When it comes to theaters, St. Louis has a leviathan complex. The Muny and the Fox are both too large to sustain a viable performer-audience rapport. If and when it's eventually refurbished, Kiel Opera House will be too large, as well. The Edison isn't too big, but with seats that face away from the stage, it's too weird. In that regard, the new Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus is not only welcome, it's desperately needed. It's no surprise that $52 million has purchased a knockout facility. (It darn well should.) But amid the "bigger-is-better" mentality that has long doomed other area theaters, the most impressive aspect of this new complex isn't how large it is, but how small. Admirable restraint has held the exquisite Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall -- a modern version of a classic opera house -- to a manageable 1,625 seats. St. Louis has not seen a theater space this simpatico since the American Theater got the stuffing knocked out of it too many years ago. (And there's even a 300-seat black-box theater on the premises, for good measure.) Clearly, the Blanche has a formidable challenge ahead as it sorts out its character: Campus center? North county arts center? Metro-area arts center? And the inaugural lineup, featuring Paul Williams, Melissa Manchester and the U.S. Army Field Band, ain't exactly the cutting edge of a happenin' arts scene. But here's hoping the road ahead is a smooth one.
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