By Lynn Venhaus

When the Muny teams up with visionary director John Tartaglia, they create a magical world, and it always takes us to a happy place.

Enamored by only a few chords of “The Little Mermaid” score’s breezy calypso music, the luscious blue green turquoise palette of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer’s dazzling seascape and video designer Katherine Freer’s vibrant underwater kingdom teeming with marine life, and we’re eager to dive into this glistening fairy tale fantasia.

With his track record of infusing shows with whimsy and wonder, one expects Tartaglia to achieve new heights for the Muny’s third presentation of Disney’s cherished musical – and wow does he.

Imaginatively staged and seamlessly incorporating all the wizardry available – including innovative use of puppetry from revered Puppet Kitchen International, with designs by Eric Wright, and stunning aerials by ZFX, Hans Christian Andersen’s fish-out-of-water romance enchants in exciting new ways.

If you took away the bells and whistles, this Douglas Wright book adaptation of the Dane’s 1837 short story would still tug on your heartstrings, because stripped down, it is ultimately about families giving each other the greatest gifts –roots and wings.

Rich Pisarkiewicz (left) and Michael Maliakel in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Headstrong Ariel has an insatiable wanderlust, as does Prince Eric, whose zest for adventure pulls him away from his birthright. They disobey to chart their own course, and that comes with risks. She rescues him from drowning, and that remarkable visualization involving flying apparatus is thrilling.

All Disney princes and princesses yearn – and these restless royals must triumph. (And Michael Maliakel knows about being a hero — he played “Aladdin” for three years on Broadway.) The handsome heir is bewitched by the mermaid’s beautiful voice, and the spunky teen falls hard for a forbidden but enticing human world.

With their appealing ardor, Savy Brown and Maliakel are adorable as the made-for-each-other pair. Both have lush voices, and they convey their longing through his fervent renditions of “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer” and her luxe delivery of the iconic “Part of Your World” plus the engaging opener “The World Above.”

The classic true love’s kiss trope is significant because it will break dastardly Ursula the Sea Witch’s curse, so that Ariel can keep her voice and become human. And there isn’t a more intoxicating love song than “Kiss the Girl,” especially with the moonlit romantic mood achieved in the second act.

Ever since lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote the game-changing music for the 1989 animated film, generally regarded as the property that resuscitated Disney’s reputation and ushered in the studio’s creative renaissance of the 1990s, “The Little Mermaid” has endured as a beloved pop culture fixture.

Books, videos, merchandise, the stage musical in 2007, and a live-action remake film in 2023 continue to entertain fans around the world.

From left: Adam Fane, Nicole Parker and Kennedy Kanagawa in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presented this wildly popular Disney title in 2011 and 2017, and costume designer Robin L. McGee is back from the latter’s creative team seven years later to put a fresh spin on a wide range of colorful outfits.

In a pivotal scene, an iridescent seafoam green dress makes Ariel even more radiant, and in a sixth-time collaboration with Puppet Kitchen International, Ursula’s octopus tentacles (real guys inside) remain a marvel in motion.

Tartaglia has opted for the villain to be more cartoonish rather than menacing, and newcomer Nicole Parker is campy, wears garish makeup, and alternates between exaggerated cackling and screeching as the slinky wicked witch.

Gearing it towards a younger audience, the director made it less dark, although “Poor Unfortunate Souls” makes her intentions clear, and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” alongside her henchmen, oozes spite.

Her electric eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam, are also softened. Kennedy Kanagawa and Adam Fane are nimble in their slithery headdresses and eerie in their numbers, especially “Sweet Child.”

The three standout comical characters — confidante fish Flounder, silly seagull Scuttle and skittish sidekick Sebastian the crab – ingratiated themselves quickly with the audience.

From left: Leia Rhiannon Yogi, Jen Cody and Savy Jackson in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Leia Rhiannon Yogi is a cheerful Flounder, demonstrating her dexterity with the bright-hued puppet, while the sublime Fergie L. Philippe, so memorable as Emmett in “Legally Blonde” two summers ago, steals every scene he is in as the lovable calypso-singing crustacean.

He joyously leads the vivacious super-sized spectacle, “Under the Sea,” complete with swirling sea creatures including jellyfish, swimming turtles and Pufferfish. The Oscar-winning Best Song is arguably the show’s best number on the gigantic stage.

Muny fan favorites Jen Cody, Ben Davis and Christopher Sieber each bring their own distinct interpretation to their integral supporting roles.

A limber comedienne, Cody does backflips and handsprings as firecracker Scuttle, mangling English and denoting her crisp comic timing. She blithely leads a rollicking “Positoovity” and “Positaggity.” She has previously delighted audiences as the grandma in “The Addams Family,” Elizabeth in “Young Frankenstein” and stripper Tessie Tura in “Gypsy,” among other amusing roles.

Natural leading man Davis, last seen in his virtuoso St. Louis Theater Circle Award-winning performance as “Sweeney Todd,” is an imposing regal – and buff – King Triton, who must put aside his prejudices and doubts for his daughter’s happiness.

He brings necessary gravitas to the role, although the glow-in-the-dark scepter seems cumbersome at times. His rich baritone is such a pleasure, and he imbues his song “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” with real emotional heft. The reprise with the quartet of Ariel, Eric, Sebastian and Triton is quite lovely.

Christopher Sieber in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Emily Santel

Christopher Sieber, who was a terrific Daddy Warbucks in the charming “Annie” directed by Tartaglia in 2018, has fun being over-the-top as the fussy French Chef Louis in his signature number “Les Poissons.”

The actor has been nominated for the Tony Award twice, as the original Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical” (Fun fact: Tartaglia was Pinocchio) and Sir Dennis Galahad in “Spamalot” (More fun facts: Ben Davis played Galahad in the 2013 Muny production, and both Sieber and Davis were in the Muny’s 2017 “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with Sieber as King Herod and Davis Pontius Pilate).

Versatile veteran actor Rich Pisarkiewicz gets an opportunity to shine in a role well-suited to his talents – Prince Eric’s loyal guardian Grimsby. He is in his 44th season at the Muny, and this is his 87th show.

Some of the creative team worked with Tartaglia on last year’s extraordinary “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” including McGee, Beyersdorfer, lighting designer Jason Lyons, wig designer Ashley Rae Callahan, sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge, and ebullient choreographer Patrick O’Neill. His movements reflect people moving as if in water.

Tartaglia’s background includes puppetry with Jim Henson on “Sesame Street,” and is back working on “Fraggle Rock” on Disney Plus these days. His artistry is obvious, and this joins his other unique Muny productions “Mary Poppins,” “Matilda,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Tarzan” in recent years as examples of his unmistakable playfulness and indomitable spirit. He kept the tempo lively and brisk.

Savy Jackson and Ben Davis in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Music Director Michael Horsley’s elegance is noteworthy too. The hummable tunes and featured personalities keep us interested, easily earning smiles on a summer night from lots of families in attendance.

The creative artists’ inspired flourishes refreshed this chestnut, with the most striking aspect the constantly moving aquatic tableau – Beyersdorfer’s neon-splashed set, Freer’s mesmerizing video, Lyons’ sumptuous illuminations, McGee’s striking looks, Wright’s original puppets, O’Neill’s dance steps and the belief that the whole team could produce the impossible.

Everyone involved brought the best parts of themselves to this project, and its splendor shines brightly.

The Muny presents “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” July 8 through July 16 nightly at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. The runtime is nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available at muny.org, by calling MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 or in person at the Muny Box Office, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Fergie L. Philippe and Jen Cody in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus

Let’s cut to the chase. Tiffany Mann’s electrifying rendition of the signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is everything you want it to be and more, exceeding the highest expectations.

If The Muny had a roof, she would have smashed it to smithereens. She met her Muny moment by unleashing a torrent of fury, hurt, pain and devotion with such ferocity – and control – that the only one not breathless after listening was Ms. Mann. She was stunning in her range and vocal reservoirs.

It was truly one of the most spectacular powerhouse performances in my 60 years of attending Muny shows. She received thunderous ovations throughout, with some of us leaping to our feet as we applauded at the finish.

It’s no wonder she took us to church, for she’s been doing that for a long time. Her parents are nationally renowned gospel singers and actors David and Tamela Mann. You may recall Tiffany bringing the house down in “Smokey Joe’s Café” in the Muny’s first post-pandemic show in 2021.

Tiffany Mann in the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

That “Dreamgirls” showstopping first act closer has been thrilling audiences since its debut in 1981 and was ranked the no. 1 rhythm-and-blues song of 1982 on the Billboard chart. It’s an intimidating one to master, even for the most gifted vocalists.

Tony winner Jennifer Holliday’s career took off after originating the role of Effie White on Broadway, winning a separate Grammy for best vocal performance, and Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for the 2006 movie adaptation.

This rags-to-riches showbiz musical stands out because it delves into the complexities of gender and race at a time when pop music was going through a seismic cultural shift, with changing times and tastes.

Black singers were breaking down racial barriers with ‘crossover’ music, yet often compromised in a live music and recording business hierarchy.

These are subjects explored in such crowd-pleasing jukebox musicals as “Motown: The Musical,” “Memphis,” and “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical,” but “Dreamgirls” was among the first, marked by its style and sophistication.

The book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger focuses on an all-girl singing group – think Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Shirelles, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Chiffons — as they rocket to superstardom in the 1960s and 1970s.

From left: Charl Brown, Courtnee Carter, Aramie Payton, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Tiffany Mann, Aisha Jackson and Ron Himes in the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

They must learn the ins and outs of a cutthroat system while not having much control over their contracts or lives. The soul sounds recall the Motown music trajectory of 1962-1976 in a peppy upbeat score, with meaningful emotional ballads to reflect character transitions.

It’s the kind of big splashy production that lends itself well to the glitz and glamour that the Muny can dazzle us with – and the creative team worked its customary magic to generate.

The look is super-sleek, with chic fashions from indomitable costume designer Leon Dobkowski, trendy wig designs from master stylist Kelley Jordan, ritzy set designs from ever-sharp Edward E. Haynes Jr., and perceptive bygone era video design from clever Elaine J. McCarthy.

Now in his 12th season, lighting designer extraordinaire Rob Denton enhances the in-vogue parade of fashions, glittery nightclub settings and mod TV appearances.

In 2012, the Muny staged a robust production featuring Holliday as Effie – and future “Hamilton” star Christopher Jackson as unscrupulous manager Curtis Taylor Jr.

Tiffany Mann and Ron Himes in the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

In this dynamic reprise, Mann makes Effie her own – and the high-spirited ensemble comes together seamlessly as a family along to an effervescent pulsating rhythm.

The principal characters are an impressive gathering of seasoned pros who’ve made a name for themselves on Broadway.

Immensely likable performers Aisha Jackson is classy Deena Jones and Courtnee Carter is flashy Lorrell Robinson, with the later addition of Effie’s replacement, Natalie Kaye Clater as charming Michelle Morris. They bring a lot of sparkle and pizzazz to the ambitious and naïve rising trio The Dreamettes.

They beautifully blend harmonies, and you root for them and their big dreams. Making their Muny debuts, Jackson was the first black woman to play the role of Anna in the Broadway production of “Frozen” and Carter was recently in the Tony-winning revival of “Parade.”

And the male leads are equally strong – silky-smooth Charl Brown is again impressive as the ethically challenged Curtis Taylor Jr., the Svengali manager-producer, after his memorable turn in the aforementioned “Smokey Joe’s Café” the summer of 2021. He was Tony nominated as pioneering Smokey Robinson in “Motown: The Musical.”

From left: Aisha Jackson, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Tiffany Mann, Courtnee Carter and the company of the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

With the theatricality and bluster of James Brown and Little Richard, Nick Rashad Burroughs is on fire as live-wire star Jimmy “Thunder” Early. He quickly won over the audience with his brash charm and high energy.

Burroughs originated the role of Ike Turner in “Tina – The Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway and was recently seen as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the touring production of “Moulin Rouge” that came to the Fox this spring.

Aramie Payton is warm and personable as the talented songwriter C.C. White, Effie’s brother. He was the original Michael Jackson standby in “MJ – The Musical.”

Local treasure Ron Himes is a formidable Marty, an early mover and shaker who helps the group navigate the biz and tries to keep Curtis in check.

They are a tight-knit unit gliding through the ups and downs of fame.

Director Robert Clater makes sure we feel the heart along with the soul as a whirlwind rise marks Act One. His vivacious staging of the Apollo Amateur Night line-up opening and a supercool “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” gets us off to a rousing start.

The company of the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The momentum keeps going with “Dreamgirls” and “Party Party,” followed by the serious “Heavy” and that soul-stirring rafter-shaking hit song.

Highlights also include the ironic white milquetoast rendition of “Cadillac Car” by Dave and the Sweethearts – really hammering a serious point with humor – and one of the most poignant numbers, “Family.” That is the enduring theme that ultimately saves some of them from themselves.

Choreographer Lesia Kaye keeps the dancers moving while music director/conductor Anne Shuttlesworth ensures everybody’s grooving, although I did feel at times the orchestra overpowered the vocals..

The late great legend Michael Bennett, fresh from the phenomenon that was “A Chorus Line,” directed and choreographed the original “Dreamgirls” 43 years ago, and Kaye honors that legacy with vigor.

Because of the heady mix of achieving their dreams in Act One, there is a believable joy throughout – until Effie’s heartbreaking personal and professional betrayal, although her erratic unprofessionalism and off-putting diva behavior precipitates her inevitable downfall.

Aisha Jackson and the company of the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The cool and refined Deena becomes the more ‘presentable’ leader of the group, now known as Deena Jones and the Dreams, and is everything hot-headed Effie lacks, so Act Two interjects more of the pitfalls of fame and personal strife as fortunes run high and low.

While the cliched backstage drama also features Effie’s redemption, karma for Curtis, and Jimmy’s career tumbles, the girls’ can’t stop the detrimental cracks in their upward direction.

The consequences of single-minded success are obvious, and the book isn’t as strong in this snapshot, and the pacing sags midway.. You can see the strain of having everything tied up neatly on the page, yet the resolution feels earned for the principals, if rushed..

“And I Am Telling You…” isn’t Mann’s only slam dunk, for her contrite “I Am Changing” and her pensive “One Night Only” soar.

And darn if that long-time-coming reunion doesn’t produce a lump in the throat!

Among noteworthy elements to emphasize, Dobkowski’s elegant interpretations of retro fashions deserve their own standing ovation. His work always suits the characters perfectly, and he’s won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, for “Seussical” and “The Wiz.” He is in his 11th season, and brings out a shiny, happy vibe to everything he produces. Remember his jubilant “Sister Act” from last season?

From left: Courtnee Carter, Aisha Jackson, Natalie Kaye Clater and the company of the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

And Haynes’ scenic design is so fluid, one must salute his depth – briskly moving scenes in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Miami, Las Vegas, and other cities with remarkable dexterity. Theater Circle winner for “Smokey Joe’s Café,” he created the landmark set for last season’s “Chess.”

One doesn’t achieve this slick sense of time and place with its distinctive sound and fury without prioritizing collaboration. That is what sets this show apart from a typical “Behind the Music” documentary, with a cast and crew determined to razzle dazzle us in a most exuberant triumph.

Come for THE SONG, stay for the teamwork.

From left: Courtnee Carter, Aisha Jackson and Natalie Kaye Clater in the 2024 Muny production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presents “Dreamgirls” at 8:15 p.m. nightly June 27 – July 3 on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. The run time is nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. Tickets are available at muny.org, by calling MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 or in person at the Muny Box Office, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

By Lynn Venhaus

Dream roles, meet dream cast. The highest caliber of vocal excellence on display cannot be understated, for this third mounting of “Les Miserables” at the Muny shimmers with glorious voices.

In the iconic roles of fugitive ex-convict Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert, Broadway veterans John Riddle and Jordan Donica surpassed their powerhouse reputations with a fiery tango as the obsessive adversaries.

Riddle, a Muny standout who won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award last year for his tour de force in “Chess,” and Donica, Tony Award nominee as Lancelot in ‘Camelot,” wowed in all aspects.

Let’s put it this way: If they sang the words to websites’ terms and conditions, you’d listen intently to every phrase before clicking ‘accept.’

With his pure, exquisite tenor and nuanced falsetto, Riddle’s stunning rendition of the showstopping emotional ballad “Bring Him Home” ranks among the most heartfelt Muny moments of all time, and his impassioned “Who Am I?” was breathtaking. His performance had to have pierced everyone’s hearts all the way to the back row.

Jordan Donica, John Riddle. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Donica’s rich baritone intensity on “Stars” and “Soliloquy” depicted Javert’s inner turmoil.

They are the lightning to the chorus’ thunder, as the sprawling ensemble’s lush harmonies soared into the beautiful summer night of June 18.

And the Muny audience – 7,700 on Tuesday – leaned in, its affection palpable. (And more than a few misty eyes noticeable). You could have heard a pin drop during its 2 hours and 45 minutes runtime.

The epic scope of this stirring sung-through adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1,463-page novel from 1862 on post-Revolutionary France makes for a challenging and daunting production, especially for a Muny-sized version.

With its massive cast, towering multi-level set revolving on the turntable, and complex story to tell, the revered classic requires everyone involved to be at the top of their game.

While a show of this magnitude isn’t without flaws, the achievement of pulling off one of the grandest musicals ever represents the Muny at its finest. Previous acclaimed productions were in 2007 and 2013, and that one remains burned in my brain as among the best.

John Riddle sings “Bring Him Home.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

First, this is “Les Miserables.” Beloved. Adored. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and Alain Boublil’s musical sensation started a landmark world-wide run in London in 1985 before it came to Broadway in 1987, packing houses for 16 years. It was revived in 2006 and 2014.

Over three decades, it has been seen by 130 million people in 53 countries and is the sixth longest-running Broadway musical of all-time. Currently, a U.S. national tour is underway.

Fun fact: This company’s director Seth Sklar-Heyn, music director James Moore and choreographer Jesse Robb are the core artistic team behind that current tour. Sklar-Heyn is also executive producer of all “Les Miz” companies in the U.S., on behalf of the legendary impresario Cameron Mackintosh.

The basics are thus: French peasant Jean Valjean served nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, and breaks his parole. He is aided by a merciful bishop in Digne (Ken Page) and makes a fresh start, but is hunted by Javert.

Redeeming himself, he has assumed a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

Eventually, a group of young idealistic students attempt to overthrow the government at a barricade in Paris. It’s 1832 and the city is in upheaval because General Lamarque, the only official who seems to care about the poor, is about to die.

The Paris Uprising battle scenes are powerful and dramatic, crystallizing several of the plot points.

Emily Bautista in the 2024 Muny production of “Les Misérables.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

There are many moving parts, by virtue of the dense story’s blend of revolution and romance, good and evil. While I’m a fan, some of the subplots can be confusing if you aren’t overly familiar with the source material.

A prerequisite is reading the show synopsis, which takes up a full page in the Muny program. Trust me, you need it. It can be overwhelming for newbies and if it’s been awhile since you saw it, doesn’t hurt to refresh.

It races through many years and multiple locations, so buckle up. One needs to focus on who is propelling the plot forward, and there are times when you can’t necessarily spot that character right away because of the busyness.

For instance, I don’t think this staging made Fantine’s predicament clear in a crowded factory scene, nor was an artistic choice for Javert’s death (spoiler alert) as effective as what I’ve seen before.

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

No matter if it’s your second time or 12th, there are certain expectations every fan has. Not all interpretations can satisfy pre-conditioned notions in one’s head, but no one can quibble with the enthralling vocals.

While most shined in their solo moments, the actors’ emoting varied. Fantine has limited time to establish her plight as a desperate and destitute single mom, although Teal Wicks superbly delivered a touching “I Dreamed a Dream,” if not nailing the role’s set-up.

Red Concepcion and Jade Jones as the Thenardiers were not as funny as they could have been, for a show in need of the broad comic relief that “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” provides. They were less buffoonish and more pathetic.

A major crowd-pleaser was scene-stealer Will Schulte as the streetwise urchin Gavroche, endearing in his number “Look Down.” Another youngster, Kate Kappel, sweetly sang “Castle on a Cloud” as hopeful Little Cosette.

The young performers acting as rebels were among the most impressive – especially poignant Emily Bautista as the tragic Eponine and James D. Gish a revelation as devoted Enjolras.

She tugged at our heartstrings with “On My Own” and Gish was all vigor and verve in his zealous commitment to the cause in “Red and Black,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and the rousing showstopper “One Day More.”

From left: Noah Van Ess, Dan Klimko, Peter Neureuther and the company of the 2024 Muny production of “Les Misérables.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Cosette, Fantine’s daughter now living with Valjean, and student leader Marius’ love story is told ardently – with Gracie Annabelle Parker and Peter Neureuther the dashing couple. Marius’ mournful “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” gets to me every time.

The company of 77 sings their hearts out. Twenty members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus — soprano, alto, tenor and bass-baritone — joined 35 professional actors and 22 local youth performers on stage (and backstage)

The sumptuous, assured musical direction and conducting by virtuoso James Moore is significant. Working with Schonberg’s music score and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, from original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, he is using new orchestrations from Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker.

Moore’s body of work – 12 shows at the Muny– has been distinctive, bringing out the shadings in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” “West Side Story” (fervent Leonard Bernstein-level!)  and “Gypsy,” but his efforts leading an epic “Les Miz” delivers an extraordinary aural treat. Special mention of associate music director Michael Horsley whose contributions are important.

And the exceptional 25-member orchestra, whose musicality is peerless, brings out all the feelings in this music. As a native of Belleville, Ill., I must mention recently deceased Bellevillian Vicky Smolik, who played trumpet in the Muny orchestra for 45 years. This opening production is dedicated to her memory.

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

From the bombastic opening chords and the score’s rich repetitive motifs, through the robust anthems, yearning expressions and tender love songs, the orchestra has produced numerous chill-inducing moments.

DirectorSklar-Heyn has made sure a zippy pace is maintained. Praise must be heaped on the stage manager Willie Porter and her three assistant stage managers Sarah Azizo, Eric Elz, and Joshua Vinik for the smooth flow of action.

The ace technical wizards included lighting designer Jason Lyons, scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer, video designer Shawn Duan, and sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge.

Gail Baldoni’s costume design was mostly gritty, with class distinctions for the lavish wedding attire, nobility and military uniforms, and Ashley Rae Callahan’s wig design coiffed the characters’ appropriately.

“Les Miz” celebrates courage, conviction and community, and its recurring themes are timeless. You can see why it endures and feel how passionate both the performers and the audience are about it in this Muny opener to the 106th season.

The Muny presents “Les Misérables” at 8:15 p.m. nightly, June 17-23 on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. The show is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with an intermission. For more information, visit www.muny.org.

Teal Wicks in the 2024 Muny production of “Les Misérables.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny has announced its full cast, design and production teams for Les Misérables, which opens the theatre’s 106th season and runs June 17-23 on the James S. McDonnell Stage in Forest Park.

“We are ready to storm the barricade of Muny 106 with this beautiful musical,” said Muny Artistic Director & Executive Producer Mike Isaacson. “The cast, crew and artistic team are striving to create a production you’ll remember for a lifetime.”

Joining the previously announced John Riddle (Jean Valjean), Jordan Donica (Javert), Teal Wicks (Fantine), Red Concepción (Thénardier), Jade Jones (Madame Thénardier), Ken Page (The Bishop of Digne), Emily Bautista (Éponine), Gracie Annabelle Parker (Cosette), Peter Neureuther (Marius), James D. Gish (Enjolras), Kate Kappel (Little Cosette), Grace Moore (Young Éponine) and Will Schulte (Petit Gervais/Gavroche) are Lee H. AlexanderLeah BerryPatrick BlindauerMatías De La FlorChris HunterDan KlimkoÁngel LozadaDaniel Brooks McRathSydni MoonGrant PaceSarah PansingNicholas PattariniTim QuartierShelby RingdahlMatt RosellGrace Marie RusnicaLiv ShivenerSydney ShortCecilia SnowKyle TimsonNoah Van Ess and Annie Zigman. The company also will be joined by the Muny Kids and Muny Teens Youth Ensemble.

The Les Misérables creative team is led by Director Seth Sklar-Heyn, with Choreographer Jesse Robb, Music Director James Moore and Associate Musical Director Michael Horsley.

The production includes Associate Choreographer Paige Parkhill, Scenic Designer Ann Beyersdorfer, Costume Designer Gail Baldoni, Lighting Designer Jason Lyons, Co-sound Designers John Shivers and David Patridge, Video Designer Shawn Duan, Wig Designer Ashley Rae Callahan and Production Stage Manager Willie Porter.

The Telsey Office is the official casting partner of The Muny.

As previously announced, 20 singers from the St. Louis Symphony Chorus will join the company as the supernumerary chorus for “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “One Day More” and “Finale: Do You Hear The People Sing? (Reprise).” The singers are Nicholas BashawAnnemarie Bethel-PeltonRachel ButtramLaurel DantasMary DonaldLea FrostMegan GlassJohn HergetMatthew JellinekJei Mitchell EvensHannah NelsonBrian PezzaValerie ReichertGreta RosenstockPaul RunnionMatthew StansfieldPhilip TouchetteRobert ValentineNicole Weiss and Tristan Wood. Members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus will appear as a courtesy and in partnership with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The Muny artistic staff includes Artistic Director & Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, Associate Artistic Director Michael Baxter, Production Manager Tracy Utzmyers and Music Supervisor Michael Horsley.

Here is John Riddle singing “Bring Him Home’ in rehearsals at The Muny, with music director James Moore accompanying him on piano.
https://youtu.be/t33Cj8KB7g8?si=BM-_IyQ3AQVz5QBg

Principal Cast Bios

JOHN RIDDLE (Jean Valjean) received a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for his performance of Anatoly Sergievsky in last season’s production of Chess. Other Muny: Disney’s The Little MermaidTitanicShow BoatLegally Blonde and others. Broadway: The Visit (OBC), Frozen (OBC) and Raoul in the final company of The Phantom of the Opera. Off-Broadway/NY: Cal Hockley in Titanique the Musical (Lortel nomination), The Secret Garden in Concert (Lincoln Center), Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods (Town Hall). National tour: Evita. Regional: Kennedy Center, Long Wharf Theatre, Goodspeed, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Casa Mañana, Naples Opera. Other: Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, American Pops Orchestra.

JORDAN DONICA (Javert) most recently starred as Sir Lancelot in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Camelot, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. He originated the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the Tony-nominated My Fair Lady (Lincoln Center Theater) and starred as Raoul in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera. New York City Center Encores!: Into the Woods (Rapunzel’s Prince). Tour: Hamilton (first national tour, Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, SF/LA companies). Concerts: Washington National Opera, Pasadena Symphony, The New York Pops (Carnegie Hall), Indianapolis Symphony and Lincoln Center Theater’s Camelot. Featured performer at the American Songbook Hall of Fame. TV: Jordan Chase in the CW’s Charmed. Directing: The Exonerated in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Little Prints by Anna Mulhall.

TEAL WICKS (Fantine) On Broadway, Teal originated the roles of Lady in The Cher Show, Mary Barrie in Finding Neverland and Emma Carew in the revival of Jekyll & Hyde. She made her Broadway debut as Elphaba in Wicked after playing the role to critical acclaim in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Off-Broadway and across the US, Teal has created lead roles in The Ballad of Little Jo (Two River Theater), The Blue Flower (Second Stage/A.R.T.), Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story (Signature Theatre NYC), The Life of the Party (TheatreWorks, with Andrew Lippa) and Fahrenheit 451 (59E59). TV/streaming appearances include The Peripheral (Amazon), The Night Agent (Netflix), NCIS: New Orleans, EvilElementaryThe Good WifeChicago Justice.

RED CONCEPCIÓN (Thénardier) Broadway: Chicago (Amos Hart). National/International tours: Miss Saigon (The Engineer, US national and UK/Ireland tours). Asian and Philippine credits: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Adam/Felicia; Manila and Singapore; Gawad Buhay Outstanding Male Lead in a Musical and Aliw Award for Best Actor in a Musical), Equus (Alan Strang), The Normal Heart (Tommy), Annie (Rooster), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Lionel), West Side Story (A-rab) and more.

JADE JONES (Madame Thénardier) The Muny: Disney & Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary PoppinsThe Color Purple. Off-Broadway: Vanities. Regional: Disney’s Beauty and The Beast (Belle), A.D. 16, The Amen CornerMacbethInto the WoodsThe Wiz110 in the ShadeSweeney ToddSchool Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play. TV: Chicago P.D., Cinderella: The Reunion, A Special Edition of 20/20 (ABC).

KEN PAGE (The Bishop of Digne) has performed in over 45 shows on the Muny stage. Ken is widely known as the voice of Mr. Oogie Boogie in the classic Disney/Tim Burton animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas. He has performed the score live at The Hollywood Bowl, Barclays Center NY, LA’s Banc of California Stadium, Glasgow, London (SSE Arena, Wembley), Dublin and Tokyo. Film: DreamgirlsTorch Song TrilogyAll Dogs Go to Heaven and more. Ken made his Broadway debut in the all-Black revival of Guys and Dolls as Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Theatre World Award). Other Broadway: Cats (Old Deuteronomy, OBC video/film cast), Ain’t Misbehavin’ (OBC, LA, Paris, Drama Desk Award for Best Actor, Grammy Award cast album), The Wiz (Lion). London’s West End: Children of Eden (Father, OLC), My One and Only in Concert (London Palladium). Mr. Page’s solo concert, Page By Page, was released on CD (LML Music). He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabaret Artists (MAC), Project One Voice/Black Theatre and the St. Louis Arts Foundation.

EMILY BAUTISTA (Éponine) made her Broadway debut in the 2017 revival of Miss Saigon, where she understudied the lead role of Kim. She later returned to the role full time on the first national tour. In between the Broadway and touring productions of Miss Saigon, Emily took on the role of Éponine in Cameron Mackintosh’s North American touring production of Les Misérables. Following her time on tour, Emily made her London debut in the world premiere of Vanara: The Legend in the lead role of Ayla. On television, she is recognized for her role as Elodie on Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. Additionally, Emily has made notable appearances in films The Compound (2021) and Which Brings Me to You (2023).

GRACIE ANNABELLE PARKER (Cosette) Regional: Guys and Dolls (Sarah Brown, The Carnegie), Brigadoon (Fiona, Wagon Wheel), Legally Blonde (Ensemble). Gracie is a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, BFA musical theatre.

PETER NEUREUTHER (Marius) Regional: Newsies (Jack Kelly) at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. Peter is a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

JAMES D. GISH (Enjolras) Broadway: Wicked (Fiyero). Off-Broadway: The Light in the Piazza (Fabrizio, New York City Center Encores!), The Jerusalem Syndrome (Mickey Rose, York Theatre, OOBC). National tours: Beautiful (Gerry Goffin), Les Misérables (Feuilly). Recent regional: Daddy Long Legs (Jervis, Phoenix Theatre Co.), West Side Story (Tony), Newsies (Jack Kelly) and The Toxic Avenger (Toxic Avenger).

KATE KAPPEL (Little Cosette) was last seen at The Muny in The Sound of Music (Gretl von Trapp) and in the Youth Ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sister Act. Kate is 12 years old and just finished the sixth grade at South City Catholic Academy in St. Louis. She is a vocal student at Lisa Christine Studios and learns dance at the Professional Dance Center, where she is a member of the Ensemble competition team. Kate is a member of the Muny Kids and Muny Holiday troupes.

GRACE MOORE (Young Éponine) is 10 years old and is going into fifth grade, where she sings with her school choir and is a student house leader. Grace studies dance at Performing Arts Centre. She performs with the competition team and is a classroom helper. She studies voice with Kelly Stinnett Studios.

WILL SCHULTE (Petit Gervais/Gavroche) made his Muny debut in the Youth Ensemble of Beauty and the Beast last summer and is so excited to be performing with the Muny Kids touring troupe this summer. Will has also performed with Gateway Center for Performing Arts and was most recently seen as Kassim in Aladdin Jr. at his school. Will studies voice with Katie Kopff and also enjoys playing tennis. He will be attending St. Louis University High School in the fall.

Les Miz Broadway revival 2014

About the Show

Les Misérables previously was produced at The Muny in 2007 and 2013. The show includes music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, with a book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Set against the backdrop of post-Revolutionary France and based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, this celebrated musical follows the journey of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict seeking a fresh start, and his relentless pursuer, Javert. Its powerful songs and thrilling story of love, passion, sacrifice and redemption have been beloved the world over for generations.

Performances of Les Misérables begin at 8:15 p.m. nightly, June 17-23. Single-performance tickets and season tickets are on sale now at muny.org, by calling (314) 361-1900 or at the Muny Box Office in Forest Park.

To learn more about the Muny production of Les Misérables and the show’s history, visit muny.org/show/les-mis. For actor headshots, show logos, video and other assets, visit the Muny Press Room at muny.org/press.

Season 106 at The Muny also includes Dreamgirls (June 27-July 3), Disney’s The Little Mermaid (July 8-16), Fiddler on the Roof (July 19-25), Waitress (July 30-Aug. 5), In the Heights (Aug. 9-15) and Anything Goes (Aug. 19-25).

About The Muny

The Muny’s mission is to enrich lives by producing exceptional musical theatre, accessible to all, while continuing its remarkable tradition in Forest Park. As the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theatre, we welcome more than 350,000 theatregoers each summer for seven world-class productions. Now celebrating 106 seasons in St. Louis, The Muny remains one of the premier institutions in musical theatre. For more information, visit muny.org.

Single-performance tickets for all seven musicals in the 106th Muny season — and for John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra — go on sale at muny.org starting at 9 a.m. Monday, May 20, at The Muny Box Office, 1 Theatre Drive in Forest Park.

It’s fast and easy to purchase tickets online using MetroTix, the only authorized vendor for Muny tickets. But buyers who visit the Muny Box Office in person May 20 will be able to learn more about each of this summer’s Broadway hits and sneak a peek at sketches by our design teams.

Box office guests who buy three or more single-performance tickets for the 106th season will be entered to win a VIP seat upgrade — with parking. Free In the Heights-inspired snow cones also will be available.

Only tickets for the 106th Muny season will be available at the Muny Box Office; tickets for John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra must be purchased through MetroTix at muny.org.

Season 106 at The Muny includes Les Misérables (June 17-23), Dreamgirls (June 27-July 3), Disney’s The Little Mermaid (July 8-16), Fiddler on the Roof (July 19-25), Waitress (July 30-Aug. 5), In the Heights (Aug. 9-15) and Anything Goes (Aug. 19-25). The Muny presents John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 7.

The Muny will present EGOT-winning, critically acclaimed, multiplatinum  musician John Legend on its iconic James S. McDonnell Stage for John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Sept. 7.

Renowned for producing exceptional musical theatre, The Muny, in collaboration with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, revives a beloved tradition by presenting its first live concert in more than 30 years.

John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will feature intimate reimaginings of Legend’s greatest hits (“All of Me,” “Ordinary People,” “Tonight”), unexpected stories from his life and career, and selections from his most recent release, LEGEND (“Nervous,” “Wonder Woman”). This concert is Legend’s first-ever performance with the SLSO.

Tickets for John Legend: A Night of Songs and Stories With the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are $75-$300 and go on sale at 9 a.m. CT May 20 at metrotix.com and muny.org/johnlegend. Muny and SLSO subscribers can access a presale from 9 a.m. May 17 to 9 p.m. May 19 CT. MetroTix is the only authorized vendor of Muny tickets.

The Muny also will offer tickets for its famous “free seats.” Details will be announced.

“We have been eager but deliberate in recent years about creating the right opportunity to bring live concerts back into the Muny tradition, and the alignment of an icon like John Legend with one of the best orchestras in the world, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, is the perfect opening for this next chapter,” said Muny President & CEO Kwofe Coleman. “Generations of St. Louisans have memories of seeing legendary music acts on our magnificent stage, and I am excited to deliver this bit of nostalgia to our community at the end of our 2024 summer season.” 

The last concert at The Muny was by the Moody Blues and Kansas in 1991. Other notable artists who have performed on the Muny stage include Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Sting, Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams Jr.

“We are thrilled to partner with The Muny and the incredible John Legend for this truly not-to-be-missed performance,” said SLSO President & CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard. “This concert highlights the best St. Louis has to offer — the remarkable talents of our musicians on one of the most celebrated musical theatre stages in the country. This collaboration with The Muny is another milestone in our treasured partnership and elevates our shared vision of providing unique artistic experiences for the community.”

JOHN LEGEND

John Legend is an EGOT-winning, critically acclaimed, multiplatinum musician who has garnered 12 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award and three Emmy Awards, among others. 

Legend is one of only nineteen people in the prestigious EGOT club. Legend has released nine celebrated albums over the course of his career, including Get Lifted (2004), Once Again (2006), Evolver (2008), Love in the Future (2013), Darkness and Light (2016), A Legendary Christmas Deluxe  (2019), Bigger Love (2020), LEGEND (2022), and most recently, LEGEND (Solo Piano Version) (2023). In 2022, his critically acclaimed Las Vegas Residency, “Love In Las Vegas,” took place at Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. 

Legend starred as Jesus in NBC’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT in April 2018. That year, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie” and won an Emmy as a producer in the “Outstanding Variety Special (Live)” category for the show.  Legend joined THE VOICE as a coach for Season 16 (2019) and has returned for a number of seasons, most recently Season 25 (2024).  

Beyond his music career, Legend, along with partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius, is a principal of Get Lifted Film Co., a production company which has developed projects with major networks including ABC, NBC, FOX, HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and FX. Get Lifted’s latest projects include the MAX documentary STAND UP AND SHOUT, Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary 1000% ME: GROWING UP MIXED, Paramount+ documentary LOUDMOUTH, PBS documentary RACIST TREES and the Netflix hip-hop competition series “RHYTHM & FLOW.” Their upcoming projects include NBC/Peacock’s BEFORE I LET GO, based on the New York Times Best Selling Author Kennedy Ryan’s book, and REVERB with Renée Elise Goldsberry attached to star; the film THE WAR & TREATY, inspired by real-life husband-and-wife Black country music stars Michael and Tanya Trotter; the TV adaptation of S.A. Cosby’s novel BLACKTOP WASTELAND; and the forthcoming Broadway-bound musical SOUL TRAIN.  

In 2021, Get Lifted and Erik Feig’s PICTURESTART formed Picture LIFT, a joint venture focused on developing, producing and financing multiple films in the $10M range, featuring diverse filmmakers and inclusive casts. Get Lifted and Universal Studio Group’s UCP inked a first-look deal for unscripted series and an exclusive multi-year overall deal for scripted content. Additionally, Get Lifted recently renewed their first look feature documentary deal with HBO.  

Aside from film, TV and theater, Get Lifted has partnered with Zando to form Get Lifted Books, which builds upon Get Lifted Film Co.’s mission of spotlighting stories from dynamic creatives. Their most recent acquisition, “Wild Life,” a memoir by National Geographic Explorer and ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, published in April. Previous titles include “Rosewater,” by Liv Little, and “Black Love Letters,” which  features a foreword by Legend.   

Legend’s skincare line, Loved01, launched in 2023 and is available online and through CVS and Walmart. Loved01 is an effective and affordable unisex skincare brand formulated to treat the needs of melanin-rich skin. 

As an activist, Legend launched FREEAMERICA in 2015 to change the conversation surrounding criminal justice policies and to end mass incarceration. Legend serves on the Board of Directors of Harlem Village Academies and Management Leadership for Tomorrow, and on the Advisory Boards for The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and Teach for All. 

THE MUNY

The Muny’s mission is to enrich lives by producing exceptional musical theatre, accessible to all, while continuing its remarkable tradition in Forest Park. As the nation’s oldest, largest outdoor musical theatre, we welcome more than 350,000 theatregoers each summer for seven world-class productions. Now celebrating 106 seasons in St. Louis, The Muny remains one of the premier institutions in musical theatre. For more information, visit muny.org.

ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Celebrated as one of today’s most exciting and enduring orchestras, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country, marking its 145th year with the 2024/2025 season and its sixth with Stéphane Denève, the Joseph and Emily Rauh Pulitzer Music Director. Widely considered one of the leading American orchestras, the Grammy Award-winning SLSO maintains its commitment to artistic excellence, educational impact and community collaborations — all in service to its mission of enriching lives through the power of music. For more information, visit slso.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outstanding Production of a Comedy 

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Lynn Venhaus

It’s that down-to-the-wire time where I write about the year that was in local theater. It’s my annual opportunity to celebrate theater, to encourage artists to be artful, and to give some virtual bouquets to people doing outstanding work.

When media folks publish lists at year’s end of their favorite things in arts and entertainment, I admire the succinct way they make their cases. Good, quick reads. And I do that for my best films of the year lists for KTRS (Dec. 29) and Webster-Kirkwood Times (Jan. 5). But when it comes to regional theater, that’s not how I roll.

Call me fastidious, but I prefer to be thorough. Hence, the Lotties (Lynn’s Love of Theatre Awards), which usually arrive sometime in January, and get really specific (some call it ‘give everyone a trophy,’ I refer to it as “these are my opinions, and I’d like to recognize these people.”) Besides “Lotties” implies “a lot,” as in largesse.

I do start assembling this in December – and on my lovely train trip home from the holidays in the west, I mulled over my choices while observing the beautiful topography of New Mexico from Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. As relaxing as that was, it was short-lived, because 2024 was not on pause.

The Lehman Trilogy at The Rep

But looking back is necessary. It’s time for the victory lap on a truly outstanding 2023, which started strong, morphed into an exciting summer, and finished with some of the companies’ best works. I know there are struggles post-pandemic — the world is not the same, and neither are we, nor the arts. Yet, if I had to describe the year in two words, I’d use “moving” and “meaningful.”

To put awards timing in perspective, the Grammys and Screen Actors Guild are in February and Oscars wind up film awards in March. As a grateful longtime local reviewer, I consider awards seasons a way to get through a dreary winter, a time to shed light on people doing good work, and a terrific reason to get together.

The St. Louis Theater Circle’s annual awards will be March 25 at the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University. More details will be forthcoming Friday (including ticket link) because that’s when my colleagues in the Circle will announce our awards nominations in 33 categories. Jim Lindhorst and Michelle Kenyon will be on KWMU (90.7 FM) at 12:30 p.m., and our group releases our press release at 1 p.m. (stay tuned here, on social media, and the Circle’s Facebook page). We’re working hard on the show, as a collective we founded in 2012.

So, what were the takeaways of 2023 on local stages? For me, in these dark times, theater continues to be a beacon of light.

Spencer Kruse and Jacob Flekier in “Broadway Bound”

When I’m focused on live theater, I forget about the soul-crushing Twilight Zone episode that’s on an endless loop when I wake up – that bad people are not accountable, facts are dismissed so cavalierly and belligerently, manners have disappeared, science is mocked in favor of personal agendas, while outrage and cultural wars spread, and uncertainty, anxiety, isolation and fear– aaarrrrggghh.

I learned last year, because of two serious sudden life-threatening emergencies, that if you don’t pay attention to your health, consequences are dire. (Much gratitude for the tremendous selfless health care professionals in this town, city ambulance EMTs, and those who donate blood.)

Live theater has always been a source of salvation, of rejoicing, of awe and wonder, of communal laughter, and ultimately, feeling something. And when it clicks, connection. I hear from professional movers and shakers that people want escape, especially after the tough several-year slog through a global pandemic and ongoing political chaos.

Obviously, elevated endorphins are a good thing. But for emotional wallops, those hard-hitting, thought-provoking works that stick with you, and the performers who impress because they rise to the occasion, are unforgettable. Hooray for the fearless and adventurous artists who try new things, raise the bar, and collaborate in the best way possible. Oh, how I admire the many talents and supremely gifted people in this regional theater community.

Sometimes, by virtue of writing for several different publications from home, as an independent contractor, I get stuck, for it is easy to sink into despair when it is cold and gray outside, when a chill goes right through your bones, and daylight dims.

There is nothing better than sharing an experience, re-affirming that we’re not alone, understanding that human decency is noble, and realizing that even though we may be broken, we can still find solace in beautiful small moments.

Like soaring vocals, funny people showing off their quippy comic timing, and the artisans crafting stunning costumes, sets, lighting, and moods. Seeing what people can create and the inspirations behind it – always enriching.

The 145s

Theater helps us discover the good in people, reflect on our common and unique human condition, shows triumph over adversity, and offers more understanding. With hope, maybe we can somehow make a difference in the smallest of ways.

The last five years have been exhausting and overwhelming. In December, I officially became a published author. I wrote a chapter about my journey in a woman’s anthology book, “Ageless Glamour Girls: Reflections on Aging,” that is currently a bestseller on Amazon. I joined 13 women over age 50 in sharing lessons we’ve learned. My chapter: “You Are Not Alone: Dealing with Grief and Loss.”

I am grateful to all the angels sent my way to remind me that a sense of purpose is the very best reason to live. And that spring is six weeks away. I look forward to humming happy tunes. And so we beat on…

If you are out and about, say hey. Few things I like better than talking about theater and seeing people do something they love to do.

Warning: This article is long. It might be comparable to William Goldman’s book assessing the 1967-68 Broadway season, “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway,” which was published in 1969 (an example of my drama geek youth if I was reading that book when I was 14).

And if you feel like celebrating, join us for the St Louis Theater Circle Awards on March 25. It has always been a great night to enjoy everyone’s company, celebrate the past year’s accomplishments, and look ahead to ’24 – and spring will have arrived!

Into the Woods at New Jewish Theatre

This Year’s Awards

Clearly, there is a big hole here in that I did not see “Death of a Salesman” at the Black Rep because I was in the hospital (that pesky internal bleeding incident from outpatient surgery), twice, and then at home recovering. I know I missed a great one.

Because of scheduling issues in my busiest periods as a working journalist, I’ve missed a few, but overall, I attended at least 72 eligible shows, not including one-acts at festivals (was at some of Fringe, and all of Tesseract and LaBute), touring and school productions. Hope to get to as much as possible this new year (but it’s hard when they’re all lumped together opening same weekend).
Here’s my assessments on 2023 output. Gushing will ensue.

Production of the Year: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep gets the honor, rebounding in spectacular fashion after what I considered their worst show “Side by Side by Sondheim,” last February, to end the year on a glorious high note, with the “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play.”

Overflowing with cheer and kindness, the crisp and polished production was more than a performance – it was a change in direction and a celebration of community.

It’s A Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play at The Rep

Everything about this show gleamed – the company of all local performers and the nostalgic setting of KSTL’s studio harkened back to the Golden Age of Radio.

This play-within-a-play was a savvy adaptation by Joe Landry, reworking his play that modified the movie that’s now a holiday staple. The twist to the timeless tale is that it’s being performed by characters who work at the radio station.

Opening night Dec. 3 also was a statement, and people eagerly responded with enthusiastic applause.

After The Rep went public with their financial woes in mid-October, starting a “Rally for the Rep!” campaign to raise $2.5 million to continue the 57-year-old regional professional theater in the new year, handwringing and finger-pointing occurred. But goodwill flourished too.

A Dec. 17 benefit, an online auction, and other fundraising efforts helped. This production was the first opportunity for The Rep to welcome patrons back to the Loretto-Hilton Center since the news broke, and a merry mood was evident.

It warmed the heart. And perhaps was an omen for the future.

“The Birthday Party” at Albion Theatre

Companies of the Year: The Muny (large) and Albion Theatre (small)

I have professionally reviewed Muny shows since 2009, first for the Belleville News-Democrat, until 2017 when the parent company went in a different direction, and now continue on my website, www.PopLifeSTL.com in addition to mentions on KTRS with Jennifer Blome and Wendy Wiese, and our PopLifeSTL podcast. But I’ve been attending since my grandmother took me to “Flower Drum Song” in 1965, when I was 10. Life-changing.

The 105th season was the best one yet. Each sterling production was technically outstanding, enormously entertaining, and the audience leaned into the premieres with gusto (“Beautiful,” “Chess,” “Rent” and “Sister Act.”). In addition, the enduring “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “West Side Story,” and “Little Shop of Horrors” really did deliver all the feels. I was impressed with the sheer magnitude and artistic daring of each show.

Believe. Longing. Belonging. Overcoming. Those were the themes. It was a seven-show arc of uncommon grace – a genuine depth of feeling in each well-executed one. In every performance, there was a palpable sense of yearning – a future Hall of Fame talent finding her voice, outsiders opening their hearts in a timeless fairy tale classic, of high-stakes gamesmanship and personal cost in a political arena, star-crossed lovers clinging to a dream, unearthing your worth and wish fulfillment in a flower shop, discovering love and nurturing friendship in a bleak place, and using your gifts to foster community.

That big sprawling Muny family made it look effortless when it wasn’t at all – a massive team of creatives, performers and technicians crafting the magic we demand from our musical theater under the stars. Nobody does what they do, and that “alone in its greatness” tagline from my teenage years still stands. We expect a lot from this cultural institution – and they delivered at a very high level.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” at The Muny

Albion Theatre was in its second season last year, and produced superb works: “The Birthday Party,” “Absent Friends” and “Mindgame,” all very clever, all home runs.

You never know what awaits you in the Kranzberg Black Box when Albion is putting on a show, but British-born founder and artistic director Robert Ashton guarantees an intriguing premise, a dandy ensemble and a thoughtfully put-together play. The company’s niche is exploring the long and rich history of playwriting in Britain — with forays into Ireland, and even with UK ancestors (maternal great-grandfather from Manchester, England, and great-grandmother from Glasgow, Scotland), I am continually fascinated by the culture and how much detail he puts into each production.

Joe Hanrahan of The Midnight Company

Artist of the Year: Joe Hanrahan

Playwright, actor, producer, director – a man of many hats who is constantly pushing himself and his The Midnight Company with new endeavors. He started a hybrid of cabaret and theater with Jim Dolan at the Blue Strawberry, and Kelly Howe, as Linda Ronstadt, sold out multiple shows of “Just One Look,” a career retrospective, with the 13th show at the City Winery last November.

He continues to explore those new avenues, produced a fun reading of “The Humans of St. Louis” at last summer’s Fringe Festival (which I hope they develop further). He mounted an impressive full-scale “The Lion in Winter” with some of the best actors in town, revived a past production, “The Years,” with a fresh ensemble, and starred in a one-man show, the heartfelt and gut-punching “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.”

A true original is the best compliment I can give, whether he’s working on one of his own scripts, or collaborating with another company. He’s so prolific that I think people take his output for granted. Standing O.

Producers of the Year: Taylor Gruenloh and Rebekah Scallet

Taylor Gruenloh, along with his right-hand team of Brittanie Gunn and Kevin Corpuz, expanded Tesseract Theatre Company’s reach this year, producing such bold musicals as “The Last Five Years,” “The Mad Ones,” and “Kinky Boots,” along with a contemporary hybrid, “Welcome to Arroyo’s.”

His pivot a couple years ago to a new play festival was very engaging this summer, with “In Bloom” by Gwyneth Strope and “Red Curtain Rivalry” by Amy Lytle, who was in attendance.

Whatever he chooses to do, you know it will be different and enlightening, and he’s unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. I can’t wait to see the complex Tony winner “The Inheritance” this spring.

Taylor has decided to step down as artistic director after founding the company in 2010, but Gunn and Corpuz will continue to manage the company and take it in new directions. He is a playwright, and currently an assistant professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and teaching at Webster University. He won’t be fading away any time soon.

Rebekah Scallet. The woman’s got game. In her first full season as artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, she wowed us with her confident and eclectic picks last year: “Broadway Bound,” “Every Brilliant Thing,” “Gloria: A Life,” “The Immigrant” and “Into the Woods.” Each one was a crown jewel in her cap. Strong casts, excellent material, and superb technical acumen combined for thrilling theater. She perceptively directed a magnificent “The Immigrant,” which was so very timely.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” on national tour with Richard Thomas and Yaegel T. Welch

Touring Production of the Year: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” The Fox.

I was fortunate to see the riveting Aaron Sorkin-scripted production starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch at a sold-out Shubert Theatre on Broadway in May 2019. The audience’s thunderous ovation was one of the loudest and longest that I ever took part in, and I consider that production one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Could the touring show headed by Richard Thomas even come close? Yes, it did, and was just as powerful and emotional. Bravo.

(Runner-Up: “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” They raised the roof and we responded. This is based on new touring shows, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include the “Come From Away” tour that stopped here for a weekend last fall. It was a profound experience, like God walking through the room. Vibrant, moving, relatable. Tears streamed down my face. I don’t think I was alone.)

My Ten Favorite A&E Things of 2023
(Most of these took place in the summer. Hmmm…)

  1. Barbenheimer at the movie theaters
  2. The delightful 145s Musical Improv Troupe — see them at The Improv Shop. One of the best Saturday nights you can ever have.
  3. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra playing “The Princess Bride” score with the movie at Stifel, and the audience anticipating and cheering for their favorite lines.
  4. The outstanding youth productions I saw last summer:
    “Grease” by Ignite Theatre Company
    “Sweeney Todd” by Debut Theatre Company
    “Bare: A Pop Opera” by Gateway Center for the Performing Arts

Inventively staged, tight ensembles, imaginative touches, strong music direction. Very impressive. Those kids seemed so poised and polished! Keep an eye out for Jordan Thompson, who played both Danny Zuko and Sweeney Todd. Wow, just wow.

Amneris’ wedding gown designed by Brad Musgrove for “Aida” at Stages St Louis

5. St Louis Shakespeare Festival’s touring production of “Merry Wives.” Sitting in Tower Grove Park with my peeps Carl “The Intern” Middleman (poplifestl podcast co-host) and Chas Adams (poplifestl.com reviewer) on a pleasant August night (!) to see those sparks fly with the intrepid traveling troupe of Michelle Hand, Joel Moses, Carl Overly Jr., Rae Davis, Mitchell Henry-Eagles, and Christina Yancy, directed by Suki Peters.

6. “Ragtime” at Union Avenue Opera. Those voices! Talk about a wall of sound! 49 people were part of that endeavor. This event was as hard-hitting as ever.

7. Costume Designer Brad Musgrove’s wedding gown for Amneris (Diana DeGarmo) in “Aida” at Stages St. Louis.

8. Sarah Gene Dowling’s wig design in “Into the Woods” at Stray Dog Theatre

9. Remarkable rigged sets to collapse dramatically: Rob Lippert for “Godspell” at Stray Dog Theatre and Jim Robert, for “Grand Horizons” at Moonstone Theatre Company.

10. Puppet Designer John Ortiz for Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Muny, and Nicholas Ward as The Voice and Travis Patton as the Manipulator.

TJ Staten Jr. in “It’s a Wonderful Life’

THE MVPs
(must have been in two or more shows this year, not a rookie, and whose presence made a difference)

Bridgette Bassa
Sarajane Clark
Kevin Corpuz
Rae Davis
Ricki Franklin
Joseph Garner
Marshall Jennings
Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Debby Lennon
Kevin O’Brien
Jane Paradise
Reginald Pierre
Michael James Reed
Sean Seifert
Ron Strawbridge

ONES TO WATCH

DeAnte Bryant
Hannah de Oliveira
Evann DeBose
Joey File
Nick Freed
Lindsey Grojean
Alexander Huber
Drew Mizell
Kenya Nash
TJ Staten Jr.
James Stevens
Claire Wenzel (now Coffey)

J’Kobe Wallace and DeAnte Bryant in “Eubie!” at The Black Rep

DYNAMIC DUOS and TERRIFIC TRIOS

Brian Slaten and Jessika D. Williams in “Gruesome Playground Injuries”
Alicia Reve Like and Eric J. Conners in “The Light,” The Black Rep
Chuck Winning and Nick Freed in “The Birthday Party” and “Mindgame,” Albion Theatre
J’Kobe Wallace and DeAnte Bryant in “Eubie!” The Black Rep
Jason Meyers and Colleen Backer in “Outside Mullingar,” West End Players Guild
Jacob Flekier and Spencer Kruse in “Broadway Bound,” New Jewish Theatre
Joel Moses and John Wolbers in “The Lion in Winter,” The Midnight Company
John Contini and Alexander Huber in “Barrymore,” St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Joneal Joplin and Jared Joplin in “Grand Horizons,” Moonstone Theatre Company
Leslie Wobbe and Kate Durbin in “Walter Cronkite Is Dead,” West End Players Guild
Kevin Corpuz and Grace Langford in “The Last Five Years,” Tesseract Theatre Company
Kelvin Moon Loh and Eric Jordan Young in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
Vincent Klemski and Lincoln Clauss in “Rent,” The Muny
Terrance Johnson (replacement for Evan Tyron Martin in early performances) and Adrian Vallegas in “Rent,” The Muny
Kimmie Kidd, Ebony Easter and Adrienne Spann as The Radio, “Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
Kennedy Holmes, Taylor Marie Daniel, and Stephanie Gomerez as The Urchins in “Little Shop of Horrors,” The Muny
Rob Colletti, Brandon Espinoza and Darron Hayes as the goons in “Sister Act,” The Muny

De-Rance Blaylock in “Caroline, or Change” at Fly North Theatricals

BRINGING THE HOUSE DOWN

(Best Musical Numbers)

  1. De-Rance Blaylock singing “Lot’s Wife” in “Caroline, or Change” at Fly North Theatricals
  2. John Riddle singing “Anthem” in “Chess” at The Muny
  3. Ben Crawford singing “If I Can’t Love Her” in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” at The Muny
  4. John Battagliese and Mike Schwitter as The Righteous Brothers singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at The Muny
  5. Lindsey Grojean singing “If I Can’t Have You” in “Saturday Night Fever” at Stray Dog Theatre
  6. The cast of “Rent” in “Seasons of Love,” especially Anastacia McKleskey, at The Muny
  7. Kevin O’Brien and Phil Leveling in “No More” in “Into the Woods” at New Jewish Theatre
  8. Meredith Aleigha Wells as Sister Mary Robert singing “The Life I Never Led,” Sister Act, The Muny
  9. Christian Douglas singing “Maria” in “West Side Story” at The Muny
  10. The extended curtain call for “Million Dollar Quartet” at Stages St. Louis with Scott Moreau (Johnny Cash), Jeremy Sevelovitz (Carl Perkins), Brady Wease (Jerry Lee Lewis), and Edward La Cardo (Elvis).
Meredith Aleigha Wells in “Sister Act” at The Muny


BEST YOUTH PERFORMERS

  1. Zoe Klevorn “Caroline, or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
  2. Rosario Rios-Kelly “In Bloom,” Tesseract Theatre Company
  3. Michael Hobin “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” The Muny
  4. Cameron Hadley, “Caroline or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
  5. Malachi Borum, “Caroline or Change,” Fly North Theatricals
  6. Riley Carter Adams “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Max & Louie Productions
  7. Jada Little “The Piano Lesson,” Encore! Theatre Group
  8. Vaida Gruenloh “In Bloom,” Tesseract Theatre Company
  9. Tommy Pepper “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” Stray Dog Theatre
“Feminine Energy” by Myra L. Gary at Mustard Seed Theatre

BEST NEW PLAYS

  1. “One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston,” LaBute New Theatre Festival, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  2. “Safe Space,” LaBute New Theatre Festival, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  3. “This Palpable Gross Play,” SATE
  4. “See You in a Minute,” Contraband Theatre
  5. “In Bloom,” New Play Festival, Tesseract Theater Company
  6. “The Game’s Afoot,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Shake in the Streets
  7. “Feminine Energy,” Mustard Seed Theatre
  8. “From the Garden,” Wee Laddie Theatrics

“Clue” at Stages St Louis

BEST COMEDY PRODUCTIONS

  1. Clue – Stages St. Louis
  2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Stray Dog Theatre
  3. The Birthday Party – Albion Theatre
  4. Gruesome Playground Injuries – The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  5. Broadway Bound – New Jewish Theatre
  6. Merry Wives – St. Louis Shakespeare Festival Touring Company
  7. This Palpable Gross Play – SATE
  8. Outside Mullingar – West End Players Guild
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – St Louis Shakespeare
  10. Murder on the Orient Express – The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
“The Immigrant” at New Jewish Theatare

BEST DRAMA PRODUCTIONS

  1. It’s A Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play – The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  2. The Immigrant – New Jewish Theatre
  3. The Lion in Winter – The Midnight Company
  4. Uncle Vanya – St Louis Actors’ Studio
  5. The Lehman Trilogy – The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  6. Skeleton Crew – The Black Repertory Theatre of St Louis
  7. What the Constitution Means to Me – Max and Louie Productions
  8. Mindgame – Albion Theatre
  9. Doubt: A Parable – Prism Theatre Company
  10. Gloria: A Life – New Jewish Theatre
“Million Dollar Quartet” at Stages St Louis

BEST MUSICAL PRODUCTIONS

  1. Caroline, or Change – Fly North Theatricals
  2. West Side Story – The Muny
  3. Into the Woods – New Jewish Theatre
  4. Eubie! – The Black Rep
  5. Million Dollar Quartet – Stages St. Louis
  6. Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast – The Muny
  7. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical– The Muny
  8. Chess – The Muny
  9. Q Brothers A Christmas Carol – St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  10. Kinky Boots – Tesseract Theatre Company
Ricki Franklin and Cassidy Flynn in “Twelfth Night” at St Louis Shakespeare Festival

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY

  1. Ricki Franklin, Twelfth Night, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
  2. Claire Wenzel, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Stray Dog Theatre
  3. Zoe Vonder Haar, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  4. Annalise Webb, Absent Friends, Albion Theatre
  5. Rae Davis, “Merry Wives,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
  6. Anna Langdon, Absent Friends, Albion Theatre
  7. Bridgette Bassa, “The Nerd” and “Grand Horizons,” Moonstone Theatre Company
  8. Diana DeGarmo, “Clue,” Stages St. Louis
  9. Alexander Huber, in two roles – as girl and Madeleine, in “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” Stray Dog Theatre (the roles are female but gender-fluid)
  10. Kristen Strom, “This Palpable Gross Play,” SATE
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Stray Dog Theatre

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY

  1. Chuck Winning, The Birthday Party, Albion Theatre
  2. Nick Freed, The Birthday Party, Albion Theatre
  3. Stephen Henley, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Stray Dog Theatre
  4. Bryce A Miller, The Nerd, Moonstone Theatre Company
  5. Chuck Brinkley, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
  6. Cassidy Flynn, Twelfth Night, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, and Grand Horizons, Moonstone
  7. Charlie Franklin, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  8. Bob Harvey, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
Colleen Backer and Jason Meyers in “Outside Mullingar” at West End Players Guild

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY

  1. Mara Bollini, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Stray Dog Theatre
  2. Colleen Backer, Outside Mullingar, West End Players Guild
  3. Jessika D. Williams, Gruesome Playground Injuries, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  4. Teresa Doggett, The Birthday Party, Albion Theatre
  5. Leslie Wobbe, Walter Cronkite Is Dead, West End Players Guild
  6. Sarajane Clark, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Stray Dog Theatre
  7. Sarajane Clark, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Stray Dog Theatre
  8. Nicole Angeli, Absent Friends, Albion Theatre
  9. Jane Paradise, Safe Space, LaBute New Theatre Festival, St. Louis Actors’ Studio

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY

  1. Mark Price, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  2. Ryan Lawson-Maeske, The Nerd, Moonstone Theatre Company
  3. Stephen Peirick, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Stray Dog Theatre
  4. Brian Slaten, Gruesome Playground Injuries, The Rep
  5. Jacob Flekier, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
  6. Jason Meyers, Outside Mullingar, West End Players Guild
  7. Armando Duran, Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  8. Joneal Joplin, Grand Horizons, Moonstone Theatre Company
  9. Ted Drury, The Birthday Party, Albion Theatre
  10. Reginald Pierre, Safe Space, LaBute New Theatre Festival, St Louis Actors’ Studio
Michelle Hand and Riley Carter Adams in “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Max & Louie Productions

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA

  1. Bryn McLaughlin, Uncle Vanya, St Louis Actors’ Studio
  2. Rae Davis, Feminine Energy, Mustard Seed Theatre
  3. Mindy Shaw, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  4. Rhiannon Creighton, Doubt, Prism Theatre Company
  5. Ashley Bauman, The Years, The Midnight Company
  6. Nicole Angeli, Mindgame, Albion Theatre Company
  7. Kelly Howe, See You in a Minute, Contraband Theatre Company

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA

  1. Michael James Reed, Uncle Vanya, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  2. David Wassilak, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  3. Bradley Tejada, Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams Festival
  4. Joey File, The Years, Midnight Company
  5. John Wolbers, The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  6. Joel Moses, The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  7. Joseph Garner, See You in a Minute, Contraband Theatre
  8. Brian McKinley, Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
Alicia Reve Like and Eric J. Conners in “The Light” at The Black Rep

BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA

  1. Alicia Reve Like, The Light, The Black Rep
  2. Michelle Hand, What the Constitution Means to Me, Max & Louie Productions
  3. Lavonne Byers, The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  4. Naima Randolph, Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams Festival
  5. Kate Durbin, Doubt, Prism Theatre Company
  6. Ricki Franklin, See You in a Minute, Contraband Theatre Company
  7. Velma Austin, Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
  8. Jenni Ryan, Gloria: A Life, New Jewish Theatre
  9. Tiffany Oglesby, Confederates, The Rep
  10. Erin Rene Roberts, Feminine Energy, Mustard Seed Theatre
Will Bonfiglio in “Every Brilliant Thing” at New Jewish Theatre

BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA

  1. Dustin Lane Petrillo, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  2. John Contini, Barrymore, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  3. John Pierson, Uncle Vanya, St Louis Actors’ Studio
  4. Will Bonfiglio, Every Brilliant Thing, New Jewish Theatre
  5. Reginald Pierre, One Night in the Many Deaths of Sonny Liston, LaBute New Theatre Festival, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  6. Nick Freed, Mindgame, Albion Theatre
  7. Chuck Winning, Mindgame, Albion Theatre
  8. Kelvin Roston Jr, Twisted Melodies, The Rep
  9. Olajuwon Davis, Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
  10. Xavier Scott Evans, Confederates, The Rep
Kimmie Kidd-Booker in “9” at New Line Theatre

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

  1. Diana DeGarmo, Aida, Stages St. Louis
  2. Taylor Louderman, Chess, The Muny
  3. Kimmie Kidd-Booker, 9, New Line Theatre
  4. Jenelle Gilreath Owens, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  5. Jerusha Cavazos, West Side Story, The Muny
  6. Katie Geraghty, Sister Act, The Muny
  7. Jackie Burns, Beautiful The Carole King Musical, The Muny
  8. Sarah Gene Dowling, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  9. Kristen Joy Lintvedt, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  10. Jenny Mollet, Aida, Stages St. Louis
  11. Marlee Wenski, Jesus and Johnny Appleweed’s Holy Rollin’ Family Christmas, New Line Theatre
  12. Grace Langford, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

  1. Jarrod Spector, Beautiful The Carole King Musical, The Muny
  2. Phil Leveling, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  3. Duane Foster, Caroline or Change, Fly North Theatricals
  4. Ken Page, West Side Story, The Muny
  5. Jon Hey, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  6. Ryan Vasquez, Little Shop of Horrors, The Muny
  7. Albert Jennings, Aida, Stages St Louis
  8. Jeremy Sevelovitz, Million Dollar Quartet, Stages St Louis
  9. Adrian Villegas, Rent, The Muny
  10. Drew Mizell, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  11. James T. Lane, Sister Act, The Muny
  12. Claybourne Elder, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

  1. De-Rance Blaylock, Caroline or Change, Fly North Theatricals
  2. Sara Sheperd, Beautiful The Carole King Musical, The Muny
  3. Molly Wennstrom, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  4. Bryonha Marie, Sister Act, The Muny
  5. Melissa Felps, The Mad Ones, Tesseract Theatre Company
  6. Ashley Blanchet, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  7. Guinevere Govea, Spells of the Sea, Metro Theatre Company
  8. Jessica Vosk, Chess, The Muny
Jane Paradise and Reginald Pierre in “Safe Space” at LaBute New Theatre Festival, St Louis Actors’ Studio

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL (Male or NonBinary)

  1. John Riddle, Chess, The Muny
  2. Tielere Cheatem, in the role of Lola, Kinky Boots, Tesseract Theatre Company
  3. Ben Crawford, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  4. Robin De Jesus, Little Shop of Horrors, The Muny
  5. Drew Mizell, Saturday Night Fever, Stray Dog Theatre
  6. Kevin O’Brien, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  7. Christian Douglas, West Side Story, The Muny
  8. Garrett Young, Q Brothers Christmas Carol, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  9. Cole Guttman, 9, New Line Theatre
Joe Hanrahan and Lavonne Byers in “The Lion in Winter”

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A COMEDY

  1. Clue, Stages St. Louis
  2. The Birthday Party, Albion Theatre
  3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Stray Dog Theatre
  4. Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
  5. The Brechtfast Club, ERA
  6. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Louis Shakespeare
  7. This Palpable Gross Play, SATE
  8. Absent Friends, Albion
  9. Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  10. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Stray Dog Theatre
The Brechtfast Club at ERA

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A DRAMA

  1. It’s A Wonderful Life: Live Radio Play, The Rep
  2. The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  3. Uncle Vanya, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
  4. The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  5. The Lehman Trilogy, The Rep
  6. Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
  7. Wrens, Prism Theatre Company
  8. Doubt: A Parable, Prism Theatre Company
  9. Feminine Energy, Mustard Seed Theatre

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

  1. Caroline, or Change, Fly North Theatricals
  2. Eubie! The Black Rep
  3. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  4. Million Dollar Quartet, Stages St Louis
  5. Q Brothers Christmas Carol, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  6. West Side Story, The Muny
  7. Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  8. Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  9. Spells of the Sea, Metro Theatre Company
  10. Rent, The Muny
    (tie) Sister Act, The Muny
Jessika D. Williams and Brian Slaten in “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at The Rep

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN IN A COMEDY

  1. Sean M. Savoie, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  2. Anshuman Bhatia, Gruesome Playground Injuries, The Rep
  3. Jason Lynch, Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  4. John Wylie, Twelfth Night, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  5. Erik Kuhn, This Palpable Gross Play, SATE

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN IN A DRAMA

  1. Christina Watanabe, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rep
  2. Xavier Pierce, Twisted Melodies, The Rep
  3. Matthew McCarthy, Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams Festival
  4. Jayson M. Lawshee, Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
  5. Eric Wennlund, Mindgame, Albion Theatre
“Chess” at The Muny

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN IN A MUSICAL

  1. Rob Denton, Chess, The Muny
  2. Sean M Savoie, Million Dollar Quartet, Stages St. Louis
  3. Herrick Goldman, Aida, Stages St. Louis
  4. Jesse Klug, Q Brothers Christmas Carol, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  5. Jayson M Lawshee, Spells of the Sea, Metro Theatre Company
  6. Jasmine Williams, Eubie!, The Black Rep
  7. Heather Gilbert, Rent, The Muny

BEST VISUAL PROJECTIONS

  1. Alex Bosco Koch, Chess, The Muny
  2. Michael Salvatore Commendatore, Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  3. Kylee Loera, Beautiful The Carol King Musical, The Muny
“Murder on the Orient Express” at The Rep


BEST SOUND DESIGN IN A COMEDY

  1. Beef Gratz, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  2. Kareem Deames, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre

BEST SOUND DESIGN IN A DRAMA

  1. Michael Costagliola, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rep
  2. Kareem Deames, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  3. G Glausen, Twisted Melodies, The Rep
  4. Jacob Baxley, Mindgame, Albion Theatre

SPECIAL MENTIONS
Amanda Werre, Sound Design, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
Erik Kuhn, Fight Coordinator, Mind Game, Albion Theatre
Terrance Johnson, who filled in for Evan Tyron Martin as Tom Collins in the early performances of “Rent” at The Muny when Martin had COVID
Fleur de Noise, a special segment in “The Game’s Afoot,” St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s Shake in the Streets

“Eubie!” at The Black Rep

BEST COSTUME DESIGN IN A COMEDY

  1. Brad Musgrove, Clue, Stages St. Louis
  2. Olivia Radle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Louis Shakespeare
  3. Fabio Toblini, Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  4. Michelle Friedman Siler, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
  5. Colleen Michelson and Sarah Gene Dowling (wigs), Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Stray Dog Theatre

BEST COSTUME DESIGN IN A DRAMA

  1. Liz Henning, The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  2. Michelle Friedman Siler, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  3. An-Lin Dauber, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rep
  4. Sam Hayes, Wrens, Prism Theatre Company
  5. Teresa Doggett, Uncle Vanya, St Louis Actors’ Studio
“Kinky Boots” at Tesseract Theatre Company

BEST COSTUME DESIGN IN A MUSICAL

  1. Robin McGee, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  2. Eileen Engel and Sarah Gene Dowling (wigs), Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  3. Brad Musgrove, Aida, Stages St Louis
  4. Marc W. Vital III, Eubie!, The Black Rep
  5. Michelle Friedman Siler, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  6. Zachary Phelps, Kinky Boots, Tesseract Theatre
  7. Leon Dobkowski, Sister Act, The Muny
“Skeleton Crew” at The Black Rep

BEST SCENIC DESIGN IN A DRAMA

  1. An-Lin Dauber, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rep
  2. Sara Brown, The Lehman Trilogy, The Rep
  3. Nina Ball, Confederates, The Rep
  4. Margery and Peter Spack, Skeleton Crew, The Black Rep
  5. Matt Stuckel, Doubt, Prism Theatre Company
  6. (tie) James Wolk, Suddenly Last Summer

BEST SCENIC DESIGN IN A COMEDY

  1. Tim Macabee, Murder on the Orient Express, The Rep
  2. Lee Savage, Clue, Stages St Louis
  3. Dunsi Dai, Grand Horizons, Moonstone Theatre Company
  4. Margery and Peter Spack, Broadway Bound, New Jewish Theatre
  5. Ellie Schwetye and Lucy Cashion, This Palpable Gross Play, SATE
  6. Scott Neale, “The Game’s Afoot, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

BEST SCENIC DESIGN IN A MUSICAL

  1. Edward E Haynes Jr., Chess, The Muny
  2. Rob Lippert, Godspell, Stray Dog Theatre
  3. Ann Beyersdorfer, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  4. C. Otis Sweezey, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  5. Adam Koch, Million Dollar Quartet, Stages St Louis
  6. Kristen Robinson, Little Shop of Horrors, The Muny
  7. Tim Jones, Eubie! The Black Rep
  8. Margery and Peter Spack, Spells of the Sea, Metro Theatre Company
  9. Ryan Douglass, Beautiful The Carole King Musical, The Muny

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY

  1. Patrick O’Neill, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Muny
  2. Heather Beal, Robert Crenshaw and Vivian Watt, Eubie! The Black Rep
  3. Mike Hodges, Saturday Night Fever, Stray Dog Theatre
  4. Steph Paul, Q Brothers Christmas Carol, St Louis Shakespeare Festival
  5. Maggie Nold, Kinky Boots, Tesseract Theatre Company
  6. Parker Esse, West Side Story, The Muny (original choreography reproduced)
  7. Denis Jones, Sister Act, The Muny
  8. Luis Salgado, Aida, Stages St. Louis
  9. Patricia Wilcox, Beautiful, The Muny
  10. Tyler White, Go, Dog, Go!, Metro Theater Company
“Saturday Night Fever” at Stray Dog Theatre

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTOR

  1. Colin Healy, Caroline or Change, Fly North Theatricals
  2. James Moore, West Side Story, The Muny
  3. Larry D. Pry, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  4. Charlie Alterman, Beautiful the Carole King Musical, The Muny
  5. Leah Schultz, Saturday Night Fever, Stray Dog Theatre
  6. David Sonneborn, Million Dollar Quartet, Stages St. Louis
  7. Jason DeBord and Michael Horsley, Chess, The Muny
  8. Leah Schultz, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre

BEST DIRECTOR OF A COMEDY

  1. Steve Bebout, Clue. Stages
  2. Alan Knoll, Broadway Bound, New Jewish
  3. Suki Peters, The Birthday Party, Albion
  4. Christina Rios, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Lous Shakespeare
  5. Lucy Cashion, The Brechtfast Club, ERA
  6. Becks Redman, Gruesome Playground Injuries, The Rep
  7. Gary Wayne Barker, The Nerd, Moonstone Theatre Company
“Uncle Vanya” at St Louis Actors’ Studio

BEST DIRECTOR OF A DRAMA

  1. Kate Bergstrom, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rep
  2. Carey Perloff, The Lehman Trilogy, The Rep
  3. Rebeka Scallet, The Immigrant, New Jewish Theatre
  4. Annamaria Pileggi, Uncle Vanya, St Louis Actors’ Studio
  5. Tom Kopp, The Lion in Winter, The Midnight Company
  6. Gary F. Bell, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Stray Dog Theatre

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

  1. John Tartaglia, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The Muny
  2. Robert Quinlan, Into the Woods, New Jewish Theatre
  3. Josh Rhodes, Chess, The Muny
  4. Brian McKinley, Caroline or Change, Fly North Theatricals
  5. Justin Been, Into the Woods, Stray Dog Theatre
  6. Rob Ruggiero, West Side Story, The Muny

Photos by Jon Gitchoff, Philip Hamer, Julia Merkle, Patrick Huber, Joey Rumpell.

“Little Shop of Horrors” at The Muny
“West Side Story” at The Muny

By Lynn Venhaus

As shiny as a disco ball and as bouncy as a 1970s dance party, “Sister Act” overflows with heart and soul to end the Muny’s 105th season on a high note, the cherry on top of a sensational summer.

The upbeat Alan Menken score may not be as familiar as his Disney animation renaissance classics, but you’ll be humming a happy tune and leaving the Forest Park amphitheater giddily grinning with a spring in your step.

For this adaptation of the 1992 feel-good hit movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, composer Menken teamed up with lyricist Glenn Slater, who is known for “School of Rock,” “A Bronx Tale,” and the animated feature musical “Tangled.” All the songs are originals, no songs used in the movie are featured.

The screen-to-stage musical comedy made its debut in Pasadena in 2006, moved on to London’s West End starring Patina Miller in 2009, and opened on Broadway in 2011 with Miller in the lead role. It earned five Tony Award nominations, including best musical, book, and original score (losing those three to “The Book of Mormon”).

“Take Me to Heaven,” “Raise Your Voices” and “Spread the Love” are quite satisfying super-sized soul sister anthems.

.James T. Lane as Eddie Souther. Photo by Phillip Hamer

And the more intimate solos tug at the heartstrings – especially “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” by angelic-voiced Mamie Parris as Mother Superior and “I Could Be That Guy” by James T. Lane, touching as ‘Sweaty’ Eddie, both well-liked Muny veterans.

But it’s a star-making performance by wheelchair-user Meredith Aleigha Wells as postulant (pre-novice) Sister Mary Robert in her show-stopping “The Life I Never Led” that’s the most memorable moment.

The book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, two-time Emmy Award winners for “Cheers,” with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane, takes the movie screenplay by Joseph Henry and transfers the place from Reno and San Francisco to Philadelphia and the time to 1977-1978 from the movie’s contemporary (1992) setting, but keeps the story basically the same.

A lounge singer witnesses an informant executed by her thug boyfriend, then police hide her in a convent for witness protection until she can testify, where undercover as Sister Mary Clarence, she takes over a rough-sounding choir and transforms it into a vocal powerhouse.

She tussles with the Mother Superior while winning over the other nuns. Suddenly, their vivacious music numbers start attracting churchgoers, filling the pews, and becoming a local sensation. And she’s stayin’ alive (I couldn’t resist).

Bryonha Marie, Mamie Parris. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

A mash-up of a police procedural with a sitcom-y vibe (think that ‘70s chestnut “Barney Miller”), the plot’s routine, but the passion of the performers isn’t. They dive into Funkytown with glee.

What made the movie so fun – transforming Motown songs from romantic love to spiritual love by a cloistered convent choir – becomes contagious crowd-pleasing disco/R&B/gospel confections on the vast outdoor stage, including an exuberant “Sunday Morning Fever” – complete with gyrating altar boys and the nuns shaking their groove thing.

The City of Brotherly Love – and cheesesteaks — adds further meaning because of its “Philadelphia Sound,” popularized in the late ‘60s and ‘70s that laid the soul music foundations for disco, with funk influences, jazzier melodies, and lush arrangements.

Music Director Michael Horsley integrated the electric rhythms with such pizzazz, elevating the sweeping strings section (5 violinists, 2 viola/violinists, 2 cellos and 1 harp) along with the fabulous rich sound of 4 woodwinds, 3 keyboards, 2 trumpets, 2 French horns, 2 trombones, and 1 tuba, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion.

Bryonha Marie winningly plays Deloris Van Cartier with panache, sassy posing as a nun and silky in delivering such various sounds as “Fabulous, Baby!” and the poignant “Sister Act.” Memorable as the Mother Abbess in the Muny’s 2021 “The Sound of Music,” she plays a very different nun this time around. Deloris turns the beat around, inspires female empowerment, and makes their numbers into dance-floor type celebrations.

Michelle Burdette Elmore, Thom Sesma, Kaitlyn Maise, and Katie Geraghty. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Katie Geraghty, breakout scene-stealer as a Little Red replacement in the acclaimed “Into the Woods” Broadway revival last year, is an ebullient Sister Mary Patrick, her naivete and chirpy personality a delight.

The supporting players brim with brio – especially the goofy trio of goons: Rob Colletti as Jack Black-like Joey, Brandon Espinoza as Pablo, and Darron Hayes as dim TJ in “Lady in the Long Black Dress” and with the imposing villain Curtis Jackson, played by a formidable Alan H. Green, who was memorable as the Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese in last year’s “The Karate Kid-The Musical” premiere at Stages St. Louis. Just listen to those words of “When I Find My Baby”!

Thom Sesma, as Monsignor O’Hara, is very funny as he watches his church go from impending closure to standing room only —  and can bust a move as well.

The nuns are luminous, with Madeleine Dougherty, Rebecca Young and Michelle Burdette Elmore noteworthy as Sisters Mary Lazarus, Mary Martin-of-Tours and Mary Theresa respectively.

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Director-choreographer Denis Jones’ trademark pep-in-the-step is present. When I see his name in the credits, I know he will endear with his crisp and snappy style, having earned St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for directing and choreographing “Chicago” (2021) and for his eye-popping work in “42nd Street” (2015) and “A Chorus Line” (2017), among others.

Besides the inherent comedy in nun-focused musicals as amusing entertainment, Jones has emphasized that cheerful bond like the 1979 disco anthem “We Are Family” throughout the show.

In elaborate costume designer Leon Dobkowski’s capable hands, the costumes are a time-capsule of Studio 54, conveying progression from standard nun garb to ultra-glam sequined habits, and the fantasy dancers are wildly adorned in sparkly attire, silver lame and over-the-top styles seen on Elton John and David Bowie. There’s also the garish fashions of that ’70s era, with eyesore checks and plaids and the god-awful polyester.

Wig designer Kelley Jordan has supplied appropriate big hair for the secular singers, dancers, and hitmen.

Meredith Aleigha Wells as Sister Mary Robert. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Scenic Designer Edward E. Haynes Jr., who had so much fun with the flamboyant sets last year for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” applies a heavy layer of kitsch – vintage Naugahyde! – on nightclub, neighborhood bar, and Eddie’s apartment while being ingenious on the open church design for the turntable.

Video designer Kevan Loney carries that retro flair onto the screens while lighting designer Shelby Loera  effectively illuminated the moods.

The Muny premiere follows the regional premiere by Stages St. Louis in 2016, and the first national tour came to the Fox Theatre in 2013.

Laugh-out-loud funny throughout, this lighthearted romp gets the crowd on their feet with a rousing curtain call. Oh, what a jubilant late-summer night it was, complete with fireworks.

And “Sister Act” defines the faith, hope, and love St. Louisans have for this cultural institution and generational tradition.

And just like that, the Muny’s wonderful, celebrated summer comes to a dandy grand finale.

iDarron Hayes, Rob Colletti, Brandon Espinoza and Alan H. Green. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Reflections on the Muny’s championship season of 2023

As the days lose their light and autumn looms, it’s time to rejoice, to revel in the communion that 11,000 people can share watching shining stars on stage, and to marvel at the never-ending joyful noise a St. Louis summer yields.

This has been a season marked not only by the major spectacle we have come to expect on the largest outdoor stage in the country, but also a seven-show arc of uncommon grace – a genuine depth of feeling in each well-executed production.

From premieres “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Sister Act” bracketing a standout season that featured technically proficient creative teams mastering that elusive Muny magic and superior quality talent delivering the special moments we’ll remember deep in December: The transformative power of music – through musical theater – is the reason we flock to The Muny year after year.

In every performance, there was a palpable sense of yearning – a future Hall of Fame talent finding her voice, outsiders opening their hearts in a timeless fairy tale classic, of high-stakes gamesmanship and personal cost in a political arena, star-crossed lovers clinging to a dream, unearthing your worth and wish fulfillment in a flower shop, discovering love and nurturing friendship in a bleak place, and using your gifts to foster community.

Believe. Longing. Belonging. Overcoming. All were themes this summer, and you could feel the Muny audience lean in, the risks worth the rewards. We all shared something very special, this 105th year – it felt different. We could dream again, after coming out of the dark — all the drama of a public health emergency, global pandemic in pre-vaccine times, and the isolation that went with it.

And it sure was fun to be together. God willing, see you next year for 106.

Brady Foley, Bryonha Marie, Gordon Semeatu, Collin J. Bradley. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents “Sister Act” Aug. 14-20 at 8:15 p.m. at the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For tickets or more information, visit www.muny.org.

By Lynn Venhaus

Measure your life in love.

Simple advice from Jonathan Larson, the musical genius behind the “Rent” phenomenon, whose tragic death on Jan. 25, 1996 – from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm, after the final dress rehearsal, meant he never saw the impact his words and music had worldwide. He ran out of time, but his life’s work lives on forever.

Especially the part about how we can’t control our destiny. That underlying poignancy is part of the passion and the power of his landmark rock opera that finally graces the Muny stage 27 years after it produced a seismic shift in popular culture.

It’s time, and the Muny makes the most of those moments so dear in a grand staging that honors Larson’s compassionate vision with the dramatic operatic scale this modern take on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” deserves.

A celebration full of life, this touchstone production’s creative team is exactly the right fit, showcasing tender beauty and pure joy. Director Lili-Anne Brown, who brought us the exceptional “The Color Purple” last year, focuses on the humanity, dignity and acceptance that is such a potent part of this revolutionary musical.

Set in the “Alphabet City” part of New York City’s East Village, over the course of one year, impoverished young artists and outcasts live through the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the late 1980s, choosing to love over fear. This cast maintains the raw, realistic appeal, making sure it rings true.

The eight principal performers make an indelible impression, their vitality thrilling to witness, and their luxurious vocals a testament to their talent and technical skills. “You’ll See,” “No Day but Today,” and “Will I?” with strong supporting cast mates become earworms that will stay in your mind for days.

When their vocal prowess is spotlighted through Jermaine Hill’s vibrant music direction – what an exhilarating job the orchestra does! – it’s wondrous. 

Hill was a part of the stellar “The Color Purple” collaborators, as were scenic designer Arnel Sancianco, who has fashioned a striking movable apartment building tower, and video designer Paul Deziel, whose work stands out, with Mark’s cinema verité footage and the humorous bits of celebrity minutia in the news scroll.

Vincent Kempski is a dynamic Roger, bringing the grit and rock musician edge to “One Song Glory” and “Your Eyes.” He and Lincoln Clauss, as documentary filmmaker Mark, are a comfortable pair of roommates, with effective bravado in “Rent” and “What You Own.” Clauss was a memorable Tobias in last summer’s “Sweeney Todd,” and leads as the pragmatic narrator here.

Sparks fly when Ashley De La Rosa, as drug-addicted exotic dancer Mimi, meets Roger, and their duets are superb: “Light My Candle” and “Without You” especially. She exhibits a confident demeanor, rocking the over-the-knee turquoise patent leather boots and smoothly gliding around the stage to choreographer Breon Arzell’s moves.

Adrian VIllegas as Angel. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Adrian Villegas perfectly embodies the life force that is flamboyant one-of-a-kind drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard, delightful in “Today 4 U.” As scene-stealing as they are, what’s most remarkable is Terrance Johnson’s heart-is-full portrayal of philosophical tech-savvy activist-professor Tom Collins, who falls in love with Angel.

He was brought in to assume the role because the original cast member Evan Tyrone Martin took ill. Johnson and Villegas appear like they’ve been doing the show together for a long time, duet on a heartfelt “I’ll Cover You” and with others for a spirited “Happy New Year.” And Johnson’s vocals on “Santa Fe” and solo snippets in other songs are sumptuous.

Lindsay Heather Pearce, who played Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway, can belt with the best of them, and shows it on live-wire performance artist Maureen’s “Over the Moon” and “Take Me or Leave Me.” Tre Frazier has the thankless task of playing sellout Benjamin Coffin III, friend turned foe.

Special shout-out to ensemble-mates Julia Yameen (Mark’s mom), Shelby Brown (Joanne’s mom), Jhardon Dishon Milton (Joanne’s dad), and Erica Stephan (Roger’s Mom) as the parents heard on the voice mails.

Among the many highlights is “La Vie Boheme,” the ebullient, defiant Act 1 closer that features characters finding their voices in a number that defines community. And fun name drops! (Pee-wee Herman!).

Seasons of Love. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

After intermission, when you hear the iconic piano chords and the entire ensemble files out to present the signature song, “Seasons of Love,” it is delivered with tremendous strength and feeling, creating a sublime contemporary “Muny Moment.” I will admit to moist eyes. Just hearing the divine Anastacia McCleskey crush that power-ballad solo, her voice ascending into the stratosphere, is goosebumps-time.

As Celie in last summer’s “The Color Purple,” she won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical Award from the St. Louis Theater Circle in April. She plays Maureen’s attorney girlfriend Joanne Jefferson with genuine charm.

Costume designer Raquel Adorno has outfitted the cast appropriately in era streetwear, but my only quibble is I miss Mark’s maroon and blue sweater with his striped scarf. At times, it was hard to keep Mark and Roger separate. But Angel’s glitzy attire was eye-popping.

The sound had issues when the music was louder than the performers, where I was sitting, but I wondered if it was better elsewhere in the amphitheater.

Those people not familiar with the show could have had trouble figuring out action, so I recommend reading up on the show beforehand. I finally saw Puccini’s opera a few years ago, and was struck at how closely it resembled the “Rent” characters, except in a different century and country – Paris in 1830. The life-and-death themes, nevertheless, are universal.

Roger and Mimi. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

 While AIDS is no longer a death sentence, that period of uncertainty was harrowing and horrifying, and Larson’s stark look at loss – and homophobia — still resonates.

The show captured a specific time and place, but its pathos was always identifiable. After all, we’ve just been through several years of a devastating global health emergency and are currently losing thousands to an opioid crisis.

As a struggling artist for years, Larson knew the world he wrote about, based on a concept by Billy Aronson. Among his legacy, he urged us to cherish each of the 525,600 minutes we’re given every non-Leap year. Posthumously, Larson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards (musical, book, score).

“Rent” ran for 12 years on Broadway, has had countless touring shows for 25 years, a 2005 film adaptation, and a live television presentation in 2019.

No matter how many times I hear this score (and I know every word after heavy playlist rotation of the original Broadway cast double-CD recording), I am moved by how timeless each song is.

We are living in the Twilight Zone, only now America is well past the millennium. If we are fortunate, we know love and appreciate friends.

This exceptional cast makes us feel each emotion expressed, and I mean really feel the connections with an unmistakable chemistry and a reverence for the material.

The eight principals who moved to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre April 29, 1996, were lightning in a bottle: Anthony Rapp as Mark Cohen, Adam Pascal as Roger Davis, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Mimi Marquez, Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel, Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, Idina Menzel as Maureen Johnson, and the more ‘outsider’ characters –Fredi Walker as Joanne Jefferson and Taye Diggs as Benjamin Coffin III.

They caused a commotion, inspiring devotion. Their performances made the ordinary extraordinary and galvanized a generation. They changed their lives, and in the process, other Gen Xers.

They made it possible for others, especially ones who go against the grain, to be an “us” instead of a “them.”

Photo by Phillip Hamer.

Cut to 2023, and Gen Zers are now post-9/11 babies. Can “Rent” still strike a chord? It may no longer shock, but it can awe.

“Rent” still matters. It has the ability to connect on a personal level for all sorts of different reasons.

Take it from me, a Boomer Rent-head who saw it live on its first national tour, shared it with my oldest son as he entered his 20s, and consider the night I saw Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal reprise their roles in 2009 one of the best nights of live theater ever (the electricity and the energy was off-the-charts). I’ve seen it so many times, I’ve lost count. I think it’s 11, and until the Muny Saturday night, I hadn’t seen a professional company perform it since the 20th anniversary tour in 2016. That music still holds a spell.

The Muny production is a triumph in every way, giving oxygen to an eternal flame, and a rite of passage, moving the cultural institution forward. Watching it under a moonlit sky was glorious, a stirring shared experience with thousands of other Rent-heads and a captivated Muny audience.

As Larson reminds us, there really is no day but today, as life is ours to miss.

‘La Vie Boheme,’ Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents “Rent” Aug. 4-10 nightly at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org.

(Notes: For more about Jonathan Larson, see the 2021 musical film “Tick, Tick…Boom!” currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who said “Rent” changed his life when he first saw it as a teenager, it features an Oscar-nominated performance by Andrew Garfield as the young songwriter trying to get noticed.

Anthony Rapp’s 2006 book “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent” is a worthy read.)

Mark and Joanne. Photo by Phillip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus

A mod, madcap rock musical, “Little Shop of Horrors” is a perfect palate cleanser after two serious prestige productions this season. The Muny merrily delivers this bright bouquet of quirky black comedy to ride out an inevitable midsummer St. Louis heat wave.

A pleasant evening of escapist entertainment, the campy cult classic shows why it is an enduring ‘little engine that could’ – a zippy two-hour musical that puts the bop in doo wop and delights with kooky characters while glossing over what is potentially icky with a lightness of being.

It is, after all, a horror comedy – and one loosely based on a cheesy 1960 movie meant to be a goofy cautionary tale about the atomic age. Designed to satirize science fiction, B-movies, the Faustian bargain and even musical comedy, the appeal of “Little Shop of Horrors” has now reached multiple generations.

Perhaps a maniacal plant that feeds on human flesh and blood doesn’t sound appealing, but in its fourth presentation and the first one since 2011, the Muny’s creative team knows how to get it just right, winning us over with the show’s lively tempo and unpretentious yet irreverent attitude.

Maybe when you discover Audrey II, the freakish carnivorous plant picked up by botanically curious Seymour in Chinatown during a solar eclipse, is a dastardly schemer from outer space that takes over Seymour’s life, it’s more palatable.

Nicholas Ward. Photo by Emily Santel.

“Two-eys” hearty appetite for destruction is the catalyst for Seymour blooming where he’s planted — providing him with a taste of fame and opportunities, the allure of celebrity leading to a possible livin’ large lifestyle that he’s been longing for – a dare to dream scenario.

And let’s talk about that spectacular centerpiece of the show – the Venus flytrap-like plant that grows to epic proportions is a doozy, a marvel of engineering and innovation designed by James Ortiz. (I was fortunate to see this puppet designer’s remarkable work in the recent Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” and this guy’s got game.)

His neon green one-of-a-kind otherworldly monstrosity was created just for the Muny run. Four puppeteers impressively guide this mean green machine, with astonishing mobility credited to Travis Patton as “Audrey II Manipulation.” Just watching Patton move with Swiss-watch precision is fascinating, and he deservedly takes a bow during the curtain call.

The bloodthirsty, pushy character is voiced by Nicholas Ward with devilish charm. His “Feed Me (Git It)” is saucy, and his “Suppertime” is unsettling, those robust pipes a delight to hear – even if Audrey II’s endgame is world domination. Of course Ward played Mufasa in “The Lion King” on Broadway. You may recall his impressive vocal performance as Caiaphas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” here in 2017.

The fact that this intimate show feels comfortably at home on the Muny stage is a major achievement, for striking the right tone between playful and offbeat with fear and murder is not easy to do given the source material, and its unconventional backstory. It’s far more complicated than it appears, and this small cast and crew make it appear effortless.

What first became a low-budget Roger Corman horror B-movie in 1960, featuring an unknown Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient (cut out of stage version) and written by Charles Griffith, was turned into an off-Broadway musical sensation penned by none other than those cheeky composing pals Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) in 1982.

Turned into a movie musical in 1986, the stage version finally made it to Broadway in 2003. It was revived off-Broadway in 2019, with the top-shelf cast of Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard and Christian Borle.

Now household names, the late Ashman and Menken’s star rose with their Disney collaborations – “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast “and “Aladdin.” After Ashman’s death in 1991, Menken wrote music with other lyricists to maintain a Hall of Fame career – “Newsies,” “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules” among a long list that has earned 8 Academy Awards, 11 Grammy Awards and 1 Tony (4 nominations).

Menken, unintentionally, is being showcased this season with three productions – “the kids’ show” “Beauty and the Beast” and closer “Sister Act,” displaying his range.

The Urchins and the Dentist. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

This Ashman-Menken score shows their compatibility, sense of humor, understanding of music history, and the ability to change styles fluidly. (For a deeper dive into their beginnings, “Howard” is a terrific documentary available streaming on Disney+).

Director Maggie Burrows keeps the pace crisp and snappy, as she did in “On Your Feet!” and last year’s “Legally Blonde,” and so does her collaborator, choreographer William Carlos Angulo. Along with music director Andrew Graham, they added the oomph to Ashman-Menken’s genial numbers. Orchestrations are by Robert Merkin and vocal arrangements by Robert Billig.

The high-spirited ensemble frolics with glee. The two leads are polished pros with strong voices – three-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesus and reliable Muny favorite Patti Murin are smoothly in sync as florist shop co-workers, genuine in song and performance. They sing from the heart in the romantic ballad “Suddenly, Seymour,” and have a good time with “Closed for Renovation” and “Call Back in the Morning.”

Working hard as the sweet and lovable dork Seymour, De Jesus draws us in to the poor orphan’s tough life on Skid Row, but the dead-end hasn’t hardened him to hope, even though he appears hapless. He’s craving change, noticeably so in “Grow for Me.”

Undeterred, he won’t stop trying to win over Audrey, the love of his life who feels unworthy of anyone’s affection. Without a shred of self-esteem, she is the victim of an awful, abusive boyfriend, which is the other ‘horror’ (after all, the title is plural). She delivers a heartrending “Somewhere That’s Green.”

Audrey II and Audrey. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

De Jesus’s humanity as conflicted Seymour comes through. And that’s usually a component evident in all his performances. He was last seen here as the title character in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Aladdin” in 2012. The original Sonny in “In the Heights,” for which he was Tony-nominated, he also scored a nomination as housekeeper Jacob in “La Cage Aux Folles” and Emory in “The Boys in the Band” stage play revival. He reprised his role in the 2021 Netflix movie.

I first noticed him in the underrated indie gem, “Camp,” from 2003, as one of the young misfits at a performing arts summer camp. In 2021, he played opposite Andrew Garfield as Michael in the Lin-Manuel Miranda directed “tick, tick…Boom.”

Murin is an affable Audrey, just as she has engaged here as Paulette in last year’s “Legally Blonde,” as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and Roxie in “Chicago,” both in 2011. She originated the role of Princess Anna in Disney’s “Frozen” on Broadway.

Tony winner Michael McGrath gives shop owner Mr. Mushnik an edge, for he treats Seymour shabbily but does have comical lines. A longtime Muny performer, he won a Tony for “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and was nominated for “Spamalot.”

The ensemble sparkles, especially Taylor Marie Daniel, Kennedy Holmes and Stephanie Gomerez as the Urchins girl group, an R&B trio honoring the Brill Building/early Motown songwriters with the names Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette.

They bring the pizzazz as the Greek chorus, harmonious and spunky in the Prologue, “Skid Row (Downtown),” “Da Doo,” “Don’t It Go to Show Ya Never Know,” and “Dentist!”

Philip Hamer photo.

The meaty roles in supporting parts are one of the show’s selling points. Ryan Vasquez kills it as the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello. He’s absurdly exaggerated in this plum part, especially in “Now (It’s Just the Gas).”

And he’s very funny as gaudily dressed assorted characters in the second act, showing a good-sport sense of humor in his Muny debut — and quite a range for an actor who played Alexander Hamilton and various founding fathers in “Hamilton” on Broadway.

The costumes are sensational, an integral part of the atmosphere. Costume Designer Leon Dobkowski created blasts from the past with the Urchins’ flashy fashions, and bosom-enhancing skin-tight outfits worn by Audrey that look like they were purchased from Frederick’s of Hollywood.

He also selected suitable nebbish attire worn by Seymour and Mushnik, and Kelly Jordan’s wig design also aided the retro look. Dobkowski won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for “Seussical” and “The Wiz,” and he has such a fun-loving eye.

The scenic design by Kristen Robinson is a striking grungy streetscape of an area that has seen better days, and an effectively shrewd interior of Mushnik’s Flower Shop, which includes subtle changes as the business prospers, and well-chosen pieces reflecting the economic fortunes. She tells the story well depicting those touches.

Greg Emetaz’s video design is seamless, deftly enhancing the set design and story progression with strong visuals.

This is a swiftly paced musical with a zest for fantasy, yet grounded in a dark side that is still amusing after all these years.

Photo by Philip Hamer

The Muny presents “Little Shop of Horrors” July 25-31 at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit: www.muny.org.