“In this intense one-act duet, Laurie McConnell and John Pierson illustrate why if you are going to put two people in one room, it might as well be them.”
By Andrea BraunContributing Writer
The title of the play is based on Frederick Douglass’ exhorting his followers to “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” This was later in his life, long after he met and became friends with Susan B. Anthony who was already doing just that in her late 20s.
Their friendship would last 45 years and their goals remain the same, though there are bumps in the road: both supported abolition and women’s rights. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light between them because while their causes meshed, their priorities didn’t always do the same. The Agitators now playing at Upstream Theater is an examination of their near-lifelong connection, allowing both of them time to make their points. Perhaps a bit too much time, however, because much of the play seems rather like a lecture. This is is certainly not to say it isn’t mostly well-done, disturbingly timely, and certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.
Douglass (J. Samuel Davis) is close to Anthony’s (Erin Kelley) father, an outspoken abolitionist, and a Quaker. Because of her religion, she tells Douglass early on, even if she could vote, she wouldn’t because Quakers are supposed to be apolitical. Later, she would leave the Society of Friends and change her mind about voting, but when we meet her, the women’s rights question is her priority, along with abolition. Act I begins at the Anthony residence and covers 1849-1869. Act II picks up in 1870 and takes us through 1895.
Playwright Mat Smart has a tough job here: The time
period covered is so long that even though projections help us with what year
it is and where we are, we still get the impression that these two spend a
great deal of time together expressing their views on civil rights. The fact
is, often they would go years without seeing each other, sometimes because they
were busy, other times, because they were angry.
Their longest disagreement was about Douglass’ support
of the 15th Amendments to the Constitution which proposed enfranchisement
of black men but not any women. Unsurprisingly, Anthony takes umbrage at his
support of what she considers a half-measure. She is also angry that Douglass
is accepting financial support from a man she considers a misogynist. This
quarrel leads to their longest period of non-communication.
He spoke at her
conferences and she appeared at his. Both of them were among the best known
figures of their time. Anthony was the only leader in the 19th
century women’s movement culminating in the meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in
1848. And one should not think that Douglass didn’t support Anthony fully in
her drive for equality; rather, he thought it was too soon and would come when
the time was right. Of course, women got the vote in 1920, long after these
icons were gone.
Photo by ProPhotoSTLAs for any sense of a love story, the affection between the two is palpable, but Douglass was happily married to his wife, Anna (a free black woman who helped him attain his freedom) and after she died, a much younger woman. He also was attractive to women and there is speculation that he had others, but one of them was NOT Susan B. Anthony.
They both wrote books—he a four-volume autobiography; she, in collaboration with other leaders of the movement, a multi-volume treatise on her own beliefs and the causes the women held dear. One good joke is that neither reads the other’s work.
There are more moments of humor that leaven the
proceedings, my favorite being Douglass explaining baseball to Anthony at his
son’s game. It is amusing, until due to a racist incident, it isn’t. They tell
each other bad jokes and engage in teasing banter. At one point, when he is 76
years old, Anthony gives Douglas a pair of ice skates. He is, of course,
nonplussed. But she was a great believer in physical exercise and the moment
demonstrates both their similarities and their differences.
The atmosphere of the play is enhanced by the musical compositions of and performance by Syrhea
Conaway, a well-known and versatile St. Louis artist. When we first see
Douglass, he is carrying a violin. At several points in the show, he appears to
play his instrument in duets with her that can run the gamut from ethereal to
anger. She uses percussion to round out the sound, and it works beautifully.
The set itself is simple—beams, planks and boxes which get shifted around
often—perhaps rather too often, as it can become distracting. There is a
connection to the story, however, when Anthony tells a story involving a suitor
who wooed her with a warmed plank.
Stage Manager Patrick Huber is responsible for the
lights, as well is the set, and they provide a proper atmosphere, if too dark
at times. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are historically accurate except
for the anachronistic zippers on Anthony’s boots. Lisa Tejero directs, assisted
by Patience Davis. They keep things moving to the extent that it is possible
when there are so very many words for the actors to say, but despite their
efforts, the production still seems static some of the time. The fact that it’s
a running trope that Anthony cannot sit down is, I assume, supposed to give us
the illusion of motion.
