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The Muny Centennial Gala
An Evening With the Stars
May 19, 2018

Matthew Morrison, Heather Headley
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is 100! A summer tradition that generations of St. Louisans grew up with, the Muny has endured many changes over the years, but in 2018, it’s still here and it’s thriving. And now, the Muny has kicked off its centennial season with a gala extravaganza that celebrates its history as well as–both intentionally and unintentionally–demonstrating some time-honored Muny traditions, such as how to deal with rain delays.

Note the date I’ve listed at the top of this article. That’s not the published date for this extravaganza. In fact, the lavish centennial celebration dinner did take place on the advertised date of Friday, May 18, and every effort was made to stage the show, as well. As the thousands of attendees took their seats and waited, the Muny’s technical crews did their best to ready the stage for the event during a brief respite from the rain that had been drenching St. Louis essentially all day. There was hope, but alas, the rain started up again, and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson ran onstage to make the announcement that the show would have to be postponed until the next night–Saturday, May 18. So, at the same time one day later, the crowds returned and the show went on, but not without a few more weather-related hitches. The show started on time, but the unpredictible St. Louis weather made for two rain delays lasting about 20 minutes each. Still, even with these stoppages, the show started strong and didn’t lose its momentum.  It was a treat from start to finish, bringing back some Muny favorites and legendary stars as well as highlighting frequent Muny ensemble members and the Muny Kids and Teens.

“An Evening With the Stars” was no exaggeration, with a stellar lineup hosted by Broadway star Heather Headley, who has appeared at the Muny as the Witch in Into the Woods, and Broadway and TV star Matthew Morrison, who is perhaps best known for Glee. These two served as presenters for the event and also got their moments to shine, with Morrison leading a fun production number featuring a condensed version of the musical Hairspray, and Headley bringing down the house with her powerful vocals on a medley from Funny Girl. There were also standout performances and stories from Patrick Cassidy, who sang “Till There Was You” from The Music Man alongside fellow Muny alum Jenny Powers, as well as recounting a story from the filming of the movie that starred his mother, Shirley Jones, who also sent along a video greeting. There was also a stirring rendition of “Memory” from Cats by beloved Muny favorite Ken Page, an energetic ensemble tap number of “We’re In The Money” led by Lara Teeter, and Graham Rowat leading the entire cast in singing “The Quest (The Impossible Dream)” from Man of La Mancha. Other memorable segments included two songs from the classic A Chorus Line–“What I Did For Love” sung by an impressive group of longtime Muny veterans and regulars, and then the grand finale, a spectacular dance to the showstopping “One”, featuring energetic dancing and well-timed fireworks from behind the stage and from the sides of the auditorium itself. It was a truly stunning conclusion to spectucular show.

Ensemble
Photo: The Muny

As wonderful as the whole show was, though, I think special note should be made of two legendary performers who commanded the stage with stories and songs, demonstrating the longevity of their extraordinary talents. I’m referring to the truly superb Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune, who proved that even after decades in the business, their remarkable talent, energy and stage presence are still very much in evidence. The 85-year-old Rivera and 79-year-old Tune–who both starred in Bye Bye Birdie at different times but never together–treated the audience to a delightful rendition of the show’s last scene and the song “Rosie”, showing excellent stage chemistry in the process, and expert, energetic tapping from Tune. Rivera also had a great moment telling stories from the making of the original production of Chicago and singing the signature “All That Jazz”, and although the choreography has been simplified, her attitude and style are still there in force. For me, a lifelong theatre fan who had never before been given the opportunity to see these great stars live, their performances were the clear highlight of the already stellar production.

Chita Rivera, Tommy Tune
Photo: The Muny

The techical values of this event were also impressive, with direction by Matt Kunkel, music direction by  Michael Horsley, and Choreography by Michael Baxter. The set by Paul Tate dePoo III was simple but elegant, and the costumes by Robin L. McGee and hair and makeup by Kelley Jordan sparkled and dazzled. There was also exellent lighting and video design by Rob Denton, Nathan W. Scheuer, Matthew Young, and Shelby Loera. It was a great looking, great sounding, star-studded production that’s fitting of a 100-year anniversary celebration for such storied St. Louis institution.

