New Line Theatre takes a boisterous swing at the legend of Lizzie Borden with Lizzie, a rock 'n' roll musical that's one part horror story, one part rock opera, and all riot grrrl fury. The all-female cast attacks the concept with zeal and the result is hard rocking storytelling that grabs you by the collar and doesn't let go until the final chord.

The story explores the murder of the well-to-do Borden patriarch and his second wife, Lizzie and her sister Emma's stepmother. The two were brutally attacked and killed in their own house one day and daughter Lizzie was eventually arrested, charged, and put on trial. A lack of evidence, contradictory stories, and sheer disbelief that a woman could commit such a vicious crime, coupled with Lizzie's ability to hire the best defense lawyers money could buy, contributed to her eventual acquittal.

Lizzie, filled with rage, rhythm, and sexuality, presumes that Lizzie, after strong insinuation from her sister Emma, committed the murders. The show lets the story unfold in bits and pieces that not only infer Lizzie's guilt, but her motivations.  Several scenes suggest the stepmother was greedy and plotting to disinherit the sisters. Songs reveal their father's incestuous fondness for his daughters. All the songs, like the story itself, are filled with a tension and uncertainty that is as hard hitting as the punk influenced melodies.

With a voice that easily turns from three-chord anger to the complex, multi-octave demands of a rock opera, Anna Skidis Vargas completely mesmerizes as Lizzie Borden. She moves fluidly between a showman, preening and growling like Freddy Mercury, to the gender-challenging virtuosity of the Wilson sisters and operatic range of Pat Benatar. All with the energy, disdain, and DIY FU attitude of early punk bands like The Runaways, Sex Pistols, and The Clash. Though the score offers the opportunity, the performance is all the work of Skidis Vargas and director Mike Dowdy-Windsor; the two truly bring this character to her peak. Skidis Vargas fills Lizzie with passion and dares us to join her in her rage. 

Marcy Wiegert, Larissa White, and Kimi Short are bold, commanding, and seething with repressed longings of their own. As big sister Emma, Wiegert is the perfect partner-in-crime. With flashing glances and vocal licks, Wiegert turns curse words into meaningful lyrics, bringing dark edges and frightening thoughts to light with a conspiratorial sneer. Short adds a touch of bluesy rock that reverberates from her core, as well as expressions that artfully emphasize the discomfort the audience sometimes feels. The details of the crime and family history are simply unpleasant, Short acknowledges that, as does White. As neighbor and suggestively close friend Alice, White teases and entices, sometimes genuine, sometimes calculating, without missing a note. She shows genuine pain as clearly as her need for self-preservation.

Together the four women fill the theater with their story in a way that simply demands to be heard. Dowdy-Windsor directs with attention to detail and purposeful clarity towards the emotional and contextual story. The lack of a listed choreographer is interesting. There are moments that could benefit from more structure, but the free spirited approach succeeds more often than not. Important scenes are accompanied by almost uncontrolled dance and well-controlled vocal gymnastics that heighten the tension and are quite satisfying.

The book and music, by the creative team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner, are decidedly modern and the show borrows liberally from both Broadway and rock 'n' roll. Concert like numbers are interspersed with short, meaningful scenes, revealing exposition, and aching ballads. Though the music is often loud, hard, and fast, it never overpowers or distracts, and does much to guide the show's deeply emotional tone. Musical director Sarah Nelson and the New Line Band add the perfect touch here, enhancing the more rebellious, angry influences.

Rob Lippert's set supports the Borden story and period, using varying levels and his lighting design to provide rock show ambience. The transitions are seamless, enhanced by character changes and emotional shifts that feel equally effortless. Sarah Porter's costumes are the perfect finishing touch, expertly marrying periods by capturing the gothic and Victorian details prevalent in punk and modern rock genres. The choice of pink to contrast the mostly black costumes is brilliantly feminine and fierce, emphasizing the sense of empowerment that is the sub-context of the story.

And the story is compelling. Questions about Lizzie Borden's guilt or innocence continue to fascinate the public. This version includes more cursing and sexuality than many, with material sourced from the available information, but is otherwise familiar. Countless dramas and "whodunit" shows have featured Borden's story. The musical gives it a life of its own, with a clearly modern and bold, unrepentantly murderous, perspective. 

