By Lynn Venhaus

The children of the night are making some lusty music in the musical “Dracula,” a different take on the gothic horror classic whose folklore has become a pop culture staple.

Lush voices soar in a foreboding dark shadow setting, with New Line Theatre putting their own stamp on a stripped down, impressionistic version of Frank Wildhorn’s much-maligned 2004 Broadway musical that has since been heavily revised and became a hit overseas.

Of the many variations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror fantasy novel, this very dramatic musical version combines alluring romance with an unsettling thriller narrative devoid of any humor or camp, which has been easy to slide into with vampires over the years. (Case in point: “What We Do in the Shadows.”)

However, Chris Strawhun amuses as one of the characters, a straight-talking Texan named Quincey Morris while delivering his good ol’ boy dialogue.

This tight-knit group, of both familiar and fresh faces, is committed to getting the tone and tempo right. They strive to convince in their portrayals as either under Dracula’s hypnotic spell, resisting it, or desperate vampire hunters.

Brittany Kohl, Vanessa Simpson. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Their vocal prowess is its strongest suit because this show’s intention is to have more of an emotional core, not aiming to scare or even conjure suspense, in this supernatural world.

Supporting players circle the bewildering nobleman, Count Dracula, an imposing yet enigmatic figure confidently played by Cole Gutmann.

He has summoned solicitor Jonathan Harker (Ian McCreary) to assist in the purchase of a home in England.

Despite being told not to wander around the castle in the Carpathian Mountains, Harker does just that, encountering the Weird Sisters, a trio of nubile undead, who entice him to do bad things. McCreary presents the character as a stand-up guy, but weak.

Ann Heir Brown, Chelsie Johnston and Sarah Lueken bewitch as the seductive trio, slithering around the minimalist stage. With sinful looks and slinky attire, the characters add a provocative edge. They are choreographed by co-director Tony L. Marr Jr.

They initially set the eerie mood with the opening number, “Prologue,” then join McCreary in “Jonathan’s Arrival.” All three have melodic voices, evident on “Forever Young” and joining Guttmann on “Fresh Blood.”

Well, that situation doesn’t go well for Harker, and he winds up in a hospital. His smart and lovely fiancé Mina Murray (Brittany Kohl) changes her holiday plans with best friend Lucy Westenra (Vanessa Simpson) and leaves Whitby Bay, a seaside town in England.

Kent Coffel, Ian McCreary, Kohl, J.D. Pounds. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

A sense of dread surfaces in Mina and Lucy’s duet, “The Mist,” and their nightmares begin.

The women, confined to the society standard of being an adornment on the arms of successful men, keep ignoring red flags but this mysterious aristocrat has captured their fancy. Kohl and Simpson are believable as women who may want more out of life.

The fetching Lucy, wooed by three men, chooses the dullest guy to marry, Arthur Holmwood, earnestly portrayed by Alex Vito Fuegner. Another suitor is Jack Seward, a doctor specializing in psychoanalysis, who is played with authority by J.D. Pounds.

Their number, “How Do You Choose?” sets up their relationships. Despite Lucy marrying Holmwood, the guys are friends and factor into the group trying to protect everyone from sinister forces.

Seward is the gateway to his patient, the insane assistant Renfield (Rafael DaCosta), who is mind-controlled by the count.

DaCosta and the Weird Sisters collaborate on “The Master’s Song,” indicating their servitude.

DaCosta adds some verve to the proceedings, as does Kent Coffel as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the obsessed vampire slayer. Sporting a Dutch accent and explaining how to snare a vampire, Coffel grounds the show as the iconic presence.

Rafael DaCosta as Renfield. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Coffel, an MVP in supporting roles, has more contributions musically — two solo numbers, “Nosferatu” and “Summers Come, Summers Go,” and performs “Undead One” and ‘Deep into the Darkest Night” with the suitors. Van Helsing also duets with Dracula in “It’s Over.”

This production focuses on the seriousness of the times, and the traditional roles in Victorian society. Stoker’s aggressively sexual characters were a novel idea in that era, for polite society followed rigid rules of decorum.

Flirting with forbidden eroticism has always been an appealing aspect of the mythology – and if you’ve seen Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” movie in 1992, the ‘True Blood’ series on HBO, and even the ‘Twilight’ franchise, you don’t have to be Fellini to figure out the temptation metaphors.

Director Scott Miller and co-directory Marr keep it tasteful, implying the blood lust without fangs or special effects, or icky graphic stuff.

Both Mina’s and Lucy’s seductions are simply staged, and the deaths through various implements are downplayed. (Although blocking prevented me from seeing Lucy’s beheading).

This cast must build the desire and the fear into their characterizations because, unfortunately, the book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is like a Cliff Notes version of the source material. It’s neither fascinating nor passionate, and the actors have to do the heavy lifting on their own.

Coffel, Cole Guttmann. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

It’s important to be aware of the basic Dracula scenario, for this script has little world-building, assuming you’re well-versed in it.

The setting toggles back and forth between a castle in Transylvania, England, a ship, Budapest, and a mental asylum, which can be difficult to follow if you’re not plugged into the most famous vampire figure in history.

Black’s lyrics have more exposition than the book. Gutmann’s soulful voice stirringly delivers Wildhorn’s grandiose ballads, injecting a more tortured, troubled persona rather than a monstrous villain into the numbers.

And he does so admirably, from his first number “Solitary Man” to “At Last” and finale. His anguish and his power are explored in “A Perfect Life/Loving You Keeps Me Alive” with Kohl and McCreary, one of the standout numbers.

Lucy is doomed, and Simpson is impressive as the poor unfortunate soul. She and Gutmann display a palpable chemistry, and that may be chalked up to being partners in real life.

Their number, “Life After Life,” joined by the company, sets up the inevitable trajectory, and their harmonies are solid.

Kohl, Guttmann. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

When Dracula falls in love with Mina, that allows for some outstanding vocal work by Kohl and Guttmann. Kohl is capable of pathos, as exemplified in “Please Don’t Make Me Love You” and “If I Had Wings.”

I wouldn’t say sensuality is evident, but as accomplished singers, they know how to deliver poignancy.

The designers have expertly crafted a creepy atmosphere, with Matt Stuckel’s lighting design and Ryan Day’s sound design establishing an off-balance feel.

Costume designer Zach Thompson has fashioned appropriate 19th century styles and sultry outfits for the Weird Sisters, with nifty little details to make the looks interesting..

Lippert’s skills have highlighted functionality for the scenic design, making the most with a few signature pieces – a centerpiece crypt doubles as a bed and a table and there is a striking stained glass window.

Music Director Jenna Lee Moore, who helmed “Nine” last year, has a terrific group of six musicians and plays keyboard. Paul Rueschhoff is on cello, John Gerdes on brass/bass, Mary Wiley on reeds, Mallory Golden on violin, Buddy Shumaker on guitar and second keyboard, and Clancy Newell on percussion.

Wildhorn is a hit-and-miss with me. When New Line spiffed up his “Bonnie and Clyde” in 2014, it was one of my favorites that year, showcasing top-notch performances and telling a compelling story.

He is the composer of both pop songs (“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” for Whitney Houston) and musicals, including his most famous, “Jekyll & Hyde” that ran for four years on Broadway. In 1999, he made history by having three shows run simultaneously – besides Jekyll & Hyde, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War” were also on Broadway.

This musical version of “Dracula” isn’t as fascinating as one expects, given our knowledge of the story, and a reference base from more than 30 films based on the world’s most famous vampire. But this is a sturdy cast whose efforts are noteworthy.

You may not leave humming a tune or consider any of the songs as memorable as Wildhorn’s “This Is the Moment,” from “Jekyll and Hyde,” but you won’t forget the music New Line’s team made.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

New Line Theatre” presents “Dracula” May 30 – June 22, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, in the Grand Center Arts District. For more information, visit: https://www.newlinetheatre.com.

To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

By Lynn Venhaus

A sweet-and-salty nutty mixed bag of brash gal pals and scummy exes who didn’t deserve them, “Sweet Potato Queens” sets a table for women to be proud and live out loud, no matter their lot in life.

With the exalted Boss Queen in the house, and members of the audience adorned with tiaras, sequins and neon pink feather boas, a spirited crowd – including the real inspirations behind some of the colorful characters – was in a feisty Saturday night mood to partake in the sassy and saucy Southern rock musical, “Sweet Potato Queens.”

If you are unfamiliar with the SPQ national movement, founder Jill Conner Browne and her closest friends in Jackson, Miss., have been empowering women since 1982. A New York Times’ bestselling author, she has spawned 6,200 registered Sweet Potato Queens chapters in 37 countries around the world.

New Line Theatre is producing the musical’s regional premiere, which is attracting appearances by Sweet Potato Queens and the creative people behind the musical, which debuted in 2016 in Houston and so far, has only been performed four other times.

The plucky material blends Southern prototype ‘girl power’ settings like “Designing Women” and “Mama’s Family,” and pink-collar components to “Steel Magnolias,” “Sex and the City,” and “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” for a frothy ‘you go, girl’ energy shot.

Talichia Noah as Jill Conner Browne. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg..

These are belles without a cotillion, no sorority sisters in sight, but they’ve bonded in silly and sublime ways, thanks to going through some things. Directors Scott Miller and Tony L. Marr Jr. make a point to bring out the humanity amid a carnival environs.

On March 9, the regal Browne and her entourage made grand entrances in sparkly outfits at The Marcelle, and upon introduction before the show, she regaled the crowd with the origins of her girls’ group in a very funny warm welcome. Their first appearance in a St. Patrick’s Day parade is a hoot (Google it!).

A woman who grabs life with gusto and lives by the tagline, “Be Particular,” Browne is the author of nine books, starting with “Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love” in 1999, then “God Save the Sweet Potato Queens” in 2001, followed by “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner” in 2003, and including “Sweet Potato Queens’ Field Guide to Men: Every Man I Love Is Either Married, Gay, or Dead” in 2004,  “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit” in 2008, and “Fat is the New 30: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Guide to Coping with (the crappy parts of) Life” in 2012.

While many fans are primarily middle-aged and middle-class women, many chapters have people from all walks of life, and all promote positive thinking and self-esteem. Browne says the SPQ movement is to inspire “all of us to do what makes our hearts sing,” and that’s the opening number of the show.

While the uninitiated may think the spotlighted women fall into Southern stereotypes, it is wise not to go there, for do not underestimate their wit, smarts, and resilience. These are not tsk-tsk yokels from another branch of the family tree or plucked fresh from the cabbage patch to be laughed at – you will laugh with them because they find out who they are and are OK with that.

Jeffrey M. Wright as Tyler and Talichia Noah. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

Brown refers to her first husband as the anti-Christ, and if he’s anything resembling Jeffrey M. Wright’s woeful dirtbag Tyler, whoa.

Wright is such a polished, likeable performer that at first, it’s hard to adjust accepting him as a sleazeball, but he oozes unctuousness in his ladies-man encounters and is slick as this low-life liar that’s not smart enough to be convincing in his ruses (and he has a couple dandy ones). Yes, it’s called acting, and he showed his range.

Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife, Jill Conner Browne, played by good-natured Talichia Noah, is at her wit’s end, and finally musters enough dignity and self-determination to break free from the ‘stand by your man’ mantra.

She does so as part of a playful quartet with her three lively BFFS, all named Tammy. Of course! They introduce themselves in the cheeky “It’s Me” and spunky “SPQ-tiful,” and give Jill advice in the ballad “Make a Wish.”

A consummate pro, Ann Hier Brown is a revelation as firecracker “Too Much Tammy,” with heaping helpings of street smarts and in-your-face bravado. She dives into the amusing second act opener “Funeral Food” with abundant zest.

Another veteran, Mara Bollini, sashays with attitude as Floozie Tammy, uninhibited in “One Last Kiss” and spills the sweet tea on her sexual escapades. Brown, Bollini and Noah are a force on “The Only Thing I Know.”

Aarin Kamphoefner leads “Mad Dog Twenty Twenty.” Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Victoria Pines completes the Tammy trio, as Flower Tammy, an abused wife who leans on her friends about her predicament. She displays her terrific vocal skills in the poignant ballad “Cherries in the Snow.”

The show’s standout this performance was Aarin Kamphoefner as George, going beyond the cliches as a beacon of hard-fought self-acceptance, and a caring friend to the girls – no judgment, just reassurance.

He has fun leading “Mad Dog Twenty-Twenty” as a good time song. Comfortable in his skin as a queer in the deep South, George, a good listener, has something to say, and Kamphoefner shines, tugging at our heartstrings reprising “It’s Me.”

Performing on March 9, while the real “TammyGeorge” was sitting in the front row, he deserved a standing ovation for pouring his heart out in an emotionally vulnerable solliloquy while a patron’s cell phone was audible and wasn’t immediately turned off. Kamphoefner held composure and drew everyone into his character’s truth. Bravo!

Portraying the concerned parents dispensing homespun wisdom are Bethany Barr as Mama and Kent Coffel as Daddy. Coffel also has a couple different minor roles, and always shows his versatility as a local MVP. He kindheartedly reprises “Do What Makes Your Heart Sing” several times.

The music is composed by Melissa Manchester, a longtime singer, songwriter and actress, who has been active since the 1970s. She first came to prominence as one of Bette Midler’s back-up singers, “The Harlettes.”

Noah and Kent Coffel. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

Some of her career highlights include her first smash hit “Midnight Blue” (recently a music video duet with Dolly Parton!), her Grammy-nominated performance of Peter Allen’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and co-writer with Kenny Loggins on his collaboration with Stevie Nicks “Whenever I Call You Friend.” She won a Grammy in 1983 for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.”

As an actress, she played Maddy Russo on the TV show “Blossom” 1993-95, and last year played Mrs. Brice on the first national tour of “Funny Girl.”

Fun fact: Her solo 1984 concert at the Fabulous Fox Theatre here was my first review assignment from a St Louis Globe-Democrat editor.

Lyrics are by country songwriter Sharon Vaughn, who has penned hits for Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Kenny Rogers and others. Her big breakthrough in 1976 was with the Waylon Jennings hit “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” which Willie Nelson covered for the 1979 Robert Redford movie “The Electric Horseman.” She was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

With two women writing the female-forward songs, the numbers flavor the characters’ arc with a range of earnest emotions, what the characters are feeling at the time. The music has a peppy ‘60s girl-group vibe, with a splash of the self-acceptance of Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” and the boldness to be who you are of “Kinky Boots.”

“Five” is a showstopper, detailing Brown’s list for five men you must have in your life at all times: 1. Someone who can fix things 2. Someone you can dance with 3. Someone you can talk to 4. Someone who can pay for things (so you’re not paying their share) and 5. Someone to have great sex with. That about covers it, wouldn’t you say?

The Tammys and Jill. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

The band is tight, with seasoned New Line regulars John Gerdes on electric bass, Clancy Newell on percussion and Adam Rugo on electric guitar, and they are joined by Brandon Thompson on reeds, Nikki Ervin on keyboard, and conductor Dr. Tim Amukele on keyboard as well.

The enormity of the vocal load the lead must carry is daunting, as Jill must sing solo: “Do What Makes Your Heart Sing,” “Southern Side of Jackson,” “All That Matters,” and “To Be Queen,” and duos with Mama in “Sears,” Tyler in “We Had Some Good Times,” and the others in ensemble pieces. With that much to sing, Noah struggled at times, and her voice seemed strained because of the role’s demands the farther the show progressed. Perhaps Amukele’s guidance will help on the rough spots. But even for the most accomplished vocalist, that’s a herculean effort.

The book By Rupert Holmes lovingly spotlights the characters for their strength, grace under pressure, and their willingness to be audacious. Holmes won multiple Tony Awards for the book music and lyrics, all solo acknowledgements, for “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” He’s known for the pop song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

According to press material, “The team continues to work on the show. The St. Louis production will be the fifth production of the show so far.” While entertaining, it does appear to be a work in progress, and the rough-around-the-edges effort is well-meaning and good-hearted, but some tightening up would make it zing.

Rob Lippert’s minimal set design emphasizes the vibrant spirit of the production, with the iconic pink sunglasses as a major focal point. Matt Stuckel and Ryan Day capably handled the lighting and sound.

Ann Hier Brown and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

Zachary Phelps designed the flashy and curvy baby-doll SPQ anthem costumes as well as the everyday attire of the cast. The shiny pink-and-green outfits look like a vamped-up creation crossing “Amazon Women of the Moon” with “Barbarella” and John Waters’ movies.

For anyone who has experienced dreams-deferred, “Sweet Potato Queens” is a reminder to believe in your potential and stay true to your ideals. It does so with an energetic mindset, a desire to spread goodwill, and a celebratory, humorous spirit. After all, real queens adjust each other’s crowns.

