The Union Avenue Opera just gets better and better. As the opener for their twenty-third season they are presenting a simply splendid production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

As usual, the performance takes place in the nave of the Union Avenue Christian Church -- so this is one of the most intimate venues for opera that you're likely to find. 

As always, founder and music director Scott Schoonover has assembled a cast of superb voices. Among the many Union Avenue productions I've seen I don't recall a one where the quality of voices was more uniformly fine or more ideally chosen to fit perfectly one with another. 

Benjamin Britten wrote fourteen operas and Albert Herring is the only comic one of the lot. The tale, taken from a story by Guy de Maupassant, concerns a small Suffolk village, Loxford. It's 1900 and the leaders of the town are meeting to select the girl who will reign as their annual Queen of the May. The wealthy and domineering Lady Billows is the festival's benefactor, and she rigidly insists that the chosen girl must be pure as the driven snow. One after another Loxford maiden is suggested, but Miss Pike, Lady Billows' keen and dedicated housekeeper, keeps up on every juicy morsel of village gossip; she quickly discredits each candidate for some shameful indiscretion.

What's to be done? Is there not a single virgin in Loxford? Well, there is one. But he's male! Innocent young Albert Herring is truly virtue incarnate -- but only because he has grown up under the oppressive thumb of his widowed mother. Nevertheless he is virtuous. So why not a King of the May? 

Scenic designer Kyra Bishop once again makes wonderful, imaginative use of the small stage. The downstage area is used for Lady Billows' home and for the May Festival Luncheon. Upstage we have the Herring green-grocery store. It took me a while to realize that what I was looking at was in fact a huge apple crate. What an inspired device! During the evening there is a little play with apples -- a little theft, a chomp or two. It's a lovely motif, as this opera is itself like an apple -- tasty, happy, crisp. And, of course, an apple is the very emblem of a fall from innocence.

The incomparable Christine Brewer returns to the Union Avenue stage as Lady Billows (a role she previously performed at Santa Fe Opera). She's a marvel -- a gorgeous voice and a commanding stage presence.

Tenor David Walton sings Albert, and he captures all the frustration and shyness of this repressed innocent. Albert is chagrined at being chosen King of the May and we suffer with him as, dressed all in virginal white and with a crown of orange blossoms atop his straw boater, he fumblingly accepts the monetary prize. (In today's world this would be some $3,000.) Walton has the perfect voice for this role, and he's most impressive in Act 2, scene 2, which is almost completely his soliloquy. Alone in his shop, a little tipsy, he longs for some romance in his life. 

There's a cast of thirteen. There are no real arias and there is no chorus, as such, but frequently we have nine or ten voices singing together, each with its own vocal line. The result is a cornucopia -- or better a kaleidoscope of beautiful music. There is lovely complexity and counterpoint. When, in Act 3, the town wakes to find Albert missing -- and assumes that he is dead -- there is first a beautiful quartet and then a nine-voiced threnody of mourning -- each principal soaring out in a brief solo over an almost chanting collection of other voices. Most beautiful indeed. 

Nathaniel Buttram and Holly Janz sing Sid and Nancy who inspire Albert's envy at their open delight in the pleasures of love -- and who naughtily pour some rum into his lemonade at the festival luncheon. Both are bright and attractive and perfect for these roles. 

Debra Hillabrand as Miss Pike, Leann Schuering as the teacher, David Dillard as the vicar, Anthony Heineman as the mayor and Mark Freiman as the police superintendent all do splendid work. Mr. Freiman, with a bobby's helmet, a grand Victorian moustache and a beautiful comic swagger was another reason why I kept expecting someone to break out into a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.

Janara Kellerman sings the role of Albert's mother most beautifully, and Gina Malone and Victoria Botero are delightful and convincing as village children. (They look so small!) They are joined by a real kid, Seth Drake, in various mischief -- and in a charming singing lesson where Miss Schuering urges them to replace their dropped "H's." (Echoes of "The Rain in Spain.")

Stage director Tim Ocel, who has directed Doubt, The Queen of Spades and Rigoletto for Union Avenue, again shows sheer mastery of his art. Britten's music is programmatic in a very detailed way; a musical phrase will often correspond to a specific movement or gesture or to a children's game with a bouncing ball. Sid's whistling for his sweetheart is supported by an harmonic glissando on a violin. Mr. Ocel gives his actors just the right movement to embody such musical phrases.  

