Saturday, August 06, 2022

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of August 8, 2022

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

L-R: Laurence Levy,
Professor Longhair
The Blue Strawberry presents Magical Mondays with sleight of hand artist Laurence Levy and the comedy magic of Professor Longhair’s Old Tyme Medicine Show on Monday, August 8, at 7:00 pm.  The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End.  For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

The Blue Strawberry presents Grayson Jostes in I’m Ready for My Close-Up on Thursday, August 11, at 7:30 pm. “Grayson has been in over 26 musical theatre productions during his career and is the winner of the 2018 Best Duo/Group Performance Award from the Over-Due Theatre Company.  Grayson is a regular at Blue Strawberry’s Open Mic Nights, where he WOW’s the audience with his vivacious performances.” Ron McGowan is pianist and music director for the show, with direction by Tim Schall. The Blue Strawberry is at 364 N. Boyle in the Central West End. The show is also available via streaming video. For more information: bluestrawberrystl.com.

ERA Theatre presents the radio play SHE by Nancy Bell with music by Joe Taylor and Lyrics by Nancy Bell via on-demand streaming  "SHE controls the radio station of the fascist regime in power. SHE's also the star of the broadcast. Her recording studio abounds with music and oysters. But in the nearby government camps full of misfits and would-be revolutionaries, only torture and starvation is thick on the ground. Tonight, however, SHE's realm feels different. The bombs sound closer. Time moves faster. But SHE will finish her radio show, and it will be her finest. If executing every number in the broadcast means some people need to die, so be it; it is a small sacrifice. The citizens need her and she will not let them down." SHE is available on most major platforms including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, YouTube, and BandCamp. For more information: www.eratheatre.org

First Run Theatre presents Locked Ward by Amy Crider Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, August 12-21. "When the body of a nurse is found late at night in a psychiatric ward, the patients realize they’re all suspects.They must hold themselves together to investigate the mystery as they yearn for connection and normalcy." 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 The Comic Book Killer through August 27. "Calling all superheros and villains! There’s trouble afoot for you both! Evil Doctor Weevil is back and he’s trying to erase your very existence! The time has come to join forces against true evil and restore balance to the comic universe. But who will be the hero or heroes and rid this plain of Evil Dr. Weevil forever? Could it be you? Quick…to the Prius! Dawn your cape and spandex and meet us the famously haunted Lemp Mansion for a mystery like no other! Here I come to save the daaaaaay!!!!"  The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place in south city. For more information: www.lempmansion.com

L-R: Nasia Thomas and Anastacia McCleskey in
The Color Purple Photo: Julie A. Merkle
The Muny presents the musical The Color Purple through August 9 at 8:15 pm.  “Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s landmark film, The Color Purple makes its Muny debut! Featuring a Grammy Award-winning score infused with jazz, ragtime, gospel and African blues, this moving tale is a testament to the healing power of love, faith, resilience and sisterhood. Winner of the 2016 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical,” this epic staging promises a joyous evening of courage, hope and healing.” Performances take place on the Muny's outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information: muny.org.

The Muny presents the musical Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat August 13-18 at 8:15 pm.  “Originally written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber as a children’s oratorio, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has, in time, expanded to become one of the most beloved shows ever. The story of Jacob, his 12 sons, and the amazing Technicolor adventures of Joseph features a multi-colored score of favorites including “Any Dream Will Do,” “Go, Go, Go Joseph” and “Close Every Door.” The first Muny production in a decade, audiences are guaranteed a night of big Muny family joy – with, of course, a megamix!” Performances take place on the Muny's outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information: muny.org.

R-S Theatrics presents While the Ghostlight Burns, a virtual discussion series featuring R-S Artistic Director Sarah Lynne Holt in conversation with St. Louis theatre artists, Mondays at 7 pm.  Conversations will be archived at the R-S Theatrics YouTube channel. For more information: r-stheatrics.com/while-the-ghostlight-burns.html

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival presents free outdoor performances of a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at area parks nightly at 6:30 pm through August 27. “The Festival’s 20-year-old touring program returns for the second time as the free and outdoor public park tour, TOURCO, throughout Missouri and Illinois with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production will be directed by Tre’von Griffith, St. Louis/NYC-based theater artist, composer and founder of WerQfest also known as Tre-G, and featuring costumes by acclaimed local fashion designer Brandin Vaughn. This 90-minute highly musical afro-futurist adaptation will play in 24 different locations starting on opening night at Kiener Plaza in the heart of downtown St. Louis.” For more information: stlshakes.org.

