Based on the timeless Disney film that introduced the world to the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Mary Poppins brings a surplus of joy and wonder to the Variety Theatre stage. Boasting a cast of St. Louis’ top theatrical talents and a children’s ensemble featuring kids of all ability levels, Mary Poppins runs Oct. 18-27 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Every year, Variety Theatre selects a musical that provides wonderful entertainment alongside a powerful message for families to take home. For all its rollicking adventures and musical numbers, Mary Poppinsis the story of a father learning to love his children as they are and see the world through their eyes. 

The magic of Mary Poppins opens his eyes and rescues a family in distress.  There is no doubt about this as she brings on the fun and flies over the audience to the top of the opera house.  Even her friend Bert captivates everyone with his “proscenium walk” during the famous “Step in Time” number.  He will tap dance up the side of the stage, upside down over the top of the stage and back down the other side – while singing about how the chimney sweeps always come to the rescue when needed.

For Variety, this is an incredibly touching narrative that supports our mission of helping kids with disabilities, who often see the world in different ways. Instead of dismissing them, we all learn and grow more by meeting these children on their terms. It shouldn’t take a magical nanny to teach us that.

This is Variety Theatre’s eleventh annual Broadway musical production under the direction of Tony award nominee Lara Teeter.  The cast of professional actors along with a live orchestra under the direction of Dr. Mark Schapman embraces an inclusive children’s ensemble.  The dazzling  production includes sets by Dunsi Dai, costumes by Kansas City Costume Company, lighting designed by Nathan Scheuer, and sound design by Rusty Wandall – all award winners.  Each year they lend their talents to mentor Variety Theatre teens of all abilities who learn backstage production from the best.

The story of Mary Poppins’ as presented by Variety Theatre will bring an unforgettable experience to theatergoers, cast and crew alike. The objective of VT is to help children with disabilities achieve their full potential, opening up to them what is possible with the nurturing encouragement of others who share their passion for creative expression and the arts.  This special effort to bring together children of all abilities, under the direction and tutelage of seasoned performing arts professionals, creates a production that will not soon be forgotten.

WHO:   Mary Poppins, The Broadway MusicalWHAT: Variety TheatreWHERE: Touhill Performing Arts Center WHEN: October 18       10 am & 7:00 pm

            October 19       1:30 pm & 7:00 pm

            October 20       1:30 pm

October 25       10 am 

            October 26       1:30 pm & 7:00 pm

            October 27       1:30 pm

TICKETS: $18-$50 at www.touhill.org

About Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis

Variety empowers children with physical and developmental disabilities, also referred to as children with special needs, and improves their quality of life. Our programs highlight ability rather than disability. This holistic approach gives access to critical medical equipment and therapies, along with innovative Camp and Performing Arts programs, which provide opportunities for recreation, socialization, and artistic expression. Children gain or maintain independence, boost socialization among their friends and family, demonstrate belief in themselves, and increase skills they need to engage their world as fully as possible. www.varietystl.org

By Andrea BraunContributing WriterLove’s Labor’s Lost is a “play” in the strictest sense of the word, and it’s fun to watch the characters pontificate, read their letters aloud (even if a couple of them go awry), flirt, and stretch language to illogical limits and syllogistic absurdity.

It’s well known in theatre circles that this early work in the Shakespeare canon isn’t often performed and conventional wisdom has it that it’s simply dated. Its puns and jokes are too much of their own time for contemporary audiences to “get” them. It also could be static considering how much standing and speaking there is if the stage business isn’t choreographed to avoid it.

I’m certainly pleased that director Tom Ridgely didn’t think in those limited terms. Our new artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has given us a comic jewel. I’m not familiar enough with the text to cite specific edits and emendations that may have been made, but I think some are there. It’s particularly hard to tell because Ridgely has paced this piece at 11 out of 10, and yet it’s wonderfully easy to follow.

The basic story is simple enough. Four young noblemen decide to take an oath to forgo romance for three years to allow time for study and contemplation, and the edict is issued that Navarre shall be singular in its observation of these rules. In a trice, four young women show up. Oops! What now?

The situation is that straightforward, but complicated by politics in that the men are the friends and companions of the  King of Navarre (Sky Smith) and the Princess of France (Kea Trevett) representing her ailing father, the King, and her attendants and have come to discuss the disposition of the Aquitaine.

Flirting ensues, complete with the young men playing
dancing Muscovites (you won’t believe it until you see it) and the Princess and
her entourage exchanging jewelry to confuse the men about their identities.
There are actually two plays-within-the-play, plus funny moments from the
scholar Holofernes (Carine Montberband) and the curate Nathaniel (Katy Keating)
whose routine reminds me of a Socratic version of “Who’s On First.”

Early in the action, we meet consummate clown Costard
(Patrick Blindauer)  as he’s being
berated by the King for illicit relations with the wench Jacquinetta (Molly
Meyer). Costard shows his own facility with language when he tries to get out
of being punished for breaking the new law about congress with a woman, for
which the Spaniard, the haughty and verbose Don Armado (Philip Hernandez), also
in love with Jacquinetta, reports him. And the course is set for merriment
throughout.

The set by Jason Simms is perfect, and contains more
you than you might expect. Melissa Trn’s costumes span the ages from the
vaguely Roman slave look sported by Costard, to  Armado’s bedazzled uniform; the Curate and
Holofernes in Elizabethan dress, the noblewomen in Bennett sisters garb sans
the bonnets, and the men’s mostly timeless attire. With John Wylie’s lights, it
all combines to create a beautiful show. Rusty Wandall incorporates wandering
minstrels in his sound design, so we’re welcomed to the show with “Meet Me in
St. Louis” as we enter, and “Gloria” complete with a Blues flag at curtain call,
and much else throughout. While the actors are mostly excellent, it’s Tom
Ridgely’s show and he’s got a winner.

The Shakespeare Festival runs in Forest Park through June 23 nightly at 8 p.m. except Mondays. Admission is free and festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. with a Green Show and a 25-minute version of the play performed Thursday-Sunday nights at 7:15 by the Shakespeare Squadron.

Veteran performer Philip Hernández, the only actor in Broadway history to play both Valjean and Javert in “Les Misérables,” will headline the 2019 Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of “Love’s Labors Lost,” May 31 through June 23, at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. Preview performances are scheduled May 29-30. Performances are held nightly, excluding Mondays, and begin at 8 p.m. 

Philip Hernandez

Hernández will portray Don Adriano de Armado, the lovelorn soldier considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest comic creations. The actor made his Broadway debut in the Original Cast of the Tony Award-winning “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” directed by Harold Prince, and created the role of Reverend Gonzalez opposite Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades in the Original Broadway Cast of Paul Simon’s “The Capeman.” TV credits include roles on “Nurse Jackie,” “Mysteries of Laura,” “Law and Order” and “Ugly Betty,” among others. 

Joining Hernández in the Festival production are Bradley James Tejeda (Duc de Biron), a native of San Antonio, Texas, and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama, as well as New Yorkers Kea Trevett (Princess of France) and Sky Smith (King of Navarre), both emerging stars within the Shakespeare theater circle. Trevett has appeared on stages nationally with the Classic Stage Company and the Roundabout, as well as internationally in “Antigone” (Africa Tour). Her TV and film credits include “Fosse/Verdon” (FX), “Milkwater” and “The Kindergarten Teacher.” Smith’s most recent credits include “Twelfth Night” (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival) and “Love’s Labours Lost”* (The Acting Co.). 

Kea Trevett

Festival veterans include Patrick Blindauer (Costard), who appeared in 2018’s “Romeo & Juliet”; Katy Keating (Nathaniel), most recently seen with the Festival in “Into the Breeches!” and “Blow, Winds”; and Michael James Reed (Forester/Marcadé), marking his seventh park appearance. 

Other area performers making their Festival debut include Jeffery Cummings (Boyet); Carl Howell (Dull), returning to St. Louis after appearing regionally at the Repertory Theater; Carine Montbertrand (Holofernes), most recently of Titan Theatre at Queens Theatre; Naima Randolph (Moth), an alumni of the Festival’s Shakespeare Squadron and Camp Shakespeare programs; Laura Sohn (Rosaline), a graduate of Rutgers University; Molly Meyer (Jaquenetta); and Sam Jones (Longueville). Also joining the cast are Webster University Conservatory graduates Vivienne Claire Luthin (Maria) and Kiah McKirnan (Catherine), and current student Riz Moe (DuMaine). 

Tom Ridgely, executive producer of the Festival, will direct the production, his first since taking the helm of the organization last spring. This marks the company’s 19th season of free, outdoor, professional theater in the park. 

Creative team members include Jason Simms (Set Design) of New York; Melissa Trn (Costumes), a former St. Louisan currently living in Los Angeles; and John Wylie (Lighting) and Rusty Wandall (Sound). This marks Wylie’s sixth season with the Festival, and Wandall’s eighth.

*A note on the title, “Love’s Labors Lost”:

Spelling and punctuation in early modern English weren’t nearly as regularized as they are today. Shakespeare famously never even spelled his own name the same way twice. Similarly, the first quarto of this play is titled “Loues labors lost”; the first folio has it as “Loues Labour’s Lost”; and, the second folio, “Loues Labours Lost.” Given the lack of certainty about what exactly Shakespeare intended, there are various schools of thought on how best to render those three words in modern English. Since the British “u” in “labour” was optional even in Shakespeare’s day, the Festival has opted for the more familiar American spelling. In addition, since the title contains an allusion to the Labors of Hercules, which are referred to often, along with the work of Cupid (aka Love), the Festival opted for the plural over the contraction — hence, “Love’s Labors Lost.”

About Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Shakespeare and works inspired by his legacy of storytelling. Since 2001, the festival has grown from producing a single production of Shakespeare in the Park to a year-round season of impactful theater in exciting and accessible venues throughout the St. Louis community. The festival’s artistic and education programs reached over 50,000 patrons and students during the 2018 season and have reached over one million since 2001. Leadership support for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ 2019 season is provided by the Whitaker Foundation. The festival is also funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis. For more information, please visit www.sfstl.com, or call 314-531-9800.

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By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Nonsense and beauty have close connections,” Edward Morgan Forster once wrote.
Playwright Scott Sickles took that phrase as the title of his splendid play,
which the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis helped develop. And oh, what a
starting place it is.

“Nonsense and Beauty,” Sickles’ timeless tale of love and
forgiveness, is set in a very different era where same-sex relationships were mostly
hidden, and famous British author E. M. Forster is caught up in the nonsense
and beauty of a long affair with a man 23 years his junior – who will marry a
woman during this conflicted period.

Not your garden-variety real-life love story, as it
unfolds, we discover a believable love triangle with likable people – no
villains, wrapped in a very complicated forbidden relationship between two complex
men, while on the sidelines, there’s the unrequited love of a dear friend who desires
more. Additionally, there’s the unconditional love of a mother, although a prickly
and miserable woman.

In lesser hands, this would be a turgid soap opera with
starched collars. And while the poignant play unleashes an emotional
rollercoaster, it’s contained in an elegantly rendered production that is
exquisitely acted and sharply directed.
Staged crisply by Seth Gordon downstairs in the Studio Theatre, that intimate
space and the in-the-round format suits the play well. My fondness for the
characters grew with each scene, as their connections with each other were
conveyed so well.

Forster, known to his close friends as Morgan and gay, was
the celebrated novelist (“Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “Where Angels
Fear to Tread,” “A Passage to India”), a prolific essayist and 16-time nominee
for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Considered a humanist, the stuffy conventions of the
upper-class British society he lived and worked in were a source of material
for him, as he could not live life out loud in such a universal state of
repression. After all, homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom until
1967.

He was an intelligent man of impeccable manners, and
Jeffrey Hayenga excels as showing us his wordly refined side, but also his
yearnings and longing for a life he could only imagine. Hayenga’s absorbing
performance is tender and touching.

After he met London policeman Bob Buckingham, a jolly old
chap of no discernable stature, at the Cambridge-Oxford boat race in 1930, they
began a risky on-and-off relationship that would span 40 years.

TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2019 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Nonsense and Beauty” as the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Their friendship was tested when Bob courted and married smart
and feisty May, a no-nonsense nurse who did not follow up any possible
suspicions about the men spending ‘alone’ time together. She stayed in the
dark, whether it was of her own choosing or she just didn’t go there in her
mind.

Forster was a major presence in their family’s lives.
Nobody meant to hurt each other, but oh, what aching and pain endured.

An engaging pair together, Robbie Simpson as Bob and Lori Vega as May displayed genuine sparks as their relationship grows into matrimony and parenthood. Nevertheless, how confusing for all — neither Bob nor Morgan could quit each other, so therefore, their friendship survived through the ups and downs of their lives.

TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2019 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Nonsense and Beauty” as the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Another constant was longtime friend, the distinguished
writer J.R. Ackerley, wondrously portrayed by John Feltch. He brings more to
the urbane and glib character than tossing off bon mots and smirking about the
confines of society. He pined for more with Morgan, but that was not to be. He
befriends May, something neither expected, and his wit well-serves the
production.

Feltch, so good in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in
2015 (and St. Louis Theater Circle nominee), has a regal stature and is an
erudite sounding board throughout the show. In the movie, his character would
have been played by Clifton Webb or Vincent Price – or even James Mason.

As E.M. Forster’s battle-ax of a widowed mother, Lily, Donna
Weinsting astutely captures the grand dame’s controlling and cantankerous ways.

The entire ensemble is finely calibrated to show the fragility,
disappointment and deep love between the characters. The play’s bittersweet
nature is imparted in multiple ways.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s minimal set, enhanced by his eloquent lighting design, allows smooth flow of the characters in conversation. Bembridge won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for “The Royale.” Felia K. Davenport’s costumes defined the periods succinctly, and Rusty Wandall’s sound design provided nifty vintage touches. Leiber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” was a wise choice to open and close the show.

Gordon, The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director, had nurtured
this project even before he further developed it as part of The Rep’s 2018
Ignite! Festival of New Plays, which he started after coming to the Rep. He
directed its first major public reading in 1996 at the Carnegie Mellon Showcase
of New Plays.

This is the sixth play from “Ignite!” to become a full-fledged
production, and this world premiere is a dandy – a lovingly crafted work of
substance, that means something, where the attention to detail is strong, and
the approach thoughtful.

The
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “Nonsense and Beauty” March 8 – 24 in
the Emerson Studio Theatre, 130 Edgar Road. For tickets or more information,
visit www.repstl.org. Box Office phone is
314-968-4925.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
As comforting as a cup of cocoa, “A Christmas Story” is bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia, evoking warm and amusing childhood memories of Christmases past.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is staging a merry and bright new version of the play by Philip Grecian, which is based on the 1983 perennial holiday film favorite. The film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, co-wrote the screenplay with director Bob Clark and Leigh Brown, and for the past 45 years, has struck a multi-generational chord with folks happy to remember what it was like to be a kid at Christmas.
A popular American humorist, Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, in the 1920s – 30s, and the Parker Family’s story was shaped from his 1966 semi-autobiographical anecdotal book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”
A storyteller, writer, radio host and actor, Shepherd was known for his astute observations on ordinary life. The Rep’s sentimental production capitalizes on the shared connections we have about our families, our neighborhoods, school days and the moments that shape our lives.

Charlie Mathis and Ted Deasy in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Who doesn’t remember yearning for a gift one year that you were ecstatic to get above all others? We could relate to 9-year-old Ralphie’s desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, and how exasperating his traditional nuclear family was to him.
No matter how familiar you are with this story, the resonating moments remain as plentiful as the first few times you saw the film. The movie went nowhere in 1983 – and I was one of those rare viewers who saw it then at the cinema – but it didn’t catch fire until its VHS release, then cable television elevated it to exalted classic status.
The memorable highlights received hearty reactions on stage – the pink bunny pajamas, the frozen tongue on the flagpole, the department store Santa visit, the roasted turkey for the Christmas feast and the prize “leg” lamp.
We expect to laugh. You’re smiling right now reading this, aren’t you?
And the cast solidly immerses us into that corner of small-town America. Yet, even though the story is beloved, The Rep doesn’t take your interest for granted – director Seth Gordon earns it. After all, he knows this material well – he helped Grecian develop the play between 2005 and 2010, with the playwright sharpening the characters and tightening the story. He has directed the show six times (but not the one first here in 2009), and still has a twinkle in his eye.
The jolly ensemble fully creates a believable working-class Midwestern family and townsfolk, crisply delivering this well-worn memory piece with an enthusiastic freshness.
The narrator is now the adult Ralphie, and Ted Deasy, who was a cynical lawyer in last spring’s “Born Yesterday,” is bursting with excitement to share the vivid details of his boyhood. It’s through his wide eyes we see these daffy misadventures, as he glides through their modest home.
Jerry Naunheim Jr. PhotoLaurel Casillo brings some spunk and cheeriness as Mother and Brad Fraizer is funny as the grumpy Old Man, full of bark and bluster but really a softie. They are affectionate portraits with roots in reality.
Endearing Charlie Mathis, quite memorable as Dill in last year’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is delightful as young Ralphie, getting in one jam after another, but also disappearing into a robust fantasy life, whether he’s confronting Black Bart or imagining he’s dead.
Mathis’ timing is impeccable, and he interacts nicely with his best buddies (Dan Wolfe as Flick, Rhadi Smith as Schwartz), his parents and goofy brother Randy (Spencer Slavik).
Tanner Gilbertson makes an impressive debut as the dreaded bully Scut Farkus, while Gigi Koster and Ana McAlister are sweet as the schoolgirls Helen and Esther Jane. Jo Twiss is the feared elementary teacher Miss Shields.
Gordon has worked very well with the youngsters, fluidly guiding them and creating room to play — not too sweet or artificial, not trying too hard, and without any nerves showing.
Their ease helps us stroll memory lane in the neighborhood. Scenic Designer Michael Ganio’s exquisitely detailed home uses an effective brown color palette for a typical two-story home, but when the department store is revealed, he has pulled out all the stops. It’s a shimmering winter wonderland, benefitting from Peter Sargent’s outstanding lighting design, and Rusty Wandall’s sound.
Costume Designer David Kay Mickelson has fashioned vintage outfits that accurately reflect the time and season. And oh, what fun to recall those layers of wool, knits and outdoorswear that every kid was forced to bundle up in back in the day.
Tapping into childlike wonder and celebrating cherished special-occasion memories is enjoyable. The Rep’s “A Christmas Story” allows us to pause and reflect on the magic of the season from a child’s perspective. It’s up to us to keep it in our hearts when the season’s long over.
“A Christmas Story” will be presented at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage from Nov. 30 to Dec. 22. Tickets are on sale at the www.repstl.org or by phone at 314-968-4925 or in-person at The Rep box office, which is located at 130 Edgar Road, on the campus of Webster University. For more information about the show, visit www.repstl.org/a-christmas-story
TUESDAY, NOV. 27, 2018 -This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “A Christmas Story” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
“Admissions” doesn’t just confront the elephant in the room, it awakens a stampede.
With brilliant scorched-earth dialogue and willingness to bluntly address uncomfortable truths and contradictions among liberal white Americans, playwright Josh Harmon has opened a space for polite society to reflect on today’s standards and practices.
For the past several years, we’ve started conversations on racial matters. And this play takes one aspect, and all five characters speak their minds in a refreshingly candid way.
So, what am I tiptoeing around? “Admissions” examines whiteness: privilege, power, anxiety, guilt and anger.

Before any fellow Caucasians groan like it’s a bitter pill to swallow, I can assure you the good-sport audiences have taken it in stride and laughed heartily at the frank talk and yes, the hypocrisy, recognizing the things we don’t say, or dare say in whispers, and how we knee-jerk react.
Because of the play’s framework, we’re allowed to feel everyone’s indignation and hear their point of view.
Sherri, as the head of admissions at a tony prep boarding school in New Hampshire, has increased diversity from 6 to 18 percent, an achievement worthy of a celebration by her equally progressive husband. But when her only son, a good student-athlete named Charlie Luther Mason, is denied admittance to Yale while his best friend, a bi-racial student-athlete named Perry, gets in on what they perceive to be “the race checkbox,” well, fireworks ensue.
It’s obvious why this new work, which opened in March at the Lincoln Center, won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics awards for Best Play. Harmon is known for “Bad Jews,” which the New Jewish Theatre produced several years ago.
The Rep’s intimate Studio Theatre has had multiple sold-out performances, for this has struck a nerve, and done so with biting wit and stinging humor.
Steve Woolf’s direction is steam-heat hot. He keeps the pace brisk, and the interaction of the cast is smooth.
The well-prepared cast effortlessly serves and volleys back and forth that it’s like watching a Grand Slam tennis match – the finesse of their delivery is like world-class athletes rising to the occasion.
TUESDAY, OCT. 23, 2018 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Admissions” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.Henny Russell is rather smug as the high-minded and well-intentioned Sherri Rosen-Mason, who deals with race at work and at home. Her best friend Ginnie Peters (Kate Udall), is married to a bi-racial English professor and is Perry’s mother. Suddenly, fissures erupt in their friendship, and Udall is quick to switch emotions, calling out her friend’s hurtful words.
R. Ward Duffy, appearing in his 10th show at The Rep, and Russell’s real-life husband, is sharp as Bill Mason, who admonishes his son as a spoiled brat and worries about how they got off track and how to work their way back to seeing things clearly.
In a breakthrough role, Thom Niemann triumphs as the privileged young man trying to figure out his place in the world and being “woke” in contemporary America. His agitated, exasperated 17-minute monologue skewering political correctness is one of the year’s best scenes – and got a huge ovation.
In a comical supporting role, Barbara Kingsley is funny as Roberta, a school employee in the development office who is trying to do what Sherri tells her to make their school catalog photos more diverse.
The cast percolates with conviction and relatability.
The office and two-story home scenic design by Bill Clarke is a marvel – one of the largest I’ve seen in that space, and an efficient way to tell this comedy-drama. Lighting designer Nathan W. Scheuer has lit it perfectly while Rusty Wandall’s sound and Lou Bird’s costumes add to the atmosphere.
Even with the best of intentions, we may be part of the problem instead of the solution we think we are striving for, and “Admissions” allows us to see the opportunity to reflect on what’s happening now.
We don’t live in a void. Bold, daring and razor-sharp, “Admissions” helps us see we need to have more conversations, and it’s imperative we keep up the dialogue, at this very divisive time.
“Admissions” played The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Studio Theatre Oct. 26 – Nov. 11.
TUESDAY, OCT. 23, 2018 – This is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Admissions” at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr. 
 
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Radiant performers in a shimmering production of “The Little Mermaid” chased the gloom away on a chilly, gray day, as their contagious joy on the Touhill stage was a sight to behold.
The 10th anniversary musical by Variety – the Children’s Charity of St. Louis — Theatre celebrated their special achievement as the only production of this kind in the U.S. in royal fashion Friday evening, their third of six performances Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 18 – 21.
What Variety Theatre has done in the past decade is truly remarkable – involving an inclusive children’s ensemble who learns theater mechanics, confidence and performing skills alongside a professional adult cast – in a first-rate production. The good cheer that emanates from everyone involved is something special – and it’s one of the high points of my theater-going every year.

Director and Choreographer Lara Teeter’s vision for this anniversary revival was inspired, especially emulating ocean movement and boosting minor roles.  He kept everything bright and breezy.
This year’s production designs are of highest quality, with a breathtaking fantasy seascape set by Dunsi Dai that incorporated ethereal views from the scrim. Nathan Scheuer’s lighting design enhanced the warm, wonderful make-believe world under the sea – and simulated storms and the dangers down below as well.  Rusty Wandall’s sound design astutely captured sounds of sea, sand and sky.
With superb aerial work, Berklea Going, as spunky Ariel, appeared to be swimming, and her realistic rescue of a sinking Prince Eric (David Bryant Johnson) was a stunner.
The 18-piece orchestra, expertly led by musical director Mark Schapman, pulled us into Menken and Ashman’s lush musical score, and the peppy calypso beat ramped up the fun.
That island vacation sound is personified by the lively Sebastian, the red-suited crab who tries to keep headstrong Ariel out of trouble. In a star-making performance, newcomer Michael Hawkins was a delight in song, dance and showmanship – and very funny.
With his lead on the show-stopping number, “Under the Sea,” the vibrant characters swirling in action were so splendid that they received an enthusiastic – and lengthy – standing ovation.
This year’s high-spirited cast portrayed Disney’s enchanting animated characters with great verve, from the vivid sea creatures, chefs and maids to the principals in familiar roles they made their own. Their glistening outfits from Kansas City Costume burst with color and imagination.
When Disney transformed the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young mermaid who wants to live as a human into a full-length animated musical film in 1989, it was the start of a new era.
Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who died in 1991, wrote Broadway-caliber songs for their original movie score of “The Little Mermaid,” so adapting it for the stage seemed like a logical step. However, it didn’t make it to Broadway until 2008, with additional songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and book by Doug Wright.
Ashman and Menken’s 1991 Oscar-nominated “Beauty and the Beast” came first to Broadway, in 1994 and enjoyed a 13-year run. As a special treat, Variety is fortunate to have the original “Beast,” three-time Tony nominee Terrence Mann, anchoring this production as King Triton.
With his glorious rich voice and commanding stage presence, the six-foot-tall Mann is sensational as the passionate and powerful ruler of the underwater kingdom, helping to make this show unforgettable.
His robust and regal performance is captivating, and even though he’s the marquee draw, Mann doesn’t allow himself to be center of attention, becoming an intrinsic part of the large ensemble as if it were his family.
A tip of the hat to the man who first became a star as Rum Tum Tugger in “Cats,” originated Javert in “Les Miserables,” and earned his third Tony nomination as Charlemagne in the Tony-winning 2013 revival of “Pippin.”
Along with the seamless integration of disabled youth in a children’s ensemble, as well as top-notch teens and adults, and dazzling production values, this is the best Variety musical yet. They feel like a family, for there is such warmth and affection expressed throughout the show.
From the adorable Ian Nolting as Flounder to the comical Alan Knoll as loyal Grimsby, the characters fit in both worlds.
The innovative flourishes to stand-out characters made them particularly memorable here. The agile Drew Humphrey, dandy as Scarecrow last year, charmed everyone as the wacky sidekick seagull Scuttle, and the nimble dance number “Positoovity” was a highlight in a show filled with them.
Joy Boland is a formidable villainess as wicked octopus Ursula, and her impressive sidekicks, Brandon Fink and Mason Kelso as evil electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, were nimble foes.
Ariel’s lively Mer-Sisters were particularly strong, in songs and their comical family bickering – I looked forward to their appearance every time they sashayed out in their sequined outfits. complete with moving tails, and big-haired wigs.  The six spry siblings Chandler Ford as Aquata, Larissa White as Andrina, Corbyn Sprayberry as Arista, Dena DiGiancinto as Atina, Caitlyn Witty as Adella and Allison Newman as Allana were a hoot.
John Kinney as Chef Louis is another crowd-pleaser in madcap dinner number, “Les Poissons.”
Berklea Going was a likable Ariel, sweet-voiced and sincere, and she paired well with David Bryant Johnson as equally likable Prince Eric.
With its bright tempo, romantic story and charming characters, “The Little Mermaid” is a bubbly confection for children and adults alike. Variety’s production, infused with heart and humor, sparkled and shined.
Variety Theatre presents “The Little Mermaid” at 7 p.m. Oct. 18, 19 and 20, and also at 10 a.m. Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 1:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts on the UMSL campus. For tickets or more information, visit www.touhill.org and www.varietystl.org.
 
 
 

By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer
It’s difficult to see Nora Helmer, protagonist of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, in a positive light, not because she left her controlling husband, Torvald, back in 1879, but that she abandoned her three young children in the process. At least there was a reason for it. Like Nora, the children belonged to Torvald, just as much as his house or his clothes. He has help too. Nora had a loving nanny, Anne Marie, in fact, the very one who had abandoned her own child to raise Nora, so she knew her kids were in good hands.
Considering, then, that Nora had to choose between freedom for herself or staying with her entire family, her choice to go away can be justified, at least to an extent. In Ibsen’s play, she believes that her husband is controlling and the eight years they’ve been together haven’t changed him. She even feels at times as if she’s losing her mind. Contemporaneous audiences and critics couldn’t summon up sympathy for this bird in a gilded cage, but to 21st century minds, her actions weren’t unforgivable. Then along comes Lucas Hnath with A Doll’s House, Part 2, with a fresh take on the character.

Hnath uses a modern idiom to demystify the antiquated language and make it easier for us to just sit back and appreciate the comedy and drama happening before us. The first character to appear is Anne Marie (Tina Johnson) when she hobbles out to answer the door, yes, THAT door, located prominently upstage center. She’s not entirely surprised to see Nora (Caralyn Koslowski) after 15 years because Nora let her know she’d be coming, but not when.
We learn that the years haven’t been kind to Anne Marie, at least not physically, but Nora looks and sounds terrific. She darts about the room, finally perching on an ottoman, to catch Anne Marie up on what’s happened. Apparently, she has found success writing about women like herself under a pseudonym, since authors are “supposed” to be male. The drab set has furniture piled in a corner with a few pieces still in place around the room. When a chair is wanted, someone, more often than not, Nora, fetches one from the pile. Anne Marie’s costume is as gray as her surroundings, but Nora is dressed in vivid blue and red. Her plumage is a vibrant contrast to once well-ordered house. We get the impression that the mess represents Torvald’s current faux bachelor life.
Michael James Reed as Torvald. Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.comNora’s constant motion does remind me of the terms of endearment Torvald used to use for her when they lived together, which she hated. These were references to pet birds mostly, that flit from place to place while having no practical use other than ornamentation. Nora has a long speech shortly after coming on the scene about her life as it is now. She intends to see Torvald (Michael James Reed) the following day, he shows up unexpectedly and is extremely startled, in a Victorian sort of way, to see his wife returned at last. Having learned she’s not his ex-wife, as she thought she’d be, she has come to ask him to file the divorce papers. Nora can’t legally dissolve their bond without difficulty, but he can. And if he doesn’t, then presenting herself as unmarried for purposes of work and love affairs may constitute fraud.
At last, we begin to hear Torvald’s side of the story, but he has to get back to work. He returns later to continue the conversation. Nora solicits Anne Marie’s help in figuring out what to do, and Anne Marie suggests Nora speak to her daughter, Emmy (Andrea Abello). The older woman believes if Emmy asks Torvald to divorce her mother, he will do it. Enter Emmy. Emmy is not what her mother expects her to be. The younger woman has entirely different ideas about what constitutes a proper and happy life, while Nora learns that you do reap what you sow.
Caralyn Koszlowski is Nora, Andrea Abello is Emmy Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.comTimothy Near directs her first show at the Rep in several years, and she shows why she keeps being asked back. She keeps the action moving at warp speed when Nora’s around, but Anne Marie, and even Torvald, provide a calmer counterpoint. I do have a problem with a choice she made near the very end, but otherwise, Near gives us lovely work. Scott C. Neale’s set is cleverly conceived, and facilitates a lot of the movement onstage. And, of course, there’s that door which we now know lets people out, but also back in. Lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson’s work enhances the overall look. Rusty Wandall’s sound design is fun, peppered with songs that assert women’s power like “It’s Too Late,” “You Don’t Own Me,” and most prescient, “The Woman in Your Life (is You).”
Re-imagining  a character such as Nora, far from the “Angel in the House” of her husband’s fantasies, but a woman who insists on being validated, judging her on her own merits and flaws, is illuminating. A Doll’s House, Part 2 provides a deeper examination of what’s going on with her, shows how her actions may have affected one of her children, and, at long last, lets us hear from Torvald. The play got a slew of awards and nominations; it deserves them.
‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Oct. 12 through Nov. 4. Visit www.repstl.org for more information.
Photos by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com

The Rep is kicking off its 2018-2019 Studio Theatre season with Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s 2018 Drama Desk Award winner for Outstanding Play. Directed by Steven Woolf, it’s a biting piece of theatre whose acidic humor goes straight for the throat.
Henny RussellPrep school admissions director Sherri Rosen-Mason lives according to staunchly progressive values. Her daily battles include diversifying both the school’s student body and the photos in its brochures. But when her teenage son claims those same values have denied him opportunities as a white student, it creates an explosive conflict that exposes their family’s hypocrisies and privileges.
Henny Russell stars as Sherri. On the most recent season of Orange is the New Black, Russell memorably portrayed the bespectacled prison boss Carol, who quickly became a fan favorite due to her ruthless methods and intimidating presence. Russell’s theatre credits include the Tony Award-winning Oslo on Broadway, as well as The Rep’s 2005 production of Frozen.
Ward DuffyRussell’s real-life husband Ward Duffy (The Other Place, 2014) returns to The Rep as her onstage husband, Bill. Rep newcomer Thom Niemann portrays their son, Charlie. Barbara Kingsley (You Can’t Take It With You, 2010) and Kate Udall complete the cast.
The Rep’s Augustin Family Artistic Director Woolf directs. This is the first of two shows that he’ll direct in his final season as The Rep’s artistic leader. His design team includes scenic designer Bill Clarke (Constellations, 2017), costume designer Lou Bird (Born Yesterday, 2018), lighting designer Nathan Scheuer (Heisenberg, 2017) and The Rep’s resident sound designer, Rusty Wandall.
Thom NiemannTickets to The Rep’s production of Admissions are currently on sale and can be purchased online at repstl.org, by calling the Box Office at 314-968-4925 or visiting the Loretto-Hilton Center at 130 Edgar Road (on the campus of Webster University). Ticket prices range from $46 to $71.
Show times are Tuesday, Wednesdays and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and selected Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
For more information about Admissions, visit repstl.org/admissions

A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ Mainstage season, Oct. 10 – Nov. 4. Written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Timothy Near, it’s a period comedy with a modern attitude.
Hnath’s audacious sequel, written more than 135 years after Henrik Ibsen’s original, hit Broadway in 2017 like a sneak attack. Ibsen’s familial drama remains a foundational piece of theatre, with a still-controversial ending in which a married woman chooses to walk out on her family. But Hnath took the themes and characters of that familiar classic and flipped them on their heads, imagining what would happen if protagonist Nora Helmer returned home 15 years after her dramatic exit.
The play presents a bizarre and thrilling sight of Ibsen’s characters hashing out their unresolved issues with hilarious, profane and poetic barbs – in full period costumes, no less.
Caralyn Kozlowski, in her Rep debut, leads the cast as Nora. Her theatre credits include the national tour of Dirty Dancing and the Off-Broadway production The Dressmaker’s Secret. She’s appeared on television in episodes of Law & Order, Numb3rs and Third Watch.
Michael James Reed appears as Nora’s husband Torvald. This is Reed’s 15th production at The Rep, following appearances in Hamlet and Faceless last season. Andrea Abello, as the couple’s daughter Emmy, and Tina Johnson, as the family’s long-suffering nanny Anne Marie, complete the cast.
The Rep’s casting director is McCorkle Casting Ltd.
Director Near returns to The Rep for the first time since 2012’s Clybourne Park, which won five St. Louis Theater Circle Awards – including an Outstanding Director honor for Near. She has directed 11 shows at The Rep, dating back to 1981’s Buried Child, which starred Holly Hunter.
The design team includes scenic designer Scott C. Neale (Georama, 2016 – St. Louis Theater Circle Award winner), costume designer Victoria Livingston-Hall, lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson (Caught, 2018) and sound designer Rusty Wandall (Born Yesterday, 2018). Tony Dearing will stage manage the production.
Tickets for A Doll’s House, Part 2 are now on sale at repstl.org, by phone at 314-968-4925 or in-person at The Rep box office, located at 130 Edgar Road on the campus of Webster University. Ticket prices range from $19 to $92. Six-show Mainstage subscriptions or pick-your-own subscriptions of three-to-five Mainstage subscriptions are also available.
Show times are Tuesdays, selected Wednesdays and selected Sundays at 7 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and selected Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are selected Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
For more information on the production, visit repstl.org/dollshouse2.