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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2022

Jason Gotay, Jessica Vosk
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is closing out its 2022 summer season with a bright, colorful, truly joyful performance of a crowd-pleasing classic. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been done a few times at the Muny before, and this is the third production I’ve seen there. As with any production of this show, though, each one has had its own unique style and energy. Joseph… is one of those shows that lends especially well to different direction and interpretations, and this latest production is a prime example of a staging that retains the “essence” of the show but also does its own thing, with a superb cast and its own dazzling, colorful style.

The story, based on the biblical tale from the book of Genesis, follows Joseph (Jason Gotay) on his journey from favored son of Jacob (Eric Jordan Young), to being sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, to being sent to jail, to rising to a place of prominence in the court of Pharaoh (Mykal Kilgore). All the while, it’s framed as a story being told by a Narrator (Jessica Vosk), and the Muny Kids and Teens are used especially well in this production, as the children’s chorus who listen to the Narrator’s tale and in various roles throughout the story. The show also features a variety of musical styles, from country to rock, to pop, to calypso, and more. It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first collaboration, first written as a short production for a school choir, and expanded over the years. It’s not a heavy or deep show, but it’s a whole lot of fun, and an excellent showcase for its leading performers as well as some key featured roles. 

As I’ve mentioned, this show is especially versatile, and I’ve never seen two productions that looked the same, although they all managed to maintain that overall energetic and fun spirit. This production is big, bright, and colorful, as is fitting for the Muny stage, with a whimsical set by  Edward E. Haynes, Jr. that blends elements of the ancient and the modern. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are also striking, from the Narrator’s pop-star glamour looks to Joseph’s more laid-back (mostly) looks, to more flashy looks for Pharaoh and Potiphar (also played by Young), as well as a variety of looks for the ensemble to suit the various production numbers. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Jason Lyons, dynamic video design by Greg Emetaz, and fun puppet designs by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck. There’s also a great Muny Orchestra led by music director Charlie Alterman, playing those catchy tunes with great enthusiasm. 

The whole production is  big and lively, as is fitting for the Muny, and in keeping with the overall whimsical tone of the piece. The pacing is just right, as well, with a great deal of energy without being rushed. It’s not a long show, but the excellent cast makes the most of every moment here, along with the top-notch direction and choreography by Josh Rhodes. The whole cast is wonderful, led by the charming and boyish Gotay as Joseph. Gotay’s strong stage presence and great voice are just right for this role, and he works especially well in his scenes with the dynamic Vosk, who is a powerhouse as the Narrator, with equally excellent stage presence and a truly stunning voice. Kilgore is also a standout in a different interpretation of Pharaoh than usual. Usually, Pharaoh is played as an Elvis Presley impersonator, but not here. Here, Kilgore’s acrobatic, rock-styled vocals are showcased in a performance that is more reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz (thanks to my friend and St. Louis Theater Circle colleague, Tina Farmer, for that observation). There’s a strong supporting cast, as well, with memorable performances from all of Joseph’s brothers, especially Harris Milgrim as Reuben leading “One More Angel in Heaven”, Sean Ewing as Simeon leading “Those Canaan Days”, and, especially, Darron Hayes as Judah leading “Benjamin Calypso”. This is a fun show, and the cast here, from the leads to the ensemble to the Muny Kids and Teens, does an excellent job, making this show a joy to watch, and hear, from start to finish. There’s also an especially spirited “Megamix” at the end of the show that showcases the whole cast in ideal fashion.

Overall, this has been a great year for the Muny. From the excellent encore of Chicago a the beginning of the season to the stunning Sweeney Todd and The Color Purple, to this fantastic closing show, the Muny has been at its best, even though this year did include one of the more controversial productions I’ve seen (Camelot, which I enjoyed for the most part, but which many apparently didn’t like). Still, regardless of what you thought about any other productions this season, this Joseph… is a good one to see as an example of the energy, style, excellent casting, and sheer spectacle that the Muny has to offer. As staged on the Muny’s big stage in Forest Park, it’s an Amazing Technicolor Dream show! 

Cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Forest Park until August 18, 2022

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The Color Purple
Based upon the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 4, 2022

Tracee Beazer, Anastacia McCleskey
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is continuing it’s excellent 2022 season with a remarkable Muny debut production of The Color Purple. The musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie, is a sweeping, intensely emotional tale that features memorable characters and a strong musical score. At the Muny, with a top-notch cast led by a stunning leading performance, as well as stellar direction and production values, this show makes a lasting impression. 

The story, set in Georgia in the early-to-mid 20th Century, centers around Celie (Anastacia McCleskey), a young woman who is brought up by an abusive father, giving birth to two children as a a teenager and being forced to give them up. She then is essentially given by her father to Mister (Evan Tyrone Martin), a bitter widower who beats her, calls her ugly, and makes no secret of the fact that he would have preferred her sister, Nettie (Nasia Thomas), who is chased away by Mister after refusing his advances. Separated from the only person she knows who truly loves her, Celie lives a difficult life driven by fear; doing whatever Mister wants and enduring his wrath, until a series of influential people come into Celie’s life and encourage her to stand up for herself and discover the beauty she hasn’t been able to see. These people include the outspoken, strong-willed Sofia (Nicola Michelle Haskins), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Gilbert Domally); and popular singer Shug Avery (Tracee Beazer), who has her own complicated history with Mister. Shug and Celie soon form a strong connection, and Celie also receives news that gives her hope of seeing her sister again. Nothing is simple or easy, as complications arise, people come in and out of Celie’s life, couples get together, break up, and sometimes reconcile, and Celie learns how to see and assert her own worth and value life beyond what has been dictated to her from childhood. 

This is a rich portrait of complex, well-drawn characters, and also of life situations affected by segregation and racist systems in the South in the first part of the 20th Century, as well as of the effects of authoritarianism and sexism. It’s a poignant, often intensely emotional story that requires a strong, talented cast, which this production clearly provides. Celie is a challenging character to play, requiring a strong sense of presence, a clear portrayal of the character’s vulnerability and inner strength, as well as a top-notch singing voice. At the Muny, McCleskey shines, displaying all those essential qualities and commanding the stage whenever she is on. She also has great chemistry with her equally strong co-stars, including the terrific Beazer as the worldly, outgoing Shug, Haskins in a memorable turn as the bold Sofia, and Thomas as the loyal, determined Nettie. Other standouts include Martin, ably portraying the complicated and contrasting aspects of Mister’s character; Domally, excellent as Harpo; and Erica Durham in a fun comic performance as aspiring singer and Harpo’s sometime-girlfriend Squeak. The standouts are supported by a stellar ensemble, as well, with excellent vocals and energetic movement to Breon Arzell’s dynamic choreography.  There’s also a great Muny orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The production values here are, as usual for the Muny, excellent, and the overall design is in different ways both minimalist and expansive.  Arnel Sancianco’s unit set is fairly minimal, although it covers the huge Muny stage well, and serves as an ideal setting for the story, as Heather Gilbert’s detailed lighting design and Paul Deziel’s stunning video designs add atmosphere, texture, and specificity. There are also striking costumes by Samantha C. Jones that fit the characters well, adding to the vibrancy and emotion as the story unfolds. 

 Even if you haven’t seen The Color Purple before, or experienced this story in its other forms, this production is an ideal introduction to this sweeping, intense, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s a memorable exploration of character, family, and community, at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, centering around a tour-de-force central performance. It’s a modern classic story and musical, given a remarkable staging at the Muny.

Nicole Michelle Haskins, Gilbert Domally, Erica Durham and Cast of The Color Purple
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Color Purple in Forest Park until August 9, 2022

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Legally Blonde: The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, Book by Heather Hach
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
July 28, 2022

Kyla Stone (Center) and Cast of Legally Blonde
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Legally Blonde is at the Muny, but not without some troubles due to the weather. Still, despite one rescheduled performance as a result of flooding and a bit of a delay before the Thursday night performance due to technical checks following more rain, the show went on. And it was worth the wait, because this show is full of energy, and is a whole lot of fun. 

The story, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the 2001 MGM movie, centers around Elle Woods (Kyla Stone), a UCLA fashion student who follows her college boyfriend Warner (Dan Tracy) to Harvard Law School after he dumps her just before graduation because the perky, pink-clad, Malibu-raised Elle doesn’t fit his “serious” ideal. Elle, with support from her peppy Delta Nu sorority sisters, is determined to prove Warner wrong and win him back. So she applies to Harvard and is accepted, making the journey East to Boston and, for Elle, to a whole new world that isn’t entirely ready for her. Here, she makes some new friends, like her law school mentor Emmett (Fergie L. Phillippe) and hairdresser Paulette (Patti Murin), as well as some rivals, like Warner’s “serious” new girlfriend Vivienne (Olivia Kaufmann), while struggling at first to adjust to the Harvard atmosphere and earn a prestigious internship from cutthroat Professor Callahan (Sean Allan Krill). After a few trials (pun intended) and tribulations, Elle gradually learns more about herself and her own intelligence and inner strength, all the while finding out who her real friends are and how to navigate the law school world as her unique “legally blonde” self. 

This production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun. With a great cast led by the energetic, vocally strong Stone as Elle, the story never has a dull moment. Stone is clearly enjoying herself as Elle, and her chemistry with the also great Phillipe as Emmett is palpable, and their scenes are a highlight of this production. Also strong is Murin as the kind but self-doubting Paulette, showing off great stage presence and vocals on her showcase “Ireland” number. There’s also excellent support from Kelsey Anne Brown, Gabi Campo, and Khailah Johnson as Elle’s “Greek Chorus” of sorority sisters Margot, Serena, and Pilar. Krill makes an ideal villain as the self-serving, creepy Callahan, and there’s a fun turn from Hayley Podschun as fitness guru and murder trial defendant Brooke Wyndham. There’s strong work all around, from the leads to the energetic ensemble, and even including two adorable dogs–Ricky as Elle’s dog Bruiser, who has some scene-stealing moments; and Myrtle as Paulette’s dog Rufus. There’s vibrant choreography by William Carlos Angulo, and the staging is brisk and lively. 

What’s also lively and impressive is Tim Mackabee’s set, which features some surprising elements like an actual pool onstage in the opening scene, and several versatile set pieces. There’s also eye-catching video design by Kylee Lorra, and excellent atmospheric lighting by Rob Denton. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes also impress, suiting the characters well, and managing to help tell Elle’s story as she navigates her law school career. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Lon Hoyt, sounds great, as well.

Legally Blonde is a fun show, especially when the cast is as enthusiastic as this one. While it’s not the strongest score and book I’ve seen, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, and this production finds a lot of emotion and heart. It’s another entertaining success in the 2022 Muny season. 

Fergie L. Phillipe, Kyla Stone
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Legally Blonde in Forest Park until August 1, 2022

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
From an Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
The Muny
July 17, 2022

Ben Davis, Carmen Cusack
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny has gone darker and grittier with its latest production, and it’s brilliant! Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces, but it hadn’t been performed at the Muny before, and it’s taken a while for this production. First announced  for the eventually cancelled 2020 season and then postponed again after last year’s season was shortened, this production has been long-anticipated, and I’m glad to say it’s been well worth the wait. With first-class production values that use the vast Muny stage ideally, a sumptuous sounding full orchestra, and a wonderful cast, this is a production of a modern classic that brings all the intense energy with chilling results. 

This is a big production, as is fitting the huge stage at the Muny, and all the lavish production values are here, fitting the darker and more horror-themed tone with just the right blend of gritty realism and old-style theatrical thrill. The story, following revenge-minded barber Todd (Ben Davis) upon his return to London after many years exiled in Australia, is well-cast and expertly paced. All the well-known characters are here and impeccably cast, from Todd’s admirer and eventual partner-in crime, meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Carmen Cusack), to his arch-nemesis Judge Turpin (Robert Cuccioli), who lusted after Todd’s wife in the old days and, after had Todd exiled on trumped-up charges, has been raising the barber’s daughter Johanna (Riley Noland) and aims to marry her now that she’s older. There’s also Anthony Hope (Jake Boyd), a young sailor who rescues Todd on his way back from Australia and soon becomes enamored with Johanna. Todd, for his part, is fixated mostly on getting revenge on the judge and his accomplice, the weaselly Beadle Bamford (Stephen Wallem), while Mrs. Lovett has her own plans for Todd, and for her pie shop. It’s a complex and eventually gruesome tale with interweaving plotlines, callbacks, and clues that come together gradually at first, and then pick up speed in the second act, leading to a shocking but essentially inevitable conclusion. 

While the Muny has occasionally produced darker, more cynical shows like Chicago, and Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd heads into even grimmer territory, as anyone who knows the basic plot will realize, even if it takes most of Act 1 to get to the “meat” of the story (pun most definitely intended). All the intricate plotting leads to a fully realized story and a pace that becomes more brisk as the story plays out, and in the hands of director Rob Ruggiero, this Sweeney never misses a beat. With a marvelously detailed and dynamic set by Michael Schweikardt, detailed costumes by Alejo Vietti, chillingly evocative lighting by John Lasiter and striking video design by Caite Hevner, as well as a superb orchestra led by music director James Moore, this is an ideal Sweeney Todd for this venue.

Nothing is “too much”, either–it’s all what it needs to be, including an ideal cast, led by the charismatic, big-voiced Davis as the moody, vengeful Todd, who is well-matched scene-for-scene by the equally superb Cusack as the devoted, single-minded Mrs. Lovett. Cusack also has a great voice, along with good comic timing and lots of energy. Other standouts include Cuccioli and Wallem as the appropriately villainous Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford; Boyd and Noland as well-matched youthful lovers Anthony and Johanna; Lincoln Clauss as the young, impressionable Tobias Ragg, who gets taken in by Mrs. Lovett and comes to mistrust Todd; and Julie Hanson, in strong voice as the mysterious Beggar Woman who, in many ways, is the key to this whole story. There’s an excellent ensemble, as well, all in superb voice, singing Sondheim’s complex harmonies with energy and precision. 

So far, this is a remarkable season for the Muny, and this production just may be the best so far. It’s a long-awaited production (by me, anyway) that’s proven to be worth the hype. It’s a big, intense, emotional, well-cast, gloriously sung show that brings out all the chilling intensity that you would expect from Sweeney Todd. There’s much to think about here, and it’s not just blood and gore–and that aspect is done with just the right level of spectacle without being overly sensationalized. It’s not a show for all audiences, but if you know what to expect, this production delivers all the characterization, emotion, and intensity with much to think about, as well. It’s a true must-see at the Muny. 

Cast of Sweeney Todd
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Sweeney Todd in Forest Park until July 22, 2022

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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
Co-Created by Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Patrick O’Neill
The Muny
July 6, 2022

Cast of Mary Poppins
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Mary Poppins has flown into the Muny for the second time. After an entertaining production nine years ago, the “Practically Perfect” nanny is back, and this time she has a bit of an edge. The latest presentation in the Muny’s 2022 season is big, vibrant, and sharper than ever, with a great cast and loads of energy, led by two stellar performers in the leading roles. 

While the stage show and the classic Disney film have much in common, they are not the same. The stage version–which debuted in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006–features some fairly significant changes. Differences include a new book that adjusts the story somewhat and includes elements from P.L. Travers’s books, as well as adding some new songs and changing the settings of some of the more familiar movie songs. It’s still the story of a mysterious and even magical nanny (Jeanna De Waal) who flies into the lives of the Banks family–children Jane (Laila Fantroy) and Michael (Gabe Cytron), and parents George (Nehal Joshi) and Winifred (Erin Davie). This family needs some help, as George is absorbed in his work at a bank and a professed need for “precision and order”, Winifred is feeling inadequate and neglected by her husband, and the children have been subjected to a series of sub-par nannies and have difficulty living up to their father’s rigid expectations. Soon, Mary Poppins arrives and, with the help of the charming jack-of-all-trades Bert (Corbin Bleu), shows the family what their world can be like if they just remember what is important. 

I’ve seen the stage show four times now, beginning with the London production in 2006, and including the last time the Muny presented it in 2013. While, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the stage version, I’ve had some issues with the way the adaptation has flattened out some of the characters, such as the the Banks parents and especially Winifred. Also, while I’ve seen excellent performers in the role of Mary, the performances always seem to take a while for her to establish that “spark” that she needs to carry the show. This production has remedied those issues to a large degree in the form of casting, as De Waal brings a bit of a wry edge to to Mary Poppins that works especially well with the slightly darker tone of the stage show. She’s also in excellent voice, and works well with the thoroughly winning Bleu as Bert. Davie also adds an air of substance to Winifred Banks that I’ve haven’t seen before, with a standout performance that adds depth and interest to her story. Joshi works well with Davie and with the also excellent Fantroy and Cytron. There are also memorable comic performances from Zoe Vonder Haar and Barrett Riggins as the Banks family’s household servants Mrs. Brill and Robertson Ay, as well as Debby Lennon in a menacing and vocally impressive appearance as George’s imperious childhood nanny, Miss Andrew. Another especially memorable performance is that of Darlesia Cearcy as the Bird Woman, whose soaring voice and excellent harmonizing with De Waal makes “Feed the Birds” one of the true highlights of this production. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, lending strong support and contributing much energy to the production numbers, featuring spirited choreography by Patrick O’Neill.

This production looks great, as well, with a big, bold, colorful production featuring a versatile set by Paige Hathaway, detailed and whimsical costumes by Robin L. McGee, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, as well as eye-catching video design by Alex Basco Koch and spectacular flying effects by EFX. There was a bit of an problem with Lennon’s microphone in the performance I saw, but the issue was covered well, as Lennon was given a hand-held mic which added an amusing “evil lounge singer” vibe to her character that worked surprisingly well. The Muny orchestra is also in fine form, as led by music director Brad Haak, providing a full, rich sound to the well-known score.

This is probably the best stage version of Mary Poppins I have seen, with a lot of energy, musicality, and heart, and that little witty edge that gives it something extra. With memorable performances from De Waal. Bleu, and the rest of the cast, and dazzlingly vivid production values, this is a show that’s sure to please theatregoers of all ages. It’s a “Jolly Holiday”, indeed.

Jeanna De Waal, Corbin Bleu
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Mary Poppins in Forest Park until July 13, 2022

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Camelot
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Book Adapted by David Lee
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
June 23, 2022

Robert Petkoff (center) and Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Camelot is a strange show, in the sense that it never seems to be the same show depending on what production you see. Since it first played on Broadway in 1960, there have been many professional, amateur, and school productions, along with a Broadway revival in 1980 and various national tours. I’ve seen many versions, from a high school production to dinner theatre, to a couple of those tours, to the last Muny production in 2009, and there always appear to be changes to the way the story plays out, in terms of the song catalogue and the book. It’s a legendary story that has become a beloved classic, but you never really know what you’re going to see when you see Camelot. Now, the Muny is going even further in the book revisions than I’ve ever seen before with their newest production, featuring an adapted book by David Lee that streamlines many aspects of the story while focusing on the three main characters. It’s a bold endeavor, and for the most part, it works.

The book has always been considered a weakness of Camelot, despite its beloved score and beloved reputation. Revising the book has been done before, and it’s going to be done again (for Broadway later this year, in the hands of well-known playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin). The current Muny production is an adaptation by writer David Lee that overhauls the script in a somewhat drastic way, omitting several characters and some songs, and creating a framing device in which a group of “revelers” tell the story of King Arthur (Robert Petkoff), Queen Guenevere (Shereen Pimentel), and Sir Lancelot (Brandon S. Chu), along with the Knights of the Round Table and the legendary court of Camelot.  It starts off somewhat abruptly once Arthur is introduced, and he starts right into his first song, “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, but soon he meets Guenevere and their chemistry is strong, lighting up the stage as they form a strong, credible bond. Eventually, though, their relationship is challenged by the arrival of Lancelot from France, and the new knight causes a stir in the King’s court and in his marriage, as Lancelot and Guenevere find it difficult to fight their attraction to one another, despite their love for Arthur. Soon, the devious Mordred (Barrett Riggins) shows up to further stir up tensions, among the increasingly bored and dissatisfied knights as well as the royal couple and Lancelot, threatening the very ideals that Arthur has built his kingdom upon. 

It’s a well-known story, but this version has distilled the story down to its basic elements, for the most part. There’s a small ensemble, but notable characters from the musical are missing–most notably Merlyn, who is relegated to off-stage status, and King Pellinore, who I found myself missing, since I think his role as a confidant for Arthur is needed in some places. I didn’t miss Merlyn, though, and Arthur’s stories about him work well even without the character’s appearing onstage. Still, what’s done here works to speed up the show a bit, and the framing device helps to emphasize the legendary nature of the story. The look and presentation of the show is also radically different, with a stylized set by Anne Beyersdorfer that is frequently in motion, striking costumes by Tristan Raines that blend elements of Medieval style with more modern rock-inspired looks that feature a lot of leather jackets and chains for the knights, along with more modern suits and dresses for Arthur and Guenevere. The set, along with Shelby Loera’s stunning lighting design and some excellent video design by Kylee Loera, works well with the staging, which takes advantage of the Muny’s turntables to keep the action, and the story, moving along. 

The casting is strong, as well, led by a charming performance from Petkoff as the idealistic but self-doubting Arthur. He’s a joy to watch, and his chemistry with Pimentel’s Guenevere is palpable. Pimentel is also excellent, with strong stage presence and a glorious voice, bringing energy to “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “The Lusty Month of May”, and more. Chu is good as Lancelot, with a strong voice, although he doesn’t quite have the bold presence that the character demands from his first appearance, and his scenes with Pimentel aren’t as electric as they should be, although this improves as the show goes on. Other standouts include Riggins as the gleefully malevolent Mordred, oozing stage presence from his first moment on stage. There are also memorable turns from the trio playing Camelot’s top three knights–Daryl Tofa as Sir Lionel, Sarah Quinn Taylor as Ser Sagramore, and Evan Ruggiero as Sir Dinadan. There’s also a strong ensemble and some excellent, energetic choreography by Beth Crandall and some well-paced staging of musical numbers, most notably the cleverly staged “C’est Moi”, which shows Lancelot’s journey to Camelot while he sings. 

This is a Camelot like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser. While I did find myself missing some of the elements that were cut out, I find this staging excellently paced and well-cast, with strong singing and a dazzling set and production values. The finale works especially well, with the emphasis on the legendary nature of this story, and for the most part, the cast brings a “shining moment” to the Muny with excellent style. 

 

Shereen Pimentel, Robert Petkoff, Brandon S. Chu and the Cast of Camelot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Camelot in Forest Park until June 28th, 2022

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Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
June 14, 2022

Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is back, with a familiar show, a familiar cast, and a familiar “Razzle Dazzle”, as Chicago takes the stage for an encore run after having been cut short last year due to a COVID-19 outbreak. This year, it’s the same amazing show that took the Muny stage by storm last season, and won Outstanding Production of a Musical and six other awards from my colleagues and myself in the St. Louis Theater Circle. All the principal performers are back, along with the same production design and dazzling staging. 

Sarah Bowden, James T. Lane (center) and Cast of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

I raved about the show last season–and you can read that review here. I will add that it’s just as energetic, jazzy, and exciting as it was last season, led by truly dynamic performances from Sarah Bowden as Roxie Hart and J. Harrison Ghee as Velma Kelly. All the other leads are excellent, as well, including James T. Lane as Billy Flynn, Emily Skinner as Matron “Mama” Morton, Adam Heller as Amos Hart, and Ali Ewoldt as Mary Sunshine. It’s a truly stunning show, from production values to casting, including the brilliant ensemble supporting the first-rate leads. Everything I wrote last year is still true, and if you weren’t able to see the show last year, now is your chance. Go see it while you can. It’s a thoroughly entertaining,, jazzy, satirical, funny, musical treat!

Sarah Bowden, J. Harrison Ghee
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until June 19th, 2022

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Chicago
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and Choreographed by Denis Jones
The Muny
August 30, 2021

J. Harrison Ghee, Sarah Bowden
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s 103rd season in Forest Park is closing out in style with a bold, brassy production of the modern classic musical Chicago. Initially appearing on Broadway in 1975 and eventually spawning an enormously popular 1990’s revival and an Oscar-winning movie in 2003, the show is an incisive satire of the 1920s and “celebrity culture” in America in general. Here, with excellent casting, intelligent staging, and vibrant choreography, the show is nothing short of fantastic. 

This isn’t the minimalist, concert-style revival version that has been playing on Broadway since 1996. This is a fully staged, sumptuously appointed and precisely choreographed production that tells its story in a Vaudeville format, which is fitting for the subject matter, and time period (the 1920’s), as some enterprising women look for fame and fortune in a society where if they are famous enough, they can get away with murder. That is what Roxie Hart (Sarah Bowden) and Velma Kelly (J. Harrison Ghee), aspire to do, with the help of smooth-talking celebrity attorney Billy Flynn (James T. Lane). As the story gets started, Roxie kills her lover in cold blood and initially convinces her neglected but devoted husband Amos (Adam Heller) to take the blame. When that doesn’t work, she confesses and is taken to jail, where she meets Velma and the two become rivals for the attention of the public and the press. The events unfold in the style of an old-fashioned Vaudeville show, with each number given an introduction in that vein. 

The score is well-known, with memorable songs like “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Razzle Dazzle”, and “Nowadays”. The Muny’s well-chosen cast performs those numbers and more with the appropriate style and energy. And it’s a truly remarkable cast, led by the fantastic duo of Bowden and Ghee.  Bowden, as the fame-hungry Roxie, has a great voice, excellent comic timing, and impressive dance skills, also imbuing Roxie with a palpable sense of needy ambition, excelling in the show’s darker moments as well as its more humorous aspects. Ghee–who was last seen at the Muny in a marvelous performance as Lola in Kinky Boots–is also superb as show-biz veteran Velma, who has killed her husband and sister in a crime of passion. Ghee’s Velma, physically towering over the rest of the cast (complete with stiletto heels), exudes stage presence and style, lighting up the stage from the first moments of “All That Jazz”. These two performers are the stars of the show, but the supporting cast also shines brightly, with Lane exuding showmanship as the attention-loving Billy; Heller in a poignant performance as the often overlooked Amos; Ali Ewoldt in an impressively sung performance as radio reporter Mary Sunshine. Also notable is the terrific Emily Skinner, who brings a lot of energy and character to the role of prison matron “Mama” Morton, pairing especially well with Ghee in several moments. There’s also a first-rate ensemble, livening up the stage especially in the Charleston-inspired dance numbers and the electrifying “Cell Block Tango”, skillfully choreographed by director Denis Jones. 

This is a great-looking show, as well, with a jaw-droppingly vivid set by Tim Mackabee that makes excellent use of the Muny’s newly rebuilt stage and all its technical resources. An old-fashioned stage setup is featured, flanked by the leaning Chicago skyline and a a versatile set that changes as needed from nightclub to prison cell to courtroom, The Muny’s video screens are put to good use, with eye-catching video design by Shawn Duan that provides “curtains” for the Vaudeville stage, as well as fitting backdrops for many of the production numbers. There’s also dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and impeccable and colorful period costumes by Emily Rebholz. The Muny Orchestra, led by music director Charlie Alterman, plays the bold, jazzy score with exuberant energy.

Chicago isn’t just a flashy show full of memorable music. It’s a sharp satire, with some genuine darkness amidst the glitz, and this production brings all the essential elements of the show into sharp focus, with perfectly pitched direction and an ideal cast. It may be set in the 1920’s, but it has a lot to say about today’s America, as well. It’s a “grown up” show for a grown up audience, and its as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. This is a brilliant production, showing that the Muny, after a memorable season, has saved its best for last. 

Cast and set of Chicago
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Chicago in Forest Park until September 5, 2021

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On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine
Directed by Maggie Burrows
Choreographed by William Carlos Angulo
The Muny
August 21, 2021

Omar Lopez-Cepero, Arianna Rosario
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

On Your Feet! at the Muny is what you may expect in some respects. It’s high energy, crowd-pleasing, and full of hit songs from Gloria Estefan, Emilio Estefan, and Miami Sound Machine. It’s big, bright, and lots of fun, but it’s also a celebration not only of music or an artist or a band, but of love, determination, and devotion.

Emilio and Gloria Estefan are well-known now, but everyone has a history, and this musical is theirs, with the emphasis, for the most part, on Gloria (Arianna Rosario). That makes sense since Gloria has been the one in the spotlight for the most part, first as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a solo recording artist. Really, though, she and husband and producer Emilio (Omar Lopez-Cepero) have been partners in music since they first started working together. This show goes back further than their meeting, though, as Little Gloria (Isabella Ianelli) sends tapes of her singing to her father José Fajardo (Martín Solá) while he is serving in Vietnam. The story then follows Gloria and her family as Gloria gets older, including her mother, Gloria Fajardo (Natascia Diaz), her younger sister Rebecca (Cristina Sastre), and her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo). It’s Consuelo who is convinced that the young Gloria should pursue a career in music, and encourages her to audition for Emilio’s band. She does, and the band grows from a popular local act focusing on Latin music to an international pop music sensation.

Throughout the story, we see continued demonstrations of determination and devotion–of Gloria’s parents and grandparents as they flee Cuba to settle in Miami; of Gloria to her family as her father falls ill with multiple sclerosis; of Consuelo, who never gives up on encouraging Gloria in her musical ambitions; of Emilio to Gloria and their mutual drive for innovation and success. It’s a heartwarming story, told with a fair amount of flashback as stories unfold and challenges arise and are overcome, culminating in Gloria’s famous 1991 performance on the American Music Awards. 

I’ve seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production played at the Fox Theatre. Here, there’s some continuity with that production, as Alma Cuervo, who plays Consuelo, also played the same role on that tour (as well as in the original Broadway cast), and as she was on tour, she is excellent here, providing a lot of the “heart” in this story. Also strong are Diaz as Gloria Fajardo, who is determined and devoted for her own part, although she harbors some regrets. There are also strong performances from Solá as José, Sastre in the somewhat small role of Rebecca, and especially young Iannelli, who lights up the stage with much energy and an excellent voice as Little Gloria. At the center of this show, of course, are Rosario and Lopez-Cepero as Gloria and Emilio. These two, who are also married in real life, display a great deal of chemistry, and their scenes together are a highlight. They also give winning individual performances, with Rosario bringing all the stage presence, vocal quality, and energy necessary for her role, and Lopez-Cepero displaying the strength and determination, as well as a clear sense of love for his family, that characterizes Emilio in this story. There’s also an excellent ensemble, doing a terrific job with all those high-energy dance numbers choreographed by William Carolos Angulo.

Visually, the show fills the large Muny stage with vibrant style, with a vivid, versatile set by Tim Mackabee, dazzling costumes by Leon Dobkowski, great lighting by Rob Denton and memorable video design by Kate Ducey. There’s also a great band (brought onstage for much of the second act) led by music director Lon Hoyt. There were quite a few issues with the microphones on opening night, with some dialogue being difficult to hear, and the otherwise excellent “Reach” number suffering from not being able to fully hear some of the ensemble solos. I hope this improves as the show continues its run. 

Still, for the most part, this is big, fun, enthusiastically performed and heartwarming show. The well-known songs like “Get On Your Feet”, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, and “Conga” are here, and the audience clearly appreciates it, right up to the “Megamix” medley of hits at the end.  What I find especially memorable about this show in addition to the music, however, is the portrayal of strong and enduring relationships. On stage at the Muny for the first time, On Your Feet! brings a lot of heart along with the familiar tunes. 

Arianna Rosario (Center) and Cast of On Your Feet!
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting On Your Feet! in Forest Park until August 27, 2021

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Book by Lawrence Kasha and David Landay
Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Gene de Paul
New Songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
August 13, 2021

Edward Watts, Kendra Kassebaum
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny’s latest show is both a repeat and a debut at once. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a well-known show that the Muny has staged several times before, and it’s based on a classic film. The version presented at the Muny this season, though, features a few script revisions and a new framing device to help make the story, which has been seen by many (including myself) as problematic, more palatable for modern audiences. The basic story is intact, though, as are the memorable score and spectacular dancing that this musical is famous for, performed by an excellent, enthusiastic cast headed up by an especially impressive leading lady.

The familiar story is here, with a few thoughtful twists. The show is now framed by a series of scenes that set the main story as a flashback; a tale told by an older Milly (Kendra Kassebaum) to her grandchildren. This framing device serves to not only allow Milly to share thoughts to the audience about the whole situation, but it also works as one of several elements that help to bring the focus more on the women of the story. The main story follows mostly the same way as before, as the rough mountain man Adam Pontipee (Edward Watts) arrives in town looking for a wife, and quickly woos the young, strong-willed Milly. What he neglects to tell her, though, is that he has six younger brothers (Harris Milgrim, Waldemar Quinones-Villaneuva, Ryan Steele, Garrett Hawe, Kyle Coffman, and Brandon L. Whitmore) who all live with him at his remote mountain cabin. Milly is initially (and understandably) upset, but she then becomes determined to teach the brothers manners, eventually taking them to a social in town, where they meet and become mutually smitten by local young women (Leslie Donna Flesner, Sarah Meahl, Kristin Yancy, Carly Blake Sabouhian, Shonica Gooden, and Mikayla Renfrow). Adam, meanwhile, becomes upset about Milly’s turning his brothers into “mama’s boys” and eventually leads his lovesick siblings on a mission to town to abduct the objects of their affects, inspired by a story in Plutarch’s Lives. This situation has been revised a bit, as well, which fortunately ends up making the brothers look better, except for Adam, although the change also raises the stakes and increases the tensions in Adam’s relationship with Milly.

I won’t give everything away, but for me, the result of the “script tweaking” is a story that makes a little more sense. It still features those memorable songs like “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”, and “Goin’ Courtin'”, along with plenty of energetic, athletic dancing ably choreographed by director Josh Rhodes, but the new recasting of this as telling the story through Milly’s eyes and the (slight) fleshing-out of the “brides” characters works to make the whole show easier to take, even with some of the more cringe-worthy moments still intact or, in some cases, amplified.

The staging at the Muny is dazzling, with a universally excellent cast and that dynamic choreography, all play out on Michael Schweikardt’s stunning set that brings the mountain setting to life backed by Caite Hevner’s excellent video design and making excellent use of the Muny’s turntable. Another aspect of this production that I appreciate is that, unlike previous stage productions I’ve seen, it’s not a carbon copy of the film. Amy Clark’s costumes are colorful and period-appropriate, but they don’t seem to be based on those in film. There’s also excellent lighting by Jason Lyons and sound by John Shivers and David Patridge, and the wonderful Muny band and music direction by Valerie Gebert. 

The cast, as previously mentioned, is impressive, led by remarkable performance by Kassebaum, who gets to showcase her excellent voice, but also gives us a strong, relatable Milly who goes on a believable emotional journey throughout the production. She’s the heart of this version of the show, with a truly vibrant portrayal. Shaw, as the charming but pigheaded Adam, is also strong, with a bold baritone voice that’s evident from his first note on “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”. His chemistry with Kassebaum is strong as well. The rest of the cast is strong in support, with all the Brides and Brothers making good pairs, and Whitmore and Renfrow especially standing out as youngest brother Gideon and his love, Alice. There’s also energetic support from the adult and youth ensembles, bringing the 18th century mountain town to life in a mostly upbeat, believable way.

Another notable aspect of this production is that this wasn’t the originally planned opening night, with the August 12th performance having been postponed due to thunderstorms. Even though this was a “raincheck” performance, I don’t think anybody who didn’t know that would have been able to tell.  Kudos to the cast and crew for an exuberant, memorable production. It’s a crowd-pleasing show made even more so by the revisions and, especially, it’s superb cast and production values. 

Cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Forest Park until August 18, 2021

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