By Lynn Venhaus
On Sunday night, the Critics Choice Awards will air beginning at 6 p.m. CST on the CW (ch. 11 in STL). I promise you, it will be way better than the Golden Globes.

For one, I vote as a member of Critics Choice Association (formerly Broadcast Film Critics Association). Hehehehe. I am one of 400+ members. Secondly, we have a diverse membership and our nominations reflect that, unlike the 87 at HFPA.

As far as the show goes, this is what our leadership reports:

We will have virtually all our nominated performers participating virtually in our show on Sunday night. Our lineup of Presenters includes Kevin Bacon, Angela Bassett, Mayim Bialik, Phoebe Dynevor, Morgan Freeman, Gal Gadot, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Hemsworth, Jameela Jamil, Eva Longoria, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jared Padalecki, Kyra Sedgwick, Yara Shahidi, Courtney B. Vance, John David Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But once the Critics Choice winner is announced and all the nominees have reacted, we will focus full-screen on the live acceptance speech, without awkwardly returning to the other nominees. And we will offer generous clips showcasing our nominated performances, a treat for audiences who may be inspired to discover movies and series they want to catch up on.

Hosted for the third year in a row by Taye Diggs and with our special See Her Award going to Zendaya, we hope and expect that our 26th annual Critics Choice Awards show will be our best ever. And as the world starts to return to normal in the coming months, we will continue to shine our light on the best the creative community has to offer at our Critics Choice Real TV Awards, Critics Choice Documentary Awards, and Critics Choice Super Awards.

Me and Seth Meyers at 2020 Awards

Last month, we brought our 3rd annual Celebration of Black Cinema to a national audience for the first time, reinforcing our commitment to championing the broadest spectrum of popular entertainment. If it’s as fun as it was last year, I will be very proud and happy! (I attended the ceremony in Santa Monica last January 2020).

It was really hard to pick winners this year — so many good nominees.

Enjoy, movie lovers!

(And if you want to read/listen to my reviews, I am in the Webster-Kirkwood Times; KTRS Radio (segment with Ray Hartmann on Sound Cloud — just go to station website, under Shows, click St Louis in the Know, and the list of audio clips is right there; Reel Times Trio podcast (all posted on Facebook page); and my website, www.PopLifeSTL.com, which is a work in progress, but content is growing.)

Me and Awkwafina at 2020 Awards

By Lynn Venhaus

The movie “Hamilton” meets the moment! Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changer remains a vibrant experience five years after opening on Broadway. Its brilliance shines brightest with the original cast, and its synergy is a thing of beauty.

The cultural phenomenon “Hamilton,” the most nominated musical ever on Broadway and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, had two performances recorded on June 25-26, 2016, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. This is after the musical won 11 Tony Awards, one shy of the record, and while the original cast was still intact. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, is the central figure in this retelling of history and political scheming. It also includes Hamilton’s family and romantic drama, based on Ron Chernow’s biography.

Miranda’s masterpiece is a hopeful reflection on the ‘unfinished symphony’ that is America – he presents a history lesson, inside view on the messy political process and an amalgam of modern and Broadway styles of music in a grand and glorious way.

Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, also stars in the title role. He cast black, Latino and Asian-Americans as the characters – “it is about America then as told by America now.” This ensemble is the gold standard – particularly Tony Award winners Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, who resents the ambitious Hamilton’s easy climb; Daveed Diggs as loyal Lafayette in the first act and cocky Thomas Jefferson in the second; and Renee Elise Goldsberry as fiery Angelica Schuyler, whose sweet sister Eliza marries Hamilton; plus nominees Christopher Jackson as an imposing George Washington, Phillipa Soo as the kind-hearted wife Eliza and Jonathan Groff, who makes the most of his nine minutes as the snooty and catty King George.

Hamilton’s a fascinating human, and his journey keeps us riveted through his personal evolution and the birth of our nation. His rivalry with Burr adds a complexity – their flaws, fears, desires and regrets fuel the story. Odom has some of the show’s best songs – “Wait for It,” and “Non-Stop,” and his introduction “Talk Less” is memorable.

Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B, pop and traditional Broadway show tunes, “Hamilton” is a revolutionary moment in theatre, and you won’t be able to get those songs out of your head: “My Shot,” The Story of Tonight,” “The Room Where It Happened,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Our Story,” “History Has Its Eyes on You” and “The World Turned Upside Down.” The Cabinet Battles are comical and thought-provoking at the same time.

The Schuyler Sisters have a sensational introduction – and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and the songs “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Burn” have real depth from a female point of view. “It’s Quiet Uptown” will tug on your heartstrings.

Already, the staged musical has had profound impact on culture, politics and education, and you will see why, as Hamilton the movie transports the audience inside the Broadway show in an intimate way. (I spontaneously broke into applause a few times).

As for the ‘film’ part, we might not be in the room where it happened (Richard Rodgers Theatre) but what it lacks in the palpable energy only live theater produces, it trades for the emotions you connect with in the close-ups.

Declan Quinn’s cinematography and Jonah Moran’s editing gives us a crisp perspective. And the skill of that team — Thomas Kail’s seamless direction, Alex Lacamoire’s exquisite orchestrations and conducting, Andy Blankenbuehler’s fluid and innovative choreography and Manuel’s smart and clever words and music — are a swirling mix of craft, art and talent.

With use of steady-cam, crane and dolly, the multiple cameras create a view you would not have seen – even if you been fortunate enough in the first couple of rows. We also benefit from it being performed before a live audience – their reactions give ours some vitality. Lafayette’s line: “Immigrants – we get the job done!” produces the loudest applause.

I saw the musical once two years ago, on its first national tour at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and even with its cavernous 4500 seats, was gobsmacked. It was among the best theatrical experience ever – and lived up to the hype.

This view has new opportunities for discovery, to marvel at Manuel’s attention to detail and his nimble storytelling. The recurring themes and repetitive nature of the score add texture to the rhythms and harmonies, and the cast’s enunciation and verbal dexterity is remarkable.

In 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to share what he was working on during a night of poetry-inspired entertainment. President Barack and Michelle Obama were a little taken aback by his concept – a hip-hop concert album about the founding father who is on the $10 bill. OK. Well, the rest, as they say, is history.

And Manuel has made history. An Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award winner, among his theatrical accomplishments — he wrote and starred in the Tony-winning 2008 musical “In the Heights,” was co-composer and lyricist with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for “Bring It On!” in 2011 (produced by Mike Isaacson-led Fox Theatricals) and at Stephen Sondheim’s request, wrote Spanish dialogue and lyrics for the 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story.”

“Hamilton; An American Musical” opened at the Public Theatre on Jan. 20, 2015 and moved to Broadway that August. Because of the demand for tickets, he created the “Ham4Ham” lottery ($10 tickets for first couple of rows), but those who couldn’t get to Broadway or afford the sky-high ticket prices, can see the next best thing. The unforgettable theatrical experience has been made accessible for an even wider audience to appreciate.

The lighting design, by Howell Binkley (Tonys for both “Hamilton” and “Jersey Boys”), is effective on screen. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and David Korins’ deceptively simple brick-lined set designs of scaffolds, catwalks and staircases add to the show’s signature style and cohesiveness.

The film was slated for an October 2021 theatrical release, but the decision was made to stream through Disney Plus ($6.99 a month subscription or $69 for the year).

What a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of our nation and see its impact today, after a grave period of uncertainty, unprecedented pandemic and level civil unrest not seen in 50 years. It feels more urgent as a call to action, to keep this great American experiment a righteous one.

The care and skill that went into this production is obvious. “Hamilton” deserves a standing ovation in every living room across this great country of ours. The musical makes America more beautiful this Independence Day weekend.

“Hamilton” is a filmed musical directed by Thomas Kail, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff. Rated: PG-13 for language and some suggestive material, it runs 2 hours 40 minutes with 1-minute intermission. Lynn’s Grade: A Streaming on Disney Plus beginning July 3.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
You go, girls! Local singer-actors get national attention, and the St. Louis-produced Broadway musical “The Prom” made Thanksgiving Parade television history.
BREAKING OUT: We have a talented trio of local ladies who are living their dreams right now.
Lexi Krekorian, 27, of Waterloo, Ill., is one of the nine struggling musicians featured on the Netflix reality series, “Westside,” now available. She goes by the stage name, Alexandra Kay, and has released her first single, “You Think You Know Someone,” and several music videos of songs on the “Westside” soundtrack. She started out in school and community theater, and is chasing her dream in L.A. Here is the feature I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat about her rising star.
https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article221600685.html
Kennedy Holmes of Florissant, the John Burroughs student and Muny Kid who is wowing the nation as a contestant on “The Voice,” made it through to the Top 11 Live Playoffs on Nov. 20. She sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” and is on Jennifer Hudson’s team, headed for the Top 10 showdown Nov. 26. Here is her Top 11 performance:
https://www.nbc.com/the-voice/video/kennedy-holmes-wind-beneath-my-wings/3832852
Thirteen proved to be lucky for Kennedy, as she was not among the 12 eliminated from the Top 24 Live Playoffs in Episode 13. She sang Beyonce’s “Halo.” “The Voice” is on Mondays and Tuesdays on NBC, with live voting the first night and results the second night. She is 13.
Meadow Nguy, providedMeadow Nguy, 23, of O’Fallon, Ill., performed in two musicals at Stray Dog Theatre (Marta in “Spring Awakening” in 2012 and the female lead in the original musical “Spellbound” in 2015), and in community and school theater. She guest-starred on the Nov. 18 episode of “Madam Secretary” called “Baby Steps,” as a Southeast Asia surrogate caught up in a human trafficking imbroglio . She made her crime-drama debut in ‘The Blacklist” earlier this year. Both shows available on demand. Here is the news article I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat:
https://www.bnd.com/news/local/article221829910.html

***ATTABOY: Congratulations to Cory Finley, who scored a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for his “Thoroughbreds.” The annual awards, held since 1984, honor independent filmmakers working with small budgets. The awards are always announced the day before the Oscars, and this year, it will be Saturday, Feb. 23.
Focus Features photoIn fall 2017, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented Finley’s play, “The Feast.” A John Burroughs School grad, Finley’s movie opened nationwide in March after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It played the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2017.
Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split,” “The Witch”) play upper-class Connecticut teenagers who rekindle their unlikely friendship and hatch a plan to solve both of their problems — no matter what the cost. It’s the last film of Anton Yelchin.                                                                    Finley, who grew up in Clayton, is based in New York City. He is a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theater, has received a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for playwrighting, and was the inaugural recipient of the Gurney Playwrights Fund for his play, “The Feast,” at The Flea Theater. Check out www.thoroughbredsmovie.com
***STANDING O’s: Standing ovation for stand-up guy, Kwofe Coleman, who started as an usher at the Muny the summer of 1998, and now has been named managing director! He has served as Director of Marketing and Communications since 2013.
Kudos to the Cinema St. Louis team on their record-setting attendance of 28,723 at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. SLIFF screened 413 films, including 88 narrative features, 77 documentary features, and 248 shorts. Local actors are often seen in the regionally produced short films.

Cast members from “Disney’s Aladdin” presented “Sultan’s Soiree,” an exclusive cocktail reception, Nov 18 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Guests mingled while enjoying cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, photo opportunities, live entertainment and karaoke. To learn more, visit www.broadwaycares.org. Michael James Scott, a Webster University Conservatory graduate, is playing the Genie while Jonathan Weir, formerly of Belleville, is Jafar. “Aladdin” is at the Fox through Nov. 25.
***BIG SPLASH: The reviews are in, and it’s all raves for the new original musical comedy “The Prom,” which opened on Broadway Nov. 15 at the Longacre Theatre, following previews that began Oct. 23.
The New York Times said: “Makes you believe in musical comedy again.”
Variety said: “This original musical has laughs, tears and joy — not to mention jaw-dropping star-turns — in a clash-of-cultures hoot that earns a big Broadway corsage.”
Vanity Fair photoThe show has multiple local connections – Centralia, Ill., native Chad Beguelin is the co-book writer, with Bob Martin (co-creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) and lyricist, with music by Matthew Sklar. Beguelin wrote lyrics to Disney’s “Aladdin” and both he and Sklar were Tony-nominated for “The Wedding Singer.”
Some local producers include Jack Lane, executive director of Stages St. Louis; Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, Patty Gregory of Belleville, Terry Schnuck, Andrew S. Kuhlman of St. Louis and Fairview Heights native Joe Grandy. St. Louis performers Jack Sippel and Drew Reddington are part of the ensemble, and stars Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber have appeared several times at The Muny. The Broadway cast also includes Brooks Ashmanskas (Tony nominee for ‘Something Rotten!”),
Casey Nicholaw, Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon,” directed and choreographed the show.
“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance – a student is barred from bringing her girlfriend to the prom — and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight. Its tagline is “There’s no business like getting in other people’s business.”
***
NOBODY RAINED ON THEIR PARADE: “The Prom,” one of four musical acts in the 92nd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Nov. 22, made parade history with the first same-sex kiss televised live. As the number, “It’s Time to Dance,” closed, cast mates Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen embraced and kissed. The LGBTQ community cheered.
Here is that performance: https://youtu.be/VDZDLJjzJBI
Tony nominee Taylor Louderman of Bourbon, Mo., performed with the cast of “Mean Girls.” She plays Regina, the snotty leader of the cool girls’ pack. Taylor was last seen locally on the Muny stage in 2016’s “Aida” as Amneris.
Fun Fact: The dance company, Radio City Rockettes, was founded in St. Louis in 1925 by Russell Markert. First known as the “Missouri Rockets,” the precision chorus line has performed in Radio City Music Hall since 1932.
***HANNUKAH HULLABALOO: The eighth annual Brothers Lazaroff show to benefit Metro Theater Company will take place on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. at The Grandel Theatre, and all ages welcome.
The show will feature Rabbi James Stone Goodman and the Eight Nights Orchestra, DJ Boogieman, tributes to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and more! As always, free latkes will be fried on-stage! Food vendors will include Taco Buddha, The Dark Room and STL-Style will be selling their St. Louis-inspired apparel.
***AROUND TOWN: Legendary Wilco founder and Belleville native Jeff Tweedy took to The Pageant stage with Jon Hamm Nov. 17 to discuss his storied career. The book tour stop was sold-out.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch photoThe Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back”): Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.,” features stories about his childhood, putting Uncle Tupelo together, and recollections about St. Louis record store, rock clubs and live-music scene during his formative years.
Now based in Chicago, Tweedy can be spotted in the indie movie “Hearts Beat Loud” as a customer, in what else, a record store.
Playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky was in town for the opening weekend of West End Players Guild “The Great Seduction,” and graciously spoke to Tina Farmer of KDHX and I about his interesting life and writing process.
 
Zelevinsky also wrote “Manifest Destiny,” performed at WEPG in 2016, which was nominated for Best Ensemble by the St. Louis Theater Circle.
***SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM: With the holiday essential film “Elf” as its next movies-for-foodies event, Tenacious Eats returns to the St. Louis Banquet Center in Holly Hills, at 5700 Leona Street, on Saturday, Dec. 15.
Guests will feast on five courses and have cocktails themed to the movie, and the event also includes contests and live music. Chef Liz Schuster has left West End Grill and Pub to devote more time to her cinema-and-theme-dining experience – and Tenacious Eats is known for its “full-contact dining experiences.” Tickets are on sale now at BrownPaperTickets.com.
***GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Ah, Church Ladies and Christmas Pageants are customary fixtures during the holiday season, so the folks behind the Lutheran laugh-apalooza, “Church Basement Ladies: Away in a Basement” have returned with a warm, sentimental and uproarious show.
Now playing at The Playhouse @ Westport through Jan. 6, this is a perfect show to take your mom or grandma to – and you can win two free tickets to the show if you enter our drawing.
Select a show from the list below to answer our question: “What is your favorite holiday-themed play or musical?”
 
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Story
Elf
Inspecting Carol
It’s a Wonderful Life
White Christmas
And send it via email, along with your name, cell phone and email address by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25, to [email protected] and you will be entered in a drawing. Winner will receive 2 tickets to an upcoming show.
In our last “Go See a Play” poll, Graham Emmons of St. Louis won two tickets to Rebel and Misfits’ “Macbeth: Come Like Shadows.” The survey’s response to best mystery play landed the 1952 classic “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott op top, with “Wait Until Dark” – another Frederick Knott play from 1966 — a close second.
***FOSSE, VERDON AND ALL THAT JAZZ: The next show-biz limited series for FX will be “Fosse/Verdon” in 2019, about the legendary Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse and his professional and personal relationship with dancer Gwen Verdon.
Oscar winner Sam Rockwell is cast as Fosse while Oscar nominee Michelle Williams will be Verdon, returning to the network 20 years after “Dawson’s Creek.”
The cast features St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz as writer Paddy Chayefsky, Margaret Quall as Ann Reinking and Nate Corddry as Neil Simon.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is executive-producing the eight episodes and “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is creating the dance.
***WHISTLING A HAPPY TUNE: The lavish acclaimed Tony-winning revival, “The King and I,” will be shown two nights at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema, on Nov 29 and Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical filmed during its run at the London Palladium, June 21 to Sept. 29 and features more than 50 performers.
Kelli O’Hara reprised her Tony Award-winning performance and Tony and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe played The King again. Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles returned as Lady Thiang and West End “Aladdin” star Dean John Wilson and Na-Young Jeon played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Director Bartlett Sher reunited the original creative team.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: With St. Louis performers making a name for themselves on the national stage, here’s a little flashback to the halcyon days of “American Idol,” the big-bang of reality competition singing shows.
1. Who is the only St. Louisan to make “American Idol” Top Ten Finalists?
2. What “American Idol” winner tried out in St. Louis one of the two times auditions were held here?
Answers (both Season 4):
Nikko Smith, born Osborne Earl Jr., son of Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who wound up ninth overall in 2005. He had been voted off in the third round of the semi-finals, but the producers asked him back to take the place of Mario Vazquez, who left for “family reasons.”
Carrie Underwood, who drove up with her mom from the family farm in Checotah, Okla., in 2004, sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.
Here’s that audition: https://youtu.be/P0j9NGV-Jm4
She just won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, killed with a live awards show performance of “Love Wins” at six months’ pregnant, and has to date seven Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 2007, the only second country artist to win it.
St. Louis has hosted auditions for Seasons 4 and 11.
***WORD: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” – Plato