By Lynn Venhaus
The stars have aligned for the triumphant return of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis with “The Glass Menagerie” in a way you have never seen it before.

Nature cooperated with a bright, full moon in the late summer night sky Friday, and the TWF supplied the wishing and hoping that characterized the playwright during his formative years here.

Now in its sixth year, these special tributes are one I look forward to, a favorite-not-to-be-missed annual events in the city.

The passion and care that goes into each festival’s planning and programming is admirable. And the finest talent comes together to introduce us to, or offer a fresh perspective of, his signature dramas and little-known works.

To understand Williams’ dreams and desires has fueled each production, but this one – his memory play that gives us insight into his family life – is extraordinary.

The fest’s 2021 theme, “The Moon and Beyond,” aptly fits in a pandemic-guided scaled-down event. And this focus gives us an intimate local view that zeroes in on what we should see, hear and feel when we see a Williams play.

Nearly eighty years later where it was imagined, this current presentation of “The Glass Menagerie” is as organic as you will find anywhere, with naturally gifted performers honoring these four characters with a tangible vitality.

There is a brightness, a vigor to the work, as if we are discovering it for the first time. The site-specific location, outdoors behind “The Tennessee,” at 4663 Westminster Place, no doubt played a part in this, for it has become a character, a presence affecting the poignancy.

Bradley James Tejeda as Tom. Photo by ProPhoto STL

But that’s not the only imprimatur.

A young man yearning for adventure looks up at the moon while he’s out on his fire escape in St. Louis, hopeful that one day he would lead the life he dreamt of – but fretful that it would never happen unless he took steps to make it so.

From the time he was 7, Thomas Lanier Williams III lived in an apartment in the Central West End with his shoe company executive father, his Southern belle mother, his mentally fragile older sister and his younger brother Dakin, who later lived in Collinsville, Ill., for many years, and died at age 89 in 2008.

Nicknamed “Tennessee,” Williams eventually took pen to paper, and typed out stories of longing and aspirations, shaping characters from damaged people whose life didn’t turn out like they had planned.

And his stubborn refusal to not accept the status quo or to settle because that’s just the way it is, people kept reminding him – well, that admirable quality served him well.

He would go on many voyages – bur always starting from inside his heart.

What fiction he wrote would take him far, becoming known internationally as one of the world’s greatest playwrights. But here, he struggled to find his voice — returning from college at Mizzou to work at the shoe factory, and 20 years after moving from Mississippi, finally getting out of the city (until buried in Calvary Cemetery after his death in 1983).

He was impacted by his dysfunctional family, and realizing he was an outsider looking in –that hunger to be someone, and to become comfortable in his own skin, drove him during his 71 years.

All of that is apparent in “The Glass Menagerie.”

Knowing that he was fueled by a hope that could not be quelled and a fire that burned inside him to tell stories from a city neighborhood lends both a magical quality and a gravitas to the latest production.

The cast found the truth — Bradley James Tejeda as Tom, Brenda Currin as Amanda, Elizabeth Teeter as Laura and Chauncy Thomas as the Gentleman Caller Jim. All but Thomas reprised their roles from the radio play last fall, directed by Brian Hohlfeld during the “Something Spoken” streaming offering instead of live theater — (ahem, public health crisis you may recall, so they pivoted).

In most productions, the women are portrayed as victims, and their tragic life circumstances influence its staging.

However, director Hohlfeld, who has been part of the TWF since its inaugural year in 2016, has brought out every character’s depth, and so have the actors, who found a rhythm in the words and with each other.

I have previously seen a few dour versions, most of them not very good because they didn’t seem to grasp the multi-faceted nature and emphasized only the melancholy. This cast “gets it.”

The lines are delivered in a conversational manner, and a real bond can be felt between these inextricably linked people, no matter how unhappy or frustrated they appear.

The sad and desperate Amanda clings to her delusions of grandeur like a warm coat, mired in the past and overly concerned about her children’s future. Currin captures all of that, as well as the exasperation with life and her breadwinner son and helpless daughter having notions of their own.

Each character has a different viewpoint on success.

With his literary illusions, Tom can’t seem to find his way – but is about to take a leap of faith. Tejeda brings a restlessness to the role, like he is a trapped animal. But there is also a sweetness in his interactions with his sister.

