Monday, November 17, 2008

French Dressing

In the final moments of Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand's hero, dying in the arms of Roxanne, shuffles off his mortal coil with characteristic style:

You strip from me the laurel and the rose! Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing I hold against you all, and when, to-night, I enter Christ's fair courts, and, lowly bowed, Sweep with doffed casque the heavens' threshold blue, One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch, I bear away despite you.

'Tis?. . .

My panache.

As part of the research he and his assistant Marna Petersen did for Chevalier - Maurice and Me, veteran entertainer Tony Sandler discovered that the legendary French star made his exit from life in somewhat the same way as Cyrano. Not wanting his many friends and admirers to witness his final decline, he insisted on dying alone, in his home, at the age of 83. The man who once said that he'd always leave the table before he wound up under it preserved, to the end, his panache.

I bring all this up because the performance of Chevalier - Maurice and Me that I saw this past Thursday [November 13, 2008] at the Sheldon's Savoy Ballroom was, regrettably, somewhat lacking in the nearly indefinable mix of flamboyance, confidence and style that's implied by the word and which characterized the career of France's most popular musical ambassador.

That's not to say that the show wasn't, on the whole, entertaining and informative. It's just that there were too many moments when Mr. Sandler was clearly struggling for his next line and losing his concentration. The occasional slip of this sort is inevitable; show me a performer who says “I've never 'gone up' on stage” and I'll show you a bald-faced liar. But when they're a regular occurrence an unavoidable barrier begins to rise between the actor and the audience.

To be fair, it must be said that Mr. Sandler clearly loves both Chevalier and the songs he made famous, and the script Ms. Petersen has assembled for him provides some fascinating insights into the man and his life. The many jokes woven into the story are generally quite funny, even if some of them were probably old when the teenaged Chevalier was an unpaid café singer in 1901, and Mr. Sandler's joy in performing classics such as “Louise”, “Valentine” and “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” (which inspired one of the Marx Brothers' more inspired flights of lunacy in Monkey Business) was infectious. It was also delightful to hear some of Chevalier's less-well-known French language hits, even if the lyrics were incomprehensible to non-francophones like yours truly.

The opening night audience obviously agreed. Even those who apparently shared my reservations clearly loved him, and most of them gave him a standing ovation.

Originally performed in 1999, Chevalier - Maurice and Me is an unusual hybrid of celebrity tribute and impersonation, with Mr. Sandler dropping out of the role of Chevalier as needed to relate the story of the entertainer's life and his influence on Mr. Sandler. His realization of Chevalier - it's too uncanny to be dismissed as mere impersonation, my earlier use of the word not withstanding - is often quite remarkable. When, towards the end of the 90-minute, one-act show, he dons a frock coat, grey cloves and matching hat for a re-creation of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from the closing frames of Gigi, I felt that I was watching something akin to reincarnation. Unlike Chevalier, however, Mr. Sandler was never a song-and-dance man, so he's less successful in recreating the fluid grace that marked Chevalier's persona.

Mr. Sandler was backed by a small combo headed by his pianist and music director Evan Mazunik and consisting of local musicians Eric Stiller on bass, Joe Pastor on percussion and Isaac Liftis on the essential accordion. Mr. Mazunik's ability to keep everyone on the same page (literally, in a few cases) was really quite impressive, as was his pianism. Mr. Sandler is lucky to have such a sympathetic accompanist, which makes it a pity that he didn't acknowledge him or the other musicians at the end of the show.

The bottom line is that when he was fully “in the moment” Mr. Sandler was the very ideal of Gallic flair, elegance and joie de vivre. Had there been more of them, Chevalier - Maurice and Me would have been more than a pleasant evening's diversion. It would have had (and, for all I know, often may have) panache.

Next on Cabaret St. Louis' schedule is singer/songwriter Spencer Day on Sunday, November 30th, 2008. For more information visit the Cabaret St. Louis web page at To find out which of Mr. Sandler's five shows he's doing next, visit his site,

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Soul of Wit

If you weren't already familiar with the work of cabaret legend Steve Ross you might expect his show To Wit: Ross on Wry - Funny Songs Throughout The Ages to be somewhat lacking in variety. After all, how much range can there really be in the “novelty song” subgenre?

The answer, as the audience at the Kranzberg Center discovered this past week (October 1st through 4th), is “quite a lot, actually” - especially when someone with Ross' impeccable taste and graceful style is at the helm.

Over the course of around 90 minutes, Mr. Ross showed just how wide a range of material is encompassed by the phrase “funny songs.” The evening included two dozen numbers that ranged from British music hall classics such as “Don't Go in the Lion's Cage Tonight” (a hit originally for Beatrice Kay and later for Julie Andrews) to a medley of Flanders and Swan gems to Portia Nelson's “Confessions of a New Yorker” (in which she admits to being “in hate/love” with the town). Coward and Porter were well represented, as you might expect, but so were lesser-known songwriters such as Murray Grand (“The Spider and the Fly”) and the team of Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray (“Home Sweet Heaven”, a name-dropping extravaganza first sung by Tammy Grimes in the 1964 musical High Spirits).

Mr. Ross even treated us to a comic monologue, “Prinderella and the Cince”, which seems to have undergone some metamorphoses and elaborations since comic Frederick Chase Taylor (a.k.a Colonel Stoopnagle) first published this classic collection of Spoonerisms in 1946. The original can still be found on line at, among other places. One look will explain why Mr. Ross was obliged, atypically, to work from a script for this item.

As is so often the case with Mr. Ross' work, it's difficult to anoint any particular collection of songs with the title “highlights”. Personally, I was the most delighted by the half dozen pieces I'd never heard before, such as “The Unrequited Love March” (in which typically languishing lyrics are coupled with a rousing Sousa-esqe melody), Dorothy Shay's twisted “Say That We're Sweethearts Again” (“I never knew that our romance had ended / Until you poisoned my food”) and Brown and Henderson's “Ladies and Gentlemen, That's Love”, which was written as a satirical response to Porter's “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (“When a hippopotamus / Does what no one dare discuss / Ladies and gentlemen, that's love”).

I'd be less than honest, however, if I didn't cop to being equally happy to hear favorites like Ivor Novello's “And Her Mother Came Too” and Coward's caustic “Mrs. Worthington”. And what a pleasure it was to reacquaint myself Rogers and Hart's “At the Roxy Music Hall” - a song I haven't heard since I performed it myself an undisclosed number of decades ago in a revue for the now deceased City Players.

The more discerning among you have probably noticed by now that I've not had much to say about Mr. Ross' actual performance. That's due, in part, to the ease and grace which characterize his work. He makes himself transparent, so to speak, to the music, creating the illusion that the songwriter is communicating with us directly.

It's also due to my inability to come up with novel ways of stating the obvious: the Mr. Ross remains one of cabaret's leading lights. Indeed, simply to say that he is Steve Ross is probably praise enough.

Mr. Ross' show was the first one I've seen at the new Kranzberg Center's cabaret space, and I must say the room itself looks and sounds good. The stage is raised just high enough to give everyone a good view of the artist but not so much that it distances the performer from the audience - as the stage in the Sheldon's more cavernous Savoy Room does. The amplified sound is clear and undistorted and the lighting grid looks substantial enough to meet the needs of any cabaret act I've ever seen. With the unexpected demise of the Flim Flam Room at Savor this past summer, the Kranzberg would appear to be the new first choice for cabaret.

Next at the Kranzberg: Lee Lessack with a Johnny Mercer tribute October 29th through November 1st. Between now and then Cabaret St. Louis, the new organization that sponsored Mr. Ross' appearance, will bring us classical soprano Sylvia McNair with a Great American Songbook program October 16th and 17th at the Sheldon and local cultural icon Fran Landesman with an evening of songs and stories October 22nd through 25th at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle. For information on these and other upcoming Cabaret St. Louis attractions, visit their web site at

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lemon Law

Photo by Ernest von Rosen,

One of my dear old mum's favorite phrases is “when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade”.

Yes, it's a cliché, but like a lot of clichés it also contains more than a grain of truth. Turning a sow's ear into a silk purse (there's another one...) is one of humanity's oldest pursuits. Entire industries (public relations and advertising) are based on it. Politicians do it so automatically that they no longer even think of it as lying. It's just “spin”.

I bring all this up because today a local theater company sent out a press release that is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of turning lemons into a tasty summertime beverage that I have ever seen.

