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

By CB Adams

Remember that commercial from the late 80s with the tagline, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile?” The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’s production of “A Christmas Carol” is kinda like that. This is not your father’s, or grandmother’s (or your crazy Aunt Millie’s) adaptation of this Dickensian tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s war on Christmas. As you survey St. Louis’s rich assortment of holiday offerings (and there truly is a cornucopia that runneth over), this production entices with a shiny, progressive reboot of this Christmas chestnut.  

It’s a new spin on “A Christmas Carol” that’s perfect for those with short attention spans. This adaptation treats the story of Scrooge’s transformation as the plain evergreen upon which the shiny baubles of scenic design (Tim Mackabee), lighting and projections (Seth Reiser and Hana S. Kim), costumes (Dede Ayite), choreography (Kirven Douthit-Boyd) and hip hop choreography (Robert Crenshaw) are hung. Bringing youthful energy to the production are the Webster University conservatory cast, the Big Muddy Dance Company dancers, whose ghost dancers add much to certain key scenes, and a youth ensemble from the Center of Creative Arts.

By flattening the well-known story line whose lead character has been represented by everyone and everything from Alastair Sim and Michael Caine to Bill Murray and Mr. Magoo, this adaptation by Michael Wilson (the same as last year’s) embellishes the story of Scrooge’s transformation with new characters and scenes not in the Dickens novel.

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

Upon each of the story’s key moments – Marley’s appearance, visits by the three Spirits, the Cratchit family’s penury, etc. – director Hana S. Sharif hangs contemporary dance numbers, special effects and humorous asides among all the dark, dank Victoriana. The dance is an especially effective component of this adaptation; the inconsistent use of modern colloquialisms – not so much.

The result is a Whitman’s Sampler of a production that tries too hard to provide a little something for every taste.  And like that holiday box, there’s all sorts of chocolates, including a rap-infused “O Come All Ye Faithful,” a Marley who flies up from beneath the stage like a spectral Peter Pan, a dance number that includes The Worm, and a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that’s part-Mad Max, part-Blade and part-Gimp from “Pulp Fiction.”

The latter makes his NFL-inspired entrance complete with hoverboard and ravers glasses. This ghost’s entrance is certainly impressive but calls too much attention to itself and pulls you out of the story. It also undercuts the emotional impact of Scrooge recognizing his tombstone – the climax of the story.

The same holds true for the final scene (not in Dickens’s original) with Scrooge hosting a party. This is a well-intentioned addition that hopes to highlight the new, improved Scrooge, but which borrows too much from the final scene in the “White Christmas” movie. It also weakens the intent of Dickens to use this story to examine the plight of the disadvantaged. As Scrooge promises the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

Sharif adds another complexity to this production  by double casting of most of the key roles. It was fun (and impressive) to see the way Laakan McHardy played both a doll seller and the Ghost of Christmas Past (the best of the portrayals of the spirits) and Paul Aguirre went from a refreshments vendor to a vampy, over-the-top Christmas Present. Michael James Reed also played double duty as Mrs. Dilber (Scrooge’s housekeeper with shades of “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and the spectral Jacob Marley – how’s that for range!

The roles of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are played by Guiesseppe Jones and Armando McClain, respectively. McClain provides one of this production’s best and most consistent and balanced portrayals as the long-suffering Cratchit. Ultimately, “A Christmas Carol” hinges on the portrayal of Scrooge. Jones displays an impressive range, which he definitely needs in this adaptation that pivots (sometimes to distraction) from lightheartedly humorous to full-on King Lear-level theatricality. As impressive as Jones was in all his scenes, his performance was often too self-contained and lacked chemistry with the other actors.

Overall, this production is designed with lots of wow-factors to defy you to call it anything but bah-humbug. The success of this approach depends on how you like your Scrooge served up. If you’re seeking the more traditional, ye merry ole England version (I remember one from my youth that included real basset hounds on stage), this isn’t that. To its credit, this adaptation avoids the saccharin Timmy-fell-down-the-well savior sub-narrative of so many other productions. And, it brings a modern sensibility to this timeless, still all-too-relevant story.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “A Christmas Carol” November 19–December 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis. For tickets or more information, visit:

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

By C.B. Adams

I have an acquaintance for whom the terms Puccini and opera are synonymous. For him, opera and the Italians define the artform. Although I don’t agree with his limited definition, I can’t deny that the Italians in general and Giacomo Puccini in particular occupy a special space within the opera canon. That’s why Winter Opera’s production of La Rondine, (music by Puccini with librettists Alfred Maria and Heinz Reichert) was a such a solid, comfortable pleasure.

For reasons not worth reiterating, La Rondine (The Swallow) is not considered one of Puccini’s “greatest hits” but, as my acquaintance might say, “Who cares?! It’s Puccini!” I would duly note his fandom and add that we would all be the poorer if La Rondine weren’t performed periodically, despite its modestness. It’s a good Puccini primer, filled with waltzes, melodies, two arias (one perhaps more famous than the entire rest of the opera) and a duet. It further makes Puccini’s higher-profile operas even more impressive by comparison.

The creative team at Winter Opera chose well with La Rondine because it benefits from a tighter production and the stage at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. Smaller is better for this opera, something that scenic designer Scott Loebl and stage director Erica Gibson understood, even as swapped Puccini’s original setting from France’s Second Empire era to the “roaring” 1920s. Amy Hopkins’ costume designs were perfectly matched to the updated era, as well.

The updated setting, replete with a raised chessboard-like black and white floor, allowed Gibson to move the characters move like pawns throughout the action. Although the motivation’s of Magda, especially her decision to return to her “old life” in the conclusion of the third act, aren’t understandable or compelling by modern sensibilities, this doesn’t detract from this production. “Who cares?! It’s Puccini,” is latent throughout.

Photo by Rebecca Haas

Puccini placed the La Rondine’s famous aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” early in Act One. The piece’s soaring phrases offer sopranos the opportunity to impress an audience. In Winter Opera’s production, soprano Karen Kanakis as Magda compellingly sang the aria with her lilting, floating top notes. The piece ends with the “What do riches matter if true happiness blossoms?” Kanakis delivers this question with  such truth and honesty that it sets up the tragedy of the finale, which turns this line from rhetorically hopeful into sadly ironic.

Matching Kanakis’ performance was tenor Nathan Schafer as Ruggero. Schafer overcame some of the weaknesses of the character through his performance’s clarity and warmth. His duets with Magda were some of the best, even as he had to animate Ruggero’s one-dimensionality (as written). Equally strong were Nicholas Huff as Prunier, Lauren Nash Silberstein as Lisette and baritone Jacob Lassetter as Rambaldo – as well as the chorus.

Bubbling beneath the Winter Opera singer was the orchestra, conducted by Scott Schoonover, artistic director of Union Avenue Opera. The modest size of the orchestra was enlarged by the restrained size and good acoustics of the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. 

Winter Opera is off to a terrific start with La Rondine, leaving only the question of how they will meet or exceed this accomplishment with the rest of the season’s offerings – Verdi’s MacBeth in January and Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song in March.

Photo by Rebecca Haas

By C.B. Adams
While waiting for the curtain to rise on Dance St. Louis’ 57th-season opener on Friday, Nov. 4, I Googled whether David Bowie had ever opined about dance. I was interested because this evening’s performance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center was “Stardust: From Bach to Bowie” by the NYC-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

And sure enough, the Google gods provided something Bowie once tossed out to Conan O’Brien: “I don’t know how many times someone has come up to me and said, ‘Hey, Let’s dance!’ I hate dancing. God, it’s stupid.”

That’s a funny, quotable line, and one that I’m sure he didn’t really mean. It’s hard to imagine a rock icon whose recommended reading list ranged from Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art And Decadence From Nefertiti To Emily Dickinson” to “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess and from “Passing” by Nella Larson to Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind” would have really found dance at Complexion’s high level stupid.

Bowie was no dancer, but his innovative, chameleon-like stage presence revealed a theatricality and an understanding of rhythm, movement, lighting, clothing and presentation. His personas, from glam to glum, revealed an awareness of a certain sort of dance language, much like David Byrne of the Talking Heads (think of the way he moved in that Big Suit, or more recently, his “American Utopia” dance-adjacent performance). If dance (classical ballet to contemporary) works in sentences and paragraphs, then Bowie worked in specific words. In this regard, think Michael Jackson and that single, sequined raised glove.

All of this highlights the successful blending of Bowie and ballet achieved by Complexions’ co-founder and choreographer Dwight Rhoden in the piece “Stardust.” In a recent interview with the “Los Angeles Times” about “Stardust,” Rhoden says, “…there’s a little Bowie in all of us… There’s so much imagery in the lyrics, there’s so many personas and characters and colors to his personality that it just lends itself to a performance of some kind.”

Complexions is masterful at this type of pop culture and contemporary dance mash-ups that have included the music of Marvin Gaye, Lenny Kravitz and Metallica. Beyond the novelty of these collaborations, it’s the versatility, athleticism and adeptness of the company that elevates the approach from performance to art while incorporating a wide range of elements from hip-hop to modern and classical ballet.

“Stardust” consists of nine Bowie songs, each with its own choreography and each lip synced by one or more of the dancers. The sequence begins with “Lazarus,” a song from Bowie’s last studio album (“Blackstar”) and his last single released before his death. This is followed by a “best of” sequence of songs spanning Bowie’s career, including “Changes,” “Modern Love” and “Young Americans.”

Each of the dancers had their own Bowie identity that drew from his iconic array of hairstyles, face paints and costumes. It was a nice reminder of how innovative the gender- and genre-bending Bowie was, especially in his glam-rock era. With no sets and minimal staging (and spot-on lighting by Michael Korsch), the emphasis was clearly on the choreography and execution by the dancers.

The program lists the dancers only as “The Company,” so instead of individual names, it’s best to refer to songs. Collectively, The Company is an exceptionally – and exceptionally equally talented – group of dancers that delivered an impressive range of strength, intensity, athleticism, expressiveness and technical prowess.

Of the nine choreographies, one of the standouts was certainly “Space Oddity,” during which the lead dancer confidently strode across the stage on pointe, then held a very Bowie-esque position for an extended, intense moment. Another standout was “Heroes,” danced to Peter Gabriel’s slow, extended cover of the song from his “Scratch My Back” album. Fans of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” might recognize this version of the song, which benefits from the slow treatment, reminiscent of Michael Andrews’ “Donnie Darko” soundtrack cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” The Company’s ensemble work on “Heroes” was exceptionally fluid and evocative.

The weakest of the series was “1984.” The choreography was not as interpretive, robust or visually interesting as the others. The dancer, clad in a leotard that was more Mary Lou Retton than Thin White Duke, wasn’t given movements as challenging or wowie “Zowie” as the others.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet

“Stardust” may have attracted the most attention, but it comprised only the second half of the Complexion’s program. The evening began with “Hissy Fits” after a rousing, pre-show “Happy Birthday” to Michael Uthoff, Dance St. Louis’ Artistic Director. “Hissy Fits” applies a frenetic, slinky, edgy choreography to some traditional melodies of J.S. Bach (heavy on the Glenn Gould interpretations).

Perhaps because “Hissy Fits” was more finely integrated from one Bach piece to the next, rather than discrete Bowie songs, it felt stronger and more “of a piece.” It was tempting to take it more seriously. Not better, per se, but certainly different. It was a strong piece and good choice to introduce the Complexions company.

As “Hissy Fits” opened with a fogged stage and the dancers beautifully illuminated (Michael Korsch’s lighting design for the entire show as stellar). Clad in nude-colored shorts and leotards, the dancers were statuesque in contrast to the lively, sinuous, complicated choreography that lived up to its name. “Hissy Fits” was more lyrical than “Stardust” and it is tempting to describe it as more balletic and classical, but not at the expense of its contemporary street dance elements. It’s a complicated piece about complicated feelings of frustration, bordering on hysteria.

The performance ended with a long-lasting, well-deserved standing ovation. As Bowie once observed, “Gentleness clears the soul, love cleans the mind and makes it free.” Gentleness, love and freedom shone through the dancers and the passionate choreography linked the two halves of the soulful program.

By CB Adams

It goes against form to start a symphony review (or any review for that matter) by pointing out the limits of words to describe a performance. Even the inestimable writer Virginia Woolf, when attempting to describe paintings in a 1920s essay, wrote, “But words, words! How inadequate you are! How weary one gets of you.” If words can fail the masterful Woolf, there’s not much hope for the rest of us – though she more than adequately spent the rest of the essay brilliantly describing the art, anyway.

Still, words are our medium. Thus, perhaps the best that can be said for the Friday, Oct. 21 performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, directed by Stéphane Denève, is: You had to be there. The same could no doubt be said for the Oct. 22 performance, too.

If you were there, you know how the orchestra, along with the SLSO Chorus, performed a powerfully emotional quadtych of complementary compositions (two by Francis Poulenc, and one each by Florent Schmitt and Reena Esmail). Denève has an avowed passion for Poulenc, a sentiment he reinforced in his introduction to the evening’s performance. “I looooove Poulenc!” he proclaimed from the podium.

Poulenc comprised the second half of the evening’s bill, and Denève avoided giving the Schmitt and Esmail compositions short shrift by describing the interconnected themes of love, faith, dedication and sacrifice. The well-considered choices to explore these themes added up to an entirely fulfilling and engaging experience while locally premiering Esmail’s “Testament” (From “Vishwas”) and the 12-movement “Stabat Mater” by Poulenc.

Jeanine De Bique

The strength of this concert was, at a macro level, the focus on love, faith, dedication and sacrifice. That focus was often filtered through a religious perspective. “Testament,” the final movement of a three-part composition for classical Indian dancer and orchestra, illuminates the fervent belief and hunger strike of a 15th-century poet.

Schmitt’s “The Tragedy of Salome,” is a symphonic suite that presents the sacrifice of virginal innocence, exemplified by its femme fatale protagonist, Salome of Biblical fame. The piece climaxes with a Stravinskian crash in the “Dance of Fear” movement.

Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater” uses the setting of a 13th-century hymn in Latin to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The final scene from his opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” presents a cast of nuns conversing about “anguish, fear, and the human condition.” It ends with their systematic beheadings, complete with guillotine sound effect.

Heavy stuff – indeed. But words fall short of the ultimately cathartic and uplifting nature of the SLSO’s performance. It was akin to attending a Greek tragedy. As Friedrich Nietzsche has observed: experiencing tragedy through art can lead to a meaningful affirmation of our own existence.

The success of this slate of compositions relies on the pieces themselves, the interplay of styles, themes and influences, and the performance by the SLSO and chorus. The sequence of pieces began with a religious person’s hunger strike, continued with the decapitation of John the Baptist, focused on the intense loss of Jesus’ crucifixion and concluded with the execution of 16 nuns. Although this description might sound unappealingly grisly, it was anything but. In sum, it was a satisfying, cerebral experience.

The orchestra, under Denève’s direction, was clean, confident and balanced – as usual. The “exotic” elements in the Esmail and Schmitt compositions were not exaggerated. Neither were the 16 uses of the guillotine sound effect during the “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” The effect was quite similar to the one used during The Muny’s production of “Sweeney Todd” this past summer.  

The addition of the chorus, guest directed by Scott Allen Jarrett, for the Poulenc pieces was a welcome addition and filled the stage with an aural presence that only a large choir can bring.

Reena Esmail

The highlight of the performance was certainly the SLSO debut of soprano Jeanine De Bique. Clad in blood red gown among the more soberly black dress of the rest of the musicians, De Bique delivered a beautiful and commanding performance, especially during the “Stabat Mater.”

The choice of works was innovative and balanced, and it certainly fits within this season’s overarching goal of journeying the world through music – compositions and musicians.

Through the fervency expressed in the works individually stood on their own, it was the cohesive ways the fit together to create a whole experience that proved most successful.

By CB Adams
Suspension of disbelief is a term usually associated with works of fiction, film or theater. It’s a term that got its start way back in 1817 when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “…suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

It’s high time we apply this term to music. This was certainly applicable to the Saint Louis Symphony’s diptych program on Oct. 15-16 of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1. When a conductor and orchestra can perform in a way that disappears themselves, that’s suspending the reality that people are only just rubbing strings and blowing into mouthpieces.

The program, guest conducted by Hannu Lintu, was worthy of Coleridge’s “poetic faith” with the shared maelstrom of themes that rose and fell in tandem – a perfect storm. The suspension of disbelief came after I forgot that there were musicians on stage and entered into my own reveries elicited by the drama of music itself. In service to this review, I had to keep reminding myself to stop my mind’s reverie and pay attention to who was doing what on stage.

Some of this is attributable to conductor Lintu, a regular guest artist with the SLSO since 2013. I was reminded of Lintu as I watched a sneak peek of the new film “Tár.” In it, a world-class conductor played by Cate Blanchett says, “If you want to dance the mask, you must service the composer. You’ve got to sublimate yourself…You must, in fact, stand in front of the public and God and obliterate yourself.”
That might be a bit hyperbolic, but Lintu certainly serviced the strengths of a program that put Rachmaninoff and Corigliano – the old and the new – into lockstep.

Lintu was sometimes metronomic, sometimes feet-together obedient and sometimes commanding, but always he was the conduit for music to swell unimpeded over him and into the audience.

Also in service to the music was Gerstein, the featured pianist on Rachmaninoff’s No. 2. Gerstein delivered a taut, polished, restrained performance that avoided any exaggeration that the composition can encourage. Just think back to 1975 and Eric Carmen’s hit “All By Myself,” which liberally borrowed from No. 2’s Adagio sostenuto. Or the soundtracks to “Brief Encounter” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Gerstein’s performance was noteworthy for his ability to balance lyrical nuance and athletic discipline to a well-known and -loved composition.

A great performance is always a team effort, and the orchestra rippled through Rachmaninoff’s alternations of sweet melancholy and darkness. On par with Gerstein’s solos were performed by Matthew Roitstein (principal flute), Scott Andrews (principal clarinet) and Thomas Jöstlein (associate principal horn).

Creating a program that positions a beloved classic with a newer composition is to risk a “bait and switch” response. But when it works, it can work charms as did placing Rachmaninoff and Corigliano, the latter of which is a celebrated orchestral composer whose works have been performed by the best international ensembles. This was my introduction to Corigliano and I’m all the better for it. The genesis
of Symphony No. 1 was Corigliano’s deeply personal response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the music enabled me to surf the dramatic crests and delicate troughs of its waves.

Perhaps because of the SLSO’s fine performance that relied on the talents of approximately 110 onstage musicians , I can imagine only listening to No. 1 live. It’s hard to think of a recording and stereo system capable of presenting this composition in all its highly charged power and range, evident even in the title of the opening movement, “Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance” and in Corigliano’s description of the second movement’s ending as a “brutal scream” and the Epilogue’s ending with a cello duet performing a
slow diminuendo that shimmers with a single, fading note.

That cello duet, performed with grace and emotion by Danny Lee (principal cello) and Melissa Brooks (assistant principal cello), was a highlight of the entire performance, made stronger by ending the program of poetic faith and promise.

Hannu Lintu, guest conductor