By Lynn Venhaus
How do you define J-O-C-U-L-A-R-I-T-Y? The literal translation is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Stray Dog Theatre.

A splendid summer sojourn, the jaunty musical comedy celebrates American traditions and meritocracy, our inherent competitive spirt, and freak-flag waving.

At a nondescript middle school, a sextet of smarty-pants sixth graders competes for a $200 savings bond and a towering trophy at the annual big-deal event. Three adults handle the proceedings, and four audience members are selected to participate, too.

And the blithe spirits on stage and in the audience instinctually know this is far more pleasurable than Mensa members getting together for Scrabble, especially with its clever audience-participation cachet.

However, those who didn’t make the honor roll need not worry, for SAT scores aren’t required at the door, and it’s a very accessible and inclusive work. The catchy music and savvy lyrics by William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain”) and the whip-smart Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin offer something for everyone.

In this enjoyable production, adroitly directed by Justin Been, the dexterous cast has mastered the nimble word play and spit-take worthy improvisations for a rollicking good time. They got game.

The in-sync ensemble expertly colors outside the lines, shading their idiosyncratic characters with humor and humanity. Unlike “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” where grown-ups also play kids, this is a show with mature content.

Kevin Corpuz is returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, a strident Boy Scout who is struggling with puberty and distracted by a female in audience; Grace Langford is resolute newcomer Olive Ostrosky, whose mom is in India and dad is always working; and Sara Rae Womack is fervid Marcy Park, an over-achieving transfer student.

Clayton Humburg is mellow Leaf Coneybear, home-schooled son of hippies; Dawn Schmid is high-strung Logainne “Schwartzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre, politically aware and pushed by her two dads to win at all costs; and Kevin O’Brien is last year’s egghead finalist William Morris Barfee, whose name is really pronounced Bar-Fay, because of an accent aigu, and not Bar-Fee, like the announcer repeats.

Photo by John Lamb

While everyone’s comic timing is admirable, O’Brien elicits many laughs as he embodies a know-it-all misfit unfortunately hampered by one working nostril. Hunching his shoulders, rolling his eyes, and sighing in exasperation, O’Brien is in his element. He has the most peculiar way of spelling out the words – with his “Magic Foot.”

Barfee is one of those supporting roles that is an awards nomination magnet, like Adolfo in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the UPS guy in “Legally Blonde – The Musical.” Dan Fogler, now of “Fantastic Beasts” who recently played Francis Ford Coppola in “The Offer,” won a Tony Award for originating the role.

The middle-school spellers are joined by four individuals that have volunteered for the gig – signing up in the lobby beforehand.  Good sports, they are called on to spell, without any special treatment, which is a key element to the fun. They might have to spell Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or cow.

The three adults in the room include ‘comfort counselor’ Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), an ex-con who gives the eliminated contestants a juice box and a hug; former champ and returning moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), a successful realtor who enjoys reliving her glory days; and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), who has returned as a judge after personal time off to work out some ‘things.’

Their perspicacity is evident – and the three veterans are oh-so-smooth with the innuendos and deadpan humor. Merritt is guileful as the supremely assured and unflappable announcer – think Patty Simcox from “Grease” as an adult.

She glibly describes the contestants with seemingly innocent comments and a few double-entendres. You don’t want to miss a word, for you might do a double-take (Wait – what?).

Hilarity ensues whenever the puckish Meyers wryly uses a word in a sentence or describes his feelings. He elevates the script’s wit (those inappropriate comments!) with his crackerjack delivery. Just don’t get him started on Klondike’s decision to drop the Choco Taco! He’s a tad jittery.

Photo by John Lamb

Several performers double as ancillary characters, such as parents – for instance, Kernan and Humburg are Logainne’s importunate fathers. Corpuz shows up as Jesus Christ. (You’ll just have to see).

The convivial show, workshopped into an off-Broadway hit, transferred to Broadway in 2005 – and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two. It was originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman and based upon “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” a play by her improv collective, The Farm. Additional material was supplied by Jay Reiss.

The ingenious construction has managed to keep it fresh 17 years later by relying on the actors to be on the ball with au courant references.

Been astutely uses the state of play as an advantage, maintaining a balance of friskiness and sweetness that makes sure everyone is in on the jokes. No mean-spirited sarcasm here.

The cast’s exemplary improv skills make this a very funny, free-wheeling show. But let’s not forget the music is an integral part, too, and each character nails a signature song. Besides Barfee’s “Magic Foot,” there is — Leaf: “I’m Not That Smart.” Olive: “My Friend, The Dictionary.” Marcy: “I Speak Six Languages.” Logainne: “Woe Is Me.” Chip: “Chip’s Lament.”

Rona’s “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” is a running theme throughout, Mitch serenades the last audience speller with “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” and Panch is in “Spelling Montage.”

The troupe’s strong voices harmonize well in the group numbers, too.

Photo by John Lamb

Music Director Leah Schultz smoothly keeps the tempo on track, and is on piano, joined by Kelly Austermann on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion. Choreographer Mike Hodges keeps the moves light-hearted and breezy.

Jacob Baxley’s sound design enhances Rona’s championship spotlight, as does Tyler Duenow’s lighting design.

Eileen Engel’s costume designs distinctly outfit the personalities – and allow them to move easily, whether in the minimal dancing or walking through the aisles.

The Tower Grove Abbey’s small stage is well-suited for the show’s sparse set design, put together by Been.

For logophiles, the principal contestants are relatable. — perhaps a bit more eccentric, but these quirky characters have all learned an early invaluable life lesson: Knowledge is power.

My fellow nerds will feel at one with their tribe. For we know that summer vacation fun isn’t defined by theme park rides, water slides, and sports camps, but by summer reading lists – whether it’s for a library club, school enrichment class or a free personal pan pizza in the Pizza Hut Book It! Program.

It’s still the only musical where the cool kids are here for the orthography. Revenge of the nerds, indeed. So, Wordle can wait – and this show cannot, for there are 8 performances remaining.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Thursdays through Saturdays from Aug. 4 to Aug. 20 at 8 p.m., with additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue in Tower Grove East. For more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Note: Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four.

Photo by John Lamb.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Passion drives the characters and the R-S Theatrics production of a miraculous
little musical that has something to say. The title “A Man of No Importance” is
a misnomer, for Alfie Byrne is a remarkable human being whose significance is mirrored
in the faces of his fellow Dubliners.
In a blockbuster musical theater climate that regularly serves feel-good fluff and
spectacle, Broadway heavyweights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote pensive
Irish-inflected music and lyrics and four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence
McNally penned the book for a heartfelt rumination on friendship, acceptance,
creative expression and social mores for a 2002 Lincoln Center production.
This unconventional off-Broadway diamond in the rough feels like a pot o’ gold
discovery today. McNally, whose bold work on gay themes has been heralded
worldwide, adapted the 1994 film “A Man of No Importance” starring Albert
Finney into an introspective work of substance, a fanfare for the common man with
wry humor and touching moments.

Unlike the grand ambition of their masterpiece “Ragtime,” McNally,
and Ahrens and Flaherty, through their songs, give meaning to modest people and
their small-scale dreams and desires. And it’s in a specific setting – a working-class
Dublin parish in 1964, with quaint characters, during a time of innocence as
the world is changing.
With grace and laser-focus, director Christina Rios has created a cozy setting
that feels like the earnest characters are in your living room, that they are
part of your daily life and live next door.

“A Man of No Importance” at R-S TheatricsThe snug space gives the top-flight cast an opportunity to
gel like a community – the way an amateur theater group does, how church parishes
do, and why co-workers, pub mates and newcomers connect. You feel their moods,
temperaments.

Good-natured Alfie Byrne (Mark Kelley) is a bus conductor
by day, with a poet’s soul, and a creative force at night. Inspired by his
mentor Oscar Wilde, he fervently directs the St. Imelda’s Players, coming alive
fired up by art.

While kind and outgoing, he is also forlorn, a square peg
trying to fit into a round hole, as Alfie is a closeted homosexual when it was
still a crime in Ireland.

At home, he lives with his surly sister Lily (Stephanie
Merritt), who finds his hobbies peculiar, particularly his penchant for making
foreign dishes for dinner distasteful – Bolognese sauce, curry? She has decided
not to marry until he does, which adds to her exasperation. Merritt’s strong vocal
prowess is displayed in “The Burden of Life” and the touching ‘Tell Me Why” in
second act.

Stephanie Merritt and Michael B. PerkinsHer blustery steady beau, Carney (Michael B. Perkins), is the neighborhood butcher. Quite a ham on stage, he leads his enthusiastic castmates in the upbeat “Going Up!” – a fun song any thespian can identify with, setting the stage for the rehearsals to come.

But in an ugly character development, Carney also thinks it
is his moral duty to make the local church aware they are putting on “pornography,”
for he is appalled at Alfie’s choice for the next production – Wilde’s controversial
“Salome,” based on the tragic Biblical characters.

