Story: The many facets of love are explored in this one-hour tale which combines choreography and dance with the words of William Shakespeare and the music of Duke Ellington in an intricately woven tapestry of soulful expression.
When Henry meets Kate, the sparks of early love are ignited. They court and soon fall in love in ultimate bliss. In time, however, those passions are tested by Henry’s wayward moments and his suspicions that Kate is doing the same. Accusations are hurled, jealousy is unfurled and words are spoken impulsively to inflict emotional pain.
Their love, though, is tough enough to be tested in these emotional battles. Ultimately, Henry and Kate understand the depth of their commitment to each other and move forward to even better days together.
Highlights: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is joined by Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis and the Nine Network of Public Media (KETC) for this delightful exercise in artistic unity based on a 1957 jazz album by Duke Ellington. Inventive choreography and interpretive dance, exquisite acting and an accomplished performance of the score by Ellington and his long-time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn make for an engaging performance.
Other Info: Ellington was inspired to create an album based on the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare after visiting the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1956 while he and his band were performing in Stratford, Ontario. He collaborated with his composer/arranger Strayhorn to create a 12-piece conceptual album titled Such Sweet Thunder, after a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In his program notes, adapter/director Bruce Longworth says that Tom Ridgely, executive producer of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, suggested a project that would add dance and the Bard’s words to Ellington’s music.
Working with Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis and the Nine Network of Public Media (KETC), Shakespeare Festival has created an intoxicating, wonderful concoction which blends several artistic elements into one cohesive accomplishment. Dexandro Montalvo’s disciplined and dazzling choreography helps bind this impressive world premiere.
Longworth writes that “98 percent of what you’ll hear spoken this evening is Shakespeare’s words; the remaining 2 percent are mine.” Words are taken from 15 of the Bard’s plays and sonnets to stitch together this 60-minute paean to the powers of love.
The poetry is dazzling, as are the performances of Rayme Cornell and Ron Himes as Kate and Henry, respectively. Both of them deliver their lines with expert timing and bold, precise enunciation and expression which leave little doubt about the emotions behind the words.
Executive director Erin Warner Prange’s Big Muddy Dance Company brings a smooth and accomplished interpretation of Montalvo’s lustrous choreography, sometimes at back stage, others in the forefront. Befitting the show’s setting in the 1950s, costume designer Claudia Brownlee dresses the men in short-sleeve white shirts, dark slacks and narrow ties while adorning the women in dresses of red, blue or yellow.
Jazz St. Louis, whose president and CEO is Gene Dobbs Bradford, offers a vibrant and consistently entertaining interpretation of Ellington’s superior score, which includes vignettes with such titles as Sonnet for Sister Kate, Lady Mac, Sonnet to Hank Cinq, Madness in Great Ones and the title number.
The scenic and video design created by Margery Spack and Peter Spack features designs on the giant back wall and an adjoining wall off stage right which include, at one time or another, geometric patterns, a celestial canvas, a smoke-filled room with closed blinds, a rotating ceiling fan and others. The stage is illuminated with Jonah Schnell’s lighting, with action supported by Rusty Wandall’s sound design.
Music director and conductor Aaron Lehde leads the impressive orchestra, which features Danny Campbell, Montez Coleman, Cody Henry, Adaron Jackson, Nabeel Kassis, Aaron Lehde, Brady Lewis, Harvey Lockhart, Twinda Murry, Jim Owens, Ben Reece, Dustin Shrum, Jason Swagler, Eric Warren and Bennett Wood.
The sprightly, athletic dancers among the Big Muddy Dance troupe are Geoffrey Alexander, Arianna Benis, CJ Burroughs, Dustin Crumbaugh, Brandon Fink, Mallory Hensel, Thomas Jacobson, Courtney Jefferies, Miranda Payne, Jessie Philbrick, Robert Poe, Ellen Hinkel Reed, Megan Rancour, Molly Rapp, Kelly Schneider, Carly Vanderheyden and Corinne Weber.
Shakespeare was a font of creativity whose work inspired a suite of music by another gifted artist nearly 450 years later. More than half a century after Ellington’s accomplished album debuted, a collaboration of actors, dancers, musicians and other artists offer their own scintillating world premiere to present yet another look at the Bard's ever-impressive canon.
Well done by all.
Play: Such Sweet Thunder
Groups: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis
Venue: Public Media Commons in Grand Center (between KWMU and KETC on Olive)
Dates: October 5
Tickets: Free admission
Photos courtesy of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis