By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Plays with substantial women roles were spotlighted at the seventh annual St.
Louis Theater Circle Awards March 25, with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’
musical production of “Evita” and a homegrown “A Streetcar Named Desire” from
the third annual Tennessee Williams Festival each receiving seven awards.

Both iconic female-lead shows had received the most
nominations, 11 apiece, when the Circle announced them in January. The awards
recognized outstanding work locally produced by regional professional companies
during the calendar year 2018.

Nominees Kari Ely and Michelle Hand in “Into the Breeches!”The comedy “Into the Breeches!”, the first play in Shakespeare
Festival St. Louis’ new program, “In the Works,” won four awards. The world
premiere was in January 2018, with its first St. Louis performances in
September. The comedy from Chicago playwright George Brant is about a
fictitious theater group in 1942, and with the men away at war, the director’s
wife sets out to produce an all-female version of “Henry V.” It had roles for
six women and two men. In addition to awards for ensemble, director Nancy Bell
and best production, Michelle Hand won best actress.

The Circle, which includes veteran area theater critics, annually recognizes outstanding work in comedies, dramas and musicals, and with two opera categories.

Each of the 33 categories featured five nominees, with 23 local companies cited for 54 shows, and 120 artists receiving nods, including 10 with two apiece.

This year, there were three ties: sound design in a play, costume design in a musical and musical ensemble.

Evita won seven awards from the Circle“Evita,” the vibrant Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, earned awards for musical direction (Charlie Alterman), choreography (Gustavo Zajac and Mariana Parma), set design (Luke Canterella), lighting (John Lasiter), director (Rob Ruggiero, his third), ensemble and production of a musical.

The landmark “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written in 1947 by the great American playwright Tennessee Williams, who spent his formative years in St. Louis, earned honors for Sophia Brown as Outstanding Actress – for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the emotionally needy and mental fragile faded beauty Blanche Dubois, sound design (original music by Henry Palkes and sound by Amanda Werre), lighting design (Sean M. Savoie), set design (James Wolk), direction (Tim Ocel), ensemble and production of a drama.

The 18 other awards went to separate shows, with both The
Black Rep and The Muny winning three apiece, and The Rep adding two more for earning
the most, nine.

Jeff Cummings and Katy Keating in “Life Sucks.” Photo by ProPhotoSTLIn comedy, Katy Keating won for Supporting Actress as feisty but unrequited lovesick Sonia in New Jewish Theatre’s “Life Sucks,” a ‘sort of’ adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by Aaron Posner. She was also part of the award-winning ensemble of “Into the Breeches!”.

Isaiah Di Lorenzo in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Photo by Ron James.Isaiah Di Lorenzo won Supporting Actor as The Player, the leader of the Tragedians, in St. Louis Shakespeare’s production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” He also was in the award-winning ensemble of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Will Bonfiglio as Mary Dale in “Red Scare on Sunset.” Photo by Justin Been. Will Bonfiglio won his second Outstanding Actor Award, as film star Mary Dale in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Red Scare on Sunset.” He was honored in 2017 for the one-man show, “Buyer & Cellar,” also at Stray Dog.

For costume designs, Lou Bird won for The Rep’s “Born Yesterday” vintage wardrobe in the play category and there was a tie in the musical category between Leon Dobkowski, who won for The Muny’s colorful “The Wiz,” and Darryl Harris for the elegant “Crowns: A Gospel Musical” at The Black Rep.

There was another tie in sound design in a play – besides “Streetcar,” Rusty Wandall won for Lucas Hnath’s contemporary “The Humans” at The Rep.

Laurie McConnell, left, as Birdie Hubbard in “The Little Foxes.” Photo by Patrick HuberIn drama, Laurie McConnell won Supporting Actress as forlorn
Birdie Hubbard in St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of Lillian Hellman’s “The
Little Foxes.” She won in 2017 for Supporting Actress in a Musical, for her portrayal
of Joanne in “Company” at Insight Theatre Company.

Eric Dean White as Satan and Chris Ware as Judas. Photo by Ann AuerbachEric Dean White, a previous nominee, won Supporting Actor for playing the slick, smooth, haughty and conniving Satan in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Ron Himes in “Fences”

Another previous nominee and winner, Ron Himes won Outstanding Actor as bitter garbage collector Troy in August Wilson’s “Fences at The Black Rep last winter. In 2014, The Black Rep won best ensemble and production for “The Whipping Man.”

The Black Rep’s “Torn Asunder” best new playThe Black Rep also won Best New Play for Nikkole Salter’s “Torn
Asunder,” which dramatized true stories of newly emancipated African Americans
trying to overcome the vestiges of slavery so they could reconnect with their
families.

Joy Boland won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of the imposing villainess sea witch in Variety Theater’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”

Beth Leavel as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Photo by Philip Hamer.For their powerhouse musical performances, Corbin Bleu won Outstanding Actor as the fleet-footed matinee idol Don Lockwood in “Singin’ in the Rain” and Beth Leavel was honored as the controlling stage parent Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” both at The Muny.

Corbin Bleu in “Singin’ in the Rain” at The Muny. Photo by Phil Hamer.Leavel had been nominated three times before (“Hello Dolly!” “Oklahoma!” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” all at the Muny. She is currently performing on Broadway in a St. Louis-produced original musical, “The Prom.”

Stephanie Merritt and Kent Coffel in “The Light in the Piazza” Kent Coffel won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical for his performance as well-meaning haberdasher Signor Naccarelli, Fabrizio’s father, in “The Light in the Piazza,” presented by R-S Theatrics in its St. Louis regional premiere.

Anything Goes at New Line Theatre. Photo by Jill Ritter LindbergTying with “Evita” for musical ensemble was New Line Theatre’s vivacious “Anything Goes.”

It was a three-peat for Ruggiero, who won for directing “Evita,” and had previously been honored for The Rep’s productions of “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

“Regina” at OTSL was Outstanding Opera ProductionIn the opera categories, Opera Theatre of St. Louis was honored
for both Outstanding Achievement in Opera, which was given to director Patricia
Racette for “La Traviata,” and the Mark Blitzstein adaptation of “The Little Foxes”
— “Regina,” as Outstanding Production of an Opera.
Three special awards were bestowed:  To the
Muny for a century of performances celebrated during its centennial season of
2018; to Kathleen Sitzer, founder and long-time artistic director of the New
Jewish Theatre, for lifetime achievement; and to Steven Woolf, Augustin
artistic director of The Rep for more than 30 years, also for lifetime
achievement.

Sitzer retired after New Jewish Theatre’s 2017-18 season, while Woolf will retire after The Rep’s 2018-19 season this spring. Organized in 2012, the St. Louis Theater Circle includes founding members Steve Allen of stagedoorstl.com, Mark Bretz of the Ladue News, Robert A. Cohn of the St. Louis Jewish Light, Chris Gibson of Broadway World, Gerry Kowarsky of HEC-TV’s “Two on the Aisle,” Chuck Lavazzi of KDHX, Judith Newmark, now of judyacttwo.com, Ann Pollack of stlouiseats.typepad.com, Lynn Venhaus, now of St. Louis Limelight magazine, Bob Wilcox of HEC-TV’s Two on the Aisle, and Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tina Farmer of KDHX and Michelle Kenyon of snoopstheatrethoughts.com. Eleanor Mullin is the administrator.

Those who helped produce the show at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University included Andrea Torrence and Peggy Holly, who put together the slide show; awards assistance Hannah Daines, stage manager Alycia Martin and assistant stage manager Delaney Dunster, voice-over announcer Colin Nichols and box office assistants Kimberly Sansone and Harry Ginsburg.

Renowned local musician Joe Dreyer was the accompanist and Deborah Sharn performed an opening number.

Special thanks to Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts, Price Waterhouse Cooper LLC, who tabulate the Circle ballots, and to the awards certificate calligrapher Susan Zenner.

Contact the Circle by email: [email protected] and like us on Facebook.

