By Lynn Venhaus
Arts For Life’s 21st annual Best Performance Awards will now take place in cyberspace on Sunday, June 14, rather than at the Skip Viragh Center for the Performing Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School. This year’s gala gathering has been cancelled and reimagined because of the current public health situation.

The 2020 Best Performance Awards, honoring excellence in community and youth musical theater productions presented during 2019, will premiere at 2 p.m. as a live interactive viewing event on the AFL Facebook page, but the awards show will have been pre-recorded. In addition to the BPA Facebook Watch Party, the video will be on the AFL YouTube channel as a live event and then will remain for later viewings. Please subscribe so you can get a reminder of the event.

Arts For Life will announce winners in 33 categories and will reveal the annual youth scholarship awardees. There will also be several special presentations. The Lifetime Achievement Award will not be presented this year.

Jennifer Kerner

Arts For Life will honor Jennifer Kerner with a Special Achievement Award for her advocacy on inclusion and helping to make the live theater experience accessible to all individuals. Kerner, a local singer and actress, works to help place people with developmental disabilities in jobs. She has guided local theater companies in providing sensory-friendly performances and has worked to create comfortable environments for those on the autism spectrum and those with sensory processing disorders.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire St. Louis Metropolitan region. Mandatory stay-at-home orders remain in effect for all 8,460 square miles that the Arts For Life family calls home: St. Louis city and county, St. Charles County and the Metro-East.

With the need to maintain social distancing and to wear face coverings to lessen community spread, as well as the fact that all AFL performance venues remain closed at this time and that there is considerable uncertainty as to when large group events will be allowed to resume, the AFL board made the difficult decision to cancel the annual BPA gathering and transition to a streamed format .

AFL President Mary McCreight emphasizes that the AFL board will continue to base their decisions upon the best information currently available in this rapidly evolving situation and will continue to share information promptly and transparently, mindful of the need for our community to receive timely updates.

“While we are disappointed that we cannot produce the regular in-person ceremony that so many people look forward to attending, we hope that moving to a stream-based format will still provide an opportunity for our local arts community to come together online and celebrate the many outstanding achievements of the previous year,” McCreight said.

In an emergency notification on March 16, McCreight had previously suspended all public activities of the AFL organization, effective until at least May 1. At the most recent regularly scheduled meeting, held via teleconference on April 18, the board voted to extend the suspension through July 31 with the following two exceptions:

The Board has not yet taken a final decision regarding the fifth annual Theater Mask Awards ceremony set to honor achievements in non-musical plays. The brunch ceremony had already been rescheduled from April 4 to July 18 at the Atrium Banquet Center on the Christian Hospital campus in North St. Louis County. Stay tuned for announcements regarding any potential changes that might further affect the timing and/or location of this upcoming event.

Because of the suspension of public activities, the Theatre Recognition Guild (TRG) judging activities for the BPA branch (musicals) are suspended through July 31. However, activities for the TMA branch (non-musical plays) may resume slightly earlier if conditions permit. TMA branch judges and participating groups should be alert for any announcements regarding future developments.

“As our world, our nation and our region face a major health threat, it falls upon us as a community to adopt measures that will both foster the protection of those who work and ‘play’ in Metro St. Louis community theatre and ultimately allow AFL to continue our charitable mission of service and recognition once the threat passes,” the president added.

For those who have purchased BPA tickets, AFL will contact you about refund options and how your money can be returned. Instead of receiving a refund you might also consider treating the purchase amount as a tax-deductible donation to AFL.

“We appreciate your support. I am incredibly grateful to all of our constituencies – the board, judges, participating groups, audience members and donors – for their commitment to AFL and their engagement and unwavering support of our local theatre community during these uncertain times,” McCreight said.

To see a list of the nominees, visit the website: www.artsforlife.org

For this year’s honors, the Gershwin 1920s musical-screwball comedy “Nice Work If You Can Get It” from Kirkwood Theatre Guild and the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” from Christ Memorial Productions each garnered 17 nominations apiece, including Best Large Ensemble.

Kayla Dressman

CMP’s “Dream Laurie,” Kayla Dressman, will receive a special award for Best Featured Dancer.

Among youth groups, the Goshen Theatre Project scored 18 nominations – 13 for “Les Miserables School Edition” and 5 for “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” Bennett English, who played Jean Valjean, will receive a special award for Best Youth Musical Performance.

Other ensemble nominees include “Hello, Dolly!” from Wentzville Christian Church, “Oklahoma!” from Monroe Actors Stage Company and “The Bridges of Madison County” from Alpha Players of Florissant for Best Large Ensemble and “A New Brain” from Hawthorne Players and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” from O’Fallon TheatreWorks for Best Small Ensemble.

For Best Youth Production, besides “Les Miserables,” nominees include “The Drowsy Chaperone” from Riverbend Theatre, “Matilda” from Gateway Center for the Performing Arts, “Newsies” from Young People’s Theatre and “Spring Awakening” from Gateway Center for the Performing Arts.

Fifteen theater groups and 10 youth-only groups participate in the BPAs, which has honored musical theater since 1999. AFL was founded in 1994 by Lucinda Guyrci as a local non-profit organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the under-served and the community.

This year, judges scored 46 shows — 19 large ensembles, 3 small ensembles and 24 youth productions — from 27 participating groups, featuring 939 roles. For 2019, there are 154 individual nominations from 22 groups, and 36 percent are first-time nominees.

“We hope that you and your loved ones stay safe during this difficult time,” McCreight said. “Because of your commitment to our community and belief in our mission, my optimism is not diminished about AFL being able to move forward once this unprecedented time passes.” 

For more information, contact AFL TRG Secretary Kim Klick at [email protected]

Be sure to subscribe/like to our social media: https://www.facebook.com/artsforlifestlouis, https://twitter.com/arts_for_life and YouTube channel.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Stray Dog Theatre’s “Guys and Dolls” has gusto from the guys and gumption from
the dolls, giving it an extra shot of pizzazz.

This snazzy ensemble puts oomph in every song and every
scene, and the young cast provides a freshness to the material that makes this
delightful confection very charming.

One of Broadway’s most beloved golden-age classics, the 1950
Frank Loesser musical comedy is such a fixture in school and community theater
that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t seen it, been on a crew
or acted in it.

Nearly everyone who has a connection to the play looks back
on it fondly, as you just can’t find fault with those peppy numbers, no matter
how times have changed. The colorful characters are based on Damon Runyon’s
short stories, included in Jo Swerling’s book and polished by the renowned late
comedy writer Abe Burrows.

“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – Photo by John LambGary F. Bell’s tight direction, along with Jennifer
Buchheit’s effervescent musical direction and Mike Hodges’ dynamic choreography,
has created a high-spirited production that pops with personality.

The show is not merely a blast from the past but a peppery,
spry and amusing tale of high rollers and holy rollers finding common ground in
the hustle and bustle of Times Square.

This production is distinguished by Sara Rae Womack’s bubbly Adelaide, Kevin O’Brien’s conflicted and goofy Nathan Detroit and Mike Wells’ happy-go-lucky Nicely-Nicely Johnson, whose warm tenor propels “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” to be the showstopper it should be.

Womack, employing a Betty Boop voice, delivers one of her
strongest performances to date as the optimistic entertainer Miss Adelaide, who
has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. It’s complicated. Womack hits the
sweet spot giving long-suffering Adelaide sass but a genuine sincerity too. She
and the sunny O’Brien are terrific together, especially in “Sue Me.” And she is
a born showgirl leading the Hot Box Girls in “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take
Back Your Mink.”

The Hot Box Girls. Photo by John LambWomack, O’Brien and Wells have energy to spare, and their
enthusiasm playing these roles is contagious, as are the wise-guys and Hot Box Girls
who all appear to be having fun.

The animated players Cory Frank as Benny Southstreet, Stephen Henley as Harry the Horse, Yianni Perahoritis as Angie the Ox, Bryce Miller as Rusty Charlie and Jordan Wolk as Liver Lips Louie shake the dust from dodgier versions and deliver that unique slang-antiquated dialogue splendidly. Then, there is comical Zachary Stefaniak just killing it as the imposing hustler Big Jule. He makes the most of his crap-game moments and doesn’t have to say much to elicit laughs.

The endearing guys have us at “Fugue for Tinhorns” and then
it’s crisply-staged jaunty song and dance, and joyful interactions after that –
especially a robust “The Oldest Established” and the title song, “Luck Be a
Lady.”

“Fugue for Tinhorns” Photo by John LambOn the other hand, Jayde Mitchell has a beautiful, well-trained
voice and croons his numbers with skill as cool Sky Masterson – especially “I’ll
Know” and “My Time of Day,” but doesn’t exhibit enough swagger as the debonair mobster.
 

Perky Angela Bubash, who smiles broadly on stage in every Stray
Dog Theatre musical she’s been in, appears to be playing against type as the
uptight Sarah Brown, a prim and proper spiritually-guided woman who questions
her ability to convert sinners to saints and then gets mixed up falling in love
with Sky. It’s a tough character to warm up to anyway – stiff and unyielding
until she drinks rum in Havana and softens to the charismatic bad boy, but Bubash’s
vocal range doesn’t always suit the demanding role, as displayed in “I’ve Never
Been in Love Before.”
It doesn’t help the romantic storyline that Bubash and Mitchell have zilch
chemistry on stage. She fares better with Womack in “Marry the Man Today.” And
they blend well with their groups. The Save-a-Soul Mission force is led gracefully
by Howard S. Bell as kind and warm-hearted Arvide Abernathy, Sarah’s
grandfather, whose added Irish accent is a plus. His superb rendition of “More
I Cannot Wish You” is touching and one of the highlights.

Jennifer Brown is a confident General Cartwright while Kaitlin Gant as Martha and Alyssa Durbin as Agatha are earnest Mission ‘dolls.’ However, Brown’s blocking in “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” obscures others from view.

Elizabeth Semko, Alyssa Wolf, Molly Marie Meyer and Kayla
Dressman are in sync and sparkle as the fizzy Hot Box Girls. Chris Moore is the
agitated Lt. Brannigan.

“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” showstopper. Photo by John LambThe entire ensemble hits it out of the park with “Sit Down,
You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” so that “The Happy Ending” seems just a perfunctory wrap-up,
but the musical is a jolly good time.

The large band of 11 talented musicians executed the grand
score in style and kept a lively tempo throughout, with fine work by music
director Jennifer Buchheit on piano; Joe Akers and Ron Foster on trumpet; Lea
Gerdes, Joseph Hendricks and Ian Hayden on reeds; Mallory Golden on violin, P.
Tom Hanson on trombone, Michaela Kuba on cello, M. Joshua Ryan on bass and Joe
Winters on percussion.

While it’s a space crunch because of logistics, Josh Smith’s scenic design made the cityscape tall in re-imagining Times Square on that small stage while lighting designer Tyler Duenow focused on bright lights for the city that never sleeps. Costume designer Lauren Smith captured the era well. Audio Engineer Jane Wilson’s sound was smooth.

This upbeat musical stands the test of time, and SDT has made it a refreshing summer punch. Sit back, let the world go by, and enjoy!

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Guys and Dolls” Aug. 8 – 24, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis 63104. Special matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18 and added evening performance on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Many shows are sold out or near sell-out, so visit the website at www.straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Full disclosure: the reviewer has directed two community theater productions of “Guys and Dolls,” in 1992 and 2011.

Photo by John Lamb