If there are better actors than Kelley and Davis to
play these parts, I don’t know who they are. There were a few stumbles at the
beginning, but when the two hit their stride, all was well from a performance
standpoint. I believed them and more important, I think THEY believed them too.
The last public statement Douglass made was at Seneca Falls saying “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people, but when I took up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
He and Anthony are buried in the same cemetery in Rochester, NY, her home town. Together in death, as in life, one wonders what they might have to say about racism and misogyny in 2019.
“The Agitators” is at Upstream Theater through Oct. 13 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. You may contact upstreamtheater.org
By C.B. AdamsContributing Writer
It is tempting to explore the modern cultural significance of Puccini’s La Bohéme. Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge both owe a debt of gratitude to Puccini’s enduring, powerful, story of callow youths in the full throes of love, lust and loss. Echoes of it are recognizable in films like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, to say nothing of Terms of Endearment, NBC’s Friends or even The Dandy Warhol’s “Bohemian Like You.”
But Puccini’s 1845 bohemian rhapsody is firmly ensconced in the operatic canon, so that discussion would merely detract from Union Avenue Opera’s current production (its third in its 25-year history) of La Bohéme. So, is UAO up to the challenge of this masterwork? If all you seek is a thumbs up or down recommendation, then the answer is a resounding “Yes” and read no further.
But for a few more details, know that UAO’s production
checks all the right boxes for a successful run. Under the stage direction of
Mark Freiman, cast, crew and musicians provide a confident, fresh and energetic
La Bohéme that should delight a first-time operagoer as well as a more seasoned
aficionado. Freiman moves the sometimes large cast, including an ensemble of
raucous children, around the stage with an adroit fluidity that never feels
stagey. Kudos to children’s chorus master, Alice Nelson, for ably herding the
youngsters projecting the exuberance of Muny Kids.
Cree Carrico. Dress rehearsal on July 23, 2019 for Union Avenue Opera’s production of La bohème. Photo by Dan Donovan.Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber boldly uses UAO’s
modest stage with a looming diagonal wall that is cleverly transformed from act
to act. This wall serves as a garret window overlooking a projection of the
Paris skyline in Act 1, to the awninged front of Café Momus (hello, Central
Perk) in Act 2, to a shuttered tavern entrance in Act 3, and finally back to
the first set in Act 4. Such scene-changing was impressive to see, but this also
meant an extra intermission to accomplish the changes – a minor quibble.
La Bohéme is not an opera filled with opportunities for
special effects; those pyrotechnics are mostly left to the arias and duets.
Yet, the chill in Act 3 is made ever more palpable with a gentle, realistic
snowfall. After a quick glance upward to “see how it’s done,” it’s easy to
re-suspend one’s disbelief.
Huber’s choice of lighting is interesting. Act 1’s chilly
garret is bathed in a warm, nostalgic, sepia light (Tuscan sunset, anyone?) in
contrast to the bone-chilling ambient temperature endured by the friends
Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline, Schnaunard, Benoit and, later, Mimi. This contrast
avoids the scene from becoming too Dickensian in its harsh poverty. Afterall,
the poet Rodolfo resorts to burning his manuscript to provide a meager warmth.
Just as with films, music supports the moods and actions of
the production and enhances the performance without calling attention to
itself. From the pit, conductor Elizabeth Hastings leads the small orchestra
(including harp by Megan Stout) to reach the fullness of the score with a
deceptively small cadre of musicians. Good things sometimes do indeed come in
Regardless of how much stage time the cast’s 10 members had,
each was fully in command of his or her part – in fine voice and expressing a
relaxed chemistry. The entire ensemble, and especially the main cast, are
excellently clad in period costumes that beautifully display costume designer
Teresa Doggett’s keen eye for details and distinguishing characteristics, such
as Mimi’s bonnet and deathbed muff. There are no “wardrobe malfunctions” in
this successful production, only costumes that contribute flawlessly to the
personality of each character, including the exemplary E. Scott Levin as
Benoit, the landlord, who shines in Act I.
Yulia Lysenko as Mimi and Jesse Donner Dress rehearsal on July 23, 2019 for Union Avenue Opera’s production of La bohème. Photo by Dan DonovanThe heartbeat – and heartbreak – of La Bohéme relies on its
central characters, played in this production by the tenor Jesse Donner as
Rodolfo and soprano Yulia Lysenko (making her UAO stage debut) as Mimi.
Matching male and female performance vocals – during duets as well as arias – is
always a challenge, but the talents of Donner and Lysenko intertwine
beautifully. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born could only dream
of such an effective, equitable pairing.
Puccini’s music with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe
Giacosa balances the relationship of Mimi and Rodolfo with their friends and
fellow starving artists. Andrew Wannigman as Marcello is delightful as the
painter whose eyes are just as expressive as his voice. As the singer Musetta,
Cree Carrico (making her UAO debut) plays Marcello’s love interest with a
broadly appealing, tarty flirtatiousness.
Before Mimi enters Act 1, the bro-ish camaraderie is captured with earnest high energy as Isaiah Musik-Ayala (making his UAO debut) as Colline, a philosopher, and Nicholas Ward as Schaunard, a musician, join Donner and Wannigman in the spartan garret. This production’s “deep bench” of talent extends even to the relatively small part of Parpignol, a toy vendor. As played by Dale Obermark (making his UAO debut) Parpignol is memorable, charming and a highlight of Act 2.
Good opera like all great art is worthy of repeated attention. La Bohéme may be an operatic chestnut, but UAO’s interpretation of this classic lives up to the strong material and will surely withstand the test of time as one of this company’s most noteworthy productions.
Union Avenue Opera presents “La Boheme” July 26, 27 and Aug. 2, 3 at 8 p.m. at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org.
St. Louis Actors’ Studio will produce the 7th LaBute New Theater Festival. The Theater Festival will run at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle, home to St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Professional and high school submissions were accepted October through December 2018. To be considered entries had to have no more than four characters, and be crafted specifically to exploit our intimate performance space (18′ x 18′ stage). Changes in scenery or setting should be achievable in a few seconds and with few major set moves. Our focus is on fundamental dramaturgy: plot, character, theme.
Professional, new, previously unproduced one act play submissions (45 minutes or less) included a letter of inquiry, a synopsis and a 10-page sample from the script.
Four winning plays by high school students will be presented in readings at 11 a.m. on July 20 at the Gaslight Theater. Admission to the reading free.
Six plays were chosen: One group to be performed in the first two weeks of July, the final group in the second two weeks. “Great Negro Works of Art,” a Midwest premiere from Mr. LaBute, will be performed every night for the run of the festival.
“We are thrilled that Neil will be working with us again. Lending his name and talents to foster new works in the theater is just another example of his generosity and commitment to the arts and we could not be more proud to host this ongoing event,” says William Roth, Founder and Producing Director of St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Festival Creative Team
Neil LaBute – Film Director, Screenwriter and PlaywrightWilliam Roth – Actor, Founder, Artistic Director St. Louis Actors’ StudioJohn Pierson – STLAS Assoc. Artistic Director, Actor, Teacher English and Theatre Departments John Burroughs SchoolNathan Bush – Actor, Professor of Theatre Arts -Oregon State UniversityMichael Hogan – Actor, DirectorWendy Greenwood, Theater Instructor Parkway SchoolsFranki Cambeletta, Founder, Shift FilmsRyan Foizey, Actor, Founder, Theatre LabEdward Scott Ibur –Novelist, Director, St. Louis Literary Award, Associate Director of Dual Enrollment at St. Louis University, Director, Gifted Arts(Writers & Artist Project for Middle School & High School)Julie B. Schoettley – Documentary Film Editor, Script Development EditorElizabeth Helman – Actor, Writer, Director, Professor of Theatre Arts -Oregon State UniversityMaggie Doyle Ervin – English Department, John Burroughs SchoolPatrick Huber – Associate Director, St. Louis Actors’ Studio-Set Design and Lighting, Teacher Theater, Design and Architecture Mary Institute, Country Day Prep SchoolThe following is a list of finalists for the Festival:
July 5-14, Set One:
“Great Negro Works of Art” by Neil LaBute, Directed by John Pierson“Color Timer” by Michael Long (Alexandria, VA), Directed by Jenny Smith“Privilege” – by Joe Sutton (West Orange, NJ), Directed by Jenny Smitn“Kim Jong Rosemary” by Carter W. Lewis (Stl, MO) Directed by John PiersonJuly 20-29, Set Two:
“Predilections” by Richard Curtis (NY,NY) Directed by Wendy Greenwood “Henrietta” by Joseph Krawczyk (NY,NY) Directed by Wendy Greenwood“Sisyphus and Icarus a Love Story” by William Ivor Fowkes (NY,NY) Directed by Wendy Greenwood“Great Negro Works of Art” by Neil LaBute, Directed by John PiersonHigh School Finalists:
Readings Saturday July 20, 2019 11 am FREE ADMISSION
“Razor Burn” by Theodore James Sanders (Houston, TX)“P.B and Gay” by Dylan Hasted (Glendale, CA)“Stressful Snacks” by Posey Bischoff (St. Louis, MO)“We’ll Go Down(In History)” by Ann Zhang (St. Louis, Mo)St. Louis Actors’ Studio (STLAS) strives to bring a fresh vision to theatre in St. Louis. Housed in The Gaslight Theater, a historic Gaslight Square, STLAS is committed to bringing engaging theatrical experiences to our community of actors, writers, producers, filmmakers and all patrons of the arts; and to provide a strong ensemble environment to foster learning and artistic expression.
WHEN: July 5 – 28, 2019
Evening Performances – Thursday – Saturday at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
WHERE: The Gaslight Theater
358 N Boyle
St. Louis, MO 63108
TICKETS: $30-Student Seniors, $35 Adult
Individual tickets are available for purchase through Ticketmaster.com, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers or Charge by Phone at 1-800-982-2787. Tickets will also be available at the theater box office one hour prior to performances.
For More Information call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.
By Andrea BraunContributing WriterIndecent (2017) by Paula Vogel tells the story of a play written by the young Sholem Asch entitled God of Vengeance, first performed in 1907. It is presented as his first play, but it is actually his second; however, this and other departures from fact are described by Vogel as “emotional truth,” rather than absolute historical accuracy.
“Vengeance” ran in Germany in the original Yiddish and
was translated and traveled to several other countries, but then came America. At
first, Asch’s play ran off Broadway and stayed more or less under the radar.
But when it moved uptown to the Apollo and the general public was going to be
courted to buy tickets, as Vogel tells it, the script was changed without
Asch’s knowledge or permission because it contained “unacceptable” material.
Photo by Dan DonovanFor example, a Jewish man makes his living owning a
house of prostitution while he and his wife and “virginal” daughter occupy an
apartment upstairs. This was considered by American Jews to be anti-Semitic,
since the Jewish procurer was a stereotype and would be reinforced in the
general public’s mind. So would the focus on making money any way possible. At
one point, he becomes so furious he destroys a holy Torah, a great sin in
Judaism. But most controversial of all was what became known as “the rain
scene,” in which the daughter kisses one of the prostitutes and they proclaim
their love. To middle-class Americans, this is pornographic filth.
Photo by Dan DonovanAsch is so depressed he can’t leave his house.
Finally, his loving and patient wife talks him into attending a rehearsal, but
to him, the play is dead. The longtime stage manager, Lemml (Lou) also
considers this is a disaster, and it’s something they just cannot understand.
Even stranger, the play is closed down by the police and the actors are
arrested and tried, but the playwright and Lemml are not. Lemml tells Asch that
he is going to take the play back to Poland and translate it back into Yiddish.
He tells Asch, “I am tired of being in a country that laughs at the way I
speak. They say America is free? What [sic] do you know here is free?”
And so he does and his troupe performs the play in
cafes, attics, basements—anywhere that will have them until the Holocaust
decimated the European Jewish community of artists and patrons. Asch himself returns after he’s received an
“invitation” from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s to
live in London and write prolifically until he literally dies in the saddle, at
his desk, writing. Before he leaves, he meets a young scholar from Yale whom he
tells that he, Asch, “lost six million [who] have left the theater.”
Photo by Dan DonovanThat’s the plot, but now comes the hard part: telling you about the production, which is indescribably beautiful (but I’ll try to describe it anyway). I haven’t listed the names of actors who play the characters because they are all played by seven extraordinary performers who not only tell the story through words but also through song and dance.
They are accompanied on stage by a group of three Klezmer musicians, who play a violin, bass clarinet, and accordion to help express both the sadness and joy the audience and characters are experiencing. I’ve only seen four of the actors listed below (Judi Mann, Tim Schall, John Flack, and Paul Cereghino) but I’ve never witnessed any of them stronger or more sure of the material which makes them turn into other people on a dime.
Photo by Dan Donovan
The evocative music is directed by Ron McGowan, Ellen
Isom choregraphs, Phillip Evans gets credit for sound, and Menachem Szus is the
Yiddish dialect coach.It is a clever conceit to have titles on the rear wall to
help us know where we are, and to have the actors use perfect English to speak
their native languages and accented English when they are speaking a second or
third language. The action spans Warsaw from 1906 to Bridgeport, Connecticut in
the 1950s, and as the program notes, “everywhere in between.”
It’s difficult to write about Indecent without gushing, and I don’t think I managed it. But you
know what? It’s brilliant in every way, so a little gushing is justified. It is
both timely and timeless, and I hope you’ll go see for yourself.
Max and Louie Productions presents “Indecent” at the Grandel Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available through Metrotix and more information is available at www.maxandlouie.com
Photo by Patrick HuberThe
Lancaster: Lemml, The
Stage Manager; Paul Cereghino: The
Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble; Zoe Farmingdale:
The Ingenue: Chana/ Ensemble; John Flack:
The Elder: Otto/Ensemble; Katie Karel: The Middle:
Halina/Ensemble; Judi Mann: The
Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Tim Schall: The
Alyssa Avery: Nelly Friedman/Violin/Ensemble; Kris Pineda: Moritz Godowsky/Accordion/Ensemble; Jack Theiling: Mayer Balsam/ Clarinet & Mandolin/Ensemble
Photo by Patrick Huber
By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor Menace is in the air as a tempestuous sibling rivalry escalates in the late great Sam Shepard’s muscular masculine opus, “True West.”
Clearly, their mother did not heed music outlaws Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s warning: “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” The two grown-up brothers can’t be fenced in, especially gonzo Lee, and now it appears unlikely that Austin will ride off into the sunset, despite once playing by the rules.
In the intimate space of the Gaslight Theatre, we’re in for
a splendid guns a-blazing exploration of the after-effects of growing up with a
raging alcoholic dad, with dutiful sons sparing over birthrights, and a splash
of the showbiz industry dreams machinery in California.
The impressive St. Louis Actors’ Studio production allows Shepard’s unconventional
genius to shine and vividly brings out the dark absurdist humor. The
centerpiece is Isaiah Di Lorenzo’s brilliant, blistering performance as Lee, a
swaggering beer-swilling slob.
In keeping with STLAS’ season theme, “Blood is Thicker Than
Water,” director William Whitaker heightens the bravado and tightens the
tension, all the better for the outrageous, twisty surprises.
As the black-sheep oddball Lee, Di Lorenzo sets the tone when he shows up at his mother’s neat suburban home where his writer brother is housesitting. William Humphrey establishes their differences quickly as the tall and tidy Austin. In body language and inflection, both men tell you all you need to know about who they are and their adversarial relationship. One can surmise this isn’t their first rodeo — the brothers have agitated and needled each other their entire lives. Lee circles, like an animal, trying to mark his territory for dominance. Those animal characteristics will become more prominent in the brothers’ face-off.
In the suburban silence of their mother’s kitchen, 40 miles outside Los Angeles, Ivy League graduate Austin attempts to work on his screenplay because he has a development deal with a hot-shot Hollywood producer. His wife and child did not accompany him. Disheveled Lee hasn’t seen him in five years because he’s been living in the desert. Does he want to stir up trouble? After all, he is a cunning thief and loves drama.
William Humphrey, William Roth in “True West.” Photo by Patrick Huber. Producer Saul Kimmel arrives for a meeting, and William Roth embodies those smarmy back-slapping, old-school wheeler-dealers. In an improbable move, he likes Lee’s pitch for a modern western better than Austin’s period-piece love story, and switches allegiance midstream. Whoa! The news turns their worlds upside down. Austin is angry that his ne’er-do-well brother has co-opted his dream. Tables are turned and the gauntlet is thrown. Soon, the brothers are making a pigsty of their mother’s home, destroying any decorum or convention. When Austin steals toasters, toast will be made and offered, a meaningful gesture. Real working toasters are plugged in on the set. Bravo.
As the brothers’ resort to their animal instincts, it’s
certainly not pretty when Mom arrives home from her Alaska trip. She can’t deal
with her trashed house and soon flees. Hmmm…
The unrepentant alcoholic dad lives in the desert. The kids have issues because of the family alcoholism and dysfunction, of course. But mom (Susan Kopp) is ineffectual and somewhat ditzy. Because Shepard’s career was shaped by his alcoholic upbringing, it also frames this work, for there are no happy trails.
Di Lorenzo and Humphrey display all the resentment,
jealousy and one-upmanship that the play calls for, carefully crafting their
individual behaviors. They’re well-rehearsed at getting under the skin of the
Shepard wrote “True West” in 1980, when he was a resident
playwright in San Francisco. It was the third in a troubled family tragedy
trilogy, preceded by “Curse of the Starving Class” and “Buried Child.”
While he would go on to a lengthy acclaimed career as both a playwright and an Oscar-nominated actor, Shepard obviously had experience with the whims and phoniness of the screen trade, which he also skewers with glee.
This bold and brisk story has been malleable enough to be
relevant in multiple decades, maintaining its bite nearly 40 years later.
The play gained notoriety in 1982 when then-unknown actors
John Malkovich and Gary Sinise moved their Steppenwolf Theatre Company
production to off-Broadway and it was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
for Drama in 1983. An acclaimed revival on Broadway in 2000 starred John C.
Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and recently, a limited engagement starred
Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano.
The savagery is real and intense, and scenic designer Patrick
Huber’s well-appointed set is a marvelous playground for the family sparring.
Whitaker has secured a safe space for DiLorenzo to create a
rhythm for the off-the-wall loose cannon, and he is mesmerizing. Humphrey is
steady, on guard for Lee’s ability to suck all the air out of the room. You
feel his frustration.
The unpredictability of Lee is what keeps the audience
engaged. But nobody is safe. Could they be parts of the same person?
Lighting design by Steve Miller accentuates the sunny days
while the outstanding sound design by Whitaker and Jeff Roberts provides the
cacophony of crickets and howls of coyotes.
One of the show’s aural treats is the use of old-timey
country-and-western music to lead in and out of scenes.
This dynamic, rugged production has true grit and an affection for the dueling
brothers, but never gives in to predictability, excelling in its edginess.
Louis Actors’ Studio presents Sam Shepard’s “True West” April 12 to 28 at The
Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End, 358 N. Boyle Ave. Performances are
Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets or more
information, visit www.stlas.org. Phone is 314-458.2978. The West End
Grill and Pub is now open for dinner, snacks and drinks.
By Lynn Venhaus
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