Evita at The RepInto the Breeches! at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

“La Traviata” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

100th Season Included Two Regional World Premieres
The numbers are in: 393,398 people attended the Muny’s Centennial season under the stars at America’s oldest and largest outdoor musical theater.
It is a six percent increase over 2017, and that includes an 11 percent growth in season tickets. Nearly 100,000 guests experienced a Muny production at no cost through The Muny’s free seat and community access programs.
Of the seven shows, “Meet Me in St. Louis” drew the biggest crowds, with  76,500 in attendance.  The season included “Annie,” 69,638; “Singin’ in the Rain,” 56,385; “Jersey Boys,” 54,766;  “The Wiz,” 49,486;  “Gypsy,” 43,712; and “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” 42,911.
“This season – from that magnificent Gala all the way through the fireworks finale of Meet Me In St. Louis – was truly a community-wide celebration,” said Muny President and CEO Denny Reagan. “We are so proud to have had this opportunity to share this summer with the hundreds of thousands of audience members who have made The Muny’s storied past and inspiring future possible.”

“Muny 100 was a season we will all remember the rest of our lives,” said Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson. “The passion and joy we received from the audience was palpable, and everyone on and backstage gave their extraordinary best. The only response I can have is profound awe and gratitude.”
 In addition, 6,804 guests attended The Muny’s Centennial Gala, An Evening with the Stars. When combined, total attendance for the seven-show summer season and An Evening with the Stars: 400,202.
VIDEO recap of 2018 Season: https://youtu.be/WsMENOI8yv4
100th Season attendance by show:
Jerome Robbins’ Broadway: 42,911
This monumental world regional premiere was a celebratory start to our centennial season! Scenes from some of Robbins’ biggest hits, including West Side Story, On the Town, Peter Pan, The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof showcased the talent of Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. In its first ever staging since its original Broadway production and national tour, it enchanted audiences.
The Wiz: 49,486
In its first Muny production in 36 years, this feel-good favorite had audiences clicking their heels in the aisles all night long. Sparkling with heart-pounding soul, unforgettable gospel and infectious rock rhythms, this reimagined familiar favorite had audiences ready to “Ease on Down the Road” to meet The Wiz!
Singin’ in the Rain: 56,385
Known for its splashy production numbers and snappy dialogue, this timeless Muny favorite was a downpour of pure delight. The forecast predicted sunny smiles and dazzling dancing, and stars Corbin Bleu, Berklea Going and Jeffrey Schecter splashed right into audiences’ hearts.
Jersey Boys: 54,766
The story of the magic behind the music of international sensation Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons arrived at The Muny in style in its world regional premiere. The star-studded cast even captured the heart of real-life Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio, who stopped by to give our production his heartfelt blessing.

Annie: 69,638
Everyone’s favorite plucky, freckle-faced orphan did not disappoint! Audiences took a stroll down “Easy Street” to follow the story of Annie’s journey from a “Hard Knock Life” to her forever home. With songs and kick-lines that entertained the entire family, this production was a multigenerational hit!
Gypsy: 43,712
Fans were awestruck by the countless showstoppers and striking backstory of famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. The hidden hardships and highlights of show business came center stage with a heart-stirring performance by Beth Leavel as Momma Rose in this cherished classic. We loved letting them entertain us all night long!

Meet Me In St. Louis: 76,500
Zing, zing, zing went our heartstrings! Meet Me In St. Louis was the perfect finale to our majestic centennial season. Showcasing a boy-next-door romance and a close-knit, Midwestern family, this production was the perfect ribbon on a monumental season…right here in St. Louis.

The Muny’s 101st Season announcement will take place at Muny Magic at The Sheldon on October 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available now, online at muny.org, by phone 314-534-1111 or at The Muny Box Office.
 
The Muny’s mission is to enrich lives by producing exceptional musical theatre, accessible to all, while continuing its remarkable tradition in Forest Park. As the nation’s largest outdoor musical theatre, we produce seven world-class musicals each year and welcome over 390,000 theatregoers over our nine-week season.
Celebrating 100 seasons in St. Louis, The Muny remains one of the
premier institutions in musical theatre. For more information about The Muny, visit muny.org

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Are you on holiday or having a stay-cation? Fit in a play or musical! Let the very talented theater community entertain you! Right here in St. Louis!
The Muny concludes its 100th anniversary season with “Meet Me in St. Louis.” St. Louis premieres of Verdi’s opera “Nabucco,” “The Realistic Joneses” and “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” continue this weekend.
Stray Dog Theatre opens the Southern romantic comedy musical “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Such popular musicals as “Mamma Mia!” “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” “The Music Man” and “Into the Woods” are on the boards.
Come sail away and GO SEE A PLAY.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”
The Black Mirror Theatre Company
Aug. 2-4
Kranzberg Arts Center
501 N. Grand in Grand Center
Home

Tickets: Metrotix.com or 314-534-1111
What It’s About: A tiger haunts the streets of present-day Baghdad seeking the meaning of life. As he witnesses the puzzling absurdities of war, the tiger encounters Americans and Iraqis who are searching for friendship, redemption and a toilet seat made of gold.
Director: Catherine Hopkins
Starring: Don McClendon, Brian Rolfe, Charles Winning, Laura Kyro, Kalen Riley, Erik Kuhn and Hailey Medrano.
Of Note: St. Louis premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s dark comedy set during the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Submitted photo
“Gypsy”
The Muny
July 27 – Aug. 2 nightly at 8:15 p.m.
Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park
www.muny.org
What It’s About: Gypsy Rose Lee’s semi-autobiographical tale of an ambitious stage mother, Momma Rose, who fights for her two daughters’ success while secretly yearning for her own.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Jules Stein, the 1959 musical features such songs as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Some People,” “Let Me Entertain You” and “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.”
Director: Rob Ruggiero, with music direction by James Moore and choreography by Ralph Perkins.
Starring: Beth Leavel (Rose), Adam Heller (Herbie), Julia Knitel (Louise), Hayley Podschun (Dainty June), Jennifer Cody (Tessie Tura/Miss Cratchitt), Ann Harada (Electra), Ellen Harvey (Mazeppa), Kip Niven (Pop /Cigar/Philadelphia Announcer), Drew Redington (Tulsa), Michael James Reed (Weber/Bourgeron-Cochon/Detroit Announcer), Lara Teeter (Uncle Jocko/Phil/Minsky’s Announcer), Elise Edwards (Baby Louise) and Amelie Lock (Baby June).
Of Note: This is the sixth production of “Gypsy” at the Muny, and the first one since 2006.
“Into the Woods”
Curtain’s Up Theater Company
Aug. 3-4, 9-11 at 7:30 p.m.
Alfresco Art Center in Granite Citywww.curtainsuptheater.com
What It’s About: Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical is a modern twist on several Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Director: Glenn Saltamachia, with music direction by Chuck Noud and choreography by Jeffrey Yapp-Ellis.
Starring: Liz Murphy White, Kimmie Kidd-Booker, Mark Lull, Kevin Hester, Kellen Green, Kendra Moore, Miranda Mobley, Hannah Lindsey, Alie Morgan, Jason McAdams, Sarah Ratcliff, David McCausland, Steve Anderson, Anna Campbell, Diane Wingerter, Denny Patterson and Natalie Kurz.
“Legally Blonde: The Musical”
The Hawthorne Players
July 27 – Aug. 5
Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker and Waterfordwww.hawthorneplayers.info
Box Office 314-921-5678 Monday through Friday
What It’s About: Elle Woods’ life is turned upside down when her boyfriend Warner dumps her. Determined to get him back, Elle gets into Harvard Law School where he is at, but it’s a struggle with him, her peers and professors. With support of new friends, she realizes her potential and set out to prove her worth in the world.
Of Note: You can purchase raffle tickets to win Elle’s big pink chair! Tickets are on sale at performances, and t winning ticket will be drawn by Elle in a live Facebook broadcast after the show on Sunday, Aug. 5.
Proceeds will benefit the scholarship fund. Since 1992, Hawthorne Players has presented nearly $58,900 in scholarships to high school seniors active in the performing arts.
“Mamma Mia!”
Stages St. Louis
July 20 – Aug. 19
Robert G. Reim Theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Road.
www.stagesstlouis.org
What It’s About: The musical phenomenon uses the music of ABBA to tell the story of a teen’s search for her birth father. Sophie lives on a Greek island paradise with her mother, who runs a taverna. There are three possible dads, whom she invites to her wedding. Humor, heart, and lots o’ song and dance ensue.
Director: Michael Hamilton
Cast: Corinne Melancon, Greg Goodbrod, Dana Winkle, Dan’yelle Williamson, Summerisa Bell Stevens, David Sajewich, David Schmittou and Steve Isom
Of Note: There are at least 18 sold-out performances and the advance single ticket sales have been the highest yet.
Photo by Peter Wochniak
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
The Muny
Aug. 4 – 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m.www.muny.org
Tickets: MetroTix 314-534-1111
What It’s About: Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley, and the heartwarming 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” became a wholesome portrait of a turn-of-the-century American family. Sally Benson wrote the book, based on her family who lived on Kensington. Set in the summer of 1903, the Smiths eagerly await the grand opening of the 1904 World’s Fair in Forest Park.
Director: Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with music direction by Charlie Alterman and choreography by Josh Walden
Starring: Erin Dilly (Mrs. Anna Smith), Stephen R. Buntrock (Mr. Alonso Smith), Ken Page (Grandpa Prophater), Kathy Fitzgerald (Katie), Emily Walton (Esther Smith), Liana Hunt (Rose Smith), Dan DeLuca (John Truitt), Jonathan Burke (Lon Smith), Elle Wesley (Agnes Smith) and Elena Adams (Tootie Smith).
Ensemble includes Akilah Ayanna, Michael Baxter, Leah Berry, Shawn Bowers, Michael Burrell, Emma Gassett, Berklea Going, Madison Johnson, Jeff Jordan, Halle Morse, Ben Nordstrom, Commodore C. Primous III, Payton Pritchett, Cooper Stanton, Julia Paige Thorn and Brion Marquis Watson. The company will also be joined by the Muny Kid and Teen youth ensembles.
Of Note: This is the finale to the centennial season. This production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel.
“The Music Man”
Over Due Theatre Co
Aug. 3, 4 @ 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 5 at 2 p.m.
9723 Grandview Drive, Olivette M0 63132
Tickets: 314-292-9368 or email [email protected]
What It’s About: Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City. Con artist Harold Hill comes to small town in Iowa to swindle townsfolk into thinking their kids will be in a big brass band. But he falls in love with prim librarian and changes his tune. Sorta.
 
 
“Nabucco”
Union Avenue Opera
Aug. 3-4
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Union Avenue Christian Church
733 Union at Enrightwww.unionavenueopera.org
314-361-2881
What It’s About Verdi’s “Nabucco” is an epic Biblical tale. Nabucco, King of Babylon, seizes control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. Meanwhile, his daughter Fenena and her half-sister Abigaille are both in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the King of Jerusalem. War rages on between Babylon and Jerusalem. Abigaille, thinking to stop the warring once and for all, tells Ismaele that she wills save his people if he vows to love her and not Fenena. When he denies her, Abigaille ruthlessly plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne, and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
Director: Mark Freiman
Starring: Robert Garner as Nabucco, Marsha Thompson as Abigaille, Melody Wilson as Fenena, Zachary James as Zaccaria, Jesse Donner as Ismaele, Karen Kanakis as Anna, Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, and Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal.
Ensemble – Douglas Allebach, Madeline Black, Aleksandar Dragojevic, David Fournie, Jon Garrett, Rebecca Hetlelid, Michael Hawkins, Emily Heyl, Jeffrey Heyl, Lori Hoffman, Hannah Kauffmann, Amy Mazzeo, Jayde Mitchell, Joel Rogier, Tina Sayers and Caetlyn Van Bure.
Of Note: The opera is sung in Italian with English titles. Not since Wagner’s Ring cycle has Union Avenue Opera presented a show with such epic splendor. It features some of Verdi’s grandest orchestral and choral music ever written, including the soul-stirring “Va, pensiero” chorus.
Photo by John Lamb
“The Realistic Jones”
Rebel and Misfits Productions
July 26 – Aug. 12
Jewish Community Center black box theatre
2 Millstone Campuswww.rebelandmisfitsproductions.com
What It’s About: Will Eno connects two suburban couples who have so much more in common than their identical homes and their shared last names. As their relationships begin to irrevocably intertwine, the Joneses must decide between their idyllic fantasies and their imperfect realities and, ultimately, confront mortality.
Director: Edward M. Coffield
Cast: Isaiah DiLorenzo, Kelly Hummert, Alan Knoll and Laurie McConnell.
Of Note: It is the St. Louis premiere. It was named to the list of “Best 25 Plays Since ‘Angels in America’” by the New York Times.
Photo by Eric Woolsey
 
