Local actor-singer lands national tour, Tony-nominated local playwright ready for another Broadway go-round, managing editor Lynn Venhaus back on Broadway (the street) and reflects on Neil Simon, local fest in lieu of Lou Fest and more!
SOMETHING WONDERFUL: St. Louis’s own Mark Saunders has landed a plum role in a national tour of the Tony-nominated musical “Something Rotten!” He is playing Brother Jeremiah, the father of Portia, a Puritan girl who falls in love with the single Bottom brother, Nigel.
The new Work Light Productions’ non-Equity tour will launch Sept. 19 at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, Georgia, and he’ll be on the road until next June. The tour includes a one-day stop in March at the Stifel Theatre (formerly the Peabody).
This hilarious musical comedy tells the story of brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, two playwrights stuck in the shadow of that Renaissance rock-star William Shakespeare. When a soothsayer foretells the next big thing in theatre involves singing, dancing, and acting at the same time, the Bottom brothers set out to write the world’s very first musical.
“Something Rotten!” premiered on Broadway in 2015 and was nominated for nine Tony Awards, with Christian Borle winning for Best Featured Actor as Shakespeare.
So, how did this exciting opportunity happen? Mark, a St. Louis native and graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School, said he responded to an audition notice and asked for advice from a friend who had worked on the producing side of the original Broadway production.

“After chatting with him, and a lot of amazing people helping me out, I was able to get my materials (headshot, resume, website, etc.) to the casting agency and they called me in for an audition,” he said.
It was on his birthday, a Monday. He was called back that Thursday and found out the next day he was cast.
“It was even crazier because the day that I found out and flew home, I had to perform a piece by Rachmaninov in Russian with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. So, I landed around 3-ish and had to get my life together and be at Powell Hall for a concert at 7 p.m. It was a crazy nine days from the day that I got the initial email to the day that I found out that I booked the show,” he said.
Currently, he is rehearsing in NYC. During the past few weeks, he has been getting fittings done, and taking care of other logistics.
When he had a shoe fitting for a custom pair of boots at LaDuca, he described it as “an insanely happy moment.”
“You hear about all these kinds of moments, but when it’s actually you, it’s crazy!” he said. “I’m super excited that we’re going to play the Stifel Theatre in St. Louis on March 13, 2019! I can’t wait to share this amazing cast and show with my family and friends.”
Born and raised in Dogtown, Mark has worked different day jobs while pursuing performing opportunities. Recently, he was in Union Avenue Opera’s “Lost in the Stars” and can be seen in a Missouri Lottery commercial for The Voice VIP Promotion. He has been a paid singer with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for the past five years.
In addition to Mark, the cast features Matthew Baker as Shakespeare, Matthew Janisse as Nick Bottom, Greg Kalafatas as Nostradamus, Emily Kristen Morris as Bea, Jennifer Elizabeth Smith as Portia, and Richard Spitaletta as Nigel Bottom.
For more info or tickets, visit www.rottenbroadway.com
Bravo and Break a Leg!
***IN LIEU FESTIVAL: Sunday will still be a Fun Day, thanks to the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, who has come to the rescue of local bands without a venue now that the Lou Fest has been cancelled.
“The Sound of St. Louis Showcase,” a free musical festival will take place on two stages — at The Grandel Theatre and the Dark Room (in the Grandel) — from 2 to 10 p.m. Sept. 9 in the Grand Center Arts District.
In addition to the Kranzbergs, other sponsors include Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, Gaslight, the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, Express Scripts, and Red Bull are presenting this showcase of “some of the best talent in our vibrant music scene. Help us uplift and celebrate ‘The Sound of St. Louis.’ More local vendors may become involved.
The local line-up includes Ben Reece’s Unity Quartet, Bob DeBoo, The Burney Sisters, Dracla, Grace Basement, Jesse Gannon, Kasimu-tet, Kevin Bowers, Nova, The Knuckles, Mo Egeston, Owen Ragland, Ptah Williams Trio, The River Kittens, Scrub & Ace Ha and Tonina.
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GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Oh, what a beautiful day! You can win two free tickets to “Oklahoma!” at Stages St. Louis for either this Friday or Saturday.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration will open at Stages St. Louis Sept. 7 and will run through Oct. 7. When it debuted on Broadway 75 years ago, it changed the face of the American musical, and ran for more than five years.
Were you in a school production, in community theater or professional regional theater? It seems many people were. Who is your favorite among the iconic characters?
Such history! Those unforgettable classic songs “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No” and “Kansas City,” not to mention the title number, always stay with you.
You can see Stages’ fresh take on this historic musical by entering our Go See a Play Poll. Respond to our poll question on who your favorite iconic character is, along with your name and phone number, and send to: [email protected] by noon Friday, Sept. 7. We will draw a name, and you can choose either Friday or Saturday, Sept. 7 or 8, at 8 p.m. performance – two tickets. We’ll let you know and help arrange your selected evening with the fine folks at Stages St. Louis.
Who is your favorite character from “Oklahoma!”?
Ado Annie Carnes
Aunt Eller
Gertie Cummings
Jud Fry
Ali Hakim
Curly McClain
Will Parker
Laurey Williams
Peter Wochniak photo
***THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT: Every year, new theater troupes pop up in the metropolitan St. Louis area, but perhaps the biggest growth is with youth groups. The Debut Theatre started this year and all proceeds benefit Pedal the Cause, which funds cancer research. The youth-founded group will present its third Acting Against Cancer event with a performance of “Into the Woods” on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Chesterfield YMCA.
Debut Theatre Company was founded by youth to promote life-long learning and appreciation of the arts toward a more conscious and compassionate community. Its goal is to engage, inspire and entertain.
The mission statement includes: “We hope to make a difference for our artists, our audiences and those who benefit through our charitable cause. This youth centered company celebrates the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity.”
In the metro-east, St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church music director Stephen Eros and his wife, Jamie Marble Eros, music director at St. Clare School, organized a community theatre troupe to present “Godspell,” with 13 adults and teens in the cast, last month. A 25-member children’s chorus, which rehearsed through a week-long music camp at the church, joined the cast for two public performances.
***SIDE BY SIDE: Tony nominee Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill., is gearing up for another Broadway opening. He co-wrote the book with Bob Martin and lyrics for the musical “The Prom,” which begins previews Oct. 23, along with writing partner Matthew Sklar, who composed the music.
Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill. on 42nd Street near graphics of shows he’s both a part of on Broadway. Photo provided.He posted this recent picture in front of the Longacre Theatre at 220 W. 42nd Street, the new home of “The Prom,” while “Aladdin” is currently running next door, at the New Amsterdam Theatre. He wrote the book and new lyrics to the 2011 musical “Aladdin,” invited by Alan Menken to do so, and landed his third and fourth Tony nominations in the process. Fun to have two of your shows collide (his other major works include “The Wedding Singer” – Tony nominations for book and lyrics — and “Elf”). The duo’s website is: www.sklarandbeguelin.com
“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight
Beth Leavel and Adam HellerBest wishes to Muny favorite Beth Leavel and her leading man, Adam Heller, on their recent engagement. They played Rose and Herbie in The Muny production of “Gypsy” this summer, and she is preparing to star in The Prom.” They are shown here attending the 2015 premiere of “It Shoulda Been You.”
Those aren’t the only local connections. “The Prom” producers include Jack Lane, Terry Schnuck and Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, all of St. Louis.
Talk about timing! New Line Theatre will produce “Be More Chill” in May, and the musical sensation is moving to Broadway in March.
Attagirls to the MVPs of SATE, who dealt with an audience medical emergency during the final performance of “No Exit” at The Chapel Sept. 1. Kudos to Kristen Strom, stage manager; Bess Moynihan, director; and Ellie Schwetye, producer for the cool and calm efforts.
(And another round of applause for the cast – Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino, Sarah Morris and Katy Keating — for their professionalism).
***,
WORD: “I can’t take his genius anymore.” – Rita Hayworth, on divorcing Orson Welles.
On Sept. 7, 1943, Welles whisked Hayworth away from the set of “Cover Girl” and they were married at the Santa Monica City Hall. She was 25, he was 28. Their marriage would last less than four years; they had one daughter, Rebecca.
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BROADWAY BOUND:  During a recent trip to NYC to visit my youngest son, I was fortunate to see “Straight White Men” starring Armie Hammer, Josh Charles, Paul Schneider and Stephen Payne, with introduction and some supporting work from Kate Bournstein and Ty Dafoe, at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre. It is a 10-week limited run ending Sept. 9.
Charlie and Lynn Venhaus at Helen Hayes Theatre, Aug. 26.Written by Young Jean Lee, she is the first Asian-American female playwright to be produced on Broadway. She provided laughter and poignancy, striking a chord about family interactions when you are grown-ups.
The Helen Hayes Theatre is the smallest on Broadway, at 597 seats, and recently renovated to become Second Stage’s new home.
It starts out on Christmas Eve with a widowed dad and his three grown sons — two who live out of town. With its Christmas setting, the play about family dynamics and the responsibilities that come with education and privilege lends itself to the intimate atmosphere. It’s 90 minutes, no intermission.
All the actors were good – convincing as a real family – but Paul Schneider is the one I’d for sure single out for awards. I hope it’s considered for multiple Tony Award nominations.
So many people connected with this show were Steppenwolf Theatre veterans and involved in the “This Is Our Youth” revival that both sons and I saw at the Cort Theatre in November 2014, notably director Anna D. Shapiro and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal. They also launched Tracey Letts’ “August: Osage County.”
No wonder this was so tip-top. I can see local theater groups wanting to produce it, and there is plenty of local talent to fill those roles. I suspect I will see it again. This play will likely have a good run with groups across the country.
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Barbra Streisand sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade”TRIVIA TIME-OUT:  Fifty years ago, the movie adaptation of “Funny Girl” premiered on Sept. 8, 1968, earning Barbra Streisand her first Oscar for her first movie role. However, she had originated the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway.
The Academy Award was the first and only tie for Best Actress. Who did she share the award with?
What was Streisand’s second Oscar for?
In 1964, Streisand lost the Tony Award for her performance in “Funny Girl” to what actress?
Answers:
Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter”
Best Song: “Evergreen” from “A Star is Born”
Carol Channing for “Hello, Dolly!”
TRIBUTE: He was one of my first theater idols and continued to be a favorite, decades later. I discovered Neil Simon in high school, used “The Star-Spangled Girl” for speech competition (comedy interp) senior year, was in his plays “Fools” (Lenya) and “Plaza Suite” (Karen) in community theatre, and made it a point to see pretty much all his shows.
He influenced me in the way he wrote such distinct characters with specific snippets of dialogue to give you hilarious insights into their personalities. He had such an impact on modern comedy!
On Aug. 26, the day Neil Simon died, at age 91, I happened to be in New York City and was planning a Broadway afternoon. So I went by the Neil Simon Theatre to pay my respects and see any tributes.
The playwright had written over 30 plays and movie scripts, mostly adaptations of his own works, but a few originals (“The Out-of-Towners” and “The Goodbye Girl.”)
We headed to the Neil Simon Theatre on W. 52nd in the twilight — as all the marquees began to light up the night, I knew the sign would be dark as a tribute to the legendary funny man. A small memorial had started.
His influence on comedy writers was significant. I read “The Odd Couple” when I was 15 and had never laughed so hard. That was around the time I saw the 1967 movie “Barefoot in the Park” with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who had played Paul on Broadway. Then I saw “Promises, Promises” with Jerry Orbach at the Muny in 1970, and I marveled at genius. That man was a quip machine!
I realized that reading/seeing Simon’s plays had given me a yearning to see NYC (along with early Woody Allen movies). It was his town, his people. He taught us Midwesterners all about the Big Apple.
Now it was back to my son Charlie’s apartment in Brooklyn, where once upon a time I envisioned Eugene being scolded by his Mom Blanche as he envisioned himself pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. (“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is one of the few Simon works that makes me cry).
Thank you, Mr. Simon, for making us laugh and recognize ourselves along the way.
Lynn Venhaus as Lenya in Monroe Actors Stage Company’s “Fools” in November 2009.What are your favorites? Please add your comments.
“Fools” was the funniest play I ever was in, and it was my final performance in community theater.

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