By Lynn Venhaus

Challenges.
As we march through the third winter of the pandemic, we’re still adjusting to a ‘new normal,’ whatever that is. The regional professional theater companies have had more than their share of challenges, as COVID-19 outbreaks continue to affect rehearsals and performances.

Bravo to everyone trying to create art in trying times. We learn as we go, as we try to adapt, follow the rules for safe practices and try to fit in multiple shows that seem to be scheduled in clusters. Shining a spotlight on those who are doing their very best is important.

This year, I was fortunate to see 63 shows, not counting touring, college or community theater, and I appreciate the local theater companies working with me when my dear sweet uncle/father figure was in hospice and eventually passed on in mid-summer, and how they fit me in, sometimes at the end of a run, and then when some health issues arose for me in December, helping me to juggle a crazy schedule. (Unfortunately, after spending 10 days in the hospital in January, I can speak about nightmare ER experiences all too well. Life happens, and I appreciate the consideration.) Through my podcast, PopLifeSTL, we were able to interview local professionals to help promote their productions, and while we recently took a three-week break, we’re back at it, and happy to support the arts.

So, I finally finished my annual Lynn’s Love of Theatre Awards, aka “The LOTTIES,” for 2022, a few weeks later than intended. I don’t follow a rigid format of capping off recognition. Some categories may have 5, others 8 or more. If it looks like everyone gets a trophy, so be it. The folks mentioned are deserving of honors.

This is my own list. It is separate than my voting in the annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards and nominations, which will be announced soon (Monday, Feb, 6 on KWMU noon to 1 p.m.). I am one of the founding members. Our awards ceremony will be on Monday, April 3, at The Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University. Yes, theater prom will return! Exciting.

I’ve been selecting the LOTTIES since 2014. I am attempting to go back and put Lotties of years’ past into my website archives, so they are all in one place here. Stay tuned…But in the meantime, I wanted to recognize what I thought was excellence in 2022. Granted, I missed a handful of productions, but overall, was impressed with outstanding work from our best and brightest. It is thrilling when you see live theater achieve its grand goals. (And I will never take it for granted ever).

I am privileged to witness such creative spirits at work here. This weekend, I return to seeing theater after a rather crazy and unplanned January that included an outpatient procedure that went awry and resulted in internal bleeding to deal with, which meant two hospital stays. But I’m getting stronger every day, and eager to return to sitting in auditoriums, watching live theater. I regret I had to miss several shows, but again, life…ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

I look forward to an exciting year ahead, and I am very appreciative of all the well-wishes. Onward and upward.

Photo by Philip Hamer

EVENT OF THE YEAR: “The Karate Kid – The Musical” at Stages St. Louis.

St. Louis was ready for its close-up. A pre-Broadway world premiere at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center had east and west coast creatives, stars and glitterati convening for a musical in the works for a Broadway debut. The effort was impressive, and it was fun to be a part of its creative birth.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

PRODUCTION OF THE YEAR: “Bronte Sister House Party” at SATE.

A very original play by Courtney Bailey, directed by Keating, designed by Bess Moynihan and Liz Henning, was one of the most fun theatrical experiences of the year. This world premiere was the tonic I needed after a death in the family, and I am so grateful that I was able to see it at the end of its run (THANK YOU).

Every element came together for an interactive event that percolated with good humor and delightful creative touches. The Brontë sisters of Victorian literary fame (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) are trapped in a purgatorial time loop where they must throw a fabulous house party every night for eternity. Only when they reach The Point of Celebratory Reverence, the highest point of celebration that a party can achieve, will they be released. An absurd, feminist revisionist tribute to all the women artists who’ve created under pressure and still had it in them to throw a good party. What a terrific ensemble – Maggie Conroy, Rachel Tibbetts, Cassidy Flynn, Bess Moynihan, Joel Moses, Vicky Chen and LaWanda Jackson — and a kicky dance party.

COMPANY OF THE YEAR: The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre “The Black Rep.” They raised the bar with a line-up that included the profound and insightful “Between the Sheet,” August Wilson’s “Jitney” and “The African Company Presents Richard III,” not to mention the shimmering “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea.”

ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Ron Himes. Forty-six years after founding The Black Rep,he remains at the top of his game – he directed “Between the Sheet,” “Jitney,” and “The African Company Presents Richard III” and starred in “Jitney,” and at The Rep, in “Stick Fly.”

THE SHOW MUST GO ON CITATION: The Muny, after storm devastation, Put on “Legally Blonde” a night later! What a herculean effort.

MVPs of 2022
Summer Baer
Molly Burris
Olajawon Davis
Eileen Engel
Melissa Felps
Liz Henning
Joel Moses
Bess Moynihan
Ben Ritchie
John Wolbers
Metro Theatre Company’s outreach and traveling efforts to provide youngsters with theatrical opportunities that matter.

Jeffrey Kargus and Jason Meyers “The Lonesome West”

Best Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role

Cassidy Flynn, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Valentina Silvia, “The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
Tielere Cheatem, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Bess Moynihan, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Jilanne Klaus, “Barefoot in the Park,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Hannah Geisz, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Louis Shakespeare Festival

Best Supporting Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role

Bradley J. Tejeda, “The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis
Joel Moses, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Eric Dean White, “Hand to God,” St Louis Actors Studio
Chauncy Thomas, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Ted Drury, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
John Wolbers, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
Ryan Burns, “Bandera, Texas,” Prism Theatre Company

Molly Burris and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in “Dear Jack, Dear Louise”

Best Performer in a Comedy, Female or Non-Binary Role

Colleen Backer, “Hand to God,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
Molly Burris, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre
Rachel Tibbetts, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Maggie Conroy, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Claire Karpen, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Rayme Cornell, “The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival

Hand to God

Best Performer in a Comedy, Male or Non-Binary Role

Mitchell Henry- Eagles, “Hand to God,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
Isaiah di Lorenzo, “Every Brilliant Thing,: St Louis Shakespeare
Jeff Kargus, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
Jason Meyers, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
Ben Ritchie, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
Ryan Lawson-Maeske, “Dear Jack Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre
Stanton Nash, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival

The Bee Play

Best Supporting Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role

Rachel Tibbetts, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company
Coda Boyce, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
Alex Jay, “Jitney,” The Black Rep
Donna Parrone, “Romeo and Juliet,” St Louis Shakespeare
Alex Jay, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
Riley Carter Adams, “The Bee Play,” New Jewish Theatre
Sarajane Alverson, “The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
Rachel Hanks, “The Christians,” West End Players Guild
Summer Baer, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company

Summer Baer, Michael James Reed “Proof”

Best Supporting Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role

Cameron Jamarr Davis, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
Joey Saunders, “The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
Michael James Reed, “Proof,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Joseph Garner, “The Christians,” West End Players Guild
Jeffrey Wright, “The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
Wali Jamal Abdull, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep

Good People

Best Performer in a Drama, Female or Non-Binary Role

Jennifer Theby Quinn, “Iphigenia in Splott,” Upstream Theatre
Chinna Palmer, “Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep
LaVonne Byers, “Good People,” Stray Dog Theatre
Summer Baer, “Proof,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Kelly Howe, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company

Jitney at the Black Rep

Best Performer in a Drama, Male or Non-Binary Role

Joel Moses, “The Christians,” West End Players Guild
Jeff Cummings, “Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep
Kevin Brown, “Jitney,” The Black Rep
Erik Petersen, “Romeo and Juliet,” St Louis Shakespeare
Olajuwon Davis, “Jitney,” The Black Rep
Stephen Peirick, “The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
John Wolbers, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company

Winds of Change St Louis Shakespeare Festival

Best New Play

“Bronte Sister House Party” by Courtney Bailey, SATE
“Winds of Change,” by Deanna Jent, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
“St Louis Woman,” by Joe Hanrahan, The Midnight Company
“Roll With It!,” by Katie Rodriguez Banister and Michelle Zielinski, The Black Mirror Theatre
“Bandera, Texas,” Lisa Dellagiarino Feriend, Prism Theatre Company

Sweeney Todd. Photo by Philip Hamer

Best Musical Director

James Moore, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Walter “Bobby” McCoy, “In the Heights,” Stages St Louis
Andrew Resnick, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St Louis
Jermaine Hill, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Colin Healy, “Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals
Cullen Curth, “Jerry’s Girls,” New Jewish Theatre
Tre’ von Griffin, “Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Zach Neumann, “Ordinary Days,” Tesseract Theatre Company
Tim Clark, “Urinetown,” New Line Theatre

A Chorus Line at Stages St Louis. Philip Hamer

Best Choreographer

Keone and Mari Madrid, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
Luis Salgado, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Dena DiaGiacinto, “A Chorus Line,” Stages St. Louis
Patrick O’Neil, “Mary Poppins,” The Muny
Heather Beal, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep
Josh Rhodes, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” The Muny

In the Heights at Stages St Louis

Best Supporting Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role

Kate Baldwin, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
Amanda Robles, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Melissa Felps, “Something Rotten!,” New Line Theatre
Janelle Gilreath, “Urinetown!,” New Line Theatre
Sarah Gene Dowling, “A Little Night Music,” Stray Dog Theatre
Tami Dahbura, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Nasia Thomas, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Grace Langford, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Stray Dog Theatre
Dawn Schmid, “Ride the Cyclone,” Stray Dog Theatre
Rachel Bailey, “Triassic Parq: The Musical,” Stray Dog Theatre

“Something Rotten!” at New Line Theatre

Best Supporting Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role

Jordan Wolk, “Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals
Clayton Humburg, “Something Rotten!,” New Line Theatre
Marshall Jennings, “Something Rotten!,” New Line Theatre
Kevin O’Brien, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Stray Dog Theatre
Luis-Pablo Garcia, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Jeffrey Izquierdo-Malon, “Something Rotten!,” New Line Theatre
Mykal Kilgore, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” The Muny
Evan Tyrone Martin, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Bryce Miller, “A Little Night Music,” Stray Dog Theatre
Shea Coffman, “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” The Muny

The 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Stray Dog Theatre

Best Lighting Design in a Musical

Bradley King, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
John Lasiter, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Sean M Savoie, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Sean M. Savoie, “A Chorus Line,” Stages St. Louis
Jason Lyons, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” The Muny
Tyler Duenow, “Ride the Cyclone,” Stray Dog Theatre

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at The Muny. Philip Hamer photo

Best Set Design in a Musical

Anna Louisoz, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Derek McLane, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
Michael Schweikardt, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Ann Beyersdorfer, “Camelot,” The Muny
Rob Lippert, “Something Rotten!,” New Line Theatre
Edward E. Hayes, Jr. and Greg Emetaz, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” The Muny

Stray Dog Theatre’s A Little Night Music

Best Costume Design in a Musical

Samantha C. Jones, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Brad Musgrove, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Leon Dobkowski, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” The Muny
Eileen Engel, “A Little Night Music,” Stray Dog Theatre
Eileen Engel, “Triassic Parq The Musical,” Stray Dog Theatre
Robin L. McGee, “Mary Poppins,” The Muny
Sarah Porter, “Urinetown,” New Line Theatre
Alejo Vietti, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny

“Forget Me Not” at St Louis Actors’ Studio

Best Lighting Design in a Play

Patrick Huber, “Forget Me Not,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
Jasmine’ Williams, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep
Bess Moynihan, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
John Wylie, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Joseph Clapper, “Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep
Jesse Alford, “The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis

“Between the Sheet” at the Black Rep

Best Sound Design in a Play

Lamar Harris, “Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep
Kareem Deanes and Rusty Wandall, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Zeck Schultz, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Jackie Sharp, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep
Lamar Harris, “Jitney,” The Black Rep

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea at The Black Rep

Best Costume Design in a Play

Daryl Harris, “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” The Black Rep
Liz Henning, “St Louis Woman,” The Midnight Company
Liz Henning, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company
Michele Fredman Siler, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
Andre Harrington, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
Oona Natesan, “House of Joy,” Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

