Monday, December 29, 2014

Pure family fun with Pixar in Concert

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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Jarvi
What: Pixar in Concert
When: December 27 and 28, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

Phrases like "family entertainment" and " recommended for all ages" are far too often euphemisms for "dull and unimaginative," as though children were simply very dim adults who could only be trusted with the performing arts equivalent of plastic scissors. Fortunately, the folks at Disney/Pixar know better.

For nearly twenty years now, Pixar has been cranking out animated feature films that genuinely do appeal to all ages. They don't talk down to kids or patronize adults. They create compelling characters and weave appealing stories around them that touch on universally human themes while avoiding clichés.

And accompanying all of it is some highly imaginative music. "Pixar in Concert" (which the St. Louis Symphony presented this past weekend) combines live performances of the music from fourteen movies with montages of memorable scenes from the animated features for which the music was composed. It's a fast-paced, consistently entertaining evening that seems far shorter than its two-hour run time.

SLSO Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi led a massively expanded ensemble that included beefed-up brass and percussion sections, piano, celesta, guitar, and synthesizer. There was also a sax section that added some real punch to Michael Giacchino's mock 1950s jazz score for "The Incredibles."

The resulting Very Big Band played with impressive precision, given the addition of so many musicians who aren't usually part of the ensemble and what I assume is a fairly short rehearsal schedule. Mr. Jarvi had a lot to hold together here, and did it remarkably well.

The music encompassed a variety of styles, from the Coplandesque Americana of Randy Newman (who scored half of the fourteen films represented) to the rock-inflected work of Thomas Newman (nephew of Randy and son of film composer Alfred Newman) for "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo," to Patrick Doyle's celtic-flavored score for "Brave." That guaranteed enough variety to prevent the sense of déjà vu that can crop up in an evening devoted to a single film composer.

There were three generations represented in our party (ages 10 to 66) and we all had a great time. That, it seems to me, is a sign of genuine family entertainment.

Licensed by the Disney/Pixar organization, "Pixar in Concert" is a touring show that was presented by the Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg last month and moves on to Lille, France in January. You can see the show's future bookings at the Pixar web site. Next at Powell Hall is the annual New Year's Eve Celebration on Wednesday, January 31, at 7:30 p.m. See the symphony web site for ticket information.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of December 29, 2014

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

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

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A Christmas Story: the Musical
The Fox Theatre presents A Christmas Story: the Musical through January 4. "Ralphie Parker wants only one thing for Christmas; An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. A CHRISTMAS STORY, The Musical is the hilarious account of Ralphie's desperate quest to ensure that this most perfect of gifts ends up under his tree this Christmas. This new Broadway musical is based on the classic 1983 movie, which itself was based on stories by legendary radio humorist Jean Shepherd. With songs both funny and heartfelt by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a faithful yet inventive book by Joseph Robinette, A CHRISTMAS STORY captures holiday wonder with such deliciously wicked wit that it is sure to delight children and grown-ups alike. It's the Christmas present that you'll cherish all holiday long." The Fox is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, fabulousfox.com. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Murder on 34th Street through December. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery January 2 - April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

Joe Hanrahan
The Midnight Company presents Joe Hanrahan in Eric Bogosian's one-man play Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll Friday through Sunday, January 2-4. "Bogosian's solo shows, which also include DRINKING IN AMERICA, WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE and POUNDING NAILS IN THE FLOOR WITH MY FOREHEAD, are scorching social commentaries on the urban and suburban scene - presenting portraits of contemporary men, from the homeless to possession-crazed millionaires to fading rock stars - “scabrously funny ” (Boston Phoenix) and “combustibly funny” (Newsday) monologues exposing their hidden fears, hypocrisy and rage." The performances take place at Herbie's Vintage 72, 405 N. Euclid in the Central West End. A special pre/post-theatre menu will be available before or after the show, cocktails will be available for the performance, and live music will follow Sunday performances. For more information: midnightcompany.com.

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

Friday, December 26, 2014

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of December 29. 2014

David Robertson
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David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a New Year's Eve Celebration on Wednesday, December 31, at 7:30 p.m. "Full of surprises and enchanting music, this best-kept secret is a memorable way to ring in the New Year!" The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents pianist and composer Don Oettel on Tuesday, December 30, at 7:30 p.m. “Pianist Dan Oettel returns to St. Louis to perform a varied program featuring music by Debussy, Brahms, Winston, Dave Grusin, Liz Story, Dan Oettel.” The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Traditional Handel and a bouquet of carols highlight the Bach Society Candlelight Concert

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Who: The Bach Society of St. Louis and the St. Louis Children's Choirs
What: Christmas Candlelight Concert
When: Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

The Bach Society of St. Louis Christmas Candlelight Concert has been a St. Louis tradition since 1951 and, as this year's sold-out edition proved tonight, that tradition is grounded in fine musicianship and intelligent programming.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of attending this annual gala, the concert is in two parts. The first is the more "serious" of the two and usually features the traditional classical repertoire.

This year we got the more "Christmassy" bits of Handel's "Messiah"—basically the more celebratory and uplifting numbers from Part I and the famous "Hallelujah!" chorus from Part II. Conductor A. Dennis Sparger, in his introductory remarks, promised a "HIP" (as in: Historically Informed Performance) interpretation but what we got sounded more conventional than that label implies. The soloists' vocal cadenzas were a bit more ornamented than usual but otherwise tempi and the overall approach were pretty much in the late 19th/early 20th century mainstream. It was a polished performance with exemplary work by the orchestra and chorus, just not what I expected.

Jane Jennings
wustl.edu
Soloists Jane Jennings (soprano), Debra Hillabrand (mezzo), and Don Frazure (tenor) were all solid, with Ms. Jennings showing the most emotional investment in the text. Ms. Hillabrand did not sound entirely comfortable with the lower notes in what is, after all, an alto part but was in good voice otherwise.

The second half of the concert was probably what most of the audience was waiting for: traditional carols sung by the Bach Society choir, assisted by the St. Louis Children's Choirs. It opens with the candlelight procession. The lights dim, and the members of the Bach Society walk down the aisles singing, each with an electric candle. If you're lucky enough to be sitting downstairs in the orchestra section, you're soon surrounded by singers - some carrying the melody, some the harmony, enveloping you in a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sound. Meanwhile the sound of the children's choir floats down from the dress circle upstairs. Charles Ives would have loved it; I know I did.

The rest of the evening was a well-chosen mix of traditional carols and more contemporary pieces. My favorite example of the latter was "Salvator Mundi", a suite of three 15th-17th century carols arranged by Welsh composer William Mathias in 1983 for children's chorus and conducted smartly by Bach Society Deputy Director Elizabeth Hogan McFarland. Other highlights included "O Salutaris Hostia" by contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds with its two soaring solo soprano lines rendered with ethereal beauty by Jilliann Law-Grygier and Darcie Johnson and a lively arrangement of the traditional Catalan carol "Fum, Fum, Fum!" featuring (I think) Jennifer Nitchman on piccolo. A tip of the topper is also due Concertmaster Lenora-Myra Anop for her solo in the Barlow Bradford arrangement of the traditional Austrian carol "Still, Still, Still."

The two audience sing-along numbers were fun as well, although the David Willocks arrangement of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" was in a key that wasn't very friendly to us bass-baritone types.

The concert is over now, of course, but the Bach Society has other concerts planned for next year (its 75th anniversary), including a complete "Messiah" and a Bach "B Minor Mass." For more information, visit the Bach Society web site.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of December 27, 2014

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

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New This Week:

A Christmas Story: the Musical
The Fox Theatre presents A Christmas Story: the Musical December 16 - January 4. "Ralphie Parker wants only one thing for Christmas; An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. A CHRISTMAS STORY, The Musical is the hilarious account of Ralphie's desperate quest to ensure that this most perfect of gifts ends up under his tree this Christmas. This new Broadway musical is based on the classic 1983 movie, which itself was based on stories by legendary radio humorist Jean Shepherd. With songs both funny and heartfelt by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a faithful yet inventive book by Joseph Robinette, A CHRISTMAS STORY captures holiday wonder with such deliciously wicked wit that it is sure to delight children and grown-ups alike. It's the Christmas present that you'll cherish all holiday long." The Fox is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, fabulousfox.com.

My take: The film on which this musical is based has always been a favorite of mine, as is the autobiographical Jean Shepherd novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," that was the basis for the movie. I'm happy to see that it has apparently survived the transition to the musical stage with its heart and soul intact. In her review for KDHX, Tina Farmer says the show is "a rollicking, song-filled ride...The show succeeds on so many levels and the cast delivers an engaging, heartwarming tale that leaves the audience smiling." Malcom Gay at the Riverfront Times concurs; "as Ralphie unpacks that final present," he writes, "this heartwarming show reveals itself as the gift that it is."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Symphony Preview: Fast away the old year passes

In my last symphony preview post, I gave you a glimpse at the upcoming Christmas concerts. This time, let's look at the post-Christmas action.

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stlsymphony.org
December 27 and 28: Pixar in Concert - For some years now, the orchestra has been using the weekend after Christmas for movie-themed programs. In 2011 and again last year, for example, David Robertson conducted an entertaining evening of the film music of John Williams. Mr. Robertson is an unabashed admirer of Williams' music, and the concerts were a great showcase for his work.

December of 2012 brought us a showing of the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" film with the soundtrack performed live by the orchestra while the late December treat in 2010 was a showing of Charlie Chaplin's classic "City Lights" with Mr. Robertson conducting Chaplin's original score—a completely enchanting experience. And so it goes.

This year it's "Pixar in Concert," as Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi conducts music from 14 Pixar animated films while the movie excerpts are shown on the big Powell Hall screen. Featured movies include "Toy Story," "Brave," "Cars," "Monsters," and two of my favorites: "Up" and "WALL-E". Licensed by the Disney/Pixar organization, "Pixar in Concert" is a touring show that was presented by the Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg last month and moves on to Lille, France in January. According to the company web site, the show has bookings through this coming June around the world, so it's obviously a popular event.

Press notices for the show have been generally good. Reviewing the San Francisco Symphony edition back in July, for example, Chad Liffman at spinningplatters.com called it "a fantastic musical evening." "Even if you've seen the films and know them well," wrote Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk of the Grand Rapids Symphony appearance, "'Pixar in Concert' is a different experience. Don't tell Pixar, but it's often more exciting than the original films themselves."

Pixar has come a long way since the early days of the late 1980s when it upheld the banner of digital animation virtually alone with delightful shorts like "Luxo Jr." (the source for the animated lamp in the Pixar logo) and the sweetly nostalgic "Red's Dream." Beginning with the phenomenally successful "Toy Story" in 1995, the company became a major force in full-length animated films. By the time Disney bought Pixar out in 2006 it was valued at $2.4 billion. Not bad for an operation that started out as a part of Lucasfilm's computer division back in 1979.

David Robertson
stlsymphony.org
December 31: New Year's Eve Celebration – David Robertson conducts the orchestra in the annual New Year's Eve gala. "Full of surprises and enchanting music," says the SLSO web site, "this best-kept secret is a memorable way to ring in the New Year!" And they're not kidding. The concert content is, in fact, a secret that won't be revealed until the music starts at 7:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve.

Still, we can make educated guesses based on previous years. Expect lots of good humor, both from the music and from Mr. Robertson, who can be a very funny guy when he gets his hands on a microphone. In 2012, for example, the orchestra did Morton Gould's "Tap Dance Concerto" and featured some good-natured sing-alongs with the audience. Dance music has, in fact, been a major part of the New Year's concerts. And waltzes are always associated with New Year's Eve in any case.

The concert is a big seller, but if you can't get tickets, don't despair. Last year St. Louis Public Radio began broadcasting the concert live.

"Pixar in Concert" performances are Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., December 27 and 28. "New Year's Eve Celebration" starts on Wednesday, December 31, at 7:30 p.m. All concerts are at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For ticket information, visit the SLSO web site. Note that on the 31st, Grand will be closed from Lindell to Delmar for First Night, to plan accordingly.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of December 22, 2014

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The Bach Society of St. Louis presents a Christmas Candlelight Concert on Tuesday, December 23, at 7:30 PM. “Capture the spirit of Christmas with Handel's Messiah! The well-known selections will highlight solos by soprano Jane Jennings, mezzo soprano Debra Hillabrand and tenor Don Frazure. Then, experience the much-anticipated candlelight procession—a cornerstone of this concert since 1951—with the Bach Society Chorus and special guests The St. Louis Children's Choirs processing throughout the hall. Favorite carols of the season and an audience sing-along promise to make this the perfect holiday family tradition.” The performance takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.bachsociety.org.

Hugh Smith
The Compton Heights Concert Band presents a Holiday Pops Spectacular concert, featuring tenor Hugh Smith, soprano Gina Galati, and the St. Louis Metro Singers, on Tuesday, December 23, at 7:30 p.m. The concert takes place at the Peabody Opera House at 14th and Market downtown. For more information: peabodyoperahouse.com.

Steven Jarvi conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Pixar in Concert on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., December 27 and 28. "Watch as all your favorite characters come to life on the big screen as the STL Symphony performs music from 14 Pixar films including Toy Story, Brave, Cars, Monsters, Inc. and more. Fun for both the young, and the young at heart!" The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts
presents Christmas Party at the Tavern with the St. Louis Christmas Carols Association on Wednesday, December 25, at beginning at 5 p.m. "Come enjoy a free appetizer buffet and drink specials before going home to wait for jolly St. Nick and the sugarplum fairies. We will also receive a visit from members of the St. Louis Christmas Carols Association at 7:30 PM -- they have been singing annually in our neighborhood and collecting donations for local children's charities since 1938. Sing along, or just enjoy the music and the company!" The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Grand Basin Brass Quintet
The Tavern of Fine Arts presents The Grand Basin Brass Quintet on Monday, December 22, at 8 PM. "The Grand Basin Brass Quintet performs an evening of holiday music that is sure to add an extra dash of cheer to the season." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a CD Release Party for pianist Holly Mead on Saturday, December 27, at 8 PM. "Pianist Holly Mead returns to St. Louis from the Bay Area for a Hometown CD Release Party. Music will commence at 8PM. There will be two sets with a brief intermission. You will hear tunes from the new album, as well as some Fauré, Joni Mitchell, holiday tunes, etc. Guest artists include Katie McCarthy (horn), Robert Frye (sax), and Chris Lauf (uke)." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of December 22, 2014

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

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

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Bah! Humbug!
Photo: Eric Woolsey
The Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company presents Bah! Humbug!, adapted from A Christams Carol, with book, music, and lyrics by Jack Herrick through December 23. "Mr. Scrooge throws his TV remote at ghosts while Bob Cratchit works inside the ATM in this hilarious modern update of a beloved holiday classic. Travel with the three spirits on a journey through past, present and future as old Ebenezer learns the joys of kindness and giving. Can Christmas be saved for the Cratchits? You'll find out in this musical romp that is sure to put a smile on the "Scroogiest" of faces." Performances take place at Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

A Christmas Story: the Musical
The Fox Theatre presents A Christmas Story: the Musical December 16 - January 4. "Ralphie Parker wants only one thing for Christmas; An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. A CHRISTMAS STORY, The Musical is the hilarious account of Ralphie's desperate quest to ensure that this most perfect of gifts ends up under his tree this Christmas. This new Broadway musical is based on the classic 1983 movie, which itself was based on stories by legendary radio humorist Jean Shepherd. With songs both funny and heartfelt by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a faithful yet inventive book by Joseph Robinette, A CHRISTMAS STORY captures holiday wonder with such deliciously wicked wit that it is sure to delight children and grown-ups alike. It's the Christmas present that you'll cherish all holiday long." The Fox is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents its Harm for the Holidays through December 27. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Murder on 34th Street through December. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

Ring of Fire
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash through December 28. "Featuring a company of multi-talented performers and over 30 hits from his iconic songbook, this spirited musical takes you on a journey through the life and career of The Man in Black. Exploring love, faith, struggle and success, songs such as " Boy Named Sue," "Daddy Sang Bass," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson" and "I Walk the Line" tell the story of Johnny Cash in a salute to this unique American legend." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

A holly and jolly holiday with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

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Seven Jarvi
stevenjarvi.com
Who: The St. Louis Symphony conducted by Steven Jarvi
What: Macy's Holiday Celebration
When: December 19-21, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

The Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts with the St. Louis Symphony have, over the past several years, fallen into a pattern that's as familiar and cozy as a bulky red woolen sweater. This year, I'm happy to report, is no exception.

As always, Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus director Kevin McBeth's Holiday Festival Chorus sings some familiar carols, including a wonderfully precise arrangement of the traditional Ukrainian "Carol of the Bells". I was also very taken with their performance of the delicate arrangement of "Silent Night" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg. The use of harp and celesta gives it a wonderfully transparent texture. Mr. McBeth does an impressive job getting very polished performances out of these singers, who all hail from local high schools.

Also, as always, the orchestra plays pops favorites like Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival" (a piece I have loved since I played it in high school), the audience participates in a sing-along, and Santa (the always reliable Whit Reichert, if my ears do not deceive me) shows up with a child plucked from the audience to "conduct" Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." Friday night's munchkin was so charming that she threatened to steal the show.

Santa also has some banter with the vocal soloist. This year it's the charming Chelsea Packard, who does fine work throughout and knocks "Let It Go" (from "Frozen") out of the park. Her musical theatre background is apparent in her engaging performances, although I rather wish she had done Adolphe Adam's "O Holy Night" without the ornamentation that so many younger singers seem compelled to bring to their vocal lines these days.

Chelsea Packard
chelseapackard.com
Equally traditional at these concerts is Randol Alan Bass's setting of "The Night Before Christmas" for narrator and orchestra, with a local celebrity in the speaking part. This year it was radio broadcaster Charles Brennan, who is competent but (at least on Friday night) looked a bit uncomfortable.

There are a few surprises on the program this year, the most welcome of which is Louis Richman's "Hannukah Festival Overture." It's apparently quite popular with holiday pops events around the country, but this was my first exposure to it. Richman's orchestration is clever and inventive and the piece is a nice counterpart to Anderson's "Christmas Festival."

The final two pieces on the program were also a welcome addition: a suite from Alan Silvestri's music for the film "Polar Express" (arrangement by Jerry Brubaker, Chief Arranger of the US Navy Band for 13 years) and "Christmas Eve Finale" from Dimitri Tiomkin's score for that Christmas chestnut "It's a Wonderful Life." The arrangement for orchestra and chorus by Patrick Russ and Paul Henning (part of their "Suite from It's a Wonderful Life") is big and colorful and brings the evening to an appropriately celebratory end.

Steven Jarvi conducts and narrates the entire affair with panache. He also put his own stamp on the music. His "Christmas Festival," for example, brings out some of woodwind parts in ways that previous readings have not.

Holiday cheer, in short, abounds at Powell Hall this weekend, assisted by the fact that drinks can be brought into the hall. I recommend the Poinsettia Punch—refreshing and not too sweet.

There are three more chances to catch this tasty musical sugarplum Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Post-holiday cheer continues next week with "Pixar in Concert" on Saturday and Sunday, December 27 and 28, and the annual New Year's Eve gala on the 31st.
For ticket information, visit the symphony web site.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holmes for the holidays

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What: The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes
When: Through January 4, 2015
Where: The St. Louis Science Center

Well, we finally got around to seeing the The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Saint Louis Science Center this afternoon and I'm glad we did. The reasons why are (ahem) elementary.

The reconstruction of Holmes' sitting room at 221b is worth the price of admission all by itself, but you also get to use clue books to solve a mystery that Lestrade, in typical fashion, has bungled. Using a series of interactive exhibits, you use your powers of observation and deduction to ferret out the truth. Just make sure you allow a good two hours to go through it all (especially if, like me, you get confused by the toxicology clues..).

Dr. Joseph Bell
The model for Holmes
It's a fun way to practice the skills that made Holmes the world's foremost consulting detective. Fun for the whole family, in fact, judging from the number of families in attendance.

It's also educational, with lots of fascinating background on Holmes, his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the real-life characters who inspired Doyle to create the Great Detective. That includes, most prominently, Dr. Joseph Bell, one of Doyle's teachers when he was attending medical school in Edinburgh. Not only was Bell's prowess in deducing the illnesses of patients using observation and deduction the model from Holmes' mental process, but Bell himself bore a remarkable resemblance to the way Holmes is described in the stories as well.

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes runs through January 4 the St. Louis Science Center on Oakland. Check it out, and don't forget to browse through the gift shop on the way out; there might be something there for the Sherlockian on your Christmas list.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of December 19, 2014

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

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New This Week:

Photo: Eric Woolsey
The Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company presents Bah! Humbug!, adapted from A Christams Carol, with book, music, and lyrics by Jack Herrick through December 23. "Mr. Scrooge throws his TV remote at ghosts while Bob Cratchit works inside the ATM in this hilarious modern update of a beloved holiday classic. Travel with the three spirits on a journey through past, present and future as old Ebenezer learns the joys of kindness and giving. Can Christmas be saved for the Cratchits? You'll find out in this musical romp that is sure to put a smile on the "Scroogiest" of faces." Performances take place at Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: Call this a qualified recommendation, as it mostly applies to families with with children. The Rep says the show is recommended "for all grades and family audiences," a recommendation bolstered by Tina Farmer's review for KDHX. "The entire cast," she writes, "exaggerates their reactions and emotions just enough to help little children understand the "make believe" nature of theater without patronizing them, and the script successfully weaves in subtle humor and off-topic references that keep the parents and other adults in the theater chuckling as well...The Imaginary Theatre Company hits all the right notes with a family friendly show that doesn't forget there are adults in the audience too."

Susie Wall as Dr. Ruth
New Jewish Theater presents Becoming Dr. Ruth through December 21. "There's more to famed sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer than meets the eye. Known from her career as a pioneering media sex therapist, Dr. Ruth has spoken frankly about sexual matters since her 1980 radio program. Few, however, know the incredible journey that preceded the fame. From her time as a youth fleeing from the Nazis in the Kindertransport, joining the Haganah, coming to America, marrying three times, we learn that there is much more to the 4'7" matronly therapist than meets the eye. Join her on this humourous, hope-filled journey filled with the honesty and the life affirming spirit of the girl who became "Dr. Ruth."" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283. 

My take: While this one-woman show has not met with universal acclaim, notices have been mostly very positive. Lynn Venhaus at the Belleville News-Democrat, for example, calls it "an enchanting experience" while Tina Farmer at KDHX says it's "delightfully informative." Actress Susie Wall has been a fixture on the local theatre scene for many years and can be relied upon to deliver a solid performance.

Reality at HotCity
HotCity Theatre presents the world premiere of Reality by Lia Romeo through December 20. "What happens after the cameras stop rolling on TV's LOOKING FOR LOVE? It's amazingly funny how "happily ever after" can quickly turn into "Hell hath no fury..." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, visit www.hotcitytheatre.org or call 314-289-4063.

My take: This recommendation comes with mixed emotions as it's the last production for this company. After many decades, a death and resurrection, and a merger, the company that started out life as City Players is finally calling it quits. A fixture in St. Louis theatre for decades, City Players went into hibernation for many years only to briefly emerge under new management before joining up with HotHouse Theatre to form HotCity. "At least," says Steve Allen's Stage Door blog, "we see them go out on a high note with a remarkable cast bringing in an original production." "What better way for artistic director Marty Stanberry, managing director Bess Moynihan et al to leave than with an original play cultivated in HotCity’s annual GreenHouse New Play Festival" asks Mark Bretz at Ladue News. "And a very fine one at that, a comedy with dark undertones penned by playwright Lia Romeo."

Held Over:

Mustard Seed Theatre presents the a cappella musical All is Calm Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 and 5 PM through December 21. "Join us in celebrating the power of peace in this acapella [sic] musical based on the true story of soldiers during World War I who for one night, put down their arms and played soccer instead of exchanging bullets." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

My take: This show is apparently going to be a holiday tradition at Mustard Seed, and with good reason. The story of the remarkable holiday truce that spontaneously interrupted the insanity of World War I remains an inspiring reminder of what happens when ordinary people ignore the manipulations of their leadership and allow their basic decency to take control of their actions. The lesson for contemporary politics is clear.

Blithe Spirit
Photo: John Lamb
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit through December 21 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "The smash comedy hit of the London and Broadway stages, this classic from the playwright of Private Lives offers up fussy, cantakerous novelist Charles Condomine, re-married but haunted (literally) by the ghost of his late first wife, the clever and insistent Elvira who is called up by a visiting "happy medium", one Madame Arcati. As the (worldly and un-) personalities clash, Charles' current wife Ruth is accidentally killed, "passes over", joins Elvira and the two "blithe spirits" haunt the hapless." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This play is one of Coward's greatest hits, and with good reason. It's skillfully constructed, unfailingly witty, and sharply observant in its look at human foolishness. The SLAS production has gotten good notice from the majority of local critics. At the Riverfront Times, for example, Malcom Gay observes that "under Bobby Miller's skillful direction, the Actors' Studio cast ably channels the period piece's fluid charms." Steve Allen at the Stage Door St. Louis blog agrees. "All of the wit, charm and bubbling humor," he writes, 'come across from the deft and delicious cast with director Bobby Miller bringing out every nuance of this absurd yet somehow plausible scenario."

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through December 20. "In this sequel to the original show [the runaway hit of 2013 at Stray Dog Theatre], Betty, Lin and Pickles jingle all the way with some new neighbors in Florida's Armadillo Acres Mobile Home Park. All is calm and bright with holiday beer until the local Scrooge is stricken by a freak bout of amnesia, putting neighborly love to the test. Just as much cat-fightin', sun-worshippin', chair-throwin' as the first, but with tinsel and Keg Nog to boot!" Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: Stray Dog's Great American Trailer Park Musical was a tremendous hit with critics and audiences alike, and it looks like the holiday version is following suit. "If you're looking for a quirky Christmas show that's extremely funny and a little bit raunchy," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "then you owe it to yourself to see this show."

A Raisin in the Sun
Photo: Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep presents Lorraine Hansberry's drama A Raisin in the Sun through December 21. Performances take place at the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org

My take: Hansberry's classic family drama is getting a much-praised presentation at the Black Rep. Over at KDHX, Missy Heinemann describes it as "stellar." At the Riverfront Times, Malcom Gay says that the script "maintains enormous narrative power, which the Black Rep's talented cast harnesses well."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of December 15, 2014

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

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

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All is Calm
Mustard Seed Theatre presents the musical All is Calm Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 and 5 PM through December 21. "Join us in celebrating the power of peace in this acapella musical based on the true story of soldiers during World War I who for one night, put down their arms and played soccer instead of exchanging bullets." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

The Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company presents Bah! Humbug!, adapted from A Christams Carol, with book, music, and lyrics by Jack Herrick through December 23. "Mr. Scrooge throws his TV remote at ghosts while Bob Cratchit works inside the ATM in this hilarious modern update of a beloved holiday classic. Travel with the three spirits on a journey through past, present and future as old Ebenezer learns the joys of kindness and giving. Can Christmas be saved for the Cratchits? You'll find out in this musical romp that is sure to put a smile on the "Scroogiest" of faces." Performances take place at Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall High School, 530 East Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

Susie Wall as
Dr. Ruth
New Jewish Theater presents Becoming Dr. Ruth through December 21. "There's more to famed sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer than meets the eye. Known from her career as a pioneering media sex therapist, Dr. Ruth has spoken frankly about sexual matters since her 1980 radio program. Few, however, know the incredible journey that preceded the fame. From her time as a youth fleeing from the Nazis in the Kindertransport, joining the Haganah, coming to America, marrying three times, we learn that there is much more to the 4'7" matronly therapist than meets the eye. Join her on this humourous, hope-filled journey filled with the honesty and the life affirming spirit of the girl who became "Dr. Ruth."" Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

Blithe Spirit
Photo: John Lamb
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit through December 21 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "The smash comedy hit of the London and Broadway stages, this classic from the playwright of Private Lives offers up fussy, cantakerous novelist Charles Condomine, re-married but haunted (literally) by the ghost of his late first wife, the clever and insistent Elvira who is called up by a visiting "happy medium", one Madame Arcati. As the (worldly and un-) personalities clash, Charles' current wife Ruth is accidentally killed, "passes over", joins Elvira and the two "blithe spirits" haunt the hapless." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

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Your master of ceremonies
The Cabaret Project presents a Christmas Cabaret Open Mic Night on Wednesday, December 17, from 7 to 10 PM at the Tavern of Fine Arts. Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by the special guest music director Al Fischer on the baby grand. The master of ceremonies is 88.1 KDHX senior performing arts critic Chuck Lavazzi. If you're planning to sing, be prepared to do one or two songs and bring music, preferably in your key. It's also recommend that you have your song memorized. Holiday songs are encouraged but not required, and the evening will include a seasonal sing-along. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt at Waterman in the Central West End. There's free parking in the lot right across the street. For more information, visit thecabaretproject.org or call 314-367-7549.

The Fox Theatre presents A Christmas Story: the Musical December 16 - January 4. "Ralphie Parker wants only one thing for Christmas; An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. A CHRISTMAS STORY, The Musical is the hilarious account of Ralphie's desperate quest to ensure that this most perfect of gifts ends up under his tree this Christmas. This new Broadway musical is based on the classic 1983 movie, which itself was based on stories by legendary radio humorist Jean Shepherd. With songs both funny and heartfelt by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, and a faithful yet inventive book by Joseph Robinette, A CHRISTMAS STORY captures holiday wonder with such deliciously wicked wit that it is sure to delight children and grown-ups alike. It's the Christmas present that you'll cherish all holiday long." The Fox is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, fabulousfox.com.

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through December 20. "In this sequel to the original show [the runaway hit of 2013 at Stray Dog Theatre], Betty, Lin and Pickles jingle all the way with some new neighbors in Florida's Armadillo Acres Mobile Home Park. All is calm and bright with holiday beer until the local Scrooge is stricken by a freak bout of amnesia, putting neighborly love to the test. Just as much cat-fightin', sun-worshippin', chair-throwin' as the first, but with tinsel and Keg Nog to boot!" Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents its Harm for the Holidays through December 27. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com

Brass Rail Players present It's a Wonderful Life Saurday at 7:30 p.m. and and Sunday at 2 p.m., December 20 and 21. The performances take place at The Turkey Hill Grange, 1375 Illinois Rte. 15 in Belleville, IL. For more information, visit brassrailplayers.org.

St. Charles Community College Young People's Theatre presents Miracle on 34th Street: the Musical December 19-21. "Single mother, Doris Walker, doesn't want her 6-year-old daughter Susan's head filled with romantic notions. Their neighbor Fred Gailey tries to woo Doris by charming Susan and taking her to see Santa Claus at Macy's, where Doris works. Doris is not impressed - but when it turns out Macy's Santa may in fact be the real Kris Kringle, a wave of love spreads across New York City that melts even the most cynical hearts." Performances take place in the Donald D. Shook Fine Arts Building on the campus at 4601 Mid Rivers Mall Drive in Cottleville, MO. For more information, call 636-922-8050 or visit stchas.edu.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Murder on 34th Street through December. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

A Raisin in the Sun
Photo: Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep presents Lorraine Hansberry's drama A Raisin in the Sun through December 21. Performances take place at the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

HotCity Theatre presents the world premiere of Reality by Lia Romeo through December 20. "What happens after the cameras stop rolling on TV's LOOKING FOR LOVE? It's amazingly funny how "happily ever after" can quickly turn into "Hell hath no fury..." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, visit www.hotcitytheatre.org or call 314-289-4063.

Ring of Fire
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash through December 28. "Featuring a company of multi-talented performers and over 30 hits from his iconic songbook, this spirited musical takes you on a journey through the life and career of The Man in Black. Exploring love, faith, struggle and success, songs such as " Boy Named Sue," "Daddy Sang Bass," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Jackson" and "I Walk the Line" tell the story of Johnny Cash in a salute to this unique American legend." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

A fabulous 'Winter Fable' with the St. Louis Symphony and Circus Flora

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Looking for something different in holiday entertainment? Seriously consider "A Winter Fable," the current collaboration between Circus Flora and the St. Louis Symphony. It features great music by Steven Jarvi and the symphony—including some rarely played pieces by Ippolitov-Ivanov, Dvořák, and Janáček—and an impressive array of circus acts. It's major holiday fun.

The Flying Walledas at Powell Hall
circusflora.org
Music, as I have observed before, has always been a part of the Circus Flora experience, so their partnership with the symphony (this is their fourth) isn't as unusual as it might seem. The big difference is that here the performers are working with music written for other purposes rather than with material composed specifically for their show. Which makes it that much more impressive that the music selected by Circus Flora Theater Director Cecil MacKinnon (who doubles, as always, as Yo-Yo the Narrator) and Mr. Jarvi is such a good match for the acts.

And the acts this year are impressive. Juggler, aerialist, and clown Amanda Crockett is the star of the show as far as I'm concerned. She grabbed my attention immediately with her ingenious hat juggling routine (to the strains of Bartók's "Romanian Folk Dances") with its striking bits of illusion. At times the hat seemed to defy gravity and the laws of physics, apparently staying rigidly suspended in mid air one minute and then threatening to float away the next. There's no trickery or special equipment involved, just precise physical acting.

As if that weren't enough, her later comic trapeze act (accompanied by a couple of Brahms "Hungarian Dances") demonstrated that, like Circus Flora's former resident clown Giovanni Zoppé, Ms. Crockett is also an experienced aerialist.

Juggler Kyle Driggs also impressed us with a fluid and graceful routine using five lightweight rings and an umbrella, as did Matt Roben with his comic cycling act. Luciano's Pound Puppies—a troupe of trained shelter rescue dogs—were also great fun. They were a huge hit with the younger set, although I have to admit I found their antics pretty irresistible as well.

Acrobatic acts are prominent this year, including Shayna Swanson's athletic aerial silk specialty and brief turn with the Cyr wheel (a kind of giant metal Hula Hoop); the Poema Family's wonderfully precise, rapid-fire Risley act; and the team of Nina Chubrikova and Yury Kuznetsov (a.k.a. Duo Resonance), a last-minute substitution for the hand-balancing team Duo Mai.

Amanda Crockett
amandacrockett.com / Van Larson
Duo Resonance mixes traditional hand standing and balancing routines with a kind of fluid choreography carried out on a slick low-friction mat. Once again, the accompanying music—Janáček's evocative 1894 overture "Jealousy"—neatly synched up with the action.

The St. Louis Arches are on hand as always and, as always, were true crowd pleasers. Selected from participants in Circus Harmony, our city's only comprehensive circus school, the Arches invariably bring down the house with their fast-paced juggling, tumbling, and acrobatics.

The most thrilling moments of the evening came, as is so often the case, from The Flying Wallendas and their trademark human pyramid high above the stage. The high wire is suspended at about the level of the dress circle boxes. That means that while a seat in the dress circle area is not always ideal for seeing the action down on the stage (which, for these performances, extends farther into the house than usual), it gives you a view of the Wallendas in action that you'll never get in a conventional circus tent.

Finally, I'd like to throw a few well-earned words of praise at Mr. Jarvi and the orchestra. While some of the music on the program is fairly familiar. it is, for the most part, the sort of thing not often heard on the Powell Hall stage, so the high quality of the performances deserves to be singled out. I don't think I've ever heard the SLSO do Ippolitov-Ivanov's two "Caucasian Sketches" suites before, but here we had three of the four sections of the second suite as well as the popular "Procession of the Sardar" from the first suite. I especially enjoyed the increasingly boisterous "Lezghinka," with its flashy percussion passages. It's always gratifying to hear live performances of pieces I know primarily from recordings.

It was equally gratifying to see the orchestra given a solo spot performing the exhilarating "Furiant," the final movement of Dvořák's Op. 39 "Czech Suite"—another one of those works heard far more often on recordings than in live performances. They got an enthusiastic round of applause and deserved every bit of it.

Performances of "A Winter Fable" continue through Sunday, December 14, at Powell Hall in Grand Center. Holiday programming continues next weekend as Kevin McBeth leads the IN UNISON® Chorus in "A Gospel Christmas" on Thursday, December 18, and Steven Jarvi leads the orchestra and Holiday Festival Chorus in the Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts Friday through Sunday, December 19-21. For ticket information, visit the symphony web site.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of December 15, 2014

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St. Louis Chamber Chorus in 2011
The Kirkwood Public Library presents the Bella Corda and Musica Viva guitar ensembles in a Christmas concert on Monday, December 15, at 7 p.m. The library is at 104 E. Jefferson in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: kirkwoodpubliclibrary.org.

The St. Louis Chamber Chorus presents Concert Three: Palestrina and Herbert Howells "A joyous mass for Christmas by Rome's 'Prince of Music' — Palestrina is interlaced with achingly beautiful carols by a towering figure of the English Musical Renaissance, Herbert Howells." The concert takes place on Sunday, December 21 at 3 PM at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 E. Adams in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: www.chamberchorus.org

Kevin McBeth conducts the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus in A Gospel Christmas on Thursday, December 18, at 7:30 p.m. "Gospel sensation Oleta Adams joins the STL Symphony and IN UNISON® Chorus led by director Kevin McBeth for a night of soul-stirring Gospel music to celebrate the most joyous of seasons." The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. The concert is sold out, but standing room tickets are still available. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Chelsea Packard
Steven Jarvi conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra along with the Holiday Festival Chorus and vocalist Chelsea Packard in the Macy's Holiday Celebration Friday and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., December 19-21. "Old and young, naughty and nice are all invited to enjoy St. Louis' annual holiday tradition in a splendidly decorated Powell Hall. Enjoy a visit from Santa and your favorite carols and holiday tunes, including the Polar Express Suite, The Night Before Christmas narrated by KMOX's Charlie Brennan, music from It's a Wonderful Life and the 2014 Academy Award® Winner for Best Original Song, "Let It Go" from Frozen. See why more than 10,000 St. Louisans make Powell Hall home for the holidays." The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents Marie Halley, vocals; Lisa Gilbert, wooden flutes; and Bran Vihan, guitar and vocals, in A Concert of Celtic Carols on Thursday, December 18, at 8 PM. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a Winter Solstice Concert by guitarist Todd Mosby on Friday, December 19, at 8 PM. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents soprano Rebecca Drury and tenor/pianist Jon Garrett in a concert of music for the holiday season. on Saturday, December 20, at 8 PM. The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood. For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Winter Opera presents Holidays on the Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 16 and 17, at 7 p.m. "Treat someone special to the unique gift of music and fine dining this December. Includes a four-course dinner at Dominic's on the Hill as well as a concert sung by Winter Opera artists. Gift certificates available." The event takes place at Dominic's On the Hill, 200 1501 Wilson. For more information: www.winteroperastl.org.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Chuck's Theatre Choices for the weekend of December 12, 2014

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

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New This Week:

Blithe Spirit
Photo: John Lamb
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Noel Coward's comedy Blithe Spirit through December 21 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "The smash comedy hit of the London and Broadway stages, this classic from the playwright of Private Lives offers up fussy, cantakerous novelist Charles Condomine, re-married but haunted (literally) by the ghost of his late first wife, the clever and insistent Elvira who is called up by a visiting "happy medium", one Madame Arcati. As the (worldly and un-) personalities clash, Charles' current wife Ruth is accidentally killed, "passes over", joins Elvira and the two "blithe spirits" haunt the hapless." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This play is one of Coward's greatest hits, and with good reason. It's skillfully constructed, unfailingly witty, and sharply observant in its look at human foolishness. The SLAS production has gotten good notice from the majority of local critics. At the Riverfront Times, for example, Malcom Gay observes that "under Bobby Miller's skillful direction, the Actors' Studio cast ably channels the period piece's fluid charms." Steve Allen at the Stage Door St. Louis blog agrees. "All of the wit, charm and bubbling humor," he writes, 'come across from the deft and delicious cast with director Bobby Miller bringing out every nuance of this absurd yet somehow plausible scenario."

nebraskatheatrecaravan.org
The Fox Theatre presents The Nebraska Theatre Caravan's musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol Friday through Sunday, December 12-14. "The Nebraska Theatre Caravan has been touring Charles Jones' delightful adaptation of A CHRISTMAS CAROL since 1979. The Caravan's Carol, which weaves traditional Christmas carols throughout the narrative, is probably the most widely produced production of Dickens' in the nation, annually performing for more than 100,000 people in more than 60 cities across the country." The Fox is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, fabulousfox.com.

My take: The Nebraska Theatre Caravan's version of this holiday classic has become an annual tradition at the Fox. I'm not enough of a Scrooge to suggest you shouldn't see it. "If the audience wasn't in the holiday spirit when they arrived," wrote Tina Farmer in her KDHX review of last year's visit, "I am confident the theater's sparkling lobby decorations and the sweetly reverent tone of this holiday classic quickly put them in the mood."

Photo: Michael Young
R-S Theatrics presents Courtney Baron's seriocomedy Eat Your Heart Out through December 14. " childless couple desperate to adopt become surprisingly involved in the life of their social worker and her daughter." Performances take place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton. For more information: r-stheatrics.com.

My take: I've been hearing good things about this show from some of my theatrical friends, and reviews seem to bear that out. Writing for Ladue News, for example, Mark Bretz says the production is "richly rewarding, compelling and engaging food for thought and some gut-wrenching emotion, too." When I saw this play at the Humana Festival in 2012 (where it had its world premiere), I wrote that it "ultimately deals with very real issues of pain, rejection, and the difficulty of real-world love, even if it does sometimes feel more like the unfinished first act of a more substantial work." R-S continues to do the hard work of bringing new theatre to St. Louis, and deserves our support.

The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through December 20. "In this sequel to the original show [the runaway hit of 2013 at Stray Dog Theatre], Betty, Lin and Pickles jingle all the way with some new neighbors in Florida's Armadillo Acres Mobile Home Park. All is calm and bright with holiday beer until the local Scrooge is stricken by a freak bout of amnesia, putting neighborly love to the test. Just as much cat-fightin', sun-worshippin', chair-throwin' as the first, but with tinsel and Keg Nog to boot!" Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: Stray Dog's Great American Trailer Park Musical was a tremendous hit with critics and audiences alike, and it looks like the holiday version is following suit. "If you're looking for a quirky Christmas show that's extremely funny and a little bit raunchy," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "then you owe it to yourself to see this show."

Craig Pomranz
craigpomranz.com
Midtown Artists and Topper Productions present cabaret artist Craig Pomranz in Here's to the Ladies on Saturday, December 13, at 7 p.m. "In his new show, Craig will lead you on an exploration of women's names in song, as only he can...with wit, sensitivity, and one of the dreamiest voices you'll ever hear! "Here's To The Ladies" will be presented at Cyrano's Cafe Webster Groves (603 East Lockwood), in their beautiful event room. Dinner is available before the show (in the main dining room), or during the show. If you plan to dine during the show, please arrive by 6:30, to place your order." Cyrano's is at 603 East Lockwood in Webster Groves, MO. For more information: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/943491.

My take: St. Louis's own Craig Pomranz has made a nice career for himself on the international theater and cabaret stage, but that doesn't mean he neglects the home town crowd, as his repeated visits to local stages attest. When he played the Kranzberg Center back in 2011 I wrote that he had "impressive vocal technique with an enviable head voice, easy falsetto, and solid breath control " along with the theatrical skill necessary to convincingly act a song. I haven't seen the event space at Cyrano's, but I've eaten there often enough to testify to the high quality of the food and drink.

Peabody Opera House presents the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin on Wednesday through Sunday, December 10-14. For more information, visit peabodyoperahouse.com or call 314-622-5420.

My take: It's a pity my schedule doesn't allow me to see this one as the reviews have been glowing. It's a musical I have always enjoyed, especially after appearing as Charles in the Stray Dog production a few years back. This revival, originally created for Diane Paulus's American Repertory Theater in Chicago back in 2011, adds stage magic and circus elements to the show, with what appear to be spectacular results.

The Flying Wallendas at Powell Hall
circusflora.org
Circus Flora and the St. Louis Symphony present A Winter Fable Friday through Sunday, December 12-14. "Set among the High Tatras Mountains in the ancient and beautiful Kingdom of the Spiis, A WINTER FABLE is a classic fairy tale with an edge of romance and deceit. Imagine a strange and wonderful world, in which the pairing of symphony and the circus arts is only the beginning of the magic you will experience. With a cast that mixes all-new Circus Flora performers with returning favorites including the gravity-defying Flying Wallendas, there's no better way to usher in winter and the Christmas season than with Circus Flora and the Symphony!" Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

My take: Music has always been a part of the Circus Flora experience, so the partnership with the symphony isn’t as unusual as it might seem. This is, in fact, the orchestra's fourth team-up with our much-loved local circus; the last one was "A Child's Christmas in Wales" two years ago. SLSO Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi conducts a program with a heavy Eastern European and Russian flavor. Dvorak, Bartok, Janacek, and Ippolitov-Ivanov are heavily featured. There are also some Brahms "Hungarian Dances," along with Berlioz's "Hungarian March" from "The Damnation of Faust."

A Raisin in the Sun
Photo: Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep presents Lorraine Hansberry's drama A Raisin in the Sun through December 21. Performances take place at the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org

My take: Hansberry's classic family drama is getting a much-praised presentation at the Black Rep. Over at KDHX, Missy Heinemann describes it as "stellar." At the Riverfront Times, Malcom Gay says that the script "maintains enormous narrative power, which the Black Rep's talented cast harnesses well."

Held Over:

Mustard Seed Theatre presents the a cappella musical All is Calm Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 and 5 PM through December 14. "Join us in celebrating the power of peace in this acapella [sic] musical based on the true story of soldiers during World War I who for one night, put down their arms and played soccer instead of exchanging bullets." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

My take: This show is apparently going to be a holiday tradition at Mustard Seed, and with good reason. The story of the remarkable holiday truce that spontaneously interrupted the insanity of World War I remains an inspiring reminder of what happens when ordinary people ignore the manipulations of their leadership and allow their basic decency to take control of their actions. The lesson for contemporary politics is clear.