Elizabeth Teeter, Chauncy Thomas. Photo by ProPhotoSTL

Thomas’ inherent charm adds a palpable compassion to the dinner guest, never pitying Laura but treating her kindly and with respect. He adds a wistfulness to Jim, who is past his high school glory days.

Teeter disappears into the delicate Laura, whose fantasy world is overtaking a daily string of disappointments. She will break your heart as a shy and peculiar girl who couldn’t overcome life’s challenge, but who lights up in conversation with Jim.

When the play premiered on Broadway in 1944, expanding on Williams’ short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” director Elia Kazan noted: “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

And we have been enriched by that authenticity.

Staged outdoors, the set, designed by Dunsi Dai, is minimal, but evocative of the area. He effectively uses windows as an entry to the soul.

The sound design by Kareem Deanes includes period songs played on a victrola – and dealing with the inescapable sounds of the city, including a fire truck and sirens Friday night (Bravo, Chauncy, for not missing a beat).

Lighting designer Catherine Adams shifts between day and night, under serious moonlight, enhancing the atmosphere.

Williams spent his life trying to escape the ghosts of his past, which of course molded him into what he became. By now, the Wingfields are an all-too-familiar American tale tinged in tragedy and regret, but the power of his words remains.

He ultimately discovered, through his artistry, that he wasn’t the only lost star, and the eloquence of his semi-autobiographical work shines through in the backyard that he once called home.

The Tennessee Williams Festival runs Aug. 19-29. The headliner, “The Glass Menagerie,” is presented at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sundays, Aug. 19-22 and 26-29, behind the Tennessee, 4663 Westminster Place. Tickets must be purchased online and are available through MetroTix.com.

“You Lied to Me About Centralia” is a one-act play by John Guare that will be presented at 2 p.m. on Aug. 21 and 22 at The Tennessee.

Free, secure parking is available at Holliday, 4600 Olive, for festival patrons.

Other festival programming includes Scholars’ Panels, Walking Tour of Williams’ St. Louis, Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Moon and Beyond” hosted by Ken Page, happy hour conversation with Blue Song author Dr. Henry Schvey, Why Did Desdemona Love the Moor reading, and more.

Lead sponsorship of the festival is provided by Emerson. Additional sponsors and the full festival itinerary can be found at twstl.org.

Photo by ProPhotoSTL

Lynn Venhaus has been reviewing professional theater since 2005, and is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle, established in 2012. A longtime journalist, she has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metropolitan area publications since 1978, earning awards along the way for news and features (and an Illinois Press Association award for reviews before they dropped the category). She has taught writing for the media as an adjunct instructor at three local colleges. A graduate of Illinois State University, she has a mass communications degree with a minor in theater. Among her life achievements are sons Tim and Charlie.

“Spell # 7” will be The Black Rep debut of rap artist Tef Poe. Tef Poe has received numerous Hip-Hop awards for his work, and was recently featured as a Harvard Fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Research institute.

Tef says “This is an opportunity for me to sharpen my skills and work with some of the best talent in this region.  The Black Rep is known for reimagining what’s possible in Black entertainment.  I knew this would be a challenge for me. My background obviously isn’t rooted in theatre. But the hip hop world has a few commonalities so I’m able to play into my strengths with this character. I’m honored to be a part of this production.  My respect for my cast mates and our director is insurmountable.”

“Spell # 7” will also feature Drummond Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, and Jacqueline Thompson as well as four of our Professional Acting Interns: Brian McKinley, Tyler White, Christina Yancy, and Camille Sharp.

“Spell # 7” is a striking choreopeom by the author of “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf”, Ntozake Shange.  Set in a bar in St Louis frequented by Black artists and musicians, actors, and performers. In a series of dreamlike vignettes and poetic monologues, they commiserate about the difficulties they face as Black artists.  The piece is framed by the narrator, Lou (played by Brian McKinley), a magician who wants to use his magic to help the artists come to terms with their Blackness and rejoice in their identities.

“Spell # 7” is the second production supported by the Sophisticated Ladies Giving Initiative.  This initiative supported last year’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women by Christina Ham.

This production is also funded with support from the Regional Arts Commission, World Wide Technology, Washington University in St. Louis, Steward Family Foundation, and Centene Corporation. “Spell # 7” is also underwritten in part through a grant from the Creative Impact Fund for Diversifying the Arts – a partnership between the Arts and Education Council and local community leaders.

