Thursday, May 21, 2015

For Memorial Day, remember the forgotten men

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So, we all know who Busby Berkeley was, right? Those of us who treasure those old 1930s musicals know he was the king of the lavish production number with lots of pretty girls—numbers designed to lift the spirits of a nation suffering from a binge of laissez-faire capitalism, yes?

Well, he was certainly that. But, as anyone who has seen many the two big "Gold Diggers" films of 1933 and 1935 will attest, he was a good deal more.

His choreography for "Lullaby of Broadway" in "Gold Diggers of 1935," for example, is surprisingly dark and even frightening, ending with singer/dancer Winifred Shaw pushed to her death from a window by a massive crowd of tap dancers whose moves, as the number progresses, begin to increasingly resemble an aggressive march—complete with something that looks suspiciously like a Nazi salute. The fact that the scene takes place in a massive, surreal space only adds to the fascist imagery.

All of which brings us to Harry Warren and Al Dubin's "Remember My Forgotten Man," the finale of "Gold Diggers of 1933." Up to this point, the movie has been typical fluffy backstage romance. As the curtain rises on this last number, though, we see Joan Blondell as a down-on-her-luck blonde sharing a discarded cigarette with an equally downtrodden man and reciting lyrics with an unexpected political punch:

"I don't know if he deserves a bit of sympathy
Forget your sympathy, that's all right with me
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day
Till they came and took my man away
Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted: 'Hip-hooray!'
But look at him today"

Singer Etta Moten takes up the song and the camera pans to images of women of all ages, clearly left alone and desperate. Next we see a parade of soldiers returning from World War I to cheering crowds. At first we see the victors, hale and hearty. But they’re soon replaced by the walking wounded, trudging through the rain. Then by the homeless in a bread line. The message is clear: once the veterans had done their job, America forgot about them.

Sound familiar? It certainly would have to viewers of the film in 1933, since FDR had made the "forgotten man" the theme of a "Fireside Chat" radio address in 1932. "These unhappy times," he said, "call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."

They would also have remembered the 1932 march on Washington, D.C., of the "Bonus Army"—a rally of 43,000 protesters (including 17,000 WW I veterans) demanding payment in cash for their service certificates. Then-President Herbert Hoover responded in typical fashion by sending the infantry, cavalry, and tanks to drive the marchers out and burn their tent city to the ground.

The number ends in typical Berkeley fashion with an elaborately staged scene of marching doughboys and unemployed, but unlike Berkeley’s usual finales defiant instead of joyous. That’s right: this classic bit of fluff ends with a huge musical protest song.

So take a few minutes from your Memorial Day cookout to watch this angry hymn to America’s forgotten men—and, these days, forgotten women as well. And observe how little some things have changed in this country.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of May 22, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

Sean Green and Mikayla Sherfy
in An Initial Condition
Tesseract Theatre Company presents An Initial Condition by Taylor Gruenloh through May 24. "A determination to create a miracle turns into a journey of the unknown when Chance, a young mathematician, is brought on to help map out cancer in a young girl's body. His determination to solve the problem inside Sarah's body takes Chance to places that are unimaginable." Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

My take: Tesseract is one of those companies that is not shy about presenting new and provocative material. As Tina Farmer writes in her review for KDHX, "their mission to produce new plays that probe current topics in imaginative works is something the company has adhered to consistently and with success." She notes that this production "may need a few additional revisions to improve the pacing, but continues a string of shows from the company that are challenging, entertaining and deeply provocative."

Held Over:

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents the musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding May 7-31. "The surprise hit of both the Toronto Fringe Festival and New York Musical Theater Festival, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is the sweet, tuneful and true story of the journey of the playwright's mother as she discovered her true self. Despite its specific title, MMLJWW is a universal story about parents and children, falling in love, and finding out who you are. It has heart and soul and in today's political climate, it couldn't be more timely - plus, it's a TRUE STORY!" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: As I wrote in my review for KDHX, David Hein and Irene Sankoff's unapologetically autobiographical musical is a pleasant and pleasing little show. It's so light that a stiff breeze would blow it away, but its heart is in the right place, which counts for a great deal. Ed Coffield has assembled a great cast and directed them well. Sets and costumes are bright and colorful and the on-stage band is solid. When I saw it on its opening weekend it was sold out, so you might want to order tickets sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Opera Preview: A conversation with Michael Shell, stage director of Opera Theatre's "Barber of Seville"

Michael Shell
michaelshelldirector.com
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Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens its 2015 festival season with Rossini's popular comic opera "The Barber of Seville" on Saturday, May 23rd. The production, which will run through June 27th, will alternate with three other operas on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

This will be OTSL's sixth production of the opera. In an email interview, I asked stage director Michael Shell (who directed Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" for OTSL back in 2012) what to expect in this latest version of the Rossini classic.

Chuck Lavazzi (CL): When this production made its first appearance with Opera Philadelphia last October, the reviewer for PhillyNow praised its "modernist set design and colorful costumes". How would you describe the look of this new "Barber"?

