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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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The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Matt Kunkel
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 3, 2021

Kate Rockwell, Michael Hayden, Jenny Powers, and the Von Trapp Children
Photo: The Muny

The hills are alive, and so are the trees, the stage, the scenery, the lights, and the video in the Muny’s latest production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. Although there is a strong cast here, for the most part, and the audience loved every minute, what shines here especially is the technical artistry, as well as the integration of the setting with the Muny’s natural environment in Forest Park, with the return of the live trees on stage. The classic songs and characters are here, as well, but what’s especially stunning is the sheer spectacle.

This is a show that the Muny has produced many times, although it’s only the second time I’ve seen it here, even though I’ve seen several other productions in various other venues. Here, it’s the familiar show with all the iconic characters and 1930’s Austrian setting, although a few little tweaks have been made. First, when aspiring nun Maria (Kate Rockwell) is first seen, she’s given a bit of a “Julie Andrews moment” in a nod to the famous film by way of this production’s eliminating the usual nuns’ prelude and Maria’s introduction to the title song. The first words we hear are “the hills are alive”, just like the film. Maria also gets a striking entrance standing on a stump that rises out of the stage, as Rockwell is flanked by those lovely trees as well as some stunning projections by video designer Caite Hevner, whose work is one of the true highlights of this production.  We then follow Maria, who is having trouble fitting into convent life, as the wise Mother Abbess (Bryonha Maria Parham) sends her to test her calling by serving as a governess to the widowed Captain George von Trapp (Michael Hayden) and his seven neglected children, (Elizabeth Teeter, Victor De Paula Rocha, Amelie Lock, Parker Dzuba, Jillian Depke, Abby Hogan, and Kate Scarlett Kappel). Maria’s initial idea is to help the children prepare for a new stepmother, as the Captain has been courting wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Jenny Powers), but as most of us know, things don’t quite turn out to plan, for Maria, for the Captain and the children, or for Austria itself, as the brutal, menacing Nazi regime is poised to take over the country.

The cast here is good, with some particular standouts, like Teeter in an especially thoughtful turn as eldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl, John Scherer as the enterprising concert promoter Max Detweiler, and, especially, Parham as the Mother Abbess, who not only displays a strong sense of wisdom and compassionate authority, but also a fantastic voice on songs like “My Favorite Things” and the iconic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Rockwell is a spunky Maria, and Hayden takes a while to find his energy, but eventually gives a thoughtful, memorable performance as the Captain, especially shining in his moments with Rockwell and the children. Other standouts include Depke as the observant young Brigitta, and Kappel in a spirited performance as youngest daughter Gretel. The children as a group show a strong sense of family connection. Powers also gives a strong, if somewhat subdued, performance as Maria’s romantic rival Elsa. 

The staging is clever, with a colorful set by Paige Hathaway and excellent use of the Muny’s turntable in conjunction with the scenic and video design. There’s a particularly stunning moment in Act 2 during the wedding in which set, video projections, staging, and Shelby Loera’s superb lighting design come together to awe-inspiring, almost cinematic effect. There are also excellent period-specific costumes by Tristan Raines. In fact, the production is nearly flawless from a technical standpoint, aside from a few obvious and distracting wigs. Also worth noting is the melodious Muny Orchestra led by music director Ben Whitely.

Overall, The Sound of Music at the Muny is an entertaining, fully realized experience that makes the most of its venue. If you love this show, I imagine you’ll enjoy this production. It’s a well-staged production that truly makes its location one of the stars of the show.

Kate Rockwell, Bryonha Marie Parham
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Sound of Music in Forest Park until August 9, 2021

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Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Words and Music by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden (Based on Original Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge)
The Muny
July 26, 2021

Cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is back! After having to cancel their live performances last year due to the pandemic, sitting in the familiar green seats in Forest Park is a welcome experience. What’s also welcome is a surprisingly refreshed production of a show I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing–Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I had seen it before, and didn’t see much beyond a collection of staged hit songs by the popular songwriting duo of Lieber and Stoller. The music is great, but there wasn’t a lot of “show” here, or so I thought. The Muny has, with their first production of their 103rd season, given me a pleasant surprise, with an excellent and consistent setting and actual characterization in addition to a great cast and classic songs.

There still isn’t a lot of plot, but what has been brought out here is a strong sense of setting and theme, with the cast playing consistent characters. Even though the cast members play a few different roles throughout the show, each has a “main” character whose story they return to over the course of the production. There are some stories to follow, mostly involving the characters’ love lives, with a few vignettes of life in the neighborhood to further establish the theme and atmosphere. The setting is in St. Louis’s iconic Gaslight Square neighborhood, which was a hot spot known especially for its ambiance and nightlife in its heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s, which fits well for the Lieber and Stoller soundtrack.

The main cast consists of nine excellent performers–Charl Brown, Michael Campayno, Mykal Kilgore, Tiffany Mann, Hayley Podschun, Dee Roscioli, Christopher Sams, Nasia Thomas, and Jason Veasey–backed by the energetic Muny Youth Ensemble. Everyone is in strong voice, showcasing the hit songs well, with some standout vocals from Mann on “Fools Fall in Love”, “Saved”, and “Hound Dog”, and Kilgore on “I (Who Have Nothing)”. There’s great dancing, as well, and fun production numbers like the Act 1 closer of “D.W. Washburn” leading into “Saved”. There’s also a little bit of a “slice of life” angle going on here, showcasing the setting especially well, with the excellent band–led by music director Abdul Hamid Royal–playing a memorable part and being showcased on stage, especially in the second act in which they are visible and become characters in the show.

This is a visually dazzling show, as well, with the historic Gaslight Square neighborhood featured in its glory, as represented in Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s stunningly detailed set, highlighting some real Gaslight Square establishments and street names. Kevin Loney’s memorable video design also contributes to this atmosphere, as do Rob Denton’s atmospheric lighting and, especially, Sully Ratke’s colorful, period-specific costumes.

My thoughts about Smokey Joe’s Cafe (based on a previous production not at the Muny) are already on record. I’ve referred to it as a “staged concert” and “an extended theme park show”, even though the production I saw was well-performed and produced. What the Muny has demonstrated with this production is that there is a real show here, and it’s a thoroughly engaging one, masterfully conceived and directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and impressively performed by its cast and band. It’s a fun and entertaining return to a St. Louis institution, as well as a celebration of a legendary St. Louis neighborhood and a catalog of enduring hit songs.

Tiffany Mann, Mykal Kilgore (center), and cast of Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Forest Park until August 1st, 2021.

 

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Muny Magic at the Sheldon
November 5, 2019

Muny 2020 Season Schedule
Photo: The Muny

It’s back! The Muny has brought some of its leading performers to the stage again in the latest iteration of their Muny Magic at the Sheldon concert series, held at the beautiful Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center. This year’s concert features Mikaela Bennett who played the title role in Cinderella this past season, and St. Louis native Alex Prakken, who has appeared in several Muny shows including Les Miserables (as Marius) and 1776 (as the Courier). The opening night performance was also the occasion for Executive Producer Mike Isaacson to take the stage and announce the lineup of shows for the Muny’s upcoming 102nd Season, which opens with Chicago on June 15, 2020.

The show schedule is a mixed bag to my mind, although it features several crowd-pleasing shows. Still, it seems like some of these shows have been done too often at the Muny, or too recently. I’m sure the Muny will produce big, dazzling productions of all these shows, but sometimes I wish they would try a few shows they haven’t done in a while, or even more newer shows. I am looking forward to seeing what the Muny can do with these shows with their new stage. There are three brand new shows for the Muny, as well, the most exciting of which to me being Sweeney Todd, which seems a little dark for the Muny, but that can be a good thing. It’s a great show from a legendary composer whose shows are underrepresented on the Muny stage, and I’m eager to see what the Muny does with it. Also, although I wasn’t much of a fan of Smokey Joe’s Cafe when I saw it before, Isaacson’s description of how the Muny plans to stage it, set in St. Louis’s legendary Gaslight Square district, makes me especially curious to see it now. Also among the Muny debut shows is the Emilio and Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet!  That was a crowd-pleaser on tour at the Fox, and it seems a good fit for the Muny stage. I’m optimistic about the new season. I love classic musicals, but I also think newer and less-performed shows can bring excitement to the 102 year old St. Louis institution. I’m looking forward to seeing how season 102 plays out.

