Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Art of Cabaret

As I have noted here in the past, the St. Louis cabaret scene seems to be truly exploding, with new talent popping up on a reliable basis and established performers continuing to re-stage existing shows and create new ones.

What's really encouraging, though, is that we're now seeing a growth in the available performance spaces for cabaret as well. This past spring, for example, singer and producer Robert Breig started a new monthly series of free cabaret showcases at Schwaig Art Glass in Lafayette Square. Titled A Little Night Music, these early Saturday evening shows (7 to 9 PM) feature six local performers along with the reliable and charming Carol Schmidt on piano. As I'm writing this, the next one (the fourth in the series) is coming up on July 10th and will feature JT Ricroft, Barbara Helmer, Kay Love, Emilie Nevins, Kari Donovan, and Patty Scanlon.

The venue is not ideal - only a dozen or so audience members can get a really good look at the performers, stuffed as they are into the studio's small second floor space. But what the venue lacks in convenience is makes up for in atmosphere and beauty. Being surrounded by art glass isn't exactly the worst experience in the world, and the free wine and cheese add to the ambience. The showcase format, with each performer doing a three-song set, allows a lot of new talent to get their feet wet, so to speak, as well as providing a chance for more experienced performers to try out new material.

To find out more, call 314-776-4442 or visit fabartscenter.com on the web.

I should note, in all fairness, that I know and have worked with Robert and that I appeared in the second edition of A Little Night Music.

Coming up later in July, by the way, yet another cabaret showcase series launches, this time downtown. More in on that in my next post.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Winning Ticket

What: The Golden Ticket
Where: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When: through June 26, 2010

[(L to R) Daniel Okulitch as Willy Wonka and Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's 2010 production of The Golden Ticket.  Copyright: Ken Howard, 2010]

One of the many admirable things about Opera Theatre is the company's support for new works. Their thirty-five seasons are strewn with national and world premieres; an encouraging sign for a genre often depicted in popular entertainment as stodgy and old-fashioned. This year's new kid on the block—The Golden Ticket, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—is an appropriately tasty concoction of juvenile humor, adult wit, and musical invention with just the right amount of creepiness.

Composer Peter Ash has an impressive conducting resume, so it's perhaps not surprising that his work makes ingenious and clever use of the orchestra. Delicate ensemble passages alternate with great whoops and rushes of sound and unexpected instrumental combinations abound. The score is peppered with musical jokes, including characteristic music for the four badly behaved children who come to grief in Willy Wonka's factory. The egomaniacal Violet Beauregard, for example, sings in florid coloratura flourishes while the piggish Augustus Gloop parodies the stereotypical portly Italian tenor by spewing saccharine mock Puccini. Meanwhile Mike Teavee, who is obsessed with violent television, stutters machine-gun staccato passages.

As the Artistic Director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, librettist Donald Sturrock brings an insider's perspective to the words that accompany Mr. Ash's music. Fans of the book will likely be delighted to discover that the stage adaptation includes not only the major elements of the published version of the original novel, but bits and pieces of Dahl's numerous revisions as well—including, happily, a 1973 re-write that changes the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka's factory from racist stereotypes to oddball aliens. It's literate enough to keep adults engaged but chockablock with sufficient jokes to hold the attention of all but the youngest children—no small accomplishment.

Opera Theatre has assembled a stellar cast for this eccentric piece. Baritone Daniel Okulitch exudes impish delight as both the magical king of confections, Willy Wonka, and the mysterious shopkeeper Mr. Know. Vocally, the part sounds like quite a challenge, but he's more than up to it.

The roles of the four awful children are filled by four wonderful performers. Soprano Tracy Dahl (no relation, as far as I can see) handles Violet Beauregard's demanding vocal pyrotechnics with ease and is a convincing stage brat. On opening night Countertenor David Trudgeon rattled off Mike Teavee's opening aria with such superhuman precision that he got a burst of spontaneous applause from the audience. Mezzo Jennifer Rivera's Veruca Salt—the classic spoiled rich kid—is almost unnervingly monstrous in her greed, and tenor Andrew Drost's Augustus Gloop is the epitome of repellant gluttony.

Although occasionally swamped by the orchestra, boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo is nevertheless a charming Charlie Bucket, with a clear voice and solid enunciation. Tenor Frank Kelley is appealing as Charlie's lovable Grandpa Joe and in fine voice as well. Although a Gerdine Young Artist and therefore relatively new on the scene, Mezzo Jennifer Berkebile makes a strong impression as both the mistress of Wonka's exotic brigade of Turkish squirrels and the self-admiring television hostess Candy Mallow.

Making his Opera Theatre debut, conductor Timothy Redmond skillfully leads the orchestra through a score which, while clearly demanding, also sounds like rather a lot of fun to play. Chorus Master Sandra Horst has, once again, done a fine job with her singers, who are called upon to play a number of important roles throughout the evening, from sinister gargoyles to chattering squirrels to eccentric Oompa Loompas, who provide the moral for the downfall of each bad child in amusing rhymed couplets.

Video designer Greg Emetaz, set designer Bruno Schwengl, costumer Martin Pakledinaz and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind all go above and beyond the call of duty to handle the exotic characters and the many scene changes in Mr. Sturrock's libretto, especially during the tour of Willy Wonka's magical factory. My congratulations to them all. Stage director James Robinson does a nice job pulling it all together although here, as in his Marriage of Figaro, he seems overly found of blocking some key scenes as though there were no audience outside of house center.

There aren't that many operas out there that are family friendly in the sense that they can be enjoyed by all ages. Children's opera, like children's theatre, tends to be its own genre. The Golden Ticket is, happily, family friendly, mixing elements of opera, musical theatre, dance and even video into something akin to Willy Wonka's Three-Course Dinner Chewing Gum. Unlike that gum, though, it can be enjoyed without risking transformation into a giant blueberry.

Opera Theatre presents The Golden Ticket in rotating repertory with the rest of the season through June 26th at the Loretto-Hilton center, 130 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may call 314-961-0644 or visit opera-stl.org.

A blog bonus: video of American Lyric Theater's workshop of The Golden Ticket:

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Ill-Made Night

What: A Little Night Music
Where: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When: through June 19, 2010

One sign of a great play is that it can survive and even succeed despite ill-conceived artistic choices. As the current production by Opera Theatre clearly demonstrates, A Little Night Music is a great play. Despite imposed and irrelevant design decisions by fashion designer and television personality Isaac Mizrahi, Hugh Wheeler's smart dialog and Stephen Sondheim's superbly crafted score emerge pretty much intact.

My principal complaint with the production is that Mizrahi has decided that it's essentially Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a Sondheim score. “For years”, he write in his director's notes, “I have wanted to present A Little night Music like Shakespeare's summer farce with music, with misguided lovers running through the forest on one enchanted summer night.” Unfortunately the worlds of Shakespeare's farce and Hugh Wheeler's dramatic comedy have nothing in common to speak of. Magic and fairies are at the core of Shakespeare. In Wheeler they're non-existent. The folly in A Little Night Music is entirely the work of flawed characters trying to be what they aren't rather than of sprites with spells and potions.

Yes, much of the second act (but none of the first) of Night Music takes place out of doors on midsummer's eve, but the location is the well-manicured lawn of a mansion, not a magical wood. And that location has meaning, in part, because it contrasts with the interiors of the first act. To set the entire thing, as Mizrahi has, in what he describes as an “enchanted spot in the forest” is to fundamentally distort that relationship. The look of the show feels imposed and serves to detract from the play rather than enhance it.

That said, I have to admit that Mizrahi the director serves the material far better than Mizrahi the designer. With the possible exception of the Act I finale, in which a steady stream of irrelevant action by the non-canonical “Swedish fairies” constantly threatens to upstage the brilliant score, most of the staging and interpretation choices make sense. Casting choices are also quite good. I was especially taken with the fact that while the younger roles were all filled by classically trained singers, the older roles – Frederik, Desiree and Madame Armfeldt – were all assigned to actors from the legitimate theatre. The contrast in vocal styles worked quite well, especially during spoken dialog.

Ron Raines, with substantial credits on both the theatrical and operatic stages, is perhaps the ideal Frederik Egerman. His warm and solid baritone easily handles Sondheim's often-tricky score and his acting perfectly captures Frederik's wry humor. Amy Irving is a good match for him dramatically but, at least on opening night, she seemed unable to project vocally past the first few rows and often failed to sing through the ends of phrases (which, in all fairness, is not as easy as you might think). Still, it's a generally fine performance that serves the character and the production well.

Si├ón Phillips is a compelling Madame Armfeldt and her scenes with soprano Vivian Krich-Brinton as granddaughter Frederika are charming. Mezzo Candra Savage is a standout as the free-spirited Petra, making the most of “The Miller's Son”. The song is crucial, coming at exactly the point in the action when a more earthy perspective is needed, and Ms. Savage's performance is everything one could hope for.

Baritones Lee Gregory and Christopher Dylan Herbert sound great as the pompous Count Carl-Magnus and angst-ridden Henrik but their performances tend to come just a bit too close to exaggeration. Ditto for mezzo Erin Holland as the Count's caustically self-aware wife Charlotte. I'm inclined to chalk that up to Mizrahi's direction rather than actor choices, though, since it's so consistent.

There's more fine singing from the quintet that comments on the action throughout the play. Aaron Agulay, Lauren Jelenovich, Corinne Winters, Mark Van Arsdale and Laura Wilde are the vocalists. They all deserve applause, as does soprano Amanda Squitieri as the eternally virginal Anne.

Applause as well for the Opera Theatre orchestra under Stephen Lord, navigating Sondheim's sometimes-complex score with ease. There were a few rough spots on opening night, especially during counterpoint-laden numbers like “Now / Later / Soon”, but I'd expect those to disappear with time.

When all is said and done, Opera Theatre's A Little Night Music is well worth seeing if only because any production of this wonderful piece is well worth seeing. Musically, the production is top notch, after all, and the visual design, while sometimes annoying, is ignorable. If you're a Sondheim fan you won't want to miss it.

A Little Night Music runs through June 19th at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may call 314-961-0644 or visit opera-stl.org.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Tilting at Windmills

What: Ingenioso
Where: Circus Flora, Grand Center, St. Louis
When: through June 27, 2010

“It's not where you start”, runs a Dorothy Fields lyric from the 1973 musical Seesaw, “it's where you finish. It's not how you go, it's how you land.” Despite some stumbling first steps, the 24th installment of our own Circus Flora finishes triumphantly and lands firmly on its feet.

Credit one returning act and one new one for the solid conclusions of both halves of Ingenioso. The returning act—in the closing spot—is The Flying Pages (pictured), a remarkable family of trapeze artists. Anthony Page's triple somersault is, as usual, a highlight, but they're all impressive.

New this season is wire dancer Julien Posada, who closes the first half. His blindingly fast fancy footwork would be praiseworthy on the ground. On a rope five feet above the ground it's stunning. The low wire offers spectators both a clear view of Mr. Posada's elegant dancing and a reminder that a balancing act need not involve the threat of death to be compelling.

Also new (at least to me) were animal trainer Jenny Vidbel with an array of talented dogs, goats and even roosters (although the fowl weren't inclined to do much on opening night) and “Western arts virtuoso” Vince Bruce with his fancy roping, riding and lightning-fast bullwhips. The Elliaire Duet, an elegant and beautiful aerial adagio act, is technically new although the performers themselves have been members of the ever-popular St. Louis Arches for some years now.

Returning favorites included the daring Cossack horsemanship of the Riders of the Ring (still impressive, despite a re-take made necessary by what appeared to be a not-quite-secure saddle harness), Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski flying through the air with the greatest of ease in equestrian silk act, the romantic aerial duet of Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfeather, and the energetic acrobatics of the aforementioned St. Louis Arches, our own home-grown youth circus troupe.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, at least on opening night, Ingenioso got off to a somewhat rough start and tended to drag a bit during the fist half. Some of this resulted from glitches and errors in timing that will probably be history by the time you read this but some of it, I think, stems from an attempt to stuff a square theatrical peg into a round hole.

Ingenioso uses a variant of Cervantes' Don Quixote as a launching point for the circus acts and it's not always a good fit. The bits with Carlos Svenson and the always charming Giovanni Zoppe (a.k.a Nino) as the Don and Sancho Panza, respectively, didn't seem to go anywhere and the acts themselves—while generally quite entertaining—didn't have much to do with the story. The narrative bits designed to advance the Don Quixote story felt more like filler and, especially during the first act, seemed to prevent the show from ever building any momentum.

Still, a flawed Circus Flora show nevertheless offers good value for your entertainment dollar, especially if you have youngsters in your party. The six year old in ours was clearly enjoying himself. I expect the six year old in you will do the same.

Circus Flora presents Ingenioso through June 27th under the air-conditioned big top in the Powell Hall parking lot in Grand Center. For more information, you may call 314-289-4040 or visit circusflora.org.