Union Avenue Opera is bringing its season to an impressive close with the local premiere of Doubt, a not entirely successful musical adaptation by composer Douglas J. Cuomo and playwright John Patrick Shanley of the latter's 2004 play Doubt: A Parable and its 2008 film version.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Shanley's play is a masterful examination of the dangers of both moral certainty and ethical blindness. Set in a working-class Catholic church in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt chronicles the conflict between Father Brendan Flynn, a young progressive priest who has embraced the humanism of Vatican II, with Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an old school, steel-ruler-discipline nun. They are at odds not only with how strictly the church school should be run but also with what Sister Aloysius believes is Father Flynn's sexual abuse of young Donald Miller, the school's first black student. Caught between these two implacable foes is the young and idealistic Sister James, who respects both of them and who, unlike Sister Aloysius, is plagued with doubt.

In the opera all of these themes remain intact. But what was originally a taut, ninety-minute one act has been expanded into a full-length work running nearly two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission. Scenes have been added in the classrooms and the church and the original four-character cast has been expanded to include adult and children's choirs. As a result, the work loses a bit of dramatic steam in places and some of the additional scenes--most notably those set in the classroom--sometimes feel more like filler than anything else. 

Other additions, though, work exceptionally well. The powerful choral number that opens the work, for example, allows us to hear individual members of the congregation reacting to Father Flynn's parable on the unifying nature of doubt. The choral setting of Flynn's second act sermon on the evil of gossip is equally effective.

So on the whole, Doubt makes for a very compelling theatrical experience. And for that, Union Avenue's exemplary production can take a great deal of the credit.

As Sister Aloysius, local favorite Christine Brewer once again displays the vocal power and dramatic conviction that have characterized her work on local opera and concert stages for many years. The character must come across as a formidable figure who is nevertheless capable of compassion, and Ms. Brewer's portrayal is perfect on both counts.

Equally impressive is UAO veteran Elise Quagliata as the conflicted Sister James. She's a talented singer seems equally comfortable with both the standard repertoire and newer works. As she did in UAO's Dead Man Walking back in 2011, Ms. Quagliata demonstrates that her clear and fluid mezzo voice comes paired with solid acting skills.

Making his UAO debut, baritone Wes Mason makes Father Flynn a very credible and complex character. Is he villain, victim, or a bit of both? Shanley leaves the question hanging, and Mr. Mason's nuanced performance keeps the balance intact.

As Mrs. Miller, whose son Donald is at the center of the controversy, mezzo Melody Wilson turns in one of the most remarkable performances of the evening. The role is a small but vital one, and the scene in which Sister Aloysius tells her what she thinks she knows of the relationship between Donald and Father Flynn is an emotional high point of both the play and the opera. Mr. Cuomo has written an unforgivingly long a cappella passage for her towards the end of the scene that requires remarkable vocal control, and she delivers it beautifully. On opening night, her exit prompted spontaneous applause, despite the fact that Mr. Cuomo's seamless score tends to discourage that.

Speaking of Mr. Cuomo's music, its jazzy and astringent sounds neatly underscore the prose of Mr. Shanley's text, although there are times when it feels out of synch with the emotions expressed in that text. Mr. Cuomo also displays what felt to me like an excessive fondness for drawing out individual words with long, melismatic vocal passages that seem to serve no particular dramatic purpose. Overall, though, it's a good match for the naturalistic inflections of Mr. Shanley's dialog.

It also sounds like a challenge to play, so conductor Scott Schoonover deserves high praise for leading the orchestra through such a seamless reading of it. The balance between the signers and the orchestra was quite good, which can be a very tricky business in the sanctuary of the Union Avenue Christian Church. And under his direction the Union Avenue chorus has never sounded better.

Kyra Bishop's set, with its massive crucifix set at a drunken angle, mirrors the opera's subtext of faith in crisis, and the bare branches poking up through the floor remind us of the bitter New York winter. Jeff Behm's lighting enhances the atmosphere. Teresa Doggett's costumes are, as always, right on target.

