Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Italian Passages II: Veni, Verdi, Violini

 
[The second in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio’s  Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

The commune of Busseto in the province of Parma, in Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, appears to have two principal exports: tomatoes and the noted composer Giuseppe Verdi.  Since this tour focuses on music rather than agriculture, it was the latter that provided one of our two principal activities on the road from Milan to Venice.

Unloading from our buses in the village of Roncale, we got a brief tour of the church where Verdi was the resident organist (at the ripe old age of eight) and an even more brief look at the outside of the home where he was born, followed by a private concert of Italian opera arias (wth the emphasis, of course, on Verdi) at Teatro  Verdi by soprano Renata Campanella and pianist M. Fabrizio Cassi.

One of my fellow cruisers asked me at dinner the following night what I thought of the recital and what, as a critic, I look for in an operatic performance.  I replied that what I looked for what essentially what we got from Ms. Campanella: a singer/actor with a solid, well-placed voice of uniform strength throughout its range and the ability to fully inhabit a character and convey the emotions behind an aria believably, without exaggeration.

I found Ms. Campanella to be a totally compelling singer and actress, always entirely “in the moment” from before the first note was struck until she broke character to accept our applause.  Whether she was swooning with love in “Tacea la notte placida” from Il Trovatore or contemplating the cruelty of fate in “Pace, pace mio Dio”  from La Forza del Destino, she was always completely credible and musically impeccable.  Add in the jewel-like perfection of the tiny (100-seat) theatre, and the result was a unique experience I won’t soon forget.

The theatre has an interesting history of its own.  Constructed inside a former palazzo that now houses local government offices, it was named after Verdi over his strenuous objections.  He much preferred the town’s older existing opera house and regarded the construction of the new one as a waste of money.  As a result, he refused to set foot in the theatre that bears his name.

Another unforgettable experience was the classically northern Italian lunch we were served afterwards next door at the restaurant I Due Foscari. The late Luciano Pavarotti was an old friend of the family and the restaurant was his personal favorite.  The creamy risotto and baked chicken were reminiscent of my Italian grandmother’s cooking and the locally-made sparkling wines were a perfect complement.

Then it was back to the bus for a short drive to the Violin Museum in Cremona, where we were treated to yet another fine concert, this time by Aurelia Macovei on an authentic 1727 Stradivarius violin. The recital was brief, but provided and excellent showcase for both Ms. Macovei’s skill and the robust sound of her instrument.  

For me, the highlight was a transcription of Asturias (Leyenda) by Albeniz,  Originally composed for piano, this dramatic piece is often heard in a guitar transcription. The violin arrangement is an ingenious piece of work—every bit as flashy as both the piano and guitar versions but exploiting the violin’s capabilities so effectively that someone encountering it for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it was written for that instrument in the first place.

The intimate performance space at the museum (pictured above) is a thing of both visual and auditory beauty all by itself, with comfortable seats and auburn wood everywhere, curved in homage to the instrument to which the museum is dedicated, and excellent acoustics.

The tour of the museum that followed was informative but when it began to feel rather like a pitch by the Cremona Chamber of Commerce, I made a discreet exit to wait for the rest of our group at the museum entrance.  I was rewarded by the sight of a group of mummers and dancers in Renaissance costume.  The later gave those of us hanging around the shaded courtyard in front of the museum a delightful demonstration of period social dancing, accompanied by recorded music.  You never know when serendipity is going to make itself felt.

And then it was time to board the bus for Venice.  Of which, more anon.
 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 29, 2017

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The Black Rep presents a revival production of their original musical revue Crossin' Over through June 18. "From roots in Africa - from village to slave ship - through the middle passage - from auction block to plantation fields and up to the modern Civil Rights movement, CROSSIN' OVER tells its tale with traditional West African drumming, hymns, psalms and Gospel standards such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Precious Lord," and "We Shall Overcome," as well as contemporary gospel music today." Performances take place in the Emerson Performance Space on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Death of a Blackheart through July 29. "Welcome aboard the largest, (and safest), cruise liner ever to sail the low seas. That's right. Welcome aboard the Gigantic! But wait! What do I hear? "Argggghhhhhhh!" Avast ye mateys and get yer gizzard ready to be robbed by the most famous pirate ever to pillage a maiden! Of course, we're talkin' Captain Jack Blackheart! He's the pirate that has cheated more people, emptied more pockets and pillaged more ladies than any politician. Gee. I hope no one kills him off. You'll meet lots of fun characters at this show. In fact audience members will get to play lots of fun characters in this show because it's "chock full" of "Fair Maidens", "Lost Boys", "Rival Pirates", and more. One thing is for sure. If you've ever wanted to stand up and shout out Arggggghhhh!...then "Death of a Blackheart" is the show for you!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents the world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie, based on the John Steinbeck novel, through June 25. "When the Dust Bowl sweeps across Oklahoma, the Joad family sets out for a new life in California. But the promised land isn't all it seems. In the face of countless obstacles, can the American dream survive? Both heartbreaking and uplifting, this acclaimed opera vividly captures all the beauty of John Steinbeck's best-selling novel." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

Stages St. Louis presents the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat June 2 - July 2. "One of the most enduring shows of all time, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the irresistible family musical about the trials and triumphs of Joseph, Israel's favorite son.” Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. For more information: stagesstlouis.com

Madame Butterfly
Photo: Ken Howard
Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Puccini's Madame Butterfly through June 24. "A Japanese geisha. An American soldier. Their attraction is immediate, but their love story can't last. When their union results in a child, Cio-Cio-San is forced to do whatever it takes to protect her son's future. Set to breathtaking music, this timeless opera pays powerful, wrenching tribute to a mother's love." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Old Opry through July 30. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

JPEK CreativeWorks Theatre presents Samuel Huddleston in the one-man show Sam Cooke, the Musical Revue on Sunday, June 4th, at 3 and 6 p.m. The performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: metrotix.com.

Citilites presents the national tour of Squeeze My Cans Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., May 31 - June 4. Cathy Schenkelberg (Pepper the Clown: WGN's Bozo Show), a successful actress and voice over talent, spent most of her young adult life inside a "cult". Squeeze My Cans is the hilarious and horrifying story of her fourteen years inside The Church of Scientology and her five year struggle to escape it. Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.brownpapertickets.com.

