Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beautiful Chord Progressions Kick Ass

Okay so, I was listening to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a couple of days ago, and had forgotten how much I love "The Music of the Night".


Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman
© Really Useful Group
I'm not sure why so many people hate this show.  Maybe it's backlash against the success the show has had.  Maybe people just don't care for Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Maybe it's a prejudice against specters.  Maybe the hate comes from the women who have actually had to sing this stuff.  But again, I love spectacle.  A subterranean lake with tons of dry ice, elaborate costumes and a crashing chandelier?  I'm in.  The music is big with a butt-load of strings and french horns, which I also love.  I'm sure many consider it just a bunch of style over substance -- I can understand that, but whatev.  That's the great thing about theatre -- there's room for everything, right?  Did I mention the subterranean lake and lush orchestrations?

Anyway, I love the end of this song.  Those dissonant chord progressions against the Phantom's note with that final resolve gives me chills every time.  I'm sure there's some technical musical term for that, but I have no idea what it is, and once I tried to read a book about music theory and got a headache.  I just know what gives me goosebumps, ya know?

Here's the last minute or so of the song.  The magic happens at 51 seconds in, but there's a lot of brassy magnificence before that.  If you don't get chills, there is something wrong with you.  Ha!  Nah, just kidding.

... kinda.

:) Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

MASTER CLASS • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is kicking off its 8th season with MASTER CLASS, a 1995 Tony Award winning play by Terrence McNally, here under the careful direction of Gary F. Bell.  It was inspired by a series of master classes given at the Juilliard School of Music in the early 70's by Maria Callas, one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century.

From what I've read, in addition to being a solid operatic actress with great depth of feeling and an impressive vocal range that was instantly recognizable, she was also reportedly a temperamental diva who was at the center of controversy and scandal later in her career.  As a result of her possibly reaching too far too fast, taking on vocally demanding roles, and not having the benefit of early formal training, her career was cut short by the age of around 40 when her voice began to decline.  It's around this time when McNally's fictional account takes place.

As the show begins, with the house lights still up, the accompanist Manny Weinstock (Martin Fox) enters, and gets his sheet music in order.  Then, Maria Callas (a commanding Lavonne Byers) takes the stage, and after addressing the audience, requesting that there be no applause, she asks if she can be heard.  (She doesn't believe in microphones)  "People are forgetting how to listen. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating."  She then promptly requests water, a cushion for her chair, and a footstool, eventually schlepped onstage by a completely unimpressed stagehand (Jay V. Hall).  After the house lights are dimmed, again at her request, you begin to settle into this captivating portrait, and immediately sense that you're going to get a full dose of prima donna bitchiness, amusing stories, and possibly learn a few things about the art, taught by one of the greatest -- once the toast of La Scala and The Met, now past her prime.

Maria Callas
December 2, 1923 – September 16, 1977
The play is peppered with hilarious digressions from "La Divina", like when she becomes very serious and says she will not have any bad-mouthing of her rivals, but then adds, "How can you have rivals, when no one can do what you do?".  Or insisting that this class is about the students, asking the audience to "Forget I'm here!  I'm invisible", but then taking every opportunity to interrupt their performances to share stories of her own life.  It is within these moments though, when we get glimpses of her past heartbreaks, glories and insecurities.

Her first student is a timid, thin-skinned soprano, Sophie De Palma (Jessica Tilghman).  She only manages to get out one syllable before Callas berates her for not feeling the music or paying close enough attention to the stage direction.  After finally being able to sing a portion of her chosen aria from "La Sonnambula", you hear Maria Callas' own performance fade in, and she slips into a reverie about her difficult childhood as well as her triumphs at La Scala.

Her next student, tenor Tony Candolino (Jon Garrett), is cocky, but eager for advice and guidance.  He just wants to sing.  But "just singing" won't do for Callas.  She's a perfectionist who maintains that having a great voice isn't enough -- she insists that these students must completely inhabit the roles they are playing.  Tony's performance of "Recondita Armonia" from Tosca brings her to tears though, and she admits she had never really listened to the lyrics before.

Lastly we have Sharon Graham (Leslie Sikes), a promising soprano whose aria from "Macbeth" sends Callas into thoughts of, among other things, her notorious affair with the ridiculously wealthy shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis.  Although Callas thinks this last student has a nice voice, she puts her through the wringer anyway, criticizing her for everything from what she's wearing, to not having a full understanding of the context of the scene.  But Sharon has the balls to go right back at Callas, bitingly telling her that she's basically just a bitter has-been who is jealous of anyone with a better voice who's younger than she is.  At this point your heart goes out to Callas, or at least mine did, because by this time you realize that as harsh and demanding as this woman might be, she is much more sensitive than her personality would have you think -- a sensitivity that enables her to connect with the music emotionally, giving it her all -- giving to the point where she has nothing left for herself.

Lavonne Byers (Maria Callas).
Photo: John Lamb
This kind of show requires a real force of nature to be believable in the lead role, and Lavonne Byers is quite up to the task.  In addition to being incredibly funny, displaying every bit of the wit, passion and brashness of a true diva, she shows you great vulnerability in subtle gestures and quiet reflections, getting lost in her own memories.  Although the play is enriched by the supporting cast, this is basically a one woman show, and Byers is THE woman.  At intermission, I asked a couple of other folks if the audience seemed really quiet and kind of unresponsive to them, and one guy admitted, "Well, I kind of feel like I'm one of the students, and I don't want to get in trouble!"  Ha!  Just goes to show you how convincing Byers is in the role.

The cast of "victim" students is also wonderful. They have excellent voices and do a fine job in managing to sing what they are allowed to sing, considering all of Callas' interruptions.  The lighting direction by Tyler Duenow and set design by Jay V. Hall keep you in the moment, and at one point transport you to La Scala Opera House with a beautiful projection during one of Callas' ruminations.

Seriously, go see it!  Lavonne Byers is the bomb.


Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through October 2 | tickets: $18 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Lavonne Byers (Maria Callas), Jessica Tilghman (Sophie), Leslie Sikes (Sharon), Jon Garrett (Tony), Martin Fox (Manny Weinstock) and Jay V. Hall (Stagehand).

Costumes by Gary F. Bell; set design by Jay V. Hall; lighting by Tyler Duenow; sound design by Justin Been.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yay Stephen Sondheim Theatre!

Today marks a very special day in my book.  It's the day when the marquee of the newly dedicated Stephen Sondheim Theatre is unveiled and lighted at a 6:30 PM ceremony at 124 W. 43rd Street in Manhattan's Theatre district.

Stephen Sondheim is a huge part of why I love musical theatre.  He also has a lot to do with why some popular contemporary music has become oftentimes as boring as a box of rocks to me.  After listening to Sondheim shows filled with unpredictable melodies, brilliant lyrics and beautifully layered orchestrations (love to Jonathan Tunick),  I have become one of those people who listens to NPR or musicals in the car.  Yeah.  I'm one of those.  

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for ROAD SHOW, PASSION, ASSASSINS, INTO THE WOODS, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, SWEENEY TODD, PACIFIC OVERTURES, THE FROGS, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, FOLLIES, COMPANY, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, as well as the lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY and DO I HEAR A WALTZ?  I'm sure I'm leaving a few out, but regardless, he's the bomb.  And no, I'm not really sure why I always feel the need to capitalize the names of shows.  Adds gravitas maybe…

Christine Quinn, Todd Haimes, John Weidman,
Stephen Sondheim, Nathan Lane, Patti LuPone, and Tom Tuft

So anyway, Sondheim is famous for, among other things, his extensive use of counterpoint.  What is counterpoint you ask?  It can be roughly defined as the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character.  There are many examples of counterpoint in the canon of musical theatre greats, but this is all about Sondheim, right?  So to illustrate this, let's take a listen to a real gem, shall we?

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opened on Broadway in 1973, with music and lyrics by the man, Stevie Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, and has been performed about a zillion times by theatre and opera companies alike.  Recently we were lucky enough here in St. Louis to be treated to a beautiful staging by Opera Theatre St. Louis.  In this example, we'll be listening to 3 of the main characters of this show:  Fredrik Egerman is a middle aged lawyer who's married to a much younger Anne, a rather flighty lass who is still a virgin -- after eleven months of marriage mind you.  Needless to say, Fred is frustrated.  His son, Henrik, a seminary student, is also frustrated.  He's got the hots for his stepmother who's only a year younger than he is, and nobody really ever pays him any attention.  In this tune, "Now/Later/Soon", these 3 characters express their current state of mind:  Fredrik wants to get laid - "Now", Henrik wants to be acknowledged - "Later", and Anne, apprehensive about giving it up, promises that she will - "Soon".

The song starts with Fredrik.  He's lamenting the fact that he still hasn't figured out a way to get into his wife's pants.
- Then at 3min. 24sec., Henrik's somber refrain is introduced.  Poor erratic Henrik.
- At 6min. 14sec., Anne's beautiful lilting melody is introduced.
- And then at 8min. 26sec., we enter the contrapuntal glory that is Stephen Sondheim.  The last 30 seconds or so is like magic to me.

