Friday, December 21, 2007

Home for the Holidays

[This is my review of Lennie Watts' Celebrate Me Home for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The St. Louis Home for the Holidays series at The Cabaret at Savor has been a kind of early Christmas present for local cabaret fans, offering a month of exemplary shows by local performers Pamela Reckamp and Tim Schall and Local Boy Made Good John McDaniel. The series comes to a smashing conclusion this weekend with Lennie Watts' idiosyncratically entertaining Celebrate Me Home.

Described with pithy accuracy as a "tender dynamo" by Cabaret Scenes' Elizabeth Ahlfors, Watts is an engaging mix of singer, actor, rock ‘n' roller and stand-up comic. He relies, perhaps, a bit too much on his head voice and falsetto at times (that's the rock ‘n' roller, I think), which made his voice sound a bit strained the fist time I heard it. It quickly became apparent that he was quite comfortable up there, however, and after a song or two my ears made the adjustment.

His musical taste, if this show is any indication, is eclectic, ranging from the Kenny Loggins/Bob James title song, to the hilarious "Schadenfreude" (one of many wonderful songs from the Tony-winning Avenue Q) and the droll "Department Stores Mean Christmas to Me" by singer/songwriter D.C. Anderson and Tina Landau.

There was also a lovely combination of "Out of My Dreams" (the often-overlooked charmer from Oklahoma) and "Where or When" (yet another hit from Babes in Arms, which overflows with them) as well as a hilariously demented "Christmas Blues" medley that Mr. Watts introduced by suggesting that the reason so many people get depressed at this time of year isn't the season itself so much as the music. The set included, among others, "Blue Christmas", "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer", "We Need a Little Christmas" and (I'm not making this up) Joni Mitchell's "River". I think Washboard Pete's "Christmas Blues" might have been in there as well, but I wouldn't swear to it. I literally laughed until I cried, and then had to deal with the lump in my throat from what came next - a tender mix of "Silent Night" and "Away in a Manger".

Mr. Watts' most recent New York show, of course, is Manilow '73 - '83, so the evening inevitably included several numbers by that often-reviled but immensely successful songwriter. As someone who is neither a detractor nor a "Fanilow", I have to say that Mr. Watts makes a good case for the Manilow songs in the show, although even in his skilled hands the lyrics for "Mandy" still seem perilously juvenile.

Joining Mr. Watts on piano and vocals for all of this was his music director Steven Ray Watkins. An often-praised cabaret performer in his own right, Mr. Watkins is, if this show is any indication, an ingenious arranger. I don't know whether it was he or Mr. Watts who came up with the idea of combining "That's Life" and "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries", for example, but the result was delightful in any case.

Mr. Watts strung everything together with entertaining and often drop-dead funny commentary on everything from the music to the plastic Pharaoh heads on the wall at the Flim Flam Room. If he ever tires of cabaret, there's a career waiting for him at comedy clubs.

The bottom line is that Lennie Watts' Celebrate Me Home brings the current Cabaret at Savor series to a satisfyingly festive conclusion. For ticket information, call 314-531-0220. For more information on upcoming Cabaret at Savor events, surf on over to To find out what Lennie Watts is up to next, check out his web site,, or look him up on MySpace, where you can also hear some tracks from his fine I Want...You Want CD. If you make it to the show Friday, you might also want to buy a copy, so he doesn't have to schlep them all back to the Big Apple.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Visions of Sugar Plums

[This is my review of the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker for KDHX-FM.]

"It's that time of year", according to the lyrics of "The Christmas Waltz", "when the world falls in love". If that's so, then one of the things the world falls in love with would be Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker.

A quick glance at the KDHX arts and events calendar shows at least three different production in the coming weeks, plus one spoken word adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman's original tale.

From 1989 through 2001, though, the biggest Nutcracker of them all was the one hosted by the Fox Theatre. It originally featured the State Ballet of Missouri (now Kansas City Ballet) and then (from 1997 to 2001) Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. This year [December 5 - 9, 2007] the Fox and Dance St. Louis have brought The Nutcracker back with a bang in the form of the 1987 Joffrey Ballet production.

Making its first appearance here in St. Louis, the Joffrey production was everything you might expect from a world-renowned company that just marked its 50th anniversary last year. Designed and (with the exception of the "Land of Snow" and "Waltz of the Flowers" sequences) choreographed by the company's late founder Robert Joffrey, the production is of the traditional "story book" variety inspired by the original 1892 production, the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo version, and Joffrey's own collection of collection of antique toys and Christmas cards. It was visually stunning - a late 19th-century print come to life, complete with dancing dolls and a 15-foot-tall Mother Ginger. It was also a pleasure to hear, despite the use of amplification, thanks to solid playing by the Ballet Orchestra of St. Louis under Leslie B. Dunner.

All the elements you'd want in a polished Nutcracker were present when we saw the show on Saturday night, including spectacular dancing by the principals and precision work by the ensemble and the various specialty turns in Act II. I was particularly impressed by Kathleen Thielheim and Fabrice Calmels as the sinuous Arabian "coffee" duo and, of course, Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince, but the entire cast deserves a hearty "bravi"; no weak links here.

Does the Joffrey Nutcracker signal a return of what used to be welcome annual event? I hope so. Some things are traditional for good reasons. The Nutcracker speaks, ultimately, to the happy child in all of us, and that's someone we need to remember at this time of the year.

Upcoming Dance St. Louis events include the Tania Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza in January, the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre in February, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in April [2008]; visit the web site at for more information or call 314-534-6622.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Local Hero

[The text of my review for KDHX-FM of John McDaniel's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor]

One of the things that sets cabaret apart from other forms of musical theatre is the fact that its greatest practitioners are not necessarily its greatest singers. Anyone who has ever seen Steve Ross or Andrea Marcovicci on stage, for example, knows that a powerful performer need not have a powerful voice.

Having seen John McDaniel at the Cabaret at Savor on Friday [December 7th, 2007] in the second of a three-show appearance, I can now add him to the short list of Great Cabaret Artists Who Can't Sing Worth a Hoot. Indeed, John McDaniel the singer has such a limited range that John McDaniel the incredibly successful, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director can't always find a comfortable key for his voice.

Big deal. Mr. McDaniel is such a talented arranger/pianist and such an engaging performer that it was easy to forget his vocal limitations and simply enjoy his lively anecdotes about his life and work since graduating from Kirkwood High School locally and his sympathetic performances of a wide range of music.

The program, in fact, was one of the most eclectic the Flim Flam Room has seen, ranging from standards like "You're the Top" and "The Sound of Music" (briefly combined with "Jingle Bells" on the piano) to country star Tricia Yearwood's touching "The Song Remembers When" (which I think I'm going to have to learn), to McDaniel's own compositions. The latter include a pair of top-notch "I was in love" songs*, "My Gemini" and "A Christmas Blue Song" (written for Bette Midler who, alas, never recorded it).

There were even a few numbers with openly political content - an unusual and, in my view, welcome development. Jimmy Buffet's "Only Time Will Tell", for example, asks "Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men / Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend", while a medley of John Lennon's "Imagine" and "Happy Christmas (The War is Over)" suggests that we "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too". Granted Mr. McDaniel wimped out a bit by changing "religion to "injustice", but in our increasingly angry political climate simply including the song at all was a somewhat courageous step, so I'm not complaining. And in any case, ending the medley by softly singing "the war is over" made the point effectively enough.

There were other memorable moments in the evening, including Alan Menken and David Zippel's wistful "In the Cards", about a kid who lives an athletic fantasy life through his baseball card collection, and Paul Williams' romantic "Dancing on the Moon" from (of all things) a still-in-development musical based on the TV show Happy Days.

As if all that weren't impressive enough, Mr. McDaniel's penultimate medley is improvised on the spot, based on favorite tunes called out by audience members. The night I saw him, that included "If I Were a Rich Man" "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and - completely coincidentally - "Mama, a Rainbow" (from Minnie's Boys, an obscure 1970 musical biography of the Marx Brothers). That sort of thing can come across as little more than a gimmick, but Mr. McDaniel makes it work.

John McDaniel's appearance was part of the "St. Louis Home for the Holidays" series of shows at Savor. The series continues with local favorite Tim Schall on December 13th and 14th and concludes with former St. Louisian Lennie Watts on December 20th and 21st. For ticket information, visit the web site, . For information on John McDaniel's upcoming appearances, visit his site, where, if you are so inclined, you can play "Moonlight in Vermont" on the interactive piano graphic on the home page.

Sorry, I just notice things like that.

*According to Steve Ross, there are four types of love songs: "I was in love", I am in love", "I want to be in love" and "New York, New York".

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Standard Time

[This is my review of Julie Budd's The Standard of Things for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

Singer/actress Julie Budd came to The Cabaret in the Savoy Room series this week accompanied by an impressive biography and glowing reviews by the likes of Rex Reed and the late blues and jazz critic Philip Elwood. It is, therefore, a bit embarrassing to confess that while I found her performance on opening night technically impressive - her virtuosity is really unimpeachable - I also found it, for the most part, curiously un-involving.

Perhaps it was the sound system, which unnecessarily amplified her powerful voice to somewhere around the pain threshold; or the programming in the first act, which raced through seventeen American Songbook standards in a sort of Cliff's Notes fashion that tended to gloss over contrasts in lyrical content; or the fact that, while Ms. Budd always engaged the audience with her between-songs patter, she rarely did it with the songs themselves.

A child prodigy who began singing professionally in the late 1960s at the age of twelve, Ms. Budd has often been favorably compared to Barbra Streisand, who made her own big impression on Broadway (as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get for You Wholesale) when Ms. Budd was still a tyke. Like the older singer, with whom she shares Brooklyn origins, Ms. Budd has a big "Broadway belter" voice, a fine sense of comedy, and a tendency to elongate and distort vowels in her singing. The comparison is further emphasized by her inclination to take considerable liberties with melody and rhythm (no shortage of tempo rubato in this show) and rely heavily on grand vocal and physical gestures. I lost count of the number of times she finished a song with her arms spread wide and head thrown back.

There's nothing objectively wrong with any of this. If this had been a concert in Powell Hall rather than cabaret in the Savoy Room, it would have been fine and, indeed, much of the opening night audience clearly loved every minute of it. For me, however, the bottom line was that the show was less about the music and lyrics and more about Julie Budd's remarkable dynamic range and vocal stamina. Cabaret, as Steve Ross has observed, is all about the lyrics, and I felt that they were somewhat short-changed.

That's a bit surprising, given that Ms. Budd clearly appreciates a well-turned phrase and, in fact, she's at her best when she takes a bit more time with a song and allows the lyric to take center stage. A good example is her second-act tribute to the late Dorothy Fields, which ranges from the heartfelt combination of "I'm in the Mood for Love" (music by Jimmy McHugh, introduced by Frances Langford the 1935 film Every Night at Eight) and "The Way You Look Tonight" (introduced by Fred Astaire in Swing Time in 1936) to the hilarity of "If They Could See Me Now" (from 1966's Sweet Charity, the first of three collaborations with Cy Coleman). Moments like these were the high points of the evening for me.

Ms. Budd's chatty and often quite informative comments on the music and her own introduction to it were also bright spots in the show. An anecdote involving the late Peggy Lee was particularly amusing, and since Richard Connema includes it in his 2004 review of her show, you might as well read it there . It would have been nice to hear more of that same open and direct communication in her musical performance. She's clearly capable of it, and for more intimate venues it would be more effective.

One person with whom Ms. Budd clearly did communicate during the show was her pianist and music director Arthur Weiss. Alert to every change of tempo and melodic variation, Mr. Weiss was the ideal accompanist and - assuming he was working from his own charts [which he wasn't - see his comment below] - a darned fine arranger as well, seamlessly blending songs into inventive medleys. His combination of Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" and Neil Sedaka's "Hungry Years", for example, produced an interesting hybrid with a musical life of its own. He's a major asset in the act.

Julie Budd's The Standard of Things continues at The Cabaret at the Savoy Room through Sunday [December 2nd, 2007]; call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 for tickets. If you're a fan of Ms. Budd or, for that matter Ms. Streisand, you can probably ignore most of my complaints. She does what she does very well. If her style suits yours, you won't want to miss her.

Those of you outside of the St. Louis area should know that after her appearance here it's back to The Big Apple to complete shooting of the film Two Lovers and to prepare for a New Year's Eve gig with the Long Island Philharmonic. For information on Julie Budd's future appearances and recordings, check out her web site: .

Next at the Savoy Room: cabaret legend Andrea Marcovicci January 31st through February 3rd, 2008. Check out their web site for details.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Frankly Speaking

[This is my review, for KDHX-FM, of Frankie Randall's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor, November 14th and 15th, 2007]

Lovers of Frank Sinatra have had a good fall locally. The Rat Pack Live at the Sands re-created Old Blue Eyes' 1960s Las Vegas shows at the Fox last month and this month Frankie Randall played two nights (November 14th and 15th, 2007) at the Flim Flam Room as part of the ever-expanding Cabaret at Savor Series.

The connection? Well, as Mr. Randall frequently reminded us, he was a friend and protégé of Sinatra’s and, in fact, was given many of the late singer’s charts just before his death. Most of the numbers on his relatively short program were closely associated with The Chairman of the Board and Randall’s approach to them is very much in the “Sands Hotel hipster” style that defined Sinatra’s middle age.

For fans of that style – and there were quite a few in the audience on the 14th – there was “a lot to like”, as they used to sing in the old cigarette commercial. Randall sailed through a sea of Sinatra hits from the 1950s and 1960s, including “Come Fly With Me”, “Where or When”, “Luck be a Lady”, and “The Best is Yet to Come” - a song so closely associated with Sinatra that its title is engraved on his tombstone. He did so without paying all that much attention to the lyrics – even forgetting some on occasion – but that, too, is consistent with Rat Pack-era Sinatra.

A singer more at home in a cabaret setting might make more of, for example, the typically bittersweet tone of Hoagy Carmichael’s “One Morning in May” or the desperate yearning of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, but that singer wouldn’t be Frankie Randall. Mr. Randall’s approach to his music isn’t one that I find particularly interesting, but it’s clearly the one his fans have come to expect and, at least for them, he clearly delivered.

That said, I’m afraid Mr. Randall has adopted some of the late Mr. Sinatra’s less salubrious performance habits, such as not bothering to rehearse. At one point, for example, he noted that he had spent a total of ten minutes with bassist Dave Troncoso – which made Troncoso’s smart and fluid playing all the more impressive. Troncoso is a seasoned jazz professional, and it showed.

Mr. Randall also had a tendency to play almost exclusively to the large group of local partisans who occupied the center of the house. It’s fine to acknowledge your fans, but a key lesson of Cabaret 101 is that you must do everything you can to include the entire audience in your performance. Otherwise you risk having some of them feel like guests at somebody else’s party.

Let me not leave you with the impression, by the way, that I have no regard for the old school, “knock ‘em dead” way of handling The American Songbook. As Marilyn Maye demonstrated so effectively just a few weeks ago in the same room, that approach can be mightily entertaining. The problem is simply that Mr. Randall’s performance style is far more suited to the casinos in which he usually appears (he has, after all, been inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame) than it is to a classic cabaret venue like Savor’s Film Flam Room.

In any case, fans of Mr. Randall can keep up with his busy performance schedule at his web site, . Most of them are at casinos, so he should be in his element. Lovers of cabaret, meanwhile, can check out the upcoming acts in the Savor series at

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's Wonderful, So They Say

[This is my review for KDHX-FM of Anne Kerry Ford's show Something Wonderful, which played the Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis November 1st through 4th, 2007.]

Anne Kerry Ford is a Ojai, California-based actress and cabaret artist whose Broadway credits include Annie, Threepenny Opera - that one with Sting in 2000 - and Jekyll and Hyde, opposite musical theatre veteran John Cullum. In collaboration with her husband, guitarist Robben Ford, and her musical director John Boswell, Anne Kerry Ford has produced three albums and in my view they're all winners.

When I aired the second of those discs - Something Wonderful: Songs of Sondheim and Hammerstein - on my radio show back in 1999, I described her performances as idiosyncratic and charming. Now that I've finally had a chance to see her do the show the gave birth to that CD here at Savor, I see no reason to revise that verdict.

The late Oscar Hammerstein II was both teacher and father figure to Stephen Sondheim. Ms. Ford's song selection, combined with her biographical tidbits on the two men, provides a fascinating and often enlightening view of their similarities and differences. Early in the program, for example, she pairs Hammerstein's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (music by Jerome Kern) with Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little" (cut from Company originally but restored in the latest revival), describing them as contrasting marriage proposals. I hadn't thought of them in quite that way, but she makes it work.

Memorable cabaret artists always bring their own unique styles to the songs they perform. In Ms. Ford's case, that means a combination of wide-eyed wonder, open sentiment and a heavy dose of impish humor. It also means that some songs get an unusual spin. The breathlessly lyrical reading of "Something's Coming" that opens the show is a good example. The song is usually an up-tempo number with lots of rhythmic drive, but while Ms. Ford's version has some of that, it's mostly gentler, with lots of rubato. It works but, like the quietly intense performance of "Being Alive" that precedes the obligatory encores, it's not what you'd expect.

Her selection of material has its share of surprises as well. The Sondheim selections are largely what you might expect - "Broadway Baby", "The Miller's Son", and "With So Little to Be Sure Of" (from Anyone Can Whistle, that brilliantly ambitious social satire that closed after nine performances) - but there's also a compelling "Move On" (from Sunday in the Park With George), which is usually not on a Sondheim "greatest hits" list.

The real obscurities, however, are to be found among the Hammerstein numbers - not surprising, given how prolific he was. In the case of "I'm One of God's Children" (from Ballyhoo of 1930, a show largely distinguished by W.C. Field's juggling, to judge from contemporary accounts), the obscurity may be deserved - the song is a certified clunker. Ms. Ford sends it up in style, though - specifically, the style of the late Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain.

She also gets plenty of laughs from another bit of Hammerstein arcana, "Vodka" (music by George Gershwin and Herbert Strothart, from a lavish 1925 operetta Song of the Flame), in which she manages the trick of singing just the right notes just a bit flat, a la Jo Stafford in her Darlene Edwards persona. Anybody can do that accidentally. It takes a singer with a good ear to do it deliberately for comic effect.

Ms. Ford is also on solid ground with more well known songs, including "If I Loved You" (easily one of the best love songs ever penned by anyone), "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'", and "Mr. Snow". She also makes a very good case for the title tune, "Something Wonderful" from The King and I. It's a song I had rather disounted in the past, but her performance made me listen to it with fresh ears.

That, friends, is what cabaret is all about.

Cabaret is also about having a sympathetic and smart music director/arranger/pianist. John Boswell is all of that. There's a lot of ebb and flow to Ms. Ford's performances - the whole tempo rubato thing referred to above - and Mr. Boswell is with her every step of the way.

My only complaint - a very minor one - is that Ms. Ford had, at least on the night I saw her, a tendency to drop final consonants in some of the faster songs - "The Miller's Son" being a good example. Striking a balance between lyrical clarity and tonal beauty is ongoing technical challenge for any singing actor, of course, and from their response it's clear that the audience didn't see this as a problem in any case.

Anne Kerry Ford and John Boswell will be presenting Something Wonderful at the Flim Flam Room at Savor, 4356 Lindell, through Sunday [November 4th, 2007]. The evening is, in fact, something wonderful; no lover of cabaret should miss it. Call 314-531-0220 or visit to order tickets on line. You can also keep up with Ms. Ford's appearances elsewhere via her web site, .

Friday, November 02, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 2 November 2007

Reviewed: The national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone, which plays the Fox Theatre in St. Louis October 30th thorugh November 11th, 2007 . You can hear a podcast version of it (complete with musical examples) here. A shorter version was broadcast on KDHX-FM in St. Louis. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets by calling 314-534-1111. For information on other cities where the tour is playing, check out the Drowsy Chaperone web site.

Here's the text of the review.

With music and lyrics by Lia Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellor, The Drowsy Chaperone , which bills itself as "the funniest musical on Broadway" is possibly the most elaborate in-joke Broadway's lavish Marquis Theatre has ever seen, and that includes Raquel Welch's starring role in Victor/Victoria.

Local audiences now have a chance to see what all the fuss is about as the national tour of the show - which originated in Ontario just last month - plays the Fox through November 11th [2007]. The Drowsy Chaperone, as it turns out, is a very smart and mostly very funny parody of musical theatre and, to a certain extent, the very concept of theatre itself. It's fun to watch, and I found my appreciation of its cleverness increasing in retrospect - always a good sign.

As the show opens, a character known only as The Man in the Chair is seated in his "rather ordinary New York apartment". Suffering from what he describes as "a non-specific sadness", he invites the audience to escape with him by listening to the deluxe 2-LP set of his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone by Gabel and Stein. As he drops the needle on his low-fi, the fictitious musical takes shape in his imagination and comes to life on the stage. As the show goes on, The Man in the Chair guides the audience through the convoluted story and offers his own ironic comments.

The show begins as both a send-up of and affectionate tribute to late-1920s froth but soon broadens its targets to include much of mid-20th century American musical theatre. All the jokes you might expect are there, along with a few at the expense of the LP itself, as in a moment near the end of hyperkinetic production number, "Toledo Surprise", when a scratch in the record (remember those?) causes the entire company to repeat the last couple of bars until The Man can work his way through the dancing throng to stomp on the floor and make the needle jump.

There's a similar moment when The Man in the Chair starts what the thinks is disc 2 of The Drowsy Chaperone and walks away "to pee". Unfortunately his LPs have gotten mixed up, and instead we see an embarrassingly racist moment from one of Gable and Stein's lesser efforts, The Enchanted Nightingale - which just happens to be a neat parody of The King and I.

There's a great deal more of that sort of thing. The "Bride's Lament", for example, is a ludicrous "mad scene" featuring leading lady Janet Van De Graaff (as in "generator"), deliberately awful lyrics involving a monkey on a pedestal ("try to block them out - they're not the best"), and a production number that seems to have been inspired by the use of major hallucinogens. The fictitious musical reaches its absurd finale when Trix the Aviatrix (Fran Jaye) performs a multiple marriage aboard her plane and everyone flies down to Rio - without Fred Astaire, but with The Man in the Chair - for a honeymoon.

Bringing all this to life is a talent-packed cast of eighteen remarkably energetic performers. Most of them are pulling off, with great success, the dual trick of playing both characters in The Drowsy Chaperone and the actors playing the characters in The Drowsy Chaperone, about whom The Man delivers little biographical tidbits as the evening progresses.

Jonathan Crombie is completely charming as The Man in the Chair, a role he played earlier this year in the Broadway production. Although it's a non-singing role, it's the linchpin of the show, and on opening night Crombie's strong performance won the audience over immediately. As Janet Van De Graaff, a role she understudied on Broadway, Andrea Chamberlain is just electrifying (sorry about that), and Nancy Opel hams it up hilariously as Stage Legend Beatrice Stockwell, over-acting her way through the role of the titular Chaperone.

Real-life brothers Peter and Paul Riopelle are broadly and appropriately comic as The Tall Brothers (yes, they're both short), a vaudeville duo playing a pair of gangsters who appear to have wandered in from Guys and Dolls. Mark Ledbetter is all toothy charm as Percy Hyman, the charming matinee idol playing Robert Martin - highly appropriate since, as The Man in the Chair reminds us, Hyman was the spokesman for All-Brite Brand Toothpaste, the principal component of which was cocaine ("if you looked at the label, it was the fifth ingredient down - right after Sugar").

Other outstanding performers include Georgia Engel repeating her Broadway role as Ukulele Lil and Robert Dorfman as Noel Fitzpatrick, a pair of now-unknown vaudeville vets playing the dotty Mrs. Tottendale and her faithful underling Underling; Cliff Bemis and Marla Mindelle as Jack and Sadie Adler, a Burns-and-Allen-style comedy team playing harried producer Feldzieg and chorine Kitty; James Moye as "former silent film star and world-class alcohollc" Roman Bartelli, camping it up as Aldolpho; and Richard Vida as the all-purpose Best Man, George.

Technically, the show runs like a very well oiled machine, with rapid set and costume changes flipping us back and forth between The Man's shabby apartment and glitzy world of the musical with ease, and all the jokes delivered with split-second precision. Better yet, the sound is remarkably clear, which is not always the case with today's over-amplified musicals.

At just over one hour and forty minutes with no intermission (The Man in the Chair hates them), The Drowsy Chaperone neatly avoids what I have come to regard as the curse of recent musical comedies: not knowing when to quit. There are just enough jokes and just enough musical theatre fan references to be entertaining. The Man in the Chair has just enough back-story to be interesting but not so much that he becomes genuinely sad. Like Baby Bear's chair, porridge, and bed, it's all just right.

The Drowsy Chaperone runs through November 11th [2007] at the Fox in Grand Center. Don't think you have to be a musical theatre geek to enjoy it; the in-jokes are general enough to appeal to just about anyone who has ever seen a Fred Astaire film or a Rogers and Hammerstein show and the evening really is great fun overall. You'll probably be able to get decent seats as well. If opening night was any indication the show isn't drawing the massive crowds one sees for mega-musicals like The Lion King, although Chaperone is no less entertaining. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy Returns

[This is my review of Steve Ross' show Good Things Going for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

When Steve Ross brought his Travels with My Piano program to the Cabaret at Savor series last year, I noted that the intimate Flim Flam Room was possibly the idea venue for him. Debonair, witty and charismatic, Ross established an immediate connection with his audience that was all the more effective when nobody in that audience was more than 20 feet away.

This year he brings his Stephen Sondheim show, Good Things Going, to the Savoy Room, where most of the audience is at least 20 feet away. And yet, on Friday night that immediate connection was there, despite the distancing effect of the Savoy Room's raised stage, the mediocre sound system, and a back injury that was clearly causing him discomfort.

Happily, even with a bad back and a room that makes it impossible for anyone except his bass player (the always-impressive Kim LaCoste) to see his piano playing, Steve Ross is still, in the words of the New York Times, "the Crown Prince of New York cabaret". His traversal of the work of the last of the great Broadway composers is just as polished, graceful and illuminating as you'd expect it to be.

I refer to Sondheim as the last of the great Broadway composers, by the way, because his work represents both the apotheosis and the termination of an art form that spanned most of the 20th century. He took the traditional Broadway musical about as far as it could go (to borrow a lyric from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II) and then pushed it over the edge. After Sondheim, composers had to find a new direction - which many of them are doing. But the form will never be quite the same.

Mr. Ross' show inspires such thoughts because it does such a fine job of representing the scope of Sondheim's work. From the early romanticism of "I Must Be Dreaming" (from All the Glitters, which Sondheim wrote at the tender age of 18), to the ambiguous wisdom of "Marry Me a Little" and "Sorry/Grateful" (Company) and the yearning of "Johanna" (from Sweeney Todd, undoubtedly one of the previous century's masterpieces of musical theatre), Mr. Ross filters the light of the composer's genius through is own unique prism, and the results are dazzling.

Mr. Ross delivers all this with his usual panache and, when appropriate, dry wit - some of it musical. Two examples that come immediately to mind: a quick instrumental quote from "Blue Skies" towards the end of "Who Could be Blue" (one of many songs cut from the epic-length Follies) and the musical equivalent of a tap-dance break in "Ah, Paris!" (which was not cut), with Ms. LaCoste's bass playing Fred Astaire.

In its original version, Good Things Going was a typical one-act cabaret show, but at the Savoy two acts are mandatory (due, I presume, to the profits gleaned from the bar), so Steve Ross fans get a bonus in the form of a "greatest hits" medley right after intermission. I was glad to find one of my favorite Noel Coward numbers, "Mrs. Worthington", in there (complete with some extra lyrics that were apparently considered too vulgar to be printed back in 1935, if my copy of the sheet music is any indication), along with his enchanting instrumental tribute to Edith Piaf and favorites by Porter and Berlin.

Steve Ross' Good Things Going will be entertaining and enlightening local audiences through Sunday [October 28, 2007] at the Savoy Room, just under the roof at the Sheldon Concert Hall. For ticket information, call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.

Next at the Savoy Room: Julie Budd's The Standard of Things, November 29th through December 2nd, 2007. For more information, check out the web site at .

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 18 October 2007

Reviewed: Marilyn Maye's appeatance at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis October 17 - 21, 2007. You can hear a podcast version of it here. A shorter version was broadcast on KDHX-FM in St. Louis.

Here's the text of the review:

Following one of Marilyn Maye's dozens of appearances on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson turned to the audience and said "that, young singers, is the way it's done." As she's demonstrating this week at Savor, that's still the way it's done. And it's not just young singers who might want to take notes

rom the moment she hit the stage - with an upbeat medley of "The Song is You" and "I Hear Music" - until she exited ninety minutes later with an exuberant reading of Jerry Herman's "It's Today", Ms. Maye had the opening night crowd in the palm of her hand. Setting up immediate and honest communication with the audience is an essential skill for the cabaret performer. It's a skill she has in abundance, as her long and successful career clearly indicates. Maye's boundless energy and obvious delight in her material, in combination with her cheerful, off-the-cuff repartee, established an immediate bond with those of us on the other side of the spotlight.

How solid is that bond? Well, let's put it this way: how many cabaret singers could put Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" right in the middle of the act and not have it come across and obvious and hackneyed? Ms. Maye did it and we all loved it. Case closed.

As you might gather from what I've just said, Marilyn Maye's musical tastes would appear to run mainly to American songbook standards. Her current show, for example, features fine performances of classics such as Rogers and Hart's "Mountain Greenery" (in a version so jazzed up that I failed to recognize the verse at first), "Get Happy", and "Come Rain or Come Shine". There's also a solid medley of tunes by the man who gave Ms. Maye her big national break, the late, great Steve Allen, including "When I'm in Love, "I Love You Today" and, of course, "This Could be the Start of Something Big". The latter is probably the best known of the literally thousands of songs produced by the multi-talented musician, actor and comic.

Ms. Maye is also a great admirer of the late Ray Charles, however, so for the last ten minutes (or thereabouts) of the evening she breaks away from cabaret standards to deliver an inspired eight-song set of the late R&B singer's hits, including "Born to Lose", "Cryin' Time", "You Don't Know Me" and a version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So" with new lyrics that turns the song into an unabashed valentine to Charles. The fact that her Maye Sings Ray CD was on sale afterwards, while hardly coincidental, was welcome. I bought a copy, anyway.

Accompanying Ms. Maye and, in fact, acting as equal partners in the act are Billy Stritch and His Trio - Stritch on piano and vocals with Andy Davis on bass and Jim Ekloff on drums. Her lively interaction with all three is great fun to watch. Stritch and company get to shine in a set of their own as well - a tribute to the late Mel Torme featuring a swinging run through Porter's "Just One of Those Things" combined with the film classic"Green Dolphin Street".

The bottom line is that Marilyn Maye puts on one hell of an entertaining show. Her approach to cabaret is very much in the old school, "knock ‘em dead" style with a strong East coast jazz feel - markedly different from the more intimately personal style favored by many younger masters of the art. It serves as a reminder that there's plenty of room under the cabaret tent for a variety of approaches. The only sine qua non is playing straight with the audience - and that Marilyn Maye certainly does.

The demand for tickets has been big and The Flim Flam Room at Savor is small, so you'd be well advised to reserve seats in advance by calling 314-531-0220 or on line at . Marilyn Maye will be knocking ‘em dead through Sunday, October 21st [2007] at Savor, 4356 Lindell in the Central West End.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 15 October 2007

Interviewed: Cabaret, musical theatre and film star Anne Kerry Ford, about her upcoming appearance November 1st through 4th, 2007, at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis, her love of a good lyric, and why TV and film acting might not be as much fun as you think. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets for the Savor show by calling 314-531-0220 or going to

Friday, October 05, 2007

Leaders of the Pack

[This is my review of The Rat Pack Live at the Sands for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The theatrical subgenre of celebrity impersonation has always been an odd duck. It's easy to do badly, damned difficult to do well, and gets the impersonator little respect in any case. In fact, duplicating a performer's on-stage persona in a way that will allow audience members to suspend disbelief and react as they would to the original is quite a challenge, especially when the performer in question is well represented on audio and film/video.

All of which brings us to The Rat Pack Live at the Sands. A massive hit in Great Britain for eight years now (where it's know as The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas), the show takes celebrity impersonation to an entirely new level by reproducing a typical mid-1960s Las Vegas appearance by the ruling triumvirate of the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. In order for the show to work, all three impersonations have to get over the disbelief suspension threshold and let us fool ourselves into reacting as we would to the original performers.

Happily for all concerned, the stars of this tour inhabit their roles so well that the resemblance is sometimes a bit eerie. Louis Hoover, a veteran of the London production, sounds so much like the middle-aged Sinatra that I'm not sure I could easily tell the difference with my eyes closed. Even with them open, he looks enough like the original to make that disbelief suspension easy. The same is true for the Sammy Davis, Jr. of David Hayes, who is also a London alumnus. He's got the voice and mannerisms down pat and is a dab hand at tap, even if he is a bit too tall for the role. Not surprisingly, both Hoover and Hayes have their own one-man shows based on impersonations of Sinatra and Davis. To quote Max Bialystok, "when you've got it, flaunt it, baby".

Nigel Casey doesn't sound all that much like the ‘60s-era Dean Martin - his voice is far too bright - but he captures Martin's trademark charm, breezy persona, and carefully choreographed Fake Drunk act to perfection. Of course, I'm something of an easy sell. I always found Martin the most entertaining of the triad. And, yes, Fake Drunk acts look painfully unenlightened these days, but there's no point in doing a show like this if you're going to try to make it conform to contemporary sensibilities.

Supporting the three stars - and contributing substantially to the success of the illusion - are a fifteen-piece big band conducted from the piano by Music Director Andy Rumble and a trio of talented performers billed as The Burelli Sisters (Claire Poyzer, Anna Carmichael, and Lucie Florentine) - a kind of combination Vegas showgirl chorus crossed with The Andrews Sisters. Their jazzy, close-harmony version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" is a highlight of the first act and their dancing enlivens the proceedings throughout the evening.

For those of us with the right set of chromosomes, their sexy costumes don't hurt, either.

That's not to say that the evening is a complete success. The inclusion of "New York, New York" near the end of the first act, complete with faux-Fosse choreography, is a curious anachronism and the closing, post-curtain call performance of "My Way", while it would have been a great moment for the real Sinatra, just seems a bit weird sung by an impersonator - especially when the announcer has just reminded us that we're seeing "Louis Hoover as Frank Sinatra". The (uncredited) announcer's organized crime jokes at the opening of each act also stuck me as a bit forced; maybe they're better in the original British.

Still, the bottom line on The Rat Pack Live at the Sands is that if you enjoy the work Frank, Sammy and Dean produced when they were alive, you'll probably be highly entertained by their doppelgangers on stage at the Fox. As the trio sings in Cahn and Van Husen's "Style" (from the classic Rat Pack film Robin and the Seven Hoods), "You've either got or you haven't got class. / How it draws the applause of the masses". These guys have definitely got it.

Be aware, however, that this is a fairly accurate reproduction of a period Vegas show, so there's plenty of adult humor throughout the evening. No, there aren't any words you can't say on the air, but sex and alcohol jokes are present in abundance, so it's not really a family event.

The Rat Pack Live at the Sands runs through October 14th [2007] at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand in Grand Center. Call 314-534-1678 for more information. As theatre it ain't much, but as an entertaining exercise in nostalgia, it's hard to beat.

Beautiful Dreamer

[This is my review of Jennifer Sheehan's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The first time I saw Jennifer Sheehan on stage was almost exactly five years ago, when the then-teenager performed a short set at the end of an appearance by her mentor, legendary cabaret artist Andrea Marcovicci. At the time I commented publicly on her "winning renditions" of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "I Have Dreamed" and wondered privately whether or not I wasn't seeing a future cabaret star in the making.

Having seen her new solo show, This is What I Dreamed, at Savor this weekend [September 27 – 30, 2007] I need wonder no longer. Ms. Sheehan is clearly on track to be a major new player in the world of musical theatre in general and cabaret in particular. All the elements of a first-class cabaret act are there: an honest, unpretentious stage presence (and the resulting quick communication with the audience), a flexible, Julliard-trained voice, a smart choice of repertoire and a musical director – James Followell – who knows how to support and enhance a singer’s performance. It’s easy to see why she has already won awards from the Mabel Mercer Foundation and Glenn Miller Festival and is well on her way to making a name for herself in New York. The kid’s got talent, and she’s going to go far.