Director Tim Ocel adds yet another triumph to his work for UAO, with smart and fluid staging that keeps the dramatic momentum going while always making the dramatic focus clear. He is, for my money, the best opera director in town.

While I don't think setting Doubt to music enhances it in any way, it still makes for pretty potent theatre and is well worth your time, especially if you haven't been exposed to either the play or the film already. It raises issues about the risks of moral certainty that are, if anything, more relevant now than they were when the play was first written. And there is no doubt that Union Avenue's production is a singular accomplishment.

Closing performances Union Avenue Opera's Doubt are Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27, at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. Note that parking can be an issue at the church, so an early arrival is a good idea.

 

  

New Line Theatre surprises audiences accustomed to big productions with the one-woman musical Tell Me on a Sunday, a performance piece with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber that was inspired by a Tim Rice concept. Honestly, I found the story dated and patronizing and the songs entertaining but unremarkable, and yet I was thoroughly enthralled and impressed by the production. The performance, transitions, and direction ensure the show is an absolute delight while establishing Sarah Porter as a rising star in St. Louis theater.

Porter embraces the role of reluctant heroine in Weber's musical tome to single women. Although the lyrics, by Don Black and Richard Maltby, Jr., feel a bit dated, and I would enjoy more variety in the compositions, there's a clear message and story arc that eventually leads to independence. Porter expertly handles the vocals and, under the direction of Mike Dowdy-Windsor, deftly navigates the emotional context of the story.

Emma is a working-class girl from England living in America and facing all the typical challenges. That is, she's trying to keep afloat will finding love and a place to call home in the modern world. For Emma, that also means obtaining a green card. We don't actually hear about her work or dreams or even why she came to the states; instead the focus is on Emma's romantic misfortunes as relayed in letters to her mother.

The four "Letter Home" songs are self-effacingly humorous, as Porter's Emma emphatically defends her choices and gently reassures her mother, and perhaps herself, that she's doing fine. Porter's interpretations convey the turbulence and related hardship each passing relationship generates, as well as the hopeful optimism every new romance inspires. The thematic song is among several that are repeated, with refreshed lyrics, throughout the quick show. 

The song titles convey both action and attitude, with the fierce "Let Me Finish" and "Take That Look Off Your Face" strong examples of Emma's breaking points, while the more wistful and ballad like "Unexpected Song," "Come Back With The Same Look In your Eyes," and "Ready Made Life" signify possibility and guarded optimism. "It's Not The End Of The World" is the most resilient and buoyant of the selections, creating the much-needed opportunity for Porter to interject contemporary feminism and an independent "can-do" spirit into the show.

Each song covers a lot of ground, emotionally and in Emma's story, and Porter shows great dexterity and conviction in her interpretations. Vocally speaking she is always on point in terms of context and with the challenging arrangements. Porter also does a nice job with the business of the show, though I'd like to see more variety in terms of her physical personification of the character.

In addition to starring in the show, Porter designed the costumes, which suit the style of a few decades ago and subtly convey the character's confidence or lack thereof. Porter shows restraint here, ensuring that the costumes -- and the business of changing costume while onstage -- adds to the texture and tone of the story. 

Rob Lippert's set design and lighting, with sound by Benjamin Rosemann, create a number of levels and spaces in which Porter can amble, and I'd like to see more of the songs presented from different points of the stage rather than front and center.  Finally, music director Nate Jackson brings it all together, conducting the band through arrangements that complement and throw focus on Porter. There are times when the instruments are barely present, emphasizing Porter's heartfelt vocals. 

Love and romance, whether successful or failed, is ripe material for a show. This is a point I clearly acknowledge. Still I was disappointed that this wonderfully complex and opinionated character could only tell her story in the context of the men she was pursuing and the lifestyle each introduced. Even when writing to her mom, Emma is focused on defending the men in her life and deflecting her mother's imagined reproach. Frankly there's a lot of judgment and backhanded shaming in the story.

