Those Were the Days

An entertaining look back at Gaslight Square, and a dated take on 9/11

Cool and Hip: Gaslight Square, The Guys

Cool and Hip: Gaslight Square- By Joe Dreyer. Performed by Historyonics Theatre Company through September 28 at the Des Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum, DeBaliviere and Lindell. Call 314-361-5858.

The Guys- By Anne Nelson. Performed by Barfly Theater through September 28 at Panama Red's Café & Saloon, 1909 Locust. Call 314-842-6684.

Seeing Cool and Hip: Gaslight Square made me think differently about St. Louis. Gaslight Square is our connection to the fickle world of fame. Our Midwest river city was once a haven for hipsters. We stroked the shoulder of Celebrity, and like most who worship at that altar, our ecstasy was brief.

But all that is much more philosophical than the production itself. Cool and Hip is a history lesson cleverly disguised as a music and comedy revue. With more than 30 songs plus comic routines from Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers, Stiller and Meara (and more), the show is almost guaranteed to succeed. All it needs is a talented, versatile cast -- and Dean Christopher, Kari Ely, Whit Reichert, Jeanne Trevor and Rosemary Watts deliver consistently. I was so entertained that I forgot I was learning something.

The intersection of Olive and Boyle was the birthplace of Gaslight Square, a place where beatniks began to gather in the mid-1950s. Quickly catching on as a cool place for artists, poets and the generally "hip" crowd to see and be seen, establishments like the Crystal Palace began presenting theater, jazz and edgy comedians. In the early '60s, Gaslight Square became a tourist attraction. Stars and future stars frequented the bars and stages, and author, musical director and pianist Joe Dreyer has chosen wisely from the outstanding songs and humor they provided.

Trevor, an original Gaslight Square performer, perches on a barstool next to Dreyer's piano and serves as a combination narrator and guardian angel for the production. Trevor refers to Gaslight Square as "the ghost that haunts St. Louis." She haunts us with her cabaret performances of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (written by St. Louisans Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf). Her presence grounds the performance in reality. She was there then, and is here now.

The variety of songs by a wide range of composers and lyricists (Mancini, Mercer, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ginsberg and Kerouac) are all so well performed that it's hard to single out highlights. Christopher swings through a Sinatra-like "Please Be Kind" in the first act and wows with a spot-on Tommy Smothers in the second. His comic impressions of Lenny Bruce and the exceptionally nervous Woody Allen are equally excellent. Ely is convincing as both the eighteen-year-old singing sensation Barbra Streisand and Webster Groves housewife and comedian Phyllis Diller. Reichert and Watts are a hilarious Stiller and Meara, as well as myriad other characters.

Dreyer admits in the program notes that he has focused on the fun and positive aspects of the Square; the darker side -- drugs, casual sex, the heartbreak of failing businesses -- is only lightly touched on in this family-friendly production. Lighting designer Justin Barisonek supports Dreyer's approach with a rainbow of backdrop colors, ranging from a lime and yellow sherbet swirl behind Ely and Watts singing "Twisted" to a deep raspberry to complement Trevor's jazzy ballads. Michele Friedman's costumes provide authentic '60s touches, from Christopher's two-tone shoes and pencil-thin tie to Ely's black-and-white dress splashed with a giant daisy. John Roslevich's whimsical set features signs from Gaslight Square establishments, warm wood-tone bar stools, a funky '60s easy chair and, of course, authentic-looking gaslights. The show is tied together by director Patton Chiles' brisk pacing and smooth staging.

Gaslight Square connected well with the opening-night audience -- there were numerous reactions from the crowd as characters like bartender Jack O'Brien were introduced and the currently popular restaurants Dressel's and O'Connell's were revealed as originating in Gaslight Square. The play ends with an all-cast rendition of "Days of Wine and Roses," a nostalgic tribute to Gaslight Square's hip heyday. It's a trip down memory lane for some, a pleasant history lesson for others and a fun night at the theater for all.

Like a firefighter responding to an emergency call, The Guys answered the cry of the theater community in the wake of 9/11. Based on personal experience, Anne Nelson quickly crafted a play in which a journalist (like herself) helps a fire chief write eulogies for four of his fallen men. Fueled by star power (Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray played the parts initially; other movie stars stepped into the roles later), this theatrical "first responder" provided theater therapy for its grieving audiences.

Barfly Theatre of St. Louis opened its production of The Guys on the second anniversary of 9/11, with Margeau Steinau and Rory Flynn as the journalist and the fire chief. As performed in the comfortable upstairs room of Panama Red's Café & Saloon, the play seems oddly dated, no longer a vital spokesperson for our anxiety. In fact, it's not really much of a play. Journalist Joan enters and speaks to us about her love for New York City and tells us her experience of the morning of September 11, 2001. "We all wanted to help, but we couldn't," she says. Her contribution is to help Fire Chief Nick in his struggle to write funeral speeches. The bulk of the play finds the two characters sitting in chairs, with Joan urging Nick to "Tell me more about Dave" (or Patrick or Jimmy or Barney) and reassuring him, "It will be all right." He tells about his men; she writes instantly perfect eulogies (I wish I could write reviews so quickly!) and in between their discussions of each of the four men, she stands and tells the audience her thoughts, emotions, reactions.

"People need to tell their stories!" she exclaims, and while I wouldn't deny this human truth, I would point out that watching someone tell a story to someone else isn't inherently interesting. While this talky, low-key play may have been precisely what was needed in the aftermath of 9/11, its lack of plot is a serious flaw today. The one theatrical moment in the play is a kind of dream ballet, where Joan and Nick connect in a surprising way and the potential of a new kind of relationship piques our interest. But too quickly they return to the formulaic interview-style dialogue and the detailing of other people's lives.

The actors inhabit their roles believably. When Flynn enters, a vacant stare in his eyes, his manila file folders clutched to his chest, we sense the maelstrom of emotions lurking beneath the surface. His understated performance is excellent and is contrasted nicely by Steinau's take-charge portrayal of Joan. Both actors are at their best in the final scene, a tennis match of alternating speeches, with Flynn in full-dress uniform on one side reading a eulogy and Steinau on the other side trying to make a bargain with God.

I feel a bit un-American criticizing a play about firefighters and 9/11. And because each person copes in her or his own way and time, it may be that this play is still therapeutic for some. I kept thinking: I remember when I felt like that, but I don't feel that way any more. Joan tells us that when she asked a friend whether life would ever return to normal, her friend replied, "Yes, but normal will be different." We're in that different normal now, where shoe inspections are a natural part of pre-flight activity, where being under a yellow terrorism alert seems like just another autumn day. The Guys reminds us of when the wounds were raw, when our outrage was fresh. As a historical document, it's important. It's a reminder of who we were then. But it doesn't raise any fresh insights or questions.

Barfly Theatre has taken a risk by presenting this serious play in a bar setting, and they've clearly worked hard to create a quality production. As we watched the play, laughter and shouts from the bar downstairs were heard. The characters onstage were grappling with ultimate questions of life and death while the patrons downstairs were cheering the Cards. Life has indeed gone on.

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