The first two-thirds of the Savor show was mostly a collection of favorites from the American Songbook, including a two numbers from Ms. Sheehan’s first theatrical love, West Side Story, and quick medley of Cole Porter songs that she first sang publicly at the age of nine when, by her own admission, she had no idea what lyrics like “I get no kick from Champagne” might actually mean. There was also a heartfelt performance of the Irving Kahal/Sammy Fain World War II classic “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Ms. Sheehan introduced the song by recalling her performance of it for Alzheimer’s patients, thereby giving the lyrics a contemporary poignancy and reminding us that it’s not just shooting wars that can cause us to lose loved ones.

It was, in short, a fairly conventional mix of material, but even here there were surprises, such as Sondheim’s rarely heard “I Remember Sky” (from the 1966 TV special Evening Primrose, where it was originally sung by Charmain Carr) and a very funny Leo Robin/Richard Whiting number -"I Wanna Go Places and Do Things" (from the 1929 film Close Harmony).

More surprises awaited us. Ms. Sheehan spent the last third of the program on songs by contemporary musical theatre composers, including Jason Robert Brown, John Bucchino, and Susan Werner. Memorable moments from this segment included Brown’s “Climbing Uphill” (a song from The Last Five Years about an audition from hell that drew laughs of recognition from the theatre folk in the audience - including yours truly), Werner’s “I Can’t Be New” (from her breakout 2004 album of the same name) and Bucchino’s lovely “Temporary”. This last one deals beautifully with the transitory nature of life and reminds us that the phrase “this too shall pass” applies to both the bitter and the sweet.

Ms. Sheehan’s performances clearly demonstrated that she can be comic, lyrical or sentimental as needed and with convincing sincerity and musical virtuosity. There were, perhaps, a few minor aspects of the show that could use a bit of tweaking. It’s probably not, for example, necessary to explain what “the American Songbook” means to most cabaret audiences and the (very) occasional stock theatrical gesture struck a false note, but these are the kinds of things that fall under the heading of what’s called “polishing” in the theatre – minor alterations to an already solid performance. Their relative unimportance is the reason for relegating them to this penultimate paragraph.

This is What I Dreamed will apparently be Jennifer Sheehan’s last St. Louis appearance for a while. By the time you read this, she’ll already be back in New York preparing for upcoming appearances at The Radio City Music Hall 75th Anniversary Christmas Spectacular and The Mabel Mercer Foundation's 2007 New York Cabaret Convention. Our loss is The Big Apple’s gain. For more information, visit her web site, . For more information on upcoming shows in Jim Dolan’s Cabaret at Savor series (still to come: Marilyn Maye and Anne Kerry Ford), see .

Sunday, August 19, 2007

We Loves You, Porgy

[This is my review of a joint production of Porgy and Bess by Union Avenue Opera and The Black Rep for KDHX-FM]

Although Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, it took (to quote one of the opera's lyrics) "a long pull to get there". The original 1935 Theatre Guild production was a financial failure, and critical reaction was mixed and, from a contemporary standpoint, clueless. New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson dismissed it out of hand, and the paper's music critic, Olin Downes, found the mix of vernacular musical elements and sophisticated symphonic form completely baffling (a position which he would later recant).

Despite revivals of interest in the 1940s and 1950s, Porgy and Bess remained an essentially marginal work until a 1976 production by the Houston Grand Opera of the complete score-restoring nearly an hour of music that had been cut from earlier productions-demonstrated conclusively that Gershwin's crowning achievement was also a great work of musical art. "Seen alongside the humanity in the music and text of Porgy and Bess", wrote Leighton Kerner in 1989, "other American operas seem slight".

That said, the piece is still a major challenge for any opera company. The cast is large, the music complex, and the demands of the staging can be daunting. Low voices-bass/baritones and baritones-dominate the leading male roles, making projection a potential issue, as does Gershwin's penchant for polyphonic choral writing. Add in the fact that the opera runs, in its original uncut version, over three and one-half hours with intermission, and you have a project guaranteed to give any producer nightmares.

In light of this, Union Avenue Opera and The Black Rep are to be commended for even attempting a production of this American classic, even if it is the heavily edited version that was more common before the 1970s. If the results are not always successful, it's not for lack of talent or dedication on the part of all concerned. It may just be that Porgy and Bess is simply too big to conveniently fit the small space at the Union Avenue Christian Church.

Certainly the cast is a strong one. In deference to the demands of an expanded production schedule-nine performances in just over a week-the leading roles of Porgy, Bess, and Sportin' Life are double-cast. On opening night, Lester Lynch cut a powerful figure as Porgy with a strong, clear voice and imposing stage presence. Dara Rahming sang beautifully as Bess, but I felt she didn't project the kind of sexual allure that would explain why she's the lust object of every male in Catfish Row. As the morally flexible vice peddler Sportin' Life, Jermaine Smith (who was such a great Zodzetrick in Opera Theatre's Treemonisha back in 2000) turned in what was, for me, the strongest all-around performance of the evening, with a clear, flexible voice and dance moves that remind me that the role was, from the beginning, a kind of homage to the vaudeville stage.

Brian Keith Johnson is a first-rate Crown, the brutal stevedore from whom Bess is unable to break free, and Lawrence Craig is the very essence of the ethical family man as the fisherman Jake. Lillian Roberts is vocally powerful as Serena, although her elocution could use a bit of work, and Trina Renay is a fine Clara.

There's no chorus master credited, so I have assume company artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover was responsible for the generally fine sound of both the orchestra and chorus. That's no small task; Gershwin makes the chorus an important character in its own right, often commenting on and participating in the action. Many scenes feature virtuoso writing for chorus members, a classic example being the Act II "storm" sequence in which six completely independent vocal lines slowly merge with the chorus to produce the spiritual "Oh, de Lawd shake the Heavens". The acoustics at the church aren't always friendly to this sort of thing, and it's to Schoonover's credit that it all sounds as good as it does.

Black Rep founder Ron Himes is responsible for the stage direction. Most of the time it works well enough, although there are moments when the challenge of moving so many performers around in such a small space appears to have been simply overwhelming. Himes has also make some character-related changes which I found a bit questionable, including a sequence in which Bess is far too willing to take the New York-bound boat with Sportin' Life.

Still, these are relatively minor flaws in what is, overall, an impressive presentation of a musically and dramatically powerful work. If you have any interest at all in one of the great operas of the previous century, you must see Union Avenue Opera's Porgy and Bess. It's on stage nightly through this Saturday [August 26, 2007] at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright. Call 314-361-2881 for ticket information. Be aware that parking is limited and the tickets are general admission, so you'd be wise to arrive at least a half-hour before curtain.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Incredible Lightness of Bellini

[This is my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of I Puritani for KDHX-FM.]

Anyone who doubts the importance of luck in human affairs need only look at the history of I Puritani, the last opera of Vincenzo Bellini. In January of 1835 the former Sicilian prodigy (he was playing the piano at 3 and composing by the age of 6), now 33, was living in Paris, enjoying the profits from a string of hits that included Norma and La Sonnambula, and overseeing the premiere of what would be his valedictory work. It was an immense success - so much so that Bellini had to make cuts in the score to allow for the frequent ovations. When the San Carlo Theatre in Naples asked for a star vehicle for the noted soprano Maria Malibran, therefore, Bellini offered a revised I Puritani. They accepted and Bellini set to work, revising some numbers, cutting others, changing the role of Riccardo from a baritone to a tenor, and collapsing the three acts into two.

At this point Lady Luck (to quote a Guys and Dolls lyric) “blows on some other guy's dice”. A cholera epidemic disrupted European communication, causing the revised I Puritani to arrive in Naples too late for the 1835 season. It might have been rescheduled for 1836 but Malibran died from injuries sustained in a horseback riding accident on September 23rd of that year - exactly one year, to the day, after Bellini himself had died in France from acute dysentery resulting from an improperly-treated amebic infection. What are the odds?

The “Naples” version of I Puritani was refused by San Carlo and was thought lost until 1986, when it finally had its premiere at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari. This is the edition currently on view at Opera Theatre, giving local audiences a rare chance to see a performance of Bellini's finale ultimo. It's a solid production, with brilliant singing, generally fine orchestral playing, and staging that avoids getting in the way of the music. If you're a fan of Bellini's lilting melodies and the vocal pyrotechnics of bel canto singing, you won't want to miss it.

As music drama, however, I Puritani is something of a non-starter. Set in England during the religious civil war of the 1640s, the story (such as it is) centers on the rivalry between Royalist Arthur (Arturo) Talbot and Puritan Sir Richard (Riccardo) Forth for the hand of Elvira, daughter of the Puritan Governor of Plymouth, Lord Walton. Although betrothed by her father to Riccardo, Elvira loves Arturo. Her Uncle George (Giorgio) convinces his brother to accept Arturo as a son-in-law, but wedding plans are disrupted when Arturo helps Charles I's widow, Queen Henrietta, to escape the headsman's axe. All eventually ends happily when a victorious Oliver Cromwell declares a historically inaccurate amnesty for all prisoners, allowing Arturo and Elvira to wed.

If this strikes you as thin stuff for an opera that runs nearly three hours including intermission, you'd be right. Happily, there's plenty of beautiful music and great singing to sustain your interest when the plot goes into suspended animation.

Soprano Pamela Armstrong, who sang a great Mimi for OTSL in 2001, is a stunning Elvira. The role is a major challenge; Elvira is rarely off stage, has the widest emotional range of any of the characters, and goes through multiple “mad” scenes. Armstrong handles it all with ease.

Tenor John Osborn is a forceful Riccardo and mezzo Gloria Parker, who showed such comic skill in Street Scene last season, proves equally convincing the small dramatic role of Queen Henrietta. Bass Arthur Woodley got a chorus of well-deserved “bravos” for powerful voice and strong stage presence as Giorgio.

If they ever start handing out the operatic equivalent of a Purple Heart, tenor Frédéric Antoun surely deserves one for delivering a good and even, at times, great performance as Arturo, despite being heavily medicated for allergy symptoms. Although clearly in vocal distress during the first act, Antoun rallied in the second and was clearly much appreciated by the opening night audience.

Stephen Lord does his usual fine work with the Opera Theatre orchestra. Sandra Horst's chorus sounds powerful and precise, and director Chas Rader-Schieber delivers some interesting stage pictures, even if he does sometimes have his singers a bit too far apart during intimate moments.

Go see I Puritani, then, for the intoxicating music, David Zinn's fine period costumes and, above all, for the spectacular singing. This time Lady Luck blew on our dice and not “some other guy's”.

Opera Theatre's I Puritani runs through June 24th [2007] the Loretto-Hilton Center. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information of visit the web site,

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Marrakesh Express

[This is my review of Circus Flora's Marrakesh for KDHX-FM]

“Just join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high. Pitch your troubles under a tent and you're bound to loose 'em by and by.” -- “Join the Circus” from Barnum (lyrics by Michael Stewart)

Summer isn't our best season here in St. Louis. What with the heat, humidity, bugs, storms, and endless road construction, even we natives wouldn't be surprised to see Virgil leading Dante on a sightseeing tour. But there's one harbinger of summer to which everyone can look forward: the annual visit of Circus Flora. For around two hours and some change you can “pitch your troubles” under the red and white big top next to Powell Hall and be amazed and entertained by some of the world's finest circus performers.

The show this year is entitled Marrakesh and there is, as usual, a story line, delivered with her customary aplomb by Circus Flora Theatre Director Cecil MacKinnon in her persona of Yo-Yo, the Narrator. This time around it has something to do with disappearing guests at a party in Marrakesh, with the elephant Dondi as Charlie Chan. If you can't quite follow it, don't worry. It's only there to link the individual acts which are, by turns, elegant, thrilling, and hilarious.

Marrakesh features the customary mix of old friends and new discoveries. Katja Schumann and her graceful horses are back, as are the exuberant and talented St. Louis Arches. The tumbling and acrobatic youth troupe of the Circus Day Foundation, the Arches have become a traditional favorite, especially with the younger set. Ditto the Ianna Spirit Riders, the only youth circus bareback riding ensemble in the country and another product of the Circus Day Foundation.

Kids and adults alike will also be happy to see the return of Nino (Giovanni Zoppé), whose inspired clowning runs throughout the show. A kind of circus jack-of-all-trades (juggler, clown, aerialist), Nino demonstrates yet another skill this year: bareback riding (I sense a recurring theme here), in combination with the elegant Tosca Zoppé.

The Flying Wallendas are back as well with their trademark multi-person pyramid on the high wire. This time there are three instead of the usual seven, but when two of the three are on bicycles, it's still a heart-stopper - especially when they're working, as always, without a net.

Easily the flashiest of the new acts (new to me, at least) is Alesya Goulevich, Guinness World Record holder for the largest number of hula hoops spun at one time. Her performance is a fast-paced mix of juggling, dancing and acrobatics, culminating in that word record spin, during which she turns into a veritable human slinky. It's a spectacular display of muscle control and coordination; don't miss it.

Newcomers Andrew Adams and Erika Gilfether are pretty flashy as well, with a gravity-defying silk act that combines the grace of classical dance with the strength and control of gymnastics. Later in the evening, Sasha Alexandre Nevidonski does an equestrian variation on the aerial silk theme, assisted by his students Rosie Eastman and Claire Kuciejczyk-Kernan. The trio spins and flies around the ring on silk streamers in a stylish airborne ballet.

They don't get into the very top of the tent, however. That area is reserved for The Flying Pages, a remarkable family of trapeze artists whose youngest member, Mercedes, is clearly still in grade school. Anthony Page's triple somersault is a highlight, but they're all impressive.

It wouldn't be a circus without dog act, and this year it's the comedy antics of Pino (Diane Wasnak) and Bonzer. Wasnak's Pino is a Chaplinesque figure engaged in a running battle with a charismatic black and white Australian Shepherd over possession of a derby hat and top billing. There are also plenty of laughs - and even a few thrills - in the two appearances of Circus Flora's new elephant, Dondi. At least for this show, Dondi's bag of tricks isn't especially large, but the affection between her and her trainers, the Schacht family, makes it all charming.

Circus Flora will continue to entertain and delight through June 24th [2007] in Grand Center, right next to Powell Symphony Hall. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site,, where you can also read up on the company and view some impressive photos of previous seasons.

Maybe you can't really “join the circus like you meant to do, when you were so high”, but you can marvel at it for a couple of hours in air-conditioned comfort. Add a slushie and some popcorn and you're a kid again. Who says there's no fountain of youth?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Love and Death

[This is the text of my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Anna Karenina for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

This seems to be the Year of Fallen Women at Opera Theatre. Hard on the high heels of a stellar La Traviata comes an equally stunning production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. Both operas revolve around heroines who sacrifice all for love and pay dearly for it in terms of social ostracism and an early demise. Dramatically, however, they're worlds apart. Traviata, for all its strengths, is clearly the product of late 19-century sensibilities. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, is a masterful re-interpretation of those sensibilities for early 21st-century audiences.

The libretto is the valedictory work of the late Colin Graham, Opera Theatre's Artistic Director. It's a grand finale for a long and illustrious career, beautifully illustrating the dramatic and philosophical dimensions of the story. In his program notes, Graham criticizes earlier stage and film adaptations of what is generally considered Tolstoy's most personal novel for short-changing the character of Levin, who poses the novel's central questions about the meaning of life. Graham's adaptation restores Levin - who is generally considered a self-portrait of Tolstoy - to his proper place, restoring the appropriate gravitas to what is otherwise a tragic and somewhat sordid love story.

That story centers on two love narratives - one ascending into light and the other descending into darkness and death. The former is that of Levin and Kitty, the latter that of Anna and Count Vronsky.

Married to the solid but work-obsessed bureaucrat Alexei Karenin, Anna finds herself attracted to the dashing and somewhat self-centered Vronsky. When she finds herself pregnant with Vronsky's child, her marriage disintegrates followed, eventually, by her relationship with Vronsky, which can't stand up to the pressures of social ostracism and Anna's slow descent into madness and drug addiction. Meanwhile, Levin's love for Kitty (the sister of Anna's sister-in-law, Dolly) survives initial rejection and is finally returned. As Levin's life blossoms and Anna's withers, he constantly searches for meaning in the bewildering mix of sorrow and joy that swirls around him. In the end it falls to his young wife and old nurse Agafia to open his eyes - the former by showing him the smile on his baby son's face and the latter by reminding him that “we cannot all be saints, but we can learn to love our neighbors, and to be loved”.

“To love another person is to see the face of God”, as they sing at the end of Les Miserables.

Graham's libretto moves through the complex story with a cinematic clarity and grace, so it's only appropriate that David Carlson's neo-romantic score often has the openly descriptive character of a really great film soundtrack. It's a quality that I noted - and admired - in his previous work for Opera Theatre, 1993's Midnight Angel. The final pages, as Levin embraces life and his family, are positively luminous. Let's hope it finds a permanent place in the repertory.

Superior words and music, of course, can easily be undone by an inferior cast - which is most certainly not the case here. Soprano Kelly Kaduce adds to her previous Opera Theatre successes with an exemplary performance in the demanding title role, which includes passion, madness and not one but two death scenes. Equally impressive is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Karenin. Graham and Carlson have given the character some intensely moving scenes, and Van Horn makes the most of them. The opening night audience apparently agreed, judging from the response to his curtain call.

Tenor Brandon Javonovich, who was such a splendid Essex in Gloriana two years ago, is in fine form as Levin. Being the bearer of the Author's Message can be quite a challenge for an actor, but Javonovich rises to it.

Sopranos Christine Abraham and Sarah Coburn are also excellent as the forgiving Dolly, married to Anna's infidelity-prone brother Stiva, and the sadder but wiser (to say nothing of happier) Kitty. Abraham made her debut with OTSL in Midnight Angel - where she played the title role - so it only seems fitting that she should return now.

Bass-baritone Robert Gierlach and tenor William Joyner are vocally strong as Vronsky and Stiva, but not entirely convincing dramatically. Joyner, in particular, is prone to a certain stiffness which, combined with his height and moustache, conjured up images of John Cleese in his Monty Python days. Two of the smallest roles, however, get the best performances of the evening, both from mezzo-sopranos. Dorothy Byrne is the very embodiment of self-congratulatory moral sadism as Countess Lydia Ivanova and Metropolitan Opera veteran Rosalind Elias is all earthy wisdom as Agafia, who puts everything in perspective at the end.

Stewart Robertson conducted what sounded to me, at least, like a polished and sympathetic reading of the score that only rarely threatened to drown the singers. Stage Director Mark Streshinsky keeps the action flowing seamlessly through the many changes of scene, aided by Neil Patel minimalist sets, which use a small number of easily-moved items to firmly fix each separate time and place. Mark McCullough's lighting is very effective as well, providing everything from a golden glow for Levin's pastoral home to a blinding spotlight for Anna's suicide by locomotive.

Opera Theatre's Anna Karenina is, in short, another winner - which makes Graham's absence all the more poignant. This was, after all, a nearly life-long project, having started out as collaboration with the late Benjamin Britten in 1968. Still, he died doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky.

Anna Karenina continues through June 21st in rotating repertory at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For ticket information, you may call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site. While you're at it, consider tickets for the Colin Graham tribute concert that Opera Theatre is presenting on June 19th. Performers will include Christine Brewer, Sylvia McNair and other Opera Theatre artists along with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The concert will benefit the Colin Graham Master Artists Endowment Fund.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

There is Nothing Like La Dame

[This is the text of my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of La Traviata for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

Nothing dates faster than relevance. The more a work of art addresses uniquely contemporary issues, the quicker it becomes stale and even, eventually, quaint.

When Verdi's La Traviata opened at the Teatro alla Fenice in 1853, it was very relevant. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils' 1852 stage adaptation or his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, Francesco Maria Piave's libretto was, as they say, “hot stuff”. The heroine (Marguerite in the original, Violetta in the opera) was clearly based on the recently deceased Alphonsine Plessis, one of the most famous members of the demi-monde, a term invented by Dumas to describe a class of women in Second Empire France who were “kept” by wealthy lovers in high style. They were often patrons of the arts and apparently knew how to throw one heck of a party, but were shunned by polite society. The sympathetic treatment of Violetta in the opera, therefore, was something of a scandal, especially when combined with Verdi's own flouting of “middle class morality” by openly living with his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strapponi.

The theatre's management tried to blunt the impact by forcing Verdi to set the action a century earlier, but I doubt that anyone was fooled. Certainly the censors and conservative critics weren't conned, and future productions were routinely attacked by the blinkered guardians of public morality.

The status of women in Western society has changed greatly over the last century and a half, however, and while Traviata's portrayal of the casual cruelty of the morally smug still has resonance, some of the drama now looks rather dated. And yet, the work is still immensely popular and is generally regarded as part of the core operatic repertoire. The current production, for example, is the fourth Opera Theatre has presented.


The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever heard the score. Verdi lavished his genius on La Traviata, filling the stage with brilliant choruses, ravishing duets and arias, and spectacular ensemble numbers. The finale of Act II, as Alfredo scorns Violetta for her supposed infidelity and is then scored in turn by Violetta's friends and nearly disowned by his father, is musical theatre at its best. The cultural context may be dated, but the emotions are universally human.

Happily, Opera Theatre has given us an array of wonderful voices to match this wonderful music. Ailyn Pérez brings a supple soprano and great dynamic range to the role of Violetta, dying of love and tuberculosis. She's nicely matched by the clear, ringing tenor of Dimitri Pittas as Alfredo, who couldn't buy a clue, even with 1000 Louis. Baritone James Westman sings the role of Alfredo's father Giorgio beautifully, but his acting seems to rely heavily on stock operatic gestures - a situation not helped by director James Robinson's decision to give Giorgio a bad case of barely sublimated lust for Violetta. Yes, it's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it adds anything other than a bit of unnecessary creepiness to Giorgio's character.

Tenor Tracy Wise is an appropriately dashing and impish Gaston and mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis a lively and provocative Flora. Mezzo Jamie Barton and bass David Keck round out this impressive roster as Violetta's stalwart maid, Annina and the sympathetic Doctor Grenville. Congratulations and virtual bouquets to all.

George Manahan leads the OTSL orchestra in a solid, sympathetic reading of the score. Choreographer Seán Curran fills the ensemble numbers and the brief Act II dance sequence with movement that's interesting and varied without ever being chaotic or distracting. Chorus master Sandra Horst has the ensemble sounding terrific, as usual.

Set and Costume Designer Bruno Schwengl has chosen a single color to saturate each of the first three scenes, to striking if occasionally excessive effect. Thus, Violetta's Act I salon is dominated by deep red with black accents, her country house by wintry white, and Flora's salon by purple and (if memory serves) blue. In the final scene, in which Violetta lies dying, the colors are washed out and faded, emphasizing the fading of her life and hope. Overly melodramatic? Perhaps, but Verdi's musical world seems to absorb it easily.

The bottom line is that Opera Theatre has given us yet another first-rate La Traviata, easily on the same level as its triumphant 2000 production. Lovers of great opera won't want to miss it. It's also very accessible, making it a good choice for someone looking for an introduction to the genre - and possibly easier to find tickets for than this season's other hit, The Mikado.

La Traviata continues in rotating repertory through June 23rd at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For performance times and ticket prices, call 314-961-0644 or visit the Opera Theatre web site at

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Modified Rapture

[This is my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of The Mikado for KDHX-FM]

Stage Director Ned Canty sets the tone for Opera Theatre's Mikado during the overture. An actress in traditional Japanese garb slowly glides onstage, sets a miniature pagoda on the floor and glides discreetly off. As the overture ends an actor in a Godzilla outfit prances out and, simultaneously with the final chord, stomps the model flat. The combination of 19th and 20th-century Western images of Japan and well-timed physical comedy tells you most of what you need to know about this generally delightful updating of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic.

“This production”, according to Canty's director's notes, “seeks to capture the kinetic soup of pop-culture cross-pollination that has been whizzing between East and West for the past century and a half”. That means that in this Mikado, the “gentlemen of Japan” who open Act I wear dark suits and carry cell phones as well as fans. They're accompanied by a Pokémon character, an equally cartoonish Sumo wrestler and, of course, Godzilla. Nanki-Poo, the “wand'ring minstrel”, is in Elvis drag and the “three little maids from school” are decked out in Sailor Moon outfits with Hello Kitty backpacks, punk accessories and Day-Glo hair. Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' sets are either anime-style cityscapes with garish corporate logos or toy theatre gardens.

This sounds like it ought to be a hopeless mess, but it isn't. That's because The Mikado was never really about Japan, any more than H. M. S. Pinafore was really about the Royal Navy. Gilbert always used the setting to lampoon the same pompous, self-important targets. This production never loses sight of that fact and never (“well, hardly ever” as they say in Pinafore) allows The Concept to get in the way of a good joke. That's why it nearly always succeeds and why, when it does fail, the problem is not a matter of design so much as of execution.

Sorry about that.

The cast is generally quite strong, both dramatically and musically. Tenor Patrick Miller is a fine Nanki-Poo, adding just the right touch of Elvis (including a little vocal ornament a la “The King” at the end of “A wand'ring minstrel”) without over-doing the gag. He has a solid, ringing voice, which serves him well, but somewhat overwhelms the pretty but thin tone of Katherine Jolly's Yum-Yum in their duets. Her performance is dramatically flawless, but her inability to project as effectively as the rest of the cast makes her fade into the background when she should be “all effulgent”.

Baritone David Kravitz is a wonderfully lively Ko-Ko, the “cheap tailor” raised to the exulted post of Lord High Executioner despite the fact that he literally wouldn't hurt a fly. Bass Matt Boehler is appropriately pompous and effete as the snobbish Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else whose family pride is “something inconceivable”. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns' dance and roller-skating moves make the relatively minor role of Pish-Tush more interesting that it usually is. All three are very strong vocally, making their Act I trio “I am so proud” with its rapid-fire final chorus (“To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock”) one of the highlights of the evening.

Mezzos Allison Tupay and Kirsten Forrest Leich are delightful as Yum-Yum's school chums Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo. Tupay, in particular, gets great comic mileage out of her part of the Act II trio in which she, Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah all describe, in increasingly absurd and self-congratulatory detail, the fictitious execution of Nanki-Poo.

Bass LeRoy Lehr and contralto Myrna Paris are less impressive as The Mikado and Katisha. Lehr's delivery is rather plodding and his voice gets a bit pinched at the top. Paris, meanwhile, seemed to be having something of an off night. When she's at the top of her game (as she was two years ago in Flight) she's a fine comic contralto. On opening night, unfortunately, she seemed a bit hoarse and sounded uncomfortable overall. Could the high pollen count have something to do with it? If so, I sympathize; I've been fighting it myself.

There are other minor problems as well, the most noticeable being the generally slow pace and an occasional tendency to drag out a joke or a sight gag just a bit too long. Pish-Tush on roller skates, for example, is funny the first few times; after that, it just adds to the running time. The Mikado is not a particularly long opera, so when a production clocks in at just under three hours it suggests that things could be brisker.

That said, Opera Theatre's Mikado is still jolly good fun on the whole. On opening night, conductor Joseph Illick (who alternates with Timothy Long during the run) did a fine job with the score. He and the singers got slightly out of synch now and then, but that will likely disappear as the production progresses. The chorus looked and sounded great, thanks to Costume Designer Linda Cho, Chorus Master Sandra Horst and English Diction Specialist Erie Mills. In short, while this may not be the best of all possible Mikados, it's certainly a solid one and, given the dearth of Gilbert and Sullivan locally, it's an opportunity the dedicated Savoyard won't want to pass up.