St Louis Woman, The Midnight Company

Best Set Design in a Play

Bess Moynihan, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company
Josh Smith, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Margery and Peter Spack, “Dontrell, Who Was Kissed by the Sea.” The Black Rep
Jamie Bullens, “Jitney,” The Black Rep
Rob Lippert, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
Dunsi Dai, “Dear Jack Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre
Margery and Peter Spack, “The Last Stop on Market Street,” Metro Theatre Company

Dynamic Duos

Liam Craig and Whit Reichert, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Molly Burris and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in “Dear Jack Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre
Jeff Kargus and Jason Meyers, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia and Gilbert Domally as Harpo in ‘The Color Purple” at The Muny
Matt Pace and Brien Seyle, original music for “Much Ado About Nothing,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Best Performer in a Musical, Female or Non-Binary Role

Anastacia McCleskey, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Carmen Cusack, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Isabel Leoni, “In the Heights,” The Muny
Eileen Engel, “Ride the Cyclone!,” Stray Dog Theatre
Jeanna de Waal, “Mary Poppins,” The Muny
Lauralyn McClelland, “A Chorus Line,” Stages St Louis

Stephen Henley as The Balladeer in “Assassins”

Best Performer in a Musical, Male or Non-Binary Role

Ben Davis, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Jovanni Sy, “The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
Stephen Henley, “Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals
Ryan Alvarado, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Corbin Bleu, “Mary Poppins,” The Muny
Danny McHugh, “A Chorus Line,” Stages St Louis

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at New Jewish Theatre

Best Ensemble in a Comedy

“Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
“Hand to God,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
“The Residents of Craigslist,” ERA Theatre
“Heroes,” Albion Theatre
“The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis

Rodney’s Wife by The Midnight Company. Photo by Joey Rumpell.

Best Ensemble in a Drama

“The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
“Jitney,” The Black Rep
“The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
“Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company
“The Christians,” West End Players Guild
“Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep

“Ride the Cyclone” at Stray Dog Theatre

Best Ensemble in a Musical

“Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
“In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
“The Color Purple,” The Muny
“A Chorus Line,” Stages St. Louis
“Jerry’s Girls,” New Jewish Theatre
“Ride the Cyclone!” Stray Dog Theatre
“Triassic Parq The Musical,” Stray Dog Theatre
“Urinetown!,” New Line Theatre
“Ordinary Days,” Tesseract Theatre Company
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Stray Dog Theatre
“The Karate Kid: The Musical,” Stages St. Louis
“Something Rotten!” New Line Theatre

Much Ado About Northing, St Louis Shakespeare Festival

Best Director of a Comedy

Bruce Longworth, “Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
Keating, “Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
Andrea Urice, “Hand to God,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
Eddie Coffield, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
Robert Ashton, “The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
David Kaplan, “The Rose Tattoo,” Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis

The African Company Presents Richard III at The Black Rep

Best Director of a Drama

Ron Himes, “Jitney,” The Black Rep
Gary F. Bell, “The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
Ron Himes, “The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
Joe Hanrahan, “Rodney’s Wife,” The Midnight Company
Ellie Schwetye, “The Christians,” West End Players Guild
Ron Himes, “Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep

Jerry’s Girls at New Jewish Theatre

Best Director of a Musical

Rob Ruggiero, “Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
Luis Salgado, “In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
Lili-Anne Brown, “The Color Purple,” The Muny
Bradley Rolf, “Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals
Gayle Seay, “A Chorus Line,” Stages St. Louis
Ellen Isom, “Jerry’s Girls,” New Jewish Theatre
Justin Been, “A Little Night Music,” Stray Dog Theatre
John Tartaglia, “Mary Poppins,” The Muny
Scott Miller, “Something Rotten!” New Line Theatre
Elisabeth Wurm, “Ordinary Days,” Tesseract Theatre Company

The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis

Best Production of a Comedy

“Bronte Sister House Party,” SATE
“Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” New Jewish Theatre
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” New Jewish Theatre
“Much Ado About Nothing,” St Louis Shakespeare Festival
“The Lonesome West,” West End Players Guild
“Hand to God,” St Louis Actors’ Studio
The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams Festival St Louis

“The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre

Best Production of a Drama

“The Normal Heart,” Stray Dog Theatre
“Jitney,” The Black Rep
“The African Company Presents Richard III,” The Black Rep
“Good People,” Stray Dog Theatre
“Proof,” Moonstone Theatre Company
“Between the Sheet,” The Black Rep
“The Christians,” West End Players Guild

“Sweeney Todd” at The Muny. Philip Hamer

Best Production of a Musical

“Sweeney Todd,” The Muny
“In the Heights,” Stages St. Louis
“The Color Purple,” The Muny
“A Chorus Line,” Stages St. Louis
“Assassins,” Fly North Theatricals
“Urinetown!”, New Line Theatre
“Ordinary Days,” Tesseract Theatre Company
“Something Rotten!” New Line Theatre
“A Little Night Music,” Stray Dog Theatre

“The Christians,” West End Players Guild. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

A little bit of horror and a lot of hilarity ensues in the madcap cult musical “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical,” now playing in a festive amusement park-like atmosphere at the Tower Grove Abbey.

For those unfamiliar with this musical comedy by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, six peppy performers portray teenagers from a Canadian parochial school chamber choir whose lives are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster.

And that’s not the only thing freaky in this zany production that has a distinct viewpoint about the universal mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife – mostly funny, but sometimes sad, and surprisingly touching.

After they wind up in Limbo, a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, offers the dead kids a chance to return to life – but only one will be selected in this strange game of survivor. So, each tells their stories of living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, and of their experiences at St. Cassian High School.

Five are kooky variations of John Hughes-like characters while the sixth, Jane Doe, was decapitated in the calamity and her body wasn’t claimed. Dawn Schmid plays the mysterious and ethereal outlier, showcasing her elegant voice in the opening number “Dream of Life” and later, “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” in which she talks about not knowing her identity.

The other five try to set themselves apart, and they accomplish that. This is a merry band of accomplished performers who make each character their own.

Photo by John Lamb

Eileen Engel, channeling Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick character in “Election,” is the classic annoying over-achiever who is so certain she should be spared – and is snide in her comments to others, her entitlement front and center. Her name Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg. Seriously. Her catch phrase is “Democracy rocks!”

Her number, “What the World Needs,” brings out her personality traits and she leads the ensemble on “Every Story’s Got a Lesson.”

Riley Dunn may be having the most fun on stage as a very angry adopted young man, Mischa Bachinski, from the Ukraine. He’s an aspiring rapper, so of course, he must show off in “This Song is Awesome” and then display his softer side when recalling his internet girlfriend “Talia.”

In death, Stephen Henley’s earnest Ricky Potts, mute with a degenerative disease — catch phrase “Level Up!” — apparently has a new lease on life, as he is no longer disabled, and thrives with his discovered abilities. Part mensch, and pure team player with an overactive imagination, he sure has fun in his fantasies with “Space Age Bachelor Man.”

Grace Langford is eager-to-please Constance Blackwood, who is upset that she’s always labeled “nice,” has a love-hate relationship with her hometown and has a secret to later share. (And it’s a doozy). She belts out “Jawbreaker” and then after she changes her mind, “Sugarcloud.”

Mike Hodges has done double-duty as choreography and performer, and he gets to be outrageous as a gay kid in a small town who has never encountered anyone in his tribe. His saucy “Noel’s Lament” is the bawdiest number.

 “The Other Side” is a spirited introduction.

The choreography is a delightful mix of “High School Musical,” “Cabaret,” “La Cage aux Folles,” even shades of “Cats,” and contemporary music videos.

The kids take a break from their “Look at Me!”attitudes to sing the tender “The New Birthday Song” to Jane Doe.

Engel also does double duty, as costume designer, with looks that run the gamut from the drab Catholic school jumpers to Hodges’ more risqué outfits

A well-known local actor voices Karnak, and his narration is superb. The program doesn’t reveal who he is, so I’ll keep that quiet until we’re allowed to share, no spoiler from me.

The musical was first performed in 2008, but did not have its American premiere, in Chicago, until 2015, and then mounted off-Broadway the next year.

It has developed a cult following, somewhat like “The Rocky Horror Show,” and audience members came from several different states, whooping it up, their enthusiasm contagious.

This is a fast-paced show – 90 minutes without an intermission. While it flows smoothly, a tremendous amount of difficulty is apparent because of the level of stage craft, but it’s all handled with aplomb.

Photo by John Lamb

Director Justin Been has cleverly staged the intricate movements, with timing a crucial element, and skillfully coordinated the moving parts – as there are many cues for sound, lights, and special effects. Many video projections are used, too, snapshots from their lives.

Longtime tech creative Tyler Duenow has masterfully taken the lighting design to new heights — a terrific mix of spooky, strange and status quo, while sound designer Jacob Baxley’s crisp work is noteworthy too.

Scenic designer Josh Smith has appointed the small space well, with the Karnak a creepy standout (not confined to a glass case like in “Big.”)

The witty script leans towards the sarcastic, with some laugh-out-loud observations, Been, along with his cast, has enlivened the show with up-to-date references (script allows it)

The band is onstage and appears to be having fun. Led by music director Leah Schultz, who also plays piano and recorder, musicians include Michaela Kuba on bass and cello, Adam Rugo on guitar and Joe Winters on percussion.

A macabre and mirthful show might not evoke the spirit of Christmas, but it sure spread joy to the world in Tower Grove Abbey – a cheering audience, exuberant cast and top-of-their game creative team made it a pleasant holiday-time diversion.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical” Thursdays through Saturdays December 1-17, with additional performances on Sunday, Dec. 11, and Wednesday, Dec. 14, both at 8 p.m., at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. This show contains mature language, smoke effects, strobing lights, and sudden loud noises. Masks are not required but encouraged. For more information or for tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Local Spotlight: Ian Coulter-Buford, formerly of Belleville, Ill., and now on the national tour of “Hadestown” currently at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis through Oct. 23, is the dance captain, understudy for Hermes and a swing in the show.

Here’s a Fabulous Fox video in which he shares a few moves from the Tony-winning Best Musical.

https://fb.watch/geMlCIb1zK/

For more information on Ian, who has an MFA in theatre from Illinois Wesleyan University, visit his website: https://www.iancoulterbuford.com/

Announcements: Matinee Added!

Stray Dog Theatre has added a Saturday matinee for its last week of its critically acclaimed “A Little Night Music.”

Four other performances remain of the Sondheim classic, Oct. 19-22, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the Tower Grove Abbey.

For tickets or more information, visit: www.straydogtheatre.org

Phil Rosenthal

TV: Somebody Feed Phil

Host Phil Rosenthal opens the sixth season of the Emmy-nominated food/travel series “Somebody Feed Phil” on Netflix. The new episodes take Phil to Philadelphia, Nashville and Austin in the U.S., and Croatia and Santiago across the universe.

A special tribute to his late parents, Helen and Max, is featured as well. The pair inspired their fair share of “Everybody Loves Raymond” moments, which Rosenthal created and was the executive producer from 1996 to 2005 (he also wrote 23 episodes).

Book: Phil Again

“Somebody Feel Phil: The Book” is available in bookstores and online today. It includes recipes, production photos and stories from the first four season.

Rosenthal will be at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5 with a presentation called – Somebody Feed Phil the Book: Untold Stories, Behind-the-Scenes Photos and Favorite Recipes: A Cookbook

The ultimate collection of must-have recipes, stories, and behind-the-scenes photos from the beloved Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil.

“Wherever I travel, be it a different state, country, or continent, I always call Phil when I need to know where and what to eat. He’s the food guru of the world.” —Ray Romano

From the JBF: Phil Rosenthal, host of the beloved Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, really loves food and learning about global cultures, and he makes sure to bring that passion to every episode of the show. Whether he’s traveling stateside to foodie-favorite cities such as San Francisco or New Orleans or around the world to locations like Ho Chi Minh City, Tel Aviv, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, or Marrakesh, Rosenthal includes a healthy dose of humor to every episode—and now to this book.”

