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Meet Me In St. Louis
Songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Revised Book by Gordon Greenberg, Additional Orchestrations by John McDaniel
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
August 4, 2018

Emily Walton (center) and Cast
Photo: The Muny

In the closing show of the Muny’s 100th season, two famous slogans coincide. Now “Meet me at the Muny” meets “Meet Me In St. Louis“, as the stage version of the classic film has been brought to the Muny again with a revised book and a nostalgic tone, as well as a hopeful message. It’s a classic, but it’s also new, looking back on a celebrated era in the city’s past but also encouraging a spirit of family, connection, and optimism.

This show has been done several times at the Muny over the years. Now, it’s back with a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and some additional songs, including one that was written for the original film but cut from the final version, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me”. Based on Sally Benson’s stories of her family’s life in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century, the focus here is on the Smith family, and especially the character played by Judy Garland in the film, second daughter Esther (Emily Walton), who pines after the “Boy Next Door”, John Truitt (Dan DeLuca), before she even meets him. They eventually do meet, adding to the romantic entanglements of the rest of the Smith family, including oldest sister Rose (Liana Hunt) whose boyfriend Warren Sheffield (Michael Burrell) transfers to Washington University to be closer to Rose, and brother Lon (Jonathan Burke), who brings the trendy New Yorker Lucille Ballard (Madison Johnson) home to meet his family. The rest of the family’s drama also involves New York, as father Alonzo Smith (Stephen R. Buntrock) informs his wife Anna (Erin Dilly) that his lawfirm has given him a promotion and a job in the New York office. The plans are overheard by the family’s Irish-American maid Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald), and the three try to delay telling the rest of the family for as long as possible, because only Alonzo seems happy about the idea and they know their family, including younger daughters Agnes (Elle Wesley) and Tootie (Elena Adams) and Anna’s father, retired physician Grandpa Prophater (Ken Page), won’t take the news well. The story is something of a love letter to St. Louis in that era, with memorable characters and some iconic songs, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in addition to some classics from the time, such as the iconic title tune that’s sung by the family here as they and the whole city anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a relatively light show, and it’s a lot of fun, showcasing the various characters at different times and, with this new version, throwing in some subtle nods to the Muny, such as when Esther and John have lunch in Forest Park as the fairgrounds are constructed and talk about the future, pointing out the young oak trees around them and imagining them growing into tall shade trees, like the ones that now surround the very stage on which they are having this conversation. It’s a fun little moment in the show, which is full of funny, nostalgic and poignant moments leading up to a rather spectacular finale.

The plot can get a little convoluted at times, but the characters and the various set pieces featuring the changing seasons in St. Louis are the highlight here. It’s not a deep show, but it’s fun, and the classic songs are given excellent treatment here, along with the requisite “Muny Magic”, as with the real trolley onstage for “The Trolley Song”, the grand set designed by Michael Schweikardt, the colorful costumes by Tristan Raines, and the spectacular production values, including lighting by Rob Denton, sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and excellent video design by Matthew Young, along with the glorious Muny orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman. This is a big, bright, warm and funny family show, staged with obvious love for the city and park in which it is set and in which it is being staged.

The cast is first-rate, as well, with Walton as an amiable Esther, doing justice to the classic songs and lending credibility to Esther’s crush on next-door-neighbor John, who is played with sweetly awkward charm by DeLuca. They make a believable couple, as do real-life married couple Dilly and Buntrock as the Smith parents. The whole Smith family is surperbly cast, with standout performances especially from Wesley and Adams as the mischievous younger daughters, Agnes and Tootie. Muny stalwart Page is also excellent as the kind Grandpa, Fitzgerald is pleasantly spunky as Katie, and the large Muny ensemble lends strong support, with lots of dynamic energy and enthusiasm in the big production numbers. It’s a big, entertaining show and fills out the huge Muny stage with style and spirit.

When my family first moved to St. Louis, it was 2004, 100 years after the famous fair, and as I remember, the city celebrated that centennial with various activities throughout the year to commemorate the fair. One of those events was the first show of the Muny season that year–Meet Me In St. Louis. It was also the first show I ever saw at the Muny. We sat in the free seats, and I remember enjoying the show. Seeing this new, spectacular production to close out the Muny’s 100th season reminds me of how much has changed since then, not just for me but for the Muny and for the city as a whole. It also reminds me of the timelessness of this show, and of the Muny itself. This production celebrates the city and the milestones in families’ lives, as well as an iconic moment in history, with a clarity and charm that is timeless and transcendant. It’s a magnificent way to close out a historic season.

