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
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
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The 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

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb