Bathed in cynicism and varying shades of blue, New Line Theatre's latest musical The Sweet Smell of Success is a stunning throwback to the days of noire cinema. The cautionary tale of power, greed, and the insatiable lust for gossip and publicity that fuels the paparazzi remains relevant to this day. The story is grim, and the life or death approach of the publicists, as smartly conveyed in the opening number, appears too over-the-top to be real. Until we realize that the tragic consequences align all too well with the news.

Sidney Falco, originally Falconi, is a struggling publicist just trying to get a mention in JJ Hunsecker's column. Hunsecker is popular -- with more than sixty million readers, we are often reminded -- and has no qualms about abusing the power of his popularity to stay on top. In a life-altering coincidence, Sidney unwittingly stumbles upon JJ's half-sister Susan and her would be fiancée Dallas, a piano player in a seedy jazz club.

When JJ takes a shine to Sidney, the kid feels he's got it made. Soon he's sporting a new suit and fedora, dining at the best clubs, seeing the top shows, and gathering new clients at every turn. There's a price to be paid for JJ's interest, however. JJ Hunsecker demands loyalty and unquestioned obedience. The fact is underscored in nearly every interaction he has, but none more forcibly and uncomfortably than his relationship with his much younger sister Susan. JJ assigns Sidney the task of helping him watch and control Susan, but she sees through the ruse. The result is a tense triangle whose sharp edges can be lethal.

Zachary Allen Farmer (no relation) is near perfection as the manipulative and controlling JJ Hunsecker, bringing likeability to a man who comfortably slides down the slippery slope. His impressive baritone to tenor range enables him to play on the dark side of character with texture and nuance. Hunsecker is a genuinely power hungry and self important man with little, if any, remaining true moral conscience, yet Farmer employs a light and stylized touch that removes stern moral judgment. 

Matt Pentecost is visibly conflicted as the ambitious to a fault Sidney Falco. His voice is rich and solid, with a heroic resonance, but his choices ensure he remains the anti-hero. As with Farmer and JJ, Pentecost ensures that we like Sidney, and it's always quite clear that Sidney has pangs of guilt regarding the ramifications of his actions. His final rendition of "At the Fountain" is emotionally compelling and satisfyingly expressive. 

Ann Hier and Sean Michael are thoroughly watchable as lovers Susan Hunsecker and Dallas Cochran, their soprano and tenor range sweetly complementary. They light up appropriately in each other's company and their voices are clear, bright, and perfectly tuned. Sarah Porter, as Sidney's girlfriend Rita, captures the audience with a hopeful, bluesy tune, and Kent Coffel, Kimi Short, and the ensemble capably add depth to the atmospheric musical. 

The technical aspects of The Sweet Smell of Success come together as strikingly on point as the cast. Rob Lippert's mid-modern set and lighting design in a blue-shaded palette is complemented by Sarah Porters period style costumes, each one finished with fabulous shoes. Directors Scott Miller, Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and musical director Jeffrey Richard Carter keep the show moving at a brisk pace. The songs are sharp and well executed as are the dances, choreographed by Taylor Pietz, referencing but not replicating the period, and luring us into the sordid story. "The Column," "I Could Get You in JJ," and "Dirt" shine among the ensemble pieces, while "I Cannot Hear the City," "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," and "At the Fountain" work nicely as ballads. 

The script and lyrics are somewhat dated, with abundant sexism and, to a lesser degree, racism dolled out in an offhanded, casual manner. While the assumption that every aspiring starlet is a woman of loose morals flitting from bed-to-bed is tiring, the attitude is relevant to the story. On the other hand, the racial slurs, however slight by some standards, are easily removed without changing the tone or intention of the related lines. Additionally, Carter expertly leads the band through the moody, tense score but some modulation may improve the sound balance on a few of the songs. 

The Sweet Smell of Success, running through June 24, 2017 at the Marcelle Theater, casts unflattering shadows on the underside of fame, but the musical is spectacular theater and visually gorgeous. The story is compelling and captivating, the performances are uniformly strong and harmonically on point, and attention to detail adds the finishing touch on New Line Theatre's entertaining production.