“Spell # 7” is directed by Ron Himes, with choreography by Heather Beal, scenic design by Dunsi Dai, lighting design by Joe Clapper, costume design by Brandin Vaughn, and sound design by James Biko.  Jim Anthony is the stage manager and D’Angelo Himes is the assistant stage manager.

The production will run Feb. 19 – March 8 at the AE Hotchner Studio Theatre on the campus of Washington University. Tickets are available at www.theblackrep.org/, or by calling the box office at 314-534-3807.

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About The St Louis Black Repertory CompanyThe St Louis Black Repertory Company was founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes. The Black Rep is one of the largest, professional African-American theatre companies in the nation and the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri. Quality professional dramas, comedies and musicals by primarily African-American and international playwrights are produced. Mainstage productions and education programs combine to reach more than 80,000 people annually.

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 Andrea BraunContributing WriterIndecent (2017) by Paula Vogel tells the story of a play written by the young Sholem Asch entitled God of Vengeance, first performed in 1907. It is presented as his first play, but it is actually his second; however, this and other departures from fact are described by Vogel as “emotional truth,” rather than absolute historical accuracy.

“Vengeance” ran in Germany in the original Yiddish and
was translated and traveled to several other countries, but then came America. At
first, Asch’s play ran off Broadway and stayed more or less under the radar.
But when it moved uptown to the Apollo and the general public was going to be
courted to buy tickets, as Vogel tells it, the script was changed without
Asch’s knowledge or permission because it contained “unacceptable” material.

Photo by Dan DonovanFor example, a Jewish man makes his living owning a
house of prostitution while he and his wife and “virginal” daughter occupy an
apartment upstairs. This was considered by American Jews to be anti-Semitic,
since the Jewish procurer was a stereotype and would be reinforced in the
general public’s mind. So would the focus on making money any way possible. At
one point, he becomes so furious he destroys a holy Torah, a great sin in
Judaism. But most controversial of all was what became known as “the rain
scene,” in which the daughter kisses one of the prostitutes and they proclaim
their love. To middle-class Americans, this is pornographic filth.

Photo by Dan DonovanAsch is so depressed he can’t leave his house.
Finally, his loving and patient wife talks him into attending a rehearsal, but
to him, the play is dead. The longtime stage manager, Lemml (Lou) also
considers this is a disaster, and it’s something they just cannot understand.
Even stranger, the play is closed down by the police and the actors are
arrested and tried, but the playwright and Lemml are not. Lemml tells Asch that
he is going to take the play back to Poland and translate it back into Yiddish.
He tells Asch, “I am tired of being in a country that laughs at the way I
speak. They say America is free? What [sic] do you know here is free?”

And so he does and his troupe performs the play in
cafes, attics, basements—anywhere that will have them until the Holocaust
decimated the European Jewish community of artists and patrons.  Asch himself returns after he’s received an
“invitation” from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s to
live in London and write prolifically until he literally dies in the saddle, at
his desk, writing. Before he leaves, he meets a young scholar from Yale whom he
tells that he, Asch, “lost six million [who] have left the theater.”

Photo by Dan DonovanThat’s the plot, but now comes the hard part: telling you about the production, which is indescribably beautiful (but I’ll try to describe it anyway). I haven’t listed the names of actors who play the characters because they are all played by seven extraordinary performers who not only tell the story through words but also through song and dance.

They are accompanied on stage by a group of three Klezmer musicians, who play a violin, bass clarinet, and accordion to help express both the sadness and joy the audience and characters are experiencing. I’ve only seen four of the actors listed below (Judi Mann, Tim Schall, John Flack, and Paul Cereghino) but I’ve never witnessed any of them stronger or more sure of the material which makes them turn into other people on a dime.

Photo by Dan Donovan

The evocative music is directed by Ron McGowan, Ellen
Isom choregraphs, Phillip Evans gets credit for sound, and Menachem Szus is the
Yiddish dialect coach.It is a clever conceit to have titles on the rear wall to
help us know where we are, and to have the actors use perfect English to speak
their native languages and accented English when they are speaking a second or
third language. The action spans Warsaw from 1906 to Bridgeport, Connecticut in
the 1950s, and as the program notes, “everywhere in between.”

It’s difficult to write about Indecent without gushing, and I don’t think I managed it. But you
know what? It’s brilliant in every way, so a little gushing is justified. It is
both timely and timeless, and I hope you’ll go see for yourself.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Indecent” at the Grandel Theatre through June 30. Tickets are available through Metrotix and more information is available at www.maxandlouie.com

Photo by Patrick HuberThe
Troupe

TJ
Lancaster:  Lemml, The
Stage Manager; Paul Cereghino: The
Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble; Zoe Farmingdale:
The Ingenue: Chana/ Ensemble; John Flack:
The Elder: Otto/Ensemble;  Katie Karel: The Middle:
Halina/Ensemble; Judi Mann: The
Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Tim Schall: The
Middle: Mendel/Ensemble

The
Musicians

Alyssa Avery: Nelly Friedman/Violin/Ensemble; Kris Pineda: Moritz Godowsky/Accordion/Ensemble; Jack Theiling: Mayer Balsam/ Clarinet & Mandolin/Ensemble

Photo by Patrick Huber

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Desperation hangs thick in the air in Tennessee Williams’ richly detailed “The
Night of the Iguana,” the remarkable centerpiece to this year’s fourth annual
Tennessee Williams Festival.

At a rundown resort in Mexico, people are there to escape –
or to hide. Everyone has secrets. They can get away, but they can’t run, just
like the big fat iguana that’s tied up offstage.

The setting is not inconsequential. You can tell Cosa Verde
has seen better days, and so have most of these characters. But each has a
story to tell – and those looking for mercy, a glimmer of hope.

In his grand, striking poetic exposition, Williams tackles
a lot here – a former minister who is a tormented soul, three primary women of
different types and temperatures, and an assortment of workers and tourists. He
seizes on how people fare in volatile times.

A group of crass Nazi-sympathizing Germans on holiday stand
out for their gaudiness, and those roles might be tiny, but Williams is crafty
in his characterizations. After all, the play takes place in the early 1940s,
before World War II commandeers everything.

The metaphors are also rampant in this multi-layered
masterpiece. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created such a distinct corner of
the universe that you can practically feel the oppressive heat. Each cabin is
like an isolation pod, mosquito net hanging, a place of solitude and reflection
for some, but for others who feel trapped by their circumstances, a cage.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe brilliant Jon Ontiveros’ lighting design is a marvel of
moods and atmosphere, emphasizing Williams’ intentions through Dai’s
interpretation.

Ellie Schwetye, whose sound design is always memorable,
layers the outdoor cacophony with lapping ocean waves, which changes to different
noticeable nocturnal noises.

Meticulous director Tom Ocel has contained the sprawling
story to emphasize temptation, loneliness, loss and the despair that comes from
being lost.

This landmine of human emotions, ready to explode at any
moment, is based on Williams’ 1948 short story, which was then developed into
three acts for a Broadway production in 1961. A Tony nominee for Best Play
(defeated by “A Man for All Seasons”) in 1962, actress Margaret Leighton won Best
Leading Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes. Two years later,
it was adapted into a steamy movie, directed by John Huston, that starred
Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon.

The tormented Rev. Shannon (James Andrew Butz, in an
extraordinary performance), who fell from grace in spectacular fashion – or, as
he says: “heresy and fornication – in the same week,” is a self-destructive
shell of a human being. He’s now driving a tour bus. Oh, the irony of escorting
a group of women from a Baptist college for their pleasure.

But at a cheap coastal hotel, they’ve turned against him,
the staff is on edge, and the proprietor is just trying to get through another
day without incidents. LaVonne Byers is Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed
owner who was something in her prime. However, she is now weary of other people’s
drama – but has a soft spot for Shannon, whom she has known a long time. He can
push her buttons, nevertheless. Byers plays this vigorous woman with her
customary precision, turning Maxine into a strong, no-nonsense type whose past
is filled with hard-fought lessons. She tosses off some terrific comical lines,
too.

The brewing tempest grows out of its teacup into a full-blown
squall.

Summer Baer and Jim Butz, photo by ProPhotoSTLThe pretty young Charlotte Goodall, 16, has fancied this
mysterious Shannon, and vice-versa, thus resulting in all hell breaking loose
and a serious charge of statutory rape. This is the starting part. Summer Baer
is impressive as the innocent, naïve lass.

As Miss Judith Fellowes, entrusted with Charlotte’s care, Elizabeth
Ann Townsend is all blustery and self-righteous in her contempt for Shannon.
She wants justice, and she is going to get it.

Nisi Sturgis and Harry Weber. Photo by ProPhotoSTLAlong comes the refined Hannah Jelkes (Nisi Sturgis), whose
manners belie a living-on-the-edge situation. An artistic woman whose only
source of income is freelance painting and sketch work, she has accompanied her
beloved grandfather, “Nonno” — Jonathan Coffin, a poet. They survive together,
although he is ailing. They are just trying to get by, using whatever means
they can. Harry Weber imbues Nonna with dignity.

For the prickly, mercurial Shannon, Hannah becomes
something of a lifeline. She tries to save his humanity, and her spirit is revived
through their encounters. Williams makes you believe in the power of their
connection — “The magic of the other.” So do the actors — Butz and Sturgis
are stunning in their scenes together.

Butz pretty much raises the bar for every actor in town.
How he spirals out of control and goes through every emotion, depicting Shannon
on the brink of a breakdown, is astonishing. He’s always a robust life-force on
stage, but this portrayal is some of the finest acting we’ve been privileged to
see in St. Louis.

Sturgis, whose measured demeanor is exactly how you imagine
Deborah Kerr in the movie, delivers one of the finest female performances of
the year. She conveys the restraint, compassion and grace of her character
beautifully.

Nisi Sturgis and Jim Butz, Photo by ProPhotoSTLOcel moves the large cast around to the beats of the
fun-and-sun coastal setting, with a sense of foreboding and something’s
off-kilter. Again, the irony of the hellish happenings occurring at such a
slice-of-heaven paradise.

Costume Designer Garth Dunbar has a keen eye to distinguish
the personalities through their outfits.

Steve Isom, Teresa Doggett, Chaunery Kingsford Tanguay and
Hannah Lee Eisenbath provide lively portraits of the garish, loud Germans oblivious
to anything but their own needs.

In minor roles, Greg Johnston is Jake Latta, Shannon’s
supervisor, and Spencer Sickmann is employee Hank, Victor Mendez is worker
Pedro and Luis Aguilar is worker Pancho.

The crisp stage direction and the ensemble’s commitment to
immerse themselves to tell this story, with all its messy interactions, make
this production stand out.

If last year’s award-winning TWF mainstage show, “A
Streetcar Named Desire,” was a leap of faith, this year’s centerpiece is a masterful
coming-of-age, a major step forward, strengthening Williams’ legacy and continuing
a vibrant tradition.

Tennessee
Williams Festival presents “A Night of the Iguana” May 9 through May 19 at The
Grandel Theatre in the Grand Arts Center. Evening performances Thursday through
Saturday are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.twstl.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.
 
 
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ah, Purgatory. It’s complicated. If our fate hung in the balance between a celestial playground and a worst-case scenario, how would we feel about sin and redemption?
Using Biblical passages, historical characters, street vernacular, imagined flashbacks and behavioral psychology, prodigious playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis tests our definitions of sin and grace in a bold and epic conundrum, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
Unusual, intense and penetrating — this ambitious Mustard Seed Theatre production is an extraordinary achievement for all involved. It’s tough, tender, edgy and above all, heartfelt.
In this sprawling and fiery opus, Guirgis explores a complex dynamic between Jesus and Judas that has confounded believers for centuries. We don’t know for certain, but Guirgis’ imagination is as limitless as it is meandering. He is a man bursting with ideas, concepts, philosophical musings and diatribes.
(And cursing. Lots o’ that among his nimble wordplay. Don’t bring the kids. Definitely for mature audiences).
Intimate in setting but big-picture brilliant in scope, the play is quite a winding – and witty — journey through time and space. So buckle up, the character clashes are riveting.
Guirgis, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, for “Between Riverside and Crazy,” has given us so much to mull over that I felt as if I was cramming for a theology exam. Afterwards, I was exhilarated and emotionally spent. No test. (Or is it? Hmmm…).
But I also pondered how I would answer for my actions, decisions and interactions. I want to be more mindful, such is the effect of this play – it resonates spiritually and is rooted in reality. (Or maybe it’s the Catholic guilt rearing its ugly head. Never get away from it, no matter what age).
Assessing our lives is a natural by-product of this profound play. Oh, it’s alternately subtle, harsh, dark and funny — and more, throughout its nearly 3-hour runtime.
Because the drama’s heft is so daunting, director Adam Flores tackled the demands by shrewdly assembling a fearless cast, all up for the challenge.
His assistant director is Jacob Schmidt and Stage Manager Alycia Martin must have been a drill sergeant calling the show, for 27 characters come and go in a Purgatory courtroom.
Flores firmly moves the 13 actors as if he’s masterminding a chess tournament. It’s obviously a passion project, sparked by responding to the play in 2006, and arranging this leap of faith in the Fontbonne black box.
Previously, only Hot City Theatre staged it locally, and that was 12 years ago. The off-Broadway premiere at The Public in 2005 was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Sam Rockwell as Judas, Eric Bogosian as Satan and John Ortiz as Jesus of Nazareth.
The enormous level of difficulty cannot be understated. Dramaturg Elisabeth Wurm had to make sense out of a rebel yell, full of faith and doubt, in a traditional court trial frame work. It’s thoughtful and has real depth.
Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a minimal set of angles and platforms, and a few symbolic nods, allowing us to visualize images suggested during the testimonies. Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the post-modern atmosphere.
A defense attorney for Judas, indignant Cunningham (Courtney Bailey-Parker), argues that the disgraced disciple should not be damned for all time, that others are culpable in the greater scheme of things, while overzealous prosecutor El-Fayoumy (a dandy Carl Overly Jr.) thinks a special place in hell is just fine.
A jury will decide Judas’ fate, but not before a parade of high-profile witnesses take the stand while a cranky Judge (Chandler Spradling) presides, with a nervous bailiff (Chelsea Krenning) at his beck and bark.
Some folks are impatient, surly and obstinate about being called to testify. Just because they crossed over, doesn’t mean they shed their less appealing characteristics. Saints appear at random, offering afterlife tidbits and spouting humorous anecdotes.
Parker has a considerable amount of heavy lifting, and does not miss a beat in fervent commitment to her client. Overly is slick, cajoling and conniving.
At center is Judas, near catatonic and inconsolable. As Judas, Chris Ware projects both an innocence and a howling despair. Confused, hurt and angry, he is misinterpreted by others at every turn. He barely speaks, but when provoked, he lashes out defiantly. A sadness swells.
The leads are fierce, not intimidated by the show’s weight. While portraying multiple characters or different genders, supporting actors are integral to making it flow seamlessly. Everyone has a purpose, no matter how random it appears.
The smooth ebb and flow of the cast’s intersection is noteworthy, as each character builds upon the others — the cement between the bricks.
Performers must deliver dense dialogue, with passionate monologues tumbling out of them, emphasizing ranges of emotions coursing through their character.
The sorrow of Judas’ mother Henrietta (Carmen Garcia) opens the show. She’s in period garb. But the costumes from designer Andrea Robb bends periods, ranging from traditional to reimagined.
Later switching gears to become an angry Pontius Pilate, Garcia commands the stage with haughtiness and power, bristling at the suggestion he was to blame for Christ’s crucifixion.
The oh-so-smooth Eric Dean White brings the heat as Satan, aka Lu, oozing unctuousness and evil in his first scene. The next time, he’s a ranting megalomaniac, hurling insults, contemptuous of the process.
Those are blustery roles, meant to push buttons. Other performers shine in adrenalized vignettes, particularly the saints. Rae Davis is a delight as both Saint Monica and Simon, while FeliceSkye is laugh-out-loud funny as Saint Peter, and a character Gloria – and a hoot as Sigmund Freud.
Ariella Rovinsky presents a fresh take on Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene, while Rachel Tibbetts is a touch of Rose and a dash of Sophia in a “Golden Girls”-inspired depiction of Mother Teresa. She is also a relatable St. Thomas, stunned by his quick 180 at not being a stand-up guy when Jesus needed him.
Characters recount their beliefs and experiences, and the play becomes a multi-course meal of textures, temperatures and shared plates.
Guirgis, also an actor, appeared in Charlie Kaufman’s unwieldy film about how life works, “Synecdoche, New York,” and this piece is reminiscent in that it has much to digest, and at times, seems overwhelming. It is a long haul.
Stick with it, and you will be rewarded by two of the best moments near the end — intimate reflective exchanges that mimic a therapy session. Jesse Munoz, with a calm yet authoritative demeanor, conveys a compassionate, loving and forgiving Jesus. Graham Emmons is heartbreaking as Butch Honeywell, the jury foreman who breaks the news to a forlorn Judas. He’s compelled to pour out his remorse over self-destructive choices that haunt him forever, and Emmons – new to St. Louis stages this year – is mesmerizing.
Did we experience glimpses of heaven and hell through this erudite discourse? I think we did. Notions of what afterlife awaits us change during our lifetimes, but will forever remain an enigma, no matter how many years we’re here on earth. Simmering inferno or eternal serenity?
No questions are answered here, but plenty are raised — and that’s the point. But you’ll be thinking about the divine order of things for days. Theology students take entire semesters to explore the ideas that the playwright brings up. We had one evening.
But what a tapestry we are confronted with – through a lens of sinners and saints, friendship, free will, grief and destiny.
The New Testament version of Jesus’ final days has been interpreted different ways in popular entertainment, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 47-year-old rock opera musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar” now a blank canvas and Martin Scorsese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” just to name a few. This one’s more under the radar, but a wild ride nonetheless, and worthy of attention.
MST’s earnest, fiery effort will remain one of the year’s most impressive presentations – in its execution, creative dedication and the breadth of its sheer humanity. Your reaction might not be immediate, but this one lingers.
Mustard Seed Theatre presents “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” from Oct. 10 – 28, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., but no Friday, at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, visit: www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Ann K Photography
Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas.

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
You haven’t lived until you’ve celebrated the Passover Seder in a camper sitting on a pick-up truck parked at a truck stop. Well, it makes sense in a way. You only have to clean a very small space, you don’t have to get rid of all the non-Kosher food, and it IS a change of scene. But still, oy vey!
Sarajane Alverson in “Raging Skillet”Photo by Eric WoolseyWhen I’m going to review a play, I usually look for background material. Raging Skillet by Jacques Lamarre is based on a memoir by Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson). I found a used copy of the book, then as is also my habit, I didn’t read it. But I went to consult it today about a plot point that was troubling me, and I read the whole thing about her wild ride to the top of the food chain. Obviously every detail of a book cannot be fit into a 75-minute play, but focusing on experiences that limn Chef and her family replicates the fun of reading this unorthodox autobiography. Focusing most closely on the mother-daughter experience, the work is insightful and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
When audience members enter the theatre, we’re handed a napkin, as well as a program because there will be food. Chef has worked in restaurants, but the bulk of her jobs come through her catering company, the eponymous Raging Skillet. The audience is directed by signs indicating which section will get a sample of which dish. This is a clever idea, but it doesn’t work well. Interrupting the action for long enough to serve a large group is awkward and breaks up the flow. Also, as the show started the actors seemed stiff, and I was concerned that it was going to be a misfire overall, but not at all. Once the actors found their footing, maybe 10 minutes in, Raging Skillet became a delight.

We sit around a well-equipped, attractive kitchen with a projection screen on the wall and an aerie for a DJ above. The set design is by Dunsai Dai and the extremely effective sound and projections are by Michael B. Perkins. Everything is illuminated beautifully by Michael Sullivan. We’re told we’re attending a book signing for The Raging Skillet. Alverson is joined onstage by Erin Renee Roberts playing “Skillit,” which must translate as “everybody else mentioned throughout,” from the DJ to Chef’s father Marty, other family members, co-workers, friends and lovers. She’s the hardest working woman in show business here.
Erin Renee Roberts, Kathleen Sitzer Photo by Eric WoolseyThe two are quickly joined by Chef’s mother, Harriet (Kathleen Sitzer), which wouldn’t normally be strange, except this stereotypical Jewish mother has been dead for 25 years. Yet here she is, dressed in mismatched clothing (costume design by Michele Siler), complete with a lavender snood and tennis shoes, kvelling, kvetching, and otherwise raising all kinds of michegas for her exasperated daughter. They argue about, well, everything from names (the family name is Ross changed from Rosenthal then further altered by Chef to “Rossi” having dropped her first name), to Harriet’s infatuation with the microwave, to Chef’s lesbianism and Mom’s coupon fixation. And the cherry on top is that Sitzer is a scene stealer extraordinaire. I found myself watching her, even when she wasn’t directly involved in the action.
Lee Anne Mathews’ direction is a marvel of motion, precision, and impeccable timing. The play itself has an improvisatory quality, and by emphasizing that, Matthews brings out a breeziness it might otherwise lack. Stage Manager Emily Clinger is the wizard behind the (metaphorical) curtain.
If I talk too much about the plot, I’ll give away bits that should be little surprises, so I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Meanwhile, remember that everything cool began with the Fonz, there’s nothing like a group of Southern women in a plus-size clothing store who have just learned of Elvis’ death, and, in the end, there may be more to our parents than we ever really knew. Food is love, bitches, rock on!
Raging Skillet is at the NJT through Oct. 21. You may call 314-442-3283 or visit newjewishtheatre.org.  
NOTE: I know most of you don’t read the program (sigh) but should you in this case, the title page has left out Michael B. Perkins name (Michael Sullivan is credited twice). The next page does have the correct attributions. Also, make it a point to read the Director’s Note.
Kathleen Sitzer, Sarajane Alverson and Erin Renee Roberts in “Raging Skillet,” Photo by Eric Woolsey

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
At its best, “Crowns” is a jubilant celebration of family, faith and traditions, and the Black Rep’s sharp ensemble radiates joy as they take us to church. It’s a gem of a show, gleaming with polish and pizzazz.
The small cast of seven raises their glorious voices in beautiful harmonies, delivering spirituals, gospel standards, church hymns and ballads, which are woven into a story thread that includes vignettes.
As the youngest Yolanda, Tyler White, opens with hip-hop, to set the scene for her life in Brooklyn and showing her youthful energy and independent spirit. She moves down South, to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson), after a family tragedy. She learns about her history, forges an identity and what it means to have these “church ladies” in her life.

By honoring women who have impacted their lives, we feel the reverence and love for these role models. They are having as much fun on stage as the audience.
With outstanding creative elements, the show pops with color – especially Designer Daryl Harris’ gorgeous costumes and an incredible array of hats that reflect time periods and fashion trends.
The women are decked out in well-tailored Sunday best that reflects their characters. In a dramatic entrance, a rainbow of similar dresses is lowered for the women to change into and tell us about their journey.
Scenic Designer Dunsi Dai’s innovative set includes a large straw hat as the centerpiece. Joe Clapper’s lighting design enhances that symbolic piece.
With considerable flair, director Linda Kennedy focused on what made this 2002 gospel musical by Regina Taylor strike a chord with audiences. It has become the most produced musical in the country.
If Taylor’s name rings a bell, she is an award-winning actress, best known as the housekeeper on “I’ll Fly Away,” NBC’s critically acclaimed drama that ran for two seasons from 1991 to 1993.
She was inspired not only by her role models and the music of their churches, but also a coffee-table book, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church,” by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham.
Musical Director Charles Creath expertly plays keyboards and Matthew Clark handles the percussion, a tight combo at the rear of the stage; they sound terrific. The score, with familiar gospel songs, is at times moving and other times fun.
The movements all have a purpose, too. An experienced Alvin Ailey dancer, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s work is another bright spot, conveying the faith, hope and love of this group.
Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, Tyler White as Yolanda and Anita Jackson as Mother Shaw in “Crowns.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.Anita Jackson, with customary power and grace, commands the stage with her vocal prowess and leadership role.
Other likable presences include Leah Stewart as Mabel, Amber Rose as Velma, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda and Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette. They work together well. Tyler White is a natural as Yolanda.
As the sole male in multiple roles, Myke Andrews’ winning personality is a plus, and he also has a strong voice.
The show is structured with vignettes that are told like at a church service – procession, morning service, wedding, funeral, baptism and recessional. It flows well, engaging us with their stories and songs.
The cast connects the message and history lessons with warmth and good cheer. They make these characters come alive – people you know or wish you knew.
The Black Rep’s production of “Crowns” runs Thursdays through Sundays Sept. 5 through Sept. 23 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For more information, call (314) 534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org.