The Union Avenue Opera is so good at fulfilling our expectations -- our expectations of really fine traditional opera. But once in a while they enjoy surprising us, jerking us out of that normal path. For instance, with "Trouble in Tahiti" several years ago the orchestra was a jazz trio. Now this splendid little company surprises us again with a lovely production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 Broadway classic, Carousel. It's the familiar story of a young mill-worker who makes the tragic mistake of falling in love with a rough but beautiful carnival barker.

You will never hear finer voices than these singing the roles of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow and their friends. The whole cast does wonderful work with beloved songs like "If I Loved You," "June is Bustin' Out All Over," "When I Marry Mr. Snow," "This Was a Real Nice Clambake," "You'll Never Walk Alone." In their intimate venue the Union Avenue Opera gives us these great singers without amplification -- a rare treat with musicals these days.

We arrive at the theater and find ourselves in the carnival. On stage great stretches of canvas give the sense of tents under a romantic full moon. Even before the orchestra begins vendors drift among us offering cotton candy, balloons and those chintzy carnival toys. Canvases at the sides bear projections of side-show posters. As that insistent, glorious "Carousel Waltz" flows over us we meet the Strong Man, the Bearded Lady, the excited folks flocking to the show -- and we meet Billy Bigelow, the barker who runs the carousel. He's handsome, tough, always ready for a fight -- and all the girls are simply drooling over him. 

Wes Mason, who did such fine work as Fr. Flynn in last season's Doubt, triumphs as Billy. He's physically perfect for the role and his voice is rich, clear and strong, seeming to grow in endless power when it rises to those highest notes. His "Soliloquy," where he sings his macho anticipation of being a father is a highlight of the evening. 

Julie is sung by the very lovely Maria Lindsey. She's blessed with a beautiful purity in her sustained tones. Her duet with Billy, "If I Loved You," is memorable indeed.

The plot centers on Julie and Billy, whose star-crossed love leads to both of them losing their jobs. It's no surprise that Billy is not a good husband. When Julie gets pregnant Billy, in desperation for some way of supporting a family, is lured into an attempted robbery. This all ends badly! But Billy (like Emily in Our Town) is given the chance to return from the afterlife for just one day -- to meet the daughter he never knew. There's a poignant, redemptive ending to the tale of Julie and Billy. 

There is of course a secondary romantic couple -- a comic one. Christine Amon sings Julie's friend Carrie. "When I Marry Mr. Snow" is a charming showcase for her beautiful voice with it's easy access to range. Ms. Amon is also a natural actress with a fine sense of comedy.

And Anthony Webb shows a remarkably fine, strong tenor in the role of Mr. Snow. Such power!

Debbie Lennon sings Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carnival, who also has her eyes on Billy. Ms. Lennon gives a lovely touch of Irish tongue and temper to the role. 

Merry Keller as Nettie shines as she energetically leads the romping "This Was a Real Nice Clambake," and Robert McNichols, Jr., is very strong as "the Starkeeper" and in two smaller roles. Andrew Wannigman is utterly convincing as the wicked Jigger and Caylee McGlasson is at once charming and almost feral as the young daughter Louise. Emma Gasset does beautiful work as Louise's dancing alter ego. 

Director Ken Page has captured the dark, lyrical mood of this dreamy carnival world. He manages his large cast well, though there were moments which were a bit too physically static.

Patrick Huber, who designed the set and lighting, gives us a superb visual world. Lighting is rich in romantic and moody colors. Amazingly, with a single turning carousel horse, inventive projections and a swirl of dancers the sensation of a spinning carousel is very convincing.

Excellent choreography is provided by Yvonne Meyer Hare.

Teresa Doggett again does beautiful costumes, though I think that to move the show from 1873 to the 1940s is a mistake. The entire sensibility of the piece is pre-World War 1. To bring it into the modern era makes some of the lyrics and dialog seem just a little corny.

Artistic Director Scott Schoonover leads a fine large orchestra. The harp is central to this score -- it's almost like a character in the play. Megan Stout plays gorgeously throughout. But the harp seemed strangely dominant, as if this instrument alone was amplified. The large chorus deserves praise -- especially for their finely coördinated diction.

