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

By CB Adams

The new North American tour of “Hairspray,” which opened at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, April 5, and runs through Saturday, April 9, is a sly bit musical entertainment.

In its 20-year history, it’s been given eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, had national tours and foreign productions and been adapted as a 2007 musical film. And let’s not forget the source material: the 1988 film written and directed by the multi-talented, agent provocateur John Waters. It’s got, as they say, legs. They may not be the shapely gams of old, but they can still move – and move an audience.

Despite some naysayers on the “interwebs” who have quibbled that this touring production of “Hairspray” is a bit tired and hasn’t aged as gracefully as it might, the packed audience at the Fox would beg to differ. They came for an energetic, entertaining pop/rock musical and this production delivered two engaging, well-intentioned hours of clapping, tapping, and laughing.

Which brings us back to why “Hairspray” is a sly bit of entertainment. Waters’ story, which drives the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, uses humor and a relatable, satisfying underdog plot with a happy ending to explore the issues of class, race, dreams deferred and body shaming. It’s got, as they say, heart, which it wears on its sequined sleeves.

As Waters has said, “I respect everything I make fun of.” That respect is still vitally apparent, even when wrapped in the delicious — in a cotton candy sort of way — 1960s-style R&B- and dance-infused music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Musicians have long used the Trojan Horse approach and wrapped a catchy tune around a serious message. Think, “…a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” from “Mary Poppins.” Or think Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On” or Tears For Fears and “Mad World.”

Hear the Bells. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

So, in between the dance numbers and the sing-along songs, this show offered genuine moments for the audience to respond with consternation to the multiple ism’s and ists as well as with affirmations when the perpetrators receive their comeuppances.

In a stand-out moment, Link Larkin, played by the lanky, Elvis-y Will Savarese, refuses to follow his stuck-up girlfriend, Amber Von Tussle, played by Kaelee Albritton. The audience responded with a wave of affirmative applause that nearly stopped the show.

This level of audience engagement relies on the quality of the production’s elements. But it’s the performances by the entire cast that carry this show. A special call-out to local talent, Albritton, who hails from O’Fallon, Ill., where she was crowned Miss O’Fallon in 2014. Other props to:

• The indominable Niki Metcalf (that girl can move!) as the heroine Tracy Turnblad

• Andrew Levitt as Tracy’s plus-sized diva-in-a-housedress mother, Edna

• Brandon G. Stalling with his slinky-smooth dance moves as Seaweed J. Stubbs

• Sandie Lee for her mama-knows-best portrayal as Motormouth Maybelle

• Emmanuelle Zeesman for playing three roles with limber, Gumby-inspired physicality, and facial contortions worthy of Jim Carrey in his prime

“Hairspray” is 20 years old. Its setting is Baltimore in 1962, making it a sexagenarian! And its themes and messages still go down like that spoonful of sugar. Or maybe more appropriately, like Pop Rocks and soda pop.

Or, as Waters himself has said, “”Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid . . . to you.”

Hair Clutch Commercial. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

“Hairspray” is presented April 5 – 9 at the Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand Blvd., in St. Louis, Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., with a 1 p.m. matinee on Thursday, April 7.

To purchase tickets, visit or call MetroTix at 314-534-1111. Ticket prices start at $25. Learn more about the new touring production at or visit

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A Refreshed Grande Dame of Midcentury Musicals Presented in Fine Fashion

By CB Adams

After the two-year black hole that was the COVID-19 pandemic, this reviewer was so happy to have a rear-end planted in a seat in the Fox Theatre, preparing to experience live theater with a live orchestra and a live audience, that I would have been happy just to listen to someone stand on the stage and recite selections from an old phone book.

Instead, as the house lights dimmed and orchestra played the overture to The Lincoln Center Theater Production of My Fair Lady, running at the Fox Theatre from March 22 to April 3, it felt more than a bit like The Wizard of Oz, when the film cuts from black and white into Technicolor.

There has been much written and analyzed about the success of Director Bartlett Sher’s approach to ameliorate some of the uncomfortable sexist and misogynistic moments of this musical – cringey attributes shared by others of the era, such as Kiss Me Kate. But sexism wasn’t limited to that era. It resonated in films such as “Pretty Woman” and even “Indecent Proposal.” In “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts’ character sleeps her way to success. In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza speaks her way to a different kind of success.

But this reviewer prefers to leave those discussions off stage. Instead, below is a live tweet-style review of the opening night’s performance, with all its due eager anticipation. All times are imaginatively approximate, but be prepared – this production runs almost three hours. When the company takes its bows, you know you’ve had a musical experience.

7:15 – The Fabulous Fox is full tonight! The stage shimmers lightly with a two-level, austere scrim of the London skyline and a single street lamp.

7:30 – The live orchestra! The overture! Through the heads in front of me, it’s actually exciting to catch glimpses Music Director/Conductor John Bell as he commands his baton. Won’t take that for granted anymore. Thanks, COVID!

7:31 – A spare stage. Silhouetted characters move across the scrim, ending with Eliza, alone, sans flowers. Does this foreshadow Eliza’s predominance in this version?

7:33 – Scene 1! Forgot the first song is Henry Higgins’ “Why Can’t the English?” as sung by Laird Mackintosh in this production. Nobody can top Lerner and Lowe at the height of the Golden Age of musical theater. Come for the songs, stay for the songs!

My Fair Lady Photo by Joan Marcus

7:45 – Balancing that Higgins tune is Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle (I hope she does a lot!) and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I was worried this might not have aged well, if for no other reason than familiarity can breed contempt. But no! It’s a plaintive call for something better, full of longing and with a pathos similar to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Props to Ahmed!

7:55 – Change of pace in Scene 2, set in the dodgy side of town. It’s Eliza’s dad, Alfred, played by the athletic Martin Fisher, with his two sidekicks, Jamie and Harry, played by Wade McCollum and William Michals, respectively.

7:56 – These three engage in bro banter and well-timed roughhousing then segue into a jaunty rendition of “With a Little Bit of Luck.” Fisher’s baritone was unexpected and powerful. It seemed he could roll right into “Old Man River” without missing a beat. Definitely saw Sher’s attempt to soften the sexism by including a trio of suffragettes in the chorus shouting “Our bodies, our choice.”

8:02 – Back to Higgins, now in his two-story Wimpole Street study. Impressive, ship-like set, complete with all the accoutrements of an English academic bachelor: spiral staircase, polished dark wood and brass fittings, a cluttered desk the size of flight deck and yards and yards of books.

8:03 – Higgins’ opulent study is an Edwardian man cave, perfect for cavorting with the Higgins’ old chum, Colonel Pickering (a delightful Kevin Pariseau) that also reveals this show’s high production values. Wow! And that’s thanks to Michael Yeargan, the scenic designer.

8:20 – Jumping to Scene 5, back in Higgin’s study. The set ingeniously turns, revealing different parts of the townhouse. More kudos to Yeargan.

8:30 – Still Scene 5, replete with four numbers that lead to the ubiquitous “The Rain in Spain,” which begins Eliza’s transformation into a “proper” lady with the enunciation to match. Then, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Ahmed brings a graceful earnestness to this familiar song.

8:40 – It’s the Scene 6 show stopper! Literally. Set outside a club tent at the Ascot horse races, Yeargan’s design includes a striped tent that was supposed to rise above the cast. Problem was, it didn’t rise. Some of the cast members had to step around the tent during the “Ascot Gavotte.” The house announcer told us the show was experiencing difficulties and instructed the cast to leave the stage for their safety. House lights came up for several minutes and the show proceeded. Hey, it’s live theater, people!

8:47 – Despite the scenery malfunction, the Ascot scene highlights another of Yeargan’s brilliant touches. He toggles sets right out of “Decorating Rich”  with those like this one that are subtler, cleaner and more contemporary.

8:55 – Scene 7. Another great supporting character. This time, it’s love-struck Freddy, played by Sam Simahk. Singing “On the Street Where You Live” with a powerful tenor, Simahk commands the song and stage. Simahk, along with Fisher as Eliza’s father, may have given the best performances. What’s that they say about no small parts?

9:00 – Act I ends with the presentation of Eliza as she prepares for the embassy ball. As she steps out in a very Audrey Hepburn evening gown, it’s the perfect time to call out Catherin Zuber’s excellent costume designs. Eliza’s evening gown and gloves are perfect and elicited the anticipated oohhs and aahhs, but she becomes regal as she is enshrouded in a high-colored, deep-red cloak. Another noteworthy touch came earlier as Higgins’ house staff prepared to bathe Eliza. As she is stripped down, actually and metaphorically, the process is modestly exemplified by the way the maids pluck her dirty gloves from her hands. Small touch that says so much – love the attention to details like this.

Photo by Joan Marcus

9:20 – Act II, Scene 2. A cringe-worthy scene despite this production’s best efforts. Eliza is back in Higgins’ study after her successful foray into high society. “You Did It” is intended to be a triumphant song, but Eliza is separated physically and emotionally from Higgins, Pickering and the house staff. Higgins takes all the credit for her success while Eliza observes from the periphery. Am I the only one to see the parallels between parts of “My Fair Lady” and “Frankenstein?” “You Did It” is equivalent to Dr. Frankenstein’s “It’s Alive!” Both men are myopically impressed by their own work at the expense of the “creations.”

9:40 – Jumping to Scene 4. A rousing show-stopper with “Get Me to the Church On Time,” sung by Eliza’s father and his cohorts as he prepares to be married. Not sure what purpose this song does to move the story forward, but it is the most vigorous, uninhibited and naughty of the show. A great change of pace as a Moulin Rouge-esque song and dance routine that sneakily – at first – introduces cancan dancers in drag. What?!

My Fair Lady

10:15 – “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Don’t expect the Rex Harrison styling of this classic. Mackintosh’s Higgins is a linguistic king baby who cries for his mommy after Eliza leaves him in an earlier scene. Here, he grapples with his two sides – will he or won’t he. He waffles, like a Jekyll and a Hyde (apt since he played the Utterson character in “Jekyll & Hyde”) and the song ends with no clear decision.

10:30 – Not exactly the ending I expected. No spoilers. See “My Fair Lady” for yourself. It’s worth it.

11:30 – Back home. Thinking of that ending. It’s not a Hollywood ending, but it may be the best or most-right ending to a musical that others have described as “perfect but not great.” Thinking also of two moments as the audience walked toward the exits. Two separate individuals in two different parts of the theater were quietly singing, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Nothing says “Great show” better than that.

Performances of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY at the Fabulous Fox run March 22 – April 3. 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. There will be an evening performance on Sunday, March 27 at 6:30 p.m. and a matinee performance on Thursday, March 31 at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit

My Fair Lady Photo by Joan Marcus

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer

What happens when you take Puccini’s La Boheme (The Breakfast Club of its day) out for a sexed-up, drugged-up, angst-amped joy ride through lower Manhattan in the upper decade of the former millennium?

Well, if it’s 24 years ago, it snags a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical while running for an impressive 12 years and grossing more than $280 million.

But what if it’s 24 years later? Do a quick internet search about the 20th-anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which opened at the Fabulous Fox on Friday, Feb. 21, and you’ll find a significant amount of critics-sphere dithering about the dreaded R-word – relevance.

Is this Puccini reboot (of sorts) still relevant now that the LGBTQ and AIDS epidemic cultural landscape has shifted in the past two decades — to say nothing of New York City real estate?

On the other hand, is a focus on relevance really that…well, relevant? After all, is Oklahoma and its “surrey with the fringe on top” relevant? Is South Pacific and its hair washing man removal relevant? Will Hamilton still be hip-hoppin’ relevant in 20 years?

Kelsee Schweigard as Maureen

The crucible for relevance of any piece of theater (define relevance any way you please) is, ultimately, time. It’s about longevity. It’s about audiences willing – eager even – to engage with a new production of a show and embrace it anew. Within this context, the relevance of Rent, now 20 years on, is proved by its ability to enthusiastically fill seats, which this touring production certainly did on opening night at the Fox Theatre. The audience demographic was “youthier” than some other recent Fox shows, which makes sense because Rent is talkin’ ‘bout that younger generation that bridges the analogue and digital worlds.

The audience was greeted immediately by Paul Clay’s muscular, industrial set design, adapted for this production by Matthew Maraffi, which provided an effective visual environment that evoked the vibe and spirit of (to cross genres) the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You.” The lighting was noteworthy, too, appropriately shifting from candle-lit love-mood to spotlighted rock concert stage. Tucked stage right was the lean pit orchestra, led by conductor/keyboardist Mark Binns, which was seamlessly – visually and aurally – integrated into the production. In fact, it was easy to forget they were on stage most of the time.   

Rent is a demanding show choreographically speaking. It requires a range of athleticism during numbers such Mimi’s Tina Turner-channeling “Out Tonight” to the company’s languid, funereal “Goodbye, Love.” This production is generally up to that challenge, though Aiyana Smash as Mimi appeared unsure and overly studied during some of her pole-dancing moves while climbing and hanging from the railings during “Out Tonight.” Such hesitancy was quickly forgotten after her tabletop romping later in that number.   

Costume Design by Angela Wendt was true to the original and to the 90s era it represented. Costumes were mostly rags that thankfully didn’t veer too deeply into Uriah Heep territory and enlivened with some Jane Fonda workout and Where’s Wally? flourishes. One misstep was the portrayal of the riot police who wore oversized, cartoonish visors, cupped their batons like rural sheriffs and marched like children on parade. That may have been the intent, but it detracted from the emotional reach of their scenes.

The 20th reunion Rent benefits from a strong, deep-bench cast:

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen provided the connective tissue throughout as both emcee and cast member. He delivered an admirable range that modulated from affable to earnest and, at-times, angry and callow.

Coleman Cummings delivered a strong but uneven performance as Roger Davis. On numbers that required his “big voice,” his voice was strong, meaty and powerful, but in quieter moments he was ineffectively torpid and lispy, even though Roger is not in good health.

Audience favorite Angel Schunard was Pussy-Galored/Pussy-Glamoured with a cat-like, Jack Skellington-esque aplomb by Joshua Tavares. His drag queen persona rightly drew applause and you-go-girl affirmations, but his quieter, sick and dying scenes were equally as memorable for their quiet power – especially his simulated puking. Schunard had the perfect blend of range and moves for the entirety of this demanding part.

Kelsee Sweigard delivered one of the show’s most impressive performances as Maureen Johnson during the “Over the Moon” performance art number. She played the preposterous “milk in the cyber world” scene with a believable, earnest awkwardness that wasn’t easy to achieve – in the same way playing believably drunk is never easy.  

Shafiq Hicks as big-man Tom Collins belted out his deep, resonant, “Old Man River”-tinged voice in all his solos, especially his reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” His best stage moments begged the production make a hard stop – in only good ways – to pay special attention to his performance.

Ditto for Smash as Mimi. Smash’s show-stopping power was evident in equal measures in her dance and singing. Her Mimi shared an impressive spectrum of radiance, assertiveness, horniness, vulnerability and, ultimately, transfigured. 

Rent at 24 resonates a little differently than it did in its Broadway and touring heyday. Perhaps at its 30th and 40th anniversaries will find a different relevance, though audiences may need footnotes to explain references to the Sex Pistols, Spike Lee, Ecstasy, etc.

But, as Dale Carnegie (of all people) once wrote, “Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language, is the best way to recreate the incident as it happened and to picture it for the audience.”

Yeah, Rent does that.

The 20th anniversary tour of “Rent”

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Rent” February 21-23.

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer
It’s nice to be surprised, even at what might seem like just another jukebox musical. And yet, that’s exactly what “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” achieved.
On opening night at the Fox Theatre, the audience obviously came primed to be wowed by performances of Ms. Summer’s greatest hits like “Love to Love You Baby,” “MacArthur Park,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff.” The show doled them out in a steady stream and culminated, predictably in…you guessed it, the show-ender “Last Dance.”
Like many jukebox musicals, Summer the show suffers from moments of clunky dialogue, yuck-yuck jokes and plot shifts that require more than a simple suspension of disbelief. And it artificially tries to create momentum by turning up the volume or bass (or both).
But unlike most of this genre’s brethren and sistren, Summer transcends its own shortcomings, with thanks due largely to Dan’yelle Williamson as Diva Donna/Mary Gaines (her birth name), Alex Hairston as Disco Donna and Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna/Mimi (one of Ms. Summer’s daughters.)
Yes. That’s right.
It takes three performers to properly portray the one real-life Donna Summer, who was no one-hit wonder. This vocal triptych is apropos because Summer was more than the sum of her parts, and that sum comprised her many talents as singer, songwriter, mother, wife, visual artist and all-around diva.
Sometimes solo and sometimes sharing the stage simultaneously as Summer wrestled with her life’s demons and dilemmas, Williamson, Hairston and Hardy (you could call them the Three Facets) do Donna proud.
They may not have Summer’s chops or X-factor presence, but they evoke and reflect the power, emotion and confidence of their powerful pop progenitor.
Another part of this show’s success is the book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cray and Des McAnuff. Instead of concocting a contrived, wink-wink plot, Summer hits the Cliffs Notes (the highs as well as the lows) of Ms. Summer’s life and career.
This nonfiction element works well enough within the context of this show and provides an acceptable, linear story arc while engaging in some not-too off-putting revisionist history and legacy polishing.
It appeared that most in the audience were already familiar with the undulations of Summer’s career. They came to party like it was 1979, not slog through the high drama of Mommy Dearest or The Color Purple (though this show presents “lite” versions of similar themes).
The songs, to borrow a phrase from oenology (and maybe Tina Turner), still have legs. Though at the time of their release they suffered the slings and arrows of the “Disco Sucks” movement,
Summer’s songs still have the power to make you shake your groove thing, even if more than a few audience members had to shake ‘em sitting down. Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd and his diatribe about “pre-programed electronic disco” would have been admonished to shut up and dance.
The auditorium was filled with so much head bobbing and seat dancing that surely they put to shame the puny “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World.
The Summer stage sparkled brightly under the direction of Des McAnuff, choreography by Sergio Trujillo, music supervision by Ron Melrose, scenic design by Robert Brill, costumes by Paul Tazewell and lighting by Howey Binkley. This combination gave Summer an early-MTV vibe, a la Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video.
The stage was clean and minimal while evoking the spirit of its times while never overwhelming the presence of Summer in any or all of her three facets.
The unexpected surprise of this show, wasn’t, however, any of the above. It wasn’t one of Summer’s mega-hits, which were practically designed to be uber-crowd-pleasers. Rather, it was a song later in the one-act show – “I Believe in Jesus” performed by Disco Donna. Hairston’s passionate performance brought the show to a standstill, in all the best ways, and received some of the most heartfelt, resonant applause of the evening.
The song’s placement in the show marks a beat in Summer’s life when her faith was reinvigorated. And, like several other obvious and subtle moments, conveyed yet another facet of the strong, talented, driven, successful woman behind the Queen of Disco moniker.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre presents “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” January 15-26. For more information, visit

Escape From Margaritaville Washes Ashore and Wastes

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

Escape From Margaritaville is not your typical musical theater experience. In fact, one deigns to even dub it a “musical.” It’s more party than performance.

That’s because to receive the full benefit of buying a ticket – and for the show to reach its limited potential – requires the audience to fully engage – that is to actually participate – in its Parrot-headed premise.

Escape From Margaritaville hails from the Jimmy Buffet industrial complex and is an island-flavored entertainment with as much realism as a cheesy travel brochure. The show snorkeled into town at The Fabulous Fox on October 18-20.

Riding in the wake of other successful, so-called jukebox musicals, Margartaville is conspicuously designed to ride in on the high tide of box office success of other productions of this ilk, namely Mama Mia! and Rock of Ages.

These successful shows provided the recipe-cum-template for
Margaritaville, which tosses Buffet’s beguiling country-western-in-a-Hawaiian-shirt
tunage and Will Rogers-ish, aw-shucks humor into a blender with a tropish,
silly “boy meets then loses girl” plot, trying to render a frozen concoction
that hopes to help the audience hang onto their ticket stubs for a breezy couple
of hours.

But instead of landing an expected sharknado of sing-along
shenanigans, Friday night’s performance reeled in gasping guppies. The reason
why was not the bait. Who doesn’t love Buffet’s easy, languid, catchy,
comfortable-as-your-favorite flip-flops songs such as “Volcano,” “Fins,” “Come
Monday,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor” and the title song? It’s nearly impossible
not to like these fan faves, just ask thousands – if not millions – of Parrot
Heads the world over.

