Archive for May, 2012

Powerfully Sung and Acted, Opera Theatre Offers Delightful “Sweeney Todd”

May 28, 2012

Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Ron Gilfry as Sweeney Todd in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production.

Karen Ziemba is a Broadway musical actress- and a wonderful one at that. She shows the way as she leads the cast of Opera Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd,” a show more associated with musical theatre than opera, down a Broadway bound road. Her impish wit gives us a more merry than malevolent Mrs. Lovett and it works beautifully. Although the rest of the cast is mostly associated with opera, they make you feel more like you’re at the Mark Hellinger than the Met.

Rod Gilfry is an imposing Sweeney. His massive frame, maniacal visage and strong, velvety baritone are suited to the role. He also has a lot of fun with the character and brings a relish that’s a perfect foil to Karen Ziemba’s vibrant performance. Timothy Nolen shines as Judge Turpin- in a long, white hairpiece and with a somewhat stoop-shouldered gate- he is the epitome of “dirty old man.” As his sidekick, Beadle Bamford, Scott Ramsay also brings a more whimsical cast to the role.

The infamous shaving and tooth-pulling contest in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of “Sweeney Todd.”

Nathaniel Hackmann brings a strong voice to the role of Anthony. The powerful “Johanna” number justly rings the rafters. As his love interest, Deanna Breiwick is a demure Johanna with a lilting soprano voice. Anthony Webb makes a properly stuffy Pirelli as he appears to be more interested in singing his own praises than showcasing his skills in his famous shaving contest with Sweeney. And Kyle Erdos-Knapp is a sensitive Tobias as well as a skilled singer that makes his “Nothin’s Gonna’ Harm You” number particularly moving.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, bringing the stunning Stephen Sondheim score to magnificent life. Musical director Stephen Lord leads the St. Louis Symphony in a stirring rendition of the music- perhaps getting a bit too loud at times- but making the score sound even more spectacular than we remember. Director Ron Daniels does a fine job despite being hampered by an unusually awkward set. His use of the aisles through the audience in several scenes is great- even a little spooky during the scene when Anthony tries to rescue Johanna from the asylum.

Scott Ramsay as Beadle Bamford and Timothy Nolen as Judge Turpin in the Opera Theatre-St. Louis production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”

As mentioned, the rather bizarre set design was the only real problem with this production. The curtain separating upstage from downstage that is utilized throughout the evening is made of a series of thick plastic strips similar to what we’ve seen in meat packing plants. It’s a bit noisy and very intrusive when it’s used- which is a lot. There were no other background identifiers for scenes so, although we’re all familiar with Mrs. Lovett and her pie shop by now, the only indication was the table where she rolled her dough. The same with the barber shop- just a temporary chair and side table- no other identifying backdrops or clues.

Which brings us to the most egregious set design error that led to a most unsatisfying series of scenes- the most crucial to the plot- when Sweeney finally get his new barber chair and dispatches his “customers” to become┬áthe infamous meat pies. Two chorus members stood behind the chair after the throats were cut and carried the victims off stage. Without the traditional two story set- barber shop upstairs and pie shop down- we miss the most dramatic impetus of the show as throats are cut, chair is tilted and they slide down a chute to become “oven ready” for some delicious meat pies. On the same stage 15 years ago, the Rep did the show (with Thom Sesma and Pamela Myers), and they featured such a contraption. So it can be done without destroying sight lines.

Karen Ziemba and Ron Gilfry in “Sweeney Todd” at Opera Theatre-St. Louis.

Thank heavens we have Ron Gilfry and the astounding Karen Ziemba- they and the cast literally pull the show from the jaws of this ineffectual set and bring us a stunning production. “Sweeney Todd” is not often done these days. Even the Broadway re-make several years ago went by the title of “Teeny Todd” because of the smaller scale with this often overpowering show. At Opera Theatre, you get the bang for your buck because of the delightful cast, great musical direction and strong stage direction that gives it a more tongue-in-cheek sense of the macabre.

See “Sweeney Todd” in repertory with three other productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis through June 24th. Call them at 314-961-0644 or e-mail them at info@opera-stl.org for tickets or more information.

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“Carmen” Shows Off Fifty Shades of Grey At OTSL Opening

May 21, 2012

Adam Diegel as Don Jose and Kendall Gladen as Carmen in the Opera Theatre St. Louis production.

