St. Louis Stage Capsules

Dennis Brown, Lew Prince and Paul Friswold suss out the local theater scene

 Newly Reviewed
Annie Reviewed in this issue.

The Ghosts of Versailles Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais wrote three plays about lovable con man and fixer, Figaro. Rossini and Mozart turned the first two, Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, into operas. His third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, is the basis for the events depicted in The Ghosts of Versailles as Beaumarchais' ghost produces an opera to win the love of the ghost of Marie Antoinette. John Corigliano's ambitious score — he won an Oscar for The Red Violin — deftly exploits all the devices of modern classical music; it creates a swirl of flowing motifs on which ghostly voices hover. Meanwhile, arias in a style he calls "pseudo classical" keep Ghosts firmly rooted in — and poking fun at — opera's clichés and foibles. William Hoffman's libretto cleverly expands the operatic satire. James Robinson, Opera Theater of St. Louis' go-to director for contemporary work (Miss Havisham's Fire, Nixon in China), combines movable scenery and projections to work miracles on OTSL's small stage. Through June 27 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $25 to $117 ($15 for students, K-12 teachers and active military, subject to availability). Call 314-961-0644 or visit www.opera-stl.org.
—Lew Prince

Ongoing
Blues in the Night Held together by the loosest of plots — three women in a Chicago hotel lament their solitary status by singing the blues — Sheldon Epps' revue lives and dies by the performances of its singers. In this production it thrives. Director Ron Himes has three vocalists — Anita Jackson, Leah Stewart and Willena Vaughn — with three distinct voices, each capable of great power. As the Girl, Stewart sings with an exuberant smile and an infectious optimism that represents youth. Anita Jackson has a diva's flair and the belting power of a classic broad; her renditions of "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Kitchen Man" polish every dirty joke hidden in the poetry of the language, and her "Wasted Life Blues" is emotionally devastating. Willena Vaughn is simply a force of nature. Vaughn's upper register has a 1930s era-appropriate nasal quality, and her low notes have a burr that catches in your heart. She swings through "Stompin' at the Savoy" with exhilarating beauty, and her "Rough and Ready Man" is gutbucket-gold, a snarling, hungry declaration of unrepentant lust. Presented by the Black Rep through June 28 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $17 to $43 ($5 discount for students and seniors; $10 rush seats available for students 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-534-1834 or visit www.theblackrep.org.
— Paul Friswold

Il Re Pastore Props to director Chas Rader-Shieber for turning a frothy little lagniappe into a night of rich theater. Mozart composed this opera (whose title translates to The Shepherd King) for a royal house party at the tender age of nineteen. Fourteen bright tunes and little else are the usual lure of this seldom-performed piece. Rader-Shieber's brilliant notion resets it as a play within a play at a nineteenth-century English country house. A deliciously subtle subtext about class and destiny, plus just the right dash of humor, turn what could have been an academic exercise into a graceful evening of intelligent entertainment. In a demonstration of pure stagecraft, the five principal singers create Rader-Shieber's new context without aid of a single word or much of Mozart's music. The singing, too, is topnotch, gliding lightly on Mozart's airy melodies, improvising delightfully along the way. Through June 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $25 to $117 ($15 for students, K-12 teachers and active military, subject to availability). Call 314-961-0644 or visit www.opera-stl.org. (LP)

La Bohème Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opens its 34th season with Giacomo Puccini's magnificent tearjerker and all-time-great "date opera." The English translation of Bohème is alive with puns and wordplay Puccini would have loved. Director Tim Ocel and his spirited young cast use this wonderful libretto to paint a lively and vivid picture of a bunch of hipsters and dropouts living the Bohemian life in Paris' Latin Quarter at the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The six principal singers have fabulous stage chemistry. They act as well as they sing — and boy, can they sing. Through June 27 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $25 to $117 ($15 for students, K-12 teachers and active military, subject to availability). Call 314-961-0644 or visit www.opera-stl.org. (LP)

The Lady from Dubuque Another sojourn in the suburbs with Edward Albee, and yet another golden opportunity for those whose life goal is to see every Albee play ever written. This 1980 meditation on loss, pain and death begins as fun and games (or, as Albee phrases it, "your nice, average, desperate evening") but soon devolves into a theatrical quilt in which the author baldly stitches together situations and even lines from his earlier, better-written plays. It's hard to discern Albee's purpose in writing this work. If he's trying to allay our fear of death, he fails, because this is Albee at his most astringent and unpleasant. If it's solace you seek, check out the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday or even Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Although there's nothing overtly wrongheaded about this Muddy Waters staging, neither does it illuminate an already dim work. Through June 28 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard (in the Big Brothers Big Sisters building). Tickets are $20 ($15 for students and seniors). Call 314-540-7831 or visit www.muddywaterstheatre.com.
— Dennis Brown

The Last 5 Years Theater composer Jason Robert Brown has had the audacity to dissect his failed marriage in this two-character, semi-autobiographical song cycle. Playful yet serious, exuberant yet tender, simple yet labyrinthine — there has not been a more ambitious or rewarding musical in recent memory. Jamie tells his version of what went wrong in sequential order; Cathy starts at the end and sings her way back to happier times. Though there's not a lot of space onstage, actors April Strelinger and Jeffrey M. Wright find all the room they need between the lyrics. The Last 5 Years lasts only 85 minutes, but we leave the theater knowing we've seen something both joyous and artful. Produced by New Jewish Theatre through June 21 at Clayton High School's Little Theatre, 2 Mark Twain Circle, Clayton. Tickets are $28 to $30 ($2 discount for seniors and JCC members). Call 314-442-3283 or visit www.newjewishtheatre.org. (DB)

Little Shop of Horrors Director Michael Hamilton focuses the cast's efforts on the "comedy" more than the "horror" part of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's horror-musical comedy, and that's fine — until we witness Seymour (Ben Nordstrom) feeding what appears to be three feet of lower intestine to blood-hungry plant Audrey II (voiced in delectable basso profundo by Geno Segers), under strobing lightning blasts. It's a shockingly graphic scene and a touch incongruous with the light tone previously established. But the show is overwhelmingly fun and family-friendly, mostly thanks to Nordstrom's endearingly nebbishy Seymour, a loose-limbed bundle of eye pops, open-mouthed gasps and spontaneous outbursts of repressed passion. Maria Couch's portrayal of his love, Audrey, is equally fantastic. Todd Dubail wrings every erg of sadistic glee from villainous dentist Orin Scrivello, and the murderous Audrey II is visually stunning in her growth and mobility; puppeteers Marc A. Petrosino, Monte J. Howell and Shaun Sheley do bang-up work bringing her to life. Presented by Stages St. Louis through June 28 at the Robert G. Reim Theater, 111 South Geyer Road, Kirkwood. Tickets are $48 ($28 for children, $45 for seniors; rush seats for students and seniors $15 at the door). Call 314-821-2407 or visit www.stagesstlouis.org. (PF)

Salome Combine Richard Strauss' serpentine 90-minute tone poem, a libretto derived from Oscar Wilde's scandalous play, suicide, regicide, seduction, incest, necrophilia and a rendition of the notorious "Dance of the Seven Veils" that puts Rita Hayworth to shame. Add brilliant vocal performances, especially soprano Kelly Kaduce's luminous tour-de-force — which climaxes in a blood-drenched, shuddering orgasm astride the severed head of John the Baptist — and you get the most mind-blowing piece of theater I've seen in all my years of reviewing opera for RFT. The free preview, which starts an hour before each night's performance, is highly recommended. Through June 28 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $25 to $117. Call 314-961-0644 or visit www.opera-stl.org. (LP)

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