By Lynn Venhaus
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb