Georges Bizet's 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) is a classic example of a weak libretto bolstered by a very strong score. The Lyric Opera of Chicago production, which originated with San Diego Opera in 2004, takes it up a notch with theatrically canny direction by Andrew Sinclair, colorfully fanciful sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes inspired by Indian and Balinese art and, most importantly, really splendid singing by all four members of the cast.

Nobody expected much from the 24-year-old Bizet when he was handed the libretto of The Pearl Fishers. Yes, he had just won the prestigious Prix de Rome, but his big hit Carmen was still 12 years in the future and his only previous opera was the one-act Le docteur miracle. Indeed, he only got the commission by the Théâtre-Lyrique because a noble patron had given the company a large endowment specifically to stage operas by Prix de Rome winners.

No surprise, then, that the team of Eugène Carmon and Michel Carré put only minimal effort into a hastily assembled mashup of the then-current novel L'île de Celan et ses curiosités naturelles (roughly, "The Isle of Ceylon and Its Natural Attractions") and La vestale, an 1807 opera by Gaspare Spontini about a vestal virgin whose hormones get the better of her.

The story about Ceylon pearl fishers Zurga and Nadir, lifelong friends driven apart by their mutual love for the priestess Leïla, makes little dramatic sense, but Bizet surprised everyone by setting it to some irresistible music. "Au fond du temple saint," the Act I duet in which the two men swear that their earlier infatuation with Leïla will never part them again has become something of an operatic Greatest Hit and the rest of the score is filled with equally appealing stuff.

Polish baritone Mariusz Mariusz Kwiecie?, so impressive in the title role of Lyric's Eugene Onegin last season, once again commands the stage as Zurga, whose election as king of the pearl fishers is interrupted by the unexpected return of Nadir after years of absence. Mr. Kwieche?'s authoritative voice and credible acting go a long way towards mitigating the role's absurdities. Tenor Matthew Polenzani's passionate Nadir is equally worthy of praise, clearly sung and smartly acted. Their "bromance" duet was warmly received the night we saw the show.

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka displayed a soaring, gravity-defying voice in Leïla's Act II "Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre," a vocally elaborate number in which she recalls her earlier romance with Nadir. Like her co-stars, Ms. Rebeka delivered a fully realized character, and her second act love duet with Mr. Polenzani struck real sparks.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli rounds out the cast, giving vocal and dramatic weight to the small but pivotal role of the stern high priest Nourabad.

The clarity and power of the Lyric Opera chorus has never failed to impress me in the past and their work here is no exception. Bizet has given them some prime material, like the hymn to Brahma that closes the second act, and they more than do it justice. The orchestra did well by the score as well, under Sir Andrew Davis's experienced direction.

In his program note, director Andrew Sinclair acknowledges the theatrical weakness of the opera's libretto and talks about the small tweaks he has made to give it a bit more coherence. When Nadir makes his first appearance, for example, Mr. Sinclair has Zurga greet him with a dismissing pro forma handshake, suggesting that there is still some bad blood between them. The tension continues during "Au fond du temple saint," which begins with the two singers on opposite sides of the stage. They don't actually come together until the final moments of the number, which gives the song more dramatic weight and hints at the gulf that might still exist. It's one of many strong choices that add credibility without undercutting the intentions of the opera's creators.

Mr. Sinclair has also added a dancing chorus, with choreography by John Malashock that feels strongly inspired by Indian and Indonesian folk traditions. The dancers play a strong narrative role, adding visual interest to elaborate choral numbers like the Act II scene in which Zurga condemns Nadir and Leïla to death for blasphemy.

Combine all that with those imaginative visuals from Ms. Rhodes and the result is a Pearl Fishers that is a delight to both the eye and ear. Bizet and his librettists never had it so good.

Lyric Opera's The Pearl Fishers runs through Sunday, December 10th, at their theatre in the Chicago Loop, alternating with their equally splendid production of Puccini's Turandot. Both are well worth a trip to the Windy City.

Photo from 'Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates' Metro Theater Company

This week’s In Performance includes the public premier of an inventive and charming family friendly show, a holiday celebration set in an uncertain future, and a play about movies, how meta might that get? With the season in full swing and the wind blowing cold, it’s a perfect time for a relaxing with a play or musical!

Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates introduces young audiences to the joys of live theater with a show that entertains on multiple levels. Hans and Gretel Brinker cannot afford to attend school after their father’s devastating accident has left them scraping for every penny. The two find joy in skating, but are taunted by wealthier children until one of them, Heidi, takes an interest in the siblings. Hans and Gretel are able to solve several lingering mysteries and ensure a happy ending through their own efforts and hard work, adding a sense of realistic possibility and can do spirit to the show. As Pete Winfrey, who plays Hans, notes, “Even though they’re from another time, Hans and Gretel are familiar. The story is written in a way that communicates a lot of important ideas in less complicated ways and keeps the characters grounded in truth.” 

Director Julia Flood is excited to be doing a big, athletic show for the company’s first production in their new home at the Grandel Theatre. One of the biggest challenges of the show, from both a technical and acting perspective, is recreating the sensation of skating that is central to the story. Designers Lou Bird, John Inchiostro, David Blake, and choreographer Jamie McKittrick worked together to create the impressive and visually compelling environment as well as the actors skates. Several actors, including Sigrid Wise, who plays Gretel, and Antony Terrell mentioned that they spent many rehearsals just learning how to skate, resulting in “muscles that I didn’t even know I had being really, really sore."

The actors in Metro Theater Company’s Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, running through December 30, work hard to ensure that their performances include personalities students can relate to. Terrell notes that he was “really quiet until theater broke me out of my shell. There are probably kids at every show that are just like I was.” Jennifer Theby-Quinn mentions that “It doesn’t feel very good to play a mean character, but there are mean people in real life and we want to create characters the audience recognizes.” Erika Flowers-Roberts chimes in, “At the same time, everyone is so kind and joyful, and caring, and that shows. We help and encourage each other, we want audiences to see that positivity.” Families looking for a heartwarming and entertaining show everyone can enjoy will want to consider this show that celebrates human kindness and generosity.

This holiday season, Mustard Seed Theatre revisits Ron Reed’s post-apocalyptic Remnant, a story of Christmas in a desolate future. After a plague has decimated the population and wiped out technology, a handyman tinkers with relics from a lost world, desperately trying to revive a past he never really knew. He gathers his small community together in an attempt to reconstruct the rituals of Christmas; when a stranger arrives, the clan must decide whether he is here to bring redemption or death.

The moving and effective play poses provocative questions about Christianity, and the practice of religion in general, that ring with current familiarity. What is at the core of our traditions and who is allowed to join a faith-based community? Can loyalty be destructive and how do we reconnect with the past when our language and ways of understanding the world have been fundamentally altered? Mustard Seed Theatre’s revival production, running through December 23, features Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Marissa Grice, Katy Keating, Michelle Hand and Adam Flores.

Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning play The Flick comes to life at R-S Theatrics. The poignant and bittersweet story introduces audiences to the employees at a rundown theater, one of the last that hasn’t switched over to digital projection. The underpaid employees ponder weighty questions about authenticity and realism through a nuanced story that also examines the negative consequences of change and progress. In the end, audience members may be left pondering their personal experience with art in various mediums.

Director Joe Hanrahan notes that the show humorously relays the tedium of the job in richly layered dialogue, raising questions we’ve all probably considered during moments of boredom. “Who would play me in a movie?” Hanrahan poses as way of example. “I'd audition Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. But I think Gary Oldman with a lot of makeup,” he mentions before shifting to his thoughts on the heart of the play. “The tragedy of this play is a country, an economy where kids like this have no careers to work towards. The comedy is their resilience and ability to grab life in the midst of this.” R-S Theatrics production of The Flick, running through December 23, features Tyson Cole, Jennelle Gilreath, Jaz Tucker, and Chuck Winning.

Continuing this weekend:

The Rep’s regional premier of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and in performance through December 24, is an inventive piece of fan fiction. The romantic comedy imagines Austen’s most beloved characters celebrating the holiday season at the home of the now married Elizabeth Bennet and her beloved Mr. Darcy. Bookish and well educated, Mary Bennet is poised and articulate, but resigned to never finding love. Elizabeth cautions her to be open to possibility and the story takes flight. The delightful continuation expertly captures the spirit of Austen’s dialogue and storytelling, and introducing new ideas that match the revered author’s forward thinking attitude.

Director Gary F. Bell and the cast of Stray Dog Theatre’s Steel Magnolias, in performance through December 17, found that the story of the connection between a mother and a daughter and the women at Truvy’s beauty salon resonate just as deeply today as when the drama was first written. Though tragic in many ways, the focus on enduring love and the support that comes through our families, friendships, and community, gives the show a warm, hopeful tone that lingers, making it a gem of a holiday show.

St. Louis Actors Studio presents Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, in performance through December 17. The first play set in the U.S. by the Irish writer and director is a darkly funny story that takes interesting, if sometimes perplexing, twists. Carmichael, a man with a missing hand and anger issues, a hapless couple of weed dealers, and a hesitant desk clerk share an eventful night that delivers unique disappointment to each character and plenty of laughs for the audience.

A Jewish Joke, in performance at The New Jewish Theatre through December 10, lovingly plays tribute to comedians and their ability to maintain their sense of humor in the worst of times. The one-man show, written by Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman and starring Johnson, introduces us to everyman Bernie Lutz, a screenwriter who learns his name is on Joseph McCarthy’s infamous blacklist. The show owes much to the legacy of Jewish comedians and is a testament to resilience of humanity and the power of a good punch line.

The Fabulous Fox theatre presents the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, continuing through December 10. The poignant story of culture and friendship gets a gorgeous interpretation, with bold, vibrant colors and intricate set pieces that add visual interest as they slide in and out of place. Naturally, your favorite songs receive excellent renditions, and the integration of traditional Thai dance, masks, and costumes is particularly artful.

As always, check out the KDHX Calendars for a listing of community art, music, and performance events!

 

Photo from Stray Dog Theatre production of Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias, Robert Harling’s moving tribute to his late sister, is an emotionally packed drama that explores parental love, the desire to live life to its fullest, and the importance of friendship. Told by a bevy of strong southern women, the story is heartbreakingly sad in moments but resonates with warmth and love as well as the resilience of the human spirit. Stray Dog Theatre’s compelling interpretation brings the story to life with quirky but relatable characters and an inspiring lead that refuses to let illness dampen her dreams.

Truvy, a bubbly salon owner who espouses there’s no such thing as natural beauty, has just hired Annelle, a reticent young woman with a mysterious past, to help out at the shop and it didn’t happen a moment too soon. Shelby is about to get married and the whole town is all-abuzz with excitement, particularly the ladies who frequent Truvy’s salon. Soon enough, Shelby and her mother, M’Lynn, arrive for their appointments. There’s a constant flow of gossip, snark, and friendly advice as the stylists wash, set, curl, and fix each woman’s hair. We learn about Ouiser’s feud with Shelby’s father, Clairee’s opinion of the new mayor’s wife, the one that replaced her. We also learn that Shelby has a serious illness and shouldn’t have children, a fact she resists and her mother worries over.

As the story progresses, the audience is invited into the intimate circle of friends. Truvy remains a steady force, cracking jokes and teasing hair, but the others undergo significant changes during the two-year span of the bittersweet play. Clairee and Ouiser each find a new and very different lease on life. Annelle finds religion, as well as her self-respect and real love. Shelby faces daunting odds at every turn, but she so frequently succeeds that it causes us to drop our guard, making the final scene hurt that much more, so we shed a tear or two over the miracles and tragedies that life doles out. The story arc is serious, but gentle, delivered with tender regard and a sense of humor

Eileen Engel fills Shelby with a spirited, passionate demeanor that demands we pay attention from the moment she enters the room and encourages us to believe for her. Engel finds multiple layers in Shelby, even her optimism is tinged with complexity, and there’s resolve and sincerity in her portrayal that charms. In contrast, Alison Linderer starts small and quiet, the wallflower in the corner that blossoms into a kind, nurturing woman. She’s the perfect partner to Truvy’s over-the-top energy and represents the youthful energy the friends need to maintain hope.

