By C.B. Adams
“It’s an old tale from way back when.”

So states Hermes, the narrator of “Hadestown” at the beginning of this award-winning musical. Hermes is played by native St. Louisan Nathan Lee Graham (an audience fave) who delivers a highly entertaining pastiche that’s Part Zazu, part Ben Vereen, part Joel Grey and part master of ceremony.

“Hadestown,” now playing at the Fox Theater, is indeed an old tale. It’s a dystopian folk opera reboot of a Greek myth, circa 800-900 BCE, by Anais Mitchell (music, book and lyrics), and it’s still potently relevant today, prescient even.

If the idea of attending a modernized Greek tragedy, replete with gods, Fates and Chorus doesn’t entice you, maybe the fact it won eight Tony Awards in 2019, the most awarded show of that season, including Best Musical, will. There’s strength and staying power to the old tales, and this touring company’s production of the travails of Orpheus and Eurydice provides a superlative experience, proving it’s a different kind of marvel universe.

And, no, you don’t need to bone up on your Greek mythology before attending. Hermes, in word and song, guides you through the story.

Hadestown Tour Houston 10-07-22 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

This appraisal of the opening night’s performance at the tightly packed Fox on opening night joins the swelling ranks of this show’s ongoing rave reviews – both the original Broadway and this touring production. It would be easy to state that “Hadestown” checks all the boxes for an excellent show and leave it at that. But if you’re on the bubble about attending, perhaps some additional convincing is in order.

For starters, the score with 31 songs and a reprise is mesmerizing. The songs, whose source was an award-winning 2010 concept album by Mitchell, are tightly paced and intricately braided into the narrative. They have a timelessness about them, blending blues, gospel, ragtime, jazz, folk, and even indie-pop influences. The songs have a definite old-timey vibe with contemporary touches, such as when Persephone uses the phrase “pay per view.” Everyone’s taste differs, but my top-three favorite songs were “Road to Hell,” “Wait for Me,” and “Way Down Hadestown.”

The sound mixing was well-balanced, and vocals were clear and understandable. This is noteworthy because, based on some other recent shows (not necessarily at the Fox), it’s amazing how important good sound is, especially when you’re straining to understand the vocals. Hannah Whitley as Eurydice was a bit too quiet during “Livin’ It Up On Top,” but rallied for the rest of the show with strong vocals and emotion.

Hadestown Tour Houston 10-07-22 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, was perfectly scaled for the Fox’s stage. The set cleverly serves as the entrance to the underworld (Hadestown) and the underworld itself. In the center of the two-story set is a lighted, doorway that opens its maw to swallow or belch forth the actors. The set’s umber- and sepia-tinged palette resonates with the show’s folky, jazz- and creole-influenced music with a blend of French Quarter, 1930s train station and Paris brasserie.

Great theater is all in the details, and one of the best small touches in “Hadestown” was the how various characters interacted with the steampunkish, double-headed microphone. Another terrific touch was flanking the set with members of the seven-piece band on either side (though the percussionist/drummer was offstage). Special note must be made of the performance of Emily Frederickson, who played trombone and glockenspiel (More glockenspiel!) and even danced in a number.

The set was further enhanced with Tony-winning lighting design from Bradley Kind that could be as subtle as it was garish, as when the lights blasted into the audience. Costume design by Michael Krass complemented and mirrored the tarnished atmosphere of Hadestown. The one exception was the silver-spangled vest of Hermes, which he proudly flashed at the opening of the show.

Unlike the devil in other traditions, Hades in both myth and this musical is not a one-dimensional antagonist. Hades has a backstory and earns a begrudging level of respect in his role as leader of the underworld. As voiced and sung by baritone Matthew Patrick Quinn, the stentorian Hades sounded as deep and dark as a coal mine and as ominous as an earthquake.

As played by Chibueze Ihuoma, Orpheus begins as a naïve, somewhat clueless musical prodigy. As his fate becomes intertwined with Eurydice’s, Ihuoma adeptly portrayed Orpheus’ transformation into a mythically tragic figure. Ihuoma has been with the touring company since 2021 and began as a member of the ensemble as a Worker before assuming the Orpheus role in June.

Hadestown Tour Houston 10-07-22 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

This imagining of the Greek tale elevates the female characters. Eurydice here is independent, resilient and self-aware. As Eurydice, Hannah Whitley beautifully voices these characteristics and, like Ihuoma, effectively portrays her character’s inevitable, unstoppable fate.

The upstairs-downstairs character Persephone is onstage for most of the show, and understudy Shea Renne made the most of that opportunity. Whether she’s stomping around during her signature song, “Livin’ It Up On Top,” or idly sitting on the balcony with her husband, Hades, Renne brought vigor and misery in equal measures to her portrayal.

Also strong is the show’s ensemble of actors, dancers and singers in the Fates and Chorus. This ensemble is as vibrant and compelling as the rest of the cast. The Fates in particular were fun to watch as the interacted individually and as a unit with the other characters throughout the performance.  

One of the reasons why some stories endure while others don’t is their adaptability. An ancient Greek would certainly recognize the essence of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale retold in “Hadestown.” Modern audiences can certainly appreciate the Greek tragedy for its ability to affirm life even in the face of suffering. And, for those who miss this opportunity to see “Hadestown,” it would be…well, hell.

Performances of “Hadestown” at the Fabulous Fox run Oct. 11-23. 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 MetroTix.com or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com

Hadestown Tour Houston 10-07-22 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

By CB Adams

Upon first reviewing the selections for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s second performance of the 2022-23 season, it might have seemed like a concert designed by Debbie Downer.

