Thursday, December 05, 2019

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of December 5th, 2019

There's a lot going on this weekend, including some cabaret shows that are well worth your attention.

New This Week:

The International Brotherhood of Magicians presents their annual Active Military, Veterans and First Responders Tribute Magical Holiday Show on Sunday, December 8, at 3 pm. "The Active Military, Veterans and First Responders Tribute Magical Holiday Show will be a fantastic magic show for the whole family.  Both children and adults will embark on an unforgettable journey of comedy and magic with a special tribute for all those who help keep America free!  You will enjoy the magic of an impressive list of Professional Magicians: Christian Misner, Terry Richison, Steve Zuehlke and more.  Close up magic will be performed in the lobby prior to the show by several of the best close up magicians in St Louis."  The show will be held at the Kirkwood Community Center Theatre, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. For more information: ibmring1.com.

My take: I love a good magic show, and this one features a number of local professionals. First responders, active military, and veterans get in free, and you won't want to miss the close up magic in the lobby; personally, it's my favorite kind since the apparently impossible happens right under your nose.


Dean Christopher
The Blue Strawberry presents Dean Christopher: A Classic-Vegas, Rat-Pack Christmas on Friday, December 6 and 13, at 8 pm. "One of the greatest eras in the history of entertainment, Classic Vegas meets the holiday season head-on. The style, the entertainers, all brought to life and rolled up into your favorite holiday tunes by award winning actor, singer, impressionist, Dean Christopher and his band. A holiday show you soon won't forget. Not to mention a surefire way to get into the holiday spirit." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Debby Lennon
The Blue Strawberry presents Debby Lennon's Holiday Show on Thursday, December 5, at 8 pm. "Debby Lennon's Holiday Show is filled with the charm and spirit of the most wonderful time of the year. A blend of holiday sass and spice make Debby's Christmas Cabaret a little bit Naughty but oh, so nice! Featuring traditional carols from Christmas past, a touch of fun-filled showstoppers from musical theater Christmas present, and peppermint twists and turns of classic tunes launching you into a very bright and jazzy Christmas future." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: Here are a couple of back-to-back holiday shows that look like great fun. The effervescent Debby Lennon will be familiar to local audiences from her many stage appearances, including a stunning portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir two years ago. Mr. Christopher is also be familiar from his stage work here, including multiple appearances at the Muny. I will be in the audience for both of them, rest assured.

Craig Pomranz
The Kranzberg Arts Center presents St. Louis' own Craig Pomranz in The Power of Song on Friday, December 6, and 7 and 9 pm. "International song stylist, Craig offers jazz/saloon singing at its best. You'll hear classic standards, reinterpreted pop songs and brand-new material, delivered with his own unique talent and compelling vocal style. He carries the tradition of Sinatra, Bennett, Streisand, Wilson and Chet Baker with a contemporary twist." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: brownpapertickets.com

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.


Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents That High Lonesome Sound Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, December 3-8. "Bluegrass has a long and winding history, from Scottish ballads to African-American work songs, from Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In a lively theatrical album of scenes created for the Acting Apprentice Company of the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, four writers respond with playfulness and poignancy to the signature sounds, inherited stories, and cultural impact of this very American--and very Kentucky--music tradition." Performances take place in the Metcalf Theater on the campus in Edwardsvile, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu.

My take: While I haven't seen this production of That High Lonesome Sound, I was very taken with the play when I saw it at the Humana Festival in 2015, so I'm recommending this show strictly on the strength of the material. The show's title, according to Hannah Rae Montgomery's essay in the original Humana program, "comes from a phrase commonly used to describe the wistful tenor twang of many bluegrass singers." I'd say it also describes the way this music conjures up the remote woods and mountains where bluegrass originated, and where the membrane separating the worlds of the living and the dead seems more permeable. Ghosts put in regular appearances in traditional music, and at least three of these plays contain elements of the supernatural. They're a varied and beautifully written collection of comedy and drama. Most involve some live music, and all of them use music as a dramatic element.


Wicked
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Wicked opening on Wednesday, December 4, at 7:30 pm and running through December 29. "So much happened before Dorothy dropped in. WICKED, the Broadway sensation, looks at what happened in the Land of Oz…but from a different angle. Long before Dorothy arrives, there is another young woman, born with emerald-green skin-smart, fiery, misunderstood, and possessing an extraordinary talent. When she meets a bubbly blonde who is exceptionally popular, their initial rivalry turns into the unlikeliest of friendships…until the world decides to call one “good,” and the other one “wicked.”" The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

My take: I haven't seen this particular tour, but in my review of the 2005 tour I noted that composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and book author Winnie Holtzman have done a remarkable job of simplifying and reducing the story of Gregory McGuire's original novel while still remaining true to the original characters and their relationships. The score is one of Schwartz's best, and that's saying something.


Held Over:

It's a Wonderful Life
Photo: Jennifer Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents It's a Wonderful Life, based on the classic film, through December 15. "The beloved American holiday classic leaps to life on stage in a delightful, heartwarming new adaptation. John Wolbers' "It's a Wonderful Life" has a clever twist: it's staged as a play within a play, more specifically a radio play within a play. On Christmas Eve 1949, KMTC Radio St. Louis is prepared to perform a live radio broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life," when unexpected events transform the station's staff into the radio play's actors. Complete with microphones, live sound effects by a Foley artist, 1940s period costumes, and a diverse company of characters, the play tells the story of George Bailey and his discovery of the life-affirming message that one life can change the whole fabric of a community. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center.. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: Well, it wouldn't be the holidays without someone doing a stage version of this beloved movie. Metro's approach has the advantage of treating it as the basis for a story that's less about the original film and more about the intrepid group of employees of a fictional radio station doing their best to work together to bring it to life over the air. "Metro Theater Company's It's a Wonderful Life brings an hour or so of a captivating and classy good time to an appreciative audience, a terrific start to the holiday season," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News. "Don't forget to clap on cue."

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Symphony Preview: Handel's party mix

After a couple of weeks of "big band" music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra downsizes this weekend (December 6-8) as guest conductor Richard Egarr leads the band in a program titled "Baroque Fireworks." Think of it as sherbet after a big meal.

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

G.F. Handel
"Baroque Fireworks" is an appropriate name for more reasons than one. To begin with, one of the works you'll hear was actually written to accompany a massive display of the real thing: Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks." Commissioned by Britain's King George II in 1749 to celebrate the end of the War of Austrian Succession--a typically pointless series of conflicts that ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle the previous year--the music was intended to accompany a massive public fireworks display scheduled for April 27th.

How massive? "A 400-foot wooden pavilion was constructed for the occasion in London's Green Park," writes Kali Blevins at WDAV's "Of Note" blog. "George's Comptroller of his Majesty's Fireworks for War as for Triumph -- I kid you not -- organized a fireworks display involving nearly 10,000 rockets and 101 cannons."

That much firepower required some very loud music, and (as Ms. Blevins notes) Handel was reportedly not happy when he was told that the music should be "heavy on the military instruments (i.e. brass, woodwinds, and percussion), and 'no fiddles.'" Handel would later add strings for the version we'll hear this weekend, but at its premiere the "Royal Fireworks" music was played by a band of 54 wind instruments (trumpets, horns, bassoons, and oboes) plus a battery of kettledrums and side (snare) drums.

That premiere was not a huge success. As described in 2016 program notes for the Utah Symphony, "the royal fireworks turned into a royal fiasco, owing in part to a convergence of bad planning and bad weather."
Display areas were poorly lit, the fireworks were incomplete in their spectacle, and a stage pavilion burned down in the middle of it all. The sense of disaster ruining a moment of triumph was so strong that accounts of the debacle noted 'only two persons were killed' in the ensuing melee.
Not your ideal opening night but maybe a fitting "tribute" to a long, convoluted, and pointless war which, like so many such wars, probably served only to exhaust everyone until they could prepare for the next one.

Handel's music, happily, has proved to be a great success. Running a little under a half hour, it's upbeat and celebratory, filled with what Shakespeare's Othello, in his famous "Farewell to Arms" speech, calls:
the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
It's the aural equivalent of real fireworks, in short, with no danger of a conflagration in Powell Hall.

The other pieces on the program are celebratory as well. Not in the "bombs bursting in air" style, perhaps, but more in the "joy to the world" vein. Which seems appropriate for this time of year.

The concerts will open, in fact, with music written by Handel for a different British monarch and a different celebration: the "Water Music," commissioned by George I for a 1717 party on the River Thames. It was apparently quite a splendid affair, according to a contemporary account in The Daily Courant, Britain's first daily newspaper:
On Wednesday Evening [17 July 1717] at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge... And went up the River towards Chelsea. Many other... Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover'd; a City Company's Barge was employ'd for the Musick, wherein were 50 Instruments of all sorts, who play'd all the way from Lambeth... the finest Symphonies, compos'd express for this Occasion, by Mr Handel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caus'd it to be plaid over three times in going and returning.
We have, alas, no idea of exactly what pieces George and his fellow royal pleasure-seekers heard that night. "No definitive score of Handel's Water Music survives and it's impossible to know exactly which movements the King heard, or in which sequence," write Yvonne Frindle and David Garrett in their program notes for this concert.
Although it's now believed the musical numbers were mixed together, the Water Music has long been grouped into three suites based on the featured instruments: the horn suite (in F major), the trumpet suite (in D major), and the flute suite (in G major). For this performance, Richard Egarr has chosen from the trumpet and horn suites and added a part for timpani.
Specifically, you'll hear all five movements of the trumpet suite (HWV catalog number 349) with two movements from the horn suite (HWV 348) sandwiched in between the "Alla hornpipe" and "Minuet" from the trumpet suite. The "Alla hornpipe" is undoubtedly one of Handel's Greatest Hits; it's dead certain that you'll find it familiar.

The piece that comes in between the "Water Music" and "Fireworks Music" will likely be less familiar, since the SLSO hasn't played it since 1989. It's the Sonata à 5, HWV 288, for solo violin and two oboes along with strings and harpsichord. Written during Handel's time in Italy (1706-1710) it is, according to Mr. Egarr (as quoted in this weekend's program), "a fantastic and hugely under-exposed masterpiece from the 22-year-old genius, fired by his time spent in that amazing musical playground." And he ought to know, having made a critically praised recording of it, along with Handel's Op. 3 Concerti Grossi, back in 2007. The violin soloist this weekend will be the SLSO's Associate Principal Second Violin, Kristin Ahlstrom.

"Statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig" by Zarafa
at the English language Wikipedia.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Common
For the rest of the evening, the focus shifts to Handel's equally famous contemporary J.S. Bach with performances of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Orchestral Suite No. 3.

Like many of the great composers of their time, Bach often worked for the government. The two works that represent him this weekend were composed when he was the music director and resident composer at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723. The prince was fond of what Paul Schiavo described, in program notes for a 2012 performance by the SLSO under Nicholas McGegan, as "lively secular instrumental music," and Bach filled the bill nicely with both the suite and the concerto.

Although the solo instruments in the concerto are ostensibly the violin and oboe (roles filled in these concerts by Angie Smart of the SLSO's First Violin section and Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan), the fifth Brandenburg Concerto includes a large and flashy harpsichord part that would have been played by Bach himself back in the day. That's because Prince Leopold had just obtained a fancy new two-manual harpsichord made in Berlin by Michael Mietke, official provider of keyboard instruments to the royal court, and undoubtedly wanted to show it off. This weekend, Bach's role will be taken by Mr. Egarr, who is an accomplished harpsichordist and often conducts from the keyboard, just as Bach did.

The Orchestral Suite No. 3 was also likely a hit with the prince, being an appealing collection of dances preceded by a short "French overture" (the name referring to the form's origins in the ballets of Jean Baptiste Lully) with its characteristic majestic opening followed by a lively main section. Bach's mastery of counterpoint gives the music a bit of weight, but even so, the terpsichorean roots of this work are as obvious as they are delightful.

Those roots are especially apparent in the last two movements, the lively, foot-stomping "Bourée" and "Gigue." The former was a dance that was especially popular at the court of Louis XIV of France, eventually morphing into a classical ballet step known as the pas de bourèe. Not that I'd recommend trying to do one from your seat in Powell Hall.

The Essentials: Richard Egarr conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with violin soloists Kristin Ahlstrom and Angie Smart and flute soloist Andrea Kaplan in Baroque Fireworks. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, December 6-8, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Monday, December 02, 2019

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of December 2, 2019

Christmas concerts are starting to appear this week, with holiday-themed events at the Cathedral Basilica and Powell Hall.

The Chamber Music Society of St. Louis presents As the Winds Blow on Saturday, December 7, at 2 pm. "No windbags here. Just some exciting woodwind music that will take your breath away. Works by Reicha, Hindemith, Vinter, Nielsen and Ibert." Performances take place at the Sheldon, 3648 Washington in Grand Center. For more information: chambermusicstl.org.

CHARIS
CHARIS, the St. Louis Women's Chorus, presents Snapshot on Friday and Saturday December 6 and 7, at 8 pm. "A picture is worth a thousand words-at minimum-and a single snapshot can inspire a multitude of stories and interpretations. In CHARIS's fall 2019 show, “Snapshot,” we draw inspiration from two photographic sources: first, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs on display at Missouri History Museum, and second, portraits commissioned from local photographers that capture the lives and stories of individuals in our local community, especially the women and members of the LGBTQ+ community who are at the heart of our mission. Each song in the concert will be inspired by a photograph and its thousands of possible words." The performances take place in the auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. For more information: charischorus.org.

St. Louis Cathedral Concerts presents Christmas at the Cathedral on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2:30 pm. "Experience the joy of the music of Christmas with the St. Louis Archdiocesan Choirs and Orchestra . The program includes the Christmas portion of The Messiah and other Christmas classics old and new at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis!" The concerts take place at the Cathedral Basilica in the Central West End. For more information: cathedralconcerts.org.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presents the Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in Big Band Holidays on Wednesday, December 4, at 7:30 pm. "It's the most wonderful time of year! The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis are coming to Powell Hall. Featuring soulful, big band versions of classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World” and “Brazilian Sleigh Ride,” Big Band Holidays is an uplifting holiday program that's sure to brighten the season." The performance taks place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Richard Egarr
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Richard Egarr conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with violin soloists Kristin Ahlstrom and Angie Smart and flute soloist Andrea Kaplan in Baroque Fireworks. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, December 6-8. "Handel heralds the holidays. Brilliant brass gleam in the Music for the Royal Fireworks and Water Music. Then strings take center-stage for Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, featuring the famous “Air on a G string.” Conductor Richard Egarr leads the orchestra from the harpsichord for Bach's Brandenburg No. 5, which features soloists from the SLSO." Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Cente. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Department of Music at Washington University presents Solisti St. Louis featuring Amy Greenhalgh, viola, Benedetta Orsi, mezzo-soprano, and Dana Hotle, clarinet, performing music by Saint-Saëns, Richter, Weber, and Tchaikovsky on Friday, December 6, at 7:30 pm. The event takes place in the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City. For more information: music.wustl.edu/events.

The Department of Music at Washington University presents bass-baritone Eric Owens and pianist Jeremy Denk performing Schubert's song cycle Winterreise on Sunday, December 8, at 7 pm. The event takes place in the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City. For more information: music.wustl.edu/events.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of December 2, 2019

There's a lot of theatre in St. Louis between now and Christmas, with a vast quantity of openings this week.

The International Brotherhood of Magicians presents their annual Active Military, Veterans & First Responders Tribute Magical Holiday Show on Sunday, December 8, at 3 pm. "The Active Military, Veterans & First Responders Tribute Magical Holiday Show will be a fantastic magic show for the whole family.  Both children and adults will embark on an unforgettable journey of comedy and magic with a special tribute for all those who help keep America free!  You will enjoy the magic of an impressive list of Professional Magicians: Christian Misner, Terry Richison, Steve Zuehlke and more.  Close up magic will be performed in the lobby prior to the show by several of the best close up magicians in St Louis."  The show will be held at the Kirkwood Community Center Theatre, 111 South Geyer Road in Kirkwood. For more information: ibmring1.com.

Clinton County Showcase presents Away in a Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas Fridays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, December 6-15. "December, 1959. Preparations are underway for the annual church Christmas pageant. But anything that can go wrong, does go wrong! Can the Church Basement Ladies save the pageant from the brink of disaster?" Performances take place outdoors at the Avon Theatre, 535 N. 2nd St. in Breese IL. For more information, visit ccshowcase.com.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents The Bomb-itty of Errors Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, December 5-15. "The Bomb-itty of Errors is an award-winning Ad-Rap-Tation, hip-hop theatre retelling of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. The show lasts one hour and thirty minutes and is part play and part rap concert. Refreshingly current but retaining the integrity of the original." Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium on the Webster University campus. For more information, webster.edu or call 314-968-7128.

Curtain's Up Theatre presents A Christmas Story Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, December 6-8. Performances take place at the Wildey Theatre at Edwardsville, IL. For more information, visit curtainsuptheater.com.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

The Cricket on the Hearth
Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues its 109th season with the world premiere of Vladimir Zelevinski's adaptation of Charles Dickens's The Cricket on the Hearth Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, December 6-15, with an additional 8 pm show on Thursday, December 12. "In mid-19th century London John and Dot have fallen in love and married. Theirs is a May-December match (she is young and spritely, he is older and wiser), as unlikely as it is loving. The joy of their life is their bouncing baby boy, and their home is guarded by a friendly cricket who chirps from the hearth, an omen of good fortune. Then, a mysterious stranger enters their lives. Has he brought with him suffering and sorrow that will tear apart the lives of John, Dot and their friends, or does he bring gentler gifts? We won't spoil the ending, except to say that you just might leave the theatre with your heart a little warmer than when you entered." Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-367-0025 or visit www.westendplayers.org.

The Blue Strawberry presents Dean Christopher: A Classic-Vegas, Rat-Pack Christmas on Friday, December 6 and 13, at 8 pm. "One of the greatest eras in the history of entertainment, Classic Vegas meets the holiday season head-on. The style, the entertainers, all brought to life and rolled up into your favorite holiday tunes by award winning actor, singer, impressionist, Dean Christopher and his band. A holiday show you soon won't forget. Not to mention a surefire way to get into the holiday spirit." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Debby Lennon
The Blue Strawberry presents Debby Lennon's Holiday Show on Thursday, December 5, at 8 pm. "Debby Lennon's Holiday Show is filled with the charm and spirit of the most wonderful time of the year. A blend of holiday sass and spice make Debby's Christmas Cabaret a little bit Naughty but oh, so nice! Featuring traditional carols from Christmas past, a touch of fun-filled showstoppers from musical theater Christmas present, and peppermint twists and turns of classic tunes launching you into a very bright and jazzy Christmas future." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents A Dickens of a Killing through January 4. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the rock musical Disenchanted opening on Thursday, December 5, at 8 pm and running through December 21. "Snow White and her posse of disgruntled princesses take the stage in the hilarious hit musical that's anything but Grimm. Forget the princesses you think you know - the original storybook heroines have come to life to set the record straight and give fairytales the bird." The show is recommended for mature audiences. Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

The Drinkwater Brothers
The Blue Strawberry presents The Drinkwater Brothers on Saturday, December 7, at 8 pm. "These guys are hot, hot, hot in NY. To give you a sense of them, we'll quote liberally from a review of their show at Birdland three weeks ago. 'If someone had told me before the show last night what I was going to see, I wouldn't have believed them. While I was watching it, I didn't quite believe it. A day later I am wondering if I believe it, or if I dreamed it… It hardly seems fair, but these two fellows simply have it all - they are the ones who get that special something that you're born with, only they have fine-honed their "It" into something one might easily label genius… Here were two young men (maybe 18, maybe 21, it's hard to tell) who can sing 60's folk-rock, 70's country-rock, and bona fide classic rock, then turn around and perform their own original compositions, and a little blues, as well as a show tune or two; and they are able to effectively change their voices to fit each genre in which they are singing. John Drinkwater did something I have dreamed of seeing all my adult life: he stood perfectly still and, with a smile on his face, sang the legendary Sondheim song "Losing My Mind" ... and it worked. He didn't fall prey to the temptation to oversing or overact the simple musical story - he just sang it and let the crowd see what was in his heart. It was transcendent. For his musical theater offering, Matt chose … Jason Robert Brown, and gave out with "If I Didn't Believe", serving a performance worthy of...Liza Minelli.' - Stephen Mosher, Broadway World" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents An Evening of One-Acts on Monday, December 2, at 6:30 pm. "You can submit your 10 to 15 minute play for inclusion to ryoung at papadocs.com, or simply join us as an audience member or actor. Admission is free." The event takes place upstairs at Big Daddy's, 1000 Sidney in Soulard. For more information: www.stlwritersgroup.com.

Alfresco Productions presents the musical Frozen Jr. Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, December 6-15. Performances take place at the Alfresco Art Center, 2401 Delmar in Granite City, IL. For more information: (618) 560-1947 or www.alfrescoproductions.org.

Fully Committed
Photo: Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theater presents the comedy Fully Committed Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, December 5-22 "The New Jewish Theatre's Artistic Director, Eddie Coffield, Artistic Director, announces the cast and creative team of Fully Committed. Arriving just in time for the holidays, Becky Mode's hilarious hit lets the madness run wild. “I am overjoyed to bring Fully Committed to the New Jewish Theatre during the most festive time of year!” Coffield said. “There's no actor more equipped to tackle 40-plus characters than our beloved Will Bonfiglio. I can hardly wait for St. Louis to see Will bring this timeless, one-man tour-de-force to life!” This hilarious comedy features more than 40 characters that come to life through one actor.” 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.

Cherokee Street Theater Company presents Gremlins- Live Holiday Parody, opening on Wednesday, December 4, at 7 pm and running through December 14. "Just in time for The Holidays, Gremlins- Live Holiday Parody is a 1 hour comedic parody of the 1984 movie, Gremlins. It is performed, written, and directed by local St. Louis talent. The show pokes fun and jabs at the original film by calling out its flaws, tackiness, and blatant 80's absurdity. It is a true celebration of camp and the fantastical with a charming and semi-dark twist all with a holiday theme!" Performances take place at 2607 Potomac in the Cherokee neighborhood. For more information: cherokeestreettheatercompany.com.

It's a Wonderful Life
Photo: Jennifer Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents It's a Wonderful Life, based on the classic film, through December 15. "The beloved American holiday classic leaps to life on stage in a delightful, heartwarming new adaptation. John Wolbers' "It's a Wonderful Life" has a clever twist: it's staged as a play within a play, more specifically a radio play within a play. On Christmas Eve 1949, KMTC Radio St. Louis is prepared to perform a live radio broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life," when unexpected events transform the station's staff into the radio play's actors. Complete with microphones, live sound effects by a Foley artist, 1940s period costumes, and a diverse company of characters, the play tells the story of George Bailey and his discovery of the life-affirming message that one life can change the whole fabric of a community. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center.. For more information: metroplays.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents a Jane Austen Festival Friday through Sunday, December 6-8, in conjunction with the opening of its production of Pride and Prejudice. For more information on the festival, visit repstl.org/jane-austen-festival.

St. Louis Actors' Studio presents A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, December 6 - 22. "The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow, takes us into the lives of two actors: John, young and rising into the first flush of his success; the other Robert, older, anxious, and beginning to wane. In a series of short, spare, and increasingly raw exchanges, we see the estrangement of youth from age and the wider, inevitable and endless cycle of life, in and out of the theatre." Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

Lindenwood University presents Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor Thursday through Saturday, December 5-7, at 7:30 pm. "This comedy featuring Sir John Falstaff was first published in 1602, though it is believed to have been written sometime before 1597. Sir John Falstaff, staying in Windsor and down on his luck, decides to restore his fortunes by seducing the wives of two wealthy citizens. He sends Mistress Page and Mistress Ford identical love letters, but they discover his double dealing and set about turning the tables." Performances take place at the Scheiegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, MO. For more information: lindenwood.edu.

The Blue Strawberry presents an Open Mic Night on Wednesday, December 4, from 7 to 9 pm. Debby Lennon hosts the event, with Henry Palkes at the piano. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: .bluestrawberrystl.com.

Craig Pomranz
The Kranzberg Arts Center presents St. Louis' own Craig Pomranz in The Power of Song on Friday, December 6, and 7 and 9 pm. "International song stylist, Craig offers jazz/saloon singing at its best. You'll hear classic standards, reinterpreted pop songs and brand-new material, delivered with his own unique talent and compelling vocal style. He carries the tradition of Sinatra, Bennett, Streisand, Wilson and Chet Baker with a contemporary twist." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: brownpapertickets.com

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Pride and Prejudice, adapted from the Jane Austen novel by Christopher Baker, opening on Wednesday, December 4, and running through December 29. "In a world of opulent estates and lavish private balls, where women's entire futures hinge on marriage, Elizabeth Bennet stands apart. With a vibrant wit and a headstrong sense of pride, Elizabeth places her own needs first and refuses to marry for mere convenience. But she meets her match in the unlikely figure of Mr. Darcy. Beginning as a testy battle of words and ideas, their relationship blossoms into a remarkable romance between two passionate intellects who play by their own rules. " Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents Robret Dubac's Stand-Up Jesus Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, December 6 and 7. "Making his first appearance in years, He is returning to cure what ails you. If you've lost your sense of humor, here's your chance to cleanse your soul with laughter, unburden your guilt with satire and purify your sacrilege with truth. More punchlines. Less preaching. Don't miss this stand-up from the original author of humor! " The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

The Goshen Theatre Project presents Scrooge! The Musical Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, December 5-7. "This timeless musical follows the plot of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of a Christmas Eve night, after being visited by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future." Performances take place at Nazarene Community Theater, 400 N. Central Ave. in Roxana, IL. For more information: www.goshentheatreproject.org.

The Skivvies
The Blue Strawberry presents The Skivvies on Sunday, December 8, at 7 and 9 pm. "They're naughty and nice. The “musically thrilling,” award-winning, undie-rock, comedy-pop duo The Skivvies are making their STL debut with their acclaimed holiday show, "I Touch My Elf". Joined by special guests, including Matt Doyle (Spring Awakening, The Book of Mormon, War Horse) The Skivvies- Lauren Molina (Rock of Ages, Sweeney Todd, Candide, Marry Me A Little) and Nick Cearley (Buyer and Cellar, Pageant, A Midsummer Night's Dream, All Shook Up)-will perform stripped-down versions of eclectic covers, wacky holiday mash-ups (“I Melt with You/Frosty the Snowman,” “We Got the Beat/The Little Drummer Boy”), and eccentric originals (“It's F*cking Hanukkah,” “The Text Message Song”.) Not only is the music stripped-down-cello, ukulele, glockenspiel, melodica, and a surprising array of other under-used instruments-but The Skivvies literally strip down to their underwear to perform. Grab your spiked eggnog, hurry down the chimney, and settle in for an evening of laughter and holiday cheer! They have everything but pants!" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: .bluestrawberrystl.com.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents That High Lonesome Sound Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, December 3-8. "Bluegrass has a long and winding history, from Scottish ballads to African-American work songs, from Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In a lively theatrical album of scenes created for the Acting Apprentice Company of the Actor's Theatre of Louisville, four writers respond with playfulness and poignancy to the signature sounds, inherited stories, and cultural impact of this very American--and very Kentucky--music tradition." Performances take place in the Metcalf Theater on the campus in Edwardsvile, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu.

Alton Little Theater presents A Twisted Christmas Carol Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, December 6-15, as well as on Thursday (December12) at 7:30 pm. "The most unusual Christmas Eve “barbecue” you'll ever dream about. Even Charles Dickens would laugh!" Performances take place at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

Wicked
The Fox Theatre presents the musical Wicked opening on Wednesday, December 4, at 7:30 pm and running through December 29. "So much happened before Dorothy dropped in. WICKED, the Broadway sensation, looks at what happened in the Land of Oz…but from a different angle. Long before Dorothy arrives, there is another young woman, born with emerald-green skin-smart, fiery, misunderstood, and possessing an extraordinary talent. When she meets a bubbly blonde who is exceptionally popular, their initial rivalry turns into the unlikeliest of friendships…until the world decides to call one “good,” and the other one “wicked.”" The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.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.

Review: The SLSO delivers a tasty "Nutcracker"

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) is giving audiences an early Christmas present this weekend (November 29-December 1) in the form of a thoroughly enchanting complete performance of Tchaikovsky's popular "Nutcracker" ballet under the baton of guest conductor Andrew Grams.

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

Andrew Grams
To quote a Noël Coward lyric, "I couldn't have liked it more."

There are, of course, some risks in putting a ballet score on the concert stage unedited. Numbers designed primarily as background for stage action can lack interest on their own, for one thing, which is why many composers prepared suites from their ballets that eliminate those passages. And there's also the danger that audience members who have never seen a performance of the ballet may wonder what the heck is going on at any given moment.

With "Nutcracker," though, the risk is minimal. Tchaikovsky filled even the basic "narrative" parts of his score with irresistible melodies and inventive bits of orchestration that make the music continually entertaining. In addition, the program notes include a detailed enough description of the action to keep everyone on track.

Special lighting design by Luke Kritzeck, Director of Lighting and Resident Designer for the New World Symphony located in Miami Beach, also added a nice sense of theatricality that reinforced the mood of each number without calling too much attention to itself. For the "Waltz of the Flowers," for example, a colorful and vaguely floral design covered the top half of the stage while a green wash (suggestive of stems) filled the bottom half. In the first act, when the children are sent up to bed, the lighting dimmed to a dreamy dark blue. And the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" that ends Act I was accompanied by a blue wash below and animated snowflakes above.

What really made this "Nutcracker" work, though, was the knowing and committed performance by Mr. Grams and the members of the orchestra. Mr. Grams's many years of experience both playing in and conducting the New York City Ballet Orchestra were evident in his perfectly paced reading of the score and his graceful (dare I say "balletic") style on the podium. I was especially taken with the sweeping romanticism of his Act II "Pas de deux" (in which Tchaikovsky demonstrates just how powerful a simple diatonic scale can be), the high drama of the sequence in which Clara's Christmas tree grows to magical heights, and the boisterous good humor of "Polchinelle (The Clown)."

The orchestra was in top form when we attended on Friday night. The sound of the string section was lush and rich, and the many solo passages Tchaikovsky has generously lavished on the orchestra were delivered with sheer perfection. Moments that stood out for me included Principal Harp Allegra Lilly's fluid introduction and Roger Kaza's sonorous horn section in the "Waltz of the Flowers"; the wonderfully detailed playing by Principal Flute Mark Sparks, along with Jennifer Nichtman and Ann Choomack, in the "Dance of the Mirlitons" ("Reed Pipes" in the program); and the combination of Peter Henderson (celesta), Tzuying Huang (bass clarinet), and Scott Andrews (clarinet) in the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy."

Principal Oboe Phil Ross played a sinuous line in the "Arabian Dance." Trumpeters Tom Drake and Austin Williams were spot on in the high-speed final moments of the "Trepak." There was fine work as usual from Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo and Cally Banham on English horn, as well as from the St. Louis Children's Chorus in their short but essential wordless contribution to the "Waltz of the Snowflakes."

I could go on, but you get the idea. This was a big, tasty visit to the Kingdom of Sweets for music lovers. It's a pity there weren't more of them in the house Friday night, where attendance felt shockingly light given the popularity of the music being played and the high quality of the performance.

There is one more performance of the SLSO's "Nutcracker" on Sunday, December 1, at 3 pm at Powell Hall in Grand Center. As an early holiday treat, it can't be beat.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Review: Lisa St. Lou and Tor Hyamn are a dynamic duo at the Blue Strawberry

There's no doubt about it, Lisa St. Lou and her music director/song-writing partner Tor Hyams are the Dynamic Duo of song performance.

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

Lisa St. Lou
Ms. St. Lou has a powerful, flexible, wide-ranging voice with which she can apparently do pretty much anything. She can purr and roar, cry and laugh, go intimate one moment and bigger than life the next. She's the real deal, with enough energy to power a small city.

Mr. Hyams, for his part, is a muscular, barrelhouse-style pianist who bangs out power chords like Dr. John on steroids. His voice blends perfectly with Ms. St. Lou's in their many duet numbers. Together, they are an unstoppable force of nature.

So, yeah, their new show "Ain't No Good Man" really rocked the Blue Strawberry last Wednesday (November 27) and got an enthusiastic reception from a crowd that appeared to consist mostly of family, friends, and former Ritenour High School classmates of Ms. St. Lou, who hails from our fair city originally.

That local connection was also, unfortunately, a bit of a liability for those of us for whom she was a total stranger. There were too many "shout outs" to friends of Ms. St. Lou and Mr. Hyams and far too many little in-jokes shared with the people they knew well. A little of that is entirely understandable when you know you have a bunch of fans in the house, but there's a point at which it begins to feel like someone else's party.

Tor Hyams and Lisa St. Lou
at the Blue Strawberry
My other issue with the evening was that it wasn't really a cabaret show so much as a live performance of all the studio cuts on their soon-to-be-released album "Ain't No Good Man." The album itself boasts a stellar assortment of New Orleans-based stars such as Ivan and Cyril Neville (nephew and brother, respectively, of the legendary Aaron Neville) and the great Irma Thomas, a.k.a. "The Soul Queen of New Orleans." Without all that aural variety and big band backup, the songs--all originals by Ms. St. Lou and Mr. Hyams--had a kind of sameness that had me checking my Fitbit more than once.

That said, many of the individual songs were pretty potent stuff. "Never Enough for a Man" (a duet with Ms. Thomas on the album) was a rich blues number about the pain of being seen as a continual disappointment. The title cut, "Ain't No Good Man," spoke persuasively of the despair that comes from being betrayed by a loved one (in this case, Ms. St. Lou's ex-husband). "Miracle in Motion" was a soulful portrayal of love at first sight. And who could resist the affirmation of "I've Seen the Light"?

There was, in short, some solid material here. What "Ain't No Good Man" needs right now, in my view, is a director who can suggest between-song patter that goes beyond memories of the recording sessions and who can help give it all a dramatic arc and sense of pacing that would make it more of a cabaret show than a set list.

This was Lisa St. Lou's second visit to Mound City. I missed the first one because of schedule conflicts but I hope to see her here again, maybe with a more varied mix of material. She and Mr. Hyams have, I think, the talent and dedication to make whatever they decide to do next a hit.

Meanwhile, the Blue Strawberry has a veritable cornucopia of shows scheduled into next month. Visit their web site for a complete list.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of November 29, 2019

This weekend's picks are cabaret at the Blue Strawberry and Metro Theatre Company at the Grandel.

New This Week:

Steve Ross
The Blue Strawberry presents Steve Ross in Cole Porter and Beyond on Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30, at 8 pm. "Called 'the very personification of the spirit of Cole Porter' by The New Yorker, Steve Ross takes his audience on a musical and anecdotal journey through the songs of this most sophisticated of composers - from his early successes in the Twenties ("I'm In Love Again," "You Do Something To Me," "Let's Do It") through his glory years in the Thirties ( "It's D'Lovely," "In the Still of the Night"), the Forties, noted for his masterpiece "Kiss Me Kate" and his later songs from the Fifties ("I Love Paris," "C'est Magnifique" and "It's All Right With Me." There will also be songs by his contemporaries (and friends) Noel Coward, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and ending with a tribute to the great Fred Astaire for whom he wrote one of his undying classics, "Night and Day." Don't you find yourself sometimes just having to go to Cole Porter? And isn't this the best time of year to do it? And isn't Steve the right guy to do it with?" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: Mabel Mercer Award–winning cabaret artist Steve Ross has a long and happy relationship with St. Louis, going back to the early days of the Grandel Cabaret Series. He was one of the first performers to be featured by Jim Dolan's Presenters Dolan organization when it got off the ground many years ago, so his appearance last weekend at Jim's newest venue, The Blue Strawberry, feels a bit like a homecoming. Personally, I have been an admirer of Mr. Ross's debonair, witty, and charismatic work ever since I first saw him at the Grandel in 2001. An evening with Steve Ross an object lesson in why cabaret is such a vibrant art form. Don't miss him.


Held Over:

It's a Wonderful Life
Photo: Jennifer Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents It's a Wonderful Life, based on the classic film, through December 15. "The beloved American holiday classic leaps to life on stage in a delightful, heartwarming new adaptation. John Wolbers' "It's a Wonderful Life" has a clever twist: it's staged as a play within a play, more specifically a radio play within a play. On Christmas Eve 1949, KMTC Radio St. Louis is prepared to perform a live radio broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life," when unexpected events transform the station's staff into the radio play's actors. Complete with microphones, live sound effects by a Foley artist, 1940s period costumes, and a diverse company of characters, the play tells the story of George Bailey and his discovery of the life-affirming message that one life can change the whole fabric of a community. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center.. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: Well, it wouldn't be the holidays without someone doing a stage version of this beloved movie. Metro's approach has the advantage of treating it as the basis for a story that's less about the original film and more about the intrepid group of employees of a fictional radio station doing their best to work together to bring it to life over the air. "Metro Theater Company's It's a Wonderful Life brings an hour or so of a captivating and classy good time to an appreciative audience, a terrific start to the holiday season," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News. "Don't forget to clap on cue."

Symphony Preview: Visions of sugar plums

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

Konstantin Ivanov's original sketch
for the set of The Nutcracker (1892)
Source: en.wikipedia.org
If there's one thing you can count on at this time of the year, it's that someone somewhere will be putting on a production of Tchaikovsky's popular 1892 ballet "The Nutcracker." This weekend (November 29-December 1), that includes the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) as Andrew Grams [https://andrewgrams.com/] conducts the SLSO and St. Louis Children's Choirs in a complete concert performance of Tchaikovsky's classic. But their "Nutcracker" is probably going to be unlike any other you might have seen.

That's because, being a concert performance, it will be a "Nutcracker" without dancers (but with the charming children's chorus that accompanies the "Waltz of the Snowflakes). What it will have, though, is special lighting design by Luke Kritzeck, Director of Lighting and Resident Designer for the New World Symphony located in Miami Beach, Florida.

The Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker
Photo: The Fabulous Fox
Mr. Kritzeck's resume is impressive, including six years touring with Cirque de Soleil as well as designs for the Chautauqua Opera (New York), the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and the Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis), among others. I have no idea what he has in mind for the SLSO, but a look at his online portfolio certainly suggests it will be creative.

The use of high-tech lighting and projections is nothing new for the SLSO, of course. In the past they have found some fairly ingenious ways of using projected images to enhance works written for the stage, from a performance of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" ballet suite accompanied by watercolors inspired by the ballet, to vivid projected scenery for a concert version of "Aida," to a performance of Schoenberg's "Five Pieces for Orchestra" in which each piece was accompanied by a more or less contemporary painting that mirrored the movement's central idea.

And "The Nutcracker" is certainly brimming with colorful scenes to inspire a visual designer. The first act includes the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the Nutcracker's transformation into a handsome prince, and the magical journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. The second act gives us the various "national" dances (Chinese, Arabian, Spanish, and Russian Trepak), along with the dance of the mirlitons (a 19th-century cousin of the common kazoo, as well as a type of cake). There's also the popular "Waltz of the Flowers," the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" with its famous celesta solo, and the dramatic "Pas de Deux" for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Mother Gigogne and her children
Act II also has one of the odder numbers, at least for contemporary American audiences: "La mère Gigogne et les polichinelles" (roughly: "Mother Gigogne and the puppets"). A character whose origins lie in French marionette theatre, she's usually portrayed as a woman (although often danced by a man) with a huge skirt out of which bursts a collection of tumblers and/or clowns. She would have been recognizable to Tchaikovsky's audiences. These days, not so much.

There's much more to be said about the music and the scenario of "The Nutcracker," but since Australian music writer Yvonne Frindle says it so well and in such great detail in the program, I'll just refer you there.

A few words are in order about this week's guest conductor, though. Now in his seventh season as Music Director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in Elgin, Illinois (a town of just over 100,000 around 35 miles northwest of Chicago), Mr. Grams has had guest conducting gigs with high-profile domestic orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Houston Symphony. Internationally, his resume includes appearances with the symphony orchestras of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, as well as the Orchestre National de France, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra London, and orchestras in Australia and New Zealand. No wonder his web bio describes him as a "frequent traveler."

The St. Louis Ballet's Nutcracker at the Touhill
More to the point for this weekend, though, Mr. Grams has extensive experience with "The Nutcracker". He has led multiple performances of the New York City Ballet's production (with choreography by George Balanchine), as well as the first performances of a new production of the ballet for the Norwegian National Ballet in Olso. Reviewing his performance of "Nutcracker" excerpts with the Dallas Symphony, Scott Cantrell wrote that "he worked magic start to finish" and praised his "loving, sophisticated command of the score".

He'll also be bringing a musician's perspective to his conducting, having played violin with the New York City Ballet Orchestra from 1998 to 2004. He has played with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's (both based on NYC), the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the New Jersey Symphony as well.

The Essentials: Andrew Grams conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and St. Louis Children's Choirs in a complete performance of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" ballet on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, November 29 - December 1. The program includes special lighting design by Luke Kritzeck. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: The St. Louis Symphony shows its virtuosity in music by Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Mussorgsky/Ravel

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

For some years now, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) has been bringing younger guest conductors to town to make their local debuts on the Powell Hall stage. Every one of them has been very impressive, in my experience, leaving me with real hope about the future of classical music.

[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]

Marcelo Lehninger
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
This weekend was no exception, as Brazilian-born Marcelo Lehninger made his first St. Louis appearance last night (Friday, November 22) with an evening of music that showcased the virtuosity of both piano soloist Simon Trpceski and the members of the SLSO. Despite having to conduct from a chair because of a recently broken foot, Mr. Lehninger was a strong physical presence on the podium, leading the band in dynamic and insightful performances of this highly varied program.

He also had one of the most striking conductor entrances I have ever seen, gliding on stage on a small scooter that supported his temporarily disabled pedal extremity.

The concert opened with work that the SLSO presented for the first and (until this weekend) only time back in 1970: the "Concert Music for Strings and Brass," Op. 10, by Paul Hindemith. Composed in response to a commission by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, "Concert Music" is a product of what is often called the composer's "neoclassical" phase, although the densely contrapuntal texture really harks back to the Baroque era. Combine that texture with the unusual orchestration of a dozen brass instruments (four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba) plus strings, and you have the potential for serious balance issues that could make the individual melodic lines hard to hear.

Happily, that wasn't the case Friday night. The strings got overwhelmed a bit at the beginning, but overall Mr. Lehninger made it easy to discern the individual threads of Hindemith's musical tapestry and got some excellent playing from the orchestra in the process. The SLSO strings were especially adept in their handling of the rapid passages that open the second half of the piece, and some minor intonation issues in the horns aside, the brasses were strong all the way through, with fine solos from Associate Principal Trumpet Tom Drake and Principal Trombone Tim Myers.

At around 17 minutes, the "Concert Music" is a short piece--a trait it shared with the next work on the program, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 10, from 1912. Prokofiev played it as his entry for the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize for pianists at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1914 (which he won), and there's a kind of cocky, "look what I can do" attitude about the piece. Combined with the composer's trademark mordant sense of humor, it makes for an entertaining experience for the listener and a significant technical challenge for the pianist.

Simon Trpceski
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
And Simon Trpceski was certainly the man for the job. An internationally known artist whose career has taken him to every continent except (as far as I know) Antarctica, Mr. Trpceski played the best Rachmaninoff Third I've ever heard when he was here in 2015. He did an equally fine job with the Prokofiev, delivering every bit of wit and virtuoso flash in the first and third movements with an impeccable sense of style and a mischievous delight while giving full voice to the wistful nostalgia of the second. The result was a performance that was (to quote a Robert Palmer lyric) simply irresistible.

The audience response was warm and enthusiastic, resulting in not one but two Prokofiev encores: the "March" from his "Music for Children" and the "Scherzo Humoristique."

The evening concluded with a work that was no doubt as familiar to the orchestra as it was to the audience: Maurice Ravel's 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's 1874 piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition." Inspired by a visit the previous year to a posthumous exhibition of the works of Russian artist Victor Hartmann, Mussorgsky's original is as colorful and evocative as it is difficult to play. Ravel, who was justifiably regarded as an expert orchestrator, filled his transcription with ingenious touches, like the high woodwinds chirping away in the "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells"; the alto sax playing the voice of a troubadour in "The Old Castle"; the hair-raising evocation of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" (home of the witch Baba-Yaga from Russian folklore); and the triumphant final movement, based on a sketch for "The Great Gate at Kiev".

That means there are multiple opportunities for individual members and sections of the orchestra to show off, and they certainly did so Friday night. Highlights included (but were not limited to) Principal Tuba Derek Fenstermacher's solo in "Bydlo," which pushes the instrument towards the very top of its register; Tom Drake's flawless delivery of the rapid fire trumpet line in "Samuel Goldenbereg and Schmuyle"; the haunting alto sax of Jeffrey Collins in "The Old Castle"; and the entire woodwind section for playing so precisely in the "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" despite Mr. Lehninger's alarmingly fast tempo.

Speaking of Mr. Lehninger, he was once again a strong physical presence, clearly enjoying every moment of this work and putting his own personal stamp of this very familiar material without taking undue liberties. His take on the opening "Promenade" was magisterial. His "Gnomus" snarled and threatened. His decision to have the alto sax fade out slowly at the end of "The Old Castle" added a touch of sadness to the troubadour's voice. And his take on the closing "Great Gate of Kiev" had a degree of subtlety and marked dynamic contrast not always heard in this exultant finale. It was an altogether winning and captivating reading, garnering enthusiastic "bravos" from the crowd.

Next at Powell Hall: Andrew Grams conducts the orchestra and St. Louis Children's Choirs in a complete performance of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet, with special lighting design by Luke Kritzeck, whose portfolio includes work with the San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, and Cirque du Soleil. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 29-December 1.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 25, 2019


The big Thanksgiving theatre freeze is on, but there's still great cabaret at the Blue Strawberry.

Lisa St. Lou
The Blue Strawberry presents Lisa St. Lou in Ain't No Good Man on Wednesday, November 27, at 8 pm. "Powerhouse vocalist, Lisa St. Lou performs material from her debut soul album, Ain't No Good Man. Accompanied by her Grammy-nominated writing partner, Tor Hyams, the evening will be a journey of relationships and all the stuff that goes with it; from heartbreak to empowerment and everything in between. The songs will inspire women and the good men who love them." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Fox Theatre presents Cirque Dreams: Holidaze Friday at 4 and 8 pm and Saturday at 11 am, 3 pm, and 8 pm, November 29 and 30. "CIRQUE DREAMS HOLIDAZE electrifies the 2019 holiday season with its reimagined live family holiday spectacular. Featuring unforgettable performances, this critically-acclaimed extravaganza is both a Broadway musical and new Cirque adventure wrapped into the ultimate holiday gift for the entire family!" The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

Steve Ross
The Blue Strawberry presents Steve Ross in Cole Porter and Beyond on Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30, at 8 pm. "Called 'the very personification of the spirit of Cole Porter' by The New Yorker, Steve Ross takes his audience on a musical and anecdotal journey through the songs of this most sophisticated of composers - from his early successes in the Twenties ("I'm In Love Again," "You Do Something To Me," "Let's Do It") through his glory years in the Thirties ( "It's D'Lovely," "In the Still of the Night"), the Forties, noted for his masterpiece "Kiss Me Kate" and his later songs from the Fifties ("I Love Paris," "C'est Magnifique" and "It's All Right With Me." There will also be songs by his contemporaries (and friends) Noel Coward, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart and ending with a tribute to the great Fred Astaire for whom he wrote one of his undying classics, "Night and Day." Don't you find yourself sometimes just having to go to Cole Porter? And isn't this the best time of year to do it? And isn't Steve the right guy to do it with?" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents A Dickens of a Killing through January 4. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

It's a Wonderful Life
Photo: Jennifer Lin
Metro Theatre Company presents It's a Wonderful Life, based on the classic film, through December 15. "The beloved American holiday classic leaps to life on stage in a delightful, heartwarming new adaptation. John Wolbers' "It's a Wonderful Life" has a clever twist: it's staged as a play within a play, more specifically a radio play within a play. On Christmas Eve 1949, KMTC Radio St. Louis is prepared to perform a live radio broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life," when unexpected events transform the station's staff into the radio play's actors. Complete with microphones, live sound effects by a Foley artist, 1940s period costumes, and a diverse company of characters, the play tells the story of George Bailey and his discovery of the life-affirming message that one life can change the whole fabric of a community. " The performances take place at The Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center.. For more information: metroplays.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.