Emma is slow to realize that her self-worth is neither dependent on, nor determined by the man in her life. As an independent woman with self-respect that's not tied to my relationship status, I wanted Emma to blossom as an individual of value before the final song. What captivated and mesmerized me was Porter's remarkable performance, and for that I could watch the show again and again.

Though a bit dated in its attitudes towards female independence, Tell Me on a Sunday, running through August 27, 2016 at New Line Theatre, is a compelling show. The one-woman musical provides a singer/actress with a perfect vehicle for showcasing her vocal and interpretative talents, and Porter grabs the opportunity to shine. 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony award winner Faith Price and her friend, and L.A. Drama Critics Circle award winner, Jason Graae team up to present the laugh-out-loud funny, personally reflective, and always in tune The Prince and the Showboy. The cabaret takes a fond look at life as a professional performer, with songs and stories that tell of victories and heartaches, large and small, and a tone that's genuinely appreciative of the craft. The resulting show is heartwarming and deeply personal, frequently referencing the duo's long friendship as the two share songs and stories that encompass career highs and lows. 

The show opens with an energetic medley that comically twists familiar show tunes to reference Prince and Graae. Snippets of "Someday My Prince Will Come," "Put on a Happy Face," "Tomorrow," and West Side Story's "Cool," as well as other classic musical favorites, are interspersed with humorous quips about the two performers and the business of musical theater. There's a sense of "insider" knowledge to the patter; as a newcomer, there were a few moments when I felt left out of the conversation, but they were fleeting and I quickly caught up. 

Graae and Prince then alternate with solo pieces, continuing to share personal stories and drop names, eliciting warm applause and rippling response from the crowd for every familiar mention. Both performers are talented comedians, and the timing of their remarks, double takes, and teasing jabs are consistently spot on. Graae is a tenor with a warm, full mid range and pleasing interpretations. "My Funny Valentine" was a standout number, though he showed the same quality and attention to detail throughout the evening. 

Prince is blessed with a powerful voice and expressive range, and she has perfected her craft, timing, and persona. She's opinionated and sassy when she needs to be, and at times vulnerable, fiercely funny, and authentic. Prince demonstrates expert command of her voice and her experience as an actress, changing the energy of the room with a shrug, sigh, or laugh and drawing the audience in during bittersweet moments. Her story of Elaine Stritch visiting her backstage, which segued perfectly in to "The Ladies Who Lunch," exemplified Prince's style of graciously acknowledging her influences and inspirations. She gave a soft, breathy interpretation to a song from Falsettos that felt like a hug enveloping the audience, and then made everyone miss home with the comforting "Sweet Kentucky Ham."

There's a lot more comedy than tears to this show, however. The duets between Prince and Graae are cleverly arranged, intentionally funny, and irrepressibly upbeat. Highlights from later in the show include "Bosom Buddies" and "Smile," which featured Graae on oboe, as well as playful interplay between the performers and talented pianist Alex Rybeck. Though costumes and props aren't typically called out in cabaret, Prince once again flexes her comic muscle as she wrestles with a microphone, taps on the piano, adjusts her top, or futzes with a feather boa to just the right effect.

Professional track festival participants Ari Axelrod, Paula Dione Ingram, and Gail Payne led off the evening. Each soloist entertained, presenting engaging interpretations and solid vocals with just a few missed notes, possibly a sign of nerves in front of a nearly full Sheldon Concert Hall, sprinkled in. The overall tone of the show is light and amiable, with a few tender revelations thoughtfully expressed.

Uninitiated audiences often find the art of cabaret a bit confusing to navigate, is it an intimate concert, musical theater, or variety show? Am I supposed to be following a plot and why don't I have a list of songs? As a relative novice to the art, I can sympathize with a hesitant approach, but want to encourage audiences to give cabaret a chance. This unique form of theatrical storytelling interweaves personal recollections with songs selected to emphasize a moment or point, and arranged to create a narrative arc that also complements the artist's vocal strengths.

