By Lynn Venhaus
A compelling plea for compassion and understanding, Kurt Weill’s mighty “Lost in the Stars” will break your heart and uplift your spirit in Union Avenue Opera’s stirring production.
This ambitious vibrant opera features more than 50 performers, many new to the art form, and that provides some of St. Louis’ finest dramatic artists with an opportunity to stretch their acting muscles. Under Shaun Patrick Tubbs’ fluid direction, they seamlessly blend into Weill’s powerful operatic retelling of “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is set in South Africa during the 1940s era of apartheid, a time of great racial and economic divide. Adapted the following year into the opera “Lost in the Stars,” Weill wrote his last score, and famed historical playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote both the book and lyrics.
This hard-hitting work resonates today, demonstrating a need for humanity in a time of intolerance, misunderstanding and prejudice.
Rev. Stephen Kumalo (Kenneth Overton) travels to Johannesburg, and hopes to locate his son, Absalom (Myke Andrews), whom he hasn’t seen for a year. At the railroad station, he talks to Arthur Jarvis (Stephen Peirick), a white lawyer who is a benefactor of the church and believes in treating all people the same. He is with his disapproving father, wealthy plantation owner James Jarvis (Tim Schall), whose bigotry runs deep.
While Absalom is out on parole for a crime and is living with Irina (Krysty Swann), pregnant with their child, he is convinced to be part of a burglary with two others. It’s at the Jarvis plantation, but Arthur walks in and is shot by Absalom, who got flustered and scared. A legal scheme is hatched for acquittal but Absalom will have none of it, he confesses and while honorable, will be sentenced to death.
The Reverend can’t save his son, and the elder Jarvis has lost a son too. Eventually some common ground can be achieved. But it’s a hard road, and old ways must be forgotten to forge a new understanding.
In an emotional powder-keg of a role, Kenneth Overton soars with his potent baritone and poignant renditions of every number. He pulls everyone’s heartstrings tight and has the ability to take your breath away and reduce you to tears. His showstopping “Lost in the Stars” delivery to close Act I is haunting and will remain one of my favorite and best moments of Union Avenue Opera’s 24th season.
He anchored an outstanding youthful ensemble displaying a notable energy and passion. Speaking roles included Jeanitta Perkins as Grace Kumalo, Stephen’s wife and Absalom’s mother; Reginald Pierre as Stephen’s lawyer brother John; Carl Overly Jr. as burglar Matthew Kumalo, Abraham Shaw as burglar Johannes Pafuri and Chuck Lavazzi as parole officer Mark Eland. Their mastery of their Afrikaner accents and their projection was noteworthy.
Tim Schall and Stephen Peirick excelled in their roles as the Jarvis father and son on opposite ends of their beliefs.
Myke Andrews, who was impressive in The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” and Metro Theatre Company’s “Bud, Not Buddy,” turned in his best work yet as Absalom. He is stunning, maneuvering a wide range of emotions with conviction. His ‘goodbye’ scene will rip your heart and have you reaching for tissues, along with soprano Kristy Swann as Irina, showcasing a warm rich voice.
Rising star Melody Wilson has a fetching turn as Linda and Roderick George sang the Leader role with authority.
Young Charlie Mathis, so impressive as Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at The Rep, was at home here as Arthur Jarvis’ young son, Edward, as was Sherrod Murff as Alex, Stephen Kumalo’s nephew. Sherrod delivers a sweet solo song at a time where a break from all the intense melodrama was welcome.
Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducted the orchestra with crisp precision, emphasizing the cultural context in a meaningful way. And the orchestra was quite robust.
The creative team also contributed key elements to the overall period feel of the production. James W. Clapper’s lighting design was eloquent, and his “stars” lighting a few at a time was just beautiful. Teresa Doggett’s costume design nailed the time and place, as did Roger Speidel’s minimal set design that doubled as multiple interiors with ease.
“Lost in the Stars” delivers a forceful message with not only an urgency but with kindness. It remains a timeless work of historical significance that needs to be seen now.
“Lost in the Stars” is presented by Union Avenue Opera for four performances Aug. 17, 18, 24 and 25 at the Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit ww.unionavenueopera.org.
Photos by John Lamb