Jenni Ryan unravels M’Lynn slowly, revealing carefully masked layers of maternal pain and fear that feel heartbreakingly honest. She is by turns anxious and supportive, but she’s willing to give everything she has to help her daughter stay alive. Sarah Gene Dowling is boundless and bawdy as Truvy, her hands and mouth constantly working in concert. Liz Mischel and Andra Harkins round out the cast as Clairee and Ouiser, two wonderfully vivacious and bickering senior citizens with hearts of gold. Accents were lost a few times here and there, and more than one actress appeared to stumble over a few lines, but the spirit of the show remained intact throughout. The chemistry and sense of camaraderie are present from the opening scene and the women’s relationships feel genuine, down to the little squabbles and too familiar teasing.

Director Gary F. Bell steers the show purposefully, creating well-developed characters that, for the most part, avoid stereotypes, though Truvy and Annelle are not as substantial as the other women. The lack of depth may reflect more on the script than the actors, but more levels and vocal variety may also add depth to the one-note characters. Josh Smith’s set is a wonderful recreation of a small town beauty parlor, complete with running water and hooded dryers, while the sound design set the tone of the show with catchy pop tunes from the 1980s. Finally, Bell and Engel’s costumes and hairstyles capture the period, with the liberal application of hairspray a perfect finishing touch.

The impact of the powerful play, filled with witty observations and sly jokes as well as tender scolding and long hugs, sneaks up on the audience. Despite all the challenges these women face, they remain optimistic and long for a better tomorrow not simply for themselves, but for their friends. Even when they quarrel, they do so with real affection and interest. Though there’s a wedding, there’s not a happy ending for all; still, Steel Magnolias, in performance through December 16 at Stray Dog Theatre, offers friendship, comfort, and hope with a healthy dose of humor.

It is rare to create a theatrical production that is both simplistic and breathtaking, but Director Bartlett Sher and his creative team have done it with their Lincoln Center Theater Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I".

The airy, gauzy curtains open to reveal a large wooden boat floating on a river of fog as teacher Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrive in Siam to teach the language and culture of the West to the King's wives and children. The mother and son, despite their years spent in India and Singapore, are overwhelmed by the strange sights and smells. They begin the iconic song, "I Whistle a Happy Tune."

This opening's lighting, scenery and soundscapes work together so well that you can almost smell the Asian riverside city as it was in the 1860's. As the show progresses, settings in the palace are explored with few, choice set pieces on a vast, open stage. Director Bartlett Sher relies on the story's kaleidoscope of characters, gilded costume pieces, and stage presence of cast members to draw his audience into the unfolding story. 

Laura Michelle Kelly makes it immediately clear that she was born to play Mrs. Anna. The Broadway star brings her A-game to the Fox, revealing Anna's developing feelings for the King and her understanding of the Siamese people layer by layer. Jose Llana's vibrant portrayal of the King delivers at all the right moments, most poignantly during comedic flashes, and he is framed perfectly by Brian Rivera as Kralahome and Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang. Almedilla's "Something Wonderful" pushes and pulls through a range of raw emotions. Q Lim as Tuptim embodies every young feminist, at once lovely and furious as she sings, "What does he know of me, this lord and master? [...] Something young, soft and slim [...] eyes that shine just for him, so he thinks!"  

The play within the show, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", is the crowning glory of the production. This beautiful ballet has audience members rooting for Eliza, loving her even though we only know her for a few minutes.  The dancers are precise yet jovial and warm. This type of a scene is difficult to do because of the timing--it's necessary to achieve absolute precision between the narrator, dancers, singers, orchestra, actors and lights. The piece was flawless.

The Fox's orchestra deserves a standing ovation for the work they do in "The King and I". The production is largely driven by the music, and the musicians expertly accompanied the performers while completing the historic South Asian setting, providing comedic relief, and building tension. 

Sher's re-telling of this iconic show pays homage to the classic, reviving memorable scenes and choreography from Jerome Robbins, but the story doesn't feel stale: Every bow, smile, and turn of the wrist feels fresh and delightful. And the book's theme of gender equality is just as pertinent today as it was when the show debuted in 1951. 

