By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

By CB Adams

According to Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, “The circus comes as close to being the world in microcosm as anything I know. In a way, it puts all the rest of show business in the shade.”

With the launch of its 36th season, Circus Flora continues its dedication to providing St. Louis with an entertainment that is equal parts circus arts and theatrical performance. If your idea of a circus is limited to men driving around in small cars dressed as clowns or a lion tamer snapping whip, then you are more than ready for the Circus Flora experience.

Circus Flora, with shows through July 3, is a one-ring circus, and that’s one of its best attributes. The action close and intimate, and the performers engage the audience from above, around the ring and in the aisles. Unlike the circuses of yore, Circus Flora is presented theatrically, with a plot that changes each year. This year’s is “The Quest for the Innkeeper’s Cask.” It involves the antics of the Spirit Sleuths as they seek the fabled ghost of an Innkeeper and her cask of stolen human spirits in the caves beneath St. Louis.

The plot incorporates world-renowned acts like the Flying Wallendas, local acts like the St. Louis Arches and original music, ala Django Reinhardt, performed live. The show begins with an introduction by the clown, Yo-Yo the Storyteller, played with gravitas, wit and just the right amount of spookiness by Cecil MacKinnon.

As an exquisitely costumed clown, MacKinnon keeps the plot (which she co-created with Artistic Director Jack Marsh) and performances briskly moving throughout the show. She has performed with and created shows for Circus Flora since its founding in 1986 and currently serves as the theater director – and that experience shows. She’s one of the best parts of this production.

The Spirit Sleuths are a fun mélange of Ghostbusters, Scooby Doo and Our Gang. The troupe is led by the excellent featured performers: Ambrose Martos and Britt Lower. Ambrose is an actor, clown and host who has performed with Cirque du Soleil’s Joya as well as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Good Cop and Gotham. Lower can currently be seen as the lead role of Helly in the Apple TV+ show Severance. In “Innkeeper’s Cask, “ the Heyworth, IL native acts, sings and plays the ukulele.

One of the gems of this show is the lively music, with traces of klezmer, gypsy and flamenco, that enhances the action and humor in the ring. This superb soundtrack is thanks to Janine Del’Arte, musical director, composer and arranger, as well as Miriam Cutler, composer.

Acrobats, daredevils, aerialists and tumblers are creatively woven into the “Innkeeper’s Cask” story. Returning for 2022 are The Flying Wallendas (highwire), The Flying Cortes (trapeze) and The Daring Horseman (equine companions). Also returning are The St. Louis Arches, a troupe composed of performers 11 to 18 years old, with an impressive floor show. The Arches hail from Circus Harmony, St. Louis’s only social circus school. Circus Harmony also offers recreational classes and preprofessional training. Circus Harmony uses the teaching and performing of circus arts to motivate social change.

New to this year’s Circus Flora Big Top are Sam & Louis, who perform a “Russian cradle” aerial act and Trio Black Diamond, a three-person balancing act from Ethiopia.

Circus Flora in general and “The Quest for the Innkeeper’s Cask” particular packs more for a family’s entertainment dollar while also maintaining a high level of artistic and theatrical integrity (not to mention face painting and pony rides on the midway).

The Colombian artist Fernando Botero once said, “The circus leaves a sweet memory.” “The Quest for the Innkeeper’s Cask” certain does.

Circus Flora’s “The Quest for the Innkeeper’s Cask” runs through July 3, including new theme nights: Baseball Night (June 15), Hockey Night (June 22) and Pride Night (June 29).

By CB Adams

“Carmen” is no stranger to controversy. As far back as its premiere in 1875, audiences and reviewers were put off by the opera’s depiction of the lifestyles of commoners and bohemians, and their supposed immorality and lawlessness – not to mention the onstage death of Carmen herself. Flash forward to Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s 47th season opener, “Carmen,” at the Browning Theatre in the Loretto-Hilton Center, and there may be a bit of operatic controversy afoot as well.

That’s because Director Rodula Gaitanou has updated the setting and Carmen herself to appeal to more modern sensibilities. Gaitanou has moved the mid-19th century Spanish setting to the 1950s and, correspondingly, uniformed the original army into Franco’s Guardia Civil. 

But it is Carmen herself, initially seen dragging a bloody bull’s head across the stage, who is distinctly reimagined in OTSL’s production. Carmen is often presented as a stereotypical, exotic, Spanish seductress – as hot as the “Habanera” she sings early in the opera. Not so in this production. Gaitanou provides a headstrong, independent Carmen – one that doesn’t need to prove her ability to turn a man’s heart and head with a flashy red dress, a provocative sashay or even stiletto heels. The audience is challenged to accept Carmen’s ability to inspire the men around her, as well as to witness her fatal attraction to the ideals captured in her final duet with Don José: “But whether I live or die / No! No! No! I will not give in.”

