Beale Street Blues

One cannot but be ravished by Susan Dietz's person and persona in the role of Lyubov Andreyevna, an estate owner who cannot be bothered to do anything to hold onto it, even though losing it will mean poverty for her and her family. Both in exhalation and dejection, Dietz's body language and tuneful voice are the physical metronome to which all the others move. I was also struck by the compelling performances of Matt Huffman as Lopakhin, who rises from peasant's son to owner of the estate, and of James Andrew Butz as Trofimov, a no-longer-a-kid perpetual student who may be the only one who sees further than a few months into the future.

Geno A. Franco's set is consistently as practical as it is interesting; Frank McCullough's costumes are effective, especially for Ms. Dietz; Keith Evans' lighting and Marc Moore's sound are never intrusive and always helpful.

The Cherry Orchard continues through Feb. 28, in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, and those who like their theater to have some substance as well as theatrical competence really should not miss this uniformly first-class production. It's the best Cherry Orchard I've ever seen and, in its way, the best production of any play I've seen in St. Louis for a couple of years. Its director and young actors have my admiration and my gratitude.

-- Harry Weber

GLORY SOUNDS THROUGH ME: THE WOMEN OF GOSPEL
By Lori Reed
Historyonics Theatre Company

Glory Sounds Through Me is about music, the gospel music of the African-American church. The subject fits perfectly the way Historyonics treats material, combining spoken words drawn from the historical record with relevant period music. These words are all about the music and its makers; music and words mate seamlessly. Lori Reed's script places the music's development in the context of the great migration of blacks from Southern farms to Northern cities in the teens and '20s and of the Depression of the '30s. The piece reaches its emotional climax with Thomas Dorsey's singing of "Precious Lord," the piece he composed out of his agony when he lost both his wife, in childbirth, and the infant son she'd borne.

Alerica L. Anderson plays Dorsey, the father of gospel music, with wit and power. But Glory Sounds Through Me focuses especially on the mothers of gospel, the women whose powerful voices and skill at musical embellishment gave gospel singing the daredevil vocal thrills of baroque opera. Monica Parks plays Sallie Martin, one of Dorsey's earliest and most enthusiastic followers, a woman more noted for her ability to perform a song than sing it -- a difficult feat Parks pulls off delightfully. Hassie Davis smoothly narrates the evening and has fun playing some hidebound church singers. Jeane Mitchell-Carr brings a warm sense of humor and an incredible voice to her portrait of Mahalia Jackson. At the center of Glory Sounds Through Me stands St. Louis' own Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, in the person of Denise Thimes. As a friend said, "Well. Denise Thimes. She can sing and she can act. What more do you want?" Say amen, somebody.

-- Bob Wilcox

DO US PART
By Christopher Jackson
CJ Productions

Do Us Part is a terminally silly way to spend a little over an hour, and that's just the way its playwright, director and producer -- who all happen to be Christopher Jackson -- want it.

This thriller-comedy, Chris Jackson's newest theater piece, concerns the efforts of devoutly gay Jack (Justin Heinrich), with the aid of his unacknowledged best friend, Barry (Jeffrey Scott Yapp), to stop the marriage of his twink-fantasy best friend, Trevor (Adam Lewis), to Suzanne (Christy Butero) and show him what true love (whatever) is.

As in most Chris Jackson scripts, the gags (some of which make you do so, they're so corny) come at a rate of about 10 per second. This time, however, Jackson also descends to some comedy props that are so ridiculous you won't believe it till you see them. Mr. Heinrich camps to beat the band, and if you like this sort of humor, this play lets it flow like the Great Brown God.

As it stands, Do Us Part is not terribly substantial (cotton candy comes to mind), and some additions to hint at character development and stuff like that would banish the faint whiff of sitcom that hangs about.

But the night I was there, a full house consistently laughed at Do Us Part, and so did I.

-- Harry Weber

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