By Lynn Venhaus
Christ Memorial Productions’ presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” won eight Best Performance Awards for choreography, music direction, lighting, costumes, acting and Best Featured Dancer while Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s production of the George and Ira Gershwin 1920s musical-screwball comedy “Nice Work If You Can Get It” won seven, including Best Large Ensemble Musical Production, Best Director and five acting awards, from Arts For Life Sunday.

It was KTG’s sixth win for musical production since 2000. Both shows had been nominated for 17 awards apiece. “A New Brain,” which was a local community theater premiere for Hawthorne Players, won Best Small Ensemble Production.

Arts For Life is a nonprofit organization that encompasses 140 communities and 8,460 square miles in St. Louis city, county and St. Charles County in Missouri and Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties in Illinois.

Founded in 1994 by Lucinda Gyurci as a group dedicated to the healing power of the arts, AFL has honored community theater musicals for performances and achievements since 1999 (BPAs), plays since 2015 (Theatre Mask Awards) and expanded awards in youth musical theater in 2013.

Best Small Ensemble Musical “A New Brain”

But this is the first time AFL did not host a live gala. Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the ceremony was re-imagined as a pre-recorded virtual celebration. The 21st annual BPAs took place June 14, which was the original date, but transitioned to a streaming format broadcast on Facebook and YouTube.

AFL President Mary McCreight said the coronavirus safety measures in place and restrictions on gatherings in St. Louis County were factors in the decision to cancel the live show but still have some sort of event.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our local arts community to come together online and celebrate the many outstanding achievements of the previous year,” McCreight said.

Performances from nominees for large ensemble musicals, two small ensemble musicals and five youth productions premiered on AFL’s YouTube channel for 10 days leading up to the awards, and are now available there, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnCSL5RPbHTrhbc0mbHcWnA

There were 15 community theaters and 10 youth-only groups who participated last year. More than 60 judges in the Theatre Recognition Guild scored 46 shows — 19 large ensembles, 3 small and 24 youth, featuring 939 roles. For 2019, there were 154 individual nominations from 22 groups, with 36 percent first-time nominees and 65 percent first-time winners.

Goshen Theatre Project, which led all groups with 18 nominations, won five youth awards overall for “Les Miserables School Edition,” including Best Youth Musical Production, Supporting Actress Natalie Cochran as Eponine, costume design (Terry Pattison), lighting design (Halli Pattison and Blake Churchill) and Bennett English as Best Youth Musical Performance as Jean Valjean.

Other multiple winners in the youth categories were Riverbend Theatre, which won three for “The Drowsy Chaperone” — director (Kristi Doering), music direction (Michael Frazier/Alison Neace) and lead actor (Jayson Heil as the Man in Chair), and Young People’s Theatre, which won two for “Newsies” – best supporting actor (Will Dery as Les) and set design (Brisby Andrews and Gary Rackers).

Norbert Leo Butz

Thirty-three awards honoring excellence during 2019 were announced by past winners and members of the AFL board of directors, with two special guest presenters — Norbert Leo Butz, two-time Tony Award winner who grew up in St. Louis, and Hana S. Sharif, the Augustin Family Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Butz, who also announced the youth musical production winner, told the audience to believe in themselves, even when it’s hard, and follow their dreams, noting he had supportive parents and “great” teachers.

“Believe in yourself and keep on being grateful. Stick to it,” he said from his home in New Jersey. “(Performing arts) feeds our soul, our minds, our hearts.”

AFL donated to Butz’s charity, The Angel Band Project, which uses music therapy to help victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence and advocates for rights of survivors. For more information, visit www.angelbandproject.org

Jennifer Kerner

Four special honors were given out to Jennifer Kerner for her inclusion efforts, Bennett English for Best Youth Musical Performance as Jean Valjean in Goshen Theatre Project’s “Les Miserables: School Edition,” Kayla Dressman for Best Featured Dancer as Dream Laurie in  CMP’s “Oklahoma!” and Diane Hanisch, the BPA musical director/conductor for the past 20 years, who won a national Spotlight Award from the American Association of Community Theatres, presented by Quiana Clark-Roland. A Lifetime Achievement Award was not designated this year.

Kerner’s recognition was for her advocacy on inclusion and helping to make the live theater experience accessible to all individuals. Kerner, a local singer and actress, works to help place people with developmental disabilities in jobs. She has guided local theater companies in providing sensory-friendly performances and has worked to create comfortable environments for those on the autism spectrum and those with sensory processing disorders.

McCreight was thrilled about Hanisch’s national award.

