It is interesting to me that in spring, a time of rebirth and blossoming, many shows I've recently reviewed have been crafted around themes of distance, loss, and death. The New Jewish Theatre closes out its 20th season with a deceptively evocative interpretation of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles that is at once deeply personal and heartbreakingly universal.

Leo, a college-aged young man with a passion for the outdoors and an idealistic nature, unexpectedly arrives at his grandmother Vera's apartment in New York at 3 a.m. one morning. Vera is slow to awaken, perhaps because she's not wearing her hearing aid, and a little embarrassed to be dropped in on unexpectedly, probably because she's not got her dentures in. It's a subtly comic moment that instantly captures a continuing dynamic of the show: both Vera and Leo are smart, fiercely independent, and slow to begrudgingly acknowledge a need for others. 

Leo has recently finished bicycling across the country, from Seattle to New York. He started the trip with his friend Micah, until Micah was killed in a freak accident in Kansas, near the geographic center of the country. Vera has grown accustomed to living on her own since the death of her husband 10 years' prior, but the passing of a number of friends has her feeling alone and all too aware of her own mortality. The truth is, the two need each other right now, even if neither wants to say so openly.

Christopher Tipp, as Leo, and Amy Loui, as Vera, have an easy, naturally affectionate chemistry, making their moments of disagreement and need all the more poignant. Tipp is energetic, always in motion, and stubbornly naïve to the emotional turmoil just underneath his surface. Loui is equally stubborn, occasionally querulous, but always sensitive to her grandson's uncertain state, even when she's prodding him it's done with gentle purpose. The relationship between the two also feels typically contemporary. Each has interests and history the other doesn't know, and while they both benefit from their time together, each recognizes the need to get on with their lives.

The two are joined by Rachel Fenton, as Leo's estranged girlfriend Bec, and Grace Langford as Amanda, a girl Leo picks up at a bar one night. Annie Barbour voices Leo's adopted sister Lily during an important Skype call where Leo begins to reach out the his estranged immediate family. The interplay works well, and the actors fully commit, but the scenes feel a bit superfluous to the story. The relationship between Leo and Vera -- the way each deals with the loss of someone they loved and the looming changes in their lives -- is so thoroughly compelling that the additional scenes feel almost a distraction even as they push the story forward.

The show moves at a constant but languid pace under the direction of Edward Coffield, subtly emphasizing the internal confusion and emotional context of each character's sense of loss. Leo's attempts at reconciliation with his girlfriend Bec, his stumbling pursuit of a one-night stand with Amanda, and even his awkward apology to sister Lily, underscore his indecision and an inability to move forward. Vera's grasping for the right words, forgetfulness, and resigned acceptance of aging reflects her desire to remain present. It's a tricky balance, but Coffield and the cast maintain a sense of urgency even as they convey the hazy fog of uncertainty that's enveloped the moment.

Tipp and Loui sparkle with affection and concern as Leo and Vera. The sense of a long shared history is immediately apparent, as is shared respect. Loui is visibly transformed in the role, her movements a bit shaky, with little head shakes and scowls that convey Vera's anger over her memory loss and more frequent mental lapses. Tipp is awkward at times and he wears his emotions on his sleeve, letting us see the confusion and pain Leo is experiencing without melodrama. With an unspoken pact, they are making their way through the stages of grief and its resulting impact on their psyches together. 

The show, which moves at a purposefully languid pace under the direction of Edward Coffield, is steeped in a fog of uncertainty that's at once compelling and easily relatable. Loss is a powerful emotion, but one that's often hard to unpack. 4000 Miles, running through May 28, 2017 at the New Jewish Theatre, delves into the subject with surprising intimacy and depth. The result is a show that feels completely authentic as it gently warms the heart. 

 

First impressions matter, everyone knows that. But any fan of the works of Jane Austen undoubtedly also knows that they certainly aren't everything and, sometimes, can be surprisingly deceptive. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble embraces the concept in their delightfully in tune adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, one of Miss Austen's best loved and most frequently adapted novels. 

