By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
The dogs have their day in an inspired young audience production of Disney’s
beloved “101 Dalmatians” at Stages St. Louis.

This 40-minute condensed version sparkles in every aspect,
from the cut-to-the-chase story, merry melodies, precious puppies and cheerful
cast, who enlist the audience to help them solve the clever caper. You can’t
get much higher on the Cute Meter.

Ever since Walt Disney snapped up Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel
and turned it into an adorable animated feature released in 1961, which became
the highest-grossing film that year, we’ve been smitten with spots. Author Smith
used her own dog’s 15-pup litter as the basis for a family-friendly heist tale,
then Disney’s animators visually amped up one of the all-time great cartoon
villains, Cruella de Vil. She’s just as memorable in this live-action edition.

Photo by Peter WochniakIn a two-tone hair wig, Tyler Jent plays up the exaggerated
mannerisms of Cruella as she tries to buy the puppies, but owners Roger and
Anita turn her down. Little do they realize that she wants their pelts for an
elaborate fur coat and has collected 86 other Dalmatians.
Cruella hatches a diabolical plot to steal the pups by using their favorite
treat, Kanine Krunchies, to lure them away. With his comically expressive face accented
with bold makeup, Jent is deliciously dastardly in musical numbers “Cruella’s
Scheme,” “The Fur Vault” and “My Beautiful Coat.”

She is accompanied by bumbling henchmen Jasper (Ryan Cooper)
and Horace (Joshua Roach), who are goofy sight gags on their own. They demonstrate
their slapstick skills as they botch the job and succumb to defeat after “The
Chase.”

Photo by Peter WochniakThe dog network helps– as does a few other furry critters –
using the “Twilight Bark.” With the help of the savvy “Dogs of London – Boxers
(Carson Davis, Caden Michael Self), Poodles (Trenay Labelle, Anna Wright),
Scotties and Chihuahuas (Laura Ernst and Mitchell Holsclaw) — they nab the
burglars, returning the pups to Roger and Anita, and their parents Pongo and Perdita.

Light-hearted Eric Michael Parker and Larissa White are lovely
as the couple while Drew Humphrey and Dena DiGiacinto are lively as the proud
parental pooches.

Immensely likeable pairs, they lead the upbeat group
numbers, with peppy music direction by Tali Allen. That catchy “Cruella de Vil”
will again be stuck in your head. Their fine voices blend in sweet harmony and
captivate the audience, young and old, as they encourage interaction.

Laura Ernst plays the kind Nanny besides donning doggie
costumes, with Jacob Flekier as Sergeant Tibbs and Mitchell Holsclaw doubles as
a police officer.

In addition to professional actors, twelve students from
Stages Performing Arts Academy are included in the cast as puppies. Among the
house brood are Thomas Woodrow as Pepper, Luke Swaller as Patch, Hallie Fisher
as Penny, Aaron (AJ) Bentley as Spot and Sophie Gorgen as Dot, with Arden
Dickson and Dan Wolfe.

Director Peggy Taphorn has kept the show breezy and choreographed
the dances to be appealing and fun, starting out with a “Dalmatian Conga” and
wrapping it up with “Dalmatian Plantation” before the finale.

With the same attention to detail that they put into the
mainstage productions, Stages’ crackerjack creative team has crafted a charming
and delightful show suitable for youngsters and just as enjoyable for the
adults who accompany them.

Visually, scenic designer James Wolk has drawn warm and
whimsical rooms in a storybook way, and the smaller set neatly fits inside the current
mainstage show, with “The Boy from Oz” light grid framing the stage. Sean M.
Savoie’s lighting design takes advantage of the bright color scheme.

Snazzy outfits were designed with flair by resident costume designer Brad Musgrove, and every familiar character is immediately identifiable. With his penchant for glittery over-the-top garments, he has a ball with Cruella’s flamboyant ruby-and-fur (fake) diva attire.

Each puppy, covered in black-and-white print, is distinct to bring out their personality, whether it’s a hat or a piece of their ensemble that helps them stand out. A bow tie! A propeller cap! Those darling little tails!

This short-and-sweet affair is a jolly good time in old
London town, and you’ll be enchanted with puppy power – and the expert human
performers who bring this entertaining musical to merry life.

Photo by Peter WochniakStages St. Louis presents Disney’s “101
Dalmatians”as the Emerson Family Theatre Series from June 18 to June 30 at the
Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood. For showtimes, tickets or more information,
visit www.StagesStLouis.org.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
As comforting as a cup of cocoa, “A Christmas Story” is bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia, evoking warm and amusing childhood memories of Christmases past.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is staging a merry and bright new version of the play by Philip Grecian, which is based on the 1983 perennial holiday film favorite. The film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, co-wrote the screenplay with director Bob Clark and Leigh Brown, and for the past 45 years, has struck a multi-generational chord with folks happy to remember what it was like to be a kid at Christmas.
A popular American humorist, Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, in the 1920s – 30s, and the Parker Family’s story was shaped from his 1966 semi-autobiographical anecdotal book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”
A storyteller, writer, radio host and actor, Shepherd was known for his astute observations on ordinary life. The Rep’s sentimental production capitalizes on the shared connections we have about our families, our neighborhoods, school days and the moments that shape our lives.

Charlie Mathis and Ted Deasy in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Who doesn’t remember yearning for a gift one year that you were ecstatic to get above all others? We could relate to 9-year-old Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, and how exasperating his traditional nuclear family was to him.
No matter how familiar you are with this story, the resonating moments remain as plentiful as the first few times you saw the film. The movie went nowhere in 1983 – and I was one of those rare viewers who saw it then at the cinema – but it didn’t catch fire until its VHS release, then cable television elevated it to exalted classic status.
The memorable highlights received hearty reactions on stage – the pink bunny pajamas, the frozen tongue on the flagpole, the department store Santa visit, the roasted turkey for the Christmas feast and the prize “leg” lamp.
We expect to laugh. You’re smiling right now reading this, aren’t you?
And the cast solidly immerses us into that corner of small-town America. Yet, even though the story is beloved, The Rep doesn’t take your interest for granted – director Seth Gordon earns it. After all, he knows this material well – he helped Grecian develop the play between 2005 and 2010, with the playwright sharpening the characters and tightening the story. He has directed the show six times (but not the one first here in 2009), and still has a twinkle in his eye.
The jolly ensemble fully creates a believable working-class Midwestern family and townsfolk, crisply delivering this well-worn memory piece with an enthusiastic freshness.
The narrator is now the adult Ralphie, and Ted Deasy, who was a cynical lawyer in last spring’s “Born Yesterday,” is bursting with excitement to share the vivid details of his boyhood. It’s through his wide eyes we see these daffy misadventures, as he glides through their modest home.
Jerry Naunheim Jr. PhotoLaurel Casillo brings some spunk and cheeriness as Mother and Brad Fraizer is funny as the grumpy Old Man, full of bark and bluster but really a softie. They are affectionate portraits with roots in reality.
Endearing Charlie Mathis, quite memorable as Dill in last year’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is delightful as young Ralphie, getting in one jam after another, but also disappearing into a robust fantasy life, whether he’s confronting Black Bart or imagining he’s dead.
Mathis’ timing is impeccable, and he interacts nicely with his best buddies (Dan Wolfe as Flick, Rhadi Smith as Schwartz), his parents and goofy brother Randy (Spencer Slavik).
Tanner Gilbertson makes an impressive debut as the dreaded bully Scut Farkus, while Gigi Koster and Ana McAlister are sweet as the schoolgirls Helen and Esther Jane. Jo Twiss is the feared elementary teacher Miss Shields.
Gordon has worked very well with the youngsters, fluidly guiding them and creating room to play — not too sweet or artificial, not trying too hard, and without any nerves showing.
Their ease helps us stroll memory lane in the neighborhood. Scenic Designer Michael Ganio’s exquisitely detailed home uses an effective brown color palette for a typical two-story home, but when the department store is revealed, he has pulled out all the stops. It’s a shimmering winter wonderland, benefitting from Peter Sargent’s outstanding lighting design, and Rusty Wandall’s sound.
Costume Designer David Kay Mickelson has fashioned vintage outfits that accurately reflect the time and season. And oh, what fun to recall those layers of wool, knits and outdoorswear that every kid was forced to bundle up in back in the day.
Tapping into childlike wonder and celebrating cherished special-occasion memories is enjoyable. The Rep’s “A Christmas Story” allows us to pause and reflect on the magic of the season from a child’s perspective. It’s up to us to keep it in our hearts when the season’s long over.
“A Christmas Story” will be presented at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage from Nov. 30 to Dec. 22. Tickets are on sale at the www.repstl.org or by phone at 314-968-4925 or in-person at The Rep box office, which is located at 130 Edgar Road, on the campus of Webster University. For more information about the show, visit www.repstl.org/a-christmas-story
TUESDAY, NOV. 27, 2018 -This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.