Donna Parrone

Theater Reviewer

Donna Parrone has been involved with St Louis theater since moving here in the 1980's. She is one of the founders of HotHouse Theatre (now HotCity) and has been an actor, a producer, a director and an educator.

(Courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Elf, the stage musical based on the movie with Will Ferrell, opened at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday.  Before we go any further I have to make a confession, I never saw the movie. Unlike the girl sitting next to me, I can’t tell you the movie is funnier. But here is what I can tell you.

(Courtesy of Jeff Hirsch)

When entering the theater at The New Jewish Theatre’s current production of Hannah Senesh, you are immediately engaged with the set, a graceful, ethereal concoction by Peter and Margery Spack, which seems at odds with a tale of death and war but very appropriate once we meet our young heroine, Hannah, played with buoyant appeal by Shanara Gabrielle. Hannah’s tale is told through her diary, which she kept from age 13 to 23, ending right before the Gestapo executed her for treason. 

(Courtesy of Joan Marcus)

If you are looking for some toe-tapping entertainment this Thanksgiving, Sister Act, which opened Tuesday at the Fabulous Fox, is everything a musical should be. From the electric, shiny audition number at the top of the show, to the glitterfest at the end, Sister Act is tons of fun, shiny, sparkly fun!

(Courtesy of Jeff Hirsch)

At the beginning of Pippin, the Leading Player speaks to the audience and tells them “We have magic to do.” It’s what you hope for every time you see theater. It’s what keeps us acting, directing, designing, dancing and attending, the hope that tonight all the elements will come together and enthrall us, creating a bit of magic in an ordinary world. Last week, the Repertory Theatre of St Louis gave us some magic as they opened Fly, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan.

(Courtesy of Jeff Hirsch)

New Jewish Theatre opens their 17th season with Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. More of a sketch comedy piece than a true play, the small vignettes of Anton Chekov’s short stories, represent slices of Russian life at the turn of the last century and are quilted together by a narrator, a writer who is auditioning some of his characters for us. David Wassilak plays the narrator and involves himself in several of the stories (either as the narrator character or as a specific character, it’s a bit unclear.)

(Courtesy of Peter Wochniak)

I know everyone is probably making the same pun, but Stages St Louis’ closing show of their season, My Fair Lady is, without any doubts, absolutely “loverly.” The moment you enter the theater James Wolk’s set draws you in and sets you down in a London market street circa 1910. Costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis are exquisite thorough-out, but the opening sets the tone so you are holding your breath to see what Eliza wears at her transformation.

(Courtesy of Stewart Goldstein)

Last year, Ron Conner led Black Rep casts in four out of five productions, and from the first, became one of my favorite actors to watch. This year he leads the Black Rep away from its twenty-six year home at the Grandel Theater to the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theater on the campus of Washington University and opens the new season with a sizzling one man show, Emergency. (The Black Rep was recently unceremoniously dumped from their long-time home. Hotchner will not be a permanent space for them, but was the perfect space for this particular show.)

(Courtesy of Todd Studio)

If you like your comedy dark and twisted, irreverent and absolutely “for adults only,” you’ve probably been a fan of HotCity Theatre for ages; and their latest offering, Entertaining Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton, shouldn’t be missed. First, it’s a rare chance to see Orton’s first play, written in 1964. While no longer scandalous, it’s a great touchstone to see how far we have evolved. Second, it has some of the strongest technical elements I’ve seen to date in the Kranzberg Art Center’s black box theater. Third, the pre-eminent comic actor in town, Lavonne Byers, leads the able cast.

(Courtesy of Peter Wochniak)

Summertime is in full swing and that means musicals! Stages St Louis and the MUN Y both do musicals all summer long, giving St Louis audiences tapping toes and entertaining ear worms. Last week, Stages opened their newest offering, Legally Blonde, the 2007 stage play based on a novel by Amanda Brown and the wildly popular movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

(Courtesy of John Lamb)

Little Shop of Horrors dwells on a short list of musicals that I really love and the Stray Dog production, which opened at Tower Grove Abbey last weekend, is a great example of why. If done well, Little Shop… cannot fail to please. This particular production, under keen and polished direction by Justin Been, succeeds gloriously. It is given a Stray Dog twist, in the guise of some alternative casting, which serves to enhance the tawdry setting of Skid Row. 

(Courtesy of Joan Marcus)

It seems like everyone I know loves Anything Goes. My best friend in college was madly in love with Patti Lapone when she played Reno Sweeney back in 1987 and Mel Brooks says he decided to go into theater after seeing the 1934 production with Ethel Merman. The 2011 Tony winning production by Roundabout Theatre Company is making its St Louis premiere now through June 9th at the Fox with a glittering and ebullient Rachel York at the helm, channeling a bit of Mae West from time to time. The story is silly and campy with lots of puns and old jokes that are still fun.

(Courtesy of Peter Wochniak)

Sunday night of An Iliad’s opening weekend found me headed down to one of my favorite theaters, Upstream Theater, where the work is always interesting. I attended this St Louis premiere with one of my favorite gals and the actor of this one man show, Jerry Vogel, is one of St Louis’ finest. Director Patrick Siler created an evening of intense storytelling and music; the music provided with great finesse by Farsid Soltanshahi.

(Courtesy of Todd Studios)

Somehow the notion that the 1950’s were an idyllic time in America continues to exist and people continue to idealize that decade in terms of gender confidence, family values and strong American ethics. No one remembers that 37% of (mostly poor) women worked outside the home, 11% of the population was gay and racism was rampant. Welcome to Maple and Vine , HotCity Theatre’s second production of their 2013 season. Directed by Doug Finlayson, Maple and Vine harkens back to the beginnings of HotHouse Theatre, when the scripts were provocative and surprising.

(Courtesy of Stewart Goldstein)

There is comfort in a familiar musical. You sing snatches of song starting a few days before you go. You see the show and all the lyrics come flooding back and fill your head for days to come, humming under your breath or full out sing-alongs on the way into work. A new musical can be even more exciting, especially the anticipation. How will song and story be integrated? Will you come away singing any of the songs? Is it a story for the ages, or a piece that will one day be dated and irrelevant?

(Courtesy of Stewart Goldstein)

I appreciate every day I learn something new. A little over 1% of all Southern slaveholders were Jewish and they treated their slaves the same as everyone else. The Whipping Man, opening at the St Louis Black Rep, combines this fact with an intriguing story of faith, family and freedom. The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez takes place in April of 1865, after Lincoln has freed the slaves, after the South has surrendered, and during Passover. That’s relevant because the returning Confederate soldier, Caleb, is Jewish, as are his family slaves, Simon and John.

(Courtesy of Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

This past weekend saw the opening of Double Indemnity at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis and As You Like It at St Louis Shakespeare. These are very different plays but, in watching both, I was taken by the roles of women through the ages and what that represents, then and now.

(Courtesy of Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

The Repertory Theatre of St Louis opened their final studio offering for the season with Venus in Fur by David Ives, directed by Seth Gordon.  Thomas, played by Jay Stratton, is a playwright trying to cast his female lead, Vanda (Sarah Nedwek) in an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs—the novel that coined the term “masochism.” The play is highly entertaining but the promise of seduction was not fulfilled.

There are times when theater is truly larger than life. There are times when it inspires with the message of the story and the creativity of the production, the spectacle of theater which teaches us something about the spectacle of life and encourages us to live on a grander scale. Not in material possessions, but in our thoughts and aspirations.  War Horse, which opened at the Fox Wednesday night to an enormous crowd, is just such a theatrical adventure and the audience’s pleasure was marked by a proper standing ovation at the end of the night.

(Courtesy of John Lamb)

In 1988 David Mamet’s Speed the Plow opened on Broadway with its skewering, shocking truths about how films get made in Hollywood. In 2013, no one is unaware of how Hollywood makes the blockbusters or the stars.  (If a studio pays enough papers to say a movie or a star is “the next big thing” eventually the average person thinks it’s true.) No longer shocking, but with plenty of meat for discussion, Speed the Plow opened this weekend at the New Jewish Theatre.

©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Opening night at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis is always a delight, the energy is high and the audience filled with St Louis theater people. And delightful certainly describes the opening night of Jon Jory’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, not only because the direction is strong, the ensemble equally polished and the technical aspects gorgeous, but also because there are a number of St Louis actors onstage which added to the celebratory atmosphere.

(Courtesy of John Lamb)

I love going to Stray Dog Theatre. I love the space, I love that Artistic Director Gary Bell greets everyone by name and with a warm embrace. I think Production Manager Jay Hall is one of the most organized, efficient, positive and kind-hearted people in the St Louis theater scene. Even the volunteers seem genuinely happy to pour you a wet one at the Bark Bar and serve the delicious baked goods (still made by Gary’s sister, Jennifer.) So I was very happy to see the opening night of their latest offering, Psycho Beach Party.

©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

4000 miles is a long way to bike, from Washington State to Greenwich Village, New York. But bike it Leo does, and arrives at his grandmother’s apartment at three in the morning, redolent with the scent of travel. And at first, there’s an equally wide chasm of misunderstanding between 21 year-old Eco-hippie, Leo and 91 year-old leftist, Vera. So begins the Repertory Theater of St Louis’ studio offering, 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, skillfully directed by Jane Page.

Nancy Tonkins

What fan of history or baseball, wouldn’t love to travel back to 1947 to witness the drama of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in his historic season with the Brooklyn Dodgers? 10-year-old Joey Stoshack has the ability to do just that, even though he was born in 2002. He just holds a baseball card in his hand, thinks about where he wants to go and poof! There he is, 1947, Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and oh yeah, suddenly he’s black.

Peter Wochniak

Upstream Theater has a reputation for doing the unusual and their newest offering, Café Chanson, conceived and directed by Ken Page, is unusual and wonderful. From the moment Bill Lenihan leads the audience from the lobby to the theater, playing "La Vie En Rose" on his accordion, you know this will be a unique experience. When I saw the list of songs I thought, “Oh, this is a cabaret.” But it isn’t, it is something else entirely, a lyrical, smoky, memory play told in rhyme and song. The actors don’t sing as much as they continue the story with the music.

©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

2011 saw the Occupy movement and the beginning of a national discussion of fairness, equality and compensation disparity. How is it we live in this land of “equality” but experience such disproportion? David Lindsay-Abaire’s  script, Good People, explores these questions and shows us that neither side is wholly right or wholly wrong. He gives us plenty to discuss but no answers. This is my favorite kind of theater, hot button issues without preachy solutions.

Photo by Stewart Goldstein

Twenty years ago the Black Rep opened their inaugural season at the Grandel with The Piano Lesson, now they are giving it another interpretation, utilizing the skills of actors who learned their craft as interns at the Black Rep and many who continue to return to the “family.” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script, the fourth in his Pittsburgh Cycle, has ghosts and music, avarice and love, sex and innocence. In the capable hands of director Lorna Littleway, it is a rollicking good time.

Talley’s Folly takes place in a decaying Victorian boathouse on the night of July 4, 1944 in Lebanon, Missouri. Matt Friedman (played by Shaun Sheley) a Jewish accountant from St Louis, comes to propose to Sally Talley, a free-spirited "southern" girl chafing under conservative home rule, whom he had fallen in love with a year earlier. It is a play about releasing secrets and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to chose love.