Event at Loretto-Hilton Center Will Honor Outstanding Work in Local Professional Theater in 2023

ST. LOUIS, February 2, 2024 – The Muny, The New Jewish Theatre, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) and Stages St. Louis each garnered at least 19 nominations for the 11th annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, with The Muny’s 26 nominations leading all companies. The annual gala will take place on Monday, March 25, 2024 at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road on the campus of Webster University, home of The Rep.

“Clue,” at Stages St. Louis, and The New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” each garnered 11 nominations to lead all shows in nominations.

Tickets at $23 apiece ($20 plus a $3 processing fee) are available at The Rep’s web site www.repstl.org ticket link. The Rep’s box office number is 314-968-4925. Tickets will also be available at The Rep’s box office one hour before the ceremony, which will start at 7:30 p.m. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for a one-hour ‘Happy Hour,’ with beverages and snacks available for purchase.

Nominees in 33 categories will vie for honors covering comedies, dramas, musicals and operas produced by local professional theater and opera companies in the calendar year 2023. Approximately 100 productions have been considered for nominations for this year’s event.

The eighth annual award ceremony, which was to have been held at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University, was cancelled in February 2020 due to the escalating number of cases of COVID-19. Instead, that event, honoring outstanding local theater productions for the year 2019, was held virtually in a highly polished presentation produced by HEC Media and streamed on HEC’s YouTube channel and web site.

A ninth annual ceremony similarly was streamed on HEC Media for the combined years of 2020 and 2021, before the gala returned to the Loretto-Hilton in 2023 for the 10th annual awards.

The nominees for the 11th annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards are:

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role 
Rae Davis, “Merry Wives,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Diana DeGarmo, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Ricki Franklin, “Twelfth Night,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Christina Rios, “Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
Zoe Vonder Haar, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role 
Chuck Brinkley, “Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
Charlie Franklin, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Nick Freed, “The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre
Bryce A. Miller, “The Nerd,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Chuck Winning, “The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre

Outstanding Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role 
Colleen Backer, “Outside Mullingar,” West End Players Guild
Mara Bollini, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Stray Dog Theatre
Sarah Burke, “Grand Horizons,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Teresa Doggett, “The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre
Leslie Wobbe, “Walter Cronkite Is Dead,” West End Players Guild

Outstanding Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role 
Jacob Flekier, “Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
Joneal Joplin, “Grand Horizons,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Ryan Lawson-Maeske, “The Nerd,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Jason Meyers, “Outside Mullingar,” West End Players Guild
Mark Price, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play 
Anshuman Bhatia, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Jayson M. Lawshee, “Skeleton Crew,” The Black Rep
Jason Lynch, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Sean M. Savoie, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Christina Watanabe, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Sound Design 
G. Clausen, “Twisted Melodies,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Michael Costagliola, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Beef Gratz, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Amanda Werre, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design in a Play |
Daryl Harris, “Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep
Liz Henning, “The Lion in Winter,” The Midnight Company
Brad Musgrove, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Michele Friedman Siler, “The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
Fabio Toblini, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Set Design in a Play 
Nina Ball, “Confederates,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
An-Lin Dauber, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Regina Garcia, “Twelfth Night,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Tim Mackabee, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Lee Savage, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role 
Nicole Angeli, “Mindgame,” Albion Theatre
Velma Austin, “Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep
Rhiannon Creighton, “Doubt: A Parable,” Prism Theatre Company
Kelly Howe, “See You in a Minute,” Contraband Theatre
Mindy Shaw, “The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role 
Isaiah Di Lorenzo, “Bitter Fruit,” Upstream Theater
Michael James Reed, “Uncle Vanya,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Chauncy Thomas, “Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep
David Wassilak, “The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
John Wolbers, “The Lion in Winter,” The Midnight Company

Outstanding Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role 
Lavonne Byers, “The Lion in Winter,” The Midnight Company
Kate Durbin, “Doubt: A Parable,” Prism Theatre Company
Ricki Franklin, “See You in a Minute,” Contraband Theatre
Michelle Hand, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Max & Louie Productions
Naima Randolph, “Suddenly Last Summer,” Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Outstanding Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role 
John Contini, “Barrymore,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Ron Himes, “Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep
Dustin Lane Petrillo, “The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
Reginald Pierre, “One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
John Pierson, “Uncle Vanya,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Outstanding New Play 
“Action,” by Colin McLaughlin, Action Art Collaborative
“In Bloom,” by Gwyneth Strope, The Tesseract Theatre Company
“One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston,” by J B Heaps, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
“The Privilege of Being Second,” by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, Prison Performing Arts
“See You in a Minute,” by Jacob Juntunen, Contraband Theatre 

Outstanding Achievement in Opera 
Janai Brugger, “Susannah,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Teresa Doggett, “Don Pasquale,” Union Avenue Opera
Gemma New, “Susannah,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Murrella Parton, “Cosi fan tutte,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Patricia Racette, “Susannah,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Brandie Inez Sutton as Treemonisha and the chorus of “Treemonisha” by Scott Joplin, reimagined by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton. Photo © Eric Woolsey

Outstanding Production of an Opera 
“Don Pasquale,” Union Avenue Opera
“Ragtime,” Union Avenue Opera
“Susannah,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
“Treemonisha,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
“The Turn of the Screw,” Union Avenue Opera

Outstanding Musical Director 
Charlie Alterman, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” The Muny
Colin Healy, “Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
James Moore, “West Side Story,” The Muny
Larry D. Pry, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
David Sonneborn, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Choreographer 
Denis Jones, “Sister Act,” The Muny
Maggie Nold, “Kinky Boots,” The Tesseract Theatre Company
Patrick O’Neill, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Josh Rhodes, “Chess,” The Muny
Heather Beal, Robert Crenshaw, Vivian Watt, “Eubie!,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role 
Jackie Burns, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” The Muny
Jerusha Cavazos, “West Side Story,” The Muny
Diana DeGarmo, “Aida,” Stages St. Louis
Kristen Joy Lintvedt, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
Taylor Louderman, “Chess,” The Muny

Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role 
Jonathan Hey, “Into the Woods,” Stray Dog Theatre
Phil Leveling, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
Ken Page, “West Side Story,” The Muny
Jeremy Sevelovitz, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Stages St. Louis
Jarrod Spector, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” The Muny

Outstanding Lighting Design in a Musical 
Herrick Goldman, “Aida,” Stages St. Louis
Jesse Klug, “Q Brothers Christmas Carol,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Jayson M. Lawshee, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
Jason Lyons, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Sean M. Savoie, “Million Dollar Quartet,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Set Design in a Musical 
Ann Beyersdorfer, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Edward E. Haynes, Jr., “Chess,” The Muny
Rob Lippert, “Godspell,” Stray Dog Theatre
Kristen Robinson, “Little Shop of Horrors,” The Muny
C. Otis Sweeney, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical 
Leon Dobkowski, “Little Shop of Horrors,” The Muny
Eileen Engel and Sarah Gene Dowling, “Into the Woods,” Stray Dog Theatre
Robin McGee, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Brad Musgrove, “Aida,” Stages St. Louis
Marc. W. Vital III, “Eubie!,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role 
De-Rance Blaylock, “Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
Melissa Felps, “The Mad Ones,” The Tesseract Theatre Company
Bryonha Marie, “Sister Act,” The Muny
Sara Sheperd, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” The Muny
Molly Wennstrom, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre

Outstanding Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role 
Tie`lere Cheatem, “Kinky Boots,” The Tesseract Theatre Company
Ben Crawford, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Robin de Jesus, “Little Shop of Horrors,” The Muny
Kevin O’Brien, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
John Riddle, “Chess,” The Muny

Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy 
“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre
“The Brechtfast Club,” ERA
“Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
“Clue,” Stages St. Louis

Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama 
“Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep
“The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Lehman Trilogy,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Lion in Winter,” The Midnight Company

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical 
“Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
“Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
“Million Dollar Quartet,” Stages St. Louis
“Q Brothers Christmas Carol,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Outstanding Director of a Comedy 
Gary Wayne Barker, “The Nerd,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Steve Bebout, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
Alan Knoll, “Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
Suki Peters, “The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre
Hana S. Sharif, “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Outstanding Director of a Drama 
Kate Bergstrom, “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Carey Perloff, “The Lehman Trilogy,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Annamaria Pileggi, “Uncle Vanya,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Rebekah Scallet, “The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
Jacqueline Thompson, “Death of a Salesman,” The Black Rep

Outstanding Director of a Musical 
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” The Muny
Brian McKinley, “Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
Robert Quinlan, “Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
Josh Rhodes, “Chess,” The Muny
John Tartaglia, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny

Outstanding Production of a Comedy 

“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Birthday Party,” Albion Theatre
“Broadway Bound,” The New Jewish Theatre
“Clue,” Stages St. Louis
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Stray Dog Theatre

Outstanding Production of a Drama 
“Death of a Salesman” The Black Rep
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Immigrant,” The New Jewish Theatre
“The Lehman Trilogy,” The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“Uncle Vanya,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Outstanding Production of a Musical 
“Aida,” Stages St. Louis
“Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
“Into the Woods,” The New Jewish Theatre
“Million Dollar Quartet,” Stages St. Louis
“West Side Story,” The Muny

The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor outstanding achievement in St. Louis professional theater. Other cities around the country, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., pay tribute to their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.

Members of the St. Louis Theater Circle include Chas Adams (PopLifeSTL.com and KDHX ); Steve Allen (stagedoorstl.com); Mark Bretz (Ladue News); Tina Farmer (The Riverfront Times); Michelle Kenyon (snoopstheatrethoughts.com and KDHX); Gerry Kowarsky (Two on the Aisle, HEC Media); Chuck Lavazzi (KDHX); Rob Levy (Broadwayworld.com); James Lindhorst (Broadwayworld.com);  Lynn Venhaus (PopLifeSTL.com); and Bob Wilcox (Two on the Aisle, HEC Media). Eric Kenyon, director of The Chapel venue, is group administrator.

