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St. Louis by Richard Green

Awake and Sing!
New Jewish Theatre

Also see Sarah's review of Next to Normal

Awake and Sing!
Aaron Orion Baker, Julie Layton, Bobby Miller, Gary Wayne Barker and Elizabeth Townsend
Just when you thought it was safe to treat Clifford Odets' 1930s working-family drama as a sleepy old relic, along come big business attacks in Wisconsin and Indiana and Michigan to renew our interest in the struggle for workers' rights, here in 2011. And it doesn't hurt that one of Missouri's most prestigious directors lends a hand in this timely revival, either: Steven Woolf, of the Repertory Theatre molds Awake and Sing into a mostly spontaneous, flesh-and-blood pot-boiler with a nuanced, engaging cast. Thanks to them, and to these modern times, "awake and sing" it does indeed.

Under Mr. Woolf's direction, the performers capture the crazy delight of noble spirits in fierce conflict—whether it's Aaron Orion Baker's disenchanted working man, battling his no-nonsense mother (the splendid Elizabeth Ann Townsend); or Bobby Miller as the proletariat grandfather, battling against nearly everyone else—while keeping a twinkle in his eye. Ms. Townsend especially, and the whole cast, remain masters of their own stereotypes.

Julie Layton is great as the rebellious daughter whose little secret throws the family into a tailspin. And Jason Cannon is another black sheep, throwing cold water on everyone's romantic and economic idealism, as Layton's cynical, thwarted suitor. Now and then, in his characterization, he sneaks up to an imaginary line that might separate Stanley Kowalski from Sky Masterson, and dances lightly between the two. But he's at his absolute best when he simply underplays, off to one side of the stage, once his own character is fully established. Gary Wayne Barker plays the ineffectual father who almost, but not quite, realizes his terrible failure in life. And, like the struggle for better working conditions, Mr. Barker's own internal workings are hinted at with ingenious subtlety.

There are also heavy hitters in the outfield: Jerry Vogel as a businessman who knows the dark underside of the labor war; and Terry Meddows coming and going as a building superintendent who's strictly Old World. Jordan Reinwald even manages to be heart-wrenching as he simmers with indignation over his fate as a convenient but unloved young husband. And that's partly due to good direction, too: as our eyes wander over to him, ever the outsider as the story moves on.

But at the end of it all, there are some five troubling minutes or so when the three young stars map out their plan to boycott the status quo. And here we are, with Mr. Baker, Ms. Layton and Mr. Cannon: each of them highly respected around town, under the direction of the longest-surviving of all the top-ranked local showmen—and somehow they all agree to turn those last five minutes from kitchen-sink realism into a two-dimensional, tremulous soap opera. Now, as soon as I say that, I must confess that the audience didn't seem to mind at all at the way things worked out. But it was a strange note to leave on, being a clear break from all the credibility they'd built up in the preceding two hours. Why they all decided (or why the director couldn't resist) to "schmaltz it up" in those final, mawkish minutes, I guess we'll never know. But everyone else in the audience seemed to like it fine on that first Saturday night. It shouldn't stop you from going, but it ought to give director Woolf pause to reconsider the power of Odets, and the potential power of his own young actors to come up with something better—or at least more consistent with the overall tone.

Through May 8, 2011, at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, just west of Lindberg on Schuetz Rd. For more information call (314) 442-3283 or visit them online at www.newjewishtheatre.org

Cast
Ralph Berger: Aaron Orion Baker
Myron Berger: Gary Wayne Barker*
Hennie Berger: Julie Layton
Bessie Berger: Elizabeth Ann Townsend*
Jacob: Bobby Miller*
Schlosser: Terry Meddows
Moe Axelrod: Jason Cannon*
Uncle Morty: Jerry Vogel*
Sam Feinschreiber: Jordan Reinwald*

Crew
Director: Steve Woolf**
Production Manager: Dave Hahn
Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Stage Manager: Champe Leary*
Scenic Design: Scott C. Neale
Lighting Design: Hans Fredrickson
Costume Design: Garth Dunbar
Properties Design: Wendy Renee Greenwood & Lauren Kissell
Master Electrician: Nathan Schroeder
Sound Design: Noah Thomas
Assistant Technical Director: Emilie Weilbacher
Production Assistant: Alex Seidel
Scenic Artist: David Revis
Dialect Coach: Julie Foh
Dramaturg: Andrea Braun
Construction: Mark Kelley
Run Crew: Lauren Kissel, Alex Seidel
Wardrobe: Lauren Garvey

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association

** Denotes member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers


Photo: John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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