Sunday, December 04, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of December 5, 2022

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck [at] kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.

The Black Mirror Theatre Company presents The Fever by Wallace Shawn Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, December 6-10. “Winner of the 1991 Obie Award for Best Play, Wallace Shawn’s The Fever is an unconventional meditation on how our lives of comfort and privilege are celebrated at the expense of others’ poverty and oppression. Mature Audiences.” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: https://www.blackmirrortheatre.org.

The Blue Strawberry
presents Coming Home for Christmas with singer Shelby Ringdahl and pianist/music director Ron McGowan on Friday, December 9, at 7:30 pm. “Returning to Blue Strawberry after a sold out performance in February, Shelby Ringdahl is thrilled to bring her brand new Christmas show to St. Louis! After a career as a professional performer in New York City, a year as Miss Missouri and all the tours in between, this show weaves all your holiday favorites together with the stories and songs that lead us home for Christmas. Featuring holiday classics like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'', "White Christmas" ,"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" and a live performance of her hit single, "Merry Ol' Missouri", this show is the perfect start to your holiday season. Broadway World says, "Shelby Ringdahl deserves praise for her show-stopping vocals" while St.Louis' KDHX says, "Thanks to Ms. Ringdahl, an entertaining evening was had by all."” The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle.   The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Steve Ross
The Blue Strawberry presents Steve Ross on Saturday, December 10, at 7:30 pm. “When Steve Ross takes the takes the stage, the world comes right. Steve conjures a world between the great wars so complete that we believe we are its inheritors. The world of Cole Porter and Noel Coward and the Gershwins. A world of wordplay and word joy, melody and rhyme, gaiety and glamour, cocktails and charm, snappy wit and sharp dress.” The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle.   The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents a Singers Open Mic on Tuesday, December 6, from 7 to 9:30 pm. “Focusing on Pop, Standards old and new, Broadway and Musical Theater. But Anything Goes! Bring sheet music in your key.” Ken Haller and Chuck Lavazzi are your hosts with Ron McGowan at the piano. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Jazz St. Louis presents A Swingin’, Soulful Christmas with Denise Thimes Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, December 7 and 8. “One of the most cherished voices of modern jazz, Denise Thimes, has drawn comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and all those who came before her – but with a voice uniquely her own. Now splitting time between St. Louis and Chicago, Thimes is a favorite of audiences wherever she goes! Don’t miss her soulful take on your favorite Christmas classics!” Performances take place at Jazz St. Louis, 3536 Washington Avenue in Grand Center. For more information: jazzstl.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Dickens of a Killilng through January 27th, 2023. "Death is in the air as guests join Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Baaaaa Huuuumbug!!! Ebenezer Scrooge will be back to his old tricks and is bound to make a few enemies at this Christmas Party chock full of Charles Dicken's Characters. Just when Beep (The Minstrel) gets everyone in the Holiday Spirit, Scrooge barges in and starts talking about gruel. Geez, hope no one snuffs Scrooge out before he stops bellowing! Guests will dive into the fictious world of Charles Dickens and join Pip, Martha Cratchit, Oliver Twist, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and so many more in this cheerful murder mystery parody of a Holiday Classic. Whether you want to participate a little or a lot, you're sure to have a jolly good time, in jolly olde England, where there is sure to be "A Dickens of a Killing!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents It’s a Marvelous Life! Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through December 10. “From the people who brought you Jurassic Park: The Musical, The One-Hour Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, Glen Or Glenda, The One-Hour Valley Of The Dolls, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and The Ten Commandments: Live!: They said it couldn’t be done. (Who are “they”? We have no idea. But we’re about to prove them wrong!) Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents the onstage spectacle It’s a Marvelous Life! Original script by Rob McLemore and Jaysen Cryer, directed by Artistic Director Donna Northcott. Poor George Bailey…I mean Steve Rogers! All he ever wanted to do was build things and see the world and save Democracy from deviant warlord Thanos, evil trickster Loki, and the Nazis.”Performances take place at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood Park. For more information: https://www.stlshakespeare.org.

Jerry's Girls
Photo: Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre presents Jerry’s Girls: The Jerry Herman Review Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, through December 18. “The musical brings together composer/lyricist Jerry Herman’s “greatest hits” - from his many smash productions to some of his lesser well-known musicals. From Mame to Milk and Honey, Hello Dolly! To La Cage Aux Folles, Jerry’s Girls lovingly revisits the shows and their music. New Jewish Theatre’s production features an ensemble cast of five local female performers: Kelsey Bearman, Molly Burris, Christina Rios, Greta Rosenstock and Lisa Rosenstock. Burris is returning to New Jewish Theatre after appearing earlier this season in Dear Jack, Dear Louise. The rest of the cast will be performing at New Jewish Theatre for the first time.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com.

A Christmas Carol
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the second annual production of Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol through December 30. “At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must face down his demons, reconcile the consequences of his choices and experience the power and joy of a miraculous redemption. This magical production will again be directed by Hana S. Sharif, Augustin Family Artistic Director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd, Artistic Director at The Big Muddy Dance Company. The world of Charles Dickens’ will be brought to life by Tim Mackabee (Scenic Design), Dede Aytie (Costume Design), Seth Reiser (Lighting Design), and Hana S. Kim (Production Design). Chales Coles and Nathan Roberts provide the music and sound design, with musical direction by Tre’von Griffith.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

Forget Me Not
Photo: Patrick Huber
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Forget Me Not written and directed by Kyle Marlett Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm through December 18. “Forget Me Not is the journey of one human figuring out what it means to be remembered. We’ve all experienced the feeling that there’s not enough time. We sometimes wonder what will happen after we’re gone, how will our stories be told, and how can we leave a lasting impact? Kyle asks all of these questions of himself and seeks to find the answers with you. Kyle Marlett is running out of time. All his life, he’s felt the overwhelming need to leave a mark on the world. It’s a lifelong pursuit that leads him to magic, this show, and this moment, right now. Prepare to witness stunning visuals, impossible illusions and raw storytelling as Kyle examines our time on earth and the connections between all of us. Why are we here? What do we leave behind?”  Performances take place at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.stlas.org.

