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Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's 2010 production of The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard]
21 Jun 2010

Night Music Magic 'n' More in St. Louis

With Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ stunning A Little Night Music, at long last we have been treated to a multi-faceted production that not only equals, but in many ways surpasses the dazzling original.

A Little Night Music — Desiree Armfeldt: Amy Irving; Mdm. Armfeldt: Siân Phillips; Henrik Egerman: Christopher Herbert; Fredrik Egerman: Ron Raines; Anne Egerman: Amanda Squitieri; Carl-Magnus Malcolm: Lee Gregory; Charlotte Malcolm: Erin Holland; Fredrika Armfeldt: Vivian Krich-Brinton; Petra: Candra Savage; Mr. Lindquist: Aaron Agulay; Mrs. Nordstrom: Lauren Jelencovich; Mrs. Anderssen: Corinne Winters; Mr. Erlanson: Mark Van Arsdale; Mrs. Segstrom: Laura Wilde; Frid: Matthew Lau. Conductor: Stephen Lord. Stage Director, Set/Costume Designer: Isaac Mizrahi. Lighting Designer: Michael Chybowski. Wig and Makeup Design: Tom Watson. Choreographer: Seán Curran.

The Golden Ticket — Charlie: Michael Kepler Meo; Mr. Know/Willy Wonka: Daniel Okulitch; Mike Teavee: David Trudgen; Veruca Salt: Jennifer Rivera; Lord Salt: David Kravitz; Violet Beauregard: Tracy Dahl; Augustus Gloop: Andrew Drost; Grandpa Joe: Frank Kelley; Beauregard/Grandpa George: Oren Gradus; Mrs. Gloop/Grandma Georgina: Kristin Clayton; Mrs. Teavee/Grandma Josephine: MaryAnn McCormick; Candy Mallow/Squirrelmistress: Jennifer Berkebile. Conductor: Timothy Redmond. Stage Director: James Robinson. Set Designer: Bruno Schwengl. Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. Wig & Makeup Design: Tom Watson. Choreographer: Séan Curran. Chorus Master: Sandra Horst.

Above: Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St Louis]

 

Indeed, the best Broadway show is not in New York at all, but has taken up momentary residence at the company’s home in the intimate Loretto Hilton Theatre. The triumph begins with the exemplary cast.

11Night-Music02.gifAmy Irving as Desiree Armfeldt and Ron Raines as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Amy Irving was born to play Desiree Armfeldt. One of the world’s most glamorous women, she has allowed herself to age ever so gracefully. She wholly understands the heroine’s survival instincts but tempers them with a hint of pathos and melancholy that softens the bitchy edges of the writing. She is earthy without becoming earth-bound. Her dusky-verging-on-husky vocal instrument is a perfect match for the music Mr. Sondheim conceived for Glynis Johns. While alluringly petite, she nevertheless embodies huge star presence, not only necessary for the actress character she is playing, but totally dominating the tale at hand.

Ron Raines is decidedly her equal, offering the best Frederick Egermann of my experience. Has anyone ever sung this role with such a rich, ringing baritone? Or found such nuance in even the most tongue-tying patter? Or discovered such freshness and wit in Hugh Wheeler’s banter? Mr. Raines has infused Egerman with an inner spark that allows him to be world weary without making us weary.

As Madame Armfeldt, Siân Phillips not only has the most perfect diction I have encountered in many a moon, but she has a comic timing that hits more bulls eye’s than Annie Oakley. Her rendition of “Liaisons” could be offered as a Masters Class of song delivery, a mini-drama that relished and diversified every turn of plot. That Ms. Phillips could still make me laugh out loud at comic material I know from memory is testament to her skill. Her condescending delivery of the word “raisins” was alone worth the price of admission.

Amanda Squitieri is perfection as the virginal wife Anne, singing with precision and beauty and approximating the flightiness and experience of a young woman with nary a false move. Although dashing Christopher Herbert as the young son Henrik is a baritone, he negotiated the high flying tenorial phrases very winningly, and found a sweet core of heartsickness to temper his outward insufferability. The young Vivian Krich-Brinton was delectable as the daughter Frederika, whose singing was strong and true, and whose stage savvy left nothing to be desired.

11Night-Music23.gif Amanda Squitieri as Anne Egerman and Christopher Dylan Herbert as Henrik Egerman in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Lee Gregory as Carl-Magnus and Erin Holland as his long-suffering wife Charlotte offered intriguing takes on their characters. At first I thought Mr.Gregory’s Dudley Do-Right approach might not wear well, but his utter belief in it, and relentless delivery of it ended up being a very satisfying portrayal. Coming off more the stupid prat than usual, the story was the richer for it. Ms. Holland was less acerbic than others I have seen as Charlotte, with more rounded edges and more genuine love for her errant soldier. What she lost in bite zinging some of her zingers, she made up for in empathy for her plight as his pawn.

Candra Savage was an especially pretty Petra, with an easy stage presence and a natural sexiness that made for amusing character interactions, and more. . .such as the sultry seduction with Matthew Lau’s lusty Frid. Ms. Savage delivered one of the show’s highlights: an assured and powerful rendition of The Miller’s Son. The Liebeslieder Quintet of singers were wonderfully matched, soloing magnificently and blending smoothly as required: Aaron Agulay (Mr. Lindquist), Lauren Jelencovich (Mrs. Nordstrom), Corinne Winters (Mrs. Anderssen), Mark Van Arsdale (Mr. Erlanson) and Laura Wilde (Mrs. Segstrom). While they are too young to sing about “remembering” sexual peccadilloes that are well in the past, they are endearing, poised, attractive, and sing the hell out Sondheim’s complex vocal writing.

Conductor Stephen Lord is eliciting ravishing playing from the orchestra and he has an unerring musical comedy sensibility. I heard color combinations and instrumental licks I never noticed before. Jonathan Tunick’s superb orchestration can seldom, if ever been heard to such fine advantage.

The mutli-talented Isaac Mizrahi was the Triple Theatre Stage Director, Setting, and Costume Designer. (Isaac must have run out of time to design and hand out the programs as well, but if he had we would have been the richer for it.) Boris Aronson’s original scenic concept was all tracked scenery and cinematic dissolves which informed how the piece developed and was played. The St.Louis thrust stage affords no such possibilities for computerized movement, but Mr. Mizrahi turned this limitation into an asset.

First, he imagined a magnificent forest of massive trees, suitable for climbing and perching, and a lush green grassy ground cloth. Then he choreographed his cast to move well-chosen set pieces on and off without stealing focus as the action/music continued. Only twice did we have to wait a few seconds for the setting to be completed (placing and removing the massive dinner party table), but frankly it hardly mattered as we were entertained by some additional piano noodling. Similarly his costumes were absolutely right, from the stuffy straight-jacketed business and formal attire to the suggestive undergarments and accoutrement’s of the half-dressed cast members lounging (and longing) on stage when we entered the auditorium. I was only distracted by the inconsistency of some of the servants and quintet having cute little angel wings attached (cupids? angels? fireflies?) and others did not.

11Night-Music17.gif(L to R) Vivian Krich-Brinton as Fredrika Armfeldt and Siân Phillips as Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis

Mizrahi the director struck an uncommonly fine balance between Scandanavian straight forwardness and American musical sentimentality. His scene work was beautifully inventive and laced with subtext. He made full use of the thrust stage and the variety of possibilities it affords. I thought I would never see a production of A Little Night Music to challenge my memory of that glorious Hal Prince original. I was wrong.

There are easier things than launching a new comic family friendly opera, like. . . rocket science, perhaps. But OTSL scored another major success with its world premiere of composer Peter Ash’s and librettist Donald Sturrock’s The Golden Ticket, a musicalization of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. I think I am one of three people in the world who have not read the source material nor seen the Willie Wonka film incarnations. And I decided to keep it that way, coming to the piece with no background at all to see how it worked on its own merits.

And, indeed, it mostly worked very very well. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to give legs to a new comedy, much less compounding the comic timing with the challenge of having to sing the set-ups and punch lines. Both composer and librettist displayed considerable wit and imagination, and Mr. Ash made the orchestra a willing accomplice with characterful inventions, including a frat boy-level bassoon “fart” (ya had to be there).

11GoldenTicket02.jpg.gif (L to R) Daniel Okulitch as Willy Wonka and Michael Kepler Meo as Charlie in The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Composer Ash seems to have been influenced by every composer of the last century, not least of which Leonard Bernstein who in turn borrowed from every composer who ever lived (and a few who didn’t). There are hints of Prokoviev, Barber, Janacek, Britten, Dove, Ades, and Corigliano, although Mr. Ash manages to contrive his own unique aural palette that suits the work at hand very well indeed. I was also impressed that he seems to have created a rather distinctive musical personality for each character, with well considered evocations of traditional operatic set pieces and arias. If some of the noodling and fidgeting gets restless, and some of the solos stretch on a bit long, this is contrasted with some affecting arioso moments and some truly sublime choral writing. All in all, aurally and dramatically the piece is accessible, interesting, and highly entertaining. Much of the musical success must lie with conductor Timothy Redmond, who led the reduced orchestra (think “Albert Herring” or “Ariadne”) with great conviction, rhythmic precision, and rhapsodic sweep.

This was a lot to take in on one viewing, but I would suggest that some of the Act Two scenes in which each of the bratty children get their comeuppance slightly exceed our interest level. After the first gets trapped in his own greed, there is a predictability that the same fate awaits the others in turn, save Good Boy Charlie. I would urge that the creative team look to tighten those individual “just rewards” scenes to get us all the sooner to the ennoblement of our young hero. I also thought the finale of Act One might be mis-judged, ending with a whimper instead of a bang. Ninety per cent of the writing landed so beautifully that I would hope that further mountings will give the creators the opportunity to fine tune “Ticket.”

A large part of the actors’ total success in creating these iconic characters has to be credited to the dazzling costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, abetted by the extensive array of wigs and specialty make-up by Tom Watson. The Lady Squirrels, the Oompa Loompas, the pink-suited news anchor woman, the arch-stereotypes of the contentious children, all of the attire was colorful, creative, and spot-on.

Bruno Schwengl’s amazingly mobile and versatile scenery was also first-rate and did not miss a trick in supporting the requisite special effects whether it be the inflatable chocolate river, the transformation of a child into a giant blueberry, or a star entrance for Willie Wonka in a balloon.

Ingenious. Greg Emetaz was equally effective in devising stage-filling, scrolling and rolling candy projections, as well as cheeky videos that worked wonders in facilitating the scenic journey through Candy land. Not to be outdone, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind greatly enhanced the production, most especially with beautiful specials, isolation effects, and a well-chosen mix of color filters. This was one of those instances where the limitations of the facility inspired the designers to exceptionally pleasing results.

I admired James Robinson’s stage direction more for its astounding traffic management (people and scenery) than for its revelatory detail. That Mr. Robinson kept things focused and moving fluidly is no mean feat, but occasionally characters seemed to be left hanging. Willie Wonka, for example, at the end of One gamely keeps improvising a hop-skip-step, twirling his cane and performing a hat trick, but the repetition, no matter how enthusiastically executed, wore thin. Too, as each child gets trapped in a fate of their own doing in Act Two, the accompanying parent/guardian is left wringing their hands and blustering within their own devices for too long, losing credibility. As I suggested above, perhaps tightening these sections will benefit all concerned, but in the meantime, the director has not always created wholly fulfilling moments with the piece he has been handed. Most curiously, it seemed to me as if the entire show was played straight front, with the assembled forces often lining up stage right to stage left, ignoring the audience segments off the thrust left and right. Curious indeed from one who knows the space so well.

Daniel Okulitch is making a wholly successful debut in the dual roles of Mr. Know and Willie Wonka. He is a stage creature, possessed of an easy presence and considerable charm. When he smiles conspiratorially at the audience we are quite helpless to resist this Pied Piper with a heart of chocolate. He sports a very secure lyric baritone, which blooms exponentially as it ascends. Mr. Okulitch is also capable of heart-stoppingly beautiful sotto voce effects, and it was a pity that his long aria did not have a musical “button” so that we could lavish him with applause for singing it so well. He sensibly does not push his voice hard below say, ‘f’ or so, meaning the infrequent lower lying passages were hard to make out. But for star wattage in this crucial role, Okulitch emphatically delivered the goods.

Michael Kepler Meo was simply a splendid young Charlie. His concentration and natural stage presence would be the envy of many an adult singer. He is possessed of an uncommonly lovely soprano, and he sings the most complicated phrases with security and tonal beauty. Although body-miked, we still lost a few of his phrases in the lower range when the orchestration competed rather than complemented. But his was a magnificent achievement.

11GoldenTicket20.jpg.gifA scene from The Golden Ticket [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera St. Louis]

Spitfire Tracy Dahl was first among equals as the competing Violet Beauregard, a mini-Dale Evans in search of a heifer to brand. She fearlessly executed some of the most fiendishly difficult coloratura this side of “Grossmaechtige Prinzessin” with such clarity and precision that I long to hear her someday as a world class Zerbinetta. Lean and lanky Jennifer Rivera was the snotty cheerleader Veruca Salt, displaying a steely high-flying mezzo that could also pull back to more mellow tones. David Trudgen slammed out such ear-pinning high notes as Mike Teavee that he might have been auditioning for “Ah, mes amis.” As with the other vocal writing for the brats, his music was often excitable, conversational and angular so it was hard to judge what his legato singing in the passagio might be like, characterized here with some gear-changing at times. But, boy does Trudgen have the money notes. As Augustus Gloop, Andrew Drost showed off a solid counter-tenor with more bite than most in the upper register, and unafraid to dip into baritonal sounds as the role required at the lower end.

Among the adults, Frank Kelley was a stand-out as Grandpa Joe. He not only sang dreamily, but he alone tugged at my heartstrings with a deeply felt emotional portrayal. Oren Gradus was wonderful as ever as Mr. Beauregard and Grandpa George; Kristin Clayton brought her pleasing soprano to Mrs. Gloop and Grandma Georgina; MaryAnn McCormick was highly effective as Grandma Josephine and (especially) Mrs. Teavee; and Andrew Dost brought variety and firm vocal presence to Lord Salt. In her dual duty as the perky/bitchy Candy Mallow and the hyper-active Squirrelmistress, Jennifer Berkebile offered pristine singing and assured presence.

From the There-Are-No-Small-Roles Department: One the highlights of The Golden Ticket for me was Nick Fitzer’s brief but superbly vocalized turn as the Solo Oompa Loompa. No fooling folks, this young lyric tenor is a guy to watch. OTSL must think so, too since Nick is one of the Gerdine Young Artists. As usual, the ensemble of Young Artists provided choral singing of the highest caliber under the direction of Sandra Horst, and cleanly executed Séan Curran’s inventive choreography.

On the basis of the one-two punch of A Little Night Music and The Golden Ticket, in the US summer opera sweepstakes Opera Theatre of St. Louis remains the winner and still champeen.

James Sohre

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