By Lynn Venhaus
How do you define J-O-C-U-L-A-R-I-T-Y? The literal translation is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Stray Dog Theatre.

A splendid summer sojourn, the jaunty musical comedy celebrates American traditions and meritocracy, our inherent competitive spirt, and freak-flag waving.

At a nondescript middle school, a sextet of smarty-pants sixth graders competes for a $200 savings bond and a towering trophy at the annual big-deal event. Three adults handle the proceedings, and four audience members are selected to participate, too.

And the blithe spirits on stage and in the audience instinctually know this is far more pleasurable than Mensa members getting together for Scrabble, especially with its clever audience-participation cachet.

However, those who didn’t make the honor roll need not worry, for SAT scores aren’t required at the door, and it’s a very accessible and inclusive work. The catchy music and savvy lyrics by William Finn (“Falsettos,” “A New Brain”) and the whip-smart Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin offer something for everyone.

In this enjoyable production, adroitly directed by Justin Been, the dexterous cast has mastered the nimble word play and spit-take worthy improvisations for a rollicking good time. They got game.

The in-sync ensemble expertly colors outside the lines, shading their idiosyncratic characters with humor and humanity. Unlike “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” where grown-ups also play kids, this is a show with mature content.

Kevin Corpuz is returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, a strident Boy Scout who is struggling with puberty and distracted by a female in audience; Grace Langford is resolute newcomer Olive Ostrosky, whose mom is in India and dad is always working; and Sara Rae Womack is fervid Marcy Park, an over-achieving transfer student.

Clayton Humburg is mellow Leaf Coneybear, home-schooled son of hippies; Dawn Schmid is high-strung Logainne “Schwartzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre, politically aware and pushed by her two dads to win at all costs; and Kevin O’Brien is last year’s egghead finalist William Morris Barfee, whose name is really pronounced Bar-Fay, because of an accent aigu, and not Bar-Fee, like the announcer repeats.

Photo by John Lamb

While everyone’s comic timing is admirable, O’Brien elicits many laughs as he embodies a know-it-all misfit unfortunately hampered by one working nostril. Hunching his shoulders, rolling his eyes, and sighing in exasperation, O’Brien is in his element. He has the most peculiar way of spelling out the words – with his “Magic Foot.”

Barfee is one of those supporting roles that is an awards nomination magnet, like Adolfo in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the UPS guy in “Legally Blonde – The Musical.” Dan Fogler, now of “Fantastic Beasts” who recently played Francis Ford Coppola in “The Offer,” won a Tony Award for originating the role.

The middle-school spellers are joined by four individuals that have volunteered for the gig – signing up in the lobby beforehand.  Good sports, they are called on to spell, without any special treatment, which is a key element to the fun. They might have to spell Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or cow.

The three adults in the room include ‘comfort counselor’ Mitch Mahoney (Chris Kernan), an ex-con who gives the eliminated contestants a juice box and a hug; former champ and returning moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Merritt), a successful realtor who enjoys reliving her glory days; and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jason Meyers), who has returned as a judge after personal time off to work out some ‘things.’

Their perspicacity is evident – and the three veterans are oh-so-smooth with the innuendos and deadpan humor. Merritt is guileful as the supremely assured and unflappable announcer – think Patty Simcox from “Grease” as an adult.

She glibly describes the contestants with seemingly innocent comments and a few double-entendres. You don’t want to miss a word, for you might do a double-take (Wait – what?).

Hilarity ensues whenever the puckish Meyers wryly uses a word in a sentence or describes his feelings. He elevates the script’s wit (those inappropriate comments!) with his crackerjack delivery. Just don’t get him started on Klondike’s decision to drop the Choco Taco! He’s a tad jittery.

Photo by John Lamb

Several performers double as ancillary characters, such as parents – for instance, Kernan and Humburg are Logainne’s importunate fathers. Corpuz shows up as Jesus Christ. (You’ll just have to see).

The convivial show, workshopped into an off-Broadway hit, transferred to Broadway in 2005 – and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two. It was originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman and based upon “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” a play by her improv collective, The Farm. Additional material was supplied by Jay Reiss.

The ingenious construction has managed to keep it fresh 17 years later by relying on the actors to be on the ball with au courant references.

Been astutely uses the state of play as an advantage, maintaining a balance of friskiness and sweetness that makes sure everyone is in on the jokes. No mean-spirited sarcasm here.

The cast’s exemplary improv skills make this a very funny, free-wheeling show. But let’s not forget the music is an integral part, too, and each character nails a signature song. Besides Barfee’s “Magic Foot,” there is — Leaf: “I’m Not That Smart.” Olive: “My Friend, The Dictionary.” Marcy: “I Speak Six Languages.” Logainne: “Woe Is Me.” Chip: “Chip’s Lament.”

Rona’s “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” is a running theme throughout, Mitch serenades the last audience speller with “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” and Panch is in “Spelling Montage.”

The troupe’s strong voices harmonize well in the group numbers, too.

Photo by John Lamb

Music Director Leah Schultz smoothly keeps the tempo on track, and is on piano, joined by Kelly Austermann on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion. Choreographer Mike Hodges keeps the moves light-hearted and breezy.

Jacob Baxley’s sound design enhances Rona’s championship spotlight, as does Tyler Duenow’s lighting design.

Eileen Engel’s costume designs distinctly outfit the personalities – and allow them to move easily, whether in the minimal dancing or walking through the aisles.

The Tower Grove Abbey’s small stage is well-suited for the show’s sparse set design, put together by Been.

For logophiles, the principal contestants are relatable. — perhaps a bit more eccentric, but these quirky characters have all learned an early invaluable life lesson: Knowledge is power.

My fellow nerds will feel at one with their tribe. For we know that summer vacation fun isn’t defined by theme park rides, water slides, and sports camps, but by summer reading lists – whether it’s for a library club, school enrichment class or a free personal pan pizza in the Pizza Hut Book It! Program.

It’s still the only musical where the cool kids are here for the orthography. Revenge of the nerds, indeed. So, Wordle can wait – and this show cannot, for there are 8 performances remaining.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Thursdays through Saturdays from Aug. 4 to Aug. 20 at 8 p.m., with additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue in Tower Grove East. For more information, visit www.straydogtheatre.org

Note: Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four.

Photo by John Lamb.

By Lynn Venhaus

Hold on to your pearls, for “Triassic Parq: The Musical” is a raunchy romp of an offbeat musical comedy.

A parody of the film and novel “Jurassic Park,” the blockbuster 1993 science-fiction action thriller by Steven Spielberg adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1990 bestseller, this is flipped for the dinosaurs’ point of view.

Talk about a chaos theory. Bedlam ensues when one of the genetically engineered female dinosaurs turns male – spontaneously. It’s not nice when you fool Mother Nature – but it sure is naughty.

Goofy and gutsy as can be, the Stray Dog production features a winning cast that gives it their all, in belting out power ballads and selling daffy up-tempo numbers, with light-hearted choreography by Mike Hodges. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast work so hard with material that’s this absurd and thin.

Tristan Davis is the Velociraptor of Innocence, all swaggering rocker in “Get Out,’ while Michael Wells is the evangelist-like Velociraptor of Faith, reveling in the campiness of “Morning Assembly” and “Hello, Little Goat” – exhibiting strong, soaring vocals after not being on the stage since “Guys and Dolls” in the Before Times.

Laurell Stephenson is spirited in dual roles — as the skeptical Velociraptor of Science and then having fun interacting with the audience as a character named Morgan Freeman – that was actually played by the deep-voiced Oscar winner once upon a time. He/she disappears quickly after a hilarious set-up.

The fearless pair of punk rocker grrrls stand out as the Tyrannosaurus Rexes – a frisky Dawn Schmid as T-Rex 1/Kaitlyn and ballsy Rachel Bailey as the dial-it-to-11 confused T-Rex 2. They unleash their attraction in “Love Me As a Friend.”

The spunky ensemble accepts the wild-ride aspect and overcomes what the silly show lacks in sustainability.

This playful cast of six starts out with high energy in “Welcome to Triassic Parq” – and continues full-throttle to win over the eager crowd in 14 songs while dishing out a lot of sexual innuendo. It would seem like zany schoolkids’ antics were it not for the quality of the vocals – like a John Mulaney Broadway musical parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

Photos by John Lamb

But this is an actual musical that played off-Broadway in 2012 after winning best overall musical production at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. The music and lyrics are by Marshall Pailet, with co-lyricists Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo, and all three combined on the book.

Songs include lyrics about penises for shock value – “Dick Fix,” riffing on John Williams’ symphonic score “We Are Dinosaurs,” and outlandish “Mama.”

The band is led by Pianosaurus Leah Schultz (and music director0, with Adam Rugo the Guitaratops and Joe Winters the Drumadon.

Director Justin Been goes for the gusto, keeping things zippy and nonsensical, aiming to achieve a real crowd-pleaser, especially for a generation who grew up with the “Jurassic Park” movie trilogy and returned for the franchise offshoot “Jurassic World.”

The original won three tech Academy Awards, while the two even more preposterous sequels in 1997 and 2001 stretched the boundaries of logic, even for sci-fi/fantasy. A reboot called “Jurassic World” in 2015 was followed by a sequel in 2018, with the latest, “Dominion,” set to open June 10.

But in the one-act musical, performed without an intermission, you do not need that much familiarity with the 30-year-old source material, for the emphasis is on spoofing religion, sex, and identity. The prehistoric setting is purely for laughs.

Eileen Engel designed functional costumes with a touch of whimsy to convey the gender-bending.

Scenic designer Josh Smith worked magic in his scaled-down version of the Isla Nublar theme park on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, stunning without benefit of computer-generated imagery or visual effects.

The technical efforts add considerably to the overall presentation, including lighting by Tyler Duenow and outstanding sound work.

Stray Dog has always had a penchant for producing quirky plays –such as the “Evil Dead” musical, Charles Busch’s “Psycho Beach Party,” and “Red Scare on Sunset,” as a different direction between more serious explorations. So the strange, slight “Triassic Parq” is well-suited to be in between “Good People” and “The Normal Heart” this 2022 season.

Whether or not you are fascinated by dinosaurs is immaterial. This is not meant to be anything more than saucy merriment, so lower expectations and accept the vulgarity (or not – this is intended for “mature” adult audiences, as in rated R).

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Triassic Parq: The Musical” from April 15 through 30, with performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. For more information or tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

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