Addendum: To follow in the footsteps of other SPQs across the land, Browne recommends Revlon® “Love That Pink” lipstick, flowing red wigs, and majorette boots. They wore green hand-me-down ball gowns and tiaras for their first St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and said when she discovered she lived near Vardaman, Miss., the self-proclaimed Sweet Potato Capital of the World, that was all it took to offer herself as the queen for the farmers’ annual festival.

Bethany Barr as Mama. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

New Line Theatre presents “Sweet Potato Queens” from Feb. 29 to March 23, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors for the preview; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors for all other performances. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website.

For more information about discounts, visit the website: www.newlinetheatre.com

The Queen herself, Jill Conner Browne. Lynn Venhaus Photo.
Sweet Potato Queens in the audience March 9. Lynn Venhaus Photo.

By Lynn Venhaus

Once upon a time, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was the gold standard of a playful musical comedy, crafted by skilled vaudevillians with the early musicality of Stephen Sondheim, who would mature into a bona fide theatrical titan. But 61 years since its debut, as seen through a modern lens, it doesn’t have the same pop it once did.

Nevertheless, New Line Theatre’s latest interpretation has several main performers nimble at slapstick and well-versed in comic timing, and the ensemble is spirited in its farcical delivery.

They try mightily to earn laughs, and it mostly succeeds – except for some problematic “frozen in time” dialogue and lyrics. Case in point – “Bring Me My Bride,” with the line: “I have no time to lose, there are towns to plunder, temples to burn and women to abuse.”

OK, I know, it’s supposed to be jokey and satirical, but…And yes, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” is cringy, no matter how many clever rhymes.

This 1962 smash hit was Sondheim’s first show as composer and lyricist, after breaking through as lyricist to Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story” in 1957 and Jule Styne on “Gypsy” in 1959.

Sarah Wilkinson, Ian McCreary, Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Patterned after Borscht Belt schtick and burlesque back in the day, plus a nod to its centuries-old comic roots, the bawdy material doesn’t bother some folks while others find sexual innuendo offensive.

The book, written by Burt Schevelove (“No, No Nanette”) and Larry Gelbart, creator of “M*A*S*H” who wrote for “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57), the successor to legendary Sid Caesar’s writing stable on “Your Show of Shows,” “Forum” recalls variety show sketches du jour, often centering on nubile women as sex objects and other stereotypes.

The basic premise is taken from playwright Plautus (251 – 183 B.C.) In ancient Rome, a wily slave, desperate to earn his freedom, wants to hook up a virgin courtesan with his young master, but she has been sold to warrior Miles Gloriosus, who will arrive soon. In the meantime, another neighbor, Erronius, returns after searching for his two children, who were kidnapped by pirates.

Even with changing comedic tastes, people who have enjoyed this musical before, either in the audience or as players, look back at it fondly, because it does need a cohesive team to convey the zaniness, and that’s where the fun can be found.

Lively performers Kent Coffel, as crafty Pseudolus, and Chris Moore, as worrywart Hysterium, hatch schemes that get sillier and stickier, and mistaken identities are a key element to the humor, so is crossdressing.

Kent Coffel, Danny Brown. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

The principal singers are all gifted vocalists, especially Ann Hier Brown, who plays the shrew Domina, Hero’s mom. She does effectively turn the tables on “That Dirty Old Man.”

The score’s highlight is the vigorous opening “Comedy Tonight,” a can’t miss showy number. Tragedy can wait, are you ready for some fluff?

Sarah Wilkinson, memorable in New Line’s “Nine” last March, is a sweet Philia and Ian McCreary is an earnest Hero, as the young lovers everyone is rooting for, despite all the wacky complications that ensue. Their duet of “Lovely,” is well, lovely.

A standout is Danny Brown as the swaggering brute Miles Gloriosus, surprising in his robust delivery and rugged appearance.

Without firmly landing punchlines, Robert Doyle seems miscast as the lecherous Senex and Gary Cox is the befuddled Erronius, who has returned after searching for his two children, who were kidnapped by pirates.

Lending support are Jason Blackburn as Marcus Lycus and Nathan Hakenewerth, Brittany Kohl Hester, and Aarin Kamphoefner as the Proteans.

Ann Hier Brown, Chris Moore. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Co-directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan have fluidly staged the performers to maximize the madcap movements required, especially in frantic chase scenes.

And Rob Lippert has designed a three-house set that makes entrances and exits breezy, with lighting design by Matt Stuckel and sound design by Ryan Day.

Eileen Engel’s costume design may appear simple, with widespread togas and sandals on hand, but considering the character disguises, she had to duplicate outfits in various sizes so that the apparel would elicit laughs, too.

The conductor/keyboard player is Matthew Kauzlarich, with Kelly Austermann on reeds, Tyler Davis on cello, Ron Foster on trumpet, John Gerdes on brass, Adam Levin on trombone and Clancy Newell on percussion. Joe Simpson is music director.

“Forum” closes out New Line’s 31st season, and they have tackled demanding Stephen Sondheim works before (“Anyone Can Whistle,” “Assassins,” “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Passion,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Sweeney Todd”),

The original 1962 production of “Forum” was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won six, including best musical, producer, book, and director. Multiple Broadway revivals were well-received, in 1972 with Phil Silvers and in 1996 with Nathan Lane (and later in the run, with Whoopi Goldberg. All three actors who have opened in the role of Pseudolus on Broadway have won Best Actor Tony Awards (Zero Mostel, Silvers and Lane).

This throwback has a cast merrily cavorting on stage, zipping along to keep it from sagging, that helps carry it across the finish line. I just wish the material was fresher. This only works as a period piece, recreating an outdated style.

In recent years, New Line’s impressive choices have moved the needle on local musical offerings – especially “Something Rotten!” “Urinetown,” “Be More Chill,” “Lizzie,” “Head Over Heels,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Heathers,”  and others.

Proteans and Miles. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.

New Line Theatre’s production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is from June 1 to June 24, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis, in the Grand Center Arts District.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on the first Thursday; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors for all other performances. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website.

Discounts are available for high school students (check Facebook page for code), educators and military personnel, and college students are offered the chance to get a free seat (10 per performance) They are available only at the door, and subject to availability.

Cover Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus

The crème de la crème of local female vocal talent displays why they have earned those reputations in a lusty version of “Nine,” an exotic Felliniesque musical being presented by New Line Theatre March 2-25.

Based on filmmaker Federico Fellini’s 1963 semi-autographical angsty-existential-fantasy masterpiece “8 ½,” Tony-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston has tackled the age-old conundrum about a woman’s relationship to a man in an expressive, emotional score. Ballads are rueful, company numbers are vigorous in this 1982 musical. Yeston, who started this project in college in 1973, also won a Tony for the 1997 “Titanic” musical.

New Line’s glamorous production has a cast of 13 females who are connected to celebrated director Guido Contini, a womanizer going through a midlife personal and professional crisis.

Set at a Venetian spa in the early 1960s, an exasperated Luisa Del Forno (Lisa Karpowicz) has gone there with her preoccupied husband Guido (Cole Gutmann) to save their troubled marriage. Karpowicz makes you feel her pain, and her best number is the poignant “My Husband Makes Movies.” After all her sacrifices and his infidelities, she sings a mournful “Be On Your Own.”

The cast of “Nine.” Photo by Gerry Love.

He’s a cad, the boy who never grew up, and while smart and chic, she’s more of a caretaker. He does seem to care, but obviously has commitment issues, and they really don’t have much spark left. Contini (you’ll never forget his name because they say it over and over) brought all this misery on himself and is caught in a web of his own lies.

Discovered by the paparazzi, Guido tells reporters he is there to direct his latest film. Three previous movies have flopped, and the pressure is intense. His tough film producer, Liliane La Fleur (a flamboyant Kimmie Kidd-Booker), wants him to make a musical.

Gutmann conveys Guido’s desperation as he tries to come up with his next big picture, spinning tall tales and improvising with a riff on Casanova. His macho meltdown is precipitated by his turning 40, writer’s block, and his shabby treatment of people.

Has he run out of things to say? As the chaotic circus of his life flashes before our eyes, we see what the women have meant to him and what they have put up with – which makes him mostly unsympathetic. Can he change into a better person?

As the magnetic Guido, Gutmann is obsessive and frantic interacting with his mother, wife, teacher, temptress, mistress, muse, younger self, and other people who cross his path.

Cole Gutmann as Guido Contini. Lisa Karpowicz, at left, is Luisa. Photo by Gerry Love.

Gutmann has a rich melodic voice and the confident stage presence to pull off this conflicted character, but because the center of attention is often a jerk, it’s not that easy to emotionally connect to Guido, no matter how famous, important, handsome, and charming he is.

But Gutmann’s soulful delivery of his numbers – especially “Guido’s Song” and “I Can’t Make This Movie” — and his willingness to show the guy at his worst, makes you appreciate his skills. It’s a very demanding, energetic role, as he is on stage about 95 percent of the time.

The drama does have humorous moments but the book by Arthur Kopit seriously attempts to make a statement on artists, the creative process, and one’s demons and desires. Yet, it’s mostly a psychoanalysis of a self-absorbed talent, a male-centered fantasy and it runs hot and cold.

The story flips from real to invented, often taking place in Guido’s head, as he explores his past and present relationships.

Co-directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan capitalize on the strength of the performers in their minimalist staging, keeping in mind the necessary surrealism. Kernan also choregraphed the movements to be functional, simply depicting moods and attitudes.

The ensemble moves the story forward with added oomph, starting with the exquisite harmonies in the opening “Overture Delle Donne.”

Because it’s about filmmaking, the company delivers melodramatic versions of “Not Since Chaplin,” “Western di Guido,” “Bible di Guido,” and “Documentary di Guido,” plus Guido’s exaggerated “The Script” and “The Grand Canal.”

Guttman is strong leading “The Bells of St. Sebastian,” which shows off the belters to close the first act. In keeping with the plot thread about how the Catholic religion affected his childhood, “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) is repetitively sung.

Cole Gutmann, Ann Hier Brown. Photo by Gerry Love.

Throughout the two acts, which run 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission, the women sit on a striking black and white set cleverly designed as cubes by Rob Lippert, moving off the steps onto the tiled floor for various processions in a dream-like way.

Like a black-and-white film, this work contrasts darkness and light, and this staging uses that aesthetic to its advantage. Lighting designer Matt Stuckel heightens the shadows effectively.

Costume Designer Sarah Porter has outfitted the women in cosmopolitan black apparel that reflects their characters’ personalities and the period styles, while Gutmann’s all-black attire comfortably suits the role.

Music Director Jenna Lee Moore, making her New Line debut and playing keyboard, deftly leads a cohesive orchestra – Tyler Davis on cello, John Gerdes on brass, Lea Gerdes and Joseph Hendricks on reeds, Mallory Golden on violin, and Clancy Newell on percussion.

Ryan Day’s sound design works well at The Marcelle.

The spa sojourn doesn’t turn out as planned. Guido’s mistress, the young and sexy Carla Albanese, shows up. Sarah Wilkinson is a fireball, agile in movement and frisky in “A Call from the Vatican.” She nimbly maneuvers her slinky, satiny mini-dress with bike shorts underneath. Lovely as well in voice, she tugs at the heartstrings in “Simple.”

His muse, actress Claudia Nardi (Ann Hier Brown) has previously been an inspiration, so she is called again in that capacity. However, their relationship is complicated, and she holds her ground. Brown’s luscious mezzo soprano is sublime in “A Man Like You” and the plaintive “Unusual Way.”

Kimmie Kidd-Booker as Liliane. Photo by Gerry Love.

Another highlight is big personality Kidd-Booker, hamming it up and interacting with the audience in her robust “Folies Begeres.” After all, Liliane is a former showgirl, and Kidd-Booker is a scene-stealer as a diva.

Guido’s mother is played sentimentally by Stephanie Merritt, featuring her outstanding operatic voice. As an apparition, she is tender towards her genius son, yet she is aware of his faults. Merritt may be younger than the role calls for, but she appropriately projects the loving mother’s nurturing side and dazzles in the title number, “Nine.”

A seductive Sarah Lueken plays the local prostitute Saraghina from Guido’s youth, seen costumed as a nun. She made an indelible impact on him at age 9, and he must face that truth. Her rousing “Be Italian” is provocative, and the company joins in the naughty fun, using tiny tambourines for effect.

Gillian Pieper is sardonic as Stephanie Necrophorus, a writer and film critic not enamored by Guido neither as a man or a visionary and is downright hostile as she disapproves.

Much of the action takes place in the spa. Kathleen Dwyer is the hospitable manager Mama Maddelena, and a flirty, comical Annabella, while Kay Love is the ethereal Our Lady of the Spa, giving off a spiritual vibe. Then there are spa workers and guests, who are chorus and dancers – Olga (Julia Monsey), Renata (Chelsie Johnston), Diana (Kat Bailey) and Juliette (Brittany Kohl Hester).

Monsey is also Lina Darling, Liliane’s bodyguard. Hester is also the voice of little Guido, and sings the significant “Getting Tall.”

Normally, a little boy is featured in the cast, but New Line uses Hester’s fine vocals and a portrait instead as the young Guido. Like the 2003 Broadway revival, they have dropped “The Germans at the Spa.”

This tale has been an awards magnet and conversation piece since the iconic film debuted 60 years ago, and then became a musical in 1982, revived in London in the ‘90s, then on Broadway in 2003 and film adaptation of the musical (and original film) in 2009. It’s one of those unorthodox works that you may not comprehend completely at first glance, but perception deepens in time and repeat viewings.

It remains maestro Fellini’s chauvinistic source material, nevertheless.

Fellini’s elegant Italian film won two Oscars, for Best Foreign Language Film and for costume design in 1964, and was also nominated for best director, screenplay, and art direction-set decoration (black and white).

Sarah Wilkinson, Gutmann. Photo by Gerry Love.

The musical, and New Line’s interpretation, forego other male characters, trims the women to manageable cast size, cuts the constant smoking and omits Guido’s snazzy hat that Marcello Mastroianni wore.

1963 was a very different time for women, so it’s good to have some cuts, such as the harem scene, Mastroianni’s disturbing whip-cracking, and revisions in dialogue.

However, I wished the playwright would have kept the movie’s best line: “Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.”

(An aside: my college film professor adored Fellini, so I was introduced to his films as a student. I struggled with his ideas and images back when I was a teen, but upon watching as an adult, it’s a stirring avant-garde work, and Claudia Cardinale takes your breath away. If you are an HBOMax subscriber, the original “8 ½” in glorious black-and-white and the filmed musical “Nine” are available streaming).

The 1982 musical received 12 Tony Award nominations and won five, including Best Musical, Tommy Tune as director, Yeston for score, Liliane Montevecchi for featured actress as Liliane Le Fleur, and William Ivey Long for costume design. Receiving nominations: Raul Julia as Guido, Karen Akers as Luisa, Anita Morris as Carla, Kopit for book, Thommie Walsh for choreography, lighting design and scenic design.

The 2003 Broadway show earned nine Tony Award nominations, winning for Best Revival and Jane Krakowski for featured actress as Carla, with Antonio Banderas as Guido, Mary Stuart Masterson as Luisa, Chita Rivera as Liliane, director, lighting design and orchestrations nominated.

The film version of the musical, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido, was not well-received in 2009, but earned four Oscar nominations for Penelope Cruz as Carla, Maury Yeston for the original song “Take It All,” costume design and art direction.

This cinematically inspired musical, because it’s not typically structured, is more difficult than many other modern theatricals, and is not often produced. While its themes are intriguing, it can be frustrating for those unfamiliar with how the plot unfolds. Yet, the characters are passionate and the music sophisticated, so performers willing to risk the challenge can make their mark.

The focus in New Line’s crisp performance is the sense of collaboration instead of coming across as distant. This cast exhibits sincerity, brings out colors and feelings not always apparent, and appears to be on ‘Cloud Nine’ embarking on this journey.

Photo by Gerry Love.

“Nine” runs March 2 – 25 at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Center Arts District, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com, and for tickets, they can be purchased at metrotix.com or by calling 314-534-1111.

“Head Over Heels” will open at New Line Theatre March 6. It is the regional premiere of the wild, sexy, modern musical fairy tale where Once Upon a Time is now.

“Head Over Heels” is the bold new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening.

Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go’s, this high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.”

The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction, only to discover the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts — though not always in the way they expect — and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times.

With band and vocal arrangements by Broadway composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, High Fidelity), and eleven amazing dance numbers, choreographed by New Liners Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, this is the heaviest dance show New Line has produced since Chicago in 2002.

Head Over Heels originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then opened on Broadway in 2018. The show was nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The New Line cast includes Grace Langford (Princess Pamela), Melissa Felps (Princess Philoclea), Clayton Humburg (Musidorus), Jaclyn Amber (Mopsa), Zachary Allen Farmer (King Basilius), Carrie Priesmeyer (Queen Gynecia), Aaron Allen (Dametas), Tiélere Cheatem (Pythio), Kevin Corpuz, Evan Fornachon, Chris Kernan, Chris Moore, Maggie Nold, Michelle Sauer, Alyssa Wolf, and Sara Rae Womack.

The New Line production will be directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, with music direction by Nicolas Valdez, choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, scenic design by Rob Lippert, costume design by Sarah Porter, lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, and sound design by Ryan Day.

The Daily Beast said, “Head Over Heels is a raucously choreographed joy — intelligent, winningly comic, and surprisingly-for-Broadway radical when it comes to its presentation of gender and sexuality.” Entertainment Weekly said, “The show is an ode to female independence with the winking spirit of a Shakespearean fairy and the neon edge of a rebellious ‘80s teenager, teaming up to beckon people into the woods. Forty years after The Go-Go’s’ formation, Head Over Heels does more than preserve the band’s iconic hits in amber. For two hours and 15 minutes, it’s enough to pull the world back into sync.”

TimeOut NY said, “It grafts a 2010s sensibility onto songs from the 1980s — by the all-girl pop-punk quintet the Go-Go’s (plus two hits from lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo career) — and fits them into a 16th-century story that is set in ancient Greece. . . Head Over Heels is a fantasy and celebration of nonconformity, and it puts its casting where its mouth is with an ensemble that is diverse in race, gender and size. Honoring the beat, in this merry Arcadia, means making room for different drummers.”

Head Over Heels contains adult content. Produced by arrangement with Broadway Licensing, New York.

Tickets

HEAD OVER HEELS runs March 5-28, 2020, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, all at 8:00 p.m., at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in the Grand Center Arts District. March 5 is a preview.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on Thursdays; and $30 for adults and $25 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays. To charge tickets by phone, call MetroTix at 314-534-1111 or visit the Fox Theatre box office or the MetroTix website

DISCOUNTS

HIGH SCHOOL DISCOUNT: Any high school student with a valid school ID can get a $10 ticket for any performance, with the code word, posted only on New Line’s Facebook page.

COLLEGE FREE SEATS: Ten free seats for every performance, open to any college student with a valid student ID.

EDUCATORS DISCOUNT: New Line offers all currently employed educators half price tickets on any Thursday night, with work ID or other proof of employment.

MILITARY DISCOUNT: New Line offers all active duty military personnel half price tickets on any Thursday night, with ID or other proof of active duty status.

All offers not valid in connection with other discounts or offers, available only at the door, and subject to availability.

The New Line Film Series

Have a Little Rock & Roll Fable with your Rock & Roll Fable…

The New Line Film Series presents the movie musical ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS on Weds, March 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, during the run of New Line’s Head Over Heels.

Click Here for more info.

About New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is a professional company dedicated to involving the people of the St. Louis region in the exploration and creation of daring, provocative, socially and politically relevant works of musical theatre. New Line was created back in 1991 at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre just starting to take hold across the country.

New Line has given birth to several world premiere musicals over the years and has brought back to life several shows that were not well served by their original New York productions.

Altogether, New Line has produced 89 musicals since 1991, and the company has been given its own entry in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and the annual Theater World. New Line receives funding from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and the Regional Arts Commission.

For other information, visit New Line Theatre’s full-service website at www.newlinetheatre.com. All programs are subject to change. New Line’s 29th season closes in June with Urinetown.

New Line Theatre, “the bad boy of musical theatre,” has announced casting for its 29th season of adult, alternative musical theatre, which opens with the return of the wild, comic rock musical CRY-BABY, based on the iconic John Waters film, a show which New Line first produced in 2012 in its American regional premiere, running Sept. 26-Oct. 19, 2019. The season continues with the electrifying new rock musical fresh from Broadway, in its regional premiere, HEAD OVER HEELS, a high-energy, adult romp about gender and sexuality, based on a 16th-century novel and using the songs of the 80s rock band The Go-Go’s, running March 5-28, 2020. And the season closes with the return of one of New Line’s biggest hits, which the New Liners first presented in 2007, the pitch dark satire URINETOWN, the hilarious, outrageous fable of greed, corruption, love, revolution, and urination, running June 4-27, 2020.

Season tickets, including all three mainstage productions, start at just $60. Single tickets will go on sale in September. For more info, go to www.newlinetheatre.com/purchase/index.php

PLUS… New Line introduces the NEW LINE THEATRE FILM SERIES, curated by longtime New Liner Brian Claussen, screening a companion film at the Marcelle one Weds. night during the run of each mainstage show. This season’s films include John Waters’ original CRY-BABY during the run of Cry-Baby; ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS during the run of Head Over Heels; and MACK THE KNIFE, a film version of Threepenny Opera, during the run of Urinetown. These films are not part of the season subscription.

THE 2019-2020 SEASON

CRY-BABYSept. 26-Oct. 19, 2019

It’s 1954. Everyone likes Ike, nobody likes communism, and Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker is the coolest boy in Baltimore. He’s a bad boy with a good cause — truth, justice, and the pursuit of rock and roll. 

Wayward youth, juvenile delinquents, sexual repression, cool music, dirty lyrics, social rejects, it’s all here, as New Line opens its 29th season in October 2019 with the hilarious rockabilly musical CRY-BABY, based on the classic John Waters film. 

Cry-Baby premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in November 2007 and opened on Broadway in April 2008. New Line produced the show’s critically acclaimed American regional premiere in March 2012, after negotiating the first regional production rights in the country. The original creative team revised the show for New Line’s production and commissioned new orchestrations, to make it a smaller, more intimate musical, with a 6-piece rock band. 

At the center of our story are the star-crossed lovers, Cry-Baby and the square rich girl Allison, just a good girl who yearns to be bad in Cry-Baby’s arms. Fueled by hormones and the new rhythms of rock and roll, she turns her back on her squeaky clean boyfriend Baldwin to become a “drape” (a Baltimore juvenile delinquent) and Cry-Baby’s moll. At the other end of the topsy-turvy moral meritocracy of 1954 America, Baldwin as the king of the squares leads his close-harmony pals against the juvenile delinquents, who are ultimately arrested for arson, sending the drapes all off to prison. 

It’s Romeo and Juliet meets High School Hellcats. 

Cry-Baby has a score by David Javerbaum (The Daily Show) and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on John Waters’ classic indie film. O’Donnell and Meehan also adapted John Waters’ Hairspray for the musical stage. 

Cry-Baby was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Choreography. It was also nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Terry Teachout wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “You want funny? I’ll give you funny, or at least tell you where to find it: Cry-Baby, the new John Waters musical, is campy, cynical, totally insincere and fabulously well crafted. And funny. Madly, outrageously funny. It is, in fact, the funniest new musical since Avenue Q. If laughter is the best medicine, then Cry-Baby is the whole damn drugstore.” Newsday called the show “pleasantly demented and — deep in the sweet darkness of its loopy heart — more true to the cheerful subversion of a John Waters movie than its sentimental big sister Hairspray.” The New Jersey Star-Ledger called it, “candy for adults who like their musicals nutty — and not so nice.” 

The New Line cast includes Caleb Miofsky (as Wade “Cry Baby” Walker), Grace Langford (Allison Vernon-Williams), Margeau Steinau (Mrs. Vernon-Williams), Marshall Jennings (Dupree W. Dupree), Jake Blonstein (Baldwin Blandish), Reagan Deschaine (Pepper Walker), Jaclyn Amber (Wanda Woodward), Sarah Dowling (Mona “Hatchet-Face” Malnorowski), AJ Surrell (Lenora Frigid), Todd Micali, Stephen Henley, Ian McCreary, Christopher Strawhun, Maggie Nold, and Grace Minnis. 

The New Line production will be directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, with music direction by Nicolas Valdez, choreography by Michelle Sauer, scenic design by Rob Lippert, costume design by Colene Fornachon, lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, and sound design by Ryan Day. 

Cry-Baby contains adult language and content. Produced by arrangement with Music Theatre International, New York.

The New Line Film Series presents John Waters’ original musical film CRY-BABY on Weds., Oct. 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, during the run of New Line’s Cry-Baby.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s Horror-ComedyBLOODY KING OEDIPUSA Free Public ReadingMonday, Jan. 6, 2020

King Oedipus is already having a bad day, and here comes some REALLY bad news…! 

All Oedipus wants is to lift the curse that’s made his city sick, broke, and pissed off, but all these prophecies keep getting in the way. Could it be true that Oedipus killed the last king without realizing it? Is it possible he’s married to his own mother? Does his name really mean “swollen foot”? Maybe Tiresias the Blind Seer knows the answers. But does Oedipus really want to know…? 

After shocking the music and theatre worlds by rediscovering Gilbert & Sullivan’s lost masterpiece The Zombies of Penzance in 2013, and then staging and publishing the controversial original opera in 2018; now New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller has done it once again. This time, Miller has unearthed Gilbert & Sullivan’s even darker and funnier BLOODY KING OEDIPUS (or Pardon Me, Mum!), a comic horror opera no one even knew existed until now, based on Sophocles’ iconic Greek tragedy of murder, incest, disfigurement, suicide, and lots of prophecies, which first premiered in 429 BC. 

The legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896. Or is it sixteen? After rewriting their original Zombies of Penzance at the insistence of producer Richard D’Oyly Carte, the team premiered The Pirates of Penzance in 1879. Until now, scholars believed that their next project was the pastoral satire Patience. We now know that isn’t true. After the huge success of HMS Pinafore and Pirates, the team decided to tackle something a bit weightier. According to personal papers found with the manuscript, it was Gilbert who suggested two unlikely possibilities, Dante’s Inferno, and the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, set in Thebes, a Greek city-state in the 13th century BC. 

They both agreed Inferno would make a less than satisfying comic opera. 

Gilbert stayed curiously faithful to the plot and characters of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy for his opera – until the end of the show, when Gilbert evidently couldn’t restrain himself from adding a comic, Gilbertian twist, upending everything that’s come before, as usual. It’s safe to say Sophocles would not have sanctioned Gilbert’s much more comic ending. The score includes songs like “We’ve Been Very, Very Sick,” “I Can See Now I Was Blind,” “Now This is Quite Awkward,” “So Our King Just Might Have Murdered Our Last King,” and “He Hasn’t Taken It Too Well.” 

And now, at long last, King Oedipus, Queen Jocasta, General Creon, Tiresias the Blind Seer, Milo the Herald, and all of Thebes will make their comic opera debut. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form; and St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes is reconstructing Sullivan’s music, after doing the same with The Zombies of Penzance. 

New Line Theatre will present a reading of the rediscovered show Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, free and open to the public. The company has not yet announced a full production. 

Dominic Dowdy-Windsor will play King Oedipus; with Kimi Short as Queen Jocasta; Kent Coffel as Gen. Creon; Lindsey Jones as Manto; and Zachary Allen Farmer as the Royal Messenger and Tiresias the Blind Seer and Milo the Herald and also Phorbus the Shepherd. The rest of the cast will be announced later. The reading will be directed by Scott Miller and music directed by Nicolas Valdez.

Bloody King Oedipus contains very adult language and content.

HEAD OVER HEELSMarch 5-28, 2020

The wild new modern musical fairy tale where Once Upon a Time is NOW! 

HEAD OVER HEELS is the bold new musical comedy from the visionaries that rocked Broadway with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Conceived by Jeff Whitty, with an original book by Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, originally directed by Michael Mayer, and set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-girl rock band The Go-Go’s, this high-octane, laugh-out-loud love story includes hit songs like, “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.” 

The wild story follows the escapades of a royal family who set out on a journey to save their beloved kingdom from extinction, only to discover the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts — though not always in the way they expect — and in their willingness to let go of rigid tradition and change with the times. 

Head Over Heels originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then opened on Broadway in 2018. The show was nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards. 

The Daily Beast said, “Head Over Heels is a raucously choreographed joy — intelligent, winningly comic, and surprisingly-for-Broadway radical when it comes to its presentation of gender and sexuality.” Entertainment Weekly said, “The show is an ode to female independence with the winking spirit of a Shakespearean fairy and the neon edge of a rebellious ‘80s teenager, teaming up to beckon people into the woods. Forty years after The Go-Go’s’ formation, Head Over Heels does more than preserve the band’s iconic hits in amber. For two hours and 15 minutes, it’s enough to pull the world back into sync.” 

TimeOut NY said, “To enjoy Head Over Heels, which offers quite a lot to enjoy, it is probably best to kick up your heels and put your head on hold. That’s not to say that this saucy, boisterous musical doesn’t have a brainy side, starting with its ambitious crossbreeding of four time periods: It grafts a 2010s queer sensibility onto songs from the 1980s—by the all-girl pop-punk quintet the Go-Go’s (plus two hits from lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo career)—and fits them into a 16th-century story that is set in ancient Greece. . . Head Over Heels is a fantasy and celebration of nonconformity, and it puts its casting where its mouth is with an ensemble that is diverse in race, gender and size. Honoring the beat, in this merry Arcadia, means making room for different drummers.” 

The New Line cast includes Grace Langford (Princess Pamela), Melissa Felps (Princess Philoclea), Gabriel Beckerle (Musidorus), Jaclyn Amber (Mopsa), Zachary Allen Farmer (King Basilius), Carrie Priesmeyer (Queen Gynecia), Aaron Allen (Dametas), Tiélere Cheatem (Pythio), Kevin Corpuz, Chris Moore, Maggie Nold, Michelle Sauer, Abraham T. Shaw, Alyssa Wolf, and Sara Rae Womack. 

The New Line production will be directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, with music direction by Nicolas Valdez, choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, scenic design by Rob Lippert, costume design by Sarah Porter, lighting design by Kenneth Zinkl, and sound design by Ryan Day. 

Head Over Heels contains adult language and content. Produced by arrangement with Broadway Licensing, New York.

The New Line Film Series presents the movie musical ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS on Weds, March 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, during the run of New Line’s Head Over Heels.

URINETOWNJune 4-27, 2020

It’s 2027, the toilets have all been privatized, and you have to pay to pee. Do you follow the rules or join the rebellion? 

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ URINETOWN is the outrageous fable of greed, corruption, love, revolution, and urination, in a time when water is worth its weight in gold and there’s no such thing as a free pee. Set in a near-future dystopian Gotham, a severe 20-year drought has led to a government-enforced ban on private toilets. The citizens are forced to use public “amenities” now, regulated by a single malevolent company that profits by charging admission for one of humanity’s most basic needs. In this nightmare world, the punishment for an unauthorized pee is a trip to the dreaded Urinetown. 

But from the ruins of Democracy and courtesy flushes, there rises an unlikely hero who decides he’s held it long enough, and he launches a People’s Revolution to lead them all to urinary freedom! 

Inspired by the outrageous political theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and (very) loosely based on the writings of late eighteenth-century political and economic theorist Thomas Malthus, Urinetown is a gloriously silly, irreverently truthful satire from which no target is safe. This is a show that catapulted musicals into the new millennium with its rule-shattering tear through the traditions and conventions of musical theatre, leaving nothing but uncontrollable laughter and a big puddle in its wake. 

And that’s just Act I. 

When it opened in New York, the official slogan on the Urinetown T-shirts was “An appalling idea, fully realized.” Actor Daniel Marcus, who played Officer Barrel, said in an interview, “I call it a love letter to the American musical in the form of a grenade.” 

Bruce Weber in The New York Times said, “There simply is no show I’ve seen that gives such a sense that the creators and performers are always on the same page of an elaborate, high-spirited joke, that they are the proud members of a cabal that knows what it takes to make the world a better place and that they are thrilled to share what they know.” He also called the show “a sensational piece of performance art, one that acknowledges theater tradition and pushes it forward as well.” The show was nominated for 9 Tony Awards (winning Best Book and Best Score), 9 Drama Desk Awards, 7 Obie Awards (winning Best Musical), 5 Outer Critics Circle Awards (winning Best Musical), and a Drama League Award for Best Musical. 

New Line produced Urinetown in 2007. Kotis and Hollmann also wrote the rock musical Yeast Nation, which New Line produced in 2018.

