By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
By wrapping up its Centennial Season with a sweet nostalgic slice of Americana, the Muny has tugged at our hearts and reminded us to treasure our traditions.
This “Meet Me in St. Louis” makeover is a richly textured tapestry significant to St. Louis – one that you can see and feel. With a freshly revised book and new orchestrations, the Muny has connected the ordinary Smith Family’s quaint story to emotionally resonate through the ties that bind us.
A tight-knit cast and tip-top crew wore their hearts on their sleeves opening night, offering a gift to the region that spends its summers in the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater. You could sense the love for our town onstage, backstage and in the audience.

The Smiths’ upper-middle class life at 5135 in Kensington Avenue was not different than countless others, but through their typical goings-on, they faced change, and that impending family transition from their comfortable routine to the uncertainty of a big metropolis is what drives their 1903-1904 story through seasons along the Mississippi River.
Sally Benson’s memoirs, “The Kensington Stories.” eventually became the beloved classic movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Even with its MGM-Hollywood pedigree, that unique turn-of-the-century site-specific history makes it ours alone – not Kansas City, Chicago or Indianapolis.
That civic pride resulted in the Muny presenting stage versions in 1960, 1965 and 1977 – before Broadway adapted it in 1989, and a variation has been staged four more times, including a dull one its last time in 2009.
The stage adaptation wasn’t special enough, and not even close in comparison to the movie. When the film opened in 1944, it became the studio’s biggest hit next to “Gone with the Wind” and nominated for four Oscars, including Best Song (“The Trolley Song”). Margaret O’Brien won a Juvenile Academy Award as Tootie. The film is now preserved in the National Film Registry (Library of Congress) and 10th on American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals in History list.
It’s closing line, “Right here in St. Louis,” became the Muny’s tagline for their 100th anniversary, and the show’s inclusion inevitable.
But this production has some surprises in store. To make this one memorable, Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson called on Gordon Greenberg to revamp the book by Hugh Wheeler. Greenberg is a veteran Muny director whose writing work includes the “Holiday Inn” Broadway adaptation.
He has inserted many local references to heighten the hometown feel. He had us right away when Grandpa talks about the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Chicago Cubs. Other mentions of neighborhoods and long-distance phone calls to Clayton were big crowd-pleasers.
No matter how corny you think the romantic entanglements are, the Smith kids’ excitement about seeing their hometown prepare to become the center of the universe is contagious.
The simple framework of children growing up is secondary to the time and place, as our forefathers are honored for their vision that included the biggest World’s Fair yet, and the first Summer Olympics in the U.S. And we continue to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations. So many contributions of long-lasting impact came from those seven months in 1904, and the work preceding it.
That’s what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings out as the characters express love for the city and family, friends and neighbors during daily routines and holiday rituals.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (real-life married couple Stephen R. Buntrock and Erin Dilly) have five children: Rose, Esther, Alonzo Jr. “Lon,” Agnes and Tootie (Liana Hunt, Emily Walton, Jonathan Burke, Elle Wesley and Elena Adams, all in Muny debuts). Anna Smith’s father, retired doctor Grandpa Prophater (local legend Ken Page) lives with them. Alonzo Sr. is a lawyer and they live comfortably enough to afford a housekeeper, Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald).
This cast injected individual pizzazz into a show that’s still boxed in by the period’s social mores. Let’s face it, the schmaltz factor is high, and the two oldest girls’ boy troubles are trivial.
There is the potential to view the characters as spoiled in the way the older daughters maneuver the guys and bratty Tootie causes mayhem while they all whine about moving to New York City, but if they didn’t gripe, we wouldn’t have any dramatic conflict, would we? And the performers are winsome.
Rose’s intended fellow, the earnest Warren Sheffield, is well-played by Michael Burrell, and Dan DeLuca, as the proverbial boy-next-door John Truitt, matches Emily Walton’s adventurous zest as Esther.
Jonathan Burke is an impressive Lon Jr., getting ready for Princeton and dating the worldly Lucille Ballard (St. Louis regular Madison Johnson, looking swell in a Gibson hairstyle). He is a marvel of movement in the dance number, “The Banjo,” innovatively staged by choreographer Josh Walden. Jeff Jordan is a good sport as a gangly uncoordinated dance partner, Pee Wee Drummond.
Music Director Charlie Alterman glides through old standards and the stand-out numbers written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane – “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Walton beautifully delivers.
An earlier song list was trimmed to thankfully cut the bloat, and John McDaniel’s new orchestrations provide some zing. McDaniel, a St. Louis native, is a Grammy and Emmy-winning composer, conductor, pianist and producer. He was the band leader on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show from 1996 to 2002 and has returned to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra five times and worked on “Pirates!” during the Muny’s 2012 season.
They included a dandy song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote but cut from the movie, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.”

Supporting player Ben Nordstrom’s spotlight moment was delightful, as he sang “Under the Anheuser Bush” as the Christmas Ball band singer.
(Fun fact: That is a popular beer garden song commissioned by the brewery in 1903, and an instrumental version was used in the 1944 movie).
The vibrant vintage look sharpened the focus, with outstanding work by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and video designer Matthew Young, who highlighted the bygone era with beautiful vistas.
Costume designer Tristan Raines and wig designer Leah J. Loukas immersed the players in exquisite detail. The youth ensemble’s Halloween costumes provided merriment as they scampered through the crowd.
Lighting designer Rob Denton spectacularly illuminated the World’s Fair, which elicited audible appreciation. Sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge captured the old-timey feel.
In two extraordinary moments, “Meet Me in St. Louis” crystallized the past, present and future of our crown jewels — Forest Park and The Muny, all in the shadow of our treasured landmarks.
The “Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene, where video projection showed The Palace of Fine Art (now the St. Louis Art Museum) under construction, along with the Ferris Wheel, in a muddy field. Awestruck Esther and John rode that famous trolley to his baseball practice first.
The grand finale was breathtaking – as the anticipation of the World’s Fair built, to reveal the Smith Family standing on a bridge overlooking the Grand Basin, with thousands of festive lights. It was a vivid tableau that continued in a fireworks-festooned curtain call.
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park, just as our ancestors did in the 20th century. Hope about the future has been a running theme in all seven shows this season, and “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the cherry on top.
After the fireworks light up the sky for the last time Aug. 12, we move onto the second century.
Look around the park now – majestic remnants mark our heritage. It’s a stunning sight, recalling happy golden days of yore, as is the Muny’s love letter to the community we cherish.
This unabashedly sentimental production conjured up many personal memories and feelings about what Forest Park, the Muny and St. Louis mean to me. I don’t think I was alone in this regard, judging the audience’s reaction
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is presented from Aug. 4 to Aug. 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org.
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Photos by Phillip Hamer
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For a rooting-tooting time at the theater, head yonder to the Tower Grove Abbey, where wacky hi-jinx are afoot in the Southern-fried “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Stray Dog Theatre’s colorful cast realizes that many people are unfamiliar with this mid-1970s musical based on Eudora Welty’s first novella, which is adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so they are eager to please, and work overtime to charm the crowd.
The goofy story, set in 18th century Mississippi, is not fooling anybody but the ensemble, who have so much fun with this campy tall tale of mistaken identities and nefarious motives.

In 1795, the hero-outlaw Jamie Lockhart (Phil Leveling) swaggers in to Rodney, Miss., looking for his next swindle. As his alter-ego, he is The Robber in the Woods, a Robin Hood-like figure who disguises himself with berry juice.
He’s unrecognizable to Rosamund (Dawn Schmid), the beautiful daughter of the richest planter, Clement Musgrove (Jeffrey Wright). They fall in love during the charade, which leads to hilarious complications.
Mix in an evil stepmother, the overbearing Salome (Sarah Gene Dowling); a mischievous bandit Little Harp (Logan Willmore); his brother Big Harp (Kevin O’Brien), who is only a head in a briefcase these days; a pea-brained flunky named Goat (Bryce Miller); his sister Airie (Christen Ringhausen); and a talking raven (Susie Lawrence), and these zesty ingredients create farcical nonsense.
Rounding out the rambunctious ensemble is Chris Ceradsky, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson as residents of Rodney.
Director Justin Been has inventively staged the show to bring out the cast’s playful nature, and swiftly spins the action in a captivating piece of “story theater.”
The clever Tony Award-nominated book and lyrics are written by Alfred Uhry, who later became famous for his “Atlanta Trilogy” – the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Tony Award for Best Play in 1997; and the Tony-nominated libretto to “Parade” in 1998.
The bluegrass-tinged music score is by Uhry’s frequent collaborator, Robert Waldman, and music director and pianist Jennifer Buchheit’s work captures its lively spirit. Her exceptional band gets the show off to a rollicking start and keeps up the momentum throughout – fine work by Steven Frisbee on fiddle, Mallory Golden on fiddle and mandolin; Michael Kuba on banjo, cello and guitar; Marty Lasovica on guitar, and M. Joshua Ryan on acoustic bass and bass ukulele.
Choreographer Mike Hodges freshens up old-timey western dances and gives the ensemble a chance to kick up their heels in their period-appropriate garb designed by SDT’s artistic director Gary F. Bell.
The entire cast speaks in exaggerated Southern drawls and projects the show’s light-heartedness out of the gate with “Once Upon the Natchez Trace.” They remain exuberant in “Flop Eared Mule,” “Goodbye Salome” and “Leather Britches.”
The harmonious ensemble’s “Deeper in the Woods” is a lush, ethereal ballad that shifts into a full-fledged romance between Jamie and Rosamund, while “Where, Oh Where” is a foot-stomping number featuring everyone’s nimble voices.
Impressive newcomers Logan Willmore, as Jamie’s rival Little Harp, and Bryce Miller, as the imbecile Goat, display slick comic timing that accentuates the breezy romp. Their duet, “Poor Tied Up Darlin’” is a hoot, with assist from a game Christen Ringhausen.
Versatile Kevin O’Brien is funny as the talking head Big Harp, and both he and Miller are hilarious in “Two Heads.”
Veterans Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid and Jeffrey M. Wright superbly inhabit their characters.
As the rascally Jamie, Leveling is well-suited to the role both in acting and singing, as his range is spot-on for the vocal demands. He’s appealing in his introduction, “Steal with Style.”
The jaunty role isn’t demanding but allows for mischief-making. In 1977, Barry Bostwick won a Tony as Lead Actor in a Musical for the ’76 Broadway run while in 2016, Steven Pasquale won a Lucille Lortel Award for the Roundabout Theatre off-Broadway revival.
Leveling and Schmid blend beautifully in song, including “Love Stolen.” They have some oomph in their chemistry as a romantic comedy coupling.
Schmid’s positive approach and her beaming smile project a spirit of adventure. No damsel in distress, she shines in “Rosamund’s Dream” and “Nothin’ Up.” In the archetypal fairy-tale princess way, she tussles with Dowling, who wants the golden daughter out of the way.
Dowling has a field day mugging malicious intentions as the over-the-top Salome, spewing venom in “The Pricklepear Bloom.”
Wright plays a blustery rich guy who misses his first wife and puts his daughter on a pedestal. Even though his second wife is a pain, Musgrove’s a people-pleaser and can’t shift gears. Wearing a loud checkered suit, Wright just has a ball cavorting as this gaudy character.
The quartet of Jamie, Musgrove, Rosamund and Salome have fun frolicking in “Marriage is Riches.”
The roots music imbues a feel-good quality while the cast appears to be having a swell time like friends around a campfire.
It is that conviviality one will remember soon after the story fades.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Robber Bridegroom” Aug. 2 -18, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, Aug. 12 matinee at 2 p.m. and a Wednesday, Aug. 15 performance at 8 p.m. added, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, 63104. For tickets or more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Photos by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Are you on holiday or having a stay-cation? Fit in a play or musical! Let the very talented theater community entertain you! Right here in St. Louis!
The Muny concludes its 100th anniversary season with “Meet Me in St. Louis.” St. Louis premieres of Verdi’s opera “Nabucco,” “The Realistic Joneses” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” continue this weekend.
Stray Dog Theatre opens the Southern romantic comedy musical “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Such popular musicals as “Mamma Mia!” “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” “The Music Man” and “Into the Woods” are on the boards.
Come sail away and GO SEE A PLAY.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”
The Black Mirror Theatre Company
Aug. 2-4
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand in Grand Center
Home

Tickets: Metrotix.com or 314-534-1111
What It’s About: A tiger haunts the streets of present-day Baghdad seeking the meaning of life. As he witnesses the puzzling absurdities of war, the tiger encounters Americans and Iraqis who are searching for friendship, redemption and a toilet seat made of gold.
Director: Catherine Hopkins
Starring: Don McClendon, Brian Rolfe, Charles Winning, Laura Kyro, Kalen Riley, Erik Kuhn and Hailey Medrano.
Of Note: St. Louis premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s dark comedy set during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Submitted photo
“Gypsy”
The Muny
July 27 – Aug. 2 nightly at 8:15 p.m.
Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park
www.muny.org
What It’s About: Gypsy Rose Lee’s semi-autobiographical tale of an ambitious stage mother, Momma Rose, who fights for her two daughters’ success while secretly yearning for her own.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Jules Stein, the 1959 musical features such songs as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Some People,” “Let Me Entertain You” and “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.”
Director: Rob Ruggiero, with music direction by James Moore and choreography by Ralph Perkins.
Starring: Beth Leavel (Rose), Adam Heller (Herbie), Julia Knitel (Louise), Hayley Podschun (Dainty June), Jennifer Cody (Tessie Tura/Miss Cratchitt), Ann Harada (Electra), Ellen Harvey (Mazeppa), Kip Niven (Pop /Cigar/Philadelphia Announcer), Drew Redington (Tulsa), Michael James Reed (Weber/Bourgeron-Cochon/Detroit Announcer), Lara Teeter (Uncle Jocko/Phil/Minsky’s Announcer), Elise Edwards (Baby Louise) and Amelie Lock (Baby June).
Of Note: This is the sixth production of “Gypsy” at the Muny, and the first one since 2006.
“Into the Woods”
Curtain’s Up Theater Company
Aug. 3-4, 9-11 at 7:30 p.m.
Alfresco Art Center in Granite Citywww.curtainsuptheater.com
What It’s About: Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical is a modern twist on several Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Director: Glenn Saltamachia, with music direction by Chuck Noud and choreography by Jeffrey Yapp-Ellis.
Starring: Liz Murphy White, Kimmie Kidd-Booker, Mark Lull, Kevin Hester, Kellen Green, Kendra Moore, Miranda Mobley, Hannah Lindsey, Alie Morgan, Jason McAdams, Sarah Ratcliff, David McCausland, Steve Anderson, Anna Campbell, Diane Wingerter, Denny Patterson and Natalie Kurz.
“Legally Blonde: The Musical”
The Hawthorne Players
July 27 – Aug. 5
Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker and Waterfordwww.hawthorneplayers.info
Box Office 314-921-5678 Monday through Friday
What It’s About: Elle Woods’ life is turned upside down when her boyfriend Warner dumps her. Determined to get him back, Elle gets into Harvard Law School where he is at, but it’s a struggle with him, her peers and professors. With support of new friends, she realizes her potential and set out to prove her worth in the world.
Of Note: You can purchase raffle tickets to win Elle’s big pink chair! Tickets are on sale at performances, and t winning ticket will be drawn by Elle in a live Facebook broadcast after the show on Sunday, Aug. 5.
Proceeds will benefit the scholarship fund. Since 1992, Hawthorne Players has presented nearly $58,900 in scholarships to high school seniors active in the performing arts.
“Mamma Mia!”
Stages St. Louis
July 20 – Aug. 19
Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Road.
www.stagesstlouis.org
What It’s About: The musical phenomenon uses the music of ABBA to tell the story of a teen’s search for her birth father. Sophie lives on a Greek island paradise with her mother, who runs a taverna. There are three possible dads, whom she invites to her wedding. Humor, heart, and lots o’ song and dance ensue.
Director: Michael Hamilton
Cast: Corinne Melancon, Greg Goodbrod, Dana Winkle, Dan’yelle Williamson, Summerisa Bell Stevens, David Sajewich, David Schmittou and Steve Isom
Of Note: There are at least 18 sold-out performances and the advance single ticket sales have been the highest yet.
Photo by Peter Wochniak
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
The Muny
Aug. 4 – 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m.www.muny.org
Tickets: MetroTix 314-534-1111
What It’s About: Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley, and the heartwarming 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” became a wholesome portrait of a turn-of-the-century American family. Sally Benson wrote the book, based on her family who lived on Kensington. Set in the summer of 1903, the Smiths eagerly await the grand opening of the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park.
Director: Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with music direction by Charlie Alterman and choreography by Josh Walden
Starring: Erin Dilly (Mrs. Anna Smith), Stephen R. Buntrock (Mr. Alonso Smith), Ken Page (Grandpa Prophater), Kathy Fitzgerald (Katie), Emily Walton (Esther Smith), Liana Hunt (Rose Smith), Dan DeLuca (John Truitt), Jonathan Burke (Lon Smith), Elle Wesley (Agnes Smith) and Elena Adams (Tootie Smith).
Ensemble includes Akilah Ayanna, Michael Baxter, Leah Berry, Shawn Bowers, Michael Burrell, Emma Gassett, Berklea Going, Madison Johnson, Jeff Jordan, Halle Morse, Ben Nordstrom, Commodore C. Primous III, Payton Pritchett, Cooper Stanton, Julia Paige Thorn and Brion Marquis Watson. The company will also be joined by the Muny Kid and Teen youth ensembles.
Of Note: This is the finale to the centennial season. This production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel.
“The Music Man”
Over Due Theatre Co
Aug. 3, 4 @ 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 5 at 2 p.m.
9723 Grandview Drive, Olivette M0 63132
Tickets: 314-292-9368 or email [email protected]
What It’s About: Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City. Con artist Harold Hill comes to small town in Iowa to swindle townsfolk into thinking their kids will be in a big brass band. But he falls in love with prim librarian and changes his tune. Sorta.
 
 
“Nabucco”
Union Avenue Opera
Aug. 3-4
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Union Avenue Christian Church
733 Union at Enrightwww.unionavenueopera.org
314-361-2881
What It’s About Verdi’s “Nabucco” is an epic Biblical tale. Nabucco, King of Babylon, seizes control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. Meanwhile, his daughter Fenena and her half-sister Abigaille are both in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem. War rages on between Babylon and Jerusalem. Abigaille, thinking to stop the warring once and for all, tells Ismaele that she wills save his people if he vows to love her and not Fenena. When he denies her, Abigaille ruthlessly plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne, and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
Director: Mark Freiman
Starring: Robert Garner as Nabucco, Marsha Thompson as Abigaille, Melody Wilson as Fenena, Zachary James as Zaccaria, Jesse Donner as Ismaele, Karen Kanakis as Anna, Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, and Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal.
Ensemble – Douglas Allebach, Madeline Black, Aleksandar Dragojevic, David Fournie, Jon Garrett, Rebecca Hetlelid, Michael Hawkins, Emily Heyl, Jeffrey Heyl, Lori Hoffman, Hannah Kauffmann, Amy Mazzeo, Jayde Mitchell, Joel Rogier, Tina Sayers and Caetlyn Van Bure.
Of Note: The opera is sung in Italian with English titles. Not since Wagner’s Ring cycle has Union Avenue Opera presented a show with such epic splendor. It features some of Verdi’s grandest orchestral and choral music ever written, including the soul-stirring “Va, pensiero” chorus.
Photo by John Lamb
“The Realistic Jones”
Rebel and Misfits Productions
July 26 – Aug. 12
Jewish Community Center black box theatre
2 Millstone Campuswww.rebelandmisfitsproductions.com
What It’s About: Will Eno connects two suburban couples who have so much more in common than their identical homes and their shared last names. As their relationships begin to irrevocably intertwine, the Joneses must decide between their idyllic fantasies and their imperfect realities and, ultimately, confront mortality.
Director: Edward M. Coffield
Cast: Isaiah DiLorenzo, Kelly Hummert, Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell.
Of Note: It is the St. Louis premiere. It was named to the list of “Best 25 Plays Since ‘Angels in America’” by the New York Times.
Photo by Eric Woolsey
 
“The Robber Bridegroom”
Stray Dog Theatre
Aug. 2 – 18
Tower Grove Abbey
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15www.straydogtheatre.org
What It’s About: A bawdy, rousing Southern fairy tale is set in Mississippi follows Jamie Lockhart, a rascally robber of the woods, as he courts Rosamund, the sole daughter of the richest planter in the country. Thanks to a case of double-mistaken identity, the entangled relationship begins to unravel. Throw in an evil stepmother, her pea-brained henchman, and a hostile talking headin-a-trunk, and you have a rollicking country romp.
Director: Justin Been, with music direction by Jennifer Buchheit and choreography by Mike Hodges.
Starring: Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid, Jeffrey Wright, Logan Willmore, Bryce Miller, Kevin O’Brien, Chris Ceradsky, Susie Lauren, Sarah Gene Dowling, Christen Ringhausen, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson.
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
RISING STARS: Seeing talented teenagers passionately follow their dreams is such a thrill. The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation is ahead of the game, for it fosters, promotes, and encourages young people in the St. Louis region to discover and participate in the joy and wonder of live performances.
Besides the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition, the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation also produces a variety of other performing arts programs that focus on youth including Kids’ Night at the Fabulous Fox, Broadway Master Classes, Educational Encores, and is a producing partner of the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards.
This Sunday, they are sponsoring a free event that will feature 25 entertainment acts, including finalists from the 8th Annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition and nomineees from the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards:

The High Schooll Musical Theatre Awards representatives include: Outstanding Lead Actress winner Maggie Kuntz and nominees Paige Terch. Meg Gorton and  Sydney Jones
Outstanding Lead Actor nominees Tony Merritt and Jared Goudsmit.
Outstanding Supporting Actress nominees Annelise Laakko, Natalie Brown and Haley Driver.
The Teen Talent Showcase representatives include pianists John Yanev and Robyne Sieh, singers Morgan Taylor, Josh Royal, Bennett English and Jennifer Ferry; dancers Arielle Adams, De’Jai Walker, Madison Alexander, Megan Mayer, Brooke Reese, Hillary Zgonina, Kelsey Carnes and DessaRae Lampkins; alto sax player Kameron Huff and TBD (Lilliana Matthews, Aaron Moore, Everett Remstedt, Allan Stacy and Jalen Thompson.
The Rising Stars Showcase featuring the Stars of Tomorrow will take place on Sunday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. at The Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis. Admission is free and it is open to the public. For more information, visit: www.foxpacf.org.
 
Photo Maggie Kuntz, Dolly Levi in Cor Jesu’s “Hello,Dolly!” She went on to compete in the National Jimmy Awards.
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EXPLORE ST. LOUIS:  St. Louis will be rolling out the red carpet when throngs come to the city for the 100th PGA Championship Aug. 6 – 12 at the Bellerive Country Club.
Have you seen the four commercials that award-winning actor and St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown has done for the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Bureau? The 30-second segments are “Arch,” “Blues,” “Family Fun” and “Neighborhoods.”

Local actor, playwright and theater booster Stephen Peirick played Merriwether to Matt Lindhardt’s Lewis in the “Arch” commercial. He said Sterling was kind and introduced himself before they started working on the spot.
If you want to see the commercials or find out more about what’s happening here in August, check out www.explorestl.com.
 
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GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Meet at the Muny for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the finale of the Muny’s Centennial Season! Those who send in their choice in the poll will be placed in a drawing for two tickets to any performance of “Meet Me in St. Louis” from Aug. 4 – 12 at the Muny in Forest Park.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was a 1944 MGM movie before it was adapted as a stage musical in 1989, although the Muny presented it before that.in the 1960s and ’70s.
This 2018 production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel is the first since 2009, and the eighth overall.
McDaniel, a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning producer, composer, conductor and pianist is from St. Louis. He was Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show bandleader from 1996 to 2002, and has worked with the Muny before, on the 2012 “Pirates!”
Poll Question for Ticket Drawing: What is your favorite movie that either takes place in St. Louis or was shot in St. Louis?
“The Game of Their Lives”“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery”“King of the Hill”“Meet Me in St. Louis”“Up in the Air”“White Palace”
Send your selection by email to: [email protected] by 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3. Please include your phone number. The winner will be notified, and arrangements will be made with the Muny for the night you choose.
Our July 28 poll winner was Robert Kapeller of St. Louis. He won two tickets to “Evita” at The Rep on Sept. 7. As for the favorite girlfriends musical, “Wicked” won in a landslide.
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DOWN MEMORY LANE: The first time I saw the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” was at a free showing at the downtown Famous Barr department store the summer of 1974. They had special events and exhibits in honor of the 70th anniversary of the World’s Fair in St. Louis and showed the movie for free in their ninth floor exhibition hall. (That’s what was transformed into the holiday world extravaganza at Christmastime.) At the movie, they sold specially-priced iced tea and hot dogs, two refreshments who made their debut in 1904.
Sally Benson’s “Kensington Stories” was the basis for the movie, and her family lived at 5135 Kensington in north St. Louis city. The house is long-gone but this is what it once looked like, pictured at left.
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TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Forty years ago, the first National Lampoon movie, “Animal House” premiered. This groundbreaking movie first shown on July 28, 1978 spawned many knockoffs and launched the careers of many young stars, including the first film by SNL breakthrough John Belushi. (And is very helpful in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game).
Question: Who are the two people associated with the movie that have a local connection?
Answer: Writer Harold Ramis attended Washington University, Class of 1966, and used his college days as a member of Zeta Beta Tau for inspiration. He would go on to fame as a writer, actor (“Ghostbusters”) and director (“Groundhog Day”), and returned to his roots here. He served two terms on the Washington University board of trustees and was master of ceremonies for Homecoming in 1984. Here is a 1979 photo of him back in a Wash U frathouse.

Karen Allen, who played Katy, was born in Carrollton, Ill. Her mother was from Jerseyville and her father from Roodhouse, and she spent summers visiting her grandparents in Jersey County after his FBI work took them to other cities for her first 10 years. Her father went to Washington University after her parents married; they met at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
I interviewed the delightful and very active Allen two years ago when she was being honored by the St. Louis International Film Festival. She said she enjoys seeing cast members at film reunion events.

At left she is shown with Peter Riegert. “Animal House” was her first movie.
To read more about her life, here is my feature in the Belleville News-Democrat. https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article114225998.html
***WORD: Wise advice from the late great screenwriter, actor and director Harold Ramis:
“There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe,” and you have to balance both things.”
“No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.”
“My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.”
― Harold Ramis (1944 – 2014)
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WINNERS CIRCLE: Cinema St. Louis handed out awards for the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase on July 22. This year’s event featured 107 films, and some advanced to the 27th annual St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. These are the juried award winners that were written, directed, edited, or produced by St. Louis residents or films with strong local ties.
DOCUMENTARIES
Best Use of Music: Busking on the Wagon, Randy Shinn and Drew Gowran
Best Sound: Such and Such, Cory Byers
Best Editing: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher and Patrick Lawrence
Best Cinematography: Lingua Francas, David Christopher Pitt
Best Local Subject: The Man Behind the Merferds, Phil Berwick
Best Direction: Lisa Boyd, An American Tragedy
Best Documentary Short: For a Better Life, Yasmin Mistry
Best Documentary Feature: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher
EXPERIMENTAL
Best Experimental Film: Passages in Revisiting: I Hear Someone Playing Urheen, Xinyue Deng
NARRATIVES
Best Costumes: Shutter, Nancy Eppert and Maude Vintage
Best Makeup/Hairstyling: East Plains: Get Out!, Jessica Dana
Best Use of Music: The Wedding Song, Ben Stanton, Thia Schuessler and Will Dickerson
Best Sound: Strings, Ross Mercer, Ryan Kneezle and Theo Lodato
Best Production Design/Art Direction: Parallel Chords, Gypsi Pate
Best Special/Visual Effects: Dawn of Man, Vlad Sarkisov
Best Editing: MLM, Benjamin Dewhurst
Best Cinematography: Parallel Chords, Kyle Krupinksi
Best Screenplay: Foxes, Tristan Taylor and Garrick BernardBest Actor: Ayinde Howell, Foxes
Best Actress: Jackie Kelly, Mother of Calamity
Best Direction: Richard Louis Ulrich, Steve
Best Animated Film: Tiffanys, Caitlin Chiusano, Sean Esser and Zhara Honore
Best Comedy: Cabin Killer, Michael Rich
Best Drama: Saint Sinner, Brian Cooksey
Best Narrative Short: Foxes, Tristan Taylor
Best Narrative Feature: Parallel Chords, Catherine Dudley-Rose
To see the list of films selected for SLIFF, visit www.cinemastlouis.org
Pictured are Best Actor Aynde Howell of “Foxes” and Best Actress Jackie Kelly of “Mother of Calamity” on the Showcase program.
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Have any tidbits for the column? Please contact Lynn Venhaus at: [email protected]
Featured photo of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis” from Tams-Witmark. Harold Ramis photos from Washington University archives.
 
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For the St. Louis premiere of Guiseppe Verdi’s Biblical epic “Nabucco,” Union Avenue Opera dreamed big.
Not since tackling Wagner’s Ring Cycle have they taken on such a massive show. The staging this four-act 1841 Italian opera is a towering achievement, both vocally and in mechanics.
They succeed in showcasing not only the top-shelf talent they attracted for this production, but also one of the best choruses featured on their cozy stage.
Conductor Stephen Hargreaves and Assistant Chorus Master Jon Garrett deep-dive into this glorious, grand signature Verdi sound – confidently creating big, bold orchestral and chorus statements. The 21-piece string-heavy orchestra is outstanding.

While the romantic and political complexities of this Old Testament story do not exactly comprise the finest libretto, the vocal prowess is stunning. This show’s cast has the vibrant voices to match the character requirements.
Librettist Temistocle Solero used the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel for the turbulent story, set in 587 B.C. The King of Babylon is Nabucco (Robert Garner), known as Nebuccadnezzer in English. He has seized control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. The other major storyline is that his daughter Fenena (Melody Wilson) and her evil half-sister Abigaille (Marsha Thompson) are both in love with Ismaele (Jesse Donner), the nephew of the King of Jerusalem.
While war rages between Babylon and Jerusalem, Abigaille pledges to save Ismaele’s people if he chooses her. But he denies her, so she turns ruthless and plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
First-time director Mark Freiman heightens the soap opera aspect of these treacherous elements, as the principals expressively sing about their emotional anguish and lament over their choices.
The accomplished Robert Garner is an imposing Nabucco, and when he needs to regain his sanity and strength in Act III, excels in his “Dio di Giuda” aria.
 
However, the two women are such dynamic forces and reach exhilarating heights as the warring half-sisters. In an impressive debut, soprano Marsha Thompson commands the stage as Abigaille, breathtaking in the demanding role. Her arias are something special, especially her dramatic coloratura “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno.”
The rising young star Melody Wilson – what an inspiring name! – demonstrates why she is one to watch, as she has one of the richest mezzo-sopranos I’ve heard. She stood out in her St. Louis debut in “Doubt” two summers ago, as part of “Regina” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis this season, and now, in this dramatic role as Fenena. What a range! Her prayer painting a picture of the heavens, “O dischius’è il firmament,” is exceptional.
Also standing out is bass Zachary James as Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, both in physical presence and in vocal prowess. He is particularly impressive performing “D’Egitto là su i lidi” that revives his people’s hopes in Act 1, and the prayer “Tu sul labbro” in Act 2.
Jesse Donner is solid as Ismaele, as is Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal and Karen Kanakis as Anna.
Bravo, fervent ensemble! They do indeed stir the soul in the famous “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” chorus. One of the most famous opera pieces of all-time is robustly delivered by Douglas Allebach, Madeline Black, Aleksandar Dragojevic, David Fournie, Jon Garrett, Rebecca Hetlelid, Michael Hawkins, Emily Heyl, Jeffrey Heyl, Lori Hoffman, Hannah Kauffmann, Amy Mazzeo, Jayde Mitchell, Joel Rogier, Tina Sayers and Caetlyn Van Bure in their masterful Italian vocal unison.
The cheers in Act 3 were lengthy and well-deserved, for it was quite a thrilling moment.
The technical aspects of this show are more demanding than usual at the Union Avenue Christian Church. With an idol that must fall and lightning that has to strike, the lighting design by Patrick Huber, who also did the set design, helps make those special effects happen. Theatre Marine Productions was the technical director.
Special mention must go to set designer Huber for creating the vertically tall set so that terrains, palace hallways, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon could be imagined. That was quite a feat, and that the ensemble didn’t seem as crowded on stage.
With the lyrical virtuosity and passionate spirit achieved here, Union Avenue Opera reaches new heights.
Verdi’s “Nabucco” is sung in Italian and presented by Union Avenue Opera on July 27-28 and Aug. 3-4 at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

Photos by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
It might be July, but actor Ryan Cooper is thinking Christmas. And Halloween. Well, he’s an accomplished performer at any time of year, but it’s during those holiday seasons where he really shines.
For the upcoming season of St. Charles Christmas Traditions, he will return to his blue-lipped, blue-clad jester-like character Jack Frost for the 13th year.
He auditioned for the first four or so years, but now is contracted for the part.

“One of the perks of longevity is that many of the old-timers that have been the same role for a number of seasons get to return to our holiday alter-egos without the audition process,” he said. “But I’m just a baby in the whole scheme of things. We have cast members that have been involved in the festival for 20 years.”

St. Charles Christmas Traditions involves 80 characters who make the season bright, along with many special activities, along the town’s historic Main Street. Hours are Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, Nov. 23 – Dec. 24.
Two years ago, Ryan created the sister festival for the Halloween season called Legends and Lanterns.
“It celebrates Halloween by looking at the origins of the customs associated with the holiday. We have interactive villains from history and folklore — Lizzie Borden, the Big Bad Wolf, Medusa, and so forth, a Victorian mourning museum, and many other fun attractions and activities,” he said.
He also participates in the annual Voices of Valhalla event at Valhalla Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where narrated hayrides travel the grounds and actors portray some of the noteworthy individuals who reside there.
“It is a really wonderful event. Larry Marsh does all of the research and writes the scripts, and has such a talent for finding the most fascinating characters to portray,” he said. “We recently did ‘Echoes of Valhalla,’ a one-night ‘greatest hits’ of some of the most memorable characters from over the years, onstage at the Florissant Civic Center theatre.”
Ryan is truly a man of many hats.
This summer, Ryan starred in “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” for Stages’ Theatre for Young Audiences. He played Zeke, King Julien, Mason and Foosa. It’s his third year in the children’s musical, having played the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” and the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical.”
“I absolutely adore working with Stages. I pinch myself every time I get to do a show with them, because I have been such a big fan of the company since I saw my first Stages’ show in 2005 – “Man of La Mancha.” It is incredible the amount of love and dedication the staff puts into their theatre for young audience shows, just as they would for any of their mainstage productions. It is a joy to be a part of,” he said.
He particularly likes performing theater for youngsters.
“There is just something so special about doing shows for families and young audiences. There is always an electric energy. And knowing that there are people in the audience who are experiencing live theatre for the first time, and that I get to be a part of it is the cherry on top of the cake,” he said.
Another summer activity he enjoys is hosting the annual Best Performance Awards on the second Sunday in June, which is produced by non-profit organization Arts for Life. Awards for excellence in community and youth musical theater are presented.

In addition to an opening monologue and introducing presenters, Ryan inserts comic bits that are often sight gags and involving theater or familiar characters. He returned as master of ceremonies June 10 after taking a break last year. He had emceed in 2014 – 2016. Because he is so popular with the crowd, AFL has locked him in for the 20th awards in 2019.
As a teenager, Ryan began getting noticed in community musical theater, especially for being funny. He won three BPA awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedic Role — as Bud Frump in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Carmen Ghia in “The Producers” and Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Hosting is such a sincere honor for me. This year before the show started, while I was getting ready, I thought back to how my first BPA ceremony I attended was in 2006, where I volunteered as an usher,” he said.
“So, to get to act as master of ceremonies was a surreal moment where I realized how lucky I am to get to be a part of this community. I don’t get the chance to be as directly involved with the wonderful community theatre scene like I once was, so to have Arts for Life as an opportunity to be with old and new friends that make up the vibrant and talented St. Louis theatre family is such a privilege.”
He had moved away in 2013, hired to work in the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and the short-lived Storybook Circle Giggle Gang shows at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Upon his return, he was hired as a tour guide for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
“It’s where I get to take on my biggest acting challenge — acting like I know anything at all about sports,” he said.
“Seriously, it’s great. I’ve been giving tours there for four and a half years, and even though I am not a sports guy, as a native St. Louisan, you grow up with at least a great admiration and appreciation for the history of the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “I am happy to share their stories and hear the stories of the people from around the world that I get to interact with every day. Plus, as a performer, I get to have a captive audience for an hour at a time while on tour — what’s not to love?”
In addition, he is a docent at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.
“So, between that, and getting ready for the third season of Legends & Lanterns, and my 13th season with Christmas Traditions, that’s what the rest of my 2018 looks like, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love it!” he said.

Here are Ryan Cooper’s answers to our questions:
Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
I feel that it’s something that happened organically over time. I had done shows at school when I was younger and had always enjoyed them, but I think the real formative moment was when ‘The Producers’ came through the Fox on its first national tour. I was hooked, and said to myself, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ My poor mother had to put up with me marching around the house singing tunes from the show for months after that.
How would your friends describe you?
Ha! I think my friends would definitely describe me as quirky — though they assure me they mean it in an endearing way.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
I am crazy about going to museums. I love history and I love learning, so I try to go to every exhibit I can. History museums, science museums, art museums — I can’t get enough. A few years ago, I was vacationing in St. Petersburg, Fla., and my first stop was not to their beautiful beaches, but to the Florida Holocaust Museum. That about sums it up.
What is your current obsession? 
My current-yet-long-running obsession is all things Titanic. I’m a total nerd. When I traveled Ireland in 2009, I visited the final port where the ship was docked at, and did a one-man re-enactment of James Cameron’s epic three-hour film in 30 seconds — video proof of which I post on Facebook every April 10 for “Titanic anniversary week.”
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
Every spring, I travel over to the nation’s capital, where I give multi-day tours of Washington D.C. to school groups from around the country. A fascinating town — not to mention the abundance of excellent museums!
Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
That would hands down have to be working for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I am a huge Disney fan, and used to go to the parks every year with my mom. I have wanted to work there since I was four, and in 2013, I was lucky to see that dream realized as I joined the casts of the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and short-lived Storybook Circus Giggle Gang shows. While I didn’t get to stick around for as long as I had hoped, it was a phenomenal experience, both personally and professionally. I got my Actors Equity card with “Hoop,” and for the first time, really experienced up-close the “business” side of show business — both the good and not-so-pretty parts. It’s an experience I treasure.
Who do you admire most?
Since I was in second grade, I have had an enormous admiration for Anne Frank. She has been an inspiration to me for my entire adult life, and her words have provided countless moments of peace and hope in times of need. I have a well-worn photo of her in my wallet that goes with me everywhere.
What is at the top of on your bucket list?
Speaking of Anne, the tippy-top of my bucket list is visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I will for sure be there June 12, 2029 for her 100th birthday — but hope to get a visit in well before then.
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
Oh gosh! That is a tough one. I am crazy about this town and feel that there is still so much I’ve got to explore. With that being said, every time I go to Shaw’s Garden (Missouri Botanical), and it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of times I’ve gone, I am in awe. Now if only I could get my backyard to look that good!
What’s next?
I’ve recently dipped my toes in the water of being on the director/producer side of things. In 2016, I created “Legends & Lanterns: A ‘Spirited’ Journey Through Halloween History,” a festival that takes place along Historic Main Street in St. Charles and delves into the origins of our most beloved All Hallow’s Eve traditions, while allowing visitors to rub elbows with some of the most infamous villains in history and folklore. So, I’ll be back directing that this October, then on to my 13th season as Jack Frost for the “St. Charles Christmas Traditions” festival.
All About Ryan Cooper
Age: 28Birthplace: St. LouisCurrent Location: Unincorporated North St. Louis CountyFamily: Only child to my awesome “Mommie Dearest,” Cindy CooperEducation: Trinity Catholic High School, Fontbonne University (B.A. Performing Arts)Day Job: Tour Guide for the St. Louis Cardinals (among many other jobs)First Job: Jack Frost at St. Charles Christmas Traditions when I was 17.First Role: Royal Child #4 in Riverview Gardens High School’s “The King and I” in 1998Favorite Roles: So many! Including: Man in Chair (The Drowsy Chaperone), Bud Frump (How to Succeed…), and Thenardier (Les Miserables).Dream Role: This is a total cop-out answer, but I truly don’t have one — yet. I’m working on it.Awards: Three-time Arts for Life Best Performance Award winner for Bud Frump (How to Succeed), Hysterium (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and Carmen Ghia (The Producers)Words to live by: “No individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without having left behind distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” –George Washington CarverA song that makes you happy: “It Had to be You”

Photo Credits: AFL BPAs Gerry Love, Stages St. Louis, The Producers and St. Charles Christmas Traditions provided by Ryan Cooper, and featured image by Lynn Venhaus.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Imelda Staunton. Their different portraits of the iconic Momma Rose character in “Gypsy” are among the most legendary in theater history. Now add Beth Leavel to that august list.
The Muny’s sixth production of the gutsy Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic hits the heights in so many ways, but first and foremost is Leavel’s knockout performance.
Most of the time, the ambitious Momma Rose is viewed as a heartless monster and played in that blustery, brassy Merman-style. Others have realized that Rose is a tough survivor. Either way, she is hard to warm up to, but at least Leavel makes you understand her.

Leavel is a Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” veteran of 12 Broadway shows and Muny diva whose “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014 remains one of the outdoor stage’s finest shows. Tackling this titanic role was a challenge I was certain she could meet but was not prepared for the delicate balance she achieved.
Sure, hear her roar. A born belter who projects well, Leavel pretty much started at 11, and then dialed back to modulate this complex character.
Given that Rose was introduced in 1959, when theater was not a champion of woman empowerment, it’s interesting that book writer Arthur Laurents wrote such a complicated part. And now it’s on nearly every actress’s bucket list.
The show is loosely based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer known internationally for her striptease artistry. She’s the Louise inspiration, and her sister, actress June Havoc, is Baby June.
Their mother pushed them into the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, dreaming of showbiz success. June was the extroverted performer while Louise was shy and in the background. That changes during the show’s many conflicts.
This ultimate stage mother, fiercely driven and controlling, is twice-divorced and perpetually broke. Rose must be resourceful and rely on her wits in a world not used to strong independent women.
She is a bulldozer, but peerless director Rob Ruggiero’s emphasis is that she’s motivated out of desperation. Always thinking of where their next gig will be, and if they can grab the spotlight, Rose is all about what’s next – for her and those she loves.
Because their mother is living through her children’s lives, Baby June and Louise will suffer the consequences from her abrasive efforts. However, her bossiness hides the fear of failing, of losing, of not making it through to the next day.
Ruggiero’s ability to deconstruct a 1950s era “book musical” and bring out what makes it enduring is why his shows resonate, especially on the expansive Muny stage. Despite my familiarity with a show I’ve seen multiple times, he makes it seem that I’m seeing it for the first time – namely “Hello, Dolly!” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma” at the Muny, and award-winning “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Besides a vulnerability that seeps through in this “Gypsy,” there is an undercurrent of hunger. People are hungry physically, emotionally and mentally. They crave some things that have been out of reach or are not yet attainable, whether it be a nourishing meal, a living wage, a sense of worth or a dream realized.
Because of this deeper context, the musical is not just a showcase for Momma Rose, and this cast has an abundance of talent. Adam Heller captures nice-guy agent Herbie, the good cop to Rose’s bad cop, in a nuanced portrait of the man Rose loves – and pushes around. He and Leavel, a real-life couple, are noticeably in sync in their numbers “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Together Wherever We Go.”
While they headline, Julia Knitel is a stealth bomber. Lanky and awkward as a reluctant Louise, the proverbial people-pleaser who only wants what Momma says is best, she blooms as Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a striking performance, and her physical transformation is astonishing – although Knitel was already endearing from the get-go, especially in the heartbreaking “Little Lamb.”

She and Hayley Podschun as June share nice moments, including “If Momma Was Married.”
Their younger counterparts, Amelie Lock as Baby June and Elise Edwards as Baby Louise, are winsome performers. It’s a slick move when Ruggiero transitions them from young to older midway in a number.
Another standout is St. Louisan and Muny regular Drew Redington as Tulsa, a superb dancer who outgrows the kiddie act. His solo to “All I Need Is the Girl” is sensational.

The scene-stealing strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” are not only a hilarious sight gag but terrific performers who were a bright spot of comic relief. Jennifer Cody as Tessie Tura, Ann Harada as an older Electra and Ellen Harvey as a statuesque Mazeppa were laugh-out-loud funny.
Lighting designer John Lasiter’s precise work deserves mention, as does costume designer Amy Clark, going the showbiz gamut from kitsch to glitz — and those distinctive patterned cloth coats for Rose.

Scenic designer Luke Cantarella draped the show in reality – muted colors for drab sets to indicate the hardships during financially strapped times, and the dingy two-bit nature of the fading vaudeville circuit.
Ruggiero’s dream team of choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director James Moore assured that the song-and-dance numbers would be first-rate. They’ve worked together on multiple productions.
Nevertheless, maestro Moore raised the bar. He displayed his expertise conducting the orchestra in an overture that was so magnificent the audience applauded midway. And this was only the start of something special. The orchestra’s big wall of sound, with all that splendid brass, was one of the show’s best elements..
After all, what great material to work with — Jule Styne wrote this unforgettable music. He’s behind such famous tunes as “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Let It Snow” and ‘The Party’s Over.” Paired with lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, fresh off “West Side Story,” these songs have stood the test of time.
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” brings the house down at the end of Act I. And Leavel still had plenty left in her tank for Act 2.
After Rose has cajoled and bullied her way through nearly two acts, we are ready for Momma to confront her demons in the showstopper “Rose’s Turn.”
In this emotional wallop, Leavel gave it everything she had, defiantly going through a litany of anger, frustration and regrets for Rose to finally realize she did it for herself. And to herself.
It’s one of the greatest scenes ever, and Leavel hits it over the free-seats fence. Afterwards, we had to let it sink in, like she did in catharsis, and then wave after wave of applause stopped the show until the very long ovation waned.
That shared experience is what we all hope for when watching live theater, and she earned it, seizing her moment, fearless and alone on that stage.
While the show is bleak – and I’ve seen productions that were darker – there is still a glimmer of hope: that mothers and daughters can reconcile, that brighter days are ahead, and that all the work that goes into a goal was worth it.
This “Gypsy” doesn’t sugar-coat show business or struggles, and instead tells us about real-and-flawed people trying to get by and get noticed. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling and features a cast that makes you feel everything they experience.
“Gypsy” was clearly ahead of its time, back in 1959. And this week it was time for the Muny to hit repeat in a brand new way for this Centennial Season.
“Gypsy” is presented July 27 through Aug. 2 at 8:15 p.m. nightly at The Muny’s outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org or call MetroTix at 314- 534-1111.

Photos by Phillip  Hamer

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) has announced two of the three shows for its 2018-2019 Studio Theatre season: Admissions(October 24 – November 11, 2018), the 2018 Drama Desk Award winner for Outstanding Play, and the world premiere of Nonsense and Beauty (March 6 – 24, 2019).
Admissions, by Joshua Harmon and directed by The Rep’s Augustin Family Artistic Director Steven Woolf, opens the season. Prep school admissions director Sherri Rosen-Mason lives according to staunchly progressive values. Her daily battles include diversifying both the school’s student body and the photos in its brochures. But when her teenage son claims that those same values have denied him opportunities as a white student, it creates an explosive conflict that exposes their family’s hypocrisies and privileges. This biting play’s acidic humor goes straight for the throat.
The Studio Theatre series will conclude withNonsense and Beauty, by Scott C. Sickles and directed by The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon. In 1930, the writer E.M. Forster met and fell in love with a policeman 23 years his junior. Their relationship, very risky for its time, evolved into a 40-year love triangle that was both turbulent and unique. Based on a true story, Nonsense and Beauty captures the wit and wisdom of one of the last century’s great writers. This world premiere, developed as part of The Rep’s 2018 Ignite! Festival of New Plays, explores the power of love and forgiveness.
Details for the Studio Theatre production that will run January 16 – February 3, 2019 are currently being finalized, and a title will be announced soon.
The Rep’s 2018-2019 Studio Theatre season is sponsored by The Fischer Family.
Season ticket packages for the Studio season are on sale now. By purchasing season tickets, subscribers can save substantially over the cost of purchasing individual show tickets and enjoy exclusive benefits. Studio Theatresubscription packages range from $111-$172 for all three shows.
Studio Theatre single tickets will go on sale Tuesday, September 4.
For more information about The Rep’s 2018-2019 season or to purchase subscriptions, visit repstl.org, call The Rep Box Office at 314-968-4925 or drop by the box office in person at the Loretto-Hilton Center for Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road (on the campus of Webster University), Webster Groves.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Mamma Mia!” – take me away! Stages St. Louis’ high-spirited production is a ticket to pure escapism, a refreshing summer confection that’s a welcome respite from real-world troubles.
What makes this version of the jukebox musical irresistible is the intimate staging at the Robert G. Reim Theatre and an exuberant ensemble whose joy is infectious. Under Michael Hamilton’s animated direction, they are having such a blast that it’s easy to be drawn into their merrymaking. The joint was jumping!
Don’t think too hard about the story’s timeline or do any math about the ages – for this fantasy is critic-proof and one must suspend belief. For supreme enjoyment, be on board for mindless fun when you take your seat, and if you are not singing, dancing or clapping in time during the festive curtain call, check your pulse.
The 1999 smash hit, now the ninth longest-running Broadway musical of all-time, cleverly weaves 1970s hit songs by Swedish pop group ABBA into a lightweight romantic comedy about a former singer and her soon-to-be-married daughter. It may be far-fetched, but it works – hence, the global phenomenon.
Sophie, 20, is obsessed with the looming question of who’s her father, so she invites the maybe-dads Australian adventurer Bill, stuffed-shirt British banker Harry and divorced American architect Sam. They all show up. At the same time.

Donna Sheridan’s bandmates Tanya and Rosie, aka The Dynamos, also arrive at her Greek island taverna. This reunion combo leads to a splendid “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trooper,” and a sweet “Chiquitita,” with all three strong-voiced actresses Corinne Melancon (Donna), Dan’yelle Williamson (Rosie) and Dana Winkle (Tanya) in robust harmony.
Book writer Catherine Johnson has injected plenty of light-hearted humor into what ultimately is a heartwarming celebration of family, friends and women empowerment, all played out on a tiny slice of paradise.
In a fresh and dynamic way, the creative team has emphasized the everlasting charm that makes the show so popular, and the ensemble projects a carefree day-at-the-beach mentality. Stages’ has concentrated on the characters’ feelings, which aids the believability of their connections.
Tony Gonzalez’ buoyant choreography is a highlight, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” featuring a unique tap-dance in snorkeling fins that prompted hearty applause.
He maintained the effusive party atmosphere in “Voulez-Vous” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” where the chorus shines.
The technical elements came together in such a pleasurable way that it truly enhanced the experience.
Ah, the sun-drenched days and starry nights are beautifully captured by Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design, with James Wolk’s scenic design adding a moon that moves. The taverna’s balcony is a smart addition for a stressed-out Donna and wistful musical numbers.
Resident costume designer Brad Musgrove’s penchant for glitz gets a workout here, and the colorful eye-candy costumes pop. He outdoes fashion designer Bob Mackie for the razzle-dazzle finale, and noteworthy are the ensemble’s bright and flamboyant wedding attire. With the show set in 1999, I don’t think the outfits entirely reflected that period, but rather spotlighted a spirit of adventure.

The entire cast must be an integral component for this story to succeed, and this group is one of the finest I’ve seen. Music director Lisa Campbell Albert kept up a kicky pace for the singers, and oh, is it a tight chorus, not to mention the consummate professionalism of the principals. Stuart M. Elmore’s orchestral designs are on point.
I was surprised to find out that some patrons had never seen it before – and their joy of discovery was palpable. Fortunately, they experienced an outstanding show as their first time.
Corinne Melancon has become a versatile leading lady at Stages, capable of genuine conviction. She is an experienced Donna – she played the role as part of the 11 years she spent in the Broadway cast, and was also the other two Dynamos. She appeared to really love portraying this woman.
With all that experience, she could have coasted, but is fully engaged as a woman wrestling with a lot of pent-up feelings and frustrations. She brings a gravitas to the single mom who is a struggling businesswoman too.
She excels in a well-staged “Money, Money, Money” and the title song, but knocks “The Winner Takes It All” out of the auditorium.
In a superb “S.O.S.,” she beautifully blends with Gregg Goodbrod’s Sam, the love-of-her-life she scorned in 1979. Goodbrod is a strong Sam in acting and his solo “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Nice to see him back in St. Louis after playing J.J. in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” last summer at The Muny.
As the sultry Tanya, statuesque Dana Winkle, who was recently in the national tour of the elegant “An American in Paris,” shows off her slick dance moves in a cheeky “Does Your Mother Know.”
In a departure from the character’s typically frumpy appearance, sassy Rosie is portrayed by striking Dan’yelle Williamson, memorable as Dolores in “Sister Act” two summers ago. She’s convincing as a fierce determined woman and playful in “Take a Chance of Me.”
But Summerisa Bell Stevens as wide-eyed innocent Sophie just might be this show’s secret weapon. She’s one of the best Sophies I have ever seen – a total package who projects an innate sunniness and intelligence. So terrific as Doralee in last year’s “9 to 5,” she practically glows in “I Have a Dream,” “Honey, Honey,” and “Thank You for the Music.”
At first, David Sajewich seemed too old as Sky, but he and Stevens had so much chemistry, that it didn’t distract.
Reliable veterans Steve Isom and David Schmittou play Bill and Harry with their customary skill and crisp comic timing. They both nail their accents – Australian for Isom and British for Schmittou — and are admirably steady throughout, good sports in the dancing numbers.
The ensemble was noteworthy in the effective blacklight dream sequence “Under Attack,” which was thankfully not as silly as usual.
Of course, everyone does their part to raise the roof in the pull-out-all-the-stops finale, and when they come to “Waterloo,” no one wants this party to end.
I’m an unabashed fan of this musical – and it was my eighth time during the past 15 years. I compare it to the warm nostalgia of a “Gidget” movie from my youth. And yes, I cheerfully sang every word to “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia!” at the curtain call – the audience is encouraged to do so (and I warned my neighbors to the right and left).
While it doesn’t matter if you have seen either the first or second movie, after viewing the just-released prequel-sequel, I did like that it shed more light on the backstory and motivations, so I thought of those things while watching this original show that sparked it all.
“Mamma Mia!” has sincere sentiment and its whole lotta fun vibe uplifted everyone. This production is one I’m not going to forget.
Stages St. Louis presents “Mamma Mia!” from July 20 through Aug. 19 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Ave. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 314-821-2407 or visit: www.stagesstlouis.org. At least 18 shows are sold-out.Photos by Peter Wochniak

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) has announced two of the three shows for its 2018-2019 Studio Theatre season: Admissions(October 24 – November 11, 2018), the 2018 Drama Desk Award winner for Outstanding Play, and the world premiere of Nonsense and Beauty (March 6 – 24, 2019).
Admissions, by Joshua Harmon and directed by The Rep’s Augustin Family Artistic Director Steven Woolf, opens the season. Prep school admissions director Sherri Rosen-Mason lives according to staunchly progressive values. Her daily battles include diversifying both the school’s student body and the photos in its brochures. But when her teenage son claims that those same values have denied him opportunities as a white student, it creates an explosive conflict that exposes their family’s hypocrisies and privileges. This biting play’s acidic humor goes straight for the throat.
The Studio Theatre series will conclude withNonsense and Beauty, by Scott C. Sickles and directed by The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director Seth Gordon. In 1930, the writer E.M. Forster met and fell in love with a policeman 23 years his junior. Their relationship, very risky for its time, evolved into a 40-year love triangle that was both turbulent and unique. Based on a true story, Nonsense and Beauty captures the wit and wisdom of one of the last century’s great writers. This world premiere, developed as part of The Rep’s 2018 Ignite! Festival of New Plays, explores the power of love and forgiveness.
Details for the Studio Theatre production that will run January 16 – February 3, 2019 are currently being finalized, and a title will be announced soon.
The Rep’s 2018-2019 Studio Theatre season is sponsored by The Fischer Family.
Season ticket packages for the Studio season are on sale now. By purchasing season tickets, subscribers can save substantially over the cost of purchasing individual show tickets and enjoy exclusive benefits. Studio Theatresubscription packages range from $111-$172 for all three shows.
Studio Theatre single tickets will go on sale Tuesday, September 4.
For more information about The Rep’s 2018-2019 season or to purchase subscriptions, visit repstl.org, call The Rep Box Office at 314-968-4925 or drop by the box office in person at the Loretto-Hilton Center for Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road (on the campus of Webster University), Webster Groves.