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Posts Tagged ‘muny’

Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and Lyrics by Eric Idle, New Music by John du Prez and Eric Idle
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny, St. Louis

June 17, 2013

spamalot1

It’s June, and in St. Louis that means it’s Muny time again. A time-honored tradition in St. Louis, the Muny has become a highlight of the summer for me and my family, as well as many others around the area. Despite the early evening thunderstorms that delayed the opening night performance of Spamalot, the show went on, and proved to be a harbinger of what looks like it will be another excellent Muny season.

The musical, which according to the program has been “lovingly ripped-off” from the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, follows the story of King Arthur and his Knights on the quest for the legendary cup. Many of the well-known elements from the film are here—such as the Knights Who Say “Ni” (cleverly interpreted here by the Muny Youth Ensemble), the Black Knight, the Killer Rabbit, and more, but the adaptation doesn’t stop there. The script, written by Python alum Eric Idle, also incorporates elements from other Monty Python films and many satirical jabs at pop culture in general and the medium of musical theatre in particular. The music is a combination of songs from Python films as well as new songs in various styles—from folk to traditional musical theatre to pop ballads to lounge to disco. It’s not a “deep” show by any means. It’s an unabashed farce which makes no claims to be anything else, and it’s an absolute laugh riot from start to finish.

John O’Hurley, who has played the role on Broadway, is ideally cast as King Arthur. He brings just the right balance of authority, charm and incredulity as well as displaying a strong singing voice, excellent stage presence and comic ability, and great chemistry with his fellow performers, most notably the equally winning David Hibbard as Arthur’s long-suffering servant, Patsy (their duet on “I’m All Alone” is a treat), and Michele Ragusa as the Lady of the Lake. Ragusa, who has given very strong performances in the past at the Muny in Titanic and Singin’ In the Rain, is in great form here as well, displaying a strong, versatile voice on songs like the hilarious “The Song That Goes Like This” and it’s lounge-y reprise, as well as “Find Your Grail” and the comic tour-de-force “Diva’s Lament”. Other standout performances include Kevin Cahoon in various roles, displaying a gorgeous singing voice especially as the young, misunderstood Prince Herbert, who plays a role in helping Sir Lancelot (Chris Hoch) discover his own destiny. All four main Knights of the Round Table (Hoch, John Scherer as Sir Robin, Ben Davis as Sir Dennis Galahad, and Tally Sessions as Sir Bedivere) also work together well to form a cohesive, hilarious ensemble. All four of these actors turn up in other roles throughout the show as well, showing off their versatility and adding to the side-splitting hilarity of the production.

I thoroughly enjoyed the full-scale comic production numbers such as “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” (with the modified lyrics first used on the UK tour), an uproarious ode to celebrity stunt-casting in musicals, and the power-pop anthem “Find Your Grail”, which manages to be both uplifting and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time, and with a fun snow-capped mountain set piece to go with it. The finale, which is a reprise of “Find Your Grail” highlighting the various knights’ fates, is also a delight. There are too many great moments for me to be able to mention them all, but this production does a great job of capturing the spirit of the original film while adding enough musical theatre elements to make it its own unique entity.

Visually, the production made good use of the vast Muny stage, with a colorful set by Steve Gillam, including several clever movable set pieces like the aforementioned mountain, giant slot machines for the Vegas-style “Camelot” sequence, several castles and more. The new (as of last year) electonic scenery wall served as a great backdrop for the action and Monty Python’s trademark animations. Even though there was a small glitch with the wall the night I saw the show (sections of it were not functioning), it didn’t get in the way of the overall performance. Apparently, the cast and crew had no time for a final tech rehearsal due to the inclement weather, but that minor issue with the wall was the only noticeable issue. The rest of the production ran very smoothly with all the technical elements including the sets, lighting and sound.

This is (with the possible exception of last year’s Pirates!) the funniest show I have ever seen at the Muny. No punches are pulled and every possible joke is milked for all its worth, and there are some fun little nods to St. Louis and the Muny thrown into the show for good measure. The surprise appearance by Eric Idle after the curtain call, leading the audience in a sing-along, was an added bonus. This production was a true joy to experience, and it makes for an ideal introduction to another promising season at the Muny.

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The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

August 6, 2012

The King and I is the classic musical loosely based on the  true story of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly),  a widowed English schoolteacher who  was hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Kevin Gray) in the 1860s.   As the story is presented here, the King wants to “modernize” his country’s ways so as to have better diplomatic relations with Western countries and not get taken over by the British Empire, but he and Anna clash over cultural differences and issues like polygamy, use of authority and roles of women in society.  Over the course of the show, both Anna and the King learn to appreciate and respect one another in a gradually developing bond of real affection.  It’s a show that has been produced many times around the world, and the Muny delivers a thoroughly believable, strong production to finish off their truly wonderful 2012 season.

Personally, as a follower of the London theatre scene, it was great for me to hear that a bona fide West End star, Laura Michelle Kelly, was going to be playing Anna in this production. I had only seen some (excellent) promotional clips of her as Mary Poppins, but many of my UK friends spoke highly of her, so I was looking forward to seeing her in this production. I can happily say now that she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly is wonderful in this role. She possesses a strong, clear, powerful voice and plays Anna as strong and compassionate, and her stubbornness is a match to the King’s. Kelly is younger than the usual casting for this role but, at 31, is roughly the same age as the real Anna when she first came to Siam, and she brings a youthful energy to the role that is balanced by just the right amount of authority.  She shines in songs like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” in which she indulges in an imaginary rant towards the King, as well as in gentler, moments like “Hello, Young Lovers” and especially its more melancholy reprise in the second act.  “Getting to Know You” is also a highlight, as Kelly is able to display a great sense of rapport with the children in her charge.

Kevin Gray as the King has a commanding presence. From his very first appearance onstage, just from the way he is standing, it’s obvious that he is King even though the emphasis of his portrayal is on his self- doubt as exemplified in his excellent song “Is a Puzzlement”.   Gray is at his best in his scenes with Kelly, where their mutual stubbornness comes into the forefront and the energy is palpable.  I like how the affection that builds between Anna and the King is not portrayed as a straightforward romance, as playing it as a romance would make this delightfully complex relationship too simple.  The truth is that these two, in this situation, would never have been able to have a true romance so rather than dwelling on what might have been, we are treated to what is actually there, which is a growing sense of mutual admiration with a hint of attraction that shows up in moments like the delightful “Shall We Dance”.  This is many-faceted relationship, also exemplified by the verbal sparring in “Song of the King”, and it is well-played by both Kelly and Gray.

The rest of the players in this production are excellent as well. Stephanie Park and Joshua Dela Cruz are convincing as the star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and their second act duet “I Have Dreamed” is a stand-out moment in the show. Park also excellently narrates the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and makes the parallels in that story with what is going on in her character’s own life readily apparent.  Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also puts in a strong performance as somewhat of an emotional anchor in the story, especially in her beautifully sung number “Something Wonderful”.  There is also a great children’s ensemble, and the young actors playing Anna’s son Louis (Matt Johnson) and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Nick Boivin) do a fine job as well.

In addition to the strong performances, this is a great looking show as well, with richly detailed period costumes, and sets that appropriately fill the large Muny stage and set the atmosphere for the show, such as the simple and elegant columned throne room of the King.  The dance numbers such as “Shall We Dance” and the visually striking ballet sequence are very well executed, and lend to the overall charm of the production.

This thoroughly entertaining production closes out a game-changing 2012 season for the Muny.  It’s  hands-down the best season I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been attending. This season also bodes well for future seasons of the Muny.  Past seasons have been more erratic, but this one was consistent and raised the level of performance at the venue.  I look forward to seeing what they do next season.