The company, The Tin Ceiling, is presenting Sam Shephard's drama True West with a new twist: there's no director. Whether this was done as an experiment or out of necessity is perhaps a moot point. What's really rather clever is the way they handled the fact that, of the three reviews they got, two were positively negative. Here's the full press release:

The Tin Ceiling Theater (The oldest and smallest theater on the South Side) presents for your viewing pleasure, a conundrum, an enigma, a question wrapped in the quizzical look from the guy peeing on the dumpster next to your garage as you pull in.

For the next two weekends, Friday-Sunday, at 8pm, the Tin Ceiling will continue to ask the age old question, "do you really need a director for every play?" The play that will decide this question once and for all for all eternity is our production of Sam Shepard's True West.

We have divided the world into two sides, the Green and the Brown.

The "No, you don't need a director" side is summed up by the opinion of Richard Green. Here's the link to his Talkin' Broadway review:

This contingent includes the cast and crew, the Funboys (Bob and Ken), the Byrd family, my parents (who haven't seen it yet but they'd agree with me) and William Shakespeare.

The "Yes, for the love of god, yes, you need a director" side we have Dennis Brown's review. Here's a link to his RFT capsule:

This side is made up of the nice reviewer for KDHX (her review can be viewed here), Meghan (who hasn't seen the show), anyone at Saturday's performance and Elia Kazan.

So come on down to the Tin Ceiling at 3159 Cherokee and shill out $10 to see the show, and weigh in on this most important of issues.

Feel free to post your opinion on our Myspace page. Don't ask me how you would do that, or even if you can do that. All this Web 2.0 stuff gives me a headache. What was the matter with BBSing? Anyway, here's the link to our Myspace page:

Is this shrewd or what?

That said, I have to say that I've been in my share of shows in which, while there was a director of record, there was, in fact, no direction at all. One or two of them managed to be decent shows because the cast, out of sheer desperation, took turns directing each other, but generally speaking I think a show without direction is going to be a show with no direction.

I agree with Ron Himes' notion of the division of responsibility. The playwright's job is to produce a good script. The director's job is to realize the playwright's vision on stage. The actor's job is to create a character based on the director's interpretation of the playwright's vision. If anybody falls down on his or her job, the end result will suffer.

But what the heck - it's summer. Anybody for a nice lemonade?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

All That Jazz

Over at - a site dedicated to those of us contemplating the “second act” of our lives - my motto is “when you stop learning you stop living”. As a demonstration that (unlike a lot of politicians and media gasbags) I actually practice what I preach, I did something for the very first time today at age 59 that is usually done at a far younger age.

I bought my first pair of jazz shoes.

This wasn't done on a whim, but rather in anticipation of the fact that this Saturday I'll be doing something else for the first time: attending a class on Fosse technique at Leaping Lizards, a local dance studio. “Come dressed in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing”, said the invitation. “Jazz shoes are ideal.”

That class isn't the result of a whim either. It's a result of being cast as King Charles (a.k.a. Charlemagne) in Stray Dog Theatre's production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin. The late Bob Fosse's choreographed the 1972 Broadway original and since then everybody has pretty much followed his lead when it comes to the many dance numbers that help give the show it's unique character. Stray Dog decided to give everyone in the cast - including non-dancers like yours truly - the opportunity to learn some of the key moves.

It's good, as Mel Brooks noted, to be the King - particularly since King Charles isn't expected to do any fancy footwork. I am expected to join the rest of the ensemble in a couple of numbers, however, so my jazz shoes and I will be at the class this Saturday and next.

This isn't quite as crazy as it might sound since I've been taking aerobics classes for nearly thirty years now. Still, it's something new. Hopefully I won't embarrass myself too much or strain something trying.

Just call me a dancin' fool.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Deb Peterson broke the story in the Post-Dispatch earlier today and Chris Gibson, who went to review Elsie Parker tonight for KDHX-FM (where I'm the senior performing arts critic), confirmed it: Savor is closing its doors after the Debby Lennon/Carolbeth True show on June 28th.

Chris said Jim Dolan - the producer of the Cabaret at Savor series and the master of ceremonies for every performance - wasn't there tonight and the woman who was doing the seating apparently had no idea that he was there to review the show. It's not clear whether she was an employee of Savor or Jim's organization.

This is pretty awful news for the cabaret scene locally. Savor was the best all-around cabaret room in town. I went to the press preview for the Kranzberg Center Wednesday (the 21st) and while their cabaret space is promising, the seating will need to be planned properly if it's going to work at all. I have no idea whether they're going to do that or not.

Jim was apparently caught flat-footed by this. His web site is still advertising shows through August 23rd. It looks like Savor made the decision very abruptly.

UPDATE, June 28th: According to an anonymous posting on Ian Froeb's Gut Check restaurant blog, "the owner only knew 5 days before the doors closed for good" and the business "owed over 50 grand to the state in taxes ". How things could get to the point where that would come as a surprise is a question not yet addressed.

Troy Weight

William Walton's 1954 opera Troilus and Cressida has had a history almost as unfortunate as that of its protagonists. From the lackluster Covent Garden premiere, sloppily conducted by an ill-prepared and hostile Malcolm Sargent, through repeated revivals and revisions, this tale of star-crossed lovers in the final years of the Trojan War has acquired a reputation as something of operatic problem child. It wasn't until the 1976 revival - once again at Covent Garden and once again beset by production problems - that the composer, now Sir William Walton, finally received the critical praise he had long deserved for this dark, emotionally charged work.

Revision of the opera continued even after the composer's death, and so it is that Opera Theatre of St. Louis is presenting the world premiere of the latest and (presumably) last version of Troilus and Cressida. The road to St. Louis has been long and winding, but judging from the generally splendid results on view at the Loretto-Hilton Center this past Wednesday night, the journey was well worth it.

The libretto, by actor, lyricist and playwright Christopher Hassall, is based largely on Chaucer's poem Troilus and Criseyde rather than on the somewhat more familiar Shakespearean tragedy. Unlike the many previous versions of the story, in which priestess of Pallas Athena is held up as an example of female inconstancy (a favorite theme of male writers), the Hassall/Walton collaboration clearly depicts Cressida as far more sinned against than sinning - a largely powerless victim of male arrogance and foolishness. Like the pawns in the metaphorically significant chess game which she plays in the second act, Cressida is shuffled about by powers far larger than herself.

In both the original and newest versions of opera, the role of Cressida calls for a dramatic soprano with a wide range and powerful voice. Ellie Dehn, making her OTSL debut, has all that and more. Statuesque and displaying an impressive stage presence, Dehn is as fine an actress as she is a singer - and she's a damned impressive singer. Her second act love scene with Troilus - underscored by Walton's sensuous music - is one of the steamier things I've seen on the Opera Theatre stage in many a year.

Tenor Roger Honeywell is equally strong as the Trojan prince Troilus, utterly believable both as yearning lover and valiant warrior. For this piece to work at all there has to be credible chemistry between the title characters. Mr. Honeywell and Ms. Dehn provide that in quantities sufficient to get over some of the speed bumps in the libretto's first act.

Some of the most remarkable singing comes from tenor Robert Breault as Cressida's fey uncle Pandarus, whose attempts to unite the lovers are undone by royal politics. The role was written for and first performed by Peter Pears and it's hard not to hear echoes of the great British tenor's wide-ranging, flexible voice (to say nothing of the music of his partner, Benjamin Britten) in the role's florid vocal lines. Breault - a late substitution for Stanford Olsen, who was sidelined by a torn tendon - negotiates the many difficult passages with ease and is a solid comic actor.

The principal villains of the piece - Cressida's treasonous father Calkas and the arrogant Greek prince Diomede - are played with considerable gravitas by bass-baritones Darren K. Stokes and Mark S. Doss. Both characters are written with just enough depth to raise them above the level of stock villainy, thereby making them all the more repellent. Doss, in particular, does an excellent job of brining out Diomede's smug self-admiration.

Other fine performances include mezzo Elizabeth Batton as Cressida's duplicitous servant Evadne and baritone Aleksy Bogdanov as Troilus' friend Antenor.

Conductor Antony Walker leads the orchestra with great relish, clearly enjoying every minute of Walton's lush, intelligent score. Sandra Horst's chorus appears in only a handful of scenes, but makes a powerful impression when it does so - particularly in the massive ensemble towards the end of the second act.

Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Gideon Davey have given us a Troy that's a gray, claustrophobic mix of classical and modern design elements, contrasting with a starkly bright Greek camp lit by harsh golden light. I'm not convinced that it all works as a concept, especially in the final act when the treacherous Calkas kills Troilus not by stabbing him in the back as called for in the libretto but by having him shot by a sentry. Up to that point, everyone has been brandishing knives and swords, so the sudden introduction of a modern weapon seems bizarre.

Cressida's death scene is also given a curiously anti-climactic staging. Rather than stabbing herself with Troilus' sword, director Lawless has Ms. Dehn wind the crimson scarf that has served as a token of her love for Troilus around her neck and then pull aside a trap door to reveal a dummy hanging from an identical scarf. The actress then runs offstage, leaving the audience briefly wondering what, exactly, has just happened.

These are minor complaints, however, about an otherwise brilliantly realized production of a rarely-seen opera rich in drama and offering an embarrassment of musical riches. It's a work that resonates, to a degree, with the contemporary political scene as well, given its gimlet-eyed, anti-heroic view of war and the way in which a prolonged siege of a weaker nation by a stronger one has a corrupting influence on both. Sometimes there are truths that only fiction can adequately reveal to us.

Opera Theatre's compelling production of Troilus and Cressida runs through June 29th. Of the three OTSL productions I've seen this year (my own performance commitments prevented me from seeing Madame Butterfly) this was clearly the most consistent musical and dramatic success. It's a "must see" for anyone who enjoys intelligent musical theatre. It's also a fitting tribute to Opera Theatre's late Artistic Director, Colin Graham, who was a long-time champion of the work and friend of the composer. For ticket information, call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site, .

Friday, June 20, 2008

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Those of you who have read this here blog in the past (aw, c'mon, there must be at least one of you) are undoubtedly aware of the fact that I lead something of a double theatrical life in that I'm both an actor and a critic. This has made me acutely aware of both the difficulty of accurately critiquing a performance as well as the folly of getting worked up much one way or the other about reviews of the shows in which I'm appearing - so much so, in fact, that I try to avoid reading them whenever possible.

Still, as anyone who has hung around a dressing room knows well, it's virtually impossible to avoid hearing your fellow actors either praise or bemoan the show's notices. Last night, for example, one topic of discussion before the lights went up on the first act of Stray Dog Theatre's Morning's at Seven (in which I'm playing the curmudgeonly David Crampton) were some weird errors of fact in a generally very positive review.

The paragraph in question looks like this:

But there are questions about this staging. Why, for instance, has the time frame been moved from 1922, where Osborn set it, to 1939 (the year the play debuted)? The shenanigans that ensue in this small Midwestern town seem out of place in the Depression-era 1930s. And here's another seemingly minor yet bewildering change: In Act One we see Cory eating a banana. In the script, Act Two begins with Cory's husband Thor (David K. Gibbs) eating yet another banana and suddenly realizing that he hates it. In that character-revealing moment we realize how henpecked Thor is. But because director Bell has switched the Act Two fruit to an apple, the setup is wasted, the moment lost.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, to begin with, the script (which carries a 1939 copyright date) clearly states “Time: The Present”. So our director was merely following the playwright's directions. Where the reviewer in question got the notion that the play was set seventeen years in the past is anybody's guess. Maybe it was the pre-show music (which consisted of some classic "Jelly Roll" Morton tracks from the mid-twenties), but I doubt it.

Then there's what Sherlock Holmes might have referred to as the curious incident of the banana in the second act. Referring once again to the script, the stage directions at the top of Act II read as follows:

Scene: The Same. Seven-fifteen the next morning. Bright sun. THOR comes out of the house at right. Is eating an apple, contentedly. Suddenly throws it from him.

THOR: God, how I hate apples!

Yes, we have no bananas.

Your guess is as good as mine as to where the reviewer got these odd ideas, much less why he would devote an entire paragraph to upbraiding the director for making non-existent changes. Could he have somehow gotten his hands on an alternate version of the script? The copy we're working from is the official Samuel French acting edition. I can't find any evidence that there's another version out there, but I suppose anything is possible.

It's a mystery worthy of Holmes himself.

UPDATE: As it turns out, the reviewer in question did, in fact, have an alternate version of the script. Specifically, he had the Fireside Theatre edition, issued in conjunction with teh 1980 revival of the play. That revival made several changes in the text (including shifting the setting back seventeen years) and those changes were reflected in the Fireside Theatre edition.

The Fireside Theatre, however, was never in the business of providing working scripts for theatre companies; that has always been the business of Samuel French, Dramatists' Play Service, and some other, smaller businesses. Fireside Theatre - which folded its tent back in 2003 - was a book club that provided editions of plays intented to be read by the general public. Anyone who has ever acted, directed, or designed for the theatre knows that a company is almost certainly not going to be using a Fireside Theatre edition. Shouldn't we expect professional critics to know at least as much about the business as the average actor?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Who Am Us, Anyway?

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title.]

Through July 5th, Scott Miller's New Line Theatre is presenting the Midwest premiere of the musical High Fidelity. Reviews have been very favorable. One of those reviews, however, included a couple of comments that caused my Inner Curmudgeon to spring to life.

You can read the entire piece on line (at least until the publication in questions moves it to the archives, when you have to pay for the privilege of seeing it), but this is what made me all grumbly:

High Fidelity started out as a delightful novel by Nick Hornby, then turned into a cute movie starring John Cusack. But it's not an obvious candidate for the musical stage. That's because when we think of musicals, we tend to think of flashy extravaganzas.

My first complaint involves the use of the word “we”. Who is this word “we”? Did she have a mouse in her pocket? I'm a long-time lover of musical theatre and I certainly don't think of “flashy extravaganzas” when I think of musicals. I'll bet most of you reading this don't either.

Maybe I'm being too picky, but it bugs me to see writers use “we” when they really mean “I” or (maybe) “my friends and I”.

As far as whether or not the book was on "obvious candidate for the musical stage", I have to say that if The Lord of the Rings can be turned into musical theatre, pretty much anything is fair game. Would anyone have thought, a priori, that Tales of the South Pacific was a likely candidate for musical theatre? Or Les Miserables? Or Wicked? For that matter, who'd have thought that a painting by Seuralt could be the basis for a musical? It just takes someone with enough imagination to do the adaptation.

Art in almost any form is nearly infinitely transmutable, in my view. The product of any particular metamorphosis may or may not succeed, depending largely on the skill of the artist doing the adaptation, but almost anything is possible.

That's what we (Stuart Little and I) think, anyway.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sound Bytes

Every now and then I come across an item that spans the divide between my technology blog and my performing arts blog - which is why I'm publishing this little essay in both. Case in point: this interesting item from the New York Times about the use of all-digital orchestras by small companies.

The technology is intended, supposedly, to supplement a small live orchestra. As the author points out, however, there's nothing to prevent it from replacing live musicians entirely.

On the one hand, it might be a boon to small, cash-strapped companies that can't afford to hire many (or any) musicians or community theatres with volunteer orchestras that leave something to be desired in terms of competence. On the other hand, it could make real musicians an endangered species, which is hardly a desirable outcome.

In any case, you'd think it would be an interesting topic for discussion. I expected, therefore, a flurry of responses when I posted the following question to two local theatre email lists: newlinetheatre and stlouistheatre: Would you use an all-digital orchestra for a production?

What I got was a whopping total of one response from New Line Theatre's founder and artistic director Scott Miller, who stated categorically that he would "never do a musical without live musicians". That was hardly surprising, by the way; I've known Scott for some years now and was well aware of his disdain for canned music.

I'm not sure what to make of that. There are a number of musical theatre producers on both lists. Surely at least one of them has an opinion on this. It's not an academic issue, after all. High schools are already using all-digital or mostly-digital orchestras. Surely it's only a matter of time before those small companies referred to above find themselves asking whether or not they should go digital.

So why the silence? Is it because they're all in agreement with Scott? That would be the happier explanation as far as I'm concerned. Or is it because, given the potential cost savings, they wouldn't even bother to think about it before going digital? Could commerce really have trumped art to that degree?

Scary thought, that. Are we facing a future like the one Walter Miller described in his Hugo Award-winning story The Darfsteller? Film extras have already been supplanted by digital animation in big-budget pictures. Could real, live performers of all kinds go the same way?

Will we eventually get to the point where we have made ourselves obsolete?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Rare, Not So Well Done

“[T]hus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

- Twelfth Night, V, 1

That bit of Shakespeare jumped unbidden into my mind as I contemplated Opera Theatre's Midwest premiere of Vincente Martin y Soler's bucolic comedy Una Cosa Rara. First performed in Vienna in November of 1786, just six months after Mozart's masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosa was, for many decades, the far more popular piece, both in the Austrian capitol and the rest of Europe. It wasn't until the early 19th century that “the whirligig of time” gave Mozart his revenge over Martin. By then, of course, both composers had shuffled off this mortal coil.

It's not hard to understand why Cosa was more popular. It's mostly charming numbers are musically simpler than Mozart's and were probably easier on the late 18th-century ear. Like Figaro, Cosa boasted a libretto by the celebrated Lorenzo Da Ponte. Unlike Figaro, however, the story is pure meringue. What plot there is revolves around the unsuccessful attempts of Prince Giovanni to woo the shepherdess Lila away from her swain Lubino. Lila's fidelity is the “rare treasure” of the title.

In Figaro the aristocrats are a rather unpleasant bunch. In Cosa, they're just silly. Vienna's upper crust probably found that more politically acceptable.

Silly and funny aren't necessarily the same thing, however, and while Washington University musicologist Hugh Macdonald's English adaptation of the Da Ponte's original inserts lots of contemporary language and ideas along with some inside jokes about the opera itself, the result still struck me as somewhat incoherent and, ultimately, a bit dull.

Even in a sitcom - the low end of the farce spectrum - there has to be a sense that something is at risk somewhere in order to provide a little dramatic tension. There's none of that here. How much of that is Da Ponte's fault I really can't say; the only copy of the libretto I could find was in the original Italian and my rudimentary grasp of the language of my ancestors isn't up to the task of reading it. The bottom line is that, despite some impressive coloratura arias, the second act made me want to check my watch more than once.

Director Chas Rader-Schieber and set designer David Zinn seem to lack confidence in the material as well. The former fills every spare moment with movement and physical comedy while the latter has set the entire show inside a sort of cartoon version of an 18th-century drawing room filled with silly props including plastic pink Flamingos, plush animals, and sheep on roller skates. Although the resulting barrage of sight gags struck a good portion of the opening night audience as funny, I found much of it annoying, especially when - as was often the case - it drew focus from some truly wonderful singing and acting. That's just plain discourteous.

I really can't say enough about this terrific cast. Sopranos Maureen McKay and Kiera Duffy are wonderfully engaging as Lila and her somewhat more ethically flexible friend Ghita. Their beautiful voices negotiate Martin's more florid passages and rapid patter songs with ease.

Baritone Keith Phares, whose fine dramatic work graced earlier OTSL productions of Miss Havisham's Fire and Loss of Eden, demonstrates that he's a dab hand at comedy as well in the role of Lubino. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, of course, showed his comic skills last season as the roller-blading Pish-Tush in OTSL's Mikado, so it 's not surprising to discover that he's equally funny as Ghita's quarrelsome fiancée Tita. Their singing is first-rate.

Tenor Alek Shrader, who was such an impressive Almaviva in The Barber of Seville back in '06, gets to shine once again as a feckless aristocrat in the role of Prince Giovanni. His dramatic aria about the pains of love was a highlight of the second act. Tenor Paul Appleby, a Gerdine Young Artist cast somewhat ironically in the comic geezer role of the scheming Corrado, is also in fine form.

Soprano Mary Wilson, whose supple voice has graced both the Opera Theatre and St. Louis Symphony stages in the past, is a comic delight as the somewhat befuddled Queen Isabella. She, too, is more than a match for some of the elaborate vocal ornaments Martin tosses her way. David Kravitz, another Mikado alumnus, makes the most of the relatively small role of the unscrupulous Mayor Lisargo.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the orchestra with great skill and precision. Maybe it's just the benefit of hindsight, but even in the sprightly sinfonia, I thought I heard echoes of the rapid opening passages of Figaro's overture. The orchestra certainly handles the music with Mozartian grace in any event.

We owe Opera Theatre a debt of gratitude for giving us a chance to hear the kind of music the Viennese thought superior to that of Mozart, but the entire project would have benefited, in my view, from fewer attempts at slapstick and some judicious edits of the score. It's easy on the ear, but I didn't find musically interesting enough to sustain my interest for nearly three hours, including intermission. Cutting around fifteen minutes from second act, for example, would tighten the dramatic structure, such as it is, without sacrificing any valuable musical content.

Opera Theatre's amusing production of Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 20th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Home Sickness

There's a serious homelessness problem in the St. Louis theatre community.

I'm not talking about homeless actors - although, given what the average stage actor earns in a year, that's certainly possible. I'm talking about homeless theatre companies.

Eight years ago, when the St. Marcus Theatre closed in a flurry of bad feeling following a production of Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi (among other things) my friend Joan Lipkin - whose Uppity Theatre Company was one of the groups left out in the cold - remarked that theatre in St. Louis was mostly about real estate. What she meant, of course, was that there were too many companies chasing after too few spaces.

The situation is at least as bad today. A few new spaces have opened up, but a lot more companies have come into existence while others have extended their seasons. It's still a game of musical chairs, with many smaller companies left standing around when the music stops.

It was, therefore, a cause of great rejoicing among local thespians two years ago when developer Peter Rothschild bought St. Boniface Church at Ivory and Michigan in the city's Carondelet neighborhood from the St. Louis Archdiocese and announced his intention to turn it into the Ivory Theatre. He appeared to be serious about it, spending $1 million on the building and another $800,000 to convert it into a modern theatre space, complete with a handsome and well-appointed lobby. Theatre manager Donna Perrino began contacting local companies, looking for groups who might be interested in making the Ivory their home. It all seemed too good to be true.

Which, alas, it was.

The first storm clouds appeared on the horizon with the inaugural production in the space, New Line Theatre's revue Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. Convinced that the title presaged an evening of wild debauchery, the theatre's former owners exercised an odd clause in the sales contract that allowed them to prevent the building for being used for an odd collection of purposes, including “human abortion, sterilization [or] euthanasia” (there's a lot of that on stage these days, apparently), tattoos, massages, anything “pornographic or soft pornographic” and “live performances directed to an adult audience rather than the general public."

The opening night performance was cancelled, dueling press releases were issues, meetings were held and, eventually, the Archdiocese got around to actually finding out what was in the show. They blinked, found a face-saving exit, and Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll went on. The drama, however, had just begun.

In the intervening months, every company that had signed up for permanent residence at the Ivory found itself in conflict with Perrino. Agreements were broken, the facility wasn't maintained, sets were damaged, and rehearsals were disrupted by loud meetings in the lobby. Chaos, in short, reigned. By the early months of 2008, all of the companies that had signed up for residency had flown the coop, each with its own tale of managerial incompetence.

I won't bore you with the details, but if you want all the dirt in detail there's a blog dedicated to the entire unfolding debacle. That, along with a recent Riverfront Times article, should provide you with an ample sufficiency of dirt.

The situation could be worse, I suppose. The Soulard Preservation Hall has finally opened after years of gut rehab, but the facility is more suitable for musical or comedy shows than live theatre. Tower Grove Abbey - another church now hosting theatre - is open for business, but its resident company, Stray Dog Theatre, has an ambitious year-round schedule that doesn't appear to leave much room for sharing. The new Kranzberg Cultural Center in the former Woolworth Building in Grand Center promises “two performance spaces seating 100 in the black box theatre and 75 in the cabaret studio”, bit it's not scheduled to open until the fall and nobody knows exactly what the facilities will look like or how much it will cost to rent them.

The bottom line, though, is that a number of adventurous small theatre companies are now huddling in doorways, begging for spare change. For a city with such a rich cultural heritage, this is a pretty shameful situation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spinning Tales

It has been over twenty years since Opera Theatre of St. Louis has seen fit to give us a production of Offenbach's last and possibly greatest work, The Tales of Hoffmann, and it's easy to imagine why. The challenge of finding a soprano who can handle the roles of all four of Hoffmann's love objects is substantial and even a non-realistic production like the current one still makes significant technical demands. That being the case, it's fortunate that the 2008 season opens with a Hoffmann that, despite the occasional misstep and fit of theatrical self-indulgence, is solidly entertaining and generally quite well sung.

