By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
As comforting as a cup of cocoa, “A Christmas Story” is bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia, evoking warm and amusing childhood memories of Christmases past.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is staging a merry and bright new version of the play by Philip Grecian, which is based on the 1983 perennial holiday film favorite. The film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, co-wrote the screenplay with director Bob Clark and Leigh Brown, and for the past 45 years, has struck a multi-generational chord with folks happy to remember what it was like to be a kid at Christmas.
A popular American humorist, Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, in the 1920s – 30s, and the Parker Family’s story was shaped from his 1966 semi-autobiographical anecdotal book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”
A storyteller, writer, radio host and actor, Shepherd was known for his astute observations on ordinary life. The Rep’s sentimental production capitalizes on the shared connections we have about our families, our neighborhoods, school days and the moments that shape our lives.

Charlie Mathis and Ted Deasy in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Who doesn’t remember yearning for a gift one year that you were ecstatic to get above all others? We could relate to 9-year-old Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, and how exasperating his traditional nuclear family was to him.
No matter how familiar you are with this story, the resonating moments remain as plentiful as the first few times you saw the film. The movie went nowhere in 1983 – and I was one of those rare viewers who saw it then at the cinema – but it didn’t catch fire until its VHS release, then cable television elevated it to exalted classic status.
The memorable highlights received hearty reactions on stage – the pink bunny pajamas, the frozen tongue on the flagpole, the department store Santa visit, the roasted turkey for the Christmas feast and the prize “leg” lamp.
We expect to laugh. You’re smiling right now reading this, aren’t you?
And the cast solidly immerses us into that corner of small-town America. Yet, even though the story is beloved, The Rep doesn’t take your interest for granted – director Seth Gordon earns it. After all, he knows this material well – he helped Grecian develop the play between 2005 and 2010, with the playwright sharpening the characters and tightening the story. He has directed the show six times (but not the one first here in 2009), and still has a twinkle in his eye.
The jolly ensemble fully creates a believable working-class Midwestern family and townsfolk, crisply delivering this well-worn memory piece with an enthusiastic freshness.
The narrator is now the adult Ralphie, and Ted Deasy, who was a cynical lawyer in last spring’s “Born Yesterday,” is bursting with excitement to share the vivid details of his boyhood. It’s through his wide eyes we see these daffy misadventures, as he glides through their modest home.
Jerry Naunheim Jr. PhotoLaurel Casillo brings some spunk and cheeriness as Mother and Brad Fraizer is funny as the grumpy Old Man, full of bark and bluster but really a softie. They are affectionate portraits with roots in reality.
Endearing Charlie Mathis, quite memorable as Dill in last year’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is delightful as young Ralphie, getting in one jam after another, but also disappearing into a robust fantasy life, whether he’s confronting Black Bart or imagining he’s dead.
Mathis’ timing is impeccable, and he interacts nicely with his best buddies (Dan Wolfe as Flick, Rhadi Smith as Schwartz), his parents and goofy brother Randy (Spencer Slavik).
Tanner Gilbertson makes an impressive debut as the dreaded bully Scut Farkus, while Gigi Koster and Ana McAlister are sweet as the schoolgirls Helen and Esther Jane. Jo Twiss is the feared elementary teacher Miss Shields.
Gordon has worked very well with the youngsters, fluidly guiding them and creating room to play — not too sweet or artificial, not trying too hard, and without any nerves showing.
Their ease helps us stroll memory lane in the neighborhood. Scenic Designer Michael Ganio’s exquisitely detailed home uses an effective brown color palette for a typical two-story home, but when the department store is revealed, he has pulled out all the stops. It’s a shimmering winter wonderland, benefitting from Peter Sargent’s outstanding lighting design, and Rusty Wandall’s sound.
Costume Designer David Kay Mickelson has fashioned vintage outfits that accurately reflect the time and season. And oh, what fun to recall those layers of wool, knits and outdoorswear that every kid was forced to bundle up in back in the day.
Tapping into childlike wonder and celebrating cherished special-occasion memories is enjoyable. The Rep’s “A Christmas Story” allows us to pause and reflect on the magic of the season from a child’s perspective. It’s up to us to keep it in our hearts when the season’s long over.
“A Christmas Story” will be presented at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage from Nov. 30 to Dec. 22. Tickets are on sale at the or by phone at 314-968-4925 or in-person at The Rep box office, which is located at 130 Edgar Road, on the campus of Webster University. For more information about the show, visit
TUESDAY, NOV. 27, 2018 -This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A compelling plea for compassion and understanding, Kurt Weill’s mighty “Lost in the Stars” will break your heart and uplift your spirit in Union Avenue Opera’s stirring production.
This ambitious vibrant opera features more than 50 performers, many new to the art form, and that provides some of St. Louis’ finest dramatic artists with an opportunity to stretch their acting muscles. Under Shaun Patrick Tubbs’ fluid direction, they seamlessly blend into Weill’s powerful operatic retelling of “Cry, the Beloved Country.”
Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is set in South Africa during the 1940s era of apartheid, a time of great racial and economic divide. Adapted the following year into the opera “Lost in the Stars,” Weill wrote his last score, and famed historical playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote both the book and lyrics.