 

 

The American premiere of The Trial has opened at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This is a very major event in opera. Franz Kafka's nightmare tale of Joseph K, trapped in an enigmatic trial for his life, has fascinated readers since it appeared in 1925. Composer Philip Glass read the novel as a youth and even then he yearned to write an opera based on it. But Glass kept that idea "in his pocket" for sixty years. It was not until he received a commission from the Music Theatre Wales, the Royal Opera, Theatre Magdeburg and the Scottish Opera that Glass was able to fulfill that dream. The London premiere of The Trial opened in 2014.

Philip Glass is arguably the most influential composer of our era. He essentially invented the genre of minimalism -- yet he is so much more than that. (He prefers to describe himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures.") Forty years ago I was puzzled by his boring repetition. One of us (he or I) must have adjusted a bit over the years, because now I have recordings of Philip Glass music that I actually listen to on purpose. You hear his influence everywhere -- in films, in jazz, in popular music, in symphonies. His music is characterized by a murmuring gentle turmoil, a slowly evolving iteration, a continuous flurry of notes that repeat and repeat, but change ever-so subtly. It can be haunting, mesmerizing.

I was eager to see the meeting of this icon of modern music with Franz Kafka, an icon of 1920s expressionism. The mesmerizing Glass and the nightmarish Kafka! What a combination!

The innocent young Josef K is arrested early one morning. The charge? No one will tell him. We follow him for a year as he struggles to understand this bizarre, mysterious, all-powerful court system in which (as everyone knows) he is already guilty. One is reminded of the endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Dickens' Bleak House.

The cast is resplendent with wonderful voices. Now this is, for the singers, very difficult music. No hummable Puccini melodies here. Often the vocal line seems unrelated to -- or even in conflict with -- the orchestral music playing beneath it. But these are Olympic singers; they carry it off beautifully.

Baritone Theo Hoffman does heroic work with the central role of Josef K. His voice is strong and clear, his diction superb, and, as when he is rudely awakened at the start of the show, he can use vibrato to give a startling bleating quality. It's a fine, committed, athletic performance.

Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon play the guards who arrest Josef K. Physically they're a lovely match. With whitened faces and long dark coats they resemble clowns playing Keystone Kops. While one eats Josef's breakfast the other delights in the possibility of absconding with his clean underwear.  (Could this be a Kafka reference to the Roman guards casting dice for Christ's robe?)  In any event Blue and Mellon have remarkable vocal and comic gifts. Joshua Blue is equally convincing as Herr Block, a pathetic victim of lawyers, the law -- and women; he does an amazingly physical scampering joyful exit. Robert Mellon later does beautiful work as a priest who, in the evening's longest "aria," tells a puzzling parable to Josef.

Matthew Lau brings real power to his portrayals of Uncle Albert and the Inspector.

Susannah Biller, an OTSL favorite who showed gentility and nobility in Elixir of Love and Richard the Lionheart, now bares a quite different aspect. She's simply delicious as Fraülein Bürstner (with whom Josef shares a chaste delicate cartoon kiss) and as the limping nymphomaniac maid, Leni (who spends much of her time tumbling on the floor in sexual abandon with whatever male happens to be near).

Sofia Selowsky gives a fine voice and great variety to several smaller roles. Keith Phares makes Huld, the lawyer, the epitome of legalistic power and obfuscation, and Brenton Ryan makes a very dedicated flogger and gives a very bright and lively performance as the artist Titorelli.

The set and lighting, by Simon Banham and Christopher Akerlind respectively, are simple, flexible, agile: a bare gray wall with two doors, a high window and a hidden closet full of strangeness. It well serves the various scenes from the novel: bedrooms, court chambers, shabby attics, a cathedral. Furniture is spindly wrought-iron, and when beds and tables and chairs are randomly stacked up they cast striking shadows not unlike the works of Giacometti or Paul Klée. Throughout the performance actors are dramatically silhouetted against the rear wall, which lends a strong expressionist nightmare feeling. Costumes by Mr. Banham are a nice period blend of realism and cartoon. Great long scraggly beards add a weird touch.

