By CB Adams
In ballet, tradition often reigns supreme. And like opera, ballet is sometimes (make that, often) misunderstood – as stuffy, fussy, and old-fashioned as your Aunt Minnie’s doilies.

St. Louis Ballet, under Gen Horiuchi, executive and artistic director, provides proof that the new and innovative can comfortably be performed with the traditional on the same program, providing the best of both of these dance worlds – especially when the pieces are thematically and resonantly linked.

St. Louis Ballet has created a distinct niche with its contemporary productions, such as LoveX3 (Feb.16-18 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center), that deliver a satisfying, captivating blend of the dance pieces. LOVEX3 was part of the company’s annual “Love” series. And by curtain call at the Feb. 17 (with Cast 2) performance, I was left with an enthusiastic, “What’s not to love?”

The well-curated and paced program included three parts that began with a classic then transitioned to a piece premiered by the company last year and concluded with the premiere of “St. Louis Blues.” This progression of choreographic style and approach, from Balanchine to Brian Enos and Horiuchi, was perfect – and perfectly enjoyable.

“St. Louis Blues” is an exuberant celebration of love through the transcendent language of ballet with direct ties and references to this city. “St. Louis Blues” was choreographed by Horiuchi, who collaborated with composer Atsushi Toya Tokuya to turn W.C. Handy’s six-minute song into a much longer narrative of passion and longing.

What distinguishes “St. Louis Blues” is its ability to seamlessly intertwine two distinct art forms, creating a visual and auditory experience
that is both captivating and immersive. Set against the backdrop of St. Louis’s rich musical heritage, the ballet unfolds as a dynamic
narrative that pays homage to the city’s cultural legacy while showcasing the technical prowess and emotive depth of the dancers.

Horiuchi’s choreography is a masterful blend of fluidity and precision, mirroring the improvisational nature of jazz while maintaining the grace and poise characteristic of classical ballet. Through intricate sequences and expressive movements, the dancers convey the raw energy and emotional resonance of the blues, transporting audiences to the vibrant world of jazz clubs and smoky dance floors.

Tokuya’s musical finesse was captivating, and his composition added an extra layer of depth and richness to the performance. His mesmerizing rendition of the “St. Louis Blues” showcased his versatility and mastery across genres, further enhancing the emotional resonance of Horiuchi’s choreography.

Tokuya’s composition and arrangement were brought to life by the soulful strains of an on-stage New York-based jazz ensemble and the vocal stylings of jazz luminary Denise Thimes, who is no stranger to our city. I have reviewed other performances of Thimes, and she’s a treasure.

Of the three pieces in LOVEX3, “St. Louis Blues” had the largest cast with four couples engaging singly and as an ensemble. Charles Cronenwett and Zoe Middleton were one couple prominently featured. Cronenwett is a native of St. Louis and currently a company artist for the St. Louis Ballet. He has been trained by renowned dancers and directors like Horiuchi, Devon Carney and Christopher Ruud, and that training showed with his unique and charismatic approach.

Middleton has graced the St. Louis stage in a variety of roles. Under the direction of Horiuchi, she has showcased her skills in performances such as “The Nutcracker” (as Coffee), “Classique, and “Cinderella” (as Winter Fairy). Middleton also performed in Brian Enos’s productions, including the 2023 premiere of “In Reel Time.” Her performance in “St. Louis Blues” shone with artistry and a captivating combination of grace and skill.

LOVEX3 began with George Balanchine’s classic “Square Dance,” a piece that has been part of the St. Louis Ballet’s repertoire for years and is a good showcase for the company’s commitment to artistic excellence and refined expression.

Balanchine’s choreography set the stage for LOVEX3’s exploration of tradition and innovation. In this performance, the Cast 2 dancers navigated Balanchine’s intricate spatial choreography that demands precise movements within geometric formations and delivered a delicate fusion of ballet technique with the spirited rhythms of square dancing.

“Square Dance” featured the performances of the two leads, Olivia Cornelius and Michael Burke. Cornelius’s portrayal of the iconic role was delicate and clear. Her en pointe balances were sustained and appeared remarkably light and effortless. Burke’s performance was marked by a confident technique, characterized by a razor-sharp line and remarkable ballon. His execution was meticulous, with every movement impeccably placed.

Sandwiched in the LOVEX3’s pieces was Brian Enos’s “In Reel Time,” which St. Louis Ballet premiered last year. It’s a contemporary gem that pulses with rhythmic energy provided by the ensemble and music by Philip Daniel, Nova, Outland and Spearfisher and arresting visual beauty.

Enos’s choreography pushes the boundaries of traditional ballet, offering a dynamic and innovative perspective on the art form. Berry’s lighting design made dramatic and effective use of projection and visual effects to create a stage where the physical and digital realms converge.

From intimate solos to dynamic ensemble sequences, each movement is executed with precision and grace, captivating viewers with its depth and complexity, though throughout the evening there were some inconsistent lines and synchronized movements among the dancers.

