By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A compelling plea for compassion and understanding, Kurt Weill’s mighty “Lost in the Stars” will break your heart and uplift your spirit in Union Avenue Opera’s stirring production.
This ambitious vibrant opera features more than 50 performers, many new to the art form, and that provides some of St. Louis’ finest dramatic artists with an opportunity to stretch their acting muscles. Under Shaun Patrick Tubbs’ fluid direction, they seamlessly blend into Weill’s powerful operatic retelling of “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is set in South Africa during the 1940s era of apartheid, a time of great racial and economic divide. Adapted the following year into the opera “Lost in the Stars,” Weill wrote his last score, and famed historical playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote both the book and lyrics.

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

Photos by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For the St. Louis premiere of Guiseppe Verdi’s Biblical epic “Nabucco,” Union Avenue Opera dreamed big.
Not since tackling Wagner’s Ring Cycle have they taken on such a massive show. The staging this four-act 1841 Italian opera is a towering achievement, both vocally and in mechanics.
They succeed in showcasing not only the top-shelf talent they attracted for this production, but also one of the best choruses featured on their cozy stage.
Conductor Stephen Hargreaves and Assistant Chorus Master Jon Garrett deep-dive into this glorious, grand signature Verdi sound – confidently creating big, bold orchestral and chorus statements. The 21-piece string-heavy orchestra is outstanding.

While the romantic and political complexities of this Old Testament story do not exactly comprise the finest libretto, the vocal prowess is stunning. This show’s cast has the vibrant voices to match the character requirements.
Librettist Temistocle Solero used the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel for the turbulent story, set in 587 B.C. The King of Babylon is Nabucco (Robert Garner), known as Nebuccadnezzer in English. He has seized control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. The other major storyline is that his daughter Fenena (Melody Wilson) and her evil half-sister Abigaille (Marsha Thompson) are both in love with Ismaele (Jesse Donner), the nephew of the King of Jerusalem.
While war rages between Babylon and Jerusalem, Abigaille pledges to save Ismaele’s people if he chooses her. But he denies her, so she turns ruthless and plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
First-time director Mark Freiman heightens the soap opera aspect of these treacherous elements, as the principals expressively sing about their emotional anguish and lament over their choices.
The accomplished Robert Garner is an imposing Nabucco, and when he needs to regain his sanity and strength in Act III, excels in his “Dio di Giuda” aria.
 
However, the two women are such dynamic forces and reach exhilarating heights as the warring half-sisters. In an impressive debut, soprano Marsha Thompson commands the stage as Abigaille, breathtaking in the demanding role. Her arias are something special, especially her dramatic coloratura “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno.”
The rising young star Melody Wilson – what an inspiring name! – demonstrates why she is one to watch, as she has one of the richest mezzo-sopranos I’ve heard. She stood out in her St. Louis debut in “Doubt” two summers ago, as part of “Regina” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis this season, and now, in this dramatic role as Fenena. What a range! Her prayer painting a picture of the heavens, “O dischius’è il firmament,” is exceptional.
Also standing out is bass Zachary James as Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, both in physical presence and in vocal prowess. He is particularly impressive performing “D’Egitto là su i lidi” that revives his people’s hopes in Act 1, and the prayer “Tu sul labbro” in Act 2.
Jesse Donner is solid as Ismaele, as is Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal and Karen Kanakis as Anna.
Bravo, fervent ensemble! They do indeed stir the soul in the famous “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” chorus. One of the most famous opera pieces of all-time is robustly delivered by Douglas Allebach, Madeline Black, Aleksandar Dragojevic, David Fournie, Jon Garrett, Rebecca Hetlelid, Michael Hawkins, Emily Heyl, Jeffrey Heyl, Lori Hoffman, Hannah Kauffmann, Amy Mazzeo, Jayde Mitchell, Joel Rogier, Tina Sayers and Caetlyn Van Bure in their masterful Italian vocal unison.
The cheers in Act 3 were lengthy and well-deserved, for it was quite a thrilling moment.
The technical aspects of this show are more demanding than usual at the Union Avenue Christian Church. With an idol that must fall and lightning that has to strike, the lighting design by Patrick Huber, who also did the set design, helps make those special effects happen. Theatre Marine Productions was the technical director.
Special mention must go to set designer Huber for creating the vertically tall set so that terrains, palace hallways, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon could be imagined. That was quite a feat, and that the ensemble didn’t seem as crowded on stage.
With the lyrical virtuosity and passionate spirit achieved here, Union Avenue Opera reaches new heights.
Verdi’s “Nabucco” is sung in Italian and presented by Union Avenue Opera on July 27-28 and Aug. 3-4 at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

Photos by John Lamb