By Lynn Venhaus

The promising new direction of the Westport Playhouse as a live entertainment venue bodes well for the future, and the one-woman holiday show, “The Twelve Dates of Christmas,” appeals to merry revelers.

Actor/playwright Ginna Hoben wrote this personal comedy that was first performed in 2010, and it’s a heartfelt and humorous chronicle of her dating hits and misses during a calendar year.

After starting out the mega-holiday season with Thanksgiving at her family’s home in Ohio, the lead character Mary must endure the humiliation of seeing her fiancé kiss his co-worker on national television during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is after he bailed on the trip, saying he was ill.

Oh, the horror of the life you expected vs. the real world is the gift that keeps on giving during the Christmas holiday and beyond. And those pesky female relatives that offer advice or judgment or know better.

Mary is an actress, and obviously a drama queen, sharing her rocky journey. The versatile Jennifer Theby Quinn dials it up to 11 sometimes to depict the jilted, bitter, and frustrated single woman. She does find the funny in the pathos – I mean, you kinda sorta must for survival.

She conveys a gamut of emotions, as she allows herself to jump back into the dating world. Some of the romances are weird, creepy, absurd, and comical, which leads to cynicism, but there are glimmers of hope – and more heartbreak.

The material lends itself to broad interpretations, and in its format, is not as polished as the Hallmark Channel rom-coms, yet there are nuggets of recognition in the hook-ups.

When fate intervenes in a good way, Theby-Quinn is at her best in the quieter, more touching moments — those heart-on-sleeve confessions, and revelations where she is at her most natural.

The genuine encounters with a charming little boy playing Tiny Tim in a production Mary is in are designed to tug at the heartstrings. And Theby-Quinn is effective in depicting the sweetness she experiences dealing with such an innocent 5-year-old. You can feel your heart melt as hers does (and she differentiates the characters well).

A sunny presence, Theby-Quinn is energized by the audience and works hard to engage them. To keep the show lively, director Lee Anne Mathews has kept her moving all over the stage so it’s not as boxed in as other solo shows.

That’s a lot of stamina for 90 minutes, and it’s a demanding run as well (nearly a month). She’s a tenacious trouper, familiar with the space, after playing Kate Monster in “Avenue Q” in 2019 and Fiona in “Flanagan’s Wake” in early 2020, then forced to shut down during the coronavirus lockdown.

Theby-Quinn is one of the most skilled performers in St. Louis, impressive in dramas, comedies, and musicals, earning two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards and multiple nominations.

She can plum more emotional depths, given tougher material, as these lightweight vignettes are designed to mostly elicit laughs and resonate. (But does an actress in the big city? Of course – because she’s as exhausted as other single women — “One hundred and twenty-five jackasses it takes to meet one decent man!” is my favorite line. We can all empathize).

Single women who have been unlucky at love and those who have had good relationships that didn’t work out, can understand Mary’s quest for Mr. Right. Perhaps the material would be more endearing if there was a guy to tango with, but Mary ‘s tasked with performing other characters (about a dozen) vocally, and that helps.

The snazzy production values – a large LED screen adds perky images and clever animated artwork from master video designers Margery and Peter Spack – help to open it and add to the storytelling, instead of having a boxed-in feeling that can typically happen in solo shows.

It was late in the run when I saw it, and the sound was distorted at times, but according to colleagues who had seen it on different nights, it was just fine, no problems.

Jacob Baxley incorporates a fine mix of songs to enhance the holidays throughout the year, and Dan MacLaughlin’s lighting design adds warmth. Liz Henning is listed as a wardrobe consultant, and that’s always a good sign. Lenny Mink’s and Kurtis Gibbs’ video editing and photography enhances the show, as does Joel Wilper’s work as an audio/video technician.

One can understand the desire for a crowd-pleaser at this crazy-busy time of year when everyone’s trying to have a joyous holiday season, and that this is a tad overzealous in trying to ramp up the jolly.

But the sincerity and goodwill evident both on and off stage works in its favor.


“The 12 Dates of Christmas” runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23 at the Westport Plaza, in the Westport Plaza Business and Entertainment District. Because of COVID-cancellation at the run’s end, a special 2 p.m. performance on Dec. 30 has been scheduled and tickets available at the box office. For more information, visit www.thewestportplayhouse.com

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.

By Lynn Venhaus
How do you define J-O-C-U-L-A-R-I-T-Y? The literal translation is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Stray Dog Theatre.

A splendid summer sojourn, the jaunty musical comedy celebrates American traditions and meritocracy, our inherent competitive spirt, and freak-flag waving.

At a nondescript middle school, a sextet of smarty-pants sixth graders competes for a $200 savings bond and a towering trophy at the annual big-deal event. Three adults handle the proceedings, and four audience members are selected to participate, too.

And the blithe spirits on stage and in the audience instinctually know this is far more pleasurable than Mensa members getting together for Scrabble, especially with its clever audience-participation cachet.

However, those who didn’t make the honor roll need not worry, for SAT scores aren’t required at the door, and it’s a very accessible and inclusive work. The catchy music and savvy lyrics by William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain”) and the whip-smart Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin offer something for everyone.

In this enjoyable production, adroitly directed by Justin Been, the dexterous cast has mastered the nimble word play and spit-take worthy improvisations for a rollicking good time. They got game.

The in-sync ensemble expertly colors outside the lines, shading their idiosyncratic characters with humor and humanity. Unlike “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” where grown-ups also play kids, this is a show with mature content.

Kevin Corpuz is returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, a strident Boy Scout who is struggling with puberty and distracted by a female in audience; Grace Langford is resolute newcomer Olive Ostrosky, whose mom is in India and dad is always working; and Sara Rae Womack is fervid Marcy Park, an over-achieving transfer student.

Clayton Humburg is mellow Leaf Coneybear, home-schooled son of hippies; Dawn Schmid is high-strung Logainne “Schwartzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre, politically aware and pushed by her two dads to win at all costs; and Kevin O’Brien is last year’s egghead finalist William Morris Barfee, whose name is really pronounced Bar-Fay, because of an accent aigu, and not Bar-Fee, like the announcer repeats.

Photo by John Lamb

While everyone’s comic timing is admirable, O’Brien elicits many laughs as he embodies a know-it-all misfit unfortunately hampered by one working nostril. Hunching his shoulders, rolling his eyes, and sighing in exasperation, O’Brien is in his element. He has the most peculiar way of spelling out the words – with his “Magic Foot.”

Barfee is one of those supporting roles that is an awards nomination magnet, like Adolfo in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the UPS guy in “Legally Blonde – The Musical.” Dan Fogler, now of “Fantastic Beasts” who recently played Francis Ford Coppola in “The Offer,” won a Tony Award for originating the role.

The middle-school spellers are joined by four individuals that have volunteered for the gig – signing up in the lobby beforehand.  Good sports, they are called on to spell, without any special treatment, which is a key element to the fun. They might have to spell Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or cow.

The three adults in the room include ‘comfort counselor’ Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), an ex-con who gives the eliminated contestants a juice box and a hug; former champ and returning moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), a successful realtor who enjoys reliving her glory days; and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), who has returned as a judge after personal time off to work out some ‘things.’

Their perspicacity is evident – and the three veterans are oh-so-smooth with the innuendos and deadpan humor. Merritt is guileful as the supremely assured and unflappable announcer – think Patty Simcox from “Grease” as an adult.

She glibly describes the contestants with seemingly innocent comments and a few double-entendres. You don’t want to miss a word, for you might do a double-take (Wait – what?).

Hilarity ensues whenever the puckish Meyers wryly uses a word in a sentence or describes his feelings. He elevates the script’s wit (those inappropriate comments!) with his crackerjack delivery. Just don’t get him started on Klondike’s decision to drop the Choco Taco! He’s a tad jittery.

Photo by John Lamb

Several performers double as ancillary characters, such as parents – for instance, Kernan and Humburg are Logainne’s importunate fathers. Corpuz shows up as Jesus Christ. (You’ll just have to see).

The convivial show, workshopped into an off-Broadway hit, transferred to Broadway in 2005 – and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two. It was originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman and based upon “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” a play by her improv collective, The Farm. Additional material was supplied by Jay Reiss.

The ingenious construction has managed to keep it fresh 17 years later by relying on the actors to be on the ball with au courant references.

Been astutely uses the state of play as an advantage, maintaining a balance of friskiness and sweetness that makes sure everyone is in on the jokes. No mean-spirited sarcasm here.

The cast’s exemplary improv skills make this a very funny, free-wheeling show. But let’s not forget the music is an integral part, too, and each character nails a signature song. Besides Barfee’s “Magic Foot,” there is — Leaf: “I’m Not That Smart.” Olive: “My Friend, The Dictionary.” Marcy: “I Speak Six Languages.” Logainne: “Woe Is Me.” Chip: “Chip’s Lament.”

Rona’s “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” is a running theme throughout, Mitch serenades the last audience speller with “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” and Panch is in “Spelling Montage.”

The troupe’s strong voices harmonize well in the group numbers, too.

Photo by John Lamb

Music Director Leah Schultz smoothly keeps the tempo on track, and is on piano, joined by Kelly Austermann on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion. Choreographer Mike Hodges keeps the moves light-hearted and breezy.

Jacob Baxley’s sound design enhances Rona’s championship spotlight, as does Tyler Duenow’s lighting design.

Eileen Engel’s costume designs distinctly outfit the personalities – and allow them to move easily, whether in the minimal dancing or walking through the aisles.

The Tower Grove Abbey’s small stage is well-suited for the show’s sparse set design, put together by Been.

For logophiles, the principal contestants are relatable. — perhaps a bit more eccentric, but these quirky characters have all learned an early invaluable life lesson: Knowledge is power.

My fellow nerds will feel at one with their tribe. For we know that summer vacation fun isn’t defined by theme park rides, water slides, and sports camps, but by summer reading lists – whether it’s for a library club, school enrichment class or a free personal pan pizza in the Pizza Hut Book It! Program.

It’s still the only musical where the cool kids are here for the orthography. Revenge of the nerds, indeed. So, Wordle can wait – and this show cannot, for there are 8 performances remaining.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Thursdays through Saturdays from Aug. 4 to Aug. 20 at 8 p.m., with additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue in Tower Grove East. For more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Note: Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four.

Photo by John Lamb.