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

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined
outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward
from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a
show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic
enhancements, it’s endearing.

In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.

Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert
Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work
together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star
performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as
their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically,
he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen
not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.

When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her
ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara
Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’
lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.

The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin
to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who
they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the
meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.

Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.

It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now,
people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists
in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore,
“La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.

As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.

But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible
feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined
by the confident directors.

Zora Vredeveld, Kevin Corpuz, Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.

Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen,
both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially
that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a
real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy,
cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.

Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency
showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring
true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to
the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.

Robert Doyle and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in
comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a
comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of
the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky –
the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a
lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was
much more assertive.

The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are
secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed
here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but
really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.

Tielere Cheatem as Jacob. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting
in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and
motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances
in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is
impressive.

When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.

Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame
Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a
standout.

Lindsey Jones and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic
restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several
terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”

As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a
high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic
Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are
gleeful as real accomplished showmen.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable
cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage
manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).

As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or
straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by
not relying on superficial stereotypes.

Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.

Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.

Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional –
he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the
lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,”
succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.

Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.

Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The
Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the
show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.

Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz –
a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his
lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s
expert sound design is consistently good.

There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.

None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.

Photo by Jill Ritter LIndbergNew Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com