Left uncompleted at the time of the composer's death, Hoffman is, by now, a bit of a mess. It has gone through numerous re-writes over the years, the most recent being a major critical edition by Michael Kaye and Offenbach expert Jean-Christophe Keck that takes into account hundreds of pages of previously unknown material unearthed in the 1970s and 1980s. It's this version that's used in the current production, and those who know the opera from older editions may find themselves raising the occasional eyebrow at some of the changes. Those eyebrows will be especially high during the opera's final moments when Hoffman, instead of passing out to the off-stage strains of the students' drinking song, joins the entire ensemble in a hymn of praise to the transformative power of art.

I still prefer the older, more downbeat ending, if only because it's truer to the real Hoffmann's early death from alcoholism and syphilis, but I can't deny the musical and dramatic impact of this one. If only they weren't all singing it to the ghost of Offenbach.

If you don't remember Offenbach being a character in his own opera, that's because this particular gimmick has been added by director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe, whose inventive work distinguished OTSL's Thaïs in 2003 and Beauty and the Beast in 2005. As they explain in their program note, they see this often-revised score as a labyrinth with the composer “misleading us through it all by hiding parts of his score and by playing some roles he has stolen from the singers”.

Hence a scene taken from real life and tacked on to the beginning, in which a bronze statue of Offenbach and The Muses is unveiled. As the opera proper begins the bronze figures come to life. The muse of poetry takes on the character of Hoffman's young friend Nicklausse (as the character does in previous versions of the libretto) while Offenbach takes on all of the comic servant roles and inserts himself in and between scenes in ways that are amusing at some times but annoying at others. In the opera's final moments, he becomes the center of attention, shifting the focus from Hoffman's redemption through poetry to (presumably) Offenbach's redemption of his final work.

The entire concept strikes me as imposed and unnecessary, but given the strength of the production as a whole, I'm willing to let it go.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez is impressive, to say the least, as the four objects of Hoffman's affection. The roles of the diva Stella, the singing doll Olympia, the mysteriously ill Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta are all vocally demanding in very different ways - so much so that many companies are obliged to abandon Offenbach's intention to have all the parts sung by the same actress. In taking on all four, Pérez is filling the shoes of some of some operatic giants, including Beverly Sills (whose performance opposite Norman Treigle as the villains so captivated me as a youth), Dame Joan Sutherland and Catherine Malfitano. She does so with great skill and while some of her vocal choices (especially in Olympia's coloratura passages) may offend purists, I found her performance completely persuasive.

Bass Kirk Eichelberger takes on the four villains and to my ears, at least, he sounded fine despite the fact that the roles require the extended range of a bass-baritone. His acting struck me as a bit 19th century artificial, but given that bass Jeremy Gaylon (as the various father figures) and tenor Matthew DiBattista (as the bronzed Offenbach) were mining the same vein, I suspect they may just be following Doucet's direction. DiBattista does make the comical roles very comical, however, and his Offenbach wig and makeup are a triumph of the art - credit Tom Watson for that bit of magic. Tenor Garrett Sorenson is a fine Hoffmann and mezzo Jennifer Johnson is captivating as Nicklausse and the Muse.

Stephen Lord, who also prepared the English translation, conducts the Opera Theatre orchestra with great skill. Players and singers got out of sync occasionally on opening night, but by the time you read this that will probably no longer be an issue.

From a purely theatrical perspective, the Doucet/Barbe team has loaded Hoffman up with a plethora of stage business and innovative design elements. That's both this production's greatest strength and biggest weakness, because while some of their ideas are delightful and serve the opera well, others are distracting or even annoying.

The ingenious bunraku-style mechanical creatures at Olympia's coming-out party are a good example of the former, along with visually striking costumes, such as Dapertutto's glittering black and scarlet number in the Venice sequence.

The latter include irrelevant images lifted from M.C. Escher, overdone slapstick in the Olympia scenes, Giulietta's distracting and unflattering seahorse outfit, and the sudden appearance, in the second act, of a giant puppet version of Antonia's mother manipulated by multiple Doctor Miracles. Arriving as it does at a moment of high drama, this sudden infusion of the absurd provoked stifled giggles from some of the opening night audience. Besides, seven Doctor Miracles is six too many.

That said, Opera Theatre's Tales of Hoffmann is still a generally gratifying production of an Offenbach classic, and well worth seeing. It runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.

One final note: Tales of Hoffmann runs around three hours and fifteen minutes with two very short intermissions, neither of which leaves one enough time to do more than make a quick run to the appropriate washroom or hastily gulp down a glass of wine. Tacking on another five minutes to each intermission wouldn't make that much difference in overall running time and would enhance the experience of Opera Theatre's well-appointed concessions tent during these pleasant early summer evenings

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Winning West

Paula West is making her third St. Louis appearance (and her second in the Cabaret at Savor series) this week, which presents me with a bit of a problem. What can I say about her magnetic and compelling performance that I didn't say the last two times? I've already praised her ability to combine the improvisatory spirit of jazz with the fidelity to the songwriter's intent that characterizes a good cabaret performance. I've already described her act as "the best of both worlds". Where do I go from there?

Perhaps I should start by admiring the variety of material on the program. From the opening instrumental blues jam based on a tune by the late Boise-based pianist Gene Harris to the mesmerizing closing performance of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", Ms. West and company provide an impressive variety of songs culled from widely divergent genres.

There are American Songbook standards like Sammy Cahn's "Pocketful of Miracles" (from the 1961 Frank Capra film), "Something Good" (which Richard Rogers wrote for the film version of The Sound of Music) and Rogers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic" (from 1932 film Love Me Tonight where it's sung by Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, among others, in a montage sequence). But there are also the Dylan songs, a rollicking version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya", Jobim's stream-of-consciousness "Waters of March" - the composition of which is said to have been a form of psychotherapy for the Brazilian legend - and the earthy wit and wisdom of "The Goodbye Song", adapted from a Pearl Bailey monologue.

That last one, by the way, is one of several numbers that cast a gimlet eye on that whole Mars/Venus thing. Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "The Snake", about the folly of believing that love alone can change anyone, is another. Ms. West is no starry-eyed romantic, and her wry take on the business of "breakin' in the next man" gives a bit of a feminist slant to the evening. A distinct, personal point of view is one of the elements of a solid cabaret show so that, as they say, is a good thing.

Ms. West delivers all of this with the vocal flexibility and virtuosity that her fans have come to expect. She also does it with a minimum of "patter" - the between-songs chat that most artists use to enlighten us about the music, the performer, or both. That's unusual in cabaret, but Ms. West is content to let the music and her often-innovative approach to it speak for themselves. For her, the combination works beautifully. She connects quickly with the audience and maintains that bond right up to the end.

The combination of Ms. West and her fellow performers, The George Mesterhazy Trio, also works beautifully. I've praised Mesterhazy's impressive pianism and smart, witty arrangements before. It would seem that I'm doing it again now. His arrangement of ur-Hippie eden ahbez's "Nature Boy", for example, features seductive harmonies and a percussion line inspired by a visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul ("not Constantinople") while his high-energy version of "All the Cats Join In" - which Benny Goodman's band recorded for a Disney animated short in 1946 - includes one of his signature in-jokes. In this case, it's the bass line from another Goodman hit, Chu Berry's "Christopher Columbus". There was undoubtedly more of that sort of thing during the evening, but I'm not hip to the jive enough to pick up all of it.

Filling out the trio this time around are Cliff Schmidt on bass and Tony Reedus on drums. They're both solid performers and are clearly having the time of their lives playing off of each other and Ms. West who is, as always, careful to give members of the band plenty of opportunities to shine. Mr. Schmidt's action-packed solos drew applause throughout the evening, and Mr. Reedus demonstrated an impressive dynamic range, from the exotic caresses of "Nature Boy" to the slam-bang tang of "All the Cats Join In".

So, there we are. I managed to tell you what a great show Paula West is doing this week at Savor and I hardly plagiarized myself at all. Her show runs through Saturday, May 17th, and you can order tickets by calling Savor at 314-531-0220 or by surfing over to I'd advise doing that sooner rather than later. The 65-seat Flim-Flam Room was nearly full when we attended on Wednesday; it's a safe bet that Friday and Saturday tickets will go quickly.

