As the first catalogs of Christmas made their way to our recycle bin last, Winter Opera opened an early Christmas present for opera lovers last weekend, October 28 and 30, with a production of Franz Lehár's durable 1905 comic operetta The Merry Widow. As bubbly as champagne and as bright as a Christmas tree, this charming and entertaining show was one of the company’s best.
If you've never seen it either on stage or in one of its many film incarnations, know that the story of The Merry Widow revolves around Hanna, a youngish widow from the fictional Balkan nation of Pontevedro, who became a millionaire when her much older husband died on their wedding night. Living the high life in Paris, she's actively courted by young men with their eyes on the twenty million franc prize, but she secretly yearns for her first love, Count Danilo, who was forbidden to marry her many years ago by his snobbish family.
Now a minor official in the Pontevedrian embassy trying to drown his torch for Hanna in champagne and grisettes at Maxim's, Danilo is ordered by the ambassador, Baron Zeta, to woo Hanna and marry her, thereby keeping her millions from leaving the country. But, of course, Danilo's pride won't let him say those "three little words" to Hanna. You know where this is all going, right?
There's also a subplot concerning Zeta's young wife Valencienne and her brief fling with a young Frenchman, Camille de Rosillon, as well as a recurring gag about the obsession of the embassy attache, Njegus, with the girls at Maxims. Needless to say, all ends happily with a big party.
First and foremost among this production's many virtues is the uniform strength of its cast. Winter Opera has been somewhat uneven in this regard in previous the past, but this time around everyone is simply perfect, beginning with soprano Kathy Pyeatt, who demonstrated how to “glitter and be gay” (or quote a song title from Candide in the crucial role of Hanna. Her voice was liquid gold all the way to the top of its range, making the popular second act aria “Vilja” a thing of beauty. She’s also a fine actress, always in character even when not in focus.
Tenor Clark Sturdevant was a perfect match for Ms. Pyeatt as Danilo. The role lies a bit low for most tenors and is not infrequently sung by a baritone with a solid head voice, but Mr. Sturdevant sounded entirely comfortable with it. He, too, had solid acting chops, which gave the scenes between him and Ms. Pyeatt a convincing reality.
Among the supporting cast, mezzo Holly Janz stood out as Valencienne. The role is written for a soprano but -- as both her singing here and a quick glance at her biography demonstrated -- Ms. Janz is comfortable with soprano roles as well. Tenor Jack Swanson was an excellent vocal match for her as Rosillon, and their scenes together had real charm.
Baritone Gary Moss was a comically clueless Baron Zeta. I'm not sure why he was the only Pontevedrian with a vaudeville "Balkan" accent, but he certainly made it work for him. Baritone Curtis Shoemake was also a delight as the excessively enthusiastic Njegus.
The chorus is important in Merry Widow, and Chorus Master Nancy Mayo can take pride in how well her forces did their jobs, singling clearly and with impressively precise elocution. It helped that the (uncredited) English translation sounded very natural, often making the English supertitles unnecessary.
Director Dean Anthony clearly has a good eye for what works well on a stage. His blocking always made sense and his pacing was unfailingly right. There's no choreographer credited in the program, but whoever it was (possibly Mr. Anthony himself?) did an excellent job of keeping the real dancers front and center in the second act party scene while providing easily executed steps for the non-dancing singers in big ensemble numbers. The minstrel show-style tambourine number for the male principals in "Girls, Girls, Girls" was also an inspired (and well executed) bit of comedy.
Scott Schoonover did his usually fine job conducing the orchestra in a generally very well played reading of Lehár's unforgettable score. There were a few bits of sloppy brass intonation at the very beginning when I saw the show on Sunday, but otherwise the band sounded quite good. However, I wish Mr. Schoonover hadn't decided to cut the engaging overture.
Scott Loebl's sets were nothing short of beautiful, with a wonderful trompe e'loeil backdrop for the Pontevedrian embassy that looked positively three dimensional. JC Krajicek's lavish and colorful costumes added to the overall visual richness of this production.
Ultimately, the worst thing to be said about Winter Opera's Merry Widow is that there were only two performances of it. If Winter Opera is going to continue producing work of this quality, it really needs longer runs. For more information on the current season, including the annual Holidays on the Hill concerts on December 6 and 7.
For what seems like the first third of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Terrence McNally's evocatively powerful Mothers and Sons, the audience understands Katherine only as we see her: with her back to us. A tall, imposing figure, with perfect posture and an even better head of perfectly coiffed white hair, her voice is crisp and articulate. And she is filled with disdain and barely controlled anger. It is an incomplete picture that nonetheless speaks volumes.
