Thursday, January 23, 2020

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of January 24, 2020

New cabaret, opera, musical theatre, and comedy shows join the list this week, along with a special event at Powell Hall

New This Week:

Sara Shepherd
The Blue Strawberry presents Female on Fire - A Celebration of Female Singer/Songwriters with singer Sara Sheperd along with Scott Sheperd on piano and Dave Black on guitar on Saturday, January 25, at 8 pm. "Sara Sheperd most recently just finished her run in Beautiful- the Carole King musical on Broadway understudying Carole King, Genie Klein, and the roles of Betty and Marilyn. She was also a part of the Original Broadway Company and was the dance captain for the production. Other Broadway and National Tour credits include Cry-Baby, the musical and Legally Blonde, the musical. Favorite regional credits include Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (Drury Lane), Jo in Little Women (John W. Engeman Theatre), Nancy in Oliver! (Human Race). She is a proud CCM graduate and also earned a Presidential Scholar in the Arts award in 2004." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: I'm going to recommend this one purely on the basis of the strength of the concept and of Ms. Sheperd's theatre credits. "We'll be jamming out to all styles from jazz to swing to musical theatre to rock/pop," she writes on her Facebook page. "Would love to see your faces there if you're in the area!" Could be an offer you can't refuse. And, as I have noted in the past, the Blue Strawberry is an excellent cabaret room with a good drinks list and first rate kitchen.


Winter Opera St. Louis presents Donizetti's comedy La Fille du Régiment Friday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, November 8 and 10. "Army life is all Marie, the régiment's canteen girl, knows after being abandoned as a baby and saved by the soldiers. She has fallen in love with prisoner-turned soldier Tonio, but after a chance encounter with her long-lost aunt, the Marquise of Berkenfield, Marie reluctantly leaves the régiment. Will Marie stay with the Marquise and live a life of luxury or will the regimental songs call her back to the soldier she loves?" Performances take place at The Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh. For more information, visit winteroperastl.org.

My take: Donizetti's tragic operas are so well known that it's easy to forget his comedy hits. This 1840 romp has long been a favorite of audiences and performers alike, and has been a reliable vehicle for star sopranos from Jenny Lind to Joan Sutherland. I don't think there has been a local production of this since the two excellent versions from Union Avenue Opera in 2010 and Opera Theatre in 2011, so we're due for another one. I plan to attend Sunday, but I'm happy to recommend this now based on the strength of the material and of Winter Opera's recent work.


Madam
Photo by Caroline Guffey
Fly North Theatricals presents the new musical Madam through February 2. "ELIZA HAYCRAFT - She built an EMPIRE of brothels based on three simple rules. . . RESPECT, CONSENT, and PAY UP FRONT! In 1870 - she was the richest and most powerful woman in the City of St. Louis! But in 1870, Eliza Haycraft was dying. . . And the richest and most powerful men in the City of St. Louis. . . They were hellbent on taking it all away from her. With a score by STL-based composer Colin Healy (The Gringo, Forgottonia) described as 'power swing', fusing elements of modern pop and musical theatre with traditional St. Louis blues and swing revival, you can move-and-be-moved by this turbulent story about the right to be remembered, the meaning of love, and the power of 'no.'" Performances take place at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: https://flynorththeatricals.com/events.

My take: New scripts are always welcome (as our new theatre companies), and a couple of our local critics are very taken with both the show and the production. "Madam," writes Michelle Kenyon on her blog, "takes a look at a once-prominent but now more obscure figure in St. Louis history, fashioning a story around her that proves to be a vehicle for a memorable score and strong performances. Even though some of the plot elements are predictable, it proves to be a thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience." "While the acting is solid," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "what really distinguishes in this production of Madam are the standout vocal performances by the cast. The women in particular have stellar voices which beautifully shape Healy’s lyrics and successfully navigate his sometimes intricate melodies."


Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Joshua Gersen conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert, Thursday through Saturday at 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, January 23-26. "The battle for the galaxy intensifies in the intergalactic adventure of the unfolding saga Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back In Concert. Travel to a galaxy far, far away and experience the iconic film on the big screen at Powell Hall as the SLSO performs the score live." Performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

My take: No, it's not theatre, strictly speaking. But the combination of a film on Powel Hall's big screen and a live orchestra playing the score has a theatrical impact that's hard to beat. You will certainly hear that John Williams score in a way that can't be duplicated in a movie theatre, no matter how good their sound system might be. And speaking of sound systems, recent upgrades in the one at Powell Hall have made dialog much easier to understand. The films also include captioning these days, which is a real boon to the hard of hearing who can appreciate the music but can sometimes find dialog hard to hear over a full symphony orchestra. I have been to many of these film events over the years and they're always fun. You can buy popcorn and drink specials at the Powell Hall bars along with their usual menu of libations and snacks, so go and enjoy.


The Thanksgiving Play
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The Thanksgiving Play through February 9. "Four earnestly progressive theatre-makers want to create a politically correct Thanksgiving play that is historically accurate, avoids all possible stereotypes and doesn't offend anyone. Guess how long it takes for everything to fly off the rails? This wickedly hilarious satire hurtles into glorious chaos, skewering both its characters' pretensions and the traditional "Thanksgiving story."" Performances take place in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

My take: The best of intentions can be taken to silly extremes. I have seen it happen in real life, so the premise of this comedy strikes me as fairly plausible. As Ann Lemmons Pollack writes in her blog, playwright Larissa FastHorse is "really tired of how history is so often wrong, being written by the winners, and how strongly people cling to the errors despite information to the contrary. Her attempt to set things straight on the subject of Thanksgiving, rather than a this-is-what-really-happened line, is a comedy to remind us to think more about the real story of Thanksgiving, and, by inference, a lot of other things...Great fun, considerable laughter, and ninety minutes with no intermission. " "FastHorse’s satire is incisive but affectionate," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch, "maintaining a tone somewhere between “Doonesbury” and Dorothy Parker. And her comically flustered characters are at once quirky and recognizable."

Held Over:

Circus Harmony: Legato (2018)
Circus Harmony presents Fluente: An Underseas Circus Adventure Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, January 18 - 26. "This captivating show is an undersea circus adventure. All the acts are co-created with the amazing Circus Harmony students, staff and guest teaching artists - a number of whom are successful alumni. Like it's home, City Museum, this circus show is not just for children! While the age range of the performers is 8 to 21 years old, these young people perform professional level circus arts. That is why a number of them have gone on to perform with some of the most prestigious circus companies around the world! Fluente will feature new acts created especially for this production and new music from the Circus Harmony Band under the direction of Jeffrey Carter." Performances take place at City Museum, downtown. For more information: circusharmony.org/fluente/

My take: Circus Harmony does excellent outreach work that demonstrates how the arts can make a big difference in the community. If you've ever seen a Circus Flora show, of course, you've seen some of Circus Harmony's students at work as The St. Louis Arches, but the organization's reach and mission go far beyond that. "Circus Harmony," according to their web site, "teaches the art of life through circus education. We work to build character and expand community for youth of all ages, cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Through teaching and performance of circus skills, we help people defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers, all at the same time." Since their 2001 Circus Salaam Shalom, which brought Jewish and Muslim kids in St. Louis together, Circus Harmony has been advancing its philosophy of "peace through pyramids, harmony through hand springs" to "inspire individuals and connect communities."


Two Trains Running
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Black Rep presents August Wilson's Two Trains Running through January 26. "In August Wilson's masterpiece, history unfolds around everyday lives against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Long-time regulars gather at the local diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District to gossip, flirt and play the numbers. Now the owner must decide whether to let the city take over his building or sell it to a shrewd, local businessman. Part of Wilson's trailblazing American Century Cycle, Two Trains Running paints a compassionate and unforgettable portrait of ordinary people in the midst of transformation." Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: theblackrep.org.

My take: Critical reaction to this has been rather ecstatic. "In St. Louis," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch, "standing ovations have become routine and are often unmerited. But in this case, that gesture is much deserved." At KDHX, Jacob Juntunen calls it "an exquisite production of a superb script by one America's most important playwrights." And at Ladue News, Mark Bretz writes that director Ed Smith "weaves a masterpiece of a production through the expert utilization of his cast and technical staff." 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: Love is all around us

In his introductory remarks at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert this Sunday (January 19th), Maestro Stéphane Denève noted that the first work on the program, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," was played at Mr. Denève's wedding, where his Best Man just happened to be this weekend's piano soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. "Love is in the air," he declared. As a unifying theme for the concert, it wasn't bad.

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

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Certainly the "Siegfried Idyll" was a labor of love. It was written as a birthday/Christmas present for Wagner's wife Cosima (born on December 24th), and was first performed on the stairs of the Wagner family home in Tribschen on Christmas morning 1870 as a surprise for the sleeping Cosima. The musicians were just over a dozen members of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. Wagner hadn't planned on publishing it, but financial considerations obliged him to do so in 1878 in an expanded version for 35 players, which is the one usually performed today.

Love was certainly apparent in Mr. Denève's interpretation, which often lingered affectionately over orchestral details. The sense of emotional warmth was enhanced by solos by Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks, Principal Flute Mark Sparks, and Julian Kaplan on trumpet. Wagner requires the sole trumpet to sit quietly until nearly the end of the piece, at which point he bursts forth with a sunny 12-bar theme that would later make its way into Wagner's opera "Siegfried." So Mr. Kaplan gets points for patience as well as musicianship. There was nice work by Roger Kaza and Chris Dwyer in the horn section as well.

Up next was the Second Piano Concerto by Wagner's father-in-law, Franz Liszt. Unfolding in six separate sections played without pause over around 20 minutes, the work is essentially monothematic in that all the melodic material, varied as it sounds, derives from a theme presented in sweet, simple form by a small choir of woodwinds at the very beginning. Its moods run the gamut from touchingly expressive to dramatically flashy to nobly martial (marziale un poco meno allegro) in the penultimate section.

That means the soloist has to be sensitive to the changes in tone as well as technically proficient (that latter being a sine qua non when it comes to anything by Liszt). Mr. Thibaudet was, not surprisingly, more than up to the task. Whether caressing the keys in the lyrical adagio sostenuto assai opening, setting off the musical fireworks of the allegro agitato assai that followed, or making the piano sing in the bel canto style duet with Principal Cello Daniel Lee in the allegro moderato section, he was unfailingly in synch with the spirit for the score--as was Mr. Denève on the podium.

Mr. Thibaudet responded to the enthusiastic applause with a brief encore: the "Waltz in G-flat" (a.k.a. the "Kupelweiser Waltz"). Composed (but never actually written down) by Franz Schubert for the wedding of his friend Leopold Kupelweiser in 1826, it was played by generations of the family until Richard Strauss was finally asked to write it down in 1943. It's a charming little thing, and was a nice aural "palate cleanser" after the Liszt concerto.

Anna Clyne
Photo by Jennifer Taylor, annaclyne.com
The second half of the program opened with "This Midnight Hour" by contemporary British composer Anna Clyne. First performed in 2015, the work opens with agitated passages in the low strings that suggest a chase scene from a suspense film before morphing into a tipsy dance that requires the strings to use some unorthodox techniques (e.g., some players using no vibrato, others playing slightly out of tune) to imitate the sound of an accordion. The accordion fights it out with the "chase" music before finally lapsing into a sweetly nostalgic melody that almost sounds like something Edith Piaf would have sung. A final bang from the bass drum brings everything to an abrupt finish.

It's an engaging piece that demonstrates that newer music need not sound like a mathematical exercise. In an interview last February, Mr. Denève said that it was "very important that the audience understand that the new music we will perform is music that I believe they can love... that is often very tonal and that has a lot of melodies." "In the Midnight Hour" certainly lived up to that promise, with an impressively virtuosic performance by the band that was received warmly by the audience.

The concert closed with a suite of music from the wonderfully lush and engaging score of Richard Strauss's bittersweet 1911 romantic comedy "Der Rosenkavalier" ("The Knight of the Rose"). The 1945 suite, which was created with Strauss's approval but apparently not with his actual participation, has become familiar to music lovers over the decades. The version of it played Sunday, however, was one created by Mr. Denève in which the order of the selections has been rearranged to more closely track the arc of the libretto. That means that the suite ends with the touching final trio that closes the opera instead of the big, noisy waltz that concludes the original suite.

Having just seen the opera relatively recently, I have to say I found Mr. Denève's approach preferable to the 1945 version in many ways, especially when played and conducted with such authority and such a fine feel for the dramatic line of the original story. There were well-deserved individual curtain calls for Ms. Dirks, Mr. Sparks, and Mr. Kaplan, as well as Mr. Kaza's horns and Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews.

Next at Powell Hall: It's time to go to the movies with "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert," as the SLSO plays the score to accompany a showing of the film on the big screen at Powell Hall Thursday through Sunday, January 23 through 26. Former New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Joshua Gersen will be on the podium. Only "limited view" seats are available right now and can be purchased only by calling the box office at 314 534-1700.

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

Review: Anna Blair's sweet and funny Patsy Cline tribute is always Anna Blair

"Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same." The quote is usually attributed to composer Franz Schubert, but it could just as well have been the theme for Anna Blair's new cabaret show "Always...Anna Blair" at the Blue Strawberry Thursday night (January 16).

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

Anna Blair and her band
Ms. Blair has been appearing for many years as a Patsy Cline impersonator as well as an independent actor/singer, so it's not surprising that songs associated with the late country star figured prominently in her show. But, as Ms. Blair noted, this wasn't an impersonation evening. "Tonight," she declared, "I want to sing her songs the way that I want to sing them." That meant using her own voice, which remains a strong instrument with an impressive tessitura that served the material well.

Ms. Blair's appealing stage presence and strong sense of humor served the music well also. A lot of Cline's hits are about the footprints on the heart being made by hobnail boots, which could get cloyingly sentimental without the wry sensibility Ms. Blair brought to them.

Perhaps the best example of that was a version of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" with new lyrics by Ms. Blair and her director Dan Kelly. It turned that weepy lament of unrequited love into a hilariously snarky commentary on that subspecies of American man who suddenly reverts to the age of 15 when he hits age 50 ("You're crazy / Crazy for buying that sports car").

I was also much taken with a revision of Stanley Lebowski and Herb Newman's "The Wayward Wind" (a No. 1 hit for Gogi Grant in 1956) that changed the sex of the character "born to wander" from male to female, so that "I'm now alone with a broken heart" became "he's now alone with a broken heart." That made it a song about both female empowerment and a reflection of Ms. Blair's love of travel. "Not all who wander are lost," she reminded us in her introductory patter.

Anna Blair
There were also country classics that were just great fun all on their own. Ms. Blair opened the show with one of them: V.F. Stewart's bouncy "Come On In," sung as Ms. Blair entered from the back of the house, bidding a cheerful hello to the audience as she made her way to the stage. Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka's "Stupid Cupid" (sung by Cline on stage but not issued on records until after her premature death in 1963 at the age of 30) got a spirited comic treatment that offered a nice contrast to (in Ms. Blair's words) "the 'love is not fair' part of the show."

That's not to say that we didn't get the requisite number of "he cut out my heart and stomped on it" numbers, but Ms. Blair's heartfelt delivery and obvious emotional connection to the lyrics prevented them from becoming maudlin. In fact, old-fashioned weepers like "Sweet Dreams" (a big hit for songwriter Don Gibson in 1955 and later for Patsy Cline) and Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard's "I Fall to Pieces" (Cline's first No. 1 hit on the Country charts) felt more moving to me in Ms. Blair's performances than the original versions ever did.

Maybe that's just because I have never been a country music fan. Or maybe it's because Ms. Blair's voice and acting skills just make them mesmerizing.

I'd also like to put in a few words about Ms. Blair's excellent use of patter, those small monologs that performers use to set up their songs. While Ms. Blair was up front about the autobiographical intent of some of her song choices, she did so in ways that touched lightly on her own rich life experience without giving the audience too much information. She consistently gave us just enough background to make her subtext clear without putting big flashing lights on it. Singers doing a "this is my life" cabaret far too often fall into that trap. She didn't even come close to it.

Throughout the evening, her backup band provided solid accompaniment with the requisite country twang. Ms. Blair's long-time artistic collaborator, pianist Royal Robbins, led the combo, which included guitarists Michael Amoroso and Bronson Hundley. Ms. Robbins' playing had a nice touch of that "slip note" style associated with "Nashville sound" architect Floyd Cramer. The band sounded a bit under-rehearsed at times, but not distractingly so.

Bottom line: I don't even like Patsy Cline that much, but I really enjoyed this sweet, funny, and touching evening, as did the capacity crowd. Ms. Blair has been an important figure on the local theatre scene for many years now, and a raft of familiar performers (and even a few of my fellow critics) showed up to join the rest of the audience in welcoming her long overdue return to the cabaret stage.

I have known Ms. Blair for quite some time myself, going back to when we both appeared in a production of the musical "Smoke on the Mountain" a couple of decades ago, but it was pretty clear from the audience response that you didn't need to know her to love her latest show.

"Always...Anna Blair" played the Blue Strawberry on January 16th. Information on upcoming shows at The Blue Strawberry, St. Louis's only dedicated bar/restaurant/cabaret showroom, is available at their web site.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of January 20, 2020

St. Louis theatre has it all this week: comedy (interactive and otherwise), drama, musicals, cabaret, and opera.

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.

Sara Shepherd
The Blue Strawberry presents Female on Fire - A Celebration of Female Singer/Songwriters with singer Sara Shepherd along with Scott Sheperd on piano and Dave Black on guitar on Saturday, January 25, at 8 pm. " Sara Sheperd most recently just finished her run in Beautiful- the Carole King musical on Broadway understudying Carole King, Genie Klein, and the roles of Betty and Marilyn. She was also a part of the Original Broadway Company and was the dance captain for the production. Other Broadway and National Tour credits include Cry-Baby, the musical and Legally Blonde, the musical. Favorite regional credits include Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (Drury Lane), Jo in Little Women (John W. Engeman Theatre), Nancy in Oliver! (Human Race). She is a proud CCM graduate and also earned a Presidential Scholar in the Arts award in 2004." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

Winter Opera St. Louis presents Donizetti's comedy La Fille du Régiment Friday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, November 8 and 10. "Army life is all Marie, the régiment's canteen girl, knows after being abandoned as a baby and saved by the soldiers. She has fallen in love with prisoner-turned soldier Tonio, but after a chance encounter with her long-lost aunt, the Marquise of Berkenfield, Marie reluctantly leaves the régiment. Will Marie stay with the Marquise and live a life of luxury or will the regimental songs call her back to the soldier she loves?" Performances take place at The Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh. For more information, visit winteroperastl.org.

