By Lynn Venhaus
Stages St. Louis’ “In the Heights,” a jubilant celebration of culture, community, and connection, won six awards, including Outstanding Musical Production, Music Director, Choreography, Set Design, Costume Design (tie) and Ensemble in a Musical, at the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards Monday.

Their world premiere of “The Karate Kid – The Musical” won Outstanding Lighting Design for a total of seven, and Jack Lane, retired executive producer, announced the musical is Broadway-bound in 2024.

Seven is what The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis amassed for four productions: August Wilson’s “Jitney” (2 – Outstanding Production and Ensemble), “Behind the Sheet,” (2 – tie for Outstanding Production – Drama and Best Director), “The African Company Presents Richard III” (1 – Supporting Performer, Male or Non-Binary, Cameron Jamarr Davis) and “Dontrell, Who Was Kissed by the Sea” (2 – Lighting Design and Sound Design).

Brian McKnight accepted on behalf of The Black Rep and described founder Ron Himes as a man “who has vision.”

The Muny, SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble), and West End Players Guild each won four at the 10th Annual Theater Circle Awards, which recognized achievements in comedies, dramas, musicals and operas.

SATE’s original play “Bronte Sister House Party” won 4 (Best New Play, Outstanding Comedy Production, Comedy Ensemble and Supporting Performer Male or Non-Binary Role). “The Color Purple” at The Muny won 3 – Leading Performer, Female or Non-Binary in a Musical, Supporting Performer, Female or Non-Binary, and Costume Designer while Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” won 3 – Leading Performer, Male or Non-Binary, Supporting Performer, Female or Non-Binary, and Director Robert Ashton for the West End Players Guild.

For more than 10 years, the St. Louis Theater Circle has been presenting annual awards for regional professional theater, and resumed a live ceremony after virtual productions streamed by HEC Media online in 2020 and 2022 because of the coronavirus pandemic, cancelling 2021 (but including a few of those productions last year).

It was the first live ceremony since 2019, and held at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Loretto-Hilton Center on Webster University’s campus.

Approximately 90 productions were considered for this year’s event. Three productions – “Chicago” at the Muny, “A Christmas Carol” at The Rep, and “Head Over Heels” at New Line Theatre — were ineligible because the same production was presented within the last three years at the respective venues.

The Circle presented more than 30 categories for outstanding achievements from 2022, with 20 theater companies receiving nominations.

Nationally recognized playwright, theater producer, and long-time advocate for the arts Joan Lipkin was honored with a special award for lifetime achievement.

Records that evening included Joel Moses winning two acting awards in one night and Jennifer Theby-Quinn won her third acting award, joining Will Bonfiglio and Laurie McConnell as three-time winners.

Luis Salgado, who made “In the Heights” ‘pop’ with his spirited direction and vibrant choreography, accepted awards while praising the theater community in St. Louis. He and actor Ryan Alvarado, a nominee for playing Usnavi, flew in from New York City to attend .

Here are the awards given out April 3:

Cameron Jamarr Davis “The African Company Presents Richard III” at the Black Rep

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role: Hannah Geisz, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role: Joel Moses, “Brontë Sister House Party,” SATE

Outstanding Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role: Molly Burris, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role: Jason Meyers, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play: Jasmine Williams, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Sound Design: Jackie Sharp, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Costume Design in a Play: Oona Natesan, “House of Joy,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Set Design in a Play (tie): Bess Moynihan, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company and Josh Smith, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Winner Jason Meyers, at right “The Lonesome West”

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role: Rachel Tibbetts, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role: Cameron Jamarr Davis, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role: Jennifer Theby-Quinn, “Iphigenia in Splott,” Upstream Theater

Outstanding Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role: Joel Moses, “The Christians,” West End Players Guild

Joel Moses, “The Christians” at West End Players Guild

Outstanding New Play: “Brontë Sister House Party,” by Courtney Bailey, SATE

Outstanding Achievement in Opera: (tie) Thomas Glass, “Harvey Milk,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Robert Mellon, “Falstaff,” Union Avenue Opera

Outstanding Production of an Opera: “A Little Night Music,” Union Avenue Opera

Outstanding Musical Director: Walter “Bobby” McCoy, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Choreographer: Luis Salgado, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role: Nicole Michelle Haskins, “The Color Purple,” The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role: Jeffrey Izquierdo-Malon, “Something Rotten!” New Line Theatre

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical: Bradley King, “The Karate Kid – The Musical,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Set Design in a Musical: Anna Louizos, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical: (tie) Samantha C. Jones, “The Color Purple,” The Muny and Brad Musgrove, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Anastacia McCleskey “The Color Purple” at The Muny

Outstanding Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role: Anastacia McCleskey, “The Color Purple,” The Muny

Outstanding Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role: Ben Davis, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny

Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy: “Brontë Sister House Party,” SATE

Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama: “Jitney,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical: “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Director of a Comedy: Robert Ashton, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild

Outstanding Director of a Drama: Ron Himes, “Behind the Sheet,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Director of a Musical: Bradley Rohlf, “Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals

“Bronte Sister House Party” won four Circle Awards

Outstanding Production of a Comedy: “Brontë Sister House Party,” SATE

Outstanding Production of a Drama: (tie) “Behind the Sheet,” The Black Rep and “Jitney,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Production of a Musical: “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis

Special Award: Joan Lipkin, for lifetime achievement

The St. Louis Theater Circle was formed the summer of 2012 and began awarding excellence in regional professional theater in 2013. No touring, community theater or school productions are considered.

Current embers of the St. Louis Theater Circle include Steve Allen,; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Tina Farmer, KDHX; Rob Levy,; Michelle Kenyon, and KDHX; Gerry Kowarsky, Two on the Aisle (HEC-TV); Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Judith Newmark,; Lynn Venhaus, and KTRS Radio; Bob Wilcox, Two on the Aisle (HEC-TV); and Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Eleanor Mullin, local actress and arts supporter, is group administrator.

The mood was extraordinary, and, in Joan Lipkin’s words, we could feel the “palpable joy” for each other. The speeches were heartfelt, and I wish we had them on record. It was truly “celebratory revelry.”

The Black Rep was a winner for four separate shows in the same year, an a back to back winner for August Wilson, as last year’s drama production was “Two Trains Running”)

We discovered we had two different Josh Smiths nominated — the one for Shakepeare’s Italian villa who won for “Much Ado About Nothing” was not the same for the carnival in “Ride the Cyclone.”

Happy the ‘tribe’ had so much fun — and the fellowship was really special. Hope the feedback continues to be positive.


“Jitney” Best Drama Production and Best Dramatic Ensemble

By Lynn Venhaus

With shimmering visuals and costumes, “House of Joy” shows flashes of dazzling technical brilliance at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Unfortunately, while mysterious and mystical, the storytelling is where it falters.

In a time and a place far, far away, the fictional setting is a South Asian kingdom – let’s just presume the Islamic Mughal Empire (16th-19th century) in around 1666. Apparently, society is segregated and we’re only seeing the females in the palace – and a eunuch who oversees this court of women.

Because it is disorienting at first, the play takes a long time to establish characters and their motives, then crowds the action in the second act, before it rushes to an unsatisfying open-ended conclusion, and overall is not as cohesive as it purports to be.  

It’s as if playwright Madhuri Shekar has decided it’s best if we fill in the blanks ourselves, and the tone is all over the place. Dramaturg Salma S. Zohdi hasn’t connected the dots either.

Perhaps it’s because the loyalties shift between the poorly drawn characters and the story, with its multi-thread subplots that aren’t fully realized, doesn’t give us much to invest in during its two-hour runtime.

Questions, I have questions. Most importantly, why did this play need a rewrite that shifted the focus to a 7-person cast with six females and a same-sex love story? Why is it set in an unnamed empire and an unspecified time? Why does so much action take place off-stage?

While I can’t speak of the original one from earlier productions 2017- 2019, but only the rewrite that premiered in St. Louis, this current plot boils down to palace intrigue and chicanery regarding a power struggle between the emperor and his conniving daughter, Princess Noorah (Aila Ayilam Peck), from an earlier marriage. And unseen rebel forces we don’t know about but are alluded to in conversation.

The unseen despicable old emperor is currently married to a naïve young girl, Mariyam (Emily Marso), who is very pregnant, and living an arranged life she never imagined. Her job is to breed, and after she gives birth to an heir, she’s not as useful.

Lonely and miserable, this innocent queen has fallen in love with the newest palace guard, Roshni (Tina Munoz Pandya) of the all-female imperial harem.

Roshni, with a bloody tragic past that’s rather muddled, was befriended by the sly fox eunuch Salima (Omer Abbas Salem), who recommended her for the job. She had to impress the tough captain of the guards Gulal (Miriam A. Laube), who is demanding and still watches her carefully.

She loves the job, and her best bud working long shifts together in this self-described utopia is Hamida (Sumi Yu).

Salima and Gulal are the ones who know everything going on in the palace and where the loyalties lie. You don’t know if they can be trusted, however – they leave it up to interpretation. But if you are on their good side, then you are protected in the power plays.

What the back-stabbing (or merely stabby) princess wants to pull off – toppling the patriarchy! — seems like a disaster waiting to happen and there are shifting moving parts to the unrest/coup/insurrection, so much so that it’s confusing.

The stereotypical evil princess is merely a caricature in Peck’s hands. Overall, we have two sets of actors – the ones who stay in their lane and then the melodramatic ones who go over the top, as if they are in a daytime soap opera.

Yu is strong as Hamida and tries hard to flesh out her character. Regina Fernandez appears in four minor roles to round out the cast. As the couple at its center, Marso and Pandya are convincing in their passion and desire – and I rooted for them (after all, love is love is love is love).

The dialogue is flecked with modern words and phrases. I’m assuming whatever past century the characters are in, no one said “tittie” or “I’m aware.” This habit of writing period pieces in modern vernacular is often distracting – and annoying.

And as we hear long passages of exposition about what’s gone on in the past and what’s taking place off-site or off-stage, the story remains curiously uninvolving.

There is some bewildering mumbo-jumbo – a dead mother re-appearing as a ghost/apparition and a glowing pile of coals centerstage – that means something we’re supposed to figure out.

The love story overtakes the drama, and its romantic structure is clumsy. Paradise now is a prison for Roshni and Mariyam.

And then, we endure an unnecessary and gratuitous staging of a shockingly graphic sex scene in a boat.  

What is the point here? We already know they are in love, and it is forbidden – she’s married! To the Emperor! And while everyone seems to know, it still is a situation fraught with danger. Illicit affairs have gone on in royal families, this is nothing new nor does it appear to be anything other than a garden variety plot conceit.

Despite whatever direction the intimacy coordinator (Gaby Labotka, who is also the fight choreographer) decided on, the scene is uncomfortable, with its simulation of stimulation and orgasm, and really takes the audience out of the story.

All I could think about was the teacher who brought a busload of (what looked like) junior high kids that I saw in the lobby, and the comments and complaints he/she would have to deal with, and if any parents came along as chaperones.

Yes, the play is for mature audiences. The Rep has stated, for content transparency: “This production contains adult sexual content, language, moments of violence, haze/fog and suggestive moments of smoking.”

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt uneasy. Since opening night, people have contacted me, recounting patrons audibly gasping and others walking out. There appears to be a harsh negative backlash among longtime theatergoers. The play is polarizing, for there are others who enjoyed it very much.

Defenders will call us prudes and unenlightened. Us rubes here in flyover country don’t know theater and we need to be lectured at every opportunity by professionals who think they know more than we do, because how could we know anything about theater? (Now is the time to shake your head or chuckle or spit-take or whisper your feelings – or curse and shout that I’m very wrong).

I don’t need a lecture, and quite frankly, I’m tired of being told what I should like because it might take me out of my comfort zone (which I don’t mind at all, if it’s well-constructed, well-acted and says something).

I’m “aware.” Art is subjective. This is only my opinion. Whether or not you agree, I consider my role is to explain my view – and if something is worth your time and money.

Not that I need to explain myself, but I have seen many controversial plays, many heralded shows that fall short in a certain venue or a regional group’s interpretation. It happens. Isn’t the first rule of theater “know your audience”?

Go ahead, push boundaries, if it helps the story and its impact. Was it necessary to convey a romance in such a way? No. Discretion would have gotten the point across with several kisses and embraces.

For the record, I consider The Rep’s “Take Me Out” in 2005, part of its acclaimed but short-lived “Off the Ramp” series, to be one of the finest productions I have ever seen, and I sat very, very close to full frontal nudity while ball player characters rinsed, lathered, and repeated in shower scenes. (Fun Fact: I won an Illinois Press Association award for that review, back when they awarded reviews, and I was a full-time newspaper employee).

Of course, “House of Joy” is more than one incendiary scene, but by the time chaos and revolt occurs, is anyone on the edge of their seat? And do we really understand what is happening, and who’s aligned with who?

Its ambition is to be epic in scope, and the play is being misrepresented by comparing it to more cinematic genre-busting fare, calling it “Swashbuckling”? This is nothing close to DC’s Wonder Woman or the bad-ass Marvel Cinematic Universe women in “Black Panther.”

Of course, I’m all for women power, for I stand on the shoulders of giants. Sisters doing it for themselves is reason to celebrate. Getting away from abuse is necessary, especially for the queen. Can we get something to cheer about that’s lucid?

Playwright Shekar comes with quite a resume, full of awards and recognition, and has television and film credits as well. It doesn’t matter what she did before or after this play to a puzzled audience watching “House of Joy.”

If this is the first time this version has been presented, perhaps it needs to be workshopped further to make it stronger and more appealing.

Nevertheless, the production elements are stunning in execution – particularly what’s swirling on the on-stage screen, the collaboration between Projections Designer Stefania Bulbarella, Projections Programmer Devin Kinch, Projections Animator/Illustrator Joaquin Dagnino and Associate Projections Designer Brian Pacelli, who take it to next-level by changing it constantly and expanding the panoramic vistas.

That technical razzle-dazzle is complemented by Lighting Designer Sarah Hughey and Sound Designer Porchanok “Nok” Kanchanabanca. The costumes designed by Oona Natesan are exotic and elegant, with outstanding hairstyling (no name in program).

Director Lavina Jadhwani utilizes a spare stage designed by Dahlia Al-Habeli where movement flows crisply, and the palace guards are choreographed by Aparna Kalyanaraman.

Because this is what I consider a work-in-progress, in her program notes, Jadhwani described putting this show together as “jumping onboard a moving train.” Maybe some of us found it to be a trainwreck – it needs to be disassembled and put back together logically.

I didn’t find “House of Joy” joyous or fun or exciting or any of the words being used in marketing. Sure, it’s about “all you need is love” or “love is the answer” or “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I think.

I’d like to have reasons to determine its impact. Spoiler alert: We don’t really know what happens to most of the characters when it ends, so how can we be moved or know what to feel when it leaves us hanging?

Answers, I’d like answers.

Photos by Eric Woolsey.

“House of Joy” is being presented Aug. 28 – Sept. 18 on The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. For schedule of performances and ticket information, visit

Proof of a full COVID-19 vaccination and a valid ID, or a negative COVID test taken 24 hours before the performance, are required for entry into any Repertory Theatre event. Masks are highly encouraged, but optional. Front of House Staff will have one-time use masks on hand for patrons that would like to use them.