Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Good Ship St. Louis
Upstream Theater

Review by Richard T. Green


Jeff Cummings and Nancy Bell
Photo by ProPhotoSTL
Younger readers may be shocked to learn that we once took pride in being a nation of immigrants and refugees. But even in the old days, leading up to World War II, there were terrible exceptions to the rule. In Upstream Theater's world premiere production at the Marcelle Theatre in St. Louis, The Good Ship St. Louis tells the story of a desperate group of German Jews who hoped to escape Hitler's concentration camps.

But their 175 meter-long cruise ship was denied entry to several free Western nations, and its passengers turned back to face dire consequences in the Europe of 1939. It's a remarkable new play with a bit of song and dance, written by Upstream Theater producer and director Philip Boehm, with original music by Anthony Barilla. The two-hour show uses parallel modern-day scenes to show that the path of 21st century refugees remains a rocky one as well. The failed passage to Havana was previously been made into a film, Voyage of the Damned, in 1976.

Some of the most admired actors in St. Louis work emotional warp and weft into a story composed of dreadful strands of fate. Kari Ely plays a retired nurse who discovers a suitcase in her late mother's attic, full of foreign language correspondence and odd memorabilia. Concurrently, Nancy Bell plays a German woman boarding the diesel-powered steamship with her husband, with that same suitcase, 83 years earlier.

Christopher Hickey is smooth and stylish in a variety of roles, including a Nazi spy and (marching forward through the decades) a series of dour cafe denizens, finally tut-tutting in the present day, over the "real news" of caravans of Latin American refugees hoping to enter the United States, in scenes he shares with plucky Tom Wethington. Peter Mayer is the no-nonsense ship's captain (affable, but just this side of glowering) looking for a friendly port and provoking an international incident along the way. At one point, he plots to smuggle the German Jews into England through an unguarded south coastal area near Brighton, not unlike today's illegal migration across the English Channel from the coast of France. Elsewhere, Kathleen Sitzer is excellent in two roles: as a wealthy, demanding refugee on board; and later as an elderly Syrian woman living alone in a cellar in Sidon, Lebanon, having been forced out of her home by the Assad regime.

Eric J. Conners is endearing as a steward on board, and later as one of the thousands of Bosnians who found their way to St. Louis in the 1990s, amidst "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. Sarah Burke is emotionally arresting as a new widow on the steamship, and Jeff Cummings is relentlessly optimistic as Ms. Bell's tangoing husband.

Miranda Jagles Félix seems to pass through the show, willing herself to near invisibility, but with a different personality each time, as a waitress in cafes or country clubs–until, ultimately, she's the girl who never made it to her own new world. The lavish and on-point costumes (which fly by in a flurry of quick-changes) are by Laura Hanson.

The most interesting people I've ever known have all been refugees from some place, or from some thing, at one point or another in their lives. And each character on board here captures that same strange angst: as if they understood what it means to be locked in a chrysalis and stuck in a jar. And left to dream of a future that seems quite impossible.

The Good Ship St. Louis runs through November 20, 2022, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. There's a lighted, fenced parking lot immediately across the street, four blocks east of Powell Symphony Hall, at Leonard Ave. For tickets and information, please visit www.upstreamtheater.org.

Cast:
Susan: Kari Ely*
Herbert K: Jeff Cummings*
Rosa K: Nancy Bell*
Leo Jockl: Eric. J. Conners*
Charlotte H: Kathleen Sitzer*
Schiendick: Christopher Hickey*
Recha W: Sarah Burke*
Moritz W: Tom Wethington**
Captain Gustav Schröder: Peter Mayer*
Captain Schröder Understudy: Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Benito/Benny/Benedict: Tom Wethington**
Frederico/Freddie/Fred: Christopher Hickey*
Maria/Mary/Marisa: Mirada Jagles Félix
Jasmin: Eric J. Conners*
Leyla: Kathleen Sitzer*
Vernon: Eric J. Conners*
Lidia: Sarah Burke*

The Band:
Music Director: Henry Palkes
Cellists: Colette Wicks, Ethan Edwards

Artistic Staff:
Director: Philip Boehm***
Composer/Sound Design: Anthony Barilla
Scenic Design: Laura Fine Hawkes
Costume Design: Laura Hanson
Lighting Design: Steve Carmichael
Scenic Artist: Andy Cross****
Properties: Michaelina Miller
Movement Coach: Aparna Kalyanaraman
Production Stage Manager: Patrick Siler*
Technical Director: Jim Robert
Assistant Director: Miranda Jagels FĂ©lix
Assistant Stage Manager: Michaelina Miller
Assistant Lighting/Board Operator: JM Bock
House Manager/Box Office: Monica Roscoe
Master Electrician: Tony Anselmo
Wardrobe: Abby Pastorello
Projection Design: Brian McLelland, Mona Sabau
Graphic Art: Paige Brubeck, Evan Sult
Program Design: Clare Fairbanks
Cultural Advisor: Kathleen Sitzer

* Denotes Member, Actor's Equity Association

** Denotes Equity Membership Candidate

*** Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society

**** Denotes Member of United Scenic Design Artists Local USA 829


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