Walking into the theater, audiences may at first feel as if they've arrived at a party or fantasy-themed celebration. There's a billowy white canopy with twinkling lights above and guests of age are invited to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer during the show. What they are about to see, however, is a battle of wits and hearts filled with playful duplicity and class maneuvering. With a wink of an eye and the sounds of a string quartet, we're transported to the household where the five Bennett sisters and their mother plot perfect marriages with eligible young men.

In the midst of the scheming, planning, and social cavorting, characters break free from the show and, in a contemporary voice accompanied by distinct choreography, recall first reflections of experiences with Austen's Pride and Prejudice. These memories are sprinkled with more than a bit of opinion and frequent references to Colin Firth. Just as quickly, the actor returns to character and plot as the abbreviated retelling of the novel continues. 

The company's adaptation is inventive, full of polite invectives and heaping praise for the work, and teeming with relatable humor.  The integrated monologues were culled from a variety of sources, including questions posed directly by the company for public response. The commentary is often funny, frequently insightful, and game for explaining the persistent popularity of Miss Austen to a public that might not appropriately appreciate the author's talents. The story comes across as much through the retelling of readers' initial (and frequently, changing) preferences as the novel, and the two distinct parts are seamlessly woven together by director Rachel Tibbetts and the talented cast.

Ellie Schwetye and Cara Barresi embody the spirit of Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to a T, each creating a believable woman that complements, but does not match, the other, true to the spirit of the novel. Schwetye is perceptive and witty, Barresi charming and kind-hearted, and both reveal an independent nature. Nicole Angeli and Carl Overly, Jr. are fussy and fundamentally endearing as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and Angeli gets some of the best reactions with her adroitly over-the-top mannerisms. The relationship between the close sisters extends to Parvuna Sulaiman as Mary, Jazmine K. Wade as Kitty, and Katy Keating as the irrepressible Lydia. Sulaiman also serves as a de facto guide through the evening, her commentary leading us into the subject and warmly bringing the story to a close.

On the romantic front, John Wolbers sparkles as the erudite and elusive Mr. Darcy and adroitly keeps toe-to-toe with Schwetye. A wide-eyed and good-natured Michael Cassidy Flynn is the perfect counter to Barresi as Charles Bingley; and Rachel Hanks, as friend Charlotte, and Andrew Kuhlman, as the girl's cousin Reverend William Collins, find romance that bristles with an endearingly awkward energy. Rounding out the cast, Kristen Strom is as aloof and prickly as Caroline Bingley as she is sweet and beguiling as Georgiana Darcy.

The company uses its resources wisely, suggesting much with a few pieces of scenery and period-suggestive costumes by Elizabeth Henning that cleverly reveal much about the characters' relationships through repetition of pattern and color matching. Interpretive choreography and a leitmotif of contemporary music, as performed by a string quartet, add to the dreamy quality of the show while subtly reinforcing theme. Much like the story, popular songs from artists as varied as Journey, The Cranberries, Coldplay, Arcade Fire, and Of Monsters and Men are at once recognizable and transformed.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's First Impressions, running through May 27, 2017, captivates with a sense of the logically surreal that's capped off with sharply defined yet endearing characters, smartly constructed commentary, and capricious visual and musical layers. Purists and those expecting a stage version of one of the many movie adaptations may experience palpitations at the construct; but I encourage them to embrace the reverent spirit and intellectual curiosity inherent in the approach. 

 

The Fox Theatre brings the twentieth anniversary tour of Rent to St. Louis in a production that is vocally near perfection, with themes that resonate to contemporary audiences. The show remains firmly in the 1990s, so the styles are a bit dated, but that doesn't lessen the impact of the story. Since the musical liberally references the operas La Boehme and Les Miserable, it's clear the issues of class, poverty, the struggle of artists, disease, and addiction persist in society.

In the 1990s version of the story, we are introduced to close friends Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, Roger, an aspiring songwriter and musician, and Tom Collins, a brilliant scholar and computer hacker who eschews the comforts of conventional academia. The three live in a run down building inhabited by other artists and addicts, in a section of New York City that was once friendly to the homeless and struggling but is undergoing gentrification. 

Mark pines over Maureen, a bisexual performance artist who loves nothing as much as the spotlight. Rogers longs to free himself from depression brought on by the loss of his former girlfriend, perhaps neighbor Mimi can help him find the will to live and love again. Tom Collins was recently rescued, physically and emotionally, by the transgender Angel. They are all angry with their friend Benjamin for marrying and callously promoting gentrification at the expense of his friends and the homeless. There's a class battle raging in this story and, as often the case in life, you're never really certain that anyone wins in the end.

Danny Harris Kornfeld is authentically nerdy and likable as filmmaker Mark Cohen. He's eager to be a part of the community, but hesitant to step from behind the camera and expose himself.  Kaleb Wells is moody and emotionally transparent as Roger Davis, we see the conflict of confusion, desire, and despair in every movement and expression. He and Skyler Volpe, as the equally desperate Mimi Marquez, have chemistry that jumps from the stage and they dance and tease and fall into confused love with each other in a way that's palpable and satisfying. Aaron Harrington, as Tom Collins, and David Merino, as Angel Schunard, have the same intense chemistry.

Angel is the spiritual center of the show, representing hope and persistence, two qualities often missing in contemporary society. Merino effortlessly inhabits the character, radiating positive energy that spills from the stage. Wells and Volpe remind us of the beauty and pain that accompanies love, and the strength it provides in the most dire and unpromising of situations. Kornfeld is earnest, his narration and description as perceptive as his camera, and his voice has a pleasant everyman quality that engenders sympathy and belief. The story feels real when voiced by these actors, and the songs easily provide the dialogue in a year of change. 

The supporting cast is strong as well, and features Christian Thompson as Benjamin Coffin III, Jasmine Easler as Joanne Jefferson, and Katie LaMark as Maureen Johnson, as well as Natalie Lipin, Bryson Bruce, Alia Hodge, Sammy Ferber, Jordan Long, Timothy McNeill, and Futaba Shioda. Thompson reminds me a bit of a young Drake and is irritatingly convincing as a man willing to step on others, albeit however lightly, to move up. His generosity and good-natured spirit help redeem him, and Thompson plays well against the others. Easler and LaMark were a bit problematic for me. I wanted to embrace their characters but each, at times, seemed to be in a different production. Easler came across as stridently dramatic while LaMark offered too much Broadway sunshine to really mesh with the rest of the cast. The choices suit the characters, but I wish director Evan Ensign had pushed the two a little further so their antagonistic moments weren't quite so transparent.

Rent is a fresh take on a centuries old story, as such, there's much familiar in the structure and plot. The updated setting and issues work well in the framework, the characters are genuinely compelling, and the songs are at times brilliantly simple, at times deliciously complex, and always sung to near perfection. The use of scaffolding, folding chairs, and industrial metal tables, works well to create a sense of industrial loft living on a lower economic scale. 

I have come to realize that sustained notes and extended runs are the aria of modern musical theater, and to appreciate layered melodies and intricate structural refrains that create the sense of dialogue. Rent makes spectacular use of these devices and the cast is superb in their execution, knowing the music well enough to stretch it here and there to suit the individual voices. Davis, Johnson, and Hodge make the most of this with growls, jumps, and intonation that adds a fresh twist to familiar songs.

What leaves me wanting is the sense of connection and real struggle the show intends to reflect. This Rent is almost too perfect, even while it is understood that theater is necessarily hyper-real in its artistic interpretation of time, place, and fashion. The characters look too comfortable, things come too easy -- I was hoping for more gratitude and relief at the sight of money and food. The show is beautiful and compelling, with characters that truly captivate my attention, but it all feels a little shallow, taking me out of the moment at times. 

Rent, running at the fabulous Fox Theatre through May 21, 2017, is a fitting update on classic themes and a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater with a story that touches the heart and songs that will likely have you humming for several days to come. The characters feel real and it's easy to imagine the battles and choices they face, creating a show that naturally compels you to pay attention.

