Lin Manuel Miranda is best known for his runaway hit musical, Hamilton. But his first show, the hip-hop musical In the Heights, was also a huge success, garnering a 2008 Tony for Best Musical Score and a 2009 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album among other awards. These awards are well-deserved. Miranda crafted a thoughtful, moving score with witty, digestible lyrics. Every word serves to move the story along, nothing is superfluous. 

The show reveals the lives of Latino immigrants and their children in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. There, the neighborhood's matriarch, Abuela Claudia, watches over everyone, including Usnavi, a young man who lost his parents recently and struggles to keep his father's bodega open. The show spins around Abuela and Usnavi, their love for each other and their neighbors, their struggle to find home when they're living in a concrete jungle but dreaming of the tropical countries of their past. If only those countries offered the same economic opportunities as the United States. 

The show's opening night was plagued with technical difficulties: the band drowned out two-thirds of the cast's lyrics and lines, and the mics and lights consistently came on ten to fifteen seconds late. This is RS Theatrics first foray into the new .ZACK space, so technical director Keller Ryan will presumably have these issues under control for the rest of the run. 

Despite these problems, the cast persevered. The ensemble fell into their roles as residents of Washington Heights with ease, and their vocals were on point. Anna Skidis Vargas and Gabriela Diaz play the show's comedic relief duo, and they were enchanting together on stage, their voices blending perfectly. Marshall Jennings as Benny convincingly made the character his own; his dance moves were charming, his voice angelic, and his smile adorable. He made it perfectly clear why Cassandra Lopez's Nina fell in love with him, and Lopez had the audience falling in love with her voice during her solo, "Breathe." Jesse Muñoz embodied Usnavi: he can't dance, he is self-effacing, and Muñoz showed the shift his character makes from the dreamy young man of the start of the show to the self-assured business owner of the end. Kevin Corpus garnered the most laughs with his intensely youthful portrayal of Usnavi's cousin, Sonny. 

The star of the show is Carmen Garcia, who plays Abuela Claudia. Director Christina Rios showed her directing chops best in a scene where Abuela remembers her childhood and the move to America from Cuba. It is a haunting reminder of the sacrifices people make when they uproot their families for a chance at a better home in a new place. The show is worth seeing just to experience this moment of theatrical art. 

RS Theatrics' In the Heights plays at .ZACK through September 3. 

 

The Union Avenue Opera has opened a delightful production of Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck. You'll never hear this work performed by a more glorious collection of voices.

It is of course taken from the folk-tale collected by the brothers Grimm. Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, asked her brother to write music for some songs she had written for her children for Christmas. He graciously complied. Four songs grew into sixteen and eventually to this complete opera, which opened in 1893. It is still popular -- especially at Christmas, but it's welcome any time. 

Shining at the center of this Union Avenue production are Emma Sorenson as Hänsel and Julie Tabash Kelsheimer as Gretel. What a marvelous pair! Both have remarkably clear, strong and pure voices. Miss Kelsheimer's small frame conceals an amazing vocal power, and Miss Sorenson matches her. There's a famous duet in Act Two when the two children, lost in the woods, sing their evening prayer. This is one of the most serenely beautiful duets in all of opera, and these two voices, rising and twining in it, are unforgettably gorgeous.

The two make charming children, joyfully playing and dancing despite their hunger. Miss Sorenson sports a wonderfully tousled, boyish mop of hair -- and a ravishing smile, while Miss Kelsheimer -- almost a wisp of a girl -- is innocence itself.

Others in the cast do splendid work. Meghan Kassanders makes the children's mother desperate, angry and (on those powerful high notes) a little frightening; the family is near starvation and she catches the children playing instead of working. Jacob Lassetter, the father, does fine, hearty work. He's had a good day selling his brooms and (after a pint or three at the pub) he brings home a bag of lovely food!    

Now, unlike the Grimm brothers' version, the parents do not intentionally lose their children in the woods; they merely allow them to wander off. Nevertheless, the kids get lost and find that the Ilsenstein Forest is magical indeed. When they are weary and ready for bed a strange little man appears -- the Sandman. He sprinkles his dust and helps them to sleep. This role is beautifully sung by Emily Moses. When the misty morning arrives our children awake to meet the Dew Fairy. Gina Malone, a local favorite of ours, does lovely work in this role.