Should you miss her, however, despair not. Her three CDs are available at , among other places, and you can keep up with future appearances at her web site, . And in any case, given the warm welcome the Midwest has accorded the West, I expect we'll be seeing her here again.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Voices of Spring

It was a colorful evening at Powell Hall on Thursday, May 8th, and not just because of the bright spring plumage sported by many of the women (and some of the men) in attendance. The works that made up the program were also riots of orchestral color that gave every section of the orchestra a chance to show off - which they did, to great effect.

The evening opened with that favorite of cartoons and horror movies - Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor - as arranged by one of the 20th century's great transcribers, Leopold Stokowski. Sometimes lambasted by critics for his flamboyant conducting style, "Stoky" was certainly capable of wretched excess from time to time, but I've always had a soft spot for both his performances and his arrangements. Dating from 1926 - and made famous in 1939 by its inclusion in Disney's Fantasia - the transcription is really quite a brilliant display of the capabilities of the 20th-century orchestra in general and the Philadelphia Orchestra (where Stokowski was Music Director from 1912 to 1938) in particular. The way in which melodic fragments are tossed around between instruments recalls Webern's transcription of Bach's "Ricercare No. 2" - albeit on a grander scale - and the occasional echoing of themes between sections put me in mind of the famous antiphonal brass works of Gabrielli.

Early music purists shun this sort of thing, of course, but I've always felt that a sympathetic arrangement in no way denigrates the original but rather creates a new work that's a kind of musical hybrid. Some critics dismissed Stokowski's Bach transcriptions as "Bachowski" but, in fact, that's exactly what they are: collaborations between two musical originals who just happened to have lived two centuries apart.

Peter Oundjian conducted the orchestra in an appropriately Hollywood-lavish performance of this unabashedly flashy piece. The winds sounded particularly fine and it was nice to hear from that orchestral wallflower, the celesta, even if it's only used as a garnish.

Following the Bach/Stokowski was Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body, a transcendent 2000 composition that's a kind of fantasia on 12th century composer, author and mystic Hildegard von Bingen's Responsorium "Ave Maria, O auctrix vite" ("Hail Mary, o source of life") - which was itself an adaptation of an anonymous "Alma Redemptoris Mater" from two hundred years earlier. Mirrors within mirrors. Von Bingen's work radiates a celestial serenity that's difficult to define, but Theofanidis has nevertheless captures it perfectly. The theme is presented three times in this thirteen-minute piece, each time in a different swirl of orchestral color, but its first appearance is simply magical. Played simply by the strings in an arrangement that mimics the effect of reverberation in a large space, this 10th-century chant, expanded in the 12th century and filtered through the lens of the 21st, is simply one of the most beautiful things you will ever hear.

The title, according to Paul Schiavo's program notes, derives from Tibetan Buddhism and refers to "the form an enlightened person takes after escaping the cycle of reincarnation". In this sense, then, Rainbow Body is something of a contemporary version of Strauss' Death and Transfiguration, with each statement of the theme indicating the progress of the "subtle body" towards pure light and energy. Theofanidis illustrates that final transformation with an all-stops-out setting that manages to be both overwhelming and subtle at the same time.

The symphony did this modern showpiece up proud, with a performance that was received with great enthusiasm by the audience - a relatively rare response to most recent classical music. Rainbow Body clearly deserves to be made a part of the regular orchestral repertoire. Writing music that is beautiful as well as intelligent seems to be finally making a comeback, and not a moment too soon.

It was back to the familiar after intermission with that most famous of 20th century settings of medieval texts, Carl Orff's 1936 Carmina Burana. The title is taken from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their "vulgar" status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" ("Fortune, Empress of the World"), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and "magic tableaux" and while it's usually performed strictly as a concert piece these days, the composer's theatrical intentions are evident in every note. Oundjian's reading was appropriately dramatic, with marked contrasts of both tempo and dynamics that called to mind David Amado's somewhat controversial 2003 Carmina. I loved that one and I'm equally smitten this time around. The orchestra and chorus sounded great despite the occasional intonation problem here and there, and the addition projected supertitles saved those less familiar with the work from having to constantly bury their noses in their programs. There was also fine work from the Children's Chorus, brought in from the wings to stand in front of the stage for their brief appearance in the "Court of Love" section.

Baritone soloist Lucas Meachem nicely delineated the various characters Orff created for him. His Abbot of "Cucaniensis" (which I've seen translated as Cuckoominster or Cockaigne, among other things) was especially striking, and he got all the required dramatic mileage out of the tormented, hedonistic narrator of "Estuans interius". Soprano Anna Christy was the epitome of girlish innocence flirting with budding sensuality in "Stetit puella" and "Dulcissime", and she nailed the daunting glissando that opens the latter with ease.

I was less happy with tenor Stanford Olsen's "Olim lacus colueram". The poem is a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view. It's comedy of the dark and creepy variety, and I felt Olsen's overly broad performance (or was it Oundjian's overly broad direction?) pulled it too much towards slapstick and did a disservice to his own fine singing. Sometimes less really is more.

This concluding concert of the 2007 - 2008 season will be presented again Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, May 9th through 11th. It's a splendid evening of vivid, Technicolor wide-screen music making and a fine way to welcome the season. As they sing in the "Primo Vere" ("Early Spring") section of Carmina Burana:

Rerum tanta novitas in solemni vere et veris auctoritas iubet nos guadere
"All things are refreshed at Spring's celebration, and her authority bids us rejoice."

Call 314-534-1700 for tickets or visit the St. Louis Symphony web site at . Because in these concerts, the orchestra and chorus truly rock, dude. Seriously.

Monday, April 28, 2008

New and Improved

Like the lyrics of several of her songs, the title of the show Susan Werner brought to The Cabaret at Savor this April 23rd through 26th [2008] - I Can't be New - is richly ironic. In fact, nearly everything she did was new, or at least novel - to say nothing of creative, smart, hip, devilishly clever and just downright entertaining. Howard Reich, chief critic of the Chicago Tribune, nailed it back in 2006 when called her “one of the most innovative songwriters working today.”

Due to accidents of history as much as anything else, the image of the singer/songwriter in the popular mind is strongly linked to artists who draw their inspiration primarily from the folk/old-time tradition. Think of July Collins or Phil Ochs in the 1960s or Nanci Griffith today. As anyone who has heard Spencer Day or Jessica Molaskey can attest, however, this image is far too limited. Werner started out making a name for herself on the folk circuit, and her songs certainly include elements of what's now called “traditional” music, but that's only one color in a palette that includes jazz - traditional and modern - torch songs, American Songbook standards and even some remnants of her classical conservatory training. I could have sworn I heard some very Brahmsian harmonies in her piano arrangements at one point.

Let's not beat around the bush here: Susan Werner writes really great songs. She writes the kind of songs that make people like me want to go out and buy copies of the sheet music so we can learn them. She writes songs that can be funny, sad, wry, world-weary, romantic, cynical, cheerfully upbeat and politically subversive - sometimes all at once.

She writes songs about religious stupidity (“Heaven So Small”), spiritual generosity (“Help Somebody”), love missed (“Don't I Know You”, a Billy Strayhorn homage), love found (“Philanthropy”) and her home town (“Give Me Chicago Any Day”).

She can even write a song - inspired by Alan Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams - about the difference in the way time moves at the earth's core vs. at the top of a mountain. It sounds a bit like one of those delicious pastiches William Walton wrote for Façade, which ain't shabby.

Besides, anyone who can compose a number like “Let's Regret This in Advance” that rhymes “Holy Bible” with “wholly liable” and then combine it with an arrangement that includes both a plucked jazz cello (one of bassist Greg Holt's many fine contributions to the evening) and a spot-on Louis Armstrong impersonation is aces in my book.

That brings us to the subject of Susan Werner the cabaret performer. Towards the end of the evening, Ms. Warner joked that she was breaking so many Cabaret Rules that Savor might lose its license. In reality, she did everything a good cabaret performer should do. She took us on a musical journey and told us stories that were worth hearing. She enjoyed herself immensely and included all of us in the fun.

I can't emphasize that last point enough. From her first moments on stage, in which her cheerfully spontaneous scatting segued into “Baby, You're That Unread Book” (or words to that effect), it was obvious that Ms. Werner took a joy in performance that was positively infectious. Bassist Holt certainly caught the fever early on, cheerfully trading hot licks with her and generally acting like someone for whom this was not just another gig. Indeed, if there was anyone in the Flim Flam Room that night who wasn't completely caught up in the celebration, that person escaped my notice. The audience responded warmly and enthusiastically, even when the material got openly political. Good on Ms. Werner for including that and good on us for welcoming it.

