Sunday, May 31, 2009

Art in the Blood

Kelly Kaduce in the title role of Opera Theatre's 2009 production of Richard Strauss SALOME, shown with the head of Jokanaan, with Maria Zifchak as Herodias Copyright: Ken Howard

Like the 1891 Oscar Wilde play on which it is based, Richard Strauss's 1905 opera Salome has been a source of controversy from the very beginning. Wilde's play was banned in England before it could be publicly performed. The opera, despite the stern disapproval of Kaiser Wilhelm II, encountered fewer obstacles, but was often condemned for its perceived immorality.

At the world premiere in Dresden soprano Marie Wittich refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils", because she was " a decent woman". In a letter to Strauss, the dramatist Romain Rolland attacked the opera's "nauseous and sickly atmosphere" and its cast of "unwholesome, unclean, hysterical or alcoholic beings, stinking of sophisticated and perfumed corruption". In New York, the first production by the Metropolitan Opera closed after one night due to public outcry.

All of which raises the question: over a century later, does this remarkably intense opera still have the ability to shock and disturb? You mileage may vary, but after seeing Opera Theatre's production I'd say the answer is yes. In spades.

Granted, the "Dance of the Seven Veils", while certainly steamy enough to make dramatic sense, was somewhat less overtly sexual than it might have been. And the long confrontation between Salome and Jokanaan (John the Baptist) - in which the former tries every trick in her repertoire to seduce the latter - suffered from director Seán Curran's rather static staging - a bit of surprise, given Curran's background as a choreographer.

Those and a few other minor quibbles aside, however, this production of Salome is one of the most compelling and disturbing things you'll ever see on stage. Strauss's score is a remarkable combination of the conventional (for Jokanaan) and wildly adventurous that manages to be both technically complex and dramatically on target. The libretto it supports is compact and intense, unfolding in a single act of around 75 minutes. And Salome's final monologue, in which she caresses and finally kisses the severed head of Jokanaan, remains one of the most grotesque and unsettling scenes in opera.

The role of Salome is easily one of the most demanding in the repertoire. It calls for the stamina and range of a dramatic soprano but contains brief passages that drop down into alto territory. It requires an actress who can make the character's sexual obsession believable. And it demands the body and movement skills of a dancer. That's a combination of talents rare enough to oblige some companies to use a body double for the dance sequence.

Happily, Opera Theatre has Kelly Kaduce. If you've seen any of her previous OTSL triumphs - from her 2004 debut in Sister Angelica to last season's Madame Butterfly - you already know she has the vocal and acting chops for the role. Her Salome is a woman driven to self-destruction by a fixation on the unattainable. It's a completely compelling and utterly apt performance. And while she may not be a strong dancer, Mr. Curran has wisely given her choreography that, while not technically demanding, convincingly conveys an impression of single-minded sensuality.

Ms. Kaduce has a strong supporting cast. Jokanaan isn't called upon by either the libretto or the music to do anything very demanding - Strauss, in fact, is said to have found the character boring - but baritone Gregory Dahl does it all quite well, and with impeccable elocution.

Tenor Michael Hayes is a fine Herod, never allowing the role's collection of neurotic obsessions to deteriorate into the comedy you might get from a less skilled performance. As a result, the opera's one bit of actual comic relief - the quintet of Jews arguing endlessly about the nature of God - is that much more effective. Joshua Kohl, Joshua Lindsay, Zach Borichevsky, Brian Arreola and Andrew Harris get the credit for that.

Mezzo Maria T. Zifchak is appropriately haughty and caustic as Herodias and tenor Eric Margiore rounds out the solid lineup of principals as Narraboth, a moth who self-immolates when he gets too close to Salome's sexual flame.

Bruno Schwengl's set is a stark, forced-perspective box that draws the eye to Jokanaan's cistern - placed, somewhat improbably, on the upstage wall rather than on the floor. It is, perhaps, a bit too stark. Once Jokanaan has been brought on stage, the lack of any levels or set pieces means that there's not much for him to do but lumber around while Salome tries to seduce him. That scene aside, Seán Curran's direction is fluid and his choreography very effective. Paul Palazzo's lighting is striking but often leaves performer's faces in shadow.

Down in the pit, the expanded Opera Theatre orchestra performed the demanding and complex score with great skill under Stephen Lord's experienced baton. It's not the mammoth ensemble Strauss had in mind - there's only so much room down there, after all - but it sounded great.

Because it is so demanding, performances of Salome are not exactly commonplace, so this production would be worth seeing even if it were not a strong one. But it is, which moves it from the category of "worth seeing'' up to "essential". Be warned, however, that it's still pretty strong stuff, even in our present era of sex and violence-drenched media.