Nor was the show’s failure to launch due to the
aforementioned plot, which surely does not require one to suspend very much
disbelief. After all, the show’s tagline says it all: “Set Your Mind on Island
Time.” That should be easy to do, given Buffet promotion of a fiddle-dee-dee,
“Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” mindset.

But the dialogue was predictable, flavorless and seemed like it was borrowed from a second-rate sitcom, which is a shame since it came from Emmy-winner Greg Garcia (My Name is Earl, Family Matters and Family Guy) and Mike O’Malley (the award-winning Survivor’s Remorse).

The plot tortuously bends to accommodate the story of two
women from Cincinnati on a bachelorette binge. Rachel, the lead, played by
Sarah Hinrichsen, is a type A scientist whose friend, Rachel, played by Shelly
Lynn Walsh, is soon to be married to the bro-y, doltish Chadd, broadly played
by Noah Bridgestock with thankfully short stage time.

The women predictably become entwined with islanders Tully,
the other lead played by Chris Clark, and Brick, played by Peter Michael
Jordan. Of all the performances on Friday night, Jordan’s was the only lively
stand-out – and that’s not damning the performance with faint praise. He
practically carried the show, especially during the campy tap number in the
second act. Even the horny ole codger, J.D., played by Patrick Cogan, needed an
extra shot of Ron Rico (or another “little blue pill”) at this performance.

All of the shortcomings of Escape From Margaritaville
could have been overcome with a more enthusiastic and fully engaged audience.
The producers tried to turn the show into an event with free leis at the
entrance, a precious few moments when the actors broke the fourth wall, and a
boatload of beachballs released during the final number. But the audience
response was lackluster. It needed more die-hard, fully plumed Parrot Heads or
at least more attendees who were willing to abandon their self-reserve in favor
of the show’s charms for a couple of hours.

That, and unlike Rock of Ages, which packed a
decade’s worth of 80s big-haired rockers, Escape to Margaritaville
needed more – much more – of Buffet’s appealing, easy-on-the-ears-and-mind
tunes. Good times need good tunes, and these felt in short supply in this show,
leaving some at the exits, escaping from Margartaville.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Escape from Margaritaville” October 18-20.

By CB AdamsContributing WriterThere’s no easy way to say this: Union Avenue Opera’s season-ender production of Tom Cipullo’s true story Glory Denied is not easy to recommend because it is “not” many things.

It’s not a familiar, time-tested story arc (dare we say, post-modern?). Like most operas, it doesn’t examine a happy subject (war, torture, dissolution, hatred substance abuse, suicide, etc.), but unlike most operas, it ends despairingly rather than tragically, hopefully or even poetically.

Because it is not an opera that takes fictional specifics and reaches out for the universal — it’s an adaptation of the eponymous book by Tom Philpott, Glory Denied presents the very real specifics of a very real man (husband, father, Army colonel, America’s longest-held prisoner of war, alcoholic, etc.) and turns those specifics deeply inward – into gut shots rather than navel gazing. Nor is it filled with likeable characters; it’s especially hard to identify with or have much true empathy for either version of the wife, Alyce, despite Cipullo’s best efforts to present her side of the story.

And it’s not about America at its best – no rose-colored, rah-rah,
flag-waving, patriotic boosterism in this story. This is an opera about an ugly
war, an ugly time in America and the ugly way that both the government and our
fellow citizens dealt with its ugly details and aftereffects. On stage, the
horrific details keep adding up like those nightly body counts on the evening
news during the Vietnam War.

The first act deals primarily with the eight-year
imprisonment and physical abuse that Floyd James “Jim” Thompson endured,
followed by the second act examining how his post-war life was just as
tortuous, albeit in very different ways. (For plot details, do a quick internet
search – it debuted in 2007 and has had more than 20 productions since then.)

And yet, it is precisely because of all of the things that Glory Denied is not that makes it precisely
why UAO’s production deserves an audience – and certainly one better attended
than the August 17 performance (c’mon, St. Louis theater goers in general and
opera goers in particular!). Not everything worthwhile is easy and not
everything can be sugarcoated to help the bitterness go down. Glory Denied (in its St. Louis debut), should
be seen for exactly what it is: a cautionary tale. It serves the same purpose
as the uncomfortable “aversion therapy” scene in A Clockwork Orange – the one where the lead character, Alex, is
forced to watch violent images while his eyes are clamped open.

Union Avenue Opera’s Glory Denied dress rehearsal on August 13, 2019.Kudos and a tip of the hat to UAO for taking a chance, pushing the boundaries of our local audiences and supporting the work of a modern composer. The company showed extraordinary commitment to this production. As part of a PNC Arts Alive Grant, UAO presented a free panel discussion about Glory Denied and the Vietnam War on August 13 at Soldier’s Memorial.

Tom Cipullo attended the opening weekend of the opera and led talk-back presentations after the performances. Veterans were eligible for free general admission tickets and active military could see the production for $15. There was even a special room reserved for those who might have an anxious reaction during each performance.

