By Lynn Venhaus
For those craving the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen, “Black Widow” boldly arrives as a much-anticipated summer blockbuster event, checking off the usual boxes.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), aka Natasha Romanoff, is a former Russian spy, now Avenger. In this stand-alone feature from the Marvel Universe, her complicated past and an unusual family dynamic collide in a globe-trotting mission pursuing a powerful KGB mind-controlling villain.

It’s the latest movie since the “Avengers: Endgame” finale in April 2019, although MCU has been busy delivering content on streaming services for the home screen that is far more original.

On the surface, this prequel-origin story has the appeal of women getting the job done instead of the plethora of standard-issue alpha males– they hold their own as intense fighting machines, using their brains along with their brawn.  

Frequently outfitted in a snazzy black leather cat suit, the lithe Scarlett Johansson carries the day as lethal weapon Natasha, trying to vanquish all connections to the nefarious Red Room program. She trusts no one and can’t shake off nightmarish memories that she can only recall in fragments.

The MCU movies have always alluded to Natasha’s tormented years as an assassin who broke free. She thought she exacted revenge, but not so fast. There is an armor-clad “Terminator” figure hot in pursuit.

These overlong conflicts in what seems to be one endless chase scene after another are forgettable. How many cars can crash on narrow city streets? With such a flimsy outline, the story by Jack Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and screenplay by Eric Pearson, evaporates like the cool air when you exit into the summer heat. Pearson gave us “Godzilla vs. Kong” earlier this year.

Coloring within a red-and-black palette, Australian indie director Cate Shortland spotlights females triumphing but is hampered by a convoluted conspiracy plot that forces the women to take on their tormenter.

Using a Big Bad Wolf persona, Winstone, last seen in “Cats,” shows just how evil he can be exerting mind-control over countless young women, training them to be operatives/slaves for Mother Russia. But ta-da, Yelena (Florence Pugh), no slouch in the fierce department, gets her hands on a serum that will stop this madness.

Now it’s time for musical vials! (It really doesn’t get much better, or easier to understand).

Nevertheless, the high-octane opening is fun. The film flashes back to Ohio in 1995, where Natasha and her sister are getting ready for dinner when their father comes home from work and tells his family they must leave.

Turns out the parents, Aleksei (David Harbour) and scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies posing as an American family, and federal agents are after them. As they race to an air strip, their lives are increasingly in danger. Once in Cuba, the girls are separated and drugged, and thus begins Natasha’s transformation into a brainwashed super-spy.

This lively exchange is a well-choreographed thrill ride that won’t be matched again for the remainder of the film’s 2-hour, 13-minute runtime.

 “Black Widow” concentrates on her family, as tangled as it is, which gives big-energy Pugh another interesting turn as her kid ‘sister’ Yelena and versatile Harbour as the comical oaf ‘father,’ who once upon a time was a superhero named Red Guardian. Here, the girls reunite with dear old dad by breaking him out of a Siberian prison.

Pugh and Johansson project a sibling-like relationship, exchange snappy repartee and bicker like sisters who have long-standing grudges.

Apparently, the family pops up again because of unfinished business. The inspired casting propels this film to be better – although Weisz’s character is undeveloped.

This is Johansson’s eighth time portraying the strong-willed and smart character, who now crusades for justice along with her save-the-world Avenger buddies. Only it’s a bit thorny in that boy’s club during this time frame because the ‘enhanced human’ Avengers are regulated by a government oversight panel (the Sokovia Accords).

This time-out period takes place somewhere between “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), which is why Natasha was attempting to hide away from Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), secretary of state.

Johansson, in between Oscar-nominated roles and prestige films, first showed up as Natalie Rushman in “Iron Man 2” in 2010 and gained favor in storylines until – spoiler alert — her sacrificial demise in “Avengers: Endgame.”

In the comic books, Stan Lee introduced the character in 1964, during the Cold War. While conceived as a femme fatale at first, her look and mission have evolved over the years.

While Natasha continues to be guarded, Johansson helps fill in the blanks because of her talents. Yet, it is such a thin story – she is put through the paces of green-screen acting within a constant stream of explosions that sub for exposition.

