By Lynn Venhaus
Inspired by an adored golden-age movie musical 67 years ago, the stage version of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” has been updated to rework some of the more problematic portions of the plot for contemporary audiences.

While the Muny’s latest production tries mightily to breathe new life into one of the more neanderthal mid-century musicals, selling the macho characters is a pesky issue to overcome – even with a cast deep with exceptionally skilled dancers and singers.

Head of an all-male household in the mountains, Adam’s caveman way of thinking has influenced his uncultured backwoods brothers. However, they have their ‘teachable’ moments in the revamped book.

The focus on the uncouth siblings becoming more civilized around women – as they have zero experience with the opposite sex – is part of the show’s enduring charm.

They are tutored by their new sister-in-law, the dissatisfied yet determined townswoman Milly (Kendra Kassebaum). Though strong-willed, she is coerced into marrying Adam (Edward Watts) in a weak moment when he comes to town on a woman-hunt.

We can look it this as a ‘glass half full’ or a ‘glass half-empty’ experience.

After all, that is the period. The time is 1850, during the great migration to the Pacific Northwest on The Oregon Trail, when men still acted like women were property, and society felt marriage was in part a financial transaction.

In so many words, people didn’t discuss gender politics. Times, as they tend to do, have changed. But we are still evolving as a society, and theater must address the modern sensibilities to stay relevant. Musical theater, by virtue of its history, is forced to mirror those changes, and this discussion will be ongoing.

As we are painfully aware, during this 21st century, particularly in the last five years, with the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements, the old-fashioned sexist attitudes on display in the old chestnuts are hard to get beyond. (Think of the abused women in “Carousel” and “Oliver!”). In the upcoming “Chicago,” we hear another side from fed-up females in “Cell Block Tango.”

Thankfully, among the improvements to “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” they have removed Adam’s song, “A Woman Ought to Know Her Place,” and Milly’s “One Man.”

Edward Watts and Kendra Kassebaum as Adam and Milly. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

They have added a feisty “I Married Seven Brothers” for a peeved Milly – a highlight for Kassebaum — and “Where Were You?” as a vehicle for Adam to vent his anger from his perspective.

Nevertheless, a musical that is based on a Stephen Vincent Benet short story, “The Sobbin’ Women,” which was shaped by an ancient Roman legend called “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” that’s just hard to spin – and swallow — these days. And the plot hinges on the other six brothers encouraged to kidnap women they took a shine to in town, so that is a controversial hurdle.

And despite a Herculean effort from the Muny’s creative team to focus on a battle of the sexes and bring out the personality and humor, the aggressive song “Sobbin’ Women” and some of the remaining dialogue are wince-inducing, even like nails on a chalkboard.

I know, I know – people generally go to musical theater to be entertained, to escape the realities of daily life and usually aren’t seeking enlightenment while enjoying song and dance. They are just fine taking a respite, blissfully unaware of the real world. They enjoy a bouncy, tuneful musical and take it all in stride.

That’s not me. So, this review is from my perspective. As a friend said, “Every musical is someone’s favorite.” I had to keep reminding myself: “Context.”

It’s like my inexplicable fondness for “Mamma Mia!” Everything screams silly, but I love it, and have seen it at least six times — reminds me of “Gidget” movies when I was growing up, comfort food for the soul.

Under a magnifying glass, many musicals can’t hold up to current scrutiny, but that debate will keep on keeping on.

Peruse a list of musicals from the 1940s through 1970s, and so many female characters are underwritten – typically waiting for a man to rescue her or change her life, which should be annoying to current generations.

Modern musical theater has hopefully moved beyond that. Maybe someday our princes will come, but none of that royal superiority, he’ll be on equal footing, and in the meantime, we’re following paths trailblazed by women who clamored to be heard.

Next week’s “On Your Feet!” will show a true partnership between a husband and a wife, Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” isn’t the first musical to deal with deception – for starters, the list includes “Light in the Piazza,” “The Most Happy Fella,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (and ‘go!’), among others.

And bull-headed Adam and assertive Milly work on trust issues to advance the plot.

People really do have affection for the 1954 movie. It was nominated for Best Picture, losing the Oscar to “On the Waterfront,” but won Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. In 2006, the American Film Institute named it one of the best American musicals ever made, and in 2004, the Library of Congress’ U.S. National Film Registry selected it for preservation because of it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Many fans enjoy the nostalgia, the appealing leads – brawny Howard Keel as Adam and sweet girl-next-door Jane Powell as Milly, plus the gymnastic Russ Tamblyn as youngest brother Gideon, and foremost, those rousing dance numbers.

The Muny drew 6,907 patrons on opening night. This is the sixth time the Muny has produced the show. Taking a cue from a reworked version by the Goodspeed Opera House in 2005, brought in David Landay, an original co-writer of the stage play, to do some rewrites and editing. A female contribution may have been helpful too.

The script feels like whiplash. One minute, the women are acting empowered, and the next minute the guys seem in “Me, Tarzan, you Jane” mode. It’s like when people attempt to update Shakespeare by a couple hundred years, but don’t commit to a wholly new vision.

Oh well. Baby steps. Growth is good.

In recent years, the Muny has resurrected some of the creakier shows and presented versions with freshened books – most notably “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Paint Your Wagon,” both of which I enjoyed.

I was hoping this would be similar. Several members of the “Paint Your Wagon” production team have returned for this reboot, including director-choreographer Josh Rhodes and associate director-choreographer Lee Wilkins, along with music supervisor Sinai Tabak.

The music direction by Valerie Gebert is crisp. Additional arrangements and orchestrations are by Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland. That’s quite a collaboration.

The Muny was one of the first theaters in America to present the stage adaptation of the movie, back in 1978 during a pre-Broadway tryout. The new stage show didn’t make it to Broadway until 1982; its last year at the Muny was 2011.

The music retained from the movie, written by Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, includes “Bless Your Beautiful Hide,” “Wonderful Wonderful Day,” “Lonesome Polecat” and “Goin’ Courtin’.”

Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn wrote “Love Never Goes Away,” “We Gotta Make It Through the Winter,” and “Glad That You Were Born” for the stage show.

The maidens in The Quilt Dance. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The show has always been considered a major dance vehicle, and five-time Tony Award winning choreographer Michael Kidd cemented his reputation through his robust barn-raising dance and his movements based on reality.

Kidd’s unpretentious style earned him Tony Awards in “Guys and Dolls,” “Can-Can,” “Lil Abner,” “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Destry Rides Again,” and lasting Hollywood admiration (check out Danny Kaye in “Knock on Wood.”)

His uncommon approach transformed frontier chores into rollicking dance numbers. He once said if he had made slobs in the woods break out in ballet, people would have ridiculed it.

And the Muny has assembled an outstanding dozen triple threats to portray the men and women going courting – the Pontipee brothers show off their muscular moves in “The Challenge Dance” at the church social while the maids-in-waiting demonstrate a graceful, sophisticated elegance in “The Quilting Dance.” The finale, “The Wedding Dance,” wraps everything up on an enthusiastic, happy note as a long winter has turned into spring.

Rhodes has emphasized the ensemble’s energy and spotlighted the athletic and acrobatic dances. He helmed an exhilarating “Newsies” in 2017 and has finessed these pieces with vigor.

Kassebaum, who grew up in St. Louis, was impressive as lovable and comical showgirl Adelaide in the 2019 “Guys and Dolls” (and won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for that performance). She is an emphatic Milly, strong in voice and spirit.

Edward Watts, saddled with a distracting shaggy hairstyle, struggled with the push-pull of that stubborn barbaric character, but is assured in his commanding vocal numbers and a sturdy physical presence as the dominant hero.

The brothers, nowhere near as educated as the snotty East Coast-bred smart-alecks running the town, show plenty of spirit and ‘street smarts’ when they are struck by love and try to impress the town maidens.

Raised to think marriage is the end-all for their young lives learning how to cook, sew and clean, the women must play the stereotype common to the era. But here, they have a tad more gumption, individually attracted to the guys, no matter what their dads say.

Harris Milgrim is a standout as second-oldest brother Benjamin, and lithe Carly Blake Sebouhian’s beautiful movements and ballet-training are noticeable as Martha.

The seven brothers. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The limber Pontipee lads include Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Caleb, Ryan Steele as Daniel, Garett Hawe as Ephraim, 4-time Muny vet Kyle Coffman as the tempestuous Frank, and Brandon L. Whitmore as Gideon.

The supple refined city girls are Leslie Donna Flesner as Dorcas, Shonica Gooden as Sarah, Sarah Meahl as Ruth, Mikayla Renfrow as Alice and Kristin Yancy as Liza.  

Michael Schweikardt has provided majestic mountains to convey the grand open spaces and dense forests for the topography while video designer Caite Hevner’s striking work on the changing seasons and the Echo Pass avalanche are spectacular. Schweikardt’s multi-floor log farmhouse is masterful in levels and details.

While some shows like the culturally inappropriate “Flower Drum Song” have unofficially been ‘retired,’ the jury is obviously still out on this show. The passionate performers carry this one here over the threshold

A look back can be a step forward in some instances. The Muny has put a tremendous amount of effort in making this production palatable for its multi-generational audience. Yet, the outdated debate will continue.

As Thursday’s opening night rainout indicated, patience is a virtue. Not to be a Debbie Downer, this isn’t a step backwards, but some of us are ready to move on.

The company of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is at 8:15 p.m. through Wednesday, Aug. 18, at the Muny outdoor stage in Forest Park.

The shows remaining are Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Aug. 12 – 18), On Your Feet! (Aug. 21 – 27) and Chicago (Aug. 30 – Sept. 5). For more information, visit muny.org. 

Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office, online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 534-1111.

To stay connected virtually and to receive the latest updates, please follow The Muny on their social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Muny Photos by Phillip Hamer.

By Lynn Venhaus
Patsy Cline was that rare artist who made a deep connection with anyone who listened to her sing.

A similar effect happens with actresses Diana DeGarmo and Zoe Vonder Haar, who are a delightful combo of sweet and salty, smooth and sassy, silky and spirited, in the jukebox musical “Always…Patsy Cline,” now playing at Stages St. Louis through Sept. 5.

Raised in Georgia and now living in Nashville, DeGarmo has returned to her country music roots in a thoroughly engaging performance.

She sleekly inhabits Cline, who is considered the most popular female country singer in recording history. DeGarmo emulates Cline’s richly textured, emotive voice, and effortlessly delivers 27 numbers, including five with Vonder Haar, who plays Cline’s fan-turned-friend, Louise Seger.

DeGarmo, who was the runner-up on Season 3 of “American Idol” at age 16 in 2004, which Fantasia Barrino, 19, won (a total of 65 million votes were cast for both), has since pursued a music and musical theatre career, appearing on Broadway and in national tours.

Diana DeGarmo as Patsy Cline, Photographed by ProPhotoSTL

Previously in St. Louis, she was impressive as Doralee Rhodes in the first national tour of “9 to 5: The Musical,” which stopped at the Fox Theatre in February 2011, and also at the Fox in 2014 as the Narrator in the revival tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Her husband, Ace Young, was Joseph. (She met Young, who was on American Idol’s fifth season, when they were cast in “Hair” and have been married since 2013).

She is poised and commanding as she interprets one hit song after another, showcasing her range and control. The vocals on the ballads “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams” are particularly lush, tugging on your heart strings.

She has fun changing tempos with the more down-home numbers, such as “Stupid Cupid” and “Shake Rattle and Roll.”

DeGarmo projects an elegance, which is enhanced by Brad Musgrove’s gorgeous vintage costume designs, and she is exquisitely lit by lighting designer Sean M. Savoie.

She has a dynamic chemistry with feisty firecracker Vonder Haar, the veteran fan favorite who has played Louise twice before. Vonder Haar won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for the first time (and would go on to win that same award for Stages’ “The Full Monty” two years later).

It’s a good match. Seger, a colorful Texas housewife, was a devoted fan who first saw Patsy on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” in 1957, when she won after singing “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Living near Houston, she attended the singer’s show at the Esquire Ballroom in 1961, and they connected as friends, writing letters and talking on the phone until the singer’s tragic death at age 30 in a plane crash in 1963.

Playwright Ted Swindley fashioned the interviews Seger did for the biographies “Patsy Cline: An Intimate Biography” and “Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline” into the source material for his 1988 two-woman tribute revue, “Always…Patsy Cline,” which is the epitome of a crowd-pleaser. It is licensed by Cline’s family and estate.

Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise Seger, photographed by ProPhotoSTL

From Seger in “Country Weekly”: “The person inside me recognized the person who lived inside her. It was truly eerie.”

Patsy joined Louise and her friends and after the show accepted an invitation to Louise’s home for a late-night breakfast. “It was like I was living in a dream. There was Patsy Cline in my kitchen helping me fix bacon and eggs. She took her shoes off and wore an apron I gave her.

“She told me about her life, her hopes, her dreams. We discussed loves lost, loves found, loves yet to be.

“We talked about her troubled marriage and the pain she endured being away from her children. It was just two people baring their souls.

“We both sang and harmonized old Gospel songs and hillbilly tunes. We sat there and smoked and sang until 4:00 in the morning.”

Louise rushed Patsy to the airport, expecting never to hear from her again. But within two weeks, Louise received her first in what was to be many letters and phone calls they would exchange.

“I often would receive calls at 1:00 in the morning. She’d be singing in some town wanting a friend to talk to.”

Of course, this was 60 years ago, before entertainers had security, a ‘team’ and ‘people.’ It was just two women bonding at a kitchen table.

While Swindley took some poetic license, the story is true – a glamorous celebrity who grew up without privilege and her plain-spoken, music-lovin’ pal.

From the moment she sashays on to scenic designer James Wolk’s vintage 1950s-era kitchen set, Vonder Haar, a St. Louis treasure, is a funny and sincere Louise. She engages the audience as comic relief with her folksy charm, coming across like a neighbor joining you for a kaffee klatch.

This memoir, which opens the theater company’s 35th anniversary year, is the most popular show in Stages’ history. This is the third time it’s being presented, after back-to-back runs in 2013 and 2014, which demonstrates again how endearing and charming it is. It was as warmly received Aug. 11 as it was seven and eight years ago.

The cozy show, first at Stages’ former home at Kirkwood’s Community Center, then moved intact to The Playhouse at Westport Plaza, is opening their new venue, the Kirkwood Center for the Performing Arts. The Ross Family Theatre seats 529 comfortably.

Artistic Director Michael Hamilton has recreated the production, capitalizing on the actress’s strengths. The premise is simple – showing Cline singing at the Grand Old Opry and other locations, with Louise listening to her on the radio, which was a communication lifeline for people back then.

A simpler time, a touch of nostalgia, admiration for a career cut way too short, but spotlighting music that continues to warm hearts to this day.

The lively band, conducted by music director Jeremy Jacobs, who also plays the piano, is an expert blend of Steve Hitsman on steel pedal guitar, Dave Black on electric and acoustic guitars, Kevin Buckley on acoustic guitar and fiddle, Eric Grossman on bass and Joe Meyer on drums. Their tight sound is mighty in an alcove perched behind a scrim.

Original orchestrations for the band and vocals were crafted by August Eriksmoen and Tony Migliore.

While the songs take center stage, the fascinating tale of a close friendship between kindred spirits is what resonates, drawing an audience in, one who welcomes the warm embrace of harmony in music and life.

Diana DeGarmo as Patsy Cline, photographed by ProPhotoSTL

Stages St. Louis presents “Always…Patsy Cline” through Sept. 5, performance times vary, at the Ross Family Theatre inside the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center at 210 Monroe St. ASL interpreting and audio description by MindsEye will be available for the Aug. 20 show. For more information, call 314-821-2407 or visit www.StagesSt.Louis.org. Follow Stages on Facebook and Instagram.

By Lynn Venhaus
We have been enriched by Steve Woolf as a titan in regional theater, and his loss will be deeply felt.

For 33 years, he guided The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, until his retirement in 2019. He died Monday at age 75.

I had the opportunity to interview and talk with him on several occasions, and I am very grateful to have been in his orbit for a bit. It was an honor. His immense love of theater was obvious from the moment you encountered him – his eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas.

I have been reviewing plays at The Repertory Theatre since 2005. Their “Take Me Out” I consider to be the gold standard for plays in St. Louis. As a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle in 2012, I have presented him with a lion’s share of awards. Every year, from 2013-2019, he was always gracious and sincere, no matter how many trips he took to the stage.

During the past decade, The Rep has earned more than 100 awards. They have led the way in innovation and excellence – in acting, direction, set design, lighting design, sound and much more.

As an Arts For Life board member, I helped facilitate his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, for his “vision, passion and excellence,” and he was so genuine about the honor. But that’s what he did — lived an authentic life. He never forgot that he was a kid from Milwaukee living out his dream.

And so, he could inspire — he talked about the magic of live theater, being in a dark room, sharing a special experience with other people that changes us and connects us.

His work spoke for itself: He directed “Red,” one of my favorites, and he brought the complex “Oslo” to the stage as one of his final — and most intense — works. He committed to making it relatable, no easy task with a large sprawling cast.

During rehearsals for the stellar “All the Way” in 2015 (I was there to interview Brian Dykstra, playing LBJ, and Woolf, who was directing — https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article34672659.html), he told me about his experience seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in London.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Rep

He had been gobsmacked. He didn’t think The Rep could do it — very technical show, intricate — but the wheels were turning. He was so excited about trying to bring it to The Rep. “I think I’ve found a way we can do it,” he said to me later. (And it would win the Theatre Circle’s Outstanding Production, which opened the 2017-2018 season, and Best Director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in 2018.)

The enthusiasm he had for the process and the collaboration of “putting it all together” were so obvious. I cherish a brief interchange I had with him — in a stairwell at The Rep — about “The Humans,” which was a thought-provoker, had many layers. I had made an observation, and he wanted to hear more of my thoughts. It had received a mixed reaction — but he was firm in his fervor. He was just so darn insightful.

