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

A sunny, soulful song-and-dance showcase, “Last Stop on Market Street” includes a sweet slice-of-life lesson to engage audiences of all ages.

Metro Theater Company is presenting this vivacious 75-minute musical without intermission at the Grandel Theatre from Feb. 6-27 and is offering a video streaming option, too.

Written by Matt de la Pena with illustrations by Christian Robinson in 2015, the Newberry Medal-winning picture book is considered a modern classic and its theme of inclusivity and community is timeless.

It strikes a chord about finding the good in unexpected places through a child spending time with his out-of-town grandmother. He’s dropped off for the weekend and hasn’t ever spent that much time away from his parents – he’s counting the hours he must be there. Their relationship is rocky at first, and he is a reluctant guest, but eventually grows in love and understanding.

The child, CJ, is spoiled and a bit sheltered, and while bonding with his older and wiser grandmother “Nana,” he learns about the bigger, and very different, world around him. She introduces him to neighbors and new experiences.

Always plugged into his phone and tablet, he learns how fun adventures can be without reliance on screens. She, in turn, learns more about technology. In a relatable way, they appreciate age differences – and bridge the digital divide.

That intergenerational bond, if we’re lucky to experience it, lasts a lifetime – and the legacy beyond that, which this presentation shows so well.

Riding the bus. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin.

It’s always a good thing when we can be reminded of our grandmother’s love and guidance, and how they helped shape our paths. My “Mims” was a special person that I reference almost daily, what an impact this little dynamo made on my life from her 50s until age 80.

With her indomitable spirit, director Jacqueline Thompson has highlighted the colorful book’s emphasis on kindness, compassion, and gratitude.

In her director’s notes, Thompson dedicated the show to “all the Nanas of the world, — our truth tellers, safe spaces, warmth, roots to our foundation and light.” Amen to that. And thank you to Mildred Thompson.

The book was adapted for the stage by Cheryl L. West and co-produced by the Chicago Children’s Theater and the Children’s Theatre Company in 2018.

In bringing this celebration of community to the local region, Metro has enlisted five-star talent to create an outstanding production that unifies young and old, and easily gets folks into the rhythm and out of their seats.

In the neighborhood setting, brightly imagined by scenic designers extraordinaire Margery and Peter Spack, a sense of community is palpable. The Spacks are known for their original creations that evoke whimsy and wonder, and their work here could fit into a PBS set for the Children’s Television Workshop.

Get ready to be energized by the beat, with a Motown-infused score from rhythm-and-blues legend Lamont Dozier and his son Paris Ray Dozier, who have incorporated hip hop, soul, rap and gospel into the catchy music and lyrics.

Music director Phil Woodmore and choreographer Christopher Page-Sanders have captured the Doziers’ vibrancy.

The tight ensemble is like a vitamin shot, with Robert Crenshaw, Daniel McRath, Valentina Silva, Denise Thimes, Cameron Tyler, and Tyler White lifting their voices in heartfelt harmony, and making you smile because of their joie de vivre as they groove to the beats.

Denise Thimes as Nana. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin

Denise Thimes is well-suited to play the inspirational Nana, and her relationship with Daniel McRath, playing CJ, is believable – stern but warm.

Thimes is a local jazz legend and has sung on the world’s greatest stages and with world-class artists. She’s in a league of her own.

Listening to the group sing is enjoyable, but their sublime solo efforts are when we get the full experience of their remarkable vocal chops. Wow.

McRath has an exceptional voice. He’s a graduate of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s Artist-in-Training program and was in “Aida” at The Muny.

Part of the ensemble, Robert Crenshaw’s voice is also superb, and last seen in “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” and “Spell #7,” both at The Black Rep.

Valentina Silva, who is seen in multiple roles, including M. Butterfly, is a versatile performer and recent BFA graduate in musical theater from Webster University. Cameron Tyler, a recent musical theater graduate of Missouri Baptist University, is the sympathetic Jojo, a homeless youth, that opens CJ’s eyes to the plight of others.

Tyler White is a veteran artist who has appeared on multiple stages and easily transitions to different roles, like a bus driver and homeless woman, with authenticity.

With creativity and dedication, the artists and technicians have ensured the details pop to keep youngsters occupied.

The lighting and sound design work is notable, from Jayson M. Lawshee and Jackie “Jackpot” Sharp respectively. Costume designer Felia Davenport crafted each characters’ outfits with personality in mind.

For those who love St. Louis, this charming and delightful production is a special treat from the Metro Theater Company, now in its 49th year, reminding us now, more than ever, small acts of kindness are never wasted. And city living is endlessly educational.

The play is recommended for children ages 5 and up. A short on-stage Q&A with the cast follows the performance.

Valentina Silva, Daniel McRath, Denise Thimes. Photo by Jennifer A. Lin

“Last Stop on Market Street” is live on stage through Feb. 27 at The Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center Arts District, across the street from Powell Hall. Tickets are available at MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 until 4 hours prior to the performance, then at The Grandel box office an hour before the performance.

Seven live performances are left: Feb. 18, 7 p.m.; Feb. 19, 4 p.m.; Feb. 20, 2 and 5 p.m.; Feb. 26, 1 and 4 p.m.; and Feb. 27, 2 p.m.

A video stream of the production is available. For more information: www.metroplays.org/marketstreet

Pandemic Protocols: Please be sure to bring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for every member of your party who is medically eligible for the vaccine. You will not be able to enter the building without proof of vaccination. Mask wearing is required at all times inside the Grandel. For more details, please take a moment to look over the COVID safety procedures on the website. Thank you for doing your part to keep our audiences of all ages safe and healthy!

Daniel McRath as C.J. Jennifer A. Lin Photo.

Photos by Jennifer A. Lin.