The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents the interactive comedy Flanagan's Wake opening on Friday, January 24, at 7:30 pm and running through March 21. "The hit show from Chicago, Flanagan's Wake, is the hilarious interactive show that brings Flanagan's Irish family to St. Louis where they will memorialize his passing. Audiences participate in this comedic memorial with plenty o' pints, crazy sing-a-longs, telling of witty tales and mourn the passing of one of their own: Flanagan. Audiences will pay their respects to glowering Mother Flanagan and to poor grieving fiancée, Fiona Finn. Listen to a eulogy written by County Sligo's best-known writer, Mickey Finn, and tip a pint with Brian Ballybunion, himself a weaver of tales. You can cross yourself with the blessings from St. Gregory's parish priest, Father Damon Fitzgerald, or cross your fingers that local pagan Kathleen Mooney doesn't cast a spell on you. Mayor Martin O'Doul will preside over the proceedings with an iron hand (and a parched throat)." The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

Circus Harmony: Legato (2018)
Circus Harmony presents Fluente: An Underseas Circus Adventure Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through January 26. "This captivating show is an undersea circus adventure. All the acts are co-created with the amazing Circus Harmony students, staff and guest teaching artists - a number of whom are successful alumni. Like it's home, City Museum, this circus show is not just for children! While the age range of the performers is 8 to 21 years old, these young people perform professional level circus arts. That is why a number of them have gone on to perform with some of the most prestigious circus companies around the world! Fluente will feature new acts created especially for this production and new music from the Circus Harmony Band under the direction of Jeffrey Carter." Performances take place at City Museum, downtown. For more information: circusharmony.org/fluente/

The Looking Glass Playhouse presents the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, January 23 - February 2. "When the low-born Monty Navarro finds out that he's eighth in line for an earldom in the lofty D'Ysquith family, he figures his chances of outliving his predecessors are slight and sets off down a far more ghoulish path. Can he knock off his unsuspecting relatives without being caught and become the ninth Earl of Highhurst? And what of love? Because murder isn't the only thing on Monty's mind…. " Performances take place at 301 West St. Louis Street in Lebanon, Ill. For more information, visit www.lookingglassplayhouse.com.

Vivre Theatre presents the musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder opening on Friday, January 24, at 7:30 pm and running through February 1. "When the low-born Monty Navarro finds out that he's eighth in line for an earldom in the lofty D'Ysquith family, he figures his chances of outliving his predecessors are slight and sets off down a far more ghoulish path. Can he knock off his unsuspecting relatives without being caught and become the ninth Earl of Highhurst? And what of love? Because murder isn't the only thing on Monty's mind…. " Performances take place at the Florissant Civic Center in Florissant, MO. For more information: www.facebook.com/events

The Blue Strawberry presents Bob Gerchen in Joe Cocker: Never Forget on Friday, January 24, at 8 pm. "Bob Gerchen finds the beauty, the grit, the soul and the pathos in the work of Joe Cocker, with a little help from a St. Louis Grown Blues Band. Bob sings Joe's hits, but also some songs you might not know. He tells the story of Joe's improbable rise and influence on American blues and soul (he got inside a lot of our souls), as well as on the life of the show's creator." The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

Madam
Photo by Caroline Guffey
Fly North Theatricals presents the new musical Madam through February 2. "ELIZA HAYCRAFT - She built an EMPIRE of brothels based on three simple rules. . . RESPECT, CONSENT, and PAY UP FRONT! In 1870 - she was the richest and most powerful woman in the City of St. Louis! But in 1870, Eliza Haycraft was dying. . . And the richest and most powerful men in the City of St. Louis. . . They were hellbent on taking it all away from her. With a score by STL-based composer Colin Healy (The Gringo, Forgottonia) described as 'power swing', fusing elements of modern pop and musical theatre with traditional St. Louis blues and swing revival, you can move-and-be-moved by this turbulent story about the right to be remembered, the meaning of love, and the power of 'no.'" Performances take place at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: https://flynorththeatricals.com/events.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro through February 2. " The Greek tragedy Medea is reborn through the experiences of a young immigrant family living in modern day Los Angeles. Shrouded in evocative mysticism, this tale of love, loss and transformation pulses with an escalating sense of danger. In this fresh retelling, Medea and Jason grapple not only with their own star-crossed marriage, but with the weight of the sacrifices demanded in the battle between assimilation and tradition." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org

New Jewish Theater presents My Name is Asher Lev Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, January 23 - February 9. "My Name is Asher Lev follows the journey of a young Jewish painter torn between his Hassidic upbringing and his desperate need to fulfill his artistic promise. When his artistic genius threatens to destroy his relationship with his parents and community, young Asher realizes he must make a difficult choice between art and faith. This stirring adaptation of a modern classic presents a heartbreaking and triumphant vision of what it means to be an artist." 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.

Kirkwood Theatre Guild presents Other Desert Cities through January 26. "Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her parents, her brother, and her aunt. Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir dredging up a pivotal and tragic event in the family's history-a wound they don't want reopened. In effect, she draws a line in the sand and dares them all to cross it." Performances take place in the Robert G. Reim Theatre of the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 South Geyer Road. For more information, call 314-821-9956 or visit ktg-onstage.org.

Polkadots the Cool Kids Musical
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's Imaginary Theatre Company presents the children's musical Polkadots The Cool Kids Musical opening on Saturday, January 25, with performances at 10:30 am and 12:30 pm, and running on Saturdays only through February 2. "The “Squares Only” town of Rockaway turns upside down when Lily Polkadot arrives. As the first Polkadot in an all Square school, Lily faces an almost impossible task of gaining acceptance from her peers. From daily bullying to segregated drinking fountains, everything seems hopeless until Lily meets Sky, a shy Square boy whose curiosity for her different skin leads to an unexpected friendship. Inspired by the events of The Little Rock Nine, this musical serves as a colorful history lesson, reminding us that our differences make us awesome, not outcasts." Performances take place on the Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus on January 25 and February 1, and at the Missouri History Museum on February 2. For more information: repstl.org.

The Blue Strawberry presents SilverPhreek: Three Part Harmonies of Curt Landes, Vince Martin, Al Oxenhandler on Thursday, January 23, at 8 pm. "SilverPhreek -Curt Landes, Vince Martin and Al Oxenhandler - are St. Louis-based musicians and singers. They come together on special occasions as "SilverPhreek" to do 3-part harmony and have fun. These guys bring a lot of experience to their game. Alan has written and performed his own 1 man musical stage play, and he has sung with the Boston Pops Orchestra. Curt has toured and performed with numerous talented musicians (including at least 4 members of the rock 'n' roll Hall of Fame). Vince is regularly asked to headline at blues festivals" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.bluestrawberrystl.com.

Carol Schmidt
The Cabaret Project presents its montly Singers Open Mic Night on Tuesday, January 21, from 7 to 10 pm. Drop by and enjoy a night of great music from St. Louis cabaret artists, backed up by pianist and music director Carol Schmidt and hosted by 88.1 KDHX's 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 event takes place at Sophie's Artist Lounge on the second floor of the .ZACK performing arts space at 3226 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

Debbie Lennon in Songs for Nobodies
Photo by Dan Dan Donovan
Max and Louie Productions presents Songs for Nobodies, starring Debbie Lennon, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm, January 23 - February 2. "This one-woman powerhouse performance, starring Debby Lennon, weaves the music of legendary divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas throughout a mosaic of stories told by the everyday women who had unexpected life-changing encounters with these musical icons." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: maxandlouie.com

First Run Theatre presents the 2020 Spectrum One-Act Play Festival Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, January 24 - February 1. Performances take place at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton. For more information, call (314) 352-5114 or visit www.firstruntheatre.com.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents Summer: The Donna Summer Musical through January 26. "She was a girl from Boston with a voice from heaven, who shot through the stars from gospel choir to dance floor diva. But what the world didn't know was how Donna Summer risked it all to break through barriers, becoming the icon of an era and the inspiration for every music diva who followed. With a score featuring more than 20 of Summer's classic hits including "Love to Love You Baby," "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff," this electric experience is a moving tribute to the voice of a generation." The Fabulous Fox Theatre in on N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Thanksgiving Play
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents The Thanksgiving Play through February 9. "Four earnestly progressive theatre-makers want to create a politically correct Thanksgiving play that is historically accurate, avoids all possible stereotypes and doesn't offend anyone. Guess how long it takes for everything to fly off the rails? This wickedly hilarious satire hurtles into glorious chaos, skewering both its characters' pretensions and the traditional "Thanksgiving story."" Performances take place in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

Two Trains Running
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Black Rep presents August Wilson's Two Trains Running through January 26. "In August Wilson's masterpiece, history unfolds around everyday lives against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Long-time regulars gather at the local diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District to gossip, flirt and play the numbers. Now the owner must decide whether to let the city take over his building or sell it to a shrewd, local businessman. Part of Wilson's trailblazing American Century Cycle, Two Trains Running paints a compassionate and unforgettable portrait of ordinary people in the midst of transformation." Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: theblackrep.org.

Wildfire
Photo by Claire Fairbanks
Upstream Theater presents Wildfire opening on Friday, January 24, at 8 pm and running through February 9. "Claudette, Claudia, Claudine, Carol, Callum, and Caroline have more in common than names that begin with C-they are haunted by a family history of childhood trauma, which unfolds across three generations-and then loops back … to the future. They do what they can to survive. Sometimes by baking cookies, sometimes by playing fantasy games, and sometimes by smashing a hammer into a TV. Highly absurd, terribly funny and beautifully constructed, WILDFIRE is a mix of ferocious black comedy and a humanistic worldview which recognizes that seemingly unremarkable lives can experience extraordinary fates." Performances take place at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.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.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of January 20, 2020

This week: new music for piano, chamber music for guitar, Star Wars in Concert, and a low brass blowout.

Matthew Shipp
The New Music Circle presents pianist Matthew Shipp on Friday, January 24, at 8 pm. "In his unique and recognizable style, New York City pianist Matthew Shipp has performed and recorded vigorously from the late 1980s onward, creating music in which free jazz and modern classical intertwine. His approach to the piano reflects a concentrated blend of Thelonious Monk's phrasing and the improvised explorations of Cecil Taylor." The performance takes place at the 560 Music Center in University City. For more information: newmusiccircle.org.

The St. Louis Classical Guitar Society presents guitarist Mark Grgic and members of the Chamber Music Society of St. Louis in concert Monday and Tuesday, January 20 and 21 at 7:30 pm. The performances take place in the ballroom at the Sheldon in Grand Center. For more information: stlclassicalguitar.com.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Joshua Gersen conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert, Thursday through Saturday at 7 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, January 23-26. "The battle for the galaxy intensifies in the intergalactic adventure of the unfolding saga Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back In Concert. Travel to a galaxy far, far away and experience the iconic film on the big screen at Powell Hall as the SLSO performs the score live." Performances take place at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Schlafly Tap Room presents the St. Louis Low Brass Collective in a Low Brass Spectacular on Tuesday, January 21, at 7:30 PM. “Join us as we present another great concert of Low Brass Music, featuring British Jazz trombonist Carol Jarvis, with rhythm section, and String Quartet. We will also present our 9th Commissioned work, written especially for the organization. Featuring the best and brightest low brass from around the St. Louis Region.” The Schlafly Tap Room is at 2100 Locust downtoan. For more information: stllbc.org.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Symphony Preview: Triple play

This weekend (Saturday and Sunday, January 18 and 19), Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in an evening of music by Wagner, Liszt, Richard Strauss, and contemporary (b. 1980) British composer Anna Clyne. At first glance, these four composers might not appear to have a great deal in common, but as SLSO program annotator Tim Munro points out, the first three are links in a late 19th/early 20th century chain.

