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Granite City native, Hollywood actress Pennell returns home to direct ‘Gypsy’

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Dreams have a way of coming true for Amy Holland Pennell, including a long-ago childhood one now coming to fruition on the Granite City High School stage.

Pennell, a Granite City native who works as an actress and coach in Los Angeles, has returned home to direct and act in “Gypsy,” along with family and friends who mean the world to her. In fact, her first production was Summerstage’s original 1989 one.

“I grew up on that stage,” Pennell said. “It’s wonderful that I can come home and make this happen and be with my theater family. Dreams do come true. My heart is full. There’s no place like home.”

The musical will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Granite City High School, presented by the community theater group Summerstage and her new production company, Holland St. James Entertainment.

The 1959 musical “Gypsy” is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, who gained fame as a striptease artist. It focuses on her mother, Rose, an ambitious, pushy woman known as the ultimate stage mom. Music is by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents. Songs include “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

As a toddler, Pennell lay under a blanket off stage as her mom tap-danced. She wandered on stage and took a curtain call at age 3.

“It’s just always been a part of my life,” she said.

Pennell played the “Balloon Girl” when she was 8 years old, directed by her mentor and high school drama teacher Beverley Scroggins, who founded Summerstage in 1981.

“I said when I grow up, I’m going to play Louise and ‘aunt’ Bev is going to be Rose, and my mom and sisters are going to be dancers,” Pennell said. “I had a dream to share the stage with those I love most.”

Fast forward 30 years later, and she is realizing her dream. At 81, Scroggins is playing Mama Rose, with Pennell her daughter Louise, and several people in that original 1989 production are reprising their roles. But there is new, young talent as well, and Pennell is excited to include them.

“The journey to playing Louise and telling the true-life story of Gypsy Rose Lee has been one I hold dear to my heart and will never forget. Imagine being told you can’t amount to anything,” Pennell said.

“For my first-time directing and producing with mama as my choreographer, ‘Auntie’ Bev as Rose, the incredible opportunity to share the stage with my mother, sisters, niece, and our beloved theater family of Summerstage, I couldn’t be more appreciative,” she said.

Mark Lull returns as Herbie and Mike Moore has traveled from New York City to play Tulsa again. John Manoogian, who is the drama teacher at Granite City High School, is in it as well.

Lull, a school principal and Summerstage actor, director and board member for many years since performing in “Gypsy” in 1989, said he first played Herbie at age 20.

“I feel I have matured into Herbie — after 30 years of life experience — that I can connect with his emotional state, loving a strong-willed stage mother, who puts her daughters above everything else. Herbie wants to assist Rose in achieving her dreams, and yet, he wants his own dreams to come to fruition as well,” he said. “He wants a wife and a family. In essence, he has a family with Rose, Louise and June, but he is their “agent” at this point, even though through dialogue we learn there is a certain intimacy between Rose and Herbie. In the end he makes the ultimate sacrifice.”

Lull has worked with Amy before, and has been “family” ever since the first “Gypsy,” he said.

“I am so proud of Amy and the artist she has become. She has quite an impressive resume and is sharing her professional talents with the entire company. She is working tirelessly day and night. I don’t know where she gets her energy!” he said.

“She is simply amazing, and I am so proud to have watched my ‘niece’ grow into the talented, beautiful woman she is!” Lull added.

Pennell is acting on stage for the first time with her mother, Margaret Holland-Pennell, and two sisters, Melissa Kimble and Mary Bower. She is also joined by her niece, Margaret London Kimble, as Louise’s sister, Dainty June.

Scroggins and Pennell’s mother are best friends. Margaret, principal at Holy Family School in Granite City, has choreographed all the shows Scroggins directed.

Pennell’s extensive career

Pennell moved to Los Angeles when she was 24, and her career has not been without setbacks or challenges. However, Pennell said she is grateful for the opportunities that allow her to continue living in L.A. but also return to Granite City for local projects and family commitments.

Pennell graduated cum laude from Saint Louis University with bachelor of arts degrees in both theatre and communication. She was honored by SLU’s College of Fine Arts as the Outstanding Graduate for Performance and Academic Excellence.

Her professional credits include the role of Jackie on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” on HBO, as Chris Messina’s girlfriend. She worked with Oscar winners Marsha Gay Harden, Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda in that episode.

Additionally, Pennell had a recurring role in Nickelodeon’s “Instant Mom,” as neurotic Trish, and was featured in “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Scandal,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “Saint George” with George Lopez, among other television shows.

She starred in the Twentieth Century Fox film “I Am,” as well as the feature films “The Importance of Doubting Tom,” “Game Day,” and “Exorcist House of Evil.”

Pennell acts on stage in L.A. and recently was accepted for classes at The Groundlings, the revered improvisational comedy troupe.

She was the captain of the NFL Rams cheerleaders while in St. Louis. She was part of the squad during the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl in 2002.

In fact, several former Rams cheerleaders are cast in “Gypsy”: Lacey McNamee, Tandra Parks, Rebecca Helms, Ashley Eavenson, Megan Hewlett, and Summerstage’s own Emily Petry as Agnes.

“We look forward to ‘Entertaining You’ and “We’ll have a real good time, yes sir!” Pennell said.

Holland St. James Entertainment

Pennell has formed her own production company and looks forward to creating faith-based stories and biopics, especially one she is working on about her uncle, James Louis Holland.

A quadriplegic since he was shot by friendly fire in Vietnam, Holland was told he would be a “vegetable,” she said. He became the first disabled person to earn a degree in physical education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“He is an amazing person and I want to tell his story. We are so grateful he’s still here 50 years later. I hope we can reach some people with his story,” she said.

Her mother has been his primary caregiver for years, and Amy is happy to be home to help, too.

All in all, Pennell formed the company to inspire people, to help people with whatever issues they are having in life.

“As an actress, I have always believed in changing the world, ‘one character at a time.’ Through this new venture, I look forward to creating experiences that inspire, touch the soul, and bring the world together with love, laughter, and tears,” she said.

“Whether on stage, in film, through television, or sharing my passion for the arts with my students, I will endeavor to find the truth of each character and share the beauty of each story,” Pennell added.

Before she works on the movie about her uncle, Pennell has been cast in a film shooting in Nashville, Tennessee, and will leave at the end of the month for that location.

“I want to do as much as I can,” she said.

She is available for Skype coaching but in-person sessions and on-stage coaching depends on availability.

Pennell married actor Brandon Davis about a year and a half ago in St. Louis, with the wedding at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica and the reception at the Fox Theatre.

“It was a dream fairy tale wedding,” she said.

For more information or for ticket reservations, call 618-877-2228 or email: bookings@hollandofficial.com. For more information regarding Summerstage, call 618-451-1032.

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