Two of the pieces, Tōru Takemitsu’s “Night Signal” and Qigang Chen’s “L’Éloignement” (The Distancing), are neither well-known nor necessarily upbeat sounding based on their titles. And the better known Mahler work, “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), is an hour-long cycle of six song movements that explore themes and variations on the shuffling off of this mortal coil, i.e., life and death.

But not all first thoughts are best thoughts.

Stéphane Denève, Music Director, and Erik Finley, development partner and the SLSO’s Vice President and General Manager, chose a more sophisticated and ultimately uplifting curation of pieces chosen to be experienced in person in a concert hall. This concert was designed to be both self-contained and part of the overall arc of the entire season – to experience through music the interconnectedness of the world.

To use a twenty-five-cent word: it was polyphony. To quote the Sherman Brothers’ Disneyland boat ride ditty, “It’s a small world after all.” Either way, Denève and SLSO delivered an exquisite performance from first note to last.

The performance began with the brass section standing in a line behind the strings. This arrangement provided a potent visual clue that Takemitsu’s “Night Signal” was about to emit something out of the ordinary. According to The Guardian, “Takemitsu’s understated and crystalline compositions combine elements of his own Japanese traditions with the western modernism he loved so much.” That modernism included American jazz, elements of which are woven into “Night Signal” like “tsuzure-nishiki,” the Japanese term for polychrome tapestry.

“Night Signal” was unusual in another way. At the three-minute mark, a time when listeners are just getting settled into a piece, it was over. It was brief only in duration. It made a complete, minimalist statement unto itself while serving as a fanfare for the pieces that followed. Roger Kaza, principal horn, and the entire horn section rendered the score with a nimbleness and restraint.

The orchestra then settled into place for Qigang Chen’s “L’Éloignement.”  Chen is a Chinese-born French composer whose credits include symphonies, chamber pieces, film scores and songs, including “You and Me,” the theme song for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (he also served as music director). Moving from “Night Signal” to the string-only “L’Éloignement” was a logically smooth transition into the latter’s bustling, cinematic phrases woven with a touching Chinese folk love song.

“Night Signal” and “L’Éloignement” were clearly selected and sequenced because they share a delicate aesthetic melding for western and eastern influences. These influences were pleasing and expanding in the effects. The pieces were expert choices to demonstrate polyphony at its most subtle and worldliness. And Danny Lee, principal cellist, and Beth Guterman, principal violist, proved in their performances why they deserved to sit at the head of their sections. 

Many who attended the Sept. 22 or 23 performances probably came for “Das Lied von der Erde,” described by Leonard Bernstein as Mahler’s “greatest symphony.” Such a listy designation may be debatable, but “The Song of the Earth” is almost universally considered Mahler’s most autobiographical work.

It’s a symphonic cycle of six songs for alto and tenor voices and orchestra. Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano, and Clay Hilley (making his SLSO debut), tenor, were the soloists for these performances.

So, what’s this piece got to do with the intermingling of western and eastern musical influences? The answer is not really sonically. It’s somewhat part academic and definitely part Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The source material is a bit removed as it was inspired by an anthology of Chinese poems translated into German. This text was further translated into English and projected during the performance. The result was often more Germanic sturm und drang (and drinking), especially during Hilley’s songs.

“’Das Lied von der Erde’” is about loss, grief, memory, disintegration, and, ultimately, transfiguration,” according to Robert Greenberg, a noted historian, composer, pianist and author. And it’s those themes that make a compelling case for including it with the preceding compositions rather than Mahler’s masterful use of eastern pentatonic scales.

Mahler’s “song symphony” is essentially a two-part symphony with six songs that explore the phases of life (songs 1-5) and the transition to death (song 6). O’Connor and Hilley were splendid and powerful in distinctively different ways. They were definitely a study in contrast, with Hilley storming through his songs with operatic passion while O’Connor presented her lyrics with refined, gossamer restraint. This binary approach aligned with – mirrored – the song symphony’s themes of life and death, light and dark, conflict and acceptance.

And it’s that last word – acceptance – that ended the performance so satisfyingly. As O’Connor sang “Der Abschield” (“The Farewell”), her voice led toward the ending that Mahler intended: acceptance of death as well as acceptance of the pairing of these compositions into a cohesive experience.

By CB Adams

Every so often, The Muny and the St. Louis Symphony come together like Peaches & Herb: “Reunited, and it feels so good…”

These two cultural cousins know how to celebrate. That was definitely the vibe at Power Hall on October 2 when these two local cultural titans combined talents for “A Little Sondheim Music,” a concert to celebrate composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a titan of different sort. The last time the Symphony and Muny combined forces was to celebrate the The Muny’s 100th birthday.

With Mike Isaacson, the Muny’s Artistic Director and Executive Producer, at the helm as host and master of ceremony, the lively event perked along through a well-curated roster of songs from Sondheim’s career. This was no jukebox jaunt through Sondheim’s songbook. It was a journey into Sondheim’s impressive range of songs and characters, some of which aren’t among his greatest hits.

So, along with the familiar titles from “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” the audience was also to treated to selections from the lesser-known “Saturday Night,” “Evening Primrose” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” Another entire concert or two could be created from Sondheim’s deep cuts from other shows. To borrow a line from “Send In the Clowns, “…well, maybe next year.” (hint, hint).

In his opening, Isaacson quoted the three guiding principles that Sondheim hewed to during his career: content dictates form, less is more and God is in the details. To which Sondheim also added, “All in service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.”

Bryonha Marie in rehearsal. Julie Merkel photo.