Costumer Teresa Doggett again brings pure perfection to the dressing of these folk, and David Levitt's lighting is gracefully supportive but unobtrusive.

All in all Albert Herring is another gem in the glittering wake of Union Avenue Opera. It continues through July 15.

 

Kids have such a wonderful ability to access magic and possibility, so there's something inherently life-affirming to watching theater created with them in mind. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her crew clearly get this. Her vision and choices for the MUNY's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid seem to spring forth from the mind of a very precocious child. When combined with the highest quality ensemble, fluid choreography, and an imaginative design, the result is delightful theater that the whole family can enjoy and children are likely to remember for years to come.

Disney's The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, the youngest daughter of Triton, king of the mer-people and ruler of the seas. Inquisitive and adventurous by nature, Ariel is enamored with the humans who live above the water and desperately wants to know more about them. Her constant companions Flounder the fish, Sebastian the crab, and Scuttle the seagull do their best to watch over the spirited mermaid, but she soon meets and falls in love with Prince Eric. A human. With legs. Aided by Triton's jealously wicked sister Ursula, Arial gets the opportunity to join the humans. But if she doesn't get the prince to fall in love with her in three days, she will lose her soul.

The synopsis is more frightening than the story itself, which is an underwater fairytale replete with fanciful sea animals, catchy songs, and the requisite happy ending. Nickelodeon star Emma Degerstedt is instantly appealing as Ariel. She's believably enchanting, with an ebullient spirit, and her voice, whether singing or speaking, has the bright anticipatory tone of youth. Her movements, except when she's learning to use her newfound legs, are gracefully fluid and expressively animated. Degerstedt laughs and smiles and seems to float across the stage, sharing her enthusiasm and telegraphing her hopes and emotions to the audience.

Degerstedt is matched in excellence by a strong supporting cast. Jason Gotay, as Prince Eric, has a rich midrange voice that pairs well with Degerstedt and his characterization matches hers in wide-eyed excitement. Jerry Dixon is powerful, with a rich deep voice and stern demeanor as King Triton, but he's clearly a softie who wears his heart on his sleeve. James T. Lane and Richard B. Watson show great comic timing as Sebastian and Grimsby, respectively, and Lane is captivating and fun on the lead vocals in "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." 

The irrepressibly delightful Spencer Jones steals a number of scenes as Flounder. His pleasing voice is much mightier and better developed than one would expect for his age, and is only belied by his character's eager nature. Kevin Zak and Will Porter slither and shine as Ursula's sea serpent henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam. They're perfect complements to the flawless Emily Skinner as Ursula, a capriciously evil role that Skinner clearly enjoys. She (and the perfectly synchronized teenagers who form her tentacles) is completely captivating as she schemes, cackles, and sings with wicked glee, and her every movement is a spectacle in itself.

The technical considerations for this show are a significant element of its success. Choreographer Josh Walden and music director Charlie Alterman complement Dodge's vision to near perfection, visually and audibly creating the suggestion of a world beyond the shore. Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc., with the help of costume designer Robin L. McGee and wig designer John Metzner, fill the expansive stage with visual interest that's in continuous motion, as it naturally would be in a world under the sea. The cast crew, and orchestra come together in complete harmony from the opening note to the final bow, and the plethora of colorful sea creature puppets are a kaleidoscopic delight. 

There are some minor disappointments in the show, however. The costumes are fabulous for the most part, but a few need more visual and character affirming details. The most prominent is Flounder's costume, which lacks oomph and falls a little flat compared to the others, though Jones adds plenty of personality. I also want Sebastian to look a tad more crustacean, perhaps with some antennae. Additionally, I expected shell tops on the mermaids; it's a small quibble that still seems important in my memory.  The use of the video walls is also a bit hit or miss for me. They enhance the feeling of being on or under water but also create confusion, particularly during Ursula's final scene. These are all little touches, however, and may reflect choices made to emphasize the idea of the show springing from the imagination of a child. They certainly don't diminish the quality or enjoyment of the production.