For tickets or more information and the complete schedule, visit: https://jccstl.com/festival-events-schedule/

Trailer: “Creed III” Released Today!

Follow-up to “Creed” in 2015 and “Creed II” in 2018, star and director Michael B. Jordan introduced the trailer to the third installment yesterday to critics (more on that later), and it came out today.

It will be released in theaters and IMAX on March 3, 2023.

Synopsis: After dominating the boxing world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has been thriving in both his career and family life. When a childhood friend and former boxing prodigy, Damian (Jonathan Majors), resurfaces after serving a long sentence in prison, he is eager to prove that he deserves his shot in the ring. The face-off between former friends is more than just a fight. To settle the score, Adonis must put his future on the line to battle Damian – a fighter who has nothing to lose.

The screenplay is by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, with story by them and originator Ryan Coogler.

Besides Jordan and Majors, cast includes Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Florian Munteanu, Mila Davis-Kent, and Phylicia Rashad.

Premium Video on Demand: “The Good House”

Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline reunite for the third time in this adult romantic drama, based on the novel by Ann Leary. Weaver is Hildy Good, a realtor in a small New England town, and she rekindles a romance with Frank Getchell (Kline), But she needs to take care of a buried past, for her drinking is getting out of control again. It’s a portrait of a proud woman who wouldn’t think of asking for help, but whose life won’t change until she does.

Premium Video on Demand is $19.99.

On Nov. 22, the movie will be available video on demand for $5.99, and rental as DVD. It’s available for purchase as a Blu-ray + Digital combo or DVD.

Notes: The pair were in “Dave” (1993) and “The Ice Storm” (1997). Kline, 74, from St. Louis, has won an Oscar for “A Fish Called Wanda” in 1989. For his work on Broadway, he has won three Tony Awards — for two musicals, “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1981 and “On the Twentieth Century” in 1978, and the comedy “Present Laughter” in 2017.

Blackberry Telecaster

Drink: Purple Power

It’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and the Fountain on Locust is hoping to see St. Louis turn purple in support!

Order the Blackberry Telecaster or Le Fleur at the Fountain from today through Sunday, Oct. 18 – 23, and half the profits will go to help local St. Louis non-profit ALIVE provide shelter, healing and hope to domestic violence survivors in need.

For more info, visit ww.fountainonlocust.com

Word: The origin of the cocktail

On this day in 1776:  In a bar decorated with bird tail in Elmsford, New York, a customer requests a glassful of “those cock tails” from bartender Betsy Flanagan.


Playlist: Chuck Berry

It’s Chuck Berry’s birthday – he was born Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis and died on March 18, 2017.

As part of his 60th birthday celebration, parts of the film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” was recorded at the Fox Theatre on Oct. 16, 1986.

For a look back at that experience, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has an article today:

https://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/music/looking-back-chuck-berrys-60th-birthday-party-at-the-fox-was-a-star-studded-party/collection_a9b04de7-6739-5b22-aa2d-35e216aa5a7c.html

Here’s Keith Richards joining Berry for “Nadine”:
https://youtu.be/5madtiLf7DI

By Lynn Venhaus

TV: The Watcher (Limited Series)

Coming to Netflix: October 13

Based on a true story, “The Watcher” is seven episodes of a mystery-thriller about a couple who moves into their suburban dream home, only to discover a haunting figure is watching them. The cast includes Bobby Cannavale, Naomi Watts, Jennifer Coolidge, Terry Kinney (my ISU classmate), and Michael Nouri.

Here’s the trailer: https://youtu.be/5HDkw100sXQ


Food: Hot Dog! A ‘meat’ and greet

The Oscar Meyer Weinermobile will be in the metro St. Louis region Thursday and Friday, stopping at four Schnucks stores.

Oct: 13 – Godfrey, 2712 Godfrey Road: 9 a.m. to noon
Edwardsville, 2222 Troy Road: 1 to 4 p.m.

Oct. 14 – Des Peres, 12332 Manchester Road, 9 a.m. to noon
St. Charles, 1900 1st Capitol Drive, 1 to 4 p.m.

Schedules are subject to change. Check out the map for the latest information: https://khcmobiletour.com/wienermobile

Stage: More Sondheim, Please!

Stray Dog Theatre’s second weekend of “A Little Night Music” begins tonight at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, and continues Friday and Saturday. On Sunday,the only matineewill be presented at 2 p.m., and there will be a show on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

A bucolic setting for romantic entanglements is the premise, and this triple-threat cast has fun singing, dancing, and emoting in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden.

Here is my review:

Coming Soon: A holiday musical twist on ‘A Christmas Carol’

Are you ready for Christmas movies? Here’s the trailer for “Spirited,” a musical comedy starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds that will open in theaters on Nov. 11 and streaming on Apple TV+. It’s a new take on Dickens’ classic, but from the ghosts’ point of view.
Original songs by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul.

Playlist: Rhymin’ Simon

It’s Paul Simon’s 81st birthday. He was born on Oct. 13, 1941, in Newark, NJ. He met his longtime music collaborator Art Garfunkel when they performed in a school production of ‘Alice in Wonderful” in sixth grade. They produced their first record in 1964.

Four years ago, on his 77th birthday, he appeared as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” for the ninth time (he hosted 4 times).

Here’s a three-minute compilation of some iconic moments on “Saturday Night Live,” including his performance of “The Boxer” on the first episode after 9-11.

Word: Ed Sullivan

On this date in 1974, the famous host died of esophageal cancer at age 73.

During his 23 years hosting “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the seminal Sunday night variety cavalcade, he said some very funny things to guests on the show and backstage. Here’s some of my favorites:

Here are some of my favorite things he ever said to music artists:

Ed Sullivan

“You boys look great, [but] you ought to smile a little more.” –speaking backstage with Jim Morrison and the band before The Doors performance

“I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy, and wherever you go, Elvis, we want to say we’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. So now let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person!” –complimenting Elvis Presley following his last performance.

“The little fella in front is incredible.” – Ed Sullivan talking about Michael Jackson following the first performance by The Jackson

“Before even discussing the possibility of a contract, I would like to learn from you, whether your young men have reformed in the matter of dress and shampoo.”  Ed Sullivan’s response to a request by The Rolling Stones’ manager for a contract for a second appearance

By Lynn Venhaus

Infused with humor and a breezy charm, Stray Dog Theatre’s enchanting interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” brings out starlit summer imagery, the glory and glimmer of love, and the best in a resplendent cast.

On opening night, nature supplied a full moon on a crisp autumn evening outside the Tower Grove Abbey, a serendipitous touch. Imagine the golden glow of a warm, fragrant moonlit midsummer night – and you’ll easily slip into the mood for this sophisticated romp.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, “A Little Night Music” concerns several pairs in various stages of romance or uncoupling – and what entanglements transpire during a summer sojourn in the country.

Liz Mischel is amusingly sarcastic as the unfiltered Madame Leonora Armfeldt, a wealthy matriarch who had colorful liaisons as a courtesan. She is schooling her innocent granddaughter Fredrika (a sweet and assured Adeline Perry) on the ways of the world – and men. She tells her the summer night ‘smiles’ three times: first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old.

The Armfeldts and servants picnicking. Photo by John Lamb

Madame’s daughter, the alluring, touring stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Paula Stoff Dean) is a force of nature known for not playing by the rules. Her old lover, attorney Fredrik Egerman (Jon Hey), married a naïve young woman Anne (Eileen Engel) about 30 years his junior 11 months ago, and their union has not been consummated (her issues).

The coquettish but inexperienced wife teases her serious husband’s awkward son, Henrik (Bryce A. Miller), by his late first wife, who is studying for the ministry but has feelings for her, his stepmother. Although clumsy, he is not impervious to desire and has a dalliance with her maid, an older and wiser Petra (a brassy Sarah Gene Dowling making her character’s worldliness obvious).

Miller has to demonstrate the widest emotional range as the confused and ready-to-explode Henrik, and he effectively finesses the fine line between the melodramatic and the comedic to distinguish himself in a cast of veterans.

Desiree is currently the mistress of self-absorbed Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Degitz-Fries), a buffoon whose jealous wife, Countess Charlotte (Madeline Black), is in on the charade. Degitz-Fries plays the military royal as an obnoxious, arrogant chauvinist who is not used to ‘no.’ Black channels her rage into a scheme – you know the adage about women scorned – but keeps her character’s refinement intact.

They all circle around and back to each other. Fredrik has taken Anne to see Desiree’s latest play, which eventually leads to an invitation for a country excursion. The complications culminate in the anticipation, flirting, fighting, and fleeing that takes place in the second act. Does love win in the end?

Hey, Dean. Photo by John Lamb.

One look at the waltzing quintet in their summer whites that starts this elegant show, and you’re transported back to a different era. Splendidly delivering “Night Waltz,” Cory Anthony, Shannon Lampkin Campbell, Jess McCawley, Kevin O’ Brien and Dawn Schmid glide across the stage as the Liebeslieder Singers, astutely controlling the tempo.

They act like a Greek chorus, and their lush harmonies soar in “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember?” and “The Sun Won’t Set.”

The entire cast’s strong vocal prowess is noteworthy throughout, but a masterfully arranged “Weekend in the Country” is a triumph.

Dean has decided to belt the signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” instead of reciting nearly all of it, as others have done, and it’s a fine rendition. Another highpoint is Dowling’s “The Miller’s Son,” emphatically sung as a mix of longing and reflection.

Whether they are singing solo or in duets, or at the same time with different songs (“Now” by Fredrik, “Later” by Henrik and “Soon” by Anne), you’ll marvel at how seamless the numbers are performed.

Black and Engel lament together on infidelity, smoothly combining in “Every Day a Little Death,” and Degitz-Fries has his moment with “In Praise of Women.”

Photo by John Lamb

Employing the beautiful orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, Music Director Leah Schultz uses three string players that elevate the sumptuous sound. The orchestra is prominently placed on stage, and their work is exquisite.

Schultz, also playing piano, expertly conducts the seven-piece orchestra that includes a cello (Michaela Kuba), a violin (Steve Frisbee) and a bass (M. Joshua Ryan), along with Ian Hayden and David Metzger on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion.

The way director Justin Been has shaken off the stodginess and stuffiness of a high society period piece is impressive. He’s embraced the farcical aspect of revolving romantic hook-ups, sleekly moving the characters through a country estate, the grounds, and an adjacent forest

Looking at the book by Hugh Wheeler with a fresh set of eyes gave it needed oomph, and the ensemble, nimble in comedy, conveys a playfulness that endears. Been has brilliantly adapted the very theatrical and somewhat operetta-ish work for the small stage.

The original 1973 Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, book, and score, and has had revivals in London’s West End and Broadway, adapted into a 1977 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, and has been performed by opera companies around the world – including this summer’s traditional format at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis.

Anne and Henrik. Photo by John Lamb

With a minimum of set pieces, Been has depicted the states of different affairs well. He designed modern Scandinavian impressionistic slats that hang above the orchestra, perhaps as a nod to magic realism. Jacob Baxley’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design add to the imagery.

The creators claim the musical was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which premiered in 1955, and is a staple at film retrospectives.

You might not think of Bergman as a merry sort of guy, particularly if you’ve seen his critically acclaimed classics “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “Through a Glass Darkly.” But he mixed sugar and spice to come up with a confection that’s been ‘borrowed’ more than a few times. (Woody Allen’s 1982 “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” to name one, which also references Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”).

But this Bergman-inspired fantasia is much lighter, and Been has brought out the laughter, easy on the melancholy – yet has middle-agers expressing regrets.

Dean, Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Hey, as Fredrik, and Dean, as Desiree, portray a rueful pair, looking back wistfully and rediscovering their spark. The accomplished actors display a natural rhythm with each other, especially in “You Must Meet My Wife.”

Like the music, the dance numbers are polished, choreographed by Michael Hodges with an emphasis on regal posture — although, at first, notice how awkward the pairings are – it’s on purpose, ahem).

Engel, who is delightful as the conflicted Anne, designed the costumes – and they are a mix of ethereal and chic, conveying the social status of each character. The hair and wig design by Dowling suitably complimented the looks.

Hey and Engel were part of Stray Dog’s “Sweeney Todd” in spring 2017, he in the title role and she as daughter Johanna, and know the challenges Sondheim presents, and their experience serves them well.

Sondheim’s work is getting a lot of posthumous attention – but that’s a good thing, never enough Sondheim done well. Like the recently revived “Into the Woods,” some of his musicals take on richer, more contemplative meaning as one ages and revisits them again.

Stray Dog’s superb “A Little Night Music” is worth the immersion, featuring a triple-threat cast in fine form and an inspired creative team.

The Liebeslieder Singers. Photo by John Lamb.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 22, with additional performances at 2 pm Sunday, Oct. 16 and 8 pm Wednesday Oct.19. Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Hey and Degitz “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Photo by John Lamb

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
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus

Hold on to your pearls, for “Triassic Parq: The Musical” is a raunchy romp of an offbeat musical comedy.

A parody of the film and novel “Jurassic Park,” the blockbuster 1993 science-fiction action thriller by Steven Spielberg adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, this is flipped for the dinosaurs’ point of view.

Talk about a chaos theory. Bedlam ensues when one of the genetically engineered female dinosaurs turns male – spontaneously. It’s not nice when you fool Mother Nature – but it sure is naughty.

Goofy and gutsy as can be, the Stray Dog production features a winning cast that gives it their all, in belting out power ballads and selling daffy up-tempo numbers, with light-hearted choreography by Mike Hodges. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast work so hard with material that’s this absurd and thin.

Tristan Davis is the Velociraptor of Innocence, all swaggering rocker in “Get Out,’ while Michael Wells is the evangelist-like Velociraptor of Faith, reveling in the campiness of “Morning Assembly” and “Hello, Little Goat” – exhibiting strong, soaring vocals after not being on the stage since “Guys and Dolls” in the Before Times.

Laurell Stephenson is spirited in dual roles — as the skeptical Velociraptor of Science and then having fun interacting with the audience as a character named Morgan Freeman – that was actually played by the deep-voiced Oscar winner once upon a time. He/she disappears quickly after a hilarious set-up.

The fearless pair of punk rocker grrrls stand out as the Tyrannosaurus Rexes – a frisky Dawn Schmid as T-Rex 1/Kaitlyn and ballsy Rachel Bailey as the dial-it-to-11 confused T-Rex 2. They unleash their attraction in “Love Me As a Friend.”

The spunky ensemble accepts the wild-ride aspect and overcomes what the silly show lacks in sustainability.

This playful cast of six starts out with high energy in “Welcome to Triassic Parq” – and continues full-throttle to win over the eager crowd in 14 songs while dishing out a lot of sexual innuendo. It would seem like zany schoolkids’ antics were it not for the quality of the vocals – like a John Mulaney Broadway musical parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

Photos by John Lamb

But this is an actual musical that played off-Broadway in 2012 after winning best overall musical production at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. The music and lyrics are by Marshall Pailet, with co-lyricists Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo, and all three combined on the book.

Songs include lyrics about penises for shock value – “Dick Fix,” riffing on John Williams’ symphonic score “We Are Dinosaurs,” and outlandish “Mama.”

The band is led by Pianosaurus Leah Schultz (and music director0, with Adam Rugo the Guitaratops and Joe Winters the Drumadon.

Director Justin Been goes for the gusto, keeping things zippy and nonsensical, aiming to achieve a real crowd-pleaser, especially for a generation who grew up with the “Jurassic Park” movie trilogy and returned for the franchise offshoot “Jurassic World.”

The original won three tech Academy Awards, while the two even more preposterous sequels in 1997 and 2001 stretched the boundaries of logic, even for sci-fi/fantasy. A reboot called “Jurassic World” in 2015 was followed by a sequel in 2018, with the latest, “Dominion,” set to open June 10.

But in the one-act musical, performed without an intermission, you do not need that much familiarity with the 30-year-old source material, for the emphasis is on spoofing religion, sex, and identity. The prehistoric setting is purely for laughs.

Eileen Engel designed functional costumes with a touch of whimsy to convey the gender-bending.

Scenic designer Josh Smith worked magic in his scaled-down version of the Isla Nublar theme park on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, stunning without benefit of computer-generated imagery or visual effects.

The technical efforts add considerably to the overall presentation, including lighting by Tyler Duenow and outstanding sound work.

Stray Dog has always had a penchant for producing quirky plays –such as the “Evil Dead” musical, Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party,” and “Red Scare on Sunset,” as a different direction between more serious explorations. So the strange, slight “Triassic Parq” is well-suited to be in between “Good People” and “The Normal Heart” this 2022 season.

Whether or not you are fascinated by dinosaurs is immaterial. This is not meant to be anything more than saucy merriment, so lower expectations and accept the vulgarity (or not – this is intended for “mature” adult audiences, as in rated R).

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Triassic Parq: The Musical” from April 15 through 30, with performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Stray Dog Theatre (SDT) will present Triassic Parq: The Musical at the Tower Grove Abbey, opening on Thursday, April 14 and running through Saturday, April 30, 2022. Trisassic Parq features music by Marshall Pailet, with book and lyrics by Marshall Pailet, Bruce Norbitz and Steve Wargo and is intended for mature audiences. Presented by special arrangement with Broadway Licensing.

Triassic Parq Synopsis: Religion, identity, sex… and raptors! Triassic Parq is a raucous retelling of that famous dinosaur-themed film, this time seen from the dino’s point of view. Chaos is unleashed on their not-so-prehistoric world when one dinosaur in a clan of females spontaneously turns male!