Diane Hanisch

“This award is designed to help pay tribute to an individual for long or special service. It recognizes outstanding dedication, service and contribution to your organization. It is for someone who has made a significant impact on the quality of your organization. Diane has done just that with per professionalism and charm. She is a gem! Not only can she calm the nerves of a 12-year-old singing a solo, but others who are singing in front of 700 people for the first time. She arranges and writes the music, gathers her professional band, and conducts the show with aplomb. Diane cares as much about our legacy as anyone involved on the Arts for Life Board. No one is more deserving,” she said.

The annual Youth Scholarships, which are awarded to two students pursuing a degree in the arts, were announced, with Alaina Bozarth, a graduate of Metro East Lutheran High School, and Josiah Haan, a graduate of Fort Zumwalt High School, each given $500. Bozarth plans to major in musical theatre at Belmont University in Louisville, Ky., and Haan plans to major in technical theatre and design at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.

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

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

CMP’s Oklahoma!

For the record books, Kimberly Klick won her sixth BPA for choreography for CMP’s “Oklahoma!”. She had previously won for CMP’s “Mary Poppins” and “The King and I,” plus “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Big the Musical” and “Fiddler on the Roof” for other companies. It was her 10th overall, including wins for Best Featured Dancer in “Brigadoon” in 2000, Lead Actress for Millie in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” 2006 and Jo in “Little Women” in 2008, and Cameo Actress in “Titanic” 2003.

It was three in a row for Jonathan Hartley, who won for lighting design of “Oklahoma!” and had won last year for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at DaySpring Center for the Arts; he won for set design for DSA’s “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2017. Stephanie Fox won her third in four years for choreography in Gateway Center for the Performing Arts shows – “Spring Awakening” 2019, “Carrie the Musical” 2017 and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” 2016. Terry Pattison also won her third for costume design since 2017: “Peter Pan,” “The Lion King Jr.” and “Les Miz,” all for Goshen Theatre Project, and won set design for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in 2018.

Joe Paule Sr. won his third for musical direction, for CMP’s “Oklahoma!”, following CMP’s “The King and I” in 2014 and Hawthorne Players’ “The Producers” in 2010. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award last year. It was the second award for Michael Frazier and Alison Neace for musical direction, this year for Riverbend Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” and for Alton Little Theatre’s “The Spitfire Grill” in 2011.

Other multiple winners included two for Alpha Players of Florissant’s “The Bridges of Madison County” for Lead Actor (Cole Guttmann) and Cameo Actress (Chelsie Johnston) and Take a Bow Showcase for “Annie” – juvenile performer (Leontine Rickert) and duo/group (Matthew Joost and Carole Ann Miller).

Winners Will Shaw and Kimmie Kidd-Booker in “Nice Work If You Can Get It”

In the acting categories, Mike Huelsmann’s award for Best Featured Actor as Jud Fry was his third, after Lead Actor as Javert in Take Two Productions’ “Les Miz” (2013) and as part of Best Duo/Group in Looking Glass Playhouse’s “Young Frankenstein” 2015. Kimmie Kidd-Booker’s award for Best Featured Actress as Estonia Dulworth in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” was her second win, after Best Featured Actress in “The Wiz” in 2014. George Doerr IV won his second, as Igor in Alfresco’s “Young Frankenstein,” after winning Best Actor in 2017 for Alfresco’s “The Rocky Horror Show.”

The virtual program included the following production team: directors Mary McCreight and David Wicks Jr., video supervisor Kim Klick, visual designers Colin Dowd and Bethany Hamilton, voice-over announcer Ken Clark and host Karen Fulks.

A list of winners is included here, below.

AFL’s Theatre Mask Awards was originally set for April 4, then moved to July 18, but now will also be a virtual celebration. The 2020 TMAs will honor excellence in community theater productions of dramas and comedies during 2019 in a live interactive viewing event at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 18, on the AFL Facebook page and YouTube Channel. The awards show will be recorded beforehand and the content will remain on social media.

On March 16, McCreight suspended all public activities of the AFL organization because of the public health crisis. The extension has been extended until further notice. Both TRG and TMA branch judges and participating groups will receive announcements on future developments. As the region re-opens, social distancing and wearing face coverings continues. At this time, all AFL performance venues remain closed.

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

Any company that won can have a representative pick up their trophies on July 19 from 1 to 3 p.m. in the parking lot of Clayton Community Theatre, which is located at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 63117.

Riverbend Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone

A souvenir program is available to download online: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YlomcYjVNqDNqmPTCrYGSjnAtDwkn9QT/view

A limited number of copies will be available for purchase as well.