Much like Disney's original film, the MUNY's take on this classic tale is fantastic family theater that's filled with abundant heart and plenty of laughs. The story is visually compelling and delivered with a light touch, the songs are catchy, and the characters are realized in ways that resemble and amplify the animated version. In short, Disney's The Little Mermaid, in performance through June 29, 2017, springs to life with imagination and creativity that's sure to entertain.

 

 

Theatre Nuevo, a relatively young company on the block, continues to provoke audiences with its thoughtful exploration of what it means to be fully human. The six short plays introduce us to a variety of real people who are often relegated to labels filled with preconceived notions and prejudice. Each of the shows features well-developed scripts and actors fully invested in their scenes, creating an enjoyable evening of entertainment that may also lead to self-examination. I find this type of prodding from the company beneficial and entertaining, as well as fitting into the old adage that art is sometimes designed to make you uncomfortable, or at least more aware.

The six plays include:

A Comfortable Fit by Stephen Peirick, directed by Adam Flores, a short play that takes a closer look at what it really means to embrace and accept your identity. The beauty here is that the twists are not surprising, but still fresh and revelatory. The comedy-infused script, set in a shoe store, is funny and perceptive and features Julianne Bennett (Gwen), Elizabeth Van Pelt (Jennifer), and Omega Jones (Charlie).

Cleopatra Under Water by Georgina Escobar, directed by Natasha Toro, allows audiences to sit in on a girls' night out that's filled with insights on navigating the world as a woman. We may not all be so perceptive, but the situation is instantly familiar to anyone who has faced a night out as a single adult. Issues of contemporary feminism and the nature of friendship punctuate the quick clever script featuring Grace Langford (Becky), Erin Renée Roberts (Arlene), and Elizabeth Van Pelt (Charity).

La Reception by Carlos-Manuel, directed by Robert Ayllón, is a touching wedding story that feels instantly familiar to anyone who has felt the fear of rejection from family and close friends.  Told in a mix of English and Spanish, the story is easy to follow and engaging. The couple may be gay and Latinx, adding personal relevance and intimacy, but their story is universal in nature and features Isabel Garcia (Sonia), Jesse Muñoz (Raul), and Kelvin Urday (Enrique).

Ofélio by Joshua Inocéncio, directed by Rahamses Galvan, is the most intense and disturbing play of the evening, and it hits hard at the subject of sexual consent. Without getting preachy or judgmental, the show nonetheless takes a pointed look at important issues. Too many people share stories familiar enough to Ofélio's for it not to hit a nerve or two, and the actors, Tyson Cole (Grad Student), Kevin Corpuz (Ofélio), and Grace Langford (Doctor), approach the subject matter with sensitive honesty.

The Bullshit by Gregory Fenner, directed by Anna Skidis Vargas, is a searing script that unabashedly points out inconsistencies in the way people are treated based on looks or ethnicity. The short play drives its points home hard, but without anger, and the actress treated dismissively may at times surprise you with her reactions. The smart show features Chrissie Watkins (Jennifer), Clayton Bury (Simon), Tyson Cole (Morgan), Evan Fornachon (Robert), and Erin Renée Roberts (ASM)

The History of Mexicans in 10 Minutes by Alvaro Saar Rios, directed by Elizabeth Van Pelt, is as comically light as it is genuinely informative. In a quick ten minutes we learn that in the beginning there were no Mexicans. The factual assertion leads to a delightful compressed education delivered with enthusiasm and spirit by Rahamses Galvan (Player 1), Anna Skidis Vargas (Player 2), and Kelvin Urday (Narrator). The information is interesting, entertaining, and you may learn a thing or two just from listening.

Acronyms, like labels, badges, and icons, can be useful in their ability to quickly convey a concept or define shared understanding. Applied too liberally or used as a means of generalizing people -- particularly those you don't personally know or interact with -- is a dangerous and disingenuous practice. Theatre Nuevo mines this slippery slope in Acronyms, an evening of short plays running through June 17, 2017, that provide plenty of art for thought. The direction and performances are compelling, presenting realistic situations and authentic dialogue sharpened for the stage, and the scripts are satisfyingly compact and focused.