She remains a mystery, which is inevitable.

“Black Widow” is a 2020 action-sci-fi film directed by Cate Shortland and starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone and William Hurt. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material and runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. Available in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premier Access fee on July 9. Lynn’s grade: C+.

By Lynn Venhaus
A cheeky live-action prequel that delves into the down-and-out origins of one of Disney’s iconic villains, “Cruella” is a dark tale of dueling divas hell-bent on revenge.

That’s an unexpected underdog twist – and this glossy reimagining bursts with a bold, brassy attitude.

Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) wasn’t born to be bad, but she was a nonconformist at an early age.

Born with the unmistakable two-tone hair, Estella’s a creative but mischievous child (a spunky Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who is a handful for her mother (Emily Beecham).

When she strikes out on her own on the streets, that begins her relationship with Jasper and Horace, who are rakishly played by character actors Joel Fry of “Yesterday” and Paul Walter Hauser of “Richard Jewell” as adults — good-hearted blokes. They survive as grifters.

But the future fashionista has a dream and is singled out by superstar designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who likes her style – and appropriates it for her collections. Haughty and vain, the Baroness has destroyed everyone in her way – but has she met her match in Cruella? The rebellious alter ego of Estella, Cruella’s punk rock outfits are redefining fashion in 1970s London, and it is game on!

The story, long in the works, was first drafted by screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis. McKenna wrote “The Devil Wears Prada” and you see those fingerprints all over this latest chapter in the “101 Dalmatians” oeuvre by co-screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara.

This is where Emma Thompson takes over, commanding every frame she is in, with personality and pizzazz, as she forges Estella/Cruella’s identity.

A chance encounter with The Baroness von Hellman, the prima donna of haute couture, puts Estella on the path to realize a career as a designer. As played by Thompson, the wickedly evil Baroness is a despicable human and corrupt fashionista. As Cruella learns more, she stakes her claim as  “The Future” of fashion. She takes swinging London by storm.

This is when the movie explodes with fresh and fun outfits in a swirl of black, white and red — the notorious colors associated with all things Cruella. Jenny Beavan’s costume designs are marvelous, a big loud rebel yell of punk-inspired outfits and gorgeous evening garments perfect for dramatic entrances. Beavan’s won Oscars for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “A Room with a View,” and her use of different fabrics and textures is stunning.

These costumes are worn with flair by two of our best actresses, Oscar winners Stone and Thompson, who have a ball with the campier aspects of their roles — but also vividly create their characters’ dead-serious nature.

As for the Dalmatians that first created the Disney franchise all the way back to 1961, three mean ones appear as the pets of the Baroness. Hence, Cruella’s aversion to the spotted creatures. Estella’s own pet dog is a beloved mutt named Buddy.

Stay past the credits to find more on Anita and Roger, a nod to Pongo and Perdita’s future family.

The source material for all of the successive movies, including the live-action “101 Dalmatians” in 1996 and the 2000 “102 Dalmatians” starring Glenn Close as the imperious villain, has been Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel.

She turned a character’s last name from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Count de Ville, into this greedy villainess, driving a Rolls Royce and barking orders to her henchman, to fill her insatiable need for animal fur.

Where the franchise is headed after “Cruella” is anyone’s guess – because how would Stone’s character turn into the menacing de Vil that steals the dogs for their fur?

Well, that discussion is for another day, but it’s a logical question – where does it go from here after Cruella takes over Hell(man) Hall?

As for a stand-alone movie, “Cruella” is a vibrant creation with a banging period soundtrack and a game cast.

Just as he did with “I, Tonya,” director Craig Gillespie zigs when you expect him to zag.

The Baroness’ actions are too frightening for young children, so parents be aware. There is nothing remotely cute about this movie.

But as it is Disney, expect lots of merchandise, tie-ins and another one in the works. That’s about the only predictable element to this film.

“Cruella” is a 2020 comedy-drama directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Mark Strong. Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements and the run time is 2 hours, 14 minutes. It is available in theaters and on Disney Plus for a one-time premium access fee on May 28. Lynn’s Grade: B+

In theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access one-time additional fee May 28

Based on the timeless Disney film that introduced the world to the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Mary Poppins brings a surplus of joy and wonder to the Variety Theatre stage. Boasting a cast of St. Louis’ top theatrical talents and a children’s ensemble featuring kids of all ability levels, Mary Poppins runs Oct. 18-27 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Every year, Variety Theatre selects a musical that provides wonderful entertainment alongside a powerful message for families to take home. For all its rollicking adventures and musical numbers, Mary Poppinsis the story of a father learning to love his children as they are and see the world through their eyes. 

The magic of Mary Poppins opens his eyes and rescues a family in distress.  There is no doubt about this as she brings on the fun and flies over the audience to the top of the opera house.  Even her friend Bert captivates everyone with his “proscenium walk” during the famous “Step in Time” number.  He will tap dance up the side of the stage, upside down over the top of the stage and back down the other side – while singing about how the chimney sweeps always come to the rescue when needed.

For Variety, this is an incredibly touching narrative that supports our mission of helping kids with disabilities, who often see the world in different ways. Instead of dismissing them, we all learn and grow more by meeting these children on their terms. It shouldn’t take a magical nanny to teach us that.

This is Variety Theatre’s eleventh annual Broadway musical production under the direction of Tony award nominee Lara Teeter.  The cast of professional actors along with a live orchestra under the direction of Dr. Mark Schapman embraces an inclusive children’s ensemble.  The dazzling  production includes sets by Dunsi Dai, costumes by Kansas City Costume Company, lighting designed by Nathan Scheuer, and sound design by Rusty Wandall – all award winners.  Each year they lend their talents to mentor Variety Theatre teens of all abilities who learn backstage production from the best.

The story of Mary Poppins’ as presented by Variety Theatre will bring an unforgettable experience to theatergoers, cast and crew alike. The objective of VT is to help children with disabilities achieve their full potential, opening up to them what is possible with the nurturing encouragement of others who share their passion for creative expression and the arts.  This special effort to bring together children of all abilities, under the direction and tutelage of seasoned performing arts professionals, creates a production that will not soon be forgotten.

WHO:   Mary Poppins, The Broadway MusicalWHAT: Variety TheatreWHERE: Touhill Performing Arts Center WHEN: October 18       10 am & 7:00 pm

            October 19       1:30 pm & 7:00 pm

            October 20       1:30 pm

October 25       10 am 

            October 26       1:30 pm & 7:00 pm

            October 27       1:30 pm

TICKETS: $18-$50 at www.touhill.org

About Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis

Variety empowers children with physical and developmental disabilities, also referred to as children with special needs, and improves their quality of life. Our programs highlight ability rather than disability. This holistic approach gives access to critical medical equipment and therapies, along with innovative Camp and Performing Arts programs, which provide opportunities for recreation, socialization, and artistic expression. Children gain or maintain independence, boost socialization among their friends and family, demonstrate belief in themselves, and increase skills they need to engage their world as fully as possible. www.varietystl.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Radiant performers in a shimmering production of “The Little Mermaid” chased the gloom away on a chilly, gray day, as their contagious joy on the Touhill stage was a sight to behold.
The 10th anniversary musical by Variety – the Children’s Charity of St. Louis — Theatre celebrated their special achievement as the only production of this kind in the U.S. in royal fashion Friday evening, their third of six performances Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 18 – 21.
What Variety Theatre has done in the past decade is truly remarkable – involving an inclusive children’s ensemble who learns theater mechanics, confidence and performing skills alongside a professional adult cast – in a first-rate production. The good cheer that emanates from everyone involved is something special – and it’s one of the high points of my theater-going every year.

Director and Choreographer Lara Teeter’s vision for this anniversary revival was inspired, especially emulating ocean movement and boosting minor roles.  He kept everything bright and breezy.
This year’s production designs are of highest quality, with a breathtaking fantasy seascape set by Dunsi Dai that incorporated ethereal views from the scrim. Nathan Scheuer’s lighting design enhanced the warm, wonderful make-believe world under the sea – and simulated storms and the dangers down below as well.  Rusty Wandall’s sound design astutely captured sounds of sea, sand and sky.
With superb aerial work, Berklea Going, as spunky Ariel, appeared to be swimming, and her realistic rescue of a sinking Prince Eric (David Bryant Johnson) was a stunner.
The 18-piece orchestra, expertly led by musical director Mark Schapman, pulled us into Menken and Ashman’s lush musical score, and the peppy calypso beat ramped up the fun.
That island vacation sound is personified by the lively Sebastian, the red-suited crab who tries to keep headstrong Ariel out of trouble. In a star-making performance, newcomer Michael Hawkins was a delight in song, dance and showmanship – and very funny.
With his lead on the show-stopping number, “Under the Sea,” the vibrant characters swirling in action were so splendid that they received an enthusiastic – and lengthy – standing ovation.
This year’s high-spirited cast portrayed Disney’s enchanting animated characters with great verve, from the vivid sea creatures, chefs and maids to the principals in familiar roles they made their own. Their glistening outfits from Kansas City Costume burst with color and imagination.
When Disney transformed the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young mermaid who wants to live as a human into a full-length animated musical film in 1989, it was the start of a new era.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who died in 1991, wrote Broadway-caliber songs for their original movie score of “The Little Mermaid,” so adapting it for the stage seemed like a logical step. However, it didn’t make it to Broadway until 2008, with additional songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and book by Doug Wright.
Ashman and Menken’s 1991 Oscar-nominated “Beauty and the Beast” came first to Broadway, in 1994 and enjoyed a 13-year run. As a special treat, Variety is fortunate to have the original “Beast,” three-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann, anchoring this production as King Triton.
With his glorious rich voice and commanding stage presence, the six-foot-tall Mann is sensational as the passionate and powerful ruler of the underwater kingdom, helping to make this show unforgettable.
His robust and regal performance is captivating, and even though he’s the marquee draw, Mann doesn’t allow himself to be center of attention, becoming an intrinsic part of the large ensemble as if it were his family.
A tip of the hat to the man who first became a star as Rum Tum Tugger in “Cats,” originated Javert in “Les Miserables,” and earned his third Tony nomination as Charlemagne in the Tony-winning 2013 revival of “Pippin.”
Along with the seamless integration of disabled youth in a children’s ensemble, as well as top-notch teens and adults, and dazzling production values, this is the best Variety musical yet. They feel like a family, for there is such warmth and affection expressed throughout the show.
From the adorable Ian Nolting as Flounder to the comical Alan Knoll as loyal Grimsby, the characters fit in both worlds.
The innovative flourishes to stand-out characters made them particularly memorable here. The agile Drew Humphrey, dandy as Scarecrow last year, charmed everyone as the wacky sidekick seagull Scuttle, and the nimble dance number “Positoovity” was a highlight in a show filled with them.
Joy Boland is a formidable villainess as wicked octopus Ursula, and her impressive sidekicks, Brandon Fink and Mason Kelso as evil electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, were nimble foes.
Ariel’s lively Mer-Sisters were particularly strong, in songs and their comical family bickering – I looked forward to their appearance every time they sashayed out in their sequined outfits. complete with moving tails, and big-haired wigs.  The six spry siblings Chandler Ford as Aquata, Larissa White as Andrina, Corbyn Sprayberry as Arista, Dena DiGiancinto as Atina, Caitlyn Witty as Adella and Allison Newman as Allana were a hoot.
John Kinney as Chef Louis is another crowd-pleaser in madcap dinner number, “Les Poissons.”
Berklea Going was a likable Ariel, sweet-voiced and sincere, and she paired well with David Bryant Johnson as equally likable Prince Eric.
With its bright tempo, romantic story and charming characters, “The Little Mermaid” is a bubbly confection for children and adults alike. Variety’s production, infused with heart and humor, sparkled and shined.
Variety Theatre presents “The Little Mermaid” at 7 p.m. Oct. 18, 19 and 20, and also at 10 a.m. Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 1:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts on the UMSL campus. For tickets or more information, visit www.touhill.org and www.varietystl.org.