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. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The wonderful Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened its forty-second season with a deeply satisfying production of Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Opera Theatre has grown to be among the world's first rank of opera producers. Audiences and reviewers come from all across America and from five continents around the globe. This production of Butterfly is right up there with their best.

As every eighth-grader knows (or should know) Commodore Perry (attended by several gunboats) opened Japan to European trade in 1854. In the decades following, European arts became virtually drunk with the craze of "Japonisme." Japanese prints, woodblocks, watercolors, kimonos, fans, screens, etc. were wildly popular, and the great artists of Impressionism were, almost to a man, deeply influenced by Japanese art -- Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and especially van Gogh. 

Literature and drama were likewise affected: Madame Butterfly appeared in 1898 as a short story by John Luther Long; in 1900 the great American impresario David Belasco adapted it as a one-act play; and it became Puccini's opera in 1904. 

John Luther Long said of himself that he was "a sentimentalist and a feminist and proud of it." Of course the story would appeal to Puccini, the most sentimental of all composers of opera. Audiences are sentimental too, it seems, because Butterfly is the sixth most frequently produced opera in the world.

You know the story. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, of the USS Abraham Lincoln, is stationed in Nagasaki. Besmitten with a young geisha, he enters into a Japanese "temporary marriage" with her, never thinking of it as anything but a convenience. But the girl, Cio-cio-san (called "Butterfly"), is innocent and truly in love with Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously indeed--she even becomes a Christian. When Pinkerton's tour of duty ends and he returns to America, Butterfly -- impoverished and rejected by her family -- spends her days dreaming of his return. She also gives birth to his son--the image of his father. In earlier translations the boy is named "Trouble," but more recently he is called "Sorrow" (a wise choice given the wry double entendre of "Trouble"). Butterfly says that when Pinkerton returns the child's name will change to "Joy." 

Set designer Laura Jellinek and costumer Candace Donnelly give us quite the perfect visual world for Madame Butterfly. A small iconically Japanese house -- with sliding panels of paper and bamboo -- sits on a rocky hillside overlooking the sea. In a stroke of genius Ms. Jellinek constructs her hillside out of what seems to be miles of Japanese printed fabric -- or perhaps crumpled Origami paper -- dark gray with a small white pattern a million times repeated. The folds tumble down most beautifully. We breathe in this world and we are filled with that distinctively spare Japanese beauty.

Ms. Donnelly's costumes are beautiful and authentic. (The kimonos are indeed from Japan.) This authenticity drives deep: there are, surprisingly but appropriately, several layers of gown beneath the lovely kimono. And everything is true to period: the Japanese men wear Oriental gowns, but sometimes Western hats--a derby, a topper, a straw boater. Pinkerton's uniforms are precisely correct for the turn-of-the-century American navy officer--unfamiliarly unadorned, nary an epaulette. And Pinkerton's wife, Kate, is a simply striking image in a pristine white traveling suit. Quite wonderful.

What a glorious collection of voices! Soprano Rena Harms, as Butterfly, and tenor Michael Brandenburg, as Pinkerton, are a fine match, and they do glorious service to Puccini's gorgeous melodies. Their love duet, which closes Act One, is weepingly beautiful. Puccini makes it climb and climb -- rather like Wagner's "Liebestod" -- and these two twining voices sing it splendidly. 

At the opening of Act Two Butterfly sings to her servant, Suzuki, of her irrepressible faith in Pinkerton's return. "One fine day" (Un bel di) is the most famous aria in this opera--and perhaps in all of Puccini. It is certainly the one opera melody that I always find myself whistling. Miss Harms triumphs in it. It's a glory.

I do believe, though, that this Butterfly lacks just a pinch of the needed innocence. The girl is fifteen. Yes, she's been a geisha, but that merely means she sings and dances to please men; she is not a prostitute. She is called "dear little baby wife of mine, dear little orange blossom", "poor little creature," "that child, that pretty flower." Yet Miss Harms' eyes are sometimes knowing and flirtatious. But this is a tiny quibble. Her performance is superb.

Now Pinkerton is quite a cad. From the very beginning he views himself as the triumphant "collector"; like all good American sailors he must "capture the flower of every shore." He must possess this butterfly "even if her wings are broken." So it's hard to yield him any sympathy when, after three years, he comes with his new American wife to take Butterfly's child from her. But Pinkerton realizes the suffering he has so carelessly caused and Brandenburg so powerfully and dramatically pours out the sheer agony of his remorse that he quite wrenches sympathy from our hearts.

Others in the cast do exemplary work. Tenor John McVeigh sings Goro, the crafty marriage broker. He has the gift of crystal diction. He, alone in the cast, let me understand every word without once referring to the supertitles. 

Christopher Magiera is very strong as Sharpless, the American Consul. Sharpless is Pinkerton's Jimminy Cricket, warning him not to do wrong. At the end he hasn't the courage to give Butterfly the full bad news, and with Pinkerton he indulges in a little "I-told-you-so! I-told-you-so!" But Magiera fills the role with dignity and heart.

Renée Rapier brings a lovely rich mezzo to the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant. She makes Suzuki strong and loving, and her suffering as she helplessly observes the unfolding tragedy is heartbreaking.

The Bonze! What an entrance! At Butterfly's wedding her uncle, the Bonze, a priest, bursts in in a fury to curse his niece for having abandoned her religion. Bass-baritone Matthew Stump overwhelms the scene with power. A wonderful job.

Kate, Pinkerton's new wife, sings only eight or nine brief lines, but she is nevertheless an important figure in the drama. Anush Avetisyan is perfectly cast in this role. This Kate embodies the confident New American Woman. (By this time suffrage had been granted to women in four states.) Miss Avetisyan combines this confidence with kindness. Her voice is lovely, but I think that what makes hers a perfect performance is her mastery of that sadly lost art, the art of "carriage." She really knows how to wear that stunning white suit.

You'll want to steal young Master Sam Holder, who plays Sorrow. He's a beautiful treasure.

Stage director Robin Guarino manages her cast beautifully. There's careful, deft attention everywhere. There's only one scene where I felt a lack, but it is an important one. When Pinkerton's ship is sighted Butterfly calls for flowers. The libretto has her tell Suzuki to go to strip blossoms from the garden:

"Ev'ry flow'r, spare not any. Peaches, violets, jessamine. Ev'ry spray you find of gorse or grass or flow'ring tree."

Suzuki returns, embracing a bounty of flowers. Puccini gives the two ladies extended sublime flower music. They should slowly, gracefully, dreamily strew the blossoms about the stage. But in this production the director has Sorrow, the little boy, go to get the flowers. He fetches in a couple bags of flowers which are dumped unceremoniously--like yard trimmings--onto the floor. It's a decision that's hard to understand.

Chorus master Cary John Franklin and his singers merit much praise. The occasional off-stage chorus passages drift in softly, beautifully.

Conductor Michael Christie draws fine work from his orchestra, always supporting, never dominating the voices.

This is the first time I had seen Butterfly in English, and I learned a few things:

  • Pinkerton is really a cad. He boasts arrogantly and callously dismisses any concern for Butterfly. That's always been there, but somehow it's clearer in English.
  • The piece is strongly anti-imperialist. Indeed the blatant American references (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and the use of phrases from "The Star Spangled Banner" as a leitmotif for Pinkerton) make it almost anti-American.

But in English or Italian or Swedish or Swahili Madame Butterfly is filled with the most wonderfully lyrical music in all of opera. I would go to it if it were sung in Klingon! And the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production is simply superb. You'll love it! Madame Butterfly plays through June 24. 

 

 

 

 

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