To find out whether Susan Werner will be bringing her one-woman musical carnival to your town, check out her web site, You can also buy her CDs and (as my fellow singing actors will be happy to learn) two of her songbooks there. Ms. Werner is an artist whose work deserves to show up in programs other than her own.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

She'll Sing the Blues for You

[Anita Rosamond appeared at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis on April 11th and 12th, 2008. This is my review for KDHX-FM.]

Cabaret is such a diverse genre that I hesitate to make sweeping statements about it. I think, however, that I'm on safe ground with this one: when the best thing about the show is the harmonica player, something is probably a half bubble off center somewhere.

Granted, the harmonica player was Sandy Weltman, one of the true virtuosos of the instrument and a musician of impeccable taste, so it's difficult for him not to stand out. But the star of this first entry in The Cabaret at Savor's "Cabaret in Blue" series last Friday [April 11th, 2008] was supposed to be local singer/pianist Anita Rosamond. The fact that she was often upstaged, however unintentionally, by Weltman and her other sideman, guitarist Shaun Robinson, is an illustration of the importance of not violating the two Prime Directives of Solo Performance: know the room and know the audience.

The Flim-Flam Room at Savor has received much praise from performers and public alike for its retro-cool faux Egyptian décor (inspired by magician John Neville Maskelyne's famed Egyptian Hall in London), intimacy, and intelligent layout. Seating around 65 at small café tables of graduated height, the Flim-Flam provides a good view of the tiny stage from just about anywhere in the house. The audience at those tables comes prepared to focus on the performer rather than chatting amongst themselves - which the size of the place discourages in any event.

If you're going to play this room, you need to have a strong song list with lyrics worth hearing, an interesting line of between-song patter, and a consistent theme or point of view that will engage the audience from the top of the show. In short, you need a cabaret act. Unfortunately that's not what Ms. Rosamond has.

What she has is a lounge act. It was a very good and generally entertaining lounge act, especially when she came out from behind the piano, which effectively concealed her from most of the house. The songs - sixteen blues, R&B and rock standards on the order of "Blue Suede Shoes", "Walkin' in the Rain", "Sweet Home Chicago" and (of course) "The St. Louis Blues" - were as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. Ms. Rosamond delivered them all in a consistently unbuttoned manner with an appropriately smoky voice that can soulful, silky or earthy as needed.

In fact she was, if anything, just a bit too consistent. Regardless of lyric content, there was a certain sameness to her performances that made Mr. Robinson and Mr. Weltman's impressive solo breaks a welcome change of pace. In a lounge or supper club, of course, this wouldn't be that much of an issue since the audience in those venues isn't as intensely focused on the entertainer.

Ms. Rosamond's frequent attempts to get the audience to sing along also seemed more appropriate for a noisier and less focused environment. It's a lot easier to get folks to join in if they're already chatting with their neighbors. At the Film-Flam, that kind of thing would be far too distracting - rather like turning your back on someone with whom you were having a conversation.

All this is a pity because Ms. Rosamond is clearly a very talented woman with good musical instincts and a joy in performing that is positively contagious. What she needs to do, if she wants to continue doing cabaret, is write some interesting patter that tells us more about the songs and what they mean to her and, perhaps, give more thought to the lyrics. A bit more variety in the song list wouldn't hurt either. With some work, she could have a solid show on her hands.

Anyone who has ever been mesmerized by Paula West (who returns to Savor May 14th through 17th) or Jessica Molaskey knows that singers with a blues and/or jazz background have much to contribute to the art of cabaret. Ms. Rosamond has the opportunity to make her mark there as well. Perhaps, to quote a familiar jazz lyric, this could be the start of something big. Time (to paraphrase another) is on her side.

The Cabaret at Savor's Cabaret in Blue series pauses for two entries in the main season - Susan Werner April 23rd through 26th and Jimmy Webb April 30th through May 2nd. It picks up again with Renee Smith on May 9th and 10th and concludes May 23rd and 24th with Uvee Hayes. At least, that's the way it looks as this is being written. Given producer Jim Dolan's dedication to expanding the series, the spring season could easily extend into the summer. Check out the web site, , for the current schedule.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hostile Environment

Don't you just love it when someone lectures you on how you spend your leisure time? And don't you enjoy it even more when that someone does it with a smug, self-congratulatory attitude with a bit of name-calling on the side?

Neither do I.

And yet, that's exactly what a local actor did on a couple of the local theatre email lists this week. It seems that she attended a performance of Kathryn Blume's one-woman show The Boycott - which deals with issue of gobal warming, among other things - and was disappointed that the turnout wasn't higher.

She could have just let everyone know that it was a great show and that she wished more people had gotten to see it and let it go at that. Instead, she posted a long screed about how terrible it was that none of the local "tree-huggers" (calling us environmentalists wouldn't have been snotty enough, presumably) had attended this performance (how she knew that none of us had attended is unstated; perhaps a scrying devince was involved) and that she was ashamed of the entire local theatre community. She also managed to get in a wholly unrelated plug for her next show and stongly imply that her attendance was an indication of her own higher moral status.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, you can see the entire post here.

My reaction to alll this? Maybe it was because I had just spent the last two hours entering theatrical events into the KDHX arts calendar database, but it seems to me that nobody owes anybody else any apologies or explanations for attending or not attending any particular theatrical event. There is a huge amount of theatre going on in town most weekends. It's physically impossible to see all of it.

Besides, going to the theatre is not a particularly moral or courageous act (at least not yet), so nobody gets any brownie (or is that greenie?) points for doing it in my book.

It also does nothing to address the very real and very pressing problems raised by The Boycott.

Concerned about pollution, pesticides, global warming, species extinction, and our national addition to rapidly dwindling stocks of fossil fuels, nearly all of which are under the control of tottering dictatorships? Fine. Then do something to make yourself more a part of the solution and less a part of the problem. Drive less and use a car that gets the best possible mileage and has the lowest possible emissions. Live close to where you work. Recycle. Do everything you can to make your house more energy-efficient (you'll even get a tax break for doing so). Buy organic food (Local Harvest Grocery here in St. Louis has a nice selection, and they're not alone). Vote for politicians whose fortunes aren't dependent on making the situation worse.

All of those things are more meaningful than attending The Boycott, no matter how good the show is.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm glad she liked the show. If she was persuaded by the message, so much the better. But, really, the chief value of a show like this is in changing minds and hearts. Attendance by those already committed to keeping the human race around for a while would be nice, but it doesn't really advance the cause. It's just be preaching to the choir. And there's surely more than enough preaching to go around these days.

Friday, April 04, 2008

King Cole

[This is my review for KDHX-FM of Easy to Love, Jeff Harnar's Cole Porter show at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis.]

Probably the only proposition riskier than a cabaret show featuring the work of a songwriter almost nobody knows is a show featuring the work of a songwriter almost everybody knows. Last month at Savor's Flim-Flam Room, Klea Blackhurst showed us how to do the former with panache, if not always with soul, in her Vernon Duke tribute. This month in the same venue, Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck are showing us how to do it with both in Easy to Love - The Words and Music of Cole Porter.

This is the third joint appearance by Mr. Harnar and Mr. Rybeck in our fair city, and I'm happy to report that they're just as delightful, deluxe and de-lovely as they were back then. With a golden, flexible voice and engaging manner, Mr. Harnar is perhaps the ideal cabaret performer. He made eye contact early and often. He knew exactly when to "go inside" and when to reach out and engage everyone. And he was able to find remarkable variety in a lyric even when, as in the ever-popular "Can-Can", that lyric is superficially nothing but witty virtuoso word play or, as in the rarely-heard "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight", it's so loaded with now-dated contemporary references that you'd think it would need footnotes.

It also doesn't hurt that he's the epitome of suave. As my wife noted afterwards, every woman in the audience probably had a small swoon moment at some point during the evening.

As arranger, pianist and - during the witty "Friendship Medley" - vocalist, Mr. Rybeck demonstrated the consummate skill that earned him a MAC Award nomination last month. That medley, for example, cleverly wove together songs from High Society, DuBarry Was a Lady, Out of This World, and Anything Goes, while the earlier "I Am in Love Medley" did similar justice to numbers from Can-Can, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Something to Shout About, Let's Face It and the film version of Kiss Me, Kate. In Mr. Rybeck's immensely well-crafted arrangements, popular classics like "You Do Something to Me" and "You're the Top" were seamlessly linked with less familiar gems like "Ought to Be You" and "Let's Not Talk About Love" (rhymes from which would later surface in Tom Lehrer's "When You Are Old and Gray"). It's no wonder he's in demand by some of musical theatre and cabaret's brighter stars.

