By Lynn Venhaus

A little bit of horror and a lot of hilarity ensues in the madcap cult musical “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical,” now playing in a festive amusement park-like atmosphere at the Tower Grove Abbey.

For those unfamiliar with this musical comedy by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, six peppy performers portray teenagers from a Canadian parochial school chamber choir whose lives are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster.

And that’s not the only thing freaky in this zany production that has a distinct viewpoint about the universal mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife – mostly funny, but sometimes sad, and surprisingly touching.

After they wind up in Limbo, a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, offers the dead kids a chance to return to life – but only one will be selected in this strange game of survivor. So, each tells their stories of living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, and of their experiences at St. Cassian High School.

Five are kooky variations of John Hughes-like characters while the sixth, Jane Doe, was decapitated in the calamity and her body wasn’t claimed. Dawn Schmid plays the mysterious and ethereal outlier, showcasing her elegant voice in the opening number “Dream of Life” and later, “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” in which she talks about not knowing her identity.

The other five try to set themselves apart, and they accomplish that. This is a merry band of accomplished performers who make each character their own.

Photo by John Lamb

Eileen Engel, channeling Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick character in “Election,” is the classic annoying over-achiever who is so certain she should be spared – and is snide in her comments to others, her entitlement front and center. Her name Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg. Seriously. Her catch phrase is “Democracy rocks!”

Her number, “What the World Needs,” brings out her personality traits and she leads the ensemble on “Every Story’s Got a Lesson.”

Riley Dunn may be having the most fun on stage as a very angry adopted young man, Mischa Bachinski, from the Ukraine. He’s an aspiring rapper, so of course, he must show off in “This Song is Awesome” and then display his softer side when recalling his internet girlfriend “Talia.”

In death, Stephen Henley’s earnest Ricky Potts, mute with a degenerative disease — catch phrase “Level Up!” — apparently has a new lease on life, as he is no longer disabled, and thrives with his discovered abilities. Part mensch, and pure team player with an overactive imagination, he sure has fun in his fantasies with “Space Age Bachelor Man.”

Grace Langford is eager-to-please Constance Blackwood, who is upset that she’s always labeled “nice,” has a love-hate relationship with her hometown and has a secret to later share. (And it’s a doozy). She belts out “Jawbreaker” and then after she changes her mind, “Sugarcloud.”

Mike Hodges has done double-duty as choreography and performer, and he gets to be outrageous as a gay kid in a small town who has never encountered anyone in his tribe. His saucy “Noel’s Lament” is the bawdiest number.

 “The Other Side” is a spirited introduction.

The choreography is a delightful mix of “High School Musical,” “Cabaret,” “La Cage aux Folles,” even shades of “Cats,” and contemporary music videos.

The kids take a break from their “Look at Me!”attitudes to sing the tender “The New Birthday Song” to Jane Doe.

Engel also does double duty, as costume designer, with looks that run the gamut from the drab Catholic school jumpers to Hodges’ more risqué outfits

A well-known local actor voices Karnak, and his narration is superb. The program doesn’t reveal who he is, so I’ll keep that quiet until we’re allowed to share, no spoiler from me.

The musical was first performed in 2008, but did not have its American premiere, in Chicago, until 2015, and then mounted off-Broadway the next year.

It has developed a cult following, somewhat like “The Rocky Horror Show,” and audience members came from several different states, whooping it up, their enthusiasm contagious.

This is a fast-paced show – 90 minutes without an intermission. While it flows smoothly, a tremendous amount of difficulty is apparent because of the level of stage craft, but it’s all handled with aplomb.

Photo by John Lamb

Director Justin Been has cleverly staged the intricate movements, with timing a crucial element, and skillfully coordinated the moving parts – as there are many cues for sound, lights, and special effects. Many video projections are used, too, snapshots from their lives.

Longtime tech creative Tyler Duenow has masterfully taken the lighting design to new heights — a terrific mix of spooky, strange and status quo, while sound designer Jacob Baxley’s crisp work is noteworthy too.

Scenic designer Josh Smith has appointed the small space well, with the Karnak a creepy standout (not confined to a glass case like in “Big.”)

The witty script leans towards the sarcastic, with some laugh-out-loud observations, Been, along with his cast, has enlivened the show with up-to-date references (script allows it)

The band is onstage and appears to be having fun. Led by music director Leah Schultz, who also plays piano and recorder, musicians include Michaela Kuba on bass and cello, Adam Rugo on guitar and Joe Winters on percussion.

A macabre and mirthful show might not evoke the spirit of Christmas, but it sure spread joy to the world in Tower Grove Abbey – a cheering audience, exuberant cast and top-of-their game creative team made it a pleasant holiday-time diversion.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical” Thursdays through Saturdays December 1-17, with additional performances on Sunday, Dec. 11, and Wednesday, Dec. 14, both at 8 p.m., at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. This show contains mature language, smoke effects, strobing lights, and sudden loud noises. Masks are not required but encouraged. For more information or for tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Infused with humor and a breezy charm, Stray Dog Theatre’s enchanting interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” brings out starlit summer imagery, the glory and glimmer of love, and the best in a resplendent cast.

On opening night, nature supplied a full moon on a crisp autumn evening outside the Tower Grove Abbey, a serendipitous touch. Imagine the golden glow of a warm, fragrant moonlit midsummer night – and you’ll easily slip into the mood for this sophisticated romp.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, “A Little Night Music” concerns several pairs in various stages of romance or uncoupling – and what entanglements transpire during a summer sojourn in the country.

Liz Mischel is amusingly sarcastic as the unfiltered Madame Leonora Armfeldt, a wealthy matriarch who had colorful liaisons as a courtesan. She is schooling her innocent granddaughter Fredrika (a sweet and assured Adeline Perry) on the ways of the world – and men. She tells her the summer night ‘smiles’ three times: first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old.

The Armfeldts and servants picnicking. Photo by John Lamb

Madame’s daughter, the alluring, touring stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Paula Stoff Dean) is a force of nature known for not playing by the rules. Her old lover, attorney Fredrik Egerman (Jon Hey), married a naïve young woman Anne (Eileen Engel) about 30 years his junior 11 months ago, and their union has not been consummated (her issues).

The coquettish but inexperienced wife teases her serious husband’s awkward son, Henrik (Bryce A. Miller), by his late first wife, who is studying for the ministry but has feelings for her, his stepmother. Although clumsy, he is not impervious to desire and has a dalliance with her maid, an older and wiser Petra (a brassy Sarah Gene Dowling making her character’s worldliness obvious).

Miller has to demonstrate the widest emotional range as the confused and ready-to-explode Henrik, and he effectively finesses the fine line between the melodramatic and the comedic to distinguish himself in a cast of veterans.

Desiree is currently the mistress of self-absorbed Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Degitz-Fries), a buffoon whose jealous wife, Countess Charlotte (Madeline Black), is in on the charade. Degitz-Fries plays the military royal as an obnoxious, arrogant chauvinist who is not used to ‘no.’ Black channels her rage into a scheme – you know the adage about women scorned – but keeps her character’s refinement intact.

They all circle around and back to each other. Fredrik has taken Anne to see Desiree’s latest play, which eventually leads to an invitation for a country excursion. The complications culminate in the anticipation, flirting, fighting, and fleeing that takes place in the second act. Does love win in the end?

Hey, Dean. Photo by John Lamb.

One look at the waltzing quintet in their summer whites that starts this elegant show, and you’re transported back to a different era. Splendidly delivering “Night Waltz,” Cory Anthony, Shannon Lampkin Campbell, Jess McCawley, Kevin O’ Brien and Dawn Schmid glide across the stage as the Liebeslieder Singers, astutely controlling the tempo.

They act like a Greek chorus, and their lush harmonies soar in “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember?” and “The Sun Won’t Set.”

The entire cast’s strong vocal prowess is noteworthy throughout, but a masterfully arranged “Weekend in the Country” is a triumph.

Dean has decided to belt the signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” instead of reciting nearly all of it, as others have done, and it’s a fine rendition. Another highpoint is Dowling’s “The Miller’s Son,” emphatically sung as a mix of longing and reflection.

Whether they are singing solo or in duets, or at the same time with different songs (“Now” by Fredrik, “Later” by Henrik and “Soon” by Anne), you’ll marvel at how seamless the numbers are performed.

Black and Engel lament together on infidelity, smoothly combining in “Every Day a Little Death,” and Degitz-Fries has his moment with “In Praise of Women.”

Photo by John Lamb

Employing the beautiful orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, Music Director Leah Schultz uses three string players that elevate the sumptuous sound. The orchestra is prominently placed on stage, and their work is exquisite.

Schultz, also playing piano, expertly conducts the seven-piece orchestra that includes a cello (Michaela Kuba), a violin (Steve Frisbee) and a bass (M. Joshua Ryan), along with Ian Hayden and David Metzger on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion.

The way director Justin Been has shaken off the stodginess and stuffiness of a high society period piece is impressive. He’s embraced the farcical aspect of revolving romantic hook-ups, sleekly moving the characters through a country estate, the grounds, and an adjacent forest

Looking at the book by Hugh Wheeler with a fresh set of eyes gave it needed oomph, and the ensemble, nimble in comedy, conveys a playfulness that endears. Been has brilliantly adapted the very theatrical and somewhat operetta-ish work for the small stage.

The original 1973 Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, book, and score, and has had revivals in London’s West End and Broadway, adapted into a 1977 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, and has been performed by opera companies around the world – including this summer’s traditional format at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis.

Anne and Henrik. Photo by John Lamb

With a minimum of set pieces, Been has depicted the states of different affairs well. He designed modern Scandinavian impressionistic slats that hang above the orchestra, perhaps as a nod to magic realism. Jacob Baxley’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design add to the imagery.

The creators claim the musical was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which premiered in 1955, and is a staple at film retrospectives.

You might not think of Bergman as a merry sort of guy, particularly if you’ve seen his critically acclaimed classics “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “Through a Glass Darkly.” But he mixed sugar and spice to come up with a confection that’s been ‘borrowed’ more than a few times. (Woody Allen’s 1982 “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” to name one, which also references Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”).

But this Bergman-inspired fantasia is much lighter, and Been has brought out the laughter, easy on the melancholy – yet has middle-agers expressing regrets.

Dean, Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Hey, as Fredrik, and Dean, as Desiree, portray a rueful pair, looking back wistfully and rediscovering their spark. The accomplished actors display a natural rhythm with each other, especially in “You Must Meet My Wife.”

Like the music, the dance numbers are polished, choreographed by Michael Hodges with an emphasis on regal posture — although, at first, notice how awkward the pairings are – it’s on purpose, ahem).

Engel, who is delightful as the conflicted Anne, designed the costumes – and they are a mix of ethereal and chic, conveying the social status of each character. The hair and wig design by Dowling suitably complimented the looks.

Hey and Engel were part of Stray Dog’s “Sweeney Todd” in spring 2017, he in the title role and she as daughter Johanna, and know the challenges Sondheim presents, and their experience serves them well.

Sondheim’s work is getting a lot of posthumous attention – but that’s a good thing, never enough Sondheim done well. Like the recently revived “Into the Woods,” some of his musicals take on richer, more contemplative meaning as one ages and revisits them again.

Stray Dog’s superb “A Little Night Music” is worth the immersion, featuring a triple-threat cast in fine form and an inspired creative team.

The Liebeslieder Singers. Photo by John Lamb.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 22, with additional performances at 2 pm Sunday, Oct. 16 and 8 pm Wednesday Oct.19. Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Hey and Degitz “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Photo by John Lamb

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.

By Lynn Venhaus

Hold on to your pearls, for “Triassic Parq: The Musical” is a raunchy romp of an offbeat musical comedy.

A parody of the film and novel “Jurassic Park,” the blockbuster 1993 science-fiction action thriller by Steven Spielberg adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, this is flipped for the dinosaurs’ point of view.

Talk about a chaos theory. Bedlam ensues when one of the genetically engineered female dinosaurs turns male – spontaneously. It’s not nice when you fool Mother Nature – but it sure is naughty.

Goofy and gutsy as can be, the Stray Dog production features a winning cast that gives it their all, in belting out power ballads and selling daffy up-tempo numbers, with light-hearted choreography by Mike Hodges. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast work so hard with material that’s this absurd and thin.

Tristan Davis is the Velociraptor of Innocence, all swaggering rocker in “Get Out,’ while Michael Wells is the evangelist-like Velociraptor of Faith, reveling in the campiness of “Morning Assembly” and “Hello, Little Goat” – exhibiting strong, soaring vocals after not being on the stage since “Guys and Dolls” in the Before Times.

Laurell Stephenson is spirited in dual roles — as the skeptical Velociraptor of Science and then having fun interacting with the audience as a character named Morgan Freeman – that was actually played by the deep-voiced Oscar winner once upon a time. He/she disappears quickly after a hilarious set-up.

The fearless pair of punk rocker grrrls stand out as the Tyrannosaurus Rexes – a frisky Dawn Schmid as T-Rex 1/Kaitlyn and ballsy Rachel Bailey as the dial-it-to-11 confused T-Rex 2. They unleash their attraction in “Love Me As a Friend.”

The spunky ensemble accepts the wild-ride aspect and overcomes what the silly show lacks in sustainability.

This playful cast of six starts out with high energy in “Welcome to Triassic Parq” – and continues full-throttle to win over the eager crowd in 14 songs while dishing out a lot of sexual innuendo. It would seem like zany schoolkids’ antics were it not for the quality of the vocals – like a John Mulaney Broadway musical parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

Photos by John Lamb

But this is an actual musical that played off-Broadway in 2012 after winning best overall musical production at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. The music and lyrics are by Marshall Pailet, with co-lyricists Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo, and all three combined on the book.

Songs include lyrics about penises for shock value – “Dick Fix,” riffing on John Williams’ symphonic score “We Are Dinosaurs,” and outlandish “Mama.”

The band is led by Pianosaurus Leah Schultz (and music director0, with Adam Rugo the Guitaratops and Joe Winters the Drumadon.

Director Justin Been goes for the gusto, keeping things zippy and nonsensical, aiming to achieve a real crowd-pleaser, especially for a generation who grew up with the “Jurassic Park” movie trilogy and returned for the franchise offshoot “Jurassic World.”

The original won three tech Academy Awards, while the two even more preposterous sequels in 1997 and 2001 stretched the boundaries of logic, even for sci-fi/fantasy. A reboot called “Jurassic World” in 2015 was followed by a sequel in 2018, with the latest, “Dominion,” set to open June 10.

But in the one-act musical, performed without an intermission, you do not need that much familiarity with the 30-year-old source material, for the emphasis is on spoofing religion, sex, and identity. The prehistoric setting is purely for laughs.

Eileen Engel designed functional costumes with a touch of whimsy to convey the gender-bending.

Scenic designer Josh Smith worked magic in his scaled-down version of the Isla Nublar theme park on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, stunning without benefit of computer-generated imagery or visual effects.

The technical efforts add considerably to the overall presentation, including lighting by Tyler Duenow and outstanding sound work.

Stray Dog has always had a penchant for producing quirky plays –such as the “Evil Dead” musical, Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party,” and “Red Scare on Sunset,” as a different direction between more serious explorations. So the strange, slight “Triassic Parq” is well-suited to be in between “Good People” and “The Normal Heart” this 2022 season.

Whether or not you are fascinated by dinosaurs is immaterial. This is not meant to be anything more than saucy merriment, so lower expectations and accept the vulgarity (or not – this is intended for “mature” adult audiences, as in rated R).

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Triassic Parq: The Musical” from April 15 through 30, with performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.