By Lynn Venhaus
Inspired by real 19th century artists, “Finale” examines the creative process of renowned Italian composer Gioachino Rossini with a nimble cast of four and jaunty, skillful writing.

West End Players Guild has produced its final play of the 111th season, and this comedy-drama is well-suited for their intimate theater space.

It’s also a feather in their cap, a world premiere written by Vladimir Zelevinsky, who is a playwright at home in the Union Avenue Christian Church basement, for this is his fourth play to be presented there.

For his previous WEPG works, he received a welcome reception and critical praise that garnered St Louis Theater Circle nominations, with “Manifest Destiny” in 2016 and “The Great Seduction” in 2018. His world premiere of “The Cricket on the Hearth” happened in December 2019, all directed by Steve Callahan.

Zelevinsky is also a research scientist based in Massachusetts and was in St. Louis to attend the inaugural performances last weekend.

While the play is fiction, it’s based on historical figures, and he obviously put in a lot of research into the characters: roguish “Jack” Rossini (Tim McWhirter), talented diva Isabella Colbran, his lover and later wife (Paula Stoff Dean), wealthy and anxious impresario Domenico Barbaia (Matt Anderson) and a coquettish muse Angel (Sadie Harvey), a likely composite of lovers vying for the outgoing genius’ attention.

Sadie Harvey, Paula Stoff Dean, Timothy McWhirter. Photo by John Lamb.

If you are not an operagoer, you are still likely to have heard of Rossini, who composed 39 operas, in addition to some chamber music, sacred music and piano pieces. His “The Barber of Seville” was a major success and his overture is legendary in his final piece, “William Tell.”

If you’re familiar with his work and life, you’ll understand the timelines and how impactful his creations were – among his accomplishments, he is credited with establishing the bel canto style of singing, using unusual rhythms, and effectively inserting crescendos. After he gained fame for his comic approach, he turned to more serious, dramatic fare, and those tones are reflected in the two acts.

“Finale” focuses on the popular Jack’s chaotic approach to deadlines, for as brilliant as Rossini was, he was notoriously lazy and insouciant. In the first act, as portrayed superbly – and pliant — by McWhirter, he’s ambitious and full of vigor, but in the second act, he’s disillusioned and dour, which is quite a departure after the jolly fun of Act I. There is a 15-minute intermission.

Act I is set in 1816 Rome, backstage at an opera, when Rossini was nearly 24 years old. Act II takes place 15 years later, in 1823, in a grand opera house in Paris. This time, at 39, it’s not procrastination troubling him, but how to handle the crossroads in his life. While no one knows for certain why, Rossini never composed another opera, and lived well until age 76. He loved to travel and entertain, and Zelevinsky drops names of his famous contemporaries and places he frequented to give us a sense of his place in history.

Photo by John Lamb

The second act’s noticeable shift of tone is a jolt but is based on the knowledge that Rossini ceased composing operas, which is puzzling to comprehend.

With Zelevinsky’s keen wit and penchant for detail, the spirited cast enlivens the first act much like a vintage screwball comedy. Their verbal dexterity and crisp comic timing make the snappy repartee a delight.  

After all, his comic operas were considered farcical fun, for his sitcom-like plots took lively twists and turns, and Callahan, an opera afficionado, mimics those wacky antics in crafting the physical comedy onstage and keeping the pace of the sprightly banter.

McWhirter’s hilarious nonchalance about writing pages so close to opening is contrasted by Anderson’s palpable exasperation over that unruffled demeanor.

In the second act, the supportive Barbaia has learned how to handle the prima donna, Bella is pragmatic about their marriage after distance separated them, and all the characters convey a more serious approach.

One of the show’s highlights is Dean showcasing her strong vocals, for she is an accomplished singer. Last summer, she played Desiree in Stray Dog Theatre’s “A Little Night Music.”

That’s an appreciated addition, for a show about music should give us a sample, at least.

Adding to the ambiance is scenic designer Ken Clark’s versions of two different houses hosting Rossini’s operas – one less opulent in Rome and the other more lavish in Paris. He has astutely serviced the action with furniture placement. Marjorie Williamson contributed graphic and scenic art.