During an interview before the 50th season, which opened with “Follies,” he recalled the first time he saw the show as a young man studying theater. We geeked out about our mutual love of Stephen Sondheim. “Follies” was brilliant, but his other major production at The Rep, in 2012, the magnificent “Sunday in the Park with George,” was breathtaking. Truly memorable.

Every year, he would go to New York to soak up multiple theater productions. And hearing about his experiences was always a treat. During intermission of yet another “Mamma Mia!” at the Fox, I went over to chat with Joe Pollack, and Steve Woolf also came over to talk to Joe, and he regaled us with tales from his recent Broadway adventures. How fortunate to hear his vision and just how he radiated joy about theater (I mean, he was at “Mamma Mia!”).

One of my favorite Steve Woolf remembrances was, in fact, at Joe Pollack’s memorial service on March 17, 2012, at The Rep, of course. His widow, Ann Lemons Pollack, had arranged for five main speakers — all from a different facet of Joe’s life/illustrious career. Steve was the representative for theater, only fitting. He said as a critic, Joe just wanted the theater groups to “get it right.” Oh, yes, what a perfect summation.

And yes, Steve, you “got it right” more often than not. You will be missed, for your wit, your wisdom, your humanity, your desire for theater to spark conversations — and how you appreciated St. Louis audiences.

May God rest your soul. Your memory is already a blessing to me. And I hope you and Joe can continue to have some great conversations.

Mark Bernstein, retired managing director at The Rep, summed it up perfectly in a statement: “Steve always had his finger on the pulse of the St. Louis community, programming plays that resonated in the here and now, and showcasing the work of outstanding directors, designers and actors. St. Louis audiences responded by filling the seats, night after night, week after week, year after year.”

Standing O, Steve!

”Here is an article I wrote for the Webster-Kirkwood Times when he was getting multiple awards before retiring:

https://www.timesnewspapers.com/webster-kirkwoodtimes/curtain-call/article_ee301692-61dc-11e9-bcf0-1b566b2e37e4.html?fbclid=IwAR3drHmQpZXanye8Tvo9OH-cdSItTeegAOBC9WfeJ0CSmlemUlWlUpSPJ9U

Follies

My review of “All the Way,” in the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 17, 2015: https://www.bnd.com/entertainment/article35666526.html

My review of “Follies,” in the Belleville News-Democrat on Sept. 21, 2016: https://www.bnd.com/entertainment/article103265847.html

Photos provided by The Rep

By Lynn Venhaus
As an ever-busy presence in the St. Louis theater community, Ellie Schwetye has created a diverse body of work — acting, directing, producing and sound design for a myriad of companies. While she has been recognized for her individual achievements with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, she thrives on collaboration.

But her name associated with a project means that there will be a high bar for quality and a sharp attention to detail, from selecting a soundtrack to a Jane Austen homage, “First Impressions,” for SATE; to guiding Will Bonfiglio to a third Circle Award for Best Actor in a Comedy in “Fully Committed” at the New Jewish Theatre; to bringing haughty Mrs. White to life in SATE’s “Classic Mystery Game” play; and portraying Emily Post, one of the hostesses in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth.”

She is the co-producer of SATE and has directed and/or worked with Equally Represented Arts (ERA), YoungLiars, West End Players Guild, New Jewish Theatre, Prison Performing Arts, The Tennesee Williams Festival St. Louis, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, The Black Rep, R-S Theatrics, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Midnight Company, Stray Dog Theatre, Mustard Seed Theatre and others.

Joe Hanrahan in “Here Lies Henry”

Like many other artists, Ellie was eager to return to live theater when it was safe to do so — either on stage or behind the scenes. And now, it’s happening — she’s directing the one-man show “Here Lies Henry” starring frequent collaborator Joe Hanrahan, whose Midnight Company is producing.

It runs Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. June 10 – 27, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. June 27, at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s black box theatre.

Most COVID restrictions have now lifted, so with larger capacity audiences allowed, tickets are now available at the door. Midnight was deemed MissouriArtSafe by the Missouri Arts Council, received permission from the City of St. Louis for the production, and followed strict safety protocols. 

Written by Daniel MacIvor, Henry is a man on a mission to tell you something you don’t already know. It is an idyllic — sort of — miserable — sort of — storybook — sort of — nightmarish — sort of — remarkable — sort of — regular show.

Ellie said she was immediately drawn to the material.

“Initially, what I liked about “Here Lies Henry” was the opportunity to collaborate with Joe Hanrahan again. I’ve joked that Joe could hand me the phone book and I’d direct it, if it meant working with him,” she said.. 

“But, of course, the material of the play itself is a draw. The character of Henry is so quirky, he’s such an innocent — but trying desperately not to appear so. It’s a lovely, weird, off-beat meditation on love, life, and death. There’s a Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness quality to the text, as well as moments that have me thinking about David Lynch and Andrew Wyeth,” she said.

Ellie and Joe have collaborated multiple times.

Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye in “Cuddles,” directed by Joe Hanrahan

“Working with Joe is always a treat. ‘Henry’ is, I think, the sixth project on which we have worked together. Joe finds and writes amazing scripts – all of which are real studies in personality,” she said.

” As both an actor-producer and a director Joe is very laid back. He comes into every project with really clear ideas, and a great sense of play and collaboration. We experiment and laugh a lot during rehearsals. Joe has a great affinity for incorporating rock and pop music into his shows, as I do. I appreciate that he lets me sound design the shows I direct, which he knows I love doing.”

Since the pandemic forced live theater to shut down in March 2020, she said she kept her theater itch scratched with some outdoor theater, video projects and “a few, now ubiquitous, Zoom plays.”

How does it feel to be ‘back in the saddle’ again?

“It’s fantastic! This is my first in-person indoor production since March 2020. It’s pretty cool to be doing this play. Directing a one-man show was the best choice to ease back into the process. The first rehearsal was both terrifying and exhilarating,” she said.

Now she is returning to produce and sound design the play “Top Girls” with SATE — Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble,

“It’s a play we had programmed and cast since before the pandemic. Both my producing partner, Rachel Tibbetts, who is directing the play, and I really love the story, the script, and non-linear storytelling of Caryl Churchill’s text and are thrilled we finally get to bring it back to St. Louis,” she said.

And while filling up her plate after such an absence is tempting, she has reflected upon the next steps after the quarantine break.

“As for easing back into commitments, I think the pandemic taught me that being busy isn’t a virtue. I love the many facets of my work in the theatre, but I don’t need to do eleven projects a year anymore. Having said that, I am quite excited for some projects this fall including “Top Girls” with SATE, directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School, and another project with Midnight later in December,” she said.

Ellie as Emily Post in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth” with Rachel Tibbetts

Schwetye, 39, was born and raised in St. Louis.

During the down time, she explored activities that she had an interest in, but hadn’t given herself the time to dive in — and the opportunity was much appreciated.

“Unsurprisingly, much of it has been outdoors, since that’s been the safest way to socialize. I’ve been gardening a bit. The brilliant Nicole Angeli has been my hiking guru, and it’s been lovely to explore gorgeous conservation areas in eastern Missouri and central Illinois. Last summer, I supported my sister as her ground crew while she paddled the Missouri river — 340 miles! — from Kansas City to St. Charles. Now that was the ultimate stage management gig. Being on the river for four days and the fact that our team was representing the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper organization opened my eyes to how precious and critical the Missouri river system is to our region,” she said. 

“I’ve also gotten to spend a lot of time at my family’s property in Labadie, Mo., which we affectionately and unoriginally call the Farm. We completed building a house that was inspired by a one-room schoolhouse that once sat on the property. I’ve been working with my dad for the past year on much of the finish carpentry in the house, including framing and hanging doors and cutting and installing window trim and baseboards from hemlock,” she said.

“The Comeback Special” as part of the LaBute New Play Festival at St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Q &A WITH ELLIE SCHWETYE

1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?

“I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. Theatrical storytelling is a kind of magic. I’m also a bit of a show-off, so performing was a great outlet for that energy. As I developed though, I learned that I love directing and producing so much more. I find the process of bringing artists together in collaboration so much more rewarding than a curtain call.”

2. How would your friends describe you?

“Classic Aries: attention-seeking, passionate, optimistic, ambitious, independent, competitive, a bit selfish, impatient and impulsive.”

3. How do you like to spend your spare time?

“Recently. it’s been out at the Farm with my nieces and nephews, hiking with buddies, and reading my dad’s first edition “Foxfire” books.”

4. What is your current obsession?

“My meadow is my current obsession. It’s one little corner of the Farm. I’m keeping a path cleared through it to better observe the variety of grasses and native plants growing there. I have been trying to learn a lot more about our native species. Since I’m out at the Farm almost every week, it’s been amazing watching the changes from season to season.”

5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?

“I used to be a pretty fast runner. I won a state track meet in the 800m event.”

6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?