There were odd acoustical problems.  I've never had difficulty before in hearing the lyrics at Union Avenue Opera, but with Carousel I found myself relying more on the super-titles than ever -- especially for the many scenes of spoken dialogue. Only the several more vocally powerful principals consistently came through very clearly.

Carousel was adapted from Ferenç Molnar's play Liliom, which opened in 1909. Liliom was a failure initially; the Budapest audiences were puzzled by its anti-hero and it's supernatural elements. However, a revival of Liliom after the Great War was a resounding success. It seems that the traumatic loss of so many young lives caused a great surge of interest in spiritualism and contact with the afterlife all across Europe.

A little about daring: Liliom is viewed as the greatest play by Hungary's greatest playwright. Molnar never surpassed it. He was so afraid of failure that he never again dared to risk such a break with convention. But his plays made him very rich. They were translated and adapted scores of times. P.G. Wodehouse and Tom Stoppard successfully adapted Molnar plays. Many movies were made from them. Both Puccini and Kurt Weill wanted to do musical versions of Liliom, but Molnar refused permission. It was only after seeing Oklahoma! that he permitted Rodgers and Hammerstein to make it into a musical. They were fairly faithful to the play, though they gave it a happier ending. 

After their ground-breaking Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein also lost their daring and went a little cautious, sticking to safe, commercially tested conventions. Many of their later works bear the burden of a song or two laden with an almost corporate banality; consider "Climb Every Mountain," "Doe, a Deer" (or almost anything in The Sound of Music), the sententious "You've Got to Be Taught," and, in Carousel, "You'll Never Walk Alone." (I know! It is the class song of four thousand graduating high-school classes, but still...)

Ah, if only Puccini had set his hand to it! (Or Weill!! Now, there's a man who's not afraid of the dark!)

Nevertheless, Union Avenue Opera is a daring company. For Scott Schoonover to start such a venture at all was a feat of daring-do. Now they continue being daring by offering their opera audiences a work that is (let's face it) a far cry from opera. But such voices! And it's a really lovely production.

Carousel continues through August 5.

 

Hawthorne Players have opened a terrifically enjoyable production of Once Upon a Mattress. It's the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Princess and the Pea" told with wonderful wit and charm. Music is by Mary Rodgers, Richard's daughter, and it's lovely music, with much humor in the music itself. The clever, clever lyrics are by Marshall Barer. ("Alas, alack, I lack a lass!" How's that for a lyric?)

The show opened on Broadway in 1959, but the humor is as fresh as ever. (That original production featured Carol Burnett as the Princess -- her first Broadway role.)

This is a great old-fashioned, well-crafted, unpretentious American musical comedy, and director Lori Renna manages it all with great love and respect for the script. We meet Queen Aggravain, who can't stop talking, and King Sextimus the Silent, who can't talk at all. (He's cursed with muteness.) They are in search of a bride for their son, the sweetly dweeby, innocent Prince Dauntless the Drab. There is great interest in this search because all of the many maidens around the castle are forbidden to marry until the Prince is wed. And of course he can only be married to a True Princess.

None of the maidens is more eager to find him a bride than Lady Larken. She is a "lady-in-waiting" in more than one sense: she's pregnant. Her lover, the handsome Sir Harry, goes off on a quest and brings back a remarkably spirited girl from the land of swamps. Impatient with the slow drawbridge, she swims the moat.

Mark Strathman, with a truly lovely tenor voice, is the Minstrel, who serves as narrator. We meet the Queen, played with verbal ferocity by Colleen Heneghan. Such a chatterbox, such a litany of complaints, such energy. There's a touch of the Red Queen in Ms. Heneghan's performance.

There's a crusty old Wizard, beautifully played John Robertson. Bradley Rohlf is adorable as the clueless Prince Dauntless. Alyssa Durbin brings a really beautiful voice and fine acting skills to the role of Lady Larken, and Spencer Collins is buff, bouffant and beautiful as her sweety, Sir Harry. The court Jester is played by Robert Doyle. I never knew he had such a terrific voice, and he does a really delightful soft-shoe number.

But particularly delicious were the performances of Adam Grun as King Sextimus and Elizabeth Breed Penny as the Princess Winifred.

Grun is a vastly experienced and familiar comic face on local stages, and here, in a mostly mute role, he displays finely honed skills in physical comedy. With sparkling eyes and a gleeful smile he spends much of his time chasing the young ladies, eager to grope any he can catch -- though, alas, he never seems to catch one. He, a mute, is part of an engaging trio -- miming rhymed lyrics with crisp immense precision. His little talk with his son about "the birds and the bees" is hilarious and just naughty enough.

But this show really belongs to Princess Winifred (or "Fred" as her friends call her). Here Elizabeth Penny really triumphs. She's stoutly built, but wonderfully agile, and her voice is a marvel -- strong and true. She's a fine comic actress, and she fills the role with such zest. 

The castle set, by Ken Clark, is colorful and flexible. Fine work is done by lighting designer Carl Wennlund, costumer Tracey Newcomb, choreographer Tim Grumich and musical director Joe Paule, Sr.

Hawthorne Players production of Once Upon a Mattress is a great pile of fun. It continues through August 6.

 

Truth is often not only stranger than fiction, but more fantastic and interesting as well. Such is the case with the irrepressibly upbeat and historically fact-based musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. A beguiling and exuberant Beth Malone brings Hannibal Missouri's second most famous citizen, the infamous Molly Brown, to life in a lively, uplifting performance. With a revised script and refreshed score, as well as a strong ensemble, the musical may also be this season's surprise hit at The Muny! 

Poor and uneducated, Molly was driven to make something of her life. After making her way from Hannibal to Leadville, Colorado, mostly on foot, she learns to read, captures the heart of miner JJ Brown, reinvents herself as a society member with an eye to politics, and famously survives the sinking of the Titanic. Always outspoken, Malone ensures Molly never loses her connection to her roots and her homespun wisdom adds much to the show's inherent humor without ever belittling the character. Malone is absolutely infectious as Molly and convincingly carries the show; there was a significant storm on the night I attended but, even after an hour and a half delay, there was no drop in energy or commitment to her performance.

Malone is joined by an outstanding cast that features Marc Kudisch as JJ Brown, Justin Guarini, Paolo Montalban, David Abeles, and Mike Schwitter as miners and friends, and Whitney Bashor as Julia, the widow of one of the miners who teaches Molly to read and write. Kudisch and Malone pair up well, a gold rush Beatrice and Benedict with witty repartee and chemistry that reads to the very back of the amphitheater. The men harmonize like a prize-winning barbershop quintet on several numbers, and the ensemble pieces are layered with interesting arrangements and a few surprising runs. The emotional context and camaraderie between the cast members adds to the feel-good tone of the show, and, though they never distract from the primary story, I could listen to Guarini and Bashor sing duets all night long. 

The entire show is honestly engaging, and the storytelling focus of the revision is compelling; there's simply never a lag in the action. Several of the numbers stand out both for their musicality and social commentary, particularly Molly's thematic "I Ain't Down Yet" and "Share the Luck." My favorite piece of the musical, however, is "Belly Up to the Bar, Boys," which references Aaron Copland and Agnes De Mille in a way that feels fresh and contemporary. The song is one of the longer numbers in the show, but it is so visually and musically stunning that I would be perfectly content if it continued for another five minutes. 

The updated musical includes "new" songs by Meredith Willson and a significantly rewritten book by Dick Scanlan that removes much of the hyperbole and exaggeration of the original script. The effect is immediate and positive. The additional songs, selected from the Meredith Willson catalog, complement the story changes while maintaining the songwriter's tone and style. The script revisions demonstrate that Molly Brown clearly had a full, adventurous, and noteworthy life that doesn't need enhancement -- and the show gains a lot of charm and good-natured sensibility when her actual history is the focus. 

Musical director and arranger Michael Rafter ensures that each number sounds just right, and even the incidental music adds context and a bright undertone to the quick moving show. Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall embraces the new version, directing our attention to the character relationships rather than the larger-than-life mythology and creating a visually pleasing piece that seamlessly moves along the story arc. Scenic designers Derek McLane and Paul Tate dePoo III based their set on McLane's original designs and the choice to keep the set pieces relatively simple and minimal is smart. Paul Tazewell's costume designs effectively communicate status and Molly's dream "red silk dress" evolves in ways that subtly reinforce her growing wealth and social position. All these little details add up to a delightful show.

The combination of a new script, fresh dances and music, and a truly engaged and enthusiastic ensemble, led by a stellar performance from Malone, ensures that The Unsinkable Molly Brown, running through July 27, 2017 at The Muny in Forest Park, does a lot more than merely stay afloat. 

 

 

 

 

 

The second half of the LaBute New Theater Festival at St. Louis Actors' Studio presents three new compelling and well-crafted works that, while not always wholly satisfying, are thoroughly entertaining and sneakily provocative. The scripts address interesting contemporary ideas without stepping on soapboxes; they also refuse to definitively answer the questions posed. I find all three scripts present situations that persist in my mind, causing continued reflection in a way that good art often does.

The first show of the night is Neil LaBute's Hate Crime, directed by John Pierson, which was also featured in part one of the festival (a more in-depth look at this play can be found in my previous review). The show introduces us to a couple plotting the wedding day murder of the younger man's current fiancé. It's frighteningly intense and uncomfortable at times, and a second viewing gives more insight but doesn't resolve questions regarding each character's true motivation. If anything, the play engages even more when you know what's going to happen and can concentrate on all the little tells and actions that simultaneously perplex and intrigue.

How's Bruno, by Cary Pepper, smartly directed by Nancy Bell, is a wonderfully clever comedy anchored by an outstanding performance from Spencer Sickmann, who's expertly supported by Reggie Pierre, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, and Chauncy Thomas. The story is completely absurd, with just the right amount of plausibility. 

Sickmann's character glibly responds to an errant text he receives, triggering a series of surrealistically comic actions and reactions from the other characters that feel pulled from Men in Black. Similar to Waiting for the Erie Lackawanna from part one of the festival, the play captivates with its verbal dexterity. There's an abundance of everyday expressions turned to cryptic clues and implied significance for common actions. The clever premise wears a bit thin before the conclusion, however, but the play is quite enjoyable and the actors commit fully to the intentionally vague and spuriously connected storyline.

Sickmann comes across as completely natural and appropriate, while the rest of the cast is highly stylized, and frequently speaks in riddles. The dichotomy works to good effect, for the most part, and is enhanced by the sense of something sinister. The premise here is compelling and the performances a well-balanced exercise in innuendo and implication, but the show wanders without a true conflict and would benefit from a more fully developed plot. The set up is great, and I really want to dig into the mystery, but I need a little more information. Additionally, the last line of dialogue either needs to be completed or dropped. If included, it feels important that we know what coffee Sickmann's character orders. 

Tearrance Chisholm strikes a chord close to home with Sin Titulo, directed by Linda Kennedy. The story is set in St. Louis and examines the aftermath of the recent election, the tendency to medicate rather than treat psychological disorders, and some of the harsh truths of life when you're black. Chisholm introduces and explores relevant topics that could each be the focus of a play, yet they feel intrinsically entwined in a realistic and natural way. The longest show the festival has produced to date, it could easily be expanded into a full-length, two-act play.  

Reggie Pierre is sympathetic and relatable as a former campaign manager wrestling with a sense of inertia and ineffectiveness following the presidential election. His wife, played with just the right strength and sensitivity by Patrice Foster, feels powerless to shake her husband's malaise, but she's willing to try anything. Her brother, played with an easy authenticity by Jaz Tucker, shows up at their door unexpectedly and throws a much-needed monkey wrench into their routine. The politically and socially infused show isn't neat and tidy, and that's what works; though the ending could use some rethinking.

There were a few other aspects of the show that puzzled me, as well. It's not clear why Pierre's character decides to take Tucker's prescription pills, though they initially seem to spur him to action. That confusion is compounded when Foster takes one of the pills and simply falls asleep. Pierre delivers an excellent monologue on finding himself stuck in Chesterfield, with a dead phone battery and not enough cash to get home. The perspective that moment affords him, a black, well-educated man, is understated but nonetheless hits a nerve. I only wish some of Tucker's paranoia regarding the mysterious organization known as Sin Titulo was as well articulated (though audience members familiar with the comic series may have a better grasp of the concept). 

