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The Wiz
Adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Book by William F. Brown with addtional material by Tina Tippit
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls
Additional Material for The Muny production by Amber Ruffin
Directed by Denis Jones
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
The Muny

June 19, 2018

Darius de Haas, Nathan Lee Graham, Danyel Fulton, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane
Photo: The Muny

As part of their 100th season, the Muny is presenting a show they haven’t produced since 1982: The Wiz. The well-known adaptation of the Wizard of Oz story by African-American writers and featuring an all black cast, The Wiz at the Muny has been updated and given a lavish, stylish, superbly cast production that–in reflection of its story–brings a great deal of brains, heart, and courage to the Muny stage.

Based more on the original book, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz than the popular and perhaps even more well-known 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, this production of The Wiz contains elements taken more from the book while also occasionally acknowledging both the 1939 Wizard of Oz film and the 1978 film version of The Wiz. With a score influenced by R&B, soul, gospel, disco and pop, the show tells this story in its own unique, distinctive way. The stage version debuted on Broadway in 1975, with a look and sound that was innovative and contemporary for its time. For the Muny’s version, acclaimed television writer Amber Ruffin worked with the original writers to update the script for a 2018 audience, along with excellent new orchestrations by music director Darryl Archibald and vibrant, energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown. The result is a production of The Wiz that honors and celebrates the orginal while also reflecting a more contemporary setting for today.

The story is the familiar one, as young Dorothy (Danyel Fulton) lives on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em (Demetria McKinney), Uncle Henry (Rhaamell Burke-Missouri), and dog, Toto (Nessa). Dorothy feels misunderstood, though, and longs for something more, whereupon she is whisked away by a tornado (here represented in striking fashion by dancers) to the Land of Oz, where she is informed by the Munchkins that her house has fallen on–and killed–the Wicked Witch of the East. She then meets Addaperle (E. Faye Butler), the Good Witch of the North, who tells her about The Wiz, the powerful wizard who can perhaps help her get home. Dorothy also dons the magic silver slippers (silver as they were in Baum’s original book) and follows the Yellow Brick Road (represented here by four dancers–Chloé Davis, Karma Jenkins, Amber Barbee Pickens, and Allysa Shorte) to look for The Wiz in the Emerald City. Along the way, she meets and befriends Scarecrow (Jared Grimes), who wants a brain; Tinman (James T. Lane), who wants a heart; and Lion (Darius de Haas), who wants courage. All join Dorothy on her quest, hoping the Wiz will be able to grant their desires as well. When they finally meet The Wiz (Nathan Lee Graham), he tells them he’ll grant their wishes only if they are able to destroy the evil Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (also Butler), who runs a blue-jeans producing sweatshop and terrorizes the land, and who also has a grudge against Dorothy for killing her sister and taking the silver slippers, which Evillene covets for herself. In the end, all the main characters learn more about themselves and their own strengths, as well as what is important to them, and Glinda (also McKinney), the Good Witch of the South, helps Dorothy to think about what she has learned.

I’ve seen The Wiz in three versions–a high school production years ago, the film, and the live televised version on NBC in 2015. All of those versions were slightly different, and this one at the Muny is different still. It’s essentially the same, but the jokes have been updated, the dialogue has been changed here and there, and the look has been modified so that everything is a lot more “now” than 1975. The design is excellent, with Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s sets filling the Muny stage with big, vivid backdrops and presenting the various locations in clever ways, like the Poppy scene and its lip-shaped sofas, or the entrance to the Emerald City, which is like the entrance to an exclusive nightclub, and the Emerald City itself with its dance club atmosphere. The Muny’s scenery wall is put to excellent use as well with memorable video design by Greg Emetaz,  as the location changes from Kansas to Oz and takes Dorothy and her friends to various places around Oz, from Munchkinland to Evillene’s palace, to the Emerald City and beyond. The costumes, by Leon Dobkowski, are striking, whimsical, and distinctive, from Evillene’s light-up skirt to Dorothy’s shiny silver slippers, to the Wiz’s dazzling green outfits, and more. Rob Denton’s lighting also contributes to the overall spectacular effect of this marvelous show.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by Fulton in a stellar performance as the determined Dorothy. She’s got excellent stage presence, a strong, powerful voice, great dance skills, and superb chemistry with her co-stars. She’s the star of the show, but she also has some great co-stars, including Grimes, Lane, and de Haas who are ideally cast in their roles as the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, with Grimes and Lane having some especially strong dance moments, and de Haas excelling in comic timing. There are also two great double performances by McKinney as both the motherly Aunt Em and the wise Glinda, and Butler who is equally excellent as the kindly Addaperle and the gleefully evil Evillene. Graham, as the Wiz, also puts in a memorable performance. There’s also a great ensemble, all playing multiple roles from Munchkins to Crows to Poppies and more. There are energetic, intricately choreographed production numbers, from the hit “Ease On Down the Road” to the joyful “Brand New Day”.