Theatergoers who enjoy a driving beat, insistent melodies, and powerful vocals will find the show easy to embrace and a lot of fun to experience. From the haunting opening notes to the final anthemic rendition of "40 Whacks," New Line Theatre's Lizzie, in performance through October 21, grabs your attention and compels you to listen. 

 

 

The West End Player's Guild opens their 107th season with Lee Blessing's A Walk in the Woods. The deceptively straightforward play, which premiered in 1988, introduces audiences to Andrey Bottvinnik, a Russian negotiator, and his newly appointed American counterpart, John Honeyman. The two men meet in Geneva, Switzerland over many months in an attempt to come to terms on a nuclear arms treaty that each will then present to their government's leadership. The story unfolds in a woody area where the two men walk, talk, and take refuge from the press.

The two bicker over matters large and small as they work to craft an agreement in a process layered with bureaucracy and stubborn tradition. The intentionally measured pace of the show reminds us of the high stakes behind the gamesmanship, the purposeful manipulation and political maneuvering. The setting in the woods reminds us of the essential humanity of Bottvinnik and Honeyman. They may work for opposing governments, but they are simply two men facing the Herculean task of preventing global nuclear obliteration. 

Tom Moore, and Tim Naegelin are well cast and each man comports himself with appropriate gravitas in his role. Moore's Bottvinnik is slight, impeccably dressed, and a bit weary after years spent repeating the same process with little forward progress. He expresses himself in big ideas and small, particular movements, and has a humorous fondness for quality. Naegelin's Honeyman is new to the position and eager to prove himself despite his lack of experience. He is serious and on task, determined to succeed where others have failed, and it's surprising when he's finally pressed to the point of losing his patience. His posture is upright, often stiff, and he often looks like he'd rather be somewhere else, somewhere more industrious. Bottvinnik is less interested in hammering out details, his familiarity with the process providing him the benefit of knowing the likely outcome before his first meeting with Honeyman.

Director Renee Sevier-Monsey guides the show with purpose and clear intention, and the actors turn in strong performances. Jacob Winslow's set is gorgeous, transforming the basement theater into a secluded wooded spot not too far, but away from the fluorescent lights, negotiating tables, and reporters. The setting suits the conversational, character driven nature of the script and is complemented by the simple but effective light and sound design. I do wish that the costumer or stage manager would give Honeyman a handkerchief of some sort, as the lights and his layered costume add to the warmth in the room causing a bit of sweat at times.

The problem with the show is that it's almost too personal, and too real. The reality of the situation, the tedious back-and-forth that never ends, belies the serious nature of the work. The men eventually soften and lose some of their initial formality, but they don't fundamentally change. It becomes easy for audience members to tune out for a bit -- perhaps missing some well-crafted and subtly pointed dialogue that should spur us to demand action. Bottvinnik may be too comfortable with a sword hanging over his head; Honeyman may be too focused on the sword. There's tension here, but without any urgency the story languishes, has nowhere to go. That of course, may be the point.

A show this cerebral, focused on the intricate workings of government, is almost too easy to overlook. There's a lovely back and forth to the conversation that belies the serious nature of the men's task, and while traditional dramatic action is scarce, it is impossible to forget that these two men are working to prevent the destruction of our planet. A Walk in the Woods, running through October 8, ultimately proves worthy of our attention, though it struggles at times to hold it. The West End Players' Guild production focuses on character while dramatizing serious commentary on nuclear proliferation and war. In today's political climate, the script seems disturbingly prescient and timely, with relevant themes and sharply pointed dialogue that could be lifted from the headlines. 

 

 

The name "Borgia" still carries with it the lingering scent of intrigue, conspiracy, assassins, poisonings, vengeance, corruption, the relentless drive for power . . . as well as the glorious flourishing of the Italian Renaissance. Winter Opera, in collaboration with Washington University, has presented a very fine world premiere of Borgia Infami, an ambitious and largely successful opera by Harold Blumenfeld (music) and Charles Kondek (libretto). Blumenfeld, who died in 2014, was a professor of music at Washington University for some thirty years. Now we have a chance to see his final work.

A Spanish family, the Borgias rose to great power in Italy during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The paterfamilias, Alfons, became Pope Calixtus III. His son, Rodrigo, was Pope Alexander VI. This opera deals with the most infamous members of the family: Rodrigo, his son Cesare (the prince whom Machiavelli famously advised) and Cesare's sister, Lucrezia (of poison ring fame). In addition there's a rather mysterious member of the family -- born secretly in the Papal Palace and called the Infans Romanus or, in this work, "Narciso."

