Bright Lights: The Good Guys and Gals

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor

Win two tickets to “End of the Rainbow” for final Sunday! Our ‘Lou folk are getting things done — “The Prom” producers helping out theater education, and natives winning Tonys, going on new adventures, and meeting with playwrights. And a fond tribute to a wonderful soul, Jason Klefisch, that we sadly lost two weeks ago.

This is a people-focused column to highlight who’s who and what’s what in the bi-state region, along with other entertainment nuggets. Have a tip? Contact Managing Editor Lynn Venhaus at lynnvenhaus@gmail.com

AUTHOR! AUTHOR: How does it play in St. Louis? Several playwrights came to town recently to visit with casts and patrons of their works.

The cast of “Luchadora!” met with award-winning playwright Alvaro Saar Rios on June 16, and he participated in a talk-back after the 6 p.m. show, partnered by Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo.

Rios holds an MFA in Writing for the Stage & Screen from Northwestern University and is the co-founder of The Royal Mexican Players, a national touring performance troupe. His work has been performed in New York City, Hawaii, Chicago, Milwaukee, and all over Texas. His award-winning play Luchadora! is published by Dramatic Publishing.

In 2017, Rios was named a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists.  He is currently developing a play about Day of the Dead in Mexico for Milwaukee’s First Stage. He is on the Peck School of the Arts faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, teaching playwrighting and analysis.

Tony winner Greg Kotis (above right), book writer and co-lyricist of “Yeast Nation,” arrived for the June 15 show at New Line Theatre. Kotis won a Tony in 2002 for “Urinetown” score, along with Fairview Heights native Mark Hollmann (above, left).

Kotis posted on social media after visiting St. Louis: “Friends – I’m just back from St. Louis where 1) Theater folk from around the country have collected to participate in the Theatre Communications Group National Conference, and 2) Scott Miller and the good people of New Line Theatre have mounted a stellar production of Yeast Nation (the triumph of life)! Good things happening in The Heartland!”

Stacie Lents, who wrote “Run-On Sentence,” spent both Friday and Saturday nights, June 15 and 16, with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. Lents was commissioned by Prison Performing Arts in 2016, and the play was initially performed by inmates at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo., and students at Fairleigh Dickinson University. SATE produced its professional premier earlier this month.

Side note: You will be able to see selected scenes from “Run-On Sentence” and “Luchadora!” at this weekend’s Grand Center Theatre Crawl (and I hope you do. Outstanding productions!)

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SUMMER IN THE BIG CITY: Best wishes to costume designer extraordinaire Eileen Engel, who is working as a designer at the prestigious Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in New York this summer.

Eileen, a multi-nominee for St. Louis Theatre Circle costume design awards, has worked in many regional costume shops, as a seamstress and designer, and often designs costumes for Stray Dog Theatre. She acts, too, seen earlier this year as Hope Harcourt in New Line Theatre’s “Anything Goes” and as Ophelia in St. Louis Shakespeare’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

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REPRESENT: Laura Metcalf, formerly of Edwardsville, Ill., won a Tony for the second year in a row, as Featured Actress in a Play, for Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” She has been nominated five times for Tonys. A three-time Emmy winner for her role as Jackie on “Roseanne,” she received her first Oscar nomination this year for “Lady Bird.”

St. Louisan Norbert Leo Butz, two-time Tony winner, was also a nominee as Alfred P. Doolittle in the Lincoln Center revival of “My Fair Lady” and performed on the show. Taylor Louderman, of Bourbon, Mo., and a Muny vet, was a first-time nominee as Best Lead Actress in a Musical as Regina in “Mean Girls.”

Musician Jeff Tweedy, Belleville native of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco fame, makes a cameo in the record store-family comedy-drama, “Hearts Beat Loud.” (I recommend, especially if you love music and record stores. Here is my review in the Times newspapers:
http://www.websterkirkwoodtimes.com/elist-1924.113117-13319.114137-Hearts-Beat-Loud.html
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PROUD OF PARTNERS: The producers of the upcoming musical “The Prom,” which includes local movers and shakers Jim and Cathy Berges, Ken and Nancy Kranzberg and Terry Schnuck, has announced an unprecedented partnership with the Educational Theatre Foundation. The musical, which begins previews Oct. 23, will donate a percentage of its box office sales to ETF.

ETF provides support for theatre programs to schools across the country, and these funds will help support the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Theatre initiative. It will also help provide need-based grants to both schools and individual educators.

In a statement, the producers said: “The spirit of ‘The Prom’ is one of tolerance, acceptance, and love—very much in line with the inclusive philosophies of the Educational Theatre Foundation. We’re honored to be part of this partnership and look forward to a wonderful and collaborative journey together.”

Lyricist/Book Writer Chad Beguelin is a Centralia, Ill., native and multiple Tony nominee for “Aladdin” and “The Wedding Singer.” He also wrote the musical adaptation of “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” who will play Mama Rose in The Muny’s “Gypsy” this season), Christopher Sieber (two-time Tony nominee, and another Muny vet, “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”).

“To have a portion of proceeds from ticket sales going directly to increase access to school theatre programs that help those most in need find a better life path is truly something to get up and dance about,” ETF President Julie Cohen Theobald said.

For more information, visit www.ThePrommusical.com
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WORD: “I’m busy having no talent.” – Stephen Colbert

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OUR NEW POLL: Max and Louie’s production of “End of the Rainbow” renews the spotlight on one of the brightest, and most tragic, stars of concert stage and screen, Judy Garland.

What is your favorite Judy Garland movie? She made 40 films from 1930 to 1963, was nominated for an Oscar twice (“A Star is Born” and “Judgment at Nuremberg”), and won a special Juvenile Academy Award for “The Wizard of Oz.”
If you take part in the poll, you will be entered into a drawing to win two tickets to the Sunday, July 1 matinee (3 p.m.) of “End of the Rainbow” at The Grandel Theatre. They will be waiting in your name at the box office.
Deadline to enter is noon, Saturday, June 30.
Send us your name, phone number and email, along with your top choice — email to lynnvenhaus@gmail.com

PICK ONE OF JUDY GARLAND’S MOVIES AS YOUR FAVORITE:
“Easter Parade”
“Judgment at Nuremberg”
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
“A Star Is Born”
“Summer Stock”
“The Wizard of Oz”

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TRIVIA TIME-OUT: In honor of Mel Brooks’ 92nd birthday June 28: For what works did he become one of 12 EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards)? Answer below.
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ANSWER: Mel Brooks won his first Emmy for writing a Sid Caesar special in 1967, then three more as guest actor on “Mad About You” (1997-99). He won an Oscar in 1969 for Best Original Screenplay for “The Producers.” He shared a Grammy Award with Carl Reiner for “Best Spoken Comedy Album “2000-Year-Old Man in the Year 2000” in 1999, then won two others – Best Musical Theatre Album for “The Producers” and Best Longform Music Video for “Recording ‘The Producers’: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks.” His three Tony Awards were for “The Producers” – Best Musical, Book and Score in 2001.

Tally: 4 Emmys, 3 Grammys, 1 Oscar and 3 Tonys
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SPOTLIGHT: Former Millstadt, Ill., resident David Rasche, who was born in St. Louis, currently can be seen on the HBO limited drama series “Succession.” He plays a corporate lawyer in writer-director Adam McKay’s look at a powerful media conglomerate family.

Rasche graduated from Belleville West High School. He went to Elmhurst College and University of Chicago, becoming part of the Chicago theater scene during the 1970s. He performed in the fabled Second City troupe, replacing John Belushi when he went on to “Saturday Night Live.”

Highly regarded as an interpreter of David Mamet’s work, he starred in “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “Speed-the-Plow.” He was also one of eight people who founded the Victoria Gardens Theatre in the Windy City.

Early in his career, he played Leonard on the soap opera “Ryan’s Hope” (1978-81), and later appeared on “Search for Tomorrow” and “All My Children.”

His biggest claim to fame was as the wacky Dirty Harry wannabe in the police satire sitcom, “Sledge Hammer!” for two seasons on ABC, 1986-1988. The website Deadline reports that the show, now a cult classic, is being considered for resurrection.

Ever since the show aired, he has worked steadily in supporting roles on television and in movies. Some of his TV credits include “Veep,” “Ugly Betty,” “Bored to Death,” “Rubicon,” “DAG,” and “Nurses.” He has had guest roles on “Madam Secretary,” “Blue Bloods,” “Monk,” “The West Wing,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Law and Order,” among his vast list of credits.

His movies include “United 93,” “Burn After Reading,” “In the Loop,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

His stage work includes “Moonlight and Magnolias” at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2005 and other Broadway credits.
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BRIGHTER DAY: A plea for unity from the Broadway community has been made into a new “We Are the World” music video.

