The Merchant of Venice St. Louis Shakespeare has opened its 25th season with one of the Bard's most-reinvented plays. (Is the moneylender Shylock an out-and-out villain or a wounded victim?) To add to the intrigue, the show is directed by Jerry Vogel, who played Shylock four years ago at New Jewish Theatre. That version at least took a point of view (Shylock as tragic figure). This staging is much less opinionated. Vogel adds lots of detailed touches to the telling, but he doesn't solve the big problems — like actors in key roles who don't seem to know what they're saying. Todd Gillenardo's Shylock is certainly loud, but the performance is either a victim of the Grandel's acoustics or simply too often muffled in delivery. Through July 26 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $25 (students $15, seniors $20). Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare.org. — Dennis Brown
The Music Man At age 52, Meredith Wilson's jaunty account of a flimflam man fleecing rural Iowa feels astonishingly fresh — perhaps because, in Act One especially, it is so musically challenging. It would be easy to pick at specific shortcomings in this week's Muny staging, but the whole is greater than the parts. There are sequences here ("Marian the Librarian" among them) that are sheer bliss, graceful moments that remind us both of the ambition that the American musical theater has lost in recent decades and of why the Muny has survived for 90 years. It doesn't get any better than listening to "76 Trombones" in Forest Park on a breezy 76-degree evening. Among the show's attributes, Kate Baldwin's clarion Marian adds yet another notch to her belt of faultless Muny performances, and James Anthony (who got shafted in the billing) once again delivers solid laughs as Mayor Shinn. James Clow's Harold Hill is more boy next door than duplicitous spellbinder. Even so, Clow's portrayal is so superior to that of the last actor who attempted the role at the Muny, it would be churlish to carp. Through July 26 at the Muny in Forest Park. In addition to the free seats, tickets are $9 to $66. Call 314-361-1900 or visit www.muny.org. (DB)
Nerve The perils of dating get another going over in Adam Szymkowicz's breezy comedy. Although this brief encounter between Elliot and Susan plays out at a table in a late-night bar, so much ground is covered it's as if the author is trying to compress the evolution of an entire relationship into one hour of delightful quirkiness. Colleen Backer and Charlie Barron make terrific sparring partners. He is a model of economy; she is so spontaneous, one has the right to wonder if this role was written especially for her. Performed by Echo Theatre through July 25 in Theatre 134 at the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza), Watson and Sappington roads. Tickets are $15 (students two for $20). Call 314-225-4329 or visit www.echotheatrecompany.org. (DB)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee America loves a winner — unless said winner is intelligent. If you're too smart, you're a dweeb. The seven children competing in the titular spelling bee are very intelligent winners, and very much social losers. But gathered together to compete against one another, each child discovers something about his or her individual weirdness that's worth treasuring. Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn celebrate the pariah in devastatingly funny songs. Scott Miller's production is exceptionally fine, exploiting the large laughs of the precociously confident William Barfeé (Nicholas Kelly), a mucously enhanced young man who lauds his magic spelling foot in a Busby Berkeley-esque fantasia (courtesy of choreographer Robin Michelle Berger). Miller just as deftly develops the quieter moments, such as parolee-cum-rules enforcer Mitch Mahoney (John Rhine), who sings of wanting to beat the children to teach them real pain, but instead hugs and comforts them. Because that's all anyone can do: Say "good job," and hope the vulnerable are resilient enough to take the punches when they come. Presented by New Line Theatre through August 8 at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road, Clayton. Tickets are $15 to $20 ($10 to $15 for students and seniors). Call 314-773-6526 or visit www.newlinetheatre.com. — Paul Friswold
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