Bright Lights Column: Spring Forward

Ready to spring forward? We have a spring in our step! ‘Lou local Jenna Fischer will be home, lyricist Chad Beguelin’s Broadway-bound again, Cameisha Cotton landed a national ad campaign and Terry Meddows launches Let Me Speak. This week’s Bright Lights, our new people-and-entertainment column, shares timely tidbits on what’s happening on stage, in town and on the networks. Plus we’re giving away tickets to “Come Rain or Come Shine”! Tell us what leading lady role is your favorite! Memory Lane includes a Muny Moment for the ages.  We’re nudging you to get your tickets to Theater Circle Awards, aka “Theater Prom.” And fondly remembering the late great Joe Pollack. Have a tip? Contact Lynn Venhaus at editor@stllimelight.com.

INSIDE AN ACTOR’S LIFE:

In less than three days, all reserved spaces were taken for Jenna Fischer’s book-signing and discussion on April 16. But Left Bank Books is maintaining a Wait List, and they are currently selling pre-signed copies of ‘The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide.”

The event will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 16, at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road. You must have purchased a copy of the book to be in the signing line. (See instructions on website).

The actress, best known for her Emmy-nominated role as Pam Beesly on “The Office,” grew up in Manchester and graduated from Nerinx Hall High School. After graduating from Truman State University with a major in theater and minor in journalism, she moved to Los Angeles at age 22. But it would be eight long years before she landed a major role. Because of her struggles, she has written this helpful handbook about the business. The paperback sells for $17.95 and has a forward by Steve Carell.

She returns to TV on March 27 with a new comedy series, “Splitting Up Together” on ABC, co-starring Oliver Hudson, son of Goldie Hawn. They play a couple whose divorce re-ignites their relationship. The show is produced by Ellen Degeneres.

Fischer and her second husband, Lee Kirk, have two children, Weston and Harper. She was married to St. Louis native Jamie Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) from 2000 to 2007.

SPLITTING UP TOGETHER – ABC’s “Splitting Up Together” stars Van Crosby as Mason, Jenna Fischer as Lena, Sander Thomas as Milo, Oliver Hudson as Martin and Olivia Keville as Mae. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

LET ME SPEAK:

St. Louis actor Terry Meddows has formed a mental/emotional health support group, Let Me Speak, for the local arts community.

The group meets the first and third Sundays of the month at 6:30 p.m. at Leaping Lizards Performance Arts Studio, 6907 Lansdowne Ave., St. Louis.

However, because of the Oscars ceremony March 4, the meeting was moved to this Sunday, March 11. The first meeting was Feb. 18.

The purpose is to provide support and community for anyone who has struggled with anxiety, depression and other problems. It is intended to be a safe place to help those in need. Experts will provide tips to live better lives, too.

Terry decided to form the group after several people involved in theater and music in St. Louis committed suicide. He sought out interest on Facebook, and the group was formed. There is a “Let Me Speak” page with information.

Anyone is welcome. People are encouraged to share. Each meeting is expected to last about two hours. Owner Robin Berger generously donated the use of her studio as a meeting place.

Privacy and anonymity will be respected. Trust is necessary, and everything shared is not to be discussed outside the group. Those caught violating this agreement will not be allowed to return.

There is no cost.

The meeting includes a potluck, and those attending are asked to bring a dish.

(But Terry posted this on Facebook: “However, if you are too busy to bring something, that’s fine. I’ll make sure there is enough food and dessert for meat eaters and vegetarians. Nothing fancy, just food to nibble on during the break. We want this to feel like a welcoming/healing community!”)

Retired therapist Marsha L. Holland is helping to facilitate and be a resource. The group will be self-run by members.

Special guest is Nancy Lewis, a master yoga instructor who practices Kundalini yoga and meditation. She will share three pranayamas – the formal practice of controlled breathing, which is the source of our prana (vital life force), meant to help calm and relax.

The planned guest for March 25 is Alice Kinsella, who will demonstrate art therapy.

BROADWAY BOUND:

Chad Beguelin, who grew up in Centralia, Ill., is opening a new musical comedy on Broadway this fall. “The Prom” starts previews Oct. 21 and will open Nov. 15 at the Cort Theatre.

Chad, Tony nominee for “Aladdin” and “The Wedding Singer,” also wrote the musical adaptation for “Elf.”

For “The Prom,” he wrote the book with Bob Martin and lyrics; composing partner Matthew Sklar wrote the music. Martin is the co-creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Casey Nicholaw, Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon,” is the director-choreographer.

“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight. Its tagline is “There’s no business like getting in other people’s business.”

Variety described the 2016 world premiere in Atlanta as “Musical comedy heaven! A funny, loving and joyous musical.”

The Broadway cast includes Brooks Ashmanskas (Tony nominee for ‘Something Rotten!”), Beth Leavel (Tony Award for “The Drowsy Chaperone”), Christopher Sieber (two-time Tony nominee, “Shrek the Musical”), Caitlin Kinnunen (“Bridges of Madison County”), Isabelle McCalla (“Aladdin”), Michael Potts (“Jitney”), Angie Schworer (“The Producers”), Courtenay Collins (Broadway debut) and Josh Lamon (“Groundhog Day”).

The producing team includes some St. Louis ties, including Ken and Nancy Kranzberg and Terry Schnuck.

For more information, visit www.ThePrommusical.com.

#DATE A NAPKIN USER:

St. Louis’ own Cameisha Cotton is part of a Vanity Fair napkins ad campaign “#dateanapkinuser” that launched the week of Valentine’s Day.

The Georgia-Pacific company teamed up with Match.com to provide singles with light-hearted tips from a dating study.

Way to go, Cameisha! It’s her first ad. She is also spotlighted in a video on their Facebook page, as Reason 28.

She moved to New York City, after appearing in several New Line Theatre productions, including “Heathers” in 2015 and “American Idiot” in 2016. She graduated from Fort Zumwalt South High School and earned a BFA from Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Last summer, she was in the ensemble of an off-Broadway show, “Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil: An American Myth.” It was an official selection of the New York Musical Festival’s Next Link Project.

In case you were wondering, the premise of this Faustian comedy dared to ask the question: “How did Matthew McConaughey win an Academy Award?”

Along with her fellow “Heather” Larissa White, she was also featured in the award-winning local horror film, “Tonight She Comes,” which played at the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2017.

Cameisha Cotton in “Heathers,” New Line Theatre, 2015

TV FOR THOSE WHO DREAM BIG:

If you watched any of the recent Winter Olympics, chances are you saw a preview of NBC’s new drama about high school theater, “Rise.”

The show premieres at 9 p.m., Tuesday, March 13, right after “This Is Us.” Plans are for a 10-episode run at 8 p.m. while “This Is Us” is on hiatus.

It’s created by Jason Katims, executive producer and showrunner of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” Jeffrey Seller, the producer of “Hamilton,” is also involved.

The music director is Tom Kitt, the Tony Award-winning composer of “Next to Normal,” whose credits include the musicals “Bring It On” and “If/Then,” and vocal arrangements for the movie “Pitch Perfect 2.”

Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” stars as dedicated teacher Lou Mazzucchelli, who sheds his own self-doubt and takes over the school’s theater department in a working-class town.

It’s based on the life of teacher Lou Volpe, who spent 45 years at Harry S Truman High School in Bucks County, Pa., before retiring in 2013. He galvanized his school and community when he took over the drama program, which gained national attention.

The school was the first to try out student editions of “Les Miserables,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” for performance licensing.

The TV show was developed from Michael Sokolove’s novel, “Drama High.”

Besides Rosie Perez as a faculty member and Marley Shelton as Lou’s wife, the cast members are mostly unknown. But you might have heard of Auli’i Cravalho, who plays Lilette Suarez.  She sang Moana’s songs in the 2016 Disney animated film and appeared in the nominated “How Far I’ll Go” number at last year’s Oscars.

Oh, Stephanie J. Block, a Broadway and Muny alum, will have a recurring role.

THEATER PROM:

“Stray Dog’s “Ragtime” or “Spring Awakening”? The Black Rep’s “Crossin’ Over, New Line’s blazing quartet of “Lizzie,” Stages St. Louis’ classic “South Pacific” or the Muny’s sprawling “Newsies” or one-of-a-kind ‘A Chorus Line”?

Those are a few musical category nominees for the sixth annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards.

Do you have your ticket? The event cost $15, and you can get a ticket at the door – cash or check only – or in advance from Brown Paper Tickets: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3179086

This year’s toast to theatrical excellence in 2017, as voted on by local theater critics (including me), begins at 7 p.m. in the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves. That’s a new venue location.

We honor performances and achievements in 33 categories, including dramas, comedies and musicals. Twenty-four companies have been recognized for 52 shows.

This year, Lara Teeter and Jan Albus will receive a Special Award for Body of Work for their efforts at Variety Children’s Theatre.

If you want to partake of a pre-ceremony hors-d’oeuvres buffet, it is a separate ticket, and the reservation must be made and paid for in advance. Food is available beginning at 5:30 pm. and remains open through intermission. Contact With Love Catering either by calling 636-529-1664 or http://withlovecatering.com/theatre_circle_awards_buffet_reservations

If you would like to see who and what is nominated, here is the complete list:

St. Louis Theater Circle Award Nominations Announced

The Circle was founded in 2012 to recognize outstanding achievement in professional regional theater. Current voting members are Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Gerry Kowarsky and Bob Wilson, HEC-TV’s Two on the Aisle; Harry Hamm, KMOX; Steve Allen, Stage Door STL; Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Tina Farmer, KDHX; Michelle Kenyon, Snoops Theatre Thoughts; Ann Lemons Pollack, St. Louis Eats and Drinks; Chris Gibson, Broadway World; and Lynn Venhaus, St. Louis Limelight, formerly Belleville News-Democrat. Eleanor Mullin is our administrator.

We call it theater prom because everyone spiffs up and has a swell time.

Last year’s winner, Will Bonfiglio, reacts to being named Best Actor in a Comedy for ‘Buyer and Cellar.” Photo STL Today.

WORD:

“With ‘Coco’ we tried to take a step forward toward a world where all children can grow up seeing characters in movies that look and talk and live like they do. Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” – Lee Unkrich, co-director of “Coco,” Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, Pixar’s ninth.

 

MEMORY LANE:

“Les Miserables” opened on Broadway on March 12, 1987. Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s sung-through musical ran for 6,680 performances, closing in 2003. At that time, it was second only to “Cats” for most performances on Broadway, but has been surpassed by “The Phantom of the Opera” and is now fifth on the list.
It returned in Broadway revivals twice (2006-08; 2014-2016), and has been on multiple national and world tours. Winner of 8 Tony Awards and adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, the original French production opened in 1983, followed by a landmark London cast in 1985.
Colm Wilkinson reprised his London role of Jean Valjean on Broadway. Here is the cast performance on the 1987 Tonys.  And, yes, that is Terrence Mann (“The Beast” in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) as Javert.

The Muny has presented the show twice, including a lauded 2013 production featuring veterans and young college talent — with Norm Lewis reprising his Broadway role as Javert!
As for @munymemory, it quite possibly had the most enthusiastic standing ovation I have ever seen after a number — people literally leaped out of their seats before “One Day More” concluded. Talk about a Muny moment! Here are more Muny memories:

TODAY’S POLL:

Bette Midler won a Tony as Dolly Levi in the hit revival of “Hello, Dolly!” at the 2017 Tony Awards.

In honor of Women’s History Month, what is your favorite leading lady from this list of iconic musical theater roles? Who would be your bosom buddy? Who is never going away?

Vote, and you will be entered into a drawing for 2 tickets to “Judy Garland: Come Rain or Come Shine” April 12-15 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza.

Last week, we asked you to weigh in on your favorite score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Oscar nominees for Best Song “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.”

Drum roll, please. The winner was “Dear Evan Hansen,” last year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical and Score.

Out of 231 entries, the winner was James Shanley. He received two tickets to Tenacious Eats’ Opera Tastings.

TRIVIA TIME OUT:

The 2012 movie version of “Les Miserables” won three Academy Awards. Who won for acting?
And bonus round: At last Sunday’s Oscars, which one of the performers of a Best Original Song nominee starred in the 2014 Broadway revival of “Les Miz”?

Answer: Anne Hathaway, who played Fantine, won Best Supporting Actress. The movie also won Oscars for makeup and hairstyles, and sound mixing.

Bonus: Keala Settle, who sang “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” played Mrs. Thenardier on Broadway. She’s the bearded lady in the Pasek-Paul movie.

TRIBUTE:

Joe Pollack, one of St. Louis’ best-known critics, died on March 9, 2012. He was 81. I was fortunate to know him, respect and admire him. He was a brilliant, distinct voice — wheat among the chaff. You quickly discovered his sharp wit, down-to-earth demeanor, good humor and a work ethic second to none.

Joe Pollack, 2011 photo, UPI/Bill Greenblatt

We both were St. Louis Globe-Democrat alumni, although our paths never crossed there. He spent 23 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, making his mark as an insightful and knowledgeable voice on movies, theater and restaurants. He retired in 1995 but was a familiar face and voice on local radio and TV too. He spent his later years writing a blog.

We would cross paths, but it wasn’t until 2000 when I became part of the St. Louis Journalism Review’s board of advisers that I got to know this fiery, intelligent, committed journalist. We’d break bread at Balaban’s, in the basement for a monthly brunch meeting, and he always ordered the bagels and lox. Whatever he would chime in on that day, he would be the smartest guy in the room.

I must say, I was intimidated at first. This was JOE POLLACK. But while he didn’t suffer fools, he didn’t put on airs. He was as dedicated a journalist as they come. He treated me like a colleague, and I am forever grateful he did not dismiss me or my opinions. He listened. And when he talked, it was a lesson.

Once, after a Mamet movie adaptation, he turned to me and said (Paraphrasing): “You know Mamet, he says a lot, but it’s what he doesn’t say that you think about.” Light bulbs often turned on after discussions with Joe.

When I was vetted into the St. Louis Film Critics Association in 2008, I spent more time in his company, discussing our mutual passion for cinema, and our distaste for lazy art and crass commercialism. He believed in the possibilities of film to change art, to change lives, to change perceptions.

Same for the theater.

At his beautiful memorial service March 17, 2012, at The Loretto-Hilton Center, his widow, Ann Lemons Pollack, asked five speakers from important aspects of Joe’s life to eulogize him, and they all aptly reflected on his impact, describing his personality perfectly.

Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Rep, said something I’ve never forgotten:

“Joe just wanted us to get it right.”

Bingo.

I often quote that. Joe was right. I now consider that my mantra as a critic: “Get it right.” Put in the work, don’t slack, don’t just ‘get by.’ Inspire us, awe us.

Our STLFCA honored Joe by naming an award we give out at the St. Louis International Film Festival each year, and after one of his successors,  Joe Williams, sadly died in 2015, we designated the Joe Awards to be thus: Pollack for Best Narrative Feature and Williams for Best Documentary from a curated list of films our jury panels watch. I often wonder what the two Joes would think about the films we watch.

We also dedicated a plaque in the lobby of the Tivoli, with both Joes, prominently on display.

We are better for having had Joe Pollack in our orbit. Today, I salute him as a professional and a colleague, but also it is my humble honor to have known him as a grand voice of reason, and someone I came to know as a friend.

For more information about one of the most prominent voices in our town, here is his feature obituary, written by Michael Sorkin in the Post-Dispatch.

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