With choreography by Christopher Gattelli, music direction by Ted Sperling, set by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Tony-Award winner Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder and sound by Scott Lehrer, "The King and I" is playing at the Fabulous Fox through December 10th. For more information, visit www.thekinganditour.com

Image from St. Louis Actors Studio production of 'A Behanding in Spokane'

St. Louis Actors Studio once again shakes up the holiday season by presenting a show that, at least at first glance, seems antithetical to all things bright and cheery. A Behanding in Spokane is a loud, querulous, and darkly comic play filled with quirky characters and convoluted conversations that are as interesting as they are illogical. The one-act play, written by Martin McDonagh, entertains by mixing oddly distinct personalities with a few surprises that are quite welcome and unexpectedly satisfying. Engaging performances by a talented cast and pointed direction from Wayne Salomon make the most of this unconventional comedy.

At the tender young age of 17, Carmichael was attacked and beaten, then held down as a train ran over his arm and severed his hand. To add insult to injury, the gang that abused him mocked him as they ran away, waving back to him with his dismembered hand. The scene is one Carmichael cannot erase from his mind and, for nearly fifty years now, it has propelled him to seek out his attackers and recover his hand. Truth be told, he’s long ago reckoned with his attackers, but he remains committed to the quest for his missing hand, useless as it may be.

Marilyn and Toby are a couple of pot dealers looking to make a quick buck. They’ve stolen a hand from the local museum and intend to pass it off as Carmichael’s so they can collect the money he’s promised. Always suspicious, Carmichael is holding Toby in the closet of his hotel room while Marilyn retrieves the hand. Toby’s incessant scratching on the closet door clearly annoys Carmichael, so he fires his gun near Toby’s head to scare him. The gunshot piques the interest of the loquacious hotel desk clerk Mervyn. He comes to investigate and, curiously enough, doesn’t get shot by Carmichael who instead attempts to convince Mervyn that he heard the sound of a car backfiring and not a shot.

Unfortunately, the hapless drug dealers have stolen a hand that in no way matches Carmichael’s. In a bit of quick thinking that’s nearly derailed by Marilyn, Toby tells Carmichael that Marilyn grabbed the wrong hand. Things go downhill quickly, but comically, from there and are complicated by calls from Carmichael’s mother and Mervyn’s bored meddling. Everything falls apart and reassembles a couple times, leading to the surprisingly warm and oddly “buddy film” like final scene.

Jerry Vogel is spot on as Carmichael, a curmudgeon with a conscience and a soft spot for his mom. He’s spent so long fixated on revenge and his missing hand that true resolution may be his undoing. Léerin Campbell and Michael Lowe ensure that our hapless potheads are much more than caricatures, and there’s tenderness in the way they care for each other that adds a ton of sympathy. Finally, William Roth plays Mervyn with a matter-of-fact attitude and deadpan tone that combine to great comic effect. He’s chatty and perceptive in an offhand way and bursting with a near constant stream of random facts and opinions. Roth’s interpretation ensures Mervyn is more endearing than annoying, though both characteristics are present.

The play succeeds best when the various characters’ eccentricities lead to confusion or conflict, creating a mishmash that’s part crime caper, part situation comedy. Several of the plot devices are a bit thin and require the audience to buy into the inherent absurdity of the situation. Director Salomon doesn’t dwell on these shortcomings, however, and it’s fun to watch the ways he and the cast resolve these moments.

There are also important, essentially American idiosyncrasies that the Irish born playwright doesn’t seem to fully grasp. Carmichael’s persistent use of racial slurs feels a bit forced and though there’s something amusing about his mother’s racism, neither seem authentic. The show also lags just a tick during the troublesome scenes, drawing attention to the clumsy dialogue in an otherwise intriguing and humorous script. Luckily the stumbles don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of this darkly funny tale.

St. Louis Actors Studio’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, continuing through December 17, is a genuinely entertaining and funny alternative to traditional Christmas shows. In fact, there’s not a single holiday or seasonal reference to be found in the quick moving, foul-mouthed show. While not for all audiences, as some may object to the language and subject matter, and decidedly not McDonagh’s best script, the play is thoroughly engrossing, oddly compelling, and laugh out loud entertaining.

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