RFT Spring Arts Guide 2012: Theater

Circus Flora returns to enchant and charm audiences.
Circus Flora returns to enchant and charm audiences. Photo courtesy of Steve Truesdell

RFT Spring Arts Guide 2012: Theater

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We could wax prosaic here at the outset with analogies to the merry month of May and how June will be busting out all over. But the straight fact is that spring is here, and its arrival is accompanied by a dizzying array of exceptional theater. Plays indoors and out, musical and dramatic, classical and irreverent. So much to see, so little time. The variety of offerings — and the level of talent — that will be passing through town during the next two months alone is unprecedented and, frankly, overwhelming.

May gets off to a rousing start with the national tour of the 2010 Tony Award-winning best musical, Memphis, at the Fox Theatre. Set in the 1950s at the dawn of rock & roll, Memphis begins in a musty cellar nightclub where the music throbs. Think of it like this: If you can't score tickets to see Chuck Berry, Memphis may well be the next best thing.

Riverdance's farewell tour follows Memphis at the Fox. Thanks to shows like Les Misérables that have cried "wolf" too many times, we've all grown suspicious of swan-song tours. But it really doesn't matter if this is the farewell tour or its maiden journey, this paean to all things musically Irish soars with electrifying sensuality.

At the end of May, we move outdoors and hope for starry nights. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis mounts Othello, the age-old tragedy of jealousy run amok. The title role will be played by Billy Eugene Jones, who comes to town straight from New York, where he was standing by for Samuel L. Jackson in The Mountaintop. Jones will have his own mountain to climb in Forest Park when he portrays the man "that loved not wisely but too well." Fortunately, Othello has the most direct-lined plot of any of Shakespeare's plays. A good production should hold an audience rapt.

Across town at the Webster University Loretto-Hilton Center, internationally renowned Opera Theatre of Saint Louis takes another rare dip into the Broadway canon with the 1979 Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical thriller, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Because Sweeney performs in repertory with three more conventional operas, be advised that there are only eight performances between May 26 and June 24. But Opera Theatre is going all out. Rod Gilfry repeats the title role he played last May when Sweeney (belatedly) premiered in Paris. The New York Times review hailed the production as justification for a trip to France and said that Gilfry "sings magnificently." Opera Theatre's Mrs. Lovett is Karen Ziemba, one of New York's most in-demand performers. This casting bodes well for an exhilarating evening of musical gore.

May will end with a smile when Circus Flora opens on May 31. It's hard to come up with new adjectives every year to describe the myriad charms of Circus Flora. Perhaps the most eloquent review would be to simply print a photo of the blissfully sad face of Nino the Clown (Giovanni Zoppé). If ever one face personified the balletic beauty and the guileless innocence of St. Louis' favorite circus, it is his.

Circus Flora isn't the only troupe that will be performing a high-wire act in June. St. Louis Actors' Studio will also go out on a limb with its staging of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The troupe's importing gifted actress Kathleen Quinlan to play the demonic Nurse Ratched, and they're surrounding her with many of the most talented actors in town. Then Actors' Studio is relocating from its cozy Gaslight Theater home down to Roberts Orpheum at Ninth and St. Charles streets — which is to say, we're actually going to have legitimate theater in the city center. Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Orpheum was named the American Theater. As St. Louis' primary touring house, the beautiful American played host to shows like The Music Man, Camelot, The Sound of Music, A Man for All Seasons and The Miracle Worker. The Cuckoo's Nest ensemble will enjoy the rare privilege of acting on a stage that reeks with theater history.

On Sunday, June 17, Idina Menzel — who came to fame with Rent, soared as Elpheba in Wicked and now has a recurring role on Glee — will pop into the Peabody Opera House as part of her latest concert tour, singing from a repertoire that includes Broadway standards old and new. The very next night, it's back to Forest Park for a new season and a fresh start at the Muny. The cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie includes Broadway veteran Leslie Uggams. Later that same week the five-day St. Lou Fringe Festival makes its debut. It's new, fresh, sassy. And if that's not enough to entice you, it's cheap! (Even so, all the money goes back to the artists, which is always a good thing.) There will be scores of shows to choose from, so dive in.

In addition to the above, there are also productions from Act Inc. (when's the last time you saw John Van Druten's 1942 comedy, The Damask Cheek?), the Black Rep, HotCity Theatre, Insight Theatre Company, Max & Louie Productions, New Jewish Theatre and Stages St. Louis. It's exhausting just to think about it all. Indeed, this is a theater spring unlike any other. We shall not see its like again. (At least not until next May.) So enjoy. — Dennis Brown

Casual Classical
Union Avenue Opera opens its eighteenth season this very weekend. You may think you can't get in the door without a tux or tiara (or both), but that's not the case. There's no formal dress code, tickets are affordable and the cozy confines of the Union Avenue Christian Church (733 North Union Boulevard; 314-361-2881 or www.unionavenueopera.org) are welcoming to everybody. The UAO presents fully staged, high-quality operas in their original languages — you'll be amazed at the number of vocalists and musicians who can jam into the performing space. And don't worry about the "original language" thing if you're a monoglot; English subtitles are projected for your convenience.

Handel's pastoral opera, Acis and Galatea (April 27 through 29), follows the ill-starred romance of Galatea, a nymph, and Acis, a shepherd. The main obstacle to their love is Polyphemus, a malevolent giant who also loves Galatea. He's what one would call an ardent suitor, going so far as to murder Acis to clear the path to the nymph. Oddly, she doesn't appreciate this. It's a beautiful, sad tale delivered in the Baroque fashion. Even Polyphemus' furious declaration of intent, "I rage, I burn, I melt," is delivered in a gorgeously filigreed aria. You'll have your heart broken, but it will be smashed by a velvet hammer.

Another tale about the grim consequences of the love triangle — the odd man out always gets stuck on the point — Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (June 29, 30; July 6, 7) was inspired by the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. In Verdi's capable hands this becomes a tale of Colonial America, with Riccardo (the governor of Boston) pining for Amelia, who is the wife of his best friend, Renato. Amelia secretly loves Riccardo as well, a fact he discovers through the agency of local fortune teller, Ulrica. Riccardo and Amelia's love is discovered by Renato, who then plots to kill his now former best friend to get even. What should be a glittering masked ball becomes a scene of bloodshed and betrayal, and then forgiveness. Try to keep a dry eye during "Ma se m'e forza perderti" ("But if I am forced to lose you"), Riccardo's aria about duty winning out over his heart.

Wagnerians, rejoice. UAO closes its season with the prelude to the sprawling Der Ring des Nibelungen. Das Rheingold (August 17, 18, 24, 25) is the shortest of the Ring operas, and even it requires massive amounts of brass and string instruments, seven harps, tuned anvils and a thunder machine. How's that all gonna fit in the Union Avenue church? Well, UAO is mounting the reduced version of the opera adapted by Jonathan Dove. The orchestra requirements are lessened, but the power and the sweep of the music is still there. The story is also trimmed, but the essential bits are all there. A hoard of gold is stolen by the dwarf, Alberich, and this gold can be made into an all-powerful ring. The god Wotan needs this ring to get the goddess Freia out of a bad bargain he made with a pair of brother giants. The conflicting desire for this gold then sets in motion a series of events that culminates — three operas from now, mind you — in the destruction of the gods and the world. This will be the first American performance of Dove's reduction in German — if you're a Wagnerian, you can't pass up the chance to have this on your list. — Paul Friswold

No Longer on the Fringe
American Fringe fests launched fifteen years ago in New York City. Now these exuberant, unjuried and uncensored celebrations of ham, which have been diverting Britons since 1947, are popular throughout the USA. Our neighbor to the west, Kansas City, began hosting one in 2005. St. Louis will no longer be marginalized — this summer we get a breakthrough season Fringe Festival premiere of our very own! Here's a partial list of brave performing artists that you, bold festivalgoer, can expect to see in the purlieus of the Midtown Historic District from June 21 to 25: aerialists, burlesque dancers, cabaret singers, clowns, poets, thespians and vaudevillians. Ten national entertainers, as well as twenty local ensembles (like the Goddessy Project and Tesseract's Incredible Mischief Emporium) have signed up to hook the city into the act. Peek ahead to May 15 when St. Louis Fringe and Fubar will present a "Fringe Tease" preview showcase of troupers cast to appear in the upcoming revels. — Suzy Rust

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Typically, a less-than-stellar salon experience means uneven bangs or being forced to read an issue of InStyle from August 2009. A mediocre trip to the bakery results in broken cookies or a cake that reads "Hapy Birtday Mom!" But in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, true menace lurks within the local barbershop — and at the cute little pie purveyor down the street. This darkly comedic masterpiece takes center stage at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves) May 26 through June 24 (there are eight performances in total; visit www.opera-stl.org for the full schedule). Set in Victorian England, Sweeney Todd tells the macabre (yet often hilarious) tale of a murderous barber and an unhinged baker with a meat shortage. The two hatch a plan, and – before you can say, "Wait, what kind of pie is this again?" — the plot unfolds. Enjoy the wickedly fun story and mesmerizing score that only a genius like Sondheim could create. Rod Gilfry stars as Sweeney Todd, with Stephen Lord and Ron Daniels conducting and directing, respectively. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the website or call 314-961-0644. — Brooke Foster

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