The opening production of Opera Theatre St. Louis is a visually stunning “Carmen” done in a ’40’s film noir style that works beautifully while the excellent cast brings Bizet’s glorious score to life. It shows that an old dog can learn new tricks with a story tweak here and there to help make “Carmen” look a lot like “Double Indemnity.”

The plot remains the same as the “smoking” hot gypsy who works in a cigarette factory spreads her favors around and settles on police officer Don Jose and does her best to court him away from his sweetheart, Micaela. Enter the dashing bullfighter, Escamillo, and Carmen turns her attention to him. Darkness engulfs her as a variation on tarot cards predicts nothing but doom and gloom for Carmen and, as the final scene erupts in violence, the foreshadowing becomes reality as jealousy trumps civility.

Alexsey Bogdanov delights his well-wishes as bullfighter Escamillo during the famous “Toreador Song” in Opera Theatre St. Louis’ production of “Carmen.”

Local mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen makes a triumphant return where she got her start as a Gerdine Young Artist performer at OTSL- now playing the lead role. Although the pre-curtain announcement on opening night said she was suffering from a sinus infection, you couldn’t tell from her sterling performance. As Carmen, the smoky, sultry voice was perfect as she vamped her way across the stage including as the sexy factory worker, her chanteuse turn in the second act and the sophisticated lady as Escamillo’s “arm candy.”

Adam Diegel is perfect as the jilted lover, Don Jose. His powerful tenor rings through the Repertory Theatre venue. Corrine Winters shines in the role of the loyal girlfriend- one of the most stunning soprano voices we’ve heard in some time. Alexsey Bogdanov wows us, particularly with the exciting “Toreador” number on his grand entrance into Pastia’s nightclub. The remainder of the principal cast is also quite impressive as are the chorus and the children’s chorus. The theatre simply rocks (if I can use that term for an opera) with the wonderful music of Georges Bizet. And, thanks to newcomer Carlos Izcaray at the podium, the St. Louis Symphony members never sounded better. The delightful overture was a perfect lead-in to the film noir feel as cast and crew “opening credits” flashed on the background to Bizet’s stirring music.

Director Stephen Barlow makes this black and white concept work and even pays a little homage to “Schindler’s List” with a splash of red in some scenes including Carmen’s flower, the neon sign in Pastia’s, the red shoes she uses as castanets as she woos Don Jose and even the infamous gun in the final scene. It’s all a brilliant stroke of staging, costuming and set design that make this “Carmen” fresh and new.

Adam Diegel and Kendall Gladen as Don Jose and Carmen in the Opera Theatre St. Louis production of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Christopher Akerlind is behind the wonderful lighting design that enhances the show’s look and Paul Edwards designed equally effective costumes and set. With a slanted view through the billboard and chain link fence as well as the background in Pastia’s, it’s a visual feast. Even the special light that slices a slant across the billboard girl’s eyes sets an ominous tone. Changing Pastia’s from a low-dive cantina to a ’40’s nightclub works well- as does (although a bit more disconcerting) the odd change of venue from the mountains back to the Seville setting for the third act. The theme continues for the parade, however, as an old black roadster with a white convertible top follows the revelers carrying Carmen and Escamillo.

Though some may find a problem with changes that they feel mars the original intent of this opera, I applaud Opera Theatre for giving us a fresh, new look at “Carmen.” With superior voices, a strong orchestra and visually provocative staging, what more could you want? See “Carmen” at Opera Theatre St. Louis, playing in repertory with three other shows, through June 23rd.

 

“Jacob and Jack”- A Delightful Entertainment With A Dynamite Cast

May 6, 2012

Some plays aren’t so much “plays” as they are an “entertainment.” This is the case with the latest effort at the New Jewish Theatre as a light story becomes delightfully witty in the hands of a great cast and great director. “Jacob and Jack,” by playwright James Sherman, is a tidy little farce that travels through time as we celebrate early Yiddish theatre.

Terry Meddows, Jason Ivan Brown, Julie Layton and Bobby Miller ham it up at the New Jewish Theatre production of “Jacob and Jack.”

Director Edward Coffield brings that zany, fast-paced feel to the production that is needed for success. The three dressing rooms and five doors on stage provide all that is needed as a basis for farce. There’s nothing like slamming doors, perfectly timed entrances and exits and sheer befuddlement to make an audience laugh. Bring to that the present day story combined with a tie-in to 1935, and you’ve got even more to befuddle a cast who were right on the money on opening night.

Basically, we’re seeing the backstage area as actors prepare for a tribute to early Yiddish theatre and suddenly we’re transformed to that same theatre when the parties being honored show us what it was really like then. Bobby Miller gets to shine again as both the modern day actor who thrives on TV and commercials as he half-heartedly prepares for the podium and his grandfather who starred in those plays almost 80 years in the past. He gets to kvetch as the current actor who hasn’t even looked at his lines and switch to the pompous blowhard who, at the time, played to mostly empty houses. The one thing they have in common, however, is a sharp eye for the ladies.

As the object of their affections, Julie Layton is a sweet, blushing ingenue in her early life while a wiser and hard-edged actress in today’s world. Oh, yes, both the cynical and pompous actors are married at the time and Kari Ely dazzles in this dual role. Though well aware of her husband’s penchant for the younger starlets, she takes a different approach in these two worlds.

Terry Meddows is remarkable as the agent to “Mr. Flying Carpet” (a reference to his most famous commercial) and then as the stage manager of the earlier actors. As the present day stage manager, Justin Ivan Brown takes a more “delicate” approach and then turns into a young actor with his first break during the dying days of the Yiddish theatre experience. A delightful turn as two mothers- that of the modern day actor and then the mother of the young ingenue in the flashbacks- Donna Weinsting is nothing short of brilliant. She is delightful. The unexpected meeting, on several occasions, of past and present characters also adds to the fun.

Add the inventive set design of Robert Mark Morgan and the quick and effective costumes of Michele Friedman Siler, and you’ve got all the makings of a fast-paced comedy/farce. Despite a few sloppy accents, things go smoothly and we’re treated to a wonderful evening of entertainment. “Jacob and Jack” plays at the New Jewish Theatre through May 20th. Contact them at 314-442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

“I Do! I Do!” Charms Us With The Story of Marriage

May 1, 2012

As you probably know by now, I’m a sucker for musicals and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt write them like nobody else. “The Fantasticks” has always been my fave of all time and their look at marriage, “I Do! I Do!,” is a perennial listen on my car CD player. Dramatic License Productions brings us a charming rendition with two likable actors and the solid direction of Ron Gibbs.

Pamela Reckamp and Jeffrey Pruett in the Dramatic License Productions presentation of "I Do! I Do!"

The musical prologue brings us into the shaky beginning of the marriage which starts in 1898. Michael, a novelist and his wife, Agnes go through a 3-song cycle that shows both the anticipation, hesitancy and utter joy of beginning a life together. The birth of two children, possible affairs, falling out of and back into love, the marriage of children and old age are all covered in two hours with two actors and many, many musical numbers.

Jeffrey Pruett is perfect as Michael. From the exuberance of “I Love My Wife,” to the haughtiness of “It’s A Well Known Fact” and the explosive “The Father Of The Bride,” he brings a full range of emotions as befitting a man who has a 50 year-plus love affair with a wonderful woman. As that wonderful woman, Pamela Reckamp melts us with her stirring portrayal. Her touching “What Is A Woman?” and the raucous “Flaming Agnes” numbers would be reason enough to love this actress, but then the duets with Michael like the humorous “When The Kids Get Married” and the touching “My Cup Runneth Over” seal the deal. As in most productions, the most dominating songs of the evening are the two major “fight” scenes, “Nobody’s Perfect” and “The Honeymoon Is Over.”

Managing Director of Stages-St. Louis, Ron Gibbs, brings a heart-felt warmth to this production. It’s mainly a love story with rocky patches and loving moments along the way during the 50 years of marriage. It never gets schmaltzy or over-bearing- it’s rock solid all the way with sparkling choreography (also provided by Mr. Gibbs) and yeoman work as musical director and pianist by Justin Smolik.

Kudos as well to scenic and lighting designer, Sean Savoie and the delightful Jane Sullivan costumes. Utilizing the deep and narrow stage, the four-poster bed becomes a background piece and the downstage area becomes the main playing space.

This is the first attempt at a musical by Dramatic License (although they do two cabarets each year- at Valentines and a Holiday Show) but this should convince them that small musicals adapted to their stage should be a staple in their yearly repertoire. If you need any help, I’ve got dozens to recommend!

Join the fun and games of a beautiful marriage now through May 13th at their theatre at Chesterfield Mall as Dramatic License Productions presents “I Do! I Do!” Contact them at 636-220-7012 or http://www.dramaticlicenseproductions.org for tickets or more information.