Popular opera wisdom holds that Paris prefers spectacle, so their opera ballet, sets and costumes, grandiloquent scenes and exotic locales have often triumphed over music.
Georges Bizet's 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers, which Opera Theatre of St. Louis opened last Sunday evening, certainly has (for 1863) an exotic locale. But public television has stripped Ceylon of much of its mystery and has acquainted us with its music, national dress, music and so on. The opera has possibilities for spectacular sets -- a lush but dangerous tropical-island beach, a ruined temple and wild, craggy cliffs offered the old-fashioned set designer manifold opportunities to show off. And the plot has its grandiloquence: brotherly friendship challenged by both guys' having a thing for the same girl.
Today, unfortunately, exoticism occurs only in comedy/adventure movies and Rambo-type gun battles between us good guys and misguided Third Worlders who always seem to be having bad-facial-hair days. So how does Opera Theatre, where "theater" is as important as "opera," make The Pearl Fishers new?
First, it bespeaks gifted young performers -- tenor Gregory Turay, for instance, who not only has a lush, powerful lyric voice but looks like a romantic lead as well. The best friend, baritone Mel Ulrich, seems somewhat older than Turay -- and so he should, for Turay is only 25 -- but this is appropriate for a best-friend role. Ulrich's voice, however, is strong and wide ranging. The opera's most celebrated musical moment, the Act 1 duet between tenor romantic lead and baritone best friend, requires the latter to reach up to notes usually reserved for tenors, which Ulrich does handily. His strongly acted dramatic aria at he beginning of Act 3 is sung with great musical feeling. The soprano love interest, Mary Dunleavy, matches both men in power and sweetness. Her role, however, does not involve much acting -- she is, alas, a sex object.
Stage director Travis Preston supplies a different sort of exoticism by turning the plot into a psychiatrist-induced hypnotic dream with a great deal of mysterious but visually interesting symbolism. Dunleavy, for instance, spends much of Act 2 suspended in a moon made like a chambered nautilus; dancers in diving helmets menace the principals with harpoon spears. South Sea women wear tulle tutus. Busby Berkeley, Jules Verne and Sigmund Freud join hands in this intelligent camp, and the production is a lot like the great lobby of the Fox -- silly and oddly beautiful at the same time. Christopher Barreca's sets and Christopher Akerlind's lighting are fun; Victoria Morgan's choreography carries the camp a bit too far.
Conductor Steuart Bedford sets a most satisfying tempo, and the orchestra sounds wonderful. Bizet's music is light but immensely appealing, and Bedford consistently makes the most of it, so The Pearl Fishers becomes an archetypal cute show. Just the thing for a hot summer night.
-- Harry Weber
Fiddler on the Roof
By Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Stages St. Louis
Motel the tailor celebrates his tradition-shattering engagement to Tzeitel the dairyman's daughter as a "Miracle of Miracles." Fiddler on the Roof, the musical in which this happens, is something of a miracle itself. By focusing on Tevye the dairyman and the impact on him of the abrupt changes turning his world upside down in the new 20th century, Joseph Stein's book manages to unify the four Sholom Aleichem stories it adapts for the show. Stein makes us believe that all these changes could really happen in one Russian Jewish family in 1905. Though the characters wear identifying labels -- dairyman, wife, daughter, tailor, student, matchmaker, butcher -- the script makes each of them an individual, not just a type. Stein shamelessly pushes all the easy emotional buttons about parents and children, lovers and weddings, ethnic animosities and reconciliations, and America as the welcoming golden refuge. And he throws in old jokes and vaudeville routines with beards as long and white as the rabbi's. Yet he does all this with such unaffected affection that you swallow it with pleasure and without embarrassment. If Sheldon Harnick's lyrics too often go flat where a little imagination could give them a joyful lift, Jerry Bock's ingratiating music hums happily along over those dull spots.
I can't say I felt any aching need for another Fiddler right now -- the show made one of its many Muny appearances just last summer. But the current Stages production adds pleasures of its own to those in the book and score. Among the most gratifying of these I count Michael Hamilton's growing mastery as a director. This is a fluid, tight, well-paced, energy-filled show. Dana Lewis adapts Jerome Robbins' original choreography to the small Kirkwood Civic Center stage with her usual imagination and flair. Dunsi Dai, Lou Bird and Matthew McCarthy envelop the production in appealing visual wrappings. Dai's set gives us the picturesque poverty of cottages that float over the proscenium and into the sky. Bird magically makes his costumes look both drab and colorful, with a big assist from McCarthy's shrewdly chosen lights. But if Bird is responsible for the cast's wigs, his magic ended when it got to Tevye's daughters. Kari Ely escapes relatively unscathed, but Stephanie Beschta and Amanda Gabbard have painfully unattractive bundles of yarn stuck on their heads. While I'm complaining about technical items, I'll note again the glaringly artificial synthesized sounds emanating from the pit, compounded with the boomy amplification of the cast's voices. Surely in a theater as small as Kirkwood's and with proper discretion in the pit, this cast doesn't need amplification.
