Saturday, December 26, 2009

Life is a Cabaret, Part 1

[Being the first in a series of entries chronicling the development of my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight - The Golden Age of Vaudeville. These are companion pieces to Andrea Braun's Talking Cabaret with Chuck Lavazzi blogs at the web site for The Vital Voice. Performances are March 26 and 27, 2010; tickets at licketytix.com.]

The answer to the question “How did you get started on a solo cabaret act?” is very similar to the answer to the question “How did you get started on drugs?”

“I forget, man.”

No, just kidding. Actually, it’s “little by little, and now it’s too late to turn back.”

The whole thing began with an afternoon session at the 2007 St. Louis Cabaret Conference – the four-day professional workshop on cabaret and musical theatre performance that Tim Schall has been producing since 2006. The session was on “building a show”. As an exercise, we were asked to outline a show that we might like to do, paying attention to material selection, flow and the like.

The show I started to put together back then – “Celluloid Heroes: Portraits in Reel Life” – might still see the light of day. But after working at it for the better part of a year, I realized two things:

1) I wasn’t really all that passionate about that particular idea

2) This is a LOT harder than it looks.

What started me thinking about this show was a comment from my producer, Jim Dolan (of The Presenters Dolan) after the Alumni Showcase for the 2008 Cabaret Conference. The song I had chosen for the showcase was “Take Your Girlie to the Movies”, a minor vaudeville comedy number from 1919. The reception was remarkably warm, given the age and obscurity of the song, and Jim suggested that I should consider putting together a show vaudeville-era comedy and novelty songs. Webster Conservatory faculty member Neal Richardson, who acted as music director for the performance, had already said that he shared my fondness for early 20th-century popular songs and would be interested in acting as music director should I decide to go that route.

Clearly, the Cabaret Gods were trying to make Their will known.

I was up to my eyeballs in acting opportunities at the time, though, so I filed the idea away under “something to think about when I’m not rehearsing two shows at the same time”. In the spring of 2009, between Metro Theatre Company’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the revival of the NonProphet Theatre Company’s Corleone, I had a few months to revisit the idea, and it began to take hold.

I ran some of the song ideas by Tim Schall, my vocal coach, and he was as enthusiastic. The die, finally, had been cast, and I began tackling the first big question: where the heck was I going to find all that 100-year-old sheet music?

The answer proved to be simpler than I had thought.

To be continued...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sacred Cow

Every performing arts organization has its cash cow for the Christamas / Hannukah / Kwanzaa / Festivus / [Insert celebration here] season. Like any well-bred bovine, they hope it will generate enough money milk to help underwrite the coming season, when audiences may be less inclined to open up their pocketbooks.

For theatre groups it’s often a dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Opera companies tend to rely on Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, symphony orchestras on Handel’s Messiah and dance companies on Tchaikovsky’s 1892 bon-bon, The Nutcracker.

From 1989 through 2001 the biggest Nutcracker here in St. Louis was the one hosted by the Fox Theatre. It originally featured the State Ballet of Missouri (now Kansas City Ballet) and then (from 1997 to 2001) Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. In 2007 the Fox and Dance St. Louis brought The Nutcracker back with a bang in the form of the 1987 Joffrey Ballet production.

It’s back again this year, complete with 170 young St. Louis-area singers and dancers to complement the Joffrey artists. And once again visions of sugar plums - to say nothing of flowers, snowflakes, and mice – are dancing merrily in our heads.

The Joffrey production is everything you might expect from a world-renowned company. Designed and (with the exception of the “Land of Snow” and “Waltz of the Flowers” sequences) choreographed by the company’s late founder Robert Joffrey, the production is of the traditional “story book” variety inspired by the Russian original, the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo version, and Joffrey’s own collection of collection of antique toys and Christmas cards. It’s visually stunning – a late 19th-century print come to life, complete with dancing dolls and a 15-foot-tall Mother Ginger.

It was also, some roughness in the winds not withstanding, a pleasure to hear thanks to generally solid playing by the Ballet Orchestra of St. Louis. The Fox so often plays host to touring shows with reduced pit bands that it was a treat to hear something close to a full orchestra in that space.

All the elements you’d want in a polished Nutcracker were present when we saw the show on Saturday afternoon, including spectacular dancing by the principals and precision work by the ensemble and the various specialty turns in Act II. I was particularly taken with Fabrice Calmels and the astonishingly flexible Kara Zimmerman in the sinuous Arabian “coffee” duo as well as by Megan Qurioz and Temur Suluashvili as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. Erica Lynnette Edwards was a standout as a whirling Russian nougat and Calvin Kitten impressed with his gravity-defying leaps in the Chinese dance.

Let me note that while the Act II set pieces tend to attract the most attention in Nutcracker, words of praise are also owed to the remarkable precision with which this company executed the “social dances’” sequence in Act I. Working in full Victorian costume on a reduced set, they flew through the complex contradance-inspired choreography with deceptive ease.

The entire cast, in short, deserves a hearty “bravi”. The ten-year-old princess in our party pronounced the production “awesome”. Who am I to disagree?

The Joffrey Nutcracker is an annual event in Chicago. Let’s hope it will continue be one here as well. Some things are traditional for good reasons. The Nutcracker speaks, ultimately, to the happy child in all of us. That’s someone we need to remember at this time of the year, especially with so many dark political and economic clouds on the horizon.

Upcoming Dance St. Louis events include the Ballet Folklórico De México in January, Chicago’s River North Dance Company in February, Aszure Barton and Artists in March and the Moscow Festival Ballet in April. Visit the web site at dancestlouis.org for more information or call 314-534-6622.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Woah, Nellie!

Nellie McKay is definitely not your mother’s cabaret performer. In my case, in fact, she’s more like my goddaughter’s cabaret performer. A charming, uninhibited singer/songwriter, Ms. McKay puts the “id” in idiosyncratic. Her show has an “I’m making this up as I go along” quality because, for the most part, that’s exactly what she’s doing. The show my wife and I saw on the second of her two nights at the Kranzberg Center here in St. Louis [November 19, 2009] was, so my elves tell me, very different from the one she did on the first.

In an older and more experienced performer, that might come across as contempt for the audience. Ms. McKay, however, is so genuine and unaffected, so enthusiastic about her material, and so willing to share that enthusiasm with us that – at least the night we saw her – everyone appeared willing to go along with the ride through her musical Fun House.

It helps that she has genuine talent. Her voice is a flexible and accurate jazz singer’s instrument which she employs to great effect in numbers like “A-Tisket a-Tasket” (where she seems to actually be channeling the late Ella Fitzgerald at times) and the Gershwin classic “Do Do Do”. She’s also a respectable pianist and is able to use a ukulele for something other than simple strummed chords. In Jobim’s “Meditation”, for example, her delicate touch turns the often-maligned instrument’s sound into delicate filigree for the Brazilian classic.

That song was one of several numbers drawn from Ms. McKay’s latest CD (and, in appropriately retro fashion, vinyl LP) Normal as Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day. A great admirer of the legendary singer’s upbeat approach to life, Ms. McKay shares both her love of the Great American Songbook and her “communion with nature and animals, and common civility”. Not surprisingly, then, the evening included Day classics such as Bacharach’s “Send Me No Flowers” (from the 1964 film of the same name, her third with Rock Hudson) and “Sentimental Journey” (her first big hit with the Les Brown band in 1945) as well as some delightful McKay originals that demonstrated that shared love of animals.

I mean, really: how can you not love someone who could write pet-friendly numbers like Pounce” (“I’m gonna pounce, pounce, pounce [meow] like a pussy cat”) and “The Dog Song”, which comes complete with two pairs of pants.

[A slight pause while we reflect on the sheer cheapness of that joke.]

If the essence of cabaret is the revelation of the individual performer’s personality through music, I’d have to say that Ms. McKay’s show is essential cabaret. From the opening number – “The Very Thought of You” sung to percussionist Ben Bynum’s solo glockenspiel – to the jazzy final performance of “Crazy Rhythm”, her show was quintessentially Nellie McKay. It was, far as I could tell, a pure expression of who and what she is in all her eccentric, cheerful, self-effacing and often very funny glory – a reminder that she made her bones as a stand-up comic before getting visibility as a singer/songwriter.

Speaking of the talented Mr. Bynum, he deserves something of an accompanist’s Purple Heart for keeping up with Ms. McKay’s peripatetic peregrinations through the evening, including her attempt to lead the audience through “Young at Heart” (which only around six of us knew, as far as I could tell). True, she lost him completely during the last-minute “St. Louis” medley while working her way from Kerry Mills and Andrew Sterling’s “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” to “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis”, but by then there had been so much good-natured give and take between them that the confusion became just another part of the entertainment.

How long that approach to the art of cabaret will work for Ms. McKay is, I think, an unknown. Her impressive credentials not withstanding she is, in her late twenties, still in the early stages of what is likely to be a long career. A degree of giddiness that is acceptable and even pleasant in a young performer won’t necessarily work as well as that performer ages. It will be interesting to see where Ms. McKay’s unique style takes her in the coming years. I know I’ll be watching; you should as well.

To find out where Ms. McKay will be appearing next, surf on over to here official web site at nelliemckay.com or check out the unofficial fan pages at nelliemckay.org and nelliemckay.net. You can also find information there on her four albums, at least some of which I am now strongly tempted to buy.

The 2009 Cabaret St. Louis season at the Kranzberg Center closes December 9th through 12th with an appearance by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart. For details, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site, cabaretstl.org.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ecstatic Heights

“[T]he contributions of immigrants...can be seen in every aspect of our national life. There is no part of America that has not been touched by our immigrant background.” – John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1963

From the Irish in the 1820s to the current wave of new arrivals from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, immigrants have brightened and enriched American culture. We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants. In fact, it you go back far enough, we’re a world of immigrants - and have been since we started moving out of Africa millennia ago.

In the Heights – the dynamic and thoroughly entertaining new musical on view at the Fox through November 22, 2009 is the latest in a long line of Broadway hits that have reflected and celebrated the changing wave of cultures arriving on our shores. Granted, the show – which was born nearly a decade ago at Wesleyan University in Connecticut – features music and dance that are very contemporary, but it has roots that go back through Ragtime, West Side Story, Abie’s Irish Rose, and the comedies of Harrigan and Hart. Its 21st-century flash, in short, is firmly grounded in tradition.

Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book is solidly in the American mainstream with its celebration of family, star-crossed lovers, and conviction that anyone with what the Victorians called “pluck and luck” can make a difference in the world. Set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, In the Heights revolves, in classic musical theatre fashion, around a pair of love stories.

Usnavi, whose Dominican parents named him after the first boat they saw when they arrived in the USA (it read “U.S. Navy”), runs the local bodega. He dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic with his beloved Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood elder and his virtual grandmother, and of working up the nerve to date Vanessa, who works at the local salon. Meanwhile Benny, the black dispatcher at the cab company owned by Latin immigrants Kevin and Camila, carries a torch for their daughter Nina, whose own dream of a college education has been deferred – if not destroyed – by a failed first year at Stanford.

Also on hand are Sonny, Usnavi’s somewhat feckless younger cousin; salon owner and local gossip Daniela; Sonny’s friend and street artist Graffiti Pete; and Piragua Guy, waging commercial war on the Mister Softee truck with his pushcart of crushed-ice-and-syrup confections.

As the play’s story unfolds over a sweltering July 4th weekend the characters’ lives intertwine in funny and touching ways en route to the inevitable joyous finale celebrating home, heart and, above all, hope. Yes, that finale is based on a lucky break right out of Dickens but that, too, is part of the tradition.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score, on the other hand, is a very cool and non-traditional mix of hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul as well as more conventional pop and musical theatre sounds. It’s nicely matched by Thomas Kail’s fluid direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which seamlessly blends African and Latin American moves with classic jazz dance. Like the neighborhood re-created in loving detail by Anna Louizos’s set and Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, In the Heights is almost constantly in motion.

All this is brought to life by a mostly young and entirely talented cast of 27 terrific performers - all of whom can sing, act and dance up a storm - headed by Kyle Beltran as Usnavi. He cleanly articulates the character’s rapid-fire rap narrative while convincingly conveying his winsome charm. Rogelio Douglas Jr. is a forceful and sympathetic Benny and Shaun Taylor-Corbett is all stoner charm as Sonny.

Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro play off each other nicely as the embattled Kevin and Camila. Isabel Santiago is great fun as the opinionated Daniela, while Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer radiates not-quite-innocent sensuality as Usnavi’s unrequited lust object, Vanessa. Arielle Jacobs, whose varied credits include creation of the “eco-website” helphealteearth.com, is a winning Nina.

Rounding out the principals in fine style are Elise Santora, repeating her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia, and David Baida as Piragua Guy.

In the Heights is a dynamite piece of musical theatre the captures a unique place in space in time while still ringing changes on universal human needs and aspirations. Some of the humor is definitely on the adult side so you might want to leave small children at home, but on the whole it’s as uplifting a celebration of neighborhood and family values as you’re likely to find anywhere.

You might want to bone up on the story in advance, though, by watching some of the video excerpts on the official web site or the related Youtube channel; I found the Fox’s acoustics to be a real barrier to understanding all the lyrics. On the other hand, my “thirty something” goddaughter caught everything, so maybe it’s just my aging ears.

You’ll find In the Heights at the Fox through November 22nd. For ticket information, you may call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site: fabulousfox.com.

If In the Heights is the future of musical theatre, then that future looks like a rainbow. And who doesn’t like rainbows?

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Good Word(s)

Words! Words! I'm so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? - Liza in My Fair Lady

That famous lyric of his not withstanding, the late Alan Jay Lerner was a great lover of words of all sorts. Indeed, at the beginning of what he calls “a disquisition on the genius and words of Alan Jay Lerner” (officially I Remember Him Well: The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner) Steve Ross notes that Mr. Lerner took an “almost sensual pleasure” in the English language. Given that Mr. Ross clearly does the same, you’d think that this combination of lyricist and performer would be a match made in Cabaret Heaven.

And, of course, you’d be right as the rain in Spain, except that this match was first made in January at The Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel - which, I suppose, is close enough to Cabaret Heaven for rhetorical purposes.

The Kranzberg Center may not be as celestial as the Oak Room but it, too, was close enough to heaven when Mr. Ross brought his show there this past week (November 4 through 7, 2009). From the breezy rendition of “I’m on My Way” (from the 1951 near-hit Paint Your Wagon) to the charming closing medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Mr. Ross had us all in the palm of his hand - a neat trick, since he was playing piano at the same time.

I have commented in the past on Mr. Ross’ uncanny ability to immediately connect with and completely charm his audience, so all I need say here is that nothing has changed since the last time he did that just over a year ago. He may need more memory aids than he once did, but then Mr. Ross is one of those performers who can even shuffle notes gracefully.

As is usually the case with a Steve Ross show, the evening is a well-chosen mix of the popular and obscure, spanning nearly all of Lerner’s forty-plus years as a lyricist. The obscure stuff includes songs from shows that are the chronological bookends for Lerner’s career: the charming ballad “My Last Love” from What’s Up? (1943 – his first collaboration with Fritz Loewe, with a plot that sounds like something out of an S.J. Perelman parody) and a trio of tunes from My Man Godfrey (1986, left uncompleted and unproduced at the time of Lerner’s death).

The Godfrey set was particularly welcome, including as it did both the ingratiating “Try Love” (which invokes the spirit of Cole Porter) and the enormously witty “I’ve Been Married” – as clever a demolition of the institution as you are likely to find outside of the work of Stephen Sondheim (“I have tied the wedding knot / Until the blood began to clot / For living life connubially / Isn’t any jubilee”).

You will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Lerner was married eight times.

Other delightful discoveries in the program included “I Never Met a Rose” from the 1974 film version of The Little Prince (a box office failure that has since gained a cult following), “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (“the only song I know of about encouraging plant growth”), and “It’s Time for a Love Song”, a touching lament for lost youth and romance from Carmelina, an unsuccessful 1975 collaboration with Burton Lane. As Mr. Ross notes, “there aren’t many songs of rue and regret.. in the canon of Lerner and Loewe. But Lerner and Lane – well, that’s something else.”

The bulk of the evening, of course, was taken up with Lerner’s many hits – especially the ones he wrote with his long-time partner Fritz Loewe for shows such as My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon. As is typically the case, Mr. Ross put his own unique stamp on all of them, including an introspective performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You” that brings out a wistfulness long hidden by Robert Goulet and his many imitators (not to knock Mr. Goulet; as written, the character of Lancelot is not much given to wistfulness). He even managed the neat trick of turning one of the most famous duets in film history – “I Remember it Well” – into a solo by subtly shifting between characters and dropping an unnecessary verse. It’s a lovely idea; I might have to steal it.

Through it all, Steve Ross the singer is well served by Steve Ross the pianist and music director, with smart arrangements and the occasional flashy keyboard solo. Steve Ross the musical historian is also on hand with interesting biographical tidbits and anecdotes about Lerner and the famous names who were a part of his creative life. It’s a wonder the stage isn’t more crowded.

But seriously: Steve Ross will continue to offer his entertaining traversal of the work of Alan Jay Lerner at the Kranzberg Center through Saturday, November 7th. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site at cabaretstl.org.

Next in the Cabaret St. Louis fall season: Nellie McKay on November 18th and 19th, followed by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart in December. The 2010 roster hasn’t been announced yet, but the featured artist for the annual Cabaret St. Louis fundraiser in February has: Broadway superstar Sutton Foster. Tickets will presumably be available soon; check the web site for details.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Of Mice and Men

Nature, that framed us of four elements Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds. Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous architecture of the world And measure every wand’ring planet’s course, Still climbing after knowledge infinite And always moving as the restless spheres, Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest Until we reach the ripest fruit of all, That perfect bliss and sole felicity, The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. - Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great
Adrian Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end. Doctor Manhattan: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends. - Alan Moore, Watchmen

The way in which a heroic figure turns tragic is, to some extent, analogous to the way in which a normal cell becomes cancerous. The hero falls when normal confidence gives way to hubris. The cell becomes cancerous when normal growth becomes uncontrolled. In both cases a healthy trait, when carried to extremes, becomes toxic.

And – to stretch the analogy past the breaking point – in both cases an admirable end is compromised by flawed means. Besides, as Doctor Manhattan cryptically notes – and as the final pages of Dr. Bob Clyman’s compelling drama Secret Order illustrate – nothing ever really ends.

Consider the case of William Shumway (Todd Lawson), the protagonist in this powerful opening to the Rep’s studio season. His intentions are beyond reproach – he wants to find a cure for cancer. The results of his research are promising enough to be published in a prestigious journal where they attract the attention of Dr. Robert Brock (Richmond Hoxie) at an equally prestigious cancer institute.

In short order, Shumway is elevated from University of Illinois professor to head of a state-of-the art lab in New York City. There he becomes the mentor of the brilliant, motor-mouthed graduate student Alice Curiton (Angela Lin) and the unintended nemesis of the ageing Dr. Saul Roth (Stan Lachow), whose budget is gutted to help fund Shumway’s more charismatic work. A presentation at a high-profile conference in Denver leads to even more attention, funding for his work begins to pour in, and Brock begins to make half-serious references to Sweden.

There’s just this one little problem with some of the lab mice.

You can probably lay out the rest of Secret Order’s plot yourself and you’d probably be right, although you might not anticipate the nature of the very Faustian bargain that’s offered in the final scene. But then, predictability is the essence of tragedy. It’s the inevitability of the fall that makes it so powerful. Melodrama is about plot. Tragedy is about character. And the well-drawn characters are what propel this show.

Dr. Clyman is a practicing clinical psychologist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his script is filled with keen observations on the ways in which ambitious people can deceive themselves and others without ever consciously intending to do so. There’s also a deep understanding here of the malleability of human memory. Like Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen, Shumway and Brock find themselves, towards the end of the play, groping towards but never truly finding exactly where and how they went wrong.

All this is wrapped up in dialog that sizzles with intelligence and energy. It’s literate without being ponderous and makes telling moral points without preaching. It rings true because it is true. This is a script that will almost certainly have a life locally beyond the premiere.

The Rep’s production is almost as good as the material. Risa Brainin’s direction is sharp and focused and the rotating flats on Mark Wilson’s set make the numerous scene changes lightning fast. Mr. Lawson beautifully captures Shumway’s arc from earnest achievement to self-delusion and Ms. Lin is utterly credible as his manic and devoted assistant. Mr. Hoxie, a few opening night line issue not withstanding, is a delight as the overbearing but not entirely oblivious Brock.

As Saul Roth, Mr. Lachow had problems that went beyond a few line flubs, alas. At least on opening night, he seemed to have not fully learned the role. As a result the play’s final scenes, which center on his character, fell somewhat flat. By the time you read this, however, he’ll have a few more performances behind him and may be more assured in the part.

The bottom line, in any case, is that Secret Order is an enthralling and timely seriocomic examination of the conflict between the objective discipline of science and the subjective world of the minds that practice it. It’s a strong opening for the studio season and belongs on the “must see” list of anyone looking for an evening at the theatre that will give them plenty to discuss over drinks afterwards and ponder for some time after that.

Secret Order runs through November 15th in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may call 314-968-4925 or visit the web site at repstl.org.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Children's Hour

MaudeMaggart came to town with her latest show, Parents and Children, trailing rave reviews the way a comet trails light. From the New York Times to Cabaret Scenes, critics have been throwing superlatives at her with the profligacy of insurance company CEOs awarding themselves bonuses. When I took my seat at the Kranzberg Center, therefore, I was prepared to be impressed.

And so I was, albeit not quite as much the East coast critics have been. Make no mistake; Ms. Maggart is a tremendously talented young singer who gets right to the heart of a song. She knows what the lyrics mean to her and delivers that meaning with a supple, silken voice and a poised stage presence. Her selection of material is wide-ranging and intelligently assembled, and music director John Boswell’s arrangements fit her as beautifully as her stylish black evening gown.

So what’s my complaint? Primarily, it’s with what the Times critic Stephen Holden calls her “fluid body language” and what I saw as physical exaggeration – a tendency to rely on overtly theatrical gestures, some of which shade over into Cabaret Cliché territory. At times my companion for the evening actually stopped looking at Ms. Maggart so that she could better appreciate her sensitive singing without being distracted by baroque movement.

It struck me, in short, as indicating rather than acting.

In all fairness, it must be said that Ms. Maggart’s physicality seems to be a natural part of her stage persona and, in fact, once I got accustomed to it I found it less distracting. But on the whole I don’t think it served her well. Too often, it pulled me out of the compelling moments Ms. Maggart’s voice was creating. When, on the other hand, when she held the mic instead of working with it in the stand, I felt the resulting restriction in movement made her performance that much more effective. Trite though it may be to say so, there really are times when less is more.

That said, there’s no question that Parents and Children is an evening of highly evocative readings of wonderful songs offering hilarious and heartbreaking insights on the complex ways in which generations clash and commingle. Many of them were new to me, including a revelatory pair of tunes by the unjustly neglected Marshall Barer (best known as the lyricist for Once Upon a Mattress, written with unjustly neglected composer Mary Rogers), the big band novelty “You’re Too Good for Good for Nothing Me” (which Helen Forrest recorded with Harry James), Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohan’s winsome “Be a Child” and Bobbie Green’s sadly funny “No Way Jose”, about a mother-daughter relationship going wrong in a very terrible yet understandable way.

Even when the material was more familiar, Ms. Maggart and Mr. Boswell gave it a new and personal twist. Combining Maury Yeston’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” with Robin Williamson’s “First Boy I Loved” (immortalized by Judy Collins), for example, results in a kind of musical double exposure, with a mature woman’s reflection on her own first love superimposed on a young girl’s discovery of her grandmother’s romantic past. It was touching and beautifully rendered. And while Ms. Maggart described the sentiments of the Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” as dated and a bit unhealthy (which, I suppose, they are) that didn’t stop her from delivering a heartfelt performance.

There were also many delightful comic moments in the evening. The double entendre drollery of Rodgers and Hart’s “A Little Birdie Told Me So” (from the now-forgotten 1926 hit Peggy-Ann), complete with whistling chorus, was great fun as was Marshall Barer’s “Billions of Beautiful Boys” with its endlessly inventive variations on the number three (as in “two boys and me”). Ms. Maggart also sprinkled the evening with amusing recollections of her childhood as a bi-coastal baby. There was, perhaps, a bit more biography than necessary (especially since there was a fairly good one in the program), but that’s a minor gripe.

Ditto the occasional lighting problems. More than once Ms. Maggart was either in the wrong light or out of the light altogether. Lighting at the Kranzberg is normally (you should pardon the expression) spot-on, so it’s hard to know exactly what to make of that.

Cabaret is a very big tent with room for a wide variety of performance styles and Ms. Maggart is nothing if not stylish. The fact that it’s a style I did not find entirely congenial in no way detracts from her talent or remarkable success. It’s a matter of personal taste, which is very nearly as idiosyncratic as performance style.

Maude Maggart’s Parents and Children concludes on Saturday, October 24; for ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site. To find out where she’s playing next or purchase any of her several CDs, visit her web site at maudemaggart.com.

Next on the Cabaret St. Louis schedule: Steve Ross with an Alan Jay Lerner tribute November 4 through 7, a two-night stand by Nellie McKay November 18 and 19, and the first local appearance of mother-son duo Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart December 9 through 12. Check out cabaretstl.org for details.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Angie's List

Many of the graduates of Tim Schall’s St. Louis Cabaret Conference have gone straight from there to the Kranzberg Center with their solo shows. Angie Schultz – who was in the very first conference in 2006 – took the long way around: she went through New York. Her latest show, Kiss Me Like You Mean It, premiered at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street last May. Now that Jim Dolan’s Presenters Dolan organization has finally brought her home to the Kranzberg (on October 3rd and 4th) all I can say is: it’s about time!

If Mr. Schall (one of the many local performers taking a busman’s holiday to attend the show Sunday night) is looking for a poster girl for the conference, he could hardly do better than Ms. Schultz. Kiss Me Like You Mean It is very nearly the ideal show, boasting a finely balanced program of mostly newer songs, wonderful custom-tailored arrangements from pianist/music director Brett Kristofferson (including some of his own material), and performances by both Ms. Schultz and Mr. Kristofferson that were pitch-perfect – both musically and theatrically. The ease with which she graced the space and the charming, self-effacing humor which she brought to both her patter and her singing were a winning combination.

Ms. Schultz’s ability to be entirely herself on the stage is not, by the way, something to be taken lightly. As performers, so many of us spend so much time being someone else that stripping away all of the other personae and simply being ourselves can be the most difficult act of all. Combine Ms. Schultz’s comfort with her own identity with her solid, beautifully controlled vocal instrument and you have a recipe for a great night of cabaret.

Even the evening’s title is perfect, suggesting a mix of assertion and seduction that is reflected in just over a dozen songs which run the emotional gamut from John Bucchino’s touching “Unexpressed” and Ben Folds’ lovely “The Luckiest” to Jill Sobule’s demented “Mexican Wrestler” (easily one of the strangest torch songs ever written) and the always-amusing “Compromise” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. There are also two gems of love lost from Mr. Kristofferson – “Goodbye Love” and “Things that Haunt Me” – and director Hector Coris’ hilarious send-up of American Idolatry, “My Moment”. The fact that many of these songs were new to me was yet another bonus from my point of view.

Even the older numbers, such as Arlen and Harburg’s “I Don’t Think I’ll End it All Today” (from their 1959 musical Jamaica, where it was sung by Lena Horne), were hardly warhorses. I love the Great American Songbook as well as the next cabaret addict, but it’s nice to be reminded now and then that pages are still being added to it. Ms. Schultz, Mr. Kristofferson, and Mr. Coris are to be commended for their eclectic and smart song selection.

Ms. Schultz is undoubtedly on her way back to New York by now, where she’s booked for a return appearance at Don’t Tell Mama. Her star is (to paraphrase an old vaudeville lyric) on the ascendant. Meanwhile, The Presenters Dolan continue to feature the best resident talent, with return engagements of Ken Haller’s much-praised Sondheim show October 28th and 29th and Deborah Sharn’s Life Stories on October 17th. For details, check out the web site at licketytix.com.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Stage Left Podcast, 25 July 2009, Part 2

Originally broadcast April 12th, 2005 - Actor, writer and Firesign Theatre member Peter Bergman on the founding of America's premier (and only) surrealist audio theatre group, the Heartbreak of Radio, his TV soap opera doppelgänger, and other topics. Part 2 of 2. Click here to listen.

Stage Left Podcast, 25 July 2009, Part 1

Originally broadcast April 12th, 2005 - Actor, writer and Firesign Theatre member Peter Bergman on the founding of America's premier (and only) surrealist audio theatre group, the Heartbreak of Radio, his TV soap opera doppelgänger, and other topics. Part 1 of 2. Click here to listen.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Spiritual Values

The Ghosts of Versailles defies easy categorization. Composer John Corigliano describes it as "an entertaining [opera] buffa" that is "also a serious meditation on history and change: specifically, on how change comes about both in politics and in art". I'd describe it as an exceptionally smart piece of musical theatre that provokes both laughter and reflection. Either way, Opera Theatre of St. Louis's world premiere of this new performing version of the 1991 work (a co-production with the Vancouver and Wexford Festival opera companies) is a rousing success that deserves our attention.

In what the program notes describe as "a world beyond time", the ghosts of executed aristocrats haunt the palace where they once lived their pampered lives. Joining them is the spirit of playwright, diplomat and political visionary Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais, who both mocked and defended those lives. In death, Beaumarchais has fallen in love with Marie Antoinette, who has never come to terms with the slanderous accusations - including forgery, swindling and incest - that were the pretext for her execution.

Beaumarchais declares that he will re-write history to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine and (you should pardon the word) spirit her away to the New World by including these events in a new opera which he will stage for his fellow shades. Based on a play by the real Beaumarchais, L'autre Tartuffe, où La Mère Coupable (The New Tartuffe, or The Guilty Mother), the opera within an opera takes place twenty years after the events of The Marriage of Figaro. Beaumarchais's plan to use the former Barber of Seville to save the queen runs aground when Figaro has a sudden attack of class consciousness, however. When the playwright tries to set things right by becoming a character in his own plot things start to unravel and The Terror threatens to consume everyone all over again.

The breadth and depth of both William M. Hoffman's libretto and Corigliano's music are remarkable. The former combines conventional poetry, lofty prose, low comedy and philosophical discourse into a work that both celebrates and parodies the classic "well-made play". The latter ranges from ensembles of classically Mozartian elegance to a Rossini-style patter song (for Figaro, of course), to twelve-tone rows and clusters, a parody of middle-eastern wind music for a scene at the Turkish Embassy and even aleatoric segments that will probably change from one performance to another. There are also the expected in-jokes, including quotes from Mozart and Rossini and parodies of operatic conventions. At one point during the chaotic first act finale a character identified as The Woman in the Hat (Gerdine Young Artist Erin Holland) rushes downstage center and complains "This isn't opera! Wagner is opera!"

That all probably sounds like a bit of a mess, but on stage it coalesces into a compelling and highly entertaining evening that deftly combines the knockabout farce of the Beaumarchais adaptation with a sharp criticism of (in Corigliano's words) "modernists [who] demanded that we destroy, not merely rethink, the past to forge a new future". Real change, his view, can only come "by embracing the past (the opposed worlds of the commoner Beaumarchais and the regal Marie Antoinette) and moving into the future (as did that couple, finally united, in our opera)". He doesn't add (but I will) that the same could be said of life.

Some of the credit for the success of this production of Ghosts goes to Mr. Corigliano and Mr. Hoffman, who realized that their original version - written for the impressive technical facilities of the Metropolitan Opera - would need to be reworked if it were to have any life outside that lavish setting. Most of it, however, goes to Opera Theatre's stellar cast, musicians and design team.

With eighteen named roles, a trio of Gossips, an Opera Quartet (who, in a satirical jab at a certain type of opera fan, complain at length about how bored they are) and a corps of eight dancers, the cast of Ghosts stretches the Loretto Hilton center's thrust stage to its limits, but thanks to Stage Director James Robinson (who took on the equally daunting Nixon in China and Miss Havisham's Fire for OTSL with more uneven results) everything flows smoothly and Allen Moyer's relatively spare set never looks cluttered. If Mr. Moyer was also responsible for the ingenious use of projected images and video - a device which adds emotional and physical depth to the story - he deserves virtual applause for that as well.

The physical applause on Sunday night, of course, went to the uniformly talented cast. There are far too many of these wonderful performers to list them individually here - especially since the complete program is available at the OTSL web site - so I'll content myself with commenting on a few who struck me as particularly memorable. Your mileage may vary, as I'm so fond of saying.

Baritone James Westman and soprano Maria Kanyova carry the bulk of the show as Beaumarchais and Marie Antoinette, and do so brilliantly. I defy anyone to witness Ms. Kanyova's heart-rending account of her character's trial and execution without being moved. Baritone Christopher Felgium and mezzo Dorothy Byrne are just right as the cheerfully wily Figaro and his equally sharp wife Susanna. Soprano Jeanette Vecchione and tenor Samuel Read Levine are charming as Almaviva-crossed lovers Florestine and Léon.

Villainy, meanwhile, is impressively represented by tenor Matthew DiBattista as Bégearss. The Act I aria in which Figaro's nemesis exults in the fact that others regard him as a "worm" is equal parts Iago and Poe ("That the play is the tragedy, Man,' / And its hero, the Conqueror Worm") and is delivered with great flair. Baritone Lee Gregory provides a nice comic balance as Bégearss's inept henchman Wilhelm.

Other fine performances include tenor Sean Panikkar's Almaviva, soprano Hanan Alattar's Rosina, and mezzo Elizabeth Batton's Samira, who provides the surrealist entertainment in the Turkish Embassy scene.

If the Opera Theatre orchestra were an Olympic team (which, in some respects, it may be), its members and conductor Michael Christie would be strong contenders for the gold. Corigliano's score is so complex and involves so much rapid-fire give and take among the pit orchestra, singers and off-stage musicians that it's impressive enough to see it performed at all, let alone this well. Congratulations to all concerned.

The bottom line on The Ghosts of Versailles is that it's a stunning achievement - not only musically and theatrically but technically as well. Performances continue through June 27th at the Loretto Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information, call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site at opera-stl.org.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Forever Young

Has it really been 23 years since our own trusty and well-beloved Circus Flora first set up its mini Big Top in our fair city? It hardly seems possible. But then, it hardly seems possible that I once had hair. In any case, however old and creaky some us in the stands have gotten over the years, Circus Flora remains forever young.

Maybe that’s because nothing brings out the latent kid in each of us so well as two and one-half hours of music, comedy and great circus acts in an air-conditioned tent in which no seat is more than 42 feet away from the ring. If the antics of Nino (the multi-talented Giovanni Zoppé) and the other members of the Clown Cavalcade don’t have you in childish giggles, for example, the remarkably well-trained pound puppies (literally – they all come from animal shelters) of Johnny Peers and the Muttsville Comix will surely do it.

Want to recapture that youthful sense of wonder? Gaze in awe at the aerial acrobatics of The Flying Pages’ trapeze act or the always-impressive human pyramids of legendary tightrope walkers The Flying Wallendas. Want to long for your childhood? Be dazzled by the tumbling, juggling and overall talent of the kids of The St. Louis Arches, the performance troupe from our local circus school, Circus Harmony. Or admire the simple gracefulness of the Ianna Spirit Riders, another product of our homegrown circus talent. Any way you look at it, an evening with Circus Flora is a veritable fountain of youth.

That’s not to suggest that there aren’t acts with more adult appeal. Alesya Gulevich, two-time Guinness World Record holder for the largest number of hula hoops spun at one time, offers a fast-paced mix of juggling, dancing and acrobatics with a cheerfully sensual subtext. On opening night it took her two tries to complete that record-making spin which, of course, only made everyone applaud that much louder when it worked and she sent the last hoop flying with a toss of her head. There’s an element of sensuality, as well, to Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski’s variation on the aerial silk theme, in which he flies around the ring with assistance of his equine co-star Mammut.

Then there are acts that will appeal to pretty much everyone, such as Terry Crane’s remarkable vertical rope act – a variation on the silk routine that uses a thick rope to great effect. And who can resist the visceral thrill of Omar Chinibekov and The Riders of the Ring, with their classic high-speed Cossack trick riding? Not me, that’s for sure.

If I have a complaint – which, as a critic, I’m expected to do every now and then – it’s with the reduced visibility of Nino this time around. In the past, Mr. Zoppé’s endearingly loopy character has been a kind of warm-up act, wandering around the house before the show sowing small seeds of chaos amongst the adults and delighting the children. Establishing the connection with the audience early on pretty much guarantees an enthusiastic response to his second-act face off with narrator Yo-Yo (theatre director Cecil MacKinnon) over Nino’s determination to play his “saxophone” (actually a trombone that appears to have had a bad night). Without that, it takes a bit longer for it all to gel.

The title of this year’s show, Medrano, refers to Cirque Medrano, a Parisian circus once situated at the edge of the Montmarte district that attracted the artistic attention of Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. Mostly it offers a rationale for the striking red and gold color scheme of the set, eye-catching late-19th century costumes, and a can-can inspired score by Miriam Cutler performed with their usual skill by the Circus Flora Band under the baton of Jeanine Del’Arte.

So return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and indulge yourself with Circus Flora’s Medrano. Performances take place Tuesdays through Sundays through June 21 in the air-conditioned big top tent on the parking lot adjacent to Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site, circusflora.org .

Sure, outside the tent you’re still an adult surrounded by death, taxes and talk radio, but inside you’re a kid again and it’s all magic. Grab a handful of popcorn and enjoy.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Art in the Blood

Kelly Kaduce in the title role of Opera Theatre's 2009 production of Richard Strauss SALOME, shown with the head of Jokanaan, with Maria Zifchak as Herodias Copyright: Ken Howard

Like the 1891 Oscar Wilde play on which it is based, Richard Strauss's 1905 opera Salome has been a source of controversy from the very beginning. Wilde's play was banned in England before it could be publicly performed. The opera, despite the stern disapproval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, encountered fewer obstacles, but was often condemned for its perceived immorality.

At the world premiere in Dresden soprano Marie Wittich refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils", because she was " a decent woman". In a letter to Strauss, the dramatist Romain Rolland attacked the opera's "nauseous and sickly atmosphere" and its cast of "unwholesome, unclean, hysterical or alcoholic beings, stinking of sophisticated and perfumed corruption". In New York, the first production by the Metropolitan Opera closed after one night due to public outcry.

All of which raises the question: over a century later, does this remarkably intense opera still have the ability to shock and disturb? You mileage may vary, but after seeing Opera Theatre's production I'd say the answer is yes. In spades.

Granted, the "Dance of the Seven Veils", while certainly steamy enough to make dramatic sense, was somewhat less overtly sexual than it might have been. And the long confrontation between Salome and Jokanaan (John the Baptist) - in which the former tries every trick in her repertoire to seduce the latter - suffered from director Seán Curran's rather static staging - a bit of surprise, given Curran's background as a choreographer.

Those and a few other minor quibbles aside, however, this production of Salome is one of the most compelling and disturbing things you'll ever see on stage. Strauss's score is a remarkable combination of the conventional (for Jokanaan) and wildly adventurous that manages to be both technically complex and dramatically on target. The libretto it supports is compact and intense, unfolding in a single act of around 75 minutes. And Salome's final monologue, in which she caresses and finally kisses the severed head of Jokanaan, remains one of the most grotesque and unsettling scenes in opera.

The role of Salome is easily one of the most demanding in the repertoire. It calls for the stamina and range of a dramatic soprano but contains brief passages that drop down into alto territory. It requires an actress who can make the character's sexual obsession believable. And it demands the body and movement skills of a dancer. That's a combination of talents rare enough to oblige some companies to use a body double for the dance sequence.

Happily, Opera Theatre has Kelly Kaduce. If you've seen any of her previous OTSL triumphs - from her 2004 debut in Sister Angelica to last season's Madame Butterfly - you already know she has the vocal and acting chops for the role. Her Salome is a woman driven to self-destruction by a fixation on the unattainable. It's a completely compelling and utterly apt performance. And while she may not be a strong dancer, Mr. Curran has wisely given her choreography that, while not technically demanding, convincingly conveys an impression of single-minded sensuality.

Ms. Kaduce has a strong supporting cast. Jokanaan isn't called upon by either the libretto or the music to do anything very demanding - Strauss, in fact, is said to have found the character boring - but baritone Gregory Dahl does it all quite well, and with impeccable elocution.

Tenor Michael Hayes is a fine Herod, never allowing the role's collection of neurotic obsessions to deteriorate into the comedy you might get from a less skilled performance. As a result, the opera's one bit of actual comic relief - the quintet of Jews arguing endlessly about the nature of God - is that much more effective. Joshua Kohl, Joshua Lindsay, Zach Borichevsky, Brian Arreola and Andrew Harris get the credit for that.

Mezzo Maria T. Zifchak is appropriately haughty and caustic as Herodias and tenor Eric Margiore rounds out the solid lineup of principals as Narraboth, a moth who self-immolates when he gets too close to Salome's sexual flame.

Bruno Schwengl's set is a stark, forced-perspective box that draws the eye to Jokanaan's cistern - placed, somewhat improbably, on the upstage wall rather than on the floor. It is, perhaps, a bit too stark. Once Jokanaan has been brought on stage, the lack of any levels or set pieces means that there's not much for him to do but lumber around while Salome tries to seduce him. That scene aside, Seán Curran's direction is fluid and his choreography very effective. Paul Palazzo's lighting is striking but often leaves performer's faces in shadow.

Down in the pit, the expanded Opera Theatre orchestra performed the demanding and complex score with great skill under Stephen Lord's experienced baton. It's not the mammoth ensemble Strauss had in mind - there's only so much room down there, after all - but it sounded great.

Because it is so demanding, performances of Salome are not exactly commonplace, so this production would be worth seeing even if it were not a strong one. But it is, which moves it from the category of "worth seeing'' up to "essential". Be warned, however, that it's still pretty strong stuff, even in our present era of sex and violence-drenched media.

Salome runs in rotating repertory with three other operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 135 Edgar Road in Webster Groves. For ticket information call the Opera Theatre box office at 314-961-0644.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Come to the Cabaret

[Disclaimer: some of the performers I'm going to refer to in this note are people I've performed and/or done cabaret conferences with. I'm egocentric enough to think that I can still be relatively objective about their work on stage but your mileage, as they say, may vary.]

The good news about Three-Legged Productions' latest show, It was a Very Good Year is that it was a very good show. The four performers - Anna Blair, Mark Kraft, Katie McGrath and John Flack (pictured) - all had opportunities to demonstrate their comic and dramatic chops. The music selection was nicely balanced between the familiar and the obscure. And the second act was one of the strongest I've seen on a local stage.

The bad news? The night that I attended (Thursday, May 21) they were doing all this good work for a house that was only about half full and consisted largely of other cabaret performers.

This is somewhat surprising. The cabaret scene has grown exponentially in the eight years I've been covering it for KDHX-FM and Cabaret Scenes. We've gone from a single producing entity importing national talent to multiple producers presenting an impressive array of local artists (like Blair and company) in addition to the out-of-towners.

So with all this activity, why aren't more people noticing?

Part of the problem, I think, is that public awareness of the wealth of local cabaret talent hasn't kept pace with the growth of that talent. Mass media coverage of the local cabaret scene is still scanty. Eight years ago I was the only critic covering the scene on a regular basks. That fact that I'm still the only one hardly seems reasonable.

Another part is St. Louis' long-standing artistic inferiority complex. Local audiences seem to assume that if you're practicing your art here in St. Louis, it must be because you're not good enough to do it somewhere else. An actor friend one remarked that the only way to make a living in the performing arts here was to leave town and then come back as an out-of-towner.

As a result, audiences who will turn out in droves for a mediocre show by someone with a national reputation won't walk across the street (literally) to see a far stronger production by local talent.

I'm not sure if there's any cure for the “we're not good enough” syndrome, but I do think that more coverage from the local media could only help. Cabaret is an immensely cool art form that's attracting younger performers and audiences. It's about time somebody started paying attention to that.

It would also help if Cabaret St. Louis - a well funded non-profit dedicated to promoting the art of cabaret in St. Louis - would step up to the plate. I love seeing Steve Ross, Tom Wopat and Liz Callaway as much as the next critic, but if we want to really make this a cabaret town, we need to encourage and nurture local talent. We need to build an audience for them because if we do that, we'll be building an audience for cabaret itself, not just for a select group of big-name stars.

So, to paraphrase a famous lyric, “come to the cabaret, old chum. And bring a couple dozen people with you.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Old Bohemia

Although copies of Henri Murger's 1851 short story collection Scenes De La Vie Bohème are no longer the common sight on bookshelves that they once were, the principal characters have never fallen out of favor. The stories (originally published in a Paris literary magazine) inspired, among other things, an 1849 play, two operas and, most recently, the wildly successful rock musical Rent.

It's Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème, however, that should probably get most of the credit for embedding the image of the starving artist in a Paris atelier into Western consciousness. A staple of companies around the world, it has become a perennial favorite at Opera Theatre of St. Louis as well. The current production, running through June 27th, is the fifth in their 34-year history. It's an exceptionally strong one, with a credible cast, brisk pacing, and solid orchestral backing by conductor Ari Pelto in his OTSL debut.

Former Gerdine Young Artist Allyson Cambridge, whose Fasquita made a strong impression in the company's 2004 production of Carmen, is a first-class Mimi - beautifully fragile and, except for one brief moment at the end of the first scene, in very fine voice despite the allergy problems which are the bane of so many singers visiting St. Louis.

Tenor Derek Taylor looks and sounds great as the passionate and angst-ridden poet Rudolfo, but to me his characterization seemed a bit lacking in depth, emphasizing Rudolfo's gloomy moodiness just a bit more than is necessary. That said, his final scene with the dying Mimi was every bit as heart wrenching as it should be and the famous Act I aria, "Che gelida manina", got all the passion it deserved.

Baritone Timothy Mix has the right mix of passion and compassion as the painter Marcello, locked in what we would now probably call a co-dependent affair with Musetta, Our Lady of the Relaxed Virtue. Amanda Majeski is just plain wonderful in that role, with a fine voice and strong stage presence that makes Marcello's obsession with her fully understandable.

There's strong supporting work here as well from Steven Humes as the philosopher Colline and Eugene Chan as the musician Schaunard. Their interaction with each other and the rest of the principals has a kind of "boys will be boys" camaraderie that's irresistible. A special tip of the critical beret is due as well to bass-baritone Matthew Lau for two brilliant comic turns as the easily-intoxicated landlord Benoit and the hapless sugar daddy Alcindoro, who is not only dumped by Musetta for Marcello but gets stuck with the bill (and a very cute little dog) as well.

Stage Director Tim Ocel has done a remarkable job here, especially with the huge Café Momus sequence that closes the first act. A small army of extras, including children and an actual marching band, flow in and out of the scene effortlessly without ever fracturing the dramatic focus. My only complaint is that much of what the chorus was singing in that scene was incomprehensible and the projected titles, alas, weren't able to keep up with it.

Erhard Rom has designed a set that's at once starkly realistic and highly mobile, allowing for a remarkably fluid change from the garret to the café. That's a tough combination to pull off, so congratulations are clearly in order. Ditto for lighting designer Robert Denton and costume designer Pat Sellyer.

The bottom line is that Opera Theatre has, once again, given us a first-rate production of one of the warhorses of the repertoire - and done so in a way that makes its 120-year old story seem newly minted. Performances will continue through June 27th in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cheese Wiz

Watching Varla Jean Merman in action reminded me that what sex and comedy both have in common is that one's response to them is both spontaneous and completely idiosyncratic. A person is either sexy or s/he isn't. A joke is either funny or it isn't. And no amount of argument will persuade you one way or the other.

I bring this up not just to be pedantic, but as a way of explaining why it's not a knock on Varla Jean Merman that I found most of her show unamusing. The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman is, in fact, a very clever, inventive and wildly energetic evening of vulgar, campy drag show-inspired comedy. The problem is that, as a middle-aged heterosexual who thinks Groucho Marx was the funniest person who ever lived, I'm just a member of the wrong demographic.

But first, for those of you who have not had the Varla Jean experience, a little background.

Billed as "the illegitimate love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine", Varla Jean Merman is not a real person. Rather, she is a surreal person, sprung full-blown (you should pardon the expression) from the unlined brow of her alter ego, Jeffery Roberson. Indeed, Mr. Robertson inhabits the persona of Varla Jean with such conviction that I will, for the duration of this review, go along with the gag (you should pardon the expression again) and bestow upon Varla Jean the verisimilitude she deserves.

As a character, Varla Jean is Julie Budd crossed with Charles Busch - a deranged, druggie diva who has just stepped off the Bitter Bus loaded with outrageous parodies of Broadway standards ("My Favorite Things" with hip-hop lyrics, anyone?) and sotto voce slams at other singers ("that mic tastes like Liz Callaway"). As a performer, she delivers some of the grossest humor ever heard on the Savoy Room stage with impeccable timing, a remarkably well-controlled falsetto, some very stylish dance moves and a stunning collection of garishly tacky props and costumes (including a Josephine Baker-inspired banana outfit that she accurately describes as "almost as uncomfortable for me as it is for you").

The show sends up a variety of American Songbook standards and standard-issue pop tunes with a mix of live performances, slide shows and videos. "Talk to the Animals", for example, becomes the anatomically correct "Talk to the Genitals" (the only time I've ever heard "ovary" rhymed with "Madame Bovary") while "Dream a Little Dream of Me" turns into "Dream a Little Dream of Cheese" - a hymn to fermented curd that concludes with Ms. Merman singing while inhaling about half a can of an aerosol cheese-like substance. Take that, Señor Wences ! There's even a Christmas segment involving hand and foot bells that was, I have to admit, pretty hilarious; ditto an R-rated parody of tunes from Schoolhouse Rock. "Conjunction Junction", indeed.

The audience response to all this lunacy was decidedly mixed. Among those of us who had not seen Ms. Merman previously - the "Varla Virgins", to use her term - it was hit and miss. Some bits were received with chuckles, some with belly laughs and others with silence. A few Cabaret St. Louis regulars even left early. My own response was around one-thirds amusement and two-thirds ennui.

Ms. Merman's admirers had no such reservations, and there were more than enough of them in attendance to override any diffidence from the rest of us. Happily, Varla Jean is too much of a pro to just play to the fans, so I only occasionally felt like someone who had been invited to the wrong party.

I have noted, in the past, that cabaret is a big tent with room for a wide variety of performance styles. Until I saw The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman, however, I had no idea that it could also be a Big Top. Thanks to Ms. Varla Jean and her very talented creator, Jeffrey Roberson, for opening my eyes to that possibility. Thanks also to Varla Jean's music director Tom Shaw for joining in the fun without getting in the way of the main attraction.

For more information about Varla Jean Merman's perambulations, check out her web site, varlaonline.com . You can also find many of her videos at youtube.com .

The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman was a Cabaret St. Louis production. The season concludes, by way of spectacular contrast, with Opera Theatre Cabaret Night on Tuesday, June 16th, at the Kranzberg Center. For more information, visit cabaretstl.org or call 314-534-1111.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Dynamic Duo

There are times when, to paraphrase Mr. Gilbert, a critic's lot is not a happy one; times when the business of putting pen to paper (oh, all right - keyboard to screen, but allow me my anachronistic imagery) seems as pointless as the final episode of Battlestar Galactica.

This, dear friends, is one of those times.

The problem is not so much the fact that the show in question - An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin - is already over as it is the fact that even if it were still running, anything I could write about it would have as much impact as playfully splashing at the Rock of Gibraltar. Both of these performers have enjoyed so much critical and popular success for so long that everyone who hasn't spent the last three decades on Pluto has already decided to either love or hate them. The first group would take out a second mortgage to watch them do Harvey in a church basement while the second couldn't be dragged to the theater on pain of death. So what the hell am I going to say?

Well, let's start by suggesting that the show should really be titled An Evening with MANDY PATINKIN and Patti LuPone. It was, after all, conceived by Patinkin and music director/pianist Paul Ford and directed by Patinkin. Yes, both he and his co-star have equal time on stage, but it's Patinkin's performance that tends to stand out in my memory. Not because it was better, but because it was so energetic and so often filled with sometimes bizarre (but always precise and controlled) vocal and physical shtick. Hence those capital letters a couple sentences back.

His fans loved it, of course. And even when I didn't particularly like what he was doing with (say) Sondheim's "Buddy's Blues" or "Franklin Shepard Inc", I was still impressed by the sheer virtuosity of it. For me, though, he was most effective when he dropped the flash and simply got to the real emotion behind the lyrics of a song like "Somewhere That's Green".

Getting to the emotional core of a song is apparently Ms. LuPone's long suit. She absolutely nailed ballads like "A Quiet Thing" (from Kander and Ebb's Flora the Red Menace) or "What's the Use of Wond'rin", and was even able to re-create her signature "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" without pandering. Her unfailing ability to find the psychological truth behind every lyric, I think, is what made it so easy to accept her as Nellie Forbush in the scenes from South Pacific or Julie Jordan in the Carousel sequence - roles in which you would never cast her today. She did tend to come a cropper in rapid-fire patter songs like "Not Getting Married Today", but then so did Mr. Patinkin. I think they both need to bear in mind that when it comes to Sondheim, faster is not necessarily better.

The show itself is an interesting hybrid of cabaret and book musical. Meticulously scripted and directed, it re-creates, with minimal staging and spoken dialog, big moments from a half-dozen Broadway shows, knitting them together with snippets of American Songbook classics ranging from the well worn to the relatively obscure. For some, this was probably a case of too much talk and too little singing, but I thought the balance was about right.

That said, I found some of the "one of" numbers to be the most enjoyable. The fanciful rolling desk-chair choreography (from Broadway legend Ann Reinking) that accompanied Murray Grand's "April in Fairbanks", for example, was great fun, and Ms. LuPone's performance of "In Buddy's Eyes" - a relatively neglected number from Sondheim's Follies - was unexpectedly touching.

Paul Ford on piano and John Beal on bass provided world-class accompaniment for the evening. When the stars got a bit ahead of or behind the beat, they brought everything back together masterfully. I would have enjoyed hearing a bit more of them, but given the fact that the audience came to see and hear the stars, that probably was not a realistic expectation.

By the time this appears, Mr. Patinkin and Ms. LuPone will be on their way to the next gigs. You can find out what they're up to at mandypatinkin.net and pattilupone.net , respectively.

Meanwhile Cabaret St. Louis, which sponsored the show, winds down its spring season with Lina Koutrakos' intense Torch show April 22nd through 25th at the Kranzberg Center and (by way of drastic contrast) The Worst of Varla Jean Merman on May 14th at the Sheldon. The season picks up in the fall with return engagements at the Kranzberg by Maude Maggart (October 21st through 24th) and Steve Ross (November 4th through 7th) along with first-time appearances by Nellie McKay (November 18th through 21st) and the mother and son team of Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart (December 9th through 12th). For more information, check out cabaretstl.org .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bungle in the Jungle

If imitation is the sincerest flattery then the creators of the international entertainment behemoth Cirque du Soleil ought to be really flattered by Jungle Fantasy, the latest show from the Florida-based franchise Cirque Dreams. How flattered? Let me count the ways.

Singing female protagonist (Mother Nature, in this case) who leads male protagonist on a journey of discovery? Check. Non-stop, vaguely world-beat-style music? Check. Lots of European circus performers? Well, they're mostly from what used to be the Soviet Union but, yeah, check. Colorful costumes and sets? Yup. Lots of jaw-dropping, spectacular performances?

Well, you can't have everything.

That's not to say that there aren't some great acts in Jungle Fantasy, only that there aren't nearly enough of them. Probably the most impressive were Vladimir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy, decked out in Day-Glo zebra-patterned outfits and balancing on top of tables stacked on a metal cylinder and then, even more insanely, on top of five stacked cylinders. Equally remarkable was the classic static balancing act of the "Jungle Kings", six strongmen decked out in lion-inspired costumes. Their combination of strength and control was world class. Ditto the "Contorting Lizards" - four impossibly nubile young women from Mongolia where the ancient art of contortionism is apparently something of a national sport.

There's also skilled juggling, including a short but eye-popping nine-ball routine from Russia's Andrey Averyushkin and a flashy routine using open geometric shapes (pyramids, square and the like) to form rapidly changing patterns in the air.

The rest of the acts are somewhere between competent and good. Some of the creature costumes were quite ingenious (my wife was especially taken with the colorful frogs) and the impossibly tall electronic violinist Jared Burnett made the most of the score, such as it was. The main problem is that nothing in the show - including the monotonous music and pedestrian lyrics - is all that original. You'd think that a company with $2.5 million to spend on its own 20,000 square foot production, rehearsal and training space could come up with something more creative than this. If Jungle Fantasy is any indication, Cirque Dreams is (to paraphrase J. Michael Straczynski) little more than Cirque du Soleil with the serial numbers filed off.

That said, I'd be less than honest if I didn't report that much of the opening night audience at the Fox seemed to be enjoying the show. Most of them even laughed at the opening routine, in which a pair of alleged clowns made fun of two pre-auditioned audience members. I found it predictable and annoying, but then my standard for that bit of business is the pre-show shenanigans of Circus Flora's incredibly charming Nino (Giovanni Zoppe), so perhaps my expectations are too high.

The bottom line on Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy is that if you've never seen Cirque du Soleil and aren't a regular at Circus Flora you might find this glossily packaged imitation entertaining. Small children almost certainly will. Whether or not you think that's worth up to $63 per seat is your call. The show runs through March 29th at the Fox; call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Bang

As we approached the exultant coda of Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 Friday morning [February 27, 2009] at Powell Hall, I was suddenly reminded of a passage in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in which the Venticelli (Shaffer's equivalent of a Greek chorus) complain about Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. "All those weird harmonies", they snipe, "and never a good bang at the end...so you know when to clap". Had those fictional constructs been present that morning, they would have been pleased; if it has nothing else, the "Organ" symphony certainly has a good bang at the end, and the St. Louis Symphony and organ soloist John Romeri certainly delivered it.

Fortunately, the French master's third has more going for it than mere bombast. Written as a homage to Franz Liszt (who died shortly after work on the symphony had begun), the work includes prominent roles for piano and organ - the two instruments most closely associated with the late composer. Saint-Saëns also employs one of Liszt's favorite compositional techniques: the development of an elaborate musical structure from a single motif - in this case, a rising four-note phrase first played by the oboe in the short opening Adagio. Over the course of the ensuing half-hour, a majestic oak of a symphony grows from that little acorn. Like many of Saint-Saëns compositions, the Third Symphony ingeniously combines musical intelligence with popular appeal, and I like to think that the standing ovation it got on Friday was an acknowledgement both the work's head and heart.

It was also, of course, an acknowledgement of the Symphony's virtuoso performance. Under the baton of Jun Märkl, who moved the first movement's allegro moderato along at a sometimes hair-raising pace, the musicians performed as one finely-tuned instrument. The woodwinds and strings tossed off rapid passages with ease, sectional balance was always quite good and, yes, the finale had a certified rouser. Granted, the electronic organ didn't have the presence of The Real Thing, but music reproduction technology has come a long way in recent years. A subwoofer isn't the same as a 32' pipe but, to paraphrase The Bard, 'twas enough and did suffice.

Unlike Saint-Saëns and Liszt, Antonín Dvorák wasn't primarily a pianist. His first musical loves were the violin and viola, so it's not surprising that his works for strings - especially the quartets - are among his most profound and admired. That being the case, it was probably inevitable that his Op. 33 Piano Concerto, written at the request of the Czech pianist Karel Slavkovsky, would turn out to be the ugly stepsister among his solo works. Snubbed by critics and viewed with disappointment by the composer himself (“I see I am unable to write a Concerto for a virtuoso”), the concerto has languished over the years despite advocacy by noted pianists such as Rudolf Firkusny, who gave the work its local premiere in 1969, six years after his landmark recording.

Listening to Friday's performance with Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard, I think I can see one reason for the neglect. Although technically challenging, the piano part isn't particularly flashy and doesn't stand out all that much from the orchestra. It's almost as though Dvorák had written a symphony with piano rather than a traditional late-19th-century concerto. Revisions to the piano part in the early 20th century by Czech pianist Vilém Kurz and, in the early 1960s, by Firkusny don't seem to have substantially altered the concerto's fortunes. Perhaps pianists see the game as not being worth the candle. In any case, Ohlsson and the SLSO made a very persuasive case for this rarity. He and Märkl appeared to take considerable delight in the performance, and the overall joy was infectious.

Maybe this is the sort of piece that just needs a great deal of TLC to be effective. If so, it certainly got all that and more. Audience response was so warm and sustained, in fact, that Ohlsson came back for an encore: Chopin's Waltz in E-Flat (Op. 18, No. 1), performed with the grace and wit that you would expect of a former Chopin International Piano Competition winner.

The concert opened with the evergreen Les Preludes by the man memorialized by “Organ” Symphony, Franz Liszt. Märkl and the SLSO musicians could probably do this chestnut in their sleep but there was nothing routine or slapdash about the performance. The winds did overpower the strings in the climaxes, but overall it was an effective reading with all the drama and punch you'd expect.

Friday's program will be repeated Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM [February 28 and March 1]; for ticket information call 314-534-1700. For lovers of the Romantic repertoire in general and Dvorák or Saint-Saëns in particular the concert is, of course, a “must see”. Besides, there's a really good bang at the end.

Next at Powell Hall: The Hubbard Street Dance company March 6th and 7th performing to music of Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bernstein, Britten and Mozart. David Robertson will be at the podium. Visit the SLSO web site at slso.org for details.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

At Ease

How comfortable is Tom Wopat on a cabaret stage? Comfortable enough pull out a guitar and start entertaining the audience fifteen minutes before his show was scheduled to start. Comfortable enough to sit down at a front table with some local cabaret artists to watch his brilliant sidemen - pianist and music director Andy Ezrin and local bassist Tom Kennedy - during one of the many instrumental breaks. Comfortable enough, in short, to make the Kranzberg Center's cabaret room feel almost like a living room.

Why do I bring that up? Because one of the first things a cabaret artist needs to do is make the audience comfortable. The more confident and at ease you are on that small stage, the easier it will be to take the folks you're performing for along on the musical journey you have planned. Mr. Wopat, to paraphrase Cole Porter, has got that thing, that certain thing, that makes us all want to watch him sing.

And a good thing, too, since Mr. Wopat made it clear he wasn't going to play it safe. Starting with a performance of Arlen and Harburg's "Last Night When We Were Young" that began a capella and off microphone and continuing through a program that included unusual takes on "That's Life" and "Over the Rainbow" and even a song of his own, "Thailand Sea", Mr. Wopat made what seemed to me to be a number of risky choices. The fact that they generally worked quite well is an indication of how accomplished he is in this genre. Even working under the handicap of a bout of hoarseness didn't prevent him from delivering a solid, entertaining show.

Mr. Wopat is a man of many voices. A veteran of Broadway and television, he had a parallel career as a country singer until 2000, when he turned his attention to recording American Songbook standards. The Tom Wopat on stage at the Kranzberg this week, however, was neither the Broadway baritone nor the country crooner. This Tom Wopat was a jazz vocalist, and a darned good one. Whether zipping through the lyrical whitewater of Annie Ross' "Twisted" (which puts words to a Wardell Grey sax solo from the 1950s) or giving full measure to a heart-on-the-sleeve Jimmy Webb number like "If These Walls Could Talk", he was on solid musical ground, hoarseness not withstanding.

There were, perhaps, moments when Mr. Wopat seemed more interested in ringing changes on the melody than in expressing the lyric, as in his swinging upbeat version of the Gershwin's "But Not For Me". But he didn't go that route any more often than other jazz-inflected cabaret acts I've seen and even when he did, it was still a pleasure to watch.

It was equally pleasurable watching the work of Andy Ezrin and Tom Kennedy - something I had plenty of opportunities to do, given how often Mr. Wopat stepped aside and let them mix it up. I have commented on Mr. Kennedy's virtuoso bass playing in the past, so all I need to say here is that, yes, he's still aces in my book. Mr. Ezrin was new to me. He's not only an exceptional solo performer but, as a friend brought to my attention afterwards, he also knows how to recede into the aural background when necessary. That's not as easy to do as you might think - even top-notch pianists can sometimes come close to overwhelming their singers. Kudos to Mr. Ezrin for doing it so well. I only wish I'd had another $20 in cash on hand Thursday night so I could have bought his CD as well as Mr. Wopat's.

The bottom line is that a splendid time was had by all. My only real regret is that I arrived too late to catch much of Mr. Wopat's pre-show set. If he ever makes it back to town again, I'll make a point of showing up earlier.

Tom Wopat played the Kranzberg Center February 11th through 14th under the Cabaret St. Louis banner. If you want to know where Mr. Wopat will be taking his many voices next, check out his web site, tomwopat.com . Next up in the Cabaret St. Louis season is a return engagement by the evergreen Marilyn Maye at the Savoy Room March 19th and 20th. For more information, visit cabaretstl.com . The next cabaret show at the Kranzberg is our own Jeff Wright in An Evening With Mr. Wright on February 20th, with a reprise on March 14th. For more information on that, go to licketytix.com .

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rustles of Spring

I emailed my friend Maud, inviting her to see the tour of the 2006 hit musical Spring Awakening, and included a plot synopsis. Her response - "It sounds just horrible and I'd love to see it" - pretty much mirrored my own thinking. Based on the controversial 1891 play Frühlings Erwachen by German dramatist Franz Wedekind, Spring Awakening deals with teenagers trying to understand their budding sexuality in a neurotically oppressive environment where the topic can't even be mentioned. "The original play", according to Wikipedia , "was banned in Germany due to its portrayal of masturbation, abortion, rape and suicide." It does sound horrible.

On stage, though, it's nothing short of wonderful. Duncan Shiek's rock score, while wildly anachronistic for the 1891 setting, radiates a hormone-drenched intensity that's absolutely right for his angry and confused teen protagonists. Besides, most of the songs serve to illuminate the characters' emotional states rather than advance the plot, so the sight of late-19th-century German schoolboys pulling out wireless microphones and launching into aggressive numbers like "The Bitch of Living" seems no more absurd than any other musical theatre contrivance.

And brother, does it ever work. Particularly in the high-energy first act, Spring Awakening has a grab-you-by-the-throat intensity that's impossible to resist. It loses a bit of that in the second act, when most of the plot's emotional axe-blows fall, but by then I was so taken by the show's originality and drive that it didn't matter. Steven Sater's book and lyrics, Michael Mayer's direction, Christine Jones' scenic design, Susan Hifferty's costumes and Kevin Adams' lighting and Bill T. Jones' choreography all combine harmoniously with the score to deliver maximum impact. Jones' work, in particular, brilliantly turns the kids' desperate attempts to escape the repression of their daily lives into violent, angular action.

The story centers on two friends - the brilliant and rebellious Melchior and the troubled Moritz. Tormented by the incomprehensible onset of puberty and rejected by his father for failing to advance at school, Moritz commits suicide. When a dissertation that the more enlightened Melchior had written for him on the facts of life is found among the boy's possessions, the hypocritical headmasters use it to blame Melchior for corrupting his friend and causing his death. Worse yet, Melchior's brief roll in the hayloft with the naïve Wendla - whose mother has let her believe that you can't have children until you're married - results in a pregnancy.

Melchior is shipped off to a brutal reformatory. He escapes, expecting to find Wendla and run away with her, only to discover that she has died from an illegal abortion arranged by her mother. On the brink of suicide himself, Melchior is visited by the ghosts of Moritz and Wendla, who urge him to go on with his life and remember theirs. "I'll never let them go", sings Melchior. "Just watch me. / I'm calling. / And one day all will know."

Yes, the story is of another century. But the themes of sexual repression, hypocrisy and cynical cruelty are, sadly, evergreen. As the Melchior sings in "All That's Known": "All they say / Is ‘Trust in What is Written.' / Wars are made, / And somehow that is wisdom. / Thought is suspect, / And money is their idol". The malady lingers on.

The ensemble cast for this tour is uniformly strong, led by Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff - both alumni of the Broadway production - as Melchior and Moritz. Singer/songwriter Christy Altomare beautifully captures Wendla's tragic vulnerability and Steffi D has a great cameo as the "fallen woman", Ilse.

As a way of dramatizing the uniformity of oppression, Sater's book has all of the authority figures - from clueless mothers to arrogant headmasters - played by the same two actors. In this production those roles are filled wonderfully by Angela Reed and Henry Stram. Praise is also due to Sarah Hunt as Martha, victimized by a sexually abusive father and a mother deeply in denial. Her song, "The Dark I Know So Well", is heart wrenching.

Under the sometimes overly demonstrative direction of Jared Stein the on-stage rock band, augmented by a small string section, is tight and precise. Better yet, the sound, while loud enough to give the necessary visceral kick to Sheik's music, gets nowhere near "bleeding ear" territory and the vocals are crisp, clear and completely understandable - something of a rarity for tours of rock musicals.

Ironically, this powerful and intelligent show about troubled teens comes with an adults-only "explicit content" warning. It's there largely because of the occasional sexually explicit scene and Anglo-Saxon expletive. So if that sort of thing offends you then, by all means, give this a miss. But if you want to find out just how great a rock musical can be, then by all means rush to get your tickets for Spring Awakening. It plays the Fox through February 22nd; call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.