Befitting the intimate nature of the story, Glory Denied relies on a cast of just four portraying two versions of the same character under the direction of St. Louis native Dean Anthony, making his UAO debut. David Walton portrays Younger Thompson and Peter Kendall Clark (making his UAO debut, though he has sung the role previously) plays the central character, Older Thompson.

Thompson’s wife is portrayed by Karina Brazas as the Younger Alyce and Gina Galati as Older Alyce. Brazas and Galati deserve some sort of operatic hazard pay for meeting the challenges of portraying such unlikeable characters so well – it makes their accomplishment that much more appreciated. That same appreciation applies to the entire ensemble as they work with a script consisting entirely of lines from actual interviews, correspondence and other research materials.

The music – sometimes jarring, discordant, atonal – was energetic and robust as conducted by UAO artistic director Scott Schoonover. The minimalist set design by Roger Speidel, while spare, provided appropriate details to convey time and indicate place. He made especially good use of foot lockers and many forms of paper, such as letters, government memoranda, newspapers and magazines as they were thrown, dropped and flung throughout the stage.  

The peak performance of the evening was Clark’s bellicose
rendition of “Welcome Home,” which has some of the tightest, strongest and
angriest writing in the opera – even though it  borrows the same ironic, rapid-fire structure
created by Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t
Start the Fire,” and REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel

Yes, Glory Denied is a tough sell, especially if all you seek is passive escapism (there’s a new Lion King for that) rather than a production that asks you to actively, intellectually consider one of the true costs of war – and not just the Vietnam War.

Union Avenue Opera’s Glory Denied dress rehearsal on August 13, 2019.

It’s a bit like being required to read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! orHerman Mehlville’s Moby Dick. Sure, they look dense and imposing sitting unopened – and maybe you won’t love every single sentence – but there’s a satisfaction when you make it to the end. Glory Denied deserves that much respect and deserves a fuller audience than last Saturday’s – even if it is a bitter pill.

Union Avenue Opera presents “Glory Denied” August 16, 17,
23 and 24 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information,

By CB AdamsContributing WriterTo mix musical genres – and to begin with the finale of Fire Shut Up in My Bones – this new “opera in jazz” answers the same rhetorical question raised in “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds: “What’s it gonna take to make a dream survive? / Who’s got the touch to calm the storm inside?” The rhetorical answer in general is each of us and in particular, it is the opera’s hero-protagonist, Charles.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera that bends – if not downright breaks – the style, presentation and story arc of what we think of as traditional opera. If your idea of opera is a stage full of European white people voicing the story and words of some dead white dude, then Fire will surprise you in multiple ways – not the least of which is the all-African-American cast.

First is the source material. Fire is adapted
from the memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles
Blow, rather than fables, fairy tales or fiction. Fire was created by
librettist Kasi Lemmons (director/writer/actress) and composer Terence
Blanchard (film score composer/noted jazz trumpeter). This is Blanchard’s
second commission from OTSL; the first was Champion presented in 2013.

The narrative is presented in a book-ended fashion, with the opening and concluding scenes set in Charles’ home. Correspondingly, the reason the Charles has returned to his hometown (physically and metaphorically) is explained at the beginning and reaches its resolution at the end. Within those bookends, Fire follows a linear timeline that satisfyingly links the beginning with the ending.

Jeremy Denis, Davone Tines and Karen SlackOf course, Fire is an opera and peddles the usual Big Themes (Love, Infidelity, Violence, Murder), but like the good gumbo that it is, it adds sexual molestation, sexual identity, abject poverty and fraternity hazing – not to mention the challenges and monotony of working in a chicken processing plant! Instead of Nordic mountains or an Italian villa, Fire is set in the rural idyll of Gibsland, Louisiana, with a set design that practically exudes the heat and humidity of the American South.

The music of Fire leans away from traditional Western European orchestration and into a unique patois of American jazz, folk, blues and big band performed by an orchestra/jazz combo hybrid, conducted by William Long.

 Fire efficiently packs Blow’s entire memoir into a couple of captivating hours’ worth of opera. It cinematically – and efficiently – quick-cuts from scene to scene (home shack, porch, farm fields, chicken factory, farmland, molestation bed, college fraternity party) leading to the denouement and resolution of Charles’ conflicts. The success of OTSL’s Fire is attributable in no small part to the production – weighty and evocative without being heavy – helmed by director James Robinson, making his OTSL debut.

At the premiere, the talents of Allen Moyer (set
design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design) and Greg Emetaz (video
projection engineer), cohered as the stage morphs from scene to scene using
movable set pieces in tempo with the music, singing and action (kudos, too, to
choreographer Seán
Curran and Tom Watson, wig and makeup design). The attention to telling details
extended to the palpable bloodiness of the chicken processors (more kudos to
James Schuette for costume design here and throughout). Even the table cloths
in a nightclub scene looked like old-fashioned bottle caps, evoking the
pleasure to be found there.

Equally impressive were the principal performers of Fire. Blanchard and Lemmons solved the
challenge of presenting the lead character from age six to adult (in sung
roles) by using both a child, the delightful Jeremy Denis as Char’es-Baby, and the
adult Charles, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. They were often in scene together, with
Charles providing context and counsel like a sort of Jiminy Cricket to his own
younger self. Along with several other young actors, it was engaging to watch
children on stage do something more meaningful than add background.

One of the opera’s pivotal scenes is the molestation of
the Char’es-Baby by a cousin, and it was one of the highlights of this
production – harrowing and nauseating without being prurient, pervey or porny.

Some of the opera’s ensemble played multiple roles, the
most obvious of which was soprano Julia Bullock who played the Chorus-like Destiny
and Loneliness as well as Greta Charles’ love-interest for a time. Bullock
transitioned among these characters easily, without calling attention to her
ability to fully inhabit and portray them. No good Southern story is complete
without a sassy and strong mama, and soprano Karen Slack as Billie, Charles’s
mother, is no exception. Her performance commanded the audience to fully
experience her character rather than sit back passively and watch and listen.

Davone Tines, Karen Slack in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”In a way, it is Billie who has the last word in Fire as Charles seems to accept her recurring advice that “sometimes you gotta leave it in the road.” To mix musical genres again, there’s a similar sentiment in “The Wiz.” It’s the notion that “Don’t you carry nothing / That might be a load.” Fire leaves on the hopeful if unsung note that moving on in life Charles will indeed “Ease On Down the Road.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented the world premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” June 15-29 at the Loretto-Hilton Center. Fore more information visit

Shut Up My Bones”
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
June 15 – June 29

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

Opera Theatre’s riveting production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea brings to mind
some dubious advice from philosopher-cum-mob boss Tony Soprano, “When you’re
married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce.”

The green grocer in Poppea is none other than the real-life Roman leader Nerone (nee Nero), portrayed with unerring sleaze, swagger and callous Machiavellian machismo by tenor Benton Ryan. At its most reductive, Poppea is a “love” triangle set within a palace drama.  Nerone’s desire to discard his wife, Ottavia, (played with perfect, doomed impotence by Sarah Mesko) into the compost heap sets in motion the story’s drama. But, as the title implies, this isn’t really his story. It belongs to his paramour and hot potato, Poppea, played by the excellent Emily Fons.

Poppea shares much with Carmela Soprano who famously
quipped, “…It’s a multiple choice thing with you. ‘Cause I can’t tell if you’re
old-fashioned, you’re paranoid or just a f**cking asshole.” Except, for Poppea,
those question are rhetorical. Her theme song would not be Tina Turner’s “I
Might Have Been Queen.” Fons’s Poppea, we realize early on, will be queen. Just get her to the
coronation on time.

 The Sopranos operatically limned the complexities of love/lust,
power/vulnerability, allegiance/betrayal and life/death. Yet, as fresh as those
storylines appeared, they were really just modern manifestations of ageless Big
Themes – as Poppea aptly
demonstrates. To provide some genealogical operatic perspective, Poppea was first performed in the
Teatrro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1643 for the Carnival season.

And therein lies the brilliance of OTSL’s current
production: it’s a classic story still capable of captivating and surprising a
modern audience with its ambitious and equally modern Go Big Or Go Home attitude
– when presented this well. If this sounds hyperbolic, then consider the chorus
of gasps that erupted from the audience during the knifing to death of a
character (no spoilers, here). That was proof enough that OTSL’s casting,
direction and design all work seamlessly to achieve an emotionally satisfying,
multi-layered, epiphanic experience.

Unlike its namesake, OTSL’s Poppea, directed by Tim Albery by way of England’s North Opera
(2014), is a perfect marriage in toto.
Albery and set/costume designer Hannah Clark give this age-old tale a more
modern look, setting it in the near past with a sheen that is part mob movie,
part French New Wave and part Mad Men.
It draws upon talents both wide and deep, top to bottom, to achieve its

Photo by Eric WoolseyThe Leads: Part
of the magic of the elevated, high-art opera theater experience is its
potential to entice the audience to suspend its disbelief. Achieving that
alchemy is often more aspirational than actual. OTSL’s Poppea achieves that potential, with Fons, Ryan and Mesko being the
highest-profile examples. Individually they inhabited their roles and collectively
interacted with assured chemistry . Mezzo-soprano Fons nailed the voice,
mannerisms and confidence to turn Poppea from mere conniving character to
queen. Benton, Poppea’s running mate (whether at her side, trailing behind or
just sniffing around) was engaging as a man of great, misguided, misused power.
To his credit, his portrayal – more than once – begged for cries of, “You
dumbstick, don’t do it!” Mesko as Ottavia was no wet dishrag. As a character,
Ottavia is outnumbered and outgunned, but Mesko’s performance garnered audience
sympathy and support for her Sisyphean efforts to save her marriage, status and

Supporting Actors:
Poppea is a rich, multi-layered story
that relies on a large cast. The leads in OTSL’s production were joined by
equally strong supporting performances, including some roles for Richard Gaddes
Festival Artists and Gerdine Young Artists.

As the philosopher Seneca, David Pittsinger’s deep baritone provided
a beautiful gravitas to his efforts to counsel and guide his pupil, Nerone. His
distinctive voice exemplifies another strength of this production – you could
close your eyes and still distinguish the various characters. Tom Scott-Cowell,
a countertenor, was a delight to witness as he pretzeled his desperate character
from jilted lover to cross-dressing assassin.