 

 

With gun incidents at schools and other public places seeming on the rise, and receiving non-stop media attention, we live in a United States that's wary of the potential for violence. But how much should a teacher of creative subjects intervene in the free expression of their students? And at what point does a student's writing crossover from imaginative fiction to thinly veiled threats worthy of alarm? Tesseract Theatre Company addresses this weighty subject in their provocative production of Michael Erickson's Honor Student, a pre-publication premier. 

Professor Naomi Orozoco-Wallace is the popular teacher of a creative writing course at a liberal arts college, and deep in an affair with the dean of her discipline. Jason Kemp, an honor student at the school, strikes a chord of fear and misgiving when he reads a violent work of fiction that seems to target the professor and specific students in the class. She raises her concerns with the dean and asks for the student to be expelled or at the very least removed from her class. The student protests that he is being treated unfairly and the dean, in an attempt to reach a compromise, has the student sign a behavioral contract. The professor is still upset, visibly frightened, and having nightmares; the student protests and takes steps to challenge the dean's decision, as well as insinuating amorous foul play on multiple fronts. The situation is all too real and the moral and ethical territory all too grey.

Christina Rios and Bradley Rohlf are well cast as the professor and student, reacting to each other with the intensity of an unrelenting conflict. Rios is terrified and increasingly distracted and disturbed by the suggestive story; Rohlf is increasingly emboldened and confident as the student. Rios' thoughts and actions become scattered and frenetic as she weighs the merits of the student's assertion, the fear in her voice draining the color from her face. Rohlf moves with a growing swagger, seeming to delight in the discomfort both the professor and dean feel. There's a brazen and menacing demeanor to his character and he clearly blurs the lines between fact and fiction, but is he really a threat or are we simply seeing him through his professor's perspective?

Taylor Gruenloh and Michelle Dillard provide strong support as competing deans Davis Herring and Donna Hellinger, with Gruenloh pulling double duty as the show's director and spineless lothario. Gruenloh feels trapped by multiple situations in his life and is clearly hesitant to act unless forced. Dillard is the prototypical administrator looking out for the school's interest. But she's not unkind or rash, and clearly trying to put personal judgment aside. There's an interesting subplot regarding a provost position, and Dillard's character is surprisingly sympathetic to the professor when we least expect it. 

Tesseract also steps up their production values, naturally benefitting from their residence in the .Zack Arts Incubator. The set is sparse, but believably academic and appropriate for the theater space. The sound design is striking and moody, conveying an expectation of conflict that amps up during each subsequent development. My one quibble with the production is that Rios' character begins the show at such a heightened and agitated level that it limits her character's emotional arc. Rios turns in an authentic, sometimes brutally honest performance that is genuine and thoroughly compelling, I only wish she had more emotional space in which to work.

Honor Student, running through May 28, 2017 at Tesseract Theatre Company, is an engrossing contemporary drama. The well-constructed script is interesting, if at times overly transparent in character and plot, as it examines the grey area between creative expression and content worthy of concern and alert. Strong performances and straightforward storytelling ensure the questions are clear, though a definitive answer remains elusive. 

How good is Opera Theatre's new production of Puccini's 1904 "Japanese Tragedy" Madame Butterfly? It's so good that it allowed me to forget, for nearly all of its two-and-one-half hour length, why I dislike this opera in the first place. Artistically and technically, this is such a superb piece of work that even an old Butterfly curmudgeon like yours truly got swept up in the tragedy.

My issues with the opera itself are mostly about the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on a play by David Belasco. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as the prototypical Ugly American. Arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic, he's Donald Trump in dress whites. On the other hand, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) displays, as written, a degree of naiveté which, despite her youth (she's supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional. As a result, this tragedy about two people who, as OTSL General Director Timothy O'Leary notes in a video blog, "are deeply in love but deeply misunderstand each other" has always struck me as a bit forced.