St. Louis' own Carl Caspersen turned the duo into a trio with hip and knowing work on the string bass, particularly in the opening of "What is This Thing Called Love?", where Mr. Harnar's voice softly joined Mr. Casperson's jazzy plucked bass line in a magical evocation of the song's wistful and elegiac lyric.

As is the case with any well-crafted cabaret evening, Easy to Love offered its share of unexpected treasures. There was, for example, "Little Skipper", a novelty number written originally for Jimmy Durante in Red, Hot and Blue! (1936). Diligent research turned up some of the patter the great "Schnozzola" inserted into the number back then, thereby allowing Mr. Harnar to do what struck me as a remarkably on-target recreation of the classic Durante style. It was also gratifying to hear the lovely "You Can Do No Wrong", one of the many neglected songs Porter did for Vincente Minnelli's 1948 swashbuckling send-up The Pirate.

The bottom line is that Easy to Love is - well - easy to love. The show runs through Saturday, April 5th, in the Flim-Flam room at Savor, 4356 Lindell in the Central West End. A three-course, fixed-price dinner is available prior to each show. For more information, you may call 314-531-0220 or go to on the web. If you love Cole Porter or just near-perfect cabaret, you won't want to miss it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Times to Remember

[This is my review for KDHX-FM in St. Louis of KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler's Time After Time: Celebrating the American Songbook at the Cabaret in the Savoy Room.]

The title of KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler’s show at the Savoy Room this week - Time After Time: Celebrating the American Songbook – may seem a bit ambitious; that takes in a lot of territory, after all. As it turns out, however, it’s just Truth in Advertising. In the course of just over two hours, the duo covered – in whole or in part – around forty songs with music by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and Jimmy McHugh. Featured lyricists include Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields, Adolph Green, and Sammy Cahn.

Only Stephen Sondheim – who is, arguably, at the chronological end of the period usually covered by The American Songbook – was short-changed. He was represented as a lyricist in a set of songs from Gypsy, granted, but the only Sondheim composition on the program was “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along. As if by way of compensation, Mr. Nadler and Ms. Sullivan did the Act I reprise of the song, in which friendly greetings quickly deteriorate into lyrical bickering and finally a literal shouting match that abruptly changes into the final chorus.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncy”, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Their timing was impeccable and the song came across beautifully.

The bulk of the evening consisted of material that will be familiar to any lover of musical theatre or cabaret. There was a generous helping of Cole Porter, for example, including the expected songs about Paris (“I Love Paris” and “You Don’t Know Paree”, ingeniously mingled with “After You, Who?” in French translation) and a set from Kiss Me, Kate (a show which would surely be on the ash heap of history now if it weren’t for the wonderful score). There was a brace of Richard Rodgers numbers about women (inspired by the composer’s numerous extra-marital dalliances) and a medley of Kern/Fields classics such as “Never Gonna Dance”, “Lovely to Look At” and “The Way You Look Tonight”. The Gershwins were represented by only one song – “‘S Wonderful” – but Mr. Nadler combined it with about a third of Rhapsody in Blue to create a virtuoso showpiece for voice and piano.

Indeed, Mr. Nadler’s formidable talents as pianist, singer and comic – to say nothing of his brilliance as an arranger - dominated the evening. He used Berlin’s “I Love a Piano”, for example, as a platform for a hilarious musical slapstick routine that seemed to be channeling Chico Marx by way of Jerry Lee Lewis and Bugs Bunny with a bit of Victor Borge thrown in for good measure. Ms. Sullivan, by contrast, often seemed to be a bit fragile, both physically and vocally, as though coping with an illness or injury. When she was fully present, however, she was a delight, especially in drolleries such as Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” (from Fifty Million Frenchmen) and Rodgers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive” (written for Vivienne Segal the ill-fated 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee). Too, there is considerable affection between Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Nadler, which added extra depth to numbers like “Thanks for the Memory” and “Make Believe”.

On the whole, though, Time After Time felt more like warm-up for Mr. Nadler’s upcoming solo show in New York than the kind of team effort displayed in the duo’s Irving Berlin show that graced the Sheldon Concert Hall in 2004. Happily, Mr. Nadler had enough energy for an entire ensemble, let alone a duo, and the show brought the current Savoy Room series to a pleasant close. For information about upcoming shows in the series, visit the web site at .

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dukin' it Out

[This is my review of Klea Blackhurst's Taking a Chance on Love: Vernon Duke's Broadway for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

Klea Blackhurst says that when she started promoting her latest show, Taking a Chance on Love: Vernon Duke's Broadway, she expected the most common response would be "why Vernon Duke?" Instead it was "Vernon who?" Fame is, indeed, fleeting.

Born Vladimir Dukelsky in 1903 in Parafianovka, Belarus, Duke was a child prodigy who was admitted to the Kiev Conservatory at 11, studied with Reinhold Glière (of Red Poppy fame), and might have become an established Russian classical composer had not the 1918 revolution convinced his family that it was time to move to a more politically stable area of the world. By the 1920s Dukelsky was dividing his time between writing serious concert music in Paris and popular songs in New York. There the young George Gershwin, (with whom Dukelsky had become friends after being entranced by Gershwin's "Swanee"), suggested that Vernon Duke might be a better name for a Broadway songsmith.

Thus began the composer's remarkable dual career. While Vladimir Dukelsky composed the ballet Zephyr and Flora, the oratorio The End of St. Petersburg, and a concerto for piano, orchestra and soprano obbligato entitled Dédicaces, Vernon Duke wrote music and (occasionally) lyrics for shows with titles such as Banjo Eyes, The Lady Comes Across, Jackpot, a musical adaptation of Rain entitled Sadie Thompson and, in 1941, his sole Broadway hit Cabin in the Sky.

Today, Dukelsky's scores are rarely heard (although his name remains immortalized Ira Gershwin's lyric for Kurt Weill's "Tchaikovsky") and the shows Duke scored - with the possible exception of Cabin - are largely forgotten. Many of the songs from those shows, on the other hand, are standards. Among the certified hits in Ms. Blackhurst's program, for example, are: "April in Paris", "Autumn in New York", "I Like the Likes of You", "I Can't Get Started" and, most notably "Taking a Chance on Love".

That last one was a showstopper for Ethel Waters in Cabin. For Ms. Blackhurst at Savor this weekend it was something even better - a show continuer (assuming there is such a word).

That's because Ms. Blackhurst and her pianist/music director Michael Rice are experts in the art of building a fluid, varied program in which each song leads logically to the next and which, in the end, leaves you with a clear portrait of the object of her musical affection. There are no "showstoppers" for the simple reason that, even after a takes-your-breath-away ballad like "Sailing at Midnight" (from Sadie Thompson) or an upbeat rarity like "Dancing in the Streets" (with its startlingly contemporary-sounding wartime lyric) the show never stops. Were Mr. Duke still among the living, he would surely be gratified by this extraordinarily well-researched, consistently entertaining and delightfully informative overview of his life and work.

Reviewing Ms. Blackhurst's Ethel Merman tribute show back in 2002, I praised her energetic and upbeat stage presence, her clear, powerful voice, and effervescent style. I'm happy to report that the intervening years have not withered nor custom staled her infinite variety. Her vocal technique remains formidable (Dukelsky would have appreciated that), but it's always employed in the service of the music and lyrics rather than calling attention to itself with empty filigree.

In short, she still puts on one sockdolager of a show.

By the time you read this, of course, Klea Blackhurst's Cabaret at Savor appearance will already be over. Fortunately, all of the songs in Taking a Chance on Love are available on Ms. Blackhurst's 2005 Ghostlight CD Autumn in New York - without, alas, her lively commentary. To hear that, you'll have to locate her next live appearance - which you can do at her web site, .

Next at Savor: Jeff Harnar in an all-Cole Porter program April 2nd through 5th, 2008. For ticket information, call 314-531-0220 or visit on the web.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stage Left Podcast, 22 February 2008

Reviewed: The new Broadway cast recording of Grease, two new recordings of music from West Side Story, and discs of film music by Maurice Jarre and Hans Zimmer.