News Column

Fall arts: A big theatrical menu opens for fall

September 8, 2013


Sept. 08--People understand cravings when it comes to food.

"I feel like sushi tonight," somebody says, or "I could go for a juicy steak."

Then, your appetite aroused long before dinner time, you cook up what you want at home or go to a restaurant that promises to satisfy your longings.

The theater comes in different styles and flavors, too. And it's perfectly normal to find yourself craving a certain kind of show, just as you might with food.

But unless you happen to be a king or queen, chances are you can't "dine in" on the play of your choice. That's no problem in St. Louis this fall. All over town, theaters will serve plays for every taste. You just have to decide what you're in the mood for.

Fresh and spicy

Two of St. Louis' brightest, most inventive theaters are mounting shows that together add up to a mini-Halloween festival, with a revival of the hugely popular "Evil Dead: The Musical" at Stray Dog and with "Night of the Living Dead" (also a musical, and a regional premiere) at New Line. Get your tickets early; these titles have lots of appeal, and the theaters aren't big. Sell-out houses? You bet.

"Pterodactyls" is by Nicky Silver, whose comedy "The Lyons" was a recent hit for Max & Louie. This earlier play, coming up at the St. Louis Actors' Studio, introduces us to another wildly dysfunctional family. Compared to the Duncans of "Pterodactyls," the Lyons are almost affectionate; you can decide if the title refers to something besides the dinosaur bones the son is assembling in the living room.

Nobody does something a little strange like the British. From boundary-free sexuality of Joe Orton's "Entertaining Mr. Sloane" at HotCity to the Kafkaesque "mental health care" depicted in Harold Pinter's "The Hothouse" at the West End Players Guild, English playwrights seem to have an especially sharp eye for modern life that treads the edge of reason.

One actor who inhabits that world and populates it with oddball characters comes to the J. Scheidegger Center with "An Evening with Martin Short." It might be like climbing onto the Magical Mystery Tour -- a possibility to consider with the Beatles' tribute show "Rain," heading for the Fox.

Redolent with rich aromas

When theater turns to history for inspiration, we are apt to be surprised by discoveries hidden in what we thought we knew inside-out. War, for example, may inspire theater artists to examine the past in keen, sometimes, painful, detail, with unusual styles of storytelling.

For example, "Fly," at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, combines live action, video and a dancing narrator called the "Tap Griot" to explore the experiences of the Tuskegee airmen. The eight Medal of Honor recipients that actor Stephen Lang portrays in "Beyond Glory" served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It's coming to the Ovations! Series at the Edison Theatre. "All Is Calm," at Mustard Seed, an a cappella musical, tenderly portrays the Christmas Truce on the front in World War I.

If you still find yourself thinking a lot about World War II, you probably know that its looming presence colors the great Kander and Ebb musical "Cabaret," opening the mainstage season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. How delicious that the team's other great period piece, the Roaring '20s musical "Chicago," will play the Fox during the "Cabaret" run at the Rep.

"Cabaret," with its depiction of amorality and rising anti-Semitism in Weimar Berlin, and "Chicago," with its cynical assessment of love and jurisprudence, are huge hits, but before they opened they both struck people as unlikely subjects for musical treatment. You might say the same about two other award-laden musicals that will open here soon. "Parade," at R-S Theatrics, explores a shameful footnote in American history, the 1915 lynching of a Jewish engineer in Atlanta. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita," returning to the Fox, tells the story of a charismatic entertainer who, with her husband, Juan Peron, built the post-war government of Argentina on a cult of personality.

All natural

Sometimes theater upsets you inside (as dinner should never do), and that's fine. On the other hand, some plays come with a high level of comfort -- even when they deal with disturbing subjects. It depends on how they end. Some plays have, in their way, a built-in dessert.

Many of these are plays with religious or spiritual overtones. We can look forward to a nightclub chanteuse who has to pass herself off as a nun in "Sister Act" at the Fox and a musical version of the Gospel of St. Matthew in "Godspell" at the Peabody.

Some of these stories are true to life. Beverly Brennan, Jack Buck's daughter, stars in a salute to Doris Day, "A Night with Day," at the Abbey. Sportswriter Mitch Albom recalls a wonderful professor who shares his ultimate life lessons in "Tuesdays with Morrie" at Dramatic License, and actor/writer Elizabeth Van Meter presents her story of spiritual regeneration after tragedy in "The Purpose Project: Thao's Library" at Mustard Seed.

Variety Children's Theatre will present a story not necessarily recognized as an allegory when it stages "Peter Pan" at the Touhill. But its cast -- professional adult actors with lots of youngsters, able-bodied and disabled together -- ought to drive home the subtler points, tucked into a brilliant score.

Surprise pairings

Lots of shows rely on an element of confusion for dramatic, comic or romantic effect -- and two classics of that genre are opening here this fall. Stages St. Louis presents "My Fair Lady," the story of a flower-seller and the professor who teaches her to speak properly, at the Kirkwood Community Center's Robert J. Reim Theatre; does any other show give us such unlikely lovers? Well, maybe: At the Fox, you can catch romance of a bookish girl of Provence and a hirsute monster in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." Musical theater lovers don't need much more to make them happy than a fall with both those productions. On the other hand, similarities can promote confusion as well as contrast -- just ask the Shakespeare St. Louis company. It's getting ready to open "The Comedy of Errors," the play in which everyone goes double or nothing.