Directed by SDT Associate Artistic Director Justin Been, with music direction by Leah Schultz, and choreography by Michael Hodges. The cast includes: Tristan Davis, Michael Wells, Laurell Stevenson, Dawn Schmid, Rachel Bailey, and Bryce Miller.

April 14-30, 2022: Show times are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. Additional performances on Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m., and Wednesday, April 27 at 8 p.m.

Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, Saint Louis, MO 63104. Gated Parking.

Tickets: Adults $30 / Seniors (65+) & Students $25 (Cash/Checks/All Major Credit Cards)

Information and Ticket Reservations: Call (314) 865‐1995. Visit www.StrayDogTheatre.org. Secure online ticketing!

Community Outreach: In keeping with its mission of community outreach, non‐perishable food is collected at each performance and donated to Food Outreach, Inc. www.FoodOutreach.org

By Lynn Venhaus

Our turfs and our tribes. It’s what defines us.

Well, we like to think that, but maybe it’s our choices that shape us. David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” a brilliant examination of class, good fortune, and the struggles of those left behind, is getting a stimulating treatment at Stray Dog Theatre.

Talk about a conversation starter! With a superb cast led by the incomparable Lavonne Byers, the gritty “Good People” bluntly spells out the wide divide between the haves and have-nots, and not just financially, but in word, thoughts, and deeds.

Margie Walsh is a Southie, for she lives in South Boston’s Lower End, a primarily working-class Irish American neighborhood where the playwright grew up. So, he wrote with deep understanding and connection.

Byers conveys Margie’s toughness and anxiety, with an undercurrent of desperation that she tries not to show. Her weapon is sarcasm. Hardened by a hardscrabble life, she has fought, clawed, and scratched in a dog-eat-dog world. Stubborn and proud, sometimes she has made life more difficult for herself because she will not rely on anyone, but she is loyal to a fault.

After high school, she became a caretaker. It’s a lifetime ago, and that’s when her dreams died, if she had any. As the single working mother of a developmentally disabled adult daughter, she plugs away at minimum-wage jobs. After being late too many times waiting for her daughter’s sitter to show up, she is fired from working as a cashier at the dollar store.

Friends and neighbors gather at the church hall for Bingo in hopes of winning the jackpot and to socialize. Stephanie Merritt is amusing as ballsy Jean, mouthy but well-meaning; Liz Mischel is defensive as the indifferent landlady Dottie, who is also Joyce’s unreliable sitter; and Stephen Henley projects a sweetness as the decent, practical Stevie, her compassionate ex-manager.

The Southie accent is a difficult one, so the dialect work is to be commended, because it’s evident that the ensemble worked on getting it right.

Stephen Peirick and Lavonne Byers. Photo by John Lamb.

About to be evicted, Margie is hanging by a thread. She is not “lace curtain Irish.” Jean knows she needs a break and mentions that she ran into Margie’s old high school flame, Mike, now a doctor. Why doesn’t she ask him for a job, or his help in finding one?

“Mikey” is now a fertility specialist, and he lives with his elegant African American wife Kate and their daughter in Chestnut Hill, an affluent village six miles from downtown Boston. He doesn’t have any office openings. Caught off-guard by the visit 30 years after he last saw her, he prefers not to be reminded of his rough-and-tumble upbringing. She forces an invitation to his wife’s party. Maybe someone else can help with employment.

It’s cancelled, their daughter is sick, but Margie thinks he is blowing her off, and shows up anyway at the door, and Kate mistakes her for the caterer.

Stephen Peirick is Mike, now “Michael,” and Laurell Stevenson is Kate, who live comfortably, although see a couples’ therapist. Their nouveau riche lifestyle is worlds apart from his humble formative years in South Boston. Humble, he’s not.

There is more to the story, but it’s best the audience discover the developments on their own. Just know that pleasant social graces disappear when a confrontation gets ugly. Initial warmth gives way to a chilling coldness.

Under Gary F. Bell’s savvy direction, the trio nimbly escalates emotions that lead to a cruel climax. Peirick, not often playing a jerk, indicates “Michael” is increasingly uncomfortable to be confronted with his past with Margie’s presence.

With her customary confidence, Byers shows how Margie, while agitating, has more integrity in her pinkie finger than the arrogant Michael does. Although Kate is civil at first, and a liberal, she lives in a bubble. And who is ‘self-made’ here, anyway?

Bell heightens the tension while emphasizing “the sides,” and the actors maintain the on-edge feeling throughout the second act, especially in their body language.

At first unassuming but then richly textured, “Good People” is an outstanding production that accentuates that character matters. Your opinion may shift about who is ‘good people.’

Margie, with a hard “g,” clings to her dignity, hoping for a fresh new start, but realizing the dead end is likely where she will stay. She is at once hard to figure out but also completely recognizable.

Scenic designer Josh Smith’s economical set takes a back seat to the human drama unfolding, although there are certain props that are meaningful, such as googly-eyed bright pink bunnies that Dottie makes as her side hustle, and a very expensive vase in Dillon’s upscale home.

Justin Been’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design are first-rate.

Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 for “Rabbit Hole,” draws his characters well, especially women, for Frances McDormand won a Tony for Lead Actress as Margie in “Good People” in 2011 and Cynthia Nixon won as Becca in “Rabbit Hole.”

In the 11 years since the play was produced on Broadway, the gulf seems wider, and the play, which was excellently produced at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in January 2013, seems more pertinent than ever about struggles in hard times.

This is a cast that meets the challenge, and Stray Dog meets the moment in a tautly constructed drama of uncomfortable truths.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stephenson, Stephen Peirick. Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting “Good People” Feb. 10-26 at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 20, in the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63104. For tickets or more information, visit. www.straydogtheatre.org

Special guidelines are in place for the health and safety of guests, actors and staff: Masks are required of all guests, regardless of vaccination status. They still encourage physical distancing throughout the theater. They recommend, but do not require, that all guests be vaccinated.