Still, even I get a bit choked up in the opera's final pages, especially when the production is this good. From the scene in which the abandoned Butterfly prepares to take her own life after a tearful farewell to the son she has conceived by Pinkerton (and which poverty now obliges her to give up to Pinkerton and his American wife) to the final moment when Pinkerton, unable to deny what he has done, collapses in a heap of grief and guilt over Cio-Cio-San's body, it's pathos all the way, folks. This is Puccini, after all. And for me, at least, the emotional pull of his music is what raises Butterfly above the level of sordid melodrama. 

And, of course, the moral issues it raises about power and principle are as valid now as they were over a century ago, both on the personal and national levels. It also helps that the English translation by long-time OTSL stalwarts Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham seems to give Pinkerton a bit more depth than others I have seen.

 

OTSL has assembled a fantastic cast. Soprano Rena Harms, who recently played Cio-Cio-San with the English National Opera, turns in a stunner of a performance here, forcefully sung throughout her range and acted with real conviction. She makes the character's tricky mix of vulnerability and backbone completely credible and fully commands the stage at all times.

 

Tenor Michael Brandenburg is an equally impressive Pinkerton, all smug bravado in the first act, crushing remorse at the end of the second. Like Ms. Harms, he has a truly spectacular voice, especially when combined with hers. Their long love duet at the conclusion of the first act was pure musical ecstasy. Even I was enthralled.

 

Baritone Christopher Magiera, who has done such fine work with OTSL in the past, once again delivers the goods as the American consul Sharpless, who tries, without success, to get Pinkerton to see the tragedy he will set in motion and to befriend the poverty-stricken Cio-Cio-San. It's a sympathetic portrayal, sung with genuine warmth and power. Ditto mezzo Renée Rapier in the small but important role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's wise and long-suffering maid.

Even the small roles get big, polished performances. That includes tenor John McVeigh in the mostly comic part of Goro, the marriage broker; baritone Benjamin Taylor as Prince Yamadori, who tries to woo the abandoned Cio-Cio-San; bass-baritone Matthew Stump as The Bonze, who excoriates Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity; and soprano Anush Avetisyan as Pinkerton's American wife Kate.

Both Ms. Avetisyan and Mr. Taylor are members of the company's Gerdine Young Artists program, by the way. The quality of their work here speaks very well for that undertaking.

In a long and very insightful program note, director Robin Guarino goes into considerable depth discussing the issues presented by Madame Butterfly for contemporary audiences. "The obstacle of stereotype is certainly ever-present," she notes, and goes on to discuss the work's "long history of controversy--from issues of sexism, racism, and imperialism in the story to the issue of casting in theater and opera, which both have historically employed problematic practices like yellowface minstrelsy and the playing of Asian characters by white performers in makeup and prosthetics." Her solution, which strikes me as very smart, is to largely ignore ethnicity altogether and concentrate instead on the long-standing OTSL practice of "casting artists based solely on musical, dramatic, and artistic expertise, rather than appearance." That could have been a trap of a different kind, but the high quality of the results speaks for itself. 

Ms. Guarino and her designers have also shown wisdom in not trying to impose some artificial or post-modernist visualization on the opera. Laura Jellinek's sets, which seem to have been created from origami paper, are wonderfully evocative of the kind of artificially Westernized vision of Japan that was no doubt in the minds of Puccini and his librettists, who were unhindered by any knowledge of the real thing. They contrast nicely with Candice Donnelly's scrupulously accurate costumes, which were based on historical research. "Many of the kimonos in our production were ordered directly from Kyoto," notes Ms. Guardino. They look lovely.

Under Cary John Franklin's direction, the OTSL chorus sounded as powerful and precise as always. And conductor Michael Christie led the St. Louis Symphony musicians in a flawlessly played account of Puccini's ravishing score.

What all this means is that if you, like the vast majority of opera lovers, are a fan of Madame Butterfly, you really owe it to yourself to see the Opera Theatre production. It's certainly the best one I have ever seen and a great way to start the new season. It runs through June 24 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton center in Webster Groves.

 

 

 

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