Curiously the Sandman is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and has the Little Tramp's distinctive toddley walk. The Dew Fairy (the score calls him "Dewman") is quite glaringly not a man at all. Miss Malone appears in this role in a scanty, glittery costume that is straight out of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

And the Witch! Melisa Bonetti blesses this role with remarkable comic gifts, both vocal and physical. She can shift timbre instantly and has a deliciously witchy cackle.

There is a charming children's chorus and quite a glorious finale. And from scene to scene strange mossy forest creatures handle shifts of scenery with all the swift agile grace of orangutans.

Kostis Protopapas conducts the fine orchestra. Special praise must go to French Hornist Nancy Schick; she opens the overture with an impeccable foreshadowing of the evening prayer theme.

Stage director Karen Coe Miller manages the scenes beautifully. Set designer Cameron Tesson and lighting designer Joseph Clapper give us a lovely fairy-tale world. 

The folk tale collected by the Grimms has echoes of the great famine of the 14th century. Costumes in this production seem to be not from the 14th century but from Depression-era America -- a strange choice. This time-shift is supported by the presence of Charlie Chaplin and a Ziegfeld girl. Americans then were indeed facing starvation. Now Teresa Doggett, as usual, does great work with the costumes but to show us Hänsel and his father in denim somehow destroys the fairy-tale feeling. This is not The Grapes of Wrath; it's Hänsel und Gretel. (I suppose that lederhosen might further impede our ability to believe that Miss Sorenson is a boy.) 

In any event Hänsel und Gretel at the Union Avenue Opera is a beautiful and very charming evening of opera. 

 

St. Louis Shakespeare delights fans of theater and language with Is He Dead?, a delightfully camp comedy by David Ives based on a story by Mark Twain. The fast-paced play cautions us on the foibles of ignoring talent, chiding us for waiting until an artist is dead to celebrate -- and purchase -- their work. The charming and lighthearted show emphasizes humor over moralizing, however, and the result is thoroughly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Jean Francois Millet is the most talented artist among a circle of friends living on the outskirts of Paris, but even he is struggling to sell a painting these days. When the art dealer and loan shark Bastion suddenly shows up demanding repayment of the funds he's lent the artist as well as the elderly patron Leroux, the friends appear in dire straights. An attempt to quickly sell some work to satisfy the loan goes awry, but leads to inspiration and much comic confusion as Millet appears to die, causing demand, and his sister Daisy arrives to manage his estate. Several tangled love stories and many disguises are employed in the search for the eventual happy ending, this is a comedy after all.

Director Edward Coffield and the talented cast revel in the clever wordplay and absurdly convoluted plot without over-indulging, resulting in a constant barrage of humor delivered with an exaggerated style and twisted but tidy approach. Though we've seen all the plot devices before, Twain and Ives add interesting dialogue and a bit of social criticism to their story, and use a character who asks a straightforward question as entry point into the plot twists and turns. 

Zac McMillan engages as Millet and Daisy, and he's perfectly complemented by buddies Jack Zanger as Chicago, John Fisher as Dutchy, and Jacob Cange as O'Shauhnessy. The four employ physical comedy and seriously silly hijinks that show the influence of the Keystone Cops, Three Stooges, and Marx Brothers while deftly illustrating Twain's primary complaint. The show's sweethearts, Molly McCaskill as Marie and Natalie Walker as Cecile, willingly jump into the comic chaos with the men, as does their father Leroux, played to the hilt by Timothy Callahan. Though they take a lighthearted approach to their characters, the ensemble provides a sense of near realism that aids the plot and propels the dramatic tension.

It is the ancillary characters, portrayed in hilariously over-exaggerated performances by Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli, Jennifer Theby-Quinn and Joe Cella, however, that gleefully have the most fun in Is He Dead?. Their characterizations are so over-the-top as to suggest commedia del'arte, and it works. Ritchie is vaingloriously imposing and brutish as the villain, he even gets his own ominous music cue, as well as pointy eyebrows and a curling, sinister mustache. Angeli and Theby-Quinn cackle, tease, and drink everyone under the table as women with big hearts and suspicious moral fortitude. The two are impossible to ignore while onstage, their quips and banter communicating a good deal of exposition with a comic twist. Finally, Cella masters the art of the obvious, sot so hidden disguise as multiple characters. Though his initial assessment of the situation at hand is cleverly and comically off the mark, his characterizations are spot on funny.