The St. Louis Cabaret Festival, running July 19 through July 24, 2016 at various locations in the Grand Center Arts District, is an annual event that attracts national, regional, and local talent. Produced by The Cabaret Project, the festival offers a number of opportunities to experience individual, partnered, and ensemble cabaret as well as workshops and opportunities for performers to hone their skills and receive critical feedback. Arts patrons who enjoy music, storytelling, and the intimacy of small theater should consider adding the annual festival to their entertainment calendar.

 

 

 

 

Insight Theatre Company closes their season on a high note with a rousing production of Inherit the Wind that feels surprisingly relevant, particularly when one considers a number of recent decisions on curriculum made by education boards across the United States. 

Though most theatergoers today grew up learning about evolution in our science classes, it was a legally forbidden subject in many states less than 100 years ago. Inherit the Wind, set in 1925, fictionalizes and recreates key moments from the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial, where a young educator was found guilty of breaking the law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. The original verdict was appealed and overturned, creating precedence that influenced our educational standards for decades, though, as previously mentioned, it is once again being challenged.

Insight's production is bristling with energy, strong opinions, and compelling, captivating performances. The company and director Sydnie Grosberg Ranga increase tensions and ensure the play is all the more thought provoking by avoiding caricature or soapbox campaigning (beyond what's written in Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's well-constructed, historically supported script). Though the play is more sympathetic to the pro-teaching perspective, the characters appear to be written to accurately reflect the principal players in the court case.

The casting compliments the approach and production, pitting the amiable Allan Knoll as Matthew Harrison Brady against the commanding John Contini as Henry Drummond to create brilliant sparring scenes that bring the courtroom drama to life. The two men demonstrate why they're such highly regarded and well-respected actors with performances that are emotionally and intellectually connected. Both men ensure their characters are expressed through physicality, posture, gesture, and movement as much as through the timber and inflection of their words.

As Baltimore newsman E. K. Hornbeck, Jason Contini confirms or restores public opinion of journalists with a cocksure performance that is nonetheless pointed, insightful, and empathetic. He's anything but dispassionate though he's watching the case through somewhat jaded and cynical eyes. The younger Contini's reactions and commentary establish the story's point of view, while his genuine interest in the defendant Cates, and the merits and implications of the case, add emotional context from the audience perspective. 

Pete Winfrey and Sigrid Wise are sympathetic and resolute as Cates and Rachel Brown, Cates' love interest and the local minister's daughter. Winfrey capably demonstrates the teacher's personal conflict and sometimes wavering commitment to the cause of education. Once certain, his determination and willingness to stay the course play out through small but important choices. In contrast, Wise is visibly less certain and, while loyal to Cates, she initially pushes him to give up the cause, though her emerging sense of independence is a refreshing touch, considering the period. Susie Wall, Kim Furlow, Michael Brightman, Michael Ferguson, Thomas Schartner, B.F. Helman, and Kent Coffel stand out in supporting roles, creating well-motivated and clear characters. The rest of the ensemble comports itself capably, including Chloe Haynes, Christopher Strawhun, Kurt H. Knoedlelseder, Charles Heuvelman, Matthew Luyber, Don Krull Paul Balfe, Todd Roth, Nicholas J. Hearne, Genevieve Rose Collins, Tommy Nolan, Jennifer Blomstrom, and Kyle Twomey. Many of them have small but not insignificant moments.

Kyra Bishop's set works well, with small fly-ins and details that add to the thematic focus but are quickly changed out, and is complemented by lighting design from Sean Savoie and sound design by Brett Harness, under technical director Joshua Noll. Finally, the costumes by Tracey Newcomb-Margave quickly establish the period, setting, and class status of the characters, with small touches and finer fabrics used to distinguish the more fortunate from those struggling to make it.