Clarity ruled the afternoon performance and elevated the achievements of Sondheim rather than mourn his passing last November at age 91. Lending their vocal talents to the celebration were some of Broadway’s brightest babies:  Ben Davis, Bryonha Marie, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner and Elizabeth Stanley. Their talents were on full display, whether performing individually, in duets or as an ensemble. And it would be unfair if not impossible to cite any one performance as a standout because they were all standouts.

Ask 10 audience members what their favorite was, and you’d probably get 10 different answers. My own personal favorite was Skinner’s interpretation of “Send In the Clowns.” Her use of pauses and emphasis provided new insight into the lyrics’ meanings and to the rueful ruminations of the character Desirée in “A Little Night Music.”  I’m just a sucker for that song.

Clarity was certainly one of the concert’s throughlines. Songs such as ”If You Can Find Me, I’m Here,” sung by Scott, and “Broadway Baby,” sung by Marie, exemplify Sondheim’s ability to pack an entire show’s worth of characterization into a single lyric. And Scott interpreted his song by channeling an inner Dustin Hoffman, ala “The Graduate,” and Marie delivered sass, sashay and plenty of boop-oop-a-doop to hers.  

Each Sondheim song is its own mini-musical. All of the performers tapped into this with brio and moxie, moving across the narrow strip of stag and conjuring the spirit of the actual musicals. Even if you didn’t know the show, you understood it from the song itself. That’s part Sondheim genius, part musical magic and part high-caliber performance from the artists.

Rehearsal photo of the two Bens – Davis and Whiteley. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Cases in point: Davis, fresh off this last summer’s successful Muny production of “Sweeney Todd,” reprised his take on the chilling “My Friends” by pivoting from fetishistic heavy petting of cutlery to the abrupt declaration, “At last, my arm is complete again!” Dexter should be so lucky.

And Stanley provided a disarmingly plaintive interpretation of “In Buddy’s Eyes” from “Follies” that reworked the breathless suffering usually associated with this song – written for an older character – into an ironic conscience examination of someone younger.

Also providing clarity to the concert was the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Ben Whiteley, who has long been a member of the Muny artistic family. Host Isaacson thanked Whiteley “…who really created this program, bringing his incredible knowledge and passion to the creation of this program.”

The orchestra launched the performance with the opening overture to “Merrily We Roll Along” and was featured post-intermission with the overture to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” as well as a smooth and graceful “Night Waltz” from “A Little Night Music” in the second half. These were a potent reminder of the beauty of Sondheim’s compositions and how much a fine performance of them deepens their impact.

Also in the second half was a special appearance by St. Louis native Ken Page who sang “Anyone Can Whistle” with a sage-like preciousness that did the Old Deuteronomy cat proud.

As the concert drew to a close, Isaacson quoted Sondheim who answered an interviewer’s question about what he hoped his legacy would be. “Oh, I just would like the shows to keep getting done. Whether on Broadway, or in regional theaters, or schools or communities, I would just like the stuff to be done. Just done and done and done and done and done.”

With a concert like “A Little Sondheim Music,” The Muny and the Symphony have ensured that at least one of those done’s was accomplished – and done to perfection. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Featured Photo: Ben Whiteley, Michael Baxter, Nicolas Valdez, Bryonha Marie, Ben Davis, Matthew Scott, Emily Skinner.. Photo by Julie Merkel.

Matthew Scott in rehearsal. Photo by Julie Merkel.

By CB Adams
It’s been more than a week since the Saint Louis Symphony’s (SLSO) opening performance, the first salvo in the 2022-23 season. Across the St. Louis cultural landscape, as we have emerged from the isolating effects of the pandemic, the last several
months have seemed like a time of emergence, anticipation and expectation for theater, live music and the visual arts. The pandemic was not a pleasant experience, but for some, this hunker-down time was like a creative chrysalis or inspiring incubator.

Such seems to have been the case for Stéphane Denève, Music Director of the Symphony, and his development partner, Erik Finley, the SLSO’s Vice President and General Manager. “Stéphane’s big idea for 2022/23 was the French word ailleurs,” Finley is quoted in the
Symphony’s Playbill. “Loosely translated, the word means ‘elsewhere,’ or ‘another place.’ Stéphane and I began our conversation around the idea of ‘journeying’ – of traveling the world through music.”

The onus on reviewers is usually to provide one’s critique like a loaf of freshly baked bread – best hot from the oven (i.e., performance). But some reviews benefit from a little more time, more of a stew, perhaps (to continue the culinary metaphor). Such is the case
with the SLSO’s prix fixe season opener that included Antonín Dvořák (best known), Jacques Ibert (less well-known) and Nathalie Joachim (perhaps the least known, especially outside of the symphony world).

Preparing for the opening performance, I ranked the pieces in that order. Yet, with the passage of some time, that order has been upended – at least in terms of what has had the most staying power. And that’s thanks to that sense of ailleurs, especially Joachim’s
“Fanm d’Ayiti” (“Women of Haiti”) Suite, which was sandwiched between the Ibert and Dvořák pieces.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joachim, a Brooklyn-born self-identified Haitian- American who is a Grammy-nominated composer, vocalist and flutist whose works range from classical to pop and indie-rock, and whose affiliations include Oregon Symphony
(where she is the Artistic Partner) and the flute duo, Flutronix (which she co-founded). She’s also a newly appointed faculty member at Princeton University.

The full-length “Fanm d’Ayiti” (2019), which earned the Grammy nomination, consists of 11 pieces for flute, voice (in “kreyól” or creole), string quartet and some electronics. Grammy.com noted that “Fanm d’Ayiti” “…constitutes an ethnographic research
undertaking.” It is based on Joachim’s conversations with family members and others in the Haitian community, as well as additional field research.

“I found such a kinship in their stories as artists, and specifically female artists, really trying to make it in a field where women’s voices are ever-present but really under- represented,” Joachim was quoted by Grammy.com.

On paper, Joachim’s project seemed a risky choice for the SLSO because of its ethnographic, almost academic, approach. “Yes,” I thought, “but is it any good?” My skepticism was almost immediately allayed within the first minutes of the three selections: “Suite pou Dantam,” “Madan Bellegrade” and “Fanm d’Ayiti.”

What remains of this performance is a warm sense of being transported to the Haitian country, of “being there.” Joachim’s voice was smooth and sweet, as was her flute playing, and the orchestra’s performance was intermingled with recorded voices of her maternal grandmother and of an all-girls choir from her family’s hometown.

Overall, it was a visceral experience, not dryly academic. It’s no wonder, then, that the performance earned a mid-concert standing ovation. Because “Fanm d’Ayiti” is the least well-known of the evening’s music makes it deserving of the lion’s share of coverage. It was an important choice, and based on its success, it helps strengthen the relationship – the trust – that should exist between music director and those who support the SLSO. It’s as if Denève and Finley were saying, “Trust us, you’ll like this.”

SLSO at Powell Hall

They weren’t wrong with “Fanm d’Ayiti.” The success of “Fanm d’Ayiti” was elevated by the works that surrounded it, forming a
musical travelogue that transported the audience to the Czech Republic, nee Bohemia, and ports of call in the Mediterranean. The combination integrated thoughtfully well, especially as it relates to the notion of ailleurs.

The evening began with Ibert’s 1922 suite “Escales” (“Ports of Call”). “Escales” is a story in three movements that begins at sea and explores the soundscapes of three ports of call, “Rome—Palermo,” “Tunis—Nefta” and “Valencia.” Denève directed Ibert’s colorful suite with a vigorous, cinematic soundtrack sensibility. Ibert’s score made fine use of the skills of Jelena Dirks, principal oboist.

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, Op. 88. The names of symphony’s four movements (Allegro con brio, Adagio, Allegretto grazioso and Allegro ma non troppo) offer some indication of why this was a fine way to end the evening with
an energetic, cheerful, exuberant and poetic performance. Denève and D (let’s call them the Two D’s) drew upon the SLSO’s strong woodwinds during the numerous solo passages.

In her Playbill introduction, SLSO President and CEO, Marie-Hélène Bernard, wrote, “We believe that music is a universal language and in creating an environment where music is accessible to all. This is made possible through a more welcoming concert experience and for new and returning audience; broader programming that makes the orchestra a vital part of everyone’s life…”

Every journey begins with a first step, and the opening performance of this new season was indeed a terrific first step toward that ideal of ailleurs. There is no substitute for experiencing a live orchestral performance – especially one as diverse and satisfying as
this one. It’s amazing to view the musicians assembled on Powell Hall’s stage and to consider all that practice, practice, practice that led them to this point. And for the next several months, it’s up to us to listen, listen, listen.

SLSO Conductor Stephane Deneve

By CB Adams

St. Louis’s Hard Bop Messengers new, first album, “Live At The Last Hotel,” has been on my repeat play in recent weeks – partly because I enjoy it, partly because I don’t listen to a lot of new jazz, and partly because I’ve been struggling to find a way to describe it.

As a visual and written artist myself, I often listen to jazz while I’m doing my own creating, but that’s more than a little unfair to those musical artists. It’s akin to saying I like a painting because it matches my couch. There just are times when one needs to be focused and present when experiencing a piece of music.

All of this is to say that I’ve been seeking a way of explaining why the Hard Bop Messengers, led by John Covelli, deserves more name recognition – in and out of jazz circles – both locally and beyond. To borrow an old phrase,  “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I’m dancing to explain why their “Live At The Last Hotel” deserves a wider audience, even as their most recent shows in and out of town have been well-attended by jazz venue standards.  

To address these challenges, I am reminded of something from William Deresiewicz’s 2020 The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech. “When people get a little extra money, one of the things that they spend it on is art…We do not need the government to pay for art, or the rich with their philanthropy. We only need each other.”

Although not endemic to St. Louis, the various arts tend to become stovepiped – if not downright inbred — within their own communities and patrons. Jazz people hang with jazz people, abstract painters with other abstract painters, stage folks with stage folks, etc. So, it’s hard to attract attention outside of one’s artistic sphere.

But “Live At The Last Hotel” is the sort of jazz album that should pull most anyone out of their usual orbit. As hinted by its title, “Live At The Last Hotel” tells a story. In fact, it’s the equivalent of a book of connected short stories. The genesis of this collection was a tune called “The Lobby,” written by Covelli, who was inspired to conjure the vibe of sets played by the Hard Bop Messengers in the real-life lobby of downtown St. Louis’s The Last Hotel.

Under the leadership of Covelli, the band is composed of Ben Shafer (alto and tenor sax, flute), Luke Sailor (piano) Chris Meschede (upright bass) and Nick Savage (drums) and Matt Krieg (vocals). The album was recorded in 2021 at Webster University Studio A and engineered and mixed by Daniel Ruder.

Based on positive response to “The Lobby,” Covelli began creating a cinematic cycle of songs set at the fictionalized hotel with titles such as “Meeting Friends,” “Standin Up Against the Wall” and “Make the Beds.” Each song tells a story, and the entire sequence provides a cohesive narrative that is sometimes slightly melancholic and sometimes upbeat and bouncy.