The set, by Matt Stuckel, has the faded, somewhat tattered elegance of a struggling artist that suits Millet. Though a better job of masking the flats would be genuinely appreciated, it's a minor distraction. JC Krajicek adds much to the characters through costuming. Daisy's pink dress is an inspired and gaudy choice, the Madames' loud, color coordinated outfits are artfully excessive, Bastian's fiendish morning suit and top hat is villainy personified, and the sweetheart's fashionably feminine dresses are beguiling and flattering. Finally, lighting designer John Taylor and sound designer Ted Drury provide solid touches that emphasize without interference.

Is He Dead?, in performance through August 13, 2017 at the Ivory Theater, is a laugh-out-loud theater treat. David Ives clearly knows his way around classic scripts and clever wordplay. St. Louis Shakespeare excels in ensuring his scripts come to life with genuine affection and exaggerated humor that's played for laughs, but always has a point to reveal. The result is a tasty confection with a bit more substance than you may expect and a pleasing production that may leave you hungry for more. 

 

With so much theater and performing arts in and around St. Louis every month, it can be difficult to keep up! On a weekly basis, KDHX's new In Performance feature will highlight some of the most anticipated shows coming to a stage near you. We hope this helps you plan your night out and encourages you to "go see a play" or other live, local art. And remember to check out the KDHX Calendar for information on art and music in and around St. Louis.

The sixth annual St. Lou Fringe Festival opens in the Grand Center Arts District with a free public performance on Thursday, August 17, 2017, and continues through August 26, 2017. The revamped festival introduces three headline acts, shows curated by the festival artistic staff and produced by invited artists with previous Fringe experience, lottery-awarded shows, and the $1 DIY Fringe stage. All shows are original works created for the festival or new St. Louis premiers, helping St. Lou Fringe achieve its mission of providing a platform and promoting new artistic expression in a cross-cultural and openly diverse festival.

Two of the three headline shows include a first for St. Lou Fringe: two-act plays. Executive director Matthew R. Kerns explains that this addition is part of the Fringe's plan to intentionally grow by promoting works on the cusp of breaking out. "St. Louis is a thriving arts city, with audiences that actively support culture and artistic endeavors in all mediums," he explains. "With the headline acts, we're promoting our city as a 'test kitchen' for the development of new theater. In addition, we are actively seeking feedback from our audiences." As always, the Fringe offers a wide variety of original and experimental pieces that last less than an hour. 

The St. Lou Fringe Festival offers a number of ticketing packages, allowing audience members to see as many or as few shows as they can fit in their schedule during the Festival's two-week run. With more than 30 producing companies and individuals, and over 100 scheduled performances, theater lovers and curious audiences can easily find something of interest. "A Song for Vanya," "Snow White," and "Evolution" are the three headline shows and will be presented in the beautifully restored Grandel Theatre. Your ticket purchase to the national and local headline shows also includes a complementary pass to another festival show.

Other shows attracting early buzz include a one-woman show from Elizabeth Townsend, last year's Fringe favorite; an original work by St. Louis actor and producer Joe Hanrahan; "Inconceivable," featuring some of the most unique puppets you've likely ever seen; two Zombie shows; "The Bard's Women," "Dead Gothic Society," "Same Difference," and the offbeat "Meatball Séance." Visit the St. Lou Fringe website for descriptions of all the shows, as well as a schedule of events and information on the popular Fringe Family Day, a free or voluntary donation event in Strauss Park with performances, interactive art stations, and a parade.

Ahead of next spring's St. Louis premier of Hamilton, R-S Theatrics opens their production of the highly anticipated In the Heights this weekend, with shows continuing through September 3, 2017. The musical, set in Washington Heights, a Latinx neighborhood in the middle of the cultural diversity of New York, is a story of community and personal discovery. It's also the Tony award-winning show that introduced the world to the talents and genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Based on Miranda's upbringing, the musical tackles some of America's toughest issues -- immigration and prejudice. Usnavi, a bodega owner, narrates the story from his perspective, but the themes transcend race without ignoring its impact. As director Christina Rios recently noted, this is "a story about you . . . that time you disappointed your parents, that time you didn't really know where you belong." Riveting and filled with exceptional songwriting, In the Heights is about overcoming your fears and challenges, and finding your place in the world.

