By Lynn Venhaus

Ah, the rose-colored glasses that we view our youth through can differ, depending on what generation, but one thing we have in common: the nostalgia for the music we came of age listening to, whether it was the Boy Bands of the late ‘90s, the MTV New Wave in the ‘80s, the British Invasion of the ‘60s or the short-lived disco-dance craze of the 1970s.

Today’s electronic dance music has roots in those syncopated rhythms that topped the charts some 45 years ago. If you were ever grooving to up-tempo hits at a nightclub, then the stage musical version of the 1977 cultural phenomenon film, “Saturday Night Fever,” is for you.

The jukebox musical, adapted in 1998 for London’s West End, which made it to Broadway the next year, features the legendary hits from the Bee Gees, plus other classic disco tracks – who can forget The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” — “burn that mother down.” Most of the time the actors sing the chart-toppers.

Providing many funky sounds of the day is live-wire Chris Moore as the Afro-coiffed DJ Monty, rocking gold platform shoes and a shiny silver shirt, with Jade Anaiis Hillery belting out a few tunes like she was Chaka Khan. As Candy, she leads on the aforementioned “Disco Inferno,” plus sings “Night Fever” and “Nights on Broadway.” The pair duet on “More Than a Woman.”

Side note: I heard Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” at the grocery store the other evening! To emphasize how this music has endured – have you been to a wedding reception recently? The soundtrack spawned four No. 1 singles, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, still ranks among the best-selling soundtrack albums worldwide, and to date, has sales figures of over 40 million copies.

This Stray Dog Theatre production is marked by a larger-than-usual band to bring the sounds alive, inspired choreography by Michael Hodges, and a star-making performance by Drew Mizell as Tony Manero. The man can strut.

Drew Mizell as Tony Manero. Photo by John Lamb.

While the 19-year-old character is forever stamped as the role that earned John Travolta his first of two Oscar nominations and dancing reputation, Mizell has the moves to pull off such an iconic part. His ease on the dance floor is admirable, and his extensive dance training is evident.

Mizell, whose first show at Stray Dog was an impressive performance as both Cinderella’s Prince and Florinda in “Into the Woods,” also nails the Brooklyn accent and the attitude to make the character likable.

Tony, anxious about life after high school and what his future will look like, is not content just to hang out with his goon-like pals, who seem locked in dead ends. He wants more than working at a paint store. At night, at the Odyssey 2001 discotheque, he is king of the dance floor. But at home, yeesh. His mother and father are yellers, and he can’t ever measure up to his older brother, Frank Jr., a priest.

But Frank Jr. has a crisis of faith and returns home. Another standout is Sean Seifert, a natural at portraying the brother as a good man who doesn’t have all the answers. (He also pulls off a dual role as Gus, one of Tony’s inner circle who creates other issues).

When Tony meets Stephanie Mangano, he is taken by her physicality, refinement and her desire to cross that bridge for a better life in Manhattan. With a shot to win $1,000 at a dance contest, Tony and Stephanie team up, their eyes on the prize — and eventually each other.

With sophisticated airs and ambition, Stephanie is more Uptown Girl than the kind Tony hangs out with, including his needy ex Annette, who has fallen hard for him, but it’s unrequited.

Sara Rae Womack brings out the humor in Stephanie’s images of the glamorous world, name-dropping at her entry level job, and has a solo ballad, “What Kind of Fool,” while Lindsey Grojean conveys the desperation of Annette’s lonely and confused young woman in a powerful “If I Can’t Have You,” delivering the show’s best vocals.

Triple-threat Maggie Nold is sympathetic as Pauline, who is caught up in a familiar teen pregnancy scenario. She demonstrates the realities of her situation well – but as the ensemble is handling multiple roles, it’s a tad odd to see her happily dancing and smiling soon after a funeral scene.

Ella Drake as Doreen and Kayla Dressman as Connie get their moment as dancing queens in their spirited competition number,.while Mizell and Womack hit the sweet spot with their “More Than a Woman” big dance number.

Using heavily exaggerated Brooklyn accents, the Manero family, and Tony’s peers, adhere to the stereotypes of that era, staying in those lanes. Oh, those gender caricatures — ‘hoochie mama’s and swinging playboys – were cringy then and certainly now.

Think of it as a period piece – because the best buddies are not that likable, total losers with their off-putting macho bravado, which is why the flimsy broadly-drawn book remains the show’s weakest element. Because their crude talk and bully swagger are mostly foreign in today’s ‘polite’ society, overall, this cast doesn’t seem entirely comfortable playing these roles. Now, dancing is first-rate, clearly polished and well-rehearsed.

The guys playing the deadbeat friends — Justin Bouckaert as the conflicted and struggling Bobby, Jayson Heil as Double-J and Michael Cox as Joey — are caught between a rock and a hard place because they are so immature and misguided, their idea of what manhood is, while not uncommon then, is far from what it should be. But that’s the point – to show how trouble-prone Tony is separating from the pack.

This version has cleaned up some of the more problematic “R-rated” portions of the script, as in gang-rape, violence, and intense sexuality, which is not necessary for this story. The movie’s darker and grittier aspects have been removed, for the most part, just hinted at or briefly alluded to for conflicts.

What director Justin Been does effectively is capture that malaise of the late ‘70s, when economic issues affected blue-collar laborers, and social unrest simmered in “the summer of Sam” (serial killer Son of Sam terrorized the city). The disaffected youth escaped to the discos. (“Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin'” — “Stayin’ Alive”).

As the one-note parents Flo and Frank Manero, pros Kay Love and Matt Anderson display their lung power shouting at their family. Nadja Kapetanovich is sincere in the brief role of Linda, the dutiful daughter put in the middle between her cranky parents and defiant brothers.

Sara Rae Womack, Drew Mizell

The home scenes reflect on the misery of marginalized people while the disco and dance studio are where the energy flows. But the story is really secondary to the song-and-dance appeal of the musical.

Scenic Designer Josh Smith crafted a dance floor with colored lights for the stage, with help of lighting designer Tyler Duenow, which may not be visible to all the audience members. He also expanded the Tower Grove Abbey stage with stairs and a bridge doubling for the DJ booth at the club and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, a suspension bridge that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.

They’ve made room for a large band, led by music director/conductor Leah Schultz on piano, with Marie Brown, Tai Davis, and Beau Lewis on cello for select performances, Mo Carr on trumpet, Steve Frisbee on violin, John Gerdes and Xander Gerdes on bass for select performances, Lea Gerdes and Mary Wiley on reeds for select performances, Adam Levin on trombone, Adam Rugo on guitar and Joe Winters on percussion.

Among their instrumental numbers are the classic Sounds of Philadelphia “A Fifth of Beethoven,” plus “After the Fall,” and “Salsation.”

The costumes collected by Colleen Michelson are a mixed bag – some duplicated the gaudy polyester trends of the ‘70s, while others are ‘kinda, sorta’ representative of the period. The dance floor attire, for working-class kids on weekends, needs to be faux-chic instead of Sunday church dress best. Some of the outfits were more flattering than others, and dresses had nice swirling effects. And the iconic white suit has its moment in the spotlight – always big sentimental crowd reaction.

Those infectious, danceable beats will get you on your feet every time. After all, as the Bee Gees told us – “You should be dancing” — and of course you came for the good beats that you could dance to, and don’t forget your boogie shoes. There is a Disco Mix curtain call. Dance 10, Story 3.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical “Saturday Night Fever” Oct. 5-Oct. 28, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with additional performances 2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 15 and 22, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. For more information or tickets, visit: Seating is general admission.

