Metro East native Mark Hollmann (Belleville East High, 1981) wrote the music, and teamed up with librettist Greg Kotis on the lyrics to create this 2001 Off-Broadway, and later Broadway, hit. In the Stray Dog Theatre production, A pre-recorded band sounds great, though one cast member is drowned-out on more than one occasion; meanwhile Chris Petersen manages some very elaborate vocal work with the singers on stage.
In the end, though, it's the cast, liberally sprinkled with well-known leading men and leading ladies from all over town, that makes it irresistible. Antonio Rodriguez is bright and winning and breathlessly hopeful as the young man who organizes a rebellion against a wicked billionaire (the too-seldom seen Christopher Brenner) but, inevitably, falls in love with his sweet unspoiled daughter. As that dippy heiress, Jennifer Theby nearly walks off with the entire show, yanking us around one unexpected screwball corner after another, in a terrific comic portrayal. Deborah Sharn morphs into a sort of Marlene Dietrich of the gutter, as the manager of Public Amenity #9; and young Berklea Going (who must be going on about 30 by now, after all her high-power exposure) is terrific as the Little Sally, the little girl with too many smart questions. In all that, don't forget Jeffrey Wright: thrillingly thrown away as comic relief.
Keith Thompson is perfect as the genial, vicious cop-on-the-beat who narrates, despite the occasional awkward questions from Little Sally; Michael Brightman is great as the corrupt lawmaker who helps push through a doubling of pay toilet rates; and all the rest are meticulous, manic, and over-the-top magic, pushing the show to higher highs, at every turn.
Ryan Cooper is unrecognizably visceral and beautifully Brooklynesque as Mr. Rodriguez' father (and later as another poverty-stricken member of the rabble). Josh Douglas (as Officer Barrel) and the whole cast are highly polished. Sabra Sellers, in the seemingly colorless role of Soupy Sue, brings a shockingly high degree of stage acumen to her role as a wobbly-legged member of the mob. Look for great things from her. Nothing here is taken for granted, and (like the water-starved world in the background) nothing goes to waste.
I generally avoid talking about choreography, because I know almost nothing about it. But J. T. Ricroft 's group numbers ratchet up the energy, time and again, with a particularly glorious moment in the number "We're Not Sorry" when the dancing geometry seems to unfold again and again, almost as if we were rushing into the action ourselves, or as if it were rumbling unstoppably into the audience. (Mr. Ricroft is also inexcusably funny on stage, as the token gay assistant to the evil genius.)
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (with a matinee on 2/18), and newly added shows at 8 p.m. on 2/24 and 2/25/2012 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., about a mile south of I-44 and then just east of Grand Ave.. Tennessee is one-way going north in the 2300 block, and there's free parking in a moderate-sized guarded lot. Call (314) 865-1995 or visit them on-line at www.straydogtheatre.org
Musical recording provided by Aztec Show Trax LLC
Photo by John C. Lamb