In Mothers and Sons, McNally revisits two characters first introduced in his short play Andre's Mother with quiet tension and emotional pull. Twenty years have passed since Andre died from an AIDS-related illness. Katherine, who buried her son, and Cal, who lost the first love of his life, have not communicated with each other since the funeral. Yet, for reasons not initially clear, they have reunited today in Cal's apartment.
There's a nervous energy that fills the room, most of it emanating from Cal as he paces back and forth, chattering in the pretense of polite conversation. He and his husband have a young son and a successful, happy family life. So Cal has moved forward, but he has not completely forgiven Andre. Katherine has not moved nor forgotten nor forgiven.
She stands at the window, regal and still, occasionally looking out, peering down on familiar New York landmarks her son loved. Without turning to the room, Katherine provides crisp, curt answers to Cal's prodding questions. He wants to ask her why the hell she's here, stirring up memories and feelings from the past, and what the hell she wants. Katherine wants to know, once and for all, who killed her son. And then, she'd like to destroy him.
Darrie Lawrence gives Katherine, a woman with a sharp tongue and quick judgment, an icy perfection. Cal, played with empathy and guarded curiosity by Harry Bouvy, wants to resolve the tension, but isn't willing to go as far as accepting Katherine's version of the truth to do so. After several tense minutes of forced pleasantries and not so veiled insinuations, Cal's husband Will, a warm and earnest but savvy Michael Keyloun, and young son Bud, a charmingly restrained and articulate Simon Desilets, return home.
Bud is filled with curiosity and the intuitive acceptance of a child. He quickly invites Katherine to be his grandmother. The reaction by the adults in the room to this kind and innocent gift is electric and immediate. This is, in fact, the turning point to the play, setting up a precariously balanced resolution that may bring a tear to your eye. But there is considerable revelation, accusation, and begrudged forgiveness to fight through to reach that point.
Set in the round, with a thoughtful modern design by James Wolk, none of the actors can ever completely hide from view, and every reaction is telling. The clean lines and décor create an atmosphere where tension can easily bounce and increase, but director Michael Evan Haney ensures the resolution is gentle, more waterfall than torrent. Smart blocking as well as focused lighting and sound, by John Wylie and Amanda Were, respectively, effectively set the tone and shift focus. The contemporary costumes, by Elizabeth Eisloeffel, reflect personality and perspective, adding an impressive finishing touch that wraps the show well.
Director Haney has provided the actors a solid character core on which to layer their veils of pain, anger, betrayal, sadness, grief, stubbornness, and so much love. The action is motivated by the need for Katherine and Cal to forgive each other and, perhaps most importantly, to forgive Andre so that they can both move on. As importantly, Katherine's rigid character is the shell around a vulnerable, lonely woman who desperately needs to find a connection with someone. Through their shared love for Andre, de facto, Cal is her remaining family. The beauty of McNally's script and Haney's well-executed interpretation is that we are shown the impact of LGBTQ issues relevant to our lives through a well-focused story of much needed redemption. Aspiring playwrights would do well to study McNally's script as exemplary in craftsmanship, style, and storytelling.
Katherine's hurt and anger are heartfelt and palpable, but she must accept the fact that neither she nor Cal can change the past. And no one person is to blame for Andre's death, or the deaths of a generation of young, gay men. The show is exquisitely sad and wrenchingly human. In many ways, Will and Bud are essential elements of hope, forgiveness, and moving forward for both characters, and the delicate unwrapping of this revelation is touching and sweet, without feeling coy or manipulated.
Someone once said that a parent burying their child goes against the laws of nature. As Will quietly but forcefully points out, that feeling is magnified when an entire generation and community is nearly lost years before their time. Mothers and Sons, running through November 13, 2016 at the Rep, is presented in the round, creating an intimate, personal setting for a story that speaks volumes on life's fragile nature. Beautifully acted and directed, by Michael Evan Haney, the show resonates with warm-hearted tenderness.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis was host for an encore performance of the Every 28 Hours Plays project, a collection of 64 approximately one-minute plays that confront the multitude of questions surrounding the frequent and violent deaths of young black men in our communities. Throughout the 90-minute show, we hear from mothers, friends, families, and black men of all ages; we also hear critical perspectives, skepticism, and statistics. So many grim statistics.
The curation of two dance pieces and 64 plays submitted by playwrights from across the country (including several from the St. Louis area) is well-informed, articulating multiple perspectives and thematically connecting the nine participating groups' pieces. Each representative company or group conveys a distinct focus for the their selection of plays. In addition to casting, the directors show clear intention with the interpretation and pacing of plays, and though the experience of each group is apparent, the performances are generally well motivated and delivered.
The multi-part show took place on the same stage as the Rep's current original production, Until the Flood. Dael Orlandersmith's evocative and lingering one-woman show presents eight sharply written monologues and a spoken word piece reflecting varying perspectives on the death of Mike Brown, one of the many young black men named in the project. Adding impact to the shared location, the Every 28 Hours Plays stage was encircled by the stunning memorial created for Orlandersmith's show.
A collaborative effort, the Every 28 Hours Plays project was initiated in St. Louis and curated by The One-Minute Play Festival and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The current version, locally produced by Adam Flores, Joan Lipkin, Carl Overly, Jr., and Jacqueline Thompson, is, frankly, overwhelming to the senses. There are so many perspectives, and painful points so succinctly phrased that you want to reflect on the moment. But you can't, because you're quickly into another equally effective scene. Not so much so that you can't follow along, but with a cumulative impact of prodding the audience to answer the overarching question: are we going to actually/finally do something about this?
One of the most effective plays is the finale, "Unknown Thousands," by Nikkole Salter. The piece is one of many that remind us of the long history of racial tension and injustice in America. The tone and message is not accusatory so much as a call for empathy and common purpose. By the last line, Overly stands tall and resolute. A solitary silhouette speaking name after familiar name as the ensemble, undulating in rhythmic, murmured recitation, comes to stillness and silence. Though somber, it is hopeful, reminding us that as long as one voice is speaking, if they can get just one person to listen, change is possible.
The collaborative effort unites The Rep, under the direction of Seth Gordon assisted by Gio Bakunawa; a fluid and striking modern dance ensemble; Mustard Seed theatre, directed by Michelle Dillard and Deanna Jent; a student group directed by Carl Uding and Merlin Bell; That Uppity Theatre Company, directed by Joan Lipkin; Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, directed by Rachel Tibbetts; Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, directed by Kristen Rion; Community Voices, directed by Jacqueline Thompson; and The Black Rep, with director Ron Himes leading all 50 actors in the truly moving finale.
The Every 28 Hours Plays project is neither comforting nor easy to watch, but it is an important contribution to a larger conversation, enhanced by the multiple forms of feedback encouraged by the creators and producers. The project will likely garner negative reactions from some, almost every production that successfully presents a point-of-view on a controversial subject does. Nonetheless, the show, which artfully explores contemporary challenges through articulate probing and response, is well written and performed. Audiences interested in contemporary, socially relevant theater will appreciate the well-constructed collaboration and some may be moved to continue the conversation.
It was a brand new neighborhood for us -- a few blocks of vibrant redevelopment on Locust just a little east of Grand Center. We sensed the energy of the place as we neared the theater. The Satori is a small neat performance space with a very professional feel to it. We'd come to see a play called I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard produced by director Tom Martin's Blue Rose Stage Collective. This play blew us away! In the role of David, a Pulitzer-winning playwright, Michael James Reed gives a truly bravura performance -- one of the most wonderful I've ever seen. He's beautifully supported by Taylor Steward, who plays his daughter, Ella, an aspiring actress.
Father and daughter are awaiting the reviews of a production of The Seagull. Ella had desperately wanted to play Nina, the central role, but she'd been cast in the lesser role of Masha. What's more the review, when it comes, raves about Nina, while Ella's name is mentioned only in parentheses -- which is hardly better than no mention at all.
For the major part of the evening the play is nearly a monologue by David as he harries and berates and encourages and frightens and praises and shames and loves and humiliates his daughter -- and gets drunk and high with her. This is a deeply damaged and co-dependent relationship. David has dark demons in him that have made him a great playwright and a lousy father. And he seems intent on passing those demons on to Ella. Ella is desperate to make her father proud of her.
Now I tend to avoid plays about dysfunctional families -- they're too easy and they often say little about the general human condition. And I really don't need another self-obsessed play about the agonies of a young actor or writer desperate for celebrity. But this play (which sits across both of those genres) utterly gripped me. Just how far will a daughter go to gain the love of an emotionally abusive father? And how far will a father go to force his own life decisions onto his daughter?
David drenches the girl with advice about how to succeed, with rationalizations about why she didn't get that role, with the oft-told tale of his own troubled apprenticeship to a great playwright. "Be like me! Be like me!" is really what he's saying. But finally Ella can stand no more; she leaves.