All photos by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

The powerhouse cast of the musical “Caroline, or Change” features so many gifted vocalists that they raise the roof off The Marcelle Theatre every performance. To hear the soul-stirring solos and harmonies blended by this virtuosic ensemble is a scintillating experience.

It doesn’t matter if you are unfamiliar with the emotional rollercoaster of a score by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Tony Kushner that creates a unique stamp of time and place in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963, just go and be in awe of the power and performances.

It’s easy to gush about this uncommon show, and as a longtime reviewer who tries to mix up the superlatives, so I don’t overuse them, it is hard to come up with new words that aptly describe this level of talent involved.

Yes, it’s unforgettable. Yes, I can’t believe the singers held nothing back and still had something in the tank. And yes, I want to learn more, listen again, and sing its praises. Most of all, the performers express their truth from varied perspectives. In the framework of an intense domestic drama, the characters focus on their own needs, but must see the value in others.

Three years in the making, Fly North Theatricals patiently waited out the pandemic, and some of those originally cast in 2020 have returned while others are new. Director Brian McKinley, an accomplished multi-hyphenate who wasn’t present at those early auditions, has said he has been blessed with talent. Indeed, the proficient ensemble is world-class in quality, and McKinley deftly stations them around an intimate space to spotlight highly personal interactions, which are aided by Bradley Rohlf’s artful lighting design.

De-Rance Blaylock as Caroline. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

Music Director Colin Healy, the group’s founder, has masterfully conducted an orchestra that seamlessly blends blues, gospel, spirituals, traditional Jewish klezmer melodies, Motown, folk and classical music.

The versatile top-shelf musicians include Steve Frisbee and Kate Denson on violins, Chuck Evans and Alyssa Przygoda Gove alternating on viola, Marie Brown on cello, Mary Wiley, Brandon Thompson and Dave Metzger on reeds, Blake Mickens on bass, Des Jones on percussion, and Healy on keyboards.

This is crucial because it’s an all-sung show. The first act features 24 songs in an hour, and after a 15-minute intermission, the second act has 25 songs in 70 minutes. The demanding nature requires every single person on stage and off to be in peak form, and they meet the challenge.

The story takes place mostly in the basement of a Southern home where Caroline Thibodeaux works as a maid for $30 a month. It starts on a hot day, and she laments having to do laundry “16 Feet Beneath the Sea.” Second act will transition to the December holidays, but it’s still oppressive conditions.

Caroline reveals her world-weary and cynical attitude, and you’ll discover an unusual protagonist because she is not a sitcom-y warm and fuzzy housekeeper. She has been beaten down by life. It’s 100 years after slavery, but segregation and inequality haven’t subsided. In a tour de force performance, De-Rance Blaylock commands the stage, making us feel her pain and anger.

She’s caught in-between being marginalized and believing she deserves more, living on the cusp of change. You root for her, hoping her life will get better, but as we soon find out, it will be up to her children to help make the world see them. Blaylock, who was in the groundbreaking “Antigone in Ferguson” at the Harlem Stage in 2018, is a consummate performer, and fiercely announces her presence.

The kids. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

Resigned to her fate, Caroline has been working hard at these tasks for 22 years, without much to show for it. She is turned down for a raise, among other indignities throughout the show. She is, however, allowed to keep the loose change found in the dirty clothes. Her adoring 8-year-old charge Noah knows his pocket change is beneficial, acts absent-minded about it, but knows what he’s doing. The plot escalates when an errant $20 bill is the cause of much handwringing. She could really use it for a child’s dental work and better food for their nutrition. But it is a gift from his maternal grandfather.

Caroline is a single mother to Emmie, 16, (Kenya Nash), Jackie (Cameron Headley), 10, and Joe (Malachi Borum), 8. The needy kids dig at a traditional Christmas in “I Saw Three Ships” and they express their financial situation in the jaunty “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw.”

In one of the more dynamic relationships, Caroline and rebellious Emmie butt heads about how to talk to white people, navigate changing times, and even dare to dream and hope. Nash is strong in “’Night Mamma” and “I Hate the Bus,” among other numbers.

There is an authenticity to their emotionally charged interactions, and things really get testy in “Kitchen Fight.”

Caroline has had a lifetime of disappointments, including a failed marriage. She slumps in a chair, taking a break in her white uniform, and allows Noah to light her cigarette.

Duane Foster. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

This is a secret because he lost his mother, a heavy cigarette smoker, to lung cancer, and his father has remarried. The little boy clings to his anchor, Caroline, although she never reciprocates caring. In a stunning debut, Zoe Klevorn demonstrates remarkable poise and vocal ability as Noah. (The only thing out of place is a wig too big for her delicate features).

As his widowed father Stuart, Jordan Wolk subtly conveys a distracted, conflicted parent in mourning. He has lost his faith, “There Is No God, Noah.” In his complicated relationship with his son (“Stuart and Noah”), he seems overwhelmed.

A professional musician, Stuart is now married to Rose, a typical cookie-cutter ‘60s housewife and a well-meaning stepmother. However, she really is clueless, exudes privilege, and is without compassion when dealing with Caroline and her hardships. The Gellmans aren’t racists, but lack forward-thinking, and appear to be products of their time, living in the South.

Avery Lux embodies that post-war Stepford Wife- pretty blonde (ancient advertising reference, a ‘Breck girl’) type. Noah doesn’t like her, and she confesses to her father, Mr. Stopnick (Kent Coffel) her dismay (“Long Distance”). Eventually, the relationship kinks start to soften with the boy (“Why Does Our House Have a Basement?”) But yet, the smugness (catch her mispronouncing “Caroline.”)

Lux looks chic in customary fashions of the day, but her pale-yellow frock needed ironing. With other period costumes designed by Vanessa Tabourne, some of the shoe choices aren’t accurate. For instance, if a character mentions their saddle shoes, she should have a pair on, but nope. (I saw a youth production of “Grease” last week and they had them on Rydell High Schoolers, so they can be found.)

Avery Lux as stepmom Rose. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

While Caroline is washing/drying clothes in the first act and ironing in the second, she imagines appliances as people – including the washing machine (a spunky Kanisha Kellum). She listens to the radio, where a robust trio of singers, not unlike the popular girl groups of the day, springs forth.

Kimmie Kidd-Booker, who is also the Moon in a gorgeous white gown, impresses as a glamorous Diana Ross look-a-like, and merry pair Ebony Easter and Adrienne Spann are the spirited singers in sync with each other, all three replicating the sounds on the airwaves, such as “Ooh Child” and “Salty Teardrops” while they wear fashionable cocktail dresses.

Caroline is so cranky that those close to her try to be helpful but nearly give up, especially Dotty (Kellum again, outstanding in a dual role).

A major occurrence is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and this is not merely a time marker. Kushner smartly addresses that as a significant bellwether in turning tides..

Both families express their admiration for the fallen leader in “Inside/Outside” and “JFK,” although Emmie is more mesmerized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s messages. The Gellman family includes Jewish grandparents, played by Maria Bollini and Ken Haller, who guide Noah spiritually.

The Radio. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

Act Two starts out with the Radio singing “Santa Comin’ Caroline” and “Little Reward” while the household gets ready for a Hanukkah Party. Caroline also reminisces about her ex-husband in “1943.”

With his richly textured baritone, Duane Foster sings the roles of The Dryer, The Bus, and portrays the wayward ex. He regularly appears at the Muny, was recently in the “Beauty and the Beast” ensemble. On Broadway, he was a part of the original cast of “Ragtime” in 1998 and understudied the lead Coalhouse Walker (role originated by Brian Stokes Mitchell).

Church-going Caroline comes to a reckoning about the dust-up caused by the $20, and Blaylock brings the house down with a mesmerizing “Lot’s Wife”: …”Ain’t never been no good, findin’ joy the way you should…murder my dreams so I stop wantin,…strangle the pride that make me crazy!” Gut-wrenching.

Mr. Stopnick and The Gellmans. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

This sly, simmering show is rarely done, mainly because of its difficulty level, and this is indeed a high point in a very strong theatrical season for regional professional groups. To be introduced this way to the Tesori-Kushner poetic and profound pairing is quite a treat.

First produced off-Broadway in 2003 after readings and workshops started in 1999, the show moved to Broadway in 2004, garnering six Tony nominations, including Best Musical, and a win for Anika Noni Rose for Featured Actress in a Musical as Emmie. A British National Theatre production in 2007 won an Olivier Award for Best New Musical and both a London West End revival in 2018 and Broadway revival in 2021 were heralded.

Tesori is the most honored and most prolific female theatrical composer in history, writing five Broadway musicals and receiving six Tony Award nominations. For “Caroline, or Change,” she won the 2004 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music.

In 2015, she made history winning Best Original Score with Lisa Kron for “Fun Home,” making them the first female writing team to win that award. And earlier this summer, she won Best Original Score for Tony Award-winning Best Musical “Kimberly Akimbo,” which she shared with David Lindsay-Abaire.

Noah and his father. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

Also known for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical,” you may have seen her reboot of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” at the Muny in 2017, which went on to off-Broadway rave reviews but run cut short by global coronavirus pandemic.

Kushner is one of the few playwrights in history nominated for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He is most known for “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Angels in America: Perestroika,” his Broadway debut in 1993, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award, and he won an Emmy for adapting it for the HBO miniseries. Since the 2000s, he has collaborated with Steven Spielberg on his films “Munich,” “Lincoln,” “West Side Story” and “The Fabelmans.”

This is his compelling personal semi-autobiographical story, for his father really was a clarinet player and a conductor, and his parents moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he was a child.

The mindful alliance between Tesori and Kushner has produced an astounding uncompromising musical. The ‘change’ is both economical and political, at once an historical footnote and present-day conundrum. The underlying issues haven’t gone away and racial hatred for blacks and Jews has alarmingly escalated during the past 10 years.

“Caroline, or Change” gives us heartfelt snapshots that hopefully lead to more understanding. It’s a moving, meaningful musical, and this resplendent production takes flight because it resonates deeply.

The Washer. Kanisha Kellum. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

Fly North Theatricals presents “Caroline, or Change” July 28-Aug. 12, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at The Marcelle, 3310 Samuel Shepard in Grand Center. A 2 p.m. matinee has been added for Saturday, Aug. 12. For more information, or for tickets, go to

Kimmie Kidd-Booker as the Moon. Photo by Julie A. Merkel

By Lynn Venhaus

Stephen Sondheim’s lush and richly layered score is flawlessly presented by music director Leah Schultz and an extraordinary 12-piece orchestra, with touching ensemble harmonies to match, setting apart Stray Dog Theatre’s fresh and clever “Into the Woods.”

Since the musical was first produced in 1986 before going to Broadway the next year, audiences have found new ways to see the message behind this beguiling gem: No one is alone.

 Starting with its deceptively simple concept featuring familiar fairy tale characters interacting, the second act swerves into much darker territory. For they are desperately seeking happily ever after, but not transforming their lives until they change their selfish, foolish, and childish ways. But eventually, hope emerges after harsh occurrences.

The roster from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s centuries-old literary works includes Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and the childless couple from Thumbelina.

The themes involving parents and children touch on responsibility, morality, and the consequences of wishes to beautiful, emotional effect. (I expect to get misty-eyed in multiple scenes.)

“Nice is different than good.” It is a very grown-up tale that becomes more profound with each viewing and the passage of time, yet its structure isn’t predictable. The complexities of this insightful tale resonate 26 years later, which has been crucial to this show’s staying power.

That’s the genius of Sondheim’s collaboration with book writer and director James Lapine. They both won Tony’s – for score and book – but that year the top prize went to “The Phantom of the Opera.”

(If we’re mentioning prizes, the 2002 revival won the Tony for Best Musical Revival, a London West End revival in 2010 won the Olivier Award, and the most recent Encores! revival in 2022 that was so popular it extended its run multiple times, closing on Jan. 8, won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album – and expect Tony nominations this spring.) Clearly a show that gets better with age, as long as the humanity is displayed.

Before Disney revised fairy tales, many were dark, and upon second glance, it’s not all cuddly forest animals and talking birds. However, director Justin Been recognized the whimsy and the playfulness, which he focuses on, with some snark. That helps considerably on the small intimate stage – yet he does not gloss over the less-than-merry, adding that necessary depth.

The library setting, with well-placed bookshelves, designed by Been and Dominic Emery, gives it a different perspective. The program lists the place as “an old library on the fringes of our memory.” And the time – “Maybe yesterday, could be tomorrow.” Been’s staging adroitly moves the characters physically to convey their power plays. And they leap off the pages, as this cast has no trouble breaking the fourth wall.

The narrator (Jon Hey) introduces four groups of characters – Cinderella (Maggie Nold) wishes to go to the festival, Jack (Shannon Lampkin Campbell) wishes that his cow Milky White would give milk, a baker and his wife (Tyler Luetkenhaus and Margaret Stall) want to have a baby, and Little Red Riding Hood (Grace Langford), wants to visit her grandmother.  

The baker’s neighbor is a witch (Jennelle Gilreath Owens) who has been pulling the strings from bitterness. A curse she cast has made them infertile because his father stole her vegetables, including magic beans. Her own mother cursed her, making her old and hideous. In turn, she took the baker’s father’s child, Rapunzel (Dawn Schmid).

The Witch makes a deal – bring her four ingredients “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” in three days’ time – and she’ll reverse it.

And we’re off “Into the Woods” on the rugged journey, where there is more chicanery afoot. Nobody is who they appear to be. Will they find out if what they’ve always wished for is what they truly want? They will lie, cheat, and steal to achieve their goals, but when the going gets tough, realize they must work together. The characters learn that they must carry each other, or the show will not resonate as deeply.

The 14-member cast fluidly follows its course, with some roles typically doubled. Most display crisp comic timing and strong vocals at the same time, although some characters aren’t that amusing (Jack’s mom, the tragic Rapunzel, and the rather generic roles of Granny and Cinderella’s Mother).

The Wolf, Little Red. Photo by John Lamb

As the petulant Little Red Riding Hood, Grace Langford brings out the girl’s brattiness, and then learns some things: “I Know Things Now.”

The ever reliable and assured Jon Hey plays both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, who slithers out of owning up to responsibility. And his occasional jig must be a nod to Rumplestiltskin.

This time, though, Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, are played by separate characters. Agile Drew Mizell and animated Sarah Polizzi humorously step into the princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s) and as Cinderella’s awful stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda. It may be stunt-casting, but it works.

In fact, the broader the comedy, the more fun the performer has. It’s a treat to see comical Michael Wells return to the Tower Grove Abbey stage in multiple roles, for he is deliciously wicked as the Wolf (“Hello, Little Girl”), then portray Cinderella’s father, Prince’s steward and make hilarious sound effects as the crying baby.

The splendid Jennelle Gilreath Owens takes a more cynical, less menacing approach to the diva role of the Witch, which suits her, delivering a disconcerting “Last Midnight” and dynamic “Children Will Listen.” Her dialogue stings – especially such memorable lines as “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right” and “I was just trying to be a good mother.”

Other standouts include Tyler Luetkenhaus and Margaret Stall as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, both making noteworthy debuts. They breezily sail through “It Takes Two,” while their signatures “Moments in the Woods” and “No One Is Alone” are superb.

Bringing out the baker’s flaws, Luetkenhaus adds a layer of deceit that’s not always there, and you sense that the couple is truly working through their issues as the characters. It’s not always as superficial as some of the other characterizations. They delve into the hearts and minds.

Shannon Lampkin Campbell is a spunky yet naive Jack the Giant Killer, robust in “Giants in the Sky.” Been has moved the physical confrontation between the giant’s wife, steward and Jack’s mom (Laura Lee Kyro) offstage, which accounts for less fireworks. Yet, Milky White is as funny as ever, with its goofy, squatty, small appearance.

Photo by John Lamb

Just as she showed in “A Little Night Music,” Madeline Black has a regal bearing and her speech pattern accents the haughtiness of Cinderella’s stepmother. Granny and Cinderella’s mother are handled competently by Jennifer Clodi, who also voices the frightening Giant and his livid Wife.

The princess roles are capably filled by Dawn Schmid as distraught Rapunzel and Maggie Nold as tormented Cinderella, bringing out their characters’ insecurities.

The ensemble appears to be having fun together and has the silky-smooth voices to meet their major moments. It’s such a pleasure to hear the sublime Sondheim sung as intended.

Schultz has conducted the orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick with expert finesse, nimbly leading Marie Brown and Paul Rueschhoff on cello (alternating performances), Mo Carr on trumpet, Chuck Evans on viola, Steve Frisbee on violin, John Gerdes on horn, Lea Gerdes on flute, piccolo and reed, Mike Hanson on percussion, Ian Hayden on reed, and M. Joshua Ryan on bass through Sondheim’s recurring motifs. They are strategically placed among the bookshelves, a savvy touch.

Sarah Gene Dowling’s colorful wig design enhances the fantasy storybook world, pairing well with Eileen Engel’s character-appropriate costume design.

Jacob Baxley’s sound design is crystal clear, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design effectively sets the moods.

And because the songs are so exquisitely rendered, moments will linger. The second act is aural perfection, connecting the story threads into a magical experience that is awe-inspiring.

Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Into the Woods” March 30 – April 22 at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 2 and Sunday, April 16, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, Saint Louis, MO 63104. Gated Parking. Additional information and ticket reservations: Call (314) 865-1995. Visit

The 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, and 4/21 performances will be presented with ASL interpretation by students from Southwestern Illinois College. ASL interpreted performances are suitable for audience members who are Deaf, deafened, or have hearing loss. They can also be valuable for people who are learning ASL.

Audio Description: The 4/16 performance will be Audio Described by MindsEye. Audio Described performances are suitable for audience members who are blind or partially sighted. Please note that if you are interested in participating in the audio description of this performance you will need to call the Box Office to order your ticket. Please announce that you would like to reserve a pair of headphones for the Audio Description.

Jack, Baker, Cinderella. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Jason Robert Brown’s musical compositions are strenuous and so are two-character pieces, therefore, “The Last Five Years” was a daunting choice for the enterprising Tesseract Theatre Company as they dive into musical theater endeavors.

However, the group pulled off this marriage chronicle with aplomb when I saw it Feb. 19.. With spirited performers, exemplary musicians, accomplished direction, and smart creative choices, “The Last Five Years” is splendid.

With its all-sung framework and an unconventional structure, Brown’s unforgettable score and emotionally powerful lyrics tug at the heartstrings, for in 85 minutes, they go from meeting to break-up (Jamie Wellerstein) and from break-up to meeting (Cathy Hiatt), intersecting at their wedding.

High praise must be bestowed on an exceptional five-piece orchestra lead by veteran maestro Leah Schultz, who is on piano, with Adam Rugo on guitar, John Gerdes on bass, Chuck Evans on violin, and Marie Brown on cello. (The strings are the cherry on top here, lovely and lush.)

The music is beautiful to get lost in, and highlights are “The Next Ten Minutes,” “Still Hurting,” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.”

While this might sound like a simple endeavor, it is not. Brown has incorporated many genres, including jazz, blues, folk, and Latin besides his usual pop-rock fusion with musical theatre. His distinctive melodies are notoriously difficult, and his atypical harmonies require a broad vocal range.

The two leads, Kevin Corpuz as Jamie and Grace Langford as Cathy, as dynamic as they are, struggle a wee bit on a few demanding notes.  Nevertheless, with the high wire singing for nearly an hour and a half, it’s a dandy achievement – especially the stamina required.

With their pizzazzy personalities on display, Corpuz and Langford are engaging as two New Yorkers – he’s a writer and she’s an actress. They convincingly convey a couple from start to finish over five years — exhilaration at falling in love to crestfallen going through a difficult break-up.

You can’t not be moved by the ebbs and flows as the storytelling weaves the doubts that 20-somethings fret about with careers and commitment.

The aching-yearning-worried songs include “Moving Too Fast” and “A Miracle Could Happen” (Jamie) and “I’m a Part of That” and “Climbing Uphill” (Cathy), which they deliver sincerely.

Langford, a strong vocalist who is well-trained, and Corpuz, who moves with great ease, have worked together multiple times in local regional professional theater, so their comfort level with each other is obvious. This is their first time paired as a romantic couple, and they are believable.

Director Taylor Gruenloh has given the piece some needed vitality, for I’ve seen this musical a couple of times where the pair just basically stand there. No, not a move you’d likely see from inventive Gruenloh, nor Corpuz or Langford. Gruenloh’s tweaked it in a good way, making it more heartfelt.

Lankford is particularly fetching in the clever ditty “A Summer in Ohio,” about her experience in summer stock away from her husband, and the humorous “I Can Do Better Than That,” about her hopes and dreams.

And Corpuz’s energy isn’t containable, so he must move. His “Shiksa Goddess” is amusing in a brazen way, a song detailing his character’s Jewish heritage.

The songs that are raw and tinged with sadness — “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” “I Could Never Rescue You,” and “Nobody Needs to Know,” have forceful solos.

Brown has won three Tony Awards – for his original score to “Parade” in 1999 (currently revived on Broadway) and for original score and orchestrations for “The Bridges of Madison County” in 2014. He was nominated for Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” score last year (with Amanda Green lyrics).

This musical, his third, was inspired by his first marriage, and premiered in Chicago in 2001. It moved to off-Broadway in 2002. St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz originated the role of Jamie in Chicago and played opposite Sherie Renee Scott off-Broadway, and they recorded the cast album.

That production won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, as well as receiving Drama Desk nominations for musical, actor, actress, orchestrations and set design. It also received Lucille Lortel Award nominations for musical and actor, and the Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Off-Broadway musical.

An enduring and popular musical with regional, colleges and community theaters, it has been revived on Broadway, turned into a 2015 movie with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, had an acclaimed London run, a 20th anniversary concert with Butz and original Cathy Lauren Kennedy, and directed by Brown, among other presentations.

The music remains hummable and memorable, and add Tesseract to the list of companies that do it right. Sound designer Phillip Evans has figured out .Zack’s finicky acoustics for flawless work, Brittanie Gunn’s lighting design is striking, and Gruenloh did fine projection work. Actress Josie Schnelten shows up for a cameo.

After their triumphant “Ordinary Days” last fall, and now this 2-hander, Tesseract’s prowess on staging musicals must be highly regarded. “Kinky Boots” is next up at the Grandel Theatre Aug. 17-27, one that will be a must-see.

And you don’t want to miss “The Last Five Years” – a show about love, produced with great affection, and another opportunity to hear those glorious songs.

The Tesseract Theatre Company presents “The Last Five Years” from Feb. 17 to Feb. 26, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the .ZACK, 3224 Locust, in the Grand Center. For more information or tickets, visit: