Originally produced in 2005, and a perfect revival to close the company's 40th anniversary season, Crossin' Over is powerfully effective, seamlessly connected storytelling delivered through traditional and popular music. The story is the unique experience of Africans brought to America through the slave trade. Told through song rather than spoken dialogue, Crossin' Over is comprised of five musical suites and an accompanying opening melody which establishes the major themes. 

The show is anchored by the voices of Amber Rose, Herman L. Gordon, and Kelvin Roston, Jr., who provide the majority of the lead vocals. Rose has a voice that is effortlessly pure and augmented by an impressive range. Gordon and Roston, Jr. are an earthy, soulful complement to Rose's ethereal melodies, bringing rich, vibrant depth to their leads. Near perfect harmonies and additional solos from J. Samuel Davis, Michael Lowe, Leah Steward, and Maureen L. Williams add texture and variety. Featured dancer Venezia Manuel extends, articulates, and interprets the songs with the same emotional intensity and passion as the capable ensemble.

Each of the five suites presents an important transition in African American history: from freedom to bondage; from slavery to emancipation; from south to north; and from segregation to civil rights. The songs and choreography, a mix of traditional African and modern dance, create a fluid timeline that resonates with immense pride and deeply rooted traditions. The songs and dances move from suite to suite in concert with the major themes. Traditional African songs and dances open the show then adroitly transition, weaving in American gospel, blues, and popular music as well as modern dance reminiscent of Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.

The opening medley introduces the theme and the show begins its natural, seemingly organic, movement forward. The African Suite is filled with daily tasks and celebration. Manuel punctuates the songs with lively traditional dance and percussionists Donald Ray, Jackie Sharp, and Atum Jones join the cast on stage. Their taps, slaps, and beats resound in perfect synchronicity with Manuel's dances and the songs, or vice versa. Banners with African prints unfurl and Mark Wilson's lighting deftly draws and shifts our attention. 

This suite transitions abruptly to the Crossing Over in Slave Ships section of the "Captivity Suite," ending with the suggestive sway of the ocean and close ship hold quarters packed with people. The tension is high and filled with confusion, illness, and brutality. This section is intimately real and painful, and, though beautifully articulated, difficult to watch because it is such an effective reminder of how cruel humans can be in their treatment of each other. Fear, confusion, and concern are apparent on every actor's face. The second part of the suite, The Auction Block, features the unfurling of a slave auction advertisement, a striking visual emphasis of the history we're witnessing. 

The "Civil Rights Suite" is equally compelling and uncomfortable, though it offers glimmers of hope that humanity can change, a feeling that is underscored by the joyful and uplifting Contemporary Suite. Additional banners, part of the strong, but simple set design by Jim Burwinkel, provide context and are pointedly used by director Himes. At times the actors feel crowded and compressed in the space, at other times there's an expansive and unforgiving distance implied. The cumulative effect is cohesive, captivating storytelling that's visually and expressively stunning.

The songs reflect the era of the timeline, and the uniform strength of the ensemble, as well as contributions by each vocalist on almost every song, make it difficult to site a single stand out piece. "Crossin' Over," "No Way," "Kakilambe," "Motherless Child," "Lord How Come Me?" and the closing medley are memorable numbers from the first act. In the second act, "Blues Medley," "It's Gonna Rain/Didn't It Rain," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "Strange Fruit" and "Rise Up" stand out as spectacular and pleasingly textured renditions. In addition to the percussionists, musical director and keyboardist Charles Creath, bassist Willian "Rainey" Rainer, and drummer Jeffrey Booman Burks provide solid accompaniment.

Crossin' Over, in performance through June 18, 2017 at the Black Rep on the campus of Harris Stowe, is an evocative production. Ron Himes' curated musical features songs new and familiar, and Creath's arrangements make the most of each performer's voice, with leads Rose, Gordon, and Roston, Jr. setting a high standard. Layered storytelling engages multiple senses while the cast expertly conveys the unique experience of African American history with grace, power, and dignity.

 

 

What a show! Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened The Grapes of Wrath, a work by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. I have never in my life been more emotionally moved by an opera than by this glorious production.