Proficient costume designer Tracey Newcomb outfits the quartet in authentic-looking period pieces, with the women cavorting in petticoats for a good stretch, and lovely bright-colored gowns indicating stature.

Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design and Chuck Lavazzi’s sound design expertly provide smooth transitions for an effective overall production, with special mention to music advisor Caetlyn Van Buren.

Despite the abrupt change of moods between the first and second acts, the capable ensemble is pitch-perfect in depicting their characters. It’s often difficult to explore the inner workings of writers in a narrative, because the process is so internal, but Zelevinsky provides a reasonable backstory with good humor and interesting dialogue for a fitting “Finale.”

The West End Players Guild presents “Finale” April 28-30 and May 4-7, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday at Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard, St. Louis. For more information, visit

Photo by John Lamb


Clayton Community Theatre’s production of the classic romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story” swept the 2021 Theatre Mask Awards, winning seven out of its eight nominations.

For the second year in a row, a virtual ceremony took place. On April 3, the 17-minute pre-recorded announcement honored excellence in community theater productions of comedies and dramas, as the TMAs have done since 2015.

Only for 2020, Arts For Life scaled back the format to reflect the number of eligible plays performed before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. Awards were presented in 10 non-musical play categories instead of the usual 18.

TMA Steering Committee co-directors Melissa Boyer and Tim Naegelin announced the winners. The presentation is available on Arts For Life’s YouTube channel:

Clayton Community Theatre, last year’s big winner in both comedy and drama with “Biloxi Blues” and “A Soldier’s Play,” added to their overall total of 28 awards and 113 nominations. They won for Play, Director Heather Sartin, Leading Actress Kelsey McCroskey, Supporting Actress Caitlin Souers, Costume Designer Julie Smailys, Lighting Designer Nathan Schroeder and Set Designers Andrew Cary, Zac Cary and Heather Sartin.

They staged “The Philadelphia Story” in March 2020. The 1939 play by Philip Barry deals with family dynamics and class prejudice at the affluent Lord estate, where everyone has gathered for socialite Tracy Lord’s second wedding, but romantic entanglements ensue and she must choose between three men – her fiancé, ex-husband and reporter covering the society event.

The winning actresses, McCroskey and Souers played Tracy Lord and her younger sister Dinah respectively. This is Schroeder’s third award for lighting design, winning for CCT’s “Macbeth” in 2015 and “A Soldier’s Play” last year.

Act Two Theatre’s production of the comedy “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” won two – for Best Supporting Actor Todd Micali and Best Ensemble. The St. Peters-based group had led this year’s awards with nine nominations.

They staged the 2004 farce by Michael Parker in February 2020. It is about a California billionaire who has bequeathed all of his assets to his only daughter, Constance – except the $22 million yacht he wanted Josephine to have, a $25 million art collection left to Renee, and some priceless antique automobiles willed to Marjorie. She arrives at her father’s mansion with her lawyer to find out who these women are and discovers the butler seems to hold the key.

Micali, playing the bumbling detective Davis, has won in the supporting actor category before –as Felix Ungar, in “The Odd Couple” in 2016, and a Best Performance Award for Comedic Actor in multiple roles in “Spamalot” in 2014.

Alton Little Theater won one for Leading Actor, Shea Maples, in “Inherit the Wind.” He played the character Matthew Harrison Brady, which is based on attorney William Jennings Bryan, in the drama that is a fictional account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trail.

Arts For Life announced the TMA nominations on March 12, during the nonprofit organization’s first-ever virtual trivia night.

“The TMAs were able to do eight shows last year and so the show must go on. Several categories were combined to allow for more nominees,” said AFL President Mary McCreight.

Naegelin explained the reasoning behind 2021’s awards ceremony.

“2020 was a difficult year. Most theatre was cancelled after March, but the TMA Steering Committee and the AFL Board of Directors believed the Theatre Recognition Guild had reviewed enough shows to make a successful TMA event. With only eight shows eligible, some categories were combined so that we did not lose the integrity of our awards and nominations.  To that end, there was not a division of drama and comedy categories for this year,” Naegelin said.

During 2020, beginning in mid-March, because of the public health emergency in Illinois and Missouri. performance venues were closed, gatherings limited to a percentage of capacity and safety protocols in place, including social distancing and face coverings to lessen community spread.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, AFL adopted measures to foster the protection of those who work and play in metropolitan St. Louis-southwest Illinois community theater.

“We will continue our charitable mission of service and recognition once it is safe to do so,” McCreight said.

The Philadelphia Story

The 2020 TMA winners are:

“The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

Heather Sartin, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

Shea Maples, “Inherit the Wind,” Alton Little Theater

Kelsey McCroskey, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theater

Todd Micali, “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” Act Two Theater

Caitlin Souers, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theater

Julie Smailys, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

Nathan Schroeder, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

Andrew Cary, Zac Cary and Heather Sartin, “The Philadelphia Story,” Clayton Community Theatre

Act Two Theatre, “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?”

Winners can record an acceptance speech, no more than two minutes in length, and send it by April 9 to

AFL will upload the recording to its YouTube channel.

Who’s in Bed with the Butler? cast

AFL Adjusts Events in 2020-2021/Mission Remains the Same

Last year, AFL transitioned to streamed formats for both their TMA and Best Performance Awards (musical theater and youth productions) shows honoring productions in 2019.

The BPAs have been cancelled in 2021, and the few musicals that were performed in early 2020 will be considered for the 2022 awards. In April 2020, the AFL president suspended all public activities of the AFL organization, and then the board extended suspension of the Theatre Recognition Guild judging activities, for the BPA branch (musicals), through July 1, 2021.

“All is well with AFL. We will survive and look forward to meeting again in July.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I thank all theater groups who are working to create a safe and pleasing future,” McCreight said.

McCreight emphasized that the AFL board will continue to base their decisions upon the best information currently available and will continue to share information promptly and transparently.

Naegelin is hopeful that more productions will be able to be mounted in 2021.

“I love the work that AFL/TMA does in supporting and promoting community theatre.  From helping provide a sense of community, to providing scholarships, and mentoring at risk students in local theatre programs, AFL/TMA provides a full range of support to the St. Louis metro area.  I’m excited that we can continue that, even in our limited way, in 2021, he said.

AFL was founded in 1994 by Lucinda Guyrci as a local non-profit organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the under-served and the community. The BPAs have honored musical theater since 1999 and the TMAs have honored plays since 2015.

To see a complete list of the nominees and awards history, visit the website:

For more information, contact AFL TRG Secretary Kim Klick at

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By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
With its lush, unusual score and seductive setting, “The Light in the Piazza” is swoon-worthy in many aspects.
Regarded as demanding to present because of its music and dramatic complexities, this intricate musical heightens realism and challenges the most confident vocalist.
Its Tony-winning neoromantic score and orchestrations by Adam Guettel, grandson of icon Richard Rodgers, have more in common with opera and classical music than traditional showtunes, without any pop references.
Nevertheless, the cast of R-S Theatrics’ production rises to master the harmonies and embrace la dolce vita. Guided by music director Sarah Nelson, whose work is exceptional, with assured stage direction from Christine Rios, they project a confident grasp of the material.

Some of the lyrics are in Italian, and silky-smooth voiced Tielere Cheatem, as Fabrizio, is impressive, particularly in his fluid renditions of “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” and “Passeggiata.” His family, the Naccarellis, speak impeccable Italian and deliver richly textured vocals – Kent Coffel as Signor, Jodi Stockton as Signora, Stephanie Merritt as Franca and Micheal Lowe as Giuseppe.
Special mention must go to Italian language coach Myriam Columbo, for it feels organic.
It’s the summer of 1953, and the well-to-do Southern matron Margaret (Kay Love) returns to Florence, Italy, where she spent her honeymoon. With her innocent 26-year-old daughter in tow, her joy is tempered by the special needs of the developmentally delayed Clara (Macia Noorman), who was hit in the head by a Shetland pony at age 10. She matured physically but not emotionally/mentally. It is more subtle than obvious, but when Clara gets upset, she behaves like a petulant child.
The melodramatic story is adapted from a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, which became a turgid 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton (?!? as Fabrizio). The 2005 Broadway show was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won five. It had both fans and detractors, and I was one of its sharpest critics, particularly of the book by Craig Lucas.
Not a fan of the 2007 touring production, which was swallowed in the Fox, was devoid of sympathy for the mother and did not have an ounce of nuance in what I considered a duplicitous transaction.
Not so here – surprise! – because of the performances and the interpretation, although they can’t help that the book has some issues.
Several key elements soothed my misgivings, but mainly it was because of Kay Love’s splendid performance as the Southern matron Margaret, which is the lynchpin to the whole show.
Love earns our sympathy right away – it is a virtuoso performance that highlights her outstanding vocal talent while giving her a juicy role in which to shine. You feel her dilemma, and the emotional rollercoaster she endures. Her North Carolina accent is refreshingly soft and does not overpower her character,  thanks to dialect coach Mark Kelley.
All that guilt Margaret carries is shown on Love’s face, along with the regrets of a lackluster marriage, and a life, though comfortable, spent in service to others. She’s exasperated keeping tabs on an excited Clara, who encounters a young Florentine, Fabrizio. It’s love at first sight for both.
As Clara, Macia Noorman’s accent weaves in and out. Noorman and Cheatem work well together, but she seems more tentative in the duets and went sharp or flat more often in her vocals, particularly when paired with someone. However, her “Clara’s Interlude” is quite lovely.
Rios does not make this entanglement of two star-crossed families overwrought, rather keeps focus on the complicated romance and culture clash. As Margaret wrestles with the couple’s wedding plans, she must decide if she believes in love and her daughter’s happiness. Her husband Roy (Robert Doyle) is of no help, or empathy.
In addition to their superb vocals, the actors playing the Naccarelli family stand out. Kent Coffel plays the haberdasher father with such authority that you believe he is a Florentine of stature while a winsome Jodi Stockton has a nice motherly moment explaining the proceedings to the audience.
Stephanie Merritt gives considerable oomph to the tempestuous Franca so that she is not just a caricature, and soars in her number, “The Joy You Feel.”
While Love imbues her numbers with emotion, her rendition of the finale “Fable” is stunning, all the more remarkable because it follows a fabulous “Love to Me” sung by Cheatem. Love has a sweet duet with Coffel, “Let’s Walk,” before two families join together.
The power of the cast’s voices match the character demands, and Nelson’s musical work must be recognized, for the level of difficulty is understood.
The expressive orchestra adds so much, with Terri Langerak playing a glorious harp, Emily Lane on cello, Kelly LaRussa on violin, Jacob Stergos on bass and Nelson on piano. Their expert skill provided a luxurious sound that elevated this show.
The location also prominently figures into the presentation. Florence is an alluring city of Renaissance masterpieces in the Tuscany region of Italy, with its postcard Mediterranean landscapes, ancient history, and extraordinary art, culture and cuisine. It’s also a character.
The look and feel of this show combines tantalizing adventure with a traveler’s awestruck sense of wonder, providing atmosphere along with sense of time and place.
The piazza, a town square, is where we meet a very tight ensemble, crisp in purposeful movements and welcoming in demeanor. Chris Kernan, Jason Meyers, Louisa Wimmer, Robert Doyle, Melissa Christine, Lindy Elliot, Ann Hier and Anthony Randle are a compelling chorus.
Keller Ryan’s scenic design allows for this tableau to come alive with a captivating vibrancy while Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design provides a burnished glow.
They all look marvelous, too — chic fashion choices by costume designer by Ashley Bauman enhanced the characters’ personalities.
Margaret can’t help but be swept away by the scenic views and the teeming crowd, and neither could I. The intimate staging, the strong creative aspects and the level of talent add up to a must-see production.
R-S Theatrics opens its eighth season – The Season of the Not-so-Perfect Past — with the St. Louis premiere of “The Light in the Piazza” Aug. 10 – 26, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis, 63103. Tickets can be purchased through For more information, visit