There’s something about the tone of this album that is captured in Billy Joel’s “Days To Remember” and the lines “…We walked on the beach beside that old hotel / They’re tearing it down now / But it’s just as well…” Perhaps that tone is the result of the album’s production during the band’s pandemic-enforced live performance shutdown.

As befits their name, the style of the Hard Bob Messengers falls within the hard bop subgenre extension of bebop, but titles like this fail to accurately capture the band’s fizzy, subtle influences from rhythm and blues, gospel music and blues. There are two distinct voices in this album. One voice is Krieg, who provides vocals for Covelli’s minimalist lyrics that provide the setting for each of the album’s 11 songs in two acts.

The other voice is from Covelli’s trombone – a voice that weaves and blends into, not away from, the songs. Don’t let the word trombone throw you off. Covelli’s is not of Music Man’s “76” variety. If anything, it is closer to Star Trek’s William Riker’s variety of jazz.

Among the stringed instruments, the cello is said to be the closest in range to the human voice. Among the wind instruments, the same could be said for the trombone, especially as blown by Covelli. Hector Berlioz got is right when he said, “… the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments… It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree.”

But make no mistake. This is not a “trombone” album. It is an ensemble affair, and all players have the opportunity to shine in their own ways. The Messengers have a cohesive camaraderie that is surely as comfortable to play as it is to listen to.

There’s the old line about “A jazz musician is someone that puts a $5,000 horn in a $500 car and drives 50 miles for $5 gig.” That’s a funny – but sad and true – commentary about much in the arts. Perhaps the Hard Bop Messengers could enjoy a better fate than that with their album sales and attendance at their gigs. They surely deserve it.

“Live At The Lost Hotel” is available from www.pacificcoastjazz.com, Amazon and iTunes, and their Facebook page (@hardbopmessengers) lists upcoming performances.

By CB Adams

It’s been a bit of a “Sondheim Summer” here in St. Louis, bookended by Far North Theatricals’ “Assassins,” The Muny’s “Sweeney Todd” and Union Avenue Opera’s festival-ending “A Little Night Music,” with performances remaining Aug. 26-27. Extending that bookend will be Stray Dog Theatre’s production of  “A Little Night Music” this October.

There seems to be more Sondheim in the air since his death last November, and these local stagings have provided an interesting juxtaposition considering that “Sweeney Todd” is generally considered the more operatic and “Night Music” as more operatta-ish.

No matter. As soon as the off-stage chorus, the Quintet, projected their voices onto the sumptuous Union Avenue Act I set, such nomenclatures were rendered unnecessary…and perhaps irrelevant. Afterall, the first three revivals of “Night Music” in New York were all operatic rather than theatrical, so this production is a good fit for Union Avenue’s strengths and direction.

James Stevens, Leann Scheuring, Eric J. McConnell, Jordan Wolk, Teresa Doggett. Photo by Dan Donovan

Isn’t It Bliss?

If there are still tickets left for the final performances of “A Little Night Music,” reserve your seats. That’s the quick review of this production. Don’t miss it. It is indeed bliss.

Hal Prince, producer of this musical’s debut in 1973, called it “whipped cream with knives.” If Prince meant knives as in sharp knives out, then Annamaria Pileggi’s direction has softened it to butter knives out.  It’s a pleasure and perhaps a much-needed respite to engage so fully into this nuanced romantic farce based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”

Debby Lennon as Desiree. Photo by Dan Donovan

Isn’t It Rich?

Of Union Avenue’s three productions in this year’s festival, the sets of “Night Music” by C. Otis Sweezey are the best, especially in Act I. The back set consisted of three columnar structures that conveyed the frets of a stringed instrument entwined with swan-like figures and backed with the richest of burgundies.

These elements avoid flaunting their presence and instead provide the right sense of place and privilege of the genteel characters.

During the intermission, as Act II’s back set of trees were moved onto the stage, their colors seemed out of place for the “Weekend In the Country,” presaged by that song at the end of Act I.

But those colors were transformed by the lighting choices of Patrick Huber. Thanks to lighting, fluorescent outlines became comfortable, dusky accents for the rest of the musical.

Peter Kendall Clark and Brooklyn Snow. Photo by Dan Donovan.

Are We A Pair?

 At the risk of being unfair to a overall strong cast from the leads to the Quintet, the center of this rueful, bittersweet, Ibsenish tale from Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler is the pair of Fredrik Egerman, sung powerfully by Peter Kendall Clark and Desirée Armfeldt, sung by Debby Lennon. There are multiple, circuitous story lines, but they all dodge and weave around and toward the ultimate (re)union of Fredrik and Desirée.

And at the center of their relationship is (a now-standard) “Send in the Clowns.” As a hit song by Judy Collins back in the day and as rendered into near-Muzak ubiquity, “Send in the Clowns” needs the context of the surrounding story in the musical itself to reach its fullest, layered, exquisitely painful sense of yearning. It also needs the skills and talents of Lennon to ensure it is the show-stopper it was composed to be. Lennon gave the song its due – and more. You couldn’t hear a pin drop during her performance – to use a cliché.

The other extra-noteworthy “pair” in Union Avenue’s production was Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and grande dame Madame Armfeldt. Both are broad characters that require a careful interpretation to avoid becoming cartoonish foils. Teresa Doggett performed the wheelchair-bound Madame with a delicious – and sometimes hilarious – imperiousness that evolves into a touching sagacity. As sung by Eric J. McConnell, the peacocky Count Carl-Magus fared less well and often crossed into buffoonery.

James Stevens, Arielle Pedersen. Photo by Dan Donovan.

But Where Are the Clowns?