Union Avenue Opera also opens their production of Hansel and Gretel this weekend. The operatic take on the well-known children's show continues through August 26, 2017.

Continuing this weekend: Ragtime, an effective and well-received musical about race, immigration, and the American Dream, at Stray Dog Theatre through August 19; Out On Broadway, New Line Theatre's original cabaret revue celebrating music and gay pride, through August 19; and SATE's moody, evocative, and deeply sensual production of The Color of August through August 19. 

 

The third iteration of New Line Theatre's original cabaret revue, Out On Broadway celebrates the songs of Broadway with a gay perspective, and without any rewrites. In addition to an enjoyable evening of entertaining musical interpretations, the show reminds us that love is love and we all have far more in common than the differences we too often focus on. The thoroughly enjoyable evening of music features the voices of Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Mike Dowdy-Windsor, Ken Haller, Sean Michael, and Keith Thompson, with Dominic and Sean shining particularly bright in the spotlight.

The show loosely traces the progression of love, beginning with the idea of loving and accepting oneself before loving others, but there's nothing heavy handed or preachy in the message. The selected songs, primarily lesser known musical gems that deserve a listen, complement each other well while adding humor and genuine pathos to the evening. For the 2017 edition of the revue, company artistic director Scott Miller added numbers from recent shows that prove a surprising fit. Best of all, there are a number of songs from the evening that stand out, either vocally or through interpretation. 

In the first act, "Mrs. Remington," sung by Dominic (listed as Nick in the song selections), is a fun up-tempo piece with a clever lyrical bent. With layered harmonies that sound like a much larger choir, Sean, Keith, and Ken ensure "One Boy" is entertaining and impressive. "Bosom Buddies" is a perfectly comic number delivered with panache by Ken and Keith, as is "Happily Ever After." "Unusual Way," a loving duet sang by real life spouses Dominic and Mike, is buttery and soft with a compelling arrangement, and Nick and Sean stand out with strong vocals on "Stars and the Moon" and "Heart and Music," respectively.

The second act is almost perfect in terms of song selection, arrangement, and performance, but there are a few particularly effective choices. "Just Like Our Parents" tells a great story. "Getting Married Today," is funny and Mike is particularly charming as a groom with a serious case of the pre-wedding jitters. That song is countered by the humorous "Fine," which again features Dominic and Mike, this time after the honeymoon glow has waned. "Sleepy Man," is a hushed lullaby with Sean on lead vocals that envelopes you with warmth and love, while "Make Them Hear You" sees Dominic leading the charge in full, spirited voice. 

"In My Own Lifetime" gets a great interpretation by Ken, and Dominic provides the constant reassurance love needs on "I'll Be Here." Keith turns a certainty into a question in "One of the Good Guys," while Sean and the company offer a new lesson on tolerance with a haunting and cautionary "Children Will Listen." "You'll Be Back," from the musical Hamilton is a surprising and effective interpretation that gets lots of positive audience response, and "You Are the Light" closes the night with a hint of gospel that fits the inspiring and hopeful song. The song selection creates a lovely story arc and the men's voices perfectly suit the arrangements.

The men are dressed simply, in black slacks and solid colored shirts that span the rainbow, and are accompanied by Nate Jackson on a piano that's appropriately placed in front of the stage. There's no banter, so the sense of intimacy that usually characterizes a cabaret is somewhat lost, and the men seem a bit stiff and formal much of the time. Choreography isn't necessary in this format, however a more relaxed physical presence and a slightly looser, more conversational approach may enhance the emotional connection with the audience. Finally, some of the harmonies weren't quite on pitch the night I attended, but these men are all experienced professionals and I expect those errors will be corrected.

Out On Broadway: The Third Coming, in performance through August 19, 2017, is an original concept from New Line Theatre, with songs curated by Miller and associate artistic director Mike Dowdy-Windsor. The show, particularly the first half, feels a bit long for cabaret, but I'm not sure which songs I'd cut as each song has a distinct purpose. Additionally, the men interpret every song well, with intention and perspective that's clear, genuinely expressive, and uniformly well performed.  

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