The St. Louis Writers' Group presents a reading of How Heaven Works by Dennis Fisher on Tuesday, December 6 at 6:30 p.m. “Larry has developed some problems with the law, his mother is dying, and his friends want him to make big life decisions by asking the opinion of a magic eight ball. He knows he is in trouble when he realizes the magic eight ball is wiser than his friends.” The reading takes place at Big Daddy’s, 1000 Sidney in Soulard. For more information, visit the St. Louis Writers' Group Facebook page.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents Tim Schall, with pianist and music director Carol Schmidt, in That Time of Year Tuesday and Wednesday, December 6 and 7, at 10:30 am. ‘Tim Schall returns with a lighthearted, swinging take on one of his favorite holiday traditions - the music of the season! Since his last Sheldon appearance, Schall sang at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the 2019 New York Cabaret Convention and is happy to sing for his hometown audiences again. Featuring standards such as “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Silver Bells,” “Let It Snow,” and more, this special holiday event invites you to enjoy the classic music of “that time of year when the world falls in love.” Enjoy complimentary coffee and pastries at 9 a.m. in the newly-renovated Konneker room, just before these one-hour concerts.’ Performances take place at the Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center. For more information: thesheldon.org.

Ride the Cyclone
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Ride the Cyclone: The Musical Thursdays through Saturdays through December 17. There are additional performances 8 PM Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14. “The lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster. When they awake in limbo, a mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell their story to win a prize like no other — the chance to return to life. A funny, moving look at what makes life worth living.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org.

Webster Conservatory presents Seminar by Theresa Rebeck Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm through December 11. “In Seminar, a provocative comedy from Pulitzer Prize–nominee Theresa Rebeck, four aspiring young novelists sign up for private writing classes with Leonard, an international literary figure. Under his recklessly brilliant and unorthodox instruction, some thrive and others flounder, alliances are made and broken, sex is used as a weapon, and hearts are unmoored. The wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious as innocence collides with experience in this biting comedy.” Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium on the Webster University campus in Webster Groves. For more information: www.webster.edu

The Christians
Photo: Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild presents Lucas Hnath’s The Christians through December 11. “The Christians examines what happens when Pastor Paul, the leader of an evangelical mega-church, announces to his congregation that he has come to doubt a core belief of Christian doctrine.  Pastor Paul expects this sermon to be controversial; he does not expect the reaction to the sermon to threaten the congregation’s destruction.  Playwright Hnath, the son of a minister who was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church, presents the story with respect and sincerity.  As New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood noted, “none of the characters are depicted as being fanatical, hypocritical or lacking in intelligence, which is too often the case when pious Christians are depicted onstage.  Mr. Hnath grants his characters the dignity of sincere belief, even as his play raises probing questions about how and why religion can be a divisive, if not abusive, social force.”  Ellie Schwetye returns to WEPG to direct The Christians.” West End Players Guild this season will employ touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons and front-of-house staff and volunteers. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information: westendplayers.org.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
The Westport Playhouse presents writer/actor Mark Rodgers in Discover DaVinci and Michaelangelo—the Titans Experience on selected dates through December 30.  “Over 100 successfull Broadway shows, Includes an art installation and self-guided tour of DaVinci's models, artwork, and more...including our new unique theatrical 40' Video Wall!” The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. For more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

The Westport Playhouse presents Jennifer Theby Quinn in The Twelve Dates of Christmas on selected dates through December 23.  “After seeing her fiance kiss another woman at the televised Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mary's life falls apart -- just in time for the holidays. Over the next year, she stumbles back into the dating world, where "romance" ranges from weird and creepy to absurd and comical. It seems nothing can help Mary's growing cynicism, until the charm and innocence of a five-year-old boy unexpectedly brings a new outlook on life and love. This heartwarming one-woman play offers a hilarious and modern alternative to the old standards of the holiday season”  The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment DistrictFor more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Symphony Preview: The 'Messiah' Mysteries

This weekend (December 2-4) British conductor and Baroque-era specialist Laurence Cumings leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Handel's popular 1742 oratorio "Messiah." In doing so, he's following a tradition nearly two centuries old. The origin of that tradition is the first of our three "Messiah Mysteries." [NOTE: this includes some additional bits of trivia in mystery #3 added on Friday, December 2nd].

[Preview the music with the SLSO's commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

G.F. Handel

1. The Adventure of the Moving Messiah

Handel's "Messiah" is a Christmas tradition. Which is odd, because (as I noted when the SLSO last played the piece back in 2018) the composer never intended "Messiah" to be Christmas music.

The oratorio was first performed on April 13th, 1742 in Dublin, repeated that same June, and then moved to London, where it was first presented on March 23, 1743. I can't find any evidence that the work was in any way associated with Christmas during Handel's life. In fact, as Christopher H. Gibbs points out in his program notes for a 2007 NPR broadcast of Messiah from Philadelphia , "Handel performed it some three dozen times--every time, it should be noted, around Easter, not Christmas."

And then there's the fact that Jesus himself never even puts in an appearance. The key dramatic events described in "Messiah" happen off stage. Would-be playwrights and screenwriters are usually told to "show, not tell." The libretto for "Messiah," by upper-crust arts patron Charles Jennens, does the opposite. In that respect, "Messiah" is an outlier even among Handel's other oratorios. As Howard E. Smither writes in the Grove Dictionary, Jennens's libretto is "a purely biblical, non-dramatic text, and as such is not representative of the Handelian oratorio, which is essentially a dramatic genre."

Still, as Jonathan Kandell notes in an article for the September 2009 edition of Smithsonian, "[b]y the early 19th century, performances of Messiah had become an even stronger Yuletide tradition in the United States than in Britain."

An important piece of the puzzle is supplied is supplied by Luke Howard in his program notes for a 2009 "Messiah" performance by UMS Choral Union:

The tradition of performing Messiah at Christmas began later in the 18th century. Although the work was occasionally performed during Advent in Dublin, the oratorio was usually regarded in England as an entertainment for the penitential season of Lent, when performances of opera were banned...But in 1791, the Cæcilian Society of London began its annual Christmas performances, and in 1818 the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston gave the work's first complete performance in the US on Christmas Day--establishing a tradition that continues to the present.

It apparently took a while for the Christmas tradition to become well established, though. As Marie Gangemil of the Oratorio Society of New York wrote in her program notes for their 2012 "Messiah," the first December performance by that organization didn't take place until 1874.

But are these events sufficient to explain why the tradition became so widespread? Might there also be a supply and demand issue here? As Laurence Cummings observed in the Smithsonian article cited above: "There is so much fine Easter music--Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially--and so little great sacral music written for Christmas. But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ."

Charles Jennens
Painting by Thomas Hudson

So there you have it. Boston and New York picked up the idea from London, and the rest of the USA, seeing a chance to fill a product gap, picked it up from them. It's a reminder that memes were spreading long before the Internet, just a lot more slowly.

2. The Case of the Upright Audience

Another puzzle connected with "Messiah" is the business of standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus that ends Part II.

If you've been a classical music lover long enough, you have no doubt heard the story of how King George the II stood when he first heard it at the 1743 London premier and how everybody else followed suit because, hey, he was the king. It's a great story with only one little flaw: there's no evidence that George II ever attended a performance of "Messiah" at all.

The story appears to come, not from a contemporary account, but (according to Matthew Guerrieri in a 2009 article for the Boston Globe) from a secondhand description in a letter written by James Beattie 37 years later. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, and a classic example of how urban legends originate.

The tradition appears to go back a long way, though. When George Harris attended a "Messiah" performance in 1750 he observed that "[a]t some of the chorus's the company stood up," suggesting that the custom extended beyond just the "Hallelujah." Six years later, another account mentions the audience standing for "grand choruses." In his video series on "Messiah" Andrew Megill, Music Director of Masterwork Chorus, describes a letter written by a woman who attended a Messiah in Handel's time complaining of audience members who weren't standing during the appropriate choruses--suggesting that the practice was already fairly well established.

The bottom line, though, is that nobody really seems to know where the custom originated or, for that matter, why so many of us are still doing it. Maybe early audiences were just so swept away by the power of some of the choruses they stood up spontaneously and the custom simply caught on. Like the Christmas performance tradition, it seems to be a meme that just won't die.

For anyone attending "Messiah" for the first time, it must seem just another example of the sometimes baffling and contradictory rules of etiquette that go with classical music concerts. But that's a whole different subject.

3. The Incredible Expanding Orchestra

He wouldn't stand for Messiah
George II by Thomas Hudson, 1744

Finally, a note on the size of the orchestra you'll see this weekend. That first performance of "Messiah" back in 1743 probably used around 20 singers in toto, including soloists, along with an orchestra of strings, two trumpets, and tympani. Handel himself varied the orchestration of "Messiah" depending on the resources available for a particular performance as well as the size of the hall and other factors. 

Still, the Great Expansion didn't really kick in until after Handel's death, when it became customary to re-orchestrate and expand the size of the instrumental and (as a result) choral forces used to bring "Messiah" more in line with contemporary tastes. The German-language version Mozart prepared for his long-time patron Gottfried van Swieten in 1789 (officially "Der Messias," K. 572) is one of the earliest and best-known examples, but there have been numerous others.

This wasn't the only case of Mozart messing with "Messiah," by the way. Listen to "And with his stripes we are healed" in Part 2 back-to-back with the "Kyrie" from the Requiem, K. 626 and you will probably notice a certain (ahem) similarity. Composers not infrequently borrowed from each other in the 17th and 18th centuries and I expect that Mozart meant this as an homage to Handel rather than a simple ripoff.

During the 19th century, expanding "Messiah" began to take on the aspect of an arms race, with each subsequent performance determined to become more grandiose than the last. The 1857 Great Handel Festival at London's Crystal Palace employed 2000 singers and an orchestra of nearly 400. Later performances at the same venue became even more bloated. By 1877 George Bernard Shaw, for one, cried "hold, enough." "Why," he asked, "instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James's Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."

I don't know whether or not Shaw, who died in 1950, eventually got his wish. The tide did begin to turn back to Handel's original intentions in the 20th century, though, and by the 1960s performing additions began to show up based on the composer's original manuscripts and using instruments appropriate to the period. The 1965 edition by Watkins Shaw was probably the earliest but it was a Basil Lam edition that was used in a groundbreaking 1967 Angel/EMI recording by The Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. That recording would be the first of many that would return to something like Handel's original intentions.

As you might expect from a Baroque music guru, Cummings will be using an orchestra of 40 musicians, including two trumpets, two oboes, one bassoon, and tympani. I don't know how large the chorus will be, but it's a safe bet it will be sized appropriately to the orchestra. In this respect, Cummings is in line with previous "Messiah" performances over the past decade by Matthew Halls (2018), Bernard Labadie (2015), and Christopher Warren Green (2012).

The actual length of "Messiah" also varied from performance to performance. A complete "Messiah" contains either 47 or 53 numbers (depending on which edition you use) and can run just under two and one-half hours, not including an intermission. These days, you're more likely to encounter a "Messiah" that clocks in at around two hours, which is what you can expect to hear this weekend.

There are also alternate versions Handel prepared for a dozen of those numbers. "Rejoice greatly" is Part 1, for example, exists in versions using both 4/4 and 12/8 time signatures. The former sounds like a march, the latter like a dance. Which one a particular conductor uses is prety much up to them. The 1976 recording in the SLSO's Spotify playlist (The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner) uses the 12/8 score (my personal preference).

The Essentials:  Laurence Cummings leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Handel's "Messiah"  Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 2-4. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Symphony Review: A potent double debut at the St. Louis Symphony

It was a double debut this past weekend (Saturday and Sunday, November 26 and 27) as both conductor Xian Zhang and pianist George Li made their first appearances with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. We’ve had some impressive debuts at Powell Hall over the years, but it’s unusual to be treated to two of such outstanding quality at once.

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

With three decades of podium experience behind her Zhang, who is currently in her seventh season as Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony, radiated confidence from the moment she strode on to the stage. She approached the opening work—the overture to the comic opera “L’Italiana in Algeri” (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”) by Rossini—with a cheerful gusto that was the perfect match for this lively and appealing piece. She captured all of Rossini’s high-spirited humor and gave the composer’s trademark crescendos plenty of punch.

Xian Zhang
Photo: B Ealovega

The band was in fine form as usual, playing with pristine clarity. There were also high-caliber solos from Associate Principal Oboe Phil Ross and Associate Principal Flute Andrea Kaplan.

Zhang’s approach to the Rossini overture was emblematic of her overall podium style. She had a strong physical connection with the music that recalled former SLSO Music Director David Robertson. Her movements were economical and fluid, and her cueing was precise and unambiguous. I had the impression that she would be easy to follow. Given her generally brisk tempo choices, that struck me as an essential virtue.

This was a concert that simply bristled with energy and excitement. I’d be happy to see her return to Powell Hall in the future.

I’d  be happy to see Georgi Li return as well, based on the excellence of his performance in the next piece, Rachmaninoff’s 1934 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Op. 49. This set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's "Caprices" for solo violin served as a showpiece for the composer’s formidable keyboard skill during his lifetime and has continued to do the same for pianists ever since.

Li demonstrated an admirable variety of tone and a wide emotional range in the “Rhapsody”—crucial skills in a work that encompasses a wide assortment of moods. From the swooning romanticism of the popular 18th variation to the pointillist exactitude of the first three variations,  to the big power chord pianism of the final five, Li proved to be a master of all he surveyed. In addition, he and Zhang were always in synch, even though there appeared to be little direct interaction between them. It was the sort of thing that makes one wonder if there might actually be something to telepathy.

Next was a perfect encore: Giovanni Sgambati's transcription of the ethereal "Melodie dell'Orfeo," part of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice." The melancholy lyricism of the piece was an ideal “palate cleanser”.

The concert concluded with galvanizing interpretations of "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome,” the first two of the three tone poems Ottorino Respighi composed between 1916 and 1928 to celebrate the Eternal City.

George Li
Photo: Simon Fowler

Like so many of Respighi's scores, both “Fountains” and “Pines” are virtual textbooks of orchestration, with elements of Debussy, Ravel, and even Richard Strauss all mixed with Respighi's own unique point of view to produce a rich palette of instrumental color. The shimmering violins and Jelena Dirks's elegant oboe set the scene for “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn”. Roger Kaza’s horns sang out bright golden light for “The Triton Fountain in the Morning” while the play of the fountain's naiads was brought to sparkling life by Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout's harps.  The brass and percussion sections embodied the majestic “Fountain of Trevi at Midday” and the bucolic atmosphere of “The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset” was enhanced by the birdsong of flutists Matthew Roitstein and Jennifer Nitchman, along with Ann Choomack on piccolo.

“Pines” brought the evening to a big cinematic finish.  Weaving nature painting with bits of Roman history, “Pines” takes us from noisy children running riot at the Villa Borghese (raucous arguments from the horns and brasses, played with spirit and precision), to a haunting “Pines Near a Catacomb"—solemn, slow themes in the low strings, brasses, and piano—where a mysterious chant begins in the trumpet (a perfect solo by guest artist William Leathers from offstage left), builds in the full orchestra, and then cross-fades to a peaceful moonlight night in “The Pines of the Janiculum.” Peter Henderson’s piano and John Estell’s celesta set the mood along with the woodwinds and, finally, the recorded sound of a nightingale.  

The certified rouser, though, was the final movement, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” in which the Roman army approaches slowly to the ominous tread of the percussion, piano, and contrabassoon. Trumpets, trombones, tuba and even an organ (guest artist Andrew Peters) join in and eventually the audience was literally engulfed in sound as the six offstage brass players (placed house left and right in the dress circle) were added to the mix. To work properly, this final section needs to build gradually and inexorably, with close coordination between the onstage and offstage players. It certainly did Saturday night, garnering thunderous applause.

Next at Powell Hall: If it’s December it must be time for Handel’s “Messiah.” Baroque-era specialist Laurence Cummings leads and appropriately downsized St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 2-4. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Sunday, November 27, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 28, 2022

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck [at] kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.

Roger Schmelzer
The Blue Strawberry presents An Evening of Heart and Soul with Roger Schmelzer on Saturday, December 3, at 7:30 pm. “Roger Schmelzer makes abundant use of America’s Songbook to convey a message of hope, kindness, and optimism that takes audiences on “a journey back to Old World New York Cabaret.” He is directed by the legendary Marilyn Maye. Musical Director is Jeffrey Harris, who accompanies Ms. Maye, and has also music directed for Jack Jones, Maureen McGovern and Lea Salonga.”  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

First Run Theatre presents Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton through December 4. “Bernice is an energetic widow facing her 70th birthday and looking forward to new adventures.  She wasn't counting on her workaholic daughter and estranged son coming for a visit. A funny, bittersweet play about family, life and going your own way.” Performances take place in the black box theatre in the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. For more information: firstruntheatre.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Dickens of a Killilng through January 27th, 2023. "Death is in the air as guests join Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Baaaaa Huuuumbug!!! Ebenezer Scrooge will be back to his old tricks and is bound to make a few enemies at this Christmas Party chock full of Charles Dicken's Characters. Just when Beep (The Minstrel) gets everyone in the Holiday Spirit, Scrooge barges in and starts talking about gruel. Geez, hope no one snuffs Scrooge out before he stops bellowing! Guests will dive into the fictious world of Charles Dickens and join Pip, Martha Cratchit, Oliver Twist, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and so many more in this cheerful murder mystery parody of a Holiday Classic. Whether you want to participate a little or a lot, you're sure to have a jolly good time, in jolly olde England, where there is sure to be "A Dickens of a Killing!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents It’s a Marvelous Life! Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, December 2 – 10. “From the people who brought you Jurassic Park: The Musical, The One-Hour Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, Glen Or Glenda, The One-Hour Valley Of The Dolls, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and The Ten Commandments: Live!: They said it couldn’t be done. (Who are “they”? We have no idea. But we’re about to prove them wrong!) Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre presents the onstage spectacle It’s a Marvelous Life! Original script by Rob McLemore and Jaysen Cryer, directed by Artistic Director Donna Northcott. Poor George Bailey…I mean Steve Rogers! All he ever wanted to do was build things and see the world and save Democracy from deviant warlord Thanos, evil trickster Loki, and the Nazis.”Performances take place at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood Park. For more information: https://www.stlshakespeare.org.

Jerry's Girls
Photo: Greg Lazerwitz
New Jewish Theatre presents Jerry’s Girls: The Jerry Herman Review Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, December 1-18. “The musical brings together composer/lyricist Jerry Herman’s “greatest hits” - from his many smash productions to some of his lesser well-known musicals. From Mame to Milk and Honey, Hello Dolly! To La Cage Aux Folles, Jerry’s Girls lovingly revisits the shows and their music. New Jewish Theatre’s production features an ensemble cast of five local female performers: Kelsey Bearman, Molly Burris, Christina Rios, Greta Rosenstock and Lisa Rosenstock. Burris is returning to New Jewish Theatre after appearing earlier this season in Dear Jack, Dear Louise. The rest of the cast will be performing at New Jewish Theatre for the first time.” Performances take place at the SFC Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information: jccstl.com.

A Christmas Carol
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the second annual production of Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol through December 30. “At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must face down his demons, reconcile the consequences of his choices and experience the power and joy of a miraculous redemption. This magical production will again be directed by Hana S. Sharif, Augustin Family Artistic Director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd, Artistic Director at The Big Muddy Dance Company. The world of Charles Dickens’ will be brought to life by Tim Mackabee (Scenic Design), Dede Aytie (Costume Design), Seth Reiser (Lighting Design), and Hana S. Kim (Production Design). Chales Coles and Nathan Roberts provide the music and sound design, with musical direction by Tre’von Griffith.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Forget Me Not written and directed by Kyle Marlett Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, December 2-18. “Forget Me Not is the journey of one human figuring out what it means to be remembered. We’ve all experienced the feeling that there’s not enough time. We sometimes wonder what will happen after we’re gone, how will our stories be told, and how can we leave a lasting impact? Kyle asks all of these questions of himself and seeks to find the answers with you. Kyle Marlett is running out of time. All his life, he’s felt the overwhelming need to leave a mark on the world. It’s a lifelong pursuit that leads him to magic, this show, and this moment, right now. Prepare to witness stunning visuals, impossible illusions and raw storytelling as Kyle examines our time on earth and the connections between all of us. Why are we here? What do we leave behind?”  Performances take place at The Gaslight Theater on North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information: www.stlas.org.

Stray Dog Theatre presents Ride the Cyclone: The Musical Thursdays through Saturdays December 1-17. There are additional performances 8 PM Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14. “The lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster. When they awake in limbo, a mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell their story to win a prize like no other — the chance to return to life. A funny, moving look at what makes life worth living.” Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org.

Webster Conservatory presents Seminar by Theresa Rebeck Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, December 2-11. “In Seminar, a provocative comedy from Pulitzer Prize–nominee Theresa Rebeck, four aspiring young novelists sign up for private writing classes with Leonard, an international literary figure. Under his recklessly brilliant and unorthodox instruction, some thrive and others flounder, alliances are made and broken, sex is used as a weapon, and hearts are unmoored. The wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious as innocence collides with experience in this biting comedy.” Performances take place in the Stage III Auditorium on the Webster University campus in Webster Groves. For more information: www.webster.edu

The Christians
Photo: Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild presents Lucas Hnath’s The Christians December 2-11. “The Christians examines what happens when Pastor Paul, the leader of an evangelical mega-church, announces to his congregation that he has come to doubt a core belief of Christian doctrine.  Pastor Paul expects this sermon to be controversial; he does not expect the reaction to the sermon to threaten the congregation’s destruction.  Playwright Hnath, the son of a minister who was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church, presents the story with respect and sincerity.  As New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood noted, “none of the characters are depicted as being fanatical, hypocritical or lacking in intelligence, which is too often the case when pious Christians are depicted onstage.  Mr. Hnath grants his characters the dignity of sincere belief, even as his play raises probing questions about how and why religion can be a divisive, if not abusive, social force.”  Ellie Schwetye returns to WEPG to direct The Christians.” West End Players Guild this season will employ touchless ticketing, socially-distanced seating and indoor masking of all patrons and front-of-house staff and volunteers. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information: westendplayers.org.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
The Westport Playhouse presents writer/actor Mark Rodgers in Discover DaVinci and Michaelangelo—the Titans Experience on selected dates through December 30.  “Over 100 successfull Broadway shows, Includes an art installation and self-guided tour of DaVinci's models, artwork, and more...including our new unique theatrical 40' Video Wall!” The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. For more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

The Westport Playhouse presents Jennifer Theby Quinn in The Twelve Dates of Christmas on selected dates through December 23.  “After seeing her fiance kiss another woman at the televised Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mary's life falls apart -- just in time for the holidays. Over the next year, she stumbles back into the dating world, where "romance" ranges from weird and creepy to absurd and comical. It seems nothing can help Mary's growing cynicism, until the charm and innocence of a five-year-old boy unexpectedly brings a new outlook on life and love. This heartwarming one-woman play offers a hilarious and modern alternative to the old standards of the holiday season”  The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment DistrictFor more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Symphony Preview: Thanksgiving treats

If you’re looking for something to be thankful for this weekend, look no farther than Powell Hall, where conductor Xian Zhang and pianist George Li  make their debuts with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Saturday and Sunday, November 26 and 27. They’ll be performing a program of some of my favorite works. They’re probably yours as well.


[Preview the music with the SLSO's commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

Rossini in 1865
By Étienne Carjat - harvardartmuseums.org

It all starts, appropriately, with an overture. It’s the one Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote for his first big hit comedy, “L’Italiana in Algeri” (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”). The composer cranked it out in less than a month in response to a last-minute commission from Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto in late April 1813. The short time frame was the result of the failure of Carlo Coccia (1782-1873) to deliver an opera promised for the May slot.

Coccia’s loss was Rossini’s gain. “L’Italiana in Algeri” was the first of many successes for Rossini, and the lively overture is well-nigh irresistible. The composer’s humor shows up immediately in the single unexpected loud chord in the soft introduction and the inexorable tempo increases are an example of the sort of thing that would earn him the nickname of “Signor Crescendo.” Much fun.

Next is one of the great virtuoso showpieces of the twentieth century, the flashy "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," Op. 49 written in 1934 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). The Russian expatriate was one of the previous century's great virtuoso pianists and the "Rhapsody" served him well as he toured America and Europe. He played the solo role in the premiere performance, of course—in Baltimore, Maryland, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by another giant of 20th-century music, Leopold Stokowski.

The piece is a sort of mini-concerto, consisting of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's "Caprices" for solo violin. It’s a tune that has proved irresistible for composers from Liszt to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Listen for the quote of the Latin plainchant "Dies Irae" (a theme that crops up often on Rachmaninoff's music) about a third of the way through and note the extreme technical difficulty of the last variation. Even Rachmaninoff was said to have found it scary.

Serge Rachmaninoff, circa 1936

It might not scare soloist George Li (b. 1995), though, judging from the reviews at his web site. The Washington Post is quoted as praising his “staggering technical prowess” in a 2015 concert while the New York Times liked his combination of “youthful abandon with utter command” in February 2016. Although born in Boston, Li made his orchestral debut at the ripe old age of 9 with the Xiamen Philharmonic and has concertized the world over.

Up next is “The Fountains of Rome,” the first in the very popular "Roman trilogy" of tone poems composed between 1916 and 1928 by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). In only fifteen minutes, “Fountains” takes you through a day in Rome. "In this symphonic poem", wrote Respighi in a preface to the score, "the composer has endeavored to give expression to the sentiments and visions suggested to him by four of Rome's fountains, contemplated at the hour when their characters are most in harmony with the surrounding landscape, or at which their beauty is most impressive to the observer."

We see the sun rise through the mists of the fountain at Valle Giulia, spend the morning frolicking with mythical creatures at the Triton Fountain, marvel at Neptune's majestic chariot at the Trevi Fountain at noon, and finally watch the sun go down behind the Fountain at Villa Medici. "The air is full of the sound of tolling bells, the twittering of birds, the rustling of leaves," Respighi concludes. "Then all dies peacefully into the silence of the night."

The only one of the three fountains I have seen in person is the Trevi, and I have to say Respighi certainly captured its glorious essence.

The concerts conclude with another Respighi blockbuster, "The Pines of Rome," the second tone poem in the trilogy evoking the sights and sounds of his native city--including the recorded song of a nightingale. Here's the composer himself (writing in the third person) describing what he had in mind (quoted in Dr. Richard E. Rodda's program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra):

While in his preceding work, Fountains of Rome, the composer sought to reproduce by means of tone an impression of nature, in Pines of Rome he uses nature as a point of departure, in order to recall memories and visions. The centuries-old trees which dominate so characteristically the Roman landscape become testimony for the principal events in Roman life.

"Pines" opens with children playing boisterously around "The Pines of the Villa Borghese," then changes to "The Pines Near a Catacomb," where a mysterious chant begins and then suddenly stops. Then the moon rises, and the music depicts the peaceful "Pines of the Janiculum" (a hill west of Rome with a spectacular view of the city), complete with the recorded nightingale.

Ottorino Respighi

The last (and most spectacular) movement is "The Pines of the Appian Way." "The tragic country is guarded by solitary pines," writes Respighi. "Indistinctly, incessantly, the rhythm of innumerable steps. To the poet's fantasy appears a vision of past glories; trumpets blare, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill." It's exceptionally thrilling music that includes six offstage brass players representing the approaching army. If, as is often the case, they’re placed towards the rear of the house, you’ll get a genuine surround-sound experience.

It’s a big, ambitious program for Xian Zhang (b. 1973), but given that she’s now in her seventh season as Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony and started conducting at age 19 (Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” no less, with the China National Opera Orchestra), there seems little doubt that she will bring a wealth of experience to her St. Louis debut.

The Essentials: Conductor Xian Zhang and pianist George Li make their St. Louis Symphony Orchestra debuts performing the overture to Rossini’s opera “L'Italiana in Algeri,” Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” and Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome”. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, October 26 and 27. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Symphony Review: To infinity and beyond with Stéphane Denève and the SLSO

“To infinity and beyond!” With that wry nod to Buzz Lightyear, Music Director Stéphane Denève launched a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert last Friday night (November 18th) inspired by what Pythagoras called the “music of the spheres.”  The night sky has fascinated human beings for as long as there have been human beings, and last weekend’s program (repeated on Saturday and Sunday, the 19th and 20th) showed just how much variety that fascination can encompass.

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

Guillaume Connesson curtain call

The first half of the evening was taken up by three very different but equally appealing contemporary works, beginning with the world premiere of “Astéria” by contemporary (b. 1970) French composer Guillaume Connesson. Denève described it as music in which you can hear “not only the sound of falling stars but also how they sing.” Which, in this case, means rapidly descending figures in the woodwinds accompanied by wave-like themes in the strings that call to mind Debussy’s “La Mer.”

The overall feel is that of a vast seascape with combined with a meteor shower. There’s a sense of expansive acoustic space created by Connesson’s inventive use of orchestral color. Denève, who is a great booster of Connesson, has said that his work “continues the great tradition of French music. It is full of rich harmonies and it is colourful, well-orchestrated music. I just love it.”