Sweet Smell of Success
New Line Theatre presents the Marvin Hammlisch musical Sweet Smell of Success, based on the 1957 film of the same name, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, June 1 - 24. "It's New York, 1952. After dark. Welcome to Broadway, the glamour, power, and sleaze capital of the universe. J.J. Hunsecker rules it all with his daily gossip column in the New York Globe, syndicated to sixty million readers across America. J.J. has the goods on everyone, from the President to the latest starlet. And everyone feeds J.J.'s appetite for scandal, from J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, down to a battalion of hungry press agents who attach their gossip to a client that J.J. might plug. When down-and-out press agent Sidney Falco tries to hitch his wagon to J.J., all while keeping secrets about his new client's relationship with J.J.'s sister, Sidney learns that you can become no one fast when J.J. turns on you." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in Grand Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com or call 314-534-1111.

Circus Flora presents its new show, Time Flies, June 1 - 25 under the air-conditioned, red-and-white, big top tent in Grand Center next to Powell Hall. "Imagine that you could travel through time. Would you go back to relive historic events? What if you could alter the course of your own life? Now imagine you had the grace, power, and beuty of an acrobat or aerialist. Circus Flora's all new production uses the timeless art of circus to explore the fabric of time." For more information: circusflora.org.

Broadway Fantasies presents A Toast to the Tonys Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., June 3 - 11. "This is the 28th consecutive year that St. Louis' original song and dance revue featuring talented professionals and amateurs from all walks of life, will perform for fun and for charity. All net proceeds from this Broadway Fantasies production are donated to CORP, County Older Residents Programs. This year's show is directed by Christy Simmons with musical director Joe Dreyer." Performances take place at St. Joseph's Academy, 2307 S Lindbergh Blvd. For more information: broadwayfantasies.com

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents The Trial by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Kafka, opening on Sunday, June 4, and running through June 23. "It's strange enough that Josef K. spontaneously finds himself arrested on his 30th birthday, stranger still that no one seems able to explain why. He embarks on a year-long search for justice, encountering absurd characters and situations at every turn. Based on Franz Kafka's novel, this dark comedy comes to St. Louis after a sold-out run at London's Royal Opera House." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

The Monroe Actors Stage Company presents Wild Oats Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., June 2 - 11, in the Historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Waterloo, Illinois. "Wild Oats is your typical knee-slapping wild West story, complete with the evil landlord coming for the rent, long lost children, bar room sing-a-longs and... Shakespeare?" For more information, visit www.masctheatre.org or call 618-939-7469.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents the comedy/drama The Winter's Tale nightly except for Tuesdays, June 2 - 25. "Written in approximately 1610, The Winter's Tale is considered to be one of a group of Shakespeare's plays defined by their tragic undertones and simultaneous use of straightforward comic situations. Other plays that are grouped in this category include Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well that Ends Well, and Timon of Athens." Beginning at 6:30 the Green Show presents pre-play entertainment a variety of local performers on multiple stages. The play begins at 8 p.m. Performances take place in Shakespeare Glen next to the Art Museum in Forest Park. For more information, visit shakespearefestivalstlouis.org.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents the musical Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., June 2 - 11. Performances take place in the Dunham Hall Theater on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu

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 Calendar.
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.

Italian Passages I: Andiamo!


 

[The first in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio’s  Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

Italian Passages began in Milan with an impressive high-end dinner last night at our hotel, the Rosa Grand , followed the next day by a whirlwind tour of Il Duomo, the famed Gothic cathedral, followed in turn  by a backstage tour of La Scala (including a quick trek through the museum), a viewing of The Last Supper,  and a bus tour of some of the city’s notable neighborhoods.

We had seen the Duomo before, so for us the highlights of the day were a quick glimpse of a rehearsal of the Franco Zeffirelli production of La Boheme at La Scala (which uses a remarkable two-level set) and the Da Vinci masterpiece.  We’ve all seen pictures of it, but viewing the work in its original setting—a modest monastery—emphasized the revolutionary nature of Da Vinci’s painting.  For its time, it is startlingly realistic and filled with the kind of details that are lacking in the works of his contemporaries. You can see the reflections of the robes of the disciples in the metal plates, for example, or catch a glimpse of dinnerware through a glass bottle.

Back at the hotel, we were treated to Prosecco and then a brief but highly varied and entertaining recital by Roberto Plano, who was born in Italy but now teaches in Boston.  Fred Child prefaced the concert by praising the wide range of Mr. Plano’s performance style, and the program that followed fully validated that praise. Opening with a delicate Mozartian Andante by Andrea Luchesi—a once-famous contemporary Mozart who has now become a historical footnote—Mr. Plano the moved on to the Olympian drama of the opening “Invocation” from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, shifting musical gears with the ease of a seasoned Grand Prix driver.  Next was a  limpid Respighi Notturno (from his Six Pieces for Piano from  1904), followed by Black Earth by the Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say, in which the pianist imitates the sound of a Turkish lute by damping individual strings with his fingers.

The concert concluded with a virtuoso run through Ginastera’s Suite de Danzas Criollas and a wildly jazzy selection from Friedrich Gulda’s Play Piano Play. For me, though, one of the high points was Mr. Plano’s demonstration of his  ingenious technical solution to the problem of producing a piano transcription of Tárrega’s moving Recuerdos de La Alhambra.  The guitar original calls for the performer to repeatedly strike a single string with the ring, middle, and index fingers (a tecnique known as tremolo), producing an ethereal combination of pizzicato and legato. Mr. Plano’s arrangement has the pianist repeatedly striking the same key the first time through and then, on the repeat, rapidly alternating notes an octave apart using the thumb and little finger (also known as tremolo). You can see a video demonstration on the  Performance Today Facebook page.

 After which it was off to bed because the next day promised to be (and was) eventful. But that's another story.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Flash: Butterfly conquers curmudgeon

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

Rena Harms as Cio-Cio-San
Photo: Ken Howard
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How good is Opera Theatre's new production of Puccini's 1904 "Japanese Tragedy" Madame Butterfly? It's so good that it allowed me to forget, for nearly all of its two-and-one-half hour length, why I dislike this opera in the first place. Artistically and technically, this is such a superb piece of work that even an old Butterfly curmudgeon like yours truly got swept up in the tragedy.

My issues with the opera itself are mostly about the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on a play by David Belasco. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as the prototypical Ugly American. Arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic, he's Donald Trump in dress whites. On the other hand, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) displays, as written, a degree of naiveté which, despite her youth (she's supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional. As a result, this tragedy about two people who, as OTSL General Director Timothy O'Leary notes in a video blog, "are deeply in love but deeply misunderstand each other" has always struck me as a bit forced.

The wedding scene
Photo: Ken Howard
Still, even I get a bit choked up in the opera's final pages, especially when the production is this good. From the scene in which the abandoned Butterfly prepares to take her own life after a tearful farewell to the son she has conceived by Pinkerton (and which poverty now obliges her to give up to Pinkerton and his American wife) to the final moment when Pinkerton, unable to deny what he has done, collapses in a heap of grief and guilt over Cio-Cio-San's body, it's pathos all the way, folks. This is Puccini, after all. And for me, at least, the emotional pull of his music is what raises Butterfly above the level of sordid melodrama.

And, of course, the moral issues it raises about power and principle are as valid now as they were over a century ago, both on the personal and national levels. It also helps that the English translation by long-time OTSL stalwarts Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham seems to give Pinkerton a bit more depth than others I have seen.

L-R: Michael Brandenburg, Christopher Magiera
OTSL has assembled a fantastic cast. Soprano Rena Harms, who recently played Cio-Cio-San with the English National Opera, turns in a stunner of a performance here, forcefully sung throughout her range and acted with real conviction. She makes the character's tricky mix of vulnerability and backbone completely credible and fully commands the stage at all times.

Tenor Michael Brandenburg is an equally impressive Pinkerton, all smug bravado in the first act, crushing remorse at the end of the second. Like Ms. Harms, he has a truly spectacular voice, especially when combined with hers. Their long love duet at the conclusion of the first act was pure musical ecstasy. Even I was enthralled.

Baritone Christopher Magiera, who has done such fine work with OTSL in the past, once again delivers the goods as the American consul Sharpless, who tries, without success, to get Pinkerton to see the tragedy he will set in motion and to befriend the poverty-stricken Cio-Cio-San. It's a sympathetic portrayal, sung with genuine warmth and power. Ditto mezzo Renée Rapier in the small but important role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's wise and long-suffering maid.

L-R: Rena Harms, Renée Rapier
Even the small roles get big, polished performances. That includes tenor John McVeigh in the mostly comic part of Goro, the marriage broker; baritone Benjamin Taylor as Prince Yamadori, who tries to woo the abandoned Cio-Cio-San; bass-baritone Matthew Stump as The Bonze, who excoriates Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity; and soprano Anush Avetisyan as Pinkerton's American wife Kate.

Both Ms. Avetisyan and Mr. Taylor are members of the company's Gerdine Young Artists program, by the way. The quality of their work here speaks very well for that undertaking.

In a long and very insightful program note, director Robin Guarino goes into considerable depth discussing the issues presented by Madame Butterfly for contemporary audiences. "The obstacle of stereotype is certainly ever-present," she notes, and goes on to discuss the work's "long history of controversy-from issues of sexism, racism, and imperialism in the story to the issue of casting in theater and opera, which both have historically employed problematic practices like yellowface minstrelsy and the playing of Asian characters by white performers in makeup and prosthetics." Her solution, which strikes me as very smart, is to largely ignore ethnicity altogether and concentrate instead on the long-standing OTSL practice of "casting artists based solely on musical, dramatic, and artistic expertise, rather than appearance." That could have been a trap of a different kind, but the high quality of the results speaks for itself.

L-R: Rena Harms,
Michael Brandenburg
Ms. Guarino and her designers have also shown wisdom in not trying to impose some artificial or post-modernist visualization on the opera. Laura Jellinek's sets, which seem to have been created from origami paper, are wonderfully evocative of the kind of artificially Westernized vision of Japan that was no doubt in the minds of Puccini and his librettists, who were unhindered by any knowledge of the real thing. They contrast nicely with Candice Donnelly's scrupulously accurate costumes, which were based on historical research. "Many of the kimonos in our production were ordered directly from Kyoto," notes Ms. Guardino. They look lovely.

Under Cary John Franklin's direction, the OTSL chorus sounded as powerful and precise as always. And conductor Michael Christie led the St. Louis Symphony musicians in a flawlessly played account of Puccini's ravishing score.

What all this means is that if you, like the vast majority of opera lovers, are a fan of Madame Butterfly, you really owe it to yourself to see the Opera Theatre production. It's certainly the best one I have ever seen and a great way to start the new season. It runs through June 24th in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton center in Webster Groves.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of May 22, 2017

The St. Louis Chamber Chorus
The St. Louis Chamber Chorus presents Concert Six: Return and Rediscovery on Sunday, May 28, at 3 p.m. "Just as Odysseus finds his way back to his beloved Penelope, so too we seek to reclaim our past, as reconstructed works by Sheppard, Fattorini and Stravinsky attest. Their sacred texts compare with ancient poems set by Ned Rorem and Matyas Seiber, and a new Homeric Hymn commissioned from Judith Bingham." The concert takes place at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 12345 Manchester Road in Des Peres.For more information: www.chamberchorus.org.

The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra presents the winners of the Annual Concerto Competition performing two of Tchaikovsky's most beloved concerti, a U.S. premiere of a work by a young composer and the imaginative masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition on Friday, May 26, at 8 p.m. The performance takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Top Notch Violins presents The Perseid String Quartet in a concert of music by Haydn and Ravel on Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m.. “Written in 1903 when the composer was on 27 years old, Ravel's first and only string quartet has earned a special fondness among chamber music lovers. Full of youthful energy, Ravel uses a rainbow of tone colors to evoke a wide variety of moods. This massive quartet shows the influence of his teacher (and dedicatee) Gabriel Faure, tonal reminiscences of the Javanese Gamelan orchestra he encountered at the Paris Exposition, and vigorous, driving rhythms which bring the piece to a thrilling conclusion. Rounding out the program is Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat Major, “The Joke”.” Top Notch Violins is at 3109 Sutton in Maplewood. For more information: perseidstringquartet.com.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 22, 2017

4000 Miles
Photo: Eric Woolsey
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New Jewish Theater presents 4000 Miles through May 28. "After suffering a major loss while on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo seeks solace from his feisty 91-year-old political activist grandmother Vera in her West Village apartment. Her solitary existence is entirely shaken when Leo appears at the door in the middle of the night assuring her that he won't stay long. Leo is in crisis, grieving deeply for his best friend and biking partner, Micah. While Leo seeks solace in his grandmother, Vera finds companionship in another person for the first time since the loss of her husband, Joe. 4000 Miles is a compassionate, intimate, and funny play that examines the love of the family we can choose, the family we can't, and the healing power of trust as these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately reach each other. We discover how two outsiders find their way in today's world." 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.

The Black Rep presents a revival production of their original musical revue Crossin' Over May 24 - June 18. "From roots in Africa - from village to slave ship - through the middle passage - from auction block to plantation fields and up to the modern Civil Rights movement, CROSSIN' OVER tells its tale with traditional West African drumming, hymns, psalms and Gospel standards such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Precious Lord,” and “We Shall Overcome,” as well as contemporary gospel music today." Performances take place in the Emerson Performance Space on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University in midtown. For more information: theblackrep.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Death of a Blackheart through July 29. "Welcome aboard the largest, (and safest), cruise liner ever to sail the low seas. That's right. Welcome aboard the Gigantic! But wait! What do I hear? "Argggghhhhhhh!" Avast ye mateys and get yer gizzard ready to be robbed by the most famous pirate ever to pillage a maiden! Of course, we're talkin' Captain Jack Blackheart! He's the pirate that has cheated more people, emptied more pockets and pillaged more ladies than any politician. Gee. I hope no one kills him off. You'll meet lots of fun characters at this show. In fact audience members will get to play lots of fun characters in this show because it's "chock full" of "Fair Maidens", "Lost Boys", "Rival Pirates", and more. One thing is for sure. If you've ever wanted to stand up and shout out Arggggghhhh!...then "Death of a Blackheart" is the show for you!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents First Impressions Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through May 27. "No matter where you are when the words of Jane Austen touch your heart you never forget why. SATE's original stage adaptation of Austen's beloved Pride and Prejudice incorporates recolections of a variety of women's and men's first impressions upon reading the novel. From Pakistan to Paris to St. Louis, 200 years after it was penned, this story connects us." Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents the world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie, based on the John Steinbeck novel, opening on Saturday, May 27, and running through June 25. "When the Dust Bowl sweeps across Oklahoma, the Joad family sets out for a new life in California. But the promised land isn't all it seems. In the face of countless obstacles, can the American dream survive? Both heartbreaking and uplifting, this acclaimed opera vividly captures all the beauty of John Steinbeck's best-selling novel." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

Alpha Players present the classic comedy Harvey through May 28. Performances take place at The Florissant Civic Center Theater, Parker Rd. at Waterford Dr. in Florissant, MO. For more information: alphaplayers.org, call 314-921-5678.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents Honor Student by Michael Erickson, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through May 28. "A student in a college creative writing class writes a story about a student, much like himself, who brings a gun to class and begins shooting his classmates and instructor, much like the actual people in the class. Fearful that the story is a blueprint for a real shooting, the instructor alerts university officials and tries to have the student removed from her class. But the student fights back. He argues she is trying to censor his freedom of speech, and that she is biased against his gender and race. The instructor is soon on the defensive. Her career and her reputation are on the line. Has she overreacted? Or is there something deeper, more dangerous lurking here?" Performances take place at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Midtown. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

A Human Being Died That Night
Photo: ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of A Human Being Died That Night Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 28. "During the 1990s, psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed Eugene de Kock, commanding officer of the South African government's death squad stationed at Vlakplaas--a man who had ordered and carried out the torture and murder of dozens of anti-apartheid activists, earning the nickname 'Prime Evil.' De Kock was serving a 212-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. Nicholas Wright takes us inside the prison where these interviews were conducted for a moving study of remorse, a timely call for truth and accountability, and a remarkable exploration of the power of forgiveness. " Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.org.

Madame Butterfly
Photo: Ken Howard
Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Puccini's Madame Butterfly through June 24. "A Japanese geisha. An American soldier. Their attraction is immediate, but their love story can't last. When their union results in a child, Cio-Cio-San is forced to do whatever it takes to protect her son's future. Set to breathtaking music, this timeless opera pays powerful, wrenching tribute to a mother's love." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Old Opry through July 30. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.


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 Calendar.
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.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of May 19, 2017

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:

Chuck Lavazzi
The Cabaret Project and The Curtain Call Lounge at the Fox present the fifth anniversary edition of the monthly Broadway Open Mic Night on Thursday, May 18, from 8 to 11 p.m. Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by the pianist and music director Carol Schmidt. Your host is KDHX Senior Performing Arts Critic and Cabaret Project board member 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. The Curtain Call Lounge is next door to the Fabulous Fox in Grand Center. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

My take: What can I say? It's our fifth birthday party. Come one down and share a song or just enjoy the entertainment.


The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents John Patrick Shanley's drama Doubt Fridays through Sundays through May 21. "Father Flynn enjoys a secure appointment and popularity in the community until Sister James suspects him of carrying on an improper relationship with the school's first African-American student. Sister Aloysius, the school's authoritarian principal, sets out to remove Flynn. Gender politics, race relations and the role of the church, questions about personal responsibility, doubt, right and wrong are all brought to bear here. So much in Doubt is about what is left unsaid and continually running beneath the surface." Performances take place in the Guild theatre at Newport and Summit in Webster Groves, MO. For more information: theatreguildwg.org or call 314-962-0876.

My take: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Shanley's play is a masterful examination of the dangers of both moral certainty and ethical blindness—issues which are once again part of the national dialogue, thanks to an excess of both qualities in the current administration. Jane Abling, who has the pivotal role of Sister Aloysius, is an actress I've known for many years both professionally and personally. She's just about ideal for this part.


A Human Being Died that Night
Photo: ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of A Human Being Died That Night Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 28. "During the 1990s, psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed Eugene de Kock, commanding officer of the South African government's death squad stationed at Vlakplaas--a man who had ordered and carried out the torture and murder of dozens of anti-apartheid activists, earning the nickname 'Prime Evil.' De Kock was serving a 212-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. Nicholas Wright takes us inside the prison where these interviews were conducted for a moving study of remorse, a timely call for truth and accountability, and a remarkable exploration of the power of forgiveness. " Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.org.

My take: As Judy Newmark writes in her review, this script is not without its issues, but the ideas it deals with are important and the performances by its two-person cast are outstanding. LIght entertainment it ain't, but it deserves our attention.


Rent
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Fox Theatre presents the 20th anniversary tour of the rock musical Rent Friday through Sunday, May 19 - 21 "In 1996, an original rock musical by a little-known composer opened on Broadway… and forever changed the landscape of American theatre. Two decades later, Jonathan Larson's RENT continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world. And now, this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning masterpiece returns to the stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary touring production. A re-imagining of Puccini's La Bohème, RENT follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters-love." The Fox in at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

My take: I've always been a fan of this musical. Jonathan Larson's score is inventive and stylistically eclectic and his lyrics are artful and intelligent. What strikes me about Rent is how much this modern and supposedly revolutionary show reminds me of another one to which those same adjectives were applied back in 1968: Hair, the show that defined the genre of rock musical. Like Hair, Rent takes jabs at the older generation - mine - and thumbs it's nose at the American status quo from the bottom of the economic pyramid. Unlike Hair, though, it's less overtly political, covers a wider emotional spectrum, and may actually be a better piece of theatre.


Held Over:

Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis?
Photo: Peter Wochniak
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis presents Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis? by Tennessee Williams running through May 21. "Local favorite Jef Awada directs the first professional production in fifty years of this intimate, funny, poignant play." Performances take place at Stockton House, 3508 Samuel Shepherd Drive in midtown. For more information: twstl.org.

My take: Here's another Williams oddity that's getting an innovative and much-praised presentation. Performed in Stockton House, a mansion just east of Powell Hall built in 1890 and now on the National Register of Historic Places (you've undoubtedly noticed it if you're a regular at the St. Louis Symphony), the production has the audience follow the actors through the rooms of the house. With cross-gender casting, dancing, and live music, this show "feels like the sort of nonrealistic fantasy Williams might have enjoyed himself," according to Judy Newmark at Stltoday.com.. As I noted in my own review for OnSTL, it's inscrutable fun and well worth a visit.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of May 15, 2017

4000 Miles
Photo: Eric Woolsey
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New Jewish Theater presents 4000 Miles through May 28. "After suffering a major loss while on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo seeks solace from his feisty 91-year-old political activist grandmother Vera in her West Village apartment. Her solitary existence is entirely shaken when Leo appears at the door in the middle of the night assuring her that he won't stay long. Leo is in crisis, grieving deeply for his best friend and biking partner, Micah. While Leo seeks solace in his grandmother, Vera finds companionship in another person for the first time since the loss of her husband, Joe. 4000 Miles is a compassionate, intimate, and funny play that examines the love of the family we can choose, the family we can't, and the healing power of trust as these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately reach each other. We discover how two outsiders find their way in today's world." 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.

Chuck Lavazzi
The Cabaret Project and The Curtain Call Lounge at the Fox present the fifth anniversary edition of the monthly Broadway Open Mic Night on Thursday, May 18, from 8 to 11 p.m. Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by the pianist and music director Carol Schmidt. Your host is KDHX Senior Performing Arts Critic and Cabaret Project board member 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. The Curtain Call Lounge is next door to the Fabulous Fox in Grand Center. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Death of a Blackheart through July 29. "Welcome aboard the largest, (and safest), cruise liner ever to sail the low seas. That's right. Welcome aboard the Gigantic! But wait! What do I hear? "Argggghhhhhhh!" Avast ye mateys and get yer gizzard ready to be robbed by the most famous pirate ever to pillage a maiden! Of course, we're talkin' Captain Jack Blackheart! He's the pirate that has cheated more people, emptied more pockets and pillaged more ladies than any politician. Gee. I hope no one kills him off. You'll meet lots of fun characters at this show. In fact audience members will get to play lots of fun characters in this show because it's "chock full" of "Fair Maidens", "Lost Boys", "Rival Pirates", and more. One thing is for sure. If you've ever wanted to stand up and shout out Arggggghhhh!...then "Death of a Blackheart" is the show for you!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents John Patrick Shanley's drama Doubt Fridays through Sundays through May 21. "Father Flynn enjoys a secure appointment and popularity in the community until Sister James suspects him of carrying on an improper relationship with the school's first African-American student. Sister Aloysius, the school's authoritarian principal, sets out to remove Flynn. Gender politics, race relations and the role of the church, questions about personal responsibility, doubt, right and wrong are all brought to bear here. So much in Doubt is about what is left unsaid and continually running beneath the surface." Performances take place in the Guild theatre at Newport and Summit in Webster Groves, MO. For more information: theatreguildwg.org or call 314-962-0876.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents An Evening of One-Act Plays on Monday, May 15, at 6:30 p.m. "This special event will consist of plays 10 to 15 minutes long on a variety of themes. We will be starting at 6:30, so come early if you want to order food or drinks at the bar. As usual we will be upstairs." The event takes place at Big Daddy's, 1000 Sindey in Soulard. For more information: www.stlwritersgroup.com.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents First Impressions Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., May 17 - 27. "No matter where you are when the words of Jane Austen touch your heart you never forget why. SATE's original stage adaptation of Austen's beloved Pride and Prejudice incorporates recolections of a variety of women's and men's first impressions upon reading the novel. From Pakistan to Paris to St. Louis, 200 years after it was penned, this story connects us." Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents Happy 50ish Thursday through Sunday, May 18 - 21. " It's a surprise party and you're invited - to Happy 50ish, the musical comedy that proves you haven't lived until you've hit middle-age. Meet baby boomer Bob - he's facing the Big Five-Oh with fear, beer, and a letter from the AARP. Though his midlife crisis killing him, he's finding laughter is the best medicine… next to that little blue pill!" The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

Alpha Players present the classic comedy Harvey May 19 - 28. Performances take place at The Florissant Civic Center Theater, Parker Rd. at Waterford Dr. in Florissant, MO. For more information: alphaplayers.org, call 314-921-5678.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents Honor Student by Michael Erickson, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m., May 19 - 28. "A student in a college creative writing class writes a story about a student, much like himself, who brings a gun to class and begins shooting his classmates and instructor, much like the actual people in the class. Fearful that the story is a blueprint for a real shooting, the instructor alerts university officials and tries to have the student removed from her class. But the student fights back. He argues she is trying to censor his freedom of speech, and that she is biased against his gender and race. The instructor is soon on the defensive. Her career and her reputation are on the line. Has she overreacted? Or is there something deeper, more dangerous lurking here?" Performances take place at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Midtown. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

A Human Being Died that Night
Photo: ProPhotoSTL
Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of A Human Being Died That Night Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 28. "During the 1990s, psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed Eugene de Kock, commanding officer of the South African government's death squad stationed at Vlakplaas--a man who had ordered and carried out the torture and murder of dozens of anti-apartheid activists, earning the nickname 'Prime Evil.' De Kock was serving a 212-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. Nicholas Wright takes us inside the prison where these interviews were conducted for a moving study of remorse, a timely call for truth and accountability, and a remarkable exploration of the power of forgiveness. " Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.org.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Puccini's Madame Butterfly opening on Saturday, May 20, and running through June 24. "A Japanese geisha. An American soldier. Their attraction is immediate, but their love story can't last. When their union results in a child, Cio-Cio-San is forced to do whatever it takes to protect her son's future. Set to breathtaking music, this timeless opera pays powerful, wrenching tribute to a mother's love." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center at 135 Edgar Road on the Webster University campus. All performances are sung in English with projected English text. For more information: experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.

Alton Little Theater presents the musical Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 21. "One of the most beautiful story-telling musicals of all time. Miguel de Cervantes, aging and an utter failure as playwright, poet and tax collector, has been thrown into a dungeon in Seville to await trial by the inquisition for an offense against the church. There he is dragged before a kangaroo court of his fellow prisoners, who plan to confiscate his few possessions - including the uncompleted manuscript of a novel, Don Quixote. A timeless and inspirational tale for all those who have faith and believe that love and friendship can right the world." Performances take place at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Old Opry through July 30. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

Lion's Paw Theatre Company presents Plays on the Menu, a reading of the plays Asteroid Belt by Lauren Feldman, Lady of Larkspur Lotion by Tennessee Williams, and Signs of Life by Fred Stoppel on Tuesday, May 16, at noon at The Hearth Room at The Hawken House, 1155 South Rock Hill Road. The readings include lunch. For more information: lionspawtheatre.org.

Lion's Paw Theatre Company presents Plays on the Menu, a reading of the plays Asteroid Belt by Lauren Feldman, Lady of Larkspur Lotion by Tennessee Williams, and Signs of Life by Fred Stoppel on Wednesday, April 19, at noon at St. Louis Artists' Guild, 12 North Jackson in Clayton. The readings include lunch. For more information: lionspawtheatre.org.

Rent
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Fox Theatre presents the 20th anniversary tour of the rock musical Rent Friday through Sunday, May 19 - 21 "In 1996, an original rock musical by a little-known composer opened on Broadway… and forever changed the landscape of American theatre. Two decades later, Jonathan Larson's RENT continues to speak loudly and defiantly to audiences across generations and all over the world. And now, this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning masterpiece returns to the stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary touring production. A re-imagining of Puccini's La Bohème, RENT follows an unforgettable year in the lives of seven artists struggling to follow their dreams without selling out. With its inspiring message of joy and hope in the face of fear, this timeless celebration of friendship and creativity reminds us to measure our lives with the only thing that truly matters-love." The Fox in at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis presents Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis? by Tennessee Williams running through May 21. "Local favorite Jef Awada directs the first professional production in fifty years of this intimate, funny, poignant play." Performances take place at Stockton House, 3508 Samuel Shepherd Drive in midtown. For more information: twstl.org.

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 Calendar.
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.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of May 15, 2017

The Bach Society of St. Louis presents Coffee With Bach on Wednesday, May 17, at 10 a.m. "Enjoy coffee and doughnuts before a morning presentation of The Coffee Cantata, Bach's mini-opera, and other favorite arias and duets from classical and musical theatre repertoire." The performance takes place at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Washington in Grand Center. For more information: bachsociety.org.

The Bach Society at St. Stanislaus Church
The Bach Society of St. Louis presents Bach's Christmas Oratorio on Sunday, May 21, at 1:30 p.m. “As the grand finale to our Bach Festival 2017, the Chorus and Orchestra present Bach's rarely heard Christmas Oratorio, a collection of six cantatas for the feast days of the Christmas season. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki, one of today's leading Baroque soloists, will be joined by Australian contralto Eleanor Greenwood, tenor Kyle Stegall, and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck. Concert is preceded by a FREE lecture by Bach Specialist, David Gordon, entitled Christmas in Leipzig. The six magnificent cantatas stretch the limits of the performers and create a magical and unforgettable musical landscape. In a pre-concert talk, David Gordon describes the work's fascinating origins, and its first performance in 1734.” The performance takes place at First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 East Adams Ave. For more information: www.bachsociety.org.

The St. Louis Academy for Guitar presents guitarist Tyler Rhodes, along with the Bella Corda chamber ensemble, on Friday, May 20 at 7:15 p.m. The free concert takes place at St. Thomas Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, 3980 S. Lindbergh Blvd. in Sappington, MO. For more information: stlguitar.com.

The St. Louis Civic Orchestra collaborates with The Brothers Lazaroff rock band for a blending of symphonic and popular music on Thursday, May 18 at 6:30 p.m. The groups will play of The Brothers Lazaroff compositions, fully orchestrated for symphony by Sam Golden, and each group will also perform its own set as well. The free performance takes place at the Chesterfield Amphitheater, 631 Veteran's Place Dr. in Chesterfield, MO. For more information: stlco.org.

The St. Louis Wind Symphony presents a program of music by Spears, Grainger, Reed, Persichetti, Holst and Vaughan Williams, on Sunday, May 21, at 3 PM. The performance takes place at Christ Church Cathedral downtown. For more information: stlwindsym.org

Review: Hallucinatory late Tennessee Williams gets a sterling production at the Tennessee Williams Festival

L-R: Kelley Weber, Julie Layton, Molly McCaskill
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Through May 21st, the Tennessee Williams Festival is presenting Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?, a wildly eccentric 1969 mélange of the playwright's trademark poetic realism, loopy surrealism, and hokey comedy. Written at a time when the playwright's health and fortunes were on the wane, the play looks like it would be leaden on a conventional stage, but in the highly unconventional setting of the 1890 Stockton House mansion just across the street from Powell Hall it's mostly great fun, inscrutable though it may be.

The story, such as it is, revolves around a familiar Williams trope: the woman waiting in vain for the return of her lover (the titular Mr. Merriweather) who may or may not be real. Louise longs for Mr. Merriweather to call or for his car to appear, while trying to deal with the sexual awakening of her daughter Gloria and the frequent visits of her chatty neighbor Nora and Nora's obsessions with the spirit world and lepers. Meanwhile, a collection of odd characters wanders in and out, including the ghosts of Van Gogh and Rimbaud and a wealthy dowager who has had her face lifted so many times that she now has to encase herself in wax.

Have I mentioned that Williams was having serious alcohol and drug issues at this point in his life?

So, yes, it's challenging and oddly disjointed material, but under Jef Awada's creative direction it somehow all comes together to make a kind of odd, non-linear sense. Running around 90 minutes in one continuous act, the action of the play moves back and forth among the three downstairs rooms and hallway of the mansion, with the actors leading the audience from one scene to the next often underscored by live banjo music.

One of the rooms in Stockton House
Much credit is due to the outstanding performances by the ensemble cast, especially Julie Layton as the increasingly distraught Louise and Molly McCaskill as Gloria, slowly awakening to her womanliness. Kelley Weber's Nora is a comic gem right up to the final scene, when her more tender side is revealed. Webster Conservatory student Jacob Fleiker makes a strong Festival debut as the Romantically Handsome Youth.

All the other roles are played by the versatile ensemble of Terry Meaddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey. They're often cast against physical gender, a tactic that might-but generally doesn't-come across as a simple gimmick. In one especially effective scene they play the Eumenides-the ancient Greek deities of vengeance-as a trio of Vaudeville Irish comics, knitting a web to ensnare the fates of the mortal characters. It's completely ridiculous and highly entertaining.

Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? is not a play you're likely to see very often, and certainly not in an innovative and polished production like this one, so it's well worth your time. Come early so you can walk around the first floor of Stockton House and admire the eclectic collection of furniture and paintings. The interior of the restored mansion is, in many ways, a key member of the cast, after all. Information on this and other Williams Festival events is available at the festival web site.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of May 12, 2017

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:

Born Yesterday
Clayton Community Theatre presents the comedy Born Yesterday Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., May 11 - 14. "In Garson Kanin's pointed and hilarious Born Yesterday, shady scrap metal king Harry Brock heads to Washington, D.C., determined to take the town by storm and buy his way to a business-friendly Amendment. Harry's only liability is the socially inappropriate behaviour and outrageously ignorant remarks of his showgirl lady friend, Billie Dawn, a beautiful woman with a deceptively simple facade. Harry hires the upright, idealistic newspaper man, Paul Verrall, to educate Billie. As Billie and Paul tiptoe towards a romance, and Billie absorbs Paul's knowledge and ideals, she begins to question the ways Harry has been using her." Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre. For more information, call 314-721-9228 or visit placeseveryone.org.

My take: This satirical comedy about a bully billionaire who expects to grab power in our nation's capital has suddenly become relevant again, and Clayton Community Theatre appears to be dong a good job with it. "[D]irector Sam Hack has created a resounding success," writes Steve Callahan at KDHX, calling the show "a happy evening of most solidly gratifying theatre...The casting of this production is sublime!"


Small Craft Warnings
Photo: Ride Hamilton
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis presents Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams opening through May 14. "An expansion of Tennessee Williams's earlier one-act play, Confessional, Small Craft Warnings is a kaleidoscopic pastiche of monologues delivered in a spotlight by each of the characters as the action around them becomes frozen and muted. Through them they reveal their loneliness and the emptiness of their existence." Performances take place at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Midtown. For more information: twstl.org.

My take: This late play is not necessarily the strongest of Willims's works, often coming across as more of a series of monologues than a fully realized play, but the Williams festival is doing well by it, with many notable local actors in the cast. "These may not be people we care about," observes Ann Lemmons Pollack on her blog, "but Williams manages to make us curious about them, which is about as far as most of us can go." Judy Newmark also has plenty of praise for the cast at Stltoday.com.


Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis?
Photo: Peter Wochniak
The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis presents Will Mr. Merriweather Return From Memphis? by Tennessee Williams running through May 21. "Local favorite Jef Awada directs the first professional production in fifty years of this intimate, funny, poignant play." Performances take place at Stockton House, 3508 Samuel Shepherd Drive in midtown. For more information: twstl.org.

My take: Here's another Williams oddity that's getting an innovative and much-praised presentation. Performed in Stockton House, a mansion just east of Powell Hall built in 1890 and now on the National Register of Historic Places (you've undoubtedly noticed it if you're a regular at the St. Louis Symphony), the production has the audience follow the actors through the rooms of the house. With cross-gender casting, dancing, and live music, this show "feels like the sort of nonrealistic fantasy Williams might have enjoyed himself," according to Judy Newmark at Stltoday.com.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Review: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus sail away from the 16/17 season with a dramatic "Flying Dutchman"

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

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David Robertson
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, like most major American orchestras, can generally be counted upon to deliver a blockbuster season finale. Last year it was Holst's popular suite The Planets paired with works by Berg and Vaughan Williams. This year (May 4th and 6th, 2017), it was another of the orchestra's forays into the world of opera: a complete concert performance of Wagner's 1843 opera Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). And it was, as they used to say in Variety, boffo.

Written when the composer and his first wife were literally starving in Paris, The Flying Dutchman would prove to be not only Wagner's first big success but also the first opera for which he would write both the music and the libretto--a major step on the path that would eventually lead to the Ring cycle. "From here," wrote the composer in an 1851 essay, "begins my career as poet, and my farewell to the mere concoctor of opera-texts."

Soprano Marjorie Owens
Photo: Simon Pauly
In fact, almost everything in The Flying Dutchman presages the route Wagner would take in his subsequent operas. There are individual themes (leitmotifs) for the major characters, a massive orchestra with a beefed-up brass section, and a libretto that deals with the idea of salvation through the self-sacrificing love of a virtuous woman--a theme Wager found fascinating. When Senta leaps to a watery death at the end of the opera, it's hard not to see it as a precursor to Brünnhilde's more elaborate fiery demise at the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. At least Senta doesn't take all of Valhalla with her.

It also has one of the best opera overtures ever written, vividly conjuring up images of storm tossed seas and ghostly ships--even if it is hard to listen to it without thinking of a certain Warner Brothers cartoon.

Add in the Gothic elements of the ghostly ship with its undead crew, and you have the makings of a potent evening of music drama. Which is exactly what we got Thursday night, thanks to strong performances by the orchestra, chorus, and soloists. That's because Maestro David Robertson, as he did with the SLSO's Aida two years ago, has once again assembled a cast of outstanding singers who are also capable actors.

Bass-baritone Alan Held
Soprano Marjorie Owens, who was so striking in her local debut last year in Ariadne on Naxos at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, impresses once again as Senta, whose dramatic sacrifice at the opera's close saves the Dutchman from his eternally cursed around-the-world cruise. The Act II ballad in which she tells the tale of how the Dutchman is cursed to sail the world forever until redeemed by love is an ingenious conceit on Wagner's part in that it serves both as exposition and insight into Senta's obsession with someone she has only seen in a painting. Ms. Owens infused it with real longing and delivered it flawlessly, building effortlessly to a powerful vocal climax.

Bass-baritone Alan Held, who got such great reviews in the SLSO's Peter Grimes in 2013, cut an imposing figure as The Dutchman -- menacing, stentorian, and tormented. He commanded the stage with his first aria, "Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr" (The time is up, and once again seven years have elapsed) and remained a magnetic figure throughout. A seasoned Wagnerian, his big, solid voice rode easily over the composer's massive orchestra.

Bass Raymond Aceto
Bass Raymond Aceto found the comic side of Senta's venial father Deland without overdoing it and, like Mr. Held, had a voice the projected strongly throughout the houses. Tenor Rodrick Dixon showed real passion as Senta's unfairly scorned lover, Erik, and did it with a clarion-clear voice. His cavatina "Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen" (Won't you remember the day you called me to you?) in the third act was a thing of beauty.

Tenor Paul Appleby shone in the small but important comic role of the Steersman. He thoroughly captivated the audience with his big Act I aria "Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer" (With tempest and storm on distant seas), in which his character tries (unsuccessfully) to keep himself awake during his watch by singing a cheerful song about the sweetheart who waits for him on shore. Soprano Joy Boland rounded out this excellent cast as Senta's nurse Mary.

Teor Paul Appleby
Photo: France Marshall
Under Mr. Robertson's skilled baton, the orchestra gave a masterful account of the big, complex score, with expert playing by every section. Mr. Robertson brought out all of Wanger's drama and paced the performance in a way that kept the tension at just the right level while still allowing the quieter moments their due.

Amy Kaiser's chorus performed heroically as well. The women's chorus sang the Act II spinning song with giddy joy, while the men's chorus threw themselves into the Act III party scene, complete with foot-stomping choreography. The SLSO chorus never fails to impress.

Originally produced for the Sydney Symphony's Dutchman in 2013, S. Katy Tucker's evocative animations--projected, appropriately, on large sails suspended above the orchestra--added to the theatricality of the evening, reflecting the changing moods of the music. Her close-ups of Mr. Held's face were especially striking. I was also very taken with the way in which her lighting design changed the color of the stage and the house to emphasize the dramatic action. This was most apparent at the very end, when Senta's sacrifice dispelled the Dutchman's curse and the entire hall was bathed in blue light as Wagner's music came to a tranquil close. It was a wonderfully effective moment.

Tenor Rodrick Dixon
Photo: Dan Demetriad
Mr. Robertson made inventive use of the Powell Hall space as well, with offstage brass and, in the dramatic final scene, the choristers portraying the Dutchman's ghostly and ghastly crew singing from house left with megaphones to give their voices an eerie hollow sound. My only real issue with the evening was the forest of microphones on stage. They sometimes obscured the soloists, who sang from a raised platform behind the chorus at the very back of the stage. Still, their voices projected from there quite effectively.

The weekend's concerts opened with an emotional moment that had nothing to do with The Flying Dutchman but everything to do with the great work the orchestra has done over the years, as Mr. Robertson bade a fond public farewell to retiring percussionist John Kasica, who has been with the band since 1971. He has the distinction of having served under five different SLSO music directors (Walter Susskind, Jerzy Semkow, Leonard Slatkin, and Hans Vonk, in addition to Mr. Robertson) and, as his official bio notes, has the unique distinction of having had more solo appearances with major U.S. orchestras than any other percussionist in U.S. history. He'll be missed, but he got a great send-off.

This past weekend's excellent Flying Dutchman closed the formal SLSO concert season, but special off-season events continue through June 23.