For more information, contact stltheatercircle@sbcglobal.net or ‘like’ the St. Louis Theater Circle on Facebook.

By Lynn Venhaus

The fourth time is indeed the charm. Infused with extra Muny Magic, this “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” makes you believe in happily ever after.

Under the brilliant direction of John Tartaglia, this imaginatively staged, and elegantly crafted musical will make you laugh out loud and shed a tear, for it grabs your heart in the opening number “Belle” and never loosens its grip on your emotions until the final bow.

This beloved romantic fantasy has endured since the 18th century, first as a French fairy tale, then as a 1946 film by Jeanne Cocteau where an arrogant prince is cursed to spend his days as a hideous monster but has a chance to regain his humanity by earning a young woman’s love.

In 1991, modern audiences fell in love with Disney’s 30th animated feature that went on to make history as the first animated feature to be Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. With its Academy Award-winning original score and touching title song, the script was tailor-made to be adapted into a stage musical, which happened in 1994, and played on Broadway for 13 more years. Screenplay writer Linda Woolverton is credited with the book and Tim Rice wrote additional lyrics, and the stage version has become a global sensation.

A bona fide classic with its iconic characters, lush score and engaging blend of romance, comedy, and drama, Muny audiences have enjoyed presentations in 2005 (the attendance record holder for nearly five years), 2010, and an outstanding one in 2015.

Because it’s a perennial family favorite, honestly this production didn’t have to be as good as it is – because we’d be enchanted anyway, and all those little girls who showed up in yellow gowns wouldn’t be disappointed.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Yet, this is an extraordinary effort. The best one to date under the stars is inspired because Tartaglia knows how to spark joy. An expert at finessing humorous moments with a flair for the dramatic, Tartaglia showcases his versatile talents as a director and his experience as a musical comedy performer. After all, he joined the Broadway company as Lumiere in 2006.

A true visionary, Tartaglia has brought out the whimsy, charm, sense of family, and genuine feelings in this Disney classic. On this stage before, he’s directed “Shrek,” “Matilda,” “Annie,” Disney’s “Tarzan,” “Wizard of Oz” and last year’s “Mary Poppins.”

A puppeteer and “Sesame Street” alumni, he’s best known as a creative and Tony-nominated star of the original Broadway cast of “Avenue Q.” He’s played memorable roles at The Muny, including the Genie in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Aladdin” in 2012, The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical” in 2014 and won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical as Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2017.

He loves the Muny and the Muny loves him, and we are the richer for this mutual admiration society. His ability to create one-of-a-kind storytelling outdoors shines through, from the pep in the step of the ensemble to his dazzling use of pyrotechnics.

Incorporating a cast of 85 in super-sized renditions of the showstopper “Be Our Guest” and an amusing, rousing “Gaston,” the creative team is in sync and up to the challenge. Choreographer Patrick O’Neill and associate choreographer Bryan Thomas Hunt go for big and bold, and music director Ben Whiteley, who has held the Muny baton for all four “Beauty and the Beast” shows, brings out all the textures in the timeless songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

The performers have put their heart and soul into this show, from an acrobatic Tommy Bracco cavorting as buffoonish LeFou to Debby Lennon’s virtuoso vocals as excitable diva Madame de la Grande Bouche.

Ashley Blanchet as Belle. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Ashley Blanchet is the epitome of a Disney Princess. As the lovable independent Belle, she is a savvy combination of sweet and spunky, heart-tugging in a glorious “Home” and the hopeful “A Change in Me.” The way she stands up for herself is refreshing.

As the imposing, bitter Beast, Ben Crawford’s rich, robust voice is one of the evening’s most pleasant surprises, and he brings a depth of yearning and regret to the role that’s palpable. Even under his involved make-up, you feel his change from a sullen prince cursed for being cavalier and haughty to someone trying to change for the better. His powerful “If I Can’t Love Her” brought down the house to close the first act.

Crawford has portrayed the legendary Phantom on Broadway, but his last role at the Muny hardly tipped us off to his capabilities, for he played the cruel and cocky Chuck in “Footloose” four years ago. He and Blanchet have a believable chemistry, carrying off the opposites attract tension and tenderness with touching sincerity.

The castle’s support staff provided crowd-pleasing antics, with the delightful duo of Kelvin Moon Lo as kind-hearted candelabra Lumiere and Eric Jordan Young as fussy butler-turned-mantel clock Cogsworth leading the pack.

While good-natured Ann Harada has the comedic chops and warmth to play motherly cook Mrs. Potts, her rendition of the Oscar-winning title song is shriller than satisfying as a major moment.

Michael Hobin is an adorable Chip, and Holly Ann Butler has fun as the saucy Babette. The group’s rendition of “Human Again” is a wistful beauty.

Blanchet, Claybourne Elder. Phillip Hamer photo.

Broadway veteran Claybourne Elder is a standout as swaggering narcissist Gaston, emphasizing the blowhard’s ridiculous vanity while eventually turning into a spiteful, vicious bully, first targeting Belle’s eccentric dad Maurice (Harrison White). When Belle slapped him, the crowd erupted in applause.

A highly skilled visual design team has crafted a stunning castle and quaint Old-World village, with Belleville, Ill., native Ann Beyersdorfer’s opulent scenic design, Greg Emetaz’s expressive video design and Jason Lyons’ effective lighting design. The only thing that felt out of place was a jarring depiction of Gaston losing his footing in the climactic fight scene on screen.

Accenting the characters are Robin McGee’s luxurious and intricately embellished costume designs and Ashley Rae Callahan’s period wig designs. McGee, who grew up in Highland, Ill., designed the 2015 show, but didn’t rely on any previous outfits this time, and elevated the looks here with an accomplished team of seamstresses working overtime in the costume shop. Belle’s pillowy, shimmering ballgown is jaw-dropping.

Noteworthy are the puppet designs by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck, especially in making the scary wolves’ eyes glow bright red as they roamed the woods.

This lavish production has all the elements to succeed as an unforgettable evening of entertainment, especially for a wide audience. Typically, the ‘children’s show’ introduces a new generation to the unique experience the Muny offers..

On Friday night, it appeared to win over many youngsters who remained rapt through the entire two acts – particularly one young man a few rows in front of me. His view was blocked by a rather large adult at curtain call, so he moved to the aisle to stand and cheer.

He made me smile wider, recalling watching other youths mesmerized over the years (reviewing since 2009). I’m one of those kids who first came with my grandmother, about 10 years old, awestruck by the grandeur. How many of us became forever fans that way?

The Muny triumphs once more with a deluxe and endearing “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” a heart-warming reminder that we get to connect again because of this 105-year St. Louis tradition. Don’t miss your chance to get sprinkled with pixie dust on a splendid summer evening.

Be Our Guest. Phillip Hamer Photography.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” runs from June 22 to 30 in Forest Park, nightly at 8:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.muny.org

Notes: Show sponsor Ameren and The Muny are promoting Ready Readers, a nonprofit supporting literacy, by collecting new and gently used children’s books, suitable for readers aged 12 and under. A table has been set up near the box office so that patrons can drop off books before the show.

For a deeper dive into the Disney Animation Renaissance, the documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” is currently streaming on Disney +, as is the poignant documentary “Howard,” which honors the late lyricist Howard Ashman for his tremendous contributions to music. He died at age 40 from AIDS complications, in 1991.

Phillip Hamer Photography.

The company of Beauty and the Beast. Phillip Hamer Photography

By Lynn Venhaus

I had the pleasure to guest on Friday’s McGraw Millhaven Show with Jay Kanzler subbing as host. We talked movies, of course!

(My segment is the last hour, starting at 3:10, or after the 9 a.m. news.)

Allow me to list local professionals who have enriched my life greatly in recent years. Because this life is a journey where people you meet matter in many interesting and surprising ways.

Five years ago in November 2017, Jay asked me to be a guest on his nighttime show, talking movies, and the rest is history.

I am grateful for Jay’s support, the opportunity and being on with Jay and Jennifer, then Jay and Ray, then when Jay left, a solo Ray Hartmann through 2022. Ray has decided to end his show, and I can’t speak highly enough of Ray as an individual, colleague, and as a supportive host for several years (2019-2022).

Wendy Wiese and Jennifer E Blome

I’ve been fortunate to join Jennifer E. Blome and Wendy Wiese on their KTRS weekday mid-morning show about theater (mostly Muny and Fox) and entertainment since they joined forces, and we’re going to continue that into 2023.

Now I’ll be a regular contributor on Friday mornings, and that will start on Jan. 6, so I’m very excited and happy to be joining the sisterhood to talk movies and what’s happening in entertainment.

I’m very grateful to Mark Mueller, for sponsoring “Mueller Furniture Presents Lynn Venhaus Goes to the Movies,” what a great guy and a great business, and to all the board ops/producers along the way – Howard Morton, CJ Nasello, Greg Harvey, Luis, Austin and others. And to station boss Mark Dorsey for allowing me to grace the airwaves.

And of course, the listeners. I really enjoy the feedback and the fellowship!

It’s been a wonderful five years at KTRS, and I look forward to continuing this partnership!

Paul Cook

(And I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my pal Paul Cook for being the first to invite me on St Louis airwaves to review movies, back in February 2016 at Y98, when Paul hosted the drivetime, and he’d have me on Fridays. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, and the powers-at-be ended it after a year, but it was a year full of challenges for Paul — his triumphant but gut-wrenching cancer treatment, recovery — and I learned so much from him, such positive vibes, what strong people do in times of crises.

In January 2016, I also started reviewing for Webster-Kirkwood Times, which I am very grateful for, especially after McClatchy ended local reviews in BND in 2017, and I still had a print outlet.

The business is ever-changing, ever-evolving, multiple re-inventions, revisions, and I am just happy to be part of the conversation on current film, regional theater, and what’s happening in the world of entertainment and local events. I love being able to interview people for features, and I continue to meet the most fascinating people (will discuss this more in a column on my website, about the people of the year that was).

I’m still writing print (news, features in BND) and online at my website, www.PopLifeSTL.com, but as a mass communication major who has dabbled in radio (even worked in small market radio news), it’s nice to develop other skills. I am eager to improve. And I’m fortunate to still be working in the biz I love — and doing the things I yearned to do in my early years — now 47 years after college graduation.

Summer 1979 working in radio news at WILY-WRXX in Centralia IL

Now I’ve aged out of certain roles, it’s that time of life, and I am an independent contractor. This gives me more opportunities to write for other outlets, and since the electric bill won’t wait, yippee.

One of the biggest thrills this year was being added as a contributor to St Louis magazine by dining editor George Mahe, one of our town’s (and nation’s) finest. Talk about learning from someone so good at their craft! What a joy. I’m meeting the wonderful foodies and movers and shakers of this region through this outlet, and it’s been a terrific experience. More to come as I’m just getting my ‘feet wet,’ so to say. (Longer story about my December is coming). I am so very appreciative of George’s tutelage.

(Fun fact: Yes, I was the last food editor at the late, great St. Louis Globe-Democrat — where I got to interview Martha Stewart before she was a mega-brand and Wolfgang Puck at the height of his celebrated chef days at Spago’s — and I’ve written dining/chef articles for Belleville News-Democrat for many years, and recently, for Marketplace Magazine (Old Herald, Goshen Coffee, Soulcial Kitchen).

I think of where I’d be if the Globe hadn’t folded in ’86, a topic my colleague Chas Adams and I talk about regularly, as he and I have reconnected (so many times over the years, but now, he writes reviews for my website).

Of course, they would have separated us by now back in Living section because we were quite the pop culture enthusiasts back then, writing our column “DIshing It Out” and chatting about what we should include.

I digress…

I started the website so I’d have a home for my theater reviews, because I am in the St Louis Theater Circle, and it’s a great joy/responsibility to support the arts, and ‘keep it real.’ It’s a challenge to keep up a grueling production schedule, in light of sometimes real-life things happening at the same time, but it’s one that is an honor and a privilege to do. So many talented people and creatives in this region, and I am grateful to see their work. (More on that in another post). Special thanks to the patient PR people and artistic directors for their assistance and their understanding when there are scheduling conflicts.

In this up-and-down rollercoaster of a career, and a life, I do not take anything for granted — especially after the pandemic, now in our third winter. I know life holds no promises, and to be respected as a professional is an ongoing process, one I work hard at because it’s important to be relevant and trusted. Gaining people’s trust is never something one can take lightly.

We can’t slack on the skills we were taught so long ago “in j-school” about ethics, integrity and ‘getting it right.’ The leg work, the fact-checking — yes, it matters. (My pet peeves, for another time). I tried to instill this when I taught journalism/media at Kaskaskia College, St Louis Community College-Forest Park and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville).

Me at NYFF 2022

I guess the only way to sum it up any kind of work these days is to “keep on, keeping on.”

Thanks to you for reading and listening all these years. It’s truly a wonderful life being able to contribute in a meaningful way, and to be able to do what you love, learning and growing every day.

We get to carry each other, and no one does anything well alone — collaboration is always the key, and that’s how we’ll get better. Always. The ‘new normal’ has taught us that we aren’t islands (at least I hope so).

At this later stage in life, I’m afforded opportunities because of such great chances, like being vetted for Rotten Tomatoes, Critics Choice Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists. It’s a responsibility to live up to, and I continually strive to be better at communicating critical knowledge.

Here’s to a productive 2023, full of new challenges and adventures. And hopefully, some good things to watch and see in the year ahead. And wonderful people to meet.

By Lynn Venhaus

A refreshing summer breeze took over the Muny for the premiere of the solid-gold Emilio and Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet!” and transformed it into an effusive Saturday night Dance Party. Did we need this now or what?

A winning combination of melodic Latin rhythms, heartfelt pop ballads, ebullient dance moves and an only-in-America success story, this electrifying jukebox musical swiftly engaged the crowd, who seemed ready to have the rhythm get them up and on their feet for a rockin’ megamix curtain call.

The winds of change were noticeable opening night on that venerable stage in Forest Park, where it has been a beacon in times of turmoil – and created more than a few memorable moments. Will we remember this night as a turning point? It deserves to be one.

To be sure, it was a fait accompli that also was of historical significance. Looking back at the past decade, this Muny premiere is the most recent work on the schedule, having opened on Broadway in 2015.

While the Municipal Opera archives includes pre-Broadway tryouts and shows imported directly from New York, “On Your Feet!” is also among the shows that have had the shortest time between its Broadway debut and the Muny-produced premiere. For instance, “On Your Feet!” has six years between those markers, only surpassed by “Legally Blonde” — 2007 in NYC and 2011 in Forest Park, and “Newsies” on Broadway in 2012 and at the Muny in 2017. (“Kinky Boots” and “Matilda the Musical” both opened on Broadway in April 2013 and were at the Muny the summer of 2019, and “Shrek the Musical” was in NYC in 2007 and at The Muny in 2013, so all tying the six years’ gap.)

The show also represents a sea change — the first about Latinos by Latinos with a primarily Latino cast. The Estefans are known for breaking barriers, so kudos for this achievement, too.

Arianna Rosario and Omar Lopez-Cepero as Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Because the audience of 5,930 wholeheartedly embraced this modern musical, magic materialized and represented something larger in the big picture. After all, the Muny is most importantly about community, and “On Your Feet!” is about what community means – and how determination and everlasting love can get us over insurmountable odds.

There is so much to like about this local production, well-suited for the expansive outdoors stage, not only a showcase for sizzling performances but also as a panorama of cultural heritage.

Based on the remarkable true story of married power couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan (lightning bolts Omar Lopez-Cepero and Arianna Rosario), who met while making music in Miami. Gloria Maria Milagrosa Fajardo Garcia was 17, studying for a degree in psychology.

As leader of the popular group Miami Latin Boys, Emilio recognized her talent, and it was apparent early on they made quite a team. They eventually married, had a son and daughter, and built an international career that resulted in Gloria becoming one of the best-selling female artists of all-time. (75 million records and counting).

Impossible was never in their vocabulary, and the realities of what they overcame makes for a compelling narrative. Above all, their backstory illustrates how enormous hard work and belief in what they offered paid off.

In the 1980s, their Miami Sound Machine music was a revolutionary fusion of Cuban and American cultures and as an early crossover to other audiences, earned worldwide acclaim through its propulsive beats: “Conga!”, “Rhythms Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” “Get on Your Feet” and “Live for Loving You” lit up club dance floors. Fame and fortune followed, but not without its struggles.

Initially, Gloria shied away from the spotlight, but that exceptional voice demanded she be front and center. The band became known as Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine, later dropping the group name. Grammy Awards, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors and two Super Bowl halftime appearances are among her accolades.

The ready-made-for-a-musical opened at New York’s Marquis Theatre in 2015 after a Chicago tryout and closed after 746 performances in 2017. Some of the Muny cast and production team were involved in the Broadway show, including music director Lon Hoyt, who makes the music pop with pizzazz.

Omar Lopez-Cepero and Arianna Rosario. Photo by Phillip Hamer

This biopic was immediately elevated by the casting of real-life husband-and-wife Lopez-Cepero and Rosario as the leads. They make a dynamic duo, easily captivating with sincerity, personality and noticeable chemistry.

As the Queen of Latin pop, Rosario is a dazzling magnetic force delivering hit after catchy hit and conveying warmth and courage in the personal life interludes. During the Broadway run, she was an understudy for Gloria and performed as Rebecca, Gloria’s sister, and in the ensemble.

Since his breakthrough performance in the Muny’s 2017 “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and his tremendous turn as Armando in 2019’s “Paint Your Wagon,” Lopez-Cepero has been notable. Fortunately, he finally gets an opportunity to be in a starring role, and effortlessly rises to the occasion. He was in the original Broadway cast as a supporting player.

He shines as Emilio, who recognized Gloria’s talents and would not be deterred by all the doors shut along the way, opening windows instead and allowing the music to do its magic. His splendid voice soars in “Don’t Want to Lose You.”

Both the Estefans and the headliners project that their marriage is a terrific representation of a true partnership.

Family is a major focus of the musical’s book by Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Oscar winner for co-writing the original screenplay of “Birdman” with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo.

The delightful Alma Cuervo, who originated the role of Consuelo, Gloria’s supportive “abuela’ (grandma) on Broadway, endeared herself on the larger stage.

And because there is never a musical biography without conflict, that friction is displayed in the rocky relationship with bitter mom, also named Gloria, whose dreams were crushed at a young age.

As the elder Gloria, Natascia Diaz stands out in song – “Mi Tierra” and with Lopez-Cepero in “If I Never Got to Tell You,” a song written by Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan for this show.

Locally, Diaz won a Kevin Kline Award for best supporting actress in a musical in 2006 for portraying Anita in The Muny’s 2005 “West Side Story” and was nominated for a St. Louis Theater Circle Award as Velma Kelly in the Muny’s “Chicago” in 2012.

While the book follows the template of many other standard biographies, Gloria’s backstory does include some hefty issues. At age 2, she fled from the revolution in Cuba with her family. In the U.S. military, her father served in the Bay of Pigs invasion and volunteered for Vietnam, and Gloria’s tapes of her singing comforted him on the far-away battlefield.

Martin Sola is poignant as Jose Fajardo, the loving dad suffering from multiple sclerosis. He was also a part of the Broadway production.

Adolescent performers are bright lights — Isabella Iannelli as young Gloria and Jordan Vergara as son Nayib and young Emilio respectively. Vergara made his Broadway debut as an alternate in those roles and continued playing them in the national tour.

There is a fun recreation of a Shriners convention in Vegas, with the two youngsters as tiny Elvis impersonators, and the enitre youth ensemble is a sunny presence in the big numbers.

The multi-generational ensemble is noteworthy – and the diversity reflects how America looks today. Bravo to the casting that recognized talent comes in all different shades and sizes, and for the work by dialect coach Gaby Rodriguez Perara.

Director Maggie Burrows, a Muny first-timer, has deftly pulled all the elements together to keep the story on its toes, fortified with athletic choreography by William Carlos Angulo and Hoyt’s percussive beat. The musicians were a finely tuned machine, and the additional percussion gave the pulsating numbers extra oomph.

Costume Designer Leon Dobkowski’s signature swirling mix of bright colors provided flexibility and were pleasing to watch in motion.

The book’s construction makes it necessary to stage small, intimate scenes – such as a kitchen counter, a bedroom, a dressing room and a hospital bed, so I wish the sound had been better, because at times it was subpar, hard to hear the conversations.

Because of Gloria’s explosive career as an entertainer, scenic designer Tim Mackabee has staged multiple numbers with the pop superstar descending a staircase in headlining diva mode, and the band perched in full view – which lends such a vitality.

As does video segments on the LED screen as an ‘up close and personal’ viewpoint – an ingenious move that offers something new. Kudos to video designer Kate Ducey on the innovative work.

The scenic design also features a minimal but effective use of tropical settings in Havana and south Florida.

Act II features the devastating accident in March 1990, when the Estefans’ tour bus collided with a semi-truck in a snowstorm. Gloria suffered severe spinal injuries, and could have never walked again, but a nine-hour surgery, where they inserted two titanium rods, helped her to fully recover – that and an intense focus on rehabilitation, not to mention the encouragement from thousands of fans across the globe.

The finale recalls the stunning moment when Gloria took the stage at the American Music Awards the next year and sang “Coming Out of the Dark,” which she wrote with Emilio and songwriter/bandmate Jon Secada.

As with any triumph in life, persistence is the key, and this musical exemplifies that, just like Gloria’s album, “Into the Light.”

“On Your Feet!” is a breath of fresh air, a jolt of joy in an increasingly scary world. As the joint was jumpin’ on opening night, this indicated patrons could be receptive to a brand-new day.

How lovely that the universal language of music could soothe our souls at a time we badly need a reminder in the enduring, inspiring notion that America still is the land of hope and dreams.

This summer smile was indeed welcome. And a sweet ending with fireworks after tripping the light fantastic.

“On Your Feet!” is presented nightly at 8:15 p.m. from Saturday, Aug. 21 to Friday, Aug. 27, at the Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org. For tickets, visit www.Metrotix.com or the Muny box office, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday at 1 Theatre Drive, or call (314) 361-1900 x1550.

The Megamix Curtain Call. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Muny photos by Phillip Hamer.

Lynn Venhaus has been reviewing the Muny since 2009 and professional theater since 2005, and is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle, established in 2012. A longtime journalist, she has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metropolitan area publications since 1978, earning awards along the way for news and features (and an Illinois Press Association award for reviews before they dropped the category). She has taught writing for the media as an adjunct instructor at three local colleges. A graduate of Illinois State University, she has a mass communications degree with a minor in theater. Among her life achievements are sons Tim and Charlie.

By Lynn Venhaus
We have been enriched by Steve Woolf as a titan in regional theater, and his loss will be deeply felt.

For 33 years, he guided The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, until his retirement in 2019. He died Monday at age 75.

I had the opportunity to interview and talk with him on several occasions, and I am very grateful to have been in his orbit for a bit. It was an honor. His immense love of theater was obvious from the moment you encountered him – his eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas.

I have been reviewing plays at The Repertory Theatre since 2005. Their “Take Me Out” I consider to be the gold standard for plays in St. Louis. As a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle in 2012, I have presented him with a lion’s share of awards. Every year, from 2013-2019, he was always gracious and sincere, no matter how many trips he took to the stage.

During the past decade, The Rep has earned more than 100 awards. They have led the way in innovation and excellence – in acting, direction, set design, lighting design, sound and much more.

As an Arts For Life board member, I helped facilitate his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, for his “vision, passion and excellence,” and he was so genuine about the honor. But that’s what he did — lived an authentic life. He never forgot that he was a kid from Milwaukee living out his dream.

And so, he could inspire — he talked about the magic of live theater, being in a dark room, sharing a special experience with other people that changes us and connects us.

His work spoke for itself: He directed “Red,” one of my favorites, and he brought the complex “Oslo” to the stage as one of his final — and most intense — works. He committed to making it relatable, no easy task with a large sprawling cast.

During rehearsals for the stellar “All the Way” in 2015 (I was there to interview Brian Dykstra, playing LBJ, and Woolf, who was directing — https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article34672659.html), he told me about his experience seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in London.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Rep

He had been gobsmacked. He didn’t think The Rep could do it — very technical show, intricate — but the wheels were turning. He was so excited about trying to bring it to The Rep. “I think I’ve found a way we can do it,” he said to me later. (And it would win the Theatre Circle’s Outstanding Production, which opened the 2017-2018 season, and Best Director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in 2018.)

The enthusiasm he had for the process and the collaboration of “putting it all together” were so obvious. I cherish a brief interchange I had with him — in a stairwell at The Rep — about “The Humans,” which was a thought-provoker, had many layers. I had made an observation, and he wanted to hear more of my thoughts. It had received a mixed reaction — but he was firm in his fervor. He was just so darn insightful.

During an interview before the 50th season, which opened with “Follies,” he recalled the first time he saw the show as a young man studying theater. We geeked out about our mutual love of Stephen Sondheim. “Follies” was brilliant, but his other major production at The Rep, in 2012, the magnificent “Sunday in the Park with George,” was breathtaking. Truly memorable.

Every year, he would go to New York to soak up multiple theater productions. And hearing about his experiences was always a treat. During intermission of yet another “Mamma Mia!” at the Fox, I went over to chat with Joe Pollack, and Steve Woolf also came over to talk to Joe, and he regaled us with tales from his recent Broadway adventures. How fortunate to hear his vision and just how he radiated joy about theater (I mean, he was at “Mamma Mia!”).

One of my favorite Steve Woolf remembrances was, in fact, at Joe Pollack’s memorial service on March 17, 2012, at The Rep, of course. His widow, Ann Lemons Pollack, had arranged for five main speakers — all from a different facet of Joe’s life/illustrious career. Steve was the representative for theater, only fitting. He said as a critic, Joe just wanted the theater groups to “get it right.” Oh, yes, what a perfect summation.

And yes, Steve, you “got it right” more often than not. You will be missed, for your wit, your wisdom, your humanity, your desire for theater to spark conversations — and how you appreciated St. Louis audiences.

May God rest your soul. Your memory is already a blessing to me. And I hope you and Joe can continue to have some great conversations.

Mark Bernstein, retired managing director at The Rep, summed it up perfectly in a statement: “Steve always had his finger on the pulse of the St. Louis community, programming plays that resonated in the here and now, and showcasing the work of outstanding directors, designers and actors. St. Louis audiences responded by filling the seats, night after night, week after week, year after year.”

Standing O, Steve!

”Here is an article I wrote for the Webster-Kirkwood Times when he was getting multiple awards before retiring:



My review of “All the Way,” in the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 17, 2015: https://www.bnd.com/entertainment/article35666526.html

My review of “Follies,” in the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 21, 2016: https://www.bnd.com/entertainment/article103265847.html

Photos provided by The Rep

With the St. Louis theater community continuing to be severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Louis Theater Circle has officially canceled its 2021 awards event.

The St. Louis area is now nearing the one-year anniversary of pandemic protocol, including the virtual shutdown of all in-person theatrical events since mid-March 2020, less than one-fourth of the way through the calendar year, on which nominations are based. So few productions were mounted in 2020 that there is no way to have an awards ceremony on a scale similar to the previous eight ceremonies hosted by the organization.

Some, if not most, of the more than 30 categories wouldn’t even have a full set of our traditional five nominees. After reviewing the numbers, Theater Circle members thus have voted not to hold our traditional presentation in 2021.

Gary Wayne Barker and Jerome Davis won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for “District Merchants” at New Jewish Theater in 2020.

With more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 every day in St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois as well as elsewhere, we look forward to the eventual return of live theater. Our hope at this time is to combine shows produced in 2020 with any mounted later in 2021 for consideration for nominations for our ninth annual event, which is tentatively scheduled for 2022.

The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor St. Louis professional theater. Other cities around the country, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C., pay tribute to their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.

For more information, contact stltheatercircle@sbcglobal.net or the St. Louis Theater Circle’s Facebook page.

The St. Louis Theater Circle members are: Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tanya Seale at Broadway World; Tina Farmer at KDHX; Michelle Kenyon at Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts; and founding members Steve Allen, Stage Door STL; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Gerry Kowarsky, HEC Two on the Aisle; Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Judy Newmark, Judy’s Second Act; Ann Lemons Pollack, St. Louis Eats; Lynn Venhaus, www.PopLifeSTL.com; and Bob Wilcox, HEC Two on the Aisle. Eleanor Mullin is the group administrator.

Laurie McConnell won her second Supporting Actress Award for “The Little Foxes” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio in 2019.

Last year’s virtual ceremony can be viewed here:


Photo of St Louis Theater Circle taken in 2017.