The big show was only part of the celebration, though. In addition, the Muny hosted a “Birthday Bash” open house event on Sunday, May 20 featuring many free events that allowed the St. Louis public an even closer look at what makes the Muny so distinctive. With historical displays, vehicles that were used in various shows such as the Jeep from South Pacific and a Ford Model T car from  Thoroughly Modern Millie, as well as showtune karaoke, a ferris wheel, and a fascinating backstage tour and opportunity to step on the famous, enormous Muny stage, it was an excellent way for the Muny to share even more of its rich history with its audience.  The Muny has gotten off to a great start celebrating 100 years in Forest Park. Next on the schedule: its much-anticipated 100th season of musical theatre, which begins soon, on June 11 with the Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

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The Addams Family
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
September 14, 2014

Cast of The Addams Family Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Cast of The Addams Family
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny

One of the things I always loved about The Addams Family in all its incarnations is how much fun the characters always seemed to have as a family. From Charles Addams’s classic comic panels to the 1960’s TV series, to the feature films in the 1990’s, this was a family that, while noticeably unconventional,  offbeat and decidedly macabre, sincerely loved one another and made the most out of life.  I used to look forward to watching reruns of the show after school when I was younger, and I enjoyed the movies as well, but I have to admit I was skeptical about the musical. I had heard of the mixed reviews on Broadway, and the adjustments to the show that were made for the tour, and I just didn’t know what to expect. The cast, led by Muny veterans Rob McClure, Jenny Powers and Jennifer Cody, looked extremely promising, and I sat in my seat on opening night with high hopes.  I was not disappointed. In true Addams tradition, this is a show about love, lunacy and a great deal of laughs.  It’s a very fun show that blends elements of the cartoons, the TV show and the movies along with a new twist to make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre works surprisingly well on the giant Muny stage.

This version of the story, which seems to take some inspiration from theatrical classics like You Can’t Take It With You and La Cage aux Folles, takes the familiar characters and introduces new ones to tell a story of unlikely love, culture clashes, and parents’ dealing with their children’s growing up. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is full of witty jokes, plot twists and revelations, and there are some memorable songs by Andrew Lippa as well as an echo of the iconic TV theme song in the overture (with the audience enthusiastically clapping and snapping along). After we are re-introduced to the famous family including Gomez (McClure), Morticia (Powers), Pugsley(Michael Harp), Grandma (Cody) and Lurch the butler (William Ryall) in an energetic, colorful production number called “When You’re an Addams”, the storytelling duties are then taken over by Uncle Fester (Steve Rosen), who serves as something of a Master of Ceremonies and tour guide through the ensuing story, which Fester reminds us is ultimately about love. Gomez and Morticia have to deal with the fact that their daughter Wednesday (Sara Kapner) is growing up. In fact, she’s met a nice, respectable young man, Lucas Beineke (Dan DeLuca), and they want to get married, which is part of the problem. Lucas’s parents, Mal (John Scherer) and Alice (Hollis Resnick) have been invited to dinner at the Addams mansion, and both Wednesday and Lucas are afraid of being embarrassed by their parents.  Meanwhile, Wednesday has confided a secret to Gomez, which she has made him promise not to tell Morticia, from whom Gomez never keeps secrets.  Gomez’s dilemma, along with the various culture conflicts and what happens when even more secrets threaten to be revealed, becomes the basis for a hilarious and heartwarming tale of love and unconventionality told only as an Addams could tell it.

While the darker, more overtly spooky atmosphere of the cartoons and the films is present as well, the general tone of the musical seems to be more in the vein of the TV show (albeit a little more risqué at times), with its broad comedy, sight gags and joke-a-minute humor.  The comedy is in excellent hands, as well, with Rosen as a Vaudevillian-styled Fester and Cody as the outspoken Grandma delivering many of the best jokes in scene-stealing performances. The “Full Disclosure” number that ends Act 1 is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen at the Muny, with so much raucous humor that it’s difficult to pause and take a breath. Just when I thought I was laughing as much as I could, another joke would come along to make me laugh even more.  There are also some great moments for Kapner and Harp with the delightfully unhinged song “Pulled”, and for Resnick as the outwardly happy, frequently rhyming Alice, who gets to reveal her own dark secrets in a cathartic moment at the end of Act 1. She and Scherer as the bewildered Mal, along with a well-matched Kapner and DeLuca, also have an excellent moment in Act 2 with “Crazier Than You”. In fact, all the principals here are ideally cast, and everyone gets a moment to shine, including Fester with his sweet ode to his secret crush “The Moon and Me” (along with some excellent visuals on the scenery wall), and Ryall as Lurch, whose confusion about how to act when he meets the Beinekes is endearingly hilarious.  There are some great “breaking the fourth wall” moments as well, with Rosen’s little stand-up routine at the beginning of Act 2–featuring some Muny-specific jokes–being a real highlight.

As great as the supporting cast is, however, this being The Addams Family means the stars of the show have to be Gomez and Morticia, and the Muny has cast these celebrated characters very well indeed. Both McClure and Powers are at their best here, and that’s saying something, considering the excellent performances I’ve seen from them in past Muny shows. Something about these characters just seems to energize these two, and they work together with crackling chemistry and a great deal of charm. Powers is in great voice on songs like “Secrets” and her big production number “Just Around the Corner”. She displays just the right balance between elegance and enthusiasm, as well. McClure is a joy as Gomez, as well, bringing charisma, wit, emotion, comic timing and boundless energy.  He’s able to command the stage in a dynamic fencing routine, express his dilemma humorously in “Trapped”, and also share a poignant moment with Kapner’s Wednesday on the wonderful “Happy/Sad” in Act 2.  He and Powers are well-matched in their electric, expertly choreographed “Tango de Amor” as well. These two consummate professionals fill their roles with humor and style, leading a strong principal cast and equally excellent ensemble of undead ancestors, skeletons and such.

Visually, the set by Michael Schweikart fills the vast stage with just he right air of whimsical creepiness, with a detailed graveyard set and the house,which revolves to show different rooms such as the main hall and the dungeon. The costumes, designed by Andrea Lauer, are influenced by the earlier incarnations of the characters but are appropriately updated for this setting. I especially liked the individual styling of the various Addams ancestors.  There were some obvious issues with the sound on opening night, with a few lines being lost due to microphone problems, although I’m sure those will be sorted out as the show continues its run. Overall, this production a strong technical achievement, with elements fitting the overall darkly madcap atmosphere very well.

The Addams Family is, as Fester says, ultimately a story about love. It’s about trust, acceptance, and unconventionality, but its all tied together by love. While I think the original TV show will always be my favorite version of these characters, the musical is a surprising delight as well, especially in this larger-than-life production at the Muny.  It’s creepy, it’s kooky and it’s contagiously fun. This is a family that’s well worth getting to know, and the Muny provides an excellent–and outrageously funny–introduction.

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers Photo by Philip Hamer The Muny

Rob McClure, Jenny Powers
Photo by Philip Hamer
The Muny

 

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Mary Poppins

Original Music and Lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Book by Julian Fellowes

New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny

July 25, 2013

marypoppins

Whenever anyone asked me when I was younger (college age) what my favorite movie was, I would have two answers—Citizen Kane and Mary Poppins.  I answered this way mostly because it was true, but also because I loved the reaction I got.  Still, even though I now have quite a few more movies on my favorites list (it’s too difficult to choose just one), the Disney film of Mary Poppins is one of my all-time favorites going back to when I first saw it on TV as a child.  I loved the sense of whimsy about the whole film, and the memorable songs and characters.  In 2006, on my first trip to London with my family, we saw the stage production at the Prince Edward theatre and I loved that as well, even though in many ways it’s different than the film. Now, the Muny has brought the show to the enormous stage in Forest Park, in a production that is at once colorful, charming, funny, mysterious and completely enchanting.

The stage show takes inspiration from the popular Disney film as well as P.L. Travers’s original book series, adding elements from the books and rearranging some of the scenes and songs from the movie, with a few songs added by songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  The story, as in the film, follows the Banks family—parents George (Stephen Buntrock) and Winifred (Erin Dilly), and their free-spirited but neglected children Jane (Elizabeth Teeter) and Michael (Aidan Gemme), who have made it their mission to drive out all the nannies their parents have hired.  Their mischievous efforts are thwarted by the arrival of Mary Poppins (Jenny Powers), a nanny like no other, whose unorthodox methods and stern-but-caring demeanor changes the lives of all of the members of the Banks family for the better. The story is narrated all the while by Bert (Rob McClure) a charming, itinerant Jack-of-all-trades who accompanies Mary and the children on their various adventures.

For the most part, I like the changes. The film will always be in a class of its own and it will always be there to watch and enjoy, but in order to turn a film into a stage show some adaptations, adjustments, additions and subtractions are necessary, and I think the team behind Mary Poppins has made the adaptation very well.  My only real criticism on that point is that the parents (and especially Mrs. Banks) are made much less quirky in the stage show and can come across as bland even with excellent actors in the roles. Some of the subplots from the film have been removed and some songs (such as “Jolly Holliday”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and—most spectactularly—“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) have been re-set in a way that makes more sense on stage.

The Muny’s production is big and colorful, fitting for the gigantic stage, and with an excellent cast. The British accents ranged from pretty good to practically non-existent, but otherwise I thought the performers were strong and appealing.  Powers took a bit of time to get the right level of energy for Mary Poppins, seeming a bit too staid at first, but by the second act she had it right—with just the right balance of toughness and concern, with a truly wonderful singing voice and great rapport with the children and especially with McClure as Bert, who as far as I’m concerned was the real star of this show with all of the charm, presence and likeability required for the role as well as excellent dancing ability.  Teeter and Gemme as the children also put in winning performances, and real-life married couple Buntrock and Dilly were appealing as their parents.  The cast was rounded out by some very impressive performers in the smaller roles, most notably Rebecca Finnegan in multiple roles (especially as Mr. Banks’ nightmarish former nanny Miss Andrew) and Laura Ackermann as the Bird Woman.  The ensemble of dancers was extremely strong as well, showing of their abilities to delightful effect in the big production numbers like “Jolly Holiday” and “Step In Time”.

The larger production numbers are where this production really shone. Mr. Banks often expresses his desire for “Precision and Order” (that’s a song, as well) in his household, which often descends into chaos before a balance is eventually found with the timely intervention of Mary Poppins, but here that bears out in the production as well.  In songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (the hands-down best scene in the show) and “Step In Time”, the precision of the choreography makes order out of the seeming chaos of the situation. There is real suspense, for instance, in “Supercali…” when the huge ensemble with their letter placards assemble to spell the word, until it all gloriously comes together at the last possible second.  It’s amazingly timed, making full use of the huge Muny stage, and to marvelous effect.  “Step In Time”, “Jolly Holiday” and new song “Anything Can Happen” are also extremely well performed and add to the sense of whimsy, adventure and wonder of the show.

The technical aspects of the production contributed very well to the atmosphere as well, with the brightly colored modular set, colorful costumes and well-executed lighting effects.  The flying was interesting.  It worked very well especially at the end  when Mary Poppins flew out over the audience (a Muny first, apparently), but seemed clunky at other times in the show, with no attempt to disguise cables and harnesses, even though oddly the clunkiness often added to the charm of the production.

Mary Poppins is ultimately about finding order in chaos and helping parents to understand their children (and vice versa), and about finding adventure and wonder in the everyday tasks of life.  It’s a great show for families to see together, as it’s a show that successfully appeals to all ages.  My personal fondness for the film has remained strong over the years, and I think the stage adaptation stands well on its own.   I was glad to b able to see it again in such a delightful setting. The Muny’s production brought out all the wonder and charm of the piece, and the overall result was magical.

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