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Dead Man Walking                  Union Avenue Opera, 2011

Mark Bretz Ladue News

STORY: Sr. Helen Prejean tells her colleague, Sr. Rose, that she has been contacted by her penpal, a convict named Joseph de Rocher. The Louisiana State Penitentiary inmate has asked Sr. Helen to be his spiritual advisor. De Rocher, who with his brother Anthony was convicted in the deaths of two teenagers, is sentenced to die for his crime. Sr. Helen and De Rocher get off to a rocky start in their relationship, but she tells him that she will be his advisor.

When De Rocher is turned down a final time by the pardon board and also by the governor, he is faced with impending execution. Sr. Helen finds that the parents of the two murdered teens are angry and confused about her communication with De Rocher. She helps De Rocher’s mother at the latter’s final meeting with her son, and continues to support De Rocher as he faces execution.

HIGHLIGHTS: Noted composer Jake Heggie made his operatic debut in 2000 with the score for this powerful, two-act work that is based on the book of the same name by Sr. Helen Prejean. The lean, incisive libretto by Terrence McNally meshes beautifully with Heggie’s music. Dead Man Walking is receiving its Missouri premiere in a riveting, absorbing production by Union Avenue Opera.

OTHER INFO: Sr. Helen was in the audience on opening night to witness story-telling at its exhilarating best. With impeccable stage direction by Tim Ocel and top-notch conducting of the orchestra by artistic director Scott Schoonover, Union Avenue Opera’s rendition of this spare, direct work is a stunning artistic achievement that never fails to keep the focus on the sobering story unfolding.

Jordan Shanahan and Elise Quagliata share the stage with equally compelling performances as De Rocher and Sr. Helen. Both demonstrate strong, beautiful voices. David Dillard is especially affecting as the father of the murdered girl, and Stephanie Tennill, Jon Garrett and Cecelia Stearman do well as the other parents.

Debra Hillabrand is De Rocher’s supportive mother, assisted by Anthony Heinnemann and John Holland as De Rocher’s half-brothers. Clark Sturdevant is the stiff prison chaplain, Father Grenville, and Robert Reed is particularly strong as the sympathetic but stern warden. Marlissa Hudson shines as Sr. Rose, Sr. Helen’s confidante.


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