That idealistic inflexibility leads, even in this interpretation, to her inevitable demise.

Yunuet Laguna. Photo by Eric Woolsey

Gaitanou’s Carmen, as sung by Sarah Mesko, is more formidable, though no less unforgettable. She even rides through some scenes on a motorcycle, like a sort of Daughter of Anarchy. In other scenes, she sports a matador jacket, a visual metaphor for a woman who – ultimately fatally – runs and fights with men rather than the bulls.

To spend more time explaining Gaitanou’s artistic choices for the presentation of Carmen is to risk providing a lopsided review of the rest of this fine production. To Gaitanou’s credit, this production elevates and balances the role of Carmen with her love interests, Don José, sung by Adam Smith, and Escamillo, sung by Christian Pursell. Both are strong, masculine and believable – and Mesko’s Carmen is up to the challenges posed by these two males.

The standout performance among this strong cast is provided by Yunuet Laguna as Micaëla. Clad throughout as a dowdy, frumpy (and even pregnant by Don José) village maiden, Laguna’s “Je dis que rien m’epouvante” shines forth as a potent, if plaintive, Jiminy Cricket counterpoint to Carmen’s shinier persona. That a supporting role can rise to such showstopping prominence proves this production’s overall high quality and integrity.

Under the baton of Daniela Candillari, Opera Theatre’s new principal conductor, the Saint Louis Symphony impressively projects as if it were a larger ensemble of musicians and more than does justice to Bizet’s score.

Also noteworthy is the subtle-yet-profound sets and costumes by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Christopher Akerlind. “Carmen” is often associated with a fiery red and other brash, bullfighty colors. In contrast, this production evokes a Spain dusted in a drab desert palette, which is perfect for the most important splash of red at Carmen’s culminating death scene.

Opera Theatre’s “Carmen” continues at 7:30 p.m. on Jun 8, 12, 16, and 25 and at 12:30 p.m. on Jun 4 and 22. For more information on the 2022 Festival Season or for tickets, visit:

The ensemble of “Carmen.” Photo by Eric Woolsey.

By CB Adams

One of the key achievements of successful fast food chains is that no matter where you travel, an entrée tastes consistently the same. Although it may seem unfair to compare the latest tour of Disney’s The Lion King to a hamburger, it’s actually both a compliment and a testament to the quality of this theatrical adaptation of one of the franchise’s most successful animated features.

There’s no question that The Lion King the musical is equally successful on its own terms. In fact, compared to most jukebox musicals, it’s practically Shakespeare. As the house dimmed at The Fox Theatre for The Lion King’s current run (through June 19), it was clear within minutes that the show has lost neither its luster nor its appeal. First there was the cry of Rafiki, the show’s guide played by Gugwana Dlamini. From the audience’s response, it was clear that many in the audience had seen the show before. Later, even the laugh by one of the hyenas received enthusiastic, anticipatory cheers.

As Pride Rock rotates into place on an African savanna and an ark-worth’s of animals strolled the aisles of the theater and ascended the stage as “The Circle of Life” began to play. All of this plus the creatively stunning African masking and puppetry that audiences have come to know, love and expect.

The opening is one of the best of any musical – ever – and thus expectations were high. This Lion King still delivered. Like that hamburger, the audience knew what it was going to get – and it got it from the opening to the curtain call.

For many, the family-friendly songs of the show are this Lion’s heart. The show’s aural world adds more depth to the experience, thanks to Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design and James Dodgson’s musical direction.

The quality of this musical extends beyond any one element like the music, however. One could make the case that the artful visual storytelling may be its most potent part. It’s possible to cover one’s ears and just “watch” this musical with its beautiful set (Richard Hudson), lighting (Donald Holder), choreography (Garth Fagan) and costumes/masks/puppets (original director Julie Taymor and Michael Curry) and still feel satisfied. There aren’t many musicals that deliver more punch per square inch, or per square pound, of stage – no small feat.

The Lion King’s cast includes approximately 50 members. There wasn’t a weak performance on opening night. Many were audience favorites, such as Jurgen Hooper as Zazu and Nick Cordileone as Timon. Also noteworthy was the nuanced performance of Diamond Essence White as Simba’s mother, Sarabi, and Kayla Cyphers as Nala.

Opening night was a bit like attending The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a sing-along screening of The Sound of Music. The audience included a plentiful number of children, many of whom sang along to the most well-known songs – along with their adult companions. It was often a participatory experience – one that can be highly recommended. You know what you’re going to get.

The current national tour of “The Lion King”

Performances of  DISNEY’S THE LION KING at the Fabulous Fox run June 1 – June 19. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit

By C.B. Adams

As Stage Director Omer Ben Seadia writes of “The Magic Flute” in this season’s gorgeously designed program for Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), “We come back to ‘The Magic Flute’ in every generation, so that we too can look around and decide for ourselves what the world should look like and who we want to be in the world.”

And like its balletic counterpart cum cultural chestnut, “The Nutcracker,” Mozart’s opera is indeed wide, magical and appealing enough to invite interest, interpretation and relevance from generation to generation since it premiered in 1791. As Paul Simon more recently put it, “…every generation throws a hero up the pop charts /  Medicine is magical and magical is art…”

Jeni Houser as The Queen of the Night

It’s tempting to play the wonk and dwell on how and why this singspiel in two acts has enjoyed such a long run. But the more pressing question is whether OTSL’s 2022 production is up to the demanding challenge and delivers a Flute that is as relevant as it is magical and. The short answer is yes.

If you were at the May 28th performance and seek outside validation of why you and almost everyone else – across several generations – laughed, clapped and all-but sang along to the Queen of the Night’s famous aria (if only we were all coloratura sopranos), then consider yourself validated. 

A closer look, however, reveals a subtle, cerebral interpretation of this classic – one that takes some interesting risks and rewards the careful observer. As film director/writer/producer Alan Parker once said, “It’s just as hard to make a bad film as a good one…” The same holds true for opera productions.

The pros at OTSL faced a million decisions that coalesced into this take on a canonical opera. One would have loved to have listened to the discussions between Seadia, Set Designer Ryan Howell and Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind as they explored how to create the set, which is deceptively simple.

It was anchored by the twisted trunk of a tree – shades of Keebler Elves – that served as the synecdoche for the entire enchanted forest. The tree was flanked by an elevated, wood-toned walkway and staircase that was so ordinary as to become essentially ubiquitous, if not invisible.

The set’s standout element is the busy-patterned, bi-color, batik-like back wall. At first glance, the wall seems more fitting for “The Lion King” than an enchanted forest. But cue the lights. Throughout the opera, the use of light brings some of the no-so-random shapes to life as owls, heads or all-seeing eyes.

Clever in the best sense of the world, and never so obvious as to detract from the overall performance. The use of suspended light bars in Act II was spectacularly effective, especially since this half of the opera relates to light relative to Act I’s focus on darkness.

Jessica Jahn, costume designer, and Tom Watson, wig and make-up designer, created costumes that hinted at a disparate variety of influences. The costume for Sarastro, the High Priest of the Sun, for instance, enveloped Adam Lau in a spectral cape that was part David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and part Balok from the “The Corbomite Maneuver” episode of “Star Trek.”

Johnathan McCullough and Angel Riley

It would have been easy to rely on a more traditional, Egyptian-theme for Sarastro. At Sarastro’s first entrance, his costume was slightly off-putting, but as Lau stiffly moves about, his costume’s next-generation pharaonic vibe makes sense. Again, this is a cerebral production of  the Flute.

The three Workers also sported spacey costumes that are a mash-up of brown Carhartt overalls and bowel-shaped hoods reminiscent of the Jawas in “Star Wars.” Not quite as effective was The Queen of the Night’s second act costume that included a lighted iconographic halo. Using lights to depict a character associated with darkness seems a bit gimmicky, but not overly detracting thanks to the powerful performance of Jeni Houser.

 The Flute’s story is simply silly by today’s standards. Its magic lies in the music by Mozart. And the magic in this production is the cast. With a smooth assist from the orchestra led by Rory Macdonald, they almost make the set, costumes and lighting superfluous.

It’s easy to emphasize Johnathan McCollough’s Papageno because the character has all the best, funniest lines and he gets to romp through his scenes – so much Falstaffian id mucking about with all the other Flutian egos. The world of opera could use more laughter like this. McCollough plays his Papageno as a well-rounded, hedonistic nature boy. Angel Riley was the perfect counterpoint and foil with her Papagena as his devilish, spunky love-interest.

Balancing Papageno’s comic antics is the more serious, eyes-on-the-prize prince, Tamino, sung by tenor Joshua Blue. As the central character, Blue’s performance was silky, entrancing and believable.

Equally strong was Houser as The Queen of the Night – part Borg Queen and part Wicked Stepmother (lighted headdress notwithstanding.) Houser’s coloratura “Vengeance Aria” is a show-stopper, as it is intended to be.  

Erica Petrocelli sings Pamina, the Queen’s daughter. Pamina is both vulnerable in a girl-tied-on-the-tracks sort of way and fiercely strong-willed like Elsa in “Frozen.” Petrocelli pulls off that balance with a performance equal to, if not surpassing, her queen mum.

The basso Lau convincingly and captivatingly sings Sarastro. Lau’s coldly controlled presence paired with his deep, resonate, voice imbues Sarastro with gravitas and other-worldliness.