Miffed that he’s not the lead, Carney riles up the ladies’
sodality while the rest of the troupe are trying to find a way to costume the
seven veils and paint a realistic dummy head of John the Baptist. He wraps his
thoughts around it in “Confusing Times.”

Perkins has several stand-out songs, including the dandy comical
duet with Merritt, expressing outrage about Alfie’s proclivities “Books.”

Perkins also doubles as the flamboyant Wilde in dream
sequences, handling both with aplomb.
While Father Kenny (Dustin Allison) is shutting down the program, the church
hall teems with cast members, and we are introduced to a quirky assortment of folks
in this interesting patchwork quilt of a show.

Alfie loves these people. They’re home. They’re his “other”
family.

Lindy Elliott as AdeleThere are the housewife diva-wannabes who flutter about him
– Miss Crowe (Kay Love), Mrs. Curtin (Nancy Nigh), Mrs. Grace (Jodi Stockton)
and Mrs. Patrick (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). Besides Carney, on the men’s side is
widowed Baldy (Kent Coffel), Rasher Flynn (Marshall Jennings) and Ernie Lally
(Dustin Allison).

All gifted singers, they are outstanding in the ensemble
numbers “A Man of No Importance,” “Our Father,” “Art” and several reprises. Nigh
has fun carrying out Naomi Walsby’s tap choreography in “First Rehearsal.”

Alfie has a secret crush on his co-worker, bus driver Robbie Fay (Kellen Green). He’d like to cast him as John the Baptist but Robbie’s not convinced. A lovely young woman, Adele Rice (Lindy Elliott), is new to town, and Alfie’s inspiration to tackle his mentor’s masterwork. Could she be his “Salome”?

Elliott, very impressive in this key role, sweetly sings a
reprise of “Love Who You Love,” and she and Kelley have a touching song
together, “Princess.”

Kellen Green as Robbie

As the handsome, conflicted Robbie, Green is terrific, trying
to find his way — and has a secret too. He robustly delivers “The Streets of
Dublin,” one of the show’s best numbers, and has a moving duet, “Confession” with
Kelley. He shows his prowess on the violin and in a reprise of “Love Who You
Love” as well.

Another highlight is Kent Coffel’s tender rendition of “The
Cuddles Mary Gave,” as the character Baldy mourns his late wife.

Anchoring the whole shebang is Mark Kelley, a revelation as
Alfie. He understands this sensitive soul and his pain. He imbues Alfie with so
much conviction that his bittersweet songs, “Love’s Never Lost” and “Love Who
You Love” are affecting and the triumph of “Welcome to the World” is
well-earned.

As the dialect coach, sound designer and fight
choreographer in addition to the lead, Kelley has galvanized this production.
The fight is realistic thanks to assistant fight choreographer Rhiannon Skye
Creighton and Perkins as fight captain.

The Irish accents are spot-on and never waiver – kudos to
the cast’s commitment on getting it right. It makes a difference setting the
proper tone, and the lived-in quality of the production is noteworthy.

Kent Coffel and Mark KelleyThe orchestra is very much a key part of the production,
and not just because conductor Curtis Moeller doubles as a character, Carson.
The cast interacts with them and vice versa, and they excel at giving an authentic
Celtic sound to the score. Moeller is on keyboard, with Benjamin Ash on bass,
Twinda Murry and Hanna Kroeger playing violins, Emily T. Lane on cello, Adam
Rugo on guitars and Marc Strathman on flutes. They achieve a lush sound that piquantly
flavors the show.

Amanda Brasher’s costume designs are a treat. She nailed the characters perfectly, from vintage frocks to the nubby knit sweaters to the assortment of hats defining personalities. Stockton’s Mrs. Grace wears a stunning ballet-slipper pink lace two-piece suit straight out of Jackie Kennedy’s closet.

The musical is a slow simmer but worth the investment as the sympathetic characters ripen. While the story spotlights a different time in another country, it illustrates the universal social awakening that “Love is Love is Love.” And being accepted for who you are is a worthy topic no matter when or where.

R-S Theatrics’ “A Man of No Importance” is to be admired
for its wholehearted mounting of a little-known show, illuminated by a talented
group of performers who feel like family at the finale.

Jodi StocktonR-S Theatrics presents “A Man of No Importance”
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 7 p.m., Aug. 9 – 25, at the Marcelle
Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Center For more information or for
tickets, visit www.r-stheatrics.com
or call 314-252-8812.

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 Metrotix.com. For more information, visit r-stheatrics.org.