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

Photo of Cosima and Richard Wagner, 1872
By Fritz Luckhardt
Self-scanned, Public Domain
"Without Franz Liszt," he writes, "there would have been no Richard Wagner: Wagner absorbed Liszt's musical voice, and Liszt was a passionate early Wagnerian... Without Wagner and Liszt, there would have been no Richard Strauss: He learned his trade from Liszt's orchestral poetry, from Wagner's all-embracing operas."

There might also be a tangential link from Ms. Clyne's work, "This Midnight Hour" back to Liszt, but I'll return to that anon.

Liszt may be the start of the chain, but Wagner is the start of the program this weekend. Specifically, it begins with his charming "Siegfried Idyll" from 1870. It was written as a birthday/Christmas present to his wife Cosima (born on December 24th), who was Liszt's daughter (yes, another link). And it was inspired by the birth, in 1869, of the composer's son Siegfried.

The piece was originally titled ""Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard." "Fidi," notes Wikipedia,, ""was the family's nickname for their son Siegfried."" Mr. Munro adds that the orange sunrise refers to "the orange sun that warmed a wall of his bedroom."

A very cozy domestic image, in short.

The first performance took place not in a concert hall, but on the stairs of the Wagner family home in Tribschen on Christmas morning, 1870. The musicians were members of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. Cosima was awakened by the first gentle strains of the music and was, as you might expect, completely enchanted.

"As I awoke," she would later recall, "my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever."

"Liszt at a Piano"
Drawing by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1904
As I wrote in my preview article for the SLSO's last performance of the "Siegfried Idyll" in 2014, Wagner never intended the piece for public performance, but financial considerations obliged him to allow it. It is, in any case, as disarming a piece as you are likely to hear, and utterly unlike the more grandiose gestures most people associate with Wagner. It's a reminder that even that great egotist had his moments of intimate reflection. And it also reminds us that winter is about the warmth of family as well as the cold weather.

Up next is music by the first link in the chain, the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Franz Liszt. The concerto's composition process, as James M. Keller writes program notes for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, was a lengthy one:
Liszt first drafted it in 1839, returned to it a decade later, and brought it to a provisional completion in 1856, in which form it was premiered in 1857. Even after that, Liszt continued revising it until 1861. Throughout that process, the work's manuscripts carried the title Concerto symphonique; not until it appeared in published form, on the Schott imprint in 1863, was that heading transformed into "Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra."
But that wasn't unusual for Liszt. His Piano Concerto No. 1 took 25 years to come to fruition, while his "Symphony to the Divine Comedy" (a.k.a. the "Dante" Symphony) took 17 years. His flashy "Totentanz" ("Dance of the Dead") for piano and orchestra was initiated in 1838 but didn't reach its final form until 1859. That's largely because, as Mr. Keller points out, "Liszt could turn out facile piano solos at the drop of a hat [but] he tended to agonize over works that he envisioned more for posterity, like works in the 'big' forms of the symphony or the concerto."

And then there's the fact that the Second Concerto was, like many of Liszt's later works, a daring and forward-looking break from the traditional mid-19th century model. Instead of being cast in three or four separate movements, it unfolds in one movement with six separate sections.

More significantly, though, it breaks with existing models of musical structure in that it is organized, not along the lines of the classical sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation, and all that other Music 101 stuff) but through the use of thematic transformation. An elaboration of the old "theme and variations" concept, thematic transformation involves organizing a work around variations, transformations, expansions, and other forms of metamorphosis on a single theme.

In the case of the Liszt Second Concerto, the theme is presented in simple and sweetly lyrical form by a small choir of woodwinds at the very beginning, in a section marked adagio sostenuto assai (roughly, "very slowly and sustained"). It's both memorable and open to a lot of variation--a good thing, since over the next 20 minutes or so you'll hear it in multiple guises, including a noble march (marziale un poco meno allegro) in the penultimate section.

That's followed by a flurry of keyboard pyrotechnics that brings the piece to a rousing finish. Because, while Liszt often treats the piano as a partner rather than star player in this piece, it's still technically challenging, and Liszt the virtuoso showoff couldn't be expected to keep his light under a bushel the entire time.

Anna Clyne
Photo by Jennifer Taylor, annaclyne.com
At the concert grand this weekend will be the Jean-Paul and Isabelle Montupet Artist-in-Residence, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. As such, he'll be returning for more concerts later in the season and will also present an evening of chamber music with SLSO members on Friday, the 17th, at Washington University's 560 Music Center.

Anna Clyne's "This Midnight Hour" is next. First performed in 2015, the work opens with agitated passages in the low strings that suggest a chase scene from a suspense film before morphing into a tipsy dance that fights it out with the "chase" music before finally lapsing into a sweetly nostalgic melody that prevails almost until the end, when a final bang from the percussion section brings everything to an abrupt finish.

If you're the sort of music lover who has tired of new works that sound more like mathematical exercises than music, I think you'll find Ms. Clyne's "This Midnight Hour" to be a welcome change of pace. In his program notes, Mr. Munro writes "Clyne's work evokes a mysterious journey of a woman in the hour after midnight" which draws inspiration from two poems: Baudelaire's 1857 "Harmonie du soir" and "a very short poem from Juan Ramón Jiménez: 'Music, a naked woman, running mad through the pure night.'" The somewhat tangential link back to Liszt goes through that first poem, since the title of his "Transcendental Étude No. 11 is "Harmonies du soir" (although we can't ignore the possibility that Liszt, roué that he was, had his share of experience with les femmes nues).

Granted, Liszt wrote "Harmonies du soir" six years before Baudelaire's poem but, as Sara Zamir and Juliette Hassine point out in a 2008 paper for the Journal of Music and Meaning, "the absence of a proven interaction between Liszt and Baudelaire is irrelevant" because both were likely inspired by "the Soleil Couchant [sunset] literary theme and its aesthetic implications in French Romantic poetry":
It is well-known that the Romantic Movement recruited natural phenomena to the aesthetics of the self-focused yearning to the unattainable and converted them into a vehicle for sentimental inconsistency and to the transformation of the sensation into a vision. A cause-and-effect relation between nature and overflowing powerful feelings was gradually established as an immanent part of the Romantic tradition, where nature turned into an expressive, mediating artistic language.
In short, they both drank from the same nocturnal spring. It's a bit sketchy and I wouldn't swear to it on a stack of Grove Dictionaries, but it's a provocative notion in any case.