The rest of you will have to decide whether the ticket prices justify a production that's slightly less than first rate. I'd say it's worth it, but then I'm the sort of person who uses “A more human Mikado” as an audition piece and has the Gilbert and Sullivan Karaoke web site bookmarked.

The Mikado continues through June 23rd [2007] at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For performance times and ticket prices, call 314-961-0644 or visit the Opera Theatre web site at

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bench Warmer

[Barbara Brussell brought her cabaret show The Piano Bench of My Mind to The Cabaret at Savor series in St. Louis April 26th through 29th, 2007. This is the text of my review for KDHX-FM.]

One of the many wonderful things about that remarkable music/theatre hybrid known as cabaret is the wide variety of performance styles it can encompass.

Now, to those unfamiliar with the genre, that might seem a surprising statement. After all, how much variety can you really get out of one person, a piano or small combo, and repertoire that centers on the works of American songwriters from roughly 1920 through 1970?

To quote one of those songwriters (Irving Berlin), “you'd be surprised.”

The spring Cabaret at Savor season is a good example. In just the last month we've had the hip jazz of Paula West, the show biz cool of Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano and now, to close the season, the unpretentious cheer Barbara Brussell. Three widely divergent styles and three very different music mixes, and all of them top-flight cabaret.

Cabaret is, by definition, an art form that encourages two-way communication between artist and audience. Brussell takes this to what may be its logical extreme by talking to the audience, getting answers, and playing off those answers as the evening progresses. She combines a warm, open and rather bubbly stage persona with a finely tuned sensitivity to the mood of the room that's quite irresistible. Stephen Holden of The New York Times has described her as “Kathleen Turner crossed with Sandra Dee” and while that doesn't really do her justice, it does give you some idea of the complexity and appeal of her act.

Brussell calls her current show The Piano Bench of My Mind: Songs I've Been Sitting On For Far Too Long. It is, as the title implies, a varied and intriguing mix of material. Some of it, like Latouche and Fetter's “Taking a Chance on Love” or Rogers and Hammerstein's “I Cain't Say No”, is familiar American Songbook stuff, but most of it isn't. Better yet, some of the songs are by contemporary writers such as Craig Carnelia and John Bucchino. There's also a Judy Collins classic (“Hard Lovin' Loser”) complete with a “dance break” (how often do you get that in a cabaret show?), a wistful bit of Christine Lavin, and even three Sylvia Fine songs from the 1959 Red Nichols biopoic The Five Pennies. Those are sung as a kind of round with pianist and arranger Tex Arnold, who otherwise draws very little attention to himself - one of the hallmarks of the skilled and sensitive accompanist.

I was also very taken with “The Heel”, a caustic description of a soured relationship originally recorded by the great Eartha Kitt back in the 1950s and sounding, at least in Brussell's scary/funny performance, very much like something that might have emerged from the pen of Kurt Weill - think “Surabaya Johnny” with a bit of prussic acid thrown in.

As the last few paragraphs demonstrate, one of the great pleasures of cabaret for me is hearing songs I've never heard before or songs I have heard before performed in novel ways. By that standard Brussell's show is a pleasurable one indeed. Yes, it makes it harder to write a review when you don't know the correct titles of many of the songs, but the joy of discovery has that minor inconvenience beat hands down. Besides, any program that includes gems like Blitzstein's “I Wish it So” and not one but two numbers from Wright and Forrest's Borodin-inspired Kismet has got my vote.

Mind you, Brussell's approach might not be to everyone's taste. If you're of the opinion that the ideal cabaret evening should have lots of songs and not much personal reminiscence, you might find Brussell's occasionally discursive personal narratives off-putting. Personally, I found them rather refreshing and invariably germane to the emotional truths of the songs that followed, but your mileage may vary.

Barbara Brussell will be offering her ebullient and eclectic mix of music and musings through Sunday [May 13th, 2007] in the Flim Flam Room at Savor St. Louis, 4356 Lindell in the Central West End. Call 314-531-0220 for ticket information or surf over to You might want to consider coming early for the three-course prix fixe dinner. It makes for a somewhat pricey evening, but the food and wine list are superb.

Barbara Brussell brings a strong season to a delightful close; thanks to series producer Jim Dolan for bringing these great acts to town. The Cabaret at Savor series will return in the fall; check the Savor web site for details later this year. For more information on Barbara Brussell's appearances, visit her web site.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I Put a Spell on You

[The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee played the Fox Theatre in St. Louis from May 8th through 20th, 2007. This is the text of my reivew for radio station KDHX-FM.]

As we were leaving the theatre after the opening night performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, my companion noted that “there are some shows that make you say 'oh, wow!'. This wasn't one of them”. To which I added that there were also some shows that make you say, “I want my two hours back”.

This wasn't one of them, either.

That puts us squarely against the mainstream of critical opinion, which has been saying “oh, wow” since the show opened at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre just over two years ago. Even the normally jaded New York Times referred to the show's “appealing modesty” and awarded “gold stars all around”. For me, however, Spelling Bee isn't quite modest enough. Indeed, when you consider the show's running time (1:45 with no intermission), the number of songs and their length, and the sheer volume of juvenile sexual humor, Spelling Bee is about as modest as Rush Limbaugh's self image.

Happily, it's much more entertaining.

Although now fitted out with eclectic music and sharp lyrics by William Finn - a composer who deserves a far wider audience than he has yet received - Spelling Bee started life as a C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a non-musical one-act about kids competing in a regional spelling bee by the New York-based improv group The Farm. The late Wendy Wasserstein caught a performance, recommended it to Finn and the rest is history - or at least an article on Wikipedia.

The show's sketch origins are still visible in both its episodic structure - which is not necessarily a good thing - and its focus on the inner and outer lives of its eccentric characters - which turns out to be a very good thing, indeed. Spelling Bee works best when it focuses on its geeky but endearing kids as they make their way through a minefield of parental disapproval, social awkwardness, self-doubt and fumbling sexual awareness.

In other words, adolescence.

The current tour, which was launched in Baltimore last September, boasts a solid, energetic and immensely talented cast without a single weak link. The six adult actors playing the kids are especially impressive. You know they're all old enough to have a drink afterwards, but from the moment they appear on stage you'd swear none of them are even eligible for a learner's permit.

Katie Boren has some of the flashiest moments as Marcy Park, who finds perfection an unbearable burden; it's not surprising to learn that she's also the dance captain. Eric Petersen, as the allergy-afflicted William Barfée (mispronunciation of his name is one of those jokes that goes on too long) has some great moves as well, as he demonstrates the character's “magic foot” spelling method.

On Broadway, Sarah Stiles understudied the role of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre - an unapologetic and endearing leftie with two daddies. If her dynamic performance here is any indication, that time was well spent. Miguel Cervantes is very funny as the testosterone-crazed Eagle Scout Chip Tolentino, whose attempts to hide an unexpected woody result in his ejection from the bee and his show-stopping song, “My Unfortunate Erection”, during which he throws candy and snacks at the audience. The omega to his alpha is second-generation flower child Leaf Conybear, hilariously portrayed in all his spacey, schizoid glory Michael Zahler.

(Why “schizoid”? Because Leaf's spelling gimmick involves releasing an alternate demonic personality who's also a wizard speller. Subtlety is not one of this show's major virtues.)

(But I digress.)

The most winning of the characters is Olive Ostrovsky, saddled with personal modesty, a father too busy to pay her entry fee, and a mother who has spent the last nine months “finding herself” in India. She could be cloying in the wrong hands, but Lauren Worsham's hands are clearly the right ones, and the results are utterly charming.

The remaining three actors take on all the adult roles and they, too, are uniformly impressive. Sally Wilfert is fine Rona Lisa Peretti, the spelling bee moderator and former champ and the Number One Realtor in Putnam County, as well as Olive's idealized mom. James Kall is amusingly uptight as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is now in a “better place” thanks to Jungian analysis and fiber. Alan H. Green shows great versatility in multiple roles. Primarily, he's Mitch Mahoney, working off his community service time as the official “comfort counselor” for spellers as they're eliminated, but he's also one of Lisa's two dads, Olive's ideal father, and (as if that weren't enough), The Voice of Jesus.

From parolee to Holy Ghost in one show - not shabby.

Keyboardist Jodie Moore expertly directs the small combo from the stage, where she plays the spelling bee's resident pianist. Direction by Broadway veteran James Lapine and choreography by Dan Knechtges are snappy and fluid, but the show tends to sag a bit towards the end nonetheless, like a sketch that has gone on a bit too long.

Perhaps it's just the inevitable result of moving from the 300-seat Circle in the Square to the 5000-seat Fox; the loss of intimacy has a distancing effect that's hard to erase. The built-in audience participation gimmick, in which four volunteers from the house are chosen to be “guest spellers”, helps to dispel some of that, but ultimately this may be the kind of show that will only flourish in more intimate regional theatre spaces like our own Loretto-Hilton Center or the Grandel.

But you needn't take my word for it. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be at the Fox in Grand Center through the 20th [2007]. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information. Be advised, by the way, that despite the apparently kid-friendly theme, much of the show's humor is of the decidedly adult variety, so you might want to keep the pre-teens at home.