1998: The Year in Theater

MIKE ISAACSON
Any year-end wrap of St. Louis theater must begin with a cocktail-party statement that always surprises: Having sat down and done the math, it would be very easy for anyone in St. Louis to go to the theater about twice a week throughout the year -- if they so chose. We have much more theater here than anyone ever recognizes, and by and large the vast majority is worth your time and money. This also shows, however, that it is almost impossible to see everything (unless, of course, you are my uber-dedicated colleague Bob Wilcox, bless him), so if your favorite production is omitted from this list, it's probably more that I couldn't get there than a comment on quality. Here, then, are some moments that remain from some selected theatergoing in 1998.

For the most part, 1998 was full of supreme performances in solid productions. Looking back, only New Line Theater's production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins was, as a whole, a wild and gratifying surprise. Here, a talented group of locals inhabited Sondheim's creepy vision of what lives under America's political rocks. It was intense, entertaining and terrifically "out there." I'd spent the better part of a decade wanting to see Barbara Cook live, and her week in St. Louis at the Grandel Theatre didn't disappoint. She was artistry incarnate, and two viewings of her show weren't enough. She made me weak. I was just as neatly surprised by Mary Cleere Haran, whose sense of style took me far, far away. Can you believe she took 10 minutes from her act to offer a tribute to Adele Astaire? How much more fabulously obscure can you get?

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' shimmering production of A Little Night Music (another Sondheim concoction) continues to shine on the Mainstage through this week, and it is simply not to be missed. A truly adult musical, stuffed with fine performances and style, Night Music is one of those shows you can brag you saw 10 years from now. Similarly, when Karen Ziemba played Roxie Hart in Chicago at the Fox last spring, St. Louis received a fine taste of a performance that is now storming Broadway. One of the last of a consummate Broadway singer/dancer/actress breed, Ziemba brought an eccentric electricity and vulnerability to a tough part. She was matched a few months later by the amazing Jim Walton, who in the hoofer lead in Crazy for You at the Muny proved that the spirit, and nearly the talent, of Fred Astaire was still alive. His profound skill at comedy made all the hoary humor of Crazy work swell, and his dancing was sublime.

Joneal Joplin's performance as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman embodied the perfection of the idea of a regional theater. Here was a long-beloved local actor giving (arguably) the performance of a career in a production that amply honored an American classic. Just as personally inspiring for me was watching five local actors successfully pour their hearts and talents into Songs for a New World, another New Line production featuring the fine songs of Jason Robert Brown. Although the house was nearly empty, their commitment was not, making for a truly cherished memory. Joan Lipkin's Uppity Theater Company sponsored a return of the wonderful Tim Miller, proving that St. Louis audiences love to watch artists grow -- and then return to share that growth. Stages survived a disastrous On the Town with a lively Promises, Promises, featuring a lovely and disarming performance from Hunter Bell.

BOB WILCOX
1998 ended with an explosion of good theater. The Rep brought us their lovely, elegant, complex and rich production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. At the same time, the "Junior Rep," the students at Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts, demonstrated their mastery of American high comedy with their sparkling work on Phillip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. The semipros at the New Jewish Theatre contributed their own dish to December's feast, Ira Levin's warm and sweet Cantorial. And Steve Ross returned to the Grandel Theatre Cabaret, the climax of an amazing series that, if not drama, certainly was great theater.

Throughout the year, the Rep, as usual, gave us some of our best productions, including the exquisite Betrayal recently mounted in the Studio and the performances of Old Wicked Songs both in the Studio and on the Mainstage. Director John Going again demonstrated his mastery of the British theater of the turn of the last century with the delicious production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. Going also directed the best of last spring's Opera Theatre of St. Louis efforts, Don Pasquale.

Among the town's other Equity companies, the two best productions both dealt with the subjects of honesty and fidelity in relationships in ways funny, wise and intensely moving, beautifully crafted both in writing and production: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing at Off the Cuff and Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! at The New Theatre. Paul Blake at the Muny continued his shrewd policy of employing lots of local performers in a crowd-pleasing bill of old favorites. Indoors, Stages' summer musical season started slow but ended with a winner in My Fair Lady, and the St. Louis Black Repertory Company added a musical dynamo with the infectious energy of Five Guys Named Moe.

In the professional non-Equity category (whatever that may mean), HotHouse Theatre Company surmounted its initial tribulations with its polished The Baby Dance. The St. Louis Shakespeare Company mixed fine individual performances of the Bard with actors uncomfortable with the language. Its Magic Smoking Monkey alter ego continues to be a huge popular favorite, but for me its sophomoric antics are wearing thin. Actors Renaissance Theatre gave us an unsparing Saved, then decided, I am told, to follow in the footsteps of the late, lamented ShatterMask and perform its next season in the summer at Washington University's Studio Theatre. The Orthwein company gave us Lavonne Byers' brilliant performance in Sweet Bird of Youth and three jewels in Three Viewings but has taken this season off in what I hope is only a rest and not the end of this fine company.

The West End Players Guild's revelatory A Doll's House, the Kirkwood Theatre Guild's hilarious A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and ACT Inc.'s smart All in the Timing demonstrated the heights that community theaters can achieve. Ditto the campus work of Wash. U.'s stylistically rigorous Machinal and the ensemble playing of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville's Blue Window. The St. Louis College of Pharmacy's Harvey and Belleville Area College's Whose Life Is It, Anyway? proved that even schools lacking four-year theater programs can present carefully rehearsed, absorbing work.

The world outside showed up at the usual venues. COCA brought back the magical Cashore Marionettes, and the Edison's Ovations! Series presented quite different puppets in Hystopolis' Ubu Roi. The Fox brought in top-drawer productions of two hot Broadway tickets, Rent and Chicago, then disappointed with a low-drawer, non-Equity, sketchily staged West Side Story and a King and I that, despite some fine voices, wasn't quite the Broadway replica it implied it was. If the Fox keeps up the quality of its offerings, it won't need to fight so hard against the threat of competition from a reopened Kiel Opera House.

The worst news of the year was the demise of the Muny 1st Stage, the latest in a growing list of midsized performance groups that have disappeared from the St. Louis scene. I hope the Goldenrod isn't about to sink too.

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