Capsule Reviews

Dennis Brown and Deanna Jent suss out local theater

The Ballad of Jesse James Joe Hanrahan's historical collage uses narration, songs, short scenes and monologues to tell the tale of the legendary bank and train robber. David Wassilak portrays the Bible-quoting Jesse, Hanrahan his Shakespeare-spouting brother Frank, while Larry Dell gives us Cole Younger and also a newspaper editor who cast the James brothers as heroes. Dell also adds excellent musical commentary, playing guitar and singing unrepentant Rebel songs with grit. Hanrahan wisely makes the characters interesting but not entirely sympathetic. Unfortunately the litany of dates slows the action, taking focus away from the characters' relationships. The 90-minute show ultimately reveals Jesse James to be neither Robin Hood nor terrorist, but rather a product of violent times. Presented by the Midnight Company through April 9 at Technisonic Studios, 500 South Ewing Street. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and seniors). Call 314-773-1503 or visit www.midnightcompany.com.
(DJ)

Before It Hits Home Wendal, who has been living "on the down-low," returns to his family with the news that he is dying of AIDS. Cheryl West's play is seventeen years old, but this Black Rep production feels only slightly dated: Prejudice remains a divisive force. A.C. Smith delivers an achingly honest performance as Wendal's father, an ordinary man with a fierce love for his family and big dreams for their future. Smith is actively involved in each moment onstage, whether anxiously awaiting a gift, sparring with his sister-in-law or confronting his son. As Wendal, Eugene H. Russell IV moves convincingly from initial denial of his disease to a brutal confession of the loneliness and pain of his experience. Directed by Linda Kennedy, this production continues the necessary task of reminding us that facing our fears of that which is different or unknown is crucial for our families, our communities and our world. Through April 9 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $17 to $40 ($10 rush seats available for students, 10 minutes before showtime). Call 314-534-3810 or visit www.stlouisblackrep.com.
(DJ)

Humble Boy The Rep is operating on all cylinders to serve up a delicious offering of civility and intelligence. The gang's all here — Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia and the moody Dane himself, in the charmingly quirky presence of Chris Hietikko — in this seriously amusing modern riff on Hamlet. The comedy-drama is set in a voluptuously overgrown rose garden that's more Eden than Elsinore. If the script itself is also somewhat overgrown, by evening's end a play that begins with news of death and disappearance is revealed as a resounding affirmation of life and restoration. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in the Studio Theatre through April 9 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $31 to $48 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10 respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
(DB)

King Lear Reviewed in this issue.

Menopause The MusicalThis sassy musical review parodies songs of the '60s and '70s, focusing on issues of aging and hormone imbalance (to give you an idea: A disco medley includes "Night Sweating" and "Stayin' Awake"). Sandra Benton is a powerhouse singer whose Tina Turner brings down the house. Brooke Davis scores with "Puff the Magic Dragon" and Lee Anne Mathews delivers a sultry "Tropical Hot Flash," while Rosemary Watts has fun with the raciest number, a tribute to self-love. The only problem with music director Joe Dreyer's slick 90 minutes is that it's too loud. Open-ended run at the Playhouse at West Port Plaza, 635 West Port Plaza (second level), Page Avenue and I-270, Maryland Heights. Tickets are $44.50. Call 314-469-7529 or visit www.playhouseatwestport.com.
(DJ)

String of Pearls So there's this peripatetic strand of pearls that, like a yellow Rolls-Royce or a red violin, travels through decades and across continents till it returns to its original owner. Along the way, the mostly present-tense, intermissionless script by Michele Lowe shamelessly plays into every bald emotion. There's enough sex and death here to spice up a half-dozen melodramas. Six actresses portray twenty-seven characters, and as often as not they're playing too old or too young. (It's what actors call stretching.) The challenge for director Kathleen Singleton is to try to instill some variety into these presentational monologues, but most of it comes off like an evening of crowd-pleasing audition pieces. Performed by the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts through April 9 at Stage III (in Webster Hall), 470 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students, seniors and alumni; free for Webster students and staff). Call 314-968-7128. or visit www.webster.edu.
(DB)

The Sugar Syndrome Reviewed in this issue.

Topdog/Underdog The Touhill's Anheuser Busch Performance Hall offers everything you could hope for in a theater: intimacy, comfort, acoustics. So what a kick it must be for UMSL students Kyle Robinson and Kelly Henton to be performing Susan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, not in the black box theater behind the main stage, but rather on the Big Enchilada itself. Both actors prove worthy of the honor. As Booth and Lincoln, two brothers trying to make a go of life on the streets of New York, Robinson and Henton deliver powerhouse performances that seem natural rather than flashy. In what is normally a two-character play, the flash is provided by Ritchie Crawford and Stephen Perkins, two R&B vocalists who've been added to the show. Performed through April 8 by the UM-St. Louis theater department at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UM-St. Louis campus (1 University Drive at Natural Bridge Road). Tickets are $6 to $12. Call 314-516-4949 or visit www.touhill.org.
(DB)

Witness for the Prosecution Isn't it ironic that Agatha Christie's most famous title owes its celebrity not to the play itself (which is almost never staged) but rather to the droll 1957 film version directed by Billy Wilder, who knew how to make mystery fun? As in any Christie whodunit, there are surprises in this account of the murder trial of a young man accused of bludgeoning his patroness. But it's a long wait and a lot of talk before the payoff arrives. Most of the evening is dull stuff, executed by a playwright who knew a lot less about stage structure than she thought she did. Produced by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 14 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $13 to $61 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10, respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.
(DB)

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