Judging from the response, the audience loved both “Astéria” and its brilliant performance by Denève and the band.

“Astéria” is “big band” music (around 90 musicians Friday night) that contrasted neatly with the next work—“Primal Message” by contemporary American violist/composer Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama (b. 1976). Scored for strings, harp, keyboard, and percussion, it’s one of the more purely beautiful bits of new music I have heard recently. There are ravishing melodies for the cello and viola and an overall sense of nostalgia-tinged serenity.

As a showcase for the SLSO strings, it couldn’t be beat. Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu and Principal Cello Danny Lee gave eloquent voice to Ngwenyama’s somewhat Celtic-sounding themes, and the sound of the full ensemble was entrancing. The piece ended with a bit of delicate filigree on celesta and harp (expertly done by Peter Henderson and Principal Harp Allegra Lilly, respectively) that was as evanescent as stardust.

James Lee III curtain call

The Big Band returned with “Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula” by American composer James Lee III (b.1975). It’s a wildly colorful 10-minute tone poem about the Messiah descending to earth on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in a blaze of brass and percussion that prominently features the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and (inevitably) the bass drum. A calmer central section uses the celesta, harp, and winds to evoke the misty nebula before the resplendent return of the Son of God. I was reminded of Vachel Lindsay’s famous poem “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (“Booth led boldly with his big bass drum”).

It’s some pretty boisterous stuff which (somewhat paradoxically) demands discipline and polish from the musicians. That it emphatically got Friday night. A shout-out is due, in particular, to the quintet of musicians who handled the large percussion battery. That would be Shannon Wood on tympani and  his instruments and Will James, Alan Stewart, Kevin Ritenauer, and Edouard Beyens on everything else. Lee’s score kept them hopping.

The evening concluded with “The Planets,” Op. 32, by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). Last played by the SLSO in 2016 under David Robertson, Holst’s suite is undoubtedly his greatest and probably his only hit. Denève and the band gave it a thrilling and yet subtle reading that brought out individual voices while retaining a strong sense of momentum.

Denève’s interpretation of the first movement—“Mars, the Bringer of War”—was essentially a microcosm of everything he and the orchestra did that was so right. The tempo was brisk, creating the proper sense of mindless urgency, but dynamics were carefully modulated, and orchestral details were clearly articulated, so there was a sense that doom was merely being held back. When the first big orchestral crash came up, the impact was cataclysmic.  

"The Planets" curtain call

There was also a plethora of pristine renderings of the many wonderful instrumental solo bits that Holst’s score provides in abundance. That includes (but, as usual, is not limited to) Principal Horn Roger Kaza’s delicate opening solo in “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” as well rest of his section in “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”; the quicksilver woodwinds, Allegra Lilly and Megan Stout’s harps, and Peter Henderson’s celesta in “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”; Phil Ross’s mournful bass oboe in “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”; the bassoons under Andrew Cuneo, musically thumbing their noses at the pretentions of “Uranus, the Magician;” and multiple appearances by Concertmaster David Halen and Principal Oboe Jelena Dirks.

And then there were the final moments of “Neptune, the Mystic.” The score calls for a wordless women’s chorus "to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed." The final bar of the music, for voices alone, is "to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance." Denève achieved that by (as far as I can tell) placing the singers on the orchestra level in back of the audience—presumably in the lobby if he was following Holst’s instructions.

Wherever they were, it worked. Seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere (although probably from the main lobby), the voices faded so imperceptibly that it was hard to tell when they stopped singing. In my mind, they still are.

Next at Powell Hall: Conductor Xian Zhang and pianist George Li make their St. Louis Symphony Orchestra debuts performing the overture to Rossini’s opera “L'Italiana in Algeri,” Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” and Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome”. Performances are Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, October 26 and 27. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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

Sunday, November 20, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of November 21, 2022

Now including both on-line and live events during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to chuck [at] kdhx.org Your event information should be in text format (i.e. not part of a graphic), but feel free to include publicity stills.

The Blue Strawberry presents Thankful: A Cabaret From the Faculty and Staff of STAGES Performing Arts Academy on Monday, November 21, at 7 pm. “Hear the newest songs burgeoning on Broadway and Off, along with your favorite 11 o’clock numbers.” The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

Denise Thimes
The Blue Strawberry presents Denise Thimes: Giving Thanks on Friday and Saturday, November 25 and 26, at 7 pm. “With song and story, Denise Thimes gives thanks for her many blessings this Thanksgiving weekend at Blue Strawberry. We are grateful for the blessing of seeing our fabulous hometown jazz diva embrace the full spectrum of the spirit of Thanksgiving. Backed by an all-star band.” The show is also available via live streaming video. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Fabulous Fox presents The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays on Saturday, November 26, at 4 and 8 pm. “Celebrate the holidays with the entire family at The Illusionists – Magic of the Holidays, a mind-blowing showcase featuring jaw-dropping talents of the most incredible illusionists on earth. The Illusionists has shattered box office records across the globe and dazzles audiences of all ages with a powerful mix of the most outrageous and astonishing acts ever seen on stage. This non-stop show is packed with thrilling and sophisticated magic of unprecedented proportions.” The Fabulous Fox is on North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: www.fabulousfox.com.

First Run Theatre presents Bernice’s 70th Birthday by Nancy Gall-Clayton November 25 through December 4. “Bernice is an energetic widow facing her 70th birthday and looking forward to new adventures.  She wasn't counting on her workaholic daughter and estranged son coming for a visit. A funny, bittersweet play about family, life and going your own way.” Performances take place in the black box theatre in the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. For more information: firstruntheatre.org.

The Lemp Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre and Jest Mysteries present A Dickens of a Killilng through January 27th, 2023. "Death is in the air as guests join Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Baaaaa Huuuumbug!!! Ebenezer Scrooge will be back to his old tricks and is bound to make a few enemies at this Christmas Party chock full of Charles Dicken's Characters. Just when Beep (The Minstrel) gets everyone in the Holiday Spirit, Scrooge barges in and starts talking about gruel. Geez, hope no one snuffs Scrooge out before he stops bellowing! Guests will dive into the fictious world of Charles Dickens and join Pip, Martha Cratchit, Oliver Twist, The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and so many more in this cheerful murder mystery parody of a Holiday Classic. Whether you want to participate a little or a lot, you're sure to have a jolly good time, in jolly olde England, where there is sure to be "A Dickens of a Killing!" The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

A Christmas Carol
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the second annual production of Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol through December 30. “At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must face down his demons, reconcile the consequences of his choices and experience the power and joy of a miraculous redemption. This magical production will again be directed by Hana S. Sharif, Augustin Family Artistic Director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd, Artistic Director at The Big Muddy Dance Company. The world of Charles Dickens’ will be brought to life by Tim Mackabee (Scenic Design), Dede Aytie (Costume Design), Seth Reiser (Lighting Design), and Hana S. Kim (Production Design). Chales Coles and Nathan Roberts provide the music and sound design, with musical direction by Tre’von Griffith.” Performances take on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.. For more information: www.repstl.org.

Tesseract Theatre Company presents the musical Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm, through November 27. “Ordinary Days tells the story of four young New Yorkers whose lives intersect as they search for fulfillment, happiness, love, and cabs. Through a score of vibrant and memorable songs, their experiences ring startlingly true to life. Ordinary Days is an original musical for anyone who's ever struggled to appreciate the simple things in a complex place. With equal doses of humor and poignancy, it celebrates how 8.3 million individual stories combine in unexpected ways to make New York City such a unique and extraordinary home.” Performances take place at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Grand Center. For more information: www.tesseracttheatre.com.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas
The Westport Playhouse presents writer/actor Mark Rodgers in Discover DaVinci and Michaelangelo—the Titans Experience opening on November 26 and running on selected dates through December 30.  “Over 100 successfull Broadway shows, Includes an art installation and self-guided tour of DaVinci's models, artwork, and more...including our new unique theatrical 40' Video Wall!” The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. For more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

The Westport Playhouse presents Jennifer Theby Quinn in The Twelve Dates of Christmas opening on November 25 and running on selected dates through December 23.  “After seeing her fiance kiss another woman at the televised Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mary's life falls apart -- just in time for the holidays. Over the next year, she stumbles back into the dating world, where "romance" ranges from weird and creepy to absurd and comical. It seems nothing can help Mary's growing cynicism, until the charm and innocence of a five-year-old boy unexpectedly brings a new outlook on life and love. This heartwarming one-woman play offers a hilarious and modern alternative to the old standards of the holiday season”  The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment DistrictFor more information: thewestportplayhouse.com.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Opera Review: Puccini's 'Sparrow' takes flight at Winter Opera

This weekend (Friday and Sunday, November 18 and 20) Winter Opera kicks off their season with “La Rondine” (“The Sparrow”), a Puccini work that hasn’t been seen locally since 2015. Giuseppe Adami's clunker of a libretto was probably enough to ensure that it wouldn’t become one of Puccini’s Greatest Hits, and the composer’s inability to decide on a final version hasn’t helped matters any.

Karen Kanakis and
Nathan Schafer
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Winter Opera has chosen, as far as I can tell, the 1917 original. This is good, since it makes Magda, the reformed courtesan whose past destroys her shot at True Love, a stronger character. She makes a deliberate choice to return to her old life instead of being spurned and committing suicide. It’s a welcome change from Puccini’s predilection for (and somewhat sadistic treatment of) heroines who are either hapless victims or clueless enablers of badly-behaved men.

And it gives soprano Karen Kanakis, who has done such splendid work in the past with Winter Opera, a chance to showcase her gorgeous voice and acting ability once again. That’s not always easy in this libretto, which is often so cryptic that it's nearly telegraphic.

The story is basically “Traviata lite”.  Magda, a “kept woman”, leaves her rich, middle-aged lover Rambaldo and her lush life in Paris to take up with Ruggero, a young hunk from the sticks.  Unfortunately the young hunk is, as written, far too painfully naive to be sympathetic, and the rich lover little more than a cipher. That could make Magda's decision to leave them both seem more petulant than tragic, but Kanakis pulls it off anyway. Her character is solid and as credible as it can be, given the material. Brava.

Soprano Lauren Nash Silberstein and lyric tenor Nicholas Huff are an unmitigated delight as Magda’s free-spirited maid Lisette and the temperamental poet Prunier. Silberstein is particularly sparkling and charismatic, which made her a nice foil for the very effective (ahem) huffiness of Huff’s Prunier. Their romantic sparring would not be out of place in a Noël Coward comedy, and it certainly works well here.

Nicholas Huff and Lauren Nash Silberstein
Photo: Rebecca Haas

Tenor Nathan Schafer has perhaps the most thankless task as Ruggero, a character so thinly drawn that he comes across as little more than a classic Italian mammone transplanted to France. His wig and costumes make him look like a young Nigel Bruce, which doesn’t help. His voice, though, is stunning, with that clarity and warmth characteristic of the lyric tenor. His duets with Kanakis are memorable.

As usual with Winter Opera, the supporting cast and chorus are solid. The latter can always be counted upon to create their own individual characters while still singing together harmoniously. Scott Schoonover, artistic director of Union Avenue Opera, conducts the orchestra with his customary assurance, and his players respond with a full-bodied sound that belies their relatively small numbers.

Stage Director Eric Gibson has moved the action forward from the Second Empire France of the original to the 1920s, which makes it feel new enough to be almost familiar while still distant enough to make the attitudes of the characters understandable. His staging is clear and well-paced. The colorful scenic designs of Scott Loebl and period costumes Amy Hopkins compliment that nicely.

Performances of “La Rondine,” in Italian with English supertitles, are Friday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, November 18 and 20, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. Given the quality of the production, it’s a shame there are only two, but there you are. Ticket information is available at the Winter Opera web site.

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