To borrow a line attributed to the showman’s showman P. T. Barnum, Union Avenue’s choice of “Night Music” to conclude their 2022 festival, was the perfect choice to “always leave ‘em wanting more.” Given the rich experience provided by this production, “Night Music” will leave us wanting more…well, maybe next year? The only clowns therefore are those who didn’t reserve a ticket this year.

Union Avenue Opera Union presents “A Little Night Music” August 19, 20, 26, 27 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org

Leann Scheuring, Kay Love, Eric J. McConnell. Photo by Dan Donovan.
Joel Rogier, Sarah Price, Phil Touchette, Gracy Yukiko Fisher and Gina Malone. Photo by Dan Donovan

By CB Adams

There’s a moment in the “classic” 1989 movie “Fletch Lives” when Chevy Chase as Fletch says it takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. To which he adds, “I am NOT a big man.” It takes the comedic instincts and delivery of Chase to get laughs from that line, and it takes baritone Robert Mellon as the title character in Union Avenue Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” to elicit that reaction for 2 ½ hours of witty, plus-sized, boozy merriment.

Mellon has big shoes to fill as Falstaff, a beloved barfly who appears in four plays by William Shakespeare (if you count the one in which he is eulogized). Plumped up in a hunchbacked fat suit, Mellon fills his Falstaff as a big man (literally) who gets big laughs while working his wiles with the merry wives of Windsor and their various and sundry significant others. As one of the “holy trinity” of comic operas, “Falstaff” may reside with the likes of “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Master-Singers of Nuremberg,” but it’s Mellon and the rest of the cast who make this production flat-out fun.

Union Avenue Opera’s production of Falstaff on July 27, 2022.

This may be Falstaff’s show, but he, like Mellon, needs comedic foils who provide equal helpings of wit and charm, and this production has them. “Falstaff” is a concentrated opera without long arias, but with melodies that practically fly by. That’s well-suited to the talents of Marc Schapman and Mark Freiman as Falstaff’s scheming henchmen, Bardolfo and Pistola, respectively, who bounce off each other amusingly. As does Anthony Heinemann as Dr. Caius and Jacob Lassetter as Ford.

Also up to Falstaff’s formidable foibles is the trifecta of Karen Kanakis, who sings Mrs. Alice Ford, Melody Wilson as Mrs. Meg Page and Janara Kellerman as Dame Mistress Quickly. This triumvirate were delightful – individually and collectively – as they work to counter Falstaff’s schemes with a refreshing equality of the sexes. A subplot involves the young lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, and their best scene concludes Act I. As sung by soprano Brooklyn Snow and tenor Jesse Darden, it’s one of the opera’s best moments.   

Under the baton of conductor Stephen Hargreaves, the music of Verdi’s final opera and only second comedy is frothy, splendid and connects deeply with the performers. Teresa Doggett’s costumes were not only tailored for the overall period of the opera, they also elevated the visual presence of each character.

The stage at Union Avenue Christian Church poses certain creative challenges, but its modest size is well-suited to this opera. Scenic designer Lex Van Blommestein makes maximum use of the stage by going “old school” and using cloth panels to set the scenes, including Falstaff’s favorite haunt, the Garter Inn. Under the direction of stage manager Megan-Marie Cahill, the crew openly raise and lower the panels, replete with squeaky pulleys. As the crew elevated the panels for the final act (during the July 30th  performance), set in a forest, they created the impressive spread of a massive oak tree. It’s not often that a scene change elicits ooo’s, ahh’s and applause.  

Union Avenue Opera’s production of Falstaff on July 27, 2022.

So, loosen your belt – or sash or waistline – and prepare to be served an effervescent treat ala Verdi, Shakespeare and Union Avenue Opera.

Union Avenue Opera Union presents “Falstaff” July 29 and 30 and August 5, 6 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org

Union Avenue Opera’s production of Falstaff on July 27, 2022.

By C. B. Adams
“Eugene Onegin,” the opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name, inspired another great writer, Anton Chekhov, to write a short story-cum-homage to the opera, “After the Theatre.” In it, Chekhov observed, “There was something beautiful,
touching and romantic about A loving B when B wasn’t interested in A. Onegin was attractive in not loving at all, while Tatyana was enchanting because she loved greatly. Had they loved equally and been happy they might have seemed boring.”

Good point. And, as we all know from yet another member of the Russian literati, Leo Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This is a review of Union Avenue Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin,” not a Russian Lit course. But, as the opera builds to its final act, one must decide whether the lead characters’ unhappiness resonates in a fulfilling way. Do we cheer Tatyana as she finally
spurns Onegin after he ungraciously spurned her two acts earlier?

Do we feel Onegin’s misery and despair at his impending loneliness? Do we cheer his comeuppance? Or do we embrace that tragic ambiguity?

It’s the players more than the libretto that help shape any (or none) of those answers. This year has been an interesting St. Louis opera season for strong women. Opera Theater of St. Louis put forth a tough-gal “Carmen,” sung by Sarah Mesko, and Union Avenue
offered a resilient Tatyana sung by the Russian-born-and-trained Zoya Gramagin, making her Union Avenue debut.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

Even in Act I, when Tatyana is a young and naïve country woman writing a gushy love letter to Onegin, Gramagin used her clear soprano to imbue Tatyana with innocence and undercurrent of strength. This Tatyana was no Cinderella, and this was most evident by Act III when she is now married to a prince. Onegin finally becomes smitten and she spurns him. Of all the characters in this “Onegin,” Gramagin’s Tatyana was the only one who seemed to have truly changed, placing her at the emotional core of this production.