But unlikely combinations aren't always amusing. With "Top Dog/Underdog," the St. Louis Actors' Studio mounts the bitter story of African-American brothers whose father, in a cruel joke, named them Lincoln and Booth; the play brought Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Another Pulitzer-winning dramatist, Neil Simon, found inspiration in the work of the celebrated Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, whom he salutes in "The Good Doctor." Made up of short playlets -- some very funny, some touching -- "The Good Doctor" opens the season at New Jewish. Also drawing on the greats, St. Louis actor/writer Nancy Bell refashions "The Winter's Tale" into "Old Hearts Fresh" for this year's Shakespeare in the Streets production.

Tell me what's in this

That hint of a flavor you can almost, but not quite, recognize has its theatrical parallel. There's something especially intriguing about plays that expect members of the audience to bring their own ideas to the table.

The Black Rep picks up the challenge with "Emergency," a brainy, fantastical riff about the arrival of a slave ship in modern New York harbor. One actor, Ronald L. Conner, plays more than 40 roles in the production at the Hotchner Theatre. Insight Theatre performs another play that's pared down in stagecraft (though not in cast size) when it opens "Our Town" to mark the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder's American classic; Joneal Joplin stars.

You never know what to expect from The Improv Shop, the St. Louis troupe bringing its sketch comedy to the Touhill. It's often comedic but it can go anywhere. It might even take a dystopian turn, as "Lonesome Hollow" does. Set in the near future at a gulag for sex offenders, it opens the season at West End.

All these plays -- maybe all plays, period -- involve elements of dreams: heightened imagery, elliptical time, emotion all out of proportion to circumstance. They say that what a person sees in his dreams, a society sees on its stages.

Of course they would never say that if not for the work of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud and the Christian writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis are the only characters in "Freud's Last Session," making its St. Louis debut in the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.


The Abbey

6238 Alexander Drive, $20,

--"A Night with Day," Sept. 20-21

The Black Rep

Washington University's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard, $25, 314-534-3810;

--"Emergency," through Sept. 15

Dramatic License Productions

Artropolis at the Chesterfield Mall, Highway 64 and Clarkson Road, $22-25. 636-220-7012;

--"Tuesdays with Morrie," Oct. 31-Nov. 17

Fox Theatre

527 North Grand Boulevard, $25-$85. 314-534-1111;

--"Chicago," Sept. 20-21

--"Evita," Oct. 8-20

--"Beauty and the Beast," Nov. 1-3

--"Rain," Nov. 15-16

--"Sister Act," Nov. 19-Dec. 1

HotCity Theatre

Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard, $20-$25. 314-289-4060;

--"Entertaining Mr. Sloane," through Sept. 21

Insight Theatre Company

Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood, $25-$30. 314-556-1293;

"Our Town," Thursday-Sept. 29

Mustard Seed Theatre

Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, $20-$30. 314-719-8060;

--"The Purpose Project: Thao's Library," through Sept. 15

--"All Is Calm," Nov. 8-24

New Jewish Theatre

Wool Studio Theatre, A&E Building, Staenberg Family Center, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, $35-$39. 314-442-3283;

--"The Good Doctor," Oct. 3-20

New Line Theatre

Washington University South Campus Theatre (formerly CBC High School), 6501 Clayton Road, $10-$20. 314-534-1111;

--"Night of the Living Dead," Oct. 10-Nov. 2


Washington University's Edison Theatre, Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard, $20-$36. 314-935-6543;

--"Beyond Glory," Nov. 16

Peabody Opera House

1400 Market Street, $27-$92. 800-745-3000;

--"Godspell," Nov. 15-17

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, $20-$76. 314-968-4925;

Browning Mainstage

--"Cabaret," Wednesday-Oct. 6

--"Fly," Oct. 16-Nov. 10

Emerson Studio Theatre, $40-$63

--"Freud's Last Session," Oct. 30-Nov. 17

R-S Theatrics

Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Avenue, $20-$25. 314-456-0071;

--"Parade," through Sept. 15

St. Louis Actors' Studio

Gaslight Theater, 3610 Grandel Square, $25-$30. 314-458-2978;

--"Top Dog/Underdog," Sept. 20-Oct. 6

--"Pterodactyls," Nov. 8-24

St. Louis Shakespeare

Florissant Civic Center, 1 James J. Egan Drive, $15-$25. 314-361-5664;

--"The Comedy of Errors," Oct. 18-26

J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts

Lindenwood University Campus, 2300 West Clay Avenue, $48.59-$68.50. 636-949-4433;

--"An Evening with Martin Short," Sept. 14

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis's Shakespeare in the Streets

4226 Manchester Avenue in the Grove, free. 314-531-9800;

--"Old Hearts Fresh," Oct. 19-21

Stages St. Louis

Robert G. Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road, $20-$55. 314-821-2407;

--"My Fair Lady," through Oct. 6

Stray Dog Theatre

Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, $18-$35. 314-865-1995;

--"Evil Dead: The Musical," Oct. 10-Nov. 2

Touhill Center for the Arts

University of Missouri-St. Louis, Natural Bridge Road and University Drive

--The Improv Shop, Sept. 25, $12-$15

--Variety Children's Theatre's "Peter Pan," Oct. 25-27, $15-$35

West End Players' Guild

Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard, $20. 314-367-0025;

--"Lonesome Hollow," Sept. 27-Oct. 6

--"The Hothouse," Nov. 1-10


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