Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of July 21, 2014

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 9 to 5: The Musical Thursdays through Sundays, July 24 - August 3, at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. The show is based on the film of the same name and features songs by Dolly Parton. For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

Hard Road Theatre Productions presents 9 to 5: the Musical Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, July 25 - August 3. Performances will be held at Highland High School in Highland, IL. For more information: www.hardroad.org.

Photo: Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis presents the musical Always..Patsy Cline through August 31. "Jacqueline Petroccia and Zoe Vonder Haar star in the return engagement of the show critics called 'exceptional, must see entertainment.' The touching and true story of Country music legend Patsy Cline and her friendship with Texas housewife Louise Seger returns to STAGES this spring. Combining down home country humor, heartache and 27 of Patsy Cline's unforgettable hits such as 'Crazy,' 'Walkin' After Midnight,' and 'Sweet Dreams,' Always... Patsy Cline endures as a piece of genuine Americana." Performances take place at The Playhouse at Westport Plaza. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Whitecliffe Summer Playhouse presents the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes July 24 - 27 on the outdoor stage in Whitecliff Park. For more information: www.playhouseproductions.org

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents The Dapper Flappers through July 27. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

St. Charles Community College presents the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Tuesday through Sunday, July 22-27. Performances take place in the Donald D. Shook Fine Arts Building on the campus at 4601 Mid Rivers Mall Drive in Cottleville, MO. For more information, call 636-922-8050 or visit stchas.edu.

The Missouri History Museum Theatre in the Museum Series presents Flappers to Smashers: Women, Prohibition, and the 1920s Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 PM through August 5. "A look at how the 18th Amendment changed women's lives." Performances take place at the Missouri History Museum at Lindell and De Baliviere in Forest Park. For more information, visit mohistory.org.

Photo: Tom Gannam
Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical Funny Girl Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM July 24 - August 9. "In turn-of-the-century New York, a young Jew from the Lower East Side dreams of becoming a Broadway star despite her unglamorous appearance. This fabulous musical follows the life and career of Fanny Brice and her stormy relationship with Nicky Arnstein. A true New York love story of a Ziegfeld Follies star." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

The Missouri History Museum Theatre in the Museum Series presents Glory the Gargoyle Finds a Home Saturdays at 11:30 AM through August 2. "A play for our youngest visitors. Glory is a gargoyle with big dreams, but she has trouble fitting in. Join her in her search to find a home." Performances take place at the Missouri History Museum at Lindell and De Baliviere in Forest Park. For more information, visit mohistory.org.

Stages St. Louis presents the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying through August 17. "Big business means big laughs in this delightfully clever lampoon of life on the corporate ladder. A tune-filled comic gem that took Broadway by storm winning both the Tony Award for Best Musical and a Pulitzer Prize, How to Succeed...boasts an exhilarating score by Frank Loesser including “I Believe in You,” “Brotherhood of Man,” and “The Company Way.” Bustling with humor, romance and song, this swingin' 60s send-up of Madison Avenue charts the spectacular rise (in record time!) of an ambitious young window washer to VP of Advertising!" Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407.

Maryland Heights Community Theatre presents Leader of the Pack: The Ellie Greenwich Musical Thursday and Sunday, July 24 - 27, at the Maryland Heights Centre, 2344 McKelvey Road. For more information, call 314-738-2599.

Clayton Community Theatre presents Little Women Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through July 27. Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre. For more information, call 314-721-9228 or visit placeseveryone.org.

St. Louis Actors' Studio presents the Neil LaBute New Theater Festival, Part 2 July 25 - August 3 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. The festival features professional, new and previously unproduced one-act plays 45 minutes or less in length, chosen from submissions to the festival over the previous year. The plays in Part 2 are JJ Strong's Comeback Special, John Doble's Coffee House, Greenwich Village, and Susan Steadman's The Thing With Feathers. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

COCA Theatre Company presents the musical Ragtime Friday at 7 PM and Saturday at 2 and 7 PM, July 25 and 26. “COCA Theatre Company (CTC) presents Ragtime, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The COCA Summer Musical celebrates its 10th anniversary with this powerful portrait of life in turn-of-the-century America. Ragtime draws upon the era's rich and varied music to tell the story of three extraordinary families struggling to make sense of life in America. In honor of the anniversary, the cast includes students chosen by area-wide audition as well as CTC alumni from the last 10 years of COCA Summer Musicals. This CTC production is directed by Grace Austin, with musical direction by Adaron Jackson and choreography by Lee Nolting and Chris Page. Recommended for teens and adults.” COCA is at 524 Trinity in University City. For more information, call (314) 725-6555 or visit www.cocastl.org.

The Muny presents the musical Seussical the Musical nightly at 8:15 PM, July 22-29, in the outdoor theatre in Forest Park. "Making its Muny premiere, SeussicalTM brings fantasy to magical life on the Muny stage. Based on the classic children's books of Dr. Seuss and narrated by the mischievous Cat in the Hat, this delightful musical follows Horton the elephant in his quest to protect the people of Who-ville. SeussicalTM is the timeless story of being true to your word...not living in fear...and the power of believing in yourself. Don't miss it." For more information, visit muny.org or call 314-361-1900.

Actors and Artists of the Riverbend present the Lieber and Stoller musical Smokey Joe's Café Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, July 25 - 27. Performances take place at the Nazarene Community Center in Roxana, IL. All proceeds from the show will benefit the Alton Youth Symphony. For more information: www.riverbender.com.

Family Musical Theater presents Sondheim's Sweeney Todd Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, July 25-27, at the Ivory Theatre, 7622 Michigan. For more information, visit familymusical.org or call 314-571-9579.

Take Two Productions presents the musical Tarzan, based on the Disney animated film, July 25 - August 2. Performances take place at the Bayless High School auditorium, 4532 Weber Road. For more information, visit taketwoproductions.org.

Over Due Theatre presents Willy Wonka Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, July 25 - August 3. Performances take place at the Olivette Community Center, 9723 Grandview Drive, in Olivette, MO. For more information, call 314-210-2959 or visit overduetheatrecompany.com.

Insight Theatre Company presents the musical The Wizard of Oz July 25-27. "Insight Theatre's student interns present this timeless tale of Dorothy and her unplanned trip to the land of Oz. Based on the book by L. Frank Baum, this family-friendly production brings favorite characters such as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Glinda to Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West to life. As they travel the yellow brick road, Dorothy and her friends will encounter Munchkins, fend off flying monkeys and learn that there is “no place like home.” Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of July 21, 2014

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The Compton Heights Concert Band presents free Musical Mondays concert featuring marches, show tunes and classical favorites on Monday, July 21 at 7:30 PM. The concert takes place in Tower Grove Park at the historic Henry Shaw Bandstand. For more information: chband.org

The Compton Heights Concert Band presents a free Sunday Serenade concert featuring marches, show tunes and classical favorites on Sunday, July 27, at 7:30 PM. The concerts takes place in Francis Park at Donovan and Eichelberger on the Compton Heights Band’s "Carol Joy Brooks Memorial" Stage. For more information: chband.org

The Gateway Festival Orchestra presents Bright Lights of Broadway, a free concert on Sunday, July 27, at 7:30 PM. "Enjoy a free live concert by a fifty-piece professional orchestra. Bring a lawn chair or a blanket for relaxing on the grass in beautiful Brookings Quadrangle. Parking is free and plentiful. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is available for purchase, and children receive an attendance prize. There is a pre-concert discussion at 7:10 pm. The concert begins at 7:30 and includes Rodgers/Hammerstein: South Pacific – Symphonic Scenario, Leigh/Darion: Man of La Mancha Selections, Lerner/Loewe: My Fair Lady Selections, Styne/Sondheim: Gypsy Selections, Harbach/Yordy/Coker: Booth Selections, arr. Sayer: Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Rodgers/Hammerstein: Oklahoma Selections. The vocalists will be Keith Boyer, tenor and Jane Jennings, soprano." The concert takes place at the Brookings Quadrangle on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.gatewayfestivalorchestra.org

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents an open stage recital by students of the St. Louis Childbloom Guitar Program on Saturday, July 26, at 4 p.m. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of July 18, 2014

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:

Photo: Phillip Hamer
The Muny presents the musical The Addams Family nightly at 8:15 PM, July 14-20, in the outdoor theatre in Forest Park. "Making its US regional and Muny premiere, The Addams Family puts Charles Addams' classic and beloved characters in a hilarious Broadway musical that has been thrilling audiences worldwide. See what Bloomberg News calls “uproarious!” The Addams Family features a book by Jersey Boys authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music by Andrew Lippa. Come meet Gomez, Morticia, Lurch and the entire hilariously odd Addams Family." For more information, visit muny.org or call 314-361-1900.

My take: As I say in my review for 88.1 KDHX, this is a show with a little too much of everything: too many songs with too many lyrics and too many big dance numbers that run just a little too long. But it's all quality stuff and the show is so often so outrageously funny that I'm willing to forgive its excesses. Some of the jokes may be a bit too adult for the kids, but on the whole it's great fun for the entire family. And it looks like the weather will be pleasant.

Photo: Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare presents Hamlet through July 20. "Devastated to find that his father’s death was no accident – that, in fact, the late king was murdered by the brother who now wears his crown – Prince Hamlet immediately vows revenge. Yet putting that vow into practice proves agonizingly difficult, and Hamlet – perhaps the most famous tragic hero in all of Western drama, and certainly the most enigmatic – can’t even figure out why. " Performances take place at the 560 Music Center in University City. For more information, call 314-361-5664 or visit stlshakespeare.org.

My take: By casting a woman in the role of Hamlet, St. Louis Shakespeare is not being as radical as you might think. Sure, Shakespeare would never have done it for the simple reason that women were barred from the stage in his day. But other prominent directors have done it (Joseph Papp back in 1982, for example). The first female Hamlet that we know of was the great Sarah Siddons in 1775 and, of course, Sarah Bernhardt made quite a splash with the role at the turn of the 19th century. In her review for 88.1 KDHX, Tina Farmer describes this as "a passionate, emotionally layered production...that remains faithful to the script while providing a few unexpected twists, most of which work to great effect."

Held Over:

Photo: Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis presents the musical Always..Patsy Cline through August 31. "Jacqueline Petroccia and Zoe Vonder Haar star in the return engagement of the show critics called 'exceptional, must see entertainment.' The touching and true story of Country music legend Patsy Cline and her friendship with Texas housewife Louise Seger returns to STAGES this spring. Combining down home country humor, heartache and 27 of Patsy Cline's unforgettable hits such as 'Crazy,' 'Walkin' After Midnight,' and 'Sweet Dreams,' Always... Patsy Cline endures as a piece of genuine Americana." Performances take place at The Playhouse at Westport Plaza. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407.

My take: Call this a qualified recommendation. If you're a lover of Patsy Cline or country music in general, I think you'll have a great time at this show, which is really more of a celebrity impersonation review than a book musical per se. Jacqueline Petroccia captures Cline's voice and manner so accurately it's eerie and Zoe Vonder Haar is a hoot and a half as Louise Seger, the real-life Houston fan who became a close friends and correspondent of Cline. With over two dozen Patsy Cline hits performed to perfection by Ms. Petroccia and a six-piece band, the show is a real feast for fans. See my KDHX review for more information.

Insight Theatre Company presents the comedy Over the River and Through the Woods July 10 - 20. "This comic-drama hit, which ran Off-Broadway for more than two years, introduces the audience to a tight-knit, Italian-American family who share Sunday dinners in New Jersey. When one family member announces he's moving to Seattle to accept a promotion, he sends his grandparents into a tailspin - and they pull out all the stops to convince him to stay." Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.com.

My take: I haven't seen Insight's production, but I played Nunzio in the St. Louis premiere of this show back in 2002 at Act Inc, so I can say from personal experience that it's a very funny and very true to life script about a loving and very loud family. Kind of like my own.

Photo: Ron Lindsey
Union Avenue Opera presents Verdi's La Traviata Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, July 11-18. "La Traviata, one of the most beloved tragedies in opera, tells the story of a worldly courtesan, Violetta, who decides to leave her life of glamour and frivolity behind for the love of one man, Alfredo. Returning to UAO after twelve years, La Traviata depicts the ultimate operatic life, one filled with grand parties, grander sacrifices, and some of Verdi's most memorable music, including the drinking song “Libiamo” and Violetta's virtuosic “Sempre libera.” Both longtime opera lovers and first-timers will be captivated by this irresistible classic. La Traviata will be directed by Tim Ocel, who received rave review for his direction of 2011's Dead Man Walking at UAO. " Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text. For more information, visit unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

My take: As I write in my review for 88.1 KDHX, Union Avenue Opera has opened their 20th anniversary season with a "La Traviata" that's close to perfect. It has a dream cast, wonderfully clear and precise singing by the chorus, impeccable playing by the orchestra under Scott Schoonover, and direction by Tim Ocel which manages to be innovative while still respecting Francesco Maria Piave's text and Verdi's music. Whether you're a long-time opera fan or a total newbie, this is a "must see."

"The Addams Family" at the Muny: Still crazy after all of these years

Photo: Phillip Hamer
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What a long strange trip it has been for The Addams Family. They started out as a collection of unnamed characters in the creepy drawings of the late Charles Addams for “The New Yorker” in the 1930s, got names when they became sitcom stars in the mid-1960s, went through multiple live and animated TV incarnations beginning in the ‘70s, and were the subject of three feature films in the ‘90s.

In 2010 songwriter Andrew Lippa teamed up with screenwriter Marshall Brickman and playwright Rick Elice for “The Addams Family” on Broadway and now here it is provoking laughs and a standing ovation from thousands of fans at The Muny. From macabre amusement for New York sophisticates to what Muny PR material calls “beloved characters” in just over 70 years. Who'd a thunk it?

Photo: Phillip Hamer
I bring up all this history because the producers of the “Addams Family” musical made a conscious decision to go back to those original one-panel cartoons for inspiration. Interviewed in the “Chicago Tribune” back in 2009 Julian Crouch said that he and show co-creator Phelim McDermott centered their concept on Uncle Fester—he of the clown-white face and 1920s college band overcoat. "If Fester was going to do a Broadway show,” they asked, “what kind of Broadway show would he do?” Their intent was to create "an off-beat take on 19th Century Gothic."

I think they succeeded. Chockablock with jokes and slightly subversive, “The Addams Family” combines an eclectic and lyrically clever score with a story line that's classic sitcom, albeit infused with the warped sensibility of Addams's original drawings. It seems that Addams daughter Wednesday (now grown into a young woman) has, unknown to her parents, become engaged to Lucas Beineke, scion of the aggressively normal Alice and Mal (he prattles on about investments; she spontaneously spouts bad poetry). She breaks the news to dad Gomez but asks him to keep it a secret from mother Morticia (who is finding it difficult to come to grips with Wednesday's entry into adulthood) until the families have had a chance to meet over dinner at the Addams family's Central Park mansion. Gomez accurately foresees disaster but goes ahead anyway, with the active encouragement of Uncle Fester, who enlists the aid of a chorus of deceased family members to help young love triumph.

Which it does, but only after a disastrous after-dinner game depicted in the production number “Full Disclosure,” in which everyone must reveal a secret or face the consequences. There's also a cataclysmic storm, a misdirected magic potion, and a mass of other comic complications. In the end, even the Beinekes learn to embrace their crazy side and, as the entire company sings in the finale, “Move Toward the Darkness.”

Photo: Phillip Hamer
“The Addams Family” is nothing if not funny, with plenty of laugh out loud moments, both spoken and sung. For me, the whole loopy enterprise is encapsulated in Fester's big second-act song “The Moon and Me.” Having apparently decided that (to quote a lyric from "Mame") "the man in the moon is a lady," Fester has fallen in love with her, and gives voice to his feelings in an oddball production number involving a massive crescent moon on rollers and a chorus of slightly creepy chorines with umbrellas representing the phases of the moon. It's the sort of thing Ziegfeld might have concocted had he taken acid, and it perfectly captures the show's whimsically bent attitude.

There's plenty more of that brand of wackiness over the course of the evening, including “Crazier Than You,” in which Wednesday, Lucas, Mal, and Alice all learn to embrace their inner loony; “Just Around the Corner,” in which Morticia looks forward gleefully towards death along with some ancestors who have already gone down that road; and “What If,” in which brother Pugsley sadly contemplates a future in which Wednesday won't be around to nail his tongue to the floor anymore. There's so much more, in fact, that after a while it becomes (you should pardon the expression) comic overkill.

Yes, that's right. Like so many recent musicals concocted for the high-stakes theme park that Broadway has become, “The Addams Family” has just a little too much of everything: too many songs with too many lyrics and too many big dance numbers that run just a little too long. At times the entire enterprise threatens to sink under the weight of it all, only to bounce back with a great laugh line or a fast scene change. As it stands, “The Addams Family” is funny and entertaining, but a ruthless editor could make it better.

