By Lynn Venhaus

Supple vocal work stands out in Tesseract’s latest premiere, “My Heart Says Go,” a hip-hop-meets-pop musical well-suited for the company’s enthusiasm in mounting energetic ensembles.

But inconsistent sound quality, a louder-decibel pre-recorded music track overpowering the singers, and a cliché-riddled script hampered its impact.

Always dynamic Kevin Corpuz anchors this one-act musical as Indigo, a conflicted first-generation college student who quits to pursue his dream of making music. He is often a ball of fire on stage, i.e. “The Who’s Tommy,” “Godspell,” “Be More Chill,” “Urinetown,” “In the Heights,” and “Altar Boyz,” and this role is tailor-made to his strengths.

Indigo’s hard-working immigrant father (Kelvin Urday) thinks he’s made a grievous error. Despite that friction, Indigo moves to L.A., and meets a couple of people whom he thinks will help him reach his singer-songwriter goals.

Indigo quickly connects with Clara (Sarah Wilkinson), a struggling talented fashion designer who has a troubled relationship with her alcoholic mother (Loren Boudreau).

Sarah Wilkinson matches Corpuz in spirit and inner light. Their buoyancy, particularly in their emphatic movements, is tangible.

Clayton Humburg, Kevin Corpuz, Sarah Wilkinson. Photo by Florence Flick.

Bright spots are “What Does My Heart Say?” and “The Place Where Dreams Come True”; “Don’t Give Up” is a rousing finale.

Another vibrant portrayal is by Clayton Humburg as a lively rapper named Timmy, a guy brimming with positivity who assumes the role as Indigo’s biggest cheerleader.

While he doesn’t look that much older than Corpuz, Urday is touching as the concerned single father Eliseo, and the two bring out the emotions of a close dad-son bond in several heartfelt scenes and vocals (“Father vs. Son,” “Heat of the Moment” and “Foot Down”). Urday’s musical numbers are beautifully delivered, as is customary.

Victoria Pines is a soulful vocalist as a train conductor, and some sort of conduit to the characters. Her part, however, is underdeveloped and unclear how she connects to these people long after they rode the train. She shines in “Find Your Voice.”

The book is the weakest element of this show, and really drags down the overall experience. The characters are merely archetypes, and if the main characters weren’t live-wire performers, this would be painfully humdrum.

The book, written by Matthew Hawkins, overflows with triteness. How many times are aspiring artists used in hopes-and-dreams scenarios? This isn’t all that original, and nothing we haven’t seen before. Follow your passion, overcome obstacles, believe in yourself, blah blah blah. Must be compelling to sustain interest and empathy, and because of the cast’s talent, it is..

Dreams are such a theatrical staple that the brilliant satire “The Musical of Musicals” has a song called – what else? — “Follow Your Dream.”

Hey, having dreams fuels our fires, and any chance to remind people to persist following their heart is well-intentioned. But freshness is the key for endearment.

Wilkinson, Loren Goudreau. Photo by Florence Flick.

For an example, the addict mom is an unnecessary subplot, and you can predict her story arc the minute she enters. Both Pines’ conductor and Kevin Hester’s grungy recording studio engineer seem like they are characters in another show. Hester’s a fine vocalist, but he mumbled his speaking lines and barely spoke above a whisper, so his dialogue was hard to hear.

While everyone is earnest, the ensemble doesn’t seem to be well-defined either. They are a bouncy group, nevertheless – Khristian Duncan, David Gregory, Laura Schulze, and Goudreau are spry in song and dance.

Milo Garlich was out because of illness Sunday, so choreographer Maggie Nold stepped in, and didn’t miss a beat.

Grace Langford aces a brief role as a heart doctor supervising Indigo in med school.

The performers’ passion carries this show across the 90-minute finish line, as well as the music direction by Larry D. Pry and Nold’s choreography.

The sunny coupling of Wilkinson and Corpuz is natural, as they were last seen together as Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince in New Jewish Theatre’s award-winning “Into the Woods” in November, and so was Pines as Jack’s Mom. Pry was the musical director of that show. Obviously, that’s a winning combination.

Other than the disappointing script, a major problem stemmed from the technical elements. The garbled sound was challenging, with echoes and reverbs marring vocals, and most of the time the recorded music overpowered the vocalists. Sound designer Ryan Day is familiar with The Marcelle, so I am not sure why there were so many issues.

The blocking where characters had scenes far back made it even harder to engage, because the sound was such a mixed bag. The lighting overall was inconsistent and shadowy, and again, another experienced Marcelle technician, Matt Stuckel, oversaw the design. The neon lights on the back wall, however, were a nifty touch.

Director Brittanie Gunn relied on simple staging to focus on the characters’ journeys. By using the entirety of The Marcelle stage, it seemed at times too cavernous for such a small musical. Nevertheless, she maintained a zippy pace, with smooth entrances and snappy group placings.

The score of this show is based on the personal experience of Jorge “Jay” Rivera-Herrans, who switched from pre-med to the film, television and theater department as a student at University of Notre Dame. After graduation, he received a fellowship, continued pursuing his ideas, and the school served as his incubator.

No one doubts his ardor or sincerity. The musical premiered in 2023 and has become a viral sensation. I imagine that’s largely on the strength of the musical being a celebratory anthem because the story should be further workshopped, and characters more fleshed out.

Kelvin Urday, Kevin Corpuz. Photo by Florence Flick.

One of the show’s highlights is the costume design by Abby Pastorello, who either found or made embroidered denim jackets and shirts to give a unique flair to Clara’s original designs. Those outfits were a bright addition to an otherwise scruffy group wearing band T-shirts and casual attire. In contrast were fashionista Clara’s well-put together looks, especially a bedazzled black leather ensemble that Wilkinson rocked.

This show has a shaggy charm, not unlike Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early one-act endeavor “21 Chump Street,” but on the off-the-charts inspiring meter, it lags behind “tick, tick…Boom!” “Dreamgirls,” “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical,” and many others as a whole package.

Of course, this is on a much smaller scale, and targeted to tug at your heart strings. It is a labor of love for all involved.

In recent years, Tesseract has taken more risks with musical premieres, such as “The Mad Ones,” “Ordinary Days,” and the upcoming original “Cascade’s Fire,” and tackled big shoes with “Kinky Boots” and “The Last Five Years.” Their ambitious drive is refreshing.

Hopefully, the technical director Kevin Sallwasser can get the glitches worked out this week before the show returns. The production already has a first-rate cast that it showcases fervently.

(As an aside, many a show presented in the smaller Grand Center venues has been known to have sound issues, aka at The .Zack and The Grandel. If these venues encourage stage productions, doesn’t it behoove the facilities’ powers-at-be to upgrade sound technology? We critics are beginning to sound like broken records.)

Victoria Pines as the Conductor, surrounded by the ensemble. Photo by Florence Flick.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “My Heart Says Go” July 11 – July 21, as part of its Summer Festival of New Musicals at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center. Performances are July 11-13 and July 20 at 8 p.m., and July 14-21 at 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.tesseracttheatre.com

By Lynn Venhaus

Epic in scope and intimate in execution, Tesseract Theatre Company’s “The Inheritance” Part I is a monumental achievement that leaves one exhilarated and eagerly anticipating Part 2.

A rich tapestry of yearning, desire, melancholy, fear, joy, hope, community, and love is written vividly and perceptively by Matthew Lopez.

This Tony and Olivier-Award winning play is surprising in its wit and depth of feeling as we’re hit with this tsunami of talent meeting moment after moment.

This magnum opus on what it’s like to be gay in America is boldly directed by Stephen Peirick and seamlessly acted by a passionate ensemble that radiates charm and conviviality.

It takes place decades after the AIDS epidemic while three generations of gay men grapple with those past tragedies, and the legacies of shame, secrets, and loss, especially at a time when hard-fought rights are available, yet shifting political tides make them vulnerable.

 What does it mean for the future? Intertwining a sprawling cast of 13, Lopez examines healing, survival, what home means and a class divide, inspired by E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howards End.”

Because Forster examined class differences and hypocrisy in British society in the early 20th century, so does Lopez project his characters in the early 21st century.

Alex C Moore plays Morgan and Walter. Photo by FF.

Moments of grace and laughter abound as the knotty entanglements of life unfold. Lopez tackles the complexities we all face, connecting characters, ambitions and eras in a swirling, dizzying, fantastical way. It is specific to the LGBTQIA+ experience, but allies will be able to relate.

Where to begin with this marathon of a show that defies conventions and embraces universal truths?

Employing an uncommon structure, Lopez nimbly name drops in a dishy soap-opera way, using familiar – and amusing — pop culture references, while being profound about generational experiences with textured, novelist flourishes.

The production’s 7-hour runtime may be daunting, but do not be intimidated by its two parts. Yes, it is a commitment, but the rewards are vast, especially when everyone involved has given their all, and it shows.

Part 1, which is from Summer 2015 to Spring 2017, is 3 hours and 10 minutes. The first act is 75 minutes, followed by a 15-minute intermission, then the second act is 55 minutes, followed by a 10-minute intermission, and final piece of Part 1 is 52 minutes.

Part 2, which is set from Spring 2017 to Summer 2018, is 3 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission and a brief pause. I look forward to returning to find out what’s happening with these people.

Keeping the momentum was obviously Peirick’s goal, and it is riveting from start to finish, never sagging.

However, the way the multi-layered show is structured is an investment, as it has many moving parts and themes that intersect. Sure, it’s imperfect, but hello…

It takes a broad canvas and narrows it down, starting in a classroom, where out-and proud gay men in their 30s are instructed by E.M. Forster, known as “Morgan,” to shape their own stories.

Gabriel Paul as Toby and Chris Kernan as Eric. Photo by FF.

Yes, the legendary author Edward Morgan Forster, who lived from 1879 to 1970, and besides “Howards End,” wrote the novels “A Room with a View” and “A Passage to India,” all later adapted into Merchant and Ivory films.

This is a conceit that is a master stroke, and not far-fetched. While the contemporary characters here chastise Morgan for hiding his sexuality publicly as a gay man – homosexual acts in private weren’t decriminalized until he was 83 – he is a guiding light.

According to biographical data, in 1963, Forster wrote: “How annoyed I am with society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges…that might have been avoided.”

While that is not forgotten, he never gave up on love and believed all his life that “the true history of the human race is the history of human affection.”

So, it’s no wonder that this play is based on his 343-page “Howards End,” demonstrating empathy and understanding, and especially with the full-circle motto: “Only connect.”

In “The Inheritance,” Morgan’s advice comes from a place of love and wisdom. In a preternatural performance, Alex C. Moore navigates the role like a captain on a ship, respected and in command. He’s an imposing, mesmerizing figure in dual roles.

“One may as well begin with Toby’s voice mails to his boyfriend,” he says with confidence, and the students appear to begin making up the work as they go along.

Toby at the disco. Photo by FF.

The interconnectedness of the characters is engrossing. Political activist Eric Glass is cultured and likes bringing people together. He’s mindful of making a difference in the world and his heritage. Chris Kernan plays him as committed but easygoing.

His boyfriend, aspiring playwright Toby Darling, is reckless and hedonistic, drawn to the limelight and lives in the moment. Gabriel Paul’s performance bristles with electricity — he’s a hot spring of emotion, giving off Icarus vibes.  

They are the main couple, but the secondary pair are two older, longtime companions –
Walter Poole and Henry Wilcox – wealthy gentlemen with social graces and an enviable lifestyle. Jon Hey as the capitalist billionaire Henry and Moore, as Walter, the caretaker/partner, ingratiate themselves as learned men of money and manners.

In another dual role, a captivating Tyson Cole is Adam, a flirtatious and adventurous rich kid who disrupts Eric and Toby’s lives.

For all of Toby’s faux bravado, there is an undercurrent of turbulence and mystery, particularly when Toby is drawn to a street hustler, Leo, also played by Cole. Paul’s intense Toby, as troubled as he is, driven by fame and his libido, is a remarkable achievement in complexity.

Cole superbly manages to play both his roles surreptitiously, distinguishing them in subtle ways. In his Prague monologue, he shows exceptional bravery.

Lopez has created a circle of friends that feels like a warm cocoon, in a way that Mart Crawley’s play “The Boys in the Band” couldn’t in 1968, or wasn’t, in its 2018 revival. They are a Greek chorus, not unlike Bobby’s married friends in the Sondheim musical “Company.”

It’s that dichotomy – outside in a not-so-kind world, and inside their sanctuary that is contrasted so sharply.

Through overlapping dialogue, the actors establish characters and their place in Eric and Toby’s orbit, while Kernan anchors this landscape. Eric has fostered a supportive environment, and now his life is topsy-turvy in both unexpected and anticipated ways.

He traverses the slab stage to center it as his family homestead, and then deals with all the aggravations of ‘being.’

Photo by FF.

A sweet friendship between Walter and Eric develops, and their conversations are lovely reminders of the people we meet on our journey, and how they influence our thoughts and deeds.

Howards End was the name of a country house in the novel, and a similar property is prominent in this play. It takes on different emotional and sentimental meanings, which is another interesting aspect, and best not be spoiled in a review. Its impact is earned in ending Part I.

Peirick’s scenic design expands on the blossoms of a significant cherry tree, and he has placed artwork based on several photos he took during his NYC travels on the walls, pointedly referencing the Bethesda Fountain at Central Park.

One of my favorite flavors of this show is that New York City is also a character, for it’s as much a love letter to the island as it is a contemplation on the big picture.

Lopez’s dialogue reminds one of NYC’s lure, of its magical quality as the center of the universe, its unparalleled cultural offerings, and its encapsulation of hopes and dreams.

“Every summer, waves of college graduates wash up on its shores to begin the struggle toward success and achievement,” one character says, and as the mother of two sons who did just that, it resonated.

Of course, people will compare this to the landmark “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” whose two parts “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” opened on Broadway in 1993. After all, its themes are metaphorical and symbolic as it explored AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s.

“The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer is another touchstones – addressing the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City between 1981-1984.

These bellwethers inform and add emotional depth to this exercise, for advocacy isn’t confined to the past, a crucial message.

Tyson Cole is Adam and Leo. Photo by FF.

Warning to the audience: Because part of the show takes place in 2016 with social liberals re-enacting election night shock (and for some, horror), that could conjure up some “things.”

Depictions of relationships include frank dialogue and stylized moves for sexual encounters. Adam’s lengthy explicit monologue about a euphoric erotic experience in a gay bathhouse in Prague leads to a terrifying realization of the danger of unprotected sex, and immediate action with PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, medicine taken to prevent HIV).

The supporting players are lively and animated, and transform into whatever they are tasked with, which adds to the show’s unique appeal. For instance, Kevin O’Brien shifts into two parts as one of Henry’s spoiled entitled sons and Eric’s fiery progressive activist boss Jasper.

Kelvin Urday and Nic Tayborn are funny as an anxious singular-focused couple expecting a baby through a surrogate. Jacob Schmidt and Sean Seifert are young Walter and Henry. Stephen Henley is the other spoiled entitled son of Henry. Donald Kidd is Tristan and Margery Handy is Margaret, and they both factor into Part 2.

While the subject matter is serious, levity is present, including a whole discussion on whether camp is necessary as an ostentatious example of gay-ness.

This massive undertaking has involved the outstanding skill sets of many local technicians – lighting designer Tony Anselmo, sound designer Jacob Baxley, technical director Kevin Sallwasser, assistant director Dani Mann, stage manager Rachel Downing, production manager Sarah Baucom and dialect coach Mark Kelley – and their accomplishments are noteworthy.

Part I is an extraordinary piece of theatre, enhanced by its fully alive cast and the creative team’s commitment to telling truths in this special way. “Only connect” is a good motto to leave a theater with, where you just saw brilliance shine.

The Inheritance cast. Photo by FF.

This production is for mature audiences. May contain mature themes, language, nudity, sexuality, violence, satire and/or progressive ideas.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Inheritance, Parts I and 2” April 26 – May 5 at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. Part 1 is presented Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. April 28. Part 2 is presented Thursday and Friday, May 2 and 3, at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on May 5. Both Parts 1 and 2 are presented on Saturday, May 4, with Part 1 at 2 p.m. and Part 2 at 7: 30 p.m.

For tickets, visit: https://www.metrotix.com/events/detail/the-tesseract-theatre-company-the-inheritance

St. Louis, MO (March 4, 2024) – A new musical written for students at the Missouri University of Science & Technology will have a brief run in New York City this month before having its World Premiere at the Tesseract Theatre Company in St. Louis this July.

Cascade’s Fire, a modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone story, was written by Taylor Gruenloh and Kyle Wernke, professors at Missouri S&T.

“The students at this university,” Gruenloh says, “are super bright and drawn to creative adventures. Like other theatre programs at schools across the country, we came out of the pandemic swinging and haven’t slowed back down yet.”

Gruenloh and Wernke’s Cascade’s Fire had a workshop production on the campus of Missouri S&T in October 2023. Since the university doesn’t have a theatre major, the acting ensemble featured students studying in majors like engineering management, physics, education, and biological science.

“It was a staggeringly new experience,” said David Pisoni, a chemical engineering major. “Not only do you get to go through the rehearsal process with the writer and composer of the piece, but you’re approaching it with completely fresh eyes.”

Cascade’s Fire sees the character of Cascade return to her old college campus looking for answers after the death of her ex-girlfriend.

Taylor Gruenloh

The same cast from the October production will travel with the show to New York this month.

“It has always been a dream of mine to perform in New York,” said Madison Kastner, an education major. “I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do the thing I love.”

While the student actors perform Cascade’s Fire during the evenings at Under St. Marks Theatre in the East Village, Gruenloh will be escorting them to career related activities during the day.

“Not only do these few students get to perform a new musical in New York, the university is helping send a larger student group with us to visit an entertainment engineering firm, talk with technical theatre professionals, and seeing a new Broadway show.”

Gruenloh says it’s his mission at Missouri S&T to showcase pathways for engineering students to achieve careers in the arts. “A lot of students came in around the start of the pandemic, thinking they weren’t going to have many opportunities in theatre, thinking this school only championed STEM activities, and now they’re taking a show to the busiest theatre city in the world.”

Cascade’s Fire won’t stop after the brief run in New York. St. Louis’ Tesseract Theatre Company will produce the musical’s official World Premiere as part of their 2024 New Musical Summer Fest in July.

Gruenloh has a strong history with Tesseract Theatre, co-founding the company in 2012 with current Creative Director Brittanie Gunn. Gruenloh stepped away from the company in August last year to focus on building the theatre program at Missouri S&T. “We’re excited to bring Taylor back,” said Kevin Corpuz, a Creative Director at Tesseract. “To share his new musical with St. Louis audiences is very special and we can’t wait to get started.”

While the St. Louis production of Cascade’s Fire will have a new cast at Tesseract for the World Premiere, the titular role of Cascade will be played by Josie Schnelten, who originated the role in October and will lead the show in New York this month.

“I never thought that I’d get the opportunity to bring a brand-new character to life,” said Schnelten, an engineering management major at Missouri S&T. “It’s been special to work on Cascade from her very beginnings and I cannot wait to be a part of her professional debut in St. Louis.”

The Tesseract Theatre Company will run Cascade’s Fire July 19 – 24 at the Marcelle Theatre in Midtown St. Louis. The 2024 New Musical Summer Fest will also feature My Heart Says Go, a show about a first-generation college student, Indigo, who defies his father and drops out of medical school to become a singer-songwriter.

Gruenloh, who is directing Cascade’s Fire in St. Louis, said, “This is the best possible outcome for this little experiment. I wanted to give the theatre students at Missouri S&T a taste of new play development, the bragging rights of originating roles in a musical, but the support from the university and the excitement at Tesseract Theatre has made this project a years long journey that is leaving a lot of people with some great memories.”

By Lynn Venhaus

An 18-year-old girl in a car. Life looms large at that age, so much ahead, not much in the rear-view mirror. Is she ready to embark on her journey?

The expertly produced “The Mad Ones” from Tesseract Theatre captures those feelings –that yearning for experiences and the exhilaration of the possibilities about the road ahead, but also wanting to leave the past behind. And regrets, we’ve all had a few.

The show, first produced in 2017, formerly known as “The Unauthorized Biography of Samantha Brown,” focuses on that moment when you prepare to leave home – off to college or work or other adventures – and the memories that flood your brain during a turning point. What does Samantha do when people around her give advice? And how can she move on when certain things hold her back?

Ensemble. Photo by Florence Flick

As besties Samantha and Kelly, Melissa Felps as the smart one and Grace Langford as the wild one sing their hearts out in Kait Kerrigan and Bree Loudermilk’s off-Broadway musical theatre sensation. This contemporary drama is laced with humor and isn’t going for easy answers or tying things up neatly, but rather a process of discovery, which can feel overwrought because of the intense material.

This four-person show taps into choices, grief, and loss, and how the detours of life just force us off the road – even when we’re just getting started. Three of the four performers make their Tesseract debut, in line with the company’s mission to include fresh voices and new perspectives. (Langford was seen earlier this year in “The Last Five Years.”)

While Felps and Langford, both tremendous belters, are a dynamic duo as the oh-so-dramatic BFFs, Sarah Gene Dowling as Sam’s mom Beverly and Cody Cole as Sam’s boyfriend Adam are also noteworthy.

Dowling conveys warmth and wisdom as sometimes overbearing Beverly, strong in her touching “Miles to Go” solo, and zealous in “I Know My Girl” accompanied by the ensemble. Cole, while not on stage that much, works to make dim-bulb Adam more than the one-note character as written. His “Run Away with Me” reveals a tender side.

Sarah Gene Dowling and Melissa Felps. Photo by Florence Flick.

The characters are rather sketchily drawn, but the performers work overtime to make them relatable. The book could use some tweaking – as the non-linear story arc can be clunky in disclosure and sometimes murky.

However, the propulsive songs are exceptionally expressive, and the ensemble delivers them with a deeply felt commitment, especially “Moving On,” “Drive” and “Remember This.” They have fun introducing themselves in “We’re Just in Your Head.”

Once dialed in, the production is more than crossroads and “On the Road” references (title included). No need for spoiler alert– but expect life to happen while they’re busy making other plans.

Felps, in her best performance to date, exhibits plenty of verve, but also frets in the way that teenage girls do, with moms and boyfriends to deal with – and with a pesky live-wire best friend judging her decisions and nudging her out of her comfort zone.

Her poignant delivery of “The Girl Who Drove Away” and “There Was a Party” aptly captures her impassioned but sensible valedictorian character, while she excels in the duets, smoothly collaborating with her partners.

With Cole as the not-as-intelligent beau, the couple is playful in “Simple as That,” funny in “The Proposal,” and sweet and hopeful in “Say the Word.”

The mother-daughter relationship is humorously captured in “My Mom Is a Statistician” while she’s learning to drive, a running plot point.

Cody Cole, Melissa Felps, Grace Langford. Photo by Florence Flick.

But the calling card here is puckish Langford and earnest Felps’ stupendous harmony. Their heartfelt vocals are best in a song grappling with life’s blows – “Ordinary Senior Year,” and revisiting memories and dreams in “Freedom.” They really have fun with “Top Ten” – you must listen to the lyrics. (A dig about Sting’s musical?! Hilarious. More Sting jokes to come (?!)

Both high-spirited actresses have worked together before, in a regional production of “Urinetown” in summer 2022, and they have an easy chemistry that allows their characters to resonate emotionally. The two singers reach a zenith with their power in “Go Tonight” (written as a shouting match, it seems – some of the bombastic delivery could have been more nuanced to mix up the intensity).

Lyricist Kerrigan and composer Loudermilk’s musical has inspired a cult-like following, in a similar way that “Dear Evan Hansen” did in 2017. As this work has been in development for many years, several numbers went viral on YouTube. More than 15,000 pieces of digital music from the score have already been sold since 2009.

The work of high-octane director-choreographer-performer Kevin Corpuz, a big fan of Kerrigan-Loudermilk, always has an energy to it, and in his directorial debut, has maintained a noticeable momentum in The Marcelle space. The staging, to use a driving reference (that are plentiful in this show), has muscular power.

Music Director Joe Schoen’s interpretation of the score has both a fleetness and a sleekness to it, with Schoen conducting and playing keyboard, and superb sound from Adam Rugo on guitar, Chuck Evans on violin, and Zach Neumann on a second keyboard.

The creative crew has contributed to outstanding production values – Jacob Baxley on sound design, Brittanie Gunn on lighting design, and Todd Schaefer’s striking scenic design that allows a fluidity, while Stage Manager Sarah Baucom keeps the action smooth.

Photo by Florence Flick.

Gunn, co-founder and creative director, and Corpuz, also creative director, are ushering in a new era at the 12-year-old Tesseract that promises to be exciting as they reach new goals with musical productions and continue their commitment to new voices with their summer play festival.

“The Mad Ones” is a crowd-pleasing choice after positive response to “Kinky Boots,” “Ordinary Days,” and “The Last Five Years,” yet still taking risks and meeting challenges. Next up is “The Inheritance,” the 2020 Tony Award winner for Best Play, in April, New Musical Summer Fest in July, and the musical “Anastasia” in November 2024.

In the iconoclastic words of Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or a saw a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Mad Ones” Nov. 3-12, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. at The Marcelle, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr, St. Louis, 63103, in Grand Center. The show is 1 hour, 40 minutes, without intermission. For more information, visit the website: www.tesseracttheatre.com

Melissa Felps as Samantha. Photo by Florence Flick

By Lynn Venhaus

With its energetic and appealing cast of six, and its earnest mission from a buzzy contemporary playwright, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” is a fine example of Tesseract Theatre Company’s commitment to fresh voices and perspectives.

It was written when the promising storyteller Kristoffer Diaz was in college but produced after his acclaimed 2009 play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Diaz incorporated an American Dream theme in this dramatic comedy about the wrestler Macedonio Guerra, and it also won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2011.

Here, Diaz focuses on dreams, stressing community and touching on family, art, grief, loss, and his Latino culture.

Underscored with a lively hip-hop beat, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” is set on New York City’s Lower East Side in 2004. Victor Mendez portrays with conviction the industrious Alejandro Arroyo, whose dream is to convert the space where his late mother ran a bodega/deli for 20 years into a neighborhood bar/lounge that could become a cultural hot spot, but so far, not going so well.

The hard-working Al is at odds with his younger sister Amalia, aka Molly, who is full of anger and rebellion, and spray-paints graffiti outside the 7th precinct police station. Remi Mark conveys her character’s agitation and how mad at the world she is.

She courts trouble, he wants a better life. They are both dealing with the loss of their mother and will meet people who result in changes in direction for them.

Her unexpected love interest? Derek, a rookie police officer who recently moved to the area. He’s nice to her when she is mean to him, and Marshall Jennings is effective playing the concerned guy trying to understand her.

Al’s romantic attraction is to Lelly, a quirky college student tracing the history of a Puerto Rican woman that played a big part in hip-hop music. Could their mother have been one of its founders? Based on her research, Lelly seems to think that 20 years ago, she was the first female hip-hop DJ. Hannah de Oliveira brings out Lelly’s passion for her work.

Two DJs, Nelson and Trip, are Alejandro’s pals who hang out at the bar, and act as narrators sharing this fangirl theory, tying it all together. Kevin Corpuz (Nelson) and Jacob Schmidt (Trip) are the high-spirited rappers devoted to getting the party started, and they succeed in engaging audience members, who are eager to follow their direction. Corpuz’ enthusiasm is always contagious, and their contributions are easily the most relatable aspect of the show.

While heartfelt, Diaz’s play, however, seems incomplete, and the characters aren’t as developed as they could be for us to really care about them and be drawn into the scenario.

Nevertheless, director Brittanie Gunn worked well with an exuberant cast of four men and two women who give their all to pull us into the narrative. There is much goodwill here for what they are trying to accomplish with this show and the people involved.

The main problem with staging at the .Zack is its challenging acoustics, which have been problematic since it opened, some more pronounced than others. On the plus side, Corpuz and Schmidt have individual microphones, and Mark is loud as Molly, but de Oliveira is, at times, hard to hear as Lelly, although she is animated in her performance. Usually, in Tesseract’s previous shows staged there, it wasn’t an issue, but the uneven sound detracts.

Diaz appears destined to be a powerful presence in American theater. Besides writing plays, he is an academic – an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has worked in television.

Diaz went on to write the book for “Hercules,” the stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by David Zippel, which was presented at The Public Theatre in 2019.

For television, Díaz adapted Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent” into the 2019 live show on Fox and was the editor for Season 1 of “GLOW” on Netflix in 2017.

Tesseract gives this playful production a celebratory feel, and with its dedicated creatives, will likely continue its commitment to diverse talents and plays with something to say. And those are reasons to rejoice.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents “Welcome to Arroyo’s” April 28 – May 7, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust St., in Grand Center. For more information, visit the website: www.tesseracttheatre.com

This play contains adult language and themes.

Corpuz, Schmidt, Jennings

By Lynn Venhaus

Jason Robert Brown’s musical compositions are strenuous and so are two-character pieces, therefore, “The Last Five Years” was a daunting choice for the enterprising Tesseract Theatre Company as they dive into musical theater endeavors.

However, the group pulled off this marriage chronicle with aplomb when I saw it Feb. 19.. With spirited performers, exemplary musicians, accomplished direction, and smart creative choices, “The Last Five Years” is splendid.

With its all-sung framework and an unconventional structure, Brown’s unforgettable score and emotionally powerful lyrics tug at the heartstrings, for in 85 minutes, they go from meeting to break-up (Jamie Wellerstein) and from break-up to meeting (Cathy Hiatt), intersecting at their wedding.

High praise must be bestowed on an exceptional five-piece orchestra lead by veteran maestro Leah Schultz, who is on piano, with Adam Rugo on guitar, John Gerdes on bass, Chuck Evans on violin, and Marie Brown on cello. (The strings are the cherry on top here, lovely and lush.)

The music is beautiful to get lost in, and highlights are “The Next Ten Minutes,” “Still Hurting,” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.”

While this might sound like a simple endeavor, it is not. Brown has incorporated many genres, including jazz, blues, folk, and Latin besides his usual pop-rock fusion with musical theatre. His distinctive melodies are notoriously difficult, and his atypical harmonies require a broad vocal range.

The two leads, Kevin Corpuz as Jamie and Grace Langford as Cathy, as dynamic as they are, struggle a wee bit on a few demanding notes.  Nevertheless, with the high wire singing for nearly an hour and a half, it’s a dandy achievement – especially the stamina required.

With their pizzazzy personalities on display, Corpuz and Langford are engaging as two New Yorkers – he’s a writer and she’s an actress. They convincingly convey a couple from start to finish over five years — exhilaration at falling in love to crestfallen going through a difficult break-up.

You can’t not be moved by the ebbs and flows as the storytelling weaves the doubts that 20-somethings fret about with careers and commitment.

The aching-yearning-worried songs include “Moving Too Fast” and “A Miracle Could Happen” (Jamie) and “I’m a Part of That” and “Climbing Uphill” (Cathy), which they deliver sincerely.

Langford, a strong vocalist who is well-trained, and Corpuz, who moves with great ease, have worked together multiple times in local regional professional theater, so their comfort level with each other is obvious. This is their first time paired as a romantic couple, and they are believable.

Director Taylor Gruenloh has given the piece some needed vitality, for I’ve seen this musical a couple of times where the pair just basically stand there. No, not a move you’d likely see from inventive Gruenloh, nor Corpuz or Langford. Gruenloh’s tweaked it in a good way, making it more heartfelt.

Lankford is particularly fetching in the clever ditty “A Summer in Ohio,” about her experience in summer stock away from her husband, and the humorous “I Can Do Better Than That,” about her hopes and dreams.

And Corpuz’s energy isn’t containable, so he must move. His “Shiksa Goddess” is amusing in a brazen way, a song detailing his character’s Jewish heritage.

The songs that are raw and tinged with sadness — “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” “I Could Never Rescue You,” and “Nobody Needs to Know,” have forceful solos.

Brown has won three Tony Awards – for his original score to “Parade” in 1999 (currently revived on Broadway) and for original score and orchestrations for “The Bridges of Madison County” in 2014. He was nominated for Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” score last year (with Amanda Green lyrics).

This musical, his third, was inspired by his first marriage, and premiered in Chicago in 2001. It moved to off-Broadway in 2002. St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz originated the role of Jamie in Chicago and played opposite Sherie Renee Scott off-Broadway, and they recorded the cast album.

That production won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, as well as receiving Drama Desk nominations for musical, actor, actress, orchestrations and set design. It also received Lucille Lortel Award nominations for musical and actor, and the Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Off-Broadway musical.

An enduring and popular musical with regional, colleges and community theaters, it has been revived on Broadway, turned into a 2015 movie with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, had an acclaimed London run, a 20th anniversary concert with Butz and original Cathy Lauren Kennedy, and directed by Brown, among other presentations.

The music remains hummable and memorable, and add Tesseract to the list of companies that do it right. Sound designer Phillip Evans has figured out .Zack’s finicky acoustics for flawless work, Brittanie Gunn’s lighting design is striking, and Gruenloh did fine projection work. Actress Josie Schnelten shows up for a cameo.

After their triumphant “Ordinary Days” last fall, and now this 2-hander, Tesseract’s prowess on staging musicals must be highly regarded. “Kinky Boots” is next up at the Grandel Theatre Aug. 17-27, one that will be a must-see.

And you don’t want to miss “The Last Five Years” – a show about love, produced with great affection, and another opportunity to hear those glorious songs.

The Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Last Five Years” from Feb. 17 to Feb. 26, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust, in the Grand Center. For more information or tickets, visit: www.tesseracttheatre.com.

 The Tesseract Theatre Company has changed leadership structures and announced its new team of Creative Directors.

Tesseract Theatre has followed the more traditional model of theatre administration for over a decade now, with an Artistic Director choosing production material, a Managing Director overseeing production operations, and an Executive Director tackling the administrative identity of the company.

The company is now switching to a more ‘open forum’ type of management structure with the addition of Kevin Corpuz. ”It opens up for more collaboration,” says Corpuz, “and allows us to work more in tandem to help shape the new direction of the company.”

The new direction of the company involving the addition of musicals, like last November’s production of Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days, something Tesseract never did in its first twelve years in St. Louis. “I found myself wishing the play would never end,” wrote Richard Green of Talkin’ Broadway of the production.


”We’ve always celebrated having a lot of voices in the room,” says Taylor Gruenloh, the founding Artistic Director of the company, now turned Creative Director alongside Corpuz, “but this feels more responsible. And guarantees a ‘check and balance’ system to everything. And not just to make sure that duties are being done and everything is done fairly in production, but that leadership can look out for one another, make sure everyone is still taking a breath and is reminded why we want to sacrifice our time to produce theatre in this community.”

Along with Gruenloh and Corpuz is Brittanie Gunn, a founding partner of the company. “We celebrate ensembles on our stage,” Gunn says, “and I think mirroring our management structure in a more ensemble-like fashion should allow us to find new experimental ways to take on production management and company administration.”

”I’m excited to help Tesseract do what it’s always done,” says Corpuz. “Which has been producing exciting shows in St. Louis. And I’m glad to help usher in the exploration of musical theatre inside this company.”

Corpuz will be featured in the musical The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown at Tesseract Feb. 17-26, directed by Gruenloh. And Gunn will be directing the hip-hop romance Welcome to Arroyo’s by Kristoffer Diaz this upcoming April. Both shows at the .Zack Theatre in Midtown on Locust.

Ordinary Days

The Tesseract Theatre Company is moving to the Marcelle Theatre with two new plays by local playwrights. The St. Louis premieres of “The Length of a Pop Song” by Taylor Gruenloh and “All That Remains” by JM Chambers will open in July.

“The Length of a Pop Song,” directed by Karen Pierce and featuring the cast of Rhiannon Creighton, Donna Parrone, and Kelvin Urday, will run July 8 – 17.

“All That Remains,” directed by Brittanie Gunn and featuring the cast of Luis Aguilar, Melody Quinn, Morgan Maul-Smith, Nyx Kaine, Sherard Curry, and Victor Mendez will run July 22 – 31.

Performances will be Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm.

The Length of a Pop Song by Taylor Gruenloh: Lex has no choice but to move back into her parent’s house after another incident of self-harm. Her mother wants to help prepare her for an upcoming trial against an adult website hosting non-consensual videos of Lex, but Lex can’t find a reason to look forward to tomorrow.

All That Remains by JM Chambers: Gary survives a school shooting and isn’t dealing with the trauma well. Gary’s wife Elaine is trying her best to hold it all together, take care of Gary, work, pay the bills, and deal with her own sadness. Gary and Elaine can’t go on living this way forever and soon they both reach a breaking point.

The Marcelle Theatre is located at: 3310 SAMUEL SHEPARD DRIVE, SAINT LOUIS, MISSOURI 63103

Tickets are available for both plays at MetroTix.com. $20 for general audience and $15 for students.

Questions can be sent to Tesseract Theatre at contact@tesseracttheatre.com

By Lynn Venhaus

It is tempting to use food metaphors to describe “Feast.” After all, we are the invited guests at a banquet presided over by a glamorous and flamboyant hostess, who appears to be gracious and welcoming.

The carefully crafted experience is not unlike a tasting menu prepared by a Michelin- starred chef. Playwright Megan Gogerty and dramaturg Melissa Trepa have deftly mixed textures and flavors to create bold statements and subtle undercurrents.

A St. Louis premiere, this unusual and provocative one-woman show is an ambitious work by the intrepid Gogerty, written in 2019. She has woven a tapestry using images of an ancient myth, revisionist thinking on the classic literature “Beowulf” and a cultural reckoning.

In an Old English epic poem set in the 6th century, the valiant Beowulf is lauded for his strength over demons and beasts. He has traveled to help a king whose hall is terrorized by a monster, Grendel. He slays Grendel and later kills his mother, but not before she has crushed an advisor, Aeschere, in retaliation. Later, the hero becomes king, ruling for 50 years, but is eventually defeated by a dragon. Despite his death, a feast goes on in his honor.

In one of her finest performances yet, a fiery Donna Parrone reveals a personal tale of vengeance, in vivid details. We witness a maelstrom of outrage, grief and feminist comeuppance as she seethes with anger – and is gleeful about her perceived victory against a mighty enemy.

This unnamed character, the “She” here, is mother to Grendel. She might be a magical mythological creature disguised as a middle-aged woman, trying to reconcile past actions. As she reflects on what she has done, there are greater implications regarding humanity.

At first, she comes across as mercurial, and as she discloses the reasons behind her rage, she delves deeper into her emotions, recalling past grievances. Hell hath no fury liked wronged mothers.

Gogerty, using the tragedy as power, makes the case that maybe Beowulf is not such a good guy after all – especially if you read between the lines and view it from the eyes of a mother.

The Tesseract Theatre Company, which specializes in presenting new plays in intimate settings, always has something to say – using drama to create a new point of view.

Maybe you haven’t thought about “Beowulf” since college. Perhaps you have never read it (I admit my ignorance). Even with the “Feast” reimagining, it’s worth knowing the basic plot — but you can enjoy the presentation as a newbie, especially as a universal truth about dominant male patriarchy and how society views motherhood.

That’s because director Shane Signorino, no stranger to the classics, has made sure the political overtones can be translated to the present. As we have sadly been forced to confront, authoritarianism isn’t just in the past. Kayla Bush is the assistant director.

Donna Parrone in “Feast”

Signorino moves Parrone all over the small space with purpose – pleading, scoffing, distressed. This woman refuses to be ignored. It’s one of those virtuoso portrayals where you are mesmerized by the nuances, the change in tempo and tone – and the interpretation of every mood and meaning.

This absorbing production is challenging in ways we have missed during the pandemic. Parrone demands that we listen. Quiet, please – there is a lady on stage! She has been wronged in the worst possible way. After the loss of a child, mothers have an unfathomable depth of sorrow, and this woman, on the periphery of a dark abyss, must be heard.

Parrone has specialized in strong women roles during the past few years, particularly at Tesseract, and one of her finest performances was as Lee Harvey Oswald’s controlling mother Marguerite in “Mama’s Boy” by Rob Urbanati, presented in the fall of 2018.

But this demanding role is on another level and requires a special reserve of stamina.

The technical elements – scenic and lighting design by Taylor Gruenloh and Brittanie Gunn, sound by Megan Barris, music – all create an atmosphere that is highly theatrical.

Watching Parrone’s physicality makes the show very real. She interacts with the audience, with some seated at a few tables, and in chair groupings. You can’t not be a part of the dinner party.

Yes, it’s serious – but it is inspired and not devoid of humor. Consider the presentation as food for thought. If you are hungry for an uncommon drama, “Feast” is worth tasting.

The play runs from June 11 to 27, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 4 p.m. Sundays at the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust. Tickets are available at MetroTix.com

You can request socially distanced seating, and they ask that your masks remain on during the performance for the safety of all patrons.