“My college theatre experience was a defining time. I went to a women’s college, which is certainly where my feminist theatre aesthetic was solidified. Knowing that my mentors were a fashion designer who got her start on London’s Carnaby Street in the 60s, a former Breck girl-turned radical feminist bass player, and an East German dramaturg with the Berliner Ensemble probably makes a lot of sense for the theatre I like to make and watch now.”

“A Lovely Sunday in Creve Coeur” as part of an ensemble at The Tennessee Williams Festival in 2019

7. Who do you admire most?

“This is the hardest question of the ten! So many people. My parents, certainly – especially my mom; my sisters. I’ve been learning more about my grandparents and ancestors, and there are a lot of hard-working, gritty folks in my family tree to admire.”

“Artistically, I admire the folks I have the privilege of collaborating with – and there are so many amazing and inspiring artists in this group! I admire my teachers, like Kelley Weber, who encouraged me to be a theatre artist. And I admire the producers who took a chance on me, like Edie Avioli and Scott Sears, and Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy.”

“And I always admire the real women from history whose stories I often get to tell – like Henriatta Leavit, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Rosalind Franklin, Sr. Jacque-Marie, or Helen Keller. Theatricalized stories of real women will always be the most fascinating to me.”

8. What is at the top of your bucket list?

I keep a Google doc of plays I’d love to direct or scripts I’d love to develop. Rachel Hanks and I started musing a while back about a play based on the Stevens Sisters (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell). Writing something original is certainly on the bucket-list. And as a some-time performer, I’m ready for the challenge of a one-woman show.

9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?

“Discovering and exploring unexpected nature and conservation areas in the region.”

10. What’s next?

“I’m looking forward to the YoungLiars Summer Training Festival in July, then “Top Girls” with SATE in September. I’ll be directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School in the fall, then in December I’ll be performing opposite Joe Hanrahan in his new trio of short plays “Tinsel Town” about artists in LA, directed by Rachel Tibbetts. It completes a trifecta of work the three of us have collaborated on, which has included “Cuddles” and “Little Thing, Big Thing.”

Ellie with John Wolbers in “First Impressions”

More on Ellie:

Family: my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, 5 nieces and nephews, and cousins (who are like sisters).
Education: The St. Louis answer: Clayton High School; the real answer: Mount Holyoke College.
Day job: Production Manager with my family’s business serving the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry.
First job: My first post-college job was as a professional Intern at the Black Rep. 
First role: Abigail Adams in the 5th grade musical “Dear Abby” (I still remember my big number!)
Favorite roles/plays: My Ozark adaptation of “As You Like It”, Rachel’s and my adaptation, “First Impressions” based on “Pride and Prejudice” (and getting to play Elizabeth Bennet in it!), ERA’s “The Residents of Craigslist”. I’m also really proud of co-founding and producing SATE’s Aphra Behn Festival, celebrating women writers and directors.
Dream role/play: There are two weirdo comedies I’d love to produce, direct, or perform in: “All Our Happy Days are Stupid” by Shiela Heti and “Freshwater” by Virginia Woolf, which she wrote for her sister Vanessa’s birthday party.
Awards/Honors/Achievements: St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Production, Sound Design, Directing, Script Adaptation, and Performance in an Ensemble; PopLifeSTL’s 2019 Artist of the Year 🙂
Favorite quote/words to live by: “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves”
A song that makes you happy: “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn

“Silent Sky,” which Ellie directed, at West End Players Guild in 2018
“Oedipus Apparatus” at West End Players Guild in 2017

STAGES St. Louis Artistic Director and co-founder, Michael Hamilton, has announced that he will be retiring at the end of the 2021 Season.

“From our opening season in 1987 to our launch into the stunning new Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, every moment at STAGES has been an extraordinary one for me. As I explore and embrace the next chapter in my life, my heart will always remain at STAGES,” said Artistic Director Michael Hamilton. “It is truly a life legacy that I am incredibly proud of. But I am particularly proud and grateful of all the
extraordinary people that I met and worked with in my 35 years at STAGES. That is something I will be able
to keep in my heart for the rest of my life.”

A co-founder of STAGES St. Louis, Michael has directed over 100 productions in his 35-year STAGES history and has been the creative force behind the company’s most iconic productions that patrons have come to know and love. For his work at STAGES, Michael has been honored with multiple awards including the Art & Education Council’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award (with Jack Lane) and both Kevin Kline and St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards for Outstanding Director of a Musical. Michael’s list of award-winning productions
include FOOTLOOSE (2005); THE FULLY MONTY (2007); PROMISES, PROMISES (2010); ANYTHING GOES
(2015); and MAN OF LA MANCHA (2019).

Additionally, Michael’s acclaimed production of ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE (2013) was not only transferred to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but also played a record-breaking eight-month run at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza.

“When Michael and Jack asked me in my role as Kirkwood’s Director of Parks and Recreation to rent the Robert G. Reim Theatre for the first STAGES Season in 1987, I don’t think any of us imagined what would come of that meeting,” said STAGES Board President Dave White. “But Michael had a vision and knew what he could do with that stage at the Reim. Seeing the growth of the organization from that point is one of the proudest parts of my career. Under Michael’s direction, STAGES has absolutely raised the bar for
what theatre looks like in St. Louis.”

“As the saying goes, there will be very big shoes to fill with the departure of Michael Hamilton,” said Mosbacher Family Executive Producer Jack Lane. “But, I have no doubt that there is a future artistic leader of STAGES out there waiting for us. As we enter our new phase in the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, STAGES is setting sail onto a national platform that no doubt will unfold in dynamic new ways and be embraced by both our loyal patrons and newcomers alike.”

Jack added, “We are also pleased to announce that we are establishing The Michael Hamilton Artistic Fund, where contributions will support the advancement of artistic needs at STAGES.”

The entire STAGES family wishes Michael the best in his well-deserved retirement and thanks him for his steadfast leadership and dedication to the mission of STAGES for 35 years. A national search has begun for the new Artistic Director role.

The organization looks forward to the curtain rising again with the return of Michael’s critically-acclaimed and audience-loved production of ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE (August 6-September 5) this upcoming season, followed by the STAGES premiere of JERSEY BOYS (September 24-October 24).

For more information, please follow STAGES on Facebook and Instagram or visit the organization’s website. STAGES St. Louis is the region’s foremost not-for-profit company committed to preserving and advancing the art form of Musical Theatre through excellence in performance and education.

Michael Hamilton

In 2021, STAGES celebrates its 35th year of producing Broadway-quality theatre, as well as the grand opening of our new
home, the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. STAGES Performing Arts Academy is regionally renowned for its innovative and multi-disciplinary programs that transform lives through immersion in the Musical Theatre arts. Celebrating its 16th year, it is also the
only such program in the St. Louis region to be connected to a professional theatre company. Whatever the age or experience level, whether a new or continuing student, aspiring performing artists throughout the St. Louis region have the opportunity to explore and cultivate their talent at STAGES, and set the stage for life changing experiences.

For more information or to register today please call 636.449.5775 or visit us online at www.StagesStLouis.org.
Two-show subscription purchases for the 2021 Season will go on sale on May 17. Single ticket sales begin June 1. For more information, please call 314.821.2407 or visit www.StagesStLouis.org.

With the St. Louis theater community continuing to be severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Louis Theater Circle has officially canceled its 2021 awards event.

The St. Louis area is now nearing the one-year anniversary of pandemic protocol, including the virtual shutdown of all in-person theatrical events since mid-March 2020, less than one-fourth of the way through the calendar year, on which nominations are based. So few productions were mounted in 2020 that there is no way to have an awards ceremony on a scale similar to the previous eight ceremonies hosted by the organization.

Some, if not most, of the more than 30 categories wouldn’t even have a full set of our traditional five nominees. After reviewing the numbers, Theater Circle members thus have voted not to hold our traditional presentation in 2021.

Gary Wayne Barker and Jerome Davis won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for “District Merchants” at New Jewish Theater in 2020.

With more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 every day in St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois as well as elsewhere, we look forward to the eventual return of live theater. Our hope at this time is to combine shows produced in 2020 with any mounted later in 2021 for consideration for nominations for our ninth annual event, which is tentatively scheduled for 2022.

The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor St. Louis professional theater. Other cities around the country, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C., pay tribute to their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.

For more information, contact [email protected] or the St. Louis Theater Circle’s Facebook page.

The St. Louis Theater Circle members are: Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tanya Seale at Broadway World; Tina Farmer at KDHX; Michelle Kenyon at Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts; and founding members Steve Allen, Stage Door STL; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Gerry Kowarsky, HEC Two on the Aisle; Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Judy Newmark, Judy’s Second Act; Ann Lemons Pollack, St. Louis Eats; Lynn Venhaus, www.PopLifeSTL.com; and Bob Wilcox, HEC Two on the Aisle. Eleanor Mullin is the group administrator.

Laurie McConnell won her second Supporting Actress Award for “The Little Foxes” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio in 2019.

Last year’s virtual ceremony can be viewed here:

https://images.app.goo.gl/PPXhBF8AbSoNcbBh9

Photo of St Louis Theater Circle taken in 2017.