As if the human machinations weren’t enough, Monteverdi also
threw in some meddling gods, which Albery used to open the opera (even before
it officially starts) by wandering around the set, as if waiting for the party
to get started. Mezzo-soprano Michael was a delightfully puckish, androgynous
and Babe Ruth-ish Amore competing with a weary Virtu, played by Jennifer
Aylmer, and latex-gloved Fortuna, played by Sydney Baedke.

Set and Lighting:
Under Hannah Clark’s design, not an inch of the thrust stage was wasted in this
production that balanced a steam-punk industrial vibe with the beautify period instruments
of the musicians flanking each side. Overhead hung three mid-century modern
chandeliers. Shiny, verdigris back walls were reminiscent of an old natatorium
(apt, for this is a world under water), complete with a ladder used to good
effect by the gods to “ascend” above the action.

In contrast, the walls were punctured by a corrugated sliding
door and another that looked it was stolen from an abandoned meat locker. The
set design also made clever use of a rolling table for feasting, lovemaking, dancing,
peacocking, escaping and, ultimately, as a place to stack the bodies (you stab
‘em, we slab ‘em). Despite these seeming visual incongruities, the set and
design work cohesively with the other elements of this interpretation.

Music: Adding to
the unconventional presentation, Albery elevates the musicians to perform in two
string quartets seated on either side of the stage. The musicians were dressed
mostly in formal ballroom attire, adding a graceful note as they played on violins,
two harpsichords and a variety of period instruments, including Baroque harp, viola
da gamba and theorbos.  

In a debate with the other gods, Amore asserts that love
will win the day. In Poppea, love – blind
love, anyway – does seem to win the day, as Nerone and Poppea finish one of opera’s
great duets and look hesitantly toward an unknowable future. This moment calls
to mind something Dr. Melfi says to Tony Soprano, “Sometimes, it’s important to
give people the illusion of being in control.”

 “The Coronation of Poppea” plays at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 30. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

By C.B. AdamsContributing WriterAct Inc.’s family-friendly production of Leaving Iowa, written by the multi-talented team of Tim Clue and Spike Morgan, feels like an adaptation of a personal essay. You know, the kind that appears around Father’s Day in the New York Times‘s Sunday Review with a title like, “Me and My Old Man.”

John Steinbeck took to the highways with his dog and ended up with a book called Travels With Charlie. Leaving Iowa, a memory play that weaves past and present, could just as well be titled Travels With My Dad — a mildly ironic title perhaps, given that the narrator of this play is carrying around his father’s memory and his burial ashes. 

Befitting its authors’ professional achievements as motivational speakers and improv/stand-up comedians, Leaving Iowa offers snappy, quick-paced and engaging dialogue that is well timed and sprinkled liberally with one-liners and other comedic accoutrements.

As an entertainment, it shares much with a good-quality sitcom in the vicinity of Home Improvement. It’s approach and themes are milder versions of those in A Christmas Story(movie or musical version), which was itself a softer version of humorist Jean Shepard’s novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

Photo by John LambLeaving Iowa can feature as many as 27 performers by casting multiple character parts separately. Director Lori Renna nicely pared this production to just six by making use of the quick-changing talents of CeCe Day and John Emery.

Part of the fun of this production was anticipating whom Day and Emery would be playing the next time they emerged from the wings of the in-the-round stage at the Black Box Theater in Lindenwood’s J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts.The four other parts, played by John Reidy as Dad, Colleen Heneghan as Mom, Hunter Frederick as Don Browning and Amanda Brasher as Sis, also required the actors to portray their characters in the present and past. Hunter and Brasher delightfully transformed from young backseat nattering chatterboxes to their more mature but no less competitive adult counterparts. The play is projected through the lens of the son, Don Browning. Hunter’s likeable, identifiable and approachable portrayal of a son running the gamut of fond remembrances, regret and contrition hit his mark with ease every time.

Heneghan and Reidy as Mom and Dad respectively provided a solid base from which the rest of the play revolves. After all, doesn’t it seem like our parents never change? This was especially true as veteran actor Reidy play Dad both as a real live character as well as a tingle-inducing memory-ghost in some scenes.

As the actors bopped from scene to scene along the play’s extended time line, their efforts were well supported by the staging provided by Lori Potts, scene design by Tim Grumich, lighting design by Michael Sullivan , costume design by Jane Sullivan and sound design by Kaitlynn Ferris. To this team’s credit, all of these elements  were quietly woven into the play and provided just the right of effect to convey each scene. Sometimes, as in this case, not standing out is outstanding — and the right directorial choice.More than once, the family in Leaving Iowa piles into an imaginary car and hits a road that is sometimes metaphorical and sometimes actual. As the play ends, with Don finally finding an appropriate resting place for his father’s ashes, its resolution leaves the audience with a feeling both wistful, amused, satisfied, and…well, happy. You know that look a dog has with its head sticking out the window of a moving car, as if its smiling?Yeah, Leaving Iowa leaves you like that. 

Photo by John LambAct Inc. presents “Leaving Iowa” June 14 through June 22. Performances June 21-22 are Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Emerson Black Box Theatre at J. Scheidegger Cener for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles. For more information or tickets, visit