It helps that the Muny has assembled a terrific cast for this production. Rob McClure, whose Bert drew raves in “Mary Poppins” last summer, returns to the Muny stage as Gomez. In the cartoons, Gomez always looked like a decayed silent film star—Ramon Navarro on the skids. In his stage incarnation, he's more like the dark side's answer to Ricky Riccardo, all domestic befuddlement at his inability to keep both Morticia and Wednesday happy. Mr. McClue has lots of fun with the deliberately cheesy accent and drifts across the stage with the kind of grace only a solid dancer and smart physical comic can provide.

Jenny Powers, who was Mr. McClure's Mary Poppins last season, demonstrates just how wide her range is by oozing slinky grace as Morticia, impressively sure footed as she baby steps around in that absurdly tight black gown. There's real chemistry between her and Mr. McClure, lending a nice undercurrent of reality to their comically exaggerated love scenes.

Photo: Phillip Hamer
Sara Kapner and Dan Deluca are perfect as the absurdly mismatched Wednesday and Lucas, Michael Harp is engagingly hilarious as the twisted Pugsley, and Jennifer Cody is remarkably convincing as cheerfully decrepit Grandma Addams, given that the actress appears to be a fraction of the character's apparent age. John Scherer and Hollis Resnick are the essence of Midwestern repression as Mal and Alice, which makes their final surrender to the dark that much more funny.

Steve Rosen has the pivotal role of Uncle Fester, who acts as narrator and agent provocateur, and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to chat and joke with the audience. The writers have made the character into a kind of whimsical clown, and Mr. Rosen makes the most of it. I'm also impressed with his ability to play the entire thing in that absurd, not-quite-falsetto head voice without making it sound false. William Ryall holds down the other end of the vocal spectrum as the hulking Lurch. He has a wonderful comic turn in the first act in which he attempts without success to tell the Beinekes who he is with a mix of grunts and physical shtick. It was a real crowd pleaser.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and choreographer Vince Pesce use the big Muny stage to great advantage, making the most of the large ensemble and youth chorus. Michael Schweikhardt's scenic design captures enough of the look of the cartoons to be effective, as do Andrea Lauer's costumes. The outfits for the millennia of Addams ancestors are especially inventive. Nathan W. Scheuer's atmospheric lighting gives it all a nicely spooky look.

Photo: Phillip Hamer
The Muny orchestra sounded great under the baton of Ben Whiteley. And what a pleasure it was to hear some real acoustic instruments in an arrangement with some real body after the tinny sound of the reduced ensemble for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" last week.

It's not likely that “The Addams Family” will go down in history as a high-water mark of musical theatre, but it's more consistently entertaining than a number of highly touted new mass market shows I've seen in recent years. Yes, it could use trimming, but even so it's a pleasant way to while away two and a half hours at the Muny, especially with a weather forecast calling for nighttime lows in the 50s and 60s all week. It's too much fun, but fun nevertheless.

“The Addams Family” plays nightly at 8:15 p.m. through Sunday, July 20, on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, check out the Muny web site.

Monday, July 14, 2014

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of July 14, 2014

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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Photo: Phillip Hamer
The Muny presents the musical The Addams Family nightly at 8:15 PM, July 14-20, in the outdoor theatre in Forest Park. "Making its US regional and Muny premiere, The Addams Family puts Charles Addams' classic and beloved characters in a hilarious Broadway musical that has been thrilling audiences worldwide. See what Bloomberg News calls “uproarious!” The Addams Family features a book by Jersey Boys authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and music by Andrew Lippa. Come meet Gomez, Morticia, Lurch and the entire hilariously odd Addams Family." For more information, visit muny.org or call 314-361-1900. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Photo: Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis presents the musical Always..Patsy Cline through August 31. "Jacqueline Petroccia and Zoe Vonder Haar star in the return engagement of the show critics called 'exceptional, must see entertainment.' The touching and true story of Country music legend Patsy Cline and her friendship with Texas housewife Louise Seger returns to STAGES this spring. Combining down home country humor, heartache and 27 of Patsy Cline's unforgettable hits such as 'Crazy,' 'Walkin' After Midnight,' and 'Sweet Dreams,' Always... Patsy Cline endures as a piece of genuine Americana." Performances take place at The Playhouse at Westport Plaza. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents The Dapper Flappers through July 27. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

The Missouri History Museum Theatre in the Museum Series presents Flappers to Smashers: Women, Prohibition, and the 1920s Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 PM through August 5. "A look at how the 18th Amendment changed women's lives." Performances take place at the Missouri History Museum at Lindell and De Baliviere in Forest Park. For more information, visit mohistory.org.

R-S Theatrics proudly presents its 3rd Annual FUNraiser on Saturday, July 19, at 8 p.m. “THRILL as you enjoy a fun-filled cabaret featuring alumni of past R-S musicals as well as songs from our upcoming production First Lady Suite, sung by members of the cast! SWOON as you bid on a marvelous silent auction spread that includes theatre tickets, in-home wine tastings, and rounds of golf! REVEL in the knowledge that you’re a part of this wonderful evening that helps R-S Theatrics continue to produce St. Louis premieres of thought-provoking theatre!” The performance takes place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information, email rstheatrics at gmail.com or call 314-456-0071.

The Missouri History Museum Theatre in the Museum Series presents Glory the Gargoyle Finds a Home Saturdays at 11:30 AM through August 2. "A play for our youngest visitors. Glory is a gargoyle with big dreams, but she has trouble fitting in. Join her in her search to find a home." Performances take place at the Missouri History Museum at Lindell and De Baliviere in Forest Park. For more information, visit mohistory.org.

Photo: Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare presents Hamlet through July 20. "Devastated to find that his father’s death was no accident – that, in fact, the late king was murdered by the brother who now wears his crown – Prince Hamlet immediately vows revenge. Yet putting that vow into practice proves agonizingly difficult, and Hamlet – perhaps the most famous tragic hero in all of Western drama, and certainly the most enigmatic – can’t even figure out why. " Performances take place at the 560 Music Center in University City. For more information, call 314-361-5664 or visit stlshakespeare.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Stages St. Louis presents the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying July 18 – August 17. Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407.

Clayton Community Theatre presents Little Women Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, July 18-27. Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre. For more information, call 314-721-9228 or visit placeseveryone.org.

St. Louis Actors' Studio presents the Neil LaBute New Theater Festival, Part 1 through July 20 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. The festival features professional, new and previously unproduced one-act plays 45 minutes or less in length, chosen from submissions to the festival over the previous year. The plays in Part 1 are Aleks Merilo 's "Little Moscow," Steve Karp's "Rubbas," Thomas Pierce's "Blue Lagoon" and Jan Henson Dow's "I Want to Show You Something." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Insight Theatre Company presents the comedy Over the River and Through the Woods through July 20. "This comic-drama hit, which ran Off-Broadway for more than two years, introduces the audience to a tight-knit, Italian-American family who share Sunday dinners in New Jersey. When one family member announces he's moving to Seattle to accept a promotion, he sends his grandparents into a tailspin - and they pull out all the stops to convince him to stay." Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.com.

Spotlight Productions presents Peter Pan. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through July 20. Performances take place at the Marquette High School Theater, 2351 Clarkson Road, Chesterfield, MO. For more information, visit www.rockwood.k12.mo.us/spotlightproductions.

First Run Theatre presents the comedy Scutter Murphy's Wake by Patrick Conroy Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, through July 20. "Scutter Murphy's Wake is the social occasion of the winter in a small Irish village. Mourners from all over the village converge on the home of Scutter's widow to pay their respects, socialize, explore their own fears and finally, get a free drink at Scutter's expense. As drink flows freely, the craic is mighty; music, song, ritual and conversation all lead to mishap. With superstition and alcohol, a strange combination, can this crowd safely get Scutter under the sod?" Performances take place at De Smet Jesuit High School Theatre, 233 N. New Ballas Rd. For more information, call (314) 352-5114 or visit www.firstruntheatre.com.

Family Musical Theater presents Sondheim's Sweeney Todd Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, July 18-27, at the Ivory Theatre, 7622 Michigan. For more information, visit familymusical.org or call 314-571-9579.

Photo: Ron Lindsey
Union Avenue Opera presents Verdi's La Traviata Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, July 18 and 19. "La traviata, one of the most beloved tragedies in opera, tells the story of a worldly courtesan, Violetta, who decides to leave her life of glamour and frivolity behind for the love of one man, Alfredo. Returning to UAO after twelve years, La traviata depicts the ultimate operatic life, one filled with grand parties, grander sacrifices, and some of Verdi's most memorable music, including the drinking song “Libiamo” and Violetta's virtuosic “Sempre libera.” Both longtime opera lovers and first-timers will be captivated by this irresistible classic. La traviata will be directed by Tim Ocel, who received rave review for his direction of 2011's Dead Man Walking at UAO. " Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text. For more information, visit unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents the musical The Wizard of Oz Wednesday through Sunday, July 16-20. The performances take place on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774.

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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The toast of the town: Union Avenue Opera's "La Traviata"

Riccardo Iannello and Zulimar López-Hernández
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
Who: Union Avenue Opera
What: La Traviata
When: July 11-19, 2014
Where: Union Avenue Christian Church

History tells us the 1853 premiere of Verdi's "La Traviata" was something of a disaster, capped by the fatal miscasting (opposed unsuccessfully by the composer) of a soprano whose girth, in the view of the audience, made her attempts to portray a consumptive beauty laughable rather than tragic.

Over 150 years later, Union Avenue Opera has opened their 20th anniversary season with a "La Traviata" that's at the other end of the spectrum.  It might not be perfect, but it's close enough for me.  It has a dream cast, wonderfully clear and precise singing by the chorus, impeccable playing by the orchestra under Scott Schoonover, and direction by Tim Ocel which manages to be innovative while still respecting Francesco Maria Piave's text and Verdi's music.

Let's start with the singers.  As Violetta, the courtesan dying of love and tuberculosis, soprano Zulimar López-Hernández has a spectacular voice that manages the coloratura flash of "Sempre libera" as easily as the delicate lyricism of "Un dì felice," the amorous Act I duet with Alfredo.  Better yet she acts the role with total conviction—her death scene is a certified tearjerker—and she certainly looks like the kind of woman who might be the toast of Paris.  The standing ovation for her during the curtain call was both enthusiastic and well deserved.

Tenor Riccardo Iannello is Alfredo, fresh from the sticks and madly in love with Violetta.  His character doesn't have quite as many opportunities to shine as Violetta, but he makes the most of them.  His Act II aria "De' miei bollenti spiriti"—in which he reflects on the joy of his idyllic life with Violetta at the latter's country house outside Paris—drew shouts of "bravo" on opening night.  He's not, perhaps, in quite Ms. López-Hernández's class as an actor.  His build-up to the Act II finale, for example, in which Alfredo scorns Violetta for her supposed infidelity and is then scored in turn by Violetta’s friends and nearly disowned by his father Giorgio, was not entirely credible on opening night. But once he got to the emotional peak of that scene his remorse and grief were palpable.

As Alfredo's scandalized father, baritone and UAO regular Robert Garner is compelling and sings a beautiful "Di Provenza il mar" in Act II.   He is, perhaps, a bit too reliant on stock operatic gestures at times but overall it's a solid performance and powerfully sung.

Debra Hillabrand and Phillip Bullock
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
Possibly the biggest indicator of the strength of this production is the quality of the performances in the smaller roles.  As Violetta's maid Annina, St. Louis’s own Debby Lennon is a warm and sympathetic presence.  Debra Hillabrand is appropriately giddy as Violetta's friend Flora, and Mark Freiman is a wonderfully unpleasant Baron Douphol.  There's great work as well from Anthony Heinemann as Gastone, Phillip Bullock as Marquis d'Obigny, Robert Reed as Doctor Grenvil, Jon Garrett as Giuseppe, and Philip Touchette as the Act II Messenger.

Let me now praise the chorus.  Verdi's big ensemble numbers are invariably showstoppers, especially when sung with this kind of power and clarity.  Their performance of the Act I drinking song "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" illustrates why this is a popular operatic excerpt, and they make that big Act II finale wonderfully powerful.

Under Mr. Schoonover's direction the orchestra delivers a nicely paced reading of the score from the very beginning.  Those opening chords in the strings are very exposed and can easily get the opera off on the wrong foot if not delivered as well as they are here.

Tim Ocel directs with a light hand, mostly content to let the opera tell its story without a lot of gimmicks.  His one departure from tradition is to make it all a kind of memory play, taking place in Violetta's tomb.  During the orchestral prelude Alfredo, dressed in a somber brown suit, enters with a bouquet of flowers and quietly sits by the grave downstage right.  As the opening party scene begins, he puts down the flowers and makes his entrance.  It's a pattern that repeats throughout the opera, reminding us that everything is taking place in Alfredo's memory—an image reinforced by the fact that his costume remains unchanged all evening.

The concept works surprisingly well.  Patrick Huber's set, with its massive stone arches reflecting the actual architecture of Union Avenue's performance space in the Union Avenue Christian Church, is a constant reminder of the fact that death lurks at the heart of the opera's story.  In combination with Maureen Berry's evocative lighting, it also allows him to make good use of the massive stained glass window that dominates the space above the stage.

Teresa Dogget (a.k.a. "the hardest-working woman in St. Louis show business") has provided colorful and character-appropriate costumes and wigs, although it's not clear from the program which ones are hers and which ones came from the Utah Opera and The Rep. She presumably had final say over what got used, though, so I have no hesitation about giving her top billing.

Put it all together and you have a very strong start to Union Avenue's season.  Opera lovers should put this on their "don't miss" list, but opera newbies should give it serious thought as well.  "La Traviata" is not that long by operatic standards (just over two and one-half hours, including two intermissions), its story is clear and compelling, and the projected English text makes it all very approachable.  Verdi was, after all, a man of the theatre who had an unerring feel for what did and didn't work on stage.

There's also the fact that, as I noted in my preview article, "La Traviata" is not without contemporary resonance.  The libretto's clash between the hedonistic and creative bohemians of Paris's left bank and the scandalized middle class is not unlike the culture wars that have been raging here in the USA since the 1970s. And its portrayal of the casual cruelty of the morally smug still feels relevant.

In addition, when "La Traviata" opened, conservative moralists were outraged at its sympathetic portrayal of Violetta, with her declaration of sexual independence and refusal to assume the properly submissive role of wife and mother.  A century and a half later, it seems that not nearly enough has changed.  Maybe everything old is, in fact, new again.

Union Avenue Opera presents "La Traviata" Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 19, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End.  The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text.  Note that there is a parking lot at the church, but it tends to fill up early, so arrival by 7:30 is advised. Tickets and other information are available at the Union Avenue web site.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of July 14, 2014

The Compton Heights Concert Band presents free Musical Mondays concert featuring marches, show tunes and classical favorites on Monday, July 14 at 7:30 PM. The concert takes place in Tower Grove Park at the historic Henry Shaw Bandstand. For more information: chband.org

The Compton Heights Concert Band presents a free Sunday Serenade concert featuring marches, show tunes and classical favorites on Sunday, July 20, at 7:30 PM. The concerts takes place in Francis Park at Donovan and Eichelberger on the Compton Heights Band's "Carol Joy Brooks Memorial" Stage. For more information: chband.org

The Gateway Festival Orchestra presents "The Music of the Night," a free concert on Sunday, July 20, at 7:30 PM. "Enjoy a free live concert by a fifty-piece professional orchestra. Bring a lawn chair or a blanket for relaxing on the grass in beautiful Brookings Quadrangle. Parking is free and plentiful. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is available for purchase, and children receive an attendance prize. There is a pre-concert discussion at 7:10 pm. The concert begins at 7:30 and includes Mozart: "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," mov't 1, Debussy/Luck: "Claire de Lune," Zachary Cairns: "Refracted Moonlight" (based on Debussy's "Claire de Lune" – orchestral premiere), Mozart: "O zittre nicht" (Queen of the Night aria, "Magic Flute," Act I) with soprano Stella Markou, Mendelssohn: Nocturne from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Mozart: "Der Holle Rache" (Queen of the Night aria, "Magic Flute," Act II) with soprano Stella Markou, Debussy: "Nocturnes" (Nuages and Fetes), Andrew Lloyd-Webber: Selections from "Phantom of the Opera."" The concert takes place at the Brookings Quadrangle on the Washington University campus. For more information: www.gatewayfestivalorchestra.org

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a classical open stage night on Monday, July 14, 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.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents violinist Andrew Dunn on Friday, July 18, at 5:30 PM. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents The River Song Quartet on Saturday, July 19, at 5:30 PM. "River Song is a Los Angeles-based quintet devoted to the performance of original compositions and arrangements that seamlessly blend the traditions of jazz and improvised music with western classical chamber and American folk music." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents pianist Nicholas Susi performing music by Haydn, Debussy, and Liszt on Saturday, July 19, at 8 PM. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Opera Preview: The culture war over 'La Traviata'

Riccardo Iannello and Zulimar López-Hernández
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
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[This weekend Union Avenue Opera opens its twentieth anniversary season with Verdi's La Traviata]

Nothing dates faster than relevance. The more a work of art addresses uniquely contemporary issues, the quicker it becomes stale and even, eventually, quaint.

When Verdi's La Traviata opened at the Teatro alla Fenice in 1853, it was very relevant. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils's 1852 stage adaptation or his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, Francesco Maria Piave's libretto was, as they say, “hot stuff”.  The heroine (Marguerite in the original, Violetta in the opera) was clearly based on the recently deceased Alphonsine Plessis, one of the most famous members of the demi-monde, a term invented by Dumas to describe a class of women in Second Empire France who were “kept” by wealthy lovers in high style. They were often patrons of the arts and apparently knew how to throw one heck of a party, but were shunned by polite society. The sympathetic treatment of Violetta in the opera, therefore, was something of a scandal, especially when combined with Verdi's own flouting of “middle class morality” by openly living with his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strapponi.

The premiere itself was a bit of a disaster, capped by the fatal miscasting of a soprano whose girth made her attempts to portray a consumptive beauty laughable rather than tragic, but that didn't make it any less of succès de scandale. The theatre's management tried to blunt the impact by forcing Verdi to set the action a century earlier, but I doubt that anyone was fooled. Certainly the censors and conservative critics weren't conned, and future productions were routinely attacked by the blinkered guardians of public morality.

The status of women in Western society has changed greatly over the last century and a half, however, so some of the drama now looks rather old fashioned. And yet, the work is still immensely popular and is generally regarded as part of the core operatic repertoire.

Why?

Debra Hillabrand and Phillip Bullock
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever heard the score. Verdi lavished his genius on La Traviata, filling the stage with brilliant choruses, ravishing duets and arias, and spectacular ensemble numbers. The finale of Act II, as Alfredo scorns Violetta for her supposed infidelity and is then scored in turn by Violetta's friends and nearly disowned by his father, is musical theatre at its best. The cultural context may be dated, but the emotions are universally human.

But perhaps it's not so dated after all. The clash between the hedonistic and creative bohemians of Paris's left bank and the scandalized middle class is not unlike the culture wars that have been raging here in the USA since the 1970s. Sadly, the opera's portrayal of the casual cruelty of the morally smug still has resonance. It's not difficult at all to imagine Giogio Germont's pompous and destructive moralizing in Act II coming from the mouth (say) of any random member of the Republican Party.

Maybe everything old is, in fact, new again.

Union Avenue Opera presents La Traviata Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, July 11 through 19, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End.  Note that there is a parking lot at the church, but it tends to fill up early, so arrival by 7:30 is advised.  For more information: unionavenueopera.org.

This originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of July 11, 2014

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:

Insight Theatre Company presents the comedy Over the River and Through the Woods July 10 - 20. "This comic-drama hit, which ran Off-Broadway for more than two years, introduces the audience to a tight-knit, Italian-American family who share Sunday dinners in New Jersey. When one family member announces he's moving to Seattle to accept a promotion, he sends his grandparents into a tailspin - and they pull out all the stops to convince him to stay." Performances take place in the Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood on the campus of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-556-1293 or visit insighttheatrecompany.com.

My take: I haven't seen Insight's production, but I played Nunzio in the St. Louis premiere of this show back in 2002 at Act Inc, so I can say from personal experience that it's a very funny and very true to life script about a loving and very loud family. Kind of like my own.

Photo: Ron Lindsey
Union Avenue Opera presents Verdi's La Traviata Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, July 11-18. "La traviata, one of the most beloved tragedies in opera, tells the story of a worldly courtesan, Violetta, who decides to leave her life of glamour and frivolity behind for the love of one man, Alfredo. Returning to UAO after twelve years, La traviata depicts the ultimate operatic life, one filled with grand parties, grander sacrifices, and some of Verdi's most memorable music, including the drinking song “Libiamo” and Violetta's virtuosic “Sempre libera.” Both longtime opera lovers and first-timers will be captivated by this irresistible classic. La traviata will be directed by Tim Ocel, who received rave review for his direction of 2011's Dead Man Walking at UAO. " Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text. For more information, visit unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

My take: I'm seeing this opening night, but I'm putting in in the list for this week because it's the first production of Union Avenue's 2014 season and because it's the sort of thing they have generally done well in the past. Besides, when you think of it, this is an opera that thumbs its nose at the morally pompous. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils' 1852 stage adaptation of his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, Francesco Maria Piave's libretto for La Traviata was, as they say, “hot stuff” back in the day because of its sympathetic treatment of Violetta, especially when combined with Verdi's own flouting of “middle class morality” by openly living with his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strapponi. It's a good example of why it's fortunate that the professional minders of other people's business on the far right never step inside an opera house. They'd be pretty scandalized if they knew.

Held Over:

Photo: Peter Wochniak
Stages St. Louis presents the musical Always..Patsy Cline through August 31. "Jacqueline Petroccia and Zoe Vonder Haar star in the return engagement of the show critics called 'exceptional, must see entertainment.' The touching and true story of Country music legend Patsy Cline and her friendship with Texas housewife Louise Seger returns to STAGES this spring. Combining down home country humor, heartache and 27 of Patsy Cline's unforgettable hits such as 'Crazy,' 'Walkin' After Midnight,' and 'Sweet Dreams,' Always... Patsy Cline endures as a piece of genuine Americana." Performances take place at The Playhouse at Westport Plaza. For more information, visit stagesstlouis.org or call 314-821-2407.

My take: Call this a qualified recommendation. If you're a lover of Patsy Cline or country music in general, I think you'll have a great time at this show, which is really more of a celebrity impersonation review than a book musical per se. Jacqueline Petroccia captures Cline's voice and manner so accurately it's eerie and Zoe Vonder Haar is a hoot and a half as Louise Seger, the real-life Houston fan who became a close friends and correspondent of Cline. With over two dozen Patsy Cline hits performed to perfection by Ms. Petroccia and a six-piece band, the show is a real feast for fans. See my KDHX review for more information.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It ain't necessarily Gershwin

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
What: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
When: July 7 – 13, 2014
Where: The Muny, St. Louis

The main thing you need to know about “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is that it's not really the Gershwins' “Porgy and Bess.” Permit me to explain.

“Porgy and Bess” is a 1935 opera with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, and libretto by Heyward, based on an earlier stage adaptation of his 1925 novel “Porgy” about the tragic love triangle linking the crippled beggar Porgy, the brutish stevedore Crown, and the worldly but not very wise Bess. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a 2011 musical theatre adaptation of the opera conceived and directed by Diane Paulus with a radically simplified version of Gershwin's score by Diedre Murray and a rewritten book by Susan-Lori Parks that deletes some characters and subplots but leaves the core story intact.

Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
“Porgy and Bess” is a full-scale opera, sung through with a minimum of spoken dialog. Cast in three acts but usually performed in two, it runs over three and one-half hours with intermission. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a standard musical, with most of the original narrative music replaced with speech. It runs just over two and one-half hours. “Porgy and Bess” has (depending on how its staged) only one or two real dance production numbers and not many built-in applause breaks. “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” has plenty of both, repeatedly bringing the drama to a halt while the cast poses and the audience claps on cue.

The result is a work that, compared to the original, feels somewhat downsized and diminished. Ms. Murray's musical edits are at best pointless and at worst pernicious, altering Gershwin's original melodies and rhythms in what seem to me to be arbitrary and unnecessary ways.   All of the best-known songs are still there—"Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," and "It Ain't Necessarily So," among others—but none of them has escaped some tinkering.  Some of the composer's most innovative ideas, like the orchestral fugue that accompanies the fight in which Crown murders Robbins, have been edited out of existence or, like the vivid musical depiction of the gathering storm in the second act, drowned out by stage business and sound effects.

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess,
Kingsley Leggs as Sportin' Life
Photo: Michael J. Lutch
William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke's arrangements don't help, replacing Gershwin's inventive orchestration with a generic contemporary keyboard-heavy sound. In addition, the brevity of the individual songs and frequent applause cues kills some of the dramatic momentum that the original creates with its continuous flow of melody.

That's not to say that all of the changes are negative. In Heyward's libretto the residents of Catfish Row often come across as naïve and even simple minded. Ms. Parks has given them a wisdom and dignity that makes them more three-dimensional without substantially changing the story. Some revisions—such as making Bess more actively involved in her own downfall, making Porgy less crippled, or turning Porgy's killing of Crown into an elaborate piece of stage combat involving the entire community—strike me as more questionable, but in general Ms. Parks's contributions add far more than they subtract.

The result is a work that, while dramatically as good as (and sometimes better than) the original, is far less musically interesting. I don't think it serves George Gershwin very well.

That's the bad news. The good news is that this touring company is a strong one, with terrific voices and a fine ensemble of actors—something that, to be fair, you don't always get in the opera world. Better yet, most of the principals have some operatic background, so in some ways this cast combines the best of both worlds. It's a large company—26 members—so I'll confine myself to the leads and supporting performers.

Alvin Crawford as Crown
Photo: Michale J. Lutch
Nathaniel Stampley anchors the ensemble as a dynamic and strong-willed Porgy. Alicia Hall Moran's Bess has all the self-possessed sexuality the role needs, coupled with a strong undercurrent of sadness that makes her tragic downfall credible. Alvin Crawford is a swaggering and arrogant Crown and David Hughey is a warm and loving presence as the doomed Jake, whose desire to create a better life for his child leads to his death in that second act hurricane.

As Serena, Denisha Ballew sings a hair-raising “My Man's Gone Now” while Sumayya Ali's Clara makes a strong first impression in “Summertime.” I don't think it makes sense to turn it into a duet with Jake, but that's a separate issue. Danielle Lee Graves completes the trio of strong supporting women as Mariah, Catfish Row's unofficial spokeswoman and wise elder.

Kingsley Leggs's Sportin' Life is less flamboyant and more physically restrained than is usually the case with this role, which was originally conceived with Cab Calloway in mind and first performed by vaudeville veteran John Bubbles. It's obviously a directorial rather than an acting decision and does result in making the character less comical and more credibly seductive.

Speaking of direction, Ms. Paulus's downsizing might not be to my taste, but her blocking and pacing are first rate. The sets by Riccardo Hernandez replace the original realistic and oppressive tenement block with simple flats painted to suggest doors and windows. That has the advantage of allowing fast scene changes, although it's not always entirely clear where some scenes are taking place unless you already know the story well.

Photo: Michael J. Lutch
The bottom line is that “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” is a leaner, more streamlined, and unquestionably non-operatic treatment of a work that's generally regarded as Gershwin's magnum opus. If you've never seen the original or you have and can essentially treat this as an entirely different work, I'd say it's worth seeing. Calling it “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” though, strikes me as dishonest, as though the creators wanted the cachet of the Gershwin name without the musical substance that goes along with it. Maybe they should just call it “Porgy and Bess: the Musical.”

“The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess” runs through Sunday, July 13, on the Muny's outdoor Stage in Forest Park. The show begins at 8:15 nightly. For more information: muny.com.

This originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.