“Church Basement Ladies,” a musical comedy about ladies who work in a church basement, opened Friday in The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza. It’s a humorous little show that’s part “Fargo (except for the murder part),” part “Lake Wobegon Days” and part “Nunsense (if you replace Catholic with Lutheran).”
Created by Janet Letnes Martin, Suzann Nelson and Curt Wollan, the show centers around four women – and their pastor – at a Lutheran church in rural Minnesota. The action takes place in the kitchen in the church basement. The year is 1965.
Vivian Snustad (Janet Paone) is the matriarch of the quartet. She hates big cities and hates change. And she’s not very fond of lasagna. Mavis Gilmerson (Robbie Mancina) spends most of the show working on the church furnace and dealing with her “women’s issues.” Karin Engelson (Lee Anne Mathews) is in line to take over the kitchen if Mrs. Snustad ever moves aside, and her daughter Beverly (Tara Borman) is home from college and represents youth and change (Yes, Beverly and Vivian are bound to butt heads). They are occasionally joined on stage by Pastor E.L. Gunderson (Greg Eiden).
The show covers four major events in the life of a church kitchen: a Christmas dinner, a funeral, a fundraiser and a wedding. The ladies – and the pastor – sing and dance and laugh and cry as they deal with life and death and marriage and lutefisk and the evolving nature of the church.
“Church Basement Ladies” is a funny and charming show. The set design and costumes are spot on (I was having flashbacks to my grandmother’s kitchen). The songs are clever and the actors have strong voices and appear to be enjoying their roles.
I found myself relating to Mrs. Snustad probably more than I should admit.
“Church Basement Ladies” runs through October 1. http://www.playhouseatwestport.com/
It’s not a word one usually associates with opera. “Pompous,” yes. “Overblown,” certainly. “Pretentious,” often. But – weird? Opera is usually anything but that.
But weird is probably the best one-word description one could give for “The Trial.” I mean, that’s exactly what The Wife said to me when she turned my way at intermission. And she’s the expert.
While one usually thinks of operas as musical theater written during the Renaissance, they are still being written in the 21st century. And every year Opera Theatre Saint Louis puts at least one modern show in their program. “The Trial,” a comic (their word, not mine) opera in two acts, was written by Christopher Hampton and Phillip Glass and opened on a London stage in 2014. These performances marked its American premiere.
“The Trial” is based on a story by Franz Kafka, which should’ve been a red flag right there. I haven’t read any Kafka, but I’m culturally aware enough to know what kafkaesque means. And “The Trial” is very kafkaesque.
We arrived early enough for me to wade through the two-page plot synopsis in the program.
“Uh, have you read this?” I says to The Wife.
“No. Should I?”
“I can’t tell.”
“The Trial” is the story of Josef K (Theo Hoffman) a nondescript fellow who wakes one morning to discover he’s being arrested. He’s allowed to go on with his life and the charges against him are never spelled out. But the rest of his life pretty much revolves around his legal troubles. He goes to court and gets the run-around, he meets with a lawyer who is no help, he has sex with the lawyer’s maid, there’s an odd bit with the Court Usher’s wife, he gets legal advice from a painter, it all ends badly for K.
Now, when I say “The Trial” is weird, I’m not saying it’s bad. It was actually strangely compelling and it seemed to move much quicker than most operas. The music was not Mozart. It had a quirky, haunting quality that nicely fit the show. The staging was stark and relied heavily on shadows and lighting — very effective. The cast performed admirably.
It was just so freaking weird. But then, maybe opera needs more weird.
So I’m sitting on the couch watching “Parks and Recreation” when The Wife comes to me and she says,
“Guess where we’re going?”
“Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to say a Cardinals baseball game.”
“See. There are fates worse than opera.”
And so it was that we made yet another trek to the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of “Titus La clemenza di Tito,” the final opera written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I am familiar with the works of Mozart (I’m not totally culturally illiterate — I have seen “Amadeus.”) so I figured this would be decent. Even if I’d never heard of it.
The story is a complex one, evidenced by the six-paragraph synopsis in the program. Do you know why they provide you with the entire plot of the show before you watch an opera or Shakespeare play? It’s because you would never understand otherwise. I have learned that the key to understanding opera and Shakespeare is to commit the synopsis to memory as best you can, and then let the show just wash over you. Reread the synopsis during intermission. Maybe you’ll understand it, maybe you won’t – but at least you’ll be able to follow along. Somewhat.