As for the concert, it’s a delight. Bennett and Prakken bring a lot of presence, energy, and excellent voices to the Sheldon stage, starting out with a lively rendition of “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The evening continues with a selection of solos and duets, with both singing songs they’ve sung at the Muny like the lovely “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella for Bennett, and the emotional “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables for Prakken. They also shine together on duets from West Side Story, Carousel, The Secret Garden, and more, as well as solos from She Loves Me, Grand Hotel, and more. Both performers also took moments to share some Muny memories of their own. It’s an excellent concert highlighting musical theatre from the Muny stage and beyond, accompanied ably by music director Charlie Alterman on piano, Vince Clark on bass, and Nick Savage on percussion. It’s a fond look back at the Muny’s past as well as an intriguing look at its future with some hints at what it could be, with some of the shows that were represented that haven’t been seen at the Muny, or haven’t been for many years, featuring two impressively talented young performers.

Muny Executive Producer Mike Isaacson and Musicians

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Matilda
Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Orchestrations and Additional Music by Chris Nightingale
Directed by John Tartaglia
Choreographed by Beth Crandall
The Muny
August 5, 2019

Mattea Conforti (center), Laura Michelle Kelly (right) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The final show in the Muny’s 101st season is a production of one my favorite 21st Century musicals, which is being billed as Roald Dahl’s Matilda. That’s accurate, since it’s a much lauded, award-winning adaptation of Dahl’s modern classic book. Still, this production might also accurately be described as “Mary Engelbreit’s Matilda” in terms of its overall look and style. That look is entirely intentional on the Muny’s part, and St. Louis’s own Engelbreit has worked with the designers to develop its theme. It’s also a resounding success, not just visually but in the entire production itself, which manages to fit the show into Engelbreit’s style while also preserving the overall tone of Dahl’s work and that of the original creators of the musical. It’s visually stunning, certainly, but it’s also a triumph of music, performance, and overall whimsical energy.

Also the source material was adapted into a popular film in 1996, although the musical is directly based on the book rather than the film. The tone is bold, whimsical, and in keeping with Dahl’s usual style, focuses on darker themes while also showing good characters along with the bad. The intelligent, talented Matilda Wormwood (Mattea Conforti) is born into a family who not only doesn’t appreciate her talents and interests–her self-centered, materialistic parents (Josh Grisetti and Ann Harada) actively discourage and disparage them, spending most of their time on their own pursuits and doting on their older child Michael (Trevor Michael Schmidt), who seems to spend most his time watching TV, playing video games, and repeating his parents’ words. The five-year-old Matilda takes refuge in reading books far beyond her grade level, and telling stories to the encouraging librarian Mrs. Phelps (Darlesia Cearcy). When Matilda starts school, she goes to the imposing Crunchem Hall, presided over by the imperious, vindictive headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Beth Malone). Matilda does manage to make friends, gaining influence despite Miss Trunchbull’s efforts to undermine her, and develops a bond with her kind but insecure teacher Miss Honey (Laura Michelle Kelly), who also lives in fear of Miss Trunchbull but is determined to help Matilda. Meanwhile, Matilda continues to tell her stories to Mrs. Phelps, and this tale–concerning an Escapologist (Colby Dezelick) and an Acrobat (Gabi Stapula) who fall in love and get married–ends up tying in to the rest of the story in a surprising manner.

The tone is somewhat dark throughout much of the show, with a brilliant book by Dennis Kelly and the clever, ingenious lyrics by composer Tim Minchin, focusing on themes of bullying vs. acceptance, selfishness vs. kindness, and independence vs. coerced conformity, centering on the singular figure of one bold, unconventional girl and her influence on the world around her, as well as on the trials, disappointments, aspirations, and joys of childhood and the influence of people’s childhood experiences and environment on the adults they become.