Cast of Meet Me In St. Louis
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Meet Me in St. Louis in Forest Park until August 12, 2018.

 

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From and Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 6, 2017

Lavonne Byers, Jonathan Hey
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Sweeney Todd is such a difficult show to do. Its complex story, ridiculously complicated rhythms, and its bleak and even brutal subject matter, blended with a dark sense of humor, make this musical a challenge, to say the least. Now Stray Dog Theatre, known for its ambitious musical productions, has risen to that challenge, staging a bold, thrilling, excellently cast production of this well-known musical.

The show is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known works, and it’s also possibly his darkest. A re-telling of an old British legend of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the story fleshes out (pun intended) the barber’s backstory. Here, Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Hey), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, has just returned from 15 years of exile in Australia, where he was sent on trumped-up charges after running afoul of the corrupt, conniving and self-righteous Judge Turpin (Gerry Love), who had eyes for Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now returned to London, the world-weary Todd is bent on revenge, especially after he hears of his wife’s fate after Barker’s exile, and the fact that the judge has taken in and raised Barker’s daughter Johanna (Eileen Engel), and now has plans to marry her. Todd learns all this from the down-on-her-luck pie merchant Mrs. Lovett (Lavonne Byers), who has her own designs on Sweeney himself and assists him in establishing a new barber shop above her pie shop. When the Judge and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Mike Wells) continue to evade Todd’s plots to exact revenge, his and Lovett’s plans grow even darker and more ambitious, and more gruesome, in ways that feed Todd’s desire for vengeance and the customers of Lovett’s increasingly successful pie shop. In the midst of all these machinations, Anthony Hope (Cole Gutmann), a young sailor who saves Todd from drowning on his way back from Australia, meets and is instantly smitten with Johanna, further complicating Todd’s plans, and Lovett takes in young Tobias Ragg (Connor Johnson), an orphaned young man who grows increasingly suspicious of Todd. Meanwhile, there’s a mysterious Beggar Woman (Kay Love) who keeps appearing and who Todd sees as an annoyance and a distraction.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and the tone is both bleak and darkly comic at different moments. It’s a large cast for the small-ish stage at SDT’s Tower Grove Abbey, but director Justin Been has staged it with a brisk energy that keeps the story going without ever appearing too cluttered. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is superb, providing an excellent evocation of a 19th Century London street and Mrs. Lovett’s run-down pie shop, as well as Todd’s barber shop above it and various other locations as needed. Tyler Duenow’s dramatic lighting and Ryan Moore’s colorful, meticulously detailed costumes help to set the mood of the production, which keeps an urgent pace throughout as the story starts out dark and only gets darker as the story progresses. Tower Grove Abbey, with its wooden pews, stained glass windows and striking 19th Century architecture, is a fitting space for this show, and the cast uses most of the available performance space (stage and audience area) effectively.

The cast here is extremely strong, led by the brooding, looming, booming-voiced Hey as the determined, vengeful Todd. His sheer single-mindedness is at the forefront here, and his singing is strong and clear, bringing out the power of songs like “No Place Like London”, “My Friends”, and “Epiphany”. Byers, whose diminutive stature provides a physical contrast to the much larger Hey, brings a big personality to the scheming, lovestruck Lovett. Although she struggles a bit with the vocal range on her first song, “Worst Pies In London”, Byers is in excellent form throughout the rest of the production, and her blend of dark desperation and broad humor is showcased well in songs like “By the Sea”, “God, That’s Good”, and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “A Little Priest”, in which she and Hey both shine. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, particularly Gutmann as the ever-optimistic Anthony, Engel as a particularly gutsy Johanna, Wells as the smarmy Beadle Bamford, Gerry Love as the creepy Judge Turpin, Kay Love as the enigmatic Beggar Woman, and Johnson as young Tobias, whose story arc is particularly affecting, although he does struggle a little bit with volume on some of his faster-paced songs. The singing is strong throughout, and there’s a strong, energetic ensemble backing the leads and filling out the stage as townspeople, customers, inhabitants of an asylum, and more.

Sweeney Todd is a show where so much is happening, and where the musical style is so challenging, that I imagine it would be easy to get wrong. Fortunately, Stray Dog’s production gets it right. It’s a sharp social critique and a highly personal tale at the same time. The tone of this show is dark and even mournful at times, but maintaining the pace and energy level is absolutely critical for this show, and that’s done well here. With an excellent cast especially in the two crucial leading roles and a top-notch ensemble, this Sweeney Todd is a chilling, thrilling, and memorable tale.

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Tower Grove Abbey until April 22, 2017.

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