In a political season, a play like Inherit the Wind, running through August 28, 2016 at Insight Theatre Company, serves to remind us that our vote often has ramifications that extend well beyond a politician's name or party affiliation. Our response to the challenges that face our country impacts society on every level, including the education of future generations. This stirring production presents a fresh, engaging, and well-performed case for education, helmed by two of our most persuasive stage veterans. 

 

 

 

Stray Dog Theatre sinks its teeth into the quirky musical Bat Boy, a tabloid-inspired show with a big message on love and tolerance, and it's deliciously different and entertaining. The fast-paced, energetic production tells of a mysterious half-human, half-bat boy found in a cave near a small town in West Virginia. The townsfolk are scared and frightened because he is such a different creature, and the creature is scared and frightened by the townsfolk and his unfamiliar surroundings. Throw in an insatiable appetite for blood, and you've got a humorous mix of teen drama, vampire myth, and tabloid-fueled hijinks guaranteed to entertain.

The captured boy is taken to the home of Dr. Thomas Parker, the local veterinarian, with the assumption that the good doctor will "put the creature down" and end the misery his existence causes. But, for reasons not immediately clear, the doctor can't bring himself to kill the boy, and soon he, his wife and daughter are spending their time working to educate and civilize the creature so that he can join the community. Given the name Edgar, the bright boy is soon dressing dapper and speaking with a comically proper British accent. 

He still has troubles controlling his desire for blood and resisting the urge to attack when emotionally threatened, but Edgar's sincere desire to join the community and to be accepted for who he is, is poignant and effective. Unfortunately, the town is not as accepting as the family. Tensions escalate when locals begin dying mysteriously, a fact complicated by the town's questionable decision to try to raise cattle on inhospitable land. Soon Edgar and his sister are fleeing into the cave pursued by an angry mob, Dr. Parker is behaving quite suspiciously, and Mrs. Parker is putting all the pieces together and fighting like hell to protect her family.

Corey Fraine is mesmerizing as Edgar, the Bat Boy. From his acrobatic leaps and turns across the stage to his polite Christopher Robin-esque sense of curiosity, he embraces his character and asks only to be embraced in return. Drawing from both B horror movie and comedy of manners influences, Fraine is by turns vulnerable, aggressive, and charming, and the plaintive tone of his voice is effectively tender in a number of songs.

Angela Bubash and Dawn Schmid are by turns effervescent, coy and stubborn as daughter Shelley and mom Meredith Parker, with strong voices that add richness to the numbers. Patrick Kelly is a jealous, villainous dad, with a squeaky clean exterior and desperate love. The supporting cast has the appropriate vocal and comic chops to create distinct, entertaining characters, and Colin Dowd, Tim Kaniecki, Michael A. Wells, Lindsay Jones, and Sara Rae Womack are memorable in several scenes.

Though inspired by an over-the-top piece of tabloid journalism, Bat Boy The Musical speaks to contemporary themes and problems we face in society today.. Using a clever script that mixes references to Frankenstein and vampire mythology with nods to My Fair Lady and countless makeover romantic comedies and pop culture humor, the show encourages us to be more understanding, and to seek commonalities among those who stand out from the crowd, no matter why. Director Justin Been directs the show using as much of the theater space as possible, adding surprising moments while maintaining a focus on the story. Robert J. Lippert sets the tone with a massive cave-like set that features the band on a raised level, and is complemented by Tyler Duenow's lighting design. Strong arrangements by music director Chris Petersen keep the focus on the theme, while Mike Hodges'  choreography takes advantage of every corner of the stage with humorously effective dances that understand the size and scope of the venue.

There's a real message about tolerance and understanding at the heart of Bat Boy: The Musical, running through August 20, 2016 at Stray Dog Theatre, perhaps the catchy songs, warm humor, good-natured excess, and inspired performances of this tabloid-take on the theme will help the message sink in. I would like to think it's a show and message Jay V. Hall would enthusiastically support, I both missed and felt his smile and presence throughout the entire performance.

 

 

 

 

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