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter

The Muny, St. Louis

July 23, 2012

I almost skipped this production of Joseph.  The Muny just did a production of this show five years ago and I was planning on sitting this week out because I thought I wouldn’t need to see it again so soon. I was wrong.  I’m glad I caught a report on the local news talking about the “twist” of this production, because it made me curious to see it, and I’m very happy that I did.  With this production, the latest in the Muny’s so-far extremely impressive 94th season, veteran Muny performer Lara Teeter takes the reins as director and choreographer and, along with a strong cast and crew, presents a show that is wildly entertaining, extremely clever and uniquely St. Louis.

As usual, this is the Biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, with a twist—a pastiche of different musical styles melded together to tell the story.  What is not usual, though, is that this production is set in a strange amalgam of the ancient Middle East and Egypt, and modern-day St. Louis.  The show starts with a collection of people wandering aimlessly on stage as, one by one, a few recount how they have “lost their dream”.  Then the Narrator (Mamie Parris) appears to tell the story of Joseph (Justin Guarini), who enters wearing a Cardinals jersey, singing one of the show’s most well-known songs “Any Dream Will Do”.  From there, we are taken back to Bible times, sort of.  Everything has a St. Louis flavor and oddly enough, it works.  Jacob (Gary Glasgow) and his sons run a Schnucks-like supermarket (“Jacob and Sons”), go tailgating at Busch Stadium (“One More Angel In Heaven”) and later, when their fortune changes, are relegated to hawking frozen custard concretes at Ted Drewe’s (“Those Canaan Days”).  Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and goes to work for Potiphar (also Glasgow), who is an obvious Donald Trump-like character whose business empire is based in Downtown St. Louis.  Later Joseph meets the Pharaoh (Austin Miller), who is an Elvis-like figure as is usual in this show, but this time he is backed by an ensemble consisting of golden cat-people and 1950’s-styled teenage groupies.  The settings are hilariously random and specific at the same time, and St. Louisans in the audience are bound to recognize a lot of the references.  It’s also amazing that most of the change of setting is achieved by the sets, costumes and performances as opposed to changes in the script.  As far as I can tell, aside from the little addition to the prologue, the most drastic change to the show as written is an adaptation in the arrangement of one song– the usually titled “Benjamin Calypso” toward the end of the show has been turned into a gospel song, incorporating the full cast in a rousing,  energetic production number.  I’ve never heard of this being done before but in the context of this production, it works.  There are also some fun pop-culture references thrown into the “Megamix” at the end.

What is great about this production is that, while this very different approach could easily seem distracting or pretentious, it all goes together surprisingly well.  This is just the right kind of show to adapt in this manner, in that it’s not a deeply serious show to begin with, and it seems to work best when everyone involved just has fun with it.  All the elements of the show work together seamlessly. The set design is simple but effective—it’s basically just a bridge, with a few movable booths and platforms and familiar St. Louis scenes posted on the scenery wall in the background.  The costumes are also simple with a lot of bright colors and some St. Louis specific outfits like the Ted Drewe’s uniforms and Cardinals jersey.  The choreography is well-executed and energetic, reflecting the various styles of the songs. One of the best examples of the St. Louis specific staging is in the Ted Drewe’s sequence in “Those Canaan Days”, in which the booths are arranged into a reasonable suggestion of the custard stand, and the choreography even incorporates the signature “turning the concrete upside down” gesture in a way that is hilariously appropriate and adds to the humor of the song without seeming the least bit forced.

Aside from the setting, the best thing about this production is its cast.  Parris as the Narrator has a strong voice (occasionally reminiscent of original Broadway Narrator Laurie Beechman) and good stage presence, and Guarini, who was a pleasant surprise as Billy Flynn in the Muny’s Chicago a few weeks ago, is excellent again as Joseph.  He projects just the right air of charm and cockiness at the beginning of the show, and convincingly matures into the wise leader by the end, and his voice is very strong in songs like “Any Dream Will Do” and the moving “Close Every Door.”  Miller is obviously having a lot of fun as Pharaoh, and he shows a great rapport with both the cast and the audience.  His part is relatively small, but he makes the most of it, and the scene in which he describes his dreams to Joseph (“Poor Poor Pharaoh/ Song of the King”) is a real highlight.  Maurice Murphy as Joseph’s brother Judah leads the “Benjamin Gospel” number with a strong, clear voice and infectious enthusiasm as well, and Glasgow plays his dual roles of Jacob and Potiphar convincingly.  All of the the brothers work very well together and their group numbers are a treat as well.

The bottom line here is that this production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun.  It’s goofy, it’s clever, and it’s so well put together that the company makes it appear as if this is the way the show was always supposed to be done.  It’s not a deep or overly serious show, and there is not one bit of pretension.  The way this production incorporates its setting is ingenious and a remarkable success. It’s a production with lots of humor, and to borrow a lyric from another show (Damn Yankees), “miles and miles and miles of heart”. It’s a great way to celebrate the time-honored St. Louis tradition of attending a show at the Muny. I was very pleasantly surprised by this production, and after this season is done, this is one that will definitely stand out in my memory as an ideal example of how some things that might not work anywhere else can work incredibly well at the Muny.  It’s a unique venue, and this was a fittingly unique and surprisingly successful production.

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Dreamgirls

Music by Henry Krieger, Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler

Directed by Robert Clater

Choreography by Leisa Kaye

The Muny, St. Louis

July 16, 2012

Wow! The Muny is pulling out all the stops this season, and the “newer, bigger, better” trend continues in a clear way here in their production of Dreamgirls. The classic Broadway show is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and what better way to mark that occasion than to put on a first-class production with a top-notch cast and the show’s original star in the role that made her famous.  I had been looking forward to seeing this production because I had never seen the stage version and I remember seeing Jennifer Holliday performing on the Tony Awards when I was a kid.  There was a lot of  buzz around this show in the St. Louis media, and this show more than lives up to the expectations.  It’s a spectacular production and more than worth braving the scorching St. Louis heat to experience.

The story begins backstage at New York’s famous Apollo Theatre, as a young girl group from Chicago, the Dreamettes, enter a talent contest hoping for their big break.  There they meet an ambitious car salesman named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Christopher Jackson) who has big dreams and will do basically anything to achieve them, who becomes their manager.  The story follows the Dreamettes (later the Dreams) and their lead singers Effie White (Holliday) and Deena Jones (Demetria McKinney) on their road from obscurity to stardom, and (for Effie) back again. The story echoes the story of the Supremes and the Motown era and conveys a clear sense of time and place.  It’s an impressive production based on the original Broadway staging, with sets to suggest the stages (and backstage areas) of various venues on the Dreams’ rise to the top of the music charts in the 1960s.   The clever staging of the performances seems to have been an influence on later musicals such as Jersey Boys as well.  The music, dancing, costumes and sets all worked together to create an authentic-seeming atmosphere, and the songs, while not authentic Motown numbers, definitely have that feel.  Several of the songs are used as transitions between various eras in the Dreams’ history, giving the sense that they are taking the audience along with them on their journey to success (and heartache) in the music industry.

The main question most people are asking about this show is “how is Jennifer Holliday?” Well, all I can say is that she still has it.  She’s 30 years older than she was when she opened on Broadway in this role, but she doesn’t seem it. The only area in which her age is evident is in her movement, especially when dancing with the younger performers playing the Dreams, but that’s a minor issue as her overall performance is excellent.  She holds her own and commands the stage whenever she’s on, but this isn’t a “showcase” performance and she doesn’t play it that way, and she is very convincing especially in the more emotional moments.  Her singing is simply astounding. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the acknowledged showstopper of this show, and her performance more than lives up to its reputation.  At the end, she drew a reaction I’ve never seen at the Muny before—a partial standing ovation (about half of the audience stood) for one song.   She was just as excellent and compelling on the rest of her songs—the highlight for me being the stirring “I Am Changing”.  I especially liked her scenes with Deena and C.C. (Tommar Wilson) in Act Two, and her portrayal of Effie’s growth as a character.

Still, despite Holliday’s excellent performance, this isn’t the Jennifer Holliday Show.  Having seen all the hype leading up the this production, I was concerned that the show would basically just be a vehicle for Holliday with less attention paid to the other cast members, and that was not the case at all. It’s a very strong cast with no weak links.  The three actresses playing the Dreams especially were outstanding.  As Deena Jones, the “Diana Ross” figure who takes over from Effie as the Dreams’ lead singer, McKinney is thoroughly convincing in her portrayal of the character’s growth from a naive young dreamer into a more confident, sophisticated superstar.  As Lorell, the third original Dreams member, Jenelle Lynn Randall gave a sympathetic performance and displayed a very powerful singing voice, and Karla Mosley was equally effective as Michelle, who replaces Effie as the third member of the group.  All of the Dreams work well together as a group, with strong, smooth vocals and good, well-synchronized dancing.  Jackson is very effective in the somewhat challenging role of Curtis, the Dreams’ manager who often resorts to less-than-honorable methods to achieve his goals for the group.  Jackson is convincingly smooth and charming at the beginning, and increasingly manipulative and controlling as the show progresses.  Jackson does a good job of making the character believable and multi-dimensional.  Wilson as Effie’s brother C.C., the group’s songwriter, is excellent as well, and Milton Craig Nealy is dynamic and alternately humorous and sympathetic as singer James “Thunder” Early.  Also making an impression is the always excellent Muny veteran Ken Page as Early’s (and later Effie’s) manager, Marty.

I was very impressed by this production and felt honored to witness it.  It’s another excellent entry in this inaugural season of the “next generation” Muny. I highly recommend seeing it for the overall quality of the whole show.  You may want to see it for Jennifer Holliday, and she doesn’t disappoint, but the whole cast, crew and creative team deserve kudos for this fine, thoroughly entertaining production.  If you’re anywhere near St. Louis this week, I highly recommend checking it out.

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Aladdin

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, Book by Chad Beguelin

Directed by Gary Griffin

Choreographed by Alex Sanchez

The Muny, St. Louis

July 9. 2012

As a longtime fan of animated films, I have to admit that Aladdin was not one of my favorite of Disney’s films, even though I did enjoy it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard that the Muny would be presenting a new stage production based on the movie, but I figured it would probably be a crowd-pleaser, and it certainly has turned out to be just that.  In many ways, this production is the ideal Muny show, and it’s another excellent entry in this season of the newer, revitalized Muny.

Book writer Chad Beguelin has tweaked the story of the film to make it work better onstage and to make it longer.  The story is now reminiscent of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movies, with a trio of narrators: Omar (Jason Graae), Babkak (Eddie Korbich) and Kassim (Francis Jue), who make a grand entrance on real camels (gotta love the Muny) to introduce the setting and then reappear throughout the story to serve as narrators and commentators on the action. They also are traveling musicians and bandmates with Aladdin (Robin DeJesus), the young “diamond in the rough” who finds adventure and meets a princess (Samantha Massell as Jasmine), falls afoul of the evil Jafar (Thom Sesma) and gets help from a campy, wisecracking, larger than life Genie (John Tartaglia) along the way.  This is basically the plot of the movie without the animal sidekicks and a few extra characters and plot twists. Even Jafar’s crony Iago (Curtis Holbrook) who isn’t really given much to do, doesn’t seem to be a bird in the show as he was in the film. He’s just a colorfully dressed, parrot-like human henchman.

This production is a great example of the power of spectacle and great performances, because even though the story is simplified in some ways from the film and there aren’t any over-the-top special effects, this production is anything but dull.  Its big, colorful sets (most notably the Cave of Wonders) and bright costumes help set the mood, but the performances are really what drive the show.  Tartaglia as the Genie (even though the role seems smaller than it was in the film) owns the stage from his first entrance from the audience on a motorcycle (more Muny magic at work).  His over-the-top, flamboyant characterization sets the tone for the show, with many pop-culture references and asides to the audience, including a great deal of Muny in-jokes.  He’s like a human Disney World ride with all his energy, and he makes the most of every moment he’s onstage.  His introductory number “Friend Like Me” is a true showstopper, and even though Tartaglia is backed by the excellent Muny ensemble, he almost doesn’t need them since all eyes in the house are on him.  It’s a great comic performance, and the rest of the cast almost match him in their energy and enthusiasm.  DeJesus as Aladdin, Massell as Jasmine and the always excellent Ken Page as the Sultan all give convincing performances, as do the trio of narrators and and the rest of the cast, but Tartaglia really is the centerpiece.

The musical numbers are a combination of songs from the film, songs that were written for the film but cut during production (such as the moving “Proud of Your Boy”, movingly performed by DeJesus), and songs that were written specifically for the stage show.  Of the last category, the most notable is the rousing, Vaudeville-styled  “Somebody’s Got Your Back”, which is performed with gusto by Aladdin and his trio of bandmates.  The large Muny ensemble is put to good use, with some big, bright, energetic dance numbers. The only slight disappointment is in what is perhaps the most famous song from the film, “A Whole New World” which, while beautifully sung by DeJesus and Massell, was distinctly underwhelming visually as Aladdin and Jasmine are simply spotlighted on the dark stage, sitting on the magic carpet with a background of just a few stars behind them.   Still, even with that small let-down, it was an extremely entertaining production, and the cast, crew and  creative team obviously pulled out all the stops to deliver such an elaborate and fun show.

I’m somewhat of two minds reviewing this show, because as a performance I really enjoyed it, but structure-wise  I think it needs a little bit of revision before it can play on Broadway, which is apparently the ultimate aim of the show’s producers.  There are a few issues that I think should be addressed with the story–the role of the three narrators can get confusing as they pop in and out of the action, some characters are given very little to do, and I think there’s a little too much breaking the fourth wall, to the point where it can take the audience too far out of the story– but for the most part it’s an engaging presentation of the story from the film with a few entertaining additions. I think the show does need some work in the writing , but the performers give their all, the production looks good, and it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.  In many ways, this is the ultimate Muny show, and it makes for a great evening of music, laughter and spectacle.

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Thoroughly Modern Millie

New Music by Jeanine Tesori, New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan

Book by  Richard Henry Morris and Dick Scanlan

Directed by Marc Bruni

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny, St. Louis

June 18, 2012

It’s funny how you often don’t notice how broken something is until you see it repaired, like your beloved old house that has lots of charm and character but has seen better days.  Then, with a little bit of fresh paint and new furniture, it’s suddenly like a new place. With the Muny, it wasn’t exactly “broken” but it was starting to show its age.   I enjoyed most of the past Muny productions I saw and the performers were often top-level, but I did always keep in mind that this was the Muny and not Broadway or the West End, especially in the technical aspects like costumes and sets. This production, the first of their 2012 season under new Executive Director Mike Isaacson, didn’t need that qualification. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a top-quality production in every way, and it seems to signify a new era of quality,  innovation  and energy for this 93-year-old venue.

Millie Dillmount’s (Tari Kelly) journey from small-town Kansas to New York City is almost Oz-like in its setup, except that Millie isn’t trying to go back home.  She wants to make it big in the city, with the aim of finding a job as a stenographer with a rich boss to marry.  Her journey takes her to the Priscilla Hotel, a boarding house for aspiring actresses, jealously watched over by the villainous Mrs. Meers (Beth Leavel), a washed-up former actress and criminal who puts on an obviously fake Chinese disguise in an attempt to hide from authorities.  From there, she encounters many unusual characters and exciting places as she discovers more about the Big Apple and about herself.  The plot is somewhat contrived but the way the show is written, as a playful homage to the 1920’s, makes that not matter as much.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining show from start to finish, and the wonderful cast makes it even more so.

I was happy when I found out that the role of Millie would be played by Tari Kelly in this production.  I had previously seen Kelly as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes on Broadway, as Sutton Foster was out that day and Kelly was her understudy.  Kelly was sensational in that show and gave a true star performance, and she does the same here in Millie.  She sings, dances and acts with total proficiency, giving a funny, warm and convincing performance as the Kansas girl trying to make it in the big city.  It’s another Sutton Foster role (Foster originated the role on Broadway), and I hope that Kelly doesn’t spend much more of her career replacing Foster because she certainly deserves to be recognized as an outstanding performer in her own right.  She starts out the show alone on that enormous Muny stage, and holds the audience riveted from her first note.

The rest of the performers are excellent as well.  Andrew Samonsky has an easy charm and a strong, smooth voice as Jimmy, the man Millie meets and reluctantly falls for, and he and Kelly have great chemistry in their scenes together. Megan McGinniss makes an appropriately naïve and spoiled Miss Dorothy Brown, Millie’s new-found best friend who is eagerly looking to discover “How The Other Half Lives”. Leslie Uggams oozes sophistication, class and wit as wealthy singer and socialite Muzzy Van Hossmere (the role she played on Broadway), and Beth Leavel is an excellent comic villain as Mrs. Meers. She has previously played Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Muny, and this is a similar role in many ways.  Leavel makes the most of her time on stage, hamming it up and putting on a ridiculously overdone caricature of a Chinese accent.  Also putting in fine performances are Francis Jue and Darren Lee as Mrs. Meers’ increasingly fed up henchmen Ching Ho and Bun Foo, who speak mostly in Chinese that is cleverly subtitled in a little box on the backdrop of the hotel corridor.  Jue in particular as the lovesick (for Miss Dorothy) Ching Ho is a delight.  Stephen R. Buntrock as Millie’s droll boss Trevor Graydon and Tory Rose as his head secretary Miss Flannery are also standouts in an all around superb cast.

The show is full of great, well-executed musical moments, from the charming (Jimmy’s “What Do I Need With Love”), to the hilarious (“The Speed Test” with Millie and Mr. Graydon), to the sophisticated (Muzzy’s “Only In New York”) to the cute and cleverly chorographed (“I Turned the Corner”, which is sung and danced on a skyscraper window ledge by Millie and Jimmy).  There are also stage-filling production numbers like the opening combo of “Not For the Life of Me” and the title song.  Mrs. Meers’s ode to jealousy and revenge “They Don’t Know” is a comic highlight as well.

As for the technical aspects of the show, the Muny has really pulled out all the stops this year, adding an impressive LED “scenery wall” that serves as a backdrop in the city scenes and is used to fun comic effect as Millie and Miss Dorothy are tap dancing in the elevator early in the first act.  The costumes aren’t rented this year, and they are meticulously designed, along with the fun set pieces of movable skyscrapers, jail cells that look like birdcages, and the elaborate balcony set of Muzzy’s swanky apartment.  The choreography is sharp, fun and appropriate to the time period, and the large dance ensemble does a great job.  All of these aspects work together to create a suitably authentic 1920’s atmosphere, and a slick (but not too slick), glossy world-class production.

With the possible exception of the stunning production of Les Miserables in 2007, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the best production I have ever seen at the Muny. It represents more than a fresh coat of paint. It’s a complete revitalization of this age-old St. Louis institution that I hope continues throughout the season and for many seasons to come.

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It’s almost that time again! Summer is rapidly approaching, and that means Muny season. This year introduces a big change for the Muny—a new Executive Director, Mike Isaacson. It looks like Isaacson’s first season will be eventful, as well, with fewer 5-6 year repeat shows and more shows making their Muny debuts. Before sharing my thoughts on the new season, though, I thought I’d address some criticisms I’ve heard and answer the general question of “why should I care about the Muny?”

Love it or hate it, the Muny is a St. Louis institution.  I understand the criticisms– some theatre critics want it to be less conventional and more imaginative, and some St. Louis-based performers wish the powers that be would cast more locals in leading roles.  I understand both of these criticisms and agree to a point, but for the most part I love the Muny.  It’s not Broadway or the West End, but there is often top-level talent involved, and the shows are usually enjoyable and often excellent. This is a company that puts together seven full-scale musical productions in three months with very little rehearsal time per show. There have been some uneven productions and odd casting, but there have also been some truly spectacular productions such as Les Miserables in 2007. In the eight years I’ve lived in St. Louis, I’ve come to regard the Muny as an essential summer activity. Despite its limitations, I enjoy the Muny and I take its productions seriously, and I look forward to each new season.

What the Muny does well is to bring musical theatre to audiences of thousands every summer, on a huge stage in a gigantic venue in the middle of one of the most beautiful urban parks in the country.  OK, I’m biased here, but Forest Park is wonderful, and so is the atmosphere of the Muny.  The whole experience of going to a show at the Muny is an important part of its draw, but the shows are what will keep bringing the audiences back.

Some would argue that the Muny stagnated over the past decade or so under the leadership of longtime Executive Director Paul Blake, and in a way I agree. It did seem like we saw a lot of the same shows and same people over and over, and it will be nice to see some changes.  Still, as big as it is, it is never going to be a cutting-edge venue.  It has to appeal to the masses, but the producers could stand to take a few risks.  It will be interesting to see how much energy Isaacson will be able to inject into the venerable institution in his first season at the helm. The selection of shows for the 2012 season certainly looks like a step in the right direction.  Here’s the list, with my thoughts following:

Thoroughly Modern Millie

Chicago

Aladdin

Dreamgirls

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Pirates! (Or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d)

The King and I

First off, I have to say I’m somewhat surprised that neither Chicago nor Dreamgirls had ever been produced at the Muny before. Both are well-known, much-loved shows with popular film versions, so the appeal to the massive Muny crowds is obvious.  It will be great to see both of of these shows on the enormous Muny stage.  Dreamgirls also has the added attraction of Jennifer Holliday, re-creating the role she originated on Broadway, Effie White.  It has been argued that Holliday is now too old for the role and realistically, at 51 she probably is, but  I’m not sure if that matters as much in the context of the Muny.   She’s still Jennifer Holliday, and if she performs well (and I’m sure she will), that’s what matters. We will see how it all plays out, and I’m intrigued.  I’m also wondering how Chicago will play on that enormous Muny stage.  I’m looking forward to finding out.

As for the rest of the schedule, it’s encouraging to see that there are only two shows that have played at the Muny before. One of my biggest criticisms has been the frequent recycling of shows, and it’s great to see that not happening as much this year.  I’m especially looking forward to seeing the Muny debut of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I’m very curious about Pirates! since it’s supposed to be a re-imagining of The Pirates of Penzance and I wonder exactly what that re-imagination will look like. There will also be some technical upgrades like the new LED “scenery wall” that promise to provide a new look to the productions.

In terms of casting, it looks like the Muny is changing the regular routine as well, going for more “star power” in names like Holliday in Dreamgirls, Leslie Uggams in Millie, and American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini in Joseph.  There is more casting still to be announced, but I find myself wondering if we won’t see as many Muny “regulars” this season.  I hope we do see a few, because there are some perennial Muny performers that I would love to see on stage again, like Curtis Holbrook, Kate Baldwin, Joneal Joplin and Ken Page.  Based on the casting that has already been announced, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more big names will be part of the lineup.

So the bottom line is, I’m optimistic.  Because of a few summer commitments, I don’t think I will be able  to see all the shows this season, but I’m going to try to make most of them, and I am eager to see how this next chapter in the Muny’s history will unfold.  Maybe there is hope that we’ll finally get a Sondheim show in the near future. I think Into the Woods would be most likely in that vein, and as for the older but timeless classics,  I’m still holding out hope for Carousel. I do hope the Muny surveys stick around, and if they do I will be voting for both of those shows. That’s the future, though, but it does seem promising.  This season seems like a significant step in a new direction, and so far I’m liking it.

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