The New Line cast includes Dominic Dowdy-Windsor (Lockstock), Jennelle Gilreath (Little Sally), Kevin Corpuz (Bobby Strong), Melissa Felps (Hope Cladwell), Kimi Short (Pennywise), Todd Schaefer (Mr. Cladwell), Marshall Jennings (Officer Barrel), Clayton Humburg, Sarah Porter, Zak Farmer, Ian McCreary, Brian Carles, Kellen Green, Jessica Winingham, Grace Langford, and Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer. 

The New Line production of Urinetown will be directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, with music direction by Nicolas Valdez, choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, costume design by Sarah Porter, scenic design by Todd Schaefer, and sound design by Ryan Day. 

Produced by arrangement with Music Theatre International, New York.

The New Line Film Series presents MACK THE KNIFE, a film version of The Threepenny Opera, on Weds., June 17 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcelle Theater, during the run of New Line’s Urinetown.

SEASON TICKETS

Season tickets are on sale NOW, and single tickets go on sale in September. New Line’s mainstage shows and the new film series will be in the company’s home, the Marcelle Theater, in the Grand Center Arts District.

There are three kinds of subscriptions. The First Look Subscription contains tickets for only the Thursday preview for each show. These tickets cannot be exchanged for other dates. Each Regular Subscription includes one ticket for each show in the season. You can use each ticket for any performance date during the run of that show. Each Flex Subscription includes three Flex tickets that you can use at any time for any show during the entire season — use all three tickets for one show or spread them out over the season, however you want! The deadline for ordering season tickets is Sept. 2, 2019.

To order season tickets for the three mainstage shows, Cry-Baby, Head Over Heels, and Urinetown, go to http://www.newlinetheatre.com/purchase/index.php.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE… Save the dates for The Second Annual New Line Trivia Night, on Friday, Sept. 13, at the Richmond Heights Community Center; and The 19th Annual New Line Holiday Dinner, on Weds. Dec. 4, at Favazza’s Restaurant on The Hill. Reservations for the dinner are required.

THE 2019-2020 NEW LINE SEASON AT A GLANCE

Sept. 13, 2019 – Second Annual New Line Trivia Night

Sept. 26-Oct. 19, 2019 – Cry-Baby *

Oct. 9, 2019 – Film Series: Cry-Baby

Dec. 4, 2019 – 19th Annual New Line Holiday Dinner

Jan. 6, 2020 – Free Public Reading of Bloody King Oedipus

Mar. 5-28, 2020 – Head Over Heels *

Mar. 18, 2020 – Film Series: Absolute Beginners

June 4-27, 2020 Urinetown *

June 15, 2020 – Auditions for 30th Season

June 17, 2020 – Film Series: Mack the Knife

June 22, 2020 – Auditions for 30th Season

* These three shows are included in the season ticket package.

ABOUT NEW LINE THEATRENew Line Theatre is a professional company dedicated to involving the people of the St. Louis region in the exploration and creation of daring, provocative, socially and politically relevant works of musical theatre. New Line was created back in 1991 at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre just starting to take hold across the country. New Line has given birth to several world premiere musicals over the years and has brought back to life several shows that were not well served by their original New York productions. Altogether, New Line has produced 88 musicals since 1991, and the company has been given its own entry in the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and the annual Theater World. New Line receives support from the Regional Arts Commission, the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, and the Grand Center Arts District.

New Line also continues its partnership with the Webster University Department of Music and their Bachelor of Music in Music Direction for Musical Theatre degree program.

For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Every generation has a musical that captures the zeitgeist
of the moment, that speaks to them in a special way. My generation of Baby
Boomers had “Hair,” Gen X had “Rent,” Millennials had “Spring Awakening” and
now Generation Z has the current cultural sensation “Be More Chill.” It’s
fierce, fun and frisky.

This is not just another teen misfit story, although it taps into familiar themes, bearing some resemblance to “Mean Girls,” Dear Evan Hansen” and “Heathers.”

With more dimensions than stock characters, the kids work
through messy life things – and as an adult, you just want to tell them “It
gets better,” but then we’d have no story conflicts, would we? It’s set in
suburban New Jersey and the time is now.

Is it ever. You’ll identify right away, as the dialogue is
a contemporary bulls-eye.
Besides being incredibly clever, another aspect that sets this realistic cautionary
tale apart is its sci-fi framework. To understand just what a big-bang this musical
clearly is, look at how it has tapped into a youthful energy that’s contagious,
no matter what demographic.

Giving this show both a relevancy and a relatability, New
Line Theatre is presenting the original regional version, which premiered in Red
Bank, New Jersey in 2015, with music and lyrics by the Tony-nominated Joe
Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, which is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel. An
off-Broadway smash hit in 2018, “Be More Chill” moved to Broadway in February
with an expanded version that is more ‘bigger is better.’

New Line keeps it focused with a tidy production, marked by
co-directors Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s and Scott Miller’s high-spirited and insightful
interpretation. This is arguably a defining moment for this fearless theater
troupe, and not only because they obtained the rights before its Broadway run, but
also because it’s a major leap forward as the company ends its 28th
season.

The well-cast ensemble, playing 11 characters, sparkles.
Each one has taken this show to heart with so much enthusiasm that it carries
over to the audience, which included many young fans expressing their delight
at every opportunity on opening night. Their joyous embrace of a show that
defines how they feel, look and act is refreshing. The powerful connection
between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable. The performers feel
every word and the audience responds in kind.

Jayde Mitchell and Grace Langford

In one of the more memorable NLT debuts, Jayde Mitchell genuinely captured the teenage angst of nerdy Jeremy, who goes from zero to hero after a square little pill “from Japan” takes root in his brain, and this supercomputer communicates with a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor). The Squip will guide his moves to become more popular at school. Mitchell announces himself as one to watch with his opening number, “More Than Survive,” and then transforms convincingly throughout, leading this finely tuned ensemble. The mysterious Squip, played with potent authority by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, is stunningly dressed in a dapper black crocodile coat made by costume designer Sarah Porter. He is the catalyst for action good, bad and ugly. If he looks like Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix,” it’s intentional.

Jayde Mitchell and Dominic Dowdy-WindsorDowdy-Windsor, always a strong singer, manages the beats of
the darker role, as he is usually cast in heroic or romantic leads, a la “Yeast
Nation” and “Zorba the Greek.” He’s terrific leading “Be More Chill” and
revealing more of his intentions in “The Pitiful Children.”

As we know from every John Hughes movie in the 1980s, being
a “Cool Kid” has its price, and losing/not valuing true-blue friends is one of
the harshest costs. Jeremy’s bestie, Michael Mell, must be sacrificed in his all-consuming
make-over quest to fit in and be liked – and not be invisible..

As Michael, dynamo Kevin Corpuz shines in a major supporting
role, giving his all – it’s a heartfelt performance, easily tugging at the
emotions in not only his delivery, but in his solo number, ‘Michael in the
Bathroom.”

Irrepressible Evan Fornachon plays Rich, a jerky Big Man on
Campus who likes to bully both Jeremy and Michael, displaying a menace that
makes his ‘a-ha’ moment all the better.

Jayde Mitchell and Evan FornachonJeremy’s Dad is played with marvelously droll delivery by
Zak Farmer, depressed over his recent divorce, who wanders around in a robe,
mortifying his son, who would like to have him put on some pants. How can you
not love a composer who gives you “The Pants Song”?

Farmer also doubles as Mr. Reyes, the cynical and animated
drama teacher. He is very funny, both in appearance with an interesting platinum
wig and in line delivery.

Another standout is Grace Langford playing ditzy Christine,
who had been the object of Jeremy’s affection before the hotter, sluttier girls
made a beeline for him once he had cool street cred. Her off-the-charts exuberance
over acting in school plays is a ‘been there, done that’ bright spot,
especially “I Love Play Rehearsal” and her candid “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”

Gossip girl Jenna is all attitude in the hands of Isabel
Garcia, who plays snarky, sassy and snotty with a duplicitous beaming smile.
Laura Renfro, as shallow Chloe, and Melissa Felps, as vapid Brooke, are
mercurial marvels here, powering through their characters’ hormones, secrets and
lies with glee, quickly flipping moods. Ian McCreary also displays the viper girls’
distasteful qualities as their shameless male counterpart Jake.

The meticulous attention to detail is evident in every
creative aspect, which are all in sync to create “a moment,” providing theater
patrons with an entirely memorable experience.

The simplicity of the music, with its repetitive lyrics and
catchy hooks, is deceptive, for music director Nicolas Valdez and his ace band
– Assistant music director Marc Vincent as conductor/keyboard, Jake Heberlie on
guitar, Joseph Henricks on reeds and keyboard, Clancy Newell on percussion and
Jake Stergos on bass are extremely tight in pacing and master the score’s
intricacies.

Choreographers Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack gave both
a playful bounce and a vitality to the group musical numbers.

Combined with the ensemble’s exquisite harmonies, the peppy
group numbers “Be More Chill,” “Upgrade” and “Voices in My Head” get stuck,
well, in your head. And yes,  “The
Smartphone Hour” is literal, funny and nails the cellphone phenomenon.

Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s set is a clever mix of effective
futuristic symbols and as always, his set is supremely functional. Everything
has a purpose for being there. Propmaster Kimi Short did a dandy job assembling
pieces that suit the décor and lifestyles.

Lippert, also the lighting designer, has excelled in
creating precarious teen moods and a fantasy futuristic element with his illuminating
plan. Ryan Day’s sound work is seamless.

In her wheelhouse, Porter has populated the oh-so-fun and
cringe-worthy Halloween Party with a variety of spot-on costumes, showcasing
both personality and pop culture references. Her work throughout is accurate –
and cheeky. She gets the ‘90s love.

“Be More Chill” is fresh and funny, and not in a jaded
‘we’re so clever and smart’ way, but with real heart, and that may be the most
important aspect – the emphasis on real.

 The musical, in
lyrics and book, speaks to us in a captivating way that transcends labels and
genres. It
targets our humanity. To make people feel less alone in this world is
a remarkable thing.

(There is a wall of Post-It Notes at The Marcelle indicating what people imagine as their Squip. I didn’t take marker to paper opening night, but I’ve thought about it since, and mine would be Oprah. What’s yours?)

The New Line Theatre is presenting “Be More Chill” through June 22 but is sold out for its complete run. For more information about New Line, visit www.NewLineTheatre.com

#BeMoreChillSTL

Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined
outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward
from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a
show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic
enhancements, it’s endearing.

In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.

Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert
Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work
together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star
performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as
their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically,
he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen
not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.

When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her
ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara
Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’
lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.

The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin
to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who
they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the
meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.

Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.

It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now,
people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists
in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore,
“La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.

As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.

But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible
feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined
by the confident directors.

Zora Vredeveld, Kevin Corpuz, Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.

Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen,
both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially
that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a
real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy,
cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.

Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency
showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring
true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to
the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.

Robert Doyle and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in
comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a
comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of
the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky –
the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a
lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was
much more assertive.

The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are
secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed
here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but
really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.

Tielere Cheatem as Jacob. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting
in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and
motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances
in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is
impressive.

When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.

Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame
Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a
standout.

Lindsey Jones and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic
restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several
terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”

As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a
high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic
Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are
gleeful as real accomplished showmen.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable
cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage
manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).

As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or
straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by
not relying on superficial stereotypes.

Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.

Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.

Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional –
he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the
lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,”
succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.

Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.

Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The
Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the
show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.

Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz –
a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his
lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s
expert sound design is consistently good.

There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.

None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.

Photo by Jill Ritter LIndbergNew Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Science Fiction, meet Musical Comedy, New Line Theatre-style, with a touch of Midnight Movie Madness.
Artistic Director Scott Miller co-directs musicals with Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and has certainly proven over the years that he beats to a different drummer. Hence, this calling card — an original and clever “The Zombies of Penzance,” where he makes the walking dead kick in a chorus line and put moves on sheltered single ladies.
These silly components make this quirky world premiere a dip into Monty Python territory. Miller has substituted singing and dancing zombies for musical comedy pirate characters, using the same structure of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, which makes it funnier. It may be one-joke, but it’s laugh-out-loud fun.

Turns out zombies have personalities in sync with pirates! Stranger things have happened, so just go with it, and enjoy the playful spirit. I mean, songs have titles like “Eat Their Flesh,” “Poor Walking Dead,” and “Hail, Zombies!” We can’t be serious, no matter how straight the characters play their predicaments.
The 1879 comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” by the British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, was given new life in a Joseph Papp 1981 revival that won Kevin Kline the Tony as the swashbuckling Pirate King. It spawned many imitations and parodies, and a 1983 feature film. Here, you think of both those cartoonish roles and the roaming zombies that rule movie and TV screens, particularly this time of year.
The flimsy 19th century plot should be played for laughs – Frederic, 21, is released from his apprenticeship from tender-hearted pirates, but a technicality – he is a Leap Day baby — means he must serve another 63 years, but his true-love Mabel agrees to wait. We’re not talking “The Great Gatsby” level tragic romance.
Now, New Line has rewired the “Slave of Duty” to be a fresh zombie! Frederic is a new flesh eater, a pawn in the other zombie maneuvers as they aim their mark on Major-General Stanley and his nubile brood.
Let the wackiness ensue with Miller’s smart book and quick-witted lyrics, using Gilbert’s template. Listen carefully for laugh-out-loud humor, utilizing contemporary snarkiness.
St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes reconstructed Sullivan’s music, and it’s a mighty fine re-working. In music director Nicolas Valdez’s capable hands, he conducts a snazzy nine-piece band, including Gerdes on French horn, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Joseph Hendricks on bassoon, Emily Trista Lane on cello, Twinda Murry on violin and Kely Austermann/Hope Walker on reeds. Valdez is on keyboards. Their efforts are exquisite – love those strings!
Dowdy-Windsor, an oft-nominated director with Miller for St. Louis Theater Circle Awards (and winner for “Bonnie & Clyde”), also has a keen eye and sharp attention to detail.
The pair has moved the cast around – you hear the flesh-eaters before the heavily made-up zombies shamble through the audience to the Stanley home. Yet, this is not intended to be slick staging, but a motley crew invasion with a rag-tag feel.
Those dastardly decaying dudes have their eyes on Stanley’s bevy of beauties. However, Major-General Stanley, who professes to be a zombie, is actually a great zombie hunter.
Zak Farmer is as sharp as ever as the fearless father, but what stands out is his impeccable delivery of the difficult songs, particularly the often parodied “Major-General’s Song,” which is now “Modern Era Zombie Killer,” and “When the World Went Bad.” His impressive performance indicates how deceptively hard farcical fun is.
The charade will be up soon enough, but in the meantime, romantic entanglements are on the minds of those frisky young ones, who wish they were not at a disadvantage.
Dominic Dowdy-WindsorWith his strong voice, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor delivers superb vocals as the Zombie King, including the solo “Oh Better Far, to Live as Dead,” and his many duets and company numbers. Given the confines of the part, he can’t swashbuckle like the role model Pirate King, and I wish he could have more swagger.
Sean Michael and Melissa FelpsSean Michael, as the dullard Frederic, and Melissa Felps, as a rather colorless Mabel, are saddled with a drippy romance that’s the show’s centerpiece. Voices are fine and so is their earnestness, but those roles remain insipid. Their lack of chemistry doesn’t help either. (The 1981 revival starred Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt).
So, the supporting cast’s efforts enliven the puffy piece.
The ladies play the giggly girly magnets up to a point, then reveal they’re no helpless ingenues. That’s a nice twist.
With Lindsay Jones as Kate, Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel and Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak and Sarah Porter as other daughters, you knew they weren’t going to be powder puffs, but amp up their grrrl power. Armed already with gorgeous voices, they are demure to a point, but then turn into warrior princesses.
Kent Coffel goes all in as Zombie Sam, playing everything for laughs – and he’s a delight. Other goofy zombies Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki and Kyle Kelesoma physically turn into animated creatures.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert paid homage to George A. Romero, director of the 1968 cult classic, “The Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of zombie lore,  in his ornate home interior, a cool touch. The set has the period look, but also a show within a show accents.
Costume designer Sarah Porter has outfitted everyone in appropriate garb for the tonal shifts — the frilly feminine dresses and petticoats for the girls and the natty Zombie attire for the guys. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design emphasizes the bewitching tone while Ryan Day’s sound work makes all those fast-paced lyrics easily understood.
These zombies might not terrify, after all, but they certainly provide a fun, frothy look in a lighter vein — at both vintage opera and the horror archetypes who proliferate this time of year. Barbara, they are coming — only armed with songs, dances and feelings.
One can’t resist the pull of brainy and talented people who set out for a road not taken before.
“The Zombies of Penzance” is presented by New Line Theatre Sept. 27 – Oct. 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Arts Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com and for tickets, call 314-534-1111 or go to MetroTix.com
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg