‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ and an Encore of ‘Songs for Nobodies’ to be Staged

Max & Louie Productions joyfully announces its “Comeback” with the St. Louis premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things” based on the New York Times bestseller, “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed and adapted for the stage by Oscar nominee, Nia Vardalos, playing at The Grandel Theatre July 29-August 8,2021.

“We are so pleased to reopen safely, and welcome back St. Louis audiences with a powerful, dynamic, and empathetic play about words and the power of words to connect with one another. It’s the kind of connection that we have had to be extremely grateful for this past year,” said Stellie Siteman, Producing Artistic Director of Max & Louie Productions.

When life is hard, turn to Sugar.  “Tiny Beautiful Things” follows Sugar, an online advice columnist who uses her personal experiences to help the real-life readers who pour their hearts out to her. Rich with humor, insight, compassion and absolute honesty, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a play about reaching when you’re stuck, healing when you’re broken, and finding the courage to take on the questions that have no answers.

The cast includes Michelle Hand as “Sugar”, Greg Johnston as Letter Writer #1, Wendy Renee Greenwood as Letter Writer#2, and Abraham Shaw as Letter Writer #3.  Sydnie Grosberg Ronga directs.

Critic’s Pick! “Tiny Beautiful Things” is about the endangered art of listening to-and really hearing and responding to-other people… it works beautifully as a sustained theatrical exercise in empathy.”

The New York Times

“…a show that aims to open our eyes to the tiny moments when the world surprises us with care.”

New York Magazine 

“Heart-tugging and emotionally rewarding.”

The Huffington Post

“… a theatrical hug in turbulent times”

Variety

“Tiny Beautiful Things” will run at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis, Missouri 63108. The dates of the production are July 29-August 8,2021. Tickets will go on sale Monday, June 14th 2021 at metrotix.com or by phone at (314) 534-1111. Online Socially Distanced Reserved Seating will be restricted to groups of 2 and 4 consecutive seats. Booth seating is available for a group of 4 or 6 persons. Tickets are priced from $35-$55.

**Max & Louie Productions has received its Missouri ArtSafe certification. To ensure that we may create safely, present safely, and attend safely we pledge to Covid-19 safe protocols which patrons are encouraged to view at Max & Louie Productions’ website at www.maxandlouie.com.

The 2021 season concludes with the Max & Louie Productions’ hit revival of “Songs for Nobodies” written by Joanna Murray-Smith and presented at the Grandel Theatre December 2-12th 2021.

This one-woman powerhouse performance, starring Debby Lennon, weaves the music of legendary divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, and Maria Callas throughout a mosaic of stories told by the everyday women who had unexpected life-changing encounters with these musical icons.

Featuring such favorites as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Crazy,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “Vissi d’ arte,” “Songs for Nobodies” illuminates the power of song to share a story, heal a heartbreak, and inspire a dream.

“It’s a perfectly marvelous show to kick off the holidays”, exclaimed Stellie Siteman, Artistic Director.

Critic’s Pick! “Max & Louie’s ‘Songs for Nobodies’ is an intimate triumph.”

-Calvin Wilson St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Dazzling work from Debby Lennon and lots of bang for the audiences buck in this little jewel from Max & Louie Productions.”

-Ann Pollack St. Louis Eats and Drinks

“… Lennon’s range is astonishing. Her performance as an actor who portrays five, ordinary, utterly individual women is at least as impressive as her singing.”

-Judy Newmark Judy Act Two

Ten women, all played by one extraordinary actress, in “Songs for Nobodies” is directed by Pamela Hunt and runs at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis, Missouri 63108. The dates of the production are December 2-12th,2021. Tickets go on sale at metrotix.com or by phone (314) 534-1111 on October 11th,2021. Tickets are priced from $35-$60 Booth seating is available for a group of 4-6 persons.

By Lynn Venhaus

Wow. Just a WOW.
Dynamic Debby Lennon has a beautifully trained voice that is spellbinding, and even better on stage when she is playing a character. She is a terrific storyteller, which is why she’s often the centerpiece in recent revelatory shows by Max and Louie Productions.

“Songs for Nobodies” showcases both those talents in a warm, endearing way. On a simple set, wearing a nondescript black dress, Lennon vividly creates a genuine connection between the audience and the stars.

Lennon smoothly guides us through homages of divas Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. This is no small feat, given the challenges of their distinctive personas but also the differences in dialects and genres – standards, country, blues, torch ballads and opera.

Lennon delivers each number with customary skill, from Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen classic that was part of her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961, to Callas’ signature aria “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” – her 1953 recording is considered the best.

Photo by John Lamb

These are not imitations, but rather representations. As Lennon sings these memorable selections of the 20th century in a revealing and heartfelt way, we are transported to other times and places, as this play offers intimate glimpses into ordinary lives with extraordinary results.

Kevin Bowman’s projection design creates a visual frame of reference for each interaction – the famous singer, who after all is human, and the regular people who are their fans. Touched by the music, those fans make a connection that matters in their lives.

Lennon sets each vignette by smartly defining each fictional everyday woman character with humor and instantly likable traits. And why not? They have unexpected life-changing encounters with musical icons of the 20th century, much to their surprise and joy.

These females are the “Nobodies” in the title, but that’s facetious because they are significant human beings. And Lennon brings out the fun in those personalities.

Lennon has sung with the St. Louis Symphony for 33 years and has performed with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Union Avenue Opera and Winter Opera in St. Louis, in addition to the Muny and other professional regional theater companies.

Debby Lennon sings Edith Piaf, Photo by John Lamb.

For her unforgettable performances in Max and Louie’s “Grey Gardens” and “Souvenir,” she won two St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. Last year, she appeared in the one-woman show “Love, Linda, The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.”

Perhaps the most emotional segment is Billie Holiday’s, given her troubles with addiction and the segregated time she lived in, and her bold song “Strange Fruit” is an example of her courage. And “Lady Sings the Blues” was part of her portfolio too.

And French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s rousing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (No, I Don’t Regret Anything) is one of the most familiar songs, and Lennon matches its fervor. She also delivers a robust “L’Accordeoniste.”

Music Director Nicolas Valdez, who also plays piano, superbly conducts the one-woman show. He is joined by Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion. They are behind a black scrim that is strikingly lit by lighting designer Tony Anselmo, a nice touch.

With wit and charm, Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith has imagined these memorable women in intriguing scenarios. Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who is stationed in a powder room in a New York hotel; Pearl Avalon, a proud back-up singer; and fashion writer Too Junior Jones thrilled to interview Billie Holliday take place in the U.S. Edie Delamotte, whose section takes historical liberties when talking about Piaf; and Orla McDonough with prima donna Maria Callas.

The most moving is Edie Delamotte’s recollection of her French father’s hardships during World War II.

The play is captivating in the way it presents the personalities, this timeless music and why we care about our relationships with artists.

Director Pamela Hunt also noted the women lived at a time where many a man controlled their lives. This is indeed an interesting aspect.

These gifted singers are bright-light individuals who allowed their brilliance to shine, which is still felt today, and their stories go beyond entertainment.

In their mission statement, Max and Louie refers to “bringing artists and audiences together in a shared experience that illuminates life through joy, wonder, laughter and tears.” Mission accomplished with “Songs for Nobodies.” You could feel the audience’s happiness. That’s a good way to start Max and Louie’s 11th season.

Max and Louie Productions presents “Songs for Nobodies” Jan. 23 – Feb. 2 at the Kranzberg Arts Center. 501 N. Grand. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. A special 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Feb. 1, has been added. For more information, visit www.maxandlouie.com

Debby Lennon. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Although Peter Allen did not get a Hollywood ending, his remarkable true-life
story of how he skyrocketed to fame through sheer talent, drive and his
ebullient personality deserves a splashy musical as good as Stages St. Louis production.

“The Boy from Oz” is the kind of glitzy material that the
company has excelled at for 33 seasons, their intimate stage a canvas for
crowd-pleasing flashy numbers and lavish costumes, with added poignancy that
tugs at our heartstrings. Allen died of AIDS-related throat cancer in 1992; he
was 48.

You may not recognize the name, but you have heard Allen’s
songs, and this show reminds us of his catchy pop hits and power ballads, which
he often wrote for other artists (Olivia Newton-John, Melissa Manchester, Rita
Coolidge).

The Stages production is the Midwest premiere of this rarely
produced musical, although Hugh Jackman won a Tony in 2004 for Leading Actor in
a Musical in the first Australian production ever mounted on Broadway.

Born in a small bush town, Aussie Allen became one of the greatest showmen of the 1970s and ‘80s, and in the title role, David Elder makes him unforgettable. With his charming smile and boundless energy, Elder glides into the role with ease – singing and dancing with oodles of pizzazz, from tender love songs to the era’s disco beats.

Elder’s bravura performance is a stunning display of sass, class and Energizer Bunny motion. Winning over the crowd from his first appearance as the adult Peter, he dynamically captures the life force that Allen was, daring to say: ‘I am who I am, and you can’t ignore or stop me.’ It’s one of the most muscular and joyous lead performances of the year.

As Allen’s fame grew, he was a regular on the talk show
circuit, brightening up those couches, often wearing his trademark Hawaiian
shirts. I recall how genuine he seemed as an entertainer, although extremely
flamboyant – he clearly loved the glamour of showbiz, opened at Carnegie Hall,
danced with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and sang on the Academy
Awards.

This musical, with a snappy book by Martin Sherman and Nick
Enright, emphasizes his life as tailor-made rags-to-riches name-in-lights legend.
The cheeky wit is endearing as Elder narrates Allen’s first-person story.

To chronicle his life, original producers Ben Gannon and Robert
Fox used Allen’s own music and lyrics: “Best That You Can Do” (1981 Oscar
winning song known as “Arthur’s Theme” co-written with Burt Bacharach, Carole
Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross), “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love,”
“Everything Old is New Again,” “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” “I Honestly Love
You” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud” among them.

Corinne Melancon and David Elder. Photo by Peter Wochniak“Not the Boy Next Door” turns out to be a fun number between
mother and son. Reliable veteran Corinne Melancon, who seemingly can play any
kind of role, from the pious Mother Superior in “Sister Act” to strong-willed
single mother Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!” during her frequent summers at
Stages, provides affection and pride as Peter’s mother Marion Woolnough, strong
in voice and characterization.

And it’s not just Elder who is sensational, but two debuts are noteworthy. While his Allen interpretation is a slow build – I mean, he doesn’t start at 11, Michele Ragusa is an astonishing Judy Garland, feisty right out of the gate, quickly becoming a patron favorite and stealing the show with her well-timed quips, mannerisms and powerful vocals. Garland’s husband, Mark Herron, discovered Allen in of all places, Hong Kong.

Ragusa soars in “All I Wanted Was the Dream” and “Don’t
Wish Too Hard,” and the moving “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage” with
Elder.

Garland’s daughter and his future wife, Liza Minnelli, is played with panache by Caitlyn Caughell. She assumed the role after Sarah Ellis (St. Louis Theater Circle nominee as Laurie in “Oklahoma!”) was injured and needed surgery.

She portrays the right mix of bravado and vulnerability as Liza embarks on her own celebrated career, shows her mettle in “Come Save Me” and “She Loves to Hear the Music” with the ensemble. The couple, who divorced after seven years of marriage, remained friends for life, and Elder and Caughell convey that bond.

Michele Ragusa as Judy GarlandZach Trimmer portrays Peter’s longtime love, Texas model
Greg Connell, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1984. He’s not a warm and
fuzzy character, so their relationship appears to have some holes in the
retelling. The pair share two affecting duets, “If You Were Wondering” and “Love
Don’t Need a Reason.”

Two boys, Ben Iken and Simon Desilets, alternate playing an
eager young Peter, who just wants to entertain, singing and dancing for small
change. Versatile mainstage mainstay Erik Keiser excels as Peter’s first
singing partner, Chris Bell, in their “brother act,” first appearing on
Australian Bandstand as The Allen Brothers. They would have a successful
touring cabaret act and appear on TV.

As is customary at Stages, Steve Isom plays several roles,
from Peter’s abusive alcoholic dad Dick Woolnough to his brusque manager Dee
Anthony.

The ensemble is as energetic and enthusiastic as Elder is,
and their showstopping grand finale, the 1976 salsa-flavored disco hit, “I Go
to Rio,” is a rousing number in which dancers make quite an entrance in Brad
Musgrove’s elaborate sequined costumes. Musgrove, who never met a sequin he
didn’t like, outdoes the Follies here in spectacular shiny silver-and-white outfits.
The costumes received their own applause, as did Dana Lewis’ robust choreography.

James Wolk’s scenic design is straightforward, allowing the
music numbers to be the focus, and there is a lovely nighttime New York skyline
through an apartment picture window. Sean M. Savoie’s brightly colored lighting
design complements Wolk’s set beautifully.

Director Michael Hamilton emphasizes the vivacious side of Peter while not forgetting the sorrow. He crisply stages the Judy-Peter-Mark-Chris number “Only an Older Woman” with as much oomph as he does with the exuberant ensemble numbers “Sure Thing Baby” at the Copacabana and “When I Get My Name in Lights.” Stuart Elmore’s orchestrations work well, while music director Lisa Campbell Albert varies the tempo to suit each singer.

“Caught between the moon and New York City” will always
define Allen for me. It’s just one of those phrases that you’ll always remember
with a smile, especially if you have fallen in love with the city like he did. And
he’s impossible to forget after seeing his story, “The Boy from Oz.”

David Elder and Ben Iken as old and young Peter AllenStages St. Louis presents “The Boy from Oz” May
31-June 30 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111
S. Geyer Road, St. Louis, 63122. For more information or to purchase tickets,
visit www.StagesStLouis.org or
call 314-821-2407.