Michael Shell (MS): I would describe the look of new production as vibrant, energetic and very Spanish. The music is vibrant and energetic/rhythmic. I wanted the look and feel of this production and the way we tell the story to match the vibrant rhythmic quality of the music. This is not Beaumarchais's "Barber of Seville." This is very much a Rossini comedy in the best sense. It walks the line between reality and absurdity and I wanted an environment that could sustain and allow for both. The updating of the piece, using the films of Pedro Almodovar as a jumping off point, helped give us a different way to look at the whole. Not to ignore any aspect of what was there, but allow us to go to a variety of different places.

CL: How does that vision of "Barber" influence the way you direct your singers? Is there a particular acting style you're going for that might be different from a more traditional production?

MS: I always come from a place of what does the character want and how do they get it. That is the most important thing. What changes because of this take on the show, is the how. How they go about achieving their goals becomes just as important as what the goals or objectives are. How does Bertha, for example, who I feel really loves Bartolo, go about getting him to notice her. The Count's disguise as Don Alonso allows the meaning of his words at the top of Act II "Peace and joy and understanding" to go to a different place in order to trick Bartolo.

CL: Yes. Actors can never go wrong asking "what's my objective in this scene?" regardless of whether there's music behind them or not.

MS: Absolutely!! I agree completely. Tends to not be the first thing that opera singers ask, but I am fortunate that this cast was very interested in discussing and working towards that so that we could make interesting choices on how to go about achieving their objectives.

Shell's "Cosi fan Tutte" at OTSL, 2012
experienceopera.org
CL: The notion of what's funny varies among cultures and often changes over time. Directors of Shakespeare's comedies, for example, often find themselves faced with a real challenge in keeping the shows funny for a modern audience when the references for so many of the jokes have been lost over the centuries. Do you find a similar challenge in 18th and 19th century comic operas? How do you deal with it, if so?

MS: In terms of comedies, the good comedic operas by Mozart or Rossini for example, have tapped into something that is universal and still relevant to us today. So while my choice of setting for this production is updated, and it certainly allows us to be somewhat anachronistic at times, the whole point was to tap into that universal humor that is intrinsic in the piece. And perhaps by putting it in a setting that is distant but still closer to our time than the original period, it may be more humorous to some people who might not be enticed by a traditional telling. The new touches that make it perhaps more humorous are only able to work because we have found situations that match the ones in the piece. For example - In discussion the characters with my team, we decided that because Bartolo is so blind to not only the fact that Rosina could never love him, but somewhat oblivious to everything that is going on around him, that he should be an eye doctor. And in our efforts to keep the character of Rosina from being just this bored, sometimes petulant girl, in this production, we thought that Bartolo would make her be his medical assistant / secretary in order to keep an eye on her. So in his aria near the end of Act I, we introduce a patient into the mix while Bartolo is fuming with anger at Rosina. So he is having to deal with this patient and Rosina at the same time. The exam gets out of control as he loses his cool with Rosina.

This is in no way saying that a traditional telling of this piece is equally as funny. But I figured that it might be interesting to explore a new side of this piece to do what you said about keeping it funny for a modern audience.

CL: One last question: OperaBase shows "Barber" as the eighth most performed opera in the world right now and the third most performed comedy, right behind Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." What do you think is behind that continuing popularity?

MS: To answer your question - I think I can sum that up with one word : JOY. There is so much joy in the spirit of the piece that I think that is why it has stood the test of time. There is joy in the story, in the characters and especially Rossini's music. It is just a lot of fun to be in this world. And what I hope our production has done has created a world, that may be different than the normal one, but a world that the audience wants to be in and be a part of.

For ticket information on "The Barber of Seville," the season's other operas, and information on the entire OTSL experience (including picnic suppers on the lawn before the shows): experienceopera.org.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 18, 2015

[Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.]

For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's events web site.

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Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Anthony and Cleopatra nightly except for Tuesdays, May 22 through June 14. Performances take place in Shakespeare Glen next to the Art Museum in Forest Park. Curtain time is 8 PM. For more information, visit shakespearefestivalstlouis.org.

Pre-performance picnics in the gardens
at Opera Theatre
Photo: Ken Howard
Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Rossini's comedy The Barber of Seville in rotating repertory with three other operas May 23 through June 27. "There's a good reason it's one of the world's most popular operas! Rossini's zany and sparkling score sets the gold standard for opera that is fresh, elegant, funny, and brimming with vocal fireworks. Delight as the young barber Figaro helps Count Almaviva steal the beautiful Rosina from under the nose of her doddering guardian." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

Gitana Productions presents Black and Blue by by Lee Patton Chiles with music by Tbeats Entertainment Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 22-24. “An original play of hope and healing, exploring the assumptions that all young black men are dangerous, and that all cops are bad.” Performances take place in the Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. For more information: www.gitana-inc.org.

Chuck Lavazzi
Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg
The Cabaret Project and 88.1 KDHX present the gala Third Anniversary cabaret open mic night on Wednesday, May 20, from 7 to 10 PM at the Tavern of Fine Arts “Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by the inimitable Carol Schmidt on the baby grand.” The master of ceremonies is Chuck Lavazzi, senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX. If you're planning to sing, be prepared to do one or two songs and bring music, preferably in your key. At least one of your two songs should be a medium-or up-tempo number. We'd also recommend that you have your song memorized. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt at Waterman in the Central West End. There's free parking in the lot right across the street. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents A Fistful Of Hollers May 1 through August 29. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company presents An Initial Condition by Taylor Gruenloh through May 24. "A determination to create a miracle turns into a journey of the unknown when Chance, a young mathematician, is brought on to help map out cancer in a young girl's body. His determination to solve the problem inside Sarah's body takes Chance to places that are unimaginable." Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

Alpha Players present the comedy King o' the Moon (Over the Tavern, Part 2) by Tom Dudzick through May 25 at The Florissant Civic Center Theater, Parker Rd. at Waterford Dr. in Florissant, MO. For more information: alphaplayers.org or, call 314-921-5678.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Mayhem In Mayberry through July 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents the musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding through May 31. "The surprise hit of both the Toronto Fringe Festival and New York Musical Theater Festival, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is the sweet, tuneful and true story of the journey of the playwright's mother as she discovered her true self. Despite its specific title, MMLJWW is a universal story about parents and children, falling in love, and finding out who you are. It has heart and soul and in today's political climate, it couldn't be more timely - plus, it's a TRUE STORY!" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Circus Harmony presents Peace Through Pyramids: Ferguson on Monday, May 18 at 7 p.m. at the JCCA, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, as part of the Unsung Heroes ceremony. "Thanks to a Social Impact grant from the Regional Arts Commission and a PNC project grant from the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis Circus Harmony will start the first chapter of Peace Through Pyramids: Ferguson by sharing the story of the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus. The presentation will end with a circus workshop for all participants. The St. Louis Arches are an internationally renowned youth circus troupe comprised of children ages 9-19 from different socioeconomic areas throughout St. Louis." For more information: circusharmony.org.

Circus Harmony presents Peace Through Pyramids: Ferguson on Wednesday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library 35 North Florissant Road in Ferguson, Missouri. "Thanks to a Social Impact grant from the Regional Arts Commission and a PNC project grant from the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis Circus Harmony will start the first chapter of Peace Through Pyramids: Ferguson by sharing the story of the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus. The presentation will end with a circus workshop for all participants. The St. Louis Arches are an internationally renowned youth circus troupe comprised of children ages 9-19 from different socioeconomic areas throughout St. Louis." For more information: circusharmony.org.

Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of May 18, 2015

Post-performance champagne reception with the artists
at Opera Theatre
Photo: Ken Howard
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Celebrated American composer Tobias Picker will be one of four featured speakers at Spotlight on Opera, Opera Theatre's music and discussion series, on Monday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. at The Ethical Society. The series explores the ideas and perspectives behind each opera during the season. At the May 18 event, audiences will have the opportunity to hear from Mr. Picker first-hand about the creation of this opera, which has received high praise from critics across the globe. The Ethical Society is at 9001 Clayton Road. For more information: experienceopera.org or 314-961-0644.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Rossini's comedy The Barber of Seville in rotating repertory with three other operas May 23 through June 27. "There's a good reason it's one of the world's most popular operas! Rossini's zany and sparkling score sets the gold standard for opera that is fresh, elegant, funny, and brimming with vocal fireworks. Delight as the young barber Figaro helps Count Almaviva steal the beautiful Rosina from under the nose of her doddering guardian." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents sopranos Holley Sherwood and Katie Rush, accompanied by pianist Jon Garrett, on Friday, May 22, at 8 p.m. The concert consists of duets by Mendelssohn, Brahms, and von Weber as well as solo songs by Strauss, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Adult Flute Choir
The Tavern of Fine Arts presents the Flute Society of St. Louis Adult Flute Choir on Saturday, May 23, at 2 p.m.. "The Adult Flute Choir is comprised of flutists (college age and above) from the St. Louis community of varying careers and musical backgrounds. The choir performs regularly during the season (September through May) at venues such as nursing homes, FSSL events, church services, school tours, flute recitals, etc." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Theatre Review: "The Rat Pack is Back" at the Fox

L-R: Brian Duprey, Drew Anthony, Kenny Jones, Tom Wallek
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What: The Rat Pack is Back
Where: The Fox Theatre, St. Louis
When: May 15-17, 2015

The Rat Pack is back, and the Fox has got 'em, at least through Sunday. This snappy tribute to the 1960s-era Las Vegas Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joey Bishop—is making its first St. Louis appearance, although the original has been playing the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas for fourteen years.

Unlike the "Rat Pack Live at the Sands" shows that played the Fox in 2007 and 2011, "The Rat Pack is Back" is a more bare-bones production. There are no flashy sets or backup singers—just a live, 12-piece big band and most importantly, a solid cast of first-rate performers who move, sound, and (for the most part) look uncannily like the originals.

Which, ultimately, is what a celebrity impersonation revue like this is all about.

The original Rat Pack was, of course, a group of entertainers affiliated with Frank Sinatra. In Las Vegas in 1960 to film the heist movie "Ocean's Eleven," they spent time off the set boozing it up and doing shows at the legendary Sands casino. Their freewheeling combination of comedy, music, and big band jazz caught on and a legend, as they say, was born.

The core of the original Rat Pack consisted of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the multi-talented Sammy Davis, Jr. Deadpan comic Joey Bishop provided most of the laughs, with British actor Peter Lawford joining in every now and then.

There's no Lawford impersonator in "The Rat Pack is Back" (which may be just as well; he was mostly a hanger-on) but the performers taking on the roles of the other four do a remarkable job of capturing the essences of the originals.

Much of the first half of the show belongs to Tom Wallek as Bishop. He has the comic's "sad sack" look and self-deprecating, ironic style down pat. His routine with its succession of "married couple" jokes may be dated but that, after all, is pretty much the point. References to current events don't work as well, but mostly he's hilariously on point.

The cast with the act two bar cart
Drew Anthony so perfectly captures the sound and panache of Dean Martin that it's easy to suspend disbelief and accept that the famed singer and comic actor has returned from the dead. Whether he's flirting with women in the audience of gliding effortlessly through Martin standards like "Volare" or the Russ Morgan classic "You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You," Mr. Anthony just is Dean Martin.

The role of Sammy Davis, Jr. may be the hardest one to pull off, if only because the original was such a legendary performer. A singer, dancer, actor, impressionist and multi-instrumentalist, he was easily the most richly talented member of the Pack. It would be hard for any one performer to do what the original did, but Kenny Jones comes awfully close. He's got the powerful singing voice and, more importantly, he moves with the same fluid grace that the late Mr. Davis did. You can especially see it when he pops on the bowler hat and floats across the stage for "Mr. Bojangles" and in his "Me and My Shadow" duet with Brian Duprey's Frank Sinatra.

Speaking of whom: the pivotal role in any Rat Pack tribute is inevitably Old Blue Eyes himself. Mr. Duprey is something of an expert in that field, having grabbed a $20,000 prize for his impersonation of Sinatra on the "Performing As" TV show. As soon as he opens his mouth, it's obvious why. He may not look much like the 1960s Sinatra, but he sounds so much like him that all other considerations vanish. Like his co-stars, he has the mannerisms and the style of the original down pat, right down to his freewheeling approach to lyrics.

The show's music director and pianist Lon Bronson directs a solid and very polished band of (presumably) local musicians. They can't have had that much rehearsal with the cast, but you wouldn't now it from the quality of the performances.

Brain Duprey
The bottom line on "The Rat Pack is Back" is that if you enjoyed the work Frank, Sammy, Dean, and Joey produced when they were alive, you'll probably be highly entertained by their doppelgangers on stage at the Fox. To quote a lyric from Cahn and Van Husen's "Style", "You've either got or you haven't got class. / How it draws the applause of the masses". These performers have definitely got it.

For those of us old enough to remember what these guys were like in their prime, this is high-grade nostalgia. For everybody else it's a glimpse at a kind of hokey and slightly risqué show-biz magic that is long gone, in a Las Vegas that had not yet become a family-friendly theme park. The show concludes its run at the Fox Theatre in Grand Center on Sunday, May 17. For tickets: fabulousfox.com.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of May 15, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents the musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding May 7-31. "The surprise hit of both the Toronto Fringe Festival and New York Musical Theater Festival, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is the sweet, tuneful and true story of the journey of the playwright's mother as she discovered her true self. Despite its specific title, MMLJWW is a universal story about parents and children, falling in love, and finding out who you are. It has heart and soul and in today's political climate, it couldn't be more timely - plus, it's a TRUE STORY!" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: As I wrote in my review for KDHX, David Hein and Irene Sankoff's unapologetically autobiographical musical is a pleasant and pleasing little show. It's so light that a stiff breeze would blow it away, but its heart is in the right place, which counts for a great deal. Ed Coffield has assembled a great cast and directed them well. Sets and costumes are bright and colorful and the on-stage band is solid. When I saw it last weekend it was sold out, so you might want to order tickets sooner rather than later.

L-R: Brian Duprey as Frank Sinatra,
Drew Anthony as Dean Martin,
Kenny Jones as Sammy Davis, Jr.,
Mickey Joseph as Joey Bishop
The Fox Theatre presents The Rat Pack is Back Friday through Sunday, May 15-17. The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. "What happens in Vegas...all started with The Rat Pack. This spirited show recreates one of the famous “Summit at the Sands” nights when the swingin', ring-a-ding group known as “The Rat Pack” was creating hipster legend with a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred nightclub act starring Vegas' four favorite sons: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop." For more information: fabulousfox.com.

My take: Celebrity impersonation doesn't get a lot of respect, but in some ways it's more difficult than traditional acting. Duplicating a performer's on-stage persona in a way that will allow audience members to suspend disbelief and react as they would to the original is quite a challenge, especially when the performer in question is well-represented on audio and film/video. The "Rat Pack" shows are the Lexus of celebrity impersonation, re-creating a typical mid-1960s Las Vegas appearance by the ruling triumvirate of the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Great theatre it ain't, but if The Rat Pack is Back is anything like the last two shows in the series that have played the Fox, it should be great fun.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Theatre Review: 'My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding' cheerfully embraces diversity

L-R: Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Ben Nordstrom,
Laura Ackermann
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Who: New Jewish Theatre
What: My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Where: The Jewish Community Center, St. Louis
When: May 7-31, 2015

The New Jewish Theatre production of David Hein and Irene Sankoff's unapologetically autobiographical musical "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" is a pleasant and pleasing little show. It's so light that a stiff breeze would blow it away, but its heart is in the right place, which counts for a great deal.

And its celebration of love, marriage, and family in all their various permutations could not be more relevant as the USA struggles with the issue of same sex marriage—settled a decade ago in Canada (where the show takes place) with considerably less hysteria than we're seeing here.

L-R: Deborah Sharn, Laura Ackermann
The slight story, based on the real-world experiences of Mr. Hein's mother, centers on Claire, a middle-aged, divorced psychology professor in Nebraska who takes a teaching job in Canada, discovers her gay sexual identity by falling in love with the free-spirited Wiccan Jane, and gets involved with the fight for marriage equality in her adopted home. Her son David joins her, meets and marries Irene, the daughter of a conservative member of the Canadian government, and finally gets to see Jane and his mom married when Canada legalizes same-sex marriage in 2005. Claire has a moment of panic at the titular wedding, but all ends happily in a cheerful ceremony that is an amusing blend of Wiccan and Jewish traditions.

Laura Ackermann heads a fine cast as Claire, constantly questioning her decisions, struggling with a conservative mother (whom we never see), and generally trying to figure out who the hell she really is. The vacillation becomes a bit tiring towards the end, but that's a script issue. Ms. Ackermann's performance is consistently warm and welcoming.

L-R: Anna Skidis, Chase Thomaston, Jennifer
Theby-Quinn
Deborah Sharn, who is seen far too infrequently on local stages these days, is Jane, afraid of nothing and always ready to support Claire. I've known Ms. Sharn for many years now and may be a bit biased, but I thought her performance here was just about perfect. Like most of the characters in this show, Jane is a bit of a cipher—we don't really get much of a look at her inner life—but Ms. Sharn makes the most of what the authors have given her, creating a character that is consistently engaging

David is portrayed by two actors. St. Louis University High School freshman Pierce Hastings plays the teenage version, while the every-reliable Ben Nordstrom is the adult, narrating the show from the sidelines and finally taking over when David moves to Canada. Mr. Hastings doesn't look anything like Mr. Nordstrom, which is a bit disconcerting, but otherwise the conceit works well enough.

Mr. Nordstrom, for his part, connects quickly with the audience and easily carries the narrative burden in disarmingly friendly fashion.

Jennifer Theby-Quinn is a treasure as always as David's love Irene (both characters modeled on the play's creators). John Flack has great fun as David's somewhat befuddled dad, coming to terms with his ex-wife's new identity in the comic number "Hot Lesbian Action." Ensemble members Anna Skidis, Chase Thomaston, and Pierce Hastings take on an impressive variety of roles, something switching sex in the process.

L-R: John Flack, Jennifer Theby-Quinn,
Anna Skidis, Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings,
Laura Ackermann
Director Edward Coffield keeps the show flowing smoothly, with nice stage pictures, amplified by simple but effective choreography by Liam Johnson. Margery and Peter Spack's bright, colorful set strikes just the right tone of whimsy, and the band under the direction of Charlie Mueller does well by the rather bland score.

"My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" is ultimately a festival of musical situation comedy. Numbers like "Don't Take Your Lesbian Moms to Hooters" (yes, David really did that, apparently), "You Don't Need a Penis" (in which David's moms give sex advice to the comically mortified Irene), and "A Short History of Gay Marriage in Canada" are very funny, entertaining, and provide more than a spoonful of sugar to help the political message go down. I think you'd have to be a dedicated Santorum-style conservative to object to the script's message of acceptance and love.

Yes, the theatrical stakes never feel very high. And despite the wealth of possible sources of dramatic conflict, nothing much really happens during this musical's 90-minute run time. There's also an awful lot of "I'm OK, you're OK" new-agey affirmation. But, as I say, this show has so much heart and generosity that I was willing to set most of that aside.

Performances of "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" continue through the end of May. If the night I saw it in any indication, the show is selling out quickly, so it's probably better to get tickets sooner rather than later. More information is available at newjewishtheatre.org.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of May 11, 2015

Empire Brass
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The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis presents a concert by the Empire Brass and organist Douglas Major on Wednesday, May 13, at 8 p.m. "The Empire Brass enjoys an international reputation as North America's finest brass quintet, renowned for its brilliant virtuosity and the unparalleled diversity of its repertoire. The five musicians – all of whom have held leading positions with major American orchestras – perform over 100 concerts a year in cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, London, Zurich and Tokyo. Douglas Major, organist, is a prominent American composer of sacred music and concert organist. He is the former choral director and organist at the Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., where he frequently performed on nationally-televised services and state occasions." The Cathedral is at 4431 Lindell in the Central West End. For more information: cathedralconcerts.org.

The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis presents Hard Core Classics 2015 on Tuesday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. "Sylvia McNair will be our Special Guest Artist. Ms. McNair will be featured with the St. Louis Women's HOPE Chorale to sing Paul Rueter's Temple Built in Trust and Hope." The performance features music by Mozart and Mendelssohn and takes place in The Sheldon Concert Hall at 3648 Washington. For more information: chambermusicstl.org.

The Confluence Chamber Orchestra presents Musical Postcards on Sunday, May 17, at 3 p.m. "A hour of musical postcards from around the world sent by Boccherini, Bach, Handel, Telemann, Bizet, Grieg, Janacek, Gottschalk and Hofeldt. Join our multi-generational orchestra for punch and cookies afterward." The concert takes place at St. Joseph Church, 106 N. Meramec in Clayton. For more information: confluencechamberorchestra.org.

Arnie Roth conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Distant Worlds, a concert of music from the Final Fantasy video game series, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., May 15 and 16. "Including music from all fourteen games and an HD video presentation of exclusive content from game developers SQUARE ENIX, experience the entertainment phenomenon that has thrilled audiences all over the globe." The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a classical open stage night on Monday, May 11, from 7:30 – 9 PM. “Come by yourself or bring your quartet. Sight read through a Beethoven quartet or use this as an opportunity to put the finishing touches on that Hindemith Viola Sonata you have been working on. All ages and skill levels are welcome. We have a 6' grand piano and an accompanist.” The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 11, 2015

[Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.]

For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's events web site.

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Alton Little Theater presents The Dixie Swim Club Thursdays through Sundays through May 17, at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. "Five Southern women, whose friendships began many years ago on their college swim team, set aside a long weekend every August to recharge those relationships. Free from husbands, kids and jobs, they meet at the same beach cottage on North Carolina's Outer Banks to catch up, laugh and meddle in each other's lives. The Dixie Swim Club focuses on four of those weekends and spans a period of thirty-three years. As their lives unfold and the years pass, these women increasingly rely on one another, through advice and raucous repartee, to get through the challenges (men, sex, marriage, parenting, divorce, aging) that life flings at them. And when fate throws a wrench into one of their lives in the second act, these friends, proving the enduring power of "teamwork," rally 'round their own with the strength and love that takes this comedy in a poignant and surprising direction. The Dixie Swim Club is the story of these five unforgettable women-a hilarious and touching comedy about friendships that last forever " For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents A Fistful Of Hollers May 1 through August 29. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company presents An Initial Condition by Taylor Gruenloh May 16-24. "A determination to create a miracle turns into a journey of the unknown when Chance, a young mathematician, is brought on to help map out cancer in a young girl's body. His determination to solve the problem inside Sarah's body takes Chance to places that are unimaginable." Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

Alpha Players present the comedy King o' the Moon (Over the Tavern, Part 2) by Tom Dudzick May 15-25 at The Florissant Civic Center Theater, Parker Rd. at Waterford Dr. in Florissant, MO. For more information: alphaplayers.org or, call 314-921-5678.

The Looking Glass Playhouse presents the musical Mary Poppins Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., through May 17. Performances take place at 301 West St. Louis Street in Lebanon, Ill. For more information, visit www.lookingglassplayhouse.com.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Mayhem In Mayberry May 1 through July 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

Windsor Theatre Group presents The Musical 1950's with a Nod to Broadway Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 17. "Most of the selections are from shows which appeared on Broadway in the 1950's; a few songs are from the pop genre during the same decade. Some of these tunes have been rarely performed since those Broadway productions closed. This enjoyable potpourri will be performed by singers and dancers, with piano accompaniment." Performances take place at The Historic Ozark Theatre, 103 E. Lockwood in Webster Groves. For more information: 314-832-2114.

My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents the musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding May 7-31. "The surprise hit of both the Toronto Fringe Festival and New York Musical Theater Festival, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is the sweet, tuneful and true story of the journey of the playwright's mother as she discovered her true self. Despite its specific title, MMLJWW is a universal story about parents and children, falling in love, and finding out who you are. It has heart and soul and in today's political climate, it couldn't be more timely - plus, it's a TRUE STORY!" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Fox Theatre presents The Rat Pack is Back Friday through Sunday, May 15-17. The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. "What happens in Vegas...all started with The Rat Pack. This spirited show recreates one of the famous “Summit at the Sands” nights when the swingin', ring-a-ding group known as “The Rat Pack” was creating hipster legend with a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred nightclub act starring Vegas' four favorite sons: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop." For more information: fabulousfox.com.

Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Concert Review: A celestial 'Aida' by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

"Aida" at Powell Hall
stlsymphony.org / Eddie Silva
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Robertson
What: Verdi's "Aida"
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: May 7 and 9, 2015

[Find out more about the music with the SLSO program notes and my preview.]

In the hands of a lesser composer, "Aida" might have been a classic potboiler—cheap yard goods written on commission and quickly forgotten. But Verdi was a thoroughgoing man of the theatre with a keen sense of what worked on stage. Moreover, by the time he wrote "Aida" in 1870 he was a mature artist with a string of hits to his credit. The result is a work, in the words of British opera scholar Julian Budden, "in which the various elements—grandeur, exotic pictorialism, and intimate poetry—are held in perfect equilibrium and from which not a single note can be cut."

If you want to see for yourself just how right Mr. Budden was, hie yourself down to Powell Hall this weekend to see and hear the remarkable concert version of "Aida" being presented by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the impeccable direction of David Robertson. Distinguished by virtuoso performances from the orchestra and Amy Kaiser's splendid chorus and an international cast of strong singers—most of whom are also respectable actors—this is an "Aida" that demonstrates that great opera is also great musical theatre.

"Aida," as Mr. Budden says, has it all: romance, treachery, tragedy, and a stunning Act II finale complete with offstage brass, ballet music, and what Shakespeare's Othello (in his famous "farewell to arms" speech) called the "[p]ride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war." The final scene—in which the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès slowly expire in a sealed tomb while Amneris bitterly regrets her part in their destruction and the offstage chorus sings a hymn to "immenso Ftha"—is a brilliantly conceived coup de theatre, calculated to bring a lump to the most stoic of throats.

Antonello Polombi
liricopera.com
Well, it did to mine, anyway.

The cast for this production is headed by soprano Lucrecia García and tenor Antonello Palombi as the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès. Mr. Palombi was clearly the most intensely focused actor in this cast, completely in character as soon as he walked on stage. You could see his concentration in little things, like the way he stayed "in the moment" for a beat or two after he cut off that high A at the end of "Celeste Aida," or the way he reacted to what other characters were doing even when he wasn't in focus.

He also displayed that rich, powerful voice that has gotten him rave reviews elsewhere in the past. Reviewing his Manrico in Seattle back in 2010, for example, the Opera Warhorses blog praised the "strength and beauty" of his voice, dubbing him "a true tenore di forza" (the "dramatic tenor" Verdi said was required for his leading roles). I'd have to agree. Even in the overly reverberant acoustic fog of Powell Hall's upper reaches, he came through loud and clear.

Lucrecia Garcia
imgartists.com
Ms. Garcia's Aida was more dramatically restrained but still entirely compelling. Her "Ritorna vincitor" was right on the dramatic money and her death scene with Mr. Palombi, as noted, was truly moving. She, too, has the kind of precision and gravity-defying vocal power needed to fill a big hall. Reviewing her Odabella in the Teater an der Wien's production of Verdi's Attila back in 2013 for bachtrack.com, Chanda VanderHart accurately described her as having "a color and metal to her tone reminiscent of a young Leontyne Price"—a telling comparison, given that Ms. Price (who retired from the stage in 1985) was one of the great Aidas of her time.

Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk also turned in an exciting performance as Amneris, whose insane jealousy destroys the lives of everyone—hers included. Like Mr. Palombi, she is always in character and always credible. She has a powerhouse of a voice, with an appropriately rich and dark bottom and solid top notes.

Basses Alexander Vinogradov and Soloman Howard bring impressive gravitas to the roles of the High Priest Ramfis and the Pharaoh, respectively. Soprano Sarah Price makes a strong impression as the High Priestess and tenor Dennis Wilhoit, while not quite in the same vocal league as the rest of the cast, is nevertheless and excellent Messenger.

As Aida's father Amonsasro, King of Ethiopia, baritone Gordon Hawkins is vocally impressive, with an opulent voice that projects well, but (at least of Thursday night) seemed not to be acting the part at all. Even in the Act III duet "Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamente," where he's excoriating Aida and reminding her of the horrors inflicted on Ethiopia by the Egyptians, his only emotional setting appeared to be "stolid."

Amy Kaiser
stlsymphony.org
Amy Kaiser's chorus displayed that mix of power, finesse, and precise diction that I have come to expect of them over the years. Their singing in the big triumphal scene that concludes Verdi's Act II was thrilling, of course, but their offstage work in the final moments of the last act was equally impressive.

The musicians of the SLSO performed heroically here. With intermission, "Aida" runs just over three hours, so it requires a lot of stamina as well as skill. It got both on Thursday night, along with some fine work by individual players to whom Verdi has given some notable solos. That included (among others) Principal Harp Allegra Lilly at various points in the first act; Principal Flute Mark Sparks and fellow flautists Jennifer Nichtman and Ann Choomack in the dance of the priestesses from I,2; and Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet during Amneris' aria at the top of Act IV. The offstage brass during Act II were also very effective.

Mr. Robertson pulls all this together in a wonderfully nuanced interpretation, with generally quite good balances between the orchestra and vocalists. If the latter were at times overwhelmed, it was more a matter of Powell Hall's acoustics than anything else. His tempi for some of the ballet sequences would probably have been too brisk for live dancers, but in a concert setting like this one they worked just fine and were exciting to hear.

S. Katy Tucker's video projections on the back and sides of the stage were a major asset when creating virtual scenery like the stunning Temple of Vulcan in I,2 (complete with remarkably realistic flaming torches) or the exterior of the royal palace in II, 2. They also provided nicely synchronized animation to accompany those ballet sequences.

They were, however, more of a detriment when they pulled focus from the singers—which they did far too often. When Radamès is singing about wanting to build Aida a throne next to the sun ("un trono vicino al sol"), we really don't need to see animated sunbeams any more than we need to see blooming flowers when, in II,2, the women of the chorus sing of crowning Radamès' brow with lotus and laurel. And we certainly don't need an animated eye looking back and forth between singers. Less gilding of the visual lily would have been more effective.

The St. Louis Symphony's celestial "Aida" brought the regular concert season to a splendid close. For ticket information on other SLSO events: stlsymphony.org.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Symphony Preview: A 'Fanfare for the Common Man' Friday, May 8, 2015

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You might have noticed that there's no Friday performance this weekend of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus concert version of Verdi's "Aida." That's because Friday is the last of the season's Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" concerts. David Robertson is on the podium, SLSO cellist Alvin McCall is the soloist, and here's what you can expect.

Aaron Copland: "Fanfare for the Common Man" Although it would later become the basis of the final movement for Copland's patriotic "Symphony No. 3" (which the SLSO performed just over a year ago), the "Fanfare" was originally inspired by "The Price of Free World Victory," a 1942 speech by Vice President Henry Wallace hailing the "century of the common man." "When the freedom-loving people march," he said, "when the farmers have an opportunity to buy land at reasonable prices and to sell the produce of their land through their own organizations, when workers have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively, and when the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live-when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead." Sadly, the values Mr. Wallace extolled now seem to be in eclipse.

Charles Ives, 1889
Charles Ives (orch. Schuman): Variations on "America" (1891-92, rev. 1949) The "Variations" were originally scored for organ and written for a July 4th concert in Brewster, New York, in 1891—when Ives was only sixteen. The piece isn't so much a set of variations as it is a series of restatements of the classic tune in wide variety of musical styles. The orchestration was done by American composer William Schuman in 1949 and is very true to Ives' tongue-in-cheek original.

Edward MacDowell: "Romanze," op. 35 (1887) for cello and orchestra Edward MacDowell is known to generations of piano students (including me) as the composer of "To a Wild Rose," a lovely little miniature from his 1896 "Woodland Sketches." The "Romanze" for cello and orchestra is a bit of an outlier in his catalog, which runs mostly to solo piano works and songs. MacDowell was typical of a generation of American composers who went abroad to study (mostly Paris in his case) and returned to compose music heavily influenced by Continental trends.

Edward Elgar "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1" in D major (1901) This, of course, is known to generations of college and high-school graduates, who marched down the aisle to it. In Britain, the march's noble second subject became the patriotic hymn "Land of Hope and Glory." A performance of the march—with the crowd singing along lustily—is part of the "Last Night at the Proms" concert in Albert Hall every fall. The other four "Pomp and Circumstance" marches are less well-known but well worth hearing. Numbers 2 and 3, in particular, are composed in minor keys and seem to suggest that the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war" from which they get their title (from "Othello" III, 2) were not viewed by Elgar as uniformly splendid.

Alvin McCall
stlsymphony.org
George Butterworth: "A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for Orchestra" (1912) I'm not sure that this really is music that many people know, at least here in the states. "A Shropshire Lad" is a collection of poems by A. E. Housman that had quite a vogue in England early in the previous century. Butterworth set eleven of the songs to music in 1911 and 1912, and then used two of the melodies— "Loveliest of Trees" and "With Rue My Heart Is Laden"—for the 1912 rhapsody you'll hear Friday.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on "Greensleeves" (1934) This, on the other hand, really is music you know. The original tune goes back to (at least) 1580, and there is even a persistent (but undocumented) story that Henry VIII wrote if for Anne Boleyn. Vaughan Williams' rich, textured setting for strings is irresistible.

Emmanuel Chabrier: "España" (1883) French composers seem to have a habit of returning from trips to Spain and then writing music about it, and Chabrier was no exception. This engaging little work inspired at least two "borrowings": Emil Waldteufel's "España Waltz" in 1886 and the pop song "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)," which was a bit hit for Perry Como in 1956. Chabrier's other works display a similar penchant for infectious melodies and are well worth a listen.

Georges Bizet
en.wikipedia.org
Georges Bizet: Selections from L’Arlésienne (1872) "L’Arlésienne" ("The Girl from Arles") was, originally, a short story by Alphonse Daudet. In 1872 the author expanded it into a play in three acts and five tableaux with music and chorus. The play tanked, running only 21 performances, but the incidental music Bizet wrote for it has remained popular ever since. Bizet used some folk tunes in his score, including the traditional Christmas Carol "Marcho dei Rei" ("The March of the Three Kings"), which is heard in the "Farandole" finale.

Franz Liszt: "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" (1847) Immensely popular and often parodied (most notoriously by Spike Jones in "Rhapsody from Hunger(y)," where it gets mixed with some Brahms), this solo piano work was arranged for orchestra by Liszt and flute virtuoso and composer Franz Doppler. That's the version you'll hear Friday, and if you know the original, you'll notice that the orchestral version isn't just an arrangement but an expansion as well.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in "Fanfare for the Common Man," the last of this season's Whitaker Foundation "Music You Know" programs of popular classics. The concert takes place on Friday, May 8, at 8 p.m. at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.