Balancing the youthfulness of Tatyana was baritone Robert Garner as Eugene Onegin. Garner’s voice was rich, emotive and a pleasure to experience, though it was a challenge to identify with his narcissism and dismissiveness. Some “bad guys” you learn to like
(think Walter White in “Breaking Bad”), others you just have to endure. Garner’s Onegin was handsome, rakish and self-centered – qualities that he neither shed nor eschewed.

The only reward for his inability to change seemed to be the lonely life that awaits him. Onegin may have been the last character on stage, but Tatyana had the best last word as she operatically and metaphorically dropped the mic. This being a Russian opera, with libretto by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky no less, it’s appropriate to liken it to a matryoshka doll, with production elements nestled inside production elements.

Tatyana and Onegin may be the protagonists in the story, but they also require equally strong performances from the ensemble, which they certainly had in Union Avenue’s production. In fact, other than Garner’s Tatyana, tenor William Davenport as Lensky provided the
most engaging and relatable performance. His superb voice, especially during the “friendship” aria in Act II, was a highlight, and his ability to reveal Lensky’s character was well matched to Onegin’s shallowness.

Rounding out the solid cast was Melody Wilson as a Tatyana’s younger sister/bestie, Olga, and basso Isaiah Musik-Ayala as Tatyana’s princely husband, Prince Gremin, who delivered a powerful area about her. Also nestled inside this matryoshka was a solid supporting cast and chorus and the always-fine orchestra under the direction of Scott Schoonover.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

Union Avenue’s modestly sized stage provides challenges for large casts – a challenge that stage director Octavio Cardenas successfully surmounted. When the stage was full to the gills, it never felt constricted or distracting, not even during a peasant dance or polonaise, choreographed by Jennifer Medina.

One of the weakest elements of this matryoshka was Patrick Huber’s scenic design that included a series of tall, birch-like trees that worked well in Act II, but less so in later acts. The costumes by Teresa Doggett were superb, but some of the props appeared a bit
tired.

“Eugene Onegin” was a fine way for Union Avenue to return to its home stage after two years in the pandemic hinterlands. And at the conclusion of the performance, with Gramagin’s Tatyana still pleasantly in mind, one might remember of something from
Boris Pasternak in another tragic Russian love story, “Doctor Zhivago,” “If it’s so painful to love and absorb electricity, how much more painful it is to be a woman, to be the electricity, to inspire love.”

Union Avenue Opera presents “Eugene Onegin” July 8, 9, 15, 16 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information,
visit www.unionavenueopera.org

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin on July 5, 2022.

By CB Adams
Before the lights dimmed and the 8th annual LaBute New Theater Festival began, this reviewer felt pity instead of anticipation – pity for the nine playwrights who had to endure a two-year, pandemic-induced delay for their works to be fretted and strutted upon the intimate performance space at the Gaslight Theater.

During the festival’s four-week run, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents two sets of five one-act plays selected in 2020 – a Whitman’s Sampler (something for everyone!) of short dramas. Each slate includes “St. Louis,” written by the festival’s founder and namesake, the Tony-nominated, acclaimed writer and director Neil LaBute.

Two years may have felt like an eternity to playwrights and public alike, but the first set of one acts, running from July 8–17, delivers a collectively gratifying experience resonating with relevance to the current zeitgeist.

The first set includes Aren Haun’s “What Else is New,” John Doble’s “Twilight Time,” Willie Johnson’s “Funny Thing,” and Fran Dorf’s
“Time Warp,” as well as LaBute’s “St. Louis.”

Experiencing this evening of one acts is like reading a short-story collection. You might not enjoy every play (not all in the first set are one-hit wonders), but taken together, they are engaging, thought-provoking and satisfying. When soliciting for one acts, the LaBute
Festival seeks plays that feature no more than four characters. They should be crafted specifically to exploit the Gaslight’s intimate, 18-foot square performance space with quick changes in scenery, setting and set moves.

For theater-goers who love plays that focus on the fundamentals of dramaturgy – plot, character and theme – the LaBute Festival is a must-see, based on this first slate.

The plays presented this year are diverse, yet share a common thread, if not a common theme, of human connectedness:

“What Else is New,” set in a diner, involves Bruno (and his suitcase), an unhoused loner (replete with an annoying need for conversation and more tics and twitches than Brad Pitt in the film “12 Monkeys”) and Mark, a disinterested college art student who works the counter. t’s a marvel to watch the two characters circuitously connect.

“Twilight Time,” concerns a chance encounter between Benjamin and Geraldine, two disaffected youths who discover they are both planning their suicides. Though not as humorously death-drenched as “Harold and Maude,” they connect over common political and other opinions and soon make plans to live, perhaps happily ever after.

“Funny Thing” is anything but funny as the four-month relationship between Older Man and Younger Man is stuffed into a blender and set to frappe. The resulting, non-chronological plot makes frequent pivots that are easy to follow, thanks to fine acting and effective lighting changes.

No one dances in “Time Warp,” but, as the song goes, “…With a bit of a mind flip / You’re into the time slip / And nothing can ever be the same…” For those of us who like stories that explore the possibilities presented by punctures in the time- space continuum, “Time Warp” delivers a mind-bending – and ultimately harrowing – tale involving Brian, a Vietnam War army psychiatrist, his wife, Beth, a curiosity shopkeeper, CG Young, and a specter-like painter and fellow soldier, Joey Passarelli. The warping of time and circumstance ensues, though not in a science fiction sort of way.

