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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
August 11, 2014

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Hello Dolly! and the Muny are a match made in Theatre Heaven. As is fitting for a show about a matchmaker, the two parties in this particular relationship are most ideally suited. Hello Dolly! when staged well, is a big, colorful, flashy show with lots of energy and heart, and the Muny has built its reputation around just this type of show.  After an especially impressive season that started with a wonderful production of a newer show, Billy Elliot, the Muny is closing out their 2014 schedule with this big, brassy charmer of a Broadway classic, scaled just right to fit the colossal stage and delight the eyes, ears and hearts  of the vast Muny audience.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this show over the years, including the last (also excellent) Muny production in 2007 that featured a more subdued portrayal of the title character. This time, though, Dolly Gallagher Levi, as played by Beth Leavel, is back to her larger-than-life ways, and is the real center of this production.  Leavel’s Dolly is such a presence that even when she’s off stage, her influence is obvious. With a big personality, a strong voice and lots of quirky style, Leavel commands the stage.  She is well-matched with John O’Hurley as the curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, on whom the widowed Dolly sets her sights. Telling the story of Dolly’s various matchmaking efforts and their effects on Horace and those around him, this production has all the elements this show requires and then some, with big, flashy production numbers, strong choreography by Ralph Perkins, colorful period-specific costumes by Amy Clark, and a simple but striking set designed by Michael Schweikart that features some wonderfully detailed backdrops.  It’s a valentine to late 19th Century New York, with infectious energy and memorable production numbers from the iconic title song to the big, stage-filling “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, and more.

In addition to the ideal casting of Leavel and O’Hurley, the supporting players also turn in excellent work. Muny veteran Rob McClure, so memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family and Bert in Mary Poppins, is in fine form here as Horace’s sheltered chief clerk Cornelius Hackl, who is eager to get at least one small break from his humdrum Yonkers existence and experience adventure in the big city. McClure is able to be charming, bumbling, a nimble dancer, and a hopeless romantic all at once, with great renditions of the rousing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and the heartwarming “It Only Takes a Moment”.  He’s paired well with Mamie Parris as the widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy, who displays strong chemistry with McClure and an impressive voice on her showcase song, “Ribbons Down My Back”.  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker, and Eloise Kropp as Irene’s shop assistant Minnie Fay deliver memorable comic performances, as well, as do Daniel Berryman as artist and would-be dancer Ambrose Kemper and Berklea Going as the object of his affection, Horace’s weepy neice, Ermengarde.  This production can also boast of a very impressive ensemble, especially the men who get to show off their athletic dancing skills in the wildly energetic “Waiters’ Gallop” number.

Although there were a few issues with the sound on opening night, as well as one noticeable (but well-covered) line flub, this production is otherwise staged with remarkable precision and timing.  The famous staircase scene is timed just right, and Leavel is adept at interacting with both the ensemble and the audience, generating waves of enthusiastic applause.  The Act One ending “Before the Parade Passes By” also puts the giant Muny stage to excellent use, featuring a memorable appearance by the O”Fallon Township High School marching band.  And speaking of bands, the Muny’s own wonderful orchestra–conducted by Musical Director James Moore–is in top form here as well, keeping up the energy and pacing of this classic Jerry Herman score.

This rendition  of Hello Dolly! is the latest piece of evidence that the Muny–under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson–is back on form as befits its illustrious reputation.  This has been another entertaining season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer next summer.  Echoing this show’s title song, I’ll say another enthusiastic hello to the new, improved Muny–it’s nice to have it back where it belongs, at the top of its game. Long may this revitalized tradition continue!

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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Nunsense, Muny Style

Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin

Directed by Matt Lenz

Choreographed by Teri Gibson

The Muny, St. Louis

July 1, 2013

munynunsense

The Little Sisters of Hoboken have taken the stage in St. Louis.  A low-budget off-Broadway show that turned into a franchise, Nunsense has finally arrived at the Muny in a full-scale production that, despite its sheer size, celebrates its humble origins and brings loads of laughs and a great deal of heart. It also features one of the strongest and most enthusiastic casts I have ever seen at the Muny.

For this production,supervised by creator Dan Goggin, the  show, which originally had a cast of five, has been expanded to fit the Muny stage with elements added just for the Muny, as well as a large ensemble of nuns and Catholic school kids for the dance numbers, and a few characters from the Nunsense sequels, such as Father Virgil (Lara Teeter) and Sister Mary Wilhelm (Ken Page).  Also, the  inept convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has been brought into the show as an onstage character, played by St. Louis native and supporting player from NBC TV’s The Office, Phyllis Smith.  The five leading nuns are still front and center, though–Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Dee Hoty), Mistress of Novices Sister Mary Hubert (Terri White), convent driver Sister Robert Anne (Beth Leavel), novice nun and aspiring ballerina Sister Mary Leo (Sarah Meahl) and the mysterious and forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Tari Kelly).  The premise is the same as the original–the nuns have taken to the stage in a benefit to raise money to bury the four remaining victims of Sister Julia’s deadly vichyssoise soup, which killed 52 of the sisters in a mass bout of food poisoning. The show, which is essentially a revue with a plot, allows the various characters to tell their own stories and show off their individual talents while celebrating their lives as nuns.  It also provides an ideal showcase for the Muny’s first-rate cast.

As Reverend Mother Mary Regina, Hoty has just the right blend of authority and wackiness, with impeccable comic timing and a strong voice, and she leads a cast without a weak link. White, as  Sister Hubert, has a booming voice and great presence, and works especially well alongside Hoty in the song “Just a Coupl’a Sisters”, as well as leading the company in the powerhouse Gospel-influenced “Holier Than Thou”.  Meahl is also excellent as Sister Leo, displaying strong dance and comic abilities.  If I had to pick stand-outs from this cast, though, it would have to be Leavel as the fame-seeking Sister Robert Anne and Kelly as the endearingly befuddled Sister Amnesia.   These two in turn have two of the show’s most memorable numbers in Leavel’s “I Just Want to Be a Star” and Kelly’s “So You Want to Be a Nun”, which is simply astounding in showcasing Kelly’s ability to sing in two completely different vocal styles (operatic soprano and brassy Broadway belting) in the same song as she essentially sings a duet with herself operating the nun puppet Sister Mary Annette.  There are also great turns in the smaller roles by Muny regulars Teeter and Page, as well as a funny performance by Smith as the defensive Sister Julia.

The show emphasizes the limited budget of the nuns in recycling the sets from last week’s production of Shrek as well as making off-stage characters of the spotlight operator (Sister Mary Myopia) and the orchestra leader (Father Michael), adding to the charm of the production.  This edition also adds many nods to St. Louis, from jokes about the Muny and the free seats to including a school uniform fashion show featuring students from the area’s Catholic girls’ high schools (with some funny narration provided by Teeter and Page).  There are also some thoroughly entertaining dance numbers featuring the expanded ensemble, including the rousing Act 1 closing tap-dance extravaganza, “Tackle That Temptation With a Time Step”.  I would imagine that the show might even be more appealing and relatable to Catholics, especially those who attended Catholic school and were taught by nuns, but its humor is broad and inclusive enough for anyone to enjoy, and it actively avoids stereotyping nuns as overly authoritarian and serious.

I had previously mentioned that season opener Spamalot was possibly the funniest show I had ever seen at the Muny, but Nunsense is a definite contender for that honor now.  I don’t think I’ve laughed more at a single scene in a show than I did at the  Reverend Mother’s monologue at the end of Act One, and there were many other side-splitting moments as well.  I think one of the charms of this show and what makes it appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike  is that it encourages the audience to laugh with the nuns rather than laughing at them.  Everyone on stage seems to be having such a great time as well, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  With this production, the Muny has proven that it can take a little show and make it bigger without losing any of its charm or humor.  I would say that Nunsense, Muny Style is an unqualified success.

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