By CB Adams

As if to serve as a counterpoint to Union Avenue Opera’s (UAO) festival-opening but decidedly heavy “Turn Of the Screw,” the company offers up a light summer treat with Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” – as welcome as a  heaping scoop of granita during the current heat wave.

It’s perfect time for a classic comic opera (libretto by Giovanni Ruffini, after Angelo Anelli) whose silly plot plays distant second fiddle to the vocal performances provided by the well-cast singers in this production.

With only four main characters, this production of “Don Pasquale” benefits from the modest stage at Union Avenue Christian Church, UAO’s home for its festival. The tight scale allows ample opportunity for the singers to strut their stuff – including the excellent ensemble. It’s a good thing the emphasis is on the performance of the singers because the set is flimsy and plain, the lighting is serviceable and unremarkable, and the costumes are seemed in need of a good tailor.

These shortcomings are more than compensated for by the performances of Andy Papas as Don Pasquale, Peter Kendall Clark as Dr. Malatesta, Namarea Randolph-Yosea as Ernesto and Christine Lyons as Norina. In fact, this would have been just as satisfying an experience if these four had performed on an empty stage.

Christina Lyons in Don Pasquale, Photo by Dan Donovan.

This production puts it money where its mouths are. Sung in Italian with English subtitles, the subtitles are often not necessary thanks to the emotive – sometimes comedic and rollicking, other times romantically heartfelt – performances of the cast members.

Bass baritone Papas as the opera’s namesake is the sort of portly presence we expect from a Don Pasquale – much like we expect from a Falstaff. Papas gives his Pasquale a depth that ranges from likeable, to lightly tyrannical, to even pitiable. Throughout, Papas is confidently in charge of the material and provides a masterful balance of antics, pathos and bluster.

Clark’s puppet-master Dr. Malatesta towers over Papas (and the rest of the cast) physically, while providing a well-modulated performance that makes the most of his big, rich, robust voice.

One of the highlights of this production is his Act III duet with Papas that breaks the fourth wall as the two solicit applause from the audience – something they heartily received, and which didn’t feel out of place or break the flow of the jaunty story.

With a male-to-female ratio of three to one, soprano Christine Lyons, making her UAO debut, more than held her own as the opera’s love interest. Lyons provides a fully realized Norina that relies as much on small gestures like the demure tilt of her head or the brazen lift of her skirt as on her high notes and sprightly coloratura. The show may be named for Don Pasquale, but it many ways, this was Lyons’s show.

As Don Pasquale’s nephew, Ernesto, Randolf-Yosea, also making his UAO debut, sometimes lacks the confidence and power of the other singers, but more than makes up for that during his solo moments. He provides a captivating love lament in Act II that is one of the highlights of this production, as was his deeply affectionate duet with Lyons, “Tornami a dir che m’ami.’

Union Avenue Opera’s production of Don Pasquale on July 26. Photo by Dan Donovan

Beautifully percolating beneath the action on stage is the chamber-size orchestra under the direction of conductor Stephen Hargreaves. The orchestra provides a satisfying and masterful account of the score, though sometimes the singers phrases were lost beneath a swell of music.

UAO’s “Don Pasquale” is a frothy, delightful take on this comic opera classic. Yes, there is some agism and sexism that makes the plot seem dated, but the incredible cast and Donizetti’s entrancing score keep the pace moving so quickly that those are easy to overlook.

The ensemble in Union Avenue Opera’s production of Don Pasquale. Photo by Dan Donovan,

“Don Pasquale” runs at 8 p.m. on July 28 and 29 and August 4 and 5 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit

Peter Kendall Clark as Dr. Malatesta. Photo by Dan Donovan.

By CB Adams

Benjamin Britten said that “Composing is like driving down a foggy road.” He could just as easily been describing the experience of attending Union Avenue Opera’s production of his “Turn of the Screw.” Many know the story from junior high school English lit or from one of the 12 – 12! – films that have adapted the Henry James ambiguous novella about ghosts (or not) and innocents (maybe).

Union Avenue Opera’s (UAO) production of “Screw” keys off of the story’s enigmatic opacity of the goings-on at Bly, a country house in Essex and augments the story’s ambiguities with an immersive cerebral-ness. The experience begins with the two-level set (designed by Laura Skroska and lighted by Patrick Huber) that is part Hill House and part Rose Red – Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, respectively. The set has the perfect amount of goth to visually augment Britten’s tautly composed opera with libretto by Myfanwy Piper and is perfectly scaled for Union Avenue Christian Church’s compact stage.

Much has been written about the duality of Britten’s use of musical characterizations for “Screw” since its debut in 1954. This duality concerns those characters who can be interpreted as moral (the Governess, Miles, Flora and Mrs. Grose) and those that could be considered of the more ghostly or spiritual persuasion (Peter Quint and Miss Jessel). The former are surrounded by uncomplicated music and the latter with music that is amorphous and other-worldly. As the opera progresses the two styles become ever more entwined and intense – and ending with a profound feeling of disquiet.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw on July 5, 2023

UAO’s production of “Screw” is richly nuanced, compelling and emotionally powerful, and that’s thanks mostly to the direction of Nancy Bell and the strong cast, including Meroë Khalia Adeeb as the Governess, Sophie Yilmaz as Miles, Cecilia Hickey as Flora, Christine Brewer as Mrs. Grose, James Stevens as Peter Quint and Alexandra Martinez-Turano as Miss Jessel. Adeeb, Yilmaz and Martinez-Turano are making their UAO stage debuts in this production.

