By Lynn Venhaus

Whether you have a family that always puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional or is going through a temporary rough patch, you will find something relatable in Lila Rose Kaplan’s crowd-pleasing comedy-drama “We All Fall Down.”

Nowhere is an extended family’s quirkiness more apparent that at a holiday gathering, and this setting is a Passover seder with the Jewish but non-practicing Steins coming together.
 
The territory navigated is both familiar and foreign. When the playwright’s wit, director Rebekah Scallet’s finesse, and the cast’s crisp comic timing percolate on all cylinders, it’s splendid.

Yet, there is a busyness that comes across as somewhat annoying. The seven characters are all pre-occupied, with the parents and two grown adult children overstuffed with personality peculiarities, and the three guests underdeveloped. Perhaps some trimming would have made it feel less congested.

While the resolution is heartfelt, it doesn’t feel as genuine or as earned as it could be, for the relationships are complicated, and the revelations feel rushed.

As we all know, often when people try too hard to make a celebration joyful, it fails to meet expectations because of uncooperative moving parts.

Add befuddlement as to why this festival is happening now when it’s never been a big deal, which adds a layer – and everyone is in various degrees of a tizzy.

While psychologist and family therapist mom Linda (Mindy Shaw), history professor dad (Alan Knoll), yoga instructor daughter Ariel (Hailey Medrano), feminist activist-educator daughter Sammi (Bridgette Bassa), sarcastic aunt Nan (Jenni Ryan), a sweet but sensitive friend Bev (Bethany Barr) and an efficient assistant Ester (Taijha Silas) are preparing for this specific meal with their own ‘to-do’ lists, wackiness ensues, and universal truths give way.

Mindy Shaw, Hailey Medrano. Photo by Jon GItchoff.

In Judaism, Passover commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, sparing the first-born of the Israelites on the eve of the Exodus. There are specific rituals handed down through generations, and Kaplan deftly explains traditions to those of us not in the know.

Those of other faiths can identify with their own heritage’s touchstones while the evergreen themes of people growing older, and children growing up strike chords.

The ensemble meshes well, conveying all the stress, resentments and aggravations that a holiday represents, but also their unique family dynamic and relationships. As in real life, a delicate balance between mothers, fathers, daughters and sisters is always shifting.

Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

Knoll, whose performances are always lived in and first-rate, has shaded Saul with convincing layers, coming across at first as good-natured but concealing a troubled soul.

His memory is fading, and he’s confused, disconnected, and not understanding what’s happening, although he’s trying to cling tight to his routines.

His patterns are being interrupted by all the hubbub, and glimpses of what’s happening begin to be noticed by the others when they start paying attention. Most everyone is in their own little bubble and must eventually find the compassion they need at this moment. Frustrated, he won’t admit or can’t come to terms with his cognitive decline.

Alan Knoll, Bridgette Bassa, with Jenni Ryan in background. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

Those who’ve witnessed a loved one lose parts of themselves through Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can recognize the symptoms that Kaplan astutely presents.

A flustered, frantic melodramatic wife and mother, Linda is played as a demanding perfectionist with nervous energy by the lissome and facile Mindy Shaw.  

This bossy control freak and bestselling author has a hidden agenda that keeps everyone guessing as to why she’s going to all this trouble. She’s a little kooky dressing up in costumes and flitting about.

Her two daughters, with secrets of their own, are focused on their problems and not why their dad may have retired early, why he’s drinking so much, or why mom’s making the signature dishes for what an old neighbor describes as “Jewish Easter.”

As adult daughters, Bassa and Medrano affect a realistic sibling rivalry and dissatisfaction with their current paths. Intelligent and limber performers, Bassa and Medrano bounce off each other like women with a history, and their rhythm is naturalistic.

There is an undercurrent of tension that may be connected to their mother’s book “Mothering Difficult Children”,” which is a hoot.” (What a great title!).

Ryan plays Saul’s outspoken sister, Aunt Nan, a part that seems straight out of sitcom land, as does Barr’s Bev, an empty nester who once lived across the street.

Silas has a nice turn as Linda’s graduate assistant who is tasked with singing “The Four Questions,” and does so beautifully.

Taijha Silas as Ester. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The two-story suburban home setting designed by Andrea Ball is a marvel of functionality and comfort. The kitchen is stocked with all the necessary ingredients and tools to make Kugel and matzo balls, and the girls’ childhood bedroom becomes an oasis (as does a bathroom).

The technical design work is as admirable as ever, with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design and Michelle Friedman Siler’s costume design both stellar components. Cecille “Cece” Entz’ prop work is noteworthy — an appealing mix of years of clutter.

Ellie Schwetye’s sound design is always significant, and this time her mix tape choices are interesting — especially the specific “War of 1812 Overture” that’s in the script.

Kaplan crafted this play with heart. Originally produced in 2020 in Boston, this presentation is the regional premiere in St. Louis. She has a flair for tackling issues from a woman’s point of view, which is refreshing. However, the tone shifts several times, which happens when the material is both a comedy and a drama.

Scallet, also the artistic director, has helmed this show in a light-hearted way, even though the theme is heavy – parents must be taken care of even when you can’t take care of yourself

She and the playwright met years ago when Scallet was directing Kaplan’s play “Catching Flight,” which was part of a new play development program, and became friends.

The main takeaway is that traditions should be appreciated and familial love is the foundation of life. Whatever our families are going through, we can lean on each other for comfort and strength. All families deal with loss, lose their way, and re-emerge with new customs, yet never forgetting those who have passed.