It’s a remarkable show in its own right, but this production is not like you may have seen it before. In contrast to the Muny’s earlier (and excellent) staging of Kinky Boots, which was essentially a re-creation of the Broadway production, this Matilda looks very different to its London and Broadway productions, although it retains much of the tone and general movement style, reflected in John Tartaglia’s direction and Beth Crandall’s superb choreography.  The look and style are inspired by Engelbreit, who was in the audience on opening night. It’s a vividly realized vision, with versatile sets by Paige Hathaway, colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowski, dazzling lighting by Rob Denton, and clever video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, all working together to achieve a world very much in keeping with both Dahl’s tone and Engelbreit’s visual work. It works very well for this show, which also features an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Michael Horsley, giving energetic life to Minchin’s wonderful score.

The cast here is also stellar, led by the fantastically talented young Conforti as the brave, precocious Matilda. Having played the role on Broadway, Conforti has the presence and energy of a seasoned performer, bringing a straightforward boldness and an excellent voice to the part. Malone, as the crass, vicious Trunchbull, is also a standout with an imposing presence and great vocals on songs like “The Hammer” and “The Smell of Rebellion”. She’s also the first woman I’ve seen play the role, which has been more often played by a man. Other standouts include the always excellent Kelly as a particularly sympathetic Miss Honey, Grisetti as the gleefully smarmy Mr. Wormwood, Harada as self-absorbed Mrs. Wormwood, and Sean Ewing in a hilariously physical performance as Mrs. Wormwood’s ballroom dance partner, Rudolpho. There are also some strong performances from the show’s child performers, especially Owen Hanford as the determined Bruce Bogtrotter, and Ella Grace Roberts as Matilda’s self-appointed best friend, Lavender. The ensemble is impressive, as well, particularly the youth ensemble, who perform with much energy and attitude on group numbers like “School Song”, “When I Grow Up”, and the artfully confrontational “Revolting Children”. The dancing is energetic and precise, as is the staging, in keeping with the style of the show, and the result is energetic, engaging, and supremely entertaining.

This is a Matilda like I’ve never seen it before, even though I had seen the production once in London and once on tour here in St. Louis at the Fox Theatre. With a first-rate cast and a superb sense of style inspired by the work of Mary Engelbreit, this show is sure to engage hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful way to conclude the excellent, newly energized 101st season at the Muny.

Beth Malone (center) and cast
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Matilda in Forest Park until August 11, 2019

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Paint Your Wagon
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
New Book by Jon Marans
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Muny
July 27, 2019

Mamie Parris, Matt Bogart
Photo: The Muny

Paint Your Wagon is a show with a complicated history, but a wonderful Lerner and Loewe score with several memorable songs. Now, as the penultimate production of its 101st season, The Muny has given this show a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, with a brand new book, a revised song list, and a new story with elements of the original, all performed by an especially strong cast and with remarkable production values.

The source material is tricky. Paint Your Wagon is a show that is known these days more for a few of the songs than the plot. The 1969 film is remembered somewhat, but that’s often seen as more of a novelty, and the original stage version isn’t remembered much at all, but both versions have those songs by a legendary musical theatre writing team, and some memorable characters, so this new version has playwright Jon Marans re-imagining some of the basic plot elements and essentially creating a new story. It’s still focused on the mid-18th Century California Gold Rush, but bringing more characters into the plot and emphasizing the international draw of that event. The show makes excellent use of Caite Hevner’s video design, and begins with projections of vintage newspaper ads in various languages, leading into the opening “I’m On My Way” number in which a variety of characters from around the world head west in search of gold, adventure, and a measure of freedom. Among these characters include the widowed former tavernkeeper Ben Rumson (Matt Bogart), who has sent his daughter Jennifer (Maya Keleher) off to college and has set out on his own. There’s also Cayla Woodling (Mamie Parris), who travels with her brutal husband Craig (Michael James Reed); half-brothers Jake (Preston Truman Boyd), and the enslaved Wesley (Allan K. Washington); free black businessman H. Ford (Rodney Hicks), who seeks to help Wesley obtain his freedom; the Irish immigrant William (Bobby Conte Thornton), who flees the potato famine in hopes of making some money to send to his wife and child back home; and Chinese brothers Ming Li (Austin Ku) and Guang Li (Raymond J. Lee), who often clash over their different goals and views of American culture. The wandering Ben soon meets up with Mexican-American Armando (Omar Lopez-Cepero), who becomes his business partner. That’s just the set-up. There’s a lot that happens in this play, as the characters arrive at a mining settlement known as No Name City and begin to see their fortunes in the mines, as well as forming friendships, romances, rivalries, and dreams for the future. There are a lot of subplots, and it takes a while for the various threads to be tied together, with a decidedly serious turn in the second act that happens a little late and isn’t built up as well as it could be, but for the most part it’s an intriguing, engaging story, with some memorable characters and situations.

The glorious songs are there, too, with some lush arrangements by Ian Eisendrath, Jason DeBord, and Albert Evans and an excellent Muny Orchestra conducted by Music Director Sinai Tabak. There are a few new songs, or at least new to this show, with one (“What Do Other Folk Do?”) being strikingly similar to a song (“What Do the Simple Folk Do?”) from another Lerner and Loewe classic, Camelot. The plots could stand to be tightened and streamlined here and there, and some of the character motivations and arcs (especially Ben’s and William’s) need to be made more clear, but generally this new story works, with humor, poignancy, and some important themes including acceptance, personal responsibility, the dangers of materialism and greed, and more.

The Old West setting is well-realized on the vast Muny stage by means of Michael Schweikardt’s expansive, versatile set that uses the turntable well and consists of several detailed set pieces. The costumes by Amy Clark are vibrant and detailed, as well. There’s also stunning lighting by John Lasiter that helps set and maintain the tone of the show through its various transitions. The sound design, by John Shivers and David Patridge, is fine as well, although there were some noticeable issues with feedback and malfunctioning microphones on opening night. I’m hoping these issues will be smoothed out as the show continues its run. The staging is lively, with some remarkable choreography especially in the ensemble production numbers. There are also some fun bits of Muny spectacle that work especially well on this huge stage–such as the use of real Clydesdale carriage horses in a key number at the beginning of Act 2.

The cast is large, with quite a few named characters that it takes a while to keep track of them all, although the performers are universally excellent, with some particularly strong singing. Bogart as Ben makes a strong impression on stage with an authoritative and mostly amiable presence, with a powerful voice to match. He’s well-matched by Parris as the mistreated but determined Cayla, and their story develops well. Lopez-Cepero is also impressive and in excellent voice as Armando, who has some memorable scenes and duets with the powerfully-voiced Keleher as Jennifer. Other standouts include Thornton as the increasingly desperate and conflicted William; Ku and Lee as the the close-knit but frequently at odds Li brothers: and Hicks and Washington as H. Ford and Wesley, who form a strong bond as friends and allies against the stubbornly possessive and increasingly menacing Jake, also impressively played by Boyd. There’s a strong ensemble to back the leads, as well, from miners to tavern dancers, all singing and dancing with energy and style, bringing new life to a classic score and a newly revitalized story.

Overall, I would say that the Muny’s Paint Your Wagon is an entertaining success, although it could still use some work in terms of plotting and character motivations. There’s definitely some gold here, but there’s still some more mining to be done. Still, it’s an impressive debut of this new version, for the most part, and it fills up that colossal Muny stage with drama, humor, and a great deal of energy. It’s another good example of the Muny’s occasional role as an incubator of new shows, or revamped versions of older shows that are being given a new life for today’s audiences.

Cast of Paint Your Wagon
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Paint Your Wagon in Forest Park until August 2, 2019

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Footloose
Stage Adaptation by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie
Based on the Original Screenplay by Dean Pitchford
Music by Tom Snow, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Additional Music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, and Jim Steinman
Directed by Christian Borle
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 18, 2019

Mason Reeves, Eli Mayer
Photo: The Muny

The Muny’s impressive 101st season is continuing this week with an energetic dance musical.  Footloose, based on the popular 1984 film, is a fun show most of all. This production fills the giant Muny stage with a large cast and lots of energy, along with a dose of 1980s nostalgia and an excellent cast, many of whom are college students or recent graduates.

I hadn’t seen the stage version of Footloose before, nor have I seen the 2011 film remake, and I hadn’t seen the original film for many years. From what I can tell, this rendition keeps fairly close to the plot of the first movie, with some character expansion and the addition of new, original songs along with hits from the film’s soundtrack such as the title song, love duet “Almost Paradise”, and the bouncy “Let’s Hear It For the Boy”. The story follows the teenaged Ren (Mason Reeves), who moves along with his mother, Ethel (Darlesia Cearcy) from Chicago to the small rural town of Bomont (state unspecified). Here, Ren has some trouble fitting in with the locals, eventually making friends with classmate Willard (Eli Mayer) and forming an attraction to an influential local preacher’s rebellious daughter, Ariel (McKenzie Kurtz). Ariel’s father, Rev. Shaw Moore (Jeremy Kushnier), is the driving force behind a restrictive law in the town that avid dancer Ren is shocked to hear about. All dancing in the town is banned, and after making more friends and gaining some support among his classmates, Ren leads the effort to change that law and hold a dance at the school. The reasoning behind Rev. Moore’s opposition to dancing, and his strained relationship with his daughter, is a key element of the story that drives a lot of the drama. It’s not a perfect book, with some characters being underutilized and a few loose ends in some of the subplots, but overall, it’s an entertaining show. There are some poignant moments here, with messages about family relationships, friendship and acceptance, as well as many upbeat moments of fun and, of course, dance, leading up to a rousing finale that makes excellent use of the large ensemble, including an energetic Muny Youth Ensemble.

The look and atmosphere of this production is impressive in that it’s able to achieve an obvious ’80s vibe without being too over the top with it. The colorful costumes by Leon Dobkowksi and wigs by Kelley Jordan reflect the setting well, and Tim Mackabee’s set is vibrant and versatile, making excellent use of Greg Emetaz’s video design as well. There’s also excellent lighting by Rob Denton and a rocking Muny Orchestra led by music director Andrew Graham. Jessica Hartman’s choreography is also impressive, with a blend of various styles showcasing the talent and energy of the whole cast.

There’s a great cast here, led by the immensely talented Reeves as Ren. He’s got charm, energy, a great voice and dance skills, and a strong presence on stage, and his chemistry with the also excellent Kurtz as Ariel is excellent. He also works especially well with the terrific, amiable Mayer as the sweet, gawky Willard, who has several great moments in the show such as the memorable Act 2 number “Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down”. Also a standout is Kushnier, who originated the role of Ren in the 1998 Broadway production, as the conflicted, grieving Shaw Moore. He’s well-matched by Heather Ayers in a strong performance as Shaw’s wife Vi, as well, providing for a lot of the show’s poignancy and drama. A musical highlight is the simply staged, expertly harmonized ballad “Learning to Be Silent”, wonderfully performed by Ayers, Kurtz, and Cearcy. Other standouts include Khailah Johnson, Maggie Kuntz, and Katja Rivera Yanko as Ariel’s friends Rusty, Urleen, and Wendy Jo. Johnson especially gets a memorable moment to shine, leading the superbly staged “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” production number early in Act 2.

There’s a great assembly of talent on stage, bringing Opening Night energy even though the show’s tech rehearsal had to be cancelled because of the weather. Aside from a few slightly slow transitions early in the first act, the fact that this was the first full-scale staging of the show wasn’t apparent, and I’m sure it’s only going to improve in terms of energy and pacing as the show continues to run.  It’s a bright, upbeat, occasionally poignant, and highly crowd-pleasing evening of entertainment, and another reflection of the true excellence of this season at the Muny.

Cast of Footloose
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Footloose in Forest Park until July 24, 2019

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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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