L-R: Amanda Majeski and Sophie Koch
as The Marschallin and Octavian
Photo: Cory Weaver, Lyric Opera of Chicago
This weekend's concerts conclude with a suite of music from the wonderfully lush and engaging score of Richard Strauss's bittersweet romantic comedy "Der Rosenkavalier" ("The Knight of the Rose"). First performed in Dresden in 1911, "Rosenkavalier" was an immediate success with both audiences and critics alike. Today it's easily Strauss's most popular opera and a part of the core repertoire.

Much of the opera's success stems from the depth and intelligence of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto. Working closely with the composer, von Hofmannsthal took what started out as a typical romantic farce about young lovers Sophie and Octavian (the titular cavalier) outwitting the boorish Baron Ochs, who is being forced on Sophie as a husband, and added a worldly-wise depth to it with the character of Octavian's older lover, the noblewoman Marschallin.

In her mid-thirties, the Marschallin is nearly twice Octavian's age and sees all too clearly that their affair must eventually end. Her Act I ruminations on the transitory nature of happiness and her final renunciation of Octavian in the exquisitely beautiful trio at the end of the third act lend her character a richness that makes her immediately appealing. That final trio, along with the duet for Sophie and Octavian that follows, also gives the comedy a rueful edge that contrasts wonderfully with the door-slamming farce that has gone before.

The 1945 orchestral suite of selections from the score (assembled with Strauss's approval but apparently without his participation) opens with the opera's overture, an unabashedly erotic depiction of Octavian and the Marschallin's night of passion (Con molto agitato, complete with orgasmic whoops from the horns) that is a neat bit of tongue-in-cheek comedy. It ends with the "fast waltz" (Schneller Walzer, molto con moto), in which Baron Ochs gets his comeuppance.

For this weekend's concerts, though, Maestro Denève has rearranged the order of the selections to more closely track the arc of the libretto. That means that the suite ends, not with that lavish waltz, but rather with that final, beautiful trio. So even if you heard this music when the SLSO last played it in 2013 under the baton of then-Resident Conductor Ward Stare, this rearranged version might shed new light on it all.

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, January 18 and 19. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. The Department of Music at Washington University presents Jean-Yves Thibaudet and members of the SLSO in a program of chamber music by Poulenc and Shostakovich on Friday, January 17, at 7:30 pm. That concert takes place in the E. Desmond Lee Concert Hall at the 560 Music Center in University City.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of January 17, 2020

There's plenty of variety this week, with cabaret, drama, and the circus. Take your pick.

New This Week:

Lola Van Ella
The Gateway Men's Chorus presents Cabaret Risque: At The Speakeasy on Saturday, January 18, at 8 pm with a VIP Reception at 7 pm. "Travel back to the Roaring 20s as Gateway Men's Chorus presents an evening of sexy and sensual entertainment, handpicked by International Showgirl Lola Van Ella. With exotic burlesque performances, enticing silent auction items, and an incredible evening of saucy surprises, this is an event you can't afford to miss!" The event takes place at the Centene Center for the Arts in the Rialto Ballroom. For more information: www.gmcstl.org.

My take: The Gateway Men's Chorus is a local cultural treasure and deserves our support. And and by attending their event, you'll get an entertaining evening of cabaret along with the good feeling of knowing that you've helped them keep going. And, of course, there's the presence of St. Louis' leading burlesque figure (in more ways than one), Ms. Lola Van Ella.


Mark Saunders
The Blue Strawberry presents Everything's Fine: A Bear in Search of His Honey with singer Mark Saunders and pianist Stephen Eros on Friday, January 17, at 8 pm. "The world of online dating can be a tricky game to master. In a one-man cabaret, Mark Saunders will take you on a journey through the ups and downs, the goods and bads, and especially the tops and bottoms of his journey to find love. The evening will be full of laughter, heartbreak, and 100% true horror stories that will make us all feel better about ourselves. Come out, have a drink, and let's talk!" The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

My take: Alas, other commitments prevent me from seeing this show, but I can tell you from seeing him perform at The Cabaret Project's monthly open mic night at Sophie's Artist Lounge (next one is Tuesday the 21st; just saying) that he has the voice of an angel, a charming stage presence, and a sense of humor to back it up. Should be a good show.


Circus Harmony: Legato (2018)
Circus Harmony presents Fluente: An Underseas Circus Adventure Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, January 18 - 26. "This captivating show is an undersea circus adventure. All the acts are co-created with the amazing Circus Harmony students, staff and guest teaching artists - a number of whom are successful alumni. Like it's home, City Museum, this circus show is not just for children! While the age range of the performers is 8 to 21 years old, these young people perform professional level circus arts. That is why a number of them have gone on to perform with some of the most prestigious circus companies around the world! Fluente will feature new acts created especially for this production and new music from the Circus Harmony Band under the direction of Jeffrey Carter." Performances take place at City Museum, downtown. For more information: circusharmony.org/fluente/

My take: Circus Harmony does excellent outreach work that demonstrates how the arts can make a big difference in the community. If you've ever seen a Circus Flora show, of course, you've seen some of Circus Harmony's students at work as The St. Louis Arches, but the organization's reach and mission go far beyond that. "Circus Harmony," according to their web site, "teaches the art of life through circus education. We work to build character and expand community for youth of all ages, cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Through teaching and performance of circus skills, we help people defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers, all at the same time." Since their 2001 Circus Salaam Shalom, which brought Jewish and Muslim kids in St. Louis together, Circus Harmony has been advancing its philosophy of "peace through pyramids, harmony through hand springs" to "inspire individuals and connect communities."


Two Trains Running
Photo by Phil Hamer
The Black Rep presents August Wilson's Two Trains Running through January 26. "In August Wilson's masterpiece, history unfolds around everyday lives against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Long-time regulars gather at the local diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District to gossip, flirt and play the numbers. Now the owner must decide whether to let the city take over his building or sell it to a shrewd, local businessman. Part of Wilson's trailblazing American Century Cycle, Two Trains Running paints a compassionate and unforgettable portrait of ordinary people in the midst of transformation." Performances take place at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. For more information: theblackrep.org.

My take: Critical reaction to this has been rather ecstatic. "In St. Louis," writes Calvin Wilson at the Post-Dispatch, "standing ovations have become routine and are often unmerited. But in this case, that gesture is much deserved." At KDHX, Jacob Juntunen calls it "an exquisite production of a superb script by one America's most important playwrights." And at Ladue News, Mark Bretz writes that director Ed Smith "weaves a masterpiece of a production through the expert utilization of his cast and technical staff." 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: Give my regards to Broadway

As the risk of putting whatever reputation I might have as a critic at risk, I have a confession to make: I don't like writing negative reviews. As long as the performance justifies it, I'd rather write a paean than a pan.

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

Emily Skinner
Which is why reviewing Emily Skinner's "Broadway My Way" at the Blue Strawberry last weekend (January 11 and 12) is such a pleasure. This was a show that did everything right and nothing wrong. As an example of the "song showcase" variety of cabaret (in which the focus is on the songs rather than the singer) it was simply nonpareil.

The charismatic Ms. Skinner, for the benefit of those of you who may not be familiar with her, has been a very successful singer/actress in New York for over 25 years, with leading roles in shows like "Jekyll and Hyde," "The Full Monty," "Side Show," and "Billy Elliot." Local theatregoers may also recall her powerful performance as Phyllis in Sondheim's "Follies" at the Rep in 2016 or her Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" at the Muny in 2017.

Not surprisingly, then, "Broadway My Way" was a collection of ten songs from shows in which she has appeared over the years, from the aforementioned "Follies" to (I kid you not) "The Cher Show," a 2018 jukebox musical based on the life and songs of the pop icon. Anecdotes from her showbiz career and insightful commentary on the lyrics made up the core of the patter that held the evening together.

More than once, that commentary shed a whole new light on a song I thought I knew well. She prefaced her "Children Will Listen" (from Sondheim's "Into the Woods"), for example, with the observation that although many singers treat it as an uplifting or sentimental piece it is, in reality, a warning--one that is especially relevant in today's political climate. Heard in that context, its lyrics took on a disturbing subtext that is not only justifiable but probably what the composer had in mind in the first place: "Careful the things you say / Children will listen / Careful the things you do / Children will see / And learn."

What really made all this work, of course, were Ms. Skinner's remarkable acting chops and vocal versatility. She has a big "Broadway belter" voice with solid low notes that served her well in her broad and comically precise "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (from "Little Mermaid") and in her just-this-side-of-campy "Half-Breed," which she sang in the role of Cher's mother in "The Cher Show."

And yet she used that same voice to deliver a simple, charming performance of "Bill" (from "Showboat") with the piping sweetness of an operetta soubrette. Later in the evening, she did an impressive impersonation of Mae West's lubricious alto in "Come Up and See Me Sometime" that even included West's trademark rapid vibrato. That's some solid vocal control.

Emily Skinner
As an actress, she thoroughly inhabited the characters in each song. Her "All that Jazz" (from "Chicago") was slinky and sexy, while her "When You're Good to Mama" (ditto) had all the brassy attitude you'd expect in this double entendre classic. There was palpable sadness in "Send in the Clowns" (from "A Little Night Music") and a mix of anger and pain in "Could I Leave You" ("Follies") so powerful that afterwards she laughed and said "you're all scared of me now, aren't you?"

I think maybe we were, just a bit.

Backing Ms. Skinner up was New York-based pianist and music director John Fischer. He has a pretty impressive resume of his own, including nine years as music director for the Broadway's Rising Stars, Broadway Originals concerts at New York City's Town Hall. His arrangements were creative enough to display his keyboard mastery without stealing focus from Ms. Skinner. Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of his virtuosity, though, came in a typically demanding arrangement by Jason Robert Brown (composer of "The Last Five Years," "Songs for a New World," and other shows of note) of Sondheim's "Now You Know" (from "Merrily We Roll Along").

The song's practical advice to disenchanted idealists was, Ms. Skinner noted, a favorite of legendary producer Hal Prince, whose many hits tend to make people forget his numerous flops. Her performance had just the right mix of tough love and sympathy that the lyrics suggest.

Toward the end of the evening, Ms. Skinner described herself as "a lyric person," something which, by then, was readily apparent. The power and flexibility of her voice was more than matched by her respect for and ability to clearly communicate the lyrics of her songs. That's an essential aspect of this hybrid art form known as cabaret, and her understanding of that was ultimately what made "Broadway My Way" such a knockout of a show.

For information on Emily Skinner's upcoming appearances, check out her web site. For information on shows at The Blue Strawberry, St. Louis's only dedicated bar/restaurant/cabaret showroom, the place to surf is bluestrawberrystl.com.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The St. Louis classical calendar for the week of January 13, 2020

This week brings recitals at Webster University's Community Music School along with two appearances by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions.

The Community Music School of Webster University presents the CMS String Ensemble and String Orchestra in concert on Sunday, January 19, at 2 pm. The Community Music School is at 535 Garden Avenue on the Webster University campus. For more information: webster.edu/cms.

The Community Music School of Webster University presents the Young People's Symphonic Orchestra in concert on Sunday, January 19, at 6 pm. The Community Music School is at 535 Garden Avenue on the Webster University campus. For more information: webster.edu/cms.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Photo courtesy of the SLSO
Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, along with pianist Jean-Yven Thibaudet on Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, December January 18 and 10. The program consists of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, Anna Clyne's This Midnight Hour, and Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Department of Music at Washington University presents pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program of chamber music by Poulenc and Shostakovich on Friday, January 17, 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 The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, St. Louis District, on Saturday, January 18, from 10 am to approximately 4 pm. "The St. Louis District typically hosts up to 35 singers. Each participating singer is expected to prepare five arias, two of which they will perform at the audition- one of their choosing and one chosen by the judges. Typically there are three District winners who go on to compete in the regional competition with the hope of continuing to the national level in New York." 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.