“The Robber Bridegroom”
Stray Dog Theatre
Aug. 2 – 18
Tower Grove Abbey
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Additional performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15www.straydogtheatre.org
What It’s About: A bawdy, rousing Southern fairy tale is set in Mississippi follows Jamie Lockhart, a rascally robber of the woods, as he courts Rosamund, the sole daughter of the richest planter in the country. Thanks to a case of double-mistaken identity, the entangled relationship begins to unravel. Throw in an evil stepmother, her pea-brained henchman, and a hostile talking headin-a-trunk, and you have a rollicking country romp.
Director: Justin Been, with music direction by Jennifer Buchheit and choreography by Mike Hodges.
Starring: Phil Leveling, Dawn Schmid, Jeffrey Wright, Logan Willmore, Bryce Miller, Kevin O’Brien, Chris Ceradsky, Susie Lauren, Sarah Gene Dowling, Christen Ringhausen, Shannon Lampkin and Rachel Sexson.
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Imelda Staunton. Their different portraits of the iconic Momma Rose character in “Gypsy” are among the most legendary in theater history. Now add Beth Leavel to that august list.
The Muny’s sixth production of the gutsy Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim classic hits the heights in so many ways, but first and foremost is Leavel’s knockout performance.
Most of the time, the ambitious Momma Rose is viewed as a heartless monster and played in that blustery, brassy Merman-style. Others have realized that Rose is a tough survivor. Either way, she is hard to warm up to, but at least Leavel makes you understand her.

Leavel is a Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” veteran of 12 Broadway shows and Muny diva whose “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014 remains one of the outdoor stage’s finest shows. Tackling this titanic role was a challenge I was certain she could meet but was not prepared for the delicate balance she achieved.
Sure, hear her roar. A born belter who projects well, Leavel pretty much started at 11, and then dialed back to modulate this complex character.
Given that Rose was introduced in 1959, when theater was not a champion of woman empowerment, it’s interesting that book writer Arthur Laurents wrote such a complicated part. And now it’s on nearly every actress’s bucket list.
The show is loosely based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer known internationally for her striptease artistry. She’s the Louise inspiration, and her sister, actress June Havoc, is Baby June.
Their mother pushed them into the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, dreaming of showbiz success. June was the extroverted performer while Louise was shy and in the background. That changes during the show’s many conflicts.
This ultimate stage mother, fiercely driven and controlling, is twice-divorced and perpetually broke. Rose must be resourceful and rely on her wits in a world not used to strong independent women.
She is a bulldozer, but peerless director Rob Ruggiero’s emphasis is that she’s motivated out of desperation. Always thinking of where their next gig will be, and if they can grab the spotlight, Rose is all about what’s next – for her and those she loves.
Because their mother is living through her children’s lives, Baby June and Louise will suffer the consequences from her abrasive efforts. However, her bossiness hides the fear of failing, of losing, of not making it through to the next day.
Ruggiero’s ability to deconstruct a 1950s era “book musical” and bring out what makes it enduring is why his shows resonate, especially on the expansive Muny stage. Despite my familiarity with a show I’ve seen multiple times, he makes it seem that I’m seeing it for the first time – namely “Hello, Dolly!” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma” at the Muny, and award-winning “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park with George” at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Besides a vulnerability that seeps through in this “Gypsy,” there is an undercurrent of hunger. People are hungry physically, emotionally and mentally. They crave some things that have been out of reach or are not yet attainable, whether it be a nourishing meal, a living wage, a sense of worth or a dream realized.
Because of this deeper context, the musical is not just a showcase for Momma Rose, and this cast has an abundance of talent. Adam Heller captures nice-guy agent Herbie, the good cop to Rose’s bad cop, in a nuanced portrait of the man Rose loves – and pushes around. He and Leavel, a real-life couple, are noticeably in sync in their numbers “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and “Together Wherever We Go.”
While they headline, Julia Knitel is a stealth bomber. Lanky and awkward as a reluctant Louise, the proverbial people-pleaser who only wants what Momma says is best, she blooms as Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a striking performance, and her physical transformation is astonishing – although Knitel was already endearing from the get-go, especially in the heartbreaking “Little Lamb.”

She and Hayley Podschun as June share nice moments, including “If Momma Was Married.”
Their younger counterparts, Amelie Lock as Baby June and Elise Edwards as Baby Louise, are winsome performers. It’s a slick move when Ruggiero transitions them from young to older midway in a number.
Another standout is St. Louisan and Muny regular Drew Redington as Tulsa, a superb dancer who outgrows the kiddie act. His solo to “All I Need Is the Girl” is sensational.

The scene-stealing strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” are not only a hilarious sight gag but terrific performers who were a bright spot of comic relief. Jennifer Cody as Tessie Tura, Ann Harada as an older Electra and Ellen Harvey as a statuesque Mazeppa were laugh-out-loud funny.
Lighting designer John Lasiter’s precise work deserves mention, as does costume designer Amy Clark, going the showbiz gamut from kitsch to glitz — and those distinctive patterned cloth coats for Rose.

Scenic designer Luke Cantarella draped the show in reality – muted colors for drab sets to indicate the hardships during financially strapped times, and the dingy two-bit nature of the fading vaudeville circuit.
Ruggiero’s dream team of choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director James Moore assured that the song-and-dance numbers would be first-rate. They’ve worked together on multiple productions.
Nevertheless, maestro Moore raised the bar. He displayed his expertise conducting the orchestra in an overture that was so magnificent the audience applauded midway. And this was only the start of something special. The orchestra’s big wall of sound, with all that splendid brass, was one of the show’s best elements..
After all, what great material to work with — Jule Styne wrote this unforgettable music. He’s behind such famous tunes as “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Let It Snow” and ‘The Party’s Over.” Paired with lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, fresh off “West Side Story,” these songs have stood the test of time.
“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” brings the house down at the end of Act I. And Leavel still had plenty left in her tank for Act 2.
After Rose has cajoled and bullied her way through nearly two acts, we are ready for Momma to confront her demons in the showstopper “Rose’s Turn.”
In this emotional wallop, Leavel gave it everything she had, defiantly going through a litany of anger, frustration and regrets for Rose to finally realize she did it for herself. And to herself.
It’s one of the greatest scenes ever, and Leavel hits it over the free-seats fence. Afterwards, we had to let it sink in, like she did in catharsis, and then wave after wave of applause stopped the show until the very long ovation waned.
That shared experience is what we all hope for when watching live theater, and she earned it, seizing her moment, fearless and alone on that stage.
While the show is bleak – and I’ve seen productions that were darker – there is still a glimmer of hope: that mothers and daughters can reconcile, that brighter days are ahead, and that all the work that goes into a goal was worth it.
This “Gypsy” doesn’t sugar-coat show business or struggles, and instead tells us about real-and-flawed people trying to get by and get noticed. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling and features a cast that makes you feel everything they experience.
“Gypsy” was clearly ahead of its time, back in 1959. And this week it was time for the Muny to hit repeat in a brand new way for this Centennial Season.
“Gypsy” is presented July 27 through Aug. 2 at 8:15 p.m. nightly at The Muny’s outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org or call MetroTix at 314- 534-1111.

Photos by Phillip  Hamer