As the opera begins, a “character” named Prologue, played by James Stevens (Peter Quint later on), provides the background to the plot and sets the action in motion. On stage are blindfolded characters, and Prologue (or is he Quint?) removes the blindfolds.

As the opera “unfolds” in this moment, it seems Prologue’s removal is a visual metaphor for what is about to be revealed. Yet, the opera’s climactic, mysterious final scene lends itself to multiple interpretations, not a clear revealing. This brilliant effect is thanks to Bell’s direction.

This production’s performers are well balanced and well cast, top to bottom. Stevens in his dual roles delivers a riveting performance in both as he slithers from taunt to seduction to malevolence.  As the Governess, Adeeb’s performance stands out among the others.

She provides an impressive range of technical voice control and realistic acting during her transformation from the poised servant we meet at the beginning to the unraveled, emotionally undone  protector in the final scene.

Christine Brewer as Mrs. Grose embodied her character fully through her effective acting and her rather authoritative singing with impressive dynamic control and proper diction. Yilmaz provides a Miles with an unsettling dissonance. Her voice offers the higher pitch of the boy she portrays – a sort of reverse castrati.

Britten’s score receives a beautifully haunting rendition by the UAO orchestra, led by conductor Scott Schoonover.

Dress rehearsal for Union Avenue Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw on July 5, 2023

Union Avenue Opera presents “Turn of the Screw” at 8 p.m. on July 7, 8, 14 and 15 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit

James Stevens as Quint

By CB Adams

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ season opener of a reimagined-yet-respectful version of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton is a transformative experience that beautifully balances theatrical spirit with artistic integrity.

It is an example of the power of art in general and opera in particular to serve as a  “moral instrument” (borrowing from Constantin Stanislavski) that ennobles the mind and spirit. My top take-away: It deserves sold-out status audiences for its entire run – no seat left behind.

This production of Treemonisha, occurs at a pitch-perfect moment in the St. Louis zeitgeist. The citywide triennial exhibit, Counterpublic, is weaving contemporary art into the life of St. Louis for three months to “reimagine civic infrastructures towards generational change.” In his introduction to the 285-page Counterpublic catalog, James McAnally (executive and artistic director and founder of St. Louis-based artist space The Luminary) explains that he envisions an exhibit that allies “itself with generational, cultural, economic, and civic change; a post-pandemic, post-uprising exhibition demanding that we, as arts workers and artists, do more to repair our broken world.”

Justin Austin as Scott Joplin in “Treemonisha.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

Counterpublic seeks to help initiate “concrete change” of the sort that Joplin was exploring more than a century ago in his original Treemonisha, a hybridized classical/ragtime opera that reveals a Wagnerian influence while also presaging  George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” But Treemonisha, especially with this new version, proves the old Latin phrase true: “Art is long, life is short.” Joplin died too young at age 48 in 1917.

Treemonisha did not receive a real premiere until a 1972 production by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College (though a New York Times piece states that it was performed at a theater in Bayonne, N.J. in 1913. Either way, it was a tragedy that Joplin didn’t get to see his magnum opus, his hoped-for recognition of ragtime as a new, American form of classical music.

Opera Theatre staged a successful production of this opera  23 years ago. I didn’t see that production, but this current iteration of Treemonisha stands as an engaging, exuberant example of what opera can achieve when all of its elements – direction, staging, casting, acting, singing passion – align. Such alignment is a rarity.

It’s the bane of my reviewing existence: why can’t it all be this good?  The obvious answer makes this production all the sweeter. It brings to mind something the novelist Julian Barnes wrote in “Levels of Life,” his memoir: “Opera cuts to the chase—as death does . . . [it is] an art which seeks, more obviously than any other form, to break your heart.”

KS. Tichina Vaughn as Monisha in “Treemonisha” Photo © Eric Woolsey

 My heart was broken, especially during Act V, during which the aging Scott Joplin character, sung with naked, wrenching emotion by baritone Justin Austin (who also plays Remus), reveals his frustration about his artistic legacy. Austin’s inspired performance proves how difficult it is to both sing with perfection while acting with authenticity – and how marvelous when achieved. To best describe Austin’s artistic feat, I rely on a quote by Marina Abramović in “Last Days of the Opera” by the Viennese critic Karl Kraus: “You can go so deep into a performance that you become one with the character and create a charismatic state of unity with the public.”

Austin’s so-deep achievement is matched nearly across the board by the rest of the cast, and especially by soprano Brandie Inez Sutton (making her Opera Theatre debut) as both Freddie Alexander Joplin and Tremonisha (look for the moment when the origin of her name is revealed). As Act II (and the original opera itself) begins, it’s clear that this is really the eponymous Treemonisha’s story about an educated Black woman who guides her fellow small-town citizens, (persecuted by endemic racism and poverty) away from ignorance and superstition and toward an enlightened self-worth and self-reliance. With considerable stage presence, Sutton reveals her heroic character as sweet but strong, simple but literate, and humble but exalted – all while proving she can sing!

