effects while we sort out who’s who and what’s at stake.
That said, there are some stunning scenes with water and an elegance projected that’s rare for superheroes trying to save the world.
Cretton co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, and MCU’s penchant for inserting comical interludes happens with wise-cracking Awkwafina – that really is her sole purpose. And she lightens the dark mood considerably.
This is a big film with big themes and a sprawling cast. At times, it feels too much like video game action – beasts fight in flight and these scenes go on way too long. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 13 minutes.
The family dynamic is intriguing and could have been better served with more character interaction. After all, dad is still an evil terrorist. Sure, he might have veered off-course after his wife died, but what is the deal with him trying to steal the amulets she gave the kids? I sense that dad can’t be trusted.
Casual viewers may prefer to figure out the connections rather than be pummeled with incessant dragon action – and it would be a shame to derail a project that tries hard to move the genre forward leaving behind troublesome Asian stereotypes.
Hopefully, joining Team Shang-Chi will be a fruitful journey.
“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is an action-adventure fantasy that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed b y Destin Daniel Cretton, it stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong, Meng’er Zhang and Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language, it has a run time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. It was released in theaters only on Sept. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+
By Lynn Venhaus This trashy excuse for a crime-thriller wants us to believe it is set in St. Louis, but there is a total absence of any markers that could identify our fair city. One character does arrange a meeting in Forest Park, but they mention a “K-Town”?
OK, the cars did have Missouri license plates, so kudos for that. Otherwise, it’s a generic framing of a seedy “inner-city” area that has seen better days. There isn’t even a ubiquitous shot of the Gateway Arch just to pretend where we are. Instead, we get depictions of mean streets and government housing.
The tourism bureau won’t be getting a boost from visitors because this unrelenting grim and cliché-driven film is unappealing and not worth 91 minutes of your time. It was filmed in Norfolk, Va., and the dim and harsh lighting does the atmosphere no favors – even if it is going for true grit to emphasize our city’s chaotic crime numbers.
Social worker Parker Jode (Shea Wigham), assigned to the care of Ashley (Taegan Burns), the daughter of single mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn), intervenes when the dad, Mike (Zach Avery) returns from prison. Because dad is involved in drug dealing and a robbery, he is putting his family in danger.
As for the St. Louis location, Italian-born director Michele Civetta is quoted as saying: “Setting the film in a locale like St. Louis was a metaphor for the crossroads of America today. A gilded age town that has fallen on harder times, outgrown its original destiny as the Gateway city to the west, now a playground for drug trafficking and interstate contraband resulting in gang violence. The city conjures the ethos of a lawless environment presided over by a dysfunctional corrupt government administration that has really forgotten the everyday person.”
OK, then. Let the outrage ensue.
Three men are credited with this macho tough-guy screenplay: Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas, and the director, Michele Civetta.
The director aspires to be a throwback to those hard-boiled B-movies from the 1970s, like John Cassavetes’ “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and John Huston’s “Fat City” – the lead character is even a failed boxer! — but he does not achieve any sort of emotional truth with such stereotypical characters.
Civetta’s experience includes many commercials and music videos and was nominated for an Emmy for his NBC commercial “Halloween Today” in 2016. His last film was “Agony” released in 2020, and this film wrapped up right before the pandemic lockdown happened.
Civetta is trying to make a statement about how children are affected by the bad behavior of their parents, and that their actions have consequences, which of course is noble because there are so many young victims, and the human toll is enormous. While it’s obvious here, a better vehicle might have elevated the cause.
The protagonist is a social worker whose job is checking on the welfare of kids in less-than-ideal home lives. Shea Wigham, a character actor who is familiar to audiences after being in a long list of movies and TV shows for the past 20 years, rises to the occasion as a world-weary flawed guy who is driven by his checkered past, including growing up in foster homes. You’ve seen him as a detective in “Joker” and this summer in “F9.”
Parker is an anti-hero who champions his own sense of justice while spending lonely nights drinking too much at a dive bar. This guy has a lot of issues but the script only scratches at the surface.
He cares too much about keeping the kids safe that he meets on the job, and is drawn into a dangerous web when he’s checking on Ashley, the daughter of night casino worker Dahlia. Her husband, Mike, is in prison, and comes back in their lives when he’s paroled. He is as mean as a junkyard dog, signaling trouble ahead.
He rejoins his group of drug-dealing thugs, led by Frank Grillo as “Duke,” in yet another swaggering tough-guy role and wearing a ludicrous pimp hat. Antagonizing a Mexican drug cartel, they botch a robbery – and the heat is on, from both the cops and the nefarious cartel goons.
As villain Mike, Zach Avery has nowhere to go, for his character is one-note and has zero redeeming qualities.
Olivia Munn doesn’t embarrass herself in the concerned mom role trapped in an abusive relationship, and a bright spot is young actress Taegan Burns as daughter Ashley.
Dear old dad puts a stash in his daughter’s backpack – in effect making her a drug mule, which starts a chain of mayhem. Parker takes the women to his estranged father’s house to hide.
Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern plays the elder Jode, Marcus, a Vietnam veteran and former jazz musician, as a grizzled survivor. He knows he messed up but isn’t all that apologetic about putting his son in the foster care system as a youth. It’s a showy part, with the requisite whisky-fueled late-night talk between father and son before the criminals come calling.
As the plot becomes more contrived, full of bad ideas, one hopes for some character redemption, but there is no deliverance from evil. These are all hardened people – and perhaps we could have understood motivations, but it wasn’t going to happen with this being so heavy-handed. The final scene, meant to be somber yet hopeful, is almost laughable.
A Charles Dickens quote condemning bad parenting begins the film and statistics about foster children ends it.
Dark and depressing, this movie has little to recommend it. Not even a shot of the Arch gleaming in sunlight could have saved it.
“The Gateway” is a 2021 crime thriller directed by Michele Civetta and starring Shea Wigham, Olivia Munn, Zach Avery, Bruce Dern, Frank Grillo, Taryn Manning, Mark Boone Junior and Taegan Burns. Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use, some sexual content and nudity and its run time is 1 hour and 31 minutes. In theaters, digital and Video on Demand on Sept. 3; on DVD/Blu-Ray Sept. 7. Lynn’s Grade: D
The best produced show of the Muny’s 103rd season, “Chicago” capped off the welcome return to tradition in Forest Park this summer with a sultry and sleek music-and-dance showcase.
Everything about the production was on point – from the crisp staging by director Denis Jones and his snappy choreography to the jazzy brass beats from the swinging orchestra conducted by music director Charlie Alterman.
And this production blazes with star power. You will remember the names of the lead trio: Sarah Bowden (Roxie Hart), J. Harrison Ghee (Velma Kelly) and James T. Lane (Billy Flynn).
With snazzy music by John Kander and barbed lyrics by Fred Ebb, patterned after old-timey vaudeville numbers, and a saucy original book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, the story is a sardonic take on fame and the justice system set during the freewheeling Jazz Age.
It is based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual criminals she covered for a newspaper in Chicago. This current script adaptation is by David Thompson, who worked with Kander and Ebb on the musicals “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Steel Pier.”
Jones’ clever concept was to set the show as an entertaining spectacle at a speakeasy, with café tables around a perimeter so it’s watched by not only the Muny audience but also by performers on stage. He did a similar staging, but not an exact replica, for the 2012 Muny version. That point of view works brilliantly.
Scenic designer Tim Mackabee gave it a striking look while the lighting design by Rob Denton added to the stylized atmosphere and the stellar video design by Shawn Duan complemented the experience perfectly.
Drenched in cynicism, “Chicago” satirizes corruption and is a show-bizzy spin on tawdry headline-grabbing trial that marked the Prohibition Era — but are also timely today. Merry murderers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly attempt to seize the spotlight and become celebrities.
Perhaps when the musical debuted in 1975, it was ahead of its time, for contemporary audiences didn’t find it relatable. The week after the Broadway show closed after 936 performances in the summer of 1977, it transferred to the Muny. Starring Jerry Orbach and Ann Reinking, it was not well-received (I was there).
The mostly unsympathetic characters take part in a three-ring circus that’s part illusion and part rhapsody in sleaze. Its relevance has only grown over the years, especially in the digital age of social media.
A rebirth after a robust 1996 Tony Award-winning revival received universal acclaim and broke records as the longest-running musical revival and the longest running American musical in history, second only to “The Phantom of the Opera” on the all-inclusive list (it surpassed “Cats” on Nov. 23, 2014, with its 7,486th performance).
Because the 24-hour news cycle has helped fuel an obsessive celebrity culture and the emergence of reality television has made stars out of unsavory housewives, wealthy influencers like the Kardashians and self-absorbed narcissists, now society has caught up with “Chicago’s” place in pop culture history.
It took me awhile to warm up to the musical, but after watching a few high-profile celebrity trials, you see the parallels. And those songs from the team that gave us the insightful “Cabaret” get better every time you hear them.
A movie adaptation in 2002 garnered an Academy Award for Best Picture, earning six total, including Best Supporting Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, which also helped its acceptance. It was the first musical since “Oliver!” in 1968 to win the top award.
Cut to Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson’s first season at The Muny in 2012, and “Chicago” was second in the line-up following Fox Theatricals’ Tony winner “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” He said it had been the most requested show on the annual survey for several years.
It’s back, for just the third time, 10 years later, with Jones, now a two-time Tony Award nominee for choreography on “Tootsie” in 2019 and “Holiday Inn” in 2017, raising the bar once again.
He has put his stamp on of two of the Muny’s best shows during the past decade, “42nd Street” in 2016 (Jones, St. Louis Theater Circle Award) and “A Chorus Line” in 2017, and now with another fresh outlook on “Chicago.”
Jones is familiar with the Broadway revival, for he was a swing performer and later dance captain, during four separate runs for him (performing in total for about four and a half years). He worked with Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey and James Naughton, who began their roles in 1996. So, he had specific ideas on what to keep and what to change.
His associate choreographer, Barry Busby, deserves a shout-out too, for the dance numbers are seamless. They put the roar back in The Roaring Twenties, and the vibrancy shows in Bowden-led “Roxie” and “Me and My Baby,” and Billy’s flashy “Razzle Dazzle.”
“Chicago” will always be Fosse’s magnus opus, for his signature moves, those distinctive deliberate dance steps – and jazz hands! But this isn’t a copycat at all. (Fosse may have lost the Tonys for choreographer and director pf “Chicago” to “A Chorus Line” in 1976, but he holds the all-time record, with eight, for choreography).
The athletic dancers excel at the high-octane numbers. Six performers carry out “Cell Block Tango” with the attitudes you expect – Liz (Madison Johnson), Annie (Taeler Cyrus), June (Veronica Fiaoni), Hunyak (Lizz Picini), Velma (Ghee), and Mona (Carleigh Bettiol), more commonly known as “Pop, Six, Squish, Uh-Uh, Cicero, and Lipschitz.”
Bowden plays Hart with verve, oozing phony wholesomeness in the public eye and a ruthless craving for attention when not. She was here once, in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” and is an energetic firecracker on stage.
The magnetic Ghee sashays and struts as tough-as-nails Kelly, resentful of Hart being the shiny new sensation. He got our attention as Lola in “Kinky Boots” in 2019 and is a dynamic force every time he appears. Wearing satiny outfits and displaying a silky voice, he sets the tone with a seductive “All That Jazz” and an indignant “I Know a Girl,” and shows off his dexterity in “I Can’t Do It Alone.”
Bowden is fire to Ghee’s ice, a combustible fun mix for the “My Own Best Friend” that closes Act 1 and the “Nowadays”/ “Hot Honey Rag” finale with those omnipresent canes and hats Fosse was so fond of using.
James T. Lane embodies the slick ambulance chaser lawyer Billy Flynn with a demanding and greedy nature – and delivers a dandy disingenuous “All I Care About” – accompanied by a marvelous fan dance that received its own ovation. Lane was last seen as Sebastian in 2017’s “Little Mermaid” here.
One of this show’s standout numbers is the “We Both Reached for the Gun” press conference rag with Billy pulling Roxie’s strings like a ventriloquist and the ensemble doing fast footwork.
It’s good to see veteran performers Emily Skinner and Adam Heller, who were both in The Rep’s magnificent “Follies” in 2016, and St. Louis Theater Circle nominees for previous Muny work, back on the outdoor stage. As Matron “Mama” Morton, Skinner belts out a terrific “When You’re Good to Mama” and teams with Ghee on one of my favorites, “Class.”
Heller, last seen as Ben Franklin in “1776,” plays Roxy’s cuckolded husband Amos Hart as a more naïve sad sack, not realizing how he is being manipulated. He strikes the right tone for an affecting ‘Mr. Cellophane.”
With her sweet soprano, Ali Ewoldt poses as the powerful radio personality Mary Sunshine and sings the ironic “Little Bit of Good.”
Regular Michael James Reed capably portrays five different roles in the ensemble: stage manager, Sgt. Fogarty, doctor, Aaron and the Judge.
The technical elements were also superior, with costume designer Emily Rebholz’s striking work with vintage fashions and for limber dance outfits, accompanied by strong wig design by Tommy Kurzman.
The shortened season is coming to an end, and what the Muny achieved this summer is remarkable, putting five shows together in eight weeks. This is also the time for a fond farewell to Denny Reagan, who is retiring after spending 53 years at the Muny, the last 30 as President and CEO.
A trip to the Muny isn’t complete until you greet Denny, or see him greeting patrons, at his ‘spot.’ We look forward to working with his top-shelf successor, Kwofe Coleman, starting in January.
This collaborative production was a grand, great, swell time where all the elements came together in blissful harmony.
Attendance for the opening night performance was 6,435. The show runs an estimated 2 hours and 30 minutes.
“Chicago” is the final show of the shortened 103rd five-show season, through Sunday, Sept. 5. Performances are at 8:15 p.m. each evening on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. Emerson was the 103rd season sponsor.
For more information, visit muny.org.
Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900 ext. 1550.
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After not being on a stage since November 2019, Chauncy Thomas has made quite a comeback this summer – starring in two productions at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, Ill., and as the Gentleman Caller Jim in “The Glass Menagerie” and the one-act “You Lied to Me About Centralia,” which was part of this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, all outdoors.
As he leaves to return to home in New York City, he will have left St. Louis better than when he arrived, to paraphrase his favorite quote.
Chauncy, a native of Peoria, Ill., landed in St. Louis when he attended Washington University in St. Louis, earning B.A. degrees in both drama and psychology.
He built a versatile and respected career in regional professional theatre before taking off for New York City nearly eight years ago, earning two St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominations for “Intimate Apparel” at New Jewish Theatre in 2017 and “Topdog/Underdog” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio in 2013.
His resume includes “Clybourne Park” at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, “The Piano Lesson” at the Black Repertory Theatre, the La Bute New Play Festival at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio and multiple productions at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.
Since 2014, he has returned here for productions, including “Dot” at the Black Rep and “The Winter’s Tale” at St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.
“St. Louis is still a place I call home. I still feel incredibly connected to the people there, and especially the theatre community,” he said.
During the pandemic in 2020, he decided to leave New York City for Iowa to stay with his brother and his family in mid-March.
“My twelve-year-old nephew let me use his bedroom, so it was two months of sleeping under Spider-man sheets. In mid-May I trekked to Peoria to stay with my mother. My silver lining of the pandemic is getting to spend so much time with her,” he said.
“I lost all but one of my side jobs, so math tutoring was paying the bills. I got little theatre gigs here and there: zoom readings, workshops, etc. But I truly missed being on stage,” he said. “Most of my actor friends in New York either had to move or were significantly concerned with their finances, so I was still counting my blessings.”
He has worked on many Shakespeare productions and enjoys the challenge.
“I’ve been doing a decent amount of Shakespeare for a decade but last year, I think I figured out how I should approach the work. For the first eight years, I was trying to meet some standard of what I thought Shakespeare was. I’ve since learned I need to bring as much of myself and my racial identity to the work as I can. It’s what makes me unique. I love performing Shakespeare because it’s brilliant, but it also presents the challenge of making a 400-year-old stories relevant to a modern audience,” he said.
He has traveled to other theaters in the county, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Massachusetts.
From his base in New York City, his credits include “Romeo and Juliet” at Lincoln Center Education, “Hamlet” at RIPT Theater Company, “A Raisin in the Sun” at Bay Street Theater, “Our Town” and the television show “Madam Secretary,” in which he played a secret service agent.
Last year, he wrote a one-act for the theatre season for the Performing Arts Department at Washington University, which was part of the live events cancelled due to the pandemic, but was performed as part of “Homecoming Voices,” four plays by alumni, in March.
His play “The Nicest White People that America Has Ever Produced,” featured a Black writer and a white director discussing race, power and artistic integrity in the film industry — a theoretical discourse that prompted real questions about friendship and ethics.
Doing Shakespeare and Williams in the same summer “has been a challenge,” but he is grateful to be working.
“It’s been crazy, but before that, it was nothing, a famine, so I’m trying to enjoy this feast,” he said. “I thought how in the world am I going to get all of this done, but after I had my mornings free, I worked on the line memorization and text analysis,” he said.
As for playing Jim in two different productions, he described it as “fascinating.”
Williams’ memory play of his family and their life in St. Louis features Jim as Tom’s friend from work who is invited to dinner at the Wingfield home to meet Tom’s sister Laura.
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, “The Moon and Beyond,” ran from Aug. 19 to 29, with its signature play, the one-act and multiple presentations by scholars and a tribute with the cast.
Playwright John Guare wrote a one-act, “You Lied to Me About Centralia,” which imagined what happened after dinner when Jim rushes off to pick up his fiancé at the Wabash train station. The 20-minute play premiered off-Broadway in 2015, and is based on Williams’ short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.”
For the St. Louis Theater Crawl in 2017, the Tennessee Williams Festival performed the one-act with Julia Crump, who returns this year as Jim’s shallow and judgmental girlfriend Betty, and Pete Winfrey, who now lives in New York City, as Jim.
For the radio play version last November, when the TWF pivoted with “Something Spoken,” a series of Williams’ one-acts on radio, Thomas worked opposite Crump for the first time. They were directed by Rayme Cornell, who also directed this year’s live production, presented as a matinee on Aug. 21 and 22.
Thomas described the play as “sweet” and his character thusly.
“I felt there were several directions it could have gone, and I love where Rayme guided us. I know this isn’t technically Tennessee Williams, but it’s certainly Williams adjacent. Many of my favorite plays are American classics, and I’m rarely able to get cast in those kinds of shows, so this was a real treat. Jim is a man with big dreams, and I love to play characters with strong wants and needs; they make the most compelling characters,” he said.
Crump said acting with Thomas is “a master class,” because he makes “bold choices, good choices.” She described him as a “generous and talented actor.”
Elizabeth Teeter. who played Laura in “The Glass Menagerie,” said she agreed with Crump completely. She participated in an interview along with Thomas, Crump and director Brian Hohlfeld regarding TWF St. Louis on the PopLifeSTL.com Presents…podcast on Aug. 14.
“I do look at these as two separate characters,” Thomas said. “Obviously, John Guare took some liberties, and so many things are open to interpretation.”
Chauncy said the perspective of the one-act was fascinating. “I’m either bending the truth, or avoiding the truth,” he said.
As for being part of this ensemble, he described the cast as “absolutely amazing.”
“The other three actors started rehearsal on August 2, while I started on August 9, and we were in tech on the 12th, so I had to figure out what was going on at a faster rate than ever before. On my first day of rehearsal, we didn’t even do a reading of the whole play. We started with Act 2, and after listening to the other actors for the six pages before my entrance, I immediately understood what story we were telling, the tone, the pace, and where I fit into the narrative. These three actors are so vibrant, in-the-moment, and honest, that they do much of the work for me. I don’t have to ‘act’ with them; I can simply exist,” he said.
Besides Teeter as Laura, Brenda Currin plays Amanda and Bradley James Tejeda plays Tom.
Working where Tennessee Williams lived as a boy has been a special experience as well.
“In terms of performing, rehearsing, and living — not the same unit, but the same building — in the apartment where Williams lived, it’s incredibly surreal,” he said.
“To quote Jim, ‘I’m usually pretty good at expressing things, but–this is something I don’t know how to say!’ When Carrie Houk (TWF Artistic Director) called me to offer me the role and explain the production, I was in such disbelief that I didn’t tell anyone about the production for weeks. It seemed unfathomable,” he said.
“All I can say is this production feels magical. I took my first acting class as a sophomore at Washington University, and, that year, Henry Schvey, chair of the theatre department, was directing ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ I was a member of the backstage crew, which was my first experience with a mainstage production, and in many ways my introduction to theatre. And now, 17 years later, I’m performing in the play, at Williams’ home, and the opening night gift my director Brian Hohlfeld gave me is Henry Schvey’s new book about Tennessee Williams. How is this my life?” he said.
For his second year at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, he played Camillo and four small roles in “The Winter’s Tale” and Angelo in “Measure for Measure.”
Afterwards, the festival inducted him into the 2021 Actor Honor Roll.
“Chauncy Thomas is a wonderful addition to our Illinois Shakespeare Festival Actor Honor Roll, He creates rich, nuanced characters that are accessible yet complex. Chauncy is a skilled professional who also is the consummate company member: supportive, positive, and kind. It is a pleasure to welcome him to the honor roll,” said ISF Artistic Director John C. Stark.
In 2017, to celebrate the ISF 40th anniversary, they unveiled “40 Years/40 Actors,” a media display, to recognize “the passion, skill, and talent of select festival performers from the past four decades,” and continues with the annual Actor Honor Roll.
“I’m truly touched and honored by this recognition. This theatre means so much to me! I’ve met some of the loveliest people I could ever hope to meet, it’s the closest professional theatre to my childhood home (it’s an amazing blessing to have my mother in the audience five times in one season,” Thomas said.
“It’s been instrumental in my development as a classical actor, and it’s also been the setting or overlapped with some of the biggest emotional highs and lows of my life. When at its best, a theatre is a family, and I’m thrilled to be the newest member,” he said.
‘Take Ten’ Questions and Answers:
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“Originally, I was so fascinated about how theatre was an exploration of myself. I’m now intrigued by the power of storytelling, the interpersonal connections I make with other artists, and the exploration of the human spirit.”
2. How would your friends describe you?
“I took some direct quotes: ‘Funny, witty, smart, creative, thoughtful, organized and an amazing friend.’
“Strangely intellectual and precious for a man with this many muscles.”
“Very very very intentional.”
“A chill control freak with unlikely interests.”
“Loyal, brilliant, hilarious, thoughtful, deeply introspective, principled, all around awesome.”
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
“I spend as much time with my friends as I possibly can.”
4.What is your current obsession?
“I’m so late, but the ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’”
5.What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I’m ludicrously goofy.”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“In my early teenage years, I was very depressed and often had suicidal thoughts. No one could tell, because from the outside I seemed as if I was thriving. I was gay, in the closet and had plenty of friends, but no close ones. I was in a particularly bad place one day when I was 14 and called one of my acquaintances to ask if we could hang out. Twenty years later, I was best man at his wedding. I’m a person who struggles with feeling I may be a burden to someone, so the act of reaching out to the person who is now my oldest childhood friend was the first time I realized I was allowed to ask for emotional help when I needed it.”
7. Who do you admire most?
“My mom. She’s elegant, hilarious, benevolent, poised, and tough as nails.”
8. What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“Acting in a play I’ve written.”
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
10. What’s next?
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that, yet. But the next play on my schedule is in St. Louis in 2022.”
More Information on Chauncy Thomas:
Birthplace: Peoria, Illinois
Current location: New York City
Family: 2 full brothers, 2 half-brothers, and 2 step-siblings
Education: BAs in Psychology and Drama from Washington University
Day job: Currently a math tutor. In a non-Covid-19 world add catering waiter, chess tutor, and I occasionally portrayed historical leaders for executive leadership trainings for Fortune 500 companies.
First job: House painter
First role: A guard in my high school’s production of “Cinderella.” First professional role was Father Ant in “The Ant and the Grasshopper” for Imaginary Theatre Company.
Favorite roles/plays: Booth in “Topdog/Underdog,” Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun”
Dream role/play: Belize in “Angels in America”.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: One Kevin Kline Award nomination and two St Louis Theater Circle Award nominations
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Leave everyone better than you find them.”
A song that makes you happy: “Groove Is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite
To listen to the PopLifeSTL.com Presents…Podcast about the Tennessee Williams Festival, visit: https://soundcloud.com/lynn-zipfel-venhaus/poplifestlcom-presents-august-14th-2021?fbclid=IwAR3lA4F4DCuAk67je9tNrFsb36G1fhaS6RFcZmOkWI0Lx6zQnvPyrCUg0jk
For more information on the Tennessee Williams Festival, visit https://www.twstl.org/