 

St. Louis theatergoers with a taste for twisted tales and things that go bump in the night have new cause to rejoice. With a smartly efficient approach and technical support, Theatre Lab helps bring Theatre Macabre's vision of horror-story-based theater to life. The company's inaugural production The Lieutenant of Inishmore is full-on horror and hilarity, delivered with a wink, a nod, and a pint or four of stage blood. Plus, the story is every bit as interesting as it is comically horrific.

The show is set during the active years of the IRA's campaign against Britain for control of Ireland. Padraic, an IRA lieutenant, takes to torture with the same eloquent style as Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, only funnier. He's so bent and violent, however, that even the IRA questions his methods. The organization is particularly riled by his anti-drug behavior. After all, they're making money hand over fist from kickbacks and protection fees. As a result, Padraic is being pursued by three former acquaintances that unwisely choose to use his cat and "one true friend," Thomas, to lure him home and into their trap. 

Padraic's father Donny, who's just as afraid of the man as anyone, and neighbor Davey try to make the best of the situation, but Donny eventually has to call Padraic and let him know something's wrong with Thomas. Donny interrupts Padraic in the midst of torturing a captured prisoner, saving the prisoner's life and causing Padraic to hurry home. Mairead, Davey's 16-year-old sister who happens to love the IRA, Padraic, and her own cat with equal devotion, eagerly pursues him. The resulting mix-ups and gruesome violence that follow Padraic's homecoming is hilariously funny and, in some deeply wrong way, absolutely satisfying. Even Mairead's ascendance, as menacing as it may be, will keep audiences laughing.

Charlie Barron and Larissa White are fiendishly fabulous as Padraic and Mairead. Their romance is quirky and their personalities violently exaggerated, ensuring the two are also completely engrossing. Barron creates numerous contradictions in Padraic and, in a way that's creepily believable, effortlessly shifts from one extreme emotion or reaction to the next. White is enthusiastically trigger happy, and a sharp shooter to boot. What Mairead may lack in finesse and feminine wiles she makes up for with eagerness and accuracy; White embraces the character's inconsistencies with gleeful abandon.

Chuck Brinkley, as Donny, and Mark Saunders, as Davey, are convincingly daft and slow on the uptake and comically illogical, but with a genuine likability. They are the accidental witnesses and nosy neighbors who know more than they should. Brinkley and Saunders find levels in these bumbling characters that keep us almost as interested in them as we are in Baron and White. Chuck Winning, Brock Russell, and Jake Blonstein blunder effectively as Padraic's IRA buddies, their verbal and physical humor reminiscent of "The Three Stooges." It's clear they too have good reason to fear Padraic's wrath. It's equally clear that they don't quite fully appreciate the finer qualities of Barron's sharply wrought mania. Finally, Jackson Harned is among the most cooperative and sympathetic drug dealers and torture victims you will ever meet.

The simple set, designed by Eric Kuhn, is realistically normal and hard scrapple, allowing for the addition of increasingly interesting props and set pieces. A seesaw, multiple cats (both stuffed and real), a number of dead bodies, and several bloody effects, designed by Valleri Dillard, demonstrate that Theatre Macabre has a clear vision and well-defined expectations for the live horror theater they intend to produce. Lighting designers Tony Anselmo and Kevin Bowman, sound designer Ted Drury, and costume designer Sarah Porter turn in solid work that enhances the story and humor.

Theatre Lab and Theatre Macabre team together well, ensuring the production, directed with efficiency by Nick Kelly, moves at a quick pace. The effects are perfectly timed and executed, and the humor shines darkly in the night. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, running through June 25, 2017, may not surprise you, per se, but if you enjoy horror and comedy, this show is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. The situations are just plausible enough and the violence is over-the-top gleeful, ensuring that lovers of macabre stories and horror films will likely have a devilishly delightful time. 

 

The MUNY opens its 99th season with a spectacular production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic rock take on the last days of Jesus. The songs are driving, memorable, and serve the storytelling exceptionally well. The performances, featuring Constantine Maroulis as Judas Iscariot, Bryce Ryness as Jesus of Nazareth, and an incomparable Ciara Renée as Mary Magdalene, are phenomenal. Emotionally driven and resonant, they easily read from the front of the stage to the back of the house without feeling overplayed. In short, the musical is a spectacular, crowd-pleasing open to a celebratory season.

Jesus Christ Superstar traces the growing popularity of Jesus, his persecution by the Caiaphas, Annas and other priests, his meeting with King Herod, and his eventual arrest, trial, and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate with help from Judas. The action covers a compressed period, keeping the focus tight while allowing for contextual incorporation of many of Jesus' teachings and parables. We're introduced to Judas as he first begins to question why he's following Jesus; to Mary Magdalene when Jesus saves her from stoning; to Simon Zealotes and the Pharisees when each challenges Jesus; and to Peter and the other apostles at the last supper, with each introduction complementing the accompanying lesson. Even Pontius Pilate is first introduced when he wakes from a puzzling dream about Jesus.

Though the show is about Jesus, the story is a twisted and intense triangle, as personified in the battle for Jesus approval and attention between Judas and Mary Magdalene. The plot structure is a constant tug of war with Jesus the serving as the rope, and the struggle to please everyone takes a noticeable and physical toll on him. Ryness, Maroulis, and Renée squeeze every ounce of passion, belief, and drama from the conflict, the sub-context reading as clearly as the biblical storyline. Their voices are clear and well intoned, and director Gordon Greenberg keeps the action and actors moving with equal purpose. You may have seen Jesus Christ Superstar before but it's rarely been played with such commitment to character and motivation.

Under the direction of Colin Welford, the orchestra starts the show with a ringing call to prayer that seamlessly transitions to the tense rock score. Maroulis quickly jumps in with the opening song "Heaven on Their Minds" which deftly incorporates the athletic modern choreography of Jon Rua. This sense of synchronicity continues throughout the show, directing focus. Even the ballads, though quiet and often poignant, are delivered with a sense of urgency, as if everyone on stage can feel the tension building with each step that Jesus takes.

Maroulis has a fabulous rock baritone voice with Broadway finesse, a trait also apparent in Ryness' Jesus, while Renée is perfection from the first note of "Everything's All Right" on. Her gentle, heartfelt "I Don't Know how to Love Him" is at once intimately small and close, but emotionally expansive, and the audience zeros in on the corner of the stage in almost reverent silence. Other musical highlights include the guitar intro and accompanying howl of Maroulis on "Damned for All Time," and Ryness takes on "The Temple" and "Gethsemane."

The Vegas-styled "King Herod's Song," featuring Christopher Sieber, and "Hosanna," "The Last Supper," and the titular "Superstar" are highlights from the ensemble. Nicholas Ward, Mykal Kilgore, Andrew Chappelle, and Ben Davis stand out among the supporting roles, and dance captain Brianna Mercado leads an impressively precise core. Frankly, every song is memorable and exceptionally performed keeping the energy and audience response high. 

The scenic design, by Paul Tate dePoo III and costumes by Tristan Raines artfully blend periods to support the visual and thematic approach. Jesus and his followers are in more traditional garb, while the Romans and Pharisees wear drab uniforms, some with red insignia embossed armbands. The landscape combines ancient stone structures with barbed wire and scaffolding as well as a massive video wall that shows just how closely Jesus is being watched. The lighting design by Nathan W. Scheuer, sound design by John Shivers and David Partridge, and aforementioned video design by Greg Emetaz complete the spectacular storytelling.

Having said that, I have a few minor quibbles with some of the choices made in this production. Jesus collapsing repeatedly into the arms of various followers, as if literally drained by the crowds' demands or other pressures, feels overdone. Perhaps at one key moment it may add dramatic punctuation, as is it weakens a strong, resolute, and aware Jesus, which seems unnecessary. Additionally, the suggestion of resurrection at the end of the show reads like an emotional device, diminishing the thematic intent of Jesus Christ Superstar. I so enjoy the production, the angle and storytelling, and the genuinely connected, exceptionally voiced, and fully engaged performances of Maroulis, Ryness, and Renée, I want the show to end with the same clear focus.

A majestic rock 'n' roll take on a familiar yet compelling story, Jesus Christ Superstar, running through June 19, 2017 at the MUNY in Forest Park, is arguably Rice and Webber's penultimate work. Strong direction from Greenberg and outstanding performances by Maroulis, Ryness, Renée, and the ensemble ensure the story resonates for audiences new and old.

 

 

Stay Involved on Social Media