In the Heights
Photo: Phillip Hamer
Stages St. Louis presents Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights through August 21. “IN THE HEIGHTS, the Tony Award Winning Best Musical from the creator of HAMILTON, tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggle can be deciding which traditions to take with you, and which ones to leave behind.” Performances take place at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center in Kirkwood, MO. For more information: stagesstlouis.org

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Thursdays through Saturdays through August 20. There are additional performances at 2 pm Sunday, August 14 and 8 pm Wednesday, August 17. “An eclectic group of sixth-graders vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime. In hilarious, touching, and catchy songs, each speller reveals their hopes, struggles, and passions as they make their way through the competition. The “Bee” will have you falling in love with its “perspicacious,” “jocular,” and “effervescent” spellers.” 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

Mark Rodgers in
Discover DaVinci and Michaelangelo
The Westport Playhouse presents writer/actor Mark Rodgers in Discover DaVinci and Michaelangelo—the Titans Experience Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through August 28th.  “Over 100 successful 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 show marks the reopening of the Playhouse after extensive renovation. The Westport Playhouse is in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. For 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.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Opera Review: Union Avenue Opera's "Falstaff" achieves musical perfection in an imperfect space

Now in its 28th season, Union Avenue Opera has, over the decades, presented a wide range of operas—ancient to modern, intimate to grand—with a remarkable degree of success. Despite working with a small stage and a less than ideal acoustic environment in the venerable Union Avenue Christian Church, UAO’s hits far outnumber its misses.

Running through August 6th, the company’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” is in some ways the quintessential UAO show. Under the skilled baton of Stephen Hargreaves, the orchestra sounds great, with Verdi's many expressive instrumental details coming through loud and clear. Individual performances range from good to stunning, both musically and theatrically, and the overall experience is immensely satisfying.

L-R Mark Freiman as Pistola. Marc Schapman
as Bardolfo. Robert Mellon as Falstaff
Photo: Dan Donovan

Flawless it isn’t, but what flaws there are can largely be attributed to the physical limitations of the performance space. Transferred to an actual theatre like the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center or the auditorium of the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, this “Falstaff” would be darn near perfect. As it is, opera lovers won’t want to miss it, especially since it hasn’t graced a local stage in nearly three decades.

First performed in Milan in February 1893 (just a few months short of Verdi’s 80th birthday), “Falstaff” was the composer’s third Shakespearean opera and second attempt at comedy since his flop “Un giorno di regno” way back in 1840. It’s considered by many, including yours truly, to be his greatest work for the stage, if not the greatest opera of the 19th century.

There are many reasons for that. To begin with, Verdi had the best of all possible librettists in the person of Arrigo Boito, who had worked with Verdi on “Otello” only a few years earlier. A gifted writer and composer (his “Mefistofele” is still the best of the “Faust”-inspired operas, in my view), Boito was, like Verdi, a great admirer of The Bard of Avon. His “Falstaff” libretto ingeniously combines “The Merry Wives of Windsor” with bits of the “Henry IV” plays and even hints at “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the faux fairies of the "Herne's" Oak" scene that ends the opera.

L-R Janara Kellerman as Quickly. Brooklyn Snow
as Nannetta. Karen Kanakas as Alice.
Melody Wilson as Meg
Photo: Dan Donovan

Verdi, for his part, produced a score that departed radically from everything he had written previously. Instead of a typical 19th century Italian opera in which the action pauses for arias, duets, and other set pieces, he wrote a fast-paced through composed musical play that moves at the speed of speech. Jokes and puns fly back and forth so quickly that even the original Milanese audience probably didn’t catch them all. The result is a seamless integration of words and music that is often exhilarating.

All of this makes “Falstaff” a challenge to produce. Verdi demanded over sixty rehearsals for his original La Scala cast because of the sheer complexity of the work. The sets are detailed, making scene changes potentially cumbersome. And the principal roles require performers with not only vocal and theatrical skills but comic timing as well.

Union Avenue has, I’m happy to say, a cast that meets and often exceeds those expectations, headed by baritone Robert Mellon in the title role.  His Falstaff roars, boasts, preens, and schemes—all in a big, resonant voice that reaches every corner of the theatre. His Act I “honor” monologue (one of the choice bits Boito lifted from “Henry IV”) is delivered with an authority and comic force that makes it a genuine showstopper. He even manages, in the less boisterous third act, to let us see a bit of the nobility buried under the character’s folly—no easy task, given that he’s lumbered with an absurd fat suit that’s more appropriate to a circus than the stage.

L-R Anthony Heinemann as Caius.
Jacob Lassetter as Ford.
Marc Schapman as Bardolfo.
Mark Freiman as Pistola
Photo: Dan Donovan

Falstaff’s nemesis is Alice Ford, whose sharp wit punctures the absurd schemes of both her husband and Falstaff. Falstaff wants to seduce both her and her friend Meg Page, while Ford arrogantly attempts to keep their daughter Nannetta from her true love Fenton and force her into an unsuitable marriage with the ancient Dr. Caius. Lighting up the role here is soprano Karen Kanakis, whose effulgent voice and impeccable acting have enlivened many roles at both UAO and Winter Opera. Her Alice is all quicksilver wit and irresistible charm.

Mezzo Janara Kellerman is delightful as Dame Mistress Quickly, Alice’s chief co-conspirator. Verdi saw the role as “the most individual and original” of the four women’s parts. The three scenes he wrote for her in Acts II and III are comic gems and Kellerman makes them shine. The part calls for a contralto, but Kellerman sounded perfectly at home in it.

The massive talents of soprano Brooklyn Snow and mezzo Melody Wilson are rather underused in the roles of Nannetta and Meg, respectively, but their finely wrought performances demonstrate the value in putting star performers in supporting roles. Snow also has some charming moments with tenor Jesse Darden’s Fenton as his limpid voice joins with hers in love duets that are invariably interrupted by the plot’s comic complications.

Tenor Marc Schapman and bass Mark Freiman make a first-rate pair of clowns as Falstaff’s wily minions Bardolfo and Pistola. The role of the clueless Dr. Caius offers little opportunity for tenor Anthony Heinemann to display his wide vocal range, but he does get to show off his fine comic timing.

Brooklyn Snow as Nanetta
and Jesse Darden as Fenton
Photo: Dan Donovan

Baritone Jacob Lassetter’s voice packs a serious punch in Ford’s big “revenge” monolog “È sogno o realtà?” ("Is it a dream or reality?") but his acting is a bit monochromatic. Verdi saw Ford as a character “who, in a towering outburst of jealousy, roars, screams, jumps all over”—a larger than life counterpoint to Falstaff. A bigger stage presence was called for, I thought.

The UAO chorus does fine work with some difficult music here thanks to the meticulous direction of company Artistic Director Scott Schoonover. They are not always easily understood, but the blame must rest with the imperfect acoustics of the Union Avenue Christian Church. Indeed, the tendency of the space’s overly resonant acoustics to sometimes turn Verdi’s multi-layered vocal lines to mush, especially in the brilliant fugue that concludes the opera, is probably the production’s biggest flaw. And one that is, alas, entirely out of UAO’s control.

The UAO stage was also an issue, simply because of its small size. The libretto calls for multiple sets, with the most elaborate being the room in Ford’s house where the madcap farce of Act II takes place. Lex Van Blommenstein’s scenic design evokes the feel of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, with a massive wooden framework supporting painted scrolls that were apparently designed to roll up and down quickly. In practice, doing so required multiple stagehands to laboriously raise and lower each one, resulting in scene changes that seemed to go on forever and killed the forward momentum in the middle of each act.

Even so, stage director Jon Truitt shows the same skill in maneuvering large forces around a small stage that served his Winter Opera production of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del Weat" so well two years ago.

Still, these are relatively minor blemishes in an otherwise outstanding production of Verdi’s final masterpiece. Add in Teresa Doggett’s bright period costumes (that fat suit not withstanding) and you have a “Falstaff” that must be seen.

Performances of Verdi’s “Falstaff” continue through Saturday, August 6th, at the Union Avenue Christian Church on Union in the Central West End. Information on this and the company’s final show of the season, Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” are available at the UAO web site.