This year's LaBute New Theater Festival, running through July 30, 2017 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is the most wholly satisfying yet. The plays are well written, if a bit over indulgent at times, and the performances are sharp and compelling. Though they may benefit from a little tightening, the three plays featured in part two deliver intriguing, thought provoking theater. 

 

Take the music and rebellious ethos of Elvis Presley and add in a storyline based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, with just a dash of Romeo and Juliet for extra spice. Set it all in the emerging civil rights era of the late 1950s and simmer. The result is All Shook Up at The Muny in Forest Park. A humorous, musical evening of entertainment with a fun story and compelling ensemble, the show might not be an instant classic, but it's certainly got a good beat you can dance to. 

Natalie Haller, in a compelling turn by Caroline Bowman, is a small town girl with a longing for adventure and a knack for auto mechanics. Her best friend and almost constant companion Dennis, a charmingly nebbish Barrett Riggins, pines for her but she remains oblivious. Her other close friend Lorraine, a bubbly and engaging Ciara Alyse Harris, longs for a romance of her own and quickly falls for the stuffy town mayor's son. That same mayor has banned rock and roll, amusement parks, and any activity that might encourage teenagers to get into trouble, leaving the town in a dull and drab state.

The heat gets turned up when roustabout rocker Chad, in a comically exaggerated hip-swiveling, lip sneering performance by Tim Rogan, glides into town on his ailing motorcycle. He immediately starts shaking things up by encouraging the townspeople to let go and have a little fun. A captivated Natalie falls under his spell right away, but he doesn't notice her. Instead, Chad becomes instantly infatuated with museum curator Miss Sandra, a seductively game Felicia Finley, who has great fun with the part. Lara Teeter, as Natalie's widowed father Jim, and Liz Mikel, as roadhouse proprietor Sylvia, share a sweetly surprising romance of their own while Hollis Resnik, Jerry Vogel, and Paul Schwensen provide solid support and additional comedy.

The structure of Shakespeare's story is nicely updated and Presley's songs seamlessly weave in and out of the show, carrying much of the emotional context as well as the characters' inner thoughts. The arrangements, under the musical direction of Charlie Alterman, are flat out spectacular and a highlight of the evening. The tempo is occasionally changed and the intonation and phrasing altered, with layered ensemble harmonies adding rich texture and interest. The musical numbers are complemented with choreography by Jessica Hartman that draws from the popular dances of the era and elevates them with lifts, jumps, and acrobatic twists that add just the right visual interest and modern touch.

Refrains from a number of the songs are reprised throughout the comically infused story, with different interpretations to suit each moment. The cumulative effect adds to the light, charming tone of the show, resulting in numbers with unique interest rather than direct copies. Video is incorporated in clever ways, particularly the dream sequences, and I also enjoy the integration of positive messages about love and equality. And Chad's confession regarding his feelings for the mysterious Ed is delightfully quirky and heartfelt, if unrealistic for the era. 

Unfortunately, all these fabulous moments don't quite add up as well as they should. The combination of Elvis and Shakespeare is certainly compelling, but the story gets muddy in places, as if it's trying to do too much with the material at hand. Additionally, several of the characters feel a little too stereotypically stock for their own good. Finally, I have a hard time believing the eventual Chad and Natalie pairing. It's a serious stretch to watch him fall so quickly for Natalie (or even Natalie masquerading as Ed) after his pursuit of the voluptuous Miss Sandra, and I question why Natalie would remain infatuated with him after discovering her true nature while disguised as Ed. There were also multiple technical glitches on opening night, the worst of which was a microphone fail that continued for several minutes as the performer soldiered on. The audience remained engaged throughout the difficulties, a testament to Dan Knechtges clear direction and the commitment of each cast member, particularly those in the impacted scene.

All in all, The Muny's production of All Shook Up, running through July 19, 2017, is an entertaining and engaging musical, though it doesn't yet strike me as a great show. A strong ensemble, memorable arrangements, eye-catching choreography, and some inventive staging provide the background for a musical that, while uneven, tells an entertaining story with a rock and roll soundtrack. There are a few scenes that lag, and the script might benefit from some work to tighten and focus the themes, but I like the musical's structure and premise and think there's real potential here. 

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