The Gaslight Theater is still closed due to the pandemic, but St. Louis Actors’ Studio will be presenting a free Zoom play by Hanna Kime, She is a John Burroughs graduate and currently resides in Chicago as a playwright. The play is called “Now More Than Ever” and will be screened for three nights only March 18-20 at 8 pm.

It is free to watch the live stream event, but you must register here: What’s On Stage | St. Louis Actors Studio (stlas.org). Donations are encouraged.

It is roughly a 45-60 minute one act directed by Annamaria Pileggi and starring: Colleen Backer, Jens Tulio, William Humphrey, Phil Leveling and Ebby Offord. Stage manager is Amy Paige.

Premise of the play: After the coronavirus crisis forces a major regional theatre to go remote and lay off half their staff, their remaining box office associates must attend an emergency Zoom training session from marketing on how to cold call patrons to solicit donations while promoting the theatre’s thrilling new slate of online content.

Her recent works include THE TARGETED (2020 O’Neill Finalist, 2021 BAPF Semifinalist, Selected for Broken Nose’s “Off/Nights” Development Series), THE BEST DAMN THING (2021 O’Neill Semifinalist, Selected for the Up: Renewal Reading Series), and DROP (Produced through Side Street Studio Art’s Going Dutch Festival).


She has been fortunate enough to develop her full-length works with Jackalope Theatre Company, Sideshow Theatre Company, The New Colony, Broken Nose Theatre, and First Floor Theater, where she currently serves as Literary Manager. She is a member of the Wampus Cat Collective. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2018 with degrees in English and Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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.

(Because of Word Press Upgrade bugs, site was unavailable April 7-16, and this review was not posted during the run. Sorry for the delay/inconvenience. – Lynn Venhaus)

By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” theme is timeless and universal, yes, but a puzzling modern interpretation of “Othello” by St. Louis Shakespeare did not best serve this epic tragedy.

Poor production quality, uneven casting and misguided,
underdeveloped character portrayals didn’t help convey the transition to the 21st
century.

Nevertheless, the show featured several strong performances
and good fight choreography staged by Todd Gillenardo.

If you want to say something about inherent racism then and
now, then say something powerfully. For all the talk in the press release about
turning this 17th century story upside down with a contemporary
slant, director Patrice Foster seemed to take the traditional story route. I
disagreed with the execution of their original concepts, which were not all
followed through.

Setting the play, which takes place in Venice and Cyprus,
in the 21st Century made no sense whatsoever. Where are we? What
world are we in? And why?

The cities were pretty much interchangeable. Jared Korte’s minimalist
set design reflected none of the exotic foreign world of this tale. Were we to
ascertain this through the Turkish music? The bedroom more akin to a young
single’s first apartment? If you are tackling xenophobia, then show it!

Based on another source material, “Un Capitano Moro” by
Cinthio, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is believed to have been written around 1603.
The Bard took the big emotions of life – love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal and
loss – to illustrate bigotry, showing how a Moorish general in the Venetian
army could be revered for his military prowess and then disdained for marrying
a Caucasian.

The couple can’t be happy because their enemy sets up a
tangled web of deceit and manipulation in order to destroy their union.

His miffed ensign Iago schemes to convince Othello that his
wife Desdemona is having an affair with former suitor Cassio, supposedly in an
effort for Roderigo to woo her instead, but really, for him to surpass Othello
in power and prestige.

In a towering performance, Reginald Pierre is compelling as
the African general whose jealousy and misplaced allegiance prove to be his
downfall. The larger-than-life role fit Pierre, who is a master at delivering
Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. A veteran of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
and Rebel and Misfits Productions’ two immersive Shakespeare presentations,
Pierre commands attention no matter what role.

He glided persuasively between scenes portraying the
victorious general, passionate newlywed and how he’s too trusting of what he’s
told. Alas, Othello allowed the lies to get inside his head, and then is
doomed. Pierre was convincing in his struggles and how he grappled with
betrayal.

Bridgette Bassa said her lines well as Desdemona, but
physically, her petite stature is such a sharp contrast to Pierre’s height, and
they did not have much chemistry. Nevertheless, the bedroom death scene is brimming
with intense emotions as Othello seethes with rage and Desdemona pleads for her
life, even though they changed the killing method.

While Bassa has often been cast in roles she has been too
young or too old for and pulled them off, Desdemona’s appearance is wrong here.
She looks like a teenager in a simple junior frock and summer wedges that don’t
visually establish a sultry woman.  

Phil Leveling smartly portrayed the complexities of Cassio,
realizing his reputation is ruined and how he’s been used. As the rich suitor
Roderigo, Jesse Munoz had the right approach, and Will Pendergast and Victor
Mendez suited their soldier roles.

Troublesome is Cynthia Pohlson’s decision to portray Iago
as broad as a Disney villain. If you view Iago, Othello’s ambitious, bitter and
sneaky ensign as a more cunning figure, then you might be as disappointed as I
was, particularly at the intrusive cackling and the exaggerated street gang
member moves.

As his wife Emilia, Hillary Gokenbach grew into the role,
and had a superb second act.

A company who has Shakespeare in the title should be able
to work with inexperienced cast members on how to not deliver the Bard’s lines
in sing-song fashion, which often happens.

The challenges of Shakespeare need to be overcome if an
ensemble is to be convincing. It didn’t help that some of the well-meaning
supporting cast players were too young for their parts – Brad Kinzel as
Desdemona’s furious dad Brabantio and Mike Stephens as the Duke of Venice.

Circling back to the stumbling block of the modern setting,
if the deception hinges on an embroidered handkerchief, switching the era to the
21st century makes no sense because no one uses handkerchiefs any
more, and really haven’t for 50 years. This is a relic of the past that’s key
to the original story but useless in new version.

In production values, Ted Drury’s sound design was fine, but the subpar staging didn’t establish the setting, and the party dance scene wasn’t as festive as it should have been. The costumes appeared to be from people’s closets, except for bulk military camoflauge outfits.

If Shakespeare presentations require fight choreographers,
should not they focus on line delivery as well? Character development is always
crucial.

Unlocking the meaning of Shakespeare is as thrilling as
recognizing the source of the Shakespeare phrases that’s become part of the
modern lexicon, and when everyone can bring those words to life, it makes a
world of difference.

The new performance space at Tower Grove Baptist Church has
possibilities. I hope the future bodes well there.

St.
Louis Shakespeare presented “Shakespeare’s Othello” April 5-13 at Tower Grove
Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia. For more information, visit www.stlshakespeare.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For a rooting-tooting time at the theater, head yonder to the Tower Grove Abbey, where wacky hi-jinx are afoot in the Southern-fried “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Stray Dog Theatre’s colorful cast realizes that many people are unfamiliar with this mid-1970s musical based on Eudora Welty’s first novella, which is adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so they are eager to please, and work overtime to charm the crowd.
The goofy story, set in 18th century Mississippi, is not fooling anybody but the ensemble, who have so much fun with this campy tall tale of mistaken identities and nefarious motives.

In 1795, the hero-outlaw Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling) swaggers in to Rodney, Miss., looking for his next swindle. As his alter-ego, he is The Robber in the Woods, a Robin Hood-like figure who disguises himself with berry juice.
He’s unrecognizable to Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), the beautiful daughter of the richest planter, Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey Wright). They fall in love during the charade, which leads to hilarious complications.
Mix in an evil stepmother, the overbearing Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling); a mischievous bandit Little Harp (Logan Willmore); his brother Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), who is only a head in a briefcase these days; a pea-brained flunky named Goat (Bryce Miller); his sister Airie (Christen Ringhausen); and a talking raven (Susie Lawrence), and these zesty ingredients create farcical nonsense.
Rounding out the rambunctious ensemble is Chris Ceradsky, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson as residents of Rodney.
Director Justin Been has inventively staged the show to bring out the cast’s playful nature, and swiftly spins the action in a captivating piece of “story theater.”
The clever Tony Award-nominated book and lyrics are written by Alfred Uhry, who later became famous for his “Atlanta Trilogy” – the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Tony Award for Best Play in 1997; and the Tony-nominated libretto to “Parade” in 1998.
The bluegrass-tinged music score is by Uhry’s frequent collaborator, Robert Waldman, and music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit’s work captures its lively spirit. Her exceptional band gets the show off to a rollicking start and keeps up the momentum throughout – fine work by Steven Frisbee on fiddle, Mallory Golden on fiddle and mandolin; Michael Kuba on banjo, cello and guitar; Marty Lasovica on guitar, and M. Joshua Ryan on acoustic bass and bass ukulele.
Choreographer Mike Hodges freshens up old-timey western dances and gives the ensemble a chance to kick up their heels in their period-appropriate garb designed by SDT’s artistic director Gary F. Bell.
The entire cast speaks in exaggerated Southern drawls and projects the show’s light-heartedness out of the gate with “Once Upon the Natchez Trace.” They remain exuberant in “Flop Eared Mule,” “Goodbye Salome” and “Leather Britches.”
The harmonious ensemble’s “Deeper in the Woods” is a lush, ethereal ballad that shifts into a full-fledged romance between Jamie and Rosamund, while “Where, Oh Where” is a foot-stomping number featuring everyone’s nimble voices.
Impressive newcomers Logan Willmore, as Jamie’s rival Little Harp, and Bryce Miller, as the imbecile Goat, display slick comic timing that accentuates the breezy romp. Their duet, “Poor Tied Up Darlin’” is a hoot, with assist from a game Christen Ringhausen.
Versatile Kevin O’Brien is funny as the talking head Big Harp, and both he and Miller are hilarious in “Two Heads.”
Veterans Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid and Jeffrey M. Wright superbly inhabit their characters.
As the rascally Jamie, Leveling is well-suited to the role both in acting and singing, as his range is spot-on for the vocal demands. He’s appealing in his introduction, “Steal with Style.”
The jaunty role isn’t demanding but allows for mischief-making. In 1977, Barry Bostwick won a Tony as Lead Actor in a Musical for the ’76 Broadway run while in 2016, Steven Pasquale won a Lucille Lortel Award for the Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway revival.
Leveling and Schmid blend beautifully in song, including “Love Stolen.” They have some oomph in their chemistry as a romantic comedy coupling.
Schmid’s positive approach and her beaming smile project a spirit of adventure. No damsel in distress, she shines in “Rosamund’s Dream” and “Nothin’ Up.” In the archetypal fairy-tale princess way, she tussles with Dowling, who wants the golden daughter out of the way.
Dowling has a field day mugging malicious intentions as the over-the-top Salome, spewing venom in “The Pricklepear Bloom.”
Wright plays a blustery rich guy who misses his first wife and puts his daughter on a pedestal. Even though his second wife is a pain, Musgrove’s a people-pleaser and can’t shift gears. Wearing a loud checkered suit, Wright just has a ball cavorting as this gaudy character.
The quartet of Jamie, Musgrove, Rosamund and Salome have fun frolicking in “Marriage is Riches.”
The roots music imbues a feel-good quality while the cast appears to be having a swell time like friends around a campfire.
It is that conviviality one will remember soon after the story fades.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Robber Bridegroom” Aug. 2 -18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, Aug. 12 matinee at 2 p.m. and a Wednesday, Aug. 15 performance at 8 p.m. added, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104. For tickets or more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Photos by John Lamb