Memories are made, and passed on through generations — simple yet profound.

Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The New Jewish Theatre presents “We All Fall Down” from May 30 to June 16 at the JCCA’s Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis. The play is 95 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8.p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $27- $58. Tickets are available by phone at 314.442.3283 or online at newjewishtheatre.org.

Special Note: Scallet will host two additional talkbacks with show audiences on Saturday, June 14 following the 4 p.m. performance, and on Thursday, June 6, following the 7:30 p.m. performance.

Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

By Lynn Venhaus

Throughout a long and illustrious career as a professional actor and director, Alan Knoll has been a steady and appreciated presence in St. Louis regional productions. This year, he’s as busy as ever, appearing as flawed dads in two plays — “We All Fall Down” and “August: Osage County,” and directing an acclaimed drama — “Red” — later this summer.

Knoll estimates he has been in more than 150 productions, with his current turn as Saul Stein, a retired history professor, in “We All Fall Down,” now playing at New Jewish Theatre through June 16.

“It appears to be around my 153rd show since I started acting ‘professionally’ right after college. That doesn’t include the many shows I did at St. Mary’s High School, St. Louis University, and all those little gigs I took right out of school that didn’t pay a little something,” he said.

The parts of Saul Stein and Charlie Aiken Sr. this year have been enriching, he said. He has moved easily between comedic and dramatic parts, with occasional forays into musicals.

“This is the year of the family dramedy for me, for sure. Playing Saul Stein in ‘We All Fall Down’ at the New Jewish Theatre took me down an unexpected road of reflecting on my own dad and what he went through at the end of his life. Playing Charlie Aiken in ;August: Osage County” gave me the opportunity to reflect on my successes and failures in raising my wonderful son,” he said.

Alan plays retired history professor Saul Stein in “We All Fall Down,” with Jenni Ryan (back) and Bridgette Bassa (right). Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The New Jewish Theatre’s production will be its first in St. Louis, after it made its debut in 2020 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre. It illustrates the joys and heartaches of growing older, growing up, and growing to understand the value of tradition.

Mindy Shaw plays Saul’s wife Linda, a brilliant but dramatic matriarch, who wanted to bring her secular family together for their first-ever Passover seder. But as the night continues, the occasion goes from funny to poignant. The play reminds us how culture, personal identity, and family are intricately woven.

“Even with my next project, directing “Red” for the New Jewish Theatre, the play has that father-son dynamic. It brings up strong memories of me as both the son and the father,” he said.

A bonus of being in family-centered plays is the connections you make, he noted.

“The secret no one tells you about acting is every time you do a show you gain a family.  And when that show is about a family, those gained relationships can be even more intense,” he said.

As God.

He last appeared on the Wool Studio Theatre in 2018, playing the Almighty in “An Act of God.”

Knoll has worked with multiple companies in St. Louis, including The Black Rep, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Muny, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, Upstream Theater and Imaginary Theatre Company, and the defunct Insight Theater Company, Dramatic License Productions, HotCity Theatre, Muddy Waters Theatre Company and Theater Factory..

He has also worked extensively over the years at Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, which is one of Missouri’s oldest professional regional theatres, and about 160 miles from St. Louis. His wife of 26 years, Laurie McConnell, became the marketing director there in 2023, and they moved from their Dogtown neighborhood to the quaint village of Arrow Rock.

He received Kevin Kline Award acting nominations for “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Conversations with My Father.” Besides acting, he has been nominated for directing Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedies “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound” at New Jewish Theatre by the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.

He has also appeared in several films, including as a prison warden in 2023’s “Penitentia,” and in the 1998 mini-series “A Will of Their Own” as a reporter, which was shot in St. Louis.

Despite his busy schedule, he graciously gave us his time to answer our Take Ten questionnaire.

With Steve Isom in “Wittenberg” at Upstream Theater.

Take Ten Q&A

1. What is special about your latest project?

“Lila Rose Kaplan’s family comedy/drama is just great. I didn’t realize it would be so special to me, but in rehearsing it, it has become a role that is very close to my heart. It has made me reflect on my own dad and what he was going through toward the end of his life.”

2. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?  

“It was the only thing I felt comfortable doing! As a kid, I was pretty lonely and isolated, not very happy at all. At St. Mary’s High School, I met Rich Contini, the drama teacher, which changed the trajectory of my life. That continued at SLU under the guidance of Alan Hanson, Robert Butler and Wayne Loui.”

3. How would your friends describe you?  

“What friends?
I guess as an easy-going nice guy. I hope so anyway. I have a sense of fairness and I make them laugh. Also, if you need to know who won Best Supporting Actor in 1942, I’m faster than Google.”

Alan Knoll as the U.S. president in “November” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

4. How do you like to spend your spare time?

“What is this spare time you speak of? Reading, watching old movies, finding a streaming show for us to become obsessed with, walking our rescue pooch, Truman.”

5. What is your current obsession?

“Abbott Elementary and running from cicadas.” 

6. What would people be surprised to find out about you?

“I’m very shy.”

7. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life? 

“Marrying the best girl in the world, Laurie McConnell.”

8. Who do you admire most? 

“I would have to say my wife, Laurie McConnell. She’s amazingly talented and so sweet to everyone. She always becomes a rockstar at whatever she does, whether it’s in her radio career, her acting career or her marketing career. I don’t know how she does it.”

9. What is at the top of your bucket list? 

“Travel, because I have done very little of it. Touring the UK (or whatever it’s called since Brexit) is a dream of mine.”

Alan and wife Laurie McConnell. Provided photo.

10. How were you affected by the pandemic years, and anything you would like to share about what got you through and any lesson learned during the isolation periods? Any reflections on how the arts were affected? And what it means to move forward?

“2020 was scheduled to be one of my best years.   I had acting and directing gigs lined up all over the place.  None of that happened.  Of course, this nothing compared to the millions who lost their lives.

Laurie and I got through it by teaching ourselves to cook and visiting with our neighbors over the fence in the back yard.  6 feet apart of course.  It reminded us of our inter-connectedness and how we’re not in this alone.

The St Louis arts scene was terribly affected.  All the theatres shut down and some never came back. Patrons got out of the habit ongoing to the the theatre and we’re still trying to fix that.”


11. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?

This is my hometown, but now that I don’t live here, it’s fun to see the city and all it has to offer with fresh eyes.  Forest Park, Ted Drewes, hanging out with my son in the Bevo neighborhood, Imo’s pizza, smelling the hops emanating from the brewery where my Dad worked for forty years.  I love my hometown and the Cardinals…….even this year!


12. What’s next?

“Directing “Red” for the New Jewish Theatre, then performing in “Noises Off” at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, then a long nap.”

Playing a priest in “Flanagan’s Wake” at the Playhouse at Westport. The run was cut short by the pandemic shutdown in March 2020.

More About Alan Knoll

Name: Alan Vincent Stephen Knoll
Age: My wife Laurie says I act like I’m 12
Birthplace: St Louis
Current location: Home base, Arrow Rock, Mo.  Currently working in St Louis.
Family: Laurie McConnell & Ben Knoll
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Saint Louis University
Day job: Dog walker (just mine….unpaid)
First job:  Dishwasher at Al Smith’s restaurant on Grand, 7 Meramec in South St Louis
First play or movie you were involved in or made: My first play was the Caine Mutiny Court Martial.  I was a sophomore in high school.
Dream job/opportunity: I really want to play Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”
Awards/Honors/Achievements: The late, great Riverfront Times named me Best Actor as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
A Woody award as a best supporting actor for the Black Rep’s “Intimate Apparel.” A Piglet Award for directing “Putnam County Spelling Bee” for St. Louis University.
Being enough of a working actor to earn a pension from Actor’s Equity.
Favorite quote/words to live by: Dying is easy, Comedy is hard — Edmund Gwenn
A song that makes you happy: “Gimme Shelter” – The Rolling Stones

The ensemble cast of The Rep’s “August: Osage County.” Alan is in the foreground, center.

By Lynn Venhaus

Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” retains all its dark edges, biting wit and unflinching truths in a brilliantly acted and thoroughly engrossing interpretation by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis that enhances its stature as one of the great American plays.

Produced 17 years after its blistering and probing landmark premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2007, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play taps into the raw emotions of a family scorched by addiction and dysfunction.

A brittle mosaic of family dynamics exposes how nearly all have been burned by their white-hot proximity to drug abuse, emotional abuse, alcoholism, unhealthy relationships, and mental health issues.

(I think more people can relate than may admit, but also the play can be triggering for some, so warning, and understandable; there are resources to call listed at the Rep.)

To play these distinctive, damaged characters, this seamless large cast (13!) has developed an admirable rhythm with each other that shows facets of their personalities while revealing their vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms. They are fooling only themselves (and are they that unaware?)

Ellen McLaughlin is Violet Weston. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Because of Letts’ extraordinary insight into the human condition and his exceptionally nimble dialogue, these are some of the meatiest roles of the new millennium.

“They” always say write what you know, and Letts based this play on his maternal grandparents. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot,” and Letts knows that all too well. He is also a gifted humorist, seeing life from both sides.

A window into his family’s soul, Letts skillfully outlined characters that these well-cast current actors have shaded into fully dimensional people that make us think, feel, and connect – and recoil, disengage from, and are horrified by, too.

The ensemble does not strive for black-and-white definitions, but rather leans towards the more fascinating gray areas, which make their thoughtful, layered performances convincing.

Front and center is the ferocious, drug-addled matriarch Violet, who reminds everyone ‘nothing gets by’ her but is often in such a stupor from popping prescription painkillers that she is most unpleasant to deal with in any meaningful way. Suffering from mouth cancer, she is also a heavy drinker and smoker. Her paranoia and mood swings are alarming, and she often cruelly targets anyone in her radar.

The Westons and Aikens. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Sometimes, she waits until she can unleash the hurt for maximum effect. Ravaged by her demons, visible are the metaphorical open wounds from an impoverished, abusive childhood that will never heal.

Ellen McLaughlin’s virtuoso performance as this complicated wife, mother, sister, and vicious addict left me in awe. She flawlessly bristles with various degrees of impairment, then rambles or snipes, all in a rural Southwest accent. She’s haunting and unforgettable, among the pantheon of astounding actresses who have graced The Rep’s thrust stage.

The role, in many ways, can be compared to Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” published posthumously in 1956, which dared to address a matriarch’s addiction and its ripple effect on a family.

The main story is that Violet’s husband, Beverly (Joneal Joplin), an alcoholic poet and former college professor, has gone missing. Their 30-year toxic relationship has resulted in two of their three daughters escaping to live elsewhere –Barbara (Henny Russell) in Colorado and Karen (Yvonne Woods) in Florida. Ivy (Claire Karpen) stayed in their small town but lives on her own.

After several days go by, family members return to the fold, with fireworks ensuing in a large country home outside Pawhuska, Okla., 60 miles northwest of Tulsa. The time period is a hot dusty August 2007.

Henny Russell and Michael James Reed. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

The adult daughters are played by three equally strong actresses, and even if you didn’t know what order they were in, you’d figure it out quickly – Barbara, the controlling eldest can’t keep her own life from falling apart (fight); Ivy, the unfulfilled middle child (froze); and self-absorbed Karen (flight). They are all keeping secrets about their relationships. Their family hierarchy roars here.

Barbara is separated from Bill (Michael James Reed), a college professor whose infidelity has caused a riff, but they are going through the motions in front of the family. They have brought their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Isa Venere) along, and she’s ready to burst out of a cocoon like most teenage girls.

In a mother-daughter chat, Barbara wisely tells Jean: “Thank God we can’t tell the future, or we’d never get out of bed.” It’s just one of Letts’ lines of astute dialogue that the audience responds to, recognizing themselves.

Bill is an ingrained family member, clearly respected by Violet, and considered a rock by others, and Reed straddles that turmoil without losing Bill’s humanity. Tightly wound Russell immediately indicates Barbara’s lifelong pattern of confrontations with her overbearing mother.

Breezing in from Miami, flighty Karen has a new fiancé in tow, thrice-married Steve (Brian Slaten), giving off a vibe as a player — yet Slaten takes his time bringing out his inner creep. Woods, as Karen, appears to not grasp the seriousness of the family’s despair (or is unwilling to do so).

Sean Wiberg and Claire Karpen. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

Introverted Ivy shields her personal life, and Karpen heartbreakingly expresses how disconnected she is from her sisters. Violet is always finding fault with her actions and appearance.

The Aikens arrive, and they are the Westons’ extended family. Hardened Mattie Fae (Astrid Van Wieren) is Violet’s blustery sister, and she’s nagged Charlie (Alan Knoll) over the years. He’s a decent guy who puts up with a lot, valued Beverly’s friendship. Their downtrodden son, Little Charles (Sean Wiberg), incurs Mattie Fae’s ire at every opportunity while Charlie sticks up for his sensitive boy.

Van Wieren and Knoll are remarkably sturdy in their roles, bringing out qualities I hadn’t noticed in three prior productions. Knoll is the lynchpin here, and it’s such a deftly delivered performance, crisp in its comic timing, and gut-wrenching in its ruefulness. Long a veteran actor, this just may be Knoll’s finest hour (or three).

Van Wieren may look familiar if you have seen “Come from Away” on Broadway (or the Apple TV+ filmed production) – she played Beulah starting in 2017. She shows how loudly Mattie Fae’s buttons are pushed, but also why she’s like she is.

The observer here is quiet but smart Johnna (Shyla Lefner), a kind and considerate Native American woman from the Cheyenne tribe, who Beverly hired as a live-in housekeeper. She becomes a steadfast, reliable presence, witness to the never-ending dramas, and intervening only when necessary. Nonjudgmental, she endures Violet’s haughty diatribes and harsh commentary.

Henny Russell and Isa Venere. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

In the brief role of Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, Barbara’s old high school boyfriend, David Wassilak, makes it his own with clear-eyed compassion.

This cast is so riveting that you do not feel the play’s 3-hour and 20-minute runtime. When the second intermission happened, I thought “already?” That’s how enthralling this show is.

Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell, she understands the agitations and anguish of this family, and brings out the many levels of pain. There is a specific ebb and flow she achieves, and what culminates in the disruptive family dinner post-memorial service is one of the all-time jaw-dropping segments in live theater.

I do have a few quibbles about blocking, particularly building intensity between Barbara and Violet – I prefer a closer proximity to be more effective, but it shows how a family that ignores the elephant in the room will always have it blow up in their faces at some point.

The Americana musical interludes composed by Avi Amon help establish the setting, while Amanda Werre’s smooth and perceptible sound design is her customary top-notch work. At first, lighting designer Xavier Pierce’s work was too dark, but gradually evened out according to the action, and the shadows are an extension of the house’s buried secrets.

Venere, Russell, Reed and Brian Slaten. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

Scenic Designer Regina Garcia fashioned a large interior, with some exterior nooks, using classic American furniture, but the shingles on a portion of the rooms inside were puzzling (I know, imagery, not literal)..

Sonia Alvarez’s contemporary costume design for casual attire suits the characters and the period, and the mourning outfits are spot-on, especially Violet’s black dress – reflecting what she used to look like before hard living took its toll. Noteworthy is Alison Hora’s wig design too.

Also notable is Michael Pierce’s fight choreography and Rachel Tibbetts’ and Will Bonfiglio’s intimacy coordinator work.

Shakespearean in tone and temperament, but truly an American masterpiece for the 21st century, Letts’ ruminations on life’s passages, aging, blood ties, and identity above all reflect on humanism.

While families can pour their own gasoline on deep-rooted issues without any assistance in real-life (and there are those who don’t see the need to pick at the scabs of their past), this retelling has an energy and an electricity that only the most genuine experiences can achieve, catharsis optional.

Letts has superbly blended the sharp wit of an observational humorous sitcom/stand-up special with the emotional turbulence of lively soap operas to expertly craft a relatable family in crisis.

Gloria Steinem said, “the healing is in the telling,” and it is my hope “August: Osage County” reaches people who may be in a painful place, who may leave with a modicum of hope, because if anything, we are not alone.

And no matter how regretful or defeated others are by their actions, the play says they are not us, and that trajectory can change. The Weston-Aiken clan holds a mirror up that is sharply in focus.

Shyla Lefner, McLaughlin and Russell in front. Photo by Jon Gitchoff.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “August: Osage County” from March 19 to April 7 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis.

Tickets: Purchase tickets online at Repstl.org, by phone at 314-968-4925, or The Rep Box Office will also be available for in-person support at the Loretto-Hilton Center Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. and 2 hours before curtain.
Rush Tickets: Available for students, seniors, educators, and theatre professionals by calling the Box Office at 314-968-4925, 1 – 2 hours prior to curtain time.

Audio-Described Performance: Thursday, April 4 at 7 pm – the show will be described for patrons who are blind or have low vision.

ASL Performance: Saturday, March 30 at 4 pm – the show will be signed for the deaf or hard of hearing.

Open-Captioned Performance: Sunday, April 7 at 2 pm – an electronic text ticker displays words being spoken or sung onstage.

Post Show Discussions follow Saturday, March 30 at 4 pm and Wednesday, April 3 at 2 pm performances.

By Lynn Venhaus
A poorly executed musical revue, “Side by Side by Sondheim” is miscast and misguided.

The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’ production hasn’t jelled yet, and on Feb. 3, the result was a tepid tribute to one of the greatest composers and lyricists in Broadway history.

That’s particularly disappointing because of The Rep’s previous presentation of its Sondheim masterpieces “Follies,” in 2016 and “Sunday in the Park with George” in 2012.

Phoenix Best, Paul HeeSang Miller, Saidu Sinlah and Amy Spanger are the quartet of singers that rarely appear as a cohesive unit. Think of it less as side by side and more as standing by themselves and not in sync with the others.

Their ‘70s-style Vegas dance moves, designed by Heather Beal, are at different stages and they often appear lazy and repetitive as they ‘do their own thing.’

Not sure where the disconnect began, especially when you have 28 songs spanning Sondheim’s landmark canon. Perhaps the addition of an older, seasoned vocalist or two would have helped ground it – the revue cast has shifted over the years, and once had a female trio, not duo. And the two here are not up to any kind of heavy lifting together for the vocal demands of Sondheim.

Given Sondheim’s penchant for games and puzzles (the film “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is dedicated to him, and he makes a brief appearance), the mystery is thus: Have these singers ever been in a Sondheim show? Seen one?

Was there a vision for the production other than let’s slap-some-Sondheim tunes together? Reggie D. White, the new associate artistic director, took charge of this runaway train, which seems like an afterthought, and it never felt polished or had much pizzazz the entire runtime.

The range of unprepared musical numbers is the most blatant misstep. Occasionally, the harmony works, but mostly, we have singers not able to stick the landing, which is criminal with Sondheim.

Yes, his music is challenging and complicated. You need singers at the top of their game, but you also need singers who feel the emotional level of his work. He’s all about the feels. You can’t fake it. Finish the hat, dammit!

The man reinvented the modern musical, and we’re reducing his music to punch lines? That seems the focus here — let’s milk as much for laughs as possible, the bawdier, the better.

This revue is two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. The sections are tied together by a narrator, who explains a common theme or background about a song. Or nuggets like how Oscar Hammerstein was a mentor.

Veteran pro Alan Knoll is charming and witty as the narrator, knowing how to work a crowd. He provided interesting tidbits about Sondheim’s recurring themes, particularly marriage. He was a late addition to the cast, hence, the notecards. (The program originally listed Miller as the narrator).

Sondheim’s collaborations with other composers – Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, and Richard Rodgers among them – are an important part of the narrative here. And Knoll points out his lesser-known works, for laughs.

But it shouldn’t be all Shecky Greene-yucks without the perspective of the man’s greatness. This cast seems incapable of grasping his lyrical complexities and the level of sophisticated music, especially when they are in sequined and gaudy outfits going through awkward motions. (White satin hot pants, really?)

Costume Designer Oona Nateson has found a theatrical grab bag of ubiquitous black apparel augmented by shiny fabrics, leather pants and unnecessary sequins, some of it ill-fitting for their frames. The junior high talent show called and needs their hot pink satin disco shirt back.

After Sondheim’s death at age 91 on Nov. 26, 2021, the world put his loss in perspective and the tributes haven’t stopped.

His work should never be a museum piece – it should be as vibrant as ever – witness “Company” winning a Tony last year for Best Revival of a Musical and an acclaimed version of “Into the Woods” that kept being extended until recently, with plans of it touring (I saw this sublime stunner at the St. James Oct. 1, with Patina Miller, Joshua Henry, and Gavin Creel. It’s a must-see for the ages.). Locally, we had two superb “A Little Night Music” presentations last year, at Union Avenue Opera and Stray Dog Theatre, and the Muny’s resplendent “Sweeney Todd,” which we will be talking about for years to come. A brilliantly interpreted “Assassins” was staged by Fly North Theatricals last summer.

So, the lack of nuance in favor of a good-time variety hour reminiscent of one of those summer replacement shows networks were fond of back in the 1960s and 1970s, is perplexing.

Could we not be entertained merely by exquisite vocals transporting us to various times and places? The sense of wonder and human connection that often arises when a Sondheim show delivers a moment is nowhere to be found here.

To my surprise, Tre’von Griffith is listed as the music director, and I had more faith in his ability to interpret Sondheim’s genius. Did the creatives underestimate the time necessary to put it all together?

Sadly, the songs from “Company” and “West Side Story” seem the most adversely affected, like when those singing “Tonight” can’t hit the upper notes, and it is painful. The women’s duet, “A Boy Like That” is OK until it veers into a wobbly rendition of “I Have a Love.”

The women forgot lyrics to “Getting Married Today,” which is performed slower in tempo than usual, lacking the punch of the original.

Amy Spanger is entrusted with singing “Another Hundred People,” and several other big numbers that she is incapable of nailing, and it’s a travesty. The weakest link of the four, she has difficulty staying on key and enunciating, and instead, often goes for broader dance moves – and tugging at her too-tight sequined mini-dress.

During “Broadway Baby,” the LED screen shows some of her Broadway roles behind her, including Roxie Hart in “Chicago,” as if to remind us she’s been on a big stage before. Her list of credits is extensive, that’s why it’s so hard to believe she can’t hit notes. Her casting is a head-scratcher as she is clearly out of her depth.

Paul HeeSang Miller started strong, with Company’s restored gem “Marry Me a Little,” and so did Saidu Sinlah with “I Remember,” from “Evening Primrose,” but he faded fast, incapable of rising to the occasion the rest of the show.

The four don’t seem to have much chemistry and relied on the vaudeville-type schtick for laughs.

Because of these lackluster renditions, you find yourself thinking of better versions that you’ve heard before. I’m just grateful this is an earlier revue, so they don’t ruin “Into the Woods,” “Assassins,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Merrily We Roll Along” in any way.

Phoenix Best, who benefits from a comedic approach to some numbers, delivers an effective “I’m Still Here” and “Send in the Clowns,” but tended to go louder when unsure during other numbers. Her solos were often introduced with her making an entrance to build up the drama.

The women often relied on ‘kittenish,’ playing up the double entendres in “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” which was cut from “Follies.”

In a slinky leotard, Best stretched out “I Never Do Anything Twice” from the film, “The Seven-Percent -Solution,” using a chaise lounge to drape herself over.

And the crowd-pleaser, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” by the strippers in “Gypsy,” draws laughs over the women’s well-placed percussion.

Those unfamiliar with “Follies” get a lesson on different musical styles, especially vaudeville, but then Spanger attempts “Losing My Mind,” and it was my clench-fist time. I may have blurted out “Please don’t let her sing this” instead of just thinking it to myself. (Sorry to my neighbors).

The guys singing “Bring on the Girls” is nearly laughable.

Paul HeeSang Miller, Amy Spanger. Photo by Philip Hamer

When the show delves into the lesser-known works, expectations are lowered, but the butchering of “Pretty Lady” from “Pacific Overtures” by all four was excruciating. Was anyone on key?

The production design by Camilla Tassi consists of slides showing Sondheim at various stages of his life, and the New York milieu, which is so important to his work.

If you are a Sondheim fan, one can appreciate accompanists Stephen A. Eros and Kris Pineda, whose piano work is stellar.

The sound, designed by Sharath Patel, however, has some rough moments.

But the whole affair smacks less of collaboration and more self-preservation than any serious performance piece. When they move four chairs around on the set, I was reminded of the deck of the Titanic, where the band played as doom closed in around them.

This production should not be considered an introduction to Sondheim, for you can find multiple tributes online that celebrate his artistry in better ways.

The outstanding documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” is currently streaming on HBOMax, and can be rented on various video on demand platforms. This is a sensational piece that tells you all you need to know, and is time much better spent than at COCA.

One wonders why this show replaced another Sondheim revue, “Putting It Together,” from 1992, which had been on The Rep’s schedule.

But this is a colossal waste of resources – there needed to be an assistant costume designer, assistant sound designer and two assistant directors?

The man who won eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Olivier Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom deserved better.

If you are not going to give Sondheim his proper due, then what’s the point? Maybe start by hiring singers who have the compatible vocal range for the songs?

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “Side by Side by Sondheim” from Jan. 29 through Feb. 19 at the Catherine Berges Theatre at the Center for the Creative Arts (COCA). For more information or tickets, visit www.repstl.org.

Phoenix Best, Saidu Sinlah, Amy Spanger, Paul HeeSang Miller. Photo by Philip Hamer.

Prism seeks submissions from women playwrights for “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works”

The mission of St. Louis’ newest professional performing arts organization, Prism Theatre Company, is to promote the work of women and emerging artists, on stage and off, through the lens of theatre for the new world.  We produce both new and classic works in an atmosphere of inclusivity, where artists from all walks of life can come together to explore our common humanity. Prism is creative collaboration, without the cliques. 

To that end, Prism is currently seeking submissions for new plays by women playwrights based in Missouri or Illinois for “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works.” Prism is accepting non-musical plays of any length that feature 2 – 15 characters. All submissions must be received by 11:59 p.m. CST on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Visit prismtheatrecompany.org for full submission guidelines.

Prism’s search for the most talented playwrights in our region will culminate with the inaugural season of a series of staged readings this summer (dates TBA), featuring some of St. Louis’ favorite actors and exciting, emerging artists. COVID safety guidelines will be strictly followed for in-person readings, and a virtual option will also be offered. Details on the festival are available on Prism’s website, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Prism Theatre Company is the brainchild of Trish Brown and Joy Addler, St. Louis-based theatre-makers and longtime collaborators.   

Trish Brown, a professional director, actress, and theatre educator, has directed regionally, as well as in Canada.  She is a proud associate member of SDC, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. 

She holds an MFA in Directing from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and worked professionally in Chicago for a number of years before returning to the St. Louis area.  

A process-based, ensemble director, Trish is trained in and utilizes a number of acting methods in her work while specializing in the Michael Chekhov technique. 

She is a founding member of The Moving Dock Theatre Company, a Chicago-based company dedicated to the actor’s creative process through the use of the Chekhov technique.  Theatre education is also a passion of Trish’s and she has taught in regional arts programs such as COCA in St. Louis and Hinsdale Center for the Arts in Chicago.  She is now a Professor of Theatre at Principia College.  Her educational productions have won numerous recognitions, including two Best Production for the  State of Illinois awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.  Trish also loves directing film and coaching actors for stage and screen.  

Joy Addler

Joy Addler is a St. Louis area stage manager, company manager, and nonprofit professional. A proud graduate of The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University, Joy has a BFA in Stage Management and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management. She is also a member of the Actor’s Equity Association. Currently, Joy works as the Performing Arts Manager for Variety the Children’s Charity, overseeing their inclusive chorus and dance programs throughout the year, as well as serving as the Company Manager and Production Stage Manager for their annual Variety Theatre production. In addition to her work at Variety, Joy works as a freelance AEA stage manager throughout the St. Louis area.  

Addler and Brown began work on Prism Theatre Company over 18 months ago in a pre-pandemic world.  The company was a long-time dream of these partners who wanted to provide a home for artists from all walks of life to shine, especially women.  “As members of the St. Louis theatre community, and in talking to our friends in the community, we noticed a gap in the opportunities for women to really be at the forefront,” says Joy Addler, Prism’s Managing Director. “We want to provide a safe space for the voices of women to really shine and take center stage.” Though the company’s mission puts women at the forefront, men are also an important part of Prism’s work.  “We love all artists and welcome men into Prism, as actors, technicians, directors, designers, and Board members.  Nothing at Prism is exclusionary,” says Trish Brown, Prism’s Artistic Director.      

Trish Brown

Prism is also designed as a home for new and emerging artists.  “Because I’m passionate about theatre education, fostering new and emerging artists was an important aspect of Prism,” says Brown.  “I remember graduating from college with my BA in Theatre and wondering, ‘OK, what now’?  It was difficult to break into the theatre scene in a meaningful way.  Few companies were open to mentoring young artists at that time.  We want Prism Theatre Company to be a place where emerging artists can work with kind, collaborative, seasoned professionals so they can learn, grow, build their resumes, and make connections.”    

Theatre artists who are interested in joining Prism’s Board of Directors or Company may contact Prism at prismtheatrecompany@gmail.com. Prism invites actors to like us on Facebook for access to audition details for the festival and for future productions.  Women playwrights interested in submitting their unproduced scripts for consideration to “Spotlight on… Women Writing: Prism’s Festival of New Works” can find full details on Prism’s website.  

ABOUT PRISM THEATRE COMPANY

Prism Theatre Company seeks to champion the voices and stories of women from all walks of life, giving emerging artists a platform to showcase their work with seasoned professionals. We produce both new and classic works in an atmosphere of inclusivity, where artists from all walks of life can come together to explore our common humanity. Prism is creative collaboration, without the cliques.
Learn more about Prism on our website, Instagram, and Facebook.

Keep Live Alive Saint Louis is a free 90-minute entertainment video special produced in St. Louis for the people who miss being able to attend concert events due to the pandemic.

More importantly, Keep Live Alive Saint Louis is about all the people behind the scenes who bring you concerts everyday – ushers, ticket takers, bartenders, wait staff, sound & lighting technicians, stagehands, backstage crews, the list goes on and on.

KEEP LIVE ALIVE SAINT LOUIS, the streaming video, will premiere the weekend of Friday, March 12 on both YouTube and Facebook Live. Links to the special will be on the participating Hubbard radio station websites and at KeepLiveAliveSTL.org. You can stream it any time on demand after the event.

Media partner of the project is Hubbard Broadcasting (KSHE-95, 106.5 The Arch, 92.3 WIL, and 105.7 The Point). Not only have Hubbard’s four music stations committed promotional support, but their key on-air personalities will co-host the video special.

By making a donation, you will be helping some of those people most affected by being laid off, waiting and wanting to come back to work producing your favorite concerts and live entertainment events.

When the pandemic hit, the live entertainment business was the first to close down and will be one of the last to reopen. Key venues in the St. Louis region went dark overnight, including The Fabulous Fox Theatre, The MUNY, The Pageant, Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Enterprise Center, The Sheldon Concert Hall — the list goes on and on, all the way to the countless small local clubs and theaters.

Please contribute via the Donate tab as any amount large or small will help!

Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon is featured in the special

So, come join us along with Sammy Hagar, Kevin Cronin (REO Speedwagon), Pat & Danny Liston (Mama’s Pride), Michael ‘Supe’ Granda (Ozark Mountain Daredevils), Stan Kipper (Gypsy, Minnie Riperton), as well as local musicians Lady J Huston, Bell Darris and Roland Johnson, comedians Paula Poundstone, Greg Warren, and Joe Marlotti, and country recording artists Lindsay Ell, and Alexandra Kay – plus special guests Mark Klose, ‘Lern’ Ewell, and Favazz from KSHE-95. Joining them will be Rizzuto and Lux from 105.7 The Point, Mason & Remy and Kasey from 92.3 WIL with Courtney Landrum and Donny Fandango from 106.5 The Arch – plus many other special guests and performances!

Podcast partners Carl Middleman and Lynn Venhaus of Reel Times Trio are included. Carl is a longtime radio veteran and Lynn is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle and longtime movies/theater reviewer.

St Louis Classic Rock Preservation Society is a producer. They are dedicated to “preserve, promote and honor St. Louis’ unique classic rock heritage and its place in music and pop culture history.”

“I’ve never witnessed such enthusiasm and dedication from so many talented people to deliver a great show for St. Louis. Their
passion is what will make this 90-minute video special a very memorable event for all of us,” said Ron Stevens, Co-Executive Producer and Director of the special.

Helming the videographer duties is Co-Executive Producer Jack Twesten, who teamed up with Ron Stevens to produce the highly successful documentary, “Never Say Goodbye: The KSHE Documentary.”



“One of the nice things about having Weber Chevrolet as an underwriter of the special is that we have been able to hire a lot of the people that have been most affected by layoffs for our location and studio filming,” Twesten said.

Co-Executive Producer Greg Hagglund, who has spent the last 35 years producing and promoting live events across the globe, said he has enjoyed working on the project.

“Knowing a lot of the people personally that have been affected by the pandemic has left a marked impression on me. It’s a reminder of how many people work behind the scenes to produce a successful live concert or special event,” he said.

Follow us on Facebook: https://facebook.com/groups/keeplivealivestlouis

KEEP LIVE ALIVE SAINT LOUIS welcomes any inquiries from local businesses that would like to participate in the underwriting of the video special program.

By Connie Bollinger
Contributing Writer
Full disclosure: I ordinarily don’t enjoy audience interactive productions However, “Flanagan’s Wake,” playing now through March 21 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza, proved to be a delightful exception.

Part improv, part scripted, part interactive,”Flanagan’s Wake” tells the story of an Irishman’s funeral and the family and friends who come together in an Irish pub to toast him on his way to paradise.  

Already a long-running smash hit in Chicago, Emery Entertainment has moved the interactive play to St. Louis, where the locals memorialize his passing with plenty o’ pints, zany sing-a-longs and witty tales.

There’s a priest, of course, dear Father Damon Fitzgerald, played by Alan Knoll, whose penchant for sacrilege and gambling is well presented. Knoll tells a thumping good story about the deceased and about an unknown Apostle named Kevin.

Alan Knoll as Father Fitzgerald. Photo by John Flack

Mother Flanagan is there, an ancient, salacious, Gaelic speaking old blister, played to perfection by Bill Burke. Mayor Martin O’Doul (Lynn Berg) hosts the gathering, as it’s his Pub after all.

Brett Ambler is Brian Ballybunion, a fun-loving handsome young man with big dreams. Dustin Petrillo plays Mikey, Teresa Doggett is Kathleen Mooney, the Irish Pagan, and Jennifer Theby-Quinn is Fiona Finn, Flanagan’s long-time fiance.

Music Director Charlie Mueller commands the pub piano, accompanying some of the most surprising songs we’ve ever heard, and three patient bartenders (Janelle Pierce, Sean Seifert, and Matt Billings) round out the cast, along with Patrick Blindauer playing the accordion.

The assembled audience are the cousins and friends come to participate in Flanagan’s send-off.

A romp of this magnitude requires a talented director and an equally skilled stage manager. Luckily, Director Lee Anne Mathews and Stage Manager Emily Clinger are up to the challenge, keeping the action moving along at a break-neck pace but never giving us the feeling of being rushed. 

The cast of “Flanagan’s Wake” are Improv wizards. Brett Ambler creates a wonderfully funny song out of thin air right before our eyes. Theresa Doggett’s Pagan Kathleen tells a  tale of a visit from the “Little People”  that is both surprising and, I’m sure, mostly improvised.

The Mayor, Lynn Berg, also spins a yarn about Flanagan that incorporates audience suggestions and never misses a beat; but for me, the favorite is Jennifer Theby-Quinn’s Fiona, the long suffering, hard drinking, short-tempered fiance whose Banshee;like wails of grief will literally make your ears ring. Fiona throws herself on Flanagan’s casket at every opportunity, causing brother Mikey (Dustin Petrillo) to have to wrestle her off kicking and screaming. 


Some of you may remember Ms Theby-Quinn in Westport’s production of “Avenue Q,” where she played Kate Monster and Lucy the Lounge Singer. Indeed, much of the cast of “Flanagan’s Wake” have St. Louis connections.

Teresa Doggett (Kathleen) recently appeared in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Rep and is also the resident Costume Designer for the Union Avenue Opera.

Jennifer Theby-Quinn as Fiona Finn. Photo by Jack Flack

Bill Burke (Ma) comes to the Playhouse from St. Louis’ own Stray Dog Theater where he recently played in “The Tempest” and “Macbeth.”  Patrick Blindauer has appeared in movie and television productions as well as several productions at the Muny.  Brett Ambler played Brian in “Avenue Q” last year at Westport, and  Dustin Petrillo’s St. Louis credits include Myriad Productions’ “Heathers the Musical” where he played JD.

“Flanagan’s Wake” is irreverent, loud, sarcastic, and delightful — just like family.  

The Playhouse @Westport presents “Flanagan’s Wake” Jan. 24 through March 21. Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with a special Tuesday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day performance. Tickets are available at www.metrotix.com or at the box office one hour prior to show time. Groups of 10 or more should call 314-616-4455 for special rates. The Playhouse is located at 635 Westport. Visit www.playhouseatwestport.com for more information.

Theresa Doggett and Dustin Petrillo dance. Photo by John Flack.