By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Flour, butter and sugar can create magic if other ingredients are at play. “Waitress,” the musical equivalent of comfort food, shows us that if love, hope and inspiration are in the mix, that is a dandy can’t miss combination.

Besides inducing cravings for pie – whatever expert pie-baker Jenna Hunterson calls them (“Getting Out of the Mud Pie” is just one), this stage adaptation of writer-director-actress Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 hit independent film evokes warm feelings about family and friends.

Its charming workplace setting in a small-town Southern-fried diner is easily relatable because of a tight trio of spunky females who have made it their home away from home.

This delightful threesome – Christine Dwyer as dreamer Jenna, Ephie Aardema as geeky Dawn and Maiesha McQueen as sassy Becky, even with their thorny man-troubles, is all for one and one for all, just like those famous fictional friends.

The women shine because of their noticeable bond and harmonize beautifully in such numbers as “A Soft Place to Land” and “The Negative.”

The national tour, now playing at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis for the first time since it began in 2017, has quickly won over audiences with humor and heart – and the smell of baking pies wafting through the lobby.

The funny and uplifting show, nominated for three Tony Awards in 2016 – the year “Hamilton” was a runaway train — is still playing on Broadway, enticing audiences with its appealing female empowerment theme and catchy melodious pop songs.

Jenna is a plucky sort trapped in an unhappy marriage who dreams of breaking free if she wins a nearby county’s baking contest prize money. She suffers a few setbacks, namely a surprise pregnancy with a controlling, abusive husband. She also falls for the new doctor in town –and he’s married, but they engage in a mad affair. So, it’s complicated. She’s in this unusual pickle, and how can she find her way to a better life? She must concoct her own recipe for success.

As Jenna, Dwyer projects vulnerability and resolve, finally taking courageous steps once she gives birth (“The Contraction Ballet” – yes, they go there). Her numbers “What Baking Can Do” and the rise-up motherhood anthem “Everything Changes” are among the highlights.

The book by Jessie Nelson doesn’t skirt that Jenna’s life is a hot mess, nor do the candid songs. You gotta love a musical with a musical number “Club Knocked Up,” which is set in a doctor’s office.

The music and lyrics are by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles (“Love Song,” “Brave,” “King of Anything”), who provides emotional soul-baring ballads, such as “She Used to be Mine,” in this medium too.

However, the peppy cast really sells the big numbers with panache – making them crisp and snappy from the start, “Opening Up” and “Bad Idea” among them.

The Ogie-centered numbers, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” and “I Love You Like a Table” feature Lorin Latarro’s fast-paced choreography and the scene-stealer Jeremy Morse as the odd soulmate Dawn discovers on her blind date, who she met online. He and Aardema are terrific together.

Morse’s comic timing is superb, as is Ryan G. Dunkin as laid-back but put-upon cook/manager Cal. The other sympathetic male is Richard Kline as cantankerous customer Joe, who owns the diner. In the movie, the character was played by Andy Griffith, in his last film role.

As for the husband and lover, these are one-note parts. Earl doesn’t have any redeeming quality whatsoever, and Matt DeAngelis plays him well as an insufferable jerk, but it’s a head-scratcher that Jenna has been married to him for as long as she has.

Then, Dr. Pomatter is the dreamy OB/gyn, but he’s married to a perfectly fine woman who is working her residency at the hospital. The infidelity is hard to get past. But Steven Good is fine in the role, pairing well with Dwyer in “It Only Takes a Taste” and conveying his conflicted heart in “You Matter to Me.”

DeAngelis and Good were in the Broadway cast, as was Morse.

Morse’s Ogie is such a lively goofball that he clearly steals the show. But giving him a run as audience favorite is Dawn Bless as Nurse Norma, whose impeccable comic flair is a hoot, especially when the pair-in-heat think they’re fooling her.

Another favorite moment is the arrival of young Lulu for the final scenes in the diner. In St. Louis, she is played by Penelope Garcia and Norah Morley, both 5 years old, who were selected in local competition for the cameo roles. The adorable and energetic Penelope played Jenna’s daughter on this night.

Of note would be that Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s physical relationship in his office is more naughty than nice. Just in case you are bringing younger children. If there was a rating, it would likely be PG-13 (at least).

A nice touch is the band’s presence in the diner. The six musicians are a tight group – with Music Director Robert Cookman on keyboards, Conductor Lilli Wosk on piano, Jeff Roberts on drums, Lexi Bodick on base, Nick Anton as cello/guitar and Ed Hamilton as guitar.

“Waitress” is a small, sweet show with enough tartness and zip to make it a pleasant pop experience, all the better with girlfriends in a female-heavy crowd.

“Waitress” is at The Fox Theatre March 26 – April 7. For tickets, contact Metro-Tix or the Fox Box Office, and for more information, visit

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Spry actors Joe Hanrahan and Shane Signorino slip into 21 different characters to play the denizens of “Popcorn Falls,” a daffy mix of vignettes designed to showcase performers’ strengths while paying tribute to small-town personalities – and the power of theater.

This average American town, whose residents prefer to be called ‘kernels,’ has seen better days, and is in danger of bankruptcy because their waterfall has dried up, no thanks to a new dam. Without their claim to fame, tourists and commerce has vanished. But a greedy corporation is ready to pounce, with plans to demolish the town and turn it into a sewage treatment center. Can the town be saved?

Because of an old arts grant, they can get enough money – but writing and producing the play must be done in a week — despite the lack of a theater and experienced thespians. Shades of Blaine, Missouri, the center of “Waiting for Guffman.” Or Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland practicing in a barn – “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!”

Can this absurd solution work?

Sure, if our dynamic duo of intrepid mayor (Hanrahan) and loyal custodian (Signorino) be the heroes and rally the town with the grant money dangling before them. But in the bigger picture, can art save the world?

You can clearly figure out playwright James Hindman’s thought process. While the optimism is unwavering in this 2017 off-Broadway comedy, the farcical material isn’t as amusing as the portrayals.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Popcorn Falls resembles other quirky fictional settings that evoke warm and humorous memories – Stars Hollow, Mayberry, Greater Tuna, Bedford Falls – heck, even “Frostbite Falls” from “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” It provides the basis for wacky characters and nutty situations, even if it’s derivative.

The pairing of Hanrahan and Signorino is inspired, with their skills and talent enough to convincingly conjure up a cadre of zany townsfolk.

Hanrahan’s Ted Trundle, the beleaguered new mayor on the verge of divorce, shares quite an interesting backstory. He is counting on the neighboring county’s budget committee to bail them out, and enthusiastically gathers folks at the library to cobble together the plot. Well, this turns into a free-for-all what-did-I-get-myself-into scenario.

Signorino’s main man is head custodian Joe, who is shown at work and at home. He frets about supporting his growing family if the town goes belly-up. He also transforms into the majority of characters – including a female bartender at The Sudsy Mug (as does Hanrahan), her precocious young daughter, the dramatic cat-lady librarian who fancies herself an actress, the snaky corrupt county official, dim but well-meaning sheriff, the one-armed owner of the lumber yard, and a chain-smoking middle-school teacher with a vivid imagination. Hanrahan portrays the local mortician who wants to act in the show.

Both stalwarts of the local theater community, Hanrahan and Signorino work together in the manner of classic comedy duos, manic improv pairs and old-timey vaudeville/variety acts. They know how to work a crowd, with Hanrahan basically the straight man to Signorino’s goofy multitudes, and can easily switch into various roles.

In an impressive turn, Signorino rises to the demand of performing all his characters during the original play’s dress rehearsal.

Instead of costume changes, the characters are distinguished by vocal adjustments, attitudes, posture, and perhaps a hat or accessory or prop.

This is the kind of show The Midnight Company excels at, usually one-acts with little frills but ambitious and often unique and interesting material, realized by a strong but small cast. Director Sarah Whitney has deftly guided the pair for maximum madcap effect.

If at any time it is confusing, that’s the fault of the thin script and not the nimble actors. Hanrahan is nearly in view the entire time while Signorino rushes about to accommodate the others. The pair seemed to be having fun — but the parts are a challenge because of the fast pace.

The simple staging in the Kranzberg Center’s black box gives the men a small space to fill with their clever characterizations in the well-worn “play within a play” format.

Chuck Winning has designed a functional bare-bones set, replicating a budget-strapped town hall meeting room. Scene changes are announced on a small blackboard, and it would help to clean the board every night, for the layers of chalk dust make it difficult to read the later scenes.

Tony Anselmo created a straightforward lighting design that works well within the small confines.

Even though the material is lightweight, Hanrahan and Signorino do considerable heavy-lifting, and they muster enough charm to sell it, along with their sincerity and veteran work ethic. Now, if only the squirrels wouldn’t chomp on the town hall wires because Popcorn Falls can’t afford traps.

The Midnight Company presents “Popcorn Falls” Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., March 28 – April 13, in the Kranzberg Arts Center blackbox theater. Tickets are available through For more information, visit The play is performed without an intermission and is 85 minutes long.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

“Nonsense and beauty have close connections,” Edward Morgan Forster once wrote. Playwright Scott Sickles took that phrase as the title of his splendid play, which the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis helped develop. And oh, what a starting place it is.

“Nonsense and Beauty,” Sickles’ timeless tale of love and forgiveness, is set in a very different era where same-sex relationships were mostly hidden, and famous British author E. M. Forster is caught up in the nonsense and beauty of a long affair with a man 23 years his junior – who will marry a woman during this conflicted period.

Not your garden-variety real-life love story, as it unfolds, we discover a believable love triangle with likable people – no villains, wrapped in a very complicated forbidden relationship between two complex men, while on the sidelines, there’s the unrequited love of a dear friend who desires more. Additionally, there’s the unconditional love of a mother, although a prickly and miserable woman.

In lesser hands, this would be a turgid soap opera with starched collars. And while the poignant play unleashes an emotional rollercoaster, it’s contained in an elegantly rendered production that is exquisitely acted and sharply directed.

Staged crisply by Seth Gordon downstairs in the Studio Theatre, that intimate space and the in-the-round format suits the play well. My fondness for the characters grew with each scene, as their connections with each other were conveyed so well.

Forster, known to his close friends as Morgan and gay, was the celebrated novelist (“Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” “A Passage to India”), a prolific essayist and 16-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Considered a humanist, the stuffy conventions of the upper-class British society he lived and worked in were a source of material for him, as he could not live life out loud in such a universal state of repression. After all, homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom until 1967.

He was an intelligent man of impeccable manners, and Jeffrey Hayenga excels as showing us his wordly refined side, but also his yearnings and longing for a life he could only imagine. Hayenga’s absorbing performance is tender and touching.

After he met London policeman Bob Buckingham, a jolly old chap of no discernable stature, at the Cambridge-Oxford boat race in 1930, they began a risky on-and-off relationship that would span 40 years.

Their friendship was tested when Bob courted and married smart and feisty May, a no-nonsense nurse who did not follow up any possible suspicions about the men spending ‘alone’ time together. She stayed in the dark, whether it was of her own choosing or she just didn’t go there in her mind.

Forster was a major presence in their family’s lives. Nobody meant to hurt each other, but oh, what aching and pain endured.

An engaging pair together, Robbie Simpson as Bob and Lori Vega as May displayed genuine sparks as their relationship grows into matrimony and parenthood. Nevertheless, how confusing for all — neither Bob nor Morgan could quit each other, so therefore, their friendship survived through the ups and downs of their lives.

Another constant was longtime friend, the distinguished writer J.R. Ackerley, wondrously portrayed by John Feltch. He brings more to the urbane and glib character than tossing off bon mots and smirking about the confines of society. He pined for more with Morgan, but that was not to be. He befriends May, something neither expected, and his wit well-serves the production.

Feltch, so good in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in 2015 (and St. Louis Theater Circle nominee), has a regal stature and is an erudite sounding board throughout the show. In the movie, his character would have been played by Clifton Webb or Vincent Price – or even James Mason.

As E.M. Forster’s battle-ax of a widowed mother, Lily, Donna Weinsting astutely captures the grand dame’s controlling and cantankerous ways.

The entire ensemble is finely calibrated to show the fragility, disappointment and deep love between the characters. The play’s bittersweet nature is imparted in multiple ways.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s minimal set, enhanced by his eloquent lighting design, allows smooth flow of the characters in conversation. Bembridge won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for “The Royale.”

Felia K. Davenport’s costumes defined the periods succinctly, and Rusty Wandall’s sound design provided nifty vintage touches. Leiber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” was a wise choice to open and close the show.

Gordon, The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director, had nurtured this project even before he further developed it as part of The Rep’s 2018 Ignite! Festival of New Plays, which he started after coming to the Rep. He directed its first major public reading in 1996 at the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays.

This is the sixth play from “Ignite!” to become a full-fledged production, and this world premiere is a dandy – a lovingly crafted work of substance, that means something, where the attention to detail is strong, and the approach thoughtful.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “Nonsense and Beauty” March 8 – 24 in the Emerson Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road. For tickets or more information, visit Box Office phone is 314-968-4925.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Legendary singer-songwriter Carole King’s joyous and wistful music is the sound of a generation and her remarkable life story parallels the evolution of women in the 1960s and 1970s.

How she found her voice is chronicled in the wildly popular long-running show, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” now on tour at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for a limited engagement March 12 – 17. The show celebrated its fifth anniversary on Broadway in January.

It’s easy to love this smartly constructed show – compelling rise to stardom story and a glorious score bursting with catchy pop songs. Carole’s character goes through a tremendous amount of growth (and hairstyle changes), so she’s relatable and sympathetic.

Sarah Bockel immerses herself in the role, making a believable transformation from insecure but talented teen into a strong independent woman.

The smooth and crisp production is just as much about the beginnings of rock ‘n roll – the tunes that had a good beat and we could dance to it, as a young Carole was part of the hit machine at the Brill Building, hired by producer Don Kirshner. Her husband, Gerry Goffin, was the lyricist while she wrote the melodies, and the string of hits kept coming.

A wonderful nostalgia is evoked when The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva and other recording artists perform their hit songs, a vivacious blast from the past that strikes a chord: “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” among them.

John Michael Dias, who was on the first tour at the Fox, and Paul Scanlan as The Righteous Brothers delivered a rousing, soulful “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

The recognition factor to those chart-toppers is high, and the emotional connection to the story is immediate.

Douglas McGrath’s witty and warm book showcases plenty of heart and humor. In addition to Bockel’s affability and believability, Dylan S. Wallach conveys the hard-working early years as well as the pressures of the business that overtook the talented but troubled Gerry.

A supportive sisterhood was in full force opening night, as whoops, hollers and cheers met every “Attagirl!” woman empowerment line in the second act, when Carole emerges from divorce as a solo artist.

Her landmark 1971 album, “Tapestry,” which sold over 25 million copies, won Grammys for Best Record, Song and Album of the Year. It is still one of the bestselling albums of all-time, and the longest Billboard run by a female artist.

My generation knows every single word — still, and showed appreciation Tuesday night, for it was a true lovefest, along with a sentimental flashback to our youth, and a delightful walk down memory lane.

It’s a thrilling, magical moment when Carole decides to sing her own material and tries out ‘It’s Too Late” at the Bitter End.

Another key to this show’s success is because it isn’t just about Carole. Songwriting partners Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (hilarious Jacob Heimer), who were also at work, literally next door, are an integral part of the story. The foursome’s good-natured competitiveness resulted in many standards that defined the rock era, and it’s a sweet reflection on good friendships as well.

The strong cast embodies well-drawn characters. James Clow plays a significant mentor — producer Don Kirshner as both a boss and as a caring friend. Suzanne Grodner reprised her role as Carole’s supportive but nagging mom,

Director Marc Bruni, who has worked at The Muny eight times, kept the focus on the relationships and the work, as the couples go through the changing times of the 1960s. He made sure the show flowed well, with an up-tempo for the most part.

The production team captured the era well. The show isn’t only for Baby Boomers, it is for anyone who loves music and can identify with Carole’s progression. The musical celebrates the music that played in her head with style, rhythm and passion.

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is on national tour, and playing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis March 12-17. For more information, visit For tickets, visit or call 1-314-534-1111.