By Lynn Venhaus

With its jaunty game-show music and kicky retro fashions, Moonstone Theatre Company’s staging of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” is a throwback to amiable, innocuous 1960s-era sitcoms.

Only the Wayback Machine hasn’t been kind to Simon’s first major success in 1963, a fluffy lighthearted comedy about a couple with opposite personalities starting married life. They live in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, which becomes a running gag.

A smash hit that ran four years on Broadway, the breezy trifle was directed by Mike Nichols, garnered four Tony nominations and he won for directing. In 1967, the popular movie adaptation paired Robert Redford, the original Paul on stage, with Jane Fonda as the ditzy Corie, and the sublime Mildred Natwick recreated her scene-stealing timid mother role. The play went on to be a beloved staple of school, community, and dinner theater. It was a go-to during high school speech meets for duet-acting partners back in my day.

But that was then, and this is now.

Sixty years later, it’s flimsy rather than frothy — a period piece that probably wouldn’t make the cut for a 1960s-time capsule if selections were today, despite Simon’s hit-making machine status.

The antiquated attitudes on wives and mothers are hard to surmount – we’ve come a long way, baby. I suppose looking back at the pre-feminism years reinforces how times have changed. But engaging? Not so much.

The dialogue reflecting the time’s societal mores is sometimes cringy. Corie’s widowed mom advises: “Make him feel important. Give up a little of yourself. If you do that, you’ll have a happy and wonderful marriage — like two out of every 10 couples.”

Moonstone has set the show in 1966. The cast tries hard to toss off one-liners with some pizzazz but are hampered by how dated the wisecracks sound.

However, the cast gets the rhythm of Simon’s trademark patter, and the genial performers supply several bright spots because of their commitment to the characters.

Particularly funny are well-known veteran actors Chuck Brinkley, who plays the jovial telephone repairman – back when rotary dial was standard, and a Princess phone was fancy — and Bob Harvey, doing funny physical schtick as a huffing-and-puffing delivery man. Ever reliable, the old pros’ brief bits are amusing.

Appealing performers Luis Aguilar and Rhiannon Creighton convey the newlyweds and do what they can to enliven the creaky conversations, but the thinly drawn Mr. and Mrs. Bratter roles have never seemed so bland. They move in after a 6-day honeymoon, and all the character tics appear to aggravate.

This depiction, when the man was the breadwinner and the woman was the happy homemaker, is simply stale.

While cheery and sweet at times, bride Corie does come off as clingy, whiny, and shallow in other moments. Intended as an early image of Simon’s adored first wife Joan, Corie is not as interesting as screwball heroines of days gone by because there’s not much character development. She’s advertised as a ‘free spirit’ but seems tamer in retrospect.

Domestic bliss is threatened because she fears her fuddy-duddy lawyer husband, who is trying to concentrate on his job, will never be spontaneous, like she is. For instance, he wouldn’t walk barefoot in Central Park on a frigid winter day.

Luis Aguilar and Rhiannon Creighton. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Faring better, although stuck in the tired stereotype of hovering suburban mom, is Jilanne Klaus as widowed Ethel. She’s in her 50s, an empty nester in New Jersey, and dull as dishwater. But she will soften and lighten up. Oh, the agism jokes! Let’s get the retirement home ready!

Corie’s perturbed that mom keeps sending wedding presents almost daily from Lord and Taylor. Oh, the horror.

The hijinks ramp up when Corie fixes up her uptight mother with the nutty neighbor Victor Velasco for a dinner double date. Starting off with exotic gourmet food and braggadocio, the eccentric Hungarian charms the ladies, but Paul immediately dislikes the international man of mystery.

And the night, fueled by assorted alcoholic beverages and dinner in Staten Island (offstage), gets wild and crazy – especially for the stick-in-the-mud mom and husband. But Corie and Victor are kindred spirits.

Slapstick-y wackiness ensues, and Aguilar deftly displays a flair for physical comedy. TJ Lancaster wisely decides not to go too over-the-top playing the live-wire lothario who lives in the attic. He and Klaus demonstrate they are smart, instinctual performers whose crisp comic timing and ease on stage is a plus.

Those two gave a master class in recalibrating their moves when the pair, mindful of a hump in the set’s area rug, acted nonplussed and went on with the show, careful where they stepped during Friday night’s third act.

When the inevitable blow-up occurs in act two – because Paul is a “watcher” and Corie is a “doer,” the couple’s bickering becomes tedious while we’re waiting for the happy-ever-after resolution. No suspense there. Although the fact they didn’t realize their differences before wouldn’t seem to bode well for the future (nevertheless, the Simons were married for 20 years until Joan’s death from cancer at age 41).