This hard-hitting work resonates today, demonstrating a need for humanity in a time of intolerance, misunderstanding and prejudice.
Rev. Stephen Kumalo (Kenneth Overton) travels to Johannesburg, and hopes to locate his son, Absalom (Myke Andrews), whom he hasn’t seen for a year. At the railroad station, he talks to Arthur Jarvis (Stephen Peirick), a white lawyer who is a benefactor of the church and believes in treating all people the same. He is with his disapproving father, wealthy plantation owner James Jarvis (Tim Schall), whose bigotry runs deep.
While Absalom is out on parole for a crime and is living with Irina (Krysty Swann), pregnant with their child, he is convinced to be part of a burglary with two others. It’s at the Jarvis plantation, but Arthur walks in and is shot by Absalom, who got flustered and scared. A legal scheme is hatched for acquittal but Absalom will have none of it, he confesses and while honorable, will be sentenced to death.
The Reverend can’t save his son, and the elder Jarvis has lost a son too. Eventually some common ground can be achieved. But it’s a hard road, and old ways must be forgotten to forge a new understanding.
In an emotional powder-keg of a role, Kenneth Overton soars with his potent baritone and poignant renditions of every number.  He pulls everyone’s heartstrings tight and has the ability to take your breath away and reduce you to tears. His showstopping “Lost in the Stars” delivery to close Act I is haunting and will remain one of my favorite and best moments of Union Avenue Opera’s 24th season.
He anchored an outstanding youthful ensemble displaying a notable energy and passion. Speaking roles included Jeanitta Perkins as Grace Kumalo, Stephen’s wife and Absalom’s mother; Reginald Pierre as Stephen’s lawyer brother John; Carl Overly Jr. as burglar Matthew Kumalo, Abraham Shaw as burglar Johannes Pafuri and Chuck Lavazzi as parole officer Mark Eland. Their mastery of their Afrikaner accents and their projection was noteworthy.
Tim Schall and Stephen Peirick excelled in their roles as the Jarvis father and son on opposite ends of their beliefs.
Myke Andrews, who was impressive in The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” and Metro Theatre Company’s “Bud, Not Buddy,” turned in his best work yet as Absalom. He is stunning, maneuvering a wide range of emotions with conviction. His ‘goodbye’ scene will rip your heart and have you reaching for tissues, along with soprano Kristy Swann as Irina, showcasing a warm rich voice.
Rising star Melody Wilson has a fetching turn as Linda and Roderick George sang the Leader role with authority.
Young Charlie Mathis, so impressive as Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at The Rep, was at home here as Arthur Jarvis’ young son, Edward, as was Sherrod Murff as Alex, Stephen Kumalo’s nephew. Sherrod delivers a sweet solo song at a time where a break from all the intense melodrama was welcome.
Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducted the orchestra with crisp precision, emphasizing the cultural context in a meaningful way. And the orchestra was quite robust.
The creative team also contributed key elements to the overall period feel of the production. James W. Clapper’s lighting design was eloquent, and his “stars” lighting a few at a time was just beautiful. Teresa Doggett’s costume design nailed the time and place, as did Roger Speidel’s minimal set design that doubled as multiple interiors with ease.
“Lost in the Stars” delivers a forceful message with not only an urgency but with kindness. It remains a timeless work of historical significance that needs to be seen now.
“Lost in the Stars” is presented by Union Avenue Opera for four performances Aug. 17, 18, 24 and 25 at the Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit

Photos by John Lamb