By Lynn Venhaus
Area theatergoers, you must see “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” now playing at the recently renamed Florissant Performing Arts Center, presented by Hawthorne Players through Nov. 13.

Opening night Friday was a testament to a production fulfilling its promise and meeting the moment, truly raising the bar for the entire St. Louis theater scene.

Knowing what Ken Clark is capable of as a director and scenic designer, and recognizing members of the cast and creative team, I purchased tickets to see it as a patron, not as a professional critic (do not review community/school theater) or an AFL judge (which I did for 10 years, but no longer in that role). My schedule does not permit me to get to everything I’d like to see, but lo and behold, Nov. 4 opened up.

Winner of five Tony Awards in 2015 and seven Olivier Awards in London, this immersive drama is one of the most unique theatrical experiences you will ever see — and also one of the most moving. Simon Stephens adapted the book by Mark Haddon, which takes us on a journey inside the brilliant mind of Christopher, who struggles to process everyday information, and has sensory perception issues.

Recent upgrades to the theater — the auditorium is part of the Florissant Civic Center — have enabled next-level technical work. The ‘Curious Incident’ creative team is the first to use the new projectors, and it adds so much.

However, technological bells and whistles are only as good as the creative minds behind the set, sound and lighting designs — bravo to lighting designer Eric Wennlund (his “The Spitfire Grill” was sublime, an AFL award winner), sound designer Jacob Baxley, who also composed the music score (!), and scenic and projection designer Ken Clark. Remarkable work.

Mike De Pope, Daniel Wolfe. Photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services.

Delivering the show’s heart, getting the ‘mind’ of the material right, is a tight ensemble. Dan Wolfe is exceptional as Christopher, and you can’t get up to leave immediately after the curtain call (standing O Friday), or you’ll miss his terrific coda. The youngster, who won a Best Performance Award from AFL last summer for “Annie,” displays how much effort he put into making Christopher as authentic as possible. It’s a tour de force.

Mike De Pope and Jennelle Gilreath Owens are strong as the parents, Natalee Damron is the sympathetic and firm teacher Siobhan, and a fine group of local actors perform multiple roles, including Jeff Kargus, Marian Holtz, Elle Harlow, Patrick Brueggen, Hunter Fredrick and Jessica Kelly.

The dialect work is superb — and consistent, and the coaches, with UK roots, are Robert Ashton and Gwynneth Rausch. Special mention to assistant director and choreographer Stefanie Kluba for staging the crisp movements that add to this show’s tapestry, and to ace veteran costume designer Jean Heckmann.

Lobby photo.\ by Lynn Venhaus

It’s indeed a triumph for all involved, and especially for the Hawthorne board of directors, for greenlighting such a challenging work.

Now in its 75th season, the group has been celebrating throughout the year. Take time to look at all the historical items in the lobby — and you can take a chance on a stunning quilt Jean Heckmann made including some of their shows. The quilt drawing is set for after their final show of the year, “Cowboy Christmas,” on Dec. 10.

This show’s level of difficulty is high, and anyone who has seen it before — whether Broadway, London or locally, is aware of its demands. In 2017, The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’s production blew me away. Several months later, it was honored as Outstanding Drama Production by the St. Louis Theater Circle, of which I am a founding member.

Dan Wolfe. Photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services.

I remember talking to Steve Woolf, the late great artistic director of The Rep, who had seen the show in London , and felt he had ‘cracked the code’ on how to make it work at the Rep.

In a column after his untimely death in 2021, I wrote:

“During rehearsals for the stellar “All the Way” in 2015 (I was there to interview Brian Dykstra, playing LBJ, and Woolf, who was directing — https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article34672659.html), he told me about his experience seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in London.

He had been gobsmacked. He didn’t think The Rep could do it — very technical show, intricate — but the wheels were turning. He was so excited about trying to bring it to The Rep. “I think I’ve found a way we can do it,” he said to me later. (more of that article, https://www.poplifestl.com/sightlines-remembering-steve-woolf/

In 2019, Actors Attic, a youth-focused theater group in Columbia, Ill., won several Theatre Mask Awards, presented by Arts for Life, for its ambitious production directed by MaryBeth Scherr Babcock. As far as I know, they’ve been the only local group to tackle it until now.

Yes, this is high praise. And yes, it’s that good. This column isn’t intended to review the show, only to urge people to fill seats of Flo PAC. It takes a village to put on a show as risky and rewarding as this, and they pulled it off in spectacular fashion, so I wanted to honor their efforts. All that work was worth it — but they deserve an audience.

GO SEE IT and support live theater. We need the arts and how it connects people more than we ever have.

(Fun Fact: As a news reporter and feature writer at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, I told then-entertainment editor Frank Hunter that I had a theater background and would be available to review local theater if he needed a hand. One of my earliest assignments that I recall was “Carousel” at Hawthorne Players in 1984.)

‘Curious Incident’ is performed Nov 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 7:30 pm, with a matinee on Nov. 13 at 2 pm at the Florissant Performing Arts Center.
Tickets may be purchased online at https://florissantmo.thundertix.com/events/199113
For more information and sensitivity warnings, go to www.HawthornePlayers.com

Cover photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services

Ensemble on the train. Photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services.
Dan Wolfe, Jennelle Gilreath Owens. Photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services.

Hawthorne’s acclaimed “theatre in a cemetery” plays are back, now at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum, 4947 W Florissant Ave, St. Louis, MO 63115.

Voices at Bellefontaine will be presented during the day on Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2 at  Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum, 4947 W Florissant Ave, St. Louis, MO 63115.

The presentations will be researched, written, and directed by Larry Marsh, who is thrilled to have new stories to tell in a beautiful and historic new location. 

The all-star cast features Danny Brown, Tim Callahan, Ken Clark, Kent Coffel, Ryan Cooper, Robert Doyle, Colleen Heneghan, Eleanor Marsh, and Todd Micali.

Guides are Patrick Brueggen, Tanya Burns, Nancy Crouse, Ann Hier, Marian Holtz, Kim Jones, Kay Love, Lori Renna, John Robertson and Lynn Working.

At Bellefontaine, audiences will be transported through the grounds on trolleys.

Some of the permanent residents will come forward and tell their stories will include a detective who solved the “Crime of the (19th) Century”; a musician who played for European nobility before being hired by P. T. Barnum; a lesser-known, ill-fated brother of one of St. Louis’s famous early families; a loyal servant of another of those families; a noted health commissioner; a snake-oil salesman and more.

As the trolleys/buses travel through the grounds, guides will tell attendees more about the cemetery, point out the impressive architecture, and note the final resting places of some of the famous residents.

Three different tour times are available both days, and tickets are $25 each.  Tickets are going fast!!

For Saturday, Oct 1 tickets, visit https://bellefontainecemetery.org/event/voices-100122/

For Sunday, Oct 2 tickets, visit https://bellefontainecemetery.org/event/voices-100222/

For more information visit www.hawthorneplayers.info or email hawthorneplayers@att.net

Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s “Shrek the Musical” won 10 Best Performance Awards from Arts For Life on June 12, earning honors as Best Large Ensemble musical, director, music director, choreography, actor, actress, featured actor, supporting actor, comedic actor, and lighting design. They had received 12 nominations.

The Gateway Center for Performing Arts, which is a professional training center based in Webster Groves, won 10 awards in the youth production categories – five for “Annie” and five for “Cabaret. They had earned 25 nominations, the most of any group.

Others receiving recognition included the Goshen Theatre Project, based in Collinsville, Ill., which won four for “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” and Take Two Productions won three for “Fun Home,” including Best Small Ensemble Musical. Spotlight Productions and Hawthorne Players won one each.

The annual awards returned to a live ceremony after a virtual one in 2020 and a cancellation in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. About 365 people attended the scaled-down presentation at the Frontenac Hilton’s Clayton Ballroom.

Arts For Life, founded in 1999, has been recognizing excellence in community theater with an awards program for 20 years

The annual youth scholarship award winners were announced. Jacob Moore of Dardenne Prairie and Theo Kronemer of Richmond Heights will receive $500 each to pursue a career in the arts. Moore, a graduate of St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, Mo., plans to attend Missouri State University and major in musical theater. Kronemer, a graduate of Clayton High School, plans to attend Carnegie-Mellon University and major in theater production and design.

BPA winners were announced in 30 categories from nominations from the shortened 2020 and 2021 theater seasons.

Charlie Wehde was honored with the Best Youth Musical Performance Award for his portrayal of Jack in “Into the Woods” at DaySpring Academy.

In their acceptance speeches, winners emphasized that productions are put on by teams, and often recognized their theater “family” and “community.” Most made it a point to say how grateful they were to return to working on shows after being dark for so many months during the public health crisis that has dominated the past three years.

Cherol Thibault, president of Kirkwood Theatre Guild, and Adam Grun, the director

Adam Grun, who directed “Shrek the Musical” at Kirkwood Theatre Guild, spoke of the long journey with multiple delays and setbacks. Originally set to be performed in May 2020, it was cast and forced to shut down. He was brought in three weeks before rehearsals began for the reboot. The show went on in September 2021, opening KTG’s 89th season.

“We had three weeks to get everything going. It was the fastest I had ever analyzed a script. Not everyone from the original cast came back. We had all but one lead come back. So that was a big help. Most of the people had multiple roles, so they had to change like eight times during the show. It was a great cast. And I was lucky that Tom Murray (original director) had cast such a great group of people,” he said.

Stephen Peirick, who accepted the Best Small Ensemble Musical Award, said: “’Fun Home’ winning the BPA for Small Ensemble Production was truly the icing on the cake to a fantastic experience, that could not have happened without the dedication, talents, time, and energy of the Take Two Productions Board, our talented cast, our amazing music director and band, as well as our outstanding behind the scenes crew. Time spent with this group was reward enough, yet we’re appreciative of the opportunity to have our show recognized and, in return, be able to recognize all those who made this experience possible.’

Paul Pagano, executive director of Gateway Center for Performing Arts, said: “We are so grateful to everyone who was a part of the BPAs yesterday and for the opportunity to showcase and celebrate so much talent in the St. Louis community. There were so many incredible theatre companies and artists represented, and we are proud to be counted as storytellers among them!”

Mary McCreight, president of the AFL Board of Directors, commented about participating groups’ dedication.

“The Arts For Life Best Performance Awards shined on June 12 with love of musical theater among the community. Young and old performed and celebrated with each other after a three-year break,” she said. “It was magical and assured a future for Arts For Life.”

Musical numbers from eight nominated musicals “Annie,” “Cabaret,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “Fun Home,” “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” “Nunsense,” “Shrek,” and “Young Frankenstein” were performed.

Veteran performers and BPA winners Gerry and Kay Love were the co-hosts, and Kimmie Kidd-Booker, another BPA winner and AFL board member, joined the Loves for the opening number “Show People” from “Curtains.”

Arts For Life is a local not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the underserved, and the community, with its goal of “Making a Dramatic Difference.”

AFL is dedicated to promoting public awareness of local community theatre, encouraging excellence in the arts, and acknowledging the incredible people who are a part of it in the St. Louis metropolitan and metro-east Illinois region.

Nominations were announced Jan. 22 at the annual Trivia Night, which was a virtual event. They are listed on the website at www.artsforlife.org.

Prior to the pandemic, 15 theater groups and 10 youth-only groups participated in the BPAs As the region’s mitigations efforts were ongoing the past two years, only four youth-only groups and nine community theater organizations produced BPA-eligible musicals 2021.

 Groups participating in this year’s BPAs include Christ Memorial Productions, Dayspring Arts and Education, Gateway Center for Performing Arts, Goshen Theatre Project, Hawthorne Players, Kirkwood Theatre Guild, KTK Productions, Looking Glass Playhouse, Monroe Actors Stage Company, O’Fallon Theatre Works, OverDue Theatre, and Spotlight Productions.

For more information, visit the website at www.artsforlife.org

Here is the list of winners:

Best Large Ensemble Musical – “Shrek the Musical,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Small Ensemble Musical – “Fun Home,” Take Two Productions

Best Youth Production – “Cabaret,” Gateway Center for Performing Arts

Best Director – Adam Grun, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Director – Paul Pagano, “Cabaret,” Gateway Center for Performing Arts

Paul Pagano, Gateway Center for the Performing Arts

Best Music Director – Sean Bippen, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Music Director – Lori Barrett-Pagano, “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Choreography – Kim Klick, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Choreography – Stephanie Fox, “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Actor in a Leading Role – Christopher Strawhun, Shrek in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Leading Role – Dawn Schmid, Fiona in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Actor in a Leading Role – Andrew Maroney, Emcee in “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Youth Actress in a Leading Role – Sarah Moll, Grace, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Actor in a Featured Role – John Emery, Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Featured Role – Zoe Maya Miller, Medium Alison in “Fun Home,” Take Two

Best Actor in a Comedic Role – Chris Moore, Donkey in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Comedic Role – Sophie Kluba, Betty Jane in “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” Hawthorne Players

Chris Moore, Donkey in “Shrek the Musical”

Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Jack Nichols, Pinocchio in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Natalie Cochran, Cogsworth in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Actor in a Supporting Role – Dan Wolfe, Rooster in “Annie,” GCPA

Best Youth Actress in a Supporting Role – Evelyn Vordtriede, Lily St. Regis, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Actor/Actress in a Cameo or Non-Singing Role: Jayson Heil, Narrator, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP

Best Juvenile Performance – Kya Wonders, Carpet, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP


Best Set Design – Stephen Peirick, Josh Smith, “Fun Home,” Take Two Productions

Terry Pattison, Best Costume Design, Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Set Design – Laura Skroska, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Lighting Design – Stephanie Draper, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Lighting Design – Ryan Luedloff, “Matilda,” Spotlight Productions

Best Costume Design – Terry Pattison, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP

Best Youth Costume Design – Tracey A. Newcomb, “Annie,” GCPA

Photos by Don Quon

Kirkwood Theatre Guild cast and crew of “Shrek”