Saturday, June 28, 2008


Deb Peterson broke the story in the Post-Dispatch earlier today and Chris Gibson, who went to review Elsie Parker tonight for KDHX-FM (where I'm the senior performing arts critic), confirmed it: Savor is closing its doors after the Debby Lennon/Carolbeth True show on June 28th.

Chris said Jim Dolan - the producer of the Cabaret at Savor series and the master of ceremonies for every performance - wasn't there tonight and the woman who was doing the seating apparently had no idea that he was there to review the show. It's not clear whether she was an employee of Savor or Jim's organization.

This is pretty awful news for the cabaret scene locally. Savor was the best all-around cabaret room in town. I went to the press preview for the Kranzberg Center Wednesday (the 21st) and while their cabaret space is promising, the seating will need to be planned properly if it's going to work at all. I have no idea whether they're going to do that or not.

Jim was apparently caught flat-footed by this. His web site is still advertising shows through August 23rd. It looks like Savor made the decision very abruptly.

UPDATE, June 28th: According to an anonymous posting on Ian Froeb's Gut Check restaurant blog, "the owner only knew 5 days before the doors closed for good" and the business "owed over 50 grand to the state in taxes ". How things could get to the point where that would come as a surprise is a question not yet addressed.

Troy Weight

William Walton's 1954 opera Troilus and Cressida has had a history almost as unfortunate as that of its protagonists. From the lackluster Covent Garden premiere, sloppily conducted by an ill-prepared and hostile Malcolm Sargent, through repeated revivals and revisions, this tale of star-crossed lovers in the final years of the Trojan War has acquired a reputation as something of operatic problem child. It wasn't until the 1976 revival - once again at Covent Garden and once again beset by production problems - that the composer, now Sir William Walton, finally received the critical praise he had long deserved for this dark, emotionally charged work.

Revision of the opera continued even after the composer's death, and so it is that Opera Theatre of St. Louis is presenting the world premiere of the latest and (presumably) last version of Troilus and Cressida. The road to St. Louis has been long and winding, but judging from the generally splendid results on view at the Loretto-Hilton Center this past Wednesday night, the journey was well worth it.

The libretto, by actor, lyricist and playwright Christopher Hassall, is based largely on Chaucer's poem Troilus and Criseyde rather than on the somewhat more familiar Shakespearean tragedy. Unlike the many previous versions of the story, in which priestess of Pallas Athena is held up as an example of female inconstancy (a favorite theme of male writers), the Hassall/Walton collaboration clearly depicts Cressida as far more sinned against than sinning - a largely powerless victim of male arrogance and foolishness. Like the pawns in the metaphorically significant chess game which she plays in the second act, Cressida is shuffled about by powers far larger than herself.

In both the original and newest versions of opera, the role of Cressida calls for a dramatic soprano with a wide range and powerful voice. Ellie Dehn, making her OTSL debut, has all that and more. Statuesque and displaying an impressive stage presence, Dehn is as fine an actress as she is a singer - and she's a damned impressive singer. Her second act love scene with Troilus - underscored by Walton's sensuous music - is one of the steamier things I've seen on the Opera Theatre stage in many a year.

Tenor Roger Honeywell is equally strong as the Trojan prince Troilus, utterly believable both as yearning lover and valiant warrior. For this piece to work at all there has to be credible chemistry between the title characters. Mr. Honeywell and Ms. Dehn provide that in quantities sufficient to get over some of the speed bumps in the libretto's first act.

Some of the most remarkable singing comes from tenor Robert Breault as Cressida's fey uncle Pandarus, whose attempts to unite the lovers are undone by royal politics. The role was written for and first performed by Peter Pears and it's hard not to hear echoes of the great British tenor's wide-ranging, flexible voice (to say nothing of the music of his partner, Benjamin Britten) in the role's florid vocal lines. Breault - a late substitution for Stanford Olsen, who was sidelined by a torn tendon - negotiates the many difficult passages with ease and is a solid comic actor.

The principal villains of the piece - Cressida's treasonous father Calkas and the arrogant Greek prince Diomede - are played with considerable gravitas by bass-baritones Darren K. Stokes and Mark S. Doss. Both characters are written with just enough depth to raise them above the level of stock villainy, thereby making them all the more repellent. Doss, in particular, does an excellent job of brining out Diomede's smug self-admiration.

Other fine performances include mezzo Elizabeth Batton as Cressida's duplicitous servant Evadne and baritone Aleksy Bogdanov as Troilus' friend Antenor.

Conductor Antony Walker leads the orchestra with great relish, clearly enjoying every minute of Walton's lush, intelligent score. Sandra Horst's chorus appears in only a handful of scenes, but makes a powerful impression when it does so - particularly in the massive ensemble towards the end of the second act.

Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Gideon Davey have given us a Troy that's a gray, claustrophobic mix of classical and modern design elements, contrasting with a starkly bright Greek camp lit by harsh golden light. I'm not convinced that it all works as a concept, especially in the final act when the treacherous Calkas kills Troilus not by stabbing him in the back as called for in the libretto but by having him shot by a sentry. Up to that point, everyone has been brandishing knives and swords, so the sudden introduction of a modern weapon seems bizarre.

Cressida's death scene is also given a curiously anti-climactic staging. Rather than stabbing herself with Troilus' sword, director Lawless has Ms. Dehn wind the crimson scarf that has served as a token of her love for Troilus around her neck and then pull aside a trap door to reveal a dummy hanging from an identical scarf. The actress then runs offstage, leaving the audience briefly wondering what, exactly, has just happened.

These are minor complaints, however, about an otherwise brilliantly realized production of a rarely-seen opera rich in drama and offering an embarrassment of musical riches. It's a work that resonates, to a degree, with the contemporary political scene as well, given its gimlet-eyed, anti-heroic view of war and the way in which a prolonged siege of a weaker nation by a stronger one has a corrupting influence on both. Sometimes there are truths that only fiction can adequately reveal to us.

Opera Theatre's compelling production of Troilus and Cressida runs through June 29th. Of the three OTSL productions I've seen this year (my own performance commitments prevented me from seeing Madame Butterfly) this was clearly the most consistent musical and dramatic success. It's a "must see" for anyone who enjoys intelligent musical theatre. It's also a fitting tribute to Opera Theatre's late Artistic Director, Colin Graham, who was a long-time champion of the work and friend of the composer. For ticket information, call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site, .

Friday, June 20, 2008

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Those of you who have read this here blog in the past (aw, c'mon, there must be at least one of you) are undoubtedly aware of the fact that I lead something of a double theatrical life in that I'm both an actor and a critic. This has made me acutely aware of both the difficulty of accurately critiquing a performance as well as the folly of getting worked up much one way or the other about reviews of the shows in which I'm appearing - so much so, in fact, that I try to avoid reading them whenever possible.

Still, as anyone who has hung around a dressing room knows well, it's virtually impossible to avoid hearing your fellow actors either praise or bemoan the show's notices. Last night, for example, one topic of discussion before the lights went up on the first act of Stray Dog Theatre's Morning's at Seven (in which I'm playing the curmudgeonly David Crampton) were some weird errors of fact in a generally very positive review.

The paragraph in question looks like this:

But there are questions about this staging. Why, for instance, has the time frame been moved from 1922, where Osborn set it, to 1939 (the year the play debuted)? The shenanigans that ensue in this small Midwestern town seem out of place in the Depression-era 1930s. And here's another seemingly minor yet bewildering change: In Act One we see Cory eating a banana. In the script, Act Two begins with Cory's husband Thor (David K. Gibbs) eating yet another banana and suddenly realizing that he hates it. In that character-revealing moment we realize how henpecked Thor is. But because director Bell has switched the Act Two fruit to an apple, the setup is wasted, the moment lost.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, to begin with, the script (which carries a 1939 copyright date) clearly states “Time: The Present”. So our director was merely following the playwright's directions. Where the reviewer in question got the notion that the play was set seventeen years in the past is anybody's guess. Maybe it was the pre-show music (which consisted of some classic "Jelly Roll" Morton tracks from the mid-twenties), but I doubt it.

Then there's what Sherlock Holmes might have referred to as the curious incident of the banana in the second act. Referring once again to the script, the stage directions at the top of Act II read as follows:

Scene: The Same. Seven-fifteen the next morning. Bright sun. THOR comes out of the house at right. Is eating an apple, contentedly. Suddenly throws it from him.

THOR: God, how I hate apples!

Yes, we have no bananas.

Your guess is as good as mine as to where the reviewer got these odd ideas, much less why he would devote an entire paragraph to upbraiding the director for making non-existent changes. Could he have somehow gotten his hands on an alternate version of the script? The copy we're working from is the official Samuel French acting edition. I can't find any evidence that there's another version out there, but I suppose anything is possible.

It's a mystery worthy of Holmes himself.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the reviewer in question did, in fact, have an alternate version of the script. Specifically, he had the Fireside Theatre edition, issued in conjunction with teh 1980 revival of the play. That revival made several changes in the text (including shifting the setting back seventeen years) and those changes were reflected in the Fireside Theatre edition.

The Fireside Theatre, however, was never in the business of providing working scripts for theatre companies; that has always been the business of Samuel French, Dramatists' Play Service, and some other, smaller businesses. Fireside Theatre - which folded its tent back in 2003 - was a book club that provided editions of plays intented to be read by the general public. Anyone who has ever acted, directed, or designed for the theatre knows that a company is almost certainly not going to be using a Fireside Theatre edition. Shouldn't we expect professional critics to know at least as much about the business as the average actor?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Who Am Us, Anyway?

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title.]

Through July 5th, Scott Miller's New Line Theatre is presenting the Midwest premiere of the musical High Fidelity. Reviews have been very favorable. One of those reviews, however, included a couple of comments that caused my Inner Curmudgeon to spring to life.

You can read the entire piece on line (at least until the publication in questions moves it to the archives, when you have to pay for the privilege of seeing it), but this is what made me all grumbly:

High Fidelity started out as a delightful novel by Nick Hornby, then turned into a cute movie starring John Cusack. But it's not an obvious candidate for the musical stage. That's because when we think of musicals, we tend to think of flashy extravaganzas.

My first complaint involves the use of the word “we”. Who is this word “we”? Did she have a mouse in her pocket? I'm a long-time lover of musical theatre and I certainly don't think of “flashy extravaganzas” when I think of musicals. I'll bet most of you reading this don't either.

Maybe I'm being too picky, but it bugs me to see writers use “we” when they really mean “I” or (maybe) “my friends and I”.

As far as whether or not the book was on "obvious candidate for the musical stage", I have to say that if The Lord of the Rings can be turned into musical theatre, pretty much anything is fair game. Would anyone have thought, a priori, that Tales of the South Pacific was a likely candidate for musical theatre? Or Les Miserables? Or Wicked? For that matter, who'd have thought that a painting by Seuralt could be the basis for a musical? It just takes someone with enough imagination to do the adaptation.

Art in almost any form is nearly infinitely transmutable, in my view. The product of any particular metamorphosis may or may not succeed, depending largely on the skill of the artist doing the adaptation, but almost anything is possible.

That's what we (Stuart Little and I) think, anyway.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sound Bytes

Every now and then I come across an item that spans the divide between my technology blog and my performing arts blog - which is why I'm publishing this little essay in both. Case in point: this interesting item from the New York Times about the use of all-digital orchestras by small companies.

The technology is intended, supposedly, to supplement a small live orchestra. As the author points out, however, there's nothing to prevent it from replacing live musicians entirely.

On the one hand, it might be a boon to small, cash-strapped companies that can't afford to hire many (or any) musicians or community theatres with volunteer orchestras that leave something to be desired in terms of competence. On the other hand, it could make real musicians an endangered species, which is hardly a desirable outcome.

In any case, you'd think it would be an interesting topic for discussion. I expected, therefore, a flurry of responses when I posted the following question to two local theatre email lists: newlinetheatre and stlouistheatre: Would you use an all-digital orchestra for a production?

What I got was a whopping total of one response from New Line Theatre's founder and artistic director Scott Miller, who stated categorically that he would "never do a musical without live musicians". That was hardly surprising, by the way; I've known Scott for some years now and was well aware of his disdain for canned music.

I'm not sure what to make of that. There are a number of musical theatre producers on both lists. Surely at least one of them has an opinion on this. It's not an academic issue, after all. High schools are already using all-digital or mostly-digital orchestras. Surely it's only a matter of time before those small companies referred to above find themselves asking whether or not they should go digital.

So why the silence? Is it because they're all in agreement with Scott? That would be the happier explanation as far as I'm concerned. Or is it because, given the potential cost savings, they wouldn't even bother to think about it before going digital? Could commerce really have trumped art to that degree?

Scary thought, that. Are we facing a future like the one Walter Miller described in his Hugo Award-winning story The Darfsteller? Film extras have already been supplanted by digital animation in big-budget pictures. Could real, live performers of all kinds go the same way?

Will we eventually get to the point where we have made ourselves obsolete?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Rare, Not So Well Done

“[T]hus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

- Twelfth Night, V, 1

That bit of Shakespeare jumped unbidden into my mind as I contemplated Opera Theatre's Midwest premiere of Vincente Martin y Soler's bucolic comedy Una Cosa Rara. First performed in Vienna in November of 1786, just six months after Mozart's masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosa was, for many decades, the far more popular piece, both in the Austrian capitol and the rest of Europe. It wasn't until the early 19th century that “the whirligig of time” gave Mozart his revenge over Martin. By then, of course, both composers had shuffled off this mortal coil.

It's not hard to understand why Cosa was more popular. It's mostly charming numbers are musically simpler than Mozart's and were probably easier on the late 18th-century ear. Like Figaro, Cosa boasted a libretto by the celebrated Lorenzo Da Ponte. Unlike Figaro, however, the story is pure meringue. What plot there is revolves around the unsuccessful attempts of Prince Giovanni to woo the shepherdess Lila away from her swain Lubino. Lila's fidelity is the “rare treasure” of the title.

In Figaro the aristocrats are a rather unpleasant bunch. In Cosa, they're just silly. Vienna's upper crust probably found that more politically acceptable.

Silly and funny aren't necessarily the same thing, however, and while Washington University musicologist Hugh Macdonald's English adaptation of the Da Ponte's original inserts lots of contemporary language and ideas along with some inside jokes about the opera itself, the result still struck me as somewhat incoherent and, ultimately, a bit dull.

Even in a sitcom - the low end of the farce spectrum - there has to be a sense that something is at risk somewhere in order to provide a little dramatic tension. There's none of that here. How much of that is Da Ponte's fault I really can't say; the only copy of the libretto I could find was in the original Italian and my rudimentary grasp of the language of my ancestors isn't up to the task of reading it. The bottom line is that, despite some impressive coloratura arias, the second act made me want to check my watch more than once.

Director Chas Rader-Schieber and set designer David Zinn seem to lack confidence in the material as well. The former fills every spare moment with movement and physical comedy while the latter has set the entire show inside a sort of cartoon version of an 18th-century drawing room filled with silly props including plastic pink Flamingos, plush animals, and sheep on roller skates. Although the resulting barrage of sight gags struck a good portion of the opening night audience as funny, I found much of it annoying, especially when - as was often the case - it drew focus from some truly wonderful singing and acting. That's just plain discourteous.

I really can't say enough about this terrific cast. Sopranos Maureen McKay and Kiera Duffy are wonderfully engaging as Lila and her somewhat more ethically flexible friend Ghita. Their beautiful voices negotiate Martin's more florid passages and rapid patter songs with ease.

Baritone Keith Phares, whose fine dramatic work graced earlier OTSL productions of Miss Havisham's Fire and Loss of Eden, demonstrates that he's a dab hand at comedy as well in the role of Lubino. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, of course, showed his comic skills last season as the roller-blading Pish-Tush in OTSL's Mikado, so it 's not surprising to discover that he's equally funny as Ghita's quarrelsome fiancée Tita. Their singing is first-rate.

Tenor Alek Shrader, who was such an impressive Almaviva in The Barber of Seville back in '06, gets to shine once again as a feckless aristocrat in the role of Prince Giovanni. His dramatic aria about the pains of love was a highlight of the second act. Tenor Paul Appleby, a Gerdine Young Artist cast somewhat ironically in the comic geezer role of the scheming Corrado, is also in fine form.

Soprano Mary Wilson, whose supple voice has graced both the Opera Theatre and St. Louis Symphony stages in the past, is a comic delight as the somewhat befuddled Queen Isabella. She, too, is more than a match for some of the elaborate vocal ornaments Martin tosses her way. David Kravitz, another Mikado alumnus, makes the most of the relatively small role of the unscrupulous Mayor Lisargo.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the orchestra with great skill and precision. Maybe it's just the benefit of hindsight, but even in the sprightly sinfonia, I thought I heard echoes of the rapid opening passages of Figaro's overture. The orchestra certainly handles the music with Mozartian grace in any event.

We owe Opera Theatre a debt of gratitude for giving us a chance to hear the kind of music the Viennese thought superior to that of Mozart, but the entire project would have benefited, in my view, from fewer attempts at slapstick and some judicious edits of the score. It's easy on the ear, but I didn't find musically interesting enough to sustain my interest for nearly three hours, including intermission. Cutting around fifteen minutes from second act, for example, would tighten the dramatic structure, such as it is, without sacrificing any valuable musical content.

Opera Theatre's amusing production of Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 20th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Home Sickness

There's a serious homelessness problem in the St. Louis theatre community.

I'm not talking about homeless actors - although, given what the average stage actor earns in a year, that's certainly possible. I'm talking about homeless theatre companies.

Eight years ago, when the St. Marcus Theatre closed in a flurry of bad feeling following a production of Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi (among other things) my friend Joan Lipkin - whose Uppity Theatre Company was one of the groups left out in the cold - remarked that theatre in St. Louis was mostly about real estate. What she meant, of course, was that there were too many companies chasing after too few spaces.

The situation is at least as bad today. A few new spaces have opened up, but a lot more companies have come into existence while others have extended their seasons. It's still a game of musical chairs, with many smaller companies left standing around when the music stops.

It was, therefore, a cause of great rejoicing among local thespians two years ago when developer Peter Rothschild bought St. Boniface Church at Ivory and Michigan in the city's Carondelet neighborhood from the St. Louis Archdiocese and announced his intention to turn it into the Ivory Theatre. He appeared to be serious about it, spending $1 million on the building and another $800,000 to convert it into a modern theatre space, complete with a handsome and well-appointed lobby. Theatre manager Donna Perrino began contacting local companies, looking for groups who might be interested in making the Ivory their home. It all seemed too good to be true.

Which, alas, it was.

The first storm clouds appeared on the horizon with the inaugural production in the space, New Line Theatre's revue Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. Convinced that the title presaged an evening of wild debauchery, the theatre's former owners exercised an odd clause in the sales contract that allowed them to prevent the building for being used for an odd collection of purposes, including “human abortion, sterilization [or] euthanasia” (there's a lot of that on stage these days, apparently), tattoos, massages, anything “pornographic or soft pornographic” and “live performances directed to an adult audience rather than the general public."

The opening night performance was cancelled, dueling press releases were issues, meetings were held and, eventually, the Archdiocese got around to actually finding out what was in the show. They blinked, found a face-saving exit, and Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll went on. The drama, however, had just begun.

In the intervening months, every company that had signed up for permanent residence at the Ivory found itself in conflict with Perrino. Agreements were broken, the facility wasn't maintained, sets were damaged, and rehearsals were disrupted by loud meetings in the lobby. Chaos, in short, reigned. By the early months of 2008, all of the companies that had signed up for residency had flown the coop, each with its own tale of managerial incompetence.

I won't bore you with the details, but if you want all the dirt in detail there's a blog dedicated to the entire unfolding debacle. That, along with a recent Riverfront Times article, should provide you with an ample sufficiency of dirt.

The situation could be worse, I suppose. The Soulard Preservation Hall has finally opened after years of gut rehab, but the facility is more suitable for musical or comedy shows than live theatre. Tower Grove Abbey - another church now hosting theatre - is open for business, but its resident company, Stray Dog Theatre, has an ambitious year-round schedule that doesn't appear to leave much room for sharing. The new Kranzberg Cultural Center in the former Woolworth Building in Grand Center promises “two performance spaces seating 100 in the black box theatre and 75 in the cabaret studio”, bit it's not scheduled to open until the fall and nobody knows exactly what the facilities will look like or how much it will cost to rent them.

The bottom line, though, is that a number of adventurous small theatre companies are now huddling in doorways, begging for spare change. For a city with such a rich cultural heritage, this is a pretty shameful situation.