Five years pass, and we meet the new Ella. Like so many unemployed young actresses she has written and produced a one-woman show for herself. It's autobiographical; it capitalizes on her tortured relationship with her father, and it's a hit. But, personally, she has internalized the worst aspects of her father -- and many of his phrases. Then we meet the new David. It's an astonishing transformation. I won't spoil it by giving details, but it is both bizarre and beautiful, poetic and profoundly believable, and Michael Reed handles it so masterfully. It's a real coup de théâtre.
The playwright is Halley Feiffer, the daughter of Jules Feiffer, who had his own apprenticeship to the great cartoonist Will Eisner. So perhaps daughter Halley is, with this play, acting out her own version of Ella. Who knows? In any case, it's a terrific accomplishment. I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard runs at the Satori through November 6.
Three 5 Productions premier of Joe Alway-Baker and Bart Baker's Famalee introduces audiences to the Carter-Medina family. The large family is centered on dads Peter and Raul and son Christopher. The three represent a new, less conventional family, but they are not unfamiliar to most audiences. Though flawed, the show is filled with interesting characters and tells a heartwarming story that's a welcome addition to the collective human tapestry.
The three live together in a large, comfortable house with Raul's younger brother Luis and, eventually, Peter's mother Emma. Sister Sandy, Maria the nanny, and a host of other close friends and family are frequent guests, suggesting that the family is part of a relatively supportive community. The dad's have been a couple for years, and adopted Chris as an infant, and they are now finally getting legally married.
The show opens on the happy occasion of the couple's wedding, but Famalee soon introduces conflict. There's a death, Emma's age-related needs, and a biological father who reappears to assert his parental rights. Frankly, there's a lot going on in this show and, while the story is interesting, it's almost overwhelming. Director Natasha Toro does an admirable job wrangling and weaving the various elements of the story together, but some judicious editing and a limited focus that delves deeper into the sub-context and characters will significantly improve the script.
There are a number of poignant and moving moments in the show, and the talented cast successfully conveys the love and warmth of family throughout. Choices are made that show a genuine concern for Chris, the son, as well as a growing respect and affection between Emma, Raul, Luis, and even the estranged biological father.
Joe Always-Baker and Clayton Bury have an easy chemistry that suggests long-term love, and William Strelinger shows strong acting instincts as Chris, though he should continue working to find his emotion rather than manufacturing it. Donna Weinsting is not always sympathetic as Emma, but she comes around as the character's better nature is teased out. Showing characteristic sass, Emma gets some of the best one-liners but also shows tenderness and slow but significant change. Weinsting is careful not to overplay the grandmother's prejudice or redemption, a smart choice by the actor and director.
The supporting cast is capable and present in every scene. Richard Louis Ulrich adds comedy and a light tone to his portrayal as the lothario uncle, he's friendly and likeable in the role and his interactions with Chris are playful. Leading actors like Paula Stoff Dean, Shannon Nara, and Ford Fanter add gravitas to the production and Chuck Winning, Elaina Creighton, John Reidy, Jeremy Thomas, Krystal Stevenson, Maritza Motto Gonzalez, Judi Jones, and Maya Kelch round out the pleasant ensemble.
Despite the capable and talented cast, the show doesn't altogether succeed. Famalee is a compelling story, with interesting characters, but it runs about 30 minutes too long. I question the need for the direct to the audience monologues, as they don't add valuable exposition or character exploration. Even Peter's comments work best when delivered in situation, though no one but the audience can hear him. Tighter focus, and perhaps some selective editing of the story, will also improve the flow and pacing of the show.
I want to see this play, but there's almost too much going on to allow for effective plot development, which will help the production standout. LGBT adoption is an important issue. Showing the struggles and celebrations is valuable, and the authors have approached their script with love and a genuine desire to tell the story. I encourage them to revisit their script and look with fresh eyes to pare and refine the good work they've started.
Reflecting "real life" in theater is always a tricky proposition. Theater is an art form that revolves around storytelling. In the theater, time is crystallized and moments can be examined from all side. Emotions, reactions, and intention are heightened, dialogue is sharpened, and focus and clarity are precise. But real life doesn't work that way, and calamities pile on and grief seems too hard to bear. Real life continues; the show will end after just two acts.
Three 5 Productions' world premier of Famalee, in production at the Ivory Theatre through October 30, 2016, is a welcome addition to the St. Louis theater community. Their initial production is a personal, semi-autobiographic tale of a somewhat unconventional yet increasingly familiar family. The script is every bit as imperfect as our lives and a thorough revisit is encouraged, but a strong cast and a positive and effective story ensure the production is both entertaining and thought provoking.