Now, modern scholars tend to exonerate Lucrezia from being the diabolical poisoner that her enemies have portrayed for 400 years. But let's face it, that diabolical Lucrezia makes much better opera. Donizetti knew that, as shown in his 1833 opera about her. Victor Hugo displayed the same sensibility in his hyper-melodramatic tragedy which appeared in the same year. In this new opera, Borgia Infami, Lucrezia is tainted with those same old sins -- a little incest and the poisoning of a whole dinner party -- including (inadvertently) her own beloved bastard son. 

As has become standard practice with Winter Opera the voices and all technical aspects of the production are superb. And this production takes full advantage of the beautifully equipped Edison Theatre at Wash U. 

On stage we see a hall in a great museum in Rome. Three grand Renaissance paintings serve as background to all the scenes: On our left is Cesare Borgia, the epitome of the powerful prince; at the center we see a portrayal of the coronation of Pope Alexander VI; and to the right is a portrait of the beautiful Lucrezia. These paintings are most beautifully done. Moreover they are on scrims, so that from time to time, with a subtle change of light, we see the subject of a painting coming to life behind the transparent gauze. 

A tour guide is leading a group of American ladies through the exhibit and telling them the tale of the Borgias. We shift easily back and forth in time to see the tale enacted. The guide, by simply slipping on a doublet, becomes Narciso, the bastard son who is searching for his mother.

Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Anderson sings a most beautiful Lucrezia, and as an actress she powerfully conveys the fierce emotions of this embattled woman. Her "vengeance" aria is filled with blazing hatred, and her anguish at realizing she has poisoned her son is heart-breaking.

Rodrigo, the Pope, is sung by baritone Jacob Lassetter. He brings fine vocal power and great dignity to this prince of the Church.

Cesare Borgia is sung by Andrew Potter. With a wonderfully strong bass voice and a tall, commanding physical presence he is quite perfect for this role.

Tenor Anthony Heineman does excellent work as Savanarola, an enemy of the Borgias. (He is burned at the stake before our very eyes.) 

Among the many fine voices in this production I must single out tenor John Kaneklides for special praise. He sings the double role of the tour guide and Narciso. Kaneklides has a remarkably strong and clear voice, and his diction is astonishingly perfect. No need to glance at the supertitles when this man is singing.

Supporting roles are filled with corresponding strength. Zachary Devin, Jason Mallory, Joel Rogier, and Robert McNichols, Jr., play the Borgia enemies who die at Lucrezia's hand. (This, by the way, is the second "Lucezia" opera in which Mr. McNichols has appeared; last year he was the comic Chucho in Gateway Opera's little zarzuela about a different Lucrezia.)

The American tourists are commendably sung by Karen Kanakis, Leann Schuering and Victoria Menke.

A delightful children's chorus skips and breezes onto the scene from time to time, playing and teasing to brighten things just when it's most needed. They are Caroline Danforth, Quinn DiMartini, Julia Joseph, Ruby Krajicek, Madison Ruggeri and Brooke Tatum.

The music is a lovely mix of rather modern and distinctly classical. It's all serious, yet accessible. There are lovely duets and trios, and a beautiful sextet (or rather a quartet contending with a duet). There are quite luscious passages of almost Gregorian chant in Latin.

Charles Kondek gives us really fine lyrics--easy, natural, often witty, sometimes erudite. But there is, I think, something lacking in the plot of this opera. It's very difficult to present a drama with three central characters. We see Cesare hiring the assassination of his brother Giovanni (Juan) so that he can assume Giovanni's military honors. We see Rodrigo eager to establish an hereditary papacy. We see Lucrezia drawn into the intrigue, loving (and perhaps even lusting after) her bastard son. But there is little of a true dramatic arc to the story--one motive ineluctably driving the action.

The program indicates that this production is a "reduction" of the original. Certainly a dramatist (or composer) must be able to cut parts of his precious work to make it producible. A great artist must be able to cut really good parts. Perhaps the element I'm missing in this opera lies on the cutting room floor.

Gina Galati, whom we usually see singing an aria, is the stage director of this production and she does splendid work. Scott Schoonover again does fine work as conductor of this excellent orchestra. Scott Loebl designed the set, J.C. Krajicek costumed the production, and Natali Arco designed lighting; all have done quite beautiful work.

Borgia Infami played at the Edison Theatre at Washington University September 30 to October 1, 2017.

 

The fall theater season is in full swing on stages across town. This week's KDHX In Performance feature includes more shows than just anyone can see in a single weekend. As you're making your plans, you'll want to check for short run and one-weekend only performances that you don't want to miss, including a fundraiser featuring multiple local companies. 

T.L.T. Productions presents Chasing Waterfalls, a one-weekend only production running October 5-7 at the .ZACK. The musical revue caps the company's inaugural season and features R&B hits from the 1990s and early 2000s performed by company members. "This era of music is what millennial grew up listening to and are influenced by.' Producer and company founder Tre'von Griffith notes. "Our first season was geared to bringing our generation to art they can relate to and connect with. Hopefully this season we have sparked the love for the arts in a new community." Additional information can be found on the Kranzberg Arts Foundation website.

Upstream Theater presents Sweet Revenge, a sympathetic satire in performance through October 22 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. Considered the "finest Polish comedy ever written," the story, directed by Philip Boehm, is told from the perspective of an amateur St. Louis Polish immigrant theater troupe in the 1930s. Boehm's new translation, in verse, of the original story by Aleksander Fredro, is sharp and witty, poking fun at the human condition while emphasizing tolerance and empathy. Performed in English, with plenty of comic hijinks, the show employs comedy and commonality to convey its message.

The New Jewish Theatre presents the heartwarming story Tuesdays with Morrie, opening October 4 and continuing through October 22. The play is an adaptation of Mitch Albom's memoir about reconnecting with his professor, mentor and friend and saying goodbye. What begins as a visit to a former professor battling ALS turns into weekly lessons that explore a variety of topics and lead to Albom's discovering the meaning of life. Personal and intimate, the show is touching and deeply affective, with a healthy dose of humor.

St. Louis Shakespeare shakes things up a bit with the introduction of a new work to the canon: Cardenio: Shakespeare's Lost Play. Based on an episode involving a supporting character in Cervantes' Don Quixote, record but no copy of the original exists. The play is attributed to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and premiered in 1613, adding to the dramatic tension. The dramedy, running through October 15, 2017, is a re-imagination by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. St. Louis Shakespeare founder Donna Northcott directs and methinks a good time is on the boards.

Stray Dog Theatre presents Spring Awakening, in performance at Tower Grove Abbey Thursday through Saturday through October 21, with an additional performance Wednesday, October 18. The show, with an exhilarating score by Duncan Sheik, features a variety of adult themes and subject matter and is intended for mature audiences. 

A bold coming of age tale set among a deeply private religious community, the poignant musical explores the journey from adolescence to adulthood with a painfully realistic honesty that often belies the strict moral codes enforced by teachers and town leaders. The audience follows a group of teenage friends through important moments of self-discovery that's delivered with a rock and roll score that entertains and challenges the status quo. Justin Been directors the energetic show, with choreography from Sam Gaitsch and a cast overflowing with talent. The company has frequently sells out its performances early, so you'll want to make your reservations soon.

Finally, a number of local companies have banded together to present Acts for Houston: Artists Helping Artists. The cabaret-style benefit for employees of the Houston Theatre District will be held at the Grandel Theatre on Friday, October 6. The short performances are works of love from the actors, producers, and technicians in St. Louis to the affected theater community. Presenting companies include: The Rep, R-S Theatrics, Tesseract Theatre, Ashleyliane Dance Company, Charis, The Gateway Men's Chorus, Solid Lines Productions, and many others. Donations are accepted at the event and online.

Continuing this weekend: 

New Line Theatre amps up the gothic rage with the St. Louis premier of Lizzie, a rock opera running through October 21, 2017 that's loud, rude, and a bit nasty. The show is blistering and powerful, filled with a punk rock ethos and riot grrrl rage as well as an outstanding cast featuring Anna Skidis Vargas, Kimi Short, Larissa White, and Marcy Ann Wiegert. 

The West End Players' Guild revisits the cold war era of the late 1980s with Lee Blessing's acclaimed play A Walk in the Woods, in performance through October 8. In the show two negotiators, a Russian and an American, seek common ground, forming an unlikely and at times uneasy friendship of sorts as they work to prevent nuclear war.

St. Louis Actors' Studio taps into insanity and fear with Cory Finley's taut, psychologically probing play The Feast, in performance through October 8. The funny and sometimes disturbing play traces the impact on Matt and Anna's relationship when the sewers under their apartment begin speaking. Is Matt losing his mind or is his nightmare coming to life? 

STAGES St. Louis wraps up their season with the always crowd-pleasing South Pacific, continuing through October 8. The musical set in World War II is filled with engaging performances and memorable songs that helped solidify Rodgers and Hammerstein's work as the upper echelon of classic American musical theater.

 

St. Louis Actors' Studio opens their 11th season with a bold, intense production of St. Louis native Cory Finley's The Feast. The taut drama delves into our perception of reality, releasing deep fears that linger in the corners to come to light. Part psychological thriller, part personal madness, the show successfully builds tension by planting as much doubt in the audience's collective mind as it does the lead character's. 

Matt, a struggling artist, lives in an older apartment with his girlfriend Anna. The two live in different worlds, and Anna is feeling unnoticed and underappreciated by her increasingly distracted boyfriend. The strain, though initially undefined, is apparent from the opening scene, though Matt is unaware and consumed to distraction by the building's plumbing. In fact, Matt says he hears voices emanating from the bathroom toilet. Unbeknownst to him, Anna has called the plumber over to investigate their pipes. When the plumber first arrives, an embarrassed Matt downplays the incident -- until the plumber describes, in intimate detail, much more than what Matt told Anna. Or does he?

With the exception of Anna, everyone Matt encounters -- his therapist, a coworker of Anna's, his agent, even the plumber -- seems to know about the voices coming from the pipes and what Matt must do in response. As Matt describes his encounters, as he seems to get confirmation from the men he speaks with, his body tenses, his actions become more sporadic and intense, and his mental faculties at once more focused and less coherent. Are these conversations real or is Matt losing his sanity? Does Anna believe Matt, will she leave him, or does she have other, more nefarious ideas of her own? It is often difficult to discern the truth in The Feast, and frankly, that's part of the show's enjoyment.

Spencer Sickmann captivates as Matt, delving into layers of intellect, desire, inspiration, and insanity with realistic human inconsistency. He fully inhabits the change in Matt and his posture, mannerisms, and ticks evolve as the artist loses himself in his experience. Sickmann's Matt is not to be pitied, but there's a certain innocence, a genuine gullibility behind his confusion that is both disarming and a little disturbing. Are his worst fears also his deepest desires, as expressed through his most significant painting to date?

Jennifer Theby-Quinn is grounded in practical realism as Anna, it's easy to believe that everything's going to be ok, as long as she's around, even if perhaps that's not the truth. Her character is, in many ways, the most realistic, but there's an uncertainty, an air of duplicity that hints at potential danger. Is she helping Matt or contributing to his descent into madness? Is she manipulating Matt in some way or bravely standing by his side and trying to help him survive an experience she doesn't understand? Theby-Quinn creates a character so invested and believable that we only need to hear her voice in the dark to feel the fear and see the scene unfold.

Ryan Foizey is impressively versatile as The Man, effectively creating multiple characters with unique perspectives, expressions, and body language, and the three actors work off each other with naturally and believably. He glibly transitions not only from character to character, but from everyday dialogue to the more sinister and suggestive commands and insinuations of Matt's imagination. Foizey is fluid and seamless in these moments, effectively questioning Matt and drawing the audience in to the confusion.

Director John Pierson steers a talented cast down the path to insanity with a sure hand that resists overplaying the situation. The actors respond with nuanced, integrated performances and believable characters. Matt is clearly losing his grip on reality, but we can still relate to him. Anna is caring and concerned, but we can't fully trust her. The Man always speaks with confidence, but it's impossible to discern the truth from his tone. Even in the most surreal or untethered moments, the characters have a compelling authenticity and react in believable, if discomforting, ways. 

The show is precisely constructed and flows at an easy, natural pace while consistently building tension and the dialogue is crisp and purposeful, but the resolution leaves me a bit unsatisfied. The scene in the dark, with just Anna's voice, is so powerful and frighteningly real that it delivers the most potent punch of the show, in my opinion. To me, the concluding scene that follows, while startling, feels too calculated and contrived considering the shocking surprise it intends to deliver. Some audience members will certainly disagree and will likely find the ending twist to provide just the right jolt and scare they desire.

Playwright Cory Finley successfully mixes several genres in his sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, and always intriguing script, and the three actors are thoroughly committed and absolutely believable. Though I wasn't too surprised by the twists, I was quite entertained by the way The Feast, running through October 8, 2017, unfolds.

 

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