“Titus” takes place in ancient Rome. Vitellla (Laura Wilde) is the daughter of the deposed emperor. She hopes to maintain her status by marrying the new emperor — the too-nice-to-truly-be-an-emperor Tito (Rene Barbera). Tito wants to marry someone else so Vitella figures the only logical thing to do is have him killed.
To do the dirty deed, she enlists the aid of her lover Sesto (Cecelia Hall), who is also best friend to Tito. The plot fails, Sesto is imprisoned, and Vitella has to decide if she should reveal her role in the incident and possibly save her cohort from a fate equal to death.
There’s more to it but you get the gist. “Titus” is one of Mozart’s lesser works but still entertaining. The music is lovely and the musicians are very good. The songs (do they call them songs in opera? Liberettos, then. Or whatever) were challenging but the cast was up to the challenge.
The costumes were lavish. The set design was sparse, in large part because they blew the whole budget on a giant Eagle statue. It hung over the stage, fell to earth at the appropriate time, then rose like a phoenix when required. It was pretty cool.
Remaining performances for “Titus” run June 18, 22 and 24. https://www.opera-stl.org/
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opened this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production Friday. In the spirit of let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way-as-soon-as-possible, I mean, let’s-go-enjoy-Shakespeare-as-soon-as-we-can, we made the trip to Forest Park on opening night.
I told The Wife to be ready to go when I got home from work, and boy, was she. The cooler was packed, the snacks were packed, I barely had enough time to change into my “God, I Hate Shakespeare” t-shirt — but I made the time. I wish I had taken the time to change into a pair of shorts. It was unseasonably warm that day.
I was tired from work, so I made Laurie drive. This quickly paid off as we soon wound up stalled in rush-hour traffic. But I did not curse, because I was not driving. Eventually things cleared out and we had an uneventful drive until we got on Skinker and Laurie missed the turn into Forest Park. I kept expecting her to turn into the nearest lot and turn around, but instead she kept driving until she saw her moment and MADE A U-TURN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET. Andrew’s having a good laugh.
“I’m not allowed to curse in front of our son but it’s OK for you to make an illegal traffic move in downtown St. Louis on a busy street?”
“Yes, it is.”
I blame Wonder Woman.
We find a spot in the free lot and haul our chairs and gear down the sidewalk past the art museum to Shakespeare Glen. We’re early so we find a good spot to set up camp at stage left. It’s 5:30 so we have 2.5 hours before showtime. The plan is to wear Andrew out before the show so that he will sit in a stupor throughout the show. Laurie takes him on his first walk while I sit in the hot sun and guard our possessions. They eventually come back and Laurie and I split a sandwich while Andrew eats grapes. Then I take him for a second walk and get him a jumbo hot dog at the concession stand and we find a picnic table where he quickly devours the dog. We go back and sit a spell then around 7 p.m. we take one final walk and visit the porta-potties. At one point a lady asks if she can take my picture.
“It’s because you were wearing that ‘God, I Hate Shakespeare’ t-shirt,” Laurie says.
“Are you sure it’s not because she was taken by my rugged good looks,” I says.
“Of course. What was I thinking?”
This year’s production was “The Winter’s Tale,” a Shakespeare play so obscure that even my wife had never read it or seen it performed. Needless to say, I had no idea what it was about. Luckily, I had plenty of time to read the plot synopsis in the program before the show started.
“Winter’s Tale” was one of the Bard’s latter and lesser plays — it’s part tragedy, part comedy and filled with your usual Shakespearean cliches.
King Leontes of Sicilia (Charles Pasternak) becomes convinced his pregnant wife Hermione (Cherie Corinne Rice) has had an affair with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Chauncy Thomas). The queen is put on trial for treason while Polix gets the hell outta Dodge.
Hermione gives birth to a girl but the king wants nothing to do with her. The child is secreted away but her caretaker is eaten by a bear. The infant is found by a shepherd (Whit Reichert) who raises her as his own. Hermione dies and the king realizes his mistake and is very sorry for it.
The Son has held up pretty well by this point. The only real distraction in our area is a couple of people behind us who won’t stop talking. They’re speaking a foreign language so I can’t understand a word they say, but that’s OK because I can’t understand a word that’s being said on stage and they’re speaking English.
When we get back from intermission, 16 years have passed. The young castaway, Perdita (Cassia Thompson), is now a young woman who is in love with Florizel (Pete Winfrey), son of King Polixenes. Everyone is eventually reconciled and Hermione is revealed as never having died in the first place. Hooray.
I know all this in large part thanks to the synopsis, but also because we are told what happens by second-party characters in lieu of actually showing us what’s happening on stage. This is a fairly common failing of Shakespeare. After sitting for 2 hours in an uncomfortable lawn chair, I would like to see these characters interact, not be told about it from some court jester or other.
“The Winter’s Tale” is a decent show but there’s a reason it’s not one of The Bard’s better known plays. I don’t recall hearing any notable quotables in the show, and isn’t that how we all judge Shakespeare’s works? The cast is fine, the set and costumes are fine, the musicians are good. It’s a solid production.
The Son made it through without incident and that’s what I’m most concerned about. The Wife enjoyed it and that’s all that matters.
So I’m sitting on the couch watching the end of civilization as we know it, aka the Nightly News, when The Wife comes to me and she says,
“Guess what time it is!”
“Time to move to Canada?”
“Maybe. But it’s also our first night of Opera Season! Go shave off that stubble, put on a shirt that doesn’t have superheroes on it, and let’s go have a great time.”
“I can do two of those things, but I can’t guarantee the third.”
And so it was that last night we once again made our way to the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic tale of love, betrayal and delusion — “Madame Butterfly.”
Written in 1904, the show feels both dated and yet contemporary. The latter part largely because it reminded me of “Miss Saigon,” which shouldn’t be surprising since “Saigon” rips off the story line almost completely.
Cio-Cio-San (Rena Harms), aka M. Butterfly, is a 15-year-old Japanese geisha from a once wealthy family whose future now rests in a marriage with American Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Michael Brandenburg). She’s ecstatic over the union, he’s excited that he’s going to get some underage sex before he goes off to sea – never to be seen again.
The American Consul (Christopher Magiera) warns Pinkerton that this is a bad idea, but the lieutenant doesn’t listen. Cio-Cio’s uncle (Dominik Belavy) throws a big stink at the wedding and her family disowns her. Finally alone, the couple sing for a bit and then go off to engage in coitus while everyone else goes out for intermission.
When we return, two years have passed and Cio-Cio is now penniless and living with her 2-year-old child (coincidence?) and her faithful servant Suzuki (Renee Rapier). Despite their dire circumstances, Cio-Cio is certain that her husband will return.
And he does return eventually. With his new American wife Kate (Anush Avetisyan).
As operas go, “Madame Butterfly” is pretty entertaining. There’s not a lot of story but there is a lot of singing and music. It’s very good music, and that’s the key — I think I even recognized some of the music, which always makes me feel a little less culturally illiterate.
The cast is very talented, as are the musicians. Nice costumes and the staging was clever, although at times the Japanese house set did obstruct one’s view, even with a rotating stage.
“Madame Butterfly” runs through June 24. http://www.opera-stl.org
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since “Rent” first took the stage. But then, it’s hard to believe that the young people in last night’s audience weren’t even alive at the end of the millennium.
Two decades may have passed since Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical made its debut, but “Rent” doesn’t feel dated. The show is just as vibrant and emotionally charged — and the audience reaction is just as enthusiastic — as it has ever been.
For those who weren’t alive or don’t remember the late 20th century, “Rent” is the tale of a group of starving artists struggling to survive in New York City during the latter half of the 1990s. All of the characters, in one way or another, are dealing with the impact of AIDS.
Central to the story are roommates Mark the filmmaker (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and Roger the musician (Kaleb Wells). They are broke but living rent-free in a loft in the East Village. When their former cohort and now landlord Benny (Christian Thompson) announces they need to pay up, the show takes off.
But “Rent” isn’t really a story about making monthly payments for your living arrangements. It’s about three bohemian couples: Collins (Aaron Harrington), the anarchist professor who hooks up with the flamboyant drag queen Angel (David Merino); Maureen (Katie LaMark), the diva performance artist and her latest love, the anal-retentive Joanne (Jasmine Easler); and Roger, who is fighting his feelings for the young dancer Mimi (Skyler Volpe). Mark’s major relationship is with his camera.
The musical was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s classic “La Boheme,” and thanks to my opera-loving wife I have now seen both shows so can tell you that in a comparison/contrast situation — “Rent” is more entertaining. It has better music (I think “Rent” has one of the greatest scores in musical history), a meatier story, and let’s face it, you really can’t rock out to Puccini.
The 20th anniversary staging of the show playing this weekend at the Fox features a superb cast and excellent musicians. They’ve tinkered a little with some of the staging and set design but nothing dramatic.
It may not be a classic in the stature of “La Boheme,” but give it another 100 years.
“Rent” runs through May 21 at the Fox Theatre. http://www.fabulousfox.com/