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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the awards given out April 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winner Jason Meyers, at right “The Lonesome West”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anastacia McCleskey “The Color Purple” at The Muny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bronte Sister House Party” won four Circle Awards

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

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

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

Special Award: Joan Lipkin, for lifetime achievement

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

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

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

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

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

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

GO SEE A PLAY!

“Jitney” Best Drama Production and Best Dramatic Ensemble

By Lynn Venhaus

In its Muny premier, “The Color Purple” is a momentous experience — one that cannot be missed for its historic and landmark significance, but also because it’s one of the finest ever ensembles in its 104 seasons.

The cast takes us on an unforgettable emotional journey, and their glorious harmonies soar into the summer night.

Delivering a story of uncommon courage and grace in a harrowing account of deeply rooted cruelty and oppression, the core group of female principals makes us feel their sorrows, love, pain, and indomitable spirit.

To paraphrase Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, sisters are doing it for themselves (referencing a 1985 Eurythmics female empowerment song). And what a sisterhood it is!

In 1909, Celie is a humble, hard-working 14-year-old poor black girl living in rural Georgia, who has delivered two babies whose father is her father, and Pa (Duane Martin Foster) has taken them away.

Several years later, he makes a deal to give Celie to Albert “Mister” Johnson, an emotionally and physically abusive widower and farmer, to care for his unruly children and serve him and his family.

She spared her sister, Nettie, so that she could follow her dream of being a teacher. Unbeknownst to Celie for a long time, the compassionate Nettie winds up with a missionary family in Africa, and is eventually tracked down by Shug Avery, another important influence in Celie’s life.

Celie has gone from one house of horrors to another. This is unsettling, of course, but her unwavering faith sees her through these tough times, as do the people who raise her up. She has always found solace with her sister and in church, and as time passes, it is the community that relies on her that pays back her kindness.

While taking care of Mister’s home, the nurturing Celie meets the glamorous, worldly, and determined nightclub chanteuse Shug Avery. They eventually share a romantic relationship and deep bond despite the singer having an on-again, off-again affair with Mister and a marriage to Grady.

One of Mister’s grown children, Harpo, marries Sofia, and she is a strong-willed free spirit, known for her independence and speaking her mind, with her phrase: “Hell, no!” even a song title. She cannot be ‘tamed,’ but she loves Harpo. Sofia’s stance will bring her serious harm.

Over the course of several decades, what the women learn, how they grow and overcome obstacles will tug at our hearts, so that the mercy shown in the second act leads to triumph– and for the men too.

Marsha Norman wrote this tough adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning touchstone novel, a National Book Award winner in 1982, which told Celie’s story through letters she wrote to her sister and children.

Sisters Nettie and Celie “Our Prayer.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

For director Steven Spielberg, Menno Meyjes adapted the book into a 1985 movie that garnered 11 Academy Award nominations (but famously did not win any). A new movie based on the musical is set for a December 2023 release.

The heart and soul of any version is Celie, and it’s no fluke that both actresses who played Celie on Broadway — LaChanze in the original 2005 production and Cynthia Erivo in the 2016 revival — won Tony Awards (Director John Doyle’s re-imagining also won the Tony Award for Best Revival).

In this powerhouse role, Anastacia McCleskey is transcendent, bringing out the dignity, heartbreak, and virtues of a true survivor of overwhelming trauma. This tour de force performance is deeply felt and delivered with remarkable strength and skill.

Her eyes glistening with tears, McCleskey became a bona fide star in her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” in which she expresses self-love and perseverance, and left us in awe. The thunderous ovation that followed was one of the longest in memory. Goosebump moments, indeed.

When she leads the cast in the finale, a fervent reprise of “The Color Purple,” it’s impossible for the audience to not have been affected by this sublime show.

Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s also about healing, resilience, and the mighty power of love. Throughout our history, we have learned that we should never forget what’s happened before, those teachable moments that make us better people.

The score includes gospel, jazz, ragtime, blues, and African beats, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray that bring out the purpose, yearnings and period of these early 20th century lives.

“Mysterious Ways” number. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The cast is stellar from leads to brief parts, evident from the Sunday church services depicted in “Mysterious Ways,” with Omega Jones belting out praise as the preacher and Alexis J. Rosten, Shantel Cribbs and Melanie Loren instant crowd-pleasers as the supremely talented trio of church ladies Doris, Darlene, and Jarene.

You will quickly discover what a joyful noise this ensemble will make, their strong vocals providing a sense of faith, hope and charity that church communities share.

Nasia Thomas, who stood out in last year’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” is impressive as Celie’s beloved sister Nettie. You can feel a palpable bond between them, as if they were real sisters. Their duets are beautiful, especially the touching “Our Prayer.”

In the showy role as the irrepressible Shug, singer Tracee Beazer sashays across the stage with ultra-confidence. She leads the big splashy number “Push Da Button” but it’s her poignant ballads, “Too Beautiful for Words” and “The Color Purple,” that showcase her vocal strengths, as well as the exquisite “What About Love?”, a tender duet with Celie.

Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia and Gilbert Domally as Harpo reprise their roles from the acclaimed 2019 Drury Lane Theatre production in Chicago and endear as a dynamic couple — and as individuals. They have a fun, playful duet “Any Little Thing.”

Gilbert Domally, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Evan Tyrone Martin, Anastacia McCleskey. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

As the villain Mister, Evan Tyrone Martin inspires a gamut of emotions as the heartless husband perpetuating a long cycle of suffering. After he’s cursed and lost everything, “The Mister Song” begins his redemption.

Fine in supporting roles are Erica Durham as the colorful Squeak, Sean Walton as flashy Grady, and Jos N. Banks as lively Buster. Muny favorite Kennedy Holmes portrays Olivia and Rodney Thompson is Adam, Celie’s children.

The staging on a simple slab with different levels depicting various locales is a smart move by scenic designer Arnel Sanciano, which narrows our focus to the human interaction. Other accoutrements, such as Harpo’s sign for his juke joint and fields of purple flowers, are deftly handled on the LED screen by video designer Paul Deziel.

The creative team is new to the Muny but not the material. Director Lili-Anne Brown, music director Jermaine Hill and choreographer Breon Arzell were responsible for the Drury Lane Theatre production in fall 2019 that received seven Joseph Jefferson Awards nominations and won two — for directing and supporting role (Haskins).

Their collaboration has transferred well to the large outdoor stage. Every part of this exercise is told with attentiveness and passion.

The trio’s vision is brought vividly to life by the top-tier ensemble and their team, including outstanding craftsmanship by lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge. Production stage manager Jhanae Bonnick keeps everything at a brisk pace.

“Miss Celie’s Pants.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The costumes are a panoply of 40 years of style, with costume designer Samantha C. Jones dressing a church-going community in their Sunday best, what they wear to work and play in a Southern town, and how they dress up for a juke joint. Wig designer is Kelly Jordan.

With Celie designing pants in the second act, a striking array of comfortable yet stylish outfits are on display. That celebration number “Miss Celie’s Pants” marks such a turning point in the story and is one big smile.

If you believe, as I do, that if you spread light and love in the world, and are a good person, then the universe responds in kind. That is ultimately why Celie’s story resonates. Yes, she endured hell on earth, but she never gave up her belief in goodness, and finally realized her worth as a human being.

Purple symbolizes strength, transformation, power, wisdom and bravery, and all meanings can be applied here.

What an inspiration Alice Walker’s book was to the world 40 years ago, and continues to be, and what a distinguished accomplishment this show is for The Muny and St. Louis.

Nasia Thomas, Anastacia McCleskey, Rodney Thompson, Kennedy Holmes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents the musical “The Color Purple” Aug. 3-9 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org.

Church Ladies. Photo by Phillip Hamer.