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

To see a list of the 2019 nominees and winners, as well as the awards history 1999-2019, visit the website: www.artsforlife.org

Follow AFL on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

2020 Best Performance Award Winners:

Best Musical Production Large Ensemble: “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Musical Production Small Ensemble: “A New Brain,” Hawthorne Players

Best Youth Musical Production: “Les Miserables: School Edition,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Director: Dani Mann, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Project

Best Musical Direction: Kathy Eichelberger and Joseph Paule Jr., “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Choreography: Kimberly Klick, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Lead Actor: Cole Guttmann, “The Bridges of Madison County, “Alpha Players of Florissant

Best Lead Actress: Jaclyn Amber, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Featured Actor: Mike Huelsmann, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Featured Actress: Kimmie Kidd-Booker, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Supporting Actor: Caleb Long, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Supporting Actress: Dianne M. Mueller, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Actor in a Comedic Role: George Doerr IV, “Young Frankenstein,” Alfresco Productions

Best Actress in a Comedic Role: Margery Handy, “The Wizard of Oz,” Alton Little Theater

Best Cameo Actor: Jacob Streuter, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Looking Glass Playhouse

Best Cameo Actress: Chelsie Johnston, “The Bridges of Madison County,” Alpha Players of Florissant

Best Actor in a Non-Singing Role: Will Shaw, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Actress in a Non-Singing Role: Maria Wilken, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Duo/Group: Matthew Joost and Carole Ann Miller, “Annie,” Take A Bow Showcase

Best Set Design: Matt Dossett, “The Little Shop of Horrors,” Monroe Actors Stage Company

Best Lighting Design: Jonathan Hartley, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Costume Design: Krysta Wenski, “Oklahoma!” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Juvenile Performer: Leontine Rickert, “Annie,” Take a Bow Showcase

Best Youth Director: Kristi Doering, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Riverbend Theatre

Best Youth Music Direction: Michael Frazier and Alison Neace, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Riverbend Theatre

Best Youth Choreography: Stephanie Fox, “Spring Awakening,” Gateway Center for the Performing Arts

Best Youth Lead Actor: Jayson Heil, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Riverbend Theatre

Best Youth Lead Actress: Alli McDonald, “Once Upon a Mattress,” St. John’s UCC Performing Arts Camp

Best Youth Supporting Actor: Will Dery, “Newsies,” Young People’s Theatre

Best Youth Supporting Actress: Natalie Cochran, “Les Miserables School Edition,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Costume Design: Terry Pattison, “Les Miserables School Edition,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Youth Set Design: Brisby Andrews and Greg Rackers, “Newsies,” Young People’s Theatre

Best Youth Lighting Design: Halli Pattison and Blake Churchill, “Les Miserables School Edition,” Goshen Theatre Project



By Lynn VenhausManaging EditorLooking Glass Playhouse’s “Frost/Nixon,” a political drama based on a series of televised interviews between a disgraced president and a British journalist, was the big winner at the fourth annual Theatre Mask Awards.

The 43-year-old theater in Lebanon, Ill., earned four awards for Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, including outstanding drama production (tie), and for director Glenn Saltamachia, supporting actor Mike Russell (as Reston) and large ensemble.

A sold-out crowd of 265 attended the Arts For Life event on April 6, a brunch celebration in the Atrium Banquet Center at Christian Northeast Hospital. Awards were presented in 18 categories and Kevin Frakes of the Alton Little Theater received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

AFL honored plays produced by St. Louis area community theaters during the 2018 calendar year. The non-profit organization has sponsored awards for musical theater in community and youth productions for 20 years. AFL organized the TMAs in 2015 to recognize dramas and comedies.

Sharing in Outstanding Drama Production was the local premiere of “The Curious Incident with the Dog in the Night-time” by Actors’ Attic in Columbia, Ill. The play is about a gifted math genius with Asperger’s syndrome who begins a journey of self-discovery when he starts investigating the neighbor’s dog’s death. Simon Stephen’s acclaimed 2012 adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel earned seven Olivier Awards and the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play.

Cast of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” at the TMAs. Photo by Kim KlickActors’ Attic’s two leading performers, Dan Haller and Emily Brutton, won outstanding actor and actress. Haller said it was a privilege to play Christopher, who is also the narrator, while Brutton played his primary school teacher Siobhan. Actors’ Attic, lead by MaryBeth Babcock, has produced plays for 10 years and joined the TMAs last year.

Haller said the awards event was inspiring and thanked everyone for working in theater because they love it.

“You do theater for the love of doing theater, and that’s the best reason to do it,” Haller said.

Brutton thanked director Babcock for “always knowing how a story needs to be told.”“People follow their dreams because of her,” she said. 

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” cast at TMAs. Photo by Kim Klick.Clayton Community Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” won three awards, including outstanding comedy production and for actor Patrick Blanner as Eugene and director Sam Hack. CCT, founded in 1998, plans to produce Simon’s entire Eugene trilogy, is working on “Biloxi Blues” now and will present “Broadway Bound” next year.

Clayton’s production of William Inge’s ‘Bus Stop” won for outstanding large ensemble.

Both Outstanding Lead Actors in a Drama and a Comedy were under 20 years old — Haller is 19 and Blanner is 18.

Other multiple winners included O’Fallon TheatreWorks’ play version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which won two — supporting actress for Tori Stukins, who played Daisy’s society friend Jordan Baker, and costume design for Carole Lanham.

The drama “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” received awards for two different theater groups’ productions. Alton Little Theater’s show won lighting design for Lee Cox and Dennis R. Stephenson and the O’Fallon Theatre Works’ play won set design for Chris and Ellie Lanham.

Chris Lanham said working behind-the-scenes is a “labor of love,” quipping it’s really “mostly labor.”

Alton Little Theater also won outstanding actress in a comedy – Alison Beach as the frustrated daughter dealing with other people in line for her late billionaire father’s fortune in “Who’s in Bed with the Butler?” 

Beach said the year before, she had auditioned for many shows and had been turned down. After one tryout at Alton, director Lee Cox took the time to explain to her why she didn’t get a part.“I assured her it mattered. She gave me the strength to keep auditioning,” she said.

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves was honored with three acting awards. Kaylee Ryan won outstanding juvenile performance in “The Children’s Hour” while Will Shaw won supporting actor in a comedy as bar patron Gaston in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”” and Sarah Hirshfield won supporting actress in a comedy as Carol, the only female writer, in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”

Cast of “Frost/Nixon with directors at TMAs. Photo by Kim Klick.Mike Russell, a past AFL nominee, won Outstanding Supporting Actor for his portrayal of James Reston Jr., an American author and government official who served as David Frost’s Watergate advisor for the Nixon interview. In “Frost/Nixon,” he also served as narrator. In his speech, he thanked LGP for taking a risk on the show “in today’s political climate.”

Kevin Frakes, current president of Alton Little Theater and longtime actor, director, set designer and mentor, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He joined the group, founded in 1933, 40 years ago. With his vision and hard work, the theater has grown into a creative center for the performing arts, presenter Lee Cox said.

“(Theater) changed my life and made me face my weaknesses. It made me a stronger, better person because of it,” he said.

Best friends Lee Cox and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Kevin Frakes, who have been doing theater together since she was 17 and he was 19. Photo by Kim Klick.Frakes told how he got into theater, and one of the reasons was to be accepted, for he was from a poor and abusive family.KLOU (103.3 FM) radio personality Vic Porcelli, who also acts in local productions, again served as the master of ceremonies, returning for the fourth time. Grace Boyer and Kailynn Stiff were the trophy presenters.

The TMAs include participation by 10 area theater companies. A judges panel scored 12 dramas and 13 comedies to determine the nominations, which are announced at the annual AFL trivia night, and the eventual winners. A large ensemble is nine or more people in the cast. TMA Chair is Glenn Guillermo and the Steering Committee is 26 people affiliated with the participating theater companies. The Judges Panel includes 42 volunteers. 

“I am proud of the dedication of the TMA Steering Committee and Director Glenn Guillermo,” said AFL President Mary McCreight. “The AFL Board of Directors congratulates all participants/nominees in last year’s shows. I am happy to see the TMAs thriving and creating a niche for yourselves in the theater community.”

The AFL’s 20th annual Best Performance Awards will take place on Sunday, June 9, at 2 p.m. at the Skip Viragh Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd. 

The musical theater awards reflect the work of 25 companies who produced 48 musicals – 21 large ensemble, 7 small ensemble and 20 youth productions. Two special youth awards will be presented to Caroline Santiago Turner for “Violet” (Best Youth Musical Performance) and Sean Harvey as Bobby in “Crazy For You” (Best Youth Featured Dancer), both works by the Gateway Center for the Performing Arts.The Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Joe Paule Sr. Local professional actor Ryan Cooper is the returning master of ceremonies.Reserved tickets will be available for $20 until May 10, then tickets are $25. Formal attire is requested.

For more information, visit www.artsforlife.org