John Steinbeck's novel came out in 1939 and won the Pulitzer prize. It was made into a film in 1940. Steinbeck was given a Nobel Prize in 1962. In 1990 a stage adaptation of Grapes was produced. It's an American icon. Gordon's operatic adaptation premiered in 2007 and over the next few years it was produced in several "revised" or "modified" or "concert" versions. 

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis commissioned this newly "streamlined" version. It's in two-acts, has a cast of forty and runs nearly three hours, so the original three-act, four-hour work must have been epic indeed. Be that as it may this current version is a work of remarkable beauty and power.

And its story is, alas, startlingly relevant to the problems of the world today. Like the Joad family and the many thousands of "Okies" who shared their plight, the world is confronted with ongoing (or imminent) ecological and economic catastrophes. Had the government acted on the wise advice of science the Dust Bowl could have been prevented. Today those in power and authority seem similarly oblivious to both the ecological and economic advice of those who have learned the lessons of the past. "Pull out of the Paris accords and let the climate go to Hell! Deregulate the banks and make it easier for the 'haves' to further ravage the 'have nots'!" The river of migrants which Steinbeck draws in his novel is an echo of the flood of migrants struggling to escape poverty today. The Grapes of Wrath has lessons for us all.

The score of this opera is light on melody; there's nothing that you'll leave the theater whistling. But there is so much truly beautiful music! Ricky Ian Gordon is a very master of orchestration. The music is for the most part nicely tonal, but with powerful dissonances at moments of stress. It covers a wide spectrum: it can be folksy or jazzy or Broadway or modern and complex. It's very much at the level of Bernstein. There are quite lovely arias and duets, and the many choral passages are rich and wonderfully dramatic. At times many different vocal lines intertwine gorgeously. 

Michael Korie's libretto is natural and colloquial and very true to the time and place. It's also true to Steinbeck's subtle but pervasive Old Testament flavor, which comes clearly through in names, phrases, images and themes. 

All of the principal singers are given their wonderful moments. Katharine Goeldner splendidly fulfills the demanding central role of Ma Joad. She is impressively gifted -- both vocally and as an actress. She shines with her iron determination to hold the family together. Hers is the essential message of Steinbeck. In a repeated aria she ponders the question, "What is 'us'?" Is it simply blood relation, symbolized in the few small things that must not be left behind?" As the evening passes we see that definition of "us" expanding to embrace all of those suffering in the world. Preacher Casy says of Ma Joad, "There's a woman so great with love she scares you." 

Tobias Greenhalgh plays Tom, the son on parole from a manslaughter sentence. Greenhalgh, a strapping, handsome, earnest young man, gives Henry Fonda a run for his money, and he has a strong true baritone voice. Steinbeck would surely smile on this Tom as he sings that famous farewell to his mother:  "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there . . ."

Erstwhile preacher Casy, "a burnt-out Holy Roller," is sung by Geoffrey Agpalo. He has a truly wonderful, clear, strong tenor voice and very fine diction. He captures all the humor and wisdom of this, Steinbeck's Christ figure. (Why did I have a tiny wish that he looked more like John Caradine?)

Robert Orth sings the cantankerous Uncle John, who loves a little drink. From the beginning his is a commendable performance, but late in the evening Orth rises to wonderful and disturbing power in his aria "Dead Little Moses" as he consigns the stillborn infant to the swirling flood waters as a horrid message to the world about injustice and suffering. 

The stalwart Pa Joad is sung by baritone Levi Hernandez in another very strong and moving performance.

The pregnant young Rose of Sharon ("Rosasharn") is beautifully sung by Deanna Breiwick, who makes her engagingly innocent and vulnerable.

Hugh Russell sings Noah, the slow-witted son. As with Uncle John this is a role that really blossoms late in the evening, and Russell triumphs in what, for me, is the most inspired scene in the opera. In the novel Noah, sensing that he's a burden to the family, simply wanders off down the river. Here, though, in a style that leaves realism far behind, he clearly drowns -- blending himself with the river, moving slowly and beautifully in silhouette as the water engulfs him.

Jennifer Panara brings welcome bright humor to us in the cameo role of Mae, the truck-stop waitress. A fine job.

Excellent work is done by Michael Day as Tom's brother Al, Andrew Lovato as Rosasharn's husband Connie, Mary Ann McCormack as Granma, Dennis Petersen as Grandpa and by Hannah Dishman and Devin Best as the youngest Joad children.

The choral work, under Cary John Franklin, is sublime, and this opera is rich in beauties for the chorus! At the very top of the show there is a wonderfully evocative song wherein the dispossessed farmers remember "The Last Time There Was Rain." There's a jaunty chorus of used-car hucksters promising that every jalopy is "A Good Machine." There's the desperate optimism as the Okies head down "The Plenty Road." And at times -- when Noah drowns and when the box containing the dead baby is dispatched to the waters -- the chorus literally and most affectingly becomes the moving river. It's stunning!

Set designer Allen Moyer begins the story in the storefront Holy Ghost Gospel Mission. It's grim and dismal with crumbling plaster. Faded gospel slogans murmur from the walls. The place now serves as a soup kitchen. But we see its old wooden tables, the mismatched chairs and the battered upright piano gracefully rearranged to become a tractor, a truck, various platforms and camps, a highway full of migrants, a filthy and dehumanizing "Hooverville." All of this use is deft and lovely and so much more engaging than literal realism.

Costumer James Schuette dresses the cast with great care. He's faithful to the time, the place, the people. And his palette blends perfectly with that of the scene design. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind follows the story with a deft, warm and loving touch.

Stage director James Robinson does quite masterful work. His imaginative use of the set is fluid and effective, and in the less-realistic moments -- the river scenes and a stop-action fight and shooting -- he touches genius. But I was even more impressed with his handling of the chorus;  each individual is so real, so distinct, so invested in the scene. The folks coming into the soup kitchen show so subtly and convincingly that hesitancy of one approaching charity among strangers.

That deep emotional investment is apparent in every member of the cast. These are not only world-class singers but very fine actors indeed. Conductor Christopher Allen his St. Louis Symphony musicians do every honor to all the nuances, the vivid life, the complexities of this rich score. The Grapes of Wrath at Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a true wonder and runs through June 25.

 

First impressions matter, everyone knows that. But any fan of the works of Jane Austen undoubtedly also knows that they certainly aren't everything and, sometimes, can be surprisingly deceptive. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble embraces the concept in their delightfully in tune adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, one of Miss Austen's best loved and most frequently adapted novels. 

Walking into the theater, audiences may at first feel as if they've arrived at a party or fantasy-themed celebration. There's a billowy white canopy with twinkling lights above and guests of age are invited to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer during the show. What they are about to see, however, is a battle of wits and hearts filled with playful duplicity and class maneuvering. With a wink of an eye and the sounds of a string quartet, we're transported to the household where the five Bennett sisters and their mother plot perfect marriages with eligible young men.

In the midst of the scheming, planning, and social cavorting, characters break free from the show and, in a contemporary voice accompanied by distinct choreography, recall first reflections of experiences with Austen's Pride and Prejudice. These memories are sprinkled with more than a bit of opinion and frequent references to Colin Firth. Just as quickly, the actor returns to character and plot as the abbreviated retelling of the novel continues. 

The company's adaptation is inventive, full of polite invectives and heaping praise for the work, and teeming with relatable humor.  The integrated monologues were culled from a variety of sources, including questions posed directly by the company for public response. The commentary is often funny, frequently insightful, and game for explaining the persistent popularity of Miss Austen to a public that might not appropriately appreciate the author's talents. The story comes across as much through the retelling of readers' initial (and frequently, changing) preferences as the novel, and the two distinct parts are seamlessly woven together by director Rachel Tibbetts and the talented cast.

Ellie Schwetye and Cara Barresi embody the spirit of Elizabeth and Jane Bennett to a T, each creating a believable woman that complements, but does not match, the other, true to the spirit of the novel. Schwetye is perceptive and witty, Barresi charming and kind-hearted, and both reveal an independent nature. Nicole Angeli and Carl Overly, Jr. are fussy and fundamentally endearing as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and Angeli gets some of the best reactions with her adroitly over-the-top mannerisms. The relationship between the close sisters extends to Parvuna Sulaiman as Mary, Jazmine K. Wade as Kitty, and Katy Keating as the irrepressible Lydia. Sulaiman also serves as a de facto guide through the evening, her commentary leading us into the subject and warmly bringing the story to a close.

On the romantic front, John Wolbers sparkles as the erudite and elusive Mr. Darcy and adroitly keeps toe-to-toe with Schwetye. A wide-eyed and good-natured Michael Cassidy Flynn is the perfect counter to Barresi as Charles Bingley; and Rachel Hanks, as friend Charlotte, and Andrew Kuhlman, as the girl's cousin Reverend William Collins, find romance that bristles with an endearingly awkward energy. Rounding out the cast, Kristen Strom is as aloof and prickly as Caroline Bingley as she is sweet and beguiling as Georgiana Darcy.

The company uses its resources wisely, suggesting much with a few pieces of scenery and period-suggestive costumes by Elizabeth Henning that cleverly reveal much about the characters' relationships through repetition of pattern and color matching. Interpretive choreography and a leitmotif of contemporary music, as performed by a string quartet, add to the dreamy quality of the show while subtly reinforcing theme. Much like the story, popular songs from artists as varied as Journey, The Cranberries, Coldplay, Arcade Fire, and Of Monsters and Men are at once recognizable and transformed.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's First Impressions, running through May 27, 2017, captivates with a sense of the logically surreal that's capped off with sharply defined yet endearing characters, smartly constructed commentary, and capricious visual and musical layers. Purists and those expecting a stage version of one of the many movie adaptations may experience palpitations at the construct; but I encourage them to embrace the reverent spirit and intellectual curiosity inherent in the approach. 

 

It is interesting to me that in spring, a time of rebirth and blossoming, many shows I've recently reviewed have been crafted around themes of distance, loss, and death. The New Jewish Theatre closes out its 20th season with a deceptively evocative interpretation of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles that is at once deeply personal and heartbreakingly universal.

Leo, a college-aged young man with a passion for the outdoors and an idealistic nature, unexpectedly arrives at his grandmother Vera's apartment in New York at 3 a.m. one morning. Vera is slow to awaken, perhaps because she's not wearing her hearing aid, and a little embarrassed to be dropped in on unexpectedly, probably because she's not got her dentures in. It's a subtly comic moment that instantly captures a continuing dynamic of the show: both Vera and Leo are smart, fiercely independent, and slow to begrudgingly acknowledge a need for others. 

Leo has recently finished bicycling across the country, from Seattle to New York. He started the trip with his friend Micah, until Micah was killed in a freak accident in Kansas, near the geographic center of the country. Vera has grown accustomed to living on her own since the death of her husband 10 years' prior, but the passing of a number of friends has her feeling alone and all too aware of her own mortality. The truth is, the two need each other right now, even if neither wants to say so openly.

Christopher Tipp, as Leo, and Amy Loui, as Vera, have an easy, naturally affectionate chemistry, making their moments of disagreement and need all the more poignant. Tipp is energetic, always in motion, and stubbornly naïve to the emotional turmoil just underneath his surface. Loui is equally stubborn, occasionally querulous, but always sensitive to her grandson's uncertain state, even when she's prodding him it's done with gentle purpose. The relationship between the two also feels typically contemporary. Each has interests and history the other doesn't know, and while they both benefit from their time together, each recognizes the need to get on with their lives.

The two are joined by Rachel Fenton, as Leo's estranged girlfriend Bec, and Grace Langford as Amanda, a girl Leo picks up at a bar one night. Annie Barbour voices Leo's adopted sister Lily during an important Skype call where Leo begins to reach out the his estranged immediate family. The interplay works well, and the actors fully commit, but the scenes feel a bit superfluous to the story. The relationship between Leo and Vera -- the way each deals with the loss of someone they loved and the looming changes in their lives -- is so thoroughly compelling that the additional scenes feel almost a distraction even as they push the story forward.

The show moves at a constant but languid pace under the direction of Edward Coffield, subtly emphasizing the internal confusion and emotional context of each character's sense of loss. Leo's attempts at reconciliation with his girlfriend Bec, his stumbling pursuit of a one-night stand with Amanda, and even his awkward apology to sister Lily, underscore his indecision and an inability to move forward. Vera's grasping for the right words, forgetfulness, and resigned acceptance of aging reflects her desire to remain present. It's a tricky balance, but Coffield and the cast maintain a sense of urgency even as they convey the hazy fog of uncertainty that's enveloped the moment.