Salome runs in rotating repertory with three other operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 135 Edgar Road in Webster Groves. For ticket information call the Opera Theatre box office at 314-961-0644.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Come to the Cabaret

[Disclaimer: some of the performers I'm going to refer to in this note are people I've performed and/or done cabaret conferences with. I'm egocentric enough to think that I can still be relatively objective about their work on stage but your mileage, as they say, may vary.]

The good news about Three-Legged Productions' latest show, It was a Very Good Year is that it was a very good show. The four performers - Anna Blair, Mark Kraft, Katie McGrath and John Flack (pictured) - all had opportunities to demonstrate their comic and dramatic chops. The music selection was nicely balanced between the familiar and the obscure. And the second act was one of the strongest I've seen on a local stage.

The bad news? The night that I attended (Thursday, May 21) they were doing all this good work for a house that was only about half full and consisted largely of other cabaret performers.

This is somewhat surprising. The cabaret scene has grown exponentially in the eight years I've been covering it for KDHX-FM and Cabaret Scenes. We've gone from a single producing entity importing national talent to multiple producers presenting an impressive array of local artists (like Blair and company) in addition to the out-of-towners.

So with all this activity, why aren't more people noticing?

Part of the problem, I think, is that public awareness of the wealth of local cabaret talent hasn't kept pace with the growth of that talent. Mass media coverage of the local cabaret scene is still scanty. Eight years ago I was the only critic covering the scene on a regular basks. That fact that I'm still the only one hardly seems reasonable.

Another part is St. Louis' long-standing artistic inferiority complex. Local audiences seem to assume that if you're practicing your art here in St. Louis, it must be because you're not good enough to do it somewhere else. An actor friend one remarked that the only way to make a living in the performing arts here was to leave town and then come back as an out-of-towner.

As a result, audiences who will turn out in droves for a mediocre show by someone with a national reputation won't walk across the street (literally) to see a far stronger production by local talent.

I'm not sure if there's any cure for the “we're not good enough” syndrome, but I do think that more coverage from the local media could only help. Cabaret is an immensely cool art form that's attracting younger performers and audiences. It's about time somebody started paying attention to that.

It would also help if Cabaret St. Louis - a well funded non-profit dedicated to promoting the art of cabaret in St. Louis - would step up to the plate. I love seeing Steve Ross, Tom Wopat and Liz Callaway as much as the next critic, but if we want to really make this a cabaret town, we need to encourage and nurture local talent. We need to build an audience for them because if we do that, we'll be building an audience for cabaret itself, not just for a select group of big-name stars.

So, to paraphrase a famous lyric, “come to the cabaret, old chum. And bring a couple dozen people with you.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Old Bohemia

Although copies of Henri Murger's 1851 short story collection Scenes De La Vie Bohème are no longer the common sight on bookshelves that they once were, the principal characters have never fallen out of favor. The stories (originally published in a Paris literary magazine) inspired, among other things, an 1849 play, two operas and, most recently, the wildly successful rock musical Rent.

It's Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème, however, that should probably get most of the credit for embedding the image of the starving artist in a Paris atelier into Western consciousness. A staple of companies around the world, it has become a perennial favorite at Opera Theatre of St. Louis as well. The current production, running through June 27th, is the fifth in their 34-year history. It's an exceptionally strong one, with a credible cast, brisk pacing, and solid orchestral backing by conductor Ari Pelto in his OTSL debut.

Former Gerdine Young Artist Allyson Cambridge, whose Fasquita made a strong impression in the company's 2004 production of Carmen, is a first-class Mimi - beautifully fragile and, except for one brief moment at the end of the first scene, in very fine voice despite the allergy problems which are the bane of so many singers visiting St. Louis.

Tenor Derek Taylor looks and sounds great as the passionate and angst-ridden poet Rudolfo, but to me his characterization seemed a bit lacking in depth, emphasizing Rudolfo's gloomy moodiness just a bit more than is necessary. That said, his final scene with the dying Mimi was every bit as heart wrenching as it should be and the famous Act I aria, "Che gelida manina", got all the passion it deserved.

Baritone Timothy Mix has the right mix of passion and compassion as the painter Marcello, locked in what we would now probably call a co-dependent affair with Musetta, Our Lady of the Relaxed Virtue. Amanda Majeski is just plain wonderful in that role, with a fine voice and strong stage presence that makes Marcello's obsession with her fully understandable.

There's strong supporting work here as well from Steven Humes as the philosopher Colline and Eugene Chan as the musician Schaunard. Their interaction with each other and the rest of the principals has a kind of "boys will be boys" camaraderie that's irresistible. A special tip of the critical beret is due as well to bass-baritone Matthew Lau for two brilliant comic turns as the easily-intoxicated landlord Benoit and the hapless sugar daddy Alcindoro, who is not only dumped by Musetta for Marcello but gets stuck with the bill (and a very cute little dog) as well.

Stage Director Tim Ocel has done a remarkable job here, especially with the huge Café Momus sequence that closes the first act. A small army of extras, including children and an actual marching band, flow in and out of the scene effortlessly without ever fracturing the dramatic focus. My only complaint is that much of what the chorus was singing in that scene was incomprehensible and the projected titles, alas, weren't able to keep up with it.

Erhard Rom has designed a set that's at once starkly realistic and highly mobile, allowing for a remarkably fluid change from the garret to the café. That's a tough combination to pull off, so congratulations are clearly in order. Ditto for lighting designer Robert Denton and costume designer Pat Sellyer.

The bottom line is that Opera Theatre has, once again, given us a first-rate production of one of the warhorses of the repertoire - and done so in a way that makes its 120-year old story seem newly minted. Performances will continue through June 27th in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. Call 314-961-0644 for ticket information.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cheese Wiz

Watching Varla Jean Merman in action reminded me that what sex and comedy both have in common is that one's response to them is both spontaneous and completely idiosyncratic. A person is either sexy or s/he isn't. A joke is either funny or it isn't. And no amount of argument will persuade you one way or the other.

I bring this up not just to be pedantic, but as a way of explaining why it's not a knock on Varla Jean Merman that I found most of her show unamusing. The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman is, in fact, a very clever, inventive and wildly energetic evening of vulgar, campy drag show-inspired comedy. The problem is that, as a middle-aged heterosexual who thinks Groucho Marx was the funniest person who ever lived, I'm just a member of the wrong demographic.

But first, for those of you who have not had the Varla Jean experience, a little background.

Billed as "the illegitimate love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine", Varla Jean Merman is not a real person. Rather, she is a surreal person, sprung full-blown (you should pardon the expression) from the unlined brow of her alter ego, Jeffery Roberson. Indeed, Mr. Robertson inhabits the persona of Varla Jean with such conviction that I will, for the duration of this review, go along with the gag (you should pardon the expression again) and bestow upon Varla Jean the verisimilitude she deserves.

As a character, Varla Jean is Julie Budd crossed with Charles Busch - a deranged, druggie diva who has just stepped off the Bitter Bus loaded with outrageous parodies of Broadway standards ("My Favorite Things" with hip-hop lyrics, anyone?) and sotto voce slams at other singers ("that mic tastes like Liz Callaway"). As a performer, she delivers some of the grossest humor ever heard on the Savoy Room stage with impeccable timing, a remarkably well-controlled falsetto, some very stylish dance moves and a stunning collection of garishly tacky props and costumes (including a Josephine Baker-inspired banana outfit that she accurately describes as "almost as uncomfortable for me as it is for you").

The show sends up a variety of American Songbook standards and standard-issue pop tunes with a mix of live performances, slide shows and videos. "Talk to the Animals", for example, becomes the anatomically correct "Talk to the Genitals" (the only time I've ever heard "ovary" rhymed with "Madame Bovary") while "Dream a Little Dream of Me" turns into "Dream a Little Dream of Cheese" - a hymn to fermented curd that concludes with Ms. Merman singing while inhaling about half a can of an aerosol cheese-like substance. Take that, Señor Wences ! There's even a Christmas segment involving hand and foot bells that was, I have to admit, pretty hilarious; ditto an R-rated parody of tunes from Schoolhouse Rock. "Conjunction Junction", indeed.

The audience response to all this lunacy was decidedly mixed. Among those of us who had not seen Ms. Merman previously - the "Varla Virgins", to use her term - it was hit and miss. Some bits were received with chuckles, some with belly laughs and others with silence. A few Cabaret St. Louis regulars even left early. My own response was around one-thirds amusement and two-thirds ennui.

Ms. Merman's admirers had no such reservations, and there were more than enough of them in attendance to override any diffidence from the rest of us. Happily, Varla Jean is too much of a pro to just play to the fans, so I only occasionally felt like someone who had been invited to the wrong party.

I have noted, in the past, that cabaret is a big tent with room for a wide variety of performance styles. Until I saw The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman, however, I had no idea that it could also be a Big Top. Thanks to Ms. Varla Jean and her very talented creator, Jeffrey Roberson, for opening my eyes to that possibility. Thanks also to Varla Jean's music director Tom Shaw for joining in the fun without getting in the way of the main attraction.

For more information about Varla Jean Merman's perambulations, check out her web site, . You can also find many of her videos at .

The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman was a Cabaret St. Louis production. The season concludes, by way of spectacular contrast, with Opera Theatre Cabaret Night on Tuesday, June 16th, at the Kranzberg Center. For more information, visit or call 314-534-1111.