A fine castit is, too. Zoe Vonder Haar makes Tevye's wife, Golde, neither shrew nor victim but a rounded, sympathetic person. Singing or acting, Ely, Beschta and Gabbard all charm as Tevye's spunky daughters. Dean Christopher, Steven Fales and Matt Foy add rich details to their portraits of the girls' tradition-shattering suitors. Augie Amato brings a big presence to the role of the rejected suitor Lazar Wolf the butcher, and Susie Wall knows precisely what to do with Yente the matchmaker's gags.
Rich Pisarkiewicz has appeared in a couple of productions in which Theodore Bikel played Tevye, and some of Pisarkiewicz's gestures as Tevye have the size of Bikel's gestures. They're more appropriate for someone of Bikel's girth, and they impose a somewhat stylized manner on Pisarkiewicz's performance at times. But as the evening progresses, Pisarkiewicz makes the role his own. Always his timing and his sensitivity to the nuances of the character are fine, and his mellow singing voice fits the bemused, amused, long-suffering dairyman. He's the right age, too -- he looks like his daughters' father, not their grandfather.
If you feel the need for another visit to Anatevka, Stages' Fiddler on the Roof will make you glad you came.
-- Bob Wilcox
The Herbal Bed
By Peter Whelan
Actors Renaissance Theatre
Given a cast of eight well-prepared actors, an intelligent director and a plot based on the real lives of interesting people in an interesting period of English history, Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, which opened last weekend in Washington University's Studio Theater, ought to be pretty good. The plot -- a false accusation made in malice -- is familiar, but Whelan presents some twists to make matters morally and intellectually challenging. He also knows how to set up conflicts that expand into emotional conflagrations and supplies the players with good words to say.
The Herbal Bed's protagonist is William Shakespeare's daughter Susanna (Lori Kessler), married to a decent and dedicated physician, John Hall (Ted Cancila). Alas, she -- as well as the household servant, Hester Fletcher (Michelle Radke) -- is attracted to her husband's friend, Rafe Smith (Andrew Richards), and he to her. When her husband's lowlife student, Jack Lane (David S. Brink), is dismissed from Dr. Hall's house, he slanders them. They bring charges in ecclesiastical court, but the politic bishop (Mark Moloney) hands the delicate case over to his vicar-general (Kenn Rudolph), who, like a great many religious zealots, pushes things too far. Virtue triumphs (it is, after all, a theatrical performance), but Susanna's skirts are a bit muddied in the process.
The acting is, in my opinion, first-rate, and several well-known local actors turn in their best work to date. David Brink, for instance, oozes malice as a toad does poison. Kessler expresses the plight of a continued on page 68continued from page 66rational woman in a time when women (and many men) were not allowed to be rational with great power and charm. Michelle Radke is most affecting as a gentle, lovelorn, conscience-racked young woman.
I'm not conscious of having seen either Andrew Richards or Kenn Rudolph before, but I look forward to seeing them again. Rudolph makes the fanatical vicar-general genuinely frightening. Richards' well-trained voice and fluent body language are also impressive. Mark Moloney is a gentle, timid elderly bishop, and Lauren Brand is sweet and winning as the Halls' daughter, Elizabeth. Patrick Huber's sets and lights are better than competent, although his Christ-at-prayer stained window is more First Methodist of Memphis, Tenn., than Worchester Cathedral. Michelle Radke's costumes are generally acceptable.
It's too bad that The Herbal Bed is an hour-and-a-half longer than it should be, and an explanatory prologue by the play's dramaturg, whose program note is as interesting and well said as the lecture is redundant, doesn't help. But the acting and direction are genuinely exceptional, and The Herbal Bed is more than worth the time of anyone who follows local theater.
-- Harry Weber
Conceived by Julianne Boyd, music by Eubie Blake
St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Without a plot and characters to engage an audience's minds and emotions and to pull the evening together, a musical revue must rely only on the quality of the individual songs and the skill of the performers. Most revues make me wish they had cut three or four numbers, so I'd leave wanting more instead of getting restless. So it is with Eubie, the evening of songs by composer Eubie Blake now being presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.
On the other hand, any time I walk into a theater and see a tuba in the band, I figure the music is going to be fun. With Neal Tate leading the small combo and with the singers blending on Dello Thedford's vocal arrangements, this music can be both fun and, when it should be, quite lovely.
Many of the songs are fun, too. Blake thoroughly immersed himself in the vaudeville and musical theater of the first decades of the century. If some of his music sounds the same after a while, part of that sameness lies in its energy, its tunefulness, the sheer joy of making music even about sadness.
Jim Burwinkel's two-level set echoes the design of theaters from the period of Blake's greatest hit, 1921's Shuffle Along, and it gives choreographer Vivian Watt ample space for her fertile imagination to work on the dance styles of the period. The costumes of Reggie Ray and Gregory Horton range wittily from cotton prints to white tie and tails.
I commit a crime when I single out only a few from the multitalented cast director Ron Himes has assembled. But I have to rejoice in Denise Thimes' down-and-dirty "My Handyman Ain't Handy Any More" (with Gregory R. Tayborn II's accompanying comic antics), Eddie Webb's sly "I'm a Great Big Baby" and Nicole La Beach's teasing "If You've Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You've Never Been Vamped at All." And Karen Elizabeth Hylton blew me away with her "Memories of You." I could listen to a whole evening of her jazz vocals.
-- Bob Wilcox
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