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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Additional Lyrics by Douglas Carter Beane, David Chase, and Bruce Pomahac
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
July 8, 2019

Jason Gotay, Mikaela Bennett (Center) and the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Photo: The Muny

“Muny Magic” is a familiar phrase for the musical theatre company that has become a fixture in Forest Park. So far, the Muny has been firing on all cylinders with their newly refurbished stage and excellently staged productions for their 101st season. The latest show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, seriously brings the “magic” to the forefront, with a dazzling, energetic and superbly cast production that makes me see the show in a new light, even though I’ve seen this revised version before.

This show isn’t all Rodgers and Hammerstein, even though they’re billed before the title. Although it features a classic score by the legendary team, this version has a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, and a few lyrical additions as well. It’s a revamping of the classic story that retains its Fairy Tale setting but is given a modern twist, with some new characters and more for Cinderella to do than dream of meeting a prince, although she does that too. Here, Cinderella (Mikaela Bennett)  wants to make the world a better place, by showing kindness to those around her and encouraging people–including heir to the throne Prince Topher (Jason Gotay), and idealistic activist Jean-Michel (Chad Burris) to stand up for what they believe. Also, one of her stepsisters, the sweetly goofy Gabrielle (Stephanie Gibson), isn’t mean, and she’s in love with Jean-Michel. The over-the-top vain stepmother Madame (Alison Fraser) is here, making Cinderella’s life miserable and trying to make sure one of her daughters, Gabrielle and the brash, selfish Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) marries the Prince after he invites the eligible women of the land to come to a ball where he hopes to meet his bride. Well, he’s actually more reluctant, and the ball is the idea of his scheming, power-hungry adviser Sebastian (John Scherer), but the ball does happen, and Prince Topher meets the glammed-up Cinderella and falls in love, only for her to flee at midnight and… well, you know the story, or at least you know some of it. There are some added twists here, and the plot is changed up a bit from what you might expect, but the familiar elements are here, from the glass slipper to the pumpkin coach, to the Fairy Godmother, who here is a neglected village outsider named Marie (Ashley Brown), who is treated kindly by Cinderella. In fact, kindness is at the forefront in this production, as personified by Cinderella. Kindness, as well as standing up for one’s convictions, are the major themes here. The familiar songs, from “My Own Little Corner”, to “Ten Minutes Ago”, to “Impossible”, are all here along with some additional songs for a magical, tuneful experience that’s sure to appeal to all ages.

I had seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production first played the Fox Theatre, and I remember liking it, mostly, but not this much. This version at the Muny has an energy and spirit that’s new and works especially well on that giant stage in front of the large Muny audience. It also seems to flow better and, although it’s still not the deepest of stories, it makes more sense here. The casting makes up for a lot of the difference, I think, with no weak links and a lot of memorable performances, led by the truly remarkable Bennett as Cinderella, who has all the presence and warmth required for the role and then some, along with a glorious voice. She also has great chemistry with the appropriately charming Gotay as Prince Topher, who brings a lot of likability to the role along with a smooth, powerful voice of his own. Brown as Marie is also excellent and vocally stunning, as is Victor Ryan Robertson as the prince’s herald, Lord Pinkleton. There are standout comic performances as well, from  Fraser as a gleefully vain Madame, and Cody who has a delightful comic solo in “Stepsister’s Lament”, backed by a strong, energetic ensemble. Gibson is also a delight as Gabrielle, well-matched with the amiable Burris as the idealistic but socially awkward Jean-Michel. The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is employed especially well here, also, operating puppets for the various animals in the play (mice, raccoons, etc.), among other roles. The key word here, I think, beyond “magic” is “energy”. There’s a ton of it in this large, enthusiastic cast, making the production numbers particularly entertaining.

Technically, the show isn’t over the top with the special effects, but it still looks fantastic. There are some fun effects here and there, especially with outfit transformations, and Paige Hathway’s set is whimsical and colorful. There are also dazzling, distinctive costumes by Robin L. McGee, clever puppets by Puppet Kitchen International, Inc. and Eric Wright, fun video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton. The array of brightly colored wigs by Kaitlyn A. Adams also add a lot of quirky flair to the show. The staging is well-paced, with energetic choreography by Josh Walden, and everything is ably backed by the terrific Muny Orchestra led by music director Greg Anthony Rassen.

This is such a fun show. It’s a Cinderella for today that’s about magic and celebrating kindness more than anything else, and it gives audiences a Cinderella and Prince who are credible as a couple, and as equals. It’s also full of whimsical, fantastical spirit, with that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score that probably will end up playing in your head for the rest of the night. It’s another strong production from a particularly stellar Muny season.

Alison Fraser, Mikaela Bennett, Stephanie Gibson, Jennifer Cody
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Forest Park until July 16, 2019

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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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