St. Louis did not lack for memorable productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals this year. In addition to Sunday in the Park with George at the Rep (see "Best Ensemble Cast in a Musical"), Sondheim's 1979 musical thriller Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was galvanizing. Sweeney seems to defy categorization. Some describe it as a musical; others as an opera. Sondheim has labeled it "a movie for the stage." Whatever it is, it grabs you by the throat and only lets go long enough to allow you to be transported by hauntingly beautiful melodies. In the title role, Rod Gilfry loomed over an already towering production. In terms of ardent encomiums, it would be tough to top the Chicago Tribune reviewer who wrote that if there were any justice in the theater world, Opera Theatre's Sweeney Todd "would go straight to Broadway and run forever." And if it did, the theater marquee would have a big sign in lights that read: DIRECT FROM ST. LOUIS.
We're not talking solely about the singers here. We're talking about the entire Sunday in the Park with George acting company — aided, abetted by and integrated with the entire production staff and director Rob Ruggiero. And we're talking about the unstinting support that all these visiting artists received from the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staff. Everyone involved came together in rare harmony to make Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical a sublime theatergoing experience. Even the program notes by art-history professor Jeffrey Hughes were evening enhancing. There's a maxim that if a play or film is going to work, everyone has to want to tell the same story. Sound easy? Think again. "Art isn't easy," Georges Seurat complains in Sunday in the Park with George. True, it's not. But when, ever so rarely, everyone is an integral part of telling the same story, as everyone was in this stunning Rep production, the result can be ineffably beautiful.
Almost exactly a year ago, Em Piro, an actress, trapeze artist and social worker, decided St. Louis would have its own fringe festival in the summer of 2012. Never mind that she had no money or resources, that she had never before organized anything on such a grand scale or that most St. Louisans had no idea what a fringe festival was. St. Lou Fringe, a four-day unjuried performing-arts festival featuring 30 local and national acts, would open June 21 in the Locust Business District, come hell or high water. Hell and high water didn't actually come. But there were dramatic last-minute scrambles for venues and funds, a rotating assembly of performers who dropped out and needed to be replaced and the thousands of other small irritations that come with planning any sort of event. Through it all, Piro and cohorts Billy Croghan and Tara Daniels never lost their cool or stopped speaking kindly to one another. The show went on. Owing to an unfortunate scheduling conflict with PrideFest, it was perhaps not as populated as Piro would have hoped, but by all other measures, it was a success: The audiences, while small, were appreciative, the event came in under budget, and Piro had such a good time that she can't wait to do it again. Watch out, y'all, here comes St. Lou Fringe 2013.
Travis Tyler made a name for himself on the freestyle circuit long before he swore his life to God, changed his moniker to Thi'sl and landed an album on top of the iTunes hip-hop chart. He grew up dealing drugs in west St. Louis, but turned his life around after a horrible chain of events: One of his best friends killed his cousin in broad daylight. Tyler was brought in for questioning when his friend turned up dead a few weeks later, and when the dust settled Thi'sl was born. He is a huge presence, quick with a rhyme and endlessly charismatic. He's got a bright smile and a professional manner that has endeared him to an unusually wide range of people around the country. And he has having no trouble finding new fans every day. Sometimes it all works out.
Sir Thurl is more than a man with an ear for what's going to keep the floor moving — though as his nickname "The Official Party Starter" attests, he is that too. He's the CEO of Allstar DJ Service, managing several of his cohorts for gigs at parties and events. He's half of the Lou Gotti Boyz hosting the critical 7 to 10 p.m. show on Hot 104.1 FM, and he hosts the STL Playlist Mix on Sundays at 9 p.m. Sir Thurl has also been entrusted by no less a local legend than Murphy Lee to play the role of his official DJ, hosting the man's mixtapes and joining him as he tours around the country.
Tim Gebauer has officially released exactly zero songs with his current songwriting project and booked as many official shows. So where do we get off putting him here, atop a crowded field of St. Louisans with razor-sharp pens? Well, as any who have seen Gebauer perform at an open-mic (with no amplifiers, standing on top of a chair, always) can attest, the man has plenty to say and no shortage of tools with which to say it. He writes about love with deeply resonant simplicity and sings with an easy grace and power. And we feel pretty confident about his ability to commit this stuff to tape — the man's been in bands in St. Louis for several decades and runs a commercial recording studio to boot. What unites all his disparate efforts in music is his endless curiosity and joy for wrangling sound waves of all shapes and sizes.