Stage director Michael McCarthy is the founder and artistic director of Music Theatre Wales. He directed the London premiere of the work, and he manages this shape-changing cast and set beautifully. He stresses the dark comedy. Odd people pop in and out like cuckoos in a clock or like jacks-in-the-box -- to idly, gleefully watch the goings on.

Music director Carolyn Kuan leads her musicians most skillfully through this remarkable and complex score. Beautiful sound abounds.

But . . . Despite the wonderful cast, designers and musicians there was something missing. I was captured neither by the mesmeric music nor by the nightmarish story. Somehow the two just didn't bind. There are unaddressed problems:

  • Musically: The vocal line is almost all like recitative. Not lyrics, but dialogue; it's linear. Unlike the orchestral music which repeats and revolves and ponders a moment before subtly moving on, the singers tell their story in a straight line. There are no real melodies, no repeating musical figures, no opportunity to dwell on and return to and reinforce an emotion, a hope, a fear. For the most part the singers' music is barely related to the underlying orchestral score. Both are beautiful -- the nightmare and the mesmerism -- but in a way each distracts from our being engulfed by the other.
  • Dramatically: The libretto is very true to Kafka's novel. It simply tells the story. Had the plot been presented in a more fragmented, perhaps repetitive manner -- a manner that occasionally frustrates our expectations -- it might have been a better servant to Philip Glass.
  • Visually: Kafka's world is one of shabby tenements, airless attics and cluttered streets. If the production were even more grungy and claustrophobic, with even darker, ominous corners it might better portray Josef K's nightmare. 

Be all this as it may, Opera Theatre of St. Louis's fine production of The Trial is a remarkable contribution to modern American opera.  Philip Glass was present to share the thundering applause at the opening performance.

 

 

What a show! Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened The Grapes of Wrath, a work by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. I have never in my life been more emotionally moved by an opera than by this glorious production.

John Steinbeck's novel came out in 1939 and won the Pulitzer prize. It was made into a film in 1940. Steinbeck was given a Nobel Prize in 1962. In 1990 a stage adaptation of Grapes was produced. It's an American icon. Gordon's operatic adaptation premiered in 2007 and over the next few years it was produced in several "revised" or "modified" or "concert" versions. 

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned this newly "streamlined" version. It's in two-acts, has a cast of forty and runs nearly three hours, so the original three-act, four-hour work must have been epic indeed. Be that as it may this current version is a work of remarkable beauty and power.

And its story is, alas, startlingly relevant to the problems of the world today. Like the Joad family and the many thousands of "Okies" who shared their plight, the world is confronted with ongoing (or imminent) ecological and economic catastrophes. Had the government acted on the wise advice of science the Dust Bowl could have been prevented. Today those in power and authority seem similarly oblivious to both the ecological and economic advice of those who have learned the lessons of the past. "Pull out of the Paris accords and let the climate go to Hell! Deregulate the banks and make it easier for the 'haves' to further ravage the 'have nots'!" The river of migrants which Steinbeck draws in his novel is an echo of the flood of migrants struggling to escape poverty today. The Grapes of Wrath has lessons for us all.

The score of this opera is light on melody; there's nothing that you'll leave the theater whistling. But there is so much truly beautiful music! Ricky Ian Gordon is a very master of orchestration. The music is for the most part nicely tonal, but with powerful dissonances at moments of stress. It covers a wide spectrum: it can be folksy or jazzy or Broadway or modern and complex. It's very much at the level of Bernstein. There are quite lovely arias and duets, and the many choral passages are rich and wonderfully dramatic. At times many different vocal lines intertwine gorgeously. 

Michael Korie's libretto is natural and colloquial and very true to the time and place. It's also true to Steinbeck's subtle but pervasive Old Testament flavor, which comes clearly through in names, phrases, images and themes. 

All of the principal singers are given their wonderful moments. Katharine Goeldner splendidly fulfills the demanding central role of Ma Joad. She is impressively gifted -- both vocally and as an actress. She shines with her iron determination to hold the family together. Hers is the essential message of Steinbeck. In a repeated aria she ponders the question, "What is 'us'?" Is it simply blood relation, symbolized in the few small things that must not be left behind?" As the evening passes we see that definition of "us" expanding to embrace all of those suffering in the world. Preacher Casy says of Ma Joad, "There's a woman so great with love she scares you." 

Tobias Greenhalgh plays Tom, the son on parole from a manslaughter sentence. Greenhalgh, a strapping, handsome, earnest young man, gives Henry Fonda a run for his money, and he has a strong true baritone voice. Steinbeck would surely smile on this Tom as he sings that famous farewell to his mother:  "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there . . ."

Erstwhile preacher Casy, "a burnt-out Holy Roller," is sung by Geoffrey Agpalo. He has a truly wonderful, clear, strong tenor voice and very fine diction. He captures all the humor and wisdom of this, Steinbeck's Christ figure. (Why did I have a tiny wish that he looked more like John Caradine?)

Robert Orth sings the cantankerous Uncle John, who loves a little drink. From the beginning his is a commendable performance, but late in the evening Orth rises to wonderful and disturbing power in his aria "Dead Little Moses" as he consigns the stillborn infant to the swirling flood waters as a horrid message to the world about injustice and suffering. 

The stalwart Pa Joad is sung by baritone Levi Hernandez in another very strong and moving performance.

The pregnant young Rose of Sharon ("Rosasharn") is beautifully sung by Deanna Breiwick, who makes her engagingly innocent and vulnerable.

Hugh Russell sings Noah, the slow-witted son. As with Uncle John this is a role that really blossoms late in the evening, and Russell triumphs in what, for me, is the most inspired scene in the opera. In the novel Noah, sensing that he's a burden to the family, simply wanders off down the river. Here, though, in a style that leaves realism far behind, he clearly drowns -- blending himself with the river, moving slowly and beautifully in silhouette as the water engulfs him.

Jennifer Panara brings welcome bright humor to us in the cameo role of Mae, the truck-stop waitress. A fine job.

Excellent work is done by Michael Day as Tom's brother Al, Andrew Lovato as Rosasharn's husband Connie, Mary Ann McCormack as Granma, Dennis Petersen as Grandpa and by Hannah Dishman and Devin Best as the youngest Joad children.

The choral work, under Cary John Franklin, is sublime, and this opera is rich in beauties for the chorus! At the very top of the show there is a wonderfully evocative song wherein the dispossessed farmers remember "The Last Time There Was Rain." There's a jaunty chorus of used-car hucksters promising that every jalopy is "A Good Machine." There's the desperate optimism as the Okies head down "The Plenty Road." And at times -- when Noah drowns and when the box containing the dead baby is dispatched to the waters -- the chorus literally and most affectingly becomes the moving river. It's stunning!

Set designer Allen Moyer begins the story in the storefront Holy Ghost Gospel Mission. It's grim and dismal with crumbling plaster. Faded gospel slogans murmur from the walls. The place now serves as a soup kitchen. But we see its old wooden tables, the mismatched chairs and the battered upright piano gracefully rearranged to become a tractor, a truck, various platforms and camps, a highway full of migrants, a filthy and dehumanizing "Hooverville." All of this use is deft and lovely and so much more engaging than literal realism.

Costumer James Schuette dresses the cast with great care. He's faithful to the time, the place, the people. And his palette blends perfectly with that of the scene design. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind follows the story with a deft, warm and loving touch.

Stage director James Robinson does quite masterful work. His imaginative use of the set is fluid and effective, and in the less-realistic moments -- the river scenes and a stop-action fight and shooting -- he touches genius. But I was even more impressed with his handling of the chorus;  each individual is so real, so distinct, so invested in the scene. The folks coming into the soup kitchen show so subtly and convincingly that hesitancy of one approaching charity among strangers.

That deep emotional investment is apparent in every member of the cast. These are not only world-class singers but very fine actors indeed. Conductor Christopher Allen his St. Louis Symphony musicians do every honor to all the nuances, the vivid life, the complexities of this rich score. The Grapes of Wrath at Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a true wonder and runs through June 25.

 

Originally produced in 2005, and a perfect revival to close the company's 40th anniversary season, Crossin' Over is powerfully effective, seamlessly connected storytelling delivered through traditional and popular music. The story is the unique experience of Africans brought to America through the slave trade. Told through song rather than spoken dialogue, Crossin' Over is comprised of five musical suites and an accompanying opening melody which establishes the major themes. 

The show is anchored by the voices of Amber Rose, Herman L. Gordon, and Kelvin Roston, Jr., who provide the majority of the lead vocals. Rose has a voice that is effortlessly pure and augmented by an impressive range. Gordon and Roston, Jr. are an earthy, soulful complement to Rose's ethereal melodies, bringing rich, vibrant depth to their leads. Near perfect harmonies and additional solos from J. Samuel Davis, Michael Lowe, Leah Steward, and Maureen L. Williams add texture and variety. Featured dancer Venezia Manuel extends, articulates, and interprets the songs with the same emotional intensity and passion as the capable ensemble.

Each of the five suites presents an important transition in African American history: from freedom to bondage; from slavery to emancipation; from south to north; and from segregation to civil rights. The songs and choreography, a mix of traditional African and modern dance, create a fluid timeline that resonates with immense pride and deeply rooted traditions. The songs and dances move from suite to suite in concert with the major themes. Traditional African songs and dances open the show then adroitly transition, weaving in American gospel, blues, and popular music as well as modern dance reminiscent of Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.

The opening medley introduces the theme and the show begins its natural, seemingly organic, movement forward. The African Suite is filled with daily tasks and celebration. Manuel punctuates the songs with lively traditional dance and percussionists Donald Ray, Jackie Sharp, and Atum Jones join the cast on stage. Their taps, slaps, and beats resound in perfect synchronicity with Manuel's dances and the songs, or vice versa. Banners with African prints unfurl and Mark Wilson's lighting deftly draws and shifts our attention. 

This suite transitions abruptly to the Crossing Over in Slave Ships section of the "Captivity Suite," ending with the suggestive sway of the ocean and close ship hold quarters packed with people. The tension is high and filled with confusion, illness, and brutality. This section is intimately real and painful, and, though beautifully articulated, difficult to watch because it is such an effective reminder of how cruel humans can be in their treatment of each other. Fear, confusion, and concern are apparent on every actor's face. The second part of the suite, The Auction Block, features the unfurling of a slave auction advertisement, a striking visual emphasis of the history we're witnessing. 

The "Civil Rights Suite" is equally compelling and uncomfortable, though it offers glimmers of hope that humanity can change, a feeling that is underscored by the joyful and uplifting Contemporary Suite. Additional banners, part of the strong, but simple set design by Jim Burwinkel, provide context and are pointedly used by director Himes. At times the actors feel crowded and compressed in the space, at other times there's an expansive and unforgiving distance implied. The cumulative effect is cohesive, captivating storytelling that's visually and expressively stunning.

The songs reflect the era of the timeline, and the uniform strength of the ensemble, as well as contributions by each vocalist on almost every song, make it difficult to site a single stand out piece. "Crossin' Over," "No Way," "Kakilambe," "Motherless Child," "Lord How Come Me?" and the closing medley are memorable numbers from the first act. In the second act, "Blues Medley," "It's Gonna Rain/Didn't It Rain," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "Strange Fruit" and "Rise Up" stand out as spectacular and pleasingly textured renditions. In addition to the percussionists, musical director and keyboardist Charles Creath, bassist Willian "Rainey" Rainer, and drummer Jeffrey Booman Burks provide solid accompaniment.

Crossin' Over, in performance through June 18, 2017 at the Black Rep on the campus of Harris Stowe, is an evocative production. Ron Himes' curated musical features songs new and familiar, and Creath's arrangements make the most of each performer's voice, with leads Rose, Gordon, and Roston, Jr. setting a high standard. Layered storytelling engages multiple senses while the cast expertly conveys the unique experience of African American history with grace, power, and dignity.

 

 

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. 

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