Tipp and Loui sparkle with affection and concern as Leo and Vera. The sense of a long shared history is immediately apparent, as is shared respect. Loui is visibly transformed in the role, her movements a bit shaky, with little head shakes and scowls that convey Vera's anger over her memory loss and more frequent mental lapses. Tipp is awkward at times and he wears his emotions on his sleeve, letting us see the confusion and pain Leo is experiencing without melodrama. With an unspoken pact, they are making their way through the stages of grief and its resulting impact on their psyches together. 

The show, which moves at a purposefully languid pace under the direction of Edward Coffield, is steeped in a fog of uncertainty that's at once compelling and easily relatable. Loss is a powerful emotion, but one that's often hard to unpack. 4000 Miles, running through May 28, 2017 at the New Jewish Theatre, delves into the subject with surprising intimacy and depth. The result is a show that feels completely authentic as it gently warms the heart. 

 

With gun incidents at schools and other public places seeming on the rise, and receiving non-stop media attention, we live in a United States that's wary of the potential for violence. But how much should a teacher of creative subjects intervene in the free expression of their students? And at what point does a student's writing crossover from imaginative fiction to thinly veiled threats worthy of alarm? Tesseract Theatre Company addresses this weighty subject in their provocative production of Michael Erickson's Honor Student, a pre-publication premier. 

Professor Naomi Orozoco-Wallace is the popular teacher of a creative writing course at a liberal arts college, and deep in an affair with the dean of her discipline. Jason Kemp, an honor student at the school, strikes a chord of fear and misgiving when he reads a violent work of fiction that seems to target the professor and specific students in the class. She raises her concerns with the dean and asks for the student to be expelled or at the very least removed from her class. The student protests that he is being treated unfairly and the dean, in an attempt to reach a compromise, has the student sign a behavioral contract. The professor is still upset, visibly frightened, and having nightmares; the student protests and takes steps to challenge the dean's decision, as well as insinuating amorous foul play on multiple fronts. The situation is all too real and the moral and ethical territory all too grey.

Christina Rios and Bradley Rohlf are well cast as the professor and student, reacting to each other with the intensity of an unrelenting conflict. Rios is terrified and increasingly distracted and disturbed by the suggestive story; Rohlf is increasingly emboldened and confident as the student. Rios' thoughts and actions become scattered and frenetic as she weighs the merits of the student's assertion, the fear in her voice draining the color from her face. Rohlf moves with a growing swagger, seeming to delight in the discomfort both the professor and dean feel. There's a brazen and menacing demeanor to his character and he clearly blurs the lines between fact and fiction, but is he really a threat or are we simply seeing him through his professor's perspective?

Taylor Gruenloh and Michelle Dillard provide strong support as competing deans Davis Herring and Donna Hellinger, with Gruenloh pulling double duty as the show's director and spineless lothario. Gruenloh feels trapped by multiple situations in his life and is clearly hesitant to act unless forced. Dillard is the prototypical administrator looking out for the school's interest. But she's not unkind or rash, and clearly trying to put personal judgment aside. There's an interesting subplot regarding a provost position, and Dillard's character is surprisingly sympathetic to the professor when we least expect it. 

Tesseract also steps up their production values, naturally benefitting from their residence in the .Zack Arts Incubator. The set is sparse, but believably academic and appropriate for the theater space. The sound design is striking and moody, conveying an expectation of conflict that amps up during each subsequent development. My one quibble with the production is that Rios' character begins the show at such a heightened and agitated level that it limits her character's emotional arc. Rios turns in an authentic, sometimes brutally honest performance that is genuine and thoroughly compelling, I only wish she had more emotional space in which to work.

Honor Student, running through May 28, 2017 at Tesseract Theatre Company, is an engrossing contemporary drama. The well-constructed script is interesting, if at times overly transparent in character and plot, as it examines the grey area between creative expression and content worthy of concern and alert. Strong performances and straightforward storytelling ensure the questions are clear, though a definitive answer remains elusive. 

Stay Involved on Social Media