Legend Chita Rivera, American Idol favorites Justin Guarini and Constantine Maroulis, also all Muny veterans, as is last year’s Molly Brown Beth Malone, participated, along with Joliet native Anthony Rapp, Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ben Vereen and Bebe Neuwirth. What the world needs now…

“More than ever, people need to know that their voices make a difference and their voices together are incredibly powerful,” Producer Yael Silver said. “’We Are the World’ spoke to us universally and we wanted to share our united voices with the world.”

https://youtu.be/BdnteHS9bnY

<iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/BdnteHS9bnY” frameborder=”0″ allow=”autoplay; encrypted-media” allowfullscreen></iframe>

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IN MEMORIAM: Jason Klefisch, 32, often made people laugh. He made me smile. He was also a darn good actor, one who committed to the character and immersed himself in the role.

We must talk about him in the past tense because he died on June 13, and he leaves many loved ones grieving. My heart aches for his family, girlfriend Sarah, and his many friends.

His Memorial Service will take place on Saturday, June 30, at 10 a.m. at St. Joan of Arc Church.

If you plan to attend, his family has suggested a dress code. From his dad:

“With all the support we’ve been getting, everyone is asking what they can do to help. Here’s one thing you can do: we all know that Jason was a huge fan of movies, tv, superheroes and everything strange or unusual. We are asking that everyone wear a T-shirt or outfit that Jason would love. It could be a superhero shirt, movie/tv show shirt or if anyone is feeling particularly brave, dress in a vest with sleeves rolled up (his signature look). We want to look out and see an array of outfits that Jason would love and appreciate. Please feel free to share this.”

Jason was a beloved part of the St. Louis theater community. He not only acted in plays, but wrote scripts, and worked the box office often at New Line Theatre.

I first saw him in Theatre Lab’s brilliant production of Martin McDonagh’s blistering, dark “The Pillowman.” He played the lead Katurian. I wrote this in my May 29, 2015 review:

“The brotherly bond between Katurian and Michal is strong through Klefisch and Kelly’s exchanges, and the duo is dynamic in the devastating Act Two. Their relationship recalls George and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.”

Klefisch is absorbing as the conflicted writer, tormented by what transpired in childhood.”

Here is full review: https://www.bnd.com/entertainment/article22633545.html

Afterwards, I met him, and we bonded over movies. Every time we saw each other, we talked about film. My last conversation with him, sadly, was around Oscar time, and we were discussing our picks. He bubbled up with enthusiasm talking about pop culture.

I will miss those exchanges. I wanted to see him more on stage, but his work schedule prevented that kind of commitment, I wish I had known about his pain. I still can’t believe the news, and I want to remember him as this bright light, his goofy expressions and his joy being around people he loved.

He was just one of those guys that you felt an instant connection to, could converse with easily. He was warm, friendly, smart, creative and oh so funny.

Stephen Peirick, a local actor and playwright, wrote “Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs,” which was performed at several area venues. Jason played the lead character at the Kirkwood Theatre Guild, where he also was in “Witness for the Prosecution.”

“Jason’s take on the title character in ‘Wake Up, Cameron Dobbs’ at Kirkwood Theatre Guild was, hands down, the most exciting interpretation of that character I’d seen. He brought such a natural approach to how he created his Cameron and I don’t think you could have asked for better comedic timing. He was, simply put, hilarious,” Peirick said.

“And, I was just so in awe of his talent. But, even beyond that, I was in awe of his heart. I wish I’d have had the opportunity to create more characters for Jason to play — and more opportunities to sit across from him at a table, chatting about all things having to do with creativity,” he said.

His theater family and loved ones miss him so much, as do all the people he touched working with elections across the country, as a tech support specialist with KnowInk.

Here is his obituary that is online at St. Louis Cremation, posted by his family:
Jason Corey Klefisch, born January 7, 1986, has now found his place in the cosmos and the great beyond. Beloved son of Jim and Heather Klefisch. Grandson of Marie and Norman Klefisch, Jerry and Helen Ostlund, and Larry Forrister. Nephew of Ann and Jim Donaldson, Fred and Susan Klefisch, Kathy and Barry Groaning, Tom Klefisch, Holly Ostlund, Heidi Harris, and Craig Washington. Cousin to Kelly, Barry Jr., Casey, Cassidy, Stephen, Elizabeth, Ashley, Aaron, Ian, Evan, Eric, Olivia, and Sophia.

Second family to Kate, Tom, Sarah and Tommy Gruzeski and the entire block of Childress Avenue. Lifelong love of Sarah Porter and his beloved pet, Winston the Destroyer.

Friend to countless people, coworkers, and his theater family.

Avid fan of superheroes, comic books, cinema and the performing arts.

He is finally out of his pain and is now at peace.

His memorial will take place on June 30 at 10 a.m. at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church located at Hampton and Pernod Ave.

Donations can be made to NAMISTL.ORG (National Alliance of Mental Illness, St. Louis chapter).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please take action. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Rest in peace, Jason. We love you and miss you.

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