Three Metro-East Groups and Veteran Youth Program Win Big at 20th Annual AFL Best Performance Awards

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Three metro-east community theater groups and a veteran youth program won multiple awards at the 20th annual Best Performance Awards sponsored by Arts For Life on June 9. 

The awards recognize excellence in community and youth musical theater, with 27 groups participating from St. Charles County to Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties in Illinois as part of the St Louis Metropolitan area. It is the oldest and longest continually running theater awards in St. Louis.

“Into the Woods” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Curtain’s Up Theater Company won six awards for its production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” including Best Large Ensemble Musical, Directors Glenn Saltamachia and Jeffrey Yapp-Ellis, Music Director Liz Murphy White, Costume Design Donna Saltamachia, Comedic Actress Miranda Mobley as Little Red and Supporting Actor Dennis Folwarczny as Cinderella’s Prince. It had received 16 nominations, the most for any show. The 1986 musical is a twist on Brothers Grimm fairy tales, exploring the consequences of wishes and quests.

“Dames at Sea” Alfresco Productions

“Dames at Sea” at Alfresco Productions won four, for Best Small Ensemble Musical, Best Leading Actress Morgan Ladyman, Supporting Actress Elizabeth Semko and Best Choreography Ashley Pavlige. It had received 12 nominations. The 1966 musical romantic comedy is an homage to nostalgic 1930s movie musicals.

Bryce Miller won Best Youth Actor for “Big Fish” from Shooting Star Productions

“Big Fish” at Shooting Star Productions won six awards in the youth categories: Best Youth Production, Best Choreography Ellen Isom, Best Music Director Ross Bell, Best Actor Bryce Miller as Edward Bloom, Best Supporting Actress Carolyn Karutz as The Witch and Best Set Design Marty Strohmeyer and Christopher Phillips. It had received 14 nominations. Based on the 2003 movie by Tim Burton, adapted from David Wallace’s 1998 book, “Big Fish” tells the larger-than-life tale of traveling salesman Edward Bloom, a man who leads an extraordinary life according to the stories he shares.

Mia Williams won Best Youth Actress as Rafiki in “The Lion King Jr.” from Goshen Theatre Project

The Goshen Theatre Project in Madison County won three awards — for leading actress, Mia Williams, as Rafiki, and costume design Terry Pattison, for “The Lion King Jr.” (the crowd gasped when the walking giraffe came out and the kids came down the aisles in their animal costumes), and another one for Terry Pattison for set design for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Glenn Guillermo in “Bells Are Ringing”

Winning two awards were Alpha Players of Florissant’s “Bells Are Ringing” for Cameo and Non-Singing Actor, while Christ Memorial Productions’ “The Wizard of Oz” won for Juvenile Performance and Non-Singing Actress, and Looking Glass Playhouse won lighting design for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and best actor for “Newsies.”.

Another first occurred – both the youth supporting actor and adult featured actor won for playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls” at Riverbend Theatre and Kirkwood Theatre Guild respectively, Spencer Domer and Christopher Strawhun.

“Guys and Dolls” Riverbend Theatre

This year, 48 shows – 21 large, 7 small and 20 youth — were eligible for BPA awards consideration, with 1,302 artists judged for nominations. Trophies were awarded in 33 categories.

 “Theater is alive and kicking in 2019 and local theaters in metro St. Louis and Illinois are to be commended for a job well done,” McCreight said. “The awards are a wonderful way for all actors and tech crews to celebrate and enjoy each other’s successes and be recognized and rewarded.”

Since it began in 1998, AFL’s goal has been “Making a Dramatic Difference” and is proud to salute, support and serve the theater groups in the metropolitan St. Louis area. The non-profit organization continues to be passionate about the healing power of the performing arts.

Morgan Ladyman, Best Actress as Ruby in “Dames at Sea”

AFL President Mary McCreight said the group is dedicated to promoting public awareness of local community theater, encouraging excellence in the arts and acknowledging the incredible people who take part.

“St. Louis is an amazing city, especially for the arts. There are over sixty theatre companies at home here, a third of which are community theatre. As we watch music education and theatre programs rapidly die in our schools, the need to keep community theatre alive is more important now than ever,” McCreight said.

The best musical award was the first for Curtain’s Up Theater Company, and with his win, director Glenn Saltamachia made AFL history. He is the first person to win both Best Director Awards at the Best Performance Awards and at the Theatre Mask Awards in April, which honors dramas and comedies. He won the TMA for directing “Frost/Nixon” at Looking Glass Playhouse, and that drama was tied with Actors’ Attic, for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” as Best Play – Drama.

He shared the director’s award with Jeffrey Yapp-Ellis, who started as assistant director but made such an impact on set design, staging and concept that he was billed as a co-director.

“It has been an incredible year! To win the TMA and BPA for Directing in the same year is an honor I could never have dreamed of.  I have worked with two outstanding companies- – LGP and CUTC, and I have been blessed and extremely lucky to have had outstanding, talented, wonderful casts, production crews, technicians, and musicians to work with,” Saltamachia said.

 “The honor is more a reflection of their talent, hard work and determination than anything I have brought to the table. I have always said my greatest talent as a director is that I surround myself with extremely talented, capable people who share my passion for good theatre. The fact that both my shows also won for Best Ensemble in their respective categories proves my point,” he said.

Saltamachia said he was bit by the theater bug when as a brand new second lieutenant in the Air Force, he auditioned for the Kessler Air Force Base Little Theatre production of “Charley’s Aunt.”

“Throughout my Air Force career, I would participate in productions wherever we were stationed when I had the time and circumstances allowed,” he said. “After retiring from the Air Force in 1997 in Belleville, I began to hear of all the great local community theaters, and in 1999, I got up the nerve to audition for the Looking Glass Playhouse production of “Oliver!” and I’ve never stopped.”

Saltamachia has directed 10 shows for LGP since 2001, his first being “The Odd Couple.” Then, he worked with some Edwardsville people who were starting a theater company, Curtain’s Up. He appeared in “The Curious Savage” and has directed six shows for them, the first was “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2008.

Over the years, he has directed shows for Clinton County Showcase in Breese, Hard Road Productions in Highland, and in Belleville, Brass Rail Players, Downtown Players and Cathedral Players. 

“The thing I love most about directing is the process. I love everything about it!  From script analysis, planning conferences for concept development, set design and staging months before production. Then the fun starts with auditions and rehearsals,” he said. “But the absolute best part is watching as a group of diverse people; who may not have known each other before, come together, work hard and share their talents to produce something we are all are proud of. And on the way we become a family who love each other and develop friendships for life.”

“Thanks to AFL. I am honored and humbled, but I am smart enough to know I didn’t win these awards by myself,” Saltamachia said. 

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” Goshen Theatre Project

Terry Pattison, who won awards for costume design and set design for Goshen Theatre Project, said the group is in its fifth season.

“The Lion King had 46 kids in it, all under the age of 15. There were well over 160 costumes, all hand-created. Most of the masks and animals were constructed from a high-density foam so they stayed light weight,” she said.

The animal costumes included: Lions, lioness, hornbills, ostrich, zebra, gazelle, egrets, giraffes, wildebeasts, rhino, meerkat, warthog and various birds.

 “I am honored to have received two BPA’s this year, one for costuming and the other for scenic design. I am always creating something in one way or another and it is a humbling experience to have been recognized against all the other talent in the St. Louis community theater circuit,” Pattison said.

Lucinda Gyurci, who founded Arts for Life in 1998, said she continues to be inspired by community theater productions.

“Big Fish” Shooting Star Productions

“I feel fortunate to have watched many young people, who grew up in community theatre, become wonderfully talented adults; some making their way to Broadway; some establishing their art in local professional theatre; and some bringing up their next generation in their own footsteps on the stage,” she said.

Joe Paule Sr. received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as a musician in numerous pit bands, orchestras and as a music director. Kim Klick and Glenn Guillermo were honored with two special awards, “TRG Recognition 20th Anniversary Exceptional Volunteer Award,” citing extraordinary above and beyond service.

Sean Harvey “Crazy for You”

Two special youth awards were given to Caroline Santiago Turner, who received Best Youth Musical Performance for “Violet,” and Sean Harvey, named Best Youth Featured Dancer, as Bobby in “Crazy for You,” both produced by the Gateway Center for the Performing Arts.

Allison McDonald of Timberland High School and Kira Averett of Mascoutah received the 2019 AFL Youth Scholarships.

The ceremony was directed by Ken Clark, with music direction by Diane Hanisch. Ryan Cooper served as master of ceremonies for the fifth time.

The complete list of awards is as follows:

Best Large Ensemble Musical: “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Best Small Ensemble Musical: “Dames at Sea,” Alfresco Productions

Best Youth Musical: “Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Direction: Glenn Saltamachia and Jeffrey Yapp-Ellis, “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Best Direction- Youth Production: Paul Pagano, “Violet,” Gateway Center for the Performing Arts

Best Music Direction: Liz Murphy White, “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Best Music Direction – Youth Production: Ross Bell, ‘Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Choreography: Ashley Pavlige, “Dames at Sea,” Alfresco Productions

Best Choreography – Youth Production: Ellen Isom, “Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Austin Turnbull, Jack Kelly, “Newsies,” Looking Glass Playhouse

Best Leading Actor – Youth Production: Bryce Miller, Edward Bloom, “Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Morgan Ladyman, Ruby, “Dames at Sea,” Alfresco Producifion

Best Leading Actress – Youth Production: Mia Williams, Rafiki, “The Lion King Jr.,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Actor in a Featured Role: Christopher Strawhun, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, “Guys and Dolls,” Kirkwood Theatre Guild

Best Actress in a Featured Role: Elizabeth Breed Penny, Paulette, “Legally Blonde,” Hawthorne Players

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Dennis Folwarczny, Cinderella’s Prince, “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Best Supporting Actor – Youth Production: Spencer Domer, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, “Guys and Dolls,” Riverbend Theatre

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Elizabeth Semko, Joan, “Dames at Sea,” Alfresco Productions

Best Supporting Actress – Youth Production: Carolyn Karutz, The Witch, “Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Actor in a Comedic Role: Matthew Hansen, Franz, “Rock of Ages,” Take Two Productions

Best Actress in a Comedic Role: Miranda Mobley, Little Red Riding Hood, “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theatre Company

Best Actor in a Non-Singing Role: Kevin Michael Hester, Dr. Kitchell, “Bells Are Ringing,” Alpha Players of Florissant

Best Actress in a Non-Singing Role: Nicky Collett, Wicked Witch/Miss Gulch, “The Wizard of Oz,” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Duo or Group Performance: Abby Cockerham, Laura Megan Deveney and Theresa Peters Nigus as Donna, Linolium and Betty in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” Act Two Theatre

Best Actor in a Cameo Role: Glenn Guillermo, Carl, “Bells Are Ringing,” Alpha Players of Florissant

Best Actress in a Cameo Role: Julia Gilbert, Babette, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Alfresco Productions

Best Youth Performer: Victor Landon, Munchkin Mayor, “The Wizard of Oz,” Christ Memorial Productions

Best Costume Design: Donna Saltamachia, “Into the Woods,” Curtain’s Up Theater Company

Best Youth Costume Design: Terry Pattison, “The Lion King Jr.,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Set Design: Terry Pattison, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” Goshen Theatre Project

Best Set Design – Youth Production: Marty Strohmeyer and Christopher Phillips, ‘Big Fish,” Shooting Star Productions

Best Lighting Design: Jason Koonce, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” Looking Glass Playhouse

Best Lighting Design – Youth Production: Jonathan Hartley, “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” DaySpring School of Arts

For more information, visit

“Dames at Sea” Alfresco Productions

For a PDF of the BPA nominations for 2018, here is the link:

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