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 opera-stl.com.

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 opera-stl.com.

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 licketytix.com. 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.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 4 May 2007

Interviewed: Cabaret star Barbara Brussell, about her upcoming appearance May 10th through 13th, 2007, at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis, her eclectic musical tastes, and why you should write Jewish and act English. Or something like that. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets for the Savor show by calling 314-531-0220 or going to licketytix.com.