LaBute’s “St. Louis” (presented in both sets of the festival) could have been titled Stand and Deliver because that’s what this play’s three characters do: they stand and deliver (as does the entire play itself). St. Louis does not concern itself with Ted Drewes, the Arch or any other tourist destinations. There are a few compass- point references to St. Louis, such as the Central West End, but the true location
of this one act is the triangulated world and relationships of the three monologists, She, Her and Him. The climax of the relationship – the connection – among these characters is too good to spoil.

But, climax aside, the most noteworthy achievement is how the story is unfolded by the three characters, each in a pool of
light and each speaking as if to their own offstage interlocutor. Separately, and yet collectively, they stand and deliver their part of a shared, very personal history. Under the deft direction of Spencer Sickmann (himself a seasoned actor), the actors collectively embrace their characters and deliver these short plays with confidence, believability and chemistry.

And, in the case of “Twilight Time,” they surpass the play itself. Mitch Henry Eagles plays triple duty in “What Else is New,” “Funny Thing” and “Time Warp.” All are fine performances, but the standout is as the Younger Man in “Funny Thing.” His character is whiplashed by the on-again/off-again relationship he shares with Older Man and Eagles easily flips between “should I stay” or “should I go?”

Bryn McLaughlin does double duty as Geraldine in “Twilight Time” and She in “St. Louis.” Her performance in the former is the strongest in that play, and in the latter, she’s even better as she projects a strong, confident counterpoint to the bro-ish Him. As Him, Brock
Russell plays a character one loves to hate, or vice versa, and that dichotomy is testament to his ability to fully reveal the complexities of Him.

Eric Dean White demonstrates tremendous range playing the twitchy chatterbox Bruno in “What Else is New” and, a couple of one acts later, as the sensitive psychiatrist and husband in “Time Warp.” The nervous energy he pours into his Bruno is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

In the case of these one acts, to call the sets, lighting and costumes bare bones is a compliment. As in most literary short stories, there’s nothing extraneous and everything must serve a purpose in black-box one acts. In this first slate of plays, that’s exactly what Patrick Huber achieves with the flexible sets and lighting, as does Carla Landis Evans with the costume designs.

Set One of the LaBute New Theater Festival runs July 8-17 at at the Gaslight Theater, 358 N Boyle Ave. Set Two runs from July 22–31. Times are 3 p.m. on Sundays and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, www.stlas.org
All photos by Patrick Huber

By CB Adams

 Whether you’re a die-hard Muny season ticket holder, a Stephen Sondheim devotee, someone attracted to a dark Dickensian tale about a murderous Victorian barber, someone seeking a great night of musical theater, or anything in between, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a must-see.

Fresh off the heels (or should we say umbrella) of “Mary Poppins” comes a show with a wholly different cut. It’s populated with hordes of the great unwashed, a steampunk-inspired set, love songs sung to razors and more dead bodies on stage than a Greek tragedy. And if that’s not enough, add in the music and lyrics by Sondheim (one of his greatest showpieces). Who else could have created a toe-tapping sing-along about meat pies made with human flesh?

“Sweeney Todd” originally opened in 1979 and, after sweeping the Tony Awards, has since grown into one of Broadway’s top-ten musicals – emphasis on musical because 80 percent of this show is sung. It is just now making its Muny premiere after a two-year pandemic-induced delay. It is definitely worth the wait.

Photo by Julia Merkle

This a muscular “go big or go home” production. Rob Ruggiero, director, and Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer, leveraged their many talents and definitely chose the go-big option. They take full advantage of the Muny’s automated stage with its performer lifts, turntable and scenery wagons. A tip of the hat also goes to Jessica Hartman, associate director and musical staging, and James Moore, musical director, for their talents.

One of the challenges of “Sweeney Todd” is presenting the violence and carnage, which includes numerous throat slashings. The bloodletting is cleverly and effectively portrayed through lighting (thanks to design by John Lasiter) rather than with fountains of fake blood.  

As befits the big production values, this “Sweeney Todd” requires – and delivers – a powerful principal cast. Tony nominee Carmen Cusack, an audience favorite, plays the crafty, ambitious Mrs. Lovett. Cusack’s voice is equal to Ben Davis’s booming Sweeney Todd. Davis achieves a Todd who is complex, wounded and angry, and can still fill the stage with a larger-than-life presence. Julie Hanson’s bawdy Beggar Woman weaves throughout the scenes like an annoying fly with a Cockney accent, while Stephen Wallen’s corpulent The Beadle waddles about like an officious toady in service to Robert Cuccioli’s imperious, love-struck lech, Judge Turpin.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Even a slasher show like “Sweeney Todd” has a love story at its heart. Riley Noland plays Johanna with a thin high voice that befits her role as captive and victim. Her duet with Jake Boyd as sailor boy/love interest Anthony Hope is an extended highlight of this production. Though the two interact mostly from afar, their love and attraction is palpable.

Lincoln Clauss’s Tobias Ragg is a standout. The Ragg character evolves from wig-wearing hawker of snake-oil hair tonic to sprite-like table server and finally to traumatized avenger. Clauss has the acting and vocal range to match.

This production also makes full use of a large ensemble chorus with a panoply of tatty, bedraggled characters who introduce and frame Sweeney Todd’s descent from a cruelly treated barber into a lusty lasher and ultimately tragic victim of his own revengeful scheming. And, there haven’t been this many raised fists on the Muny stage since “Les Misérables” was in town.

The ensemble sings the last chorus at the conclusion of “Sweeney Todd,” but it’s the audience, walking toward the exits and excitedly talking about this production’s wow factor, that gets the last word and best positive review.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presents “Sweeney Todd” July 16 – 22 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit: www.muny.org.

Photo by Phillip Hamer
The cast of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Phillip Hamer