Theresa Payne has taken the long road to becoming the showstopping, hair-raising live force she is today. Her stops along the way include a long history of songwriting and some time spent as what she describes as an "inspirational gospel" singer. Personal struggles, including the loss of her brother in a truck-driving accident and her own battles with self-image, helped Payne find a voice that is wise and true. Her latest EP, The Moment, which came out this February, is elegant, strange and one of the best St. Louis records of the year. She credits everyone from God to Rockwell Knuckles (and most of the rest of the Force collective) in the liner notes, but this kind of power doesn't come from anywhere but a singular talent among this city's crowded R&B scene.
The tradition of bluegrass may be as old as St. Louis itself, but Elemental Shakedown isn't content to be a museum piece. The five members of the band come from across different corners of the country and have backgrounds in music about as diverse. They give the Midwest bluegrass scene — which often pits purists against progressives — a much-needed burst of creative energy. After a couple of years of playing pop songs arranged as bluegrass, guitarist Chris Helmick, bassist Matt Flory and funky fiddler Alyssa Avery brought on two long-time music vets to take the helm on staple bluegrass instruments. They struck gold, with Bob Stuckey of Indiana on banjo and St. Louis native Bryan Ranney on mandolin. Last year, Elemental Shakedown began performing original compositions that kick up against bluegrass' sometimes-rigid boundaries, exploring subgenres like jazz-grass, jam-grass, avant-garde-grass and, perhaps most wonderfully, funk-grass. To them, it's all booty-shaking, foot-stomping fun.
When listening to Pat Wolfe on the radio, the mind tends to wander. Who is the man with the rich baritone delivery — the perfect "radio voice"? The name of Wolfe's show, Interstate, completes the illusion. This Wolfe must be a lone one — a renegade type in a leather jacket, sitting behind the microphone while chain-smoking Winstons and dreaming up his next roadhouse adventure. And then you meet him, and.... Let's put it this way: Wolfe's station profile photo has him posing next to a drawing of Kermit the Frog. But that's the beauty of this medium. You can be a toad and still be drop-dead gorgeous. And from 10 a.m. to noon each Friday, Wolfe (a volunteer DJ whose day job is operating a customer call center in Alton) is the most sublime sound on the dial. His dulcet voice has you wanting him to stretch that weather report or program note out a few more seconds, yet Wolfe rarely satisfies in that regard. He's too into his music (alt-country, Americana and straight-up rock & roll) to waste his own breath — no matter how much we wish he would.
Diane Toroian Keaggy is a features reporter in the best sense of the term. She doesn't cover what the old hacks call "real news" but instead deals in the lighter side of life. Oh, she could probably tackle the heavy stuff — check out how she takes your typical Mother's Day newspaper story to the zoo and reveals the savage and tender world of fennec fox motherhood — but Keaggy is at her best when she's enjoying herself. Or as she described herself in her story about the local blog What High School Should We Call Me? "I embrace all things that could be described as 'hipster' or, for that matter 'nonsense.'" That sense of whimsy leads her into delightful corners of the world, such as a plan for eating a different sandwich every day (many of them with recipes) and an extensive interview with Paul Levesque, better known as pro-wrestling superstar Triple H, in which Mr. H reveals that the man-monster Kane is a speed-reading political junkie. Is any of this information essential? Absolutely none of it is — but it's entertaining as all get-out, and some days that's far more valuable than an inverted pyramid about the latest violent crime.
Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical is a two-pronged assault. Prong one, the obvious one, lampoons the classic movie-musical format (e.g., Oklahoma! and Hello, Dolly! — note the proclivity for exclamation marks!). Prong two is a juvenile attack on his unfaithful college girlfriend, who shares a name with the horse of the main character, who happens to be a man-eating idiot. So it's crass and childish as well as being subtle and devious, and it skewers everyone. Suki and Brian Peters mounted an independent production of this low-budget cult classic that was a grade-A, classic example of how budget has nothing to do with talent. With a massive cast, high-quality opening and closing video credits, and some of the most relentlessly silly performances seen anywhere, Cannibal! was more than just foul-mouthed, mean-spirited fun; it was brilliant theater. That was the last thing you'd expect from a show that has as its showstopper a man singing "When I Was on Top of You" to his beloved horse — and yet damned if that wasn't a touching-slash-unsettling moment. The show's run began and ended in late 2011, but rumor has it we might get another bite at this one. You can bet we'll be checking www.cannibal-stl.com for updates.