By Lynn Venhaus

When the titular character floats in using her umbrella, carried by the East wind to 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London, it’s a welcome jolt of joy — signaling that a merry time is ahead in this stage musical version of “Mary Poppins.”

And this vibrant, candy colored Muny production of the beloved magical nanny tale is as whimsical as you remember.

Director John Tartaglia makes it sparkly and this cast of 75 brings the magic that he is striving for in his sixth show, hoping to see smiles on a summer night.

The nostalgia factor is high, recalling the sublime Oscar-winning performance of Julie Andrews in the iconic 1964 Disney movie, which is based on P.L. Travers’ series of children’s books, eight of them starting in 1934.

Disney’s crowning live-action achievement was the highest-grossing film of 1964 and garnered 13 Oscar nominations, winning five: (actress, editing, original music score, visual effects, and song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee”). During Walt’s lifetime, it was the only one of his films to earn a Best Picture nomination.

With Travers’ permission, master producer Cameron Mackintosh turned the tale into an acclaimed stage musical in London in 2004, which opened on Broadway in 2006, and continued for more than six years. It closed on March 3, 2013, after 2,619 – the 24th longest-running show in Broadway history.

The show is a mix of the movie and the books. The sentimentality is part of its appeal, and this ensemble blends both freshness and fondness for the traditional qualities to please a new generation.

Jeanna de Waal is an ideal Mary, moving with ease, popping in and out with her grace and regal bearing.  She is a good sport for her spectacular flying segments, with seamless effects work by ZFX.

For a little extra insight into the mystical nanny, she projects an air of mystery, indicating there’s more than meets the eye. She also sings like a dream, smoothly cavorting in the newer song “Practically Perfect” and a reworked setting for “A Spoonful of Sugar.”

In fact, this is a cast of glorious voices.

The charismatic and charming Corbin Bleu uses his considerable song and dance skills as the lovable happy-go-lucky Bert. It’s a triumphant return to the Muny following his sensational turn as Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain” in 2018. He had dazzled critics and audiences alike, winning the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Actor in a Musical. 

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Bleu, who first came to prominence as Chad in the “High School Musical” movies, works well with De Waal and the ensemble — and has a few cool moves I won’t spoil.

That score by Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman is unforgettable – and in fact, some Muny patrons sang along. But the musical is not a replica of the film, for “I Love to Laugh” has been omitted, as has “Sister Suffragette,” “Stay Awake” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”

With a few exceptions, the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe do not seem to be as catchy as the Sherman brothers’ collaborations. Even at a 2 hour and 35 minute-run time, “Anything Can Happen,” delivered in two parts, seems to drag on and on. A little editing of some numbers would have made for a tighter experience.

“The Life I Lead” has been replaced by “Precision and Order,” sung by the stern banker, George Banks. In Julian Fellowes’ book, George is revealed to have had a strict childhood, and the parents are more dysfunctional, with Winifred Banks a former actress who can’t seem to fit in to the elite society, and the two children, Jane and Michael, are naughtier.

The real-life husband-and-wife duo of Nehal Joshi and Erin Davie are splendid in vocals and their character development. Their new songs include “A Man Has Dreams” and “Being Mrs. Banks.” I do wish Mrs. Banks was still a suffragette, as Glynis Johns was so robustly in the film.

The kids are brattier – as played by Laila Fantroy and Gabe Cytron, so they are not likable, especially when acting entitled and wreaking havoc in the kitchen, but their growth results in more compassionate youngsters. Whew!

A new character, Robertson Ay, is a screwball addition, and Barrett Riggins, so deliciously wicked in “Camelot,” shines as the bumbling oh-so-not-helpful houseboy.

Chipper Jade Jones has the versatile three-peat of Katie Nanna, Mrs. Corry and Miss Smythe.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

Debby Lennon, two-time St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner, is a hoot as the “Holy Terror!” – aka George’s cruel childhood nanny Miss Andrew – who arrives to get everyone back in ship-shape after the breezy frolics with Mary. She is overbearing in “Brimstone and Treacle Parts 1 and 2.”

A masterful Darlesia Cearcy brings the house down as the Birdwoman at the park, with a superbly executed rendition and reprise of “Feed the Birds.”

Other high points include the jaunty stroll through the park “Jolly Holiday,” the robust showstopper “Step in Time,” a bubbly “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” at Mrs. Corry’s sweet shop and a wondrous “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” with the ensemble placed through the audience with red kites.

First seen in 2013 when the show was led by Muny fan favorites Jenny Powers and Rob McClure, this version is as enchanting, with Tartaglia’s penchant for puppetry giving an added ‘oomph.’

He has created another Muny moment with puppeteers swarming the stage with flocks of birds, produced by puppet designer Eric Wright of Puppet Kitchen International Inc. It’s a marvelous sight.

Tartaglia, such a bouncy personality as evident through his Muny performances (The Genie in “Aladdin,” The Cat in the Hat in “Seussical,” Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in 2017), has brought a sunny outlook to his productions here.

The director of “Matilda” 2019, Annie” 2018, “The Wizard of Oz” 2016, “Disney’s Tarzan” in 2014 and “Shrek” 2013 is again inspired by the tasks at hand, no doubt influencing his creative choices.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

A crackerjack production team has delivered an attractive look and encouraged high spirits throughout, even with performers dealing with oppressive summer heat. Music Director Brad Haak and Choreographer Patrick O’Neill focused on peppy musical and dance numbers for fluid movement (with a high percentage of youngsters in the audience).

The sights — Paige Hathaway’s production design, Robin L. McGee’s costume design, Kelley Jordan’s wig design and Alex Basco Koch’s video designs are true to the 1910 time of Edwardian London, but with pizzazz.

It’s also nice to see such local treasures as Zoe Vonder Haar (as Mrs. Brill), Whit Reichert (as Admiral Boom/Bank Chairman), Jerry Vogel (as Park Keeper, Von Hussle, ensemble), Rich Pisarkiewicz (Policeman/ensemble), and Lynn Humphrey (Miss Lark/ensemble) back together on the Muny stage.

Does “Mary Poppins” have the same appeal to today’s youths like the movie did for my generation? Not sure if it is a home run as much for them as it is for adults. Nevertheless, the audience left humming a happy tune.

Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presents the musical “Mary Poppins” July 5-13 at 8:15 pm. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org.

Cast photo by Philip Hamer

By Lynn Venhaus
The beguiling “Thor: Love and Thunder” is a sweet love story wrapped in a darker cosmic adventure and draped in Norse god mythology.

This flashy blend of heroics, heart and humor is sometimes too goofy to be taken seriously, but overall is an inspired take from director Taika Waititi, and that is reason enough to spring extra for the IMAX viewing.

But first and foremost, the enormously appealing Chris Hemsworth is back as the crown prince of Asgard being playful, very physical – and emotional. In the Summer of the Chris’, he might be having the best one (His comrades Chris Evans and Chris Pratt, although, are not being left in the dust).

Hemsworth has now played Thor in four stand-alone installments and in four Avengers films, and has made the role his signature. When we last saw the superhero in “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019, he was having an existential crisis, and Hemworth’s comedic skills were used well.

In this chapter, Thor, interrupted in his retirement, enlists the help of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Taika Waititi) and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to combat the galactic killer Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who intends to make the gods extinct. To Thor’s surprise, Jane wields his magical hammer, Mjolnir, as the Mighty Thor, and they must join forces to stop Gorr’s vengeance and save the multi-universe.

Picking up where “Avengers: Endgame” left off three years ago, Thor gets back in shape, going from “Dad bod to god bod” — and is shown meddling in the Guardians of the Galaxy’s quests, and hanging out in Asgard as this retired guy content to let the world pass him by. Naturally, duty calls, and so does his ex, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster, now battling cancer and wielding the enchanted hammer.

Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have a delightful chemistry together, and their scenes of tussling and reconnecting are sincere and sentimental. They make you believe in them – and care.

And as The Mighty Thor, Portman shows off her physicality. She’s able to meet the demands of the role with ebullience and grace.

Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as Mighty Thor

Thor, the god of thunder, was turned into comic book gold by writer Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber and artist Jack Kirby in 1962, making his debut in Marvel’s “The Silver Age of Comic Books,” and #82 “Journey into Mystery.”

Now, 60 years later, the brawny do-gooder is an indispensable part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatments. The Kenneth Branagh-directed one started his story in 2011, followed by “The Dark World” sequel in 2013, then Waititi took over in “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017 and now “Love and Thunder.”

Hemsworth plays up Thor’s strong, beefy, and boastful qualities, and always seems to let the audience in on the joke.

Multi-hyphenate Waititi, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay for “JoJo Rabbit” in 2020, is known as a writer for his cheeky and brazen humor, and injects a liveliness into his second Thor film, for which he wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson.

As a director, the New Zealander takes on quirky projects – see “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” for a surprisingly fun adventure – and as an actor, he’s stood out in a wide range of wacky characters. He might be best known for creating “What We Do in the Shadows,” now a wildly successful television series adaptation.

Waititi moves through a jumble of genres with ease. This installment of “Thor” actually straddles darkness and light rather deftly, but it is certainly a jolt to plunge into the creepy ink-black world of Gorr’s cruelty as he terrorizes kidnapped children.

So, while “Love and Thunder” is geared to be a family film, it has elements of horror, and can scare the young ones. They really push that PG-13 rating.

A gaunt and nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale is quite good as the sinister villain, bringing an interesting edge to the role. It’s a welcome return, for the Oscar-winning actor had planned not to do any more superhero movies after he finished playing the Caped Crusader in “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, relented, and he makes his mark giving Gorr more dimension as a grief-stricken father.

The quality of the performances, with both Bale, Portman and even Russell Crowe being silly as Zeus, is indicative of their willingness to take risks and not rest on their golden Academy Awards statuettes.

The cast is up to the challenges, both in harrowing danger and in the “Team Thor” camaraderie – especially with Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie presiding over Asgard as the ruler, and Waititi voicing the giant hunk of stones Korg.

The zippy action-packed visual effects extravaganza is set to a very loud pulse-pounding classic rock score. After two hours and five minutes, it intriguingly leaves us wanting more with two surprising scenes during the end credits.

“Love and Thunder” whets our appetites for the future projects – what a fun reveal some recognizable people are – but satisfies as a rip-roaring, energetic, and entertaining stand-alone with a compelling story and fine performances.

But — those screaming goats are a bit much.

“Thor: Love and Thunder” is a 2022 action, adventure, fantasy film directed by Taika Waititi and stars Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Russell Crowe. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some suggestive material, and partial nudity, and runs 2 hours, 5 minutes. Opens in theaters on July 8. Lynn’s Grade: B+

City Museum’s July 4th Fest celebrates the Independence Day holiday from July 1 through July 10 with amazing activities including Circus Harmony acts, music, great fair-style food and patriotic craft-making fun. 

The City Museum rooftop will come alive daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.with 10 days of Circus Harmony’s fantastical acts, music by the incomparable DJ Rico Steez and more. Grillmasters will be fixing sliders, hotdogs, and cheeseburgers. Ice cream, wine slushies, and other summer drink refreshers also will be available.

Artists will help guests make flags, paper fans and souvenir key chains throughout the days. 

On July 4, City Museum will have extended hours from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with the rooftop closing at 5:30 p.m. for the CIty Nights: Electric Sky event.

CITY NIGHTS: ELECTRIC SKY

On the night of July 4, City Museum will host its annual rooftop fireworks watch party — City Nights: Electric Sky, from 7 -11 p.m.  The Rooftop offers a stunning 360-degree view of fireworks all across the St. Louis skyline. The 21+ event is $50 per person and only 350 tickets are available.

Tickets for City Nights: Electric Sky include admission to the indoor floors of the museum all day long and one complimentary beer from 4 Hands Brewery during the City Nights: Electric Sky event. Specialty cocktails, beer, barbecue and festival fare are available for purchase. Tickets also include exclusive access to the Rooftop attractions, including the Ferris wheel, slides, climbers and the school bus lounge—perfect for chilling out on the edge. City Nights: Electric Sky guests are encouraged to BYOCC (bring your own camp chair) for seating,

For more information and advance tickets, visit www.citymuseum.org. City Museum is located at 750 N 16th St., St. Louis, MO 63103. On social media: @citymuseum. 

Photos provided by City Museum.

By Lynn Venhaus

OK Boomer, this is not your generation’s “Camelot.” And this modern fresh spin on the fabled Arthurian legend is exhilarating.

For fans of the 1960 original – which has been revised multiple times through the years – rest assured that the lush romantic score, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, is elegantly executed and unforgettable.

Music Director Abdul Hamid Royal, who did outstanding work last year on “Smokey Joe’s Café,” makes sure the new orchestrations by Steve Orich are luxurious.

You’ll recognize the principal characters and knights’ tale of chivalry from the previous eight productions staged at the Muny, the last one in 2009. While respecting the legacy, this revamp is inspired, finding shining moments in unexpected ways.

Lilting voices, innovative movements, enchanting performances, adventurous looks, and British folklore told with conviction are lasting impressions. Therefore, embracing the changes is a risk worth taking.

The bold, muscular re-imagining by director Matt Kunkel, and leaner book adaptation by David Lee frame King Arthur’s visionary quest as a performance tale.

The rise and fall of Arthur’s kingdom are told by a troupe of revelers, not unlike the traveling minstrels in a 16th century William Shakespeare comedy.

It is their stylized retelling, not presented as a Merlin flashback.  Lee has cut Arthur’s magician mentor Merlin, only referenced in his dialogue, the song “Follow Me,” and King Pellinore is gone too.

The unnecessary sorceress Morgan Le Fey and her clunky number “The Persuasion” has been removed before, notably from the 1967 film adaptation and the 1980 Broadway revival, so that’s no surprise.

Lee, an Emmy-winning writer of ‘Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Wings,” has strengthened the relationships between King Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. And injected wit where it needed it.

The prose’s power is conveyed in expertly crafted scenes of torment, loyalty, devotion, longing, and love between the principals. Kunkel keeps the pace lively, and the staging dynamic, especially between the trio, creating intimacy and distance by varying different configurations on the tiered set.

Of course, it must be daunting to fill shoes once worn by Richard Burton, who won a Tony as King Arthur, superstar Julie Andrews, who owned the ‘60s as the queen of musicals, and dashing Robert Goulet, whose career skyrocketed after his stunning debut. But lyrically, the Broadway veterans who are now this principal trio are well-suited for the challenge.

As engaging as he was as John Adams in “1776” in 2019 and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein” in 2016, Robert Petkoff strikes the right tone – from uncertain to courageous – for Arthur’s growth. He’s impressively powerful in ending Act I. His voice is strong and clear, and you feel his passion for his Knights of the Round Table mission.

In the first years of their marriage, Petkoff depicts a playful, mutual respectful relationship with his queen, Guenevere, and Sheeren Pimentel, showcasing an exquisite soprano, plays the grand lady as an outspoken equal. They’re lively together in “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” and their initial meeting is charming.

How can you not be swept away by Arthur’s description of his paradisal home, “Camelot”?

His vision is to uphold honor and justice, but not pillage for power. And he convinces others to join his noble cause, with “Might for Right” a rallying cry.

After Guenevere and Lancelot are helpless to ignore their growing feelings for each other, Pimentel soars in “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.”

You might not feel the lightning bolt attraction between Pimentel and Brandon S. Chu, but their vocal virtuosity helps propel the story. Chu doesn’t have the typical stature of a swaggering, very self-confident Lancelot, but the delivery of the signature song, “If Ever I Would Leave You” – is a definite “Wow.” His crystal tenor is piercing.

Chu, rocking the blue leather, is fierce in battle, and his physicality is a plus in the frenzied action sequences. Pimentel demonstrates her mettle, too, as Guenevere fights off the first wave of captors.

Fight choreographer Erik Gratton has effectively staged smooth action scenes without any fussiness. He was assisted by fight captain Jacob Guzman, and the precise movements are robust.

The cinematic leather-and-lace look is another important aspect, and Tristan Raines’ costume design has elements of Game of Thrones, Mad Max, boy band outfits, and dancewear combined for a vivid tableau. He has dispensed with tights and armor — and given serious thought to more summer-friendly garb.

That aids character movement considerably, for the revelers and courtiers can re-enact battles and seamlessly ramp up the palace and political intrigue.

The vitality bursts through, for the energy of this diverse and inclusive cast is noteworthy. And let’s not forget that fun is a part of the show, too.

One of the merriest high points is “The Lusty Month of May” ensemble number, bursting with bright colors and a magical transformation, showcasing the creative minds of Raines, costuming his sixth show at The Muny, and choreographer Beth Crandall, who has teamed with director Kunkel on last year’s “The Sound of Music” and “Matilda” in 2019. Their collaboration is a fruitful one.

But alas, the empire is not built for endurance. Something wicked this way comes in the second act, when Arthur’s conniving illegitimate son, Mordred, arrives, played with diabolical glee by Barrett Riggins. He’s a recognizable toad with mischievous intent to incite, leading the cast in a spirited “The Seven Deadly Virtues.” He divides the court through innuendo and misinformation, a cancer on Arthur’s reign.

The splintered knights grow angrier in the emphatic “Fie on Goodness,” a rebuke of Arthur’s principled ideals. With the Round Table broken and relationships in tatters, a forlorn Arthur ultimately forgives. He is given hope through the eyes of a child, believed to be Sir Tom of Warwick, captivatingly played by a charming Riley Carter Adams, and her wide-eyed enthusiasm is contagious.

Do not expect any kind of accent to be discernable here, in case you are waiting for it.

The ancient mythology setting is visually reworked with a striking scenic design by Ann Beyersdorfer – an earthier palette instead of regal trappings.

The neo-medieval realism is further enhanced through atmospheric video work by Kaylee Loera, best used to show the joust action between Lancelot and Sirs Dinadin (Evan Ruggiero) and Lionel (Daryl Tofa), and Ser Sagramore (Sarah Quinn Taylor).

The lighting design by Shelby Loera, who returns after making history last summer as the first female to be in charge of lighting a show at the Muny, is stunning. The sound is perfect as well, with John Shivers and David Patridge excelling in this show.

The opting for grit over opulence is jarring to traditionalists, who want their “Camelot” to be the sentimental journey they remember. Change is challenging, to be fair. I’ve often thought the old book was too lumbering and dense. All those soliloquys! So I was fine with the slicker adaptation.

Boomers are intrinsically linked to the JFK mythology, as he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, and in an interview in December in “Life” Magazine, his widow, Jackie, said the original cast recording of “Camelot” was a favorite of her husband’s, and he liked to listen to it before bedtime.

The show was then on a national tour, and a grief-stricken nation clung to the imagery of an especially hopeful time tragically cut short. His presidency has been referred to as “The Camelot Era,” and the lyric “One brief shining moment” used to define that fleeting period.

Expectations always run high, as musicals are very personal to people. What is someone’s favorite, such as “Cats,” can be annoying to another, and so on — we could go down a very long list.

I have fond memories of seeing Richard Harris play King Arthur on the Muny stage and with Robert Goulet, who filled that role on a national tour at the Fox. But those are long ago in the rearview mirror.

The planned revival, set for Broadway later this year, is to feature a book by Aaron Sorkin and direction by Bartlett Sher, so it will be interesting what the wunderkinds reimagine. Previews are expected in November, with opening Dec. 8. (Sorkin and Sher teamed up for the “To Kill a Mockingbird” reboot in 2019, which was one of the best productions I’ve ever seen, so I’m ready to see how they view this classic).

Fantasy gives more leeway to storytellers, after all. “Camelot” itself is based on the 1958 book, “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White, but this production also references Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” from the 15th century and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” in the 19th century.

In Tennyson’s 12 narrative poems, published between 1859 and 1885, he retells the legend, the Knights of the Round Table, Guenevere and her betrayal.

The based-on folklore setting is typically around the 12th century, during the Middle Ages. Arthur’s realm is said to have taken place in the fifth century, after he defeated the Saxons.

The facts surrounding the Arthurian Legend – long revered for its golden age of peace and prosperity — have been disputed for years. But the inaccurate historical context hasn’t halted the mythology furthered by literary conventions. (Who remembers Disney’s 1963 animated film “The Sword in the Stone” during childhood?).

In this post “Hamilton” world, artists will keep pushing the envelope, and what audiences push back on will be varied. I thought on a gorgeous summer evening (Thursday, June 23), Forest Park could not be a more congenial spot to continue the Muny’s happily-ever-aftering here.

As the Muny moves forward in this second century, it is ever mindful of an obligation to art, entertainment, artists, and audience. That’s a tough balancing act sometimes, but I’m confident in the way they are leading into the future with dedicated purpose. And that music was sure persuasive under the stars.

The Muny presents “Camelot’ each evening from June 22 to June 28 at 8:15 p.m. on its stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit www.muny.org. For tickets, contact the Muny box office or visit Metrotix.

Photos by Phillip Hamer

Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s “Shrek the Musical” won 10 Best Performance Awards from Arts For Life on June 12, earning honors as Best Large Ensemble musical, director, music director, choreography, actor, actress, featured actor, supporting actor, comedic actor, and lighting design. They had received 12 nominations.

The Gateway Center for Performing Arts, which is a professional training center based in Webster Groves, won 10 awards in the youth production categories – five for “Annie” and five for “Cabaret. They had earned 25 nominations, the most of any group.

Others receiving recognition included the Goshen Theatre Project, based in Collinsville, Ill., which won four for “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” and Take Two Productions won three for “Fun Home,” including Best Small Ensemble Musical. Spotlight Productions and Hawthorne Players won one each.

The annual awards returned to a live ceremony after a virtual one in 2020 and a cancellation in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. About 365 people attended the scaled-down presentation at the Frontenac Hilton’s Clayton Ballroom.

Arts For Life, founded in 1999, has been recognizing excellence in community theater with an awards program for 20 years

The annual youth scholarship award winners were announced. Jacob Moore of Dardenne Prairie and Theo Kronemer of Richmond Heights will receive $500 each to pursue a career in the arts. Moore, a graduate of St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, Mo., plans to attend Missouri State University and major in musical theater. Kronemer, a graduate of Clayton High School, plans to attend Carnegie-Mellon University and major in theater production and design.

BPA winners were announced in 30 categories from nominations from the shortened 2020 and 2021 theater seasons.

Charlie Wehde was honored with the Best Youth Musical Performance Award for his portrayal of Jack in “Into the Woods” at DaySpring Academy.

In their acceptance speeches, winners emphasized that productions are put on by teams, and often recognized their theater “family” and “community.” Most made it a point to say how grateful they were to return to working on shows after being dark for so many months during the public health crisis that has dominated the past three years.

Cherol Thibault, president of Kirkwood Theatre Guild, and Adam Grun, the director

Adam Grun, who directed “Shrek the Musical” at Kirkwood Theatre Guild, spoke of the long journey with multiple delays and setbacks. Originally set to be performed in May 2020, it was cast and forced to shut down. He was brought in three weeks before rehearsals began for the reboot. The show went on in September 2021, opening KTG’s 89th season.

“We had three weeks to get everything going. It was the fastest I had ever analyzed a script. Not everyone from the original cast came back. We had all but one lead come back. So that was a big help. Most of the people had multiple roles, so they had to change like eight times during the show. It was a great cast. And I was lucky that Tom Murray (original director) had cast such a great group of people,” he said.

Stephen Peirick, who accepted the Best Small Ensemble Musical Award, said: “’Fun Home’ winning the BPA for Small Ensemble Production was truly the icing on the cake to a fantastic experience, that could not have happened without the dedication, talents, time, and energy of the Take Two Productions Board, our talented cast, our amazing music director and band, as well as our outstanding behind the scenes crew. Time spent with this group was reward enough, yet we’re appreciative of the opportunity to have our show recognized and, in return, be able to recognize all those who made this experience possible.’

Paul Pagano, executive director of Gateway Center for Performing Arts, said: “We are so grateful to everyone who was a part of the BPAs yesterday and for the opportunity to showcase and celebrate so much talent in the St. Louis community. There were so many incredible theatre companies and artists represented, and we are proud to be counted as storytellers among them!”

Mary McCreight, president of the AFL Board of Directors, commented about participating groups’ dedication.

“The Arts For Life Best Performance Awards shined on June 12 with love of musical theater among the community. Young and old performed and celebrated with each other after a three-year break,” she said. “It was magical and assured a future for Arts For Life.”

Musical numbers from eight nominated musicals “Annie,” “Cabaret,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “Fun Home,” “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” “Nunsense,” “Shrek,” and “Young Frankenstein” were performed.

Veteran performers and BPA winners Gerry and Kay Love were the co-hosts, and Kimmie Kidd-Booker, another BPA winner and AFL board member, joined the Loves for the opening number “Show People” from “Curtains.”

Arts For Life is a local not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the underserved, and the community, with its goal of “Making a Dramatic Difference.”

AFL is dedicated to promoting public awareness of local community theatre, encouraging excellence in the arts, and acknowledging the incredible people who are a part of it in the St. Louis metropolitan and metro-east Illinois region.

Nominations were announced Jan. 22 at the annual Trivia Night, which was a virtual event. They are listed on the website at www.artsforlife.org.

Prior to the pandemic, 15 theater groups and 10 youth-only groups participated in the BPAs As the region’s mitigations efforts were ongoing the past two years, only four youth-only groups and nine community theater organizations produced BPA-eligible musicals 2021.

 Groups participating in this year’s BPAs include Christ Memorial Productions, Dayspring Arts and Education, Gateway Center for Performing Arts, Goshen Theatre Project, Hawthorne Players, Kirkwood Theatre Guild, KTK Productions, Looking Glass Playhouse, Monroe Actors Stage Company, O’Fallon Theatre Works, OverDue Theatre, and Spotlight Productions.

For more information, visit the website at www.artsforlife.org

Here is the list of winners:

Best Large Ensemble Musical – “Shrek the Musical,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Small Ensemble Musical – “Fun Home,” Take Two Productions

Best Youth Production – “Cabaret,” Gateway Center for Performing Arts

Best Director – Adam Grun, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Director – Paul Pagano, “Cabaret,” Gateway Center for Performing Arts

Paul Pagano, Gateway Center for the Performing Arts

Best Music Director – Sean Bippen, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Music Director – Lori Barrett-Pagano, “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Choreography – Kim Klick, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Choreography – Stephanie Fox, “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Actor in a Leading Role – Christopher Strawhun, Shrek in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Leading Role – Dawn Schmid, Fiona in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Actor in a Leading Role – Andrew Maroney, Emcee in “Cabaret,” GCPA

Best Youth Actress in a Leading Role – Sarah Moll, Grace, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Actor in a Featured Role – John Emery, Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Featured Role – Zoe Maya Miller, Medium Alison in “Fun Home,” Take Two

Best Actor in a Comedic Role – Chris Moore, Donkey in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Comedic Role – Sophie Kluba, Betty Jane in “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” Hawthorne Players

Chris Moore, Donkey in “Shrek the Musical”

Best Actor in a Supporting Role – Jack Nichols, Pinocchio in “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Natalie Cochran, Cogsworth in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Actor in a Supporting Role – Dan Wolfe, Rooster in “Annie,” GCPA

Best Youth Actress in a Supporting Role – Evelyn Vordtriede, Lily St. Regis, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Actor/Actress in a Cameo or Non-Singing Role: Jayson Heil, Narrator, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP

Best Juvenile Performance – Kya Wonders, Carpet, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP


Best Set Design – Stephen Peirick, Josh Smith, “Fun Home,” Take Two Productions

Terry Pattison, Best Costume Design, Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Set Design – Laura Skroska, “Annie,” GCPA

Best Lighting Design – Stephanie Draper, “Shrek the Musical,” KTG

Best Youth Lighting Design – Ryan Luedloff, “Matilda,” Spotlight Productions

Best Costume Design – Terry Pattison, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” GTP

Best Youth Costume Design – Tracey A. Newcomb, “Annie,” GCPA

Photos by Don Quon

Kirkwood Theatre Guild cast and crew of “Shrek”

22nd Annual Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase

Dates: Screenings held July 15-17 and 22-24, 2022

Tickets: Individual tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid and current photo IDs

Locations: All film screenings take place at Washington University’s Brown Hall, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards; the legal-issues master class is held at the offices of Capes Sokol law firm, 8182 Maryland Ave., 15th Floor; the closing-night party is held at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, 6404 Delmar Blvd.

Passes: 5-film passes are available for $60, $50 for CSL members; all-access passes are available for $135, $105 for CSL members

Ticket and Pass Purchase: cinemastlouis.org/st-louis-filmmakers-showcase

“Night Life”

Whitaker SLFS Annual Presentation

The Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, an annual presentation of the nonprofit Cinema St. Louis (CSL), serves as the area’s primary venue for films made by local artists. The Showcase screens works that were shot in the St. Louis region or were written, directed, or produced by St. Louis-area residents or by filmmakers with strong local ties who are now working elsewhere.

The Showcase’s 14 film programs range from narrative and documentary features to multi-film compilations of fiction, experimental, and documentary shorts. Feature programs include Q&As with filmmakers. In addition to the film programs, this year’s event includes four free master classes focused on key aspects of filmmaking.

All film programs screen exclusively at Washington University’s Brown Hall. Three of the master classes are presented as livestreams at specific times/dates during the Showcase, with the legal-issues master class offered both in person at the offices of Capes Sokol and as a livestream.

The July 24 closing-night awards presentation will take place in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill from 7-11 PM, with awards announcements at 9 PM. Announced during the event will be nearly two dozen Showcase jury awards — including a $500 prize to the overall Best Showcase Film. Cinema St. Louis staff will also announce the films that will move on to the 31st Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival in November.

Catherine Neville

The 63 films and four master classes in this year’s Showcase include the following:

  • All Gone Wrong: Josh Guffey’s electrifying crime drama, which stars Tony Todd (“Candyman”), premiered at the 2021 St. Louis International Film Festival.
  • Animated and Experimental Shorts: Nearly a dozen animated and experimental works are presented in a colorful shorts program.
  • Doc Shorts: An illuminating and thoughtful documentary-short program features a wide range of stories and subjects.
  • Master Classes: A series of four free master classes — featuring filmmakers and industry professionals — focus on key aspects of filmmaking: Missouri Stories Lab, Editing, Development and Legal Issues.
  • Narrative Shorts: Five eclectic narrative-short programs include comedies, dramas, supernatural films, and thrillers.
  • A New Home: Showcase alum Joe Puleo (“America’s Last Little Italy”) returns with this examination of the ’90s Bosnian war, genocide, and subsequent mass diaspora settling in St. Louis.
  • Night Life: Seth Ferranti spent several years filming and editing this riveting documentary about the outreach of the Rev. Ken McKoy, whose Night Life ministry patrols the city’s North Side on a mission to address issues of mental health, gun violence, and drug abuse.
  • Poetry in Motion: St. Louis Poets Take the Mic: Dana Christian directed this insightful documentary on the local poetry scene.
  • Un-resolved: Multi-hyphenate Bruce J. Cunningham directed, wrote, edited, produced, and co-starred in this epic tale of revenge and violence.
  • Winemaking in Missouri: Catherine Neville (“tasteMakers” on Nine Network) co-directed this juicy and informative overview of the history of wine production in the Show-Me State.
“Un-resolved”

The Whitaker Foundation again serves as the Showcase’s title sponsor. The foundation’s twofold mission is to encourage the preservation and use of parks and to enrich lives through the arts. The Chellappa-Vedavalli Foundation is underwriting both the Showcase’s master classes and the $500 prize for the Best Showcase Film.

The event’s other sponsors include Capes Sokol, EditMentor and EditStock, Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Film Office, NOW Talent Management, Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis Public Radio, TalentPlus, and Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.

Instagram@stlfilmshowcase Twitter: @stlfilmshowcase Facebook@STLFilmmakersShowcase

For more information, the public should visit cinemastlouis.org.

“Hungry Dog Blues”

Cover Photo of documentary “A New Home”

By Lynn Venhaus

Playwright Ken Ludwig uses the written word like music in a symphony as his love letter to his parents, and actors Ryan Lawson-Maeske and Molly Burris make the heart-tugging “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” sing.

Now playing from June 9 to June 26 at the New Jewish Theatre, this dramatic comedy is an unexpected pleasure from its look back at an era of “The Greatest Generation” to its intimate love story that reinforces the power of human connection, no matter how many miles between.

With the help of the expressive performers who make the written words leap off the stationery, director Sharon Hunter has moved the pair around just enough in the confined space to keep focus on the two lonely souls forging a deep, long-lasting bond through war-time correspondence.

The challenge for Lawson-Maeske and Burris is to engage without making reading letters static, and they showcase their substantial skills for creating sincere portraits of two different personalities reaching out.

Lawson-Maeske, a two-time St. Louis Theater Circle awards nominee, for “Tribes” in 2018 and “Photograph 51” in 2020, is endearing as reserved U.S. Army Captain Jack Ludwig, stationed at a military hospital in Oregon, who writes a formal letter to Louise Rabiner, an aspiring dancer and actress in New York City, because his father suggested it. The dads know each other.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

From her first response, it’s clear that Louise is a live wire, with a flair for the dramatic, and is without a filter in her missives. Webster Conservatory graduate Molly Burris seamlessly projects the Brooklyn-born chorus girl’s curiosity, grit, and sunny nature.

The outgoing Louise coaxes the more introverted doctor to share more about himself, and gradually he opens up. Thus begins a long-distance friendship that eventually turns into love over the course of several years, — 1942-1945, to be exact.

As the war escalates, so do Jack’s duties and thus, his presence in increasingly dangerous situations, as he is sent to the European front before they’ve had a chance to meet. His optimism has dissipated as he treats injured soldiers, and while Louise’s spunkiness keeps his spirits up through her caring, cheerful words, this is a love story set against the front lines of war.

As young people in their 20s, the two find common ground as pen pals, sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings. One of the warmest, most humorous exchanges is Louise’s adventures meeting Jack’s parents, his sister Betty, and his mother’s many sisters in his hometown of Coatesville, Pa.

Louise’s accounts of her audition successes and disappointments are vivid, and Jack’s frustration at not being granted a leave so they can finally meet to fulfill their plans for dinner and a show – and dancing – is palpable. Those plans keep being delayed, even by virtue of the story that we know has a happy ending, building suspense and tension as time passes (or runs out).

Before personal ads, email, texts and dating apps, people often met through acquaintances. Letters were the most common way to communicate across the miles – and have been explored eloquently in many pop culture hallmarks, like Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, the James Stewart-Margaret Sullavan romantic comedy “The Shop Around the Corner” (remade into “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998) and the true-story based “84 Charing Cross Road” starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft in 1987.

Quaint by today’s standards, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a sentimental journey that evokes warm memories of family members who developed similar relationships. My parents first met at a local teen hangout, then wrote letters when my dad was on a naval ship in the Pacific Ocean during the Korean War and married upon his return.

Jack and Louise are relatable, therefore we maintain interest – but that’s largely in part because sparks fly between Lawson-Maeske and Burris as they are in their rooms, no small feat. You can feel the anticipation of receiving a letter, the exhilaration after the mail arrives, and how worried Louise is when she doesn’t hear from Jack while he’s treating the wounded at other locations.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design creates a character-driven tableau through their living quarters – conveying that he’s fastidious and she’s flamboyant. He effectively contrasts Jack’s austere military barracks with Louise’s colorful, cramped boarding house room. Vintage posters of plays and movies further enhance the old-timey ‘40s feel. To move our eyes upward, Dai has hung some of their outfits.

Molly Burris. Photo by Jon Gitchoff

The technical elements are topnotch, with Amanda Were’ sound design setting the mood with retro Big Band music and creating harrowing war action through battlefield action. Daniel LaRose’s lighting design is warm and welcoming, and Michele Friedman Siler’s period costume design successfully captures the character’s personal style.

The play’s lyrical qualities are no coincidence. Ludwig, who studied music at Harvard with Leonard Bernstein, has written the smash-hit farce “Lend Me a Tenor,” nine-time Tony Award winner in 1989 and its revival in 2010, as well as the book for the Gershwin musical “Crazy for You” in 1992 and the hilarious comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” in 1995. All are set in showbiz in another decade, so he is comfortable in the World War II setting. Ludwig is a two-time Olivier Award winner, by the way.

By drawing from hundreds of letters between his mother and father, Ludwig has found the poetry in basic connection, which is timeless and also couldn’t be timelier. The well-constructed play premiered in December 2019 – you know, the Before Times – right before the world turned upside-down. If ever a contemporary work of art tapped into ordinary people having simple yet profound daily experiences to remind us of what connects us all, it is this show.

“Dear Jack, Dear Louise” delivers a joyous show, with just two people reading letters to create an honest, heartfelt moment. Expect that tears will come – get that tissue ready.

New Jewish Theatre presents Ken Ludwig’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” from June 9 through June 26, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Wool Studio Theatre at the JCCA’s Performing Arts Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For more information, call the box office at 314-442-3283 or visit newjewishtheatre.org

By Lynn Venhaus

Zeitgiest, meet “Urinetown.”

In this Twilight Zone reality we seem to live in now in the 21st century, the subversive “Urinetown” the musical has never seemed timelier. Or funnier. Or scarier.

What once was merely laugh-out-loud outrageous 20 years ago has morphed into a gasp-filled hit-nail-on-head satire where sleazebag politicians are even slimier, greedy corporate bastards are more cruel, ecological disaster seems more imminent and cries of revolution are not far-fetched but absolutely necessary.

This wicked musical comedy composed by Fairview Heights, Ill., native Mark Hollmann, with co-lyricist and book writer Greg Kotis, appears to grow more relevant as the gap continues to widen between the haves and have nots.

Resurrecting one of its past triumphs, from 2007, for the cross-your-fingers 30th season, New Line Theatre’s savvy choice allows a confident, polished ensemble to have fun romping through the ripe-for-parody American legal system, ridiculous bureaucracy, corrupt municipal politics, and foolish mismanagement of natural resources.

The time is 2027 and the focus is urination. Yes, that indispensable body function. But, because we’re in a near dystopian future, there is no such thing as a free pee – and we can’t squander flushes and there is a limited water supply.

If you gotta go, it will cost you. A severe 20-year drought has resulted in the government banning private toilets. Citizens must use public amenities that are regulated by a single evil company that profits from charging a fee to conduct one of humanity’s basic needs.

So, what happens if you disobey? You are punished by a trip to Urinetown, never to return. Egads!

A rabble-rouser emerges – Bobby Strong, and he launches a People’s Revolution for the right to pee. Let’s hear it for urinary freedom! As he does with every role, energetic Kevin Corpuz is passionate in his hero’s journey.

This cast has the vocal chops to entertain in lively fashion, and with nimble comic timing, hits the sweet spot between exaggerated naivete and cheeky irreverence. Jennelle Gilreath, effectively using a Betty Boop-Shirley Temple voice, is the child-like street urchin Little Sally.

Bobby leads the poor rebels – performed by local live wires Grace Langford as pregnant Little Becky Two Shoes, Ian McCreary as Tiny Tom, Chris Moore ss Billy Boy Bill, Christopher Strawhun as Robbie the Stockfish and Jessica Winningham as Soupy Sue.

They are part of a first-rate ensemble in such crisply staged musical numbers as “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” “Snuff That Girl,” “Run Freedom Run,” and “We’re Not Sorry.”

Not only do Hollmann and Kotis take on capitalism, social injustice and climate crisis, but also cleverly twist the great American musical art form itself, with resemblance to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” and the populist champ “Les Miserables.”

With silly characters modeled after old-timely melodramas, Kent Coffel is Officer Lockstock, Marshall Jennings is Officer Barrel, and Sarah Gene Dowling is tough urinal warden Penelope Pennywise, all having fun with their goofy over-the-top roles.

Kent Coffel, Marshall Jennings as Officers Lockstock and Barrel. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg

Bobby’s downtrodden parents, Joseph and Josephine Strong, are played by solid veterans Mara Bollini and Zachary Allen Farmer, also doubling as rebels, while fellow New Line regulars Todd Schaefer is the dastardly profiteer Caldwell P. Cladwell and Melissa Felps his darling daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby. Both Schaefer and Felps play it straight, although they are winking to the audience the whole time as the heads of Urine Good Company, aka UGC.

Corpuz and Felps soar in “Follow Your Heart” while Bobby’s “Look to the Sky” and Hope’s finale “I See a River” showcase their skills.

Playing a caricature of an oily grifter and elected official Senator Fipp is Colin Dowd, doing his best Matt Gaetz impersonation, and Clayton Humburg is weaselly as Cladwell’s assistant Mr. McQueen. The “Rich” folk have fun with “Don’t Be the Bunny,”

Co-directors Scott Miller and Chris Kernan’s fresh take goes darker, which suits the capricious winds of an ever-evolving global pandemic that we have lived through for 27 months. Not to mention clinging to a democracy with fascist and authoritarian threats very much present. And hello, global warming.

Kernan’s choreography is a highlight, and music director Tim Clark keeps the tempo brisk. He conducts a tight band of Kelly Austermann on reeds, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and John Gerdes on bass while he plays keyboard.

The upside-down world we’re in is enhanced by Todd Schaefer’s grimy set, Sarah Porter’s astute costume design, Ryan Day’s sound design Kimi Short’s props,  and Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design.

After an off-Broadway run, “Urinetown” opened on Broadway in 2001 and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning for best book, best music score and best direction. The fact that it’s stature has grown over the years is a reflection of our current time – and while that is rather frightening, this show continues to say something worth saying through its devilish use of heightened reality.

It’s holding up a mirror, even though it’s presented in a funhouse way, and that is indeed admirable.

In that spirit, leave your paranoia behind and get ready to laugh at the zingers launched with glee. New Line Theatre’s “Urinetown” is worth a sojourn as time keeps on slipping into the future.

New Line Theatre presents “Urinetown” June 2-25, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Marcelle Theatre. For tickets or more information, visit ww.newlinetheatre.com

Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg

By Lynn Venhaus

Heading ‘to infinity and beyond” with a heroic Space Ranger, “Lightyear,” sounds like an exciting flight of fancy. However, the first spin-off from the beloved “Toy Story” franchise sputters with a not very kid-friendly storyline.

And not really any connection to the four “Toy Story” movies except in name only. Confused? Join the club. We’re in an intergalactic mission that involves time travel and space aeronautic snafus.

This is the movie that made Buzz Lightyear a coveted toy. While spending years trying to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg (Josh Brolin), who are attempting to steal his fuel source.

They make it clear right away that “Lightyear” is the movie that introduced Buzz to the mass audience, and then made him an action figure. That likely was a factor in replacing sitcom actor Tim Allen, who voiced Buzz in four movies, with the known-as-hero Chris Evans, best known as Avengers’ Captain America.

But the marketing of this film hasn’t been so obvious.

For the Pixar Animation Studios, it’s a surprising stumble, for the animation is customary next level, with dazzling outer space panoramas and state-of-the-art tech know-how conveyed in intense detail.

The vision is ambitious, showcasing a far-away planet that the space cowboys colonize as their new home while still working on multiple projects.

But it’s not enough, even with a topnotch vocal cast — Chris Evans is the stand-up Space Ranger, Uzo Aduba is his respected supervisor Alicia Hawthorne, Keke Palmer is her granddaughter Izzy, Taika Waititi is comical crew member Mo Morrison and Efren Ramirez is Airman Diaz.

The diverse cast is a plus, and Alicia Hawthorne is in a same-sex marriage for a Pixar first.

Best is Peter Sohn as the robotic pet cat “Socks” – a delightful source of goofy humor, not unlike the welcome comic relief of break-out character Forky in “Toy Story 4” in 2019.

But most of the time, this origin story is very serious. And that’s disappointing, as this animated sci-fi fantasy never quit takes off because the story itself is underwhelming and bewildering.

The screenplay is by Jason Headley, who wrote one of the lesser Pixar films “Onward,” with story by director Angus MacLane (“The Incredibles”), Matthew Aldrich (“Coco”) and Headley.

It has more in common with Christopher Nolan’s dense and unwieldy “Interstellar” and even the Dreamworks’ animated film, “Over the Moon” in 2020, than it does with the toys that came to life in one of the most successful animated series ever. The original was the first Pixar/Disney film to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Pixar genius Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft had created those beloved characters. In the 27 years since the original “Toy Story” – first completely computer-generated graphic images — opened a marvelous make-believe world of toys having their own lives outside their role-play duties with kid owners, there have been three sequels that expanded the toy-chest universe and broader heart-tugging themes that challenge and change them.

The third one in 2010 and the fourth one in 2019 both won the Oscar for feature animated film (the award wasn’t given out until 2001, therefore the first two, in 1995 and 1999, weren’t eligible).

With its track record of excellence, Pixar has collected 18 Academy Awards for its films. Sadly, “Lightyear” isn’t on the same level.

The youngsters at my screening seemed very restless, and its appeal to younger tykes is uncertain. However, those who are captivated by the film will want to stay through the entire credits, as there are three more scenes.

TEAMING UP – Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” is a sci-fi action adventure and the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans), the hero who inspired the toy. The all-new story follows the legendary Space Ranger on an intergalactic adventure alongside a group of ambitious recruits (voices of Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and Dale Soules), and their robot companion Sox (voice of Peter Sohn). Also joining the cast are Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Efren Ramirez and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Directed by Angus MacLane (co-director “Finding Dory”) and produced by Galyn Susman (“Toy Story That Time Forgot”), “Lightyear” releases June 17, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Lightyear” is a 2022 animated sci-fi fantasy feature film directed by Angus MacLane and featuring voices of Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, Josh Brolin, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taiki Waititi and Efren Ramirez. It is fated PG for action/peril and is 2 hour, 40 minutes long. It opened in theaters on June 17. Lynn’s Take: C+

By Lynn Venhaus

A stand-up-and-cheer musical that makes the most of its moves and moments, “The Karate Kid The Musical” is a triumph for Stages St. Louis.

With its inspirational underdog storyline and a multi-generational, universal appeal that transcends a formula 1984 movie script, the musical version takes those familiar beats and capitalizes on the warm glow of nostalgia.

Perhaps against all odds, this slick production genuinely connects to an audience, wearing its heart of gold on its gi.

With its impeccable technical elements and a captivating East meets West aura, director Amon Miyamoto has polished this big-deal show to dazzle with crisp movements, stunning scenic and lighting designs, and a seamless flow – despite a long first act.

For those who haven’t seen “The Karate Kid” film from 1984, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Mr. Miyagi and made such catch phrases as “Wax on, wax off” and “You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity” popular, viewing it isn’t a prerequisite.

The message of using your head and heart, not fists, to win in life, is evergreen.

This world premiere, with its winsome Miyagi-verse a major factor, runs through June 26 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. 

Where it lands after that depends on what’s referred to as “a pre-Broadway tryout,” which means it is a work in progress. For now, it is in a first-reaction phase, and what we see here might not be the completed licensed material.

The simple premise is thus: Widowed mom and her teenage son move from New Jersey to Southern California, and while she has a good job, the Italian kid with the Jersey accent doesn’t fit in with the surfer crowd. 

Daniel LoRusso becomes a target of elitist punks who train at the same high-intensive karate school – the Cobra Kai dojo. Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawa-born maintenance man-gardener, happens to be a martial arts master and trains him to fight in an all-valley tournament a few months away.

While the movie has a distinctively ‘80s signature, not unlike “Footloose,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Fame” and “Risky Business” back in the day, it has become a pop culture classic, as much known for Mr. Miyagi’s words of wisdom as the iconic “crane’ move. (And that big moment prompts more cheers).

The movie is credited with launching renewed interest in martial arts from American youth, sparking a franchise with two more sequels (1986 and 1989, a 1994 reboot “The New Karate Kid” and the television series, “Cobra Kai,” now on Netflix and about to start its fifth season on Sept. 9.

The musical’s book is adapted by screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, who based the original film in part on his own experiences. 

In broad strokes, Kamen capitalizes on the key pieces – mother and son starting a new life, teenage boy not fitting into the California coastal milieu, the maintenance man who becomes a father figure, and the David vs. Goliath battle royale.

What is new is that the musical is framed as Mr. Miyagi’s memory, thus we return to the 1980s, and the journey of how he and Daniel developed a deep bond. 

Musical composer and lyricist Drew Gasparini obliges with numbers that fit into the framework, stripping the action down to basics: “California Dream,” “Square One,” “I Want to Know What You Know,” and the finale sentiment, “Stronger Than Before.”

The unorthodox training is captured in “Method to His Madness” and the epiphany breakthrough “Balance.”

A striking sense of rhythm is noteworthy throughout every ensemble number, with vibrant, precise choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid that uniquely stands out. A mix of modern hip-hop and traditional, cultural Far East dance, it is extraordinary in execution. 

It’s rare that a big, splashy musical number receives a standing ovation midway through the first act, but the bravado of “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy” was a showstopper that prompted many in the opening night crowd to leap from their seats in enthusiastic applause.

Alan H. Green, who plays the brutal taskmaster John Kreese, had the crowd at his first snarl and it’s a fierce performance as the unsavory ‘win at all costs’ sensei.

By the time his ruthlessness is revealed, “The Whole World Will Be Watching,” to end act one, hints at danger ahead in Act 2, fueling anticipation for the big showdown.

Credit goes to the engaging ensemble – a mix of seasoned pros and energetic young performers, for their contributions to Stages meeting this moment.

Cardoza is the lynchpin here – charming and earnest, and all the relationships hinge on his likability as Daniel. He develops a palpable bond with Mr. Miyagi – Jovanni Sy in an unforgettable heart-tugging performance.

And that connection burrows into our hearts. 

Daniel and his mother, Lucille, played by the wondrous Kate Baldwin, a two-time Tony nominee, are at different crossroads, which they express clearly in songs. 

Baldwin showcases a sweet, well-trained soprano in “Doing Something Right” and a soulful “If I Could Take Away His Pain.”

No stranger to St. Louis, she won a St Louis Kevin Kline Award for her performance as Maria in The Muny’s 2005 staging of “The Sound of Music.”

The standard love triangle between Ali, her ex Johnny Lawrence and Daniel sets up the bigger issues with the bully (Jake Bentley Young fine in the thankless one-note role). 

As a girl with gumption, Jetta Juriansz puts some oomph into the stock love interest part, and her songs “Who I’m Supposed to Be” and “What Comes Next.”

As Daniel’s new pal Freddy, Luis-Pablo Garcia is a real charmer, and capably leads “Dreams Come True.”

Music Director Andrew Resnick’s strong arrangements are another noteworthy element, as is John Clancy’s orchestrations. 

It is evident that all the technical parts came together in such a high level, indelible way as to mesmerize. The black and red imagery is bold and impressive.

With its angles and moving doors, windows and walls, the stunning set design by Tony winner Derek McLane is one of the finest ever executed here – and another reason to wax rhapsodic. So is Tony winner Bradley King’s exceptional lighting design. 

With its snappy pace and mostly upbeat score, “The Karate Kid – the Musical” turns into a fun time meant to be shared with a pumped-up crowd, not unlike other classic feel-good sports stories “Rocky,” “Rudy” and “American Underdog.”

Obviously, this is a production with an unabashed gooey center, and say what you will, delivered as promised, bringing much comfort and joy to a wildly enthusiastic audience. 

After all, “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything.”

Stages St Louis presents “The Karate Kid – The Musical” from May 25 to June 26 at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit www. StagesSTL.org. 

Portions of this review appeared in the June 17 issue of the Webster-Kirkwood Times.