Some sad news. Another great retro spot is biting the dust.
Good news. The St. Louis Media History Foundation’s new exhibit at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is now open. And it’s about food. We – I’m on the board of the Foundation and I helped curate this exhibit – are showing off some fascinating and sometimes quite handsome stuff from the Foundation’s collection.
Most of what we have is advertising from local companies, some forgotten and some still very much with us. We’ve got a loop playing of a cooking program from the early days of St. Louis radio. There are some restaurant ads, some blowups of newspaper stories and covers of magazines.
It’s a lovely building, although, alas, not wheelchair-accessible. The room that the Karpeles has given the Foundation is air conditioned, another plus.
St. Louis Media History Foundation Room
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
3524 Russell Blvd
Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
The boys from Jersey are back. Nah, it’s not the guys from the Bing. It’s Frankie Valli and his pals who made up the Four Seasons, in “Jersey Boys”, currently enthralling folks at the Fox. For my peers, it’s the soundtrack of our youth.
The show was here two years ago, but this version turned out to be worth a return visit. The music itself, from the four principals and the orchestra – which is what most of us would refer to as a band including a brass section that’s featured – is particularly well done. It’s the tale, abbreviated and adjusted with dramatic license, of how the group came and how they went. Valli, of course, went on to have a solo career using band member-composer Bob Gaudio’s songs.
These are middle-aged guys looking back (although some look younger than others), which is a nice casting choice. All eyes are on the Valli character, who’s Aaron de Jesus, feisty and with a fabulous voice, nailing the falsetto that made Valli’s reputation. Matthew Dailey’s Tommy de Vito, who founded the group, easily flashes back and forth between charming and not-so-much. Gaudio, played by Drew Seeley, is a much quieter guy than the first two, but clearly brilliant – he’d written a #1 hit before he was 16 – and Seeley carries his self-assurance like it’s in his genes. The bass in the group, a key player in the doo-wop-ish songs that they began with, Keith Hines as Nick Massi, charms from start to finish, occasionally bringing a touch of Jack Nicholson to the role. The harmony in their singing and the group interaction is mirror-smooth.
A warning: When you can’t understand the opening scene, it’s not the Fox sound system. It’s in French. Otherwise, things were under good control in that department. The set, simple steel piping with lots of room to roll furniture in and out, from Klara Zieglerova, works perfectly, and music director Taylor Peckham’s efforts pay off. There are two drummers, although only one is credited in the program, and two separate drum kits on movable bases. The drums float around as part of things. Serious lighting work from Howell Binkley is a major contribution to the feel of the evening. And then there’s the costume design from Jess Goldstein. Once upon a time, teen idols performed in suits and ties, kids. Extra points for the brocade jackets, a perfect example of what it really looked like in those days.
There are times when even serious theater-goers just want to be entertained. Here’s their chance.
through May 22
527 N. Grand Blvd
PaPPo’s Pizzeria and Pub just feels right. A St. Louisan raised in Midtown and now gone, except for brief visits, for 25 years or so looked around the premises as he waited for his pizza. “It’s perfect. If you put me down here no matter what city it was in, I’d feel like I was in walking distance of St. Louis University.”
I knew what he meant, although neither of us could quite put our finger on it. Brick walls, slightly dark interior, lots of wood. (No ferns; RIP Caleco’s on Laclede.) No neon that I remember. But there are a couple of stainless steel tanks, not standard issue at any college bar. Pappo’s brews their own, at least at this location. The original PaPPo’s in Springfield, MO, and the one in Osage Beach have to make do with a large selection of craft beers.
There’s a long bar, several television sets, of course, booths and tables that seem to draw groups ranging from after work to multigenerational families. (This time of year, the college trade has getting out of Dodge on their minds, but otherwise they’d surely be among the faithful.)
The house salad is fresh and crisp, using mixed greens, mozzarella and parmesan, red onion, a little sweet red pepper, and artichoke hearts, all lightly touched with a balsamic vinaigrette. Eat with care; it’s a generous serving in a relatively small bowl and the greens can leap onto the table if not approached thoughtfully. Nevertheless, this is above average for a pizza place.
Wings, too, change things up a little. Instead of being deep-fried, they’re oven-roasted, upping their chances for staying juicy. And that they do, not as chewy as the fried version, but moister and happy to loll in one of six sauce styles. The Kickin’ Hot was medium intensity, and good enough that one longed for bread to mop the last of it up. Instead of blue cheese dressing alongside, there appeared a house-made ranch dressing bordering on splendid. Very desirable wings.
The pizza? Available as St. Louis style thin crust or a hand-tossed version, the thin is more than acceptable, but the hand-tossed is marvelous. This isn’t Neapolitan-style, so it doesn’t have the charred bubbles on it, but it’s chewy-tender, not the sort of crust whose edges get left on the plate. Of course there are options to create your own, so if your idea of heaven is anchovy and avocado, go right ahead. But there’s a passel of specialty pizzas from the merely elaborate to the near-shocking – I’m looking at you, sausage and sauerkraut. Available sizes are 8”, 12” and 14”, the first offered also as part of a lunch special.
A Sicilian from the specialty menu includes tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, Italian sausage, capicola (or gabagool, if you’re from Jersey), salami, banana peppers and red onions. All this balances out wonderfully, a little heat here and there, no palate-monopolizing overdose of fennel, a very good choice. Another option is the American Cheeseburger pizza. I hadn’t had hamburger on a pizza since I was a kid in Desloge learning on Chef Boy-Ar-Dee with the nearest pizzeria in the next county, but here it was, with a light tomato sauce, bacon, mozzarella and cheddar, and topped with slices of dill pickle. It is, of course, served with mustard and ketchup on the side. It would be a fine pizza for the hesitant eater, certainly, with familiar flavors. For the rest of us – well, it’s surprising what a bite of dill pickle does to something like this, the crunch and acidity punching things up very handsomely. The ketchup and mustard seemed superfluous – but there’s nothing wrong with a sprinkle of the crushed red pepper wafted across the top.
Sandwiches on the menu, too – the Little Italy Cold Cut holds Canadian bacon, more of that capicola, Genoa salami, Provolone, onion, tomato and is dressed with an Italian dressing. It was a very meaty sandwich of good quality salume, but suffered from bread that was past its prime.
Service is casual, but very pleasant, and at off-hours, the place is a fine place for a conversation. I suspect at peak, it’s pretty noisy. I can imagine parking near the Fox early, strolling down for a pizza and returning back up Grand before curtain time.
PaPPo’s Pizzeria and Pub
3690 Forest Park Blvd. @ Spring
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Dough is the story of a kosher baker in a transitional neighborhood in London. He's a widower, his only child, a son, is a fancy-schmancy barrister and his apprentice has just politely resigned to go to work for the chain store next door. His grandfather started the business - what's a chap to do? Sell the shop to the sleazy guy who owns the chain?
Jonathan Pryce (who's currently on Broadway in The Merchant of Venice) is Nat, the owner, a nice guy, maybe a little volatile, but when your family business is threatened, what do you expect? He ends up hiring the son of the Eritrean woman who cleans the shop. Ayyash (Jerome Holder) takes the job under some duress, but is - sort of - working out, when Nat discovers him on the floor, praying. It's sunrise, and the mother and son are Muslim. Nat's wearing a tallit, the prayer shawl, and tfillin, the bindings, both traditional, when he finds Ayyash, so it would seem to be an even encounter, but Nat's upset.
Still, the kid seems to be working out. And then there's an upsurge in the number of customers after he accidentally dumps some marijuana he's reselling into a batch of bagel dough. The senior baker has no idea, of course, but things roll (or bagel) prosperously along until Mr. Sleazy Chain-owning Neighbor puts two and two together. Needless to say, havoc ensues.
Who would have thought that a film about drugs and religious conflict could be almost gentle? And yet it is, coming close to downright charming at times. There's even a little romance in it. Me, I would have liked to have seen more work being done in the bakery, but that's just my professional instincts coming out.
Plaza Frontenac Cinema
The St. Louis Rooming House Plays has four more performance left, and as I write this, there are a few tickets left before it disappears into the air. At 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., an old house in Grand Center holds a remarkable group of performances, part of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
It’s a collection of short plays – some very short, indeed – that are staged in different rooms in the house. The audience is broken up into groups and moved from room to room, becoming voyeurs to Tennessee Williams works that hardly any of us have seen. The close views of actors moving – excuse me, I need to pick up my jacket – is fascinating, and we are mostly invisible to them.
Peter Mayer, in a hat whose last owner may have been Jimmy Durante, trudges up the stairs as a traveling salesman, glowering and glowing. Julie Layton struts and stalks, an actress who’s seeking escape from a life on the road. Eric Dean White and Julia Crump have at it as a behind-closed-doors couple with enough energy to charge a mobile phone. Anita Jackson looms as Bertha, a working girl, and does battle with Donna Weinsting , her just-slightly frowsy madam. There’s music in the parlor from Henry Palkes, with Ben Nordstrom and Christian Chambers, who’ve also been working upstairs trying to fend off Layton.
It’s an absolutely amazing experience for this town. Get online at Metrotix, get in gear and go. You won’t regret it. Not wheelchair accessible, and little actual seating, fyi.
The St. Louis Rooming House Plays
closes tomorrow, May 15
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
3508 Samuel Shepard Dr.
And more breaking news:
The Midnight Company will extend the run of its production of Tennessee Williams’ THE TWO-CHARACTER PLAY after its one-week run at Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. It will play Fridays and Saturdays, 8pm, May 27-28 and June 3-4 at the Winter Opera Space St. Louis, 2322 Marconi, 63110, on The Hill. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at BrownPaperTickets.com, with sales beginning Sunday, May 15. Tickets will also be available at the door, cash or check only.
It’s a mark of, well, something that when the average person hears the title Yentl, they think of the Barbra Streisand movie. What’s being staged at The New Jewish Theatre isn’t that Yentl. Both of them are based on an I.B. Singer short story, but this one began as a 1975 play from Leah Napolin with Singer. It ran on Broadway. In 2012, the play, in a collaboration between Napolin and Jill Sobule, was revised and music from Sobule added.
The setting is a shtetl in Poland in the late 1800’s. A girl, Yentl, wants to study Torah. But custom and practice forbids that. When she’s orphaned, she sets out to somewhere she’s not known, disguised as a boy, to join a school to study.
This is not a cross-dressing comedy, although there are a fair number of funny lines. It turns out to be a serious examination of gender roles that says plenty to modern-day society, both East and West. Yes, some people do get uncomfortable with that, even in a lighter setting. (Remember Tootsie? The women I know who saw it loved it. The men I knew, except the one I eventually married, all had negative reactions.) Most of the examination is by example rather than in the lines, once the initial exposition is done, so it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with it. But in this day and age – hello, North Carolina? – it’s hard not to see the transgender question involved here. All this in a time frame more than a century ago. Fascinating stuff.
It’s a very large cast as NJT productions go, everyone but the two leads playing multiple characters. Yentl is Shanara Gabrielle, a fine performance that encompasses both genders smoothly. She’s totally believable without stooping to stereotypes. Her classmate who becomes her best friend, Avigdor, Andrew Michael Neiman charms – he’s been dumped by the prettiest girl in the village and unloads his woes on his pal. Lots of fine, familiar faces zipping through various roles: I’d forgotten, for example, how much fun Terry Meddows is as a song-and-dance man. Peggy Billo reigns as the matriarch of bewitching Taylor Steward, the pretty girl, who soon becomes attached to Yentl-in-trousers.
The score is a great deal of fun. Jill Sobule (who also wrote “I Kissed a Girl”, by the way) was in the house for opening night, and deserves much credit for it. Live music from Aaron Doerr, Adam Anello and Dana Hotle, and music director Charlie Mueller all took fine care of her creation. Costumes from Michele Friedman Siler must have kept her busy for a good while, but they were splendid, some elegant, some just tatty enough. The set, a village and household, worked well, the work of Peter and Margery Spack. NJT’s artistic associate Ed Coffield directed this large, busy ensemble and kept a fine pacing and spirit to the work.
Good stuff, especially because it’s not what one might expect.
through June 5
The New Jewish Theatre
Marvin & Harlene Wool Theatre
Staenberg Family Complex
Jewish Community Center
“The Two-Character Play”, one of the first offerings from Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, was written in 1973. It’s not one his more well-known works, coming later in his career as he was complaining that critics didn’t appreciate his style as he evolved. It is, in some ways, rather reminiscent of absurdist theater, things like “Waiting For Godot”, language and emotions flying, relevant information coming (and occasionally going) in bits and pieces in sometimes-odd places.
The Midnight Company brings it to us, putting it in the hands of two of St. Louis’ most accomplished actors, Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand. They play sibling actors, struggling with careers that reached “failing” status some time ago, partially due to alcohol and pills, but beyond that they seem pretty dysfunctional on their own. The show uses the play-within-a-play idea, and the characters in the play are also siblings who are not in a close relationship with reality. It’s hard to tell which pair are more whacked out, but it really makes no difference, the sliding back and forth from one reality to the other is part of the game. Both Hand and Hanrahan are both utterly superb. Neither character would appear not to call for much subtle work; there’s a lot of scenes with what in other plays might be called scenery-chewing. But Williams’ characters seem to almost inevitably bring over-the-top emotions. Despite the OTT, there’s a considerable amount of less obvious work on view in these characters. Director Sarah Whitney orchestrates things beautifully.
Mark Wilson’s sets and lighting are deeply evocative of an aging theater somewhere in the hinterlands. That seems particularly relevant here, since the venue is The Learning Center on Westminster at Taylor. In a building designed by Theodore Link, best known for St. Louis Union Station (and across the street from Second Presbyterian Church, another of Link’s works), it was originally the Wednesday Club. Built in 1908, several of Williams’ early works were staged there. One of the places his family lived – there were quite a few – was in the next block west.
It’s a remarkable setting from an historic stance, perhaps not the most comfortable auditorium, but the evening is a worthwhile one. See a later Williams work. See remarkable acting. See a singular venue.
The Two-Character Play
The Midnight Company
through May 15
The Learning Center
The Glass Menagerie may be the most frequently staged of any of Tennessee Williams' plays. The St. Louis references and setting are accurate and evocative. It's a play many theater-goers are familiar with.
So how does a company go about staging it without seeming merely to put the play on life support, pounding on its figurative chest and trying to breathe life into it? It's a major challenge, especially as we begin the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with Williams' work is under public scrutiny. Upstream Theater has risen to the challenge with its version, which will run through May 15.
Director Phillip Boehm has given us a different Wingfield family - same characters, same conflicts, but a different aura. Theoretically, this is Tom Wingfield's play, the autobiographical character of the author. But functionally, it belongs to Amanda, the frightened, struggling, aging belle of a mother around whom the play revolves. Linda Kennedy's Amanda is less the termagant and schemer than she's usually played. Her charm is more real - the telephone calls soliciting subscriptions to a magazine sound almost conmpletely uncontrived, for instance. All this without masking the drive, indeed desperation, that motivates her every day - and every evening when her son comes home from his job at a warehouse.
Tom, Amanda's son, is J. Samuel Davis. Tom appears as the narrator, talking about the events in hindsight - this is, as Williams himself said, a memory play - and as a younger self. Davis' opening monologue as the narrator, shuffling and using a walker, is close to hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, with the lines that are so familiar and now almost completely new. The whirl that changes him into a much younger man yields a guy almost completely beaten down by a job of drudgery, financial responsibility for the household and the urge, no, the need to write. But not quite altogether beaten down, no - his eruption to Amanda when it finally happens is a fierce, unrelenting flow of lava.
Sydney Frasure plays Laura, and she, too, is drawn from a different angle. This isn't the Jane Wyman-esque delicate flower of subtle emotion. Frasure's Laura allows us to see the total panic when she realizes who the evening's dinner guest will be and then, even more vividly, when he sits down to talk to her after dinner. These days she would be diagnosed as having severe social anxiety; this is clearly more than what even Tom, who clearly dotes on her, calls being "awfully shy".
It's frequently forgotten that The Gentleman Caller is also a character who's had a good deal of disappointment in his life already. He was a big man on campus at Soldan High School, destined, according to the yearbook, for great things. Now he, too, works at the warehouse, only a step higher up the ladder than Tom. Jason Contini's portrayal is neither deeply swaggering nor, towards Laura, patronizing. When he kisses Laura, it feels an honest gift he's giving, not a manipulation.
Boehm has deliberately chosen open casting, not just color blind - the cast is evenly divided racially - but beyond that. Frasure's vintage wheelchair is not just a prop, she has limited mobility. All this quickly becomes irrelevant in the story-telling, swept up in Joe Dreyer's background music (and occasionally Frasure's very good voice) and the lives we watch with renewed interest.
Forget the cliches. Go see this. Fine acting and a whole new vision of an old, familiar work.
The Glass Menagerie
through May 15
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand Ave.
Much credit has to go to a restaurateur who opens a new place in the face of serious traffic disruption. But Cha Cha Chow's brick-and-mortar location, begat by its food truck, is just across South Kingshighway from O'Connell's. Local foodists will know that means a detour coming in from the south to get there, since for now Kingshighway is closed for construction between Shaw and Southwest Avenues.
It's the eastern portion of a building that now also houses Gaslight, a new bar with a built-in recording studio. (Please note this is not the Gaslight Theatre, which remains on Boyle in Midtown, as we always referred to that neighborhood.) The restaurant itself can scarcely be called that; it's a counter where one orders, part of which holds a shelf and a couple of stools. The food can be taken into the bar via the connecting door. It's a dark, quiet room that made me think it would be perfect for a hangover morning.
It's a very small menu, five kinds of tacos, a burger, three sides and pupusas, which are a sort of stuffed fat corn tortilla. These tacos are soft, a little larger than the Mexican street tacos found in Cherokee Street spots. All three I had used flour tortillas, perhaps five inches in diameter or a bit more.
Shredded chicken was very moist and nicely piquant. Described as citrus-marinated, it also had some salsa verde on it, and the tomatillos also surely contributed to the piquancy. Who can fault a taco whose meat is so juicy it dribbles out the downhill end? The fish tacos seemed more to be about the generous serving of crisp red cabbage slaw that rode atop things. Very fresh and crunchy, a little hit of cilantro in there, its chew a little different than that of the couple of fish nuggets they covered. I would have preferred more fish on board myself, but....
And then there was the sweet potato taco. Sweet potatoes are enjoying a quiet renaissance in the greater world of sandwiches. They're appearing in New Orleans in vegetarian poor-boys, for instance. Bravely putting their marshmallowed past behind them, they're bravely going forth to serve the land they love. In this case, they're curried - but this is not the pinch of curry powder that Aunt Margaret used to make a dip for potato chips. This curry is southeast Asian-influenced, spicy but not hot, with some fruity notes, perhaps from some tamarind. That's white cheddar cheese on top, carrying more flavor than Mexican cotija cheese does, and some grilled onion. Good stuff. Outstanding stuff, in fact, a remarkable dish.
Then there was the pupusa. Compared to that sweet potato taco, it's not a sophisticated offering. A disc roughly the size of a saucer arrives wrapped in aluminum foil. Less than half an inch thick, it's basically two patties of fresh masa, the cornmeal mixture from which tamales and tortillas are made, sandwiched together with cheese or cheese and pork, the edges sealed and the whole thing griddled. It's not handsome, certainly. But my goodness, is it tasty. The masa is chewy-crispy-soft, the corn flavor is present, punched up with the traditional lard (nope, not vegetarian, even in the cheese-only option), the cheese slides right in, and the pork is tasty. Outside the average American eating experience, but rather addictive, especially if you're a texture geek. It comes with slaw and a salsa on the side.
The only desserts are ice cream sandwiches custom made by Maggie's Lunch Box in Fenton. Forget the rectangular little slabs of childhood - these are soft cookies with good ice cream and they're not so hard they can't be bitten. (Nor are they so soft they melt before you're done.) I had a chocolate-chili cookie with caramel ice cream, the most exotic of the available options, and it was great - just a nice bit of heat, nothing incendiary, some cinnamon in there, too, I think, and surprisingly tidy to eat.
Drinks from the adjacent bar, non-alcoholic options available at the taco counter. Saturdays, they're offering breakfast tacos, although not breakfast hours. And nice guys to take your order. I have a feeling there may be outside tables to come before cold weather hits again.
4916 Shaw Ave.
Lunch and Dinner Tues.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Tacos, etc.: $4-$9
I had lunch with a friend from Kansas City today, and took her into La Patisserie Chouquette afterwards. Simone Faure's work is always dazzling, of course. Just take a look at the cakes she's doing for Mothers' Day. Alas, they just stopped taking orders for them as we stood at the caisse ready to pay for the armload my pal was taking on the westward trek home. But as Toni was signing for her goodies, I spotted this. And, yes, it is a cake.
There's a sitdown area and beverages available to go with individual servings of her treats.
La Patisserie Chouquette
1626 Tower Grove Avenue
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Smoking: Of course not