One of the most commercially successful playwrights of all-time, Simon, who started writing comedy sketches in the pioneering days of early television, made a career out of first world problems – only the world never really intruded into his work until the brilliant Eugene trilogy, starting with “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

His customary white middle-class struggles were usually connected to relationship clashes, poking fun at human foibles and using self-deprecating humor, which frequently included Jewish characters in urban settings.

So, the pleasant bon mots and jokes on the squalor of a tiny big-city apartment are expected.

Only, the set isn’t so small. While acclaimed scenic designer Dunsi Dai’s work is a perfect palette of pastels reflecting the time, and his skylight is certainly a “Wow,” it’s too spacious for a supposedly cramped one-bedroom apartment. (If you have been in modest New York City apartments, you know, unless you assume they’re all like “Friends.”)

And the setting is not practical for stage movement, for Creighton must scamper quite a bit – it’s a good thing she’s energetic because we watch her take a lot of steps as she crisscrosses for unpacking, decorating and scene requirements. In a modern setting, she’d be killing it on Fitbit. Director Sharon Hunter’s blocking seems clunky because of the larger dimensions.

Patrick Sullivan’s striking lighting design capably illuminates the night sky, and Amanda Werre’s sound design is smooth.

Michele Siler’s costume designs are noteworthy, having ideally captured the period’s everyday apparel for the women, and Emily Fluchel nails the props – the suitcases, kitchen wares and knickknacks.

Despite it being Simon’s longest-running hit, this would be difficult to pull off in any 21st century theater because it feels synthetic. Nevertheless, the performers’ chemistry and nimble line delivery elicit laughs.

Like so many other plays that depend on a mundane premise to begin with, “Barefoot in the Park” is an unusual classic to present because of the shift in male-female dynamics. No amount of rejuvenation can resuscitate it, despite this likable ensemble and their earnest efforts.

Moonstone Theatre Company presents Neil Simon’s comedy “Barefoot in the Park” from Oct. 27 through Nov. 13 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center’s black box theatre, 210 E. Monroe Ave. Showtimes are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., except there is no show on Friday, Nov. 11, and two shows on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. For tickets or for more information, visit: www.moonstonetheatrecompany.com.

Jilanne Klaus, Rhiannon Creighton, Luis Aguilar. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing EditorA STAR WAS BORN: It was as if scripted in a movie. You’ve heard of that classic moment in the 1933 movie “42nd Street” when an understudy takes over for an injured diva. Well, it really happened right here in St. Louis one summer 46 years ago at The Muny.
On Aug. 14, 1972, MGM musical star Ann Miller was playing Reno Sweeney to Michael Callan’s Billy Crockett in “Anything Goes.” The classic Cole Porter romantic romp was underway when right after the song “Friendship” during a scenery change, Miller was conked on the head by a steel boom. Callan had followed her off-stage, then found her on the floor, dazed and bruised.

“Is there a doctor in the house?” A call went out from the stage and 15 doctors responded. The show was cancelled and Miller taken to Deaconess Hospital with a mild brain concussion and loss of equilibrium. She spent 23 days there.With Miller out but not wanting to cancel the week, Muny brass sought a replacement. They plucked Pat St. James, a senior at Webster University, from the ensemble. She rose to the occasion.
St. James, whose parents were local broadcast celebrities Clif and Nance St. James, was praised for her soaring performance. She later thrived in a musical theater career.
But in 1999, she switched gears, earning a degree in theology and ordained an Episcopal priest. She was married to David Roberts, and they lived in Atlanta with their two children, Oliver and Julia. At age 61, after a four-year battle with cancer, she died on Dec. 5, 2010.
Her moment in the sun became a Muny legend.
“Anything Goes” may have been Miller’s first appearance at The Muny but it wouldn’t be her last. She would be persuaded to return in the next decade, for ‘Sugar Babies” with Mickey Rooney in 1984.
Miller starred in “Kiss Me Kate,” “Easter Parade,” “On the Town,” “Stage Door,” “Room Service” and “Mulholland Drive” (?!?).Side Note: I actually saw Pat St. James as Reno Sweeney that week at The Muny. Everyone was abuzz.
(“Anything Goes” photo from Muny archives, from left, Pat Paulsen, Pat St. James, Michael Callan.)
***HELLO, USA!: Congratulations to Madison Johnson of St. Louis, who has been cast in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” that begins in late September. She is part of the ensemble and understudy for Minnie Fay.This tour of the Broadway revival, which won four Tony Awards in 2017, will feature Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder. Stadlen, a three-time Tony nominee, has been in several Muny shows, including “The Producers,” “Damn Yankees,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Madison has been part of the Muny ensemble the past six years, recently playing Lucille Ballard in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” She was Kristine in “A Chorus Line” last summer and Frenchie in 2014’s “Grease.” She started at age 7 as a Muny Kid. A graduate of Whitfield School and Elon College, she moved to New York City in 2016.
***
SIX DEGREES OF ST. LOUIS: John David Washington is starring in “BlackkKlansman” as undercover cop Ron Stallworth, who wrote the book that Spike Lee has adapted into this acclaimed film.

He was signed by the St. Louis Rams in 2007 after he was not drafted in the NFL Draft. Later cut from the Rams, he was a running back for the Hamburg Sea Devils, a German team playing in the NFL Europe League. Fun fact: Eldest son of two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Photo: Adam Driver and John David Washington
***GO SEE A PLAY! POLL: The St. Louis Fringe Festival’s local headlining act is an original musical written and composed by Colin Healy called “The Gringo.” The world premiere will be performed four times from Thursday, Aug. 16 through Sunday, Aug. 19, at the .Zack, 3224 Locust.
It’s about how art can bring a community together. Set in Miami, a local street artist is wrongfully gunned down by police. As told through the lens of a successful painter, this community faces injustice and rapid gentrification. They learn what it means to fight for your home.
The cast includes Gheremi Clay, Kevin Corpuz, Robert Crenshaw, Evann De-Bose, Riley Dunn, William Humphrey, Omega Jones, Tim Kaniecki, Alicia Revé Like, Brittany Losh, Samantha Madison, Gabby McNabb, Carly Niehaus, Janine Norman and David Zimmerman.
Healy directs, with Bradley Rohlf assistant director; Christopher Page-Sanders choreographer and Carly Uding costume design.Tieliere Cheatem contributed the artwork. On opening night, they will give this portrait away that has been signed by the cast and the crew. Tickets available at Metrotix.com

For a chance to win two tickets to one performance, enter our poll drawing!Poll Question: What Is Your Favorite Show About Art? “Art”
“Is He Dead?”“Red”“Sunday in the Park with George”“Sight Unseen”
Submit your selection to lynnvenhaus@gmail.com by noon on Wednesday, Aug. 15. Please include your phone number. You will be notified that afternoon if you won, and you can select what performance so that tickets can be arranged. The show is at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. Thanks for participating.
Winner of our two tickets to “Meet Me in St. Louis” was Chuck Brinkley. Thank you, Muny!
“Meet Me in St. Louis” received the most votes as the favorite local movie shot in or made about St. Louis.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Oscar winner Shelley Winters, whose career spanned five decades, was born Shirley Schrift on Aug. 18, 1920, in St. Louis to Jewish immigrant parents. Her father, a tailor, moved the family to Brooklyn when she was a child. She died at age 86 in 2006.
Once nicknamed “The Blonde Bombshell,” she later became known for forceful dramatic roles.For what movie performances did she win her two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress?Answer: “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959, as a shrill Mrs. Van Daan, and “A Patch of Blue” in 1965, in which she played a slatternly mother cruel to her blind daughter.
Her breakthrough role on stage was as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” five years into the run, and she was noticed in “A Double Life” starring Oscar winner Ronald Coleman in 1947.But after a dissatisfying number of movie roles, she finally got the role of her lifetime in “A Place in the Sun” with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.
Some of her other big movies were “A Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and “The Poseidon Adventure” in 1972. Earlier, she had returned to studying at the Actors Studio and became a big advocate of the Lee Strasberg method.
A lifelong progressive Democrat and outspoken on feminist issues, she became quite a raconteur on talk shows during the 1970s and ‘80s. Her two tell-all autobiographies created quite a stir, as she had some high-profile leading-men dalliances.
Fun fact: She roomed with Marilyn Monroe when they were just starting out in Hollywood.
Happy Birthday, Shelley! (She would have been 98 Monday).Photo at right: Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
***ICYMI: A movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning “In the Heights” is planned for summer release 2020. Jon M. Chu, who helmed the new romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” will direct.Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” will be made into a movie, and production is to start in November. Stars signed so far are Tony winners James Corden and Ian McKellen, along with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Grammy winner Taylor Swift.
***WORD/DOWN MEMORY LANE: “Would you shut your phones off for Christ sakes?” – Stanley Tucci, during the Aug. 14, 2002, performance of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. An audience member’s cell phone kept ringing. Calls for a ban on cell phones at NYC’s theatres grew louder, and a law was put into effect in 2003.
***Have any tidbits for this people column? Contact Managing Editor Lynn Venhaus – lynnvenhaus@gmail.com
.All photos from archives or submitted. Featured image is of St. Louis native Shelley Winters.