Balancing the deep characters of Remus and Treemonisha, are the conjurer Zodzetrick, played imposingly and malevolently by Phillip Bullock (making his OTSL debut), and Parson Alltalk, played by entertainingly by Markel Reed. Zodzetrick and Alltalk are not as three-dimensional (they can’t all be) as Remus and Treemonisha, but as performed with the adroitness of Bullock and Reed, they are nonetheless essential to Joplin’s story and his use of many musical styles.

Deserving equal bill are the performances by Amani Cole-Felder as Lovie Alexander and Lucy, KS. Tichina Vaughn as Monisha and Normal Garrett as Ned – the latter two also making their OTSL debuts.

Maestro George Manahan directs the orchestra, composed of members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and delivers a deft, lively musical underpinning that adheres to the spirit of Joplin’s unique, profoundly expressive score. As serious as Treemonisha may seem in terms of story and subject matter, it beautifully and seamlessly integrates an appealing group of influences ranging from ragtime to spirituals, fiddle tunes and hymns, among others. The appeal of these influences is like what comedian Steve Martin has observed about banjo playing: “The banjo is such a happy instrument–you can’t play a sad song on the banjo – it always comes out so cheerful.” The same can be said for ragtime, and Treemonisha is the better for it.

The set design by Marsha Ginsberg is also noteworthy. It’s common for an opera to begin with a musical overture, but this production improves upon that with a visual overture. Against a gauzy scrim backdrop, there’s a shadow play that’s a visual highlight reel for the upcoming performance – and it’s brilliant. It established the right tone while setting a high bar for the rest of the performance.

Justin Austin as Remus and Brandie Inez Sutton as Treemonisha (center) and Jeremiah Tyson as Andy and Amani Cole-Felder as Lucy (right) in “Treemonisha.” Photo © Eric Woolsey

I also admired the Ginsberg’s use of black-painted barren tree trunks that bookend the performance, suspended above the stage. During intermission, the trees are lowered onto the stage. This “black forest” of trunks serves as a clever, subtle and effective scorched-earth metaphor for the post-Civil War, Reconstruction-era South in which this opera is set (and as written by an African American man who lived through it). 

There’s so much going for Treemonisha, and that includes the choreography (blending traditional and modern dance) by Maleek Washington. The dance elements are woven into the scenes and, though noteworthy, never overtly call attention to themselves, with the exception of a perplexing, show-offy “frolic of the bears” in Act II , which pulled me out of the scene.

An opera, no matter how passionately conceived, is like a discarded memory, an empty platform, merely marks on a manuscript. To bring it to life – or to give it continued life – requires production. With a commission by OTSL, Sneed, Chilton, stage director Rajendra Ramoon-Maharaj, the cast and all the other talents have taken Joplin’s platform (wrapping ragtime’s irresistible catchiness around his rage against time), extended it beyond a fine performance and ascended to theatrical art. 

Can an opera change the world? Let this production of Treemonisha inspire you to walk out of the Loretto Hilton Theater and begin to try, even if only in the “backyard” of St. Louis.

Opera Theatre’s Treemonisha continues at the Loretto-Hilton Center through June 24. For ticket information, visit For more information about Counterpublic 2023 civic exhibition, visit

This review also appears on the KDHX website by mutual agreement.

Photo by Eric Woolsey

By CB Adams

There’s a button on my podcast player that allows me to listen at normal speed or an accelerated 1 ½ speed. The purpose of that button ostensibly is to allow me to ingest more content in less time. But there’s a difference between the ability to ingest content and the desire to digest it. That’s the conundrum presented by Jesus Christ Superstar at the Fabulous Fox Theater through May 21.

This 50th-anniversay Superstar seeks to reboot the popular musical-by-way-of bestselling album into a production that is louder, faster and flashier. Make that, tick-tick-boomier. But there’s a sizable aspiration-to-reality gap with this show that’s often hyperactive, frenetic and screechy.

In the past half century, Superstar has attracted its ardent adherents and super-fan believers in the works of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I, too, have a soft spot for Superstar as I remember the thrill the original double vinyl album and feeling the transgressive power of a rockstar treatment of the last days of Jesus. The movie was a disappointment for me, failing to replicate on the big screen the feeling I had for the performances blaring through my friend’s big speakers.

Based perhaps on my own nostalgic remembrance of listening to the original album, this production feels rushed, akin to filling a ’68 VW Beetle with jet fuel. It’s fast and furious and constantly in danger of burning itself out. It left me feeling as though director Timothy Sheader’s goal was see if he could pack a two-hour show into approximately 90 minutes without intermission. If you like your Superstar staged like a stadium concert with actors using handheld microphones like hyperventilating rock stars, then this production will not disappoint you.

Elvie Ellis as Judas. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

This show’s use of microphones and stands (some incorporated into the staffs of Caiaphas and his entourage) would make Jim Morrison, Steven Tyler, David Lee Roth and Prince envious. In a later scene, the corded microphone stands in for the suicide of Judas, and the color of the cords of Jesus’ adversaries change from black to red.

For much of the show, that approach has its successes transitioning from song to song, scene to scene. If you know the score by heart, the songs, scenes and characters are tightly and creatively interwoven and delivered with little opportunity for boredom – or the head space to contemplate the way they resonate with the source material. From the “Overture” through to “The Temple,” this production succinctly sets up the story to follow. But the momentum and accelerated delivery of those songs overruns the beautiful moment and sentiments presented in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” a song that deserves a pause and respite from the pedal-to-the-metal, just-push-play pacing.

The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is dominated by an industrial metal crucifix angled across the stage, is well-suited to the quick transitions of the lead characters, the ensemble and back-up soul singers. However, almost all of the action takes place on the crucifix and stage right. This makes for lopsided viewing.

The onstage band is stacked stage left on two levels. Choreographer Drew McOnie makes ingenious use of the set but adds to the production’s overall freneticism. Mostly, the music video moves complement the songs, but they can occasionally seem plastic, unemotional and even downright silly.

Faith Jones as Mary Magdalene. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

Among this show’s weaknesses, the cast is not among them. Regardless of the weaknesses in some of the choreography and direction, this cast tries. God knows they try as they sang and danced and acted to make the most of the material.

From the leads to the ensemble and soul singers, this show delivers impressive vocal power, even if the lyrics are sometimes lost in all the rockstar caterwauling . There are no stand-outs among the cast because each member is so well-matched to the material and the other singers. Jack Hopewell as Jesus is a bantam in stature and a giant in voice, whereas Nicholas Hambruch is Falstaffian in stature and Meatloaf-ed in voice. Elvie Ellis delivers a powerfully nuanced Judas. The moment when he accepts the bribe money to betray Jesus and pulls his silvered hands from a chest is one of the show’s best details. Faith Jones, as the only female lead, excels as Mary.

Erich W. Schleck provides Superstar’s only humous moment during a glam-rock interpretation of “Herod’s Song.” This is an oddly singular moment in Superstar. Schleck milks the moment for all its worth, and may be the most memorable of all the performances. Bowie would be proud.

Like the story of the Titanic, we all know how Jesus Christ Superstar ends. Before this production concludes with a crucified Jesus and Judas sitting ambiguously together on the crucifix, there are two less nuanced, and therefore less effective moments. One is the use of bursts of glitter during the lashing of Jesus – all 39 of them. The other is the use of a nail gun (that looked more like a cordless drill) as Jesus is put to the cross. In this production’s neediness to be modern, this was needless overkill – shades of Final Destination 3, Casino Royale and Lethal Weapon 2.

These moments exemplified the best and not-the-best parts of this production. They left me not knowing how to love this Superstar.

North American Tour cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo by Evan Zimmerman

Performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Fabulous Fox run May 9 through 21. Show times vary. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit   

By CB Adams

Even if you forgot most of the 1960 novel that you read in way back in middle school and most of what you loved about the 1962 film (Gregory Peck! Mary Badham! Robert Duvall!), the Aaron Sorkin-scripted staged production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Fox Theatre will powerfully remind you of why this beautifully wrought story remains essential to America’s self-narrative.

And, spoiler alert, this excellent touring production, headlined by Richard Thomas, may forever elevate your expectations of what theater can – and should – achieve. It will be hard to accept anything less – or less relevant.

“Mockingbird,” like its classmate “Catcher In the Rye,” is one of those stories that runs the risk of having its potency diminished by required reading in our formative years. Both could be relegated to the “been there, read that” shelf. The beloved film adaptation of “Mockingbird” further exacerbates this risk with a “been there, saw that” ubiquity.

In the spirit of transparency, I’m a bit of an Aaron Sorkin fanboy who appreciates his talky style of dialogue. I also count myself in the minority of folks who continue to mourn the cancellation of his HBO show “Newsroom” and who believes that the soliloquy-ish  “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore” scene, delivered by Jeff Daniels, is some of the best dialogue in the history of television. 

Sorkin’s “Mockingbird” is impressive for its ability to remain true to the heart of Harper Lee’s slowly unwinding examination of racism and injustice while resequencing and re-pacing the story to appeal to current sensibilities. It may have a small-town setting but it confronts an all-towns topic.

“Mockingbird,” given its status as an American classic, doesn’t need saving, but it certainly benefits from a modern stage treatment. Sorkin introduces the trial of Tom Robinson, the African-American man accused of the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell, at the start of the play, rather than build up to it as Lee does halfway through her novel. This places the play’s central conflict and theme front and center. The trial scenes are briskly and effectively toggled with scenes set mostly on the porch of Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer defending Robinson. Tying these two strands together is a triumvirate of chatty-cathy narrators: Scout, Jem and Dill.

Sorkin’s rejiggering would go for naught if it weren’t supported by the excellent, tight direction of Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher, evocative set design by Miriam Buether and, of course, the performances of the entire cast, top to bottom. Thomas as Atticus Finch brings his own type of ubiquity earned from his early-career success as John Boy on “The Waltons” television series. He’s shown considerable range and depth as an actor since then. I’ve especially like him more recently as Walter Gaskell in the film “Wonder Boys” and Nathan Davis in the Netflix series “Ozark.” Thomas delivers a nuanced Atticus whose story runs parallel to – but doesn’t usurp – that of Tom Robinson, played by Yaegel T. Welch with an impressive coiled anger shackled by powerlessness, imposed deference and unfair accusation.

Melanie Moore as Scout, Justin Mark as Jem and Steven Lee Johnson as Dill delivered their adults-as-children characters with effective interplay of voice-over narration, wild-rumpus physicality and tomfoolery. This ensemble within an ensemble is evenly balanced is they each experience the transition from youthful innocence to a more mature, darker moral awareness.

As Calpurnia, Jacqueline Williams confidently portrays the Finch family’s wise African-American housekeeper who assuredly balances her role as surrogate mother to Jem and Scout and a certain Jiminy Cricket to Atticus. It’s hard to like the character of Mayella, but Ariana Gayle Stucki’s performance of the sexually and emotionally abused young woman was more than easy to admire. Stucki fully inhabited and revealed Mayella through a clinched (at times near-contorted) body, bitter tears and puffy red face.

The production deserves a couple of quibbles. One is the Southern accent that I know and loathe from countless movies and television shows. Although not off-putting, it’s nonetheless disappointing that the characters’ diction wasn’t more specific to Alabama instead of the generic, non-specific Southern patois.

Another is the unexplained “fire curtain” that covered the stage between acts. Again, not off-putting, but it raised more questions than it answered because it could refer to the fire in the novel (not in this play). It could also refer to the heat of the subject matter. It might even be making some sort of statement about the protective capabilities of live theater.

To call this production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” a must-see might not be strong enough as a recommendation. Like The Black Repertory’s recent production of “Death of a Salesman,” another deeply familiar American story, this interpretation of “Mockingbird” renews and invigorates a story that deserves retelling. It also more than deserves our continued attention and support.

Performances of “To Kill A Mockingbird” at the Fabulous Fox run February 28 – March 12. . Show times vary. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit    

Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film, plays Mrs. Dubose in the national tour

Photos by Julieta Cervantes

By CB Adams

“The past is never dead,” observed the novelist William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” That sentiment was certainly on extravagant view at the Fox Theatre during the opening of “Six” the musical, running through Feb. 5.

“Six” is a music-forward revue – a glammy, poppy, hip-hoppy, “Schoolhouse Rock” treatment of King Henry VIII’s gaggle of significant others. Think of it as a “First Wives Club” with a killer soundtrack, sick beats, explosive light show, and a bevy of Queen Beys who put a ring, a stiletto and a defiant stomp on their heretofore musty-dusty place in the past. Or think of it as reimagined Tudor history for the TikTokkers.

If you’re expecting an historical costume drama, “Six” may surprise you because it’s heavy on the costumes and light, to the point of nonexistence, of the drama. But, oh those Tudor-inspired costumes. With all their studs, spikes, sequins, fishnets, bangles, baubles and bedazzlings, the black-pleathered costumes are enough to distract you from the history and entice you to just enjoy the swish, swagger and swirl of the performers.

This puts a new spin on the term historical “figures.” As bedecked, any of the queen-wives would have been Henry’s one and only – thanks to costume design by Gabriella Slade.

Historians, most of them of the male persuasion, have not been kind to the stories and legacies of Henry’s wives and lovers – rendering them with more histrionics than history.  That’s one of the main injustices that writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss apparently hoped to rectify during this musical’s snappy 80 minutes.

Marlow and Moss, who have written for Australian drag queen, singer and television personality Courtney Act, reclaim the fates of Henry’s wives into a shiny, knives-out revenge fantasy. They relish poking fun at Henry’s rotundity, his miniscule man-parts and his peccadillos big and small.

Under the direction of Moss and Jamie Armitage, “Six” puts all its jewels (actors, band, Eurovision-inspired set with more flashes than a Princess Di press conference) on stage, all at once and for the duration of the musical. What you see is what you get – from the get go – crowned by a more-is-more aesthetic.

The premise of “Six” is simple and simply stated at the outset. In a sort of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” by way of “Zoolander”-style walk-off, the queens compete to see who was dealt the worst hand by history and Henry to “be the one to lead the band.” Each queen gets a song and a dance and a chance to garner the most support (applause, applause) from the audience. This pageant-like format is really just an audience-engagement device and succeeds as such – the audience opening night came primed to hoot, holler and clap after each queen’s signature song.

In between are chorus numbers by The Queens in toto. When performing as The Queens, Cecilia Snow (Catherine of Aragon), Zan Berube (Anne Boleyn), Amina Faye (Jane Seymour), Terica Marie (Anna of Cleves), Aline Mayagoitia (Katherine Howard) and Sydney Farra (Catherine Parr), are impressive in voice and coordinated dances. Of the show’s nine songs, the ones owned by The Queens – “Ex-Wives,” “Haus of Holbein” and “Six” – are the best in the show, perhaps because of the combination of tight harmonization and the flash-dance choreography that takes full advantage of the confined stage.

The six solo songs wear their song-diva influences proudly and deliver catchy, if repetitive, lyrics bolstered by sonic-boom baselines. Snow’s “No Way” is an anti-divorce anthem, Faye’s “Heart of Stone” is an edgy torch song, and Mayagoitia’s “All You Wanna Do” is fruity piece of bubble gum pop.

The other “character” on stage is the all-female band called The Ladies in Waiting – Katie Coleman (conductor/keyboard), Sterlyn Termine (bass),  Liz Faure (Guitars) and Caroline Moore (drums), as well as Paul Gatehouse (sound design). The band is bespoke for this musical theater’s young fanbase and ferociously spews forth the spunky score’s zesty, sometimes winkingly naughty fun – all with the tight fury of a Prince guitar solo.  

Enhancing the concert-like experience of “Six” is the lighting design by Tim Deiling. According to LiveDesign website, “Beyoncé’s narrative pop concerts, where she tells you parts of her story, is what inspired the authors of “Six,” said Deiling. “Each of our six Queens are actually influenced heavily from contemporary pop divas (Aragon = Beyoncé, Boleyn = Katy Perry, Seymour = Adele, Cleves = Rihanna, and Parr = Alicia Keys) and I needed to differentiate between each Queen, so we drew on reference material from each of them.” In Deiling’s stated goals, the lighting design checks all those boxes, although it sometimes with all the flashing lights it might have been prudent to provide seizure warning.

In the first scene in “Six,” the Queens are lined up and Mayagoitia as Katherine Howard states, “…we’ve got a serious score to settle.” And like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, they spend the next rollicking hour and half making their cases. “Six” is as brightly appealing as a Twinkie and about as nutritious (historically speaking), but it is a fulfilling bon-bon of pure escapism. Take that, Henry!

Performances of “Six” at the Fabulous Fox run January 24-February 5. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit

Six Photos by Joan Marcus

By CB Adams

In his recent review in New York magazine of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Fedora,” Justin Davidson snarked, “’Fedora is an opera about décor.” The headline read, “At Least the Sofa Looks Fabulous.” That’s the kind of pronouncement relished by critics and reviewers, myself included (I do love a good snark, when well-deserved.)

In a backdoor sort of way, Davidson’s sentiment evoked an opposite reaction when assessing Winter Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Kirkwood Community Center. One of the major strengths of this production, stage directed by John Stephens, is precisely due to the minimal “décor” and sets. This approach, which was definitely not stagy nonchalance, enabled the production to focus on the essential moments in Shakespeare’s tale of power and corruption, Verdi’s score and the performances of the fine cast. The storyline is the thing, and the result was a solidly satisfying experience that served as a potent post-holiday palate cleanser – we all need a little opera, not a little more Christmas.

Calling the setting simple is not to belittle the work of scenic designer Scott Loebl. It’s to  his credit, as well as lighting designer Michael Sullivan’s and technical director Jacob Cange’s, that the mood is so effectively set with appeared at times as a wall of blood, emphasizing the Macbeths’ descent into depravity. The cast members moved through the playing area as though a walk upon Shakespeare’s atmospheric heath.

Photo by Rebecca Haas

One of the risks of production of “Macbeth” in either its theatrical or opera forms, is overplaying the witchiness of the witches. This is not “Wicked” after all. Verdi makes this risk higher turning the play’s three witches into a chorus of witches. But this production makes great, prudent use of this gaggly coven, which sometimes offers comic relief and other times stirring up their portentous predictions. One of the witches contorted her face so dramatically it seemed like an effect that could only be achieve with a mask. Jim Carrey would have been jealous.

The leading roles were performed with uniform excellence by singing actors, several of whom have been in previous Winter Opera productions. The Macbeths, sung by Michael Nansel and Whitney Myers were convincing both singly and as a couple. Myers’ performance as Lady Macbeth offered many insightful moments, marred only by her line “Out, damned spot” through no fault of her own. The line elicited more than few chuckles because its meaning has been ruined after being reduced to an American advertising slogan. Pity.

Nansel as Macbeth also jelled with Nathan Whitson as Banquo. Both used their big, expressive voices to reveal the thoughts and tribulations of their characters. Equally impressive was Jonathan Kaufman as Macduff, especially when confronting (shall I say, laying on) Macbeth.

As with the chorus of witches, the supporting cast was seamless performed and put effective use. The supporting cast included  Willard Moseley as Duncan, Damian Ziarko as Fleanzio, Angel Azzarra as a lady in waiting and Kevin Thomas Smith as Malcolm.

Verdi’s score received a well-balanced, thoughtful and atmospheric performance by the orchestra, directed by Edward Benyas. This was noticeable from the start, during the brooding, foreboding overture.

In the play, Lady Macbeth says, “What’s done cannot be undone.” In the case of Winter Opera’s “Macbeth,” what can’t be undone is a fine production of this Verdi-Shakespeare classic.

Winter Opera presented Verdi’s “Macbeth” on January 20 and 22, at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

Photos by Rebecca Haas

Macbeth by Winter Opera. Photo by Rebecca Haas

By C.B. Adams

Unlike Uncle Ebeneezer, I don’t think of the holiday season as “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” In fact, as I have metaphorically buttoned my great-coat to the chin and headed out into the St. Louis holiday entertainment marketplace, I have been amazed at the plenteous plenitude of choices, from sacred to secular. I have willingly reached into my pocket and supported as many of these offerings as my wallet – and attention span – allowed.

In the final week of the frantic Big Day Fun Run came the fluffy flutternutter confection known as “Elf the Musical” for performances at the Fabulous Fox. There’s much proclaimed about Christmas being for children, but there’s a small dearth of holiday entertainment specifically for the tykes and tots (“Violent Night” and “Bad Santa” anyone?) And, that list gets even grinchier when you also want something that has meaning, depth and resonance for young and old alike.

If  “Elf” had a wish list, it’s the latter niche that the musical adaptation of the 2003 movie would like to hold. It would like to be the Big Gift but turns out to be only a stocking stuffer. Ah, if only Buddy’s proclamation, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” weren’t so childishly naïve.

In the spirit of the holiday and transparency, I’ll admit that “Elf” has never been one of my top holiday entertainments. I endured repeated viewings as my sons were growing up, and I have always found the first half of “Elf” to offer the promise of a fulfilling, satisfying holiday movie that desperately wants to live up to the old Rankin/Bass animated specials that inspired screenwriter David Berenbaum.

But it’s merely derivative and adds up to a modest movie experience — that great snowball fight sequence notwithstanding (sadly not included in the musical). To borrow a phrase from that old Bentsen/Quayle vice presidential debate, I know Rankin/Bass and you, “Elf,” are no Rankin/Bass.

All the promise set up in the first half of the plot becomes mired in yet another holiday plot involving daddy issues Think about it: “Rudolph,” “Christmas Story,” “The Gathering,” and, I can even make the case for, “Meet Me In St. Louis.” What saved the movie was the stellar cast, and not just the man-child goofiness of Will Ferrell. “Elf the Musical” poses the same challenge with its clunky plot, wooden dialogue, generically forgettable songs and spotty, non-potty humor.

Throughout the Dec. 20th opening night, I repeatedly found myself rooting for the cast to save the show from itself – “C’mon, you can do it!” Much of that expectation unavoidably falls onto the lead character, Buddy. Cody Garcia’s Buddy is tall, gangly in a fun Jack Skellington sort of way and charmingly, smartly innocent. Their performance was not at all haunted by the Spirit of Buddy Past – Will Ferrell. With clownishly curled shoes and wrinkled tights, Garcia makes Buddy the character that connects with the young and young at heart. They were fun to watch, and it was a shame that their performance stood out even more just because of the lesser performances of their fellow performers.

Mark Fishback portrayed a flat Santa who lacked good joke timing and who couldn’t decide whether to be a grouchy Ed Asner, bumbling John Ratzenberger or rockin’ Kurt Russell type of not-so-jolly ole St. Nick. Christopher Robert Smith as Buddy’s biological father figure was bland and banal rather than a sharp, cynical foil to his son’s sugary sparkle. He definitely needed to channel some James Caan. Additionally, his dance moves were too much Mr. Roboto and not enough Christopher Walken. There was no authentic chemistry among most of the other characters, including between Caitlin Lester-Sams as Buddy’s stepmother and Jaxon James as his half-brother.

Other than Garcia, the other glittering performance was provided by Tieisha Thomas as Buddy’s love interest and a fellow Macy’s employee, Jovie. In addition to her nuanced, sassy-but-lonesome performance, her “Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)” was one of the best – and best-delivered – songs of the evening.

As a musical, the show’s tunes (Matthew Sklar, composer, Chad Beguelin, lyricist) aren’t bad, but they suffer from too-few moments of sustained wit and froth. Again, they disappoint by not living up to their potential. The exceptions were the opening “Happy All the Time,” “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and the aforementioned  “Never Fall in Love (with an Elf).” Another was “Nobody Cares About Santa” with its chorus line of kvetching department store Santas.

My mixed-bag reaction to “Elf the Musical” may, similar to Scrooge’s “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” be caused by my expectation. As author Anne Lamott has said, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”

I wanted to enjoy it more and I hoped it would improve upon the movie’s weaknesses. Perhaps my expectations were too high or off mark. Why did I think cold spaghetti with maple syrup had to be both delicious and nutritious? I may be, to borrow a line from Buddy, “a cotton-headed ninny muggings.”

But I’ll leave it to a youngster sitting behind me to have the last word. As Santa concluded his narration of Buddy’s life, he ends with “And they lived happily ever after.” To which the youngster (definitely under five) replied (in his outside voice), “I knew he was gonna to say that.”

Performances of “Elf the Musical” at the Fabulous Fox run Dec. 20-24. Show times are Tuesday through Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit

By CB Adams

On the 1988 U2 album “Rattle and Hum,” singer Bono introduced the band’s cover of “Helter Skelter” by saying, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” Although “Helter Skelter” may seem a strange way to begin a review of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Dec. 15 performance of A Gospel Christmas, it’s actually an apt comparison. The tsunami of seasonal carols and jingles that retailers start blasting in early fall threatens to steal our attention from the hymns and ecclesiastical music that examines – if not downright proclaims – the “reason for the season.”

A show like A Gospel Christmas aims to steal back holiday music – at least for one performance a year. The songs, like Michael Lawrence’s “Carol of Christmas,” Camille Saint-Saens’ “Praise Ye, the Lord of Hosts,” and the traditional “The First Noel” resonate more fully than songs about flying reindeer, mommy kissing Santa Claus or little fir trees who cry so much.

To borrow a quote from Stephen Hill, the host of the long-running radio program Hearts of Space, hymns “engage us on a deeper, more internal level when we simply open ourselves to the sound and listen with the heart.”

Kevin McBeth

There’s an unmatched power and vibrancy of human voices raised en masse, and the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus transformed Powell Hall into a sanctuary of soulful celebration. Conducted by Kevin McBeth, A Gospel Christmas was really three concerts woven into one. The IN UNISON Chorus provided the lion’s share of performances with songs that included the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” the traditional “Beautiful City” and Kirk Franklin’s “Silver and Gold.”

Among all the excellent voices contributing to IN UNISON, the program included outstanding solos by several members, including soprano De-Rance Blaylock who performed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and countertenor Tai Oney who performed “Mary Had A Baby.” “Praise Ye, The Lord of Hosts” from Saint-Saëns’ “Christmas Oratorio” received a rousing performance from IN UNISON’s Men’s Glee Club.

Early in the show, McBeth announced that IN UNISON’s founding director, Dr. Robert Ray, had passed away that day. Ray led the ensemble from its formation in 1994 through 2010 and shaped its distinct sound as it evolved into an essential choral group in the region. The evening was dedicated to Ray and celebrated his vision for the chorus, many members of which come from the IN UNISON Program partner churches.


The second concert within a concert was a sprinkling of songs by American singer, songwriter and pianist Sheléa Frazier, known professionally by the single moniker Sheléa. With a reputation as a “singer’s singer,” Sheléa has also portrayed gospel singer Dorinda Clark Cole in the 2020 Lifetime biopic, “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.”

Both the IN UNISON Chorus and Sheléa could have carried the show singly, the combination, along with the SLSO, provided a lively cadence and welcome variety of material. Sheléa sauntered easily through chestnuts like Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” as well as one of her own compositions, the delightful “Don’t Wanna Wait ‘Til Christmas.”

Balancing out the program was the SLSO, which swelled Powell with wordless wonders such as the traditional “Overture of Joy (A Christmas Melody)” and Hugh Martin’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

In this season of aural plentitude, A Gospel Christmas provided a welcome respite from the jingle-jangle of more commercial holiday music – made all the more precious by both its impressive quality and one-night-only scarcity. I was reminded of an Elton John quote, “When in doubt, write a hymn.” To which I would add, “And then sing it out loud.” By the end of A Gospel Christmas, I felt that I had been satisfyingly “churched” and yearned to shout out, “Say amen, somebody!”

By CB Adams

On the same first weekend of December 2022, the New Yorker magazine published a cartoon depicting a couple in a theater, clutching programs as others around them departed. The husband says to the wife, “Whose idea is it to start with the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus?” This coincided with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s performances of one of George Frideric Handel’s masterworks, his oratorio “Messiah.”

I generally do not “review” an audience’s engagement with a performance, but with the New Yorker cartoon in mind, I’m safe stating that the respectful and enthusiastic audience would have stayed for all of score’s 57 numbers, even if rearranged with an opening “Hallelujah.”

Although originally intended for the Christian season of Lent, “Messiah” has morphed into a staple of high culture Christmas entertainments, along with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”

But seasonal ubiquity shouldn’t diminish the sheer beauty of this music experience, which Handel feverishly composed in just 24 days in 1742. I have no proof, but I am convinced that the compressed composition process contributes to the cohesive, “of a piece” nature of “Messiah.” Artistic constraint often enhances creativity.

Laurence Cummings

The SLSO’s performance on Dec. 4, under the baton of guest conductor Laurence Cummings proved that “Messiah” when well-performed continues to deserve its place as one of the most famous, canonical and widely shared pieces of  music – classical or otherwise. Cummings is a British conductor and specialist in historical performance, especially the Baroque era. At Powell Hall, he led the orchestra and chorus from one of two center stage harpsichords. The other was played by Mark Shuldiner. The excellent-as-always chorus was led by the also-excellent guest choral director, Patrick Dupré Quigley.

There’s room in Handel’s score for plenty of interpretation and emphasis. Cummings chose to elevate the score’s reverential Passion theme, which proved a welcome antidote to the holiday season’s usual predilection for exuberant celebrations. There was still plenty of that celebratory spirit during the stand up for the “Hallelujah” chorus and the robust final ovations.

The reverential was also evident in the way the four soloists, seated two to a side, approached the front of the stage with deliberate gravitas. The cadre of soloists were soprano Amanda Forsythe, countertenor Key’mon Murrah, tenor John Matthew Myers and baritone Jonathon Adams. All were well-matched and well-attenuated with the orchestra and chorus. Of the four, Forsythe and Murrah were the most stylish and powerful, though this might partly be because of their respective parts. The voice of baritone Adams’s voice was muddled and lost a couple of times during his solos, especially at their beginnings, but this was not off-putting.

 The SLSO’s 2022 interpretation of “Messiah” was the total package for a fulfilling performance that bundled the sheer beauty of the music, Handel’s incredible skill as a c composer, a well-aligned symphony and chorus and confident soloists. To borrow a phrase from another, Grinchier annual holiday treat, “Welcome Christmas. Bring your cheer.”

Another year, another Handel’s Messiah at Powell Hall