This is a truly wonderful production. Filling the big Muny stage and featuring a stellar cast, The Wiz is full of heart, soul, comedy, drama, some spectacular dancing, and a celebration of friendship, family, home, and hope. It’s a magnficent show.

Darius de Haas, Jared Grimes, James T. Lane, E. Faye Butler, Danyel Fulton
Photo: the Muny

The Muny is presenting The Wiz in Forest Park until June 25, 2018

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A Chorus Line
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Direction and Choreography by Denis Jones
The Muny
July 29, 2017

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo: The Muny

A Chorus Line is a legendary show. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner that ran on Broadway for 15 years, which was a record for a long time. It’s somewhat odd to think that such a “small” show had achieved such big success, but it shouldn’t be that strange considering its human drama, memorable score, and timeless appeal, especially for anyone who has at any time been involved in theatre and especially dance. The Muny is almost too big a venue to put on this show, really, although this latest production, the show has been “opened up” in a few ways that, for the most part, are successful and add to the classic appeal of this show.

The premise is fairly simple. A group of dancers are trying out for roles in the chorus of an unnamed Broadway show, and the director, Zach (Ivan Hernandez) interviews them to find out more about their backgrounds, what dance means to them, and why they want this job. Most of the dancers are veteran performers for whom this is a “make or break” type of situation career-wise, although there are a few younger dancers in the group who are looking for their big breaks. Even though the roles are cast near the end of the show, the real drama here is not as much about who gets the job and who doesn’t. What’s most interesting is who these people are, and how they got to where they are now. There’s a small semi-romantic subplot involving one of the dancers, Cassie (Bianca Marroquin), but the real drama, and the real romance, is about the stage life itself. The show’s most famous number, “What I Did For Love”, for instance, isn’t about a romantic relationship, but rather about the dancers’ relationship with their art. This show is, with all its drama and occasional critiques of the business, still essentially a love letter to the life of a performer. It has a St. Louis connection as well, as a few of the dancers involved in the original talk sessions that led to the development of the show were from here, and the few references to St. Louis in the show are met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The show here at the Muny has been modified slightly to fit the enormous Muny stage and to include the Muny’s youth ensembles, with varying degrees of effectiveness. For the most part, the additional ensemble members in some scenes do succeed in helping the show fill out its space, although sometimes the inclusion of the kids’ ensemble seems unnecessary. For instance, it’s interesting to see the dancers tell the stories of their childhood experiences aided by the addition of a child performer as a younger version of the older actor, but this works better in some situations (“I Can Do That”) than in others (“At the Ballet”). There are other ways the show is opened up, as well, such as through the use of video projections designed by Nathan W. Scheuer, which are especially effective in Cassie’s (Bianca Marroquin) featured number, “The Music and the Mirror”.   The set, by Paige Hathaway, is fairly simple, and that works for this show, and Andrea Lauer’s costumes are appropriate for the characters and the mid-1970s setting of the piece. There’s also extremely effective lighting by Rob Denton that helps maintain the overall atmosphere of this production.

The cast here is excellent, and each gets a moment to shine, although some more than others. The entire company is strong, excelling in singing and acting as well as dancing. The standouts for me are Ian Paget as Paul, whose “showcase moment” is a heartbreaking monologue near the halfway point of the show (there is no intermission), as well as Holly Ann Butler as the tough-talking Sheila. There’s also Madison Johnson as the somewhat flight Kristine, who has a problem with singing, highlighted in the song “Sing”, a clever duet with her husband and fellow auditioner Al (Rick Faugno). Other standouts include Marroquin as the determined Cassie, Sean Harrison Jones as the athletic dancer Mike, Evan Kinnane as the socially awkward Bobby, and especially Hannah Florence as the dedicated dancer Diana, who shines leading the cast in “Nothing” and “What I Did For Love”. The whole ensemble is strong, though, displaying energy and style in the production numbers and solos alike, and performing director Denis Jones’s dynamic choreography well, especially in the show’s iconic closing number “One”.

A Chorus Line is, to use a somewhat overused term, iconic. it’s one of those shows that everyone who loves musicals should see at least once, and even though the show has been modified slightly to fit the huge stage and play to the enormous audience at the Muny, its essence is preserved. It’s a celebration of music, dance, and humanity, well represented in this fine production.

Cast of A Chorus Line
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting A Chorus Line in Forest Park until August 4, 2017.

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42nd Street
Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 24, 2016

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

 “You may be going out there a youngster, but you’ve gotta come back a star!”  Those are the words Broadway director Julian Marsh (Shuler Hensley) says to Peggy Sawyer (Jonalyn Saxer), exemplifying the dreams of many a hopeful young performer with aims of a dazzling career in show business. Those starry aspirations are at the heart of the latest production on stage at the Muny, the big and glitzy valentine to 1930’s Broadway, 42nd Street. This show isn’t about realism, but glamour and the fantasy of stardom, highlighted by a great cast and some truly spectacular dancing.

It’s New York City in the early 1930’s, and a host of young, talented hopefuls are excited to audition for famous director Julian Marsh’s newest show. Among those performers is Peggy Sawyer, who is fresh off the train from Allentown, PA and who has dreams of some day being a star.  At first, though, she’s not off to a great start. Despite showing off a good voice and great dancing skills, she arrives too late and misses the audition. But Peggy has caught the eye of the show’s leading man, Billy Lawlor (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and eventually one of its writers, Maggie Jones (Ann Harada) and she gets a part in the chorus. Of course, the show already has a leading lady, somewhat jaded star Dorothy Brock (Emily Skinner), who’s got a great voice but isn’t much of a dancer, and she’s not particularly fond of Peggy at first. There are a lot of twists and turns in this plot, and most of them are predictable, but that hardly matters in an upbeat, incredibly entertaining show like this that’s all about hopes, dreams, showbiz, and lots and lots of dancing. It’s a tribute to the big glamorous musicals of the 1920’s and 30’s, with a lot of energy, classic songs, and a good amount of humor and heart.

The production values are top-notch, with a colorful, versatile set by Michael Schweikart and wonderfully whimsical costumes by Andrea Lauer. The big production numbers like “We’re In the Money” and “Lullabye of Broadway” look great, featuring director Denis Jones’s spectacular choreography that showcases a lot of intricately executed tap dancing. The style, look, and sound of the 1930’s movie musicals is there, with great sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and superb lighting by Rob Denton.

In addition to that wonderful dancing ensemble, the leads are ideally cast as well. Saxer dances joyfully and has a great voice as the perky, optimistic Peggy, and Johnson is charming and an equally strong dancer as Billy. Hensley as Marsh projects a believable air of kindness that informs his otherwise authoritative character. Skinner is also great as the talented but insecure Dorothy Brock, and there are some fun comedic performances by Harada as Maggie and Jason Kravitz as comedian/writer Bert Barry.

42nd Street is a show that idealizes show business and is characterized by an underlying sense of hope, even in difficult times. The sense of drive and purpose displayed by its characters is enthusiastic and infectious, and the dance numbers are not to be missed. This is a spectacular in the best sense of that term. It’s a an ideal show for a venue with a reputation for big stylish musicals. This show is the Muny at its best.

Cast of 42nd Street Photo: The Muny

Cast of 42nd Street
Photo: The Muny

42nd Street at the Muny runs until June 30, 2016.

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Holiday Inn
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
July 6, 2015

Noah Racey, Patti Murin, Colin Donnell Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Noah Racey, Patti Murin, Colin Donnell
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny has a storied history in St. Louis over its almost 100 year life span, and I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to see a Muny show in the 1940s and 1950s. That was the heyday of the big, classic spectacle-type musicals, as well as Hollywood musicals such as Holiday Inn and White Christmas. Well, now it looks like I’ve had my chance, with the Muny’s latest production of the newly adapted stage version of Holiday Inn. Revised and expanded from the original film version, this production takes most of its original score, adds more songs from famed composer Irving Berlin, and blends them together into a classy, bold and tuneful tribute to Hollywood musicals and the song-and-dance shows of yesteryear, with a sense of energy and spirit that makes the show seem fresh and approachable without seeming dated.

Although I’ve seen a lot of classic Hollywood musical films, I had actually never managed to see the original Holiday Inn film. That doesn’t matter at all, though, in terms of being able to enjoy this festive, affectionate treat of a show.  Apparently the story has been modified from the film’s plot, but the general idea remains. It tells the story of two long-time friends and performing partners–singer/songwriter Jim Hardy (Colin Donnell) and dancer Ted Hanover (Noah Racey), who have just performed their last show at a New York club with their partner Lila Dixon (Holly Ann Butler), who is also Jim’s girlfriend. While Jim wants to retire to a historic farm he just purchased in Connecticut, Ted and Lila want to take an offer to perform at another club in Chicago, and so they decide to split up, with Lila promising to join Jim after she’s finished the gig. Eventually, things get complicated as Jim moves to the farm and meets Linda Mason (Patti Murin), a schoolteacher and former singer/dancer whose family used to own the farm. As the months go by, Jim and Linda grow closer and the bills pile up, prompting the farm’s handywoman Louise (Nancy Opel) to suggest he use the farm as a hotel and show venue. With Linda and some old friends from New York joining in, “Holiday Inn” is born. Meanwhile, Ted arrives fresh from a run of successful performances in Chicago and Las Vegas and looking for a new dance partner.  What will happen when he meets Linda? What will Jim do when his friend returns to tempt Linda with the prospect of showbiz success? And what about Lila?

It’s a fairly predictable plot, but none of that really matters because it’s all just so entertaining, with the right balance of comedy, drama, spectacle and romance, and all those wonderful production numbers expertly performed by the leads and the Muny’s fantastic ensemble. There are many classic Berlin songs here, from iconic ballads like “White Christmas” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” to elaborately staged extravaganzas like “Easter Parade” and the inventive and energetic “Shaking the Blues Away”. Classic dance songs like “Cheek to Cheek” are here as well, and all of them are presented with the requisite style and charm. Dance-wise, there’s lots of tapping, as well as slower styles and lots of strong ensemble support.

The cast couldn’t be better, from the leads to the supporting roles and the cohesive ensemble. The show has even managed to find a Fred Astaire look-alike and dance-alike in the charming, debonair Racey, who isn’t imitating Astaire but manages to evoke the famed hoofer’s spirit while adding his own flair to the role. Real-life married couple Donnell and Murin display electric chemistry as Jim and Linda, and both are fantastic singers able to sing these timeless classics in the right style and with a great deal of warmth. Opel is a hoot as the jill-of-all-trades Louise, providing excellent comic support and  superbly leading one of the show’s best numbers, “Shaking the Blues Away”. Butler gives a fun performance as the showbiz-obsessed Lila, and young Phoenix Lawson is memorable as one of Linda’s students, the budding entrepreneur  Charlie. It’s an extremely strong cast with no weak links, and the Muny ensemble is put to use in ideal fashion.

Visually, the show is a fitting tribute to both Hollywood movie musicals and the old-style stage spectacles the Muny has been famous for. With a versatile cloud backdrop and a revolving set that serves as the inn as well as the barn/stage, Timothy R. Mackabee’s set is suitably impressive. And the costumes, by Alejo Vietti, are simply stunning, with colorful styles suited to the 1040s period setting as well as the various holiday themed numbers–from elaborate Easter bonnets to glamorous New Year’s attire to patriotic styles for the 4th of July, and more.

This show is, simply put, a whole lot of fun. It’s charming, colorful, old-fashioned in the best sense of the word and thoroughly entertaining. It’s a fitting show for showing off the best of the Muny’s current regime while celebrating the styles and musical theatre traditions of the past. Holiday Inn at the Muny is well worth checking into.

Holiday Inn ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Holiday Inn ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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Grease

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Directed and Choregraphed by Denis Jones

The Muny

July 31, 2014

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Brandon Espinoza
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

“Grease is the word,” or so the song tells us. The big issue with Grease the musical, though, is that you can’t be sure which word you’re getting, depending on the production. From the grittier original Broadway production to the highly nostalgic 1978 film to the more over-the-top stylized approach of some of the revivals, this show can appeal to many different audiences depending on the director’s vision. The latest production at the Muny mostly takes a straightforward nostalgic approach, and considering the Muny’s large, varied audience, that’s probably the best for this venue. A crowd-pleasing production with a youthful, energetic cast and some creative staging, this Grease is a journey back to the 50’s that, for the most part, is worth the trip.

This is a production that is even more informed by the film than others I have seen, even though pretty much all versions include songs from the movie now.  Some of the show’s original songs have been completely replaced by film songs in this staging.  Where “You’re The One That I Want” replacing “All Choked Up” is basically the standard now, this version also replaces “It’s Raining On Prom Night” with “Hopelessly Devoted to You” instead of just adding the latter song in another scene, and Danny sings “Sandy” at the drive-in instead of “Alone At a Drive-in Movie”.  This staging also censors some of the songs’ lyrics, especially in “Greased Lightning”.  Still, the version here is probably the best film-influenced adaptation of this show I’ve seen, because the way it’s put together, along with the enthusiasm of the cast and some clever staging, makes the story work, for the most part.  The show is not overly stylized (except in the fantasy sequences, where stylization is most appropriate), and the 50’s-era atmosphere is detailed and consistent, with excellent adaptable sets by Timothy R. Mackabee and costumes by Andrea Lauer, along with a clever use of 1950’s ads and images in the video projections designed by Matthew Young. Although there were a few problems with the set on Opening Night, for the most part it’s a very effective and stylish evocation of the era.

The story has become a very familiar one–of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies at Rydell High School and their clash with the traditional establishment and cultural expectations. When wholesome good-girl Sandy Dumbrowski (Taylor Louderman) transfers to Rydell and re-unites with her summer love, T-Bird Danny Zuko (Brandon Espinoza), other peoples’ expectations battle with their own feelings for each other, as both try to figure out how to balance image with identity to see if their relationship will survive.  Meanwhile, Danny’s friend Kenickie (Drew Foster) aims to fix up his car into a stylish hot rod to help him impress girls, as well as dealing with a complicated relationship with Betty Rizzo (Arianda Fernandez), the tough leader of the Pink Ladies whose bravado masks a sense of vulnerability that eventually is made clear late in the show. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies also battle with the more conventional elements at Rydell, represented by cheerleader Patty Simcox (Rhiannon Hansen) and imperious teacher Miss Lynch (Phyllis Smith). Mostly though, in this version of the story, this is a journey through the various elements of 1950’s culture with songs, dances and situations that celebrate youth culture and counter-culture alike.

The Muny has done well to cast most of these roles with young, engaging personalities, especially with the two leads and several of the supporting players.  Louderman brings a real sense of girl-next-door sweetness to Sandy, and her voice on songs like “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is big and powerful.  She and the good-looking, charming Espinoza have good chemistry together as well, and while “You’re The One That I Want” still sounds more 70’s than 50’s, these two make it work.  Foster is an appropriately swaggering Kenickie, and Fernandez displays a strong voice and snarky attitude as Rizzo, and the rest of of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies are particularly well cast.  The real standouts are Natalie Kaye Clater as Marty, who brings a lot of spunk and stage presence to her solo “Freddy My Love”; Larry Owns as Roger and Amelia Jo Parrish as Jan, whose song “Mooning” is a lot of fun; and Tyler Bradley Indyck as wanna-be rocker Doody, whose capably leads the brilliantly staged “Those Magic Changes” production number.  The adult characters are well-played as well, with Smith (most famous from TV’s The Office) getting an ideal role for her talents, including some fun dancing moments, as Miss Lynch, and Matthew Saldivar as smarmy radio DJ Vince Fontaine.  The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is in fine form here as well, bringing style and energy to the big dance numbers like “Born to Hand Jive” and the show’s biggest applause-getter, the stage-filling gospel and R&B influenced arrangement of the “Beauty School Dropout” number, anchored by a stellar performance from Teressa Kindle as the Teen Angel. Although this song has more of a mid-60’s Aretha Franklin-esque vibe than the rest of the show, it works because of the strong performance and staging, and also because it’s a fantasy sequence, so the Teen Angel could very well be seen as a time traveler.  The rest of the show is very much tied to the 50’s, but this scene provides a glimpse of what is ahead musically, and it’s extremely memorable.

For the most part, I would say this production communicates the nostalgia angle with just the right balance of humor, style and spectacle, while still maintaining a more realistic tone than other productions of the show I’ve seen (like the extremely stylized early 90’s Broadway revival). Grease, in its most commonly staged form, is one of those shows that provides nostalgia for two generations–the Baby Boomers who actually experienced the 50’s, and Gen Xers like me, who most remember the film. This production at the Muny favors the 50’s approach with a little bit of 60’s and 70’s flavor, although it’s staged cleverly enough that it brings the 1950’s to a 2014 audience in a charming and stylish way that’s sure to appeal to audience members from all generations.

Cast of Grease Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of Grease
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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