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Take Five: St. Louis' Ken Page on his toast to Paris at the Kranzberg

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2013 - The booming voice of St. Louis-born-and-raised actor Ken Page has been showcased far and wide.

Originating "Old Deuteronomy" in "Cats," he's prowled and meowed across the stage from New York to London. He's played God in two different productions. He’s most famous nationally as the voice of Oogie Boogie in Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and St. Louisans are familiar with his fabled elocutions from his many summers at The Muny.

Ken Page

Born: Jan. 20, 1954, St. Louis

College: Fontbonne

Broadway debut: 1976, Guys and Dolls"(Nicely-Nicely Johnson)

Broadway: "Aint Misbehavin'" (won Drama Desk award for portrayal of Fats Waller; "Cats" (Old Deuteronomy)

Film: "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (Oogie Boogie); "Dreamgirls" (Max Washington)

Home: Now lives in St. Louis, has regularly returned to play the Muny

--Source IMDB

But now, Page’s rich baritone may be heard asking such questions as, “What’s your objective?” as he directs Upstream Theater’s production of his musical “Café Chanson.”

“Café Chanson” is more of an immersion than a typical play. It’s is set in a bar on Paris’ Rue Lepic in which St. Louis theater-goers sit and sip champagne as the action swirls around them. Audience members are transported to World War II Paris as a soldier (John Flack and Justin Ivan Brown, as his older and younger self) revisits his infatuation with the city, the time and a local mademoiselle (Elizabeth Birkenmeier).

The story is told in words and music through classics of the time. Page is saving most of the song titles and artists as a surprise. But he acknowledged that legendary Parisian songbird Edith Piaf will be represented along with other French icons, as he talked with the Beacon about his creation and his return to St. Louis.

The Beacon: What led you to write “Café Chanson?”

Ken Page: Carrie Houk, the casting director for Upstream and a friend, called and said Upstream Theater wanted to do some sort of a cabaret, kind of a French thing. They had thought of doing Jacques Brel but decided not to, and they thought maybe I would have an idea.

I responded with “I wouldn’t be interested in doing a revue,” because there’s no challenge for a director; they’re fun and they’re great to see but there’s not a lot of meat to work with.

So I asked them if I could have the leeway to create something that I think would be interesting, considering what I knew of Upstream, It’s more or less known for being sort of creative, innovative, a little off the beaten path, for doing a lot of translations from European plays. I wanted to do something in keeping with that, but that would also take us into another territory, which is where I live and breathe: musical theater.

Where did you get your inspiration?

Page: I started listening to a lot of French music and I sat and meditated on the thought that I had spent a year in Paris a few years back. I had gone there to work and had absorbed quite a bit of the culture, and I had taken French in high school and college.

I absolutely fell in love with it, and this was about 1980 or so. There was a feeling about being there -- and I think people experience this all the time -- that once you’ve been there, once you’ve lived there, it’s a feeling that never leaves you.

I thought, “Who could have been there who would have had experiences that could be life-changing?” And that started me thinking about World War II, which was a very story-rich time, and I’d seen something on television with some of the few veterans who are still alive and they would talk about how they were stationed in London and Paris and how it changed their lives.

And that started me thinking about the storyline, which is about a World War II vet, who in his last moments, wants to return there -- however it happens, because I don’t want to give too much away.

Playwright Deanna Jent’s “Falling” was recently presented Off-Broadway. Do you see “Café Chanson” ever being staged beyond St. Louis?

Page: I don’t know. There would be no reason for it not to go somewhere else.

The way other plays come here such as “Clybourne Park,” which was just at The Rep, or “The Piano Lesson,” which is coming up at the Black Rep, and all these other plays, if they can work everywhere else and then come here, why can’t what we do here, go the other way?

It doesn’t mean it has to, and it doesn’t mean it’s a failure if it doesn’t; but there would be no reason to do this play and then put it on the shelf.


Do you have another play in the works?

Page: I do. I have another piece that I’ve had a preliminary conversation about with someone. It’s about author James Baldwin, of whom I am a huge fan. I realized his own spoken words as recorded and transcribed were certainly as prolific and important and artistic as anything he ever wrote.

So I put a piece together several years ago, culled from some of his interviews, and Josephine Baker actually comes into it at a point, and I’d certainly like to get that out there. Its a play with music, not a musical. Not sung music but recorded music, by the people that he liked: Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Nina Simone, people who were the musical voice of the black movement at the time.

It’s so great to break the ice here in St. Louis with my directing and writing. Heretofore, the audiences here have known me only as an actor, and that’s wonderful; but I would like to get on with the rest of what I do as well.

After decades away from St. Louis, you returned to base here a year ago. How is it to be back?

Page: I’m just enjoying exploring it because I’ve been away a long time and just coming in the summer. There’s a wonderful restaurant scene. Every time I go out I’m like, “Wow this is a great place and this is a great place ... .”

There’s a place I’m dying to go and I haven’t gone yet: Bar Les Freres on Wydown off Hanley, which is Zoe Robninson’s new place, mostly because it’s French. Anything French is drawing me now -- it’s what I’m absorbing.

Watch Page transform into Old Deuteronomy.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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