Ultimately, though, St. Louis Ballet’ s rendition of “In Reel Time” was satisfying and engaging with its blend of artistic innovation and storytelling. It definitely left me with an indelible impression.

The St. Louis Ballet presented LOVEX3 February 16-18 at Kirkwood Performing Arts Center.

By Lynn Venhaus

A sunny, soulful song-and-dance showcase, “Last Stop on Market Street” includes a sweet slice-of-life lesson to engage audiences of all ages.

Metro Theater Company is presenting this vivacious 75-minute musical without intermission at the Grandel Theatre from Feb. 6-27 and is offering a video streaming option, too.

Written by Matt de la Pena with illustrations by Christian Robinson in 2015, the Newberry Medal-winning picture book is considered a modern classic and its theme of inclusivity and community is timeless.

It strikes a chord about finding the good in unexpected places through a child spending time with his out-of-town grandmother. He’s dropped off for the weekend and hasn’t ever spent that much time away from his parents – he’s counting the hours he must be there. Their relationship is rocky at first, and he is a reluctant guest, but eventually grows in love and understanding.

The child, CJ, is spoiled and a bit sheltered, and while bonding with his older and wiser grandmother “Nana,” he learns about the bigger, and very different, world around him. She introduces him to neighbors and new experiences.

Always plugged into his phone and tablet, he learns how fun adventures can be without reliance on screens. She, in turn, learns more about technology. In a relatable way, they appreciate age differences – and bridge the digital divide.

That intergenerational bond, if we’re lucky to experience it, lasts a lifetime – and the legacy beyond that, which this presentation shows so well.

Riding the bus. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin.

It’s always a good thing when we can be reminded of our grandmother’s love and guidance, and how they helped shape our paths. My “Mims” was a special person that I reference almost daily, what an impact this little dynamo made on my life from her 50s until age 80.

With her indomitable spirit, director Jacqueline Thompson has highlighted the colorful book’s emphasis on kindness, compassion, and gratitude.

In her director’s notes, Thompson dedicated the show to “all the Nanas of the world, — our truth tellers, safe spaces, warmth, roots to our foundation and light.” Amen to that. And thank you to Mildred Thompson.

The book was adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West and co-produced by the Chicago Children’s Theater and the Children’s Theatre Company in 2018.

In bringing this celebration of community to the local region, Metro has enlisted five-star talent to create an outstanding production that unifies young and old, and easily gets folks into the rhythm and out of their seats.

In the neighborhood setting, brightly imagined by scenic designers extraordinaire Margery and Peter Spack, a sense of community is palpable. The Spacks are known for their original creations that evoke whimsy and wonder, and their work here could fit into a PBS set for the Children’s Television Workshop.

Get ready to be energized by the beat, with a Motown-infused score from rhythm-and-blues legend Lamont Dozier and his son Paris Ray Dozier, who have incorporated hip hop, soul, rap and gospel into the catchy music and lyrics.

Music director Phil Woodmore and choreographer Christopher Page-Sanders have captured the Doziers’ vibrancy.

The tight ensemble is like a vitamin shot, with Robert Crenshaw, Daniel McRath, Valentina Silva, Denise Thimes, Cameron Tyler, and Tyler White lifting their voices in heartfelt harmony, and making you smile because of their joie de vivre as they groove to the beats.

Denise Thimes as Nana. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin

Denise Thimes is well-suited to play the inspirational Nana, and her relationship with Daniel McRath, playing CJ, is believable – stern but warm.

Thimes is a local jazz legend and has sung on the world’s greatest stages and with world-class artists. She’s in a league of her own.

Listening to the group sing is enjoyable, but their sublime solo efforts are when we get the full experience of their remarkable vocal chops. Wow.

McRath has an exceptional voice. He’s a graduate of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s Artist-in-Training program and was in “Aida” at The Muny.

Part of the ensemble, Robert Crenshaw’s voice is also superb, and last seen in “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” and “Spell #7,” both at The Black Rep.

Valentina Silva, who is seen in multiple roles, including M. Butterfly, is a versatile performer and recent BFA graduate in musical theater from Webster University. Cameron Tyler, a recent musical theater graduate of Missouri Baptist University, is the sympathetic Jojo, a homeless youth, that opens CJ’s eyes to the plight of others.

Tyler White is a veteran artist who has appeared on multiple stages and easily transitions to different roles, like a bus driver and homeless woman, with authenticity.

With creativity and dedication, the artists and technicians have ensured the details pop to keep youngsters occupied.

The lighting and sound design work is notable, from Jayson M. Lawshee and Jackie “Jackpot” Sharp respectively. Costume designer Felia Davenport crafted each characters’ outfits with personality in mind.

For those who love St. Louis, this charming and delightful production is a special treat from the Metro Theater Company, now in its 49th year, reminding us now, more than ever, small acts of kindness are never wasted. And city living is endlessly educational.

The play is recommended for children ages 5 and up. A short on-stage Q&A with the cast follows the performance.

Valentina Silva, Daniel McRath, Denise Thimes. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin

“Last Stop on Market Street” is live on stage through Feb. 27 at The Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center Arts District, across the street from Powell Hall. Tickets are available at MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 until 4 hours prior to the performance, then at The Grandel box office an hour before the performance.

Seven live performances are left: Feb. 18, 7 p.m.; Feb. 19, 4 p.m.; Feb. 20, 2 and 5 p.m.; Feb. 26, 1 and 4 p.m.; and Feb. 27, 2 p.m.

A video stream of the production is available. For more information:

Pandemic Protocols: Please be sure to bring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for every member of your party who is medically eligible for the vaccine. You will not be able to enter the building without proof of vaccination. Mask wearing is required at all times inside the Grandel. For more details, please take a moment to look over the COVID safety procedures on the website. Thank you for doing your part to keep our audiences of all ages safe and healthy!

Daniel McRath as C.J. Jennifer A. Lin Photo.

Photos by Jennifer A. Lin.

By CB AdamsContributing Writer

During a weekend hyper-inflated with entertainments of mass
distraction – in particular, the Game of
Thrones series finale and the St. Louis Blues’ game of Stanley Cup – a
modest-sized audience was invited to engage with a deeper, more troubling, more
pressing and more prescient entertainment. Completing its 42nd
season, the Black Rep presented its production of Nina Simone: Four Women at the Edison Theatre on the Washington
University in St. Louis campus.

Set in the ruins of the 16th Street Baptist
Church in Birmingham after the 1963 bombing that killed four children, the play
earnestly, if unevenly, stands as a monument to the notion that everything old never
stops being new again. Playwright Christina Ham’s mash-up script attempts to
synthesize an array of social issues including, but not limited to, civil
rights, waning traditional religious values, the legacies and injustices of the
Old South and Jim Crow, adoption/abortion issues, culture and cultural
appropriation, white-on-black violence and intergenerational differences toward
sexuality and womanhood – all through the lens of Simone’s prickly personality
and her own artistic, personal and political frustrations.

Ham’s approach to this bomb-blast of issues is to sew its
many subjects into a large quilt rather than delve too deeply into any single patch
or two. In other words, a macro rather than micro approach. That’s a tall
order, especially when combined with a retrospective of Simone’s signature
songs and a presentation that’s equal parts concert, cabaret, revue and jukebox
musical, ala Mama Mia!. Ham’s conceit
seems to be: come for the Simone, stay for the social commentary.

At the heart of the play is one of Simone’s defining songs, “Mississippi Goddam.” And at the heart of that song are the lines, “Just try to do your very best / Stand up be counted with all the rest / For everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.”

This production, ably directed by Ron Himes, embodies that “do your very best” spirit while working through Ham’s something-for-everybody script. The four characters of the title are doing their best in their respective bad situations, each according to her experience, abilities and station in life.

four actresses playing those characters are the real strength of this
production. Maybe the conceit should be: come for the Simone, but definitely
stay for the performances of Leah Stewart as Simone, Denise Thimes as Sarah (aka
Auntie), Alex Jay as Sephronia and Camile “Cee” Sharp as Sweet Thing. Stewart
and Thimes make the most of their well-rounded characters. Sharp deserves extra
credit for her yeoman’s effort to animate the borderline one-dimensional
character of prostitute Sweet Thing. Scenic designer Tim Jones’s bombed-out
church set evocatively captures the devastation through which the characters
literally and metaphorically must move.

Impressive, too, and a testament to the strength of the St. Louis theater community, is that Stewart, Thimes and Jay are all natives of the Gateway City. Rounding out this exemplary local talent pool was a near-silent fifth character, the onstage piano accompanist, St. Louis native and musical director Charles Creath.

Cast of “Nina Simone: Four Women” Photo by Philip HamerThe script of Nina Simone: Four Women is too often clichéd (“walk a mile in my shoes”), too often expository in a biopic/Wikipedia sort of way (“It was my first top 10 hit”) and sometimes period-inappropriate (“skin in the game”). Yet, with the exception of a few flubbed lines, the actresses more than compensate for these shortcomings with their snappy timing, true heart and deep authenticity. And they soared and rose above the material individually and collectively performing “Old Jim Crow,” “Brown Baby” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and the other well-curated selections from Simone’s songbook.

The play seeks to make connections among the many issues it
touches and attempts to reach an epiphanic conclusion with the four characters
joining together for Simone’s song “Four Women.” The play’s wide-ranging reach
surpasses the ability of this one song to offer a satisfying resolution to the
issues it raises – but perhaps that point. It’s one woman’s (Simone herself) or
each character’s way of navigating a barrage of cultural adversities and finding
some meaning, strength and hope despite these challenges.

For this culmination, the attention instead should return to
“Mississippi Goddam.” Though the lyrics are relatively tame by modern urban
music’s standards, the anger is still palpable, real and relevant. It should
leave the audience realizing it’s not just Mississippi or Alabama goddam, but St.
Louis goddam and, yes, America goddam.

“Nina Simone: Four Women” plays at the Edison Theatre May 15-June 2. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 314-534-3807 or go online A special $20 deal is available on Wednesday nights through the run.