By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
For the St. Louis premiere of Guiseppe Verdi’s Biblical epic “Nabucco,” Union Avenue Opera dreamed big.
Not since tackling Wagner’s Ring Cycle have they taken on such a massive show. The staging this four-act 1841 Italian opera is a towering achievement, both vocally and in mechanics.
They succeed in showcasing not only the top-shelf talent they attracted for this production, but also one of the best choruses featured on their cozy stage.
Conductor Stephen Hargreaves and Assistant Chorus Master Jon Garrett deep-dive into this glorious, grand signature Verdi sound – confidently creating big, bold orchestral and chorus statements. The 21-piece string-heavy orchestra is outstanding.

While the romantic and political complexities of this Old Testament story do not exactly comprise the finest libretto, the vocal prowess is stunning. This show’s cast has the vibrant voices to match the character requirements.
Librettist Temistocle Solero used the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel for the turbulent story, set in 587 B.C. The King of Babylon is Nabucco (Robert Garner), known as Nebuccadnezzer in English. He has seized control of Jerusalem in his war with the Israelites. The other major storyline is that his daughter Fenena (Melody Wilson) and her evil half-sister Abigaille (Marsha Thompson) are both in love with Ismaele (Jesse Donner), the nephew of the King of Jerusalem.
While war rages between Babylon and Jerusalem, Abigaille pledges to save Ismaele’s people if he chooses her. But he denies her, so she turns ruthless and plans to take down the kingdom, claim Nabucco’s throne and kill all the imprisoned Israelites.
First-time director Mark Freiman heightens the soap opera aspect of these treacherous elements, as the principals expressively sing about their emotional anguish and lament over their choices.
The accomplished Robert Garner is an imposing Nabucco, and when he needs to regain his sanity and strength in Act III, excels in his “Dio di Giuda” aria.
 
However, the two women are such dynamic forces and reach exhilarating heights as the warring half-sisters. In an impressive debut, soprano Marsha Thompson commands the stage as Abigaille, breathtaking in the demanding role. Her arias are something special, especially her dramatic coloratura “Anch’io dischiuso un giorno.”
The rising young star Melody Wilson – what an inspiring name! – demonstrates why she is one to watch, as she has one of the richest mezzo-sopranos I’ve heard. She stood out in her St. Louis debut in “Doubt” two summers ago, as part of “Regina” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis this season, and now, in this dramatic role as Fenena. What a range! Her prayer painting a picture of the heavens, “O dischius’è il firmament,” is exceptional.
Also standing out is bass Zachary James as Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, both in physical presence and in vocal prowess. He is particularly impressive performing “D’Egitto là su i lidi” that revives his people’s hopes in Act 1, and the prayer “Tu sul labbro” in Act 2.
Jesse Donner is solid as Ismaele, as is Clark Sturdevant as Abdallo, Jacob Lassetter as High Priest of Baal and Karen Kanakis as Anna.
Bravo, fervent ensemble! They do indeed stir the soul in the famous “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” chorus. One of the most famous opera pieces of all-time is robustly delivered by 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 in their masterful Italian vocal unison.
The cheers in Act 3 were lengthy and well-deserved, for it was quite a thrilling moment.
The technical aspects of this show are more demanding than usual at the Union Avenue Christian Church. With an idol that must fall and lightning that has to strike, the lighting design by Patrick Huber, who also did the set design, helps make those special effects happen. Theatre Marine Productions was the technical director.
Special mention must go to set designer Huber for creating the vertically tall set so that terrains, palace hallways, and Hanging Gardens of Babylon could be imagined. That was quite a feat, and that the ensemble didn’t seem as crowded on stage.
With the lyrical virtuosity and passionate spirit achieved here, Union Avenue Opera reaches new heights.
Verdi’s “Nabucco” is sung in Italian and presented by Union Avenue Opera on July 27-28 and Aug. 3-4 at 8 p.m. at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org or call 314-361-2881.

Photos by John Lamb

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

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
It might be July, but actor Ryan Cooper is thinking Christmas. And Halloween. Well, he’s an accomplished performer at any time of year, but it’s during those holiday seasons where he really shines.
For the upcoming season of St. Charles Christmas Traditions, he will return to his blue-lipped, blue-clad jester-like character Jack Frost for the 13th year.
He auditioned for the first four or so years, but now is contracted for the part.

“One of the perks of longevity is that many of the old-timers that have been the same role for a number of seasons get to return to our holiday alter-egos without the audition process,” he said. “But I’m just a baby in the whole scheme of things. We have cast members that have been involved in the festival for 20 years.”

St. Charles Christmas Traditions involves 80 characters who make the season bright, along with many special activities, along the town’s historic Main Street. Hours are Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, Nov. 23 – Dec. 24.
Two years ago, Ryan created the sister festival for the Halloween season called Legends and Lanterns.
“It celebrates Halloween by looking at the origins of the customs associated with the holiday. We have interactive villains from history and folklore — Lizzie Borden, the Big Bad Wolf, Medusa, and so forth, a Victorian mourning museum, and many other fun attractions and activities,” he said.
He also participates in the annual Voices of Valhalla event at Valhalla Cemetery in north St. Louis County, where narrated hayrides travel the grounds and actors portray some of the noteworthy individuals who reside there.
“It is a really wonderful event. Larry Marsh does all of the research and writes the scripts, and has such a talent for finding the most fascinating characters to portray,” he said. “We recently did ‘Echoes of Valhalla,’ a one-night ‘greatest hits’ of some of the most memorable characters from over the years, onstage at the Florissant Civic Center theatre.”
Ryan is truly a man of many hats.
This summer, Ryan starred in “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure” for Stages’ Theatre for Young Audiences. He played Zeke, King Julien, Mason and Foosa. It’s his third year in the children’s musical, having played the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” and the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical.”
“I absolutely adore working with Stages. I pinch myself every time I get to do a show with them, because I have been such a big fan of the company since I saw my first Stages’ show in 2005 – “Man of La Mancha.” It is incredible the amount of love and dedication the staff puts into their theatre for young audience shows, just as they would for any of their mainstage productions. It is a joy to be a part of,” he said.
He particularly likes performing theater for youngsters.
“There is just something so special about doing shows for families and young audiences. There is always an electric energy. And knowing that there are people in the audience who are experiencing live theatre for the first time, and that I get to be a part of it is the cherry on top of the cake,” he said.
Another summer activity he enjoys is hosting the annual Best Performance Awards on the second Sunday in June, which is produced by non-profit organization Arts for Life. Awards for excellence in community and youth musical theater are presented.

In addition to an opening monologue and introducing presenters, Ryan inserts comic bits that are often sight gags and involving theater or familiar characters. He returned as master of ceremonies June 10 after taking a break last year. He had emceed in 2014 – 2016. Because he is so popular with the crowd, AFL has locked him in for the 20th awards in 2019.
As a teenager, Ryan began getting noticed in community musical theater, especially for being funny. He won three BPA awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Comedic Role — as Bud Frump in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Carmen Ghia in “The Producers” and Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Hosting is such a sincere honor for me. This year before the show started, while I was getting ready, I thought back to how my first BPA ceremony I attended was in 2006, where I volunteered as an usher,” he said.
“So, to get to act as master of ceremonies was a surreal moment where I realized how lucky I am to get to be a part of this community. I don’t get the chance to be as directly involved with the wonderful community theatre scene like I once was, so to have Arts for Life as an opportunity to be with old and new friends that make up the vibrant and talented St. Louis theatre family is such a privilege.”
He had moved away in 2013, hired to work in the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and the short-lived Storybook Circle Giggle Gang shows at Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Upon his return, he was hired as a tour guide for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
“It’s where I get to take on my biggest acting challenge — acting like I know anything at all about sports,” he said.
“Seriously, it’s great. I’ve been giving tours there for four and a half years, and even though I am not a sports guy, as a native St. Louisan, you grow up with at least a great admiration and appreciation for the history of the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “I am happy to share their stories and hear the stories of the people from around the world that I get to interact with every day. Plus, as a performer, I get to have a captive audience for an hour at a time while on tour — what’s not to love?”
In addition, he is a docent at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.
“So, between that, and getting ready for the third season of Legends & Lanterns, and my 13th season with Christmas Traditions, that’s what the rest of my 2018 looks like, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love it!” he said.

Here are Ryan Cooper’s answers to our questions:
Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
I feel that it’s something that happened organically over time. I had done shows at school when I was younger and had always enjoyed them, but I think the real formative moment was when ‘The Producers’ came through the Fox on its first national tour. I was hooked, and said to myself, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ My poor mother had to put up with me marching around the house singing tunes from the show for months after that.
How would your friends describe you?
Ha! I think my friends would definitely describe me as quirky — though they assure me they mean it in an endearing way.
How do you like to spend your spare time?
I am crazy about going to museums. I love history and I love learning, so I try to go to every exhibit I can. History museums, science museums, art museums — I can’t get enough. A few years ago, I was vacationing in St. Petersburg, Fla., and my first stop was not to their beautiful beaches, but to the Florida Holocaust Museum. That about sums it up.
What is your current obsession? 
My current-yet-long-running obsession is all things Titanic. I’m a total nerd. When I traveled Ireland in 2009, I visited the final port where the ship was docked at, and did a one-man re-enactment of James Cameron’s epic three-hour film in 30 seconds — video proof of which I post on Facebook every April 10 for “Titanic anniversary week.”
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
Every spring, I travel over to the nation’s capital, where I give multi-day tours of Washington D.C. to school groups from around the country. A fascinating town — not to mention the abundance of excellent museums!
Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
That would hands down have to be working for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I am a huge Disney fan, and used to go to the parks every year with my mom. I have wanted to work there since I was four, and in 2013, I was lucky to see that dream realized as I joined the casts of the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue and short-lived Storybook Circus Giggle Gang shows. While I didn’t get to stick around for as long as I had hoped, it was a phenomenal experience, both personally and professionally. I got my Actors Equity card with “Hoop,” and for the first time, really experienced up-close the “business” side of show business — both the good and not-so-pretty parts. It’s an experience I treasure.
Who do you admire most?
Since I was in second grade, I have had an enormous admiration for Anne Frank. She has been an inspiration to me for my entire adult life, and her words have provided countless moments of peace and hope in times of need. I have a well-worn photo of her in my wallet that goes with me everywhere.
What is at the top of on your bucket list?
Speaking of Anne, the tippy-top of my bucket list is visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I will for sure be there June 12, 2029 for her 100th birthday — but hope to get a visit in well before then.
What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
Oh gosh! That is a tough one. I am crazy about this town and feel that there is still so much I’ve got to explore. With that being said, every time I go to Shaw’s Garden (Missouri Botanical), and it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of times I’ve gone, I am in awe. Now if only I could get my backyard to look that good!
What’s next?
I’ve recently dipped my toes in the water of being on the director/producer side of things. In 2016, I created “Legends & Lanterns: A ‘Spirited’ Journey Through Halloween History,” a festival that takes place along Historic Main Street in St. Charles and delves into the origins of our most beloved All Hallow’s Eve traditions, while allowing visitors to rub elbows with some of the most infamous villains in history and folklore. So, I’ll be back directing that this October, then on to my 13th season as Jack Frost for the “St. Charles Christmas Traditions” festival.
All About Ryan Cooper
Age: 28Birthplace: St. LouisCurrent Location: Unincorporated North St. Louis CountyFamily: Only child to my awesome “Mommie Dearest,” Cindy CooperEducation: Trinity Catholic High School, Fontbonne University (B.A. Performing Arts)Day Job: Tour Guide for the St. Louis Cardinals (among many other jobs)First Job: Jack Frost at St. Charles Christmas Traditions when I was 17.First Role: Royal Child #4 in Riverview Gardens High School’s “The King and I” in 1998Favorite Roles: So many! Including: Man in Chair (The Drowsy Chaperone), Bud Frump (How to Succeed…), and Thenardier (Les Miserables).Dream Role: This is a total cop-out answer, but I truly don’t have one — yet. I’m working on it.Awards: Three-time Arts for Life Best Performance Award winner for Bud Frump (How to Succeed), Hysterium (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and Carmen Ghia (The Producers)Words to live by: “No individual has any right to come into this world and go out of it without having left behind distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.” –George Washington CarverA song that makes you happy: “It Had to be You”

Photo Credits: AFL BPAs Gerry Love, Stages St. Louis, The Producers and St. Charles Christmas Traditions provided by Ryan Cooper, and featured image by Lynn Venhaus.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Mamma Mia!” – take me away! Stages St. Louis’ high-spirited production is a ticket to pure escapism, a refreshing summer confection that’s a welcome respite from real-world troubles.
What makes this version of the jukebox musical irresistible is the intimate staging at the Robert G. Reim Theatre and an exuberant ensemble whose joy is infectious. Under Michael Hamilton’s animated direction, they are having such a blast that it’s easy to be drawn into their merrymaking. The joint was jumping!
Don’t think too hard about the story’s timeline or do any math about the ages – for this fantasy is critic-proof and one must suspend belief. For supreme enjoyment, be on board for mindless fun when you take your seat, and if you are not singing, dancing or clapping in time during the festive curtain call, check your pulse.
The 1999 smash hit, now the ninth longest-running Broadway musical of all-time, cleverly weaves 1970s hit songs by Swedish pop group ABBA into a lightweight romantic comedy about a former singer and her soon-to-be-married daughter. It may be far-fetched, but it works – hence, the global phenomenon.
Sophie, 20, is obsessed with the looming question of who’s her father, so she invites the maybe-dads Australian adventurer Bill, stuffed-shirt British banker Harry and divorced American architect Sam. They all show up. At the same time.

Donna Sheridan’s bandmates Tanya and Rosie, aka The Dynamos, also arrive at her Greek island taverna. This reunion combo leads to a splendid “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trooper,” and a sweet “Chiquitita,” with all three strong-voiced actresses Corinne Melancon (Donna), Dan’yelle Williamson (Rosie) and Dana Winkle (Tanya) in robust harmony.
Book writer Catherine Johnson has injected plenty of light-hearted humor into what ultimately is a heartwarming celebration of family, friends and women empowerment, all played out on a tiny slice of paradise.
In a fresh and dynamic way, the creative team has emphasized the everlasting charm that makes the show so popular, and the ensemble projects a carefree day-at-the-beach mentality. Stages’ has concentrated on the characters’ feelings, which aids the believability of their connections.
Tony Gonzalez’ buoyant choreography is a highlight, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” featuring a unique tap-dance in snorkeling fins that prompted hearty applause.
He maintained the effusive party atmosphere in “Voulez-Vous” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” where the chorus shines.
The technical elements came together in such a pleasurable way that it truly enhanced the experience.
Ah, the sun-drenched days and starry nights are beautifully captured by Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design, with James Wolk’s scenic design adding a moon that moves. The taverna’s balcony is a smart addition for a stressed-out Donna and wistful musical numbers.
Resident costume designer Brad Musgrove’s penchant for glitz gets a workout here, and the colorful eye-candy costumes pop. He outdoes fashion designer Bob Mackie for the razzle-dazzle finale, and noteworthy are the ensemble’s bright and flamboyant wedding attire. With the show set in 1999, I don’t think the outfits entirely reflected that period, but rather spotlighted a spirit of adventure.

The entire cast must be an integral component for this story to succeed, and this group is one of the finest I’ve seen. Music director Lisa Campbell Albert kept up a kicky pace for the singers, and oh, is it a tight chorus, not to mention the consummate professionalism of the principals. Stuart M. Elmore’s orchestral designs are on point.
I was surprised to find out that some patrons had never seen it before – and their joy of discovery was palpable. Fortunately, they experienced an outstanding show as their first time.
Corinne Melancon has become a versatile leading lady at Stages, capable of genuine conviction. She is an experienced Donna – she played the role as part of the 11 years she spent in the Broadway cast, and was also the other two Dynamos. She appeared to really love portraying this woman.
With all that experience, she could have coasted, but is fully engaged as a woman wrestling with a lot of pent-up feelings and frustrations. She brings a gravitas to the single mom who is a struggling businesswoman too.
She excels in a well-staged “Money, Money, Money” and the title song, but knocks “The Winner Takes It All” out of the auditorium.
In a superb “S.O.S.,” she beautifully blends with Gregg Goodbrod’s Sam, the love-of-her-life she scorned in 1979. Goodbrod is a strong Sam in acting and his solo “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Nice to see him back in St. Louis after playing J.J. in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” last summer at The Muny.
As the sultry Tanya, statuesque Dana Winkle, who was recently in the national tour of the elegant “An American in Paris,” shows off her slick dance moves in a cheeky “Does Your Mother Know.”
In a departure from the character’s typically frumpy appearance, sassy Rosie is portrayed by striking Dan’yelle Williamson, memorable as Dolores in “Sister Act” two summers ago. She’s convincing as a fierce determined woman and playful in “Take a Chance of Me.”
But Summerisa Bell Stevens as wide-eyed innocent Sophie just might be this show’s secret weapon. She’s one of the best Sophies I have ever seen – a total package who projects an innate sunniness and intelligence. So terrific as Doralee in last year’s “9 to 5,” she practically glows in “I Have a Dream,” “Honey, Honey,” and “Thank You for the Music.”
At first, David Sajewich seemed too old as Sky, but he and Stevens had so much chemistry, that it didn’t distract.
Reliable veterans Steve Isom and David Schmittou play Bill and Harry with their customary skill and crisp comic timing. They both nail their accents – Australian for Isom and British for Schmittou — and are admirably steady throughout, good sports in the dancing numbers.
The ensemble was noteworthy in the effective blacklight dream sequence “Under Attack,” which was thankfully not as silly as usual.
Of course, everyone does their part to raise the roof in the pull-out-all-the-stops finale, and when they come to “Waterloo,” no one wants this party to end.
I’m an unabashed fan of this musical – and it was my eighth time during the past 15 years. I compare it to the warm nostalgia of a “Gidget” movie from my youth. And yes, I cheerfully sang every word to “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia!” at the curtain call – the audience is encouraged to do so (and I warned my neighbors to the right and left).
While it doesn’t matter if you have seen either the first or second movie, after viewing the just-released prequel-sequel, I did like that it shed more light on the backstory and motivations, so I thought of those things while watching this original show that sparked it all.
“Mamma Mia!” has sincere sentiment and its whole lotta fun vibe uplifted everyone. This production is one I’m not going to forget.
Stages St. Louis presents “Mamma Mia!” from July 20 through Aug. 19 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Ave. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 314-821-2407 or visit: www.stagesstlouis.org. At least 18 shows are sold-out.Photos by Peter Wochniak