Genius, right?!  *sigh*  I love him.  Congratulations and best wishes on the lighting of your marquee Mr. Sondheim!  I cannot WAIT to see a show there.  I'll probably burst into tears the minute I walk through the doors.

Because I feel compelled to do so, I'm gonna end with another clip -- the Prelude (The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd) from SWEENEY TODD.  Why you ask?  Well, I don't know how many of you saw the film, but while I really liked it, Tim Burton for some reason felt it necessary to leave out all of the chorus tracks.  Travesty.  An act that I am sure he will be punished for to some degree in the afterlife.  So, I kinda feel like it's my responsibility.  Enjoy!

Monday, September 13, 2010


I was doubtful.  I mean, I truly believe that there's room for everything when it comes to theatre, but sometimes things can get lost in screen-to-stage musical adaptations -- particularly when you're dealing with animated movies.  Character development and plot can give way to overdone gags and spectacle, which may be fine for the kids, but may leave the adults wanting a little more substance over theme park.  Then I remembered that hey, I kinda liked the movie when I saw it years ago.  Not only that, but I have no problem admitting that I love stagecraft.  Bring it -- smoke machines, gigantic set pieces, witches on cherry pickers -- I'll sit there with my mouth hangin' half open for minutes on end.

Luckily, in The Fabulous Fox Theatre's season opener, there was not only a fair bit of stagecraft, but a relatively decent plot behind DreamWorks' first musical venture, SHREK THE MUSICAL (music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire).  The tale is one that is quite familiar -- "You can't always read a book by its cover", "It's what's inside that counts", "What makes you different makes you special"… you know.  But this show was able to deliver these lessons with sincerity, as opposed to assaulting you with a ton of eye-candy to distract you from the fact that there's really nothing else going on at the core.

I can't remember the film anymore, but in the stage version, our poor little green friend has been kicked out of the swamp at a mere seven years old.  Seemingly a tradition among ogres.  Shrek (Eric Petersen) has sworn himself to a life of solitude, being generally not liked and all, until a motley crew of fairy tale characters invade his property -- driven out by Lord Farquaad (David F. M. Vaughn) who has no desire for misfits in his Kingdom of Duloc.  In order to get rid of the newcomers, Shrek embarks on a journey to meet with this Farquaad guy to get his land back, and along the way he meets the lovable Donkey (Alan Mingo Jr.), a bit of a loner himself, but much more personable.  Meanwhile, Lord Farquaad is in search of a queen to make his kingdom perfect and learns the whereabouts of the Princess Fiona (understudy, a very funny Holly Ann Butler), who coincidently had also been kicked out of the house at the tender age of seven, locked away in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon (a huge puppet on poles with puppeteers dressed in black).

*** Spoilers follow...***

Shrek and Donkey make their way to the castle, bonding along the way, and when they arrive, Lord Farquaad recognizes Shrek as someone who could rescue the princess with much more ease than he could, and tells him he will gladly give him the deed to his property as long as he rescues Fiona and brings her back to him.  Shrek agrees, and goes off to face the dragon, who develops the hots for Donkey.  They rescue the Princess, who is overjoyed, and head back to Farquaad's castle.  Curiously, Fiona always seems to make herself scarce when the sun sets, even though she and Shrek are finding that in addition to their proficiency at belching and farting, they have a lot in common.  Hmm…  Donkey learns her secret -- she was cursed as a child and transforms into an ogre... ogress...? at sunset.  She will be restored to her real self once she has been kissed by her one true love.

*** End spoilers...***

Well, you can pretty much figure out the rest right?  Things do play out the way you would imagine, but thankfully the show manages to make you become somewhat invested in the characters, so when the big moment arrives, you actually care.

The costumes and scenic design by Tim Hatley were appropriately fairy tale like, and although Eric Petersen did a fantastic job as the ogre, I was more engaged in the scenes that involved Donkey, Princess Fiona or Lord Farquaad.  Vaughn had to spend the whole show on his knees, Farquaad being vertically challenged and all, with little dangling legs and feet -- a neat little sight gag, that came just short of being overused.  There are a few musical theatre references -- everything from A CHORUS LINE to WICKED.  The Ted Drewes reference was much appreciated by the audience.  At one point, they had Donkey talking about how cool it would be to be an Anheuser-Busch clydesdale.

St. Louis is the second stop on this national tour that started in Chicago.  The show closed in NYC this past January.  I would imagine it had tour written all over it from the get-go.  How can you lose with a franchise like Shrek?  St. Louis families should eat this up with a spoon.  The kids will love it, and there's enough adult humor to keep the parents' attention.