The art of opera is a gestalt, composed of all of the theatrical arts, and especially music and voice. Magical is art. OTSL’s 2022 production of “The Magic Flute” joins the ongoing lineage of productions that precede it. And if anyone of this generation questions the need for another, borrow the title from the second volume of Elvis’s gold hits and say, “50,000,000 Flute Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”

Erica Petrocelli and Joshua Blue

“The Magic Flute” is presented in repertory by Opera Theatre of St. Louis June 8-26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis. It is performed in English with projected English subtitles and runs 2 hours, 30 minutes. Members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra accompany the performance. For dates, tickets and more information, visit:

By CB Adams

Let’s dispatch with the most obvious misconception one might have upon first encountering the name Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which bills itself as the “World’s Foremost All-male Comic Ballet Company.” At first glance, this might seem like a novelty act, like the Harlem Globetrotters in tutus, RuPaul’s Drag Race On Pointe or Dame Edna Everage Does A Derriére. Or, in Chuckles the Clown parlance, “A Little Song. A Lot of Dance. Just a Spritz of Seltzer Down Your…Tutu.”

But what the audience at the nearly full Touhill Performing Arts Center on Saturday, April 16 discovered – if they didn’t already know – is that a “Trocks” performance is much more than a drag ballet. So, let’s just call it what it truly was: a night of innovative, beguiling, impressive ballet sprinkled liberally with spot-on comic moments that were way more Keaton and Chaplin than Divine and Coccinelle.

And that may be one of the best things about the Trocks – the amount of sheer athleticism and poise required of the male dancers to balance on toes as swans, sylphs, water sprites, romantic princesses and angst-ridden Victorian ladies. It reminds one of that old quote about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, except “backwards and in high heels.”

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was founded in 1974 and, after appearances in more than 35 countries and 600 cities worldwide, continues its mission of performing polished parodies of classical ballets en pointe and en travesty. As the company approaches its 50th anniversary in two years, its reputation received a boost after the release of Ballerina Boys, a film by Chana Gazit and Martie Barylick, that aired on PBS’ American Masters. It is noteworthy that Saturday’s performance marked a first for the Trocks’ as they made their St. Louis debut as part of Dance St. Louis’ 2021-22 season.

Also noteworthy is “…the Trocks’ commitment to providing a stage for dancers often underrepresented in classical ballet due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, size, social class, race and ethnicity,” according to their mission statement “…As ambassadors of LGBTQ culture and acceptance, the Trocks remain committed to supporting, mentoring, and inspiring the next generation of LGBTQ performers and arts appreciators; supporting LGBTQ elderly and mentoring LGBTQ youth; and serving as an integral link to the history and traditions of LGBTQ performance.

The company’s education and engagement programs allow the company to extend the work it does on stage and engage communities in reimagining their expectations of ballet performance and its intersection with gender roles and identities.”

Photo by Sascha Vaughan

Saturday’s program consisted of three parts. The first was “Le Lac des Cygnes” (Swan Lake, Act II), the Trocks’ signature work, with music by Tchaikovsky, choreography after Lev Ivanovich Ivanov, costumes by Mike Gonzales and décor by Clio Young.

This was followed by a pas de deux in “ Vivaldi Suite” with music by Vivaldi, choreography after George Balanchine, costumes by Gonzalez and lighting by Kip Marsh. The evening concluded with the Spanish-influenced Majismas, from the 1885 opera Le Cid by Jules Massenet with staged and additional choreography by Raffaele Morra, costumes by Christopher Anthony Vergara and lighting by Jax Messenger.

It would almost be unfair to highlight any one of the Trocks because, to mix metaphors, the company has such a “deep bench” of fabulously talented ballet dancers. Their Trocks names include Maya Thickenthighya, Minnie Van Driver and Sascha Altschmerz. The program notes were as much fun to read as listening to the pun-filled names at the end of the old Car Talk radio show, such as the Russian chauffeur, Picov Andropov, and vacation specialist, Ivana Veekoff.

But who said reviews were fair? In addition to the deep bench, of special note was Takaomi Yoshino by way of Varvara Laptopova as the Queen of the Swans in Swan Lake. The Vivaldi Suite was performed seamlessly by Maxfield Haynes by way of Marina Plezegetovstageskaya and Ugo Cirri by way of William Vanilla. The entire Corps de Ballets in Majisimas was so effortlessly enthralling and entertaining that it was easy to focus on the performance itself with no concern that it was also a performance by only men. That takes some doing.

After a long standing ovation, the company treated the audience with a Rockettes-styled dance to “New York, New York.” At the Trocks St. Louis debut, it’s not hyperbole to assert that they came, they saw and they knocked it out of the park.

Here’s to hoping it won’t be another 48 years before they return. Start spreadin’ the news.

Photo by Sascha Vaughan