So calm those doubts, if you had any.  There's a lot of heart and genuinely entertaining stuff in this show.  AND A BIG DRAGON PUPPET!  WHEEEE!!

And one more thing -- do ALL children have those sneakers with the blinking lights on them now?!  I got caught in a dark hallway on the way to the bathroom with a bunch of kids and thought I was being sucked into the third dimension or something.

SHREK THE MUSICAL will be in town until the 26th.  Check it out and let your freak flag fly!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

EQUUS • HotCity Theatre

Giddyup psychodrama!

If anyone has any doubts about the variety and quality of theatre we have here in the Lou, they should make tracks to the Kranzberg Arts Center to check out HotCity Theatre's production of EQUUS.  I saw this last night with a couple of friends and I.  Loved.  It.

The play, written in 1973 by Peter Shaffer, was recently revived in NYC with Harry Pott… I mean Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths.  Here in St. Louis, it's admirably directed by Doug Finlayson.  The play centers on Alan Strang, a young English stable boy who has blinded six horses with a metal spike, and his psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who is talked into taking him on as a patient.  Buckle up, right?

What would drive a 17 year old boy to commit such a violent act against animals he loved -- animals he'd come to worship as deities?  As Dysart tries to find the answer to this question, and the details of Alan's life are revealed in a series of therapy sessions and flashbacks, we learn about both characters.  We learn about Alan, and how apparently, living with a mother who's a religious zealot and a father who's a restrained atheist can really mess with your head.  And we learn about Dr. Dysart, the man trying to figure him out.  In the process of dissecting his patient, slowly winning his trust, Dysart uncovers not only how the combination of societal, religious and sexual influences (with a little shame thrown in) have affected the mind of this kid, but the doctor also comes to realize that "curing" him would be in a sense, for him, breaking Alan's spirit -- a spirit and passion the doctor feels he has never known.  Does "normal and well-adjusted" = "happy and fulfilled"?  It's kinda heavy, dude.

Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang)
and Brian Jones (Nugget).
Photo: John Lamb
The black box theatre space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is set up to seat around 90, and the intimacy of it absolutely heightens the intensity of the show.  Moody lighting by Michael Sullivan, along with eerie sound design by Robin Weatherall, play together well with John Armstrong's minimal stage, outfitted with a few small benches and a rounded platform, with most cast members seated along more benches in the first rows during the course of the show.

Drew Pannebecker as Alan Strang showed a huge range of emotions, and was fully committed and compelling to watch.  Brave.  Loved him.  I also believed every second of James Anthony's portrayal of Dr. Dysart, esteemed in his profession,  but unfulfilled and disconnected in his life, with his own moments of vulnerable disillusionment.  Steve Isom pulled double-duty as the stable owner Dalton, and Alan's father, "no-fun" Frank Strang.  His chemistry with Ruth Heyman as his wife Dora, make you understand why being at home with the folks may not be a picnic for an adolescent boy.  Heyman has a nice scene that stands out with Dr. Dysart, where you get to see a bit of her own anguish and frustration with her son, and it's very affectively played.  The cast is rounded out by Kelley Ryan as Hesther, the sympathetic magistrate and friend of Dysart's, Emily Fisher doubling as Jill, a co-worker at the stable and the Nurse, and the horses, Brian Jones (who also plays the Horseman) and Michael Perkins, who both have that horse action down.  Their wire-framed horse heads and platform hooves usually seem to be replicated in productions of this show from what I can tell, and they were a cool piece of work.

Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang) and
James Anthony (Martin Dysart).
Photo: John Lamb
Oh and yes, people get naked.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't suspect there were more than a few guys there who were just waiting for the drop trou scene, but it was handled tastefully in complete accord with the context of what was going on, and honestly not nearly as provocative as the clothed scenes with Alan and his favorite horse, "Nugget".  Kudos to the dialect coach Julie Foh too -- no one misses a beat with the English dialects.

This is not the kind of show you can just let wash over you.  It's wordy and it compels you to think a little, but if you want some engaging theatre, don't miss it.  It'll be at the Kranzberg until September 25th.


Drew Pannebecker (Alan Strang), Steve Isom (Frank Strang/Dalton), James Anthony (Dr. Dysart), Kelley Ryan (Hesther), Ruth Heyman (Dora), Emily Fisher (Jill/Nurse), Brian Jones (Horseman/Nugget) and Michael Perkins (Trooper).

Costumes by Felia Davenport; lighting by Michael Sullivan; scenic design by John Armstrong; sound design by Robin Weatherall.


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